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CAPITOL JOURNAL : Wilson Uses Cal-Span in His Lobbying Arsenal

As Gov. Pete Wilson’s budget-balancing plan careened from one crisis vote to another in the Assembly last month, California’s chief executive and a knot of top-level advisers sat glued to a television set.

Frequently, Wilson would pull himself away, make a quick phone call and return his attention to the screen.

What have we here, a call-in talk show? Was the governor ordering a leaf blower from a shopper channel?

No. Wilson was tuned to Speaker Willie Brown and the Assembly on Cal-Span, the fledgling statewide public affairs cable network, as it televised debates during the long budget battle.

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Although the Assembly chamber is only a short elevator ride away, Wilson chose to watch the often chaotic floor action live in his office on Cal-Span and instantly devise lobbying tactics to get his tax increases and budget cuts approved.

As related by aides who cited some of the tense moments as various bills teetered between approval and defeat, Wilson would intently watch the television screen, reach for the phone and personally persuade fellow Republican members of the Assembly to vote his way.

Often, he coordinated tactics with Democrat Brown, who recalled: “I kept getting telephone calls. It wasn’t anybody calling about my lunch. That was Pete Wilson calling me and asking, ‘Can you talk to (a GOP assemblyman)? What does he want?’ ”

“We constantly had the television set turned to the floor proceedings,” acknowledged Wilson’s press secretary, Bill Livingstone. “Watching the debate, you really get a better feeling of the issues--who is for, against or absent--so you can rally votes.”

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Wilson is the first California governor to use television to keep an eye on committee and floor sessions of the Assembly. His predecessors relied on a network of aides, friendly lawmakers, a decrepit audio “squawk box” system and other techniques to keep them updated on fast-breaking developments in the Legislature.

Wilson uses these methods as well, but Livingstone said live television gives the governor an added visual dimension. “You get a handle on the politics of the issue, the nuances that are communicated on the floor,” he said.

Cal-Span, a nonprofit operation modeled after C-Span in Washington, has offered California viewers twice-a-week coverage of the Assembly since last March and plans the same for the Senate starting in January.

Also known as the California Channel, it provides gavel-to-gavel coverage to 43 cable systems--unfiltered by professional news reporters. The California Cable Television Assn. reports that Cal-Span’s coverage is available to 2.1 million of the state’s 5.5 million cable subscribers, although no one keeps track of how many actually watch the network.

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Legislative leaders have embraced the unedited coverage as one way to restore what opinion surveys reflect as a serious lack of public confidence in the Legislature. Whether the strategy is working is unclear.

A variety of profanities occasionally punctuate floor debates in a chamber that has been described as everything from a zoo to a political sandbox. Some members mug for the cameras, addressing their speeches not to colleagues but to presumed viewers back home.

Speaker Brown insists that the conduct of Assembly members has improved since Cal-Span arrived. “There is not as much high jinks on the floor. People are appearing better dressed. The clutter is not as great,” he said, insisting that “we are working” on cleaning up the barnyard language of a handful of members.

One Los Angeles cable operator, Bill Rosendahl of Century Cable, said he was familiar with the conduct of Assembly members before Cal-Span arrived and has been “pleasantly surprised” by their behavior since. “I think it already has had a sobering and maturing effect on the way these public officials operate,” he said.

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Paul Koplin, the energetic president of the Santa Monica-based organization, who has insisted that editorial control of coverage stay in the hands of Cal-Span--and not the Legislature--favors expanding the programming to include other governmental activities such as the state Supreme Court and regulatory commissions.

Meantime, Brown said he avoids watching himself on Cal-Span replays. “I don’t want to watch any speech that I have made,” said the Speaker, a skilled orator. “I hate it because I know that I am better than that.”


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