Schwarzenegger Can Handle Politics
Driver's licenses for illegal immigrants a bargaining chip with state Democrats
Arnold Schwarzenegger is proving to be a more skillful politician than many expected.
Published on LatinoLA: December 2, 2003
Only a few weeks into his administration, California's new governor is using the explosive issue of driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants as a bargaining chip with state Democrats, scoring quick political points to further other issues on his ambitious agenda and showing progress on keeping campaign promises.
Five days after becoming governor, Schwarzenegger sat down with state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) to talk about drivers licenses, and offered him a deal: the governor would support a driver's license bill similar to the one that was vetoed by former governor Gray Davis last year and help kill a referendum against it set for the March ballot.
In exchange for that, Cedillo would have to support the repeal of his own driver's license law, SB60, for which the senator fought for more than five years, and deliver enough Democratic votes in the State Assembly to give Schwarzenegger the two-thirds majority he needs to repeal the law.
"He had kind of a sophisticated understanding of the issue. I thought it was remarkable," Cedillo says, talking about his 45-minute meeting with the governor on Nov. 21. Schwarzenegger, according to the Democratic senator, agreed with Cedillo's demand not to support any efforts to create a different license for the undocumented that could open the door to discrimination. He also accepted the idea of providing licenses to everyone as long as effective background checks were included and drivers insurance was available.
"He said that we could reduce the number of people who oppose the licenses, which now stands at 70 percent according to polls, if we worked on it together," Cedillo says. "It would be one thing for the conservatives to oppose me and the Democrats, and another altogether to fight Schwarzenegger and the Republican leadership."
The non-politician "governor of the people" is learning fast the art of speaking to both sides of an issue, and it shows in small details, such as when he mentioned repealing SB60 in his inaugural address without qualifying what it was or even saying the word "immigrants." Those who knew what SB60 was got the message.
During the recall campaign, killing the bill to grant driver's licenses for "illegals" -- signed during the recall campaign by the Davis administration -- was aggressively pushed by the Republican candidates and by conservative talk show hosts, who screamed about two "evil" policies fueling middle class anger: the tripling of California's car registration tax, and immigrant driver's licenses. Schwarzenegger used the issue again and again, capitalizing on the fears of mass immigration that always resonate with a huge segment of California voters.
Some activists in the pro-immigrant community are calling on Cedillo not to trust Schwarzenegger. They say the senator trusted Gray Davis on the issue and was burned several times. They argue that the conservative hard-liners who started the referendum against SB60 would not follow the governor's lead anyway.
"They will not stand for this, and will not sit idly and allow a driver's license for undocumented immigrants to become a reality," said Angelica Salas, from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). "Cedillo says there's a commitment by the governor, but there's nothing in writing."
Bill Bird, spokesperson for Sen. Rick Oller (R-Sacramento), who carried the bill to repeal SB60 at the request of the governor, said Schwarzenegger approached Oller, asking him to take the lead on this issue. "Some on the other side are suggesting that they have an assurance by the governor that he'll support a bill in the future," Bird says. "The governor didn't mention any of that to the senator."
Schwarzenegger and his spokespersons do say the governor is open to considering an alternative driver's license bill that includes security measures such as a background check and assurances that drivers are able to buy insurance. During the recent hearing on the repeal of SB60, Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte, who had been helping to fund the referendum against SB60, apparently worked in tandem with the governor to help secure a commitment from the California Republican Assembly that it would not submit signatures for an anti-drivers licenses ballot initiative if SB60 is repealed. Other individuals or groups, however, may collect signatures and submit a ballot initiative in the future.
What Schwarzenegger and the Republicans get are headlines heralding their triumph on a big issue, as well as the first time in recent memory that "major legislation favored by the Republicans has been approved" in California, Bird says. "It's refreshing."
Democrats who joined the governor in voting for the repeal are showing him good will so they can negotiate other issues they consider more important, such as the budget, workers compensation and taxes.
In the meantime, 2 million undocumented immigrants will continue to drive without licenses or insurance.
Cedillo says he sees no other choice than to do it the governor's way -- for now. But the issue won't go away. "There's a whole community of people waiting for this. There's a little girl in South Gate who's waiting for her father to get a license so he can take her to the zoo. There's a woman whose father was killed by an unlicensed driver who believes that if all drivers were tested her father would be alive," the legislator says. "My goal is to get the licenses."
Pacific News Service contributor Pilar Marrero (Pilar.Marrero@laopinion.com) is political editor and columnist for La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles.