Eliot Spitzer knew that his abrupt shift on a controversial proposal to provide driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants—he announced this week that they would be eligible only for a limited version—would be a hard sell to his Democratic friends who stuck their necks out for the original plan.
So he took steps to minimize the pain.
At around 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. the night of Friday, Oct. 26—less than a day before Mr. Spitzer was to announce that he had changed his mind on the issue—the governor’s office called Democratic state legislators and immigration advocates to apprise them of the move.
On Saturday morning, Mr. Spitzer made his official announcement, in a public appearance with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in Washington, D.C.
On Sunday morning, Mr. Spitzer had breakfast at 3 Guys Restaurant on the East Side with a handful of state senators and Assembly members to apologize and, once again, to explain his position, according to two people who were there.
“Before he even started, he apologized for the process,” said State Senator José Serrano of the Bronx, referring to the breakfast meeting with Mr. Spitzer. “He explained why it had to be that way.”
Still, all was not well.
“I wish the governor’s people would have spoken to us prior to him making his decision,” said State Senator John Sampson, a Democrat from Brooklyn.
State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., an outspoken Democrat from the Bronx, was more blunt. “He misled me,” he said. “I think he allowed me to go to the Senate floor to make enemies.”
Mr. Diaz added, “If the election was tomorrow, I would support a Republican against him. I don’t know what will happen in two or three years, but the way I feel now, I am upset. I have to go down the floor of the senate and apologize to [Majority Leader Joe] Bruno and all my other colleagues, because I criticized them.”
Mr. Spitzer’s new plan would still allow illegal immigrants to obtain New York State driver’s licenses, but, for the first time, the governor agreed that the licenses would be subject to the limitations of the Federal Real ID Act. The documents, in other words, would be recognized by the state for the purposes of driving, but, unlike ordinary licenses, would not be valid forms of identification for other purposes.
Immigration groups were predictably outraged my Mr. Spitzer’s shift, suggesting that the immigrant driver’s licenses would be marked with a “scarlet letter.”
But perhaps the most dire political consequence for Mr. Spitzer is that the move has antagonized some of the few reliable allies he’s had in Albany since the beginning of his relentlessly stormy tenure as governor, particularly within the Democratic minority in the State Senate.