Voters Reject Schwarzenegger's Bid to Remake State Government

Times Staff Writers

In a sharp repudiation of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, voters rejected his most sweeping ballot proposals on Tuesday in an election that shattered his image as an agent of the popular will.

Voters turned down his proposals to curb state spending, redraw California's political map and lengthen the time it takes teachers to get tenure.

With most of the votes counted, Californians were leaning against Proposition 75, his plan to require unions for public workers to get written consent from members before spending their dues money on politics.

The Republican governor had cast the four initiatives as central to his larger vision for restoring fiscal discipline to California and reforming its notoriously dysfunctional politics. The failure of Proposition 76, his spending restraints, and Proposition 77, his election district overhaul, represented a particularly sharp snub of the governor by California voters. It also threw into question his strategy of threatening lawmakers with statewide votes to get around them when they block his favored proposals.

On a Beverly Hills stage Tuesday night next to his wife, Maria Shriver, Schwarzenegger pledged "to find common ground" with his Democratic adversaries in Sacramento.

"The people of California are sick and tired of all the fighting, and they are sick and tired of all the negative TV ads," he told supporters at the Beverly Hilton. He did not concede, saying instead that "in a couple of days the victories or the losses will be behind us."

Dogging the governor, as it has for months, was the California Nurses Assn., which organized a luau at the Trader Vic's in the same hotel. As Schwarzenegger's defeats mounted, giddy nurses formed a conga line and danced around the room, singing, "We're the mighty, mighty nurses."

At labor's election night party in Sacramento, union leaders were not in a forgiving mood, vowing revenge against the governor next year when he seeks reelection. They were particularly incensed that he had not given union members their due for what they believed to be a clean sweep of his agenda.

"He never apologized once for trashing every one of us," said Mike Jimenez, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. "And I can tell you, tomorrow we're not going to apologize for the way this election turned out. Tomorrow starts Round 2."

California Teachers Assn. President Barbara Kerr told several hundred activists in the ballroom: "This governor wasted $50 million, and he does not have the courage to apologize to all of you for the trash he talked about you. He doesn't have the courage to say he was wrong, that we're the real heroes of California."

For months, labor and its Democratic allies called Schwarzenegger's agenda an assault on nurses, firefighters, teachers and other public employees. Labor's $100-million campaign against the governor this year has battered his public image as he prepares to seek reelection in 2006.

Also on the ballot were four other initiatives. Voters were narrowly defeating Proposition 73, which would bar abortions for minors without parental notification. The state Republican Party promoted Schwarzenegger's endorsement of the measure among evangelicals and other religious conservatives in a bid to boost turnout of voters who would back the rest of his agenda.

By a wide margin, voters also rejected rival measures on prescription-drug discounts. The pharmaceutical industry spent $80 million on a campaign to defeat Proposition 79, a labor and consumer-group proposal, and pass its own alternative, Proposition 78.

Voters also turned down Proposition 80, a complex measure to revamp rules governing the electricity industry. The initiative, sponsored by consumer advocates, tried to draw on public anger from the state's 2000 energy crisis, but polls suggested that it confused voters.

Overall, the special election called by Schwarzenegger to win public validation of his agenda sparked a campaign that became the costliest in California's history. All told, the yes and no campaigns on the eight initiatives spent more than $250 million.

Schwarzenegger put in $7.2 million of his own money. That brings his total personal spending on political endeavors to $25 million since he ran for governor in the 2003 recall race.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson, a political mentor to Schwarzenegger, watched returns with the governor at the Hilton. "It took courage to do it," Wilson said of the special election. "Why run for office if you're not going to do anything with it?"

But state Senate leader Don Perata, a Democrat from Oakland, said Tuesday night that Schwarzenegger had "sowed the seeds of his own demise" by taking on the full gamut of public workers, who make up more than half of the union members in California.

"He got a lot of really bad advice," Perata said.

By the time voters started lining up at neighborhood polling places Tuesday morning, 2.2 million Californians had already cast their ballots by mail. The vote came after months of heavy television advertising, often with back-to-back spots prodding voters in opposite directions on the bewildering set of initiatives.

At a Rancho Palos Verdes polling station, David Berman, a 46-year-old doctor, captured the feeling of many fellow Democrats when he threw up his hands and declared the election pointless.

"It's a waste of money," he said.

In Baldwin Park, Renee Martinez, 50, spoke for the governor's Republican loyalists, saying her goal Tuesday was "to back Arnold."

"I'm his," she said. "He tells you like it is, and I believe him."

The election followed a steep political slide for Schwarzenegger. He sustained stratospheric popularity ratings in his first year as governor by maximizing his appeal as an outsider with a fresh take on the state capital. Facing a severe fiscal mess, he favored bipartisan compromise over pitched battles with Democrats and their union allies.

But late last year, he set in motion a cascade of political misfortunes by aligning himself more closely with the Republican Party, a costly move in a state that strongly favors Democrats.

