The Boston Globe
SACRAMENTO, CA — With his star-powered political career having dimmed considerably, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California is again in full campaign mode, blitzing the state for a package of government overhauls on the ballot in a November special election that could well become a referendum on his own political future.
After months of being coy about whether he would seek reelection, Schwarzenegger winner of a 2003 winner-takes-all recall election last month put to rest any doubts as to whether he would seek a full term as governor of the country’s most populous state.
He had been under pressure to announce his reelection plans in advance of the controversial Nov. 8 special election, which Schwarzenegger called to win voter support for three ballot measures central to his agenda to revamp government.
Schwarzenegger is seeking to enhance his power over the state budget, exert muscle on the hiring and firing of public school teachers, and bring about seismic shifts in the political landscape by redrawing legislative and congressional districts.
“I think this election will reflect on Schwarzenegger’s standing with California voters. The initiatives are serving as a proxy for the governor himself,” said Douglas Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a nonpartisan watchdog group that has been among Schwarzenegger’s harshest critics.
A poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California indicated that one-third of adult Californians approve of the governor’s job performance, his lowest standing ever, down from 61 percent a year ago.
The poll is the latest evidence of the considerable public relations challenges facing the governor, particularly among the state’s sizeable bloc of moderates and independents who polls say are defecting.
Perhaps more troubling, a recent Field Poll suggested that Schwarzenegger would lose against either of the two leading Democrats who have announced plans to run for governor, neither of whom can match Schwarzenegger’s charisma nor his name recognition.
Moreover, polls suggest that Schwarzenegger’s overhaul measures haven’t caught fire with voters.
“This election was called by Schwarzenegger, and it is a referendum on Schwarzenegger,” said Bob Mulholland, a strategist for the California Democratic Party.
Schwarzenegger is preparing to barnstorm the state to campaign for his measures and to reconnect with a public that has seemingly abandoned him in droves, according to Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution fellow and a former speechwriter for two-term Republican governor Pete Wilson.
“If [Schwarzenegger] is rejected, it would be embarrassing,” Whalen said. “If he prevails, then he’ll have a lot of momentum going into next year.”
As an incumbent, Whalen said, Schwarzenegger is “no longer an outsider the way he used to be,” when he joined the campaign to two years ago to oust and succeed governor Gray Davis. “He used to be a celebrity, then he became celebrity/politician Schwarzenegger. And now, he’s more politician.”
That he is viewed as just another politician could be perilous for someone who continues to cast himself as a reformer attempting to sweep the Capitol of special interests and bring major change to California’s political landscape, said Whalen.
Among the measures Schwarzenegger is pushing in November’s special election is Proposition 77, a reapportionment plan that would establish a three-member panel of retired judges to redraw the state’s 153 legislative and congressional districts, mostly dominated by Democrats.
Another is Proposition 76, which would place limits on state spending and school funding and give the governor the power to declare a fiscal emergency and unilaterally reduce spending.
A third measure, Proposition 74, would require public school teachers to wait five years, instead of two, before getting tenure.
The same poll last week suggested that all three of the governor’s initiatives were foundering. Proposition 74, the teacher tenure initiative, appears to be losing ground, with support shrinking because voters seem more concerned with teacher retention rather than poor teacher performance, according to the institute analysts.
A fourth ballot measure, Proposition 75, which would require public-employee unions to get written permission from members before using dues for political causes, is also being backed by Schwarzenegger. Early polls indicate that it is ahead comfortably before an expected onslaught of television spots bankrolled by teachers, police, and firefighters.
“Governor Schwarzenegger’s reelection is a year off, and nobody should read too much into what this election will mean,” said Karen Hanretty, spokeswoman for the California Republican Party. “This election is about some significant issues.”
Pickets have followed Schwarzenegger’s appearances across the state. Unions have used the airwaves and billboards to express their anger at Schwarzenegger and to curry favor among an apparently sympathetic public.
“It is hard combat trying to change a system that does not want to be changed,” Schwarzenegger said during a Sept. 17 speech at the California Republican Party Convention.
“I am bloody… but unbowed,” Schwarzenegger said in announcing his run for a second term.
In recent weeks, the governor has toned down some of his rhetoric, even offering an apology for the harsh words he has used against nurses. At a women’s conference last year, Schwarzenegger riled nurses when he called them “special interests” and said, “I kick their butts.” The governor and nurses’ unions have been quarreling over his plan to reduce nurse-to-patient staffing ratios.
“The question now is: Is he on the way up, or is he going to stay in the toilet?” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State University.
O’Connor and others have been baffled by Schwarzenegger’s transformation from a populist with a message of bipartisanship and reconciliation to the more recent political pugilist picking fights with heavyweights from the political establishment.
“He has squandered his popularity,” O’Connor said. “He needs to broaden the message and broaden his base. He still can.”