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How The California G.O.P. Got A Spanish Lesson

PROP. 227

By Peter Beinart

TIME Magazine

(TIME, May 18) -- California Republicans have railed against bilingual education for years, accusing it of producing a culturally alien, economically hopeless immigrant underclass. So when millionaire businessman Ron Unz placed a measure on this June's ballot that would abolish the program, the state G.O.P. jumped onboard, right? Not exactly. "I have not endorsed [Proposition 227]. I will not put a penny into it," says state party chairman Michael Schroeder. The likely G.O.P. gubernatorial nominee, Dan Lungren, hasn't taken a position. Neither has Bill Leonard, the party's leader in the state assembly.

Why the cold feet? Because in the past four years, the California G.O.P. has undergone something of a revolution. In 1994, conventional wisdom in the Golden State held that Latinos didn't vote and that taking on immigrants, especially Latino immigrants, was a political gold mine. Voters passed Proposition 187, which sought to cut off illegal aliens' benefits. Governor Pete Wilson won re-election with ads showing grainy figures scurrying across the southern border, and some suspected that he could ride the issue all the way to the White House.

Four years later, California Republicans are falling over one another to distance themselves from Wilson and anything that even hints of anti-Latino bias. Republican senatorial candidate Darrell Issa says he opposes making the children of illegal immigrants leave school. Aides to his primary opponent, state treasurer Matt Fong, claim the antiimmigrant rhetoric surrounding Prop. 187 left their man "greatly disturbed." Advisers to Lungren admit that he backed 187 but stress that his endorsement was late and lukewarm. As for Wilson, he didn't even attend the G.O.P.'s state convention last February, and a party strategist calls the outgoing Governor's negative image among Latinos "a huge problem."

Why the change? One reason is the economy. Historically, Californians engage in immigrant bashing during recessions, and in 1994 the state's economy was reeling from defense cutbacks. A Los Angeles Times poll conducted then found roughly 20% of Californians upbeat about the economy. Today, with state unemployment near an eight-year low, that percentage has more than tripled. The second reason is that Latinos, it turns out, do vote. And they have visited retribution on the California Republican Party for the attacks of 1994. The Latino share of the California electorate has nearly doubled this decade, and the portion of it going to Republicans has collapsed. In 1984 Ronald Reagan won 48% of the Latino vote in California. In 1996 Bob Dole got 6%, and Latinos swept Democrats into control of the state assembly. Internal Republican surveys note that by 2020, Latinos will constitute nearly 40% of the California population. Last fall, longtime G.O.P. strategist Stuart Spencer warned that unless the state party takes action, it will relegate itself to "permanent minority status."

Republican leaders are trying everything from mea culpas to community breakfasts. For the job of state political director, the party has hired a 26-year-old Mexican-American operative named Mike Madrid, who wrote his college thesis on how the G.O.P. could win Latino votes. Senatorial candidates Issa and Fong are both running Spanish-language ads. And over the course of the year, the party will hold nine "Hispanic summits" in different parts of the state.

But with only one Latino Republican in the state legislature, the California G.O.P. doesn't even have enough high-profile Latino officeholders to speak at its outreach meetings. So when party chairman Schroeder realized that San Mateo county supervisor Ruben Barrales couldn't win the Republican primary for state treasurer, he maneuvered Barrales into an easier race for controller. And when it became clear that Barrales would face a primary challenger in that contest, a deluge of party bigwigs--including every statewide Republican elected official, 11 G.O.P. members of Congress and former President Gerald Ford--announced that he was their choice.

But there is still Prop. 227, the anti-bilingual education initiative, which G.O.P. strategists fear could spoil all their hard work. At the state party's semiannual convention last September, Schroeder tried frantically to keep delegates from endorsing it but was overruled by the rank and file. Some dismiss the chairman's fears that the campaign against bilingual education will spawn a Prop. 187-style backlash. They point to polls showing that a majority of Latinos actually support the initiative. But Latino political analysts warn that one thing could still turn their community against the measure: a close association with the California Republican Party.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: May 18, 1998

The Third Way Wonkfest
Keeping It Secret
Can't Buy Their Love
How The California G.O.P. Got A Spanish Lesson
Will Voters Unplug Labor's Money Machine?
Giving Peace a Chance
The Notebook: First Beaus
The Trouble with Transcripts

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