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Bustamante's Manager Thrives on Clashing Roles

August 14, 2003|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

In a long run of battle, Sacramento political consultant Richie Ross has done well for himself by taking sides. Both of them.

The 53-year-old campaign strategist and lobbyist is an advocate for labor unions -- and for the Indian gambling operations that fight them. He sells his high-priced expertise to personal-injury and workers' compensation attorneys, while separately peddling advice to business interests the lawyers sue.

And the wiry, wealthy, sharply dressed Ross wears a rack of hats in guiding the careers of numerous Democratic politicians whose ambitions are often on a collision course with those of other Democratic politicians.

Now, the widely acknowledged master of blurring the line is toeing the line as manager of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's campaign in the Oct. 7 gubernatorial recall election.

It's another split-personality assignment for Ross. Bustamante, like Ross and most of his clients, says he wants Californians to vote no on removing Gov. Gray Davis from office. If voters do approve the recall, however, Bustamante hopes they choose him on the companion ballot item to select a successor, with Ross plotting the game plan.

"We all live in a very complex society," Ross said. "It's just the way it is."

His way is unusual even within the lax realm of Sacramento's ethical complexities. Ross, who has worked for at least 15 legislators and statewide officeholders in the last two years, is the only top-shelf election mastermind who openly doubles as an arm twister in the halls of the Capitol.

Bustamante said he is untroubled by Ross' tangled enterprises as a consultant-lobbyist.

"We have a really interesting relationship," the lieutenant governor said. "The reason that relationship is a good one is that not all of my friends have to be his friends and not all of his friends have to be mine."

Ross' dual role allows him to pitch legislation on behalf of labor and corporate patrons to lawmakers he helped put in office. Critics say it presents an inevitable conflict of interest -- and it could supply ammunition to Davis' and Bustamante's opponents, especially Republican actor-turned-recall-candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has promised to bring an outsider's broom to Sacramento.

"Who is he really representing?" Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, said of Ross.

"You should not be a political consultant and lobbyist at the same time," Stern said. He said that what Ross does should be illegal.

It would be if two bills circulating through the Legislature were enacted. Ross holds the distinction of having inspired the proposed laws, which would prohibit campaign consultants from lobbying in many circumstances.

The bills are payback for a Ross outburst in June, when he screamed threats -- characteristically profane -- at two Assembly staff members whose bosses refused to support a successful measure that gives tax credits to farmers who provide health insurance for workers.

The tax legislation was co-sponsored by the United Farm Workers of America, which Ross has worked for since 1969. The Brooklyn native got his start in political activism as a disciple of Cesar Chavez.

"I admittedly used aggressive tactics," Ross said of the June episode. "I didn't think it was a big deal at the time."

Folks who know Ross say the dust-up typified the contradictions that define him. They say he remains devoted to underdogs like the UFW, but is quick to bully anyone who gets between him and what he wants.

And he is not shy about wanting it all -- both a reputation as a champion of the less privileged, and the material rewards of representing the well-heeled.

The spoils include title to a Sacramento office building and a 215-acre cattle ranch a 45-minute drive away in Lincoln, where Ross lives with his wife, Juana, a former farm worker. They have four grown children, two of whom followed him into the business.

"Richie has flashes of altruism and idealism, but they often are overshadowed by considerations of crass politics and financial gain," said Duane Peterson, who worked with Ross on John Van de Kamp's losing primary campaign for governor in 1990.

"He has a deep commitment to the UFW and [the] working poor, and that's great," said Peterson, who runs a liberal advocacy group for Ben Cohen of ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's in Vermont. "But representing gambling interests [is] not about creating social change. It's about lining somebody's pockets."

Ross says he always informs his clients of potential conflicts.

"I never represent two people who are on opposite sides of the same issue," such as a labor negotiation or pending bill, he said.

"The only line that matters," he added, is the one "between right and wrong.... I've never ever been cited, fined, investigated. I have played it by the book."

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