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Davis Takes Squishy Path

April 18, 1999

Gov. Gray Davis has repeatedly pledged to govern California from the political middle as a moderate who is not a captive of ideology. Moderation certainly is welcome after too many strident years in Sacramento. But moderation is no substitute for direct leadership. We elect governors to make decisions that only they can make. Negotiation and conciliation may be appropriate at times to settle points in disputes. When fundamental policy is at stake, however, our leaders need to be bold and decisive.

Alas, Davis failed that test Friday when he shunted the fate of Proposition 187 to a federal court mediation service. The correct decision would have been to drop former Gov. Pete Wilson's appeal of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 1994 ballot measure that sought to cut illegal immigrants off from most forms of state aid. Instead, Davis tried to steer a contorted course that would not offend either side--those who voted for Proposition 187 or the Latino voters and liberal Democrats who opposed it and helped elect him governor.

The governor's choice seems to offer little prospect of settling the issue. And neither side is happy with his squishy solution. Davis said he must both defend the will of the electorate and put divisive issues behind us. Mediation is not likely to do either.

We hope this decision does not indicate a pattern Davis may follow as other tough decisions come along. The vitriol of the Wilson years harmed the state, but California also cannot afford to have a governor who tries to avoid controversy by splitting the difference on every issue. The state will need firm decision-making in the months ahead on issues such as the state budget, health care reform, financing capital construction projects and fashioning a water policy for the next century. Often, the most difficult questions are those that suddenly emerge without warning.

When Proposition 187 was appealed to a federal district court in 1995, a judge ruled that most of its provisions violated the U.S. Constitution. Wilson, a zealous advocate of Proposition 187, appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. His successor, who had opposed the ballot measure, had to decide by May 5 to pursue the appeal or drop the case. The proposition has not been enforced pending the outcome of the case.

Davis' arguments for mediation are not convincing. And even if a settlement can be reached, it may not resolve the relevant constitutional questions.

In fact, most of the key issues have been settled by new welfare and immigration laws, by legal precedents and stiffer border controls. Illegal immigration still is a problem and vigilance is needed to keep control of U.S. borders. But it is not the explosive issue it was five years ago.

Davis is correct when he says state officials must respect the will of the voters. But in this case much of the vote has already been rendered moot, and the governor has a higher obligation to all Californians to govern in the best interest of the whole. Reaching good decisions and sticking to them will provide the leadership California needs.

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