Arnold Schwarzenegger made many promises while running for governor in 2003 and kept one. He made many more during the more than seven years his smoking tent sat outside his office in the state Capitol’s “horseshoe” suite of executive offices – and kept virtually none. First, the promise kept: Schwarzenegger said he would immediately roll back the vehicle license tax restoration ordered by the ousted ex-Gov. Gray Davis, and he did. It proved to be one of his biggest mistakes, costing the state about $5 billion yearly, funds that were collected through the late 1990s, but deemed not necessary during the boom years of the real estate and dot.com bubbles, when capital-gains tax revenue was plentiful.
Schwarzenegger’s cancellation of the vehicle license tax restoration is one reason for the annual budget stalemates that plagued California through his entire administration, impasses that consistently made this state look incompetent and comical to outsiders.
Then there were all the promises not kept. Start with the first one: On the evening he declared himself a recall election candidate to replace Davis, Schwarzenegger pledged never to take a nickel’s worth of campaign donations from special interests. There is always a price to pay for those, he said. No one donates big bucks to a candidate without expecting something in return, he intoned, and Schwarzenegger would have nothing to do with anything like that.
Almost immediately, his political committees began taking money from special interests: auto dealers, land developers, oil and chemical companies, chiropractic associations… the list goes on and on. Schwarzenegger, of course, never recognized any of these outfits as special interests. Only labor unions and other types of outfits that donated to his political opponents qualified for that term.
It was an Alice-in-Wonderland approach to politics and political definitions. But there was nothing make-believe about the way Schwarzenegger’s policies tracked closely with the interests of his big donors.
The governor refused to answer questions on that topic seriously, always claiming anyone who supported him was out to create jobs, while opponents were job killers.
But it was plain early on who Schwarzenegger would favor: whoever gave him the most money. SBC Communications donated $400,000 to the governor’s committees. Opponents of its takeover bid for the better-known AT&T Corp., complete with adopting its name, gave nothing. So the deal went through and, oddly enough, AT&T has not been a major donor since.
Schwarzenegger kept on former Southern California Edison president Michael Peevey, originally a Davis appointee, as head of the powerful state Public Utilities Commission, and made a former Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. executive head of the Energy Commission. PG&E and Edison have been donors. His Housing and Community Development Department director was a former member of the executive committee of the Building Industry Association, a major Schwarzenegger donor.
So donations didn’t merely affect policy, they impacted personnel, with myriad foxes guarding henhouses.
He promised balanced budgets and to “throw away the (state’s) credit card” – but produced one deficit after another, always resolved with gimmicks and borrowing.
But few in the media ever pointed out this kind of thing the way they did while Davis was governor and conducting himself similarly. The reasons for this press failure are complex, involving layoffs, reduced staff, green-as-grass reporters given complex assignments, and a star-struck mentality.
For if Schwarzenegger’s administration has had nothing else, it has been replete with what Hollywood calls “production values,” leading incoming Gov. Jerry Brown to observe that “little more humility is in order in the governor’s office.” Schwarzenegger was always the star. Sound systems were perfect for every event. So was lighting. Some of this year’s candidates for governor possessed at least as much money as Schwarzenegger and his committees, but lacked the presentation savvy of the former muscleman movie star. So their events usually seemed dull and pedestrian compared to his, even though it was clear they were far less beholden to campaign donors than Schwarzenegger.
The bottom line on Schwarzenegger is that most of his policies – and donors – weren’t very different from Davis’. You could almost sum it up with a lyric from the 1970s song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…”
The polls showed Californians were fooled by Schwarzenegger for quite awhile, but by the end they saw through him and gave him ratings about as low as the rejected Davis’s ever were.
If there’s anything to regret here, it is that it took Californians so long to see they had a Potemkin governor, one who always looked and sounded terrific on the surface, but had little or no substance.