August 1, 2003

On Latino Minds: Davis Turns to the Left

By Pilar Marrero

LOS ANGELES—With the recall pending over his head like the Sword of Damocles, California Gov. Gray Davis is becoming a progressive reborn. The first to benefit are undocumented immigrants, who will finally have a chance to have something that most everyone takes for granted: a driver’s license.

Davis voiced his support for SB60, the driver’s license bill that he himself vetoed last year, at a union barbecue in Echo Park this Saturday. Surrounding him were the union leaders and activists that he needs to mobilize what could amount to the most crucial swing vote for him to keep his governorship: the Latinos.

Just like they did last November, Latinos could provide the governor with the margin of victory to win the recall vote, set for October 7. Polls showed growing support for the recall while it was still just a plan, but the outcome is far from settled.

“Anybody who says they know the winner of this doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” said Joe Cerrell, a veteran Democratic political consultant. “We still don’t know who’s really running, and we’ll only have a better idea when the deadline for candidate filing closes August 9.”

A Field Poll in mid-July showed that, among likely voters, 51 percent supported the recall and 43 percent were against it.

The poll’s sample was realistically tilted toward the more Republican electorate that usually makes it to the polls for special elections. Still, only 51 percent wanted Davis out — barely enough to do it. And Latinos were less likely to want to recall the governor than other groups.

Now the formidable Davis campaign machine is in gear, and nobody can underestimate the lengths to which the governor will go to win this election. “Everybody is talking about how relaxed he looks,” said Sherry Jeffe, a political analyst and professor of political science at USC. “This man may not be a great governor but he is a great campaigner. He relishes the fight.”

A lot will depend on the Republican alternatives on the ballot. If it’s just a group of extreme conservatives, like Bill Simon, Darrell Issa and Michael Huffington, then Davis’ argument that this is a right-wing conspiracy could stick and scare or anger moderates and liberals to come out and vote, not to support the governor, but to punish the “conspirators.”

If there is a viable, moderate alternative, somebody with pro-choice, pro-gun control credentials like Arnold Schwarzenegger or former mayor of Los Angeles Richard Riordan, there is a chance that Davis could lose. But although Schwarzenegger is well known and has money, his lack of political experience and potential negatives could be overwhelming. If he does run, the Davis campaign allegedly has a lot of dirt on him and will surely use it. Riordan surely remembers that the Davis camp destroyed his candidacy last year in a similar fashion.

Davis has another card up his sleeve: state rules mandate that any initiative that had already qualified for the regular election ballot automatically move up to the special election, if it did not specify a date to go before the voters. That means the “Classification by Race, Ethnicity, Color or National Origin” initiative, also known as the Connerly Initiative after its author, University of California Regent Ward Connerly, will be on the same ballot with the recall. And that, experts say, may help Davis.

The measure is being touted by opponents as “the sequel to Proposition 209,” Connerly’s anti-affirmative action law passed by voters in 1996. It would mandate that no government agency keep track of the racial or ethnic background of people they come in contact with. This may, for example, eliminate any possibility of tracking racial profiling or other discriminatory policies. Connerly, who is black, wants to sell it as the way to a “color-blind” society.

This initiative could remind Latinos and other minorities of the divisive measures of the 1990s, including Proposition 187, designed to cut off many health and social services to undocumented immigrants and their children, as well as 209. This could make them come out to vote and perhaps vote against the recall for good measure.

If the turnout is small and consists of mostly Republican activists, Davis risks losing. Democratic heavyweights will be watching the list of candidates and the polls in the coming days to decide how long they will stick by their man, or if anybody such as, say, Dianne Feinstein, should come to the rescue.

It’s hard to see how the recall will solve California’s problems. But when Davis signs the driver’s license bill, at least some people will have gotten something to improve their lives. It may end up being the only silver lining in this confusing cloud of weird California politics.

Marrero (Pilar.Marrero@la is political editor and columnist for La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles.

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