California Democrats meet today to consider making a formal endorsement in the race to replace Gov. Gray Davis, as the question of how much to back Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante continues to create tension within the party.
The party's top priority remains defeating the recall of Davis, a Democrat who was reelected last year. Since March, the party has been officially opposed to any recall effort.
Delegates at the meeting in Los Angeles are expected to once again denounce the attempt to remove Davis from office Oct. 7. The governor is scheduled to address party loyalists.
Nearly all party leaders also have agreed to back Bustamante, adopting a "no on the recall/yes on Bustamante" strategy. But with polls indicating a tight race in the recall of the governor as well as on the ballot for his potential replacements, Democrats go into today's meeting divided on how best to keep Davis in office.
"Quite frankly, a lot of people don't know what is the best thing to do," said Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres. "They don't know which way will get the most voters to the polls who will vote against the recall."
In recent days, Bustamante has shifted strategy to focus on his election effort instead of actively calling for the defeat of the recall. That move has angered some union leaders, many of whom felt uncomfortable that labor unions had endorsed Bustamante at all.
"I'm outraged at the fact that his campaign is not emphatically emphasizing 'No on recall,' " said Tyrone Freeman, president of the Service Employees International Union's Local 434B, which represents home care and nursing home workers.
"A man's word or a woman's word has got to be their bond," Freeman said. "And he's committed to be no on recall and now has dropped it. And that might say a lot about what kind of governor he'd be."
Janett Humphries, president of the union's Local 99, which represents school employees, said some read Bustamante's rhetoric as a sign of his true intentions.
"Cruz wants to be the next governor, and he's trying to get the support," said Humphries, who also is an international vice president of the union. "If this was just a general election, it wouldn't be a major problem. The point is, Gray Davis won this."
Bustamante's campaign strategist, Richie Ross, dismissed the criticisms, saying that he has heard no complaints from labor leaders about the approach of the campaign. "I don't know where that's coming from -- I talk to Art Pulaski every day," he said, referring to the head of the state labor federation.
Bustamante "has gone out here and taken all the Republican bullets, and if people can't see how that is helping Gray, they're just blind and dumb," Ross said.
He insisted that Bustamante has stuck to his promise to fight the recall. His television commercials, which are scheduled to begin next week, will urge voters to cast ballots against it, Ross said.
He said Bustamante's address to the party meeting, which will take place after the vote, will include a message against the recall. "Why don't they watch what we do before everyone reacts to it?" he asked.
About 500 to 600 delegates from throughout the state are expected at the special meeting this afternoon at the Los Angeles Convention Center. They will vote on two issues: an endorsement of a Democratic candidate in the successor election and a position on Proposition 54, an initiative that would prohibit the state from gathering many forms of racial data. The initiative is staunchly opposed by Democratic leaders.
The delegates could vote to make no endorsement in the race to replace Davis, but seem likely to endorse Bustamante. He would need 60% of the delegates' votes to win the endorsement. The lieutenant governor plans to arrive at the caucus more than an hour after it starts, first attending a fund-raiser in Riverside.
Many Democratic office holders also remain tepid in their defense of Davis, as underscored by the debate this week in the state Senate on a Republican motion demanding that Davis apologize for poking fun at Republican gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger's Austrian accent.
The Senate voted 19 to 2 to demand an apology from Davis, with four Democrats supporting the measure, only two opposing it and the remaining 19 Senate Democrats either not voting or absent.
Davis was asked Friday about the Democratic nominating meeting -- and Bustamante's presence at the event. He shrugged off the questions, saying that to his knowledge, Bustamante -- like other top Democrats -- still opposed his recall. "I am not worried about that at all," he said. "He is going to do what he is going to do."
As of Friday, 12 Democrats running for the governor's office had submitted paperwork and the $100 fee required to be considered. The candidates have provided written statements, but will not address the delegates before the vote.
Bustamante is the only prominent party leader in the bunch. "I only recognized one name," said party spokesman Bob Mulholland.
Times staff writers Miguel Bustillo and Gregg Jones contributed to this report.