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THE STATE | THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Bustamante Advisor Walks a Fine Line in Dual Role

Campaign strategist is a consultant and lobbyist, raising questions about divided loyalties.

October 05, 2003|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

The United Farm Workers union has always represented the better side of Richie Ross, the Sacramento political operative who is running Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's gubernatorial campaign.

On the many occasions when Ross has been accused of self-serving behavior motivated by money, the former UFW activist and his defenders have cited his labors for the union as proof that an altruistic heart beats beneath those expensive suits.

As one of California's top campaign consultants and lobbyists, Ross has maintained close ties with the UFW. Some say the relationship benefits him as much as the union, whose fortunes have waned over the years.

Now, the Ross-UFW connection is at play in Bustamante's bid for the governorship. Ross has directed the campaign to give the union $170,000 to turn out voters in Tuesday's recall election.

The arrangement is eye-catching because unions typically contribute money to campaigns, not the other way around, and get-out-the-vote drives are part of unions' routine duties. The UFW payment has renewed questions about Ross' unusual dual role as a consultant and lobbyist, one that political reform advocates say is fraught with appearances of divided loyalties and double-dealing.

The UFW is Ross' No. 1 lobbying client, although he earns most of his income as a consultant. The union, which Ross describes as poor, has paid $137,000 to his firm and his daughter Esperanza, who also is a lobbyist, from 2000 through last June.

"It's an ethical minefield," Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause, said of Ross' associations with both the Bustamante campaign and the UFW. "You've got someone who's in a position to make benefits flow from the political client to the lobbyist client."

Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan group that seeks tougher restrictions on lobbying, has repeatedly criticized Ross for wearing multiple hats.

"Can he represent two masters?" Stern asked of the UFW transaction. "When you're spending precious campaign resources and giving it to one of your lobbying clients, the question is, 'Is that the best use of the money? Or should it be used for TV? Or should it be used for other get-out-the-vote drives?' "

Ross, who would be a major power broker in a Bustamante administration, said spending the $170,000 had been smart because the UFW excels at mobilizing Latino voters. He said there had been no link between the cash and his UFW lobbying, other than his overarching commitment to the union, which dates to the late 1960s.

"There's no conflict," said Ross, whose wife, Juana, was a farm worker. "The United Farm Workers always will come first. My candidate loves the United Farm Workers. He understands that any recommendation I make about them is colored by my affection for that organization."

He said the UFW, which had total expenditures last year of $7.4 million, lacks the money to mount its own get-out-the-vote effort: "Their membership can't afford it."

Asked why he nevertheless charges the union for his services, Ross replied that the fees cover only a fraction of the hours he devotes to the UFW.

"Obviously I'm not as pure as the people raising that question," he added, his voice edged in sarcasm. "I never said I was Mother Teresa. I don't care what anyone thinks."

Ross has made that sentiment clear time and again. He is well-practiced at shrugging off complaints that he fudges the line by simultaneously lobbying for competing interests, such as unions and their opponents.

The latter include two Indian tribes that operate casinos in San Diego County.

The tribes have fought to keep unions from their properties. Ross' lobbying for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians recently became an issue when the tribe pumped $1.5 million into Bustamante's campaign and threw almost $500,000 more into an independent committee to promote the lieutenant governor's candidacy.

A law passed by voters in 2000 limits individual contributions to $21,200. Bustamante funneled the $1.5 million, along with $2.3 million in other contributions, through an old campaign committee not covered by the ceiling. He then shifted it to a new committee to buy commercials that featured the candidate denouncing Proposition 54, an initiative on Tuesday's ballot that would prevent government agencies from collecting certain racial and ethnic data. A judge ruled that Bustamante's use of the money had been improper and ordered it returned.

The tribal largess is widely thought to have hurt Bustamante in the polls. Some of Ross' colleagues say that he blundered by allowing the money into the campaign. "It was incredibly stupid," said Garry South, an unpaid advisor to Gov. Gray Davis who has long had tense relations with Ross.

UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said the union is not bothered by Ross' involvement with the Viejas Band. "Richie has never done anything anti-union," he said.

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