Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante on Saturday visited the birthplace of the United Farm Workers movement, where more than 200 members of the union gathered on a dusty field vowed to back his campaign for governor and keep the Republicans from taking power.
Chanting “Recall no, Bustamante si,” farm workers clad in the union’s signature red T-shirts welcomed the lieutenant governor to the Central Valley spot where Sen. Robert F. Kennedy visited leader Cesar Chavez in 1968, as Chavez ended a 25-day fast to rally support for a grape boycott.
Union leaders sought to contrast that relationship with the bond between former Gov. Pete Wilson and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose wife, Maria Shriver, is Kennedy’s niece. They warned that if the recall of Gov. Gray Davis succeeds and Bustamante is not elected, Schwarzenegger or another Republican could overturn labor laws.
“Cruz is on the right side and Arnold is not,” said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, noting that Schwarzenegger has described unions as “special interests.”
“We can’t risk having another Republican governor who is against the farm workers and for the corporate growers,” he said.
The rally came on an otherwise somnolent day on the recall campaign trail. Among the leading candidates to replace Davis, only Bustamante made a public appearance, although state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) was interviewed on two cable TV news shows.
In an interview with Fox News Channel, McClintock denied he had a conflict of interest in soliciting campaign contributions from Indian tribes while pressing for the state to stop regulating gambling and other issues on reservation lands. He also disputed the results of a KABC poll finding him a distant third, saying the major polls show he is gaining momentum, while Schwarzenegger is “dead in the water.”
He recapped how he would cut spending to make up for rolling back the car tax increase and castigated Bustamante for not repudiating MEChA, a Latino student organization with separatist roots.
Davis, meanwhile, held a brief news conference in West Hollywood after taping a Labor Day radio address -- an event that, in ordinary times, would have attracted as much attention as a backyard barbecue. On Saturday, six television cameras and more than 20 reporters and photographers mobbed the governor outside an L.A. County Sheriff’s station, across the street from the storefront of DontPanic.com, to hear him speak in support of new laws cracking down on offshore tax shelters.
Davis also seized an opportunity to chide Schwarzenegger. Asked about a 1977 magazine interview in which the actor recounted his experiences with group sex and marijuana, Davis said: “I think everyone has to be accountable for what they did and what they said over their lifetime, and that will be a matter that the voters take into account.”
Told that Schwarzenegger had criticized him Saturday for meeting with Native American tribes several days ago to discuss his appointments to a state Indian gambling commission, Davis snapped: “I think it’s perfectly appropriate. I don’t think that Arnold knows what he’s talking about.”
Schwarzenegger had issued a statement through his campaign calling the meeting “unfortunate and misguided.” He said it “puts both the commission and the gaming tribes in a very bad position, creating potential questions of conflict and undermining the vital credibility of the commission itself.”
Davis said he has long solicited recommendations from the tribes about whom to appoint to the gambling board. Noting that some tribal members have sat on a federal gambling commission, the governor said they bring experience to the board that is difficult to find elsewhere.
Bustamante, who also met with the tribes last week, has collected large political donations recently from at least two tribes. Late last week, he reported receiving $500,000 from the Pechanga Band of Mission Indians -- the second six-figure gift from a tribe in the last few weeks.
Bustamante campaign strategist Richie Ross said the lieutenant governor hopes in the next five weeks to raise as much as $3 million from tribes, who have resisted unionizing in their casinos. He dismissed questions about whether Bustamante’s support for the tribes and labor unions was contradictory.
“I don’t know of a single political official in either party that doesn’t take money from businesses who do not have unions,” Ross said. “I personally find it interesting that when it’s a group of nonwhite business owners, that that’s somehow a problem.”
If unions and the tribes have a conflict about unionizing the casinos, Ross added, “Cruz will do what anyone does when they are caught between two friends: He will mediate with respect for both sides.”
On Saturday, Schwarzenegger’s campaign sought to portray the UFW endorsement as a byproduct of Ross’ political work, since he also does consulting for the farm workers.
“It’s disappointing that the union itself would become a house organ for Cruz,” said Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman.
Stutzman rejected attempts to link the actor to Wilson’s policies, saying Schwarzenegger should be judged on his own merit. Despite the union’s endorsement of a Democrat, he said, laborers will relate to the movie star, who first worked as a bricklayer when he immigrated to the United States.
“Arnold feels very strongly about them and personally relates to what they do,” Stutzman said. “Arnold is very committed to providing safe work conditions that do not exploit workers and respect their dignity.”
But the overarching theme in Delano on Saturday was a portrayal of Schwarzenegger as anti-labor. Union workers held up a photo of Kennedy and Chavez next to a photo of Schwarzenegger tightly embracing Wilson. Underneath were the words: “Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres” (Tell me who you go with and I’ll tell you who you are).
“How many of you are ready to make sure Pete Wilson doesn’t return to Sacramento?” Rodriguez asked, as union members cheered in response.
In his remarks, Bustamante did not mention Schwarzenegger by name, but alluded to the impact of a loss of the governor’s office to the Republicans.
“The position is too important to capitulate to those who don’t have our values,” he said.
Bustamante, whose parents picked crops in the Central Valley to help make ends meet, was mobbed by supporters who asked for his autograph, and serenaded by guitar-strumming singers who worked his name into old protest songs.
“I promise to fight for farm workers so they are treated with the respect, dignity and justice they deserve,” he said in Spanish, eliciting cheers.
Times staff writers Mitchell Landsberg in West Hollywood and Jean Merl in Los Angeles contributed to this report.