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SF Chronicle talk - Phil Matier on California politics and government

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San Francisco Chronicle Columnist Phil Matier is a friend and one-half of the well-known reporting team of Matier and Ross.

I've known Phil since 1993 when I started as a columnist for the Oakland-based Montclarion and he and his professional sidekick Andy Ross were working under the same "Matier and Ross" title. Over the years Phil has always lent an ear and advice.

Now, since I blog on the SF Chronicle's website SFGste.com, I figured I'd take time to do something that was always in the back of my mind: make a vlog featuring an interview with Phil. The result is this 21 minutes long video.

Frankly, it also a way of paying back those at the SF Chronicle who've given me the freedom to express myself and bring light to some issues that ordinarily would be ignored.

Phil and I met at Merritt Station. A local cafe near Lake Merritt in Oakland on Sunday, September 27th.

Me: The legendary Phil Matier. Phil, my audience is national and international. Tell people about yourself. You're probably the most well-known - in the United States - 'muckraker', I would say. Ah. I don't really like that term. How would you describe yourself?

Phil Matier: I think I'm pretty much a political columnist, and uh, zeroed in pretty much on the San Francisco Bay Area and the state of California. Which, in a lot of ways, leads the nation both in content and in controversy when it comes to politics.

So I've been doing it for quite a number of years right now and I've seen a lot of interesting changes. In both parties and in the emergence of the third party, which is the 'decline to state' - people who don't really feel aligned with either of the two.

So, California is in some ways again on the leading edge of American politics, including the growth in the sort of disillusionment about the political system.

Me: Let's go with that, but before we get to that, what was your first big scoop?

Phil Matier: You know, Zen, scoops, they come and they go whether they be on the police beat, the court beat sports and politics. Sit back sometimes and flip through your clips and take a look at things. To be quite honest, they just sort of fly by like waves on a beach.

Me: Ha. There's so many you forgot, right?

Phil Matier: Well, its not just - there are a lot of what we call scoops - is that in retrospect what we look at as scoops: somebody, a gaffe, something on the goppip front, nonprofits not being on the up and up.. We've covered them all - me and my partner Andy Ross in the Matier and Ross column.

But sometimes you wonder whether these are the waves on the beach. And while they look big at the time they crash, it's really the tide that dictates sort of what goes in and out of this harbor. So when I look back on them I go 'That's interesting but I try to look at the tied and the bigger shifts that go on.

Me: Is California ungovernable? Because we have the initiative process. We saw the circus with Prop 8 and what happened with the California Supreme Court's decision. I want to hear your view. Is California ungovernable?

Phil Matier: Well, part of your question is (really) is California governable or is it over-governable at this point. We have very active governments on a number of different fronts.

We have, of course, your standard political government, which is elected every couple of years to your state assembly, your state senate, your governorships, different elected offices, your mayors, your city councilors, your town councilors, all down the line. On top of that we have the judicial system which can turn around and say 'yes or no' to whatever laws or decisions those various entities make.

Some say, well, is California being governed by the courts. If you look at things like prisons, roads, schools, and such like that, sometimes it appears that the courts are making the primary decisions.

In California we have another layer over that which is the initiative process. Which was initially the idea that if the voters didn't like something they could put it on the ballot and they could change it. Especially if the legislature or the courts were simply inactive or chose to ignore it.

The first big - it was a dormant thing (the initiative process) for many many year, before it sprang to life a couple of decades back with Proposition 13. The passage of that: the great California tax revolt, which in turn led to the rise of (Ronald) Reagan and other things nationally. As I was saying California in some ways moves the country.

That inspired people to say we can take government into our own hands when government refuses to act. The intiative process became a gauge of the overall political tides. If a City like Oakland didn't want to do tax reform then the people would do it for them.

That morphed into a process where people and businesses were putting things on the ballot to put them on for ballot's sake. So now we have three layers of politics in California. Three layers of governance, all competing at times, but at times all working together.

As an illustration, California's many problems with its budget. The legislature didn't have the will or the votes to pass various things to they said we will put it to the voters and have them decide.

That didn't work.

Another question is, let's say Gay Marriage in California, Proposition 8. Voters said 'no' to it, City of San Francisco said 'yes' to it, triggering a court fight, that turned around and said 'no' to it and then the voters were asked again and they said 'yes' to it, (which was a 'no' to Gay Marriage), but that is a process. Like it or not. People - if it works in your favor, people like it. If you don't get the results you want it needs fixing.

California's having these discussions about having a constitutional convention and try to remake the playing field, yet again.

