The Woman Behind Arnold's Defeat
Women have had a bruising time in the public eye lately, ranging from Judith Miller's deceptive reports in the New York Times to Harriet Miers' embarrassing qualifications for the Supreme Court. So when a woman manages to outperform the most confident governor in America, it's worth celebrating.
On Tuesday, Nov. 8, every one of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's pet initiatives failed, in large part because of Rose Ann DeMoro, the chief executive of the California Nurses Association (CNA). She and her 65,000-member union spent most of this year building a broad-based populist movement that the once-powerful governor tried to dismiss with glib one-liners.
Certainly, one reason Schwarzenegger's initiatives failed was widespread anger over his $70 million "special" election. Lengthening the probationary period before teachers can qualify for tenure (Prop. 74), weakening the unions (Prop. 75), bypassing elected lawmakers on fiscal matters (Prop. 76) and privatizing the redistricting process (Prop. 77) were not going to solve California's financial problems.
But voters may not have gotten this message if it weren't for DeMoro and her indefatigable nurses. Early on they stressed that Schwarzenegger's election was a corporate power grab at the expense of California workers. The nurses hammered home this message almost daily, even when they risked being ostracized. As Lou Paulson, head of the California Professional Firefighters, said: "Rose Ann and the nurses showed us that the emperor had no clothes."
Their activism started last November, after Schwarzenegger suspended key portions of the state's nurse-to-patient ratio to help hospital chains. "That really angered us," says DeMoro. But the nurses protested tentatively, almost timidly, until one pivotal day last December.
While the governor addressed a state convention of 10,000 women, a few nurses unfurled a protest banner that read "Hands Off Patient Ratios." Schwarzenegger grinned for the TV cameras, then said: "Pay no attention...to the special interests. I am always kicking their butts." DeMoro was outraged. "For the Governor to denigrate nurses -- a historically female profession -- while speaking to an audience of women is an affront to women everywhere," she told CNN. Because Schwarzenegger had shut them out of the health-care debate, the nurses decided to take their case to the streets.
"We were told to not make waves, that the people of California would turn against us to support their popular governor," DeMoro says. At the time, Schwarzenegger had a 65-percent approval rating, along with fawning cover stories in Fortune and Vanity Fair magazines.
Even so, the nurses continued marching while the state's firefighters, teachers and law enforcement unions watched from the sidelines. DeMoro rented a plane to buzz wealthy guests at the governor's gated Brentwood mansion during his Super Bowl Sunday party. The nurses flew it over Wall Street while the governor held a $10,000-a-plate fundraiser there. They dogged him in Chicago at a lavish fundraiser, flying a banner that read "Don't Be Big Business' Bully."
When the governor reneged on his oft-repeated promise to restore $2 billion to education cuts in February, students and teachers joined the nurses. They gathered with pickets one rainy day at a Sacramento theater where the governor was about to watch the premiere of Get Shorty 2. But when nurse Kelly Di Giacomo was whisked out of the movie line and into a back room, protestors grew worried. The governor's security team grilled the petite nurse for over an hour until she finally asked why they considered her a threat. One of Schwarzenegger's bodyguards pointed to her scrubs and explained. "You're wearing a nurse's uniform."
"Oh, sure," she said, drolly. "The international terrorist uniform." That intimidating experience emboldened the nurses, whose protests began attracting media attention. By spring, TV news cameras were moving their soft-lens focus from Schwarzenegger to the growing crowds of angry workers, most of them women.
In March, Schwarzenegger's popularity dropped to 55 percent, and a California court ruled that the governor had indeed broken the law by suspending the state's nurse-ratio regulation. By then, however, the governor was trying to gut California firefighters' and police officers' pensions, mimicking a Bush administration proposal.
That effort galvanized the conservative law enforcement community to join DeMoro's ranks for the first time. That spring, firefighters joined a crowd of 4,000 nurses, parents, teachers, and state employees to object to the governor's rash of cuts to middle- and lower-class programs.
By April, even die-hard Republicans were growing wary of the governor's company. When former Secretary of State George Shultz showed up for an Arnold fundraiser in San Francisco, he was visibly shaking as 5,000 booing protestors met him in front of the Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Hotel workers later reported that 80 percent of the $100,000 seats went empty that day. "I'm convinced that the protestors scared them away," said CNA organizer Shum Preston.
By summer, the folly of holding a special election seemed obvious, but DeMoro didn't let up. In August, CNA nurses flew to Boston to protest Schwarzenegger as he tried raising election funds by re-selling three dozen Rolling Stones tickets in his sky-box for $100,000 each.
Picketing CNA nurse Stephen Ingersoll couldn't afford a ticket to the Fenway Park concert, but he stood outside and calmly explained his, and CNA's position to Boston reporters. A group of non-union nurses were so impressed with his aplomb, they asked Ingersoll: "How do you guys do this?"
It's simple, he told them: "When there's an issue that needs to be debated, we just go to the streets."
By September, DeMoro and the nurses were inviting workers of all stripes to join them, which attracted some Hollywood guild members. Documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price), Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn and movie actress Annette Bening attended the nurses' convention in September, where Warren Beatty had asked to be the keynote speaker. "We're fighting star power with star power," said DeMoro. By the time Beatty lent his voice to CNA ads that ran up to election day, Schwarzenegger's ratings had sunk to a low of 37 percent.
"Instead of attacking the real problems of our schools, Schwarzenegger attacked school teachers," Beatty said. "Instead of attacking the cost of healthcare, he attacked nurses. Instead of increasing our safety, he attacked police and firefighters."
That tactical mistake cost Schwarzenegger his special election initiatives and turned California's nurses into grassroots heroes in other parts of the country.
Nurses in Illinois, Massachusetts, Arizona and Mississippi have asked DeMoro for help in challenging the growing clout of corporate hospital chains and other states' anti-worker initiatives. To be effective, the CNA has created a subsidiary called the National Nurses Organizing Committee, which allows it to organize nurses outside of the Golden State. This fall, the NNOC welcomed 2,000 Chicago nurses into their fold, and it anticipates more members by year's end.
As for Schwarzenegger, he's lost more than his special election. He's managed to squander his once-bright political future and to jeopardize the pro-business platforms of other Republican leaders in outlying blue states. And all because of a woman.