Big Arnie Doing Good, Playing Strong

By Dion Nissenbaum
Knight Ridder Newspapers
SACRAMENTO, Calif. - If you want a reality check onhow Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing asgovernor, ask the Democrat he ousted.
He's taken the town by storm,'' said former Gov.Gray Davis, the career politician recalled last fall andreplaced by the Hollywood actor. Six months after being forced to unceremoniously packup and clear out, Davis isn't the only one lavishingpraise on the new governor. High-ranking members of thelast administration have emerged as Schwarzenegger fans. I think he’s doing an incredible job using theoffice the way the office can be used,’’ said formerDavis Cabinet Secretary Susan Kennedy. I've beenreally impressed.'' Such kudos are a remarkable bellwether for the formerbodybuilding champion and action star once denounced byDemocrats as naive, ill-informed and inexperienced. Sure, Republicans have predictably fawned overSchwarzenegger. And some Democrats laud the new governorfor his bipartisan approach to solving the state'sproblems. But members of the Davis team that furiously foughtthe recall now find themselves offering not justgrudging respect for the new governor's early successes,but genuine admiration for Schwarzenegger's politicalskills. What amazes the Davis loyalists the most isSchwarzenegger's ability to dominate the debate. Fromthe moment he took office, Schwarzenegger has set thepolicy agenda and produced a series of victories thatadd to his aura, making it tough for critics to findsolid footing. First, he delivered on his campaign promises to repealthe unpopular car tax and force the Democrat-controlledLegislature to scrap a controversial law that gaveundocumented immigrants the right to get a statedriver's license. Then he convinced skeptical voters toback a massive bond and budget-balancing ballot measureby building a bipartisan campaign coalition. Barely taking a breath, Schwarzenegger then negotiateda complex workers' compensation reform package withlawmakers. And, along the way, the governor cut a seriesof budget deals with California's most influentialspecial interest groups that helped defuse opposition tohis budget proposal, despite cuts to education andsocial programs. Politically speaking, he’s running the table,’’ saidformer Davis chief speechwriter Jason Kinney. Anyperson in Sacramento - Democrat or Republican - whodoesn't give him an 'A' for performance is foolingthemselves.'' In many respects, the preternaturally optimisticSchwarzenegger benefits from following Davis, an aloofleader who had few allies and fewer friends in theLegislature. Davis' standoffish style left him fightingtwo fronts on many battles: One with Republicans, theother with fellow Democrats. By contrast, Schwarzenegger has developed closerelationships with top leaders from both parties,foremost among them Senate leader John Burton,Sacramento's most powerful Democrat. Their relationship is so tight that Burton frequentlystops by the governor's office to bring Schwarzeneggercoffee, shoot the breeze and discuss policy. That is alevel of trust that Burton never had with Davis, forwhom he had thinly veiled contempt. You can deal with this governor because he’s notafraid to get his hands dirty,’’ said Burton.
That fundamental shift has given the Republicangovernor cachet with Democrats.
I have Democrats telling me all the time how muchthey enjoy working with this administration,'' saidformer Davis Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy McFadden. Ithink it’s hard to argue with the way he’s governing.’’
Davis aides also marvel at Schwarzenegger’s ability topresent old ideas as new - and win plaudits for doingso.
While Schwarzenegger’s first proposed budget differedfrom Davis’ last spending plan on key issues such astaxes, both relied on cuts, borrowing and optimisticassumptions about new money to balance the books.
When Davis presented his plan last year, he wassavaged by Democrats, Republicans, business leaders,advocates for the poor and a broad cross section ofspecial interest groups.
But Schwarzenegger won early praise for his revisedbudget, even though many elements mirror those used byDavis.
There's nothing substantively different about what'sbeing proposed. It's all cosmetic,'' said former DavisFinance Director Steve Peace. This governor has provenhis capability to market what Gray Davis couldn’t.’’
Because Schwarzenegger has yet to face a seriousleadership challenge, some Davis aides say thegovernor’s true mettle won’t be tested until he hits hisfirst crisis.
Kinney, the speechwriter, noted that the Davisadministration had a long honeymoon of its own. TheDemocratic governor pushed through a series of proposals- from education reform to sweeping gun controllegislation - that led Time Magazine to dub him themost fearless governor in America.'' But when the state was hit by rolling blackouts andthe collapse of the dot-com economy, Davis stumbled -and never recovered. When we reached rocky waters, that’s when westruggled,’’ said Kinney. The question will be howdoes he perform under the pressure of a major crisisand, in that respect, the jury is still out.'' (EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) Davis agreed that Schwarzenegger's biggest test willcome from the unforeseen crisis - whether it's adevastating earthquake, terrorist attack, new energycrisis, major economic downturn or some other unwelcomesurprise. While Davis began his term with billions in extramoney to spend, his fortunes quickly changed whenSilicon Valley's economy tanked and tax revenue plunged. I knew that we wouldn’t have good times forever, butin my third budget revenues dropped $13 billion - not 3or 4 billion,’’ said Davis.
``That’s when governing is a lot more difficult. Rightnow the governor appears to have the benefit of a risingtide and he’s banking on a rising tide, but I learnedthat two years is a long time.’’

(Knight Ridder correspondent Ann E. Marimowcontributed to this report.)