SACRAMENTO — When wealthy contributors write checks to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, they often get a few canapes and a drink -- and a secret telephone number that grants them access to his closest advisors and even the governor himself.
Twice a month, donors can become insiders' insiders -- invited to participate in conference calls featuring information about Schwarzenegger campaign strategy that his political enemies would love to have. In turn, donors who dial in can give the governor advice.
In the latest such call, a few days ago, Schwarzenegger's media expert, Don Sipple, outlined a strategy "based on a lot of polling" to create a "phenomenon of anger" among voters toward public employee unions. Firefighters, police officers, teachers and other state-paid workers have become the governor's harshest critics this year.
"The process is like peeling an onion," Sipple said, describing a multi-step plan for persuading voters that public-worker unions are "motivated by economic self-interest" instead of "doing the best job for the state."
The Thursday discussion, involving multiple contributors and three top Schwarzenegger strategists, offered a rare glimpse of the governor's "donor maintenance" effort: insider information, solicitous compliments, invitations to exclusive parties. It was also a window on the governor's attack strategy ahead of an expected Nov. 8 special election.
The governor has dubbed 2005 the "year for reform," and he needs millions of dollars for support, mainly for TV ads. The Times was given access to Thursday's half-hour call through a participant.
"It's a good way to keep in touch with you, our most important supporters, about the latest developments in the campaign," Schwarzenegger's chief fundraiser, Marty Wilson, told the contributors.
The governor participated in a call with donors two weeks ago and is expected to do so again June 16. Presumably, that will be after he signs an executive order scheduling the special election, so he can take to voters some of his proposals for changing state government.
Contributors to Schwarzenegger's causes are first invited to join the discussions in e-mails, which tell them how to get -- for each call -- a phone number and a password. The campaign staff decides which significant donors will be included each time. The discussions feature a "special guest," such as Sipple, talking about the governor's plans, as well as information about fundraisers and a question-and-answer session.
In the latest call, the advisors said Schwarzenegger had spent $8 million so far on television ads defending and promoting his agenda. He launched another TV ad campaign the same day that will cost $2.5 million for a few weeks of air time, and he wants to collect $31 million to $32 million to run his initiative campaign through the fall, the advisors said.
A special election ballot is expected to include a proposed government spending cap and a plan to lengthen the time it takes teachers to get tenure -- measures embraced by Schwarzenegger and opposed by public employee unions. The unions and their Democratic allies have spent millions on TV ads criticizing the governor and his proposals -- with some success, the advisors acknowledged.
"There is no question to anybody who is rational that we have been in the barrel for the past several months," Sipple said during the phone call. "The good news is we have polling that shows us coming out of the trench."
Surveys by independent groups have shown Schwarzenegger's public approval dropping as much as 20 percentage points since January, to about 40% in recent weeks. Sipple was referring to a poll commissioned by the governor's campaign showing about 50% approval.
Renee Croce is finance director for Schwarzenegger's California Recovery Team, the governor's main political committee. She told donors during the call to expect a dinner June 22 at the home of Cisco Systems Chief Executive John Chambers, a fundraiser June 24 in Los Angeles and a series of statewide fundraising events corresponding with Schwarzenegger's birthday July 30.
"The governor is very hopeful we can come together and have a big splash before July 30 to pay for all this media," Croce said.
Sipple's comments about unions came after a representative of Wells Fargo suggested that the governor sharpen his message to focus on public employees rather than privateindustry labor groups. The banking giant donated $100,000 last year to Schwarzenegger's efforts to overhaul workers' compensation through an initiative that never made the ballot.
Sipple said one piece of information makes voters particularly angry about unions: the "stinky episode" in 2002 when former Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature granted state prison guards a 34% raise.
"People remember that," he said, suggesting that the campaign would try to rekindle the voter disgust that swept Davis out of office and Schwarzenegger in. "You almost have to use these episodes that tap the recall to make your case."