Look homeward, Arnold

By the 100th day of his second term Gray Davis had achieved, well … nothing. Can Schwarzenegger do any better?

Illustration By B.Z.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger takes office, some Democratic leaders are giving him just 100 days to show results, so it’s worth noting what the Democrats did with their first 100 days one year ago and what’s changed in the bubbling political brew since then.

I attended both Gray Davis’ and Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial victory events. They were almost a year apart, both at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. All similarities end there. A year ago last November, everyone I spoke to at Davis’ victory party was either a union official, lobbyist or state worker who had to attend to protect a state contract with Davis or who was ordered there by a boss.

There was so little enthusiasm for Davis that only a few dozen people milled about the ballroom floor. When word came that Davis would appear to give his victory speech, several TV news crews went live and a crowd of 30 or so hip urbanites suddenly surged before the cameras, loudly chanting for Davis. Davis showed up flanked by men in gray suits who stood inches from his sides and back at all times, as if Davis were about to be mobbed.

Upon closer inspection of the knot of excited supporters who had instantly appeared, I recognized several Davis staffers—loyal insiders doing their duty to obscure the truth. To viewers at home, they made it appear on TV as if Davis was wildly popular.

Contrast that to October 7, when hundreds of invited guests and journalists could not get into the Century Plaza ballroom because the fire marshal declared it had reached capacity. Too many guests and far too many TV cameras—by one estimate, more than 150—were jammed in.

The overflow VIPs and reporters streamed into the packed lobby bar upstairs to watch big TVs as Schwarzenegger, the Shriver family, a couple dozen beaming Republicans and Jay Leno crammed the stage.

The sheer range of political archetypes on stage didn’t make it any less stunning to me the following afternoon, when Schwarzenegger announced a transition team which offered the powerful symbolism of bipartisanship.

Bipartisanship grew rare during five years under Davis, who poisoned the already tense atmosphere in Sacramento by treating the minority Republican leadership like a disease he had to bear. In politics, there’s a longtime saying, “A fish rots from the head down,” and the cold Davis seemed to fan both a creeping “pay to play” corruption and an increasingly brittle hatefulness between the two parties. Even under controversial Governor Pete Wilson, bipartisanship was a far healthier patient.

Right after Schwarzenegger won, liberal Democratic state Senator John Vasconcellos of Santa Clara dubbed the governor-elect a “boob” and announced he might resign from office. That would be fine with a political centrist like me—and even better for the poorly represented people of Santa Clara. Vasconcellos, a political fossil filled with partisan bile, illustrates precisely what is wrong in Sacramento.

Lack of intelligent debate got so bad this year that Assemblyman Ray Haynes of Murrieta, an ultra-conservative Republican budget expert, wistfully suggested that getting a strong leader such as archenemy Willie Brown—the liberal former Assembly speaker and now San Francisco mayor—“would be better” than having rudderless wimps like Davis and current Speaker Herb Wesson.

Haynes may be sorry he uttered that. Brown is on the Schwarzenegger transition team. So are about 75 other big-name liberals, conservatives, moderates and the intriguing “radical centrist” Tammy Bruce. A Democrat, Bruce once headed the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Today, she’s far too independent to be acceptable to NOW’s increasingly intolerant liberals-only ideologues.

I spoke to Bruce as she spent her weekend tracking down smart moderates—Democrats or Republicans—as possible candidates for Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff.

“This is going to be a bipartisan administration, and it’s going to be people who have already shown they can rise above partisanship,” she said.

Sounds good to me. But it might be instructive for Schwarzenegger and his transition team to look back at what happened to Davis during the first 100 days of his second administration.

Unless you have been in a coma, you know that Davis got handed an entirely Democratic setup. Voters picked Democrats for lieutenant governor, treasurer, controller, attorney general, secretary of state and superintendent of schools. Democrats lost a few seats to Republicans in the Legislature but still held a big majority.

Yet in Davis’ first month, the Democratic leaders—Senate President John Burton of San Francisco and Speaker Wesson of Los Angeles—ignored Davis’ request that the Legislature immediately start finding spending cuts to reduce the massive $35 billion budget deficit.

