Fierce Partisan Thwarted Schwarzenegger

Times Staff Writer

Brandishing her trademark bluntness, Gale Kaufman did not indulge in false modesty on the morning after her public employee union clients demolished Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his special election.

"When I lose, you all write about it," she told reporters Wednesday at the Sacramento office of the California Teachers Assn. "It would be nice for us to get the victory today. We won. They lost. Could you just write that once?"

She went on to deride the skills of Schwarzenegger's chief political consultant, saying sarcastically, "We want more campaigns with Mike Murphy." And in case anyone didn't get the point, her aides distributed a sheet filled with quotes from Murphy's predictions of victory, including this one: "We're going to beat them like a drum."

Well-known in Sacramento for her aggressive campaigns, fervent liberalism, razor-sharp elbows and A-list clients, Kaufman this week emerged as the most visible mastermind of the yearlong union crusade that scuttled the governor's ambitious agenda this year.

Kaufman, 51, may now be, at least for the moment, the most powerful political guru in Sacramento, where she plays in a hyper-competitive field still dominated by men.

As chief consultant to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and the teachers union, Kaufman is expected to continue plotting to extract concessions from Schwarzenegger.

"Gale is a tough, ferocious competitor who always goes the extra mile for her cause," said Kevin Spillane, a Republican consultant. "She's a fighter and is someone who actually believes in what she's doing. She's not a hired gun who will work for whichever side is paying a lot of money."

Another GOP consultant, Allan Hoffenblum, summed up her style as "attack, attack, attack."

The union coalition Alliance for a Better California employed a number of respected strategists. Los Angeles consultant Larry Grisolano won the uphill fight against Proposition 75, which was the most direct threat to labor's political sway and was considered the most challenging of the contests.

But Kaufman played a central role in mapping the strategy that brought down Schwarzenegger, before the governor publicly threatened a special election.

Some tactics worked, especially the barrage of television ads -- started by the teachers union and continued by the alliance -- that are widely believed to have eaten away at Schwarzenegger's popularity to a degree few thought possible.

And the unions distracted some of Schwarzenegger's wealthy past allies, drug manufacturers, by sponsoring Proposition 79, which would have required them to discount drugs for low-income people. They also put on the ballot Proposition 80, which would have partly re-regulated some energy firms and was fought by big businesses.

The unions didn't fund either campaign, and both measures were defeated. Consumer activists who wanted the changes were not happy. But "I think we did a pretty decent job of blocking a lot of his money," Kaufman said, referring to the governor.

However, Kaufman failed to put enough pressure on Schwarzenegger to dissuade him from calling the election, which was the unions' top priority.

Some political pros give her great credit for the final shape of a complex campaign that required coordinated attacks on the merits of four initiatives while maintaining an overall message for voters. In addition, she had to sustain a coalition of teacher, state employee and prison guard unions that do not usually work together.

"For a campaign that had many disparate parts and coalitions, she did a good job of trying to herd all the cats," said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles Democratic consultant.

Others say Schwarzenegger was his own most effective foil.

"The one person killing the governor was the governor himself," said Democratic strategist Jason Kinney, who worked with the drug industry. "She was just one of many people who helped tie the noose for him."

Schwarzenegger strategist Murphy downplayed Kaufman's victory.

"The easiest thing to do is to win a 'no' campaign," he said. "All you need is money and a lot of lies. They had plenty of both."

Asked if Kaufman deserved credit, Murphy said: "I give credit for the victory to $150 million. Somebody better could have done it for $100 million."

The final tally will not be publicly reported until the end of January. But Kaufman said the cost did not exceed $110 million.

"That's the best he can come up with?" Kaufman asked. "I'll take it."

Kaufman is not a popular figure in the shark-filled consulting world. Privately, many Democrats complained that she keeps grudges for an eternity -- "It's true," she says -- and profited excessively from the campaign.

By some accounts, several smaller unions balked at contributing to the alliance after Kaufman presented an initial campaign budget that included more than $8 million in fees and payment for her firm. She declined to discuss the workings of the coalition or disclose her pay.

A number of strategists from both parties, including Kaufman, blame much of the criticism on the sexism they say still rules in Sacramento.

"There aren't many places left in politics where there aren't a lot of women," said Beth Capell, a lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union. "Running lead campaigns is one of them, and she's one of the best."

Kaufman grew up in Miami, where her father owned an insurance company. She broke into politics working on Hubert Humphrey's unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. She came to California while working for then-Sen. John Tunney.

In 1982, Richie Ross, who was running the political shop of the California Assembly, hired Kaufman and she moved to Sacramento. Ross and Kaufman, prominent consultants to Democrats and unions, are now notorious rivals, and Ross was shut out of the campaign Kaufman ran. He declined to comment.

Kaufman became a valued political lieutenant to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, leaving his staff in 1986 to do campaigns full-time. Candidates found her a demanding but talented taskmaster with an instinct for the jugular.

"I'd be walking precincts all day starting at 7 in the morning, and if I came back and it was still light out, she'd send me right back out," said Jack O'Connell, who has employed Kaufman since 1984 for his campaigns for the state Assembly, the state Senate and his current job as state superintendent of schools.

Last year, Kaufman oversaw nine Assembly races in which Schwarzenegger had tried to defeat Democrats. She protected every seat, and held another that was won in a September special election by Torrance City Councilman Ted Lieu.

By Friday, with the election only days away and polls predicting a Schwarzenegger loss, Kaufman seemed uncharacteristically serene in her office in downtown Sacramento, in a building named "Governor's Court."

She edited a final radio spot to counter a late Schwarzenegger ad in San Diego while checking on her 13-year-old son David's recovery from stomach flu. ("So you made it through the day not throwing up? Excellent news," she told him over the phone.)

A more intensive counseling was required for actor-turned-activist Warren Beatty, who was having misgivings about joining a union campaign bus that was to shadow Schwarzenegger's own bus tour through Southern California. Kaufman spent more than an hour on the phone with him that evening.

By the end of the conversation, Beatty, describing her as "silver-tongued," decided to make the trip.

He and his wife, actress Annette Bening, made front-page news in San Diego, where the two bus trips originated, after the couple tried to crash a Schwarzenegger rally and were turned away.

"She's very smart and very energetic and very persuasive and no-nonsense," Beatty said Thursday, describing Kaufman.

Despite her reputation, Kaufman has a self-deprecating sense of humor. Asked who scheduled her wedding to candy sales broker Steve Murakami for Nov. 19, eleven days after the special election, Kaufman gestured to herself and shouted: "a moron!"

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