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Labor Group Opposes Recall, Backs Bustamante

Federation's support for the lieutenant governor as a backup if Davis loses his job is a major shift.

August 27, 2003|Megan Garvey, Dan Morain and Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writers

California's powerful labor federation voted unanimously Tuesday to oppose the recall of Gov. Gray Davis and, at the same time, recommend that union members cast a vote for the backup candidacy of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

The move marked a significant shift in labor's strategy toward the recall. The official vote at the federation's convention in Manhattan Beach occurred with no debate. But it was not without controversy, coming only after a day of intense closed-door debate Monday in the group's executive council.

In those discussions, about a quarter of the council's members voted against backing Bustamante, arguing that labor should focus solely on defeating the recall.

In the end, the dissenters agreed to go along with the majority to present a united labor front, union officials said.

"We had a very lengthy discussion of the pros and cons," said executive council member Leo Valenzuela, who at Monday's meeting had opposed backing Bustamante.

"But when it came down to it, we were going to show unity," he said. "The decision was made that we do have to give the membership some direction."

Still, the federation's executive secretary-treasurer, Art Pulaski, and other union leaders were notably tepid in their comments about Bustamante. At a news conference, Pulaski praised Davis extensively but did not mention the decision to back Bustamante until asked about it.

"This is not a 50/50 division of resources or effort" between Davis and Bustamante, said Miguel Contreras, leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "Our primary message will be, 'No on the recall, no on the recall, no on the recall and, by the way, if you want to, vote for Bustamante.' "

The lieutenant governor, who did not attend Tuesday's sessions, made the best of the backing he got, saying in a statement that he was "honored" to receive labor's support, which he referred to as an "endorsement" -- a word that union officials had notably avoided using.

"I am committed to expanding the middle class in California by fighting for jobs that pay decent wages and provide health insurance for workers and their families," Bustamante said.

On Monday he had spent about an hour with the executive council answering questions. He told union leaders that he had entered the race despite their pleas to stay out, because of mounting concern among Democrats about Davis' low support in the California electorate.

The governor, who spoke to union members privately Tuesday for more than 20 minutes, emerged from the hall smiling.

Before heading to a news conference in another room, he paraded across the lobby of the Marriott Hotel surrounded by union activists hoisting anti-recall posters and white balloons and shouting, "No recall!"

By the time Davis talked to the media, the crowd had jeered raucously as Pulaski held up a large photograph of former Gov. Pete Wilson hugging gubernatorial candidate and fellow Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As the crowd chanted, "No Re-Pete!" Pulaski was forced to shout to continue his remarks.

"What we see is the top Republican candidate embracing the man we thought we had run out of town," Pulaski said, reminding the audience that organized labor had lost numerous battles with Wilson over benefits, mandatory overtime and other issues important to unions and their members.

Davis said that although Republicans held the governor's office, organized labor did not have a champion there.

"If you look back at the eight years that preceded my governorship, working people were on the ropes," the governor said.

Reporters tried to ask Davis his opinion about the unions' support of Bustamante, but the governor dodged the questions, and follow-up efforts were drowned out by union members shouting, "No recall," and "Next question."

"I would remind you," Davis told one reporter, "that people have written me off at their peril."

Pressed on Bustamante's candidacy, Davis used the same words he had in earlier days, calling the lieutenant governor "a good and decent person" who was the "most qualified person on Question 2" of the recall ballot.

"But this is not going to get to Question 2," he added with a grin, drawing a loud cheer from the crowd.

The Oct. 7 recall ballot will have two parts. The first will be a yes-or-no question on whether Davis should lose his job.

The second will offer 135 candidates as potential successors. The results of that portion will become relevant only if Davis fails to get majority support on the first question.

Although labor officials say unions will devote most of their efforts to the "no on the recall" half of the ballot, the federation's decision may prove a substantial boost for Bustamante's campaign.

The organization represents about 2 million union members statewide -- doctors, farm workers, hotel employees and teachers, among others.

About three in 10 California voters identified themselves as coming from union households in recent Times exit polls on election days.

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