Tuesday, December 27, 2005

COM: Playing Hardball in Austria

Schwarzenegger May Not Be Back to Hometown
Romance Between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Austrian Hometown May Be Over After Split on Execution
By GEORGE JAHN, The Associated Press, December 27, 2005


GRAZ, Austria - "I'll be back." That pledge from the Terminator traditionally has had special meaning in Arnold Schwarzenegger's hometown.

But now after the California governor refused to spare two convicted murderers in a row from their death sentences and showed no signs of relenting in another case up next month the romance is over between Schwarzenegger and Graz, Austria's second-largest city.

Acting on Schwarzenegger's orders two weeks after the Dec. 13 execution of former Crips gang leader Stanley Tookie Williams, city leaders Tuesday deleted all references to the bodybuilder-turned-governor on Web sites linked to Graz. Over the weekend, they also stripped his name from the city's soccer stadium.

And "Arnie," as he is known in the city of his youth, also sent back Graz' highest award its ring of honor as part of moves provoked by city council threats to rename the stadium because of his support for the death penalty.

He tried to soothe passions in a Dec. 19 letter, saying he still planned to visit. But that pledge is now more threat than promise for Austrians, who overwhelmingly consider the death penalty barbaric.

Sigi Binder of the environmentalist Green party in Graz says that in just two days more than 1,500 people signed her party's online petition to rename the stadium. The appeal was closed to further signatures when Schwarzenegger himself demanded that his name be dropped.

Thousands backed a separate similar petition, and hundreds of supporting phone calls came in from Germany and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, she added.

Her message to Schwarzenegger? "Mr. Governor, please push to have the death penalty abolished."

Other Arnie-bashers are less polite.

"Schwarzenegger has proven that he is truly the total dolt that he plays in his films," read a recent e-mail signed "Mario" on the Web site of the daily Kurier one of hundreds of impassioned readers' commentaries on the controversy, which has dominated Austrian headlines for the past two weeks.

But the dispute goes beyond Arnie. The tarnishing of Austria's idol in his home country is a renewed sign of a general European disenchantment with an America many here consider out of step with their ideals.

After his election as California's governor two years ago, Schwarzenegger held onto cult status in Austria even though most Europeans disagreed with his positions on the Iraq war and the death penalty.

Austrians focused instead on Schwarzenegger's successes since he left for America in 1968, first as Mr. Universe, then as "Conan the Barbarian" and the "Terminator" and finally his 2003 move into the governor's mansion in Sacramento.

One of Austria's most popular folk groups, Die Stoakogler, paid homage to him 13 years ago in a mixture of English and the dialect of Styria, his home province.

The song, which sold more than 2 million copies on vinyl and CD, begins with: "Steiermen san (are) very good, when they go to Hollywood."

A special stamp bearing his image and issued to commemorate his election sold out within days. But his decision last January to allow California's first execution in three years triggered protests in front of the U.S. Embassy in Vienna. Williams' execution less than a year later was the final straw for many Austrians.

For Schwarzenegger, the rationale was simple in ending the formal relationship with the city of his youth, about 120 miles south of Vienna.

"It is relatively likely that I will have to meet similarly difficult decisions as governor," he wrote Graz Mayor Siegfried Nagl, suggesting that cutting ties with the city was the best way to spare further controversy the next time he needed to make such a decision.

Next time is just weeks away. Lawyers for Clarence Ray Allen, 75, who suffers from multiple maladies, have asked the governor to block their client's Jan. 17 execution for ordering hits on three people while he was behind bars in 1980.

A refusal by Schwarzenegger to pardon him is sure to provoke a new protest across Austria and Europe.

Still, some continue to back their idol.

While emphasizing that he, too, is against the death penalty, Nagl told The Associated Press that "no one here has the right to sit in judgment" of Schwarzenegger.

Whenever he returns, "he is welcome to sit down with me for a bite of apple strudel," said Nagl, whose conservative People's Party is outnumbered in city council by the anti-Schwarzenegger opposition.

Kurt Marnul, a former "Mr. Austria" who put the first set of weights on the young Arnie's shoulders and still works out in a gym plastered with hundreds of pictures showing him with Schwarzenegger, accused Graz politicians of "stabbing Arnie in the back."

"More than 70 percent of Americans are for the death penalty," said Marnul, 75. "This issue is none of Austria's business."