.Q&A: Phil Trounstine of CalBuzz

Phil Trounstine knows California politics.

After a 20-year journalism career, Trounstine, the former politics editor for the San Jose Mercury News, worked as communications director for Gov. Gray Davis. He later founded a research institute at San Jose State University, and co-authored in-depth studies of power structures within major cities. Trounstine and fellow political journalist Jerry Roberts started CalBuzz.com in 2009, specializing in honest—often biting—political analysis. The site, Trounstine says, made just enough money to cover their occasional travel expenses. Trounstine and Roberts announced earlier this year that they were going on “sabbatical,” although they’ve made time for periodic online dispatches and updates when news breaks—for instance, when a new poll drops with insights on the 2018 elections.


How’s your sabbatical going?

We’re not doing much. Jerry’s doing a lot of stuff locally in Santa Barbara, and we’re doing very occasional stuff on CalBuzz. We’ll probably go to the Democratic state convention, because it looks like it could be interesting this time with the senator’s race and the governor’s race. I’m playing a lot of golf and hanging with my grandchildren.

What do you make of the governor’s race so far?

Gavin was mayor of San Francisco. The mayor of San Francisco is a political leader, but not really a policy leader. But he’s got a lot of policies that he advocates for, and he’s pretty good at it. And he’s the frontrunner, because he’s been running for years. He’s raised a lot of money in the past. Antonio Villaraigosa was the speaker of the assembly and the mayor of Los Angeles. The mayor of Los Angeles is a more hands-on position than the mayor of San Francisco is. He’s got a big base, and he’s killing Gavin among Latinos in the most recent poll—better than two to one. Gavin’s got a big base around the Bay Area. Antonio’s got a big base around Los Angeles. [State Controller] John Chiang is a policy nerd. He’s so nerdy that it’s hard for him to convey much of a message, I think. [State schools chief] Delaine Eastin isn’t going anywhere … who else is there?

Uh, let’s see, John Cox—

Well, the Republicans don’t have a chance. The real race is between Gavin and Antonio. Gavin is maybe four or five points ahead right now, but it’s early, and I don’t think that means much. The senate race, though, is a slam dunk for Dianne Feinstein. She’s older than the Golden Gate Bridge, but nobody cares in big enough numbers to throw her out.

State Senate Speaker Kevin de Leon, who’s termed out, is running against Feinstein. What challenges does he face?

In order to defeat an incumbent, you have to go negative. It doesn’t mean you have to be nasty or dirty. But you have to be negative, because you have to make the case that the person who has the job should be thrown out of office. How is he going to go negative against Dianne? He’s tried to go negative by being to the left of her, by saying she wasn’t tough enough on Donald Trump. She’s not given full-throated support of single-payer healthcare. But it’s not working. It’s ultimately a failed strategy, because if he attacks her from the left in the [June] primary, now he’s stuck with that position when he gets to the general [election]. Instead of just Democrats and independents voting, you bring in all these Republicans. The bell curve switches from the left to the center. That’s Dianne Feinstein’s main lane.

There’s been talk about Freshman U.S. Senator Kamala Harris as a presidential candidate. What are her credentials, and where does a story like that come from?

She’s well-spoken. She’s attractive. She takes flashy positions. And she’s got a good campaign management and public relations staff around her, and they’ve made her a mentionable. I don’t think it’s a serious possibility. I guess what gives it any credibility at all is that if you look at Barack Obama, he had been a senator for a very short period of time when he ran for president. But I don’t think lightning strikes twice, and I don’t think she’s got the policy chops or the political chops that Barack Obama’s got. But if she gets mentioned in Politico, her name gets thrown out there. Plus, the Democratic bench for president isn’t all that deep right now. There’s no obvious candidate. Somebody will emerge. But people keep talking about Joe Biden coming back in. People keep talking about all kinds of possibilities that probably won’t come to pass.

Warren, Sanders … ?

Elizabeth Warren would a terrible presidential candidate. Senators from Massachusetts have not had the best luck, since John Kennedy, of running for president of the United States.

There was a post on CalBuzz about Newsom and Harris both refusing to talk to you guys. How did you feel about their decision?

I don’t think Gavin Newsom can refuse to be interviewed by the L.A. Times, but he can refuse to be interviewed by CalBuzz. We interviewed all of the candidates for governor, but Newsom’s people won’t let him interview with us. We tried, on a number of occasions, to ask Kamala Harris some tough questions, and we’ve seldom got serious responses. The two of them have the same campaign management people, Ace Smith out of San Francisco. They don’t like Calbuzz. That’s the way the world works. They think we’re too mean. We did straightforward, long interviews with all of the candidates about what people stand for on the issues. They all spent time with us on the phone. Newsom wouldn’t do it, so we questioned whether or not he had the guts to be governor of California.   

Single-payer healthcare—is that ever happening in California?

It’s possible if they can demonstrate that it’s financially feasible. There’s a political narrative, but unless it can be shown to be financially possible, there’s a problem.

Congressmember Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) was always seen as a partisan-averse centrist Democrat. Now all of a sudden, it sounds like he’s the leader of the resistance. Obviously, he ranks high on the House Intelligence Committee, so he’s been vocal about the Russian probe and Donald Trump. But Sacramento Bee hinted he could be a U.S. senator before long. Is there something he’s doing right? Or is he just in the right place at the right time?

It’s a combination of those two things. When he started out, he was very reticent. He wouldn’t say too much. He was very cautious. And as time has gone by, he’s been more outspoken, more direct, more clear. And he comes across as a strong voice for justice, vis-à-vis the Trump administration. He’s done himself a world of good by using his position well.

How have you seen journalism change, and what does the future hold?

There’s been a slow and steady erosion of local reporting. It’s a dispiriting thing. It’s not clear if there’s anyone left to cover city hall and school boards. The press suffers from a chronic inability to cut through and tell the truth. It didn’t use to be that journalists had to be in the truth-telling business. They had to be in the fact-telling business. But in the age of Fox News and the creation of alternate realities, it’s more and more important for journalists to say what’s true and what’s not.




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