The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

February 26, 2010
Sen. Feinstein wants to know more on torture memo lawyers


The U.S. Justice Department may be punting on the government lawyers who authored the so-called torture memos, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein isn't willing to let go just yet.

In a decision disclosed a week ago, the department overruled its own ethics officials, who said that state disciplinary boards should consider whether John Yoo and Jay Bybee be disbarred for violating their duty.

In a statement issued today in conjunction with a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the matter, Feinstein suggested that there is still something fishy that deserves attention.

"By all accounts, John Yoo and Jay Bybee were not incapable lawyers," she said in a statement. "There were reasons why their OLC memos were so poor. We need to understand these reasons and make sure they have been properly addressed. We need to make sure that the many negative consequences of these opinions are examined and remedied. And we need to ensure that Congress is properly informed of opinions of this nature, so that we can properly exercise our responsibility to provide oversight of the Department of Justice and make whatever changes in the law may be necessary as a result of such opinions."

The two lawyers "significantly misinterpreted U.S. law and international treaty obligations, to reach pre-ordained conclusions, with grave consequences for our national security," the California Democrat added. "The OLC memos reached egregious conclusions that coercive interrogation techniques did not cause severe physical or mental pain or suffering and that their use did not 'shock the conscience.' They were absolutely wrong."

As a Bee editorial this week pointed out, Feinstein is in an influential position because she is on the Judiciary Committee and is also chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, where she is privy to the details of the interrogations. That panel launched an inquiry last March into the CIA's detention and interrogation program and the results are due soon.

Feinstein, due to illness, missed the Judiciary hearing today on Yoo, who is now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Bybee, now a federal judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

At the hearing itself, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and watchdog groups weren't willing to let bygones be bygones for Yoo and Bybee. According to news reports, they demanded that the Justice Department investigate the disappearance of e-mail messages sent during 2002 as they drafted the memos. Leahy suggested that the missing e-mails cast doubt on the department's report clearing the two men of misconduct.

February 25, 2010
Mayor Johnson says he can take a punch

In his second State of the City address, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson bragged on his accomplishments in his first 15 months and outlined his priorities for the coming year.

But in today's remarks to the Sacramento Metro Chamber, he was also about fence-mending with the City Council.

Johnson admitted that he sometimes was in too much of a hurry and forged ahead on his own. He promised to be more collegial and do better in helping the council reach consensus.

"I got the point," Johnson said to the council members in the audience of about 850 in a Hyatt Regency ballroom.

He ribbed council member Steve Cohn more than once during the speech. Afterwards, a beaming Cohn said Johnson gave "an excellent speech" that "hit all the right points" and said he was "100 percent" behind the mayor's initiatives: strengthening downtown, building a green economy, moving forward on a new arena and reforming City Hall.

But Johnson was also rather pointed in asserting that City Manager Ray Kerridge's resignation last week was more proof of a broken City Hall, and in vowing to keep pushing for his strong-mayor and government reform plan.

"Not all of us want to be reformed," the mayor added, chuckling to himself.

If the council stays as fractious as it has been, what could turn out to be the most telling from Johnson's speech is his use of a boxing theme.

Taking the stage to the Chumbawamba hit from a few years back, "I get knocked down" (But I get up again), he acknowledged he had been hit by some political haymakers, but said he has also learned to dodge the punches and to throw a few jabs himself.

"I've learned the key is not about getting hit, but it's about getting up again," he said of himself and the city he leads. "It's about really answering the bell."

However entertaining it might be, pointless political sparring is one thing the city could easily live without.

February 24, 2010
Schwarzenegger strays off message, again

On his media tour while in the nation's capital, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn't exactly stayed on message.

He first said that the "worst is over" for California's economy -- which would be quite a shock to the 2 million-plus residents still officially looking for work.

Then, he raised some hackles among fellow Republicans by saying it was "bogus talk" for GOP leaders to call for starting from scratch on the health care overhaul.

In an interview with Greta Van Susteren of Fox News Channel aired Tuesday night, he added a couple more eyebrow-raisers.

The governor predicted that the Tea Party movement would end up a flash in the pan that will go away once the recession is over.

"I'm just saying they're not going anywhere with it because nobody is coming up and saying, 'Here's our candidate, here's our solution, here's what we're going to do, and have a whole policy debate over the various different issues," he said.

