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Outside a Sedate Courtroom, Scripted Chaos on the Street

In what has become a routine spectacle, candidates, advocates and oddballs compete for the media's attention in San Francisco.

September 23, 2003|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The big white appellate courthouse on 7th and Mission is a sedate place on most days. Monday wasn't most days, as it turned out.

Long before the gavel opened the historic hearing on the timing of the California recall election, two dozen TV cameras were trained on the main door. Panhandlers were tripping over the unspooled cable from the satellite trucks outside.

Inside, all was order. The only noise in the cool marble halls was the sound of oral arguments emanating from a television monitor set up for the courtroom overflow. Courthouse workers came and went, listening to the case from the doorway, or settling into folding chairs arranged around a polished wooden conference table. When they left the building, they tended to use a back door.

Nearby office workers, however, stopped occasionally to chat with the crowd of reporters. "I don't mind the media circus," said Randolph Harris, a federal employee in the food stamp program.

"This is important, and the public needs to know."

CBS News correspondent Manuel Gallegus agreed, adjusting his earpiece while he waited to go on camera. "I've been asked to do live shots for our affiliates in Miami, New York, Boston and Washington. That's how much interest there is in this story," he said.

Around him, crowds milled. Anchormen kibitzed. Attention-mongers attention-mongered.

"Gene Forte, candidate for governor -- you may know me from my radio show, the Attorney Buster!" announced a bald man in a dark suit.

"Frank Chu -- I am trying to get it proven that I am the proprietor of 12 galaxies, and I was not paid as a movie star," confided a little man with a sign that read "Banukranic Occupation" on one side and "Metro Crepes" on the other.

"I'm with KMTP Channel 32. We're doing a show that infuses hip-hop, politics and humor. Like imagine if the guy from 'Jackass' filmed the recall," a young man named Daniel Fountenberry called to a reporter from behind a hand-held video camera.

"So who here do you think is, you know, hot?"

So it has gone for the duration of the California recall, and so it went as the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel reviewed last week's decision by a smaller panel that threatened to postpone the October vote.

As unprecedented as the recall may be, there has been plenty of precedent for the public spectacle that is unfolding alongside it.

Post-O.J., post-Monica, post-you-name-it, the script is well understood when it comes to judicial/political sideshows. There must be live updates, sidewalk experts, hoisted pickets, homeless sages, conspiracy theorists -- and, as if on cue, all turned out Monday, at a courthouse that, for all its judicial controversy, has rarely generated much in the way of crowd scenes.

"This is the most activity I've seen at a courthouse like this since the Unabomber trial in Sacramento," laughed Capt. Steve Todd, a federal security officer with the Department of Homeland Security. "Nothing ever happens at this courthouse."

"Yeah, you know something's going on when that guy shows up," said Lt. Larry Sue, pointing to Chu, the picketer with the claims of galaxy ownership. "He shows up at every protest. What mystifies me is, how ... does he know where every protest is?"

Chu wasn't saying.

Up the block, though, a 28-year-old bicycle messenger had plenty to tell the cameras.

"They should postpone the recall," Aaron LaLonde said, holding his brakeless racing bike with an arm that was swathed from the wrist up with a red, yellow and green dragon tattoo. "Californians have to see how bogus and ridiculous this all is."

"You're a bike messenger?" the hip-hop cameraman instantly asked, moving in on the question that would most naturally interest his demographic. "Did you see MTV 'Real World?' What did you think of Puck?" (Puck is a caustic bike messenger who was featured in one San Francisco-based installment.)

"I knew Puck!" LaLonde replied, effortlessly shifting from policy to celebrity gossip. "He hardly ever worked!"

As the crowd grew, the question became: Which player will get the spotlight?

When U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) arrived, fresh from a speech at the Commonwealth Club, the candidate Forte muscled through the assembled reporters to confront Issa in front of the cameras.

"What can we do to have an accountable judicial system in this country?" Forte demanded as Issa turned, looking momentarily flummoxed. One of Issa's aides murmured something to him.

"What about the judicial system?" Forte repeated.

"Look." Issa said, as his handlers tugged him toward a bank of microphones that had been set up in the anticipation of impromptu press conferences, "I'm not a candidate, but you can call anytime and we can talk about this,"

"I've called you several times already!" Forte shouted, but Issa was already on the far side of an impenetrable wall of TV cameras.

"What a scene, huh?" Gallegus laughed. "Don't you just love it?"

The newsman smoothed his hair and turned to the cameras, instantly switching on his serious news voice.

"Should the California recall election," he intoned soberly, "be postponed?"

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