Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Dancing on the Winds of Politics
Three weeks after the fact, Mayor Dellums has finally responded to the derisive comments made in this space by former Oakland Mayor Brown (see "Run Jerry Run" post, below). Brown, a critic of Dellums from almost the moment the longtime Congressman took over at City Hall, told me (and a few other people) at Redwood Regional Park on May 29 that "Oakland could use a mayor; it hasn't had one since I left office." He referred to himself as "the last Mayor of Oakland."
I was surprised those comments didn't cause more of a stir at the time, but I suppose references to notorious Nazis tend to suck all the air out of the room.
The beleaguered Dellums held a rare news conference yesterday to finally reveal his plan to close a $31 million budget deficit. It was also the media's first opportunity to ask for his reaction to criticism from Brown, and others, who consider Dellums an absentee mayor, missing in action while his city drowns in red ink.
The often prickly Dellums, never one to suffer media fools, insisted he is the "master strategist" of Oakland, the fully in command CEO of the city, and hardly MIA, despite his frequent absences from City Hall and his failure to attend City Council meetings or participate in budget negotiations.
When Dellums was drafted to run for mayor, many a pundit wondered how the aloof and imperious retired Congressman would take to the nuts-and-bolts, fill-the-potholes duties of a big city boss. When I asked him that very question for a campaign profile piece during the race, he scolded me, telling me it was the wrong question, and that the most important issue was his vision for making Oakland a "model city." It turned out to be exactly the right question, and the answer is what many Oaklanders feared it was at the time. Not thrilled with their options, they put Dellums in office anyway, and I know many who deeply regret it. The two previous mayors, Elihu Harris and Jerry Brown, struggled to control the violent crime that has been Oakland's sad emblem for years. But at least they left a rich legacy of downtown renewal, new construction and a burgeoning arts and culinary scene. And they were very much hands-on chief executives, visible around the city, showing up at the scenes of major crimes and emergencies, becoming the face of the city they were elected to lead.
In contrast, Dellums has been a phantom. He had a burst of energy in his third year in office, but in this, his final year, that has dissipated. His legacy may well be one of debt and a decimated police force, gutted to keep the city's books in balance. Mayor Dellums insists he is focused only on doing his job, not the winds of political fortune - but that's partly because he knows he is just about done dancing, and there are no new partners waiting.
NB: I've got a stack of blog items piling up on the races for governor and senator, which I will try to get to as soon as the KCBS workload allows...
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
That is the first public, recorded comment by Attorney General Jerry Brown on the matter we blogged about last week: his likening Meg Whitman's mega-money campaign tactics to the propaganda techniques pioneered by Joseph Goebbels.
I was ready to let this story die, and frankly, I was relieved it was starting to blow over as a new work week dawned. Other media outlets have made much more of it than we have at KCBS. But then Brown made a campaign stop Tuesday at Microsoft in Mountain View, touting his new plan to create half a million green jobs and 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2020. This was the media's first opportunity to question Brown since last week's Nazi controversy went nationwide. And so they did, in a post-speech gaggle (I wasn't there; the tape comes from my KCBS colleague Matt Bigler and from our CBS-5 TV newsroom). Earlier in the day, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement, denouncing Brown's comments to me as "deeply offensive and inappropriate," and calling on Brown to retract them publicly. He reacted with the aforementioned apology, although later his spokesman clarified that Brown was apologizing to the Jewish leaders for upsetting them, not necessarily for the comments themselves.
Asked by KTVU reporter Randy Shandobil, in a followup, if this means he doesn't regret making the remarks in the first place, Brown answered: "Well, I will tell you this. Jogging in the hills with sweaty strangers will no longer result in conversations. Mum's the word."
Can't say that I blame him. Except that answer is a little misleading. Yes, I was probably a bit sweaty, having ridden my bike about ten miles, mostly uphill, to that point. But I was not a stranger. Even though, as I blogged last week, Brown couldn't remember my name right away, he recognized me immediately, exclaimed "I know you" and, after I reintroduced myself, discussed the fact that I was a reporter at KCBS. So it's disingenuous for him to suggest that he got into all this trouble because he talked to a sweaty stranger. A sweaty reporter, maybe.
Brown's penchant for blunt talk landed him in some more hot water at the Silicon Valley event. Asked how he would cut state spending but still fund infrastructure projects and create jobs, Brown replied: "How do you do things without the money? It's very difficult, but I have a plan." After a pause, he joked, "I'll tell you after the election." That drew laughter from the audience but more fire from the Whitman campaign, whose spokeswoman, Sarah Pompei, said "this election and this issue are far too important for Governor Brown to continue to dodge questions, avoid specifics and shirk responsibility."
At Microsoft, Brown was whisked away by his handler as soon as the media questioning turned to the Goebbels incident. He's always been a little awkward - his late father, the legendary Pat Brown, used to lament that Jerry lacked the "human touch" and said it was daughter Kathleen who was really the natural politician in the family - but it struck me as odd how uncomfortable Brown was with the media who gathered around him in Mountain View. He seemed put off by the "gaggle," as we call it, of reporters and camerapeople who crushed around him. He complained about how "intimate" it was and said he had never been this close to so many reporters at once. Really? This, from a guy who's been winning elections in California for 40 years? You'd think he'd be used to that kind of close media attention. He'd certainly better get used to it, because this is already shaping up as an intense, hard-fought campaign, and it's likely there will be an awful lot of sweaty strangers crowding around, just waiting to see what he will say next.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
The Right to Remain Silent
Carly Fiorina sure could use one. She knows all too well now not to fiddle with her Blackberry and make disparaging remarks about her Republican ticketmate's campaign, or repeat one about her opponent's hair, while getting primped for a live TV shot before an open mike (not to mention a rolling video camera).
Jerry Brown could use one. He's got notoriously loose lips, but this time they got him in trouble (okay, I did), when he brought up Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels during a conversation with me about Meg Whitman's campaign, at a park in the Oakland hills (see "Run Jerry Run" post below if you somehow missed this brouhaha).
