Jeff Pearlman

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Martin Wisckol

#351
The longtime Orange County Register politics editor says he sizes up office holders based upon "veracity, diplomacy, dignity, consistency, intelligence, thoughtfulness, respectfulness, open mindedness and congeniality." Sooooo ... who does that even leave to write about? POSTED March 15, 2018

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If you live in California’s Orange County, and you follow local and/or national politics with even a passing interest, odds are you know the work of Martin Wisckol.

Why? Two reasons. 1. He’s been covering the game forever for the Orange County Register. 2. He’s ridiculously productive and equally good. Martin’s reporting is dogged, and his writing his precise. He seems to have a unique understanding of both politics and the men and women dumb enough to seek office. Although his paper is often accused of leaning right (the editorial page certainly sympathizes Republican), I’ve never heard anyone disparage Martin’s work. It’s that good.

Regrettably, it’s also coming to an end. I learned earlier this week that Martin is now the Register’s coastal environment reporter—which (to be honest) bums me out. Honestly, I’ve learned more about Orange County Democrats and Republicans from Martin’s writing than anyone else on the scene.

Anyhow, today Martin steps up as Quaz 351—and it’s a terrific one. He talks Trump-Hillary, Crazy Dana Rohrabacher, the sanity of the newspaper writer and why the genre will likely survive. One can follow Martin on Twitter here, or visit his Facebook page here.

Martin Wisckol, you are the big 3-5-1.

JEFF PEARLMAN: Martin, until this week you were the politics editor at the Orange County Register, which seems like a really fascinating gig when geography is considered. In other words, you’re in a strong red zone that’s suddenly oozing purple. And I wonder, do you see Orange County as a future Democratic hotbed? Was 2016 just an aberration, what with Trump running? Both? Neither?

MARTIN WISCKOL: There was a Democratic surge at the top of the ticket in 2016, when Hillary Clinton became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the county since FDR in 1936 (Roosevelt won all but eight electoral votes nationwide, a record).

But there is an underlying trend that is a more important signal of where things are likely headed in OC, as I’ve detailed in numerous stories.

Republicans’ advantage in the county’s voter registration peaked in 1990 at 22 percentage points. By 2010, it was half that and shrinking fast. By the 2016 general election, it was 3.8 points. It’s now 3.3 points.

While Democrats may not surpass Republicans in voter registration in 2018, it appears to be only a matter of time until they do. Several reasons why:

Latinos are 34 percent of the county’s population and 18 percent of its registered voters, with their electoral growth trend expected to continue as more become citizens and more reach voting age. Of those Latino voters, 53 percent are Democrats, 21 percent are Republicans and 26 percent are independents or third party members, according to a 2016 Political Data Inc. analysis.

In 2002, county voters under 35 were 42 percent Republican and 29 percent Democrat. By 2016, voters under 35 were 36 percent Democrat and 26 percent Republican, with the rest independent or third party.

Republicans have the biggest advantage among older voters, which is not a growth demographic. Additionally, among women, county Democrats now have a slight advantage in registration.

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J.P.: I’ve mainly covered athletes, and they tend to be narcissistic, arrogant, dismissive. I mean, those are generalizations, but with a lot of truth. You’ve mainly covered politicians. So … who are they?

M.W.: Certainly there’s some shared ground, although it’s more important for politicians to not display those characteristics since it has more of a bearing on whether they get the job.

Qualities I often use in sizing up politicians are veracity, diplomacy, dignity, consistency, intelligence, thoughtfulness, respectfulness, open mindedness and congeniality. When somebody takes a position that seems inconsistent, how sincere and logical do they sound about their change of heart?

Politicians often act like righteous idealists yet almost all will compromise, for reasons good and bad. That’s the nature of politics. The best ones are the most convincing. There’s the old joke: The secret of politics is sincerity. When you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

There are politicians on both sides of the aisle whom I largely trust and whose company I enjoy. There are others are less pleasant. That doesn’t mean those I largely trust and like aren’t just better at hiding their flaws and unlikeable traits while projecting sincerity.

