A Nov. 6 Style article about California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger misspelled the last name of the president pro tem of the California Senate. He is Don Perata, not Peralta. (Published 11/10/2005)
It's weird. The parking lot is roped off with yellow tape. A sound truck is booming rock-and-roll. The police are here, but there is no crowd to control -- except a few dozen nurses and teachers who are waving signs reading, "Stop Arnold's Lies."
Inside the cavernous flea market in Anaheim, Arnold Schwarzenegger is in total campaign mode. His mission: to push through a package of incredibly dull ballot initiatives in a special election Tuesday, an effort the California governor calls "the sequel" to the mind-blowing recall two years ago. A sequel is supposed to be an easy sell.
But this election has morphed into a referendum -- on Schwarzenegger.
When he ran for governor two years ago, Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." Now, Schwarzenegger hosts invitation-only town halls so scripted they rarely make the evening news outside the town in which they're staged.
Then: Middle-aged women would climb trees to catch a glimpse of the action star at his mass rallies. Wherever the former Mr. Universe went, thousands of giddy citizens would follow, and their eyes had that moony glaze people get around international box office icons. Schwarzenegger tossed "Join Arnold" T-shirts at them. He blared the "Twisted Sister" anthem "We're Not Gonna Take It." He smashed derelict automobiles with giant wrecking balls (symbolism for cutting the unpopular car tax) and promised to be California's Terminator. There was even talk of changing the constitution to allow him to run for president.
Now: in Anaheim, the governor accepts endorsements from Latino business organizations and then enters the market to be among the real people -- a photo-op, his strategists intend, "to let Arnold be Arnold." But a funny thing happens: nothing. A few customers snap pictures; vendors self-consciously shake the big man's hand; but nobody goes nuts. Instead, some people actually continue to shop as Schwarzenegger passes nearby. And that spells trouble for Team Arnold.
These days, everywhere he goes, he's trailed by protesting union nurses and teachers.
Before, it was all "I'll be back" and "Hasta la vista, baby." Now, it's billboards warning, "Arnold Schwarzenegger: Not Who We Thought."
Remember the California recall of 2003? Gary Coleman ran for governor. He had a platform. So did a porn star. So did 123 other people. It costs only $3,500, so why not? Columnist Arianna Huffington sparred with Schwarzenegger during a televised debate that seemed ripped from the script of "The Daily Show." Just when it didn't seem as if it could get more strange, in the eleventh hour the Los Angeles Times published an expose featuring women accusing the movie star candidate of being a serial copper-of-feels and a dirty talker to women -- and overnight, Schwarzenegger was dubbed in the press "the Gropenator."
And now? His opponents make it sound as if he hates widows and orphans (he tried to cut death benefits for firefighters and police officers). It's just not fun anymore.
One year ago, Schwarzenegger was the most popular governor in California in three decades. Today, his poll numbers are in the tank, or, as he might say, the toilet. A recent survey found only 33 percent now approve of the job Schwarzenegger is doing -- a nosedive from his numbers just a year ago, which were in the high sixties.
"And when you get into the thirties, you're getting into the realm of the irrelevant," says Don Peralta, a Democrat and the California Senate president pro tem. When Peralta is reminded that the approval ratings for legislators is even worse, Peralta smiles and says, "So what? Nobody is supposed to like us. They're supposed to like Arnold. That's the whole point of having a movie star as governor."
The most recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that none of his four reform initiatives were generating enough support to pass. A Los Angeles Times poll published Wednesday found only one -- a relatively unimportant one about teacher tenure -- remained a tossup. (The propositions would -- take a deep breath -- extend the probationary period for teachers and make it easier to fire them; require public employee unions to obtain written permission from members to use dues for political purposes; impose a state spending cap and give the governor authority to make cuts; and strip lawmakers of their power to draw election districts.)
To boost their chances of success, Team Arnold decided to announce that Schwarzenegger would run for re-election in 2006. Unless.
Last month, a 60-year-old Berkeley doctor named Kenneth Matsumura began a campaign to recall Arnold Schwarzenegger. In three weeks, Matsumura says he has been joined by 10,000 volunteers through his Web site recall2006.com. He has until March to gather 1,040,000 signatures to put the recall on the ballot. Don't think it's possible? That's what Gray Davis thought.
