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On Town Hall Tour, Gov. Has Lines Down Pat

Meetings around state to push Schwarzenegger's agenda to 'real people' aren't scripted, but the message is the same and the questions are tame.

October 23, 2005|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

MARINA, Calif. — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took off his green silk tie and entered an engineering company warehouse in this Monterey County town as a song called "Hard Working Man" blared from loudspeakers.

A steel door rolled down behind him, shutting out the chants of union protesters on the sidewalk. Schwarzenegger got to work, promoting his special election initiatives in one of the campaign appearances his staff calls town hall meetings.

But there would be no tough questions here -- on the property of an ardent supporter, with an audience of local Republicans, while bored reporters slumped behind a barrier.

"Thank you very much for your personal and professional sacrifices on behalf of all Californians," a woman named Barbara said to the governor, who smiled.

Schwarzenegger touts these "Conversations with Californians" as a way to connect with "real people," although the general public is not invited. The governor has done 13 such events as part of his campaign to change teacher tenure rules, curb unions' political might, restrain state spending and transfer the task of drawing political districts from lawmakers to retired judges.

But not once at such a forum has Schwarzenegger received even an impolite question. The events are designed that way -- as chat shows for the governor, to garner free TV time.

His critics dismiss the events as staged and devoid of substance. Even a prominent supporter, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said after joining the governor at a recent appearance in Oakland that he preferred more freewheeling events because "you get to hear a lot of different views, and ... it has credibility."

There was this question at a Schwarzenegger forum in Fresno: "My question is on Prop. 76: We're going to work our hearts out to get it passed, but if it doesn't pass, what are the dire, immediate consequences?"

And: "You've seen, of course, the abuse of the money they [unions] get for dues.... Is this something that's bothered you for a long time?"

On Monday, for the first time in the special election campaign, Schwarzenegger will face questions from a bipartisan audience at a forum in Walnut Creek. An independent group is picking the audience, and the governor and his opponents will make separate appearances on stage.

Schwarzenegger's recent campaign events have been scaled down, in part because the governor is spending most of his money on television ads. But many of his appearances have been so highly staged they rival presidential events. They can cost $40,000 and involve dozens of staff members.

One of the first town halls in the campaign was last spring at California Steel Industries Inc. in Fontana, a huge factory where portions of two Schwarzenegger movies, "Terminator 2" and "The Running Man," were filmed.

Five days before the event, an advance crew arrived to survey a cavernous factory floor on the 450-acre lot. It arranged for stadium risers, several hundred folding chairs, an elevated stage for the governor and another for the TV cameras, a 10-foot video screen and a high-end sound system installed by Hollywood's Hartmann Studios.

On the day of the event, behind the spot where the governor would speak, steel loaders the size of small cottages were positioned as a backdrop. Nonunion steel workers who were given the morning off, with pay, climbed aboard the loaders wearing hardhats. Others filled the risers behind the governor's position.

Recent Schwarzenegger meetings have shared several characteristics. One is that on the streets outside, a handful of protesters, upset at being left out, shout at cars coming into the parking lots.

In Marina, as Republican central committee members streamed out after the event, protester Karen Araujo complained: "This is so misleading, that this is a town hall event."

Araujo and other protesters at the events are not much different from the Republicans inside in at least one respect: They are fierce partisans from an organized campaign -- albeit from the other side.

A man in the Marina group, Robert Chacanaca, president of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, said he alerted other union members, jumped in his car and drove 35 miles to the warehouse as soon as he heard Schwarzenegger would be within shouting range.

Schwarzenegger plays to the audience at his meetings, making the crowd chuckle with his quirky, folksy language. He refers to the "villages" of California, as if he were still in his native Austria. He likes to quote Albert Einstein and calls him just "another guy with a German accent."

Blue-collar workers usually sit behind the governor, in camera range, although it's rare for one of them to address the governor. More workers and Republican supporters fill the sides of the stage and the audience in front of it. Almost all questions come from local Republicans and elected officials.

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