Governor's call to arms causing deep divisions
Dem, union 'special interests' are seen as enemies of his state
San Francisco Chronicle | January 09, 2005
by Carla Marinucci
When he fixed his steely gaze and dramatically declared war on his adversaries -- the "special interests" in Sacramento -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger set in motion a divisive political struggle against those he said were strangling "the people's business."
Left girding for battle after the governor's State of the State address last week were the groups he targeted -- the California teachers union, which blanched at his proposal to tie pay to merit; public employee unions, incensed at his suggestion to overhaul pensions; and Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature but would almost certainly lose seats should Schwarzenegger succeed in the redistricting of legislative boundaries.
"It really did seem like a Terminator movie, this killing machine from the (future) comes into the present, and he's talking about reform," Hoover Institution research fellow Bill Whalen said of Schwarzenegger's theme. "He was very clever in the way he approached it. He said the people demand change -- and the people will rise up if they don't get it."
But it's no coincidence, critics said, that the loaded label of "special interests" has, in recent months, been aimed by the governor at an increasing number of opponents.
Just a month ago, he ridiculed a handful of California nurses who interrupted a speech in Long Beach, telling the audience to ignore them as "special interests" and saying, "I kick their butt." Months before, it was the same label for students protesting his university fee increases at another speech.
In his State of the State speech, Schwarzenegger warned that special interests will soon "organize huge protests out in front of the Capitol" and "call me cruel and heartless" for attempting to rein in the budget.
Doug Heller, a spokesman for the nonprofit Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights -- a watchdog group that runs a Web site called Arnoldwatch.org -- said he's concerned that the governor is using the dreaded "special interest" label to disarm legitimate critics and public protest of his policies.
"It used to be special interests were just lobbying interests, lawyers, corporations and big unions," Heller said. "The public never thought of special interests as the nurses and the blind and disabled. If it is, we might as well pack up and go home, because then government isn't about Californians anymore."
He said the governor's targeting of special interests may be a way to deflect attention from his own aggressive fund raising.
As he enters his second year, still riding high in popularity polls, Schwarzenegger has become a relentless fund-raiser, amassing an astounding $26.6 million in his first year -- a haul that doubled the amount raised by his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
"I am certain that it is a political strategy ... (and that) Arnold Schwarzenegger is reading from a Mike Murphy script," said Heller, referring to the governor's chief political consultant. "Is the goal ... to immunize him as he continues to be the best mouthpiece the Chamber of Commerce ever had?"
Margita Thompson, the press secretary for Schwarzenegger, said the governor's call for reform isn't a political strategy; it's principle.
"He's looking out for all Californians. ... It's all of the entrenched interests that are driving a wedge between California and its elected officials. They're the ones that are distorting the process," she said. "We're talking about a system that's broken, and he's making responsible decisions to fix it."
Thompson insists the governor has gotten kudos from around the state on his speech, a reflection of what she says is a hunger for change. "People have been saying to him, 'Good for you for taking it on,' " she said.
Critics said Schwarzenegger's attacks are aimed at those who oppose him or don't contribute to his campaign causes.
Among the major contributors to the Republican governor, they note, are interests with a huge stake in legislative decisions: media giants, financial institutions, pharmaceutical companies, auto dealers and other business lobbies. Those groups don't receive Schwarzenegger's verbal abuse as "special interests." Instead, that term is reserved for big Democratic Party check-writers -- California teachers, nurses unions and big public employees unions.
"From a communications standpoint, their big move is to attempt to define all the Democratic interests as 'special interests' and all the Republican interests as 'clarions of the people,' " said Phil Trounstine, who helped shape political messages as the former communications director for Davis. "Just look at who he's defined as special interests -- and it tells you all you need to know about who's getting special favors."
The charges were echoed on the floor of the Assembly within seconds of Schwarzenegger's speech this past week, as Democrats seized on the theme of the governor's debt to his donors.
"I'm continually impressed at his claiming the term 'special interests' when special interests are only those who are not supporting what he wants to do," said an irritated Democratic Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco. "The fact of the matter is that special interests are very much (behind him) -- the biggest, most powerful, most well-funded special interests in the state."
Said Heller: "The problem is Arnold Schwarzenegger thinks he's got a Hollywood writer who can make him into a superhero, immune from the very truth which got him elected."
But many California veteran political observers said Democrats who are hoping to see cracks in the governor's political armor -- particularly on this issue -- may have to wait.
"The public doesn't see Arnold as being bought, folded or manipulated in any way. Unlike Gov. Davis, there's not an impression of pay for play," Whalen said. "If the Democrats can show $100,000 bought results in the Schwarzenegger administration, they'd have an argument. But the public is smart enough to know a guy who makes $20 million a picture won't do somersaults."
And Barbara O'Connor, professor of political communication at California State University Sacramento, said Schwarzenegger's critics better dig in for a long-term siege as they prepare to do battle with him over the budget and "special interests" this year.
That's because the State of the State speech showed his skills in salesmanship remain as strong in the Capitol as they do in the shopping malls, where he vows to take his campaigns again, she said.
"He's framing the issues in a way people can understand them," O'Connor said. "Special interests are anybody you're not supporting, in most people's point of view. But he has suspended that rule. People don't see him as the usual politician."
-- Top contributors by industry to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Real estate development $6.23 million
Finance, accounting, Investing $6.02
Entertainment, media $2.27
High tech $2.04
Health care, pharmaceuticals $1.68
Venture capital $1.17
Car dealers, automotive $1.05
-- Schwarzenegger committees that received these contributions:
Californians for Schwarzenegger
Californians for Schwarzenegger in 06
Yes on 57 & 58
-- Top 8 industries that contributed to Republican Party committees
(None have been identified by Gov. Schwarzenegger as special interests)
Real estate $1,609,079
Pay day/title loans $980,000
Tribal governments $790,500
Oil and gas $720,500
Candidate committees $606,529
Home builders $600,000
Gambling and casinos $342,000
-- Top 8 industries that contributed to Democratic Party committees
(*Three have been identified by Gov. Schwarzenegger as special
Candidate committees $2,643,306
*Public sector unions $1,242,586
*General trade unions $805,611
Tribal governments $627,500
Real estate $242,595
Electric utilities $164,688
*Health professionals $161,750
Source: Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and the California Secretary of State, updated 11/05/04 from data compiled from public filings with the secretary of state. Institute on Money in State Politics
E-mail Carla Marinucci at firstname.lastname@example.org