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Driver's License Test for Schwarzenegger

How he deals with the controversial law could determine whether divisive politicking returns.

October 13, 2003|Frank del Olmo

Now that the recall has succeeded, the new California law allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses will provide one of the first doses of political reality that Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger must face.

How he handles it could determine whether his administration gets along well with the state's emerging majority or stumbles onto the same slippery slope of divisive ethnic politics that poisoned his mentor Pete Wilson's relations with Latinos.

Schwarzenegger needs to rethink his opposition to the law and short-circuit any moves for a referendum or initiative to repeal it. An uncomfortable moment on the campaign trail underscores how important this issue is to Latinos.

His handlers had staged an event in the state's biggest Mexican American barrio, in Los Angeles' Eastside. Like other Schwarzenegger "town halls," the meeting with fellow immigrants (held to coincide with the 20th anniversary of his becoming a U.S. citizen) was tightly controlled to ensure a friendly audience. Schwarzenegger's campaign staffers could have found enough recent immigrants to fill the room simply by walking a block in any direction from the Hollenbeck Youth Center in Boyle Heights, where it was held. But, instead, they invited a veritable rainbow of prosperous ethnic Americans from all over Southern California -- Chinese from Monterey Park, Armenians from Glendale and Filipinos from Hollywood.

Most of the Latinos in the audience were personally screened by the youth center's director, a close friend of Schwarzenegger's. But that didn't stop a conservative businessman, Jorge Olamendi, from chastising Schwarzenegger for his opposition to the driver's license law. "If they don't have a driver's license, they don't have registration, they don't have insurance," the Orange County resident said, echoing arguments made by the law's Democratic authors and also by supporters of the measure, such as the California Chamber of Commerce.

Clearly taken aback by Olamendi's persistence, Schwarzenegger finally cut him off by saying, "I respect your opinion," and went on to restate his concern that the law could make it easier for terrorists to get a California license.

That, of course, was the recall campaign's scripted response to questions about the driver's license bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis in an obvious ploy to get Latino voter support. Davis had vetoed similar bills twice before, demanding more security measures to screen license applicants. That only made his approval of the 2003 version look like pandering. Schwarzenegger understandably used Davis' turnabout to bash him mercilessly.

The driver's license bill was also used in some of Schwarzenegger's TV ads in a thinly veiled reference to Davis' alleged pandering to Latino voters and illegal immigrants. That is why, on election night, a few alarmist commentators on Spanish-language television warned their viewers that Schwarzenegger's election could portend a return to the immigrant-bashing that had marked Wilson's campaign on behalf of Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that would have barred illegal immigrants from public services.

Before the night was out, moderate Republican state legislators like Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria and Bonnie Garcia of Cathedral City were on the same newscasts trying to reassure Latinos that a Schwarzenegger victory was not akin to the bad old days of uno ochenta y siete -- Proposition 187.

So far the Democrats who pushed the driver's license law, sponsored by state Sen. Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles, seem willing to take their Republican counterparts at their word. "I've spoken to them," said Assemblyman Fabian Nunez, a Los Angeles Democrat, "and know we can fix the law to address their security concerns."

Nunez was a veteran political operative before being elected to the Legislature, so he speaks from experience when he says the pro-recall campaign "did some immigrant-baiting, mostly on the right-wing talk shows to feed their political base. But it was nowhere near as bad as the 187 campaign. Smart Republicans know that in the long run they can't keep using immigrants as their whipping boy."

They also know that Maldonado and Garcia's constituents include not only immigrant field hands who need driver's licenses to get to work but also many of the Republican farmers who employ them. And a Republican businessman who will surely remind Schwarzenegger of that is the guy who invited Jorge Olamendi to that Eastside town hall -- his brother Carlos.

The owner of a successful chain of Mexican restaurants, Carlos Olamendi is -- along with Warren Buffett and George P. Shultz, the former secretary of Treasury and State -- on Schwarzenegger's economic advisory team. And I'll bet a combination plate that Carlos Olamendi is even now working to find a way to make the controversial driver's license law palatable to the Austrian immigrant he helped elect governor.

Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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