Obama Takes Big Risk on Driver's License Issue
Sen. Barack Obama easily won the African American vote in South Carolina, but to woo California Latinos, where he is running 3-to-1 behind rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, he is taking a giant risk: spotlighting his support for the red-hot issue of granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.It's a huge issue for Latinos, who want them. It's also a huge issue for the general electorate, which most vehemently does not. Obama's stand could come back to haunt him not only in a general election, but with other voters in California, where driver's licenses for illegal immigrants helped undo former Gov. Gray Davis.
Clinton stumbled into that minefield in a debate last fall and quickly backed off. First she suggested a New York proposal for driver's licenses for illegal immigrants might be reasonable. Then she denied endorsing the idea, and later came out against them.
Asked directly about the issue now, her California campaign spokesman said Clinton "believes the solution is to pass comprehensive immigration reform."
"Barack Obama has not backed down" on driver's licenses for undocumented people, said Federico Peña, a former Clinton administration Cabinet member and Denver mayor now supporting Obama. "I think when the Latino community hears Barack's position on such an important and controversial issue, they'll understand that his heart and his intellect is with Latino community."
Obama's intention is to draw distinctions between himself and Clinton on what are otherwise indistinguishable positions on immigration. Both have adopted the standard Democratic approach of favoring tougher enforcement along with earned legalization.
The Illinois senator is differentiating himself in three key areas: driver's licenses, a promise to take up immigration reform his first year in office, and his background as the son of an immigrant (his father was Kenyan) and a community organizer in Chicago.
Obama made the promise to Latino leaders to take up immigration reform in his first year after Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the Democratic caucus, said his party might not raise the divisive issue again until the next president's second term, assuming a Democrat wins.
Latino leaders felt betrayed. For them, an immigration overhaul is a top priority in light of state and local crackdowns on illegal immigrants and federal raids in workplaces across the country.
Clinton has not made such a promise, saying only that she would make her best efforts.
"Those issues are huge," said Obama supporter and state Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, vice chairman of the California Latino Legislative Caucus.
Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg and James Carville issued a direct warning on the driver's license issue in an analysis last month designed to guide Democrats through the treacherous immigration quagmire.
"The findings about driver's licenses are particularly notable," they said. Two-thirds of surveyed voters oppose them, the pollsters found, and the safety argument fails to dent the widespread conviction that granting a driver's license rewards illegal behavior.
But it will definitely work with Latinos, said John Trasviña, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Clinton and (Sen. John) Edwards have said no driver's licenses for unauthorized immigrants," Trasviña said. "Sen. Obama has said you get a driver's license if you know how to drive. And that message I think will resonate in the Latino community as we get closer to California."
The latest California Field Poll shows Clinton leads among Latinos 59 percent to 19 percent. That's bigger than the margin that handed her Nevada just over a week ago and about how well former President Bill Clinton did with Latinos in California when he won the state in 1992 and 1996, said poll director Mark DiCamillo.
One in 3 Californians is Latino, and although they make up just 14 percent of the electorate, they are 1 in 5 Democratic primary voters, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
"That's a very sizable group and a leading indicator in terms of younger and new voters," president Mark Baldassare said. "That's just the demographics of our state. They're a really crucial group."
Clinton's biggest asset is "El Presidente."
Thanks to Bill Clinton's presidency, during which he lavished attention on California, and her own eight years as first lady, Hillary Clinton enjoys enormous name recognition among Latinos.
She has also done her spadework. Clinton picked up early endorsements from leading Latinos such as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Assembly Speaker Fabian NÃƒÂºñez and fabled farmworker organizer Dolores Huerta.
Clinton opened her new East Lost Angeles campaign office Saturday with three Latina members of Congress: Hilda Solis, Grace Napolitano and Lucille Roybal-Allard.
Obama has lined up several lesser-known officials, including Assemblyman Joe Coto, D-San Jose, chair of the Latino Legislative Caucus, as well as Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Cerritos, who split from her sister, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Clinton backer from Garden Grove.
While Clinton has the backing of the United Farm Workers, Obama has picked up the endorsement of Unite Here, a heavily immigrant service workers union.
Both camps discount speculation of simmering racial hostility that might make some Latinos reluctant to vote for a black man.
"The familiarity with President Clinton has given her a very, very big lead from the beginning," said Maria Elena Durazo, secretary-treasurer for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor who is campaigning for Obama.
If there were racial animosity, "obviously we would have to address that very directly," Durazo said. But mostly the response Durazo gets when she asks Latinos about Obama is, "Who is he? I don't know who he is," whereas with Clinton, the answer comes back, "We know Presidente Bill Clinton."
Maria Echaveste, a UC Berkeley law lecturer advising the Clinton campaign, agreed. "Everyone is so quick to jump on" the racial angle, she said. "But, frankly, I think the explanation is a much greater number of people know her and love Bill Clinton."
Huerta, a longtime Latina activist and co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, scoffed at Obama's credentials with Latinos. Clinton worked in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas as a young woman, she said, while Obama was missing in action during two major activist events in Chicago, once when Elvira Arellano sought church sanctuary to avoid deportation, and another time when two Latino men were falsely accused of murder.
"He's now trying to build a relationship, but it's just not there," Huerta said. In Nevada, casino workers dubbed themselves "Hilarios," she said, meaning Hillary supporters. "This came from the people."
With Obama, she said, "A lot of them would say, 'Señor como se llama?' They didn't know Obama's name."
Latinos also trust Clinton, Huerta said. "Support for her is not just support; it's enthusiastic support. In fact, I haven't seen anything like this since the Bobby Kennedy campaign back in '68."
Obama has begun airing campaign ads on Spanish-language TV and his supporters are working hard to promote Obama's activist Chicago roots, which Peña declared forged "a personal connection with Latinos that no other candidate has had."
Added Durazo, "He's the son of an immigrant, he's the son of a single mother who sacrificed a lot to make sure he got his education. All of those issues resonate with a hotel housekeeper, a construction worker, a day laborer. ... I have great hope that we're going to break through that gap in a big way."
E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at email@example.com.
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle