Phil Trounstine: 1949-2022
It is with heavy heart that we report the death of Calbuzz co-founder Phil Trounstine, who passed away peacefully at home on Monday afternoon. He was 72.
Phil for decades was a fiercely intelligent, hard-charging and widely-respected member of the California politics tribe – as the longtime Political Editor of the San Jose Mercury News, the onetime Communications Director for Gov. Gray Davis (Phil never tired of telling me that Gray was at 65 percent favorable when he left the governor’s office, well before the recall) and as founder and director of the San Jose State University Poll.
In 2009, he and I Iaunched Calbuzz and we had a blast for more than five years on the California campaign trail and state convention circuit, starting political food fights, committing more than a thousandacts of Actual Journalism and having too many laughs to count. As we often said, we were accountable to no one but each other.
We never put bylines on our stuff, because every piece we posted was a true collaboration, and in the years when we were cooking, before the health problems hit us, we’d talk to each other every day, dark newsroom humor-filled conversations, sometimes a dozen times a day or more.
Now it can be told: it was Phil who coined “Calbuzz,” who dubbed Meg Whitman “eMeg,” and labeled then-San Francisco Mayor Newsom “Prince Gavin.” He devised our site’s singular absurdist art work, illustrating most of the 1,335 pieces we’ve posted in this space. He designed our finger-in-the-socket logo guy, morphed Jerry Brown into Gandalf and merged Obama’s “Hope” poster with a rendering of Sigmund Freud to craft the image of our staff psychiatrist, Dr. P.J. Hackenflack.
As a reporter, Phil was the master of what we called the “perceptual scoop” – grasping the big picture meta-angle of hiding-in-plain-sight trends or shifts in the political zeitgeist that no one else had yet recognized, explored or explained.
Years before “soccer moms” became a thing in political reporting, for example, he understood and broke down for readers the critical importance of suburban women voters; outraged at the consequence-free lying of Whitman’s campaign for governor in 2010, he presciently railed against the “death of truth” in politics; back in the ‘oughts, he forecast the collapse of the California Republican Party and offered a detailed prescription for how they could come back. Needless to say, the GOP foolishly ignored his advice.
Having started his own polling operation at SJ State, Phil was persnickety and proprietary about our polling stories, and would never let me near one. But his writing on the subject was serious, substantive and insightful, and he relished diving deep into the weeds about survey methodology, trashing the proliferation of media junk polls and demanding custom cross-tabs from PPIC’s Mark Baldassare, UC’s Mark Dicamillo or any other poll-taker he thought worthy of coverage in Calbuzz.
Phil also was the Calbuzz Social Director and delighted in planning the logistics, menus and sites of the Hacks and Flacks Dinners that became a regular feature of state conventions. His most spectacular success was the Calbuzz Hackenflack Dinner that highlighted Jerry Brown’s Inaugural week in 2011, drawing scores of insiders, electeds, lobbyists and other political hacks, including Governor Gandalf his own self.
His proudest achievement, however, was his marriage to Debbie and their wonderful, far-flung family, most of all their eight grandchildren, who appeared on his Facebook page even more frequently than his political observations or Wordle scores.
On Monday afternoon, according to family, Phil lay down for an afternoon nap, his beloved dog Bingo beside him, and…didn’t wake up. After all he’d suffered and endured in recent years, it was a blessedly peaceful passage.
E.B. White wrote that, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” Phil was both, and I will treasure our partnership and our friendship forever.
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