Back in the late 2000’s, then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s popularity was falling. A growing budget deficit and backing lower nurse-to-patient ratios, among other decisions, had put a strain on his approval rating. As a more moderate Republican who favored both social programs and fiscal responsibility, as well as a mix of other views, the ‘Governator’ managed to win over many people when first elected. And he even kept up his popularity, managing to win 56% of the state in the 2006 Gubernatorial election. But in 2009, he now had enemies in the state Legislature. And none of them were more vocal than former San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano.
Ammiano, an LGBT activist who had worked with famed San Francisco Supervisor and LGBT advocate Harvey Milk in the 70’s, had worked his way up to the state Assembly in the 2000’s and was known as one of the most liberal members of the Assembly. Needless to say, Ammiano and Schwarzenegger immediately butted heads, especially when it came to Ammiano’s more left-leaning bills moving up and Schwarzenegger swatting them down.
It all came to a head in October 2009. At a Democratic Party fundraiser at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, one of the premier Democratic events right on Ammiano’s home turf, Gov. Schwarzenegger made a surprise appearance. For Ammiano sitting in the audience, this was just too much. As soon as former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown introduced him, Ammiano immediately shouted “You lie!” and continued to yell while walking out in protest, including shouting to the Governor that he could “kiss my gay ass.”
While the Governor had been expecting some jeers, he was a Republican at a Democratic event after all, he had not been expecting that. The remarks made national news, and the Governor was now deeply embarrassed. Schwarzenegger wanted to do something to get back, but there was really nothing he could do. Well, except for one of Ammiano’s bills sitting on his desk.
Assembly Bill 1176, authored by Ammiano, was considered by many to be an extremely easy bill to pass. As it was going to help the Port of San Francisco with financial districts and other issues, it was seen as a general benefit to the city. Even Assembly and Senate Republicans didn’t have any issues with it. The Assembly had had passed it 78-0, with the Senate following up with a 40-0 vote. Every political analyst at the time had it down as uncontroversial and was sure to be signed by Governor Schwarzenegger. But they didn’t know that he was out for revenge.
To the shock of many, Governor Schwarzenegger’s office announced that AB 1176 was vetoed. For San Francisco, this was a huge blow, as they kind of needed help with financing their waterfront at this point. For Assemblyman Ammiano, he was livid for two reasons. For one, Schwarzenegger had just foiled one of his campaign promises in dramatic fashion. Second, Arnold sent him a personal note in his veto. Reading from the first letter of every line of the veto to the left, the Governor had just returned the favor.
While Ammiano’s remark only four days before had made some national news, Schwarzenegger’s veto made it international. The Governor immediately said that this had all been an accident and unintentional. However, A UC Berkeley professor actually wrote a paper on the incident and calculated that it was a 1 in 86 billion chance that that exact wording would have appeared like that.
While it was a petty act, it actually turned out to be a boon for Schwarzenegger. His popularity immediately jumped up and was emboldened to veto more bills than usual that year. As the Great Recession was currently happening at the time, this actually kept spending lower and probably helped reduce the financial crunch California was in during the 2008-2012 budget crisis. In 2009, a year in which government workers found themselves taking forced days off and banks no longer accepting IOU’s from the state due to the then-$26 billion budget gap, vetos resulting in less spending were a bit welcome.
Ammiano never really recovered from the slight. Once one of the Bay Area’s most prominent politicians, even nearly winning the San Francisco mayoral race in 1999, Ammiano was out of the Assembly in 2014 and hasn’t returned to politics since.
Schwarzenegger himself maintained that the veto message had all been a coincidence until 2019. That year, during an interview on The Late Late Show with James Corden, Schwarzenegger admitted to what had really happened.
“Well, there was one Legislator that I didn’t like at all,” noted Schwarzenegger to Corden. ” and so I vetoed his bill, but I really wanted to make sure that he got the message. So I wrote each line in the veto message. Each line starts with a certain letter, that when you go down the line, it says [expletive] you.
“And at the press conference the next day when they discovered that, the press, they said to me ‘Did you know that this said [expletive] you’? And I said ‘No, no. Wait a minute. Where does it say that? I did not know that’.”
To date, a hidden veto message hasn’t appeared since, but every legislator since the incident knows to keep an eye out for that sort of thing.
“We’re reminded now and then to look out for that sort of thing,” said “Dana,” a State Capitol staffer to the Globe. “No one has forgotten what Arnold did.”