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California Focus: The Deceptive Sacramento Waltz:

Call it the Sacramento waltz, even though many dance numbers are performed in other parts of the state.There was State Senator Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica, an open lesbian and the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, leaping up to hug and kiss Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as both posed atop a mound of dirt in Los Angeles just before he signed a bill that might ease traffic a bit on the San Diego Freeway by 2010 – four years from now. Wow! Four more years of the heaviest traffic in the nation growing steadily worse. There’s a triumph worth at least a kiss or two!Right beside them were Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and the ever-enthusiastic Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, himself a former Democratic Assembly speaker, both grinning happily for the myriad cameras. Each pumped Schwarzenegger’s hand after he signed the bill, which he had earlier opposed for months.Two days later, there were Nunez and Schwarzenegger together again, this time mugging with state Senate Democratic leader Don Perata of Oakland, as they announced the state will not let senior citizens go without vital drugs just because the federal Medicare prescription drug program is hopelessly confused. “I have to compliment the governor for this action,” Nunez said, all the while knowing Schwarzenegger had no choice but to act or be branded completely inhumane.Then the threesome repaired to the governor’s smoking tent to share a few cigars.What’s going on here? Can there really be an election-year romance between a Republican governor seeking reelection and California’s leading liberal Democrats?In fact, it’s very likely all a kind of kabuki dance. For sure, it’s not real, if you ask veteran political operatives. “Just wait ’til later this year,” cautions Gabriel Sanchez, a Nunez aide who once worked for ex-Governor Gray Davis.Exactly, agrees Bob Mulholland, the former chief operative of the state Democratic Party and now a top campaign official for Phil Angelides, the State Treasurer seeking his party’s nomination to oppose Schwarzenegger this fall.”Everyone knows these hugs are political,” Mulholland says. “We Democrats know that when Schwarzenegger acts like a moderate for a while, it’s only an act. We remember what his agenda was just last fall.”Adds Bill Carrick, the longtime Democratic consultant now running Senator Dianne Feinstein’s reelection effort, “The Democrats really want to accomplish something, so they’ll take advantage of Schwarzenegger’s morphing into a moderate for now. There is no assumption he will stay a moderate.”Translation: Schwarzenegger proposes a $1 per hour raise in the minimum wage with no automatic escalator clause – getting in hot water with his Republican base for favoring any increase at all. But legislative Democrats will send him a bill with an escalator.If he signs it, he loses more Republican voters. If he vetoes it, Democrats can hammer him, saying his support for a minimum wage increase was never sincere. They feel they are boxing a naive governor into a no-win situation.Republican operative Steve Frank predicts there will also be conflict over the infrastructure bonds vital to Schwarzenegger’s so-called “strategic growth initiative.” He predicts legislative Democrats will vote to authorize bond proposals for the ballot, but will try to add provisions calling for work to be done by union labor or at least by workers paid prevailing wages.Schwarzenegger and legislative Republicans won’t want those conditions, so the ballyhooed bond plans may never get off the ground. At which point, Democrats would accuse the governor of impeding the very progress he so eagerly hypes.Says Carrick, “In the end, the governor has sent a message that he doesn’t really know who he is. In politics, you’ve got to have a belief structure, but he acts like he’s just playing a new character in yet another movie.”Democrats, then, will play nice for the moment in an effort to make things awkward and difficult for Schwarzenegger later on. They figure for every hug he gives Democratic lawmakers (once “girlie men” and “losers”), a few hundred Republican voters will stay home this fall.Which means this waltz is more ruse than romance, its ultimate aim to fleece a naïve governor. But Democrats have their own minefield to maneuver through. As they seek to entrap Schwarzenegger, they could get hung up on unpopular issues like a death penalty moratorium or drivers licenses for illegal immigrants. The ultimate question: Which side will lead in November, when this dance of deception is done?

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