The two major Republicans running for governor have been running away from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger even as they seek to succeed him, trying to differentiate themselves from California’s highest-ranking — albeit unpopular — leader of their party.
But a close look at their campaigns shows that, like children stepping out of a dominating parent’s shadow, the candidates have been influenced by Schwarzenegger more than they admit.
Though the governor’s approval ratings have fallen sharply after several years of financial crisis, Meg Whitman and, to a lesser degree, Steve Poizner have adopted some of his closest advisors as their own. And many of their policy proposals emulate ideas that Schwarzenegger has already tried or achieved.
Whitman would consolidate government agencies, reduce the benefits welfare recipients can receive and limit state spending. Poizner would start a website for government transparency, create a budgetary rainy-day fund and freeze hiring. These are only a few of the candidates’ proposals that resemble some the governor has put forward since 2003.
Like Schwarzenegger in his first campaign seven years ago, Whitman is running as a self-made, fiscally conservative outsider who would shake up Sacramento.
“Whitman’s campaign in many ways parallels Schwarzenegger’s in the recall,” said Bill Whalen, a speechwriter for former Gov. Pete Wilson who is Whitman’s campaign chairman and was Schwarzenegger’s co-chair in 2003. “It was centrist and it was designed [for] a statewide electorate.”
As a candidate, Schwarzenegger’s credentials included his success not only as a marketer of blockbuster movies but also as an investor and business owner. Whitman, the former chief of EBay, a Fortune 500 company, contends that her experience as a top executive has left her better equipped than he to solve the state’s many problems.
“I have a very different background than Gov. Schwarzenegger,” Whitman has said. Schwarzenegger’s “intentions were very good, but the truth is, the results are not good. And I think that I have a different approach, a different set of skills … that will actually allow me to be far more successful in leading this state.”
But she has the same lead strategist for her campaign as Schwarzenegger has had; she employs the governor’s former communications director; and her policy director was Schwarzenegger’s legislative liaison.
Many of Whitman’s policy plans echo the governor’s. She has proposed a $10,000 tax credit for home buyers, which Schwarzenegger and lawmakers have implemented in each of the last two years. She proposes a tax credit to create jobs in the green technology sector; the governor recently won a sales-tax exemption on green tech manufacturing equipment (his other plan to offer credits for job creation has stagnated).
Whitman is pushing for a more “flexible work week,” so businesses could pay less overtime. Schwarzenegger has tried that several times, although unions have vigorously opposed it and the plan has gone nowhere.
She would ship prisoners to other states, as Schwarzenegger has done, and build on his changes to state workers’ compensation laws. She would try to impose formalized limits on state spending, as Schwarzenegger has tried to do; voters have rejected the idea twice since 2005.
She proposes limiting state welfare benefits to two years rather than five. Schwarzenegger tried that and failed, although he won new work requirements for welfare recipients.
And Whitman would look for redundancies in state agencies — the exact focus of Schwarzenegger’s California Performance Review, a voluminous and much-discussed plan that remains largely unexecuted. The governor has said that job was easier said than done.
For Poizner’s part, after calling himself a “Schwarzenegger Republican” and a lifelong moderate in two previous elections, he is now portraying himself as a conservative. He even says a Whitman governorship would mean “Arnold’s third term.”
At campaign stops, the slight, bespectacled state insurance commissioner often pulls out the same joke: “No one has ever confused me for Arnold, that’s for sure,” he said in a debate with Whitman, “although I do have a black belt. I think I could take him if I had to.”
He added: “The fact is, I’m not like Gov. Schwarzenegger or most people that have run for the office in the past. I have the character and the backbone and the tenacity to get done what I say I’m going to get done.”
But Poizner has his own ties to Schwarzenegger. His campaign chairman is Jim Brulte, a former state Senate Republican leader who is now a consultant and has been close to Schwarzenegger, even filling in on the governor’s weekly radio address. Poizner’s campaign manager was policy director of the governor’s 2006 campaign and an aide during the recall.
Schwarzenegger campaigned for Poizner’s failed 2004 Assembly run, and after the election appointed him to the Public Utilities Commission. The former Silicon Valley businessman removed his name from consideration because his investments were seen as potential conflicts of interest.
In 2005, Poizner backed the governor’s unsuccessful slate of ballot measures and was a leader of the campaign for one of them, a legislative redistricting measure. But as insurance commissioner, he broke with the governor by opposing an initiative that would have changed legislative term limits.
Poizner’s policy plans resemble Schwarzenegger’s as well. His proposal to create a “transparency” website is something the governor has done, although Poizner’s would put more information in one place. He’d reduce healthcare benefits for the state’s poor, which Schwarzenegger and lawmakers have done. He’d create a $10-billion rainy-day fund; Schwarzenegger has been seeking that since he was elected.
Poizner would also send prisoners to other states. And his ideas on charter schools and merit pay for teachers resemble what Schwarzenegger has proposed or accomplished with lawmakers.
Schwarzenegger’s aides declined to comment on how the governor or his proposals have figured into the race. Many of the ideas backed by Schwarzenegger and the candidates are embraced by business groups, which form a core of support for Republicans in California.
But a difference on one key issue is largely responsible for the two candidates’ desire to distance themselves from him, said Thad Kousser, a visiting professor at Stanford University who studies state politics. That is Schwarzenegger’s fleeting reversal of his promise not to raise taxes. The governor came into office dead-set against a hike, pushed for more taxes last year and is now back to his original opposition.
“I think the lesson that both of these candidates have learned is that backing tax increases is what led to the downfall of Gov. Schwarzenegger among Republicans,” Kousser said, “and they are not going to make the same mistake.”