As former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan gears up for his campaign to challenge Gov. Gray Davis, he faces some serious obstacles.

First, no incumbent California governor has been defeated for a second term in 60 years, and Davis — an experienced, somewhat ruthless campaigner with over $30 million in his war chest — is hardly among the most vulnerable. As memories of last winter’s energy crisis have faded, Davis’ approval numbers have climbed, though not as much as those of other politicians.

Also, although Riordan’s very moderate positions on hot-button social issues such as abortion, guns and gay rights may help to establish him as Davis’ most formidable challenger in socially liberal California, they simultaneously alienate much of the conservative base of his own party, leaving him vulnerable to a divisive, perhaps bloody Republican primary. Neither of Riordan’s Republican opponents is a conservative icon — venture capitalist William Simon, Jr. is something of a political blank slate while Secretary of State Bill Jones has himself long been seen as a moderate. But both are now actively repositioning themselves as conservatives to blunt Riordan’s overwhelming advantages in money, endorsements and political stature.

Riordan is therefore faced with a dilemma. If he follows the traditional route of running right in the primary, he may open himself to charges of opportunism, while providing Davis with powerful ammunition for the general election.

But if he emphasizes his liberal or moderate positions, he risks a primary defeat or very narrow win. Furthermore, although Riordan’s unscripted sincerity represents part of his general appeal, that very characteristic leaves him far less effective at opportunistic repositioning than a career politician such as Davis. Unlike most elected officials, Riordan tends to say what he truly believes, regardless of the hand wringing of his advisors.

But perhaps that’s the exact solution. During the 1998 campaign for Proposition 227, the initiative that dismantled bilingual education in California, Riordan ignored the unanimous verdict of his political advisors and endorsed the controversial measure. He then underscored that endorsement by contributing $250,000 of his own money to an independent advertising campaign on its behalf. He had previously intervened to support the immigrant Latino parents of Ninth Street Elementary, whose widely publicized boycott against bilingual education had originally sparked the initiative.

By supporting these efforts to require our public schools to immediately teach English to immigrant children, he was simply continuing his long record of support for educational reform and immigrant issues, positions that had helped win him a remarkable 62 percent of the overwhelmingly Democratic Latino vote during his reelection drive.

On this issue of “English in the schools,” Riordan stood virtually — and courageously — alone. Although many prominent Latino elected officials, teacher union leaders and educational experts had long privately questioned the disastrous results of Spanish-almost-only programs, almost none would risk the denunciations of bilingual activists by voicing such views in public.

In the end, such activist pressure led nearly every prominent political figure to oppose Proposition 227: President Bill Clinton; the chairman of the state Republican Party and the chairman of the state Democratic Party; all four candidates for governor, Democrat and Republican alike, who together starred in a powerful television commercial urging a No vote; and a host of others. But despite this array of opponents, and despite being outspent by some 25-to-1 in advertising, the Proposition 227 campaign triumphed in a huge 61 percent landslide.

The verdict of history has now proven that California’s voters — and Riordan — were right, and the timorous naysayers wrong. Within less than two years of the new Proposition 227 curriculum, the mean percentile test scores of over a million immigrant students rose by an average of 40 percent, and actually doubled in those districts that most completely eliminated their bilingual programs.

The founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators has admitted that he was wrong for 30 years, and become a leading advocate for English immersion. Local journalists have found that numerous other former bilingual teachers and administrators have quietly come to that same conclusion, while immigrant Latino parents are thrilled that their children are finally being taught English. The major national media — from the New York Times to the Washington Post to CBS News — have proclaimed the success of English immersion, and voters in Arizona, Massachusetts and Colorado have adopted or are likely to adopt similar measures.

California politicians have recognized this success and adjusted their positions themselves accordingly. During 1998, Gov. Gray Davis starred in television commercials opposing Proposition 227, but has since defended the measure against legislative proposals to weaken it and has appointed leading opponents of bilingual education to his state Board of Education. Although Board President Reed Hastings had also opposed the California measure, as a Boston native, he recently endorsed its Massachusetts clone and contributed $20,000 to that campaign.

But Dick Riordan was there first, when these others were not. Besides being enormously successful as educational policy, support for English immersion runs nearly 85 percent among Republicans, and even higher within the conservative base of the party. By some measures, the intensity of the issue is actually far greater than that of other supposedly hot-button social issues such as abortion or gun control, and might be enough to carry a Republican Party primary.

Davis can hardly attack Riordan for taking the same position as Davis’ own appointees to the Board of Education, and anyway “English” has nearly 3-to-1 support among the Democrats and independents who will decide the general election. Most important, Riordan truly believes in “English.” Nearly four years ago, Dick Riordan took a courageous stand on requiring our schools to teach English to immigrant children. Now that history has proven him right, he has only to continue emphasizing that stand and that issue, and he may well become California’s next governor.

About the Writer —————————

Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, led the 1998 English for the Children campaign for Proposition 227.

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