Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't invite me into his home to talk about his Terminator franchise, Mr. Olympia legacy, or his relationship with the president of the United States. Instead, the former California governor asked me to come over and share a "stogie" on his back patio and talk about gerrymandering. Count me in.
The request came after he'd seen me discussing the need for redistricting reform during a prime-time special I hosted last month on CNN. "So glad you're shining light on gerrymandering. We reformed in CA," he'd tweeted at me midshow.
It was no wonder I'd caught his eye, considering that just a few days prior he'd released a video via Facebook using humor, the strength of his personality, and a few movie clips to try to educate about a subject on which few are passionate, but he holds dear:
"Here are some of the things that are more popular than Congress: hemorrhoids, Nickelback, traffic jams, cockroaches, root canals, colonoscopies, herpes. Even herpes, they couldn't beat herpes in the polls. Gerrymandering has created an absurd reality, where politicians now pick their voters instead of the voters picking their politicians. . .."
It worked. Twenty-two million people have already watched and heard Schwarzenegger explain that in California between 2002 and 2010, there were 265 congressional elections but only one district changed party hands. Or as he said, "The former Soviet Politburo had more turnover than California politics."
Apologetically, I greeted him in his backyard high above Los Angeles. "Thanks for inviting me," I said. "I brought you a box of Cubans, but I ran into a friend out here, and now only half the box remains."
"There's nothing wrong with that," he said with a smile, as we both dug into the El Rey Del Mundos.
Looking fit and comfortable in gym shorts and a T-shirt while seated on a sofa next to Gustav, his sleeping, 8-year-old chocolate Lab ("He's my buddy"), Schwarzenegger looks nothing like a guy nearing 70. And in front of a roaring outdoor fireplace on a cool, late California afternoon, nothing pumps him up like speaking about the need to improve our political process.
So strongly does he believe in the need for political reform that he founded the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, which is committed to "advancing postpartisanship." Its four reform priorities are redistricting, open primaries, transparency, and voter participation.
On the first of those issues, he led the fight in 2008 for Proposition 11, a ballot initiative that took the drawing of political boundary lines out of the hands of politicians and placed it under the control of an independent, 14-member commission composed of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four others selected in a process overseen by the state auditor.
"I'm a strong believer that if we get redistricting and reform done nationwide that the outcomes, the political outcomes, will be different and then also the races will be much more competitive," he told me when I asked to record a few of his comments for radio broadcast.
"We will have much more of a changeover, because when you think about it, you know, Congress having a popularity rate of maybe like 15 or 18 percent, but 96 percent or 97 percent get reelected, so you know that the system is fixed, it's rigged, and it is not really serving the people well.
"And so this is why I became a fanatic about redistricting, because I saw the flaws here in California, and we have seen great changes since we have done redistricting and reform here in this state."
And where California on his watch instituted the professional drawing of boundary lines, change has come.
"That first year we immediately saw something like a 26 percent changeover," he said, "because some of them retired because they weren't able to compete anymore the way they used to, and so they retired and just new blood came in. So it was much more competitive, and therefore we saw changes in the behavior of the legislature."
He's equally adamant about open primaries. While Schwarzenegger was governor and with his support, despite opposition from both parties, Proposition 14 was passed allowing all voters to cast ballots in primaries after which the top two finishers, regardless of party, face each other in the general election.
"It's working like a jewel, absolutely. I mean, it's no different than the mayoral races that we have all over the state, and that's now the way it is for all the other elections," he told me.
Schwarzenegger is a committed centrist.
"I believe very strongly in what Eisenhower said, that politics is like the road, the left and the right is like the gutter, and the center is drivable," he said. "And I believe that the action is in the center, and I hope that the politicians wake up one day and just decide that they want to do the people's work rather than the party's work. Because the way it is right now, it doesn't work. Nothing is getting accomplished."
Our 90-minute discussion extended well beyond our cigars, and was entirely substantive. But where our conversation was just two days removed from a Saturday morning Twitter rant from President Trump that strangely mixed blame for President Obama having "tapp [sic] my phones" with a non sequitur about Schwarzenegger's tenure on The Apprentice, I felt obliged to raise the subject.
"Why do you think the president is fixated on you? Why does he keep talking about you through his Twitter feed?" I asked.
"I think he's in love with me," said Schwarzenegger with a smile, which told me that was all he intended to say publicly on the matter.
That last exchange took just 19 seconds. But after it played the following day on my SiriusXM radio show, it went viral, picked up by every outlet from Deadline to CBS News. Typical was the USA Today headline that blared: "Arnold Schwarzenegger: Trump is 'in love with me.' " Vanity Fair asked: "The Terminator and the Donald: Who will write this rom-com?"
Thankfully, most outlets recapped the true nature of the conversation that came prior, even if it was in the fourth or fifth paragraph, a point not lost on the former governor of California.
"If we can get people to pay attention to seven minutes of gerrymandering to hear me say the president might be in love with me, I'll take it," he told me by email.
Michael Smerconish can be heard 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124. He hosts "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.