Sunday, February 03, 2008

The governor and I

Life is full of rules and covering an elected official is an exercise fraught with conditions.

Allow me to explain.

This past week Governor Patrick was in the area for two days. I like the guy. I voted for him. One of the reasons he was attractive as a candidate was his grassroots campaign and style.

Of course now as governor he adheres to all of the standard conditions of his office – a press team that controls access and information, plain clothes state troopers as escorts, and often times the avoidance to engage in some of what I see as the real issues.

First stop this week for the governor was his newly opened Western Massachusetts office in Springfield. The media – me, the AP, the daily, a public radio station and two of the three TV stations – were waiting. The governor was on time but was literally whisked in past us. The time was about 3:10 p.m.

The press aide – whom I know and admire as she does her job very well – came out and said the governor wanted to get some work done, but he was willing to meet us briefly for some questions.

The casino issue, the struggle with House Speaker DiMasi and budget issues are all hot buttons right now. All the reporters were armed for bear.

Well, the press aide said the governor would only entertain questions about he new regional office. Any other questions would have to be asked at his next stop, a campaign stump for Senator Barack Obama.

Everyone looked as if they had been kicked in the groin. With deadline and expectations of editors looming over their shoulders the ideal scenario was to get what you needed then and skip the Obama thing.

The TV folks were going to cover Obama event and the daily was going to send a reporter – a different one – as well, but these restrictions are frustrating.

We all trooped into the office about 3:30 p.m. and a couple of people dutifully asked questions about the office. The whole thing lasted 10 minutes at the most.

It was a non-event news-wise but is a classic example of control. The governor is the boss. We are not.

The next stop was at American International College from 5 to 6 p.m. So I hauled myself over there. The governor was there to pump up volunteers and make a couple of phone calls on behalf of the presidential candidate.

People genuinely like him and he had a hard time getting to the men’s room as people kept stopping him to shake his hand and speak with him. A state trooper checked the men’s room ahead of him and stood in front of the door as a beacon to the governor where it was.

The press pool then had an availability – three TV reporters, one radio reporter, one from the daily, me, and two college students from AIC.

I hate press conferences in which every reporter is trying to ask a question and speaks over another. My tactic is to be in front to establish eye contact and if I’m going to ask a question, try to be first. I succeeded this time by talking over my colleagues and explaining to the governor if I wasn’t first these TV guys wouldn’t let me talk. That got a laugh from everyone. Humor is very important.

I asked about the casino issue. The presidential contest isn’t as interesting to me. I knew I wasn’t going to get a follow-up question, so I just stood there and listened.

Next up was a political fund-raiser for a local state representative and the governor was going to be there. It started at 6 p.m. at the Basketball Hall of Fame. The rep is a bit controversial with opponents to same sex marriage and there were about 40 protesters out on the sidewalk. I got some quotes and a photo and went inside.

I wore my press pass around my neck and that insures one of two reactions: either people get away from me because I’m a reporter or they come up to say something nice. I got both that evening.

I was the only member of the local press to cover that event. It was significant as it was an exhibition of political power for the support of a freshman rep. This guy has made some very powerful friends. The reporter from the daily paper had told me they were passing up the rally and the TV people apparently didn’t want to use their resources either.

The governor didn’t arrive until after 7 p.m. I imagine he was brought somewhere to get a bite to eat and to sit a moment. I had to stay long enough to get a quote from him about the state rep.

Although I would have preferred to speak with him prior to his speech, I couldn’t as the crowd crushed him. Someone asked me if I was going to wade in and I said, “No.” That’s not fair to the people who’ve paid a minimum of $100 to be there and might cause some ill will towards the newspaper and me. The quote in the speech would suffice and it did.

To recap: I’ve spent a good chunk of my day chasing the governor and I have two solid quotes to be used in two separate stories. I think of it as panning for gold. Sometimes you hit a nugget and sometimes there’s juts a lot of sand.

The next day I attended the governor’s tour of a school in Chicopee that received a state grant to operate on a longer day. We were not allowed to interact with the governor until the press conference that had enough time for him to make a short speech and just three questions. Not every reporter had the chance to ask a question.

For those who are interested this is a slice of the kind of the professional life I lead as a editor and reporter.

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs