SACRAMENTO — When wealthy contributors write checks to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger,
they often get a few canapes and a drink — and a secret telephone number
that grants them access to his closest advisors and even the governor himself.
Twice a month, donors can become insiders' insiders — invited to participate
in conference calls featuring information about Schwarzenegger campaign strategy
that his political enemies would love to have. In turn, donors who dial in can
give the governor advice.
In the latest such call, a few days ago, Schwarzenegger's media expert, Don
Sipple, outlined a strategy "based on a lot of polling" to create
a "phenomenon of anger" among voters toward public employee unions.
Firefighters, police officers, teachers and other state-paid workers have become
the governor's harshest critics this year.
"The process is like peeling an onion," Sipple said, describing a
multi-step plan for persuading voters that public-worker unions are "motivated
by economic self-interest" instead of "doing the best job for the
The Thursday discussion, involving multiple contributors and three top Schwarzenegger
strategists, offered a rare glimpse of the governor's "donor maintenance"
effort: insider information, solicitous compliments, invitations to exclusive
parties. It was also a window on the governor's attack strategy ahead of an
expected Nov. 8 special election.
The governor has dubbed 2005 the "year for reform," and he needs
millions of dollars for support, mainly for TV ads. The Times was given access
to Thursday's half-hour call through a participant.
"It's a good way to keep in touch with you, our most important supporters,
about the latest developments in the campaign," Schwarzenegger's chief
fundraiser, Marty Wilson, told the contributors.
The governor participated in a call with donors two weeks ago and is expected
to do so again June 16. Presumably, that will be after he signs an executive
order scheduling the special election, so he can take to voters some of his
proposals for changing state government.
Contributors to Schwarzenegger's causes are first invited to join the discussions
in e-mails, which tell them how to get — for each call — a phone
number and a password. The campaign staff decides which significant donors will
be included each time. The discussions feature a "special guest,"
such as Sipple, talking about the governor's plans, as well as information about
fundraisers and a question-and-answer session.
In the latest call, the advisors said Schwarzenegger had spent $8 million so
far on television ads defending and promoting his agenda. He launched another
TV ad campaign the same day that will cost $2.5 million for a few weeks of air
time, and he wants to collect $31 million to $32 million to run his initiative
campaign through the fall, the advisors said.
A special election ballot is expected to include a proposed government spending
cap and a plan to lengthen the time it takes teachers to get tenure —
measures embraced by Schwarzenegger and opposed by public employee unions. The
unions and their Democratic allies have spent millions on TV ads criticizing
the governor and his proposals — with some success, the advisors acknowledged.
"There is no question to anybody who is rational that we have been in
the barrel for the past several months," Sipple said during the phone call.
"The good news is we have polling that shows us coming out of the trench."
Surveys by independent groups have shown Schwarzenegger's public approval dropping
as much as 20 percentage points since January, to about 40% in recent weeks.
Sipple was referring to a poll commissioned by the governor's campaign showing
about 50% approval.
Renee Croce is finance director for Schwarzenegger's California Recovery Team,
the governor's main political committee. She told donors during the call to
expect a dinner June 22 at the home of Cisco Systems Chief Executive John Chambers,
a fundraiser June 24 in Los Angeles and a series of statewide fundraising events
corresponding with Schwarzenegger's birthday July 30.
"The governor is very hopeful we can come together and have a big splash
before July 30 to pay for all this media," Croce said.
Sipple's comments about unions came after a representative of Wells Fargo suggested
that the governor sharpen his message to focus on public employees rather than
privateindustry labor groups. The banking giant donated $100,000 last year to
Schwarzenegger's efforts to overhaul workers' compensation through an initiative
that never made the ballot.
Sipple said one piece of information makes voters particularly angry about
unions: the "stinky episode" in 2002 when former Gov. Gray Davis and
the Legislature granted state prison guards a 34% raise.
"People remember that," he said, suggesting that the campaign would
try to rekindle the voter disgust that swept Davis out of office and Schwarzenegger
in. "You almost have to use these episodes that tap the recall to make
He also said: "When you get to the point of … 'These people are
on your payroll and they are out to roll you every day,' that creates a kind
of phenomenon of anger. But it takes a long time to get there…. As the
campaign goes on, we have to articulate that."
A political consultant who is organizing opposition to Schwarzenegger's agenda
said Sipple's use of the word "create" was apt. Gale Kaufman works
for the Alliance for a Better California, a coalition that includes several
unions. She said the public sees firefighters, teachers and others as public
servants, not leeches.
"Sounds to me like when [Schwarzenegger's advisors] noticed there wasn't
a problem, they had to create one," Kaufman said.
Two donors participating in the call said they wanted to do more "than
just write checks," and offered to send letters to the editor or opinion
pieces to newspapers in support of the governor.
Wilson called that "a tremendous idea" and promised to provide "message
points" for the donors to use in their efforts.
Sipple said one problem was that voters weren't getting correct information
about the governor's proposed budget — which includes $3 billion more
An executive with the Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. of San Diego
asked during Thursday's call if the governor was "going to come out strongly
supportive" of a ballot initiative that would force public employee unions
to get permission to use a member's dues for political activities, such as the
current TV ads attacking the governor.
The building official, whose industry has donated more than $14 million to
Schwarzenegger, said there was a "compelling argument" for the governor
to support the measure. "If you are looking for the seminal battle between
status quo and change that benefits the state over the long term, this is a
tremendous arrow in the quiver."
Sipple told him that Schwarzenegger might withhold an endorsement of the initiative
in exchange for concessions from the Legislature on other matters. He said it
was a "distinct possibility" that the governor would endorse the measure,
however. "We certainly would encourage it," Sipple said.
Campaign finance experts said there is nothing illegal about conference calls
with donors, if the contributors do not "cross the line" and push
Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, said that Schwarzenegger's
donors are allowed to discuss policy with him and interact with him but that
non-donors should not be shut out. Both should have access to the administration
to express their views, she said.
The governor's public calendars show many visitors to his office who are not
campaign donors. And he has repeatedly said he does not trade campaign money
Wilson, in an interview, said the conference calls allowed the campaign to
interact with contributors without "going through the filter of any kind
of third-party intermediary, whether that be the news media or somebody on their
staff. They can get their information directly from a senior official"
on the campaign.
Some of the donors offered unsolicited help to the strategists. One donor pressed
Sipple and Wilson to reach out to Latinos because Schwarzenegger "is a
good-looking guy, and people in the Hispanic community would love to see more
of him on television."
An executive with the American Electronics Assn., which has donated $25,000
to the California Republican Party, said: "We can get our public relations
entity involved and send out our own press releases endorsing the governor's
"We could use your help," Wilson replied.