In the classic 1977 bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron, a young Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a trick on his friend and rival Franco Columbu. Schwarzenegger tells Columbu that if he really wants to impress the judges at a competition he should let out a big roar at the end of his last pose. Columbu does so—much to his embarrassment. And Schwarzenegger ends up winning the tournament.
As governor of California, Schwarzenegger is again playing tricks on his rivals and once more he seems to be coming up on top.
ARNOLD THE BUILDER. When he came into office three years ago in a surprise recall of then-Governor Gray Davis, Schwarzenegger positioned himself as a hard-charging conservative who was going to rein in government spending. Then, after seeing all four of his government-reforming initiatives shot down last year in a special election he'd called, Schwarzenegger reinvented himself as a big government guy.
"I have learned my lesson," Schwarzenegger said in his state of the state speech last January. "The people, who always have the last word, sent a clear message—cut the warfare, cool the rhetoric, find common ground, and fix the problems together."
Suddenly Conan the Republican became Arnold the Builder. Schwarzenegger announced a $200 billion strategic growth plan in January. He called for more schools, roads, courts, and jails. He wanted stronger levees, an increase in the minimum wage, and cleaner air.
HOT BUTTON ISSUES. In the legislative session that ended on Aug. 31, Schwarzenegger got much of what he wanted, to the gleeful amazement of those in the opposing party. "I've been saying the Governor is acting like a Democrat," said Fabian Nunez, speaker of the California Assembly in a press conference. "He has come to us and said, 'I want to do those things that the Democrats want to get done.' Why should we turn our backs on that?"
Shortly before recessing for the year, the legislature hiked California's minimum wage from $6.75 to $8 per hour, the highest in country. The state passed the nation's first mandated reductions in greenhouse gases, sharply increased funding for prescription drugs for seniors, and allowed telephone companies such as AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ) to apply for state-wide licenses to offer cable TV service rather than requiring them to negotiate franchise agreements with every city. All of those are hot button issues on the national stage.
KEEPING THE PEACE. For some the turnaround was staggering. After taking office in 2003, Schwarzenegger had vowed to cut prison spending. He put together a special commission to reform the state's perennially mismanaged correctional system and called for prison closures to save the cash-strapped state money. Instead of prison closures, however, Schwarzenegger was recently pushing for $6 billion in new spending, including two new prisons and thousands of additional jail beds. "It's a complete and utter reversal," says Rose Braz, director of Critical Resistance, a nonprofit aimed at correctional reform.
It didn't hurt that the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the state's powerful prison guards' union, had already begun running negative Schwarzenegger ads in some key districts and making it known that they had a war chest of some $15 million for attack ads in November. On the last day of the session, legislators refused to pass even a water-downed version of Schwarzenegger's prison proposals.
No matter. A recent poll conducted by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California has Schwarzenegger leading his Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, by 13 points. Schwarzenegger may have changed his perspective on what the state of California needs from its political leaders. But he looks like he's headed for a familiar spot: taking first place in his own competition.