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The Orange County Register (California)
Mar 22, 2004 - 01:00 AM

by JOHN GITTELSOHN, The Orange County Register

Governor's team for workers' comp drive is battle-tested;

Insiders who marshaled Props. 57-58 support are ready if issue goes to ballot.
SACRAMENTO -- The team that helped Arnold Schwarzenegger become governor and pass two ballot measures this month is suiting up for its next battle: a ballot initiative to reform the workers' compensation system.

Actually, the team has barely taken a break.

Even as the governor's state-office staff continues to negotiate with lawmakers to enact workers' comp reforms through the Legislature, his campaign staff is devising strategy, sending mailers and gathering signatures to put a reform initiative on the Nov. 2 ballot. The governor signed the pet ition Friday during a campaign-style visit to a Torrance factory.

"I hope we can reach a legislative agreement,'' he said. "But if we don't reach an agreement that will give us meaningful reform, I will take the matter directly to the people.''

Most recent governors have retained campaign advisers between elections. But Schwarzenegger's agenda to put initiatives on the ballot -- plus campaign laws passed by voters in 2000 -- forces him to be more creative about how to retain his advisers.

In December, the governor set up a committee, the California Recovery Team, to keep his campaign team on standby. Its first job was passing Propositions 57 and 58.

"You'll see a lot of the same players,'' said Joel Fox, leading the workers' comp initiative.

Fox's committee has mailed 2 million fliers signed by Schwarzenegger urging voters to write their legislators and help circulate initiative petitions. More than 200,000 have replied so far, he said.

He has until April 16 to gather 598,105 valid signatures to qualify for the Nov. 2 ballot.

Coordinating that drive is Martin Wilson, executive director of the California Recovery Team and Schwarzenegger's campaign manager last year. Wilson described his job as raising money, spending it wisely and "making the trains run on time.''

So far, the California Recovery Team has raised $11 million, bankrolling most of the campaign for Props 57 and 58. Last week, it gave $1 million to the workers' comp petition-gathering initiative.

Wilson said the team was formed to promote an agenda -- balancing the state budget and reviving the economy -- which is why donors aren't asked to give directly to Schwarzenegger. Another reason is that the committee has no contribution limits, unlike the governor, who can accept only $21,200 per donor.

"If we were raising money through the governor's re-election committee, we'd end up maxing out a lot of donors and therefore be at a disadvantage in the next election,'' Wilson said.

Critics, such as Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, say Schwarzenegger's campaign apparatus is a "hide-the-contributor'' shell game that opens the door for special-interest money. One example: Insurance companies that issue workers' compensation policies have given $500,000 to the California Recovery Team, money relayed to the initiative drive.

Wilson acknowledged the potential conflict last week. On Friday, he returned a $50,000 donation Zurich Insurance gave after the March 2 primary.

"At the direction of the California Recovery Team board of directors, we made the decision we will no longer accept contributions from companies in California's workers' compensation market,'' Wilson said.

No donor can sway the governor, Wilson added: "Arnold Schwarzenegger is not for sale.''

Some observers say Schwarzenegger is wise to keep a campaign staff at the ready.

"When you go into a new battle, you don't want to have to start all over again,'' said Darry Sragow, a Democratic consultant who worked with the California Recovery Team on Props. 57 and 58. "This team didn't have to spend time learning their roles and getting used to each other.''

Members of the team's staff and board include:

Mike Murphy, a strategist whose clients have included Jebb Bush and John McCain. His firm earned $200,000 during the recall.

Don Sipple, a television ad specialist who worked for former Gov. Pete Wilson before working for Schwarzenegger.

Gary Hunt, a government-affairs adviser who used to represent the Irvine Co. in Sacramento.

Tony Russo, a senior vice president at the Irvine Co.

George Gorton, another former Pete Wilson campaign adviser who has worked for Schwarzenegger since 2002.

So far, Gorton and Wilson are the only California Recovery Team members working directly on the signature gathering for the workers' comp initiative, but others are expected to join the campaign if it goes to the ballot. Gorton and Sipple are also giving advice to a signature-gathering effort for an initiative that would allow casinos at local racetracks and card rooms, a campaign that has no connection to Schwarzenegger.

"Normally, a consultant does multiple things,'' said Gorton, who earned $75,000 last year on the gambling initiative. "If I don't do multiple things, I don't make enough money to cover my expenses in the off-election years.''

Gorton said most politicians need campaign consultants like himself to focus their messages and persuade the public and other politicians.

"There's something different about Arnold Schwarzenegger and, God, I hope he never finds out,'' Gorton joked. "He delivers the message perfectly and brilliantly himself. He doesn't really need the likes of me.''
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Contact the author at: (916) 449-6048 or jgittels@ocregister.com




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