It was early 2004 and Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson threw himself a goodbye
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
But in the process, he seemed to lose the taste for
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
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 the initiative
process and his role in the longest state budget stalemates
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.