Tough job: Can anyone govern California?

Schwarzenegger's plummeting popularity, in the wake of a recalled governor, shows the difficulty of managing the state.

So loathed was California's last governor after electricity bills soared and brownouts rolled across the state that not even allegations of sexual misconduct could slow the coronation of movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger as his successor in a remarkable recall election.

That was two years ago, when Governor Schwarzenegger, a Republican, was toasted as a centrist who could command some sense out of a legislature dominated by extremists on the right and left.

At first the "Terminator" could do no wrong. He smoked cigars and joked with an admiring press. He promised to bring government back to the people and threatened to break the impasse through initiative if the gridlocked legislature stalled. That was then.

Today, the new governor's approval rating among adults - 34 percent - is not much better than the old governor's. Even unions are more popular than he is, according to the latest poll by the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University.

The rapid and dramatic drop has coincided with his call for a November special election - which includes three governor-backed initiatives to toughen teacher tenure laws, impose a state-spending cap, and preclude legislators from drawing their own political boundaries - a move he said was precisely what California residents needed to regain faith in a functional system.

Now, in a place nicknamed the "Golden State," whose narrative has been one of newcomers seeking opportunity and perfection, the dissatisfaction that the governor's special election has spawned has caused many to ponder who, if anybody, is capable of governing California anymore.

"The very fact that we are having [the special election] shows that there is deep trouble, that a San Andreas fault runs right through the middle of our politics," says Kevin Starr, a history professor at the University of Southern California and former state librarian.

A state with a nation's worth of issues

Many of the issues that make California so hard to govern are unique to the state: a two-thirds requirement to pass the budget gives the minority party effective veto powers; its sheer size and diversity among nationalities, races, and regions makes its politics resemble those of a single country, not one of 50 states; the legacy of Prop. 13, which in 1978 capped property tax increases, has protected homeowners but has handcuffed the state financially.

Issues that challenge the entire nation often hit California more intensely. Take political polarization. A liberal from Oakland next to a conservative from the Central Valley seem like foreigners, not neighbors.

"The Republican Party in California is very different than the Republican Party in New York," says Bruce Cain, director of the Institute for Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

It was not always this way. California was once dominated by centrists and its legislature reflected a culture of cross-aisle cooperation.

During the state's "Golden Years" after World War II, governors like Pat Brown were able to lead from the center, building up some of the nation's best university, freeway, and water systems.

But decades of redistricting have moved the state away from centrist politics. Legislators in charge of shaping their own districts have chosen to make sure their home turf is uncontested and safe for their own party. Schwarzenegger has put the issue of reapportionment on the November ballot, hoping to take the power away from the legislature. And some say the state's term limits leave lawmakers less bound by the legislature's traditions of reaching compromises over the long term.

The result, at least in lawmaking, has been more pieces of legislation with less sweep. They may vote on "how much animal fat you can put in lipstick," says Dr. Starr, "as opposed to a few major public policy issues. [The rate of legislation] is a sign of weakness, not strength."

Big money affects voter initiatives

In the face of that impasse on major issues, voters have increasingly turned to ballot initiatives, part of California's political ethos since 1911. Peter Schrag, a columnist for The Sacramento Bee, says that it aligns with the undercurrent in California as a place constantly seeking improvement: if something is not right and not getting fixed, the people will fix it.

But in a state whose unions and special interests wield considerable control, big money has become a factor. "The system has become corrupted in ways the framers never intended," says Phil Trounstine of San Jose State University and a former communications director for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. "With enough money [anyone] can get almost anything they want on the ballot."

Those are some of the claims swirling in the face of Schwarzenegger's special election that apparently have not helped his popularity. His approval rating fell by 25 percentage points in half a year, down from 59 percent in January. His disapproval ratings have doubled in that same period.

Can anyone run California?

His popularity plunge has led to any number of college talks on how governable California is, says Sherry Jeffe, a public policy professor at the University of Southern California. "There is this sense out there that if the 'Terminator' can't do it, it can't be done," she says.

But part of the scramble has been prompted by the governor's own message, she says, that everything in the state is wrong and only he can fix it. "It was the governor who fueled that theme."

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