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Should a Democrat Run in the Newsom Recall? We Asked Cruz Bustamante

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Then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol in Sacramento on July 24, 2003, announcing the date for California's first ever recall election – of then-Gov. Gray Davis. (David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

With Gov. Gavin Newsom likely facing a recall election later this year, Democrats are hoping to learn from what some see as the hard lessons from 2003, when voters approved the recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis, replacing him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Lesson number one: Make sure no credible Democrat runs as an alternate to Newsom on the ballot. So far, California Democrats have solidly lined up against the recall, which Newsom framed as a "partisan power grab," with none indicating any clear intention of running. That's partly due to Newsom's relative political strength and the likelihood that anger over the pandemic — which has helped fuel the effort — will be largely forgotten by the time voters cast ballots.

But in 2003, with Davis' approval rating underwater and sinking fast, at least one Democrat saw the need – or opportunity – to run as a replacement candidate.

At first, then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante said he "absolutely, 100%" would not run. But then he did.

"I’m here to tell everyone to vote 'No' on the recall and 'Yes' on Bustamante," he said at the time, before a bank of TV cameras.

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Garry South was Davis’ campaign consultant at the time.

"To say 'No' on the recall, 'Yes' on Bustamante was oxymoronic to the average voter. People didn't get what it meant. It was completely, utterly disingenuous," South said recently.

But as Bustamante recently told KQED, he was trying to be a kind of insurance policy for Democrats.

"What tipped the scales was when Arnold announced," said Bustamante, who is now a political consultant. "I decided to run in this race in order to protect the state against the kind of politics that I believe Arnold would bring to the state."

Reflecting back on that decision, Bustamante insisted it had nothing to do with the frosty relationship he had with Davis.

But South says Bustamante’s decision to renege on his promise and run was pure political opportunism and calculation.

South claims that months earlier, Bustamante had quietly asked the California Attorney General's Office if there would be a conflict with him, as lieutenant governor, running during the recall while also setting the date for the election.

"So all of his protestations about, you know, getting dragged into this thing with a public draft, 'Oh Cruz, you got to run, you got to run,' is all a bunch of crap. He was plotting to do this from the very beginning," South said.

While some Democrats fumed when Bustamante entered the race, GOP consultant Sean Walsh says the Schwarzenegger team had a very different reaction.

"High fives, low fives, toasts, tequila shots. Rum raisin ice cream: It was a party all the way around if you were a Republican," Walsh recalled.

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Walsh believes that the entrance of a major Democrat into the replacement race completely reshuffled the recall deck.

"Once Cruz Bustamante made that decision to get into the race, it was like the breaking of the dam," Walsh said. "All bets were off [because if] a Democrat thinks that Gray Davis isn't doing what he should be doing and he's the lieutenant governor, well, my goodness then there is something to be had here. ... And it opened up."

At the time, Davis' approval ratings were historically low - in the 20s. So beating the recall was always going to be a tough climb.

But South says by jumping in, Bustamante caused even more problems for Davis. For one, it upended the message that the recall was a Republican plot, an effort to reverse results of an election that happened less than a year earlier. And some voters saw it as a kind of twofer — a way to replace the disliked Davis with the first Latino governor.

"So Arnold was clearly our biggest problem, but Bustamante was a close second," South said.

Bustamante — a Central Valley Democrat — had a hard time raising money and was no match for the star power of Schwarzenegger.

"I knew what the consequences would be. If I lost, it may shorten my career. And I made the decision to run despite that," Bustamante said.

Looking back now, Bustamante describes his decision to run as "selfless."

"Frankly, I was taking one for the team," he said, meaning the Democratic Party.

But "the team" sure didn’t appreciate it. Not only was Davis recalled, but Bustamante finished with just 31% of the vote, far behind the winner.

Three years later, Bustamante — who was still lieutenant governor — ran for state insurance commissioner, losing to a novice Republican, Steve Poizner. That made him the last incumbent Democrat to lose a statewide election.

So if Bustamante had it to do over again, would he make the same choice?

"We all make decisions in life, and if you know what the outcome is going to be and you can you still make that decision, then I have no regrets," Bustamante said. "So whatever came after that, is it good or bad? It just is. I'm very at peace with all of that. I have no regrets."

To Democrats like Garry South, Bustamante was a big reason Davis lost. Not surprisingly, Bustamante views things differently.

"I think they were looking for someone to use as a scapegoat and they have for the last two decades said continuously that he lost because of my entering the race," Bustamante said.

He’s not alone. Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, says Davis' loss was due to bigger factors than his lieutenant governor being in the race.

And Guerra thinks now it's a mistake for Democrats to count on Newsom being popular enough to beat back the recall, which will likely be held in November.

"What happens if there are tremendous wildfires out of control and the state doesn't respond appropriately? What happens if the scandal with the Employment [Development] Department continues and gets even worse? What happens if there is another French Laundry moment? Given his career? He's very capable of doing that," Guerra said.

By stopping Democrats from running, Guerra says, the party runs the risk of "handing the governorship to a Republican."

"That is political malpractice. The Democrats need to have a strategy and be prepared and coordinated," he said.

Eighteen years later, Bustamante dismisses the current recall against Gov. Newsom and does not think it's necessary for a Democrat to run.

"This recall is improper and without merit," he said, adding that unlike Davis, “I think, frankly, that Newsom is going to win handily."

Nonetheless, Newsom’s advisers are circling the wagons to make sure no other Democrat jumps into the race while his campaign focuses its fire on Republican challengers, including the latest entrant, Caitlyn Jenner.

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But at least one Democrat is rumored to be considering making a run — former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who declined to comment for this story.

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