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Gov. Must Be Persuasive, Not Picky, on Infrastructure Deal

To be reelected in November, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger needs to muscle a public works plan through the Legislature this week and persuade voters to pass it in June.

He at least needs to negotiate a compromise by August so he can run with the jumbo bond proposal on the November ballot.

Or does he?

There’s no consensus among veteran political strategists. But everyone agrees that the governor will be better off politically if he can produce a “historic” California rebuilding program.

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After all, he virtually promised one in his State of the State address in January and has talked about little else since.

“It’s important because he made it important,” says Republican consultant Sal Russo. “If he had said he was going to paint all the state buildings so they’d look nice, then he’d have a responsibility to have some success. He said he was going to do it. Now he has to deliver....

“That’s both the value and the danger of having the bully pulpit. You set the standard for yourself.”

As of Sunday, Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) still were negotiating. But Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) pulled out Saturday, accusing the governor of lacking leadership.

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After a bitter Senate debate that started at midnight Friday, Republicans rejected a $49-billion Democratic plan for transportation, affordable housing, flood control, water works, schools, parks and conservation. Some GOP support was needed because any bond proposal requires a two-thirds majority vote.

The Legislature thus failed to meet a Friday deadline for placing a measure on the June ballot, but there was an assumption it could be extended slightly.

The biggest obstacle to compromise was Republican insistence on a new off-stream water storage reservoir in Northern California. Environmental interests objected. Assembly Republicans also pushed for some pay-as-you-go financing.

Everybody really should take a deep breath and trim this monstrosity back to the basics: levees, transportation and schools. Do the rest later.

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That said, it seems to me that Schwarzenegger badly needs a deal and shouldn’t be too picky. Take what he can get from Democrats and warmly embrace it as his own. Pull out a two-by-four and beat Republicans into submission.

Republican lawmakers need a rehabilitated governor to help them raise campaign money in the fall and perform little favors for the next four years. Not to mention improving flood control in their rural districts.

Privately, some gubernatorial insiders agree.

“It’s been really hard to watch,” one advisor says of the Republicans. “Don’t they understand the part about the governor giving them something good to talk about?”

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But Republican consultant Wayne Johnson defends the recalcitrant GOP lawmakers.

“The governor needs to get the right plan on the ballot,” Johnson says. “Nobody should approach negotiations with the attitude that anything’s better than nothing. That’s how you make mistakes.”

Moreover, the importance of infrastructure bonds to the governor’s political fate is pooh-poohed by Democrat Gale Kaufman, lead strategist in the shellacking of his “reform” initiatives last year. She says he’s going down in November, rebuilding plan or not.

Having watched several focus groups recently, Kaufman says, “nobody knows or cares about the subject of infrastructure as a major [gubernatorial] accomplishment. The best people can say is, ‘At least he’s done something, but it’s not my priority.’”

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That flies in the face of several polls, however.

One January survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 64% of likely voters favored the governor’s proposed bond package. And 52% of these voters who favored the plan also approved of Schwarzenegger’s job performance.

So that raises a question about how many of the governor’s bond-supporting fans would lose faith in him if he failed to deliver. With more voters disapproving of his job performance than approving, he desperately needs to gain supporters, not lose any shaky ones that he has.

“Infrastructure sounds sort of wonky, but voters are wildly for this,” says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick.

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“The governor needs to be able to reassure all those very skeptical voters in the middle of the political spectrum -- the ‘declined to states,’ the moderates -- that he’s capable of working successfully with the Legislature on a bipartisan basis to get something done.

“The sooner he starts showing an example of that, the more likely it is that he’s going to recover politically.”

And better now than later -- better on the June ballot than in November -- strategists for both parties say. Better for the governor and Democrats alike.

Each side could get this bond bickering out of the way and move onto the inevitable budget brawl, followed by unrestrained warfare in the fall.

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Schwarzenegger -- assuming that voters approve the bond package in June -- would have something to crow about in November. Democrats wouldn’t have to sheepishly stand up with the governor, arm-in-arm, campaigning for the bonds while supporting his reelection opponent.

“It’s very important for him,” says GOP consultant Ken Khachigian. “It gets him back into forward momentum, instead of being in neutral or reverse. It shows him being governor.”

It’ll require leadership. It’s time to cool the charm and cajoling -- and combine compromise with coercion.

George Skelton writes Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.

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