Strategists wrestle with selling the special election

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been the chief advocate and fundraiser for the six measures on the May 19 special election ballot. But the governor, who has prided himself on being a populist spokesman, may play a limited role in the paid media campaign that is about to begin.

Four years ago, the governor appeared in ads for four ballot measures that were squarely rejected by voters. This time, campaign advisers say, images of the same teachers and firefighters who were used to defeat Schwarzenegger’s 2005 proposals may be used to sell the governor’s initiative package.

“This campaign is about reforming California, and it’s about ending Sacramento’s bad behavior. So, it’s as much about the governor as it is about real people and fixing California,” said Adam Mendelsohn,  Schwarzenegger’s former communications director who now serves as his campaign strategist.

Opponents of the measures say their private polling has shown linking the initiatives to the governor drives down support of the measures. That has been echoed by some supporters of the ballot measures, who have also started testing potential campaign messages.

But Mendelsohn said Schwarzenegger’s star power and his ability to get news coverage is still a great asset for the campaign.
“There is no elected official in this state capable of dominating coverage like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The chattering class loves to look at his approval numbers and then cast dispersions, but communicating in a campaign is a lot more complex than just looking at approval numbers.”

Schwarzenegger clearly will not sit on the sidelines. The governor is planning an address to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco Thursday to begin to make the case for the package.

“Governor Pat Brown had to raise taxes,” the governor will say according to exerpts of the speech sent out by the Yes campaign.  “Governor Ronald Reagan had to raise taxes. So did George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson and Gray Davis. And Arnold Schwarzenegger—even though I try to make myself feel better by noting they’re temporary and expire in four years.”

The governor’s role is not the only thing that is in flux less than six weeks before Election Day.  Messaging for the campaign is complicated, and the coalitions that support and oppose the measures are fractured. The governor’s political team is trying to make the campaign about “reform,” emphasizing the lasting changes the state spending limit, Proposition 1A, makes to the budget process. And they hope to use the “reform” message to help sell all six of the measures at the ballot box.

Proposition 1A is, in many ways, the linchpin to the entire May 19 election. Of all of the measures on the May 19 ballot, 1A would have the most lasting impact on state budgeting by placing a new spending limit on state government. But the measure also states that if it is approved by voters this spring, a slew of new taxes — including an increase in the state sales tax and vehicle license fee — would stay on the books for two extra years.

Proposition 1A also has the strongest opposition of any of the ballot measures. And that opposition comes from ideologically diverse groups. Democratic groups, led by the Service Employees International Union, say a spending limit would cause painful cuts to key social services. And while many Republicans have called for state spending limits for years, they oppose Proposition 1A.

But even among those who support the measures, there is not agreement that the reform message is the best message. Democrats who support the measures say that driving home the message that these measures balance the state’s books would be a better sell with voters.

Democratic leaders, including Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, have not yet decided how to get involved in the special election campaign.  Steinberg has appeared at campaign events, and has said he plans to aide the Yes campaign for all of the ballot measures.

The speaker’s office has been somewhat slower to respond, in part because members of her caucus are deeply divided over the potential effects Proposition 1A will have on future budgets.

Bass said her caucus supports the other measures on the ballot, but remains divided over the spending limit proposal.

During the budget debate, Bass implored all members of her caucus to vote to place the spending cap on the May ballot. That created a showdown with labor groups, who threatened to launch recall campaigns against Assembly Democrats who voted for the spending cap proposal.

In the end, the measure passed 74-6, with only three Democrats voting against the plan. Those three Assemblymembers  Tony Mendoza, D-Los Angeles, Sandre Swanson, D-Oakland and Warren Furutani, D-Long Beach were stripped of their committee chairmanships because of their vote.

If and when Bass and Steinberg do get involved in the fundraising and campaigning for these measures, it’s unclear whether they would contribute through the governor’s political committee, or form their own parallel campaigns.

“Everything is still in flux,” said Steinberg spokesman Jim Evans. Bass said she did not know whether she would run money through her own campaign committee if and when she begins raising money for the initiatives.

“I am concerned how they will be packaged and marketed,” Bass said. “It is counter-intuitive for many to take money from 10 and 63, and many have objections about the lottery. It takes a lot of explanation.”

While much of the immediate political focus is on Proposition 1A, other measures would have a more immediate short-term impact on the state’s fiscal health. The budget passed by the Legislature is dependent on $5 billion in borrowing from the state lottery, and another $1 billion from childhood development and mental health funds. But those plans must be approved by voters, and are on the ballot as Propositions 1C, 1D and 1E.

There is wide acknowledgement that support for the ballot measures is precarious. And there is a real fear that even the slightest No campaign could topple the entire package. With such a short campaign, and such intricate, complicated measures before voters, the job of defeating the proposals would be much easier than getting the measures approved.

Republican consultant Frank Schubert said he has “had some conversations with groups” interested in running a No campaign. “But,” he added, “none of those conversations have been with a client.”

The administration has been scrambling to neutralize opposition. They have been reaching out to opponents of the spending cap, including the service employees union, to convince them to stay on the sidelines.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has already announced her opposition to Proposition 1A, and Whitman spokesman Mitch Zak did not rule out the possibility that Whitman would spend money against the measure.

“She’s been very outspoken in her opposition to 1A,” Zak said. “We’ve not made a decision how that opposition manifests at this point. We’re keeping our options open.”

A spokesman for another Republican gubernatorial candidate, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, said Poizner is also weighing his options.

 “He expressed concerns about 1A, that it’s a continuation of taxes, but has not taken an official position on the ballot measures yet,” said Poizner spokesman Kevin Spillane.

The administration has also tried to use what leverage it has with other opponents of Proposition 1A, like the Service Employees International Union. SEIU’s state council will take a formal position on the measure later this month, but they urged Democratic lawmakers to reject the plan last month.  

Schwarzenegger’s political team has brought on a slew of political consultants to run the Yes campaign. The day-to-day campaign is being run by Rick Claussen and Mendelsohn. Other consultants involved in the campaign include Tony Russo, Steve Merksamer, and Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s presidential campaign.

Mendelsohn says it makes sense to sell all the ballot measures as a package. But that is more complicated than it may seem. The California Teachers Association is leading the campaign for Proposition 1B, which would provide $7.9 billion in state money to schools. But CTA has not taken on a position on the other ballot measures, and many of their members remain opposed to the spending limit plan, Proposition 1A.  

Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman is expected to run the Yes campaign for Proposition 1B. The consulting firms Acosta/Salazar and Hein, Cherry & Attore have also been hired to help run a campaign in support of the lottery measure, Proposition 1C.

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