In Sacramento, Videos Provide Politicians On-The-Job Framing

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Political grandstanding comes with the territory in Sacramento.
But the line between government service and career advancement is ever
blurrier as legislators perform for their own camera crews.

Assemblyman Dave Jones leaned in toward his microphone, hands
punctuating nearly every word, as he scolded two insurance executives
for premium hikes affecting hundreds of thousands of Californians.

"Have you no shame?" asked an indignant Jones, who chairs the Assembly’s
health committee.

The Sacramento Democrat wasn’t playing only to the audience at the
hearing, which he had called. He also was performing for his own camera
crew. Staff from his campaign to be California’s next insurance
commissioner was there to film the exchange — perhaps to cut it later
into a TV ad.

Political grandstanding comes with the territory in Sacramento.
Generations of legislators have called hearings to probe alleged
wrongdoing, puffing themselves up in the process. But the line between
government service and career advancement is ever blurrier in a capital
where term limits force legislators to begin eyeing their next political
landing spot the moment they arrive.

The pressure to promote themselves has heightened as politicians
hopscotch into new elected offices every half-dozen years or so, said
Tony Quinn, a political analyst and former legislative staffer. They
"know the hour in which the carriage turns into a pumpkin."

Added Barbara O’Connor, a professor of political communications at Cal
State Sacramento: "The beauty of incumbency is there are these moments
when you can tee up issues and frame rhetorical visions that will serve
you in the next race…. They’ve always done it, but they do it more now."

Jones declined to comment on his grilling of the Anthem Blue Cross
executives. But his campaign defended the filming of the hearing.

"We’re following Dave around pretty much everywhere he goes," said Parke
Skelton, his political adviser. "We’re documenting his work protecting
consumers from the insurance industry."

Jones paid for his own camera. But some lawmakers have used the
Assembly’s video services to film, edit and package footage of Capitol
events and then turned them into self-promoting infomercials posted on
campaign websites via YouTube.

Watchdog groups say that practice is legally and ethically questionable.
State
law
strictly forbids the "use of public resources for a campaign
activity."

"Taxpayers should not pay for campaigns," said Doug Heller, executive
director of Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit. "It’s not
the job of the Legislature to make politicians look good."

Alberto Torrico (D-Newark), an Assemblyman running for California
attorney general, is dovetailing his legislative agenda with his work on
the campaign trail. He has placed on his taxpayer-funded legislative
website a sleek logo featuring an oil well and a university bell tower
alongside information about a bill he is pushing for a tax on oil
companies to fund education. The same logo is on his campaign Web page.

Torrico held a campaign rally outside Conoco-Philips refinery
earlier this month to tout his oil tax plan. Meanwhile, a video created at
taxpayer expense and featured on his campaign website promotes the same
legislation and Torrico himself.

"Students and their future are a top priority for … Alberto Torrico,"
the narrator says.

Eric Jaye, a Torrico spokesman, said posting the clip was "totally
appropriate."

The Assembly has no rule against reposting such material for political
purposes, said Chief Administrative Officer Jon Waldie.

"Once you put it out in the public domain, it’s kind of like a press
release," he said. "As long as they were done with legislative intent
and purpose, it doesn’t cause me any heartburn."

But Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at
USC, said that if publicly funded material is ultimately used for
politics, taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill.

"At the very least, the campaigns ought to reimburse the state of
California for the cost of the videos’ production," he said.

Another Democrat, Alyson Huber of El Dorado Hills, won her seat in the
state Assembly by so narrow a margin in 2008 that her opponent had
already installed his nameplate in the Capitol before a recount tossed
the election her way. She faces a tough reelection rematch this year in a
political climate that is far more hostile for Democrats.

The homepage of her campaign website has featured a taxpayer-funded
infomercial. In it, she bashed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s promotion,
at an event near her district, of a canal to siphon water to Southern
California from the north. The governor’s move, she said in the
production, was akin to "wearing a Dodgers jersey to a Giants game."

Huber’s campaign, after being contacted by The Times, removed all the
state-created videos on her campaign site "out of an abundance of
caution," said spokesman Andrew Acosta.

The videos in question are hardly Internet sensations, but they show how
lawmakers, in the state’s changing media landscape, seek new ways to
thrust themselves into the public spotlight. Only a single TV reporter
from outside the Sacramento media market is stationed at the statehouse.
Many regional newspapers have shuttered their bureaus; those that
remain have shrunk.

"The dearth of originally produced news coverage has produced a void,"
said O’Connor, and the politicians are trying to fill it.

As Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) pushed through a package of
education measures in December, a camera crew from EdVoice, a school
advocacy group, was there to film the crucial hearing. The footage was
quickly spliced into an 11-minute film and distributed to officials
across the state. It features Romero, who’s running for state
superintendent of public instruction, as the Legislature’s chief
proponent of the education overhaul.

EdVoice is widely expected to spend heavily to elect Romero in
the June primary.

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