YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Initiative Sparks Debate at GOP Convention

Politics: Activists disagree on proposed measure to abolish bilingual education.


ANAHEIM — Hundreds of Republican Party activists gathered Saturday in the shadow of Disneyland, striving to present their own image of the Happiest Place on Earth: a harmonious convention beckoning all cultures and colors with open arms and endless opportunities.

Beneath the surface geniality, however, the party was pestered by continuing questions of sensitivity and a conundrum over how best to handle the state's latest installment of policymaking via the ballot box.

Specifically, Republicans were headed for a showdown today at their state convention over whether to endorse a proposed ballot measure that would virtually abolish bilingual education in California.

A resolution to put the party on record supporting the initiative pingponged between committees Saturday. After being tabled at the behest of party leaders, it was resurrected by initiative backers and sent to the floor of the convention for a vote by the full membership.

Many party leaders are concerned that the initiative will be seen as the latest assault on California's growing Latino population--with a political price to pay.

"This could be 'Three strikes, we're out' with the Hispanic community," said Ernesto Feliciano, chairman of the state's biggest Republican group of Latino activists, referring to polarizing ballot measures involving illegal immigration and affirmative action that the GOP has pushed in the last two elections.

Supporters of the latest initiative argued, however, that anything less than the strenuous support of the state party would be "moral cowardice," in the words of state Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Northridge).

"Bilingual programs are a huge cash cow for the teachers union. The teachers union is a huge cash cow for the Democratic Party," said McClintock. "If the Republican Party doesn't stand up for these kids, who will?"

The back-room scheming and hallway strategizing surrounding the initiative was waged as rank-and-file party members heard speeches from three possible presidential candidates--former Vice President Dan Quayle, U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Gov. Pete Wilson--as well as the man who hopes to succeed Wilson, state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren.

In his luncheon address to the state convention delegates, Wilson sidestepped the controversy over bilingual education and focused instead on a proposed ballot measure to inhibit the use of union dues for political activities.

"Every member of a labor union should not only be free to speak his or her mind," Wilson said, "they shouldn't be forced to have their pockets picked for political causes they don't support and don't believe in."

Lungren foreshadowed his gubernatorial campaign, vowing to make clear to voters what he believes in and not just what he opposes--an implicit criticism of past Republican efforts. "We're not going to be afraid to say that fathers should not abandon their children and teenagers should not have babies," he said.

The strange tenor of the party's debate over minority outreach was exemplified by its featured speaker at Saturday's "Pride in Diversity" breakfast. U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho is best known nationally for her friendly outlook toward armed militia groups and her assertion that "white men are an endangered species."

In a speech laden with Washington-bashing, government-bashing and Clinton-bashing (both Bill and Hillary), she repeatedly invoked the name of J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, the lone black Republican in Congress, and accused "liberals and the press" of distorting the party's attitude toward minority voters.

The makeup of the audience, however, suggested the lengths the party must travel to broaden its base: Of the roughly 200 people who attended, there were fewer than 10 blacks and not many more Asian Americans or Latinos in the banquet room.

Although Chenoweth's appearance was criticized by some attendees, more significant to delegates was the tussle over the so-called Unz initiative on bilingual education. The proposed June 1998 ballot measure, promoted by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, advocates English-only instruction for the state's 1.3 million public school children.

The measure not only split convention delegates, but has divided party leaders as well. Wilson is neutral, Lungren is opposed, and on Saturday, state Treasurer and U.S. Senate candidate Matt Fong announced that he would support the initiative.

Still, many within the party are leery of giving the measure the GOP's imprimatur.

Aside from the possible political fallout, state party chairman Mike Schroeder expressed opposition for three reasons: the potential budgetary impact, the question of state versus local control over school policy, and a desire to give the Latino community more input into crafting an alternative to the existing bilingual education system.

Toward that end, he sent an open letter to Democratic legislative leaders urging a debate on bilingual education that would "let the public get involved and play a role."

Times political writer Peter M. Warren contributed to this story.

Los Angeles Times Articles