"So this is why I think, in the end, when the economy comes back, I think that the tea party will disappear again."

In the interview, he also expanded immigration reform to include foreign students studying at California campuses.

"I think it's irresponsible in the way to have, you know, our students from all around the world come to our country, study, get their great education," he said.

"I think they should stay here. They should work here. And they should take that knowledge that they have gained in California and put it to good use for California if they're studying here."

UPDATE: Matt David, the governor's communications director, called in to dispute my characterization of his comments on the Tea Party and immigration.

"This is our message," David said. 

Click here for a full transcript of the Fox interview.

February 23, 2010
Cartoonist sighting
For those who are interested, I'll be giving a talk tomorrow night at the Barnes and Noble on Arden Way.

Wednesday, February 24
7:00 - 9:00pm
Barnes And Noble
1725 Arden Way

February 18, 2010
Lawmakers get an amen chorus, of one
The 30-odd state lawmakers who gathered this morning to denounce a ghetto-themed party at the University of California, San Diego, wanted public attention.
They probably just didn't want it as loud, and while they were speaking in front of the cameras.
About midway through a 35-minute press conference on the Capitol steps, a woman nestled among the TV cameras. An amen chorus of one, she shouted her approval of each denunciation with "Yea!" or "True!" or "That's right!"
Along the way, she ruined more than a few sound bytes. Her immediate feedback appeared to unsettle some of the lawmakers.
But Assemblyman Warren Furutani, D-Long Beach, who was showing solidarity with black colleagues as chairman of the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, took it in stride.
When the woman yelled, "Thank you!" he replied, "Thank you is right, sister."
"Our caucus stands with this sister," he concluded. "You're quite welcome sister."
February 18, 2010
Artie Samish is smiling from wherever he might be


California lawmakers are preparing to wage battle with so-called placement agents, a rather secretive group that helps money managers win business from the California Public Employee Retirement System, and other pension funds.

As described in today's editorial, Assemblyman Ed Hernandez, a Democrat from Baldwin Park, is carrying a bill on behalf of CalPERS that would force placement agents to register as lobbyists, and comply with all the same laws.

Through their trade groups, the placement agents appear willing to accept most regulation, with one big exception--the way they get paid.

As it is, they collect pay based on their success. They like that system fine. One placement agent, former CalPERS board member Alfred Villalobos, has received $60 million in fees for his work helping money managers win CalPERS business, as The Bee's Dale Kasler wrote in this profile.

The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association said in a statement that it is "opposed to the lobbyist prohibition on contingency fees.

"Securities sales are paid on a contingency fee basis, so a contingency fee prohibition amounts to a placement agent ban.  Such a ban would limit the state's ability to tap a diverse group of investment opportunities, including smaller minority and women-owned investment funds, and could keep state pension funds from investing in the best possible investment strategies for their plan participants--the people of California."

But for six decades, California has prohibited lobbyists from receiving pay based on whether they "succeed." It is one of 38 states that have such prohibitions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The prohibition dates back to 1949.

Back then, the legendary cigar-chomping lobbyist Artie Samish made the blunder of bragging to Collier's Weekly that he was the "governor of the legislature." He even posed for what became the cover phone with a ventriloquist's dummy, suggesting that he was pulling the strings. To prove him wrong, the legislature passed several reforms.

Back in 1974, UCLA law professor Daniel Lowenstein and Bob Stern, head of the Center for Governmental Studies, worked for then Secretary of State Jerry Brown who directed them to write what became the Political Reform Act.

"Jerry Brown hired me to write the best possible law," Stern said.

They began by looking at the existing law.

"There were provisions we were not going to change," Stern said, recalling that the ban on success-based fees dated back to the Samish-era reform and was not worth changing. "We didn't want to weaken existing law."

Placement agents will be working the Capitol halls to kill Hernandez's bill, or at least amend it so they can collect pay based on their success. Some will even hire lobbyists to do their bidding.

February 17, 2010
Stimulus anniversary means more partisan bickering

Want more proof of the poisonous political atmosphere on Capitol Hill?

