CHAPTER 14: The Triumph of Hope Over Experience
I think Lerach and his ilk area very low life form, somewhere below pond scum. — J. Rodgers, president and CEO Cypress Semiconductor Inc.
For me, winning the primary election was not a checkered flag going down at the finish line. Rather, it was the crack of a starter’s pistol exploding in my head. This congressional race was on, and over the next seven months before the November general election, I would think about only one thing: money. I had to raise a million bucks in less than 200 days, Just the thought of it turned my stomach into a Tums testing center.
My strategy for getting off to a fast start was clear: Raise a quick 50 grand from my local-donor base at our first major fund-raising event. Then, go to Washington with that seed money in the bank and use it to leverage FAC money. So the pressing task at hand was to schedule our first fund-raiser, and this task fell to Norma Nicolls, the latest addition to my campaign team.
Norma drives a little bug-eyed, phosphorescent lime green sports car and zips around San Diego like a renegade atom in a particle accelerator. She’s a trip: earthy, wry, and more than a little raunchy. In fact, the first words I ever heard come out of her mouth were “Would you like to sit on my face?” She was not speaking to me but rather regaling a mutual friend with tales about her former boss, the once great and now late M. Larry Lawrence.
In his prime, Lawrence was the owner of the world-class Hotel del Coronado, a mega-donor to President Bill Clinton, and, at least according to Norma, a lecher of Rabelaisian proportions. I mention this because I want to give you a flavor of just how corrupt and inbred my little town of San Diego is. Remember Richard Silberman from Chapter Two — the husband of Susan Golding who got busted for money laundering? Well, one of Silberman’s business partners in the corporation used by Silberman to launder money was Larry Lawrence. This fact alone may explain why, when President Clinton appointed Lawrence as an ambassador, the country Lawrence chose to go to was Switzerland — land of a million and one unnumbered bank accounts.
By the way, can I vent here for a minute about jerks like Lawrence in American politics: Here's an irascible, mean, and cutthroat old fart who married and divorced young blondes with the regularity of an Ex-Lax junkie, who consorted with money launderers, and who was ruthless in his business dealings, and the son of a bitch winds up as an American ambassador just because he raised a million bucks for the Prez. Something is wrong with this picture.
Anyway, Norma Nicolls worked as Lawrence’s personal assistant for over ten years, until Larry the Lecher traded in his aging second blond wife Jeanne for his third blond wife, the fair and nubile Shelia. The difficult-to-confirm rumor about Shelia is that she is a former blackjack dealer out of Vegas, although if I had to guess her previous occupation I would pick bikini model or Bay Watch extra. (More about Shelia later.)
Unfortunately, Norma quickly ran afoul of the newest lady of Crown Manor (Lawrence’s estate mansion — a stunner on Coronado), and for all Norma’s past loyalty to Larry, he gave her her walking papers. Since that day, Norma has plied her new trade as a political fund-raiser, and she had seemed to do a good job for Lynn Schenk in both Lynn’s winning 1992 campaign and her 1994 loss to Brian Bilbray in the Year of the Newt.
Note the word “seemed" here because before I hired Norma, Lynn had warned me that Norma was more of an “event planner" than a pure fund-raiser. However, because Lynn is one of the toughest critics of people that I know, I discounted her assessment and hired Norma anyway. Big mistake.
PAC Versus Local-Donor Fund-Raising
Now it may occur to you to ask: Why did I need Norma as a second fund-raiser when I had already hired Steve Pederson in Washington? It’s a good question, and the answer is that PAC fund-raising and local-donor fund-raising are as different as country and classical music.
With PAC fund-raising, you have a target list of several hundred PAC directors, virtually all headquartered in D.C. The object is to phone each of these guardians of the loot at least once every one to two weeks, and then, in between times, you bombard them with blast faxes — press releases, news articles, or new poll results that lie about how wonderful your campaign is doing.
Local-donor base fund-raising is a different animal, however, with a different order of magnitude. My fund-raising donor base has about 5000 donors in it, roughly split in thirds between large, medium, and small donors. To properly milk this donor base, you have to have a comprehensive plan that includes a series of mail-and-phone solicitations augmented by fund-raising events.
The job of the local fund-raiser is to design and coordinate this plan, organize the events, and, most importantly, make the follow-up calls to donors whom the candidate has already talked to and gotten pledges from. It’s more than a fulltime job, and you need somebody with a wide range of attributes, not the least of which is a set of brass balls, because it’s harder to get people to commit money to a political cause than it is to the zoo, a museum, or a new cancer hospital.
In this regard, Norma had two flaws that would emerge only after several months of dysfunctional pain at our campaign headquarters. The first was that she was computer-phobic. This was a crying shame because fund-raising is one of the best applications of a computer ever discovered.
Norma’s other flaw was that she didn’t like to ask people for money. This is not the best phobia for a professional fundraiser to have. It’s kind of like a butcher or doctor who hates the sight of blood or a used-car salesman with an unwavering commitment to the truth.
So when it became apparent that most of the money coming in to the campaign was due to my solicitations and not hers, she became expendable. What sealed the deal was a mistake made in scheduling our first major fund-raiser — a mistake not unlike listing Saddam Hussein as cohost at an event to raise money for the Friends of Kuwait. Here’s what happened.
The concept for the fundraiser was to have former Congresswoman Lynn Schenk as the host. Lynn is a pretty good draw, her support would help solidify my credentials with the traditional Democratic donor base, and she was more than happy to do it. The problem, however, was that Lynn never hosts anything at her home — a rule that I both grumble about and respect. So Norma and I had to find a venue, and after casting about, we settled on the law offices of Bill Lerach. Part of the reason was that we were hoping Bill would help us raise half of the $50,000 we had set as our goal for the event.
Now here’s where we made the big mistake — the second major mistake of a campaign that had to be utterly flawless for us to win. In preparing the invitation, we listed not only Lynn Schenk as the host but Bill Lerach as a cohost.
King of the Strike Suits
According to Mother Jones magazine, William S. Lerach is not only one of the ten largest political donors in America, he is undisputedly the nation’s most successful practitioner of the insider-trading class-action lawsuit. Indeed, Lerach’s list of strike-suit targets reads like the Fortune 500, from Apple and Intel to U.S. Sprint and the Walt Disney Corporation.
Over the past 20 years, Lerach’s law firm has been involved in over 400 securities class actions. They have won awards for their clients totaling more than the gross national product of Guatemala — over $4 billion. At a one-third contingency fee raked off the top of these awards, Lerach and his partners are, as his enemies would say, filthy rich. But that’s not why I love Bill Lerach. I love him because he’s a totally pure form.
Start with his looks: What you see first is a great big wide Cheshire cat grin framed by a huge and outrageous head of hair that would make Don King or Art Garfunkel green with envy. You gotta like this happy-looking guy on sight.
Then try his sense of humor: On the occasion of his third marriage, to a woman as exotic as her name implies, Star Soltan, here’s what he said: "I stand before you today as the triumph of hope over experience.” (By the way, I borrowed that line for my campaign speeches because it pokes good, clean fun at my willingness to run again and again for office despite my losses.)
Finally — and mostly — I love Bill Lerach because he knows how the money game is played. No phony foreplay or false promises. If he says he’ll raise you 50 or 100 grand for your campaign, you can bank on it, and no reminders are necessary.
No doubt this is why most of the nation’s Democratic politicians have, over the years, beaten a path to the exquisitely carved, fine oak door of Lerach’s Rancho Santa Fe estate — a place that he once jokingly referred to as “hollowed ground” after Lloyd Bentsen, Chuck Robb, Diane Feinstein, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore all passed through in quick succession on fund-raising missions.
The first time I met Bill Lerach was a couple of days after a televised debate in my mayor’s race in 1992. It had been during the primary election, and as I had waltzed my way around the issue floor, my opponents had spent their time ignoring me and slinging mud at each other. Bill liked what he saw on the tube, and he kindly offered to help raise me some dough.
Since then, Bill’s done a lot for me. He always invites me gratis to his big fund-raisers so I can meet the fat cats, and he never objects when I hit them up later for my own campaigns. These fund-raisers have also been the source of some of my best portraits with the nation’s politicians, including a great shot of me with Bill Clinton doing an uncanny impression of a jetlagged W.C. Fields — red bulbous nose, glazed eyes, and all (Clinton, not me). These portraits are more than just mementos for my golden years. They provide valuable photographic fodder for political mailers when it comes time to tout my solid Democratic credentials.
One Man's Hero Is Another Man's Pond Scum
Now take my love for Bill Lerach, multiply it by a hundred, put a big fat minus sign in front of the number, and you’ve got an idea of how much the business community in San Diego hates Bill Lerach. This is because Bill Lerach’s favorite targets to sue tend to be the high-tech and biotech companies that like to make San Diego their home.
In fact, in my little town, getting “Lerached" is an executive’s worst nightmare, and they see this legal demon that they have turned into a verb not as a white knight protector of the small investor, as Lerach claims to be, but as a vicious “greenmailer” who sues just for the sake of forcing big settlements.
So here’s the punch line: Of the several thousand invitations listing Lerach as a cohost that were sent out for my first fund-raiser, at least three to four hundred of these invitations went to executives in high-tech industries. The RSVPs we got from many of these people are quite unprintable here in this, a wholesome story for the whole family. Suffice it to say that these replies encouraged me to engage in unspeakable and unnatural acts, usually by myself but sometimes with Bill Lerach.
Even worse, the announcement to the world that Lerach was one of my major supporters quickly galvanized support for my opponent Brian Bilbray, particularly in the biotech community. This was despite the fact that at least some of these Ph.D. scientists regarded Bilbray as an uncultured and uneducated buffoon only a rung or two up the evolutionary ladder from the hapless baboons in their test labs.
The irony was that while I raised $50,000 at this first event just as I had planned, I probably raised twice that much for Bilbray from irate Lerach-haters who had received our ill-conceived invitation.
But at least the 50 grand helped me make a good impression on my next trip to Washington.
CHAPTER 15: What's the Price of an Al Gore?
Someone to watch over me. — From the song of the same name
I took my third trip to Washington, D.C., at the end of March, hut I felt more like Santa Claus than the F.aster Bunny: I was bringing the Democratic Party $100,000 in cold, hard cash in the hopes of closing a deal I had cut with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (D-Triple-C) to rent Al Gore for an evening. This is not as sleazy as it sounds.
Shortly after I won the primary election, I went to visit two of my favorite people on the planet, Chuck and Darlyn Davenport. Over the years, Chuck and Darlyn have been among my strongest and most loyal supporters. Not only have these guardian angels always donated the maximum allowable under law to my campaigns, they have hosted several successful fund-raisers and solicited friends and family on my behalf. For any politician, the support of people like Chuck and Darlyn is invaluable — and all the more so because they are that rare breed of donor that gives to politics because of a sense of public purpose rather than self-interest.
Chuck and Darlyn live in a meticulously restored historic mansion in Point Loma. In this part of town, there are more conservative Republicans per square inch than there are germs on a dirty Kleenex. As a Democrat, Chuck once told me that he felt more surrounded by hostile forces than General Custer had at Little Big Horn.
On a fine and sunny chamber-of-commerce day, Chuck, Darlyn, and I sat in their spacious living room overlooking the sparkling harbor and Coronado, and even before our conversation began, I felt particularly blessed to live in my little town and have such fine friends.
Chuck started off the conversation by saying that he really wanted me to win this time and that he and Darlyn wanted to do something extra to make that happen. Besides, he thought that Gingrich and the Republicans were going way overboard in their attacks on the environment and education, and we needed to get rid of the SOBs.
What Chuck had in mind was making what he called a “modest” donation to the Democratic Party on my behalf. His idea was to use that money to get some political star out to his house so that we could throw the mother of all fundraisers for my campaign. I liked the sound of that, so I asked him what kind of donation he had in mind, and he said “up to $100,000.” At that, my jaw dropped so far it almost fractured on his Spanish tile floor.
