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Archive for 2010



Tom Meyer: eMeg’s the Life of the Party

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

The record will show that it was six years – to the day! – before California’s Nov. 2, 2010 election that alert customs agents at the Tecate Port of Entry on the U.S.-Mexico border foiled a nefarious smuggling plot to sneak into the country a little girl hidden inside a piñata.

That story came to mind with the arrival of this week’s Calbuzz commentary on Meg Whitman by meta-uber-editorial cartoonist Tom Meyer. His eMeg-on-a-string is of necessity drawn larger-than-life (although, it must be noted, still smaller than the biggest piñata in the world), in order to accommodate her many  views on immigration, which are nothing if not fungible.

Her Megness may well have felt like the piñata at last weekend’s big party of her party, where the small but hard-hitting California Republican Assembly took some good whacks at her before loyal apparatchiks swung her safely out of harm’s way by playing hide-go-seek with a proposed CRA resolution calling for the GOP to take a clear stand on the issue. Memo to Meg: have the campaign buy you a couple of these Empire Death Star piñatas to defend against any future such attacks. We hear they’re tough as nails.

Bitter Twitter: eMeg handlers Mike Murphy and Jeff Randle broke out the pom poms and the letter sweaters with the big “M” on them Friday to do some serious,  high-energy cheerleading for their candidate as the governor’s race heads towards the Labor Day mile marker.

Murphy, who sounded like he’d had a few double espressos with Red Bull chasers, correctly observed during a conference call with political reporters that the quaint notion of the first Monday in September signaling the start of the fall campaign has long since passed, as he noted that things have been “ripping and roaring” in California for some time now.

After a paranoid, preemptive Twitter attack on Calbuzz Thursday, wrongly predicting we’d post a critique of a wobbly, new Rasmussen poll that purports to show eMeg eight points ahead of Jerry Brown (“Why bother?” we cross-tweeted) Murphy on the call proceeded to dismiss the survey himself:

“I’m not telling you we’re eight points ahead, I’m telling you we’re ahead,” he said at one point, referring to summer polls in general as “wet cement,” not a bad line.

Both he and, especially, Randle offered a dizzying array of boasts, claims and factoids – 20,000 volunteers! 1 million calls! The largest campaign organization ever built! – that all added up in the mind’s eye to Team Whitman positioning their $100+ million Death Star (tough as nails!) to lay down two months of withering fire at Krusty’s knobby bald pate.

While Murph announced their intention to invade Brown’s Bay Area home base and Randle detailed the strategy and specs for a coordinated Republican “victory operation,” the broader takeaway for us was this:

Of the three basic elements of any campaign – money, mechanics and message –Whitman is going to open a can of wupass on Brown on #1 and most likely, on #2 as well.

In order to prevail against the Empire of eMeg, this means Brown really needs to win on #3,  with a superior message about how he plans to revive the badly beat up state of California. And so far, except for the hits on Meg delivered by IE committees of his labor pals, his message has been…uh…nothing.

All year, Team Krusty has promised their campaign would ignite come Labor Day. Now it’s a week away. We just can’t wait to hear what he’s got to say.

Today’s sign the end of civilization is near: We look forward to the Pregnant Paso Doble.

Press Clips: One Woman I-Team Sacks Tax Board

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Mega-kudos to Laura Mahoney, Sacramento correspondent for the Daily Tax Report and the winner of the Calbuzz Little Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting, for a superb, 25,000-word probe of the powerful, under-the-radar state Board of Equalization.

The only journalist who regularly covers the board, she  spent 18 months reporting and writing the five-part series, which reveals an incontrovertible pay-to-play connection between campaign contributions to its elected members and the outcome of tax appeals on which they rule.

“I realized when (the project) took me as long as it did to gestate my babies, I was in trouble,”  said Mahoney, a mother of two.

Known as “the Board of Eeek!” to generations of California reporters who quake with fear at the mere thought of covering complex financial stories, the BOE not only administers billions of dollars of tax collections, but also adjudicates disputes about them between the state and corporations or individuals.

