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A Strike Against Party Politics

Governor seizes ballot measures as a tool to pressure legislators. But only lawmakers can pass a budget, one says.

November 19, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — With his opening budget gambit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cast himself as the agent of change, suggesting by extension that legislators who oppose him are status quo obstructionists.

In a news conference broadcast live on TV stations around the state, the Republican governor exhorted Californians to barrage legislators with calls and letters demanding support for his budget proposals.

Legislators -- prone to paralysis amid deep partisan splits on the fiscal crisis -- understand that "politics as usual has to die," Schwarzenegger said at a morning news conference. "They know that. This was a message loud and clear from the people on Oct. 7. I don't think they want to derail me."

Schwarzenegger's demand, that legislators put a ballot measure before voters to cap state spending and approve up to $15 billion in debt to overcome "reckless spending" under Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, may be just the beginning of a relentless campaign by the new governor to put public pressure on the Legislature.

If legislators decline to meet the Dec. 5 deadline to put the measure on the March ballot, Schwarzenegger's campaign team plans to mount a petition drive to get it before voters in November 2004.

The advisors -- including strategists Mike Murphy, Don Sipple, George Gorton and Jeff Randle -- are already planning campaigns for other Schwarzenegger ballot measures in case the Legislature thwarts his agenda.

Bypassing the legislative body is a time-honored tactic for popular politicians. In California, initiatives are a tempting option for governors to impose their will on legislators.

After a decisive victory in the recall race, Schwarzenegger will enjoy "an enormous amount of goodwill" from voters, which could be harnessed for initiative campaigns, said Tom Cronin, author of "Direct Democracy: The Politics of Initiative, Referendum and Recall."

"It's plebiscitary politics, and you can only get away with that for a certain amount of time," he said.

Still, ballot measures can be mixed blessings for governors who closely tie themselves to their fate.

Gov. Pete Wilson benefited from pressing measures for crime victims, among others. He also helped his 1994 reelection effort by embracing Proposition 187, a measure aimed at denying public services to illegal immigrants.

But the state GOP has struggled ever since to recover from the political fallout among Latinos, and Wilson's image remains badly scarred.

For Schwarzenegger, direct appeals to voters flow naturally from his celebrity and from a campaign in which he promised to be the people's governor.

They are especially potent with the deeply unpopular Legislature set up as his foil, analysts say. "That's where he does so well," said USC political science professor Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "He's treating the voters as fans. And the voters are not fans of the Legislature."

Gale Kaufman, a campaign strategist for Democrats in the Legislature, said it was a clever approach for Schwarzenegger to tell legislators, in essence, that he would rev up their voters if they did not bend to his will.

The Legislature's top Democrat, state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton of San Francisco, said he would look at Schwarzenegger's initial ballot measure, but raised doubts about the political strategy.

"If they want to go to the ballot with everything, they can be my guest, because there are certain things that nobody can go to the ballot on," he said. "You cannot go to the ballot to pass the budget."

But Burton's remarks at a news conference in the main Capitol press room were undoubtedly heard by a small fraction of the voters who watched Schwarzenegger.

That room -- as Schwarzenegger pointed out -- was too small to accommodate roughly three dozen television news crews and scores of reporters and photographers who swarmed to the governor's first news conference.

Indeed, as he tries to outmaneuver the Legislature, Schwarzenegger derives a substantial amount of power from the sheer volume of media attention he commands.

"It accrues all to his benefit at the moment," a Schwarzenegger advisor said. "There are new dynamics at play here. You can't prejudge anything by past tradition."

Still, some Democrats viewed Schwarzenegger's opening budget move as a stalling tactic to postpone an inevitable tax increase. Strategist Bill Carrick questioned Schwarzenegger's ability -- if the matter makes the ballot -- to win voter approval for up to $15 billion in borrowing to balance the budget.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger urges California to go to the pawnshop is what it sounds like to me," Carrick said. "Arnold Schwarzenegger urges California to go the loan shark."

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Times staff writers Gregg Jones and Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.

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