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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Will the Bush amnesty push help California's GOP?

August 14, 2001

Political experts of every ideological stripe pronounced Bill Clinton a genius when he co-opted longtime Republican issues such as welfare reform and balancing the federal budget and made them his own.

Those moves certified him as a centrist and ensured his landslide re-election in 1996.

By contrast, no one calls President Bush a genius of any kind. But Bush right now is in the midst of pulling a Clinton and co-opting a major Democratic issue, with the possibility his tactic might pull much of a major Democratic voting bloc to the Republican side.

Despite any other rhetoric, that's what the Bush effort to legitimize millions of illegal aliens is all about. And it would be hard to call any president who conducted a mass legalization program a hard-line right-winger, which is what Democrats want to do.

But the immediate question is whether any of this will rub off on other Republicans? Will it matter in next year's mid-term elections? Those questions will get their most important answers next year here in California, for the Latino voters Bush is trying to sway are far more important in this state than anywhere else.

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About 13 percent of all California ballots last year were cast by Latinos. In Texas, which had the second-highest Hispanic voter turnout, Latinos cast less than 10 percent of all ballots. Nationally, the figure was only about 3 percent.

Moving Latino voters can be far more important in California than anywhere else. The question: Will the Bush legalization effort cause many Latinos here to ignore and forego the "curse of Pete Wilson" and vote Republican?

Not many, insists Democratic consultant Joseph Cerrell.

"This is the worst state for the Republicans with Latinos, so what Bush is doing will impact here last," he said.

Much of the effect of the Bush push depends on who the Republicans run for governor and who runs their eventual candidate's campaign.

Of the three major Republican prospects, only one has any record of drawing many Latino votes. That's former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, whose prominence in local Roman Catholic activities always made him sympathetic to Hispanics.

Riordan also hired Latinos such as deputy mayors Noelia Rodriguez, now press secretary to first lady Laura Bush, and Rocky Delgadillo, now the Los Angeles city attorney. Hispanics were a firm part of his electoral coalition, but Riordan did not oppose the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994, taking no position.

That harsh measure was supported most actively by former Gov. Pete Wilson, whose name is anathema to most Latinos. Wilson's actions tarnished the GOP label among California Hispanics and made Hispanics into an almost exclusively Democratic constituency, going for Gov. Gray Davis by a 78-22 percent margin in 1998.

Now Riordan has made Dan Schnur coordinator of his exploratory campaign committee. Schnur most recently was communications director for the John McCain presidential campaign, but he's still best known in California as Wilson's longtime press secretary.

"What Bush is doing will not help Republicans in this state at all if they associate themselves with Wilson's people," said one longtime GOP consultant. "Wilson is such a negative symbol among Latinos that for Riordan to tie himself to Wilson people shows something akin to a death wish."

Schnur disagrees.

"If Riordan talks jobs and transportation and education and Davis talks about Riordan's campaign staff, it won't help Davis," he said.

What about the other Republicans? Should one best Riordan in the March primary, the Bush moves might help declared candidates like Secretary of State Bill Jones and financier William Simon Jr. — except neither opposed 187 when they had the chance.

Yes, Jones has made efforts to encourage Latino voter registration. But he backed 187, falling in line behind Wilson, and, as Democratic ex-Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa says, "We Latinos have a long memory."

Simon, meanwhile, took no stance on 187 because he had little or no discernible interest in politics at the time. All of which means none of the three Republicans in the running for governor is positioned optimally to take advantage of the Bush effort and convert Latino votes to the GOP column. And if they're unable to capitalize, it's legitimate to wonder whether Bush will persist afterward in his pro-immigrant effort.

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