Until that moment, I didn’t know that Chuck was so wealthy. He’s not the type to flaunt his wealth. How Chuck made his money is an interesting story in and of itself. He was trained in accounting and was dutifully playing the role of the faceless midlevel executive at a nameless mid-sized company when the energy crisis hit in the 1970s. Out of that crisis emerged a whole slew of complicated subsidies for alternative energy sources. With his accounting background, Chuck figured out that you could make a bundle developing wind farms with virtually no financial risk.
Today, Chuck is the chief executive officer and major stockholder of the largest wind company in the world, Sea-West, and every time the wind blows, Chuck’s cash register goes ka-ching. What’s neat is that he’s in an industry that provides a real contribution to society — clean energy.
Once Chuck laid his money card on the table, my task was to figure out how to play it. It’s moments like this that separate the successful candidates from the unsuccessful ones because this is when you have to think fast on your feet. At least that day, I was lightning quick.
My brilliant idea was to not get Bill Clinton to come to the Davenports. Not only would the president be difficult to get, he’s just not that popular in my little town. No, the obvious choice was the vice president. Al Gore has all of the positive attributes of Bill Clinton but is saddled with none of his negatives. He’s a great big teddy bear of a political figure — Teflon coated, road tested, and everyone’s nice guy. Besides, Gore’s strong environmentalism would dovetail nicely with my own campaign themes as well as with Chuck’s interest in alternative energy. My job, then, was to figure out how to rent Al for the evening, and all I knew was that I had $100,000 to make it happen.
I should say here that the millisecond that the words “one hundred thousand dollars” popped out of Chuck’s mouth, I realized that my campaign had hit the lottery. This is because such a major gift would work on so many levels.
Sure, it would help me raise money: By bringing the Veep in as a headliner for a fund-raiser, I could easily pull in a six-figure sum. But the Davenport gift would also separate me from the pack of challengers jockeying to be one of the D-Triple-C’s targeted seats. Such targeting would, in turn, greatly enhance my chances for mega-PAC funding — the name of the game. So leaving Chuck and Darlyn’s home, I was about as excited as I ever am with my clothes on, and I couldn’t wait to get on the horn to my Washington fundraiser, Steve Pederson, and ask him how to go about this process. When I talked to him, Steve got almost as excited as I was, and he pointed out a few more benefits of such a gift that I hadn’t even thought of.
First, the gift would give us immediate access to top Democratic congressional leaders — from Dick Gephardt, Vic Fazio, and Steny Hoyer to key players in the (California delegation like Henry Waxman and Howard Berman. The reason is that these guys want direct access to the big donors for their own political purposes, and I could be the gatekeeper in the venture. This role would allow me, in turn, to ask them to make some calls on my behalf to the PACs — and when a Dick Gephardt or Vic Fazio calls, the PACs listen.
Second, Steve said that we would now almost certainly get the full $65,000 of financial support that the D-Triple-C is allowed to provide each candidate by law but only provides to a select targeted few. And the D-Triple-C is where Steve suggested we start trying to make the Gore event happen. The man to call was Matt Angle, executive director of the D-Triple-C, and I did so the first thing in the morning.
Wheeling and Dealing at the D-Triple-C
Matt is an early-40s good old boy from Texas with a brooding Hamlet countenance that is only rarely brightened by a big wide grin. Matt found himself running the D-Triple-C because he did such a great job as chief of staff to Congressman Martin Frost, the D-Triple-C’s chairman; and I can think of no better guy to work with than Matt Angle on anything. He “gets it,” and he gets it right away, and that’s the highest compliment I can give anybody at the tactical level of politics.
At first, Matt greeted my good news with more skepticism than excitement — no doubt a prudent reaction. After all, it’s not every day that an unknown challenger for a Democratic congressional seat calls him up with a $100,000 gift for his organization. However, as I filled Matt in on Chuck’s background, he warmed up to the venture.
As luck would have it, the White House had jobbed Vice President Gore out to help the D-Triple-C build up its campaign war chest. However, the White House would only allow Gore to do three events, and, even as we were speaking, Matt and his assistant Noah Mamet were in the process of searching for two more lucrative locations — with Boca Raton already promised a date. The major criterion for landing Gore was the amount of money that could be raised. It was just like an auction. Whoever could promise the most money would get the vice president. Period.
So how much does an Al Gore cost? Matt said we had to hit at least $200,000. I said that would be a piece of cake because, in addition to the Davenport check, we could easily raise another $100,000 at the event itself.
So we met the most important criterion for getting Gore, but what also worked in our favor was that the Davenports were fresh donors who had never contributed to the Democratic Party. That meant that of the $100,000 they were offering, a full $40,000 was precious “hard money.”
The beauty of hard money is that it can be given directly by a political party to a candidate and be used for any purpose. But there is a strict $20,000-per-person contribution limit per election cycle. In contrast, soft money, which can be given in unlimited amounts, must be laundered through local- and state-party organizations to provide indirect — and less effective — help through mechanisms such as voter-registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts.
The beast of hard money is that the Democratic Party has a smaller number of large hard-money donors relative to the Republicans, so the Republican Party has a distinct advantage in the hard-money category. To get an idea of the order of magnitude of this problem, suppose the D-Triple-C wants to contribute the maximum $65,000 of support to just 100 of the 435 candidates running for Congress. That’s $6.5 million, and it all has to be hard money. That’s easy for the deep-pocket Republicans, but it’s a dachshund stretch for the dog’s lunch Dems.
The bottom line here is that new donors like Chuck and Darlyn and the hard money they can bring to the table are literally worth their weight in gold, so by the end of my first conversation with Matt Angle, he was as stoked about the Al Gore venture as I was.
I told him I would be in Washington, D.C., next week, and perhaps between now and then, he could work out some of the details with the White House. I also indicated that there were important things to negotiate to ensure that my campaign directly benefited financially from the Gore event at the same time that the D-Triple-C got its $200,000.
Matt said he’d be happy to hammer all this out in a week hence, but the one thing he had to do before then was check the bona fides on the Davenports. The two big questions: Did they really have the money or were they just blowing smoke? And were the Davenports the type of fine, upstanding citizens that the vice president and the White House wanted to be associated with?
I assured him that the Davenports were as clean as Rocky Mountain rain and suggested a conference call between Matt, Chuck, and me where Matt could ask Chuck about his willingness to donate. It was probably one of the shortest phone calls in political history. The next day, as Chuck and I huddled around the speaker phone in his home office. Matt popped the $100,000 question. Chuck simply said “yes.”
After a long pause at Matt’s end — he expected Chuck to say more, but Chuck rarely does — Matt said he would need at least $50,000 of the gift up front as earnest money to make it all happen. Chuck said he would be happy to send it with me to Washington next week to seal the deal. Another long pause. Then Matt said. Great, it’s done. I’ll see you next week.
For my campaign, this was like striking oil, hitting a home run, and getting lucky on a lonely Saturday night all at the same time. I couldn’t wait to get on that big bird to the land of cherry blossoms and bull dung.
CHAPTER 16: PAC Attack
No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. —Stanislaw Jerzy Lec
Washington, D.C, is a remarkably beautiful city. Any damn fool who flies into the place on a clear and sparkling night as I did in late March can see that, and God bless the architect Pierre-Charles L'Enfant for the type of long-range planning and foresight that the political denizens of the Washington deep rarely exhibit.
On this, my third trip to the land of milk subsidies and honey price supports, there were two things to accomplish. One, of course, was to nail down the Al Gore event with Matt Angle at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The other was to continue my magical mystery tour of the several hundred PAC directors on my target list.
That’s all you need with these PAC types: one face-to-face meeting. They take your measure, you take theirs, and the rest is follow-up phone calls. But without that face-to-face, you’re a half step behind the competition, and in the PAC game, the competition is fierce.
During my first two trips to D.C., my PAC fund-raiser Steve Pederson and I had done a good job making the PAC rounds. Over a span of eight working days, Steve had introduced me to 40 of the major PACs.
My favorite PAC directors so far were Linda Canan of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Kenny Montoya of the Air Traffic Controllers.
Linda is bright, cheerful, and not yet jaded by the congressional candidates who descend on her every two years like a swarm of locusts. Unlike 98 percent of the PAC directors, she returns phone calls, so that alone makes her a pearl among whines.
Kenny has a warm, infectious grin and a kind habit of telling you when and how much money his PAC can donate to your campaign before you even ask. It is a nice change of pace in a world where begging on both knees is the norm.
My least favorite PAC director was Marta David of the AFL-CIO. Imagine a drill sergeant with a cattle prod suffering from chronic paranoia and you get the idea of how unpleasant it was to spend time with this insufferable martinet.
I had met Marta on my second trip to D.C. months before. This was when the AFL-CIO was already beginning to unveil its $32 million attack ad campaign against a targeted list of vulnerable freshman Republicans. As with wooing the D-Triple-C, my job as a candidate was to make sure that the 49th Congressional District of San Diego was part of the AFL-CIO’s target, and it was up to Marta and her boss Steve Rosenthal to make that decision.
As it would turn out, the AFL-CIO would commit the same strategic mistake as Martin Frost and the D-Triple-C did by starting their anti-Gingrich propaganda far too early in the election season. AFL-CIO leaders like John Sweeney further compounded the problem by publicly bragging about the big bucks they were throwing about. This braggadocio generated lots of bad press, discontent in the rank and file, and an 11th-hour voter backlash against the very candidates the AFL-CIO was supposed to be helping.
The ultimate result of the AFL-CIO’s ham-handed approach was to give Republican strategists time to inoculate their candidates against the attacks of big labor, and I’m certainly not giving away any of the plot of this story if I tell you that of the numerous Republican freshman targeted by labor, only a handful lost.
The irony of this for my campaign was that I would wind up getting the worst of both worlds from the AFL-CIO: I would be accused by my opponent of having big labor do my dirty work, but the AFL-CIO would never actually drop a bundle in my district to attack Bilbray.
The Daily Grind
On this third trip to D.C., my PAC fund-raiser Steve Pederson wanted to kick things up a notch, so our schedule was unusually brutal: From 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., there would be one PAC meeting per hour with no time budgeted for lunch. That’s ten PAC directors a day, so over the space of a four-day trip like this one you can knock off almost one-fourth of your PAC primary target list.
To pull off such a tight schedule, you have to budget no more than a half hour for each meeting and then hope you can slalom your way through the D.C. traffic In another half hour to be on time for your next appointment.
On this first day, Steve and I started out with the American Nurses Association. The ANA PAC leans Democratic, they’ve got a pretty big war chest, and Steve figured that this one should be bankable.
The ANA’s rep was a young woman named Jennifer Sassel. Imagine a Valley Girl with a thick Boston accent, and that’s Jennifer.
Now every PAC has its issue list, and for the nurses, the big issues are job security in a world of HMO downsizing and being allowed to encroach more and more on traditional physicians’ turf — writing prescriptions, diagnosing, and so on.
Of the two issues, the HMO one is the far more serious. Medical professionals are being devastated by the consolidation of the industry into large monopolistic gatekeepers of health care. What you have now in this new market is a monopoly middleman — the HMO — that exploits doctors and nurses on the producer side of the health-care equation and patients on the consumer side.
I told Jennifer that, as an economist, I thought the HMO trend was very unhealthy and that the central problem with HMOs is that they have a financial incentive to not treat people rather than to treat them.
Jennifer loved to hear this, and the best part was that I was sincere in expressing views consistent with the ANA. In fact, for me, having these policy discussions was the fun of PAC-wooing. I am, after all, a policy wonk by profession, and by visiting the PACs, an academic such as I can learn a lot through a real-world lens — encrusted with political grease though it may be.
Unfortunately, over the next several months, romancing the ANA would be a whole lot of unrequited love. In the end, they sold my carcass down the river and stayed out of the race. Jennifer’s reason was that my Republican opponent Brian Bilbray was on a key congressional committee (Commerce), and the ANA didn’t want to risk alienating him.
