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Press Clips: Best and Worst of SOS Coverage

Friday, January 24th, 2014

sutterLeave it to our old friend George Skelton, the grumpy Dean of Capitol Pundits, to come up with the one and only original observation about Governor Gandalf’s mail-it-in State of the State speech on Wednesday.

Our Department of Media Criticism and OCD Shut-Ins, finally shaking off the 72-hour plastered stupor into which we submerged moments after the NFC championship game (four most feared words in the English language: Richard Sherman, Communications Major), promptly buckled down to read all 10,558 words of more than a dozen top SOS stories.

If you don’t believe us, count ‘em yourself.

The closest thing we found to a highlight among the stories Jack Kavanaugh linked to on R&T was this surprisingly cheerful insight by Mr. Cranky Pants himself:

none_skelton_It was also refreshing to again see a politician read from a written text — one he wrote himself — and not from a teleprompter. Reading from print on paper, even if he’s looking down at the podium, just seems more sincere.

Now that’s what we call old-school.

Flying flags and dumb Sutter jokes: Beyond that it was pretty slim pickins’ (see 2014 resolution on avoiding clichés – ed.), as California’s leading papers defiantly disregarded the industry’s conventional wisdom for unconventional times, i.e. saving ink-on-trees publications depends on offering readers unique content they can’t find elsewhere, instead all writing the same story that was tired old news by the time readers saw it. A sample:

 During a 17-minute speech devoid of surprises…

 Brown…delivered a restrained speech that was largely without surprises.

 (T)he speech offered nothing new, even recycling a previous quotation from the Bible about thrift.

Make no mistake, we get why this happens, and we certainly did it ourselves enough times; having your own coverage of the governor’s formal start-of-session speech used to be called “flying the flag,” and for prestige reasons, every paper wanted their own guy or gal’s byline on its own yarn.

But with the savage cutbacks in staff, particularly among political reporters, it makes more sense to aim precious resources at digging around for an exclusive story in one of the chronically uncovered executive agencies of state government, dissecting a piece of the budget, or just taking a source to coffee to troll for something new, instead of spending the day reprising Brown’s unfunny jokes about Sutter’s thoughts on the budget and pulling sound bites from a speech that’s already on the web in full transcript form.

As a practical matter, the most crisp and workpersonlike report on the SOS was written by Juliet Williams of the AP, whose stuff every paper is already paying for anyway, and who in reality said everything there was to say with a nice, double-barrel lede that summed the whole thing up in 28 words (filing two whole words under the ancient, no-lede-longer than-30 words city desk rule):

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday delivered dual messages in his annual address to the Legislature: California’s resurgence is well underway but is threatened by economic and environmental uncertainties.

deckerOn the other hand, she had a glove: With all that said, loyal readers well know that Calbuzz is not one of those nay-saying news organization that does nothing but carp and criticize. No, we demand our global staff — issue-driven, solution oriented — always strive to highlight the positive and look for glimmers of excellence, however rare. So, such-as-they-are kudos to:

Cathy Decker for a forward-looking, by-God L.A. Times analysis of the national political context of Brown’s speech, and how it presages the fault lines of the 2014 midterms (The switched [traditional party] roles put a spotlight on the strategic thrusts and image weaknesses that both sides will seek to exploit in this year’s midterms, in California and elsewhere). In another story her note that Republicans seeking the governership have “pinnacle envy” also gets an honorable mention for Best Made-Up Near-Freudian Reference Sneaked by the Copy Desk.

Kevin Smith and Steve Scauzillo of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune for forgoing the dozy, predictable canned reaction quotes from Sacto hacks in favor of rounding up substantive comments from seven sources from their own circulation area, doubtless of greater interest to their readers, from Mayor Eric Garcetti to Rick Wetzel, a guy who owns a small business called Wetzel’s Pretzels.

Steve Greenhut of UT San Diego, who kissed off Brown’s rosy claims of a state surplus by digging into the ugly numbers about California’s mounting unfunded pension obligations (subscription).

And then, sadly, the worst of the worst:  In the category of news that stays news, some genius LAT editor thought he’d pull in readers with this boffo hed: “Republican, Democratic lawmakers divided over Brown speech.” This just in: “Niners blame costly turnovers on Seahawks defense,” “Researchers say sun, moon key to day-night shifts,” “L.A. dog chases L.A. cat over L.A. fence.”

