Archive for 2014

Op-Ed: When The Press All Cheered Leland Yee

Saturday, March 29th, 2014


On March 20, the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists staged its annual banquet, at the S.F. City Club, and presented Senator Leland Yee with the organization’s Public Official Award. Also honored at the event, along with a dozen others, was veteran political reporter and occasional Calbuzzer Rob Gunnison, recognized for mentoring aspiring journalists during his years as Director of School Affairs at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

No one there knew it at the time, but Yee’s comments at the event would be among the last public speeches he would make, perhaps for years, outside of a courtroom. Here are some reflections from Gunnison on the honor that journalists bestowed on Yee that night.

By Robert B. Gunnison
Special to Calbuzz

It is a rare day when journalists say something nice about a politician. Yet, there we were applauding Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, as he acknowledged his award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his work to open state government records to public scrutiny.

Yee was all smiles and of good cheer. “I’m proud to share the stage with so many who have done so much to keep our government open and accountable,” he said in a statement. He joked that he likes reporters “because I see you all at Safeway.”

SPJ cited Yee’s “courage to oppose his own Democratic Party leaders and the governor in 2013 with public criticism of efforts to weaken the California Public Records Act by loosening disclosure requirements for local governments.”

A week later, Leland Yee was trending on Facebook, but not in a good way. He was arrested by federal agents and charged with illegally trafficking in firearms and trading political favors for contributions to pay off his campaign debt.  A lengthy affidavit from the FBI paints a picture of Lee’s secret life of political intrigue.

Determining motives in politics is dangerous business, but Yee’s public persona puts him at odds with other politicians charged with similar crimes. They are usually shy, even edge toward paranoia about reporters and see no percentage in even being anything more than courteous, maybe. Yee was clearly different.

krauze huhne pressAside from a free meal, there are few surer ways to win the hearts and minds of reporters, editors and publishers than to be on the side of open government records.  And Yee established a strong record by challenging everyone from Jerry Brown to the University of California and California State University.

Along the way, he won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association, The First Amendment Coalition and the Journalism Education Association. He won an earlier award from SPJ in 2010.

Was Yee trying, as the political consultants might say, to inoculate himself to keep reporters from looking at him too closely? There were early warning signs that his behavior might be a problem – shoplifting in Hawaii, a couple of stops by police who thought he was soliciting prostitutes in San Francisco.

Nonetheless, he was elected to San Francisco Board of Supervisors, twice to the Assembly, twice to the Senate and, until Thursday, was running for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state.

gunnisonHow hard did reporters look at the record and associates of a politician who helps the press gain access to government documents? Could any suspect behavior been caught by looking more closely at campaign finance statements, for instance?

If the federal agents are correct, Yee led a secret double life that we can read, finally, in a new public record. As reporters from one end of the state to the other now frenetically chase incriminating information the FBI discovered about Yee, it’s worth asking what a better story it would have been, if we had found it ourselves.



Best and Worst of Shrimp Boy-Uncle Leland Coverage

Friday, March 28th, 2014

gavinandshrimpboyEverybody’s friend: Perhaps it was a mere dose of stupid pills that made Gavin Newsom decide to pose for a grip-and-grin with a strutting, flashy, habitual criminal who still boasts his Chinatown gang moniker.

Oh sure, there were a few traits of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow that more uptight top California elected officials might tend to think of as red flags.

The ankle monitor the feds still require Chow to wear, for example, after he served *part of a 22 year prison sentence; or his autobiography, “Son of the Underworld,” which boasts of his record as a violent enforcer whose career began by stabbing someone when he was 9, plus his proficiency in running prostitutes, dealing drugs, smuggling guns and extorting small business owners; or the TV report – in Newsom’s hometown, the same week he posed and smiled with the guy – that quoted several police sources saying Chow was “still associating with known gang members” and “being followed closely.”

jerryandjimjonesBut clearly none of that stuff stacked up against Shrimp Boy’s own, public promises that he was “turning his life around.” At least not to Newsom, who upheld the tradition of California liberal Democrats getting cozy with sociopaths (see Jones, Jim).

It took the Sacramento Bee about 12 seconds to find the Newsom pic on Shrimp Boy’s Facebook page, and to post it on their site, on a day when Chow co-starred in the dramatic indictment of state Sen. Leland Yee and several dozen members of their posse. As a political matter, it is much to be expected that the scandal, including the Newsom-Chow photo, will have legs into November.

