It's not as hot as being on Nixon's enemies list, but recently I learned I had been targeted by name for special treatment in hush-hush plans for a huge public relations campaign by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in its water war with San Diego.
"Cultivate relationships with select reporters & writers, such as Bill Boyarsky, Jill Stewart and Steven Erie" was the assignment of John Stodder, who works for Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, which has a PR contract with the MWD. Stewart, a former Times colleague, is now a columnist for the weekly New Times. Erie, a UC San Diego political science professor, writes extensively on water and other issues.
This information came to me in a stack of documents known as "The Edelman Papers" that were obtained by San Diego's advocates and widely distributed to the press.
Upon seeing my name in the "Edelman Papers," I thought back over the past months. If you're a PR target, you are supposed to be plied with rich food. I've lunched with MWD team members, most recently at Dawson's, an expensive state capital hangout. But I put the lunches on my expense account.
My being a target was costing The Times a lot of money.
The leaking of the "Edelman Papers" is the latest twist in the MWD-San Diego battle.
For those of you who have not followed the tangled affair, San Diego County is part of the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies water to much of Southern California. Like all MWD counties, San Diego receives water from the MWD's Colorado River Aqueduct. But San Diego, seeking an independent water source, wants to buy water available in the water-rich Imperial Valley. The city of Los Angeles and other powerful MWD members oppose the San Diego drive for water self-sufficiency.
I hadn't been up to the challenge of condensing the fight into the 800 words or so allocated to my column. But after learning of my target status, last Thursday I boarded the 7:15 a.m. Southwest Airlines flight to Sacramento, the current battleground. Less than two hours later, I was prowling the same Capitol halls where, many years ago, I learned to cover the dirty side of politics.
There are few heroes in Sacramento, just special interests fighting one another, each hiring lobbyists and public relations people to influence (if not subvert) the course of democracy. A basic rule of Capitol reporting is to follow the lobbyists.
My search began with the lobbyists' reports, kept in the secretary of state's office. Just as San Diego had claimed, the MWD has gone top of the line, hiring some of the Capitol's most influential lobbyists, including Kevin Sloat, once a top aide to Gov. Pete Wilson.
But the San Diego side was riding first class too. It has hired a PR firm, Ketchum Public Relations, to fight the battle of spin and propaganda.
The San Diego coalition's lobbyists, the records showed, are impressive.
Its team includes, for example, the lobbying-legal firm of Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor, powered by Steve Merksamer, once top aide to Gov. George Deukmejian and now a major influence in Sacramento.
His firm is employed by Western Farms, a big agribusiness company that is part of the empire of a couple of Texas financiers, the Bass brothers. With its large Imperial Valley land holdings, Western Farms would profit from selling water to San Diego. That's why it's part of the San Diego alliance.
The name Western Farms jumped out at me since, in the "Edelman Papers," PR man Stodder had been given the assignment of persuading me, Jill Stewart and Steve Erie to "put out a perspective on the negative impacts of the Bass brothers' involvement in water."
My perspective is that the Bass brothers are just one of the economic interests involved. Businesses of all kinds have a stake, especially the big ones with the political clout to influence the policies of local governments.
If San Diego gains an independent source of water, it would remove a major obstacle to continued great industrial and residential growth. Such growth is an economic threat to San Diego County's northern neighbors, Orange and Los Angeles counties. Business communities in those counties fear San Diego County will secede from the MWD and, with its own source of water, steal high tech and other businesses from the rest of the Southland.
Such conflict adds up to a story with endless twists and turns.
Thank you, Edelman Public Relations Worldwide for making me a target of your efforts. I'll stick with this story, no matter how many lunches it costs.