The Magazine


May 11, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 34 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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LAST YEAR RON UNZ WENT TO Sacramento to meet with Republican state legislators about Proposition 227, the so-called English for the Children ballot initiative Unz created that would eliminate California's vast system of bilingual education. The meeting should have been the beginning of a fruitful political partnership: Unz, who challenged Pete Wilson for the 1994 gubernatorial nomination, is a well-known California Republican; eliminating bilingual education is a well-known Republican hobbyhorse. Instead, says Unz, the members of the Republican caucus he spoke to at the state capitol "were viciously hostile. They said that the initiative was incredibly racist, that its racism would tar the party. And anyway, they said, everyone knows that Latinos don't want their children taught in English."

Everyone, apparently, but the state's Latino voters, who in nearly every survey taken over the last year have supported Unz's anti-bilingual-education initiative by a wide margin. Ordinarily, republicans would pay close attention to poll numbers like these. Bringing Hispanics back into the fold is something of an obsession in the California Republican party, and for good reason. The share of Hispanics registered as Republicans in California has dropped to below 20 percent and continues to fall. In 1996, Clinton won fully three-quarters of the state's Hispanic vote. Proposition 227, which the Clinton administration opposes, seemed a perfect opportunity for Republicans to woo immigrant voters. It hasn't worked out that way. As of last week, virtually no Republican politician in the state had endorsed 227, despite the fact that the initiative is almost certain to pass on June 2. What happened?

The race card, as usual. Opponents of the initiative -- teachers' unions, Democratic legislators, and Latino political groups -- from the beginning have characterized 227 as another in a series of anti-immigrant proposals backed by the Republican party. Stung by bad publicity from Proposition 187 (which curtailed aid to illegal immigrants, and which Unz opposed vociferously) and from Proposition 209 (which eliminated racial preferences), Republicans have done little to defend themselves. Proposition 227 is "racist thuggery," announced Steve Ybarra, a member of the Democratic party's Latino caucus. Some Republicans seem to agree. "If we get into a debate about the superiority of one culture over another," said state Republican chairman Michael Schroeder, referring to 227, "then we end up being perceived as harsh, racist, and out of touch." "Everyone is terrified," says one well-connected Republican at the state capitol. "The thing is radioactive. No one wants to be perceived as the St. Patrick figure who drives the Latinos out of the Republican party."

Such fears are baffling to actual Latino voters like Fernando Vega, a lifelong Democrat from Redwood City. Vega, a former city councilman, has been active in Democratic party politics in California since 1946. In 1992, he led the Clinton-Gore campaign's efforts to organize Hispanic voters in the Bay Area. He is no right-winger. Yet several years ago Vega became an implacable opponent of bilingual education when his grandson, Jason, was placed in an elementary-school class taught exclusively in Spanish. "They didn't even evaluate him," Vega says. "They just put him in bilingual education. Jason doesn't speak one word of Spanish. His mother is Yugoslavian. He is many, many generations removed from Mexico." Last year, Vega became an honorary chairman of Unz's English for the Chilean campaign.

Soon after publicly coming out for the initiative, Vega gave a speech at the University of California at Berkeley. Screaming students promptly denounced the 73-year-old retired mechanic as a "racist." Unlike many republicans in the state, however, Vega was not intimidated. "Whenever one of these so-called Latino leaders tells me how great bilingual education is," he says, "I always say, 'Really? How does your daughter like it?' But Clinton and all of these people have their children in private schools."