Dan Walters

As California turns left, conservatives’ culture war victories are being erased

Demonstrators wave signs to protest immigration policies, including Proposition 187, outside the Huntington Park city hall on Jan. 16, 1996, as then-Gov. Pete Wilson was inside, speaking about overhauling the juvenile justice system.
Demonstrators wave signs to protest immigration policies, including Proposition 187, outside the Huntington Park city hall on Jan. 16, 1996, as then-Gov. Pete Wilson was inside, speaking about overhauling the juvenile justice system. Associated Press file

Culture wars dominated California politics during the 1980s and 1990s, and for the most part those on the conservative side of the ideological scale prevailed.

But then is then and now is now, and the tide appears to have turned.

Republicans George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson held the governorship for 16 of those 20 years and supported many new laws to increase criminal penalties, most notably the three-strikes-and-you’re-out measure, that added tens of thousands of inmates to the prison system.

In 1994, voters not only passed that tough sentencing law (Proposition 184), but approved a measure – pushed by Wilson – denying public benefits to illegal immigrants (Proposition 187), helping him win a second term.

In three subsequent elections measures were passed to prohibit affirmative action in public jobs and education (Proposition 207), bilingual education (Proposition 227) and same-sex marriage (Proposition 22).

Nothing about California remains static, however. The 21st century has seen a leftward shift in the state’s politics – in some measure a reaction to the political right’s impressive string of wins two decades ago – and this year’s election is a referendum on whether to repeal what voters wrought then.

The measures dealing with immigration, affirmative action and bilingual education awakened a Latino community that, while numerically large, had been politically somnambulant.

The awakening was especially evident in Los Angeles County, home to more than 25 percent of the state’s population.

The demise of the region’s aerospace industry in the 1990s led to an outflow of conservative-voting industrial workers and their families. Simultaneously, a Latino-led labor movement spawned a new generation of political figures who claimed local offices, legislative and congressional seats and vowed to undo the measures they considered to be offensively racist.

Two Latino politicians who emerged from Los Angeles’ political upheavals now lead the Legislature, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León.

Proposition 187, Wilson’s immigration measure, was quickly undone by the courts when his successor, Democrat Gray Davis, refused to defend it. The U.S. Supreme Court validated same-sex marriage, even though voters passed another ban in 2008.

Voters and legislators have moved away from the tough-on-crime attitudes that reached their zenith in three-strikes-and-you’re-out. Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 57 would undermine its provisions and make parole easier for some felons, while Proposition 62 would repeal the death penalty and Proposition 64 would legalize recreational marijuana.

A much more liberal Legislature placed Proposition 58 on the ballot to repeal the state’s two-decade-old ban on bilingual education, and almost passed another bill to ask voters to repeal the affirmative action ban.

Although the Senate passed the latter, it ran into a buzzsaw in the Assembly when Asian American leaders alleged that it could reduce college admission slots for students from their community.

The stalemate left the affirmative action ban in effect, at least until the next election. However, were voters to embrace Propositions 57, 58, 62 and 64 – and all appear to be leading – they would effectively erase conservatives’ culture war gains in the 1980s and 1990s and solidify California’s position as a liberal bastion.

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