Schwarzenegger's Populist Beliefs Guide His Strategy

Times Staff Writer

Less than a week into office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is turning the initiative process into a main arm of his administration.

Even as the new governor keeps the state Legislature in special session and pledges to work closely with its members, he also is setting the stage to go over their heads and govern directly through an extensive series of ballot measures.

Schwarzenegger could be supporting or sponsoring as many as four measures on the March ballot and as many as half a dozen next November.

If he goes forward, the governor will offer a new twist on the notion of modern politics as a "permanent campaign." He also will be embracing direct democracy with a fervor striking even for California, where politics has been dominated by citizens' initiatives for more than a generation.

California governors have long sponsored initiatives to get their way on particular issues. But Schwarzenegger has yet to articulate a major policy that does not involve seeking the approval of voters, especially if lawmakers fail to act.

For the March 2 ballot, Schwarzenegger wants voters to consider as much as $15 billion in budget deficit bonds, a legislative spending cap and possibly an open-government measure. If the Legislature does not repeal the law that allows illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, he has indicated that he will back an existing referendum campaign on that issue.

For next November, he and aides have discussed several more measures. But the governor has indicated that he is less interested in the outcomes of his ballot measures than in allowing the public to determine his government's course.

"Let the people decide," he said last week, explaining his approach to the state budget and just about everything else. "That's the great thing.... We want to let the people know: 'Here's the situation that we're in, the crisis that we're in. You decide which way you want to go.' And if they vote yes, it would be great. If they vote no, then we have to go take on that challenge" and act through the Legislature.

Schwarzenegger began laying the groundwork for ballot measure campaigns even before he was elected, and his proposals for specific initiatives were made public before he even completed selecting his Cabinet.

Rather than disbanding his campaign aides, he has kept them in place. Last week, an official of Navigators, the Washington, D.C., political consulting firm of top Schwarzenegger strategist Mike Murphy, was scouting office locations in Sacramento. The governor also has asked campaign donors to "open their wallets" again for his ballot measures.

Though some see Schwarzenegger's use of the ballot as purely tactical, aides say the governor -- in speeches and in private discussions -- has expressed a profound personal belief in populism.

That political philosophy also is his legislative strategy. As a centrist Republican with few natural allies in a highly partisan Legislature, he gains some degree of political leverage through government by ballot measure. His message to lawmakers is: Work with Schwarzenegger on his issues, or watch him use his fame and riches to enact his agenda at the ballot box.

The strategy also reflects Schwarzenegger's growing comfort with ballot measures. He built a political resume not by seeking lower office, but by writing and sponsoring Proposition 49, an initiative to set aside money for after-school programs. That was the template for his gubernatorial campaign, which itself was part of a ballot measure: the recall. Schwarzenegger adopted his Proposition 49 slogan, "Join Arnold," for the gubernatorial race.

What's more, the governor has framed his political career as a natural progression from his work as a bodybuilder and movie star. In his stance on ballot measures, he has struck a pose similar to that of many of his movie characters: He won't let initial defeat -- whether by predatory monster or android or terrorists or, in this case, the Legislature -- prevent him from completing his mission.

Using ballot measures to govern "turns the day-to-day business of democracy into big events that depend on marketing and large publics," said Martin Kaplan, director of USC's Norman Lear Center, which studies the intersection of politics and entertainment.

Kaplan said that although Schwarzenegger might have calculated that Sacramento's legislative gridlock is too great, initiatives should be a last resort.

"Maybe he's right" about the Legislature, Kaplan said. "On the other hand, the risks, the tyranny of the majority, the cult of personality.... The reason that we have representative institutions and the reasons we're willing to put up with them is that those results are less dangerous than constantly going to the people."

Also, some ballot measures can become double-edged swords that impose tax or spending requirements that reduce the flexibility lawmakers have to react to financial crises.

Schwarzenegger's stated strategy dates to the late days of his gubernatorial campaign. Six days before the election, he gave a speech outlining a 10-point plan for his first 100 days in office. He said he would submit at least four of the proposals to voters.

His commitment to direct democracy became more apparent during the transition, as Schwarzenegger asked his political team to stay on.

