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WITH CALIFORNIA HURTLING TOWARD a February 5 presidential primary and a bitter writers’ strike starting to cripple TV programming, the decision by Bill Clinton’s former “masters of disaster,” Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, to join the studio side has infuriated labor leaders, sparked accusations of betrayal — and boosted the likelihood of Washington-style political hijinks.

What’s unclear is whether Fabiani and Lehane can translate the slash-and-burn partisan style they learned inside the Beltway to a company-town battle in Hollywood in which their clients are not horribly flawed Democratic leaders, but wealthy divisions of vast transnational corporations.

Famed as the “masters of disaster” for their spin control during the Clinton scandals of the late 1990s, the pair parlayed their success into high-profile work for Democrats nationwide, including Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

It’s made both men quite rich, and now they’re reeling in $100,000 a month to help the mega-media companies beat back the Writers Guild of America. Some bigtime Democrats are outraged. Andy Stern, powerful chief of the huge Service Employees International Union, flatly tells L.A. Weekly he is out to “blacklist” them from getting paid to oversee labor-affiliated political campaigns and ballot measures in the future. And the nation’s most influential lefty blogger, Markos Moulitsas, of the California-based Daily Kos, calls Fabiani and Lehane liars.

Stern says he and his fellow “Change to Win” union leaders — major unions that broke off from the AFL-CIO a few years ago — are severing ties with Lehane and Fabiani, and he predicts that their days in the labor movement “are numbered.”

Lehane slams Stern publicly over the writers’ strike, conjuring up images of $200,000-per-year writers who hardly need help from organized labor, telling the media, “The real issue here is that Stern needs to do some explaining on how it is that he is fighting for people who make more than doctors and pilots against the interest of real working-class people (“below the line” artists and workers) and spend “less time punching at shadows.”

Lehane’s firm helped roll out filmmaker Michael Moore’s Sicko, a clarion call for national health care beloved by labor leaders, but Lehane has bitterly complained to the San Francisco Chronicle that he earned “zero, nada” from the cash-rich unions — and that everything he did was at cost or pro bono.

Moulitsas daintily refers to Lehane as “that ass Chris Lehane,” who is “working to bust the writers union.” Although Lehane insists he did past labor work “pro bono,” Moulitsas retorts that Lehane’s firm was actually getting over $14,000 per month.

The WGA leadership may or may not be following a politically adroit course in conducting this strike, which was triggered by the studios’ and their corporate owners’ refusal to give writers a cut of new revenues from the Internet downloads of movies and TV episodes and advertising during streaming video of their shows. That money is not big by Hollywood standards — yet — but writers don’t want to be left holding the bag as they were 20 years ago, when they agreed to take a pittance from an untried new technology called the videocassette, and lost millions.

But whatever happens in the writers’ battle for a slice of the pie, the entry of Fabiani and Lehane into the fray is fast becoming an awkward issue in the Democratic presidential campaigns.

All of the top Democratic presidential candidates publicly support the writers. Hillary Clinton, for whom they both worked during the late Clinton administration, has walked the picket line with the writers. Yet Lehane has been working for Clinton locally — recently fighting a plan by Republicans in Sacramento to change California’s presidential vote in the Electoral College.

With Fabiani and Lehane being paid $100,000 a month by the studios, if history is any guide, things are going to get much more negative in Los Angeles — and the strike will increasingly be linked to the approaching presidential primary.

Already, some top labor leaders are reluctant to slam Lehane and Fabiani for joining the studios.

California Labor Federation chief Art Pulaski, for whom Lehane worked recently opposing Schwarzenegger’s proposal to tax businesses and dramatically expand government-supported health care in California, says he’s “not sure” about future campaigns with the duo.

And state Labor Federation communications director Anastasia Ordonez says, “It is a very unclear situation,” noting that, while Labor Federation members are picketing with the striking Hollywood writers, the Writers Guild is not exactly a member of the traditional labor circle, since it’s not affiliated with the California Labor Federation.

Their caution is driven by the fact that presidential politics is about to hit California in a very big way. If Hillary Clinton does end up winning the Democratic presidential nomination — and California will play a key role in that outcome — and if the Clintons maintain their close ties to Lehane and Fabiani, many powerful labor types won’t want to cross the Clintons’ slick-talking PR allies.

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Lehane and Fabiani aren’t the only hired guns for the studios. But the other key PR hire by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers at least makes some political sense — their use of Los Angeles spin doctor Steve Schmidt, a Republican who ran George W. Bush’s war room in 2004 and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign in 2006, and still is a senior adviser to John McCain.

“I’m not too concerned about labor getting real mad at me. It’s not new,” Schmidt says, with a certain wry understatement. He’s also working with the Indian casino tribes who made lucrative deals with the Schwarzenegger administration — tribes that oppose unions that want to organize the burgeoning population of casino hotel and restaurant workers.

