Archive for Monday, October 28, 2002

Calif. after-school initiative has star power

October 28, 2002

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— The 50-odd voter initiatives on the ballot next month in states that allow citizens to write the laws have a dazzling variety of sponsors, ranging from animal rights activists to anti-tobacco forces to proponents of more lenient drug laws.

But none of them has a bigger star promoting its passage than Proposition 49 in California, the after-school program initiative sponsored by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the latest Hollywood star to dip his toe into the political waters.

I spent a half-hour on the phone the other day with the muscular action-movie hero, and if the verbal torrent had been accompanied by even the mildest of physical gestures, I would have been much too bruised to type these words. As it was, my eardrums got more of a workout than if I had been listening to Sen. Strom Thurmond, the champion Senate filibusterer, in his prime.

It is an article of faith among California reporters that Schwarzenegger is using this initiative campaign as a warm-up for a run for governor in 2006. As evidence, they cite the presence in this effort of virtually the entire political team that made Pete Wilson the last Republican elected to a Senate seat and the governorship in the Golden State.

They may be right, but I can't confirm that, because I could not get the man to stop talking about the needs of a million California kids below age 15 he says have no place to go when they leave their classrooms and consequently get into trouble.

Schwarzenegger was pumped, because he had just come from a news conference on the steps of San Francisco City Hall with Mayor Willie Brown, a bantamweight but a man that Schwarzenegger accurately described as being "as sharp as the suits he wears." Brown's endorsement of Proposition 49 was one more addition to what was already an amazingly diverse coalition.

The Democratic mayor is thoroughly despised by Schwarzenegger's fellow conservatives, who passed a term-limits initiative a few years ago mainly to force Brown out of his long-held position as speaker of the state Assembly. Schwarzenegger, a Republican married into the prominent Kennedy-Shriver clan of Democrats, said his alliance with Brown showed "this cause is bigger and more important than who you are or what your philosophy may be."

It is certainly a cause of which Schwarzenegger speaks with passion and a wealth of personal experience and sociological data. Police statistics show that the peak hours of juvenile crime are between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. "I was involved for 10 years with after-school programs for inner-city children," Schwarzenegger said, "but after Columbine and other shootings, it became clear this is not just an inner-city problem. Wherever children are left alone, they are in danger of getting in trouble with crime, drugs, unwanted pregnancies."

California has a well-regarded after-school program, but the actor said its current appropriation covers only one school in six. His initiative would expand the funding enough to make it universal.

The League of Women Voters and a number of newspaper editorial pages have opposed Proposition 49 on the good-government grounds that spending priorities should be set by the governor and Legislature, weighing all the state's needs, rather than by initiative especially when California, like many other states, is facing a severe budget deficit.

Schwarzenegger said the measure had attempted to deal with that objection by specifying that the expanded program would not begin before 2004 and then only if the economy has recovered enough to pump an additional $1.5 billion into the noneducation portion of the state budget. He has gained support from major taxpayer groups by promising that no new taxes would be levied for the program.

The actor is clearly serious about his cause. He has put $1 million of his own money into a campaign fund that has reached $8.5 million of a $10 million goal. Opposition groups have no such kitty, but it is never easy to hold public support for a potentially expensive program especially in the face of editorial opposition. Still, last week's poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found 64 percent approval for Proposition 49.

Willie Brown is far from the only prominent Democrat backing Schwarzenegger's effort. Jim Hahn, the mayor of Los Angeles, Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson and Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer (himself a potential 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidate) all have signed on.

Are they letting themselves be used to create a new Ronald Reagan for the embattled California Republican Party? Is all this simply positioning on Schwarzenegger's part? I don't know. But it's not the worst or least worthy way to join the political dance.

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