Just take a gander at the food fight over today's one-year anniversary of President Barack Obama signing the $787 billion economic stimulus package. Rather than a reasoned analysis of what's working in the recovery package and what needs to be tweaked, we have yet more verbal warfare.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco did take the high road somewhat with her statement:

"One year ago, President Obama and Congress took tough action to bring America's economy back from the brink by giving most Americans the fastest and largest middle-class tax cuts in history, creating and saving jobs, and laying the building blocks for long-term prosperity," she said. "At a moment of extraordinary crisis, this Congress and President Obama provided leadership for economic recovery. But our work is far from over. Moving forward, we must build on the success of the Recovery Act, stay focused on creating good-paying jobs for our workers and middle class, and open the doors of opportunity to all Americans."

What she left unsaid is that she was unable to persuade a single Republican in the House to vote for the stimulus. Only a handful of GOP senators broke ranks to support it.

And House Republicans are not letting up their assault, pointing to embarrasing examples of waste in the stimulus and questioning its benefits. "In the year since the Democrats' 'stimulus' program was enacted, over 3 million jobs have been lost, billions of dollars have been wasted, and an unprecedented debt has been passed on to our children - these are not the results that America hoped for. Struggling small business owners, families, and young workers see trillions in debt, on their tab, and still no job creation," Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the GOP's No. 2 in the House, said in a statement.

After that shot, Cantor and House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio sent a letter to Pelosi and her No. 2, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, seeking an "open meeting" on jobs and economic growth.

"Though we had different philosophical approaches, it is unfortunate that there was neither a public discussion nor an opportunity for the American people - especially small business owners -- to become more engaged in the discussion. Had there been such a discussion perhaps Congress would have produced a bill that more directly addressed our nation's economic problems," Boehner and Cantor wrote. "Despite our differences, we believe that it is imperative for us to begin discussions and work together toward a shared goal of putting Americans back to work."

But given the slash-and-burn tactics so far, don't hold your breath for that meeting anytime soon.

February 12, 2010
Does The Bee endorse Kevin Johnson's 'strong mayor' lite?
Mayor Kevin Johnson and his supporters declared in an email blast today that The Bee's editorial board has endorsed the mayor's "new consensus plan" on a strong mayor.

Nice try, mayor.

As we stated in an editorial Thursday, the mayor is "getting closer to getting it right on his strong-mayor plan." But we are not in favor of a rush to the ballot.

We think that Sacramento would be well served by mayor that has more authority to improve the city than past and current mayors have enjoyed. But we don't support the mayor's timetable on when the council should put together a consensus plan. That was clear in our editorial.

Perhaps the mayor and his supporters missed this section and other sections of the editorial:

He is urging the council to fast-track his plan on to the June 8 ballot, which would force a vote by Feb. 23 - too ambitious a timetable for such momentous changes. Johnson has not made a convincing case why the package can't wait until November.

Oh, what the heck. Politicians of every stripe misrepresent what our editorials on a daily basis. Why should KJ and his folks be any different?

At least he and others are paying attention. They should keep doing so.
February 10, 2010
Check your wallet when governors say 'trust me'

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger regularly tells Californians to "trust me."

Schwarzenegger two years ago promised "hundreds of millions of dollars" for the state budget if only voters would support compacts authorizing massive expansion of four Indian-owned casinos in Southern Califrornia.

Writing in the state's official voter pamphlet, the governor vouched for the deals, saying the compacts he helped negotiate would provide "billions" over the years for police, fire and schools.

Tribes that benefited from the deals dumped $82 million into their winning campaign. Foes led by commercial gambling interests spent $50 million opposing the deals.

Voters approved the deals, as they have repeatedly done when Indian gambling goes before them.

Two years after the vote, we at The Swarm assume that we ought to be able to find out how many "hundreds of millions" have been delivered to California.

We thought it was a timely question now that the Morongo Band of Mission Indians is seeking the right to operate Internet poker with other gambling interests.

Schwarzenegger signed a compact with Morongo and the electorate to ratified that deal as part of the 2008 package.

But there's a rub. The Schwarzenegger-negotiated compacts exempt information that the tribes provide to the state from disclosure under the California Public Records Act. As a result, amounts individual tribes pay to the state is secret.

Ok. But isn't the public at least entitled to know what the overall amount is that the four tribes have paid to the state coffers? Voters were, after all, told in a very public way in California's official voter pamphlet that the deals would deliver "hundreds of millions."

