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Looking back at Schwarzenegger

The governor leaves office with a budget in desperate shape, but he set a new political course for California.

Was the recall worth it? Is California better off for having ousted Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, just after reelecting him to a second term, and replacing him with perhaps the most unlikely of governors, movie action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger?

It’s a question that has been asked a lot over the last several months as Schwarzenegger winds down his second term, with California’s finances in the worst shape since the Depression and his approval rating lower than Davis’ was at its nadir. To answer the question is to assess Schwarzenegger’s tenure, but also to assess Californians -- their mood, their attitude toward government, their sense of themselves.

The Times editorial page seeks to answer the question in part by re-examining its take on the recall, on the governor and on his policies over the last seven years, and finds the period filled with lost opportunities and costly diversions of attention. But we also find that a state that had been drifting -- unable to take action, except anti- government action, on such issues as water, infrastructure and political reform -- has begun to move forward again.

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This page was no fan of the recall. “There were no reasonable standards in calling for a new election,” we wrote. “Davis was elected last year with 47% of the vote; months later, political opponents spent millions to replay the election. Now the state will spend $66 million for a special election, with 135 official candidates, come one, come all. If the recall prevails, the winner, with a minority of the overall vote, would replace a governor who got a large plurality. It’s undemocratic.”

As for Schwarzenegger, we said, what a shame that he failed to use his campaign to lead a serious discussion of what ails California and how to fix it.

“Instead, he was happy to feed voters predictable lines from his movies: ‘Let’s terminate them. Let’s say ? “Hasta la vista, baby” to those guys.’ His outreach to the common man was, shall we say, thin: He told firefighters he identified with them because he had played one in a film. He ran away from a widely respected advisor, investor Warren Buffett, because Buffett dared to suggest that the state’s property tax structure was out of whack. A moderate Republican who had a golden opportunity to bring people together, Schwarzenegger squandered that capital by spending most of his campaign ducking the direct and tough questioning that he would have to face as governor.”

We took no pains to hide our lack of enthusiasm. Yet we acknowledged, as voters did boot Davis from office, that Schwarzenegger brought with him some unusual opportunities.

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Untraditional in many senses of the word, he arrived in Sacramento without many of the personal and political shackles that restrain most governors. He didn’t need fame -- he already had it. He didn’t need money -- as he reminded voters often during his campaign. Born in Austria, he was ineligible to be elected to the White House, so he was not seduced by presidential politics. A Republican married to a Kennedy, he was unencumbered by party bargains and loyalties.

But he remained, for a time, bound to some of the assertions he made during his campaign and the expectations that he would follow through on them.

For example, the car tax. Since 1935, when the state vehicle license fee replaced local property taxes on cars, Californians paid their car taxes to provide funding for cities and counties. The rate stood at 2% in 1948 -- and remained there until 1999, when a surplus of funds allowed the tax to be offset. When the economy tanked and the surplus disappeared, then-Gov. Davis did as the law allowed by re-imposing the full 2% -- and in so doing gave Schwarzenegger one of his strongest campaign messages. Voters embraced him as a tax-cutter, and he made good on his promise by re-slashing the vehicle license fee.

That cut would have left cities and counties destitute, and Democrats in the Legislature provided state funding to backfill the car tax monies lost to local government. That put a permanent $6-billion hole in the state budget.

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But if Schwarzenegger had been merely a movie-star governor interested only in applause lines, he could have left it at that. He didn’t. By his second term, when the state’s structural deficit, now compounded by the car-tax cut, met the mortgage meltdown and the resulting recession, the governor was ready to inch the tax back up -- not to its historic level, but at least up to the same level as other property taxes in the state. He told a television audience that flip-flopping had gotten a bad rap -- and he proposed temporary sales tax and income tax increases to help the state weather the storm.

“Schwarzenegger deserves credit, not scorn,” this page said, “for being willing to back away from his campaign pledge -- fairly typical of California candidates -- of no new taxes, ever.”

He asked voters to stand with him in a May 2009 special election by extending the higher tax. Voters, happier with the tax-cutting Schwarzenegger of the recall, said no.

We admired his willingness to change position on the car tax. But we wished he’d stuck to his campaign promise to cut the link between policymaking and special interest dollars.

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“The biggest problem we have is that California is being run by special interests,” Schwarzenegger had said during the campaign. “I will go to Sacramento and clean house.... I don’t need to take money from anybody. I have plenty of money myself. I will make the decisions for the people.”

Or, famously: “Here’s how it works. Money goes in. Favors go out. The people lose. We need to send a message. Game over.”

But by 2007, Schwarzenegger surpassed Davis as the all-time top campaign fundraiser in California history, and he did it at a pace far exceeding Davis’. Instead of loosening the grip of special interest money, he allowed it to tighten. His addiction to cash financed both his world travels and several special elections, which he called to promote his notions of reform.

The money did him little good in his 2005 special election, in which voters rejected all eight ballot measures, including the governor’s bid to increase the time for public school teachers to obtain tenure and to impose new spending limits (he did not originate, but ended up signing on to, a failed measure to limit the power of public employee unions).

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It was a turning point of sorts. Schwarzenegger reinvented himself and his message. Joining with the young Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, a Los Angeles Democrat, the governor embraced a host of environmental and even progressive reforms. He signed AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, and put California back in the forefront of environmental leadership. He fell short of an agreement on healthcare reform, but helped shape the national debate even before Barack Obama was elected president. He persuaded California voters to begin building again with a package of infrastructure bonds for schools, housing, roads and water systems.

By the end of that year, he had won over The Times’ editorial page. “After his historic election in the 2003 recall, followed by some early promise and a disappointing sophomore year, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a solid, pragmatic governor who has steered a moderate course for California,” we wrote. “He deserves a sequel.”

But 2006 was a budget anomaly. The state’s structural deficit remained in place but was covered up by our odd tax system, which is weighted heavily toward income taxes from high earners and which pumped in unexpected millions of dollars late in the budget process. In his second term, Schwarzenegger continued to cut deeply, slashing billions in state programs. Most of the cuts were necessary. Some were gratuitous or punitive. None permanently moved the state away from its fiscal peril.

Off the radar, the governor kept pressing the various failed or unfinished reform programs he had attempted in legislative bargaining and at the special election ballot box. Redistricting reform, which failed in 2005 (and in many earlier elections), was adopted. Now political parties no longer control how district lines are drawn. A “top-two” primary -- in which the top vote-getters square off in the general election, instead of the winners of each party primary -- was adopted. The promise of the recall -- transcending party and politics as usual -- was alive.

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Throughout his tenure, Schwarzenegger has held on to his generally progressive social policies while maintaining a concern for fiscal responsibility. In that sense, he has mirrored the mindset of early 21st century California: skeptical of partisan politics, unwilling to sever links with our historic commitment to growth and environmental and social responsibility, and sometimes at loose ends when confronting the depth of our budget problems. He leaves office having failed to “blow up the boxes of government,” as he vowed to do, and with a budget in desperate shape. But he set a new political course for California. The state, if not better off for the recall, appears no worse for it either -- in large part because Schwarzenegger grew beyond the action hero who ran in 2003.


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