- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Ten months after vetoing a bill that would have let illegal immigrants get driver’s licenses, Gov. Gray Davis has reversed course, drawing accusations that he is pandering to Hispanics to try to save his job from a recall.

The governor, a Democrat who faces a recall election Oct. 7, said he would sign the bill if it reached his desk.

“Gray Davis is now scrambling to find as many friends in California as he can,” said Phil Paule, political director for Rescue California, the group pushing to oust Davis.

Davis aides denied he is playing politics and said he is supporting an improved version of the bill that addresses the security concerns he had when he vetoed it last year.

“The governor has always expressed support for granting the privilege of driving to hard-working immigrants in California,” spokesman Russ Lopez said.

Still, signing the law could prove powerfully appealing to Hispanics, whose vote is vital to Mr. Davis’ future, said Luis Fraga, a Stanford University researcher specializing in the politics of race and ethnicity.

Hispanics make up more than a third of California’s population and 14 percent of the electorate — twice their voting strength from a decade ago.

“The key to the Latino vote is mobilizing the voters and getting the folks to turn out,” Mr. Fraga said. “His support for a bill like this is an important mobilizer. His challenge is making it not seem like election-time pandering.”

Hispanics, as a group, traditionally vote Democratic. A recent poll found that 49 percent favor Mr. Davis’ removal — slightly lower than Anglo voters.

Mr. Davis’ change of heart appeals to another key constituency: labor. The United Farm Workers and other unions have long supported the measure because it would make it easier for members of California’s large illegal alien work force to commute to their jobs.

Last October, Mr. Davis vetoed a previous version of the bill in the middle of a tight re-election campaign, a move that cost him the endorsement of the 24-member caucus of Hispanic Democratic lawmakers.

Mr. Davis vetoed it because it did not require illegal immigrants to pass criminal background checks. The current bill does not include that language but requires applicants to be photographed and fingerprinted and their physical descriptions and addresses recorded.

Mr. Davis expressed support for the bill last weekend before labor groups and the influential Mexican American Political Association convention, just days after the date for the recall election was set.

The bill has passed the Senate and will be heard by the Assembly after the Legislature returns from its recess Aug. 18.

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