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How Demo Demolition Derby Changes Gov’s Race

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

newsom wavingAt first glance, Gavin Newsom quitting the race for governor represents a splendid stroke of blind luck for Jerry Brown: The San Francisco mayor’s sudden withdrawal not only removed the only obstacle currently in Brown’s path to the Democratic nomination, but also eclipsed in the news cycle a damaging story that poses danger to the attorney general’s campaign.

Upon further review, however, Newsom dropping out may present at least as many risks as opportunities for Brown, who may now attract a level of scrutiny he has so far managed to avoid.

A wild day on the Democratic side of the governor’s race began with revelations that a key aide to the attorney general admitted he had surreptitiously and illicitly taped phone calls with reporters, an astonishingly stupid -– and possibly illegal -– act for a high-profile staff member serving in the office of California’s highest ranking law enforcement officer. With the implications of that disclosure just beginning to set in, Newsom’s unexpected move quickly diverted the attention of California’s political press, which took off in full bay to chase that story.

Newsom had for weeks denied persistent rumors of his withdrawal, even petulantly blaming them on Brown. But his inability to raise enough cash for the table stakes needed to make a serious run, coupled with his failure to articulate a compelling message, or even a clear rationale, for his candidacy, had kept his nascent campaign from ever getting off the ground, making his Friday announcement far from a total surprise.

teddydavisLooking back, Newsom’s effort peaked on the morning of September 15, when his campaign announced — with a juicy leak to Teddy Davis at ABC News — that former President Bill Clinton planned to endorse him and to help him raise money to challenge Brown. The mayor’s partisans and his cheerleaders in the press and political class proclaimed it a major political development –- pollster Ben Tulchin, for example, excitedly called it a “game changer” –- while the candidate himself predicted Clinton’s blessing would trigger a big swing in the polls.

It did nothing of the kind. When Clinton showed up in the state, he offered a few bland words of praise for Newsom, but nothing like a ringing endorsement, and expectations for the big presidential fundraiser completely flopped, with the campaign collecting only a few hundred thousands dollars after all the build-up. Things looked so gruesome for Newsom that Southern California sources told Calbuzz that Clinton spent part of his trip to L.A. brainstorming with pal Ron Burkle about other candidates they could entice into the race to go up against Brown, Bubba’s arch enemy. Instead of closing the polling gap, Newsom fell to 20-points behind Brown in the Field Poll.

Beyond the clear political imperatives, Newsom portrayed his decision to drop out as a variation of the old spend more time with the family yarn –- he does, after all, have a newborn baby at home. We’ll take him at his word on that, but also recall that this is a guy who cavorted in an affair with the wife of his top aide and close friend –- so it’s always possible there’s more to the story than now appears.

That aside, Newsom will be way old news by the time the political obituaries for his short-lived campaign are published in the Sunday papers, by which time erstwhile rival Brown may have begun to experience the down side of being the last man standing in the Democratic race, seven months before the primary.

Until now, Brown has managed to escape much scrutiny, partly by layingEGBrown1 in the weeds and playing coy about his obvious ambitions to run again for governor, and partly because Newsom was the new kid on the block and so naturally invited more media attention than the crusty 71-year old attorney general whose foibles and triumphs are far more well-known.

Now unopposed by anyone in his party, Brown on one level is in the enviable position that then-Senator Pete Wilson enjoyed in the 1990 governor’s race. He and his supporters had cleared the primary field, giving the candidate and his crafty campaign team the great luxury of time to raise rivers of cash, while watching as Democrats Dianne Feinstein and John Van de Kamp tried to tear each other’s faces off for months. When an exhausted Feinstein won the battle, a tanned, rested and ready Wilson came out swinging the day after she won the nomination, and never stopped until he’d won the governorship .

But timing is everything in politics, and Brown now finds himself standing in a big pile of yucky goo that threatens to splash him with a stain of scandal if he doesn’t move quickly to contain it.  If he fails to do so, it’s still not too late for a Democratic challenger to emerge –- Treasurer Bill Lockyer is the only possibility that seems to make sense at the moment, although rumors about Jane Harman, Steve Westly and even Antonio Villaraigosa were already rippling among those who monger gossip about such matters.

