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Unspun 

Wednesday, Jan 15 1997
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Women and Children First
Unlike Gov. Pete Wilson, Marybeth Wallace, a Noe Valley mother of three schoolchildren (two in S.F. public schools), can't expect front-page play every time she wants to unload her opinions. However, thanks to a unique parent advocacy program that trains ordinary citizens to make their cases to the media, Wallace has been able to score coverage for her concerns on behalf of the city's poor children and families. And not just blurbs in community papers, but major stories -- Page 1, in one instance -- in the dailies, and airtime on the nightly news.

Wallace and the 29 other parents who have gone through the program, which is operated by Coleman Advocates, an S.F. welfare rights group, are the (albeit puny) counterweight to the escalating rhetorical assault against the underprivileged, which Wilson stoked with last week's State of the State scolding of welfare recipients. The governor was worthy of Dickens' Beadle in Oliver Twist.

Coleman Advocates has taken a cue from the corporate and political worlds, where executives learn how to cater to and coddle the press. In partnership with the nonprofit Berkeley Media Studies Group, Coleman is training a selected cadre of committed, paid ($200 a month for sitters and carfare), articulate S.F. parents: Some are welfare recipients, some have children with disabilities who rely on government aid, and some are just plain tired of the new meanness. (The media work is only one facet of their task; they are also pledged to spend at least three hours a week advocating at forums ranging from Board of Supervisors hearings to neighborhood block groups, as well as getting together once a week for 2 1/2 hours to discuss what they've observed.)

They operate in front of the cameras and notepads, as Wallace did when she held a press conference about decayed parks in the city's poor neighborhoods a couple of years ago; and they work, like all good press agents, anonymously, stroking reporters, feeding them easy-to-digest tidbits or visuals, providing instant access to focused, highly quotable real people with real stories.

Wallace, who spent eight years in the PTA, including a stint on the district council, said her new role is much more liberating. As a PTA member, she pointed out, you can't get "down and dirty," because the organization is entwined with the education bureaucracy. "We felt really opened up when [we joined this program]. There isn't really a group that's doing this.

"Sixteen percent of the population of San Francisco is children, which is a very small number for an urban area like this," she explains. That means their voices often get drowned out. "No one else is speaking for kids." (Her own children are 16, 13, and 5.)

Wallace and her colleagues started with a simple issue: The dearth of clean and safe playgrounds. "In the nice neighborhoods, the parks are beautiful. In the poor ones, the parks aren't. The point we wanted to get across is the bureaucracy is such that the maintenance yard workers can choose where they want to go. They'd much rather go to Moscone Park in the Marina" even though a place like "Gilman playground has a file a foot thick of people asking to get the [rec center's] windows replaced. Garfield Park was the same way. It took parents going into Garfield Park and raising hell."

To make that abstract issue news-palatable, they concocted a highly visual prop, a "report card" for the parks, ranking them A through F, complete with a map. Sure enough, "the most glaring thing you noticed was in the poor neighborhoods there were F parks and in the rich neighborhoods A parks."

Their parks story landed on the front page of the Ex. Channel 7 got hooked when Wallace et al. staged a press conference at Dolores Park. Money was restored to the parks budget after the stories aired, but no funding is ongoing.

As Wallace has filled her Rolodex with press contacts, she's become a more sophisticated news consumer. She relies heavily on neighborhood papers such as the Noe Valley Voice and the Independent.

The Chron and the Ex serve as official organs of City Hall, she says, printing "what the big boys are telling you, the gossip." In substance, though, they disappoint her, especially when they write about the schools, the ultimate parent nightmare. "My fear is they are too biased on [Schools Superintendent] Bill Rojas' side." Cautioning that "I want to support the district whenever I can," she argues that "the guy's never been evaluated, and he's just been hired to the year 2000."

Wallace's job, according to Lori Dorfman, co-director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, is "to magnify her voice, taking her private conversation and making it a public conversation, so that everybody can participate, using one of the most important vehicles [the media] where our public conversations take place."

The welfare debate promises to grow more virulent, conducted by soundbite, says Dorfman: "We'll help [people like] Marybeth say what they want to say. Groups like hers are starting to take the media as seriously" as the politicians.

Dorfman points to Mayor Willie Brown's edict that he'd fire any member of his administration who independently spoke to the press. "If Willie Brown is taking the news media that seriously, then certainly anybody who wants to have a public conversation with Willie Brown needs to take it that seriously."

Numbers You Can Trust
You can find amazing details in the 8 1/2 pounds of paper that comprise Gov. Wilson's budget and its addenda. (Yes, we weighed them.) For example, the state expects to appropriate $192,000 to the Wine Safety Fund in the upcoming fiscal year, and last year, it spent $80,000 for "unanticipated costs related to rewriting of new questions for the 1996 California Acupuncture Licensing Exam."

But good luck, as California embarks on a major overhaul of the welfare system, if your curiosity runs to more basic questions. Don't bother asking how many job-training slots the governor plans to fund for the roughly 700,000 adult welfare recipients who will be required to leave the rolls in the next two years and find full-time employment. (The existing program can accommodate only 21 percent of those who are eligible.) Also conspicuously absent from the official budget are figures on state support for child-care services for the million or so kids whose single parents will be out pounding the pavement or working the swing shift at minimum wage.

For information like that, reporters who prefer policy discussion based on fact rather than anecdote are turning increasingly this year to a small, nonpartisan research group known as the California Budget Project. Based in Sacramento and headed by former Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee staffer Jean Ross, it is one of 12 such groups that the Ford Foundation helped establish two years ago to begin monitoring budget activities in states across the country. Although privately funded budget-watching is a regular cottage industry in Washington, D.C., it is virtually nonexistent even in large states such as California or Texas. When Ross set up shop in her spare bedroom in 1995, the only other group even attempting sophisticated and timely state budget analysis was the California Taxpayers Association, whose lobbying activities on behalf of business tax cuts tend to color otherwise useful research.

Ross and her four-member staff, who now operate with a $330,000-a-year budget out of an office a few blocks from the Capitol, continue to receive funding from the Ford Foundation as well as grants from the James Irvine and Annie E. Casey foundations. They do no lobbying, but clearly approach the state budget from the more liberal side of the spectrum, especially on tax issues. (Among the traditional health and welfare crowd, though, Ross' group is regarded as suspiciously centrist, which may explain why reporters feel comfortable using the data.) The Budget Project publishes a bimonthly newsletter as well as periodic reports on fiscal policy issues, all of which are also available on the Net (www.cpb.org). But it is on deadline where Ross and her researchers can mean the difference between useful information and simply rewriting press releases from the administration and ax-grinding interest groups.

"We see our job as trying to make the budget intelligible, to translate the overly obfuscated," she says. So, about those job-training and child-care numbers? "You're right," Ross says, "you won't find them in the budget. We can get you job training, but child care is a mess to figure out because it's run from two different departments under multiple programs. If you're lucky, it will take us a couple of hours; if you're not lucky, it could be a couple of days. When's your deadline?"

Phyllis Orrick and Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail: porrick@sfweekly.com.

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Phyllis Orrick

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