Sunday, May 04, 2008

I tag along with some anti-drug people and turn out a sarcastic article

Not quite Jimmy Stewart: Bettencourt goes to Sacramento
By Sam Bhagwat
of The Valley Mirror

Sacramento – Three people drove more than an hour each way to attend this 30-minute meeting, with half a dozen people squeezed and overflowing from a tiny office in the state capitol.

But then, few amateurs enter the political arena for comfort or material perks.

Leaving, the hopes of Jim Bettencourt and two colleagues in his anti-drug organization were mostly intact; their egos perhaps less so.

Mr. Bettencourt starts in a fairly orthodox manner, relating facts, figures and stories in a well-organized proposal.

Eighty percent of teachers have never opened a book meant to help them combat drugs in high school: they don’t have the time.

He’s walked through many a high school without a single anti-drug sign, when it’s been demonstrated that anti-drug messages coming from above do have an impact in reducing usage. In seven and a half years, he’s met only two specifically anti-drug school counselors.

“You can teach kids math, English, social studies, but if they’re drug addicts, what good does it do them?” asks Mike Coyle.

At first, Bill Bird, communications director for state Sen. Sam Aanestad, lets Mr. Bettencourt go on, interrupting sparsely with slowly spoken, sage-like comments. “I do not find the disconnect between the State Board of Education and Alcohol and Drug Services surprising.”

Soon, though, he cuts Mr. Bettencourt off. “Let’s cut to the chase,” he says. “What is your goal? What do you want?”

To create a pilot program and task force to evaluate the efficacy of in-school alcohol and drug counselors, Mr. Bettencourt says.

And then Mr. Bettencourt gets what he was looking for: advice.

“The kind of fix you’re looking for is legislative,” Mr. Bird says. “(State Superintendent of Schools Jack) O’Connell would be very gracious but not act too quickly to get what you want. You’re going to need an assemblyman to introduce a bill on your behalf.”

Mr. Bird goes into the details of what will be necessarily: Get the teachers’ union on the side, so they won’t fight against you. Cut down on the presentation and give a single sheet to the chiefs of staff of Doug LaMalfa and Sam Aanestad.

Then Mr. Bettencourt makes an off-the-cuff comment about donating $20 to campaigns, and Mr. Bird replies strongly, saying that by even talking about the subject he could get into trouble.

He emphasizes this point repeatedly, perhaps because of this reporter’s presence.

He refers to a bill introduced by Sen. Aanestad that would reduce the number of high-speed police chases in order to prevent the deaths of innocent victims, at the prompting of Candy Priano, a victim’s mother.

Candy didn’t give any money, Mr. Bird says – she just gathered support and refused to give up. You’ll have to do that too, he tells Mr. Bettencourt.

Mr. Bettencourt’s perspective is slightly different.

“Man, did you see him recoil at that $20 remark,” he jokes afterwards. “I didn’t think that even mentioning $20 would make a dent in a politician’s ass, knowing the amount of money they take.”

The 2:00 meeting closes soon afterwards, with Mr. Bird announcing he has a 2:30 engagement. Mr. Bettencourt and colleagues take a late lunch, during which they freely interpret and extrapolate Bill’s stance from his remarks and behavior, drawing lessons in an environment in which they have all power and Mr. Bird none.

The group frames the event as a initial victory, though with a long way to go.

“On the phone I bitch-slapped Bill and he knew I wasn’t going to go away,” said Mr. Bettencourt, hypothesizing as to why Mr. Bird agreed to meet in the first place.

“We need to be more forceful,” says Mike Coyle.

“Prior to today, we didn’t have any inclination to draft legislation,” says Mr. Bettencourt. “And to get direction from an aide.…”

“It was a go-away answer. But he told us what we needed to do.”

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