Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, right, is congratulated by state Sens. Kevin… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
SACRAMENTO — Colleagues dismissed him as "one-bill Gil." Fellow Democrats labeled him politically toxic. But the tenacious Los Angeles legislator ultimately triumphed, keeping a promise to his dying wife.
Capitol insiders knew about Assemblyman Gil Cedillo's pledge to his wife, Ruby Oliva, just before she succumbed to cancer. They may not have known how the conversation began.
She essentially was telling him to go out and meet people and enjoy a social life.
"My lovely wife was like admonishing me, telling me, 'Look, don't just sit in the room and cry forever,' " he recalls. "She was saying, 'You've got to go forward. Go out and have a life.'
"I told her, 'I don't want to have this conversation.' She said, 'Listen to me. You've got to go on.
"Then," Cedillo continues, smiling, "she grabs me by the collar of my shirt and says, 'But first you have to finish passing this bill. Get that done first, OK? Promise me.'
"I said, 'That's going to take a while. Which do you want me to do: Move on or get this done?' "
Cedillo's wife, a community activist, made it clear she thought his first priority should be to pass legislation allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. "She made me promise. It became my mission."
That was 10 years ago. It has been a long, arduous fight with many setbacks and much sarcasm from Republicans and Democrats alike, who charged that he was being politically irresponsible for pushing an unpopular cause.
"OK, so it's not popular," Cedillo told me eight years ago. "That's OK. I'm sure a lot of things aren't popular. But we've done them and they're good for us. Seat belts. Nonsmoking. Reducing air pollution.
"Doing the right thing is not necessarily what's popular."
Cedillo, 58, finally won passage of a scaled-down driver's license bill last week, his final major act before being termed out of the Legislature.
Next year, he intends to run for the Los Angeles City Council seat held by the termed-out Ed Reyes.
Cedillo's bill, AB 2189, could allow an estimated 450,000 young illegal immigrants to drive legally if they qualify for a federal work-permit program under a new Obama administration policy.
The program grants a two-year deferral from deportation for illegal immigrants who came to the United States before age 16 and are now 30 or younger. They'd have to be attending school or have completed high school or served honorably in the military, and not have a criminal record.
The measure whipped out of the Senate on a 25-7 vote and then cleared the Assembly, 55-21.
Gov. Jerry Brown has been noncommittal, but there's no reason to think that he won't sign it, unlike previous Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis. They gave Cedillo nothing but grief.
It's hard to keep it all straight. But Cedillo got his first driver's license bill passed in 2000. Davis vetoed it, claiming the measure was "an invitation for fraud."
The next year Cedillo pushed through another version, right before 9/11 and the terrorist attacks. Stories were rampant about terrorists using phony IDs. Facing a sure veto, the lawmaker pulled his measure off the governor's desk.
In 2002, Cedillo retooled the bill, tightening it to meet Davis' satisfaction. But liberals thought it was too restrictive and persuaded the governor to veto it.
"Liberals were out of touch with the public," Cedillo says. "Surprise, surprise!"
The next year, Cedillo again won passage of a looser bill and Davis signed it in an obvious act of ethnic pandering as he fought a recall. The pandering backfired. A Times poll found that 63% of likely voters disapproved of the bill, including 40% of Latinos.
Schwarzenegger pounded Davis with the new law and threatened to take a repeal measure to the voters, a sure crowd-pleaser. "That thing was going to fly like free pancakes," Cedillo says.
So Cedillo agreed to a legislative repeal, accepting Schwarzenegger's promise to later help him write an acceptable bill. But Schwarzenegger reneged and vetoed a Cedillo driver's license bill in 2004.
That's when legislators started calling him "one-bill Gil" and refused to consider any more measures.
But Cedillo did manage to push through "dream act" legislation that provided public and private financial aid for undocumented college students. Brown signed the bills.
Then the Obama administration opened the door and Cedillo raced through.
The opposition has cooled over the years "in a very pronounced way," Cedillo believes. "Immigrants are so integrated into the daily lives of Californians, whether as housekeepers or gardeners. Plus, look at the demographics, the growing numbers."
It's still a highly partisan issue politically, however. Democrats supported Cedillo's bill. Most Republicans didn't.
The legislative debates had a familiar, if less forceful, ring than in the past.
Republicans argued that there's a security risk in granting illegal immigrants IDs; also that we shouldn't be rewarding border-crashers for their illegal behavior.
Democrats countered that the real risk is allowing hundreds of thousands of people to drive — they're going to with or without licenses — and not requiring them to be tested to make sure they understand our highway laws.
Watching the good-natured Cedillo over the years has provided a lesson in legislative commitment and perseverance.
Legislators of both parties applauded him after his bill passed the Assembly — a rare demonstration of respect and affection.
"There's an incredible sense of relief to have fulfilled the commitment to my wife," Cedillo told me.
And now he's free to go out and have a life.