Schwarzenegger has made deft moves, so far

In the normal meet-and-greet world of government, where a handshake and a smile can be the currency of consensus, the gesture might have been seen as thoughtful, but not unusual. Yet in the partisan dysfunction that has come to characterize California politics, it was an act of startling boldness.

Two weeks after his recall victory, Republican governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger and members of his transition team walked the halls of the Capitol, meeting for a half an hour or more with each of the state's constitutional officers - all Democrats - from the secretary of state to the insurance commissioner.

When Mr. Schwarzenegger crossed the hall from Gov. Gray Davis's office to the office of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the lieutenant governor quipped that under the notoriously aloof Governor Davis, that short walk "had never happened before," recalls transition team chairman David Dreier.

In many ways, the moment sums up how Schwarzenegger has slipped into the role of politician with surprising skill and savvy. Monday, when he officially takes office, his test will begin in earnest. But so far, say many politicians and analysts, he has made all the right moves.

Through bipartisan appointments and overtures to politicians of both parties - in California and on Capitol Hill - he has cast himself as the moderate consensus-builder some say the Golden State has lacked since Ronald Reagan. Moreover, politicians themselves acknowledge that his open and friendly manner is no small relief after the Davis administration's legendary aloofness.

To be sure, Schwarzenegger has his critics, who wish for more substance amid the style and symbolism. But even among those who offer compliments grudgingly, there is a sense that he has maintained much of the momentum from his comprehensive Oct. 7 election, and that this position - as well as his moderate ideals - gives him a unique opportunity to reshape the state.

"Schwarzenegger is so far following through on one of his biggest pledges to be bipartisan and inclusive," says Elizabeth Garrett, a political scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "He has not yet come out with lots of policy but he is handling himself well ... with California and national leaders with whom he must eventually work."

Bipartisan appointing

Since the days after the election, Schwarzenegger has gradually come to define himself through public pronouncements and private meetings among his staff, members of the state Legislature, and California's congressional delegation. The message in both venues, analysts and insiders say, has merely amplified his primary campaign theme: He is about the people's - not the parties' - business.

This has been most obvious in his political appointments. Though the majority of his new staff are conservatives, he has also named a self-described liberal as senior adviser, a Democratic environmentalist to head the state EPA, and a member of the Democratic attorney general's office as his chief lawyer.

"His appointments indicate a lesson he learned from years as a bodybuilder, which is you do some arm curls with the right arm, then the left arm," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "He is clearly making openings to Democrats and liberals in his administration, which is quieting discontent even as it creates better expectations by those on the other side of the aisle."

In addition, Schwarzenegger has moved to mute charges that his "outsider" campaign has been coopted by insiders from former Gov. Pete Wilson's administration. He has tipped Donna Arduin, a political veteran of Florida and Minnesota, as finance director and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan as education secretary.

"The choice of Dick Riordan is very important because Arnold has put so much emphasis on the importance of education," says Dr. Pitney, noting that Mr. Riordan established a reputation in Los Angeles for reining in a maverick school board. "That has thrown a bone to moderate Republicans, who have always been open to Riordan in general, while at the same time giving conservative Republicans someone they can stomach on education issues."

To those closest to Schwarzenegger, the choices are more than just political calculus. They are a reflection of his ideals. "People think that as his chairman, I make the final decisions," says transition team leader and US Representative Dreier. "One thing that is very clear is that he makes the final decision."

When he went to Washington, he said as much. At a festive gathering of California's Republican congressional delegation, Schwarzenegger warned his Republican colleagues that he was elected to be governor of all California, says Rep. Mary Bono. "He said, 'You're not going to like some of the things I'm going to do,'" she adds. "That was sort of a gutsy thing to do. It made some people squirm."

Budget looms

What Schwarzenegger does end up doing about the all-important budget, however, still remains something of a mystery. Schwarzenegger has floated the idea of using bonds to help borrow the state out of debt, but two pending court cases that challenge the constitutionality of the Davis administration's borrowing could close that avenue.

Meanwhile, the expensive wildfires have thickened the plot over Schwarzenegger's plan to repeal the recently tripled car tax, which partly supports local fire fighters, machinery, and maintenance. "Arnold never signed a no-new-taxes pledge, and the recent outpouring of public support for firefighters might open that door a bit," says Dr. Garrett.

For her part, Rep. Zoe Lofgren would just like to see something. The Democratic congresswoman sent him a letter detailing what the California Democratic congressional delegation thinks are the state's most pressing needs - and received no response.

At Schwarzenegger's meeting with the entire California delegation in Washington, where the governor-elect made his entrance before a throng of collegial congressmen as if he were the president at the State of the Union, she whistled him down to hand it to him in person - and received little response.

"It became apparent that what was intended was more of a Hollywood scene to let us have our picture taken with him," says Representative Lofgren. "He spent a lot of time trying to schmooze ... but we're not sent by our constituents to socialize."

Her reaction, and those of some Democrats, suggests Schwarzenegger's honeymoon could be short if he doesn't supplement his charm offensive with serious policy once he is sworn in. Comments by Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer that Schwarzenegger's sexual-misconduct allegations are "not going to go away, and he should cooperate with an independent investigation" also point to potential problems.

Power of personality

For now, though, lawmakers say, Schwarzenegger can dominate a room by force of sheer presence and personality. "He is a very impressive, charismatic, commanding figure," says Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D) of California. "It was like meeting a visiting dignitary."

It is a portrait opposite that of his predecessor in so many ways. Bono says the two were waiting in an anteroom before a press briefing in Washington recently, when Schwarzenegger turned to her and asked what could be done about all the dead and diseased trees that were fueling fires in southern California.

Just being asked for her opinion seemed a revelation. "From my perspective, that feels really good - to have a partner to work with in state government," she says. "He really listens intently, and he's not afraid to ask questions."

Says Robert Hertzberg, a former Democratic Speaker of the Assembly, now on Schwarzenegger's transition team: "This is a guy who clearly gets it that the state is tied in a knot and we are not going to get out of our problems with politics as they have been in this state for 25 years. That is speaking loudly to politicians of all stripes that they'd better start thinking in new directions and give up the old power plays."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.