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Extreme makeover, political edition


By Laura Kurtzman, San Jose Mercury News, January 4, 2006

Months before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked her to be his new chief of staff, Susan Kennedy was already wrestling with the question of just how far she could go to support him.

She was disillusioned with the partisanship that she felt had doomed her for- mer boss, Gov. Gray Davis. And she thought it was dishonest to keep her distance from Schwarzenegger -- whom she had grown to respect -- out of loyalty to the Democratic Party.

With partisan tensions mounting over the governor's special election, Kennedy's self-questioning became more urgent: If she privately supported Schwar-zenegger's goals, then why not publicly support him? Could she vote for him? Could she endorse him?

``It became a crisis of conscience,'' she told the Mercury News in an interview over lunch in San Francisco in which she sought to explain her transformation from Democratic Party stalwart to a Republican governor's confidant. ``I'd been an active Democrat all my life -- never, ever once in my life voted for a Republican.''

Kennedy's decision to take the job -- and turn her back on a 25-year career that included helping the Democrats win California for Bill Clinton in 1992 -- has baffled many longtime friends and colleagues.

``I would have gone broke betting that she wouldn't do it,'' said her old friend John Burton, the former state Senate president. Meanwhile, the governor's decision to hire her has infuriated many in his Republican base.

Kennedy expected the reaction, which she sees as proof of the bitter partisanship she is trying to escape.

``There's no home for moderates in either party anymore,'' she said. ``Look at what people have called me. In one article, they'll call me a sycophant to big business and a foaming-at-the-mouth liberal.''

But one person seems to have taken Kennedy's new job in stride: Davis. He expressed sympathy for his former Cabinet secretary as she faces the consequences of defying party loyalties. He said Schwarzenegger, a political novice, made a wise choice in hiring her.

``She will be a godsend to him,'' Davis said. ``She may not drive up his poll ratings, but she will ensure he doesn't self-destruct.''


After Schwarzenegger unseated Davis in the recall election, Kennedy said she was hoping the Hollywood actor would do exactly that. ``I wanted him to hit the ground,'' she said. ``Just like everybody else.''

But she had already undergone a deep political transformation from the idealistic young woman who came west at 19 to join Tom Hayden's Students for Economic Democracy. She had become jaundiced by the Democratic-aligned interest groups that had formed what she called a ``seamless relationship with the Legislature.'' And she was furious with the Democrats, whom she saw as the real architects of Davis' undoing.

After 16 years of Republican rule in the governor's office, she said, the Democrats and their allied interest groups were so hungry for power they would rather undermine someone from their own party than compromise. They refused to give Davis the security guarantees he wanted in the illegal-immigrant driver's license bill or the cost controls he sought on workers' compensation.

``There was outrage that a Democrat was pushing back for reform,'' she said. ``So we couldn't even have a rational conversation.''

Eventually, Davis gave in on both counts, costing him dearly in the recall election. Once Schwarzenegger took his place, Kennedy watched in disbelief as chastened Democrats caved in, first on driver's licenses, then on workers' compensation.

``The Democrats ended up giving a Republican governor the reforms that they would not give to a governor in their own party,'' she said. ``And I'm sorry, but that made me sick.''

Kennedy, who had left the Davis administration at the end of 2002, was then ensconced on the Public Utilities Commission, where Davis had appointed her to balance another of his appointees, the consumer champion Loretta Lynch. On the PUC, Kennedy got to know Schwarzenegger as they collaborated on rolling back regulation of the telecommunications industry, to the dismay of consumer groups and the delight of Republicans.

``I was pleasantly surprised at how pro-competitive-markets she was,'' said Jim Brulte, the former Republican leader in the Senate. Watching the bills he signed, Kennedy concluded Schwarzenegger was a centrist like herself and her old boss, Davis. ``I realized there were very few areas where I disagreed with what he was doing.''

Although she is a lesbian who exchanged vows in a ceremony with her partner, Vicki Marti, she supported his veto of the gay-marriage bill. Kennedy thought pushing for it through the Legislature, after the voters had passed a ballot measure in 2000 defining marriage as between a man and a woman, would backfire on gays.

``Passing a bill that basically ignores the voters and says `screw you' to the voters is incredibly provocative,'' she said. Better, she thought, to concentrate on protecting the expansion of domestic-partnership rights Davis had signed before leaving office.

When Schwarzenegger in his second year embarked on a path of confrontation with Democrats, Kennedy defended him to her friends.

One night at dinner with Carole Migden, a Democratic state senator from San Francisco, and Darius Anderson, a lobbyist who was close to Davis, Kennedy pounded the table in frustration when they criticized Schwarzenegger for cutting education funding.

She insisted Schwarzenegger had only done what Davis had done before him. Far from cutting education, she said both governors gave it more money, although less than was required under Proposition 98, the formula that dictates education spending.

``To me,'' Kennedy said, ``it was totally intellectually dishonest to attack him for doing something that we did just because he has an `R' next to his name.''

Kennedy wound up voting for all the measures the governor campaigned for in his special election. She had seen firsthand how impossible the budget had become and welcomed reform, even if flawed. Likewise with the union-dues measure, which she saw as a necessary though incomplete part of campaign-finance reform.

``At this point, you can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good,'' she said.

Wanted out of politics

Kennedy said she was planning to bring her long career in politics to a close. She and Marti, a psychotherapist who was appointed by Davis to the California Medical Assistance Commission, had begun an expensive renovation of their home in Fairfax. Kennedy, who is 45, was going to leave the PUC ``so I could go out and make some real money.''

But as Schwarzenegger began to stumble in his second year and word got out that his chief of staff, Patricia Clarey, was planning to leave after the special election, Kennedy said people began to approach her about taking the job. She said they were both Democrats and Republicans, ``not official emissaries by any stretch, but just people who supported him and cared about his success.''

The special election came to an ignoble close, with Schwarzenegger losing all of his measures. Shortly after returning from a trade mission to China, he gave Kennedy a call.

She considered the grueling 80-hour weeks she had put in for Davis, while commuting several days a week from Marin, and what it would be like ``going back into that fire.''

If she left the political world, she asked herself, ``What does that say about the last 25 years of my life?''

Just over a week later, Kennedy had her answer. She was standing beside Schwarzenegger, telling the world: ``I'm tired of the partisanship. I'm tired of the intolerance that has resulted in gridlock. And I felt it was time for me, as a Democrat, to put up or shut up.''


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Last modified: January 4, 2006

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