WASHINGTON - It wasn't so much the warm golden tan that made movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's governor-to-be, stand out in a crowd on a cold, damp day on Capitol Hill.
It wasn't the oversized rings he wore on each hand or the congressional pages who shyly huddled in a corner waiting to ask for an autograph. It wasn't even the moment when the Terminator hero told Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist that he was the "Collectinator" coming to Washington to collect money for California, especially now that wildfires are ripping through the southern part of his state.
It was the Republican's footwear that set his fellow politicians abuzz. Brown alligator belly-skin shoes - maybe faux, probably not - with clunky soles and thick beige laces. Very un-PC. Very un-Washington. "Oh, he's got to change those right away," one California House member whispered to another as the former body-building champion stood before them with a beaming, ever-present smile.
Aside from the fashion commentary, members of Congress seemed otherwise enthralled by the governor-elect on his first official trip to Washington since winning a landslide election this month to replace Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
Even Democrats who had opposed the recall election and campaigned vigorously against him greeted the governor-elect with enthusiasm.
"What's past is past," said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who had made an anti-Schwarzenegger TV ad that noted "serious allegations" had been made against him after reports surfaced suggesting a history of sexually harassing women. "I will help him in every way I possibly can."
Schwarzenegger, who will take office next month, had planned the two-day trip as a series of courtesy calls through the nation's capital, but the wildfires that have destroyed more than 600,000 acres in his state gave him a more immediate and specific agenda as he met with members of Congress and two Cabinet secretaries, Energy's Spencer Abraham and Transportation's Norman Y. Mineta.
"I came basically to Washington to establish relationships and to make sure we are getting more federal money for California as I promised in my campaign," Schwarzenegger said before a huge mob of reporters and photographers after meeting with House Republicans yesterday morning. "But of course, the recent events, the huge disastrous fires, have changed my mission a little bit. I'm now looking for federal money for the people, the victims of the fire."
He started the day with a meeting with Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The governor-elect said that, before he left for Washington, Davis advised him that the most important thing to ask the federal government for was assistance in setting up "one-stop" disaster-relief centers where victims of the fires can seek whatever aid or counseling they need in a single setting.
He said he asked FEMA, "and they are establishing those one-stop centers by this weekend."
Today, Schwarzenegger is to meet at the White House with Vice President Dick Cheney, but not President Bush, with whom he met two weeks ago in Fresno, Calif.
Traveling yesterday with a large entourage of staff, security and members of Congress, the new politician was squired from meeting to meeting throughout the Capitol, flashing a Hollywood smile and offering a friendly "Hello, everybody" as he walked the marble corridors. At every stop, he pronounced that he was neither the Republicans' governor, nor the Democrats' governor, but the "people's governor," and vowed to work with, and staff his administration with, members of both parties.
Word of his presence quickly spread throughout the building. Sen. John E. Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican, darted out of the Senate chambers at one point, saying: "A page said he was around here. Where is he?" Tourists waited to snap pictures and ask for autographs.
Inside his meetings with House Republicans and later the California delegation, Schwarzenegger was greeted with standing ovations and raucous applause. Some members stood on chairs to get a better look. Many asked to have their pictures taken with him.
"There's definitely a rock star buzz," said Stuart Roy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. "It's a big to-do."
California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said it was usually hard to impress his fellow Republican House members, but that, as yesterday's standing-room-only crowd proved, they were impressed. "Arnold has star power, and he's putting it to work for the people of California," the congressman said. "The last time we had that we ended up with a president of the United States who changed the world. Well, now we have a star who can at least change California."
Schwarzenegger said during his campaign and immediately after his victory that he would be seeking a lot of financial help from Washington in his effort to turn around the state's dismal economy. He said yesterday that he "got the message out loud and clear" to Congress that a state that pays so much in federal taxes needs to get back a bigger share.
Many yesterday said that Schwarzenegger may have an easier time getting federal dollars for California than Davis has had. For one thing, the new governor is a Republican who'll be dealing with a Republican-led Congress and Republican White House. What's more, the White House, eyeing California's 55 electoral votes in 2004, has a stake in Schwarzenegger's success. And then there's the matter of Hollywood glamour.
"If there's anyone who can pry loose money out of a federal budget this tight it's somebody with the political power and the muscle power of Arnold Schwarzenegger," Rohrabacher said. "When he talks, everybody listens."
Schwarzenegger said he didn't expect special treatment because of his status but said, "I think it will be good treatment." He joked that maybe members of Congress would now buy more DVDs of his movies.
Schwarzenegger met privately with Feinstein and California's other Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, and, with his wife, Maria Shriver, had lunch with Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Shriver's uncle, at the Willard Hotel. Schwarzenegger called the Massachusetts senator his "favorite uncle-in-law."
He said the Democrats were "all opening up their arms" to him. He said he had no hard feelings toward Feinstein for campaigning against him and planned to work with her on extending the assault weapons ban that she has championed for years.
"You know the way it works in politics," the governor-elect said. "It was clear she wasn't going to come out and cut a commercial for me. She was against the recall, and I totally appreciate and understand it. We will be working together like a jewel."
At least one California Democrat, Rep. Tom Lantos, said he had reservations about the Austrian-born actor-turned-politician, saying there are "profound ideological issues that divide us from Arnold Schwarzenegger." But even the Hungarian-born congressman couldn't help joining in the light-hearted atmosphere. "I told him I'm ready for the restoration of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy," Lantos joked. "He seemed interested."
Another Californian, Rep. Mary Bono, a Republican, said Schwarzenegger's trip to Capitol Hill - especially the remarks about his shoes - reminded her of when her late husband, Sonny Bono, first came to Congress wearing big glasses, loafers and an unmistakable California look. "I was laughing to myself when I heard someone say he's got to change his shoes," said Bono, wearing flared black pants, a red sweater and no jacket. "They're California shoes. They're not Washington shoes. It was like, 'Oh, Arnold's got to become one of us.' And I hope he doesn't."