10 Rules of Populist Power -- The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell
Continued from previous page
After his election as governor during the 2003 California recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger got an even bigger ego. The Republican governor embraced a thoroughly reactionary agenda. Although he had run for office as the anti-politician in a progressive state, Schwarzenegger called students, teachers, firefighters, and even the disabled “special interest groups” in an attempt to cut their budgets and pensions. But Schwarzenegger claimed that the label did not apply to big corporations that funded his campaign committee with tens of millions of dollars.
Shades of the same arrogance had surfaced during the recall, which is why my colleagues and I created “ArnoldWatch.org” to publicly track the hidden hand of special interests in the Schwarzenegger administration. We knew the California public would not look fondly upon being been lied to.
Ultimately Governor Schwarzenegger was forced to apologize for his tactics. Chapter 6 offers the blow-by-blow of that campaign, but a key turning point hinged on doing a small thing right. Early on, a small group of us began in-your-face protests, starting at the governor’s house on Super Bowl Sunday, and shadowing him across the state. Ultimately the protests grew to ten thousand strong. We knew that for a celebrity, used to basking in the public’s spotlight, facing angry fans would be debilitating. The psychological turning point in the campaign came midway, during a premier for the Danny DeVito film Be Cool in Sacramento. DeVito was Schwarzenegger’s acting partner in the movie Twins and a close friend.
We knew that if we could keep Schwarzenegger from walking the red carpet into that premier it would be symbolically devastating. The mighty California Nurses Association, great progressive allies, rented the Greek restaurant next door to the theatre, a block from the Capitol. Hundreds of nurses occupied the restaurant and its adjoining space on the red carpet with anti-Arnold signs and critical props. Schwarzenegger had to enter the theatre from the back exit. The symbolism said we would turn Arnold’s celebrity around on him and that he couldn’t show his face in California if he continued on his course. The governor suffered a near-knockout blow at the ballot box eight months later, when all five of the regressive ballot measures he opened fire with post-election were defeated. Schwarzenegger apologized the day after, reversed course, and regained some of his celebrity.
In a populist fight, targeting the right person can change the entire campaign. That’s how Consumer Watchdog ended one insurance company CEO’s two-decade war against voter-backed insurance regulation and won an end to insurers’ redlining of poor and urban neighborhoods.
George Joseph is one of the four hundred richest men in the United States. He made his wealth from his Los Angeles–based company, Mercury Insurance. No one has more hatred for the insurance-regulating Proposition 103, nor has anyone done more to undo it. Joseph’s company gave millions in campaign contributions to statehouse politicians to undermine the law. When Democrats bucked him, Joseph gave an even bigger, six-figure contribution to the opposite party. That sent a chilly message to both parties’ leaders.
By the time Joseph turned eighty-four in 2006, California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi had at long last finalized rules to end auto insurance rates based on motorists’ zip codes. It was the last unfulfilled promise of the 1988 insurance reform initiative.
Mercury did a lot of business in urban areas, and George Joseph apparently didn’t want to be told that he had to charge people based on how they drive, not where they live. So good drivers in the inner city were being required by the state to buy auto insurance, but insurers would not sell them a policy at an affordable price. In the poorest areas, the cheapest, most basic auto policies cost thousands of dollars a year because insurers didn’t want to sell insurance there. So when the end to zip-code-based insurance was at hand, as final regulations were about to be implemented to make this change real, Joseph gave some top political consultants a big check and a green light to file a ballot measure overturning this long-awaited provision of Prop 103. After almost two decades of resistance, Joseph decided on all-out war.