San Francisco Examiner

Sunday, October 19, 1997

Bilingual Foes Seek Latino Vote
GOP, English-only drive leaders wary of being viewed as anti-immigrant
By ROBERT SALLADAY, Examiner Capitol Bureau

SACRAMENTO -- Geeky, white, Republican, conservative and tremendously wealthy, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz knows he's exactly the wrong type of person to be the public face for his new initiative to banish bilingual education.

Unz is mindful that his sweeping measure could be misinterpreted and, subsequently, alienating to Latino voters already disgusted with the Republican Party after its support of Proposition 187.

So bring on the brown faces, the Spanish surnames.

Prominent in Unz's brochure promoting his "English for the Children" initiative are photos of smiling Latino kids from Las Familias del Pueblo, which organized a boycott of bilingual education in Los Angeles. His campaign co-chairwoman, would-be voters can discover, is a Mexican American teacher. Meet Lenin Lopez, a garment worker who supports Unz.

And although it's not in the brochure just yet, Unz recently found a Latino "honorary chairman": former in-your-face East L.A. teacher and subject of the movie "Stand and Deliver," Jaime Escalante.

Such calculated maneuvering offers a glimpse into the political trap of the Unz initiative, which appears destined for the June 1998 ballot -- and destined to give the Republican Party fits.

Even though most Republicans actively support reforming the state's troubled bilingual education system, they believe another measure viewed as anti-immigrant could be lethal as the party struggles to gain Latino voters.

Republicans are blaming the dramatic slide in Latino support for GOP candidates -- from a high of 40 percent in 1992 to barely 18 percent last year -- on their endorsement of Prop. 187, which cut government benefits and education to illegal immigrants. Polls show overwhelmingly that Latinos feel they've been made scapegoats for the state's immigration problems.

Unz got the message and promised that nobody identified with Prop. 187, which he opposed, would have a prominent role in his bilingual education initiative.

But the Republican leadership thinks that won't be enough.

The Unz initiative comes just as the GOP has launched a new diversity campaign that includes reaching out to Latino voters, now the most analyzed and courted voting bloc. The GOP recently held its own Hispanic Summit in L.A.

"This potentially could be an issue the Democratic Party could use as a club to beat the Republicans with," said Glen Becerra, president of the California Hispanic Leadership Network. "We thought this was a good beginning for some really serious outreach efforts. We thought it would be best for the party to swim in its success from the summit."

Henry Gonzales, vice chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said the "negative media" have created a perception the GOP is anti-immigrant. The Unz initiative, Gonzales believes, should nevertheless be ignored by Republican candidates.

"Republicans will vote for it, but it doesn't have to be the issue they run on," he said. "I believe it will have a political impact on the party, and I believe it will probably be negative."

Unz said he expects he'll easily make his Dec. 1 deadline to collect the 434,000 signatures needed to place the measure on the June primary ballot. Most important, Unz wants to avoid looking like another immigrant-basher.

"If I win with only Anglo votes," Unz said, "that, I think, would be a very negative thing and conceivably could do more harm than good. But if it comes with a large number of Latino and Asian votes, then it could be seen as a mandate."

Unz, who lost a challenge to Gov. Wilson for the GOP nomination in 1994, made millions after co-founding Wall Street Analytics Inc., a Palo Alto software company. A graduate of Harvard, Cambridge and Stanford universities, Unz said he has always been interested in bilingual education, race and immigration issues, though his training is in theoretical physics.

Unz, 36, calls himself "pro-immigrant."

Broadly, his initiative would eliminate bilingual public education and place new non-English speaking students in an "immersion" class for one year. Parents who want their students in bilingual classes must request a waiver by personally visiting a school, which some observers said is designed to scare away illegal immigrant parents.

The initiative is supported by the liberal Santa Monica group Progressive Campaigns, which is gathering signatures for Unz. And it has been rejected by high-ranking Republican leaders and other prominent conservatives, including Attorney General Dan Lungren.

If this measure could indeed alienate Latinos, why do several recent polls show overwhelming support from Latinos for dismantling bilingual education? Why did the parents of 80 Spanish-speaking students at a Los Angeles elementary school boycott classes until their children were placed in English-only instruction last year?

This is what infuriated rank-and-file Republicans at the party's recent state convention: In a stunning rebuke of GOP chairman Michael Shroeder, who started the new diversity campaign, members bypassed the leadership and secured an official party endorsement of the Unz initiative.

The rogue leader was ultra-conservative Assemblyman Tom McClintock, R-Simi Valley. He said the Republican Party bungled the debate over Propositions 187 and 209, the 1996 initiative dismantling affirmative action. The GOP leadership, not Democrats, he said, turned the debate into "crass, racist, political wedge issues because they never grasped the policy issues involved."

"The current leadership approached (the Unz initiative) not as a matter of principle but as a matter of gamesmanship," McClintock said.

With the new dynamic of California politics, getting any ballot measure passed with just Anglo votes is fast becoming impossible. Unz needs Latinos, just as every other statewide candidate in California needs Latinos to win.

There are more than 30 California congressional districts with Latino populations of more than 100,000. Latinos, with 2 million voters in California, are the fastest-growing minority in the country.

California's current Latino population is expected to increase from its current 9 million to 22.4 million by 2025, when they will be close to half the population. "This is a dispersed population that is resonating negatively to some of the things the Republican Party is embracing," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the Claremont Colleges.

Yet the GOP is hoping to reclaim its support among Latino voters, who according to some surveys share many traditional values with Republicans even though they may not be voting for the party's candidates.

A poll by the William C. Velasquez Institute, formerly the Southwest Voter Research Institute, showed Latino voters favor the death penalty, longer prison sentences to reduce crime, ending public aid and education to illegal immigrants, and strict time limits on welfare.

Finding out what Latino voters think about bilingual education is more problematic. Depending on how pollsters craft their questions, Latino voters respond in different ways. In almost every poll where Latinos are asked if they support English instruction for their children, the answer is an overwhelming "Yes." But ask if they want to eliminate bilingual education, the response is more tepid.

A few months before the 1994 election, a bare majority of Latino voters polled said they supported Prop. 187. On Election Day, 77 percent of Latino voters opposed the measure.

"The honest truth is nobody knows what the Hispanic voter is," said Mike Madrid, deputy political director for the California GOP, who spent three years studying Latino voting patterns.

While it's not clear every Democrat -- including some in the Latino leadership -- will oppose the Unz initiative, Democrats have been delighted as they watch Republicans squirm through this particular inner turmoil. State Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres said the GOP leadership is clearly frustrated it "can't put together a strategy to bring them into the 20th century."