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Saturday, Sep 15 2012 10:12 PM

ROBERT PRICE: How to make endorsement sausage

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    Robert Price

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We're at that place on the political calendar that editorial page editors both dread and delight in: candidate interview season. Newspaper editors across the country have been bringing in applicants for city council, U.S. Senate and everything in between, as well as the pro and con sides of consequential ballot initiatives.

That's where we are here at The Californian, and we're barely half finished.

Readers (and first-time candidates) might be interested to know how the process works. Some might imagine an exotic ritual involving snake handling and a star chamber, but it's less complicated than that. Somewhat.

Members of the newspaper's Editorial Board, including the publisher, CEO, executive editor, Opinion page staff and sometimes others, ask guests to state their case and answer some questions. Each meeting takes about an hour. The Opinion staff will do some additional research and then the board will convene, debate a little and vote.

Sometimes we'll put two or three rivals in the same room to see if they can state their cases in the presence of rivals without getting flustered. That setup works well with local candidates, but it can get testy when folks drive down from Sacramento to debate the merits of ballot initiatives. Voices have been raised and fingers pointed. In every case so far, though, it's been the index finger. No one has ever come to blows, but we've shared chilly elevator rides back down to the lobby.

Through the years we've had some memorable moments with candidates in these endorsement meetings. I asked a few editorial board members, past and present, about some of their most memorable interviews.

Dianne Hardisty, my now-retired predecessor, remembers the judicial candidate who had written a controversial Mensa essay that some had interpreted as being sympathetic to Hitler. He would not make eye contact with our African American board member: Whenever she asked a question, the candidate would look at another board member to answer it. He didn't get the endorsement.

Then there was the challenger to Rep. Bill Thomas, the longtime congressman who faced a succession of over-their-head Democrats over the years. One of these hapless fellows walked into the meeting and placed a $100 bill in the middle of the table. Recognizing it as some kind of stunt, no one on the board said a word about the money. It drove the guy crazy. Finally, exasperated, he announced that if anyone could identify a single bill of Thomas' that had been signed into law in the current session, he/she could keep the money. Thomas, in the House minority at the time, knew better than to try. The challenger didn't get the endorsement either.

Tracey Cowenhoven remembers a group of tobacco retailers who came in and lectured the board about the absurdity of a newly proposed tax on cigarettes. As the meeting was wrapping up, someone asked how they'd be voting on another ballot measure. Oh, the men agreed, they didn't vote themselves. They were "conscientious nonvoters" and instead of voting on Election Day, they did nice things for neighbors. No endorsement there either.

Weirdest of all was the candidate for Kern County sheriff who'd been plagued by a series of emailed accusations that he had a love child -- and that he had shunned both the boy and his mother. This was too trailer-trashy to be true, but it was the board's obligation to at least throw it out there so the candidate could remark on how cutthroat local politics had become. So Hardisty asked. There was a long pause and then the candidate said: "I'm not proud of that." And Hardisty shrieked: "You mean it's true? I thought she made it up because you gave her a ticket!" Awk-ward ...

Candidates, be advised that interviews resume this week. Please don't bring cash, your copy of "Mein Kampf" or family photos with some of the faces cut out.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at

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