Republicans have been wringing their hands since last November’s election, worried their party lacks leaders for the future and a credible strategy for winning votes in California’s increasingly important Hispanic community.
But Ron Unz isn’t fretting.
The 37-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur, the financial muscle behind last year’s move to end bilingual education in California, thinks he knows how his fellow Republicans can escape the political wilderness they’ve wandered into. And if you nudge him a little, Unz will admit he wouldn’t mind leading the way.
Recent accounts in The Orange County Register and elsewhere suggest that English immersion is working. Many teachers and parents who opposed Proposition 227 have changed their minds about the measure, saying children are learning English far faster than they expected.
“These reports are extremely heartening,” Unz said in an interview from his Palo Alto home. “This shows that Latino children can learn English pretty much like all the other immigrant children in California who haven’t had bilingual education. That certainly seems plausible.”
Unz was unfairly cast as anti-immigrant by opponents of Proposition 227 last year. He is a second-generation American who has written extensively on the value of immigration. He has long encouraged GOP leaders to embrace newcomers as the lifeblood of a dynamic, pro-business party.
In 1994, Unz opposed Proposition 187, which sought to limit public services to illegal immigrants. That same year he ran a Republican primary campaign against former Gov. Pete Wilson, whose message blaming immigration for the state’s fiscal woes was then at its peak. Unz spent more than $1 million of his own money against Wilson and embarrassed Wilson by winning 34 percent of the vote.
By seeking to end bilingual education, Unz was not scapegoating Hispanics. It was just the opposite. He argued that bilingual education was a well-intended failure that was keeping immigrants, and the children of immigrants, from reaching their full potential in an English-speaking society.
Many Republican leaders, unsure of their own convictions, distanced themselves from Unz and his initiative. Now, as the first results trickle in, they may want to take another look at his ideas and tactics. And he might make another run for high office.
“I’ll see what happens,” Unz said, “I’ve run for office before, and the idea of running in the future is certainly something I’d consider.”
Many Hispanic activists and academics scoff at the notion of Unz as a viable statewide candidate. No matter what his motives, they say, Unz was forever tarred as anti-Hispanic by the campaign over 227.
“One of the key things about politics is you don’t want the opposition to define you,” said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University. “Ron Unz let the opposition define him as anti-Latino. That will be difficult to overcome.”
Even if Proposition 227 turns out to be good for Hispanic children? Even if Unz was right?
“He might have been right for all the wrong reasons,” Guerra said. “He might have gotten us to improve in all the wrong ways—with a blunt instrument instead of the precision of a thoughtful surgeon.”
Guerra may be right. In an age when politics is more about perception than ever before, it is possible that the image of Ron Unz as a bigot might be more powerful than his record and his results. Just last month, after all, several Hispanic groups blasted Democratic Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa for appointing Unz to a task force on local government finance as if he were some sort of war criminal.
But even if Unz falls short as a candidate, Republicans could do worse than seize on the same opportunity-based message that drove his ballot measure. By following the path Unz has blazed, the GOP would stop patronizing Hispanic voters by treating them as a monolithic group and start seeing them for what they are— independent-thinking individuals.