Declaring that he is bloodied but unbowed, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday launched his campaign to persuade a skeptical public to side with him in the Nov. 8 special election, seen as a referendum on the governor himself.
Schwarzenegger’s orchestrated appearance in the cavernous warehouse of an air filter company began the next act of a political drama the Republican governor debuted in January. The governor is also expected to announce soon a 2006 reelection bid in an effort to boost his political profile.
Monday, the Republican governor drew his message from the 2003 recall race that put him in power: California’s political system is corrupt, he said, and still needs reform even two years after “sending the Terminator to Sacramento.”
“Through the recall, what we have done is change the governor, but don’t think for a minute we have changed the system,” Schwarzenegger said. “The same union bosses are there, the same legislators are still there, the same special interests, the corporations, all of those forces are still there.”
Acknowledging what has been known for months, Schwarzenegger accepted that the prolonged TV advertising assault by public employee unions, particularly the California Teachers Assn., has had an impact on the public’s view of him. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that 54% of Californians disapproved of his performance as governor. Other polls have also shown his popularity dropping precipitously since January.
“Of course I am bloodied, yes, but I am unbowed. I will not move,” Schwarzenegger said. “It makes no difference how many attacks they have on me. Remember one thing: This, what we are doing here, is much bigger than me.”
There are eight measures on the Nov. 8 special election ballot, three of which Schwarzenegger is formally backing. Asked why his agenda could not wait seven more months for the scheduled June primary, saving the state an estimated $45 million, Schwarzenegger said: “People say it’s a waste of money to have the election. I say it’s a waste of democracy not to have an election.”
The governor’s initiatives would make it easier to fire low-performing teachers and make it harder to get tenure; take away the power of lawmakers to draw their own districts; and overhaul the state budget process by limiting spending, including that on public schools, even if the state gets a tax windfall, as it did in the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.
Looming perhaps larger is a measure that would require public employee unions to get members’ permission annually before using their dues for political purposes. That initiative, Proposition 75, is seen as a significant threat to unions -- Schwarzenegger’s biggest critics and his biggest foil.
Time and again Monday, Schwarzenegger brought up public employee unions without telling people to support Proposition 75, on which he has not taken an official position. The union dues measure will be placed on the ballot in the middle of Schwarzenegger’s three measures, Propositions 74, 76 and 77.
“This is not a battle of Democrats versus Republicans,” Schwarzenegger told the crowd at K&N; Engineering Inc., the air filter maker in Riverside. “This is a battle of the governor of the state of California against the status quo and the public employee unions.”
The unions have mobilized under a coalition called the Alliance for a Better California. The alliance and the teachers union have earmarked more than $52 million to defeat Schwarzenegger’s measures and all but one of the others. That is double what the governor has raised for his initiative campaign. The group began its so-called ground assault against Schwarzenegger over the weekend, in voting precincts across the state.
Bill Hedrick, president of the Rialto Education Assn. and one of a handful of protesters outside Schwarzenegger’s Riverside event, said teachers were motivated to work against the governor far more than they were motivated to work in support of former Gov. Gray Davis during the recall.
“A lot of members, right or wrong, were not very fond of Gov. Gray Davis,” Hedrick said. “This is much more unifying for everyone. I don’t think there was a groundswell of support for Davis, and that might have been a mistake.”
Schwarzenegger has a mostly uphill job persuading voters to support his initiatives. The Public Policy Institute poll last month showed all three without a majority of support from those surveyed. The most popular appeared to be Proposition 74, the teacher performance initiative, which got 49% support; the other two were trailing significantly.
Political analysts said Schwarzenegger needs to remind voters about the Democratic-controlled Legislature, particularly its votes to approve same-sex marriage rights and grant driving-only licenses to illegal immigrants. The same poll that showed Schwarzenegger with dismal ratings showed that the Legislature’s were worse.
Elizabeth Garrett, director of the USC/Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics, said Schwarzenegger needs to invoke the politician voters saw during the recall, not the man now viewed as an ordinary partisan.
“I think he has become a different Arnold for voters, somebody who is more of a politician, who isn’t that different from the other people in Sacramento -- a person who doesn’t care for ordinary California, who appears more influenced by special interests,” she said.
Events such as the one in Riverside -- expected to be repeated throughout the state -- are carefully stage-managed, with audiences chosen by local business groups. On Monday, the crowd was widely supportive, applauding frequently and asking such questions as: “How are you going to keep our kids safe” from sexual predators?
The governor replied: Lock the offenders up longer and monitor their movements.
Such appearances “are basically a security blanket for him so he doesn’t have to face the boos of average Californians. Schwarzenegger is on the run,” said Bob Mulholland, a Democratic Party strategist.
The governor only last week opened a formal campaign office in Sacramento and has yet to begin a full-force TV advertising blitz. His “Conversations With Californians” are planned for mostly Republican areas, although he needs Democrats to back him as they did in the 2003 recall.
The governor’s campaign staff says he can still tap the disgust voters displayed during the recall campaign by presenting a “positive” message about reforming and rebuilding the state. Indeed, Schwarzenegger went out of his way Monday to praise lawmakers for working hard, but in a corrupt system.
Schwarzenegger strategist Mike Murphy said that the governor’s opponents had peaked early and that Schwarzenegger has enough time to get his message to voters before the November balloting.
“The governor is an expert at peaking at the right time in competitions,” Murphy said, “and I think he is going to give a lesson to some in this campaign.”