Like so many budget sessions in Sacramento, this one had stretched late into the night. When the four leaders of the Assembly and Senate finally agreed on a package of spending cuts and modest reforms, a six-week standoff — which had forced the state to suspend payments to child-care centers and nursing homes — seemed at an end.
Half an hour after legislative leaders left Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office, though, someone leaked word of the delicate bipartisan agreement to blogger-commentator-partisan Jon Fleischman.
In no time, his obscure but influential website, FlashReport.org, had slammed the deal as “fat” and “bloated” and likened it to “putting lipstick on a pig.”
“I knew as soon as I saw the post go up that the deal would collapse,” Adam Mendelsohn, then an aide to Schwarzenegger, said of the 2007 agreement. “Maybe an hour after that, we got a call: There wouldn’t be a vote that night. Here we were in the biggest state in the union and important policy was being dictated by a blog post at midnight.”
Torpedoing bipartisan compromise and shredding political moderation are among Fleischman’s most cherished goals. His online compendium of news, gossip, commentary and advertising has become a virtual bonfire where the state’s conservative faithful gather to gird for battle.
Although the FlashReport’s traffic doesn’t even register with major Web rating agencies, it’s a good bet to be found on the computer screens of conservative activists across California. In Sacramento, legislators routinely huddle on the Senate and Assembly floors over Fleischman’s online pronouncements.
Regular readers, including Democrats who want to keep an eye on the opposition, look to Fleischman for breaking news, morsels from supposedly secret meetings of Republican lawmakers and calls to action.
Although Fleischman doesn’t always have his way — the “bloated” 2007 budget deal, for instance, was later resurrected — no one disputes his influence.
The site’s conservative street cred was reaffirmed a few months ago by nemesis Jerry Brown. The Democratic governor accused GOP legislators of being held captive by a “League of Acceptability” consisting of the FlashReport and a few better-known influencers: Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and KFI-AM talk radio hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou.
The FlashReport and a few other sites, including middle-of-the-road Rough & Tumble (www.rtumble.com), offer an up-close view of California politics once available only from the mainstream media. Fleischman stands apart, though, because he both covers the establishment and works inside it as a former executive director of the California Republican Party and a consultant to myriad candidates and causes.
“I’m not only Jane Goodall, who’s looking at the monkeys, I actually am one of the monkeys,” Fleischman said in an interview at his Newport Beach office. “The monkeys will talk to another monkey before they will talk to a reporter.”
His insider’s niche enabled the FlashReport to be first on the story when, for instance, a clutch of GOP congressmen recently decided to leave office. It also helped Fleischman sniff out evidence that a Democrat who hoped to run for a Central Valley state Senate seat didn’t live in the district.
Fellow Republicans praise Fleischman for dogged self-creation and ideological purity. U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) described him as a bellwether on “the heart of conservative party activism.”
Other party members see Fleischman as an opportunist with an ego as wide as the Sacramento River Delta who punishes opponents and props up those who support his business. They view him as an enforcer of the kind of ideological rigidity they believe has marginalized the California Republican Party and turned it into a regular loser of statewide elections.
After he cast a crucial vote in favor of a 2009 budget and tax increase proposed by Schwarzenegger, the FlashReport skewered then-state Sen. Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto) for clearing the way for “massive overtaxing” and waving “the white flag” of surrender.
Within hours, GOP senators had ousted the Central Valley lawmaker from his leadership post as minority leader, though Fleischman declined to take credit for the decapitation.
In a recent interview, Cogdill was still smarting, accusing Fleischman of “demagoguing” the tax issue to promote his website.
Former Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia), a onetime Fleischman ally, clashed with him over the same 2009 tax vote. He called the blogger “just another long-on-rhetoric, short-on-reason talking head.”
Fleischman, 44, rejects the idea that moderation would spark a GOP resurgence.
“The minority party is not going to be able to become a majority party if it doesn’t offer a clear, distinct, different point of view,” he said. “I wanted and still want to play a role in stemming the growth of government in our lives. It’s motivated me every day.”
A hard right turn
Nothing in Fleischman’s upbringing suggested he would grow into an Ayn Rand-quoting Ronald Reagan partisan. He was raised in Palms on the Westside of Los Angeles by parents whose politics were liberal to moderate. A turning point came in his teens, when he worked at a Mondale for President phone bank and became disgusted at what he recalled as his fellow volunteers’ obliviousness to the Soviet threat.
