Brokering Consensus at the Capitol
Officially, the chief of staff to Nevada’s governor was invited to Brentwood to brief California’s governor-elect on border issues from gambling to energy to Lake Tahoe.
But for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the purpose of those three hours of meetings at his home on a Saturday in October was to size up the Nevadan. He was impressed. Within days, the governor-elect had begun a successful effort to recruit her to his senior staff.
Months later, Marybel Batjer, now the governor’s Cabinet secretary, has emerged as a crucial behind-the-scenes broker between the ideologically opposite poles of the Schwarzenegger administration. As much as anyone, Batjer embodies the politically ambidextrous nature of Schwarzenegger’s administration, an ability to get beyond ideological arguments that has proved highly popular with the state’s voters, although frustrating for some more conservative Republicans.
In recent weeks, Batjer has helped bring together the administration’s top environmental, health and agricultural officials -- which represent the left, center and right of Schwarzenegger’s team -- to issue safety guidelines for ammonium perchlorate. (The guidelines would make California the first state in the nation to regulate perchlorate).
Hers has been a key voice as the administration gears up to fight military base closures, and she traveled with the governor to Washington in February to seek more federal money for California. She played a major role in fighting off a move in Congress to prevent California from imposing tougher anti-pollution rules on small engines used in machines such as lawn mowers.
While the governor spends much of his time campaigning around the state for ballot measures and such priorities as workers’ compensation, Batjer remains in her Sacramento office working hours so long that colleagues worry about her health. As Cabinet secretary, she oversees policy on all issues except gambling. (She has disqualified herself from that issue because of her previous work for Las Vegas impresario Steve Wynn.)
‘Pulls No Punches’
A Republican, Batjer has nonetheless fashioned a career working with well-known men with maverick instincts and bipartisan politics, from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to Nevada’s businessman-turned-governor Kenny Guinn to the current officeholder in California.
“She can deliver bad news,” Powell said in an interview. “No matter who you are, she is candid and pulls no punches. If you don’t like the answer you’re liable to get, don’t ask her the question. She put me in my place many times.”
Batjer’s ability to deal with larger-than-life personalities is based largely on self-effacement, say those who know her. She agreed to an interview for this story only after other aides prevailed upon her for weeks, arguing that she deserved the notice.
She described her management strategy as “emulating the management style of my boss.” Of her superiors, she said: “You know what the common thread is: kindness.”
“I’ve been lucky,” Batjer said. “Even though I’ve been in politics and government all of my life, I’ve never worked for a strong partisan person.”
“I think you always must work to make government more effective,” she added. “I believe very much in the middle, in driving attitudes to the middle. I don’t think ideology on either end of the spectrum usually is a force that in government works effectively.”
Batjer, who is better known inside than outside the administration, so far has escaped criticism from conservative politicians. “I don’t really know her, and I don’t think staff controls him as much as people sometimes think,” former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian said, referring to the governor. “His staff appears to be serving his wishes. If he does something in the liberal column, that’s him.”
Friends say Batjer inherited her evenhanded temperament from her father, a Nevada Supreme Court justice named Cameron Batjer. Raised in Carson City, Batjer is descended from some of northern Nevada’s earliest ranching families on her father’s side -- and from an engineer who built many of the state’s reservoirs on her mother’s. Even as a very young girl, Batjer was keenly aware of politics, quizzing her kindergarten teacher about whether she had voted for Nixon.
“She doesn’t lack for confidence,” and she’s really smart, said former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a Nevadan who has known Batjer since she was a child. “She grew up around people who were in politics and government, so she never took herself or politics so seriously. There’s always a little twinkle in her eye.”
Batjer attended two colleges, graduating from Mills in Oakland, before taking a job writing regulatory manuals for Bechtel, the engineering giant with close ties to the Republican elite. At 23, she ran for office for the first -- and only -- time in her life, seeking a seat on the board of directors of the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District.
It started as a lark -- a test of whether someone with an unusual name could win votes. But after attending a candidates’ forum and being embarrassed by her lack of knowledge of the issues, she took a leave from Bechtel, won newspaper endorsements -- and lost narrowly.