J.P.: I have a friend who works in political media, and he never seems particularly upset about Donald Trump—or any political figure. I mean, he knows Trump is crazy and sucky. But he seems oddly chill about it. I, meanwhile, lose my shit every other day. How about you? Do you think, in covering politics, that proximity somewhat results in less alarm?

M.W.: I think I nurture a healthy appetite for outrage and I think that’s important for the job. Hypocrisy, cheating, lying, stealing – there are certain things that society overwhelmingly agrees are wrong and should be exposed.

On the other hand, I’m a professional and my job is to leave my personal biases at the door – and those I can’t leave at the door, be aware of them so I can be careful they don’t imbalance the stories I write. This is not something new – this is not something I’m saying because Trump is president. I’m speaking in generic terms.

I am digesting this stuff — talking to people about it, researching it, putting it into story form – all day, every day, for more than 30 years now. I think I’m learning how to be efficient with my emotions and not allow them to distract from the task at hand or unnecessarily sap my energy.

Look, Trump won the presidency and despite his poll numbers, he’s got a lot of followers. If 40 percent of people thought I was a great writer, I’d be next to you on the New York Times bestseller’s list. My job is to understand what’s going on and relay that understanding in stories that readers find helpful to their world views, activism and political decision making.

J.P.: You work for a newspaper with a sinking circulation and a cloudy future. So, I’ll ask, how does the Orange County Register survive? What does it look like five years from now?

M.W.: Let’s be clear that most newspapers are in the same boat.

I have cocktail conversations about what this paper or that paper should be doing to thrive. There are plenty of opinions in the newsroom, some of which contradict each other. The bottom line is that papers need to maintain or increase readership and revenue stream as they transition to digital.

If I knew everything required to do that, I’d be talking to you from my Fijian beach house. But I know one essential component: Good journalism. The Register has some very talented reporters who consistently produce top-shelf, groundbreaking work on a range of issues, including homelessness, carelessness and malfeasance in the criminal justice system, immigration, drug rehab scams and, if I may say so, politics. This is the heart of newspaper work – whether or not there is a print product – and the heart of the Register is strong and healthy. Let’s hope the other organs can keep up.

J.P.: Just read your bio—which includes the sentence, “Wisckol started his career writing about surfing and jazz.” Um … what?

M.W.: Most my life I’ve been an avid surfer and jazz fan, and still am. As I discovered a facility to write, I started sending stories to the magazines I read – surfing and music publications. Incredibly, many of them were purchased. As time went on, I became attracted to writing hard news – not too many people make a living exclusively from performing jazz, let alone writing about those who perform it – and that evolved into a focus on politics.

I still write about jazz from time to time. I reviewed the Playboy Jazz Festival again in 2017, for instance. How cool to see John Scofield, Jack DeJohnette and John Medeski in the same band! In box seats and get paid for it!

J.P.: Back in the mid-1990s you were a writer in the Sun-Sentinel’s Miami Bureau. I checked your old bylines—and fuck. You were all over the place: Corrupt politicians, drug busts, swearing ins, murders. So what was that experience like? And what was the craziest thing you encountered?

M.W.: Unbelievable news town. A Caribbean Latino city that didn’t seem to run by the rules of U.S. cities. Just when you thought nothing stranger could happen, your beeper went off, you made a call and … oh my fucking god, let’s go.

I was on the press stakeout of the houseboat where Gianni Versace’s killer committed suicide – I lived three blocks from Versace’s beachfront mansion in South Beach. And there was a lot of insane political stuff. But my favorite story while I was there – I don’t think I even worked on it – was when a Brinks trucked crashed on an overpass and spilled $3.7 million dollars on Overtown, the poorest neighborhood in the city. It was raining money. I think they recovered $20,000. Magic realism.

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J.P.: As you know, I’m very involved in the local political scene—and I’m hard-core left. And many people I know hate the Register, because they view it as this hard-right propaganda affiliate. I say that with no disrespect. It’s not my take. But I wonder, do they have an argument? Is it based on anything you’ve scene? And is it possible to be a completely objective political reporter?