Me: Can we get there, though?

Phil Matier: We may get to a constitutional convention. I'm not sure we're going to get anything out of it that's going to be substantive.

At the key to all of these problems, as (former Speaker and San Francisco Mayor) Willie Brown likes to say, it's not the system, it's the players.

Speaker / Mayor Willie Brown

And if you're a football team and you've lost the Super Bowl in politics these days in California we say 'Well, we need to change the rules' - make the goal posts closer. We almost could have won if we'd gotten those last 10 yards, so let's make the field 90 yards rather than 110 yards.

We do these under the name of reform and all they do is often times all the do is change the rules. But if you don't have the talent, it's not going to work.

Me: How much of these problems are borne of the fact that we seem to have two states in one? We've talked for years about a split state need. But we've never done anything about it.

Phil Matier: People would say we have two states, Northern California and Sounthern California because they have the water. Now, California's spliting into two states, coastal and interior of California which is exurban and suburban. What the coast has to sell, the inland's going to buy. We have two Californias, now you can say we can split them but I'm not sure it's going to work. Many states have a split; it's just that ours is a little bigger than others. 

Me: Let me ask you a blunt question, first, about San Francisco and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Why is he running for governor when there are those who feel he hasn't finished being Mayor of San Francisco?

Mayor Gavin Newsom

Phil Matier: Well, Zennie, let's be honest. If there was a rule in politics that if you were going to run for another office you could not do so until you were finished with your current one, we wouldn't have a President Obama.

Me: Are you comparing Gavin to Barack?

Phil Matier: Only in that we have this evolution in American politics to where you pass through rather than necessarily complete. So that's not a new phenomenon at all. History is full of governors and senators - congresspeople - who have moved on to other offices midterm and cast their eye high and kept going.

Zennie Abraham: But Phil, come on. I know Gavin. I love Gavin. I think Gavin's a great guy, but I keep wondering why he didn't do the 'Jerry Brown move'. Jerry was Mayor of Oakland; he remade himself. Concentrate on being Mayor, and then..

California Attorney General Jerry Brown

Phil Matier: Zennie you have to dust off your memory a little bit. Jerry Brown, no sooner did he get elected Governor of California with his father's help, did he too run for President.

Me: That's true. I stand corrected.

Phil Matier: Now he says the voters never forgave him for that; he didn't think it was a smart move but that didn't stop him from running for President again and again and again.

Zennie Abraham: Three times, I believe.

Phil Matier: With age comes wisdom. But in California we also have Jerry Brown who, while not declared is going to run for governor and who well could get into the Guiness Book of World Records for having been the first guy to be governor twice - non consecutively. And the first to have gone from governor to attorney general.

I think what you're saying is 'Why the leapfrogging' and you want to know about Gavin Newsom and wha the future holds for him.

He obviously sees himself as a person of destiny of which the mayorship of San Francisco was a step to that. Well, you would say the governorship would be a step to another office? Yes. He is a creature of that world. It's an interesting paradox that he is at once an agent of change and very much something out of a television politician, running from one office to another.

That is politics as well. It is a game of ambition. It is a game of high ideals. Very rarely do we have situations where people who are underestimated wind up in positions where they achieve greater than anyone expected.

Harry Truman, for example, was a pretty much a political machine product and had been parked in the vice-presidency as a caretaker know body though was going anywhere.

Zennie Abraham: Reagan?

Phil Matier: No Ronald Reagan was always a rising star - a man on the move. He was the first true multi-media president - Jack Kennedy was probably the first televised one - Ronald Reagan took it further.

On the next mayor of San Francisco and Black Politics in Oakland

Phil Matier: Gavin has not really laid down a political infrastructure in San Francisco It's going to be a bedoin regime when Newsom picks up his tent and moves on - the sands will, within a day, cover up most of what political tracks he had left.

Zennie Abraham: Any surprises in the City Attorney's Race that might lead to mayor?

Phil Matier: The City Attorney of San Francisco Dennis Herrera's obviously a top candidate for mayor. State Senator Leland Yee would like to see himself the first Chinese-American mayor of San Francisco. Bevan Dufty would like to be the first Gay mayor, We have a number of people out there.

But in politics, Zennie, as you well know, you don't know the field until the bell rings. Because things changes quickly. Here in Oakland, you had the return of Ron Dellums, then before that Jerry Brown. Who knows? In Oakland you have everyone asking 'Who's going to run?'

Zennie Abraham: Perata?

