Democrats Brace for Schwarzenegger Era

Times Staff Writer

As Arnold Schwarzenegger makes final preparations to take office as governor on Monday, the California political establishment is scrambling to adjust to the abrupt shift of power from Democrats to Republicans.

The inauguration of the Republican governor before thousands of spectators outside the domed Capitol in Sacramento will end five years of near-total Democratic Party control of state government.

Even if Schwarzenegger is not the ideological match of the Capitol's conservative Republicans, his takeover of the governor's U-shaped office suite ensures a radical change in the political dynamics of Sacramento.

Elected in a historic voter revolt against his Democratic predecessor, Schwarzenegger will take power with "a mandate directly from the people to come and change the way business is being done here -- and what is being done," said Schwarzenegger communications director Rob Stutzman. "It's a mandate to step forward and lead."

In large part, the fate of Schwarzenegger's agenda depends on Democrats who still dominate both houses of the Legislature and hold every other statewide elected office. By and large, they are unsure of what to expect as he arrives in the capital he portrayed during the recall race as a sinister pit of unscrupulous politicians. At this point, Schwarzenegger elicits a mix of hope, wariness and fear.

"I don't think anyone now is saying, 'Let's go to battle with him,' " said Steve Barkan, a campaign strategist for Democrats. "Folks are trying to figure out how to work with him."

To set a congenial tone, Schwarzenegger has paid visits to the capital's leading Democratic officeholders, including Senate leader John Burton of San Francisco and Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson of Culver City. He has also made discreet stops at the offices of two labor leaders: Bob Balgenorth of the State Building and Construction Trades Council and Dean Tipps of the Service Employees International Union. Given the millions of dollars that labor spent to keep its ally Gov. Gray Davis in office, union leaders had expected hostility from Schwarzenegger.

"My fears were diminished somewhat by the meeting," Balgenorth said. "It was quite a show of humility, quite an olive branch."

But labor leaders, like Democratic lawmakers, wonder whether Schwarzenegger's symbolic gestures portend any genuine change in the combative partisanship of Sacramento.

"The question is: Does anything ever flow out of it?" said John Hein, government relations chief at the California Teachers Assn. "Is he going to keep those conversations going and keep those people involved?"

Within the Legislature, the most immediate consequence of Schwarzenegger's arrival is the sudden empowerment of the Republican minority. Democrats outnumber Republicans, 48 to 32 in the Senate and 25 to 15 in the Assembly.

Under Davis, Republicans were unable to stop Democrats from passing hundreds of laws they opposed, most notably those resisted by business leaders. Among them were measures imposing health-coverage mandates on employers and strict new pollution controls on auto makers. The Republicans' only significant role was to block Democrats from raising taxes by keeping them from mustering the required two-thirds vote.

But now, one of Schwarzenegger's main tools for setting the state's agenda will be the power to veto legislation passed by Democrats, and he is counting on fellow Republicans to protect him against veto overrides, which also need a two-thirds vote.

Republican legislators, in turn, are apt to influence his administration in a way that was impossible under a Democratic governor. Their conservative voter base is nearly the same as Schwarzenegger's. So is their pool of campaign donors. Like Schwarzenegger, Republican legislators are strong advocates of business and have chilly relations with labor.

"They are no longer shut out of the game," said Darry Sragow, a key campaign strategist for Assembly Democrats.

For Schwarzenegger, the first big challenge is to find a way out of the same severe fiscal troubles that hastened the downfall of Davis. His pledge not to raise taxes vastly complicates the task.

On Monday, Schwarzenegger will make it even more difficult: He plans to sign an executive order to rescind the tripling of the so-called car tax. The rollback will please millions of motorists and fulfill a key campaign promise. But if he also makes good on a pledge to make whole the local governments that receive the car tax revenue, it will widen the projected $10-billion budget hole next year to $14 billion.