And I suppose I could use one, too. I thought long and hard before blogging about that conversation with Brown, and there was considerable deliberation and discussion about it within our newsroom, and with outside experts, before I finally hit "publish post," 11 days after Brown made the now-infamous Goebbels comment to me. I don't regret writing it, but I do know that it has hammered home that I have no desire, ever, to become famous. I don't enjoy receiving nasty emails, or seeing people misquote my blog, or mangle basic facts. It is surreal to look up at the airport TV and see one's name crawl by in the CNN closed captioning. I have no idea how so many news organizations and conservative radio hosts got my cell phone number. I have been on the wrong end of the news a few times before, and I never like it. I'm in the business of reporting the news, and bringing interesting stories to people, not becoming part of the news myself, and I am never comfortable in that position.
For the record, I would like to clarify a few points for people. I don't imagine this posting will be read by nearly as many as the last one, but for those who are still interested (and all of my regular, devoted readers - thank you for all the supportive comments!), here are the answers to some of your questions:
- Yes, the conversation with Jerry Brown was on the record. Every conversation a politician or public figure has with the media is on the record, as long as the reporter identifies himself as such (which I did), and unless the newsmaker specifically asks before the conversation for it to be off the record, and the reporter agrees (Brown did not ask for it to be off the record).
- This conversation did not take place last Sunday, as Brown's spokesman has said, and as others have reported. It took place on Saturday, May 29, over Memorial Day weekend. I did not give the exact day or date in my original blog, so it's my fault that the timing of the remark wasn't clear. I only wrote "the other day," and I mentioned that it was before the June 8 primary.
- This was not a private, intimate conversation between just the two of us. As I mentioned in the blog, other joggers came in and out of the scene. At least one of them, a former neighbor of mine, overheard the entire discussion. At one point, Brown was holding forth before a group of five people. He's a public figure, running for public office, speaking publicly in a public place, which certainly makes his comments fair game for reporting.
- No, I did not record the conversation, since I was on my bike and had no recording equipment with me. I did, however, realize the potential import of what Brown had said. I rode home immediately, going over his words in my mind, and wrote them down as soon as I got home. I have a damn good memory. I use it on the radio every day. More importantly, Brown has confirmed that the conversation took place, and admits making the comments. He only regrets them, and believes they were taken out of context.
- They were not taken out of context. I'm not sure there's any context that would have made them acceptable to Meg Whitman. She probably would have publicized them even if I had provided ample historical and political context, and explained the entire history of Joseph Goebbels and his "Big Lie" propaganda technique.
- I never wrote that Brown called Meg Whitman a Nazi, or compared her or her campaign to Nazis. I simply reported his words, in which he likens her advertising approach to the propaganda techniques used by Goebbels. I leave it to others to draw their own conclusions. I am not responsible for the headline-writing or media shorthand of other organizations. You never heard "Brown Calls Whitman A Nazi" on KCBS, because we never said it that way, and that's not how we operate.
- My blog is quite different from what, and how, I report on the radio. It's sort of an Op-Ed column. It's written in a much more casual, impressionistic way. Sometimes it contains analysis, sometimes even my opinion. It is not an advocacy column; I don't ever take sides or make endorsements. Sometimes it just contains musings or items that don't really fit into what we do on the radio. Other times, it's designed to give our listeners some insight into what goes on behind the scenes, or add some color and detail that didn't fit into the tight time constraints of the KCBS news hour.
- I have had many, many private or casual conversations with public figures and have never blogged about one before. I have never breached an "off the record" agreement, and I never would. In fact, Jerry Brown himself has said some rather interesting things to me over the years which I haven't bothered reporting, because I didn't consider them blog- or news- worthy. This one, I did - not because of the potentially incendiary nature of the Goebbels reference, but because I believed the blog would give my readers a sense of the Democratic gubernatorial nominee's state of mind. I would have written it even if he hadn't brought up Goebbels. In fact, it wasn't until the Whitman campaign read the blog and e-blasted that section to the world that anyone even noticed or commented on the Goebbels reference at all. I had dozens of reactions to the blog before that, all positive, without a single mention of Goebbels or Nazis.
- No, I do not have a political ax to grind. I like Jerry Brown. I am not trying to destroy his campaign. I am not a tool of the right. My affection or disdain for political candidates does not affect what I report about them.
I don't usually use this blog as therapy, or to get things off my chest, but given the extraordinary nature of this situation, I really wanted to make a few things clear. Thank you for your indulgence.
Oh, and by the way, for the few who faulted me for not explaining every single historical reference in that blog - the "Miranda card" mentioned in this one's opening line refers to the warning card the police carry, so they can read you your rights, one of which is to remain silent. It's named for Ernesto Miranda. You can Google it.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Statements From Whitman and Brown Campaigns
"Just last week, Governor Brown promised he wasn't going to engage in mudslinging, but now he is comparing Meg Whitman to Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Jerry Brown's statements comparing our campaign to a propagator of the Holocaust is deeply offensive and entirely unacceptable."
--Meg Whitman 2010 Campaign Manager Jillian Hasner
Jerry Brown's campaign spokesman, Sterling Clifford, confirms to the Associated Press that the conversation took place, describing it as "a discussion after a chance meeting while they were exercising. I wouldn't vouch for the accuracy of it, but I also don't want to dispute the accuracy of it. It was jogging talk taken out of context." He says Brown was not comparing the Whitman campaign to Nazis.
UPDATE: Friday afternoon, Jerry Brown issued the following statement: "I regret making the comments. They were taken out of context."
I stand by what I wrote, which is below, under "Run Jerry Run."
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Run Jerry Run
I was out for a bike ride in the Oakland hills and stopped at Redwood Regional Park to fill up my water bottle. Suddenly, up jogs Jerry, in his sweats, chugging along the trail. As he caught his breath and got some water from the fountain, I said hello. He recognized me but couldn't remember my name, something that has happened many times between us over the past 25 years. I reintroduced myself, and he asked me if I was still at KCBS. I said I was, and complimented him on his impressive fitness for a man of 72. He'd run perhaps a mile and a half from his house on Skyline Boulevard.
