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Bustamante to Seek Lieutenant Governor's Post

Politics: Assembly speaker has only one well-known rival for the Democratic nomination but would face a tougher fight in November general election.


SACRAMENTO — Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno), who must leave the lower house this year because of term limits, will run for lieutenant governor, his campaign manager confirmed Tuesday.

Bustamante, the first Latino to hold the speakership, also would become one of the few Latinos to reach a statewide elected office and the first in modern times.

Campaign manager Richard Ross said Bustamante, as one of the state's most powerful Democrats, appears to have a favorable chance of winning his party's nomination for California's second-highest elective office.

To date, his only well-known rival in the June primary is Sacramento political activist Tony Miller, who previously has run for secretary of state. Lt. Gov. Gray Davis is vacating the office to run for governor.

Bustamante takes into the campaign a hefty war chest of more than $1.4 million--money he would have been expected to use to help elect other Assembly Democrats if he had remained speaker until December.

If nominated for lieutenant governor, Bustamante would have a tougher fight in November. State Sen. Richard Mountjoy (R-Arcadia) has entered the race for the post, as has state Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Carnelian Bay).

Also running for the Republican nomination is Noel Irwin-Hentschel, a wealthy West Los Angeles businesswoman who is co-founder and chairwoman of American Tours International.

Bustamante, who took the reins as Assembly speaker a year ago, acquired a reputation as a leader with a soft touch, preferring negotiation and consensus-building to confrontation and fiery rhetoric.

In contrast to such legendary and imperious speakers as Willie Brown, now mayor of San Francisco, Bustamante has been frequently characterized as a "weak speaker." In reply, he has said legislative achievement on his watch has been substantial, including enactment of welfare reform, a health insurance program for children in low-income families and various forms of tax reduction.

"Whatever the denizens of the Capitol didn't like about him, the voters did," Ross said, adding that Bustamante earns high marks in private polling.

Bustamante's decision is expected to speed up the process of selecting his successor as speaker--a position apparently already secured by Assembly Majority Leader Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles).

Villaraigosa has maintained that he would not force a vote in the Assembly to gain the speaker's gavel until Bustamante decided his future political course.

Now, a vote on a new speaker could come as early as this week, although at what point Villaraigosa would assume the post was unclear.

Before Bustamante's announcement, under one scenario, Villaraigosa was to become "speaker-elect" to avoid the perception that Bustamante was being pushed out of the job.

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