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Loss on Public Works Is a Crack in Reelection Plan

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failure to persuade lawmakers to put a vast public works plan on the June ballot denies him a concrete achievement that he counted on using as a centerpiece of his reelection campaign.

The setback is especially sharp for Schwarzenegger because both of the Democrats vying to replace him argue that he has accomplished little as governor and, more broadly, is unqualified for the job.

Voter approval of a June ballot measure could have helped Schwarzenegger parry those attacks. It would have given him brick-and-mortar projects to trumpet at the height of the fall campaign: new schools to ease overcrowding, highway expansion to unclog traffic, levee repairs to strengthen flood protection.

And other Democrats would have championed those same projects, helping the Republican governor restore his image as a man who can unite lawmakers in the polarized Capitol to meet public needs.

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Instead, Schwarzenegger’s inability to strike a deal before negotiations fell apart Wednesday night underscores the continuing trouble he faces in trying to recover from the political damage left by his failed pursuit last year of an agenda that enraged Democrats and organized labor.

“This is a real sign of how terribly weak the governor is,” said Tony Quinn, a Republican who is co-editor of the nonpartisan California Target Book election guide.

Schwarzenegger acknowledged his disappointment Thursday at a Capitol news conference, conceding that he could not launch what he calls California’s “strategic growth plan” as soon as he would have liked.

But he put a positive spin on his defeat. He vowed to keep urging lawmakers to put an infrastructure plan on the November ballot -- even if, amid recriminations over the June negotiations, the prospects for November are uncertain at best.

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Schwarzenegger rattled off other matters that he sees as key accomplishments: his reduction of the car tax, his overhaul of the insurance system for workplace injuries, the health of California’s economy. “The list goes on and on and on,” he said.

Still, the blow to his campaign was evident. A television ad praising Schwarzenegger’s ambitious construction proposals was still airing Thursday on Los Angeles stations -- even as newscasters reported the collapse of talks between him and the Legislature. Echoing Schwarzenegger’s campaign themes, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad applauds the governor for “1,200 miles of new roads, 600 miles of mass transit, 40,000 new classrooms, thousands more modernized” --all of which is now in doubt.

Also discomfiting for Schwarzenegger is the staunch resistance of fellow Republicans in the Legislature to his call for borrowing up to $68 billion to pay for his construction projects. California’s last GOP governor, Pete Wilson, faced similar resistance to his 1991 plan to raise income taxes during a budget crisis, but he wielded enough clout to get the GOP votes he needed. Schwarzenegger has been unable to get support for his debt plan from Republicans, many of whom have spoken out against him in recent months for backing a minimum-wage hike and naming Democrats to judgeships and other top state jobs.

“To not have your base in line when you’re seven months from an election, that’s not very good,” said Republican strategist Richard Temple, who worked for labor unions last year in their campaign against Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures.

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Advisors to state Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly, the leading Democrats running for governor in the June 6 primary, portrayed Schwarzenegger’s trouble winning approval of his construction plan as a reflection of poor leadership.

Angelides pollster Paul Maslin said it showed Schwarzenegger’s “incompetence.” “He simply doesn’t have his act together to make the changes that California wants,” Maslin said.

Westly strategist Garry South said Schwarzenegger had reinforced voters’ doubts about “whether this man has the capacity to govern the largest state in America.”

“This guy has a history of bringing forward these grandiose schemes that basically melt into a puddle of water on the floor,” South said. He cited Schwarzenegger’s failure to carry out most of his 279-point plan to shuffle state bureaucracy and, last year, voters’ rejection of ballot measures that the governor described as crucial to California’s future.

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Still, some Republicans saw a silver lining to the breakdown of Schwarzenegger’s talks with lawmakers. GOP strategist Kevin Spillane said average voters feel little passion about infrastructure and would prefer state leaders to stay focused on such matters as schools, healthcare and jobs.

Now, he said, Schwarzenegger’s political team must broaden his campaign themes to those areas, perhaps sooner than planned.

Also, he said, a spring campaign for a June bond measure would have diverted public attention from the “ugly and vicious Democratic primary” that could leave Westly or Angelides wounded for the fall campaign.

“We can take out our popcorn and enjoy the show for the next three months,” Spillane said.

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Ultimately, Schwarzenegger’s reelection will depend on how voters compare him to the Democratic alternative. And that, Republicans argued, could still work to his benefit.

Steve Schmidt, Schwarzenegger’s campaign manager, said an important part of the choice will be a contrast on taxes: the governor’s refusal, and his rivals’ willingness, to raise them. And even if Schwarzenegger will not have a construction plan passed by voters in June, Schmidt said, his proposal still lays out a vision for where he wants to take California.

Schwarzenegger, he said, “is leading a discussion for the first time in a generation in California about building more schools so our children can learn, about fixing levees to avoid a Katrina-style disaster, and about building roads so working moms and dads are not stuck in traffic and can spend time with their families.”

Whether that discussion leads to a political revival for Schwarzenegger is an open question. The latest Field Poll, taken last month, found just 37% of voters favored Schwarzenegger’s reelection.

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