We proceeded to have a remarkable and revealing chat about his race for governor. As strange a human being as he can be, Brown is almost always open and forthright. He can veer into esoteric tangents, but he tells it like it is (or at least how he sees it) and rarely pulls a punch.
I asked him if he intended to debate Meg Whitman, once she locked up the Republican nomination for governor (which she did Tuesday night, trouncing Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner). He said he'd like to have "many" debates with her - and indeed, he has since formally challenged Whitman to a series of ten town hall-style debates (Whitman dismissed his challenge as "playing political games" and said Brown should lay out some detailed policies so they'll have something to debate).
I asked him how he could possibly compete with her vast campaign treasury - Whitman spent $71 million of her own money on the primary, and is ready to write checks for $80 million more to crush Brown. She also raised about ten million from donors, and there will be more where that came from, from supporters and from the Republican Party.
Brown boasted about his legendary frugality. "I've only spent $200,000 so far. I have 20 million in the bank. I'm saving up for her." It's true - his stay-on-the-sidelines, bare-bones primary run cost him almost nothing, at least in California political terms. But he also fretted about the impact of all those eBay dollars in Whitman's very deep pockets. "You know, by the time she's done with me, two months from now, I'll be a child-molesting..." He let the line trail off. "She'll have people believing whatever she wants about me." Then he went off on a riff I didn't expect.
"It's like Goebbels," referring to Hitler's notorious Minister of Propaganda. "Goebbels invented this kind of propaganda. He took control of the whole world. She wants to be president. That's her ambition, the first woman president. That's what this is all about."
I pointed out that most politicians want to be president someday. Gavin Newsom, for example. "Sure, sure he does. But they can't control it. Look at Barack Obama, he got in and it's all out of his control. I wanted to be president. I ran for president three times, you know."
Uh, yeah, we know. No kidding, Jer.
At that point, some other runners stopped to say hello, recognizing Brown. I suggested it must be tough for him to get a run in, with people always wanting to talk to him.
"No, no one ever wants to talk to me. You're the oddball. You're the only one." He turned to the newcomers. "Hi, I used to be your mayor. I was the last Mayor of Oakland," a dig at current, less-than-constantly-visible Mayor Ron Dellums. "Oakland could use a mayor, it hasn't had one since I left office."
"You know," turning back to me, "we've got to do something about energy in this country. I just looked it up on the Internet. We only produce five million barrels of oil a day, but we consume 20 million. There's no balance there. We need a balance." He pointed to my bicycle. "People need to ride bikes, or walk more." Then he started saying something obscure about use value vs. exchange value. I told him I had no interest in exchanging my bike for anything, so therefore it only had use value for me. "Then that's subsistence. You believe in subsistence. But most people, they want exchange value, they want something in return for their goods."
He started musing about Whitman again. "She looks like an athlete. You think she's an athlete?" I said that she's certainly tall, towering above me (which isn't saying much). "Yeah," he said, "she could probably outrun me."
At this point, I had already stopped far longer than intended, and I told him I needed to start riding again. "What do you think," he asked me, "should I keep running? Should I go a little farther?" Why not, I answered. Go for it. "You've given me a nice little break here, " he said with a smile. I told him I looked forward to talking with him again, on the campaign trail next time, instead of on West Ridge Trail, or maybe on the panel of one of those debates.
"I feel recharged. I think I'll get back on the trail and run a little farther." And he trotted off, lean and frugal, with an awkward smile. "Let's see how far I can get."
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Throw the Bums Out...Again
All of which helps explain tonight's latest poll numbers from California. Pollster Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the nonpartisan, widely respected Public Policy Institute of California, has just published a survey that covers the major races in next month's primary. Here's some of what he found:
- Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman's support in the Republican primary for governor has plummeted, from 61% in March to just 38% now. Her lead over Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner has fallen from 61-11 then, to 38-29 today.
- Carly Fiorina and Tom Campbell remain locked in a dead heat, with Fiorina leading 25-23 for the Republican Senate nomination. But conservative Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, as predicted in this space, is surging, and is now within shouting distance at 16%. That leaves a whopping 36% of the voters undecided.
- As Poizner attacks Whitman, and she fights back, and the Republican Senate contenders squabble, the unopposed Democratic candidates are the beneficiaries. Jerry Brown has pulled back ahead of Whitman in a hypothetical November matchup, beating her 42-37 after trailing by five points in the last poll. He wallops Poizner, 45-32. Meanwhile, Barbara Boxer has regained the lead as well. She beats Campbell 46-40; she leads Fiorina 48-39; and she's ahead of DeVore 50-39.
- The voters are overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 14, which would change California's primary system to a "top two" open primary. Sixty percent say they'll vote yes, and only 27% oppose it. This measure would bring a dramatic shift from the way we choose candidates now, essentially abandoning the age-old primary and general election system in favor of a June general election and a November runoff. But the voters are in favor of anything that will shake up the status quo and change what they see as a badly broken system.
- Voters are split on what to do about California's budget crisis, whether to lower the two-thirds majority vote to pass a budget to a simple majority, whether to raise taxes or cut programs. But they do know that they don't approve of what's going on in Sacramento. Only 23% approve of Governor Schwarzenegger's job performance, and only 16% give the state legislature a good grade. Three-quarters want lawmakers to adopt pay-as-you-go budgeting, develop a two-year spending plan, and forfeit their pay when they don't get the budget done on time.
- And finally, the fight over the November ballot measure to legalize and tax marijuana is going to be a doozy. Voters are split right down the middle: 49% love it and 48% hate it. Predictably, Democrats are solidly in favor while most Republicans oppose the idea. The Bay Area is the only part of the state where there's a majority in favor. This is shaping up as a really, um, high profile campaign. Democrats are counting on a high turnout among young voters (or maybe that's just a turnout of high voters) passionate about this issue to help push Boxer and Brown over the top in November. But would you really want to pin your hopes on the motivation of pot smokers? They could just as easily go sit in the corner or make an emergency run to the 7-11 as show up at the polls.
