Capitol Journal

At the end of Schwarzenegger's term, cronyism won

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor who promoted himself as a reformer, made a mockery of reform on his way out the Capitol door.

The Republican governor who flamboyantly vowed to "blow up the boxes" and couldn't figure out how to do it, wound up filling boxes with political cronies — and, even more outrageously, some of their spouses.

The movie star who repeatedly said he ran for office to "give back" to the public for his life of fantastic success — in keeping with the teachings of his Kennedy family in-laws — closed out his reign by lavishly giving back to political pals.

The most egregious was reducing the manslaughter sentence of the son of his good ally, former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, a Los Angeles Democrat.

Close up there in the shameless category was appointing the spouse of his chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, to not one but two part-time jobs with combined annual salaries of $167,940.

Every governor does it? Not this grossly. Schwarzenegger ran amok as he headed to the exit.

Besides, he was the man constantly sermonizing about changing the political culture.

Moreover, the public — as Schwarzenegger often noted — has had it up to here with the politics of old. You'd think that a reformer might have a clue and react, even if he never does plan to run for office again.

It matters little to most of us that the ex-governor's parting actions diminished his legacy, such as it was. The significant damage is that his behavior merely reaffirms the cynicism and disgust most Californians hold for the institution of government.

Most important for this moment, it will become even more difficult for new Gov. Jerry Brown to restore a degree of public confidence in Sacramento.

And without some resurrected trust, it will be impossible for Brown to persuade voters to approve his plan for overhauling California government and saving the state from insolvency. His proposal is expected to include a controversial extension of tax increases that are slated to expire this year.

Pollster Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, doesn't want to comment on Schwarzenegger's specific actions. But he says such moves "fit the public's profile of a government not working for the benefit of all the people, but working only for a privileged class and for special interests."

"Keep in mind that voters are distrustful and they are in a reform-minded mood," Baldassare adds. "This may be the way it has always been done, but voters are looking for something different. They're looking for a break from the past.

"They didn't see it in the final activities of Gov. Schwarzenegger. And that will put more pressure on Gov. Brown and the Legislature to show it's a new day and things are going to change."

In a poll of Californians who voted in the November election, Baldassare found that only 14% said they could trust Sacramento "to do what is right" most of the time; 84% said they could trust it just some of the time, if ever.

And 76% felt that "state government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves."

Baldassare concludes: "Brown's got his work cut out for him because people are cynical and skeptical that there really is a need" for realigning state and local governments — as the governor is advocating — and extending tax hikes. "If they can be persuaded there is a need, then he must convince them that the state can deliver on what it promises."

Schwarzenegger's gift-giving, the pollster says, "gets a tremendous amount of attention. Voters are tuned into this. It brings stories to life. People can relate to them."

And they become repulsed.

I've talked to dozens of politicos in Sacramento, Republican and Democrat, about the sentence commutation for Nuñez's son, Esteban Nuñez,. And all have condemned it, echoing the view of San Diego County Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis that it "greatly diminishes justice."

Nuñez, then 19, and three friends attacked a group of men in San Diego in 2008 after failing to crash a university fraternity party. The drunken brawl led to the stabbing death of Luis Santos, a student at San Diego Mesa College.

Nuñez didn't kill Santos, but he did stab one man in the stomach and "inflicted great bodily harm" on another victim, Schwarzenegger acknowledged in his commutation order.

Court records show that Nuñez told his friends not to worry, his politically connected dad would get them off the hook. Nuñez pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 16 years in state prison. Schwarzenegger knocked that down to seven.

Regardless of any merits in the commutation, consider this: There are roughly 3,400 other California prisoners serving time for voluntary manslaughter, and the governor hasn't reduced any of their sentences. This is strictly about who's got the political grease.

Then there were the roughly 100 deathbed appointments by Schwarzenegger. Some were excellent choices and most were within the realm of acceptable politics. But too many were disgraceful abuses of power.

Example: Vicki Marti, the spouse of Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, was appointed to the Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board ($111,845) and reappointed to the Medical Assistance Commission ($56,095).

Another one: Interior designer Kari Miner was appointed to a $128,109 seat on the Public Employment Relations Board. She's the wife of former Schwarzenegger aide Paul Miner, mastermind of the failed attempt to blow up boxes.

To steal an old Lily Tomlin line: No matter how cynical I get, I can't keep up.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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