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
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.