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First Lady Appears to Be Sitting Out This Election

Kennedy legacy clashes with her loyalty to her spouse, keeping Shriver silent on ballot issues.

October 31, 2005|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

On a recent morning, Maria Shriver had a roomful of admiring listeners hanging on her every word. Unfortunately for her husband, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, none of them was old enough to vote.

Shriver was addressing a fourth-grade class at Charles W. Barrett Elementary School in South Los Angeles as part of a campaign to improve disaster preparedness among children. On another campaign important to the Shriver-Schwarzenegger household -- the battle over state ballot initiatives backed by the governor -- California's first lady has remained virtually silent.

Aides to the couple say that isn't expected to change before the Nov. 8 special election. They and others don't blame Shriver for her silence, even if it has deprived Schwarzenegger of one of his most articulate and charismatic advocates.

After all, Shriver would be breaking family ranks no matter where she came down on the measures, Democratic and Republican activists say. As a Democrat and a Kennedy, they say, she would have to all but shape-shift to endorse proposals despised by the party that counts three of her uncles as icons.

And if she were to publicly criticize the initiatives, things presumably would get chilly on the home front.

"It's a lose-lose for her," said Republican consultant Kevin Spillane. "She has my sympathy."

Democratic leaders are also sympathetic and wish Shriver had more success promoting the party's interests in the Schwarzenegger administration. They see the initiatives as the latest example of the governor's tilt to the right, a shift that they had hoped Shriver would prevent.

The measures would make it tougher for teachers to earn tenure, restrict the spending of public-employee union dues for politics, cap state spending and strip the Legislature of the power to map its districts.

All are fiercely opposed by the state Democratic Party and labor groups, and none is winning in voter surveys.

In 2003, shortly before Schwarzenegger took office, several of Shriver's relatives and friends had said she would be the administration's Democratic conscience, especially on issues involving education, the environment, the disabled and the disadvantaged.

"I wish Ms. Shriver would play a more prominent role," Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction, said last week.

O'Connell, who joined Shriver at the Barrett School event, said that Schwarzenegger's record on school funding has been "extremely disappointing" and that the spending initiative, Proposition 76, would be disastrous for education.

Shriver's influence may have been seen more readily in Schwarzenegger's appointment of Democrats and independents to key posts. Her new staff chief is liberal Democrat Daniel Zingale, who worked for former Gov. Gray Davis.

"It is difficult to balance the value of loyalty to your spouse and a deeply felt set of principles to Democratic values," Zingale said of Shriver.

For the most part, other Democrats say, the party's values are coming up short.

"To the extent that she attempted to keep the Democrat flame burning in the Schwarzenegger administration ... he snuffed out that flame," said Democratic consultant Darry Sragow.

But Shriver's brother, Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver, said it is unrealistic to think she can bend Schwarzenegger to her point of view, regardless of what some believe is a responsibility to the Kennedy legacy.

"It's quite insulting for people to assume that because your uncle, who's been dead 40 years, did something, you should do something," he said. "It's not her legacy, it's her uncle's legacy. She's her own person."

Even so, he said his sister and other family members continue to have "combative and aggressive" arguments with Schwarzenegger over policy.

"Do we suggest other ways of looking at things? Absolutely," he said.

Shriver spokeswoman Terri Carbaugh said the first lady is reluctant to discuss her position on political issues because she is a broadcast journalist. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" aired a Shriver report this month on poverty in Kentucky.

"Maria's in a position where she's being pushed or pulled from one side or the other," Carbaugh said. "People are asking her to engage more, and people are asking her to engage less.... It goes with the territory of living in a bipartisan marriage."

Schwarzenegger is banking on passage of the four special election measures to lift his long-sagging poll numbers as a run-up to his 2006 reelection drive.

Two years ago, he ousted Davis in a recall election with the help of independent voters and moderate Democrats. Shriver received some of the credit for her deft performance on the campaign trail.

In this election, she has been mostly absent from the trail, devoting herself instead to other causes, including highlighting the role of women in California history and raising awareness of obesity in children.

Among those who would like to see more of Shriver in the trenches are proponents of expanded healthcare.

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