After Prop 187 Came The Fall Of California's Once-Mighty GOP, And The Rise Of Latino Political Power
It was the fall of 1994. On TV, popping up between episodes of Murphy Brown and The X-Files, ads for Governor Pete Wilson's reelection showed grainy video of people running into the U.S. from Mexico.
"They keep coming," a narrator intoned. "Two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won't stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them..."
Wilson was embracing the issue of illegal immigration in his campaign. His rhetoric had ramped up in the summer of 1993, when the California governor faxed a letter to President Clinton urging the end of birthright citizenship for children whose parents had entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. The following May, Wilson sued the federal government for reimbursement for the cost of incarcerating unauthorized immigrants.
Months to go before the election, in September 1994, Wilson officially endorsed the controversial ballot measure Proposition 187 that promised to deny public education, healthcare and other state services to people without legal status.
"This was a direct attack on Latinos and immigrants and people of color in general," said Christian Arana, policy director with the Latino Community Foundation.
At the end of his 1994 campaign ad, Wilson promised to fight for taxpayers: "And I'm working to deny state services to illegal immigrants," he declared. "Enough is enough."
Immigrants were burdening the state, the commercial suggested, and contributing to the economic woes that California was experiencing in the early 1990s.
Targeting outsiders was an easy answer to the recession that afflicted Southern California, Arana said. And that tough-on-illegal-immigration message helped Gov. Wilson fight back from a significant polling disadvantage the year before the election — he was trailing Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown by over 20 points at the beginning of 1993.
"In order to win, [Wilson] needed to find someone to scapegoat," Arana said. "Someone to blame for the dramatic social and economic transformation that was happening in California."
California voters gave Wilson a second term, and they overwhelmingly passed Prop 187. But with 25 years' worth of hindsight, many argue the short-term ballot victories came at a massive long-term cost for the GOP.
Prop 187 awakened the political power of Latinos in the Golden state. And it may have marked the beginning of the end for California's once-mighty Republican Party.
FROM "TARGETS" TO LAWMAKERS
Pete Wilson is remembered by some as the Republican governor who launched a thousand California Democrats' careers.
Assemblywoman Wendy Carillo was a 14-year-old high school freshman when Proposition 187 first made headlines.
Carillo's family had fled civil war in El Salvador and come to the U.S. when she was 5 years old. For a time, they lived without legal status.
What Carillo knew about Prop 187 was that it would prevent people like her parents from using public health clinics. It could mean friends would not be able to go to school, or would face deportation.
"Wow, this law 100 percent targets me and my family," Carillo thought.
Latino students across L.A. shared that feeling: Governor Wilson and Prop 187 supporters were telling their communities they weren't welcome in California.
Carillo and her classmates at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights planned a walk-out to join downtown demonstrations against the ballot measure. And Carillo was the perfect person to get the word out — that year, she was in charge of PA announcements for the freshman class.
She began reading her regularly scheduled announcement. Then, she went off-script:
"I was like, '...We're gonna have a rally at 11 a.m. for the sophomore class,'" Carillo remembers, laughing. "And then I said, 'We're also gonna walk out at this time.'"
It didn't go over well with administrators. "I got into a lot of trouble," Carillo said.
But the message worked: Instead of going to third period, the students split. They walked off campus, joining groups of other school kids marching toward city hall.
It was the start of Carillo's political career — she became 10th grade president the following year. And a couple decades later, Carillo represents her old neighborhood the 51st district Assembly seat. She credits the spark of Prop 187 protest with her eventual decision to run.
"I think that was an awakening for a lot of people to say we can and we should do more," she said. "The lesson was, people will make decisions for you if you do not show up."
A couple years after the measure passed, political scientist Lisa García Bedolla interviewed students who were sophomores in high school during the 1994 campaign.
"Everyone had a clear sense that this was a moment of racial threat," said García Bedolla, now vice provost for graduate studies at UC Berkeley who studies why people choose to engage politically. "That it was a Latino threat, not just anti-immigrant threat."
She found that the rhetoric around Prop 187 pushed some to disengage from politics, instead focusing on things in their personal lives which they felt they could control.
But many Latinos took the feeling of community threat and channeled it into collective action. "As was true of the Chicano movement, much of the mobilization centered in schools," Bedolla said, likening the mobilization against Prop 187 to the Mexican-American student protests of 1960s Los Angeles.
"It was my own personal political awakening," said Kevin de León, then a teacher and protest organizer in L.A. "For some folks, the Vietnam War, or Watergate and Nixon was their political awakening. For me it was Proposition 187."
De León ran for Assembly, and eventually rose to be the leader of the California State Senate. Last year, he challenged Dianne Feinstein in a longshot Senate bid that he lost. He's now running for city council in L.A.
De León said that in the early 90s, establishment Democrats discouraged Latinos from taking to the streets to demonstrate — possibly because Prop 187 polled well in most parts of the state. It was a lesson about representation he hasn't forgotten: In order to protect their communities, more Latinos would have go after positions of power themselves.
