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Brokering Consensus at the Capitol

Gov. Schwarzenegger's Cabinet secretary is known for her ability to work wonders behind the scenes.

April 05, 2004|Joe Mathews and Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writers

Officially, the chief of staff to Nevada's governor was invited to Brentwood to brief California's governor-elect on border issues from gambling to energy to Lake Tahoe.

But for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the purpose of those three hours of meetings at his home on a Saturday in October was to size up the Nevadan. He was impressed. Within days, the governor-elect had begun a successful effort to recruit her to his senior staff.

Months later, Marybel Batjer, now the governor's Cabinet secretary, has emerged as a crucial behind-the-scenes broker between the ideologically opposite poles of the Schwarzenegger administration. As much as anyone, Batjer embodies the politically ambidextrous nature of Schwarzenegger's administration, an ability to get beyond ideological arguments that has proved highly popular with the state's voters, although frustrating for some more conservative Republicans.

In recent weeks, Batjer has helped bring together the administration's top environmental, health and agricultural officials -- which represent the left, center and right of Schwarzenegger's team -- to issue safety guidelines for ammonium perchlorate. (The guidelines would make California the first state in the nation to regulate perchlorate).

Hers has been a key voice as the administration gears up to fight military base closures, and she traveled with the governor to Washington in February to seek more federal money for California. She played a major role in fighting off a move in Congress to prevent California from imposing tougher anti-pollution rules on small engines used in machines such as lawn mowers.

While the governor spends much of his time campaigning around the state for ballot measures and such priorities as workers' compensation, Batjer remains in her Sacramento office working hours so long that colleagues worry about her health. As Cabinet secretary, she oversees policy on all issues except gambling. (She has disqualified herself from that issue because of her previous work for Las Vegas impresario Steve Wynn.)

'Pulls No Punches'

A Republican, Batjer has nonetheless fashioned a career working with well-known men with maverick instincts and bipartisan politics, from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to Nevada's businessman-turned-governor Kenny Guinn to the current officeholder in California.

"She can deliver bad news," Powell said in an interview. "No matter who you are, she is candid and pulls no punches. If you don't like the answer you're liable to get, don't ask her the question. She put me in my place many times."

Batjer's ability to deal with larger-than-life personalities is based largely on self-effacement, say those who know her. She agreed to an interview for this story only after other aides prevailed upon her for weeks, arguing that she deserved the notice.

She described her management strategy as "emulating the management style of my boss." Of her superiors, she said: "You know what the common thread is: kindness."

"I've been lucky," Batjer said. "Even though I've been in politics and government all of my life, I've never worked for a strong partisan person."

"I think you always must work to make government more effective," she added. "I believe very much in the middle, in driving attitudes to the middle. I don't think ideology on either end of the spectrum usually is a force that in government works effectively."

Batjer, who is better known inside than outside the administration, so far has escaped criticism from conservative politicians. "I don't really know her, and I don't think staff controls him as much as people sometimes think," former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian said, referring to the governor. "His staff appears to be serving his wishes. If he does something in the liberal column, that's him."

Friends say Batjer inherited her evenhanded temperament from her father, a Nevada Supreme Court justice named Cameron Batjer. Raised in Carson City, Batjer is descended from some of northern Nevada's earliest ranching families on her father's side -- and from an engineer who built many of the state's reservoirs on her mother's. Even as a very young girl, Batjer was keenly aware of politics, quizzing her kindergarten teacher about whether she had voted for Nixon.

"She doesn't lack for confidence," and she's really smart, said former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a Nevadan who has known Batjer since she was a child. "She grew up around people who were in politics and government, so she never took herself or politics so seriously. There's always a little twinkle in her eye."

Batjer attended two colleges, graduating from Mills in Oakland, before taking a job writing regulatory manuals for Bechtel, the engineering giant with close ties to the Republican elite. At 23, she ran for office for the first -- and only -- time in her life, seeking a seat on the board of directors of the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District.

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