SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office said Friday that he turned down a White House request to more than double the number of California National Guard troops that will be deployed to the border, fearing the commitment could leave the state vulnerable if an earthquake or wildfire erupts.
Three weeks ago, Schwarzenegger and the Bush administration worked out a written agreement in which the state would send 1,000 troops to the Mexican border as part of a 6,000-strong deployment aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration.
On Wednesday, the Bush administration asked the governor's office for 1,500 more soldiers. The additional troops were to be sent to Arizona and New Mexico, according to a California National Guard official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Schwarzenegger took less than a day to give his answer: No.
"The governor did not feel that it was appropriate to send additional Guard out of state," said Adam Mendelsohn, the governor's communications director.
A White House spokesman suggested Friday night that Schwarzenegger's position could disrupt the Bush administration timetable for fortifying the border with National Guard troops.
Under that deadline, the 6,000 National Guard soldiers from different states are to be in place by Aug. 1, assisting federal Border Patrol agents.
"We are reviewing how this decision by California's governor may affect the overall deployment schedule of National Guard troops to the border as part of 'Operation Jump Start,' " said Blain Rethmeier, a White House spokesman.
Asked why the Bush administration wanted more troops from California, Rethmeier referred the question to National Guard officials in Washington, who were not immediately available Friday night for comment.
Soon after Bush announced a plan in May to use National Guard troops to shore up the border, Schwarzenegger made it plain that he was unhappy about the operation.
He said he would agree to dispatch soldiers only if certain conditions were met. He capped the number of troops to be sent and insisted on a two-year deadline for their return, predicting that any kind of open-ended commitment would stretch for years and possibly decades.
It was a carefully crafted position that seemed mindful of the larger political context.
Though the role envisioned for the Guard is rather mundane — repairing trucks, fixing roads and operating surveillance cameras — the deployment has been swept up in a volatile mix of immigration politics and campaign strategy.
Schwarzenegger is running for reelection this year — at a time when his support among Latino voters is sagging. Recent polls show Schwarzenegger has the support of 25% of Latino voters — 7 points below what he received in the 2003 recall election.
If the governor aligns himself with the part of his Republican base that wants tougher measures to police the border, he risks offending Latino voters. Schwarzenegger doesn't want to be seen as militarizing the border.
Yet a Schwarzenegger mantra is that the border is not secure — too easily breached by drug smugglers and undocumented immigrants. So it would have been awkward for him to refuse the president's initial plea for the 1,000 Guard troops.
This latest White House request is another matter. Polls show Bush's approval rating in California at record lows. By saying no to the president this week, Schwarzenegger demonstrates his independence from the president without seeming completely uncooperative.
Democratic officials said Friday that the back and forth between the White House and Schwarzenegger appears orchestrated.
Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-Southgate) said of Schwarzenegger, "This is a way of letting him have it both ways — having the National Guard there, but at the same time letting him be the bulwark against placing additional troops on the border."
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) offered a more qualified criticism. Nuñez commended the governor for turning down the request but said he should never have approved the deployment of troops in the first place.
"I'm glad the governor chose not to comply with the president's request," Nuñez said. He added that it was a mistake to relinquish "any of our National Guardsmen when just around the corner we have the summer wildfires looking us square in the eye."
Schwarzenegger, too, worries about stretching the Guard too thin, a spokeswoman said. The California Guard numbers about 20,000 troops. About 2,200 are posted overseas. Assigning 1,000 to the border wouldn't jeopardize California's safety, state Guard leaders said at a recent news conference.
But sending an additional 1,500 troops to the border might prove risky, press secretary Margita Thompson said.
She said the state needs to have enough Guard troops in place in the event of a disaster. Another concern was disrupting the training of Guard troops by sending more to the border, she said.
With the election approaching, Schwarzenegger's opponent isn't buying it.
Bob Mulholland, an advisor to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, said: "This so-called request [from the White House] was a phony political request to try to give Schwarzenegger political cover: 'Look it. I'm standing up to Bush.' But last week Schwarzenegger was a French poodle in Bush's lap — authorizing 1,000 stressed-out, overextended National Guard members to spend weeks and months at the border, even though many of them have done two tours in Iraq."
Schwarzenegger's campaign office declined to comment, referring questions to the governor's state staff.