Schwarzenegger's Troubles Deepen

The possibility that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will call a special election is growing more likely. He wants to give the public a vote on measures he says he can't get through a Democrat-controlled legislature. But opponents say the threat of a special election is creating a political impasse.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's looking more likely that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will call a special election this fall. Schwarzenegger wants to give voters a chance to approve several measures that he says he cannot get through a Legislature controlled by Democrats. The governor's opponents say the threat of the special vote is making it hard to get any real business done. Here's more from NPR's Ina Jaffe.

Unidentified Man: Are you going to give me a hand with this?

INA JAFFE reporting:

Bill Mandel was facing the daunting, yet satisfying task of wheeling a cart load of signed petitions into the LA County registrar's office. They're for an initiative that's part of what Arnold Schwarzenegger calls his reform agenda. The measure would transfer the job of drawing legislative districts from state lawmakers to a panel of retired judges. It's intended to eliminate the allegedly safe districts lawmakers draw for themselves. And Mandel said the matter was too important to wait until the next regularly scheduled election.

Mr. BILL MANDEL (California): Because if we are believers in true and fair representative democracy, we need to remedy that situation immediately.

JAFFE: Schwarzenegger's also supporting a measure to lengthen the time it takes public school teachers to get tenure. But the one he's pushing hardest would give the governor broad new powers to control state spending. He's been promoting that one with a TV commercial showing him chatting with some voters in a company cafeteria.

(Soundbite from Schwarzenegger ad)

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): You're the ones who pay the taxes and foot the bill, so help me reform California so that together we can rebuild it.

JAFFE: Schwarzenegger also wanted to privatize pensions of public employees, but he pulled that one after a blistering ad campaign by cops and firefighters saying it would also do away with death and disability benefits. The governor has said he'd rather work with the Legislature on all these issues than go to the ballot, but his press secretary, Margita Thompson, says negotiations with legislative Democrats have not yielded much.

Ms. MARGITA THOMPSON (Schwarzenegger Press Secretary): It's amicable stagnation in that they've been giving some ideas, but they've been ideas that deal with issues on the periphery and nothing that gets to the root cause of the problem.

JAFFE: Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez says it's hard to negotiate with the threat of a special election hanging over your head. The governor, he charges, is leading the state into political chaos.

Assemblyman FABIAN NUNEZ (Speaker): The irony is that he ran on a platform of putting an end to the partisan bickering, I should say, driving the agenda in Sacramento. He now is going to take us into a very, very devastating situation for years to come where that political divide is concerned.

JAFFE: One of the most divisive measures on the next ballot would require public employee unions to get written permission from each of their members before their dues could be used for political purposes. It's not officially part of the governor's agenda, though his press secretary says he supports the concept. And virtually all the funding for the measure has come from the Small Business Action Committee headed by Schwarzenegger ally Joel Fox.

Mr. JOEL FOX (Small Business Action Committee): We want to give the choice to the members of the Public Employee Union to have the power to decide whether some of their money is going to support the political agenda put forward by the leadership.

JAFFE: Public employees have been Schwarzenegger's greatest antagonists, and his poll numbers have plummeted into the 40s as a result of their TV commercials. Jim Hard is president of Service Employees, Local 1000 in Sacramento. He holds the governor responsible for this initiative regardless of whose name is on it. He says the battle over the measure will be nuclear war.

Mr. JIM HARD (President, Service Employees, Local 1000): It's just a way to win when he can't win on the issues. He wants to silence the only people that can actually voice that kind of different opinion in California politics, and that's working people that are organized in unions.

JAFFE: If the governor calls a special election, there will be a couple of union-backed measures, too, and both sides are raising tens of millions of dollars for the upcoming fight. The governor has to make the call by June 13th.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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