California's accidental politician
Bustamante, a onetime fruit picker, could become California's first Latino governor in 120 years.
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Unlike Davis, who often seems to attempt to rule by fiat, Bustamante plays the political foot soldier - listening and delegating. Bronzan remembers him as the most effective staffer he ever saw at handling constituents' problems.Skip to next paragraph
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"He doesn't make himself the issue. I would send him into a meeting where nobody would speak to each other, and they would speak to Cruz," says Bronzan. "He looks right at you, and he listens.... The more complicated the problem, the more he would relish the opportunity to fix it."
Now, in his bid to become California's first Latino governor in nearly 120 years, he has signed on to fix one of the most complicated problems in state history: chronic budget shortfalls and complete interparty dysfunction. His crusade is unique, in that he is asking for voters to vote against the recall of Davis on the first part of the ballot, but to vote for him as a replacement on the second half of the ballot, in case Davis is recalled.
True to form, though, Bustamante was the first of the recall candidates to propose fixes. To some degree, they offer a road map of his political principles. He wants to repeal the tripling of the car tax signed by Davis - but only for cars valued under $20,000. Then, he plans to make up the difference by increasing taxes on the rich.
For all his success in recent years, say colleagues, Bustamante is still the boy from the tiny farming town of Dinuba - the oldest of six siblings, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, and unabashedly working class.
As Assembly Speaker six years ago, his determination to get more aid for legal immigrants extended a budget impasse to what was then the second longest in state history. Then, in his first months as lieutenant governor in 1999, he criticized Davis for not opposing Proposition 187 - a ballot measure that sought to cut off benefits for illegal immigrants, but was found unconstitutional.
"He hasn't forgotten his roots," says Mr. Sragow. "That would be the hallmark of his administration."
Bustamante's stands on some of the nation's most controversial issues, however, preclude his categorization as either a pure liberal or conservative. Although he favors abortion rights, as well as civil unions for gays and lesbians, he backs the death penalty. And he has angered environmentalists by supporting agribusiness over endangered species and backing the use of toxic pesticides. Moreover, political analysts suggest that the greatest achievement of his political career was shepherding welfare reform through a skeptical Legislature.
It was an important riposte to claims that Bustamante had been an ineffective Speaker. In his early days as Speaker, critics claimed that his slow, consensus approach led to inaction. Now, in the run-up to the Oct. 7 recall, opponents will likely also highlight his deep fundraising ties with native American tribes, and his poor attendance as lieutenant governor at meetings of the boards that run the state university system - despite his professed interest in expanding access to California's universities.
In the end, though, some political observers suggest that, as the strongest Democratic recall candidate in a strongly Democratic state, Bustamante already has secure support - barring any unforeseen allegations. His greatest challenge, then, might prove mechanical.
"He has to make sure enough people show up," says Sragow. "And he has to make sure they vote on the second question."