He joined campus conservatives at Santa Monica College and got his entree into professional politics in 1988 as a part-time staff member on the reelection campaign of L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich. That led to a decade of work for Republican politicians and causes, followed by his two-year stint as director of the state party.
Then he served as a political advisor and press aide to Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona, a man once viewed as having a shot at statewide office. That dream fell apart when a pair of the sheriff’s top assistants, and then Carona himself, were accused of corruption. Carona was convicted of witness tampering and remains in prison.
While he was working as a Carona flack, Fleischman launched a political newsletter as a “hobby.” He emailed a collection of news links and tart observations to 400 fellow GOP insiders. The daily updates were like a blast of fresh air to GOP stalwarts, who felt they were choking on liberal media bias.
The FlashReport debuted as a website in 2005, while Fleischman was still working for Carona. Within months, he said, it brought in more ad money than he earned as a public employee.
In person, Fleischman appears very much the amiable, married father of two. But behind his keyboard he can froth with animus: Redevelopment agencies are “evil.” The state Chamber of Commerce, an occasional supporter of higher taxes, is the “Chamber of Horrors.” Those who supported a ban on plastic shopping bags are “an evil coalition of eco-whack legislators and greedy grocers.”
“There is nothing moderate about me, not my temperament, not my ideology,” Fleischman said in his wood-paneled office, where he fights writer’s block by playing on his Xbox or taking a quick sample from his wine collection.
Beneath its green banner, the FlashReport presents a handful of its own stories and commentaries, followed by an exhaustive menu of links to political stories from other sites — a constantly shifting stew not dissimilar in appearance to its ideological antithesis, the Huffington Post.
In recent days, the site skipped from the (successful) fight against Senate confirmation of Brown’s appointee to chair the Cal State board to a campaign to preserve term limits for Orange County supervisors to a series of tributes to Internet provocateur Andrew Breitbart, who died March 1.
The key to wielding clout, despite a relatively small audience, is reaching the right people. According to a former Republican lawmaker who incurred Fleischman’s wrath, the FlashReport is gospel to “the 100 or 200 [Republicans] in your district who are most driven to make calls, raise money and organize.” The former legislator dislikes Fleischman enough that he did not want to be named giving him credit for anything.
One of the FlashReport’s fiercest throwdowns with fellow Republicans came in early 2009, when six GOP lawmakers, including Cogdill and Adams, joined with the Democratic majority to approve $14 billion in tax increases to help close a $42-billion budget gap.
Fleischman dubbed the increases in income, sales and car taxes the “Taxpayer Betrayal Act.” His site became the favored forum for Republicans who wanted to savage the six GOPers who supported the deal.
All six have since left state elective office. There’s little doubt the tax vote and Fleischman’s opposition hurt them politically; just how much remains a subject of debate.
Cogdill later won election as Stanislaus County tax assessor. Adams beat back a FlashReport-supported recall and went on to serve on the state parole board.
Susan Kennedy, a former chief of staff for Schwarzenegger and a Democrat, said Fleischman “has made a business out of ideological purity,” adding: “There is no value proposition in his business model to being reasonable.”
But she said the blogger’s rigidity is no different from what she saw from special interests on the left, like public employee unions and the Sierra Club.
To hear Fleischman tell it, his business model is successful, but not wildly so. He said the site brings in more than $100,000 a year in advertising revenue, but he declined to be more specific, saying: “I am not getting rich doing a blog on California politics, by any stretch of the imagination.”
Fleischman readily acknowledges the value of the “wall” that traditional news outlets place between ad salespeople and the newsroom — to prevent advertisers from having undue influence. But he says his operation is too small (he employs three part-timers) to create a divide between editorial and advertising.
The Jarvis taxpayer group, Ventura County Supervisor Peter Foy and a campaign to stop government from banning plastic shopping bags are among advertisers who get plenty of coverage on the site.
Fleischman said readers can examine the ads and judge for themselves whether the sponsors have influenced what he publishes. He said his readers understand that his opinion is not for sale.
Not every one of Fleischman’s financial connections, though, is transparent. In 2008, the FlashReport began to post stories from other publications about a fight over public land that had been designated for park space in Riverside County’s Jurupa Valley. Fleischman didn’t tell readers he had been paid by the park district for consulting work. (He wouldn’t say how much he was paid.)
He said his site is jampacked with news links on all sorts of political disputes and that the attention to Jurupa had no connection to the money he received.
At the same time, he is not about to apologize for taking sides. “Our main motto is ‘fair and biased,’” Fleischman said. “We will be fair and accurate, but we definitely will have a point of view.”