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A License To Veto 

Governor pulls a U-turn on driver’s-license bill

Thursday, Sep 9 2004
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TRUE-BLUE FANS of Arnold Schwarzenegger could hardly forget the touching and memorable end of Terminator 3, when the actor’s lovable lunk of a cyborg saves the day by blowing up both himself and the evil, seemingly unstoppable rival cyborg. That’s the moment when Schwarzenegger once again promises he’ll be back for a sequel.

It’s a sentiment that state Senator Gil Cedillo can easily identify with. Three times, he’s shepherded through laws that would have given California’s illegal immigrants the right to drive legally. And three times, he’s been shot down, more or less at the door of the governor’s office. The last time, last fall, it was Schwarzenegger, the state’s new celebrity governor, who muscled through a repeal of Cedillo’s bill, but also promised that he would sign a “better” version in the future. Now, close to a year later, Schwarzenegger says the driver’s-license bill before him just isn’t safe enough, and that it deserves his veto.

Critics say he has out-and-out broken his promise, especially because of the bill’s safeguards. “This version has background checks and security measures second to none,” said state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, a Los Angeles Democrat. “This is a driver’s license with the highest level of security we’ve seen anywhere in the world.”

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That’s not enough, said Schwarzenegger spokesman Vince Sollitto: “The governor has been clear since the campaign that he would like to find a way to allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally in California. The governor believes the legislation sent to him doesn’t contain sufficient security standards.”

It isn’t clear, however, that any safeguards would suffice, given the political security risk that may be driving Schwarzenegger’s actions. Improving highway safety and giving working-class immigrants a break just doesn’t rate on that priority scale.

 

It all goes back to a November 2003 meeting in Schwarzenegger’s personal office, upstairs from Schatzi on Main, the Santa Monica restaurant he started in 1991 with wife Maria Shriver. Schwarzenegger’s guest, Senator Cedillo, arrived as restaurant patrons were finishing their swordfish medallions, their vegetarian spaghettini and their kaiserschmarrn, an Austrian-style pancake made with eggs and raisins. When Cedillo entered Schwarzenegger’s office, he found the governor snacking on the restaurant’s apple strudel, made according to his mother’s recipe. Cedillo accepted a fruit drink while gazing about a room that reminded him of a museum, filled with Schwarzenegger movie posters and memorabilia.

Cedillo, who’s made the driver’s-license issue a personal crusade, arrived ready to deal. For several years, he’d responded to vetoes from Governor Gray Davis by trying to address Davis’ objections. Then, last fall, Davis signed the Cedillo bill under the pressure of the recall election. If anything, the move backfired for Davis. It made him seem overly opportunistic in pandering to the Latino Democratic base.

Schwarzenegger had campaigned against the driver’s-license bill. If necessary, the popular new governor was ready to support a voter initiative to undo the law. Instead, Cedillo agreed to a bipartisan, no-mess repeal in the Legislature, as long as Schwarzenegger would later support a “better” license bill.

Cedillo, a Los Angeles Democrat, was willing to do almost anything to win the support of Republican Schwarzenegger — except to settle for an immigrant driver’s license that looked different.

As Cedillo tells it, Schwarzenegger understood. “I’m an immigrant,” the governor reportedly said. He pointed to his own wrist, emphasizing personal experience. “I know if policeman see license, see that mark, that you’re undocumented, they don’t have to bother with you. I know sometimes people treat immigrants differently. You don’t have to tell me about discrimination.”

The governor remembers things differently. “I’m not saying that [Cedillo’s] lying,” said Schwarzenegger at a press conference last week. “I’m just saying that he’s overly enthusiastic when he makes those things. Let’s be kind.”

That sort of remark, delivered with trademark Schwarzenegger charm, makes the other side’s blood boil. But even if Cedillo’s version is correct, Schwarzenegger still could simply have changed his mind. At that same meeting, said Cedillo, two members of the governor’s staff also were present. And they were not as encouraging as the governor himself. It is not unlike Schwarzenegger to be overcome by the good will of the moment, and then reconfigure his political calculus upon later reflection. It wasn’t long before Cedillo recognized worrisome signs.

At the staff level, the Governor’s Office was concerned about “pressure from AM radio,” said Cedillo. “They would bring it to our attention.” These were the usual suspects, the right-wing talkers and shock jocks, including John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou of the John & Ken Show on KFI AM 640. They’d done so much for Schwarzenegger’s candidacy by repeatedly putting him on the air and by relentlessly attacking Gray Davis. These radio hosts were not only a tribune for Schwarzenegger’s right-wing base, but also for other disaffected voters. And they shrilly opposed any notion of a driver’s license for illegal immigrants. Why should the state provide a driver’s license to people living in the country illegally?

There is a pragmatic response: An estimated 1 million immigrants are driving anyway — without insurance, without proper training and with a powerful incentive to flee the scene of any accident.

Schwarnegger says he’s more persuaded by higher-priority concerns over security. “The FBI and our Homeland Security Office has a problem, to give them driver’s licenses that look the same as ours, where they can open up bank accounts, go through airports, and do business and get other documents,” he told reporters.

“Therefore, I suggested to do a driver’s license that looks different . . . so it’s acceptable to the California people and it is also just for driving legally, and not for anything else.”

But neither a U.S. citizen nor a foreign national needs a driver’s license to board an airplane or open a bank account. And if they did, the fake licenses for sale near MacArthur Park would probably pass muster. When pressed on the matter, spokesman Sollitto could not identify a single task that a driver’s license would uniquely make possible — other than driving legally.

Cedillo’s legislation would establish higher security standards than any of the 10 states that offer these licenses. (California allowed such licenses, too, without the intense security measures, until 1994.) The bill provides for taking a full set of fingerprints and performing state and federal criminal-background checks, including a check against the database of known gangs and terrorist organizations. And the identification standard is the same one used for citizenship. The applicant pays for the program with higher fees, set for now at $141. No license holders could use their license as ID to purchase a gun — the background check on the gun purchase would flag them. And licenses would not be issued to anyone with a criminal history.

LAPD Police Chief William Bratton is a believer. “I’ll be happy to have any would-be terrorist come up and give me their photograph and fingerprints,” he said at a press conference. “I’d like to start the line right to my right.”

The standards are so taxing on immigrants that the ACLU does not support the bill. Another initial critic was MALDEF, a civil rights organization that focuses on Latino issues. It’s since come onboard.

Cedillo, in an interview at a Labor Day rally, hasn’t given up on Schwarzenegger: “My hope is that he will sign the bill and that he will honor his word. If he has any concerns, we can go back and address the concerns.”

But there’s just no groundswell of support for Cedillo’s bill among Schwarzenegger’s key constituencies. By insisting on making the licenses look different, Schwarzenegger effectively introduced a poison pill, without explicitly abandoning his earlier pledge of cooperation.

To shift Schwarzenegger’s perception, Cedillo’s side presented an opinion poll that shows majority support for the license once its security features are explained. But a nasty initiative campaign against the licenses — and anyone who backed them — could easily obscure rational discussion.

So it looks almost certain that immigrants will have to wait as Schwarzenegger tacks a course to the political right and the politically safe. And Senator Gilbert Cedillo will not hesitate to appropriate the sentiment of Schwarzenegger’s tag line. There’s no question that come next year, he’ll be back.

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