Quite a contrast to Fabiani, a politically liberal, prolabor deputy mayor of Los Angeles during Mayor Tom Bradley’s scandal-plagued and sad final term, during which Fabiani developed an expertise for protecting a powerful institution in trouble — the Mayor's Office — against highly critical local media led by the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

Years later, working for Bill Clinton in his final term as president, Fabiani was special counsel on the so-called Whitewater scandal. He and Lehane jumped with relish into the bitter partisan warfare that soured Clinton’s term. And they used blistering fight-fire-with-fire techniques against the Republicans during Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, when they essentially ran Gore’s communications shop.

It didn’t always play well. Lehane, Gore’s press secretary, infuriated some reporters with his cocky and abrasive approach. It’s hard to recall now, in this era of Gore the beloved Nobel Peace Prize winner, but seven years ago, Al Gore got only so-so press running against a Texas conservative named George W. Bush.

CLEARLY, THE BIG MEDIA COMPANIES that own Hollywood’s studios have adopted a markedly harsher and more intimidating tone since hiring Lehane and Fabiani. However, the two have faltered in California in the past, suggesting that their experience as tough-talking media schmoozers in Washington may not play as well outside the Beltway.

In March 2006, for example, film director Rob Reiner, an old Clinton friend, got into an ethics jam over his use of taxpayer funds to buy costly TV ads promoting the state’s Children and Families Commission, which he headed. After the media — myself included — started probing Reiner’s actions, Reiner hired Fabiani but could not quell the negative press. Reiner soon resigned his children’s commission leadership post and went quiet, not appearing politically until the Hillary Clinton campaign was well under way the following year.

Lehane and Fabiani also worked as hired guns for the Screen Actors Guild in 2002. Their mission? To convince SAG members to allow ad agencies to own up to one-fifth of talent agencies — a controversial idea and, critics noted at the time, an inherent conflict of interest. Yet as Lehane spun the deal, it was all about union building: “We believe strongly in the need to preserve the strength of the union and this agreement does that.” SAG members voted the deal down.

The year before that, Governor Gray Davis got in deep trouble over an electric-power crisis in which merchant power generators manipulated a faulty energy-deregulation scheme approved unanimously by the California State Legislature while the California press corps snoozed. Davis dithered as the situation spun out of control, failing to make long-term deals with energy suppliers to lock in power costs, and prices skyrocketed — with many Californians’ monthly utility bills doubling or even tripling.

Davis blamed the power generators for the disaster — and then replaced his departing communications director, the former San Jose Mercury News political editor Phil Trounstine, with slash-and-burn artists Fabiani and Lehane. It was a bizarre move, since the pair already worked for Southern California Edison, the big utility that played a principal role in drafting the faulty deregulation plan, and then sought a big state bailout when prices went haywire.

Linking California’s energy woes to partisan national politics — their favorite game — Lehane and Fabiani tried to blame the crisis on President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

But that effort stumbled, in part because of their ill-advised conflict in working for Edison, as well as their extremely controversial $30,000 monthly pay when they were hired as the governor’s communications directors. Their new posts had each of them earning more money from California taxpayers than from then-Governor Davis.

Lehane later argued that even though he and Fabiani were working for Edison to gain a state bailout even as they both worked for Davis, there was no conflict of interest. “The governor and Edison,” he insisted to me at the time, “have the same energy policy; there’s no conflict in working for both.”

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Davis made clear to me that he was angry at Lehane’s self-serving comment, and soon after that, on a Friday night after the close of business, the governor issued a press release that cut the cord: He named a new interim communications director, bounced Fabiani, cut Lehane’s pay and required both men to stop their work for Edison.

But the controversy continued to rage as outspoken former State Controller Kathleen Connell, the state’s official check writer, who was sharply critical of Davis’ handling of the energy crisis, refused to pay Lehane and Fabiani from the California Treasury. In the end, having lost Edison as a client, the pair agreed not to take any public funds for their pricey work for Davis.

With such a history in California, the Weekly asked Fabiani — by far the least irritating and more gentlemanly of the team — for his take on several issues related to their new, front-and-center role in the writers’ strike.

After a lengthy dance by cell phone and e-mail, Fabiani ultimately declined to answer some straightforward questions: What do they see as the key issues? And, with all the Democratic presidential candidates honoring the strike — which has already caused the cancellation of the December 10 presidential debate in Los Angeles — why would two major Democratic consultants work for opponents of the union? And how seriously do they take the threat of Stern and other labor leaders to retaliate against them?

For their part, the writers have also brought in a pair of Democratic spin doctors — but their PR consultants boast a more extensive local background in California’s political wars. The writers’ spin doctors, Bill Carrick and Kam Kuwata, have guided the career of Senator Dianne Feinstein and have worked for a host of other leading Democrats and ballot measures in California and Los Angeles. They say they’ll help the Writers Guild for as long as it takes.

If the latest Gallup Poll for USA Today is any indication, Carrick and Kuwata have picked the easier job. Some 60 percent of Americans — at least those familiar with the strike — side with the writers over the studios. That’s a significant advantage, since the loser could easily be the side that is blamed — and pressured to back down — as popular shows go dark and the strike moves from the streets of Los Angeles to average Americans’ living rooms.

LA Weekly