David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
Anti-226 and Anti-227 Campaigns Begin to Join Forces on the Ground
by David Bacon

OAKLAND, CA (4/30/98) -- California faces two blockbuster initiatives this June -- Propositions 226 and 227. The first would make labor participation in lobbying and electoral politics much more difficult, while the second would effectively eliminate bilingual education. While they would seem to have little in common, opponents increasingly see them as related threats.

Both play on a substratum of racist, sexist and anti-labor sentiment, and a fear of demographic change, in a certain segment of the state's voters. Since Governor Pete Wilson rode to reelection in 1994 on the wave of Proposition 187, which sought to end education and medical care for undocumented workers and their children, conservative strategists have used similar measures to boost vote totals for their politicians and agenda. Proposition 187 was followed by 209, which ended affirmative action in state contracting, employment and university admissions.

Opposition to Proposition 226 comes mostly from union members, while teachers and immigrant rights activists have been the core of the anti-227 campaign. But in big anti-226 kickoff rallies in recent weeks in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, both unionists and advocates of immigrant rights shared the platform, linking the two measures.

"The demographics of the state's population are making many of us see a connection," explains Maria Abadesco, who coordinates the Labor-Neighbor campaign for the Alameda County Central Labor Council. "Attacks on immigrants, like 187 and now 227, are increasingly attacks against our own members. And if unions lose their ability to organize political campaigns, which is what 226 would do, it will be much harder to defeat anti-immigrant legislation whether on the ballot or in the legislature."

The link between unions and immigrants in California isn't just a tactical move in this election. It is a logical consequence of a potential shift in voting patterns, which could end the era of the rightwing initiative in California.

Unions, who provided most of the financing for the anti-187 and anti-209 campaigns, are beginning to see immigrants as a source of votes on class and labor issues, as well as civil rights and education. Labor leaders like Miguel Contreras, head of the Los Angeles Labor Federation, and Art Pulaski, who heads the state AFL-CIO, are putting together well-funded and organized grassroots campaigns for getting out labor votes. The possibility of using those organizations to mobilize a growing base of new citizen voters could make a radical shift in the state's politics.

That possibility is giving seasoned political activists, angry and frustrated by losing Propositions 187 and 209, a new sense of hope. It is also renewing what has been a bitter debate over the tactics used in those losing opposition efforts.

UC Berkeley journalism professor Lydia Chavez, author of a recent book chronicling the anti-209 campaign, The Color Bind, says that "from the very beginning, polling data made it clear that there was only one message which resonated with the general public: 'mend it - don't end it,'" she asserted in a recent interview. "But the opposition campaign just didn't get it together to concentrate."

She believes that defeating 209 was possible, and that its victory was a product of the opposition's internal dissension, its failure to use television advertising effectively to reach mainstream voters, and confusion over the public message of the opposition campaign.

"Mend it - don't end it" refers to the argument that some affirmative action programs do not work well, but that those programs should be changed, rather than eliminating the system of affirmative action as a whole. It is similar to the argument made by some strategists in the campaign against 187 - that "illegal immigration" is a problem, but that the initiative was the wrong way to go about stopping it.

Critics accuse both arguments of failing to challenge racist assumptions underlying each initiative. Immigration and affirmative action are both socially positive, they say, while the initiatives scapegoated immigrants, minorities and women for problems rising from social and economic inequality.

Susan Alva, an attorney for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, says that "you have to tell the truth, even if it's not politically popular or runs against racist stereotypes. When you don't, you lay the basis for further attacks against immigrants and people of color, for the sake of tactical considerations which are really illusions."

Alva notes that the "mainstream" tactic of avoiding a debate over the racist assumptions of both 187 and 209 didn't convince a majority of voters - both 187 and 209 won. At the same time, they left a bitter legacy of increased anti-immigrant and anti-minority hysteria.

Lydia Chavez disagrees. Despite voicing praise for the grassroots campaign mounted by Californians for Justice, she still believes that initiatives like 187 and 209 can't be defeated on the ground. "For issues as full of conflict as immigration and affirmative action, even among progressive people, you need a top-down campaign," she says. Such a campaign has to concentrate on television advertising to reach an audience of mainstream voters, who are generally older and whiter than the population as a whole.

Changing demographics may ultimately determine which answer works best. By the first decade of the next century, racial and national minorities will become a majority of the state's population. Already, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, minority children are a majority of the students.

New citizen voters are likely to vote in the June election in California in record numbers. While more visible in this state's politics, the same demographic trend is underway in other high population states, such as New York, Illinois, Florida and Texas.

The prospect is clearly making some people unhappy.

In San Francisco, the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights was told in early April that it could no longer register voters at ceremonies conducted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, in which hundreds of immigrants are sworn in as citizens every week. The coalition has registered thousands of new citizen voters over the last two years.

A week later, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, together with the coalition in northern California, released reports documenting extreme delays on the part of the INS in swearing in new citizens. The INS currently has a backlog of over 1.7 million people, none of whom, of course, can vote until they are sworn in.

"We believe the INS is feeling the pressure of Republican politicians," charges Freddy Tejada, a community organizer for the northern California coalition, "who fear immigrants have been motivated to become citizens in order to vote against people like Pete Wilson and propositions like 187 and 227."

His charges are substantiated by the year-long Republican effort to seek an indictment of Nativo Lopez and the Hermanded Nacional Mexicana in southern California, for allegedly including non-citizens in a widespread campaign to register new citizens to vote. That new citizen vote was the margin of victory in 1996 for Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat who defeated "B-1 Bob" Dornan, an extreme conservative in the heart of Orange County. No charges were ever filed, and the investigation was closed late last year.

"We expect tens of thousands of new immigrant citizens to vote this June as well," Tejada predicts.

Although some estimate that as many as 3-400,000 new citizens will vote for the first time in this June's election, Kenneth Burt, the political director of the California Federation of Teachers, cautions that their votes can't be taken for granted. He notes that recent polls, even among Latinos, still show a large percentage of support for 227, as well as 226.

Because this population shift is far from complete, Burt says some opponents of 187 and 209 viewed the campaigns as impossible to win, but ones in which a core of activists could be trained for similar battles to come.

"While I don't believe in throwing elections away, that core of activists was an important factor in the victory of Gil Cedillo's campaign for State Senate in Los Angeles just a few months ago," he recalls. "We had the power of labor, the power of immigrants, a few elected officials, and we beat the machine. Eventually, California campaigns will look like what we did there."

In the meantime, Burt says that the campaign against 226 is concentrating on getting out union members, while that against 227 is mobilizing immigrants and Latinos. Both are also reaching out to the larger voting population, which is not made up of immigrants or union members.

"Our challenge is to come out of these campaigns with more activists, and to win at the ballot box at the same time. If we just emphasize television advertising, we won't be any stronger afterwards than we are today. And if we concentrate just on activists on the ground, we won't reach out far enough, and we'll fail at the polls. We have to do both."

"I don't think we can win either one of these campaigns by itself," Tejada says. "Our only hope is to use the strength of each one to reinforce the other."

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