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Trying to Exorcise a GOP Demon

Simon ad woos Latinos alienated by Republicans' past attacks.

June 23, 2002|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is the associate editor of The Times.

In a state as big and diverse as California, one broadcast ad will not make or break a political campaign. Still, the ad Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon Jr. began running last week is both noteworthy and praiseworthy.

It is noteworthy because it was the first ad that Simon's campaign broadcast in an uphill effort to unseat Gov. Gray Davis. The better-funded Davis campaign has been hammering away at Simon with its own TV ads for weeks now.

Even more intriguing, however, is the language that Simon's campaign team opted to use in its first ad--Spanish.

The new Simon ad will be used on both radio and TV stations to "introduce" the GOP candidate to a group of voters he has made only a minimal effort to woo thus far, California's more than 400,000 newly enfranchised Latino voters.

It is also noteworthy that a California Republican would make such a dramatic, and potentially controversial, gesture to seek Latino voters' support.

After all, most political analysts trace the GOP's current weak position in California to 1994, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, linked his reelection campaign to Proposition 187, the ballot initiative to bar illegal immigrants from schools and other publicly funded services.

Proposition 187 passed but was nullified by the courts as unconstitutional. And Wilson got reelected, but his victory proved pyrrhic.

The anti-Mexican tone of the campaign for Proposition 187 so frightened immigrant Latinos that thousands of them rushed to become citizens. And once those new citizens started voting, they took vengeance on Republicans who tried to follow in Wilson's footsteps.

A key reason the GOP is now a weak minority in Sacramento is that it got only 23% of the fast-growing Latino vote in the 1998 and 2000 elections, according to the Times Poll.

Thus Simon's ad would be praiseworthy simply for the courage it must have taken the candidate and his advisors to tread onto political terrain that many California Republicans still believe is unfriendly, if not downright dangerous.

Yet even more important is the topic and tone of the Simon ad.

It focuses on Latino children in the state's schools and accuses Davis--who pledged to be an "education governor" in his 1998 campaign--of failing to improve public education. The criticism is debatable, to be sure, but the importance of education as an issue that matters to Latinos is not.

The ad also portrays smiling Latino students in a hopeful light, and ends with Simon intoning, in stiff but correct Spanish, that California's future is "nuestros hijos, suyos y mios," ("our children, yours and mine").

What a refreshing contrast to a GOP ad I sadly remember from 1996, when Kansas Sen. Bob Dole was so desperate to challenge then-President Clinton in California that Dole took a page from Wilson's book and approved an ad that tried to tap into the anti-immigrant themes of Proposition 187. It featured the notably unsmiling faces of Latino youngsters and literally referred to them, in the dark words of its faceless narrator, as a danger to California.

If Simon's Spanish-language ad serves no other purpose than to put hateful campaign commercials like Dole's on the shelf forever, the Simon campaign will have done a great service to California.

Yet Simon's ad may do more than that. It could finally begin to heal the chasm Wilson and his ilk created between the GOP and the many Latino voters--I estimate between 30% and 40%, based on the vote for popular GOP candidates like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon--who lean toward the Republican philosophy for personal or cultural reasons.

If these potential Latino Republicans get inspired, they just might help bring some partisan balance back into California politics.

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