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What Was Davis Thinking?

On the issue of issues, the governor turned a deaf ear to his allies in the Latino community.

May 02, 1999|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times and a regular columnist

To be fair, Gov. Gray Davis is getting more grief than he deserves for not pulling the plug on Proposition 187. But that doesn't mean Davis shouldn't get some flak for his middling, and muddled, stance on the most divisive issue California politicians have faced this decade.

The governor and his political advisors could have (or at least should have) anticipated the negative reaction any move to keep Proposition 187 alive would stir among its most vocal opponents--particularly a new generation of Latino activists still testing their newfound political muscle.

Davis and his advisors apparently forgot that muscle began to develop in the losing fight against 187 five years ago. And its growth has only been fed by a continuing backlash against the much-hated initiative among a rapidly growing segment of the state's electorate: new citizens of Latin American extraction.

Proposition 187, of course, was sold as a "solution" to illegal immigration. It purported to halt it by depriving illegal immigrants of taxpayer-supported services, like health care and education. Its most obvious shortcoming, as many experts pointed out, is that public benefits don't lure immigrants to California, jobs do.

The initiative had other weaknesses as well. Like many ballot propositions, it was drafted not by legal specialists but by true believers; in this case, restrictionists who cluttered it with anti-immigrant provisions of either dubious constitutionality or that courts had long deemed the responsibility of the federal government.

So, few people should have been surprised when a federal judge tossed out most of Propostion 187 a year after it was approved by the voters. Gov. Pete Wilson, the initiative's most visible supporter, who used it to bolster his desperate 1994 reelection bid, ordered an appeal of the ruling. The matter has languished in court since.

Davis, who opposed 187, got dragged into the morass when he was elected governor last year with more than 80% of the Latino vote. He almost immediately faced pressure from Latino political leaders to drop the appeal and simply let the matter die. Congress has enacted some of its key provisions into federal law, the argument went, so why not put a divisive issue to rest?

Unfortunately, Davis, ever cautious, opted for what he thought was a more moderate course. He asked a federal appeals court to mediate a settlement of the Proposition 187 case, and the court agreed to do so.

But what Davis saw as a Solomonic solution angered most of his Latino allies, including two fellow Democrats the governor would normally try to get along with: Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante of Fresno and Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles. Both have publicly castigated Davis for his decision and are not backing off despite threats from the governor's staff that both men risk being shut out of future decision-making.

Davis' staff is trying to put the best face on the first major faux pas of his term. They attribute Bustamante's anger to a bruised ego, since the lieutenant governor was not consulted by Davis on Proposition 187, and learned of the mediation decision in a newspaper. Villaraigosa, they point out, wants to run for mayor of Los Angeles and can't afford to support an utterly reasonable stance by the governor because it might not sit well with this city's Latino voters.

Those explanations are not without merit. But it also is clear that Davis, like Wilson before him, doesn't quite get it when he ponders the reaction of Latinos to Proposition 187. He can't seem to grasp that the normal political equations don't apply because, to Latinos, Proposition 187 is not just another political issue.

Proposition 187 has become a political touchstone for Latinos--one of those issues that leaves its mark on a group of voters, for a long time, in the way the Vietnam War still influences the thinking of many baby boomers, or the abortion issue influences the voting of many women.

Heretofore, Davis and other California Democrats benefited from the Latino backlash against 187--an unprecedented surge of citizenship applications, followed by massive voter registration drives and higher-than-average voter turnout.

Republicans, on the other hand, continue to pay a price for Wilson's close identification with the detested initiative. And they may pay that price for 40 years, rather than for the two- or four-year election cycles political professionals think in terms of. That was the fundamanental miscalculation that Pete Wilson--also an otherwise reasonable and moderate politician--made when he hitched his star to 187. And now Davis has taken his first step onto the same slippery slope.

Bustamante and Villaraigosa could have warned Davis about it had he taken the time to consult them. They might not have swayed the governor to another stance, of course. But the gut-level passion they feel against the initiative would at least have prepared Davis for his share of the anti-187 backlash.

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