A strange buddy movie

Schwarzenegger and Lockyer hook up to catch a wave of voter resentment. Can this couple stay together?

Illustration By B.Z.

OK, we know he’s not going to use a police-chauffeured Hummer—it’ll be a Lincoln Navigator. We know he cheerily tossed his huge arm around his chuckling potential enemy, Democratic Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson. We know he ordered the same salmon dish at a pricey Sacramento restaurant that Governor Gray Davis ordered every single weekday.

What we don’t know, after watching him greet throngs at the Capitol, is how on earth Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to lead a wildly partisan Legislature through another god-awful effort to pull the state out of a budget quagmire and put some zip back into California’s step.

This year’s budget was stuck together with the fiscal equivalent of gummy bears. Some analysts say that up to $13 billion of the “solution” could be ruled illegal.

If the courts toss out $13 billion in debt-reducing bonds that Davis and the Legislature approved, it’s a new disaster. Those billions would be added to the 2004 deficit. If you hadn’t heard, the 2004 deficit could be $10 billion just on its own because Davis and the Legislature failed to slash costs or raise taxes.

If Schwarzenegger rolls back the $4 billion in extra taxes the state now gets from the tripled car tax—the highest car tax in the nation—we’re looking at what, exactly?

We’re peering at a deficit of between $14 billion and $27 billion for the fiscal year starting in July. Sound familiar?

Of course, the new guv is taking action Davis wouldn’t have had the guts to take. He instantly hired the frighteningly efficient—or you could say brilliantly efficient—budget cutter Donna Arduin, stealing her from Florida Governor Jeb Bush. She is already at work, poring over the most hideous state fiscal books around.

And although he caught hell for bringing the maverick yapper Warren Buffett onboard, Buffett and others are helping dream up ways to save California from rotten interest rates it pays on its huge debts—at a cost of billions a year.

Schwarzenegger also has asked the vacationing Legislature to return to Sacramento for a series of back-to-back special budget sessions, including one to truly fix the worker’s-compensation crisis.

Davis signed watered-down measures to roll back skyrocketing worker’s-comp costs, but only by a tad. Schwarzenegger says that until many thousands of small businesses—the state’s economic engine—get real relief, the drag on jobs and income-tax revenues will be pronounced.

So, Arnold has big plans. But it’s mere fairy dust if Arduin finds, say, $5 billion in waste to cut, Buffett suggests a great way to slash interest costs, and Schwarzenegger presents true worker’s-comp relief and other reforms—and the Democrats won’t play ball.

Schwarzenegger has to play instant diplomat, opening the Republicans’ minds to some way of helping the Democrats save face enough to go along. But the Republicans are still nursing five years of wounds from being ignored.

Republican Senator Chuck Poochigian, who serves on a Democrat-controlled committee that was supposed to fix the screwed-up tax system, said, “The public has gotten it—people are intelligent about these things—that California was on a very radical and anti-jobs course. This accounts for Arnold’s mandate. Now, [Democratic Speaker] Wesson is saying it’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs. That was not shocking to hear, but it was certainly contrary to the position the [Democrats] took in recent years.”

This rift will be hard to overcome. Davis and Lt .Governor Cruz Bustamante refused to speak for four years, and they were both Democrats. So, imagine the warmth between the way-too-far-left Democrats and the way-too-far-right Republicans who jam the Capitol like a box of spoiling fruit.

As a radical centrist who is frequently ashamed of my Democratic Party, I believe that people with non-partisanship as their mantra can help Schwarzenegger change the unchangeable.

Enter, strangely enough, Attorney General Bill Lockyer.

Lockyer is a partisan on classic Democratic issues like protecting labor unions. And I went after him during my spring commentary stint on PBS’ California Connected series, over his noisy outrage at President George Bush’s raids on medicinal-marijuana providers.

The raids are absurd. But former President Bill Clinton ordered far more raids than Bush has on medicinal-marijuana providers. I am fed up with politicos who let their own leaders act like jerks but then tar opponents for the same thing.

Then came the recall. I expected Lockyer to become a raging Katherine Harris II. She is the Florida secretary of state and hard-core Republican who, during the struggle between Bush and Gore in 2000, was so openly partisan and snotty that she helped stoke the nationwide bitterness many Democrats still feel over Florida.

