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A New Sheriff in Town

The 38th governorship of California launched like a movie premiere, with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in between movie star and politician mode, projecting his image to teeming masses and swiftly greeting elites in classy, closed-door parties. It may mark the start of an era of political renewal in the tarnished Golden State, or it may mark a wild new phase in California’s ongoing political devolution.

First Lady Maria Shriver checked out the impressive outdoor stage setup Sunday afternoon with the couple’s four children, who practiced their part in the Pledge of Allegiance. She directed much of the day’s planning, and did finishing work with Schwarzenegger on his 12-minute address. The speech was a collaboration between Reagan speechwriter extraordinaire Landon Parvin and Kennedy speechwriting ace Bob Shrum. On inaugural day, fate intervened for Schwarzenegger, described as "the luckiest man in the world" by one associate, as the sun broke through as he spoke on a Sacramento day that usually would have been enshrouded in fog.

Heartfelt and well-conceived, the action movie superstar’s speech was the statement of a 21st century Hiram Johnson, its new-wave Progressive message emphasizing the point that the recall election which gave rise to the once seemingly fanciful new governorship of the former Mr. Universe was not simply about rejecting former Governor Gray Davis "but about changing the entire political climate of our state." Likening the entrenched partisan divisions of Sacramento to the crisis of 1787 which led to the U.S. Constitution, Governor Arnold laid out his thematic template for what he hopes will be a fusion administration to revive California as "the golden dream by the sea."

After praising Gray Davis for his grace during the transition, noting that the recall was not merely about him, Schwarzenegger declared that California has become the state with the biggest budget deficit, worst credit rating, most expensive workers’ compensation system, and so on. Oddly, Davis smiled throughout this litany, bringing to mind the old Mad magazine line, "Why is this man smiling?" But as the inaugural address went on, with Schwarzenegger clearly taking command before the 7,500 seated and standing guests and a global television audience, the recalled governor appeared stricken, his smile turned to a deep frown. Sharon Davis comforted him by taking his hand.

According to his ex-boss, former Governor Jerry Brown, his longtime chief of staff lingered after Schwarzenegger’s swearing-in, though he was gone from the capital by mid-afternoon when the new governor was attending the third and least exclusive of his three inaugural luncheons, an affair for more than 2,000 sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce at the convention center. Davis’ future plans remain as up in the air as the Southwest Airlines flight by which he departed the city where he has spent much of the past 30 years.

After the politicians luncheon in the Capitol Rotunda, Jerry Brown joined the family and friends luncheon at the venerable Sutter Club, named for the man who started the California Gold Rush. Asked how it felt to be in "the lions’ den" with all those Republicans and his two Republican successors, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, Brown quipped, "No, they’re pussycats."

Brown has repeatedly praised Schwarzenegger and seems enthused about the new political era. "It’s a time again for reinvention in California," declared the two-time Democratic presidential candidate. "He has a real opportunity here."

L.A. Mayor Jim Hahn is enthusiastic, too, though he wonders where the money will come from to replace the money for local government that comes from the reduction in the car tax, which Schwarzenegger had just slashed as his first official act. Still, "we get along well. And it’s good to have a governor from L.A. You know Gray lives in West Hollywood," he joked.

Former Governor Deukmejian allowed as how Schwarzenegger is "more liberal" than he but probably needs to be. "It’s a changed state," he said, "very different" from what it was in his 1980s tenure.

Former Governor Wilson, acknowledged that Schwarzenegger must draw "from an eclectic group." Easy for him to say, since his former staffers and appointees have the most visible pedigrees in the nascent administration.

But Wilson, a very capable man who stumbled on immigration and energy policy, seems comfortable with a wide variety of voices having influence with Schwarzenegger. In any event, it is what the new governor wants. As befits a man whose latest movie, Terminator 3, moved into the all-time top 50 in worldwide box office the day before he was elected governor, Schwarzenegger had a crew of stars on hand, as well as many of his in-laws in the Shriver and Kennedy families, including Maria’s close friend Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy.

"We’re FOAs," quipped Jamie Lee Curtis, "Friends of Arnold." Curtis, smartly attired in a pantsuit which the pants-hating Arnold of the 1980s might have decried, is a Democrat as are most among the ranks of Danny DeVito, Rob Lowe, Vanessa Williams, Tom Arnold, Tia Carrera, Linda Hamilton and Dennis Miller.

Curtis’ fellow True Lies star Tom Arnold is married to the daughter of former Assembly Majority Leader Mike Roos of L.A. Kiddingly bemoaning the loss of the in-the-works True Lies 2, Tom Arnold said he is still amazed by the rapidity with which his friend has gone from the top of Hollywood to the top of politics. "Buddy, I’m still wrapping my head around this," he exclaimed. "But Arnold is way too smart to blow it."

Schwarzenegger consigliere Bob White, Wilson’s former chief of staff and the man behind much of the gubernatorial transition, seemed less stunned if a bit bemused by the whirl of it all. No administration has had a shorter transition and no governor a more rapid shift from one field of endeavor to another than this one. White is happy that things are coming off so quickly with so few hitches. But much remains unsettled.

