As the State Assembly moves closer to passing a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, one of the top Democrats in New York has a message for the suburban state senators about to take up the legislation after it glides through the lower chamber: you may get thrown out of office.
“On Long Island, it is exceptionally unpopular. For whatever reason, I don’t know,” Jay Jacobs, the chairman of both the New York State Democratic Party and Nassau County Democratic Party, told Gothamist. “Do you really want to do it and lose the Senate majority and never be able to do anything ever again for another generation? Not me. I play the long game, not the short game.”
Jacobs, a close ally of Governor Andrew Cuomo, said he has called the six Democratic senators who represent Long Island to warn them about the potential political consequences of supporting the “Green Light” bill, as it’s known among advocates. Jacobs said he personally supports the legislation but believes it’s too polarizing to pursue in the current legislative session, which wraps up this month.
Jacobs's comments come as Cuomo announced his support for the Green Light bill, highlighting it as one of his ten end of session priorities. Behind the scenes, Cuomo has been more circumspect, and has warned suburban lawmakers about the implications of pursuing legislation that could rile up anti-immigrant conservatives. None of the six Long Island Democrats have co-sponsored the legislation, and immigration activists, who are engaged in an aggressive door-knocking and ad-buying campaign in swing districts, still view Cuomo skeptically.
Without buy-in from lawmakers outside of New York City, the driver’s ID legislation is likely to fail. Twenty-five Senate Democrats are co-sponsors, but 32 are needed for the bill to pass.
The new chairman of the State Republican Party, Nick Langworthy, criticized efforts to allow the State Department of Motor Vehicles to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, telling reporters recently that New Yorkers should be “outraged” that Democrats are trying to give government-issued IDs to people who “broke the law to come into our country. … It shows a further disrespect to the rule of law.”
At a Nassau County fundraiser last weekend for his nascent re-election campaign, Cuomo again told five of the Long Island Democratic senators present—according to sources, only Todd Kaminsky was missing—that they should be careful about embracing the Green Light bill. Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, confirmed a conversation took place, but disputed how Democratic sources described it.
“The governor discussed the need to do this via legislation because an executive order wasn't feasible,” Azzopardi said in an email. “The governor has been clear on his support for this legislation—which would help ensure that everyone on our roads is properly licensed, insured and paying their fair share—for more than a decade and nothing has changed.”
Twelve other states and the District of Columbia already allow undocumented immigrants to access driver’s licenses. For immigration advocates, getting New York to join these states has been a long-held goal: with driver’s licenses, they argue, the undocumented can commute to work safely, open bank accounts, and more easily integrate into society.
Are the six Long Island Democrats—most of whom are hold outs on marijuana legalization and drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants— the new IDC?
— Josefa Velasquez (@J__Velasquez) June 6, 2019
The effort, however, is deeply unpopular with conservatives and already unraveled more than a decade ago, when former Governor Eliot Spitzer tried to force DMV’s to grant licenses to undocumented immigrants. The Republican-controlled State Senate and county clerks of both parties, including Kathy Hochul, who is now Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, opposed Spitzer. Hillary Clinton, then a New York senator, was opposed as well, though she later backed the policy when she ran for president in 2016.
Advocates have built a much broader coalition in 2019. In addition to 25 Democrats in the State Senate, major labor unions like 32BJ SEIU and the state teachers’ union, along with the Business Council of New York State, are behind the Green Light bill. Powerful law enforcement unions in Nassau and Suffolk County do not support the legislation, however.
A March Siena College poll found that 61 percent of New Yorkers statewide oppose granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Green Light advocates argue that with more education of voters and a different framing of the question, support is actually much higher.
Jacobs, who keeps in close contact with Cuomo and hasn’t been known to speak publicly on hot button issues in his capacity as state party chair without Cuomo’s approval, said polling he had conducted—he wouldn’t reveal the methodologies or if it was specifically commissioned by the state party organization—showed 77 percent of voters on Long Island are against allowing the state to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
“Frankly, we [Democrats] can do whatever the heck we want and the public doesn’t matter, does it? If you think of it that way,” Jacobs said. “But they will matter in the next election and we risk losing a Democratic Senate majority if we are arrogant and we decide because we have the power, we will use the power to get everything everyone on our side thinks is right.”
Steven Choi, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, a leading group behind the Green Light bill, called Jacobs's claim “hogwash” and insisted Democrats who don’t support it could lose re-election in 2020—either to primary challengers or by failing to mobilize rank-and-file progressives.
“We have an energized grassroots coalition that is hungry,” Choi said. “If this legislation fails to pass, there certainly will be primaries against folks.”
Choi also argued Cuomo should issue an executive order to compel DMV’s to issue the licenses to the undocumented if the bill fails to pass the legislature.
“The green light coalition engaged tens of thousands of New Yorkers and voters on this issue. There’s not a doubt in my if this legislation does not pass—not a doubt in my mind—the focus will be on the governor to move an executive order around this.”