When a Private Life Goes Public

Times Staff Writer

When he wants a break from the stresses of public office, Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger will have an appealing recourse: to disappear.

Schwarzenegger owns a private jet. He has tens of millions in the bank, a cadre of security guards and a sprawling home in Sun Valley, Idaho. Unlike Gov. Gray Davis, who was often seen traipsing through airports to catch a flight on Southwest Airlines, Schwarzenegger can get away when he wants to do so -- quickly and discreetly.

Since winning the recall election, Schwarzenegger has slipped out of state on a few occasions with no public notice. On Oct. 25, the former bodybuilding champion showed up at the Mandalay Bay Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas to congratulate the winner of the Mr. Olympia contest. Schwarzenegger's public schedule for the day showed only that he attended a Halloween event at Santa Monica Airport on behalf of children affected by AIDS.

After his election, he took an unannounced trip to Idaho. He went to Hawaii last weekend -- a trip that was not mentioned in the daily schedule issued by his press office. The release said Schwarzenegger spent the weekend in "private transition meetings and discussions with members of his transition team" -- conjuring up an image of Schwarzenegger hunkered down in his transition headquarters.

Until he is sworn in Monday, Schwarzenegger is a private citizen with no special obligation to tell the public he is out of state, according to political observers and people who have worked for previous governors.

"He's not governor yet, and I don't necessarily think there's a reasonable expectation the public needs to know where he is until he's governor," said Steve Merksamer, who was chief of staff to former Gov. George Deukmejian.

"Schwarzenegger has a perfect right to go anywhere he wants now and it's none of our business. But he and his people need to realize that all this changes on Nov. 17, when he's inaugurated," said Lou Cannon, author of a new book about Ronald Reagan's years as governor of California.

As yet, the incoming administration has not decided what it will reveal about Schwarzenegger's itinerary.

"Decisions about Gov. Schwarzenegger's travels will be determined once the new administration takes office," said Karen Hanretty, a spokeswoman for the governor-elect.

Schwarzenegger has said he wants his government to be open -- even proposing a constitutional amendment making access to public records a civil right.

"We need to throw open the doors and windows of government," he said in a September speech at the California State Railroad Museum. "There's no such thing as democracy in the dark."

Schwarzenegger's zeal for a private getaway could collide with the public's interest in the governor's whereabouts, analysts said.

If Schwarzenegger's practice during the six-week transition period becomes the pattern, it could stoke resentment among people who expect to know if their governor is here or in Hawaii or Las Vegas, they said.

"Like any other extremely wealthy person, he is used to living in a world where he does not really have to be publicly accountable for his comings and goings," said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State. " ... The extent to which he makes his schedule public will tell us much about how well he is adapting to the new environment, or whether he is demanding that the environment adapt to him."

By custom, a governor alerts the lieutenant governor in writing if he is traveling out of state; the Constitution says the lieutenant governor steps in as acting governor when the chief executive leaves the state. But there is no requirement that the governor inform the press -- and by extension, the public.

What governors reveal about their travels is largely a matter of personal preference.

Former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown said that when he was in office, one political reporter told him: "You have to tell us where you are at all times" -- a rule he endorsed.

"You've got to know when he's out of state," Brown said in an interview.

When Deukmejian took a vacation, his press office would disclose as much -- without necessarily saying he was going to Carmel, for example, Merksamer said.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's habit was not to reveal where he was taking his vacations, said Dan Schnur, a former spokesman for Wilson. Still, Schnur said: "If someone asked -- 'We saw someone who looked and sounded like Pete Wilson in British Columbia' -- we'd say, 'Yes, he and Mrs. Wilson are vacationing up there.' Generally, we made it a practice to answer the question if asked."

Davis would not reveal his many trips to fund-raising events, though spokesman Steve Maviglio said: "Generally, our philosophy is to let the people who put you in office know where you are. People want to know you're on the job and they want to know what you're doing."

For Schwarzenegger, who sounded populist themes during the recall campaign, quiet escapes to luxury locales could be risky.

"If what we've seen now continues to be his lifestyle, it may well generate a backlash among those who feared that someone of privilege really doesn't understand what it's like to be a public servant," Gerston said. "It's leading by example. And leading by example is not living this kind of private, cloistered life of the rich when your state is battling its way out of a $38-billion hole."


Times staff writers Joe Mathews and Mitchell Landsberg contributed to this report.

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