Capitol Alert

Bonnie Reiss, Schwarzenegger aide, UC regent, dies

Senior adviser Bonnie Reiss listens as her boss, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegge,  conducts a press conference announcing funding for cities and counties on Dec. 18, 2003.
Senior adviser Bonnie Reiss listens as her boss, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegge, conducts a press conference announcing funding for cities and counties on Dec. 18, 2003. The Sacramento Bee

Bonnie Reiss, a senior adviser to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration and a member of the University of California Board of Regents, died Monday after a yearlong battle with cancer. She was 62.

An entertainment attorney and Democratic campaign strategist, Reiss was a close friend of Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver for decades. When Republican Schwarzenegger assumed the governorship after winning the 2003 recall election, Reiss was one of his early confidantes. She became his liaison on education issues and a leading force for his environmental advocacy.

"Bonnie Reiss was a true treasure to California, the United States, the world, and everyone she has ever met," Schwarzenegger said in a Facebook post Tuesday. "I have never met anyone with more energy for helping others and improving the world around her. Sadly, cancer was immune to all of her immeasurable strengths."

Reiss first met Shriver while working for her uncle, then-Sen. Ted Kennedy, on Capitol Hill, and they both joined his 1980 presidential campaign. When it brought them to Los Angeles, Reiss connected with Schwarzenegger, who Shriver had begun dating, and they developed a deep bond.

"They're my family and he's my brother in every sense of the word," Reiss told The Bee in 2004. She did a reading at the couple's wedding and was at the hospital the day their first child was born, "running out to get little ribbons to put on her hair."

Reiss served as founding director for After-School All-Stars, Schwarzenegger's nonprofit foundation for low-income, at-risk youths, and in 2002, she ran a successful campaign for his statewide ballot initiative to fund after-school programs. But she initially seemed hesitant to join his administration.

"I'm a liberal Democrat," Reiss told the Los Angeles Times in 2003, two days after Schwarzenegger announced his gubernatorial bid. "Quite honestly, I'm not thinking about that right now. I live in Malibu and am not eager to move to Sacramento."

When she did arrive at the Capitol months later, Reiss became the governor's "left-hand lady," as one state senator put it at the time, a line of communication and source of comfort for the Democrat-dominated Legislature.

In 2006, Reiss helped Schwarzenegger develop and pass AB 32, a landmark climate change law requiring California to significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Daniel Zingale, who served as chief of staff to Shriver and a senior adviser to Schwarzenegger, said Reiss also put issues on Schwarzenegger's radar that he might not otherwise have considered, like banning lead ammunition in condor habitats and instituting heat safety standards for farmworkers.

"In many ways, she was the governor's social conscience," Zingale said. He added that their cooperation across party lines and "loving" banter "set the tone for the rest of us."

"It was a beautiful relationship to witness and to see how it benefited the people of California," Zingale said. When Schwarzenegger left office, he said, the governor and Shriver planted a tree for Reiss in Capitol Park.

Schwarzenegger eventually appointed Reiss to be his education secretary, and in 2008, a UC regent.

UC President Janet Napolitano, in a statement, praised Reiss' efforts to overhaul the university's sexual harassment and assault policies and to help it become carbon neutral by 2025.

"The University of California has lost one of its most passionate, caring, and effective advocates," Napolitano said. "She worked tirelessly on behalf of this institution that she so loved."

Reiss was born in New York in 1955. She studied accounting and finance at the University of Miami, where she was elected to the student government, wrote a weekly column in the school newspaper and hosted a show on the school radio student. She later graduated from Antioch Law School in Washington, D.C.

During the 1980s, she built a successful entertainment law firm in Los Angeles, and used those connections to found organizations like Hollywood Women’s Political Action Committee and the Earth Communications Office, which promoted environmental awareness through popular culture. She also produced the opening events for President Bill Clinton's first inauguration in 1993.

For the past five years, Reiss was the global director of the Schwarzenegger Institute at the University of Southern California, a think tank founded to promote collaboration across political parties. The USC Price School of Public Policy, which houses the institute, announced Tuesday that it would establish a scholarship in her honor.

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