The phone rang at midnight.
Jeff Randle, one of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political consultants, was working in a hotel room near LAX on the night of Oct. 21 as he grabbed his cellphone. Who, Randle wondered, could be calling him at such an hour?
Pete Wilson was on the line. The former California governor had just clinched an agreement that, only 12 days before the election, would mean the collapse of Proposition 66, a measure to limit the state’s three-strikes law.
Henry T. Nicholas III, an Orange County billionaire whose sister was slain in 1984, had just promised Wilson a donation of $1.5 million for the campaign to defeat the initiative. That money would allow its opponents to broadcast TV commercials for the first time.
“My message on that call was: OK, you’ve got the money, so let’s go,” Wilson recalled last week. “This was the cavalry coming over the ridge.”
The day before Wilson’s midnight call, Californians appeared ready to pass Proposition 66. A Times poll showed it leading 62%-21% among registered voters. Less than two weeks later, after a media blitz financed by Nicholas, Proposition 66 lost, with 53.2% of voters against it. A final tally will not be available until all absentee and provisional ballots are counted.
“We’ve seen steep declines before,” says Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, which recorded a 65%-18% lead for Proposition 66 in early October. “The very late-breaking nature of this decline, I think, is unprecedented.”
The story of that turnaround highlights not only the power of money and the volatility of initiative politics, but also the continuing political partnership between the state’s two most recent Republican governors.
On Oct. 22, the day after Wilson’s call, Schwarzenegger made “No on 66" the top priority of his ballot measure campaigning. On Oct. 23, the governor spent the afternoon making TV advertisements opposing the initiative in a Los Angeles studio. Schwarzenegger also converted TV time he had bought to fight two gambling measures into time for “No on 66" ads.
“What I basically did was brought everyone together and said, ‘Look, guys ... we’ve got to go and communicate to the people,’ ” Schwarzenegger said last week.
Schwarzenegger also said he had asked Wilson to get involved. Wilson campaigned for the original three-strikes initiative in 1994 and maintains long-standing relationships with law enforcement and crime victims groups. Those involved in the No on 66 campaign say he provided a crucial bridge to Nicholas, law enforcement groups and Schwarzenegger’s political advisors, among them several one-time Wilson aides.
“We couldn’t generate momentum until Gov. Wilson and Gov. Schwarzenegger became involved,” said Ventura County Dist. Atty. Greg Totten, who has known Wilson for years.
“I was a nag,” said Wilson, who downplays his work and credits Nicholas and Schwarzenegger with the No on 66 comeback. The anti-66 campaign had been kept alive since the spring by the California District Attorneys Assn. and the state prison guards union, which hired the campaign’s political consultants and paid for focus groups.
Schwarzenegger agreed to oppose 66 and sign the official ballot argument against it in early summer. But until mid-October, the governor had focused his attention and political money on defeating two gambling measures, Propositions 68 and 70. No other major donors had stepped up to help the No on 66 campaign.
In early October, campaign manager Richard Temple told a meeting of district attorneys: “If we don’t get up on TV, we’ll lose.” Solano County Dist. Atty. Dave Paulson and California District Attorneys Assn. executive director Dave LaBahn went to Randle’s office shortly thereafter, the two men say, to plead for Schwarzenegger’s help.
With 68 and 70 badly trailing, the governor’s team debated whether to make the defeat of 66 its next priority, or focus more on two other ballot measures -- Propositions 64 and 72 -- of concern to the business community.
Schwarzenegger answered that question after attending a No on 66 news conference in Ontario on Oct. 20. The day did not begin auspiciously. Some local TV reporters who had been expected to attend the event were reassigned to cover a large Southern California rainstorm. No on 66 campaign aides gave the news media a DVD with a TV advertisement they had not found the money to air.
But the governor was visibly moved when he met victims of criminals who might have been released if 66 had passed. At the end of the event, he asked the victims to attend other public events for No on 66, according to one victim and an aide. He told political advisors he wanted to do more to help the campaign.
“It hit him in the heart,” said Don Sipple, a strategist who makes the governor’s ads.
The next night, Wilson got Nicholas on the phone. The No on 66 campaign had been asking Nicholas for money since September, but the founder of the semiconductor company Broadcom had been distracted by his search for a new chief executive.
Wilson had worked with Nicholas on Proposition 21 -- a juvenile crime measure passed in March 2000 -- and knew Nicholas’ mother, Marcella Leach, who had started a victims’ rights group. Nicholas was shocked to learn from Wilson that polls showed Proposition 66 would pass. He was impressed that Schwarzenegger opposed the measure.
“I said, ‘I trust your judgment, Pete,’ ” said Nicholas. “If you think Arnold is willing to go all out, I’ll put $1.5 million in.”
The next day, Schwarzenegger agreed to jump in. Sipple wrote scripts for ads juxtaposing the governor against blown-up mug shots of three-strikes criminals; the ads were just 15 seconds, so air time could be bought on short notice and the ads could be repeated often.
The governor’s political advisors have sought to emphasize that Schwarzenegger, criticized for being too cautious in picking fights, was challenging a ballot measure that had majority support in polls. “I think it shows the governor was willing to take a risk,” said Randle.
The Schwarzenegger ads were on the air by the morning of Oct. 27. That same week, the prison guards union contributed $500,000 more to the campaign. The governor contributed more than $2 million through the California Recovery Team, a fund he established last year to pay for his ballot initiative campaigns. Nicholas made additional donations throughout the week -- in the end, he gave a total of $3.5 million to fight 66.
On Oct. 28, Schwarzenegger and Wilson appeared together at a Los Angeles news conference, along with former governors Jerry Brown and Gray Davis, to denounce 66. The governor made a No on 66 message a central part of his bus tour around the state that Saturday and declared all his last-minute appearances with Republican legislative candidates Monday to be No on 66 events.
Nicholas, who stayed in close touch with Wilson, spent the weekend making and buying his own radio ads -- at times with his personal credit card.
On Saturday night, he sent his private plane to Oakland to pick up the city’s mayor, former Gov. Brown, and fly him to Long Beach. Brown was taken to a studio at the home of Ryan Shuck, guitarist of the group Orgy. Joined by musicians that included Korn drummer David Silvera, he recorded radio ads from 11:30 p.m. until 2:30 a.m.
“It was a very loose, cool mood,” said Shuck. “I had Korn, Orgy, Jerry Brown and Dr. Nicholas in my house all at once. Pretty bizarre.”
Proposition 66 supporters dogged the governor’s public appearances throughout the weekend, seeking out reporters to give them instant responses to Schwarzenegger’s statements. But Yes on 66 campaign officials said they were overwhelmed by the size and scope of the No on 66 media campaign.
“The suddenness of it all was just stunning,” said Sandy Harrison, a spokesman for Yes on 66. Harrison called attacks on the measure “flat-out false.”
But he added: “Everything changed in the last few days. They basically bought up every inch of unused air time that was available. And the governor was just an awesome messenger for them.”
On election night, early returns showed the measure passing. But the Yes tally lost ground as the night went on. At 11:30 p.m., Schwarzenegger took the stage at his Beverly Hilton celebration and declared victory -- even though 66 still held a slight majority.
After his speech, results began to show the number of No votes surpassing the Yes votes. A cheer went up from the district attorneys in one of the ballrooms. The clock read midnight.
Wilson stayed past 1 a.m., shaking hands and chatting with former aides now working for Schwarzenegger. “Our guys have been thanking both governors,” said LaBahn, the executive director of the district attorneys group. “Wilson and Schwarzenegger -- that’s a tough team to beat.”
Times staff writer Jenifer Warren contributed to this report.