“Schwarzenegger always came off publicly, and I think privately, much more as a 30,000 foot guy—the macro guy,” says John Myers, Sacramento bureau chief for The California Report, a public radio show out of San Francisco-based KQED. “He liked to deal with the broader brushstrokes of the state’s problems and wasn’t well versed in the details, and didn’t want to be. He left that to his staff. Brown seems to be much more interested in digging down into details on the state’s problems and into addressing them all the time, in every place, in every way he can.”
Dan Morain, of the Sacrameto Bee, sees Brown in much the same way. “Even though the press shop is much, much smaller than it was under the other three governors that I’ve seen in town—Pete Wilson, Gray Davis, and George Deukmejian—Brown has been, at least in the first three months, by far the most accessible governor.” Morain remembers attending a cocktail party at a rival bureau where Brown arrived with his wife Anne Gust and just “held forth.” For how long, Morain can’t be sure—his feet grew sore, and after half an hour, he ducked out. “He may still be there for all I know,” he says, laughing.
For some, the freewheeling and frugal approach can be tiresome with the clock ticking down to deadline. Los Angeles Times Sacramento Bureau chief Evan Halper says that while he’s found it refreshing to have a governor who’s “been so open and quotable and frank,” reporters are only getting a “kind of random, weird, uncontrolled access to him.”
Sacramento reporters see Brown around, and if he reads something in the paper that he doesn’t like, a reporter can expect a call. But it’s hard to schedule time and coverage. “If you’ve got time to hang around the hallways, you’re going to run into the governor,” says Halper. “It plays to our advantages because we have enough people here that if we know he has some meetings, I can send someone over there. I’d imagine that for some of these smaller shops that are down to one or two reporters, it’s got to be really tough.”
It’s not just the increased if randomized access reporters are adjusting to: Brown’s press op is less of a boutique service than Schwarzenegger’s had been. With so many employees, the former administration acted almost as a research arm for some reporters, tracking down statements, data, and policy documents to provide the kind of contextualizing material for a story that they might otherwise have to doggedly report out. This freed them up to doggedly report out other aspects of a story. The treatment was also specialized—staffers had specific portfolios, both in terms of liaising with press operations at agencies and departments across the state, and liaising with the press. There was one staffer assigned just to handle editorials, for example.
Some reporters are thankful there are now fewer ignorable press releases to delete; “Less propaganda—even if it’s benign propaganda—is always a good thing,” says one. But others say they are finding it harder to get even basic information and comments out of the governor’s office. It’s pure mathematics: three people can’t do the work of a dozen.
“When you’re doing your day-to-day work and you need to get some information it can be very tough under this administration because they have a severely understaffed media operation,” says Halper. The issue then becomes transparency, he says. As the governor was moving back in to the Capitol, Halper says he could barely get a hold of anyone to comment on whispers he was hearing about lobbyists working on the transition team. The day before I called Halper in early March—more than two months into the administration—he was frustrated because the bureau had not been able to speak to Brown in time for a deadline. Five Republican state senators had written an open letter claiming the governor was refusing to consider their concessions on budget negotiations.
Things might be improving. When we spoke, Halper had also mentioned he was having trouble getting Brown’s people to engage on the issue of a large public database the Times had been fighting with the previous administration for access to. But a few days after we spoke, he e-mailed me, writing, “Need to eat my words. Just got word from our lawyer that the administration has engaged and supposedly plans to give us the data we need.”