IMG_1994Brown wasted little time Friday putting press spokesman Scott Gerber on “administrative leave,” whatever that is exactly, after the flack admitted taping the Chronicle’s Carla Marincucci and other, so far unidentified, reporters, without their knowledge and while in the office of the attorney general.

But that’s not going to put the matter to rest, as the episode raises far more questions than there are answers to date. For starters, Gerber wasn’t alone during the taping: the Chronicle story states that Chief Deputy Attorney General Jim Humes and Jonathan Renner, a senior assistant attorney general, were both on the conference call with Marinucci and so presumably knew of the taping, which seems to violate at least the spirit, if not the letter, of Penal Code 630-638.

Beyond the fact that Brown’s right-hand man was on the scene, it’s also troubling that the subject of the interview was particularly politically sensitive – the attorney general’s  wording for the title and summary of a ballot measure regulating auto insurance rates backed by the Mercury General insurance company, which has donated at least $13,000 to Brown’s campaign, according to the Marinucci and other news reports.mercury

That the AG’s men were nervous about Marinucci’s story is demonstrated by the fact that Gerber reportedly called her editor to complain about what she posted on web after the call; while going over her head, Gerber referred to a transcript of the interview, in the process spilling the beans  about the illicit taping all over his lap.

After Gerber was suspended, another Brown flack issued a statement saying that the AG was unaware of the taping:

“Mr. Gerber’s recording of certain telephone conversations was done without Attorney General Brown’s knowledge and in direct violation of explicit directions regarding office policy,” Christine Gasparac of Brown’s press office told the Chron.

But what aboutdemderb Humes and Renner? Did they tell Brown and, if so, when? If they knew about the taping, why aren’t they suspended too? How many reporters has Gerber taped? About what subjects? When? Why? Who knew about the taping, if not Brown? Why didn’t he know? Did Brown’s office improperly rewrite ballot prop language on behalf of a campaign contributor? And on and on, leading to the key, bottom line question of all such matters:

What did Jerry know and when did he know it?

Brown Must Fire Flack Who Secretly Taped Calls*

Friday, October 30th, 2009

nixon*Update 11-2-09 2:55 p.m. Scott Gerber has resigned.

The stunning news that a spokesman for Attorney General Jerry Brown secretly taped a conversation with SF Chronicle reporter Carla Marinucci, admitting that this something he did routinely, leaves Brown with one and only option: fire the flack immediately.

The paper reported Friday that Brown press spokesman Scott Gerber acknowledged taping the call, apparently in direct violation of California Penal Code Section 632, which says that conversations may not be taped without notice to all parties.

Dick Nixon must be rolling over in his grave.

That a public official so off-handedly violated state law on such a sensitive subject is unacceptable. That the official works for the chief law enforcement officer of California makes it outrageous. That the call focused on a corporation that both had sensitive business before Brown’s office and had made a major campaign contribution to him puts it beyond the pale.

Brown needs to distance himself from Gerber – and fast. No slap on the wrist and mealy-mouthed comments about Gerber promising to actually obey the law in the future will suffice. Surreptitiously taping a reporter – or any citizen – reeks of sleazy,  John Mitchell-era government threat and intimidation. Brown’s got one play here and he needs to make it soon.

Update: Chris Reed at Politicker just posted an interesting take on this. He interviewed Gerber about the ACORN scandal last month and asked him why Brown was investigating the fake pimp and prostitute who had videotaped employees of the group offering help with their fake business and plans for human smuggling, along with the allegations raised by the tapes:

“Gerber told me the AG was investigating because it is illegal in California to tape someone without their knowledge. Which makes today’s S.F. Chronicle story even more amazing.”

Press Clips: Three Columns and a Bird In the Hand

Friday, October 30th, 2009

none_skelton_Score one for old school: The best columnists are first and foremost good reporters, as George Skelton proved anew this week, with a splendid 848-word takedown of Meg Whitman for the latest in her string of brazen departures from the truth. Capturing the coveted Calbuzz Little Pulitzer for Investigative Punditry,  George did an honest day’s worth of Actual Reporting to absolutely nail eMeg with a piece called “Meg Whitman’s Radio Whoppers” (memo to copy desk: nice hed).

