Arnold manhandles California!

Schwarzenegger wins a new role in a landslide. But who will he play: Jesse Ventura? Pete Wilson? Playboy predator? Or tough independent who stands up to his GOP friends?

Published October 8, 2003 10:37PM (EDT)

Californians elected a new governor Tuesday. Sometime over the next year or so, maybe -- just maybe -- they'll find out who he is, how badly he has treated women over the years, and what he plans to do as the governor of the nation's most populous state.

Californians approved the ouster of Gov. Gray Davis by a wide margin Tuesday in a recall drive that started as a right-wing power grab and ended as something much broader. In the race to replace Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger walloped Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and conservative Republican State Sen. Tom McClintock. One minute after the polls closed in California Tuesday night, CNN called the race: by Wednesday morning, with 97 percent of the precincts counted, Schwarzenegger was leading Bustamante and McClintock 48 to 32 to 13 percent, respectively, and he had about 30,000 votes more than Gray Davis received when he won re-election last November.

"For the people to win, politics as usual must lose," Schwarzenegger told supporters Tuesday night at his victory party, where he was introduced by Jay Leno and flanked by the family of his wife, NBC News correspondent Maria Shriver. Much as George W. Bush did before he took office, Schwarzenegger said in his victory speech that he intended to work closely with legislators from both parties. "I want to be the governor for the people," he said. "I want to represent everybody. I believe in the people of California, and I know that together we can do great things."

Davis conceded just before 10 p.m. Tuesday. "The voters decided its time for someone else to serve," he said, "and I accept their judgment. . . . I am calling on everyone in this state to put the chaos and the division of the recall behind us, and to do whats right for this great state of California."

Bustamante, who will remain lieutenant governor but whose political future likely ended with his unwieldy and unsuccessful no-on-recall-yes-on-Bustamante campaign, conceded in the recall race but celebrated the apparent defeat of Proposition 54, a ballot initiative that would have prevented the state from collecting racial data on its citizens. Republican McClintock pledged his support to Schwarzenegger, and observers said his steady campaign as the only "real" Republican in the recall race set him up well for a run against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2004.

Schwarzenegger will take office as California's 38th governor as soon as the election results are "certified," a process that could take until Nov. 15. In many ways, the transition is already under way. Bracing for the worst in the face of gloomy polls last week, Davis aides reportedly began ordering storage boxes from the state archives and inquiring about purchasing shredding machines. Buoyed by those same polls -- but not yet buffeted by allegations of sexual harassment -- Schwarzenegger unveiled for supporters in Sacramento last week his plans for his first 100 days in office.

But like his generalized and shifting response to the allegations that he sexually assaulted at least 15 different women over the last 30 years, Schwarzenegger's plans for California are vague and more than a little evasive. Will he govern as a reformist outsider in the mold of former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura? As a moderate -- but polarizing -- Republican like Schwarzenegger's campaign co-chairman, former Calif. Gov. Pete Wilson? As a right-swinging conservative like George W. Bush? Or simply as a disgraced movie star, paralyzed by allegations that he is a sexual predator? And whatever Schwarzenegger tries to do as governor, will the Democrats -- who control both houses of California's state legislature -- help him, jam him or try to recall him?

As the network talking heads liked to say before their election-night coverage suddenly lost its suspense, the questions are still "too close to call."

And it's not just Democrats who are nervously awaiting the answers.

"I've resigned myself to a Schwarzenegger governorship, and I'm hoping that he's everything he's telling me he is," Mark Williams, a conservative Sacramento radio talk show host told Salon a few days ago, as the Terminator's victory began to appear inevitable. "People so want Davis to be out of there that we may be looking at mass denial as to what Schwarzenegger could possibly be. With every day that goes by, I think we may be coming closer to the time when people start saying, 'Why didn't anybody tell us what he was really like?'"

For conservatives like Williams, the fear is that Schwarzenegger may not be conservative enough, that he may be using former Gov. Wilson and his old campaign hands not just as "Sherpa guides" to win the election but as the core of a moderate administration that could decide that closing California's budget deficit requires not just spending cuts but -- horror of all possible Republican horrors -- tax hikes.

