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California and the West

Bill to Create State Holiday on Chavez's Birthday Is Stymied


SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis sent down the word that he wanted a special birthday treat to honor Cesar Chavez, the late United Farm Workers union leader: a bill on his desk declaring the date a state holiday by the time Chavez's birthday arrives Friday.

But there will be no Chavez holiday--at least not in time for Chavez's birthday this year--and no media-studded signing ceremony in Los Angeles.

A Democratic push to fast-track the holiday fell apart in the Legislature on Wednesday.

Some Assembly members said they would not support a 14th holiday for state workers unless it was tied to money that would do something to help the migrant workers Chavez championed--money for housing, scholarships and health programs. Some even cited the irony of state workers, including regulators who oversee working conditions and pesticide use on farms, spending the day at home while farm workers toiled in the fields.

"There is some merit in saying there should be a Cesar Chavez holiday, but I believe the better way to honor him would be to fund farm worker programs," said Assemblyman Dean Florez (D-Shafter), who said he has been "on a campaign" to "do better" by Chavez. "This would have been a vote between symbolism and actual commitment. That's kind of a weak way to honor a great man."

Compounding matters, the leader of the state Senate, Democrat John Burton of San Francisco, declined to schedule a meeting of the upper house to give final approval to the bill by Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) before sending it to Davis for his signature. The Senate decided at noon Wednesday not to hold a voting session.

"It's a speed bump," said a Polanco spokesman. "We just had to slow down." Polanco now is aiming to win passage of the measure by the April 23 anniversary of Chavez's death, the spokesman said.

That sentiment in Sacramento seemed to stem in part from farm workers and a union representative, who indicated that a Chavez holiday that did not improve the lives of farm workers was not worth having.

"It only works if farm workers get the day off too, not just state workers," said Juana Maria Vasquez, a veteran farm worker from Delano, who in her 57 years has harvested everything from grapes to cotton. "Because people in the fields never get a day off. Some companies don't even give us the Fourth of July off."

Chavez would not have approved, said Vasquez, whose daughter worked as Cesar Chavez's assistant for several years before the organizer died in 1993. "A holiday without farm workers off is a hollow gesture. They're the ones he devoted his life to help."

Nevertheless, Arturo Rodriguez, the union's current leader, said Wednesday that he was disappointed the Legislature could not reach a consensus.

"Next month, it will be seven years since Cesar died and it would have been nice to have that holiday right now," he said. "But what is most important to us is that the legislation, whenever it gets passed, honors Cesar's legacy for generations to come."

A Chavez holiday, he said, would not have to include a day off for farm workers statewide to be meaningful.

"It's difficult for legislators to pass laws that tell private employers what days to give their employees off," Rodriguez said. "They need to make that decision on an individual basis."

Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who had made the Chavez holiday a top priority, convening committees and appointing lawmakers to them at the last minute to get it passed, insisted Wednesday that the bill had enough support to clear the lower house.

The issue of farm worker funding "was raised on Monday, and I committed to them that I would put together a packet with Sen. Polanco to address the issue of transportation and migrant education, but that it would be separate from this issue," Villaraigosa said. "In the interim, at the request of the author, we are not going to bring the bill up. We want to make sure it appropriately honors the legacy of a very important man."

Some Republicans saw it differently.

"It got to be a point of embarrassment for them," said one GOP lawmaker, who requested anonymity. "To give state workers a day off rather than take the money that would cost and do something for the farm workers would not have looked good."

Republicans long had argued that the holiday bill should be tied to increased funding, but critics complained that they were trying to sink its chances of obtaining the signature of fiscally conservative Davis.

When the bill came up before the Senate in January, all Republicans abstained from voting. But several Assembly Republicans said Wednesday that they had planned to support it.

"There are Republicans that will honor Cesar Chavez however we do it," said Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside). "I don't know how many Republicans were supportive, but I know I was, and I know others were too. There are many ways to honor a dignified man such a Chavez."

To many in the Capitol, Burton's decision not to hold a hearing to pass the holiday bill represented evidence of the growing rift between him and Davis. Burton recently blocked the reappointment of a Republican, James W. Nielsen, to the state parole board, because a federal judge found the board had routinely abused the rights of the disabled during their parole hearings. Davis responded by appointing Nielsen to another state panel on parole for youthful offenders.

Davis was not disappointed by the delay, said spokesman Michael Bustamante.

"They'll get it done when they get it done," he said.

Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this story.

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