Governor gives ‘special interest’ new slant;

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Teachers, nurses protest depiction

The San Diego Union-Tribune

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lauded teachers union leaders and educators last year for their “generosity and great vision” when they agreed to give up $2 billion in education funding to help balance the state budget.

This year, when the same coalition demanded that Schwarzenegger follow through with that deal and give more money to schools as he promised, he called them “special interests.”

Since being swept into office in the recall campaign of 2003, Schwarzenegger has defined “special interest” selectively.

Most Californians consider special interests to be all-powerful Sacramento players that spend millions on lobbying and campaign contributions. Schwarzenegger has applied the label to well-financed Indian tribes with casinos, public employee unions and others that oppose his agenda, but not to powerful businesses interests that contribute record-breaking sums of money to his causes.

Now unions representing teachers and nurses are fighting back, saying their members are trusted professionals whose only “special interest” is improving education and health care. Schwarzenegger, they say, is doing the bidding of the real special interests — insurers, drug companies and other businesses.

The California Nurses Association recently ran a full-page newspaper ad challenging Schwarzenegger’s depiction of nurses.

“California nurses take `special interest’ in their patients,” the ad states. “Is that what he meant?”

This war of words might be one factor in the recent decline in Schwarzenegger’s popularity. And the rhetorical battle may well shape campaigns over Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures in an anticipated special election this fall.

Schwarzenegger is promoting plans to take redistricting powers away from the Legislature and give them to an independent panel, base teacher pay on merit rather than tenure, enact automatic budget cuts when revenues drop, and make public pensions more like 401(k)-style private plans.

In his inaugural weekly radio address this month, Schwarzenegger said merit pay will reward the best teachers, but he warned that “the special interests will fight this reform.” That would be the California Teachers Association, among others.

As Schwarzenegger has picked fights over issues dear to Democratic-leaning groups such as the nurses and teachers, his popularity has declined.

Last week, a statewide Field Poll gave Schwarzenegger a 55 percent approval rating that, while still high, is a 10-point drop from September.

Schwarzenegger also saw an increase in the percentage of voters who believe he backs “special interests.” In an August Field Poll, 27 percent thought he favored special interests, while 56 percent said they believed he represented the public interest. Last week, 40 percent said he favors special interests while 49 percent said he is a defender of public interests.

Nurses and teachers unions take credit for the declining poll numbers. The polls also show the Republican governor, who pursued bipartisan relations last year, is increasingly viewed in partisan terms. His Republican support remains off the charts, but his standing has faded dramatically among Democrats, independents and members of other political parties.

The Education Coalition, which is funded largely by the California Teachers Association, is running radio ads saying that Schwarzenegger reneged on his promise to give schools more money than he ended up proposing in his budget.

Roger Salazar, spokesman for the coalition, which also includes the Parent-Teacher Association and an association of school boards, said the ads resonate with voters who see cash-strapped districts forced to lay off teachers and increase class sizes.

“This isn’t a Sacramento thing. These are schoolteachers and principals the public deals with every day,” he said. “The governor is spitting in the wind when he tries to define teachers and principals as special interests.”

The coalition has already spent about $200,000 on radio ads and plans more. Although the ads haven’t focused on Schwarzenegger’s merit pay proposal and automatic spending cap, the coalition is likely to oppose them, Salazar said.

“These are smoke screens the governor is using to try to hide the fact that the biggest problem schools are facing is underfunding,” he said.

Last week, Schwarzenegger counterattacked, launching his own $100,000-a-week radio ad campaign. His ad features a teacher saying she is disappointed that the teachers union’s ad claimed he was cutting education spending when he has actually proposed a nearly $3 billion increase for next year.

“The governor’s been under a withering attack by a variety of special interests, in particular public employee unions. We have to set the record straight,” said Marty Wilson, a political adviser to Schwarzenegger.

Wilson, who plans to help Schwarzenegger raise up to $50 million for the possible fall election, defended Schwarzenegger’s definition of special interests. Public employee unions, he said, are special interests because they use the political process to give their members an advantage.

By contrast, Wilson said, businesses lobby the Legislature to improve the economic climate by fending off onerous requirements. “By and large what businesses have to do is stand up to efforts to pick their pockets,” he said.

Many businesses stand behind Schwarzenegger. For example, he has received $1.2 million from Ameriquest Capital Corp., $210,000 from Wal-Mart, $142,000 from Blue Cross of California and $50,000 from Sempra Energy, according to the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

The California Nurses Association, one of the first groups to take on Schwarzenegger, opposed his decision to delay for at least three years regulations that would have lowered the state’s nurse-to-patient ratio from 1-to-6 to 1-to-5. Nurses say the lower ratio is needed to improve patient care, while Schwarzenegger contends it will dramatically drive up medical care costs.

When nurses rallied against Schwarzenegger at a women’s conference in December, he called them special interests and then told the crowd that “special interests don’t like me in Sacramento because I’m always kicking their butts.”

Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association, called Schwarzenegger a “bully.” “He’s forced the nurses to fight back. It’s a women’s occupation, and I think he underestimated us,” she said.

Nurses have spent more than $200,000 on ads attacking Schwarzenegger and have protested his appearances around the state.

Last week, during a Schwarzenegger speech, a group of nurses silently held up banners that read, “Stop the Power Grab.” They were ushered out of the room by the governor’s security detail.

DeMoro cites a Gallup Poll in December showing that Americans trust nurses and grade school teachers more than other professions.

“Going after nurses and teachers isn’t wise,” she said. “Whoever is advising him should be fired.”

Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which analyzes state politics, thinks Schwarzenegger needs to be careful how he responds to some groups. “People like their nurses and they like their teachers. Many people probably don’t even know they have unions,” he said.

Rob Stutzman, communications director for Schwarzenegger, said voters understand the distinction between a professional and a union working for higher wages. “There’s all the difference in the world between a union and between a teacher in the classroom and a nurse in a hospital,” he said.

Unions criticizing Schwarzenegger are strong supporters of Democrats, Stutzman pointed out.

Still, union ad campaigns can be effective. In 1992, the California Teachers Association ran ads against then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican who has advised Schwarzenegger, that coincided with a decline in Wilson’s popularity.

Republican consultant Dan Schnur, who worked for Wilson, said he believes Schwarzenegger’s numbers will improve now that he has his own ad campaign. Schwarzenegger’s ambitious and controversial agenda was bound to dent his popularity, Schnur said.

“Governor Schwarzenegger spent the first few months in office building political capital. Now he’s spending it down,” Schnur said. “He’s much better off with a 51 percent approval rating and his reform agenda completed than a 75 percent approval and nothing accomplished.”

But some analysts question the tactics Schwarzenegger is using to accomplish some of those goals.

Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at California State University Sacramento, said the term “special interest” is no longer effective for Schwarzenegger.

“Special interests in the abstract connotes a negative image of a group that’s lying or conniving or controlling,” she said. “But once you attach it to a specific group, it only works if you don’t like that group or don’t belong to that group.”

Contact the author Bill Ainsworth at: [email protected]

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