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Kissing Up to Arnold 

A blatant picture of influence peddling in the Governor’s Office

Thursday, Dec 16 2004
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The political reform agenda Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger emphasized in his campaign has waxed and waned, but one thing does seem constant. Top Schwarzenegger political consultant Mike Murphy appears not to have been fazed by an earlier embarrassment involving the appearance of impropriety.

Now, with Team Arnold on the verge of embarking on what is billed as a major reform initiative, avoiding political business as usual would seem to be of paramount concern. However, the Weekly has learned that Murphy’s consulting and lobbying firm, Navigators, makes a regular practice of emblazoning its most famous client’s picture across every page of proposals to potential clients. This practice, however, seems certain to end.

Murphy, who is on a retainer to consult for the governor, was sharply criticized earlier this year for touting his access to Schwarzenegger on his firm’s Web site. Embarrassed, the governor ordered Murphy to put a stop to it.

Well, governor, there’s only one picture of you on that Web site now, but there are 30 pictures of you on a million-dollar lobbying proposal to win passage of one or more liquefied-natural-gas (LNG) terminals in California. That document is very revealing about the campaign to win approval of a controversial new power source for California in 2005, a year in which energy will return as a major issue after several close calls with shortages last summer.

Putting Arnold’s picture on every page of a proposal for a contract to influence California decision makers on an issue on which the governor may well have to make the final call is not an exercise in subtlety. Asked if it was common practice for Murphy to put the governor’s picture all over his lobbying/PR proposals, a Republican associated with the Schwarzenegger circle who doesn’t want to cross the powerful strategist said: "It’s common and it’s shameful. It tells the client, ‘Hire us, we have unique access.’ They don’t have to say a word."

Murphy would not be interviewed. Asked about the practice, Murphy’s partner Todd Harris says: "He [Schwarzenegger] is there simply because he is governor. When we do proposals in Florida, we have photos of Governor Bush." Like Schwarzenegger, Jeb Bush is a Murphy/Navigators client.

California isn’t Florida, and the recall election was fueled in large part by public disdain for business as usual. The heavy-handed use of Schwarzenegger’s picture appears to reflect an ongoing lack of regard for appearances. Murphy is one of the best political consultants in the country and has played critical roles in the elections of Schwarzenegger and several other governors and was a key strategist in reform Republican John McCain’s 2000 presidential run. He comes off as brilliant in the upcoming cable movie See Arnold Run, for which I was consulting producer.

Asked why Schwarzenegger’s image is plastered all over the firm’s proposals to potential big-money clients, Harris, himself a top spokesman for the Schwarzenegger and McCain campaigns, says: "He is a very visible symbol of California, like the Golden Bear and the Golden Gate Bridge." Neither of which are their clients.

Questions left for Schwarzenegger at his office and his house went unanswered, and the governor’s communications director, Rob Stutzman, did not return calls. But a highly placed source in the Governor’s Office predicted that Murphy will no longer use the governor’s image to pitch potential clients.

The Murphy Firm's winning proposal to the California Manufacturers and Technology Association for a $1 million public-relations and lobbying campaign to pave the way for one or more (LNG) terminals in California is a very revealing document about how influence engineering is done. It lays out the plan to sell LNG in California.

LNG is controversial among environmentalists and in communities where an LNG terminal may be sited, for safety reasons and concern that LNG might substitute for renewable energy in the state’s quest for a new energy supply. LNG is natural gas that has been refrigerated into liquid form so that it can be packaged for long-distance shipment in carriers, often ships. The LNG is then unloaded at a special terminal and stored in large tanks until it is re-vaporized and piped into the natural-gas distribution network. LNG is classified as a hazardous liquid, because of its cryogenic properties. As natural gas, it is combustible. A history of several major accidents killed proposals in the 1970s to bring LNG to California. Now advocates say the technology has improved.

Noting that more than 40 percent of the state’s generating capacity is fueled by natural gas — California is more reliant on natural gas than most states, having embraced it in the ’70s and ’80s as the cleanest-burning fossil fuel while renewable technologies had time to mature — and that organized political opposition in the state has dominated the debate over LNG and prevented a single terminal from being built, Murphy called for a strong industry campaign both to build support for LNG and to aggressively confront LNG critics.

LNG opponents have had the best of the argument to date. A proposed LNG terminal in Vallejo was blocked; separate proposals for terminals off of Oxnard and Malibu and in the Port of Long Beach are in trouble.

Pro-LNG forces have insider strength, but in a process requiring approval from local governments and state regulators, and the acquiescence of legislative committees, that’s not enough. So Murphy and company sold their sponsors on a lobbying-and-PR effort "using campaign-style tactics," creating a new coalition to boost support for LNG among state and local officials and the public. "We will make the ‘right’ vote the ‘easy’ vote," vow the consultants. In addition, the new pro-LNG campaign will be designed to "put cross-pressure on liberal and environmental groups" and other opponents.

LNG opponents’ simple and effective messages about safety and the environment are to be countered in equally simple fashion. "There is a critical need for LNG now" with energy supplies in California again growing short. This message is to be pounded home with both an "air war" (through media messages) and a "ground war" (with grassroots organization beyond the big-business community).

Target audiences for the ground war will be "chosen strategically to correspond with the need to influence key regulators and decision makers." (Most regulators are gubernatorial appointees.) The marketing plan will focus on organized labor, business groups, minority organizations, homeowner groups and potential environmental allies.

The pro-LNG coalition "must be bipartisan," insist the consultants, almost all of whom are Republicans, with Murphy’s Navigators firm bringing in as subcontractors a pair of former Pete Wilson operatives, including Wilson’s former chief of opposition research, and two Democrats.

The consultants will educate coalition groups about the connection between "safe, stable and affordable natural gas" and their lives, emphasizing "economics, jobs, energy security and air pollution."

Why bother creating a pro-LNG coalition? "We must change the ‘face’ of LNG for the public. LNG is not just a ‘big energy company.’" (Big energy companies are the ones proposing LNG projects.) "It is local, state and national labor leaders, minority activists, environmentalists, small business owners, etc."

The pro-LNG forces have their first public meeting this week in Sacramento. Joining the California Manufacturers and Technology Association will be the California League of Food Processors, California Retailers Association, California Building Industry Association, Western States Petroleum Association, Agricultural Council of California, Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, American Electronics Association and whichever labor, minority, homeowner groups and stray enviros the consultants have picked up so far to provide grassroots cover. The big symposium will go off in the spring. In between, the consultants will work on coastal governments, legislators contemplating hearings, state energy and environmental regulators who must approve, and the governor, who appoints many of them and is ever mindful of popular opinion.

It may be that LNG has become a worthwhile option for California. Meanwhile, now you know how LNG will be sold to the state and its governor by the folks who have a vested interest in it.

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