For liberals and progressives, there is the opposite fear. Schwarzenegger has run as a moderate, supportive of abortion rights, accepting of homosexuality, open to gun control and talking a good game on education and other youth-related issues. How does that square with his promises to "clean house" in Sacramento and make California more friendly for business -- let alone with the allegations that he grabbed, groped and otherwise humiliated more than a dozen women over the last three decades?

"Our concern is whether this recall is going to be a recall of the progressive gains we've made in California," Helen Grieco, the executive director of the California chapter of the National Organization for Women, said Tuesday afternoon. "What's going to happen to family leave, to a full platform of choice? What's going to happen with universal health care? We may see restrictions on women's reproductive rights, no progress on civil rights or domestic partners' rights, a whole variety of things -- let's just say the whole progressive agenda may be at stake."

Elected Democrats responded to the apparent Schwarzenegger victory in a more measured fashion Tuesday -- if only to signal that they'll work with him if he goes their way, and that they'll set him up for a fall if he doesn't deliver on his campaign pledge to balance the budget while preserving critical programs.

"It's our responsibility to try to work with the governor, and I will gladly do that," Herb Wesson, the Democratic speaker of California's Assembly, told Salon Tuesday. "I know Arnold, and I think I can sit down with him and have candid discussions with him. We've got to put Californians first, and if he's got some great ideas -- well, I'm hoping he's got some great ideas for restructuring things that can bring us closer together."

They were nice words, but Wesson also predicted tough times ahead for the Terminator. "What's that old saying about being careful what you wish for?" he asked. "I think this is going to be very difficult for him. From the outset, he indicated that he was a moderate and wanted to deliver services for all of Californians. I'm going to hold him to it, and if that's the case, then I think it's going to be very difficult to close the budget gap without some kind of additional revenue. Once he gets here, I believe it's going to be very painful for him to have to sit down and recognize that his options are limited."

Peter Camejo, the Green Party candidate who drew just 2.9 percent of the recall vote, a little more than half of what he received in the November election, predicted that Schwarzenegger will actually move to the left once he's in office -- not out of a serious desire to advance progressive issues, but as a way to make further inroads on the Democratic base. "I've been wrong before," Camejo told Salon, "but I think the Republicans see that the Democratic party is in disarray, and they are beginning to penetrate their base. They want to consolidate that. So in the first stages, Arnold is going to appear to be very different than what people expect. He's going to do and say things that are pro-environment, pro-working class and pro-Latino  at least until the '04 election."

California Democrats may face those problems soon enough. Tuesday night, they were struggling with more immediate issues -- how the recall happened, why they couldnt defeat it, and what message it sends to current and future candidates.

Davis was re-elected in November in a lesser-of-two-evils race against conservative Republican businessman Bill Simon. Davis beat Simon by a margin of 47 to 42 percent, but his popularity -- never overwhelming to begin with -- plummeted as the state's economy continued to suffer from the energy crisis, the dot-com crash, and the same economic woes that plagued, and still plague, the rest of the country.

Shortly after Davis's second inauguration, conservative Republicans began a drive to recall him. Although Davis has been widely criticized as a pay-to-play politician, there has never been any conclusive evidence of any illegality in his actions. But unlike the U.S. Constitution, which allows for impeachment only when high crimes and misdemeanors have been committed, the California Constitution allows voters to launch a recall drive for any reason -- or no reason at all. "The only crime Gray Davis ever committed is that he let his approval ratings drop below 30 percent," one Democrat complained Tuesday.

Davis initially dismissed the recall efforts as "sour grapes" from "sore losers," and observers gave it little chance to succeed; indeed, Californians had attempted recalls of 31 statewide officials in the past, but not one had ever made it to the ballot. But then conservative Rep. Darrell Issa pumped more than $1.6 million of his car-alarm fortune into the recall drive, and the movement suddenly had enough professional petition-collectors to gather the signatures needed to put the recall on the ballot.

