- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2005

He’s battled androids, aliens and barbarians, but now California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is locked in mortal political combat with some truly dangerous foes: the state’s powerful labor unions and the Democratic Legislature.

In a gambit that could change the direction of his nascent political career, the Republican is spearheading a Nov. 8 special election featuring a slate of four ballot measures designed to curb the power of the state’s traditional Democratic power brokers.

The risks for Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, are considerable, given that the special election falls just before the kickoff of his own 2006 re-election bid. If most or all of his initiatives fail, the governor could find himself seriously weakened in his first campaign since steamrolling former Gov. Gray Davis in the 2003 recall.

“It’s a huge gamble, no question,” said Mike Spence, president of the conservative California Republican Assembly. “If the people reject three or four of his initiatives, his re-election chances are going to be damaged.”

The stakes are no less critical for Democrats.

Proposition 75, the “paycheck protection” initiative, would require public employee unions to get permission to spend members’ dues on political campaigns, the bulk of which now goes to Democratic candidates.

Proposition 76 would place a spending cap on the state budget, while Proposition 77 would turn redistricting over to a panel of three independent, retired judges. Both the budget and redistricting are now controlled by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

The fourth measure, Proposition 73, would weaken teachers unions by making it more difficult for public-school teachers to win tenure.

“This would be a blow to unions, because it would limit the amount of money unions can contribute to candidates, but it’s a blow to the Democrats, too. They’ll both be hit hard if it passes,” said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe.

The unions have swung back with a fierce attack campaign aimed at both the governor and his agenda. In one mailing, the California Teachers Association accuses Mr. Schwarzenegger of attempting to muzzle union members, with a picture of five teachers with duct tape on their mouths.

Organized labor has spent more than $80 million so far to defeat the measures, a figure that’s predicted to hit $100 million before Election Day. The Schwarzenegger campaign has raised about half that in what is expected to be the most expensive election, special or otherwise, in California history.

Few could have foreseen that California politicians would be spending the end of 2005 in a do-or-die battle for the state’s political future. In January, with his poll numbers at record highs, Mr. Schwarzenegger highlighted a series of spending and political reforms that were promptly rejected by the Legislature.

Mr. Schwarzenegger threatened to go over legislators’ heads and directly to the ballot box if they didn’t support his agenda. When they refused, the governor made good on his threat and called the special election.

Democrats have sharply criticized the Nov. 8 ballot, saying the governor should have waited until the next regular election in June 2006 and saved the state $54 million. Republicans say the issues are too important to put off to next year.

The campaign, however, has come at a cost. Mr. Schwarzenegger’s once sky-high poll numbers have dropped precipitously, with his approval rating now hovering at 36 percent.

The latest polls give mixed results to the Schwarzenegger initiatives: Two of the measures, Propositions 74 and 75, are leading in the polls, but Propositions 76 and 77 are trailing. The Schwarzenegger campaign says they’ll pull out in a victory in the end, pointing to the $1.5-billion budget bailout that came back from a double-digit deficit to win approval in March 2004.

Special elections can usually count on low voter turnout, meaning the outcome will depend on whether Republicans or union members show up in greater numbers.

“It’s likely to be low turnout,” Mrs. Jeffe said. “The question is, what’s that turnout going to look like?”

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