SAN FRANCISCO – In some ways, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's (search) "Year of Reform" special election isn't so special. Californians already have voted on several measures similar to those he placed on the Nov. 8 ballot and at least two of them went down to defeat.
Schwarzenegger's supporters say the difference this year is the governor himself. They're relying on his star power and considerable persuasive ability to market his initiatives, no matter how similar ones have fared in the past.
"Arnold Schwarzenegger was sent to Sacramento to reform it, so the reform message is already squarely embedded in the minds of California voters," said Schwarzenegger campaign strategist Todd Harris (search). "The narrative's been written, so when the governor goes to the public and says 'these are the reforms we need,' the public will understand that."
The governor called the special election (search) to go directly to the voters with his proposals to place a cap on state spending, to change the way legislative districts are drawn and to make public school teachers work five years instead of two for tenure.
Another controversial measure on the ballot would require public employee unions to get permission from members before using their dues for political purposes. The governor's political allies pushed that "paycheck protection" initiative onto the ballot with a petition campaign, but Schwarzenegger himself has not yet publicly endorsed it.
Schwarzenegger predicted that voters will support his agenda because they want to change the way state government operates — much as they did when the 2003 recall election propelled Schwarzenegger to office.
However, in elections dating back to the 1970s, voters have rejected variations of the initiatives on redistricting, spending caps and lessening the influence of public employee unions.
"Government reform, regardless of who is sponsoring it, is very hard to explain," said Dan Schnur, a GOP strategist and former aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson, who tried and failed to implement some initiatives similar to those on the November ballot. "Over the years, the opponents of all these measures have been able to overload the electorate into voting no."
Voters have rejected four separate redistricting initiatives since 1982, including a plan similar to Schwarzenegger's that would take the power to draw legislative district boundaries away from the legislature and give it to a panel of retired judges.
As for a spending cap, even Schwarzenegger's role model — actor-turned-GOP governor Ronald Reagan — was unable to persuade voters. In 1973, he called a special election for Proposition 1, a landmark measure to cut income taxes and establish strict controls on state spending. Voters rejected it amid fierce opposition from Democrats and unions, the biggest defeat of Reagan's governorship.
Reagan biographer Lou Cannon said Schwarzenegger's initiatives are vulnerable — not because similar attempts at government reform have been tried before but because they are being pushed in what he considers an absence of a real effort to govern.
"For Reagan, Proposition 1 was a bridge too far, but he had essentially already accomplished much of what he wanted to do, while this governor certainly has not," Cannon said. "This guy is trying to substitute initiatives for the entire legislative process, but he hasn't solved anything that I can see."
Wilson placed a measure similar to the "paycheck protection" initiative on the ballot in 1998. The resounding defeat of his Proposition 226 boosted the political clout of organized labor in California and helped Democrats, the main beneficiary of union campaign contributions.
Democrats and public employee unions opposing Schwarzenegger's proposals are denouncing the measures as a Republican power grab.
"The playbook is well-established," said Phil Trounstine, a former communications director for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. "But the political conditions today are different from when these were run up the flagpole before, so it's a question of which side can get their message out and make it compelling."