Republican state Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres backs immigrant rights

The Fresno BeeOctober 28, 2013 

Earlier this month, state Sen. Anthony Cannella stood with Gov. Jerry Brown as he signed legislation in Los Angeles that will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses.

To the uninitiated, it might have seemed odd: a Republican from Ceres not only supporting the Democratic governor (one of just four GOP legislators to do so), but also appearing for the signing ceremony on a controversial piece of legislation.

But it was hardly shocking for anyone who has watched Cannella in his nearly four years in the state Legislature.

After all, Cannella not only voted for the bill, he co-sponsored it. And before that came a long line of votes and actions that cast Cannella as a strong backer of immigrant rights.

It's all expected to help Cannella when he stands for re-election next year in a redrawn state Senate district that includes a big chunk of western Fresno County — and a lot more Hispanic voters.

"I think he's doing all the right things based on his voting record toward Latinos," said Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist and author of the California Target Book, which tracks the state's elections.

But Cannella says politics is the furthest thing from his mind as he approaches his run for a second state Senate term in the 12th District. Ask about his actions, and Cannella talks not about politics or elections, but about the high poverty and unemployment rates in his district.

"Since the first day I was sworn in, I wanted to be effective more than I wanted to be re-elected," he said.

Even in today's hyper-politicized political atmosphere, some staunch ideological conservatives are giving Cannella a pass — though there is a feeling that his voting record may have drifted a bit too far to the political left.

"His dad was a conservative Democrat; he's a liberal Republican," said Republican political strategist Jon Fleischman, publisher of the FlashReport, a widely read conservative blog. "Not every district can elect a conservative idealogue to the state Legislature."

In fact, Fleischman is counting on Cannella winning re-election in the hope that someday it will help Republicans recapture control of the state Senate.

On paper, though, it doesn't appear to be an easy task.

Democrats in the new district hold a 14-percentage-point voter registration advantage — 46% to 32%. Hispanics represent 45% of the electorate, and almost two-thirds of the district's overall population.

The sprawling, largely rural district covers all of Merced and San Benito counties and parts of Stanislaus, Monterey, Fresno and Madera counties. It went strongly for President Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012, and for Brown in 2010.

But Hoffenblum said that Cannella already has shown he can win against such odds.

In his first state Senate run in 2010, the former Ceres mayor posted a narrow, 3-percentage-point win over Democrat Anna Caballero with a similar voter-registration advantage for the Democrats.

His new district is about 80% the same as that old district. Much of the new territory is in Fresno County and for the past decade was part of the 16th Senate District, which is now held by Hanford Republican Andy Vidak (who also voted for the driver's license bill).

Hoffenblum said Cannella will need to capture far more than the 10% to 14% of the Hispanic vote Republicans typically garner.

But Cannella's voting record won't be campaign fodder for a Democrat looking to highlight hot-button Hispanic issues in an effort to take the seat.

From the start, Cannella has been consistent in his support for such issues.

Besides his driver's license and Dream Act votes, Cannella last year supported an earlier driver's license bill for undocumented immigrants expected to meet the requirements of President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

And earlier this year, Cannella and Republican Assembly Member Jeff Gorell of Camarillo flew to Washington, D.C., to lobby for immigration reform — including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which is an unpopular stance for many Republicans in the nation's capital.

He subsequently pushed to draft a letter to congressional Republicans calling on them to vote for the legislation. In the end, 15 Republican state lawmakers signed on to the letter.

"For Republicans, that's unfortunately a controversial thing to say we need a path to citizenship," Cannella said. "Politically, the Republican Party has 20 years of work to win back the trust" of Hispanics, Cannella said.

Cannella knows that some conservative Republicans aren't happy with him. He said the best he can do is explain his reasoning: "I openly tell them it's a humanitarian issue."

In a district like Cannella's, he is unlikely to face a serious opponent from his political right, though co-authoring a union-backed bill that would punish charter cities that refuse to impose "prevailing wage" rates on construction projects certainly tried the patience of some of his Republican colleagues.

"There's really nothing that Sen. Cannella could do that would surprise me," said Fleischman, the conservative Republican. "I am a conservative idealogue and I don't think he is an idealogue at all. He is very situational in his politics, and he obviously feels like that is good public policy."

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