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Aide to the Governator

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger needs to get legislation through the California assembly and senate—his $105.3 billion budget, for example—he turns to Richard Costigan (AB ’88).

By Steve Oney (ABJ ’79)



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At the capitol in Sacramento, power is measured by the proximity of one’s office to the tent. A crisp, well-vented canvas enclosure large enough to hold a desk, six rattan chairs, and a cherry-wood humidor and pitched in an outdoor atrium that exempts it from laws prohibiting smoking in state buildings, the tent is the preferred workplace of California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The tent is where the movie star turned politician is free to smoke cigars and meet with legislators in a more informal setting than his cabinet room. The tent is where deals get done.

A mere 20 feet from the tent, clearly visible behind a row of windows and easily accessible through a half-glass door is the office of Richard Costigan III, the governor’s legislative affairs secretary. The 38-year-old Costigan (AB ’88) is charged with selling the deals that Schwarzenegger hammers out to the often recalcitrant members of the California general assembly and senate. Predictably, Costigan’s work space is cluttered with piles of legislation in draft form. The TV is tuned day and night to closed-circuit broadcasts of committee meetings taking place elsewhere in the building. There are, however, some unexpected touches. On Costigan’s desk, a Georgia bulldog coffee mug doubles as a pencil holder. On a bookshelf, amidst photos of Schwarzenegger, rests a red and black fabric football. And on a wall is a framed print that depicts a foreshortened view of the Athens skyline.

“Sometimes I sit back in my office,” says Costigan, “look at the photo of my wife and kids in a bulldog frame and say to myself, Here I am, a University of Georgia graduate, advising the governor of California, the fifth-largest economy in the world with more than 30 million people.”

And not just any governor. In the year since Schwarzenegger defeated incumbent Gray Davis in a bitter and often absurd recall election, the governor has plunged into the task of addressing California’s debilitating budgetary woes (a product of the dot.com bust) by reaching out not just to his fellow Republicans but to Democrats as well. Thus far, Schwarzenegger’s tenure has been based less on the carnage-wreaking swagger of his “Terminator” films than on conciliation and bridge building. The tent, which is emblematic of the governor’s style, is a key part of the package.

As is Costigan, says his boss.

“Richard is well-respected by both parties upstairs,” Schwarzenegger observes during a recent interview. “When Richard says something, there’s no second-guessing. Just the other day, these big legislators—Democrats—were sitting down here asking Richard for solutions. ‘How can we solve this?’ And Richard was explaining. I find this a great compliment that someone from the opposing party is asking the opinion of Richard.”

To spend a day with Costigan is to see ample evidence of why Schwarzenegger places so much faith and trust in him. Stocky and graying at the temples, well turned out in a charcoal suit, red-white-and-blue striped tie and wire-rimmed glasses, he works the halls of the capitol with a mixture of confidence and tact. In the office of an upstate Democrat who supports a campaign finance reform measure backed by the governor but stuck in committee, he gets immediately to the heart of the matter: “How many votes do you need?” In a stairwell, he buttonholes a downstate Republican to discuss California’s plans to install flush-free urinals in public buildings. Following a brief disappearance into a caucus chamber, he emerges with the vote the upstate Democrat needed. Then it’s back to his office to meet with representatives from the Napa Valley wine country who are concerned that new insurance regulations will adversely affect hot-air balloon operators, key players in the area’s tourism industry.

The pace is unrelenting.

“It’s like this 14 hours a day, six days a week,” Costigan sighs during a brief lull. Lending urgency to the work is California’s financial crisis.

Schwarzenegger’s $105.3 billion budget for fiscal 2004—the centerpiece of his first year in office—is the product of cuts in some areas, among them education, and compromises in others, particularly those allowing billions of dollars to be borrowed to meet short-term needs. The issues involve everything from the environment to homeland security. The governor opposes a Democratic plan to grant driver’s licenses to illegal aliens, believing they can serve as “breeder documents” for terrorists intent on establishing American identities. It’s Costigan’s job to stay on top of complicated issues like these and to keep warring factions talking.

“On the driver’s license issue alone,” says Schwarzenegger, “there’s so much research: what is done nationally, the sheriffs, the FBI, the Latino caucus. There’s so much work. I don’t know how Richard takes it all in. He’s the nerve system.”

That a UGA history graduate would become a top aide to a governor who, after conquering Hollywood, decided to take on the real-world problems of a state whose economy is larger than that of most nations, is not as unlikely as it sounds. From Richard Costigan’s perspective, the path from Georgia to California is clear. In fact, Vince Dooley helped point the way.

