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Schwarzenegger's chief aide wields power with gusto

Susan Kennedy, who also worked for the governor's predecessor, loves to win on big issues and lets little get in her way. She instills fear in legions of state workers, lobbyists and lawmakers.

January 17, 2010|By Michael Rothfeld

Reporting from Sacramento — She arrives unseen at the Capitol each morning, entering through an underground garage and riding an internal elevator to the governor's office to take command.

Rarely venturing out into public, she instills fear in legions of state workers, lobbyists and lawmakers even though many would not recognize the 5-foot-2, wiry woman with close-cropped blond hair who is likely to be remembered as the most enduring force in state government of the last decade.


FOR THE RECORD:
Susan Kennedy: An article in Sunday's Section A on Susan Kennedy, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, said that the governor obtained changes to the state workers' compensation system during her first year with the administration in 2006. Those changes occurred in 2004, before she arrived. —

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, upended the political establishment late in 2005 when he hired Susan Kennedy as his chief of staff: She is a gay Democrat who began her career 30 years ago as an activist for liberal causes and served as a high-ranking aide to the governor's recalled predecessor, Gray Davis. Democrats called her a traitor. Republicans called for her head.

But Schwarzenegger stuck with her, trusting Kennedy, 49, to wield his authority so completely that they came to be described as "governor and governess," or "the big governor and the little governor." As his administration draws to a close, Kennedy has attained near-mythic status as a partisan only to winning.

"She has a brilliant sense of power," said Geoffrey Brown, who sat beside her on the Public Utilities Commission between her stints in the governor's office. "She's going to knock you over if you don't play ball. She knows how to get power, how to get political support. She knows what you have to expend, what you have to give up, what you don't have to give up."

Schwarzenegger puts it another way: "She has balls."

Yet this is the great paradox of Kennedy's career: She possesses encyclopedic knowledge of California's byzantine state bureaucracy and nearly unrivaled ability to use the governor's bully pulpit and his control over appointments, funding and contracts to wield power. But she has taken leading roles under two governors widely seen as disappointments to their supporters.

Inevitably, critics ask whether the shortcomings of Davis and Schwarzenegger reflect entirely on them, or also on her.

Common bond

The relationship with Schwarzenegger began with great success, as the governor, having hired Kennedy two years into his first term, rebounded from dismal approval ratings with a string of policy wins and coasted to reelection in 2006.

They were drawn to each other by a belief in big things: the world champion bodybuilder turned blockbuster-movie star turned governor and the operative who believes she can put any plan into action and succeed, if only by seeing three moves ahead on the political game board and outmaneuvering opponents.

"My high comes from accomplishing great things -- the bigger the challenge the greater the high," Kennedy said. "I see everything as a campaign. . . . I put 1,000% into accomplishing a goal within a specified time period. That's what a guy like Arnold Schwarzenegger needs. He's a pilot who wants to break the speed record. I build planes."

The victories that first year included a landmark bill to slow global warming, changes to the state's expensive workers' compensation program and a $37-billion borrowing plan to build roads, bridges, schools and other infrastructure.

Since then, other plans -- a vast healthcare expansion, a "year of education," a revision of the tax code -- have flopped or stalled. California's budget problems, which Schwarzenegger campaigned to fix, have drawn international headlines. His approval ratings are lower than ever, with little time to improve.

The governor's water deal with lawmakers, engineered largely by Kennedy in the fall, would be a notable exception to the setbacks of the last three years -- if voters approve an $11-billion bond issue come November.

That agreement came together only after Kennedy employed a somewhat brazen negotiating strategy. Republican lawmakers were told to make compromises or the governor would sign Democratic legislation they disliked. Democrats were told the opposite: The governor would veto their legislation without new borrowing.

The tactic nearly backfired when the Assembly Republican leader, Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo, publicly accused Kennedy of making threats. But after the deal was done, he publicly thanked her.

More than 50 people were interviewed for this article. In addition, Kennedy allowed a reporter to spend time observing her at work. Many who spoke did so on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Some of Kennedy's critics perceive the record of frustration over the goals Schwarzenegger has not achieved as due in part to her tendency to overreach instead of seeking small, more manageable change.

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