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Past and future politics

September 13, 2005

THE LEGISLATIVE SESSION is over, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's special election campaign is underway. One glides seamlessly into the other. Both the governor and the Democratic leadership spent the year pandering and playing politics, wasting what could have been a productive nonelection-year session.

The Republican governor continued his assault on Democratic leaders and their union supporters in Riverside on Monday, when he kicked off a series of campaign rallies. The governor is expected to announce Friday that he'll seek a new term in 2006, and then he'll roll triumphant into Anaheim on Saturday to address a gleeful state Republican convention.

Democrats will respond with their own rallies and attacks. Over the next eight weeks, both sides will raise and spend millions on television ads distorting the content and impact of the eight measures on the Nov. 8 special election ballot. Schwarzenegger has called this his "year of reform," but none of the three measures he backs is likely to produce any quick fix for California's dysfunctional state government.

It was just two years ago that Schwarzenegger electrified Californians with his promise that, as an outsider with no ties to special political interests, he would clean up Sacramento. Even skeptics hoped that Schwarzenegger's overpowering personality could have a real effect on the groveling for campaign money that dominates Sacramento. And initially the governor worked with Democratic lawmakers to help overcome the state's miserable fiscal situation and to ease the problem of soaring workers' compensation insurance rates. Both Schwarzenegger and Democrats came out looking good.

Then the governor opened 2005 by attacking the Democrats and by collecting millions in campaign funds from his own special interests. The rest of the year has been open political warfare. The governor's popularity, and that of the Legislature, has plummeted. The grand hopes for true reform in government have evaporated.

Through the ineptitude of Schwarzenegger's political allies, at least two of the governor's reform issues were taken off the ballot. Another issue, legislative and congressional redistricting, barely remains, courtesy of a state Supreme Court ruling that essentially said, let the people vote and then we'll decide whether the measure is constitutional. Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders could have worked out a compromise version that would have easily cleared court review. Alas, political geniuses on both sides apparently decided they'd rather have the war.

As battle lines harden, Schwarzenegger is bolstering his Republican base with the help of big-business campaign donors. Democrats are doing likewise with labor unions. Millions of California voters, meanwhile, may wonder just where they fit in -- and whether it's really in their interest to vote at all.

California state government desperately needs reform, but the special election Nov. 8 will not produce it. And on Nov. 9, the 2006 campaign will begin.

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