NOEL KING, HOST:
Twenty-five years ago today, California voters passed a ballot measure that was designed to save taxpayer dollars by denying public benefits to immigrants who were in the country illegally. It was called Proposition 187, and it led to the political awakening of Latinos in the Golden State. Libby Denkmann of member station KPCC has the story.
LIBBY DENKMANN, BYLINE: It was the fall of 1994. On TV in California, in between episodes of "Murphy Brown" and "The X-Files," ads for Republican Governor Pete Wilson's reelection showed grainy video of people running across the border from Mexico.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They keep coming - 2 million illegal immigrants in California.
DENKMANN: Wilson was embracing the issue of illegal immigration in his campaign and endorsed the controversial Proposition 187 that would deny public education, health care and other state services for people without legal status. Wendy Carrillo was then a 14-year-old high school freshman in Los Angeles. She and her family had fled civil war in El Salvador. Carrillo took Prop 187 personally.
WENDY CARRILLO: Wow. This law 100% targets me and my family.
DENKMANN: Carrillo and her classmates became part of the largest coordinated school walkout in LA since the city's Chicano activism of the 1960s. She made the announcement on the school's PA system.
CARRILLO: And one day, I was like, we're going to have a rally at 11 a.m. for the sophomore class. And then I said, and we're also going to walk out at this time (laughter).
DENKMANN: It was the start of a political career. Today, Carrillo represents her old neighborhood as a member of the California State Assembly.
CARRILLO: I think that was an awakening for a lot of people to say we can and we should do more.
KEVIN DE LEON: For some folks, the Vietnam War, Watergate, Nixon was their political awakening. For me, this was it - was Proposition 187.
DENKMANN: Kevin de Leon was a teacher and protest organizer back in '94. He later became an assemblyman, then a state senator and eventually rose to be the leader of the California State Senate. He's now running for city council in LA.
DE LEON: And I can tell you this. If it wasn't for 187, I would never have even thought about running for political office.
DENKMANN: After Prop 187 passed, applications for naturalization soared in California. Latinos now hold close to a quarter of partisan-elected offices in the state, up from just 115 in 1994. Former Republican Governor Pete Wilson says supporters of the measure were unfairly maligned.
PETE WILSON: It was not racist. I challenge anyone to find one word in that campaign that could be construed as racist.
DENKMANN: For all of its fallout, Prop 187 never fully took effect. It was mostly blocked in court. Wilson says that's too bad because voters wanted the federal government to pay attention to the cost of unauthorized immigration in California.
WILSON: What happened was that the people of this state, the state taxpayers, were tired of being stuck by the federal government.
DENKMANN: Now, in the former stomping grounds of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, just 20% of partisan-elected offices are held by Republicans. Some argue a larger factor in the party's decline was the disappearance of the state's aerospace and defense jobs, which triggered an exodus of white working-class voters. Despite the old political wisdom that socially conservative Latinos are persuadable for Republican candidates, Secretary of State Alex Padilla says the 187 campaign drove a permanent wedge between most California Latinos and the GOP.
ALEX PADILLA: For all the emphasis on family values or entrepreneurship or anything else, it's really hard for a Latino to accept that if what you hear much more loudly is, we don't want you here. That's what you hear from the Republican Party.
DENKMANN: Today, not a single statewide office is held by a member of the GOP, and more voters are registered no party preference than Republican in California. For NPR News, I'm Libby Denkmann in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.