License issue drives local debates

By Joseph Spector
Star-Gazette Albany Bureau
Oct. 13, 2007

ALBANY -- The new television ad from Republican Erie County clerk candidate William O'Loughlin says, "I'll stop illegal aliens from getting driver's licenses, even if I have to go to jail to protect you."

O'Loughlin also ran a full-page newspaper ad that calls for county residents to vote for him and stop his Democratic opponent, incumbent Clerk Kathy Hochul, from issuing licenses to illegal immigrants.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer's new policy to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses has been a hotly debated issue across the state.

And the controversial policy is starting to take center stage in some local elections this year, potentially giving Republicans a new issue to use against Democrats and label them soft on crime and immigration.

Political analysts say the Democratic governor may be giving a gift to Republicans with only weeks before the Nov. 6 elections.

Some experts said Republicans may be able to rally around the issue to maintain their edge in upstate communities and beat back inroads made by Democrats.

"At least in the midst of being such a bad period for Republicans, here's an issue that may allow them to stem the tide a little," said Utica-based pollster John Zogby.

A Zogby poll last week found that 58 percent of voters disagree with Spitzer's plan to no longer require Social Security numbers in order to receive a license.

The new policy, announced last month and expected to take effect Dec. 1, will allow a foreign passport to serve as a main document to receive a license.

About a dozen county legislatures in the state have passed resolutions opposing the Democratic governor's policy, putting lawmakers on record where they stand before voters go to the polls to pick legislative candidates.

Also, with 23 county clerk races on the ballot in New York this year, no issue may loom larger for clerk candidates.

"People used to ignore the clerk's race; now we are front and center," Hochul said.

Hochul finds herself in an awkward position.

She was appointed by Spitzer earlier this year after former Erie County clerk David Swarts was named head of the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Yet she is opposing Spitzer's driver's license plan, saying clerks should not be required to issue licenses to illegal immigrants.

Still, she said she won't disobey the governor's orders to issue the licenses -- unlike 13 clerks who say they won't offer the licenses even if Spitzer forces them to.

Last week, 29 county clerks, only one of whom is a Democrat, signed a resolution that denounces the governor's policy. In 15 of those counties, the clerk's seat is on the ballot this year.

Dutchess County Clerk Bradford Kendall, a Republican who is running this year, said he doesn't believe the clerks' objections are politically motivated. He is among those opposing the governor's policy.

"I listen to the people who work for me, and I've yet to have one DMV employee tell me this is a good idea," he said.

His Democratic opponent, Richard Anderson, said he generally supports the policy, suggesting that the furor is "political posturing."

Senate Republicans have scheduled a hearing in Albany on Monday to hear testimony on the policy.

Republican leaders say the issue could become a dividing line between GOP and Democratic candidates this year.

"I think people are having a very visceral reaction to the governor's heavy-handed approach to give driver's licenses, and all the benefits that come with it, to people who are here illegally," said Matthew Walter, state GOP spokesman.

But Democrats say the issue will just be one of many that voters consider when they head to the polls.

Asked whether Spitzer should have unveiled the policy after the election to avoid a potential backlash, state Democratic chairwoman June O'Neill said the governor doesn't govern by polls.

"He doesn't do what is politically expedient," she said. "He does what he thinks is the right thing to do." ... /710130321