For the second time in three years, California politics are taking a turn toward the surreal.
In 2003, the recall election turned a referendum about Gov. Gray Davis into a carnival of the bizarre, considering porn stars and sumo wrestlers as would-be governors of America's largest state. This year, the winner of that contest is poised to turn to the same mechanism - the ballot initiative - in an attempt to at last fix the underlying problems that he believes led to the recall two years ago.
Taking up his role of action hero earlier this year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed four sweeping and controversial reforms, ranging from merit pay for teachers to privatizing state pensions. And he demanded that lawmakers tackle the issues by March 1 - or else he would take the battle to the ballot.
Tuesday, that deadline will pass with little progress, and Mr. Schwarzenegger will have to decide whether to ramp up an initiative campaign unlike any seen in American history - both for its intensity and scope.
Even for someone with Schwarzenegger's considerable skills of communication, the ballot presents enormous challenges. Not only would the governor be picking a fight with some of the most powerful groups in the state - from teachers to legislators - but he would also be pressed for time. If he wants to hold a November special election, he has only seven weeks to gather 1.2 million signatures for each item.
Should he fail, he risks casting himself as Jesse Ventura redux - an ultimately unsuccessful novelty governor who attempted to blow up the system and instead only alienated himself from everyone inside it. The opportunity for success, however, points to a potential watershed moment for direct democracy.
"I don't think we've ever had anybody call a special election to put so many of his initiatives on the ballot and completely bypass the legislature," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California in Berkeley. "Arnold's innovation is to use initiatives as a tool of executive governance."
A special election is not yet a foregone conclusion. Schwarzenegger says he will continue negotiations with the Legislature. But the signs are not promising. Lawmakers have ignored Schwarzenegger's request to call a special session, and Schwarzenegger could begin collecting signatures as early as this week.
The result could be an election season without parallel - even for a state that has never been bashful about handing its most fundamental decisions over to voters. On a single ballot, voters would be asked to vote on linking teachers' pay to their students' performance, switching traditional pensions to stock-market accounts for new state employees, tying state spending to revenues to eliminate future deficits, and taking the redistricting process from legislators and giving it to a panel of retired judges.
"Any of these initiatives on its own would be among the most significant ever put before California voters," says Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist. "As a package there is no precedent."
What's more, a fall ballot could be flooded by dozens of other initiatives from groups seeking to ride Schwarzenegger's coattails or to oppose the governor's plans. Since the beginning of the year, more than 70 proposed ballot initiatives have been submitted to the state. Political wisdom suggests that voters tend to get confused by too many ballot initiatives, and when they become confused, they reactively vote "no."
That's one reason Schwarzenegger has been raising huge funds, some analysts say, predicting an epic battle for Californians votes this year in mall tours and TV ads that echo the frantic days of the recall campaign.
Clearly, Schwarzenegger's goal will be to simplify the debate to a single point: You elected me to clean up this mess and Legislature won't help, so give me the tools to do it. Already, there is some evidence that such a tactic might work. An early poll shows that each of his four measures holds a lead. Considering that Californians have defeated redistricting initiatives before, it's a positive sign.
Yet only one measure - merit pay - leads by a large margin. "That puts them on perilous ground, especially with well-funded opponents on the 'no' side," says Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll in San Francisco.
It's hard to imagine a package of reforms that could generate stronger opposition. On one hand, Schwarzenegger is taking on the entire political establishment - including his own Republican Party - by taking redistricting out of the hands of state legislators. On the other, the remaining three reforms cut into core Democratic constituencies, from public-employee unions to advocates for the poor.
"This guy has really gone overboard," says David Sanchez, vice president of the California Teachers Association in Burlingame. "If anything, [the reforms] have made us want to go to war with this guy."
Some see Schwarzenegger's more combative attitude as a function of political necessity. He now has one year of experience and is still one year away from the 2006 gubernatorial election: This is his only opportunity to push tough reforms.
Yet there is evidence that, among Democrats at least, Schwarzenegger's aggressive new tactics have cast him a partisan figure, not a bipartisan problem solver. In his first year in Sacramento, when the "Governator" more often opted for backslaps than headlocks, his approval rating hit 65 percent.
This year, however, as California's erstwhile Conan appears to be sharpening his sword, his approval rating has dipped 10 points. Democrats have been the difference. In a state that often leans left, that is the danger of taking a rather conservative batch of reforms one analyst calls "Bush lite" to the people. "If he passes this reform package, he'll glide though to reelection," says Schnur. "If he's defeated, it's entirely possible that he would decide not to run for a second term."