Sunday, April 18, 2004

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger today will fulfill yet another campaign promise when he signs a bill to reform the state’s costly workers compensation program.

The signing will mark the fourth major victory for the former action-movie star since he became governor barely five months ago.

Mr. Schwarzenegger’s accomplishments, which have defied the political odds from the beginning, are winning the Republican governor praise from Democrats and once-skeptical fellow Republicans.

“He’s doing better than I expected,” said Gail Kaufman, a leading Democratic strategist in the state.

“I hate to say it, but Arnold is doing very well,” said California Democratic consultant Joe Cerrell. “The public is very satisfied.”

Many Republicans had viewed Mr. Schwarzenegger as a potentially dangerous liberal in their midst and had backed his chief opponent in a special election in October.

“Having not voted for him, I didn’t have great expectations when he was elected, but I’m really happy now,” said Floyd Brown executive director of Young America’s Foundation, which runs the day-to-day operations of the Ronald Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara.

Mr. Schwarzenegger “has shook things up, and he’s great entertainment out in California. And I think a lot of us who voted for [conservative Republican state Sen. Tom] McClintock are pulling for Arnold now,” Mr. Brown said.

Under threat by Mr. Schwarzenegger to turn the compensation proposal into a ballot measure, the heavily Democratic state legislature passed the measure on Friday after what even many Democrats said was skillful negotiating by Mr. Schwarzenegger.

The measure — fiercely opposed by labor unions — reduces insurance benefits and treatment options for workers who were injured on the job.

The victory is viewed as another demonstration of the Republican governor’s ability to work with Democratic lawmakers. The state Assembly approved the compromise measure by 77-3 and Senate by 33-3. Democrats dominate the Assembly 48-32 and the Senate 25-15.

Since taking office, Mr. Schwarzenegger has rolled back Democratic predecessor Gray Davis’ increase in the state’s car tax, won approval for a cap on state spending and pushed through an initiative to keep taxes from skyrocketing by rolling much of the state’s debt into huge bond issues.

And he did it with an assembly whose members, said Mr. Brown, “were so far out of the mainstream that they were very difficult to deal with — they are very far left. The politics of California are really the politics of the extreme left.”

Mr. Schwarzenegger has surprised Democrats, Miss Kaufman said.

“He has kept us off balance by being smarter than I would have imagined and by surrounding himself with people of different ideological stripes who give him good counsel,” the Democratic consultant said. “He speaks in such simple sentences, but he is smarter than his rhetoric.”

One disappointment for many Republicans, however, is Mr. Schwarzenegger’s flip-flop on denying drivers licenses to illegal aliens. He had campaigned for repeal of such licenses but has begun working with state Democrats to revamp a bill to let illegal immigrants obtain such licenses — one of the issues that contributed to the ousting of Mr. Davis, who had promoted licenses for illegals.

Mr. Schwarzenegger’s term expires in 2006, and the betting in both parties is that he will go for a second term. Some in his party continue to boost him for president, and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, is pushing a constitutional amendment to allow a foreign-born American be elected president.

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