The L.A. Timesman painstakingly demolished her phony claim that state spending has increased 80 percent in 10 years – for those keeping score at home, the true, slightly smaller, figure is, um, 27 percent:

We instinctively grant latitude to advertisers, whether they’re peddling politicians, dog food or miracle paring knives. But we do expect that an ad will not flat-out lie…

Now, in the very first series of radio ads in the 2010 gubernatorial race, comes blatant baloney from billionaire political novice Meg Whitman, the former chief executive of EBay who is running for the Republican nomination.

Blatant baloney indeed. This is now at least the third time in a few weeks that Her Megness has been exposed as an almost total stranger to the truth. After her ceaseless dissembling about her disgraceful voting record and the bald-faced lie she told conservative radio yakker Eric Hogue in promising to debate Steve Poizner three times before winter, this latest bit of stinky cheese has the full aroma of something rancid.

As we used to say at the city desk, if it happens once it’s news, twice it’s a coincidence and three times, it’s a trend.

vidablueWeintraub Watch: Ahem, ahem (sound of ponderous throat-clearing):

The last time California elected a governor who was pro-life, Ronald Reagan was president, Vida Blue was pitching for the San Francisco Giants and Gavin Newsom, now San Francisco’s mayor, was a sophomore at the University of Santa Clara . It was 1986 when George Deukmejian beat Tom Bradley in a re-match of their 1982 nail-biter.

We offer that ersatz column lede as an antidote to this unfortunately real one:

“The last time California elected a governor from Northern California, John F. Kennedy was president, the San Francisco Giants had just won their first National League pennant, and Gavin Newsom, now San Francisco’s mayor, had not been born. It was 1962 when Gov. Edmund G. Brown won a second term by defeating Richard M. Nixon.”

Now, Calbuzz is simply delighted that Dan Weintraub got himself a forum in the ByGodAllMighty New York Times (even if only in the NYT’s skimpy Bay Area pages), but we really wish he’d borrow a page from Skelton’s book and do some actual reporting so he could write something relevant about California politics.

The stop-the-presses premise of last Sunday’s column – that the state in 2010 will elect a governor from Northern, not Southern, California – is nothing but fluffy flapdoodle. (Especially when, just the week before, Weintraub teed up a chin-stroker quoting a top legislator as saying, “The whole Northern California versus Southern California frame is so 1980s. It’s different now”).

Lest this seem unduly harsh, we hasten to add that we, of all people, understand how truly difficult it is to come up with ONE COLUMN A WEEK(!!!). Because we’re collegial and collaborative fellows who understand that There Is No “I” in T-E-A-M, here are some suggested ledes for future – strange but true! – political anomaly columns:

1-The 2010 governor’s race is the first in memory in which 60 percent of the candidates have first names with five letters  while only 40 percent have three, The Times has learned.

2-Next year’s election will mark the sixth consecutive contest for governor of California without a strong Armenian-American in the field, according to veteran political professionals on this coast.

3-For only the third time this century, a gubernatorial campaign will be conducted without a contender named Angelides strongly positioned to win his party’s nomination, sources said.

You could look it up.

joe_matthews280x350

Going, going, con-con: Our Department of Drill Down Policy Analysis and Professional Wonkery  is still working its way with a yellow highlighter through the 8,000 words of the second of two initiatives sponsored by the Bay Area Council aimed at convening a constitutional convention in California.

While awaiting what we like to call their work product deliverable, we deduce that the best online package put together on the proposals to date  may be found over at Fox and Hounds, where proprietor Joel Fox, the estimable Joe Mathews and the inevitable John Wildermuth cobbled together an examination of the matter from various perspectives.

The reliably nimble Mathews piece,which posits a batch of not-so-frequently-asked questions, is the best place to start, as he gets elbow deep in the crankcase grease of the thing, and pulls out some surprising spare parts:

So what’s not on the table?