Now Baldassare recognizes that part of the dramatic erosion in Whitman's support is due to Poizner's attack ads, blasting the former eBay CEO for her ties to Goldman Sachs and her spotty voting record. His red meat rhetoric on immigration is hitting home. Less educated voters are turning from Whitman to Poizner, although curiously, so are the richer ones. Whitman had the airwaves to herself for months, and only in the last few weeks has Poizner begun to counter the record-smashing $68 million of personal wealth Whitman has poured into her campaign. But she's also suffering from the anti-establishment sentiment out there that is affecting all frontrunners, not just incumbents. Whitman has been on the air for so long, so often, that she's become the de facto nominee. Perhaps she peaked too soon - leaving an opening for the late-spending Poizner to mount an insurgency. He and DeVore both hope to ride that Tea Party tide to upsets in June.
It's still a long shot, for both of them. Whitman is still ahead by nine points, which would be a comfortable margin of victory. DeVore is still in third place, with two better-funded candidates to leapfrog. But with one-third or more of the voters still scratching their heads over whom to choose...and shaking their heads over the state of our country...both races remain, in Baldassare's words, "volatile and unpredictable." The voters know they want to send a message; they're still searching for the right messengers.
Click here to hear my entire 11-minute interview with Mark Baldassare about his poll results.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Three Days Can Change Your Life
But he did.
On the eve of my departure for Haiti, I was nervous, anxious – hell, I was scared. I worried about getting sick, hurt, even killed. Plane crash, malaria, street violence – it all swirled around inside my head.
But the yellow band that never leaves my wrist says “Live Strong,” and I only agreed to wear it all those years ago because I always try to do that. Life is way too precious to waste even a single day, a lesson that has been seared into my being far too many times (I get the message, universe, you can stop sending it!). So there was nothing for it but to face the fear and get on the damn plane to Port au Prince.
As has been the case every other time I’ve felt this way – driving into a burning South Central L.A. the night of the Rodney King riots, riding solo across Dar Es Salaam to begin a bike trek to Kilimanjaro, heading into New Orleans the day the levee broke after Hurricane Katrina – I have come out the other side not just alive and kicking, but more alive than when I left, with a renewed and deeper appreciation for the goodness of humanity and my own blessed fortune.
I only spent about 75 hours in Haiti. I was embedded at a field hospital that opened the day after January’s catastrophic earthquake, set up by the University of Miami and Project Medishare. It’s on the fringes of Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, which, in the first days after the quake, was taken over by the U.S. military and swarmed with camps of media, international relief groups and non-governmental organizations. They’re all gone now. The Medishare hospital remains, and it’s evolved into the largest hospital in Haiti, even though it’s still a collection of circus tents in a rocky and windswept field. Among other things, it has an air-conditioned operating room, a burn unit, and the first neonatal and pediatric intensive care units in Haiti’s long and unhappy history. It’s staffed almost entirely by American volunteers, with doctors, nurses and other medical personnel rotating in from all over the U.S., usually for a one-week tour of duty, though some stay longer.
An awful lot of living, and dying, was crammed into my brief stay there. It’s far too much to write about here (here are the six phone reports I did from the camp; next week we’ll air a special five-part series on KCBS and that will be posted on the website too, along with a photo essay and some video. A shorter version of the series will air nationally on the CBS Radio Network and its stations). But two moments will stay with me a long, long time.
Saturday night, there was a violent rainstorm. The wind knocked down a power line, which fell onto two young girls living in one of Port au Prince’s many squalid tent cities. The girls were rushed to the hospital camp, burned all over their bodies. The neurosurgeon bunking next to me was yanked out of the nearby United Nations bar, where he’d gone for some much-needed R and R, to try to save their lives. He did, at least for a little while. Early the next morning, he told me things didn’t look good, and they were likely to die. The girls’ parents hung around the camp, praying, getting counseling, hoping their daughters would pull through. Everyone else in camp knew they wouldn’t.
Monday morning, the younger of the two girls, maybe 12 years old, finally succumbed to the burns that had taken 75% of her flesh. At the moment she died, I happened to be in the PICU, standing next to the burn unit. The attending doctor only spoke English. The parents only spoke Creole. The doctor whirled around and cried urgently for an interpreter. There wasn’t one to be found. One of the doctors asked if I could translate for them. I grabbed Jean Fritz Saint Bien, a young Haitian who worked in the supply tent, and told him he had to interpret. He insisted that wasn’t his job and he wasn’t qualified. You have to do it, I told him. You speak Creole and you speak English. But I’m not an interpreter, he protested. You are now, I said, and I pushed him forward. Jean Fritz did his best, explaining in Creole that the man’s daughter had died. Perhaps he wasn’t as sensitive and artful as a trained grief therapist/interpreter would have been, but there simply wasn’t such a person available.
The father started wailing, a raw, piercing siren of sorrow. His anguished cries cut through all the other sounds of the bustling hospital tent. The mother began to babble. She was praying, shaking her head, repeating something over and over again in Creole about her daughter and Jesus. She staggered and was caught by two people in scrubs, who led her out of the ICU. We all started to cry. I turned to the girls’ father and said, in French, I am so sorry. Je suis trés desolé, je suis trés desolé. He was inconsolable. A volunteer forensic psychologist, who in the U.S. works with the criminally insane, arrived to provide grief counseling.
At some point I shut off my recording machine. I’m not sure when – I haven’t listened back to the tape yet. I really don’t even want to. I felt like I shouldn’t be there, that it was wrong for me to intrude on this horrible moment as a reporter. I backed out of the room, leaving Jean Fritz to interpret further for the doctors and the shrieking father. I’ve witnessed many, many tragic things in my career but this was one of the saddest. It was just one of several child deaths during the time I was in the camp, but I felt it to my core. Perhaps because it came after four nights of very short sleep, or because of the cumulative effect of the difficult conditions and several days of intense emotions, but for whatever reason, it affected me deeply.
