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California and the West | CALITOL JOURNAL

Zedillo's Visit a Kodak Moment for Gov. Davis

May 20, 1999|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — One mob scene at the start of the Mexican president's visit to California this week captured the significance of his landmark trip.

There was a rope stretching across a wide corridor at the Sacramento Convention Center. Behind the rope, gubernatorial aides had packed journalists for what they promised would be an "availability," a word loved by political handlers. It means making a politician briefly "available" for a few questions.

But this was not about words; it was about pictures--as is the entire three-day trip. Cameras dominated the rope line. If Gov. Gray Davis was the only one who showed up, shutters would be closed. If he had with him Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, film would roll. And there would be more TV footage and newspaper photos of Davis standing beside Zedillo as Mexico's friend, and--more importantly--as a governor simpatico with all Latinos.

Zedillo appeared and it instantly became a major event. Another politically priceless photo was assured. It mattered little what anybody said.

But Zedillo did say something important. A California reporter asked the Mexican president what he thought of Davis' controversial decision to send Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative, to court meditation.

Many Latino activists--plus Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante--have been harshly critical of Davis for not killing Prop. 187 outright by dropping the state's appeal of a federal judge's decision tossing out 187. Davis opposed the ballot initiative, but insists the California electorate deserves its time in court. Privately, he also says 187 can be gutted in mediation.

Zedillo sided with Davis in a brief utterance that guaranteed the trip would be a huge success for the governor. It was a bonus on top of all the suitable-for-framing pictures. "I see what he did as something conducive to his original commitment," the Mexican president said.

"I trust Gov. Davis. And I hope and trust and know that in the end there will be a good solution regarding this issue."

So take that, everybody! Davis must have been thinking. Especially you, Cruz.

*

Let's be honest: This trip is not about trade and it's not about cross-border cooperation, although both could be byproducts. It's not even about, as Davis likes to say, "ending the dark era of wedge-issue politics."

It's about old-fashioned politics. And a stump tour.

It's about Zedillo trying to convince millions of new immigrants and Mexican Americans that his historically repressive, corrupt country is reforming. "Mexico is a great country, but in the 21st century Mexico will be a better country," he promised the California Legislature.

There's a strong movement in Mexico to allow citizens living abroad to vote in the 2000 Mexican elections. That could effect 2.5 million California residents, according to Alex Garza, a Mexican reform activist who works for the state government in Sacramento.

Zedillo cannot run for reelection. But his long-ruling PRI party will be fielding a candidate. And regardless of whether California Mexicans can vote, their growing numbers will have an increasing influence on Mexico's politics--through word-of-mouth and money.

"California has become an obligatory stop for Mexican politicians," says Raul Hinojosa, director of the North American Integration and Development Center at UCLA. "You profess your support for the rights of Mexicans in the United States. That plays real well."

*

But this trip is mostly about Davis and Democrats nailing down the Latino vote long into the foreseeable future.

Zedillo may stir a mixed reaction from Californians of Mexican ancestry. But he still symbolizes roots and pride. "He's somewhere between just another politician and the Pope," says Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles).

How big is Zedillo's visit for Davis and Democrats? "Probably bigger than you think it is," says political consultant Leo Briones of Los Angeles. "It's huge. I don't think Gray was in trouble [with Latinos] on 187. But if he was, give him three days with Zedillo."

Briones adds, "My take on Gray Davis is that he really knows how to work his precincts. Al Gore ought to come out here and watch."

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) notes that Prop. 187 has been a great organizing tool for Democrats: "The line [for Latinos] is, 'You need to become a citizen, you need to register, you need to vote. That's how you win.' "

That's politics. And it's largely about pictures. Start with a nasty Republican TV ad of illegal immigrants racing across the border--"They keep coming"--and wind up with a Democratic governor embracing a Mexican president on the TV news. That's a Democratic winner.

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