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Pete Wilson remains a hero to many

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Posted: Friday, November 8, 2002 10:00 pm

What do Dan Lungren, Tom Campbell, Matt Fong and Bill Simon have in common?

If you answered that all four were California Republican challengers for governor or U.S. senator, you are partially correct.

If you added that Democrats Gray Davis, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer diced them into mincemeat, your response is better but still not complete.

The most thorough answer would include the observation that Lungren, Campbell, Fong and Simon studiously avoided mentioning immigration even though it is - directly and indirectly - the most important issue in California.Joe Guzzardi

Amazingly, if any of that sorry group been able to muster up the courage to force a debate about immigration into the open, he might have won.

The Latino caucus has done a very effective job of convincing Republicans that immigration is a poisonous issue.

Latino special interest groups have sold Republicans on the idea that if candidates utter "immigration," they will be demonized. Candidates will be painted with the Pete Wilson brush. So tainted, their defeat would be certain.

Nothing could be further from the truth as a close examination of the facts will prove.

Assuming that Republicans set out to win elections - and winning is, I believe, the goal of politics - then a good place to look would be toward Pete Wilson.

Whatever you may think of Wilson, he is the last Republican to win any major California office. Wilson was elected governor in 1994; he served in the U.S. Senate from 1983-91, was San Diego's mayor from 1971-83 and was an assemblyman from 1967-71. Wilson's record as a successful politician is hard to top.

In 1994, Wilson, who was trailing challenger Kathleen Brown, ran a campaign ad that showed illegal aliens crossing the California/Mexico border and fleeing north in the southbound lane of Interstate 5.

"They keep coming," proclaimed the text.

Wilson's opponents found the spot offensive. But it was successful and underlined the concern that Californians have about illegal immigration.

The Latino caucus doesn't like Wilson, who it brands a racist and a xenophobe. And the Caucus wouldn't like any candidate who picked up Wilson's banner.

But so what? The NRA doesn't like Hillary Clinton and Planned Parenthood doesn't like George Bush. In politics, everyone has an axe to grind. So the Latino dislike of Wilson should carry no special weight.

We're talking politics, not a walk on the beach. And we're also talking about winning, not making nice.

We are constantly reminded that Latino voters are registering at a rapid rate and now make up 19 percent of the total. They are the state's fastest growing voting bloc. Many candidates apparently wish to appease that bloc at all costs. But what about the 81 percent non-Latino voters?

And that 81 percent-strong group of blacks, whites and Asians has demonstrated a definite interest in reducing immigration. Witness the 2001 Los Angeles mayoral race wherein James Hahn defeated Antonio Villaraigosa.

I'm flabbergasted by the hatchet job done on Wilson. And that the media let Wilson's enemies get away with it is even more dumbfounding.

Here is a good example. University of California, Riverside, Professor Shaun Bowler wrote that Simon made a critical error in inviting Wilson to join him in final days of his campaign. Wilson's association with Proposition 187 would be the kiss of death, Bowler said.

"Simon's decision to ask Wilson to publicly endorse him could drive Hispanics - who traditionally vote Democratic anyway - to vote against him," Bowler said.

In slamming Wilson, Bowler has inadvertently revealed the truth. Hispanic votes are not in play for Republicans. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that even Davis's veto of the controversial bill that would have allowed illegal aliens to obtain driver's licenses didn't hurt him among Hispanic voters. They will vote for Davis by a 2-1 margin regardless of his veto.

In the final analysis, criticism of any federal policy - be it Social Security, Medicare or immigration - is perfectly acceptable and should be encouraged in a democracy. Wilson's opinions about illegal immigration reflects the attitudes of millions of Californians.

If I were Lungren, Campbell, Fong or Simon - none of whom had an original idea to offer and all of whom were soundly trounced - I would have given hard thought to adding immigration's impact to my list of issues.

Here is the most compelling thought: Given the California electorate's mood, had Pete Wilson been running against Davis in this election, Wilson would have won in a landslide.

Wilson may be a pariah to some, but to many he remains a hero.

Joe Guzzardi, an instructor at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly opinion column since 1988. He can be reached via e-mail.

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