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Working for the man

The governor's aides are well-paid public employees. So why are they allowed to double-dip?

January 24, 2007

JUST REMEMBER who pays your salary.

When all else fails, that's the standard barb a voter can throw at a state employee who appears to be ignoring the public and instead favoring some entrenched, big-money interest. It is usually a bit of a cheap shot, especially when thrown at an underpaid government worker or even a big-bucks aide to an elected official, but in essence it's true. The official works for the public, not the corporate executive or union leader who donated to the boss' campaign. The public pays the salary.

In the governor's office, however, it's not quite the case. The salaries of a few top officials on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's staff are supplemented, in some cases handsomely, by bonuses from his campaign. The taxpayer-financed salary of chief of staff Susan Kennedy is $131,000, for example, but she more than doubled her salary with her work for the Schwarzenegger reelection campaign, which paid her $192,500 for work last year. Schwarzenegger's personal assistant, Clay Russell, and communications director, Adam Mendelsohn, were paid for campaigning in the weeks before the governor's slam-dunk reelection. Then they got victory bonuses. So did David Zingale, chief of staff to the governor's wife, Maria Shriver.

The pay was for work done for the most part on the same days they were on government time, during lunch hours or coffee breaks. Yes, these state employees are political appointees and serve at the pleasure of the governor. But most state employees in their position, if they want to campaign and get paid for it, take lengthy leaves of absence.

Their position and influence should cause them to be more prudent, not less. Payments from Schwarzenegger's political war chest further fudge the boundary between the governor's interests and the people's business. That's a problem, and not just because it looks bad. Schwarzenegger can rake in millions in contributions to his campaign, but when it's time for him to go to work, he does it on the public's dollar (actually, he refuses his state salary). He could not line his own pockets with money donated by Ameriquest Capital Corp. or Chevron Corp. and still expect to be seen as free from special-interest influence.

Yet Kennedy has a major hand in running the state and in determining who gets in to see the governor. Mendelsohn speaks for him. Zingale has a lead role in crafting his policies. They do not serve the public interest by driving Schwarzenegger's legislative agenda while floating on a cushion of the special-interest money they helped to raise during the campaign season.

The governor has repeatedly brushed off complaints about political fundraising -- even during bill-signing season from firms with a stake in his signature or veto -- by claiming he is immune from the corrupting influence of special-interest money. That misses the point. He promised he would do things differently. That promise should extend to his staff as well.

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