Bustamante’s many friendships are a blessing and a curse

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The San Francisco Chronicle

SACRAMENTO — Long before he ran for governor, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante was friends with California’s Indian tribes. He even helped bury their dead.

When the son of a former chairwoman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians was shot and killed in 2001, Bustamante jumped on a plane in time to join the traditional Morongo all-night wake on the tribe’s reservation near Palm Springs.

“When Mary Ann Andreas put her son back into Mother Earth, Cruz was standing there as a friend,” said Michael Lombardi, a tribal consultant. “He stayed all night. When the sun set he was there, and when the sun came up he was there.”

Bustamante’s 10-year Sacramento career has been marked by the bonds he’s formed, none so deep as the friendships forged throughout California’s Indian country, where he has attended countless ceremonies, burials and even monthly tribal meetings. The gregarious Bustamante, now a front-runner to win the state’s top job if Gov. Gray Davis is recalled, stands in stark contrast to the distant Davis, who seems to have transactions with people instead of

But as Bustamante begins to collect on those friendships — tribes have so far given him more than $2 million to mount his gubernatorial campaign, with groups like the Morongos promising more — critics say Bustamante faces one of the same problems that has dogged Davis’ reign. The governor faces an unprecedented recall in part because he is perceived to dole out favors to those who write him the biggest campaign check.

Bustamante, too, has a history of helping those who have helped him.

“Cruz is a player,” said activist Jaime Court, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “There are lawmakers who can take special interest money and then tell them to go to hell. Cruz didn’t do that.”

Bustamante, now 50, spent five years as an Assemblyman from Fresno before becoming lieutenant governor in 1998. Like a lot of Central Valley lawmakers, he was not as liberal as Bay Area or Los Angeles Democrats and often sided with business interests: He supported legislation to allow farmers to continue using the pesticide methyl bromide, and he authored a bill that would have weakened the Endangered Species Act.

“He was a Democrat Republicans went to,” said former Assemblyman Bill Leonard, a Republican from the Inland Empire now serving on the state Board of Equalization. Leonard believes Bustamante changed, however, as he rose to prominence in the Democratic Party.

Hitting Sacramento just as the new era of term limits set in, Bustamante quickly became a party leader, capped by a one-year term as Assembly speaker in 1997. Before that year, he was a leading fund-raiser for Democrats, collecting money from some of the biggest givers and often voting their way.

Bustamante took nearly $80,000 from tobacco companies during his five years in the state Assembly. During that time he voted against a smoking ban in restaurants and bars that voters later approved. He then unsuccessfully pushed for a delay in implementing the ban in bars.

In 1995 and 1996, after receiving more than $12,000 from insurance interests, Bustamante led an effort to allow insurance companies to use factors like ZIP code and family income to set rates for motorists’ insurance. Consumer groups opposed the idea, arguing it violated voter-approved insurance reform and would have driven up the cost of insurance for the poor and underinsured.

“Your actions last night against California consumers on behalf of cash-rich insurers will live in infamy as the “Pearl Harbor’ of the people’s war with the insurance industry for lower and more reasonable auto insurance rates,” reads a letter sent to Bustamante in 1996 by consumer activists Ralph Nader and Harvey Rosenfield.

The legislation Bustamante was pressing for was defeated but later enacted administratively by Insurance Commissioner Charles Quackenbush. Quackenbush was frequently criticized for being too cozy with the industry he was regulating; he quit the job in 2000 facing possible impeachment.

Indian tribes have been some of Bustamante’s biggest backers, contributing $1.3 million to him during his tenure as an Assemblyman and lieutenant governor. In 1997 when he was Assembly speaker, Bustamante successfully beat back attempts to allow a new state Gambling Control Commission the authority to regulate tribal casinos.

During the final night of the legislation session, Bustamante allowed several tribal leaders to use his office in the Capitol as their headquarters as they worked against the measure — a unique advantage few lobbyists have ever enjoyed.

Compacts signed between Davis and tribes now allow the state commission to have some authority over tribes’ casinos.

Despite requesting an interview with Bustamante for three weeks, his campaign has not made him available to The Chronicle.

In past statements, Bustamante has insisted he makes decisions based on what is best for the state. And he notes that tribes are not a typical special interest, they’re sovereign governments.

And Bustamante has plenty of supporters who say he doesn’t always follow the money. They note he has stood up to big tobacco, supporting a new cigarette tax in 1998 and this year proposing another price hike.

Many credit him with helping push through welfare reform in 1997, a major policy issue that involved few groups with big checkbooks.

“I think he listens to people, and genuinely cares about doing the best public policy,” said Harry Snyder, the former head of Consumer’s Union who often lobbied in Sacramento while Bustamante was an Assemblyman.

No one can vacuum up campaign cash like Davis, who pulled in $1,800 an hour during his first five years in office, according to a Chronicle analysis. With that fund-raising prowess has come accusations that he helped big donors ranging from prison guards to a Silicon Valley software company.

Bustamante is facing the same kind of heat from recall proponents who are hoping to link the lieutenant governor and Davis in voters’ minds.

Attention has focused on whether Bustamante was violating state political contribution laws by accepting large donations to an old campaign fund and then shifting the money to a new committee. He is expected to respond to those criticisms today when he announces he will not spend the money on his campaign.

And as tribes, including the Morongo, prepare to spend as much as $10 million to help Bustamante, the would-be governor has championed their efforts to expand casinos.

Bustamante told a gathering of tribes in Sacramento last week that he doesn’t think it’s fair that the state limits the number of slot machines at tribal casinos.

No politician in Sacramento can escape scrutiny over contributions and policy decisions — money flows, votes are made and conclusions can be drawn. And both Bustamante and Davis complain that they have to raise huge amounts of money to keep up with multimillionaire challengers — Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger has given his campaign $4 million of his own money, or about twice as much as the tribes have contributed to Bustamante.

Bustamante detractors say he doesn’t appear to be too deep in anyone’s pocket.

“Gray’s fund-raising does not pass the smell test,” Leonard said. “I’m not there yet on Bustamante.”

Bustamante and the tribes that have supported him in the recall say the contributions are based on years of friendship and respect. But given the big money involved, even Bustamante fans wonder whether there may someday be a payback.

“Is it going to mean we end up with a casino on every corner? I think that’s a fair question,” said consumer activist Snyder.
E-mail Mark Martin at [email protected]

Consumer Watchdog
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