Remembering Bonnie Reiss

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I underestimated Bonnie Reiss exactly once. It was 2006—she was Governor Schwarzenegger’s senior advisor, I was an East Coast transplant fresh out of the Bush administration. I’d just joined Arnold’s advance team, and met Bonnie for the first time in her Horseshoe office to discuss a keynote the governor was giving the next day. Photos of leading Democrats covered the walls, a statue of the Buddha sat on her desk and new age music played on her computer. For the meeting’s first 45 minutes, she talked non-stop about peace activist Thích Nhat Hanh. “This is the Californian I’ve been warned about,” I thought. “She’s going to end the meeting by meditating.”

But then, without warning, she switched gears—and rapid-fire laid out her expectations for the event’s every detail, from the governor’s remarks, to the press release, to the color of the banner. Twenty-four hours later, we executed to her specifications, and Governor Schwarzenegger was blown away by the result. Bonnie knew what Arnold wanted, and made damn sure we delivered.

That was Bonnie in a nutshell. One minute she’d be talking about peace, love and understanding—the next, she’d be shouting down a phone to get something done for the governor. In her person and her politics, Bonnie embraced dichotomy without apology. A lifelong Democrat, she advised the world’s best-known Republican; a social progressive, her support for law and order was unwavering; a devout environmentalist, she helped bring cap-and-trade to life. Bonnie didn’t believe in sides, she believed in progress, and knew change only happens through compromise. From Proposition 49 to the Strategic Growth Plan to the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32)—which she advocated for relentlessly in the legislature and the Horseshoe—Bonnie’s influence on California public policy is profound and lasting. 

She was also Arnold’s biggest fan. For nearly 40 years as his friend and advisor, Bonnie supported Arnold with an unwavering commitment. But while her loyalty was boundless, she was no sycophant. Her willingness to disagree was key to their collaboration and success before, during, and after the Governor’s Office. No one was surprised when he tapped Bonnie to run the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, and its mission to advance post-partisanship reflects their shared vision for California and America. Launched in 2012, the institute’s focus on finding common ground between Democrats and Republicans has only grown in relevance, and the sharpening divide between parties worried Bonnie until her last day. Needless to say, she left us a long list of policy to-dos for the coming years.

Since 2012, I’ve had the privilege of working with Bonnie nearly every day and constantly saw her positive impact on others’ lives. Building people up was central to who Bonnie was. It didn’t matter if you were a janitor, an undergraduate or the president … Bonnie treated you the same, and wanted the best for you. I’ll never forget a Lyft ride I took about a year ago. When I mentioned working for the Institute, the driver excitedly asked, “Do you know Bonnie Reiss?” Turns out he’d been her checker years before at Whole Foods in Sacramento. “Bonnie came in once a week, and we’d talk. I’d studied poli-sci, but I was stuck in that job. She got me an internship at the Governor’s Office, and then I got a job in Constituent Affairs. She changed my life.” 

Bonnie fought cancer hard and bravely, but when it was clear recovery wasn’t in the cards, she took charge. After she passed, but before the news broke, family and friends received an email from Bonnie (sent by her sister Sandi) announcing her own death. Now that is controlling the message. 

“None of us knows what tomorrow will bring,” she wrote, “so my dear loved ones, please live each day with love, compassion and purpose.”

Bonnie’s legacy will live on in our hearts, and also in scholarships at rival institutions—one at USC, organized by Arnold, the other at UC, organized by fellow regent Sherry Lansing. It’s fitting that, even in death, Bonnie is bridging rivalries to help young people achieve more. But her energy, her loyalty and her Bonnie-ness are irreplaceable. As Arnold said, “Bonnie never accepted things as they are—she was born to shake the status quo to its core and shape the world.” Shake and shape she did, and the world is better for it. Rest in peace, Bonnie.

Conyers Davis

Director of Programs and Strategic Initiatives at the USC Schwarzenegger Institute