A look back at Schwarzenegger's governorship

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger smiles as he speaks to members of the Bay Area Council in Santa Clara, California.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger smiles as he speaks to members of the Bay Area Council in Santa Clara, California.
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As Jerry Brown arrives in Sacramento, Arnold Schwarzenegger heads back to Los Angeles. Many have an opinion of the former movie star’s seven years as governor. Like his movie career, Schwarzenegger’s political achievements include hits and flops.

Former “Los Angeles Times” reporter Joe Mathews wrote the book on Arnold Schwarzenegger four years ago: “The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy.” It looks at how Schwarzenegger transformed himself from action movie star into Republican governor.

Mathews is now a fellow with the Sacramento-based New America Foundation. He spent an hour with Patt Morrison last week, assessing the Arnold era in Sacramento. Mathews says on fiscal matters – the stuff that propelled Schwarzenegger into the governor’s race in the first place – the outgoing governor was a “constructive failure.”

“We have a similarly large budget deficit as seven years ago – and we have much more debt than we had,” said Mathews.

“I think the blackest mark against the Schwarzenegger record is the rise of that debt. Not certainly all his fault – voters went along with a lot of that. And maybe that relates to the stupidity of voters.”

The state government now pays about $4 billion in debt service on bonds passed during Schwarzenegger’s time in office. That’s about the same as what Californians would have paid had they gone along with the vehicle license fee that he – and most voters – opposed seven years ago.

That’s the “failure” part of “constructive failure.” What’s the “constructive” part? That, said Mathews, comes in the many ways Schwarzenegger attacked the state government’s repeated budget deficits.

“He essentially tried everything that was possible within our current fiscal system – and none of it worked,” said Mathews.

“He’s given us the great gift of discrediting almost every explanation or strategy that can be offered to fix a fiscal system, beyond just big changes in the fiscal and constitutional system. He really made an argument with his failures for a larger constitutional change.”

Some of those changes are in place already. In an interview with KPCC’s David Lazarus, Gray Davis, the governor Californians recalled in 2003, praised Schwarzenegger for championing those changes before voters.

“He deserves credit for a number of political reforms that may help future governors bring the financial problems under control: changing the way legislative seats are drawn; the open primary; requiring a 'rainy day' fund because in the good years, every dollar gets disposed of. The Republicans insist on cutting taxes; the Democrats insist on starting new programs.”

Davis said he and former governors Deukmejian, Wilson and Brown – the man who returns to office today – all agree that a “rainy day” fund requirement would have made them better governors.

Beyond those issues: Schwarzenegger twice vetoed a same-sex marriage bill sent to him by the Legislature. But when a federal judge knocked down Proposition 8 – 2008’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage – Schwarzenegger decided not to pursue an appeal.

Shannon Minter with the National Center for Lesbian Rights called that decision “a really quite dramatic stand for a Republican governor to have taken.” Minter gives Schwarzenegger a B- grade on gay and lesbian issues.

On the environment: Schwarzenegger backed California’s landmark AB 32 climate change legislation. That put him at odds with the California Chamber of Commerce; the Chamber had backed him in the 2003 recall – the first time it ever endorsed a candidate for governor.

Warren Chabot of the California League of Conservation Voters said Schwarzenegger was better than his Republican predecessors – George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson – on environmental issues.

“He also made some great appointments to state agencies, boards and commissions – such as very competent Mary Nichols to head the Air Resources Board, which is charged with carrying out a lot of our climate change laws.”

Chabot also credits Schwarzenegger for repeatedly pressing the Bush Administration for stronger action against climate change.

So here’s the scorecard:

Schwarzenegger – a pro-business Republican – backed environmental policies that business and Republicans opposed.

He vetoed same-sex marriage – angering liberals – but opposed Prop 8 and refused to defend it in court – angering conservatives.

He said he came to Sacramento not to move boxes around, but to “blow them up.” What blew up instead was the state budget deficit.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s legacy is varied and puzzling, inspiring and infuriating – just like the state he governed.