Schwarzenegger and Shriver’s longtime friend and confidante Bonnie Reiss, a liberal Democrat who is now senior advisor to the new governor, is still working out where she will be and when. Indeed, it was unclear on inaugural day where Schwarzenegger would be after a series of rapid-fire actions lasting till Wednesday around legislative special sessions on the budget crisis, workers’ compensation reform, and his proposed repeal of the illegal immigrants driver’s license bill. It’s also not clear where he will live when he is in Sacramento, beyond his immediate future at the Hyatt at Capitol Park. Shriver has been house hunting in Sacramento and has enlisted some friends in the effort.

Notable by his absence was recall champion Darrell Issa, the conservative San Diego congressman who bankrolled the drive to place the recall on the ballot and ended his own gubernatorial candidacy when Schwarzenegger entered the race. But 2002 Republican nominee Bill Simon, who attends the same Catholic church in Santa Monica as Schwarzenegger and former L.A. mayor–turned–Schwarzenegger education secretary Dick Riordan, was a ubiquitous presence. Indeed, one of the striking sights of the inaugural whirlwind was that of Simon, GOP powerhouse Frank Baxter, and other Republicans in lengthy discussions in a hotel bar with L.A. Senator Gil Cedillo, one of the Legislature’s left-liberal stalwarts. A key topic of discussion? Cedillo’s efforts to forge a compromise on his driver’s license bill for illegal immigrants, the passage and signing of which by Davis backfired dramatically for both the ex-governor and the Democratic replacement nominee, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante.

As it happens, there will be no compromise by Schwarzenegger on the driver’s license bill. He demands that the Legislature repeal this bill opposed by 70 percent of the voters, and it appears likely that the Legislature will comply. A new version may appear down the line, with post-9/11 security safeguards similar to those present in the bill Davis vetoed last year but oddly absent from the bill this year. But for now, Team Arnold is insistent that there is a new sheriff in town.

In his special session on the budget crisis, the new sheriff in town will be pushing a massive plan to use bonds to take care of much of his inherited ongoing budget mess. He will ask the Legislature for $15 billion in debt restructuring bonds to place on the March ballot. Which is actually less than he wants. All but a few billion of that is to make up for constitutionally suspect bonds already issued. The Democrats will then be expected to bid up the total amount of the bonds to be placed before the voters or face the prospect of budget cuts which many would find draconian. The trade-off for such program preservation would be a new spending cap and expensive ongoing debt service, both of which would inhibit future spending growth like what brought on the current crisis.

And what of the Democrats? While lasting icons Jerry Brown and Willie Brown praise Schwarzenegger, the position of the current crowd of Capitol Democrats is less clear.

State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton was spotted by a colleague sitting alone in his darkened Capitol office Sunday night, before skipping Monday’s Inaugural in favor of a golf tournament fund-raiser. Burton, who loves movie stars and despised Davis, has issued waspishly cryptic remarks to the press after being charmed by Schwarzenegger in the election’s aftermath. The regime which he did so much to build as Senate president is crumbling, with the Democratic-controlled Legislature held in equally low repute as the former governor, its budgets and policies such as the driver’s license bill rejected by most voters as excess.

Director Rob Reiner, rumored to be considering a run for governor in 2006, attended Schwarzenegger’s private party for 600 guests Sunday night at the Sheraton Grande. The longtime Democratic activist will campaign for a teachers union–backed initiative to raise business property taxes for more education spending, which the former bodybuilding champion opposes. Reiner would not discuss his own political future. (He was not the only mum’s-the-word Democrat there. "I’m not here," said one Democratic moneyman, though he clearly was.)

The Democratic field may be more open than anticipated, with the expected front-runner, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, having neatly tied himself in knots by revealing that he voted for Schwarzenegger, then saying that he was troubled by the L.A. Times’ late-breaking charges of sexual misconduct against him. Was he for Arnold now? Was he against Arnold now? Should he debate himself about all that stuff?

That left Treasurer Phil Angelides as the Democratic alternative. But even some of the most Arnold-hating members of the press corps say they don’t like Angelides much, either, considering him a grandstander. It is true that Angelides, who condemns Schwarzenegger’s increasingly apparent plan to restructure the debt with massive borrowing, was resistant to criticizing the similar though smaller-scaled approach of Davis and the Democratic Legislature during the recall election.

The Weekly had to ask several follow-up questions of Angelides to get him to acknowledge that the state’s bonded indebtedness was at a record level. Angelides, who is sharp as a tack, insisted at first that he didn’t know the numbers — seeking to deflect the question from the press conference call to later ask his staff — though his memory improved markedly under questioning.

Nevertheless, Angelides makes very fair points about the advisability of deferring the cost of the budget debacle to future generations through bonding, though he does not really say how much his alternative of increasing taxes rather than imposing debt service would cost Californians. However that debate turns out, it is a mistake to underestimate the state treasurer and former party chairman, who is clearly one of the most intelligent and hardworking people in California politics.

With a $10 million war chest, an activist base, and a well-honed programmatic message, Angelides, not Reiner (who has nowhere near the image of Schwarzenegger or any other big movie star), has to be the early favorite to take on the Terminator in 2006. Schwarzenegger won’t say if he will run for re-election. But here is one bet that he won’t be saying "Hasta la Vista, Sacramento" anytime soon.


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