August 29, 2003

Commentary

Bustamante, Blacks and the ‘N’ Word

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

The moment California Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante said he was tossing his hat in as a replacement candidate in the recall race, the buzz among blacks was that he was the guy who used the “N” word.

Now that polls show Bustamante in a statistical dead heat with Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace Davis if the recall passes, the anxiety about him has become even more intense among many blacks.

In a February 2001 speech 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 backped-aled fast and swore it was a slip of the tongue. He did profuse mea culpas and furiously waved his credentials as a staunch defender of immigrant rights, affirmative action and mul-ticulturalism.

He hasn’t changed. Unveiling his $12 billion revenue and savings plan to solve California’s budget crisis, Bustamante struck a populist tax-the-rich theme, deliberately sending an “I’m one of you too” message to labor, blacks and Latinos —the core Democrats.

Bustamante also vigorously opposes University of California regent Ward Connerly’s initiative on the Oct. 7 California ballot — Proposition 54, which critics say would bar all state agencies from collecting racial data. Bustamante comes off as a solidly liberal, even left-leaning Democrat when his record is stacked against that of the cautious, centrist Gov. Gray Davis, whom blacks overwhelmingly backed during both his gubernatorial bids.

But the anxiety among blacks about Bustamante is less about his careless slip than about the resurfacing of political tensions between many blacks and Latinos. The tensions publicly emerged in 2001, when Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa promised to weld the city’s now-majority minorities into a powerhouse multiethnic 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 his multiethnic pitch didn’t win over black voters, who 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 afraid they will be further marginalized in California politics.

It’s a legitimate fear. There are more than 2 million Latino voters in the state, and that number will soar by the 2004 elections. In Los Angeles, Latinos, who were no more than 10 percent of the voters a decade ago, are nearly 25 percent of the voters today. The state legislature has a 24-member Democratic Latino caucus (which has endorsed Bustamante). By contrast, the number of blacks in the state legislature has dwindled to six, and the districts they represent are all 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.

Latinos hold one out of the six California seats in Congress. Three out of California’s four black congresspersons represent mostly South Los Angeles districts where they face the same bleak political future as the black state legislators. Latinos make-up the statistical majority in their districts and will soon be the voting majority. Though the black congress-persons can’t be termed out, they can be voted out. If they don’t deliver the goods to their majority Latino constituents they could be dumped from office within the next decade.

But despite Bustamante’s support among core Democrats, he has a couple of problems. He can’t beat Schwarzenegger with Latino and labor votes alone. He will need a near- rock-solid majority among black voters. They make up about 12 percent of the state’s voters and are even more hardcore Democrats than labor or Latino voters. In 2000, nearly 85 percent of blacks voted for the Democrats, compared with about 70 percent of Latinos.

In addition to blacks’ trepidations about Bustamante, nearly 15 percent of blacks in California did vote for Bush in 2000, 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 diehard rightist Republicans, and if he makes a real effort to court them, it could spell peril for Bustamante.

In informal surveys, blacks don’t express the reflexive hostility to Schwarzenegger as they do to other Republicans. But they will watch closely what he says and does about Con-nerly’s Prop. 54 race initiative. So far, Schwarzenegger has been as mute on that as on other crucial issues. If Davis continues his downward plunge in the polls, Bustamante’s stock will rise even higher among Democrats. That would include black Democrats too, if only it weren’t for that “N” word.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson (ehutchi344@aol.com) is a political analyst and the author of “The Crisis in Black and Black” (Middle Passage Press).

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