The resulting campaign -- a 10-week sprint in a political world used to multi-year marathons -- left just enough time for Schwarzenegger to establish himself without answering hard questions, and too little time for Davis to resuscitate his image.

"This has been an uphill battle from the beginning, but we're going to fight to the end," Davis told Larry King Tuesday night, about two hours before the networks began calling the race against him. "We put on the best campaign we could in 77 days."

Although the requisite distribution of blame will surely come in the days ahead, Democrats largely agreed with the defeated governor Tuesday. A parade of prominent Democrats came to California to support Davis in an attempt to keep dissatisfied Democrats from jumping ship. It didn't work, but what else could he do?

"I don't know what Gray could have done differently," said one California Democratic strategist. "In the days before the election, I had seven [recorded] phone calls to my house from Clinton, from Gore, from Dolores Huerta and Martin Sheen. I don't know what more he could have done."

Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman, who played a prominent role early in the recall, when he joined a handful of other Democrats who tried to persuade Sen. Dianne Feinstein to enter the race, said Tuesday that the short campaign period left Davis with little hope  particularly when it came to running against a major Hollywood star.

"It's very tough for an ordinary politician or normal human being to compete against a demigod, a superstar, someone who has been sainted by the public, the media and Hollywood," Sherman said. In some ways, he insists, the campaign wasn't a fair fight. Davis had a long record in office, and he was expected to answer for it. Schwarzenegger had no record -- at least until women started coming forward to accuse him of harassing them -- and he didn't have to answer for much.

"If I had made any one of the mistakes Arnold has admitted, one only wonders where I'd be," Sherman said. "And I don't think I would have been able to say, I'll tell you my plans [for cutting the deficit] after the election.'"

For whatever reason, voters allowed Schwarzenegger to do just that. Early in the race, he convened an economic council to study California's fiscal problems and provide solutions. After a day's worth of meetings, he proclaimed the fiscal picture too complicated to analyze and said he'd appoint an auditor to figure it all out once he was elected. As for the sexual harassment allegations, Schwarzenegger ultimately took a similar approach. First he apologized for behaving badly and admitted, generally speaking, that the allegations were true. Then he started to deny some of the allegations. And then he said he would explain all of the details -- after the election was over.

Feminist leaders like Grieco are awaiting that explanation -- and demanding an investigation into exactly what Schwarzenegger did to whom. If there is an investigation and it proves that Schwarzenegger assaulted women, Grieco said he should resign.

Meanwhile, other Democrats may have more aggressive plans for Schwarzenegger. Just before Schwarzenegger entered the race in August, ABC News quoted Democratic San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown as saying that he considered it his "duty" to try to recall any Republican governor who replaced Davis. Brown's spokesman backed a way from the vow a bit Tuesday, saying that Brown didn't have the money to fund a recall drive himself, but he made it clear that Brown would be open to backing such an effort if someone else initiated it.

"There are certainly Democrats who say, If it's good for the Republicans, it's good for us, and we're going to do it," said Brown spokesman P.J. Johnston. Brown, he said, would support such an effort "if it came to pass."

Wesson, the Democratic Assembly leader, downplayed such talk Tuesday evening. "I think we have provided enough entertainment for the world," he said.

Like other Democrats who spoke to Salon Tuesday, Wesson attributed Daviss loss -- and Schwarzeneggers victory -- not to dissatisfaction with Davis or Democrats more generally, but rather to an overall frustration with the economic problems facing California and the rest of the nation.

"Over the past couple of years, youve seen a growing frustration, not just in California, but throughout the country," Wesson said. "A lot of that, I think, can be directly attributed to the poor economy that the country is suffering from. When you have layoffs, when people lose jobs, when they cant spend as much money as they usually spend, it becomes very frustrating. And I think people are just sour and frustrated."

In that cloud of frustration, some Democrats tried to see a silver lining. Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean issued a statement Tuesday evening in which he said that, if recall were held in throughout the country today, "its quite possible that 50 governors would find themselves paying the price for one presidents ruinous national economic policies." Dean said California voters took their frustrations out on Davis. "Come next November," he said, "that anger might be directed at a different incumbent -- in the White House."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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