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NEWS ANALYSIS : State's Diversity Doesn't Reach Voting Booth

November 10, 1994|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For weeks, Latinos dominated the political landscape as they marched en masse through the streets in vehement opposition to Proposition 187.

But when Election Day came, it was white California that spoke, putting the racially charged measure over the top by an almost 20-point margin--a landslide in a race that many believed was narrowing in recent weeks. Final results showed the proposal--which cuts off government services to illegal immigrants--winning comfortably throughout the state, except for the San Francisco Bay Area.

Recent high-profile student demonstrations--lauded by some Latino leaders as the vanguard of a new activism--contributed to the margin of victory by further alienating a white voting majority, some analysts said.

"They (marchers) polarized the issue," said Dick Woodward, whose Bay Area consulting firm, Woodward & McDowell, handled the mainstream anti-Proposition 187 campaign and vainly advised against the demonstrations. "Not only did students walk out, but there were Mexican flags, and I think that made the undecided voter angry."

Probably more than in any recent election, the divisive contest surrounding Proposition 187 has turned a spotlight on the glaring disparity between the California voting rolls--dominated by whites, who accounted for 80% of the voters Tuesday--and the diverse state population: 57% white, 25% Latino, 9% Asian Americans and 7% blacks at the time of the last census.

"Basically, as whites go, goes any election in California," said Arnold Steinberg, a political strategist who usually works with Republicans.

The vote on Proposition 187 also tapped a deep populist vein, generating strong support among the less well-educated and the elderly--as well as with conservatives and Republicans. (Almost 8 in 10 of those who described themselves as either Republicans or conservatives supported the measure, exit polls show.) Denunciations of Proposition 187 from unions, religious leaders, law enforcement officials, educators, health professionals and others evidently were not enough to change voters' minds--nor to spur greater voter turnout by Latinos.

Although successfully capturing voter discontent, some are concerned about the long-term impact of the divisive debate on a region already polarized across racial lines.

"The legacy of this is going to be harmed human relations in this state for some time," said Joe Hicks, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, the civil rights group founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Multicultural Los Angeles County, with its huge numbers of immigrants, voted in favor of Proposition 187 by a 12-point margin.

Although Latinos represent more than one-quarter of the state population, they accounted for only 8% of those voting across the state Tuesday--despite much-heralded efforts to get out the vote and register voters in the weeks before the election. That underlines a reality of non-participation: Immigrants, particularly Latino immigrants, tend to be non-citizens ineligible to vote or too young to register.

Recognizing the need to bolster voting rolls, Latino activists statewide have mounted a major effort promoting the values of U.S. citizenship. It is the vote, many recognize, that will ultimately turn things around.

"We lost the battle, but we need to win the war," said Father Pedro Villarroya, who heads Hispanic ministry for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. "We need to vote."

But the trend is not likely to change quickly. Mexican nationals, the largest single group of Latino immigrants, are traditionally among the least likely newcomers to renounce allegiance to their homeland and become U.S. citizens. An electorate dominated by aging white baby boomers is expected to drive California electoral politics at least until at least 2010, researchers conclude.

"What happened yesterday is not very heartening example of what will happen in the future," said David Hayes-Bautista, a UCLA sociologist who has studied demographic trends and is opposed to Proposition 187.

According to Hayes-Bautista, Tuesday's vote represented white voters' decision to, in essence, "secede" from California--a suggestion dismissed by Proposition 187 advocates.

Although exit polls showed a considerable support for the proposition among most voting groups--with Latinos being the major exception, opposing it 77% to 23%--it is also clear that its strongest backers are whites, almost two-thirds of whom said they voted for the measure. Roughly half of black and Asian American voters also cast ballots in favor of the measure.

Harold W. Ezell, a former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service official who was a Proposition 187 co-sponsor, scoffed at the secession argument. "What about all the Asians and blacks who voted with us, and even the Latinos?" he asked. "This is a mandate across the board."

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