Battered hero still state’s best hope

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWalnut’s Malik Khouzam voted Southern California Boys Athlete of the Week160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! There’s a scene in every Terminator movie where our cyborg protagonist seems to be, at last, finished. He’s just been engulfed in the flames of an exploding fuel truck, or his enemy has destroyed his power supply. This ruthless, utterly unstoppable machine has apparently been – stopped. Or has he? Incredibly, out of the roaring flames marches his titanium-alloy skeleton, its human flesh entirely burned off, ready to do battle once more. Or the red light behind his eye that had just grown dim suddenly reignites. Nothing can stop the Terminator. That’s the celluloid legend that made a governor out of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who brought very little in terms of qualifications, experience or even ideas to the 2003 recall election. His celebrity and his charisma, to be sure – but also the Hollywood-created myth that Arnold could do anything – drove millions of Californians to believe that this movie star could be the state’s savior. Only now the very same Californians who made the Terminator their governor seem poised, according to every major poll, to destroy him and his reform agenda. Barring a last-minute surge in public support, there seems little hope that our hero will escape defeat this time. Schwarzenegger now looks very vulnerable, after all. Reality is fast overtaking myth. And reality is that the public employee unions, which own the California Democratic Party and thus dominate Sacramento, are the only truly unstoppable force in state politics. For decades, they have stifled any effort to bring accountability, reform or hope to our chronically failing schools. They have locked the state into spending formulas and compensation packages that, if left unchecked, will bankrupt us sooner rather than later. They have accommodated a corrupt redistricting system that allows politicians to draw up their own self-serving political boundaries. Two years ago, voters elected Schwarzenegger on the unrealistic hope that he could change all this without partisan controversy. His moderate politics would enable him to do business with Sacramento’s Democratic power structure and craft bipartisan solutions to the state’s problems without stepping on anyone’s toes. His vast popularity alone would ensure cooperation. For a year or so, it seemed to work beautifully, in part because Sacramento Democrats feared him, in part because he demanded very little of them. Rather than pressing for major, comprehensive financial reforms, Schwarzenegger settled for heavy borrowing to stabilize the state budget, and he accepted a somewhat limited version of workers’ compensation reform. But when it came time for the serious business of overhauling the way the state spends money, there was suddenly little room for compromise. Government union bosses had grown accustomed to getting their way, regardless of the cost to the public, and they weren’t going to give that up without a fight. Conflict was inevitable, as Democratic leaders were more concerned about losing union funding than about losing the governor’s friendship. Meanwhile, the unions discovered that if media images and fables could make Schwarzenegger a governor, they could also make him a pariah. For the better part of a year, the unions have savaged him with vitriolic ad campaigns and shrill protests, and the strategy has worked. The governor’s reputation is now so tainted that his propositions fare worse in the polls because they’re associated with him. But what’s remarkable about the bitterness and intensity of the opposition to the propositions on the Nov. 8 ballot is that Schwarzenegger’s reforms are actually quite modest. In a failed attempt at achieving consensus, he and his supporters drastically scaled back their efforts from the more expansive reforms that could, and arguably should, be adopted. Thus, rather than eliminating the absurd practice of teacher tenure, Proposition 74 merely expands the probationary period before the people charged with educating our kids are granted lifetime job security. Instead of opening up most state jobs to nonunion workers, Proposition 75 only allows those who are forced to pay into unions to keep their money from being spent on political causes they don’t support. Far from placing a firm cap on state spending, Proposition 76 weakly ensures that it just can’t grow faster than state revenues. Even Proposition 77, which would take political redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers who have an obvious conflict of interest, is of no political advantage to Schwarzenegger’s party – which is why its leaders oppose it. Yet even these minor, albeit important, changes were too much for the unions to bear. Sacramento Democrats refused to broker a deal on the reform measures, preferring to slug it out in a special election instead. And the public-employee unions spent tens of millions to quash any change in the status quo. Nor has Schwarzenegger done much to help his cause. His staff bungled a pension-reform plan, inadvertently placing widows’ and orphans’ benefits in doubt. By weaseling out of a 2004 deal with the teachers’ union, he enraged his adversaries and squandered his credibility. And by diluting his reforms, he made his propositions seem less meaningful and less necessary. Still, for all his failings, Schwarzenegger remains California’s best hope for saving the state government from bankruptcy and from the institutionalized mediocrity of the union hacks who control it. But the voters who once bought, perhaps too easily, into the myth of Arnold the savior now risk succumbing to the myth of Arnold the bogeyman. Dashed hopes for a painless solution to the state’s woes have apparently given way to unwarranted anger and despair. Schwarzenegger is neither the hero of his film past nor the villain that protectors of the status quo make him out to be. He is, however, the main proponent of modest, sensible reforms in Sacramento. And if he goes down, California could well go with him. Chris Weinkopf is the Daily News’ editorial-page editor. Write to him by e-mail at

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