The Private Side of His Governance

Times Staff Writer

It was a nice day for working outside, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had slipped out of his office to relax with a few aides in the big beige smoking tent set up in the Capitol courtyard.

Jim Brulte, who was preparing to step aside as leader of the state Senate’s Republicans, had dropped by to talk. The governor remarked that he should stay on long enough to get the state budget approved.

Why stick around, Brulte asked coolly, if Schwarzenegger was simply going to buckle to the Democrats, as he had before?

Schwarzenegger, who likes blunt talk, wasn’t thrown by the question. He puffed on his cigar, then leaned forward in his chair, peering at the lawmaker from Rancho Cucamonga.

“You bitch,” Schwarzenegger said, and the group broke up laughing.


In public, the governor often resembles the one-dimensional characters he played in his movies. Immaculately dressed. Punctual. Relying on the prepared script.

But a look at Schwarzenegger in unguarded moments reveals a governing style more freewheeling and improvisational. Interviews with three dozen aides, advisors and former staff members portray a man whose moves are often difficult to predict, who likes to keep people off balance. Mercurial in temperament, he can be by turns disarming and fun, demanding and brusque.

He works hard. Schwarzenegger can spend days poring over color-coded spreadsheets to prepare for tough negotiations. And he has devoted himself to befriending, wheedling, charming and baiting lawmakers in hopes of cementing alliances.

So far, a durable governing coalition has eluded him. Schwarzenegger has chalked up many of his troubles in office to the power of special interests and legislators resistant to reform. But insiders say his policy setbacks and slide in the polls may also owe to stubbornness, a taste for flashy Hollywood-style -- but politically unrealistic -- moves and a naivete about politics in general.

The governor seems puzzled, in fact, by the rigidly partisan character of Sacramento, according to those interviewed, some of whom spoke anonymously so as not to run afoul of his tightly controlled administration. Schwarzenegger has Republican friends, of course, Brulte among them. Yet he seems happiest in the company of Democrats.

That’s partly personal taste; he married one, after all. But it’s tactics too. Schwarzenegger is desperate to win over a largely hostile Legislature that they control. Schwarzenegger has had Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez to his house in Brentwood more than half a dozen times over the last two years. In the hillside home, with its original artwork by Chagall and Warhol, Nunez has chatted about movie-making with Danny DeVito and other Hollywood celebrities.

The Legislature’s two Republican leaders didn’t get their first dinner invitation until a few months ago. No Hollywood friends of the governor were on hand to dazzle the GOP guests.

And long past the point where it might have wilted, Schwarzenegger’s romance with the cranky former Senate Democratic leader, John Burton, continues to flower. Burton, retired from the Legislature, can’t do much for Schwarzenegger at this point. But on Valentine’s Day the governor sent him a big box of chocolates. He tossed in a photo of himself planting a kiss on Burton’s cheek. The picture came in a heart-shaped frame.

Burton had been visiting First Lady Maria Shriver in the Capitol when she suggested they go see her husband. Pleased to see his friend, the governor told Burton, “Darling, I’ve missed you. It’s been too long.” Then: smooch.

“It was Arnold being Arnold,” said Burton, 73. He explained the relationship: “We would talk about movies, talk about Warren [Beatty], we talk about nothing. It was one of the reasons he clearly enjoyed talking to me. I don’t think the other guys who go in talk to him about Austria, or whether a schnitzel is good here or good there.”

Last year, many Democrats say, Schwarzenegger presented an amiable face in private, even as he attacked them publicly as “spending addicts” and partisan extremists who rigged voting districts so they would never lose an election.

State Sen. Gloria Romero, of Los Angeles, got a call from the governor’s office last spring: Come to the smoking tent.

Romero is by her own admission an ultra-liberal -- the type of lawmaker Schwarzenegger said should be booted out of the Capitol. But she and the governor were jointly backing a bill designed to improve the state’s prison system. It was advancing through the Legislature, and Schwarzenegger wanted to celebrate.

Secluded in the tent, which has enough cachet that legislators ask to see Schwarzenegger there rather than in his office even on the coldest and rainiest of days, the governor lit a cigar. He passed the case to Romero so she could pick one, then poured two glasses of peach schnapps (“worse than the cigar,” Romero recalled).

Schwarzenegger looked at the senator. Pleased that the two had worked well together, he said: “How come they can’t all be like you?”

Though Schwarzenegger often shows such courtesies to those around him, he can be a difficult boss, members of his political circle say. He may abruptly change course, or stick doggedly to a strategy in the face of warnings that it won’t work. His closest aides can’t always guess what he’ll do next.

In one private meeting at a Sacramento hotel, some of Schwarzenegger’s advisors suggested he needed another year of governing before jumping into the risky special election campaign that would play out in 2005. But Schwarzenegger was adamant, asking: What should they put before voters? What would be the strategy? Why didn’t the staff have more to show him?

His aides had few answers, and the governor grew visibly frustrated. He didn’t shout; he rarely does. But his questions became peremptory. Then he got up and announced, “I’m going back to the office; this is done.”

Some aides stayed and continued the discussion with Shriver, an occasional participant in such strategy sessions. The first lady had some questions of her own and at one point, said people who were at the meeting, advised raising taxes to balance the budget. But Schwarzenegger’s special election was built on the idea that the state needed to rein in spending, not hike taxes.

