Schwarzenegger’s Top Ally Steps In

Times Staff Writers

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is facing infighting among his senior staff and campaign team, which has contributed to a series of political missteps that threaten the once soaring governor’s ambitious agenda, more than a dozen aides and lawmakers said Thursday.

One sign of the governor’s troubles is the active involvement of his wife, Maria Shriver. The first lady is conferring with consultants to refine the governor’s message and working to ensure that her husband hears a broader range of voices.

The problems are considered bad enough that they are expected to be discussed today as the governor’s senior aides gather for a strategy meeting.


Schwarzenegger is reeling after successive policy reversals, gaffes and clashes with well-organized opponents have deflated his once-buoyant approval ratings. The latest setback came this week when he told a newspaper publishers association that the United States should “close its borders.” He later apologized, explaining that he misspoke because of his imperfect command of English.

But a range of advisors see the remark as a sign of deeper strains. People with ties to the administration use words like “dysfunctional” and “civil war” to describe the atmosphere within the warren of offices where Schwarzenegger and his top aides work.

Most of those interviewed would not agree to be identified when discussing the inner workings of the Schwarzenegger administration for fear of alienating him. Many are supporters who couple their criticism with praise for Schwarzenegger and his political and policy goals.

The consensus reflects more than a dozen interviews with senior Schwarzenegger aides, outside political consultants, associates of the governor and his wife, and Republicans and Democrats who interact regularly with the administration.

Lawmakers say they are confused about who speaks for the administration and who has the authority to close political deals.

Several people familiar with the governor’s office described Shriver as very “unhappy” and “frustrated” over her husband’s fortunes. Shriver, the niece of former president John F. Kennedy who has intervened before when her husband’s political interests were in jeopardy, is using a national tour promoting her new self-help book for teenage girls to defend her husband, making her case with administration talking points.


“She is concerned about what appears to be some change in public perception of her husband,” said a person familiar with Shriver’s thinking. “She’s always been incredibly loyal to him and she has begun to address this -- not only in terms of getting consultants to figure out how to convey the message, but also to get a sense of what the administration needs to do to consider other input so he will have a balanced and fully informed perspective as he goes forward.”

But Rob Stutzman, the governor’s communications director, said of Shriver, a former television news correspondent: “Maria regularly interacts with us. We share ideas back and forth, particularly on communication. Obviously that is a business she comes from. I talk to her at a minimum on a weekly basis and that has been from the start of the administration.”

A consequence of the internal infighting has been an increasingly emboldened opposition, with Democrats in the Legislature spurning talk of compromise and expressing optimism that they can unseat Schwarzenegger in 2006 -- a prospect that seemed far-fetched as little as three months ago.

“While the governor was still in the planning stage, still debating within his inner circle which direction he wanted to take

Schwarzenegger is at a political crossroads where a stable, smooth-running office is increasingly important. Having promised that 2005 would be the “year of reform,” he must decide within the next month or so whether to call a special election and bring to the ballot proposals to curb state spending and change how voting districts are drawn, among other proposals.

Fissures within Schwarzenegger’s shop were apparent from the time he came to power.

A conservative wing includes chief of staff Patricia Clarey, legislative secretary Richard Costigan and Stutzman. All have extensive experience in Sacramento government circles.


A liberal faction is headed by cabinet secretary Terry Tamminen and senior advisor Bonnie Reiss. Both are comparative newcomers to state government who have strong relationships with Schwarzenegger.

Complicating matters further is the governor’s penchant for spurning guidance from his staff and reaching out for advice to outside friends and businesspeople he respects.

One person familiar with the workings of the administration said Schwarzenegger may sit in a meeting with staff and agree on a direction. Then he “will talk to someone from outside the administration and start down a different path than the one he was on two hours before.”

Stutzman countered: “The governor has been very open with the fact that he enjoys being surrounded with multiple points of view. I think outsiders that observe our administration, but don’t work in it day to day, wrongfully assume that that means there are lines of division.”

