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Gov.'s Candid Moments Caught on Audiotape

Schwarzenegger's banter with aides offers glimpse of bull session behind closed doors.

September 08, 2006|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In the sanctuary of his Capitol office with an audio recorder rolling, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger describes Republican legislators as the "wild bunch" and, referring to a Latina lawmaker, casually says that "black blood" mixed with "Latino blood" equals "hot" -- a fiery personality.

The governor is heard on a six-minute recording, obtained by The Times, of a meeting with some members of his inner circle last spring. At the time, Schwarzenegger was struggling to persuade Republican lawmakers to embrace his plan to place billions of dollars in borrowing on the November ballot.

It's unclear why the session was taped, but Schwarzenegger occasionally records private meetings so that speechwriters, in particular, can keep a record of his thoughts and cadence. This audio recording mainly consists of relaxed banter among Schwarzenegger and a few aides, and it offers an unusually candid look at his administration when the doors are closed.

On the recording, Schwarzenegger's Democratic chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, says Assembly Republican leader George Plescia of San Diego resembles a startled deer. That draws a chuckle from the Republican governor, who a moment earlier had referred to Plescia's predecessor, Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, as "Bakersfield boy."

But Kennedy offers praise for Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, the lone Latina Republican in the Legislature. The governor and Kennedy debate her ethnicity, and Schwarzenegger opines that whether she is Cuban or Puerto Rican doesn't matter much.

"I mean, they are all very hot," the governor says. "They have the, you know, part of the black blood in them and part of the Latino blood in them that together makes it."

He goes on to recall a former weightlifter and competitor, Cuban-born Sergio Oliva. "He was like that," Schwarzenegger says.

Garcia and McCarthy called the conversation irrelevant, even funny, when contacted by The Times on Thursday. Plescia had no comment.

Garcia said the conversation didn't bother her in the least. She called herself an "unpolished politician" and said Schwarzenegger had shown nothing but respect for her.

"I love the governor because he is a straight talker just like I am," Garcia said. "Very often I tell him, 'Look, I am a hot-blooded Latina.' I label myself a hot-blooded Latina that is very passionate about the issues, and this is kind of an inside joke that I have with the governor."

Margita Thompson, a spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, issued this statement: "This is a small part of a long conversation that is taken totally out of context. The governor respects every member of the Legislature and holds them in the highest regard. It is not uncommon for him to have fun and joke with the members while they're working, especially during very tense negotiations."

The meeting probably took place in the Ronald Reagan Cabinet Room, the governor's de facto office that adjoins his smaller official quarters. The conference room faces east toward lush Capitol Park and has a long conference table that serves as a giant desk. The sword from Schwarzenegger's movie "Conan the Barbarian" rests on a nearby table.

Participants were Kennedy, who was Cabinet secretary under former Gov. Gray Davis; Gary Delsohn, a former Sacramento Bee reporter and author who recently became Schwarzenegger's chief speechwriter; and Walter Von Huene, a former TV director who is a close friend of the governor. Von Huene, a fellow cigar smoker and chess partner of Schwarzenegger, also serves as an informal speech coach.

Schwarzenegger's voice is heard first on the recording. He teases Delsohn and lavishly praises Kennedy as the conversation begins, suggesting that he knows the recording device is on. He calls Kennedy a "major, major champion."

"Got that on tape?" Kennedy says.

"It's on tape," Delsohn answers.

The free-flowing conversation took place amid negotiations over the governor's proposals for a giant public works package. At the time, Schwarzenegger's own party was resisting the sheer size of the plan -- the largest in state history -- which entailed tens of billions of dollars in borrowing. They eventually settled on a package worth $37 billion, placed on the November ballot.

On the recording, Kennedy and Schwarzenegger review an exchange between Kennedy and McCarthy, the Central Valley lawmaker who was then the lead negotiator for the Assembly's Republicans.

"You really pissed him off," Schwarzenegger said. "But you know something? You pissed him off because it hit home. That's why it pissed him off. People always get irritated; always when you hit something that is the truth, that's when people flame out."

Schwarzenegger says he had to control himself, and tried to be "really gentle" in the day's negotiations with his fellow Republicans. He calls it "dancing the dance."

But he says to Kennedy: "Anyway, so you hit him, you hit Bakersfield boy hard today," referring to McCarthy, who had warned against upsetting the Legislature's minority Republicans.

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