Raising or reducing taxes and fees. Specifically, the convention’s revisions, amendments or suggested statutory changes “may not include new language, or alter existing language, that (1) directly imposes or reduces any taxes or fees; (2) sets the frequency at which real property is assessed or re-assessed; or (3) defines “change in ownership’ as it relates to any tax or fee.’”

Are you kidding?

It was just a few months ago that Calbuzz was defending con con sponsors in their dispute with Capitol Weekly, which had reported that Bay Area Council types were quietly maneuvering to banish debate about Proposition 13 from the convention agenda. Now it appears CapWeekly had it right along.

middle_fingerA Middle Finger Scoop: Mega-kudos to Tim Redmond, our mildly eccentric old friend at the SF Bay Guardian, who scooped the world with his blog post demonstrating that Governor Schwarzmuscle had issued a veto message about one of SF Assman Tom Ammiano’s bills that spelled out “I Fuck You” with the first letter of the first word in nine consecutive lines.

When we emailed Redmond (who apparently was not wearing a Dr, Hackenflack decoder ring) how he’d cracked the code, he said:

Honestly, I got a tip to look at it (as you know, once you’ve been doing this for 25 years people call with all kinds of stuff), and once you look at it it’s pretty clear. Amazing, huh?

Absolutely bro. Another amazing thing was that rival news organizations jumped in to follow Redmond’s scoop, rather than pooh-poohing it or pretending it didn’t exist, in direct violation of traditional San Francisco journalistic practice. The consistently quick off the mark S.F. Weekly, the Guardian’s chief rival, came back with its own scoop, reporting that a top  mathematician put the odds at  1 in 2 billion that the governor’s salute to Ammiano was a coincidence, while the dry-witted John Diaz at the Chron used the same technique to embed his own secret message to the governor (“grow up girlie-man”) in an editorial tut-tutting at Arnold for the stunt.

Good times.

Hilites & Lolites: Dudley Do Right vs. The Commish

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

reepcollage-2Two of the three GOP wannabe governors debated the state’s fiscal woes in Orange County last night, a genteel event highlighted by Steve Poizner channeling Maxwell Smart, Tom Campbell imitating Calvin Coolidge, and Meg Whitman doing Houdini.

The debate, put on by Brandman University with a big assist from Twitter, marked the fourth consecutive time in the campaign that the front-running Whitman has ducked a face-to-face-to face confrontation with her GOP rivals, as her campaign handlers told event organizers, according to one, that Her Megness was preparing “for an upcoming debate in March” instead.

coolidge

Really? March? Really?

Putting aside the fact that four and a half months is one helluva’ lot of debate prep, whatever happened to eMeg’s breezy assurance of last May about meeting Poizner for “three debates in the fall in different parts of the state on a far more wide range of subjects”? By our count, that’s four lies in one sentence, girlfriend: Let’s roll the You Tube tape.

Without Whitman to contend with, Campbell and Poizner engaged in a friendly series of pretty substantive and fairly specific exchanges on issues, ranging from tax cuts – Poizner wants big ones right away while Campbell wants to cut more spendinmaxwellsmartg first – to their mutual dislike of public employee unions – “When the economy goes down (government workers) don’t feel the same pain,” Poizner claimed – and immigration – Campbell had the guts to blame business and employers as much as the illegals they hire, while Poizner merely pandered by vowing to send the National Guard, the CHP and “if that doesn’t work, I’ll send Dan Walters” to the border. Yes, he actually said that.

Maybe it’s because we kept wandering away from the web cast to check on Game 1 of Philles and Yankees, but the Calbuzz Senior Content Team thought the most memorable moments of the evening were: 1) when Campbell cheerfully compared his budget strategy to that of the pre-presidential Calvin Coolidge – “Coolidge was a great governor of Massachusetts,” he said (Who knew?) and 2) when Poizner went all black bag deep cover houdinion us about his service as a White House Fellow in the months following 9/11 – “I had a security clearance way above top secret,” he said, “I can’t even talk about most of the things I worked on” (Steve Poizner, international man of mystery).

