With Halloween theatrics, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared at an Ontario junkyard Monday with a staffer dressed as "Count Cartaxula," who threatened to raise the state vehicle license fee from the dead if voters didn't approve Proposition 76 in next week's special election.
The governor rallied 50 to 70 supporters and costumed children to back his proposal to impose state spending limits. He spoke from a black stage draped with green and white cobwebs and pumpkins, including one carved with "YES" and another with "76."
Schwarzenegger said the four propositions he backs in the Nov. 8 election are gaining momentum. "The more people find out about it, the more they vote 'yes' on it," he said.
"Yes, the opposition is screaming; yes, the opposition is holding on to the status quo, and yes, they are scaring the people and telling them all kinds of horror stories about how we'd like to cut education and how we're trying to go after unions and after workers," the governor said. "But this is all a bunch of nonsense."
Schwarzenegger's first act after taking office in the fall of 2003 was to roll back former Gov. Gray Davis' $4-billion increase in the so-called car tax, an action widely popular with voters even in the face of a persistent state budget shortfall.
The governor has steadfastly refused to raise taxes since -- and the Democratic majority in the Legislature has balked at further spending cuts -- but he has begun to suggest that he might be forced to reverse course if Proposition 76 went down. Recent voter polls show the measure losing 2 to 1.
"The governor is now in sheer panic mode," said Steve Maviglio, spokesman for the Alliance for a Better California, which opposes Proposition 76 and the rest of Schwarzenegger's propositions.
"Perhaps if the governor stopped campaigning for five minutes and started governing," Maviglio said, "he would know that there have been no attempts to revive the [car] tax.... It's also important to remember that no tax increase can go into law without the support of two-thirds of the Legislature and the governor's signature."
Earlier Monday, a group including the Moveon.org political action committee said it would begin a television ad campaign today linking Schwarzenegger's policies with those of President Bush.
The Ontario event was light in substance but heavy on staging. Two skeletons and a pack of faux rats were parked in a Ford Escort next to the stage, whose other end was flanked by hundreds of beat-up cars in the Pick-A-Part junkyard. Speakers blasted "Ride of the Valkyries."
Walter von Huene, who has appeared with Schwarzenegger in the films "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" and "End of Days," emerged in a Dracula cape, face painted white, as Larry McCarthy, president of the California Taxpayers Assn., said that Proposition 76 is "the thing most feared by Cartaxulas in Sacramento."
A black curtain opened to reveal a giant mock gravestone that read "CAR TAX RIP 2003." As the governor entered, a 1957 black Ford Fairlane with a skeleton as its driver -- symbolizing the car tax, raised from the grave -- was hoisted above the stage.
"Kids, did the car scare you, huh? We're all scared of the car tax," Schwarzenegger said to laughter.
A handful of protesters clustered near Pick-A-Part's driveway, one wearing an Arnold mask with a Pinocchio nose and others carrying signs that read: "Arnold Scares Me."
"He's scary because of what he's doing to California," said Jennifer Lee, a 26-year-old student at UC Irvine. "You can't fake it to the public. We're not star-struck."
The governor spoke for 10 minutes, leading supporters in "Yes to 76" chants and saying that the wrecking-yard setting was appropriate.
Entrenched Sacramento politicians "wrecked the state of California," he said. "It was unbelievable. The people finally said we're mad as hell, we're not going to take it anymore, and you organized a recall election and you sent me to Sacramento."
But, Schwarzenegger said, "when you recalled the governor, you didn't recall the broken system."
He said the only way to do so was to cap spending.
"Let's stop that madness. Let us live within our means. For every dollar we take in, we should only spend a dollar, not $1.10," he said.
Afterward, Schwarzenegger hugged children dressed as a bumblebee, Darth Vader and a dinosaur, and passed out chocolates wrapped in gold paper and stamped with "Yes on 76." He said he planned to take his own children trick-or-treating later, and that his wife, Maria Shriver, had left the house that morning dressed as a pirate.
The bumblebee's mother, Sharon Neault, 36, of Rancho Cucamonga, said she supported the governor because "it's important that you don't spend what you don't have -- that's how we run our house."
Her 21-month-old daughter, Brenna, interrupted to ask: "Where Arnold?"
"What did he give you?" her mother asked.
"Candy," the girl said.
Tracy Elefante, 40, had brought her 8-year-old son, Vincent, who was dressed as the Terminator but intended to change into a Freddy Krueger costume. His mother said she backed Schwarzenegger.
"I believe in him," she said. "I believe he's doing the right thing for the people. I believe him, and there's a lot of politicians I don't believe."
Times staff writer Evan Halper contributed to his report from Sacramento.