Last January, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger came up with a strategy to seize control from the Democratic-controlled Legislature: he would launch a series of initiatives that would reduce legislative control of the state budget (Prop 76), force Democrats into costly election battles via a mid-decade reapportionment (Prop 77), and put the Democrats great ally, the California Teachers Association, on the defensive (Prop 74). And he would put these issues before the people in a special November election, where turnout is typically low and party loyalties are not at issue. Last night, California voters powerfully rejected Arnold's agenda. What went wrong? Many things, but one stands out: when the Governor picked a fight with Roseanne Demoro and the California Nurses Association over nursing staffing levels, he ignited a spark that brought him electoral ruin
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the first politician in memory who descended from the heights to the depths of popularity after less than two years in office. A man whose political identity is based on his self- image as a "man of the people" was revealed last night to be completely out of touch with "the people" he claims to represent.
The campaign against Arnold's initiatives became so ferocious and widespread that one may forget that, when 2005 began, many believed that the Governor had his adversaries on the defensive. Progressive constituencies were still in shock over the Republicans sweeping victories in November 2004, and organized labor was engaged in an internal dispute over vision that resulted in the departure of key activist unions like SEIU and HEREUNITE! from the AFL-CIO.
In addition, John Burton, the progressive leader of the California Legislature, had been forced to leave due to term limits. His replacement, Don Perata, did not have a track record of fighting for progressive principles.
The first months of the legislative session saw the Governor and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez sparring over the upcoming education budget. Democrats, teachers, and school districts were up in arms over the Governor's plan to break his promise to return billions to the schools he had "borrowed" the previous year. In response, the Governor began floating a number of proposals to attack teacher unions, and vowed to "go to the people" to end the alleged union stranglehold over the state's school system.
The California Teachers Association (CTA) was closely aligned with former Governor Gray Davis, and is accustomed to being attacked by Republican politicians. But Arnold did not stop with the teachers. He promoted a ballot initiative that would sharply reduce pensions for all future state employees, and this measure was supposed to be the centerpiece of his fiscal solution for the state's budget shortfall.
The genius of Schwarzenegger's plan was that it would generate billions for Wall Street investment firms, who in turn would provide the campaign funding for Arnold's entire agenda.
But the Governor ran into a problem. Turns out his initiative would deny or reduce pension benefits for firefighters killed in the line of duty early in their careers. State and local firefighter unions went ballistic, and began attacking the Governor's plan.
Realizing that the initiative had a fatal defect, the Governor dropped it. He then replaced it with four possible versions of what eventually became Prop 76, a deeply flawed measure rejected overwhelmingly by voters.
Flailing around for a new issue to energize his base, the Governor started the fight that could well end with his defeat next year. Schwarzenegger decided to reward his financial backers in the hospital industry by challenging the historic measure signed by Gray Davis mandating the highest nurse staffing levels in America.
Rosenane DeMoro, Executive Director of the California Nurses Associaton, justifiably took great pride in winning the new staffing levels. And any Governor who would try to mess with this reform would find themselves in a full-scale, all out war against a union whose 60,000 members knew how to fight and how to win.
Arnold apparently forgot that all of his fights occurred in movies. He was not battle-ready for the fight he launched against the CNA
When the Governor declared a state of emergency to justify suspending the staffing rules, the union rushed to court and got the suspension lifted. It was around this time that the Governor vowed to "kick the nurses butts," a statement that will go down in history as changing the course of Arnold Schwarzenegger's once promising political career.
When a union primarily comprised of professional women is told that a man is going to "kick their butts," a negative reaction will clearly follow. But when this statement was made about CNA, it meant that Arnold had invited a war from an adversary that would be working day and night and night and day to destroy its political career.
You know the now common tactic of busting in on Arnold's fundraisers and other public events? This was started by the CNA, which has pursued the Governor with a steadfastness and zeal that may be unprecedented in California politics.
Once DeMoro's troops made the tactic of personal confrontation and harassment of Schwarzenegger not only politically acceptable but even routine, you had other unions follow. By the eve of the election even actor Warren Beatty was getting into the act---but it all began with the nurses.
For all the strength and commitment of the state's public employee unions, it was the nurses that brought the "by all means necessary" approach previously lacking. And once members of other unions saw how much fun it was, and how these in your face assaults on Arnold were working, they joined in the escalating attacks on Arnold as a tool of corporate interests.
A few months ago Arnold stated that he could not go to any event without facing harassment from the nurses. When a union regularly hires a plane to fly over your fundraisers carrying a slogan attacking you, it can get wearying.
Arnold's anger at the nurses no doubt motivated him to endorse Prop 75, and at the time this endorsement was made the anti-union initiative was ahead in the polls. If DeMoro hoped to draw the unpopular Governor into weakening Prop 75 by identifying himself with it, she succeeded.
The union-led campaign to defeat Prop 226 (the predecessor to Prop 75) had nowhere near the militancy of this campaign. The only potentially comparable labor-dominated mobilization in recent state history was the Gray Davis 1998 Governor campaign, but it's easier to generate activism when there's a chance to elect the first Democratic Governor in 16 years.
It's also easier to generate campaign volunteers when victory can provide them with tangible benefits. But this campaign involved issues that did not directly affect most voters, and victory could only stop bad things from happening.
To rally people under these conditions requires the type of hard-edged militancy usually identified with the religious right. The nurses helped instilled this sense of grievance in union members across the state, and set the tone for the massive grassroots effort that terminated the Governor's attempt to move California backyard.
Schwarzenegger's response to "the people's" rejection of him was to offer an "olive branch" to Democrats. But my take on Roseanne DeMoro and organized labor in California is that yesterday's victories are only the midway point in the continued campaign to remove the Governor from office in the November 2006 election.
Arnold's looking to play Kindergarten Cop, but CNA and the rest of labor are saying "Hasta La Vista, Baby" to a media-created politician now found to wear no clothes.
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