The experience convinced her that she was not cut out for electoral politics, but fueled her interest in public affairs. In 1981, she went to work as a political liaison for Caspar Weinberger, the former Bechtel executive turned secretary of Defense. She soon made friends with the military aide assigned to Deputy Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci -- an officer named Colin L. Powell.
“Marybel, who probably could not have distinguished an admiral from a doorman before she came to the Pentagon, displayed a native shrewdness at sizing up people, a talent invaluable in someone handling political appointments,” Powell wrote in his autobiography.
In 1987, Powell became national security advisor to President Reagan; Batjer also moved to the White House, helping to arrange summit meetings with foreign leaders, including the Soviets.
“She had to make sure all of that was done well, to bring lots of political points of view into the same room,” Powell said in an interview. “She was able to do it in a way that brought people together.”
Batjer says that during her time in Washington, she often thought of returning West.
“The first thing to know about Marybel is that she loves her native Nevada,” said Charlie Rose, the talk show host and a Batjer friend.
After Pete Wilson was elected governor of California in 1990, she went to work for him, serving as an undersecretary for the state Business Transportation and Housing Agency and as chief deputy director for the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing in the mid-1990s.
As Wilson left office, Wynn came calling. He had learned of Batjer through Powell; Batjer had visited Powell while the retired general was staying at Wynn’s house on Lake Tahoe. Wynn created a top-level management program at his Mirage Resorts for Batjer -- he wanted her to help him run his business. She was just about done when Wynn decided to sell Mirage to the MGM Grand.
“The timing didn’t work out,” Wynn said. “But she’s a great gal. She can work for me anytime.”
Guinn, then in his first term as Nevada governor, recruited her. A businessman new to electoral politics, he wanted her political experience, he said.
Batjer joined the Guinn administration as chief of staff in December 2000. She hired Democrats into the administration and implemented a performance review of government much like the one the Schwarzenegger administration is now conducting under Batjer’s chief deputy, Paul Miner.
Batjer said she saw spending cuts as the way to balance a budget and tax increases as a last resort. In 2003, after years of pushing unpopular spending cuts through the Nevada Legislature, Batjer helped Guinn get an $835-million tax increase passed. The package raised political hackles and required two special sessions, but it allowed the state to keep schools from shutting down early.
“It was tough, but I never once ever saw her lose her temper,” Guinn said. “She only had really two faults -- she works too hard and too long. I wish we still had her.”
Schwarzenegger had known of Batjer not only from Wilson aides but through Wynn’s wife, Elaine, who served on the board of the Inner City Games Foundation, a key Schwarzenegger charity.
On Oct. 25, Schwarzenegger and his advisors invited Batjer to his home, where she met for three hours with Schwarzenegger; Pat Clarey, who ended up as the governor’s chief of staff; Joe Rodota, the campaign’s policy chief; and longtime Schwarzenegger aide Bonnie Reiss.
Batjer told the Nevada media that the meeting was to “set up good relations between the two states.” But three days later, Schwarzenegger called Guinn to talk about hiring Batjer away.
Batjer has been the administration’s bad cop on some matters. It was her duty to fire the DMV chief -- by cellphone -- just hours into the administration.
More often, however, her job has been to keep people working together. “It’s amazing how accessible she is,” said Terry Tamminen, the governor’s secretary of environmental protection. “Let’s face it: All of us have ways to circumvent the Cabinet secretary if we want to. The point is that none of us wants us to. It’s the kind of loyalty she engenders.”
At the same time, Cabinet members say, Batjer has helped build an esprit de corps, rotating Cabinet meetings at different agencies and making herself available to help secretaries get messages to the governor.
She also put together the Cabinet Christmas party. It was a dinner held on the 15th floor of the Hyatt hotel, where the governor stays when he is in Sacramento. The governor dryly toasted his Cabinet as “the best, brightest and most talented Cabinet” with whom he had ever served. Cabinet members then celebrated Schwarzenegger as the finest, Austrian-born bodybuilder, movie-star governor with whom they had ever served.
Soon it was revealed that at least three members of Schwarzenegger’s Cabinet -- Tamminen, Health and Human Services Secretary Kim Belshe and acting Labor and Workforce Agency Secretary Victoria Bradshaw -- had studied German.
Tamminen then sang the first verse of “O Tannenbaum” in German. The governor sang the second verse. For her part, Batjer stood quietly in the crowd and enjoyed the harmony.