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California Focus: Catching It From Both Sides Doesn’t Make Arnold Right

It’s comforting to editors and reporters when they catch criticism from both sides of an issue. Their reasoning: When they offend both sides, that usually means they are doing something right.

But not always. There are times when catching it from both sides can mean you are just plain wrong, and missing some essential point.

So it has been the last few weeks with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, taking heat from Republicans for not only naming Democrat Susan Kennedy his chief of staff, but gratuitously adding that he could find no one in the GOP fit to run his office.

Meanwhile, Democrats are also unhappy with him. He ousted Terry Tamminem, the only certified environmentalist in his administration, as cabinet secretary and replaced him with Fred Aguiar, a former journeyman Republican legislator. And he installed Dan Dunmoyer, a leading insurance industry lobbyist in Sacramento, as Aguiar’s deputy and his own senior adviser for policy development.

If all this was supposed to make Schwarzenegger appear more like a moderate centrist and give him more appeal to the crucial 18 percent of registered voters who call themselves independents, it did not.

For it turns out there was a theme to the Schwarzenegger staff shakeup, which may still see some more shaking. That theme was not the good-government message the governor touted.

Rather, the common thread here is to see that his big donors are pleased, especially the big business interests that dominate the California Chamber of Commerce.

On its face, the Dunmoyer appointment clearly places a chief advocate for some of the governor’s largest campaign donors (Mercury Insurance, 21st Century Insurance and more) directly at his ear.

How the Kennedy selection fits into the do-for-your-donors mold is a bit harder to see. She is, after all, a longtime Democrat, a onetime aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the former cabinet secretary to the ousted Governor Gray Davis, an open lesbian and a longtime pro-abortion activist.

But she also possesses a long record of dealing happily with and for the political donors of her patrons.

Even some former Davis aides now admit their old boss in effect sold public policy for campaign donations. If that was true – and the voters perceived it that way before and during the 2003 recall election that installed Schwarzenegger in Sacramento – then Kennedy had to be playing a key role, as the cabinet secretary is the governor’s chief liaison to cabinet officers who oversee departments that enforce laws and regulations and carry out gubernatorial policies.

No one outside an administration is generally privy to those dealings, but Kennedy has a record that goes beyond her Davis-era private meetings.

During Davis’ waning months, he installed her as a member of the state Public Utilities Commission, where she steadily voted for the wishes of the big companies that body regulates.

From nixing a nascent PUC rule giving cellphone customers 30 days to back out of a contract when they discover they can get no signal where they need it most, to letting gas utilities give up domestic natural gas supplies and thus create an artifical need for liquefied natural gas from foreign sources, Kennedy voted for it.

Companies involved in those decisions, from Cingular to ChevronTexaco to Sempra Energy, all were significant donors to Davis in his day – and also have opened their wallets for Schwarzenegger.

Her votes for them were one reason Schwarzenegger eagerly introduced her as “pro-business, just like me.” For sure, that’s her record.

Also for sure, Schwarzenegger would have trouble finding anyone in the California GOP with a similar record of pleasing and appeasing big campaign donors, not merely under one governor, but two. She’s plainly a longtime participant in the phenomenon Republicans called “pay to play” when Davis was doing it, one they call “pro-business” now that their guy is governor.

This kind of activity was why voters polled after the November special election that proved so unsettling to Schwarzenegger told pollster Mark Baldessare of the Public Policy Institute of California their actions constituted an expression of distrust in the governor – and all of government.

After all, they have now seen two consecutive administrations where donor interests appear to take priority over almost all others. The fact that Schwarzenegger could make extremely pro-big business appointments in the wake of that election is a sure sign the message of both that vote and the recall of two years earlier still has not sunk in.

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