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The Legacy of Proposition 187 Cuts Two Ways

Democrats can't count on the fear tactic forever.

April 07, 2002|A.G. BLOCK | A.G. Block is executive editor of State Net, publishers of California Journal, a monthly nonpartisan public-affairs magazine.

SACRAMENTO — In the summer of 1994, many Californians believed that their state was being overrun with illegal immigrants, mostly Latinos, and that the federal government was powerless to turn them back. A lingering recession aggravated this perception, and some people even feared that the "California dream" was over.

Enter Pete Wilson. By supporting Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that denied a range of state services to illegal immigrants, the incumbent Republican governor aimed to exploit the anti-immigrant mood politically. He and proponents of 187 ran a fear-based campaign that blurred the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, or even between Latino citizens and non-citizens. The campaign motivated the GOP's mostly white base, making Wilson and the initiative victorious. But it came at a great cost, for it also drove Latinos into the arms of the Democrats.

That was eight years ago. The current Republican candidate for governor, Bill Simon Jr., is not connected to Proposition 187 or Wilson. Moreover, the man in the White House speaks fluent Spanish and is popular among Latino voters in Texas, where he was governor. So, is the curse of Proposition 187 lifting for the GOP? Conversely, can Democrats continue to exploit fears of perceived Republican racism to secure the party's base among ethnic voters?

Proposition 187's most significant legacy is in the numbers it produced rather than the passions it inflamed. Latinos, whose percentage of the electorate has grown from 5% to 16% since 1994, now vote so overwhelmingly Democratic that Republicans have only a marginal chance to capture the governorship (or any other statewide office) in 2002 or to dent the huge majorities Democrats enjoy in both houses of the Legislature and in the state's congressional delegation.

This wasn't always true. Before 1994, Republicans did relatively well among Latino voters, who tended to be entrepreneurial, middle class and conservative and who consistently gave statewide Republican candidates more than one-third of their votes. Since then, Republicans have been lucky to attract a quarter of that vote, in part because a chunk of their previous Latino support abandoned them in the wake of Proposition 187 and partly because of changes in the character of the Latino electorate.

"A whole new class of Latino voter has emerged in California since 187," says pollster Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Institute. "And that's a fundamental problem for the Republican Party. They are young and poor, and they are registering 3 to 1 Democratic, a trend that's been holding steady for the past four years" and may continue in the future. "Proposition 187 was the force that motivated them to become citizens and to register--as Democrats."

This is significant because, according to DiCamillo, those who have registered since 1994 now make up half the overall Latino vote, Republicans have to stop the bleeding among these new voters if they hope to compete effectively in California. Latinos now give Democrats such a huge edge, explains DiCamillo, that GOP candidates must win the non-Latino vote by nearly 9% to prevail statewide, a near-impossible task.

But some Republicans believe that the anger among Latinos aroused by Proposition 187 is fading. The Latino community, they contend, mirrors the political diversity of the general population, and therein lies new hope for the GOP. They point to President Bush as the salve that will heal wounds left by 187. Sal Russo, campaign manager for Simon, believes with others that the GOP could dramatically enhance its stature among Latinos if Bush appoints a Latino to the U.S. Supreme Court when, as expected, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist or Justice Sandra Day O'Connor retires this fall. That historic event could create what one observer calls "a whole new ballgame" in California, a point Democrats concede. "[Bush] could tout that as a legitimate piece of his record [to Latino voters]," says state Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. "At that point, they become competitive."

Short of that, Republicans will only slowly escape the shadow of 187, aided by success in local and legislative races, says Allen Hoffenblum, a Republican analyst and publisher of the California Target Book, which follows the state's legislative and congressional districts. "Many Assembly districts were made safer [during the 2001 redistricting] for Democrats by increasing Latino registration," he explains. "But if Republicans play it smart, and recruit good candidates, [Democrats] may find that [the districts] are not as safely Democratic as they had planned them to be."

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