Posts Tagged ‘Attorney General’



Final Thoughts on IGS 2010 Gov Race Conference

Monday, January 24th, 2011

In the end, the weekend conference on California’s just-concluded campaign for governor looked a lot like the race itself: Meg Whitman refused to talk to an audience not of her choosing, got trashed for it and ended up the biggest loser for her selfish and self-absorbed behavior.

The UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies confab, held every four years, drew its largest crowd ever, an eclectic collection of media and political hacks, earnest students and academic chrome domes, professional pollsters and political wannabes, all drawn by the opportunity to hear, first-hand from the operatives who ran the campaigns, the inside story of how the deal went down.

Beyond its sheer entertainment value for an audience of obsessed political junkies, the conference in the past also served the more serious purpose of establishing a permanent record of the process by which Californians chose their chief executive, an important resource for scholars, authors and journalists. But the 2011 version was unfortunately flawed by two big shortcomings:

First, not a single member of the mighty Legions of eMeg had the courage, concern for history, not to mention common courtesy, to show his or her face; despite heroic efforts to represent the Republican perspective by top-rank GOP pols who didn’t work on the campaign (about whom more later) this left a huge hole in the record, given that Herself and Her Money, in many ways, became the story of the campaign.

Second, there was way too much spin and way too little candor by too many of those who did participate – an unfortunate departure from past years, which will leave a distorted and incomplete record of what was one of the most important campaigns in recent decades: “It just wasn’t the real story of the campaign,” one prominent political scientist complained at a post-conference reception. (Suggested reading for future scholars: this and this.)

That said, there still was value in the event, even if it was often to be found in the bar of the Hotel Shattuck Plaza and around the tables of nearby Berkeley restaurants, where war stories and unvarnished opinions were more frequently to be found. Some observations:

Most Valuable Player – The MVP of the conference was Jim Bognet, manager of Steve Poizner’s losing GOP primary effort. Funny, smart and honest, Bognet offered a sense of what it was like day-after-day to go up against a rival funded by $180 million (Meg’s spending “created its own center of gravity”) and displayed how personal the battle got between the Republicans (“never was so much spent on so many for so little”). He also provided – in the form of advice to students in the room thinking about going into politics — the best single riff of the weekend, defining the ethical rot at the center of Team Whitman that led to the most expensive disaster in the history of American politics:

When you’re getting paid a lot of money – and there were many consultants in this race that got paid a lot of money – it gives you an incentive not to speak truth to power. It gives you an incentive not to tell them what they don’t want to hear as candidates. You are more valuable as a campaign staffer and as a human being if you’re willing to say to the person who is paying your paycheck, “You are wrong. You need to talk to the press. You need to go out and answer these questions. You need to answer for why you switched your position.” It is a conflict of interest because the same person that is paying you, you have to give hard advice and talk about things, personal things that are not comfortable to talk about. So I would say, you have to fight against that continuously in order to add value to your candidate.

Least Valuable Player – The LVP of the conference was Peter Ragone, representing Gavin Newsom’s short and stunted primary bid for governor. Ragone is a nice guy and a competent operative, but his endless, obviously phony spin on behalf of the new Lite Governor had the audience groaning and looking for barf bags.

Newsom, it seems, is a politician of uncommon moral courage, motivated by only two idealistic factors – his unstinting and unselfish determination to do what is right and true and good for all the rest of us (after trashing the office of lieutenant governor, he changed his mind and ran because “he decided this was where he could the most good”) and the high moral courage that drives him to put his family above all else (no mention of him boinking the wife of his chief of staff in the mayor’s office). Self-interest never figures into it, Ragone would have us believe. Enough to make a hog puke. No matter what new UC Regent Newsom wanted, IGS should have invited Garry South and Nick Clemons, his actual gubernatorial campaign directors.

The missing characters –  The transcript of the proceedings will be turned into a book which purportedly will serve as the final word on the governor’s race. Puh-leeze. Consider this: the three most important behind-the-scenes players in the race – Brown’s wife Anne Gust, Whitman major domo Henry Gomez and top strategist Mike Murphy – didn’t figure in any of the discussions and, unless we missed it during a trip to the head or the cookie table, their names were never even mentioned. That’s like doing Hamlet without Hamlet.

