Colorado hands English immersion backer his first loss
Rocky Mountain News
November 6, 2002
By Nancy Mitchell
Stay away - far, far away - from issues of race, ethnicity and culture.
Keep $3 million under wraps until the last possible moment.
Then, in a blitz of ominous ads, hammer the "No" message home.
That's the skeleton of the strategy behind English Plus, the group formed to
fight a ballot initiative requiring yearlong English immersion programs for
students who speak little English.
As Election Day drew to a close, the strategy against Amendment 31 had scored a
surprise victory across Colorado. It's a feat unheard of in states where similar
ballot measures have gone before voters.
In California in 1998, voters approved an English immersion ballot measure by 61
percent. In Arizona in 2000, a similar initiative won with 63 percent of the
And in Massachusetts, voters in this election approved a similar measure by a
margin of 2-to-1.
But Colorado voters handed the first loss to Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley
multimillionaire who has bankrolled the English immersion campaigns across the
"I would imagine he learned something here in Colorado," said John Britz of
Welchert & Britz, political consultants based in LoDo.
Unz, speaking from an election victory party in Boston, denied it.
"The opponents in Colorado did pretty much exactly what the opponents did in
Massachusetts, and in California and in Arizona," he said. "The only difference
was the massive amount of advertising on the 'No' side, 99 percent funded by a
billionaire heiress named Pat Stryker."
No habla espaņol
In February, 68 percent of voters favored Amendment 31, according to a Rocky
Mountain News/News4 poll.
Britz and his partner, Steve Welchert, did nothing. At least, not publicly.
When Unz visited Colorado in the spring and held news conferences on the Capitol
steps, they still did nothing. They
particularly did not, to the chagrin of local Hispanic activists, talk about the
initiative in terms of ethnicity or culture.
"Our polling shows no sensitivity to the Latino culture in Colorado," Britz said
Welchert said the two were hauled into a meeting of local activists who wanted
to espouse Hispanic pride.
Their response? "If this is about being Mexican, for Mexicans, about Mexicans,
it's gone," he told them. "It's got to be about Coloradans."
The two also opted not to talk about the major target of the initiative -
bilingual education. That's the practice of using a child's native language to
assist in teaching English.
Unz and his Colorado chairwoman, Rita Montero, frequently threw out the term in
But bilingual education was too complex to easily explain, Britz said.
"Nobody understands what it is," he said, motioning to Welchert in a recent
interview. "We didn't."
They did make a key decision in those early months. As members of English Plus
battled the ballot language to the state Supreme Court, Britz urged them to ease
It was clear the court was going to allow the measure on the ballot, he said,
and he wanted the most egregious language left in.
That included the penalties against teachers who violated the amendment, which
later became a featured issue in the "No on 31" campaign.
Hiding $3 million
On July 28, Britz attended what may have been the most important meeting of the
No campaign. He drove to Fort Collins to see Stryker, a medical equipment
heiress worth an estimated $960 million.
Stryker, who describes herself as "just a mom in a minivan," had a big stake in
what was becoming an increasingly controversial campaign:
Her youngest daughter attends Harris Bilingual School, where native English and
native Spanish speakers help teach each other their languages.
"Can you guarantee me a victory for $3 million?" Britz remembers her asking. He
didn't promise a win, he said, yet told her, "We will break the code; we will
find a message to defeat 31."
But Welchert and Britz didn't want Unz or Montero to know about the money. Their
strategy was to wait until late in the campaign to announce the gift, hoping to
take the other side by surprise.
Meanwhile, Unz was loaning the pro-31 campaign more than $300,000 interest free.
"We decided to wait until Oct. 1," Welchert said, "and played poor, poor,
The donation was announced two months later, the day before a radio ad blitz
began. Again, Welchert and Britz shrugged off advice. Many in English Plus, made
up largely of educators and parents, wanted "happy ads" featuring classroom
Instead, the TV spots are dark, showing still pictures of sad-looking children
while an announcer ominously lists the faults
in Amendment 31. In one, the announcer states children who speak little English,
largely Hispanic students, would disrupt the education of "your children" -
presumably the majority white families of Colorado.
Media critics called the spots "ugly" and said they preyed on the fears of white
"Yeah, it's ominous," Welchert says in response, "but it's cutting through."
By the first week of October, another Rocky Mountain News/News4 poll showed
support for Amendment 31 had
plummeted by 20 points to just 48 percent.
Staying on message
Britz agreed to work on the No on 31 campaign on impulse, back in 1998. Then,
only California had heard of Ron Unz's plan to end bilingual education.
A Hispanic leader asked Britz why he only came to see her when he wanted
Hispanic support on a political issue.
"I said, if (California's) Proposition 227 ever comes to Colorado, I'll be
there," he said. "We kept our word."
It wasn't easy. The two said the lure of a simple message - "teach children
English" - was tough to counter.
"We thought," Britz said, glancing at Welchert, "I'm going to be honest here, we
thought, 'We don't have a chance in hell.' "
Extensive polling told them people didn't understand bilingual education, for
example, so they dropped it.
An "a-ha" moment came in September, Britz said. They were interviewing what they
considered a typical suburban voter - female, Republican, a parent. The woman
was adamant in her support of 31.
Then Britz said her own children would be affected. That her child's teacher
might be distracted by having to work with
students who know little English.
"She turned," he said. "She said, 'They're going to put them in my kid's class?'
That moment led to what would become a key slogan for No on 31 - the
controversial "Chaos in the Classroom" theme hammered home in their TV ads.
As for the merits of the campaign and the criticism it has drawn, the two say
that's politics. Welchert recalls that early meeting with Hispanic leaders.
"Do you want to win?" he asked them, "or do you want to be right?"