Touting Initiatives, Eschewing Principles

As I half-snoozed through a Dodger broadcast the other night, my attention was suddenly arrested by a commercial for one of those quick-cash services, featuring the prominent former gubernatorial candidate Gary Coleman.

“Recently, I needed some cash fast,” Coleman said, before assuring viewers that he had only to pick up the phone, and "$10,000 was in my account the next day.”

That’s when I realized that the sponsor had hired the wrong California politician as its spokesmodel. The guy they should have signed up is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is so desperate for money to fund his new initiative campaign that he had to fly clear out of state last week to siphon it from the trousers of a gaggle of wealthy pals.


Possibly all the wells in California have been tapped out by Schwarzenegger’s two-year fundraising spree, which has yielded more than $30 million in political donations. The goal of his recent tour, which stopped in Chicago, Dallas and three Florida cities, was to prime the pump for a new $30-million initiative campaign aimed at a special election he’s considering calling for November.

Thus Schwarzenegger once again showed how thoroughly he can corrupt the state’s initiative process. Chicago real estate men, Texas oilmen and Florida time-share kings all ponied up, although they swore it was only to prove their devotion to his vision of political reform for California.

In reality, there is scarcely a political or moral principle that this tour didn’t compromise. Consider the contortions it forced upon Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who played Damon to Schwarzenegger’s Pythias during its Florida leg. Bush had to deflect questions about why he was helping his fellow Republican governor promote a ballot initiative that would hand over legislative redistricting to an independent commission, given that (1) he has opposed a virtually identical measure drafted by Florida good-government groups, and (2) he supports an overall weakening of Florida’s ballot initiative process, which has produced numerous citizen mandates he dislikes.

“I support his efforts to bring California out of its morass,” announced Bush, the governor of a state that seems to produce new morasses daily.

Although Schwarzenegger’s latest round of alms-begging aims to defray the costs of the incessant television ads that will pass for public debate in the months leading up to November’s balloting, it will do nothing to help California’s county and city taxpayers shoulder the estimated $80-million cost of actually holding the election. (This may explain why the governor is customarily described in the newspapers as “threatening” to call a special election.)

Let’s examine what this money would buy. Of the three initiatives so far likely to qualify for November, this column has already noted that the so-called Live Within Our Means Act is a sham, an ostensible spending control measure that would only make the budget harder for lawmakers to manage.

The redistricting proposal, meanwhile, is a product of the governor’s pique at voters who ignored his endorsements of a clutch of Republican legislative candidates last November and reelected every Democratic incumbent.

The third measure is designed to prohibit granting public school teachers tenure until they serve a district for five years, up from two.

Like so many of Schwarzenegger’s “reforms,” this is a slogan masquerading as policy -- and bad policy, at that.

“From a political perspective, anything like this has legs,” says William Slotnick, an education expert at the Community Training and Assistance Center, a Boston organization that promotes school and community development reform. “It presents the governor as being tough on accountability.”

But it’s typical of Schwarzenegger’s approach to governing, in that it’s thoroughly irrelevant to what really goes on inside the schoolhouse. As Slotnick observes, one of the biggest problems school boards face today is a shortage of teachers. As many as 50% of new teachers leave the field in their first three years. (One reason may be that novices often get assigned the most difficult schools and classrooms, where they’re often stranded by their administrators without training or resources to cope.)

California school districts, which already face huge problems in recruiting and keeping faculty, plainly haven’t been clamoring for a tool to help them dump young teachers even faster.

Schwarzenegger appears to have no conception of what the public schools do need -- thoughtful leadership in Sacramento to help them address such systemic problems as lack of resources and supplies; minimal cooperation among teachers, administrators, parents and political leaders; and a diverse school-age population that creates unique costs and challenges.

Schwarzenegger treats education policy as a cudgel to swing at his most vociferous critics, the teacher unions. That’s why his school reform proposals never amount to more than punitive attacks on teachers, and why the very title of this initiative is a sick joke: the Put the Kids First Act. Schwarzenegger’s reform goals are lying in smithereens at his feet because he always puts his ego first.

This is the sort of thing the governor’s loyal contributors from out of state are trying to foist on California. He should tell them to keep their money. After all, if he’s really in dire need of cash, Gary Coleman can give him a number to call.

Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at and read his previous columns at