This is a problem I would bump into again and again. Newt Gingrich is a shrewd man, and he knows that the best way to ensure the reelection of vulnerable troops like Bilbray is to put them on powerful committees like Commerce and Ways and Means. Being on these committees not only allows the members to raise larger sums of money than the poor stiffs stuck on lesser committees, it also helps cut off the money of any potential challengers, as it did for me with the ANA and numerous other PACs.
The bigger problem with the risk-averse political behavior exhibited by the ANA is that it reinforces the institution of incumbency at the same time as it dims the prospects that the Democrats will ever win the House back. Of course, when Gingrich and the Republicans inevitably wind up screwing the ANA and the many other Democratic-leaning but weakkneed PACs that refuse to back a Democratic challenger over a Republican incumbent, these cautious folks should look no farther than the mirror to understand how the hot poker wound up up their butts. But as the saying goes, “No snowflake ever feels responsible for an avalanche,” and the ANA will never assume any responsibility for Newt Gingrich retaining his majority.
Of Cabotage and Kings
At our next stop, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), Steve and I learned about the mysteries of “cabotage.” This is the practice of allowing only American air carriers to fly domestic routes. In other words, with cabotage, you’ll never be able to fly Lufthansa or Nippon Airlines from Detroit to New York. Keeping foreign carriers off American routes is essential to preserve the monopoly power of the pilots as well as the oligopoly power of the domestic airlines.
The main man at ALPA is Jerry Baker. He walks, talks, and acts like an airline pilot, but he isn’t. What he is is a good navigator around the hostile skies above Capitol Hill. Jerry is a cautious man by nature, and he would take considerable wooing to extract a modest contribution.
Not so with the Teamsters. They do their PAC screening in a tag team. Bill Hamilton is an ex-radio jock with a golden voice and sardonic manner. His flat-line personality is nicely offset, however, by the enthusiasm of the younger, hipper, and more hyper Mike Mathis.
The Teamsters’ main issue is loyalty: vote the labor line and they’ll love you to death. Cross them and they’ll put you in the political equivalent of cement boots. I’ve got no problem with that because I strongly support labor issues, and I liked these guys.
In fact, in the initial stage of the campaign, the Teamsters would be a great help to me, and they would be the second PAC to deliver the maximum check to my campaign coffers. However, in the end, the Teamsters, too, would fail me, and in a big way. The problem was internal. There was an election looming for Teamster president between the incumbent Ron Carey, who had started to clean up the union, and the challenger James Hoffa Jr.
I would have the misfortune of living in a city in which the local Teamsters chose the insurgent Hoffa side. As part of their punishment, Carey refused to honor the local’s request for additional PAC assistance for me.
Unfortunately, the same thing would happen to me with the Communications Workers of America union. In that case, the local guy, Tim Sexton, backed the wrong man for state president, and I wound up the poorer for it.
I’d like to say these were isolated events and that most of the unions have their acts together, but such is not the case. Indeed, far too many unions let internal politics interfere with broader goals like winning back the Congress from antilabor Republicans, and that is a good part of why union power is declining.
The D-Triple-C Negotiations
At day's end, Steve and I wound up hungry and exhausted at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant a stone’s throw from Capitol Hill. Our day’s work was far from done, however. After a quick burger, we hiked the few blocks over to the headquarters of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to meet executive director Matt Angle. We were doing this meeting after regular business hours so I could maximize my PAC contacts during the day; and Matt Angle liked the fact that I had requested an evening meeting. It was a subtle but nonetheless strong cue that I knew how the money game was played and that I had my priorities straight — raising PAC money.
The D-Triple-C building looks, perhaps appropriately, like a concrete bunker, and the building’s interiors are about as far from opulence as Oprah is from intellectualism. After introductions and a brief exchange of pleasantries, Matt and I got down to business.
He started off with the good news: the Davenports had passed the White House background check with flying colors, and the vice president’s office had tentatively signed on to the Davenport fund-raising event. I told him that was great but that I had three points to cover.
First, Chuck Davenport’s concern was to establish that the primary purpose of bringing Al Gore to San Diego was to raise money for my campaign — not just for the D-Triple-C. This brought up a delicate issue because, as Matt informed me, neither Bill Clinton nor Al Gore as a matter of policy raised money directly for candidates but rather only for the party organizations — the Democratic National Committee, the D-Triple-C, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The White House had adopted this policy as a defensive measure: If it raised money for some candidates, jealous others would demand the same favor and things would get out of control. So as far as the White House was concerned, Matt insisted, the purpose of Gore’s visit must be to raise money solely for the D-TripIe-C.
Matt is nothing if not savvy, however, so he quickly offered a way for us to bend this rule. Specifically, if a donor were to contribute to my campaign, he or she would be allowed a “credit” toward the cost of the event.
The cost, by the way, would be a hefty $5000 per couple. Thus, under Matt’s scheme, if my campaign got a donor to come to the event, the donor could give me the maximum of $2000 per couple, and they would only have to pay $3000 more to meet the Veep. To grease the wheels for this deal, I would be listed as a special cohost on the invitation.
At the same time, the D-Triple-C would pay for the postage and printing to send out a second letter with a remit envelope to all of the invitees explaining the “Navarro option,” and to make it work, Matt promised that the event coordinator, Noah Mamet, would quietly work the Navarro option for us on the phone as he rounded up donors.
Under these rules, there was no reason why my campaign shouldn’t be able to raise at least $50,000, and we could do this without explicitly violating the White House policy. It was a generous offer from Matt, a win-win for everybody, and a sign of his good faith. The second negotiation point was to start extracting some of the $65,000 that the D-Triple-C could legally donate to my campaign. This, too, was a delicate matter because, by law, there can be no earmarking of funds. In other words, I, as a candidate, can’t go out and get a guy like Chuck Davenport to give the D-Triple-C money under the assumption that they will simply launder it and hand it over to me. However, there is at least a tacit understanding on both sides of the political aisle that any candidate who helps his party raise money is more likely to get some help in return.
My thinking was to start out small with Matt: What I asked for — all the while making it clear that it had nothing to do with the Davenport gift — was some help financing a public-opinion poll to see where we stood in the race.
This request, in fact, was a risk on my part. If the D-Triple-C paid for the poll, it would own the results, and if the poll came back highly negative, any chance of raising big bucks from the D-Triple-C, as well as from the PAC community, would go right down the chute. Nonetheless, I believed this was a gamble worth taking for several reasons.
For one thing, I didn’t want to spend the $15,000 that it would cost to do the poll. But I also thought the poll would be a more powerful fund-raising weapon if it were done independently by the D-Triple-C. That way, none of the PAC directors could accuse me of cooking the books — a common practice among candidates who do their own polls. Finally, by getting the D-Triple-C to pay for the poll, I could get the pollster I wanted, a fellow named Bob Meadow of Decision Research.
I’ll introduce you to Bob later, but for now, you should know that he had polled against me during my mayoral and council races, and he had also done a poll for Bilbray years before when Bilbray ran for county supervisor. In this race, Bob wanted to work for me, and we had started down that path. However, when his association with my campaign became known, political consultant Tom Shepard had put some screws to him, and he had backed away. We could solve that thorny problem by sticking a third party between us — the D-Triple-C — and that suited me fine.
Matt readily agreed to fund the poll for the simple reason that he, too, wanted to find out if I had a chance. It looked to Matt as if I were emerging as a strong candidate, he thought Bilbray was a lightweight, and, hey, Matt’s job was to get back the Congress from the Republicans, and this was one of the seats he’d have to get to do it.
The last part of the negotiation with Matt involved a local San Diego congressman named Bob Filner. As I shall explain in detail shortly, the Democrat Filner is a prickly personality who has a well-deserved reputation for horning in on other people’s fund-raising events.
In fact, Filner had managed to steal away a White House event from Lynn Schenk during her failed reelection bid, and in the process, he had cost her tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations as well as a great media opportunity. Three years later, Lynn was still steaming from this, and in her ongoing mentoring of my candidacy, Lynn had urged me to put the “Filner problem” right on Matt’s table and get it dealt with.
My negotiating position was that this was my campaign event and that while Filner would be invited as a courtesy. he would not speak and he would not enjoy any of the financial spoils of the hunt. While Matt said that it was his job to serve all the Democratic members of Congress, he also promised that Filner would not be allowed to poach on our turf.
With that, Matt and I shook hands on the deal, I handed over Chuck’s $50,000 check, and Steve and I left the D-Triple-C flying above at least cloud eight. There were bogies in the sky, however, waiting to shoot us down, and one of them was piloted by none other than the treacherous Bob Filner.
CHAPTER 17: Me and Bill Clinton, Part 1
It's great to be in San Francisco. — Bob Dole, upon arriving in San Diego
My first of what would be three encounters with President Clinton came in early June. The president was in town to give Bob Dole a clinic on how to run for office. It was an impressive display of high campaign art in which Clinton played the elegant Matisse to Bob Dole’s bumbling housepainter.
For the life of me, I cannot figure out how a political party with so much money and so much intellectual horsepower could allow itself to be saddled with a presidential nominee as inchoate and incompetent as Bob Dole.
What brought the president to town was a vicious — and misplaced — attack by Dole on U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin. Bersin’s office has jurisdiction over more than 1000 miles of border, and he is the de facto immigration czar for the western United States. Unlike many political appointees, Bersin is up to his difficult job, which is another way of saying that Dole picked the wrong guy to mess with.
Nonetheless, in late May Dole blew into San Diego with Governor Pete Wilson in tow for the obligatory genuflection to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost of Southern California politics: crime, illegal immigration, and affirmative action. In Southern California, these three issues are so potent and so thoroughly dominate other issues such as education and the environment that any politician who is, quite literally, on the “right” side of them can not only lock up all the Republican support, he can chisel away at large chunks of the Democratic base, particularly frightened seniors and white-and-angry blue-collar men.
On this day, Dole was trying to hit two of the three points of the fear-mongering trinity by attacking Bersin for being lax on illegal-immigrant drug smugglers. To make his case, Dole held a press conference in City Heights. This, of course, was really dumb because City Heights is an overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood. It was easy for Clinton’s rapid-response team to pull a General Custer on Dole, that is, surround the hapless fool with shouting demonstrators.
Location wasn’t Dole’s biggest mistake, however. That mistake was attacking Alan Bersin. Going after Bersin is like riding a bicycle without a helmet really, really fast into the Rock of Gibraltar. This is San Diego’s golden boy — a patrician tough guy cut in the mold of Teddy “walk softly but carry a big stick” Roosevelt.
Bersin was a star guard on the Harvard football team, a Rhodes scholar who roomed with Bill Clinton at Oxford, and he is a man who has earned praise from both sides of the political aisle for his aggressive approach to the impossible job of controlling the U.S. border.
Dole’s attack on Bersin was based on an article published several days before in the Los Angeles Times. The article reported that, rather than prosecuting drug smugglers from Mexico who had been caught with less than 125 pounds of marijuana, Bersin’s office was slapping them on the wrist with a deportation.
On the surface, such a revelation looked like filet mignon to Dole’s press lions, but the problem was that the Times had subsequently issued a nine-paragraph clarification that substantially exonerated Bersin from any criticism. That didn’t stop Dole, however.
Clinton’s response to Dole's attack on Bersin was swift and massive. In the political equivalent of laying down mortar rounds to soften up the lines before the president’s invasion, the Clinton team first lined up third parties to lambaste Dole for lying about the Times article. In doing so, these spin doctors turned Bersin into a martyr wrongly nailed to the cross of presidential politics, and the spin was so good that the Clintonites even had the Republican San Diego Union-Tribune rushing to Bersin’s defense.
With this foundation laid down, Clinton flew Air Force One into town for the final bombing and strafing of Dole’s pathetic little village of campaign idiots. The weapon of choice was a presidential speech in which Clinton was surrounded by a gaggle of fawning Republican law-enforcement officials — all gathered at the strongest symbol of law and order in the city, the gleaming police headquarters.
