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.
Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith—who Mr. Bruno once described as a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the governor—put the best face on the turmoil the latest Spitzer proposal has inflicted on his members.
In a written statement e-mailed by a spokesman, Mr. Smith said, “I am discussing the Governor’s latest proposal with our Conference. Clearly our members represent various constituencies who have different interests and concerns. As a result, we do not have a unified position on this issue, which I think is an encouraging sign of our members’ diverse points of view expressed during four hours of debate during last week’s special session. Personally, I stick by my vote in support of the Governor’s original plan.”
But the special relationship, to judge by the members’ comments, may be somewhat less special in the future. “I think in future negotiations, if we’re provided the information at that point and time, then we can make a decision on how we’re going to proceed,” said Mr. Sampson.
“Right now I’m focused on working my district, so I really don’t have much of a thought on that,” said Craig Johnson, a state senator from Nassau County who Mr. Spitzer worked hard to elect earlier this year, when asked about the implications of Mr. Spitzer’s decision-making on future negotiations with his conference.
Asked to comment for this story, Spitzer spokeswoman Christine Anderson sent over the following statement: “The Governor doesn’t expect everyone to agree with his politics or process. His first responsibility remains the safety and security of New Yorkers. We can argue about the failed national immigration policy all we want, but the Governor is the one person responsible for confronting the reality of 1 million undocumented people living in the shadows.”
Mr. Serrano, who defended Mr. Spitzer’s original position on CNN and said he got hate mail from viewers, was one official who said he’d be willing to put aside his animus for the longer-term sake of the cause.
“While I’m disappointed, it’s totally counterproductive for any of us who are disappointed to get into a whole fight with Eliot when the real culprits were the opposition: Joe Bruno, the Lou Dobbses of the world,” Mr. Serrano said, referring to the CNN host who has made this a nightly issue.
But not all of the governor’s Democratic colleagues in Albany seem quite as prepared to move on.
“It’s going to be very difficult to trust the governor in anything he says,” Mr. Diaz said. “He’s going to have to be very clear, in black and white, before I join him in anything.”