Soft and Tough

September 06, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

Los Angeles -- The rap on the Democratic candidate for governor, state treasurer Kathleen Brown, is that she's ''not substantive'' -- ''soft'' is the word they like to use. One of the things that makes her ''soft,'' according to Gov. Pete Wilson, the Republican candidate, is her opposition to new laws that would require schoolteachers and nurses to report to the police anyone they thought looked like he or she might be an illegal alien.

Nice, huh? How would you like to be Henry Cisneros or Connie Chung in a state with laws like that?

In politics, ''soft'' is often a euphemism for ''woman,'' and Governor Wilson gets added mileage by sounding tough as he attacks Ms. Brown for her longtime opposition to the death penalty. But on the subject of immigration, it is not Ms. Brown but Mr. Wilson who is the soft one. He is gliding and squishing along with the demagogues and fools, proposing networks of informers and roundups of people who don't happen to look like him. Ms. Brown, in fact, has shown astonishing political courage in telling Californians the truth they do not want to hear about themselves and about the history of the Golden State.

''They keep coming,'' says Governor Wilson ominously in his television commercials. ''Two million illegals in California. Enough is enough.''

The governor adds that he will ''probably vote yes'' on Proposition 187, the so-called ''Save Our State'' initiative on the November ballot. It is Prop 187 that would require public employees and health-care workers to turn in suspicious characters with roots in Japan or Mexico, Korea or Guatemala, anyplace where skin is darker. The new law, which would become part of the state constitution, would also deny education to the children of illegals and medical care to them or their parents.

Ms. Brown has had the guts to oppose Prop 187 (which has close to two-thirds support in voter polls) and to go well beyond that and talk about a traditional California condition that historian Kevin Starr of the University of Southern California calls ''a mean-spiritedness combined with a detachment from reality.''

''There is no difference between a first-generation American and a fifth-generation American,'' says Ms. Brown, whose great-grandfathers came from Ireland and Germany. ''I think this is divisive. I think it's dangerous. . . . Immigrants add immeasurable value to California and to our economy and should be celebrated as one of California's great assets.''

''Yes,'' she continues, ''illegal immigration is a great problem that must be addressed in a responsible and thoughtful manner.'' But why do they come?

Answering her own question, she says that illegal immigrants, Mexicans in the current case, cross borders for one overriding reason: to get jobs! So, Ms. Brown said, the U.S. government has to address the great problem at the employer level, creating tamperproof Social Security cards and greatly increasing the penalties assessed on businesses that hire illegals.

But, within that context, Ms. Brown offers in her speeches a quick course in the relationship between California and immigrants, including those who came from the smaller United States of the 19th century to a California that was still part of Mexico. She recites a sad and mean history of ethnic cleansing: driving out Peruvian miners when gold was discovered; passing referenda, one getting 94 percent of the vote in 1879, to block Chinese migration; burning out and sometimes massacring Chinese, Japanese and Filipino railroad workers; driving away Okies during the Great Depression; deporting American citizens with Mexican names in railroad boxcars in the early 1940s; and then putting Japanese Americans, also U.S. citizens, into concentration camps during World War II.

That is not what Californians want to hear, even if millions of them are the descendants of immigrants who prevailed over violent California intolerance. They reject that history even as many of them clamor to repeat it. And a candidate for governor willing to confront such popular ignorance is either very brave or very foolish. Whatever she is, Kathleen Brown is not soft.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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