by Rebecca Fairley Raney
 
 
 

Winning, as an alternative to starving

I won a lot of awards for my work in 1989, but I had a lot of trouble paying the bills, too.

That year, I worked as a general assignment reporter for a small newspaper east of Los Angeles. I was 23 years old, two years out of school and really hitting my stride. Every week, we had shootings, plane crashes and some kind of political cataclysm. As twisted as it may sound, it was a reporter's paradise.

But it got to be really tough, too. After taxes, I made just a little more than $1,000 per month. My rent was $550. I had student loans, and I had to keep my grocery bill to less than $1.50 per day. Car trouble, for me, could be a career-ending crisis.

Even so, that year, in a contest among local newspapers, I took more first-place awards than any other reporter in the region. I guess when you're broke, all you can afford to do is go to work. Excerpts from those stories are below. They all won awards in 1990 from the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

It was funny; the Friday before the awards banquet, the acting city editor at the paper, who clearly had been told the outcome of the contest, told me that I really, really should go to the banquet.

But the banquet cost something like $15 or $20. The editor said he would give me the money. I said no. He said he would lend it to me. I said no to that, too. I honestly felt that if I had failed to produce enough income to attend the banquet, then I did not deserve to go.

I wasn't really being pigheaded; it's just that when you're living on so little money, you have to believe, on some level, that you deserve it, or you cannot continue to live that way.

Of course, I didn't have to live that way much longer. The Monday after the banquet, I got a call at the office. It was the managing editor of the competing newspaper in San Bernardino.

Within two weeks, the editors for the competition had offered me a job with a 50 percent raise. It came at the right time; I had absolutely reached the limit of my tolerance for living in that kind of hardship, and I wasn't sure I could stick with a career that exacted such a high price.

But in the end, what mattered most was that I had some great experiences with these stories.

Doctors gave up but baby's parents didn't

Fragile newborn responds to love

What it won: First place, medical writing, Society of Professional Journalists, Inland Empire chapter.

The Daily Report, 1989

(EXCERPT)

When Elizabeth Bass was born, she was as small as a grapefruit. She had no lungs. Her eyelids were fused shut, and her transparent layer of skin broke and bled when people touched her. She was a tiny red creature riddled with needles.

For doctors, the prognosis was simple: Elizabeth was going to die.

But dying was the first thing in Elizabeth's life that her parents would not allow her to do.

"Two or three days after she was born, I looked at her and I fell in love. But I thought, 'My God, how can she live?' " said Cathie Bass, her 25-year-old mother. "They all told us she just shouldn't live."

In May, shortly after her first birthday, Elizabeth went home from the hospital. To her parents, who live in Upland, the homecoming is a victory. If Elizabeth can leave the hospital, they say, Elizabeth can live.

The doctors had not exaggerated about Elizabeth's chances; most babies do die when they are born less than six months into pregnancy.

It will always be a mystery to Cathie why she went into labor so early in a problem-free pregnancy. But how Elizabeth survived is no mystery to Cathie or to Ron, her 29-year-old husband.

"I believe that Cathie kept her alive," Ron said.

Cathie never missed a night at the hospital. For the first few months, she drove to Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena every night. When Elizabeth was moved, the nightly trips were to Children's Hospital of Orange County. Cathie put 20,000 miles on her car in six months.

While doctors were preparing Cathie for death, Cathie was preparing Elizabeth for life.

"I would talk to Elizabeth all the time," Cathie said, "and I would tell her to be strong. When the doctors would tell me she was getting sick, I would tell her to fix it.

" ' Fix it,' " she would say. " 'If you're getting sick, fix it.' And I always thanked her. 'Thank you, Elizabeth.' "

(CUT)

They saw other parents, one by one, tell their children it was OK to die if they wanted to. Those children always died. Cathie would not permit that thought to enter her mind for fear it would be communicated to Elizabeth.

But now, Elizabeth can eat and breathe by herself. For the first time, she doesn't need a sedative to go to sleep.

