Taking the offensive in the first debate of the lieutenant governor's race, state Sen. Tim Leslie hammered Assemblyman and former Speaker Cruz Bustamante on Thursday for routinely missing important meetings and intervening in a federal investigation involving a relative.
Angered, Democrat Bustamante denied both charges, chiding Republican Leslie at one point, "C'mon, you know better than that."
Polls have shown Leslie running behind in the contest, and in an interview after the event, Bustamante called his rival's attack "a little desperate." Leslie, in turn, said he was simply trying to underscore the differences between him and his opponent.
The debate was recorded at a Sacramento public television station for the "CapitolWeek" program that airs this evening in the Central Valley and will be rebroadcast in other locations.
It zipped by in just a half-hour, in contrast with gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidate debates, which have lasted an hour. In contrast to the media gaggle that attends those statewide spectacles, only three reporters covered Thursday's event.
Drawing attention to the race is difficult because Bustamante of Fresno and Leslie of Tahoe City are vying to wear what is widely considered the emptiest suit in Sacramento. But with legislative term limits and current Lt. Gov. Gray Davis poised for a possible chin-up to the top job, the "lite governor" post looks more and more appealing to career politicians.
"It's interesting that so many people seem to have a low regard for the position of lieutenant governor," Leslie said in his one-minute opening statement. "I'm running for the position because I want to be lieutenant governor."
Constitutionally, the lieutenant governor is the governor's understudy, with additional responsibilities for membership on boards ranging from the University of California Board of Regents to the state World Trade Commission.
During the debate, Bustamante said his knack for coaxing warring factions toward agreement would reduce the partisan bickering that has often dominated the Legislature and the deputy governor's job. Not since 1978 have the governor and his lieutenant come from the same political party.
Leslie wants to use the job as a bully pulpit from which to speak out on conservative issues, including the need to balance environmental concerns against business concerns. "Humans are species, too," he said.
Twice during the debate Leslie shoehorned into his answers the accusations that Bustamante missed all regents meetings held during his 15-month tenure as Assembly speaker. If Bustamante did not attend as speaker, Leslie said, how can the public trust him to attend as lieutenant governor?
Bustamante said Leslie is mistaken, that he attended portions of perhaps half a dozen meetings, particularly when discussion turned to the proposed UC Merced campus, an addition of great concern among his San Joaquin Valley constituents.
Although UC documents produced by Leslie backed the Republican's claims, showing Bustamante recorded as absent for five meetings in a row, a university spokesman said those records are incomplete.
During the 1997-98 time span, Bustamante attended two of six board meetings, said spokesman Terry Lightfoot. In addition, he showed up for seven of 62 committee meetings.
Leslie's attendance in the Legislature also has been spotty this session. Earlier it was because he was undergoing treatment for an often-fatal form of cancer called myeloma. But Leslie also skipped the final Sunday night session of the Legislature in favor of a religious crusade in Anaheim.
Asked about that record after the debate, he said: "Missing an afternoon in the Legislature when you've been in session virtually nine straight months has nothing to do with or can be compared to missing every single full board meeting of the regents of California."
It was Leslie's criticism of Bustamante's handling of an investigation that most seemed to get under the former speaker's skin, however. Bustamante's aunt and uncle--who run a Visalia child care operation--were arrested in June on charges of defrauding the state and federal governments out of $342,000 in federal preschool meal subsidies.
In answer to a question about trust, Leslie accused Bustamante of abusing his power by contacting state Department of Education officials about the investigation in 1996.
"They say character is a matter of what you're doing when no one's looking," Leslie said.
An internal memo from the state Department of Education indicated that Bustamante did inquire about what was happening and why; however, a department spokesman said Thursday that the inquiry was considered normal.
"It's my family, Tim, and I support my family," Bustamante responded during the debate, raising his voice. "But if they're guilty, there will be a penalty to pay."
At the news conference he added that if his relatives are found not guilty, "I'll expect an apology." Bustamante said he had only wanted to clarify whether an investigation was in fact going on.
"You have a family member who's in a situation, you wish you could do more," he said. "But you know that if you do it's not going to be viewed as something that will be acceptable, and so we left it alone."
Asked why he did not shift into attack mode in response to Leslie's criticisms at the news conference, Bustamante said that is not his manner.
When he served as speaker, "people used to say things like I'm no Willie Brown," he said. "Well yeah, duh. I'm not an Ayatollah, I'm a consensus-builder."
Although he acknowledged that he is pleased that some statewide polls show him leading in the race, Bustamante said, "My father told me you never count anything until you have it in your hand."
The debate will be aired on public television stations throughout the state in the next few days, including in Los Angeles on KLCS, Channel 58, Sunday at 9 p.m. and on Orange County's KOCE, Channel 50, on Friday at 6 p.m.