It was an unusual Capitol Hill event: a press conference to concede defeat, rather than to celebrate victory.
In front of a fog-shrouded Capitol dome Wednesday morning, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, joined by a dozen House Democrats from New York State, admitted that he’d misjudged the public sentiment.
Spitzer officially withdrew his proposal to offer drivers’ licenses to many of the state’s one million illegal immigrants, a move which came after several days of hints in the New York news media that he’d do so.
“I’ve listened to the legitimate concerns of the public,” he told reporters.
Elected only 12 months ago with a spectacular margin of 1.6 million votes, Spitzer suffered a setback that seemed to unsettle his Democratic colleagues.
Spitzer blamed the federal government for having “lost control of its borders and having “allowed millions of undocumented immigrants to enter our country.”
Governor laments 'fear mongering'
Spitzer and the New York House members were fuming at those who’d opposed his license idea and who might use illegal immigration as a voter motivator in future elections.
The debate over illegal immigration had become “toxic” Spitzer said. “The consequence of this fear-mongering is paralysis.”
The New York Democrats who spoke after Spitzer were even harsher in their criticism of their opponents.
“This (idea) became victim to ignorance, indifference, and, yes, hatred,” argued Rep. Jose Serrano. “This country still, even in our great state, has great fear and great anger toward immigrants.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler said the nation was passing through “a period of hysteria.”
Then Rep. Gary Ackerman took the microphone to suggest sardonically that opponents of illegal immigration ought to catch an immigrant and have him “hog-tied” in front of the Capitol; the federal authorities, Ackerman said, wouldn’t come to deport him.
It was a revealing focus group of politicians who seemed angry and somewhat nervous about how illegal immigration will affect next year’s races.
Absent from the Spitzer event at the Capitol was Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. She did issue a statement saying, "I support Gov. Spitzer's decision today to withdraw his proposal."
She added, "As President, I will not support drivers' licenses for undocumented people and will press for comprehensive immigration reform that deals with all of the issues around illegal immigration including border security and fixing our broken system."
Last month during a debate among the Democratic presidential contenders, she said that Spitzer's proposal "makes a lot of sense." Her attempts to clarify and modify that statement drew sharp fire from her rivals.
Almost all of the dozen Democrats from the New York City metropolitan area standing behind Spitzer at the Capitol have utterly safe seats; several will face only token opposition or none at all.
But there are a couple of upstate New York freshmen Democrats, who will face competitive races next year and who opposed the Spitzer plan.
Freshman Democrat Rep. Michael Arcuri, who represents Oneida County and other parts of upstate New York, said there was “very, very strong opposition in my district” to the Spitzer license idea. “The opposition was so strong that it wasn’t the kind of thing I could ignore.”
Arcuri said as former prosecutor, he himself had “a lot of questions that weren’t answered” in the governor’s idea such as, “what does this mean in terms of people who go apply to buy a gun? What does it mean for traveling around the country?”
The New York Democrat also said the Republicans were “quick to turn this into a political football — filled with gotchas at every turn.”
Arcuri said, “People have real apprehension about even making a proposal because there is this concern that all of a sudden you’re going to be characterized as someone who is an advocate of amnesty.”
Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, a first-term Democrat whose district includes the Albany suburbs and Saratoga Springs, also opposed Spitzer’s proposal.
But their downstate colleague, Rep. Nydia Velasquez, who represents a majority Latino district in the Bronx, said the Republican effort to use illegal immigration as an issue “is not producing the results that they wanted. Look at Virginia” — where in last week’s legislation elections Democrats won control of the state senate.
Yet Democrats also seem uneasy that maybe illegal immigration might work to their disadvantage in some races.
The country is 'very, very nervous'
“Right now, if you take the temperature of the country, (people) are very, very nervous. Immigration is something they have become vocal about — the undercurrent is the economy, the undercurrent is the war in Iraq, you can feel the tension, its there and it’s very real” said New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, who represents a suburban district with large number of illegal immigrants.
She said she favors some form of legalization for illegal immigrants “down the road. And it’s not an easy path.”
Another indicator of Democratic concern about the immigration issue: last week, 36 House Democrats — including several freshmen and New Yorker Gillibrand — voted for a Republican motion that would prevent the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from suing organizations which require their employees to speak English on the job.
That motion passed 218 to 186, with most Democrats voting against it.