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Fighting Pension Privatization
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Winning Pension Power
Fighting Pension Privatization
When California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a series of “reforms” designed to remake state government in his January 2005 State of the State address (increasing his power in the budget process, introducing merit pay for teachers, changing reapportionment rules, and changing the public employee retirement system), he was following squarely in the footsteps of his unpopular Republican predecessor, Pete Wilson. What the popular movie star turned politician and his political advisors didn’t recognize then was with his first step of the year he had already stumbled.

Charging from the outset that “special interests” including public employee unions would fight his “public pension reform” – in reality, a drive to privatize California’s efficient public retirement funds -- the governor attempted to inoculate against the opposing arguments. By mid-April Schwarzenegger’s high risk plan of circumventing the legislature and taking his pension privatization proposal straight to the voters was in shambles, his initiative measure withdrawn, and his public credibility dropped by more than 20 percentage points during the course of the campaign. In the end he failed because the inoculation effort didn’t anticipate the appeal of secure retirement or public support for teachers, nurses, police and firefighters.

The story of how this turnaround happened so quickly is a lesson in message discipline, efficient use of resources, and the power of effectively mobilizing constituencies. Uniting under the banner California Families Against Privatizing Retirement (CFAPR) police, firefighters, teachers, nurses, and other public employees team of consultants -- Dewey Square Group, Ogilvy Public Relations, and Lincoln Crow Strategic Communications -- to map strategy and aid in the fight. Although the mandate of the committee was defeating legislation parallel to the Governor’s proposed initiative, CFAPR waged the fight from the outset as if the initiative had already qualified. That meant thorough opinion research, consistent message refinement, and a massive membership education campaign to mobilize the men and women impacted by the pension proposals.

Initial polling indicated that voters were divided on the issue of whether public employee retirement benefits should be changed, with 42% supporting the language contained in a bill introduced by Assemblymember Keith Richman and 41% opposed. The research showed multiple good arguments that helped the public move from supporting pension privatization to opposing it, but that there were also some strong arguments the other way. However, when voters learned the Richman/Schwarzenegger scheme would eliminate survivor benefits for the families of police and firefighters who died in the line of duty, they overwhelmingly turned against the proposal – and its authors.



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