Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger scored an election year coup Friday by deliberately getting out of the Legislature’s way -- and treating lawmakers as equals rather than “girlie men.”
The governor began the year deeply involved in negotiations over a public works package he proposed in January, micromanaging deal points with a color-coded spreadsheet. But after those talks collapsed, he kept quiet while the lawmakers negotiated and approved $37.3 billion in bonds to help repair California’s infrastructure.
Now, he can boast in his reelection campaign about helping to place before voters the biggest building plan in four decades -- $116 billion in overall spending -- even though Democrats pared his original borrowing proposal by about half.
Schwarzenegger scored a victory for himself, but he also handed an advantage to Democrats. The deal allows his rivals to try to make the infrastructure plan their exclusive province as they attempt to unseat him in November.
“This isn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger’s package,” said state Treasurer Phil Angelides, one of two main candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in next month’s primary. He noted that the final deal occurred only when the governor stepped back.
State Controller Steve Westly, the other main candidate, issued a statement that virtually ignored Schwarzenegger’s role: “I applaud the Democratic leadership for reaching across party lines.”
As much as the infrastructure package was about Schwarzenegger, it also fed a desire by the Legislature to repair its reputation as ineffectual.
In March, after the early attempts at an infrastructure deal failed, public opinion polls found that voters mostly blamed lawmakers.
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) summed it up early Friday, after the votes were counted: “We did our job.”
Schwarzenegger “couldn’t have done it without us,” Perata added. “But when he gets out of his car now and puts up his victory sign, everyone will notice him. I will park the car and I’ll be very content to do so.”
While lawmakers negotiated without him, Schwarzenegger spent his time touting the workers’ compensation changes he fostered two years ago, called for an investigation of gas prices, appeared with crime victims, wrote opinion pieces about immigration and attended a few fundraisers.
After two years of on-the-job training, Schwarzenegger no longer ridicules lawmakers as incompetent “spending addicts” and “girlie men.” He has “learned when to be quiet and when to be loud,” said Timothy A. Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento.
“Now he is saying, ‘I can’t just do the stunts, I have to pay attention to the substance.’ ”
The Legislature, Hodson said, set aside political calculations about Schwarzenegger’s reelection, reasoning that “there are times we can play politics and there are times when we just need to get things done.”
The deal came together largely because Democrats feared a November ballot initiative that would have ended their ability to raid gasoline sales tax money set aside for transportation. The initiative now will be shelved, in favor of lesser restrictions on road and freeway spending.
Although Schwarzenegger can campaign on the legislative victory, he can’t campaign on a victory with voters. The bonds will be on the same November ballot as his own reelection bid, and the fate of the infrastructure package remains as uncertain -- although polls show it more popular than the governor.
And there is an inconsistent message about the bonds from the governor’s party. The main Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in November, state Sen. Tom McClintock, provided a consistent “No” vote on the plan except for the flood-control bond.
Garry South, senior campaign advisor for Westly, said an infrastructure bond would not rehabilitate the governor’s stature. He said Schwarzenegger has “collapsed as a public figure” because people “got tired of the flip-flops, the false enthusiasm without any follow-up, the name-calling, the browbeating. You don’t change that by just trying to change the lyrics.”
Still, for the governor, his fellow Republicans and the Democrats, compromise and progress could play well with voters. Polls have consistently shown they want the governor and the Legislature to cooperate -- to do their jobs.
Schwarzenegger echoed that thought Friday.
“All the details and how it got done -- I don’t pay as much attention to those things,” he said in an appearance at a public school near Sacramento. “I pay attention to results.”
Times staff writers Peter Nicholas and Jordan Rau contributed to this report.