Saving California?

Posted: Nov 10, 2003 12:00 AM

LOS ANGELES -- California Republican politicians, who had signed a political blank check to back Arnold Schwarzenegger's improbable campaign, spent an uneasy three weeks after his landslide election. They feared the governor-elect would bring to Sacramento a motley collection of his pals from Hollywood and buddies of his Kennedy in-laws. But last week Republicans were breathing sighs of relief over his key appointments. So were many other Californians.

Gov.-elect Schwarzenegger's most important selection was to fill the key post of finance director (the job held by Caspar Weinberger under Gov. Ronald Reagan). He picked Donna Arduin, who has earned a national reputation as a budget-cutter and tax-cutter during five years as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's budget director. The appointments that followed for the most part confirmed that the former Mr. Universe's administration marks a sharp departure from the feckless rule of Democrats. Although picking ex-Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan as Secretary of Education did not please diehard conservatives, it pleased the California Teachers Association even less.

What happens next will be the nation's most compelling political story. The state's Republicans, at death's door prior to the recall election, now envision Schwarzenegger as their savior. More important is whether the Austrian immigrant can save the Golden State. Once the land of opportunity for dispirited Americans throughout the continent, it has become burdened with profound pessimism. One prominent Republican activist told me he pities Schwarzenegger for having to face a government-created malaise transcending a mere budget crisis.

The brilliant November weather masked the harsh reality of life here. The latest nonsensical labor strike has shut down the bus system. Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a doughty liberal on the Democratic front line for the past two decades, finds himself frustrated by intransigent union leaders. Low-income workers cannot get to their jobs. Additional motor vehicles turn the freeways into parking lots, extending bumper-to-bumper rush hours past 8 p.m.

That is the end product of political domination by the Democratic Party, in alliance with unions and trial lawyers. Public distaste for this state of affairs explains the emphatic rejection of Davis and support for the politically inexperienced but untainted Hollywood actor.

Democratic ranks have been decimated by the recall election. In addition to the forced retirement of Davis, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante has been marginalized by his miserable campaign. State Atty. Gen. William Lockyer, once considered the front-runner to succeed Davis in the 2008 election, may have committed political suicide among Democrats by admitting he voted for Schwarzenegger on Oct. 7. State Treasurer Phil Angelides is now the early Democratic favorite for governor in the next election, but he is hardly a compelling figure.

The state's most influential Democrat, appropriately enough, becomes the embodiment of 1960s-style radical liberalism: State Senate President John Burton. Facing forced retirement by term limits after more than 30 years as a happy but uncompromising warrior of the Left, Burton sought as a personal epitaph a state mandate to require employers to pay for their employees' health insurance. Gov. Davis, typically detached, signed the bill into law the night before the recall. The mandate is seen by many businessmen as typifying the political mindset that is driving them out of the state even as California's population rises.

Schwarzenegger is advised that there is no real chance to beat down Burton and his colleagues by repealing the employer mandate. But there are more vulnerable targets of opportunity: the increase in the hated car tax and authorization of driver's licenses for illegal aliens. The Democratic-controlled Assembly is ready to repeal them, and it is unlikely that Burton and the Senate will put up much of a fight.

That is only the beginning. Burton has privately told one prominent Republican that he resents Schwarzenegger interposing himself between the people and their legislators. But that is precisely what the governor can do and intends to do. Assuming that the Legislature will resist, he plans to go to the electorate in the March primary election with a spending cap and a bond issue. The fact that a world-famous celebrity is taking on the liberal establishment ensures the attention of California and the entire nation.