California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (search), the grandson of Mexican immigrants who counts improving race relations among his biggest pursuits, refused Thursday to renounce his past ties to a little-known Hispanic organization considered by critics to be as racist as the Ku Klux Klan.
Instead, Bustamante, who is running to be governor of California, praised the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan, or MEChA (search), and said he still supports it.
"The students who are in MEChA today are just like the students when I was there, pretty much they are trying to get an education," Bustamante said during a press conference in which the first three questions related to his ties to the group.
"I think the actuality of what takes place in those organizations is to provide student leadership. For me, and many, many others, we were running for student government. That's how I got here today."
MEChA has used violence in the past to make its case. At a July 4 celebration in 1996, members of the group, who call themselves Mechistas, were videotaped attacking black and white Americans protesting illegal immigration. In 1993, students at UCLA caused $500,000 worth of damage during protests to demand a Chicano studies department. MEChA has also been associated with anti-Semitic groups like Nation of Aztlan.
MEChA's motto is "for the race, everything. For those outside the race, nothing." Critics say affiliation with that kind of group could spell political ruin for a white candidate and are upset that little attention has been paid to Bustamante's relationship with the group. He belonged to MEChA while attending Fresno State University in the 1970s.
"Whatever you did in your youth, it's what you did at the time. You can't disassociate from the past," said Manuel Olgin, a former MEChA member and now a counselor at the university. "Now if you're still plugged in and doing stuff, that's another question. But this is immaterial to me."
"Joining MEChA was a rite of passage just like if a black student joined a black student union. And if you didn't join, you weren't Chicano. The question is why hasn't he renounced it now. It is a racist organization," said radio talk show host Larry Elder.
MEChA has as many as 300 chapters in universities across the U.S., with 100 of them in California alone.
According to the organization's constitution, "Chicanas and Chicanos must ... politicize our Raza [race] ... and struggle for the self-determination of the Chicano people for the purpose of liberating Aztlan."
Aztlan (search) is the area that is currently the southwest United States, but Mechistas claim Aztlan is their homeland to be returned to Mexico and the group says white Americans who currently govern these areas must be removed from power.
Some of Bustamante's contemporaries from the group say he was a moderate, not a militant member of the organization.
"His involvement in MEChA was not in a leadership position. His involvement was in being a member and doing what he could. He was involved at a higher level and that level was in student government," said Tony Garduque, a former MEChA member, who said the group did a lot of good things.
But that explanation doesn't wash with critics.
"What is a moderate member of a racist organization? 'I was a moderate member of the Klan.' Imagine if a Republican made that statement," Elder said.
"I think he should answer for his membership in the group," said syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin. "I think he needs to explain why he has not disassociated himself from a group that is violent, which has caused riots on campus and which has preached anti-Semitism and anti-black ideology."
Bustamante left Fresno State early and instead took correspondence classes. He was honored by the school last year at age 49 during a Hispanic-only graduation ceremony.
Though he defines his "racial ethnic agenda" as one that provides good schools, good jobs and safe neighborhoods, Bustamante has been questioned before about racism. In 2001, he had to apologize profusely to state African-American leaders after mistakenly referring to a black union using the N-word. Bustamante called it a slip of the tongue, but audience members attending the Black History celebration were stunned at the reference, for which he did not apologize until the end of his 10-minute speech.
Racist or otherwise, critics say Bustamante's membership in MEChA is certainly more relevant than Arnold Schwarzenegger's father being a Nazi. Schwarzenegger uncovered that truth when he initiated his own search in 1990 of his father's past with the help of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Fox News' William LaJeunesse contributed to this report.