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A Fastidiously Fair Forum for Candidates

Big names or no-names, all get equal treatment from the California Channel's John Hancock.

September 05, 2003|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Inside the modest studio with the faux pillars and the flags of the United States and California, all candidates for governor are created equal.

They are endowed by a man named John Hancock (appropriately enough) with certain inalienable rights. Among these are: life (30 minutes of free air time), liberty (to say most whatever they please) and the pursuit of happiness (a chance to stand on equal footing, for once, with all their fellow candidates).

What happens here at the nonprofit California Channel flies in the face of many of the media descriptions of the campaign to replace Gov. Gray Davis. There's no circus. No freak show. No apparent sign of democracy's imminent collapse.

Instead, every day, earnest men and women troop to the station's corner offices across the street from the state Capitol to talk about fixing the debt, cutting government waste and helping students pay their fees.

"It's the media that says it's a circus, but they are the ones who are showing the girl with the giant [chest] and the guy with the fruit," candidate Gino Matorana says, rotating his hands in slow-motion imitation of comic/juggler/candidate who goes by the single name Gallagher.

"Why don't they put a suit on these people and make 'em answer some questions?"

That, in essence, is what the California Channel has done. Hancock has taped half-hour interviews with Matorana and more than two dozen of the candidates who hope to replace Davis if the governor is recalled in the Oct. 7 election. Hancock has scheduled about 50 additional interviews to date. He will take all 135 people listed on the ballot if they call and schedule a time.

Beginning Sept. 22, the interviews will be aired once or twice, possibly more, by 157 cable operators that serve 5.4 million homes -- about half the households in the state -- on a channel the public might know for its regular coverage of the California Legislature.

The California Channel interviews have become an oasis of respect and fairness for dozens of candidates on an arid campaign trail, where they are often belittled or overlooked by a press corps focused on half a dozen front-runners.

Hancock, who crams in as many as seven interviews a day, is a onetime lobbyist for the cable industry who brings to his job a passion for dispassion.

The bald, fastidiously dressed host goes to considerable lengths to see that Arriana Huffington, the author and commentator, and Peter Camejo, the Green Party candidate -- both are expected to tape their half hours soon -- get the same treatment as Daniel Watts, the student who wants to roll back college fee increases, and Rich Gosse, the San Rafael Republican who would balance the budget by legalizing, and then taxing, drugs, gambling and prostitution.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's camp wanted to send a surrogate to the California Channel in place of the movie star. The answer was no.

"These interviews are designed to take the money, the glitzy ads and all of the hype out of the arena," Hancock says, "and to literally focus on the candidates and their positions."

"They all qualified for the ballot and they should all be treated the same, with respect."

The setup in the channel's cozy studio is relentlessly egalitarian. Every interview features the same set and camera angles. The candidates answer questions drawn from the same list, beginning with, "Who is fill in candidates name?" and ending with a summary of their reasons for running.

The would-be governors can't bring charts or signs. Campaign buttons must be removed. Opponents can't be named, much less derided. Hancock even wears the same clothing for each taping, down to a well-worn gold print tie.

"You know they say color can influence moods," Hancock says with an impish smile. "We go to extraordinary lengths to make sure it's an even playing field."

In his half-hour taping this week, Frank Macaluso, a diagnostic radiologist from Visalia, showed a proficiency for state budget numbers and made it clear a Gov. Macaluso would not spend one penny more than the state takes into its treasury each year.

"I know my chances of winning are essentially zero," he said after the taping, "but it's a chance to make some points, raise some issues and register some voters."

Darrin Scheidle, an entrepreneur from San Diego, listed his heroes as his grandfather, a city councilman and onetime member of the San Diego Board of Supervisors, and Jesse Ventura, the former pro wrestler and governor of Minnesota. He said he would build desalination plants and power plants to create jobs and make the state more self-sufficient.

UC San Diego student Watts, who recently turned 21, happily turned all of Hancock's questions back to his pet issue -- reversing fee increases at all of California's public colleges and universities.

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