As I look back on some of the California stories I covered in 2014, a few stand out as self-contained dramas — with a beginning, a middle and an end. Each had a compelling protagonist, raised important issues and got people's blood boiling.
In January, a wage theft lawsuit was filed in Alameda Superior Court by a rather unusual plaintiff. It was the first time a professional cheerleader had decided to take on a pro football team — in this case, the Oakland Raiders.
The story made headlines around the world.
Lacy T., a member of the Raiderettes squad for the 2013-14 season, was appalled that the team did not even pay cheerleaders a minimum wage. Her lawsuit described working conditions that would have been familiar to cocktail waitresses or airline stewardesses in the pre-feminist 1960s.
I managed to get my hands on a copy of the super-secret Raiderettes handbook, and, frankly, it made me want to rip off my bra and burn it on the spot. These women were working in a time warp: Hair had to be a certain length and color, nails had to be manicured just so, fines were imposed for tardiness or imperfect uniforms, fraternization with the players was not allowed (supposedly for fear of damaging a cheerleader's reputation). As I wrote at the time, working conditions like those are why God invented labor unions.
In September, the Raiders agreed to a $1.25-million settlement in Lacy's class-action complaint, which covered 90 women. And when the current Raiderettes contract went out to the squad, it contained important changes: They would be paid minimum wage, plus overtime. They would be compensated for travel and other out-of-pocket expenses. They would no longer be fined for minor rules infractions like showing up a few minutes late for practice or failing to bring the correct pompoms.
Some football fans believed the suit was much ado about nothing, that the cheerleaders were lucky to be doing what they loved.
But as Leslie Levy, one of Lacy's attorneys, said: "The mere fact that one loves what one does not give the corporation the right to violate the laws and not pay them for the hours they work."
After Lacy filed her suit, a spate of similar ones were filed by NFL cheerleaders across the country.
"There's a major impact just from somebody breaking the silence and being willing to stand up to a multibillion-dollar industry," Levy said. "And it started a whole discussion about the exploitation of women in these fields."
I could not resist the story of Pasadena City College's bumbling administrators and board of trustees, who invited Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black to be their commencement speaker, then disinvited him, replaced him with a local public health official who turned out to be homophobic and re-invited Black after Speaker No. 2 dropped out.
Black — a PCC graduate, Hollywood success story and gay rights activist — had been the perfect choice in the first place.
He'd eagerly accepted the invitation as soon as it was extended. And then — horrors — the trustees discovered that some sexually explicit photographs of Black had circulated on the Internet.
The campus had been rocked by a couple of heterosexual sex scandals in the previous year, and officials decided they could not take the risk that Black, with his "scandalous" past, would give PCC a bad name.
What the board did not realize, or bother to learn, was that Black was an innocent victim. The photos had been stolen from his ex-boyfriend; he had won a $100,000 judgment against the thief.
Disinviting Black not only made the officials look bigoted and incompetent, it caused an uproar on campus.
A savvy political operator who does righteous indignation as well as anyone, Black railed against homophobia in an open letter in the campus newspaper. ("As PCC Administrators attempt to shame me … they are sending a message that LGBT students are to be held to a different standard, that there is something inherently shameful about who we are and how we love.")
Unbeknownst to the public until my colleague Jason Song ferreted it out with a Public Records Act request, Black had negotiated a $26,000 payment from PCC in exchange for agreeing not to sue. The filmmaker, 40, said it was reimbursement for legal fees; the head of the academic senate called it "a complete misuse of public funds."
I counted only one subtle dig at administrators in Black's speech last May:
"I'll tell you," he said, "I have been blessed. Blessed with honors, blessed with invitations to speak at esteemed institutions around the country, around the world. But I say if you measure the weight of an honor by the amount of work it takes to actually get there and receive the honor, well, this might damn well be the biggest honor of my entire life."
On March 31, a 25-year-old former Marine sergeant named Andrew Tahmooressi unwittingly ignited a political controversy when he took a wrong turn and crossed the border into Mexico with three loaded guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
An Afghanistan war vet, Tahmooressi was arrested and charged with violating Mexico's anti-gun laws. What ensued was a seven-month saga involving the State Department, the Mexican attorney general's office, congressional showboating and a failed attempt to blockade the border by a group of inexperienced activists outraged by Tahmooressi's incarceration.
Tahmooressi's mother, who worked tirelessly to raise awareness of her son's predicament, said that he needed to come home because he suffered from PTSD, was paranoid and was afflicted with "hunter-prey syndrome" — in which he considered himself the prey.
I brought the wrath of Fox Nation down on my head when I suggested that maybe a person in such psychological distress should not be driving around with loaded guns. I wrote that Mexico undoubtedly would send Tahmooressi home for treatment but would not be bullied by American congressmen.
And indeed, Tahmooressi's trial in Tijuana came to an abrupt halt Oct. 31, when a federal judge ordered his immediate release. The ruling was a win-win: U.S. supporters could take credit for pressuring the Mexican government to act, and Mexican authorities could say they acted out of compassion.
One of the many lessons of this story, besides the obvious one (don't take guns and ammo into Mexico) is that there is no issue that cannot be pressed into service in the war on President Obama.
Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren pushed the narrative, eagerly embraced by Obama haters, that by failing to personally intervene in Tahmooressi's case, as he had done for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Obama had left a man behind on the battlefield. But unlike Bergdahl, whose story has yet to be told, Tahmooressi was not on any battlefield; he was not on active duty; nor was he held by a hostile force.
Tahmooressi is home in Florida with his parents. According to a spokesman, the family's "thoughts and prayers" are with Amir Hekmati, a former Marine imprisoned in Iran on charges that he is a U.S. spy.