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His Is a Tale of Timing and Gradual Change Political Evolution

Bustamante may seem an opportunist to foes, but backers say he's a pragmatist who has grown along with his responsibilities.

September 07, 2003|Jenifer Warren and Dan Morain | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — In his early years as an assemblyman from Fresno, Democrat Cruz Bustamante seemed to fit his farm belt district like a beloved slipper: He did all he could for agriculture, made environmentalists nervous and sidestepped votes on controversial issues -- such as abortion -- that might have distressed his conservative constituents.

But as he bounded up the Democratic leadership ladder, ultimately landing the powerful Assembly speaker's job in 1996, those moderate positions began to shift, an analysis of his record shows, winning him new loyalists on the left but offending some early political friends.

Now in his second term as lieutenant governor, Bustamante is seen by opponents as wishy-washy, a man whose internal compass is guided by whatever interests he is serving at a particular time. Who, they ask, is the real Cruz Bustamante?

But backers insist he's a fair-minded pragmatist who, like many Democrats from rural areas, initially staked out ground reflecting his conservative district's needs and later, as Assembly speaker and lieutenant governor representing all of California, took a more holistic view.

In an interview, Bustamante acknowledged that "people have never been able to figure out who I am. I was hard to categorize with the existing labels. People thought I was vacillating, but for me it was natural. That was my politics."

Exhibit A is Bustamante's stand on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. Today, he is a vigorous supporter of a newly signed law allowing an estimated 2 million illegal residents to become licensed drivers. But as an Assembly freshman a decade ago, Bustamante -- a grandson of Mexican immigrants -- held the opposite position, voting to require that applicants show proof of legal residency to obtain a license.

His credentials as an environmental defender are newly earned as well.

Early on, Bustamante delighted developers and farmers by pushing legislation making it harder to list a species as endangered.

But once he was elected speaker, he became a reliable vote for environmental protection, earning a perfect 100% rating on an annual scorecard compiled by the California League of Conservation Voters. And today, he strongly supports a controversial package of bills to regulate air pollution from farms.

Bustamante has also grown more willing to take stands on the day's most sensitive social questions. When his Assembly colleague Sheila Kuehl carried a bill in 1997 to protect gay students from discrimination, Bustamante was one of eight Democrats who refused to support it, dooming its passage.

Later, however, as a nonvoting member of the University of California Board of Regents, he pushed hard for board approval of benefits for domestic partners in the UC system.

"It's inevitable that his positions would mature as he went from serving one district with very specific issues to representing a much larger constituency with a broad range of concerns," said political consultant Darry Sragow, who has known Bustamante for 17 years. "When you grow up in the Central Valley, you just don't think about offshore oil drilling much. But when you become speaker, or lieutenant governor, you have to."

Bustamante says that he remains a moderate at heart but that as speaker and lieutenant governor, he feels freer to "express my progressive side."

Polls show that Bustamante, 50, has a strong shot at becoming governor should voters recall Gov. Gray Davis on Oct. 7.

Friends describe the lieutenant governor as a plain-spoken, methodical man who has surprised more than a few with his rocket-like ascent from the political basement.

From the start, however, his fortunes have been hoisted by fortuitous timing, such as the combination of events that now place him in the thick of the fight for the governorship.

His arrival in Sacramento in 1993, for instance, was made possible by the unforeseen retirement of his boss, Assemblyman Bruce Bronzan.

Bustamante, the legislator's district director at the time, was reluctant to run, viewing himself more as a political mechanic than an inspirational leader. But Bronzan urged him on, and Bustamante won easily.

Once in the Capitol, Bustamante distinguished himself as quiet, affable and cautious, not one to stake out bold positions or grab the spotlight in policy fights.

"I'm not here to re-engineer the world," he once said, "only to make it a little better."

The first Latino assemblyman from the San Joaquin Valley, he was well liked, even by Republicans.

Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) once said the stout, balding Bustamante had a knack for "disagreeing without being disagreeable," a trait that proved invaluable as he sought greater political power.

Like other Democrats from rural patches of California, Bustamante quickly found himself struggling to reconcile the dueling forces -- agribusiness and farm workers' rights -- defining his district.

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