Alas, it doesn’t look like Shrimp Boy will be out in time to cast a ballot for his Facebook friend.

alan-wangThe envelope, please: Overall, Press Clips was duly impressed with the first-days coverage of the scandal by our MSM colleagues. Along with the must-have, just the facts breaking stories and required backgrounders, a couple of reports stood out for special awards:

— KGO-TV’s Alan Wang still shines, two years later, in a first-rate, hard nosed examination – the only by the trusting MSM?  — of Chow’s phony claims of being a changed man (which were swallowed whole by a batch of politicians besides Newsom: Dianne Feinstein, Ed Lee, Tom Ammiano and, of course, Yee, all prepared formal proclamations singing Shrimp Boy’s praises, also posted on FB).

Wang’s 4:55 prescient piece, which aired May 7, 2012, featured a sit-down with Chow in which the reporter repeatedly confronts him with quotes from law enforcement sources calling bushwah on the guy. Shrimp Boy gets his say, but Wang maintains a very skeptical attitude throughout:

Wang: The police still believe you’re involved with a lot of criminal activity.

Chow: What do you think?

Now that’s what you call your non-denial denial.

–Paolo Lucchesi in the Chronicle Food Section (still the best thing about the paper, along with Sports and Costco Carla), who quick-stepped a delightful feature headlined “A San Francisco Walking Tour of the Leland Yee Saga.”

tonysoprano460It begins with a predictable disclaimer that All Of This Is Really Serious Business, but quickly pivots to a rumination on the high-profile role that eating establishments play in the feds’ 137-page affidavit as perfect plotting and planning playgrounds for alleged felonies:

“…in most cases, the specific names of the restaurants were omitted. Was the business being conducted in a dingy diner, like the Greek did in the second season of The Wire? Did the meetings take place in an old school Italian red sauce joint like the famous Sollozzo/McClusky dinner in The Godfather?

Regardless, food and restaurants play a prominent role in the affidavit, from the revelation that “the placing of a black lion outside of the banquet restaurant [is] to send a message of intimidation to all other organizations that Chow’s organization was the oldest and strongest” (Page 31) to the time that two of Chow’s “people … hid their guns across the street in a restaurant bathroom” upon spotting police officers (Page 32). Also: Shrimp Boy.

— KQED’s Scott Detrow’s smart piece that annotated, page by page, the crucial FBI affidavit in support of the arrests of Yee and others. The document itself at times is tough going – the 12-page introduction of the dramatis personae is a real hump – but Detrow provides a good, useful running log of punchy explanations that highlight, explain and connect key passages.

shrimpboytatoosAnd the runners-up:

— Nice work by NBC-Bay Area, which broke the story early Wednesday morning of Yee’s arrest, complete with video of him handcuffed in a cop car and whisked away to the hoosegow, live tweeted by Diane Dwyer.

— Great hustle by the San Jose Mercury News team, which appeared to be the first news org to get independent confirmation of Yee’s arrest (the well-sourced Howard Mintz?) and pushed the story forward all day online. Runner up: The Bee’s Capitol Alert.

— Excellent lead-all print edition story by the Chron. Despite carrying three bylines and 45 words, the lede was crisp, with all essential facts, and the crucial top four grafs unfurled in a smooth, easy to follow rhythm that didn’t overwhelm the reader but carried momentum all the way to the kicker. (A wild guess: Trapper Byrne, world’s greatest desk editor, pulled all the threads together on deadline. was wrong; Trap still the best, though). The irony, of course, is that the paper’s High Sheriffs are working overtime to push the paper out of the, um, paper business.

Cliché of the day (Print Category):

The public corruption case against state Sen. Leland Yee reads like a bad crime novel with off-the-books firearms deals made in parking lots and confessions whispered in a booth at a karaoke bar. L.A. Times.

It reads like a crime novel, listing meetings after meetings throughout the city. S.F. Chronicle.

The federal affidavit, unsealed as Yee headed to federal court, reads like a gripping crime novel. KCRA.

yee 628x471Cliché of the day (Film)  

Steinberg called the charges “shocking and surreal,” adding that the gun-running allegation was “like a bad movie.” L.

With scenes resembling the recent movie blockbuster “American Hustle”… San Jose Mercury News.A. Times.

If this guy wasn’t a Democrat, every screenwriter in Hollywood would be banging out a film script right now . Human Events.

