08/06/2014 02:33 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2014

The Arnold Extravaganza, 11 Years On

With Jerry Brown headed for a record fourth term in the quietest governor's race in my lifetime -- the Republican candidate just spent an amusing stunt week as a homeless person, with no one noticing he was off the radar screen -- this 11th anniversary of Arnold Schwarzenegger's shock announcement on The Tonight Show of his candidacy for governor is a good time to look back at when things were really rocking in California politics.

How does one think about the 11th anniversary of one of the most spectacular political runs and all-around extravaganzas in the history of California?

Schwarzenegger himself has been fairly diffident of late. More focused on reviving his movie career, he has found his old school action movies mostly swamped in an era awash in frequently dazzling superhero movies. The upcoming Terminator 5 might mark a return to form.

Given that even a smart-alecky actor like Robert Downey, Jr. -- now the world's biggest movie star -- is compelled to become something of a buff athlete to make the hot new flicks credible, it's probably no surprise that Arnold's second biggest effort is in sports promotion.

Building on his longtime base of The Arnold Classic held every year in Columbus, Ohio, Schwarzenegger has expanded beyond bodybuilding into multi-sports programming and has taken it all international, with the Columbus affair joined by annual events in Europe (Barcelona, Spain) and Latin America (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). An annual Asian event is on the horizon. As a result, Schwarzenegger may be the biggest multi-sports impresario on the planet outside the International Olympic Committee.

Next to his work as showman and sportsman, his efforts as a statesman cast much less of a shadow, mostly consisting of themes already very familiar from his controversial governorship. Indeed, his post-governorship is much smaller than most expected.

Its natural main vehicle, the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, launched with a flourish of trumpets at an LA forum on the former governor's favorite theme of post-partisanship in September 2012, but has been mostly quiet for the two years since then.

There's been more of a presence in climate change and renewable energy issues, with the global R20 group of subnational leaders born of Schwarzenegger's three Governors' Global Climate Summits. Also taking on occasional assignments for the United Nations, Schwarzenegger and R20 (based in Geneva and Santa Monica) have held events around the world.

And Schwarzenegger was recently honored with an Emmy nomination for Years of Living Dangerously, the Showtime documentary series on climate change he produced with James Cameron.

It's hard to say he's not active now, but it's not nearly so spectacular as 11 years ago. The 2003 California recall, which led to Schwarzenegger's landslide election, was a truly spectacular affair, full of big events, drama, high levels of voter engagement and participation, and round-the-clock national and global attention.

Then Governor Gray Davis, whom I've known and liked since 1980 when he was Jerry Brown's excellent chief of staff and whom I advised on space and other matters very early in his governorship, got into serious trouble midway through his first term after a landslide election and strong start as governor.

Enron and other merchant power generators manipulated the deregulation scheme championed by previous Governor Pete Wilson to win huge profits. Too reliant on sleepy federal regulators in the Bill Clinton Administration, Davis found himself on his own dealing with blackouts, regulated utilities in deep financial disarray, and the need for big emergency power buys and consumer rate increases.

Then he found himself in a big budget crisis when the dot-com boom went bust. Legislative Democrats had insisted on big new spending commitments. Republicans refused any new taxes.

On election day 2002, his image having taken another toxic hit from a negative campaign on his behalf, with Democratic and independent turnout lower than expected, Davis won a relatively narrow re-election victory over Republican Bill Simon.

Things didn't get better after that. The state budget crisis deepened. Republicans became completely uncooperative with Davis; Democrats, most of whom were to his left, increasingly hostile and prone to jamming him with controversial legislation.

After telling me months earlier that he did not want to fit because he knew how unpopular it would be, Davis exercised the only big revenue option at his executive disposal, raising the vehicle license fee which Wilson had slashed late in his governorship. It provoked a firestorm of protest and vows of an initiative to overturn it.

By early summer 2003, it was evident to me that Davis could no longer govern. A flaky recall movement was nonetheless tapping into serious, widespread popular discontent. The only real question was whether Davis would turn back a bunch of zanies and intellectual lightweights, hanging on to office for a few more desultory years, or whether someone else would seize a unique opportunity.

Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I already knew Schwarzenegger and had predicted in the LA Weekly right after the 2002 election that he would win the governorship in 2006. Voters would be tired of Davis and the Democrats and the Republicans had no likely major candidate. (I also knew then Secretary of State Condi Rice from her time on Gary Hart's think tank advisory board and believed she would never run for public office.)

Schwarzenegger was intrigued but focused on finishing and marketing Terminator 3. Released in July 2003, it proved to be a big hit around the world. The stage was set.

After a variety of twists and turns which I chronicled in this LA Weekly feature, Schwarzenegger shocked almost all the world with his dramatic Tonight Show announcement on August 6th, Hiroshima Day. A circus-like two-month campaign ensued.

Once relatively up to speed on the issues, and following a few miscues, Schwarzenegger prevailed in his only debate, a raucous Sacramento state fairground affair, and then weathered last minute Los Angeles Times stories about groping women on movie sets, timed to the beginning of what turned out to be a tumultuous statewide bus tour. CNN called the election as soon as the polls closed on election night.

Along with some big mistakes, Schwarzenegger's governorship -- he won landslide re-election in 2006 -- was marked by significant accomplishments.

The truth is his agenda looks a lot more than a little like that of my old friend and boss Jerry Brown, how almost universally hailed for the notable California comeback.

Very much an "up-wing," future-oriented figure, Schwarzenegger took what were already cutting edge Gray Davis programs in renewable energy, climate change, high-speed rail, bioscience, and the like and expanded them greatly. He made important breakthroughs on water policy, passed the biggest infrastructure program in decades, and delivered noteworthy early warnings about an unsustainable public pension system.

Governing as a near vanished breed of moderate Republican, the very business-friendly Schwarzenegger cut costs with a big workers compensation reform that displeased many worker advocates. But he also stressed safety, protected farm workers, and raised the minimum wage.

However, he ran in to serious trouble with overreach and on the state budget.

On the latter, his Day One cut of the vehicle license fee -- which you will note that Brown has not reversed -- was wildly popular but revived what amounted to an ongoing structural deficit. Then the state was hit hard by the Great Global Recession.

Schwarzenegger finally wrestled budget cuts -- which Brown largely continued and expanded -- and an unpopular sales tax through the legislature even as his party largely veered far to the right. But the sales tax hike went down at the ballot box.

On the former, the matter of overreach, Schwarzenegger burned a few years of his governorship on some predictably quixotic ventures.

In 2005, his "Year of Reform," he pushed a raft of ill-conceived reform initiatives on very legitimate topics like redistricting reform, teacher quality, and budget balance. (He succeeded a few years later with another redistricting reform initiative. With his successful open primary initiative, he ultimately produced a pair of reform tamping down some of the state's hyper-partisan excesses.)

In 2007, fresh off his 17-point re-election win over Democrat Phil Angelides, Schwarzenegger spent the year pushing a universal health care package. With the help of his friend, then Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, it finally got past the Assembly only to be unsurprisingly killed in the state Senate.

Despite a massive PR apparat, Schwarzenegger also suffered from some definitional problems. Since he didn't fit into easy ideological cubbyholes, a lot of people couldn't figure out what his governorship was about.

By summer of 2010, his last full year in office, his job approval rating was down to 22 percent. Staying officially neutral in the governor's race between billionaire Republican Meg Whitman and sometime ally Jerry Brown, Schwarzenegger revisited key issues and themes of his governorship.

By December 2010, with Brown elected in a landslide, Schwarzenegger's job approval rating has improved significantly to 32 percent in the final Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll. With fellow "up-winger" Brown sharing several signature issues, Schwarzenegger's rising trend looked likely to continue.

Then very well-known personal controversy hit.

How will Schwarzenegger and his governorship -- easily the most surprising thing in a surprising life -- be seen in the end?

That depends on a number of things, not the least of which is himself.

Stay tuned.

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