My New-Found Status
It was during the preliminary scheduling of Clinton’s event that I celebrated my new-found status as the Democratic nominee in the race for the 49th Congressional District. Before the primary election, Clinton had visited San Diego, but my campaign’s attempts to cozy up to him had been rebuffed. This time, however, as the official nominee for a seat the president needed to get back his majority in Congress, we didn’t even have to call. Instead, Ray Martinez of Clinton’s advance team called us, and he assured my campaign manager that we would get all the help they could lend down the road.
The only bummer about this trip was that it was an official rather than a campaign visit; that meant there could be no joint press opportunities. Nonetheless, I was more than happy with my half a loaf — a VIP seat in the front row at the event. This placement would allow me to strut my stuff in front of several thousand screaming Democrats and also legitimize my candidacy with the other Democratic VIPs who would be in attendance — from major campaign donors like Sol Price and Murray Galinson to Democratic politicos like city councilmembers Valerie Stallings and Chris Kehoe.
As is his custom, the president was late for the event, and on this day, the wait was grueling. While Clinton was supposed to be there at 11:00 am, by high noon, he still hadn’t showed, and the bright San Diego sun was bearing down on the sweltering crowd like a red-hot broiler at a Burger King.
Rather than sweat through my pinstripes in my seat, I used this waiting time to work the crowd. Retail politics happens to be one of my best skills as a campaigner, and it’s probably because, unlike many politicians, I like to go out and shake hands. During a campaign, the trick is to spend no more than 15 to 30 seconds with anyone and to keep moving so that you not only shake a few hundred hands but also have a thousand people see you doing it.
Such a maneuver Is harder than it looks because most candidates will get into a crowd, and, within a few minutes, some motormouth will collar them and bend their ear for 15 minutes. The way around this, mon candidate, is to pretend you have a destination you are moving toward and can’t be late for. That way, no one can ever call you rude.
A Lesson Learned
During my retail-politics reconnaissance of the crowd, one hand I didn’t shake — because she refused to offer it — was that of Christine Kehoe, the only openly gay member of the San Diego City Council. Kehoe is a bespectacled lesbian with the thick, amorphous body of a bull dyke gone to seed. She’s also one of the coldest fish that I’ve ever met in politics. Her coldness to me is, however, mostly my own fault.
Five years before, during a voter-initiative drive that my growth-management organization PLAN! was spearheading, I had had the poor judgment to read Ms. Kehoe the riot act. The situation was this:
PLAN! had spent over $100,000 qualifying a ballot initiative to manage growth in San Diego, but a hostile Republican judge had thrown the initiative off the ballot because of a legal technicality. However, because PLAN! had gotten over 100,000 signatures to qualify the petition, the mayor of San Diego at the time, Maureen O’Connor, wanted to put the initiative back on the ballot sans the illegal section, and she was helping me try to line up five of the nine votes on the council to do it.
We had four solid-votes at the lime, but the fifth vote we had to get was that of Democratic City Councilman John Hartley. By all measures, Hartley should have been our strongest supporter since he had campaigned on the growth-management issue. However, Hartley had aspirations of running for mayor in 1992, and that left him vulnerable to lobbying by the powerful building-trades unions who opposed the initiative.
After realizing that Hartley was about to stick the knife squarely in my back, I wound up in his office in a shouting match. The person I was shouting at was not Hartley — he had gone into hiding before the big vote. Rather, it was his chief aide, Chris Kehoe. My mistake was to shoot the messenger — Kehoe — and to do it with a messy round of verbal buckshot.
Mon candidate, you can’t do things like that in politics and not expect them to catch up to you. Several years later when Kehoe had replaced Hartley on the council, she would exact her revenge by supporting my Republican opponent, Ron Roberts, in our matchup for the county board of supervisors. Her opposition helped cost me that election because it whittled off about 10 percent of the gay vote.
I should say here that in that race, I think Kehoe would have sold me out even if I had never offended her. However, my bad-tempered behavior just made it that much easier for her.
The reason she probably would have sold me out is that to advance her own political agenda on the city council, Kehoe had thrown in her lot with Mayor Susan Golding and Ron Roberts. While these two Republicans had helped Kehoe get funding for her AIDS projects and thereby appease her gay constituencies, Kehoe had gone along with the Golding-Roberts Republican line, particularly on issues like growth and the environment. For all practical purposes, the Democrat Kehoe is a Republican except when it comes to gay politics.
Anyway, my conversation with Kehoe was as brief as it was unpleasant. Before I even opened my mouth, she said, “I don’t care what you say to me now or ever, I’m not going to endorse you for Congress.” When I asked her if we could at least talk about it, her reply was equally succinct: “We have nothing to say to each other.”
This time, I just smiled. My days of throwing tantrums were long behind me, and it was Kehoe who was practicing bad politics. There was no need for her to gratuitously alienate me. A simple “no” to my entreaties would have sufficed so long as it was accompanied by a smile and some believable excuse about how she had to get along with my opponent Bilbray to get federal funds for the people in her district.
As I disengaged from Kehoe with a bad case of frostbite, “Hail to the Chief” started to boom over the loudspeakers. Clinton had finally arrived, and, in short order, the day’s program began. It was a program of sheer political brilliance — one that I have never, ever seen the likes of.
What the Clinton team had done was to co-opt every major Republican law-enforcement official in the county, all of whom were now on the dais with him solemnly kissing his keister — from Police Chief Jerry Sanders and Sheriff Bill Kolender to District Attorney Paul Pfingst. Indeed, each of these top cops tried to outdo the last in praising Alan Bersin and the president for embracing the toughest anti-immigration policies of any administration in the last 20 years. Take that. Bob Dole!
In truth, all of these Republicans campaigning for Clinton should have done what Mayor Susan Golding did that day — found other pressing engagements. But the presidential seal is a powerful magnet and, I suppose, each of these guys wanted to see himself on the tube that night with the Prez.
Walking away from that masterpiece of campaigning, I was feeling good about my chances of beating Brian Bilbray. Not only was I now sure that Clinton was going to whip Bob Dole pretty good and give me some nice coattails to cling to, I also got the feeling that the White House would get behind my candidacy — a premonition that turned out to be correct.
Chapter 18: The Uncoordinated Campaign
One for all. All for one. — Motto of the Three Musketeers
If I were to win my congressional race, a lot of things would have to go right. One of them would be the successful execution of the Democratic Party’s “Triple Overlap Strategy.”
Within every one of the 40 state senate districts in California, there are two state assembly districts. Typically overlapping this senate and assembly turf is a single congressional district. Hence, for any given piece of political soil in California, there is a “triple overlap” of senate, assembly, and congressional seats.
The turf where my congressional race would be contested was not just any triple overlap, however. Rather, it was one of a small handful of such clusters statewide where the balance of power would be determined not only in Congress but also in the state senate and state assembly.
In the state senate race, the Democratic Party badly needed Assemblywoman Dede Alpert to move up to the senate seat being vacated by the retiring Lucy Killea. Otherwise, the senate might fall into Republican hands — as the state assembly had done in the last election.
To take back that state assembly, the Democratic Party had to help incumbent Susan Davis hang on to her assembly seat. It also had to help the relatively unknown Howard Wayne capture the open assembly seat being vacated by Alpert.
Given the overwhelming strategic importance of this triple overlap, it is hardly surprising that the California Democratic Party wanted to focus its entire San Diego campaign on the territory encompassing my 49th Congressional District. What may be surprising, however, is that the party coordinated that campaign so poorly—unless you’re familiar with the Will Rogers bon mot: “I don’t belong to any organized party. I’m a Democrat.”
The Three Musketeers
The original plan was to have all four candidates — Dede Alpert, Susan Davis, Howard Wayne, and yours truly — pool resources to hire a Triple Overlap coordinator. This person would run the effort under the auspices of the Clinton-Gore coordinated campaign.
I was excited about the idea because the woman on tap to run the Triple Overlap was Gayle Jaskalainen. Not only was she a strong ally of mine and a good friend of my campaign manager’s, she was also one very good organizer.
More broadly, such campaign solidarity among the four candidates would mean an efficient and far less expensive canvassing and voter-contact effort. A coordinated ground operation would, in turn, save my campaign a lot of money and thereby liberate that money so it could be spent on more TV ads.
Unfortunately, just as the deal was about to be consummated, it crashed and burned. There were two reasons. The first is that the women of the Triple Overlap — Dede Alpert and Susan Davis — bailed on the men, Howard Wayne and yours truly. The second reason had to do with Congressman Bob Filner. Let's start with my “women problem” first.
In her early 50s, the gray-blond Dede Alpert has a reputation for being one of the nicest, smartest, most congenial, and most effective legislators in Sacramento, and, after you get to know San Diego's "Miss Manners,” it’s hard not to agree with that assessment. However, because of her popularity, Alpert looked to be a lock for winning the senate seat she was pursuing. That meant from her point of view, there was nothing to be gained from throwing her lot in with either me, who carried a lot of negative baggage, or the virtually unknown Howard Wayne, who would have trouble carrying his own financial weight in a coordinated campaign.
This same risk-averse attitude was shared by incumbent Susan Davis; and of the two assembly races — Howard Wayne’s and hers — Davis’s race was by far the easier. This was because while Davis had direct access to the cesspool that is Sacramento lobbying money, Howard Wayne didn’t have a financial pot to piss in. In fact, Howard had gone into considerable personal debt just to win his primary election, and he was flat broke.
So early on, the two Musketeers — Alpert and Davis — rowed off in their lifeboats, leaving Howard Wayne and me to sink or swim. At the same time, the third Musketeer, Congressman Bob Filner, effectively ran his selfish sword straight through the heart of the Triple Overlap. So much for “One for all, and all for one.”
Filner's Coup D'etat
It was my and my campaign manager’s distinct impression that Filner was opposed to the Triple Overlap Strategy, because it meant that all the resources of the Democratic Party’s efforts would be focused away from his congressional district. Never George Stevens mind that Filner was going to win his race by 20 points, running as he was in a heavily Democratic district against a refugee from the lunatic fringe. Nope, better that Bob make really sure of his very sure thing.
Well, I don’t know just how Filner did what he allegedly did. What I heard is that he first called his buddy Shelia Lawrence — widow of the late Larry Lawrence — who, in turn, called her buddy John Emerson in the White House who, in turn, called Tom Umberg at the California Clinton-Gore office. But if and however Filner did it, one day my friend Gayle Jaskalainen was in as the director of the coordinated campaign and the next day she was out — replaced by Filner’s former chief of staff, Vince Hall.
With this coup d’etat, the message was clear. Vince might look as if he would focus on the Triple Overlap, but you knew that Filner would get more than his share of resources. And that’s what happened. But I’ll save Vince Hall’s best work for a later chapter. For now, let’s do a day in the life of a candidate running for Congress.
CHAPTER 19: Long Day's Journey into Night
You like me. You really like me! — Sally Field at the Oscars
If after reaching this point in my cautionary tale you still harbor illusions that being a candidate for Congress is either (a) glamorous or (b) a barrel of laughs, you may want to skip this chapter — at least if you want to maintain those illusions. Because by April, I had settled into a monotonous and tedious daily routine that involved two things: raising money and walking precincts. Here’s a day in the life.
Up at 5:00 a.m., a hot shower, a cold breakfast, then on the phone by 6:00 a.m. calling PAC directors in Washington, D.C., for money. It’s a great advantage to run for Congress from California when it comes to PAC fundraising. This is because you can make all your calls to the Hast Coast during their prime time — 9:00 a.m. to noon — before the business day even begins in sunny Southern California.
As for which PACs I would call, I’d start with the first letter of the alphabet — AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and Air Line Pilots Association — and work my way to the end — United Transportation Workers, Voters for Choice, and Zond. It would take about a week to work through the several hundred PACs on my list, and then I’d start over again. Through the course of the campaign, I must have called every PAC in D.C. at least ten times begging for bucks, and if I’m known for anything back there, it is for being persistent.
