Governor’s race could be about illegals

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Thirteen years after a federal judge struck down California’s Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative banning social services for illegal immigrants, the measure has resurfaced as a top issue in the state’s Republican gubernatorial primary.

State insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner has used his support for the initiative to position himself as the stronger candidate on border security, emphasizing that he backed Proposition 187 - while his chief rival, former eBay Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman, did not.

During a March 15 debate, he called for cutting off “taxpayer-funded benefits for people who are here illegally. Meg doesn’t want to go that far. I support Prop. 187 — she opposes it.”

Mrs. Whitman has said that she wouldn’t have voted for Proposition 187 due to concerns over removing children from the public education and health care system. While she has made efforts to reach out to Hispanic voters, she is hardly conceding the immigration issue, coming out in favor of tougher border security and against sanctuary cities.

Even so, it’s Mrs. Whitman who is drawing the wrath of Hispanic activists. Her decision to name former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson as her campaign chairman has inflamed Hispanic groups that still view the former governor as the face of the anti-illegal immigration movement.

During the 1994 campaign, Mr. Wilson was the most prominent supporter of Proposition 187, which passed with 59 percent of the vote. The measure was credited with helping Mr. Wilson win re-election against Democrat Kathleen Brown, the sister of former Gov. Jerry Brown, who is running for this year’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

While Proposition 187 was never enacted, it became a rallying cry for Hispanic activists and was credited with triggering a jump in Democratic voter registration. Later, Democrats and even some Republicans blamed the initiative for the state GOP’s subsequent downward spiral in legislative and statewide elections.

“Proposition 187 is the first thing Latinos think about when they think Pete Wilson,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Los Angeles. “Anyone who was around in 1994, and even among young people, Pete Wilson continues to be the boogeyman.”

His role in the Whitman campaign suggests that “she’s either completely tone-deaf or she’s decided she doesn’t need Latinos to win the primary or the general election,” Mr. Vargas said. “I find that very problematic for anyone who wants to lead the state of California.”

Given that one in three Californians is now Hispanic, he said, the Republican candidates may have miscalculated by placing so much emphasis on illegal immigration. But, at the same time, the issue remains crucial to conservative Republicans who dominate primary elections, not to mention the “tea party” activists now swelling Republican ranks.

Barbara O’Connor, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at California State University at Sacramento, said the Whitman campaign undoubtedly weighed the pros and cons before choosing Mr. Wilson.

“She needs to prove herself with the establishment voters, and he brings a whole cadre of experience she lacks,” said Ms. O’Connor. “And yes, it does incur the ire of Hispanic voters, but the question is, would they have voted for her anyway?”

She said that in a hypothetical matchup with Ms. Whitman, Mr. Brown is likely to grab the lion’s share of the Hispanic vote in the general election. About 19 percent of California voters are Hispanic.

Meanwhile, Democrats have seized on the issue by demanding Mr. Wilson’s ouster. A group called the Democratic Governors Association Non-Candidate Committee has launched a YouTube video and Web site calling for his removal.

“If Meg Whitman wants to earn the trust of California’s Latinos, the right thing for her to do is send Pete Wilson packing,” says the ad.

No surprise there, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

“The Democrats have successfully turned him into a hate figure, so it made sense when she picked him that they were going to use it against her,” Mr. Krikorian said. “The irony is that Pete Wilson is a moderate. He isn’t a restrictionist by any stretch of the imagination.”

He added that cutting off most benefits to illegal immigrants remains popular in California and elsewhere. Ten states have passed laws restricting benefits to illegal immigrants since Proposition 187, according to the Poizner campaign.

“Proposition 187 would probably pass again if they put it on the ballot, especially if they took out the education component,” Mr. Krikorian said. “So I’m not really sure Pete Wilson is the lightning rod for primary voters that the Democrat elites think he is.”

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