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Gov. Readies Special Election to Attack Legislature, Unions

Times Staff Writer

After five months of failing to sway Democrats to his “year of reform,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has directed his political staff to prepare for a special election campaign that would attack the California Legislature and its union benefactors.

Escalating the governor’s fight, chief political consultant Mike Murphy said Monday that Schwarzenegger would almost certainly call a special election that would include his package of reform initiatives, and possibly another measure that could disable the money-raising machine of public employee unions.

Murphy said the governor has asked him to conduct polling and voter focus groups on a so-called paycheck protection initiative that would require public employee unions to get permission from members before using their dues for political campaigns.

“Arnold has not touched the Legislature with a feather yet compared to what the real campaign will be,” said Murphy, one of the governor’s closest advisors. “It’s a referendum on the governor versus the Legislature, and he will win.”

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With a deadline approaching to call a special election, Schwarzenegger is trying to refocus his efforts to pass a handful of voter initiatives that would strike at the heart of Democrats who control the Legislature and the public employee unions that fund their campaigns. The governor also is taking more control of the political efforts, Murphy said, now that his signature-gathering effort is complete.

The Republican governor unveiled his “year of reform” agenda during a confrontational State of the State address in January. Since then he has backed initiatives that would make it harder for teachers to receive tenure, take away the power of lawmakers to draw their own districts and install a government spending cap. He has until mid-June to call a special election, probably for Nov. 8.

If Schwarzenegger endorses the union-dues initiative, which is already headed for the ballot, it would pit the governor and his corporate contributors against Democrats and their union backers -- a politically defining moment for both sides.

“A special election is a very big deal for Arnold Schwarzenegger,” said Elizabeth Garrett, director of the USC-Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics. “Going to a special election is his way to get back that reputation for succeeding with the people.”

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Republican political consultant Allan Hoffenblum cautioned that Schwarzenegger could be signaling -- through Murphy’s comments -- that he wants to endorse the paycheck protection measure as a way to force the Legislature to negotiate this month. Murphy himself said Schwarzenegger has avoided mentioning it until now “to create some goodwill for negotiations, because Democrats go bonkers when you mention it.”

Democrats have for the most part refused to negotiate with Schwarzenegger and are confident they can beat him at the ballot box. They point to his declining popularity ratings, which since January have dropped 20 points after a barrage of TV ads featuring teachers, firefighters and police officers upset about his plan to overhaul the public pension system. The governor has since put that plan on hold.

Schwarzenegger repeatedly has said he wants to work with lawmakers to write reforms that would be placed on the ballot alongside other initiatives. But Democrats say he has been intent all along on declaring political nuclear war through a special election. They have been anticipating it for months.

Schwarzenegger is “totally disingenuous at this point” about working with lawmakers, said Gale Kaufman, a Democratic consultant who is helping craft the party’s response to the governor. Kaufman said Schwarzenegger should spend less time raising money and more time calling meetings with top lawmakers to fashion a compromise.

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That Schwarzenegger is edging closer to supporting the union dues measure and a special election is a sign “there is nothing behind this agenda besides pure partisan politics,” said Roger Salazar, another Democratic consultant.

“It’s not a debate about reform. It’s a debate about how we can stick it to labor, to unions and any of these other Democratic constituency groups to do the maximum amount of damage,” he said.

Dan Schnur, a veteran GOP consultant, said Democrats failed to produce any counter-initiatives that would scare Schwarzenegger -- such as a proposal to ban corporate contributions -- making it more likely he would call an election. “Right now there is no downside for him,” he said. “The only reason a special election is not going to take place is if the Democrats don’t want to run the risks.”

The biggest fight this year may be over union dues.

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Previously, the governor has said he would not be interested in the union dues initiative. But Democrats have long suspected that he supported it behind the scenes. For one thing, a group helping to fund the union-busting measure is headed by Joel Fox, who also is a key player in pushing the governor’s agenda through a group called Citizens to Save California.

Without prompting, Murphy said the union dues measure would not pass unless Schwarzenegger got behind it. California voters rejected a similar measure in June 1998, but with only 53% of voters against it, a margin small enough, Murphy said, that the governor probably could turn the tide.

“The fate of the paycheck protection measure is in the governor’s hands now,” Murphy said.

Lewis K. Uhler, a conservative political activist who is sponsoring the initiative, said he “anticipated at one point or another that the governor was likely to embrace this measure,” although Uhler said he had not talked with the governor or his staff about it. He described it as part of a natural “total package” of reform.

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As for the special election, Murphy said he was astonished when Democrats proposed raising taxes to balance the budget. He called it a gift to the governor -- “God bless ‘em,” he said -- because it would be so politically unpopular.

In fact, Senate Leader Don Perata, a Democrat from Oakland, on Monday proposed raising taxes to pay for education.

Murphy said Democrats have been overconfident, spending tens of millions of dollars to bring down the governor’s polling numbers when they should have saved it for their special election campaigns.

“It’s one of those things where they have been scoring against an opponent who hasn’t tried to score yet, and they think they are Babe Ruth,” he said.

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But Salazar, the Democratic consultant, said Schwarzenegger cannot yet claim victory because he has already dropped an initiative to overhaul the employee pension system and missed a deadline to qualify another that would have provided merit pay for teachers. He said the governor is left with a spending cap initiative with major flaws.

Despite confidence by some Democrats that they can defeat Schwarzenegger, political observers are more skeptical. For one, Schwarzenegger’s polling numbers now are roughly at the same point they were on the day of the 2003 recall, which he won with 48.6% of the vote.

Said Hoffenblum: “I wouldn’t underestimate this man. He is a competitive animal. He may be in the mood to take the gloves off and respond in kind.”

Hoffenblum said neither side should be overconfident. “Right after Arnold got elected, the Republicans acted like they were sniffing glue and it was a new millennium,” he said. “Then after the governor’s poll numbers dropped, the Democrats acted like they were sniffing glue and it was as if they had won the election. I think they both will be proven wrong.”

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