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Which gov will show tonight?

January 05, 2006|Dario Frommer | DARIO FROMMER (D-Glendale) is the majority leader of the state Assembly.

AS AT THE PREMIERE of one of his films, there is an air of excitement and drama surrounding Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's State of the State address tonight. Pundits, Democrats and even Republicans are anxiously waiting to see which Schwarzenegger shows up. Will it be last year's conservative firebrand -- the Schwarzenegger who boasted of kicking nurses' butts and who threatened to "blow up" state government to reorganize it -- or the kinder and gentler new Arnold who says he wants to work cooperatively with the Legislature to solve California's problems?

Whichever Schwarzenegger it is, he needs to address a growing perception that he has no strong convictions and is dangerously disengaged from the realities of governing a state with the fifth-largest economy in the world. He's got to make it clear to voters why, since the stunning rejection of his reform package in November's special election, he has embraced much of the political agenda he spent the previous year railing against.

Consider the following:

* After vetoing legislation in October to raise the minimum wage, he now supports an increase.

* After breaking a promise last year to repay billions of dollars he borrowed from the schools and attacking teachers, he's now trying to befriend public education and promising to "begin repaying" that money with a $1.7-billion down payment.

* Particularly surprising to me is that he is now calling for prescription drug importation -- after twice vetoing legislation I wrote to give Californians access to cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.

* After a year spent in partisan politics, campaigning for a conservative, anti-union agenda, he's now turned around and hired Susan Kennedy, one of former Gov. Gray Davis' top lieutenants and a respected Democrat, as his chief of staff.

The press releases and publicity stunts surrounding these changes have drawn criticism from Democrats, who view Schwarzenegger as a cynical panderer desperately moving toward the center to win back voters who have grown increasingly alienated, and Republicans, who worry that he has left their political reservation completely.

But the governor's credibility problem has deeper roots than just his recent flurry of changes. It goes back to his campaign in the recall election.

Schwarzenegger came to power promising bipartisan cooperation. It was the Democrats who helped Schwarzenegger win approval of his plan to cover the 2004 budget gap and of his workers' compensation reforms. I was pleased to work with the governor during his first year in office on major nursing home reform.

But last year, rather than continue to work with the Legislature, Schwarzenegger began a partisan attack on Democrats, teachers, nurses, firefighters and cops that left many Californians feeling like he just wasn't the governor they elected.

Schwarzenegger promised to stand up to special interests, but as governor, he raised more campaign contributions from special interests in a year than Davis raised in five years.

He called himself "the collectinator" and promised to get California its fair share of federal funds. But while Congress was voting on cuts to health and welfare programs that would devastate California's budget, the governor was on a publicity trip to China. Not surprisingly, not one Republican member of the California congressional delegation opposed the cuts.

Many Californians are skeptical of the governor's recent change of heart. After all, freezing college fees for a year, as the governor has promised to do, doesn't address the crisis of higher-education cuts. Calling on Congress to do something about prescription drug costs doesn't change the fact that 10 other states have already taken action allowing residents to save up to 75% on medications by helping them import drugs from Canada. And proposing a minimum-wage increase to take effect just five weeks before an election looks a little cynical.

Democrats are ready to work with this governor on providing long-term funding for public education, fixing infrastructure, providing healthcare for kids, cutting the cost of prescription drugs and enhancing air quality. Recognizing the balance of power between the governor and the Legislature will help Schwarzenegger attain his goals. Focusing more on negotiating and less on publicity will help produce results as well.

But legislators are still waiting to see which Arnold Schwarzenegger they will be dealing with this year.

Schwarzenegger needs to show he's serious about being governor. Hollywood stars often recast themselves as trends change. In government, however, recasting oneself every time the polls change can make you look rudderless and foolish.

The governor needs to figure out what he really stands for, and then he needs to get to work.

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