Schwarzenegger’s odyssey: The powerful personal touch went untapped

It was early 2004 and Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson threw himself a goodbye party.

The affable and outgoing Wesson summoned reporters to Capitol Room 319 to say goodbye to the media that had covered his tenure as speaker. California was still reeling from the historic recall election that had swept action star Arnold Schwarzenegger into office and unceremoniously dumped Democrat Gray Davis.

As Wesson faced the crowd, two plainclothes CHP officers appeared at the door and the new governor walked in. These were the days when Arnold Schwarzenegger still sucked the oxygen out of the room. He was still more movie star than governor, and here he was wrapping his arm around the diminutive Wesson, smiling for the cameras.

Schwarzenegger said a few words and then he was gone.

But the impression he left was deep: Here was one of the most famous people in the world performing a common, personal political act. It was the kind of thing that Gray Davis couldn’t do to save his life, but seemed so simple. Davis had famously said the Legislature was simply there to implement his vision. Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator, was bringing back some of the relationship-based politics that long-time Capitol observers lamented had been lost since the implementation of legislative term limits.

Already, that personal style had paid dividends.

Schwarzenegger moved swiftly to clear out some of the partisan underbrush left from the Davis administration. He won a repeal of a bill that allowed undocumented workers to receive drivers’ licenses. He worked with Wesson and John Burton to place a $15 billion package of deficit-reduction bonds on the March 2004 ballot. He used the threat of an initiative to extract concessions from Democrats to overhaul the state’s workers’ compensation system.

Though the state was racked with multi-billion dollar deficits, it seemed for a time that there was hope in post-dot-com-bust California. Democrats and Republicans seemed to be working together to solve the state’s problems, led by the most unlikely of politicians.

The national and international media covered California as they covered Hollywood – by focusing on the star.

But those early victories created a false impression of how easy it would be to extract victories in the world of Sacramento politics. And as California reporters looked behind the show biz curtain, troubles loomed on the political horizon.

Buoyed by a big win on workers’ compensation insurance reform, Schwarzenegger laid out an agenda in 2005 that once again used the threat of ballot measures – a special election – in an effort to extract victories from the Democratically controlled Legislature.

It was clear that Schwarzenegger wanted to do something big. The governor who famously called for “action, action, action” wanted quick solutions to deep-seated problems in Sacramento.

He wound up embracing a hodgepodge of ballot measures that seemed unrelated to each other, falling only under the vague rubric of “reform.”

He wanted to change the state’s pension system to a 401(k)-style, defined contribution system. He wanted a rainy-day fund to smooth out the peaks and valleys in the state budget. He called for ending teacher tenure, taking redistricting out of the hands of legislators and making it harder for labor unions to use member dues for political purposes.

The agenda was ambitious if vaguely assembled. Making matters more complicated was a ruling by the Fair Political Practices Commission that took control over the fate of those measures out of the hands of Schwarzenegger’s political team.

But the problems with the package were more fundamental. His selling of the proposals to the public was fraught with missteps and miscommunication. They certainly represented his personal wishes but didn’t necessarily reflect the wider views of the general public, and he failed to assemble broad-based alliances to push them through.

The cliché of post-partisanship quickly was proven wrong.

The pension measure died on the vine after pushback from law-enforcement groups, who wanted to be excluded from the governor’s reforms. The decision to abandon the pension measure was a harbinger of things to come, a sign of the political disaster that would come to mark the Schwarzenegger governorship.

Ultimately, Schwarzenegger thought he could once again use the threat of a ballot-box war to leverage Democrats. Schwarzenegger wanted a deal on budget reform and redistricting, and probably would have been willing to set aside the rest. The union-dues measure was supposed to be a bargaining chip, but it only served to mobilize labor unions who felt they were under attack.

The powerful California Teachers Association was being attacked on three fronts – budget reform, so-called paycheck protection and teacher tenure. A coalition of political pros fronted by teachers, nurses and firefighters called the governor’s bluff, mobilizing for political war.