Kudos to the stand-ins. While eMeg’s minions cowered in fear far away from Berkeley, former state chairmen Duf Sundheim and Bob Naylor, along with veteran strategist Jim Brulte, did a terrific job of describing the GOP perspective, their limited contacts with the candidate and her turf-conscious consultants, and how the establishment watched in horror as Whitman melted down.

“As Republicans, we were really concerned as the primary went on because since they were so close on the issues, it was really going to come down to a very nasty, personal fight,” Sundheim said. Said Naylor: “When the dust settled in the primary, the Whitman campaign was over.” And Brulte, who with his commentary reaffirmed his position as the sharpest Republican mind in the state, observed that except for Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger – celebrities who transcended politics – California voters have always wanted  an experienced hand as governor. By spending so much money on television without a break, Whitman undercut her own ability to be the next best thing, he argued. “By Labor Day, Jerry Brown, who was governor when I was in high school, was the fresh new face.”

Message trumps money – Since we’re kvetching about others for a lack of self-criticism, Calbuzz should acknowledge that our own coverage may have suffered from putting too much focus on the extraordinary spectacle of Meg’s crazed spending, which at times led us to the misassumption that she could make up for her lack of a clear and consistent winning message by throwing money at the problem.

“I never understood it,” said Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman. “Every time you turned on the TV, there were four or five tracks of (Whitman) ads that were completely different. They were switching ads all the time. You had no idea what their strategy was and never had anyone explain it to me.”  The Whitman campaign never had a compelling message, agreed consultant Rick Claussen: “Tactics is just a way to talk to voters.” You can spend all you want reaching out to voters, but if you don’t have something worth listening to, it’s a huge waste of money.

Brown was both lucky and good – In the final session of the conference, Brulte put his partisan perspective aside and offered his bottom line: Brown “ran a picture perfect campaign,” he said, a strategy built on keeping its focus on fundraising, using the office of Attorney General to keep him in the news and steering their own course no matter how much the winds emanating from Camp Whitman tried to blow them off course.

In Jim Moore, Brown had the best pollster in the race, the best ad man in Joe Trippi and the most disciplined manager in Glazer; their game plan to hold their fire until Labor Day, while many top Democrats and the political peanut gallery were hollering for them to answer eMeg’s summer assault, made all the difference. But Brown’s strategists also admitted that they benefited from missteps by eMeg. Said Glazer:

The one worry that I had when we went through that (2009) fall period into the new year was that Meg Whitman was going to use her resources to use Jerry Brown as the foil to be a stronger Republican . . . I thought that she would — even before the new year struck — that she would start to use Jerry Brown and start to raise our negatives by running against us as the presumptive Republican nominee. And I expected that all the way through until the primary day. I was very surprised that that actually never happened.

Once the primary was over, Trippi’s greatest fear was that Whitman would “go dark” over the summer, giving voters a respite from her 24/7 invasion of their living rooms and allowing her to re-emerge as a fresh face in the fall. Instead she essentially turned herself into the incumbent in a year when voters wanted change.

As Bognet had put it earlier: “She built herself a $180 million brand. Unfortunately, by the time the general came around her brand was, ‘She’s the woman with the money who won’t get off my TV.’”

Panelists also agreed that Whitman made a huge error by trying to portray Brown as a traditional tax and spend liberal, which simply misstates his record. As Republican Naylor, who served in the Assembly during Brown’s first turn as governor, put it: “Tax and spend doesn’t stick with Jerry Brown.”

Tone matters – Trippi correctly observed that the relentlessly snarky tone of Whitman’s relentless attack ads didn’t resonate with voters – “failure has followed him everywhere” he intoned — because they have a much more complex and long-running, if not always fond, relationship with him. Better for the Whitman people, Trippi said, to have been respectful to Brown by crafting a  more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger “gold watch” message, saying that he had performed valuable service to the state but adding that it was simply time for him to go, and to elect a “governor for the 21st century.”

Trying to avoid the press was a huge blunder — Speaker after speaker pointed to Whitman’s strategy of stiffing the media as a costly error for several reasons: it sent a message to voters that she thought she was too good to go through the usual hoops candidates for high office have always faced; it established a narrative that Whitman was secretive, and must have something to hide; it was a clear affront to the working press of the state, and their frustration showed up in the stories. As Poizner’s Jarrod Agen put it: “It never works to avoid the press.”

