Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may fashion himself as an ideological centrist, but he continues to govern as an extremist. The selection of true-blue Democrat Susan Kennedy as his new chief of staff is the latest example.
It isn’t philosophical extremism -- left or right -- I’m talking about. It’s extremist actions.
Examples dominate Schwarzenegger’s novice governorship: Borrowing billions into the next generation to pay daily bills. Publicly belittling the fellow politicians and interest groups he must deal with to accomplish much. Calling an expensive special election to push a partisan “reform” agenda rather than patiently operating within our proven government system of checks and balances.
Schwarzenegger has pushed beyond the normal boundaries of a governor and was slapped down three weeks ago by voters.
And now. There simply is no precedent -- at least in any current political lifetime -- for what Schwarzenegger did Wednesday: Appoint a hard-core, dedicated soldier from the enemy camp as his chief of staff. Not just an “advisor” or “counselor” -- but his No. 1, his alter ego. His confidant who gets in the last word.
Spinners have noted that Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Republican B.T. Collins to be his chief of staff. But Brown was headed out the door when he named the popular Vietnam vet to replace Gray Davis in 1981. And unlike Kennedy, Collins had never been a party activist. In fact, he disdained politics. Moreover, also unlike Kennedy, he already had been a key member of the administration for five years and had worked closely with the governor.
Kennedy, for decades, has been a liberal activist and a political strategist -- for abortion rights, the state Democratic party, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Gov. Gray Davis, who appointed her to the California Public Utilities Commission.
State Treasurer Phil Angelides, who’s running hard against Schwarzenegger for governor, gave Kennedy her first big political job when he was chairman of the state party. She was an early supporter of his gubernatorial candidacy.
Politics is a profession where loyalties are required and valued. Kennedy will need to explain to Capitol pols of both parties why she’s switching her loyalties if she’s to earn their trust. Why does she even want this job?
And what does it say about her estimation of Angelides’ prospects as a candidate and capabilities as a governor? Recently, to friends, she reportedly has been predicting a Schwarzenegger reelection victory and has cooled on Angelides.
Kennedy began to publicly answer some of the questions at her Capitol news conference with the governor:
“The bottom line is I believe in this man and I believe in what he is trying to do for the state ... and I want to be part of that....
“I’m tired of the partisanship, tired of the intolerance that has resulted in gridlock and I felt it was time for me as a Democrat to put up or shut up....
“If the governor is willing to risk his legacy by taking a chance on me, I’m willing to risk my political career to do what I believe is right. Helping this governor right here, right now is the right thing to do.”
But, she was asked, how does this square with her being a lifelong, warring Democrat?
“This is not about being against Democrats. It’s about being for change. I’ve been 25 years in the Democratic Party, 25 years slogging for candidates and causes I believed in and still believe in. And my philosophy has not changed.”
But Kennedy also said she had supported all of Schwarzenegger’s failed initiatives on the special election ballot. That’s not the Kennedy philosophy many Capitol Democrats had known.
The most important thing about Kennedy, however, is that she is extremely competent -- focused, organized, a quick study, politically astute. Rides herd. That’s what the governor’s wife, Democrat Maria Shriver, saw that prompted her to push Kennedy for the job.
Schwarzenegger has been hampered by gubernatorial aides driving in different directions, some left, others right. But that’s mainly the fault of the governor, who refuses to set up a normal chain of command, is reluctant to delegate and has allowed unhappy interests to reach him by going around his departing chief of staff, Pat Clarey.
What Schwarzenegger needs to change more than a chief of staff is his own governing style. Be patient. Listen.
The question of whether this savvy Democrat is the right fit for an embattled Republican governor won’t be answered for months.
The potential problem for Schwarzenegger is with his Republican base. He must move to the center to attract moderate Democrats and independents for his reelection. But he can’t do that with a staffer. He needs to do it with issues: improving education, keeping his promise to schools on funding, launching that super-expensive, ambitious infrastructure program. And to do all this, he’ll need the grudging support of Republican legislators.
The smart move for Schwarzenegger might have been to recruit a conservative chief of staff who could cover his right flank while he moves to the middle.
But Schwarzenegger considered Kennedy the best available. And what’s that say to Republicans? That none is worthy?
“Susan, she’s the best,” Schwarzenegger told reporters. “I make decisions a lot of times that are out of the ordinary. I never get stuck in a mode. I knew this was a different mode.
“But I said, ‘Hey, I love Susan. I think the world of her. I respect her. Why shouldn’t I have her as my chief of staff?’ ”
He should. Breaking the mode keeps it interesting for columnists -- and, who knows, might even work.
George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at email@example.com.