In other news:

Calling Coop of the Chronicle: It’s been nine days since Dianne Feinstein testified to the Senate Commerce Committee that she saw a drone from the window of her Presidio Terrace hacienda, and that it “wheeled around and crashed, so I felt a little good about that.” No word yet on which S.F. emergency services agencies responded to the scene or what carnage they found when they arrived.

Costco Carla strikes again: Chronicler Carla Marinucci, first to expose eMeg’s lousy voting record, setting the tone of tough coverage of the 2010 governor’s race, is back at it with her latest scoop on newbie GOP wannabe Neel Kashkari’s similar, just-found interest in democracy. (Calbuzz holds nicknaming rights for “Kneel, Cash and Carry”).

Enough to make a hog puke: Besides the final seconds end zone pick of Colin Kaepernick, the most sickening sight of Sunday’s game was Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the fool, wearing a stupid wig while pretending to play ping-pong in a shameless Budweiser ad.

bettyMust-read: Mega-kudos to Friend of Calbuzz Betty Medsger, whose new book, “The Burglary” is a page-turning yarn from the extraordinary anti-war days of the 1971, the result of decades of relentless work digging out the story behind an excloo she broke at the WashPost more than 40 years ago.

Separated at birth: There was something strangely familiar in reading the obit of Hiroo Onoda, the Imperial Japanese officer who stayed posted on a small island in the Philippines until 1974, refusing to believe World War II was over; then it hit us — his world view was that of our pal Jon Fleischman, also stuck in a time warp, in his determined fight on behalf of the caveman army of California’s Republican party.

Schnur to Voters for SoS: I’m an Independent Now

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Dan SchnurThe last time we wrote about a race for California Secretary of State was, er, uh . . . never.

But with our old friend and Calbuzz contributor Dan Schnur stepping away from his cushy post at the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC to run as a non-partisan independent for the job that oversees elections and corporate records and collects campaign finance data, we feel compelled to offer some observations.

It’s worth paying attention to Schnur because no independent — known in California as a “Decline to State” –  has ever won statewide office in California** and he has at least a theoretical chance.

That’s because the field for the top-two primary already includes three Democrats – State Sens. Alex Padilla and Leland Yee and campaign finance reform advocate Derek Cressman — along with Republican Pete Peterson, head of a public policy institute at Pepperdine University.

Should Schnur raise enough money to be competitive (Padilla had $355,264 in the bank at the end of June, Yee had $299,220, Schnur had $0* but, we hear, may soon surpass his rivals), he could benefit from a split among the Democrats in the June open primary and, by appealing to the middle and right, pull off an historic victory in November. It’s a long shot in such a blue state. But not out of the question.

professor_irwin_coreyWhat, Are You Crazy? Still, the first question a rational person has to ask about this prospect: Is he nuts? To give up such a sweet deal in academia to scrape, bow and pander for a thankless statewide office that mostly gets attention when election returns don’t come in fast enough.

“I love what I do and feel like I’ve been able to make a difference by sending young people out into the world of politics and public service,” Schnur replied, when asked if he’s crazy. “But this is a logical extension of that work and a logical bully pulpit for reform.” (It’s also a fair point that he made the job at USC as attractive as it is today.)

Then too, it’s hard to set aside his long association with and abject defense of former Gov. Pete Wilson (known in Mexico as hijo de puta), his stint with cynical U.S. Sen. John McCain, and a couple of short flings with dilettantes Richard Riordan and Peter Ueberroth. Republicans, all.

True, Schnur has been a non-partisan college instructor and poll director for about a decade and he dropped his GOP affiliation a couple of years ago. He’s been known to associate and even befriend Democrats and liberals (gasp!). He’s not some partisan ideologue, which is why political reporters have come to rely on him for a snappy quote on damn near any subject (especially since he and our friend Garry South are perhaps California’s pre-eminent quotemeisters.)