The Enigma of Maria
There was a time when Schwarzenegger seemed much bigger than puny politicians. During his champion bodybuilding days, "the Austrian Oak" had a 58-inch chest. His thighs were 28 inches around. His successes in sports, business and film were undeniable. He promised voters that he was so rich he could never be bought. But then he started hosting fundraisers to pay for his ballot initiative campaigns. Now, the 58-year-old appears to have shrunk to more human size, to this slightly peevish man who now sits before you.
Schwarzenegger is holed up in a room at the Hyatt in Long Beach, awaiting his turn to go onstage at wife Maria Shriver's second annual women's conference, where the attendees hear inspirational talk from Jane Fonda, Nora Ephron, Barbara Walters, Linda Ellerbee, Sandra Day O'Connor and, of course, Shriver. When a reporter walks in, Schwarzenegger is sitting at a chess board, a dead stogie in his hand.
Schwarzenegger does not seem his usual happy public self. He keeps using the phrase "you guys," as in you guys in the media, and jabbing his hand with the huge star sapphire ring toward his visitor, and his eyes are narrowed and his jaw set, more in "Terminator" mode than "Kindergarten Cop." He is a little scary.
During the recall election in 2003, his wife, the former television personality and Kennedy scion, was employed as a sort of smart bomb on the campaign trail, assuring Democrats and Independents that Arnold was a social moderate, a good guy and a good husband -- and not the ham-handed groper or the GOP boogeyman some of his critics described. (For his part, Schwarzenegger admitted he had "behaved badly" on "rowdy movie sets" and was "deeply sorry.") But in the current campaign for reform that the governor describes as crucial to fixing "the broken system" in Sacramento, Shriver has been silent.
So at the women's conference this morning, expectations are high that Shriver might take a stand. "I thought a lot about what I could say here today. I also thought a lot about what I couldn't or shouldn't say for one reason or the other," Shriver says from the podium. "We all know what happens to first ladies who shoot their mouths off -- they get sent to first ladies' dungeon, and you wouldn't want that to happen to me."
Back in his hotel room, when Schwarzenegger is asked why he couldn't do some horse-trading with his Democratic wife to win her support, Schwarzenegger says: "Maybe you have to sell out to your wife. When I ask my wife for a favor, I don't have to sell out. I don't have to offer anything in return." He continues, "I utilize Maria for my job and for the state. I think she's a great first lady." As for her conspicuous absence, Schwarzenegger says, "I feel totally comfortable doing this by myself."
At the conference, Shriver also tells the audience: "When I look in the mirror, I don't just see a first lady, I don't just see a Kennedy or a Schwarzenegger, I don't just see a mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister and a friend, and thank God, I don't see Warren Beatty."
'Governing by Show'?
What would Warren Beatty be doing in Maria Shriver's mirror?
Beatty and Schwarzenegger have been pecking away at each other like hens. (Beatty: "What Austrian boy doesn't dream of growing up to be president of the United States?" Schwarzenegger's spokesman called Beatty "a crackpot.")
In September, Beatty, a self-described "bleeding-heart, die-hard, liberal Democrat" who has flirted with the idea of running for governor himself, spoke before the nurses' union. (Back story: Schwarzenegger became embroiled in a fight with the California Nurses Association because he reversed a law that would have improved the nurse-patient ratio in hospitals. At the first lady's conference on women last year, a handful of RNs got into the hall and unfurled a banner reading: "Hands Off Patient Ratios," a not very subtle reminder of the groping allegations. It was then that Schwarzenegger told the 10,000 women in attendance, "Pay no attention. They are the special interests. . . . I am always kicking their butts.")
"Government's not show business," Beatty told the RNs. "Governing by show, by spin, by cosmetics and photo ops, fake events, fake issues and fake crowds and backdrops . . . is a mistake." Beatty continued, to applause, "I'll tell you another mistake. Going after the nurses. Nurses save our lives. They take care of us."
His kicker: "How can anybody hate nurses? Nobody hates nurses. The only time you hate a nurse is when they're giving you an enema."
In response, Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson told the Associated Press, "We don't care much about Warren Beatty, and based on his ticket sales from the past generation, I doubt anyone else does either." (According to The Numbers, the box office tracking Web site, Beatty's movies have grossed $487 million worldwide; Schwarzenegger's films have done $3.5 billion).
