California Republicans: Arnold's No RINO!

Flashback: When I covered the California Republican Convention in February 2002, conservatives were almost universally denouncing Richard Riordan, former two-term mayor of Los Angeles and then the Front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor that year, as a RINO (Republican In Name Only). It didn’t matter that Riordan had held the line on taxes during his stint at City Hall, scores of GOPers told me at the San Jose convention. They felt Riordan was decidedly liberal on cultural issues such as abortion, had supported and appointed numerous Democrats to office, and was hostile to the movement to curb illegal immigration that was the mainstream of Golden State Republicans.

Why, several conventioneers pointed out, Riordan’s wife was actually an active Democrat herself.

Three former state party chairmen met the press at the San Jose convention and told reporters, without hesitation, if Riordan won the primary the following month, they would not back him against Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. It never came to that; Riordan was trounced in the primary by conservative William Simon, Jr., who thereupon lost a tight race to Davis that fall.

LOS ANGELESCalifornia has a Republican governor. He has repeatedly supported bigger government (including an increase in the state minimum wage), and vows to increase spending on education and the state prison system. He makes no bones about his pro-abortion stand and other liberal positions on cultural issues, has given nearly half of state appointments to Democrats and independents, and criticized both the Bush Administration’s plan to deploy the National Guard at the border and the Senate vote to build more walls along the border.

And his wife is a very active Democrat.

His name, of course, is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Three years after he became governor, when Davis was recalled in a special election watched by the world, the one-time action film star has turned out to be what conservatives warned Riordan (Schwarzenegger’s neighbor in suburban Brentwood) would be as governor—right down to the high-profile Democrat First Lady (Maria Shriver, niece of the Kennedy brothers and her husband’s top adviser).

But, almost incredibly, as Schwarzenegger seeks a full term of his own, there is little evidence of a mass mutiny against him among a party whose grassroots activists are decidedly conservative. Even as the nation’s best-known governor refuses to say whether he will oppose a new oil tax contained in a November ballot initiative, several leading conservatives steadfastly stand by him.

“The Democrats of Sacramento represent a tax-and-spend agenda that is not likely to change,” wrote the GOP’s “great right hope” of ‘02, Bill Simon Jr., in the latest American Spectator. “The governor could go a long way if he represented a stark contrast to that agenda. People like candidates with a vision, and Schwarzenegger has a reform-minded one.” (Simon scotched a planned second run for governor in the ‘03 recall election to back Schwarzenegger).

As he was leaving for Florida, the Republican chairman of the largest GOP county in America weighed in for Schwarzenegger.

“On the balance, Arnold’s been a great governor,” Scott Baugh, former GOP state legislator and now chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, told me. “His first act was cutting $4 billion from the budget. His second act, the repeal of the car tax, resulted in $12 billion back to the taxpayers. Worker’s compensation claims have dropped 40%. That sends a huge signal to business that California is serious about welcoming new jobs.”

In Baugh’s words, “There are only so many bullets you can fire.” He was referring to four statewide initiatives the governor backed last year that included teacher tenure (granting public school teachers tenure after five years instead of two); “Paycheck Protection” that would have required annual consent of public sector union employees for their dues could be used for political purposes; a “live within our means” measure to limit spending and an overhaul of the redistricting process, taking the power to draw lines for state legislators from lawmakers themselves and turning it over to a panel of retired judges. All four measures lost after a campaign by the unions, its price tag estimated at $320milion, that focused on Schwarzenegger and which the “Governator” did not react to for months. As former State GOP Chairman Shawn Steel told me, “Mother Theresa would have had high negatives after an assault like that.”

Baugh does not believe for a minute that Schwarzenegger will buy into the oil tax because “he made it very clear from the start that we are not under-taxed.”

Like other conservatives, Baugh hopes that a Schwarzenegger re-election this fall will give the state GOP what he calls “a bench,a conservative bench—Tom McClintock as lieutenant governor and Chuck Poochigian as attorney general.” Both candidates are strong conservatives across-the-board and rated better than even chances to emerge triumphant over far-left Democratic foes this November.

Arnold’s done a lot of good things,” nationally syndicated radio talk show Michael Reagan told me. “You can say he’s not conservative, but what do you really have to choose from between him and, say, Sheila Kuehl (one of the most far-left of state legislators, onet-ime “Dobie Gillis” co-star Kuehl represents what conservatives call “The People’s Republic of Santa Monica.”

Over breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel this morning, Shawn Steel told me, “The governor has pursued bold reforms in his initiatives and I suspect he will oppose the oil tax.” Steel has been a conservative activist since he was a teenager and changed the highway sign for “Coldwater Canyon” in Los Angeles to “Goldwater Canyon” in 1964.

“It would be great if Arnold were a conservative,” said Scott Baugh, “Let’s say he’s a moderate who has done some conservative things.”

Footnote: Driving through Orange County, I did encounter some conservatives who expressed a different view from Baugh, Reagan, and Company. Stay tuned, Gizz-ette fans.