Retreating from another proposal for swift change in California government, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday dropped his demand that the state's legislative and congressional districts be redrawn by next year.
Lawmakers and political analysts interpreted the move as a sign that the governor would back away from a planned special election this fall on a wide-ranging government overhaul. Schwarzenegger denied this.
For months, he has insisted that California needs to immediately change its method of electing politicians, calling for independent judges -- rather than legislators -- to draw district boundaries. In February, he and his aides said there would be no compromise on the issue.
But at a choreographed "town hall" meeting Wednesday in a Fontana steel mill, where the governor talked with a friendly audience of about 300 steelworkers, business leaders and politicians, he was much less urgent. He said he hoped that negotiations with Democratic lawmakers would "work all this out, all the dates, should it be 2006, should it be 2008, should it be 2010."
"The key thing is not what is the year that we change the system," Schwarzenegger said, "but that it will be changed."
Schwarzenegger's plan to change redistricting is contained in a ballot initiative being circulated on California streets and in a bill before the Legislature. Backers of the measure said that next week they expected to turn in the required 600,000 signatures needed to place the issue before voters.
At a February news conference in Washington, the governor was asked if he might be willing to compromise with members of Congress, who opposed mid-decade redistricting. He cast his plan as "nonnegotiable."
"This package is the way it is," he said at the time. "The way we introduced it, that's the way it's going to be."
Schwarzenegger's entire agenda has been driven by his insistence that the changes he favors are essential and must occur immediately -- like a broken leg that can't wait for a scheduled appointment, he has said repeatedly.
The governor has now backed off or compromised on each of the major proposals he introduced nearly four months ago in a confrontational State of the State address before the Democratic-controlled Legislature. He dubbed 2005 the "Year for Reform" and has traveled the state to hawk his plans in staged events like the Fontana meeting.
Of all his proposals, the restricting plan was the least controversial among voters but the most upsetting to Sacramento and Washington politicians. By postponing it, Schwarzenegger is relinquishing hopes of working with a reconstituted Legislature in a possible second term.
Legislative leaders and congressional Republicans have said they would accept independent judges drawing their districts, as long as it occurred after the 2010 census.
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) welcomed the governor's move Wednesday. It has removed a "major sticking point," he said. The governor's new position "lends itself to real negotiations" on such issues as the makeup of the independent panel that would draw the districts.
"I appreciate that the governor sees the wisdom in working with the Legislature on a redistricting timeframe that works for California," Nunez added. "The fact that they had drawn the line in the sand on that was ludicrous. It made it seem like it was nothing more than a power play."
Schwarzenegger had said that if lawmakers balked at his proposals this year, he would call a special election and take the ideas directly to voters in the form of ballot initiatives. He reiterated that Wednesday and ridiculed the Legislature once again for what he characterized as scant interest in his proposals.
But Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) said Schwarzenegger's willingness to compromise "certainly removes the need for a special election. A 2006 redistricting was the administration's only argument to spend money we don't have on an issue of low voter interest."
Barbara O'Connor, a professor of politics and media at Cal State Sacramento, said Schwarzenegger was "realizing that his overly ambitious agenda, without enough specifics to really do it justice, was a mistake. He is trying to cut deals with the leadership that will produce a process that people can embrace and do during the normal course of events."
Every decade, after the federal census, the California Legislature redraws districts based on new population numbers. Only 13 states prohibit lawmakers from drawing their own districts; most of those use bipartisan panels.
Schwarzenegger has said the California system is rigged by "a political elite building a fortress to keep themselves in and to keep the people out." He has noted that in November, not one of 153 congressional and legislative seats on the state ballot switched between the Republican and Democratic parties.