Union Wants Calif. Gov. Schwarzenegger Gone

Five years ago, California voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger. The former Hollywood actor had promised to cut up the state's credit card and get the budget balanced. Now the politically powerful prison guards union has initiated a recall campaign against Schwarzenegger.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, finally ended a major budget crisis in his state. But the battle over that budget strengthens some of Schwarzenegger's enemies who now favor a recall petition. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, it's the same way critics got rid of the governor's predecessor five years ago.

RICHARD GONZALES: The petition for a recall was filed by one of the Sacramento's most influential political players, California's prison guards' union. Its leaders spend millions of dollars to reward friends and punish opponents on both sides of the aisle. And now, it has set its sights on Arnold Schwarzenegger. Union spokesman Lance Corcoran.

Mr. LANCE CORCORAN (Chief of Communications, California Correctional Peace Officers Association): This is a guy that came in and promised to cut up the credit cards, to stop deficit spending, to stop budget stalemates, and he has utterly failed, I mean, to the point that he has absolutely no credibility. He not only has no credibility with corrections, but he has no credibility with his own party. That shows a lack of leadership.

GONZALES: But Schwarzenegger says he won't be intimidated by a union that has been working without a contract since 2006 and now expects him to agree to a new deal with a hefty pay raise, as did his predecessor Gray Davis.

(Soundbite of speech)

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): What was wrong with the previous administration was that when the prison guard union went to them and said, we want have 40 percent increase in our wages, they gave it to them.

GONZALES: The recall threat is the latest shot in the long-running feud between the union and the governor. Three years ago, Schwarzenegger appeared to throw down the gauntlet, saying the union was an obstacle to his efforts to reform the state's prisons department. And he implied that some guards belonged behind bars.

(Soundbite of speech)

Gov. SCHWARZENEGGER: For many months, you could not pick up a newspaper without reading about the youth dying in prison under a code of silence or abuse of force. I want to put the corrupt people in our prisons on the same side of the bars.

GONZALES: A recent field poll indicates that Schwarzenegger isn't as vulnerable to a recall as Gray Davis was five years ago. In spite of his low approval ratings, a huge majority of registered voters opposed the recall.

Mr. DAN SCHNUR (Politics, University of Southern California): At least so far, it doesn't look like there's a lot of public support for it or likelihood for its passage.

GONZALES: Dan Schnur teaches politics at USC.

Mr. SCHNUR: That's said, there's one very, very strong parallel. Both Davis and Schwarzenegger had very well-funded political opponents. That's enough to get a recall on the ballot.

GONZALES: But California's political landscape is different today than five years ago, when the state was in the throes of an energy crisis, and Schwarzenegger is still a star to many voters, says former Gray Davis aide, Gary Salth (ph)..

Mr. GARY SALTH (Aide, Former Governor Gray Davis): His force of personality and his stardom have allowed him, frankly, to get away with a lot more as governor of California than the mere mortals who came before him, including Gray Davis. But that's still doesn't make him immune to public anger, and there's a lot of anger out there about Schwarzenegger and his inability to do the things that he promised to do in the recall when he dislodged Governor Davis.

GONZALES: But some believe that the recall threat has less to do with Schwarzenegger than what the prison guards' union sees, looking ahead two years from now when the governor is turned out. Dan Macallair directs the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Mr. DAN MACALLAIR (Executive Director, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice): The tactic is you go after somebody powerful. Even if you know you can't defeat that person, you can send the signal to less powerful legislators that, unless they toe the line, this will happen to you.

GONZALES: No one in Sacramento doubts the prison guards' union can spend a couple million dollars to put the recall question on the ballot. But the campaign could cause many millions more, and it's not clear that Schwarzenegger's other foes have the cash to join the fight. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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