My turn: Lessons from ‘The People’s Governor’ apply to Newsom

By Margita Thompson, Special to CALmatters

In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger and his team took the helm of the globe’s then-sixth largest economy with more anticipation than most. As his first press secretary, my job was to help tell his story to the state, the nation and world.

There never was and never will be a governor quite like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But as Gavin Newsom prepares to take the reins of power, certain lessons apply, especially related to communications.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unorthodox path to office, from immigrant, to bodybuilder, to action hero, increased the pulse in Sacramento.

Unlike Newsom, Schwarzenegger had no wide public policy record. But he recruited a diverse and experienced team, and he was not beholden to any political party to increase his name ID.

He was “The People’s Governor,” winning office through recall and inaugurated with a wave of promise to promote civic participation and connect government to the needs of working families. Those needs are more pressing now than ever.

By nature, Gov. Schwarzenegger was not an incrementalist. He thought big and broke the mold. He prioritized job creation, so he worked on improving the business climate.

He embraced Democratic and Republican leaders, encouraging bipartisanship to make unexpected headway because he knew that fighting the typical ideological battle just meant both sides getting louder.

And he went to the people with initiatives when negotiation showed no progress. Californians were invested in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s success and felt a deep core connection as he worked to restore people’s faith in government.

He believed in aiming high and not letting failure change him, and admitted when he made mistakes, a rarity among politicians, though it shouldn’t be. He genuinely likes people. He was post-Trump even pre-Trump.

People were paying attention when Arnold Schwarzenegger was inaugurated. In 2004, we issued 440 press credentials to cover the new governor. They ranged from muscle magazines to Der Spiegel to the L.A. Times, and all major television and cable stations.

Major daily papers assigned two reporters to the governor’s beat. We held weekly press briefings and media followed him on his vacations. His first press conferences had to be moved to Sacramento Memorial Auditorium for space.

Getting Californians to pay attention to Sacramento is harder when you aren’t a global megastar. Plus, communications is more complicated because the size of the Capitol press corps has been in decline.

But the media are crucial to building awareness of the impact decisions made by the governor and his appointees will have on Californians. Governor’s sign legislation, and their appointees impose regulations. If there is no press coverage people feel the effect without understanding the cause. The distance between government and the governed grows.

From my experience then, and my observations since, the Sacramento press corps has not blurred the line between opinion and hard news like many of their national counterparts. They have credibility borne from institutional knowledge and the ability to have conversations with various interests that lead to better understanding policy and not just better sound-bites to get booked as talking heads.

Gov. Schwarzenegger had a good relationship with many reporters who covered him and he understood how media coverage aided him by connecting him outside the Sacramento echo chamber.

As the contraction of the media corps corresponded with the retraction of media outreach, a growing number of Californians have felt increasingly disconnected from their state government.

Every administration reflects the temperament of its chief executive.

People are highly attuned to cues during the heady early days of a new administration. Even though Gavin Newsom won a decisive victory, there is still an air of mystery around what his governing style will be.

Unsolicited though it may be, here is my advice:

There probably won’t be 440 press credentials issued for Gavin Newsom’s inaugural on Monday. But a relevant press corps can hold officials accountable and drive positive public policy.

He and his team must work to connect government to the needs of working families. That’s especially relevant today given too many residents without college education feel they can’t afford to stay in-state.

Diversity of thought to crack tough problems is still a necessary elixir, even in a super-majority state. The new governor should encourage that.

The incoming governor has shown himself to be adept at the ways of social media. That will help him reach Californians. But the person selling the policy is not able to provide the context a seasoned journalist can bring to the story.

So Gov. Newsom should build on his digital advocacy and be open to broader engagement with media throughout the state. That would help ensure more Californians know the new administration’s decisions.

For their part, as more Californians feel squeezed, reporters should work to integrate traditionally siloed public policies and relate them directly to residents’ daily lives. Fusing his social media presence while punching up access to state reporters who have policy knowhow and local outlets connected to their diverse communities.

That would be courage for a change.


Margita Thompson is vice president of public affairs for California Resources Corporation, and worked for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as press secretary for his first term from 2003-06, [email protected] She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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