Schwarzenegger Defies California Republicans

The governor takes a bipartisan approach, including consideration of gay legislation

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the prime-time faces of moderate Republicans at his party’s national convention two weeks ago. Now with California’s legislative session just ended, the governor has to decide whether or not to sign the nearly 900 bills recently passed by the Democratic controlled legislature.

Thus far, Schwarzenegger is demonstrating that he is indeed a Republican who can do busines with some fairly liberal Democratic lawmakers, signing gun control legislation introduced by Assemblymember Paul Koretz, from the Democratic gay bastion of West Hollywood. On September 13, over the protests of Christian fundamentalist groups, Schwarzenegger signed another bill authored by lesbian Assemblymember Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) which will require insurance companies to treat domestic partners just like married couples.

The move puts him sharply at odds with the Republicans in the Legislature, where gay rights have become a party line issue. In other states, as well as the Congress, moderate Republicans have supported gay rights legislation. New York’s 2002 gay rights law, authored by a liberal Reublican lamaker from Manhattan, Roy Goodman, passed with about half of the Legislature’s Republicans voting for it. On the federal level, eighteen Republican senators voted for ahate crimes bill that passed the Senate in June.

San Francisco’s gay Assemblyman Mark Leno, a Democrat, said that gay civil rights issues have become a litmus test. “Incredibly,” Leno said, “in the history of the state Capitol, there has never been a single Republican vote in favor of LGBT civil rights – not one.”

Gay advocates, like Geoff Kors, who heads the statewide lobby Equality California, say the reason why is complex, and unclear. One theory says that because of gerrymandering, most Assembly and Senate seats are safe for either Republicans or Democrats, making primary elections the de facto contests where right-wing extremists work hard to curry the favor of conservative voters and contributors.

Another theory says that California’s conservative Republican legislative leadership, which controls the party’s coffers, forces members to vote against LGBT legislation. “There’s something that goes on in those caucus meetings,” Leno theorized. Because the leadership controls the purse strings, leaders like Jim Brulte (R-San Bernardino) can say, Leno speculated, “We’ll take you out in your next primary if you vote for this.”

Neither current Republican leader State Sen. Dick Ackerman (Orange County) nor State Sen. James L Brulte (San Bernardino), who led the Legislature’s Republicans until May of this year, returned calls seeking comment on how the governor’s signature on this and other Democratic bills might affect their relationship. The governor’s press office refused comment other than to confirm he had signed the bill.

Schwarzenegger worked with the Democratic leadership to fund the state’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program earlier this year. The reasons for the governor’s break with his party’s legislative leadership may be philosophical, but the reason he can do it has, at least in part, to do with money. The governor has been the most prolific fund-raiser for the state’s Republican party in recent memory.

Leno says that when Schwarzenegger shows up, so do big donors – just to shake the ne governor’s, and movie star’s, hand. Schwarzenegger raised half a million dollars at a single fund-raiser for Shirley Horton, a Republican who is fighting to keep her east-of-San Diego Assembly seat against a Democratic challenger. Leno says that for all of his work, and he is one of the top few Democratic fund-raisers, it takes him a full year to raise the same amount of money. “And he did it in one night,” said Leno.

The bill itself, A.B. 2208, is relatively limited in scope and requires the state’s insurance companies to offer domestic partners the same policy conditions as married couples. Very often married couples get a discount, especially on auto insurance, if both are named as insureds on a policy, often amounting to several hundred dollars a year.

According to a lobbyist for the state’s gay rights lobby Equality California, Steve Hansen, the bill made it through the legislature with the an “enthusiastic no comment” from the insurance industry, who, he speculated, will see a net increase in business as domestic partners add their partners to policies.

As of Wednesday afternoon the governor has only acted on 115 of the bills passed by the Legislature. That leaves 736 still sitting on his desk – with a few more dribbling in the past few days. They range from bills to address energy regulation, reduce prescription drug costs at the expense of drug companies who have been contributors to his campaigns and raise the minimum wage.

The Assembly’s Democrats expect vetoes on those, but also in that stack of legislation is an omnibus non-discrimination bill by gay Assemblyman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) which would bring the majority of the state’s codes up the high standard of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. It provides broad anti-discrimination protections for many minority groups, including lesbians, gays and, notably, transgenders. The governor’s office refused comment on whether or not he would sign it, but advocates say the are “cautiously optimistic.”

According to Equality California’s Geoff Kors, the governor’s office has been flooded with phone calls and e-mails opposing another relatively modest piece of legislation also still on the governor’s desk. The bill, SB 1234 by lesbian State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles), would clarify the definition of a hate crime and increase penalties for committing one.

Schwarzenegger has until September 30 to sign or veto all the legislation.

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