Schwarzenegger leaves mixed legacy in California
SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Arnold Schwarzenegger landed in the governor's office after announcing his upstart bid on late night TV and railing against government spending during raucous campaign rallies -- at one playing a spirited round of air guitar to the rock anthem "We're Not Gonna Take It."
Then the world's best known action star, Schwarzenegger conveyed an image of invincibility, persuading Californians that anything was possible if only they had the right mindset.
"I know how to sell something," he said then.
As he would come to learn, selling a political idea is one thing. Delivering on it is quite another.
In high Hollywood style, Schwarzenegger made bold commitments to cut through Sacramento's dysfunctional political system and put the state on a path to prosperity. But his celebrity quickly ran aground on the shoals of bureaucracy, entrenched politics and something Schwarzenegger had never faced before -- angry detractors who didn't hesitate to attack him publicly.
After initially deriding nurses as "special interests" whose "butts" he was always kicking, he was brought down to earth by the nurses union, teachers and other public employee groups, which staged protests and helped derail his "year of reform" agenda during a special election in 2005.
His outsize personality wasn't enough to see through many of his dreams and promises, especially once the recession hit in late 2007 and led to a steep decline in tax revenue.
The 63-year-old governor leaves office next month with a mixed record, winning praise for his precedent-setting environmental activism and criticism for his failure to tame the fiscal mess, as he promised when Californians recalled Gov. Gray Davis and installed him instead.
Optimism for the future abounded in the wake of the historic recall; even skeptics were willing to give Schwarzenegger a shot. He had unprecedented goodwill, a blazingly positive attitude and arrived as an outsider who said he would not be beholden to special interests.
"What the people want to hear is ... are you tough enough to go in there and provide leadership? That's what this is about, and I will be tough enough," Schwarzenegger said during the campaign.
But on the job, he often didn't have the patience to get the changes he wanted. He regularly changed course on major initiatives when he encountered roadblocks. He backed down from his massive proposal to restructure government, the California Performance Review, even though it projected savings of $32 billion over five years. Democrats howled, and the governor feared they might block his other efforts.
"I had very high hopes for him. Maybe it's a case of my expectations and people's expectations were too high in the first place," said Lou Cannon, the author of five books about former President Ronald Reagan, who served two terms as California governor.
After besting an eclectic and improbable parade of 134 other candidates, including former child actor Gary Coleman and porn star Mary Carey in the first successful recall of a sitting governor in California history, Schwarzenegger followed through on a campaign promise to wipe out an increase in the car tax on his first day in office, punching a $6 billion annual hole in the state budget.
He kept his promise to be a different kind of governor than Californians had seen before.
The perenially tanned seven-time Mr. Olympia confidently strode the halls of the state Capitol in designer suits and snakeskin cowboy boots as adoring children and adults jostled for photos. The crowds still clamor for a shot with Schwarzenegger, even as his approval rating has fallen to 32 percent -- about the same as Davis' when he was recalled.
Deals were brokered over stogies and schnapps in a swank smoking tent he erected in the garden of the governor's office in the state Capitol. In the hall outside his office, where his name is emblazoned in gold lettering, reporters one day found a 250-pound bronze bear had been installed. Never one to shy from a camera, Schwarzenegger posed for pics with a 7-foot python coiled around his neck at the state fair.
Bones were broken and stitches were needed when the "Austrian Oak" (a nickname from his bodybuilding days) crashed on his
When lawmakers didn't go along with him, he called them "girlie men" for failing to stand up to special interests he said controlled their agenda. He once sent the Democratic leader of the state Senate a metal sculpture of bull testicles the size of a football, urging him to have the "fortitude" to make deep cuts to social service programs.
In one of hundreds of events to promote cutting government spending, he appeared in front of a giant faucet spewing red-colored water -- symbolizing red ink -- in a stunt straight out of the movies.
He alternately praised and vilified fellow Republicans, telling delegates to a convention of his own party in a public speech that the California GOP was "dying at the box office." They ignored him, and the minority party's slide continued into this November's election, when Republicans failed to win a single statewide office.
Many of Schwarzenegger's promises never came true.
He pledged to "blow up the boxes" of government, but his structural reforms have been modest. The boards and commissions he railed against remain largely intact, and he continued the political legacy of rewarding termed-out lawmakers by naming them to six-figure jobs on obscure boards that meet infrequently.
