Arnold Schwarzenegger burst into Hollywood as an action star in the 1980s. He became Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator, and his heroism and strength came to define him as an actor. But the same cannot be said for his turn as the Governor of California, which lasted from 2003 to early 2011.
Schwarzenegger’s political career started and ended with his California governorship. He won the election without any practical experience, but he did make plenty of promises that helped secure his victory. He specifically wanted to hold the state’s government accountable for what he said would be the first time in years.
To Schwarzenegger, this meant getting California’s finances in order: a task that would be a huge ask for any governor. Indeed, a budget would have to be ratified by two-thirds of the state legislature. But there was something about having an action hero promise such sweeping reform, and people voted for him as a beacon of change.
Instead, Schwarzenegger’s run as governor ended in disappointment for many reasons. He prepared to leave office with a very low approval rating and a reputation far less heroic than the characters he had played on screen. Yet somehow, things then got even worse: in his final days in power, the former governor made one last decision that would mar his reputation on the political stage forever.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s childhood in Austria – living with a former Nazi for a father – left him turning to movies to cope. Specifically, the future action star would watch Hollywood B movies, which began to inspire him. He became fascinated with moving to America and starting a life in the land of opportunity.
Of course, immigrating to the United States was easier imagined than done. But Schwarzenegger found his way in through his equally-as-strong interest in bodybuilding. His father had ridiculed him for showing interest, but it turned out that he had serious talent – and the right people started to take notice.
Schwarzenegger made his home in the United States in 1968 and began winning bodybuilding title after title. He won Mr. Universe five times and six crowns in the Mr. Olympia competition. He pushed bodybuilding into the spotlight, culminating with a 1977 documentary about his career called Pumping Iron.
With bodybuilding conquered, Schwarzenegger made the jump into Hollywood. He found success right away, winning the 1977 Golden Globe for Best Newcomer after co-starring with Sally Field in the movie Stay Hungry. His muscular physique inspired many of his roles after that.
In the 1980s Schwarzenegger became an action movie star, just as he had dreamed of as a child. First, he starred in Conan the Barbarian in 1982 and its sequel two years later, Conan the Destroyer. He then nabbed one of his most iconic roles in 1984’s The Terminator, which sparked a whole franchise; Schwarzenegger starred in sequels in 1991, 2003 and 2019.
Schwarzenegger rode the wave of peak popularity for more than a decade, and during this time he starred in a slew of similar action movies. His most popular titles include 1985’s Commando, Predator in 1987, Total Recall three years later and True Lies in 1994. He also flourished in comedy roles such as those in Kindergarten Cop and Twins, where his stature was part of the joke.
But Schwarzenegger was destined for more than just Hollywood stardom. Perhaps his 1986 marriage to Maria Shriver foreshadowed his future. Shriver is the daughter of R. Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, meaning that the star of The Terminator had married into the iconic Kennedy family, a dynasty of Democratic politicians.
And yet, Schwarzenegger’s foray into politics didn’t quite follow the footsteps taken by the Kennedys. Many members of his wife’s family had devoted their lives to public service. Among them they had a president, an attorney general, senators and members of Congress, as well as several family members in other elected government positions.
Schwarzenegger did indeed decide to throw his hat in the political ring, despite having no experience in the field. Admittedly, others had done the same before him: perhaps most notably, former California governor and eventual President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. Yet, unlike the Kennedy family, the Total Recall star identified as a Republican, not as a Democrat.
But paving his own path was Schwarzenegger’s way of doing things in his career, parlaying his bodybuilding prowess into Hollywood stardom. So, when the strange circumstances surrounding California’s governorship arose in 2003, it made sense that the actor decided to add his name to the list of potential candidates.
In 2003 California’s Gray Davis became the first United States governor to be recalled by his constituents in more than 80 years. In the aftermath, 135 candidates had their names put on the ballot to replace the disgraced politician, who left office with a 22 percent approval rating. Among the potential new leaders were lifetime politicians, actors, a porn star and, of course, Schwarzenegger.
And Schwarzenegger had, indeed, run on a platform appealing to Californians fed up with their state’s government. He promised to make the Golden State’s leadership accountable to its people once again. The actor admitted that it would be hard work but, in the end, he’d have the government in order, right down to its abysmal financial standing.
In a retrospective piece for Los Angeles Magazine in 2011, Ed Leibowitz explained why Schwarzenegger’s promises had made such an impression. He first described how difficult such changes would be, writing, “Of course, such a declaration from any other candidate might have been immediately dismissed, given that the ideologically polarized legislature couldn’t pass a budget without two-thirds of its members consenting.”
However, having Schwarzenegger’s name tied to such sweeping promises seemed to give them more weight. Leibowitz wrote, “Still, [he] had spent his entire adult life turning the impossible into the inevitable. Who could doubt a political action hero?” But that isn’t at all how Schwarzenegger’s time as California’s governor went.
Instead, Schwarzenegger butted heads with California’s lawmakers, who served in a Democrat-majority legislature. The governor famously referred to them as “girly men” for refusing his budget proposals. One-time state senator Sheila Keuhl said, “He saw the legislature as his opponent. Someone he had to beat. Someone he had to best.”
That didn’t happen often for Schwarzenegger, though. Instead, the actor delivered on his campaign promises to cut voters’ expenses – to the detriment of the state. His first move was to slash motor vehicle license fees, which cost drivers $158 per year, on average. Removing these fees meant the state lost $4 billion in revenue when they were already in the red.
Indeed, the plan that got Schwarzenegger elected – cutting taxes to bring jobs and revenue to the state – was not well thought out. The state was already in debt despite low unemployment rates, growth and soaring property values. So, further reducing the government’s cashflow meant that he couldn’t deliver social services as the state needed them.
