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Bustamante Finds Friendly Audience

At a campaign rally in working-class Oxnard, voters say they identify with the qualities they have in common with the lieutenant governor.

September 19, 2003|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

As Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante made his way through the crowd during a campaign rally in Oxnard on Thursday, retired farm worker John Morales clutched the sample ballot he had just received in the mail and smiled proudly.

The diminutive 73-year-old barely understood what Bustamante had said and never laughed when the candidate cracked self-deprecating jokes, but he sure knew how he would fill out his ballot.

"He's the guy," Morales said as Bustamante, the only Democrat in the field of candidates seeking to replace Gov. Gray Davis in the recall election, was swarmed by well-wishers at Oxnard's Plaza Park. "He's a Democrat, he's humble and he understands Mexican people. Never have any of the other candidates stooped down to work on the ground."

To some in Oxnard, a working-class town where many share Bustamante's humble beginnings, his candidacy symbolizes the realization of the classic immigrant's dream.

"He knows the people, the real people," said Josie Rochin, 60, whose husband worked in the county's agricultural fields for many years. "His story gives you hope for your grandchildren and children

If this was the message they wanted to hear, Bustamante didn't disappoint. About 175 people listened attentively as he talked in a mixture of English and Spanish about his small hometown in the San Joaquin Valley, his large family and the emphasis his parents placed on a strong work ethic.

"One thing we learned how to do was work hard because working was living, working was paying the bills," Bustamante said. "I try to take those experiences ... and put that together with a kind of public policy that helps people."

Bustamante was quick to stress that although he was immensely proud of his heritage, he was everyone's candidate.

"It doesn't make a difference if you're Latino or African American or Asian or whatever flavor," Bustamante said. "We all want the same thing in California."

Maxine Williams, a 42-year-old African American mother of four, said before the speech that she planned to vote against the recall and feared that Bustamante was only concerned with Latino issues.

"For me to vote for him, he's got to be for California," Williams said. "He has to be willing to make things fair for everyone and not just a portion of it."

Jazmin Valencia, 10, wasn't quite sure what the word "politics" meant, but her father, Jose Valencia, thought the rally was a chance for his little girl to witness history in the making.

"Maybe something historic is going to happen, so if it does, I want her to be here," he said. "She's Mexican and what I'm trying to explain to her is that the opportunities are here for her too."

Oxnard College student Santos Lopez, who operates a fruit stand at Plaza Park's farmers' market, said he stayed for the Bustamante speech because he had followed the leading candidates closely and had not decided between Bustamante and independent Arianna Huffington.

"That's why I have to listen carefully," Lopez said, "to see if he's consistent in what he says. Sometimes Latinos are not helping Latinos. I don't think Latinos should have a priority over everything. I think the important thing is the state overall."

Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez said his support for Bustamante came down to respect for what he has accomplished and not his Latino heritage.

"At this stage of development, I think that people are elected or not based on their merits and not on where they came from," Lopez said. "And that's the way it should be."

Still, to many in the crowd, Bustamante is a small-town Mexican American boy who made good.

"As a mother, I like that he came from so little," said Maria de la Luz Melendez, 37, of Oxnard. "I'm ready. I already told him as he passed by that he's got my vote."

Times staff writer Daryl Kelley contributed to this report.

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