08/30/2005 12:49 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When Arnold Falls, Maybe He’ll Take His Corporate Sponsors With Him

When Mick Jagger sang about Mother’s Little Helper he was reportedly talking about Valium, not Merck’s deadly painkiller Vioxx.

But out in California, Arnold’s Little Helper is Merck, as well as Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline and the rest of the pharmaceutical cartel that are ponying up $100 million for the special election that Schwarzenegger has called for this November. Oh, and the other corporations that are going to give him another $100 million or so.

The question for Schwarzenegger, as he deals with his addiction to fundraising, is whether it is going to be as politically deadly for him as Vioxx was for that poor gentleman down in Texas. It just might be.

Corporations in California have bet the farm on our celebrity-bodybuilder. They have invested everything in him, both money and their long-term political goals. The Chamber of Commerce even broke their own non-partisan traditions and endorsed him for Governor – and, not coincidentally were rewarded when in his first year in office he vetoed 33 of 38 bills they opposed. Now his corporate sponsors have had him push through the special election, hoping to take advantage of a distracted California public—and give themselves a boost up with proposals designed to tilt the political playing field in their favor, including ones stifling union participation in politics while corporations can continue to spend as much as they want and mandating a Tom DeLay-style mid-term redistricting.

A funny thing happened on the way to the special election, though. The wheels fell off Arnold’s Humvee of a Governorship. In this, his “year of reform,’ Schwarzenegger has become synonomous with corporate scandal and is suddenly less popular in California that President Bush.

Much of the damage was self-inflicted. This is a guy whose rent is paid for by anonymous corporate donors and whose top government aides, who work long hours at full-time jobs, are also on his campaign payroll. His corruption index seems to be going off the charts.

But Schwarzenegger and his allies are also very much in danger because his growing number of critics, with nurses in the front row, have hit on a winning strategy. At every fundraiser he attends, from New Jersey to Ohio to San Diego, Schwarzenegger is met with groups of protestors -- many of them nurses, teachers, and firefighters -- who publicize the corporate deals being made behind closed doors inside. Every dollar he raises comes at a cost to his image. Just last week, nurses followed him to Boston where he hoped to host a $100,000 per ticket private box fundraiser at the Rolling Stones concert at Fenway Park. Apparently he was unable to find anyone willing to pay for the privilege of cozying up to him in his private box—and when Mick mentioned to the crowd that Schwarzenegger was in the building, he was roundly booed.

As Schwarzenegger has become infamous for fundraising, now calculated to be about $100,000 a day, his popularity has directly declined.

People care about this issue. Voters are responding to the problem of corporate money distorting politics. They get it. They get it even more when it has a face, like Schwarznegger. For progressives, clean money is an issue that is long overdue, is critical to attacking the stranglehold big corporate interests have on our political system, and is widely popular with those people – almost everyone – who does not have an extra $100,000 lying around for those special occasions when you want to sit next to Arnold.

How important is this issue to public policy? Robert Pear reported in the New York Times this week that drug companies spent $86.0 million on lobbying Congress last year, and overall the healthcare industry spent $325 million, more than any other sector. Only when we get the corporate bribes out of the system can we have meaningful healthcare reform, not to mention a host of other important issues that affect patients and consumers.

So let’s not just Stop Arnold. Let’s take on the corruption of our political process by the wealthy corporations that sponsor him as well.