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In Sacramento, videos provide politicians on-the-job framing

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.

May 02, 2010|By Shane Goldmacher, Los Angeles Times

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.

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