M.W.: I think it’s mostly an unfortunate misperception by people who’ve never read the paper regularly – or at least not in the past 30 years.

Until 40 years ago or so, the libertarian agenda of the owners regularly spilled into the news pages, but those days are long gone and the paper’s won a ton of major awards since — including three Pulitzers.

The op-ed pages have continued to promote a libertarian-flavored conservatism, but that’s one or two pages in the paper. There’s a firewall between the newsroom and the op-ed pages, and in my 20 years at the paper I’ve never sensed pressure from the publisher  to tilt a news story. However, the op-ed pages may contribute the characterization you describe.

Additionally, you have to consider how most daily newspapers work. They serve their regional audience. The Orange County Register, for instance, writes about surfing and the Des Moines Register doesn’t.

When I arrived at the paper in 1998, Republicans had about a 16-point advantage in voter registration and dominated the political landscape. It still called itself “America’s Most Republican County.” There were often more interesting and significant battles within the GOP than between red and blue. There was a lot more Republican activism, representation and visiting dignitaries. So naturally, I was writing more about Republicans than Democrats.

But no one has so thoroughly and consistently documented the county’s political shift – and the reasons for it – than I have. Not to brag really – the lead politics reporter of the county’s biggest news source should be doing that. And this past year, with all the congressional challenges and the resistance movement, I suspect I’ve written more about the left than the right. The action has been steadily shifting from right to left.

I get grief consistently from both sides of the aisle. Neither party is immune to the blame-the-press virus.

Also, if you and I agree that the Register is a filthy, right-wing propaganda tool, it gives us something to bond over – even if I’ve never read it. And since that helped me bond with you, maybe it’ll help me bond with other lefties so why don’t I start trashing it when I’m around other lefties?

J.P.: I feel like every journalist has a money story from his/her career. What’s yours?

M.W.: There are many stories I’m proud of and which have made a difference in the world around us in tangible ways. But the one that made me feel I had arrived, that I was a journalist with a future was a seven-part series I wrote with another reporter in 1991 for the now-defunct Times-Advocate in Escondido. My editor was Logan Jenkins. You might know his son, Lee, a star sportswriter at that magazine you used to work at. His dad, now a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, was a great editor. I wouldn’t be the journalist I am today without him.

We spent four months hanging out on a predominantly Latino block in Escondido, Grape Street – La Calle Grape, as the residents called it and as we called our series. There were people immigrated in the 1950s and there were people who arrived the day before. There were nice, typically suburban homes and there were overcrowded apartments. People with businesses and people struggling to eat. There was a birth, a death and a quinceanera while we were they. These people became our friends – we played volleyball with them and ate and drank and went to their events with them. We broke the story in seven basic themes: Home, language, school, work, crime, religion and leisure.

The ill-feeling a lot of whites had toward Latinos was strong. There was a deep division, probably deeper than we see now because there are a lot more Latinos now and most people I know have Latino friends. I think our series, which won a bunch of awards, exposed a humanity that everybody could relate to. For whites, it offered a better understanding of who these people were. For Latinos, it allowed the the opportunity to see themselves, mostly, portrayed as decent, hard-working people trying to do right by their families – at a time when they usually made the news only if they were involved in a crime.

I can’t find the series online any more, but Logan Jenkins talks about it in this column.

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J.P.: I’m not asking whether you like or dislike him. But, as a political insider, I ask—how do you explain Donald Trump’s appeal? When I look, I see this gross lifelong conman who has never shown a moment’s empathy or compassion. Truly, I can’t think of a public figure I’ve more loathed. And yet, a solid 35 percent of this nation backs him. What am I missing?

M.W.: As qualified as Hillary Clinton may have been on paper, she was not a charismatic candidate who projected trustworthiness. It didn’t help that people distrusted her within her own party, that there were signs that the Democratic establishment gave her advantages not shared with Bernie Sanders.

The American Empire is declining and a lot of white people are feeling the pain. There are jobs losses, stagnant wages and the perception — partially based in fact — that special opportunities are given to ethnic minorities and immigrants.

