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Democrats Pick Assembly's First Latino Speaker

Politics: Party members say they will choose Fresno's Cruz Bustamante to lead lower house Dec. 2. He says he will not engage in revenge or 'partisan wrangling.'

November 08, 1996|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Moving swiftly in the wake of election day victories, cheering Democrats on Thursday united behind Assemblyman Cruz Bustamante as their leader, selecting by acclamation the two-term lawmaker from Fresno as their choice for Assembly Speaker.

After he's sworn into office Dec. 2, lawmakers say, Bustamante will be elected Assembly speaker--the first Latino in California history to hold the powerful post.

After a nearly three-hour luncheon meeting to celebrate their comeback as the majority, smiling Democrats emerged to hail the son of a Dinuba barber as a leader who would advance a centrist agenda on behalf of working men and women.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with his colleagues outside a Sacramento meeting hall, the 43-year-old Bustamante said voters had indicated that "they want to move away from extreme politics" practiced by Republicans who won a majority in 1994.

"It is clear to Republicans or any other group trying to split the caucus that we are united," Bustamante said in a brief meeting with reporters. "We are interested in a strong Assembly."

But he also extended a peace offering to the GOP, saying in carefully chosen words that his administration "will not be about revenge" or "partisan wrangling."

Current Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), who was elevated to the top job this year, issued a one-sentence statement in the wake of Bustamante's selection.

"We worked well with Cruz last year and look forward to working with him again in the upcoming session," said Pringle, who on Thursday was reelected as Republican leader.

Bustamante's selection capped a remarkable turnaround for Democrats.

Just two years ago, they were reeling from election setbacks that eventually forced Speaker Willie Brown to give up the reins of power. Brown, however, engineered the selection of two consecutive Republicans as speaker--to the frustration of GOP leaders.

Pringle finally got the top job earlier this year, setting off major staff changes in the Assembly, which has been controlled for most of the past 40 years by Democrats.

Perhaps more than anything, the selection of Bustamante signals the emergence of Latinos--whose numbers in the Assembly Democratic caucus have grown to 12--as a political force. For the first time in many years, Republicans, too, have a Latino member.

Several colleagues said Bustamante was always the front-runner for the job because of his strong base of support among Latino lawmakers.

"This is another example of Latino candidates being able to cross over," state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) said. "The Latino agenda is, quite frankly, an American agenda. It's about decent wages. . . . It is an agenda about inclusion."

But Bustamante's emergence was a personal setback for several Los Angeles-area Democrats who aspired to the job, especially Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica). She said the political reality was that some of her colleagues could not back an openly gay lawmaker such as herself for speaker.

"I think it's a very new thing these days, frankly," Kuehl said. "Remember, on the floor of the Assembly we had three Democrats who voted against gay marriage, and I don't think they are homophobic, but I think they have their concerns."

Bustamante's quick rise may be a mark of the new era of term limits, which limit Assembly members to three two-year terms.

A former legislative aide, he was elected in a special election in 1993 but is now serving his final two years.

By 1995, he was challenging veteran Assemblyman Richard Katz for the position of Democratic leader. He lost, but the seeds of Thursday's victory were sown.

In the last year, Bustamante served as chairman of the Assembly Democratic caucus, a post that includes political fund-raising responsibilities.

Although some Democrats believe his fund-raising lagged, he played the part by pulling in money from virtually all the major political action committees and interests--from doctors and lawyers to garbage companies, insurance firms, contractors, tobacco, liquor and gambling companies.

Unlike many California Democrats, most of whom represent urban districts, Bustamante has tapped the state's farming interests for money, raising tens of thousands from groups such as the California Farm Bureau, milk producers, Gallo wines, cattle ranchers and poultry operations.

Bustamante was elected Tuesday to his final term in the Assembly from the 31st District, which includes parts of Fresno and Tulare counties and is 52% Latino.

As a lawmaker in the last session, Bustamante advanced three-dozen bills on such subjects as preventing lead poisoning in children and maximizing the availability of fruits, nuts and vegetables to the public.

Environmentalists are somewhat wary of Bustamante's ascension, although they said the new leader would certainly be friendlier to their cause than Pringle.

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