How Schwarzenegger’s memory victory twenty years ago resonates in California


How Schwarzenegger’s memory victory twenty years ago resonates in California

Op-Ed, California Politics

Joe Matthews

November 16, 2023

Twenty years ago this week, Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California, following the recall of the former governor. Gray Davis. For much of the past two decades, the recall was remembered primarily as a bizarre media circus, involving 135 candidates, a rushed 60-day campaign, and a debate in which Schwarzenegger and Arianna Huffington insulted each other.

That’s a shame, because that strange, cataclysmic event shifted California’s political priorities and offers important lessons that could provide much-needed hope about our power to change the future.

In retrospect, the Davis recall resembles the first of three 21st century election earthquakes that shook American politics. The other two are the elections of Barack Obama

in 2008

and Donald Trump

in 2016


For Americans, the recall election, with all its bombast, would be a foretaste of how politics would become louder, more populist and more direct. And for Californians, the recall was something more: the beginning of a new era in governance.

The recall brought about major policy changes in three important policy areas

the state of

California is more in line with the preferences of its people.

None of these policies received the same TV attention as populist hot buttons like Davis raising car taxes or Schwarzenegger’s groping scandal. But the policies were all major proposals during Schwarzenegger’s 2003 recall campaign


and his subsequent re-election in 2006.

And these shifts in priorities are ongoing and have survived Schwarzenegger’s administration because they were embraced by his two gubernatorial successors, Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, and by voters.

The first of these concerns concerns children’s programming. Schwarzenegger repeatedly promised more spending on schools, children’s health, the after-school programs that had been the subject of his personal philanthropy and a ballot initiative he championed. Faced with budget problems, he struggled to deliver on these promises during his time in office. But he made some progress, and


Brown and


Newsom has done even better.

Today, per-pupil spending in California is more than twice as high as it was 20 years ago. With the help of Obamacare, which Schwarzenegger strongly supported, all children in California, even undocumented immigrants, are eligible for health insurance. And California now spends so much more on after-school programs than the other 49 states combined that the Biden administration is trying to convince the rest of the country to adopt our approach.

The second area was the environment. During the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger, aided by some of his most progressive advisers, made six big promises on the environment and climate change. Through executive orders and legislative compromises, he has achieved all six, including investments in solar and alternative energy, building efficiency standards, groundbreaking greenhouse gas reduction targets, and reducing fuel carbon intensity.

State policymakers added more policies to this foundation, and Schwarzenegger worked with other states and countries in his post-government to further develop carbon pollution policies.

The third thematic area was, appropriately, people power in democracy. Near the end of his term, Schwarzenegger convinced voters, after several failed attempts, to make two changes.

One of these was to eliminate partisan primaries and replace them with a top two system in which the top two votes in the first round

of a

election progress to the second round of elections in November, regardless of party affiliation. The other was to end gerrymandering by the legislature


and handing the task of designating constituencies to a fourteen-member, bipartisan commission of citizens with no close ties to the state government or political parties. This nonpartisan redistricting concept has spread to other states from Colorado to Michigan thanks to Schwarzenegger’s continued advocacy. A third of U.S. legislative districts are now drawn by such committees.

These significant changes were possible in part because of the recall. However, Schwarzenegger doesn’t really like to think about the recall, or about the past in general. When I interviewed him at his LA home in September for a new book on the impact of recalls, he kept changing the subject to the future, specifically the need for the US to build new infrastructure to meet our economic and environmental needs. to fulfil.

That’s what he suggested


Biden’s infrastructure package, of $1.3 trillion over ten years, was not nearly fast enough. We need action now, Schwarzenegger said. If he were president, Schwarzenegger said, there would be $1.3 trillion in infrastructure annually.

It wasn’t until I wondered if such an investment was possible that he brought up the 2003 recall. The lesson of that event, he said, is that anything is possible.

Joe Mathews is the author of

The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy

and a new one


, The California Recall: The First 20 Years. He is the California columnist and democracy editor of

Public square Zcalo



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