The Republican governor came to the conservative-leaning Central Valley to talk about the state's budget crisis but found himself on the defensive about his proposed spending cuts and what farming interests perceive as his inaction in solving the state's water problems.
Schwarzenegger delivered a 25-minute speech designed to convince 500 invited guests and local elected officials that everyone must share the pain as California struggles with a $24.3 billion deficit.
He focused on his ideas for privatizing some prisons, using digital textbooks in schools, eliminating fraud in home health care support services and making electronic the court system's labor-intensive court-reporting system.
While some of his points drew applause, it was clear after his address that several audience members had their own agendas.
During a question-and-answer session afterward, Schwarzenegger faced a flood of frustration from agricultural interests and anger from local officials upset over the possibility that the state may take billions of dollars from local governments.
Tim Salmon, of the Latino Water Coalition, a group that has been an ally of Schwarzenegger's, criticized the governor for coming to the state's agricultural heartland yet "refusing to address the most important issue in this valley."
As agriculture supporters in the audience issued catcalls, Schwarzenegger said water will be his priority after the budget is resolved.
The governor said he had been "fighting for water for four years." He then ceded the floor to Victor Lopez, the mayor of Orange Cove, who launched into a spirited defense of Schwarzenegger as "the best governor this state and this nation has ever had."
Later, Salmon said he wanted to hear Schwarzenegger say "he'd take the 10th Amendment and turn on the pumps to deliver water to the valley that the feds have no right to." The amendment, part of the Bill of Rights, reserves for the states powers not claimed by the federal government.
The majority of water that flows to Central Valley farmers is pumped by the Central Valley Project, which is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and is under federal control.
Outside the art deco-era Tower Theater where Schwarzenegger spoke, protesters shouted "turn on the pumps." Three years of below-normal precipitation in California and periodic reductions in water pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect the threatened delta smelt have led to thousands of acres of fallowed fields throughout the Central Valley.
Unemployment in the region is so high that some food banks have run short of supplies, prompting an appeal for federal assistance this week from Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Water was not the only issue that proved to be a hot potato for the governor after his address.
Cynthia Sterling, president of the Fresno City Council, stood up from the theater's front row and told the governor she is worried that the state will take gas tax revenue from local governments and not pay it back.
"We hope you will stand behind us. But if not, we will go down and you will go down with us," she said to scattered applause from an audience that appeared somewhat stunned by her challenge to the governor.
Schwarzenegger appeared slightly taken aback, then said: "I totally get it, I totally understand."
He went on to say that "this is the kind of stuff I hear all day." He was referring to earlier remarks when he said he gets a steady parade of visitors to his Capitol office complaining about how looming cuts would affect their programs.,p> Schwarzenegger has proposed shifting to the state about $980 million in local gas excise taxes and transportation weight fees in the fiscal year that begins in July.
He also has proposed taking $1.9 billion in other local taxes, which the state would have to repay over three years. A plan promoted by majority Democrats does not include that proposal.
After his address, the governor met privately with a dozen mayors from the San Joaquin Valley.