Understatement of the week  award:

Thursday’s decision may also signal that Yee’s political career is coming to an end.

Yah think?

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that Chow had served his complete 22-year prison sentence.

PPIC: Californians Reject GOP Views and Wannabes

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014


The latest poll from the Public Policy Institute of California has some rather bad news for GOP Chairman Jim Brulte and his party:

Californians pretty much like the job Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is doing, they favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, don’t want restrictions on women’s access to abortion, would like to see more restrictions on guns, while gun-toting, anti-immigrant, pro-life anti-choice Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly is their leading candidate for governor.

Rancho Cucamonga, we have a problem.

A slim majority of adults – 53% — even favors Brown’s proposed $68 billion high-speed rail proposal and 60% back the $11.1 billion plan for state water projects.

Meanwhile Neel Kashkari, the Republican who has raised the most campaign cash in the governor’s race – and the one GOP candidate most in tune with popular statewide opinion – draws about 2% of the vote in the June First Cut Election© (it’s not really a primary), compared to 10% for the dangerous Mr. Donnelly.

Gov. Gandalf, meanwhile, is pulling 47% overall, including 78% of the Democrats, 37% of the independents and even 15% of the Republicans. In other words, he’d make the run-off if only Republicans were to vote.

Worse, for the Republicans, without lifting a campaign finger (or mentioning Cesar Chavez or Mother Teresa), Brown is pulling 58% among Latinos, with second place going to Donnelly at 8%. If Latinos find out he’s been out on Minuteman patrols on the California-Mexican border, that will probably drop to about 1%.

At this rate, the only chance Republicans have of doing well in November is if every Democrat in the Legislature gets carted away by the FBI. Oh wait, they’re already doing that…

approvalFun with numbers: Brown’s approval ratings were not bad: 49% among all adults and 52% among likely voters. That’s down somewhat from a high of 58% in January but about where it was last March. While 67% of Democrats and 49% of independents approve of Brown’s performance, nearly a third – 32% — of Republicans likewise approve of the way he’s handling his job as governor.

President Obama’s approval rating is 52% among all adults and 49% among likely voters – not great for such a blue state, but not terrible, either.

The lead item in PPIC’s analysis of their poll was water.

“A record-high share of Californians say the supply of water is a big problem in their part of the state, and nearly all residents say they have reduced their water use in response to the drought,” PPIC reported. “Asked about the supply of water in their area, 55 percent of residents say it is a big problem (20% somewhat of a problem, 23% not much of a problem). In contrast, 44 percent of Californians expressed this view in December 2009, during another drought. Today, majorities across regions characterize their area’s water supply as a big problem, with residents in the Central Valley (65%) most likely to do so (55% Orange/San Diego, 54% Inland Empire, 52% San Francisco Bay Area, 51% Los Angeles). Most (60%) also say the water supply in their area will be inadequate 10 years from now.”

PPIC also reported on:

fast_train_CAHigh Speed Rail — Californians were asked about another big project: a high-speed rail system. In 2008, voters passed a $10 billion state bond for its planning and construction. Today, when read a description of the system and its $68 billion price tag, 53 percent favor it and 42 percent oppose it. Likely voters are less supportive (45% favor, 50% oppose). Majorities in the San Francisco Bay Area (63%), Central Valley (57%), Orange/San Diego (54%), and Los Angeles (52%) are in favor. Inland Empire residents are divided (45% favor, 46% oppose). When opponents of high-speed rail are asked how they would feel if the cost were lower, support rises (69% adults, 60% likely voters). Asked about high-speed rail’s importance, 35 percent of adults and 29 percent of likely voters say it is very important to the future quality of life and state’s economic vitality.

abetterlife2Immigration — A record-high 65 percent of Californians say that immigrants are a benefit to the state because of their hard work and job skills rather than a burden because they use public services (27%). State residents are far less divided on this question than when PPIC first asked it in April 1998 (46% benefit, 42% burden). On immigration reform, an overwhelming majority of adults (86%) and likely voters (83%) favor providing a path to citizenship for immigrants in the U.S. illegally who meet certain requirements—including waiting a certain period of time, paying fines and back taxes, passing criminal background checks, and learning English. Even  among Californians who say immigrants are a burden there is majority support (72%) for a path to citizenship

Abortion — A solid majority of adults (69%) say the government should not interfere with access to abortion, and about a quarter (26%) say government should pass more laws restricting its availability. Mainline Protestants (81%) and adults with no religion (88%) are more likely than Catholics (58%) and evangelical Protestants (50%) to say that government should not interfere with abortion access.

