United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta executed a sudden quarter-turn away in the midst of conversation at the special state Democratic convention in downtown L.A. over the weekend. “What is it?” the Weekly asked the legendary stalwart of statewide Democratic campaigns. “It’s Cruz Bustamante,” she replied. “I don’t want a picture with him,” said Huerta, just appointed to the University of California Board of Regents by embattled Governor Gray Davis, for whom she is campaigning up and down the state and who had just received an enthusiastic response from the convention crowd. “They asked me to help and I said, ‘Sorry, I have a methyl bromide memory,’” referring to the pesticide that then-Assemblyman Bustamante wanted sprayed in the fields. “He was never with us while Cesar (Chavez) was alive.”
Sure enough, it was Bustamante, who veered off and made his way to the stage in a half-empty L.A. Convention Center hall to accept the Democratic Party nomination for governor on the recall’s replacement ballot. The lieutenant governor’s speech was a curiously unmomentous affair, a Davis-like litany of recent bills passed by the Legislature. He closed with a lament about the injection of race into the campaign, citing a little-known radio attack ad few have heard. “This has been a great month for Democrats,” declared Bustamante, somewhat incongruously. He said he would keep signing the bills the Democratic Legislature sends him and “pay the price necessary to ensure equal opportunity.”
Not surprisingly, he took no questions. The lite guv has swiftly supplanted the ex-bodybuilder as the stealth candidate, holding only one press availability last week. Arnold Schwarzenegger, hampered by an overly cautious campaign that unwisely kept him out of the first debate, did five.
So it was back to the LAX Marriott for the rest of the Republican convention. Mirroring the yoyo-ing of the election, the Weekly bounced back and forth between the dueling crosstown conventions of the weekend. And what of that 9th Circuit ruling, throwing into turmoil an election in which many have already voted? Many experts still assume the election goes forward on October 7. But what if the most overturned appellate panel in the nation is upheld? Bustamante’s problems as a candidate become still more obvious.
Schwarzenegger loses novelty but perhaps gains in competence. Right-wing state Senator Tom McClintock finds it even more difficult to raise money. Davis gets a chance for the initial wave of recall anger to subside. And his slight uptick in support, which is very slight, increases. But he suffers a backlash from angry moderate and conservative voters who become just as likely to vote as liberal Democrats turning out for their allegedly interesting presidential primary, which has so far engaged only enthusiasts of the little-known candidates. And he has to face the electorate in the midst of the latest budget crisis, a likely referendum on the highly unpopular bill allowing driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, and after months of car tax increases. So the deeper dynamics of the recall may well continue no matter when the election takes place.
It was a very different Republican convention. Traditionally, most of the delegates are hard right. Schwarzenegger’s pal and fellow moderate, Dick Riordan, was shelled at last year’s Republican confab in Silicon Valley. This was practically an Arnold-fest, with Schwarzenegger paraphernalia everywhere. After whipping up a crowd of 1,500 at a high-energy rally in the morning, Schwarzenegger addressed an overflow crowd of a thousand at the convention luncheon, to frequent hearty applause and nary a word of naysaying, save for a lefty Code Pink protester who snuck in and briefly unfurled a banner dredging up the Oui interview. His topic? “Why I am a Republican. I am asked this 30 times a day,” Schwarzenegger said. “And that’s just from Maria!”
Schwarzenegger carried the assignment off, concentrating on fiscal conservatism and his love for Ronald Reagan without delving into his social and environmental views. Still, he looked much more comfortable at the earlier rally, where he talked about appealing to independents and Democrats.
In contrast, most of the crowd at the convention dinner sat on its hands while McClintock delivered up his true-blue conservatism. This is McClintock’s problem if he decides to stay in as an active candidate; his supporters melt away to go with someone who can win. McClintock, citing yet another L.A. Times poll that is out of phase with other credible polls — even some Timesies admit they don’t buy it — claims he is “surging” but can cite no other evidence.
The Weekly had expected a strong right-wing claque at the Republican convention heartened by the Times poll, which was tellingly released on convention eve. Instead, while some were still defiant, none were emboldened.
