His zig-zagging on issues could harm governor’s record

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger compares his governing style to hitting the “sweet spot” on a golf ball that sends it soaring through the air: negotiating contentious issues until he strikes the exact compromise that brings opposing groups together.

But past the midway point in his tenure, Schwarzenegger’s penchant for shifting ground has left him with a record of self-contradiction and a reputation among California’s polarized constituencies as a leader whose bold pronouncements may quickly be forgotten.

He reversed course on auto fee increases, a minimum wage hike and term limits for state lawmakers. He said he didn’t need special interest money, then became the biggest fundraiser in state history. He said he would cut up state credit cards, then borrowed billions. He promised open government, but let secret corporate donors pay for his travels abroad.


Schwarzenegger recently issued a strong endorsement of a proposed toll road through San Onofre State Beach, nearly two years after his administration had derided the plan and said he was committed to preserving the state park. He then decided not to reappoint two state parks commissioners -- his brother-in-law Bobby Shriver and fellow screen star Clint Eastwood -- who fought the road.

The governor’s reversals have perhaps been most frustrating to his fellow Republicans, many of whom suspect that in his search for ways to close the state’s yawning budget gap, he may renege on his commitment not to raise taxes -- a sure sticking point in negotiations. In the coming months, that dynamic could hamper Schwarzenegger’s ability to navigate the state’s fiscal crisis.

“When anybody alters their position repeatedly, it creates a credibility gap,” said Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia). “We would be very disappointed -- and frankly, highly upset with the governor -- if he were to go backwards on his commitment not to raise taxes.”

Aides contend that the governor has kept his word on that key GOP issue by raising fees, not taxes. But the fees he has backed, including some amounting to billions of dollars that were included in his failed healthcare plan, are essentially the same thing, say many Republicans and anti-tax groups.

The governor, who in January promised, “I will not raise taxes on the people of California,” later said he agreed with the nonpartisan legislative analyst’s suggestion that the state collect more tax money by cutting or reducing some “loopholes.”

This month, he said “everything is on the table” in budget negotiations with the Capitol’s dominant Democrats. He cited as an example a demand by state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) to increase sales taxes.

Democrats, who have cooperated with Schwarzenegger on many issues, including reducing global warming and increasing the minimum wage, are standing their ground against him on taxes, optimistic that he will bend.

The governor’s spokesman, Aaron McLear, said Schwarzenegger “has always stood by his core principles” of reforming the state budget process, reducing partisanship, changing the way legislative districts are drawn, improving public safety and holding the line on taxes. He said Schwarzenegger opposed a minimum wage hike when the economy was weak, and backed it when times improved.

“He has been very consistent on his priorities throughout his administration,” McLear said. “The governor is not beholden to any party. He serves the people of California. He does what is in the best interest of the state.”

Schwarzenegger, elected as a political novice, shifted some stances as he learned about the complex interest groups and issues in Sacramento, some who know him say. The ultimate crowd pleaser, he also has a penchant for agreeing with whomever he has listened to most recently, even when doing so conflicts with what he has done before, according to others.

This year, Schwarzenegger acknowledged breaking his promise to not support a ballot initiative that would have changed the state term-limits law unless there was companion legislation to change how legislative districts are drawn. The term-limits effort was led by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), the governor’s partner in proposals to expand state healthcare. Both efforts failed.

“I think this is a governor who wants to do the right thing, but he’s talking to a lot of different stakeholders right now,” said John Kabateck, the executive director of the California chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business and a former aide to the governor. “He’s in a continued process of evolution.”

Schwarzenegger describes himself as fundamentally a salesman and marketing master: for bodybuilding, then for his movies, now for California. “You have to sell, no matter what, all your life,” he told a group of Los Angeles business leaders in January. “I’m still selling now, policies, right?”

He has shown he can change the pitch very quickly. Schwarzenegger said in early September that it would be “absolutely unacceptable” for federal judges to release state prison inmates early because of overcrowding. That would cause “a public safety disaster,” he said.

Four months later, the governor said that releasing inmates early was “the fairest way to go,” because he had targeted almost every other state program for cuts in his austere budget proposal.

“One of the big criticisms of the governor is that he doesn’t really have a belief system,” said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange). “He likes to get deals done. . . . If you don’t really have an ideology or a philosophy, I think it’s very easy to abandon a particular principle.”

Unionized workers were pleased in 2004 when the governor signed compacts with Indian tribes that enabled them to organize casino workers, and they lobbied for the agreements’ passage. But two years later, he negotiated a new round of compacts with different tribes that did not include those protections.

“Nobody ever called me and said, ‘There’s been a change of policy and here’s why,’ ” said Jack Gribbon, the state political director of Unite Here, a union that organizes casino hotel workers. “I felt like it was kind of a kick in the stomach to the workers.”

Schwarzenegger’s aides said it was unfair to compare the compacts, because each negotiation was different.

In the case of the toll road, Schwarzenegger’s shift reflected changed political priorities. When the route through San Onofre State Beach was first backed by local authorities, the governor was emphasizing environmentalism.

At a forum in Santa Ana in May 2006, Terry Tamminen, an environmental advisor to Schwarzenegger, said the governor was “very disappointed” that the route was chosen.

“His focus is on preserving that state park,” Tamminen said.

Today, the governor speaks more of building roads and other infrastructure. So in a January letter to the California Coastal Commission, the governor called the project “essential” to relieving traffic and reducing global warming. McLear said the endorsement was not a reversal because the governor had never taken an official position before.

The commission rejected the project anyway.

One who opposed the road, Garry Brown of Orange County Coastkeeper, a local advocacy group, said he generally approves of Schwarzenegger. But he said he is troubled by the inconsistencies -- for instance, when the governor speaks passionately about the environment but appoints development allies to state boards that are supposed to protect natural resources.

“It certainly causes a level of anxiety and uncertainty as to, is the governor really with us?” Brown said. “You kind of want to support him, and yet he’ll do something like send out a letter supporting the toll road that just makes you wonder, ‘What happened?’ ”