Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appointment of Democrat Susan Kennedy
as his new chief of staff has fired up the Republican right wing. There’s plenty
of red meat for the wingers. She is a former top aide to Gray Davis, a lesbian
married on Maui, ex-head of the California Abortion Rights Action League. “She’s
a lifestyle socialist and this is an outrageous betrayal,” fumes former state
Republican chairman Shawn Steel.
The right’s apoplexy may actually be the idea here, since one fast way for Arnold to convince Californians he isn’t the partisan conservative they’ve regretfully come to consider him is to be attacked by the right wing. Schwarzenegger is alarmed by the widespread view of him as a Bush Republican — something he made plain, in talks with me as he considered his candidacy in 2003, he intended never to happen.This dramatic move came as a shock to the political system. In fact, it has been under consideration for at least nine months.Last spring a friend of Schwarzenegger’s began asking me what I thought of Kennedy, whom I’ve known for many years. It quickly became apparent that the focus was not on her as a Public Utilities Commission (PUC) member, as the questions were about her as a political operative and a person.She was in play as a replacement for Pat Clarey, a partisan Republican, former HMO lobbyist and Pete Wilson veteran. I didn’t think she would do it. When she left the Gray Davis administration after serving as cabinet secretary, Kennedy said she would never take on such a demanding job again. She and her spouse, psychotherapist Vicki Marti, received appointments from Davis to $100,000-plus state commissions (Marti to the Medical Assistance Commission, a board Arnold has criticized as a sinecure), and Kennedy lived a pleasant life in Marin County with an intellectually challenging post across the Golden Gate on the PUC. And Schwarzenegger, not unlike the T-1000 opponent of his most famous character in his biggest hit, Terminator 2, was rapidly morphing from popular centrist into unpopular Republican.Talk about her increased after Schwarzenegger lost his “Year of Reform” initiatives and early favorite Bob Hertzberg, former Democratic Assembly speaker and L.A. mayoral candidate, proved unavailable. Schwarzenegger was radioactive, the job too hot for a name Democrat. Except Susan Kennedy, who shocked and mostly dismayed her longtime friends and associates, notwithstanding some positive public comments.Garry South, who was Davis’ chief strategist and hired Kennedy on to the former governor’s operation, says: “She says she wants to build a new center in California politics and I’ll take her at her word. But she’s going to work for the man who just spent the last year wrecking any center.”The Arnold chief of staff position has long been problematic. I heard from Arnold insiders a year ago that Clarey’s days were numbered. “I believe it’s time for Pat,” said a ranking Arnista.
Schwarzworld is like a royal court, a phenomenon not uncommon
in Hollywood, replete with vying courtiers and scheming poseurs. Pat Clarey, an
administrator in the Arnold election, was the iron chamberlain. She formed a tight
alliance with controversial strategist Mike Murphy, communications director Rob
Stutzman (a key link to the right) and legislative director Richard Costigan,
the ex-Chamber of Commerce lobbyist. Other talented advisers were minimized. Clarey,
appointed in the wake of Arnold’s Gropergate controversy after Republicans talked
Arnold out of his first choice, Hertzberg, alarmed many Arnistas with her partisan
and controlling ways.
There was a telling moment the night of Arnold’s election. The three parties on the penthouse level of the Century Plaza Hotel had wound down and I found myself sitting at a table, still laden with food and drink, in the Pete Wilson party suite. A young campaign worker walked in and asked if she could have a few Heinekens for her friends 19 floors below, where junior staffers continued their revels.Clarey looked over disapprovingly and began to say no. It looked like an ugly situation. I told the young woman that I knew Arnold and was sure he would want her and her friends to have his beer. Clarey glowered at me as the woman walked away happily with three beers. “You know, Pat,” I remarked, “those kids are going to remember this night all their lives. Don’t you want it to be an entirely good memory?” She didn’t have a reply.A line in Clarey’s departure letter, in which she said she’d “worked with Susan for years,” surprised some.Ironically, Clarey worked closely with her successor on PUC matters, consulting several times a week with her. Though appointed by Davis, Kennedy was Arnold’s go-to commissioner. She drew strong criticism from consumer advocates for working to repeal the cell phone bill of rights. On the other hand, she also earned praise from environmentalists for her work on energy conservation.Still, her pro-business slant was evident on the PUC, winning her a standing ovation at a recent Chamber of Commerce conference. It’s a far cry from when I met her in Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda’s Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED).She was co-chair of Students for Economic Democracy at the same time as I was coordinator of CED’s political action team, a network of campaign operatives in which Kennedy was not active. In those days she was primarily involved with feminist issues, segueing to the directorship of the California Abortion Rights Action League. From there, she was recruited by then state Democratic Party chairman Phil Angelides to be executive director of the party in the early 1990s. Many considered this an unusual move, as she was not viewed as a hardcore political operative. But Angelides saw and believed in her potential. Now that potential will be used against him.After serving as a top Dianne Feinstein aide, Kennedy caught on with the Davis operation, over Davis’ objection that she was a “DiFi person.” But as governor, Davis came to rely on her as the key engineer of his office. Senate Democratic leader John Burton and Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte both viewed her as the essential person to work with.During her time there, Kennedy’s rightward move became evident. She pushed the scandalous Oracle software deal. She was a key point person on the power crisis, often pushing a pro-utility line, promoting polluting diesel generators for peak power use. She was close to agribusiness and to Democratic powerbroker lawyer Jerry Hallisey on timber issues. She was, as one insider puts it, “an enforcer of Gray’s campaign contributor agenda.” However, she also helped get Fran Pavley’s historic anti–global warming bill signed.Kennedy called Davis and Angelides from Schwarzenegger’s office on her first day on the job. Unsurprisingly, she did not reach Angelides. She did talk to Davis, who wished her well and reminded her of Jerry Brown’s “canoe theory” of politics; “paddle a little to the left, a little to the right, and go down the middle.”Kennedy did herself no favors with her old Democratic friends by saying she voted for all four of Arnold’s defeated initiatives. The powerful labor coalition that defeated Arnold is not in a forgiving frame of mind and the term “Benedict Arnold” has been privately applied to her by several influential figures.But one prominent Democratic strategist, who excoriates Kennedy for becoming Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff after having been Angelides’ (“That’s way over the line”), says he considers her effective enough to put a stop to the incompetence that has increasingly marked Team Schwarzenegger since his election.Which, along with provoking the right wing, could make her a big plus as the battered Terminator seeks to rise again. Just don’t expect her to push a liberal line, because that ain’t what she does.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appointment of Democrat Susan Kennedy