People close to the office describe a hub-and-spoke system with Schwarzenegger at the center and various aides having little idea what others are doing. Though that structure has centralized power at Schwarzenegger’s desk, downsides include confusion and a lack of coordination among staff members.

One lawmaker, who would not be identified, said Schwarzenegger’s top staff made clear that they, and not Finance Director Tom Campbell, should be consulted on budget policy -- although a governor’s finance director traditionally serves as chief budget negotiator.


This week, union officials abruptly broke off negotiations with the governor over cutting public pension costs.

Schwarzenegger wants to cut a deal with unions that represent firefighters and police without including top-level state lawmakers in the discussions, union officials said.

“Do Not Attend Any Future Meetings,” read an e-mail to several dozen union officials this week.

The e-mail from a California State Employees Assn. official said that union representatives had sat down to negotiate with Schwarzenegger aide Pat Dando, but had asked that the state’s two top Democratic legislative leaders, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, attend as well.

“Their response was ... they were moving forward with discussions on specific proposals with those in the room, and if we didn’t want to participate, that was our business,” said the e-mail from Dave Low with the union. “At that point we left the room.”

A day later, the Schwarzenegger administration asked Perata and Nunez to meet privately with the governor to talk about pension reform.


After a disciplined first year in which the governor methodically took on one issue at a time, his approach now is more scattershot, some advisors said. Schwarzenegger’s public schedule offers an example.

In recent days, Schwarzenegger has done public events to announce a new nurse training program, collect signatures at a Chevy’s restaurant near Sacramento to bring his issues to the ballot, stand on the roof of a state building to promote solar power, and tour a charter school in Los Angeles to champion education.

Tensions played out last week after one set of Schwarzenegger consultants organized a “Thank Arnold” rally on the steps of the Capitol at 10:30 a.m. on a Wednesday. Attendance was sparse.

The governor’s staff was embarrassed after Schwarzenegger’s friend, actor Tom Arnold, made the audience believe that the governor was poised to appear. But Schwarzenegger never showed.

Last year, Schwarzenegger had clear goals: a budget with no new taxes; an overhaul of the workers’ compensation system; a borrowing plan.

Schwarzenegger’s agenda this year has been a moving target. He laid out an ambitious agenda in his State of the State speech, vowing to upend the state’s political establishment through far-reaching changes.


Over the last few months, Schwarzenegger’s agenda has steadily shrunk. He had promised to do away with 88 boards and commissions he deemed duplicative or unnecessary.

Then he retreated.


Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak and Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.



Gov.’s Controversial Q&A;

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he misspoke when he told a group of newspaper executives Tuesday that he would “close the borders” to control illegal immigration. He said he meant to say that he would “secure” the borders. Here is the question and answer at issue:

Question: Governor ... I’m wondering, as an immigrant yourself, in a state with many immigrants, legal and illegal, if you have any thoughts you could share with us on immigration policy and any changes you might want to see made?

Governor: Well, again, it’s a federal issue, and the only thing that I can say and add to this is really, close the borders. Close the borders and (inaudible) all across between Mexico and the United States. Because I think it is just unfair to have all of those people coming across and to have the borders open the way that it is and have this kind of a lax situation. I think we here in California have to still finish the border. So I think that’s the key thing, is to have borders, and to keep the law, enforce the law.

And from then on I think that it is very important to look at all of the proposals that are on the table, if it is Sen. McCain’s, Sen. Kennedy’s -- or the Bush administration has talked about, you know, our reform, what we should do with the people that are here undocumented, and what we should do about guest workers’ programs and all of those things.

But like I said, this is a very important debate. I think that it is necessary that we solve the problems rather than everyone trying to kind of try to run the other way, because it’s such a hot issue and such a political issue. So I think that they have to eventually get together and really solve those problems. But like I said, it’s a national issue and there’s not much we can do here in California.


Source: Governor’s Press Office