Schwarzenegger Outmuscling the Democratic Legislature

For decades, both houses of California’s Democratic-controlled legislature have been wholly owned subsidiaries of the state’s powerful public employee unions — the police and firefighters, miscellaneous state employees, and, above all, the teachers. The last time there was a Democratic governor to sign the bills, the legislature showered so many benefits on these groups that it seemed to be the driving force behind the fact that California’s state deficit exceeded that of all 49 of the other states combined.

That was probably the chief reason the voters, in a recall election, sacked Gov. Gray Davis and elected the noted Hollywood muscle man, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor in his place. Many people assumed that Schwarzenegger had muscles, rather than brains, between his ears, but he surprised them by displaying a real aptitude for hardball politics. When the Democrats in the legislature refused to adopt the spending reforms the new governor demanded, he simply put them on the ballot in the form of initiatives and persuaded the voters to pass them.

The Democrats were furious, but frightened. This man was showing a dangerous ability to finesse the legislature altogether by going directly to the voters. How undemocratic!

This year Schwarzenegger came up with a series of demands even more offensive (to the Democrats) than his earlier ones. When they predictably refused to pass any of them, he circulated petitions and had them put on the ballot, as initiatives, on this year’s otherwise unimportant Election Day: Nov. 8.

Proposition 74 would increase the time it takes a teacher to earn tenure. Proposition 75 would force unions to get written permission from a union member before spending his or her dues for political purposes (rather than adding them to the union’s war chest without permission, regardless of the member’s views, as is now the case). Proposition 76 would enable the governor to cut state spending to cope with budget problems. And Proposition 77 would remove the power to redistrict Congressional seats from the legislature and vest it in a panel of retired judges.

Together these initiatives, if adopted, would be a devastating body blow to the current total control of the legislature by the unions. They know this very well, and are fighting back furiously. TV advertising powerfully influences public opinion on state issues in California, since there is no other practical way to reach the huge state’s voters. Hostile descriptions of the various initiatives on the ballot often bear no relationship whatever to the truth about them. But a steady drumbeat of denunciatory TV commercials has its effect.

It cost $20 million for Schwarzenegger simply to get those four initiatives on the ballot, and he is working hard to raise another $25 million to $30 million to buy TV time in October. On the other side of the fence, the California Teachers Association coolly plunked down $45 million to beat the initiatives, and the State Council of Service Employees tossed in $8 million more. Other contributions bring the opponents’ total war chest to more than $60 million.

The head start this has given Schwarzenegger’s foes produced a series of polls indicating that most or all of the initiatives faced defeat, and that Schwarzenegger’s own popularity had declined precipitously. Now that "Ah-nold" is wading into the fray himself, however, and some pro-initiative TV commercials are beginning to hit the airwaves, this picture is expected to change. Schwarzenegger has demonstrated an impressive ability to persuade the voters to support his initiatives, and there is no reason why this should suddenly evaporate. In addition, just to assure everybody that he is no lame duck, and expects to be around for quite a while, he has announced that he will run for re-election in 2006.

His actions in handling California’s unions are important on a national scale because, should the Constitution’s natural-born mandate for a president be amended (as Schwarzenegger has previously called for), he would then be a decision away from running for the White House top spot.

Meanwhile, maybe a majority of California’s voters really enjoy being fleeced by their legislators at the behest of a pack of powerful labor unions, intent on squeezing the state for every nickel it’s got. But maybe not, and, if not, Gov. Schwarzenegger has given them the means to break free.