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CAPITOL JOURNAL / GEORGE SKELTON

A Slow Start, but Race Is Far From Over

March 17, 1997|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Pick your adjective: Slow. Weak. Unfocused. Timid. They're all being used to describe Cruz Bustamante's reign so far as Assembly speaker.

Disappointing sums it up for many.

He has become a punching bag for pundits.

Democrat Bustamante, 44, from humble but proud roots in the rural San Joaquin Valley, seized the speakership in December with great fanfare. He was the first Latino to occupy the office in the Legislature's 147-year history. Maybe someday he'd be governor.

Looking back now, there was a hint of things to come. Moments after the Legislature convened, a reporter asked Bustamante to name his top priority for the session and he instantly replied: "Survival." He said it with a smile, but he was serious.

Somebody who's No. 1 priority is survival will not be leading attacks. He'll be deliberate, not daring. Cautious, not combative.

Definitely "not a headline grabber," as Bustamante himself told the Sacramento Press Club last week in a rare meeting with reporters.

He's an agonizer, anxious to accommodate and not alienate. It took Bustamante nearly a month to assign his colleagues their Capitol offices and parking places. It took him nearly two months to appoint committee members. Many Assembly members--mostly Republicans, to be sure, but also some Democrats--grumbled they had nothing to do.

Silliness filled their time. In late January there was a low point, a floor debate over which lawmaker--a Republican or a Democrat--was the "stupidest."

*

Last Monday, there were party strategy caucuses and a floor fight over a seemingly innocuous resolution urging elementary schools to use the NRA's Eddie Eagle gun-safety program. Democrats were bitterly divided and, as one complained anonymously, "It looked to the public like we were out of control." (The measure passed.)

The same day, a Democrat--Kevin Murray of Los Angeles--tried to adjourn the Assembly in memory of the slain Notorious B.I.G., a gangsta rapper with a big time rap sheet. Democrats again were divided. (The motion failed.)

Indeed, members increasingly have been adjourning in memory of dead constituents--several at a rip. It used to be that only former legislators and truly prominent Californians were memorialized. Now, it's virtually anybody; a friend of a friend of a friendly fund-raiser. Just call in your request to your local legislator.

"That's all we have to do--adjourn in memory of people," asserted a GOP staffer, noting that most committees are barely crawling and few bills have reached the Assembly floor.

There's more, but you get the idea.

The question is, does any of it matter? And the answer is, it matters about as much as whether the groundhog sees its shadow on Feb. 2.

*

This is a two-year legislative session, after all. So what if it has started slowly? Virtually every session does.

Organizing this Assembly was especially tricky. The house changed hands, from Republican to Democratic. It is narrowly divided by party (43D-37R). There are 32 new members, 40% of the body. That's a lot of shifting around of prima donnas.

"Welcome to term limits everybody," says Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley), a newcomer who had been an Assembly staffer for 20 years. "Every two years this is going to happen. There'll be an inordinate amount of time spent developing the process, relationships, trust. It's going to be a little bumpier. Get used to it."

In fact, term limits are on trial here as much as Bustamante.

Some important things are happening: A joint Assembly-Senate committee is working to develop a welfare reform plan by May 1. An Assembly local government caucus seems determined to help cities, counties and schools.

But basically this is the exhibition season. Games won't start counting until mid-spring. Look at the standings in summer. Will the budget be enacted within reasonable proximity of the July 1 deadline? Will welfare reform be passed by summer's end? Will class-size reduction continue? What will be done about juvenile crime and packed prisons?

Bustamante described himself to the Press Club as a "consensus builder," not a "dictator." "Thoughtful," not "wishy-washy." "A moderate--not the guy who's going to rape the environment and not the guy who chains himself to a tree." My take on Bustamante as speaker? Same as it was last December: New and untested. Too reclusive, but refreshingly low-key. A bit tentative, but with a tough side. Still a puzzle with promise.

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