Congressman Cruz Bustamante?

Could Be an Option If He Loses Tuesday

Posted October 1, 2003 at 5:57pm

As the California recall election lurches toward its uncertain conclusion next Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D) could have a fallback strategy should his bid to become governor fail: running for Congress in 2004.

Bustamante, according to sources in California and Washington, D.C., is being talked about as a possible candidate for the Central Valley House seat now occupied by Rep. Cal Dooley (D-Calif.), who is retiring after seven terms.

“It would be a good gig for him,” said the leader of a national Latino organization who is helping Bustamante on the recall election.

Luis Vizcaino, a spokesman for Bustamante’s campaign, dismissed the notion that his boss has a Congressional run even in the back of his mind.

“It’s the rumor du jour,” he said, noting Wednesday’s headlines in California newspapers suggesting that Bustamante could be shutting down his gubernatorial campaign. “The lieutenant governor is focused on this recall and on ensuring that a Democrat remains in the governor’s office.”

Former Rep. Tony Coehlo (D-Calif.), who represented an adjoining House district, called the rumors “intriguing but far-fetched.”

“I talk to Bustamante four or five times a day and that has never been raised,” he said.

But some observers of Golden State politics said Congress could be a good fit for Bustamante — and a good way out of an uncomfortable situation if California Gov. Gray Davis (D) beats back the recall or if the recall succeeds and Bustamante loses the second part of the election to Republican movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bustamante is not unfamiliar with the ways of Congress. His political career began in 1972 as a 19-year-old intern in the Capitol Hill office of then-Rep. B.F. Sisk (D-Calif.). From 1983 to 1988, he worked in the district office of then-Rep. Richard Lehman (D-Calif.), who represented the Central Valley.

Bustamante was elected to the California Assembly in 1992 and quickly rose in the leadership to become Speaker in 1996. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1998.

The unpredictable political dynamic in the aftermath of the recall could also propel Bustamante into a House race.

Governors and lieutenant governors are elected separately in the Golden State, and there is no great love between Davis and Bustamante. If Davis prevails in the recall, it may be awkward for Bustamante to remain in the No. 2 slot.

And if the recall succeeds but Schwarzenegger beats out Bustamante and becomes governor, it could also be uncomfortable for the runner-up to remain as lieutenant governor. On the other hand, Bustamante would then become the highest-ranking Democrat in state government, a platform he can use to criticize the new governor.

“He’s committed if he loses to leading the [opposition],” said one senior California Democrat.

Bustamante’s term as lieutenant governor ends in 2006.

“With term limits, he’s got to do something,” the Latino leader said. “He’s been on the public payroll for over 20 years.”

Although he jumped into the recall election when other well-known Democrats wouldn’t because he said he wanted to give Democratic voters an option at the polls in case the recall succeeded, this race has been seen as Bustamante’s best opportunity to become governor. The Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2006 is expected to be crowded, with both state Attorney General Bill Lockyer and state Treasurer Phil Angelides already sitting on $10 million in their campaign accounts — far more than Bustamante has. Ambitious state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi is personally wealthy, and he could spend plenty on a governor’s race as well.

Bustamante could run for a statewide job other than governor when his term ends.

But while Bustamante has deep roots and high name recognition in the Central Valley, where he grew up, he would be getting a late start in the 20th district House race, where former state Sen. Jim Costa (D) and ex-Dooley Chief of Staff Lisa Quigley (D) are already running hard.

Quigley, who has been endorsed by Dooley, has raised more than $100,000 and has a handful of fundraisers scheduled. Costa, who has far more institutional support, including the blessing of Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), plans to formally announce his candidacy Friday and has four fundraisers scheduled.

There are no Republicans currently running in the Democratic-leaning district. The filing deadline for candidates in the March 2, 2004, primary is Dec. 5.

Quigley said she doubts Bustamante would want to run for the House.

“Even if he doesn’t prevail in the recall, he’s still going to be lieutenant governor, so I don’t know why he’d step down to run for Congress,” she said.

Costa, who served with Bustamante in the state Assembly, would not completely discount the rumors but said he spoke to Bustamante about two weeks ago and hopes the lieutenant governor endorses his candidacy for Congress.

“We’ve worked together a long time, and he was very complimentary about my campaign,” Costa said. “He said we’d sit down and talk about it in a few weeks.”

Costa said that Bustamante is too “exhausted” to be thinking about another campaign right now but conceded, “obviously, anything’s possible.”

Costa is expected to be endorsed by many Hispanic leaders in California who might otherwise help Bustamante if he was to run. What’s more, Bustamante’s top political consultant, Richie Ross, is close to state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D), who is mobilizing support for Costa in the House race.

Bruce Cain, a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said that while Bustamante may seem well-suited for the Central Valley seat, he may not fit the district’s moderate-to-conservative profile.

“He’s going to have a hard time running for his Central Valley seat because he has moved to the left during the recall,” Cain said. Carolyn Shuckerow contributed to this report.