Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is working to reverse declining public opinion over his handling of California schools, while facing mounting complaints about his planned government overhaul.
On Monday, Schwarzenegger visited his third school in 10 days. The event signaled that the otherwise highly popular governor is worried about a recent poll showing that 51% of voters disapprove of his school proposals. People surveyed also said education -- not government reform, Schwarzenegger’s mantra this year -- had become their biggest concern.
Schwarzenegger encountered criticism from multiple fronts Monday: Campaign finance experts filed a legal complaint about his fundraising efforts this year, radio ads continued to blast his budget priorities and prominent Democrats said they would soon cast a critical eye on his legislative plans.
Criticism has even found its way to his doorstep. Sunday, at the gate of Schwarzenegger’s estate in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, protesters marched outside in the rain carrying banners a few hours before the governor held a party in honor of retired newsman Tom Brokaw. A plane flew over with a banner mocking the governor’s policies on nurses and teachers.
“I know since he has attacked nurses, students, teachers and unions all in the same period of time, there have been quite a few people who have been distraught,” said Robert Greenwald, a documentary filmmaker who has produced a TV ad blasting the governor for calling nurses a special interest.
Schwarzenegger predicted that people would howl at his 2005 agenda, and he is being proved correct. His state budget proposal and five-part government reform agenda have energized a cadre of opponents, most of them characterized by Schwarzenegger as special interests.
“They’re all around there in the Capitol, as you know, the different special interests,” Schwarzenegger said recently, “the purple shirts and the brown -- all the different shirts.”
The purple shirts refer to T-shirts worn by unionized state workers who have been holding protests around Sacramento over the governor’s plans to change their retirement system and take away some of their holidays, among other things. As for the brown shirts, it was unclear to whom Schwarzenegger was referring.
Broadly, the governor’s agenda this year would change how legislative districts are drawn, allow state workers to enroll in 401(k) retirement plans, broaden his power to restructure government, institute a spending limit on state finances and grant merit pay for teachers.
The governor’s office said the critics would not sway Schwarzenegger.
“The fact that there are special interests that are going to feel threatened by the governor’s reform agenda and are threatened by the fact that he wants to make government more accountable to the people is not surprising,” said Margita Thompson, his spokeswoman. “But it’s not going to shake his resolve.”
Thompson said that if the poll had asked about it, voters would have said the state should not be allowed to spend more money than it takes in -- the centerpiece of Schwarzenegger’s reforms this year. She said education remains a top priority for the governor but that he was elected to bring fiscal restraint to California.
As he faced problems with voters on the issue of education, Schwarzenegger on Monday visited another school, this one in Contra Costa County, to talk about vocational education. At the same time, Assembly Republicans held a news conference in the Capitol to defend the governor’s education budget.
Schwarzenegger faces a problem with voters, recent polls show. Just as he has launched a massive government overhaul, voters have once again turned their attention to education as their central issue. In his first year in office, the governor rarely mentioned education reform.
“The governor has offered a number of proposals for reform this year that don’t necessarily reflect what are the top priorities for the voters,” said Mark Baldassare, polling director for the Public Policy Institute of California, which conducted the survey. “I think he’s in a position where he needs to explain how his priorities fit with voters’ priorities.”
Schwarzenegger did not have much in the way of news to announce at Mt. Diablo High School in Concord beyond reiterating his support for vocational-technical programs. Schwarzenegger toured the school and then spoke with students who are learning culinary skills -- running a restaurant on campus that is open to the public.
He told them that a fellow Austrian, Wolfgang Puck, achieved great wealth and fame through cooking. “You will use the skills you’ve learned here your whole life,” said Schwarzenegger, students in chefs hats and white smocks arrayed at a table around him.
Outside the school, a cluster of parents and teachers union officials marched in protest. Some cars honked in support as they passed the demonstrators -- noises that wafted inside the classroom where Schwarzenegger appeared. The governor gave no indication that he heard.
One protester, Concord resident Michele Parisi, 36, a parent with a child enrolled in the local public school system, said: “We’re losing our librarians, our music programs, our foreign language programs -- so that our kids might not be able to get into the UC system. It’s craziness. He’s not doing his part to support education in this school, in this state.”
The governor faced more problems Monday than just how people view him on the subject of education.
A campaign finance group filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission accusing Schwarzenegger of violating state regulations by raising money in unlimited amounts for a ballot committee that is supposed to be independent of the governor.
At issue is whether a new committee, Citizens to Save California, run by Schwarzenegger’s allies, should have to abide by strict campaign finance rules. If Schwarzenegger is actively controlling the group, state rules require the committee to restrict donations to $22,300 or less.
“We think he is basically playing a little game of footsy here to get around that regulation and he’s wrong,” said Derek Cressman, director of a campaign finance group that monitors federal and state politicians, therestofus.org.
Citizens to Save California issued a statement Monday saying it was an independent committee even though it “may support ballot measures that are also supported by Gov. Schwarzenegger as part of his reform package.”
Meanwhile, the California Teachers Assn. has been running pointed radio ads in several languages on 56 stations criticizing the governor’s education budget plan. Teachers say the governor went back on his promise to provide schools the full amount they are owed under Proposition 98, a constitutional provision that gives schools a fixed percentage of state revenue.
And a group representing hospital nurses has been dogging the governor at his speeches, protesting his executive order to scale back an agreement that would have required more nurses in emergency rooms. The California Nurses Assn. purchased more than $100,000 in cable TV time to run their ad, including during “See Arnold Run,” a movie about the governor shown recently on the A&E; network.
Assembly Democrats have promised aggressive scrutiny of Schwarzenegger’s proposals this month. On Monday, they created committees to hear legislation on Schwarzenegger’s plans as well as on California’s future workforce, environmental protection and transportation funding, and on the effect of budget cuts on seniors.
“This is not a bash-Gov.-Schwarzenegger-session in any way, shape or form,” said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). “Having said that, we know the governor is more popular than the Legislature but we don’t base our actions on what the polling states.”
Staff writers Peter Nicholas and Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.