Ten years ago, California voters recalled the governor and put in his place an actor who soon fulfilled a campaign promise to rescind a bill approving driver’s licenses for people in the country unlawfully. Almost ten years to the day after the recall election, another governor signed a bill to allow for those driver’s licenses. While others today on this page write about the meaning of the recall of a decade ago putting Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor’s office, I intend to consider the political shift over the last decade as reflected by the driver’s license debate.
Gil Cedillo, now a Los Angeles City councilman, introduced a driver’s license bill for illegal immigrants in 1997. That was four years after Governor Pete Wilson signed a bill to prohibit immigrants in the country unlawfully from acquiring a driver’s license. There had been no prohibition prior to the bill signed by Wilson.
The measure prohibiting driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants was signed at a difficult economic time in the state. A reverse spin from the “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War cut deeply into California’s aerospace and military related industries. Jobs were at a premium. As is often the case in hard economic times, a spotlight was focused on immigrants who some held responsible for lack of jobs.
Cedillo did not succeed in creating a new law for undocumented immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses. But he kept trying so often over the years that he served in both the Assembly and Senate that he acquired the nickname, “One Bill Gil.”
Cedillo once told me he took his never-say-die attitude from the success of Howard Jarvis and his crusade to reform property taxes. While the legislator was no supporter of the tax reduction movement, he respected the effort Jarvis put in, continuing after his goal despite failing a number of times.
Governor Gray Davis vetoed a couple of Cedillo’s driver’s license bills that reached his desk. However, in the shadow of the recall campaign to boot him from office, Davis signed a new version of the bill in hopes of securing Latino support to kill the recall.
During the campaign, Schwarzenegger supported repealing the driver’s license law Davis had signed. Once the new governor was in office, Cedillo tried to work with him and stood on the senate floor asking for repeal of the driver’s license law. The legislature quickly responded positively to the wishes of the new governor.
Similar to the economic environment of the 1990s when Wilson signed the bill to prohibit illegal immigrants from acquiring licenses, the state had a huge deficit and was suffering economic troubles at the time. Such circumstances were one of the reasons Davis was hauled from office. September 11, 2001 was still in the minds of many voters and the driver’s license issue was intertwined with concerns that potential terrorists using fake IDs would do damage to the country.
In comparison, hardly any grumbling was heard when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a driver’s license law last Friday. Brown doubled-down on the issue of undocumented immigrants by also signing bills to allow unlawful immigrants to practice as attorneys and prohibit turning over illegal immigrants who commit certain crimes to federal immigration authorities.
In can be said for Brown, as for seemingly many Californians, this attitude toward undocumented immigrants is a reversal of positions held not long ago.
One reason is the demographic change in the state over the past decade. Large numbers of immigrants are now part of California’s economic sinew. Unlike ten and twenty years ago when the driver’s license issue was prominent, the state is in economic recovery, not it an economic valley.
Perhaps, the larger issue in a political sense is the battle for immigration reform. Indeed, Brown claims his reversal of position is because the federal government is dragging its feet on immigration reform and he hopes the actions of the nation’s largest state goads the feds into action.
Many business organizations in the state also are urging federal immigration reform and have not protested the governor’s actions on immigration. However, it should be noted business is put in an awkward position with the driver’s license law. One of the main reasons cited by the governor for signing the bill is that workers need the licenses to get to their jobs. However, federal law prohibits people in the country illegally from working.
Republican leaders in the Golden State have argued they must be more relevant to the immigrant community if they are to rebound as a party. Their reaction to Brown signing the bill has been muted in comparison to Davis approving a similar measure ten years ago.
Grassroots Republicans may have a different response to the signing of the bill, but it has not jelled as yet. It would seem they have a natural leader to oppose the bill, former Minuteman Tim Donnelly now in the California Assembly and running for governor. But, Donnelly’s nascent campaign’s main thrust appears to be Second Amendment gun issues.
There have been many other changes politically in this state over the decade, as California has become a more liberal state with the political power firmly in the hands of Democrats.
The determination if there has been a complete changeover must come in the field of taxation.
The other big issue at the time of the recall was an increase in the Vehicle License Fee, known as the car tax. Brown was successful in raising both the sales and income tax on high earners last year, but that campaign centered on a slogan of taxing the rich. The car tax is a much more broad based tax. When Senator Ted Lieu introduced a car tax increase bill soon after last November’s election he was forced to withdraw it.
Not all motivations associated with the dramatic recall of ten years ago have faded away.