Bill Lockyer is the Diogenes of state politics — California’s treasurer was the keynote speaker of the conference and he turned in a boffo performance that provided a full-on and utterly frank look at the state of the state’s finances. Ask Lockyer what time it is and he’s liable to tell you how to make a watch, so some of his discourse on the niceties of the municipal bond market were a bit windy, but he’s smart, funny and seen it all. We’ll be running the text of his speech later this week.

Worst advice – The model for a California GOP comeback is Chris Christie in New Jersey, said Republican Tony Quinn. Sustained attacks on public employee unions and bloated government are the key to victory, he said. When Calbuzz rose to note that Whitman had done exactly that, he replied that she hadn’t done it very well.

Immigration sunk Whitman – Even before Meg’s Nicky Diaz housekeeper scandal, the immigration issue was a huge problem for Whitman. As Glazer explained, she had many liabilities on the issue even without Nicky – from shifting positions on a path to citizenship to her opposition to the Dream Act. Poizner’s hardline position in the primary forced her to move far right, which made her efforts to get back to the center in the general look pathetically calculated. When the Nicky story erupted, it merely personalized the hypocrisy and brazen opportunism of her political stances.

As Poizner’s Agen explained:

If we’d gotten into the general, it would have been a policy debate between Steve and Governor Brown on the policy issue of immigration. Jerry Brown would have had one stance on immigration, Steve would have had the other. But it would have been a policy discussion on immigration . . . What ended up happening, though, was immigration turned into a character issue and that is what ultimately hurts the Republican Party hugely is if immigration is a character issue. If it stays a policy issue, people are going to disagree with it and we felt that if you get to the general election, we’ll have it out, we’ll have that debate with Jerry on immigration, we’ll see how people, where people stand.

Best line – The strategists were asked at one point to name one thing they would have done that they didn’t do. “Telephone operational training,” said Glazer, a big laugh reference to Brown’s failure to hang up the phone when leaving a message with a law enforcement union, which led to the flap over someone in Brown headquarters (hello, Anne) referring to eMeg as a political “whore.”

Best fights – Field Pollster Mark Dicamillo ripped off the face of robopollster Jay Leve of SurveyUSA (in the nicest possible way), who responded with a furious defense of his methodology, a screed that included some whacks at Calbuzz. The Cage Match of the pollsters was only matched for excitement when Democratic operative Bob Mulholland and Tony Quinn got into a finger-pointing duel about the rules and political significance of the new “top two” primary system. Talk about don’t-invite-ems.

The new Whig party — A number of speakers at the conference strongly argued that the California Republican party is essentially dead. Brulte for one said there was no way Whitman could have won the race because of the structural and demographic political landscape of the state, while Sundheim said “Republicans, as a brand, are dead.” Speaker after speaker noted how the Republican hostility to Latinos and other minorities, coupled with tired messaging that has nothing for younger voters, has made them an isolated and marginal party of old white people. Most seemed to have read and adopted the Calbuzz Memo to CA GOP: Time to Do Something Different.

Speaking of Whigs — Sacramento consultant Ray McNally, proving that there’s not much new in American politics, read from an 1840 confidential memo written by Abraham Lincoln that laid out a complete organizing strategy for the “overthrow of the corrupt powers that now control our beloved country,” which included everything from polling and GOTV to voter contact and fundraising. Example: “3) It will also be their duty to report to you, at least once a month, the progress they are making, and on election days see that every Whig is brought to the polls.” You can read it here.

The two minds of the voters – Political scientist Kim Nalder from Sac State honed in on the most fundamental factor driving state politics today: the disconnect that voters feel between demanding high levels of service and their determination not to pay taxes. Lockyer underscored a Calbuzz report that voters think 48% of the money the state spends is wasted –  a high hurdle for Brown to overcome if he is to sell his cuts-and-taxes budget plan to fix the state’s $28 billion budget shortfall.

Deep thoughts: Thad Kousser of UC San Diego made some points that cut against the notion that California is forever blue (an argument that effectively lets the Armies of eMeg off the hook). A panel of political scientists agreed that “campaign effects” are marginal – but that marginal effects matter big time in close races, so the Whitman-Brown race could have been close – “Nothing was inevitable in this campaign.” And a note to future mega-spending candidates: “Campaigns can’t tell voters what to think, but they can tell them what to think about.”

