In his early years as an assemblyman from Fresno, Democrat Cruz Bustamante seemed to fit his farm belt district like a beloved slipper: He did all he could for agriculture, made environmentalists nervous and sidestepped votes on controversial issues -- such as abortion -- that might have distressed his conservative constituents.
But as he bounded up the Democratic leadership ladder, ultimately landing the powerful Assembly speaker's job in 1996, those moderate positions began to shift, an analysis of his record shows, winning him new loyalists on the left but offending some early political friends.
Now in his second term as lieutenant governor, Bustamante is seen by opponents as wishy-washy, a man whose internal compass is guided by whatever interests he is serving at a particular time. Who, they ask, is the real Cruz Bustamante?
But backers insist he's a fair-minded pragmatist who, like many Democrats from rural areas, initially staked out ground reflecting his conservative district's needs and later, as Assembly speaker and lieutenant governor representing all of California, took a more holistic view.
In an interview, Bustamante acknowledged that "people have never been able to figure out who I am. I was hard to categorize with the existing labels. People thought I was vacillating, but for me it was natural. That was my politics."
Exhibit A is Bustamante's stand on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. Today, he is a vigorous supporter of a newly signed law allowing an estimated 2 million illegal residents to become licensed drivers. But as an Assembly freshman a decade ago, Bustamante -- a grandson of Mexican immigrants -- held the opposite position, voting to require that applicants show proof of legal residency to obtain a license.
His credentials as an environmental defender are newly earned as well.
Early on, Bustamante delighted developers and farmers by pushing legislation making it harder to list a species as endangered.
But once he was elected speaker, he became a reliable vote for environmental protection, earning a perfect 100% rating on an annual scorecard compiled by the California League of Conservation Voters. And today, he strongly supports a controversial package of bills to regulate air pollution from farms.
Bustamante has also grown more willing to take stands on the day's most sensitive social questions. When his Assembly colleague Sheila Kuehl carried a bill in 1997 to protect gay students from discrimination, Bustamante was one of eight Democrats who refused to support it, dooming its passage.
Later, however, as a nonvoting member of the University of California Board of Regents, he pushed hard for board approval of benefits for domestic partners in the UC system.
"It's inevitable that his positions would mature as he went from serving one district with very specific issues to representing a much larger constituency with a broad range of concerns," said political consultant Darry Sragow, who has known Bustamante for 17 years. "When you grow up in the Central Valley, you just don't think about offshore oil drilling much. But when you become speaker, or lieutenant governor, you have to."
Bustamante says that he remains a moderate at heart but that as speaker and lieutenant governor, he feels freer to "express my progressive side."
Polls show that Bustamante, 50, has a strong shot at becoming governor should voters recall Gov. Gray Davis on Oct. 7.
Friends describe the lieutenant governor as a plain-spoken, methodical man who has surprised more than a few with his rocket-like ascent from the political basement.
From the start, however, his fortunes have been hoisted by fortuitous timing, such as the combination of events that now place him in the thick of the fight for the governorship.
His arrival in Sacramento in 1993, for instance, was made possible by the unforeseen retirement of his boss, Assemblyman Bruce Bronzan.
Bustamante, the legislator's district director at the time, was reluctant to run, viewing himself more as a political mechanic than an inspirational leader. But Bronzan urged him on, and Bustamante won easily.
Once in the Capitol, Bustamante distinguished himself as quiet, affable and cautious, not one to stake out bold positions or grab the spotlight in policy fights.
"I'm not here to re-engineer the world," he once said, "only to make it a little better."
The first Latino assemblyman from the San Joaquin Valley, he was well liked, even by Republicans.
Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) once said the stout, balding Bustamante had a knack for "disagreeing without being disagreeable," a trait that proved invaluable as he sought greater political power.
Like other Democrats from rural patches of California, Bustamante quickly found himself struggling to reconcile the dueling forces -- agribusiness and farm workers' rights -- defining his district.
