OFF THE CUFF, GOV. GETS IN SOME JABS
He has staked his governorship on bipartisan agreements, but recordings of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger bantering with aides in closed-door meetings reveal him complaining about lawmakers from both parties, casting some as obstructionist and two-faced.
The recordings, newly obtained by The Times, also feature him chatting about American resentment of illegal immigrants, about his taste for gas-hungry Hummers and about his wife’s habit of tinkering with his speeches.
Made by Schwarzenegger’s staff last year, the recordings offer a rare window onto the governor’s operation and a more complex portrait of Schwarzenegger than typically emerges in public, where his appearances are carefully stage-managed.
In the latest recordings, the Republican governor describes Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) as a “very sick man” and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) as “a political operator coming from the union background” who evinces no real “passion” about issues. And he worries that a federal plan to build a fence along the Mexican border will send a troubling message.
“Are we looking at Mexico now as the enemy?” he says in the recording. “No, it’s not. This is our trading partner.”
Married for two decades, Schwarzenegger still seems amused by some of his wife’s habits. When Maria Shriver reviews one of his speeches, he says, “she is relentless. I can only talk about things for so many times because then I like to lock it in, even if it’s not perfect.... But she goes until the last day.... I said, ‘Maria, it’s over. It’s in the teleprompter.’ ”
The recordings were made in the first half of 2006. The Times first published about a 6-minute excerpt from similar recordings in September and recently obtained about 3 1/2 hours more. In the excerpts published in September, Schwarzenegger referred to Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City) as “hot,” a reference to her ethnicity. He later apologized.
After The Times on Sunday asked the Schwarzenegger administration for comment about the latest recordings, communications director Adam Mendelsohn said he was going to release the tapes to other news media. The Schwarzenegger administration had previously turned down public records requests for the tapes.
In a prepared statement, Mendelsohn said the recordings show the governor to be “thoughtful, concerned and focused on solving some of California’s most serious problems.”
Gary Delsohn, a speechwriter working for the governor, made the recordings in an effort to produce better speeches by capturing the governor’s thoughts and speech patterns. Attendees at the four recorded meetings include Delsohn, Mendelsohn, Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy and former aide Bonnie Reiss.
Aides to former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides copied the audio files from the governor’s website last year, something they were able to do because of lax security on the site, state investigators concluded.
Proud of his legislative achievements, Schwarzenegger plans to deliver speeches around the country this year, touting California as a model of bipartisan cooperation. But the recordings suggest that he and his most trusted aides have sometimes viewed his legislative partners with disdain.
Throughout the conversations, however, the tone is generally friendly, informal. Schwarzenegger sometimes sounds as if he has a cigar in his mouth.
In one exchange, Delsohn thanks the governor for cigars and schnapps.
Schwarzenegger’s comments about Perata came early last year, amid negotiations over a proposed multibillion-dollar public works package. A deal ultimately came together, but Schwarzenegger aides at the time viewed Perata as a barrier.
In one recorded conversation, the governor says Perata “is trying to derail everything.”
Delsohn asks: “In your past life, did you ever deal with people that could be so petty and so childish?”
“Yeah, in the movie business,” the governor replies. “It’s the same thing.”
He adds: “It is a different level, but, I mean, yes, the movie business has been held up with a hundred-million-dollar movie just because someone doesn’t like one scene.”
At one point, Delsohn asks the governor how Perata acts in his presence after repeatedly “jamming” him in the press.
Schwarzenegger said: “Believe me when I tell you that it is shocking, and it took me a while to understand it because I am still naive a little bit about it. Because when he comes in here, he’s nice. And I want to work with him. But those guys, as soon as they step out of here or before they come in here, they are absolutely different personalities. They change like this.”
Schwarzenegger was even more caustic about Perata in a discussion at a separate meeting about negotiations on the public works bond. He says Perata is “a very sick man.” An aide says, “Really?” Schwarzenegger replies: “Yeah, absolutely.”
Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, Kennedy, comes in later and reads aloud a memo from Perata to fellow Democrats laying out concerns about the infrastructure package. The governor listens and says: “He’s lying. Unbelievable, this guy.”
“So while those girls are sitting around pulling their hair ...” Kennedy says, and trails off.
Kennedy at one point urges her boss to needle a Republican lawmaker who had said something objectionable in a news story.
“So when you see [Assemblyman] Guy Houston” (R-Livermore), she says on the recording, “just say to him, ‘Nice quote.’ ”
The assemblyman, she predicts, will “pee his pants” at such sarcasm, she suggests.
Perhaps no lawmaker was more important to Schwarzenegger’s legislative successes last year than Nunez. The speaker helped Schwarzenegger pass bills raising the minimum wage, curbing greenhouse gas emissions and offering a program for cheaper prescription drugs.
In one exchange, though, the governor describes Nunez as an unrelieved partisan.
“So for him,” the governor says, “it’s all politics. And because of that, everything that happens he sees through those glasses, through the political glasses.”
In some ways, Schwarzenegger is equally tough on his fellow Republicans. He suggests the Republicans were unrealistic in having their own expectations for the public works package.
The governor characterizes his message to them: “You are not the majority! I said, When does it get in your mind? You are not the majority.”
Invoking his wife’s famous family, Schwarzenegger likens his ambitious effort to rebuild California’s roads and ports to President John F. Kennedy’s call for landing an American on the moon.
He mentions speaking to his mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who told him “the most frustrating thing for Jack was to sit there and always kind of deal with that. You know, when there was a big idea and he had to go and ask all of those legislators, all of the Congress: ‘Think like me.’ ”
He imagines the resistance Kennedy must have faced: “We still have such high unemployment. The economy has to be stimulated -- and here you are worrying about going to the moon?”
At times Schwarzenegger seems to be working out answers, using the conversation with aides to clarify his thinking.
He talks with Delsohn about the wisdom of building a 700-mile fence between Mexico and the U.S. Delsohn asks him if the idea sounds “ridiculous.”
“It sounds ridiculous to me simply because the border with Mexico is longer than 700 miles,” Schwarzenegger says. “So now we need to know specifics.”
Conceding that it would be difficult for him to say so publicly, Schwarzenegger said that Latinos -- because they are so close to their homeland -- have more trouble assimilating than, say, Poles, Germans and French. Still, as an Austrian immigrant, he said, “I made an effort. But the Mexicans don’t make that effort.”
He later made similar remarks at a campaign appearance in Los Angeles. Mexican protesters marching here should not “wave the Mexican flag,” he says. “America loves America.”
Schwarzenegger also talks eloquently in the recordings about the importance of racial and religious tolerance. He recalls that his mother told him she saw Jews being hanged in public parks in Austria.
He mentions his regard for Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for decades for his opposition to apartheid in South Africa.
“Say to yourself every week, ‘Now I’m going to reach out to someone that I really didn’t care for,’ ” the governor says. “Or a race or a religion that you didn’t care for ... Make a point to go and take them to lunch, you know, somebody that is totally different than you.”
In an exchange on another day, Schwarzenegger worries about appearances. Working on a speech about the environment, he wonders aloud if his past might leave him open to charges of hypocrisy.
“Before I was a governor, I was both a businessman and an environmentalist because here I was driving Hummers,” he says. “I don’t know if I want to leave myself open here by calling myself an environmentalist.”
Happily recalling a visit to a local Hummer dealership, he describes the inventory and rattles off nationwide Hummer production numbers.
Then Schwarzenegger says California needs environmental protections.
“We have to take care of our state and our state’s population growth,” he says.
Kennedy responds: “You’re such a flaming liberal.”