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Fierce Partisan Thwarted Schwarzenegger

Political consultant Gale Kaufman led disparate forces to beat back ballot measures.

November 11, 2005|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Brandishing her trademark bluntness, Gale Kaufman did not indulge in false modesty on the morning after her public employee union clients demolished Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his special election.

"When I lose, you all write about it," she told reporters Wednesday at the Sacramento office of the California Teachers Assn. "It would be nice for us to get the victory today. We won. They lost. Could you just write that once?"

She went on to deride the skills of Schwarzenegger's chief political consultant, saying sarcastically, "We want more campaigns with Mike Murphy." And in case anyone didn't get the point, her aides distributed a sheet filled with quotes from Murphy's predictions of victory, including this one: "We're going to beat them like a drum."

Well-known in Sacramento for her aggressive campaigns, fervent liberalism, razor-sharp elbows and A-list clients, Kaufman this week emerged as the most visible mastermind of the yearlong union crusade that scuttled the governor's ambitious agenda this year.

Kaufman, 51, may now be, at least for the moment, the most powerful political guru in Sacramento, where she plays in a hyper-competitive field still dominated by men.

As chief consultant to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and the teachers union, Kaufman is expected to continue plotting to extract concessions from Schwarzenegger.

"Gale is a tough, ferocious competitor who always goes the extra mile for her cause," said Kevin Spillane, a Republican consultant. "She's a fighter and is someone who actually believes in what she's doing. She's not a hired gun who will work for whichever side is paying a lot of money."

Another GOP consultant, Allan Hoffenblum, summed up her style as "attack, attack, attack."

The union coalition Alliance for a Better California employed a number of respected strategists. Los Angeles consultant Larry Grisolano won the uphill fight against Proposition 75, which was the most direct threat to labor's political sway and was considered the most challenging of the contests.

But Kaufman played a central role in mapping the strategy that brought down Schwarzenegger, before the governor publicly threatened a special election.

Some tactics worked, especially the barrage of television ads -- started by the teachers union and continued by the alliance -- that are widely believed to have eaten away at Schwarzenegger's popularity to a degree few thought possible.

And the unions distracted some of Schwarzenegger's wealthy past allies, drug manufacturers, by sponsoring Proposition 79, which would have required them to discount drugs for low-income people. They also put on the ballot Proposition 80, which would have partly re-regulated some energy firms and was fought by big businesses.

The unions didn't fund either campaign, and both measures were defeated. Consumer activists who wanted the changes were not happy. But "I think we did a pretty decent job of blocking a lot of his money," Kaufman said, referring to the governor.

However, Kaufman failed to put enough pressure on Schwarzenegger to dissuade him from calling the election, which was the unions' top priority.

Some political pros give her great credit for the final shape of a complex campaign that required coordinated attacks on the merits of four initiatives while maintaining an overall message for voters. In addition, she had to sustain a coalition of teacher, state employee and prison guard unions that do not usually work together.

"For a campaign that had many disparate parts and coalitions, she did a good job of trying to herd all the cats," said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles Democratic consultant.

Others say Schwarzenegger was his own most effective foil.

"The one person killing the governor was the governor himself," said Democratic strategist Jason Kinney, who worked with the drug industry. "She was just one of many people who helped tie the noose for him."

Schwarzenegger strategist Murphy downplayed Kaufman's victory.

"The easiest thing to do is to win a 'no' campaign," he said. "All you need is money and a lot of lies. They had plenty of both."

Asked if Kaufman deserved credit, Murphy said: "I give credit for the victory to $150 million. Somebody better could have done it for $100 million."

The final tally will not be publicly reported until the end of January. But Kaufman said the cost did not exceed $110 million.

"That's the best he can come up with?" Kaufman asked. "I'll take it."

Kaufman is not a popular figure in the shark-filled consulting world. Privately, many Democrats complained that she keeps grudges for an eternity -- "It's true," she says -- and profited excessively from the campaign.

By some accounts, several smaller unions balked at contributing to the alliance after Kaufman presented an initial campaign budget that included more than $8 million in fees and payment for her firm. She declined to discuss the workings of the coalition or disclose her pay.

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