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California and the West

Bustamante Voices Regret for Racial Slur

Politics: Lieutenant governor says he made a verbal slip and reasserts his support for civil rights. Some blacks are appalled, some forgiving.


SACRAMENTO — Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante offered no excuses but plenty of apologies Tuesday for using a racial slur in a speech to an African American labor group celebrating Black History Month.

Reaction ranged from shock--and then forgiveness--among African Americans to a denouncement by the California Republican Party. Many people were simply puzzled.

Bustamante--a Democrat, longtime champion of civil rights and the first Latino elected to statewide office in modern California history--said he meant to say the word "Negro" as he recited the title of an early black organization during a speech he gave Friday night--but stumbled and instead spoke a derogatory word.

He said the slip triggered a small reaction from some members of the audience, which had gathered at a hotel in the Bay Area community of Emeryville for a Coalition of Black Trade Unionists awards dinner and scholarship fund-raiser. After finishing his speech, Bustamante apologized, and he did so again later to individual members of the audience.

Bustamante said he told the crowd: "If you heard what I think I heard, I want you to know it wasn't me; it's not the way I was raised, it's not the way I was taught, it's not the way I raised my children and it's not what's in my heart."

Bustamante was reciting the history of black trade unionists during his speech, which included the names of a number of organizations established in the early to mid-1900s. Many of them contained the words "Negro" or "colored" in their titles. It was while reciting the name of an organization with the word "Negro" in it that he made the slip, Bustamante said.

He repeatedly said Tuesday that he is "humiliated" over his error.

Antonio Christian, president of the Northern California chapter of the unionists coalition, said he was sitting inches away from Bustamante and did not hear him use the derogatory term.

"He started out 'nig' and then he said Negro," Christian said. "There was never any indication of anything derogatory."

Marshall Walker, the Western region representative for the union, said he heard the remark and later accepted an apology from Bustamante. But Walker said some of his fellow members are still appalled; as many as 40 of the roughly 400 people at the dinner walked out after hearing what Bustamante said.

"He knew when it came out of his mouth," Walker said. "But I believe it was a totally honest mistake."

Lawanna Preston, staff director of Local 790, said she was shocked to hear Bustamante's utterance.

"I think you accept the apology," Preston said. "But . . . I think there has to be a dialogue about why it happened and where do we go from here."

In the past, Bustamante has called for the University of California to repeal anti-affirmative action policies. He has also urged television networks to increase multiculturalism on both sides of the camera. And he butted heads with Gov. Gray Davis in 1999 over the governor's mediation of a lawsuit stemming from Proposition 187.

Bustamante said he spent Tuesday talking to African American leaders such as San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Assemblyman Roderick Wright (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the California Legislative Black Caucus.

"They all expressed their support," Bustamante said. "They know my record of civil rights for all people."

Wright said he told Bustamante that it's a case of much ado about nothing. He said Bustamante mispronounced the name of an organization and that to suggest otherwise would be to trivialize race relations in America.

"If his intention was to be insulting, he could have simply not gone to the meeting," Wright said.

Davis, speaking to reporters after a speech to the AFL-CIO Executive Council at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, also weighed in.

"I know the words he said are indefensible, but I also know it was not intentional, and they do not reflect the character or the heart of the person I know," Davis said.

William Lucy, president of the National Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, described Bustamante as shellshocked and said the lieutenant governor has offered to go out and meet with more people and apologize further.

"I'm not sure it's necessary," Lucy said. "You can't wipe out a lifetime of service over one incident."

Opinion was divided over any political fallout.

For years, the position of lieutenant governor was a dead-end job. But in 1998 the post was the springboard Davis used to catapult past a pair of better-financed gubernatorial contenders and win election as governor.

In political circles, Bustamante has been seen as a likely contender for the top job in 2006, along with state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and Treasurer Phil Angelides, both Democrats.

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