Arnold's pitchfork politics

On Monday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) made it official. There will be a special election in November with as many as eight measures on the ballot, three endorsed by the governor and another likely to have his support. The governor’s measures would require the state to “live within its means,” forcing budget cuts if revenue fell; increase to five years the time required for public-school teachers to achieve tenure; and mandate redistricting by a panel of retired judges.

On Monday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) made it official. There will be a special election in November with as many as eight measures on the ballot, three endorsed by the governor and another likely to have his support.

The governor’s measures would require the state to “live within its means,” forcing budget cuts if revenue fell; increase to five years the time required for public-school teachers to achieve tenure; and mandate redistricting by a panel of retired judges.

Propositions requiring that unions get their members’ approval on an annual basis before using their dues for political purposes and a ban on abortions for those under 18 have also qualified. A pair of measures to lower the cost of prescription drugs and an electricity deregulation measure are also likely to make the ballot.

The governor has not endorsed the union-dues restriction but is known to support it. (As I’ve disclosed in the past, my partner Rick Claussen managed the effort to qualify the governor’s measures for the ballot. However, the actual campaigns will be run by different entities, so I don’t have a dog in this fight as I write this.)

Schwarzenegger put his personal stamp on the election, saying, “I know some people say, ‘Arnold, why not wait until next year? … But how can we just stand around while our debt grows each year by billions and billions of dollars? If you break your arm, you don’t wait until your next physical. You get it fixed now.”

Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) responded by saying the governor just wanted “to star in another war movie.” Perata claimed legislators were not being obstructionist and said, “This is a war he started alone.”

It may well be the most expensive political war in history, pitting a still-popular governor with great fundraising ability against some of the most powerful political forces in the state. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are pleased with the thought of judges drawing the boundaries for their districts. A carefully negotiated deal has created safe seats for both parties.

In the last election, 153 congressional and legislative seats were up for election. Not a single one changed parties. A lot of politicians will be fighting to preserve that kind of job security, and it will be hard to raise money from businesses that know they will be angering the leaders of both parties if they write a check to that campaign.

Plenty of money is lined up to oppose the governor’s measures and the union-dues one as well. The California Teachers Association last week voted for a special assessment to raise $50 million dollars for the campaign. The prison-guard union has pledged $17 million. It is estimated the Service Employees International Union will commit $20 million. The last time there was a union-dues measure on the ballot, national unions kicked in $20 million to defeat it. That adds up to more than $100 million that could be spent to defeat the governor’s proposals.

The governor has proved to be a prodigious fundraiser on his own, and he has his legacy on the line for this fight. His supporters are predicting he’ll raise $40 million to $50 million for the campaign. That could make this election one of presidential proportions in a single state.

Whether or not Arnold can win this war is an open question at this point. The initial polling I’ve seen has his measures at the lower margins of where you’d want to be with a yes campaign. But unions spent millions in advertising during the circulation process attacking the governor and his measures, and no one knows just what Arnold’s star power is really worth on the campaign trail.

The key is whether Californians buy into his core message: that the people sent him to Sacramento to clean up the state and with the people’s he will do it. Much like a Frank Capra movie, he’ll be positioning this campaign as one man with a vision against the most powerful special interests in America.

If Arnold wins his war, it will change the political DNA of the largest state in America. Politicians and labor unions will be weakened. The business community will be empowered. The people will determine the winners and losers. The message will roll out from California to grab your pitchforks and torches and march on the fortresses of political power all over America.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com