September 12, 2003

In California Gubernatorial Debate, Ethnic Communities Reframe Issues

By Marcelo Ballve
Pacific News Service.

LOS ANGELES—A California gubernatorial debate on Sept. 9 underscored how the concerns of immigrant and ethnic communities are more than ever framing key debates in state politics. Candidates must now take stands on issues that only 10 years ago were not in the political mainstream.

The issue of drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants, for example, came up quickly at the debate in Los Angeles organized by NCM, an ethnic media association that is a project of the Pacific News Service, and the Greenlining Institute, a multiethnic advocacy group.

Just days before, Gov. Gray Davis dropped his longstanding opposition and signed the drivers’ license bill, hoping to shore up support among Latinos and other immigrant communities to defeat the recall.

At the Sept. 9 debate, a cross-cultural panel of ethnic media journalists grilled candidates on how they would confront an effort by angry Republicans to overturn the legislation.

The candidates present — Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat; columnist Arianna Huffington, an independent; and Peter Camejo, Green Party candidate — said they would vigorously defend the newly earned right of undocumented immigrants to hold drivers’ licenses.

One panelist, Roland Nichols, an anchor for the Univision Spanish-language television network, reminded Bustamante that 10 years ago it was he who had helped lead a vote in the state legislature that prohibited undocumented immigrants from holding drivers’ licenses.

Bustamante immediately castigated himself for his past position. “I regret that particular vote,” he said.

In a tense exchange with panelist Chauncey Bailey, news director of Soul Beat television in Oakland, Calif., Bustamante struggled to explain his inadvertent use of a racial slur during a Black History Month speech and how he would soothe tension between Latinos and blacks, who are losing political influence in the state.

The Los Angeles debate was the first major recall event organized specifically to discuss issues important to the 53 percent majority of the California population made up by so-called minority groups.

The candidates sought to portray their campaigns as efforts to reclaim politics for an increasingly diverse electorate that does not feel represented.

Camejo drew applause when he said the three candidates heralded a new, more inclusive era in California politics: “Look at us, two Latinos, and a woman; it’s about time. I think that we’re opening up the system. Let’s never go back to the way it was.”

Non-Hispanic whites still represent 73 percent of the likely voters in the state, according to a 2002 study by the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California. Still, analysts agree immigrant and minority voters can swing an election, particularly in the recall, since the large number of candidates means a relatively small percentage of votes can win the contest.

Bustamante, who among other things said community colleges should be free, appears to be crafting a platform custom-fitted to the concerns of immigrant and working class voters, who also tend to be minorities. Bustamante, the leading replacement candidate, has the support of 35 percent of voters, according to polls.

Answering a question from Odette Keeley, executive producer for the Filipino channel ABS-CBN International, Bustamante announced his support of a bill that would require translation services for immigrants at hospitals and doctor’s offices. He also said he supports a bill that would force private employers to grant health insurance to at least 1 million workers.

Thanks partly to the influence of immigrant labor leaders and workers, that measure, known as SB2, is politically palatable now, after years of defeats for similar efforts that sought to expand health care coverage. Employers disproportionately deny immigrants health care.

Bustamante, who is the grandson of Mexican immigrants, also said he would push Washington, D.C., for an amnesty that would benefit the more than 2 million undocumented immigrants in California. The state, he said, must “stand up” against the post-Sept. 11 abuses committed by federal agencies in the policing of Muslim and Middle Eastern communities.

Just a decade ago, a clear majority of California voters were enraged at the federal government for not doing enough to control immigration.

Republican actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is running in second place behind Bustamante, and Republican State Sen. Tom McClintock did not attend the debate.

Those present described the Republicans as anti-immigrant and weak on minority issues. “Their absence from the debate today and their stand on the drivers’ licenses should leave no doubt as to whose side they are on,” said Huffington.

Both McClintock and Schwarzenegger have said that granting drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants threatens homeland security and that if elected they would work to overturn the bill. Each has acknowledged support in the mid-1990s for the voter-approved Proposition 187, which sought to cut off public services to undocumented immigrants but was overturned by the courts.

Many Latinos and other immigrants viewed the proposition, and the way it was promoted, as racist.

At the debate, Bustamante sought the support of Huffington, a Greek immigrant, and Camejo, a Latino of Venezuelan origin, on issues such as protecting coastal areas and defeating Proposition 54, an initiative that would ban the collection of racial and ethnic data by state agencies. Prop. 54 will appear on the recall ballot Oct. 7.

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