Sunday, June 20, 2004 | 06/20/2004 | Resolve fuels his drive for immigrant licenses | 06/20/2004 | Resolve fuels his drive for immigrant licenses

Posted on Sun, Jun. 20, 2004
Resolve fuels his drive for immigrant licenses
By Jack Chang

As his political adversaries know, state Sen. Gil Cedillo could never be called a quitter.

The Los Angeles Democrat started his legislative career in 1998 with a proposal to allow illegal immigrants to receive driver's licenses. It went nowhere, so he tried again in 1999. And in 2001. And again last year.

His fifth version passed the Senate Transportation Committee on June 15.

That tireless drive has made Cedillo one of the loudest voices in the national debate over illegal immigration. It has also made him the target of threats and verbal attacks.

Reflecting on his legislative career one relatively quiet afternoon in his Capitol office, Cedillo said he has only been consistent.

"I think we're true believers," the 50-year-old former union organizer said. "With driver's licenses, we made a promise when we ran for office to come here and work on this and seek resolution.

"That has put us in a situation that is challenging, but, fortunately, we have time."

Cedillo hopes to put a new license bill before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger by the end of this legislative session, despite statements from the governor's office that he does not support it.

Top Republicans strongly oppose it.

"If these are people who are here in violation of federal law and they are making our roads unsafe, should we not enforce our immigration laws?" Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, asked June 15.

"This bill is worse than the last one that was signed," said former Sen. Dick Mountjoy of Monrovia, who wrote Proposition 187, a 1994 proposal to deny illegal immigrants most public benefits. "I do not see a need for this bill."

Cedillo has grown accustomed to defending his bill against thunder and fury. He answered in the measured voice of a schoolteacher.

"We have heard modest criticism that does not affect the core of this legislation," Cedillo said. "I thank Senator McClintock for his comments, and I always enjoy engaging him."

McClintock did not respond to calls seeking comment for this article.

"You don't want to mistake (Cedillo's) calmness for meekness or mildness," said Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes, D-Fresno, who said she considers Cedillo "the best of friends." "Gil is a child of the radical '60s. He was the one who protested and shook his fist and yelled."

A native of Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles, Cedillo said football initially inspired him more than the explosive politics of the late 1960s.

But a summer outreach program at UCLA and exposure to student movements awakened the 15-year-old. His first protest, a march in East Los Angeles against the Vietnam War, ended in violent confrontation with police and burned storefronts.

Later, as a student at UCLA, Cedillo managed to irritate some fellow student activists.

"I was very committed to going beyond the rhetoric and making a commitment. Speeches are nice, but you have to really go and work in the community. The other students were like, 'Don't bug us. Leave us alone.'"

That friction continued into Cedillo's 12 years working for Los Angeles County's largest public employee union, four of them as general manager.

"Under Gil, we were becoming a very militant union, and we felt the times merited it," said Dan Savage, a UCLA graduate student who became Cedillo's second-in-command. "We took a union that was more of an association and within a short time we were committing acts of civil disobedience."

Those tactics stopped the county from carrying out thousands of threatened job cuts, Cedillo said, but in 1996, the union's board fired both Cedillo and Savage, who is now Cedillo's chief of staff.

"They said I wasn't spending enough time with them or showing them respect," Cedillo said. "That was a problem I didn't quite appreciate then. I appreciate it now -- developing human contacts and seeing where the other side is coming from."

A better understanding of public relations has not meant Cedillo is shying away from difficult or unpopular issues; few issues have been as difficult or unpopular as that of illegal immigrants receiving driver's licenses.

Many in his own party have faulted Cedillo for raising the issue in the thick of last year's recall election against former Gov. Gray Davis, who signed Cedillo's bill and lost the election a month later. The Legislature repealed the law under pressure from newly elected Schwarzenegger.

Polls run at the time found that about two-thirds of voters opposed Cedillo's proposal.

"This is an easy issue to be against, but the challenge of leadership is to not always do the popular thing," Cedillo said.

Even Savage said he often wonders why Cedillo has so persistently championed the driver's license cause.

"I say to him that not one of these people affected by the bill can vote for him," Savage said. "These people by definition are not involved in the political process. There are not many politicians who will devote so much time to an issue with no apparent political benefit."

The demographics of Cedillo's district -- 58 percent Democrat, 18 percent Republican, 73 percent Latino -- allow him to pursue without much political risk what he admits is a deeply personal issue.

Since winning his Assembly seat in 1998, Cedillo has argued that a 1993 law stripping illegal immigrants of driving privileges was a deeply unjust one that punished working families despite their contributions to society.

"We admire immigrants," he said. "They take our kids to and from school. When our parents are old and ill, they take care of our parents. The most intimate relationships men and women have with each other we have with immigrants, yet the minute they want to drive themselves to work legally, we consider that a danger and threat to America. It's incredible."

Cedillo has said his bill would ensure the state trains and keeps track of about 2 million illegal immigrants, many of whom already drive without proper training.

His opponents argue that his proposal would reward people who have broken federal law and make driver's licenses vulnerable to forgery and misuse by terrorists.

"You will render as useless the driver's license as a means of identification," McClintock told Cedillo at the committee hearing.

On June 10, 2002, what was already a personal issue for Cedillo became a mission. That was the day his wife, Ruby Oliva, whom Cedillo met in high school, died of cancer.

"The loss of my wife is so profound on me, I can't even articulate it," Cedillo said.

A picture of Oliva and Cedillo during his first Assembly campaign sat a few feet away on his desk.

"Since my wife passed away, I've been driven by a commitment to fulfill a promise I made to her to provide licenses to all immigrant motorists."

Cedillo's opponents admire his persistence.

"He believes in something, and he is not going to let 70 percent of the population get in his way," said Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, which launched a campaign to repeal Cedillo's bill last year.

"I wish there were others in the Legislature who would stand up for their beliefs on our side."


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