Nice work — There were too many journalists from the LA Times on the program (although we were wrong to say two of the three didn’t cover the governor’s race: only one did not) and not enough from other major papers or news agencies. But the four who participated — Mark Barabak, Cathy Decker and Anthony York of the Times, and Timm Herdt of the Ventura County Star — did a fine job of moving the conversation along.

Fishwrap: Krusty and Santa Meet Landslide Harris

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

The key question raised during Act II of Jerry Brown’s road show on the state budget in L.A. this week came from a local Long Beach vote grubber, as reported by the eagle eared Steve Harmon:

James Johnson, a Long Beach councilman, asked Brown how he intends to figure out the contradiction voters have between their desire to fully fund schools and their hostility to taxes.

Brown answered, partly in jest: “That’s why we’re here — we’re hoping one of you people will come up with it...

Fat chance.

As cuspidated cartoonist Tom Meyer illustrates today, it is precisely this bifurcated attitude of pixie dust magical thinking among Californians that almost-Governor Krusty must  confront and disabuse, lest he swiftly  disappoint the Golden State populace, and find himself as instantly unpopular and despised as his recent predecessors.

While Calbuzz has eye-glazingly droned about this political phenomenon,   it is a point worth repetition and elucidation (as demonstrated with some frequency by the “two Santa Claus theory” propounded by our friends over at Calitics , for example), the better to keep  front of mind the electoral landscape that provides such fallow ground for the chronic polarization that afflicts habitues of the Capitol.

Bottom line: As he surveys this political topography, Brown could do worse than to consult the wisdom of Calbuzz’s favorite despot, Chairman Mao:

The cardinal responsibility of leadership is to identify the dominant contradiction at each point of the historical process and to work out a central line to resolve it.

Ho, ho, ho.


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The audacity of audaciousness: Aging relics that we are, your Calbuzzards confess that we’ve been catching up on our sleep since all the excitement of last month’s election.

Nodding off at nappytime must have been the reason we missed the extraordinary news that Kamala Harris had been elected Queen of All She Surveys at some point over the last couple weeks.

What else could explain the overweening self-importance, pompous pretentiousness and garden variety delusions of grandeur that led Ms. Attorney General-elect to summon the state’s press corps to announce with trumpets blaring – Make Way, Make Way for the Empress of River City! – her “Transition Leadership Team,” a bloated and overblown engine of hot air and fecklessness festooned with gobbledegook about “best and brightest minds,” not to mention 11 – eleven, count ‘em, eleven – sub-committees and the enlisted services of Warren Christopher and George Shultz, California’s greatest living symbols of political decrepitude.

Transition to what? Give us a break.

“She’s got this queen complex and it will not play well here,” one veteran Sactown operative told us, summing up the prevailing cognoscenti view. “It’s ceremony for the sake of ceremony — all style, pomp and circumstance and no substance.”

Let us count the ways this thing is wrong, wrong, wrong:

1-Queen Kamala is stumbling into office on the weakness strength of a thoroughly underwhelming victory of 46.1-45.3% over L.A. DA Steve Cooley, a miniscule edge, eked out only after weeks of vote counting, which ain’t exactly what you like to call your sweeping mandate.

2-Landslide Harris clearly benefited from incumbent AG Brown’s coattails (or Meg Whitman’s undertow, depending on how you look at it) yet presumes to insult and trash by implication his stewardship of the office,  declaring that now that SHE’s here, we can finally be about the work of deciding “how to fix the state’s broken criminal justice system,” as she modestly put it in her big announcement.

3-The new AG’s framing of her ascension as the Long-Awaited Arrival of the One is in sharp contrast to both Brown and Lite Gov-elect Gavin Newsom, who so far have handled their transitions in a low-key, no-frills way (despite following incumbents of the other party) more befitting, you know, a routine transfer of political power after an election.

4-Harris’s shaky record in San Francisco, with its botched handling of a cop killing, an illegal immigrant multiple murderer and a shameful scandal over tainted evidence that got scores of drug cases tossed, normally would have been enough to bury her, had she not opposed a guy who ran the worst campaign in the history of the world, but that, in any case, is not exactly a case study for developing what she brags will be  “smart and innovative policies.”

