A quarter century ago this month, California voters approved Proposition 187, a Republican-backed ballot measure restricting rights and benefits available to undocumented immigrants. Originally sponsored by GOP assemblyman Richard Mountjoy, the initiative was quickly adopted by GOP governor (and former U.S. senator) Pete Wilson, who was running for reelection. Prop 187 passed by a comfortable 59/41 margin, and Wilson, who had been running well behind Democrat Kathleen Brown (sister of once and future governor Jerry Brown) in early polls, won by an equally comfortable 55/41 margin. It was arguably the high tide of Republican strength in California.
But it was also the beginning of the end of GOP hegemony in California as well, as Libby Denkmann recalls at LAist:
It was the fall of 1994. On TV, popping up between episodes of Murphy Brown and The X-Files, ads for Governor Pete Wilson’s reelection showed grainy video of people running into the U.S. from Mexico.
“They keep coming,” a narrator intoned. “Two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won’t stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them …”
[W]ith 25 years’ worth of hindsight, many argue the short-term ballot victories came at a massive long-term cost for the GOP.
Prop 187 awakened the political power of Latinos in the Golden state …
Pete Wilson is remembered by some as the Republican governor who launched a thousand California Democrats’ careers.
The initiative was never really implemented:
Several anti-Prop 187 groups challenged the measure with lawsuits immediately, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. On Nov. 16, U.S. District Court Judge W. Mathew Byrne issued a temporary restraining order against the initiative’s implementation.
Altogether, five lawsuits would be filed challenging the measure. On Dec. 14, 1994, U.S. District Court Judge Mariana Pfaelzer issued a preliminary injunction, blocking implementation on a majority of the measure’s provisions.
When Democrat Gray Davis succeeded Wilson in 1999, the state stopped appealing adverse judicial rulings against Prop 187, and it became a dead letter — except for the fact that it positioned the Republican Party as hostile to immigrants in a state rapidly being reshaped by immigration.
Veteran Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton suggests that Prop 187 was just one of the factors in the decline and fall of the Golden State GOP, but it was a very important one:
Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant who has been highly critical of the GOP for several years, notes that when the Cold War ended, the aerospace industry collapsed in California. The manufacturing base also deteriorated. That sent Republican middle-class engineers and blue-collar workers fleeing to other states looking for jobs.
Meanwhile, he says, the burgeoning tech industry attracted many left-leaning “progressives” into California.
“All three of them” — 187, loss of middle-class jobs and the tech explosion — “happened at the same time,” Madrid says. “Any one of them would have upset the Republican Party.”
You could say the same thing, of course, about the national Republican Party that has bent the knee to the demagogic leadership of Donald J. Trump. One of its most notable features is an updated version of the anti-immigrant revolt first exemplified by Prop 187. But you could argue that the MAGA movement generally reflects a refusal to adjust to irreversible demographic, cultural, and economic trends (Ron Brownstein calls the Trump base the Coalition of Restoration as opposed to the anti-Trump Coalition of Transformation). Like the 1994 Republican campaign in California, it worked temporarily. But it’s not a good prescription for long-term success:
Dan Schnur, who was Wilson’s spokesman in 1994 and is now a political communications professor at USC and UC Berkeley, says: “What killed the Republican Party in California wasn’t Prop. 187. It was their refusal to adjust. California changed. And California Republicans refused to change with it.”
They’re still trying to dig out of the rubble.