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Bustamante, the Recall, and the N Word

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The moment that California Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante said he would toss his name in as a replacement candidate in the recall race, the buzz among Blacks was that he was the guy who used the N word. In a speech in February, 2001 to a group of Black trade unionists Bustamante purportedly slipped and uttered the dreaded N-word.

When a handful of Blacks in the audience stormed out in protest, Bustamante, knew he was in deep hock. He backpedaled fast and swore it was a word slip, did profuse mea culpas, and furiously waved his credentials as a staunch defender of immigrant rights, affirmative action, and multiculturalism.

He hasn’t changed. When he unveiled his $12 billion revenue and savings plan to solve California’s budget crisis, Bustamante struck a populist tax the rich theme that deliberately sent an “I’m one of you too” message to labor, Blacks and Latinos, the core Democrats. He also pledged to vigorously oppose UC regent Ward Connerly’s Racial Privacy Initiative (Proposition 54 on the October 7 California ballot) that virtually bars all state agencies from collecting racial data.

Bustamante comes off as a solid, liberal, even left-leaning Democrat when his record is stacked against that of the cautious, centrist, Governor Gray Davis, whom Blacks overwhelmingly backed during both his gubernatorial bids. Yet, now that polls show Bustamante in a statistical dead heat with Schwarzenegger to replace Davis if the recall passes, the anxiety about him and his use of that word is even more intense among many Blacks.

That anxiety is less about Bustamante and his careless, unthinking slip, then a resurface of the political tensions between many Blacks and Latinos. That tension publicly surfaced in 2001 when Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa promised to weld the city’s now majority minorities into a powerhouse multi-ethnic coalition that would be a model for racial peace and progress in L.A. and the nation.

Villaraigosa got strong support from Latinos, Asians, and Jews. But Villaraigosa’s multi-ethnic pitch fell on stone ears with Black voters. They voted overwhelmingly for the eventual winner, a White centrist, James Hahn.

The huge surge in Latino numbers and voting power, and the real prospect of Bustamante’s becoming the first Latino governor in modern California history, has made Blacks even more fearful that they will be pushed even further to the margin in California politics. It’s a legitimate fear.

There are more than two million Latino voters in the state, and that number will soar by the 2004 elections. In Los Angeles, Latinos leaped from less than ten percent of the voters a decade ago to nearly 25 percent today. The 24 member state legislature’s Democratic Latino caucus, for instance, endorsed Bustamante.

By contrast the number of Blacks in the state legislature has dwindled to six and the districts they represent are all located in or near South Los Angeles. And, Latinos are the growing majority in their districts. There are now as many Latino Republicans in the state legislature as Blacks. In Congress, Latinos hold one out of six of California’s Congressional seats.

Three out of California’s four Black congresspersons represent mostly South Los Angeles districts. They face the same bleak rules of political disengagement as the Black state legislators. Latinos make-up the statistical majority in their districts, and they will soon be the voting majority.

Though the Black congresspersons can’t be termed out, they can be voted out, and if they don’t deliver the goods to their majority Latino constituents who almost certainly in the next decade if not before will be the voting majority in their districts they will be dumped from office.

Yet, Bustamante has a couple of problems. He can’t beat Schwarzenegger with Latino and labor votes alone. Bustamante will need a near rock solid majority among Black voters. They make up about 12 percent of the state’s voters and they are even more core Democrats than labor or the Latino voters. In 2000, nearly 85 percent of Blacks voted for the Democrats, about 70 percent of Latinos voted Democratic.

In addition to the racial tremors among Blacks about Bustamante, nearly 15 percent of Blacks in California voted for Bush in 2000. This was the fourth biggest Black vote total the Republicans got from any state. If Black voters view Schwarzenegger as a socially liberal alternative to the state’s hard-core rightist Republicans, and he makes a real effort to court them, that could spell peril for Bustamante.

In informal surveys, Blacks don’t express the reflexive hostility to Schwarzenegger as they do to other Republicans.

They will watch closely though to see what he says and does about Connerly’s race initiative. So far, he has been as mute on that as other crucial issues.

If Davis continues his downward plunge in the polls, Bustamante’s stock will rise even higher among Democrats. And that would include Black Democrats too, if only it wasn’t for him and that word.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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