Gov.'s Candid Moments Caught on Audiotape

Times Staff Writer

In the sanctuary of his Capitol office with an audio recorder rolling, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger describes Republican legislators as the "wild bunch" and, referring to a Latina lawmaker, casually says that "black blood" mixed with "Latino blood" equals "hot" -- a fiery personality.

The governor is heard on a six-minute recording, obtained by The Times, of a meeting with some members of his inner circle last spring. At the time, Schwarzenegger was struggling to persuade Republican lawmakers to embrace his plan to place billions of dollars in borrowing on the November ballot.

It's unclear why the session was taped, but Schwarzenegger occasionally records private meetings so that speechwriters, in particular, can keep a record of his thoughts and cadence. This audio recording mainly consists of relaxed banter among Schwarzenegger and a few aides, and it offers an unusually candid look at his administration when the doors are closed.

On the recording, Schwarzenegger's Democratic chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, says Assembly Republican leader George Plescia of San Diego resembles a startled deer. That draws a chuckle from the Republican governor, who a moment earlier had referred to Plescia's predecessor, Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, as "Bakersfield boy."

But Kennedy offers praise for Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, the lone Latina Republican in the Legislature. The governor and Kennedy debate her ethnicity, and Schwarzenegger opines that whether she is Cuban or Puerto Rican doesn't matter much.

"I mean, they are all very hot," the governor says. "They have the, you know, part of the black blood in them and part of the Latino blood in them that together makes it."

He goes on to recall a former weightlifter and competitor, Cuban-born Sergio Oliva. "He was like that," Schwarzenegger says.

Garcia and McCarthy called the conversation irrelevant, even funny, when contacted by The Times on Thursday. Plescia had no comment.

Garcia said the conversation didn't bother her in the least. She called herself an "unpolished politician" and said Schwarzenegger had shown nothing but respect for her.

"I love the governor because he is a straight talker just like I am," Garcia said. "Very often I tell him, 'Look, I am a hot-blooded Latina.' I label myself a hot-blooded Latina that is very passionate about the issues, and this is kind of an inside joke that I have with the governor."

Margita Thompson, a spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, issued this statement: "This is a small part of a long conversation that is taken totally out of context. The governor respects every member of the Legislature and holds them in the highest regard. It is not uncommon for him to have fun and joke with the members while they're working, especially during very tense negotiations."

The meeting probably took place in the Ronald Reagan Cabinet Room, the governor's de facto office that adjoins his smaller official quarters. The conference room faces east toward lush Capitol Park and has a long conference table that serves as a giant desk. The sword from Schwarzenegger's movie "Conan the Barbarian" rests on a nearby table.

Participants were Kennedy, who was Cabinet secretary under former Gov. Gray Davis; Gary Delsohn, a former Sacramento Bee reporter and author who recently became Schwarzenegger's chief speechwriter; and Walter Von Huene, a former TV director who is a close friend of the governor. Von Huene, a fellow cigar smoker and chess partner of Schwarzenegger, also serves as an informal speech coach.

Schwarzenegger's voice is heard first on the recording. He teases Delsohn and lavishly praises Kennedy as the conversation begins, suggesting that he knows the recording device is on. He calls Kennedy a "major, major champion."

"Got that on tape?" Kennedy says.

"It's on tape," Delsohn answers.

The free-flowing conversation took place amid negotiations over the governor's proposals for a giant public works package. At the time, Schwarzenegger's own party was resisting the sheer size of the plan -- the largest in state history -- which entailed tens of billions of dollars in borrowing. They eventually settled on a package worth $37 billion, placed on the November ballot.

On the recording, Kennedy and Schwarzenegger review an exchange between Kennedy and McCarthy, the Central Valley lawmaker who was then the lead negotiator for the Assembly's Republicans.

"You really pissed him off," Schwarzenegger said. "But you know something? You pissed him off because it hit home. That's why it pissed him off. People always get irritated; always when you hit something that is the truth, that's when people flame out."

Schwarzenegger says he had to control himself, and tried to be "really gentle" in the day's negotiations with his fellow Republicans. He calls it "dancing the dance."

But he says to Kennedy: "Anyway, so you hit him, you hit Bakersfield boy hard today," referring to McCarthy, who had warned against upsetting the Legislature's minority Republicans.

The governor goes on to describe the negotiating session:

"And then all of a sudden she comes in out of nowhere. She says, 'Yeah, but you are f------ the governor. Everything that means something to us, you're not including."

Kennedy replies: "I couldn't help it. I could not stay quiet."

Schwarzenegger: "I stayed quiet."

Kennedy then says that McCarthy, who is leaving the Assembly this year, ignored the governor's specific requests on transportation funding.

"He doesn't care. There's no price," Kennedy says. "Anyway, don't get me started again. I am glad he's running for Congress."

McCarthy, who in June won the GOP primary for the 22nd Congressional District, said Thursday that the conversation was typical of the honest back-and-forth that was occurring at the time.

"I thought it was funny," McCarthy said when told of the exchange about him between Schwarzenegger and Kennedy. "What is on that tape is no different than what we said to one another" during private negotiations, he said.

On the recording, someone then asks about Plescia, who had been elected Assembly Republican leader but ceded negotiations on the infrastructure bonds to McCarthy. Kennedy dismisses him.

"Plescia looks like the deer that keeps getting caught in my yard when I leave the gate open," said Kennedy, who owns a home in Marin County.

Kennedy then apparently makes a face, and the governor laughs.

"Great look. I love it," Schwarzenegger says. "There was the Academy Award right there."

Kennedy says Plescia has "big eyes that just kinda like stare like a Stepford wife. He's a good-looking guy. Happy. Perky."

Schwarzenegger then turns to analyzing whether Plescia can "control that wild bunch upstairs" -- the Assembly's Republicans -- "because that is like a very, uh, unique, uh, unruly bunch of guys and girls."

They move on to Garcia, a Cathedral City lawmaker who is the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants. On her website, Garcia is described as "born on the Lower East Side of New York to teen parents."

"Bonnie Garcia is great," Kennedy says on the recording. "She's a ball-buster. She's great. Is she Puerto Rican?"

"She seems to me like Cuban," Schwarzenegger says.

"She's not Mexican," Kennedy replies.

"No," the governor agrees.

"But she said something," Kennedy says, "and I thought, I thought she was Puerto Rican."

Then Schwarzenegger offers a theory.

"She maybe is Puerto Rican or the same thing as Cuban. I mean, they are all very hot. They have the, you know, part of the black blood in them and part of the Latino blood in them that together makes it."

Schwarzenegger then drifts off into a conversation about Oliva, who once was one of Schwarzenegger's great rivals.

As Schwarzenegger waxes nostalgic about Oliva, Kennedy abruptly says in the background: "I'm leaving."

Conversation trails off, and the recording ends.

robert.salladay@latimes.com

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