Driver's License Redux?

Andrew J Lanza

May 28, 2009

The Senate Republicans have latched on to a provision in the latest Rockefeller Drug Law reform that lets judges seal offenders records from potential employers in hopes that it will help them win back the majority next fall.

One GOP lawmaker suggested this is a sleeper of an issue that could, if the minority plays its cards right, blow up in the face of the Democrats, much in the way former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's effort to let illegal immigrants get driver's licenses turned into a major brawl with national implications - even reaching into the presidential primary.

"This is a disaster, and they knew exactly what they were doing," said Sen. Marty Golden, a former police officer. "It's not sinking in now, but it will when there are felons working with children in our schools and day care centers and in our hospitals taking care of our seniors."

Sen. Eric Schneiderman, who sponsored the most recent changes to the 1970s-era drug laws (which were included as part of the 2009-2010 budget), has said he will seek to delay the implementation of the provision so it can be reviewed further.

But that's not good enough for the Republicans, who are mounting a cry for the provision to be repealed altogether - there's even a potential catchy slogan for their campaign: "Repeal the Seal."

If the measure takes effect as-is, Golden predicted that offenders could start getting jobs right around this time next year, which is, as it so happens, right around the same time that the 2010 campaign will be heating up.

The driver's license fight became national news for a number of reasons: It tapped into a vein of anti-immigrant sentiment that runs deep in the conservative grassroots, it coincided with a presidential race, and it was picked up by CNN anchor Lou Dobbs.

Eventually, Spitzer had to back down - but not before then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was sucked into the driver's license debate on national TV.

The issue also raised the profiles of a number of GOP pols, including then-Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco and Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola.

I'm not sure this sealed records issue rises to the same level, but it could go viral statewide if the Democrats aren't careful, enabling the Republicans to make the case that the downstate-dominated majority conference is soft on crime and out of touch with more conservative upstaters and suburbanites.

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