The Man Who Tried to Make California Great Again

The Rise and Fall of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

Editor’s Note: This article originally was published in 2011 in Los Angeles Magazine.

As Arnold Schwarzenegger steps down this month, California voters can only marvel that a leader of such apparent strength is leaving the Golden State such a weakling—its institutions eroded and its finances more of a mess than when he took over from Gray Davis after the 2003 recall. Even among Schwarzenegger’s earliest detractors, few would have dared to predict that by his last summer in office, the governor who had entered the statehouse a movie star would bottom out with a 22 percent public approval rating, tying Davis for the lowest recorded approval rating in California history.

Granted, Schwarzenegger had leaped onto the political stage without any practical experience, but he wasn’t doing anything Ronald Reagan hadn’t done more than three decades before. Though a pro-business conservative and a supporter of the death penalty, Schwarzenegger was no Reagan Republican. He was moderate on social issues like gay unions and abortion. Marrying into a Democratic dynasty, he worked with the developmentally disabled and was a defender of poor children, chairing the Inner-City Games Foundation and pouring his wealth and celebrity into the passage of Proposition 49, a 2002 initiative that guaranteed state funds to after-school programs.

When he ran for governor in the 2003 recall election, Schwarzenegger vowed to liberate voters from a state government that had grown unaccountable. The struggle would be brutal, he said, but when the smoke cleared, the state would finally have its fiscal house in order. Of course, such a declaration from any other candidate might have been immediately dismissed, given that the ideologically polarized legislature couldn’t pass a budget without two-thirds of its members consenting. Still, Schwarzenegger had spent his entire adult life turning the impossible into the inevitable. Who could doubt a political action hero? To the rest of the world the governor remains that all-powerful, charismatic charmer with a sly sense of humor and mastery over every situation. These past seven years, however, we Californians have experienced an Arnold Schwarzenegger many of us wish we’d never met: a politician who often seemed in over his head, who prevaricated and bungled, switching sides as it suited him to save his political skin.

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A recent poll confirmed what Sacramento politicians have known for years: The people of California demanded a strong infrastructure, healthy schools and well-regarded universities, and protections for the most vulnerable without imposing new taxes. If Schwarzenegger had been a more traditional Republican, he would have acknowledged that the price of fiscal discipline was to scale back or eliminate the social, educational, and public works programs the state simply could no longer afford. If he’d been a left-leaning Democrat, he would have advocated regular tax increases so that the ever-rising costs of state services could be paid for.

Schwarzenegger, however, told voters what they wanted to hear. “More taxes will destroy what we’re trying to save,” he said, “which is jobs and revenue. Jobs bring revenue to the state, and revenue brings and allows us to do the right things for education, for the environment, for the disabled, the elderly, and all those in need. A tax increase would be the final nail in California’s financial coffin.” Schwarzenegger only needed to consult the first two budgets he signed to see how misguided this was. Despite rising property values, positive growth, and unemployment below 7 percent, the state couldn’t generate nearly enough revenue in 2003 and ’04 to fund its annual operations. When the housing bubble burst, it was time for the eighth-largest economy in the world to start printing IOUs.

The governor who vowed to cut up the state’s credit card has been instrumental in tripling its outstanding debt—so badly damaging California’s creditworthiness that for a time it was neck and neck with Kazakhstan’s. Before Schwarzenegger took office, the UC and Cal State systems were stressed but could still fulfill the dream of an affordable quality education for every Californian. In-state tuition at Cal State campuses has risen from $1,428 per year to $4,230 during his tenure, while UC undergrads have gone from paying less than $3,900 to $12,150. Both systems are offering a diminished college experience, with fewer class choices, fewer professors, and fewer athletic programs.

To balance a chronically out-of-whack budget, Schwarzenegger began tearing at the state’s social safety net. With his line-item-veto pen he cut billions of dollars allocated for AIDS prevention, battered women’s services, health care for poor kids, drug treatment for pregnant women, and rental subsidies for struggling seniors. As a prelude to signing the 2010-’11 budget, the last of his tenure, Schwarzenegger eliminated $256 million in child care for low-paid workers recently off welfare, $80 million for investigations into child abuse and neglect, and $133 million in mental health services for special ed students.

Supporters of AIDS Project Los Angeles protest against budget cuts in HIV/AIDS prevention and care programs by Sacramento on June 5th, 2009 in Hollywood, CA. Jose Gil /

He couldn’t keep the California economy from capsizing in the midst of the global recession; no governor could have been expected to. His real failing is that he never leveled with voters, informing them they could either choose a government that kept their taxes low or a government committed to top-flight schools, social services, state parks, and public transportation. Instead he allowed California to sink further into delirium as its finances, its institutions, and ultimately his own political power withered away.