He championed the reelection of President Bush, widely disliked in California, in a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention in New York. Days before the divisive national election, he campaigned for Bush in Ohio, a crucial swing state.

In California, meanwhile, Schwarzenegger led the GOP push to wrest seats from Democrats in the Legislature, hoping to bolster his position there. Republicans failed to win any new seats, but the governor succeeded in antagonizing the Democrats who control both the Assembly and Senate.

In January, he deepened his troubles by taking on public-employee unions in his State of the State speech, further annoying the Democratic lawmakers who rely heavily on labor support. He demanded state spending limits and new districts for legislators, along with an overhaul of the state pension system. He threatened to call a special election if Democrats blocked his plans, saying voters would heed his call to "rise up" and reform Sacramento.

Further isolating himself, he went on to break his deal with educators to restore $2 billion taken from public schools to balance the previous year's budget. At the same time, he kept his pledge not to raise income taxes, a popular stand with Republicans.

By winter's end, unions had launched a punishing television ad campaign, pounding Schwarzenegger for breaking his promise on schools. The ads also exploited a bungle by the authors of the governor's pension proposal: It would have denied survivor benefits to the families of firefighters and police officers killed in the line of duty. The governor abandoned it.

Personal missteps added to Schwarzenegger's woes. He called Democratic lawmakers "girlie men" for bridling at spending cuts. When nurses heckled him, his response provided fodder for a scathing union television ad: "The special interests don't like me in Sacramento, because I am always kicking their butts."

To gain publicity as a champion bodybuilder and film star, Schwarzenegger had often made fun of people, but in politics the tactic backfired, said Laurence Leamer, author of "Fantastic: The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger."

"It began to turn against him, because his opponents were very, very shrewd and calculating in the way they exploited it," Leamer said.

Unions made nurses, teachers and firefighters the face of their anti-Schwarzenegger campaign, which only intensified after lawmakers rejected his demands, leading him to call Tuesday's special election. By last week, his job approval rating had dropped to 40% of likely voters in a Los Angeles Times poll, down from 69% a year earlier.

Schwarzenegger framed the election as a "sequel" to the recall, a package of proposals that would reform state politics and government.

But the centerpiece of his agenda, Proposition 76, offered political grist for the unions: It would have given more budget authority to the governor -- a power grab by labor's account -- and make complex changes in the minimum school-spending rules that California voters approved in 1988.

His redistricting plan, Proposition 77, also faced an uphill fight, given California voters' long history of rejecting plans to reshape the way political maps are drawn.

Schwarzenegger argued that state lawmakers should not be allowed to "pick their voters" by drawing district lines to protect incumbents.

Opponents countered that the governor's plan to give the job to retired judges would put, for the most part, white elderly men in charge of drawing maps for an increasingly diverse state.

Schwarzenegger's tenure proposal, Proposition 74, sparked fierce opposition from the California Teachers Assn., which put nearly $60 million into the fight. The governor said it was nearly impossible to get rid of bad teachers, such as one who showed an R-rated movie in the classroom. The union accused him of attacking the profession and jeopardizing the effort to relieve the state's teacher shortage.

But his labor adversaries were most concerned about Proposition 75, the restraint on union campaign spending.

National union leaders flew to California in recent days to campaign against the measure, underscoring their fear that similar proposals in other states could further weaken organized labor, already torn by a schism in the national AFL-CIO.

"It's a basic attack on workers in so many ways," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told reporters Tuesday in Los Angeles.

Unions have spent about $100 million on the campaign against Schwarzenegger's ballot measures at a time of vigorous debate over how much money labor should devote to politics.

"We're still doing what we need to do with collective bargaining and organizing new members, but it is definitely a drain on our treasury," said J.J. Johnston, California area director of the Service Employees International Union.

Regardless of Tuesday's results, Schwarzenegger sets out today on his yearlong quest for political recovery, both as governor and reelection candidate.

Other unpopular governors, such as Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, have overcome abysmal poll ratings to win second terms. Few strategists doubt Schwarzenegger's capacity to do the same, and on Tuesday in Beverly Hills he seemed intent on pursuing the centrist path that worked for him in his early days as governor.

"I recognize we also need more bipartisan cooperation to make it all happen, and I promise I will deliver that," he said.

Times staff writers Noam N. Levey, Dan Morain, Jordan Rau, Hemmy So and Kelly-Anne Suarez contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Past turnout

Fewer voters usually turn out for special elections than for regular elections. An exception occurred in 2003, when Gray Davis was recalled and Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor.

Turnout in previous statewide elections:

*--* *1962 78.73% *1966 79.20% *1970 76.19% **1973 47.62% *1974 64.11% *1978 70.41% **1979 37.38% *1982 69.78% *1986 59.35% *1990 58.61% **1993 36.37% *1994 60.45% *1998 57.59% *2002 50.57% **2003 61.20%

*--*

*Non-presidential general elections

**Special elections

Source: California secretary of state

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