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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Bustamante Misses Out on Endorsement

Delayed in returning from an out-of-state fund-raising trip, he is denied the backing of a Latino group at its statewide convention.

September 15, 2003|Daniel Hernandez and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

A tight schedule of campaign fund-raising events Sunday led Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to miss a statewide Latino group's convention and lose its endorsement in the gubernatorial recall race.

Mechanical difficulties on a charter plane delayed Bustamante's return from a two-day fund-raising trip to Las Vegas and Denver, said his spokesman, Luis Vizcaino. As a result, Bustamante did not show up at a Buena Park recall endorsement meeting of the Mexican American Political Assn.

When he finally returned to California on Sunday afternoon, Bustamante went to raise more money in Santa Ana -- even as the MAPA delegates were still meeting nearby in Buena Park. The $250-a-ticket fund-raiser for 125 guests took place at the home of state Sen. Joe Dunn, a Democrat.

MAPA officials said they were dismayed to hear that Bustamante had made it to Orange County, but had not stopped to see them.

"Perhaps he wasn't interested in the MAPA endorsement," said Nativo Lopez, the group's president. "That's for him to explain."

Gov. Gray Davis did appear at the MAPA meeting and, after a speech by him, the 300 delegates voted to oppose the recall on the Oct. 7 ballot. But Lopez said Bustamante could not get the group's endorsement as a candidate to succeed Davis without appearing in person to request it. "I'm a supporter of Bustamante, but rules are rules," Lopez said.

The value of MAPA's endorsement would have been largely symbolic, but Bustamante's failure to capture it came just as he was trying to consolidate Latino support.

Vizcaino said Bustamante had been "eager to go and talk to delegates," but the delayed flight from Denver had made that impossible.

In the quick recall race -- less than three months in all -- Bustamante is under intense pressure to raise millions of dollars fast to pay for TV advertising. Campaign finance laws limit his donations from individuals to $21,200 each.

At the same time, Bustamante's campaign fund-raising has become a political liability. Earlier in the campaign, Bustamante began taking donations much larger than $21,200 from Indian tribes that run casinos and from some unions, using a campaign committee that is exempt from donation limits because it was set up before the limits became law. His acceptance of those large donations led rivals to question his ethics.

In a gubernatorial debate, Arianna Huffington called the donations "legalized bribery." Amid intense news coverage of the matter, his unfavorable ratings have soared in public opinion polls. After several days of criticism, Bustamante dropped his plan to use almost $4 million in large donations for TV ads to promote his candidacy. Instead, he said he would use the money for commercials in which he denounced Proposition 54, the measure to bar state collection of many types of racial statistics that will share the Oct. 7 ballot with the recall.

Richie Ross, who is running Bustamante's campaign, said the criticism is unfair, especially given the millions of dollars in Indian tribe donations to Republicans. He said neither Indian donors nor the casino industry had played any role in Bustamante's trip to Las Vegas and Denver.

Ross described the trip as one of several that Bustamante has made to raise money on the Latino fund-raising circuit. Bustamante, who would be California's first Latino governor in more than a century, has collected donations in Miami and Chicago in recent weeks. Ross said Bustamante might travel to Texas, New York and Washington, D.C., to raise more money.

In California, Bustamante and Davis are competing for checks from many of the same donors. Bustamante has accused Davis of trying to undercut his fund-raising, a theme echoed Sunday by Ross.

"Obviously, it's been very hard for us to raise money in California -- with an incumbent Democratic governor -- when people somehow perceive that that's a threat to him," Ross said.

On Saturday, Bustamante flew to Las Vegas to raise money at the MGM Grand, a hotel-casino resort where he had ringside seats for the Oscar De La Hoya-Shane Mosley title fight. "There's a group of people who came from L.A., and we did a fund-raising event here," Bustamante told a Times reporter at the fight.

Bustamante said he did not know how much money he had raised at the MGM Grand, but Ross said later in a telephone interview that the lieutenant governor typically picked up $40,000 to $50,000 at each event.

Ross said Bustamante had sat with donors at the fight, but said he did not know who had paid for the floor seats, six rows from the ring. De La Hoya's family took part in the fund-raiser, he said. Ross also said he was unsure who had paid for Bustamante's air travel.

In Denver, Bustamante's fund-raiser Sunday morning was organized by Federico Pena, who was secretary of energy and secretary of transportation under President Clinton, Vizcaino said. Pena, an investment banker, also is a former Denver mayor.

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Times staff writer Jeffrey L. Rabin contributed to this report.

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