Opposites Attract on Team Arnold
Susan Kennedy is a former abortion rights activist and protege of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Steve Schmidt is a political strategist who helped put Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. on the Supreme Court over the protest of Democrats, including Feinstein, who feared he would outlaw abortion.
Now the two, Kennedy and Schmidt, are joined in the common purpose of reelecting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in November.
Together, they may be the oddest bedfellows in an administration that seems to have a zig -- personality- and policy-wise -- for every one of Schwarzenegger’s zags.
But Democrat Kennedy, the governor’s new chief of staff, and Republican Schmidt, his freshly arrived campaign manager, say they are airtight on one thing: Whatever their philosophical differences, Schmidt said, “We’re focused on what we both have in common, which is reelecting” Schwarzenegger.
The ultimate wisdom, or folly, of the governor’s political mixing and matching won’t be known until Nov. 7. In the meantime, skeptics abound, including some in the governor’s political orbit. (None of them wished to be quoted for publication, lest they get permanently frozen out.)
The top tier of Schwarzenegger advisors also includes Matthew Dowd, who helped engineer George W. Bush’s two presidential wins, and Democrat Daniel Zingale, a longtime gay rights advocate and the chief of staff to First Lady Maria Shriver.
The construction of Team Arnold, in its latest iteration, has been typically confounding.
While Schwarzenegger, a Republican, reached out to hire Kennedy, it is Shriver, a Democrat, who helped lure Schmidt, Dowd and Adam Mendelsohn, the governor’s new communications chief, to Sacramento. Mendelsohn is another Republican with close ties to the Bush White House.
Ever since Schwarzenegger’s drubbing in the November special election -- which Shriver opposed -- she has been heavily involved in his reelection effort, according to inside accounts. She has canvassed friends in the media and national political circles in search of political talent, and sat in on some conference calls among his new strategists.
“She is in charge of the rescue committee,” said one Schwarzenegger advisor, referring to the governor’s sagging political fortunes. “Maria has a number of I-told-you-so chits from last year that she is cashing in.”
Schwarzenegger’s latest strategy team is his third group of political consultants in a little more than two years. Gone are most of the advisors who helped him win the November 2003 recall election, as well as several who steered Schwarzenegger through a disastrous 2005, when his popularity plunged and voters overwhelmingly rejected his ballot proposals.
The political turnover is part of a larger housecleaning in the governor’s operation, reminiscent of what followed the release of “Last Action Hero,” a 1993 dud that turned out to be one of Schwarzenegger’s biggest movie flops. Stung by criticism of the film, he found a new agent and publicist.
This time, Schwarzenegger has replaced almost his entire gubernatorial staff, including aides in charge of his schedule, oversight of state agencies, communications, speechwriting, policy development, job appointments and legal affairs.
None of the changes is as significant -- or improbable -- as the placement of Kennedy alongside Schmidt to oversee day-to-day operations of the governor’s office and his campaign, respectively.
The appointment of Kennedy and the governor’s leftward turn since November -- including support for a higher minimum wage and extensive borrowing for an infrastructure rebuilding program -- have outraged many conservatives. Last week, several of them filed a resolution with the state Republican Party seeking to strip Schwarzenegger of its official endorsement.
Michael Schroeder, a former state party chairman who is pushing the resolution, said the arrival of Schmidt, Dowd and others with impeccable GOP credentials has done nothing to appease the governor’s critics.
“He’s bringing in people who don’t know much about California,” said Schroeder, who noted that Bush largely ignored the state in 2004 after campaigning unsuccessfully here in 2000. “Trying to learn on this job like this is probably a dumb idea.”
Schmidt and Mendelsohn, close friends who were in each others’ wedding parties, have both worked in California, without great success. Each served in Matt Fong’s 1998 campaign for U.S. Senate, a losing effort against Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer. Dowd has even more California experience, which he acquired, oddly enough, working for Democrats.
Starting in 1991, he collaborated on the party’s statewide strategy for the 1992 campaign, which helped Bill Clinton carry California and boosted Feinstein and Boxer into the U.S. Senate. Dowd’s boss at the time was the very same Susan Kennedy, then executive director of the state Democratic Party. (In an interview, Dowd laughed when credited with electing two of Bush’s Senate tormentors.)
Dowd, a Texan, was a Democratic strategist for years when he switched to the GOP after going to work in 1998 for then-Gov. Bush. Speaking from Austin, Texas, before traveling to Santa Monica for Schwarzenegger’s first meeting Friday with his new brain trust, Dowd dismissed suggestions that California was somehow a foreign country.
“Though demographics and particular partisanships might vary, how you communicate, how you connect and strategies you use to be successful are consistent across each state,” he said.
The larger questions surrounding Schwarzenegger’s hybrid election team involve chemistry. Can a group of ex-adversaries with distinctly different ways of seeing the world meld under the pressures of a campaign? And to what extent will Schwarzenegger, who likes a certain amount of chaos to exert control and keep aides off balance, allow himself to be guided by newcomers?
“Most successful political figures have a very steady group of people who’ve been working together for a number of years, and there’s enormous advantage to it,” said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic consultant who strategized with both Kennedy and Dowd in the 1992 campaign. “There’s a whole set of shared experiences that bind you together ... You don’t take offense if someone tells you you’re wrong. It’s really important to have people who can say, ‘No, that’s not right, governor’ or ‘That would be a really bad idea.’ ”
A bigger hurdle to cohesion would seem to be the ideologies of those involved. While the advisors are not particularly extreme in their personal politics, they differ on plenty of touchy issues, not least the merits of Bush’s performance as president.
Kennedy, who served as a Cabinet secretary to former Gov. Gray Davis before Schwarzenegger ousted him in the recall, insists that those differences are easily set aside in service to a shared goal of winning in November. “None of us are rigid ideologues,” she said.
Besides, Kennedy said, she has tired of the blind partisanship exhibited on both sides, a sentiment that Dowd shared in a later interview. He condemned “the food-fight, dodge-ball mentality that exists in politics, where you can’t assume people on the other side have good intentions.” (Never mind the role they and their former bosses might have had in contributing to that climate.)
Schmidt, who made his reputation in Washington as a rapier practitioner of rapid response -- the art of eviscerating the opposition -- was characteristically blunt.
“In a political campaign you’re not sitting around like you’re at some think tank, talking about the Iraq war or social policy,” he said. “Fundamentally, a campaign is about moving in the right direction, about mechanics and execution. It’s not ideological.
“My job is to help advance [Schwarzenegger’s] agenda,” Schmidt said from Washington, as he packed up to move to Sacramento.
“If I had an issue agenda, I’d run for office.”
Times staff writer Robert Salladay contributed to this report.