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The rise of the blogs: How the GOP uses the Web to organize

On November 30, an hour before the governor would introduce his new chief of
staff before a packed press conference, Jon Fleischman’s phone rang.

It was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“It took me about half the call to get my sea legs,” recalls Fleischman,
who served as executive director of the Republican Party from 1999 to 2001,
and is currently the publisher of the FlashReport, one of the state’s
newest, and most influential conservative blogs.

The two spoke for about ten minutes, as Fleischman listened, and then
expressed his concerns about Schwarzenegger’s choice of one-time Democratic
operative Susan Kennedy as his top gubernatorial staffer.

Then, fifteen minutes later, and still thirty minutes before the scheduled
press conference, Fleischman posted an account of the conversation online.
It featured all the governor’s talking points on Kennedy: That she “will be
100 percent on board with his agenda,” had “presence in meetings,” was
“organized” and could “prepare cogent briefings.”

The governor had used the call to beat the news cycle–and to reach out
midday to the thousands of conservative readers that visit Fleischman’s site
daily.

It was one more sign that political blogs–and the FlashReport in
particular–are coming of age in California.

The governor’s office declined to comment on the phone call, citing a policy
of not discussing Schwarzenegger’s private communications.

As for political blogs in general, gubernatorial spokesman Darrell Ng would
only say, “They’re read.”

In the week surrounding the controversial Kennedy appointment, the
FlashReport was certainly central in the media coverage. Besides the
Schwarzenegger phone call, Fleischman, a regular contributor to Capitol
Weekly’s commentary section, was the first to report that an inland
Republican Party vice-chairman would resign in protest of the Kennedy
appointment. A story followed the next day in the Riverside Press
Enterprise.

FlashReport blog contributor and Republican consultant Dan Schnur first
suggested on the site that Schwarzenegger consider running for reelection as
an independent. It was idea repeated in newspapers across the state and,
days later, the subject of a column by Schnur in the Los Angeles Times.

When the Republican party sent out a memo to members on the Kennedy
appointment from the board of directors, “one of the first things we did was
make sure Fleischman had it on his website so it would be distributed to
others as well,” said party spokeswoman Karen Hanretty.

And in a Carla Marinucci story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the
growing conservative unrest about Kennedy, every Republican quoted was
either a contributor to the FlashReport blog, or operated their own
conservative website.

Steve Frank, who was quoted in that Chronicle story and runs a site called
California Political News and Views, says that the web is now integral to
organizing conservatives.

“An activist without the Internet is not an activist,” said Frank, who
e-mails out a weekly newsletter to 200,000 people. “That is the means of
communication.”

Interestingly, both Frank and Fleischman’s Web sites evolved out of e-mail
newsletters produced by one-time political operatives. And the two
now-bloggers worked together in 1991 to protest then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s
embrace of higher taxes to balance the budget during a deep recession.

Outside of the Republican convention that year, an effigy of Wilson was
tarred, feathered and burned as conservative activists rallied to try to
convince the governor to back away from higher taxes.

Frank says trying to organize opposition then and now “is like the Ice Age
versus the Industrial Revolution–1991 to today.”

“One simple click now,” he says, “and 200,000 people get my whole message.”
Republican consultant Wayne Johnson agrees: “Blogs shorten the news cycle.
Things that took a week, take a day. Things that took a day, take an hour.”
But the instant nature of blogs can also make them a haven for
misinformation.

This Tuesday, Fleischman mistakenly posted that the governor had a meeting
scheduled with legislative Democrats. The governor’s office’s phones were
“lighting up” with calls from Democrats demanding to know why they were not
invited to the meeting that was not actually occuring. Schwarzenegger
legislative secretary Richard Costigan personally called Fleischman to
request a correction.

But are blogs really changing the state’s political landscape? Dan Schnur,
who was working for Wilson in 1991, says that blogs “would have accelerated
the response [to Wilson raising taxes], but wouldn’t have substantively
changed it.”

Today, there is an entire network of California political blogs hailing from
right of center, organized as the Bear Flag Republic, of which the
FlashReport is a member. The few counterparts on the Democratic side are
written by professional political operatives and have served as little more
than clearinghouses for press releases, though new sites spring up nearly
daily.

Because of the speed of posting, and the often frank nature of the comments
(which are sometimes more honest, and sometimes more rumor-laden, when made
anonymously), blogs, particularly on the conservative end of the political
spectrum, are an increasingly important tool both for California journalists
and politicians.

“It allows an elected official to take the temperature of the conservative
movement,” said Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, who operates a blog on
his own Web site and is a contributor to the conservative HacknFlak blog,
which is perhaps best known as a source of Capitol rumors.

Dan Weintraub, a columnist for the Sacramento Bee who operates his own blog,
the California Insider, says that, “if you want to get the heartbeat of the
grassroots level, or of professional Republicans in the state, [the
FlashReport] is the best place to look.”

Even those who don’t read blogs, like Senate Republican Leader Dick
Ackerman, R- Fullerton, admit their importance. Looking back to the early
1990s Pete Wilson tax fight, Ackerman says, “If that kind of network had
been set up in 1991, it could have changed the outcome.”

And that is precisely the objective of Fleischman, Frank and others.
“The purpose of my site, and Fleischman’s and others is to send a sign: This
is conservative thought on this issue,” said Frank.

“So when you go to your club meeting, or your central committee, or when you
call the governor or your state senator, here’s what the issue is and here’s
our point of view as conservatives,” he adds.

“All the information you need for an issue is on these blogs.”


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