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“If restrictions on illegal immigration were on the California ballot next year, they would win – big. And if Republicans would just get on this issue, as they did in 1994, they would win, too. But they just won’t touch it. It’s a shame.”

So said former State Sen. Richard Mountjoy of Los Angeles County, now head of the California Republican Assembly, the state’s largest conservative activist group. Mountjoy was author of Proposition 187, the successful 1994 California ballot initiative that would have denied government benefits to illegal aliens. (The initiative was voided by a federal judge.)

In recent days, Mountjoy’s lament has been echoed by other Republican activists in the state. At a time when the war on terrorism has heightened Californians’ worries about unchecked illegal immigration, why is the state Republican Party ignoring the issue? Why aren’t its three prospective gubernatorial candidates using it to draw a distinction between the GOP and Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who was a steadfast foe of Prop. 187?

When he sought re-election seven years ago, then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson embraced Mountjoy’s Prop. 187 and made it the centerpiece of his campaign. With opposition supporters outspending the proponents and most of the California media urging a “no” vote, the proposition was enacted by a margin of nearly 2 to 1. Wilson rode to victory on its shoulders. Republicans also took three other statewide offices, and – for the first time since 1968 – a majority of seats in the state assembly.

Since then, however, California Republicans running for statewide office have scorned the immigration issue, and the Democrats have swept three successive elections.

Even five months before the Sept. 11 attack, a survey of California voters by veteran pollster John Zogby indicated the continued strength of the issue. According to this poll, 62 percent of California voters believe that continued immigration – not just illegal immigration – makes education reform more difficult. Sixty-seven percent opposed allowing illegal aliens to get state drivers’ licenses. Seventy-two percent opposed a Davis-backed law that gives illegal aliens reduced tuition at state colleges and universities.

Zogby also found that 43 percent of California voters believe that a three-year moratorium on legal immigration would be beneficial to the state. Only 40 percent said such a moratorium would be harmful.

But, so far at least, none of the three Republican gubernatorial candidates in the state has raised immigration as an issue.

The frontrunner, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, was a vocal opponent of Prop. 187 in 1994. He has made clear that his position on illegal immigration differs little from that of Democrat Davis.

Secretary of State Bill Jones, who won his office in 1994, supported Prop. 187, but left the cheerleading for the initiative to ticket-leader Wilson. As a gubernatorial candidate this year, he has yet to say anything about illegal immigration.

In response to a question from Human Events at a recent luncheon in Washington, D.C., the third contender, conservative entrepreneur William Simon Jr., said that he supported present laws on illegal immigration and would enforce the laws as governor but “would not make a major issue of it in the campaign.”

“The California Republican Party can’t do anything – the organization has no power and no money and operates in disunity from state legislators and other office-holders,” said a veteran Southern California GOP consultant who requested anonymity. “But the major reason they won’t touch illegal immigration is because George W. Bush and (political adviser) Karl Rove are obsessed with the Latino vote. They’re trying to overcompensate for Wilson’s ’94 TV spots, which showed shots of illegal immigrants racing across the border with the message ‘They keep coming.’ It was run over and over again and, at least in the view of some, contributed to the perception that Republicans are anti-Latino.”

Zogby’s survey, however, indicates that the Latino community itself has reservations about uncontrolled immigration. Sixty-five percent believe immigration makes education reform more difficult, says the poll; 54 percent oppose drivers’ licenses for illegal aliens; and 55 percent oppose in-state tuition rates for illegals.

According to Bruce Herschensohn, who was the 1992 Republican senatorial candidate in California, “The media may well have made political support of measures that deal with illegal immigration controversial, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t resonate with voters today, especially when the issue deals with national security. If ‘187’ were put on the ballot and called something else, it would almost certainly pass by a big margin.”

“When we related the issue of illegal immigration to jobs or education or health, its support went up,” said Mountjoy. “It is still related to all of those issues today – and, more than ever, to national security.”

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