Mahoney reports that California’s is the only such elected board in the nation with those dual roles. With its members (four are elected from districts of about 8 million people each, the fifth is the state controller) as dependent on special interest campaign cash as every other state pol, the  big accounting, law and other professional firms that do business with the board, along with their  PACs and high-end clients, are only too happy to accommodate.

Mahoney is a 20-year veteran of the Daily Tax Report, the flagship of BNA, a Washington-based publisher of  periodicals focused on high-level, specialized policy reporting for business and government. Besides the extraordinary level of detail and data analysis in her pieces, the strength of her reporting is the understated, dispassionate style and tone of her writing (kinda like us!), which makes her relentless accumulation of fact upon fact upon fact, and the conclusions she derives from it, that much more powerful. A summary of her findings begins:

Taxpayers with complex tax dispute cases before the California State Board of Equalization were more likely to win their cases if they or their representatives made campaign contributions to the elected board members, either directly or through political action committees, according to a detailed examination by Daily Tax Report, a BNA publication.

In a series of reports, BNA examined the outcomes of 70 complex, high-stakes cases argued before the board between 2002 and 2009, and compared those cases to publicly available campaign finance records.

BNA found more than $1 million in contributions to board members from taxpayers or their representatives who argue those cases before the board. All of the contributions were legal and contributors who spoke to BNA denied any causality between their contributions and success before the board.

We just bet they did. Check this:

However, a correlation appears to exist between contribution levels and success before the board, based on BNA’s original research.  BNA found that 20 of the 70 cases examined had less than $250 tied to them, and those taxpayers won their cases 30 percent of the time.

Success rates rose with higher contribution rates. Dividing the remaining cases in equal groups, BNA found another 17 cases had between $250 and $16,000 in contributions tied to them, and those taxpayers won 53 percent of the time. The next group of 16 cases had $16,000 to $50,000 tied to them, and those taxpayers won 75 percent of the time. The last group of 16 cases had $50,000 to $137,000 tied to them, and those taxpayers won 88 percent of the time.

Huh. Imagine that.

There’s lots more good stuff, as Mahoney names names, dissects the politics of the board’s operations and weighs the policy implications of what she found.

One of the conclusions of the final report of the governor’s tax reform commission released last year was that California should create an independent board to handle the politically charged issue of tax appeals.  So far, no one in the Administration or Legislature has seen fit to try to push such a reform.

After reading Mahoney’s special report, someone really, really should.

Cutting room floor:

Finally someone notices that the  “anti incumbent wave” of primary season is all about Republicans.

Lou Cannon’s take on mid-terms: mercifully free of heavy breathing

We’re still working our way through Todd Purdum’s big Vanity Fair piece on what’s wrong with Washington ‘cuz we keep stopping where he says $3.5 billion got spent on lobbying last year – $1.3 million for each day Congress was in session.

World’s only human shorter than Barbara Boxer gets it pretty much right.

Judge Vaughn Walker: liberal elite insider. Uh, wasn’t he appointed by a Republican?

What’s Obama’s problem?

A-He’s too condescending.

B-He thinks he’s Prime Minister.

C-He sold out much too fast.

D-He’s totally incompetent.

E-He doesn’t have a problem.

F-He’s easily intimidated.

G-His problem lies in the very nature of man.

Calbuzz sez: B, C and F.

In case you missed it: Since the whole dispute over the Manhattan Islamic community center erupted, we’ve been determined to keep Calbuzz a Ground Zero Mosque Free Zone. But we finally came across something that sums up our take, thanks to Aasif Mandvi.

eMeg’s Charm Offensive (Take 47); Foxy & Brown

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Meg Whitman’s new ad, “130 Miles,” is an attempt to use the glamor of Silicon Valley to reboot eMeg’s image as a can-do business executive whose skill is needed to repair California’s “mismanaged, ineffective” government. It’s polished and – if you knew nothing else about her, Silicon Valley or how government works – a persuasive 30-second argument.