The governor's strategists have been tight-lipped about their specific operational plans, but aides say the structure and message of the initiative push could in some respects resemble those of the gubernatorial campaign. Campaign strategists Murphy and Don Sipple are heading up the effort, along with political consultant George Gorton, campaign spokesmen Todd Harris and Sean Walsh, and the head of the campaign's endorsement shop, Jeff Randle.

Of the possible ballot measures, Harris, who is moving to Sacramento from Florida where he worked for Gov. Jeb Bush, said last week: "This is a reminder to obstructionists in Sacramento and to the forces of the status quo that there's a third way. And that third way is for the governor to marry his popularity with his unprecedented ability to get his message out and to take the debate straight to the people."

Schwarzenegger made similar statements all last week.

"We're going to be back in the trenches again; we will be rolling up our sleeves, and I will come back to you for help," Schwarzenegger said at a post-inaugural luncheon for 2,000 supporters. "Because there's a lot of things that need to be done. We want to put on the ballot in March, the bond. We want to put workers' compensation on the ballot. All of those kind of reforms we want to put on the ballot."

On Tuesday, at his first news conference as governor, Schwarzenegger said "Californians should have the right to vote" on his proposals. At a rally Thursday at a San Fernando Valley auto dealership, he accused legislators not only of opposing his policy views, but also of trying to deny Californians the franchise. He said legislators might not approve his plan before Dec. 5 -- the deadline for adding measures to the March ballot -- "because they don't want you to get the choice; they don't want you to vote on that."

In radio interviews, he praised state lawmakers back-handedly: "They're not irrelevant." At the same time, he even suggested an unofficial referendum of sorts on his repeal of the car-tax increase, saying citizens could show their support for the tax cut by buying vehicles.

In addition to the measures for the March ballot, measures on open government, education, the budget, regulatory relief for business and workers' compensation reform are among the proposals that could appear on the ballot next November.

Political experts and historians say that if Schwarzenegger follows through on his ballot measures, the approach could be revolutionary.

Robert Stern of the nonprofit Center for Government Studies said that only Gov. Hiram Johnson -- who was elected in 1911 and instituted the initiative, referendum and recall processes -- used the instruments of direct democracy to the extent that Schwarzenegger is suggesting. The new governor has called Johnson one of his political heroes.

"I can't think of a governor proposing a series of measures to this extent, but that's what he was elected to do: shake things up," Stern said. Ballot measures are "really his main leverage. The ultimate leverage he would have is sponsoring an initiative to make the Legislature part time. That's a guillotine he has hanging over their heads, and it would be very popular."

An advisor to the governor said Friday that such an initiative has not been discussed.

Stern said the example closest to what Schwarzenegger is proposing was the 1990 gubernatorial campaign of former state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp. In that campaign, he concurrently sponsored major initiatives as part of a promise to "make policy in real time."

In a telephone interview from his Los Angeles office last week, Van de Kamp said he did not want to comment on the substance of Schwarzenegger's proposals. But he said talk of putting measures on the ballot might be premature for a new governor.

"It's a strange way for him to get started. It seems to me that it's very early to do that," said Van de Kamp, who is now president of Thoroughbred Owners of California, which could be involved in a gambling initiative next November. "He hasn't given the Legislature the opportunity to respond to his initiatives."

Van de Kamp said that, in retrospect, his own strategy was problematic. The initiatives he sponsored cluttered the ballot, overwhelming voters. Some proposals, particularly a massive environmental initiative called Big Green, were simply too complicated. Van de Kamp lost the Democratic primary to Dianne Feinstein. All three initiatives he sponsored eventually lost.

Schwarzenegger could run into the same fundamental problem. "They should be concerned about overloading the ballot, and about the simplicity of what they're proposing," Van de Kamp said. "Mistakes get made in initiatives. That's one of the advantages of the legislative process: You can go back and fix mistakes. But with initiatives, once you draft them, they are out there.

"I don't think there's a recent history of governors doing as much as he's suggesting here," he added.


Times staff writers Peter Nicholas and Jeffrey L. Rabin contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World