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How Much From Special Interests?

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Los Angeles Times
Jan 19, 2005 - 01:00 AM

by Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

A Man of the People... People Who Pay

My daughter, who is now 18 months old, has a talking Arnold Schwarzenegger doll. While teething, she bit off part of his head, but Arnold still speaks clearly when you push the button in the middle of his back.

"All of the politicians are not any more making the moves for the people, but for special interests," the governor says. "And we have to stop that."

I bring this up because Schwarzenegger has laid out an aggressive reform agenda for 2005 -- which the state badly needs, by the way -- and he keeps telling us he will not let "special interests" get in the way.

I've heard the term tossed around so liberally, I don't even know what it means anymore. Take, for instance, this snippet from the governor's State of the State speech:

"I know the special interests will oppose all the reforms I have mentioned. Any time you try to remove one dollar from the budget, there are five special interests tugging on the other end. Any time you try to make something more efficient, there are a half-dozen special interests trying to prevent it."

What, fourth-graders without textbooks?

The sick?

The old and feeble?

Those special interests?

True enough, we need someone to swing a big stick in Sacramento, and Schwarzenegger at least has everyone's attention. We ought to figure out what the state's priorities are, how to pay for them, and how to keep from spending our way into trouble again.

But I can't help but think that Californians are getting confused about the definition of special interests.


Because even as he rails against special interests, the governor is grabbing special interest money with the unstoppable force of a crack addict smashing car windows for loose change.

He's the victor, the king, the undisputed heavyweight champ.

Gray Davis is a pencil-necked piker.

What do banking moguls, healthcare companies, pharmaceuticals, the insurance industry and car dealers have in common?

They all have business before the state -- business that has a direct impact on the pocketbook of every California resident -- and they all write checks to the governor as if he's running for president.

Thin checks, fat checks, many checks.

They adore him.

The real estate and financial service industries have each ponied up more than $6 million to bankroll the agenda of the man who said he didn't need anyone else's money because he had enough of his own.

Look, I'm all in favor of honest reform. But can the charge be led by a guy who has become part of the problem?

Come clean, Big Boy.

Swear off cash. Give it all back. Go cold turkey.

The hypocrisy is getting embarrassing. What do you take us for, a bunch of star-struck dunces who love to watch but can't be bothered to listen?

Don't answer that question.

If, in his next speech, Schwarzenegger rails against steroids and dyed hair, we'll know it's a test.

Is anybody out there paying attention?

The governor is sitting on the knee of the state Chamber of Commerce boss like a wooden dummy, and he's got the gall to deplore the influence of special interests. At the very least, couldn't he admit he's only talking about public employee unions?

"He tends to be fixed on phrases," says UC Berkeley's Bruce Cain. "It was bodybuilding phrases in the first year, and now it's special interests."

But why?

"Part of it is linguistic habit. The other part is that he is, and aspires to be, a populist governor who's very interested in articulating the people's will…. And what do you put opposite the people's will? Special interests. He lacks a better word for everybody who disagrees with him."

This makes perfect sense, except for one thing.

"The term 'special interests' goes back to the progressive and populist era," Cain says, "when it referred to wealthy interests such as corporations that used their money to thwart the public will."

Reminds me of a joke going around Sacramento: Arnold's definition of a special interest?

Anybody who hasn't cut him a check.

While we're on the subject, a bunch of Schwarzenegger's friends in the business community have formed a coalition to raise tens of millions of dollars to support the governor's pro-business agenda.

This gang includes donors who jumped for joy when Schwarzenegger stood tall against a minimum-wage increase, lower prescription drug prices and a bill that would have made it harder to move jobs overseas.

So much for the will of the people.

Listen to me, Arnold. This has got to stop.

Are you listening?

What does the average Californian have to do to get your attention?

OK, I'm getting out my checkbook.

Here we go.

How does $100 sound?

Wait, I'm sorry. How about $1,000?

No, let's make it $10,000.

My daughter loves your doll, by the way.
Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@

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