California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is fighting for his political life
LUIZA CH. SAVAGEOctober32005
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is fighting for his political life
FOR A FOUR-TIME Mr. Universe, it’s the political equivalent of getting sand kicked in your face. Since being elected Republican governor of California in a surreal 2003 contest that included a sumo wrestler, a porn actress, and former child actor Gary Coleman, Arnold Schwarzenegger has managed to plunge below President George W. Bush in the opinion polls of this largely Democratic state. It’s quite a bewildering comeuppance for the former action-movie star, who only one year ago enjoyed the approval of two-thirds of Californians. So popular was the Austrian-born Schwarzenegger that Washington buzzed with talk of an “Arnold Amendment” to the federal constitution that would permit citizens born outside the United States to run for president. Now, with only slightly more than a third of Californians approving of his performance, he is running for his political life.
“Those were the days, huh?” a still-tanned and hulking Schwarzenegger wistfully asked 500 supporters at a US$75-a-plate luncheon in Anaheim this month. “When I was first elected, people thought I was a better politician than I was an actor. Now people say I am a better actor.” Sporting a tailored suit and a bling-bling ring on each oversized hand, the 58-year-old declared that all he cares about is being a “good governor.” But the remark only served to underscore the deep gulf between the rhetoric of campaigning, and the reality of governing—which is where his fortunes have sunk.
Back in 2003, Hollywood Arnold announced his bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Gray Davis in front of a national TV audience on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Last month, Sacramento Arnold announced his intention to run for re-election in 2006 in front of a few hundred supporters at a most unglamorous town-hall meeting in San Diego—after an hour of politely fielding questions on property taxes and the potential of extracting energy from cow manure. Police on horseback corralled hundreds of demonstrators outside the in-
vitation-only event. “He said he wanted to work with the people, but he has very much changed his approach,” said protester
Scott Hendries, a member of the California School Employees Association, one of a battalion of unions that accuse the governor of selling out social programs to big business.
Californians point to two reasons for Schwarzenegger’s woes—and disastrous labour relations figure in both. First, there’s the sheer difficulty of his agenda: restoring the finances of the world’s seventh largest
economy, which was headed for bankruptcy when he took over. In 2003, the state had a deficit of US$38 billion and the lowest
bond rating in the nation. Schwarzenegger pledged to fix that—without raising taxes. “His biggest enemy is budget arithmetic,” says John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in the Los Angeles area. The governor’s aggressive agenda of spending cuts balanced the budget (with the help of more borrowing and creative accounting), and put him on a collision course
with public sector unions and the Democrat-dominated legislature. “He’d be in less trouble if he played it safe,” said Pitney. “But if he played it safe, he’d still be in Austria.” That’s the second problem: the governor himself. His makeover from screen hero to statesman didn’t fully expunge the machismo and guy-movie bravado. “What is it about Schwarzenegger that he just can’t shut up?” marvels Bob Mulholland, a Democratic political strategist. “It’s the arrogance that is doing him in.”
Democratic and independent voters initially supported Schwarzenegger as a can-do guy who stood above partisan politics. His popularity peaked after he co-operated with Democratic lawmakers to craft a fiscal package last year. But since then, he has called Democrats “girlie men,” accused Native Americans of “ripping us off,” called for “closing the borders” with Mexico, and praised the private border militias that even Bush has denounced as “vigilantes.”
Other fumbles have made him look meanspirited. Public pressure forced him to back off reductions to spending on disabled children. He shelved a plan to save US$14 million by allowing pets in shelters to be put down more quickly. He withdrew a bill overhauling public pensions because it contained an error that would have taken away pensions from the widows of firemen and police officers killed on duty.
But nothing quite matches his appearance in front of a conference of 10,000 women last December, including Oprah Winfrey and other Hollywood stars. It came just weeks after Schwarzenegger had delayed until 2008 legislation intended to improve nurse-to-patient ratios. As the audience watched, demonstrating nurses unfurled a banner protesting the move. Schwarzenegger evidently decided it was a good time to channel the Terminator. Ignore the “special interests,” he told the audience. They oppose him “because I kick their butt.” That set off a political earthquake. “It was a turning point,” said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association, which has since moved to the forefront of the “Stop Arnold” movement. Members have stalked the governor’s events, and have spent tens of millions of dollars on ads that are widely credited with driving him down in the polls.
Republicans can only shake their heads. “That was not smart,” sighed Diane
McGlinchey, a retired teacher from Huntington Beach, of Schwarzenegger’s outburst. Winning re-election, the party activist says, “is going to be very difficult for him.” But McGlinchey insists voters will come to realize that his policies are necessary. “The bottom line is, if you don’t have the money, you can’t give it to people.”
Where supporters see common sense, though, critics like DeMoro discern a farreaching agenda of “free-market fundamentalism”—and a governor who has emerged as increasingly partisan, speaking at the GOP national convention last summer and campaigning for Bush in the swing state of Ohio. Californians now tell pollsters they no longer believe Schwarzenegger can work with Democrats. “He was viewed as a problem-solver, and now he is viewed as part of the problem,” said Mark Baldassare, director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California, a non-partisan think tank.
Sacramento Democrats are now doing what they can to destroy Schwarzenegger’s image as a moderate on social issues. They
reintroduced a bill the governor had already vetoed, which would allow driver’s licences to be issued to undocumented immigrants. They also passed a bill allowing gay marriage—which the governor said he will veto. “That is what the gay marriage bill and the driver’s license bill are all about,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California. “They are moving him to the right, painting him as a real partisan in a state that is among the bluest of the blue states.” Schwarzenegger’s team has responded by launching a new political offensive. The governor has called a binding referendum for Nov. 8 in which voters will consider several ballot initiatives. One would cap state spending, and gives the governor power to cut spending in a crisis. Another would require teachers to work five years, rather than the current two, to earn tenure in California. A third would transfer the power
to draw political district boundaries from politicians to a panel of retired judges.
Also on the ballot is an initiative that has further enraged organized labour: it would force public-sector unions to get written permission before using a member’s dues for political contributions and campaigning. But overall, voters are showing little interest. “When we ask people what proposition interests them the most, they say none,” says Baldassare. Worse, voters question the multi-million-dollar election price tag.
Not all is lost. The governor’s two declared Democratic opponents, state Controller Steve Westly and Treasurer Phil Angelides, are not well known. And Schwarzenegger’s political strategist, Mike Murphy, breezily dismisses the polls as “a snapshot of what is going on behind you.” The “polls we trust” show that two-thirds of Californians “think the big government-employee union bosses have too much power,” he says. That and their “Soprano-style fundraising” will be one theme of a US$50-million campaign between now and Nov. 8. “It will be fun,” promises Murphy. Perhaps. But it may not be enough to guarantee that Schwarzenegger, like his most famous movie character, will be back. 171
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