The State Of Schwarzenegger

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recently called special election reminds me of a classic scene out of funnyman Mel Brooks’ 1981 flick, “History of the World: Part I.” In this bit, the Moses character — played by Brooks himself with a bad fake beard — comes down from the mountaintop with three stone tablets, each with five commandments chiseled thereon.

“Hear me! Oh, hear me! All pay heed,” he bellows to the Israelites gathered at the base of the mountain. “The Lord, the Lord Jehovah, has given unto you these 15 & ” Suddenly, one of the tablets slips from his arm and breaks to smithereens on the rocks below. Without missing a beat, Brooks as Moses laments, “Oy! Ten, ten commandments for all to obey!”

When Schwarzenegger announced his so-called “year of reform” agenda in January, he demanded the Legislature pass four specific measures, or he would take them directly to the people. They included retooling pensions for public employees into 401(k) plans, forcing “merit” pay on public school teachers, giving the governor extraordinary powers over the budget process and stripping the Legislature’s power to draw the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts.

Instead of carefully writing and vetting these measures himself, he inexplicably took the lazy way out and glommed onto initiatives that had already been drafted by (mostly self-interested) others. Predictably, the trouble began almost immediately.

The public pension measure turned out to be so poorly drafted that Schwarzenegger discovered — after endorsing it — that it could be interpreted to eliminate survivor benefits for the widows of cops and firefighters killed in the line of duty. After enduring weeks of outrage, picketing and scathing TV commercials by public safety officers and their families, the governor announced he was withdrawing support for the measure.

Kerplunk. One of his four original “must-have” measures falls off the cliff.

Similarly, it soon became obvious that the merit pay proposal was abysmally constructed; the sponsors announced it would not qualify in time for a special election this fall anyway.

Splat! Another “critical” proposition hits the rocks. With half his agenda gone, like the faux Moses in the movie, he proceeds to tell the people the show must go on with, well darn, what’s left — two ballot measures, plus a couple of additional odds and ends.

And what is left are the redistricting proposal and the “live within our means” budget act, written not by Schwarzenegger but by business interests. It would arrogate to the governor unprecedented, unchecked budget powers. The redistricting proposal would give a panel of retired judges the job of drawing political boundaries.

The governor also has endorsed a proposal to lengthen from two years to five the time it takes teachers to achieve tenure. A measure to deny public employee unions the ability to use their members’ dues for political purposes without the written, annual consent of those members is still hanging out there. (The governor says he has no position on the latter, but his political operatives have been talking it up for weeks, and some of his business supporters led the charge to get it on the ballot.)

Three of these measures have been tried recently in some form — and all failed. Schwarzenegger’s mentor and current sidekick, former Gov. Pete Wilson, was a central player in two of them.

In 1992, Wilson stuck a measure on the ballot transparently disguised as welfare reform that actually was a budget-related power grab from the Legislature. Not only did Proposition 165 fail, but Wilson and his party also suffered an overall election disaster that year.

Then-President Bush, whose California campaign Wilson chaired, received an embarrassing 33 percent of the vote in the state. Sen. Dianne Feinstein demolished Wilson’s handpicked successor, Sen. John Seymour, and Democrats won the other U.S. Senate seat. California became the first state to elect two women senators. And despite a 1991 redistricting plan drawn up by retired judges after Wilson vetoed the Democratic Legislature’s proposal, the Republicans lost an Assembly seat.

The statewide ballot has had four redistricting initiatives since 1982, and all have been voted down, including two different versions on the 1990 primary ballot. Why? Mainly because a majority of voters came to view them — not incorrectly — as underhanded political power plays by minority Republicans.

Spearheaded by GOP Congressman Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, Proposition 24 qualified for the March 2000 primary ballot. But the California Supreme Court threw it out, ruling it violated the state’s single-subject rule for initiatives. Mindful of the dismal history of such measures, sponsors had tried to sweeten it with an unrelated provision cutting legislators’ pay.

In 1998, right-wing union-busting forces, including Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, qualified a Wilson-supported measure that would have required labor unions to obtain permission from their members before using union dues for political purposes — something corporations have never been required to do with their stockholders.

Despite early popularity, Proposition 226 ultimately was defeated in June 1998. Not only that, but the initiative so infuriated union members that union turnout hit a modern-day high and helped carry Gray Davis and the Democrats to a landslide victory that fall.

Those who ignore history, it is said, are bound to repeat it. So why is Schwarzenegger moving ahead with a costly special election for such dubious measures? Apparently, because he gets his jollies mainly from campaigning rather than from the tedious, nettlesome, nitty-gritty job of governance. He has personified the old saw “When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

Make no mistake: This Nov. 8 special election isn’t really about addressing time-sensitive matters critical to California’s future. It is a self-serving, ego-driven maneuver to get the governor back on his frenzied fund-raising trail and campaign road — even if for only half of a half-baked agenda.

Oy.