Longtime Democrat Advising a Republican Governor

By Josh Richman

Published February 11, 2005, issue of February 11, 2005.
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OAKLAND, Calif. –– When they first met 25 years ago, Bonnie Reiss was a staffer in the U.S. Senate and Arnold Schwarzenegger was best known as a bodybuilder. But even then, Reiss told the Forward, she could see the optimism, ambition and charisma that would propel Schwarzenegger to larger fame. And his political leanings, too, were apparent already: “Even then, he was a young Republican.”

Today, he is California’s Republican governor and Reiss, a longtime Democrat, is his senior adviser, a crucial political player in the nation’s most populous state. How did Reiss — a Jewish liberal from Forest Hills, Queens — end up in a GOP administration filled with conservative staffers?

Reiss, 49, sees no incongruity. She told the Forward she’s constantly excited by “the opportunity to have someone like Arnold, who is so famous and so well known and such a people person, to be able to make American Republicans realize it’s okay to care about the environment and be a Republican, okay to care about education and be a Republican, okay to believe in stem cell research and be a Republican, okay to support a woman’s right to choose.”

Reiss is a granddaughter of Russian immigrants, a daughter of an auto-parts retailer and of a homemaker. Being the youngest of three children trained her to argue her case, and watching the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. inspired her interest in public policy at an early age. While earning a law degree from Antioch Law School in Washington, D.C., she went to work first in the office of Democratic Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, and then on his 1980 presidential campaign.

Reiss became a friend of Kennedy’s niece, Maria Shriver, who was dating Schwarzenegger at the time. When Reiss and Shriver went to Southern California to run a roller-disco fund raiser for Kennedy, Reiss witnessed some of the bodybuilder’s earliest political work.

“Maria was pleading with him, and he agreed — this was the kind of good boyfriend he was — that she and I could walk 20 feet behind him as he went to Venice Beach,” Reiss remembered. “He would never be able to promote a Democratic candidate, but we could walk 20 feet behind him and sell tickets as he gathered a crowd.”

Reiss was a floor manager at the 1980 Democratic National Convention before hanging out a shingle as an entertainment lawyer. In 1984, she helped found the liberal Hollywood Women’s Political Committee along with celebrities such as Barbra Streisand and Lily Tomlin. In 1988, she closed her law practice and founded the Earth Communications Office, trading on her contacts to place pro-environmental messages and products in television shows. Her friend, producer Harry Thomasson, tapped her in late 1992 to arrange some of President Clinton’s inaugural events; after a few hectic months in Washington, she relinquished ECO’s reins. Almost ever since, she has worked with or for Schwarzenegger.

In 1994 she became CEO of Schwarzenegger’s Inner-City Games Foundation, now called After-School All-Stars; the organization provides sports and educational opportunities to 35,000 at-risk children in 15 cities nationwide. In 2002, she helped convince California voters to approve a measure that Schwarzenegger had placed on the ballot. He put at least $1.5 million of his own money behind the measure, which earmarked funds for before- and after-school programs.

And when Democratic Governor Gray Davis faced recall in 2003, the life-long liberal hesitated neither to help Schwarzenegger win the post nor to go work for him in Sacramento.

“Because I know him so well both as a person and in terms of what he believes in, I knew there couldn’t be a better person,” she said, adding that he “believes in fiscal conservatism and doesn’t see business as the enemy” but differs with Republicans on other issues.

Schwarzenegger’s first year saw the fast-and-forceful-talking Reiss take a key, mostly behind-the-scenes role as a conduit to the state legislature. For example, she convinced a state senator to support the repeal of his own law, allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses; she told the senator that Schwarzenegger would sign a different version into law later. Her back-channel talks helped to restore Democrats to the table and to reach a no-tax-hike budget deal despite a major fiscal crisis. And she helped convince California’s educational community to accept $2 billion less in school funding than its constitutional entitlement.

“Every governor has to have somebody who … is the troubleshooter, the hand-holder, the chief negotiator, somebody who can get things done regardless of what the issue is,” said California School Boards Association Executive Director Scott Plotkin. “He could not have found a better person with more of the people skills, and the intellect to fly fast and low under the radar sometimes, than Bonnie Reiss.”

Her close association with the governor has its risks, however. Schwarzenegger has run into political problems with Latino Democrats after vetoing a later bill concerning driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. California teachers are distressed because the $2 billion they agreed to forgo still has not been restored. And in 2005, the governor faces battles over legislative redistricting, pension reform and spending cuts. Although the governor remains popular in the polls, his approval ratings have started to slide. And as some Democrats become disillusioned with Schwarzenegger, they have cast Reiss as their foe’s emissary.

“Clearly people are going to be less enthusiastic about her,” one Democratic lawmaker said on condition of anonymity, for fear of burning a bridge with Schwarzenegger. Whatever political capital Reiss once might have had among liberals, she has spent much of it by becoming one of the Republican’s “salespeople,” he said: “They come in and they’re very excited to tell you about the great things they’re going to do for you… but they reflect the person they work for.”

Reiss’s own lowered stock became apparent at a February 2 state senate committee hearing on her appointment by Schwarzenegger to the State Board of Education. She was confirmed, but not without trotting some “character witnesses” to counter some Democrats’ complaints.

Nonetheless, Reiss remains a “very influential, if not powerful, member” of Schwarzenegger’s staff, according to Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior political scholar at the University of Southern California. “She’s also perceived as someone who’s not only very close to the governor but extremely close to the first lady as well… which gives her more cachet.”

On this point, Reiss would agree. “I’ve never met more honorable people in my life than Arnold and Maria,” she said.

BEHIND THE SCENES: Bonnie Reiss, above, first met Arnold Schwarzenegger, left, 25 years ago. After many years of working for Democratic lawmakers and liberal organizations, Reiss is now the senior adviser to Schwarzenegger, California’s Republican governor.

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