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Delicate Dual Role Ahead for Shriver

Observers expect her to protect her famously Democratic family's legacy while supporting and influencing her Republican husband's policies.

October 19, 2003|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

As California's first lady, Maria Shriver's first order of business could be something lasting. Her blood relatives call it the "legacy."

They don't necessarily mean whatever mark her husband, Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, hopes to leave on the state, but rather the political heritage Shriver now finds herself charged with protecting, in a front-and-center role that family members say she never sought.

She is a Kennedy, after all. And the name that is synonymous with the Democratic Party figures to similarly define Shriver's performance as the wife and "full partner" of a Republican governor, the Kennedys and others say.

They describe her as a keeper of the flame whose considerable influence on Schwarzenegger will do the clan proud on issues such as education, health care and the environment -- even if the trade-off is helping him push GOP fiscal reforms through the Democrat-ruled Legislature.

"Maria has a legacy here that she is going to safeguard," said her cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the assassinated U.S. senator. "Her family has always been concerned for the most vulnerable people in our society."

Tending to that concern without riling conservative Republicans could be tricky. Shriver, a 47-year-old broadcast journalist and author, will be the first Kennedy spouse -- some insiders half-jokingly label Schwarzenegger the Kennedy spouse, if not a closet Democrat -- to serve in a clout-wielding capacity behind enemy lines.

Her task should be eased by Schwarzenegger's support of abortion rights, gun controls and environmental regulations, as well as what his in-laws say is a guiding belief that government has a moral responsibility to lift the disadvantaged.

"He's a very liberal Republican," said Shriver's brother Anthony, who founded and heads Best Buddies, a charity for the mentally disabled. "He's right on the mark with most of the social issues we care about."

If Maria Shriver has specific policy goals in mind, the Kennedy kin aren't privy to them -- or aren't saying. "That's a question you'll have to ask her," her brother said.

She declined requests for an interview, however, as did Schwarzenegger.

Top advisors to the governor-in-waiting were willing to talk, but the subject seemed delicate for them. They praised the boss' wife for her intellect and devotion to Schwarzenegger, but bristled at any suggestion that she would promote a Kennedy agenda as a Democratic reincarnation of Nancy Reagan, the archetype of a powerful first lady.

In the case of former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, a co-chairman of Schwarzenegger's campaign, the notion drew a dry chuckle.

"I'm laughing because some of the people who are saying that, as family members, would probably like to write the agenda," Wilson said. "That's not going to happen."

He added, "She'll have a strong influence on her husband, but she knows her opinions are different. She's certainly not been unaware that he's been a Republican all these years, and that's different from being a Kennedy Democrat."

Rep. David Dreier, a conservative San Dimas Republican who heads Schwarzenegger's transition team, said Shriver has not thrown her weight around, although she reportedly was instrumental in shaking up the campaign's staff early on and sharpening its message.

"It is so clear that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governor," Dreier said.

"He's strong, he's his own man, and he's the decision-maker.... It doesn't mean he won't listen to a wide range of views, including Maria's, if there are disagreements."

Throughout her 17-year marriage, Shriver has stayed true to Kennedy values -- a loyal Democrat active in charities for children and the disabled.

She did campaign for her uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, when he ran for president in 1980. As a teenager, she traveled around the country with her father, Sargent Shriver, during his run for vice president on George McGovern's 1972 ticket.

By all accounts, however, she didn't relish Schwarzenegger's leap into politics, not with four children to rear in a spotlight already blinding because of his movie-star fame and her iconic pedigree.

And it only got worse when his bid to succeed Gov. Gray Davis in the recall election was marred by allegations that Schwarzenegger had sexually groped numerous women.

But that was then, the Kennedys say, and now Sacramento beckons.

They don't envision Shriver as a hands-on first lady, prowling the halls of the Capitol in the manner of a Hillary Rodham Clinton. Shriver has said she intends to return to her part-time job as an NBC correspondent, ending a leave she took when Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy.

She's also made it clear that her children, ages 6 to 13, will continue to be her No. 1 priority, with the family mansion in Brentwood remaining their primary home.

Wilson said he and his wife, Gayle, will meet with Shriver soon to discuss her first lady duties, which are unpaid. "I've told her she can set her own course," he said.

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