At 9:00 a.m. — noon and power-lunch time in D.C. — I’d jog around the fish pond next to my condo. Thirty minutes later. I’d be back on the phones. At that point, I would cycle through all the state and local contacts for the PACs I had been talking with in D.C.
For example, if I had spoken with George Landers of the United Food and Commercial Workers in D.C. that morning. I’d touch base with John Perez up in Buena Park and Norm Bell locally. Or if Chris Tully at the Amalgamated Transit Union told me he still hadn’t heard from their local union requesting funds. I’d call and badger Ted Closter of the local bus drivers’ union to send them the requisite memo.
Once these calls were through, I’d shift gears to my local-donor base fundraising. I’d call people at work for whom I didn’t have home phone numbers. For some reason, there was a high preponderance of lawyers on this list, and as a group, I can’t think of any folks who are harder to get money from, except, of course, physicians, who are tighter than a Beverly Hills face-lift when it comes to political donations.
By lunchtime, after five hours on the phone, somebody from my staff would mercifully come over to my house to discuss the campaign. Most of the time it would be my local fundraiser Kerry Martin.
Kerry was a dream hire, about as efficient as they get, and she did a heck of a job. My only problem with Kerry was making sure she didn’t get discouraged at all the refusals we were getting when she asked for money. I tried to explain that this was typical, and if we had as high a success rate as even the 30 percent she was hitting, we were doing well. But I know it was tough on her because she hadn’t done it before.
Besides Kerry, Dale Kelly Bankhead, my campaign manager, might come over and update me on the latest campaign news. At other times, my field coordinator Tom Husted would brief me on our progress in the trenches.
Unfortunately, my meetings with Tom were always depressing because we were continually falling short of our voter-contact goals. This was partly because Tom couldn’t get enough volunteers. However, it was mostly because we didn’t have enough money to hire the five full-time walkers we had originally budgeted for.
Once 1:00 p.m. rolled around, whoever was visiting had to leave. It was time for me to get back on the fundraising phone, and this I would do until 4:00 p.m., when I would go precinct walking. I’d knock on doors until dark, grab a quick dinner, then get back on the phone until 9:00 p.m. to call prospective donors for whom I had home phone numbers.
I should add that with every call I made beginning at 6:00 a.m. and ending at 9:00 p.m., I encoded the response in my computer. This was essential because promptly at 9:30 p.m., I would begin generating follow-up letters off my laser printer to everyone I had talked with that day. These personalized letters summarized our discussion and, if there had been a promise of funds, I would also include a remit envelope. At 10:30 p.m., Tom or Kerry would come by to pick up the letters and get them into the mailbox by midnight to ensure not only my prompt response but the fastest possible return of any promised donations.
My final act of the day was to take a long, hot shower and then settle onto my couch to watch an episode of Home Improvement that I had taped earlier. That show cracks me up, and the laughter it generated provided a nice transition from the rigors of campaigning to the deep recesses of a far too brief sleep. Because, like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, I would have to get up and do exactly the same thing the next day and the next and the next. Arrgh!
By the Rivers of Babylon
Of this process, precinct walking was the only time I halfway enjoyed myself, but in this campaign, even precinct walking was not as fun as it might have been. Before I tell you why, let me explain a little bit about the art and science of knocking on doors.
I got my start in precinct walking in 1991 on the campaign of City Councilman George Stevens. George is a pure form. Part Huey Newton, part George Jefferson, and all Baptist preacher, George gets away with stuff in San Diego that nobody else could.
I could use a thousand more words to describe George, but in his case, one cartoon does it best. You might have seen it, by J.D. Crowe — it’s a caricature of Preacher George pointing down at a big hole in the road with a caption something like "Lord, heal that pothole!” That pretty much summarizes the often bizarre fusion of church and state that epitomizes the Honorable Councilman Stevens.
Anyway, George is the only black on the city council, and he got there by defeating another black named Wes Pratt. How did I, a white guy fighting to keep the suburbs safe from traffic congestion, get involved in a political race about gang-bangers and urban blight? Simple. Pratt left his own neighborhood to come mess with mine.
What Pratt did was provide the swing vote on two major highway-construction projects for the widest freeway in the Western Hemisphere — a full 24 lanes. This monstrosity would not only be near some of the most sensitive environmental areas left in the city, it would also be less than two miles from my house. So right after the vote, I called up Brother George and said I wanted to help him. and here’s what I did.
After surveying the district, I concluded that its swing voters were in the mostly white enclave of Oak Park. The way I figured it, the best thing for George to do would be to battle Wes for votes in black, brown, and Asian neighborhoods like Southeast and Webster and Paradise Hills and leave me, the white guy, to take care of Oak Park. And for once in his life, George took the advice of somebody other than the Great Almighty and let me do it.
It was a campaign within a campaign, run — or more precisely walked — by me and a guy who would later be field director for my mayor’s race, Peter Andersen. In a four-month period, I walked and made calls to every precinct in Oak Park at least three times, and Peter Andersen walked about half of them at least once with his young daughter Kirsten in tow. Kids — now that’s a nice touch.
And I just knew that George was going to kick Pratt’s butt the Thursday before the election when ole Wes himself came out from behind his desk and his bag of cheeseburgers to stalk me one afternoon in Oak Park. He got right behind me on my walking schedule and, with eating holes in the armpits of his fancy dress shirt, he went to every door I did to try and undo what his polling was now telling him was some very' significant damage. I loved it because it was not only a compliment to my effort but it was stupid. Wes was not the kind of person that most of the white folk in Oak Park wanted to see banging on their front door — even if he was wearing a tie.
When the dust cleared, George had carried Oak Park by a solid two-to-one margin and by several hundred more votes than the 573 that he won the district by.
Operation Soccer Mom
My second foray into precinct walking was on my own behalf. It involved my 1993 run for the First District City Council seat. I knew going into the race that my opponent would be retired submarine commander and development-industry lobbyist Harry Mathis. His voter base would be University City, where he had been a permanent fixture on the area planning committee. My base would be the Carmel Valley-Del Mar area — a hotbed of environmentalism. That meant that if I were to win the race. I’d have to win and win big in the land of soccer moms and Little League, suburban Rancho Penasquitos.
It was this sprawling turf that I set about precinct walking right after New Year’s Day in 1993, just a few short months after my mayoral defeat. Between January and the September primary election, I managed to knock on almost every voter’s door, and it was a brilliant strategy, if I do say so myself.
In fact, I would have won that council race if the opposition hadn’t come up with an even more brilliant strategy. This was to enter a third, spoiler, candidate to sap my strength on my home turf and force me into a runoff. The hapless dupe that Susan Golding’s political consultant Tom Shepard recruited at her frantic behest was Dee Rich, who lived a little more than a mile from me. You’d think that a woman with an IQ over 130 would have the good sense to know when she was being had, but dear, dumb Dee fell for the oldest trick in the political book — “You can win.”
When I heard Dee was being recruited, I knew I would lose if she got into the race. So I went and explained to her why it was impossible for her to win: Both Mathis and I had strong constituency bases that would guarantee us at least 40 percent of the vote each, and that didn’t leave her with enough left over to even survive the primary. I also told her that the only impact she would have on the race would be to force me into a runoff with Mathis, that the runoff would allow him to raise several hundred thousand more dollars to beat me into submission, and in all likelihood I would lose. That, in turn, would mean that the precious environmental lands just to the east of our neighborhood would be turned into more condo farms.
Unfortunately, Dee Rich couldn’t see any of it. After all, it is a heady thing to have the mayor call you and tell you that she “needs you on the council.” And, of course, both Tom Shepard and Larry Remer came in and told her exactly how she, a woman, could triumph over one punk in pinstripes (Mathis) and one just plain punk (yours truly). The icing on this wooing cake was “The Call.” It came from Councilwoman Valerie Stallings, who gushed how wonderful it would be to have an environmentalist like Dee as a colleague.
Stalling's involvement was the only one that really made me mad. After all, Golding was just protecting her turf, and Shepard and Remer were just doing what they always try to do, which is to make money. But a few months earlier, Stallings had asked me to run; and what made Stallings's stab in the back even more galling was that I was one of a handful of people who were directly responsible for her own election victory. Here’s the story:
Tom Hayden Meets "Ban the Bruce"
About a week before the 1991 primary election, incumbent Bruce Henderson, whom Stallings was challenging, publicly called me the “Tom Hayden of San Diego” at a city council meeting. Well, screw Bruce Henderson, I thought. So the next day, I called up 50 of my loyal financial supporters and raised enough money to help send a mailer to over 10,000 households. The mailer was from a committee called “Ban the Bruce," and it had been formed to beat Henderson. However, it had been having difficulty raising funds, and I hadn’t had time to help because I was walking precincts for George Stevens.
Thanks to Gary Rotto’s efforts, it was a very effective mailer. It went out the weekend before the election, and it helped turn what was Henderson’s almost certain victory into his eventual defeat. There are two lessons in that race — one for Henderson and one for me.
For Henderson, it was that if he had kept his mouth shut, he would still be on the council or in some higher office. For me, it was that no good deed goes unpunished. Stallings not only refused to publicly support me for mayor but also played the pivotal role in the seduction of Dee Rich.
When Stallings got Dee Rich into the race, I should have gotten out, and I remember just how agonizing my decision was. I had put in all that work canvassing Peñasquitos, and it would all go for nothing if I bailed.
I also remember discussing the thing with Mike McKinnon, the owner of KUSI, where I was working part-time as a television commentator. Mike gave some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. He told me to stick with doing the KUSI commentaries, that I was doing great TV work, that it was softening the rough edges around my hard-guy image, and that if I wanted to run again for something, I should do it in a couple more years after all the wounds had healed. It was great advice, and, if you’re reading this, Mike, I want to apologize for not taking it, because Mike was absolutely right — as was my assessment of Dee Rich’s candidacy. In the September primary election, both Mathis and I got about 40 percent of the vote while Dee Rich finished a distant third — $50,000 poorer after dumping a bundle of her own money into the race.
What was most interesting about this primary election was how effective my eight months of precinct walking in Rancho Peñasquitos had been. I carried that community by an almost two-to-one margin — proof that if you bust your hump knocking on doors, it can pay off.
Alas, my big win in Rancho Peñasquitos was not to hold up in the runoff. As I had predicted, Mathis raised another big bundle of money for the general election, and he used virtually all of it to run a slick mail campaign targeted almost entirely at Peñasquitos; and when the ballots were counted again in November, Mathis had beaten me back in that community to dead even. I lost that race by a heartbreaking 800 votes.
They Don't Like Me, They Really Don't Like Me
Now, three years later, I found myself once again beating on doors, this time in swinging — as in swing district — Clairemont. Like Oak Park and Peñasquitos before it, Clairemont would be where the race would be won or lost.
So how do I describe Clairemont? How about Ozzie and Harriet with an attitude? How about Middle America gone to seed? It was not always this way.
Clairemont’s best days were in the 1950s when San Diego’s first true suburb was built. In those days of Ike and Elvis, the typical head of a Clairemont household was a young redneck with a blue collar and a wife and 2.5 kids drawing a nice paycheck from the nearby, booming General Dynamics defense plant. The beer was cold, the weather was warm, and life was good.
However, when the Berlin Wall came crashing down, so, too, did General Dynamics. Ten thousand high-paying jobs are a lot for any city to lose, and that loss hit Clairemont particularly hard.
Today, the young bucks of the 1950s who once roamed free in the hangars of GenDyne have gone gray, and many sit sullenly at home doing a slow burn because they can’t find good work. Still others who invested well or retired before the unemployment curtain came down count their blessings while they polish their RVs. But many of these more fortunate ones still find themselves saddled with the financial responsibility of their grown children who were likewise caught in the unemployment lines — blue-collar detritus in an increasingly white-collar world.
