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In her own words

Excerpts from the interview with Susan Kennedy.

January 17, 2010

Below are edited excerpts from more than three hours of conversation with Susan Kennedy, a Democrat and former aide to Gray Davis who became the influential chief of staff to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A contrarian

My first political consciousness wasn't formed around any concepts. It was just that some people stood up and did things that made other people hate them, just because they believed it was the right thing to do, and that was an important principle that I latched onto. And the Three Mile Island [nuclear accident] was my first consciousness of getting involved with activism. . . .

It became the source of my rebellion. I wanted to be the one, the contrarian. I wanted to be the only one that would stand up and do something that was right. I liked that image, and it followed me into high school. We used to have this debate class in high school. It was a social science class. [The teacher] used to hang things from the ceiling that said, "Agree," "Strongly agree" . . . "Disagree" . . . and "I don't know" or "I don't care."

She would pick a topic of the day, and then the class would have to go divide up into groups, and me and my friend would wait until everyone else had picked and they would all pile into one major area, and we would pick the opposite. And we would then, whatever the viewpoint was, we would debate it from the opposite viewpoint, and I loved it, and I became known as a fierce debater, willing to take on the entire class.

On partisanship

I became partisanized at CARAL [California Abortion Rights Action League] because abortion was such a partisan issue. The Democrats were pro-choice; the Republicans were anti-choice. Part of what broke the organizations up or made it really hard was when these pro-choice Republicans started [running] . . . and that was the case in the governor's race in 1990. Does CARAL go with the more pro-choice person -- that was [Dianne] Feinstein. . . . Or do you go with the Republican [Pete Wilson] because they are so rare and you have to nurture them?

I remember very vividly going though this torturous process of figuring out, if we don't encourage more pro-choice Republicans from getting involved we're never going to win on this issue. Because it can't be a partisan issue. If we're going to protect women's rights in the long run, it cannot be a partisan issue. That was my first real understanding of how critical it is to be nonpartisan.

We ended up making a partisan decision [in 1990] because just organizationally we needed to do that, but I don't think it was good for the cause. There's a lot of partisan reasons why abortion rights kind of petered out.

An early lesson

My first days on the job [with Gray Davis] I got a call from, I think it was Secretary [Mary] Nichols at the Resources Agency, and they were saying, 'We want to release this forestry report. . . . It's a regulatory thing that's been going on for a while,' and I was like, 'OK.' . . . I hung up the phone.

The next day, it's like, front page. With one word, I'm hanging up the phone, I changed our forestry policy. . . . I didn't even know what the decision was, do you know what I mean? And so the power of the executive branch just kind of crashed on me. . . . So when those questions come up to me, they are loaded with a year or even two years worth of regulatory work and political work, and so that was a crash course of, 'OK, I'm going to understand everything before I say yes or no next time.'

Losing faith as a Democrat

What you kept feeling and hearing over and over again was that we'd had 16 years of a Republican governor that vetoed everything we cared about and there is this sense of entitlement . . . because Democrats are a near supermajority. . . . It wasn't passion about your issue, it was a sense of entitlement that now we have a Democrat who is now going to give us everything . . . whether it was environmental agenda, gay rights agenda, you know, women's agenda, African Americans, the Latino caucus, the labor unions. Those were all the major players. Oh, the trial lawyers.

I think it was a really, really important part in my political evolution. We were sitting in my office with the governor. AFL-CIO had their leadership in there, and the governor was sitting there taking notes and he had a legal pad in front of him, and they were going over their political agenda, and they were going over their legislative agenda, workers' comp benefit increases, disability benefit increase, unemployment insurance increase, restoration of the eight-hour workday.

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