PCL: Political Communication Lab, Stanford University
PCL: Political Communication Lab, Stanford University
  • PCL

Governor stakes political capital on 'year of reform' initiatives

The Mercury News

Beth Fouhy, Associated Press
Oct 20, 2005

The Nov. 8 special election called by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger remains a mystery to many California voters.

Public opinion polls show they don't understand its urgency and are turned off by its $50 million price tag. But to Schwarzenegger, it's an essential next step to the recall election that swept him into office in 2003. And he says its cost is a bargain when compared to the fiscal and political changes it will bring if he's successful.

The actor-turned-governor sees the special election as simply the middle chapter of a three-part series that is needed to turn around California's moribund government.

"Recover, reform and then rebuild" is how Schwarzenegger has cast his mission. He says drastic steps are needed to fix a political system that has frequently led the nation's most populous state into multibillion dollar budget deficits. The special election is the centerpiece of what he has labeled his "year of reform."

His agenda seeks to implement spending controls and give him authority to make midyear budget cuts, change the way legislative districts are drawn to increase competition for seats and limit political contributions from labor unions, a move that would weaken Democrats. He also wants to extend the probationary period for teachers from two years to five.

Schwarzenegger warns that unless wholesale changes are made to the state's political status quo, voters will not see the kind of fundamental political reform they demanded when they tossed Democrat Gray Davis out of office two years ago.

"It's a broken system," Schwarzenegger said Wednesday during a campaign stop in Anaheim. "And this will be the recall of a broken system."

Convincing voters of that urgency is his challenge between now and Election Day, when turnout is expected to be low. How his reform initiatives fare also could determine the strength of his candidacy as he seeks re-election in 2006.

In large part, his agenda is designed to curb the power of Democratic lawmakers and public employee unions, particularly the powerful California Teachers Association. He has complained that the Legislature's Democratic majority is beholden to unions, making it virtually impossible to achieve lasting political reform.

Democrats and public employee unions have cast the governor's agenda as a throwback to previous attempts by Republicans to widen their influence in a Democrat-leaning state. Teachers are concerned that his spending cap proposal will undo Proposition 98, a 1988 voter initiative that set a minimum funding guarantee for public schools.

"These measures are all about a power grab by Gov. Schwarzenegger that hurts our children, our schools and our teachers," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Wednesday in Washington.

She called on voters to oppose propositions 74, 75 and 76, dealing with teacher tenure, union dues and the budget.

Leading Democrats in the state Legislature say Schwarzenegger made no effort to work with them to develop a bipartisan reform agenda. Instead, he surprised them with his plans and the threat of a special election during his State of the State address last January.

"I almost feel as though the governor picked up a grenade and sort of threw it at the Legislature and ran away," said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles.

Schwarzenegger has staked his political capital on his four initiatives, even though the latest polls show him with an uphill battle.

The efforts to redraw legislative districts and cap state spending are running well behind, and the teacher tenure initiative has yet to gain majority support. The measure requiring unions to get members' permission before dues could be used for political purposes appears to have the strongest support, even gaining favor among many union members.

The measures have prompted an aggressive backlash from Democrats and labor unions, who have spent nearly $100 million on a televised campaign to discredit them. Labor activists frame the campaign as a contest between a plutocrat governor and ordinary public servants such as nurses, teachers and firefighters whose voices will be silenced if Schwarzenegger is successful.

Schwarzenegger's popularity has plummeted since the attacks began last spring. He also has struggled to raise his stated goal of $50 million to promote the initiatives, with some business interests reluctant to cross the state's powerful unions.

Schwarzenegger aides said the campaign's internal polling shows the measures are in much better shape but acknowledge they are playing catch-up. The governor remains upbeat about his prospects, despite the polls.

"It's just the way it is in politics. I've always said, 'Let them beat up on me' because I don't care. The bottom line is I'm fighting for something much bigger than me, which is to improve the state of California and reform a broken system that is supposed to last for years and years and years," he said.

"There's some things that are worth fighting for, and California is one of those things."

Several other initiatives also appear on the ballot: Proposition 73, sponsored by anti-abortion activists, would require doctors to notify the parents or guardians of underage girls seeking an abortion; Propositions 78 and 79 are dueling prescription drug measures - the former sponsored by pharmaceutical companies, the latter by consumer groups - to ease the cost of prescriptions on low-income residents; and Proposition 80 would reregulate the state's electric service providers, after the 2001 energy crisis that many analysts blamed on deregulation of the state's utilities.

Experts say voter turnout will be key to the election. Republicans are hoping to mobilize conservatives, in part by rallying around the abortion measure. In addition to their television commercials, Democrats and unions are pursuing an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign, playing up images of Schwarzenegger as a crony of the wealthy and an enemy of the middle class.

"In special elections, most people know very little about specific issues so they rely on cues - and an unpopular incumbent is a significant cue," said Shanto Iyengar, a professor of political communication at Stanford University. "The message becomes, 'If he's for it, I'm against it.'"

Associated Press Writer Gillian Flaccus in Orange County contributed to this report.