Schwarzenegger's Department of Finance referred Swarm questions to the California Gambling Control Commission. The Gambling Control Commission, which is part of Schwarzenegger's administration, declined The Swarm's request for the information, citing secrecy provisions in the compacts negotiated by Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger says "trust" him. Perhaps. We prefer another governor's suggestion: Trust but verify.

February 9, 2010
No 'New Deal' for California

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg came calling this morning on the Bee's editorial board to pitch a 27-bill package designed to replenish California's beleaguered economy with 140,000 jobs.

Some of the ideas are intriguing, some are recycled, and some are problematic.

They include accelerating some infrastructure spending, notably the proposed high-speed rail line from Anaheim to San Francisco through the San Joaquin Valley. There's a bill to take $25 million from a rail bond issue and use it for worker training at community colleges, along with other proposals to shift around housing and education money. The plan would clean energy projects for industry and homeowners alike.

The proposals would require only simple majorities to pass, avoiding the two-thirds hurdle that hamstrings more sweeping budget and tax proposals.

But what struck this newcomer to California was his admission of how modest "Agenda 2010" really is. Given the depth of the economic downturn, one might expect a more ambitious plan to get Californians back to work.

Even if all the bills are approved and signed - by no means a sure thing - it would take one to two years in Steinberg's estimation to produce the jobs. And even with a multiplier effect, according to the California Research Bureau's "back of the envelope" analysis, it would still leave nearly 2 million on the unemployment rolls.

The relatively low bar is by design, Steinberg says. "I'm wary of over-promising and under-delivering," the Sacramento Democrat said. That cycle is one reason why people are so frustrated with state government, he argued.

"People want to see something tangible," Steinberg said, adding, "This isn't the end, but it's the beginning."

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco and Steinberg's wingman for the presentation, seconded the argument. Pointing to a portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the opposite wall, he asserted that a "New Deal"-sized economic stimulus is the province of the federal government, and that the state has far fewer tools at its disposal.

"This is doable," Leno said of the plan.

For more details on the proposals, read The Bee's story here, and come back to in the morning to see the editorial board's take on them.

February 8, 2010
Schwarzenegger seeks to help more developers like Ed Roski

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is hoping that his political relationship with billionaire Ed Roski Jr. bares offspring.

As we wrote on Sunday, the governor signed extraordinary legislation exempting Roski from lawsuits over California environmental law in his effort construct an 80,000-seat football stadium in the San Gabriel Valley town of City of Industry. The stadium would house the National Football League team Roski hopes to bring to the Los Angeles area.

Now as part of his push to help the economy, the governor is urging lawmakers to approve legislation that would authorize his administration and future governors to grant the same sorts of exemptions to 25 projects a year.

The governor contends that these would be projects where environmental impact reports already have been done.

But under this proposal, the governor's secretary of Business, Transportation & Housing would gain significant power to reward developers. The secretary could exempt 25 projects, ranging from roads to housing, from lawsuits questioning whether or not the developers had complied with the California Environmental Quality Act.

Schwarzenegger has not identified the projects. But his proposal gives the geographic spread: 10 in Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange and Riverside counties; five in Sacramento and other Central Valley counties; five in the Bay Area; and five to be determined.

Schwarzenegger portrays himself as the environment's best friend. But this idea amounts to an assault on the state's strongest environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act.

Many developers are political players. This could be a great way for a governor to reward friends. But that wouldn't happen, at least not under this administration.

The concept raises all sorts of other questions. What happens if a developer doesn't make the list? Could that developer seek special legislation to be placed on the favored list? Could that developer sue to be added to the list.

In his drive to create jobs as his tenure ends, the governor might consider being direct. If there is a problem with "frivilous" lawsuits in which CEQA is cited, perhaps he should focus on that issue.

February 4, 2010
Kevin Johnson, Frank Luntz, and Willie Brown, oh my

Leave it to Sacramento's unconventional mayor to put two rather unusual political bedfellows on the same stage in service of his push for more power.

That's what Kevin Johnson did today, calling on Republican political consultant Frank Luntz and former Assembly Speaker and diehard Democrat Willie Brown to back the strong-mayor initiative.

