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Hired guns are raising hackles at the Capitol
Growing political arms race could prove fatal to compromise in Sacramento, observers say.

Orange County Register | March 6, 2005

SACRAMENTO – Call it "Terminator 4: The Rise of the Political Machine."

As he gears up for what he calls "the people's fight" to change California government, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has surrounded himself with highly paid political consultants, image makers and message shapers - even a firm that uses catalog-company tactics to gather ballot signatures through the mail.

The consultants - some of whom Schwarzenegger pays more than $400,000 per year - are making it possible for the governor to pressure lawmakers with the cudgel of ballot initiatives if they don't act on his government proposals.

But the massing of forces has another effect. Along with Schwarzenegger's threat to call a special election, it has prompted equally strenuous preparation among Democrats and their allies - teachers, firefighters, police and public employee unions. And the assembled firepower on both sides, say lawmakers, makes it increasingly difficult to sit down and negotiate solutions to the state's problems - ostensibly Schwarzenegger's goal in preparing for a campaign in the first place.

"There are (consultants) out there making a lot of money out there out of this. It's in their interest to convince the governor to pound his chest and pursue this path, and it's the wrong path for him and for the state," said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, D-Los Angeles.

"The question is, who's handling him right now? People helping form policy for the state or political advisers? If it's the political advisers, it makes it hard for us to negotiate and create an atmosphere of trust in the best interest of the state."

Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman called such objections "pathetic."

Nuñez, he said, "needs to go back and read the governor's State of the State speech. The governor told him and his colleagues: 'Join me in fixing the state or I'll go to the people.' Since that time, the Speaker has wandered around aimlessly. ... As the governor said, the train has left the station."

Schwarzenegger compares his strategy to two past events: The populist uprising of the 2003 recall election and his negotiation of workers' compensation changes last year that followed threats to go to the ballot.

"The people said (during the recall), 'We're mad as hell and we are not going to take it any more,'" he said at a recent news conference, explaining why his political operation is gathering signatures for ballot measures that would change teacher tenure, public-employee pensions and political redistricting.

"When we had the 1.2 million signatures (on a workers' compensation ballot measure, lawmakers) signed our agreement, and then we had true reform."

He added on a recent radio show: "I always say that the special interests out there have the money, but we have the signatures."

Actually, Schwarzenegger has both the money and the signatures - along with more than two dozen consultants and business leaders who craft television ads, design direct mail and conduct near-continuous polling to figure out which changes will entice voters.

For the workers' compensation measure, Schwarzenegger and his allies spent $4.9 million on signature gathering. About half that amount went to Newport Beach political consultants Forde and Mollrich, who also ran the campaign to defeat a commercial airport at the former El Toro Marine base.

To gather signatures quickly, the company used corporate databases with detailed information about voters' age, political affiliation, income and family size, said Stu Mollrich, a partner with the firm. Petitions were sent only to voters likely to fill them out. The effort generated 250,000 signatures.

The firm even won an award earlier this year – a bronze "Pollie" from the American Association of Political Consultants – for a glossy guidebook it designed directing voters to initiatives Schwarzenegger supported on the November 2004 ballot. Schwarzenegger paid $250,000 for the book.

Forde and Mollrich are handling direct-mail signature-gathering for Schwarzenegger's current proposals, said a spokesman for Citizens to Save California, the business-backed campaign committee formed to promote the proposals. The group expects to spend $13 million on signatures.

Citizens to Save California has also done extensive polling to pick proposals to support. A round of focus groups in February involved staff for political consultant Rick Claussen - who co-produced the "Harry and Louise" television ads that helped defeat former President Bill Clinton's national health care plans - watching behind mirrored glass as state residents were asked a variety of questions about education, the budget and other topics.

The polling directly preceded a sudden shift in Schwarzenegger's priorities. In his State of the State speech, Schwarzenegger said the key to changing the state's education system is paying teachers based on merit, not longevity. That measure didn't poll well, though. So Citizens to Save California endorsed a more popular idea, modifying teacher tenure. Schwarzenegger is now collecting signatures for that measure.

Citizens to Save California "wants to choose and select initiatives that bring about reform but also have the best chance of passing," said Reed Dickens, a spokesman for the group.

Dickens is himself a new recruit to the array of political consultants around Schwarzenegger. He is a former national spokesman for George W. Bush's recent presidential campaign. Others promoting Schwarzenegger proposals include professional fund raisers and an opposition research firm that digs up negative information about opponents. The group says it plans to raise at least $50 million.

In response, Democrats and their allies have formed an umbrella group of teachers, school employees, firefighters and public employee unions. The group has hired political consultants and is readying its own ballot measures. One of its leaders, John Hein, works for an advocacy group funded by the national teachers union. Its consultant, Gale Kaufman, is chief political adviser to Democrat Nuñez.

Groups involved in the Democratic coalition have spent as much as $31 million in past election cycles. If they pool their resources and solicit help from national unions - which spent $75 million on issue-advocacy groups in last year's presidential election - they too could raise $50 million or more.

State Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Santa Ana, said the arms race "contributes to Sacramento being paralyzed. ... (It's) your army of Republican consultants versus our army of Democratic consultants."

He said the climate makes it hard to craft thoughtful policies.

Dunn said the recent revelation - which Schwarzenegger's advisers call a "red herring" - that the governor's pension proposal would inadvertently eliminate future death and disability benefits for police and firefighters shows the danger of letting political consultants run the show.

"It doesn't help at all," Dunn said. "All it does is feed those who are in the business of running initiatives and making money off them."

Spokesman Stutzman said it's naiveto ask why Schwarzenegger must spend so much money and hire so many consultants to promote what he calls a populist movement emanating from the people.

"Obviously, signature gathering requires money," he said. "We don't expect it to be a fair fight." He said unions and other opponents of Schwarzenegger's proposals "are going to stand in the way of achieving reforms for the people. The people's governor is leading a take-back of California."

Nuñez said such words leave him feeling fatalistic about compromise.

"At the end of the day, this gunfight may result in everyone ending up dead."