We’re pleased to tell our faithful Calbuzzers that this piece, originally published Oct. 3, 2011, was just named the winner of the Blog Reporting category in the 18th Annual California Journalism Awards, sponsored by the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento and the Sacramento Press Club. After seeing and hearing Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and the rest of the Republican Party handle the issue of immigration, we think it’s as much on point for the national GOP as it is for the California party.
It’s been almost fifteen years since Stuart Spencer, one of the wisest and longest-serving Republican consultants on the planet, sent a memo to leaders of his party warning the GOP was in danger of committing “political suicide” and condemning itself to “permanent minority status in California” because of its relationship to Latinos.
In a Nov. 26, 1997 memo titled “Wake-up Call for GOP,” the most important adviser and manager in Ronald Reagan’s political ascendancy, pleaded eloquently for his party to support San Mateo County Supervisor Ruben Barrales for Treasurer. But the memo had a much broader mission, with Spencer warning, “We are dramatically losing market share of the fastest growing segment of the electorate . . . The stakes are too high for us to act like political ostriches and ignore the challenges we face.”
With the California Republican Party, under the leadership of Tom Del Beccaro now making an effort to reach out to Latinos, it would appear, at first glance, that party leaders finally are following Spencer’s advice.
“The dynamic today is that we have a single point of discussion in this country between Republicans and Latinos, which is immigration,” Del Beccaro said recently. “As important as that is, so are jobs, so is education and so are public safety. And the fact that we don’t have ongoing discussions with them on these other categories is our fault and what needs to change.”
All well and good. But appearances can be deceiving.
After Prop. 187 in 1994 (seeking to deny virtually all government benefits to illegal immigrants) and the GOP’s fervent opposition to any sort of pathway by which illegal immigrants can become legal residents, the time has passed when it will suffice to talk – as Spencer advised — about “jobs, taxes, government regulation, education, public safety and the importance of family.”
Now, until the California Republican Party alters its stance on that “single point of discussion” and offers something beyond round-‘em-up-and-ship-‘em home, Latino voters won’t even hear their message on everything else. For most Latino voters, immigration, and especially a pathway to citizenship, is a threshold issue.
“That is the measuring stick,” Spencer told Calbuzz the other day in a phone call from Palm Desert. “It’s immigration. They want to know what the rules are. The majority of Mexican-Americans want a solid immigration program that’s fair.”
We asked Spencer if it’s possible for the GOP even to be heard on other issues until it comes up with a plan to provide a path to citizenship for Latinos living and working here illegally. “Maybe in other parts of the country,” he said, “but not in the Southwest, not in California.”
“Our party has a sad (and politically self-defeating) history of alienating immigrant groups and new voters,” Spencer wrote in his 1997 memo. “The GOP closed the door to Irish and Italian immigrants in Massachusetts and New York in the last century. We did the same to Poles and other Eastern Europeans in Chicago and other urban centers. We did it again to Asian-Americans in Hawaii. It is hard to believe but Massachusetts, Hawaii, Chicago and many other places that are among the most Democrat in the country were once Republican. We cannot allow the home of Ronald Reagan and the largest state in the Union to befall the same fate and become a permanent Democrat bastion.”
What happened in 1998?
First, as George Skelton of the LA Times reported at the time, “The state Republican chairman, Irvine attorney Michael Schroeder, tartly responded that ‘Stu Spencer is a bit out of touch with California politics.’ The old warrior probably didn’t know about the party’s ‘Hispanic Summit’ in September, Schroeder asserted.” [Which of course he did.]
Then, after Barrales was already in the race, Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle of Orange County, decided he wanted to run for Treasurer. Barrales could see he’d have to battle a well-connected GOP leader for the nomination, so he dropped out of that race – where the seat was open — and ran for Controller against incumbent Democrat Kathleen Connell – a much more daunting prospect.
Spencer wrote another letter, in May 1998, urging support for Barrales in the Controller’s race. But the GOP brand had been so tarnished by Pete Wilson and Prop. 187 – and the party had done nothing to mend fences or genuinely reach out to Latino voters — that they were now beyond reach.
How far beyond reach? Attorney Gen. Dan Lungren, at the top of the GOP ticket in the governor’s race, took a pathetic 17% of the Latino vote, compared to Lt. Gov. Gray Davis who took 78% of Latinos, Voter News Service reported. In addition, Pringle lost to Democrat Phil Angelides (53-40% overall) and Barrales lost to Connell (61-33% overall), running behind statewide GOP registration which was 35% at that time.
When newly-elected Gov. Davis visited Mexico City on a fence-mending mission shortly after taking office in 1999, reporters on the streets of the Mexican capital heard former Gov. Pete Wilson referred to as hijo de puta.
Things have gotten no better since. According to a survey by Republicans Marty Wilson and Bob Moore, one-third of Latino voters say they would never vote for a Republican and another 30% say they might vote Republican if the GOP moves to the center or nominates less conservative candidates.
Two-thirds of all Latino voters, including 51% of Latino Republicans, say people who have entered the country illegally should be given a pathway to become citizens.
“The GOP candidate is not going to win many Latino voters by emphasizing conservatism,” the authors advised.
But that is exactly what Republicans have been doing — doubling down on English-only, a border fence to keep out the Mexicans, no path to citizenship for the undocumented, no higher-education benefits for children here illegally, stop-and-question laws for suspected illegals and more.
“Republicans have to demonstrate that immigrants are an important part of American life,” Barrales, who served as Deputy Assistant to President George W. Bush and Director, Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and now is CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, told us. “Unless you demonstrate that you’re appreciative and sensitive to the Latino community, I don’t think you’re going to get much further.”
In addition to a global shift in attitude and rhetoric, Barrales added, “You’ve got to address immigration. It’s the issue that Spanish language media focus on. It’s a fundamental issue in the Latino community. You can lead with jobs and the economy but you’ve got to be able to address the issue of immigration.”
Until then, despite all the outreach on jobs, education and public safety, the California Republican Party will continue to act, as Spencer put it, “like political ostriches.”