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Governor Faces Revolt in GOP

As anger rises over the choice of a Democrat as chief of staff, party leaders demand a talk.

December 07, 2005|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — With segments of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's political base rising in revolt, directors of the California Republican Party have demanded a private meeting with the governor to complain about the hiring of a Democratic operative as his chief of staff.

The request comes as Schwarzenegger faces sustained opposition from moderate and conservative Republicans over the choice of Susan P. Kennedy. Before serving as a state public utility commissioner, Kennedy was Cabinet secretary for Gov. Gray Davis. She also was an abortion-rights activist and former Democratic Party executive.

In appointing Kennedy last week, Schwarzenegger praised her as an effective administrator who could "implement my vision" and work cooperatively with Democrats who control the Legislature.

But Republican operatives said grass-roots volunteers were so disturbed by the appointment that they were threatening to abandon Schwarzenegger during his reelection bid next year. Others said Schwarzenegger was risking a nasty fight that could cause the party to rescind its endorsement of him during February's convention in San Jose.

There is even a movement to draft Mel Gibson, the actor and director, to run against Schwarzenegger in the Republican primary next year -- in part because the success of Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," could help his chances among religious conservatives. Raised in Australia, Gibson was born in New York and is a U.S. citizen, although he has not expressed an interest in elected politics.

"We need to have a good backup," said Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, a grass-roots organization that is separate from the state party. Spence's group has set up the website, www.melgibsonforgovernor.com. "He seems to be more consistent with the Republican message" than the governor is, Spence said.

Gibson could not be reached. His spokesman, who was traveling Tuesday, did not return an e-mail and a call for comment.

The face-to-face meeting between the governor and Republican Party officials is expected to occur next week. That would follow another closed-door meeting that Schwarzenegger has scheduled with GOP lawmakers to allay their concerns.

Former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, still an admired figure in his party, told The Times that Kennedy "will make a good chief of staff."

But lawmakers from moderate to conservative have questioned Kennedy's appointment. It was criticized by Assembly Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and Senate Republican leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine -- both important allies of the governor. McCarthy called it a "tragic step backward."

High-ranking Republicans are particularly worried about Kennedy getting inside information about their statewide election efforts next year.

A top aide to Schwarzenegger -- longtime Republican Mindy Fletcher -- represents the governor on the state party's board of directors.

As deputy chief of staff, Fletcher would report to Kennedy. Fletcher attends private meetings where Republican political strategy is discussed. At the closed-door meeting with Schwarzenegger, party directors are expected to ask the governor: What would Kennedy do with political information she receives?

"What does it mean to have a chief of staff from the other party during a year of reelection?" asked state Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim. "This is one of the reasons we wanted to sit down, to express these concerns."

Kennedy could not be reached for comment.

Margita Thompson, the administration's spokeswoman, said Kennedy and all of the governor's employees "will do what is in the governor's best interest and what is in the state's best interest." She said the governor "looks forward to listening" to GOP officials at the meeting.

For many conservative Republicans, Kennedy's appointment has become the final proof that Schwarzenegger does not represent their interests. The outcry has been loud enough that the Republican Party sent out a special e-mail Monday assuring them that the party was dealing with "the political, philosophical and practical concerns" of the appointment.

The 18-member board of directors of the California Republican Party demanded the private meeting because it "strongly disagrees" with Kennedy's appointment, according to the e-mail. It would be the first-ever meeting of the GOP board and Schwarzenegger over a policy dispute.

"The trouble with celebrities or major politicians is they, by necessity, live in an insular world and their information is limited or distorted," said Shawn Steel, the former state GOP chairman and current member of the party's board of directors. "It's clear Schwarzenegger has been given bad advice."

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