Over the years, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has reserved a unique place in his own political purgatory for groups he calls "special interests." The membership list had remained pretty unchanged since 2003.
That is, until last week. Organized labor, Indian gaming tribes... make room for oil companies.
But unlike the other members of the "special interests" club, Schwarzenegger has a long political relationship with some members of this new category: campaign contributions over the years of almost $3 million.
As such, Schwarzenegger is gearing up for a fight, and has started his campaign with a little verbal taunting.
"Greedy oil companies want to roll back that clock," said the governor at an event last week. "They want us to depend on just oil, because they are greedy and they want to have the profits."
And as he assigned these oil companies the designation of "special interests," the governor said this: "As you remember in 2003, I said, 'When the special interests push me around, I will push back.' And this is exactly what we are going to do."
But unlike the many labor unions and Indian gaming tribes he's battled as "special interests," Schwarzenegger has a much friendlier past with his new enemies. Browsing through the reams of campaign finance records of his political operation over the last seven years, there's slightly more than $2.95 million in contributions from the oil biz to either Schwarzenegger or to the ballot measure efforts that he's championed. That includes Texas based companies ConocoPhillips ($248,500), ExxonMobil ($120,000), Shell ($200,000), and Tesoro ($10,000). It also includes Denver-based Venoco ($47,300).
Los Angeles-based Occidental is particularly noteworthy, because they are the most prominent switch hitter in this story -- that is, a donor to both Schwarzenegger and the initiative campaign to suspend AB 32. In fact, Occidental gave the California Jobs Initiative (AB 32 opponents) $300,000 on April 14... just two weeks after giving Schwarzenegger's California Dream Team committee $300,000.
So how does the governor square the criticisms of Big Oil with a donation like this one? His political adviser, Adam Mendelsohn, says the Occidental money was a donation in support of Schwarzenegger's campaign in support of the non-partisan primary measure, Proposition 14, while the matching anti-AB 32 donation was "disappointing." And Mendelsohn didn't mince words about Occidental's subsequent decision to campaign against AB 32.
"You realize now that a lot of oil companies are more concerned about their profits than they are the good of the state," he said.
Occidental spokesman Richard Kline said Schwarzenegger is "misinformed" when he labels as greedy the industry supporters of the anti-AB 32 initiative. He says the law will result in "substantially higher energy prices" and that the company gives political cash to "causes that we think will benefit the state."
But back to the infamous "special interests" label... reporters often tried in the early days of the Schwarzenegger era to get the governor to explain why some interest groups were inherently bad, and why some (mainly businesses and corporations) were not. The answer never was very revealing, but his political consiglieri Adam Mendelsohn put it this way in an interview: "What he's talking about is groups of people who are more concerned with their own needs than the benefit of the state."
Now, one would expect the charter members of the Special Interests Club to take issue with that, but at least it's a definition.
One final word, and that's about Chevron, the #1 oil company contributor to the governor and his causes through the years. The company has not backed the anti-AB 32 campaign; spokesman Morgan Crinklaw says Chevron is working with regulators on AB 32 to craft "a reasonable program that contributes to the state’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while allowing California’s economy to grow and remain competitive."
This story was the subject of an interview segment I did this morning on The California Report, which you can listen to below.