The two headlined a noon, $1,000-a-ticket fund-raiser hosted by Sacramentans for Accountable Government, the vehicle behind the initiative, in a curtained-off back room of the Cosmo Café. Then, the two sauntered across K Street to the Crest Theatre for a forum.

(All the chumminess came before word came that the 3rd District Court of Appeal had rejected a request to delay a judge's decision blocking the strong-mayor initiative from the June 8 ballot, likely meaning the vote won't happen then.)

The mayor said he wanted to bring "a little spectator sport in Sacramento."

The slightly rumpled Luntz and the dapper Brown didn't disappoint. Sitting in facing burgundy armchairs, they traded one-liners and jabs over the 2008 presidential election, the Democratic stranglehold on the Legislature, and the wisdom of writing so many laws through initiative.

But Luntz and Brown agreed that voters want accountability from their elected officials -- and for Sacramento, that means giving the mayor the power to hire and fire lots of employees, to submit a budget, and more.

"Let the voters decide," Luntz exhorted, adding, "What are the opponents afraid of?"

Brown, who was an extremely strong mayor of San Francisco, declared that democracy is "winner-take-all," so elected mayors should get carte blanche and the voters can get rid of them if they don't like what they're doing.

Johnson stayed out of the fray. Instead, in introducing the two men, he explained how they entered his unusually wide political orbit.

The mayor said he idolized Brown since his days playing basketball for Cal. And back in 2007, when Johnson said he was trying to figure out how to get Sacramento to "the next level," he asked Brown whether he would be interested in running for mayor.

"He said, 'What's the salary?'" Johnson recounted.

Brown said he couldn't buy a good tie for that, and when he found out that Sacramento didn't have a strong mayor, that was the end of that conversation.

"It's your fault I'm the mayor of Sacramento," Johnson joked, saying that if Brown had run, he wouldn't have.

As for Luntz, Johnson said he met him at the NBA All-Star weekend last February in Phoenix, where Johnson starred for the Suns and was in town to receive a legends award.

After his speech, Johnson found himself surrounded by autograph seekers, and one particularly hyperactive fan told the mayor he did a great job. The man looked awfully familiar, Johnson said. It dawned on him that he was Luntz, the author of "What Americans Really Want," which Johnson had at his beside to read.

"So when he came up, rather than him getting my autograph, I got his autograph," the mayor said.

Luntz gave another story: "We actually first met at Betty Ford (rehab clinic to the stars), but I'm not allowed to say that," he teased.

"That was when I was dating Betty," Brown joked. (Guffaws from the audience of more than 100.)

Before the rumors start flying, Johnson and Luntz said that the pollster is not working for the mayor in any official capacity.

"We have one thing in common," Luntz said on the way into the fundraiser. "We both like basketball."

Well, make that two: they both like strong mayor.


-- Foon Rhee

February 4, 2010
Demon sheep and wood chippers
Thumbnail image for you tube-FCINO.jpg

It's only February, and California's campaigns have degenerated into talk of wood chippers and demon sheep.

At exactly 2:26 minutes into a video, a soon to be infamous "demon sheep" makes its appearance in one of the oddest campaign videos of all time. They must have been working long hours at Carly for California, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina's Senate campaign.

Prior to that point, in what we can only assume was to be an attack piece on one of Fiorina's Republican Senate primary rivals, Tom Campbell, the video was bad enough. It compared Campbell bizarrely in David Lynch-like fashion to a bunch of sheep.

But at the 2:26 point in the video, the 2010 election cycle got a new mascot so fitting for the weird world of campaign politics.


This came out in the same week that one of Meg Whitman's many consultants threatened to place Steve Poizner into a wood chipper in the Republican primary for governor.
And we thought Democrats were doomed to experience a mid-term drubbing.
If Californian Republican gubernatorial candidates, Whitman and Poizner think wood chippers are the ticket to higher office, the lone Democrat in the race, Jerry Brown stands to sweep up the wood pulp.
Or if Republicans think victory comes in the form of a T-1000 in a bunny suit, leaving "Call Me Senator" Barbara Boxer quaking in her go-go boots, they should think again.


--Rex Babin


February 1, 2010
New animation up.  Check it out.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for SED_G0131_7BABINTEASE0131.jpg
Click to view animated cartoon

About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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