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Back to Politics as Usual, More or Less

Compared to the recall and last year's special election, this choice is more traditional, except for Schwarzenegger's enduring celebrity.

October 15, 2006|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — If the historic recall election three years ago upended California politics, the race between Democrat Phil Angelides and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 has returned the political system to its regularly scheduled programming.

Between state Treasurer Angelides and the incumbent Gov. Schwarzenegger, there is little talk about sweeping away special interests or transforming the political system as we know it.

Instead, potential voters have been given a choice between established politicians from the two major parties, each with traditional corporate or union backers, each with slightly different but relatively mainstream views on public policy.

Still, an unusual and important factor hangs over the campaign, and brings a benefit to the incumbent: Schwarzenegger's status as a worldwide celebrity.

"That celebrity has consistently brought out more media coverage, more cameras, than anything I have seen at an Angelides event," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a USC professor and expert on California politics. "It must be terribly frustrating for Angelides."

Few jobs in the United States are as powerful as California governor. Only the president and the Chicago mayor make more political appointments. The Legislature sends more than 1,000 bills to the governor every year. The vast state bureaucracy regulates nearly every aspect of California life. It provides healthcare and educates millions.

When voters choose the next person for that powerful job, their choice will look much like offerings from the past: a liberal Democrat against a centrist Republican. When Angelides and Schwarzenegger differ, there are few surprises.

That's the case on many issues -- for example, on immigration, one of the most important to voters, according to recent polls.

Angelides and Schwarzenegger agree that illegal immigrants should be "put on a path to citizenship," but only after paying a fine and back taxes, learning English and getting in line behind people who are attempting to become citizens legally. Both have called for a more civil debate on the explosive issue.

The two men's biggest difference concerns the California National Guard. Angelides says he would not use federalized state troops to police the U.S.-Mexico border. Schwarzenegger sent more than 1,000 troops to the border on a limited deployment at the request of President Bush to back up federal border agents, but rejected a later Bush administration call for more.

Even the supposedly sharp contrast between Angelides and Schwarzenegger on the subject of raising taxes is fuzzier than both sides admit.

Yes, Angelides wants to raise taxes -- on California's wealthiest couples, while offering tax cuts to the middle class. Schwarzenegger would have voters believe that Angelides is salivating over $18 billion in planned tax increases in the event that he gets into office, a figure that is clearly wrong.

Yes, Schwarzenegger is holding firm against tax increases, a politically popular position. But he's hardly a fiscal conservative. He has presided over a 26% increase in state government spending, and approved higher fees and tuition at California's public colleges -- which some call a tax by another name.

He also proposed $68 billion in borrowing to shore up the state's faltering infrastructure system. The Legislature sliced that approximately in half, putting $37 billion in bonds on next month's ballot for voters to approve.

Angelides, with the help of his union supporters and a traditional Democratic message, survived the June primary by defeating state Controller Steve Westly.

But the bitter race left his campaign nearly broke, and battered by the impression that he had polluted Lake Tahoe or was beholden to developers.

Schwarzenegger, who had no Republican primary opponent, immediately fired up his campaign. The day after the primary, he launched ads against Angelides alleging that the treasurer would take California backward. And he hammered the tax issue so much that the treasurer had a hard time recovering. Since early summer, Angelides has lagged well behind Schwarzenegger in the polls.

"I can tell by the joy I see in your eyes that you love to raise taxes," the governor said to Angelides during their recent debate in Sacramento, the only one scheduled between the two. "Why don't you just say right now, 'I love increasing your taxes.' "

Incumbent governors come with considerable political advantages, not the least of which is the veto pen. Schwarzenegger has used his office, and the power of the veto threat, to negotiate big legislative deals with the Democrats who control the Legislature. One example was a bill to curb California's contribution to global warming, putting the state at the forefront of a global issue.

The bipartisan efforts have gone a long way for Schwarzenegger, according to the polls, to assure voters that he has abandoned the confrontational tone of his disastrous 2005 special election.

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