California's accidental politician

Bustamante, a onetime fruit picker, could become California's first Latino governor in 120 years.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For months, California Gov. Gray Davis has ridiculed the recall as a scheme to get a Republican into the governor's office through the back door. It is no small irony, then, that the man perhaps likeliest to walk through that door is his Democratic lieutenant governor.

It would not be the first time California's political order had clicked into place for Cruz Bustamante. He is, in many ways, an accidental politician - a staffer who had to be persuaded to run for office only 10 years ago, then an assemblyman who became Speaker largely because term limits had eliminated the Old Guard.

Along the way, though, this onetime farmworker and college dropout has carved his own political identity, rising to his current office through a mixture of hard work and engaging personal skills more reminiscent of President Bush than of his boss.

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The only major Democrat in the recall race is not likely to bring hordes of gawking surfers to hear a speech on a beach boardwalk, as GOP rival Arnold Schwarzenegger has. Even now, Mr. Bustamante seems almost apologetic for his success, famously poking fun at his portly profile and balding head. Yet with polls showing him even, and in some cases ahead of Mr. Schwarzenegger, Bustamante has again found what could be his perfect moment to ascend higher than many - including himself - believed possible.

"To his surprise as much as anyone else's, he's gone from a staffer to the second highest-ranking official" in 10 years, says Derry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant who has known Bustamante since his staff days. His career "has taken him to places that he never expected to go."

It is just one aspect of his character that contrasts strikingly with that of Mr. Davis, who had seemingly charted his path to the governorship with laserlike precision from the moment he entered state politics nearly three decades ago. In fact, the cairns of Bustamante's political path were laid largely by other people - a father who got him an internship in Washington as a teenager, and a retiring political mentor who asked Bustamante to run for his seat in the California Assembly.

"He was not a politically ambitious person," says Bruce Bronzan, the assemblyman who persuaded Bustamante to run for his seat. "I'm not sure that he really thought of himself as an elected official."

Bustamante, after all, lacked a traditional political pedigree. A C-average student in high school, Bustamante occasionally spent time picking cantaloupes and peaches in the San Joaquin Valley to help supplement his father's income as a barber. He once studied to become a butcher, and though he started college some 30 years ago, he didn't finish until this May.

Yet his decision to compete for Mr. Bronzan's Fresno-area district in 1993 began an astonishingly rapid ascent through California politics. His timing could not have been better: Latinos had just started to become a force in state politics. Democrats had retaken the Assembly by 1996. And most important, term limits had begun to skim off the leading political figures of the past decade.

"[Bustamante] is the first statewide candidate to be a product of the term-limit system," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "It means that his cycle got accelerated."

If term limits put Bustamante in a unique position, though, then his political style ensured that he took advantage of it. In a time of great confusion and little experience, the calm and studied disposition that had once made him cautious about even entering politics now made him a reassuring figure and led to his election as Speaker of the Assembly. It was a characteristic that had emerged during his staff days and still defines who he is as a politician today.

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.

"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."

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