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A Race-Based Assault Aimed at a Liberal

Ethnicity has become the all-purpose weapon, often focusing its cross hairs on traditional allies.

July 07, 1998|DAN SCHNUR | Dan Schnur is a Republican analyst and commentator

Richard Katz is a liberal Democrat who happens to be Jewish. Richard Alarcon is an equally liberal Democrat who happens to be Latino. In a better world, their respective ethnic backgrounds would not be relevant. But in this political universe, ethnicity is now destiny. A candidate's racial or ethnic heritage has become an all-purpose weapon or shield that defines any political dialogue.

When Katz and Alarcon faced off recently in a state legislative contest, there were any number of public policy issues on which the election could have been framed. Instead, they spent the last days before the primary arguing over which one of them was a racist.

The campaign's defining moment occurred when Alarcon's backers sent out a mailer that implied Katz was anti-Latino by suggesting that he had been involved in a 1988 Orange County incident in which a local candidate was accused of hiring security guards to keep Latino voters away from polling sites. Katz returned fire by denouncing the attack as "race-baiting," and various Jewish organizations deplored it as racially divisive.

Undeterred, Alarcon's campaign also charged that Katz was discriminating against Latinos by challenging the absentee ballots of voters with Spanish surnames in the election recount. His supporters suggested that state Senate leader John Burton was insulting Latino voters by considering paying for the recount. And for good measure, they attacked Katz as racially intolerant for sending out a campaign mailer detailing an alleged conflict of interest on Alarcon's part that described Alarcon as having "dirty hands."

Katz appears to have been the victim in this particular exchange of epithets. He trailed Alarcon by a handful of votes, and there is little question that the race-based charges leveled against him were responsible. On Monday, Katz formally asked for a recount and sued to challenge the election results.

In recent years, charges of racism and bigotry have become an increasingly popular currency in our political campaigns. Rather than acknowledging legitimate differences of opinion on various public policy matters, it is much easier for a candidate to resort to simple name-calling. If your opponent wants to reform welfare or impose restrictions on illegal immigration, it is not enough merely to disagree with his opinion. It is a much easier and more effective tactic to question the morality of his position by charging him with racism.

Demonizing an opposing candidate as a racist is not a new technique. Opponents of illegal immigration, of bilingual education and even of leaf blowers are routinely vilified as bigots, immigrant-bashers and xenophobes. In recent years, advocates of welfare reform, targeted tax cuts and expanded school choice are regularly accused of racism. The debate over racial preferences and quotas is so highly charged that any participant in any discussion of the subject inevitably faces similar insult and attack.

Katz's allies would think him an unlikely target for such charges. Until this point, the politicians who have been attacked as racists have tended to be conservatives who have challenged conventional wisdom on various public policy matters. But Katz is a liberal. These are insults that are supposed to be reserved for Republican targets. How could his ideological allies in the Latino community turn on him so? Simple: He was in their way.

Katz is not a racist, but neither is Newt Gingrich, Pete Wilson or Ronald Reagan. Katz may not have disagreed with liberal policy orthodoxy. All he did was run for office against a Latino candidate. But as racially charged insults have been thrown with increasing frequency and decreasing prudence, it is reasonable to expect that the number of politicians so attacked will increase as well. Katz may be the first high-profile Democrat to face this tactic, but there will be more.

The situation in which Katz and his fellow liberals now find themselves is largely of their own making. As those politicians who raised legitimate policy disagreements over the years were repeatedly attacked as racists, plenty of Democrats who knew better stood by and allowed this race-baiting to proceed without interruption. Too often, they joined in. So it is difficult to have sympathy for them now, when they too find themselves in the cross hairs of race-based political assault.

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