In November of 1996, I was a political writer for La Opinión in Los Angeles and was assigned to cover a press conference by then Governor Pete Wilson on the day after Republicans lost the majority in the state assembly for the last time.
It was the beginning of a major decline of the party in the very state that had produced Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
At that press conference, Wilson unleashed his anger against Spanish-language media and our coverage of Proposition 187—a mean, anti-immigrant initiative that Wilson had ridden to his 1994 reelection.
That ballot initiative would have thrown undocumented kids out of school and hospitals and turned all state officials into de facto immigration agents, had it not been stopped by the courts.
The paper I represented was the focus of that anger by Wilson, who felt wronged by our coverage of his proposition and leadership as anti-immigrant and racist.
“It’s no surprise to me that there are many Hispanics and others who have been deceived and led into the false belief that Republicans, or I, in particular, have a bias against them,” said Wilson with barely contained anger.
I had just asked him if his use of the anti-immigrant proposition was to blame for this loss by his party.
According to Wilson, media such as the one I worked for was the one that “misled” the voters into thinking that he was anti-immigrant. He was not and never had been such a thing, he said, pointing his finger at me.
It wasn’t that people were thrown off by the fact that he wanted to make every state official into immigration agents, or that he repeatedly said that California should educate “our kids” and not “the illegal aliens”.
It wasn’t that he ran a television ad where he reduced the decades of Mexican migration to a group of migrants running through the San Ysidro Port of Entry, while an ominous voice said: “They keep coming, two million illegal immigrants in California… and requires us to pay millions to take care of them.”
In November of 1994, exactly 25 years ago this month, Pete Wilson’s Proposition 187 had won with 59% of the California vote, but lost among Latinos 3 to 1.
Federal courts stopped it from taking effect, thanks to lawsuits by public interest lawyers, among them the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
But many Latinos were mad as hell and that day, two years after his reelection, Wilson lost his Republican majority in the lower house and he became the man who destroyed the Republican Party in California.
Antonia Hernández, President of MALDEF in those days, remembered in a recent interview that she gave a speech where she thanked Wilson.
“I said, thank you, Pete Wilson, because you scared the shit out of my community, something that I had not been able to do for 30 years”, said Hernández. “You united us. ww were all painted by the same brush and we’re all going to suffer the consequence of a negative stereotype. ¡Muchas gracias, Pedro!”
It didn’t stop there. Although 187 went to inspire a new and very restrictive federal immigration law in 1996 (and several state and local replicas that emerged over the next several years), California was never the same after that campaign.
Fernando Guerra, professor of Political Science and Chicana/Chicano studies at Loyola Marymount University, uses the example of his mom, who died barely a year ago and still would talk about Wilson as a devil.
“You wanted to get my mom riled up? All you had to do was mention Pete Wilson,” he said. “And before 187, she was the most non-political, non-participatory person, and it completely changed her whole attitude about politics.”
“That happened one hundred thousand times or more throughout the state,” Guerra added.
And it wasn’t simply the demographic change coming home to roost that changed California.
The growth of the Latino vote in California after the proposition —which kicked Republicans from any majority in the legislature and most of the constitutional offices of the state as well— was driven entirely by foreign-born Hispanics.
From 1998 to 2002, the foreign-born Latino vote grew by 22.1% while the native-born Latino vote dropped by 5 percent. These new voters broke heavily for the Democratic Party.
Fast forward 25 years, when political scientists can look back and track the exact moment when the number of partisan elected officials in California started becoming more Democratic and less Republican.
Twenty years after 187 passed —and was almost immediately stopped by the courts as unconstitutional— President Pro Tem of the California State Senate Kevin de León sponsored and passed a law that would bury the measure forever, striking it from the California books.
In 1994, de León was a teacher of English as a Second Language and helped organize a series of marches against 187. The largest one on October 16 shocked even its organizers, when more than 70,000, mostly immigrant families, marched from East L.A. to downtown.
“People came out that couldn’t express their anger at the ballot box,” de León said. “The march became a symbolic ballot box. It was about dignity.”
After that march, Wilson campaign spokesman Dan Schnur said that “those who are demonstrating represent a relatively small minority of Californians.”
De León now chuckles at that quote, while reading an old newspaper clip.
“One of them became the speaker of the assembly [Fabian Nuñez, another march organizer], the other Senate President Pro Tem of California”, he says.
For De León and many others, 187 was their political awakening: “the issue of a generation,” he said.
And from a young organizer, de León became the official that killed 187 for good, and the sponsor of the California Sanctuary Law, passed in 2017.
Wilson to Trump
“America is having its own 187 moment,” said Manuel Pastor, Director of the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII).
It’s not like Republicans had not noticed this. When they were crushed in the 2012 reelection of Barack Obama, the Republican National Committee examined itself in a bold post-mortem. On immigration, the report said this:
“We are not a policy committee, but among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
The Donald Trump phenomenon took the party to victory in 2016 with the rawest possible anti-immigrant, xenophobic, nationalist and resentful platform in modern political history. Back in 1994, the GOP in California didn’t hear the warnings by Republicans like William Bennett and Jack Kemp, two former Cabinet members of the Reagan and Bush Sr. administration.
Bennet and Kemp warned about turning the GOP into the 187 party.
“It will corrode the soul of the party,” they said. It would poison democracy.
Today’s GOP didn’t heed the warning either.
For more about the history of Prop 187, check out “The Battle of 187” podcast.