Two weeks before a special election that could define his ability to lead California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday faced something he has recently been avoiding: the voting public, outside his control and somewhat skeptical.
In what was billed as a “showdown” between Schwarzenegger and his Democratic opponents, a 90-minute public forum in a local auditorium here offered the Republican governor a chance to make a now-familiar case: that he is fighting against union propaganda, entrenched legislators and backroom deals.
“Let’s get the power back to the people,” Schwarzenegger said, “not have the politicians go into a back room and slap each other on the back and smoke a stogie and come up with an agreement, smiling.”
Monday’s event was not a debate, but it was the closest Schwarzenegger and his opponents have come to facing one another in the campaign.
The setting offered Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) and a union leader an equal footing with the governor to make their case that the Nov. 8 special election is a power grab designed to crush their interests.
“I don’t think there is a ‘Terminator’ solution to everything, and I don’t think we should give the governor more power,” said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Assn.
The governor is promoting initiatives on the ballot that would make it harder for teachers to get tenure; curb unions’ ability to collect money for politics; install controls on state spending and give governors more authority over the budget; and strip legislators of the power to draw their own districts.
The forum, which offered each side the stage alone for half the time, exhibited the deep divisions between the governor and the public employee unions who are fighting him. On the airwaves and elsewhere, the special election campaign has been a sharp contrast to his cooperative agreements with Democratic legislators and unions last year.
With several blocks of this upscale suburban city blocked off by police, several hundred organized protesters outside and a “spin room” where campaign aides talked to reporters, the evening had the patina of a political slugfest. But the forum was more like a long infomercial for both sides: Polite questions led to mostly unchallenged answers filled with campaign rhetoric.
Carried live on a single TV station in the Bay Area, the event competed with “Monday Night Football.” The questioners included Democrats, Republicans, independents and a variety of working people: a teacher, a nursing student, a software engineer, a college professor, a “life coach,” a banker and a “dealer in antique instruments.” Their queries were pointed but polite, and appeared well-researched.
Schwarzenegger was in his element, energetic and playful; he made jokes that diverted attention from tough questions. He complimented one questioner who imitated his pronunciation of “California,” suggesting the man should be an actor.
The Rev. Phillip A. Lewis, an Oakland minister who asked about the state budget and property taxes, said he wasn’t entirely satisfied with the governor’s performance: “He did a lot of dancing,” Lewis said. “If he was a boxer, he’d be real good.”
Few Schwarzenegger-backed initiatives have enraged his opponents more than Proposition 75, which would require unions to get permission every year from each member before spending his or her dues on political campaigns.
Schwarzenegger was asked by the moderator if it’s fair for him to accept campaign money from corporate interests at the same time he’s supporting Proposition 75. Schwarzenegger said unequivocally that corporations, too, should be required to get permission of shareholders before giving money to political campaigns.
“As a matter of fact, if there’s an initiative on the ballot next year, I will support that,” he said. “Because no one -- if it’s a corporation, or stockholder or union member -- no one should have money taken out of their paycheck without permission and have it used for political campaigns. So it’s unfair.”
Perata called Proposition 76, the governor’s initiative to curb state spending, a “Ponzi scheme” that would pit teachers, healthcare workers and others against one another for their share of the state budget. At the same time, he said it allows legislators to turn a blind eye to tough decisions, since budget cuts would be “across the board ... without any respect to reality.”
“This is not a solution, its an antiseptic way to cut spending without having to look the consequences in the face,” Perata said.
Schwarzenegger said “this state would never have almost gone into bankruptcy” and produced the $22-billion deficit he inherited from former Gov. Gray Davis if Proposition 76 had been in place a decade ago.
“It’s very important for all of you to understand what a broken system we have,” he said.
Questioners seemed skeptical of the governor’s claims that one way to solve the state’s education woes is to extend the time required for teachers to get tenure, as Proposition 74 would do.
Perata said: “This is a way to punish and blame teachers for what is wrong with education.”
The governor said the tenure system protects low-performing teachers by shuttling them from one school to another. “I know what terrific teachers we have, but we cannot get rid of the bad teachers,” he said.
On the subject of Proposition 77, the redistricting initiative, Perata said he believes some sort of independent commission should be set up to draw legislators’ districts. But he said the Schwarzenegger-backed initiative is so flawed it will produce total chaos.
Perata seemed to make the case for Schwarzenegger when he said: “We are politicians and we do have the interests of incumbents at heart.”
Schwarzenegger’s campaign aides immediately printed and distributed the quote, as the discussion continued.
Over the next two weeks, similar forums are scheduled in Fresno and Los Angeles. Univision, the Spanish-language network controlled by one of Schwarzenegger’s most generous contributors, is hosting an hourlong forum with the governor, without the opposition being represented, the governor’s campaign said.
The hourlong Spanish-language forum, scheduled for broadcast Saturday, comes as the union-backed campaign prepares to launch a TV ad showing former Gov. Pete Wilson, a highly controversial figure among Latinos, morphing into Schwarzenegger. The ad is set to be unveiled Wednesday.
On Monday, hundreds of protesters marched outside the hall during the forum, amassed behind the police barricade. Overwhelmingly, the protesters represented the union-backed side, including a man dressed in a Schwarzenegger mask who waved a sign saying: “I Hate Unions.”
Earlier on Monday, Schwarzenegger expressed confidence that he would win the day. Speaking at a Sacramento news conference, the governor said, “My intention is to declare victory” on all four initiatives.
But the man who last year called legislators “girlie men” and mocked their low approval ratings, acknowledged that he faced his own challenges.
“It has been a bumpy road ever since we started, yes,” he said. “It will be a bumpy road all the way to election day.”
Times staff writers Peter Nicholas and Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.