Environmental laws — A majority (55%) say that stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost. Fewer (38%) say that this type of regulation costs too many jobs and hurts the economy.

Gun control — A majority (56%) say the government does not do enough to regulate access to guns. Fewer (37%) say the government goes too far in restricting the rights of citizens to own guns.

PPIC surveyed a random sample of 1,702 California adults March 11-18 on landline and cell phones, including 1,380 respondents who said they were registered voters and 936 identified as likely voters. The overall margin of error was +/- 3.6% and for likely voters it was +/- 4.7%.

Why Hacks, Flacks Are Cheering Brown’s “Librarian”

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

lucasNot since then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown named Jacques Barzaghi director of that city’s Craft and Cultural Affairs Department has Gandalf made an appointment so intriguing as California State Librarian-designate Greg Lucas.

“I cracked up when I heard the news,” said one media veteran.

“Then I realized April Fool’s isn’t ‘til next week.”

Lucas, 55, is a longtime Capitol newspaper hack reporter, editor and blogger, trendy restaurant critic and public access TV star. Nominated Tuesday to be the 24th state librarian, a $142,968-a-year post, he is, a Brown flack said, “an independent thinker, a sharp writer and a keen observer.”

Several other adjectives come to mind, but hey, the guy deserves at least a brief honeymoon.

The man for the job: The appointment, according to the By God L.A. Times, predictably was greeted with outrage and derision by, you know, professionals in the field. Influential members of the far-flung Calbuzz Political Community and Pajama-Clad Troll Brigade, however, applauded Brown’s unconventional move, if only in hopes of witnessing a political spectacle when lawmakers whom Lucas has dissed for years take up his confirmation in the state Senate.

A voracious reader, at least when his lips are moving while perusing a book written in the phonetic alphabet, Lucas plans to overcome his lack of technical skills, Brown’s spokeshuman said, by taking classes “through San Jose State University’s library science program.”  Go Spartans!

And at a time when digital technology is ever-more important to libraries, his background and knowledge of Fortran, Videotex and the TRS-80 ideally equip him to lead the library into the 20th during some part of the 21st century. We also hear he’s learning Word.

frank Coombs_thumb_thumbThe line of history: As every school child knows, Lucas would not be the first state librarian who lacks a traditional background for the gig; Frank L. Coombs, California’s 14th librarian, who served from, uh, 1898 to 1899, had no formal education in library science. Yet Coombs, a former Napa County District Attorney, was a strong leader who specialized in tracking down malefactors with overdue books, some as much as five years late. You could look it up.

Lucas also is likely to be less controversial than James W. Denver, our second state librarian (1853-55), who fought a duel while in office with Edward Gilbert, editor of the San Francisco Alta California. Denver shot and killed Gilbert; although dueling had been outlawed in the state, the Bay Area news hound was so unpopular that no one in law enforcement took action against the sharp-shooting bookman.

What his colleagues say: Using the crack reporting skills we honed through years of gathering instant, totally superficial reaction quotes on political stories, we swiftly rounded up the top 10 reasons Capitol hands of all stripes favor Brown’s selection of Lucas:

10-With new boss out daily for four-hour lunches, library staff now free to snooze in stacks.

9-Governor eyes general fund revenue bump from librarian’s tripling of late return fines.

8-Lucas vows to meet incessant public demand for copies of world’s shortest volume: “The Collected Wisdom of Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

7-New chief’s journalism chops portend 50 percent decrease in pompous media quotes by windbag ex-librarian Kevin Starr.

6-Fireworks loom when Ron Calderon briefly reappears to shake down Library First Lady Donna Lucas during confirmation vote.

5-Lucas vows to meet incessant public demand for copies of world’s second shortest volume: “The Collected Humor of Dianne Feinstein.”

4-State Librarian micro-targets campaign donations amid special interest bid to rename library after Willie Brown.

lib-gillis3-GOP hopes appointment will slash teacher union’s power, as CTA consultant Gale Kaufman can’t stop laughing long enough to get up off the floor.

2-Democrats’ secret plan: major books-on-tape acquisition featuring rare boxed set of John Burton swearing for four hours straight.

1-California certain to become world’s largest repository of Grateful Dead bootlegs and CD collections.

We’re behind you all the way, bro.