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Schwarzenegger's Populist Beliefs Guide His Strategy

Planned initiatives would give voters a voice and afford him leverage over lawmakers.

November 24, 2003|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

Less than a week into office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is turning the initiative process into a main arm of his administration.

Even as the new governor keeps the state Legislature in special session and pledges to work closely with its members, he also is setting the stage to go over their heads and govern directly through an extensive series of ballot measures.

Schwarzenegger could be supporting or sponsoring as many as four measures on the March ballot and as many as half a dozen next November.

If he goes forward, the governor will offer a new twist on the notion of modern politics as a "permanent campaign." He also will be embracing direct democracy with a fervor striking even for California, where politics has been dominated by citizens' initiatives for more than a generation.

California governors have long sponsored initiatives to get their way on particular issues. But Schwarzenegger has yet to articulate a major policy that does not involve seeking the approval of voters, especially if lawmakers fail to act.

For the March 2 ballot, Schwarzenegger wants voters to consider as much as $15 billion in budget deficit bonds, a legislative spending cap and possibly an open-government measure. If the Legislature does not repeal the law that allows illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, he has indicated that he will back an existing referendum campaign on that issue.

For next November, he and aides have discussed several more measures. But the governor has indicated that he is less interested in the outcomes of his ballot measures than in allowing the public to determine his government's course.

"Let the people decide," he said last week, explaining his approach to the state budget and just about everything else. "That's the great thing.... We want to let the people know: 'Here's the situation that we're in, the crisis that we're in. You decide which way you want to go.' And if they vote yes, it would be great. If they vote no, then we have to go take on that challenge" and act through the Legislature.

Schwarzenegger began laying the groundwork for ballot measure campaigns even before he was elected, and his proposals for specific initiatives were made public before he even completed selecting his Cabinet.

Rather than disbanding his campaign aides, he has kept them in place. Last week, an official of Navigators, the Washington, D.C., political consulting firm of top Schwarzenegger strategist Mike Murphy, was scouting office locations in Sacramento. The governor also has asked campaign donors to "open their wallets" again for his ballot measures.

Though some see Schwarzenegger's use of the ballot as purely tactical, aides say the governor -- in speeches and in private discussions -- has expressed a profound personal belief in populism.

That political philosophy also is his legislative strategy. As a centrist Republican with few natural allies in a highly partisan Legislature, he gains some degree of political leverage through government by ballot measure. His message to lawmakers is: Work with Schwarzenegger on his issues, or watch him use his fame and riches to enact his agenda at the ballot box.

The strategy also reflects Schwarzenegger's growing comfort with ballot measures. He built a political resume not by seeking lower office, but by writing and sponsoring Proposition 49, an initiative to set aside money for after-school programs. That was the template for his gubernatorial campaign, which itself was part of a ballot measure: the recall. Schwarzenegger adopted his Proposition 49 slogan, "Join Arnold," for the gubernatorial race.

What's more, the governor has framed his political career as a natural progression from his work as a bodybuilder and movie star. In his stance on ballot measures, he has struck a pose similar to that of many of his movie characters: He won't let initial defeat -- whether by predatory monster or android or terrorists or, in this case, the Legislature -- prevent him from completing his mission.

Using ballot measures to govern "turns the day-to-day business of democracy into big events that depend on marketing and large publics," said Martin Kaplan, director of USC's Norman Lear Center, which studies the intersection of politics and entertainment.

Kaplan said that although Schwarzenegger might have calculated that Sacramento's legislative gridlock is too great, initiatives should be a last resort.

"Maybe he's right" about the Legislature, Kaplan said. "On the other hand, the risks, the tyranny of the majority, the cult of personality.... The reason that we have representative institutions and the reasons we're willing to put up with them is that those results are less dangerous than constantly going to the people."

Also, some ballot measures can become double-edged swords that impose tax or spending requirements that reduce the flexibility lawmakers have to react to financial crises.

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