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THE STATE | THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Race Issues Color Views of State Recall Campaign

Some candidates make ethnic appeals while shifting demographics stoke resentment.

September 18, 2003|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

The callers on the radio talk show were fuming.

Gov. Gray Davis' decision to allow illegal immigrants to have driver's licenses only rewards the people taking jobs from citizens, a man from Thousand Oaks said. The new law will entice more immigrants, who carry diseases like hepatitis and leprosy, insisted a woman from Irvine.

The angry buzz on a recent episode of KPCC-FM's "Airtalk" -- a public radio show more commonly known for mild-mannered discussions about current events -- reflected a familiar, sharp-edged tenor.

Race is back.

Nine years after Proposition 187 tapped a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, the 2003 recall campaign has pivoted on a series of racially charged issues, from the driver's license law to a ballot initiative aimed at ending the state's collection of some racial data.

The result: an electorate bristling with resentment.

Earlier in the month, an organized flood of callers effectively shut down some of the governor's phone lines for two days with accusations that Davis favors Latinos over whites. One Los Angeles AM radio show urged listeners to physically block the border to keep immigrants out.

"I'm not opposed to Mexicans ... the ones who come here legally," said Buena Park resident Ray Bright during a follow-up interview to a recent Times Poll. "There's too many of them here."

The atmosphere is starkly different from that of the gubernatorial campaign just a year ago, when Davis and GOP nominee Bill Simon Jr. steered clear of issues that touch on race.

This year, a confluence of forces has inflamed the political landscape.

A lackluster economy has boosted anxieties about the cost of immigration and the state's burgeoning Latino population, symbolized by the candidacy of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who would be the state's first Latino governor in 128 years. The candidates on the recall ballot, eager to increase turnout, are making both implicit and overt ethnic appeals. And the concentrated nature of the campaign has transformed usually subtle codes into blunt instruments.

"It creates an environment in which people need simple cues to understand what's going on, and obviously race is a simple one -- and a powerful one," said Frank Gilliam, director of UCLA's Center for Communications and Community.

As a result, the 2003 campaign season has exposed sentiments about race in California that are always present, yet often unseen, experts said. Those feelings are not expected to dissipate, even if the election is delayed in court for several months. "You hardly had to scratch the surface on this election to get all this stuff to come flowing out," Gilliam said.

This year's election has returned again and again to the same issue that voters tussled over in 1994: the role of immigrants in California.

Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock have pledged to undo the driver's license law and reiterated their support for Proposition 187, a measure that sought to end health and education benefits for illegal immigrants. McClintock told cheering delegates at the state GOP convention last week that he would work to revive the 1994 initiative, which was largely thrown out by the courts.

Davis and Bustamante, meanwhile, have portrayed themselves as champions of Latinos, seeking to boost turnout among a traditionally Democratic constituency. The governor's approval of the driver's license measure -- after two earlier vetoes -- was widely viewed as a bid to win over Latinos. Bustamante has repeatedly backed amnesty for undocumented workers.

The parties' polar stances have fed a public mood reminiscent of 1994, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson ran television ads with grainy images of immigrants running across the border. "They keep coming," warned the announcer.

But the rhetoric has changed since Proposition 187, which proved toxic for its Republican backers. Although the initiative drew wide support among voters, it also sparked a backlash among Latinos and powered a massive voter-registration effort, hobbling GOP efforts in the years that followed.

This time around, the prominent candidates have sought to alternately distance themselves from that campaign and invoke it, swapping accusations of prejudice.

Bustamante has said Schwarzenegger's stances on illegal immigration prove he is "anti-immigrant," prompting Schwarzenegger's campaign to accuse the lieutenant governor of engaging in "wedge-issue politics." At the same time, it had to fend off criticism of the actor's appointment of Wilson, the most visible backer of Proposition 187, to help run his campaign.

Bustamante has been criticized for his college membership in MEChA, a Latino student group with separatist roots. McClintock, a GOP state senator from Thousand Oaks, compared the organization to the Ku Klux Klan, a charge Latino community leaders called offensive.

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