Dan Morain

Ghost of Prop. 187 rises as Donald Trump ascends

Demonstrators in 1996 hold up signs to protest Proposition 187 and other immigration policies, outside City Hall in Huntington Park where Gov. Pete Wilson was speaking.
Demonstrators in 1996 hold up signs to protest Proposition 187 and other immigration policies, outside City Hall in Huntington Park where Gov. Pete Wilson was speaking. The Associated Press

Sooner or later, what happens in California politics spreads east, something Republicans massing in Cleveland seem to be ignoring at their peril.

Not all that long ago, the California Republican Party was strong, and, most important, smart.

Gov. George Deukmejian led the 1986 campaign to depose three California Supreme Court justices appointed by a Democrat, Jerry Brown. The pretext was that he wanted to reinstate the death penalty. That didn’t work out to his liking, but to this day, Republican appointees control the state’s highest court, 4-3.

Deukmejian also signed first-in-the-nation legislation restricting assault weapons and helped topple the racist regime in South Africa by forcing California to divest in companies doing business there, a step Nelson Mandela later credited with helping end apartheid.

Pete Wilson vanquished two of the most formidable Democrats of our time, Brown in the 1982 U.S. Senate race and Dianne Feinstein in the 1990 race for governor.

You can walk into a restaurant or bar, and not breathe other people’s tobacco smoke because he signed first-in-the nation legislation banning smoking in workplaces.

Then it began to change.

Dick Mountjoy was a conservative legislator from the San Gabriel Valley. First elected to the Assembly in the 1978 wave generated by the Proposition 13 tax revolt, he loved to slip away from the press of Capitol duty and head to the Delta to hook bass.

One afternoon in 1994, I bumped into him as he ambled down L Street across from the Capitol and asked him about his latest pursuit. He had caught hold of a big one. Voters were fed up with illegal immigration, and he had an answer: an initiative aimed at cutting all government subsidies for their health, education and welfare. It was certain to pass, he said.

Voters were angry, as California struggled in the aftershocks of military base closings. Wilson was in trouble, having angered the GOP base by raising taxes to balance the budget and outraged organized labor and Democrats by cutting services.

Heading into his 1994 re-election, an early poll showed him trailing by double digits against his Democratic challenger, Treasurer Kathleen Brown, Jerry’s sister. Would Wilson support the initiative? He should, Mountjoy told me. It would ensure his re-election.

Against the advice of some of his aides, Wilson did endorse Proposition 187. Sure enough, voters approved the initiative by nearly an 18-percentage point margin. And Wilson crushed Kathleen Brown.

Until this presidential campaign, the 187 campaign was the ugliest I had witnessed. Whether Wilson intended it or not – and I don’t believe he did – the campaign played to voters’ base fears, and new immigrants, legal and illegal, were unjustly vilified.

As it happened, 1994 was a good year for the GOP. Republicans won control of the Assembly and held several statewide offices. Then they started losing. And they’ve kept on losing.

Republican registration, competitive with Democrats not too many years ago, has sunk to 27 percent of the electorate. In the Legislature, Republicans struggle to hold a third of the seats. They have ceded the U.S. Senate seat to Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris or Orange County Democrat Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

Marty Wilson, no relation to the governor, was part of the Pete Wilson political team that managed the governor’s involvement in Proposition 187. His goal was to keep the zealots under control.

Now he works for the California Chamber of Commerce, trying to elect Republicans where possible, and moderate Democrats who will help block what the chamber calls “job killer” bills.

He may tune in this week to watch the Republican National Convention but hopes you don’t. If you do, you will hear discussion of Donald Trump’s notion of constructing a physical wall at the Mexico border.

“Our biggest concern is that the TV ratings will be high,” Marty Wilson said. “I hope the weather will be nice, and people will be out doing other things.”

Not that the former governor would change what he did, but looking back, as men of 82 are wont to do, he can see that his advisers who urged that he stay out of Proposition 187 had a point. More than two decades later, Democrats miss no opportunity to rub Republicans’ noses in it, using it to win over immigrants.

“Yes, I knew I was walking into a punch, but I was prepared to take the punch because it really had to change,” Wilson said the other day by phone.

He had policy reasons for wrapping himself around Proposition 187. The Republican governor, in a time-honored tradition, blamed Washington, demanding that the Democratic president, Bill Clinton, reimburse California for the cost of imprisoning, educating and caring for illegal immigrants.

“I said that if we don’t address it in California, if Washington and Mexico City do not change and give this their attention, then illegal immigration will continue and spill over into virtually every state. And that happened,” Wilson said.

Certainly, the issue has spilled beyond California.

Wilson intends to vote for the Republican nominee, though Trump is far from Wilson’s first choice. National security and control of the Supreme Court are too important to turn over to Hillary Clinton, he believes. But like any thinking person, Wilson sees Trump’s rhetoric for what it is.

“The rhetoric he has used has been racist,” Wilson said. “He has walked back from it. But he said it. I think he has made himself vulnerable with initial comments.”

Nonetheless, the Republicans will nominate Trump for president of the United States and leader of the free world. And the national Republican Party will discover what the California Republican Party learned.

For years to come, Democrats will use the California playbook, quoting Trump’s most inflammatory remarks about women, Muslims and rapists, murderers and drug dealers from Mexico, and they will make sure that new voters never forget.

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