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Archive for 2009



Calbuzz Dustbin: Giant Lizard Eats Father’s Day

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

dragonAs founding members of the Coastal Alter Kocker Society, Calbuzz today offers up a special edition of The Dustbin of History, sweeping us back to a date that will live in Father’s Day infamy.

 

On June 9, 2001, a seven-foot long Komodo Dragon viciously attacked newspaper editor Phil Bronstein, who had climbed into the cage with the creature during a behind-the-scenes zoo tour –  a special “surprise early Father’s Day present” arranged by his then-wife, the actress Sharon Stone.

 

The attack itself is recounted wherever newspaper folk gather round campfires or, um, watering holes. What has never before been told, is the inside story of how the San Francisco Chronicle, the paper that Bronstein edited, learned about it and sprang into action to cover it. Herewith, a Calbuzz exclusive: the first, first-hand account of how the world learned of the Komodo Dragon tragedy, told by Jerry Roberts.

My pager went off shortly after 6. It was Saturday evening, June 9.

I’d just left the newsroom after working the Sunday edition, and was settling into a comfy theater seat to watch a movie (“Blow”) with my daughter. When I saw the display number on the page, I cursed, and hustled to the lobby to call the city desk, hoping to get back to my popcorn and soda before the previews ended.

It was not to be.

On the line was Sunday editor Kenn Altine. One-half Sonny Barger and one-half Oscar Wilde, he was an old-school newsman who matched efficiency with officiousness. He gave it to me straight:bronstein

“Jerry, Phil has just been attacked by a Komodo Dragon at the Los Angeles Zoo.”

I answered with annoyance: “Fer chrissake, Kenn, I’m trying to watch a movie with my kid.”

“No, no, it’s true,” he said, voice and timbre rising. “Here’s Sharon’s cell phone numbersharonstone.”

So I rang up the Executive Editor’s wife’s cell. Sure enough, they were in the ER; choking back tears, she confirmed that the Great Man had gone one round too many with a hungry reptile. I asked her to put Bronstein on the line.

“Phil,” I began, as cheerfully as possible, “Wussup dude?”

“Mmmmm…mumble mumble…interested in Komodo dragons…mmmm…got in the cage…mmmm…grabbed my foot…mmmm…going to surgery…mumble mumble.”

Thankfully, some primitive career survival instinct kicked in, and I fought back the urge to ask the question screaming in my head:

Why do you think they keep them in cages?

I knew Bronstein almost always wore cowboy boots, so I asked instead if the dragon had bit all the way through them. I guess I was thinking maybe the lizard saw alligator skin and became enraged on behalf of a distant relative.

He said he’d been wearing white sneakers, and the big brain zoo keeper who’d invited him into the cage said to remove them. Seems the dragon was fond of eating white rats, and might mistake white shoes for dinner. So the Big (white) Guy climbed in barefoot.

Got it.

fedoraI swung into operational mode.

“Phil…you know we have to do a story on this.”

“Yeah,” he said, to his credit.

“Where would you like me to put this story?

He paused.

“I’ll leave that up to you,” he said, also to his credit.

I hauled my kid out of the movie, double timed back to the paper and dumped the notes from the ER interview to Altine. An early adapter, he’d checked out Komodo Dragons on the web, and told me enthusiastically about their “serrated teeth designed for ripping flesh,” which harbor bits of meat from previous meals, carrion that carries lots of bacteria strains, including some that are septic.

Yuck.

As the newsroom rolled into action, I got on the horn to give a heads up to senior editors and business side executives. My first call went to the paper’s spokesman, who’d soon be inundated with press inquiries from around the world.

It was tough duty, because no one believed me.

“No, no, it’s true,” I kept saying, echoing Altines’ earlier comment, to people who figured I was Saturday night drunk dialing.

By the time I tracked down publisher John Oppedahl at a Union Street bar, I’d refined my approach.

“John, what I’m about to tell you is true, and really not a joke,” I began, hearing happy saloon noises on his end.

