A LICENSE TO MAKE POLITICAL HAY
If you wanted a preview of the fall legislative political campaigns, all you had to do in Sacramento this week was listen to the way Republican lawmakers jumped on a comment Democratic Sen. Martha Escutia made to the San Francisco Chronicle and presented it as an organized conspiracy orchestrated by every Latino Democrat in the Legislature. The issue involved is the one that will dominate political mailers in legislative districts up and down the state: The law enacted last year, since rescinded, that would have allowed illegal immigrants to obtain a California driver's license.
Escutia, perhaps in a fit of frustration, told the Chronicle that she and others in the Latino caucus might withhold votes on the budget until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers on his commitment to support a new bill that would accomplish the same goal, but also include additional security measures. It would be extremely difficult to attain the two-thirds majority support needed for passage of the budget if the 15 Latino Democrats in the Assembly and 9 in the Senate were to abstain from voting until the driver's license issue is resolved. She said Democrats could use the budget as leverage to pressure Schwarzenegger to keep his promise.
Assembly Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and his colleagues jumped on the statement, reacting as if Escutia had already received commitments to follow through on her threat. When Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and several of his Democratic colleagues held a news conference on Wednesday to say they were drawing a line against proposed higher education cutbacks in the budget, McCarthy called the issue a smokescreen to hide the Democrats' true agenda of holding up the budget over the driver's license issue.
Problem is, there hasn't been a public expression of support from any Democrats to Escutia's suggestion.
You can't blame Republican lawmakers, however, from trying to stir the issue at every opportunity. Although extemely important to the immigrant community -- an important element of the Democrats' base -- the issue is a loser for Democrats. It helped to drive the recall movement last fall, and had the Legislature not rescinded the law on its own it's highly likely a referendum to overturn it would have qualified for the ballot.
A preview of the issue's political potency was played out in Ventura County this spring, when Assembly Republican challenger Mike Robinson used it to almost fatally wound the eventual GOP winner, Audra Strickland, in the 37th Assembly District GOP primary. There is no question Republicans will use the same tactic this fall against every Democratic legislator who, like Strickland's husband, Tony, voted for any version of the bill.
It creates a huge headache for Schwarzenegger, who prides himself on delivering on his promises. As an immigrant himself, Schwarzenegger sympathizes with the need for immigrant workers to be able to drive back and forth to work, and he has repeatedly stated his desire for a compromise. He also, however, recognizes the political volatility of the issue. Schwarzenegger mused earlier this spring about trying to find a version of the bill that would receive two-thirds support in the Legislature which would be enough to avert a potential referendum.
For that to happen, however, Schwarzenegger would have to find at least 2 GOP senators and at least six GOP Assembly members to support the new bill. It won't happen. Republican lawmakers may like to call themselves "Arnold's Army," but they're not about to throw away their best political issue just to help Schwarzenegger keep his word.