In her own words


Below are edited excerpts from more than three hours of conversation with Susan Kennedy, a Democrat and former aide to Gray Davis who became the influential chief of staff to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A contrarian

My first political consciousness wasn’t formed around any concepts. It was just that some people stood up and did things that made other people hate them, just because they believed it was the right thing to do, and that was an important principle that I latched onto. And the Three Mile Island [nuclear accident] was my first consciousness of getting involved with activism. . . .


It became the source of my rebellion. I wanted to be the one, the contrarian. I wanted to be the only one that would stand up and do something that was right. I liked that image, and it followed me into high school. We used to have this debate class in high school. It was a social science class. [The teacher] used to hang things from the ceiling that said, “Agree,” “Strongly agree” . . . “Disagree” . . . and “I don’t know” or “I don’t care.”

She would pick a topic of the day, and then the class would have to go divide up into groups, and me and my friend would wait until everyone else had picked and they would all pile into one major area, and we would pick the opposite. And we would then, whatever the viewpoint was, we would debate it from the opposite viewpoint, and I loved it, and I became known as a fierce debater, willing to take on the entire class.

On partisanship

I became partisanized at CARAL [California Abortion Rights Action League] because abortion was such a partisan issue. The Democrats were pro-choice; the Republicans were anti-choice. Part of what broke the organizations up or made it really hard was when these pro-choice Republicans started [running] . . . and that was the case in the governor’s race in 1990. Does CARAL go with the more pro-choice person -- that was [Dianne] Feinstein. . . . Or do you go with the Republican [Pete Wilson] because they are so rare and you have to nurture them?

I remember very vividly going though this torturous process of figuring out, if we don’t encourage more pro-choice Republicans from getting involved we’re never going to win on this issue. Because it can’t be a partisan issue. If we’re going to protect women’s rights in the long run, it cannot be a partisan issue. That was my first real understanding of how critical it is to be nonpartisan.

We ended up making a partisan decision [in 1990] because just organizationally we needed to do that, but I don’t think it was good for the cause. There’s a lot of partisan reasons why abortion rights kind of petered out.


An early lesson

My first days on the job [with Gray Davis] I got a call from, I think it was Secretary [Mary] Nichols at the Resources Agency, and they were saying, ‘We want to release this forestry report. . . . It’s a regulatory thing that’s been going on for a while,’ and I was like, ‘OK.’ . . . I hung up the phone.

The next day, it’s like, front page. With one word, I’m hanging up the phone, I changed our forestry policy. . . . I didn’t even know what the decision was, do you know what I mean? And so the power of the executive branch just kind of crashed on me. . . . So when those questions come up to me, they are loaded with a year or even two years worth of regulatory work and political work, and so that was a crash course of, ‘OK, I’m going to understand everything before I say yes or no next time.’

Losing faith as a Democrat

What you kept feeling and hearing over and over again was that we’d had 16 years of a Republican governor that vetoed everything we cared about and there is this sense of entitlement . . . because Democrats are a near supermajority. . . . It wasn’t passion about your issue, it was a sense of entitlement that now we have a Democrat who is now going to give us everything . . . whether it was environmental agenda, gay rights agenda, you know, women’s agenda, African Americans, the Latino caucus, the labor unions. Those were all the major players. Oh, the trial lawyers.

I think it was a really, really important part in my political evolution. We were sitting in my office with the governor. AFL-CIO had their leadership in there, and the governor was sitting there taking notes and he had a legal pad in front of him, and they were going over their political agenda, and they were going over their legislative agenda, workers’ comp benefit increases, disability benefit increase, unemployment insurance increase, restoration of the eight-hour workday.


The list, it was going on and on and on and on to the point where I remember the governor having to turn the pad so he could fit on the last bottom line. And he picked up the pad and he said, “This is your four-year agenda, right?” And [union leader] Art Pulaski was sitting at the far end and he looked a little perplexed, like, “No, that’s this year’s legislative agenda,” and the governor said, “No, this is your four-year agenda. Actually it might even be an eight-year agenda, because you just can’t do all of these things in one year. You’ll crush the economy.”