The next morning, a handful of senior aides sat in the governor’s Cabinet room. Schwarzenegger was at the head of a long mahogany table; at the other end was his chief of staff, Patricia Clarey. The mood was grim.

The governor glared down the table at Clarey.

“Haven’t you been listening to me?” Schwarzenegger said, according to one person who was present. “In Hollywood, I would know how to deal with this. I would bring someone in from the outside to get it done. Do I have to do that here?”

Senior aides didn’t want the election. Neither did Shriver. But the governor wouldn’t hear it; neither would he raise taxes. He had sent his team a message: The election was on -- and they’d better get behind it.

Prickly meetings are not unique in Schwarzenegger’s world. He relishes debate, even enjoys watching aides clash.

In some administrations, a session with the governor is a disciplined affair. Some of former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s staff had “blue carpet privileges” -- a reference to the color of the rug in his office. Others rarely got a chance to set foot on the blue carpet, where they could tell the governor precisely what they thought about an issue.

Schwarzenegger does it differently. Aides have been free to bypass the formal hierarchy and talk to him directly. He likes discussions uninhibited, raw.

At one meeting not long ago, David Crane, an aide and friend, asked sharply why Schwarzenegger wouldn’t help Californians cut medical costs by allowing in drugs from foreign countries. Crane said the administration appeared too cozy with the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, a major campaign contributor, according to participants.

Crane’s position was a kind of apostasy. In arguing that Schwarzenegger was, in essence, siding with rich drug companies at the expense of Californians who wanted cheaper medicines, an administration official was echoing some of the governor’s staunchest critics, who have said much the same thing.

Rob Stutzman, who at the time was the governor’s communications director, took Crane on, shouting an expletive.

“This is an administration that makes decisions based on the rule of law,” Stutzman added, a reference to the governor’s position that importing drugs from foreign countries is illegal. “And now you’re going to flout the law!”

Schwarzenegger liked the back-and-forth. “I enjoyed that,” he said when the meeting wound down.

Although frank debate is welcome, not every issue gets a thorough vetting. When he’s angry or embarrassed, Schwarzenegger can overturn policy in an instant.

During his first year in office, some Schwarzenegger staffers came up with a plan to save the state money by allowing animal shelters to euthanize dogs and cats more quickly. Other aides, recognizing that the move was politically tone-deaf, had already decided to explore alternatives that wouldn’t portray Schwarzenegger as an enemy of pets. But they didn’t get the chance.

Schwarzenegger was in his Sacramento hotel suite preparing to go to work when a call came from one of his teenage daughters, upset by the plan, which was reported in The Times that morning.

Schwarzenegger immediately called his legislative secretary, Richard Costigan, with a two-word message: “Fix it.”

Later that day, the governor held a news conference to announce he was scrapping the idea. Some staffers slipped out to listen, and were glad they did. It was how they learned the boss was changing course.

Once the special election had come and gone and all four of Schwarzenegger’s initiatives had been defeated, it didn’t take a daughter’s plea to persuade the governor to try a new approach.

This time he listened to his wife. At Shriver’s urging, Schwarzenegger disbanded his staff and built a new one, with his wife recruiting senior advisors and campaign aides to replace those he clearly blamed for the setback.

He wasn’t always nice about it. On a post-election trip to China, the governor left Clarey to commercial flights and press buses while his personal financial advisor traveled as a member of his inner circle, flying on Schwarzenegger’s jet and dining with him and Shriver.

Schwarzenegger complained privately that he didn’t like “hanging with” Clarey, and criticized her in front of colleagues. Other aides would join him for lunch; she wasn’t invited. In a final rebuke, Schwarzenegger replaced the Republican Clarey with a Democrat.

Again preaching bipartisanship as he runs for reelection, the governor has dropped the public taunts of Democrats. But some are skeptical that the new message will resonate.

Consider Martha Escutia, a Democratic state senator from Los Angeles. Few lawmakers have received more consideration from the governor than Escutia. Schwarzenegger has worked with her on bills and given her all the access she has wanted. He once held his private jet while she slogged through L.A. traffic so he could fly her to Sacramento.

Schwarzenegger dropped by her office after his visit to China. He wanted to talk energy policy, but first he voiced admiration for the booming economic growth under the Chinese political leadership. Escutia reminded him that China’s authoritarian government isn’t burdened by constitutional checks and balances.

Then she asked if they could step out of the room -- away from aides -- to talk privately. There was something she felt she should tell him.

Breaking the news that she would not endorse him in this year’s governor’s race, “I told the governor bluntly that many of us still view ourselves as partisans and we have partisan responsibilities,” Escutia recalled.

Schwarzenegger had sought no endorsement but asked, “Why does it have to be that way?”

“You know what?” Escutia told him, “It is. That’s this business.”

Could she just remain neutral? Schwarzenegger asked. Escutia said no.

A month later, the governor delivered his annual State of the State speech. He closed with a compliment to Escutia, noting that the two had worked to pass a bill aimed at ridding schools of junk food. Schwarzenegger was still trying to win her over.

Proud of the recognition, Escutia keeps a bound copy of Schwarzenegger’s speech in her desk drawer. Come the November election, though, she’ll be voting for someone else.