He promised to get state government to live within its means, and then used borrowing and accounting gimmicks to close budget deficits.
In his first full year in office, Schwarzenegger persuaded Californian voters to borrow $15 billion to refinance the deficit, adding to future budget problems. Later, he added more than $37 billion in borrowing for roads, schools, levee repairs and affordable housing projects. He is supporting an $11 billion bond for water conservation and storage projects that will be on the 2012 ballot.
He defends the infrastructure borrowing as an investment in the future.
After encountering so many roadblocks, the centrist Republican sought, and won, some major political reforms that are expected to bear fruit in the future.
They include a voter-approved measure that removes the power to draw legislative districts from lawmakers and gives it to an independent commission. He also championed an open primary system approved by voters in which the top two primary vote-getters will appear on the general election ballot, regardless of party affiliation. Both changes are designed to favor more moderate politicians and, in theory, send fewer party ideologues to Sacramento.
"Whatever success or lack thereof the governor had blowing up the boxes and changing the state's financial fortunes, he does deserve credit for leading the charge on three important political reforms which in the aggregate will help the next governor bring the state's financial affairs into balance," said former Gov. Davis.
He cited legislative redistricting, the open primary and Schwarzenegger's pursuit of a rainy day fund, which will appear on the ballot in 2012.
Schwarzenegger's tack to the center came after he lost some of his swagger in the wake of the disastrous 2005 special election, when Californians rejected all four measures he placed on the ballot, with teachers and nurses leading the fight against him. The governor seemed contrite in the aftermath.
"If I would do another 'Terminator' movie I would have Terminator travel back in time and tell Arnold not to have a special election. I should have also listened to my wife who said, 'Don't do it,'" he said at a press conference after the fiasco.
Schwarzenegger's call for a special election just two years after the recall caught lawmakers by surprise, angered voters who were tired of going to the polls and undermined the goodwill he had cultivated since replacing Davis.
After the drubbing, he replaced most of his top aides, named a Democrat as his chief of staff and aligned himself closer with the Democrats who controlled the Senate and Assembly. In the year before the recession hit, he signed what has become his biggest legacy in office -- a law sponsored by Democrats that has made California a global leader in combating climate change.
It is expected to transform how people travel, how utilities generate power and how businesses use electricity in the coming years. Last month, voters refused to suspend the law because of the poor economy.
Schwarzenegger won re-election that year after a campaign in which he pledged coalition-building, for which he coined a new political term, "post-partisanship."
"Post-partisanship is Republicans and Democrats actively giving birth to new ideas together," Schwarzenegger said during his 2007 inauguration speech.
Schwarzenegger continued to dream big, seeking an overhaul of the health care market in California. The package of bills eventually collapsed, in part because the cost to the state was projected to hit $3 billion a year.
In retrospect, 2006 and 2007 represent a lost opportunity for Schwarzenegger. At its core, the recall election was about voter disgust with California's budgeting system, and Schwarzenegger promised to fix it.
He largely avoided the matter during the heart of his tenure to focus on infrastructure spending, global warming and health care reform. By the time the recession was squeezing the state ever tighter in 2008, it was too late to build the political capital needed for major budget and tax reforms.
The recommendations of a bipartisan tax commission, for example, fizzled last year.
Now, Schwarzenegger leaves incoming Gov. Jerry Brown in virtually the same fiscal position he inherited but with fewer options to fix it. After successive years of gimmicks to close the gaps, California's deficit is estimated at $28 billion over the next 18 months.
Its schools and infrastructure are stressed, state government workers are disheartened and seven in 10 residents believe the state is on the wrong track. Gridlock and hyper-partisanship has replaced political discourse in Sacramento, and unemployment has been above 12 percent since mid-2009. Schwarzenegger recently won some concessions from unions on pensions, but not the sweeping changes he had sought.
Cannon said that after a promising start, Schwarzenegger failed to engage rank-and-file lawmakers who could have helped him broker deals.
"A lot of the work of a governor, as a long line of governors starting with Earl Warren showed, is how you're able to negotiate with the Legislature ... the governor and the Legislature together never really got their hands dirty on the fiscal issues," Cannon said. "He was elected to do that. That's what he campaigned on."