But alas, reality bites. Give eMeg’s ad minions props for drawing a sharp line between Sacramento and Silicon Valley, which “gave us Apple, Intel, eBay.” Of course, as Jerry Brown’s campaign noted in its response, “At least eight Fortune 500 companies were founded in California during Brown’s governorship,” including Apple, Oracle, Amgen, Symantec, Electronic Arts and Sun (purchased by Oracle in 2009).

BTW, the choice of Apple, Intel and eBay is clever cherry-picking, but actually, the largest Silicon Valley companies in terms of 2009 sales were Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Cisco, Intel, Oracle, Google and Sun, in that order Then came eBay.

Calbuzz: The Prairie Years (With Actual Longhorn)

Brown can quibble but can’t really refute the ad’s assertion that Whitman “started with 30 people, led them, managed them, executed the plan that grew this main street company to 15,000 employees and made small business dreams come true.” But they did come up with a nice little gotcha: seems the eBay small-business success story featured visually in the ad – EasySale – is based in Arlington, Texas, and isn’t licensed to do business in California. Go Longhorns! Oops.

But we digress. What this very slick ad does not address is perhaps the most important question facing Whitman’s candidacy for governor: Even if she was a smashing success in Silicon Valley (and there’s certainly debate about that), what does that have to do with governing in Sacramento?

Since at least half of your Calbuzz team cut his teeth in Silicon Valley, we know that there are plenty of big fish who’ve come out of the Valley – Larry Ellison, Jerry Sanders, John Scully, Frank Quattrone, Mark Hurd, Steve Jobs, Scott McNealy to name a few – who don’t belong in politics. (Note: We’re not even mentioning Carly Fiorina.)

Running a company, answering to venture capitalists or a board of directors and shareholders, placing profit at the core of your soul, issuing commands to underlings, laying out an action plan and ordering people to implement it – these skills may serve the bottom line. But they don’t remotely resemble the abilities a governor needs: civic vision, coupled with facility for cajoling, compromising and co-operating, to name a small part of the collaborative, consensus-building skill set required of an effective political leader.

That 130 miles between Silicon Valley and Sacramento is indeed more like the distance between two planets. It’s Whitman’s challenge to demonstrate that she can do more than yammer about how she understands what it takes to create jobs. She needs to convince Californians that she could actually govern.

One more intriguing note: In this new version of eMeg’s Charm Offensive (she’s trying to get her favorables up from 40%) there are shots of her from four different magazines but no live footage of Her Megness Herself.  Guess they just ran out of time.

Department of burning pants: As we noted Wednesday, state Republican leaders are spinning like Schwins the claim that the GOP statewide ticket represents not only a breakthrough for their white man’s party, but, more broadly, a stirring display of never-before-seen diversity in the history of California politics.

The latest reporter to bite on this story is Araceli Martinez Ortega, writing at the Spanish language site Impre.com. Here’s a bit of a translated excerpt eblasted by the GOP:

As never before in its history, Republicans have managed to put together a formula that represents the diversity of the state – two female candidates, a Latino, and an African-American – with the goal of winning the general election in November…They face a Democratic ticket consisting primarily of Caucasians (emphasis ours).

Sigh. Ortega can probably be forgiven for peddling this canard; after all, for her him to have discovered that the two party tickets have exactly the same numbers of men, women, whites and minorities would have taken incredible effort, on the order of the complex and wide-ranging investigation Calbuzz conducted by counting up the demographic traits of those on the ballot.

But the state party is a different story.  They sent this stinky cheese around the state, knowing full well that the claim of an ethnic and gender difference between the two slates is a total crock.

For that we’re awarding them a copy of the shortest book ever published – “Richard Nixon’s Guide to Telling the Truth” (Introduction by Meg Whitman).

Out-foxed: There’s no bigger sacred cow in politics these days than small business (the phrase “small business is the backbone of the economy” Google generates 469,000 results).