Fortunately for Calbuzz readers, Heather Reger actually covered the event for us. Here’s some on the scene observations from Heather:

War over drugs: The only semi-tense moment of the evening came when Campbell and Poizner were asked whether they would support initiatives, now being circulated, that call for the legalization of marijuana.

Campbell, who as a state senator authored a bill to legalize medical marijuana, snapped that he was absolutely opposed to it, then got one of the better laughs of the evening by saying,  “How can we generate revenue when this isn’t even legal federally? It would be like legalizing moonshine in Kentucky.”

But when he added that there is evidence to show major meth dealers are also distributing marijuana, Poizner jumped on him:
“Tom, you used to be in favor of legalizing drugs,” he said.
“No, I was not,” Campbell answered.
“I’d like some more clarification on your drug legalization views,” Poizner pressed.
“I am for the legalization of medicinal marijuana,” said Campbell. “That’s it.”

Poizner’s attack was based on statements by Campbell in his failed 2000 Senate bid against Dianne Feinstein. Vainly trying to get traction against the incumbent, Campbell declared war on the federal war on drugs, which Difi strongly  backed. He also embraced Proposition 36, a failed ballot initiative that called for diverting non-violent drug offenders into drug treatment centers instead of prison. Although Campbell’s views on drug laws were considerably more liberal than his Democratic opponent, Poizner over-reached by accusing him of wanting to legalize drugs.

A non-minority minority party: One of the more notable images of the night wasn’t the candidates on stage, but the people in the audience. Or actually those who weren’t in the audience: Nearly all of the more than 200 people on hand were white, not a good sign for a shrinking party at a time when ethnic minorities form a majority of California’s population.

Asked about the crowd after the debate, Campbell answered in Spanish, and said he had nothing to do with the invite list, but felt that Latinos would be an instrumental part of his campaign. Poizner wasn’t available to answer the question because he didn’t stick around to meet with reporters after the event.

Where’s Whitman? Neither candidate made a direct comment about eMeg’s absence during the debate. Poizner came the closest when he said, “Frankly, I don’t think we need any more celebrity candidates who hire armies of political consultants to tell them what they think.”

Afterwards, Jarrod Agen, communications director for Poizner’, noted Whitman’s campaign event at the border today, and said, “I heard she spent today at the border…probably running away from the debate.” Campbell wouldn’t bite on a question about Whitman.

Clothes make the man: The two made very different fashion statements, with Campbell wearing his traditional, button-down Brooks Brothers duds, while Poizner came on stage with a coat, no-tie and dark blue shirt full Silicon Valley look.

Calbuzz mugFirst I look at the purse: Campbell made fun of his own status as the only Republican running who’s not independently wealthy, calling himself “the Motel 6 candidate.”

Mocking Poizner and the absent Whitman for their ability to pour millions of their own money into the race, Campbell said, “I promise not to use the extensive personal wealth of the Campbell family” and suggested Poizner take the same pledge.

“That’s not going to happen,” the Insurance Comsissioner answered, without missing a beat.

Calbuzz Orange Count Bureau Chief Heather Reger is former editor in chief of The Panther at Chapman University.

The Politics of Purges: Alive, Well in California GOP

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

joseph-stalin2Political junkies across the nation are fixated on a once-obscure special election race for a House seat in New York, where Republican presidential hopefuls have interjected themselves into the campaign in a bid to purge a GOP moderate.

As Republicans struggle to remain politically relevant outside the South, the fight reflects a widening battle for the soul of the party between talk radio Tea Bag activists and GOP Beltway establishment types. That feud is mirrored in California, where Republican primary campaigns for governor and Senate shape up as contests to lay claim to the red meat voter bloc and its mantle of conservative populism.

In New York, Presidential wannabes Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty have all jumped into the 23rd District special election, endorsing Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman over the Republican nominee, state representative Dede Scozzafava.  Scozzafava (common spelling) is a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage moderate with ties to labor, who is backed by the House GOP leadership, the National Republican Congressional Committee and Newt Gingrich. The former House Speaker, who also is toying with a possible 2012 bid for president, has loudly warned that the push for Hoffman by prominent Republicans could hand the  longtime GOP seat to Democrat Bill Owens.

sarah-palin-fish1“This underscores a major issue the party is facing – how to win general elections, when the primaries are getting more and more conservative,” Republican consultant Carl Forti told Politico’s Alex Isenstadt. “The primary winners are often too right-wing to win a general election. This trend can’t continue if the GOP hopes to become a majority party again.”

