Mon, Mar 08, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Arnie turning on the star power

POLITICAL MUSCLE Using his celebrity as leverage, the Californian governor has left legislators by turns awed, cajoled and confounded


California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, right, and former Governor Gray Davis, left, talk with moviegoers before they see the premiere screening of Showtime's film Spinning Boris, on Wednesday at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles. Schwarzenegger has brought his famously indulgent lifestyle to bear on the state's politicians, turning them into star-struck foot soldiers.


Cigar butts, crumpled dinner napkins and spent aviation fuel tanks litter the pathway to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory as the self-styled savior of California's economy.

Schwarzenegger not only wowed the voters as he barnstormed around California before his triumph at the polls on Tuesday on his US$15 billion budget bailout, he also brought his famously indulgent lifestyle to bear on the state's politicians, turning them into star-struck foot soldiers for the bailout campaign.

Long before Tuesday's votes were counted, Schwarzenegger, who favors costly Daniel Marshall cigars with personalized labels, made a point of torching up with legislators. He made personal pilgrimages to their offices, or invited them into his statehouse suite. Some had a private lunch or dinner with him, or jetted off in one of his private planes.

"You walk in his house and he's got Maria Shriver and him and Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman there," said Democratic state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, recounting the January evening he spent at the Republican governor's gated Brentwood estate.

For a Tijuana kid who started life in hand-me-downs, it was a memorable night. At one point Nunez said: "`Let's go out to the back and smoke a cigar.' And DeVito looks at me and says `Can I come, too?' I'm like, `You're Danny DeVito, come on!' It was great,'" Nunez said.

In Sacramento, home of California's Legislature, many lawmakers have had similar Hollywood encounters, helping build a vast reserve of political capital and confidence for the governor.

Schwarzenegger's next move will be to use the same formula -- star power plus a threat to go straight to the voters with his own solution in November -- to tackle the runaway cost of providing health care for injured workers. Already, he and top lawmakers are closing in on a compromise for workers' compensation reform, an issue that has long been the subject of partisan fights.

"There's no question the governor's political strength and power fosters bipartisanship, because that's how he uses his power, instead of going out and crushing anyone," said Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's communications director.

While Schwarzenegger credited voters Tuesday for passing Proposition 57, his US$15 billion plan to restructure the state's deficit, he didn't mention his relentless efforts to befriend and unite quarrelsome members of both parties, quiet work that went on beyond the view of the TV cameras that patrol his tightly scripted public events.

Before he came into office, many lawmakers expected Schwarzenegger to be at best a caricature of his bodybuilding and movie roles, or at worst a pampered prima donna. But in the day-to-day work of government, his charismatic personality has left legislators by turns awed, cajoled and confounded.

"Just his presence -- you see people are moved by him," said the Assembly Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, who has twice been a guest on one of the private jets Schwarzenegger uses to get around the state.

"When Hollywood meets politics, it can be electric," said Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, a former Democratic governor who has socialized with Schwarzenegger in Sacramento. "He is an exciting personality because it's new, it's fresh."

Schwarzenegger's ousted predecessor, Gray Davis, a Democrat whose personality sometimes seemed as starchy as his shirt collars, rarely sought out politicians for companionship or advice. He ate the same lunch every day -- steamed broccoli and a turkey sandwich, hold the mayo -- and lived in a tract house in Sacramento.

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