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Debate Focuses on Criticism of Davis

Bustamante, Huffington and Camejo target his jibe at Schwarzenegger's Austrian accent. The state Senate issues a call for an apology.

September 10, 2003|Peter Nicholas, Matea Gold and Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writers

Three candidates who took part in a recall debate Tuesday directed harsh words at Gov. Gray Davis for his recent jibe at Arnold Schwarzenegger's foreign accent, and the state Senate, with backing from several Democrats, passed a motion calling on the governor to apologize.

Though he skipped the forum, Davis came in for sustained attacks during the 90-minute debate in downtown Los Angeles, where the candidates sent both direct and nuanced messages to voters.

Green Party candidate Peter Camejo repeatedly praised Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, defending him at one point on his use of campaign donations from Indian tribes -- an issue that has become a liability for Bustamante's campaign. Some analysts interpreted Camejo's words as a signal to his supporters that they could vote in good conscience for the Democrat to avert a Schwarzenegger victory.

"I do believe that there is a difference between Cruz Bustamante and Gov. Davis," Camejo said. "I think this man is much more open. It is possible to try to work with him."

Bustamante, for his part, used none of his time to persuade voters to keep Davis on the job. Bustamante has said that he opposes the recall and is running as a Democratic alternative in case Davis is ousted. In recent days, however, he has de-emphasized the "no on the recall" part of his message.

The debate was sponsored by the Greenlining Institute, a liberal organization, and drew the three most liberal of the leading candidates to replace Davis -- Bustamante, Camejo and Arianna Huffington. Missing from the debate were Schwarzenegger, Davis and Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock.

Davis' comment at a campaign rally Saturday that Schwarzenegger, who speaks with an Austrian accent, cannot pronounce the name of the state he wishes to lead has caused the governor considerable difficulty. Sunday, Davis said that he was merely "joking around."

But not even Bustamante was prepared to forgive.

"It's important that we have not only tolerance, but we have acceptance of all people in California," he said after the debate.

Huffington, a Greek immigrant, said Davis' comment "was really an insult to the 9 million Californians who were not born in this country."

Camejo echoed the criticism. "I don't think we should dismiss what Gov. Davis did," he said. "Implied in that is a racist comment -- 'It is only we, the Europeans who are here who have established the language, we are the only legitimate people here.' That's the implication.... "

In a polarized state Senate where bipartisan action is rare, four Democrats joined all 15 Republicans in calling upon the governor to apologize. The motion was made by Senate GOP Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), a recall backer.

The four Democrats were Sens. Dede Alpert of Coronado, Martha Escutia of Whittier, Liz Figueroa of Fremont and Gloria Romero of Los Angeles.

Democratic Sens. Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles and Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica cast the two no votes. All other Democrats, who could have blocked the motion, abstained or were absent.

Escutia, who is of Mexican heritage, said Davis must be accountable for what she described as "pure stupidity ... even if it was a joke."

In response, Peter Ragone, a Davis campaign aide, said Tuesday: "I refer you back to the governor's comments on Sunday" that he was simply joking.

In a debate that was at times contentious, Camejo was consistently generous toward Bustamante, sounding less like a campaign rival than a supporter.

At one point, Huffington called upon Bustamante to return nearly $4 million in campaign donations from four Indian tribes. Bustamante recently said he would plow the money into defeating Proposition 54 rather than into his own campaign.

"If really all you want is to help defeat Proposition 54, let them [the tribes] have control of that money," Huffington said.

Camejo offered a defense.

"I congratulate Cruz Bustamante for turning that money over to [defeating] Prop. 54," he said. "I thought it was a good way to resolve this issue."

Camejo received more than 393,000 votes in the 2002 governor's race, a level of support that could prove pivotal in a close recall election.

"He knows he's not going to win, so he would rather have a Democrat in than anyone else," said Harvey Englander, a Los Angeles political consultant. "He's sending a signal: 'I'm not going to win and if you're not going to vote for me, vote for Cruz.' "

Bustamante got another boost Tuesday from U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat. She said she would send voters a letter backing Bustamante as the best alternative should Davis lose.

The state's other U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein, has declined to back Bustamante. Feinstein has appeared in a television commercial urging voters to support Davis.


Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

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