SAN FRANCISCO – Could Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have another “woman problem” on his hands?
He has made headlines in recent months by deriding political opponents as “girlie men” and publicly ridiculing a group of nurses at a state women’s conference.
His latest effort to paint the state’s teachers as little more than a balky special interest group has angered many critics, who have begun to question why constituencies dominated by women have been singled out for such tough talk.
“He behaves like an arrogant patriarch with respect to women’s occupations,” said Rose Ann De Moro, executive director of the California Nurses Association. “Nurses, teachers, home health workers – it’s vulgar how he’s run roughshod over them. He’s arrogant, and he’s a bully.”
As a candidate, Schwarzenegger was dogged by allegations that he had groped and humiliated women on movie sets. Since then, he’s won over many skeptics by appointing women to key staff positions and relying on his wife, journalist and Democrat Maria Shriver, as his closest adviser.
But recently, as he has pressed for budget cuts and a broad package of government reform proposals, some of his turbocharged rhetoric has opened him to charges that his views on women are demeaning and macho.
The criticism began to grow in December, when a small group of nurses gathered at a state women’s conference to protest Schwarzenegger’s decision to side with hospitals and delay changes to the state’s nurse-to-patient ratio.
With Shriver in the audience, Schwarzenegger responded to the protesters by saying, “The special interests don’t like me in Sacramento because I am always kicking their butts.”
The nurses union swiftly denounced his comment, and the verbal sparring has only escalated since.
“The arrogance of taking on teachers, nurses and other professions where women are underpaid, overworked and vital to society is beyond the pale,” said Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and a frequent Schwarzenegger critic.
“But Arnold is someone who treats women as objects, so it’s natural for him to have a tendency to disregard and devalue professions that are made up of women.”
The California Teachers Association and the California Nurses Association recently displayed a willingness to go toe-to-toe with the governor, staging high-profile protests and buying ads critical of his policies and proposals.
Schwarzenegger has denounced teachers for blocking improvements to education and has made merit-based pay for teachers a centerpiece of his government reform plan. While governors of both parties have long battled the powerful CTA, Schwarzenegger has suggested that individual teachers – not just their union – are responsible for failing schools.
The CTA is running radio commercials statewide criticizing the governor’s education proposals. Top officials of the organization, as well as some school administrators, also have publicly accused Schwarzenegger of reneging on a promise to deliver $2 billion in unanticipated state revenue to schools.
The CNA has been even more vocal, taking out full-page newspaper ads suggesting Schwarzenegger’s corporate campaign donors are the real special interests and are the influence behind his agenda.
Last week, some 300 nurses and their supporters disrupted a movie premiere in Sacramento, booing Schwarzenegger as he posed with film stars Vince Vaughn and The Rock.
“A mass movement is developing, and it’s fascinating to see women coming together,” the CNA‘s DeMoro said.
At the heart of the controversy lies Schwarzenegger’s decision to target Democratic interests – including labor unions dominated by women – in his effort to change the way Sacramento does business.
Schwarzenegger supporters dismiss the notion that either his rhetoric or his reform efforts are overly harsh toward women or women’s professions. Instead, they criticize unions for using the controversies to generate publicity.
“To say that women voters perceive Arnold Schwarzenegger as a bully because he’s taking on a reform agenda belittles women,” said Karen Hanretty, a spokeswoman for the California Republican Party.
“This is not about any individual profession. It’s about exposing organized labor unions who have used their influence and set policies that have created multibillion dollar deficits both statewide and nationally.”
Political analyst Tony Quinn said voters are probably ignoring the current controversies or dismissing them as normal political give and take. But he said the danger for Schwarzenegger lies in the widespread public fondness for teachers and nurses.
“Their strength lies in the fact that people genuinely like their teachers and like nurses, even if they don’t necessarily like their union,” Quinn said.