“Whatthehellyawant?” demanded Oppedahl.

I gave it to him straight.

“John – Phil has been attacked by a Komodo Dragon at the Los Angeles zoo.”

There was a long pause.

“Is he dead?” the publisher finally asked.

Out in the newsroom, the Saturday night staff raced the first edition deadline. While the copy desk waited for the story to move, they held a headline writing contest.

“Gotcha!” was a strong contender, as were ”Lizard Bait” and “Dragon Bites Editor – Expected to Live.”

But it was an homage to Mrs. Bronstein’s greatest cinematic triumph that won hands-down: “Basic Instinct.”

Happy Father’s Day from Calbuzz.

PS: The photo of the Komodo Dragon above was taken 2/27/09 at the Toronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, by Phil Trounstine

Flea Market: Ensign-Newsom Sorry Similarities

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

ensignSex, Lies and Politics: The sordid tale of how Republican presidential wannabe and Nevada Sen. John Ensign had an affair with a campaign aide who happened to be the wife of a senior adviser in his Capitol Hill office  carries unfortunate echoes for Gavin Newsom.GavinNewsom

The San Francisco mayor and wannabe California Governor copped to a dangerous liaison involving an eerily similar triad two years ago, a scandal that came and went in S.F.’s laid back liberal culture, but is likely to resurface in the heat of Newsom’s first statewide campaign. (The GOP has already trotted it out on cable news.)

There is at least one big difference between les affaires politiques, however: Newsom to his credit stood up tall and accepted responsibility when he acknowledged the whole icky mess, while Ensign has spent the days since his admission trying to slime the unfortunate couple, who say their “lives have been ruined,” with shaky allegations of being blackmailed.

That said, the magnitude of the breach of trust involved with both cases is considerable. Former governor and ex-Marine Pete Wilson used to say that being in a political campaign with someone was the closest thing to going through war with them. Some way to treat your foxhole buddy, eh?

More on sex: A sharp-eyed reader opines that Calbuzz misread a recent L.A. Times analysis examining the impact of sex scandals involving Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa on the governor’s race; we characterized the piece as kissing off the importance of the political playboys’ wandering, um, eyes, but Cathy Decker’s nut graf, buttressed by an academic study, states that it will truly matter to some voters. Busted.

boxerangryBoxer Rebellion: Barbara Boxer’s snippy insistence that a military officer address her as “Senator” instead of “Ma’am,” – “I worked so hard to get that title” – offers a good measure of how fiercely she intends to fight to keep it.

Although we keep reading speculation about how formidable and well-financed former Silicon Valley executive Carly Fiorina will be as a Republican challenger when (if?) she finally gets into the arena, Boxer got a nice boost from an unlikely source this week when Steve Forbes, the erstwhile GOP presidential contender and silver spoon publisher bashed Fiorina is his new book, “Power Ambition Glory.”

“Examples of business leaders who rise to heights of corporate power only to be brought carly_fiorina_630xdown by their egos include…Carly Fiorina, former head of Hewlett-Packard,” Forbes writes. “As leaders of corporate empires, both failed because they focused on what flattered, instead of what mattered.”

There’s more: Fiorina was “high-handed,” “brusque” and “concerned more with publicizing herself and socializing with entertainers and high-fashion figures than with promoting HP and running the business.

“There were even rumors that she was positioning herself to run for political office.”  Imagine that.

Thanks to Calbuzzer CA Politech for the cites.

We Get Letters: Big Bad Dan Walters cries “foul” over our Fishwrap item that trashed the California press for whiffing on the no-go fed rescue of the state budget story. BeeDan sniffs at a WashPost piece we highlighted as “old news,” and forwards his column from May 22 saying “the Obama Administration said it couldn’t underwrite loans (for California) without congressional authority.”

