BaltSun, WaPo Play Down Stunning O'Malley Reversal on Illegal Immigrant Licenses

Another liberal Democratic governor has backed off an illegal immigrant-friendly challenge to the new federal Real ID law. Yet in their coverage of Gov. Martin O'Malley's (D-Md.) reversal, the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post failed to note how drastic the Democratic governor's reversal was, nor to consider if low polls numbers and public disapproval were driving factors for the change of plans.

Here's how the Sun's Timothy B. Wheeler opened his January 16 article:

Bowing to federal pressure to crack down on undocumented immigrants, the O'Malley administration announced yesterday that in two years it would begin requiring all driver's license applicants to present a birth certificate, passport or some other documentation to prove they are legal residents of the United States.

[...]

Maryland is one of a handful of states that do not currently require proof of legal presence in the country before issuing or renewing a driver's license. Seven states have passed legislation rejecting the federal law, but two of those states recently announced plans to comply, according to John T. Kuo, chief of Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration.

Even so, state officials made it clear they were complying reluctantly. Speaking to reporters yesterday, Gov. Martin O'Malley called REAL ID bad policy but said he had agreed to go along to prevent Maryland from becoming a magnet for those unable to get licenses elsewhere.

It took Wheeler 11 paragraphs into his story to note that the O'Malley administration was "considering a two-tier approach... in which applicants" that couldn't prove their legal presence in the United States "would be issued a license." Of course, Wheeler failed to note how committed the O'Malley adminstration was to the plan.

As Lisa Rein of the Washington Post noted in the January 13 paper, O'Malley's aides had already started briefing lawmakers on the plan (emphasis mine):

The administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is drawing up plans to issue separate driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants and legal residents to comply with new federal security regulations, a proposal that could become a focus in the debate over illegal immigration in Maryland.

Top state officials began briefing lawmakers last week on a two-tiered licensing system similar to one that New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer (D) proposed last fall but was forced to scuttle after a political battle. New York does not allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, and Spitzer wanted to change that.

Briefing state legislators on the plan seems to suggest that O'Malley was inclined towards the plan as official policy, although he hadn't made such a public pronouncement, and that he expected to convince the legislature to sign off on funding for it if the trial balloons he was floating were meeting acceptance. Curiously, the Post now feels a clarification was necessary to append to Rein's January 13 report:

This article about Maryland's plan to comply with the federal Real ID act by creating a two-tier driver's license system did not make it clear that Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has not yet signed off on the plan.

Today, the Post's Lisa Rein notes the O'Malley policy shift, but doesn't describe it as a flip-flop or reversal:

Gov. Martin O'Malley rejected a proposal yesterday to issue separate driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants and legal residents, saying that Maryland should comply with a federal security law by requiring immigrants to prove they are here legally before they can drive.

The governor's decision effectively reversed a long-standing policy that made Maryland one of only seven states that allow driving privileges for illegal immigrants. It came just days after his transportation secretary had briefed lawmakers on a proposed two-tier system that would have provided some latitude.

Instead, O'Malley (D) directed his top transportation officials to comply with the federal Real ID law by devising a secure, federally recognizable license that would be accepted as identification to board planes or enter government buildings.

"We should not allow Maryland to become an island virtually alone on the East Coast" by not requiring proof of legal residence for licenses, O'Malley said last night.

Between January 13 and now, new job approval poll numbers have surfaced showing O'Malley is unpopular, quite a feat to accomplish one year into presiding over a reliably liberal Democratic state.

Reported the Associated Press on January 14 (emphasis mine):

A poll released Monday by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies has more voters disapproving than approving of O'Malley's job as governor. That is the first time that has happened since O'Malley took office last year.

According to the telephone poll of 848 registered voters, 49 percent disapproved of O'Malley's performance. Thirty-nine percent approved, and 12 percent had no opinion. That's a 13-point drop from last spring. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. O'Malley's predecessor, Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich, never dipped below 50 percent approval ratings in Gonzales polls. Only 27 percent of voters told the poll they approved of a special session of the legislature that O'Malley called in November to raise taxes.

While the low poll numbers alone may not explain O'Malley's 180-degree turn, it's hard to believe they are not a relevant factor, particularly if O'Malley and Democratic legislators started to get angry phone calls from voters already giving the Gov little love in the polls.

After all, this is a political minefield for liberal Democrat politicians, as Hillary Clinton's ensnarement on the issue last year can attest. Clinton backed Gov. Spitzer's plan to issue licenses to illegals. Days later Spitzer reversed himself and noted public disapproval of the plan as a key factor in his change of heart.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters