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How Prop 187 Became the Pivot for the Immigration Issue and Future of Democratic Politics

07/18/2013 08:46 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2013

With the latest bid for immigration reform hanging in the House of Representatives, caught between the Republican pros' desire to appeal to Latino voters and the Republican base's stand against anything smacking of amnesty, it's worth taking a look at the turning point for the politics of immigration. That was California's Proposition 187 in 1994 and Kathleen Brown's decision to place the Democratic Party in sharp opposition to it.

Her campaign was not ending as it had begun.

Kathleen Brown was on her third campaign manager, and things weren't going well. She had begun as the toast of the East Coast-based national media, with a big lead in the polls over incumbent California Republican Governor Pete Wilson. But by the fall of 1994, the shrewd Wilson and his canny veteran team, taking advantage of mistakes and riding the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187, had reversed that big lead.

From the time the Wilson campaign began running devastatingly effective TV ads showing Mexicans dashing across the border into California as the announcer intoned, "They keep coming," Brown's lead over Wilson steadily diminished. Wilson kept the momentum ever after as he rode his championing of Prop 187 into a big lead.

By the fall, Brown, California's treasurer, the daughter of legendary Governor Pat Brown and sister of ever provocative Governor Jerry Brown, had a decision to make. How would she close out this campaign that began with such promise that future Governor Gray Davis, former chief of staff to Jerry Brown, gave up his powerful post as state controller to run for the usually thankless office of lieutenant governor, the better to be in position in the event she ended up on the national Democratic ticket?

She could play it safe, as was the overwhelming weight of advice she was getting from across the professional Democratic Party, campaigning on her usual issues. Or she could take a dramatic stand, focusing her candidacy against Prop 187.

I was a senior advisor to the Democratic Party and the Browns that year and was familiar with her thinking. Brown's inclination was to plant her flag against 187. But she was taking advice. And the great weight of the advice was very much in play-it-safe mode. Which is pretty much par for the course in the consulting/advising world.

Brown, however, imbued with a Catholic sense of social justice, wanted to make a difference in what otherwise by then looked to be an unsuccessful campaign. And she was offended by Prop 187's draconian measures, which included no public elementary or secondary school education for children here illegally and no health care.

The reality was, especially in those days when the Mexican economy was in poorer shape than it is today, that people came here illegally in order to work, frequently taking lower wage jobs unwanted by others that also had the effect of keeping business costs down. Denying the basics of education and health care when needed was not only inhuman, it was socially inefficient.

But many Democrats brandished dire warnings of what might happen if the campaign and party went heavily No on 187. Those arguments, of course, were rooted in a very short-range view. In the long-range view, there were political allegiances to be won.

Jerry Brown, whose advice generally fell on deaf ears then, was for her coming out hard against Prop 187 as the closing focus of her campaign, as was her more conservative husband, former CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter, and much of the Brown family. I was one of the few advisors pushing the No on 187 focus; most of the others, including her campaign manager, were very focused on the short term, with views conventional and risk-averse.

Kathleen Brown, to her immense credit, chose to pursue the path both of social justice and of long-range political strategy. There are far worse things in politics than losing, especially if defeat carries the seeds of future victory.

Actually, despite Prop 187's lead in the polls, a number of us -- perhaps overly optimistic -- felt the initiative could still be beaten.

But three weeks before the election, there was a big march in Los Angeles protesting Prop 187. Nearly 100,000 people turned out. Many enthusiastically waved the Mexican flag, which was, as you might suppose, very counter-productive for the task of winning Anglo votes.

Former but in 1994 then still future Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez was an angry protester in that march. Discussing it all years after the event, he had a very different view than he'd had then, when he was all about representing his values and feelings.

The polls had been narrowing, but that changed after the march. In the end, Prop 187 won by a huge margin, 59 percent to 41 percent. Brown went down in a landslide as well, 55 percent to 41 percent. Democrats even lost the state Assembly, though there were larger factors in play as part of the big national reaction against the first two years of President Bill Clinton's administration, especially the failure of Clinton's health care reform legislation.

Prop 187 proved, of course, to be a famous defeat whose sorrow and sting carried the seeds of many future victories to come.

