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Shriver puts the ‘first’ in first lady

Peter Nicholas and Robert Sallada

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The line snaked from the lobby of the state history museum to the sidewalk, as scores of people holding pink-and-white hardback books waited to get them signed by the author, California first lady Maria Shriver. No one walking past the state-owned building in downtown Sacramento that afternoon in May could have missed the Shriver brand: Copies of the book – a 62-page advice manual for teenage girls – were displayed prominently in the museum’s windows. On gift shop shelves sat T-shirts with inspirational sayings attributed to Shriver: “Fear can be your best teacher;” and “Women are the architects of change.” Near the cash register were items from a jewelry line she helped create called Maria Shriver’s California.The most prominent first lady The crowded event made one thing clear: Even as her husband is struggling to recoup his popularity, Shriver has solidified her status as the most prominent – and powerful – first lady California has seen. In two years she has emerged as an important force in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s government, while also taking hold of state cultural institutions like the history museum, called the California Museum, and other programs that interest her. “All things considered, she would have to be the most conspicuous and influential of the first ladies in the history of the state,” said Kevin Starr, state librarian emeritus and Shriver fan. Shriver has been selective about where she puts her efforts. She kept her distance, for example, from her husband’s doomed special election in the fall. But she has thrown herself into other causes, including promoting volunteerism, encouraging anti-obesity education and advocating on behalf of women. Reshaping a roleA whirl of ideas and plans, Shriver brings with her enormous resources: money, celebrity, a famous political pedigree, glamorous friends and a web of public relations firms and tax-exempt groups dedicated to promoting both her causes and Shriver herself. To her admirers, she has defined a new and important role for the wife of a governor. Bonnie Reiss, a Schwarzenegger aide who became a close friend of Shriver while working for the 1980 presidential campaign of her uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), suggested that Shriver has reshaped the first lady role. “Maria, like most great women that have been first ladies in the state and the country, certainly has brought her unique Maria-ness to the role,” she said. Maria’s interestsBut at times, her critics say, her good works have become so entangled with self-promotion that it is difficult to distinguish where serving California stops and furthering Maria’s interests begins. They also question the extent to which, in advancing her agenda, she’s relied on corporate interests and privately funded charities – groups that are shielded from public accountability and, in some cases, dependent on actions taken by the Schwarzenegger administration. “It’s unambiguously self-promoting,” author and academic Michael Blitz said of Shriver’s work. “I don’t think anyone doubts that.” Blitz, co-author of “Why Arnold Matters: The Rise of a Cultural Icon,” sees in Shriver’s activities a desire for a national profile. “If you look at the constellation of activities” Shriver is involved in, “they really are the stuff of creating a very strong platform on which to stake a claim you deserve to be in a leadership capacity on a national scale,” he said. If Shriver has charted a new course for a first lady, it has come at a cost. She has a taxpayer-funded staff with a current annual payroll of about $576,000, although one of her aides will be leaving in January. Shriver’s staff payroll is 57 percent higher than that of her predecessor, Sharon Davis. Shriver declined to comment for this article, but a spokeswoman said that extra staff is essential. ‘They don’t compare'”Maria is an internationally recognized celebrity,” said Terri Carbaugh, Shriver’s press secretary. She added: “Comparing Sharon Davis to Maria Shriver is like comparing Jewel to Madonna. Both are successful in their own right. Each has her own following. But in terms of recognition and celebrity status, they don’t compare.” Shriver’s taxpayer-funded staff is only a part of the picture. The first lady has also put together a network of private tax-exempt groups, corporate allies and public relations firms to support her causes. Private donationsLast year, Shriver started a tax-exempt group, the California State Alliance, to advance various projects. Another tax-exempt group, the California Governor’s Conference for Women and Families, was set up last year with a board dominated by Shriver friends and government aides. The Alliance alone has raised more than $950,000 in private donations, according to Erin Stein, its president. At least 20 corporations and foundations gave money to the organization in 2004-05, according to a list provided by the group. But the gifts raise questions