(CUT)

The family has hired a 24-hour nursing service. Every week, a truck delivers medical supplies to their house the way Sparkletts trucks deliver water to other families.

Elizabeth's medical bills have amounted to more than $1.5 million during the last year. The family's medical insurance covers 80 percent, but this month, Cathie said, three bills were accompanied by collection notices.

Yet Cathie and Ron talk about the bills with an air of irrelevance.

When Elizabeth was born, doctors said that if she lived, the best they could hope for would be a drain-damaged child. Yet there is no evidence Elizabeth is brain-damaged. Cathie said she will be a slow learner, but she will catch up with other children by the age of 2.

(CUT)

In a few years, Elizabeth may be just another child with asthma, and Ron and Cathie are confident they can take care of an asthmatic child. What they want, more than anything, is a normal life. They dream about being able to yell at the kids in the back yard -- all three of the kids. They want Elizabeth to be just another kid in the neighborhood.

Their dream, for someday, is to say, "NO, Elizabeth! Don't you do that!"

(END)

Recall epidemic strikes valley cities

What it won: First place, political writing, Society of Professional Journalists, Inland Empire chapter

The Daily Report, 1989

(EXCERPT)

There's an epidemic in the valley, an epidemic called recall.

First it hit Upland, with residents up in arms over the City Council approval of a subdivision.

Then it moved east to Rancho Cucamonga, where people are upset over the firing of a city manager.

Now it's incubating in Pomona, where residents also are enraged over a city manager's dismissal.

For the angry groups in all these cities, the reaction was the same: Recall the council members.

But is recall an effective way to practice democracy?

George Blair, professor of government at the Claremont Graduate School, compares recall to the pioneer's shotgun over the front door.

"We don't want to use it," he said, "but if the Indians come, there it is."

Blair, who specializes in the study of state and local government, said that while recall is a safeguard against politicians who misuse office, it also can be a weapon abused by the public.

The professor said he believes recall elections in Southern California are legitimate about 60 percent of the time. They are most likely to be misused, he said, against school boards on issues such as the closing of a school or sex education.

It's a matter, he said, of the legitimate vs. the spiteful.

"I am supportive of direct democracy," he said.

However, he added, "people can be jerks, and this is one way of expressing that."

Since 1913, there have been 70 recall filings against state officials. Of those, only three filings have qualified for the ballot and two have succeeded. The last successful effort was in 1914, when Democratic state Sen. Edwin E. Grant was recalled, according to records from Secretary of State March Fong Eu's office.

Local statistics on recall filings are unavailable because no single government agency tracks them.

Yet it's clear that local recalls are proliferating.

Blair blames that proliferation on a change in how local politics are practiced.

"Single-issue politics have replaced the old thing in which you select somebody and then he serves the community and then you judge him," Blair said. "A councilman doesn't really have a constituency base any more -- one citizen comes in for the stoplight; another comes in for pornography."

(CUT)

Recall, in concept, is supported even by elected officials who have been the target of it.

Upland City Councilman Thomas McGilloway, who was unsuccessfully targeted earlier this year, sees the process as a natural reaction by dissatisfied people who see no alternative.

"First of all, people are dissatisfied with their quality of life -- the traffic, the pollution, the smog, the hazardous waste," he said. "This is not their idea of the American Dream. When they seek redress, the people they seek first is the City Council. They're the most visible, the most accessible."

(CUT)

Claremont professor Blair said recall's worst effect on government is that it discourages elected officials from taking stands on controversial issues.

Nolan, McGilloway and Rancho Cucamonga City Councilman Chuck Buquet all said they have seen this effect on their councils.

But Rancho Cucamonga City Councilwoman Deborah Brown, who is currently a target of recall, disagrees.

"If you're going to sit around and feel sorry for yourself, you didn't belong there in the first place," she said.

Yet Brown agreed with another point made by Blair -- that recalls make elected officials less likely to seek additional terms in office.

She said she would be reluctant to run for office again if she thought she would have to confront a similar recall effort because of "the harassment, the attacks on my family." During the recall, she found on the handle of her garage door a cartoon depicting three nooses hanging from a tree.

