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California Focus: Will Public Trust A Shifting Schwarzenegger?

One key question hovers over Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as he maneuvers to start his reelection campaign: Who is the real Arnold Schwarzenegger?

It’s a question that can make or break his November chances, because it is so closely tied to the issue of public trust that rose up to bite Schwarzenegger in his disastrous special election last fall.

Is he the firmly pro-business governor who vetoed proposals to raise the minimum wage, echoing the state Chamber of Commerce in calling any such plan a “job killer?” Or is he the governor who proposed a $1 an hour increase in the minimum wage as this year began?

Is Schwarzenegger the fellow who balanced last year’s budget in part by upping fees for state colleges and universities enough to cost the average student $4,000 additional over four years? Or is he the guy that vows lately not to raise those fees any further?

Is the real Arnold the candidate who pledged “no new taxes” or the fellow who has actively contemplated tax increases of various kinds to help finance a huge infrastructure bond issue?

Is the real Schwarzenegger the governor who made Rob Stutzman, one architect of the year-2000 ballot initiative banning gay marriage, his communications director? Or is he the guy that last month appointed Susan Kennedy, an open lesbian “married” in a Hawaiian ceremony, as his top aide?

Is he the braggadocious movie star who declaimed loudly in 2003 that he’s so rich he’d never need to ask anyone for campaign donations, or is he the unctuous politician who sets records for accepting campaign contributions?

Those questions and many more give voters of all ideological stripes plenty of reason to wonder about Schwarzenegger and his new attempt to cast himself as a centrist.

They wonder if his adopting organized labor’s pet cause of minimum wage increases means he’s no longer an ultraconservative who would use a ballot initiative to try to stop labor unions from raising political money. Or if it’s all just a masquerade designed strictly to co-opt some of the pet issues espoused by prospective reelection rivals, with him planning all the while to revert to his former self once safely reelected.

At the same time, many conservative Republicans who invested millions of dollars backing his four failed “year of reform” ballot initiatives last fall wonder if the guy they backed then was the real Arnold, or if the more recent figure is the genuine article.

These questions leave voters uncertain what they might get if they reelect Schwarzenegger and make him answerable to no one because he will never need to face the voters again.

So it all comes down to trust. Plainly, conservative Republicans no longer fully trust the man they helped elect. On the minimum wage proposal, right-wing blogger Steve Frank observed, “Once again, the guv gets the worst of the deal – the GOP is even more suspicious of him and the Democrats see a very weak governor they can defeat.”

The doubts give new importance to the near-confluence of Schwarzenegger’s dismal approval rating – 39 percent in the most recent polls – and the actual percentage of Republicans among the state’s registered voters (37 percent at last report). Plainly, these figures mean virtually all the governor’s support in the surveys came from Republicans, almost none from Democrats or independents.

How likely are his latest policy shifts to win back substantial numbers of union members and public education backers, both thoroughly alienated by his November ballot measures? “Not enough,” was the response from a skeptical Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation, to the Schwarzenegger minimum wage proposal.

How likely are teachers and parents of schoolkids to forget their tussles with Schwarzenegger over his broken funding promises, just because he pledges not to raise college fees?

Plainly, Schwarzenegger counts on the unprincipled principle enunciated in the late 1970s by Tom Quinn, onetime campaign manager for then-Gov. Jerry Brown: “You can pretty much do whatever you want in the three years before an election year, because no one will remember it at election time.”

At the time, Quinn had never met consultants like Garry South and Bob Mulholland, now working for Democratic candidates Steve Westly and Phil Angelides. Both have elephant memories and long track records of effectively dredging up the long-ago words and acts of opponents.

No matter who wins the Democratic primary this June, their presence means voters can count on a flood of reminders about Schwarzenegger’s long list of inconsistencies and broken promises.

Which raises doubt about how much the governor can achieve with his current squirming and shifting.

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