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Now the Hard Part: Governing California

Clash over car tax may be first wedge between the next governor and Democratic Legislature.

October 09, 2003|Michael Finnegan and Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writers

A day after Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory in the recall election, a dispute erupted between the governor-elect and the state's most powerful legislator over the tripling of California's car tax.

Schwarzenegger, moving to keep a campaign promise, told state Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) that as governor, he could single-handedly repeal the tax hike. The irascible senator disagreed.

"We have a difference of opinion there," the Republican governor-to-be told reporters in Los Angeles.

So began Arnold Schwarzenegger's move from Hollywood to Sacramento, where he will face the same deeply divided Legislature that often thwarted the will of outgoing Gov. Gray Davis.

The return of a Republican governor to the Capitol marks a major shift in the balance of power. Schwarzenegger's opening clash over the vehicle license fee could portend friction between him and the Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature. Losing the $4 billion brought in by the increase, for instance, would jeopardize programs dear to many of them, setting a foul tone for budget talks in the months ahead.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 10, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Dario Frommer -- With a Thursday Section A article on California legislators, a caption quoting Assemblyman Dario Frommer ran with the wrong photo. The photo was of Craig Missakian, Frommer's opponent in the last election.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Dario Frommer -- A correction in Friday's Section A mistakenly stated that Craig Missakian ran against Assemblyman Dario Frommer in the last election. Missakian ran against Frommer in 2000.

"Once you take that oath of office," Burton said, "unless you're a total whack-a-do, reality sets in, and you find out campaign rhetoric can't solve the problems."

The election results Tuesday suggest that Schwarzenegger's political center of gravity is well to the right of the Legislature's.

Schwarzenegger's base of support is heavily white, male, conservative, Republican and Christian, according to a Times poll of voters who cast ballots Tuesday. He ran strongest in the Central Valley and in Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Those regions are home to the most conservative members of the Legislature's Republican minority.

By contrast, Schwarzenegger was relatively unpopular among blacks, Latinos, Asians, liberals, Jews and Democrats, though he still ran stronger than many Republicans among those groups. He ran weakest in San Francisco and the surrounding area, as well as parts of Los Angeles County.

That's the turf of the liberal Democrats who dominate the Legislature and set its agenda.

Democrats have already vowed to send Schwarzenegger piles of legislation on worker protections, abortion and gay rights and other topics that the moderate governor-elect might be inclined to sign -- but at the risk of alienating the conservatives who backed him most fiercely.

His reaction will suggest whether Schwarzenegger plans to placate his base, try to broaden it to the left, or somehow leap over the sorts of cultural clashes that have defined California's Republican Party in recent years.

For a typical candidate, the need to run in the 2006 Republican primary -- a contest typically dominated by conservatives, and a battle he was able to avoid in the recall's unusual format -- would dictate a turn to the right. But the world-famous film actor is hardly a typical candidate.

"Now that he's governor, the question is: Will he get mired down into this stuff or is he going to try to transcend it?" said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick.

Tony Quinn, who analyzes legislative races for the nonpartisan California Target Book, said Schwarzenegger ran so well in conservative precincts that most GOP lawmakers will remain allies regardless of his stands on touchstone issues like abortion.

"He'll have them in his back pocket," Quinn said. "Would you like to have your head knocked by somebody that got this kind of numbers? The guy's got a big heavy personality, as you know."

According to preliminary returns, Schwarzenegger won 3.7 million votes, or 49%, in Tuesday's election, well ahead of Davis, who won 3.6 million votes against the recall.

Looking ahead, one thing working in Schwarzenegger's favor is his relatively strong support among moderates and independents, a potential bridge between the Legislature's ideological poles.

"All of these people know, Democrats and Republicans, that ordinary people are pretty disgusted with the dysfunctional system in Sacramento," said Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon.

Schwarzenegger vowed Wednesday to build ties to Democrats and independents, as well as fellow Republicans.

"There is much that we can do here if we don't take a negative approach and say, 'Oh, that one are the villains, and they are the good ones,' " he told reporters at a Century City news conference.

State Assembly Minority Leader Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) suggested it was only a matter of time before Schwarzenegger builds trust and confidence in the Legislature.

"This is like eating an elephant one bite at a time," he said. "You meet one person, you meet another person."

He also said Schwarzenegger's success in Hollywood would have taught the governor-elect the art of compromise as practiced in the capital.

"He has all those skills," Cox said. "He couldn't have gotten where he's gotten without those skills."

No doubt, Schwarzenegger will face a tougher time forging ties to Democrats.

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