Statehouse Reporters Recall Unforgettable Moments
By Kathleen Murphy, Staff Writer
Lunching with serial killers, digging through trash and getting sued are all in a day's work for the cadre of reporters covering statehouse beats.
There are about 510 full-time statehouse reporters across the country, according to a 2002 study by the Project on the State of the American Newspaper.
Newsroom budget cuts have reduced the number of reporters covering state capitols in recent years. That means fewer reporters are covering stories about the state actions that affect everyone's lives, from land use decisions to drinking laws.
During legislative sessions, they're often chained to their desks, but several reporters told Stateline.org that most of their memorable moments happened far away from the computer.
David Ammons of the Associated Press, who has covered the Washington statehouse for 32 years, said he met serial killer Ted Bundy on the campaign trail in the 1972 governor's race and lunched with him occasionally after Bundy was hired on the state GOP staff. Florida executed Bundy in the electric chair in 1989.
"I remember telling people that this charismatic young man was going places," Ammons said. "Little did I know it was going to be the execution chamber."
Ammon's memories have included being the Associated Press's lead writer about the volcanic eruption of Mt. Saint Helens, writing the story of Dan "D.B." Cooper-- the skyjacker who bailed out over Southwest Washington with $200,000-- and covering the state's ever-growing initiative process, whereby citizens can place state legislative measures on the ballot. Ammons calls the process, "the shadow legislature."
Ammons said he also loves the intellectual challenge of his work and has tried hard to unravel the complexity of government so that all his readers can understand it.
"I'm crazy about the whole chess game of it," Ammons said. "It's quite a fascinating ringside seat we get here. I think I was born nosy so this gives me entree to ask uppity questions of the governor whenever I want to know something. I try to ask the questions the average Joe Sixpack would."
Being a statehouse reporter is not always a glamorous job and at times puts dedicated journalists to the test.
Jon Craig, a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, said he dug around in a public recycling bin in Albany in order to fish out documents for an investigative series on the New York State Legislature when he was working for a Syracuse paper. A custodian had tipped him off about the documents.
Later, when he did a Medicaid story for the Akron Beacon Journal, Craig was sentenced to jail for refusing to name confidential sources.
"My wife warned me to take a toothbrush with me that day, but I never imagined I'd get sentenced. My first thought was, How do I get transferred to a safer jail?'" Craig said.
Craig didn't end up spending any time in jail. The sentence was suspended, and the newspaper won the court cases on appeal.
Having a colorful governor to cover made Minnesota reporters' workdays unpredictable.
Laura McCallum, capitol bureau chief for Minnesota Public Radio, said covering former Gov. Jesse Ventura always led to something quotable and strange. Escorted to the governor's mansion for an interview, McCallum waited to get time with Ventura after his workout.
"He came out in a tie-dyed tank top and biking shorts," McCallum said. "No other governor would do something like that."
Kevin Corcoran, reporter for the Indianapolis Star, said the job of statehouse reporter often means playing detective.
"Sometimes the trickiest thing is putting the whole puzzle together," Corcoran said.
Corcoran and a colleague, Michele McNeil-Solida, studied legislation passed one-bill-at-a-time over a period of years that proved Indiana lawmakers had been trying to create a post-retirement health insurance benefit for themselves. After their story appeared last year, the measure stopped dead in its tracks.
In another gum-shoe episode, Corcoran combed through law books to determine that legislation supposedly aimed at keeping cigarettes away from kids was a Trojan horse designed to weaken tobacco laws.
"Those are the most challenging things, just reading what they are doing and figuring out what it really means versus what they say on the floor," Corcoran said. "That's the challenge that I enjoy, frankly, about what I do."
Nancy Cook Lauer, capitol bureau chief for the Tallahassee Democrat, said one of her most physically challenging assignments was accompanying mullet fishermen who were showing how a gill net ban adversely affected their livelihood. It was a cold day, and her photographer fell overboard.
"It was very, very cold and very, very wet. They kept us out there and wouldn't let us come back in," Lauer said. "A good story came out of it, though."