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Gamblin' man

Politics | Schwarzenegger puts conservatism on the line in California's special election

Issue: "Supreme Court fight," July 23, 2005

In politics image is everything. Golden State conservatives say their state is busy burnishing what may be the most frightening state image of all: California, the ungovernable. That is, if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can't rally voters to his side in the November special election he called after statehouse Democrats refused to cede ground on his proposed reforms. The November special election will be California's second do-or-die exercise in direct democracy in as many years, said Brian O'Neel, Capitol Director for Republican Assemblyman Chuck DeVore. In 2003 Californians booted pay-to-play Democrat Gray Davis from the governor's mansion, but Sacramento Democrats have used their legislative majorities to skirt voter-passed initiatives on a range of issues: illegal immigration, English-only instruction in public schools, taxation, and same-sex marriage. "Mr. Schwarzenegger came to reform the state, not give us more of the same," Mr. O'Neel said. "He came to fundamentally change the paradigm. If he fails, it proves California is ungovernable." The special ballot is drawing the attention of the 49 other states, as educators, union leaders, abortion activists, and even other legislatures closely monitor the pulse of trend-setting California voters on a range of issues. With a final ballot due in the secretary of state's office this month, the special measures are shaping up as follows:

  • Prop 74 would increase from two to five the number of years it would take a new teacher to earn tenure.
  • Prop 76 would eliminate the floor on mandatory school funding, tie state spending to revenues, and give the governor unilateral budget-cutting authority.
  • Prop 77 would strip the legislature of the authority to draw its own districts, handing that power to a panel of retired judges. (This measure is highly popular with Golden State Republicans who hold only 15 of 40 Senate seats and 32 of 80 in the Assembly, and who failed to flip a single seat to GOP control in 2002.)

Mr. Schwarzenegger has endorsed all three measures, but so far two of the three-spending limits and redistricting-are failing in the polls. So is the governor himself: His job approval rating in June dipped to a dismal 37 percent, driven south by partisan warfare, union attack ads, and his own overreliance on muscular sloganeering. The governor's political aspirations also are at stake. If voters reject Mr. Schwarzenegger's reform package, will he retain enough political capital to run for reelection in 2006? A high-profile Republican failure could help Democrats retake the governorship and turn back challenges to Democratic incumbents in both state and federal offices. That's ironic, since only their Democrat-led legislature is doing a worse job than their Republican governor, Californians say: In the same June poll, just 24 percent of registered voters gave Sacramento lawmakers a thumbs-up. So why don't they get themselves some new ones? Labor unions, said Republican Assemblyman Ray Haynes. The Democrats control the legislature, and the unions control the Democrats. "The major way the left gets funded is through the public employee unions, who forcibly extract money from workers, then donate it to candidates and causes without regard for workers' views," said Mr. Haynes. "That's why this whole election turns on paycheck protection." That's one ballot measure Mr. Schwarzenegger hasn't endorsed-yet. Sponsored by the National Tax Limitation Committee (a group headed by Lewis Uhler, 71, who worked as a tax-busting advisor under Gov. Ronald Reagan), Prop 75 would require that public employee unions secure annual permission from their members before using any dues money for political purposes. When Washington state in 1992 passed a similar initiative, union members' political contributions plunged by more than 80 percent. A Field poll last month showed that if the election were held today, 57 percent of both registered and likely voters would cast their ballots in favor of Prop 75. But California Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland doesn't think it will survive till November. "It'll be defeated . . . all of [Schwarzenegger's] measures will be defeated," he told WORLD. If the dollar signs tallied at last week's National Education Association annual convention are any indication, unions are digging in for an epic battle. NEA secretary-treasurer Lily Eskelsen told delegates at the convention's budget hearing that the group has already sent $2.5 million to the California Teachers Association (CTA) to battle paycheck protection and the teacher-tenure measure, which enjoys a polling lead of 60 percent to 37 percent. The amount dwarfs the national union's next highest ballot-measure allocation-$490,000 to New Jersey for a state constitutional convention fight-and is 20 percent more than the total amount remaining in NEA's "legislative crisis" fund for all other states. Meanwhile, CTA has levied a three-year special assessment of $60 a year per member-and is borrowing against the anticipated revenue stream to raise a projected $50 million. That the unions are piling up that kind of cash may prove they agree with Assemblyman Haynes' assessment: "If conservatives win paycheck protection and lose everything else, we win the election," he said. "If we lose paycheck protection and win everything else, we lose the election." Indeed, Mr. Schwarzenegger seems to be holding Prop 75 as his trump card. On July 5 (in the midst of the NEA's national convention in Los Angeles), the governor and statehouse Democrats finally reached a budget compromise that slows projected spending growth. It also increases spending on schools by $3 billion this fiscal year. Now both sides say they want to hammer out a "global agreement" on the proposed November initiatives, crafting "compromise" measures in advance of the mid-July ballot-argument deadline. The aim: To save political face. And as a dividend, to restore citizens' faith in government's ability to govern instead of squabble. "Everyone's willing to talk," Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman assured reporters. "There's real momentum and that indicates a good potential to negotiate." Perhaps. In forging the budget deal, Democrats did forfeit some ground. But they have also vowed not to negotiate on spending limits, redistricting, and teacher tenure unless Mr. Schwarzenegger disavows paycheck protection. Even if the governor cuts a deal, voters will still go to the polls Nov. 8. To Democrats' dismay, the turnout will likely include a high number of social conservatives since Prop 73, an abortion parental-notification measure, also qualified for the ballot. That initiative would require that an unemancipated minor wait to have an abortion until 48 hours after a physician notifies her parent of her intent to abort. The measure contains exceptions for medical emergencies and judicial waivers. The Field poll last month showed likely voters narrowly supporting Prop 73, 48 percent to 43 percent. Its passage would rock the state and likely embolden pro-lifers in other abortion-friendly states, since California has proven almost ungovernable on the issue. More unborn children die there than in any other state, nearly a quarter of a million in 2000, according to the most recent figures published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood. Meanwhile, California legislators have staunchly resisted any restrictions on elective abortion and state health officials simply exempt themselves from federal abortion-reporting requirements. Mr. Uhler, author of the paycheck-protection measure, called the appearance of the parental-notification initiative on the November ballot "serendipitous." "Politically, we are the beneficiaries of something with which we had nothing to do," he said. "Parental notification is truly an emotional issue which will target the heartstrings of a broad base of people who, once convinced to go out and vote, can be persuaded to support the governor's measures and paycheck protection. It's serendipitous, but we will take good things where we can find them."

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