One of the most freewheeling discussions that reporters have with any governor is the annual January luncheon of the Sacramento Press Club. And today, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger continued that tradition... with a half-hour of Q&A on subjects ranging from the war in Iraq to euthanasia, and beyond.
You can catch the entire event broadcast tonight at 9:00 p.m. on KQED-- 88.5 FM in the Bay Area, 89.3 FM in Sacramento, and online here.
(The headline, lest I leave you wondering, refers to today's entree choices)
The governor, accompanied for the first time to one of these luncheons by First Lady Maria Shriver, delivered prepared remarks focused mainly on his $222 billion public works proposal. He made a point of saying that large projects require patience, pointing out the many years it took for the state to get UC Merced open for business.
But after that, it was a pretty free-form discussion, with the following highlights:
* Wheeling & Dealing: The governor gave signs that at least some of the details of his "Strategic Growth Plan" are negotiable, and that some Democratic modifications are also on the table. "There is nothing that we are saying, 'well, this is a deal-breaker'," he said. "We are ready to talk about any of those issues."
* The Year of Reform: To date, Schwarzenegger has had to navigate a path between those who faulted his proposals in 2005, and those who mainly faulted the way he presented those proposals. Today, he indicated he believes more in the latter. "There was no mistake made on policy, because the polices were right on the money," the governor said. He also said he will convene a special committee to examine the state's pension issues-- an issue derailed last year by somewhat ambiguous wording in his proposed ballot initiative.
* Illegal Immigration: Schwarzenegger told the audience, when asked about efforts to deal with the flow of undocumented immigrants across the U.S. border, that the pressure is on the feds. "Up until now," the governor said, "the federal government has lived in denial, as if the problem didn't exist." He did not, however, weigh in on any specific proposal. And he reiterated his intent to veto any bill to provide drivers licenses to illegal immigrants until federal rules are in place. His message to Latino voters who may think he is not on their side in general: "They should not confuse just the driver's license issue with all these other issues that are very important."
* He Thinks He'll Keep Her: In the strongest language to date, Schwarzenegger rejected all demands by conservative Republicans to fire his Democratic chief of staff, Susan Kennedy. "I will keep Susan Kennedy exactly where she is," he said.
And on the subject of Kennedy taking "vacation time" to do campaign work and possible ethical conflicts, he tried to link her solely to one of his largest contributors-- himself. "My wife and I, we contribute enough money to our campaigns, that you should consider this money coming out of our share," he said.
* Assisted Suicide: Schwarzenegger said the issue should be put to the people in a ballot initiative, not in legislation at the Capitol. He also said his own personal stance on the issue is "irrelevant."
* Fallen Heroes: When asked about California soldiers killed in Iraq, the governor said, "Every single time we lose a soldier, it hits my heart." He did not, however, respond to a reporter asking his opinion on the Bush administration's handling of the matter.
* And In Conclusion: The governor also said he would soon release his tax returns... he said his economic team is looking at the state's tax structure... he reiterated his opposition to tax hikes... and he split the difference on the universal preschool initiative spearheaded by actor/director Rob Reiner for the June ballot, saying "the idea is fantastic" but that such a program should not be paid for with a tax hike on the most wealthy, as the initiative proposes.