Governor Breaks Ranks Toward Center

Times Staff Writers

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed a $3-billion measure Monday to fund embryonic stem cell research, a move that could be pivotal in one of the year’s most closely watched initiative campaigns.

The decision was one of two that put the Republican governor at odds with his party, statewide and nationally.

It was also the latest in a string of positions taken by Schwarzenegger that have upset some conservatives: signing legislation last month that expanded domestic partnership rights for gay couples, allowing free needles for drug users, and paroling convicted murderers far more often than his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.


Schwarzenegger seemed unconcerned about such disputes. “The Republican Party goes all the way from the right to the center, as much as the Democratic Party goes from the center to the left,” he said just after announcing his support for the stem cell measure. “I think I’m much more in the center.”

Proposition 71, the proposal to invest billions in embryonic stem cell research, has been ahead in polls but not decisively. Schwarzenegger’s support, therefore, could be significant.

Sources close to the governor said supporters of the measure had aggressively pursued the governor’s endorsement in hopes that he could sway Republican voters who were concerned about the measure’s cost.

The initiative would cost an estimated $6 billion in principal and interest over the 30-year course of the loan.

It would provide about $300 million a year for grants and facilities for the next decade if passed, money to be administered through the creation of a private California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

The governor made his endorsement unexpectedly at an environmental event when he was asked by a reporter where he stood on the initiative.


“First of all, I endorse Proposition 71,” Schwarzenegger said, with the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean as his backdrop. “Even though I haven’t come out publicly, I have been very open about that I am very much interested in stem cell research and support it 100%.”

Although he had not announced a position before, “it was just a question of how the state will handle the financial side of it,” the governor said.

He went on to say that supporters of the measure “have done something smart -- which is that there are no payments due in the next five years -- so that is what really made me decide to support it.”

Schwarzenegger said that he believed in the promise of embryonic stem cell research, which many scientists believe shows great promise in the effort to treat and understand diseases.

“I hope it will win so that eventually 10 years from now or 15 years from now, people will be safe from those terrible illnesses,” Schwarzenegger said of Proposition 71.

In a statement released afterward by his campaign office, Schwarzenegger elaborated on his decision.


“California has always been a pioneer,” he said. “We daringly led the way for the high-tech industry and now voters can help ensure we lead the way for the biotech.”

The announcement was greeted with dismay by some opponents of the proposition. “The state’s borrowing is already completely out of control. This measure makes our future problems substantially worse,” said state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks).

McClintock compared the governor’s support for the spending to a bankrupt family investing thousands of dollars in scientific research.

“It might be highly commendable,” he said, “but it is wildly irresponsible.”

Faced with polls showing strong support in the state for embryonic stem cell research, opponents of Proposition 71 have focused their arguments on the cost of the measure, rather than the moral arguments about research using embryonic cells.

But the state’s Roman Catholic bishops have issued letters opposing the initiative that have been read in many churches. Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, criticized the governor’s decision “quick to embrace the biotechnical without giving due consideration to the bioethical.”

Tamberg said the $3 billion would be better spent on millions of uninsured Californians “who have illnesses that can be treated right now.”


Last month, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, speaking to reporters and editors at The Times, predicted that Schwarzenegger would come out against Proposition 71 for economic reasons. Tamberg said Monday that he did not know if Mahony, who is traveling in Africa, had spoken about the issue with Schwarzenegger, who is Catholic.

The governor has met with both sides of the Proposition 71 measure in recent weeks to hear their reasoning.

He was genuinely torn, according to a person familiar with his thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He is concerned about the state’s debt -- and the funds to repay the bond will eventually come from the general fund.

But he strongly supports stem cell research. One reason, he said, is that his father-in-law, Sargent Shriver, has Alzheimer’s, a disease that might benefit from embryonic stem cell research.

Schwarzenegger did not indicate whether he would campaign for Proposition 71.

He has sent a mailer to about 5 million Californians, mostly Republicans, stating his position on several measures, but not Proposition 71.


But supporters of the measure, who already have an overwhelming lead in fundraising, said they believed his endorsement would help them.

“His voice is a very strong voice and a very respected voice in terms of the state economics,” said Fiona Hutton, spokeswoman for the Yes on 71 campaign.

Opponents of the initiative downplayed the governor’s support for the measure.

“If it comes down to one vote,” said Wayne Johnson, a Republican consultant who is heading the opposition, “then I guess we’ll lose.”

Times staff writers Evan Halper and Robert Salladay contributed to this report.