Left With Schwarzenegger’s Collateral Damage

Mark Laluan

As Schwarzenegger’s legacy comes to an end, California must engage in major damage control

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, photographed at the state capitol in Sacramento on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2010, is finishing his term and will step aside soon when Jerry Brown takes over the position for the second time in his life.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has bid adieu to seven years in office as Governor of California.

The action star of the 2002 movie “Collateral Damage” is leaving the state with more damage than what was done in the film.

The Hollywood actor-cum-politician presided over a California submerged by a floodtide of debt, social discontent and partisan bickering. Schwarzenegger responded to such problems with a mixture of bold and misguided, but always decisive action.

When asked what Schwarzenegger’s legacy as Governor of California would be CSU East Bay Professor of Economics Tony Lima characterized that the former Governor’s political legacy would be one of contributing to the myriad problems which Schwarzenegger’s successor, Democrat Jerry Brown, will now have his hand at dealing with.

“The governor’s legacy, I’m afraid, will be about the same as previous governors,” said Lima. “He and the state legislature continue to pursue policies that promote economic uncertainty and fear, that raise the cost of doing business in California, and that hinder economic growth.”

His administration was swept into power on the backs of public disapproval of Democratic Governor Gray Davis’ handling of the energy crisis that saw multiple statewide blackouts as former energy conglomerate Enron manipulated the supply of power across the western United States.

Davis was recalled in 2003 and replaced by Schwarzenegger in an emergency election that saw over 135 candidates vie for the support of the electorate.

Schwarzenegger won handedly with over 48 percent of the vote and was catapulted to victory by a campaign that drew comparisons to fellow actor and Republican Governor, and later President, Ronald Reagan.

While Schwarzenegger emerged from the 2003 recall election with a credible mandate to govern, Schwarzenegger never quite removed himself from the circus atmosphere that permeated the recall election.

Schwarzenegger prided himself on acting in a manner contrary to his career politician peers in Sacramento.

Schwarzenegger installed a smoking cabana in the State House, was surrounded by a cadre of burly bodyguards and conducted policy making in a zero-sum fashion that regularly clashed with a Sacramento political scene bred to accept compromise and half-measures as the only possible method of governance.

The halcyon days of the first year of his term soon gave way to a string of controversial moves by Schwarzenegger.

From maintaining a stable of gas-guzzling Hummers while pushing for his environmental agenda to accusations of himself or his staff leaving veiled insults in the form of an acrostic in a veto message that torpedoed a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), the former Governor never failed to leave the traditional Sacramento political scene dazed, confused and indignant.

However, standing head and shoulders above the rest of the former Governor’s comments was his characterization of critics of his economic policies. Schwarzenegger warned these political opponents not to become “economic girlie men” at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

This comment, which won a standing ovation from the gathered party faithful, was ironic given Schwarzenegger’s future fights with Republican rank and file as well as GOP leadership.

In spite of the legislative gridlock that plagued Schwarzenegger’s term of office, the former Governor pushed forward a program of environmental initiatives that dealt with curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition Schwarzenegger pioneered the concept of a hydrogen highway system which would create a series of hydrogen refueling stations that would support a fleet of hydrogen powered cars.

Professor Lima cautions that there may be negative consequences from Schwarzenegger’s environmental policies.

“Applying ‘cap and trade’ to greenhouse gases for only California and a few other states simply adds to the cost difference between us and other states,” said Lima. “That encourages businesses to take their business elsewhere. Costs matter – at least everywhere except Sacramento.”

The flight of business from California and the associated economic downturn are the most visible points of Schwarzenegger’s legacy. While Schwarzenegger may be bowing out of the political limelight, the partisan political culture and economic conditions created under his watch will continue to color state politics for a long time to come.