I attended the California Newspaper Publishers Association Governmental Affairs Day on Feb. 19 in Sacramento, and boy did I a learn a lot. It was an eye-opening experience for sure, but the thing that stuck out the most to me is that politicians, at least the ones I got to listen to, really know what they’re talking about.
At least that’s the perception they want to portray, and they do so very well. They don’t get to Sacramento in the first place without the ability to do so, and that ability can be a pretty powerful thing.
Listening to both Democrats and Republicans pitch their ideas about the same topics was pretty thought-provoking. Most people go into speeches like that knowing which way they lean already, so when the speaker that agrees with their opinions starts hammering out points, their heads start nodding and clapping ensues. The opposite goes for the alternative, as heads start shaking, mumbles start grumbling and whispers go back and forth between those who lean away from the direction of the current speaker while he or she is speaking.
But in a room full of journalists, the atmosphere was completely different. Good journalists are used to being the only unbiased and impartial people — at least on the surface — in the room at a Tea Party meeting, for instance, or a politician’s town hall meeting. At Governmental Affairs Day, though, we all were. If there were biases, you didn’t see them. Each speaker, Republican or Democrat, was treated equally, with respect, and their answers were either acknowledged or criticized by the audience based on their merit, not their political affiliation.
It made for an interesting day, as Speaker of the Assembly John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) went first, buttering us up with, “It wasn’t long ago that people were trying to write the obituary for newspapers; I was happy to see the demise was greatly exaggerated,” while also thanking us for the product we provide before discussing several important matters going on around the state. He was intelligent and eloquent, articulate and witty, even playfully dodging questions about the high-speed rail proposed. “Those are questions better asked to those more intimately involved in the process,” he said. “(Second guessing …) that’s your job.”
Perez was followed by Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway (R-Visalia), a charming woman with a background stemming from the Board of Supervisors level. Her charm came from her ability to be a bit more real than the others, speaking seemingly more from the heart with her points, which mostly contradicted everything Perez said earlier. Yet, that same charm made her seem less polished overall as a speaker, which I found interesting.
She was followed by Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff (R-Orange County/San Bernardino County), who obviously shared many of the views of Conway, but with a seemingly never-ending wealth of knowledge based on experience.
Senator President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) rounded things off before a lunch break and then the keynote speaker, Attorney General Kamala D. Harris. Steinberg seemed like a very likeable guy, shooting from the hip while keeping his points succinct and relevant.
“It’s a lot more fun to serve in the good times,” Steinberg said. “It’s a lot more important to serve in the bad times.” I’m sure all politicians agree, but it made for a good quote for the papers the next day.
Harris, however, stole the show. She flew through her prepared speech like a magician performing a final trick. She was passionate and flawless, hitting on points about education, data gathering and technology, and how they were all so crucial to the success of our state. She was inspiring and powerful in her speech, and seemingly had most of us wowed … until she sat down for a one-on-one interview with the Los Angeles Times Editor-at-Large Jim Newton.
Newton asked some friendly questions and some hard-hitting ones — softballs and hardballs, so to speak. Harris stumbled a couple of times, partly from having to catch her breath after rushing through her speech due to time constraints, but mainly because she was put on the spot without the ability to prepare answers for Newton’s questions. And this was the part of Governmental Affairs Day that affected me the most.
Through all the political speak and prepared speeches given to us throughout the day, it was the back-and-forth between journalists and politicians in the room that told the biggest story. Each politician’s speech was followed by a question-and-answer session, where members of the audience — journalists from newspapers all over the state — asked challenging questions about dire situations our state is currently facing. Sure, many of the politicians had heard these questions before, and rattled off the same answers they had previously, but the polish wore off quickly on each, and we got to see the real human beings underneath each time. This is what journalists are for, why we exist. It’s our job to show readers who all of these people really are.
Perez said something during his speech that rang close to home for me. He said, “What you write and think matters, even when we hate what you write and think.”
Steinberg said something similar. “I haven’t always liked it, I haven’t always agreed with it,” he said of his treatment by the media. “I recognize it for what it is, a part of the give and take, a part of the essential function of democracy where people like me are given a lot of power, and that power aught never to be without accountability and without people questioning what it is we do. And so I thank you for treating me fairly and for doing your jobs.”
What I learned most from Governmental Affairs Day wasn’t what our Republican or Democrat representatives thought about current issues, but what value our positions in society as journalists today still hold.
Patrick Ibarra is the managing editor of the Mountain Democrat.