California Voters Say 'No' to Schwarzenegger

California voters rejected eight propositions in the state's special election, held Tuesday. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had lobbied heavily for four of those measures as part of his push to "reform" the state's government. Tamara Keith reports on the vote, and the political consequences for the once-popular "governator."

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Well, here in California, poll results are indeed being read as a referendum on at least one Republican, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Voters rejected every initiative he sponsored. From member station KPCC, Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH reporting:

Spirits were high at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, where Democrats and union leaders like Martin Ludlow gathered to, well, gloat.

Mr. MARTIN LUDLOW: What did we do today? We defeated the Terminator today!

(Soundbite of cheering)

KEITH: Across town at the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took the stage early, before all the results were in, before it was clear that his initiative and, in fact, all the initiatives were headed for defeat. And immediately, he took on a conciliatory tone.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): I want to thank those who voted for our propositions, and I also want to thank those who did not vote for our propositions. I want to thank them for being part of the process. So thank you very much. Thank you.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

KEITH: Schwarzenegger came to office in 2003 as a result of a special recall election. This time his name wasn't on the ballot, but his political agenda was. His initiatives would have, among other things, changed teacher tenure rules and reshaped the redistricting process. But Schwarzenegger, on the occasion of the biggest loss of his political career, avoided the traditional concession speech.

Gov. SCHWARZENEGGER: I feel the same tonight as that night two years ago when I was elected governor. You know, with all my heart, I want to do the right thing for the people of California. Oh, yes. I want to do the right thing.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

KEITH: The governor's campaign team in part blamed the failure on months of negative TV ads paid for by unions and their allies. The state's labor unions did spend more than a hundred million dollars to defeat Schwarzenegger's initiatives. They protested all of his campaign stops and fund-raising trips, and it worked.

Ms. GALE KAUFMAN (Alliance for a Better California): The people have spoken and they have said no to this governor.

KEITH: Gale Kaufman is the political consultant behind the Alliance for a Better California. That's the union-financed group that's been dogging Schwarzenegger for months. She says Schwarzenegger picked a fight with the wrong people.

Ms. KAUFMAN: Voters understand that teachers, nurses and firefighters do incredibly important services to this state, and when you attack them and you write initiatives about them that basically people are going to say no.

KEITH: And they didn't just say no to the governor; Californians said no to a whole slew of initiatives. They voted down measures that would have created discount drug programs and would've required doctors to notify a parent before performing an abortion on a minor. Ken Miller, assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is an expert on the California initiative and he says this special election will go down in the history books.

Professor KEN MILLER (Claremont McKenna College): You have to go back to 1936 to see anything comparable. So that's sort of like--you know, when's the last time the Cubs played in the World Series? It's that far back.

KEITH: Back in 1936, seven of the seven propositions on the ballot failed. This time, the initiative is 0-for-8, but Miller doesn't believe California's love affair with the ballot proposition is over just yet. And despite last night's crushing loss for the governor, Republican political analyst Dan Schnur says California's attraction to Schwarzenegger will likely survive, too.

Mr. DAN SCHNUR (Republican Political Analyst): He's still in a pretty strong position for re-election next year. He may be hurt in terms of his ability to govern over the next 12 months, particularly in terms of his relationships with the state Legislature, but I think you'd still have to consider him an odds-on favorite for re-election next November if he still chooses to run.

KEITH: The governor's campaign staff is quick to say that Schwarzenegger is definitely running for re-election next year. Now begins the tough job of winning back the moderate Democrats and Independents who voted for him the first time around but did not support his initiatives. For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in Beverly Hills.

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