In short, this was a community seething with anger, racked by uncertainty, and steeped in alienation, and its hostile terrain would prove impenetrable to me and my brand of politics. My problem was that I was perceived as an upscale yuppie, aging hippie, strong environmentalist, and smart-guy college professor. Ozzie and Harriet with an attitude couldn’t relate to me — even if I wanted to protect their Social Security and Medicare from the ravages of the Gingrich revolution. And I knew after knocking on just a few doors early in the campaign that the people of Clairemont didn’t like me. They really didn’t like me. As far as I could tell, the people of Clairemont didn’t like anybody in politics very much — especially Bill Clinton.
I’m not sure why so many people in Clairemont hate Clinton. Maybe it’s because he’s an upscale yuppie, aging hippie, and smart guy, too. Or maybe it’s because, in this community plastered with American flags and American legion decals, Clinton dodged the draft. Or maybe it’s because he married an uppity woman and everyone thinks he has six mistresses on the side. Who knows?
What I do know is that the almost visceral hatred of Clinton throughout Clairemont confronted me with a Hobson’s choice when it came to campaign strategy. To win the election, I had to wrap myself around Clinton tighter than Gennifer Flowers’s thighs. But every time I did that, a little bit more of Clairemont drifted into the Bilbray camp.
In the end, while my precinct-walking efforts in Oak Park and Rancho Peñasquitos were spectacular successes, the months that I would spend banging on doors in Clairemont would be my most spectacular failure. On Election Day, I would lose Ozzie and Harriet land by an Alf Landon margin.
CHAPTER 20: Frank You, Frank Me, Frank That Voter Behind the Tree
He knows nothing; he thinks he knows everything — that clearly points to a political career. — George Bernard Shaw
The franking privilege is one of the most powerful weapons that an incumbent congressman can wield against a challenger. This is because the frank is, in essence, free printing and postage paid for by taxpayers. It allows a congressman to mail a virtual blizzard of campaign propaganda to voters under the very thinnest guise of public information. This makes the frank public financing for congressional campaigns — but only for incumbents.
So it was that my opponent Brian Bilbray began to use the frank with increasing regularity after the March primary election. Week after week, month after month, in letter after letter, Bilbray’s consultants used the frank to lay down what would become the basic themes of his campaign.
The overarching theme was that Bilbray was the “independent congressman": He was the guy who had stood up for San Diego to bring home the bacon. He was the guy who had stood up to the tax-and-spend profligacy of the Democrats and the Washington establishment. He was even the guy who would get in Newt’s face when Gingrich and Bilbray’s fellow Republicans went over the line.
This last claim was, of course, the finest grade of warm, moist bull dung, because during his first term in office, Bilbray had been about as independent as a Stepford wife. In fact, Bilbray had voted with the Gingrich agenda over 90 percent of the time, and the few times Bilbray would vote against Newt were typically when Newt winked and looked the other way.
Because of this unwavering loyalty, Bilbray was listed on the Internet in the Top Ten list of “Newt Toadies.” Nonetheless, among the Mindless Minority — that cluster of poorly informed voters who ultimately determine elections — Bilbray’s independence theme would strike a resonant cord.
Interwoven into this independence theme were the key hot-button issues of Southern California politics, from crime and drugs to illegal immigration and affirmative action. In his franked mail, Bilbray played these issues with all the intensity of a Bach fugue.
At the same time, Bilbray’s consultants skillfully used the frank to inoculate Bilbray against what would be my inevitable attacks on him for his anti-environmentalist and anti-choice voting record. It was, in fact, a horrible voting record — shutting down the EPA, denying abortion rights to women in the military, destroying wetlands, and on and on. However, reading Bilbray’s little franked epistles, you would have thought that he was a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club and NOW.
For my campaign team, these franked letters were mostly a source of amusement. My press secretary Lisa Ross, in particular, took great pleasure in finding and ridiculing the many errors of spelling and grammar in them.
However, for me, Bilbray’s franking frenzy was like a Chinese water torture. Any one letter didn’t do much damage. In fact, our polling showed that over the many months that these letters were sent out, Bilbray’s reelect number — his overall measure of popularity — didn’t move at all from an anemic 35 percent. Nonetheless, I felt that these franked letters would have a powerful cumulative effect that ultimately would be devastating. This is because through repetition — the most important principle of effective voter contact — these letters began to lay a firm foundation for what would eventually be a million-dollar rush of slick TV commercials and glossy mail.
Lucky Is As Lucky Does
So who is this guy I was running against, Brian Bilbray? Let me start by saying that, yes, there are many men and women of intelligence and integrity who are in Congress. On the Democratic side, they include Nancy Pelosi, Vic Fazio, Steny Hoyer, and Howard Berman, just to name a few.
However, it is clear that Brian Bilbray is not cut from that same fine cloth. Put simply, Bilbray is the kind of person who has no business being in Congress, and the reason is that the job demands more than a person who is an uneducated and often unintelligible self-professed “redneck” with a chronic case of demagoguery.
But Bilbray is, if nothing else, one of the luckiest of men. He’s the day laborer who hit the Super Lotto jackpot and is now farting through silk, the horny teenager who caught Madonna on a lonely night and got the screw of his life, or the hack golfer who hits a hole in one on a monstrously long par three.
My guess is that if God were to spin the Wheel of Life a million times to determine the course of Bilbray’s life, most of the time it would come up something like used-car salesman, repo man, drug smuggler, surf rat. Hell’s Angel, or Hitler youth. Only once in that million times would the wheel stop at congressman, and right then and there, God would check to see if Lucifer had been messing with it.
But let me stop here for a minute and make something clear. I’m not trashing Bilbray because he beat me, although from this rant, that might be a reasonable conclusion to draw. Nope, I’m simply not that kind of vengeful guy, and let me prove it to you.
There are three other people who have beaten me: professional politician Susan Golding for mayor, retired Submarine Commander Harry Mathis for city council, and architect Ron Roberts for supervisor. Of my four opponents, Bilbray is the only one — and by a wide margin — who doesn’t have the intellectual horsepower to do the job for which he was elected.
Mathis and Roberts are decent and intelligent men who simply have a different view of the world than I do. They were worthy opponents, and they are now doing the jobs that I had sought with at least some modicum of skill. Golding, too, is doing a tolerable, if uninspired, job as mayor, and the only thing that scares me about her is not a lack of intelligence but rather her seeming lack of any moral compass or ethics.
Of my four opponents, Bilbray is in a class by himself. He was truly one of the bumbling wackos of the 1994 Republican freshman class, right up there with Nearer to God Than Thee Andrea Seastrand and Ruby Ridge pinup girl Helen Chenoweth.
The funny thing is that Bilbray and I have a remarkable physical resemblance. We’re about the same age (in our late 40s). We have similar builds — he’s a little more wiry and I’m a little more muscular, but we both look more like athletes than accountants or politicians. We even have the same color hair — a blondish, sun-bleached, surferesque brown.
In fact, when I’d walk through neighborhoods knocking on doors during the campaign, people would often mistake me for Bilbray. This was really a drag because much of the benefit of walking precincts comes not from the actual contact with a voter at the door but rather from being seen by all the other people in the neighborhood as you do it. This type of door-to-door campaigning shows you care, but to the extent that people mistook me for Bilbray, I was basically campaigning on his behalf.
Of course, this physical resemblance cut both ways because people would also mistake him for me. Bilbray likes to tell a story about how some irate guy once chased him down the street shouting and waving a baseball bat yelling, “I’m going to get you, Navarro.” I think this actually happened because, although no such fate has ever befallen me out in the trenches, I do inspire that type of response in certain people — usually pot-bellied Republican men in soiled undershirts on the far side of 60 with a flatulence problem.
The Bilbray Bio
But let’s cut to the chase: Brian Bilbray was born in (Coronado and raised in Imperial Beach. His father was a Navy man and his mother an Australian war bride — a small irony given Bilbray’s anti-immigration positions.
Imperial Beach, or I.B., was, during Bilbray’s formative years, so wild and woolly that the mere mention of its name conjured up images of bikers and dopers and drug smuggling. I mention this because one of the greatest frustrations of our campaign was the failure to verify some of the juiciest rumors that have ever been circulated about a politician.
My press secretary Lisa Ross and I talked to a number of people in I.B. who had known Bilbray in his youth. Unfortunately, none of our sources would go public, and it was impossible to verify any tantalizing tidbits. The closest anybody has gotten to using any such information was in Bilbray’s first campaign for Imperial Beach City Council when his detractors brought up Bilbray’s penchant for riding motorcycles as a way of tarring him with the Hell’s Angels brush.
What we could confirm about Bilbray’s youth is that he had trouble in school because of a reading disability and that he dropped out of junior college to ride a motorcycle around Europe. Perhaps it was during one of his motorized meditations on the Autobahn that Bilbray had his political epiphany. He would become a politician — a perfect profession for someone who, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, “knows nothing but thinks he knows everything.”
And give Bilbray credit for getting out of the starting blocks with lightning speed. At the tender age of 25, after working a few years as a lifeguard, Bilbray was elected to the Imperial Beach City Council. A mere two years later, in 1978, he was elected as the youngest mayor of any of the almost 20 cities in San Diego’s sprawling county.
To understand what happened next in his career, you have to know a bit about Imperial Beach. I.B.’s claim to fame is that, for decades, it has been the unwilling toilet bowl for Tijuana. Because of the prevailing ocean currents, every time Tijuana has a major sewage spill — this happens about as often as cabbies in New York exhibit their middle finger —Mexico’s crap winds up on the shores of I.B. And every time this happens, I.B. has to close its beaches to surfing and swimming, enraging surfers like Bilbray.
So it was that in 1980 to vent his rage, Bilbray experienced the defining moment of his political career. After calling up all the TV stations to get their cameras down to the border, Bilbray “spontaneously” hopped upon a bulldozer and tried to seal off the Tijuana River and its fetid flow of Mexican sewage by bulldozing mud into the river’s mouth.
It was a great TV moment, and to the cheering people and surfers of San Diego — many of them literally sick from Mexico’s excrement — this singular act of defiance had about the same impact as that little tea party had had on the consciousness of Bostonians two hundred years before. Overnight, Bilbray was a celebrity, and within a few years, the fame and notoriety of this incident allowed him to leap up and over a well-funded but uncharismatic incumbent onto the next rung of the political ladder. That was the county board of supervisors — the highest local office in the county other than San Diego mayor.
On the board, Bilbray quietly bided his time, serving for over a decade. It was an undistinguished tenure, during which he mostly kept his head down and assiduously courted San Diego’s inner circle of power brokers and big developers. For a guy known for making and riding waves, this seemed out of character, but what Bilbray was doing, quite consciously, was building up a financial base and name identification to capture the prize he had always aimed for and which one of his cousins had already won — a seat in Congress. (Ironically, Nevada Congressman and Democrat Jim Bilbray was swept out of Congress in 1994 by the same Gingrich tide that swept in Brian Bilbray.)
In 1994, Bilbray took the plunge, and it was perfect timing. Freshman Democrat Lynn Schenk had gotten on the wrong side of voters by voting for Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax package, and the patrician Schenk had exacerbated the situation in the plebeian, blue-collar swing areas of the district by brushing off her vote in a let-them-eat-cake manner.
Moreover, the street-fighter Bilbray was Schenk’s worst nightmare as an opponent because his campaign strength — grass-roots politicking — perfectly mirrored Schenk’s greatest weakness. So while Schenk was pinned down in Washington in legislative session and was reluctant to knock on doors even when she visited the district on weekends, Bilbray and a small army of supporters plastered every single neighborhood with yard signs and campaign literature.
At the same time, Bilbray’s peasant-with-a-pitchfork message was devastating in the Year of the Newt: while he portrayed Schenk as the coasummate politician who had sold her soul to the reviled Clintonites and Washington establishment, Bilbray vamped as the citizen activist and independent outsider. This was all the more ironic because it was Bilbray who had been the career politician for almost 20 years while Schenk had been in elected office for a mere 24 months.
By the time Election Day rolled around, Schenk was history and Bilbray was off to Washington vowing to make some.