It was during Dooley’s flirtation with state-wide politics in the mid-1980s that Costigan became intrigued with the notion that an outsider—in this case, a football coach—might make a more effective governmental leader than a career politician.

“In my junior year at Georgia I wrote a paper titled, ‘Are Demigods Rising Again in the South?’” Costigan recalls. “Dooley was considering running for governor, and I spent hours with him, reading correspondence from people urging him to enter the race. I think he would have made a great governor. People trusted him because he wasn’t a politician.”

Ultimately, Dooley did not run, but the experience of writing the paper galvanized Costigan’s interest in politics. And his history studies provided the bedrock. “People are so down on arts and sciences today,” he says, “and I think that’s wrong. Everything I learned at the University of Georgia I use on a daily basis. What I learned in history and political science classes is really indispensable.”

A Virginia native who attended an all-male prep school, Costigan chose UGA because he wanted exposure to the variety of experiences available in what he calls the “quintessential college town.” He worked part time at the UGA health center, hung out with his Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brothers, and booked bands at the then well-known watering hole O’Malley’s. He also met and courted his future wife, Gloria Kirby Costigan (BSEd ’89).

Costigan’s first experience in national politics was as a volunteer in George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. Following law school at Samford University in Birmingham, he practiced with firms in Columbus (Meacham, Flowers and Early), Atlanta (Harmon, Smith, Bridges and Willbanks), and Norcross (Demming, Bourne, Parker and Greene), specializing in litigation and family law. He might have remained in Georgia had he not received upsetting news in 1996 from California, where his parents had moved. His mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. To be nearby as she convalesced, he moved to Sacramento where he had worked summers during law school as a clerk to the in-house legal advisor to the state legislature. He took a job as chief consultant to the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Resources, advising the body on matters related to the environment. Next came positions at the powerhouse Los Angeles law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and at the California Chamber of Commerce, where he was chief lobbyist and head of government relations.

Costigan was still at the chamber, which has typically been a breeding ground for Republican political appointees, during the 2003 recall race.

Following the election, he received a summons to meet with Schwarzenegger. “The chamber’s agenda is economic, and so is the governor’s,” says Costigan. “He and I agreed on many things.”

Schwarzenegger says he was immediately sold on Costigan: “We looked at a whole bunch of talented people, but as soon as Richard walked out of his interview we all said, ‘Richard.’ No one else even came close to him.”

That was in November of last year. In the months since, the work has never stopped. Up each morning at 5:30 and in the office by 7, Costigan generally doesn’t return home until 9 at night. He helps his wife put their three children to bed, downs a bite of supper, and falls asleep watching the late news. “Maria,” he says, referring to the governor’s wife, Maria Shriver, “has called my wife several times to say how much they appreciate our whole family’s efforts.”

Costigan believes he’s been given an opportunity to be a part of history. The Schwarzenegger administration, like that of another actor turned California governor, Ronald Reagan, has a chance to solve problems that have long plagued the state. There’s also the possibility that the job could be a launching pad to greater things, particularly if Schwarzenegger’s efforts in this fall’s national political campaign are successful in helping George W. Bush win a second term in the White House. And there’s the undeniable thrill of being a member of an administration that is linked not just to Hollywood but to America’s great dynastic political family. One day recently, Costigan found himself serving as a capitol tour guide for Eunice Shriver, sister of President John F. Kennedy and Maria’s mother.

Costigan does his best to take his job’s glamorous aspects in stride, but all the stars make it difficult. Recent meetings include ones with former “West Wing” star Rob Lowe, who is a Schwarzenegger supporter, and 007 himself, Pierce Brosnan, who came to Sacramento over the summer to lobby for an environmental cause. At times, Costigan feels like he’s in a political version of an action film—albeit one without a lot of special effects. “I was flying to a function the other day with the governor,” he says, “and I got out my cell phone for no reason other than to tell my wife: ‘I’m on the Falcon with Arnold Schwarzenegger and we’re eating oatmeal together.’”



Steve Oney (ABJ ’79) lives in Los Angeles. He is the author of And the Dead Shall Rise and of a related feature story in the March ’04 issue of GM.

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PHOTO GALLERY

photos by Steve Hellon

Click on image to enlarge


Costigan (at right in both photos above) was working at the California Chamber of Commerce when he was summoned by the new governor. “We looked at a bunch of talented people,” says Schwarzenegger, who needed to hire a legislative affairs secretary. “No one else came close to him.”

The pace is unrelenting for Costigan (at left with state assembly speaker Fabian Nunez). He works 14-hour days, six days a week on -issues that range from the environment to homeland security.