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O.C.'s new realidad

October 22, 2005

BECAUSE PERCEPTION LAGS REALITY, too many people still think of Orange County as white, intolerant and ultra-conservative. The facts show otherwise: The county now has more non-whites than whites. Its largest school district, Santa Ana, is more than 90% Latino. Among its still generally Republican politicians are sprinkled a few Democrats, including a Latina member of Congress.

Yet the county can't seem to get its image to reflect its livelier, more diverse reality. Maybe that's because TV shows such as "The O.C." and "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County" depict an overwhelmingly white, suburban population. Or maybe it's because every once in a while, an artifact of the old Orange County pops up -- often in the form of reaction against immigrants, illegal or otherwise.

Six years ago, the Anaheim Union High School District board rebelled against spending money on students who were illegal immigrants, and it looked into billing foreign governments for their education -- even though the state picks up the bill for all such students. Two years ago, a Newport Beach councilman made headlines with his opposition to beautifying a public beach because doing so might attract too many "Mexicans."

Now comes Jim Gilchrist, a retired accountant who made a surprisingly strong showing in a special primary election for Congress in the district that includes Newport Beach. His one claim to fame: Gilchrist is one of the founders of the Minutemen, self-styled citizen-soldiers who took it upon themselves to patrol the border with Mexico to keep out illegal immigrants.

Gilchrist didn't come close to defeating the Republican front-runner, state Sen. John Campbell (R-Irvine), who received more than 45% of the vote. But running as a member of the American Independent Party, he outpolled the Democrat and came close to another popular Republican. Gilchrist's one-issue campaign won him almost 15% of the electorate, and he will be on the ballot in the general election Dec. 6.

His success shows that the voting public is legitimately troubled by illegal immigration -- and that's true beyond Orange County. Gilchrist might have had similar success elsewhere; he has won praise from many corners, including from the nation's top immigration enforcement official and from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

So maybe Orange County doesn't need an image makeover. As it grows more like the rest of the nation, perhaps the rest of the nation is growing more like Orange County.

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