Schwarzenegger's celebrity status may be his biggest advantage

Sacramento -- Two days after his election, Arnold Schwarzenegger flew to Sacramento from Los Angeles in his Gulfstream IV to attend a private party at the home of Bob White, former chief of staff to Gov. Pete Wilson and a close adviser during the recall campaign.

The Thursday evening party, held as a tribute to a top Sacramento lobbyist who suffers from cancer, was attended by prominent "special interest" lobbyists, Democratic politicians such as Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Mayor Willie Brown, Senate leader and other Sacramento dealmakers.

Schwarzenegger campaigned as an outsider, pledging to sweep Sacramento clean of "special interests," such as prison guards, state employee unions, Indian gaming, and big business, and govern with "the people." But at the party, he shared drinks and a few laughs with some of the very forces he ran against during the campaign.

The conventional wisdom is that Schwarzenegger will bypass the Legislature and lobbyists, but in truth, he may have more success by bringing lawmakers and lobbyists into his world. As he begins his administration, they are more than likely to be invited to the party than swept away with his broom.

"One of the things about celebrities is that people like to spend time with them," said Darrell West, a Brown University professor and author of "Celebrity Politics." "So if he draws them into his orbit, he is more likely to have success."

When he arrives in Sacramento for good, Schwarzenegger faces skeptical Democrats. Sen. John Vasconcellos of Santa Clara already has been quoted calling Schwarzenegger a "boob." Another, Sen. Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica, told a Sacramento political columnist that the Legislature will have to save California from "ignorance" now that he has been elected governor.

Despite this anger, Schwarzenegger has a huge advantage that could prove the key to his eventual success or failure in government -- people like being around him. His election provides a critical test for whether a celebrity can use charisma and star power to change the system, or end up a political failure like former Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota.

Lawmakers probably will try to avoid looking starstruck. But will they resist when Schwarzenegger asks them to board his Gulfstream IV to fly to a bill-signing ceremony in their district? Will they be desperate to compromise with him, fearful that he could demolish their re-election chances by a single appearance?


Like Ventura, Schwarzenegger used his muscle-bound media image and the country's obsession with celebrity to win over Californians and sidestep traditional political conventions. In the end, the majority of voters didn't seem to care that Schwarzenegger spent more time with Access Hollywood than he did speaking to newspaper editorial boards.

Whether that style will work in Sacramento remains to be seen. But Schwarzenegger won't have to do much to cultivate a friendlier relationship with lawmakers than his predecessor, Gov. Gray Davis.

"Davis didn't seem to have any hobbies; there was just no way to start a conversation with him," said Bill Leonard, a former Republican assemblyman from the Inland Empire who is now on the State Board of Equalization. "I can imagine people asking Schwarzenegger about the special effects in 'The Terminator.' "

Davis was never chummy with anyone, and seemingly every Democrat in Sacramento has a story of how the governor burned a bridge to score political points.

Last year, the governor presided over a well-covered ceremony to sign landmark legislation forcing automakers to reduce car emissions. Davis failed to invite Burton, even though the Senate president was largely responsible for pushing the bill through the Legislature and the ceremony was in his hometown, San Francisco.

This year, Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Los Feliz, urged Davis to offer a reward to help catch a rapist on the loose in his district. The governor eventually decided to do just that and announced it at a press conference, speaking to the media in Frommer's district -- without Frommer.

Schwarzenegger's big test will be whether he can share the stage and the credit with lawmakers. Amid this, he will likely have unprecedented media coverage. Already, television stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles are contemplating reopening Sacramento bureaus to cover the first California governor likely to boost ratings.


And fawning coverage from nonpolitical media -- the kind of press every politician fantasizes about -- can only add to his clout.

"I'm sure we'll do periodic checks on how he's handling a whole different kind of pressure," said Linda Bell Blue, executive director of Entertainment Tonight. ET will also likely do frequent features on Maria Shriver, Schwarzenegger's wife and someone who is of "extreme interest" to the show's viewers, Bell Blue said.

If the new governor wants to win crucial allies, he will praise lawmakers for all the world to hear. In politics, this is real power.

Conversely, Schwarzenegger will undoubtedly have unprecedented power to visit districts of legislators who are standing in his way to argue before local media that he needs voters' help in changing their elected official's mind.

If budget battles get too tough, Schwarzenegger could pull an end-run the same way another former actor did when he occupied the state's top job. Ronald Reagan knew he was far more popular and well-known than anyone in the Legislature, said journalist and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon.

"Those guys (lawmakers) knew Reagan had the power to go to the people and they didn't," Cannon said. "Schwarzenegger has that, too."


Most believe the actor could make good on his threats to place initiatives on ballots if he's stymied in the Legislature. Schwarzenegger made his debut in California politics last year by sponsoring a successful initiative promoting after-school programs.

Resorting to the ballot box is a last resort, however -- it would hardly be efficient to spend months campaigning while a budget is due. Many in Sacramento and elsewhere wonder how Schwarzenegger will handle his first battle with the often-grumpy Burton.

A creature of Hollywood and an actor who has been the leading man on almost every film he's ever made, Schwarzenegger is probably not used to hearing "no." He'll hear it a lot from Democrats, and how he responds could determine whether his administration works, or doesn't.

Clues on how difficult it may be to make the jump from celebrity to governor can be found 2,000 miles away, where a wrestler-turned-governor began a political career with great promise but now is doing a weekend talk show on cable television.

Observers of Minnesota politics say former Gov. Jesse Ventura sounded many of the same campaign themes as Schwarzenegger. In 1998, Ventura ran as an outsider who would overcome the nasty partisan climate in the statehouse.

Democrats and Republicans had staged a bitter fight over state funding for family planning, according to Harry Boyte, a senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.


"Ventura won because he said he was going to produce a different type of politics," Boyte said. "He promised something that was not as strident and ideological and unproductive."

Ventura was popular his first year. He talked about boosting education, he gave back money to taxpayers, and his blue-collar persona played well to Minnesotans' progressive streak. But Ventura had no patience for the legislative process and seemed to take every criticism personally, Boyte said.

Making laws is a long, messy process. The tug-of-war of political negotiation and hard work is "not something the celebrity culture values," Boyte noted.

Ventura launched proposals to reduce schools' reliance on student testing and to combine the two houses of the Minnesota Legislature into one. Both had public support. But Ventura refused to compromise with alternatives proposed by lawmakers, instead publicly berating them for not seeing things his way.

"He alienated everyone," Boyte said.

Schwarzenegger seems unlikely to fall completely into that trap. Ventura was an independent; Schwarzenegger has the full force of the Republican Party and all of its allies in Sacramento behind him. The new governor also seems able to brush aside criticism as easily as he shook off the egg that a protester nailed him with at a recent rally.

"I think he's going to surprise everyone and be successful," said West, the author, "because he demonstrated shrewdness on the campaign trail, and won. For a nonpolitician, this guy has incredible political skills, and that is the most important thing for a new governor."