about conflicts of interest, because many of the corporations donating to Shriver’s causes also have business with the state. Shriver’s Conference on Women and Families in Long Beach two months ago continued a tradition in California of state-sponsored women’s conferences. But the conferences now bear Shriver’s distinctive stamp. In addition to drawing a crowd of nearly 11,000 women, this year’s conference also drew a crowd of corporate sponsors, many of whom have cause to lobby the Schwarzenegger administration. One major sponsor was Ameriquest Mortgage Co. Ameriquest Capital Corp, a parent of the mortgage company, has given more than $1.5 million in campaign contributions to Schwarzenegger campaign committees since 2003. A packet of material handed out by conference organizers thanked Ameriquest on behalf of Shriver and the governor and included a blurb that said Ameriquest Mortgage had helped more than a million Americans become homeowners. What the blurb didn’t mention is that the company has a history of run-ins with regulators and consumer groups and has set aside $325 million to settle allegations by 35 states and the District of Columbia that it overcharged home loan customers and pressured appraisers to inflate property values. Shriver’s office said she lacks authority to make public exactly how the women’s conference was funded. Carbaugh said that the conference is run by its directors and that they decide whether to release donor names and contribution amounts. They have declined to do so. The board is appointed by the first lady, according to the bylaws, and chaired by her friend, literary agent Jillian Manus. Carbaugh said that nonprofits are not legally required to publicize their donors and that people who want to know the names could check the women’s conference Web site for corporate logos. But the Web site does not show how much money each corporation gave. And it contains less information than it once did. In 2004, the women’s conference Web sitedisclosed the perks that sponsors would receive, including invitations to receptions with the governor. Those benefits are not listed this year. Shriver’s other primary charity, the California State Alliance, has a far-reaching mission, includingsending phone cards to California troops serving in Iraq, “financially assisting the governor and first spouse” in “diplomatic and consular matters,” honoring the state’s “remarkable women,” promoting volunteerism and improving “the general welfare of California,” according to documents and interviews. Many of its supporters also have business with the state. One of the original members of the Alliance board, for example, was until recently the executive in charge of governmental affairs for the telephone giant and state contractor SBC, now AT&T Inc. The phone company is bidding for a renewal of a state telecommunications contract worth more than $100 million. Accounting records for the Alliance are kept by the chief financial officer of the state Chamber of Commerce, the leading business lobbyist in the state. At one point, California State Alliance’s chairman was state Chamber of Commerce president Allan Zaremberg, records show. In an application filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the Alliance listed as its address the chamber’s Sacramento headquarters. The chamber reported spending more than $1.2 million on lobbying in the first half of 2005. It has proved a major source of political and fundraisingsupport for Schwarzenegger. Carbaugh said the chamber received no special favors. In response to requests from a reporter, the Alliance produced a list of its donors as of June, though it didn’t specify amounts given, addresses or, in some cases, full names. Recently, Shriver’s office said that the Alliance would shut down some time in 2006. Carbaugh said the first lady’s “priority projects are better supported by entities which have a clearly defined mission.” As first lady, Shriver has made deft use of the cross-marketing opportunities that her celebrity allows. Earlier this year she released her fifth book: “And One More Thing Before You Go …” Shriver’s taxpayer-funded press office sent out scheduling material to the press corps announcing that she would appear at two book signings in May. Her press office issued another announcement that she would appear on Tim Russert’stalk show on CNBC to talk about her book. Shriver also promoted the book – and occasionally her husband – in various national TV appearances, including “Larry King Live,” NBC’s “Today,” “The Early Show” on CBS’ and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Along with promoting her book, a for-profit venture, Shriver has promoted a line of jewelry she helped create to raise money for the California State Alliance. To mark her one-year anniversary as first lady, Shriver’s government office put out a 15-page retrospective. It was produced by state aides and paid for in part by Schwarzenegger campaign funds. Called “A Remarkable Year,” it gave the Web address people can use to buy the jewelry.Vail, Colorado


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