Carlos Bustamante: The Great Brown Flop
Even in the notoriously low-expectation world of Orange County politics, Carlos Bustamante should've never had a chance. He was a man of limited intelligence, a Republican council member in overwhelmingly Democratic Santa Ana, and a pendejo who just never knew when to keep his mouth shut or his hands to himself. In 2008, Bustamante resigned from one California statewide commission seat and withdrew his nomination to another after making a sexist remark aimed at newly appointed Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. And on July 2, Orange County district attorney's office detectives arrested him on multiple counts of sex crimes, alleging that Bustamante had operated a reign of groping terror in his capacity as a manager for Orange County Public Works that involved his cornering frightened underlings in his office and doing everything from grabbing their breasts to wielding his baton, both literally (while talking about his law-enforcement connections to frighten his victims into silence) and perversely (masturbating in front of them with his, um, little baton).
And yet when Bustamante was led to the Orange County Jail that day, the biggest groans came not from his closest friends, but rather the leadership of the Republican Party of Orange County. Its problems with local Latinos are legendary, from poll guards to nasty anti-immigrant politics to the sad spectacle that was failed California gubernatorial and senator candidates Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina downing tequila shots in 2010 during an awards ceremony in Newport Beach, a desperate attempt to prove the GOP could fiesta. That didn't stop local Latino leadership from spending thousands of dollars and numerous hours of mentorship over the years to groom Bustamante, to make him their future. Bustamante should've never had a chance for higher office, save for one factor: He was Latino.
So when news of Bustamante's arrest went national, the OC GOP leadership groaned. News reports kept referring to him as a former "rising star" in Republican circles, a continual reminder of party affiliation in a story that needed none. For a party that pretends ethnic politics doesn't exist (unless it's used as a wedge issue to get anti-Mexican Orange County voters to favor them over a Democrat) and professes to value individual merit above groupthink, it has continually, desperately tried to create over the past two decades a Great Brown Hope: a Latino Republican to whom it could point as proof it has evolved past its notorious reputation, a wab who might ascend to higher office and attract the Latino vote that now rules central Orange County and is marching across the rest of la naranja and the nation. But this effort has been similar to the Great Park: a fine idea in writing, one that finds initial success but ultimately proves an embarrassment that refuses to go away. Bustamante wasn't the party's first golden boy, but he just might be its last, the end to the GOP's sordid Manchurian Mexican experiment.
* * *
Bustamante had every chance to ascend in Orange County politics—he certainly fit the right profile. A son of Mexican immigrants, a graduate of Mater Dei High School, an Air Force veteran, a seemingly happily married father of two young children, Bustamante burst onto the political scene in 2004, comfortably winning his first electoral race to sit on the Santa Ana City Council and represent the ritzy Floral Park neighborhood. He did this despite running against the political machine of longtime Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido and with little GOP support at the time. But party elders quickly found religion: Not even a month after his election, a Republican insider was gushing to the Los Angeles Times that Bustamante was "the face of the Republican Party of the future. We are very excited about him moving to higher public office."
This wasn't the first time the county GOP swooned over a swarthy face. Twenty-five years ago, Gaddi Vasquez was appointed by then-Governor George Deukmejian to the Orange County Board of Supervisors; in 1988, he won conservative acclaim during the Republican National Convention when he attacked the idea that Latinos would automatically vote for Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis because he spoke Spanish. "He doesn't speak our language," said Vasquez—who always maintained he was a politician first, a "Hispanic" second—to the roar of the crowd. Political onlookers predicted the world for him—but Vasquez's political career came crashing down with the 1994 county bankruptcy, a political embarrassment that exiled him from public office for good.
As did Vasquez, Bustamante tried to deflect such expectations, claiming he only wanted to serve his constituents, but it was false modesty. In 2006, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Bustamante to the California Council on Criminal Justice. By then, Republican handlers were prepping Bustamante to run for an open supervisorial seat. He lost badly to Janet Nguyen in 2007, despite scoring the support of three supervisors and the influential, deep-pocketed Lincoln Club, but that didn't stop Schwarzenegger from appointing him to the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission. There was even talk of having Bustamante's identical twin, Alfonso—a psychologist who's openly mocked in Santa Ana for driving around town in a white Bentley—join him on the Santa Ana City Council.
Alas, it wasn't to be. Despite the crude remark against Hutchens, Bustamante won a 2008 re-election campaign and participated through 2010 in GOP politics, hosting a fund-raiser for former state Senator Van Tran's futile race against Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. But by then, Bustamante was ready to follow his Great Brown Hope destiny. Already, rumors of sexual impropriety swirled around him, ones Republicans always conveniently ignored (after Bustamante's arrest, former Santa Ana councilman Tom Lutz would tell The Orange County Register, "This is all very shocking to me. In saying that, of course I knew him as [a] flirt with the girls but thought that was just show and that's where it ended"). Bustamante survived two county internal investigations in 2011 into allegations he was a pervert before finally resigning—although not his Santa Ana council seat. Throughout this year, Bustamante nevertheless showed up around town, trying his best to appear chipper but no longer the arrogant cabrón with a once-bright future.
It's a pathetic path that most closely mirrors not Vasquez's career, but that of another OC GOP Great Brown Hope: George Jaramillo, the former assistant sheriff to disgraced Mike Carona. Jaramillo also had a rags-to-riches story his supporters trotted out whenever possible. As with Bustamante, Jaramillo had no real experience other than his ethnicity (he was Bolivian). And Jaramillo was also a known pig with rumors of sexual impropriety swirling around him. It remains to be seen if Bustamante will follow Jaramillo's path to jail.
This story appeared in print as "The Great Brown Flop: Disgraced Santa Ana councilman Carlos Bustamante is the latest OC GOP Latino golden boy gone pendejo."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.