In California, new governor talks positive

Sun National Staff

LOS ANGELES - Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger awoke yesterday to the realities he will soon confront in leading the nation's wealthiest, most populous and, for the moment, angriest state.

But when he surfaced late in the day for a post-election news conference, he smilingly offered no specific solutions to California's problems and conceded off-handedly that its biggest - the budget crisis - could be worse than he expected.

He charmingly told the story of 13-year-old Katherine, his eldest child, coming into his bedroom before dawn with a cup of coffee and whispering in his ear, "Mr. Governor, your coffee is ready." He added, with a grin: "Very cute."

The new Republican governor has a short time to assemble an administration before he is sworn in, probably by mid- November, in a state capital dominated by Democrats.

Adversaries are already sharpening their claws for the unavoidable struggle over taxes and spending. But on the day after he was swept into power, he chose to accentuate the positive.

"I don't think one should take the negative approach," he said, and seemed to take heart from the traditional round of congratulatory phone calls from state Democratic leaders. "They all said, 'We are looking forward to working with you, Arnold.'"

He brought himself up short, at one point, after he slipped back into campaign mode by describing as "bogus" one of outgoing Gov. Gray Davis' flip-flops.

"I don't want to talk negative anymore about that administration. The election is over," he told reporters at a West Los Angeles hotel.

Schwarzenegger said, after taking a deep breath, that he would have "no time" for making movies or other business ventures. But he ducked when asked if he would be moving to Sacramento, the state capital. (Later, he seemed to indicate that he'd be commuting by private jet from his home in Los Angeles. His work at the Capitol, he said, would be just "like being on a movie set, on a movie location. And sometimes I'm home and sometimes I'm not home.")

He even embraced the news media, the source of unrelieved negative reports in the final week of the campaign about alleged womanizing.

"Please do me a favor," he pleaded, after taking questions for about 20 minutes. "Stay with me the next three years, because you are absolutely essential for me to get my message out there. I really appreciate your being a part of this campaign."

The unofficial vote total from Tuesday's recall ballot showed that Schwarzenegger received at least 100,000 more votes than Davis got in attempting to defeat the recall, strengthening the legitimacy of his election.

But while the vote settled the issue of who would serve the final three years of Davis' term, it created a series of uncertainties and questions about his replacement and how he intends to meet the seemingly contradictory promises of his campaign.

Schwarzenegger must find a way to balance the high - some would say impossible - expectations of supporters with the hard reality of his new job.

Many Schwarzenegger voters told Election Day pollsters they believe he can fix the state's budget mess without raising taxes. But the political establishment in Sacramento is largely convinced that he cannot, barring a major upswing in the state's slowly recovering economy.

Again yesterday, Schwarzenegger affirmed his pledge not to raise taxes, even as he acknowledged that the budget gap could be as much as double the previous estimate, or $20 billion out of annual state spending of about $100 billion. He airily promised that when his aides start combing budget documents they would find billions in wasteful spending.

He said he would be asking President Bush for "a lot of favors" on California's behalf. There's "a lot of money we can get from the federal government," he said, though Washington - facing a $500 billion deficit of its own - is unlikely to concur.

Democrats, who control the Legislature and every statewide office in California, appear to be of two minds in their approach to the governor-elect. Some dismiss him as a dunce even as they carefully promise to treat him in a civil manner.

"He doesn't know anything about running the state. So, either he will propose a lot of stuff he can't do and we'll have to govern, or he'll be pretty well manipulated by people who have an agenda, very much the way I think the president of the United States has been handled by people who are really telling him how to do these things," state Sen. Sheila Kuehl told Sacramento Bee columnist Daniel Weintraub.

Others, having studied Schwarzenegger's impressive vote totals, are likely to treat him with greater respect, if not fear. The wave of anger and distrust that cost Davis his job could easily be directed at them, legislators realize, possibly with the new governor's help.

Kam Kuwata, a leading Democratic strategist, said the message of the election was that "people want the institutions of government to work." Having dumped a governor for the first time in state history, he said, "voters are going to be careful to watch everybody" in positions of leadership.

He played down the prospect of a retaliatory recall of Schwarzenegger, as some Democrats have threatened. But "there still is that anger from certain groups - women and others - and they will give him a short leash," Kuwata said.

From the outset, Schwarzenegger seems prepared to use his popularity to go over the heads of the politicians and speak directly to the public. If that doesn't work, a top adviser warned, he might turn to the same tools of direct democracy that won him the job.

Pete Wilson, the state's last Republican governor, said that if the Legislature "proves intransigent" in resolving the budget crisis to Schwarzenegger's satisfaction, the new governor "can actually avail himself of the initiative or the referendum" process to address the problem.

"Those are drastic remedies, just as the recall was itself," said Wilson, in an MSNBC interview.

Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a Wilson associate, said Schwarzenegger's effectiveness as governor will be closely tied to the role he decides to play on the national scene.

"He's got to avoid the Jesse Ventura trap: You get elected as a celebrity, you become governor, and then you get swept up in national politics," he cautioned.

Though Schwarzenegger attracted considerable support from independents and Democrats, and lost many conservative Republicans to another candidate, he is expected to be an aggressive partisan for Bush and the Republicans in next year's campaign. Already, his election means that Democrats will have to divert money they hadn't expected to spend in defending their base in California, the richest electoral-vote prize and a reliably Democratic one in recent national elections.

Republicans at party headquarters in Washington, who spent $1 million on the recall, were quick to hail their bright new star. His potential as a fund-raiser for Republican candidates around the country is expected to approach that of Bush, who distanced himself from the recall but is to appear with Schwarzenegger in Southern California next week.

Even Democrats acknowledge that Schwarzenegger has the potential to help Bush and the Republicans lure moderate voters, especially in the swing states of the East and Midwest, and make California more of a two-party state.

As a foreign-born citizen, Schwarzenegger cannot run for president. But his former immigrant status and moderate social views - he favors abortion rights and gay rights and some forms of gun control - carry powerful symbolism and could help Republicans broaden their national image.

Schwarzenegger also demonstrated impressive vote-getting appeal among Latinos, the most sought-after ethnic group in today's politics. Even with a prominent Hispanic, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, on the recall ballot, Schwarzenegger got about three of every 10 Latino votes, the best showing in more than a decade by a Republican in this state, which has more Hispanic voters than any other.

In winning by what amounted to a landslide in a 135 candidate field, Schwarzenegger spent an estimated $8.5 million of his own money, including at least $3 million in a loan to his campaign. He said he would not take money from special interests but wound up raising more than $10 million from contributors that included companies with interests before the state government. Now that he's been elected, he'll be scrutinized closely as he solicits donations to repay his campaign loans and, presumably, starts gearing up for a possible re-election race in 2006.

Whether he becomes a long-term political power in the state could depend on his ability to surmount the budget challenge of the next six months without alienating those who put their faith in his unconventional candidacy.

"It's all about leadership," he said. "The people want change."

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