The Dark Prince of City Hall

First Larry Bush was a politician. Then he was a journalist. Then he was a politician. So now as editor and publisher of CitiReport, a hard-hitting journal with a private agenda, what the hell is he?

Less than a month after Bush pantsed JOBS, the group's number-one policy initiative, charter reform, went down to defeat at the board. Neighborhood activists accurately portrayed it as a JOBS "power grab." In the 1994 elections -- which one CEO hailed as JOBS' "coming of age" -- the group suffered major setbacks.

Progressives swept the Board of Supervisors race, creating an eight-vote supermajority to overturn mayoral vetoes and JOBS was forced to spend close to $1 million to defeat Proposition O, which would have levied extra taxes on downtown businesses for their heavy use of Muni services.

JOBS lobbyist Don Solem walked into a meeting of CEOs the next morning huffing and puffing about how he'd kicked ass on progressives. The CEOs angrily pointed out the composition of the new board and the Prop. O price tag, making it clear they didn't share his rosy view. Weeks later, Solem was stripped of many of his duties when the group hired an executive director.

The 49-year-old Bush has been savaging people on and off the printed page since he was in his early twenties. People have resigned and lost their jobs because of him. But like most reporters, he grew nervous about the prospect of being profiled. Better than most reporters, Bush knows the feral code of behavior they observe and the savage tactics they employ. "He called me and asked if I had any Valium," says one Bush confidant. "He said he wasn't expecting to get any sleep the week the story came out."

I got a taste of Bush's angst a few days before this story went to press. He rang me at home and for no apparent reason told me about an exposŽ he had written for Penthouse in the 1980s. After a Reagan official claimed that his wife had been beaten and raped by a black man, Bush found documentation indicating the man possibly had done the deed himself. Worse yet, the man was part of Ed Meese's anti-pornography squad and was found to have an extensive personal porno collection.

Why was Bush telling me this story, I wondered? Then he got to the real point of his call: "I had a hard time taking such an intimate look at someone," he said. "At one point I threw up. I had this terrible sense that, gee, I had this guy's life in my hands. How in the world is he going to react to seeing all this in print."

Here was the Cobra, the feared spewer of venom, asking for leniency.
Two years ago, City Desk producer Jon Bernstein was uncomfortable when Bush asked to appear on his cable show on local politics. Bush's partisan attacks on Agnos' political enemies crossed the line, Bernstein believed. So Bush took him to lunch and won him over.

But now that Agnos is talking about running for mayor, Bernstein is nervous all over again about Bush's frequent appearances on City Desk. Before taping a recent show with the Cobrawoman, Bernstein unburdened himself. "Just let me know if Agnos announces his candidacy for mayor, because we'll take you off the show," he said to Bush in the green room.

"No, no, no, I'm not going to work for Art," a startled Bush replied.
"Come on, Larry, if he offers you a job you'll take it," Bernstein retorted. "No, I won't," Bush insisted. Bernstein is still unsure if he'll allow Bush to remain on the show if Agnos enters the race.

Bush is vocal about his desire to be "the local Bill Moyers," a man who worked in politics and then made a clean break into journalism. But Bush's political instincts -- and his past -- continue to haunt and define him.

Bernstein's anxiety is emblematic of the general critique of Bush's work: CitiReport is seen by many as a vehicle for political revenge. "I can't believe anyone sees him as anything more than an instrument of an administration in exile," says Mayor Jordan's press secretary, Noah Griffin.

This criticism is unsophisticated (and itself politically motivated). Bush may spend an inordinate amount of ink wreaking havoc on the Jordan administration. But, hey, they're the ones in power.

Bush theorizes politicians are offended that he has the temerity to have an agenda at all. "The kind of journalism I do is more than just 'he said/she said,'" Bush says. "I try to get issues on the agenda. Politicians are threatened by that. They think that's their exclusive domain and it's an uppity journalist or a journalist with political ambitions that forces them to answer questions they aren't ready for."

True. But while his reportage is hard-hitting, smart and accurate, Bush often shows a bias that's as clear as the bells on Grace Cathedral. Case in point: The February 27 CitiReport -- published the day Jordan's nomination for chief administrative officer, Jack Ertola, was heading into his first confirmation hearing -- was devoted to Ertola-bashing.

Bush often loses his sense of scale, too. It's one thing to attack the powers that be. But the latest issue of CitiReport goes to great pains to mention that Mayor Jordan's son, Frank Jr., couldn't pass muster at the police or fire departments and had to settle for an apprenticeship with the plumbers union.

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