Maria in the middle

As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reelection campaign was beginning to take shape last year, prototypes of the governor’s reelection posters were ordered. One poster used the colors red and black, and simply had one word: “Arnold.”

When the posters were presented to the governor and his wife, Maria Shriver, Shriver bristled. She wanted something unconventional, something that highlighted the fact that, despite his loss weeks earlier in the special election, Schwarzenegger was not an ordinary political candidate.

Shriver, in a dramatic portent of things to come during the campaign, got exactly what she wanted: New posters came back, with colors chosen by Shriver – green, white and orange, a far cry from the traditional red, white and blue on most campaign posters. And those new posters carried a new slogan, “Protecting the California Dream”–a slogan written by Arnold and Maria.

While news accounts have focused on the role of Susan Kennedy, Steve Schmidt and Matthew Dowd in Schwarzenegger’s one-year turn around, the importance of Shriver’s role has been underplayed. But conversations with senior Schwarzenegger advisers illustrate that from the beginning of her husband’s reelection campaign, Maria Shriver played a pivotal role — a role far more extensive than previously reported.

“When I came on, it was clear there were changes coming,” Zingale says. “The governor and Maria began a nationwide talent search, an intensive search for the best and brightest in both parties. In many ways, she took the lead.”

“Maria goes to DC from time to time because of her family. Everywhere she went, every conversation she had, she would ask, ‘who were the best people out there who would be interested in a post-partisan way of governing.,” says Zingale.

After the special election, there was a full-scale purge of old advisers – including chief of staff Pat Cleary, Communications Director Rob Stutzman and campaign strategist Mike Murphy. The turnover helped end some of the deep personal and ideological divisions that marked the first years of the Schwarzenegger governorship.

“Now, there are debates in the office, but it’s a healthy debate,” says one Schwarzenegger veteran. “Before, people would be hiding things, there were secret meetings, and all that sort of stuff. That’s all gone.”

Zingale’s hiring was followed by the hiring of a new chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, a aide de camp and former cabinet secretary to Gov. Gray Davis. But Shriver didn’t only look for Democrats. She also helped hire new campaign manager Steve Schmidt, strategist Matthew Dowd, both veterans of the Bush administration, and new communications director Adam Mendelsohn, a friend of Schmidt’s who also had experience in national and California Republican politics.

“This was not a matter of the advisers moving him to the center, it’s a matter of building a team of advisers who allow him to do what he wants to do naturally,” says Mendelsohn. And Shriver took the lead in building that team.
That team helped reposition Schwarzenegger away from the Wilson-era policies of the special election on hot-button Republican issues like paycheck protection and a state spending cap. The move back to the center “was his gut reaction to the results of the special election, to learn something form it, and go forward in a positive way,” Zingale said. “He had to make sure his team was on board with that. That was Maria’s goal, but that emanated from the governor.”

It also reprised a familiar role for Shriver – helping build a team of advisers around her husband who would understand who he was, and could help him realize his vision of where he wanted to go – whether it be in politics or in Hollywood. A year before Schwarzenegger entered the race for governor, Shriver was reportedly involved in the replacement of her husband’s agent. As his confidant and partner, she has always played the role of career adviser, and that has extended into his political life.

Through her spokesman, Ryan Jimenez, Shriver refused to comment for this article.

Zingale used other first ladies to describe Shriver’s role. “It’s more Nancy Reagan than Hillary Clinton. Hillary had her own political ambitions. That’s different. For Maria, she has her own interests, but when it comes to politics, it’s about him.”

And as with his Hollywood career, that role was largely behind the scenes during the campaign. Shriver made a conscious decision to remove herself from the campaign trail, but sources with the campaign insist it had nothing to do with fears that Shriver would be a lightning rod for conservatives. They say Shriver decided she had to choose between being a confidant or a campaigner, but didn’t feel she could adequately serve her husband’s campaign doing both. So, she opted to stay off the trail.

But she was intimately involved in monitoring the campaign operation. While Dowd and Schmidt were given reign to assemble the tactical strategy, Shriver kept a watchful eye. She would go to the campaign office “all the time,” and when she was not in Sacramento, she would get daily updates from Zingale, who checked in with the campaign office after work hours.

And when there were major strategy decisions being made, Shriver was involved.

“Maria played a critical role in the governor’s reelection campaign,” says Schmidt. “On any given day, when talking of tactical political matters, there was no one smarter than her. She’s been around politics all of her life, and she has terrific political instincts. She functioned well in a team atmosphere, and the staff members in the campaign–from the most junior to the most senior–respected her.”

Zingale says Shriver would get involved with certain details. “It’s really the strategy stuff. She’s not a policy wonk. She has certain causes that are really dear to her. but it’s not the details that interest her.”
He says she was “engaged on a daily basis in the development of the campaign message, including things like the language used in the commercials.” Her engagement was with Dowd and Schmidt.

And almost a year to the day after Schwarzenegger’s special election defeat, his new campaign team assembled in the very same hotel ballroom where he received his 2005 thumping, a more victorious Team Schwarzenegger took the stage. With his wife by his side, Schwarzenegger basked in his reelection, as orange, green and white balloons fell from the rafters.

Contact Anthony York at

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