At 79, he is one of the oldest California delegates to this week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa. He is also perhaps the most prominent—a former governor still lauded by many as one of the party’s great leaders from the Golden State.
But some also fault Pete Wilson, who officially chairs the California delegation, as the man who most hurt the party’s standing with Latinos.
Wilson begs to differ.
“Hell no!” Wilson snapped, his bright blue eyes flashing as he stood in the lobby of the TradeWinds Hotel in St. Pete Beach, where the delegation is staying. “That’s not fair.”
A good number of political analysts say Wilson’s support of Proposition 187 left many Latinos with a bad taste in their mouth for the GOP. That 1994 voter initiative sought to stop the state from providing public education and other social services to illegal immigrants. Latinos overwhelmingly voted against it. Activists launched citizenship drives in its wake that resulted in greater participation by Latinos—as Democrats.
Wilson says his critics have always played “the race card,” and that illegal immigrants should not be entitled to the same government benefits as legal residents. “This isn’t about race," he said. "Its about the rule of law.”
Wilson, a former San Diego mayor and U.S. Senator, noted the United States naturalizes more citizens annually than any other country. Immigrants, he said, often are better citizens.
“They have a work ethic and appreciation of freedom that too many of the native born do not.”
Still, nearly two decades after Prop 187, mention Pete Wilson among some Latinos and you’ll get a sour face.
According to a 2010 Public Policy Institute of California survey, nearly two-thirds (65%) of Latino likely voters are registered as Democrats (up 6 points from 59% in 2006); 18% are registered as Republicans and 14% as independents.
The former governor also commented on how to revive the California GOP.
“You have to start with people who are willing to run for office.”
Asked to name a rising Republican star in California, Wilson was at a loss. “I don’t know," he said. "You're going to have to be surprised."
A Romney win in November might help California Republicans. Wilson recalled Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory.
“It’s not simply the fact that Reagan was a Californian,” he said. “It has to do with the necessity to really rebuild the grassroots… and funding.”
Ah yes, a Golden Rule of Politics: donors like to give to winners.