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Maria Shriver Recasts 'First Lady' as a Powerful Role in California

What her friends see as beneficial projects, her critics see as self-promotion

December 25, 2005|Peter Nicholas and Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — The line snaked from the lobby of the state history museum to the sidewalk, as scores of people holding pink-and-white hardback books waited to get them signed by the author, California First Lady Maria Shriver.

No one walking past the state-owned building in downtown Sacramento that afternoon in May could have missed the Shriver brand: Copies of the book -- a 62-page advice manual for teenage girls -- were displayed prominently in the museum's windows.

On gift shop shelves sat T-shirts with inspirational sayings attributed to Shriver: "Fear can be your best teacher;" and "Women are the architects of change." Near the cash register were items from a jewelry line she helped create called Maria Shriver's California.

The crowded event made one thing clear: Even as her husband is struggling to recoup his popularity, Shriver has solidified her status as the most prominent -- and powerful -- first lady California has seen.

In two years she has emerged as an important force in Arnold Schwarzenegger's government, while also taking hold of state cultural institutions like the history museum, called the California Museum, and other programs that interest her.

"All things considered, she would have to be the most conspicuous and influential of the first ladies in the history of the state," said Kevin Starr, state librarian emeritus and Shriver fan.

Shriver has been selective about where she puts her efforts. She kept her distance, for example, from her husband's doomed special election in the fall. But she has thrown herself into other causes, including promoting volunteerism, encouraging anti-obesity education and advocating on behalf of women.

A whirl of ideas and plans, Shriver brings with her enormous resources: money, celebrity, a famous political pedigree, glamorous friends and a web of public relations firms and tax-exempt groups dedicated to promoting both her causes and Shriver herself.

To her admirers, she has defined a new and important role for the wife of a governor.

Bonnie Reiss, a Schwarzenegger aide who became a close friend of Shriver while working for the 1980 presidential campaign of her uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), suggested that Shriver has reshaped the first lady role.

"Maria, like most great women that have been first ladies in the state and the country, certainly has brought her unique Maria-ness to the role," she said.

Shriver's celebrity, Reiss added, "gives her greater access to fabulous people," who are willing to pitch in on her projects. "The state benefits from Maria's celebrity through the access she has to great people."

But at times, her critics say, her good works have become so entangled with self-promotion that it is difficult to distinguish where serving California stops and furthering Maria's interests begins. They also question the extent to which, in advancing her agenda, she's relied on corporate interests and privately funded charities -- groups that are shielded from public accountability and, in some cases, dependent on actions taken by the Schwarzenegger administration.

"It's unambiguously self-promoting," author and academic Michael Blitz said of Shriver's work. "I don't think anyone doubts that."

Blitz, coauthor of "Why Arnold Matters: The Rise of a Cultural Icon," sees in Shriver's activities a desire for a national profile. "If you look at the constellation of activities" Shriver is involved in, "they really are the stuff of creating a very strong platform on which to stake a claim you deserve to be in a leadership capacity on a national scale," he said.

Essential Staff

If Shriver has charted a new course for a first lady, it has come at a cost. She has a taxpayer-funded staff with a current annual payroll of about $576,000, although one of her aides will be leaving in January. Shriver's staff payroll is 57% higher than that of her predecessor, Sharon Davis.

Shriver declined to comment for this article, but a spokeswoman said that extra staff is essential.

"Maria is an internationally recognized celebrity," said Terri Carbaugh, Shriver's press secretary. She added: "Comparing Sharon Davis to Maria Shriver is like comparing Jewel to Madonna. Both are successful in their own right. Each has her own following. But in terms of recognition and celebrity status, they don't compare."

Shriver's taxpayer-funded staff is only a part of the picture. The first lady has also put together a network of private tax-exempt groups, corporate allies and public relations firms to support her causes.

Last year, Shriver started a tax-exempt group, the California State Alliance, to advance various projects. Another tax-exempt group, the California Governor's Conference for Women and Families, was set up last year with a board dominated by Shriver friends and government aides.

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