By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Bustamante is the oldest of six children, raised in the small town of San Joaquin, not far outside Fresno, the capital of California’s Central Valley agricultural heartland. An internship with conservative Congressman B.F. Sisk during his college years turned the son of a barber who had wanted to be a butcher toward politics, so much so that he dropped out of college at Fresno State and did not finish until this year, in a specially designed program combining political science and ethnic studies.
Bustamante’s career is a product of term limits and Democratic catering to the Latino vote. In 1992 he was an unknown district aide to a term-limited Fresno assemblyman who leaped at a high-paying university job, allowing Bustamante, guided by consultant Richie Ross, to win the seat. When legendary Speaker Willie Brown was forced out by term limits and Republicans couldn’t take advantage, Bustamante, by now a “senior” Latino figure and a moderate who dealt well with Sacramento lobbyists, put together enough votes to serve briefly as speaker. Then, with $3 million raised from interests that thought they were contributing to the Assembly Democratic majority through the speaker, Bustamante used his status as the state’s highest-ranking Latino to clear the Democratic field for the impressive-sounding but mostly meaningless office of lieutenant governor.
Former top Bill Clinton aide–turned–L.A. investment banker John Emerson hired Bustamante for his first job in statewide politics, that of Fresno coordinator in Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. “He was perfect for a local coordinator,” says Emerson, “because he got along well with everyone.
“He had no agenda that caused controversy with any of the players in Valley or Latino politics.” The future gubernatorial candidate was recommended to the Clinton campaign by Cal Dooley, the conservative Democratic congressman.
In the Assembly, Bustamante was a standard conservative Central Valley Democrat. Sierra Club lobbyist John White says Bustamante was “weak on pesticides and weak on endangered species.” United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta says he was “no friend of the farm worker. He was very friendly with the growers.” But as speaker, White and other environmentalists say, Bustamante made excellent appointments to the Coastal Commission.
The contradictions between the new Cruz and the old Cruz come out clearly in his relations with the United Farm Workers. The loyalist Democratic UFW just endorsed Bustamante over Labor Day weekend.
Democrats, worried about the immigrant Schwarzenegger’s appeal to Latinos, are anxious to use the symbolism of Cesar Chavez. But when the lieutenant governor joined last year’s march up the Central Valley to force Davis to finally sign a major farm-labor bill, there was widespread scoffing before he appeared. Bustamante did not stay long, walking less than a mile before departing in his state car.
This, despite the fact that the UFW’s chief political adviser is also Bustamante’s.
Bustamante never would have made it this far without Richie Ross. Ross is the idea man, the strategist and the muscle propelling the political rise of the undecorated and unremarkable second-in-command.
Ross got into politics the old-fashioned way; he was inspired. A Maryland seminary student in the late ’60s, Ross, like many concerned Catholics, answered the clarion call of Cesar Chavez’s farm workers movement, in which he met his wife, Juana.
After working with the UFW, Ross went into politics, rising to become the chief operative of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown’s political machine. Willie Brown was the master of the deal, in many respects the architect of broker state politics in California. The “Ayatollah of California politics,” as he referred to himself, in the eyes of most reformers turned the Capitol into a casino for the auctioning of access and brokering of interests. Under Willie Brown, special-interest fund-raising became paramount and policy committees were cherished for their monetary potential as, in Capitol-speak, “juice committees.”
As chief of staff to the speaker and as chief political consultant for all Assembly Democratic campaigns, Richie Ross was at the absolute center of Willie Inc. But all good things must come to an end, and the excesses of Brown’s record 15-year reign as Assembly speaker sparked the successful initiative to impose term limits.
As a private consultant, Ross cultivated a stable of political candidates, especially Latinos, and a powerful lobbying practice, representing Indian casinos, trial lawyers, insurers and a few labor unions.
An incident in June, in which Ross threatened and screamed at legislative staffers, pointed up his role in Capitol politics and prompted a session of the Assembly Democratic Caucus to discuss what many legislators call “the Richie problem.” “He’s raised a lot of eyebrows here,” says one, “with his clientele and his methods, working the electeds he’s put into office and lobbying them for his special-interest clients.” They fear also that he has the sort of pugnacious and power-oriented personality to abuse his influence.
Ross does indeed have a pugnacious personality. Fittingly, given the fact that his candidate is running against Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ross was a great fan of Schwarzenegger’s former rival for the action-hero crown, Sylvester Stallone. The Weekly once ran into Ross at a theater showing Rocky III. The slightly built operative squirmed and rocked in his seat during the boxing scenes, throwing phantom punches at the screen as Stallone took his usual beating before the usual heroic comeback.
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