Tags: Schwarzenegger | Moves | Closer | Bush

Schwarzenegger Moves Closer to Bush

Monday, 28 March 2005 12:00 AM

The battle, between the Republican governor and a coalition of public-sector unions and their Democratic allies in the legislature, might yet be avoided. Schwarzenegger maintained last week that his door is open to negotiation on an agenda that includes political, budgetary and education reforms.

But during an interview in his spacious Capitol office, the celebrity governor gave every indication that he relishes the opportunity to defeat, not compromise with, his opponents. When it was suggested that Schwarzenegger sounded as though he would be disappointed if a face-off were averted by compromise, he responded without hesitation. "There's something very attractive about it," he said. "You're absolutely right."

What is unfolding here has all the earmarks of a classic struggle, with clear national implications. The outcome will affect the future of the state, the legacy of the actor-turned-politician, the balance of power in Sacramento and possibly the politics of other states.

Schwarzenegger casts the contest in the same way he framed his gubernatorial campaign during the state's recall election in 2003. "They're going to spend $200 million this year to take me out and to keep the status quo," he said. "They're going to fight for the status quo and for their power, and the people in the end will make the decision: Do we want to be ruled by the unions and by the special interests of California, or do we want to go and take the power back?"

The governor said the battle is not Democrats vs. Republicans. But his opponents see him and his agenda as part of a partisan and ideological battle that echoes the priorities of President Bush and the Republicans in Washington. Schwarzenegger, they say, has turned from conciliator to partisan by embracing an economic agenda championed by wealthy corporate interests. They contend that he turned increasingly partisan after candidates he backed lost a series of legislative elections last November.

"He is at his best when he is trying to bring people together, like he did last year," said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D). "But that rhetoric has changed. He now has shifted over far more to the Republican mantra of dig in your heels and fight for those things which ideologically position the party to be able to motivate its base."

The battle started in January, when Schwarzenegger used his State of the State address to aim a series of thunderbolts at the political establishment. He spent his first years grappling with California's budget deficit, which remains severe despite a rebounding economy. In January, rather than keeping his focus strictly on the budget, he opened up a multi-front war, to the surprise and consternation of his opponents.

Schwarzenegger is challenging the status quo and the Democrats' coalition on several fronts. He wants a rigid limit on state expenditures that would impose across-the-board cuts when spending exceeds revenue. He proposes to change the state pension system by replacing defined benefits with individual accounts for newly hired workers, patterned after private-sector 401(k) accounts and in the spirit of Bush's Social Security plan.

He is defying the education establishment and the California Teachers Association by backing merit pay for teachers and a change in tenure requirements. He is at war with the California Nurses Association over staffing ratios at hospitals. And in a battle other states are watching closely, Schwarzenegger wants to take the power to draw legislative and congressional district boundaries away from the legislature and put an independent panel of judges in charge of redistricting.

Schwarzenegger says the proposals are needed to fix the structural deficit facing the state and the way politics are practiced in Sacramento. His critics say they will do nothing of the sort and accuse him of lacking the courage to do what two of his GOP predecessors, Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson, did when they were in Sacramento, which was to raise taxes to overcome deep deficits.

Schwarzenegger disagrees. "No one has ever raised taxes and solved the problem, nor will we solve the problem," he said. "We don't have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem."

Critics say the governor is avoiding the budget deficit, and even some of his allies question why he decided to take on so many fights. Schwarzenegger said he was elected "to create reform, to fix the problem, fix the broken system," not to move slowly. "Remember the greatest things that you can accomplish, the more risks you take," he said. "It's directly related to risk. Everything like this - investments and everything else. If you're willing to take risks, then the upside can be spectacular."

Schwarzenegger has roused widespread opposition. Now when he travels the state, in addition to crowds of enthusiastic supporters, he is met with protesters: nurses, teachers, firefighters, police and correctional officers, PTA leaders. Schwarzenegger labels them all special interests and inflamed matters when he dismissed the protests of nurses at a women's event last December. "The special interests don't like me in Sacramento because I am always kicking their butts," he said.

The battles have begun to take a toll on his image. The Field Poll reported in February that Schwarzenegger's approval rating had fallen from 65 percent in September to 54 percent, with particular erosion among Democrats and independents. A poll completed last week for the teachers association put his approval rating at 42 percent, pollster Mark Mellman said.

"I don't think I've ever seen a governor who has caused such visceral division, attacking nurses, teachers, police officers and firefighters," said state Treasurer Phil Angelides, a longtime critic who is running for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. "This state is now deeply divided, and emotionally so."

Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce and one of the organizers of Citizens to Save California, which is pushing for ballot initiatives incorporating Schwarzenegger's plans, said his group's polling shows the governor remains popular everywhere except in the San Francisco Bay Area, a bastion of Democratic support. But the teachers association poll reportedly shows deterioration everywhere except in the San Diego area.

The battle is playing out on two tracks. The first is through the Democratic-controlled legislature, which Schwarzenegger has challenged to negotiate a deal over his agenda. But he has warned that, if negotiations fail, he will take his fight to the public through ballot initiatives, aiming for a special election in November.

Schwarzenegger used the same strategy last year to strike a deal with legislators on workers' compensation, and it is possible that the same outcome could occur this year on some or all of his priorities. But in interviews last week, neither side sounded optimistic about the prospects for compromise, and the machinery to fill a November ballot with initiatives and counter-initiatives is in full force.

Citizens to Save California is gathering signatures to qualify the governor's initiatives for the ballot. State law allows Schwarzenegger to raise money for the group, and he has appeared at events in New York and Washington as well as in California. His fundraising from corporate interests is part of the controversy. State law does not allow the governor to control the committee, complicating the drafting of the initiatives, but he and the committee are challenging that in court.

Meanwhile, the Alliance for a Better California, a 10-union coalition, is preparing initiatives on prescription drugs, car buyers' rights, energy re-regulation and possibly another to raise the minimum wage. The unions rarely come together in this way, said Gale Kaufman, a Democratic strategist who is helping to organize the opposition. "They are coming together in a unique way. . . . They're very unified and very angry."

With a deadline of late April or early May for the signature-gathering, Schwarzenegger's advisers believe only the threat of initiatives will force negotiations. But some of his opponents see a special election as an opportunity to deal the governor a devastating defeat, potentially crippling his administration and possibly causing him not to seek reelection in 2006.

Seated at the head of a long table in his gubernatorial office last week, Schwarzenegger declined to talk about 2006. But he exuded the confidence of a man who surmounted great odds to become a world champion bodybuilder and later one of Hollywood's most popular actors and who knows he is the state's dominant political figure.

The legislators have a spending "addiction," he said. The unions have won "sweetheart pension deals" from the state. Now, he said, their time is over. "There's always something wonderful about fighting for the right thing, when you know you're right and you know when you've got clear vision, as I always have about the end product," he said.

Schwarzenegger revels in the theatrics of the competition. "The whole thing is a big stage play," he said with amusement as he talked about his opponents. "They are all very important characters in this play, in order to carry out this play. It's wonderful. . . . Since they are all part of the play, you have to appreciate all those pieces and all those characters."

"And your role?" he was asked.

"Leading role," he said with a bright smile. "Above-the-title billing."

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The battle, between the Republican governor and a coalition of public-sector unions and their Democratic allies in the legislature, might yet be avoided. Schwarzenegger maintained last week that his door is open to negotiation on an agenda that includes political, budgetary...
Monday, 28 March 2005 12:00 AM
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