Fair enough, but his column was referencing public congressional testimony, constructed with Clintonian obfuscatory precision (or precisely Clintonian obfuscation) by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner; the new Post piece advanced the ball considerably, reporting private White House meetings involving Obama’s big brain troika of Geithner, Lawrence Summers and Christina Romer…

Comment of the Week: Buddyg takes home a coveted “I’m a Calbuzzer” button for his calbuzzertake on our latest post on Senator Difi’s shifting position on the Employee Free Choice Act. As winner of our first Calbuzz Comment of the Week, he also gets his comment highlighted in full:

DiFi has always been too MOR for this state, on too many issues. In this case, she is also naive if she thinks there is a compromise that will give even ‘half a loaf’ to both sides.

There can be no denying that federal labor law is broken and employers regularly take advantage of that when resisting union campaigns and collective bargaining negotiations.

Simply put, the cost and consequences of violating the law are just not substantial enough to make it worthwhile for employers who don’t care about workers’ rights to comply. That is the reality, and has to be the analytical starting point, which of course, the Cs of C of the world will deny forever.

Until DiFi gets over the idea of (dis)pleasing everyone and realizes there is a right and a wrong on this, she will continue to be pressured. It would be fitting and just for labor to mount a campaign to knock her out of the box, and take Arlen Specter with her!”

– By Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine

Fishwrap: Free the Chickens & All Political Prisoners!

Friday, June 19th, 2009

feinsteinglassesDifi Does Lunch: Michael Kinsley famously defined a “gaffe” in Washington as “when a politician tells the truth,” a quote that came to mind this week with word that The Senior Senator From California embarrassed herself politically by stumbling into a bit of inadvertent truth-telling.

Seems DiFi’s crack Beltway political team sent out invites to a fund raising lunch — $2.5 K for PACs, $1K per humanoid –- that cut a little too close to the bone in blatantly marketing her choice committee assignments for would-be donors with business before the panels.

On the menu, according to the invitation: “The Select Committee on Intelligence for the first course, followed by your choice of Appropriations, Judiciary or Rules committees,” a fine example of the kind of soft-core influence peddling that goes on day in and day out in Washington (not to mention Sacramento and every other state capital in America).

Feinstein, the lifelong Coro Intern who loves to portray herself as a Goo Goo Philosopher Queen mulling policy on a lofty plane far above political money grubbing, did not see the invite until Roll Call did a story mentioning it, her flak assured the press with a straight face. She was of course — Shocked! Shocked! –- and abruptly canceled the event.

Chuck Neubauer of the Washington Times quoted Feinstein coat carrier Gil Duran thusly: “It was obvious that this would be subject to misinterpretation by some, and it was canceled to avoid any misinterpretation.”

Misinterpretation, our Aunt Katherine.

Closer to the mark was Nancy Watzman, who keeps an eye on fund raising shenanigans at the Sunlight Foundation: “She was just highlighting what everyone knows. If you have business before a committee, there’s an opportunity to meet-and-greet this politician in a personal way.”

uclaTo Tax or Not To Tax: With High Silly Season upon us in the budget, uh, drama, the D’s made a big move in passing a spending plan that includes tax increases on oil extraction and fire insurance (Calbuzz Says: Never play with fire when extracting oil), which instantly rebooted the inevitable R mantra that California has the highest taxes in the nation.

It’s one of those claims that sounds like it should be true, especially if you repeat over and over again, but turns out to be not at all a settled issue. MediaNews Capitol man Steve Harmon  performed yeoman duty in reporting out the issue and finding that, as with all things statistical, it all depends on what you’re measuring: “The number of tax loopholes that California offers corporations reduces the effect of high tax rates, analysts say.”

In other economic news, California reporters produced a record 62,712 different ledes in covering the new UCLA Anderson Forecast of the state economy, but for those wary of an exclusive cut-cut-cut budget, the money quote was this:

“In California, the worst of the recession is beginning to ease, but any optimism must be tempered by the specter of a state government poised to contract at the worst possible time.”

