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Democrats Brace for Schwarzenegger Era

Lawmakers feel a mix of hope, wariness and fear as the Republican governor takes control.

November 16, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

As Arnold Schwarzenegger makes final preparations to take office as governor on Monday, the California political establishment is scrambling to adjust to the abrupt shift of power from Democrats to Republicans.

The inauguration of the Republican governor before thousands of spectators outside the domed Capitol in Sacramento will end five years of near-total Democratic Party control of state government.

Even if Schwarzenegger is not the ideological match of the Capitol's conservative Republicans, his takeover of the governor's U-shaped office suite ensures a radical change in the political dynamics of Sacramento.

Elected in a historic voter revolt against his Democratic predecessor, Schwarzenegger will take power with "a mandate directly from the people to come and change the way business is being done here -- and what is being done," said Schwarzenegger communications director Rob Stutzman. "It's a mandate to step forward and lead."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Sacramento politics -- An article in Sunday's Section A about the changing political landscape in Sacramento transposed the proportion of Democrats to Republicans in the state Assembly and Senate. Democrats outnumber Republicans, 48 to 32 in the Assembly and 25 to 15 in the Senate.

In large part, the fate of Schwarzenegger's agenda depends on Democrats who still dominate both houses of the Legislature and hold every other statewide elected office. By and large, they are unsure of what to expect as he arrives in the capital he portrayed during the recall race as a sinister pit of unscrupulous politicians. At this point, Schwarzenegger elicits a mix of hope, wariness and fear.

"I don't think anyone now is saying, 'Let's go to battle with him,' " said Steve Barkan, a campaign strategist for Democrats. "Folks are trying to figure out how to work with him."

To set a congenial tone, Schwarzenegger has paid visits to the capital's leading Democratic officeholders, including Senate leader John Burton of San Francisco and Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson of Culver City. He has also made discreet stops at the offices of two labor leaders: Bob Balgenorth of the State Building and Construction Trades Council and Dean Tipps of the Service Employees International Union. Given the millions of dollars that labor spent to keep its ally Gov. Gray Davis in office, union leaders had expected hostility from Schwarzenegger.

"My fears were diminished somewhat by the meeting," Balgenorth said. "It was quite a show of humility, quite an olive branch."

But labor leaders, like Democratic lawmakers, wonder whether Schwarzenegger's symbolic gestures portend any genuine change in the combative partisanship of Sacramento.

"The question is: Does anything ever flow out of it?" said John Hein, government relations chief at the California Teachers Assn. "Is he going to keep those conversations going and keep those people involved?"

Within the Legislature, the most immediate consequence of Schwarzenegger's arrival is the sudden empowerment of the Republican minority. Democrats outnumber Republicans, 48 to 32 in the Senate and 25 to 15 in the Assembly.

Under Davis, Republicans were unable to stop Democrats from passing hundreds of laws they opposed, most notably those resisted by business leaders. Among them were measures imposing health-coverage mandates on employers and strict new pollution controls on auto makers. The Republicans' only significant role was to block Democrats from raising taxes by keeping them from mustering the required two-thirds vote.

But now, one of Schwarzenegger's main tools for setting the state's agenda will be the power to veto legislation passed by Democrats, and he is counting on fellow Republicans to protect him against veto overrides, which also need a two-thirds vote.

Republican legislators, in turn, are apt to influence his administration in a way that was impossible under a Democratic governor. Their conservative voter base is nearly the same as Schwarzenegger's. So is their pool of campaign donors. Like Schwarzenegger, Republican legislators are strong advocates of business and have chilly relations with labor.

"They are no longer shut out of the game," said Darry Sragow, a key campaign strategist for Assembly Democrats.

For Schwarzenegger, the first big challenge is to find a way out of the same severe fiscal troubles that hastened the downfall of Davis. His pledge not to raise taxes vastly complicates the task.

On Monday, Schwarzenegger will make it even more difficult: He plans to sign an executive order to rescind the tripling of the so-called car tax. The rollback will please millions of motorists and fulfill a key campaign promise. But if he also makes good on a pledge to make whole the local governments that receive the car tax revenue, it will widen the projected $10-billion budget hole next year to $14 billion.

To close the gap, Schwarzenegger faces tough choices. If he relies on spending cuts alone, the severity of the hits to higher education, health care and other programs would spark an uproar among Democrats and, most likely, a public outcry.

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