National Opinions

Dan Walters: Governor's new buddy

One of the peculiar but very important aspects of state Capitol life is the three-way interplay among the governor, the president pro tem of the Senate and the speaker of the Assembly.

The relationships are as much personal as political, and usually transcend party. More often than not, in fact, the governor is a Republican and the legislative leaders are Democrats. And usually, the governor forges a close, or at least closer, relationship with one of those leaders and the other is the odd-person-out.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's five-year governorship is a case in point.

He quickly established a rapport with the irascible, mercurial leader of the Senate, John Burton one rooted, at least partially, in Burton's love of movies and their joint ribaldry. Fabian Núñez, the very young and very new Assembly speaker, was often ignored as Schwarzenegger and Burton swapped gossip, jokes and little gifts and did business.

When Burton left the Senate a year later, however, and Don Perata took over as Senate leader, a transformation began. Schwarzenegger and Perata never hit it off but the governor developed an increasingly tight relationship with Núñez.

He and Núñez became close personal friends and developed a powerful political partnership that resulted in a massive package of infrastructure bonds and a landmark anti-global warming bill. There was also one spectacular failure, an ambitious scheme to extend health insurance to the working poor that was killed in Perata's Senate.

Karen Bass succeeded Núñez last year and, it's apparent, has never had more than an arms-length association with Schwarzenegger, leaving the governor isolated since he and Perata never reconciled and he's had a very frosty relationship with Republican legislators.

The Senate now has a new leader, Darrell Steinberg, and Schwarzenegger is seeking the same kind of rapport that he had enjoyed with Burton and Núñez.

That intent was signaled a few months ago when Schwarzenegger signed Steinberg's bill aimed at changing residential development patterns in California to reduce auto traffic and greenhouse gases, despite widespread opposition from the business community.

Schwarzenegger has tagged Steinberg with a nickname, "Steinie," that's another sign of a burgeoning personal relationship, and the new Senate leader has praised the governor on health care and his willingness to enact new taxes to balance the budget.

Still another sign that Schwarzenegger is cultivating Steinberg is his appointment of Carole Migden who was ousted from the Senate this year by Democratic voters to a high-paying state board position, thereby solving a little internal political problem for Steinberg.

It's too early to tell whether a new political partnership is developing, but Schwarzenegger and Steinberg evidently want one. And if it does, expanding health care, especially for children, would be high on their agenda.

Dan Walters is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee.