LOS ANGELES—The nation’s most diverse state, home to more immigrant children than any other place in the country, appeared poised Tuesday to end bilingual education in the public schools and set to reject two candidates for governor who spent tens of millions of dollars of their own money in favor of two life-long politicians.
Proposition 227, called “English for the Children,” was leading widely in opinion polls conducted prior to Tuesday’s statewide primary election, including among Hispanics, whose children are the single biggest ethnic group receiving bilingual instruction.
In a race that set a national record for campaign spending, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis was ahead of his two self-funded Democratic opponents for the party’s nomination for governor.
Businessman Al Checchi spent an estimated $40 million of his own money in his bid for the state’s top office, and Rep. Jane Harman, wife of a millionaire electronics company executive, spent between $10 million and $20 million.
State Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren faced no serious opposition for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Contributing to the record spending was the fact that this year’s election was the first “blanket” primary in California, in which voters were not restricted by party affiliation and were able to choose any candidate from any party in any race.
Parents and educators around the country were watching the outcome of the vote on bilingual education. The proposition would eliminate bilingual education, requiring that children who can’t speak English be put in “immersion” programs taught overwhelmingly in English for no more than one year.
Supporters of the proposition said bilingual instruction had failed to help students make a transition to English. If given the chance, students can learn English quickly, they argued.
While conceding that bilingual education has not met many of its aims, opponents of the proposition said the remedy offered by the initiative would jeopardize the education of students who cannot communicate in English. Opponents of the bilingual measure spent an estimated $4 million on their campaign.
The initiative was proposed and largely funded by yet another millionaire, computer executive and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz. He spent about $1.3 million.
In another initiative, voters were asked to decide whether to require unions to get written permission from members before spending any portion of dues for political purposes.
Fearing that the measure would weaken their political power, national unions spent more than $20 million in the campaign against Proposition 226, making it one of the costliest initiative battles in California history. In states where similar legislation has been adopted, union members’ political contributions fell sharply.
Proponents, including a conservative Washington-based organization called Americans for Tax Reform, spent about $3 million on the measure. Early polls showed that voters endorsed the measure by a wide margin, but in the face of the unions’ television ads, support for the initiative waned substantially, and the newest polls indicated voters were almost evenly divided.
Somewhat overshadowed by the gubernatorial race and the high-profile initiatives was the race for one of the state’s two Senate seats.
Incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer had no meaningful opposition for renomination. In a close Republican race, career politician and present state Treasurer Matt Fong was running neck and neck against yet another millionaire, car-alarm manufacturer Darrell Issa, who spent an estimated $10 million of his private fortune on the campaign.
With so many wealthy candidates, there was little wonder that money dominated the 1998 primary election season in California. Special-interest money poured into the two high profile ballot initiatives as well.
The $40 million spent by Checchi, the former co-chairman of Northwest Airlines, was more than any candidate for statewide or national office from California has spent on an entire campaign, including the primary and general elections.