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June 21, 2010

Ashton: Brown's getting his licks in — on stamps

Meg Whitman is bound to outspend Jerry Brown in their contest for governor this fall, but the attorney general has a leg up on her in one arena: Publicity as the state's top prosecutor.

Meg Whitman is bound to outspend Jerry Brown in their contest for governor this fall, but the attorney general has a leg up on her in one arena: Publicity as the state's top prosecutor.

He's been making more use of his in-house communications office over the past two years, spreading the word about both the state's pursuit of justice and the guy in charge who happens to be running for governor.

His information shop is staffed with four writers and spokespersons, up from two earlier in Brown's term, A.G. Director of Communications Jim Finefrock said.

Brown's office issued 76 news releases in 2007, his first year on the job. It delivered 100 in 2008.

Last year, the attorney general's office published 136 news releases about such topics as raids, legal opinions and Brown's thoughts on Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy's passing.

Last week, the 76th news release of 2010 from Brown's office crossed my desk. It was a warning about a rise in short-sale frauds.

Finefrock says there's no connection between his work and the campaign.

"Legally, we're prohibited from campaigning," he said. "We do observe the firewall between the attorney general's office and the campaign."

I read him the numbers I listed above. He said they showed the communications staff was doing its job well.

"It's kind of a nice compliment that we're doing our job trying to get the word out," he said.

Indeed, as an editor, I have never complained about having too much information from the attorney general's office. More often we're looking for ways to get past the press shop and find the news you deserve to read in your paper.

But the waves of news releases reflect a perk of incumbency in an election that pits billionaire outsider Whitman against career politician Brown. News about Brown's work in office reinforces his argument to voters that his experience makes him better prepared to lead the state again.

"Brown has the soapbox to disseminate information to the public and the news media," said Stephen Nicholson, a political science professor at the University of California at Merced.

"He can show how he's knowledgeable, certainly in areas that are important to Californians, and also that he's still doing his job while he's campaigning for governor," Nicholson said.

That's a common strategy for many of your elected leaders. State Superintendent Jack O'Connell is known to flood an inbox with news releases, as is Sen. Jeff Denham of Atwater.

Most of Brown's news releases highlight stings, arrests, gang crackdowns and legal opinions -- the stuff you expect from a state justice department.

A few steer into headline-grabbing political fights, like Brown's April 13 decision to expand an investigation in the California State University Stanislaus Foundation over its decision to hire GOP lightning rod Sarah Palin to speak at a fund-raiser without disclosing her fee.

"This is not about Sarah Palin," Brown said in that release.

Uh huh.

Agreed, the foundation should release that number. But it doesn't hurt Brown -- or his own political fortunes -- to appear to target a Republican whom Democrats despise.

"You can often have multiple purposes for what you're doing in getting the word out," said David Frederickson, a visiting professor of communications at the University of the Pacific in Stockton who has worked for the past four Republican presidents.

"You always have to be careful to avoid overt campaigning," he said. "But at the same time, if you have an agenda, and you're out there doing it, accomplishing the things (voters) sent you there to do, you should get the word out."

Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at or 578-2366.

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