A Four-Part Fight


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is picking a fight with longtime powers in Sacramento instead of trying to be everybody’s pal, raising a question of whether he can bring voters along with him who are torn by their desire for good government but angry over mounting partisanship.

Voters, according to a recent Mervin Field California Poll, are open to the governor’s four reform ideas heading into a probable November special election, even though voters don’t personally approve of Schwarzenegger as much as they once did.

The California Poll shows about half of Californians support his four reforms — basing teacher raises on merit, changing state worker pensions to a 401(k)-like system, creating an independent panel of retired judges to draw voting districts and instituting automatic budget cuts when California’s treasury runs low. Smaller numbers of voters oppose the reforms or don’t have an opinion yet.

Perhaps Schwarzenegger’s toughest sell is the least sweeping: reforming government pensions that, according to the state Department of Finance, guarantee a state secretary hired today who works 20 years and retires at age 60 will receive a $1 million payout if living to full life expectancy. These exploding costs are increasingly borne by taxpayers. Schwarzenegger’s plan, authored by state Assemblyman Keith Richman, a Jewish Republican from the San Fernando Valley, faces vociferous opposition from the powerful 140,000-member California State Employees Association.

Schwarzenegger fares better in the California Poll on his idea to give raises to teachers based on merit rather than solely on seniority. He has yet to flesh out the details, but a hefty 60 percent like the idea, likely to involve giving raises to teachers who outperform a statewide sample of teachers whose students match their own kids both economically and racially.

Although rising partisanship has hurt Schwarzenegger, some observers say he can still attract liberal Jews and others who are not natural allies but who want government to be more effective for those in need.

Ben Austin, political strategist for liberal Democrats, notes that, “because the governor has two very different constituencies he needs to speak to, the governor is in a difficult but not untenable situation. Conservatives want to see these reforms as vehicles for making government smaller and more efficient. For liberal Jews and other progressives, he needs a language to discuss his ideas in the context of making government better but not smaller: more able to serve those who progressives believe need help — children, the elderly and others.”

Not surprisingly, Schwarzenegger is working to appeal to liberally oriented groups associated with good government. He’s found some unexpected non-Republican allies.

A case in point is Common Cause, which supports an end to the “safe seats” gerrymandering scheme in California that currently allows incumbents to use computers to divide voters into bizarrely shaped voting districts specifically designed to return incumbents to office. Last fall, “safe seats” guaranteed that not a single one of California’s 173 legislative and congressional seats changed party hands.

Another group that does not typically align itself with causes led by Republicans is Education Trust-West, which concerns itself with achievement among urban and especially black children.

While not endorsing merit pay for teachers, Education Trust-West recently spoke warmly about Schwarzenegger’s idea for bonus pay for talented teachers who agree to work in inner-city schools — an idea intensely ridiculed by teacher unions.

Jews offer a bellwether into whether the governor can sell his ideas to voters who, while skeptical of Schwarzenegger, aren’t happy with the public schools, state deficits and gerrymandering.

Political analyst Pat Caddell, a former pollster for President Jimmy Carter, says it is possible Schwarzenegger has already poisoned the well with liberals, including Jews, by raising enormous sums of money — roughly $73,000 per day — to fight the well-monied status-quo groups who oppose these changes.

“If Arnold just acts like the pro-business candidate and Democrats are summed up as the anti-reform unions and special interests, I think that really fails to involve the citizenry who are affected by all this,” Caddell said. “Arnold can’t fly alone on this or he will be in big trouble. He has to reach out to the middle-class voters, such as parents who always get left out of education reform.”

Republican Jewish voters, largely thrilled with the governor’s bold strokes, believe he still has the ability to appeal to liberals.

Eva Nagler, a Republican Jewish Coalition board member and a professor of political science, notes that “because Arnold still transcends politics as usual — with Republicans saying he is too liberal — he’s still more palatable to liberal Jews than other Republicans. Arnold’s not a threat to their traditional issues of separation of church and state, environmental protection. He still has an opening.”

If approved, the four key reforms would directly affect millions of people –voters, families with children and taxpayers. Austin said that while the fight will be furious, “The governor’s ability to communicate means it’s not impossible. There is a path out of the forest.”

So get ready for the greatest test of Arnold’s communication powers so far. His real challenge is to convince Californians that while he can’t be everybody’s best friend, he’s striving to do what’s right.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at