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."

The truth about bilingual education, as Vega and many other Hispanic voters in California understand, is that kids in bilingual-educated classes generally don't grow up to speak English well. Adults who don't speak English well don't get good jobs. A review of Census data conducted earlier this year by researchers at the University of Maryland and New Mexico State University found that Hispanic children enrolled in bilingual-education classes went on to earn significantly smaller salaries than their counterparts who were taught exclusively in English. Supporters of Proposition 227 have made the point early and often, and so far the strategy has worked. A little more than a month before the election, surveys found that about 75 percent of voters favored the initiative. Although the Prop. 227 campaign plans to spend less than $ 1 billion statewide -- and has so far bought no radio or television advertising of any kind -- the initiative may well pass by the largest margin in California history, beating the decades-old record set by the famous tax- cutting Proposition 13 in 1978.

Under any other circumstances, a conservative initiative campaign this popular would draw more Republican political supporters than it could fit on its letterhead. As it is, Dan Lungren, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, has made a number of hostile statements about 227. Several prominent Republicans in the legislature have gone on record opposing it. Gov. Wilson, while criticizing bilingual education, has neglected to endorse the initiative. Indeed, about the only well-known GOP politician in California to come out for 227 is the mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan, one of the state's more liberal Republicans.

Not that Riordan is the most visible supporter of Prop. 227 in Los Angeles. That title would go to Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest and self- described leftist who runs an after-school center for the children of Hispanic garment workers off skid row in downtown L.A. Callaghan first became opposed to bilingual education several years ago when she learned that virtually none of the children who come in the afternoons to play on the jungle gym behind her storefront was learning English in school. "We asked the school to put our children in English-language classes, but the school refused," she says. "If this were happening to black children, there would be an uprising."

Instead, there was a ballot initiative led by a conservative Republican. Callaghan likes Ron Unz, and she joined his campaign early. As far as she is concerned, the fact that few elected Republicans in California followed her lead is a good thing. They probably would have screwed it up, Callaghan says. She may be right.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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