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Making their voices heard: (l-r) Fred Boehrer, Guillermo Perez, president of Capital District Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and the Rev. Moses Akanbe protest the protestations.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

The New Rules of the Road

New York state organizations defend Gov. Spitzer’s plan to return to pre-Pataki policy on licensing drivers

People applying for a New York state driver’s license will no longer need to provide a Social Security number to the Department of Motor Vehicles, under the provisions of a contentious mandate by Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer. The proposal would return the state’s licensing policy to the pre-Gov. George Pataki guidelines: A person need only prove their identity, date of birth, and fitness to drive in order to obtain a license. Spitzer had promised to revoke Pataki’s changes during his campaign for governor.

The rule change, which will be phased in over the next 12 to 16 months, will apply to all driver’s licenses and state identification, except those that require applicants to provide a Social Security number under the federal REAL ID Act of 2005, such as commercial driver’s licenses.

“When Gov. Pataki and his DMV commissioner changed the rule in 2002, we alleged that he did not have the ability to make the change without statutory authority,” said Alan Levine Esq., special counsel for Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. “You change a rule, you’re supposed to have a public process. Up until then, people without status had been able to get a license.”

Starting in 2002, Social Security numbers were required to obtain a driver’s license in New York state. However, under state law, noncitizens could acquire a license if they demonstrated that they could not get a Social Security number. According to Christine Anderson, spokeswoman for Gov. Spitzer, nearly half a million New Yorkers have been issued an identity document since 2002 without having a Social Security number.

“We think that Spitzer’s position is consistent with state law,” said Levine. “There’s no state law that says you have to have [legal] immigration status to have a driver’s license. To be a citizen in New York, you don’t have to have immigration status. [Spitzer] is undoing the unlawful status that never had authority under law to begin with.”

According to Brian O’Shaughnessy, executive director of the New York State Labor Religion Coalition and a Rensselaer County resident, there are an estimated one million undocumented workers in New York state. “Bringing unlicensed drivers out of the shadows will increase accountability and increase security,” he said.

Levine agreed, saying that providing driver’s licenses for New York residents without legal status will provide an important avenue of investigation for law enforcement.

“It’s better to know who they are and where they are,” he said. “Otherwise, you’ll have them completely off the radar screen.”

“From a policy point of view, it would protect drivers and the well-being of drivers on the streets of New York,” Levine said. “It is better to have the residents who do not have driver’s licenses have them, come into the system, learn the rules of road, be able to get insurance.”

“Gov. Spitzer’s [proposal] is a very safe and secure measure,” said Fred Boehrer, chairman of the New Sanctuary Movement, “because it’s not simply passing out driver’s licenses to just anyone on the street. They have to show their identity; there’s legal paperwork that they have to provide. It will provide more of an opportunity for people to be in the public, and to improve the safety of all people.”

Boehrer joined about 20 local residents at a rally in front of the Rensselaer County Court House Friday (Oct. 12), to denounce Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola’s refusal to comply with the governor’s plan. Members of New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, Capital District Worker Center, Albany Catholic Worker, Troy Catholic Worker, New Sanctuary Movement and ARISE/Civil Rights of Immigrants Task Force joined Boehr in protest.

Merola, one of 30 county clerks across the state who have refused to comply with the governor’s plan (29 of the clerks are Republican), has stated that he will not issue licenses for any person who does not have a Social Security number, because it will decrease state security.

“You couldn’t get two people in this office that would tell you that I’m not doing the right thing,” he stated during an Oct. 8 interview on CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight. “As far as the law goes, I’m not positive on exactly what it is. But as far as in our county, we are not going to give a license to someone who is here illegally.”

The Troy City Council passed a resolution in support of Merola’s stance on Oct. 4, and the Rensselaer County Legislature passed a similar resolution Oct. 9. Both the council and the Legislature have a Republican majority.

O’Shaughnessy pointed out, however, that the governor’s proposal would completely revamp DMV security.