"I can tell you this — If it wasn't for 187, I would never have thought about running for political office," he said.
Applications for naturalization soared in the years after the measure passed, and the state's Latino voter registration rate jumped.
Many of the newly naturalized immigrants had benefited from the Immigration Reform and Control Act, passed by Congress in 1986 and signed by President Reagan. It provided a path to legal status to close to 2.7 million people. But scholars have shown the naturalization bump was tied to the community's reaction to Prop 187.
Latinos now hold close to a quarter of partisan elected offices in California, up from just 11 percent when Prop 187 passed.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla said another trend started in the mid-90s: Republican power in California, once the stomping grounds of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, began to wane.
"Proposition 187 changed everything," Padilla said. "The electorate is very different today than what it was back in 1994."
In 1996, Democrats picked up a handful of seats in the California Assembly — and control of both state houses hasn't slipped from the party's grip since. Dems now hold a super majority in the state Assembly and Senate, allowing them to pass tax increases or override vetoes without GOP support.
In campaigns across the state, "Democrats weren't running against their Republican opponents, they were running against Pete Wilson," Padilla said. "Prop 187 became a strong, symbolic representation of the difference between the two political parties."
Today, not a single statewide office is held by a member of the GOP, and more voters are registered "No Party Preference" than Republican in California.
In the wake of Prop 187, California voters still enacted policies seen by many as anti-immigrant — like the approval of Proposition 209 in 1996, which banned affirmative action in government employment or public education. Two years later, Proposition 227 eliminated most bilingual education programs in the state.
These further drove a wedge between many California Latinos and the GOP that, as Padilla sees it, formed during Prop 187 — despite the old political wisdom that socially conservative Latinos are persuadable for Republican candidates.
"I've heard it so many times over the years," Padilla said. "For all the emphasis on family values or entrepreneurship or anything else, it's really hard for a Latino to accept that, if what you hear much more loudly is, 'we don't want you here.' That's what you hear from the Republican party."
VANISHING GOP IN CALIFORNIA
Some Republican strategists argue that the loss of the Latino vote was only one factor contributing to the party's decline in California.
At the same time, in the early 1990s, aerospace and defense industry jobs were disappearing after the Cold War, and the state saw an exodus of white working-class voters, said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant with expertise in Latino voting patterns.
Madrid was an undergraduate student in Washington, D.C. studying Latino politicization when the Prop 187 campaign happened in California.
Jumping on board with Prop 187 "saved Pete Wilson's reelection effort," Madrid said, but the benefit was short-lived.
"It has done terrible damage to the Republican brand in California," he said. "It was one of the catalyzing moments of what has been the demise of the California Republican Party."
While Madrid believes the measure had an impact on Latino mobilization, he argues its long-term legacy has been overblown.
"There's no question that Proposition 187 was the defining political moment for a generation of Latinos," he said. "But I think there's also no question the lasting effects of that have been more mythology than truth."
The Latino electorate in California — which comprised one-fifth of the total vote in 2018 — is not large enough to explain the dramatic deflation of the state's GOP, for example.
"We're still not as a community sizeable enough to affect the outcomes of statewide elections, not even close," Madrid said.
"THANK YOU PETE WILSON"
In an interview with KPCC's Larry Mantle last week, Wilson attributed the purple-to-blue shift to the flight of conservatives due to California's high taxes and housing costs.
"We've been steadily losing population from this state to the surrounding western states and in particular to Texas," Wilson said.
The former governor is still frustrated that Proposition 187 never fully took effect — it was held up in court and appeals were eventually abandoned by his Democratic successor, Gray Davis.
Wilson said that's too bad, because voters at the time wanted the federal government to pay attention to the cost of unauthorized immigration in California.
"The people of this state as state taxpayers were tired of being stuck by the federal government," he said. "What's annoying to me is that the people did not have their day in court."
As Wilson sees it, supporters of the measure were unfairly maligned as xenophobic — or worse — by what he described as a biased news media.
"[Prop. 187] was not racist," he said. "I challenge anyone to find one word in that campaign that could be construed as racist."
Today, just twenty percent of partisan elected offices in California are held by Republicans. And Latino legislators who were inspired by Prop 187 and Pete Wilson's positions on immigration are saying, "Thank you."
The California Latino Legislative Caucus recently released a video they call "A letter to former Governor Pete Wilson on the 25th anniversary of Prop 187."
One by one, elected officials appear on the screen thanking Wilson for his role in galvanizing their political activism.
"I'm a member of the California State Assembly — and there are many like me who will continue to fight for our communities," Wendy Carillo says in the video. "And for that, we just have to say, 'Thank you Pete Wilson, for making that a reality.'"
But they're also seeing echoes of 1994 in today's politics, said Secretary of State Padilla, referring to stringent Trump administration policies such as the federal "public charge" rule, recently blocked in court, which would deny green cards to immigrants who use or may use certain public benefits.
"This president has been a nonstop assault on Latinos and immigrants," Padilla said. "We're still hearing some of the same rhetoric."