In the end, the narrow loss of the state Assembly didn't really matter, because wily Speaker Willie Brown retained control of the Assembly through a variety of machinations. Democrats regained the majority in the 1996 elections and have held it ever since.

What did matter, very much, was that the long slumbering Latino vote had been awakened and aroused.

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.

But not all Republicans. Former Housing Secretary and Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp warned at the time that Republicans were not only doing the wrong thing but providing the Democrats with a huge opportunity.

And Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2002, while campaigning for his winning Prop 39 after-school programs initiative, told the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco: "I will never stand in the way of a child going to school." Which proved to be significant sooner than anyone guessed as he won a dramatic race for governor the following year in the special recall election.

It's no coincidence, with the other Republican candidates all continuing to bash illegal immigrants, that Schwarzenegger is the only Republican to win the California governorship since Prop 187.

Kathleen Brown's 1994 stand cemented the Democratic Party's position on the right side, from the standpoint of long-term politics, of Prop 187, over the objection of those Democrats who preferred a low-key sort of neutrality. A neutrality that would have left Democrats poorly positioned with the Latino community. Rather than perfectly positioned as they became as a result of Brown taking her campaign and the party to a hard and fast No on 187 position.

Of course, Democrats who opposed the hard No on 187 stand benefited tremendously from it as time went on. But life is filled with irony. And it's not as though those folks were motivated by ill will; they just erred on the side of caution.

Championing Prop 187 worked great in the short term for Pete Wilson's re-election. And great long term for Democrats.

And Prop 187 did much to set up the current impasse over immigration policy, which helps Democrats long term.

Prop 187 was the high water mark of efforts to go after illegal immigrants, though such efforts have continued in lower profile ways. But efforts to further those here illegally, while moving forward on several fronts, have also run up against limits.

We'll see what happens in the House of Representatives with the latest big legislative effort -- championed by 2008 presidential rivals Barack Obama and John McCain -- but my default view is always that the Republican right is able to stir up too much pressure from base voters to prevent anything which might smack of amnesty. If the deeper aspects of the impasse continue, Democratic strength will continue to grow. Of course, Democratic strength is likely to grow if the impasse does not continue.

Ironically, Governor Wilson himself was hoist by his own petard the year after his re-election. As he tried to mount a campaign for the presidency, it came out that he had long employed an illegal immigrant in his own home. Which would have been a useful thing to know as he ran for re-election in 1994 as the champion of Prop 187. While Wilson went on to have some success in his second term as governor, his presidential campaign never got off the launching pad.

As for Prop 187 itself, it fared poorly, with the courts finding its principal provisions to be simply too draconian.

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 retrospect, 1994 was not a good year for Kathleen Brown to run for governor. At least from the standpoint of her own career. She was the first-term state treasurer when she ran, her previous experience in elected office having come on the Los Angeles school board. Running for governor isn't easy to do, even if your dad and brother have been governor, and running against an incumbent governor, even one who is not popular, is a very dicey prospect. Waiting four more years, gaining more seasoning in the process, might have made all the difference from the standpoint of her own electoral career.

But it may have been for the best in terms of political history, at least from a Democratic standpoint. For another Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1994 may well have taken the more conventional approach on Prop 187, giving lip service to opposition while low-balling the issue. That simply would not have done in creating the defining contrast between Democrat and Republican for the Latino community.

Today Kathleen Brown is just retired from a second career in investment banking. She and Van are off now on a two-week trip exploring family roots and sibling bonding in Ireland and Germany with Jerry Brown and First Lady/Special Counsel Anne Gust Brown. One of Jerry and Kathleen's grandfathers emigrated from Germany during the California Gold Rush while another left Ireland during the great potato famine.

When Jerry Brown returned to the governorship after his landslide 2010 victory over billionaire Meg Whitman, Kathleen moved from her longtime home in Los Angeles to Chicago to ensure that there was no hint of any familial conflict of interest around the renewed Brown governorship. That's undoubtedly nothing she ever envisioned when she began running for governor in 1994.

But what Kathleen Brown ended up accomplishing in that campaign may well have been far more impactful than anything she imagined as she began in days that seemed so bright and full of promise for her own political career. Life can be funny that way.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.