Wesson and the two Republican minority leaders, Dave Cox and Jim Brulte, went off with other legislators on a junket with the powerful prison-guard union to Hawaii, and Burton sat in California twiddling his thumbs.

In December, when special budget hearings finally got under way, Davis warned state bureaucrats and legislators that they had to cut $10 billion by late January to avoid even worse hemorrhaging. The governor ordered each government department to prepare plans to absorb the big cuts.

What happened? The Democrats spent the entire next month discussing billions in new taxes and no time discussing how to cut billions in spending. Many department heads in the state bureaucracy, appointed by Davis to jobs that pay $100,000-plus per year, created fake budget plans that hid the fat and that made cuts seem nearly impossible.

Davis never publicly released the embarrassing, lie-filled department “cutback plans.”

When Davis announced relatively tough budget cuts in January, the Republicans endorsed it as a good start. But in a move that showed how disrespected Davis was by his own party—and which I believe was the true seed for the recall movement—Democratic leaders Burton and Wesson made a fateful counter play: They refused to cut a penny from the vastly overspent budget until Republicans agreed to new taxes.

By the 100th day of Gray Davis’ term in mid-February, the governor had achieved—well, nothing.

The Democrats had made no worthwhile cuts from the $78 billion operating budget. The state was losing $20 million a day. Led by minority leaders Senator Brulte and Assemblyman Cox, outraged Republicans made a unanimous stand against taxes. Unlike years past, the Republicans did not budge, even in the face of withering assaults by the media, most of whom quickly sided with the Democrats.

Why should Schwarzenegger’s first 100 days be any different? He walks into the same cantankerous cauldron of catastrophe.

I disagree with those who say the Legislature finally “gets the message” intended by the 55 percent “yes” vote for recall and the 49 percent “yes” vote for Schwarzenegger.

Please. The Legislature is rarely pricked by the real world. “The voters were not paying attention.” “The voters were tricked.” Members of the Legislature are sitting around right now, saying stuff exactly like that.

Remember, several of the Assembly’s most outspoken liberals just 12 weeks ago held a private meeting to explore ways to lengthen the state budget crisis, and make life worse for all kinds of people in California, in order to make us welcome significantly higher taxes.

Luckily, this awful meeting was accidentally broadcast live, unbeknownst to the participants, over hundreds of squawk boxes throughout the Capitol, and the story hit the newspapers. Even so, the legislators who attended—ringleader Jackie Goldberg plus Judy Chu, Mervyn Dymally, John Laird, John Longville, Alan Lowenthal, Patricia Wiggins and Patty Berg—weren’t even ashamed of themselves.

So how does Schwarzenegger ever fix things?

He can make some headway through force of personality, especially with moderates and conservatives. But most of the hard-left and liberal legislators, who wield far more power in Sacramento than such groups enjoy in the real world, probably hate Schwarzenegger.

Sacramento’s hard-left legislators, in particular, are very likely to be plotting even now to make him fail. Their fury is no doubt worse since the Los Angeles Times spent so much money scouring every aspect of Schwarzenegger’s life for dirt to convince people that he’s an evil woman-groper.

Yet Schwarzenegger’s greatest ally won’t be partisans from the other side of the political aisle. More likely, it will be television news. Suddenly, TV news stations in Los Angeles and other cities are on the verge of making decisions to reopen long-closed news bureaus in Sacramento. They know Governor Schwarzenegger means good TV.

If the cameras really do go back to Sacramento, Californians will see the asinine antics of our much-too-anonymous Legislature. They’ll see hard-right Republican Dennis Mountjoy launch his spasmodic speeches against Democrats by making pointless attacks on abortion when the debate is about housing. They’ll see foolish Jackie Goldberg wagging her lefty finger at her moderate and conservative colleagues as she heaps them with ridicule for refusing to ban school mascot names like “The Chiefs.”

If Californians can just actually see these partisan buffoons in action, Schwarzenegger will have an easier time gathering together the normal legislators of both sides who simply want to get the job done.

That kind of success will take a lot longer than 100 days. But if it does happen, California’s “crazy recall” might turn out to be the most sensible thing voters have done in a very long time.