Schwarzenegger lost historic opportunity for reform

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The defeat of all of the propositions on the Nov. 8 ballot spells the end of the “people power” revolution that swept Gov. Schwarzenegger into office. It is doubtful that Schwarzenegger will ever again be able to garner the necessary public support for reforms that are opposed by the state Legislature. From now on, the governor will have to do what he should have done in the beginning: take the elected officials in Sacramento head on.

When Schwarzenegger was elected in the historic recall election of 2003, he promised to be the ultimate reformer. He vowed to take on the vested special interests in Sacramento, ending their cozy relationship with the Legislature. He went on to present himself as a bipartisan governor, endorsing candidates from both parties in the 2004 state elections.

There was an initial period where it seemed like Schwarzenegger would be able to single-handedly reform California politics. His star power and the huge mandate he received from voters in the recall election, in which he received just under 50 percent of the vote in a field of four major candidates, allowed him to intimidate many of the leaders in the Assembly and Senate into going along with his reform proposals.

Yet, Schwarzenegger was vulnerable like any other politician, and his opponents soon found weaknesses in his armor. Schwarzenegger’s crusade against special interests inevitably pitted him against the public employees and teachers unions, both of which wield enormous influence in Sacramento. The wrangling over school funding and teacher pay allowed his opponents to paint Schwarzenegger as anti-teacher and a danger to school funding.

He also was tainted by the massive amount of fundraising he engaged in, leaving him open to the charge that he was supplanting one set of special interests with another.

The increasing opposition caused Schwarzenegger to bypass the Legislature altogether and take his reforms directly to the people. When the Legislature did not cooperate, he turned back to his original source of power and appealed directly to the people. However, the defeat of all the propositions on the Nov. 8 ballot has shown that this strategy is no longer viable.

So we have returned to where we began. We have a fiscally irresponsible Legislature that is unaccountable to the people and a governor that is unable to rein them in. In the end, Schwarzenegger was not able to change the political culture in Sacramento. He in turn has been dashed against the same rocks that Gray Davis found himself beached upon.

What could have been done to prevent this from happening? It is not as if Californians are not asking for reform. The recall election was an indication of the public’s desire for change in the political landscape; Gray Davis was merely a symbol of the incompetence of the state government, not its author.

It was a mistake, however, to assume that Californians wanted, vigilante-style, to take matters into their own hands and administer the state via the initiative process. The initiative process was not designed for that. Asking voters to choose between competing reform proposals instead of leaving such complicated questions to their elected officials turns the idea of representative government on its head. The result of such a strategy lies before us: voters who are so weary at being asked to do a legislator’s job that they strike down every proposition in a fit of pique.

Schwarzenegger should have attacked California’s troubles at their source. Had he gone after the legislature itself, he might have succeeded in reforming the political culture of California. Instead of “reaching across the aisle,” he should have delivered an ultimatum: the reform way or the highway. Any legislators who balked or obstructed necessary reform efforts should have been targeted in the 2004 elections for removal from office. Schwarzenegger could have used his star power to elect true reformers to the Legislature and give the boot to obstructionists.

Instead, he wasted his energy trying to sidestep the Legislature when he should have been trying to batter them out of the way. It was a wasted opportunity and we will likely have to wait for another governor until we have another chance at true reform.

Sean Paroski can be reached at sean.paroski.240@csun.edu