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Bustamante Goes Left to Take On Schwarzenegger

In a risky strategy, he sheds many of his moderate positions. Some analysts say the tactic could alienate middle-of-the-roaders.

September 10, 2003|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

In his quest for the governor's office, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is increasingly veering left with appeals to immigrants and working-class voters, shucking off the label of moderate Democrat that he has worn for years.

By pairing his personal biography with a campaign platform aimed at blue-collar workers, Bustamante has positioned himself as a staunch liberal -- and is depicting himself as the antithesis of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The move reflects the dynamics of a multi-candidate recall election in which the winner need only get the most votes, not the majority. That has allowed Bustamante, whose political career began in a conservative Central Valley district, to run a campaign aimed directly at liberal Democratic partisans.

But his approach carries the risk of alienating moderates, some analysts said. If more candidates follow the lead of Peter V. Ueberroth, who dropped out of the race Tuesday -- and if Republicans succeed in uniting around a single candidate -- Bustamante could find his strategy turning into a trap, they suggested.

"The danger is he will not expand beyond his ethnic base," said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which analyzes state elections.

Regardless of the political calculations, the lieutenant governor's positions are striking. He has called for raising taxes on the wealthy and regulating gasoline as a public utility. He has attacked companies like Wal-Mart for being anti-worker and has vowed to force more businesses to provide health insurance for employees.

By contrast, during his years in the Assembly, Bustamante was known for supporting business, particularly the agriculture industry, and was not generally considered one of the Legislature's more liberal Democrats. Once Bustamante became a statewide official, his stands on issues became more liberal, but the campaign positions have moved him further to the left.

His current stands put him in the position of at least implicitly criticizing Gov. Gray Davis, who has taken less liberal positions on each of those issues. Bustamante has also sharpened his partisan message at a time when he has all but stopped telling Californians to vote against the recall of Davis, emphasizing his own election, instead.

"It's about time that we have a governor in the state of California who is going to remember his roots ... and work on behalf of the working-class people of this state," Bustamante told union members at a Labor Day rally in Pleasanton.

He also has taken up the cause of immigrants, voicing support for an amnesty for the estimated 2 million illegal immigrants in California and backing a newly signed law that will allow them to obtain driver's licenses. As an assemblyman in the mid-1990s, he voted to require that applicants show proof of legal residence to obtain a license.

On Sunday, after a rally in Fresno, Bustamante told reporters that every immigrant who works and pays taxes should be able to become a citizen. Asked if he saw a difference between legal and illegal immigrants, Bustamante rebuffed the question: "Have you been out to the fields?" he snapped. "I have. I grew up out there."

He also has repeatedly refused to distance himself from separatist doctrines associated with the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan or MEChA, the Latino student organization. Conservatives have attacked some of the group's documents from the 1960s as racist.

"I will not renounce MEChA," Bustamante said when asked about the group during a candidates' forum Tuesday.

Bustamante is reinforcing his populist policy agenda with pointed remarks about the class differences that separate him from Schwarzenegger, portraying the race as a choice between a Republican movie star and an average Joe.

"Arnold doesn't share our values," he told a predominantly Latino crowd of 2,000 supporters assembled Sunday for a rally in Fresno. "He doesn't have the worries that we have."

Those comments have drawn sharp protests from Schwarzenegger's campaign, which accuses him of engaging in class warfare.

"Is he saying that an immigrant who came to this country ... with a few dollars in his pocket and through education, learning the language and hard work, has achieved financial success, is not one of us?" asked spokesman Sean Walsh.

However, some Democratic strategists say they believe Bustamante's approach will help bring their voters to the polls.

"The message that Cruz is on the side of the little guy, as opposed to Arnold being on the side of the powerful guy, is a message that will resonate" with Democratic voters, said Chris Lehane, a consultant who worked as Al Gore's press secretary in the 2000 presidential campaign.

"Not only he is preaching to the choir, he's hoping the choir shows up at church and sings loudly," Lehane added.

Bustamante is using his low-key, self-deprecating style to reinforce his policy pronouncements.

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