Schwarzenegger’s victory reverberates today

For Californians, the recall signaled not simply louder politics but a new era in governance

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It’s 20 years ago this week since Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California, after the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis. For much of the last two decades, the recall has been remembered mostly as a bizarre media circus, with 135 candidates, a hurried 60-day campaign, and a debate featuring Schwarzenegger and Arianna Huffington trading insults.

This is a shame, because that strange, cataclysmic event shifted California’s political priorities and offers important lessons that might provide some much-needed hope about our power to change the future.

In retrospect, the Davis recall looks like the first of three election earthquakes in the 21st century that shook up American politics. The other two are the elections of Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016.

For Americans, the recall election, with all its bombast, would preview how politics would grow louder, more populist, more direct. And for Californians, the recall was something more: the beginning of a new era in governance.

In three major policy areas, the recall brought big movements in policies to put California more in line with the preferences of its people.

None of those policies got the same TV coverage that was devoted to populist hot buttons like Davis’ raising the “car tax,” or Schwarzenegger’s “groping” scandal. But the policies were all major proposals during Schwarzenegger’s recall campaign in 2003 and his subsequent reelection in 2006.

And these shifts in priorities are ongoing, having outlasted Schwarzenegger’s administration because they were embraced by his two gubernatorial successors, Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, and by voters.

The first of these issues is children’s programs. Schwarzenegger repeatedly promised more spending on schools, children’s health and the after-school programs that had been the subject of his personal philanthropy and a ballot initiative he championed. Facing budget problems, he struggled to deliver on these promises in office. But he made some progress, and Brown and Newsom have done even better.

Today, per-pupil spending in California is more than twice what it was 20 years ago. With the help of Obamacare — which Schwarzenegger strongly supported — all California children, even undocumented immigrants, are eligible for health insurance. And California now spends so much on after-school programs — more than the other 49 states combined — that the Biden administration is trying to convince the rest of the country to adopt our approach.

The second area was the environment. During the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger, assisted by some of his most progressive advisers, offered six major promises on environment and climate change. Through executive orders and legislative compromises, he achieved all six — including solar and alternative energy investment, building efficiency standards, landmark targets for reducing greenhouse gases, and reductions in the carbon intensity of fuel.

State policymakers added more policies to this foundation, and Schwarzenegger in his post-governorship worked with other states and countries to further develop anti-carbon pollution policies.

The third issue area was, appropriately, the power of people in democracy. Near his term’s end, Schwarzenegger convinced voters, after multiple failed attempts, to make two changes.

One was to eliminate partisan primary elections, replacing them with a “top two” system where the top two vote-getters in the first round of an election advance to the second-round election in November, regardless of party affiliation.

The other was to end gerrymandering by the legislature and turn the job of drawing electoral districts over to a 14-member, bipartisan commission of citizens who do not have close ties to state government or political parties. This nonpartisan redistricting concept has spread to other states — from Colorado to Michigan — with Schwarzenegger’s continued advocacy. One-third of legislative districts in the U.S. are now drawn by such commissions.

These significant changes were possible in part because of the recall. Schwarzenegger, however, doesn’t much like reflecting on the recall, or the past in general. When I interviewed him at his L.A. home in September for a new book on the recall’s impact, he kept changing the subject to the future, specifically the need for the U.S. to build new infrastructure to meet our economic and environmental needs.

He suggested that President Biden’s infrastructure package, of $1.3 trillion over 10 years, was not nearly fast enough. “We need action now,” said Schwarzenegger. If he were president, Schwarzenegger told me, “there’d be $1.3 trillion in infrastructure every year.”

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times


  1. Robin Itzler - Patriot Neighbors says

    Like so many Republicans, in 2003, I was excited that Arnold S. wanted to run for governor. After being elected, at first, he diligently tried to go in a conservative direction. But when voters didn’t approve ballot measures that he campaigned for – and would have financially helped the then-golden state – Arnold seemed to start leaning to the left. By the end of his second term, he was more or less a Democrat. By the way, the “top two” primary election system is a disaster for Republicans.

    Guess Arnold was the first obvious RINO.

    • Stephanie C Hart says

      Yep. The top two destroyed the Republican party in CA. He was a disaster. I voted for him but nothing good came of him.

  2. I wonder how much they paid this guy to write this article. He’s such a phoney cheerleader.

  3. Lol….l.a. slimes

  4. I voted for Tom McClintock twice. I did not trust this steroid freak. The jerk writes an executive order that is killing the auto hobby. He stopped the rolling 25 smog exemption with the stroke of his quill.

    Besides me embarrassing him before 450 folks that lost their homes in the Stockton area in 2008 (foreclosure crisis) I can’t think of anything that I benefitted by his presence. I had three standing ovations and he beat feet out the door. He did nothing to reel in the Department of Real Estate that was allowing RE Brokers to do bad loans as well as the rest of the process. Not legal by US codes.
    Him knocking up his maid said everything about Arnold, a true POS!

  5. Not one of the changes promoted by the Schwarzenegger regime and enumerated by the author have been positive for California. Any furthering of those policies by Brown or Newsom have led to more decline of the state’s future and placed far too many of its residents in peril. It may have been a watermark event, but Ah-nold’s election was a disaster that has lasted 20 years. Someone balanced and experienced, such as Pete Wilson, will not be elected CA’s governor again given the changing demographics and the regular brainwashing at K-12 public schools and state colleges and universities.

  6. Rudy Melendez says

    Im surprised this article failed to mention the sperminator birthing the high speed rail “infrastructure” boondoggle train to nowhere and his coofid era big pharma junkie public relations “screw your freedom” gaff.
    For me though as was pointed out by the brilliant patriot neighbor the sperminator’s spitting image delivery of a top two primary is to this day the single most destructive policy of his failed administration and the impacts of it are being felt in every part of the country in every election cycle and until we return to a partisan primary in California voters in this state may never see a balanced budget, a balanced state legislature or a balanced California congressional delegation ever again.

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