San Diego Union-Tribune

Wednesday, May 20, 1998

Wilson Bristles at Claims He's Playing Racial Politics
By JOHN MARELIUS, Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- Gov. Pete Wilson yesterday lashed back at critics who accuse him of practicing racial politics as he planted himself in the middle of the ballot measure campaign to wipe out bilingual education -- much to the dismay of the proposal's author.

A combative Republican governor said he had been the victim of a "relentless drumbeat of character assassination" for daring to champion a trio of racially tinged initiatives to combat illegal immigration, do away with affirmative action and now scuttle bilingual education.

Critics say the governor has used these so-called wedge issues to divide people for political purposes.

"Wedge issues are issues that liberals want to duck because they don't have the guts to respond to real problems and offer solutions that will be offensive to a politically correct audience," Wilson told a breakfast meeting of Southern California political reporters.

On Monday, Wilson endorsed Proposition 227, which is designed to replace most bilingual instruction in California public schools with a course to teach English quickly. Some bilingual programs teach students in their native language for up to seven years while they learn English.

At the same time, Wilson vetoed compromise legislation aimed at giving school districts greater flexibility in designing curriculum for students who are not fluent in English.

It's not often that the sponsor of a popular ballot measure would disavow an endorsement from the governor, but that's what happened in this case.

Proposition 227 author Ron Unz, a conservative computer software entrepreneur who ran against Wilson in the 1994 Republican gubernatorial primary, made it clear that the governor's support was unwelcome. Unz said he was afraid the opposition would exploit Wilson's unpopularity with Latino voters to attack his ballot measure that polls show is supported across ethnic lines.

Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, a Los Angeles Democrat, promptly served notice that Wilson's history of supporting "divisive and polarizing" issues would indeed become a focus of the anti-227 campaign.

Wilson's reaction to Unz's concern: "Who cares? . . . I'm not interested in Unz, to be honest with you," he said. "I'm interested in the reform."

Told of the governor's response, Unz said, "That's exactly what we're talking about. Villaraigosa said the opposition campaign would attempt to use Wilson's opposition as one of the focal points of its attack." He added, "It's very unfortunate that the governor has chosen to endorse our initiative."

An expert on Latino voting in California said yesterday that Proposition 227 seemed almost certain to pass, but that Wilson's announcement would galvanize opposition to it.

"He's the greatest bogeyman for Latinos," said Fernando Guerra, a professor of Chicano studies and political science at Loyola-Marymount University. "He's done more to mobilize the Latino vote than anybody in California history."

Proposition 227 has California Republicans going in all directions at once.

As Wilson pointed out yesterday, public opinion polls indicate that Latinos want children to learn English as quickly as possible and don't believe the current bilingual education system has worked. At the same time, there has been a steady decline in support in Latino votes for top-of-the-ticket Republican candidates -- from 46 percent in 1984 to 18 percent in 1996.

State Republican Party Chairman Mike Schroeder has sponsored a series of minority outreach seminars in response to what he sees as minority alienation stemming from the tone of recent campaigns. But the state GOP convention last August endorsed the Unz initiative over Schroeder's pleas that it was not in the party's interests to jump into a third campaign with ethnic overtones.

Meanwhile, as Wilson was moving toward an endorsement of Proposition 227, Attorney General Dan Lungren, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, last week went on record in opposition to it in a debate in Los Angeles with the three major Democratic candidates for governor.

Lungren said that as a believer in local control of educational decisions he could not support Proposition 227 and favored the alternative legislation, SB 6 by Democratic Sen. Dede Alpert of Coronado that Wilson vetoed Monday.

Wilson suggested yesterday that his would-be Republican successor didn't understand the bill he endorsed.

"With all respect to Dan, I think that he has been beguiled, as have a number of other people, with the description by the author and proponents of SB 6 as affording local options," he said. "Well, local options in the implementation of state standards is a good principle but the state still has the responsibility to set the standards."

Lungren, visiting a Chula Vista school yesterday, said "the governor makes some good points about the imperfections or inadequacies about the Alpert Bill. I never said it was perfect."

But the attorney general seemed mystified about how he was depicted by Wilson.

"I've been called a lot of things, but beguiled . . . that's an inventive way of saying we disagree," Lungren said. "I've never heard that before. He does have a good vocabulary."

Wilson insisted yesterday the perception that the Republican Party is hostile to minorities, especially Latinos, is misguided and the product of racially motivated manipulations by liberals seeking to preserve the status quo.

"There's been a deliberate effort to poison the well with the Latino audience and to persuade them that they are in a hostile land, that they're surrounded by people who are racists. That is an ugly, vicious lie," he said.

Wilson was unapologetic about his much-criticized 1994 television commercials that showed grainy footage of people scurrying north across the San Ysidro border crossing with Mexico as an announcer intoned, "They keep coming."

"That ad was accurate," he said. "It would be pretty hard for anybody to deny that they did, and for that matter, do keep coming."

As to whether the tone of the ad created resentment among Latinos, Wilson said: "It may be that it did. But it was not inaccurate, nor was it unfair or false."

On other matters, the governor, who cannot run for a third term because of term limits, predicted Lt. Gov. Gray Davis would be the Democratic gubernatorial nominee and face Lungren.

Wilson, who makes no secret of his desire to run for president in 2000, also said he supported legislation to move the California presidential primary up to the first Tuesday in March.

Staff writer Gerry Braun contributed to this report.