Two historical events anniversaries recognized the last few days both played a large role in neutering the California Republican Party. While many media outlets highlighted the political ramifications of Republican support for Proposition 187 twenty-five years ago, which was designed to limit benefits for many immigrants, the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago also cut into Republican strength in the Golden State.
In fact, despite being different events, a line can be drawn between the two and the hit the state GOP eventually felt.
Proposition 187 sparked a rising political power in the state—the growing Latino community who felt the attack of 187 and blamed the Republicans, while the reverse spin on the peace dividend because of the end of the Cold War—a reduction in big defense spending in the state—moved middle class defense workers, a strong Republican presence, out of California.
More directly and importantly, the end of the Cold War lead to temporarily undermining the California economy, which was boosted in the past by federal defense spending, while Proposition 187, in part, was a reaction to the weakened economy from voters five years later.
Given that Proposition 187 passed with around 60-percent of the vote, obviously, a great number of Democrats voted for it as well, which was a reflection of the economic distress at the time.
Minorities are frequently the targets in hard times and that can be said about California in the 1990s and the push against immigrants, particularly Latinos.
It is interesting to contemplate if the economy in the state had not turned sour if the effort behind Prop 187 would have been stillborn.
A hit to the economy, big holes in government budgets, and subsequent tax increases lead to the unpopularity of incumbent Governor Pete Wilson who found himself at one point 20-percentage points behind his Democratic opponent for governor, Kathleen Brown, in polls.
Wilson jumped on the Prop 187 bandwagon and embraced the argument that illegal immigration was devastating to the state’s bottom line at a time of economic uncertainty. As the gubernatorial candidate he was the head of his party.
The economic concerns sold voters to support Prop 187 while the bulk of Latino voters turned their backs on the GOP, which more visibly supported the measure.
Some Republicans warned about turning on immigrants, foreseeing the political dangers that lay ahead in that direction.
The best example was none other than Stu Spencer, Ronald Reagan’s chief consultant in his run for the White House. Spencer often warned GOP leaders to reach out to Latino voters not to push them away.
He wrote down his position on the matter in 1997, three years after Prop 187 was on the ballot. In a memo addressed to Republican leaders, Spencer wrote in support of San Mateo County Supervisor Ruben Barrales who was vying for the GOP nomination for state Treasurer. In the memo, Spencer wrote, “I believe my years of service to Presidents Ford and Reagan and the Republican Party will have come to nought if I sit idly by while our party commits political suicide and dooms itself to permanent minority status in California if we do not take advantage of the opportunity presented by this candidacy to reach out to California’s fastest growing group of voters. Nothing less than control of the Governorship, the Congress, and even the Presidency is ultimately at stake if we don’t broaden our party’s base.”
Spencer added: “We are dramatically losing market share of the fastest growing segment of the electorate. These are voters who should be with us on the issues of jobs, taxes, government regulation, education, public safety and the importance of family… Democrat consultants boast that we as Republicans are on the verge of driving away an entire generation of Latino voters.”
Spencer titled his memorandum: Wake-Up Call for the GOP. How prescient.
When Spencer’s attempt to rally support for Barrales did not bear fruit. Barrales jumped to the Controller’s race where he had the more difficult task of taking on an incumbent and lost. He went on to work in the George W. Bush White House and ran the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce before trying to pick up the pieces for Republicans in reaching out to the Latino community by taking on the role of President and CEO of GROW Elect, a political action committee he helped create that recruits, endorses, trains, and funds Latino Republican candidates for public office. These candidates emphasize the issues Spencer wrote about in his memo that appeal to Latino voters.
Two events that, combined, helped change the course of California’s political history.