Wilson's on Latino hot seat -- unlike potential foe Gov. George Bush

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Gov. George W. Bush opened a conference of U.S. and Mexican border governors last week by boasting that Texans had come to embrace bilingualism, with “more and more non-Hispanics” learning Spanish all the time.

“Yo soy un ejemplo,” he said — I am an example. A couple hundred dignitaries and guests from both countries set down their cocktail glasses and applauded approval.

Gov. Pete Wilson, meanwhile, came to the conference just weeks after California voters at his urging approved a virtual end to bilingual education.

Contending traditional bilingual programs have kept students dependent upon their primary language for far too long, he called bilingual education “one of the great misfired good intentions of our time.”

The contrast is only the most recent between the two Republicans on Latino issues as they head into a possible competition for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.

On subjects that have influenced both states’ relationships with Mexico, Bush is seen as a common-sense and moderate problem-solver, while Wilson is portrayed as not only a hard-line conservative, but also anti-immigrant and divisive.

“For Republicans in 2000,” said John Garcia, a political scientist at the University of Arizona, “the question is, ‘Do you do it the Bush way or the Wilson way?’ The contrast is how they frame the whole (immigration) issue. Wilson focuses on all the negative consequences that come from it, while Bush has taken almost an opposite view — not an open-door policy, but not tagging them as bad for the country.”

Wilson, who has long contended that his critics unfairly brand him as anti-immigrant and anti-Mexico, downplays the differences with Bush, asserting that both men are only doing what’s best for their respective states. And his trip to the border conference in Bush’s home state is a sign that Wilson is trying to patch up a long-strained relationship with Mexico.

“I think the relationship is getting better,” he said after the conference.

Bush agreed that the differences between him and Wilson merely reflect the differences between California and Texas.

“We’ve both been dealt different hands,” he said. “We’ve got a long border (in Texas). We’ve got just a different set of circumstances. … We’ve had people live on both sides of our borders for centuries.”

Garcia acknowledged historical differences between the two states. Latinos, for instance, have only recently penetrated top political offices in California, while they have been a longer-standing presence in Texas politics. That alone, he said, “mutes any tendency to take these issues and bash immigrants.”

Nonetheless, on issues involving Mexico or Latinos, the contrasts between Wilson and Bush are numerous.

Wilson based his 1994 re-election effort in part on the illegal immigration issue, sponsoring Proposition 187 in an effort to cut off all state services, including education, to illegal immigrants. While the measure remains hung up in court, he continues to come under attack for the nature of the 187 campaign, which critics said was divisive and anti-Latino.

In 1995, Wilson launched his presidential bid with an attack on affirmative action and later championed Proposition 209, which ended race- and gender-based preferences in public education and in state hiring and contracting. And in supporting the anti-bilingual education measure, Proposition 227, in the June election, he again waged a campaign his critics perceived as anti-Latino.

Bush, on the other hand, spoke out against all three measures, branding them as “divisive.” Educating children of illegal immigrants, which Proposition 187 sought to ban, “just never seemed to be an issue here,” he said Friday.

Wilson was clearly disappointed that the border conference agenda included very little on border security and nothing about cooperative agreements to stop the flood of drugs smuggled into the United States.

“My impression is, all the others would rather ignore it,” he said.

Wilson said he succeeded in persuading the Mexican border governors in private discussions to lobby their federal government to use drug-fighting techniques already in use in America, such as enacting and using laws to seize assets from drug traffickers and to scrutinize bank records to locate laundered drug money.

He passed up the chance, however, to make his point publicly. He left the conference for another governors’ meeting in Alaska before the public portion of the border meeting.

Wilson and Bush have clashed over whether the federal government should decertify Mexico as a cooperative ally in the drug war. Wilson, convinced that the Mexican government is not doing enough to stem the flow of drugs across the border, opposed certification. Bush, meanwhile, fought for certification of Mexico’s efforts, asserting that the United States needed to do a better job reducing demand for illegal drugs.

Bush enjoys a far better relationship with Mexican officials than Wilson can claim. He and Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo have met four times since Bush was elected governor in 1994. He has invited Mexican governors to official Texas functions and celebrated Cinco de Mayo with them. Wilson has never met with Zedillo. His last face-to-face discussions with a Mexican president came in 1992, when he met with then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. His last visit to Mexico was for the border conference in 1993.

His cool relations with Mexico have not been lost on gubernatorial candidates Gray Davis and Dan Lungren. Both have vowed to make more trade missions there and to work for better relations.

Bush said he saw signs at the conference that the freeze between Wilson and Mexico is beginning to thaw. “I was very impressed,” he said, “with how Governor Wilson had open dialogue with the (Mexican) governors. There seems to be a much better respect and better capacity to talk.”

Wilson acknowledged his relationship with Mexico soured during the Proposition 187 campaign, when Mexican officials spoke out against the measure and its chief sponsor. Wilson said he was “injured by what I think was frankly slander from Mexican officials … who were really part of the whole orchestrated campaign against it … including me as someone who was anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican. That is something I resent.”

Wilson said his differences with Bush have been misinterpreted largely because of the way Proposition 187 opponents portrayed him, but he acknowledged they exist. He noted that Texas relies on Mexican trade far more than California and has not suffered as much from illegal immigration.

“They haven’t experienced the kind of massive illegal immigration that California has or the costs,” Wilson said, “so they have not had cause to be nearly as impatient with Washington as we have.”

And he bristles at the notion that Texas is benefiting economically from Bush’s positions, while California is suffering from Wilson’s.

“It is true that Texas has a much bigger export position,” Wilson said. “But ours is very good. Ours has gotten dramatically better since NAFTA.”

Exports to Mexico amount to 37 percent of all Texas exports. California, in contrast, sends 11 percent of its exports to Mexico, although that number is up from 8 percent three years ago, said Jess Arredondo, assistant secretary for California’s Trade and Commerce Agency.

Wilson administration officials also point out that Texas is better positioned geographically to trade with Mexico and that, more and more, California’s natural trading partners are in Asia.

While both Bush and Wilson have hinted about a possible presidential run, neither has made a decision. Wilson has said he’s surveying his potential support, particularly among contributors. Bush is weighing a candidacy against familial obligations to his twin 16-year-old daughters.

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