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Persistence Pays Off for Bill's Sponsor

September 06, 2003|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Gil Cedillo was a victim of circumstances last year when his bill to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants in California died because of security fears spawned by 9/11.

But with this year's recall election, some argue that the Democratic state senator is a beneficiary of circumstances.

Gov. Gray Davis, who has twice vetoed similar legislation, signed the bill Friday, just weeks before his political future will be decided at the polls.

Neither Cedillo nor Davis concedes that the recall campaign had any bearing on the governor's support, even though the current legislation lacks several provisions that Davis said should have been included in versions he had vetoed previously.

The bill's passage this time is a satisfying victory for the 49-year-old Cedillo, who has championed the issue since he became an assemblyman. In the five years since, the bill has taken an arduous journey that even saw it almost become law in 2001 without Davis' signature because of a clerical error. It was later rescinded.

Last week on the Senate floor, Cedillo was moved to tears when he dedicated the bill to his late wife, Ruby Oliva, who died last year of cancer. She had been passionate about the bill, he said, and had demanded that he shepherd it into law.

"She insisted on it. It had to be done. It will be done," he said.

A native of Boyle Heights, Cedillo grew up with an awareness of the interests of the working class. His father was a member of the United Steelworkers of America and his mother was a seamstress.

After earning a law degree from the People's College of Law in Los Angeles, Cedillo joined the Service Employees International Union. He became general manager of Local 660, the largest chapter of the union outside New York. There he led the union's "rolling thunder" strategy of calling one-day strikes in the early 1990s.

"I think Gil has lived his life being aware of injustice," said Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno). He saw the inability of 2 million illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses "as a huge injustice.... This has been his lifeblood, and he's worked night and day to get this bill a signature."

Cedillo stepped into politics in 1998 when he won a special election for the 46th District Assembly seat vacated by Louis Caldera, who joined the Clinton administration. Cedillo was elected to the Senate, representing parts of the San Gabriel Valley and Los Angeles, last November.

As an assemblyman, after introducing a bill that provided more bedside health care for illegal immigrants, the freshman legislator took his first stab at the driver's license issue.

"Whether or not someone believes these people should be here, the fact is that they are here and they are driving," Cedillo told The Times in 1999.

Davis vetoed the bill, but Cedillo tried again.

This time he agreed to provisions suggested by law enforcement officials that required criminal background checks and proof that applicants had lived in California for at least 15 months in the previous three years.

After seeming to have the governor's support, the bill was vetoed again last October because of concerns that terrorists could obtain driver's licenses too easily.

Cedillo, who had been one of Davis' earliest supporters for governor in 1998, responded angrily, calling the veto "another example of failed leadership" and "putting politics ahead of public safety."

But at an anti-recall rally in July, the governor stood with Cedillo and other Latino officeholders and announced he would sign the driver's license bill "in a heartbeat." Davis was then soundly criticized by opponents for what they called pandering to Latino voters.

Sheriff Lee Baca, who opposed the bill, nevertheless said, "I respect Gil. He has a lot of passion and believes in what he's doing. I know his heart is in the right place."

Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa said that Cedillo's determination with the driver's license bill reminded him of the days when they both attended Roosevelt High School and Cedillo was a quarterback on the football team.

"He didn't have the strongest arm, but he was a field general and he had a tenaciousness and an intellect, qualities that I think helped make the bill a success."

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