“The new technologies [included in the governor’s] proposal will bring New York into the forefront with anti-fraud and security effectiveness,” O’Shaughnessy said. “For example, state-of-the-art document-scanning machines for passports, photo-comparison technology, and a brand-new document- verification unit with specially trained staff.”

The New York Catholic Conference, which represents New York state’s bishops on matters of public policy, has called the governor’s proposal “appropriate” because of the lack of federal action regarding immigration law.

“While this matter is partially one of economic justice for the immigrants themselves,” said Richard E. Barnes, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, “the state also has an economic interest at play. We see labor-market shortages, which are being filled by this population. In order to fill these positions, which are of critical importance to our state’s economic well being, the immigrant community needs valid licenses in order to get to the jobs.”

“Before 2002, DMV officers sorted through documents, passports, to assess someone’s eligibility to establish their identity,” said Levine. “They were able to do it before, so why not continue to do it?”

—Jessica Best

What a Week

Your Move, Washington

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, along with leaders from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, in Tehran Tuesday to discuss the division of gas and oil reserves in the lands surrounding the Caspian Sea. Putin made it clear that the use of force in the area, as well as any suggestion of a possible use of force, was inappropriate and unacceptable. The five leaders signed an agreement stating that none of the nations would allow a military base to be established in their country by a third party for the purpose of attacking any of the others. The meeting occurred at a time when the United States and France are considering military action against Iran in order to prevent the development of a nuclear program that Iran insists is for peaceful purposes only.

Tech-Savvy Pygmies

The Congo’s northern pygmies are using satellite tracking devices to map sacred sites and hunting grounds in order to protect these areas from deforestation. The Mbendjele Yaka people, traditional nomadic forest dwellers, are working in conjunction with Africa’s largest logging company, Congolaise Industrielle des Bois, owned by Denmark’s DLH group, to ensure that forest sites vital to their lifestyle are left standing. The GPS devices use icons, instead of language, creating a map as the pygmies move. The map is then used to demarcate forest land in the Congo Basin rainforest that will not be destroyed by commercial logging.

Dalai Lama Drama

Chinese officials have warned the United States that by giving the Dalai Lama the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal for his years of struggle against the communist government, Washington risks increasing tension between the two nations. The Foreign Ministry and the Communist Party secretary for Tibet stated Tuesday that the award, presented to the Dalai Lama at the White House Wednesday, would encourage the separatist beliefs of many Tibetans and the Dalai Lama’s own secessionist activities. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, has lived in exile since 1959 for his opposition to the Chinese government and his advocacy for an independent Tibet.

Hitting the streets: Ken Zalewski.

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Quick on the Upstart

With a knack for organizing, a political first-timer in Troy proves to be a strong opponent

Ken Zalewski might be new to the political game, but the Democratic candidate for Troy City Council has proven himself an impressive campaigner. To date, in his bid for the council seat in District 5, the neophyte office-seeker has amassed a war chest of $21,000—by most accounts, a record-breaking amount.

When asked how he did it, the engaging Zalewski mimics a telephone receiver with his right hand, puts it up to his face: “It was just candidate boot camp, on the phone every single day.”

A computer programmer by trade, Zalewski said it wasn’t until 2004 that he made his first foray into the political realm, campaigning for John Kerry’s presidential bid. In 2005, he campaigned for Democrats in Troy races, and, a year later, worked on the successful grassroots campaign for Kirsten Gillibrand in the 20th Congressional District. When a couple of people on the Gillibrand campaign suggested that he should run for office himself, he wasn’t quite sure what to think about it. But when he mentioned that suggestion to Rensselaer County Legislator Kevin Harrington (D-District 2), the response was ecstatic.

“He was like, ‘Oh yeah! You should definitely run! You have to do it!’ ” Zalewski recalled. “He was so excited about it, I was convinced.”

At the end of 2006, Zalewski started making those phone calls.

