Immigrants and the Recall

Who would have thought that a recall campaign built around the energy and budget crises might end up being decided by attitudes toward immigrants? Yet that may be what happens on Election Day. The controversy over a new law granting driver’s licenses to undocumented residents may reframe the election around the under-the-surface issue of 1990s California: How do we feel about how immigration has changed California? How might the injection of this issue affect Jewish voting in the recall election? Perhaps the last time immigration dominated a statewide election might be a place to look for answers.

The immigration issue burst into state politics in 1994 when unpopular Republican Gov. Pete Wilson used Proposition 187, a measure to deny public services to undocumented residents, to save his reelection. In a famous commercial, shadowy pictures of immigrants apparently crossing the border, with the caption: "They keep coming." Proposition 187 passed 2-1, and Wilson survived.

What saved Wilson devastated Republicans statewide; Latinos came to view Proposition 187 as an assault on their own community. A million new Latino voters joined the California electorate in the 1990s, and Pete Wilson remains an unwelcome name in Latino households. Wilson delivered California to the Democrats, as Latino participation powered Democrats to statewide victories and a sweep of all state offices in 2002.

Proposition 187 created new coalition patterns in California. Previously, conflict over the role of African Americans had structured much of party politics. But with Proposition 187, the role of Latino immigrants emerged as a new and critical cleavage. The strongest opposition to 187 came from Latinos who voted against it 77-23 percent. African Americans, pressured by demographic changes in their own neighborhoods, were ambivalent, but only 47 percent favored the proposition. Not surprisingly, the strongest support for Proposition 187 came from whites (especially men), conservatives and Republicans, all of whom provided huge margins in favor. According to a Los Angeles Times exit poll, 78 percent of Republicans and conservatives and 63 percent of all whites backed it.

Jews were quite different from other whites, and only 45 percent voted for Proposition 187. Most Jewish organizations spoke out against it. The fact, however, that a minority of African Americans and Jews were to some degree drawn to the reaction against immigration showed how sensitive and volatile the issue was in those days. Yet for neither group did Proposition 187 become the wedge to remove them from the Democratic Party loyalty they have shown since.

The recall election is already polarizing white voters, particularly Republicans on one side, and minority voters, mostly Democrats, on the other. Independent candidates are becoming irrelevant, and the partisan, ideological, racial and ethnic lines are emerging with full clarity. The driver’s license issue will keep driving those wedges into the electorate, particularly as Arnold Schwarzenegger tries to strengthen his shaky hold on Republican conservatives and Cruz Bustamante seeks to maximize his support from Latinos. Each has something to gain. Schwarzenegger, having avoided debates and specifics on important matters of state policy, can take a visible position on an issue without alienating conservatives. Bustamante can try to reach the minority of Latino voters who currently say they may vote for Schwarzenegger.

If the battle is close, white Democrats (and especially Jews) might hold the balance of power. Historically race and ethnicity have proven to be the most reliable ways to move white voters from the Democratic to the Republican column. Democratic candidates have to struggle to win enough white votes to overcome this effect, and Jewish support has therefore been crucial to Democratic candidates. Jews have been more resistant than other whites to these race-based appeals, but have on occasion leaned rightward.

Jews are likely to vote in their usual disproportionate numbers, and in this intensely fought election a high-turnout voting group is exceptionally important. And, as usual, in racially tinged political battles, Jews will be somewhere between the minority and the white position. How far along either path Jewish voters travel on Election Day, may determine this historic election.

Driver’s licenses may be the path to a Republican takeover of the governor’s office. But that road has perils for Republicans as well. Nowadays, dreaming of California as it was before immigration seems out of place. Members of both parties in Congress are debating proposals to normalize the status of undocumented workers. In that context, driver’s licenses are hardly far away anyway. Republicans are desperate to win support from Latino voters as they worriedly examine census data showing the declining demographic power of their largely white voting base. But Republicans should also be concerned that appeals to their own conservative and in some cases nativist voters, perhaps nostalgic for a white-dominated California of years past, will not endear them to Jewish voters, either.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton.