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Davis-Bustamante Rift Shapes Race

Some Democratic leaders say the lack of rapport between the governor and his lieutenant may cost the party the governorship.

August 19, 2003|Matea Gold and Dan Morain | Times Staff Writers

They didn't get off to a good start.

Less than four months into Gov. Gray Davis' first term, his lieutenant governor stood on the steps of the Capitol and denounced Davis' legal strategy to deal with Proposition 187, the ballot measure denying services to illegal immigrants.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's performance infuriated Davis, ushering in a deep freeze between the governor and the lieutenant governor that has persisted and surfaced anew in the recall election.

"There hasn't been a relationship between them for years," said Sacramento political consultant Phil Giarrizzo.

For much of Davis' tenure, his lack of rapport with Bustamante was just another casualty in a state capital fraught with personal cross-currents. But as the governor faces down a recall election, their falling out is altering the very shape of the campaign.

After declaring he would stay off the ballot, Bustamante changed his mind after U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein declined to run. He is now asking people to vote both against the recall and for his candidacy, a hedge to keep the governorship in Democratic hands.

On Sunday, the lieutenant governor accused Davis aides of undermining his campaign, the first sign that he is willing to distance himself from Davis before the election.

"If some of the governor's minions would stop trying to undercut my efforts ... we have the possibility of having a win-win position on the ballot," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Later, Bustamante political strategist Richie Ross said aides to Davis have discouraged supporters from donating money to Bustamante's campaign. The Davis campaign denied any such efforts.

The growing rift has alarmed some Democratic leaders who fret that the personal animosity between the two men could cost the party the governor's office.

"They need to resolve this, right away," said Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who roomed with Bustamante when they were both in the state Assembly in the mid-1990s. "You can't allow this kind of conflict to continue, or we'll lose both the recall and any hope of electing Bustamante."

When they ran for office in 1998, Davis, then the lieutenant governor, and Bustamante, the former Assembly speaker, had a friendly working relationship. Although the governor and the lieutenant governor do not run as a ticket in California, an advisor to Davis said his campaign shared financial resources with Bustamante and included him in his television commercials.

When both men won their elections, it was the first time in 24 years that the lieutenant governor and governor were from the same party -- a fact many hoped would lead to a rare spell of cooperation between the two offices.

When Davis was lieutenant governor, he clashed frequently with then-Gov. Pete Wilson, who at one point tried to boot the second-in-command out of his Capitol suite.

But Davis declared that his lieutenant governor would be his partner. Bustamante was hopeful.

"When he got elected, I told Cruz, 'Gray just lived through being lieutenant governor under Wilson, and he knows what it's like to be ignored and disrespected,' " Ross said.

For the first few months, the new officials worked well together. Bustamante was included in Davis' Cabinet meetings, and the governor appointed him to head a committee examining the state's infrastructure.

But some members of the Davis administration said they began to feel the lieutenant governor had overly grand ideas of his job, which has few official responsibilities besides standing in for the governor when he is out of state.

At the same time, Bustamante wanted to chart his own path -- a move that didn't sit well with Davis.

"Gray sometimes expects people to be right in line with him, and Cruz always wanted his own room, his own space," said one labor leader who works with both and doesn't want to offend either. "And those two traits didn't mix well at all times."

That was the case in April 1999. Latino leaders, including Bustamante, wanted Davis to drop the state's defense of Proposition 187, a ballot initiative aimed at denying health and education benefits to illegal immigrants.

Davis decided instead to ask a federal appeals court to resolve the issues through mediation -- a move Bustamante learned about in the newspaper.

"That wasn't insulting," Ross said. "That was degrading."

Some close to Davis said the governor had tried to brief Bustamante about his decision, but the lieutenant governor boycotted a meeting Davis held after his decision was leaked to the media.

What happened next, said one former legislator, had much to do with a rivalry between two Sacramento powerhouses -- Ross and Garry South, the governor's top strategist.

Bustamante held a news conference on the Capitol steps attacking the governor's position, saying Davis was backtracking on his campaign promise to heal racial divides in the state.

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