With a heated race for Erie County executive and all 11 County Legislature seats up in the November election, there's one issue that doesn't appear to be going away: Who can get driver's licenses.
County Democrats who had initially stayed silent on the issue or hedged their personal opinions have been pushed to take a position — and the position most are taking is against the Green Light law. That now includes the county executive.
After months of declining to provide his personal opinion on whether driver's licenses should be granted to immigrants living here illegally, County Executive Mark Poloncarz released a statement Wednesday saying: "There are many significant legal issues that exist with the law, including the question of its constitutionality and the necessity of ensuring non-citizens are prevented from voting. Ultimately I do not believe this law benefits the people of Erie County and I cannot support it."
His statement came on the heels of County Clerk Michael "Mickey" Kearns announcing his court filing seeking an injunction that would bar the state from enacting the state's new Green Light law.
In Poloncarz's statement, he took credit for directing the County Attorney's Office to represent Kearns. Kearns, however, was the one who first asked for legal representation by the county attorney.
Poloncarz also reiterated his position that if the federal court deems the Green Light law constitutional — which he believes it will — all government officials must follow the law.
"In a civilized, democratic society we do not get to selectively pick the laws we want to enforce and ignore those we dislike," he said.
Local political leaders see it as a potentially defining issue in the general election for both the county executive and county legislator seats.
"I think anyone who is opposed to driver's licenses for illegal immigrants right now will be rewarded by the voters," said State Republican Party Chairman Nicholas Langworthy.
Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner has said his party has diverse opinions on the subject. But he's always made it a point to highlight local Democrats who have taken stands against the measure, including Erie County Legislature Majority Leader John Bruso, D-Lancaster, who is expected to face a tough re-election fight.
The Legislature Democrats' handling of the driver's license issue has followed a similar pattern of resistance on speaking to the issue, followed by understated positions against.
Members of the Legislature's Republican-supported minority caucus point out that they had been clamoring for the Legislature to discuss the driver's license issue for months, and to have all legislators vote one way or another. But a resolution co-sponsored by Republican legislators Edward Rath III and John Mills in opposition to the "Green Light" bill was sent to languish in the Government Affairs Committee.
So it came as a surprise to the minority caucus when, at the Legislature's last meeting two weeks ago, the resolution was suddenly sent to the Legislature floor by the Democratic majority — after the Green Light bill was already approved by the State Legislature and signed into law.
An uproar from minority legislators ensued.
"That’s not the way it ought to be, madam chair," Rath told Democratic Chairwoman April Baskin. "We were begging for a Government Affairs meeting a week ago, a couple of weeks ago."
He pointed out that he had repeatedly requested a County Legislature discussion and vote on the resolution opposing the Green Light bill and was denied. Now suddenly, the Democrats wanted to approve his resolution without comment.
"I can’t even think of an analogy, it's so crazy what we’re doing right now," Rath said.
[Related content: Click here for the link to County Legislature meeting audio. Debate begins at 52 minutes.]
He and others accused the Democratic majority of trying to bury the resolution opposing driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants and refusing to hold any Government Affairs Committee meetings to allow discussion of the issue. The fact that the Democrats were suddenly so interested in moving the issue forward after the law had passed is a sign that Democrats are now feeling the need for political cover in an election year, Rath said.
"We know why," added Legislator Lynne Dixon, who is challenging Poloncarz for the county executive's seat. "We all know why."
Legislator Kevin Hardwick, the Republican-turned-Democrat who chairs the Government Affairs Committee, pointed out that his committee is not meeting any less frequently than it has met over the past two years, including when the Republicans were in the majority. He also said the only reason the Democrats moved the driver's license issue to the floor was because the Republicans wouldn't let the issue go.
"I cannot speak for everybody, but personally, I was worn down," he said. "Like I do too often with my children, I give them what they want so I can move on and get on with my life."
When asked why the legislators didn't put the matter up for a vote sooner, Hardwick said, "In retrospect, I wish we had."
The resolution opposing driver's licenses for immigrants living here illegally and the amendment to have the county attorney represent Kearns in challenging the legitimacy of the state law passed 8-2, with city Democrats April Baskin and Howard Johnson Jr. voting against.