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California and the West

State GOP Is Distancing Itself From Prop. 187

Politics: Backlash from anti-illegal immigrant measure badly hurt party, officials concede. They chorus Bush's pledge of 'a new day.'


PHILADELPHIA — Six years ago, Celeste Grieg lent her face and voice to Proposition 187, appearing on Spanish-language television and radio in defense of the divisive California ballot measure to end schooling, health care and other public services to illegal immigrants.

But as she listened last week to speaker after speaker at the Republican National Convention drop cutesy lines in Spanish and talk of a more inclusive GOP, the conservative state party official is getting with the new program--and hoping to atone for damage done in 1994.

"Nobody's perfect," Grieg said with a smile during a delegates' breakfast at the University of Pennsylvania. "We all make mistakes. We never expected that kind of backlash for the Republican Party. But we realize what we did."

As presidential nominee George W. Bush continues his campaign to convince Latinos that it is un nuevo dia, or new day, in Republican politics, the architects and foot soldiers of the anti-illegal immigrant movement in California in the last decade under former Gov. Pete Wilson are eagerly following along.

"The bottom line is, we are tired of losing," said California GOP chairman John McGraw. "We want to win. All of us in California know the Hispanic vote is going to become more important."

The Latino vote is, in fact, already a huge factor in California politics--and since Proposition 187, it has heavily tilted in favor of Democrats. Bob Dole won just 22% of the Latino vote in 1996 as Bill Clinton easily took California. Two years ago, GOP gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren garnered just 18% of Latino votes in his loss to Democrat Gray Davis.

More than 2 million Latinos are registered to vote in California. In Los Angeles County, a study showed, two-thirds of Latinos are registered Democrats.

For some, the stakes are personal. State Assemblyman Robert Pacheco (R-Walnut), one of only four Latinos in the California Legislature's lower house, voted for Proposition 187. He was bombarded with boos recently after admitting that fact at a meeting of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, a group that works to bring more Latinos into politics.

"I told them, 'You're right. It was a stupid thing to do. But how long are you going to keep punishing me?' " said Pacheco, the son of Mexican immigrants. "This really is a renaissance of the party in California. It feels like we have come out of the dark ages."

How California Republicans wound up in the dark ages was not a subject sparking much discussion in Philadelphia. Rather, Republicans talked about their confidence that they can win 35% of the Latino vote in the state this fall, a benchmark cited by Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove as the number needed to put the Texas governor over the top in California.

Wilson, the GOP's last California governor, was not part of the state delegation to the convention.

"It's not a show of symbolism," said Gerry Parsky, a former generous campaign contributor to Wilson who is now Bush's California campaign chairman, of the new, immigrant-friendly attitude.

"It's a building-block process. We want to bring that message from Gov. Bush into California," he said.

For some of the GOP's true believers, the old Proposition 187 message was and is clear. Although it became a touchstone for a wider, harsher debate on immigration and race in California, they say the measure was simply intended to slow the flow of illegal immigration into the state--a position both major parties support.

The controversial initiative was approved by state voters, but declared unconstitutional by a federal court, and Davis abandoned its defense.

"At the time, the sentiment was so anti-immigrant--anti-illegal immigrant, I should rephrase--that it made sense," said Grieg, adding that she is a legal immigrant from Spain. But in the supercharged political campaign, she said, Proposition 187 backers were perceived as "bigots and racists."

Not that California Republicans want to talk about that now. It is un nuevo dia.

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