All the politicians running for the GOP nomination – voters saw them as more of the same. That’s why they nominated Trump, despite establishment Republicans’ misgivings. Then you put him up against Hillary Clinton and it was change versus status quo.

So now you have a guy who says things that aren’t true, who insults our allies and overlooks the human-rights abuses of some enemies, who makes petty personal attacks and says things that many find racist and misogynistic. Significant portions of the population don’t seem to be terribly bothered by these things. At least it’s not politics as usual?

If the economy goes south, I think you’ll see those polling numbers worsen. There’s often a correlation between the economy and the president’s popularity. But right now, the stock market is doing well and unemployment has bottomed out. And a lot of people are going to have fewer taxes taken from their next paycheck.

I’m reading a book called, “The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others.” It begins with a good example of Trump’s appeal and goes on to explore why other factors often trump data in our decision-making process. There’s a bottomless well of psychology and sociology to explain Trump’s appeal. Whether or not you like Trump, he’s a fascinating phenomenon to examine.

J.P.: My local congressman is Dana Rohrabacher. And, even though I’m not a fan, I don’t ask this looking for you to share any of my takes. So … what has he been like to cover? What’s he like as a subject? As a guy?

M.W.: Until not too long ago, the Register had a D.C. bureau, so my interactions with the iconoclastic congressman had been pretty sporadic until 2016. A lot of his views and statements were for years dismissed as “Dana being Dana.” But the Russia stuff has helped change that – people taking a closer look, especially Democrats who realize that after 29 years in office that he might be vulnerable.

He can sometimes be surprisingly easy to get on the phone. While House members like Ed Royce and Mimi Walters seem to prefer emailing statements on the question du jour, I’ll sometimes get Dana calling me directly. The best that way is Rep. Lou Correa – I can almost always get him on the phone on short notice. I really appreciate his accessibility. Rep. Alan Lowenthal is also reasonably accessible by phone.

Royce and Walters can be very measured and careful in their prepared statements and when I speak to them. Within that context, Dana’s candidness can be refreshing. He also seems to give his press secretary the longest leash to speak on the record on his behalf, among OC representatives.

Dana seems to operate in Washington as something of a lone wolf. He’s not part of the power structure the way Royce and Walters are. Despite being the longest serving California Republican currently in the House, he’s never held a committee chairmanship. He also gets less PAC and special interest money than most Republicans. While he’s the only OC House member to have somewhat defended Trump’s lewd Access Hollywood comments, he’s also voted from Trump-backed bills fewer times than any other Southern California Republican, according to fivethirtyeight.com.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MARTIN WISCKOL:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Lil Pump, teriyaki chicken, “Silence of the Lambs,” Tony Romo, suitcases, the number 27, London Breed, Staten Island, Birmingham Stallions: Suitcases, Staten Island, 27, “Silence of the Lambs,” teriyaki chicken, Lil Pump, Tony Romo, London Breed, Birmingham Stallions.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No.

• Five all-time favorite Milwaukee Brewer outfielders: Hit me when you want to talk Tigers.

• The world needs to know—what went on at those Florida Press Club shindigs?: There is a tale unfit for public consumption, but what I can say is they misspelled my name on an award plaque. Robs a bit of the glamour from the honor but a good check on how serious you take yourself.

• How likely is it for Jerry Brown to run for president in 2020?: Paddy Power will give you 66/1 if he wins the nomination.

• Did William Miller and Penny Lane wind up marrying?: I thought he married Nancy Wilson.

• How often do you think to yourself, “Taylor Swift’s outfit—totally loving it!”?: Umm … the shorts aren’t really working for me.

This is one of my all-time favorite TV news moments. Do you find it more funny, embarrassing or disgusting?: That’s funny.

• What’s your all-time favorite movie?: If we forego popular choices “Casablanca,” “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Chinatown,” it comes down to “Pandora’s Box” or “Naked Lunch.”

• In exactly 14 words, make an argument for Diet Dr. Pepper: There are times when Diet Dr. Pepper will do just fine, like this one.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life