Latinos, or the law?

California Gov. Gray Davis rode a wave of Latino support to the statehouse, but in his first big test, he's gone to bat for Prop. 187 -- the law Latinos hate.

Published April 16, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

In a move perceived as betraying his Latino supporters, California Gov. Gray Davis opted Thursday to seek mediation in the case of Proposition 187, reviving the controversial ballot measure approved by California voters in 1994.

The initiative would have eliminated social benefits for undocumented immigrants and ban undocumented children from attending public schools. But it was ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer last year. In her ruling, Pfaelzer said only the federal government had the right to set immigration policy. Davis predecessor, Gov. Pete Wilson, appealed the decision, and Davis was under tremendous pressure from his left flank to abandon the appeal.

Though Davis said he was personally opposed to what the measure sought to achieve, he felt duty-bound as governor to uphold the will of the majority. "If this were a piece of legislation, I would veto it," he said in a Sacramento press conference Thursday. "But its not. Its an initiative, passed by nearly 60 percent of the voters through a process specifically designed to go over the heads of the Legislature and the governor. If officials choose to selectively enforce only the laws they like, our system of justice will not long endure."

While stopping short of asking for a full appeal, Davis breathed new life into Proposition 187 Thursday, asking the 9th District Court of Appeals Mediation Services to try to broker a compromise solution. His move leaves open the possibility that elements of the law may eventually be implemented. Had Davis dropped the appeal, the measure would have died.

The most vocal critics of the Democratic governors decision have come from within his own party. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, California's only statewide elected Latino, was firm in his criticism of Davis. "I was there with my family when [Davis] said that our election meant the end of wedge issue politics," Bustamante said in a written statement. "I didn't think that meant that it was pending mediation. I do not think Proposition 187 is morally or legally defensible."

State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, D-Los Angeles, lobbied publicly to get Davis to abandon the appeal, and was obviously unsatisfied with Davis proposed pseudo-compromise. "The speaker is disappointed in the route chosen by the governor," said Villaraigosa spokeswoman Elena Stern. "He thinks this is a waste of taxpayer dollars, and it perpetuates a potential war against children. But he also recognizes that he is not the governor and it was not his decision to make."

Davis' have-it-both-ways approach is indicative of the new governors style. In his first 100-plus days in office, Davis has been a painstakingly deliberate, finger-to-the-wind politician, trying to abide by his campaign promise to "govern as a moderate."

During his run for governor last year, Davis used his Republican opponents support of Proposition 187 as a campaign issue to help galvanize California Latinos, many of whom felt the measure was tinged with racist overtones. When running for reelection in 1994, Wilson made illegal immigration the cornerstone of his campaign, and ran a controversial campaign ad with blurry images of people crossing the border into California, with an ominous narration that began, "They keep coming."

Wilson was vilified in the Latino community, and anti-Wilson sentiment was seen as a key element of the boost in Latino political participation in the state over the last five years. In an effort to tap the states burgeoning Latino vote, which now makes up 13 percent of Californias total electorate, Davis blasted Wilsons support of Prop. 187 on the campaign trail, and promised "an end to wedge issue politics."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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