Stumbling Schwarzenegger

Stumbling Schwarzenegger

The California governor’s campaign to pass a series of ballot initiatives is off to a rocky start.


Santa Monica, California

A new high-stakes political campaign initiated by embattled California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that seems destined to become a political battle involving organized labor from coast to coast has gotten off to a stumbling start.

One day after he ordered a November 8 special election to pass a series of ballot initiatives, Schwarzenegger was jeered, heckled and loudly booed as he struggled to deliver a commencement address at Santa Monica College Tuesday evening.

Several faculty members and at least two dozen graduating students stood with their backs to the governor while hundreds in the audience of 2,000 chanted, shouted out slogans and blew whistles during the entire course of the governor’s fifteen-minute address. At times, Schwarzenegger’s words were nearly drowned out by the angry, raucous crowd, and the disruption was constant.

The hostile reception offered to the governor from the Los Angeles-area community college he attended in the early 1970s was repeatedly played on local TV news shows whose cameras converged on the scene.

While Schwarzenegger read a platitudinous apolitical speech about the value of hard work, two black-robed faculty members held a sign directly behind him that read “$80 Million Buys a Lot of Textbooks.”

The $80 million figure is the high estimate of the cost of the November 8 special election decreed by the governor on Monday. For months now Schwarzenegger has been threatening the Democrat-controlled legislature: Either pass his package of his proposed reforms or see them put directly before the voters in the fall. Democratic legislators, many of whom initially worked with the governor to pass bipartisan compromise measures, have refused to accept the new ultimatum. They see little incentive to cooperate with a governor whose popularity ratings in the last year have plummeted nearly in half from about 70 percent.

Schwarzenegger’s call to a special election is seen by political observers as a dramatic “all-in” gamble by which the governor is risking all his political capital a full year before the regularly scheduled 2006 vote in which he is expected to seek re-election. Schwarzenegger is asking voters to approve three ballot measures that would impose a spending cap that shifts power from the legislature to the governor, redraw voting districts and delay tenure for public school teachers.

Several other measures that have already qualified for the ballot are also expected to eventually win the governor’s endorsement, including a law that would effectively bar California’s public employee unions from making political contributions and a parental notification law for teenage abortions.

Initial public reaction to the governor’s proposals have been overwhelmingly negative. Recent polls show two-thirds of California voters think that holding the costly special election is unnecessary. Local and county government officials have also voiced their opposition to the governor’s proposed spending cap, arguing it could cripple public safety programs.

Meanwhile, California’s teacher and prison guard unions have announced special membership levies aimed at raising a whopping $75 million to oppose Schwarzenegger’s ballot proposals. Analysts are also convinced that if Schwarzenegger endorses the measure to block union contributions, he will become a prime funding target for Democrats and organized labor across the country, turning California this fall into an early national political battlefield.

Having already decreed the special election, Schwarzenegger cannot cancel it. But he has until August to reach some agreement with the legislature to place compromise measures on the ballot. Few political insiders, however, are predicting such a harmonious accord, with the smart money foreseeing a showdown confrontation in the fall. State Treasurer Phil Angelides, a Democrat who has announced his intention to run against Schwarzenegger in 2006, predicts that the special election will become the governor’s “war in Iraq”–an unpopular quagmire.

Schwarzenegger’s address at Santa Monica College on Tuesday carefully avoided any mention of the issues raised by his ballot initiatives. Urging the students to stay focused on success, the governor said, “Remember one thing. There’s only one obstacle: you and your mind.” It’s a lesson the governor himself might want to study as he nudges the state toward a standoff that few want or even understand.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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