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Flanking maneuver

Democrats' strategy seeks to beat GOP on conservative issues

Commonly regarded as the sincerest form of flattery, imitation in politics instead can be a ruthless game of one-upmanship.

There's a long, rich tradition of lawmakers cribbing the best bits from opponents' bills, making a few ideological tweaks and proposing their own copycat legislation. Sometimes the intent is to head off a potentially harmful bill with a more palatable substitute. Other times, it's simply a case of swiping credit for someone else's ideas (see brief).

Democrats in the state Senate, however, had a different motive this past week when they dropped their own counterparts to the Republicans' much-discussed illegal immigration bill. In proposing legislation that is, in some ways, much stronger than what was offered by the GOP, the Dems have revealed a strategy of poaching for votes on Republican turf.

Sen. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta, who is leading the charge, makes no bones about the fact that one of the bills being offered is a direct response to SB 529, sponsored by Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock. As such, the Democrats' SB 653 is calculated to keep the GOP from gaining the upper hand on a statewide issue of intense interest to a majority of Georgia voters.

"The [GOP's] piece of legislation now moving through the Senate will be used in the fall campaigns to defeat forward-thinking Democratic candidates and expand the Republican power base in Georgia," Reed explains. "Our answer to this cannot be nothing."

The answer Reed envisions, however, isn't sitting so well with some Democrats, who believe it signals a perilous swing to the right.

"We have to be very pure about we do, so that we appear reasonable and moderate," says Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta. "We don't want to seem like we look at this issue as a game."

The difference between the competing immigration bills, Reed contends, is that the GOP bill has been watered down so much that it's largely toothless, an opinion shared by some Latino activists.

"SB 529 is trying to deny state services that illegal immigrants are not currently eligible to receive," says Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

Another provision of SB 529 calls for local law-enforcement officials to verify the citizenship of those they arrest, but a spokesman for a statewide sheriffs group testified that jailers already make efforts to ID everyone in their custody.

"The bill is not being moved because it solves anything but because it's good political posturing in an election year," Gonzalez says.

Recent polls indicate that more than 80 percent of Georgia voters want legislators to do something about illegal immigration.

Therefore, Reed says, if Democrats want to claim a role in guiding state policy on the issue, they have to offer a bill that actually does something. Otherwise, they'll be stung by the perception that only Republicans are willing to address the immigration problem.

Co-sponsored by Reed and Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown of Macon, SB 653 comes down hard on businesses that employ illegal immigrants.

Where Rogers' SB 529 would prevent employers from claiming a state tax credit for undocumented workers, the Democratic bill calls for companies with at least 20 employees to pay fines of $12,800 per undocumented worker. The fine shoots up to $25,600 for a second violation.

The Dems' bill likewise criminalizes the use of false IDs to get work. The first offense is a misdemeanor, carrying a fine of up to $1,000; repeat offenders could be looking at five years behind bars. And another Democratic bill, sponsored by Sen. Curt Thompson of Norcross, would provide stiff penalties for manufacturers of fake ID cards, a measure that Rogers has lamented not including in his own bill.

Thompson, who represents Jimmy Carter Boulevard and other areas with high concentrations of Latino residents, believes his constituency gives him the authority to tackle the issue. "When people talk about the immigration problem," he says, "they're talking about my district."

Likely to attract the most controversy is a provision in the Dems' SB 653 calling for the creation of a toll-free number for citizen whistle-blowers to report companies they believe are hiring illegal immigrants. A new division within the Georgia Bureau of Investigation would be dedicated to following up on such calls.

Reed contends the phone number protects workers by giving them an avenue for anonymously finking on businesses that have mistreated them, but Zamarripa dismisses the measure as a "vigilante phone provision" that appeals mostly to anti-immigrant groups. Currently, those groups can call federal immigration authorities to report undocumented workers, but little action is likely to be taken.

Overall, Zamarripa worries that Democratic attempts to outflank Republicans could appear to be pandering to conservative voters.

"We cannot go further to the right than these guys," he says.

Instead, he threw his efforts into minimizing the impact of Rogers' bill, talking the Cherokee County Republican into removing extreme measures to deny social services and college admission to illegal immigrants, as well as a measure requiring state agencies and social workers to report suspected illegal aliens. Zamarripa and other Democrats now describe Rogers' bill as "gutted."

Veteran Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, also used old-fashioned political coercion to win a major concession. While Rogers' bill was still in the Senate Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, Hooks sent a letter to its chairman, Sen. Brian Kemp, R-Athens, requesting a one-year delay for farmers to abide by the stricter employer guidelines.

Kemp, who is running for state agriculture commissioner, couldn't deny Hooks' request — not with his Deomcratic opponent, incumbent Tommy Irvin, watching from the back of the committee room. Nor could Republicans afford to alienate the construction and poultry industries by singling out farmers for a reprieve. So, Kemp's committee oh-so-quietly rolled back the implementation for Rogers' bill from July 2007 to July 2008.

Still, Reed and some Democrats maintain that it isn't enough for their party merely to blunt the impact of the opposition's bills; it must offer meaningful alternatives.

"If you're not selling anything, no one's going to buy," Thompson says.

Immigration isn't the only issue where Democrats are trying to beat the GOP at its own game. In January, Sens. Doug Stoner, D-Smyrna, and Tim Golden, D-Valdosta, blindsided Republicans by introducing a bill to allow public schools to teach a literature course on the Bible.

GOP leaders responded by shelving the Democratic bill and quickly passing their own version, which would require classes to use the Bible itself, rather than a textbook. Still, Stoner maintains that his bill shows voters that Democrats are willing to openly discuss matters of faith without always being the naysayers.

Last year, he sponsored a version of Gov. Sonny Perdue's so-called "faith-based initiative" that would have permitted public grants to continue to be awarded to church-based social services, so long as the money could not be used for private-school vouchers. Both Stoner's and Perdue's legislation failed in the Senate.

Reed is hoping his immigration bill fares better this year. But even if it doesn't, it could help inoculate Democrats from criticism as election time approaches.

"The response to a direct-mail piece that you haven't done anything about immigration cannot be, 'It's a federal issue,'" he says. "That's a way to lose elections."