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Referendum on Arnold

Like two wounded and vulnerable antagonists, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democrats have taken their intermittent knife fight to a new and more intense level with the scheduling of yet another California special election, the second in three years, this one for November 8. The stage is now set for a massive statewide clash of interests, largely business versus labor, fed by more than $100 million of campaign spending. “You the people will be heard,” declared Schwarzenegger in calling a special election that polls show most Californians don’t want. Yet, despite all the posturing and bluster on both sides, signs continue of a potential compromise. Schwarzenegger himself has said privately that he would rather deal than fight. Polling, including a recent private Democratic poll, shows ample reason for both sides to compromise and avoid annoying an electorate grown tired of the bickering in Sacramento. Schwarzenegger’s drive to a November ballot showdown, or at least to a forced deal with Democrats, got off to an inauspicious start. Although he was told last Friday that the Michael Jackson jury verdict was likely to come on Monday, the veteran superstar decided to hold fast to his plan to go on local TV newscasts live around the state at 5:01 p.m., even though it was likely that broadcasts would be focusing on Jackson. (By law, Schwarzenegger had to call the special election no later than Monday to make the November 8 ballot.) Even after the verdict was announced as predicted, the governor went ahead as planned rather than delay his own speech 15 to 20 minutes to give time for newscasters to cover Jackson. Not surprisingly, Schwarzenegger’s heavily rehearsed three-minute speech ended up on tape delay on all newscasts in the L.A. market and on most stations statewide. Not the sort of placement Schwarzenegger needed for what he pitched as a historic announcement. Some 30 Arnold supporters rallied outside the Capitol in advance of the governor’s address. That’s right, it is not a typo; 30, as in three-zero. They were countered by several hundred Democratic opponents. Both the Schwarzenegger and Democratic camps say they want to talk with one another but that the other side won’t talk. They can’t all be telling the truth, of course. One insider close to the Democratic leadership says there has been communication between the governor and Democratic legislators, but nothing has come of it so far. A Democratic lobbyist says that an earlier effort to have talks between the two sides was torpedoed by public-employee unions that would prefer simply to beat Schwarzenegger. A Republican lobbyist says Schwarzenegger wanted to “dump the special” but wasn’t sure he could get anywhere with the unions. For her part, Gale Kaufman, the unions’ political strategist, insists, “We will have a massive state and national mobilization to beat all the Republican initiatives.” There are ample reasons for the two sides to come to a compromise on Schwarzenegger’s budget-spending-limits, redistricting and teacher-tenure initiatives. The Schwarzenegger campaign has put out its own poll, which had little credibility with the press and was largely ignored. For their part, top Democratic operatives say they know of no new polls. Actually, a private Democratic poll contains disquieting information for Democrats, as well as Schwarzenegger. In that private poll, Schwarzenegger’s support among California Democrats has sunk to the same level as that of George W. Bush. He does better than Bush among Republicans because Bush has turned off moderates. (Roughly $5 million of TV advertising in May moved Schwarzenegger’s approval rating up only a few points. A Schwarzenegger source concurs with this, though the Schwarzenegger camp officially claims the governor is back up around 50 percent approval from his low of 40 percent.) The poll shows his centerpiece initiative, the spending-limits measure, starting off with well under 50 percent support, as does his redistricting-reform initiative. Since two-thirds of initiatives are defeated, largely because opponents can seize on some aspect of a complex measure to ruin its chances, initiatives that do not start out with strong majority support almost always lose. The teacher-tenure initiative is in stronger position, but few would see its passage as justifying all Schwarzenegger’s “Year of Reform” rhetoric, much less the state’s political and media communities’ spending the year pondering and fighting over a special election. For Democrats, it’s bad news that the so-called paycheck-protection initiative, which would require public-employee unions to get explicit permission from their members to use their union dues in political campaigns, shows signs of real strength. To gauge a minimum level of support starting out, pollsters asked respondents if they favor restrictions on public-employee unions’ using dues for politics. Nearly half said yes. To gauge a maximum level of support, respondents were asked if they favor requiring public-employee unions to obtain annual written permission from their members to use dues for politics. Three-quarters said yes. Since the latter question is close to the actual ballot description, that initiative has much greater strength than Schwarzenegger’s own measures. Suspicion of public-employee unions and their role in state government has increased, with half of independents, 30 percent of Democrats and three-quarters of Republicans expressing varying degrees of antipathy toward unions. Schwarzenegger has not endorsed the initiative, though many around him favor it and are suspected of financing it. His consultant, Mike Murphy, has brandished it as a reason for Democrats — whose campaign financing could take a major hit, at least in the short term, if it passes — to compromise. The committee promoting “paycheck protection” hasn’t had to reveal its finances yet. Beneath the smooth and adamantine surface Schwarzenegger and his controlling group of aides prefer, there are roiling waters. Despite attempts to put up a brave front, some Republican sources say there is little enthusiasm among party activists for his initiatives, that “people are tired” from several years of nonstop campaigns. Schwarzenegger has said privately for the first time that he will run for re-election. But defeat in November could change that, as some acknowledge. Schwarzenegger has also said, “You don’t think I wanted to spend all this money on a special election. I want to get the Democrats to the table.” But what communication there has been has been fitful at best, so Schwarzenegger, in a game of brinkmanship, has escalated to the next level. Asked if he thinks there will be a pivotal showdown on the special-election ballot or an election ratification of a deal with Democrats (in which the existing Arnold initiatives would be ignored and allowed to lose), one insider says: “Fuck if I know.” Says another: “He can’t afford to be seen as backing down if he wants to get a deal.” But dealing will be difficult. A Democratic lobbyist points out, “Once that paycheck initiative went on the ballot, that may have killed any deal because the public-employee unions may not trust Arnold to keep his word if he agrees to have it die. Lew Uhler [the initiative’s proponent] is the man who shot Archduke Ferdinand” (the event that triggered the chain of events leading to World War I). “There is no one to put this together,” says one ranking Democratic strategist. “Arnold doesn’t seem to know how. On our side there is no one with the experience, the stature, the temperament. No Willie Brown, Howard Berman, John Burton, even Gray Davis.” So the war, at least for now, is on. Schwarzenegger’s labor opponents are unleashing already-prepared TV ads attacking him. Meanwhile, the governor ventured to his alma mater, Santa Monica College, on Tuesday night to deliver the commencement address. Worried about protesters, Team Arnold considered canceling, promising the college 48 hours’ notice. Informed of this, the college contacted Warren Beatty, the governor’s principal Hollywood opponent, to replace Schwarzenegger. But the Oscar winner didn’t have to play the action star’s understudy after all. “I don’t underestimate Arnold at all,” says Democratic pollster Paul Maslin (who did not conduct the poll containing bad news for both sides). “But it is going to take a long, sustained effort to revive his popularity. That will be hard to do if he takes another five months of pounding.”