With a second term ensured, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger plans to use the next four years to showcase California as a one-of-a-kind model of bipartisan cooperation -- and to forge a legacy that will be a springboard for his next political move.
Riding the momentum of his victory and a string of legislative accomplishments this year, he hopes to work with Democrats and Republicans to expand access to healthcare, improve teacher accountability in California schools and build enough new prisons to ease rampant overcrowding.
Demonstrating that government can rise above partisanship and be an effective force for improving lives will be the centerpiece of Schwarzenegger’s next term, say those who work closely with him. It is a message the governor believes will resonate down the road.
Even before Tuesday’s election, he was looking beyond Sacramento. Aides said he may run for the U.S. Senate against Barbara Boxer, a Democrat who is planning a reelection bid in 2010.
Meanwhile, the governor’s staff is mapping out a strategy to suit his ambitions. As the 2008 presidential race kicks in, Schwarzenegger hopes to influence the national political debate as a spokesman for consensus-based government, some advisors said. For that to work, he’ll need to build on his record.
But the second term could present a new set of challenges.
State budget analysts estimate that the shortfall in the next two years could reach $5 billion. Schwarzenegger’s efforts to close the state’s structural deficit have stalled.
And he has boxed himself in on the issue of taxes -- a subject of high importance to Tuesday’s voters, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll. He took a no-new-taxes oath during the campaign, and some strategists say it would be political suicide to break it. The consequences could include a Republican revolt, even a recall like the one that ousted former Gov. Gray Davis and created an opening for Schwarzenegger.
His team says it won’t come to that.
“This is a principle of the governor’s he committed himself to,” said Adam Mendelsohn, Schwarzenegger’s communications director. “No new taxes.”
Budget problems could also complicate the governor’s ability to bring healthcare to more Californians. At least 6 million in the state lack health insurance.
“Some of the old ideas are simply tax increases veiled as a healthcare plan, and this governor believes there’s an opportunity to come up with new ideas and new solutions,” Mendelsohn said.
Schwarzenegger hasn’t yet settled on a program, but aides are looking at a number of ideas being tried out across the country. They are studying a program offered by Home Depot, for example, in which customers purchase health insurance through the company, benefiting from the retail giant’s group rates.
The governor’s office is also examining Massachusetts’ healthcare overhaul under Republican Gov. Mitt Romney. In that state, everyone older than 18 is required to carry health insurance. Subsidies and other measures make the policies affordable.
Revamping healthcare -- a goal that so far has eluded California officials -- may be a tough test of the conciliatory governing style that Schwarzenegger adopted this year. But his staff says that even if he runs into opposition, he won’t take his agenda to voters; he has discarded that tactic.
“We don’t think the voters want us to go to the ballot,” an administration official said.
The governor will work closely with the Democratic-controlled Legislature, pushing for compromises, aides said. And the signals are promising.
“We can have a very productive year,” Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), said in an interview, “just as long as the governor stays the course.”
Although healthcare will dominate the 2007 agenda, Schwarzenegger has said he also wants to improve school accountability. His staff offers little specificity about what he intends, pointing instead to bills he has signed in the past.
One such measure, by state Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena), is meant to keep poor teachers who are drummed out of one school from landing a job at another, a practice educators call “the dance of the lemons.”
On a smaller scale, Schwarzenegger wants to arm parents with more information about school quality. He hopes to post on the Internet data that would show how various schools stack up in extracurricular programs, classroom performance and spending.
“How is the money spent?” Schwarzenegger said at a campaign appearance in Prunedale, near Monterey, last week. “Do we really spend it in the best possible way? And how do we get more money in the classroom? Open up the books and let the sunshine in.”
Schwarzenegger is likely to step carefully, having made an enemy of the California Teachers Assn. in his first term by reneging on a budget deal. The union campaigned hard to drive down his approval rating and defeat his special-election agenda last year.
Sobered by that loss, Schwarzenegger is not looking for new fights in his next term, aides say.
Picking up some unfinished business from his first term, the governor will try again to ease prison crowding. With prisons running out of room, he declared a state of emergency last month, a step that allows inmates to be transferred to other states.
The governor had sought to reduce crowding during a special legislative session last summer. But lawmakers rejected his proposed $6-billion plan to transfer some inmates and use private facilities to house others, and told the governor to come back later with a new proposal.
Schwarzenegger’s idea is to add prisons. “We must build more prison space because ... we’re way overcrowded,” he said at last week’s campaign stop.
As he begins Act II of his governorship, Schwarzenegger will be presiding over a team that is very different from the one he came in with. Several aides may be leaving, including Bonnie Reiss, a Democrat and longtime friend of the governor; Fred Aguiar, the Cabinet secretary; and Richard Costigan, the governor’s chief liaison to the Legislature.
Schwarzenegger’s political future is now being guided by a quartet of advisors: Mendelsohn, Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy and two strategists who helped reelect President Bush in 2004, Steve Schmidt and Matthew Dowd.
The four were central to Schwarzenegger’s political recovery after the 2005 special election debacle.