SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his top advisors, meeting privately to plan an agenda for his second year in office, may call a special election that could upend the state's political order, redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries, curbing spending and revamping the bureaucracy.
Schwarzenegger would embrace various ballot measures that would be voted on in a special election and bill them as a "reform" package meant to make Sacramento more accountable.
The governor has not yet agreed to call an election, and there are tactical reasons why he may be reluctant.
Schwarzenegger may first try to see which pieces of his plan he can push through the Democratic-controlled Legislature, according to members of his political team. And he could use the prospect of an election as leverage to persuade lawmakers to yield -- a tactic he has employed successfully in the past.
Still, in a recent interview during a trade mission to Tokyo, Schwarzenegger hinted strongly that he favored going directly to the voters, the expectation being that lawmakers would be hostile to some of the changes he wants to impose. He said he would spend much of December deciding how to proceed.
Pressure is coming from the governor's Republican allies in the Legislature, who want him to push forward with a special election in the latter half of 2005.
Under state law, the governor has the power to call an election, but must do so at least five months before the election date. So to hold an election in October, the governor would have to call for it in May.
"The people really want reform," Schwarzenegger said. "We're going to plan it carefully so we're going to continue making progress and having the people on our side and not overwhelming them with too much garbage."
Asked if he thought Schwarzenegger would stage such an election, Senate GOP leader Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine), who is scheduled to meet with the governor next week, said: "If I were a betting man, I'd say yes."
Democratic leaders are wary of Schwarzenegger's intentions. They contend that his aim to change how legislative district boundaries are set is a backhanded effort to stack the Legislature with more Republicans.
The minority party picked up no seats in Sacramento in the Nov. 2 election despite extensive campaigning by Schwarzenegger.
New district boundaries can transform the state's political makeup. Depending on how the lines are drawn and who holds the pencil, more Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives may find it easier to run and win.
Some Republicans may oppose any move to upset a status quo in which they are virtually assured of winning reelection. But Schwarzenegger and other Republican leaders say a new map would create more competitive seats, which could cause Democratic legislative and congressional majorities in California to dwindle.
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) said Schwarzenegger's repeated use of the ballot -- where his popularity with voters is a potent weapon -- amounts to a disdain for representative government, where policymaking power rests with elected officials.
Working through the Legislature "is the most reasonable way to solve problems, unless we believe the form of government we have in this state absolutely stinks and we no longer are a modern democracy," Nunez said. He called on the governor to pursue a legislative "vetting" of his plan, as opposed to "just saying I'm going to the voters and spending $40 million [on a special election] so they can vote on my proposals."
As Schwarzenegger's aides and his outside political team weigh strategy, various interest groups are preparing initiatives that could wind up as key parts of the governor's agenda.
Ted Costa, a Sacramento anti-tax activist who drew up the original petition to recall Gov. Gray Davis, has been cleared to gather signatures for a measure that would profoundly alter the way California elects its congressional and legislative delegations.
For years, critics have complained that lawmakers from both parties have carved districts with one aim in mind: protecting incumbents. In last month's election, not a single legislative incumbent was ousted, while the typical margin of victory exceeded 30%.
Costa's constitutional amendment would strip lawmakers of the power to draw districts and give it instead to a panel of retired judges chosen by a bipartisan group of legislative leaders.
In the interview, Schwarzenegger said he favored such an approach.
Republican leaders say they are eager to see the change carried out as quickly as possible, so that districts are redrawn before the decennial census in 2010. That could potentially give Schwarzenegger a more cooperative Legislature to work with, assuming he is reelected in 2006.