I stepped outside, needing some air, even though the ICU is air conditioned and the heat outside was stifling. Ninety-five degree sunshine with 90% humidity felt more conducive to life at that moment than the chill of the burn unit.
About three minutes later my cell phone rang – it was time for my next live shot on KCBS. It was a tough one to do.
There were several orphans at the hospital, children who came in for medical attention whose parents had died in the earthquake. Three had healed well and become fixtures in camp – in fact, they’re all being adopted by a couple of the volunteers, a big-hearted husband-and-wife team who will be taking the trio home with them to America.
Then there was Kiki - a misshapen kid with some sort of physical deformity. At least he seemed like a kid - a closer look revealed an older face. He has a badly hunched back, and a short, crooked right arm with a stump where his hand should be. He lurches around camp with a limp. Kiki turns out to be 18, which makes him ineligible for adoption.
It's too bad, because he was about the sweetest, most loving guy in camp. He would come up and hug people spontaneously, hooking his handless arm around you in a tight, smiling embrace. I tried to talk with him, but his Creole accent was impenetrable to me, and we never got very far.
Each morning, Kiki would greet me with a big laugh and a warm hug. It weirded me out a little at first. But he just wanted some love. You're a hugger, aren't you? I asked him. Just like me. So we would have our little morning hug. When it came time for me to leave, Kiki was there, waiting. For some reason, I couldn't say goodbye. I wondered about his future. The other three guys next to him would all begin new lives in the United States. The little babies in the neonatal unit and the other orphans will presumably be adopted by someone. But not Kiki. When this camp shuts down in a month or so, where will he go? Will someone take him in? Or will it be back out on the streets? Haiti has some institutions for the disabled, but I shudder to think of what they must be like.
I didn't give Kiki a goodbye hug. I wanted to, but something held me back. A wave of guilt washed over me. I went back to the tent and collected my things. I tossed my bags into a waiting truck, climbed in and drove off. I looked in the side mirror and saw Kiki, sitting at the lunch table, alone, scratching his head with his stump.
I'll be thinking about Kiki, and the sobbing parents of those young burn victims, for a long, long time.
By the way, there's a second band on my left wrist now. It's teal. It reads "Project Medishare for Haiti." I think I'll keep it on for a while.
Monday, March 15, 2010
She's already spent more money simply introducing herself to California voters than any previous Republican candidate for governor has spent on an entire campaign. And there's about a hundred million more where that came from.
Last week though, all that money couldn't buy her out of the ignominy that befell her campaign when she cackled at reporters instead of answering our questions, at her own "open media" event in Oakland. National ridicule ensued. So when the California Republican Party opened its spring convention Friday afternoon in Santa Clara, Whitman raced about the Hyatt Regency to make amends, holding 80 minutes' worth of news conferences and granting interviews to all comers.
It's tempting to blame Whitman's media shyness on inexperience - except the rookie candidate has a vast campaign apparatus staffed by seasoned pols, many of them veterans of the Wilson and Schwarzenegger campaigns and administrations. Give them credit for coming to their senses and recognizing that freezing out the media is a bad idea, and that Whitman is sharp enough to hold her own with us.
So $ finally talked. And talked. And talked. And Chatty Maggie promises much more media access as the campaign goes on - at least until she wins the Republican primary over Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. We'll see if the haughtiness returns if she advances to the general election against Democrat Jerry Brown.
Other notes from this weekend's GOPalooza:
BEST SPEECH: Carly Fiorina, hands down. Eschewing the podium and prepared text of her Senate rivals, the ex-HP CEO was the weekend's most dynamic speaker, delivering an Oprah-style oratory from an in-the-round stage. She was surrounded by "Carly for California" banners and dozens of young supporters in red "Carly" t-shirts. Fiorina worked from note cards (nothing written on her hand, as far as we could see) and pumped up the crowd with a high-energy speech.
WORST SPEECH: Tom Campbell. The former Congressman, law professor, business school dean and state finance director was dull and cerebral. He may lead Fiorina in the polls but he'd better step up his game once they start debating. This was supposed to be a delegate-inspiring call to action, not a Stanford lecture. The third Senate candidate, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, didn't do much better.
BEST NEWS CONFERENCE: Chuck DeVore. He's smart, funny and culturally literate. Unlike his convention speech, at which he sounded like he was delivering a history paper, DeVore's 45 minutes with the media were entertaining and revealing. Who else tosses in Monty Python and Woody Allen references? The conservative Orange County Assemblyman turns out to be a real wonk, sharp as a tack when it comes to politics, quick on his feet, personable and fun. And he let slip that he is an "increasingly distant" cousin of Jerry Brown. "My mom met him at a family event when he was 11. She says even then, he was weird."
WORST NEWS CONFERENCE: Carly Fiorina. Ugh. Whitman did an hour, then another one for 20 minutes. Poizner and DeVore each ran well over half an hour. Why? Because they all give expansive answers and delve deeply into the issues. Fiorina? Short, clipped answers. That don't answer the question posed. Forcing us to follow up and finally pry a sort-of answer out of her. And after ten minutes - she was gone.
RISING STAR: Damon Dunn. A star football player at Stanford, Dunn kicked around the NFL for a few years with four different teams, before going into the real estate business. He made a fortune and now's he a rookie in another contact sport, as a Republican candidate for Secretary of State. He's never even voted before, which won't help him get elected to the job that oversees elections in California, but he wowed the convention crowd with an electric speech. He has a moving personal story, sprinting out of Texas poverty to a Stanford scholarship and a successful business career, and his anecdote about training with Jerry Rice by climbing an impossibly steep mountain was the most memorable oratorical moment of the entire weekend. At 34, Dunn has a bright political future. Perhaps he should start at the local level - but when you see him running for governor in 2018, or 2022, or 2026 - remember where you first heard his name.