If it’s news it’s news to us: Three came-and-went stories vaporizedsp_logo1x any lingering shreds of naïve hope for an easy resolution of the Sacramento stalemate: 1) Standard and Poor’s put a “negative credit watch” on California’s outstanding bonds, a signal that our worst-in-the-nation rating may be headed downward yet again, and a clear sign that more borrowing will not be a pathway out of deadlock. 2) Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and other administration econ honchos turned down a back channel plea for emergency financial help (this yarn was WAY underplayed and, by the way, why did the Post beat everybody who covers Washington for California news organizations in getting this sucker?). 3) The two whacky, poll-taking Marks, Baldassare and DiCamillo, both declared flat-out that the force-fed political spin about the May 19 election representing a clear and powerful anti-tax message was bushwah; that the informed comments by the smartest guys in the room did nothing to slow down right-wing dervish spinning for an instant guarantees  the River City death march will go on.

“No Exit,” Sartre’s famous 1944 play about three people condemned to be locked in a room with each other forever, seems the perfect metaphor for the budget ménage a trois that keeps going and going and going among and between legislative Dems, Reps and Governor Conan, who existentially keeps reinventing his own political identity.

“Hell is other people,” the Gauloise-puffing philosopher wrote. Just think what he’d say if he’d ever made it to Sacramento.

chickenToday’s sign the end of civilization is near: The Association of California Egg Farmers, fresh from getting their yolks battered in last November’s failed bid to head off Proposition 2’s mandates for hen house construction, are madder than soggy lady chickens at what they say are overly vague standards contained in enabling legislation for the measure.

Angrily clucking at AB 1437, by San Rafael Democrat Jared Huffman, the association has turned to a slow-down offense, claiming wide-spread confusion amid the chicken-and-egg community over a perceived lack of “clear standards for housing egg-laying hens.”

“California egg farmers respect the voters’ desire to give egg-laying hens more space,” said Debbie Murdock, the association’s executive director, with an apparent lack of conviction. “The question is, how much space?”

Your favorite chicken joke kicker goes here.

– By Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine

Memo to Calitics: Thanks for the Link

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

friedrich-engels1To: Calitics Commissar David Dayen
From: Useful Idiots Phil and Jerry
Re: Your infantile disorder

When we read your hissy fits about Calbuzz’s coverage of the Parsky Commission, the words of Friedrich Engels came to mind:

“What childish innocence it is to present one’s own impatience as a theoretically convincing argument!”
(Programme of the Blanquist Communards)

As regular readers of Calitics, we admire your passion, if not your common sense. But let’s be clear that our mission at Calbuzz is quite different than the ideological ranting that is your stock in trade: it’s called “journalism.”

Let’s be blunt: You knew bupkus about the maneuvering and politics unfolding behind-the-scenes at the tax commission until we started covering it. To attack us for digging out the story is to mistake the map for the territory, using the same kind of tiresome, rigid,  WATB ideological projections as you decry in the Yacht Party.

Unlike you, we don’t pretend, to ourselves or anyone else, that we know enough about economics, tax policy or public finance to lecture our readers about such matters or tell them What Is To Be Done. (You don’t either, but we’ll leave that between you and your comrades for your next self-criticism session.)

We see our job as ferreting out the facts of what’s going on politically with policy-makers; with all due respect to our MSM and online colleagues, there simply hadn’t been a hard look at the commission’s work, and the strategies behind it, before we started reporting on it a few weeks ago.

That you would have remained clueless about what was happening there, and would therefore have nothing to throw your little temper tantrum about, is to underscore the huge difference between the Calbuzz brand of political reporting and what Lenin would call the left-wing “infantile disorder” that defines Calitics.

As you’ll recall, this fundamental contradiction came fully into view at the Democratic convention, when your netroots pals couldn’t stop slobbering over Barbara Boxer at her press conference, while we old guys just did that old boring thing of asking her hard questions.

We’re just sayin’.

P.S. We’ll leave to others the task of analyzing your obsessive use of the words “fetish” “fetishism” and “fetishistic,” which is probably a matter best dealt with in therapy. You might consider asking our in-house political psychiatrist, Dr. P.J. Hackenflack, for some help.

