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Some in the North Suspect S. Calif. Bias in Governor

August 29, 2004|William Wan and Robert Hollis | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — The Bay Area thumbed its liberal northern nose at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year, handing him only a third of its votes and opposing the recall of his predecessor by 2 to 1.

Now, some believe, it's payback time.

Within the space of a week, Schwarzenegger dealt the region a one-two punch. He told startled policymakers here that if they want to move ahead with building their fancy new San Francisco Bay Bridge, they would have to pay for it themselves. And he negotiated a deal with a little-known Indian tribe to turn the faded bay town of San Pablo into California's largest gambling center.

The past few days have brought attempts at compromise on both fronts: The massive casino is on hold, and Schwarzenegger offered to kick in some state money for the bridge project, which ballooned from an estimated $1.3 billion to more than $5 billion because of its high-end design and delays state officials attribute to local politicking.

Causes and complexities notwithstanding, the controversies have stirred up age-old north-south bitterness here.

"It's highway robbery," Adwoa Oni, 52, of Fremont said of the governor's initial bridge proposal. "Tell him to take a hike."

One regional transit official likened that initial bridge proposal to a Southern California bully kicking sand in the face of the north. Others offer more politically pragmatic analyses:

"This decision by the governor was the first real indication that we're extremely low on his regional priority list," said Stuart Cohen, director of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, an Oakland lobby group.

"There's no political payoff for him to be for the Bay Area," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento. "I don't know if I'd say it happens on a conscious level -- I don't know if he's that Machiavellian -- but he might not intuitively defend that area."

Schwarzenegger spokesman Vince Sollitto dismissed allegations of a northern vendetta.

"It's a convenient theory that ignores the facts," he said. "First of all, these are two completely separate issues. The only linkage is that the Bay Area brought them both on themselves."

Schwarzenegger, he added, "is the governor of all Californians: Democrats, Republicans, independents, it makes no difference to him.... He always does what's best for the state as a whole, while also protecting each individual region."

Whatever the truth, some northern residents are crying foul.

"Everybody helped pay for the earthquake damage in Southern California. We helped them just like we need help now," Max Duarte, 61, a retired Oakland resident, said of the bridge controversy. "All this plan does is drive a wedge between us and them. We don't need that."

News of both proposals broke on Aug. 16. Within days, the governor signed the casino compact with the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians. Complaints about potential traffic congestion and crime around the San Pablo casino compelled participants to cut in half the proposed 5,000 slot machines -- which would have made the facility one of the world's largest gambling halls. Then late Thursday, the whole deal was temporarily shelved.

Sollitto says the governor was required to negotiate with the Northern California tribe by a federal law "slipped into a federal bill with no public hearings" by Bay Area Democratic Rep. George Miller.

Meanwhile, the bridge issue has been cooking on high. The state and Bay Area counties have divvied up costs of bridge retrofitting ever since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which caused the partial collapse of the Bay Bridge's eastbound span.

With the blessing of voters here, Bay Bridge tolls recently increased by $1 to fund transportation-related projects in the region.

Under the governor's proposal, another ballot measure would have asked voters to reassign that revenue to pay for the Bay Bridge overruns alone, thus diverting funds away from other projects. A southerner -- state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) -- carried that emergency legislation, which stalled.

Sollitto notes that the state had agreed to share costs on a "straightforward" bridge, but Bay Area officials chose "a more aesthetically pleasing design." The overruns are due to the design and delays caused by Bay Area's local elected officials, he said. Bay Area officials counter that the California Department of Transportation is partly responsible for the faulty estimates and a portion of the overruns.

State infrastructure projects, they add, should be supported by the state.

Still, northerners are "doing everything we can to avoid the appearance of a north-south fight," said Assemblyman John Dutra (D-Fremont). "It would be completely counterproductive."

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