Just now, for example, folks in Washington who favor extending the Bush tax cuts to the richest one percent of Americans constantly cloak their position in the self-righteous and cynical argument that anyone who opposes such an  outrageous homage to oligarchy is a pinko socialist determined to ruin poor old Uncle Chester’s hardware store, a stance that happens to be a lie.

In California, few are the equal of the wily Joel Fox in hoisting the small business fig leaf to disguise the big balls corporate beneficiaries of such policies. The resourceful Anthony York was the first to offer a glimpse behind this political pretense of plucky Main Street merchants, with a post detailing the actual sources of contributions to the Fox-run Small Business Action Committee PAC:

The SBAPAC revealed Tuesday evening that it received more than $1 million from alcohol, tobacco and real estate groups. Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, donated $500,000. Anheuser-Busch, which brews Budweiser, gave $200,000 and the Wine Institute chipped in another $50,000. Los Angeles-based Cypress Management Company gave the group $250,000.

Ah yes, Anheuser-Busch, your favorite neighborhood brewer, and good old Philip Morris, who runs the family farm out on the old River Road. Sheesh.

The $1 million detailed in the SBAPAC’s new spending report is only a fraction of the total amount of contributions to the group. That’s just the money earmarked for campaigns over two ballot measures, Propositions 25 and 27, in which corporations are fighting to preserve their sacred right (in California, anyway) to avoid being taxed just because a mere majority of lawmakers elected by the voters thinks it’s a good idea. Perish the thought.

What the SBAPAC report does not account for is another $3 million in contributions now being used to air ersatz “issue ads” whose clear purpose is to rip Jerry Brown’s face off on behalf of poor little rich girl eMeg.

Fox’s group uses a gaping loophole in the law to avoid disclosing those special interests donations, an avoidance he’s tried to tart up in the flag, the First Amendment and the Boston Tea Party several times over at his Fox and Hounds web site (we’d link to his recent pieces but F&H appears to be crashed at the moment).

Your Calbuzzards, however, think he got much closer to the nut of the matter when he told York: “I’ve got two lawyers who have looked at all of this, and there are different rules for the PAC. This has all been lawyered to death.”

We just bet it has.

Krusty Krashes, Meg De-Friended, Flash Squished

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Gandalf Discovers Technology, Chapter 23: Reports that Jerry Brown’s web site crashed, moments after Barack Obama e-blasted a political support pitch for him, may have caused some brief embarrassment to Krusty’s bare-bones campaign staff, but it was quickly overcome when Jerry’s Kids started toting up the bottom line impact of the message.

Obama’s email (…meeting these challenges will be possible only if we have bold leaders like Jerry Brown working alongside us, yadda yadda…) hit our inbox at 12:13 p.m. and Gandalf’s site went down around 12:45, coming back up about 10 minutes later.

Even at that, said trusty Krusty flack Sterling Clifford, more than 3,000 people signed up for campaign emails in the first hour, or about one every 1.2 seconds, according to calculations prepared by the Calbuzz Division of  Critical Mathematical Thinking and Old Abacus Restorations.

Not half bad and, while we waited and waited until push-the-button time for Brown’s vast and far-flung IT department to ship us more data about the Obama readership spike, it seemed impressive enough to keep us from crafting another full-length cheap shot about how hideously over-matched his online and tech operations are against the Empire of eMeg.

“We’ve been in regular touch with the White House political team for months, going back to last winter,” said Clifford, explaining the genesis of Tuesday’s presidential play. “They’ve offered help in a number of ways…with presidential involvement.”

Brown’s campaign, however, offered only clichéd coyness when we asked about any plans for Obama to fly out for a fundraiser in the fall. “That’s for us to know and you to find out,” Clifford actually said. “This is not the only time we’ll see the support of the White House.”

