Promises, promises

Arnold vowed to change the role of big money in California politics. Did he ever.

Writer Derek Cressman dissects Schwarzenegger’s record on reform.

Writer Derek Cressman dissects Schwarzenegger’s record on reform.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

The Recall’s Broken Promise will be available in local bookstores on August 6. Author Derek Cressman will be signing copies at the Avid Reader at The Tower on September 9 at 1:00 p.m. and at the Avid Reader in Davis, September 28, at 7:30 p.m.

What did Arnold do with that broom? Remember the one he used to wave around promising to sweep the special interests out of Sacramento? On August 6, it will have been four years since our governor announced his candidacy on The Tonight Show, promising to “clean house.”

Four years later, as author Derek Cressman notes in his new book, The Recall’s Broken Promise: How Big Money Still Runs California Politics, the Austrian Oak not only has failed to fulfill that promise, he’s also shattered previous fund-raising records, and has gone out of his way to undermine the state’s already weak campaign-finance laws.

Cressman, executive director of the government watchdog group the Poplar Institute, says Schwarzenegger could have been a reformer, even could have been another Teddy Roosevelt or Hiram Johnson. Instead, he turned out to be Gray Davis on steroids.

In the book, you describe Gray Davis as a “money grubbing pig,” and say that’s what set the stage for the recall.

Yeah, and actually I go back a little farther and look at the races that really I think cast the mold of Gray Davis as a big-money politician and someone who didn’t have wealth himself and had to go raising money hand-over-fist from wealthy interests and special interests. I think Davis’ obsession with raising political cash had a lot to do with creating the political culture that led up to the recall in 2003. I think that built up a latent disgust in voters and a real distrust of Davis. When various crises hit the state, like the energy crisis, the budget crisis, they didn’t have faith that he would deal with those in a way that looked out for the average Joe.

That provided an opportunity for Schwarzenegger to pick up his broom, literally, and promise to change that political culture.

Yeah, 2003 was really a rare moment in California history where people got together and rose up and said, “We’re going to take things into our own hands.” And the candidates, Arnold in particular, responded to that with a very populist type of campaign—saying he wasn’t going to take money from special interests, he was going to sweep Sacramento clean. There was this palpable sense of hope coming out of the recall. It really set the stage for a new era of reform in California.

But it didn’t take Arnold long to diverge from that promise.

Even within the recall campaign itself, it became clear that he was going to take lots of money from other people and other interests that clearly had an agenda in Sacramento.

So break it down: How does Arnold stack up against other fund-raisers?

Schwarzenegger raised $136 million over the course of three years. That’s for the recall, the California Recovery team, his ballot questions, re-election. It’s all in there.

In comparison, Dianne Feinstein raised $9.4 million to reach the same number of voters in the exact same year. Michael Huffington, back in 1994, raised $27 million against Feinstein and that was considered, back then, an astronomical figure. Gray Davis spent $127 million in seven years compared to Schwarzenegger’s $167 million in five years. Al Gore raised $132 million in four years. Arnold raised more than that just for one state.

I want to ask about using ballot committees to get around campaign laws. Arnold really elevated that to an art in the 2005 special election.

Candidates and elected officials have supported ballot questions before in California. The Political Reform Act was an initiative that Jerry Brown helped put on the ballot in 1974. But what was different starting in 2004, 2005 and 2006 was that for the first time there were limits [because of Proposition 34] in place, in terms of what governors and candidates could collect for their own candidate campaigns. Having this other vehicle of a ballot question committee to promote one’s self and one’s agenda became a much more valuable tool. Arnold and his consultants quickly figured that out. They realized they could use 2005 as a sort of a warm up to the 2006 gubernatorial election. They could hold a special election where they could raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, unhampered by those campaign-finance restrictions that were applying to the candidate campaigns.

Just to be clear, none of the money could go directly to the ‘06 re-election campaign?

It’s not supposed to. This is a new innovation, recognizing ballot-initiative campaigns as, in essence, the new loophole for big money in politics. Much like we saw so-called soft money sprout up in the federal elections during the 1990s and during the Clinton White House. In essence, the consultants came up with a way around the candidate rules by sending money through the parties. In California, we’re starting to see a similar thing where they are getting around the candidate rules by funneling money into ballot committees.

It’s not just ballot committees, right? There are these general-issue committees. The legislative leaders are raising money on health-care issues, for example.

Yeah, the consultants and candidates are increasingly using ballot committees as general-issue committees to promote their agenda and talk about their issues. But, really, when you have a candidate up there talking about their issues, it is for all practical purposes a candidate ad. They just don’t say, “Vote for me.” So they have these standing committees on health care, term limits and multiple other issues.

Is that because Schwarzenegger opened the lid on this kind of loophole?

Cruz Bustamante really opened the door—then Arnold sort of blew it open, or kicked it down. Bustamante was having a hard time raising massive sums of money within those new limits. He opened a committee on the affirmative-action question, Proposition 54, and raised really eye-popping amounts from a handful of Indian tribes. That was later ruled illegal. But by that time, he’d already spent the money. The Fair Political Practices Commission really did try to respond to Bustamante’s abuse, and issued these new regulations to deal with candidate-controlled ballot committees. That tripped Arnold up for a brief period time before he went to court to throw those regulations out. And he won.

But what happened to the broom?

The guy who ran for reform, with a broom, actually sued the state to weaken its campaign-finance laws. It’s about as stark a 180 as you can imagine.

Davis was so associated with this sort of avaricious fund raising, it brought him down. Why doesn’t that kind of reputation stick to Arnold?

I think it did in 2005, when he went to war with the nurses and his poll ratings went down to the 30s. In 2006, he raised money, but not in the way that was so dramatically different from what [Democrat gubernatorial candidates Steve] Westly and [Phil] Angelides were doing. And he’s in essence stopped pushing the envelope and looking for new loopholes. He’s seemed content to live within the existing loopholes for the time being. But I think for a while it was sticking to him in the way that it was sticking to Gray Davis, and he made a course correction.

So why write this book now?

Because we’re four years after the recall. I think it’s important to remind Schwarzenegger and the legislators how voters felt back then, and how many of them probably still feel. Secondly, I think a lot of the voters who supported Schwarzenegger in the recall and his really international fan base might be interested in a report card. It’s a chance to hold him accountable to his words and to compare those to his actions.

In the book, you have this sense of a real missed opportunity. That Arnold could have done something remarkable in the political-reform arena.

Yeah, he squandered the historic opportunity. He compares himself to Hiram Johnson. And I think he campaigned like Teddy Roosevelt. You know, a popular moderate Republican who came in to stand up to the corporate trusts and the special interests. There was a very similar historic moment here, where Schwarzenegger could have done the same and basically fell short of the challenge.

He does have his own money. He could have done what he said he was going to do. Why didn’t he?

That is to me the biggest question. He was a relative novice to politics, and he may have put too much trust in his cadre of political consultants who make their living by raising and spending tens of millions of dollars. That could be a factor. It could also be that Schwarzenegger so wants to be popular and wants to be loved that he’s happy to tell people what they want to hear at the right moment and then not really be willing to spend the political capital to follow through. But that is the question: Why didn’t he seize that moment?