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Bustamante supporters talk 'American dream'

By Times Wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 24, 2003

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A quiet moderate who once aspired to become a butcher, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante became instead the state's first Hispanic statewide official since the 1870s, and now is the Democrats' best hope to hold the governor's office if Gov. Gray Davis is recalled.

And with his hardscrabble upbringing, Bustamante's supporters say he also personifies California's version of the American dream.

Bustamante, 50, an unassuming man from a small town in the San Joaquin Valley who only finished college last May, has spent much of his lifetime being underrated, poking fun at himself and flying below the political radar.

Yet along the way, he was his home region's first Hispanic legislator in 20 years, and the first Hispanic speaker of the California Assembly.

"I think he really symbolizes the American dream. If you look at his background, the very humble beginnings, a workingman's family is what he came up in," said Jenny Oropeza, a Democratic assemblywoman from Los Angeles.

Polls show the second-term lieutenant governor just behind Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

If Davis is ousted and Bustamante is elected, he would be California's first Hispanic governor since Romualdo Pacheco in 1875 and the nation's third. New Mexico has elected two Hispanic governors.

Supporters intend to promote Bustamante's humble upbringing - his father was an immigrant barber from Mexico - and his political achievements as the bilingual candidate faces the well-oiled image machine of Schwarzenegger, who also boasts a rags-to-riches background.

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