On the ceremonial circuit, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante often spices his remarks with a joke, always the same joke.
Of the 44 lieutenant governors before him, he says, two went to prison and one was shot and killed in a duel.
And the punch line? “So, the way I look at it, I either have a lot to look forward to or a lot to watch out for!”
Bustamante worked in the fields of his hometown Dinuba in the Central Valley before getting into politics.
Through the lens of Latino immigrant experience, the Democrat has fashioned a centrist message. He believes government should help the needy but refrain from burdensome regulation of business.
Bustamante, the son of Mexican immigrants, is reserved in projecting his Latino heritage. Diversity, a repeated theme in his public comments, often comes anchored in a line borrowed from historian Kevin Starr: “Diversity is in the DNA of California.”
His own voice emerges most strongly before Latino audiences, such as his 1999 speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He spoke about what he considers a “radical” ethnic agenda. “That radical agenda is as follows: Good education, good jobs, safe neighborhoods and an equal opportunity in life,” he said.
At the Simon Wiesenthal Center, he offered a nuanced criticism of Hollywood’s portrayal of minorities.
“It seems impossible to find characters that look like California -- all of California,” he said. “I hope that we can start a dialogue to generate ideas how the entertainment industry can create positive role models for Californians, especially our youth.”
In one highly publicized gaff, Bustamante transformed the word Negro into what sounded like a racial slur during a Black History Month speech. It led to a profusion of apologies.
“To talk about this has been humiliating, each and every time,” he told an Oakland rally the next week. “That’s not how I was raised. It’s not how I was taught. It’s not how I raise my children. And it’s not what’s in my heart.”
Budget and Social Issues
For three successive years in the Assembly, Bustamante opposed tax cuts proposed by Gov. Pete Wilson, saying they were weighted toward the wealthy and threatened needed programs.
“Let’s not give a tax break to people who drive foreign sports cars. Let’s give a tax cut to people who drive family cars,” Bustamante said during the 1995 budget debates.
“The governor’s tax-cut plan is dead because it cut education in the future,” he said in 1997. “We have a need to hire more teachers to finish class-size reduction, schools need repair and we don’t have textbooks. We need the money for education.”
As Assembly speaker, Bustamante appeared in a TV commercial to help fight off a Wilson administration welfare reform that would have cut benefits for young and elderly noncitizen legal immigrants.
“It’s because of maybe who I am and where I come from,” he told reporters. “It’s about my background and how I got here.”
Business and Environment
Bustamente’s social agenda sometimes appears to collide with his loyalty to business interests.
Shortly after his 1992 election to the Assembly, he surprised other Latino legislators by criticizing their proposal to seize the assets of businesses repeatedly caught employing illegal immigrants. It was meant as an alternative to crackdowns on the immigrants themselves, but Bustamante saw it as anti-business.
“In the Central Valley, we couldn’t conduct business without immigrants,” Bustamante said at a Latino caucus press conference. “We have to find a way to navigate through this immigration policy, to be able to provide our businesses an opportunity to continue to produce.”
Only days after promising bipartisan cooperation as the theme of his Assembly speakership in 1996, Bustamante fired four Republican appointees to the California Coastal Commission, saying he wanted a more balanced commission.
Six years later, speaking to the Planning and Conservation League, he boasted that the Sierra Club and the League for Coastal Protection had reported that “my four appointments to the Coastal Commission created the most pro-environmental commission in its history.”
At a 2000 appearance before the California Forestry Assn., Bustamante struck a different note.
“We all know that affordable housing starts with the price of lumber,” he said. “To that end, over-regulation would harm your ability to maintain healthy, sustainable forests as well as healthy, sustainable jobs.”
Bustamante in 1997 spoke about a proposal by Gov. Pete Wilson that would have made minors as young as 14 eligible for the death penalty.
“I guess I would default to say that a hardened criminal is a hardened criminal no matter at what age,” he told The Times. “But it doesn’t go down very easy ... “
Bustamante has said he sees nothing wrong with people owning guns. He voted for a 1996 bill that shortened the waiting period for a gun purchase but he also voted to outlaw the manufacture of cheap handguns.
He preaches a code of self-policing modeled after himself.
“Pretend my mother is watching you,” he told San Francisco State University graduates in 2000.
“My mother thinks that you should go out and try to live a dream,” he said. “My mother does get angry, however, if you don’t take care of your mind and your body, so if you just pretend that my mother’s watching you, then you’ll get a chance to do most of what you want to do and none of what you shouldn’t be doing.”
Ater his 18-year-old cousin died in gun violence, Bustamante said in 1997 that he hears gunfire every New Year’s Eve at his Fresno home.
“On those two nights my family is on the floor,” he said. “They’re not sitting up in chairs or on the sofas or even on the bed in the house.”
He never had to vote on whether to execute minors who kill. “I believe that, in a specific situation, a child may be lost forever,” he said. “I don’t know how I’d vote right now.”