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NEWS ANALYSIS

Governor's Winning Way Is Bipartisanship

Victorious after voters OKd his budget package, Schwarzenegger must stay inclusive if he wants to make further strides, political observers say.

March 04, 2004|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

Officially, California Democrats celebrated election night in downtown Los Angeles, the Republicans in Newport Beach. But the evening's main attraction was in Santa Monica: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory party.

There, luminaries from all sides crowded around Schwarzenegger on a hotel ballroom stage, illustrating his capture of the political center in a state sharply polarized by the unrelenting fiscal crisis.

Schwarzenegger's Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis, tried mightily to find common ground between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in the Capitol. Both sides spurned or ignored him.

Now, with voters' approval Tuesday of Schwarzenegger's twin budget-relief measures, Propositions 57 and 58, the public has roundly endorsed the new governor's effort to build a bipartisan coalition to straighten out the fiscal mess.

For Schwarzenegger, the question now is how long he can sustain his broad voter support and the improbable harmony among lawmakers in Sacramento.

To the extent the vote on Propositions 57 and 58 was a referendum on Schwarzenegger, a Times exit poll underscored his strength. Both ballot measures passed with solid majorities among Democrats, Republicans, independents, liberals, moderates, conservatives, whites, blacks, Latinos and nearly all other demographic groups.

But the election was not simply an embrace of Schwarzenegger, but also of the bipartisanship that he emphasized in his campaign. In his television ads, he featured two statewide Democrats, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and state Controller Steve Westly.

The prominence of Democrats in the campaign highlights the potential limits of Schwarzenegger's ability to rely on popular votes to press his agenda. He has threatened to put more ballot measures before voters if Democratic lawmakers obstruct his plans.

"He's got to have bipartisan support for whatever he does now, and I think he realizes that," state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres said. Without it, "it's very hard for him to translate his fan base" into votes for his policy agenda.

Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist who worked with the Republican governor to pass Propositions 57 and 58, said many Democrats still believe "that the recall was essentially a Republican coup, and they're very angry over it."

"The notion that he is invincible is certainly not the lesson" that Democratic legislators will draw from the victory of Propositions 57 and 58, Sragow said.

Proposition 57, which authorized $15 billion in bonds to help balance the budget, passed by 63% to 37%, and Proposition 58, which mandates balanced budgets and rainy-day reserves, was approved by 71% to 29%, according to preliminary returns.

To Republican strategist Wayne Johnson, the message from voters -- even partisan Democrats -- was clear: "Let the guy have the steering wheel."

"They're willing to set partisanship aside," he said. "Not for long, but for a season."

State Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim said it was "in every fiber of his being" for Schwarzenegger to bring Democrats and Republicans together. "Solve problems. Be successful. Action, action, action."

On Tuesday night, Sundheim bypassed the Newport Beach victory party of the new GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate, Bill Jones. Instead, he spent the evening at Schwarzenegger's party in Santa Monica.

The Republican chairman recalled an unlikely election night scene: "having a great time" with Democrats backstage, including Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, former state Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson of Culver City and the governor's wife, Maria Shriver.

"I think it's fantastic," Sundheim said.

It is far from clear whether heady election night sentiments will last as lawmakers tackle the budget.

"The voters have just rewarded them for working together," said Sragow, a consultant to Democratic lawmakers. "So what does that say? They're all going to want to work together."

Yet the Legislature remains deeply torn by philosophical differences over how to cope with the budget morass. With California still billions of dollars short of what it needs to maintain public programs, lawmakers, for the third year running, are split over whether to raise taxes or cut spending. Aside from their mutual enthusiasm for borrowing, Democrats and Republicans have shown little sign of willingness to compromise on the core conflicts.

Aggravating the tension are district maps drawn to protect each party's seats in the Legislature. With each election, the Capitol is more heavily populated with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans essentially elected in primaries that test their ideological purity.

Schwarzenegger, keeping ranks with fellow Republicans who have rejected Democrats' demand for higher taxes, has opted for cuts and borrowing. Although the new Proposition 57 bonds should ease political pressure on all sides, the state still projects huge budget gaps to persist for years.

"Expecting the gerrymandered Legislature to come to any kind of consensus to solve any kind of problem is functionally and structurally, if not impossible, then extremely unlikely," said GOP strategist Johnson.

But the shift of power in the Capitol from Legislature to governor could temper that dysfunction, he said. At the Santa Monica party, Schwarzenegger told supporters it was untrue "the Democrats and the Republicans will never work together."

"Together," he said, "we have the ultimate power to accomplish anything we want to accomplish in this state."

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