The Girlie Man Can

Frustrated by budget impasse, Schwarzenegger stumbles into firestorm

Just after California’s new Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the midst of stalled budget negotiations, hurled his “girlie man” jibe at the state’s Democrats, his mouth twisted into an odd worried sort of smile, and his head went back like a barroom pugilist’s. If a chin can swagger, his did: Did they get it? Did I go too far? Bring it on!

The governor’s audience at the Ontario Mills Shopping Mall did get something. Some cheered and hooted, the TV soundtrack revealed.

“Go get ‘em Arnie!”

Did he go too far?

“Mr. Schwarzenegger has crashed on the shoals of the notorious budgeting process in this state,” concluded New York Times scribe John Broder.

“If we’re measuring the actions of politicians on the macho-meter, the governor’s opponents have showed more guts than he has,” opined the normally Republican-friendly Los Angeles Times.

And as the ripples of Schwarzenegger’s comment spread from the Orange County Southern California shopping mall where he made it last week, Schwarzenegger got the most attention he has since he ousted Democrat Gray Davis last October.

The world press started to pay attention again.

“I think Arnie is finally exploring his feminine side—with bitchy remarks and back-biting,” said a pair of New Zealand cartoon characters, betraying their own stereotypical ideas of womanhood.

But back in Sacramento, the state’s capital, the Democrats seized on the remark, and chucked it back at him, in the hope that Schwarzenegger’s momentary weakness will let them have their way with the budget.

Famously liberal State Senate Pres. John Burton stood in front of the microphones a few days later and bristled back. Asked if he would swallow his pride and restart the budget negotiations, Burton growled, “Why would I possibly call him? What, are you people nuts? ‘Hi, this is the scumbag, girlie boy, how you doin’? Give my best to the kids. Did you get anything good for Maria over at Mills?’”

“Why in God’s name would I call him?” Burton continued. “I’m not that much of a girlie man.”

So now both sides, including Burton who introduced the state’s first gay marriage bill in 1992 (it went nowhere), have signed on to the idea that macho equals good. Femininity in men is bad. When push comes to shove, Schwarzenneger calls someone a girlie man.

Both sides do, actually.

“He was joking,” said Margita Thompson, one of the governor’s press secretaries. “He was trying to use it to get a point across… that the legislators are wimps, and that they need to stand up to the special interests, and to do what’s in the best interests of the state.”

But in the days since the remark, Democrats have been quick to make sure that everyone knows Schwarzenegger is beholden to special interests of his own—specifically the baton-wielding, politically powerful prison guard’s union with whom he just signed a favorable contract. The agreement is so good to the guards that a federal district judge is now threatening to take over the state’s scandal-plagued prison system. The judge says the union, and their sweetheart contract, protected in good times and bad by both Democratic and Republican governors, is at the root of most of the problems.

The Log Cabin Republicans, the leading gay Republican group, leapt to the defense of their man.

“The attacks from the left claiming that Schwarzenegger is a homophobe are patently outrageous,” said the group’s leader Patrick Guerriero in a statement.

And that is true, sort of. Schwarzenegger has said that he has “no problem” with gay marriage (a comment that makes him a bump more progressive than Sen. John Kerry), and that he has “no use” for a constitutional amendment banning it. But activists working in Sacramento say Schwarzenneger has been maddeningly difficult to pin down on specifics.

When they were speaking a few months ago, Schwarzenegger worked with the Legislature’s Democratic leaders to retain funding for the state’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program, but the first real test of Schwarzenegger’s position on gay rights will come in the next few weeks, when three bills, which are expected to clear the legislature on strictly party line votes, will hit his desk. They provide for strengthening the state’s anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and the state’s hate crime laws and a revision of the insurance code to force insurers to treat domestic partners the same as married people. Schwarzenegger’s office says he will not take a position on the bills until they reach him, but LGBT advocates are voicing cautious optimism.

“This governor has done a lot to extend a hand to the LGBT community,” said Steve Hansen, the Sacramento lobbyist for gay rights group Equality California. “We’re pretty confident about the governor.”

But Schwarzenegger may face problems on the right, with a budget that critics say looks like it could have been drafted by the Democrats, with strong reliance on the sort of fiscal band-aids for which his predecessor Davis took heat just before he was recalled. The governor’s plan doesn’t raise any taxes, because the Republicans wouldn’t stand for that, and it doesn’t cut many programs, because the Democrats won’t allow that.

During last year’s recall election, Schwarzenegger promised that he would end business as usual in Sacramento and deliver a middle ground between the extremist Republicans and the majority Democrats. He hasn’t been yet able to—and he’s very frustrated. With the state’s strong reliance on income and capital gains taxes to balance its books, down times, like now, spell trouble.

So instead of forcing a discussion about how, really, to fix the state’s basic structural financial problems, Schwarzenneger resorted to locker-room name-calling. It was after all, in the locker room that Schwarzenegger got his basic education.

The governor has inflamed the opposition.

“It’s completely consistent with the asshole he is,” said one Democratic lawmaker, who insisted on anonymity. “He thinks he can control the PR between now and November—so fuck us all.”

But maybe not. The adverse reaction has been so strong that the Gubernator may have to capitulate on some concrete points, go back to the bargaining table, and say, privately at least, “I’m sorry.”

The Democrats are suddenly feeling stronger. So much so that Tom Ammiano, San Francisco’s gay supervisor and longtime gay rights advocate, standing on a street corner the Monday after Schwarzenneger’s faux-pas, quipped, “That’s Mister Girlie Man to you, bub.”

We also publish:

More from Around NYC