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger held a bunch of made-for-television photo ops that earned guffaws from most political insiders – spigots of red budget ink, Count Cartaxula, et. al.  Schwarzenegger seemed to be flailing as his strategy for a deal fell apart and he headed into a special election that insiders say he never really wanted.

His bluff had been called, and Schwarzenegger was holding rags.

That 2005 election is undoubtedly the pivotal moment in his tenure as governor. After that defeat, there was a purge of Republican insiders as a cadre of Arnold loyalists, led by his wife Maria Shriver, became more vocal within the administration.

Chief of Staff Pat Cleary, a Pete Wilson Republican, was replaced by Democrat Susan Kennedy, a Gray Davis Democrat. The move outraged Republicans who believed in the old Schwarzenegger agenda. His policy and communications teams also were overhauled as the governor prepared for a reelection fight in 2006.

Schwarzenegger once again went to the voters with an infrastructure-bond package aimed at moving him back to the political center in the wake of the partisan 2005 fight. He also had the good fortune of drawing a Democratic challenger, Phil Angelides, who was less likable than Schwarzenegger, even after the governor’s recent ballot-measure defeat. He signed and publicly took ownership of AB 32, the greenhouse gas reduction measure authored and worked by Fran Pavley and Fabian Nuñez in the Legislature. That would become the centerpiece of the global Schwarzenegger political brand.

As he coasted to reelection, Schwarzenegger the “post-partisan” became a national political celebrity. He was the jolly green giant of California, traveling the world talking about the importance of greenhouse-gas reduction – a bill that he secretly sought to block prior to its signing.

But in the process, he seemed to lose the taste for governing.

Gone were the days of throwing his arm around a leader of the other party. Under Kennedy’s staff leadership, legislative Republicans became increasingly disenchanted with Schwarzenegger, and the governor lost his ability to deliver votes on key budget and policy issues.

He proclaimed 2007 the year of education reform, but emerged with little to show for it. His effort to overhaul the state’s health care system received no Republican support and was ultimately killed by Senate Democrats and divergent interest groups. Meanwhile, the state’s budget problems worsened as the nation plunged into a deep recession that dried up any resources for massive new government programs.

Schwarzenegger’s legislative achievements are certainly modest, but his lasting legacy on California politics is still uncertain.

One thing is certain: He will be remembered for his love of t
he initiative process and his role in the longest state budget stalemates ever.

He began in 2004 by going to voters with the deficit-reduction bonds. There was the 2005 special election; the 2006 infrastructure bonds, the extra election in 2008 as part of a ploy to pass legislative term-limits. In the fall of 2008, he finally passed his redistricting reform measure. In 2009, he and legislative leaders placed major parts of the state budget on the ballot. In 2010, he lobbied to change the state’s primary election process. And it all ended, fittingly, with Schwarzenegger on defense in November 2010, successfully fending off efforts to repeal his redistricting reform and the greenhouse-gas bill that defines his governorship more than any other piece of legislation.

The results of his initiative pursuit are mixed at best. But the full impact of his successes may not be known for years. New legislative districts will be drawn next year and lawmakers will be elected under a new set of rules. The stated goal of those reforms is to soften the partisan edges in the Legislature and elect more moderates. Whether those efforts are successful remains to be seen.

Arnold Schwarzenegger strove to do big things. In the process he had colossal failures, many of them handed to him by the people he claimed to have commune with. The state’s budget deficit is larger than when he took office, and the stranglehold of interest groups on the Capitol remains unbroken. For all of his talk of post-partisanship, the Capitol remains as bitterly divided as ever. Now, California turns to a new governor – one who understands the minefields of California politics better than his predecessor.

But it just may be that Arnold Schwarzenegger will be looked upon as the man who makes Jerry Brown’s success possible, leaving an imprint of state politics for years to come.

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