Agriculture, a $30-billion-a-year industry, was one of his largest campaign contributors through the mid-1990s -- and was the vital economic engine in a region plagued by unemployment. But as a man who spent more than a few boyhood summers picking peaches under the scorching valley sun, Bustamante also felt the plight of farm workers in his gut.
His early votes endeared him to agriculture and led to a "strong working relationship" with the California Farm Bureau, recalled its president, Bill Pauli. Splitting from urban Democrats, Bustamante voted for a bill permitting growers to continue using methyl bromide, despite evidence that the chemical was a health menace to fieldworkers. He even opposed an amendment that would have required farmers to increase buffer zones between schools and areas where methyl bromide was applied.
On another bill, which reduced fines on growers who failed to provide portable toilets for crop pickers, he abstained.
In 1993, the driver's license bill requiring proof of residency posed a particularly delicate challenge for Bustamante, as well as other Latino legislators, who were sharply divided over how to vote. Some believed that denying licenses to illegal residents might blunt public outrage over illegal immigration and perhaps derail the looming Proposition 187, which sought to deny most public services to the state's undocumented newcomers.
Others, such as then-Assemblywoman Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), argued that the bill would do nothing to stop illegal immigration and accused its Latino supporters of trying to look tough to appease voters.
Bustamante was one of four Latinos to vote for the bill, which passed easily. So far, he has taken little heat for reversing his position on the issue a decade later, but GOP strategists say it could become an issue later in the campaign.
In an interview, Bustamante recalled that vitriol about illegal immigration was bubbling in California at the time, and said he felt "it was important for me to represent my district." He also argued that the 1993 proposal was not as "carefully crafted" as the one today.
Leaders of the United Farm Workers have apparently decided to overlook that vote a decade ago, endorsing his gubernatorial candidacy. Seeking to improve living conditions for crop pickers, Bustamante pushed a bill awarding tax credits to developers of farm worker housing.
As Assembly speaker during the budget fight of 1997, he drew a line in the sand over proposed cuts in welfare benefits for legal immigrants -- even filming an advertisement in Spanish on the Assembly floor, declaring his determination to stand firm. In the end, he got only a portion of what he sought, preserving food stamps for children and senior citizens who were immigrants.
More recently, Bustamante spoke passionately in favor of a 2002 bill requiring farmers to engage in binding arbitration, a loathsome concept for agriculture. Pauli, the Farm Bureau president, said the organization now has "a cautious view" of the lieutenant governor -- "not entirely comfortable, not entirely uncomfortable."
Bustamante also straddled the fence a bit with his votes on protection of California's natural resources. Though he now proclaims himself a dedicated environmentalist, it wasn't always that way. Aside from his efforts to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, his Assembly days included votes to weaken criminal liability for water polluters and exempt certain employers from requirements that they help reduce air pollution from vehicles.
But in an uncharacteristically bold move as speaker, he fired four Coastal Commission members who had been appointed by Republicans, thrilling conservationists.
"He evolved," said Pete Price, a veteran lobbyist for environmental groups. "Early on, he did not get particularly good marks and had some bad votes. But as speaker, he changed and was actually very helpful on some important bills."
In particular, Price remembered a measure that sought to toughen air quality standards to protect children. In a meeting with Bustamante, he recalled the speaker's initial reaction was, " 'Oh, no. The business and ag guys in the caucus are not going to like this.' But he backed us and came to see the wisdom of the bill."
Bustamante has also morphed with regard to the tobacco industry. Initially, he accepted money from tobacco giant Philip Morris and from the Tobacco Institute. Opponents suggested that the donations were linked to Bustamante's vote against a landmark ban on smoking in indoor workplaces.
But as speaker, he carried legislation that, in his words, "forced" then-Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren to join other states in suing the tobacco industry over the medical costs associated with smoking. And once he was elected lieutenant governor, Bustamante said, he made a "conscious decision ... to never take tobacco money again."
