Few people whose names were not on this month’s ballot had as much at stake in the vote as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who pinned a lot of his credibility to the narrowly successful Proposition 11 drive for redistricting reform, and spent much of his time promoting the measure once the long-running state budget spectacle was over.
For the governor, the issue was not merely whether to turn the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative districts over to a citizens commission, but his very credibility.
Schwarzenegger didn’t have much of that left after being forced to accept a budget that pleased almost no one, one that he’s already trying to retool via a special session of the Legislature. He’s tried cajoling legislators to accept his proposals. He’s tried threatening and bludgeoning them. He tried persuading them, too, and finally reached what passed for a compromise, but one that lasted less than two months before the declining economy ruined most of its revenue assumptions.
One reason Schwarzenegger couldn’t accomplish much in his budget gyrations and negotiations: He’s got only about two more years in office, so even his vetoes promise not to be very long-lasting. Plus, he has a track record of extreme impotence when trying to force anyone to toe his line. Time and again, he’s gone into uncooperative legislators’ home districts, trying to convince voters to turn them out. Each time, he’s drawn big crowds, but he has yet to succeed in ousting even one of his targets.
So legislators now look at his almost constant bluster and say, “Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?”
Schwarzenegger wouldn’t have much fun in his remaining time in office if that attitude remained solid.
This might not have been the main reason his committees plunked more than $3 million into the campaign for Proposition 11. And it might not have been the only reason he spent so much time plumping for the measure. But these were surely part of the reason for his high levels of activity. And now he can say it almost surely would have lost without his efforts.
Yes, Schwarzenegger is convinced Proposition 11 will lead to better government by developing new district lines that could spur more competitive races around the state starting in 2012. Others are not so convinced this will happen, and only time will determine who’s right.
But Schwarzengger needed a victory in some kind of good-government cause to reestablish even a modicum of credibility among state legislators in both parties.
He couldn’t win over a single Republican vote last summer when he proposed a temporary sales tax increase as part of his plan to balance the budget. He won no Democratic votes when he proposed large program cuts as the other major component of his budget-balancing blueprint.
Now –– after failing to win passage of a single one of the half-dozen initiatives he previously backed that would have changed parts of the state’s political structure – he’s finally got a win, even if it’s only by a very narrow margin.
And not just any win. For Proposition 11 has a lot of promise. The commission it sets up will understand its task is to draw new districts without the octopus-like appendages so often used to lump voters from each party together into districts that party simply cannot lose.
The commission will also understand it must use city limits, county lines and natural boundaries like rivers and mountain ranges as much as possible in drawing district lines, to give districts more sense of logic, community and common interests.
If it can do that, chances are at least some of the new districts in the next reapportionment plan will feature party registration figures far less lopsided than today’s. This might allow moderates to win party nominations when seats are vacant, unlike today’s reality in which only leftist Democrats and right-wing Republicans usually get nominated. For moderates will have a better chance if voters and party leaders understand winning a primary is no longer tantamount to winning the seat, and that candidates must have some appeal across party lines.
No one will know for another four years whether things will work out so well, and Schwarzenegger will have departed the state Capitol long before then. But now he has a victory to brandish at his colleagues, supporters, and opponents, giving him a little more clout than he had last summer, or even last week.