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THE WEEK

Steve Poizner zeros in on an untimely issue

He tries to zing Meg Whitman on immigration, but most of the heat has gone from that subject.

March 28, 2010|By Cathleen Decker
  • A "Full Rights for Immigrants" rally Saturday drew marchers to downtown Los Angeles. The issue lacks the heat it had only a few years ago.
A "Full Rights for Immigrants" rally Saturday drew marchers… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Every so often, change can be seen not in what does happen but in what does not.

His campaign for governor on the ropes, Republican Steve Poizner has been blaming illegal immigration for the state's troubled schools, its crowded emergency rooms and some of its massive budget deficit. Last week he began airing ads accusing GOP front-runner Meg Whitman of mimicking President Obama in her positions on illegal immigration -- specifically, a comment she made last year about envisioning "a path to legalization" for undocumented workers.

In the past, that would have been enough to ding Whitman's campaign, because bad economic times have usually inspired anger at those who came to California illegally. In 1994, as the state's last big recession claimed victims, California responded with Proposition 187, which was intended to cut benefits to illegal immigrants and proved to be a giant force in that year's political races.

This year? Nothing. If opinion polls are to be believed, Poizner trailed Whitman by dozens of points before his barrage and trails her by about that much now.

The absence of any reaction may stem in part from Whitman's giant lead. But it also signals a reluctance on the part of more Californians to take the anti-illegal immigration bait.

A poll released by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that views on illegal immigration are highly partisan, but there are also indications of a live-and-let-live approach even among opponents.

Overall, about two-thirds of Democrats said immigrants benefit the state, a view shared by more than half of independent voters. More than two-thirds of Republicans said immigrants were more of a burden than a benefit.

Still, 49% of Republicans said illegal immigrants who have been living and working in California for two years should be allowed to keep their jobs and eventually become legal residents.

And this: Even as economic conditions have worsened, Californians haven't moved illegal immigration up the ladder of issues they want politicians to solve.

As recently as three years ago, 19% of Californians saw it as the most important issue facing the state, ahead of all other subjects. The Public Policy Institute's survey last week showed that even among Republicans, only 5% now consider immigration a top issue, well down on the list. (Among Democrats, it was even lower).

The trajectory is basically a reversal of what has occurred in the past.

"We haven't seen the issue of immigration have the kind of salience that it has in other economic downturns," said institute president Mark Baldassare.

Part of that, Republican demographer Tony Quinn believes, is actually because of the recession. As entry jobs traditionally taken by undocumented workers have dried up, fewer have clambered over the border, lessening their visibility.

There are two other potent reasons for Republicans not to press the matter.

In the Central Valley, where Republicans must do well to win statewide, farmers need more workers, not fewer, providing what Quinn called an "economic driver" against anti-illegal immigrant politicking.

And then there are the lasting political implications of the Proposition 187 battle, which started the surge of Latino voters away from the Republican Party even though much of it was thrown out by judges. Since 1994, Quinn said, sentiment has cooled because of "a more sophisticated realization that a lot of immigrant bashing gets you a loss in the November election."

Poizner has little to lose, though, and his immigration appeal is part of a broader effort to convince Republican primary voters that he is one of them and Whitman is not. Whitman gave him ammunition on immigration during a visit to the border last fall.

There, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, she said it was impractical to deport all illegal immigrants. "Can we get a fair program where people stand at the back of the line, they pay a fine, they do some things that would ultimately allow a path to legalization?" she asked. The last three words are precisely those derided as "amnesty" by Republicans who have argued for stricter controls.

Whitman spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said the candidate was referring not to legal citizenship but to a "temporary guest worker program."

She countered that Poizner had once praised President George W. Bush's border plan, which included the "path to legalization" concept. Poizner's campaign said he was praising other elements of the plan, not that one.

For his part, Poizner has vowed to send the National Guard to the border to keep illegal immigrants out and, if necessary, the California Highway Patrol and the Republican Party.

His campaign strategist, Stuart Stevens, said the emphasis on illegal immigration stemmed not from polling data but from Poizner himself.

"It's something that Steve Poizner feels passionately about," he said.

Stevens brushed aside the concerns of some Republicans that concentrating on the issue could extend the backlash among Latinos, the state's fastest-growing ethic group and one the GOP is eager to attract for its long-term survival.

"There's zero concern. . . . I don't buy into the notion that 187 is the root of difficulties in California that the Republicans have had with Latino voters. I think it's a specious argument."

He attributed the breach to the GOP's attraction to "big money and status quo power" candidates -- like, he said, Whitman.

Others, however, see the emphasis as a sideshow in an election in which voters are focused laser-like on other matters.

"There's absolutely no sign it's helping Poizner at all," Quinn said. "The overwhelming issue affecting Republicans and Democrats is the loss of jobs and the budget mess."

cathleen.decker @latimes.com.

Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek.

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