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 incomplete.
The most thorough answer would include the fact that Lungren, Campbell, Fong and Simon studiously avoided mentioning immigration even though it is –directly and indirectly—the most important issue in California.
Amazingly, if any among that sorry group had been able to muster up the courage to force an immigration debate into the open, he might have won.
The Latino caucus has done a hugely 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, so they are advised, 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 California Republicans set out to win elections—and winning is, I believe, the goal of politics—then let's look at Pete Wilson.
Whatever you may think of Wilson, he is the last Republican to win any major California office. Wilson was governor from 1991 to 1999, in the U.S. Senate from 1983-1991, San Diego's mayor from 1971-1983 and a California state assemblyman from 1967-1971. Wilson's record as a successful politician is hard to top.
In 1994 Wilson, who was trailing challenger Kathleen Brown early in the race, ran a campaign ad that showed illegal aliens crossing the California/Mexico border and fleeing north in the southbound lane of I-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. Wilson went on to rout Brown.
In retrospect can anyone challenge the ad's accuracy? If you use the generally accepted figure of 10,000 illegal border crossers daily, in the eight years since Wilson's 1994 re-election more than 3 million have indeed "kept coming."
Okay, the Latino caucus doesn't like Wilson. To anyone who will listen, the caucus loudly proclaims that Wilson is a racist and a xenophobe. And the Caucus wouldn't like any candidate who might adopt Wilson's anti-illegal immigration stance.
But so what? The N.R.A. doesn't like Hillary Clinton and Planned Parenthood doesn't like George Bush. In politics, everyone has an axe to grind. So the Latinos' dislike of Wilson should carry no special weight.
We're talking politics, not a walk on the beach. We're also talking about winning, not making nice.
And winning is one thing that California Republicans are not doing.
We are constantly reminded that Latino voters are registering at a rapid rate and now make up 19% of the total. They are the state's fastest growing voting block. Everyone wants to appease the Latino block at all costs.
But what about the 81% non-Latino voters?
That 81%-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 Latino poster boy Antonio Villaraigosa.
I'm flabbergasted by the hatchet job still being done on Wilson. That the media lets 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 the final days of his campaign. Wilson's association with Proposition 187 would be the kiss of death for Simon, according to Professor Bowler.
Bowler said that "Simon's decision to ask Wilson to publicly endorse him could drive Hispanics—who traditionally vote Democratic anyway—to vote against him."
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 Gray 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 Democratic by a 2-1 margin regardless of Davis's veto.
Simons should have campaigned with Wilson at his side from day one. If he had, he'd be on his way to the Governor's mansion in Sacramento.
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—then and now—reflect the attitudes of millions of Californians.
Furthermore, as governor, Wilson's sworn duty was to uphold the law. For that Wilson, a lawyer, is still catching flak.
If I were Lungren, Campbell, Fong or Simon—none of whom had an original idea in his platform—I would have given hard thought to adding immigration to my list of issues.
And although it is too late for the aforementioned, future immigration-shy candidates should take stock of Colorado Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo's showing this week.
Late this summer, Tancredo suggested that the I.N.S. investigate the immigration status of one Jesus Apodaca, a local high-school graduate. The Denver Post and the Mexican Consulate in Denver were pushing for in-state tuition for Apodaca.
During a wild and crazy two-week period following Tancredo's bold stand, the Post and every Hispanic advocacy group in the U.S. hurled barbs and slurs his way.
Not only did their feeble and unfounded charges of "racism" not hurt Tancredo, they helped him. Tancredo, who received 68% of the vote, said his wide margin of victory "shows you can talk about immigration and controversial issues and still survive and succeed if you talk from the heart."
Here's a final compelling thought about politics, immigration and Pete Wilson: given the California electorate's mood, had Pete Wilson been running against the pro-illegal immigration Davis this week, Wilson would have won by a landslide.
Wilson may be a pariah to some. But to many others he remains a hero.
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.