5-The newbie top cop (not to mention the rest of us) would be better served by her spending at least a little time scouting out the bathrooms before leading us all into a golden age of law enforcement nirvana.

Much of Harris’s grandstanding, of course, likely has less to do with the operations of the AG’s office than with her wasting no time beginning to position herself for a future governor’s race. No matter how many pull-ups the 72-year old Krusty can do, younger ambitious Democrats (see: Villaraigosa, A.and Newsom, G.) can’t help but calculate the odds he’ll be a one-term governor and nobody wants to be left at the starting gate.

Must reads of the week or whatever:

Why April 11, 1954 was the most boring day in history.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn what America’s most annoying word is.

Terrific yarn from Neon Tommy about the guy who took the iconic picture of the Kent State massacre.

Amid all the chatter about Brown eyeing a special election, Timm Herdt seems to be the only one (besides Big Dan Walters Himself) who bothered to look at the calendar.

Both Peggy Noonan and Michael Gerson have excellent takedowns on the shabby way Obama handled the tax deal.

At least Krusty’s not alone.

Meyer on Meg & Goldman Sachs; Press Clips

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

All the news that fits: Today’s Tom Meyer take on ‘eMeg’s Goldman Sachs connection offers some insight into the potential of the campaign issue that the billionaire business background of Her Megness hands to Jerry Brown; one sign of how effective the matter may be is the energy that Team Whitman is devoting to flogging Dan Walters’s oldie but goodie saga of Crusty’s financial connections to Indonesian oil.  And speaking of money and politics, LA Timesman Michael Rothfeld’s examination of when, exactly, eMeg became a candidate and what spending she should be required to report is a first-rate piece of campaign enterprise reporting.

Is that a spoon stuck up your nose or are you just happy to see me? Chroniclers Phil Matier and Andy Ross did a fine piece of Actual Reporting that offers a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes political calculations of San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, whose aspirations to become attorney general are hardly helped by the widening drug lab scandal in the city, where hundreds of felony cases have been put at risk because a veteran police lab technician kept sniffing up all the evidence.

Harris, who insists she knew nothin’ about nothin’ for months after the top drug prosecutor in her office wrote a memo warning of the problems at the lab, has now booted the whole mess to AG Brown, because her ability to handle many of these cases has been compromised after many prosecutors were interviewed by the cops investigating the matter.

Harris is supposedly a strong front-runner in the crowded Democratic AG’s race, but the case of the mysterious disappearing cocaine, coupled with her starring role in releasing illegal immigrants charged with felonies into a jobs program  leads us to wonder if her campaign slogan will soon be:  “Kamala Harris – The Only D.A. FOR Crime.”

Don’t miss: Tony Quinn probably knows more about reapportionment than anyone else in California, and his splendid Fox and Hounds piece about the sleazy machinations involved in the Democrats’ attempt to repeal the Proposition 11 redistricting reform is a must read…Amid Abel Maldonado’s belated confirmation as lieutenant governor, it’s worth taking a second look at the well researched LAT op-ed by Garry South, who notes that it’s been 40 years since an appointed statewide official in California was elected to the office for which he had been tapped…We refuse to be the last to comment on our old friend Mark Leibovich’s superb profile of Mike Allen, star reporter for Politico , which has been dissected by at least 8 zillion blogs before it’s even been published as this Sunday’s NYT mag cover piece, but we do suggest you check out the yarn by Allen’s colleagues Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin deflating the media bubble around the Tea Party.

Sometimes a good read is just a good read: It’s got nothing to do with politics or media but N.R. Kleinfield’s piece on doormen in New York is just a lovely gem of feature writing that’s worth a read, as is Hudson Sangree’s atmospheric offering in the Sacbee on the Welcome Grove Lodge.

Just because: This is the greatest baseball play we’ve seen this season.

Arnold Tries Again on T-Ridge & Rumors of the Week

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

offshoreGovernor Schwarzmuscle rolled out a new version of his twice-defeated plan for expanded offshore drilling Friday, but it’s tough to imagine his latest tweaks changing many minds.

Despite his 0-2 record in pushing for a lease to allow the PXP energy company to drill in state waters off the coast of Santa Barbara, Arnold doggedly added the Tranquillon Ridge offshore oil project to his just released, ugly budget plan.