To close the gap, Schwarzenegger faces tough choices. If he relies on spending cuts alone, the severity of the hits to higher education, health care and other programs would spark an uproar among Democrats and, most likely, a public outcry.

If he backs a mix of program cuts and tax hikes -- as Davis did -- he not only would face resistance from GOP lawmakers but also would risk erosion of his own political base. Schwarzenegger's call for fiscal restraint was his main appeal to conservative voters put off by his liberal views on social issues.

To break from the political bind, Schwarzenegger aides have floated a plan to borrow as much as $20 billion to balance the books. The proposed debt, along with a state spending cap long sought by Republicans, would be put before voters in March. Schwarzenegger could frame the ensuing campaign as a choice between borrowing or tax hikes, then claim a voter mandate for either one, depending on the results.

The proposal would be a gamble for Schwarzenegger. On its face, it appears to contradict his pledge during the recall campaign to "teach politicians in Sacramento that they can't spend money we don't have." Repayment of the debt, with interest, could drain nearly $40 billion from the state treasury -- and away from public services -- over perhaps three decades.

Still, over the last three years, Davis and the Legislature relied heavily on borrowing to break budget deadlocks. The bond plan would again spare the Legislature -- and Schwarzenegger -- from the political pain of tax hikes and draconian spending cuts. Republicans have already welcomed the plan.

"All we're doing is cleaning up the final mess of Davis," said Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the newly named Assembly GOP leader.

The proposal would offer an early test of Schwarzenegger's clout because it requires a quick deal with the Legislature. Lawmakers would have to approve it by Dec. 5 to qualify it for the March ballot, exposing Schwarzenegger to a major vote of confidence by Democrats less than three weeks after he takes office.

But many Democrats oppose a spending cap, and their initial reaction to the debt plan has been lukewarm.

"I'm just not confident at this point that that's the right way to go," Wesson said. "That's a lot of dough to be responsible for."

State Treasurer Phil Angelides, a Democrat preparing to run for governor in 2006, has been most outspoken against the plan.

He said Friday it would be "a huge mistake" for Schwarzenegger to "follow a reckless path of massive deficit borrowing, and to masquerade such borrowing as 'the answer' to California's budget crisis."

So far, though, few Democrats have challenged the new governor, who draws immense media attention to Sacramento at a time when legislators suffer from dismal poll ratings. The recall election exposed a deep vein of voter anger that jolted incumbents of both parties, and in that context, few appear eager to take on Schwarzenegger.

"For anybody to be obstructionist would be going against what Californians want to have happen," Wesson said.

Some Democrats worry that voters could next lash out against them. Despite a political map that keeps a solid majority of legislative seats safe for Democrats, a top party operative in the capital said some "very nervous members are fearful that a well-known popular movie star is going to go out and do active campaigning and fund-raising against them, and that's got them all freaked out."

It remains to be seen whether Schwarzenegger will use his fame to campaign against those who cross him. But his power to raise money was on display Saturday at an Indian Wells desert resort, where he was the star attraction at a sold-out fund-raiser for Republican legislative campaigns.

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Inauguration broadcasts

Several Southern California television stations will air special programs and provide live coverage of the inauguration of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor on Monday. The swearing-in ceremony is scheduled to take place on the Capitol steps in Sacramento at 11 a.m.

KCBS-TV Channel 2: Live coverage, 11 a.m.

KNBC-TV Channel 4: Special news coverage, 10 a.m.; Live coverage, 11 a.m.

KABC-TV Channel 7: Special news coverage, 10 a.m.; Live coverage, 11 a.m.

KCAL-TV Channel 9: Live coverage, 11 a.m.

Los Angeles Times

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction Sacramento politics -- An article in Sunday's Section A about the changing political landscape in Sacramento transposed the proportion of Democrats to Republicans in the state Assembly and Senate. Democrats outnumber Republicans, 48 to 32 in the Assembly and 25 to 15 in the Senate.
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