Los Angeles Times

Sunday, August 31, 1997

GOP Bid to Mend Rift With Latinos Still Strained
Politics: Attempt to end bilingual education, animosity toward Wilson cloud party's planned 'Hispanic Summit' in L.A.
By MARK Z. BARABAK, Times Political Writer

Six months after the state GOP vowed to mend relations with Latino voters, the party's rehabilitative effort is being hindered by a brewing fight over bilingual education and lingering animosity toward Gov. Pete Wilson.
     The strains, a legacy of the party's pugnacious promotion of Propositions 187 and 209, are surfacing as the GOP prepares to launch its outreach campaign with a "Hispanic Summit" Saturday in Los Angeles.
     The party hopes to draw as many as 300 Latino Republican activists from around the state for a day of speeches and workshops.
     "This summit ought to serve as a jumping off point from which we start to emphasize the positive side" of the party's message, said Dan Schnur, an advisor to the state GOP. "If we devote the same kind of energy supporting legal immigration that we've spent cracking down on illegal immigration, we'll be taking a huge step in the right direction."
     The party's outreach efforts are being overshadowed, however, by the growing debate over a proposed June 1998 ballot measure aimed at abolishing bilingual education in California's public schools.
     Leading the initiative drive is Republican Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire who has sought to distance himself from state party leaders by stressing his staunch opposition to Proposition 187. Unz insists his proposed initiative, dubbed "English first," is neither "anti-immigrant" nor "anti-Latino."
     "Nobody prominently associated with Proposition 187 will be allowed any significant role in our campaign," Unz vowed, specifically including Wilson, who made the 1994 anti-illegal immigration initiative the centerpiece of his reelection effort. Unz unsuccessfully challenged Wilson in the 1994 GOP primary.
     Despite Unz's protestations, many in the state Republican Party fear that the English-first initiative will become another divisive issue.
     "I can easily see how this can be considered an anti-immigrant initiative," said Ernesto Feliciano, head of the National Republican National Hispanic Assembly of California, the state's largest Latino GOP group.
     Indeed, a fund-raising letter for the Unz initiative seems to implicitly criticize today's newcomers when it recounts the experience of Unz's grandparents, "who came to California in the 1920s and 1930s as poor European immigrants."
     "They came to WORK and become successful . . . not to sit back and be a burden on those who were already here!" the letter states. The only ethnic group mentioned in the 3 1/2-page letter is Latinos and the only language it refers to, besides English, is Spanish.
     Unz said that "if you read that whole letter, the overall sense is very positive."
     But, Feliciano said, "our advice to the Republican Party is to stay away from this issue."      The GOP outreach effort is a reaction to the backlash the party suffered at the polls in November.
     Turnout among Latino voters surged, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll, in apparent reaction to Propositions 187 and last year's 209, as well as federal legislation that targeted legal immigrants. Proposition 209 banned state affirmative action programs.
     At the same time, the Republican share of the vote plunged, costing the party seats in Congress and control of the state Assembly.
     Wilson, who heavily promoted both ballot measures, remains a vilified and deeply polarizing figure in the Latino community as a result, making his invitation to Saturday's "Hispanic Summit" a point of some contention. As governor and California's most prominent Republican, party leaders felt they could not exclude him from the gathering. His attendance is still uncertain.
     Whether or not Wilson attends, a more consequential issue is whether the party endorses the Unz initiative and invests resources to help it pass. One co-sponsor, Santa Ana schoolteacher Matta Tuchman, is set to appear at Saturday's party session. But Republicans are not expected to adopt a formal position until the state GOP convention in September, at the earliest.