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Power of Nonpartisanship

Earl Warren offers a model of leadership for Schwarzenegger

November 23, 2003|Jim Newton

There is no one way to govern California, nor is there one type of governor.

Ronald Reagan was ideologically forceful but softened his politics with charm and pragmatism. Pat Brown was a builder, popular for much of his tenure with Republicans as well as Democrats. George Deukmejian proved that it was possible to be elected twice without a hint of charisma.

Now comes Arnold Schwarzenegger, faced today with problems that would confound the most experienced politician: He is a Republican atop an overwhelmingly Democratic state; the economy is troubled; the budget deeply out of balance; the state's politics bitter and divisive.

Success will not be easy for Schwarzenegger. But history suggests at least one important model, a governor who proved that it was possible for a moderate Republican to govern California effectively from the middle, even in the face of partisan disadvantage.

Earl Warren was elected governor of California in 1942, with the country struggling to shrug off the Depression even as it plunged into war.

His opponent and immediate predecessor, Democrat Culbert Olson, had stumbled through four years when Warren knocked him from office in a tough campaign. Warren won that race even though California Democrats outnumbered Republicans by nearly the same wide margin that they do today.

Faced with those realities, Warren's principal innovation in California politics was the introduction of nonpartisanship both as political tactic and as governing principle.

"In rising to the abnormal responsibility imposed, it is obvious that we must cut out all the dry rot of petty politics, partisan jockeying, inaction, dictatorial stubbornness and opportunistic thinking," Warren said in his first inaugural address. "No clique, no faction and no party holds priority on all the rights of helping the common man."

Good on his word, Warren solicited and received Democratic input in each of his administrations and was rewarded with strong Democratic support.

In 1946, he filed for and won nomination as a Republican and as a Democrat, the only California governor ever so elected.

In 1950, he became the first and only governor to win a third term. Substantively, he allowed the Legislature to do its work with little interference from his office, vetoing fewer than 2% of all the bills sent to him. And with few exceptions, the Legislature approved bills he initiated.

The lessons of nonpartisanship are more easily explained than followed, however, and Warren's example will not be simple for Schwarzenegger to emulate. For starters, Warren won office again and again not because he was something new but because he was someone tested.

As an up-and-coming district attorney and then attorney general, Warren had studiously courted the Republican Party's right wing. Joseph Knowland, publisher of the Oakland Tribune and a leading conservative, was a longtime supporter. Later, Warren received the enthusiastic backing of the state's most powerful conservative voice, the Los Angeles Times. So when Warren joined with Democrats, he could carry his base with him.

Schwarzenegger, who has no such deep roots in state politics, will find that pivot harder to make.

Additionally, Schwarzenegger assumes office shadowed by accusations that he had sexually harassed and humiliated women over many years. Those are serious accusations that will not go away quietly.

Warren, by contrast, was never touched by personal scandal.

If Warren's legacy suggests one other important idea, it is that a successful governor is one who learns in office.

For all his experience, Warren's years leading up to the governorship gave little hint of the leader he would become. Warren was a doctrinaire law-and-order district attorney in Alameda County through the 1920s and 1930s, and an aggressive but unspectacular attorney general from 1938 to 1942. And after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was a forceful advocate for removal and then internment of California's Japanese population -- a shameful position, though one endorsed by nearly all of California's leadership and ultimately enacted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

As governor, however, Warren was guided by the belief that solutions to problems generally were not found in ideology. He abided by the Republican ideal and cut taxes in 1944 when the state was flush. But three years later, confronted with concerns about the state highway system, he called the Legislature into special session and urged a hike in the gas tax; he won that effort by a single vote.

During the war years, he salted away a "rainy day" fund used to ease the state into the postwar economy. He supported universal medical insurance even though he was denounced as a socialist. And he invested in state universities, prisons, mental health programs, aid for the blind, the elderly and the poor.

All of that added up to big money in a growing state. Government spending tripled under Gov. Warren, with education and highways among the chief beneficiaries. And yet when he resigned the office in 1953 to become chief justice of the United States, he left a sound economy, a prosperous population and a balanced budget.

That was the fruit of Warren's nonpartisanship. Schwarzenegger could hardly hope for more.

Jim Newton, a Los Angeles Times editor, is on leave from the newspaper to write a biography of Earl Warren.

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