There was a time when political winds flowed west to east across America. But this summer in California, the breeze blows the opposite way, with politicians here playing by East Coast rules.
In Sacramento, as in the nation's capital, Democrats seek to undermine Republican rule by talking ethics and conspiracies. Only, California Democrats are smarter than their beltway cousins. They're not wasting their time with personal attacks against presidential personnel. Instead, the target is the man at the top, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
At present, two controversies envelop Sacramento, neither to be confused with a serious policy debate.
The first is a stink over a disclosure that the Governator was earning a minimum of $1 million a year in outside income -- as much as $13 million over five years -- as an editorial consultant to a pair of bodybuilding magazines, Flex and Muscle & Fitness. The magazines rely on advertising from dietary supplements makers. Last year, Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have cracked down on the supplements industry. It didn't take long for Democrats to play connect the dots and suggest that the governor was on the take.
Although Schwarzenegger soon ended the deal (without returning the money he'd already received), it didn't stop the Democrats from filing a complaint with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, accusing the Governator of accepting illegal gifts and violating conflict-of-interest rules. Also filing a complaint: the parents of a 24-year-old who three years ago committed suicide after taking steroids. They think there's a link between steroids and dietary supplements, and have threatened to sue Schwarzenegger if he doesn't return his magazine proceeds.
The second controversy doesn't pertain to what Schwarzenegger did. Rather, it's what he wants to do: pass Proposition 77. If approved this November, the bill would make California's redistricting process non-legislative -- not a popular idea within the predominately Democratic legislature -- by turning over control to a panel of retired judges.
First, State Attorney General Bill Lockyer went to court to get the initiative removed from the November special ballot. Lockyer's contention: The version of Prop 77 that he reviewed wasn't the same as the one used for public signature-gathering. Technically, Lockyer has a point. He's also splitting hairs, as the 11 discrepancies in question are picayune at best. For example, the petition that voters signed gives lawmakers five days to pick a judicial panel; Lockyer's version said six days. There doesn't appear to be an effort to deliberately mislead voters.
It's not the first time that Lockyer, a liberal Democrat who's running for state treasurer next year, has played fast and loose with the initiative process. As the attorney general, his job is to write impartial title and ballot summaries. But that's not always been the case. The summary for another of Schwarzenegger's initiatives in this fall's special election -- Proposition 76, the "Live within Our Means Act," which would enable the governor to make spending cuts when the state budget goes into the red -- says little about tighter purse strings. Instead, it reads:
Changes state minimum school funding requirements… permitting suspension of minimum funding, but terminating repayment requirement, and eliminating authority to reduce funding when state revenues decrease. Excludes above-minimum appropriations from schools' funding base.
Other examples of Lockyer's whole-language approach include Proposition 38, a school voucher initiative which lost badly in November 2000. He gave it this ominous-sounding description: "public funding of private and religious schools." The same year's Proposition 22, California's Defense of Marriage Act, was re-titled "Limits on Marriage" instead of its original "Definition of Marriage." Earlier this year, Lockyer helped chase away another initiative Democrats loathed -- public pension reform -- by misleadingly claiming in his summary that the measure would eliminate orphan and widow death benefits for police and firefighters.
Still, the AG's willingness to do his party's bidding in court -- in the process, taking on California's Republican secretary of State, who refuses to take Prop 77 off the ballot -- is evidence of partisan shenanigans breezing out west. That, and the Democrats' insistence that the initiative's errata are part of a larger Republican cabal. The fact that the initiative's legal team talked to the governor's legal office before the error became public is seen as grounds by Democrats to pose the question, "What did the governor know and when did he know it?"
Unfortunately for Schwarzenegger, this creates a credibility problem as he prepares for a special election that's only thee-and-a-half months away. And, ironically, his celebrity -- the same quality that brought him to office -- may be partially to blame.
The bigger the pratfall by Schwarzenegger -- or potential to embarrass the governor -- the greater the temptation for the media to harp the situation. Sometimes these stories are just plain misleading, as when the San Francisco Chronicle wrote breathlessly about the governor renting out office space to his own campaign committees -- before telling its readership, 17 paragraphs into the story, that the practice is legally permissible. When the news of Schwarzenegger's magazine deal broke, the Los Angeles Times gave it a double-decker headline on the top fold of the paper's front page, the equivalent of a Supreme Court announcement. Is $1 million in side money unusual for a star? Not really. According to Sports Illustrated, 34 of the nation's 40 highest paid athletes made that much or more in endorsements last year. You might also recall that Sarah Jessica Parker was paid $38 million to be the oldest woman in Gap ads before being tossed aside for the younger, hipper Joss Stone.
In California, officeholders are free to earn extra income, and many do, just not in the same league as the Governator. Fabian Nunez, the Democratic state Assembly speaker, has received $35,000 a year from a labor front group -- far less money and with a far greater impact on policy. Are lawmakers willing to do away with outside income, to prevent the impression of conflict of interest? A reform bill has been proposed. However, it would apply only to the governor and the other seven constitutional officeholders; the 120 members in the Legislature will still be making money on the side.
It will be a challenge for Schwarzenegger to learn how to react to these bumps as a statesman and avoid going into 'Ahnuld' "Tonight Show" mode, as he did in his first press availability after deciding to return the magazine money. "As I said in the beginning when I was elected, I will be as open as possible and let the sun shine into our administration . . . If problems come up, then, that we solve them as quickly as possible," Schwarzenegger told reporters. But then he couldn't resist a bad joke: "I have no problem about the money, but my wife had a little problem with that. She was worried that means less diamonds every year or something like that."
If diamonds are a girl's best friend, Schwarzenegger's may be California Democrats and their friends on the left overplaying their hand. Already, two leading Democrats -- Nunez and Senate President Don Perata -- tried to join the attorney general's redistricting lawsuit. A Sacramento judge said no to that partisan stunt. Still, that didn't discourage two minority voting rights groups from piling on with separate lawsuits in state court against Prop 77, as well as the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund going to federal court in San Jose to kill the initiative. Meanwhile, legislative Democrats have called for a complete accounting of the governor's finances, even if that's counter to previous a ruling by the State Supreme Court protecting lawmakers' privacy. And a Democratic state senator has promised hearings next month in Sacramento to investigate whether gubernatorial staffers broke the law by doing political work on government time.
Indeed, Lockyer's ploy may be the spark that gets the governor's special election off the ground. Two years ago, in the recall election, Californians didn't lack for outrage: the electricity crisis; tripling the state car tax; granting drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. Today, that same anti-establishment feeling is lacking. The governor's reform diet, it seems, needs a supplement.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.
By Bill Whalen