The Prop. 187 rebellion inside the L.A. Times newsroom

It was one of the Los Angeles Times’ most controversial editorials.

In the fall of 1994, California was being torn apart by Proposition 187, the ballot measure that would bar immigrants in California illegally from receiving many public services. The Times Editorial Board strongly opposed Prop. 187, calling it misguided and wrong.

But in that same election, The Times decided to endorse Gov. Pete Wilson for reelection. Wilson was a leading supporter of Prop. 187 and had used illegal immigration as a central campaign issue. “All things considered, Pete Wilson is a leader who deserves a second term as governor,” The Times wrote.

The decision sparked a rebellion in The Times’ newsroom, led by senior editor Frank del Olmo. Many in the newsroom felt the conflicting editorial positions were hypocritical.

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Frank del Olmo at his desk at the L.A. Times in 1991.

Frank del Olmo at his desk in 1991.

(Los Angeles Times)

“We are opposed to the endorsement because he has decided to exploit Prop. 187 as a cornerstone of his campaign,” a staffer wrote in a letter to Times Publisher Richard T. Schlosberg III, according to reporting at the time in the Los Angeles Daily News. “We applaud The Times for its opposition to the proposition, which makes it even more difficult for us to understand the decision to endorse” Wilson, the staffer wrote.

Del Olmo was The Times’ most senior Latino editor. He was so enraged by the Wilson editorial that he threatened to quit. But then-Editor Shelby Coffey III persuaded Del Olmo to take two weeks off and “think about it.”

Del Olmo did not leave the paper. Instead, with the permission of top editors, he wrote a column attacking The Times editorial.

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“Unfortunately, my deeply felt belief that Wilson does not deserve The Times’ endorsement did not carry the day. Under normal circumstances, I would quietly accept that decision and move on. This time I cannot. Because this is not just another political campaign. And the Wilson endorsement is not — as a senior colleague whom I respect tried to convince me — just another endorsement,” he wrote.

He went on to discuss why Wilson’s support for Proposition 187 was wrong and disqualifying. He ended with a message to a state that was becoming increasingly racially diverse.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson

Former Gov. Pete Wilson, shown in May 2014, was endorsed in 1994 by the L.A. Times, sparking anger in the newsroom.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“I want people out there to know — especially the young Latinos and Asian Americans who will be the leaders of this state in the future, and, I hope, readers of this newspaper as well — that not all of us here at The Times feel good about Pete Wilson. Many of us share your anger.”

Pete Wilson was reelected, and Proposition 187 also won 25 years ago today — though the courts have since struck down most of its provisions. But Del Olmo’s words seem especially prescient today.

As Gustavo Arrelano recounts in his history of Prop. 187, the issue mobilized Latinos and began a movement that, along with demographic and political trends, made California a blue state and the most welcoming place in American to those here illegally.

Del Olmo suffered a heart attack in his newsroom office in 2004 and died.

But his words live on. In his rebuttal to Prop. 187, he predicted how history would view the measure.

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“Wilson’s pro-187 campaign will stick in our craws for generations,” he wrote.