Kennedy, his legislation had a major impact on California

WASHINGTON — Tony Coelho vividly remembers his first meeting with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, a man who helped change the face of California.

It was May 1965. Coelho was a young Capitol Hill aide for a San Joaquin Valley congressman, when Kennedy summoned a dozen or so staffers to discuss immigration reform.

"I listened to the substance of what he had to say," Coelho recalled Wednesday, "but mostly I was absolutely amazed at his command of the body politic."

Tactics, strategy, coalitions; Kennedy, Coelho said, seemed a master of all the political arts. He proved it with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished national quotas and helped increase the overall flow of immigrants to the United States.

Two decades later, Kennedy was a prime author of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. The law provided amnesty for about 2.7 million illegal immigrants, hundreds of thousands of whom lived in California. And two decades after that, Kennedy was championing a 21st century immigration bill that if passed would provide legal status for some 1.5 million farm workers.

"If anything, I think (Kennedy's death) is going to get people more committed to immigration reform," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers.

That's one view, similar to those who contend the death of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee chairman will give a sentimental boost to health care reform efforts.

More likely, though, Kennedy's death will shake up the Senate in ways that can't always be predicted.

The future effect on immigration legislation, including an agricultural guest-worker plan favored by both the UFW and the California Farm Bureau Federation, will play out slowly. The White House already had conceded that no immigration bill will pass until at least next year. Kennedy previously had given up chairmanship of the Senate immigration subcommittee to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

"One thing I've learned over the years," Rodriguez acknowledged, "is that someone always steps into the empty box."

Kennedy and his older brother Robert had both cultivated close ties to the United Farm Workers and its co-founder, Cesar Chavez. When Rodriguez brought 100 or so farm workers back to Washington several years ago, Kennedy made a point of meeting with them personally. Union members, in turn, spent part of their convention last year in Fresno approving a tribute to Kennedy's career.

Kennedy's true political strength, though, came in his ability to work with those who weren't his natural allies.

"In public, he had only one level of volume, and that was all the way up," noted former California governor and senator Pete Wilson, a Republican. "But in private, he could be pragmatic."

Wilson, who served with Kennedy on the Senate Armed Services Committee, recalled that the two men were never able to bridge their differences over the so-called "Star Wars" missile defense systems. But while traveling together or in private discussions, Wilson said, Kennedy "was fun to be with, and had a great sense of humor."

Coelho, a Los Banos native who became House majority whip in the 1980s, likewise saw Kennedy's sometimes surprising bipartisan pull. Coelho recalled how conservative Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah got cold feet about the original Americans with Disabilities Act, which Coelho introduced. A personal appeal from Kennedy, Coelho said, was enough to get Hatch back on the bill.

"He always knew when to compromise to reach an agreement," Coelho said.

Over nearly 47 years in the Senate, that persistence plus a willingness to compromise enabled Kennedy to steer both money and policy. In 2007, for instance, Tulare County received a $400,000 grant and the University of California at Davis received a $999,000 grant from the Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women. The grant program had its origins in the Violence Against Women Act, a 1994 law that has Kennedy's fingerprints all over it.

In a similar vein, Kennedy played a big role in creating the Head Start program in a 1964 law. Currently, more than 100,000 low-income California schoolchildren ages 5 and under receive health, nutrition and other services through the program that Edward Kennedy helped write when he was 32 years old.

At the time, Kennedy still had another four decades to serve in the Senate.

"He ... leaves shoes that are so big that it will be difficult for a mere mortal to fill them," said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Related stories from McClatchy DC