CHAPTER 21: Freedom of the Press Belongs to the One Who Owns It
The most truthful part of a newspaper is the advertisements. — Thomas Jefferson
It wasn’t just the franking privilege and taxpayer money that Brian Bilbray was using to press his advantage against me in the early stages of our campaign. He had in his comer two of the most powerful media outlets in town: the right-wing San Diego Union-Tribune and the ultra-right-wing Roger Hedgecock radio talk show.
Let’s start with the newsprint side of this media equation — well get to talk radio in the next chapter. And let me start by saying that the next time you pick up your local newspaper, remember that you are holding in your ink-smudged hands the intellectual equivalent of an Uzi. Should you ever choose to run for office, that newspaper can, at the whim of its publisher, assassinate your character as quickly as a teenage rebel in Somalia can torch a village.
The enormous political power of often-arrogant newspaper publishers has always been a problem in American democracy — going back to the war-mongering mischief of William Randolph Hearst and the days of yellow journalism. Today we have reached a more subtle and arguably more troublesome point in our nation’s journalistic history. This is because of the sharp decline of competition and the collateral rise of the kingmaker monopoly newspaper in local newspaper markets.
The emergence of the Internet as an alternative method of disseminating news coupled with a steep rise in the cost of newsprint have surely contributed to the death of the multipaper town. However, the bigger force driving this trend is television: most Americans prefer getting their news in bite-size chunks from the little screen than from large servings of the written word.
Of course, this might not be so bad for democracy if local TV stations actually covered local politics. However, many stations do not. This is because the consensus within the TV industry is that viewers would rather watch a test pattern or the Home Shopping Network than stories about local politics. As a result, local newspapers have become the primary vehicle for local political news, and that is where the problem begins.
In fact — as I have so painfully learned — there are a hundred different ways that a hostile newspaper can beat you in a political campaign. The obvious way is to inundate voters with puff pieces about your opponent and hit pieces on you. More subtle tactics include favored access to the op-ed page, the use of misleading headlines, and, my favorite, using flattering, air-brushed photos of the paper's friends and using photos of the paper’s foes that look like they came off a driver’s license or out of a police lineup. Let me show you how this worked with the San Diego Union-Tribune in my congressional race.
A Junta's Jackhammer Efficiency
The San Diego Union-Tribune is one of the largest local papers in America; and for all practical purposes, it is now the only major newspaper in San Diego. This is because in 1992, after years of losing money, its major competitor, the Los Angeles Times closed its San Diego County edition and beat a retreat back north up the freeway.
The U-T, as we call it here in America’s Finest, got its start as an avowedly Republican newspaper back in the early 1900s as part of the Copley News chain. In those good old days of yellow journalism, it was common practice for newspapers to pick a political party and then use their pages to advocate (dare I say “pimp”) for the party’s positions. At least with the U-T, not much has changed in lo these many years.
The paper is run by a junta of exiles from the deposed Nixon regime, most notably Nixon’s former aides Herb Klein and Gerald Warren (Warren is now retired). These gentlemen have run the paper under the same dark, dour cloud of Nixonian paranoia that once permeated the White House like sulfuryl fluoride under a termiting tent.
The paper is owned by the reclusive Helen Copley, a former secretary to Jim Copley, owner and publisher of the paper. When Jim’s wife died, Helen wound up marrying the boss. Then, when Jim himself wound up on the obituary page, Helen inherited the whole shebang.
Under Jim Copley, the U-T was staunchly conservative and rabidly Republican, and since Jim’s death over a decade ago, Helen, with the help of Klein and Warren, has carried on that tradition with jack hammer efficiency. It is an eclectic opinion that combines an ultraconservative ideology with small-town boosterism and financial self-interest.
On the ideological front, the paper is yellow-doggedlv Republican in its political endorsements. No candidate seems too right wing to get the paper’s blessing, and the only Democrats likely to get endorsed are unbeatable incumbents who publicly recant their liberalism.
On the boosterism front, the paper will regularly violate its putatively fiscally conservative principles to support all manner of ludicrous pork-barrel projects — a $214 million convention-center expansion, a $500 million bay-to-bay link, a $245.7 million trolley extension, a $154.8 million downtown basketball arena, a $78 million stadium expansion, and on and on.
Note, however, that the construction of these lavish baubles invariably comes at the expense of the more mundane but essential functions of local government, such as filling the lunar-crater-size pot-holes that pockmark city streets, fixing the city’s dilapidated sewer system that regularly spews raw sewage into Mission Bay, or putting more cops on graffiti-lined streets that have the lowest ratio of cops to people of any major city in the country.
If there is one incident for me that best summarizes the closed-minded, tight-sphinctered attitude at the U-T, it is this one: When I was running for mayor in 1992, I went to visit the editorial board for its obligatory endorsement meeting. Even though Colonel Qaddafi will win the Nobel Peace Prize before I will ever get the U-T’s endorsement, I, like Nixon, believe in going to China — or, in this case, the U-T — if for no other reason than to maybe help thaw things out a bit.
Anyway, the aforementioned Gerald Warren was presiding at this meeting, and after several of his lieutenants threw a few hardballs at my head just to see how fast I could duck — abortion, guns, gays — Warren asked me my position on his pet issue. This was NAFTA, the North America Free Trade Agreement. I told him that, as an economist, I strongly supported free trade but reluctantly opposed NAFTA and began to explain my concern over low wages and environmental pollution. At that point, Warren appeared to turn down his hearing aid and then he left the room.
Ink by the Barrel
Now from the tone of this chapter, you might have guessed that the U-T is not my favorite paper and, perhaps even more to the point, that I am not their favorite political candidate. In this regard, the U-T's antipathy toward me began back in my days of growth-management activism, and at least originally, it was nothing personal — just a bottom-line decision for the paper.
You see, the U-T earns even more money in advertising revenues from the development industry than it does from what I find to be the only truly revealing part of the paper — the lingerie ads. So my philosophy of slowing down the growth machine did not endear me to Helen Copley or the paper’s ruling free marketers.
In this regard, it’s probably useful to add that the U-T's subscription level has been basically stagnant for almost a decade. This, mind you, is in a county that has seen its population increase by more than 500,000 in the same period. Over the years, my suggestion to Helen Copley to solve this problem has been to improve the quality of her product, not add another million people to an already overcongested and heavily polluted land mass. Her suggestion to me, as least as it has been communicated through her paper, has been to mind my own business and stay out of politics. But lest I digress too much, let me show you how a kingmaker monopoly paper like the U-T goes about electing its friends and burying its foes.
For starters, the paper will shamelessly use its editorial page to cheerlead for Republicans and bludgeon Democrats. Of course, from an ethical point of view, the paper is well within its bounds to do so. After all, Helen Copley owns the paper, and she’s free to use its editorial pages to promote or bash anyone she wants.
Second, however — and here’s where the ethical problem begins — the U-T does not confine its editorial position to its editorial page. Rather, it lets that dark, dank opinion spill over onto its coverage of the straight news like black coffee seeping into a bone white carpet.
The U-T's Drumbeat
So it was that as my congressional campaign began to pick up steam, the U-T began to provide Brian Bilbray with a steady drumbeat of favorable editorials, puff-piece feature articles, and twisted “straight” news articles reinforcing Bilbray’s campaign themes and messages.
One indignant and self-righteous editorial defended Bilbray against an alleged smear campaign by big labor. This editorial was clearly done preemptively and in all likelihood at the urging of Bilbray’s consultant. Its purpose was to help inoculate Bilbray against any future attacks by the AFL-CIO, which was known to be gearing up for its $32 million independent expenditure campaign.
As for the puff pieces, most of them were written by Stephen Green, a Washington-based correspondent for the Copley Press, and they read exactly as if they were written by Bilbray’s campaign consultants. These pieces again echoed many of the themes set forth in Bilbray’s franked mail and the paper’s editorials. In addition, Bilbray had ready access for his own ghostwritten articles to the paper’s op-ed page and he was frequently cited favorably in news stories.
This favorable blanket coverage by the U-T was an effective tactic because the paper’s articles and editorials provided Bilbray with a citable source for, and third-party verification of, his campaign themes. Bilbray, in turn, would reproduce the articles and editorials and incorporate them into his campaign literature. And here’s the broader point:
If you costed out all of the U-T’s propaganda on Bilbray’s behalf over the course of the campaign, it was worth at least a couple hundred thousand dollars in free advertising. Put another way, Helen Copley was, in effect, providing Bilbray with an indirect, in-kind donation from the paper far in excess of the maximum direct contribution of $4000 that she and her son donated to Bilbray’s campaign several days after I got into the race. Freedom of the press does indeed belong to the one who owns it.
Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me
Now contrast this with the treatment my own campaign got from the paper. In a later chapter, I will tell you about how the U-T totally ignored the fact that the vice president of the most powerful nation in our galaxy came to San Diego specifically to help me fund-raise. Here’s a smaller example, which, in some sense, makes the point even better than the Gore incident, because it shows you how, even at the smallest level of detail, the paper will try to screw its enemies.
The incident involved the most important swing community in my district, the neighborhood of Clairemont. Every year, this blue-collar bastion of family values and recreational vehicles has a street fair, and every election year politicians line up like chorus girls at Radio City to strut their stuff. This I dutifully did for about five hours in the broiling sun one Saturday while my opponent Brian Bilbray probably went surfing. In the U-T the next day, however, an article reported that Bilbray, along with a number of other candidates for state assembly and state senate, had booths at the festival, but our campaign — and the huge bannered booth that our volunteers had staffed — went unmentioned.
Which leads me to the cheapest trick the paper has ever pulled on me: it concerns the photo and accompanying caption the paper used to publicize my alleged failure to pay my student loan (more about that later). Under my picture, the caption read, “Hard-core defaulter” — no question mark, just a statement of fact.
Now here’s one last trick I want to share with you about how a paper can manipulate an election, and that has to do with the letters-to-the-editor section. For those of you who still believe in the Easter Bunny and that the letters that appear in your local newspaper come from concerned citizens who really care, I’ve got troubling news.
At least in politics, most of the letters that get published on the letters-to-the-editor page originate in the campaign headquarters of the candidates. The campaign consultant usually writes them and the campaign manager gets some volunteer to sign the letter and off it goes in the mail. How the U-T screwed me here is that they would rarely, if ever, publish any of our letters.
The Punch Line
The broader point is that in many American cities, local political coverage is dominated by a monopoly newspaper that often does not share the same ideology or viewpoint of the majority of the readers and voters that it serves. Using its considerable power of the press, such a paper can unduly influence elections. This is all the more true if the newspaper and its editors are willing to so thoroughly blur the line between news and opinion that the two are indistinguishable.
In my view, this is one of the most untalked-about problems in American politics today. It is important, however, because the vast majority of our federal legislators bubble up from the muck of local politics, so if the selection process is biased against true representative government, it’s going to yield a perverse result. If you don’t believe me, look no farther than San Diego, which has some of the dumbest, knee-jerk, and far-right-wing congressmen in the nation — from Duncan Hunter and Duke Cunningham to Ron Packard and, yes, Brian Bilbray.
The worst part is that I’m not sure that there is anything that can be done about this problem in the way of legal reforms within the constraints of the First Amendment. However, I am sure that there is much that can be done at the legislative level in another area of media abuse, that of talk radio — a subject to which we now turn. (By the way, if this were talk radio, you’d have to sit for the next three minutes through a barrage of commercials extolling the virtues of hemorrhoid medicines, gold investments, and penile enlargement before getting to the next chapter — so be grateful that you are reading a story.)
CHAPTER 22: I Love Hate Radio
Bucket of wings, right wings only.
The Rush Limbaugh Special
Okay. A small confession here. Every time I tried to write this chapter, I got nauseous. It’s got something to do with talk radio. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Anyway, rather than keep throwing up on my computer (it makes the keys sticky), I've decided to take the easy way out. I’ll just let you peruse a transcript of a typical Roger Hedgecock Show. First, however, a little background:
Like his right-wing radio peers G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North, Hedgecock got his start in an ugly political scandal. After the briefest of reigns as mayor of San Diego, Hedgecock was forced to resign on charges relating to alleged campaign money laundering. Soon thereafter, he hooked up with KSDO, one of the local talk-radio stations, and thus began his early days of radio rage.
