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Californians give Arnold huge rebuke

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger embraces his wife, Maria Shriver, as he waits Tuesday night for election results on his ballot proposals.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger embraces his wife, Maria Shriver, as he waits Tuesday night for election results on his ballot proposals.
Chris Carlson, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — In a stinging rebuke from voters who elected him two years ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's efforts to reshape state government were rejected during a special election that darkened his prospects for a second term. Voters also decisively rejected an initiative that would have required parents to be notified when minors seek abortions.

All four of the Republican governor's signature ballot proposals were rejected in Tuesday's election, which pitted him against two of California's powerhouse political forces — public employee unions and Democrats who control the Legislature.

The unions spent millions of dollars to beat Schwarzenegger's propositions to limit the use of their member dues for political purposes, cap state spending, redraw legislative districts and make public school teachers work longer to achieve tenure.

It was a sobering evening for a man once considered among the most popular politicians in America. The contest represented the biggest test yet of Schwarzenegger's faltering leadership.

Voters overwhelmingly defeated Proposition 76, the governor's centerpiece proposal to slow the growth of state spending and give him authority to make midyear budget cuts. Proposition 77, which would have redrawn legislative and congressional districts, also lost by a wide margin.

Failing by slimmer spreads were Proposition 74, a plan to lengthen teachers' probationary period from two years to five, and Proposition 75, which would have required public employee unions to get members' permission before dues could be used for political purposes.

Poll after poll showed it was an election that Californians didn't want, with a total lineup of eight initiatives that didn't connect with everyday issues such as gas prices, housing costs and the war in Iraq.

The Proposition 73 abortion amendment, which also was defeated, would have made California the 35th state requiring parental notification for girls 17 and under requesting the procedure. It would not have required parents or guardians to grant their permission. Backers hoped it would reduce California's teen abortion rate — the nation's fourth-highest.

Abortion opponents in the state have tried for more than two decades to make it harder for girls to terminate pregnancies without their parents' knowledge, but this was the first year a measure qualified for the ballot.

The measure also contained a provision that would have defined abortion as an act that causes "the death of the unborn child, a child conceived but not yet born," deviating from more neutral language used in similar statutes elsewhere.

"It wasn't until the voters really started to pay attention and to look at what was in the measure and what the real outcomes would be that the vote began to swing," said Steve Smith, campaign manager for the Planned Parenthood-backed Campaign for Teen Safety.

Schwarzenegger's conflict with the unions made him a target for teachers, nurses and firefighters. Their television advertising blitz helped push his popularity ratings to record lows.

Opponents chanted "sweep, sweep" at their Sacramento victory party. "I'm very grateful to Arnold Schwarzenegger for really working people up," said Deborah Burger, president of the California Nurses Association.

Schwarzenegger's proposals to curb spending and weaken unions inflamed passions on both sides, partly because of the election's roughly $50 million cost in a state that repeatedly faces budget shortfalls.

Appearing before supporters after learning that at least two of his initiatives had failed, the governor did not concede defeat.

"Tomorrow, we begin anew," Schwarzenegger said, his wife Maria Shriver beside him. "I feel the same tonight as that night two years ago. You know with all my heart, I want to do the right thing for the people of California."

Though some of the measures were complex, Schwarzenegger cast the election in simple terms: Support him and the state moves forward — vote no and protect a broken system of government in Sacramento.

"I guess I didn't do a good enough job to convince them otherwise," the governor said of voters.