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A Capitol Mutual Admiration Society

Setting aside the brutal politics of the past, the governor and the Assembly speaker find their friendship crosses party lines. It also gets things done.

September 04, 2006|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

Weeks before the final push of the legislative session, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez strode into the office of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and plucked a campaign button from a secretary's desk. The Democratic Assembly leader pinned a "Schwarzenegger: Protecting the California Dream" button on his shirt and entered the inner sanctum of the governor's Capitol office.

It was a small but telling gesture of just how close Nunez -- who co-chairs the campaign to elect Schwarzenegger's opponent, state Treasurer Phil Angelides -- has become to the incumbent governor, who Nunez not so long ago said mixed with him "like oil and water."

After months of intense politicking that ended at midnight Thursday, the Los Angeles Democrat and the governor not only showed that they could work together but also that they actually seem to like each other.

"We have developed a relationship. We have gotten to know each others' families," Schwarzenegger said. He views Nunez "not only as a politician or as someone that is the other party, but as someone who has a lot of things in common" with him.

"It becomes, then, a different thing than just thinking about what can I get out of him and what can he get out of me," Schwarzenegger said during a July interview. "It's like, how can we work together and how can we help each other."

Nunez said Friday that he considers the governor "a great friend" and that their relationship is at "an all-time high."

On the governor's part, there are smart political reasons for him to cooperate with the leader of the Democratic-controlled Legislature as he faces reelection. On the campaign trail, Schwarzenegger needs to show Democratic voters that he has a record of success on the issues they care about, including the environment and helping working families.

But what began as political strategy has grown into a comfortable, pragmatic relationship that in recent weeks resulted in deals to raise the minimum wage, cut the cost of medicine for poor people and restrict industrial greenhouse gas emissions -- highlights of a legislative session that both men hailed as one of the most productive in decades.

Even after the Legislature rebuffed Schwarzenegger's efforts at the 11th hour to expand Indian gaming and reform prisons, the two exchanged subdued comments devoid of loaded partisan finger-pointing.

Their relationship took hold during months of get-togethers, both professionally and for leisure. The two have dined at La Serenata de Garibaldi in Boyle Heights, part of Nunez's 46th Assembly District. They call each other frequently. They will soon be campaigning together for the $37-billion infrastructure bond package on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Their wives, both named Maria, have become friends. They both have teenage children and fret about not spending enough time with them. Both are enthusiastic, athletic and have immigrant roots. And both ascended three years ago from unlikely backgrounds to the top tier of California politics.

Champion bodybuilder and movie star Schwarzenegger, 59, came to California from small-town Austria, the son of a police chief. Nunez, 39, worked his way up through the labor union movement, one of a dozen children of a maid and a gardener.

Neither man, said UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain, is highly ideological. Schwarzenegger married into the true-blue Democratic Kennedy clan and is moderate on such social issues as abortion. Nunez describes himself as a "core Democrat" who understands that a healthy economy works better than government aid to lift people out of poverty.

The two have met on the patio of Schwarzenegger's airy Brentwood villa, where Nunez once smoked a cigar with film star Danny DeVito.

But it took some brutal politicking before they realized they needed each other.

Schwarzenegger swept to power in a historic 2003 recall election in which he vowed to break the grip of special interests on the Capitol. Nunez, newly elected by the dominant Democrats, tried to get tough with him. Little more than a year ago, Nunez was accusing Schwarzenegger of being a bully and untruthful, while a governor's spokeswoman chided Nunez for "histrionics."

In the beginning, Nunez and the governor warily circled each other, one a world-famous personality, the other a little-known politician who shot to a leadership post after only a year on the job.

"It was tough at the beginning," Nunez said, "dealing with a guy who's arguably ... not only the most popular politician in the country, [but] perhaps in the world."

The governor's staff called the speaker "Fibian" for the way Nunez would occasionally tell the public something different from what he had told the governor. In 2004, Schwarzenegger vetoed five of the six bills Nunez sponsored.

Nunez said the governor failed to recognize the Legislature as an equal branch of government and thought that he could control, cajole or charm lawmakers to get his way. The governor's early staff was, he said, "far too partisan for him."

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