Señor Busta-MEChA refers to Prop. 187 as 'hate legislation'
Thursday, September 18, 2003 - 3:19:51 AM PST
Bustamante used to holding the middle ground
By Brian Skoloff, Associated Press
SACRAMENTO -- As a man in the middle, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante has always struggled with his identity.
As a teenager growing up in California's inland midsection -- the state's dusty, blighted fruit basket, plagued with double-digit unemployment -- Bustamante was forced to choose sides.
Was he Latino, the grandson of Mexican immigrants who toiled in the fields of California's San Joaquin Valley, or something different, something less confining?
"I remember being pulled between these two worlds," Bustamante said.
But in typical Bustamante style, he chose neither side.
"I sort of rebelled to all of that. I started wearing army pants and ... desert boots because nobody wore that," he said. "It was me saying to all my friends, 'You know what I am ... and if you're going to accept me, you're going to have to accept me for who I am.'"
In his toughest fight of his political career, Bustamante is asking voters to accept him for who he is -- the "fallback" candidate. His "vote no on recall, yes on Bustamante" slogan is as conflicted and confusing a message as the one he faced as a teenager.
Another identity crisis. To be governor or not to be governor.
And once again, Bustamante had to choose sides, this time within his own Democratic Party -- between loyalists to Gov. Gray Davis and those who believe the recall could succeed and who don't want to lose the statehouse to Republicans.
While Bustamante has received support from some influential state groups -- the California State Labor Federation AFL-CIO, the state's teachers union, the United Farm Workers of America and Democrats in the state Senate -- Davis has so far declined to endorse the state's No.2 Democrat, even avoiding appearances together.
Most of California's Democratic congressional delegation has supported Bustamante's strategy, except for one -- the state's most popular politician, Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She has said she will only vote no on the recall.
"The only way he becomes governor is if people repudiate the administration of which he's been a part of for the past five years," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. "It's hard to craft a positive message when the message is at war with itself -- no, yes."
Bustamante, 50, has been a man of firsts -- his region's first Hispanic legislator in 20 years, first Hispanic speaker of the Assembly and first Hispanic statewide official since the 1870s.
If elected, Bustamante, an unassuming man with a booming voice, would become California's first Hispanic governor since Romualdo Pacheco in 1875. It would be another first for a man who never really aspired to be a trendsetter.
"I understand the symbolism and I think I wear it well," Bustamante said. "I don't wear it on my sleeve. I acknowledge it. I embrace it. ... But I try not to really dwell on it."
Born in Dinuba and raised in nearby San Joaquin, both tiny farm towns surrounded by what he calls "miles and miles of miles and miles," Bustamante grew up working in the fields.
"At 4 or 5 years old, we were out there with relatives picking crops," he said. "We were always working in the summertime trying to pay the bills we had in the wintertime."
The son of a barber, Bustamante wanted to become a butcher until he was hired in 1983 as a representative for Richard Lehman, then a congressman from Fresno. It began his unlikely political career.
"He's got good interpersonal skills, a great personality, an even temper. ... You have to give him a lot of credit. He's paid his dues," said Lehman, now a Sacramento lobbyist.
An admitted school slacker, Bustamante dropped out of college when he married his wife, Arcelia, in 1977 and just this year finished his degree.
"Cruz Bustamante the politician can't be separated from where he grew up," the lieutenant governor said. "I can't separate myself as a father and as a son and as a person who grew up in those small communities from my politics."
Bustamante always managed to walk the fine line between foes -- farmers and farmworkers, environmentalists and big agriculture. He still has friends on all sides.
"The endorsement by the UFW will obviously be a concern to some farmers but it won't be a concern to others," said George Gomes, administrator of the California Farm Bureau, which has endorsed Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger. "It's tough in politics -- you make enemies no matter what you do."
Bustamante has been criticized for accepting millions from Indian casinos, for his involvement with the controversial Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan, or MEChA, while attending Fresno State in the 1970s and for once using a racial slur in a speech to the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, a remark he repeatedly apologized for as an out-of-character slip.
The California Legislative Black Caucus has joined others in supporting Bustamante. Alice Huffman, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said it won't keep blacks from voting for him.
"I cannot see that this would affect our vote for Cruz. This guy is not George Wallace with a segregationist history. This is a guy who has been on our side," Huffman said.
Friends and supporters say Bustamante is what he is -- the "everyman" candidate. But David Schecter, a government professor at California State University, Fresno, said Bustamante's "everyman candidate" image may not work.
"His story is appealing, it's frankly fascinating. But he has had definite trouble translating it into votes in his own back yard," Schecter said. He noted that Bustamante did not win Fresno or Tulare counties in his 2002 race for lieutenant governor.
Bustamante's so-called "tough love" plan would boost taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and wealthy Californians.
He wants about $2.7 billion in higher taxes from high-income residents and to raise cigarette taxes $1.50 a pack. Bustamante also seeks to revise the tripling of the car tax to be imposed only on the amount paid for the vehicle that is above $20,000.
All told, Bustamante calls for nearly $8 billion in new taxes or fees and $2 billion in unspecified cuts.
Bustamante refers to Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that sought to deny services to illegal immigrants, as hate legislation.
"I felt it was probably the most destructive thing I had seen in my lifetime in terms of politics," Bustamante said. "My grandparents came here, not because they thought the public assistance program here was so great. They came here to get a better life and they worked hard."
It's too soon to tell whether his Mexican roots and pro-immigrant stance will translate into votes from Latinos who make up about 16 percent of the state's electorate.
David Borunda, 61, who owns two Mexican restaurants in Fresno, said he is torn between Bustamante and Schwarzenegger.
"Schwarzenegger is saying the things we want to hear. If I had to vote with my pocketbook, I would lean toward Schwarzenegger, but I would like to see a Hispanic in the state's highest office," Borunda said. "It's an opportunity we haven't had so here's our chance to put one of our own in the state's top office. It's a tough dilemma."