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Take the Money and Run 

The rise of unremarkable Cruz and his sidekick Richie

Thursday, Sep 4 2003
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Illustration by Juan Alvarado

Cruz Bustamante is living proof of one of the smartest things Woody Allen ever said: “Ninety percent of life is showing up.” The lieutenant governor has barely figured in the epic conflicts over the energy and budget crises that have roiled the Capitol the last few years, and has managed, by breaking his pledge not to run, to emerge as perhaps the Democrats’ best hope of hanging on to the governorship.

Who is Cruz Bustamante, this generally conservative, pro-business Democrat — the most prominent California backer of conservative Democratic presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, longtime chairman of the anti-liberal Democratic Leadership Council — who, without credentials, is running as a reinvented left-liberal in this recall election? And would Bustamante, who has read his only two policy speeches of this campaign word for word, even exist politically without his controversial political consultant and lobbying string puller, Richie Ross?

Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bustamante has not been doing in-depth policy interviews. Also like Schwarzenegger, he has spent much time recently off the campaign trail, actually going silent for a week after his first major press conference as a candidate. He is said to have been studying the issues and trying to raise money. Given the veteran politician’s sometimes stumbling and evasive answers to recent questions on his state budget plan, his unlikely proposal to have the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) regulate gasoline prices, and his taking huge contributions from Indian casino interests in violation of the Proposition 34 contributions limits and a late-breaking state Fair Political Practices Commission opinion against the practice, that may have been a wise course on his and his handlers’ part. Bustamante, an avid promoter of California’s aggressively expansionist Indian casino interests, has taken some $3 million of casino money in recent days, including an astounding $2 million from one tribe, most of which he will launder into his gubernatorial campaign in violation of the state’s contribution limits.

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When Bustamante unveiled his budget plan, which eschewed any specific budget cuts and called for $8 billion in tax increases (nearly 40 percent of which would rely on the passage of a constitutional amendment, a time-consuming and uncertain process), mostly on the wealthy and smokers and drinkers, he was asked what was wrong with Davis’ attempt to get a share of the burgeoning revenues of Indian casino interests, which currently pay nothing into the state’s general fund but profit greatly from state gaming compacts. “That number [$680 million, proposed by Davis] has no relation to any number which is the basis,” replied the cryptic lieutenant governor, before quickly turning to an unrelated question.

Asked at a gas-station press conference last Thursday about his proposal to use the state PUC to regulate gasoline prices —a popular-sounding solution but very difficult to pull off with the product of a complex global market — Bustamante, who co-authored the disastrous electric-power deregulation scheme that allowed out-of-state energy companies free from regulation to enter the state’s power market, shed little light beyond the soundbite for Labor Day weekend drivers. “This is an important commodity, and it should be regulated for the people,” he intoned, then made a brief stab at answering the actual question by noting that “even wharfage is a regulated utility.” As the Weekly was about to ask what that mystifying remark meant, L.A. Times reporter Matea Gold deflected the discussion at hand, jumping in with her only question to ask what the paper’s favored candidate thought of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tacky quip that Bustamante is “Gray Davis with a mustache and receding hairline.”

Returning to substance, the Weekly again asked the candidate how his plan might work. “There are oil refineries in California,” said Bustamante, who also noted that “there is not enough strategic reserve,” then retreated back to boilerplate about gasoline as “a very important commodity that must be regulated for the people.”

After appearing before the California Nations Indian Gaming Association at a closed-door session in which the casino tribes’ trade group heard private pitches for support from him, trailing conservative Republican candidate Tom McClintock, and Davis, Bustamante was asked what the casino tribes wanted from him. “Only respect,” he replied. In truth, they asked for much more than that, including the expediting of compacts for tribes that don’t yet have casinos and increases in the number of slot machines in already existing casinos. Sources say Bustamante was very responsive to these requests for “respect.”

Since the lieutenant governor has little power and few duties, it is unclear to many Capitol observers what Bustamante has been doing for much of the past five years. Friends say that he keeps busy. “He has lots of meetings,” says one. “He works at staying visible. He has briefings on the state Lands Commission,” which he serves on. “And briefings on CSU and UC [the California State University and University of California systems].”

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