Arnold's scandal

15:22, May 23, 2011      

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By Luis Vega

History was made in 2003 when California had a political earthquake that propelled Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorship of the richest state in the nation and unseated unpopular Democrat Gray Davis. Recalling a governor was approved in 1911 and attempted 117 times before, but it had never been successful until a good-looking, charismatic immigrant actor used personal charm to seduce voters with optimism and promise of change.

The irony is what started as spectacle is ending as spectacle as news of a secret out-of-wedlock child returned Schwarzenegger to the front page of the world's papers, giving me a sense of déjàvu as I was his Latino spokesperson during the historical election that introduced him to politics.

In the United States the Latino vote, although not the largest, is the deciding factor in national elections and key in states where Latinos reside in big numbers. Because white voters are equally divided between Democrats and Republicans and close to 90 percent of African Americans vote Democrat. In contrast, Latinos are loyal only to their and the nation's interests rather than a political party.

Whoever understands and articulates their needs, bringing those forward to mainstream America, wins their votes, loyalty and elections. Governor Schwarzenegger, like President George W. Bush, would not have won his position without Latino support. And they know it.

In California, to recall an elected official requires 12 percent of qualified voters' signatures in accordance to how many people voted in a previous election. For example, in 2003 it meant a minimum of 897,156 valid signatures based on the state elections of November 2002. I did not sign the petition to replace Governor Davis, but as an active conservative member of my community and assiduous poll worker volunteer, the California Republican Party asked me to explain the recall process to Latino voters through the Spanish-language media. To empower my community, I accepted at no cost.

The next day I agreed to an exclusive interview with Telemundo's reporter Dunia Elvir at the Ronald Reagan California Republican Party headquarters knowing there was no precedent for the recall to succeed. "Any candidate that is not Mr. Davis would be much more effective for the future of California and fortify its democracy. We want the people of California who signed the petition, almost 2 million, we want their voices to be heard," I said. "It is not a Republican movement against Democrats. It is a movement of Californians against inefficacy at the potential bankruptcy of a rich and powerful state."

Only a few hours later, 1.6 million signatures were validated by Secretary of State Kevin Shelley in Sacramento and the historical recall election that would bring to power the inexperienced untested actor was on. I was shocked.

Unbeknownst to me, by accepting the task to educate the Latino community about the electoral process and having it win, an offer to become the spokesperson for the California Republican Party was made and a contract signed. There were 135 candidates on the ballot and the Party was not endorsing anyone (nor could) but it was understood that in such a vast field, the person with the highest name-recognition and popularity had a big chance of being elected. In this election cycle, that person was the Hollywood action star known as "The Terminator." An immigrant who perhaps never thought of entering American politics had a good chance of becoming California's governor.

It was an unconventional election so it was normal it might take an unconventional candidate to win it. Arnold Schwarzenegger without a doubt was unconventional. He was immediately the front runner. His past life as a body builder, Mr. Universe and superstar action hero status made the press and voters salivate with anticipation. His well defined muscles did not hurt either. But without a public record to examine, how does one convince voters, regardless of ethnicity, this bigger-than-life creature had what it took to govern? In the state that gave the world Hollywood and Disneyland, reality was more of a constraint than a relevant factor in the end.

Nevertheless, once Arnold became the most popular Republican candidate running and the most attacked, my job consisted on explaining his background and personal history to an audience that mostly saw him as an invincible superhero ready to save the day and all of us from going broke. Once an image is seared in the imagination of the public for decades it's hard for sudden attacks to dent the established perception created by the multi-million propaganda machine of Hollywood studios. With Arnold cast as a hero nobody wanted to be his villain. Thus fiction overtook reality.

Accusations came in all shapes and colors and started from the very beginning. First, Arnold's father, Gustav was a called a Nazi and perhaps even Scwarzenegger himself. There I was again answering Telemundo's Carlos Botifoll questions at NBC studios about the latest rumor. Later the segment aired replete with swastikas and images of Hitler while I clarified that the candidate was not his father nor shared (to my knowledge) the same beliefs. I felt awful.

On election night live at Univision's television studios while Arnold and his wife Maria were basking in the glow of his victory, I was responding to national news anchor Jorge Ramos' questions on his reputation for sexual indiscretions. "I do not defend sexual harassment, but I must question why the accusations only surfaced decades later as he was running for political office," I said. Today I understand he came from an industry that protects its assets.

Watching now as the latest scandal about his admitted out-of-wedlock child with his Latina housekeeper surfaces, I cannot avoid having a sense of déjà vu and disappointment at the same time.

I feel déjà vu because many of the accusations, confessions and jokes I hear now we heard when Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for office and they were not taken seriously until he surprised everyone and won. I feel disappointed because like many Latinos who voted for him and identified with his story of personal struggle as an immigrant, we wanted him not only to succeed in politics but to make us proud. His actions damaged not only his family but many immigrants who, like him, came with a dream and wished his success would help improve the standing of a hard-working community of Americans-by-choice not birth.

Instead it appears Arnold took advantage of the incredible trust and opportunities his marriage to American political royalty Maria Shriver Kennedy brought him and of a fellow immigrant from Guatemala Mildred Patricia Baena, who shared hopes and dreams like his. I cannot judge him because I do not want to be judge by strangers, but I believe with great success comes great responsibility. In this family tragedy, many decent people who deposited trust and love in a hard working immigrant with aspirations to succeed and build a family in a new land — one we supported wholeheartedly — feel used and betrayed.

This article is a People's Daily Online exclusive.

The article represents the author's views only. It does not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.
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