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Weighty Matters on Menu With the Lt. Gov.

Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez

Cruz Bustamante was in town last week, making a quick pass as election day drew closer. If you’ve lost track of the musical chairs in Sacramento, he’s the portly, termed-out lieutenant governor who’s hoping to become state insurance commissioner.

His major selling point is a campaign promise to lose 50 pounds, and the devil in me invited him to lunch at Barragan’s Mexican Restaurant & Cantina in Echo Park. Yes, that’s a bit like inviting a recovering drinker to a beer festival, but I wanted to see what Bustamante is made of.

Temptation like this is nothing compared to what he’s going to get from the insurance companies that are pouring money into his campaign by the fistful and are bound to come looking for their rewards later. Also, if a man’s going to campaign on a weight-loss platform, arguing that healthier bodies will translate into lower insurance premiums, somebody’s got to keep him honest.

Bustamante arrived at Barragan’s in the company of consultant Jeff Logan, a man whose qualifications have to be questioned since he was allowing Bustamante to have lunch with me. The Richard Simmons of state government also brought Donald Feil, his CHP driver. You could ask why Bustamante needs a CHP driver, but then, you could also ask why we need a lieutenant governor and we’d never get anywhere here today.

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I didn’t tell Bustamante what was in my backpack and I’m not going to tell you yet, either. If you haven’t already guessed, you’ll just have to wait.

We were led to a back table near the bar, and Bustamante looked like a man walking a plank in shark-infested water. He wasn’t sure what he was in for.

I told him I had seen him on television talking about weight loss, and I just wondered how the diet was coming. He began the year having porked up to 278 pounds, but in his defense, the job of lieutenant governor isn’t much of a workout. The biggest tasks on any given day are to go to lunch and then try to stay awake the rest of the day.

At his last weigh-in two weeks earlier, he had gotten down to 235, putting him seven pounds short of his goal.

“I weighed 233 this morning at the hotel,” he said as I reached for the menu and began perusing the appetizers. Probably down to 232 by now, he bragged.

I nodded agreeably.

“What do you say we order family style?” I suggested. “I’ll just get a bunch of stuff and we can pass it around.”

Bustamante said that was fine, but he was thinking shrimp fajitas for himself.

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“These chips are delicious, aren’t they?” I asked, pushing the basket toward him.

I think I saw his hands tremble, but he didn’t make a move for the chips. He was being a pretty good sport about the whole thing, and still wondering what he was in for.

I had been told Bustamante had a pre-diet weakness for carnitas, carne asada, red wine and tripas, or the intestines of a calf. I didn’t see tripas on the menu, but I ordered carnitas (“selected portions of fried pork”), the cheese-stuffed seafood quesadilla (he said he was avoiding meat as much as possible) and an appetizer called La Botana, which was described like this:

“The Mexican Sampler. Selection includes: miniature taquitos, corn and flour quesadillas, flautas, served with salsa fresca, guacamole and sour cream. A treat!”

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When all the food was piled before us, several thousand calories of temptation, I noticed that Bustamante wasn’t looking at it. He was looking at me, the waiter, anything but the food, talking about the benefits of healthy eating, no tortillas, no refried beans, no wine or beer. I saw beads of perspiration, but it might have been from the serrano peppers he was spooning onto whole beans. Spicy food, he explained, makes him feel full.

I politely held the seafood quesadilla out to him at eye level, the cheese melted into a pool on the plate. He was holding firm, talking about the relationship between obesity and disease, as if it had just occurred to him that calf intestines might not be health food. Interesting, I said, that he saw the light just as his campaign began.

To be honest, I was trying to get under his skin, figuring he might crack under the stress and dive belly first into the platters of food. So far, he was hanging tough, but will he turn away calls from insurance executives with the same discipline?

I decided to ask him point-blank about that $158,000 in campaign donations from the insurance industry.

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“Are you working for us or for them?” I asked.

Bustamante insisted he was not for sale and couldn’t be bought, and I asked if he had any idea why Californians are so turned off and cynical about state politics. Arnold Schwarzenegger trashed Gray Davis for selling out to the highest bidder, and then set new fundraising records while his popularity tanked.

Now Schwarzenegger’s challengers, Democratic candidates Steve Westly and Phil Angelides, are swimming in the same cesspool. Times reporters Dan Morain and Evan Halper have had a field day pointing out their fundraising prowess and hypocrisy, as well as their good deeds for big donors.

We’d all be thrilled, I told Bustamante while discreetly inching the quesadilla toward him, with a candidate who went on a fundraising diet. A one-issue candidate who talks of nothing but public financing of elections.

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“People don’t want to pay for them,” Bustamante said.

We’re paying tenfold, I argued, in bloated budgets and unsolved problems.

Bustamante’s willpower was admirable. All this abuse, and he still hadn’t reached for a single tortilla chip. I ordered flan with whipped cream and cherries and had the waiter set it in front of him.

He ate some beans, picked at the fajitas, that was it.

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If he was corruptible, it wasn’t going to be with a reporter looking on. But there was another way to see if he could be trusted.

“What did you say you weighed?” I asked.

Two thirty-three, he said.

“You sure?”

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He nodded.

I reached for my backpack and whipped out my bathroom scale.

What appeared to be a look of terror spread across Bustamante’s face. He got up out of his chair slowly. Other diners tuned in to the spectacle, ratcheting up the pressure.

His two colleagues tested the scale before he did. Feil, the CHP driver, weighed 227, which he said was pretty accurate. Logan, the lumbering 6-foot-4 consultant, hit 240 and said the scale wasn’t lying.

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Then came Cruz.

He kicked off his shoes. He had predicted a svelte 232, but promises meant nothing now. It was a rare moment in politics, a moment of truth.

The lieutenant governor weighed in at 240.5 pounds.

He stepped off, a bit shaken.

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“I was 233 this morning at the hotel,” he protested.

I almost felt sorry for the guy. At 209, I’d weighed in a few pounds heavier than my playing weight, too.

Should have had the flan, I told him. It would have made a rough afternoon a little more bearable.


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