By Carla Marinucci
The San Francisco Chronicle
July 21, 2001 _ When the Bush administration floated talk of amnesty for 3 million Mexican immigrants this week, political analysts pointed to one villain to explain the dramatic outreach to Latino voters former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.
Not only did Wilson endorse the anti-illegal-immigration measure Proposition 187. But worse, during his 1994 re-election campaign, he used an ad that showed shadowy images of Mexicans crossing the border under cover to remind voters that "they keep coming."
This week, Wilson in a rare public speaking engagement came to his own defense and delivered some frank talk about his opposition to the Bush proposal.
The former Marine also spoke up about his treatment since he left office, including by his own party that is now desperate to put him at arm's length.
"I was one of the leaders to open the party up to all ethnic groups. And we succeeded," Wilson told reporters after a speech to the Public Policy Institute of California. "That's why it is not only unfair, but ironic."
Wilson says he's been most profoundly disappointed by characterizations that he is a racist who has forever poisoned the GOP's Latino outreach.
"I look back over our history of awards from Latino groups," he says, who thanked him for everything from the landmark Healthy Start health care program to his work for smaller class sizes. "There was a reason I got upwards of 40 percent of the Latino vote in my first run for governor.
"The bum rap has been that 187 was a racist measure, and anti-immigrant," Wilson said of the issue that dominated his re-election campaign. "It was focused on illegal immigration, not legal and not focused on any ethnic group."
Wilson noted that "a majority of people in this state agreed with 187. They were certainly not racist or anti-immigrant," he said.
And the reason it became "the loudest and clearest message since the Boston Tea Party," Wilson said, was because of widespread concern that the nation's most populous state, home to the largest number of undocumented immigrants, was being bled dry by costs of illegal immigration.
Wilson said the effort to portray him as anti-Latino because of the measure has "worked with a certain segment of the population, including some GOP officeholders."
Wilson was equally outspoken on the current Bush push for amnesty.
"Amnesty is, in my judgment, a mistake and creates tension, rather than relieves it," Wilson said. "It sends a message that if you, in fact, enter the country illegally and are patient, you will become legalized.
"If you expect anybody to have respect for the rule of law, then you cannot continue" to do that, he said.
Wilson said a program of legal immigration combined with one for guest workers "would be both fair and equitable."
While carefully avoiding any criticism of Bush, Wilson suggested the administration should be looking further than the next election to formulate its policies.
Political leaders "should be guided first of all by what they perceive is the best policy for the country," he said. "There is a great deal more at stake than even a single state like this one."
Wilson's explanations do not fly with critics, who insist he is loath to own up to bad political decisions, including an ad that deeply offended Latinos.
"He's totally off base," says Garry South, the senior adviser to Gov. Gray Davis. "He's such a pariah, the current president will not even accept (his endorsement)."
But Sean Walsh, Wilson's former aide, passionately defends his old boss as a political leader whose record on Latino issues was stellar.
And he argues that Wilson did not as some charge opt for the infamous "they keep coming" ad in a desperate attempt at a quick political gain. Walsh says he believed in a strong message.
When the ad was aired the first time, "there were about (seven) Republicans in the room, and I was one of them," Walsh said. "We thought we had done what we needed to do, . . . we had polling that backed us up, . . . and 50 percent of Latinos supported 187."
"We (saw) the ad was so direct and so hard-hitting, it was `Wow,'' he said.
The ad worked, the measure passed, and Wilson won.
But four years later, the GOP collapsed, and Walsh and Wilson argue today the hardball world of politics shaped the retelling of the tale.
"What's the old saying about wars?" Walsh said. "The victors get to write history."
Reprinted from the Center for Immigration Studies Washington, DC firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.cis.org