Gov. Pete Wilson delivered a stout defense Saturday of his role promoting Propositions 187 and 209, throwing charges of racism back at opponents by asserting that their "demagoguery . . . and massive disinformation" fostered a sense of persecution among minorities.
"The saddest thing . . . is not that it is untrue and unfair to me," Wilson told a gathering of Republican Latino activists, "but that it is unfair to all.
"And it is especially unfair to those Latinos who tragically have been misled into the mistaken belief that the vast majority of Californians, who in fact bear them no malice whatever . . . are somehow hostile to Hispanics."
Wilson delivered his remarks at a daylong "Hispanic Summit" in Los Angeles, which drew about 300 GOP activists from around the state for a political fence-mending session aimed at abating some of the hostility lingering from the party's aggressive promotion of Propositions 187 and 209.
Proposition 187, barring most state services for illegal immigrants, and Proposition 209, which abolished state affirmative action programs, were approved by state voters by comfortable margins.
But Proposition 187, which Wilson made the centerpiece of his 1994 reelection effort, remains a flash point within California's Latino community, where the governor has become a deeply unpopular figure. Indeed, his insistence on attending Saturday's meeting was a point of contention among participants.
More than rehabilitating Wilson's image, the greater concern of conference organizers was addressing the political impact of the state's rapidly shifting demographics. Latinos are California's fastest-growing group, and they turned out in record numbers last year, voting in droves for Democrats.
Opening Saturday's session, party Chairman Mike Schroeder said his No. 1 priority, looking ahead to next year's elections, will be to reach out to minority voters.
But in his lengthy introductory remarks at a hotel near the airport, Wilson seemed more intent on revisiting the controversial past. Adopting a tone that was alternately defensive and defiant, the governor reiterated his assertion that opponents of Proposition 187 purposely distorted the campaign by blurring the differences between legal and illegal immigration.
"Many of the critics, seeking deliberately to mislead the public, and Latinos in particular, have engaged in demagoguery in a massive disinformation campaign based on that ugliest of accusations--racism," Wilson said. "Always beware. Be careful. The charge of racism is the first--not the last--refuge of those who cannot win the argument on the merits."
The comment brought a strong ovation, one of several times Wilson was interrupted by sustained applause.
Defending his position at the forefront of the contentious debates over immigration and affirmative action, Wilson suggested that his role was consistent with those of Republican presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery, and Ronald Reagan, who fought Communism.
"We are a party with a proud history . . . of leaders with the guts, strength and honesty to face and overcome the real injustices of their day," Wilson said. "Today, that kind of unflinching leadership would doubtless be rewarded by liberal charges that these leaders were seeking to exploit 'wedge issues.' "
For all his defiance, however, there were times when Wilson adopted a softer and more personal--almost confessional--tone. As if to show empathy with his overwhelmingly Latino audience, he spoke of the hate mail he received after posing with the mayor of Tijuana, his record as San Diego mayor appointing Latinos to the City Council--even his service in the Marine Corps alongside Latino leathernecks.
Asked later if he felt obliged to defend himself for promoting Proposition 187, Wilson told reporters: "I really didn't. I think this audience understands it very well."
From the perspective of party leaders, the problem was that Wilson's appearance threatened to overshadow their efforts to move the focus away from the lame-duck governor and move beyond the debate over Propositions 187 and 209.
"The governor's obviously very problematic for the party," said one strategist involved in the Republican outreach efforts. "As long as he's front and center, it makes it very difficult for us to take our message to the Hispanic community."
As if to underscore the effort to break from the past, state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren--next year's all-but-certain GOP gubernatorial nominee--never mentioned Proposition 187 in his remarks. But he seemed to allude to the hard feelings when he suggested that the party, without changing "our values and our underlying message . . . might have to be a little more sensitive in how we articulate it."
Moreover, Lungren indicated that he was leaning against supporting a proposed measure that would virtually abolish bilingual public education in California. The initiative, aimed for the June 1998 ballot, is viewed by some Latinos--including many Republicans--as a renewed political assault on their community.
Without addressing that notion, Lungren told reporters he was concerned that the measure would impose a "one-size-fits-all" solution to a statewide problem.