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LA Weekly (Los Angeles, CA)

Arnold Schwarzenegger could well be a one-term governor. Unbelievable as that seemed at the beginning of the year, which the action superstar entered as arguably the most popular governor in California history, it may end up that way.

Suddenly happy Democrats, gathered last weekend at the L.A. Convention Center for their annual state convention, lived up to this e-mail prediction from a Schwarzenegger friend: “It is going to be a gidfest of lefties. They have every right to be happy. They have this governor right where they want him and they are driving the ship.”

Schwarzenegger thinks he is still in the center, unlike George W. Bush. But his opponents are succeeding in recasting him to the right, bad news in this blue state.

Schwarzenegger’s proclaimed “Year of Reform” — intended to capture the national political spotlight in this normally off year — has turned into his year of living dangerously. In a few months, depending on the poll, he has lost a quarter, perhaps as much as a third, of his popularity. And his ballyhooed initiatives are falling like dominoes. Meanwhile, strategist Mike Murphy is said to be telling Schwarzenegger that things are fine.

Facing a firestorm of opposition, he has already had to drop his fatally flawed public-pension initiative. He will soon drop his initiatives on merit pay for teachers and lengthening the time it takes for a teacher to achieve tenure, now only two years. Like pension reform, merit pay was ill-conceived, and Schwarzenegger has already compromised his way from a 10-year service requirement for tenure down to five years; the Democrats want four years. No need for an initiative there.

Insiders acknowledge that the governor has not established a “template for overall reform,” as one puts it. In the absence of that, Schwarzenegger looks like he is scapegoating a popular profession for education problems. Fingers are pointing at Education Secretary Dick Riordan, the former L.A. mayor. “Name one thing he’s done besides insult that little girl,” says a top Arnista, referring to the bizarre incident last year in which Riordan told a child at a reading-promotion event in Santa Barbara that her name meant “stupid, dirty girl,” then told the shocked crowd that he was joking. Riordan is expected to leave his post in the near future.

The reapportionment initiative is also on the dealing block, with the governor now said to be content to have redistricting done by an independent panel after the 2010 Census (which Democrats are agreeable to), rather than mid-decade as he originally demanded after his embarrassment in last November’s election, in which he failed to take any Democratic legislative seats. The reality, as some insiders admitted weeks ago, is that it would have been impossible to do any new redistricting before 2008, and reapportionment was always the least-popular issue in Schwarzenegger’s “reform” basket.

Only the spending-control initiative seems at all sacrosanct for Team Arnold. But even there, insiders acknowledge that the ballot description of it as a measure that could cut education funding makes its prospects perilous, as Schwarzenegger polling indicates.

“There should be heads on pikes around that Capitol,” says a non-political Schwarzenegger friend. “There won’t be, because it’s hard for Arnold to fire people. He can make life unpleasant, however.”

It rarely gets any better than this — for the Democrats.

“It’s not really us — we’ve started being effective lately — it’s their mistakes,” says Democratic operative Roger Salazar, in a break between convention speeches. “In one fell swoop,” notes Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, “the governor created a coalition no one else could have. Talk about your Hollywood special effects.”

A telling scene came last week at a strange little event at the Capitol. Billed as a “Thank You, Arnold” rally, heavily promoted with blast e-mails, robocalls and talk radio, it was a complete bust. A mere 100 supporters turned up to see the strange duo of Hollywood libertine Tom Arnold (the comedian who was Schwarzenegger’s sidekick in True Lies) and abstemious conservative 2003 gubernatorial candidate Tom McClintock.

Looking as if they could scarcely believe their great good fortune, three of Schwarzenegger’s chief Democratic tormentors, Salazar, Steve Maviglio and Bob Mulholland, converged on the L.A. Weekly as the little rally reached its desultory end. “This is really happening,” said Salazar with a note of wonderment. “We shouldn’t compromise with this guy at all,” declared Mulholland. “We don’t have to.”

“He’s operating as governor like he is in one of his movies,” notes Warren Beatty. Despite his long, friendly relationship with Schwarzenegger, who has cited the actor/director as a role model in learning how to control his Hollywood career, Beatty — whose buddy Jack Nicholson arranged coaching for Schwarzenegger when he was trying to break into movies — has broken the Hollywood superstar code of silence and is criticizing the governor. Shortly after a dinner at Schwarzenegger’s home, Beatty gave a widely noted speech last month at a fund-raiser for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a persistent Arnold antagonist, but turned down an invitation to speak at the Democratic convention because he didn’t want to look like he’s running for governor.

“This is an Arnold picture,” says Oscar-winner Beatty. “Superman walks in the room, and shit happens. That can be pretty spectacular. As long as all the characters follow the script. But this isn’t a movie.”

Although he worked hard to prevent Schwarzenegger’s ascension in the 2003 recall, Garry South, engineer of Gray Davis‘ two elections as governor, is not as gleeful as others. “California has to be governed from the center,” says South. “Even if Gray survived, he would have had trouble governing. Schwarzenegger was off to a pretty good start last year with the bipartisanship. With all these mistakes it will be hard for him to get back on course.”

Says former Governor Jerry Brown: “It’s way too soon to count him out. It’s not easy being governor. You make mistakes, it gets much more turbulent. I know about that,” he notes, grinning. “Look, people have liked Schwarzenegger a long time. He corrects mistakes, shows humility, he’s in this thing.”

Is Schwarzenegger known for humility? Calls were placed to his home and office, but did not result in quotes for this story, another sign that his trademark ebullience is ebbing. In the past, he would spar with critics rather than retreat behind the castle walls only to venture forth in carefully managed events. That seems longer ago than it is.

Schwarzenegger knows better than most the power of imagery. No matter how much he insists he is still a bipartisan centrist guy who was so popular, that is no longer his image.

Consumer Watchdog
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