- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2005

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rode into office in 2003 on the power of his movie-star persona and a populist promise that he would reform government to make it more responsive to the people.

But 17 months into his first term, Mr. Schwarzenegger’s legacy is a mixed bag of high-stakes political risks that have eroded his support among California voters and managed to alienate both political parties and just about every political power player in the state.

“The real world is setting in for ‘The Terminator,’ ‘The Governator,’” veteran California Democratic political consultant Joe Cerrell said. “He’s a little unnerved. He’s not used to it after all those years of adulation as an entertainer and a politician.”

Mr. Schwarzenegger created a political firestorm in California earlier this year when he proposed four ballot initiatives that would impose merit pay for teachers, overhaul the state’s public pension system, reform the budget with a trigger that would cut state spending automatically, and redraw every legislative district.

Those reform ideas have raised the ire of California’s most powerful political players from all sides. Teachers unions have come out in force against merit pay. The firefighters and police unions fought pension reform. State Democrats staunchly oppose the budget reforms, and congressional Republicans don’t want to change their cozy, gerrymandered districts.

The pressure on his pension referendum — drafted sloppily by the governor’s own admission so that payments to widows of firefighters and police killed in the line of duty were threatened — forced it to be withdrawn last week. Whether he can push the other three onto November’s ballot is still an open question.

“Governor Schwarzenegger learned that you cannot fight a four-front war in California,” Republican political consultant Bill Whalen said. “Politics in California is short-attention-span theater. Getting voters to focus on four things at once is just about impossible.”

A poll released last week by San Jose State University puts Mr. Schwarzenegger’s popularity at an all-time low. Riding high with 59 percent job-approval numbers in January, only 43 percent now approve and 43 percent disapprove. Although 52 percent of Californians thought the governor was moving the state in the right direction four months ago, only 39 percent believe that now, according to the poll.

All things considered, however, Mr. Schwarzenegger’s standing is not that bad, said John Pitney of Claremont University. “He has assets that other politicians must envy,” Mr. Pitney said. “Arnold Schwarzenegger can pack them in when he is talking about redistricting reform. No other politician can do that.”

Mr. Cerrell, who has worked for the campaigns of successful Democratic governors since the 1960s, said Mr. Schwarzenegger is just experiencing the “normal slippage” of a first-term governor. “So is the glass half-full or is it half-empty?” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s still riding a pretty good wave.”

Mr. Schwarzenegger’s political future will be determined in the next month or so, Mr. Whalen said. The governor must decide by the end of May whether he wants to go forward with his three remaining ballot initiatives in order to have enough time to gather the signatures for the November election.

“If he does, it will be high stakes because he is putting his reputation on the line,” he said.

Next comes Mr. Schwarzenegger’s decision to run for re-election by the gubernatorial primary in June 2006. If he runs again despite the publicly stated desire by his Kennedy-clan wife, Maria Shriver, that she “wants him home,” he has history on his side for success: No California governor seeking a second term has failed since 1942.

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