These Flacks Are Costly, Mercenary--and Good

For a smart politician, Gov. Gray Davis sure looked like a dim bulb when he put two public relations consultants on state pay at $30,000 a month.

It brought him instant bad PR.

The governor is paying these hired guns more than double what he himself makes monthly ($13,750) and at least three times what their predecessor, Phil Trounstine, got as Davis' communications director.

Although the $30,000 is for both consultants combined, it's pay for one job. Neither is pulling down full-time duty. This two-man spin team--trained at the Clinton White House--also has other clients. And that's part of the rub. They have an even more lucrative PR deal with Edison.

Critics see a clear conflict. While Davis and Edison currently are on the same side pushing bailout legislation to save the utility from bankruptcy, their views ultimately could clash. Many legislators think the bill treats Edison too generously. They could force the governor into some compromise the utility would oppose. Then whose side would these consultants take?

Hypothetical, they reply. Anyway, their advice is only about how best to spin reporters and massage messages. They don't get into rate structures and grid buyouts.

Republicans, nevertheless, smell a campaign issue. "An intolerable conflict of interest," protests Secretary of State Bill Jones, who's running for Davis' job.

Senate GOP leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga says he'll refuse to vote for any state budget that includes the spin meisters' pay. "Absolutely. End of discussion."

If Davis wants to hire high-priced political flacks, he should pay them out of his bulging political kitty, Brulte insists, echoing many.

It's relative peanuts--$180,000 over a six-month contract--but it's also the principle.

Davis signed up the pair last month as his poll numbers were plunging.

They're Chris Lehane, 34, and Mark Fabiani, 44, who once handled scandal-management for the late Mayor Tom Bradley. They acquired the moniker "Masters of Disaster" while spinning President Clinton through all his first-term scandals: Whitewater, Travelgate. . . . The duo worked out of an office they dubbed the "Arsenal of Democracy." Their last mission was less successful: Fabiani was Al Gore's deputy campaign manager and Lehane was his press secretary.

In Sacramento, they've operated as they did in Washington: spinning, leaking, punching. They know how to play the game. Big leaguers in a triple-A town.

They've sharpened Davis' message--California's doing all it can, but Washington's protecting power profiteers. They've persuaded the governor to be more out front and outspoken. And they've helped turn around his poll numbers.

They outmaneuvered President Bush's operatives at the Bush-Davis "summit." The governor got more tube time than the president.

Davis has been guesting regularly on network talk shows. Hardly a weekend goes by without his making "news."

Lehane calls it "occupying real estate."

They also try to get ahead of a story and shape it. They've been promoting a couple rooted in truth: That Republicans are worried Bush looks so hidebound on energy they could lose control of the U.S. House in 2002. And that he could be as vulnerable on this issue as Clinton was on his early, disastrous health care misstep.

This week, Davis will refocus his message to get ahead of the price caps story--demanding that the feds order gougers to pay refunds to California. Give us back our money now.

"Good policy makes not only good politics but good press," says Lehane.

Davis insists hiring the two masters was downright smart. They're not doing politics, he says. They're helping him and the state fend off pirates and send California's SOS plea to the nation.

"I'm in a war with multibillion-dollar, out-of-state greedy generators that are spending every dime they can to pull the wool over California ratepayers," he says.

"If you think I'm going to sit back here and let [them] run over me with a group of civil servants, you've got another think coming. . . . We're a stickball team playing the New York Yankees. We've got to bring in major leaguers.

"I'll tell ya, they're tremendous. They're worth every penny."

The question is, whose penny? Davis' or the taxpayers'?

Both, I'd say.

Davis should pay state government's top rate for a PR person--say, $10,000 a month. Then dig into his $30 million-plus political stash for the other $20,000.

We're talking chump change for this perpetual fund-raiser. And invaluable good PR.

As for the potential Davis-Edison conflict, we'll all be watching. Any sign of conflict would be very bad PR.

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