A decades-old les­son on im­mi­gra­tion, from Cal­i­for­nia to Trump’s Re­pub­li­cans

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - NEWS - TAMSIN MCMAHON

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is gam­bling that his bat­tle to build a bor­der wall, which is lead­ing to the long­est fed­eral gov­ern­ment shutdown on record, will con­tinue to pay po­lit­i­cal div­i­dends into next year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. But his party could take a les­son from a sim­i­lar fight over il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion in Cal­i­for­nia that took place decades ear­lier. It proved to be a cau­tion­ary tale for the state’s Repub­li­can Party in how poli­cies that boost elections re­sults in the short term can have dev­as­tat­ing long-term con­se­quences.

In 1994, badly lag­ging his Demo­cratic op­po­nent head­ing into an elec­tion, Cal­i­for­nia’s Repub­li­can gov­er­nor Pete Wil­son em­braced an anti-im­mi­grant bal­lot ini­tia­tive aimed at get­ting con­ser­va­tive vot­ers to the polls.

Propo­si­tion 187, known as the “Save Our State” mea­sure, ad­vo­cated for cut­ting off state ser­vices to Cal­i­for­nia’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants.

This would make it il­le­gal for them to visit the doc­tor, or send their chil­dren to school. An elec­tion ad from that year de­picted shad­owy fig­ures stream­ing across the Cal­i­for­nia-Mex­ico bor­der as a voice warned: “They keep com­ing: Two mil­lion il­le­gal im­mi­grants in Cal­i­for­nia.”

Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers ini­tially took to the mes­sage, which promised to save hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars and help plug a mas­sive hole in the state’s bud­get. The bal­lot mea­sure passed with 60 per cent of the vote, and polls showed it even drew sup­port from a siz­able share of Latino vot­ers.

Propo­si­tion 187 never came into force, how­ever. It was struck down by a fed­eral dis­trict court and the state gov­ern­ment even­tu­ally aban­doned an ap­peal.

But the move helped Mr. Wil­son eas­ily win re-elec­tion. Re­pub­li­cans re­took a ma­jor­ity in the state leg­is­la­ture for what has, so far, been the last time.

Yet it wouldn’t take long for Cal­i­for­nia’s Repub­li­can Party to erase the short-term elec­tion gains.

Propo­si­tion 187 is largely con­sid­ered the rea­son why Cal­i­for­nia’s Latino voter reg­is­tra­tion surged in the years after the 1994 elec­tion, as did the num­ber of new ap­pli­ca­tions for ci­ti­zen­ship by Mex­i­can na­tion­als liv­ing legally in the state.

His­panic res­i­dents, once seen as swing vot­ers who could be at­tracted to a Repub­li­can mes­sage of lower taxes and fam­ily val­ues, aban­doned the party in droves. By last year, they made up just 11 per cent of Cal­i­for­nia’s Repub­li­can vot­ers.

The state party has strug­gled ever since to re­cover. Be­tween 1996 and 2006, Cal­i­for­nia’s Repub­li­can del­e­ga­tion to Congress shrunk to 20 from 25. Last year, Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers sent just seven Re­pub­li­cans to Congress out of 53 seats. There are now more vot­ers reg­is­tered as inde- pen­dents in Cal­i­for­nia than as Re­pub­li­cans.

Propo­si­tion 187 “passed by a huge mar­gin of vic­tory,” said Peter Schey, a prom­i­nent hu­man­rights lawyer based in Los Angeles and one of the early op­po­nents of the bal­lot mea­sure. “And yet, over time, push­ing those sort of hot­but­ton is­sues dis­si­pated. And, in ret­ro­spect, peo­ple looked at that and said: ‘This is bad news.’ ”

State Repub­li­can lead­ers have pointed to de­mo­graphic changes that have turned Cal­i­for­nia into a mi­nor­ity-ma­jor­ity state for the drop in the party’s sup­port, and warned that the national Repub­li­can Party faces sim­i­lar chal­lenges if it con­tin­ues to fo­cus its ef­forts too nar­rowly on white vot­ers.

Cal­i­for­nia is the “ca­nary in the coal mine” for the national Repub­li­can Party, for­mer Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can Party chair­man Jim Brulte told Cap­i­tal Pub­lic Ra­dio last month. “We’re the lead­ing edge of de­mo­graphic change. And that de­mo­graphic change is com­ing to com­mu­ni­ties in your state, as well.”

But there is ev­i­dence that Cal­i­for­nia’s Re­pub­li­cans have lost white vot­ers as well, although the trans­for­ma­tion has been slow.

White vot­ers sup­ported Repub­li­can gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates as re­cently as 2010, and nar­rowly backed Mitt Rom­ney over Barack Obama in the 2012 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. But just 45 per cent voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, and only 43 per cent sup­ported Repub­li­can John Cox for gov­er­nor last year, the worst show­ing for a Repub­li­can gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date since the 1950s.

The steady drop in sup­port has left Cal­i­for­nia’s Re­pub­li­cans in a Catch-22: As its base has grown steadily older, whiter and more con­ser­va­tive, the party has come un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure to em­brace hard-line poli­cies that are seen as out of step with the ma­jor­ity of Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers.

Last year, Mr. Cox cam­paigned in sup­port of Mr. Trump’s plan to build a bor­der wall, even though polls show three-quar­ters of Cal­i­for­ni­ans are against the idea.

In the race to elect a party chair­man next month, front-run­ner Travis Allen, a state as­sem­bly­man and Trump sup­porter, has ar­gued the party needs to move even fur­ther to the right in order to dis­tin­guish it­self from the Democrats.

That ap­proach has alien­ated the state’s mod­er­ate Re­pub­li­cans, who have started ad­vo­cat­ing for the creation of new, third po­lit­i­cal party that can ap­peal to Cal­i­for­nia’s large seg­ment of fis­cally con­ser­va­tive, so­cially mod­er­ate vot­ers.

“The Grand Old Party is dead,” Kristin Olsen, for­mer Repub­li­can leader in the state assembly, declared in Novem­ber.

“Partly be­cause it has failed to sep­a­rate it­self from today’s toxic, national brand of Repub­li­can pol­i­tics.”

In­creas­ingly, they warn that the Re­pub­li­cans should learn from Cal­i­for­nia’s mis­takes.

“What the national Repub­li­can Party should do,” de­part­ing Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can chair­man Mr. Brulte told a re­searcher in 2016, “is take a look at what the Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can Party has done – and do ab­so­lutely the op­po­site.”

Propo­si­tion 187 is largely con­sid­ered the rea­son why Cal­i­for­nia’s Latino voter reg­is­tra­tion surged in the years after the 1994 elec­tion, as did the num­ber of new ap­pli­ca­tions for ci­ti­zen­ship by Mex­i­can na­tion­als liv­ing legally in the state.

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