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The State | George Skelton / CAPITOL JOURNAL

The Recall Ballot Offers a Candidate With Credentials: Bustamante

August 25, 2003|George Skelton

Sacramento — If nothing else, you've got to like the story. It's pure California. American dream.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante: Grandson of Mexican immigrants. Son of a Central Valley barber whose family worked crops part time to pay bills.

When he was 13, they finally could afford to leave a government project and move into a three-bedroom, one-bath house in the farm burg of San Joaquin. "The three boys in one room, three girls in another, with one bathroom," Bustamante recalls, chuckling. "It made a huge impact on our family when we were able to get that tiny little home."

He traipsed after his community-active dad, nurturing political seeds.

Quit college, disenchanted and broke. Got a job "busting cement at a fertilizer plant." But he kept pecking away at school. "My mother made me promise." And this May the lieutenant governor, nearing 50, finished his last Internet course that earned him a B.A. from Fresno State.

While working in fertilizer, Bustamante landed an internship in Washington, D.C., for a Fresno congressman, Democrat B.F. Sisk, and got hooked. He worked for another congressman and a legislator and was elected to the Assembly in 1993.

Within three years, he was elected the first Latino Assembly speaker in state history.

Then in 1998, Bustamante became the first California Latino to win statewide office in 127 years, since state Sen. Romualdo Pacheco was elected lieutenant governor in 1871. Pacheco later ascended to the governorship to briefly fill a vacancy. He was a rich Republican rancher from San Luis Obispo -- "more like Bill Simon than Cruz Bustamante," notes Bustamante.

Soon after becoming lieutenant governor, Bustamante denounced Gov. Gray Davis for not driving a stake through Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative, and had his capital parking spots seized by a Davis lieutenant. Just coincidental, Davis aides insisted.

Now, in a twist, guess who could be surrendering all his parking spots to whom?

Bustamante's the kind of guy people root for. Humble. Pleasant. Unassuming -- a self-described "plodder" who "wasn't the smartest kid in the class."

Short, rotund, balding, with a deep voice, he might be mistaken for an underworld boss, but a good don.

He taps into special interest money -- like from Indian casinos -- more than purists would like. But put this in perspective: He's not rich like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and there's no public financing of state campaigns. This leaves one place to get the money: private interests.

He's a career politician -- a class out of vogue again -- who has climbed the ladder and now unexpectedly is in position to possibly become the state's first elected Latino governor.

Politics aside, this up-by-the-bootstraps story is, at least, one uplifting piece of a generally low-life recall election.

But OK, his background's admirable and he's affable. Can he govern?

Bustamante got mixed reviews as speaker.

Some called him slow, weak, unfocused, indecisive, disappointing. Deliberate, not daring.

But critics were expecting too much. He was the first Democratic speaker to follow the powerful Willie Brown. Term limits were kicking in. Bustamante was a short-timer. The Assembly was closely divided (43D-37R). Republican Pete Wilson was governor. All this played havoc with a new Democratic speaker.

And the reality is, Bustamante's year as speaker, 1997, was fairly productive for the Legislature. A highlight, welfare reform, was negotiated by him.

One night during budget negotiations, when reporters thought Bustamante was hiding from them in his office, he actually was finagling an extra $40 million in food vouchers and health care for legal immigrants.

"He knew where he wanted to go, but didn't just want to tell us what to do. No speaker can anymore," says Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), a former Assembly member. "He's not indecisive, he's inclusive."

Sen. Mike Machado (D-Linden) remembers, as an assemblyman, facing a Republican recall -- even then a favorite GOP tool. Bustamante, he says, was "one of the first to step up to my side, providing encouragement and [financial] resources." Machado beat the recall.

"Politics," says Bustamante, "is about building strong relationships. Trust."

It's a lesson never learned by the current governor.

Sure, Bustamante could govern.

He'd govern as a mainstream Democratic populist -- taxing the richest people more, providing tax breaks to people with cheaper cars, making smokers and boozers dig deeper.

Not daring? He's the only major Democrat running -- despite party pressure to sit it out -- and he was the first candidate to offer a specific budget-balancing plan.

Bustamante, says Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, may be "the right person in the right place at the right time. Many voters view the lieutenant governor as the logical person to replace the governor. And his career, by pure fate, has coincided with the rising power of Latinos."

This story will be continued.

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