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A Parable of Pete Wilson and Prop 187

August 17, 2016

Republican Senator and former San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson won election to become California’s governor in 1990. Consistent with previous Republican statewide candidacies, Wilson took 47 percent of the Hispanic vote.

In 1990, the Latino population of California was booming – from 12 percent of Californians in 1970 to 26 percent in 1990. The non-Hispanic white population shrank even more than Hispanics grew – from 78 percent in 1970 to 57 percent in 1990.

Governor Wilson did not have an easy first term. He went into his re-election campaign with record low approval ratings, polling 20 points behind Democratic nominee Kathleen Brown (sister of once and future Governor Jerry Brown). During the summer of 1994, a ballot proposition got enough signatures to go before the voters in November – Proposition 187 would bar publicly funded health care, public education, and social services to illegal immigrants, and would require public servants to report people they suspected might be illegal immigrants.

Prop 187 was immediately popular, and Governor Wilson ran hard on it, promising vigorous enforcement. Kathleen Brown disagreed, contending that the measure was counterproductive and unconstitutional.

Prop 187 passed with an 18 percent margin, and Wilson won re-election by 15 percent. But the campaign prompted two very important and closely related long-term changes in California politics. First, Prop 187 impelled legal Hispanic residents of California to become citizens and register to vote in unprecedented numbers. Second, Prop 187 all but eliminated political diversity among California’s Latinos. After Prop 187, Hispanic Californians largely abandoned any interest in the Republican Party, committing themselves to the Democrats.

In other words, the shrinking non-Hispanic white population chose to alienate and unify the fastest-growing demographic in the state.

Almost certainly not coincidentally, 1994 is a line that divides time in California politics. Republicans did well in California until 1994, and have done badly ever since. Before Prop 187, Californians voted Republican in four of five presidential elections; after Prop 187, they have voted Democratic five times in a row. Before Prop 187, Republicans won three of five gubernatorial elections, four of five lieutenant gubernatorial elections, three of five attorney general elections. After, Democrats won four out of six races for governor (Arnold Schwarzenegger being the only exception, twice), all five races for lieutenant governor, all five races for attorney general. Before, Republicans won three of eight Senate races; after, Democrats won all six.

Totaling these up, before 1994 Republicans won 17 of 28 of these state-wide races; since 1994, Democrats have won 25 of 27, Schwarzenegger’s two elections being the sole Republican victories among them.

Proposition 187 itself was found to be unconstitutional, an intrusion by California into exclusive federal authority over immigration, and ultimately the law was repealed – a symbolic act in light of the fact that the law was unenforceable. The Hispanic share of the population of California has grown to 38 percent. In 2014, Hispanic Californians outnumbered non-Hispanic whites for the first time, and California became the third “majority minority” state in the U.S.

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials estimates that 9.7 million Latinos voted in 2008 and 11.2 million in 2012, and projects that 13.1 million will vote in 2016. Donald Trump’s Prop 187 is his Mexican border wall and his stigmatization of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals.

As did Prop 187, Trump is further reducing political diversity among Hispanic Americans. Even Florida’s Cuban-American community, traditionally the most Republican of Latinos, overwhelmingly rejects Trump’s candidacy. And as did Prop 187, Trump is pushing Hispanics to become citizens and register to vote. There is plenty of room for growth in the Hispanic electorate – although 11.2 million Hispanics voted in 2012, NALEO estimates that 13.7 million were registered to vote, and 23.3 million were citizens of voting age.

Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and Puerto Ricans living in the 50 states are eligible to vote for president. Just by the way, Puerto Rico’s financial crisis being what it is, many Puerto Ricans have been moving – an estimated 1,000 per week to Florida alone. Many of them are registering to vote, and a sentiment voiced by one Puerto Rican resident of Florida is almost certainly common: “He [Trump] wants to go after Mexicans now, but we’ll be next.” Lots of non-Mexican Latinos see it the same way:  “He’s calling all of us Hispanics rapists,” a Cuban-American in Florida said.

Hispanics in the United States are much younger than the population at large: almost 45 percent of Hispanics are under 25 years old, compared to 30 percent of non-Hispanics. And younger Hispanics are more likely to be native-born than their elders: 94 percent of Hispanics 18 or under were born in this country, and therefore citizens eligible to vote as they come of age.

Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s only new idea for 2016. Twenty years from now, we will look back and see that 2016 is a year that divides time in American politics.

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