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Steve Lopez POINTS WEST

A Car Dealer's Kind of Governor

November 21, 2003|Steve Lopez

We knew he was a man of many talents, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a knockout Thursday in a new role:

San Fernando Valley car salesman.

"Go out there. Buy cars," Schwarzenegger implored a few hundred disciples at Galpin Ford on Roscoe Boulevard in North Hills.

New car, used car, any car. Just buy a car, said the governor, and enjoy the benefit of the vehicle tax reduction he enacted Monday, his first day in office.

It was a swell show, but it was a curious way to put an end to special-interest politics, a Schwarzenegger mantra.

Galpin owner H.F. Boeckmann and his wife, Jane, pumped $42,400 into Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial campaign, and Mr. Boeckmann kicked in an additional $10,000 for his inaugural.

"I think you've got an odd way of looking at it," Boeckmann said when I asked how this was any different from the pay-to-play politics of ousted Gov. Gray Davis.

OK, now I get it. I've been confused the last three months, but apparently a special interest is always someone other than yourself.

But couldn't a multimillionaire celebrity politician easily avoid the perception that something fishy is going on by just using his own money, like he promised he would? I thought the whole idea of the recall was to get the stink out of politics.

Jamie Court, a consumer watchdog, saw the Boeckmanns' $50,000 investment in Arnold as a bargain.

"It's a small price to pay to get an international celebrity to come and hawk your product," quipped Court.

But Court had bigger concerns than that. Auto dealers statewide funneled roughly half a million dollars to Schwarzenegger. Then, on his first day in office, Schwarzenegger dumped DMV chief Steve Gourley, who had a reputation for cracking down hard on auto financing scams.

"I got a call at about 3:10 in the afternoon" from a Schwarzenegger staffer, said Gourley, who was asked to clear out his office by the end of the day. Gourley, who was having throat surgery the next day, said he didn't know if he could get his things together on such short notice.

"Stay late," he was told. Then make yourself history.

Gourley, a lawyer and former Culver City mayor, told me he expected to get dumped at some point, as gubernatorial appointees usually are after a change in command. But he had offered to help with the transition through December, and had no clue he'd be sent packing just hours after the inauguration.

"I'm buying trash bags to put my belongings into," he said when I reached him by cell phone Thursday, the day he moved out of his Sacramento apartment.

Gourley said he had no hard feelings, and he assumed his firing was less about the wrath of auto dealers and more about Schwarzenegger's team wanting its own chief to handle the scaling back of the vehicle license fee, among other things.

But others wondered if Gourley was just being careful not to burn any bridges before beginning a job hunt.

Axing Gourley just hours after Schwarzenegger's swearing-in "smacks of payback," said Rosemary Shahan of Consumers for Automobile Reliability and Safety. "There's no question Gourley made a lot of enemies among car dealers, who are an extremely powerful, active lobby."

In fact, Gourley led an investigation that resulted in the 2001 indictment of seven employees of an El Monte Chevrolet dealership for cheating more than 1,000 customers. The fraud included forgery, selling used cars as new, changing odometers and lying about financing terms.

The dealership is owned by AutoNation, which contributed $21,200 to the Schwarzenegger campaign.

Don't worry, Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman told me. People elected Arnold because they know he can't be influenced by big money like that.

Let's hope not, because Court says the auto lobby isn't done working on Schwarzenegger. Dealers are raising millions of dollars, and courting the governor's support, for a ballot measure Court says would severely limit consumer protection against deceptive auto marketing and financing scams.

"Welcome And Thank You Gov. Arnold," said the marquee at Galpin, where Schwarzenegger spoke from a stage set up in the parking lot.

Politics as usual has to die for California to succeed, Schwarzenegger said, despite the circumstances of his appearance. The car tax was unfair to all the little people who make between $10,000 and $20,000 a year, he told the crowd.

If they think that was unfair, wait until they see the program cuts that will pay for the car tax relief.

Schwarzenegger told them that after they go out and buy new cars, they should call their legislators and demand that they support his $15-billion bond measure to cover the budget deficit.

And what's the interest going to be on that charge? The financing -- that's always where they get you.

Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

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