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Bustamante Sticks to Script--His Own

November 11, 1996|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Three years ago a rookie assemblyman stood up at a news conference and damaged himself. Then I aggravated his injury with some words I wrote. I wrote, right up here in the lead paragraph, that he had been "refreshingly candid." Indeed, I continued, we in the Capitol had witnessed a "rare display of honesty."

Well, grumbled some veteran lawmakers, we'll have none of that. Newcomer Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) had gotten "off message," to use the parlance of politicians.

The news conference had been called by the Latino Caucus and then-Speaker Willie Brown to unveil their solution to illegal immigration. It involved tightening the border and targeting the smugglers and employers of illegal immigrants, rather than cutting off their public services. The political purpose was to "inoculate" Brown and the Latinos against charges of bleeding heart liberalism.

"We cannot have people breaking immigration laws," asserted the caucus chairman, then-Assemblyman (now Sen.) Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles). "We do not believe in open borders."

Then the rookie stepped to the mike. "In the area I represent, the Central Valley, we could not conduct [farm] business without the immigrants," he said.

Legal or illegal? I asked. "I would prefer legal." But are illegal immigrants acceptable? "My district requires it. . . . Those [farm workers] do not come from the welfare roles . . . from our colleges . . . from our cities."

Wasn't he trying to have it both ways--joining the chorus against illegal immigration while justifying the presence of illegal immigrants?

"There is a dichotomy," he conceded. "There is something that is both sweet and sour. I believe we have to make allowances for people to be here in order to maintain the standard of living. So am I trying to have it both ways? Yes, absolutely."


That was candor to most people, but a curve ball to some pols. They passed Bustamante the word: Stick to the script at news conferences. No surprises.

After that, he seemed to avoid Capitol reporters and news conferences. He denies, however, it was because of his initiation to the consequences of Capitol candor. "I've just been extremely preoccupied," he says.

No question about that.

In the last year or two, Bustamante, 43, has been preoccupied--obsessed--with running for speaker. Now he's only one step away. When the Legislature convenes for its 1997-98 session Dec. 2, this centrist Democrat will be sworn in as the 62nd person to hold that office, and the first Latino.

It will "send a signal" to Latino kids, he says, "that just because you have too many vowels in your name, because you look a little bit different, maybe because you come from a small rural town . . . it doesn't make any difference."

Bustamante's father was a barber in Dinuba, a farm burg south of Fresno. For extra money, he and his family--mom, cousins, uncles--picked peaches, grapes and cotton.

Like many children of the struggling middle class, Bustamante took advantage of California's uniquely affordable higher education system. He attended a local community college, then transferred to a nearby state university [Fresno].

"It may sound awfully trite," he told reporters Friday, "but when I was growing up my parents always said if you work hard, good things will come to you."

He worked harder than any of his rivals to become the Assembly Democrats' choice for speaker. That's why he won, ultimately by acclamation.


Bustamante is a bulldog. Not flashy, but focused, with a deep voice and steady stare that command attention.

He's a listener, but not a hesitater. When Assembly Democrats individually told him, as he sought their support, what roles they'd like to play in a Bustamante administration, he listened. Tacit deals were cut. When Willie Brown last spring urged his former colleagues to hold off campaigning for speaker until they had recaptured the Assembly majority, Bustamante never hesitated. He kept right on working the Democratic Caucus.

He's soft-spoken, but not shy. He wasn't shy about asking special interests for campaign donations. He raised over $500,000, then gave the money to Democratic candidates in exchange for chits to be called up during the speakership fight. That's good, old-fashioned politics.

But fund-raising alone won't get you elected speaker. You've got to convince colleagues you're a winner and somebody they can trust. He did both.

One thing you hear repeatedly about Bustamante is that he's a straight shooter. Keeps his word. Refreshingly candid.

Clearly, whatever damage he suffered at that first news conference was not irreparable.

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