I thought you were my friend. Calbuzz pal Barbara O’Connor, one of our favorite, well-informed eggheads on the subject of state politics and government, checked in to say that reports about her supporting Meg Whitman are not only wrong but also result from a manipulative practice by Team eMeg.

Meg Whitman’s Facebook ad misused my name. They said I was a supporter because I looked at her website and Facebook page as an observer. So much for trying to see what they are posting. If you see my name on any of their materials please complain and ask it to be pulled. I am not supporting her.

Duly noted. To get off the list, she defriended eMeg. (Gasp!)

By the numbers: State GOP chairman Ron Nehring has gotten a lot of mileage out of bragging on the gender and ethnic diversity of the Republicans statewide slate.

“We’ve got a statewide ticket that looks like California, that reflects the diversity of California,”  Nehring told reporters over the weekend.

Among those who ran with Mr. Chairman’s spin was the grassroots blogger Mayhill Fowler – yes, the very one who captured Obama’s famous “cling to their guns and religion” private comment during the 2008 campaign –in her Huffpost report about the convention:

The top of the state ticket has the flavor of inclusiveness that Americans like in their politics now: three women (Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina and Mimi Walters), an African-American (Damon Dunn) and a Hispanic (Abel Maldonado). Diversity was on display in San Diego.

Fair enough, but let’s not get too carried away. While Nehring would have us think the GOP has practically become the UN, the Republican ticket “looks like California” exactly as much as does the Democratic slate: both parties nominated three women and five men, six whites and two minorities for  eight statewide offices.

It’s also worth noting that the most recent demographic data on the parties, a report from the Field Poll released last summer, showed that white voters still account for 79 percent of registered Republicans, although whites are now a minority – 43 percent – of the state’s overall population; by comparison, white voters represent about 55 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of independents.

Of course, a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, as Mao Tse Tung, the Ron Nehring of his own party, was fond of quoting Lao Tzu.

Final word from GOP confab: Jon Fleischman, the state Republican party’s Man of Many Hats, was in a state of constant motion throughout the just-concluded weekend convention, careening from event to event to fulfill the duties – or further the machinations – of his various roles as apparatchik, blogger and political conspirator.

Around midnight Saturday, Fleischman collapsed his hefty frame into a chair in the Grand Lobby Bar of the convention hotel, joining a trio of off-duty journos who were about 13 or 14 drinks into the mission.

Amid the gossip and good fellowship, Flash recounted an absorbing yarn of how, as a 21-year old knuckledragger-in-training in the early 1990s, he had been roughly flung and pinned to the floor, face ground into the carpet, by two of Pete Wilson’s bodyguards – for the ideologically pure, if woefully misguided, act of shouting personal insults about tax increases at PeeWee while running towards the governor at a high rate of speed down an otherwise deserted hotel corridor.

It explained a lot about Fleischman.

Mid-tale, he glanced at his phone to read a text message he’d just received.   Sent seconds before by state Senate Republican Leader Dennis Hollingsworth who, as it happened, was sitting with a lively group a mere 10 feet away, the text read: “Hanging out with squishes?”

After sharing the message with his journalistic companions, who took it as a compliment, Fleischman finished his story and his drink, then wearily rose to join Senator Hollingsworth’s party, shaking his head at the unstinting demands placed on a man with multiple agendas.

Final photo from GOP confab: Pictured here: The volcanic Sarah Pompei, eMeg spokeshuman, on the convention floor on Friday night, shortly before she mysteriously disappeared and turned up missing from the Dr. Hackenflack dinner.

Today’s sign the end of civilization is near: We’re pretty sure the numbers on peeing in the pool are wayyyy low.

CA GOP’s ‘Enough is Enough’ is Not Good Enough

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Nothing we saw at the California Republican Party convention last weekend suggested that either of the leading GOP candidates, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, has a strategic message or distilled election theme that goes much beyond unrelenting negativity about government and their opponents.