“He is raising thousands upon thousands of dollars from special-interest groups. These people don’t know him. They probably don’t know where Troy is,” claimed Tom Casey, chairman of the Troy Republican Party. “Did you look at his campaign-finance-disclosure thing online? None of it is from Troy; a couple of dollars here or there—that’s it.”

This is, of course, an exaggeration. Although the majority of the dollars in Zalewski’s coffers do come from people living outside of Troy, including a $1,000 donation from a Washington D.C.-based political action committee, he has raised a considerable amount of money from Troy residents—nearly $6,000.

Zalewski is running against two-term incumbent Robert Krogh, a lifelong Troy resident, born and raised in his district. Krogh worked for 10 years as undersheriff for Rensselaer County, and for the past 20 years as the superintendent of buildings for the county. He knows just about everyone in the county that you need to know, he said, and that’s an essential part of being a councilman.

“Something happens,” Krogh said, “I know who to go to.”

Zalewski is cast as an outsider by some in Troy, even though he has been living in the Collar City for 20 years, but that has only driven him to get to know his district, he said. He plans to walk the entire district and knock on every door, to find out what issues are on his neighbors’ minds. One of the top issues, he said, is the rise in crime.

“A lot of people don’t want to come out of their homes right now,” he said. “They are afraid.”

One solution to this is obvious: More cops on the streets, Zalewski said. But another solution, one that Zalewski seems very fond of, is organizing neighborhood watches, and educating people about their community police officer.

Krogh agreed that more cops on the streets would be a good thing, but isn’t convinced that crime is that much of an issue.

“I am not too sure if crime is rising. I just think that, with the neighborhood programs, and the neighborhood watches, and the people getting together, they are noticing it more,” Krogh said. “They are looking out for it now. In parts of my district, certainly there is crime. We wouldn’t have a police force otherwise.”

“I’m in my area every day,” he continued. “I have the perception. I see what is going on.”

Another important issue—and one that Krogh and Zalewski can agree upon—is attracting local business to Troy.

“We need more businesses, that’s for sure,” said Krogh. “And we have had more come in over the last few years. And that is encouraging. Of course, there could be more. . . . You know, Troy was once known for its boarded-up buildings. That isn’t the case, anymore.”

“We need to make a viable local economy. I know that right now we have a lot of coffee shops, antique stores and galleries,” Zalewski said, “but that is not the basis for a strong local economy. We need all those shops and stores, but we also need some anchor businesses.”

Zalewski said that he sees Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a vast, untapped resource.

“I went to RPI, I love the school,” Zalewski said. “We need to work with RPI. There are 6,000 students sitting up on the hill. That’s like 6,000 customers who need to shop, especially for gadgets and the geeky things that I like.” He would like to see some businesses in Troy to cater to that clientele.

Also, he said, Troy needs to work harder to attract high-tech firms.

“What if we were to court several high-tech companies? Imagine if someone like Google were to open a satellite office right on the riverfront, what that would do,” he said, without the slightest irony. RPI’s national clout, he added, might be able to draw such big-name companies.

“Untapped resource?” Krogh asked. “We’ve used RPI grads before to help us with architecture and stuff like that. I don’t know if there is any more we can tap out of RPI. I know that at one point, the suggestion was made to charge every student x amount of dollars, to tag onto their tuition, and that would go to the city automatically. So that’s one way, but I don’t know if that’s the correct way.”

Going from door to door, Zalewski said, people have been telling him the same thing: They want someone who is listening, and willing to work hard.

“My feeling is that we have been underrepresented in my district for the past four years,” Zalewski said. “People are telling me that they want someone who is very, very committed. People will have access to me. I will work very hard. I am committed.”

“Over the last four years, millions of dollars have been coming into Troy,” Tom Casey countered, claiming that much of the credit for this ought to go to the Republican administration and council. “Everybody knows Troy is getting better. This place is turned around. I can’t see why anybody would want to throw Bob Krogh out.”

—Chet Hardin

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