Schwarzenegger would talk about building a new political majority. With his star power he would steer the Republican party from those right-wing orthodoxies that made it a perennial also-ran in the legislature and deprive the Democrats of their traditional edge by appealing to that vast middle ground Californians had always occupied.

Despite his centrist ambitions, the governor entered office more as a partisan, picking a fight with lawmakers in the Democratic majority, calling them “girly men” for not agreeing to the budget he submitted and the measures he wanted to put on the ballot. “He saw the legislature as his opponent,” says former state senator Sheila Kuehl, who is writing a book on Schwarzenegger. “Someone he had to beat. Someone he had to best. He even sent [senate majority leader] Darrell Steinberg a pair of metal bull testicles last year indicating he needed to man up if he was going to make the hard decisions, by which Arnold meant ‘doing what I want you to do.’ ”

In July 2004, at the end of a particularly difficult day during which the Democrats had resisted his call to drop the union-scale wage requirement for school bus drivers, Schwarzenegger arranged a press conference. “I will stay here and I will stay here and I will stay here, and I will fight like a warrior for the people of California,” he said. “And there is no one that can stop me, and anyone that pushes me around I will push back, including the Democrats and the special interests.” He lost that one.

His first act as governor may have been his biggest mistake. During the campaign, Schwarzenegger promised to repeal Gray Davis’s tripling of the motor vehicle license fee, which was costing the average motorist $158 a year. He kept that pledge, blowing at least a $4 billion hole in a budget already $19 billion in the red. Schwarzenegger could have told the voters that until he fixed the budget process he’d only be able to rescind half the car tax. Had he repealed just a quarter of the increase, California would have retained far more than the $700 million that the UC and Cal State systems cut from their combined annual budgets for the following academic year.

No matter how much the governor stepped up his cuts to education and social services, the state budget kept on ballooning. Hammered by mounting debt and gaping deficits, he sometimes appeared like a hard-luck uncle reduced to pawning the family china. In 2007, he proposed auctioning off a 40-year lease of the state lottery to the highest bidder. When that didn’t fly, he suggested borrowing against future earnings brought in by the likes of Scratchers and SuperLotto. Last year he devised a $2.33 billion distress sale of 11 state properties to a real estate consortium. Should the pact survive a court challenge, the new owners will lease back such buildings as the San Francisco Civic Center, the attorney general’s headquarters, and the Franchise Tax Board complex—an arrangement that could cost California $1.4 billion.

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By following the people’s wishes, Schwarzenegger did manage to cobble together a majority coalition of voters: Republicans and Democrats who have disapproved of his job performance for three years running. If he couldn’t keep his hold on Californians, Schwarzenegger never lost the support of the business lobby. The two major budget-cutting reforms of his administration targeted employees: a 2004 law that reduced workers’ compensation costs by, among other things, letting employers choose which doctors could evaluate on-the-job injuries, and last year’s state pension legislation, which reduced benefit levels for new hires. But the private sector would be largely exempt from the kind of sacrifices imposed on workers, students, and poor families. Corporate taxes and fees hardly moved while loopholes widened under Schwarzenegger’s watch. Perhaps more crucially, in mid-2006, Schwarzenegger came out against Proposition 87, an alternative energy initiative that would have charged oil companies an extraction tax for every barrel of crude they filled. The fee could have generated as much as $400 million additional revenue annually—Alaska and Texas, both Republican states, have brought in billions with such a fee—but Schwarzenegger opposed it on the grounds that it was an unjust tax.

After spending $38 million on Proposition 87’s defeat, Chevron, the most generous of Schwarzenegger’s oil backers, contributed $44,600 to his reelection campaign and $50,000 toward his privately funded 2007 inaugural ball. Two years later the state’s financial situation had become so dire that Schwarzenegger did an about-face and began discussing an extraction tax that would have steered an estimated $850 million each year into the state treasury. Amid more objections from Republican legislators and the petroleum industry, he dropped the idea. While sparing oil companies, the 2009-’10 budget Schwarzenegger signed included temporary increases in sales and income taxes for voters.

Inconsistent in so many other areas, Schwarzenegger has a near flawless record when it comes to vetoing bills the California Chamber of Commerce branded “job killers.” Out of the 67 job-killer bills that have landed on his desk, he rejected all but four of them. Among those he vetoed were laws exposing businesses to new regulations and pollution controls, extending overtime pay to farmworkers, and increasing compensation for permanently injured employees on the job. “You don’t ever agree with everybody a hundred percent of the time,” says Allan Zaremberg, president and CEO of the California chamber, “and there were a few instances when we didn’t always agree on the same solution to a problem. But I don’t think you could ever question his commitment to improving the job climate in California, and I think in many respects he backed it up.”

