Schwarzenegger aide Bonnie Reiss is homeward bound

Reiss said she’s ready to go home and “advise from Malibu.”

By Anthony York / Capitol Weekly

Bonnie Reiss never intended to come to Sacramento.

But on the night of Oct. 7, 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger won the recall election, Reiss remembers sitting on the terrace of the presidential suite in the Century Plaza Hotel after the crowd had gone home. On the terrace with her were two other people: Maria Shriver and the new governor-elect. It was there that Reiss had her “epiphany moment.”

“I thought because of his fame, because he’s not obligated to the party or party politics, there’s an opportunity to maybe be something kind of different. I also know that throughout history, anyone who’s tried to buck the norm and be something different, the resistance is huge. And I thought, I want to be a part of that.”

The fact that Schwarzenegger decided to run for governor at all stunned Reiss.

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“Arnold was doing the Leno show,” she recalled. “All of us kind of thought he was not running-me included. He was so good at this that his closest people thought, ‘Nah, he’s not going to run.’ I’m in the conference room [in Schwarzenegger’s Santa Monica office], and suddenly my cell phone starts going off and the girls start barging in to the conference room, saying, ‘Oh, my God! Arnold just announced on Leno … that he’s running for governor.'”

Other than his wife, Maria, there is no closer personal and political confidante of the governor than Reiss. The fact that the Leno announcement caught even Reiss by surprise shows the extent to which Schwarzenegger hid his plans for the recall.

“The good news was the fake out, that he pulled that off,” Reiss told Capitol Weekly in an extensive interview. “The bad news was that because of his fame, and the notoriety of the recall, everyone in the world became interested in this story. So they were all over it, and because he didn’t prepare anyone that he was running, there was no office, no phone lines, no org chart, no issue book-nothing.”

That night, Schwarzenegger’s political advisers from his Proposition 49 campaign, including George Gorton and Bob White, were huddled at the house trying to cram for the historic election to come. That’s when the actor and his wife called Reiss.

“Maria and Arnold called me that night and they said, ‘Listen, a bunch of these guys are over here talking, but there’s one thing we need. These people are all experienced and good, but none of them go back with Arnold. We need someone whose brain we trust and we know will have our backs. Can you show up tomorrow at the office, get with the team, start to be involved as a senior adviser in the team?’ And that began it.”

Though the story is a familiar one, hearing Reiss tell it in her horseshoe office in the Capitol as she prepares to leave her job as a senior adviser to Schwarzenegger highlights the difference between Schwarzenegger in 2003 and Schwarzenegger today. With no political team in place, and without a history in politics, there were, from the very beginning, two separate camps in Team Schwarzenegger-the personal and the political.

Trying to fuse those two worlds was not always easy, and took time to figure out. While Reiss says Schwarzenegger has not wavered from his vision of being “fiscally conservative, socially moderate and environmentally progressive,” she allows that, “Being able to articulate it maybe is something new” for him.

Reiss acknowledges that there was a learning curve for many of the political neophytes around Schwarzenegger, like her, and for the new governor himself. But she says reports of deep divisions within the administration in those early years were blown out of proportion.

“I think that the reports of some people within his senior staff that were from Pete Wilson’s administration and people who had a greater relationship with him being divided really was exaggerated,” she says. “But what I do believe is that the current team is working very effectively as one Schwarzenegger team. So, while I believe it’s been exaggerated about that kind of divide, some of it did exist.”

To say Reiss is energetic is like saying Godzilla had an anger-management problem. She is frenetic, speaking quickly in her New York brogue with hand gestures animating her speech. And anyone who talks to her for two seconds about California’s first family knows that Reiss is a fierce loyalist.

She says it was that admiration and loyalty that first drew her into the administration.

“Part of me is a New Yorker. I’m tough and cynical and all that. But there’s also part of me that will watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and tear up. There is a part of me that still believes in the beauty of all of it.”

And as Schwarzenegger continues to evolve into the role of governor, sitting down with Reiss is a reminder of his Hollywood roots. When she talks about the new Robert Kennedy biopic in theaters, she refers to “Emilio’s movie,” and it’s just as easy to imagine her as some type of Hollywood super agent as it is a senior policy adviser to the governor of the largest state in the union.

Reiss says that she feels comfortable leaving now, knowing that Schwarzenegger is surrounded by advisers who understand his vision and are functioning together as a cohesive unit.

“He has a team that’s working in an incredible synchronistic fashion. It’s finally not a Republican or Democrat team, it’s a Schwarzenegger team. Because the team’s working great, and he is so in synch with his communications director and chief of staff, the whole team here, he’s in good hands.”

Reiss helped build that team. She played a role in the transition and “helped in the hiring” at various state agencies. Among the people she brought in was Terry Tamminen, an environmental activist from Santa Monica who she met through Bobby Kennedy, Jr.

Reiss was also the administration’s point person in negotiating the $15 billion deficit bond and a relatively weak set of budgetary reforms that would become Propositions 57 and 58. She helped broker a settlement in the Williams case, brought by the ACLU against the state arguing that the state was failing to provide basic conditions necessary for students in poor districts to learn.

But Reiss’ largest contributions may have been on environmental policy. She helped place Tamminen at CalEPA, and went to work on the Environmental Action Plan. She also played a pivotal role in the negotiations over AB 32, the landmark greenhouse-gas-emissions bill that earned the governor international attention.

Now, she says, she’s ready to go home and “advise from Malibu.”

Though she still seems to have boundless energy, she says her three years in state government have worn her out. Reiss will take some time off for a few months before deciding what to do next. In the meantime, she plans on digesting some of the lessons she learned in Sacramento. “I was surprised by the handful of some of the big unions in the state-the power to really scare certain political representatives into doing what privately they wouldn’t like to do. And that concerns me.”

And though Reiss is moving back to her seaside hometown, she will continue to be a sounding board for the governor.

“Maria and I will miss the daily contributions that she makes to the administration,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement about Reiss’ departure. “And while Bonnie will leave her office in the horseshoe, she will always have a seat at the table.”

Anthony York is editor of Capitol Weekly.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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