SAN DIEGO—Last year, as he ran for governor criticizing the passage of a law that would allow illegal immigrants, most of them Hispanic, to get driver’s licenses, Arnold Schwarzenegger was criticized for not being sensitive enough to Hispanic issues.
Now, after his round of bill signings and vetoes as governor, that criticism has emerged again.
Bills championing causes important to many Hispanics—such as a revived driver’s license bill to replace the law repealed early in Schwarzenegger’s administration or reparations for Americans illegally deported to Mexico in the 1930s—were vetoed by Schwarzenegger last month.
That’s why some observers and legislators said the governor missed a chance to win favor with the state’s largest ethnic group, a move that could cost him politically.
In addition to vetoing the driver’s license bill, which Schwarzenegger said would weaken national security, he vetoed bills to allow survivors of the forced repatriation to Mexico the chance to file claims against the state.
Other vetoes nixed creation of an advisory commission on Latino affairs; a ban on grape growers requiring farm workers to taste unwashed grapes in the field; and required minimum rest periods for hotel maids in temperature-controlled break rooms.
“It was very disappointing that so many of these bills were in fact vetoed,” said Francisco Estrada, public policy director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Margita Thompson, Schwarzenegger’s spokeswoman, disagreed with the perception there was an anti-Hispanic cast to the governor’s vetoes.
Schwarzenegger, she said, is addressing the needs of the state as a whole, with his greatest attention going toward improving the climate for businesses and jobs and strengthening education, which will benefit all Californians regardless of ethnic group.
The governor, Thompson said, backed bills that will help Hispanics, such as laws to provide more housing options for farm workers, assistance for low-income home buyers and victims of hate crimes, and legislation to help cover the costs of treating people exposed to pesticide drift.
Still, Estrada said, the veto of the bill regarding the forced deportations, which may have affected as many 2 million people nationwide, particularly stung.
That bill, written by Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Garden Grove, would have given survivors a two-year window in which to file claims. It was modeled after a law to help victims of the World War II internment of Japanese Americans and others, Estrada said.
It would have been a harmless and fruitful gesture for the governor to allow establishment of the privately funded commission to investigate the deportations, Estrada said.
“We would have thought at the very least, since so very little is known about this particularly shameful period in history, that the commission bill would have been signed,” he said.
Dunn said he believes Schwarzenegger vetoed the measures to avoid putting state at risk financially for reparations to the victims, which he called “hypocrisy at its worst.”
“An injustice is an injustice,” Dunn said, “and it must be corrected the way we’re done it for other survivors, to give them their day in court.”
Schwarzenegger’s veto message said no law was needed to create the commission, which Dunn called “nonsensical.”
The senator said he would raise the issue again in January, just as supporters of the driver’s license bill said they would try again.
Harry Pachon, president of the Los Angeles-based Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, said Schwarzenegger’s vetoes of bills dear to Hispanics were “drops of water” that will build opposition to him.
“He’s going to have to overcome that sort of nagging suspicion that he automatically vetoes anything that comes up that’s tied to Latinos,” Pachon said.
Just because some Hispanic activists wanted some bills doesn’t mean all Hispanics did, said Assemblyman Robert Pacheco of Walnut, head of the Hispanic Republican Caucus.
“When you talk about them in that form you make an assumption that the entire Latino community feels one way, and that’s just not true,” Pacheco said.
He said Schwarzenegger made decisions that helped Hispanics, such as his veto of an increase in the minimum wage, which Pacheco said would have eliminated entry-level jobs that often go to Hispanics.
Pacheco also noted Schwarzenegger’s settlement of a 4-year-old lawsuit to improve conditions in 2,400 low-performing schools, many of them in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods.
“The millions and millions of dollars that are going to be poured into schools with Latino children are going to be very beneficial to the community,” he said.
But Pachon said Schwarzenegger missed opportunities to at least symbolically reach out to Hispanics, such as recently canceling a trip to the border region of northern Mexico. His predecessor, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, went to Mexico shortly after taking office in 1999.
Thompson said while Schwarzenegger hasn’t visited Mexico yet, he has met with governors of key Mexican border states.
Nevertheless, Pachon said, “what looks like a pattern is emerging. And that pattern is that he’s not sensitive to Latino issues. It’s going to be brought up against him.”
Dunn, whose own district is about 60 percent Hispanic, said that with Hispanics making up a third of the state’s population, Schwarzenegger would be wise to act more cautiously.
“The governor must ensure that he’s never perceived as turning his back on any single community as large as our California Latino community,” Dunn said. “That perception has clearly settled in.”