"It's certainly toughened me up," Brown said. "Being accosted at every council meeting since December takes a toll on your family."

(CUT)

A force to reckon with

What it won: First place, story on a minority, Society of Professional Journalists, Inland Empire chapter

The Daily Report, Feb. 12, 1989

(EXCERPT)

The open door.

It's an image used by politicians to describe their openness to the interests of minorities.

It's an image recognized by minorities as the symbol of a patronizing, condescending attitude.

Between the two perceptions, it's clear that the door is ajar.

But however that door swings -- whether it blows off the hinges, creaks open slowly or simply slams shut -- it will take place over the next decade, a time in which the current minorities in California will become the majority.

Census figures from 1980 showed that in Los Angeles County, 40 percent of the population was white and non-Hispanic. Sixty percent of the total population came from minority groups.

In San Bernardino County, 36 percent of the population belonged to minority groups in 1980. Chances are, the 1990 Census will show a much higher percentage of minorities.

Yet the growing minority population has produced few elected officials in proportion to its numbers. Locally, there are two Hispanics among 50 council members in 10 cities. All the rest are Caucasian and non-Hispanic.

Even so, both politicians and representatives of minority groups agree that when it comes to representation, color doesn't count. They say it doesn't take a minority to represent a minority.

"I've had Hispanics tell me, 'You can't empathize with our community,' " said Rep. George E. Brown Jr., D-Riverside. "Well, that's horse . . . ."

Many minorities agree.

"You don't have to be a horse to know that a horse likes oats," said the Rev. Walter Cooks Jr., president of the Pomona branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

(CUT)

Sidebar: From rags to state capital

The streets he walked as a child were full of signs that said "White Trade Only."

His education started in a school for Hispanic children, a segregated barrio school where the children spoke no English and the teachers no Spanish.

Now, he's a state senator.

Yet after 33 years in politics, Ruben Ayala still speaks of his accomplishments with a tinge of surprise.

"I never dreamed I would go back some day and sit on the school board," says Ayala, a Democrat who represents people from Pomona to Rialto in the state Senate.

But in a political career that went from school board to city council to county supervisor to state senator, the area's ranking Hispanic politician says his success has come from running for office as an American, not as a Mexican-American.

(CUT)

Ayala is unquestionably viewed as a role model. Two parks, a street and a high school have been named after him.

But despite his achievements, Ruben Ayala has evoked criticism from some members of the Hispanic community.

"They say, 'Hey, why aren't you up there waving the Mexican flag?' Well, 85 percent of my constituents are not Hispanic," Ayala said. "I love my Mexican heritage, but I don't wear it on my shirtsleeves."

The senator finds himself at odds philosophically with people he refers to as "militant activists." But he believes he is doing more to help Hispanics than most activists.

Ayala remembers a time during the Vietnam War when Hispanics were outraged because more minorities were being drafted than non-minorities.

A group of activists led rioters through East Los Angeles, burning buildings and attacking people as they marched. At least one person was killed.

Ayala, who was then chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, called up a Superior Court judge he knew and convinced him to put two Hispanics on the draft board.

As a result, the board started drafting a proportionate number of men from all background in San Bernardino County.

"And you know what?" Ayala said. "I didn't kill anybody."

Aside from his lack of militant activism, Ayala is criticized as a senator because he doesn't introduce legislation that would help Hispanics.

Instead, his issue is water.

"People ask, 'Is that not a white, Anglo-Saxon issue?' Well, Hispanics drink water too," Ayala said.

(CUT)

OTHER WINNING STORIES:

1. Paradise in Peril: The California real estate crash

2. Too Violent, Too Young: Life on the street

3. School statistics, and a personal breakthrough: The secrets behind test scores

4. Winning, as an alternative to starving: Political coverage, and a miracle baby

5. Yes, traffic is funny: Life outside the carpool lane

6. Turbulent Skies: The politics of medical helicopter service

7. Nailing down the building boom

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