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THE STATE | THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

A Historic Angle Gets Downplayed

Little is said about it, but Bustamante could be the state's first Latino governor in a century.

October 05, 2003|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

Like much of talk radio, Alicia Alarcon's popular call-in show on Unica AM (1580) has been all recall all the time.

Callers to the Los Angeles Spanish-language program have debated Alarcon about everything from whether Gov. Gray Davis is pandering to Latino voters to Arnold Schwarzenegger's support for Proposition 187. But one issue has received little attention: the prospect of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's becoming California's first Latino governor in more than a century.

"Bustamante only comes up when I ask them directly," Alarcon said. "What's surprised me a lot is that Bustamante hasn't taken advantage of this historical moment for him."

With the recall campaign winding down, so is the history-making potential of the election as a driving factor among Latino voters. Bustamante himself hasn't made it much of an issue in the campaign, and many Latino voters are focusing on other issues, such as the jump in the car tax and Davis' signing of a bill giving illegal immigrants the right to get driver's licenses.

The unusual nature of the election has also played a role. Most top Latino elected officials and labor union leaders have focused their attention on beating back the recall effort. Helping Bustamante win the successor election has been secondary.

"I believe the main thing to do is to stop the recall, and Lt. Gov. Bustamante will still be lieutenant governor," said United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, who has campaigned extensively with Davis but never with Bustamante.

Now that Bustamante trails in the polls, there is a debate among political experts over whether he should be stressing the historical context.

Antonio Villaraigosa lost a bid for mayor of Los Angeles two years ago in a campaign in which the possibility of electing the city's first Latino mayor in a century loomed large. Now a city councilman, Villaraigosa said Bustamante has been wise not to focus on the issue.

"The conundrum that many candidates who are 'the first' face is that there's oftentimes such a focus on the historical significance and very little on what that candidate is either saying or has to offer," he said. "The subtle message is, as 'the first,' that individual can only represent the community that he or she comes from, and that just isn't so."

California has never elected a Latino directly to the post of governor. In 1875, Lt. Gov. Romualdo Pacheco Jr. was elevated to the governor's office when Gov. Newton Booth won a seat in the U.S. Senate.

When voters selected Bustamante as lieutenant governor in 1998, he became the first Latino elected to statewide office in more than a century.

This election is different.

"Placing him in context? It's almost absent, both from his lips as well as others," said Jaime Regalado of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L.A.

Regalado believes that Bustamante could rally more support among Latinos if he, at the very least, reminded voters of the potential milestone. But he believes the campaign decided to stay away from the theme after Bustamante faced criticism for his membership during college in MEChA, an activist Chicano student group.

Richie Ross, Bustamante's chief campaign strategist, denied that, saying the lack of excitement among Latinos about Bustamante's ethnicity shows that Latino voters are maturing and looking at issues rather than candidates' backgrounds.

Indeed, to some Latino voters, such distinctions don't go very far. "I don't think they should focus on the racial aspect, just to vote for him because he's Mexican," said Miguel Berumen, 26, while on an anti-recall precinct walk in East Los Angeles. "I personally like what Arianna Huffington says."

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