Overall, he was not known as a lawmaker pursuing large policy goals. In the realm of politics, however, he stood out, rising to speaker three years after arriving in Sacramento. His ascension was nurtured by his longtime political consultant, the veteran Richie Ross, and, again, aided by timing -- in this case the growth of Latino representation in the Assembly in the 1990s.
Prompted in part by term limits opening the doors for newcomers and in part by the growing activism of Latinos mobilized by Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-immigration measure, the trend gave Bustamante a natural base of support.
His first major leadership move came in 1995, when he took on then-Assemblyman Richard Katz, a veteran from the San Fernando Valley, in a bitter fight for Democratic leader. With Katz backed by powerful Speaker Willie Brown, Bustamante lost badly, receiving only eight votes from fellow caucus members, and many insiders thought his star would tumble for good.
"A lot of people would have been demoralized by that," said Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, a former Assembly speaker. "But Cruz has chutzpah. He just kept on chugging up the hill."
The perseverance paid off. Over the next year, Bustamante raised money and campaigned aggressively for other Democrats, efforts that helped his party regain control of the Assembly in November 1996.
His colleagues did not forget that work, and in a wild scramble for the speakership after the election, Bustamante bested several of his urban, more liberal colleagues to seize the top Assembly job.
His victory surprised many in the Sacramento establishment, who agreed with Bustamante's description of himself as "not the smartest kid in the class." And over the next year, critics pounded Bustamante -- the first Latino speaker -- as a disappointment and, in particular, indecisive. It took him a month to assign his colleagues their Assembly offices and parking spaces. It took him nearly two months to appoint committee members.
Kuehl, who lost the speakership fight to Bustamante, defended his methods as "inclusive" and thoughtful, and said they reflected the new Sacramento dynamics created by term limits. With a horde of ambitious freshmen in his caucus, a Republican governor and a forced exit from the job looming, Bustamante had tougher hurdles than Brown, his Democratic predecessor in the job.
"We're all such short-timers now that speakers really don't have the power they used to have to twist arms and say, 'You will do this or I'll put you in a broom closet somewhere,' " Kuehl said. "Cruz did a good job of pulling us together and leading by consensus."
Bustamante said his most important achievements as speaker were presiding over welfare reform and obtaining $1 billion for new school textbooks. While acknowledging that he lacked "flash," he said he created a sense of stability and bipartisanship in the lower house.
And although it was not a flashy record, it was not one to earn him passionate enemies either.
The prestigious speaker title allowed Bustamante to amass a $1.6-million campaign account that positioned him to run for lieutenant governor in 1998.
He won that race easily, becoming the first Latino elected to statewide office in 127 years. As he was sworn in during a festive ceremony in the state Senate chambers, a telling chant broke out in the crowd: Si, se puede! (Yes, you can!)
Says Villaraigosa: "People say it's all about lucky timing with Cruz, but that's hogwash. At every turn, he saw an opportunity and he went for it. And that's what he's doing right now."
Times staff writer Eric Bailey and Times researcher Patti Williams contributed to this report.
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How Bustamante voted
Before becoming lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante served in the Assembly from 1993 through 1998; in 1997 he was elected speaker. Here's how he voted on some key issues:
Driver's licenses: Proof of legal residency required. 1993.
For Recycling: Agencies must increase the portion of recycled products in purchases they make. 1993. For
Juvenile crime: Youths may be tried as adults at 14. 1994. For
Parole: Inmates must wait up to five years, instead of two, for a hearing. 1994. For
Tobacco: Ban on smoking in indoor workplaces. 1994. Against
Pesticides: Farmers can spray methyl bromide despite concerns about health hazards to field workers. 1996. For
Electricity deregulation: Utilities can buy power in a free market. 1996. For
Punishment: Longer sentences, including life terms, for criminals using guns. 1997. For
Firearm permits: Expansion of concealed-weapons permits. 1997. Against
Body piercing: Minors need parental permission, except for ear piercing. 1997. For
Firearms: Restrictions on assault weapons. 1998. For
Source: California Legislature