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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Jury still out on Bustamante

March 27, 2001

No California politician of the last decade has been more vocally inclusive than Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

In school settings and on the floor of the Legislature, he has advocated tolerance over and over, frequently saying things like "California will never achieve its potential greatness if we consider ourselves Latino-Californians or Armenian-Californians or African American-Californians or Anglo-Californians. We will only become truly great if we are one California."

Democrat Bustamante has made race relations and peacemaking a central theme of his career. That's why it was such a shock to many when, during a speech, the former Assembly speaker spoke the slur made infamous during the O.J. Simpson trial as the "N-word." Bustamante called it a "slip."

His use of the word was even more egregious because it came during a Black History Month speech to a group of African-American labor leaders.

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More than anything else in modern political history, Bustamante's gaffe resembled the "Hymietown" remark by the Rev. Jesse Jackson during the New Hampshire primary election campaign in 1984. Jackson's ethnically derisive description of New York City was made to a Jewish reporter; Bustamante's remark to a black audience. From the day of Jackson's slip, many American Jews have considered the black leader an anti-Semite. In fact, just weeks after the Jackson comment became public, his national campaign chairman Willie Brown, now the mayor of San Francisco, allowed that if the term "nā€”ā€” town" emerged from anyone's mouth, "I would consider that person racist."

No matter how often he meets with rabbis, many Jews will always believe Jackson is biased against them.

But things have not been so clear-cut with Bustamante. Even though at least 100 of the 400 black labor leaders present walked out immediately after his "slip," none has publicly condemned the lieutenant governor.

Some claim they're not sure what word he used. The apparent intonation of the N-word came as Bustamante read a prepared text including the names of several early-20th century black labor organizations, all of which contained the word Negro, which has never been widely considered a pejorative.

"He got through three of them just fine," says his press secretary, Phil Garcia. "Then he slipped. Some people right on the dais thought he actually said "nigra."

"He started out 'nig' and then he said Negro," said Antonio Christian, president of the Northern California chapter of the Black Trade Unionist organization. "There was never any indication of anything derogatory."

Others said they heard the epithet. More important is whether the so-called slip reveals anything about Bustamante. He denies the N-word is in his vocabulary, saying "It's just not in my upbringing. I stumbled over a word in my text."

In fact, racial harmony, not racial derogation, has been the consistent Bustamante theme.

"Latino leaders need to form alliances with blacks and other groups with similar agendas and needs," he said last fall.

Like Jackson, Bustamante since his remark has taken what some might call a "penance tour." He's appeared before several black audiences, admitting to one that "To talk about this has been humiliating, each and every time."

Most black political leaders have stuck by him.

"He mispronounced a word during his speech, that's all," said Democratic Assemblyman Roderick Wright of Los Angeles, chairman of the Legislature's Black Caucus.

But other African-Americans have been less forgiving.

"Is this how he plans to build bridges between our communities?" asked Shannon Reeves, president of the Oakland chapter of the NAACP and a Republican.

Bustamante says he's learned from his mistake.

"Words hurt, even if they're unintended," he told a crowd of black teenagers in Oakland. "They can be used to sow disruption."

For sure, his word has disrupted Bustamante's world. As the nation's highest-ranking Latino elected official, he was considered a shoo-in for reelection and a potential major contender for governor in 2006. Now no one is quite sure where he stands.

Wile black politicians are forgiving, the reaction of rank-and-file black voters without whom no Democrat can easily be elected in California remains unknown. The uncertainty stems in part from the fact that blacks and Latinos have clashed frequently in some changing neighborhoods of south-central Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Some political analysts think the remark won't hurt Bustamante in the long run, because of his history of promoting racial harmony. Others are not sure.

Said one labor leader who walked out of the speech, "This was a really big slip. We have to hold people accountable."

Whether that feeling is widespread and whether it will translate into votes against Bustamante or votes simply not cast when he's on the ballot won't be fully known until the fall of next year, when he stands for reelection. That means there are uncomfortable months ahead for the lieutenant governor while the jury is out.

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