Statehouse Blogs Range from Brash to Boring
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
Blogging may be coming from a statehouse near you.
Poorly punctuated and periodically provocative, online diaries called blogs short for Web logs -- are flooding the Internet as celebrities such as Barbra Streisand and Avril Lavigne as well as everyday authors rant to a worldwide audience about everything or nothing at all.
Popularized in the political world by the tech-savvy presidential campaign of Howard Dean, blogs are being seized upon by the national parties and campaigns and now by a fledgling group of Web-wise state legislators.
"Uh, oh, you say. I thought he exhausted that idea last year," wrote Maryland Del. Richard Weldon Jr. (R) in launching his second year of blogging from Annapolis. "Nope! I'm going to try once again to describe the excitement, silliness, power plays, and hardball associated with the legislative branch of our State government as it happens, right from the center of it all."
In the mood for some legislative humor? Try the blog of Minnesota Rep. Steve Strachan (R). Announcing the start of the legislative session in January, he warned, "As they say, keep your kids inside and lock your doors."
Other Strachan offerings read somewhat like fortune cookies: "If you're too open-minded, your brains will fall out;" "Don't worry about what people think, they don't do it very often;" and "Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity."
Democratic state Sen. Eric Fingerhut, running for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, seems to be using his blog to try to sway voters with important revelations about his statewide bus tour. "Day One of the Bus-to-Move Ohio Tour was a huge success!" he intimated. "I am already glad we took this trip."
There is no official or unofficial count of how many state lawmakers now blog. Still, it's clear there isn't yet a statehouse stampede to jump on the blog bandwagon. One has to "google" long and hard to find the half-dozen Minnesota lawmakers with fledgling blogs in addition to Strachan, as well as Weldon's colleague, Maryland Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D).
By comparison, hundreds of amateur and professional writers are linked to the blog site Instapundit.com, including humor columnist Dave Barry and political writer Michael Barone.
Steven Clift, a Minneapolis-based online strategist and public speaker on the use of the Internet in democracy, said that politicians in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands are far ahead of American legislators in using blogs to dish up digital political commentary.
Dan Weintraub, a political columnist and blogger for the Sacramento Bee, said he is skeptical of political blogs anyway. "Even Howard Dean, who was supposed to be the king of the Internet, had a stilted and controlled blog when it was in his own voice."
"Blogs are best when they are chatty and casual and spontaneous," Weintraub said, "and politicians are none of the above."
Mark Glaser, who writes a column for the Online Journalism Review at USC Annenberg School of Communication, said politicians are prone to polite rhetoric and political dogma, hardly the stuff of witty, wicked writing for the World Wide Web. "If they really are saying what's on their mind and doing it pretty often, they're bound to say something that upsets someone," Glaser said.
A look at legislative blogs lends some credence to the theory that statehouse blogging has its boring side.
"We all had a good visit talking over social concerns," chronicled state Rep. Ray Cox (R) about a group of social workers visiting St. Paul, Minn. "I was glad to see such a large group of energetic students involved with and caring about the world of social work."
And not all entries are truly personal, one of the signature qualities of true blogs. At least three of the Minnesotans suspiciously used the same canned paragraph on the importance of an $83 million bond to repair aging bridges. "Bridges are a vital state and local asset - worth preserving and worth rebuilding," they each allegedly wrote.
But Web surfers can sniff out some political gossip occasionally. Weldon, a freshman delegate from one of Maryland's most conservative districts, has used his blog to take the occasional partisan potshot and even to trumpet another delegate's sexual preference.
The Clean Indoor Air Act was introduced by Del. Barbara Frush (D., Prince George's), a leading environmentalist (some might even say environmental whacko, but I don't like being a name caller)," he wrote for Feb. 19.
In March, Weldon described a committee hearing. "This particular hearing took on an interesting twist when Del. Anne Kaiser (D., Montgomery) used the hearing to inform everyone of her lesbian sexual orientation. It's possible that the announcement might even have overshadowed the event," Weldon wrote.
Kaiser, contacted by old-fashioned telephone, said she saw the blog posting and was glad that Weldon generally supported the bill that she was testifying in favor of -- to allow same-sex partners certain rights in making medical decisions. She only quibbled with his choice of words: "lesbian sexual orientation" rather than just lesbian or gay.
In a telephone interview, Weldon acknowledged, "It's not like Hemingway."
"I don't profess to be a talented creative writer," he told Stateline.org. "I put them out in 15 to 20 minutes." Weldon began keeping a written journal during his first 90-day session of the General Assembly in 2003 to pass on his experiences to his children, he said. The blog is an extension of his personal journal, he said, but uses fewer names of legislators.
"I've heard more from constituents on these journals than anything else I've done in public life," Weldon said.
Rosenberg, who likes to use baseball as a tortured metaphor for his legislative work in his blog from the Maryland Capitol, said by phone that the value of the blog is that it tells constituents "here's a guy who's working hard." Plus, he doesn't ask the 1,400 subscribers for money, he said.