Susan Kennedy likens her job to being CEO of a large corporation. In this case, though, the company is the State of California, “with the governor being chairman of the board.”
Kennedy, chief of staff to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, says her job “is to make the state run on a daily basis,” a simple description that belies the complicated undertaking of managing not only the necessities of government but an energetic boss with a personality as big as his political agenda.
“Actually, the governor’s office is run like a corporation,” Kennedy says. “I have a legislative secretary who handles the governor’s legislative matters; a cabinet secretary who oversees health and human services, prisons and education; a legal affairs secretary; [and] then we have finance and research departments. Governor Schwarzenegger, as chairman of the board, makes final decisions and we carry out his directives.”
Kennedy has 185 people on her staff, equivalent to a midsize company, with all the accompanying headaches and heartbreaks—on which she clearly thrives. “There isn’t a better job in all of politics,” she says. “Bar none.”
A lesbian, recovering alcoholic and lifelong Democrat, 48-year-old Kennedy has been the Republican governor’s chief of staff for two years. She commutes daily to Sacramento from her hillside Fairfax home. She didn’t just happen into the job. It’s the result of an arduous 28-year climb up the precarious ladder of California politics.
After growing up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, she was drawn to Southern California in the late 1970s by the idealism of Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. After two years of working on Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy, she moved to the Bay Area and enrolled as an undergraduate at San Francisco State (she never graduated, but last year earned a bachelor’s degree via online courses from St. Mary’s College). Following successful stints with several liberal advocacy groups, she was named executive director of the California Democratic Party.
In the early 1990s, she worked to get both Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer elected to the U.S. Senate and California Democrats to turn out for Bill Clinton’s race to the White House. In the late 1990s, she was Feinstein’s communications director; then she engineered Gray Davis’s decisive 1998 win over Dan Lungren for governor. After a stint as Davis’s deputy chief of staff, she was appointed (she jokingly uses the term “sentenced”) in 2003 to the state Public Utilities Commission, where she earned a reputation as a pro-business Democrat who could get things done.
Then came the 2003 recall election that put Schwarzenegger in charge. At first profoundly dismayed—“I hated him as much as any Democrat,” she says—Kennedy watched the governor at work during her time on the PUC and her attitude gradually changed. “First I grew to respect him, then to know him,” she says, “and I’ve come to love him.”
In December 2005, Schwarzenegger named Kennedy as his chief of staff. The move made political headlines. The governor had just lost his high-stakes special initiatives election and was facing a reelection battle within a year—and there was talk of “terminating the Terminator.” Pundits generally credit Kennedy with reversing his political fortunes.
She, in turn, credits the governor with bringing her back into politics. “After the horrible time of the recall, I was disillusioned,” she says. “I’d lost faith in the process and was ready to quit.” Today, in her third year of working with Schwarzenegger, she feels she’s “in the most exciting place in the world to be. This is a man who truly believes anything is possible,” she says. “And he has lived that belief.”
Some wonder, is Schwarzenegger’s objective to benefit Arnold or California? No question, he’s concerned about the state of California—and that’s what makes him unique. He’s received so many accolades from his other careers that fame is not what he seeks or craves. This allows him to risk failure like no politician I’ve ever seen. Most politicians are averse to failure because they have a career ahead of them and each position is a steppingstone. This man actually sees failure as nothing more than a learning experience on the road to victory. The governor doesn’t know failure in the way most people know failure. He truly learns from his mistakes. He just picks himself up and he goes back and does it again. And if he doesn’t get it right that time, he’ll do it again. He’ll keep doing it until he gets it right. So in that context, failure is not something he understands. In all my years, I’ve never met anyone in politics who has that quality.
Does Schwarzenegger’s drive ever wane? We’ll go through marathon sessions preparing the budget, or hours and hours of bill signings, where he’ll work like a dog for two or three days in a row without a lot of breaks—then all of a sudden he will stand up and say, literally in mid-sentence, “OK, that’s it, I’m done.” Then he’ll go to work out or be with his kids. He just checks out. And when he does, I’ve seen him be present with his family in a way I can’t do. I can’t turn it off like that. I don’t know what goes on inside his head when he does this, but I’ve never seen anyone else do it like that.
Republicans criticized the governor for naming you chief of staff. Did you feel pressure from Democrats? Oh yeah. There are still party stalwarts who won’t talk to me, won’t shake my hand. Yet the vast majority of people I’ve worked with over the past 28 years are just fine with it. It’s been two years now and it’s been a great marriage. It’s hard work, but there’s nothing like getting up every day and doing a job that you love.
