According to noted California historian Kevin Starr, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s greatest achievement as governor was political reform. The theme of a USC Schwarzenegger Institute event last week featuring the former governor, MSNBC political commentator Chris Mathews and Starr was fixing dysfunctional government – whether in Washington or Sacramento.
Starr suggested that Schwarzenegger had important accomplishments as governor including setting a course to deal with greenhouse gases and overseeing the fight against a number of devastating fires but he gave his greatest praise for the electoral and redistricting reforms Schwarzenegger championed. “You should take great pride in that,” Starr said.
For his part, Schwarzenegger said neither major political party supported the reforms. However, he believes they have already proven successful. He said redistricting and the open primary have changed things in California. He pointed to Republicans who voted for immigration reform and some Democrats who were trying to undo environmental regulations that hurt business.
There is still vociferous opposition in some quarters to the top two primary. And not all political observers are ready to tab the reforms a success.
Schwarzenegger said his goal was to get things done and he never considered ideology or partisan politics. He claimed never to have asked a potential political appointee about his or her party registration and he told of crossing from the capitol to a nearby hotel to defend his hiring of Democrat Susan Kennedy as his chief of staff to some Republican leaders who wanted her fired.
“I looked around and said, ‘Did somebody rewrite the rules? Because last I checked the governor made appointments, not the party,’” Schwarzenegger said.
The former Republican governor said he looked for areas of compromise where he could accomplish goals with Democrats, mentioning infrastructure improvements and workers compensation reform. “Find things to agree on,” he said.
However, he admitted he failed to find common ground on budget issues because his political opponents did not support “my philosophy.”
Chris Mathews believes a root cause of dysfunction is the barriers created to prevent more social interactions between opposing political players. He criticized the decision for members of congress to leave spouses back in the districts, thus eliminating opportunities for family get-togethers and building personal relationships between members of the opposite parties.
Many have floated a similar theory about politics in Sacramento. If only legislators were more social, more buddy-buddy outside work, they might find grounds for agreement, the argument goes.
Schwarzenegger criticized those politicians who don’t fight for reform because they are afraid of challenges from members of their own party. He said taking the risk would pay off because voters are more interested in getting things done. It would be an act of political courage, not political suicide, he insisted.