If you recall, it was the money
The Collapse of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Year of Reform” includes not only political bumbling -- witness the death rattle of his vaunted array of ballot initiatives -- but complete tone-deafness about personal finance. The man who boasted that he was rich enough to swear off other people’s money lets corporate interests pay his $6,000-a-month rent.
Schwarzenegger blames union attack ads for an approval rating that has fallen from the stratosphere to the level of former Gov. Gray Davis. His wounds, though, are self-inflicted.
As The Times reported last week, Schwarzenegger’s supporters have used nonprofit organizations to cover costs for the governor -- his rent at a Sacramento hotel, some of his overseas travel, even splashy media events. These groups are generally exempt from financial disclosure laws, and some refuse to say where they get their money. Others acknowledge that their donors include corporations affected by state actions.
To be fair, Schwarzenegger and his backers are in familiar company, for cozy relationships with the well-heeled are nothing new in California politics. When he was governor, Pat Brown allowed financier Lou Lurie to pay his daughter’s tuition at Stanford. Ronald Reagan’s political career was launched when rich friends paid for television time to air a speech he had given in Los Angeles. Wealthy supporters bought a house for George Deukmejian to live in, at no cost to him, a practice kept alive for Pete Wilson and Davis. Davis used nonprofit groups to pay for, among other things, a party at the Democratic National Convention in 2000.
History, though, is of little help to Schwarzenegger. Some of his blunders are unprecedented, such as the smelly deal to take millions for “editing” two bodybuilding magazines that benefited from a gubernatorial veto. No California governor -- certainly not the much-maligned Davis -- ever moonlighted for a fraction of that kind of money.
Nor have Schwarzenegger’s predecessors sat atop so fat a wallet. If he is reelected in 2006 and serves as governor for seven years, his Sacramento hotel suite will cost roughly $500,000 -- nearly three years of an ordinary governor’s state salary but pocket change for Schwarzenegger. In 2001, the last year for which the governor released his tax returns, he reported income of more than $26 million. After all, he is refusing his gubernatorial salary. If he won’t take money from the taxpayers for whom he works, why take it from special interests with business before the state?
Still, the clincher is that Schwarzenegger ran on a pledge to clean up the state’s money-soaked politics. Republican consultant Frank Luntz wrote a memo in 2003 noting that, in the effort to recall Davis, “issues are less important than attributes and character traits.” Republicans, including Schwarzenegger, grabbed that theme and hammered at Davis as a politician obsessed with money and ambition, a man who rewarded his supporters, punished his opponents and demanded tribute from those who sought his favor. Californians came to expect that if they replaced Davis with a political outsider, the result would be an era of newfound public rectitude, not business as usual.
Perhaps Schwarzenegger, new to politics and steeped in the anything-goes milieu of Hollywood, failed to understand the need for financial purity. He insists that his wealth means he cannot be swayed by the pleas of even the largest donors. But how can his professional advisors have been so blind? You cannot boot out the last guy for hazy financial deals and then vacuum up cash in ways that are hidden from public view. If you convince the town of the evils of demon rum, it hurts your cause when you show up falling-down drunk.
Because of who he is and what he has said, Schwarzenegger is bound to be seen differently than other politicians. Everything about him -- his background, his fortune, the circumstances of his election -- is atypical.
Occasionally this has worked in his favor, as when the public shrugged off allegations of groping women as if they were just so much Hollywood gossip. But when it comes to money, the governor was elected to break with history, not abide by its grimier traditions.