MORE

Collateral Damage

The explosions that got this recall campaign off and running lit up the political sky but left a lot of damage, much of it self-inflicted by the candidates. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stunning announcement flattened Governor Gray Davis and shattered Democratic unity around the party’s recall strategy, sending Davis’ lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, scurrying into the race, breaking his own pledge not to run. The shock waves also created turbulence for the action-movie superstar, who as it happens had a plan for announcing a campaign but not a plan for California. He also did not have a plan for explaining his position on 1994’s anti-illegal-immigrant Proposition 187, a position that differs from what has been reported by the media and, ironically, his own campaign. Other principal figures in the race, like Davis, Bustamante and commentator Arianna Huffington, also found themselves damaged as much by their own efforts as by their opponents.

Despite earlier talk, there was no Schwarzenegger plan. No secret plan, just a secret. That became apparent as his nascent campaign moved him onto network morning shows and a few other appearances, where he dispensed genial generalities but dodged specifics. Two high-profile surrogates, former Governor Pete Wilson and legendary investor Warren Buffett, managed to land the Terminator in unintended controversy. Buffett, the world’s second-richest human, musing about the much lower property tax on his Southern California luxury vacation home than on his principal residence in Nebraska, touched his candidate’s silent form to the third rail of California politics, Proposition 13. For his part, Wilson, hungry for vindication of his troubled governorship, reopened the bloody wound of Prop. 187, volunteering that his candidate had “probably” voted for the anti-illegal-immigrant measure that powered Wilson’s 1994 re-election.

Not exactly the first specific policy position a moderate Republican wanting to win Latino votes would want to toss out. But Schwarzenegger’s campaign confirmed that the actor had in fact voted for 187, which would have denied illegal immigrants access to education and health care. A Schwarzenegger spokesman went on to hold out the prospect that the would-be governor might well back 187 again should the initiative — largely thrown out by the courts — find its way back on the California ballot. There was just one little thing. Notwithstanding his vote nine years ago, Schwarzenegger was already on record opposing a 187-like measure.

Last year, while campaigning for Proposition 49, his after-school programs initiative, Schwarzenegger won a standing ovation from the Commonwealth Club at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, when he responded to a question from the audience about his current thinking on Prop. 187: “I would never stand in the way of any child going to school, whether he or she is here legally or illegally, it does not matter.”

Plenty of journalists were on hand for that October 2002 appearance. Still, the media last week reported that Schwarzenegger is pro-187 and speculated endlessly about the damage that his purported position — most of it presumed to be negative — would have on his hopes to win a sizable Latino vote. How did such a political and journalistic screwup happen? The answer is illustrative of the problems Schwarzenegger has encountered after the euphoria of his dramatic announcement.

Wilson appeared on the weekend talk shows, but no one coached him about what to say or not to say. Art Torres, the clever state Democratic chairman who knows that Wilson hungers for vindication, appeared on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos and provoked the ex-governor into defending his immigration policies and linking the new candidate to them. It worked like a charm.

Wilson’s blundering remarks about Prop. 187 caught the Schwarzenegger camp off-guard. Team Arnold (the top ranks of which consist of former senior aides to the former governor and senator) was gathered at the Miramar in Santa Monica, preoccupied with setting up the release of the superrich superstar’s financial and tax information, data which revealed that he is not only wildly successful but pays lots of taxes. Team Arnold/Wilson swiftly put out a statement acknowledging his 1994 vote, but its tone sounded more like Wilson. (Well, the Wilson who used Prop. 187 as a cudgel to win re-election, not the Wilson who as a senator in 1986 championed the loosely conceived Seasonal Agricultural Worker program, in which more than a million people entered the country, including the getaway driver in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.)

In the crush of events, some didn’t know that Schwarzenegger had come out against a central tenet of 187 last year and others evidently forgot or didn’t want to deal with the complexity. The candidate himself was mute. The effect was to make him appear a Wilson clone, albeit a more pumped-up one than the slender septuagenarian.

“I’m amazed they fell into the trap,” enthused Davis adviser Roger Salazar, who correctly guessed that Schwarzenegger would run and that his campaign would be reeling for days as it got its sea legs.

So how does the campaign reconcile the 9-year-old pro-187 vote with the anti-187 statement of last year? After more than a week, it hasn’t yet. Just one of those pesky details yet to emerge.

And how did the media miss the contradiction? There were, after all, many other reporters on hand for Schwarzenegger’s Commonwealth Club speech. Can you say starstruck? Lack of memory is a factor, too.

Schwarzenegger is re-emerging from the shadows of his own campaign this week with his first economic-policy summit, his first TV ad, a private interview with the California Teachers Association, and a debate challenge to Davis, which the governor has turned down. Where’s he been, anyway?

“A lot of time I’ve been at the house,” he tells the Weekly in a brief conversation, “meeting with leading economists, educators, water and power experts, you name it.” Once up to speed, Schwarzenegger says he will hold more policy forums and do “house meetings in low-income areas” along with more traditional campaign stumping.

Not a moment too soon.

 

Schwarzenegger was not the only one to have a rocky week. The once-unified Democratic strategy is swiftly devolving into a bitter internecine struggle between Davis and Bustamante, with Bustamante oddly using a shaky, mostly specifics-free appearance last Sunday on Meet the Press to get into a pissing match with the governor’s aides for allegedly blocking his fund-raising efforts. (Officially, the Davisites deny it; unofficially, they confirm it.) It’s all very seamy and not at all gubernatorial, complain worried Democrats.

Arianna Huffington ran into real trouble, too. The conservative-turned-progressive commentator is running as an independent backed mainly by Democrats. The debate over her paying no income taxes dominated her week. Huffington was shelled in a Beverly Hills press conference where she’d intended to focus on her effort to link Schwarzenegger with President Bush and Enron, an effort based in part on a misconstruing of the Weekly’s power-crisis reporting of 2001.

The Weekly revealed at the time that Enron chief Ken Lay had pitched a group of prominent Angelenos at a Beverly Hills hotel in a bid to enlist their support for energy deregulation. Nothing seemed to have come from it. Huffington portrayed this as a secret meeting between Lay and Schwarzenegger, leaving out the 20 or so other people in attendance, many of them invited by Huffington’s good friend former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan.

In the course of this, Huffington wrote a speech which, in the uproar over her taxes, went by the boards after she shared it with columnist friend Joe Conason, who published part of it on Salon.com. In it, she blamed the power crisis on Bush rather than Davis.

If only it were so. Bush wasn’t even president when the power crisis started, and as detailed here, Davis’ mistakes were early, varied and many.

Just like the campaign so far.

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >