An Outsider Candidate Who Favors Insider Advice

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The New York Times

LOS ANGELES, CA – Arnold Schwarzenegger bills himself as the Sacramento outsider in the recall race who can bring a new perspective to government.

Yet he has surrounded himself with accomplished Sacramento insiders, led by former Gov. Pete Wilson and the inner circle that helped him govern for two terms in the 1990’s.

Though Mr. Wilson, 70, has taken a quieter role in day-to-day operations as one of the campaign co-chairmen, those close to him say, he wields great influence over the man trying to make the transition from the silver screen to the governor’s chair.

It may have been Mr. Wilson’s advice over a two-hour lunch that helped persuade Mr. Schwarzenegger, 56, to jump five days later into the race to recall Gov. Gray Davis. A friend of both men says Mr. Wilson recounted a meal he had with Richard M. Nixon in 1966, when Mr. Wilson was considering stepping into politics. Mr. Nixon gave Mr. Wilson — as Mr. Wilson gave Mr. Schwarzenegger — some simple guidance: Don’t dither. Opportunity passes you by.

Bill Whalen, a former speechwriter for Mr. Wilson who shares an office with him at the Hoover Institution, a research center at Stanford University, said that when the war horse talks, the novice listens.

“Pete is older than Arnold,” Mr. Whalen said. “He is not star-struck or a toady. He is in a position to explain things to him in a frank way.”

Mr. Wilson has had success. When he took office in 1991, the problems mirrored those today. Jobs were disappearing, and the state budget deficit was $14 billion. When he left office in 1998, the state was running a large surplus and it had recouped the lost jobs.

But the Wilson team is not without liabilities. It pushed the energy deregulation that lead to rolling blackouts in 2000 that some blame Mr. Davis for.

And it was Mr. Wilson who let slip on a Sunday morning talk show that Mr. Schwarzenegger, who was born in Austria, had supported Proposition 187, a successful ballot initiative that Mr. Wilson sponsored, barring illegal immigrants from state services.

The influence of Mr. Wilson, still a polarizing figure in California politics, may not be apparent to voters. The job of articulating Mr. Schwarzenegger’s positions is left to two other campaign co-chairmen: Representative David Dreier, a photogenic Southern Californian who once dated Bo
Derek, and Abel Maldonado, a Hispanic assemblyman from Santa Maria and a rising Republican star who will be the Schwarzenegger spokesman on immigration should Mr. Davis sign a controversial bill allowing illegal immigrants to obtain drivers licenses.

Still, Mr. Wilson is the power behind the operation, and Democrats promise to make hay of it in the run-up to the Oct. 7 recall vote.

“The question is: is Arnold Pete Wilson incarnate or is he the true independent?” says Sheri Annis, a former consultant to Mr. Schwarzenegger and president of Fourth Estate Strategies. “It’s best in politics to steer away fromthose with baggage. But this is a short, short race, and it’s hard to know if the public will care. One thing is true, everyone on this team knows the ropes.”

As Mr. Schwarzenegger presents himself as a breath of fresh air, Wilson critics wonder if his run is merely a shadow campaign for a Wilson third term. Mr. Wilson has done little to dispel such perceptions. He was asked, before Mr. Schwarzenegger’s surprise plunge into the race, why anyone would want the headache of dealing with California’s dysfunctional Legislature or its sinking economy.

“I will reveal a deep character flaw,” Mr. Wilson said in an interview. “I’m sufficiently masochistic in that I would willingly undertake the challenge of trying to rescue it. Former governors who are term limited are barred.”

A certain part of Pete Wilson misses the political game, said Kenneth L. Khachigian, a former strategist to Ronald Reagan who most recently advised Darrell Issa, the San Diego congressman who bankrolled the $2 million recall petition only to drop from the race for governor at the last moment.

“Pete wants to participate,” Mr. Khachigian said. “He cares deeply about this state. For four and a half years, nobody asked his advice, and now his juices are flowing.”

Among Mr. Wilson’s coterie working on the Schwarzenegger campaign is Bob White, his chief political lieutenant for more than 30 years. Mr. White is regarded as one of the best-connected men in Sacramento, an avuncular figure untainted by scandal. He has been, over the years, Mr. Wilson’s fixer, facilitator and schmoozer. Mr. White runs the day-to-day operation of the campaign. George Gorton, who ran Boris Yeltsin’s re-election campaign, is Mr. Schwarzenegger’s chief strategist.

The finance and tax advisers were plucked from the Hoover Institution, where Mr. Wilson is a fellow. Among them are George P. Schultz, the former secretary of state; Michael Boskin, former adviser to Mr. Wilson and former chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers; and John Cogan, a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget under the first President George Bush who is in line to be Mr. Schwarzenegger’s independent auditor.

Patricia Clarey, a former Wilson deputy, manages the logistics. From the East and a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Ms. Clarey is said to be the conduit to Mr. Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver, who holds great influence over him. Sean Walsh, a campaign spokesman, was also employed by Mr. Wilson.

News that the campaign had hired another Wilson associate, Martin Wilson, raised eyebrows. He, along with the advertising guru Don Sipple, were embroiled in an insurance scandal that drove the insurance commissioner, Chuck Quackenbush, from office.

A member of Mr. Wilson’s inner circle when he was governor, Martin Wilson, no relation, is co-manager of the day-to-day campaign operations. His consulting firm, Public Strategies Inc., received nearly $400,000 from a foundation set up by Mr. Quackenbush after the Northridge earthquake in 1994.

Instead of paying huge fines, insurance companies accused of mishandling claims were allowed to contribute to foundations ostensibly devised to help earthquake victims. Instead, the foundations spent millions of dollars on television advertisements devoted to enhancing Mr. Quackenbush‘s political image.

Mr. Sipple, who now produces Mr. Schwarzenegger’s commercials, wrote the scripts for the Quackenbush advertisements and was paid $125,000, government records show. Mr. Quackenbush resigned in 2000 rather than face impeachment proceedings. Neither Mr. Wilson nor Mr. Sipple was charged with crimes.

Nevertheless, bad perceptions linger, said Brad Sherman, the Democratic congressman who represents the Northridge area.

“A lot of people feel they got cheated,” Mr. Sherman said. “If Schwarzenegger wants to say he is going to clean up special interests, he needs to start with his own staff.”

Mr. Sipple, considered one of the most effective advertising people in politics, is best known for his commercial “They Just Keep Coming,” which depicted illegal immigrants sneaking into California. It was made in support of Proposition 187, and alienated a large part of the Latino community.

As good as its winning percentage is, the Wilson team has had highly publicized defeats in recent years. Dan Lungren hired some of Mr. Wilson’s top media and polling strategists in 1998 in a losing campaign for governor against Mr. Davis. Mr. Sipple was the chief strategist last year for Richard J. Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor, who lost by 42 points to Bill Simon Jr. in the
Republican primary.

Mr. Gorton played down the controversies involving some in the Wilson camp.

“The public doesn’t care about that stuff,” he said. “It’s too inside baseball.”

Harvey Rosenfield, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights who supports the recall, says an opportunity is being missed. “The election is shaping up as a runoff between the same political establishment that got us into this mess over the last 10 years,” Mr. Rosenfield said. “The Wilson Republicans and the Davis Democrats.”

The paradox of the political outsider working with the consummate insiders would be a good backdrop for the next Schwarzenegger movie, Mr. Rosenfield said. “It’s the script where the hero gets taken over by the robots he’s trying to protect the public from.”

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