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Bustamante’s Pinch of ‘Yes’ Nips Davis

Times Staff Writers

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante’s recent maneuverings as a recall candidate have raised new doubts about the depth of his commitment to simultaneously fight the proposed ouster of his fellow Democrat, Gov. Gray Davis.

As he presses for Latino support for his own candidacy as a replacement should Davis be recalled, Bustamante’s rhetoric is complicating an already tough situation for the governor.

Davis is counting on strong backing from the same group of voters to beat back the recall.

On Sunday, Bustamante, the only well-known Democrat seeking to replace the governor, boasted on network news shows that he “took on Gray Davis” over Proposition 187, the 1994 measure that sought to cut public services for illegal immigrants. He was referring to a dust-up stemming from Davis’ refusal to drop the state’s appeal of a court ruling that gutted the measure. Both men had opposed the initiative.

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On Monday, in Labor Day appearances across the state, Bustamante did not mention Davis, in keeping with his practice of offering no defense of the governor. The two men spoke minutes apart at an Alameda County rally but did not appear on stage together.

Republican strategist Arnold Steinberg said the weekend events exposed the “schizophrenic” nature of Bustamante’s argument that Californians should vote to retain the governor but pick him as a second choice in case Davis loses.

“This is a telling indication of what most people already suspected: He wants the recall to pass so he can become governor,” Steinberg said.

The recall ballot will feature a yes-or-no question on whether to dump Davis, followed by a list of 135 candidates running to replace him. If Davis is recalled, the top vote-getter on the second question will become governor.

Bustamante’s suggestion that Davis’ opposition to Proposition 187 had been less forceful than his own is only the latest illustration of their clashing interests as the recall election draws near.

By resurrecting the dispute barely five weeks before the Oct. 7 recall election, Bustamante is using an issue which, by drawing Latinos to the polls, has led to major electoral gains for Democrats.

Much as he has done at other times in the campaign -- when he suggested Davis was arrogant, and when he accused the governor’s “minions” of trying to undercut his campaign, a charge Davis forces denied -- Bustamante seemed to go out of his way to make the Proposition 187 remarks.

On the CBS News program “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Bustamante brought up the matter in response to a question about Republican rival Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comments about having group sex at a Venice gym in the 1970s.

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Bustamante started by accusing former Gov. Pete Wilson, Schwarzenegger’s campaign co-chairman, of engaging in “wedge issue politics” on immigration.

“I took on Pete Wilson,” Bustamante said. “I took him on because he was trying to deny food stamps to legal children.” He then added: “I took on Gray Davis on the issue of 187 when I didn’t think he was working fast enough.”

On CNN, Bustamante made nearly identical remarks about Proposition 187 when asked about Schwarzenegger’s comment that the lieutenant governor was “Gray Davis with a receding hairline and a mustache.”

“I took on Pete Wilson, and I took on Gray Davis,” he said.

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By lumping Davis in with Wilson, Bustamante linked the governor to an extremely unpopular figure among Latinos.

To many Latinos, Wilson’s support for Proposition 187 made him a symbol of ill will. (At a labor rally in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, Davis and union leader Miguel Contreras each prompted loud boos when they mentioned Wilson’s name.)

Davis supporters said Bustamante seemed to be trying to set himself apart from Davis after a spate of Republican efforts to link the two, despite years of intense friction.

“He wants to show he’s his own man, and that’s fine,” said Art Pulaski, leader of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.

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Republicans, however, said success for Bustamante could mean trouble for Davis.

“They’re hurting each other, and they know it,” said Schwarzenegger strategist George Gorton. “The more they build up Bustamante, the more likely people are to vote ‘yes’ on the recall.”

Despite the long-standing bitterness between him and Davis, Bustamante has urged Californians to vote against the recall. At a Labor Day brunch Monday in San Bernardino, Bustamante said recall backers were “abusing the process and the system.”

“They are hijacking democracy, and we should call them on it,” he said.

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Bustamante strategist Richie Ross said the lieutenant governor was not offering a wink to supporters who might be tempted to vote “yes” on the recall.

“We answer our phone, ‘No on the Recall, Yes on Bustamante,’ ” he said. “I don’t know what more you can do. And people still say: ‘Yeah, but do you really mean it?’ ”

He continued: “We’re still waiting for Gov. Davis to say he’s going to vote for Cruz Bustamante, and he hasn’t said that yet.”

Davis has said he will announce 10 days before the election how he will vote in the gubernatorial successor race. For months, he urged Democratic officeholders to stay off the ballot to bolster his argument that the election is a Republican power grab.

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Bustamante vowed unequivocally not to run, then jumped in the race anyway. Now, many Democratic officials and labor unions are backing his campaign, but he and Davis are competing for campaign contributions from many of the same donors.

Davis strategists have long feared that Bustamante’s presence on the ballot would make it harder for the governor to survive the election. But Steve Smith, director of the governor’s anti-recall campaign, said Monday that Bustamante’s candidacy, in the end, could “energize Democrats.”

“Frankly, I’d like to see the lieutenant governor do well,” Smith said.

As for Bustamante’s telling national television viewers that he “took on Gray Davis” on Proposition 187, Smith said, the lieutenant governor “provides a little separation between him and the governor, but he doesn’t hurt the governor.”

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