BEST FREEBIE: The holographic card slipped under hotel room doors by the College Republicans (who were a real force at this convention - young, chipper and fired up) that showed Tom Campbell morphing into a Demon Sheep. A close second: the lavishly packaged DVD of Fiorina's follow-up to the Demon Sheep video, the "Hot Air" ad that turns Barbara Boxer into a giant blimp fueled by her own hot air (which DeVore dubbed the "Hindenboxer" - I told you he was funny).
The dominant political theme over the weekend was red meat conservatism - tough talk on illegal immigration, cutting taxes, stopping what Campbell called the "soft socialism" of the Obama Democrats. But the overriding theme was money - Whitman's, Fiorina's, and Poizner's. Whitman, in particular, spread hers all over the Hyatt. She bought out Channel 32 on the hotel TV system, filling it with anti-Poizner attack ads, 24/7. She handed out CDs of those ads, and filled the hotel and convention center with banners, posters, stickers and various and sundry other assorted tchotchkes. Fiorina covered the walls with horror movie-style posters for her Hindenboxer ad. She paid for hotel rooms for her volunteers (DeVore charged that Fiorina also paid them $200 each to attend, which Fiorina's campaign vehemently denied. I asked a few if they were paid, and only one said he had been: "I think I'm voting for DeVore, but dude, 200 bucks is 200 bucks." Fiorina's press secretary said the kid was lying).
Their supporters slapped so many campaign stickers on so many surfaces that the hotel staff grew increasingly annoyed at having to scrape them off escalator railings and toilet stall doors. "I won't miss these damn people," one janitorial worker grumbled to me.
The California Democrats were noticeably absent from this convention - no rapid response team, no reaction at all to all the Dem-bashing. But they'd better take notice not only of the Republicans' sense that the tide is turning their way, even in California, but that it's a green tide, powered by a whole lot of $, and if Jerry Brown, Barbara Boxer and their allies aren't able to respond in kind, they may well find themselves swamped by a surprising t$unami in November.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Crazy Like A Sheep
And you thought Massachusetts was interesting?
I can't remember the last time I laughed out loud while watching a campaign commercial. But Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO who's running for U.S. Senate in California, has produced the most unintentionally hysterical attack ad in recent history - maybe ever.
If you haven't seen the Demon Sheep yet, click here.
For months, Fiorina has been ignoring her Republican primary opponent, conservative Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, and focusing her fire on the Democratic incumbent, the always-vulnerable liberal lightning rod, Senator Barbara Boxer. But then Tom Campbell quit the race for governor and jumped into the Senate primary instead. Now Fiorina has a fight on her hands. Polls show Campbell has leapfrogged her among Republican voters, and the nomination is no longer hers for the taking (I'm not sure it ever really was, actually).
So how does Fiorina respond?
With this bizarre and extraordinary hit piece - which looks like either a Saturday Night Live spoof, a Monty Python outtake, or a Future Farmers of America video gone awry.
It comes complete with dramatic voiceover, sheep falling off pedestals, random barnyard animals skulking behind tax policy headlines and, best of all, a Fiorina staffer or some unfortunate actor wearing a sheep costume, bright red devil eyes and sensible shoes, crawling through a pasture pretending to be Tom Campbell. The "conservatives we admire" seem to be represented by cute, docile sheep, while Campbell's evil sheep might as well be named Damien.
Fiorina's point is that the ex-Congressman, ex-Berkeley Dean, ex-Schwarzenegger Finance Director is an "FCINO" (that's a new one on me), which stands for "Fiscal Conservative in Name Only."
Thank goodness she didn't slap him with the more traditional RINO label, or someone would have had to crawl around in a field full of rhinos.
Fiorina's campaign is certainly generating buzz with this web-only, more-than-three-minute spot - but maybe not the buzz she was looking for. Is that buzz the sound of wool shears?
The Fiorina camp isn't the only one going a little animal crackers this week. The California Democratic Party has launched a new website poking fun at her, called "Carly Failorina.com." The idea is to lampoon the Silicon Valley washout with tales of her business world failures. Except the website builds its premise on what a bad governor Fiorina would be - when she's running for the Senate. It took a few hours but the Dems have corrected their editing mistake.
On the campaign trail, Fiorina likes to deflect our questions about her stormy tenure at HP (when we're allowed to ask any) by pointing out how the company has rebounded, and claiming that she laid the groundwork for HP's current success. But the latest campaign finance disclosures show that her former colleagues don't seem to agree with her assessment. Hewlett Packard has given the maximum possible donation to the Boxer campaign - and many HP executives have made sizable donations to the Democrat too. There's only one Fiorina contribution listed from an HP employee - and it's for a measly 250 bucks.
And finally, there's the bizarre flap between the two remaining Republican candidates for Governor - state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Whitman campaign strategist Mike Murphy made the mistake of emailing a Poizner staffer with the pointed suggestion that Poizner drop out of the race, since Whitman is creaming him in the polls despite all the money Poizner, yet another candidate who got rich in Silicon Valley, is pouring into his sputtering campaign. "We can spend $40 million+ tearing up Steve if we must," Murphy warned.
Poizner responded by going public with the email, accusing Whitman's camp of extortion, and referring the whole matter to the FBI. To which Murphy responded, "I'm starting to worry about the Commissioner's mental condition."
It's not likely anything will come of the "investigation" into Murphy's threats - but it's certainly made the otherwise sleepy race for the Republican nomination a little more interesting to watch. We're supposed to be doing a debate between these two this spring - I can't wait for that one.
That sound you hear in the background isn't demon sheep baahing - it's Democratic candidates Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer cackling with glee. Whatever momentum California Republicans thought they'd gained from Scott Brown's Massachusetts Miracle has temporarily dissipated in a flurry of wild and woolly intramural attacks, that reveal how fractured the GOP remains between its moderate and conservative wings, and demonstrate how tough it will be to knock the Democrats off their power pedestal. They won't go like lambs to the slaughter.
