Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s effort to reposition his administration after his special election defeat -- culminating with this week’s appointment of a Democratic activist as his chief of staff -- has disheartened some prominent California Republicans and reinvigorated talk of finding a conservative primary challenger next year.
“I’m getting more e-mails off of this than I do for Viagra,” said Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, a grass-roots group, referring to Schwarzenegger’s appointment of Susan Kennedy.
“Since the special election, where we were very loyal, all we’ve heard about was a $50-billion bond and looking at clemency for [convicted murderer and gang leader Stanley] Tookie Williams,” Spence said. “I think the Kennedy thing was just the last straw. There’s not even one Republican in the state to be qualified as chief of staff?”
Kennedy’s appointment has raised particular ire among conservatives because she is a former Democratic Party executive director and senior member of Gray Davis’ administration. Anti-gay activists have also objected strenuously because she is a lesbian. A new website, stopsusankennedy.com, urges people to petition Schwarzenegger to rescind the appointment.
Schwarzenegger also faced pointed questions about the Kennedy appointment from a normally supportive source: conservative radio talk-show host Roger Hedgecock. In a late-afternoon appearance on KOGO-AM (600) in San Diego, Schwarzenegger found himself defending the appointment.
Hedgecock said that Kennedy’s background “seems completely incompatible with Republican principles.”
Schwarzenegger responded that her philosophy was consistent with his own.
The governor conceded that some people will be “up in arms about” the appointment, “but I have to pick someone that I feel comfortable with. And I talked to a lot of people for this job, and she was the one who I felt most comfortable with.”
When asked what views the two shared, Schwarzenegger cited Kennedy’s opposition to new taxes and her pro-business stance.
“She believes strongly that we have to make sure that business can bloom here in order to create an economic boom so we have more revenues and pay down the debt and live within our means,” the governor said.
Schwarzenegger denied that he was moving to the left of the political spectrum. “We’re not moving anywhere,” he said, adding that he was “going in the same direction.”
For now, most analysts and political veterans said the chance of a GOP challenge was minimal. There are no signs that the one candidate considered a credible threat -- state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) -- will drop his bid for lieutenant governor and take on Schwarzenegger. Running as a conservative Republican, McClintock won 1.1 million votes in the 2003 recall election, in which Schwarzenegger captured 4.2 million votes.
Although the governor’s latest actions could alienate many of the more conservative Republicans, others see them as an effort to improve his dismal public standing as the 2006 election approaches by moving to the political center.
“This is conceivably the first step in his quickly and visibly marching to the middle,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist. “If he wants to win re-election, that’s exactly what he needs to do. In an ideal world, he doesn’t so infuriate the far right so that they field [another] candidate, but it’s a risk that he has to take.”
Dan Schnur, a strategist who worked for Pete Wilson, the last GOP governor, said that Wilson faced a primary challenge in his 1994 reelection bid but won nonetheless.
“Schwarzenegger has a year to reassure conservatives he’s with them on policy, and convince conservative voters that the Democratic alternative would be much more frightening,” he said.
Schwarzenegger has broadly hinted that his agenda for next year will be far more centrist than this year’s failed effort to take on public employee unions, slash state spending and dilute teacher tenure.
After all those initiatives were rejected, the governor said he wanted to work with Democratic lawmakers in areas of common concern. Top projects are said to include borrowing to improve the state’s roads, bridges and levees, and efforts to alleviate homelessness and assist children who lack health insurance.
Schwarzenegger is expected to keep Republicans in important positions in his cabinet. On Thursday he appointed as his finance director Michael Genest, who had once been an advisor to the Senate Republicans.
The Senate GOP leader, Dick Ackerman of Irvine, said that a Republican presence in the governor’s office may not be enough to assuage activists upset about Kennedy.
“I think she sends the wrong message to the Republican base,” Ackerman said. “Most people feel if you’re a Republican governor, you should have a Republican chief of staff, because they are privy to policy and campaign strategy.”
Ackerman said Schwarzenegger “will need a very strong Republican base to get reelected” in a predominantly Democratic state. “The selection of Susan Kennedy can jeopardize it.”
But Karen Hanratty, spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, said that nothing Schwarzenegger has done conflicts with the principles he laid out during the 2003 recall campaign, when he held himself out as a fiscal conservative with liberal-leaning views on the environment and some social issues.
“He’s not out there proposing a tax increase, he’s not proposing to sign legislation to give illegal immigrants drivers’ licenses,” she said. “He put out a socially liberal agenda earlier this year, and no one flinched.”
The Kennedy appointment has also drawn diverse opinions within the Democratic party.
Jason Kinney, a strategist and former Davis aide, said Kennedy’s appointment sends a worrisome signal to Democrats that Schwarzenegger is aiming to revive his efforts to stake out a formidable political position.
“I think Susan believes this is a governor with whom she can help pursue a progressive populist agenda,” Kinney said. “She’s both pro-business but she’s also radically pro-environment, pro-choice and pro-children.”
But Roger Salazar, another former Davis aide and Democratic Party strategist, said Schwarzenegger has caused himself too much damage to be repaired by rejiggering his staff.
“Ultimately, the problem isn’t with his staff; it’s with him. This is a governor who has no idea how to govern, no vision for where he wants to take the state,” Salazar said. “One year he’s a centrist, the next year he’s conservative, the next year he wants to be a liberal. This guy has no political soul.”
Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.