What’s Next for the 21st Century (Tax) Commission

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

weedwhackerUpdated with new info from the California Finance Department.

The blue-ribbon commission rewriting California’s tax code moved ahead on a policy framework Tuesday – but the nut-cutting politics are still to come.

As Calbuzz forecast in eye-glazing detail on Monday, the California Commission on the 21st Century Economy is focusing on a new, broad-based “business net receipts tax” as the centerpiece of its proposed revision of the state’s creaky tax code.

The commission included the tax as part of one overall outline for tax reform. In advance of their next – and final – meeting on July 16, the panel instructed staff members to flesh out this broad strokes outline into a full, detailed proposal, complete with economic forecasts and models that show who pays how much under the proposed new tax structure. Staff also will prepare a look at a less radical option.

That’s when the fun will start.

Ostensibly, the commission has two basic, essentially mechanical, goals in their re-do of the tax system: 1) evening out tax collections from year-to-year with a revenue stream that is less volatile and more predictable than the current spike-and-trough system, which makes long-range fiscal planning a fool’s errand; 2) making changes that are “revenue neutral,” i.e. ensure that the new system doesn’t generate a big tax increase or decrease.

Inevitably, however, any change to the tax system results in winners and losers, and debating that inherently political issue will likely be the focus of the economic debate when the commission meets next. Chairman and Arnold ally Gerald Parsky has made clear he wants the ideologically diverse group to reach consensus on a final proposal, in order to deliver a package to the governor that is politically palatable to both parties in the Legislature.

The first package to be considered  approved yesterday has these key elements:

– Flattening the progressive, steeply-stepped state income tax rate system to a structure with essentially one rate of about six percent.

– Eliminating the state sales tax (local sales tax levies that have been approved for special purposes like transportation would remain in effect).

– Eliminating the corporation tax.

– Imposing the business receipts tax. It would be assessed on nearly every business in the state as a percentage of its gross revenue – minus the cost of goods and services that it purchases from other companies.

– Charging a “carbon tax” on gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, calculated at the refinery at $20 per ton of carbon emissions. This would amount to about 18 cents-per-gallon of gas.

The second scenario would flatten the income tax structure, but not include the receipts tax.

As a political matter, there are at least three crucial issues that will underlie all the green eyeshade talk in the devil-in-the-details debate when the commission meets again:

** How regressive will the new system be? It seems clear that flattening income tax rates will redistribute some of the state tax burden away from the very wealthy and towards the middle class. In making its final recommendations, however, commissioners can make adjustments in this area – by increasing the income level at which people pay zero tax, for example, or by directing some carbon tax revenue to offset an increase in the earned income tax credit – as part of its effort to calibrate a tax calculus that will sell politically.

** How revenue neutral will it be? Although the commission is charged with designing a system that does not raise taxes, the net receipts tax, with its application to more businesses than the sales tax, plainly carries with it the possibility of expanding the base of state tax collections, thereby increasing general fund revenues in future years.

** How will it play with the Legislature? The answers to the first questions will largely determine whether the commission’s proposal will attract the kind of bipartisan support Schwarzenegger hopes to win. This means that Republicans must feel they’re not voting for a tax increase in disguise, while Democrats feel assured that over time the new structure will produce enough revenue to pay for their favored education, welfare and other programs.

As we reported earlier, Schwarzenegger would like the commission to deliver a report that can be quickly transformed into a clean bill for introduction and swift action in the Legislature. He is hoping to win support of the legislative leadership on the policy merits, in order to gain the political backing to force an up-or-down vote on the package in the Legislature.

Given the current toxic climate in Sacramento, passing major tax legislation would be an impressive victory, and give Arnold a second major accomplishment – after voter approval of the Prop. 11 reapportionment reform last fall – to use in pushing back against the widespread perception that his governorship has been a failure.

– By Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine