Departures October 2010

Judgment Day

How Arnold Schwarzenegger might just have saved California

Arnold Schwarzenegger looked worried. “Are you sure it’s okay to smoke out here?” he asked a waiter. “Oh sure, sure. Go ahead,” he was told. Passersby were beginning to mill near the patio of Bobby Van’s, a Washington, D.C., power trough, and snap pictures. Schwarzenegger was in Washington to lobby the Obama administration to pay Medicare money that California feels it is owed, and after his staff had offered me a cigar, he was holding forth on the slog of upcoming budget negotiations with Democrats in Sacramento.

When Schwarzenegger leaves office in January after seven tumultuous years as governor, it will not be with high marks. “Pretty pathetic,” wrote George Skelton, the dean of the Sacramento press corps; “opportunity squandered.” Schwarzenegger will be lucky if his approval rating is near 40 percent and the state budget deficit is less than $15 billion.

But Schwarzenegger’s greatest accomplishments may not yet be apparent: if the political reforms he pushed through take hold, he will have managed not only to restore California’s role as a policy innovator, but also to create the kind of political space that can incubate a future cadre of mini-Arnolds.

When Schwarzenegger took office, much of California’s governing structure struck him as bizarre. He didn’t understand why an engineers union of 13,000 members had so much say over transportation spending for 36 million Californians. He was bewildered that Republicans seemed to be afraid of radio shock jocks in Orange County, and that Democrats had to get permission from labor unions before they agreed to minor reforms in the budget. He’s still confused (“Oh my God, it’s unbelievable”) as to why a school can’t hire a local handyman to fix a broken door and instead must wait for a union repairman to come around.

Despite rookie missteps and setbacks, Schwarzenegger stuck with his crusade to reform California’s ossified political culture. He has begun to break the will of the powerful labor establishment, itself the author of many laws, through sheer relentlessness: after the corrections-officers union blocked one of his efforts to curb their power, Schwarzenegger all but called the members out as thugs and, in an unprecedented display of executive authority, voided their contract, then beat back the legislature’s attempt to reverse him. Though public-employees unions defeated his ballot reforms, Schwarzenegger extracted significant concessions on pensions from some of them. And drawing on his network of supporters and allies, Schwarzenegger financed and co-sponsored two successful ballot initiatives to end partisan gerrymandering and to institute a top-two selection system for partisan primaries. From now on, California’s elections for state executive and legislative posts will be contests between the top two primary vote-getters, regardless of party.

Previously, California’s gerrymandered districts rewarded fealty to entrenched partisan factions. As a result, few Republicans would ever vote for a tax hike and almost no Democrat would take on the unions. Redistricting will recast many legislative districts, making them significantly less Democratic or Republican. And candidates running in a wide-open primary will have to rely on a broader base of contributors. The power of the unions, the shock jocks, the anti-taxers, will all be diluted.

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Marc Ambinder is The Atlantic’s politics editor.

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