This was the 1980s, and at KSDO, Hedgecock did what he had done very well as an iconoclastic politician: rattle the establishment’s cage. To many San Diegans, these were Hedgecock’s best years — years in which he performed an important public service in San Diego as the de facto outlet for alternative opinion.
However, all that changed with the coming of Rush Limbaugh. Hedgecock saw in Rush something he desperately yearned for — a national market for his show — and he quickly adopted Rush’s anti-government, liberal-thrashing, anti-feminist, environmental-wacko bashing, gay-baiting rhetoric.
The irony of Hedgecock’s conservative conversion was that in his political days, Hedgecock was a moderate Republican who supported the causes he now began bitterly and often all too bluntly lambasting — from protecting the environment and affirmative action to promoting gay rights and the rights of immigrants.
Anyway, here’s the transcript I promised. This transcript should give you at least a little taste of the reactionary crapola I had to put up with through most of my congressional race from the esteemed Mr. Hedgecock.
KSDO Transcript #KDV-343-13
ANNOUNCER: And now here’s the Radio Mayor of San Diego, ROGERRRRRRRR HEDGECOCKKKKKKK!
ROGER: Good afternoon, San Diego, and welcome to The Roger Hedgecock Show. Although this show is named after me, this is really your show, San Diego, so let’s light up the phones. I want to hear what’s on your mind, so just dial 1-900-ROGERISRIGHT. That’s 1-900-ROGERISRIGHT.
And speaking of lighting things up, we’ve got a busy weekend planned for all you right-thinking people. On Friday night, we’ll be doing our one-year anniversary “Light Up the Border" demonstration and GUESS WHAT: the national news media is FINALLY going to pay some attention to the drug dealers and car thieves crossing our border in the dead of night. That’s right. CNN is going to be covering this one and ITS GOING TO BE BIGGG!
But the fun won’t stop there. On Saturday afternoon, we'll be crashing the Gay Pride Parade in Hillcrest with our Normal People’s brigade. And crash that parade we must because, GET THIS! yesterday afternoon, some liberal, homo-loving judge slapped a restraining order on us. Says we can't march in Alice’s parade. Well, I say so WHAT! We’ll have our own damn parade a few streets over. So all you Normal People out there in Hedgecock land, bring your flags and Bibles and dysfunctional families, and we'll have a thumping good time! (pause) Now let's take our first call. It’s Shirley in Rancho Bernardo.
SHIRLEY: Oh, Roger, I just want to thank you so much for your show. We here at the rest home wouldn’t know what to do with our afternoons if it weren't for you.
ROGER: Thanks so much, Shirley.
SHIRLEY: And, Roger, I don’t care what they say. I’m glad you were forced to resign as mayor. You know why, Roger?
ROGER: Why, Shirley?
SHIRLEY: Because you have more power now than you ever did as mayor. Those wimpy politicians downtown, Roger. You say “jump," they all shout “how high?”
ROGER: Uh, thanks Shir...
SHIRLEY: And I don't even care that you laundered that money...
ROGER: Thanks, Shirley! Let’s go to Bob in Del Cerro.
BOB: Hey, Roge. I just wanted to get some directions to your “Light Up the Border’’ sortie this Friday night.
ROGER: Well, Bob, basically you get on the 1-5 and head south. Then you stop where you see a large group of white people on one side of the border waving placards and an even larger group of brown people on the other side of the border carrying knapsacks and drugs.
BOB: Do I need to bring one of my guns? I can bring my M-16. Or my semi-automatic assault rifle with armor-piercing bullets. Or I’ve got a really neat German Luger from World War II.
BOB: And speaking of guns...
ROGER: BOB! Slow down. No guns, okay? We’re peaceful demonstrators. We just stay in our Cadillacs and recreational vehicles and point our lights at the brown people. They’ll get the point and CNN will get a good sound bite.
BOB: Well, how about if I just bring a little handgun...
ROGER: Thanks. Bob. Let’s go to Laverne in La Jolla.
LAVERNE: Roger, I’m just appalled that some liberal judge won't let us Normal People march in the Gay Pride Parade. It’s so damn un-American. And that Hillcrest is just a Sodom and Gomorrah.
ROGER: Laverne, don’t you worry. We’re going to have our Normal People's Parade anyway, and no one in Fagtown is going to stop us from celebrating our hetero-sexuality and the primacy of the American nuclear family.
LAVERNE: Oh good, Roger. What should I wear?
ROGER: Mink, Shirley. Wear your mink. That way we can piss off the animal-rights activists at the same time as the faggots. Now let’s go to David in Hillcrest.
DAVID: Roger, you may remember me. I was one of your strongest supporters when you ran for mayor.
ROGER: Well, thanks, David...
DAVID: But it was the biggest mistake of my life. You're nothing but a hypocrite. When you ran for mayor, you came to our community and said you supported gay rights, but now you want to destroy our parade. Don't you have any conscience?
ROGER: David, dear David. That was then — I needed your votes. This is now — I’m making a zillion dollars ridiculing you and your miscreant friends. So blow me! Dalton in Rancho Peñasquitos, you’re on the air.
DALTON: You know, Roger, I used to go out and play golf in the afternoons before the prostate surgery. And my wife and I had a lot of fun traveling before she ran off with my accountant and half my pension. Then they repossessed my RV because I couldn’t meet the payments. So I’ve got no place to go and nothing to do but listen to you, Roger, (sound of man breaking into tears) Oh, thanks so much for being there.
ROGER: Thank you too, Dalton. I feel your pain. Now, we’ll be right back after some crass commercial messages.
FOUR-MINUTE COMMERCIAL BREAK
Hemorrhoid commercial. Hair replacement commercial. Flat-tax commercial paid for by the Committee to Deify Steve Forbes. Penile-enlargement commercial.
BACK TO THE SHOW
ANNOUNCER: And now, here’s the biggest dick in San Diego, Roger Hedgecock.
ROGER: Welcome back, my acolytes. I’m truly honored to tap into your anger and resentments and exploit them shamelessly. Now let’s see who’s on Line 2. None other than our esteemed mayor, Susan Golding. Hello, Susan, you’re on KSDO.
SUSAN: Roger, I just wanted to thank you so very much for withdrawing your opposition to the stadium expansion when it really mattered. You and I both know how important that project is to the economy of San Diego. And even if the taxpayers are going to have to cough up a few hundred thousand dollars per game to subsidize the Chargers ownership, we know it’s worth it because it means that the San Diego Chargers will stay in our town.
ROGER: Thanks SO much Susan. You know I’m a fiscal conservative, but when it comes to subsidizing sports teams, I’m just an old-fashioned liberal. Let’s spend whatever it takes to keep that mediocre football team right here.
SUSAN: Amen, Roger.
ROGER: And I just want to make one thing very clear: that libelous story in that hippie rag was completely false. Sure, the owners of this radio station called me into their office and told me that the stadium was a really important project and, yes, they made it very clear that they didn't want anyone opposing it. But that had nothing to do with my decision to completely change my position and support it.
SUSAN: Of course not, Roger. No one could ever pressure you. You’re the Radio Mayor of San Diego. Bye, now.
ROGER: Oh, she's such a wonderful mayor. Now let’s go to Line 5 with the director of Common Cause.
COMMON CAUSE DIRECTOR: Mr. Hedgecock, our organization has been monitoring your show, and yesterday on this show, you publicly endorsed Republican Brian Bilbray for Congress. That's the 25th Republican candidate you've endorsed this year.
ROGER: So what? This is MY show!
COMMON CAUSE DIRECTOR: So you know you’re not supposed to use the public airwaves to give hundreds of thousands of dollars of free radio advertising to partisan candidates. It’s against the letter and spirit of the Fairness Doctrine passed by Congress.
ROGER: Hey. Haven’t you noticed? The Fairness Doctrine is dead. Expired. Terminated. Ka-PUT! So I can say whatever the hell I want and Congress — especially THIS Republican Congress — isn’t going to say boo.
COMMON CAUSE DIRECTOR: But, Roger, don’t you think it’s unfair for a radio station to use the public airwaves to so blatantly promote a political agenda.
ROGER: Boy, you liberals really grab my gonads. Just what do you think blow-dried commies like Dan Rather and Jim Lehrer haw been doing for decades on TV if not spreading left-wing propaganda. Huh?... HUH?
COMMON CAUSE DIRECTOR: That’s highly inacc...
ROGER: So now we grab control of the radio airwaves and all you hypocrites can do is bitch, bitch, bitch. Well, up yours. You’re outta here. Let's go to Thorne in Coronado.
THORNE: Dittos to King Roger from the little island with the big nuclear missiles.
ROGER: Muchos gracias, Thorne. What’s up?
THORNE: Union tyranny is what’s up.
ROGER: Tell me.
THORNE: Well, I'm in the plumbers' union and, sure, I make about 50 bucks an hour and get great medical and retirement benefits and a month a year in paid vacations, but do you know what my union has done to me lately?
ROGER: What has it done to you, Thorne?
THORNE: It and that damn AFL-CIO want to use my dues money to support DEMOCRATS in Congress. ExCUSE ME! All that party ever does is try to take my guns away and tax me to death to pay for black welfare mothers with no husbands and too many kids. I’m so sick of this shit — uh, sorry, can I say "shit” on the radio, Roger?
ROGER: On my show you can. Especially when it’s used in the same sentence as unions and black welfare mothers. But now I’ve got to interrupt you because we've got a special guest that just phoned in. Let’s go to Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray on Line 1. Welcome, Brian.
BRIAN BILBRAY: Roger, it’s so great to be on your show. If it weren’t for this show, I don’t know how right-thinking San Diegans would ever get their news.
ROGER: Thanks for kissing my ass yet again, Brian. I love the way you do that. Now can you update us on the bill you are sponsoring in Congress to deny U.S. citizenship to pregnant Mexican women who illegally cross our border?
BRIAN BILBRAY: Of course, Roger. I think the bill just might pass this year, but right now I'm taking just a little heat from the liberal media.
ROGER: What’s the problem?
BRIAN BILBRAY: Nothing really. Except you know that my mother was an Australian citizen who married a Navy guy, and she rushed over to America so I could be born a U.S. citizen just like those Mexican women are doing now.
BRIAN BILBRAY: So people are calling me a hypocrite every time I try to talk about the bill. I think my liberal opponent Peter Navarro is behind this.
ROGER: You mean the Tom Hayden of San Diego politics, that no-good carpetbagging limousine liberal? The guy who cheated on his student loans and made Susan Golding cry? The idiot who wants to let drug addicts have clean needles so they won’t get AIDS?
BRIAN BILBRAY: That’s the one, Roger, Peter "Hayden" Navarro.
ROGER: Well, Brian, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. AIDS is just God’s way of getting rid of the misfits in our society. It should be a warning to every homo in Hillcrest and every dope fiend shoving heroin up their veins.
BRIAN BILBRAY: Bless you, Roger. And thanks so much for blessing me yesterday with your endorsement.
ROGER: My pleasure, lust make sure you win so I don’t look bad.
BRIAN BILBRAY: No problem. I’m using the congressional franking privilege to blanket the district with pro-Bilbray propaganda. I’ve got the San Diego Union-Tribune running my puff pieces, and I’ve raised over a million bucks from fat-cat corporate PACs, so I can bury no-name Navarro with TV commercials. He’s toast!
ROGER: Good. Kick his lying ass. And give us a call anytime you want to get on the air. We’re here to serve you and the Newt. Now I’ve got to go to a news break. Adios.
Okay. Another small confession. That wasn’t a real transcript from the Hedgecock show. It was also a little over the top. But, hey, I don’t feel nauseous anymore. And with my apologies to Jonathan Swift, maybe you get the picture.
Next, part 3: Al Gore's Love Handles and Other Tales from the Political Crypt
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