Gov. Faces Widening Network of Opposition

A diverse band of foes is using a blend of tactics to put Schwarzenegger on the defensive.

By Peter Nicholas
Times Staff Writer
March 16, 2005

SACRAMENTO ‹ Inspired by what began as an isolated protest by California nurses, opponents of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are working in a loose but widening network to thwart his policy proposals.

They are deploying an aggressive blend of demonstrations, legal action and legislative maneuvers, forcing him to defend his agenda on multiple fronts.

Firefighters and nurses are protesting outside his fundraising events. Democratic lawyers are going to court in an effort to curb the campaign money he’s taking in. Teachers unions are airing TV commercials accusing him of pushing an education budget that shortchanges students.

Democrats are launching legislative inquiries into the governor’s activities with a hair-trigger reflex, using the investigative machinery under their control to probe Schwarzenegger’s communications and fundraising methods.

With the governor’s approval ratings dropping and opponents notching a recent victory in court, anti-Schwarzenegger forces say they’ve shown that a movie star governor who appeared politically invincible not long ago has been cut to human scale.

“There was a perception that this guy is too strong, too popular,” said Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California. “He has a special ability to get press coverage and hog the cameras, and there was a sense you didn’t want to fight him head-on.

“The [California Nurses Assn.] was not concerned about that,” Holober said. “They were concerned about protecting patientsŠ. They have shown other unions and other opponents of the governor’s policies that when he is wrong, you have to confront him and stick to the issue. And you can beat him.”

Today, more than 1,000 protesters are expected outside a fundraising dinner Schwarzenegger has scheduled at the Westin Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. The maximum contribution is $89,200, in return for which donors get perks that include a private briefing with the governor, according to a copy of the invitation.

Nurses, firefighters, teachers and students are planning to appear. Nurses have been the most tenacious group critical of the governor, and they prevailed in a recent court battle, when a judge ruled that the governor illegally suspended a law requiring more nurses in hospitals.

A Schwarzenegger spokesman said Tuesday that the governor is not ruffled by the swelling opposition. He has proposed huge changes in the state’s political system, making a backlash inevitable, said Margita Thompson, the governor’s press secretary.

“If they feel threatened, that’s a good thing,” she said, “because the governor is here to represent the peopleŠ. They’re going to be advocating for their own specific interests.”

Still, Schwarzenegger has not ignored the volley of attacks. He is forced to mention the protesters in many of his speeches; his audiences in many cases have had to push past them to get inside. TV ads by educators put pressure on him to respond. And as a defendant in newly filed litigation over his fundraising, he will be compelled to defend his position in court.

Schwarzenegger is courting legislative adversaries even as the political skirmishing escalates.

He played host to a dinner at his Brentwood home last weekend for Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland). Before a meeting Tuesday to talk about his proposed changes in state government, Schwarzenegger planted a kiss on Nuñez’s cheek.

The meeting produced no breakthroughs on the heart of Schwarzenegger’s agenda: a call for new voting districts, merit pay for teachers, spending restraints on the state budget and a 401(k)-style retirement system aimed at cutting pension costs for public employees.

Without a legislative compromise on such issues, Schwarzenegger is expected to put his agenda before voters in a special election. For that, he needs money. And his opponents are unhappy with the way he’s collecting it.

A Sacramento watchdog group called filed suit against the governor Tuesday, saying he is flouting limits on campaign donations. The suit cites a campaign committee called Citizens to Save California, led by Schwarzenegger allies, that is raising donations of unlimited size to advance the governor’s agenda.

Under a state regulation, any committee controlled by the governor would be subject to a $22,300 limit per donor.

Citizens to Save California officials say the committee is not controlled by the governor, so they are free to seek unlimited donations.

Representing in the suit is Lance Olson, general counsel for the California Democratic Party.

Also Tuesday, the Democratic-controlled Assembly Judiciary Committee sought to question the leaders of Citizens to Save California. The panel was interested in reports that companies hired to verify signatures for ballot measures for the possible special election would outsource some of those tasks to India.

Committee officials deny the report. “No data has left the country nor will it,” said committee spokesman Reed Dickens. “Today’s hearing was a blatant political stunt by those who want to maintain the status quo in California.”

The committee’s co-chairmen, Joel Fox and Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, didn’t show up for the hearing. A lawyer for Citizens to Save California sent a letter to the panel the night before, saying the men wouldn’t attend in part because it was unclear whether the committee has the authority to conduct an investigation.

The judiciary panel went ahead with the hearing, using the moment to discourage people from cooperating with Schwarzenegger’s efforts to collect signatures for ballot measures.

“If I were approached on the street by a paid signature collector from Citizens to Save California and I was concerned about privacy, I’d run in the opposite direction as fast as my legs could carry me,” said Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento).

So eager are Democrats to challenge Schwarzenegger that some lawmakers called a news conference to complain when he delayed a trade mission to China. Schwarzenegger had been planning to go in April, but pushed the trip back a few weeks so as not to interfere with his planning for the possible special election.

Members of the state’s Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus held a news conference to complain about delaying a “critical trade mission.”

Education is another cudgel. Leaders of the state’s most influential school groups gathered on the steps of the Capitol on Tuesday to blame the governor for “pink slips” that were sent to 1,000 teachers this week. The notices tell workers that they might be laid off as a result of tight budgets at their schools.

School officials say the governor’s refusal to honor an agreement he struck with them last year has created financial difficulties.

Under the agreement, schools would have received a substantial increase in funding in return for accepting cuts during last year’s budget negotiations. Now, Schwarzenegger is proposing to use more than $2 billion owed to schools under his agreement to help close the deficit instead.

The school officials presented the governor 1,500 copies of another kind of “pink slip”: letters on pink paper signed by school board members across the state urging the governor to make good on the deal. The California Teachers Assn. this week unleashed three television ads that showcase teachers saying the governor broke a promise to the state’s schoolchildren. In each of the ads, a teacher accuses the governor of “borrowing $2 billion from the education budget he now says he won’t pay back.”

One weapon the governor’s opponents lack is celebrity. Schwarzenegger still commands enormous attention. But even on that front, critics are trying to catch up. Actor Warren Beatty gave a speech last weekend urging Schwarzenegger to curb his fundraising and raise taxes on the wealthiest Californians.

In shaping the speech, Beatty got help from a source eager to see him make his case: Democrats in Sacramento.
Times staff writers Evan Halper and Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.
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