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Why Wilson Wants Welfare Reform--Now

September 29, 1996|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

There goes Gov. Pete Wilson, fastest pen in the West.

Less than a week after President Bill Clinton signed the welfare-reform law, Wilson ordered state agencies to cease providing services to illegal immigrants as a first step toward implementing the federal law.

Soon after, the governor ordered an immediate cut in food-stamp benefits to legal immigrants, another major requirement of the new law. But he rescinded the cut when the feds delayed defunding the program.

A noble attempt at bipartisan cooperation between Democrat and Republican?


Wilson was piqued at having to reverse his food-stamp order. He attacked the federal delay as either "incompetence . . . or, more likely, political games being played out in an election year by the Clinton administration."

Of course, the administration's foot-dragging is political. But so is Wilson's push to help Clinton "end welfare as we know it"--at warp speed.

In part, Wilson's rush to implement the welfare changes may have a personal element--vindication of his own stringent policies or a payback for the defeat of his 1992 welfare initiative. It may also be his response to attempts to derail Proposition 187, which makes illegal immigrants ineligible for state health and education services. The new welfare law requires that states implement some of 187's provisions overturned by a federal judge.

But Wilson's prime motive in speeding welfare reform along in California may lie in the hoped-for impact of welfare and immigration on this year's legislative elections and his own political future.

Wilson's actions could help establish his bona fides for 2000--if he could brag about making California the "first state in the nation" to deep-six the highly unpopular welfare system. More broadly, his strategy is to embarrass Clinton, and to scratch at his big lead in California, by implementing hurtful cuts before November's election.

Some Republicans are looking at welfare and immigration as potential wedge issues to motivate the party's base. Affirmative action was supposed to do that, but it doesn't seem to be working. Although support for the "California civil rights initiative" appears strong, the fight against affirmative-action programs has not caught fire nationally, and the issue doesn't appear to have long coattails.

In a recent survey of Orange County, long a GOP stronghold, pollster Mark Baldassare found that 61% of registered voters supported CCRI, while only 41% backed GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole. "Dole has not swayed Orange County by making his stand against affirmative action a key campaign issue," concluded Baldassare.

California certainly figured in Dole's recent maneuvering on the immigration-reform bill. First, he lobbied against passage in order to deny Clinton another victory, despite the fact that Republican members of Congress desperately wanted a bill to take home. To keep the immigration debate alive after Republicans rebuffed him, Dole embraced a separate bill denying illegal immigrant children public schooling.

Wilson's recent maneuvering similarly keeps in play an issue that has galvanized state Republicans. But his strategy has less to do with Dole than with the fight to maintain the GOP's slim control of the state Assembly.

Currently, analysts see the battle for post-election dominance as too close to call. Republicans may want to use immigration as the issue to tip the balance in their favor. There's some evidence that it played such a role in 1994.

Among the races vital to keeping Republicans in control of the Assembly are the 28th and 69th districts. The contest for the 28th is a replay of the '94 contest between Deputy Dist. Atty. Lily Cervantes and first-term GOP incumbent Peter Frusetta. Some analysts believe a Proposition-187 backlash among Anglo voters, including moderate, more affluent Democrats, was a factor in Frusetta's narrow upset victory.

Until Republican Jim Morrissey won the 69th in '94, the seat had been the only Democratic-held district in Orange County. This year, it is a priority for Latino voter-registration groups. To overcome the large Democratic registration edge in the district, the GOP needs something to get supporters to the polls, or split the Democrats--and immigration may accomplish that.

Whether or not welfare and immigration reforms play well for Republicans in California congressional elections can also help determine who controls the U.S. House of Representatives, and whether Newt Gingrich remains speaker.

That's one reason why House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) blinked on the immigration bill; separating out its public-school provisions allows Republicans from California, and other states with high numbers of illegal immigrants, to hang tough without sacrificing major legislation. Pointing out that Clinton opposed Proposition 187, the speaker vowed, "We're not going to give up on helping California."

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