Running for office in California is a tough job, but ultimately temporary. The election happens, you win or you lose, and life goes on.
But sponsoring a ballot initiative is forever.
That lesson hit home last week as I interviewed former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger during a global forum on direct democracy in Mexico City.
Californians elected Schwarzenegger governor 20 years ago this October. His second term concluded at the end of 2010. But in a very real sense, he is still governing us, for two reasons.
First, because he is a singularly relentless person, who, once he starts something, refuses to let go. Second, because he has been among the most prolific backers of ballot initiatives in the history of the state and the country.
When it comes to ballot initiatives, getting the voters to enact your law or constitutional amendment is just the beginning. Every year brings new legislation, and every election brings new ballot initiatives that might affect or even cancel your ballot initiative.
So, you must defend it.
The best-known example of this is Proposition 13 and its late sponsor, anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis. Today, 45 years after Prop 13’s passage and more than 30 years after Jarvis’ death, there is still a Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association to protect Prop 13 and its limits on property taxes.
Schwarzenegger, now 75, has been actively protecting and extending successful measures for two decades, with a tenacity so unusual I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s arranged for the Terminator to travel through time to keep his initiative alive.
To understand the Sisyphean devotion that initiative protection requires, consider Proposition 49, which Schwarzenegger convinced voters to pass way back in 2002, the year before the 2003 recall that made him governor.
Prop 49 was a measure to reserve a piece of the budget to fund after-school programs, which had been a focus of Schwarzenegger’s charitable work. Back then, I was among a crowd of reporters and political observers who saw Prop 49 as little more than a showpiece to set up a future Schwarzenegger run for the governorship.
In retrospect, we badly underestimated Prop 49, and Schwarzenegger. As governor, he defended the Prop 49 funds for after-school programs against cuts and elimination, especially during the budget crisis of the Great Recession. Since leaving office, he has continued that defense work, while advocating for additional funding from other sources.
As a result, California offers more support for after-school programs than the other 49 states combined. Last fall, the Biden administration dispatched U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to California to celebrate Prop 49—and to tout it as a model for other states.
The other two initiatives that Schwarzenegger guards like a junkyard dog are a matched pair of political reforms: groundbreaking 2008 and 2010 measures that changed state redistricting. Effectively, the measures stripped the state legislature of the power to draft district lines for its own members, and for members of Congress. Instead, the initiatives gave that power to a bipartisan citizens commission.
Those were hard-won victories for a governor whose early attempts at redistricting had failed. (After a failed initiative on redistricting in 2005, I wrote that he should give up the cause. He didn’t take my advice.) Those wins for Schwarzenegger also won him constant opposition from political parties and leading politicians trying to undo the measures in the courts.
Schwarzenegger has not been content to fight off these challenges alone. He’s successfully backed ballot measures to enact similar redistricting reforms in other states, among them Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah.
I’ve long dismissed redistricting reform as too small a change to resolve California’s political problems. My columns have proposed, instead, wholesale constitutional change that ends our tradition of single-member districts in favor of a proportional representation system that would force the parties to share power.
But it’s easy for me to criticize. As I spoke with Schwarzenegger, I found myself thinking about how hard it would be for reformers, who have launched such an effort, to turn proportional representation into a reality.
They would have to get someone to write an initiative, raise millions of dollars to qualify it for the ballot, and then somehow convince voters to adopt it.
And even if they managed to do those things, their work wouldn’t be done. They’d have to spend the rest of their lives, and beyond, defending the proposal against court challenges and other initiatives.
In other words, they’d have to find their own inner Terminator.