(Fmr.) State Senator Don Perata 

Phil Matier: He's already running but who knows, Sean Penn may move to Oakland and run for mayor. I'm just joking on that, but the point is in politics you just don't know.

Zennie Abraham: In Oakland it seems like (Don) Perata is unbeatable. I can't see anyone that can beat him. I admire Don but I always thought his want was to ascend beyond mayor, instead of be Mayor of Oakland. Am I looking at that the wrong way?

Phil Matier: I think that for Don Perata there's always been a split path there. I think that he thought he could go high in state government and I think he ran for controller on the state level and he didn't make it in the primary. There's ambition there.

But he did go up there. He did get a look inside the governor's office. There are two types of politicians: the executive types and those that enjoy the debate. Willie Brown knew he couldn't win (for governor) state wide, but he went to the state and got as far as he could. I think Perata's more on the executive side. Senator Diane Feinstein's more on the executive side, but she's in the Senate acting as an exective.

Zennie Abraham: If Perata wins, does that mean Black politics is dead in Oakland?

Phil Matier: No. Zennie you have to understand the art of politics can be very obvious on the street or very subtle. You could make an argument that if I was talking in straight political numbers, if I ..OK. I are saying that the absence of a Black mayor would lessen the political power in Oakland?

Zennie Abraham: It's not so much black mayor as councilmembers, people who are active.

Phil Matier: Let's take a look at this.

Zennie Abraham: Sure.

Phil Matier: Two (black) members on the city council.

Me: Right.

Phil Matier: Two members on the (Alameda) county board of supervisors?

Me: Right. But Phil, we...

Phil Matier: Excuse me. Your congress. Your Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

Me: Yes.

Phil Matier: That is a pretty strong..black police chief. Black fire chief.

Me: Right.

Phil Matier: There's a pretty strong front there within the infrastructure of government and on the elected front.

Zennie Abraham: Phil, I gotta ask ya, we had more black councilmembers 15 years ago.

Phil Matier: There's also been a change in the population of Oakland.

Me: Yes. Yes. Yes. Very true.

Phil Matier: Now, is it reflective of the city? If that is the goal is it reflective of the ebb and flow as well.

Me: Yes. It is reflective of the city. We have change. We have our first Lesbian councilmember. We have a large lesbian population per capita. But even with that, my contention is that those who are African American and politically involved are not as cohesive as they used to be.

Phil Matier: What is the reason for that?

Me: I don't know.

Phil Matier: Well, part of it is, possibly, with success comes complacency.

Me: Also lack of leadership.

Phil Matier: I don't think..What leadership. I don't...you have a black congresswoman, a black..

Me: Mentors. Lack of mentors.

Phil Matier: I don't think that's for lack of leadership.

Me: Ok.

Phil Matier: Now, Ron Dellums was congressman he handed it to Barbara Lee. Right?

Me: But they're older than me.

Phil Matier: Well, OK. That is universal in politics - young versus old cuts across all political lines. Now whether the young organize around political issues that remains to be seen. Now whether a Perata ..You could make an argument that a Perata or a Jerry Brown perhaps increased African American participation because they felt like they needed to fight for something.

Me: In Oakland, I see younger talented white women in politics. Frieda Edgette who runs the East Bay Young Democrats is well-liked and moving forward, as just one example. But that's why I say: there's a strong group over there that's unmatched in any area.

Phil Matier: Well, all I can say is at the core of politics in America a person gets to decide their willingness and level of involvement It's not mandated. You don't get drafted. You decide how much you want to be involved or not be involved.

In terms of politics if we go back to the idea of courts, we have organizing tools as economics - getting the piece of the pie. If it attracts quotas or whatever you want to call them is there a need to organize?

Me: Forecast the Governor's Race.

Phil Matier: It hasn't started yet. We have people hovering around. We have Gavin Newsom. We have Jerry Brown. We, on the Republican side, we have Meg Whitman. We have Steve Poisner. Tom Campbell. A race is when the running starts. What we have are people putting on their sneakers and looking in the mirror.

Me: Senator Boxer. Vulnerable?

Phil Matier: Anybody is going to be vulnerable when we have national issues like heath care in this situation. It's no secret that when your party's president is in office and its midterm elections, you're vulnerable. Yes. She's vulnerable. I don't have to say that; every politician feels that in their bones. Even if they're uncontested they always feel vulnerable.

Me: Phil, I can sit here and talk to you all day but I know you're a busy man. We can catch you at SFGate, and Channel Five.

Phil Matier: and on KCBS (radio) in the mornings and the afternoons.

Me: Phil, thank you so much.
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