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California and the West

Immigration--the Big Issue of '94--Disappears From '98 Debate

October 23, 1998|PATRICK J. McDONNELL and KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

What a difference four years makes.

In 1994, immigration dominated the California election season. Huge protests marked the incendiary debate surrounding Proposition 187. Calls for tighter enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border became de rigueur.

The focus paid off--at least in the short run--for Gov. Pete Wilson, who rode Proposition 187 to a come-from-behind, landslide reelection, becoming the first major U.S. politician in generations to win office largely on an immigration plank.

Clearly, many California voters were ready to vent their frustrations after more than a decade of migration that had dramatically altered the state's demographic and social makeup.

But immigration, which turned the 1994 gubernatorial race into a virtual referendum on the issue, has disappeared from this year's election debate.

Between Dan Lungren and Gray Davis, the only significant dispute involving Mexico has been over which candidate had done more to court trade there. Likewise, immigration has not emerged in the Senate race between incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer and Republican challenger Matt Fong.

"Immigration is off the table as an issue in the 1998 general elections," said Mark Baldassare, survey director for the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research organization. "It's an incredible drop-off compared to what the place of immigration was in the 1994 gubernatorial election."

Eclipsed by Education

Polls show that voter interest in immigration lags far behind concerns with education, crime and the economy--even though, by all accounts, illegal immigration continues at a brisk pace.

In 1994, by contrast, California races became a reflection of Proposition 187, the Republican-backed ballot measure that sought to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants and accelerate their deportation.

The fact that the issue has fallen off California's electoral map does not mean the immigration issue has been resolved. The state's demographic makeup continues to shift inexorably, fueled, in part, by historic levels of legal immigration.

So why the shrug by California voters this season?

Experts cite two main reasons, one political, the other economic.

First, growing numbers of Latino voters have all candidates scrambling for their support--and anxious not to alienate this suddenly potent voting bloc.

"The mean-spirited, wedge-issue strategy of extremists in the Republican Party is out of vogue because the emergence of a powerful and active Latino voting bloc has rendered it ineffective as a way to win elections," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Latino voter research and public policy organization. "By 1998, it is foolish to run a campaign that is perceived as beating up on Latinos."

In fact, both major parties in California have good reason to step gingerly in the minefield of immigration.

On the Republican side, electoral strategists know the campaign vitriol of 1994 generated lingering resentment among California Latinos, many of whom considered Proposition 187 a thinly veiled attack on all Latinos.

To many Latino immigrants and their U.S.-born children, Pete Wilson became a symbol of anti-Latino prejudice.

The 1994 political season unleashed a classic unintended consequence: a political watershed for California Latinos. Responding to the campaign rhetoric, Latinos in unprecedented numbers became U.S. citizens, shattering all records for new citizenship.

If Proposition 187 was the culmination of a backlash against high immigration levels, the subsequent Latino drive to civic participation "was the backlash against the backlash," said Gonzalez of the Velasquez Institute.

Masses of newly naturalized Latinos hastened to register to vote--overwhelmingly as Democrats. Their presence helped alter the state's political balance.

"Republican candidates for statewide office don't want to touch immigration with a 10-foot pole," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based GOP political consultant. "The people who are upset deeply about immigration are probably going to vote Republican anyway."

Certainly, Lungren has shown no inclination to take up immigration. Even in 1994, Lungren's eleventh-hour support for Proposition 187 was tepid, and he called the measure "an imperfect answer."

Throughout his campaign, the attorney general has struck a positive tone toward Latinos and immigrants, even buying time on Spanish-language television.

In an interview, Lungren sounded decidedly pro-immigrant.

"As our economy has grown, we've grown and prospered with the presence of legal immigrants here, and we're also dependent on some number of those here illegally," Lungren said.

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