Speaking in Tongues

Divining Why California Latinos Voted as They Did on Proposition 227

LOS ANGELES—Just weeks before California’s June 2 primary election, polls suggested that Proposition 227, a citizen initiative to virtually end bilingual education in the state, would be approved with the support of 62 percent of the state’s Latino voters. If the predictions held up, the election would be heralded as a political and cultural watershed, the disavowal of a policy that had been portrayed for a generation as the Latino equivalent of what busing had once been to blacks.

When the votes were counted, the “English for the Children” initiative had indeed been approved, but without significant Latino backing — they had voted against it nearly 2 to 1. What accounted for the rapid and dramatic evaporation of Latino support? The story of Proposition 227’s fall from grace among Latinos has as much to do with the legacy of wedge-issue politics in California as it does with the power of money and advertising to influence voters.

Unheeded Warnings

In the spring of 1997, conservative columnist Linda Chavez counseled California software entrepreneur Ron Unz, a self-described Reagan Republican/libertarian conservative, against going forward with his plan to place an anti-bilingual-education initiative on the ballot in 1998. Chavez, an ardent foe of bilingual education, argued that by introducing such a measure on the heels of Propositions 187 and 209 — the anti-illegal-immigrant measure passed in 1994 and the anti-affirmative-action measure approved in 1996 — Unz risked worsening California’s racially charged political climate. Presumably, she understood that it was unhealthy for the largest state in the union to continually have elections in which its two largest ethnic blocs — Anglos and Latinos — were at odds.

Influential Latino Californians also cautioned Unz, a 36-year-old millionaire who had impertinently challenged incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson, a champion of Propositions 187 and 209, in the 1994 Republican primary. But Unz assured all doubters that Latino parents, especially those who were recent newcomers to the United States, would be his most ardent supporters. He pointed to a 1996 protest at Ninth Street Elementary School near downtown Los Angeles as evidence of Widespread discontent with bilingual education. Indeed, he said the protest, in which Latino parents briefly boycotted the school after administrators rebuffed their requests for additional English-language instruction, was the catalyst for his measure. Unz insisted that any official, Latino or otherwise, who championed his initiative would curry tremendous favor among the state’s burgeoning Latino electorate.

Nonetheless, Unz had difficulty garnering support for his initiative from either major party. Republicans, who were punished by Latino voters in 1996 for their strong support of Proposition 187, feared opening themselves to yet more anti-Latino charges. And Democrats certainly weren’t going to rally against a program identified as a major Latino civil rights cause.

On the other hand, Democrats weren’t exactly rushing to defend bilingual education, a program whose value many privately questioned. It had lost much of its luster over the years, even among Latino Democrats. According to one survey conducted months before the initiative qualified for the ballot, the issue didn’t even rank among the top five concerns of the members of Los Angeles’ Latino political establishment.

By mid-August 1997, it was becoming clear that Proposition 227 would not carry the same poisonous racial overtones that Propositions 187 and 209 had. Less clear, though, was whether the vote itself would be polarized along ethnic lines.

The Political Line-Up

In early October 1997, the first Los Angeles Times poll on the fledgling initiative showed that support for its actually was stronger among Latinos than among whites. At that point, 84 percent of Latino voters said they backed the measure. Such findings prompted the state’s Latino lawmakers, most of whom opposed Proposition 227, to rethink their defensive strategy. Not long ago, they would have harangued against any proposal to tamper with bilingual education, much less ditch it. But in a reflection of both its maturity and its growing power, the state Assembly’s Latino Caucus chose to fight back this time by advocating bilingual education reform.

Unfortunately, the Democratic-controlled Assembly didn’t get around to approving its reform bill until five weeks before the election, far too late to be of much influence. The White House then entered the fray by urging a “no” vote on Proposition 227 while endorsing the concept of reform. That in turn provoked Governor Wilson to veto the reform bill and come out in favor of the ballot initiative, an unwelcome endorsement in Unz’s eyes.

Before the Clinton administration’s repudiation of Proposition 227, California candidates on the primary ballot had largely kept out of the initiative debate. For much of the campaign, all three Democratic gubernatorial candidates opposed the measure while agreeing that the state’s bilingual education program needed repair. In May, Attorney General Dan Lungren, the Republican candidate for governor, essentially embraced the Democratic candidates’ position. Apart from Wilson, Richard Riordan, Los Angeles’ Republican mayor, was the only prominent state politician to endorse the measure.

In its poll coverage, the Times warned that Latino support for the initiative might erode. After all, a majority of Latino voters had initially favored Proposition 187. Sure enough, on Election Day Latinos voted against the measure by 63 percent to 37 percent — a drop in support of nearly 50 percentage points in eight months. What happened?

“He’s a Decent Guy”

Throughout the campaign, Unz maintained that if a substantial portion of the Latino electorate failed to support the initiative, its victory would be morally hollow. He framed the measure as a civil rights cause undertaken on behalf of Latino immigrants and their children, and he chose a Latino bilingual education teacher as his campaign co-chair. He disavowed the endorsement of Governor Wilson, whose wedge politics played to white Californians’ worst fears about Latinos and immigrants.