A senior Democratic strategist with close ties to Governor Davis scoffs at this latest specious Times poll, which has the recall in a dead heat and a close race between Bustamante and Schwarzenegger with McClintock moving into a strong third: “The L.A. Times poll is not correct, but two things are true: The recall is softening somewhat. And negative attitudes about Cruz are skyrocketing.” Times poll director Susan Pinkus left town for more than a week after the release of the poll.
So what does McClintock do? Often a voice crying out in the wilderness, McClintock with his solid third place gains a level of attention he has never had in a long political career. He must know he has no chance of winning. Prescient though he has been at times on the budget, he is simply too conservative. What should he do, other than be a right-wing kamikaze who might elect Bustamante? One idea that is circulating, reported by The New York Times, could be perfect for McClintock, a man of ideas rather than transactions who appears to want a mission.
In last year’s election, professional Democrats feared the idea of Controller McClintock far more than Governor Simon. The controller has tremendous power to audit and investigate anywhere in state government. By the narrowest of margins, neophyte candidate Steve Westly, a multimillionaire eBay executive, staved off a McClintock victory. An executive branch commission headed by McClintock to delve into the Sacramento deals that both he and Schwarzenegger decry could be ideal for him.
Meanwhile, in a bank shot against Schwarzenegger, some Indian casinos are said to be readying to spend another $2 million on a campaign to boost McClintock. If Bustamante can’t expand his vote, maybe they can stop Schwarzenegger — who, polling shows, has the most ability to draw from undecided and independent voters — from consolidating the Republican vote using McClintock as their stalking horse. If McClintock goes along, the casinos could erase the Terminator.
But that is the sort of thing that could damage McClintock’s well-earned reputation as a straight shooter, even costing him his not-so-safe state Senate seat. Perhaps McClintock will be ready to have this candidacy erased after Schwarzenegger finally meets him and the others in a debate in Sacramento on September 24.
Here is what the action superstar is saying about McClintock now. “He is a very smart man with much to offer the people. This is a great moment for him; he deserves it.”
Which sounds a little like what he said about Darrell Issa while he was still running. “He did such a fantastic job getting this thing qualified. But I wonder if he will actually run.” And Bill Simon. “He is a really good guy. I think it will work out.” And the just-departed Peter Ueberroth. “He is a very smart, classy guy. He will have to decide if his campaign is going places.”
Maybe it’s a good thing Schwarzenegger isn’t saying nice things about Cruz Bustamante. He has not yet been erased. But his fund-raising may be doing the job for him. On August 17, Bustamante went on Face the Nation and charged that Davis operatives were blocking his fund-raising. By the August 23 reporting deadline, two-and-a-half weeks after entering the race, he had raised only $333,000 for his gubernatorial campaign. That is when he and consultant Richie Ross solicited the first big Indian casino check, $300,000, which was to be laundered through his old campaign committee into the gubernatorial campaign.
Since then, Bustamante has raised nearly $1.7 million in contributions of $1,000 or more through September 15. A big improvement, but not enough to get the job done. Hence the effort to launder big contributions in circumvention of the Proposition 34 contribution limits into his gubernatorial campaign. And when that failed the smell test, setting up an independent campaign against the Proposition 54 racial identity initiative to promote Bustamante in commercials beamed around the state. His Proposition 54 gambit committee has raised $4.3 million in huge checks, mostly from Indian casinos and public employee groups. The TV ads started on Tuesday. Indian casinos will also spend at least $2 million more on an “independent” campaign on the lite guv’s behalf.
Bustamante needs the boost. He benefits in polls from being the only Democrat pollsters ask about. But on the real ballot, there will be some drop-off in his vote to other little-known Democrats. He also has to worry about some voters voting no on the recall and skipping the replacement ballot, as often occurs in recall elections. The Field Poll, in which Democrats generally run better than they do on election day, gives him a slight lead, but it was taken while Schwarzenegger was pilloried for not debating and not doing press conferences, which he is now doing. Other polls have Schwarzenegger running within the margin of error or slightly ahead.