July 3, 2003

On Latino Minds — Opportunity Knocks With Davis Recall Drive

By Pilar Marrero

Sen. Gil Cedillo, a stalwart Latino Democrat from Los Angeles, knows an opportunity when he sees it.

The troubles besetting Calif. Gov. Gray Davis — a major budget crisis, rock-bottom approval ratings and a powerful recall movement — give Latinos the chance to push forward an issue foremost on their agenda: driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Last year, Davis vetoed a bill by Cedillo that would have provided licenses for the undocumented, a hot-button issue for many Latinos, who see it as an immigrant rights issue. In the process, Davis lost Cedillo’s endorsement and helped depress Latino voter turnout in the state.

Now, as the governor fights for his political life, Cedillo speaks out against the recall with all the passion of a diehard Davis supporter.

“This is a movement put together by extremists in the state who want to set back government,” Cedillo says. “It’s disruptive and it’s a bad precedent. We have to commit ourselves to fight it.”

Cedillo knows the governor cannot now afford to alienate Latinos, who, according to polls, are less likely to want to get rid of him, and helped him win re-election last November by a mere five percentage points over Republican Bill Simon.

The most recent survey of the Public Policy Institute of California shows that 46 percent of Latinos reject the recall and 37 percent support it — better for Davis than the 51 percent of the general voting population that want him out and the 43 percent who would keep him.

At first, Cedillo is evasive when asked about the chances for his driver’s license bill this year. “The bill is going forward, we’ll continue to negotiate,” he says. But later: “My expectation is we’ll get a bill this year.”

“When the driver’s license bill comes up he’s going to sign it, and you can thank the recall for that,” says political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. “(The recall) is going to influence his behavior, what he signs and what he doesn’t. It’s driving the whole budget process on both sides.”

The governor knows that he cannot afford to have a Latino appear on the recall ballot, which is why it was so important for the Democratic leadership to convince lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante to bow out of an hypothetical recall election.

“If Bustamante runs, will Latinos come out in droves to vote Davis out, to get the first Latino governor in modern history?” Jeffe asks. “Maybe.”

If Latinos and other major democratic constituencies were not excited about Davis in November — his support among Latino voters dropped from 80 percent in his first election to 65 percent in his second — there’s not much to excite them now that budget realities have meant cuts in social programs, the arts and Medical funding.

But for unions, many of whom represent mostly Latino workers, keeping Davis maybe better than risking a Republican governor or one of the two possible democratic candidates who fare better in the polls: Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Bustamante.

In the event of a recall election, “the risk is too great that we’ll get somebody that will be less supportive of workers,” says Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU). “We can’t afford a Republican governor or someone who isn’t sympathetic to immigrant rights.”

Most union leadership and legislators like Cedillo would much rather have Davis in a difficult situation and extract concessions from him in exchange for their support than risk the election of others who may not need the Latino vote as much.

“The senator (Feinstein) ... what can I say?” Medina says. “I don’t think she’s very pro immigrant.” Davis, on the other hand, “may now be in a position to listen better” to the union’s concerns.

Many Latinos remember that when Bustamante was an assemblyman, he voted in favor of requiring legal status in order to have a driver’s license.

Sen. Feinstein, considered the best chance for Democrats to keep the governorship should well-financed Republican candidates appear on a recall ballot, has so far said she is not running.

But if the recall does qualify, and especially if it qualifies for the more Democratic-leaning electorate of the March primary, Davis’s people know they have a better chance to win if he is the only Democrat on the ballot. Although risky, their strategy is to label the recall effort a Republican right-wing conspiracy, resurrecting the ghost of infamous former Gov. Pete Wilson and his anti-immigrant Proposition 187.

Nobody knows how that will work if moderate, moneyed and famous Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Richard Riordan enter the race.

But one thing is certain: When undocumented immigrants finally get their drivers licenses in the next few months, they’ll have the Republicans and the recall leaders to thank.

Pilar Marrero is political editor and columnist for La Opinión newspaper in Los Angeles.

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