Although the trend is more muted in California, the dominance of GOP primaries by right-wing conservatives is clearly visible in the nomination fight for governor. Coupled with the political energy released by anti-tax Tea Bag rallies and anti-Obama death panel town hall meetings, plus the daily exhortations of gasbags Limbaugh and Beck,  it is already defining the Republican Senate campaign to choose a challenger to Democrat incumbent Barbara Boxer.

Orange County GOP Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, a favorite of grassroots conservatives (and who, incidentally, has endorsed Doug Hoffman in New York’s special election) for months has been bashing ex-Silicon Valley CEO Carly Fiorina, who’s won early backing from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, portraying her as a pro-tax, pro-stimulus squish whose ideological credentials are suspect at best, as in this telling bit from a recent post on his web site:

devore“The difference between DeVore’s support and Fiorina’s is the difference between a strong, deep, and growing movement — and a shallow, media-driven, and purchased ephemera. As this campaign continues, Republicans interested in defeating Barbara Boxer will find the choice between the two increasingly easy.”

Confounding early conventional wisdom, DeVore and Fiorina were tied in a recent Field Poll; he argues that the survey proves she has no appeal to conservative Republicans; her supporters claim the finding simply reflects the fact that she hasn’t started to campaign yet, a point which  DeVore counter-punches by assailing iCarly for not having the stones to show up at Tea Bag rallies and other venues on his turf.

(Slight digression: shamefully enabled by the MSM, the Fiorina camp ridiculously keeps trying to build suspense over her impending candidacy by peddling fairy dust stories about a mysterious “big announcement” she plans to make on Nov. 6; Calbuzz sez: enough already with the cheesy, hide-the-sausage play).

The Republican purge-the-infidels dynamic is more nuanced in the governor’s race, simply because there’s no right-winger running, just three pro-choice moderates, two of whom are trying to win grassroots hearts and minds by donning the trappings of true blue conservatism like a Halloween get-up.

laffer curveInsurance Commissioner Steve Poizner is channeling loopy Republican anti-tax hero Arthur Laffer, by promoting a hyper-conservative slash-taxes-and-spending program, while making the rounds of nutball talk radio to cozy up to right-wing yakkers and trying to finesse his pro-choice stance on abortion.

Front-runner Meg Whitman meantime plays to the right-wing crowd by righteously thundering “let them eat cake,” as she threatens to toss tens of thousands of state employees on the trash heap, vows to roll back California’s environmental protections to the smokestack era, and hints that state prison inmates should be reduced to bread and water rations.

Former congressman and lifelong moderate Tom Campbell is the only one of the three who isn’t pandering 24/7 to the right-wing, which is why his chances of capturing the Republican nomination are only slightly better than those of the Dodgers winning the World Series.

Sacramento talk show host and blogger Eric Hogue, a favorite of the GOP peasants-with-pitchforks brigade, is a pretty good barometer of grassroots conservative sentiment in the state, and of the anxiety that hardliners feel about not having one of their own in the race.

torquemada

In recent days, Hogue has been agonizing over the relative pros and cons of pretenders Poizner and Whitman, and this week finally turned his attention to Campbell in a column that is instructive about the notions behind the purge-the-moderates movement. While praising Campbell’s experience, character and “engaging, classy personality,” Hogue hammers him for multiple sins of holding heretical views, with the zest of Torquemada. Some excerpts:

“But the glaring weaknesses for Tom Campbell are his egregious violations on social issues and an occasional fiscal walk off the conservative spread sheet.”

“Once again crossing over to the surreal side of the social aisle, Campbell would also support the merits of the environmentalists’ global warming worshipping AB-32, as he is also a strict conservationist.”

“At the end of the day, Tom Campbell is seen by many as a “somewhat- fiscal-conservative”, but an extremely social moderate, at times bordering on being a true centrist.”

The horror! The horror!