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State GOP Haunted by Ghost of Prop. 187

A rift over illegal immigration threatens to unravel gains made in wooing the Latino vote.

February 21, 2004|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

BURLINGAME, Calif. — A growing dispute among California Republicans over illegal immigration threatens to undercut the party's struggle to recover from the devastating Latino backlash against its support for Proposition 187, the landmark 1994 ballot measure.

The March 2 Republican primary has heightened tensions within the party as candidates up and down the ballot sharpen their rhetoric.

A conservative faction is in open revolt against steps that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Bush have taken on illegal immigration, moves widely seen as overtures to Latino voters. Schwarzenegger has signaled that he would sign a bill granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and Bush has proposed legal status for millions of undocumented workers.

Led by U.S. Senate hopeful Howard Kaloogian, the conservative candidates see their harder line on illegal immigration as a potent appeal to voters in the primary. "What the president's proposal does is reach for paper towels while the flood into our country continues," he said.

The rift comes after Republicans managed to squelch their perennial ideological warfare and unite behind the recall of Gov. Gray Davis in October, with most rallying behind the election's winner, Schwarzenegger.

The current split has alarmed party strategists who say the GOP must make inroads with the state's rapidly growing Latino population to overcome the Democrats' dominance in California.

Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant who specializes in campaign appeals to Latinos, said candidates stressing tough stands on immigration risked reviving a "mean-spirited" image that had harmed the party for years -- even if the GOP stand was in line with that of most voters.

That was the case with Proposition 187, which would have denied education and most other public services to illegal immigrants had it not been struck down in court.

"It certainly doesn't help with Hispanics," Madrid said. "There's a very serious danger of overplaying our hand on these issues."

Among the most combative Republicans on immigration this season is congressional candidate Rico Oller, a state senator from the Sacramento area.

A centerpiece of his campaign is a pledge to fight for a federal law barring all states from allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.

"Rico Oller understands how terrorists can use a driver's license to infiltrate our state," an Oller television ad says.

A perennial issue in hard economic times, illegal immigration flared into prominence last year when Davis tried to secure Latino support in the recall by signing a driver's license law for illegal immigrants. The gesture was indeed popular among Latinos, polls found, but backfired with the electorate at large.

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Latino polling and policy think tank, said Schwarzenegger's "demagoguery" on the issue during the recall campaign "gave a rebirth to the nut wing, the 187 wing of the Republican Party."

"It's sort of the law of unintended consequences," he said.

After voters booted Davis from office, the Legislature repealed the driver's license law under pressure from Schwarzenegger. But now, the new governor has angered conservatives by agreeing to sign a revised version if it meets his concerns over public safety.

"Unfortunately, it's a policy issue that's difficult for people to discuss with emotional detachment," said Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman.

This morning, Kaloogian, a former assemblyman from the San Diego suburbs, will hold a rally against the new driver's license measure during the state Republican convention at a hotel in Burlingame, near San Francisco International Airport.

At his side will be Ron Prince, lead sponsor of Proposition 187. Prince's advocacy group, Save Our State, is trying to get a revised version of Proposition 187 on the November ballot. To help gather signatures on the petition for the measure, Kaloogian has drawn on the support network he built last year in the recall drive.

Kaloogian's alliance with Prince might be helpful in the GOP primary, but promises only trouble in a general election race, said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC. To many Latinos, Pachon said, the proposition's author is "the prince of darkness."

"All you have to do for the Latino electorate is associate somebody with 187, and you get almost a sort of knee-jerk, anti-candidate reaction," he said.

Republicans have labored for nearly a decade to repair the fallout from the 1994 election. The racially charged campaign for the ballot measure stained the party's image among Latinos and turned Gov. Pete Wilson into a symbol of divisiveness.

Anger focused primarily on a commercial, run by Wilson in his simultaneous bid for reelection, showing immigrants massed at the Mexican border as an announcer read, "They keep coming."

Californians passed Proposition 187 by a vote of 60% to 40%. But nearly four out of five Latinos opposed it.

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