The images and commentary aren't subtle: Osama bin Laden hanging out in a New York City taxi driver's seat, a blog headlined "Moron Spitzer Forges Ahead with Licenses for Illegals." Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to make it easier for undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses has been roundly assailed.
"Crazy," said a county clerk. A threat to national security, said Rep. Randy Kuhl (R-N.Y.). A Poughkeepsie Journal editorial took a more measured approach, but still noted "taxpayers have a right to be both perplexed and outraged" over Spitzer's plan.
In the Capitol, the political discourse has been more like talk radio. Assembly Republican leader James Tedisco paints a picture of a giddy bin Laden uncorking bubbly in a cave over Spitzer's idea.
It all goes back to a July 2006 appeals court decision that provided the state greater latitude in issuing driver's licenses. Then, the Republican Pataki administration wanted immigrants to prove they were in the United States legally before getting licenses. As a candidate for governor, Democrat Spitzer promised to change that. Earlier this year, as the Republican-led Senate blocked his agenda, he said he could bypass the legislature and govern the state through the agencies he controls.
Spitzer dismissed some extreme opposition to his plan this week, saying the "politics of fear and selfishness has replaced the politics of common sense and responsibility."
He says his plan requiring a valid passport to get a license, with additional anti-fraud measures, will bring "people out of the shadows" when it goes into effect in December. It will make streets safer, lower auto insurance costs, give immigrants a better shot at the American dream and document thousands of immigrants. He says the system would aid anti-terrorism efforts.
On Thursday, a majority of the state County Clerks Association opposed the plan and several Republican clerks who have a role in carrying it out threatened to ignore it.
The Senate's Republican majority promised to try to undo Spitzer's decree in a special session Oct. 22, but the Assembly's Democratic leaders are in Spitzer's corner. Similar policies have been adopted in Utah, New Mexico and other states.
This weekend, the state's Conservative Party will air cable TV ads titled "Border Line Insanity" in New York City, Albany, Long Island and Westchester.
"Along the Mexican border, we lock up illegal immigrants. In New York, Governor Spitzer wants to give them driver's licenses," the ad states.
State Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long said Spitzer may be playing to more liberal parts of the Democratic party as his poll numbers drop following a scandal that's grounded Albany since July. That's when Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno accused Spitzer's aides of using State Police to track his travels with state aircraft on days he mixed state business with political fundraisers. A report by the Albany County district attorney last month found no wrongdoing but the state Public Integrity Commission continues to investigate.
Some observers said Spitzer wants people to begin talking about what he is doing as governor, rather than what his staff has done. "Is the distraction working? Apparently not," said Maurice Carroll of the Quinnipiac University Poll, which on Tuesday found that 78 percent of New Yorkers want Spitzer to testify under oath about what he knew of his aides' work and when he knew it.
The issue is getting the most attention in New York City, Westchester and in some upstate cities with illegal immigration tension. But the loudest fight may be on Long Island, where the population of illegal immigrants and Republican senators is high and where Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a Democrat, opposes the plan.
In Rochester recently, Spitzer lit into critics as "legally wrong, morally wrong," including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who initially questioned the plan. Bloomberg has said since that he won't oppose Spitzer but will try to work out his concerns on the plan.
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