Speaking at a chamber breakfast early in his second term, Schwarzenegger called the business lobby’s latest job-killer list “absolutely spectacular.” “This is the greatest service for the people of California,” he said. “I can tell you that. And I think it is important for us all to know, and when I compare my list—because it’s a very similar list that I have and you have—but you know my opinion about job-killing bills. I mean, that’s what we have done for the three years—is we said ‘Hasta la vista, baby’ to those bills. Exactly. And that’s what we’re going to do the next four years—terminate those bills.”

As an Austrian schoolboy fantasizing about political glory, Schwarzenegger was attracted to leaders who bent the world to their will. “I’d always been impressed with stories of greatness and power,” he wrote in his 1977 autobiography/workout manual, Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder. “Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon were names I knew and remembered.” In a 1976 profile in Rolling Stone, Schwarzenegger made clear that success for him remained a matter of crossing Rubicons. “You don’t really push people out of the way,” he explained. “When you see your goal in front of you, the only way you can get there is by walking straight toward it. And whatever happens to be in front of you, those are the things you just cannot look at or be bothered with. Which sometimes is kind of cruel and selfish, but you have no other choice.”

Rolling Stone, June 1976

It wasn’t until Schwarzenegger was in his early thirties and had already been crowned Mr. Olympia six times that he was overcome by a warm and completely unfamiliar feeling: human compassion. Last May, having been invited to give the commencement address at Emory University, he spoke of the encounter that had transformed him. In the late 1970s, Schwarzenegger was living in L.A., working on a business degree by correspondence from the University of Wisconsin, Superior. Researchers there were conducting a study about the potential benefits of weight training for developmentally disabled athletes competing in the Special Olympics. Schwarzenegger flew out to help. In the gym the world champion bodybuilder began to teach bench pressing to a group of kids with special needs. As Schwarzenegger lowered a 40-pound barbell onto one boy’s chest, the boy panicked and screamed. “I pulled the bar back, and he started shaking,” Schwarzenegger said. “And I realized he was scared of the weight.” He calmed the boy and told him that he could give it another try later. When the boy lay on the bench again, Schwarzenegger started him off with only the barbell. He did ten reps and kept asking to do more reps with more plates. After bench pressing 80 pounds, he was elated, jumping up and high-fiving everybody.

“It was a real eye-opener to me,” the governor recalled, “because when I saw that kid going from terror to self-confidence in a short period of time—and that I had that effect on him, that I could do that—I was so excited about this that as a matter of fact I went home to the hotel that night. And I was so delighted and I said to myself, ‘What is going on here? Wait a minute, I didn’t make any money. It was not a career move at all—it was nothing—why am I so excited?’ ”

The episode left Schwarzenegger thinking about a long-ago speech at Yale delivered by his father-in-law, Sargent Shriver, who established the Job Corps and Head Start and was the driving force behind the Peace Corps. Shriver had urged his young audience to tear down the mirror that keeps us transfixed by ourselves. Only then would the students be able to look beyond to the millions of people who need their help. “That’s what happened to me that day,” Schwarzenegger said. “I tore down my mirror that made me always look at myself and always worry about, ‘How can I get rich? How can I get famous? How can I make a career move?’ I tore down my mirror and looked beyond and saw all those Special Olympians that needed my help.” Schwarzenegger became the weight lifting coach as well as a world ambassador for the Special Olympics, carrying the torch and waiting at the finish line to hug the athletes and drape medals around their necks.

In 2002, Schwarzenegger launched his political career by embracing his compassionate side. As the celebrity backer of Proposition 49, he stood up for poor children against Sacramento politicians who might have had other ideas for the money. “Why are we struggling to have more after-school programs?” Schwarzenegger asked during one campaign appearance for his initiative. “Because politicians don’t see kids.” When it comes to protecting children, he said, our elected leaders are asleep. Two weeks into his first term, Schwarzenegger proposed shrinking the deficit by denying state services to developmentally disabled kids who weren’t already receiving them.

In November 2004, boosted by his triumphal prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention that past summer and approval ratings of 65 percent, Schwarzenegger swung farther to the right. As part of a broad campaign to curb the unions, he invoked emergency powers to shelve a law that mandated lower nurse-to-patient ratios at California hospitals. The move was a disaster. The nurses were able to do to him what bodybuilding legends like Lou Ferrigno and Frank Zane couldn’t, beating him so decisively that his governorship never fully recovered.

