by George Skelton
The lofty position held by California Republicans 25 years ago when Proposition 187 passed seems unimaginable today. It was a high-water mark for the party that wouldn’t last long.
The California GOP has been sinking into oblivion ever since — but not entirely because of the anti-illegal-immigration measure.
Proposition 187 was the ballot initiative pushed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson that would have denied schooling, nonemergency healthcare and other public services to immigrants living here illegally.
It also would have turned teachers into federal immigration snitches, requiring them to report to authorities any kids they suspected of being in the country illegally. A heartless task.
The measure passed in a near landslide 25 years ago last week, 59% to 41%. But the next day a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order and the act never took effect. A year later, another federal judge permanently tossed out Proposition 187. And in 1999, new Democratic Gov. Gray Davis dropped the state’s appeal.
The California GOP had a glorious night on Nov. 8, 1994. Wilson defeated Democratic state Treasurer Kathleen Brown — the daughter and sister of two governors — by a whopping 14.6% margin.
Republicans won five of seven statewide offices, including the two biggies: governor and attorney general. They haven’t won a single statewide office since 2006.
Republicans also won a slim majority of seats in the state Assembly for the first time in 26 years. That lasted just one term. Today, Democrats hold a supermajority in each legislative house and Republicans are essentially irrelevant.
Of the 52 U.S. House seats up for election in 1994, Democrats and Republicans split them evenly, 26 to 26. In last year’s election, Republicans were tossed out of seven seats and wound up holding only seven against the Democrats’ 46.
Twenty-five years ago, Republicans made up 37% of registered voters, Democrats 49% and independents 10%. By last November’s election, Republicans had declined to 24% and were embarrassingly exceeded by independents who were at nearly 28%. Democrats were about 44%.
So since 187, the California GOP has been in free fall, and it still is.
There’s no disputing that 187 was a big factor in the state GOP’s demise. The campaign for 187 frightened and angered many Latinos just as their population was rising rapidly. And the harsh rhetoric put them hopelessly out of reach for the Republican Party in future elections. Wilson was later skillfully demonized by Democrats in Latino communities.
One campaign TV ad was especially ugly. As I wrote at the time, the spot tended to arouse the dark side of human nature.
It wasn’t the text that was so nasty. It was the pictures and tone. In grainy black-and-white accompanied by a rhythmic bass beat suitable for a horror film, the spot showed Latinos racing across the border at San Ysidro, dodging cars.
“They keep coming,” a narrator intoned in a deep voice that sounded like Darth Vader‘s. Then Wilson said, in part: “I’m working to deny state services…. Enough is enough.”
As Times staff writer Gustavo Arellano recently wrote, many Latinos, whether in the country legally or illegally, “saw the proposition as an existential threat. Wilson’s ‘they’ looked an awful lot like them.”
One young Latino the campaign stirred into action was future state Senate leader Kevin de León of Los Angeles, the son of an immigrant housekeeper. He helped organize a downtown march of 70,000 opponents of 187. The march backfired, however, because some participants carried Mexican flags that were prominently featured on TV news.
“We were in our 20s,” De León told me years later, laughing. “We didn’t anticipate people with Mexican flags. In hindsight, we should have showed up with boxes of American flags.”
Last week, De León wrote an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee, declaring: “Prop. 187 was sold as the key to financial relief for upstanding, tax-paying citizens…. To Latino working families … it was a betrayal of the highest order. For my peers and me, this was our political awakening.”
I called Wilson, 86, and asked whether he had any regrets about 187. Not really, he said.
“It was the right thing to do,” he asserted. The feds were sticking California taxpayers with the cost of educating, incarcerating and providing healthcare for undocumented immigrants they failed to stop at the border. “The only way to get [the federal government’s] attention was with a 2-by-4.”
“I’m not going to tell you there weren’t bigoted people who voted for 187,” Wilson told me. “But that’s not what people who drafted it had in mind and it certainly wasn’t my intention when I supported it….
“Were all those Democrats and independents who voted for it in a landslide racists? No.”
It’s too simplistic to just blame — or credit — 187 for turning California from a purple state to deep blue.
Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant who has been highly critical of the GOP for several years, notes that when the Cold War ended, the aerospace industry collapsed in California. The manufacturing base also deteriorated. That sent Republican middle-class engineers and blue-collar workers fleeing to other states looking for jobs.
Meanwhile, he says, the burgeoning tech industry attracted many left-leaning “progressives” into California.
“All three of them” — 187, loss of middle-class jobs and the tech explosion — “happened at the same time,” Madrid says. “Any one of them would have upset the Republican Party.”
Dan Schnur, who was Wilson’s spokesman in 1994 and is now a political communications professor at USC and UC Berkeley, says: “What killed the Republican Party in California wasn’t Prop. 187. It was their refusal to adjust. California changed. And California Republicans refused to change with it.”
And with few exceptions, they still don’t show much sign of changing.
Political columnist George Skelton has covered government and politics for more than 50 years and for The Times since 1974.
George Skelton is a Political columnist for the LA Times.