As far as we can tell, Schnur is not on a mission to reduce voter participation among any sector of the population. In fact, he’s big on mail voting, wider participation and permanent absentee status. His polling at USC in conjunction with the LA Times was fair and balanced, even if his personal analysis sometimes betrayed a somewhat conservative world view. He strongly supports something Calbuzz has campaigned for: upgrading California’s web sites that gather and report campaign contributions and spending.

kayakerPaddle on the Left, Paddle on the Right As a Republican, Schnur leaned to the right on economic and security issues and to the left on social and cultural concerns. He’s been mostly a moderate. But has he really become a non-partisan independent? This is what he’ll have to prove to voters if he hopes to squeak through the June open primary and attract middle-of-the-road voters in November. If he’s branded as a lifelong Republican – which he was – he’s dead in the water.

His strategy is to portray himself as the only “honest broker” in the race. “If one candidate is talking about how to fix the broken system and the other candidates are part of that system, then any voter who is not completely satisfied with politics in California has a fairly easy choice to make,” he told Calbuzz.

The centerpiece of his campaign right now is something he wrote about for Calbuzz last March – an absolute ban on fundraising at any time the Legislature is in session.

The ban, which would apply to both legislators and statewide office-holders, would extend 72 hours past the end of every session in order to prevent either chamber from gaveling themselves in or out for a few hours or over a long weekend. Both the Senate and Assembly would be required to conclude their respective sessions before any fundraising would be permitted. .  .

I believe that the reality of human nature suggests that a check written several months before or after a key legislative vote would weigh less heavily in the minds of all concerned. At the very least, the appearance of corruption would be reduced. And inarguably, the amount of time that a legislator or statewide officeholder would have to devote to his or her official responsibilities would increase dramatically if he or she no longer had to set aside large blocs of time every day for fundraising calls, receptions and other legalized shakedowns.

Since attacking election fraud and abuse has been such a big part of the cover for right-wingers seeking to restrict the votes of minorities, students and others in several states, we wondered if Schnur thinks voter fraud is a problem in California.

three-card-monteArtful Dodger on Sticky Issues He dodged the question using the “if…then” sidestep, arguing that if there’s even one case of voter fraud then that’s a problem. But so too is it a problem if there’s even one case of people being denied access to the ballot. He would not say whether he thinks voter fraud or ballot access are problems.

Likewise on voter ID cards. He wouldn’t say whether he supports or opposes them, only that if the Legislature were to decide to institute some form of voter ID, he would do everything in his power as SoS to ensure that everyone had access to the resources needed to establish an ID and reach the polls.

These are strategic responses, designed to avoid being categorized by the right or left as associated with either cause, without alienating those who believe voter fraud is a problem or that voter ID needs to be tightened.

But neither are these issues at the center of his campaign. His three key goals are: 1) Fixing a broken system; 2) Encouraging more participation, especially among younger people, and 3) Rebuilding the political center.

In part to bolster his bi-partisan bona fides, he’s relying on Democrat Darry Sragow and Republican Rob Stutzman, as his chief campaign consultants. He’s using Democrat Michelle Maravich and Republican Joanne Davis as fund raisers. And for communications advice, he’s getting help from Democrat Karen Skelton and Republican Donna Lucas. For polling, he’s relying on M4 Strategies, which employs largely on-line respondent panels, about which Calbuzz has long expressed concerns but which others have found reliable.

But even if Schnur can convince voters he’s no longer a partisan, what chance would an independent Secretary of State have getting anything approved by a Legislature, controlled by partisan Democrats with partisan Republicans just as determined?

powerofoneThe Power of One Schnur argues that if he were to get elected, it would resonate through the halls of the Capitol. “If the people of California were to elect an independent, no-party-preference candidate to statewide office for the first time in history, that would send a very powerful message to members of both parties,” Schnur said. Especially those members who might find themselves open to challenge in their newly-redrawn legislative districts.

This is Schnur holding himself out as an independent centrist with no allegiance to any special interest – not labor or business, not Latinos or whites, not women or men. Except for younger people, who he wants to get more engaged in California politics.

“This job ought to be held by someone who’s not beholden to the interest of either party,” Schnur argues. He’s got a point. Whether he proves to be that someone will be up to voters to decide.

*Since researching this story, Schnur has posted a $25,000 contribution from himself and a $6800 contribution from Gen Equity State PAC, which contributed in the past to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meg Whitman and other Republicans and to the 2012 ballot measure seeking to prevent unions from using dues to make political contributions.

** As one of our Calbuzz commenters notes: Hiram Johnson was elected Governor in 1914 as the nominee of the Progressive Party, in a 5-way race.