California voters sent a resounding message to Arnold Schwarzenegger at the polls this week, rejecting all four initiatives of his "reform agenda" and prompting a contrite response from the once high-riding celebrity governor.
Promising to work with a Democratic-controlled Legislature he has often scorned since sailing into office in a recall election two years ago, the Republican governor acknowledged, "The people of California are sick and tired of all the fighting."
Proposition 76, which Schwarzenegger called the linchpin of his package, was buried by a margin of 62 to 38 percent. It would have imposed a state spending cap and allowed the governor to make budget cuts without legislative approval. Coming on the heels of a Nov. 1 vote in Colorado to rescind that state's much stricter spending limit, the California vote was a setback for fiscal conservatives who have waged a campaign for spending limits in several states, often coordinated with Republican strategists.
Voters on Tuesday also rejected Schwarzenegger initiatives that would have turned over redistricting of the Legislature and the state's congressional seats to a panel of judges, increased the time it takes for public school teachers to gain tenure, and required public employee unions to get written permission from their members to spend money for political purposes. In addition, voters turned down two other initiatives that were not part of the governor's package but were endorsed by him. One was a prescription drug plan sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry and the other an initiative requiring parental notification for teenagers who seek abortions.
In sum, the special election called by Schwarzenegger amounted to a decisive personal rejection of a Republican governor who ousted unpopular Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 in an unprecedented statewide recall election. It also signaled Schwarzenegger may have his work cut out for him next year when he seeks re-election, as he has said he would.
The San Francisco-based Field Poll, which accurately tracked the downfall of the Scharwarzenegger-sponsored initiatives, found that only 36 percent of voters are inclined to support his re-election. However, the poll also found that the governor trails the two leading Democratic candidates-State Treasurer Phil Angelides and State Controller Steve Westly-by only 4 percentage points in trial heats. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson trailed his Democratic opponent by more than 20 points in 1993 before coming back to win a landslide victory in 1994.
Dan Schnur, communications director in the Wilson years, predicted that Schwarzenegger would come back from Tuesday's defeat to win re-election. He said it was less clear, however, whether Schwarzenegger could accomplish anything of substance before the 2006 election. "The question is whether the Democrats [in the Legislature] have any incentive to accept the governor's olive branch," Schnur said.
Bill Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable and a former aide to Wilson and two Democratic speakers of the Assembly, said Schwarzenegger could be effective again if he focuses on a few issues with bipartisan appeal. As examples, Hauck cited the possibility of cooperation on stalled bond measures proposed by Democrat Don Perata, president of the state Senate, to protect water levies and improve transportation.
A contrite Schwarzenegger, acknowledging "mistakes," scheduled a meeting for Thursday with Perata and other legislative leaders. It was welcomed by Perata, who said, "We should start working with one another in a dignified, diplomatic manner on issues that Californians care about."
Whether this promised cooperation materializes may depend upon how far Schwarzenegger is willing to go in genuine cooperation with opposition legislators, whom he once dismissed sarcastically as "girlie men." He will also need to repair relations with public employees unions, especially the powerful California Teachers Association (CTA).
Insiders concede privately that the governor made at least two critical mistakes. The first was in trying to trim pension plans for public employees that are putting a strain on California municipalities. Although he later dropped this fight, the criticisms of the pensions united firefighters, peace officers, nurses, and teachers in an all-out battle against Schwarzenegger.
The second and more critical mistake came after the governor struck a bargain with the CTA during 2004 budget negotiations. The teachers agreed to defer $2 billion due for education spending in return for a promise from Schwarzenegger to reinstate it in the 2005 budget. When he reneged on this promise-which some of his advisers think he should never have made in the first place-the CTA fought back, depicting Schwarzenegger in a series of television commercials as a governor who could not be trusted. This message caught on. Although state spending for education has increased faster than inflation during Schwarzenegger's two years in office, he never succeeded in getting this across to the public.
But despite Schwarzenegger's lopsided defeat in Tuesday's election, not even the man he beat two years ago is counting him out. At a Washington, D.C., news conference last month, Gray Davis accurately predicted the downfall of the initiatives but said of Schwarzenegger, "He's very charming. People want to like him. Even if his initiatives go down, he'll be a formidable force."