Unz’s past pro-immigrant credentials earned him the goodwill of key members of the Latino political establishment. Many who spoke to him became convinced that his intentions were honorable, though they remained suspicious of his goal. Even Antonio Villaraigosa, the Latino speaker of the state Assembly and the husband of a bilingual education teacher, defended Unz against charges of racism. “He’s a decent guy,” Villaraigosa said during a debate on the measure, “although we have different views of the world.”

Still, Unz never made good on his promises to fully “Latinize” the campaign. The steady stream of rosy opinion polls caused Unz to become complacent about, if not a little bored with, his quest. He never took his case directly to Latino voters — in particular, to immigrant parents with children in bilingual education classes — and failed to convince them of the righteousness of his cause. Good intentions were not enough to keep Latino voters, whether they supported bilingual education or not, from feeling wary about an Anglo-sponsored ballot initiative that disproportionately affected Latino children.

Money and the Media

In late April, a Republican friend of Riordan’s and Wilson’s entered the initiative fight, drastically altering its course in a way his pals wouldn’t like. A. Jerrold Parenchio, the billionaire chairman and chief executive officer of Univision, the nation’s largest Spanish-language television network, gave $ 1.5 million to the campaign against Proposition 227 — quite possibly the largest single individual contribution to any political campaign in California history. This prompted the California Teachers Association to make a separate $ 650,000 donation. Combined with other money on hand, the opposition campaign, which had consistently trailed in the polls, instantly purchased $ 2.7 million worth of television ads statewide on both English- and Spanish-language stations. One of the two masterfully produced ads featured an adolescent girl arguing that the state should not take away parents’ right to choose what’s best for their children’s education. The other showed all four gubernatorial candidates vowing to vote no on Proposition 227.

Univision stations also ran an average of four editorials a day against Proposition 227. Even before it began running the editorials, Univision’s news coverage of the proposition was strikingly biased against it.

It is still unclear why the 94th richest man in America chose to invest so much money in the campaign. Unz believes that Univision’s opposition to Proposition 227 was merely a raw demonstration of corporate self-interest. Univision declined to comment directly on Parenchio’s donation. A company vice president did say, however, that the network’s unusually vehement editorial stance stemmed from its obligation as “one of the most trusted institutions in the Latino community.” But when Proposition 187 was on the ballot four years ago, Parenchio evidently felt no such need to fulfill a greater duty to California Latinos. From 1994 to 1996, the Italian-American businessman gave $ 331,000 to Wilson, who rode to victory in 1994 on the backs of Latinos.

Meantime, Unz claims to have spent little more than $ 200,000 on both radio and television ads. Sensing the growing imbalance in the ad wars, Riordan donated $ 250,000 to the Yes on 227 campaign in late May. The personal contribution paid for nearly 300 airings of a Spanish-language ad directed at Latino immigrant parents. “I felt that there was too much misinformation out there,” Riordan said. “I wanted to say to Latino parents that they can vote strictly on what’s best for children.” But Riordan’s ads, in which he appeared alongside his Spanish-speaking daughter, couldn’t compete with all the ads Parenchio and the teachers union had bought.

The last Los Angeles Times poll was conducted just as the final onslaught of political television ads began to hit. By the third week of May, 62 percent of Latinos still supported Proposition 227, as did 64 percent of whites.

As the campaign neared the end, wealthy Democratic gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi injected a bit of fire and brimstone into the Proposition 227 debate. Although he had inaugurated his gubernatorial bid as a centrist, Checchi ended it on a revolutionary note. In a televised debate the Sunday before the election, he dramatically predicted mass civil disobedience if the initiative was approved.

Warning Signs

Still, going into Election Day few would have predicted that Latinos would vote against the measure by a significant margin. The truth is there was never a groundswell of immigrant discontent with bilingual education. The pre-election polls always reflected the opinion of Latino likely voters, 70 percent of whom are U.S.-born and by definition don’t have children in bilingual programs. What the polls did reflect, however, was a willingness on the part of native-born voters to consider moving beyond civil rights iconography. Indeed, the average Latino voter was probably more thoughtful about the implications of the initiative than the average white voter.

Pre-election surveys indicated that a majority of whites who planned to vote “yes” on Proposition 227 would do so principally not because they opposed bilingual education per se, but because of their belief in the primacy of the English language in American culture. And despite heavy advertising against the measure, whites approved it by a wider margin than polls had suggested. Latino voters, on the other hand, were forced to sift through the ethnic and cultural undertones of California’s political climate before they reached a final decision on the measure. Having wound up on the losing side of racially charged ballot initiatives twice this decade, they were understandably wary of Anglo politicians promoting policies that disproportionately affect non-whites.

Contrary to Unz’s confident predictions that immigrants would overwhelmingly support his initiative, foreign-born Latino voters appear to have been much less open to the measure than were native-born Latinos. In Huntington Park, the U.S. city with the heaviest population of Mexican immigrants, voters rejected the measure by 71 percent to 28 percent, almost matching the 3 to 1 margin by which Latinos rejected Proposition 187 four years ago.

California Latinos’ rejection of Proposition 227 was a warning sign for the state. While California political leaders have shown unprecedented restraint of late on racial issues, the wounds of the campaign over Proposition 187 have not healed. The divisive rhetoric of the last two elections may have been absent from California’s current campaign, but its emotional residue lives on.

Gregory Rodriguez is an associate editor at Pacific News Service and a research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy.

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