As a financial proposal, the much chronicled project (memo to those who’ve been sightseeing in Albania since May: see Calbuzz archive) is intended to generate a quick, couple hundred million bucks for the recession ravaged state treasury. Politically, however, Schwarzenegger must overcome the passionate and visceral opposition to offshore drilling which reflects longstanding California environmental policy.

The project was voted down by the State Lands Commission early last year, then rejected by the Legislature at the end of the long summer budget battle. Now Schwarzenegger is trying again, tarting up the proposal politically with some key tactical changes:

Process: The budget plan calls for T-Ridge to be sent back to the State Lands Commission for rehearing.

The change is crucial, because reconsideration by the lands commission is exactly what the faction of environmentalists who back the project, led by Santa Barbara’ Environmental Defense Center, have been seeking, as an alternative to Schwarzenegger muscling the matter through the Legislature. His move instantly paid off in the form of a quick EDC statement in support of the governor’s latest plan:krop_lg

“We look forward to the opportunity to have this project reconsidered by the State Lands Commission,” said Linda Krop, EDC’s chief counsel, expressing “appreciation” to the governor. “Reconsideration by the State Lands Commission is the only process that we support to address this unique proposal.”

Despite the new process, however, Schwarzenegger’s budget document also states that if the drilling plan is “not approved by the Commission, legislation will be necessary,” making it clear that he will take another run at the Legislature if state lands turns it down again.

Abel Maldonado: The administration’s clear political calculation is that  Senator Abel Maldonado, whom Schwarzenegger has nominated for  Lieutenant Governor, would vote for the measure on the lands commission.

The Lite Gov is one of three members of the commission, and John Garamendi, the former occupant of the office who was recently elected to Congress, cast the deciding vote against PXP’s plan last year. Although Maldonado also voted against it as a state senator, his well-earned reputation for political opportunism makes it not unlikely he’d see things the governor’s way if the Legislature confirms him.

State Parks: The money generated by the PXP project would be earmarked for state parks, many of which were slated for closure last year, until Schwarzenegger reinstated funding. By tying the new lease to parks financing, he forces a choice for the lesser of two environmental evils.

Pedro-Nava“The governor has truly sunk to a new low, by making the parks system, the jewel of California, reliant on new offshore oil drilling,” said Assemblyman Pedro Nava, who has led legislative opposition to the drilling proposal.

Warming to his task, Nava said that linking parks and offshore oil was like “offering a rent reduction to a victim of domestic violence in exchange for forcing them to go back and live with the abuser.”

That little vein in his ample forehead throbbing vigorously, he added:

“If anybody thinks there wasn’t an agreement reached by Abel Maldonado (with Schwarzenegger) then think again. This is one of the most cynical acts I’ve ever seen.”

Beyond the PXP conflict, the offshore debate is certain to become even more combative this year with the introduction by Republican Chuck DeVore, an Orange County assemblyman and contender for the U.S. Senate nomination, of legislation to effectively open up the entire California coastline to new drilling.devore

DeVore said his plan, which would impose a 40 percent royalty on offshore oil and natural gas extraction, could generate as much as $16 billion by 2011: “My proposal generates billions of dollars this year, when California needs it most,” he said.  “Allowing new offshore leases under this plan prevents cuts to education, public safety and other government services.”

T-Ridge and the DeVore measure are the latest examples of the intertwined politics of the economy and the environment moving center stage in 2010 campaigns.  Check back on Monday for more on this development.

Rumors of the week: Calbuzz hears that Steve Cooley, L.A.’s hardass, three-term district attorney, plans to jump into the Republican race for Attorney General, perhaps as early as next week.

SteveCooley_picCooley’s entry would be a game-changer in the race, giving the GOP a top-drawer candidate with a good chance to win statewide office. Cooley also offers a sharp contrast to Democratic front-runner Kamala Harris, the San Francisco district attorney who’s against the death penalty and  embroiled in controversy over a program to funnel illegal immigrant felons into a jobs program instead of prison.

Add rumors: We got no inside info on this one, but we won’t be surprised if GOP wannabe governor Tom Campbell announces a switch to the Senate soon after his impending return from his Panamanian vacaciones. Bill Whalen’s got a good post looking at the implications of such a move.

