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Bustamante Makes Most of Post in Davis' Shadow

Seeking second term as lieutenant governor, he is criticized by GOP rival Bruce McPherson as 'invisible.'

October 16, 2002|Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Over the past four years, Cruz Bustamante has gamely embraced the Golden Rule of Lieutenant Governors: Grab the limelight whenever you can, even if it means issuing press releases when you give blood or hand out Thanksgiving turkeys.

Being lieutenant governor will do that to a politician.

It's a thankless job, shorn of the governor's power and perks and scorned by pundits and other politicians. A steppingstone, perhaps? Graveyard might be more accurate. Only two sitting lieutenant governors in the past 120 years have been elected governor: Democrat Gray Davis in 1998 and Republican C.C. Young in 1926.

"You're not in the spotlight, except occasional moments," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. "You're not in control of any money or department. It's the state equivalent of the vice presidency, with many of the same issues. It can be a frustrating office."

Four years after becoming the first Latino since 1871 to win a statewide election in California, Bustamante is shrugging off those frustrations and seeking a second term as lieutenant governor on Nov. 5. His campaign is seen by many Democrats as a tune-up for a 2006 run for governor.

Bustamante, 49, a self-effacing former Assembly speaker, doesn't deny he's interested in seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination -- assuming he wins in November, he emphasizes.

"I want to continue working on the things we've started," said Bustamante. "I want to be able to help people."

Earlier this year, Bustamante was seen as vulnerable. The self-described "plodder" is dismissed by some Democrats as deficient in charisma and campaign fund-raising skills.

His chief challenger, Republican state Sen. Bruce McPherson of Santa Cruz -- a moderate who has managed to get elected to the Legislature in one of the state's most liberal areas -- was viewed by analysts as the GOP's best chance of winning a statewide race this year. But McPherson, 58, has been hampered by a lack of money to make his case with voters who don't know him or his reputation. Thus far, he hasn't been able to transform his local appeal to Democrats and independents into statewide support.

"People don't know McPherson from a hole in the wall," said Cain. "This is a classic case of not having the money to get the message out there."

A Los Angeles Times poll conducted the last week of September showed Bustamante holding a comfortable 52% to 31% lead over McPherson among likely voters, with 16% undecided. Other candidates on the ballot are Jim King, American Independent; Donna J. Warren, Green; Pat Wright, Libertarian; Kalee Przybylak, Natural Law; and Paul Jerry Hanosh, Reform.

In recent weeks, with the race heading into the home stretch, McPherson has gone on the offensive. He has attacked Bustamante as a lazy seat-warmer who has wasted taxpayer money. He has singled out for criticism Bustamante's attendance record at University of California and California State University board meetings.

"I describe him as the invisible [lieutenant] governor," said McPherson. "I think it's an indication of his lack of enthusiasm for the job."

Bustamante shakes his head at these charges, and fires back with a few of his own. His aides have compiled a 50-page analysis of McPherson's missed Senate votes. The back-and-forth over missed votes and meetings may matter little to most voters, who pay scant attention to "down-ballot" races such as that for lieutenant governor, experts say.

Still, for the politically attuned, the debate is shining a rare spotlight on the duties of a lieutenant governor and on the difficulties of maintaining a meaningful profile in a job that can be a political black hole, experts and politicians say.

Bustamante took office four years ago amid a wave of Latino euphoria over his historic victory. His aim was to reach beyond his prescribed duties as lieutenant governor, which are largely confined to sitting on a network of state boards and commissions. Bustamante said he has accomplished that goal by "thinking out of the box" and launching his own statewide initiatives on breast-cancer awareness, racial tolerance and other issues.

Humble Beginnings

By Bustamante's own account, he's the political equivalent of a pack mule, plodding steadily forward toward the finish line. It's a defining trait he learned growing up as the son of a barber in the small Central Valley town of San Joaquin, where he worked in the fields and studied to be a butcher before a summer internship in his local congressman's office in Washington, D.C., set him on a path to politics and public service, he said.

Bustamante makes light of his lack of flashiness. His humble, self-deprecating style has endeared him to fellow politicians and voters.

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