An outdoor campaign appearance by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quickly turned into a bitter complaint session Tuesday, with conservative voters visibly angry at him over illegal immigration and the parole of murderers.
The San Diego County event, at a community park, was carefully planned by Schwarzenegger campaign aides. But some of the invited, mostly Republican audience was livid at the governor while other members alternately booed and cheered during the tense exchanges.
An El Cajon woman who said she had been a Republican since the mid-1960s scolded the governor for failing to secure the California-Mexico border and stopping illegal immigrants who come here and “get everything free.”
“I voted for you, and right now I don’t see much difference between you and Phil Angelides,” said Sally Plata, 66, referring to Schwarzenegger’s Democratic opponent. “I don’t see that you are standing up for the citizens of California.”
The tone of the unscripted exchanges startled the governor. After the event, Schwarzenegger told reporters that he found the questions, which went “into dangerous areas,” troubling.
“This was really the first time I had seen the intensity of prejudice,” the governor said. “I had this woman come up to me [afterward] and say, ‘Stop the invasion.’ It was that kind of dialogue. It was ‘invasion’ or ‘robbing our country’ or they want to take it back.”
In his remarks, Schwarzenegger advocated a more tolerant position. “I think it’s very, very important to never get mad at anyone who is trying to come to this country,” he said. " ... I know that people want to come from the south, people that are living in misery. They try to come. I did the same thing when I was in Austria. All I wanted was to come to California.”
In her questioning, Plata called President Bush a “bum” on immigration issues and asked whether the governor had actually sent 1,500 California National Guard troops to the border to assist federal efforts. She said she visited the border and didn’t see them.
“You are on a thin piece of wall,” she said finally, “if you don’t start changing your attitude and do something for the citizens of this state.”
The governor, surrounded by about 150 people sitting in a circle on chairs and picnic tables, kept his cool through the barrage of criticism. But at one point, as Plata kept talking while he was speaking, he turned to her and snapped: “Please don’t interrupt me when I talk; thank you very much. I let you talk also.”
He told her he had actually sent 1,000 troops to the border, and she threw up her hands with an expression of disgust.
“We have to push them along and make sure they do their job,” Schwarzenegger said of the Bush administration, later adding: “I will make sure you will have confidence in me so you will vote for me.”
Angelides, speaking to reporters Tuesday outside a labor convention in downtown Los Angeles, ridiculed the governor for what he said were contradictory policies on immigration and his support of the Minuteman volunteer border-monitoring group.
Angelides pointed to an interview with the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion this week in which the governor said he thought Proposition 187 -- the 1994 initiative to cut off most public services to illegal immigrants -- was “the wrong decision.”
Schwarzenegger has previously said he voted for the initiative but also thought it unfairly targeted children.
“What is his position?” Angelides asked. “He doesn’t have a position.”
The La Mesa event didn’t focus solely on immigration. Brad Boswell, an insurance executive and longtime Republican, told the governor he was alarmed at newspaper accounts saying Schwarzenegger had paroled nearly 100 murderers. The governor replied that his hands were often tied -- that it is hard to keep people locked up beyond their release dates.
Since taking office, he has allowed the parole of about 120 murderers and turned down the release of about 320 others, state officials said.
Boswell also said he disliked the governor’s proposed prison overhaul, which would relocate 4,500 female inmates to community detention centers.
“Why do you want to put those people back in our community?” Boswell asked. “I am very, very concerned about your record on crime.”
He likened Schwarzenegger to former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a Democrat who was lambasted during his 1988 presidential run for paroling killer Willie Horton.
Afterward, Boswell said he would vote for another conservative candidate on the ballot. “I’m not supporting this guy,” he said.
Schwarzenegger responded to Boswell’s question by saying he was tough on crime and supports a ballot initiative in November to strengthen penalties for child molesters. He said that the current prison system doesn’t work and that innovative solutions are needed.
A new Field Poll shows Schwarzenegger leading Angelides by 8 percentage points, with support from 85% of Republican voters. But the event Tuesday suggested deep misgivings among some of those voters.
One woman asked why people come from Ireland legally but people from south of the border do not. “We want our country back,” she said, quoting a conservative radio talk show host.
Also Tuesday, Schwarzenegger said he would postpone a trip to Mexico scheduled for next month, saying he wanted to wait until the outcome of the presidential race there is officially settled. He said the delay had nothing to do with the immigration debate in California.
Tuesday’s appearance was the first stop on a two-day bus tour taking the governor from San Diego to the Inland Empire and Orange and Los Angeles counties. He traveled in a luxury bus emblazoned with his campaign slogan, “Protecting the California dream,” and an ocean scene.
He spoke briefly to customers at Sweet Lumpy’s BBQ in Temecula and stopped at a quiet fruit market in Corona, where he signed two copies of the New Testament for a man in the crowd. He also bought grapes and strawberries for $30.79, using bills from a money clip.
At the first stop, in La Mesa, some people offered personal, emotional moments.
A 16-year-old from El Cajon told an extended story about being assaulted by a gang. A woman with crutches said she had been beaten by police. Schwarzenegger called her over to him and gave her a hug in the middle of the crowd.
He promised to check into their stories.