Illustration by Mr. FishGovernor Arnold Schwarzenegger is confronted by pervasive ennui surrounding the special election he called to promote his “Year of Reform” initiatives. Polls show most voters have turned against him and his election. The national spotlight he anticipated is mostly elsewhere, and relentless opposition from organized labor and missteps have cut his popularity in half. The governor faces an uphill fight to pass his shrunken agenda of toughening teacher tenure rules (Proposition 74), weakening public-employee unions (Prop. 75), gaining new budget powers (Prop. 76) and taking redistricting out of the Legislature’s hands (Prop. 77). Paradoxically, although widespread boredom and disdain were not what the messianic governor expected in January as he contemplated his dramatic crusade dominating the year in American politics, it may now be the best thing going for him. He could actually win if the turnout is low and led by conservatives who are sticking by him. “There’s not much opinion movement in either direction,” says Assembly Democratic strategist Steve Maviglio. Facing an opposition campaign financed by as much as $100 million in contributions, the great bulk of it from public-employee unions (although Hollywood producer Steve Bing has chipped in a cool $4 million to defeat the governor’s redistricting initiative), Schwarzenegger, who swiftly emerged as the champion fund-raiser among California governors after criticizing Gray Davis for the same thing, is being heavily outspent in the campaign he expected to rule. “We’re outgunning him on TV at least 2-to-1,” says senior Democratic adviser Bob Mulholland.As he tries to come from behind, Schwarzenegger is dogged in ways no other governor has been by time-consuming rumors on credible Web sites, such as his plan to make True Lies 2 and Terminator 4 while in office. “I’ve been trying to quell it all day,” said Schwarzenegger press secretary Margita Thompson last week, flatly denying it. Then there are the protesters, who usually send me the governor’s schedule before his office announces it, including details of fund-raisers that he never mentions.Confronted by a harsh reality he never anticipated, Schwarzenegger ramped up his fund-raising from very big donors — such as L.A. media mogul Jerry Perenchio, most of whose $3 million is going back to his Univision in Spanish-language advertising while rival net Telemundo goes wanting — after falling behind schedule in the money chase.There have been repeated rumors from his camp that he would deliver a major speech defining his agenda, which, until now, has been largely defined for him by his opponents as conservative in a mostly Democratic state. The speech hasn’t happened.He is preparing for a town hall meeting to be produced by a Bay Area TV station on October 24 — in which he declines to appear in the same segment as his Democratic opponents — and his team is attempting to negotiate a similar format in other markets.“Arnold wants to relive the recall spirit, it’s an emotional thing,” explains a Schwarzenegger associate. “He hasn’t engaged the fact this is a different movie in which he’s seen very differently by the audience.”The governor and his current team keep acting as though they are still in the recall. The events are the same, “Town Halls” minus the town but with a closely guarded hall. These prefab events — with handpicked audiences — have been largely discounted by the media and most of the public. And he’s doing the same kind of ads, with the governor talking generalities into the camera and brief person-in-the-street snippets on complex issues which most voters don’t seem to care about.What is missing from the mix is the connection that Schwarzenegger once had with the public. Protesters make it difficult for him to do the sort of crowd-plunging events he once did. But his problem is deeper than that. The recall campaign and his early administration earned him the persona of a politician above nasty partisan pingpong and special-interest money grubbing. But an amazingly lengthy series of boneheaded missteps by principals and staff shattered that image. Governor Arnold is now where he privately vowed he would never, ever be: widely viewed as a Bush clone. Like all under-cooked soufflés, his “Year of Reform” schema fell flat as soon as he removed it from the oven. Plagued by drafting errors and an absence of exciting issues, it was the incredible shrinking agenda. Merit pay for teachers and public-pension initiatives were dropped due to drafting and political mistakes. Redistricting reform was for a time thrown off the ballot because of differences between the version approved for circulation and the version actually circulated. Even the only one of his original group of initiatives currently leading in public polls, which would lengthen from two years to five the time needed for a teacher to gain tenure, has a potential drafting error which might disallow tenure to 18,000 teachers who already have it.What do these initiatives have in common? They were all drafted not by Schwarzenegger and his vast big-bucks political team, but by other Republicans before being hurriedly adopted by the slow-moving, poor-vetting Arnistas.As for what Schwarzenegger called the “centerpiece” of his agenda — a spending-control measure which would also undo the Prop. 98 education spending requirements — it trails badly in most polling.Of the four initiatives for which he is campaigning heavily, only limits on public-employee-union political spending enjoys majority support in credible public polls. And it became part of the plan not at the behest of Schwarzenegger’s high-priced consultants, but at the suggestion of former policy adviser Paul Miner. He realized that it was necessary to qualify the measure for leverage in what turned out to be fruitless compromise negotiations with Democratic legislators.Schwarzenegger had internal problems around any compromise. According to well-informed sources in both parties, chief of staff Pat Clarey asked former Gov. Pete Wilson to intervene with Schwarzenegger against a deal when Arnold and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez engaged in marathon negotiating sessions at Schwarzenegger’s home last summer. And many labor Dems argued against compromise.Indeed, while their strategy of tearing down Arnold has been successful, labor may have overplayed its hand, first in insisting on a November ballot showdown rather than going for mostly favorable compromises, second in pursuing a hatefest for too long. Even victory could be somewhat Pyrrhic.“CTA has already spent on the initiative campaign the equivalent of what the temporary dues increase would bring in over three years,” declared California Teachers Association Controller Carlos Moreno in an affidavit earlier this month. That’s around $50 million more that could have gone to other future campaigns.The biggest problem with Prop. 75 is that it is, at best, one-way political reform. Pulling the teeth of the public-employee unions gives corporations and rich individuals even more influence.“That is the best argument against it,” says a ranking Republican. But, in their zeal to destroy Schwarzenegger and deny him reelection, the unions aren’t making that case.Prop. 76, the budget initiative, is in very deep trouble, brought low because it gores the sacred cow of education spending and because it looks like a power grab by the unpopular Arnold. Both sides privately acknowledge Prop. 77, the redistricting initiative, is running behind, though with endorsements from Common Cause and the California Public Interest Research Group, it has a shot. The law now allows the Legislature to redraw its own districts every 10 years to reflect the population changes in the most recent census. Prop. 77 would replace this scheme of self-interest with a cumbersome requirement that voters approve the plan produced by a panel of retired judges in the same election in which candidates run in the new districts.It’s all fairly moot to begin with, as even Arnold’s handpicked secretary of state, who oversees state elections, admits that lines almost certainly can’t be drawn for 2006, probably can’t for 2008, and by 2010 there will be a new census in the field, producing much more up-to-date population data for new districts.There were compromises to be had, but both sides booted them away. Which is this misbegotten election, which has distracted attention from pressing issues all year, in a nutshell.
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