Quote of the week:* Our pal Alan Mutter, noted media analyst and Chicago deep dish pizza aficionado, was interviewed by the New York Times for a story about the struggle of newspaper owners against the rise of the web, and replied:

“One of the problems is newspapers fired so many journalists and turned Mutterthem loose to start so many blogs,” Mr. Mutter said. “They should have executed them. They wouldn’t have had competition. But they foolishly let them out alive.”

*Calbuzzer Alert: Send us your nominees for Quote of the Week, which we’ll run each Saturday. Winners get two free Calbuzz buttons; second place gets three.

Con: It’s An Industry Scam

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

doughellerBy Doug Heller
Special to Calbuzz

The policy issue behind the hubbub surrounding the secret recordings made by Jerry Brown’s ex-spokesman stretches back to 1984, when Gov. George Deukmejian signed California’s proof of auto insurance law, making it easier to cite someone for driving uninsured.

In 1985, civil rights and community groups sued to challenge the law, arguing that insidious industry practices prevented many citizens from complying. The California Supreme Court acknowledged the severity of the problem, but ruled that the groups needed to seek a legislative, rather than judicial, fix.

Justice Allen Broussard, in a concurring opinion, focused on one of the worst practices: the use of prior auto insurance coverage as a basis for denying or surcharging a customer.

A 2005 court ruling on the subject summed up Broussard’s view: “… Justice Broussard noted two practices were widespread in the insurance industry prior to Proposition 103′s passage: prohibitively high insurance rates for the previously uninsured driver, and the exclusion of uninsured drivers from the insurance market altogether simply because they were not previously insured…Such practices arbitrarily penalized uninsured motorists, leaving many unable to comply with California’s mandatory insurance laws.”

When Californians enacted insurance reform with Proposition 103 in 1988, voters prohibited auto insurers from considering prior insurance coverage. Now, two decades later, Mercury Insurance, California’s third largest auto insurer, wants to reestablish the costly and unfair practice.

Its proposed initiative would override Proposition 103’s prohibition, allowing companies to base premiums on whether or not a driver has been continuously insured. Mercury’s public relations team claims it will give discounts to people who’ve had continuous auto insurance; they refuse to acknowledge that it also will allow rate increases on struggling families with a lapse in coverage.

That is exactly what Mercury was doing illegally until the Department of Insurance and a class action lawsuit stopped them several years ago. It is exactly what they wanted in 2003 — when they sponsored legislation virtually identical to the current initiative; the courts tossed that law because it allowed insurers to raise rates on people simply for having a lapse in coverage.

It is also exactly how the company prices policies in states without California’s protections. It’s worth noting that you don’t have to have been driving uninsured to face the no-prior-coverage penalty proposed in Mercury’s initiative. If you lost your job and sold the car, had surgery and stopped driving, or used public transportation exclusively for a time, you would pay hundreds of dollars more than someone who’d been “continuously covered” if you ever need insurance again.

Back in August, the Attorney General correctly described an earlier version of Mercury’s initiative, saying it would allow insurers to raise or lower premiums based on any lapse in coverage. A Brown campaign donor, Mercury disliked that, because initiatives allowing higher rates don’t do well with voters.

The company withdrew that proposal and resubmitted it with cosmetic changes. Lawyers in Brown’s office told me they were under intense pressure to change the Title and Summary, and Brown’s office accommodated: The new title and summary only mentions “discounts,” not the premium increases the proposal would allow for millions of Californians.

It’s bad enough getting a Title and Summary wrong; glossing over the ugly part of Mercury’s initiative is more egregious for the AG, because he wrote it fairly the first time.

Brown’s lawyers claim the two versions are different: the first, they say, explicitly struck the Prop. 103 provision prohibiting prior coverage discrimination, while the new version didn’t. They don’t mention that the new version clearly says it would take effect “notwithstanding” the no-discrimination provision of 103. Nor do they note that the Mercury-sponsored, invalidated 2003 law allowing surcharges didn’t strike the provision either.

Comments by AG lawyers in the taped interview with a reporter show they defaulted to legal obfuscation when asked about the issue: “I don’t want to say anything…that will end up in a lawsuit,” and “we don’t have a crystal ball” about how a court would rule on the key question.

The quotes come from the secretly recorded interview Brown’s ex-spokesman used to try to kill a story about the AG’s flip-flop. The rest is recorded, er, on the record.

Doug Heller is executive director of Campaign for Consumer Rights, the campaign affiliate of Consumer Watchdog.