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A Righteous Collision 

Let’s see if our immigrant governor can avoid Wilsonian hysteria over driver’s licenses

Thursday, Nov 20 2003
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Governor Arnold should have no problem peeling off the few handfuls of legislative Democrats he needs to fulfill his promise to rather immediately repeal the law granting driver’s licenses to the undocumented. Some key Democrats are already letting their constituents know they are about to reverse their vote of a few months ago, joining the Republicans to kill off the new law, which was to go into effect January 1. When that moment comes, as early as this week, it will not, however, signal the outbreak of a new Pete-Wilson-like-Proposition-187 assault on Latinos.

Not necessarily.

Time to put aside sentiment and emotion and focus instead on real-life politics. Like it or not, and given the options available to Schwarzenegger, legislative repeal may be the least damaging, including for those hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers, gardeners, maids, waiters, moms and parents who, I would argue, desperately need and deserve those licenses.

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Theoretically, the governor could let the bill stand. But only theoretically. More than two-thirds of the California electorate and an even greater percentage of his supporters oppose the current form of the bill. As it is, the pro-recall group Rescue California has already collected 90 percent of the signatures necessary to place the repeal on the March 2004 ballot. And the initiative effort would only gain strength if Schwarzenegger did nothing.

Submitting the repeal to a popular vote, especially three months after the law was enacted, on the other hand, could produce precisely the sort of polarization and xenophobic frenzy unleashed a decade ago by the Wilson gang.

The new governor — if he chose — could easily ride the crest of that backlash and publicly lead the initiative campaign, solidifying his credentials on the nativist Talk Radio Right.

To his credit, Schwarzenegger has chosen to short-circuit the initiative campaign by quickly and rather quietly killing off the driver’s-license bill by legislative repeal. Not to say this is a strictly humanitarian effort. There can be little doubt that the more enlightened among his strategists dream of building on the 31 percent of the Latino vote he got last month, rather than alienating an entire race as Sneaky Pete did in 1994.

Legislative repeal, unlike a noisy and emotional ballot proposition, also leaves the door open to an eventual revisiting of some compromise version of the bill (see Bill Bradley story, next page). The sooner his administration agrees to fashion a compromise and resurrect the bill in a more palatable form, the more he will be contributing to the welfare and the sanity of the great state of Kollyfohnia.

That said, repeal of the bill by Arnold and the Republicans by any means is a great step backward but one that was totally avoidable. As Gray Davis retreats to civilian life in West Hollywood, let’s take a final moment to remember our — and his — history.

From its very inception, the DMV always granted licenses to the undocumented. Only in 1994 did Pete Wilson prod the Legislature into taking the licenses away and, as I will never tire of pointing out, he did so only because a few renegade Democrats — including one Cruz Bustamante — voted with the minority Republican caucus.

Then last year, a bill to restore the licenses passed and was put on Governor Davis’ desk. He vetoed the measure, demanding its security guarantees be strengthened. When the better version of the bill he wanted arrived back on his desk, Davis nevertheless balked again. Also awaiting his signature was a collective-bargaining bill pushed by the United Farm Workers.

Some of Davis’ close aides said at the time — a time he was running for re-election — that he was willing to sign one, but not both, of what were being called the “Mexican bills.” Under intense pressure from the UFW and its allies, Davis eventually signed the pro-union bill but, in return, vetoed the driver’s-license law — the new and strengthened version.

Fast-forward to this fall. With Davis on the recall ropes, Senator Gil Cedillo resurrects the driver’s-license measure. In an indisputably fuck-you move, the Latino Caucus serves up a bill devoid of any of the security measures once demanded by Davis and plops it down again on the embattled governor’s desk, knowing that this time he can’t afford a veto. With the Terminator closing in on him, Davis is pandering like a bear on crack, and he signs a version of the bill that he had first vetoed a year before — a version that allows the undocumented to secure licenses without any truly verifiable paperwork.

By signing that bill, at that moment, with the populist right-wing fully mobilized by the recall, it is fair to say that not only Gray Davis but also the backers of the bill knew full well (or damn well should have known) that if the governor lost the election (as everyone except the L.A. Times polling unit was predicting), the second casualty would be, precisely, the driver’s-license law.

And that’s exactly what happened. One more Democratic constituency, one more absolutely necessary program burned in the futile quest of Saving Davis. Davis did for immigrant driver’s licenses what Hillary Clinton did for national health care: set the cause back countless years.

The most we can hope for now is that Schwarzenegger will not slobber and pander to his hard-line Republican supporters as much as Davis did to his anti-recall allies. Perhaps I’m reaching for straws, but I was heartened that in his inaugural speech, the new governor, in vowing to repeal the measure, referred to it by its bureaucratic moniker of S.B. 60 and refrained from mouthing either of the hot-button phrases “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant.” When the tempers of the recall cool and a year or so from now the nativist petition gatherers retreat back into their bunkers, let’s hope that Schwarzenegger and the Latino Caucus are wise enough to agree on an acceptable compromise.

In the meantime, all those undocumented who do most of our work for us and who had briefly entertained the illusion that this coming January they could at least come into legal compliance as drivers, need to brace for the certain and immediate repeal of the law. As they continue to drive, licenseless, with one eye peeled for the cops, they can also ponder the long and still growing list of those responsible for their current predicament: Pete Wilson, the GOP caucus, Cruz Bustamante, Rescue California, Arnold, the more reckless among the Latino Caucus, and . . . yes . . . Gray Davis.

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