Who says old politicians can’t reinvent themselves, jettison long-held beliefs and emerge from ideological cocoons, fresh as butterflies?
Representative Peter King, who is about to turn 70, showed up on Friday night for a town-hall meeting in a Hispanic corner of his Long Island district. He brought his big smile and pompadour, looking every bit the guy who has been a fixture of Republican politics in suburban New York since the ’70s, but he sounded like someone completely different.
His hosts were mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants, invited by a nonprofit community organization, Make the Road New York. More than 150 people crammed into the room, quieting their babies and cellphones, eager to hear what their “congresista” had to say about immigration reform.
Oil, meet water. Mr. King is a combative right-winger who spent the last decade opposing efforts to reform immigration laws. This night, though, he presented himself as the proud holder of another point of view.
“I’ve had real issues with the whole concept of having a large number of illegal immigrants coming into the country,” he acknowledged. But he also said that he now supported the Republicans’ recently released — and almost immediately shelved — “principles” for immigration reform, including legalization for 11 million people. He said the odds of reform passing the House this year were not good, given the election and the power of the Tea Party to make primaries difficult for immigration moderates. But he made clear that he wished it were otherwise.
Mr. King’s heart, maybe. His district, definitely. Mr. King lives in Seaford, hamlet on the South Shore of Long Island that is 95 percent white, and has, for years, solidly represented the interests of the white, conservative middle class. But his redrawn 2nd Congressional District extends east to enfold heavily black and Hispanic enclaves like Brentwood and Central Islip. While Mr. King’s re-election this year seems a lock, 2016 may be harder, and he has been out getting to know his new friends.
This means saying things you don’t often hear Republicans say.
On enforcement: “We’re not going to deport 11 million people.”
On unauthorized immigrants: “99.9 percent of them are very good people who are just trying to advance themselves and their families.”
On the scale of reform: “It would be my intention to be as comprehensive as possible,” and “I would support legalization and a pathway to citizenship.”
On the peril of legalization without citizenship: “We can’t have slaves working and living here.”
Amen, Brother King! Could this be the same man who called the 2007 Senate reform bill “a hoax and a charade,” denounced any legalization bill as “rewarding people who broke the law,” and assailed President Obama for failing to tighten the border to Republican standards?
None of this awkwardness was mentioned on Friday night. Many in Mr. King’s audience seemed unaware of his history, or were keeping it to themselves.
They spoke of the pain of deportations, of broken families, of fear and suffering while waiting for legalization. They asked him to write a letter and an op-ed article urging Speaker John Boehner to bring reform to a vote this year. He said he would. But as for going beyond these small gestures, taking up the cause, turning his party around, Mr. King was noncommittal.
The questioners were nonetheless unfailingly polite, and optimistic:
“Can we still have more meetings with you?” one person asked. “I hope I can be your friend,” another said.
“I want to be your friend, too,” Mr. King replied. But he immediately shifted to musing about what he called the failings of the 1986 immigration reform law that he said encouraged the arrival of millions of “illegals” through inadequate enforcement. How do you say “mixed message” in Spanish?
Mr. King concluded with a moment of what he jokingly admitted was “pandering,” telling the crowd that his Irish grandfather was from an island off Galway where Spanish sailors had come ashore long ago. It was his attempt to say, “I am one of you.”
“After tonight, we’re going to call you Pedro Reyes,” said Javier Valdés, Make the Road’s co-executive director.
Mr. King stayed for handshakes and a potluck dinner. “I’m not enthusiastic about it,” he said of immigration reform, over the din. He had spent the night talking about political calculations, while his audience had tried to impress upon him the moral case for reform and human toll of inaction.
If they thought they had won a partner, they failed. Mr. King now seems to be, at best, a canny noncombatant. He posed patiently for photos, even standing behind a Make the Road banner, as his hosts gave the sí, se puede cheer and pumped their fists.
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