For Local Officials, Skin Condition Means Less-Informed Electorate

Even when you're in the newspaper business, it's jarring to see someone you know on the front page of the New York Times website. (It's been updated since then, but you can see the screen grab from earlier today.) As a cub reporter ten years ago, I covered politics for a daily newspaper in northern Los Angeles County called the Antelope Valley Press. My most frequent story subject was the powerful and ultra-energetic California Assemblyman George Runner, who's now a state senator slogging through an epic budget crisis. That's him on the right, appropriately enough. I'll bet he's drifted even deeper into the religious wing of the GOP than when I was on the beat.

Remembering him now, I'm struck by how resilient Runner was as a source -- especially compared to the thin-skinned political types in South Florida.

Mind you, I strove to not let my own political views color my coverage. The part that bugged me about Runner, frankly, was his relentless drive to generate favorable publicity for himself. It was my job to follow him to photo ops and news conferences -- but also not to be manipulated. So I rolled my eyes when my editors ordered me to attend one of Runner's most memorable publicity stunts: He was giving dollar bills away at a gas station to illustrate how cutting taxes would save Californians pain at the pump. "Gas is expensive," I wrote in the next day's paper. "But publicity is still cheap."

Runner was mighty pissed, but he still returned my calls. After that and other swipes at his opportunism, he stayed courteous, civil, professional. I respected him for that.

Naively, I figured all politicians were this way. But not in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Write one critical article involving a politician and they'll try to shut you out for perpetuity. Ask Bob Norman, who could probably form a quorum of no-commenters among South Florida's delegation in Tallahassee, its county commissions, and a number of cities. Even bold, brash Sunrise Mayor Roger Wishner has taken the vow of silence with Norman. In my case, it's the North Broward Hospital Commission that suddenly became reticent as my coverage began to expose ethical lapses. Sunrise Sen. Nan Rich has stopped returning my calls since I questioned the research behind her anti-bestiality bill. I could go on. If politicians think their lack of comment kills an unflattering article, they're wrong. If they're not talking because they're mad about some previous article(s), then they need to get tougher.

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Thomas Francis