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Bustamante Has Dibs on Governor's Office

August 10, 2003|Frank del Olmo

Of all the candidates who want to replace California Gov. Gray Davis if he is voted out of office in the Oct. 7 recall election, none has a more legitimate claim than Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

So it's a good thing that the state's second-highest elected official chose to defy both conventional wisdom and the leaders of the Democratic Party, of which he has long been a loyal member, to add his name to the list of Californians who will be in the running.

Conventional wisdom has it that Bustamante doesn't have what it takes to win an intense two-month statewide campaign. He is not telegenic. His natural dignity looks like stiffness on TV. And he's a soft-spoken country boy from the Central Valley, lacking the crowd-pleasing flair of big-city pols.

For their part, leading Democrats spent way too long paying lip service to Davis' desperate survival strategy of keeping all other Democrats off the ballot. The Davis campaign could then attack the recall as a cynical Republican plot to overturn the results of last November's regular election.

That argument has some merit, because the recall made it onto the ballot only with an infusion of money from Republicans like Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista. But it overlooks the reality that a lot of California voters are angry and disillusioned with Davis, believing that he understated California's deep fiscal problems while running for reelection last year.

Yes, Republicans paid to circulate recall petitions, but almost a million and a half voters signed them.

So the first reason Bustamante should be among the top candidates to replace Davis is pragmatism.

Davis is so unpopular -- and the recall has only added to the public's anger with him -- that there is a very real chance he could lose the vote of public confidence Oct. 7. Therefore, the Democrats need a viable candidate to replace Davis or they risk losing control of the nation's biggest state just to salve the governor's bruised ego.

A second reason favoring Bustamante is political.

The lieutenant governor knows the ins and outs of state government, yet he can honestly say he had little, if anything, to do with the mess the governor has made in Sacramento. Davis' staff has told anyone who would listen that the governor never consulted his No. 2 on anything important. So, in a delicious bit of comeuppance, Davis' shabby treatment of Bustamante may now be one of Bustamante's strongest selling points.

The final reason for taking Bustamante's candidacy seriously is cultural.

He represents the future of California, which by the middle of this century will be a Latino-majority state. Given that there probably will be Latino governors in the state's future, why not start now by electing a Latino with a long and honorable career in public service?

A Los Angeles Times poll taken a month ago suggests that Bustamante has some real running room in the crowded field to replace Davis. First, 56% of the poll's Latino respondents favored the recall, as opposed to 39% who opposed it. And the lieutenant governor seems to have a solid base of support among the state's growing population of minority voters. He showed strong support among black voters (34% of whom said they were inclined to vote for him), as well as among Asian Americans (37%) and Latinos (32%), the last the fastest-growing voting segment in the state.

So let the national news media laugh at the weird or wacky candidates who have entered the race. Bustamante is not one of them. He may, in fact, give the nation its most dramatic display yet of the emerging power of the Latino vote.

*

In my last column, I promised to follow up on the controversy in Maywood over that city's tough automobile impound policy. Since that column was published, Maywood officials have agreed to change the policy and are in consultation with community groups and officials from neighboring cities to determine how that would be done. I will report on the outcome in a future column.

Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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