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
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
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?
VOTERS LIKED HIS STYLE
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
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.
FAWNING MEDIA COVERAGE
And fawning coverage from nonpolitical media -- the
kind of press every politician fantasizes about -- can only add to his
"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
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
HE CAN BACK UP HIS THREATS
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.
WHY VENTURA WON AND LOST
"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
"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."