Describe your typical day. I leave here, Fairfax, around 7:15 a.m. and, like clockwork, have a series of conference calls. We’ll discuss the governor’s schedule for the day, what issues are coming up, what policy statements the governor should make and who will research them — that kind of thing. From door to door, Fairfax to Sacramento, it’s 90 minutes. And the rest of my day continues pretty much like that, depending upon the time of year. In the fall, it’s the budget. During the legislative session, there are countless meetings. Last year, some 1,300 bills reached the governor’s desk, and another 1,000 didn’t make it there. We have to control all that traffic. It’s a constant process. A day seldom goes by when the governor and I don’t have a face-to-face meeting; often, it’s several times a day. We also talk on the phone four or five times a day, sometimes on weekends. My day usually slows down around 7:30; that’s when I head back to Marin. A 12-hour day, for me, is about normal. If the day goes longer, I get a hotel room, but I prefer sleeping in my own bed.
Over your 28 years in politics, has your idealism faded? Actually, I’m more idealistic now than I’ve ever been. But that idealism is tempered with a practical sense of how you get things done. I wouldn’t stay in politics if I’d lost my idealism. There’s no other reason to do this. I could make a lot more money out in the private sector. I could do a lot of things that didn’t involve so much effort, time and pain. But I get great satisfaction out of working for causes I really believe in. It takes idealism to do that. Some people have pure idealism and they’ll beat their head against the wall and never see an idea come to fruition. Pure idealism can often stand in the way of progress. We can do a lot of very good work through the political process. Yet very few of the works are going to be perfect. In other words, perfect can’t stand in the way of the very good.
Briefly characterize the following people. Dianne Feinstein: One of my most important mentors. The highest integrity of anyone I’ve ever met in politics. Tom Hayden: I learned from him about how to organize people, how to tap into their passions and how to follow your own passions. Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger: A beautiful woman. On her worst day, I think she’s the kindest, most genuine person I’ve ever met. Gray Davis: Very smart, very committed, the quintessential public servant. Barbara Boxer: Fiery, take-no-prisoners. She represents the fiery side of California politics. Warren Buffett: Unassuming, affable, charming.
If a person was considering a career in politics, what books would you recommend he or she read? My favorite is Last of the Fathers by Drew McCoy. It focuses on the retirement years of James Madison. Thomas Jefferson was dead, a new generation of politicians was interpreting the Constitution, and Madison, who penned most of it, was correcting them, saying, “No, that’s not at all what we meant.” Madison was a man committed to principle. It’s a fascinating book. Another good one is Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. It’s amazing! Watching our country rise from nothingness, from the minds of these men, puts today’s political life in perspective. You learn that politics has been a contact sport since our country’s inception.
The book I’m reading now is Life of the Parties by A. James Reichley. It’s an engaging history of America’s political parties and I’m reading how Hiram Johnson put the right of recall into California’s constitution. This is intriguing. Here’s something I recently lived through.
Marin is facing the prospect of a $356 million death row expansion at San Quentin. Are there any recent developments? We’re rebuilding both the prison hospital and the execution chamber. San Quentin is a very old institution that needs upgrading. The problem with moving death row is that it requires a majority vote of the Legislature to approve it. It’s not the governor’s decision to make. There are only a few places you can put death row—the convicts need proximity to lawyers—and none of those places wants it. Building a new death row will take a while, but it has to happen. You can’t expect people to live or work in such substandard conditions; they’re not safe nor sanitary.
How has being a recovering alcoholic affected your high-pressure job in politics? There’s no way I could do a job like this and be drinking. I was a fairly high-functioning alcoholic, not a falling-down drunk. But it was hard on me, emotionally and physically. I wasn’t healthy. I was an accident waiting to happen. Is there a temptation to fall back into that life? Just about every day there’s a temptation. This is a disease you have to pay very close attention to. You never know when that right combination of fatigue, emotions and a drink sitting right next to you will occur. Over the past 12 years, since I’ve been sober, there’s been more than one occasion where I’ve had to leave the room because I couldn’t be around alcohol at that moment.
You have an instinct for survival, a sense of optimism. How do you feel about our nation today? It scares me what the country—what the world—is going through. If someone isn’t scared, they aren’t paying attention. Yet I’m optimistic. I have faith that this country has the ability to go through some very difficult times. Our political system allows for course corrections. So I’m very optimistic that America will be on the right path again.
Your boss is called the nation’s first “green governor.” What have the two of you done to deserve that title? For one thing, I helped draft and the governor signed an executive order putting in place the first low-carbon fuel emission standards in the world. Other nations are now copying it. These are changes that are historic in nature.