The reaction was incredulity. . . . Gray sees himself as a moderate and he really tried to be a pro-business Democrat [but the Legislature] wouldn’t take any compromise. They kept shoving down [legislation] and the more Gray pushed back, the angrier they got about it, and the same thing happened over and over and over again. . . .

In the first year in office, I think Gray Davis managed to piss off every single Democratic constituency group, just because he was trying to be a moderate, and they ended up giving a Republican governor the reforms in workers’ comp, the driver’s license bill [that] they would not give a governor of their own party. And it was not the Republicans that recalled Gray Davis. It was the Democrats that recalled Gray Davis.

And this was not a debate about principle or passion. . . . A lot of this was about lining the pockets of the people who suck money out of the system. . . . I thought what they were doing was unconscionable. And so I really lost faith. . . . I worked all my life to get Democrats elected to office. For what? For this? No. I lost faith in the process because it had become so hyper-partisan that you couldn’t even have a conversation about how you moderate something in order to make it work, or you’re considered a heretic. . . . That was a really seminal time for me.

On communication

One thing that has worked well for me is being blunt with people. . . . Especially in politics, the most ineffective people I’ve seen are people who are afraid to look you in the eye and say, “Look, I’m going to do this or I’m not going to do that,” because they do not want to hurt your feelings. . . .


The more direct you are with people the more trust you can develop. . . . I’ve worked for people in my career where if they’re not being direct with you, you’re kind of getting, am I doing this right? . . . Most mistakes are made from lack of communication.

On negotiating

Knowledge is power. You have to know what somebody wants, what somebody is thinking or how they interpreted what your actions are, in order to understand why they did what they did . . . or why they are going to do what they are going to do

With everybody you’ve got 15, 20 different pressure points. Down here we’ve got one. We’ve got the governor, so things seem really crystal clear from my desk.

The [legislative] leaders have 20 different members who want this, two members over there that are constantly trying to replace them; they’ve got another guy over there who [is] running for statewide office and they’ve got to deal with their counterparts in the other house and the Republicans, who are going out of their way to do whatever, and they’ve got staff. There’s a lot of tension between the staffs.

So they’ve got 20 different input points, and you never know [why] all of a sudden they say, ‘Put in that amendment’ or ‘Let’s do this.’ We don’t even know they’ve done that because they’ve had 15 conversations and they’ve changed their course for whatever reasons. . . . We don’t know they’ve changed course [and] we’re continuing down this path. . . . You’ve just got to expect you’re going to have these miscommunications.


Sky-diving mishaps

I landed on a parked airplane. . . . I was the only woman who graduated in [the instructor’s] class, and he made me go last. He was making all these sexist jokes. . . . This guy waited until I was just about to put my feet out the door and banks the plane 45 degrees and doesn’t tell me, so the door slams in my face. . . . I’m the only one in the plane besides the pilot and the jump master, and you’re only supposed to be out there for a few seconds. . . . He left me standing out there. When he finally smacks me in the leg to go, I had missed the jump site. . . . Everybody [below] is screaming at me and running. I could see the vehicles going. . . . I turned around and I saw the plane and I saw that I was going to land on it and I blacked out. But I did a perfect five-point landing right behind the propeller of a twin-engine plane. . . . I didn’t remember any of it, but I did a great landing.

The first time I jumped I landed in a cornfield. . . . I was tangled and they told me, “Do not come out without your ‘chute.” They were packing up to go home and my friend was like, ‘Where did Susan go?’ . . . I was there for like four hours. They finally bushwhacked in and got me. So the second time I landed on the parked airplane and then the third time I went was out here in Davis and I did a tandem jump that time and I broke my leg. . . . I got a stress fracture. It just hurts every now and then when it rains. . . . I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Compiled by Michael Rothfeld