The California Nurses Association responded by putting out a press release and sending RNs up and down the state to hound him at more than 100 public appearances. Heckled at the first annual Women’s Conference he cosponsored with First Lady Maria Shriver in Long Beach, Schwarzenegger advised the crowd to ignore the rowdy voices, most of them belonging to nurses. “They are the special interests,” the governor said. “Special interests in Sacramento don’t like me because I am always kicking their butts. That is why they don’t like me. And I love them anyway.” In a television ad aired over and over, the governor’s performance was juxtaposed with a young nurse who spelled out the consequences if Schwarzenegger got his way: “The one thing that the public should know is one day you will be in that bed and realize that because of the number of patients one nurse has to take care of, you may be calling, and there’s nobody there.”

Undeterred, Schwarzenegger ordered a special election in November 2005. One of his ballot initiatives aimed to privatize state workers’ pension funds, which inspired state police and firefighters to join the nurses at their rallies. Teachers came, too, because of the governor’s push to pay them based on merit rather than seniority and because of his withholding $2 billion that had been promised for public schools. After he spent nearly a year fighting the nurses, Schwarzenegger had an approval rating of 36 percent. Days before his ballot package went down in flames, 55 percent of registered voters said they weren’t inclined to vote for him again.

Schwarzenegger lurched 180 degrees to his left. He hired Susan Kennedy, a Democrat and a cabinet member of Gray Davis’s administration, as his chief of staff. He proposed a $239 billion infrastructure program funded in part by bond debt and recast himself as an eco-warrior by challenging George W. Bush’s EPA over the agency’s refusal to let California regulate its tailpipe emissions. For Republicans, those moves demonstrated Schwarzenegger’s willingness to throw conservative legislators and principles under the bus when his survival was at stake. “When he lost that battle, I think that it convinced him wrongly that he was either going to shift to a new direction or that he would end his governorship as a failure,” says Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who has known Schwarzenegger since 1982. “His number one goal was to not be seen as a failure. Unfortunately, when all you want to do is to appear not to be a failure, you’re doomed to be a failure.”

For most of 2005 the governor played Gulliver, trapped in a land for which he was ill proportioned and brought down by legions of Lilliputian nurses and assorted state employees. But one June morning outside San Francisco’s City Hall, on World Environment Day, Schwarzenegger embraced a heroic role that would rehabilitate him enough to win a second term and will probably define his political career for posterity. Defying a Republican president and much of his own party, Schwarzenegger announced his executive order to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions decade by decade, so that by 2050, they’d be only 20 percent of 1990’s levels.

In 2006, he signed the more comprehensive and binding Global Warming Solutions Act. He soon became the most important environmental warrior in both Hollywood and American politics, spreading his message throughout the country and across continents. “The governor used his media credentials and his ability to have the media pay attention to issues that no regular politician would be able to,” says state senator Fran Pavley, who cowrote the global warming bill while in the assembly. “I can call a press conference, but I can’t get 60 cameras.” When a ballot measure threatened to sabotage the Global Warming Solutions Act, the governor helped crush it.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger walks amid solar panels after attending a news conference for the installation the last of 1,727 solar panels on the rooftop of the Staples Center sports complex on October 28, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. The off-grid 345 kilowatt photovoltaic solar system, which covers 24,196 square feet, will provide power to Staples Center and the new Nokia Theatre L.A. Live sports and entertainment venues. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger walks amid solar panels after attending a news conference for the installation the last of 1,727 solar panels on the rooftop of the Staples Center sports complex on October 28, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. The off-grid 345 kilowatt photovoltaic solar system, which covers 24,196 square feet, will provide power to Staples Center and the new Nokia Theatre L.A. Live sports and entertainment venues. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Rohrabacher still seems stunned by the governor’s sanctioning of the climate change law. “It’s insane. It’s totally insane,” he says. “Who would ever dream that this guy who ran against bureaucracy and regulations would be basing his assessment of his success on a bill that will do more to destroy the viability of the California economy than anything that’s passed in ten years? Republicans believe in freeing human activity and freeing up people—energizing them rather than putting shackles on them in the name of some, say, mythical climate crisis.”

In confronting climate change, the governor could for once grab the reins without engaging in the messy compromises, hasty about-faces, and draconian cost cutting that had turned so many California voters and politicians against him. The global warming fight had a lot in common with his Hollywood blockbusters. Once again, with mankind’s future in the balance, Schwarzenegger was taking decisive action—just as he had done in End of Days and the Terminator franchise. Unlike any scientist or diplomat sounding the alarm on greenhouse gases—and certainly more than that girly man, Al Gore—he was reaching out to countless millions that had already bought him in such a starring role, blockbuster after blockbuster.

When the credits finally start rolling, years or decades or a century from now, perhaps the world audience will have found that the governor indeed tipped the balance by charming and cajoling enough heads of state and ordinary citizens to reduce their collective carbon footprint while there was still time. In which case Arnold Schwarzenegger will have proved to us all that it was easier to save the planet than to budge California off its sickbed.

Ed Leibowitz is a writer-at-large for
Los Angeles