As an engaging and entertaining literary form, political memoirs typically run the gamut from A to B. Witness recently published, self-serving snoozers from alleged authors such as George Bush, Sarah Palin and Meg Whitman.
In contrast to these banal and bromidic tomes, California political consultant Richie Ross has just penned “My Letters to Dead People,” a lively little volume which is one-part personal history and one-part professional perspective about some of the biggest personalities and events of the last four decades in state politics.
As befits an operative who not only once ran a guy for governor by chronicling his weight loss online, but who also organized a campaign for county supervisor by having the candidate rebuild an old lady’s house, Ross’s book is an original.
Quirky and eclectic, it’s a kind of kaledioscopic, quick-cut narrative framed as a series of wish-I’d-had-a-chance-to-tell-you messages to three-dozen members of the deceased community.
His recollections and reflections are addressed to the politically famous and influential (Cesar Chavez, Phil Burton and Jess Unruh); the infamous and the victimized (Michael Prokes, the tormented onetime spokesman for the Rev. Jim Jones and Chandra Levy, the murdered intern of former Rep. Gary Condit, a longtime client); the unpretentious and unnoted (his own parents and the unborn baby of a farm worker whose miscarriage motivated him to push for agriculture laws banning toxins in the fields).
It’s written in a crisp style, packed with anecdotes and private remembrances recounted by a veteran backroom player. The letters are chatty conversational essays which on one level trace Ross’s personal evolution from idealistic Catholic seminarian (“I never remembered wanting to be anything but a priest”) to hard-ass sardonic insider (“Ross, your job is to spend all the fucking money you can get your hands on to keep me as speaker,” he recalls Willie Brown telling him, in the note addressed to Unruh).
Beyond this, however, it also provides a full-tilt, historic tour of California’s ever-changing political landscape: “The other day I had dinner with Jerry Brown – he’s running for governor again,” Ross informs the ghost of his ex-boss Leo McCarthy, another former Speaker. “I gotta tell you his crazy ideas are better than the no-ideas government we’ve had.”
Ross enjoys a well-earned reputation as a brash, cynical and ruthless political warrior, and it’s on full display, as in his farewell message to the erstwhile Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, whose cops routinely arrested and beat on him and his union colleagues sent to that city in the early 1970s to work on UFW boycotts and protests.
You’re dead. I’m not. You were such a fucking creep when you were police chief I can’t believe that decent people would elect you mayor…you fucking fuck.
But he also employs a surprisingly poignant and emotional voice that shows the flip side of the ferocity with which he plays hardball. In his letter to the slain Harvey Milk, for example, Ross expresses regret for the take-no-prisoners approach he took in managing Art Agnos’s winning bid for the Assembly in the famous “Harvey Milk vs. The Machine” campaign in 1976.
At the time it was all about survival for me, a roof over my wife and kids’ head. But for you, it was about something much bigger. Looking back, I know that now…
I feel bad today about running around the city at night, tearing down your campaign signs. At the time it was fun. Me and another guy would spot one of your signs on a telephone pole, pull over, he’d squat down, I’d climb on his shoulders, he’d stand up, and tear down your sign. What the fuck, Harvey. Didn’t your guys ever figure out that they needed to put them up another two or three feet and you’d have won the sign war?
But it was like were being the bullies. And I hate bullies.
The basic premise of the book, Ross told us, “is an attempt at capturing our era and also exposing folks to the power of writing letters (to dead people) themselves.” As part of the roll-out, those who write such letters can post them on the website for the book.
Full disclosure: Richie is a longtime friend of, and occasional contributor to, Calbuzz. All that aside, for political junkies, his book is a truly interesting and funny good read.
It’s available at Amazon, and he’ll also be signing copies at Sacramento’s Chicory Coffee Shop at 3 p.m. on Monday, January 3 (inauguration day) with proceeds going to the United Farm Workers. Calbuzz says check it out.
Garry Owns His Error (Not Really): When we saw the headline on his commentary at Capitol Weekly – “OK, I was wrong about the elections” – we thought our friend, Democratic consultant Garry South, was going to explain how wrong he’d been throughout the election season to constantly suggest (without ever saying so exactly in public) that Meg Whitman was going to kick Jerry Brown’s ass because Krusty was running an underfunded, understaffed, lackadaisical, meandering, arrogant and amateurish campaign.
But in his tongue-and-cheek article, Garry merely argues that California has become too Democratic for a Republican to win statewide and he “apologizes” to the GOP for suggesting they field a diversity ticket (which they did to no avail). It’s the same argument Whitman Field Marshals Mike Murphy and Rob Stutzman have been peddling, as if to say nothing they could have done would have made any difference because California is too blue.
We don’t buy it. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger demonstrated that if they appeal to the middle-of-the-road California voters Republicans can indeed get elected statewide at the top of the ticket. eMeg and Sister Carly the Fiorina didn’t do that on a host of strategically crucial issues, especially immigration and the environment, which matter mightily to Latinos and independents.
Meanwhile Brown — by intelligence or necessity, take your pick — ran the right campaign, with the right messages on the money he had (with more than a little help from labor over the summer) and with the timely appearance of Nicky Diaz, eMeg’s housekeeper.
By arguing that the election was only a matter of political geography, South, Murphy and Stutzman let the Armies of eMeg and Hurricane Carly (and themselves) off the hook too easily.
BTW: When lots of others were predicting that Barbara Boxer would lose to Fiorina, Garry wrote a piece for Politico more than two months before the election, telling why he believed Babs would win. And she did.