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Back to the Future

Cruz Bustamante promises to take California back to the good old days--the 1970s.

10:00 AM, Sep 1, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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NO ONE WILL CONFUSE the diminutive, bald, and pudgy Cruz Bustamante with Ashton Kutcher (Cosmo Spacely, George Jetson's employer, is a better likeness). But if California's lieutenant governor loses next month's recall vote, it may be because his candidacy reminded too many viewers of "That 70's Show."

Bustamante, the only prominent Democrat on the second half of the recall ballot, hasn't been able to shut down the media's interest in his involvement with the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan (MEChA) while he attended Fresno State back in the mid-1970s. MEChA, which advocates a separate Chicano nation, goes by the slogan: "For the race everything. For those outside the race, nothing."

Over the weekend, Bustamante appeared on the Fox News Channel, where he was asked no less that four times by host Tony Snow why he'd associate with such a then-divisive outfit. He didn't shut down the controversy. The most definitive statement the lieutenant governor could muster: "Racial separatism is wrong . . . You have to look at what people do, not just what they say, and I think I've demonstrated my ability."

A towering denouncement of racial politics it wasn't. But then again, Cruz Bustamante is anything but a towering figure in California politics. Look at his record: It's the embodiment of mediocrity-on-the-march in term-limited California. Then look at the ideas he's offering as a recall candidate: California, under Cruz control, could be a bad economy made much, much worse by one man's short-sightedness.

Since his entry into the recall contest, reporters have fawned over Bustamante's humble origin as the son of a Central Valley barber and the first Latino elected to the legislature from the San Joaquin Valley. As the press handicaps it, Bustamante is David to Arnold Schwarzenegger's Goliath--Arnold being wealthier, better-looking, and better copy. Never mind that Schwarzenegger was raised on food rations in an Austrian home that lacked a television, a refrigerator, or a flushing toilet. In the eyes of California's media, Horatio Alger works in Spanish, but not German.

What does Bustamante have to show for his time in Sacramento, and why should he be considered gubernatorial timber?

Let's start with his time in the state assembly. First elected to that chamber in 1993, Bustamante rose to assembly speaker following the 1996 election, despite never having held a committee chair or a leadership post--or, for that matter, having developed one signature issue such as health care or criminal justice reform. Former secretary of state Bill Jones, for example, won that constitutional office in 1994 based in large part on his reputation as leader of the Republican assembly caucus and author of California's "Three Strikes" law.

Bustamante's inexperience showed right away: former governor Pete Wilson rolled Bustamante time and again when the state debated welfare reform; former senate leader Bill Lockyer (now California's attorney general) was frustrated over Bustamante's ability to keep up in "Big Five" budget negotiations between the governor and the legislature's four majority and minority leaders.

As for his style of politics, Bustamante proved to be just one more legislator motivated by special interests. He angered his fellow Democrats for his willingness to go along with Republicans on easing the state's endangered species act (a priority for Central Valley agribusiness). While health-conscious Democrats trashed the tobacco industry, Bustamante tried to prevent California's smoking ban from creeping into bars and taverns (Bustamante was a leading recipient of tobacco money while in the legislature).

Did Bustamante hit his stride after becoming lieutenant governor in 1999? Not quite.

Running for reelection last fall, Bustamante cited speaking to high school students about the importance of going to college as his main accomplishment. Not that he was taking his own advice: One of the lieutenant governor's few assigned responsibilities is attending meetings of the California State University Board of Trustees and the University of California Board of Regents as an ex-officio member. By his own admission Bustamante attended only 23 percent of CSU Trustees meetings during his first term. He claimed that he attended 76 percent of the UC Regents meetings. However, UC officials said 15 percent (7 of 45 full meetings) is a more accurate attendance figure.

What has been Bustamante's legacy as lieutenant governor? Seemingly, to seize on every chance to make Gray Davis' life miserable (and to be a talking point when someone eventually sponsors a ballot initiative eliminating the lieutenant governor's office).