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Special-Interest Governator

The Arnold is repositioning. With his three signature ballot measures already going down in flames, he has endorsed a fourth, limiting the political activities of public-sector unions, not only because they continually frustrate his efforts to shrink the public sphere, but because he needs to win at least one contest this November. To do that, he needs to rally the Republican base; to do that, he needs to tack right. Thus his impending veto of the Legislature’s legalization of gay marriage, though of all of America’s 50 governors, Arnold may be the only one who’s more anti-marriage than he is homophobic.

But Arnold needs to tilt left, too. Rallying the Republican base gets a guy to about a 35 percent approval rating in California, which is precisely where Arnold’s is at. The governator needs some way to appeal to voters in the center of the spectrum, which is one reason why, with great fanfare, last week he signed a series of bills to combat childhood obesity — a nonfat-apple-pie-and-motherhood issue if ever there was one.

Two bills by Democratic state Senator Martha Escutia of Whittier extended the ban on soda sold on campus from grade schools to high schools, and limited the levels of calories and the sugar content of food sold on campus. To his credit, during his “Big 5” budget negotiations with legislative leaders as the term moved toward adjournment, Schwarzenegger insisted on passing these bills. He insisted, too, on a third bill, which appropriated $18.2 million for a fresh-fruit breakfast program for low-income students. This was “very important legislation,” in the assessment of Ken Hecht, executive director of the San Francisco–based nonprofit nutrition group California Food Policy Advocates. “The program would introduce a large number of kids to fresh fruit,” Hecht said, “and if they eat that, they’ll eat much less of the junk food that’s putting so much weight on young people.”

But on the evening of September 7 — the night before the Assembly adjourned — Los Angeles Democrat Jackie Goldberg, who chaired the Assembly Education Committee, to which the bill had been assigned, was stunned to see that the bill, unceremoniously re-referred to the Agriculture Committee, had reached the floor with its 12 references to “fresh” fruit and vegetables eliminated and replaced by a dozen references to “nutritious” fruit and vegetables. Goldberg asked Republican Assembly leader Kevin McCarthy, who’d become the rewritten bill’s chief sponsor, to explain the changes.

“First, he said it referred to raisins and nuts, and I said, ‘Fine,’ ” Goldberg recalled. “Then, the word was there were some seasons when they couldn’t find fresh fruit.” Goldberg then proposed that the bill refer to “fresh and minimally processed” fruit that was freeze-dried but devoid of additional sugar or salt preservatives. “Peaches in their own juices,” Goldberg said. “But the Governor’s Office said no to that.” Lobbyists for the canning industry and the governor’s people, working discreetly behind the scenes, insisted on including canned fruit under the scope of the bill. It was in that form, over Goldberg’s and other progressives’ objections, that the bill passed and was signed by Schwarzenegger last week.

And what, pray, could have influenced Arnold to muck up his anti-obesity, healthy-food breakfasts for California kids with countless cans of processed food? Adducing causality in these matters is always an imperfect science, but we do know that as of September 12, the campaign committees that Arnold controls had received $421,000 from the Dole Food/Castle & Cook group of processed-fruit companies, and another $319,000 from Dean Cortopassi, CEO of San Tomo, a San Joaquin Valley food canner and processor. That’s a total of $740,000 in canned-fruit moola from just two large contributors. If that kind of money couldn’t buy a decent legislative outcome now and then, the damage to the lobbyist’s faith in the system would be beyond calculation.

The Arnold who ran for governor, back in the innocent, Recall Gray days, would have been appalled at all this, of course. He would have recoiled at the kind of backroom deals at which Governor Arnold has become so adept. “Any of those kinds of real big, powerful special interests, if you take money from them, you owe them something,” then-candidate Arnold said in late August of 2003. He was absolutely right.

The mystery is that Arnold has governed as though he’d forgotten how he campaigned and what he professed to stand for when Californians voted for him. He was then the candidate who was above politics, the man who would end the gridlock in Sacramento by working across the aisle, the guy who’d make the hard choices to end the state’s chronic fiscal ailments, the healer who’d end the state’s partisan rancor. Instead, he’s become the guy who picks fights with nurses and cops and firefighters and teachers, the guy who inflicts the pox of perpetual politics on state voters who want a respite from elections, the guy who sells out the state’s school kids to please his check-writing ag-biz buddies. Who in his entourage thought that any of this was smart politics? How, in two short years, could Schwarzenegger and Co. so completely forget the raison d’être for his governorship? The state’s voters, if the polls are even remotely accurate, remember it well.