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Davis Is Caught in Jaws of Two Latino Demands

September 09, 2002|FRANK del OLMO

Once upon a time, Gov. Gray Davis looked upon California's fast-growing Latino electorate as a safe and solid base of support for his reelection campaign. After all, Davis got 71% of the Latino vote against his Republican opponent in 1998, according to Times exit polls. Back then, Davis was only the latest Democrat to benefit from the lingering anger that new Latino voters felt toward former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, for backing Proposition 187 in 1994. That same Latino backlash helped give Democrats solid control of the state Legislature.

But that was then. Now the notoriously cautious Davis finds himself besieged by unhappy Latino activists--including most of the 28 Latinos in the state Legislature--from two sides. And no matter which way he turns, the governor runs the risk of alienating a big chunk of the Latino electorate.

The political standoff that has gotten Davis the most negative attention is with the United Farm Workers, the small but symbolically important labor union founded by the late Cesar Chavez. The UFW wants Davis to sign a bill that would strengthen the state's Agricultural Labor Relations Act by requiring binding arbitration whenever a union and farmer cannot agree on a labor contract, something that has happened quite often since the landmark law was enacted in 1975. California's powerful agribusiness lobby wants the bill vetoed and has donated a cool quarter-million dollars to Davis' reelection campaign just since August.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 13, 2002 Home Edition California Part B Page 17 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Latino legislators--A Sept. 9 column by Frank del Olmo reported the number of Latinos in the state Legislature as 28. The correct number is 19 in the state Assembly and seven in the state Senate, for a total of 26.

The UFW has responded with the politically potent tactics that Chavez refined over many years--peaceful protest marches and prayer vigils to publicly embarrass unresponsive opponents. So far they have had the intended effect on Davis, prodding him to propose a compromise--no veto in exchange for a five-year sunset provision in the UFW bill. UFW officials agreed to it. But Davis has yet to sign the reform into law, and the UFW has begun a prayer vigil outside the Capitol that union leaders say will continue until he does.

Many Latinos in the Legislature expect Davis to string the UFW along as long as he can (he has until Sept. 30 to approve or veto legislation) because the governor is weighing the potential consequences of a second piece of legislation--a controversial bill by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) that could allow up to 800,000 illegal immigrants to obtain California driver's licenses. To make the license bill more palatable to the law-and-order voters who supported Proposition 187, Davis demanded changes proposed by his political allies in law enforcement, such as Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. The bill would now require immigrant applicants to undergo criminal background checks.

Like the UFW, Cedillo and his supporters did not want to change their bill but did so to get Davis' support. The driver's license bill also sits in Davis' in-basket.

As Latino legislators wait to see what happens to the UFW and Cedillo bills, they privately discuss dark scenarios, particularly one put forth by Davis' loudest Democratic critic in the Legislature, State Senate President John Burton of San Francisco: Could Davis be biding his time, deciding which group of Latino voters he can afford to alienate? The rural Latinos who support the UFW or the urban Latinos who support immigrants' rights measures like Cedillo's bill?

The two groups are not mutually exclusive, of course. In fact, Latino legislators warn that a veto of either bill could cost Davis voter support in both California's rural colonias and urban barrios. "The governor has got to sign both," warns state Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Norwalk), who voted for the Cedillo bill despite "hating" the changes made to appease Davis. "This is a two-fer as far as I'm concerned, and most of the Latino caucus feels the same way."

A UFW spokesman said: "The governor's getting bad advice if he thinks he can play us against urban Latinos. He may get some goodwill by signing the driver's license bill. But it's been so watered down that he won't get enough goodwill to offset a veto of our bill."

How will the risk-averse Davis appease all these angry Latinos? Watch this space. For now, I couldn't blame California's governor if he wished Wilson and other Proposition 187 proponents had been right and their misguided initiative had scared Latino immigrants back to Mexico, or at least to some other state.


Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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