Careful what you wish for

GOP conservatives face the morning after

True-blue conservative lawmakers avoided recall candidate Tom McClintock and opted for a shotgun marriage of convenience to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s on the wrong side of all the social issues they care about.

True-blue conservative lawmakers avoided recall candidate Tom McClintock and opted for a shotgun marriage of convenience to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s on the wrong side of all the social issues they care about.

Photo By Larry Dalton

On election night, long before the new governor bounded onto a Los Angeles stage overflowing with scores of supporters, his opponent, Tom McClintock, spoke before fans in a much smaller room at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento. At his side were exactly two allies: Senator Rico Oller, R-San Andreas, and Assemblyman Tony Strickland, R-Thousand Oaks, who applauded as McClintock made a somewhat celebratory concession speech. Oller and Strickland were both quick to back McClintock, but most other GOP lawmakers sensed hope elsewhere and voted with their feet by jumping on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Comeback Express” bus. When election night came, many of those legislators were celebrating with their new messiah down in Tinseltown.

Before the confetti was even swept up the morning after the landslide recall vote, Senate President John Burton, who’s suddenly the state’s top Democrat, was expressing his bemusement at the strange alliance between conservative Republican lawmakers and the Hollywood action hero who came to their rescue.

“This is something for the Republicans to be careful what they wish for,” Burton said at a Capitol press conference, noting that it was fellow Republicans who gave ex-Governor Pete Wilson his biggest headaches. “I think it’s a wonderful thing that the Republicans have elected a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights, pro-gun-control governor.”

Republicans think it’s wonderful, too, though for different reasons. For the first time in five years, they have someone on defense with a veto pen. But Republican lawmakers are a fiercely conservative bunch, and outside of the fiscal issues that will take center stage after the inauguration, there’s the unpleasant reality of the deep split between them and the governor on social issues.

For players like Benjamin Lopez, a lobbyist for the Traditional Values Coalition, the new governor is a net improvement—but not much of one. Lopez, who represents 8,500 California churches, has already written to request a meeting with the new administration even though he’s still bitter about aspects of the election.

Not only did candidate Schwarzenegger refer to people like him as “nuts and fanatics,” Lopez said, but there was the additional indignity of watching his allies line up behind the actor.

“I’m still left with shock and disbelief that many of the diehard party leaders who actively fought gay rights and abortion rights more or less sold out in endorsing Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Lopez said. “But I’m willing to put that behind us.”

One of those Arnold-backers was Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Roseville, who is among the most socially conservative members of the Legislature. What was he doing lending his support to someone who admitted drug use, group sex and serial groping?

“I concluded he was the only one who could win,” Leslie said, “and I’ve been in the minority for 17 years, every single minute.” Even though constituents gave his office an earful about the endorsement, Leslie said he’s comfortable with the new governor because Republican lawmakers will at least be able to get the governor’s ear when they need it.

For now, conservatives are willing to look the other way, and top Republicans dismiss the potential for open conflict. Assembly Republican Leader Dave Cox brushed off a question about a split on social issues at a press conference last week.

“I don’t think there will be a showdown,” said Assemblyman John Campbell, R-Irvine. Campbell, who backed Schwarzenegger, expects Republicans to get over their differences because even lawmakers who don’t agree with the incoming governor on some issues got nothing from the Davis administration.

Assemblyman Keith Richman, R-Northridge, probably his party’s most moderate lawmaker, doesn’t think social issues are the top concern of Californians right now. And he expects the change to strengthen his favorite cause: bipartisanship. “There’s certainly the potential for the left wing and the right wing to work together. There isn’t going to be any other way to get something done.” Such a bipartisan reconciliation would be extraordinary in the current political atmosphere, where both sides are dug in on the partisan fringe.

At this point, Republicans clearly don’t intend to kick the movie star out of bed just because he isn’t their dream-date archconservative.

“I’ve never seen the party so unified and pragmatic as it is now,” said veteran GOP political consultant Allan Hoffenblum, who publishes the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of state legislative contests. “They’re emotionally committed to [Schwarzenegger] right now.” Both sides needed the other if they wanted power. Schwarzenegger asked for support from Republican leaders, and they gave it knowingly. “They knew this going in. There was sort of a compact between Arnold Schwarzenegger and the conservatives.”

That wasn’t good enough for pro-life, anti-gay groups, which held the same contempt for Schwarzenegger as for Davis. During the campaign, Campaign for California Families Executive Director Randy Thomasson blasted both of them at a Sacramento press conference where he was flanked by giant photographs of each taking communion. Californians for Moral Government filled Sacramento airwaves with a 60-second spot that showed Schwarzenegger morphing into Davis and said both are “pro-abortion.”

With a setup like that, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see Democrats doing their best to turn the honeymoon into a lovers’ quarrel. Democrats still control the Legislature, so they’re free to send as many bills as they want to the governor’s desk, potentially forcing him to alienate either his conservative base or the moderates who elected him.

One flashpoint could be the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Caucus. Last year, its five members (all Democrats) showed their growing muscle by introducing a series of ambitious bills. Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, introduced Assembly Bill 196, to add legal protections for transsexuals and transvestites. Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, wrote Assembly Bill 205, to expand rights of domestic partners (Leslie and other critics called it “de facto gay marriage”). Davis ended up signing both, which left conservatives on the sidelines with steam shooting out of their ears.

Schwarzenegger appealed to both social conservatives and social moderates during the campaign. His support for abortion rights was tempered by his opposition to partial-birth abortion and support of parental notification, both of which eased the troubled minds of backers like Leslie. Schwarzenegger also professed vague support for gay rights but said he wouldn’t sign Assembly Bill 205.

Like some of his colleagues, Leno expects Schwarzenegger “will find conflict at every turn.” And Leno plans to make it his business that the new governor does by forcing him to choose between conservative allies and the moderate campaign gestures. Leno said he’ll push Schwarzenegger to immediately disassociate himself from an effort by two Republican lawmakers pushing a March ballot measure to block Assembly Bill 205.

“He’s either with us or he’s against us,” Leno said. And if it’s against, “we’ll let it be known that this is no social moderate, and it was all facade.”

Lopez, the Traditional Values Coalition lobbyist, expected as much: “They’re going to make life hell for Arnold.”