But Lockyer did not fulfill my low expectations of him.

Throughout the recall, Lockyer was handed opportunities to create Democratic mischief. Each time, he pointedly passed. Lockyer and another partisan Democrat, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, narrowly interpreted California’s untried gubernatorial-recall law. To wit: Lockyer found that California law does not say the lieutenant governor becomes governor after a recall. He said a new governor had to be elected the day of the recall. He said Davis could not be listed as a candidate running against himself. Lockyer fought five attempts to delay the election. He continually poured cold water on political moves by his own party that could have erupted into ugly, statewide conflagrations.

And don’t think there wasn’t pressure to help his own side. “I take pride in having done it as a lawyer who obeys the law,” Lockyer told me.

Then, one day, I nearly had a wreck on I-5 when I heard a radio report about Lockyer’s amazing public scolding of Davis. He warned Davis not to engage in “puke politics” like he did to win the 2002 governorship.

I immediately called a few insiders and learned the following: Lockyer was changing, he was sick of go-nowhere partisanship, he was a new father who wanted a better world, and he no longer wanted merely to see his side win at any cost.

Then, several days ago, Lockyer dropped a political bomb on Sacramento. He publicly announced that he’d voted against the recall but had crossed the aisle to vote for Schwarzenegger. Why? Because the other choices were “crappy,” and he believed Schwarzenegger’s message of change.

Lockyer, who dined privately with Schwarzenegger October 22, says he advised the governor-elect, “Stay on the bipartisan road, and you don’t have to prove you love labor, but don’t go out of your way to publicly hate them. I told him very specific things about the procurement system, contracting and budgeting. And I can tell you, Arnold is a quick study.”

Is it possible that Schwarzenegger, a quick study, and Lockyer, a changed man, can act as two pieces of a bridge, in a divided city with a landmark gleaming bridge?

I say yes.

Lockyer has no say over the Democrat-controlled Legislature. But Lockyer, with decades of experience in Sacramento, can help Schwarzenegger wade through it. And by example alone, he can greatly influence his own party.

Schwarzenegger does not have a majority of the Legislature on his side. But with a bugged public behind him, Schwarzenegger can woo enough Democrats to support his business-friendly plan for fixing the mess—as long as he also supports face-saving (but not costly) laws Democratic legislators can show off to placate supporters at the next elections.

Schwarzenegger is making decisions that indicate he understands leadership. Of course, he has advisers. But once the advisers speak, a politician must find the truth in all the talk and act decisively. Davis never grasped the decisive part.

Schwarzenegger immediately announced there would be no “inauguration” but merely a low-key swearing in. The citizenry has utterly lost its taste for endless expenditures by politicians upon themselves, and Schwarzenegger knows it. Moreover, the Democrats lost a historic contest to him, and Schwarzenegger understands he gains no friends by rubbing their noses in it.

I have seen other small things.

Schwarzenegger praised Davis on TV, saying, “He’s going to give me some of the inside information here, and he’s going to help me with the transition.” He practically swooned over Lockyer. When the two dined on October 22, Lockyer told me, Schwarzenegger “quite seriously accepted my advice that he deal with the sex-harassment allegations because that won’t go away.” Schwarzenegger personally clicked with ultra-liberal Senate majority leader John Burton. He met with legislators to say hi and to memorize names—a political skill Schwarzenegger admits he lacks and will flub.

Clearly, Schwarzenegger and Lockyer both know something is going on that’s bigger than the California recall.

On October 23, CNN reported that 89 percent of Americans say the U.S. Senate does not deserve a raise. The liberal residents of Seattle just rejected an espresso tax to pay for social services. In Oregon, residents refused a higher income tax and chose instead such drastic measures as closing public schools several days a year.

This is not about Democrats vs. Republicans.

Californians, and people everywhere, see the government failing to do its most basic job. Roads are not maintained. Budgets are not met. Kids are dropping out. Smog is getting worse. People are willing to pay, but not for such as this.

Schwarzenegger has recognized the wave. And, with a possible assist from unexpected quarters, he will try to ride it in.