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Fresno's GOP Mayor Balks at Schwarzenegger's Agenda

March 25, 2004|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — Passing out monogrammed cigars, introducing career politicians to his celebrity friends, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has turned a raft of elected officials from both parties into star-struck accomplices in moving his agenda.

But scattered holdouts remain, and the most unabashedly outspoken may well be the last person anyone would expect -- a burly Republican who campaigned for Schwarzenegger during the recall, who a decade ago was a regular in a prime-time TV series and who counts a few Hollywood stuntmen as mutual friends: this city's mayor, Alan Autry.

Where most of the state's political class lined up behind the governor's $15-billion borrowing plan approved by voters March 2, Autry balked, describing Proposition 57 as a rushed and indefensible ploy to "borrow your way out of bad times." He also bristles over the governor's plan to pluck from local government $1.3 billion in revenue in hopes of averting projected state deficits.

Adding it up, Autry's aides estimated that the governor's budget would potentially lop $4.5 million from Fresno's finances -- a sum that covers 48 police officers and firefighters, among others.

"At the end of the day we could end up with $15 billion worth of debt, higher taxes, decimated local treasuries and ... downgraded" bond rating, he said of California's prospects.

In a political atmosphere where some Democratic leaders in the capital are openly swooning over the new governor -- swapping stories of having met Danny DeVito in Schwarzenegger's home -- Autry said that his colleagues were surrendering to Schwarzenegger's personality, and refusing to analyze his program with the critical rigor the job demands.

"There's an element of fear here that is silencing voices," he said in an interview at his City Hall office. Trains hooted nearby as he flipped through oversized charts attesting to the strains on Fresno's finances. "If we don't have the guts to hold him accountable for what he says and does, we're not doing our state much good or Arnold Schwarzenegger much good -- as a governor or a person."

Autry's candor has already exacted a cost. He said that four phone calls he's placed to the governor have gone unreturned. Twice when Schwarzenegger came to the Fresno area last month to campaign for Proposition 57 and a companion measure that would require balanced budgets, Autry did not get an invitation -- a portentous snub in the political world. The reason should be obvious, sniff the governor's political aides.

"I've never heard of John Kerry being bent out of shape over not being invited to a Bush event," said Todd Harris, a spokesman for the Schwarzenegger campaign that resulted in passage of both ballot measures.

Autry, wearing a navy pinstripe suit with an open shirt collar and black boots, doesn't believe he missed much. He summarized the governor's campaign style:

"Come into town but make sure it's a tightly scripted, fixed situation," he said. "You only have invited guests that will stand up and give you the questions you want delivered."

Bluntness carries risks. Friends warn the mayor that he may be sabotaging his career.

"People say you're not going to get elected to anything," he said. "I said, ' ... I may not get another job in Hollywood because of this.' I know that's on the line."

If reprisals came, Autry said, he would not be worried. He is in a safe spot politically, having won reelection earlier in the month with 73% of the vote. The San Joaquin Valley has rarely prevailed by "playing the game ... which is 'Don't make waves, don't squawk, go along,' " he said. And in any case: "I took it seriously when I raised my right hand and took an oath to protect this city from all enemies, foreign and domestic."

He pauses for emphasis. "Foreign and domestic. I'm not saying our governor is an enemy of the cities.... But bad, ill-thought-out policy can be a more destructive enemy of local government than any individual."

None of this is sitting well with the governor's office, where Autry is steamrolling the competition for the status of most despised mayor.

"We have found Mayor Autry to run hot and to run cold," said Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's communications director. "He was effusive in thanking the governor" for restoring to local governments the money lost when the car tax increase was repealed. "He's been absolutely vicious in his criticism since.... I'll let the people of Fresno conclude if the mayor is being helpful to their future or not."

On that score, some have already made up their minds. City Council President Brad Castillo said he wanted to set up a meeting with Schwarzenegger to explain that he and others don't endorse Autry's message. The mayor's "bad-mouthing" may jeopardize state aid controlled by a governor who is "only human," said Castillo, a Democrat who was defeated in a reelection bid earlier this month and who has sparred with Autry.

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