1.11.2005

Senator in the shadows as his agenda moves ahead


By Daniel Weintraub -- Bee Columnist
Sunday, January 9, 2005


Amid all the hoopla that went along with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's second State of the State speech, and all the talk of the governor's bold plan to attack some of the Capitol's most sacred cows, state Sen. Tom McClintock went almost unnoticed.

But as the recall election that ousted former Gov. Gray Davis finally seems to be bearing serious fruit, maybe this is a good time to give McClintock his due.

The steely economic conservative from the northern San Fernando Valley was present at the creation of the recall. One of his longtime aides - John Stoos - helped nurture the idea, his friend Ted Costa was the official sponsor, and McClintock himself attended the recall group's first press conference, before anyone was taking the thing seriously.

Then, as the campaign unfolded in the summer of 2003, McClintock entered the fray as a candidate for governor, offering a pointed, no-nonsense appraisal of the state's condition, and strong medicine to cure it.

As other Republicans dropped out of the race, clearing the way for actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, some urged McClintock to do the same. Political consultants and pundits warned that he was risking his political future by endangering Schwarzenegger's candidacy, but McClintock simply said he trusted the voters to decide whether he was a viable candidate, and not to waste their votes on him if he was not.

At the one and only debate featuring all the candidates, McClintock shined. More than once, he almost seemed to be offering Schwarzenegger a lifeline, and his novice opponent grabbed it, echoing the senator's comments. McClintock emerged as a sentimental favorite, with Republicans and Democrats both saying they admired his principled stands.

But principles or not, he lacked Schwarzenegger's movie-star credentials, and he could not budge the leader's numbers among a mass audience. McClintock faded down the stretch, finishing third behind Schwarzenegger and Democrat Cruz Bustamante, with 13 percent of the vote.

For the next year, McClintock watched from the Senate as Schwarzenegger learned the ropes in the Capitol, compromised with Democrats, avoided confrontation and, in the end, made little progress on the fundamental problems that bedeviled the state. The senator offered muted criticism when appropriate, support where he could.

Then, Wednesday night, suddenly everything changed. It was if the flashy governor were channeling his straight-laced colleague. Schwarzenegger's speech sounded almost as if McClintock had written it.

"Maybe I should have copyrighted some of my ideas," McClintock said with a laugh when I asked him later about the resemblance.

McClintock, some might remember, was one of only a handful of lawmakers to vote against a pension bill in 1999 that boosted state retirement benefits and paved the way for a wave of local pension increases that have threatened the financial solvency of some cities and counties. Three years later, McClintock was the only legislator to vote against a lavish new contract for the state's correctional officers, or prison guards. And all along he warned that the state's spending growth could not be sustained.

Now Schwarzenegger was saying that pension bloat, the guards union and other ills McClintock has spotlighted over the years were the heart of the state's problems. And with no apparent bitterness, McClintock endorsed the Schwarzenegger agenda.

Merit pay for excellent teachers? "I've always maintained that the public schools would work a lot better if we paid the best and the brightest more than the dullest and the laziest."

Pension reform? "It has to be done." McClintock voted for a similar plan almost 15 years ago that was undone by the 1999 bill he opposed. "Had it been left alone I doubt we would be facing the spiraling costs we are now."

Removing from legislators the power to draw their own political boundaries? "People with a direct stake in a decision should not be the ones making that decision. It's not fair to them, and they make lousy decisions."

Budget reform? McClintock might go further than the standby, across-the-board cuts Schwarzenegger has proposed, but he says the governor's plan will do the job. "It's a helluva lot better than what we have now," he said.

McClintock predicts that Schwarzenegger, if he stays the course, will prevail. But it won't be easy.

"I don't think he is doing this because he wants to, but because he has to," McClintock said of the governor. "He made it very clear that this is going to be a nasty fight and he's probably going to emerge from it less popular than when he went in. But it has to be done. Because these problems can't be ignored, and time has run out. That's what leadership is all about."

McClintock ought to know.

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