So Beatty is now doing commercials against the Schwarzenegger propositions, joining Rob Reiner, actor, director and formerly Meathead on "All in the Family," who is manning the phone banks in a get-out-the-vote pitch, with Kurtwood Smith (Red from "That '70s Show"), Jason George from the UPN series "Eve" and Lori Alan, the voice of Pearl Krabs on "SpongeBob SquarePants."
Beatty, Schwarzenegger can likely deal with. It is the nurses and teachers who are killing him. (The teachers are mad because, among other reasons, they say he reneged on a promise to restore $2 billion in school spending, and all the public employee unions are mad because of the ballot measure to force the leadership to get permission before dues can be funneled into political campaigns.)
"Even Mother Teresa, her numbers would drop in the polls if she would be attacked by $100 million in negative advertising," Schwarzenegger says. "Let them beat up on me. I don't care. Let them."
But he does care. In his hotel suite, Schwarzenegger complains that he sees the same nurses and teachers at every event. "TV and you guys cover it as this huge protest and you don't say this is just paid union guys. This is not America. This is not California. Or the average housewife or soccer mom or the guy who is driving home and protests and is mad as hell." The protests are done, Schwarzenegger says, "to soften the meat."
He explains: "First you reduce someone's poll numbers and then they're not as strong anymore. People write about 'he's really way down' and so you don't pay as much attention to him. And then you're not as effective with the legislature, and it's all a chain of events, and they hope they can roll you and beat you and that you have to make concessions."
Schwarzenegger says that a year ago, "I had to do some soul-searching. Is this why I was sent to Sacramento? To just look at things? To be protective of my poll numbers? Or was I sent to Sacramento to create change regardless of what would happen to my poll numbers?"
He says, "I knew this would be a war, a major battle, and a great thing if you can make the changes, and there's no guarantee that you can, but . . ."
So he has no regrets? "Let me tell you. Everything I've done, I've always enjoyed a lot. Otherwise I wouldn't do it." Then he reaches back in history, to his days at Gold's Gym in Venice Beach and the time of the documentary "Pumping Iron."
"I always had great joy in the gym. No one could figure out why that is. Everyone had a sour face when they had another 500 sit-ups. But I always found great joy in it because I saw the end goal always in front of me."
To understand California politics, one could do much worse than tuning into KFI 640-AM, "More Stimulating Talk Radio," and catch the wildly popular afternoon drive-time program, "The John and Ken Show," with hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou.
In an uncluttered, state-of-the-art studio in Burbank operated by KFI's parent company, Clear Channel, John and Ken sit opposite each other and riff, quoting from news stories and Web sites, working without script, in a daily rant that is as seamless as it is relentless. These boys get after it.
They were instrumental in the recall of Democratic governor Davis, whom they dubbed "Gumby" (who never called in), and the election of Schwarzenegger (who calls in often). "With some modesty," Kobylt says, "we were a huge force."
As John and Ken, or at least their on-air personas, see the world, Schwarzenegger may have his problems, but he serves as a finger in the dike, protecting the average taxpayer stuck in rush-hour traffic from the "socialist wack jobs" (liberal Democrats) and "Glenn Close-type stalkers" (nurses and teachers unions) in Sacramento. They are complete partisans; they have not only endorsed the Schwarzenegger ballot measures, they hosted a rally for the governor Saturday.
But Kobylt and Chiampou are struggling to explain the four Schwarzenegger ballot measures to listeners, warning at one point, "this is political geek speak," and off-air complaining that the measures are hard to get listeners excited about.
During the breaks, Kobylt offers his take on Team Arnold. "Schwarzenegger has never been as good as I expected. But he's not as bad as his poll numbers," he says. "The problem with Schwarzenegger is when he gets some criticism, he runs and hides. He goes halfway. He zigs and zags."
Why? "I don't know, but I think maybe it's the movie star. Maybe he wants to be liked by everybody," Kobylt says, and here his opponents are "saying he hates kids and firemen and teachers and nurses."
At the top of the hour, Schwarzenegger calls into the program. "Hello, John and Ken!" The governor spends the next 26 minutes pushing his ballot measures. John and Ken, who can be merciless with guests, toss softballs at Schwarzenegger.
Off-air, John and Ken are asked if they think their listeners are behind the governor? Will his measures pass? Kobylt shrugs, "Hmmmm." He guesses Schwarzenegger might get one, maybe two.
Back on the air: Stay tuned. "Bird flu is coming to get us all! At six!"