UPDATE: Just got off the phone with the Fiorina campaign. Deputy Campaign Director Julie Soderlund says the skulking demon sheep is actually "stock footage" (could it be stockyard footage?) from some past campaign, so no one knows who's actually playing the Campbell-in-sheep's clothing. Their ad guy dug that up from his archives. They can't say when it was shot, or for whose campaign. If anyone remembers that image from an old ad, let us know! She also insists the spot is not "unintentionally" hilarious. She says it was designed to be "funny and edgy and shocking" and to get people blogging about it. Mission accomplished.
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Married To It
The trial was fascinating, maybe even historic. Time will tell. Here are some random observations and moments from the proceedings, that, in most cases, didn't make it onto the radio:
There were 23 lawyers in court each day, sometimes even more. The plaintiffs had a dazzling array of high-priced, high-powered lawyers with glittering resumes. The superstars, David Boies and Theodore Olson, were not working pro bono, as some assumed. They did reduce their rates, but they didn't take this case for free. The organization that brought the suit, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, raised millions of dollars to pay for it, from deep-pocketed donors like Rob Reiner, Steve Bing and David Geffen. Reiner came to court several times to observe the proceedings.
The other side had one powerhouse attorney, Chuck Cooper, and a phalanx of lesser associates, not all of whom seemed up to the task, quite frankly. They complained of being outgunned, and on some days, they were.
The lead attorney for Protect Marriage, the group that wrote Proposition 8 and put it on the ballot, is Andy Pugno. He didn't actually argue the case this time around, but he was the daily mouthpiece for the defendants. He's running for State Assembly in a Republican district in Sacramento this year. One of the defense arguments was that gays and lesbians have ample political clout in California and don't need judicial protection. Pugno better hope they're not as powerful as he made them out to be, because gay groups will be mobilizing to try to defeat him at the polls.
There was simmering tension between the two sides in court, and on long days, when folks were tired, there was some occasional sniping and snapping. But they also worked together in the spin room. Twice a day, attorneys for each side, and occasionally witnesses, would hold news conferences in the media center. First, the Protect Marriage team would slap its "Yes on 8" placard on the podium; then the American Foundation people would replace it with their sign. They stored them inside the podium, stuck to the wood with duct tape.
Funniest moment of the trial: In the middle of his lengthy, often painful crossexamination of defense expert David Blankenhorn, a staunch supporter of traditional marriage, plaintiffs' attorney Boies was ready to move from Blankenhorn's definition of marriage as a union of opposites to his contention that marriage is, by definition, a sexual relationship. "Now let's see if we can make sex boring," Boies quipped. To which Blankenhorn responded innocently, "Perhaps we can do that together." Everyone, including the judge and the authors of Proposition 8, laughed, long and hard. "No insinuations!" protested Blankenhorn, but it was too late.
District Judge Charles Breyer, who was instrumental in establishing the new media room at the federal courthouse, came down one day to check on us. Pleasant and amiable, he asked why I was always doing live shots on the phone and tweeting from the lobby, instead of from the media room. I told him the cell signal is shaky in there. Here's hoping he does something about it. He's not the chief judge, but his brother Steven IS on the U.S. Supreme Court, so he has a little weight to throw around.
Only one protester ever made it into the courtroom. He was carrying a Bible, and when he took a seat in one of the rows reserved for counsel, and started talking to the lawyers, he was admonished by the federal marshals. Then he started yelling "return the family to Jesus" and was dragged out of the courtroom and kicked out of the building. The next day, he came back. This time, they didn't let him in. He was stopped at the building's north entrance, and when he made a fuss, five Federal Protective Police officers swooped in. One put him in a hammerlock, another yanked his hands behind his back and cuffed him. He was wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey and shorts on a wet, raw day. They confiscated his Bible but returned it to him after they booked, cited and released him.
Arnold Schwarzenegger tried so hard to stay out of the gay marriage debate. Twice, the state legislature legalized same sex marriage, and twice, the Governator vetoed it, saying it was a question for the voters or the courts, not the legislature. So the people finally voted, and then the courts got involved. That forced Schwarzenegger's hand, and he finally took a stand, opting not to defend the law. And now, if this lawsuit succeeds, he will go down in history as the "Wade" of same sex marriage - with Perry v. Schwarzenegger as the Roe v. Wade of gay rights, indelibly linking his name with the issue he had sidestepped for six years.
David Boies lived up to his reputation as a master cross-examiner. He grilled Proposition 8 proponent Dr. William Tam to a fine crisp. I thought maybe I should check for grill marks as Tam left the courtroom. I asked Boies if he had enjoyed himself, and he purred, "Ooh, that was fun. A good day, a good day. This is why I took the case. This is why I do this."
The defense carped about Judge Walker from the outset. He consistently ruled against them, in pre-trial motions and during the trial itself, and they seemed to think the deck was stacked in the plaintiffs' favor. But His Honor took great pains to appear even-handed, and, at the end of the trial, took the unusual step of coming down from the bench and shaking hands all around. He thanked and congratulated all the attorneys, said the youngest among them did a particularly fine job (I didn't necessarily agree), and said the "old hands" should be proud of how they've mentored the young'uns. The lawyers lined up and shook hands and traded pleasantries with the judge. It looked like the end of a hockey game. I kept waiting for the beefy Pugno to bodycheck Boies.
The plaintiffs, including AFER founder Chad Griffin and a gay couple from Burbank, celebrated gleefully the day the Supreme Court overturned campaign finance restrictions on corporations. Not because they agree with the decision - but because it was yet another 5-4 high court victory for their co-lead counsel, Ted Olson. "Do you really agree with this ruling?" I asked them. "It doesn't matter," one answered. "Boy, did we hire the right lawyer!"
