A crane places the state Christmas Tree in front of the Capitol in Sacramento. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
SACRAMENTO -- When news hit Monday that the California Supreme Court had created political turmoil by throwing out the state's new voting maps, the phone lines and email in-boxes of Sacramento operatives quickly whirred to life.
It was indicative of the hair-trigger speed with which politics moves these days. So quickly, in fact, that the panicked politicos who immediately reached for their smartphones didn't realize they were the victims of an April Fool’s Day joke.
Longtime lobbyist and political observer Scott Lay included the fictional piece in his popular email newsletter, the Nooner.
The article was full of hints that it was a fabrication: The name of the court case was made up. The first letter of each paragraph spelled April Fool’s. There was even a disclaimer at the end admitting the whole thing was supposed to be a joke. But in a town where lawmakers don't even read many of the bills they vote on, close reading is not a strong suit.
People were still falling for it hours after the newsletter was sent out. Chandra Sharma, a Republican political strategist, tweeted a message at Lay saying, "I think I've lost half the day dealing with calls, texts and emails about your nooner prank. Well Played."
It was the perfect trick, combining a trusted source for news, an opaque topic and a political environment that demands rapid reactions. And like the best jokes, it revealed something deeper about its subject -- Sacramento is a place where much information is traded without being truly understood.
"Not a lot of people want to read specifics about redistricting," said Paul Mitchell, a Democratic consultant who has worked on the topic. "People have been trained to read the headlines and react." He added, "That's how Sacramento works."
Lay's day job is president of the Community College League of California, but he's well known as the political nerd behind websites tracking campaign donations and state legislation. His newsletter, called the Nooner because it's distributed weekdays at 12 p.m., is one of a handful of sources insiders turn to for observations on politics and policy in the Capitol.
Lay said he doesn't really like April Fool's Day, but that he decided to include the fake article in his newsletter when he couldn't figure out what else to write about.
"I'm not one to usually pull pranks," he said.
Conservative activist Jon Fleischman said that when Monday's edition landed in his in-box, he quickly picked up the phone and called Meridian Pacific, a political consulting firm. He was excited because the 2011 redistricting process had been bad for his party, and the last election gave Democrats two-thirds of the seats in the Assembly and the Senate.
"For just a moment, [Lay] offered a glimmer of hope for those of us who had lost all hope," Fleischman said.
But when Sharma picked up the phone, Fleischman was disappointed.
"He laughed at me and told me it was a joke," he said.
Fleischman should have known better -- he had posted his own prank on his blog, the Flash Report, earlier on Monday. The headline said the blog was endorsing Wendy Greuel, a Democrat, for mayor of Los Angeles. Even though the headline linked to the Wikipedia entry for April Fool's Day, Fleischman said he got dozens of messages from people angry about the endorsement.
Mitchell said he quickly realized Lay's newsletter piece was a prank. After all, it included a fake quote from him thanking a local coffee shop for the caffeine fix needed to fuel his all-night effort to crunch new data on legislative districts.
But then, he said, his phone started ringing. A candidate for the Assembly called. So did a former legislative leader. (Mitchell wouldn't name any of the callers to avoid embarrassing them.)
About an hour after the newsletter went out, he said, he got another call from a political consultant who was on a speaker phone in his office: "I've got people here," the consultant said urgently. "Tell us what's going on in redistricting."
Mitchell said he told them it was a joke.
"They were so freaked out," he said.
Lay said he was surprised by the reaction to the prank, and noted that there's a moral to the story.
"The lesson is don't stop after the first paragraph," he said.
Sacramento should probably stay on guard -- Lay said he is thinking about how he can top his prank next year.
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