Two years after he roared to power promising Californians he would "fix the broken system," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) faces an angry electorate Tuesday in a special election that a majority of voters in this state do not seem to want, filled with measures many oppose.
Schwarzenegger is backing four out of eight initiatives on the ballot Tuesday in a state that since 1911 has used initiatives as an end-run around its legislature. If approved, the measures would give Schwarzenegger an enormous boost, granting him the power to cut the state's budget unilaterally and hobbling his biggest foe, organized labor.
But three recent polls, by the Public Policy Institute of California, the Field Research Corporation and the Los Angeles Times, seem to suggest that the governor is headed for a political Judgment Day. Of the four ballot measures Schwarzenegger is backing, only one -- the weakest in terms of policy consequences -- seems primed to pass, according to the polls.
Among those trailing is a measure that would strip the authority from the Democratic-controlled legislature to draw lines for legislative and congressional districts, and shift it to a panel of retired judges.
In Ohio, an initiative to strip power to draw districts from a Republican-controlled board of elected officials, in favor of a bipartisan citizens commission, is also on the ballot. As in California, it is struggling.
The Ohio redistricting measure and a companion piece to tighten campaign finance limits for individuals, reinstating a ban on corporate contributions to candidates, are supported by a coalition of labor, liberal and reform groups. But the Ohio Republican Party and allied business groups have mounted a major television drive against them, and their fate is uncertain.
In California, Democratic Party and union activists -- who have outspent Schwarzenegger by tens of millions of dollars in the campaign to defeat his measures -- are almost giddy when discussing Tuesday's vote. "I'm cautiously optimistic," quipped Gale Kaufman, one of the lead strategists. And then she cackled loudly.
Republican Party officials and Schwarzenegger allies, meanwhile, are somber. One senior member of Schwarzenegger's pro-business coalition said he would be surprised if any of the initiatives passed. Another Republican official noted that Schwarzenegger's team, known to be socially liberal, is now placing all its hopes on antiabortion voters.
That is because they hope such voters will also back the governor's measures when they turn out to support Proposition 73. That proposition, which is not supported by Schwarzenegger, would prohibit doctors from performing an abortion until 48 hours after a physician notifies a minor's parents or guardian. Polls indicate the measure is too close to call.
Of the remaining three initiatives, two are competing proposals mandating discounts for certain medicines to low-income patients, and the third is a proposal, backed by consumer rights groups, to re-regulate California's power industry.
Schwarzenegger's fall from grace this year has been as precipitous as it has been befuddling because his first year in Sacramento was widely called a success. He hammered out a bipartisan budget compromise, yanking California's finances -- with a debt of $22 billion -- back from the brink of financial disaster. And he distinguished himself from President Bush by backing stem cell research and domestic partnerships for gay couples -- critical moves for a Republican governing a state that remains socially liberal.
Republicans and Democrats alike say the governor's first big mistake occurred a year ago when during a speech to honor women's rights, Schwarzenegger faced off against hecklers from the California Nurses Association. The nurses were angry that Schwarzenegger had overturned a state law designed to reduce nurse-to-patient ratios. Schwarzenegger told the crowd to ignore the disgruntled nurses, yelling that they were "a special interest who don't like me because I am always kicking their butt." Nurses have been hounding him ever since.
Then in his state-of-the-state speech in January, Schwarzenegger laid out four areas that needed attention: California's budget (which remains in deficit); its plummeting school quality (the state, which used to rank second, now ranks 35th in the nation in per-pupil spending); the need to reform how legislative districts are drawn (of the 153 congressional and state legislative races in November 2004 in California, none resulted in a change of parties); and California's generous public pensions, which have increased state and local debt by more than $12 billion.
Problems soon mounted when California's powerful public employee unions in effect declared war on the former bodybuilder. From an approval rating of 56 percent in February, he sank to one of 38 percent last month.
Schwarzenegger was left with four initiatives. Proposition 76, which the governor calls the "live within our means act," would enact strict limits on spending growth and give the governor the power to unilaterally reduce budget appropriations. This proposition has sparked fierce criticism and withering attack ads from the Democratic Party, which controls the legislature and is accustomed to its say in California's budget. It is trailing in polls.
So is Proposition 77, which would appoint a panel of three retired judges to demarcate legislative districts, removing the Democratic-controlled legislature from the process. This measure has irked incumbent Democrats and Republicans alike, such as Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) and Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.). If the measure passes, there is little doubt that it would shake up California's political landscape. Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California, predicted, for example, that two strongly African American congressional districts in Southern California would be replaced by majority Hispanic districts.
Proposition 75, called the "paycheck protection act," would prohibit using public employee union dues for political contributions unless individual employees had given prior consent. Public employee unions have attacked this measure as antidemocratic, and their argument seems to be having an effect. In August, 55 percent of a group of registered voters said they supported the initiative, but last week a Field Poll showed support had fallen to 40 percent.
The final Schwarzenegger-backed measure, Proposition 74, would increase the probationary period for public school teachers from two to five years and make it easier for principals to fire teachers who receive two consecutive unsatisfactory evaluations. Of all of his proposals, this one interests policymakers the least and voters the most. Policymakers view it as a stand-in for a more significant initiative that would have instituted merit pay for teachers that Schwarzenegger failed to get on the ballot. Recent polls indicate some, albeit declining, voter support for the idea.
As Schwarzenegger's popularity has waned, polls have indicated rising voter interest in the special election. Increasingly Tuesday is being seen as a referendum on the governor -- a dry run for the reelection campaign that will switch into high gear next year.
The Ohio initiatives were stimulated by the controversy over the close outcome in the state in 2004, when President Bush edged Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) amid controversy about lengthy delays and shortages of ballots at some polling places. A group of political scientists and other reformers decided the climate was right for restructuring elections. Calling themselves the Reform Ohio Now coalition, they focused first on creating a nonpartisan system of drawing district lines.
Traditionally, Ohio has given the upper hand to the party controlling the legislature, the governorship and other statewide offices -- with Republicans now enjoying a 4-1 advantage on the board that draws legislative lines. The legislature in turn sets the boundaries for the congressional districts.
As a result, in battleground Ohio, Republicans control the state House of Representatives 60-39, the state Senate 22-11, and the U.S. House delegation 12-6. Victory margins for incumbents tend to be huge.
To garner additional support from various constituencies, the reformers added measures that would restrict private and eliminate corporate campaign financing, and take the management of elections away from Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell (R), a Bush supporter and likely 2006 gubernatorial candidate whose neutrality was challenged by Democrats last year.
Republicans have struck back hard at the campaign -- targeting the out-of-state contributions the RON coalition has received from the Rockefeller family, People for the American Way, the Sierra Club and similar liberal groups.
The proponents have devised a unique point system for grading future districting plans, placing heavy emphasis on competitiveness, and the Republicans have responded with maps purporting to show how new congressional districts could sweep from border to border, ignoring natural communities of interest.
Editorial comments on the package have been mixed, and voter interviews suggest massive confusion about what is being proposed. But the RON coalition hopes that the climate in Ohio -- with financial scandals roiling the Republicans and lame-duck Gov. Bob Taft at 15 percent job approval -- may trigger a voter rebellion.
Pomfret reported from Los Angeles; Broder, from Columbus, Ohio.