To save money, Schwarzenegger cut cash that would have normally gone to children’s healthcare, seniors, services for abused women, AIDS prevention, rent subsidies and more. He cut childcare for low-wage workers and slashed the budget for mental health, too. At the same time, costs went up to attend state universities. For example, in-state tuition in the University of California system went up from $3,900 in annual fees to a whopping $12,150 during his tenure.
Still, Schwarzenegger did have some wins in an unexpected category. The governor signed California’s Global Warming Solutions Act in 2006, putting him at the forefront of environmental policy in his home state and beyond. He also quashed future legislation meant to destroy the eco-friendly solutions implemented by his landmark legislation.
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher highlighted just how out of the ordinary it was for a Republican such as Schwarzenegger to sign huge climate-change legislation. He toldLos Angeles Magazine, “It’s insane. It’s totally insane. […] Republicans believe in freeing human activity and freeing up people – energizing them rather than putting shackles on them in the name of […] climate crisis.”
Regardless of its lack of popularity within his party, Schwarzenegger’s action on climate change was swift and decisive. It mimicked his days starring as an action hero in Hollywood, but it also foreshadowed one of his final acts as the governor of California – one that left people angry on both sides of the political aisle.
Schwarzenegger had just minutes of his second and final gubernatorial term to go when he made one last decision: he commuted the sentence of a man named Esteban Nunez, who had stabbed Luis Santos in 2008. Santos died after the attack, which had been carried out by both the prisoner in question and his friend, Ryan Jett.
In October 2008 Nunez and Jett were not allowed into a fraternity party taking place near San Diego State University. So, the pair decided to retaliate, either by burning down a frat house or stabbing people. As they wandered the streets, apparently looking for trouble, they encountered 22-year-old Santos.
Santos died at the scene from his stab wounds. Witnesses identified four men as suspects, and two of them pointed to Jett and Nunez as the ones who had delivered the fatal blows to the 22-year-old. As soon as they were in prison, news spread, and not just because a violent crime had been solved. Nunez was the son of California State Assembly member and Democratic leader, Fabian Nunez.
At first, Fabian and Schwarzenegger were at odds, as the former led the Democratic-majority assembly against the latter’s conservative policies. However, over time, they became unlikely allies; they stood side-by-side as the governor signed a 2008 law to boost California’s minimum wage, for example.
When the younger Nunez, Esteban, went to prison in 2008, Schwarzenegger didn’t get involved. Other politicians stepped in to help, though, writing letters to sway the judge in diminishing the charges against the assembly member’s son and to cut the cost of his bail. At first, both Esteban and Jett faced first- or second-degree murder charges.
But once the case went to trial, there was an unexpected twist – the state offered both Esteban and Jett a plea deal. The pair could plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter, meaning they would only spend 16 years in prison, at most. In comparison, a first-degree murder conviction would have put them behind bars for 25 years to life.
Both Esteban and Jett accepted the plea deals; however, just six months later, one of them would have an unexpected change of fate. It was January 2, 2011, when Schwarzenegger announced his decision to commute the sentence of his colleague’s son. Rather than serving 16 years, he would only have to spend half that time in prison.
Santos’s family was appalled by Schwarzenegger’s decision and how the system seemed to unfairly favor the assembly member’s son and not the victim. His mother, Kathy, told CNN in 2015, “Esteban has been coddled, he hasn’t had to be accountable because apparently his father has gotten him off.”
For his part, Fabian denied having any hand in what Schwarzenegger did for his son. But he did say that he believed that his son’s sentencing was unfair. He reiterated that a group had launched the attack, not just Esteban. The former California Democratic leader said, “This has gone from aiding and abetting to him being labeled a killer.”
Still, some of Esteban’s behaviors indicated that he and his father may have known what Schwarzenegger had up his sleeve. The inmate and his attorneys had planned to appeal the ruling that had put him behind bars. But then, in December – a month ahead of the governor’s “surprise” granting of clemency – they decided to cancel that motion.
Schwarzenegger’s decision to commute Esteban’s sentence did come with a written explanation. He wrote, “I believe Nunez’s sentence is excessive.” The governor pointed out that his colleague’s son didn’t have a criminal record, and investigators never did discover with certainty who wielded the knife that killed Santos.
None of this was enough to convince Schwarzenegger’s constituents that the governor had made the right decision, though. As soon as the outgoing leader announced the commutation of Esteban’s sentence, it sparked anger in Californians the state over. And lawmakers drew up and passed legislation to make sure nothing similar could ever happen again.
The Santos family decided to take matters into their own hands. They filed a lawsuit in 2011, and they claimed that Schwarzenegger had granted Esteban’s commutation in a move that was both unconstitutional and illegal. Santos’s mother, Kathy, told ABC 7 at the time, “He messed with the wrong family.”
However, the courts were unable to give the Santos family the legal recourse they so desperately sought. Instead, in 2015, an appeals court ruled in favor of the one-time governor’s decision to commute Esteban’s sentence. Associate Judge Harry Hull Jr. explained the three-judge decision, writing, “We are compelled to conclude that, while Schwarzenegger’s conduct could be seen as deserving of censure and grossly unjust, it was not illegal.”
Since then, Schwarzenegger has kept himself out of politics, although he has continued to advocate measures to combat climate change, among other causes. Meanwhile, Esteban Nunez left prison behind on April 10, 2016, five years after the one-time governor commuted his sentence. And he has made an interesting step in his professional life post-prison – he now works for Cut 50, an organization fighting to reduce incarceration rates and crime in the United States.