Los Angeles Times
September 12, 2004

California: Latinos in Legislature Run a Risk

Their support for driver's license bill threatens to revive ethnic-war imagery.

By Anthony York
Anthony York is editor of Political Pulse, a newsletter on state politics.
 

SACRAMENTO When the bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain California driver's licenses passed the state Senate just minutes before the deadline, activists in the gallery began to chant.

"Cedillo, bomaye! Cedillo, bomaye!"

The chant, a thank you to state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) for sponsoring the bill, was similar to one that Zairians showered on Muhammad Ali as the boxer prepared for his 1974 fight with George Foreman. Ali knocked Foreman out using a strategy that came to be known as rope-a-dope patience will provide an opportune moment to strike.

But unlike Ali, Cedillo and the Latino caucus lack a winning strategy to get Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign the unpopular driver's license bill, and that could create a problem for Democrats in tough election battles this fall. Furthermore, by moving the issue to the top of their priority list, Latino leaders make themselves vulnerable to the old charge that they are more concerned about pushing their own ethnic interests than those of Californians as a whole.

The driver's license issue has been a cause celebre in the Latino caucus since 2002, when then-Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a version of the bill. In retaliation, the Latino caucus refused to support Davis in his reelection bid against Republican Bill Simon. Davis eventually signed the bill in a desperate attempt to stave off his recall, but the Legislature repealed it after Schwarzenegger threatened to take the issue to the people, who strongly oppose driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, according to polls.

It's virtually certain that the governor will veto Cedillo's bill.

The fact that not a single Latino Democrat voted against the legislation reinforces the perception that the Latino caucus has reverted to old habits, adopting legislative priorities that are more liberal than most California Latinos. Members of the Latino caucus led the charge against phonics-based reading instruction and English immersion programs that have raised the test scores of California's Latino schoolchildren. And as the labor/Latino alliance increased its power in Sacramento, Latino legislators played a key role in pressuring Davis to make concessions to the United Farm Workers and to push for huge pay and pension increases for public employees. Those pay hikes have contributed to California's $15-billion budget deficit.

The driver's license bill also undermines the goal of Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) to embrace broader, nonethnic issues. During this year's budget negotiations, Nuñez took a big step in that direction when he made restoration of proposed cuts to the state's university system his top priority and ruled out tax hikes to close the budget deficit. The message was clear: Nuñez was a mainstream Democrat who can do business with a Republican governor.

But by becoming the principal co-author of the driver's license bill and calling for the governor to sign it, Nuñez has retreated from that middle ground to the more familiar terrain of ethnic politician.

Not all Democrats are eager to have this debate during the state's first post-recall general election. Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), who voted for the driver's license bill last year, said she didn't support the current bill this time because Schwarzenegger was sure to veto it and "generally speaking, people are overwhelmingly not in favor of the bill."

Pavley's pragmatism is instructive for Democrats in the handful of competitive legislative districts. Republican polling shows that most voters are less likely to support a candidate who has voted for the driver's license bill.

Assemblywomen Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino) and Nicole Parra (D-Hanford), two of the Legislature's most vulnerable Democrats, cast the late-night votes that put the measure over the top. Already, McLeod's Republican opponent, Alan Wapner, has attacked her for supporting for the bill and promised to make it a centerpiece of his campaign.

The driver's license issue also threatens to revive ethnic-war imagery in the collective subconscious of California voters. Five of the most contested Assembly races this fall pit Latino Democrats against Anglo Republicans, and the GOP has already served notice that the driver's license issue will be frequently brought up.

Cedillo continues to lobby for his bill because, he says, he had a commitment from Schwarzenegger to help shape a bill acceptable to both Democrats and Republicans. It's now clear that the governor never had any real intention of following through, and Cedillo says he feels betrayed. As a result, Cedillo is trying to make the issue one of Schwarzenegger's credibility and honesty.

But it is highly improbable that voters will hold the governor accountable for reneging on a political promise to prevent an unpopular change in public policy. There are plenty of examples of the governor playing loose with facts, and Schwarzenegger has suffered no corresponding loss of popularity. Abandoning a handshake deal made behind closed doors with Cedillo will cost the governor nothing in the minds of most voters. Yet Cedillo won't back off.

A similar form of political stubbornness devastated the state's Republican Party from the mid-1990s through last year's recall. For the better part of that decade, vocal conservative activists controlled the agenda, and tenor, of the party. Despite the state's well-documented social liberalism, they continued to push a conservative social agenda.

After 10 years of eroding political power, conservative Republican leaders finally learned their lesson last year, rallying behind the socially moderate Schwarzenegger. What will it take before members of the Latino caucus learn theirs?