Harold Dean Palmer, known in the political universe as “H.D.”, serves as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief spokesman on budget and fiscal issues as Deputy Director for External Affairs at the California Department of Finance. A former spokesman for U.S. Senators S.I. Hayakawa and John Seymour of California and Jim McClure of Idaho, he worked for Gov. Pete Wilson and state senate GOP Leader Jim Brulte before joining Schwarzenegger’s team in 2003.
Calbuzz: Lacking a PhD from the London School of Economics, describe the process you go through to understand the deep-in-the-weeds stuff, and then to translate it into English.
H.D. Palmer: At the start, it was total immersion — into the deep end without water wings. I had the good fortune to start at Finance at a point between the governor’s January budget and his revised budget in May, so the staff in each unit had the time to give me full briefings, in mind-numbing detail, on all of the programs in their respective areas, and then tolerated every rudimentary, basic and/or dumb question I had after that (and still have to this day).
I’m lucky because Finance has some of the smartest and hardest-working men and women in show business who know their stuff cold. My job is to work with the information I get from them, de-jargonize and de-acronym it in some cases, and then try to put it into basic terms that readers, listeners and viewers can understand to explain how and why the governor is putting forward all of the various proposals in his budget. When there’s an analogy that captures the issue in basic terms, I try to go with it. For example:
DISCUSSION AND CONSIDERATION REGARDING THE IMPACT OF CASH MANAGEMENT REQUIREMENTS ON APPROVAL OF AB 55 LOANS, INCLUDING POSSIBLE REDUCTIONS OR FREEZING DISBURSEMENTS FOR OUTSTANDING, RENEWED, OR NEW LOANS
Translation to human-speak: We had to shut off the spigot for infrastructure funding and we can’t turn it all the way back on yet.
CB: Who gives the best spin — your heroes among political spokespersons?
HDP: The two guys who I’ve always considered professional lodestars were Otto Bos — Pete Wilson’s long-time communications genius and aide-de-camp — and Marlin Fitzwater, President Reagan’s last and President Bush 1′s only press secretary. Both guys were total pros who understood the importance of being a truthful and trustworthy advocate for their bosses. And they understood that to be successful you have to be an honest broker between two institutions that often work at cross-purposes: their bosses and their clients, the press corps. Both of them definitely found the sweet spot. By doing that, both guys richly earned the respect of both their bosses and reporters. They also, I think, embodied some sage advice that I got when I first started out: take your job seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.
CB: Who are the best and worst reporters in the state to deal with?
HDP: Me naming a “best reporter” would the professional equivalent of Michael Corleone kissing Fredo in the Havana nightclub in Godfather II. Next thing you know, that reporter’s in a fishing dingy on Lake Tahoe reciting Hail Marys. I respect the ones I do consider the “best” not to put them through that kind of public hazing. Come to think of it, though, there were these two guys who used to write politics for the Chronicle and the Mercury News who were real pains in the . . .
CB: If he was being really candid, how would your boss characterize the overall depth and accuracy of the state media’s reporting on budget issues?
HDP: I think he shares my view that reporters are trying to explain not only the mechanics of something that’s so complicated and has so many moving parts as the state budget, but also the political dynamics that overlay it. The challenge is that with the current economics of the media industry (see the word “abattoir”* in your Webster’s for further definition), we’re likely going to have a dwindling pool of reporters who have a lot of experience and familiarity with the beat. Which is why I have always offered (and continue to offer) reporters coming onto the beat the same kind of into-the-deep-end briefings from our staff that I got when I started.
CB: How many press calls do you field in a day? What’s the most you received and what was the issue? (OK, that makes six questions)
HDP: Usually 10-15 a day. And given everything regarding the budget and public finance of late, it’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates — you never know what you’re gonna get. The Guinness Book record, though, had to be this February when the budget was passed at dawn. We went over to the governor’s office to brief him later in the morning for a noon press availability, then for a session in his office after that was done. I’d been out of my office for about an hour, and the red message light was on when I returned. I hit the button and robo-voice said: “You have 22 unheard voice mail messages.” And they kept right on coming while I was taking down the voice mails and returning them. It was the media-relations version of trying to walk up a “down” escalator.
*Editors’ note: abattoir [ab-a-twahr] = slaughterhouse (we had to look it up too)