“Enough is enough,” seemed to be the closest thing to an overarching slogan from any candidate and that’s not much to hang a campaign on. While “Yes we can” could be translated into “Si se puede” for Latino voters, don’t hold your breath waiting for the cries of “¡Basta Ya!”

Even if it worked linguistically, what does it mean? Who does it recommend? More importantly, where the Republican’s Reaganesque sunny optimism? Or even the Bushy saccharine positivism?

Instead, the California GOP of 2010 says, the hell with that stupid shining city on the hill: let’s tear down that derelict village in the valley, by God.

It’s telling that the most enthusiastic response of the convention came when  secretary of state candidate Damon Dunn kept yelling “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  When your best campaign theme is a line filched from “Network” –  a 1976 movie written by Paddy Chayefsky and delivered by Peter Finch — you know you’re struggling to come up with what communications professionals like to call a (quote-unquote) message.

Whitman (“A New California”) and Fiorina (“Protect the American Dream”) pay lip service to the great possibilities that lie in California’s future. Their most constant rhetoric, however,  is all about the sorry state of affairs in Sacramento and Washington and the horrible impact  Democratic foes Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer have had and will have on civic life.

It is the Republican’s great good fortune that neither Brown nor Boxer has yet developed a concise and coherent theme, either. Brown’s slogan is a flaccid “Let’s get California working again” and Boxer’s is, er, well, she doesn’t seem to have one at all.

But just 10 weeks before the election, one would expect the GOP convention to serve as the venue for the candidates to roll out their meta-message for the fall campaign as a rallying cry for the party faithful. It didn’t happen.

Instead, Whitman tried to argue that she was running against the incumbent governor:  “After four years as attorney general, four years as secretary of state, eight years as mayor of Oakland and two terms as governor, we once and for all are going to say goodbye to Jerry Brown’s failed ideas and broken promises,” she told the delegates.

California can’t afford Brown’s “radical approach and failed philosophies” when the state is facing an unemployment crisis that is “tearing at the fabric of our very culture”  and “strangling” business with unnecessary rules and regulations.

Sheesh. Given that state of affairs, you’d think she’d be pissed at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – the actual incumbent.

Fiorina, at least, can rightly complain about a Democratic president and U.S. Senator whom she portrays as closet socialists who are weakening the social structure.

But man is she a downer:

I’ve crossed every region of California and I have found islands of despair. In our beautiful state, there is a steady, grinding injustice where the failed policies of Washington’s ruling class have smothered hopes in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people — losing jobs, losing homes, destroying businesses, and worse, sapping the life and the strength and the dreams out of working families in every corner and every county.

Guess we’ll just slit our throats right now and be done with it.

To their credit neither Whitman nor Fiorina appears ready to throw in with what columnist E.J. Dionne calls “the rise of angry, irrational extremism” of the Glenn Beck, Tea Party variety.

Of course, in California, that would not be smart political strategy, which explains why Whitman’s royalists killed a resolution to back Arizona’s “papers please” immigration law and why Fiorina had to be racked by reporters to acknowledge she thought the resolution might be “appropriate” before she was swept away by her handlers.

But neither do they advocate the optimistic conservatism of candidates like Marco Rubio of Florida who says, “Vote for us because you couldn’t possibly vote for them? That’s not enough. It may win some seats, but it won’t take you where you want to be.”

Fiorina’s negativity has a stronger rationale than eMeg’s: she is trying to oust an incumbent United States Senator and has to make the case both against Boxer and for herself. She’s doing a pretty good job of the former if not too well on the latter.

But Whitman is running mostly against Brown who, last we checked, is not the incumbent. Her campaign’s strategy is to make him look like the incumbent, but that has led to such a negative approach that Whitman has been unable to get above 40% favorable despite spending ungodly amounts of money.

Whitman’s big problem is that, after pouring $104 million into her effort, her campaign has failed to craft, let alone sustain, a clear and consistent positive message that gives voters a reason to be for her instead of just being against Brown.

Bottom line: In the end, “Say Goodbye to Jerry” won’t be enough to get her over.