Inaugural Bonnie Reiss Memorial Lecture Looks at Bridging the Political Divide

Soon after completing his service as governor of California in 2011, Arnold Schwarzenegger established the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy. He immediately turned to Bonnie Reiss, his longtime senior advisor, to be the catalyst for the institute.

“I said I’d only do it if she became the global director,” said Schwarzenegger on Oct. 24 at the inaugural Bonnie Reiss Memorial Lecture, honoring Reiss, who passed away in April after a brave fight with cancer. Over the next six years, she helped set the Institute’s mission and organized important discussions on subjects such as stem-cell research, health care, education, after-school programs, building infrastructure, immigration reform, redistricting reform and open primaries.

USC Price School of Public Policy Dean Jack H. Knott said Reiss “turned Arnold's vision into one of the most relevant and widely recognized institutes in California and the country.”

“I take great comfort in knowing that her legacy will live on at USC through this new lecture series as well as the Bonnie Reiss Scholarship that was recently established in her honor,” Knott said. “Because of this lectureship and the scholarship, generations of students will know of Bonnie and the great and lasting work she accomplished.”

Knott noted with a smile that he and the other men participating in the event had elected not to wear ties that day because Reiss disliked them.

Following remarks from Schwarzenegger and former film studio executive Sherry Lansing, the event featured a panel discussion on bridging the partisan divide, a topic aligned with Reiss’ longtime goal of helping elected leaders put people over political parties.

The productive relationship between Reiss, a Democrat, and Schwarzenegger, a Republican, was a testament to what members of each party can accomplish when they work together, Schwarzenegger said.

“I said to myself, how am I going to operate up there in Sacramento as a Republican?” Schwarzenegger said. “Well, she came up there and she was the bridge builder. She was an expert at crossing the aisle, listening to the other side and building bridges.”

Schwarzenegger pointed specifically to California's landmark legislation to combat climate change, passed during his administration, as an important achievement that would not have been possible without Reiss. “Bonnie created the connection with the Democrats so they trusted me in this area,” he said.

Lansing praised Reiss’ “unique ability” to hear people from both political sides of an issue.

 “No matter what your political persuasion, no matter where you were coming from, Bonnie respected you and she listened,” she said. “She had great empathy, great compassion and, of course, amazing intelligence. Because of that, Bonnie could always find a common ground and build a consensus.”

Schwarzenegger participated in the panel discussion along with David Axelrod, CNN Senior Political Commentator and former senior advisor to President Obama, and Steve Schmidt, political analyst and MSNBC contributor.

“Bonnie would have loved this lineup of extraordinary speakers and the fact that her life's work could bring together such an esteemed audience to explore civility in politics,” said Conyers Davis, the new global director for the USC Schwarzenegger Institute. “Nothing except the well-being of her beloved family and dog, Bu, worried her more at the end than the deep partisan divide plaguing America.”

Moderator Carla Marinucci, senior writer for POLITICO California Playbook, began the discussion with the day's alarming headlines about top Democrats targeted with mail bombs, striking at the heart of the divisiveness between political parties.

“This is really an important day to have this discussion, because I think we are all kind of stunned about the reality of what we heard on the news today,” Axelrod said.

Schmidt contended that President Trump bears responsibility for setting the tone for the divisiveness in the country.

“This was a partisan act of violence,” Schmidt said of the attempted attacks. “This was sectarian violence of the nature you see in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who is responsible for sending bombs to people? The criminal and terrorist who manufactured it and dropped it in the mail. But, is it possible this person was triggered by the vile atmosphere created by the President of the United States? He is stocking a cold civil war in this country.”

Schwarzenegger pointed out that the divisiveness didn't start with Trump. He noted that, soon after he came to the United States in the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy Jr., Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.

“You're telling me now that this is the worst time we have had? Are you kidding me?” Schwarzenegger said. “When you look back in history we had a lot of trouble, but America, because it's the No. 1 country in the world, always solved these problems. And we're going to come out of this too, believe me.”

Schwarzenegger contended gerrymandering is one of the main reasons for the divisiveness. As California's governor, Schwarzenegger, with help from Reiss, fought for a citizen redistricting initiative that took away the drawing of district lines from lawmakers. He actively lobbies for other states to follow suit.

“The way the political district lines are drawn is such a fixed system that it locks Democrats into one district and Republicans into another, and that creates the divisiveness,” Schwarzenegger said. “If you have gerrymandering, Democrats and Republicans are locked in and you can do nothing about it. They have job security. And what happens when they don't have competition is there's no need for performance.”

Schwarzenegger reminisced about when President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill were friendly adversaries who communicated and got things done in Washington. Schmidt referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee's Supreme Court hearings and the verbal sparring between Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). Noting that they've been colleagues in the Senate for 26 years in a mere 100-person body, he stated that new blood is needed if they cannot work together after all that time.

“I think it's important to say that everybody has to take a step back and stop,” Schwarzenegger said. “To regular people who started to hate each other because they belonged to different parties, I say to them stop that. To media, which when you turn on you don't really get news you only get talking heads screaming at each other, that doesn't help, so stop that. The politicians and political operatives are also causing a lot of this damage, and I say to them to stop that.”

Schwarzenegger concluded the event with the hope that people would follow Bonnie Reiss’ example and take action as problem solvers.

“Bonnie inspired people to get up and do something, and that's what I want to leave you with today,” Schwarzenegger said.