The Magazine

Muscular Republicanism

From the October 19, 2002 issue: Arnold Schwarzenegger's California dreamin'.

Oct 28, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 07 • By MATT LABASH
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Contra Costa, Calif.

OF ALL THE ASSIGNMENTS I've drawn over the years, none would seem to be as trifling as the one that has me standing on an airstrip, gulping gnats on a tropical October morning. At Buchanan Airfield in Concord, California, I await the arrival of a private jet, to follow a candidate who hasn't declared, for a race that is not being run.

It is one month out in the California gubernatorial election. The dull (incumbent Gray Davis, who in a rare flash of color said that Al Gore is his charisma adviser) is leading the desperate (Republican Bill Simon, who is on his fourth campaign manager and, a year into the campaign, is running "Do you know me?" ads). Like most Californians, who are famously allergic to politics, I want no part of either. Sixty-five percent of likely voters say they wish someone else were running, and the someone most often mentioned is the man for whom I'm inhaling large clouds of bugs: actor/humanitarian/Conan-the-Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Arnold, or "Ahh-nuld" as he calls himself, is barnstorming the state to drum up support for Proposition 49, a ballot initiative that would increase access to after-school programs by making matching grants available for all K-9 public schools. It is not a celebrity sign-on project like the George Foreman Grill. It is Arnold-authored. The proposition's website is joinarnold.com. And its passage seems entirely dependent on the action star's cult of personality--not a bad thing in California, where neither "cult" nor "personality" is a word generally associated with Davis or Simon.

After flirting with running for governor last year, Arnold as recently as late September quashed speculation that he'd mount a last-minute write-in campaign, a rumor that was given oxygen when his own pollster quietly asked about potential write-in support in a Prop 49 poll. Indeed, the crowds and buzz Arnold generates at each stop feel less like an education forum for some down-ballot initiative, more like the early rumblings of a presidential campaign (though being president is not in the cards for a naturalized citizen from Graz, Austria, despite Schwarzenegger's joke that constitutions are made to be amended).

On the runway, I am joined by giddy members of the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department. The Republicans among them fill me in on political topography. They tell me that the place they're taking Arnold for his event--Martinez--is the birthplace of the martini. But mostly, they do what California Republicans have done ever since Pete Wilson was term-limited out of the governor's mansion in 1998: complain about the complete abasement of the state Republican party. Republicans boast just one statewide officeholder, are a minority in both the legislature and congressional delegation, and are expected to stay that way for at least the next decade. One sheriff's department employee says things have gotten so bleak that the local Republican boss "is a 22-year-old college student who sounds like he's 12. It reminds me of when the Oakland A's were losing so badly that they had to sign a broadcast contract with a college station. We have absolutely no direction."

Of the current gubernatorial crop, one says, "I wouldn't vote for either of these guys. Both are nitwits." When asked about Schwarzenegger, he immediately perks up. A few weeks ago, he says, he accompanied Arnold to an editorial board meeting at the Contra Costa Times. "Arnold is sitting at one of these long tables in between a deputy publisher and an editor. These are salty dogs, whiskered editorial page folks. But at some point, I look up, and they've come out of their seats and they're doing high-fives across the table because Arnold is talking about doing 'Terminator 4.'"

Sheriff Warren Rupf, who doubles as president of the California State Sheriffs' Association, says his organization, like every other law enforcement organization in the state, has endorsed Prop 49, since after-school programs curtail crime by keeping unsupervised juveniles off the street. His association has also endorsed Gray Davis, but when asked what they'd have done if Arnold were running, he says, "I'm glad we haven't had to make that choice." Rupf is tall and Germanic and strikes one as a serious man with a serious mustache and a serious firearm, but when speaking of Schwarzenegger, he sounds like a common groupie: "Arnold has a well-developed sense of humor, and a passion for doing things that are going to improve kids' chances to get ahead. As I told him, you're a hero--but not for the reasons you see on screen."