It might be a symbolic gesture at this point, but in the immigration debate symbolism matters. California’s notoriously anti-immigrant Proposition 187—the ballot initiative that spawned a movement and inspired untold numbers of leaders to enter organizing and politics—has been removed from California state law.
It was already unenforceable thanks to the courts, but now that ugly, hateful language will be physically removed from the state law books.
In a piece in Huffington Post last year, California political consultant William Bradley dissects how Republican attempts to wedge immigrants against the broader electorate back then sparked a sustained backlash that benefitted Democrats.
But the critical fact here is that in 1994, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown ignored advice from the play-it-safe political consultants and staked out a firm anti-187 position. Bradley writes:
Kathleen Brown’s decision to go against most of the advice she was getting and make the contrast on immigration between Democrats and Republicans exceedingly sharp was crucial to this. The message was very clear: Democrats stood in solidarity with the Latino community, even in the face of potential defeat. Republicans stood in opposition, a stance which continues in large measure to this day.
Kathleen Brown is the sister of now-Governor Jerry Brown (D), who signed the bill deleting 187 from the books yesterday. Back in 1994, Jerry Brown reportedly encouraged his sister to take a strong stand against the ballot initiative. Since then, politics in California have changed dramatically. According to Latino Decisions:
Prop 187 and the Pete Wilson years had two effects that shifted the state dramatically to the Democrats. First, the number of Latino voters grew quickly in response to perceived attacks on the Latino community. In comparison to other states that did not experience the same anti-immigrant environment such as Texas or New York, the research clearly demonstrates that Latino voter registration in California increased must faster than anticipated by population growth alone. Second, during the mid-1990s extensive research documents a increase in Latino votes for the Democratic party in California that was sustained throughout the 2000s. Not only did more Latinos start voting, they started voting heavily against the Republican Party.
Prop 187 was the grandfather of Arizona’s SB 1070. Governor Pete Wilson’s (R) notorious campaign ad, “They Keep Coming” in 1994 was updated by US Senate candidate Sharron Angle (R) in 2010. The difference between then and now? Wilson won, and Angle lost. The authors and backers of Arizona’s SB 1070 are mired in scandal and disgrace. Pete Wilson came back in 2010 to advise gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman (R) in her race against Jerry Brown, and Brown won decisively. Anti-immigrant extremists still drive the agenda in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, but this will come back to haunt the Party in 2016.
Demographics have changed politics, and things you could “get away with” in 1994 no longer fly today. Bradley, the California consultant, writes: “In the end, Prop 187 had two major effects. It helped Pete Wilson win re-election as governor. And, because of Kathleen Brown’s decision, it created the context for the growing Latino vote to become perhaps the single most important component of the emerging Democratic electoral coalition.” In 1994, Democrats offered a sharp contrast to the bigotry that Republicans were spewing. It’s time for 2014 Democrats to learn the whole lesson from back then.