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Davis Can Expect to Be Haunted by Latino Issues

Split decision on driver's licenses, farm bill angers constituents.

October 06, 2002|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

Halloween's just around the corner, so is California Gov. Gray Davis more afraid of a Latino ghost than he is of dozens of angry Latino legislators and thousands of Latino voters? Why else sign a controversial bill pushed by liberal legislators on behalf of a few rural Latinos, then turn around and veto a similarly controversial bill by urban Latino legislators on behalf of their working-class constituents?

It must have been agonizing for an ambitious career pol like Davis. He had to choose between two highly publicized bills of equal importance to a fast-growing Latino electorate that gave him 70% of its votes four years ago and helped other Democrats take control of the Legislature.

Not surprisingly, the notoriously risk-averse Davis opted for the safe choice.

He ran from the ghost of Cesar Chavez, the late and widely revered founder of the United Farm Workers union, by signing a bill pushed by Chavez's heirs at the UFW. It creates a state system for mediation when farm-labor contract negotiations become deadlocked, as often happens.

The measure was fiercely opposed by California agribusiness, which donated more than a quarter of a million dollars to Davis' reelection campaign in the hopes he might veto the measure.

To hold on to at least some of his agribusiness donors, Davis weighed the risks of vetoing the UFW bill for a very long time. So UFW leaders prodded the governor into line by using the political theatrics Chavez refined while building his small but politically potent union.

What really scared Davis were UFW threats to stage protests at campaign events in the final weeks before the Nov. 5 election.

The last thing an unpopular Democratic incumbent needs is poor campesinos shaming him at campaign rallies, holding up pictures of Chavez and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Davis already has enough Latinos angry with him.

After signing the UFW bill, he vetoed a measure by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) aimed at helping a different group of Latino workers.

Cedillo's measure would have given illegal immigrants who have applied for legal residency the right to apply for a California driver's license. Although the bill also mandated criminal background checks on all applicants, Davis cited security fears in the aftermath of Sept. 11 for his veto.

But Cedillo and other Latinos in the Legislature who backed the measure--a group that includes Democrats and Republicans--are convinced the decision was purely political. "His campaign staff says that 'driver's-licenses-for-illegals' is not polling well with swing voters," Cedillo said.

Cedillo is aware that a significant segment of the electorate--which eight years ago approved Proposition 187 to deny public services to illegal immigrants--still worries about illegal immigration. "But I warned them that a veto would turn off lots of Latino voters," Cedillo said. "And we've been more loyal to him and other Democrats than swing voters. I guess they figure we have no place else to go. But it was a purely political move, not leadership."

Indeed, leadership is what Davis' former boss, Oakland Mayor Edmund G. Brown Jr., showed when he was governor in 1975. He signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act into law, also over some resistance from agribusiness. It gave farm laborers the right to union-representation elections for the first time and worked well until rabidly anti-union growers began using legal technicalities to avoid negotiating labor contracts, even after the UFW won elections.

Fixing such a historic law--which is all the recent UFW bill does--should have been a no-brainer for Davis. Cedillo's bill was a tougher call, but a real leader would have also taken that political risk while ordering state agencies such as the Highway Patrol and the Department of Motor Vehicles to monitor the new law for unanticipated problems.

On Friday, several members of the Latino Legislative Caucus decided not to endorse Davis for reelection, a symbolic slap in the face. A few are even talking about supporting an effort by immigrant-rights groups to organize a protest vote in favor of Green Party gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo, a Latino of Venezuelan descent.

The Camejo move "could happen because of all the anger I'm hearing toward Davis," said Antonio Gonzalez of the nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration and Education project. "Maybe it'll dissipate by the election, but he sure won't get 70% of the [Latino] vote again."

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