It was the end of the summer of 2003 and I had just moved to San Francisco from New York. I remember thinking how weird it was to wade through dozens of people collecting signatures on my way into and out of the supermarket every day, but I figured I’d act like a New Yorker and just ignore them. I didn’t realize that they were only temporary obstacles outside the Safeway (they would be gone once the question of whether or not to recall Gov. Gray Davis was placed on the ballot) and I would never have imagined the net result of their work would be the disastrous experiment that became the political career of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I can talk about Arnold’s time in Sacramento in the past tense because he’s officially a lame duck. The list of things he can do before leaving office in 17 months is short and getting shorter because the list of people who will be unwilling to do anything to help him is long and getting longer. His job approval number (28 percent) is so bad that it will take nothing short of a “Kindergarten Cop”-style departure from his comfort zone to save his legacy. If he has even a basic understanding of right and wrong, he should call attention to immorality of taking funding away from services for old people, battered women, and poor children so that the wealthiest Californians can continue not paying their fair share in taxes. And if he has the courage to stand up and be a leader, he can set an example by personally paying his fair share and shaming his friends and associates (some of California’s richest and most famous people) into following suit.
As it stands now, Arnold’s time in office will be remembered as a throwback Republican administration tucked in between Gray Davis and Gavin Newsom in what will likely be a long succession of Democratic California governors. It will basically be the “Steroid Era” of California politics, brought to us by one super-rich guy in San Diego (Congressman Darrell Issa) who was willing to shell out millions of dollars to take advantage of a ridiculous ballot initiative process that gives voters the power to run the government. For those Californians earning $1 million or more per year, Arnold will have given them almost two full terms of the “no tax” governor they’ve been wanting. So while the state government (and the rest of us) has been asked to do more with less in this economic crisis, they haven’t been asked to do anything. I guess Issa’s investment paid off.
What I can’t understand is Arnold’s political calculation through these budget negotiations that will come to define his career in public life. The fact that he was willing to threaten draconian cuts to get the other side to settle for merely painful cuts means he understands how the process works, but alienating core Democratic constituencies is bad for his political future. Since he can’t be president, the highest office he can attain is senator; that means beating either Barbara Boxer or Dianne Feinstein. And he can’t do that without the support of the same people whose funds he cut in order to preserve his “no tax” status. Also, there is no future for him as a fundraiser/power broker/kingmaker in the Republican Party because there is no future for the Republican Party. At some point, he’s going to have to accept the fact that he’s married to a Kennedy and he’s going to have to come home to the “D’s.”
Which brings me back to my point about Arnold’s legacy. Right now, he’s the man who took food out of the mouths of poor kids, caretakers out of nursing homes, and glasses away from blind people so that California’s millionaires and billionaires could hoard their money at tax time. In a year-and-a-half, he’ll be a 63-year-old private citizen with a nine-figure fortune, no job, and millions of people to whom he owes an apology. The best way to say he’s sorry is to put his money where his line-item veto pen was and use his high profile to call attention to the lack of fundamental fairness in the way income taxes are collected in California.
As the governor charged with balancing the state budget and as a taxpayer who earns tens of millions of dollars per year, he understands the issue of tax evasion better than anyone. He knows that California’s tax gap (the difference between what we’re owed and what we collect in a given year) is over $8 billion, and he knows the state really could have used that money this year. It’s not like anyone named Schwarzenegger is ever going to have to sleep outside or miss a meal. At this point in his life, Arnold can finally afford to pay his taxes. Given the pain he’s caused to so many poor and vulnerable people who were counting on him to show leadership as their Governor, it’s the least he can do.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.