And that's where they're resting their hopes. It's always risky to predict judicial outcomes based on what happens at trial (or even in an appellate hearing), but this was as one-sided a case as I've ever covered. The plaintiffs called 17 witnesses, the defense only two. The plaintiffs presented ten days of evidence to the defendants' two. The defense experts were eviscerated by Boies, and made as many salient points for the plaintiffs' argument as they did for their own side. Ultimately, though, this trial comes down to whether Chief District Judge Vaughn Walker thinks it was fair and reasonable for California voters to ban same sex marriage or not. If he was convinced by the plaintiffs that Proposition 8 doesn't meet the "strict scrutiny" test - in other words, the state doesn't have a compelling interest to keep same sex couples from marrying, and the law took away a fundamental right from a class of people who merit protection - he will declare the law unconstitutional. If he was persuaded by the defendants that there's a legitimate, rational basis for the measure, then he won't. But whatever he decides, the loser will appeal to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco, and the loser there will almost certainly seek relief from the U.S. Supreme Court.
That case will likely come up in 2012 or so (perhaps late 2011), smack dab in the middle of the next presidential campaign (which will be red meat for the Republicans and not good for Barack Obama). Justice Stevens, and perhaps Justice Ginsburg, will have been replaced by then by younger liberals. Assuming no changes in the conservative wing of the court, it's hard to imagine anything than another 5-4 vote in an Olson-argued case - but this time, to his detriment, to uphold Proposition 8. The plaintiffs are banking on Olson's conservative credentials (he was Solicitor General for President George W. Bush and beat Boies to win the landmark Bush v. Gore case that put W in the Oval Office) and his unparalleled won-lost record at the Supreme Court (he's now 45-12; no living lawyer has won or even argued that many Supreme Court cases) to carry the day when this case reaches Washington. They believe Olson will be able to sway swing-voting Justice Kennedy, and perhaps even Justice Scalia or Chief Justice Roberts, to produce a 5-4 or 6-3 vote in their favor.
But that's a long way off. Maybe this was all a big waste of time and money, a political publicity stunt with a preordained outcome. We'll be back in court for closing arguments sometime in March or April, and then a ruling from Judge Walker, maybe in May. And then we'll see where it goes from there.
I'd hate to think I lost my voice for nothing.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
The Scott Heard Round the World
I'm writing this while on a long weekend trip to Boston. Forlorn Martha Coakley signs poke sadly through the snow on the frozen white lawns of Cambridge. From what I gather here, they seem to have been the extent of her U.S. Senate campaign. Stunned Democrats still wander about in a glum daze, wondering how in the world their five-decade liberal lion Senator, the champion of national health, is being replaced by a conservative Cosmo centerfold. And not just any conservative, but one whose raison d'etre in the Senate will be to kill the very bill for which Ted Kennedy fought so long, the one he died thinking would finally become reality.
That irony is not lost on the majority of Bostonians who voted for Coakley, only to see her swamped by the Tea Party-fueled insurgency of one Scott Brown, a Republican State Senator from Wrentham whose previous claim to fame was fathering Ayla Brown, an American Idol finalist a few years back (I thought she was a cute, pleasant lightweight, but as I recall, her undoing was her poor choice of the Natasha Bedingfield song "Unwritten," not the thinness of her voice. But this isn't an Idol blog, is it? So sorry).
There is much teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing among Bay State Democrats. But just as at Concord, 235 years ago and maybe 25 miles from here, this revolutionary moment reverberates far beyond the borders of the Commonwealth.
The Democratic majority, not to mention the president's agenda, is in deep peril. Losing the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey was one thing, but fumbling away the special election to replace Senator Kennedy, and with it, the party's 60-vote supermajority, is quite another.
By most accounts, Coakley ran a lazy, arrogant campaign. The White House saw the warning signs way too late. Scott Brown went door-to-door and diner-to-diner, capitalizing on voter anger over lost jobs, bank bailouts, mounting national debt and a still-sputtering economy. He may only serve two years in the Senate (he must run again when Kennedy's term expires in 2012), but that could be long enough to scuttle health care reform and block Obama's judicial appointees.
President Obama seems to have gotten the wake-up call. Early word is he will come out swinging in his State of the Union speech, and he's already retooling for the midterm elections, trying to reclaim the populist mantle himself. Perhaps this Massachusetts loss will be the kick in the pants he, and the Democratic leadership, need. Many progressives here think Obama's been too timid in his first year - too quick to placate Republicans in the name of bipartisanship, and too slow to pursue the real change so many Americans thought they were voting for in November 2008.
The historic nature of his majority seems to have been lost on Obama. He's a Democratic president, with an astounding 79-seat edge in the House of Representatives and the largest Senate majority in a generation. Not since the post-Watergate campaign of 1976, when Jimmy Carter took the presidency with a 61-38 margin in the Senate (there was one independent), have the Democrats enjoyed this kind of power. Carter squandered it. Obama is in serious jeopardy of doing the same.
Just one year into the Obama presidency, the Carter comparisons are already apt. George W. Bush barely won the office, twice (and really only once), and had the barest of Congressional majorities, but still rammed the Republican agenda through with a Damn the Democrats, Full Speed Ahead attitude. Perhaps it's time for Obama to abandon the genteel, don't-rock-the-boat demeanor of recent vintage Democrats and do some serious, bare knuckle brawling. I'm all for postpartisanship and changing the tone, but it's clear the GOP has no interest at all in playing that game. The Republican Party went all in on stopping Obama, no matter what, even if he discovers the cure for cancer and wants to give it out for free, and their nothing-to-lose obstructionism is paying off beyond Michael Steele's wildest dreams. Can you imagine if the Republican Party had the kind of power the Democrats have (or had, until last week's election here)? There would be no political pussyfooting, trust me.
We all know the kind of change Obama promised takes time. Fixing an economy that's this broken, winning two wars and passing an ambitious domestic agenda doesn't come quickly, and it doesn't come cheap. But Obama no longer has the luxury of time. It's started raining here in Boston, hard, and the warmer storm is melting the frozen Charles River. The ice is cracking, the current is moving again, and it isn't moving in the Democrats' direction.