Twenty-Five Years After Proposition 187, The Effects Are Still Felt—And Debated

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The first week of November is a reminder that next year’s presidential vote is (mercifully) now less than a year away. And in California: the 25th anniversary of one of the Golden State’s more seminal elections.

1994 was the year that I moved to California—Sacramento, to be precise, to serve in the administration of Gov. Pete Wilson, who was up for reelection later that year.

In the grander scheme of things, my arrival was small potatoes.

Seventeen days into the new year, California experienced its most recent major earthquake in a large metropolitan area—the magnitude-6.7 Northridge earthquake, which devastated parts of Los Angeles.

Twenty-five days before the year’s end, California’s Orange County filed for protection in federal bankruptcy court. Not until the year 2017 would “the OC” pay its final bill for overleveraging the county in high-risk investments that spectacularly backfired.

And in between those two upheavals (other than the televised spectacle of a white Bronco going for a joyride on the 405): a November election whose effects are still discussed today in California political circles.

The first aftershock of California’s 1994 election was a Republican political ruling class . . . that never was.

Wilson was elected to a second four-year term as governor, besting State Treasurer Kathleen Brown (Jerry’s sister) by 14.5%. Though term limits made this Wilson’s last campaign, California’s GOP was set up for elections to come. That’s because Republican candidates prevailed in the contests for state attorney general, state insurance commissioner, state treasurer and secretary of state—four of the seven nongubernatorial state constitutional offices and, theoretically, ample political talent to keep the Republican pantry stocked for elections to come.

What happened to that glut of office holders?

Dan Lungren, California’s attorney general, lost the 1998 governor’s race to Gray Davis (five years later, Davis was recalled by voters in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger). Also in 1998, Matt Fong, the Republican state treasurer, failed to unseat US senator Barbara Boxer.

In 2000, Chuck Quackenbush resigned from his post as California’s insurance commissioner amidst a political corruption scandal.

In 2002, a term-limited Bill Jones could not seek re-election as California’s secretary of state. Instead, he ran for governor, only to finish a distant third in June’s Republican gubernatorial primary—the end of his political career.

The net result: California Republicans held five of eight state constitutional offices in the aftermath of the 1994 election.

After the votes were counted in November 2002, they held none.

So much for a stocked pantry.

The other 1994 aftershock in California: Proposition 187, which sought to deny public services for undocumented immigrants residing in the Golden State.

That 25th anniversary has prompted Democratic clucking in Sacramento, with Democratic lawmakers taunting Wilson for his support of a ballot initiative that, they claim, awoke a “sleeping giant” in California politics (in this Hoover Institution Area 45 podcast, my colleague, University of Texas–Austin political scientist David Leal, bristles at the notion of the “sleeping giant” metaphor).

As such, it seems the right moment to set the record straight about some misperceptions with regard to Proposition 187 and Wilson’s intentions. (Full disclosure: I served as Wilson’s chief speechwriter and director of public affairs in his second term as governor.)

First, there’s the notion that Pete Wilson glommed on to Prop 187 to revive his flagging fortunes. Indeed, at one point in the 1994 race, Wilson trailed Kathleen Brown by over 30 points.

Wilson endorsed Proposition 187 in September of the election year—by that point, he’d moved ahead of his challenger in most statewide polls. He didn’t need to draft along in the initiative’s wake (indeed, some Wilson advisors suggested that he not weigh in on Proposition 187).

What then was the governor’s motivation for supporting the ballot measure?

Wilson anticipated that Proposition 187’s passage would prompt a legal challenge (which it did) and ultimately force the Supreme Court to revisit 1982’s Plyler v. Doe ruling. That decision enabled children of undocumented immigrants to attend public schools.

Moreover, Wilson’s support of Proposition 187 came after a year of travel to Washington, DC, and hopes that Congress would reimburse California for state costs pertaining to illegal immigration. As immigration was mostly seen at the time as a border-state issue, his pleas generally fell on deaf ears. Wilson once told me that he was advised by the late senator Robert Byrd: “It’s not a West Virginia problem.”

However, the Supreme Court ruling on Proposition 187 never came to be. Gray Davis, Wilson’s successor, reached an agreement with civil rights groups to end legal proceedings (a federal judge placed a restraining order against Proposition 187’s implementation, then ruled it to be unconstitutional). Come 1995, a newly Republican Congress opted against a legislative equivalent of Proposition 187—just as, after the November 1996 election, it wouldn’t wade into racial quotas in the aftermath of California’s Proposition 209.

As for the second concept, that of Proposition 187 as the cause of the Republican demise in California, there’s more to the story than the “sleeping giant” narrative.

In the 1998 gubernatorial election, Lungren received only 17% of the Latino vote, compared to 25% for Wilson in 1994. That 8% swing alone doesn’t account for Wilson’s 14.5% win in 1994 becoming a 20% loss by Lungren four years later.

The bigger culprit—one that haunts Republicans to this day in California and other non-red states: a disconnect with women voters.

According to 1994 exits polls by the Field Institute (a poll that has since been absorbed by Cal-Berkeley’s Institute of Government Studies), Wilson carried the women’s vote by a 7% margin in 1994—in part by emphasizing his pro-choice stance on abortion.

Lungren, who began his campaign by highlighting his pro-life stance (20 years ago, California was one of just 15 US states providing public funding for abortion in most cases), lost the women’s vote by 25%. That translates to about one million women changing their vote.

In California’s 2006 gubernatorial race, exit polls gave Schwarzenegger only 39% of the Latino vote—more than double Lungren’s performance in 1998. (By the way, Arnold admitted in the 2003 recall election that he voted for Proposition 187.) However, Schwarzenegger won 55.9% of the statewide vote. How’d he do it? By carrying margins of 14% in the women’s vote and 21% in the male vote—a seven-point gender “gap” the likes of which is no longer seen in national elections.

In this regard, California’s gubernatorial votes over the past quarter century offer a lesson for national Republicans: lose women in vast numbers, and start preparing to lose national elections. And if indeed President Trump is shown the door a year from now, one of the root causes won’t be a Hispanic disconnect (despite the doom-and-gloom prophecies, Trump’s Hispanic support in 2016 equaled that of Mitt Romney four years earlier).

Rather, Trump’s fatal flaw could be a gender disconnect worse than the one he experienced in 2016—thus we see the Trump campaign’s concerted efforts to target “hidden” women voters. Indeed, the thrashing suffered by Republican House candidates in 2018 was the gender-fueled backlash on full display.

That’s not the story in California, where Democrats want to tell the story of a ballot measure that changed California’s politics and supposedly awoke giants.

Even if it’s not the full story.