New California opinion editor Gil Durán: Newspapers changed my life

Full disclosure: I never expected to find myself working for newspapers again. After all, I spent over a decade on “the dark side.” That’s what reporters call politics and public relations.

During a decade in government, I served as a communications aide to nearly every top Democrat in California. In my defense, I never expected to work in politics, either. It was a twist of fate.

A friend introduced me to Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown at a dinner party during the 2003 recession. Our conversation evolved into a career that took me from a leaking warehouse in West Oakland to the halls of power in Washington and Sacramento.

I had no desire to work in politics. I’d never worn a suit. Politics was simply the opportunity that came when I – a former reporter trying to pay bills after newspapers took a dive – needed one. The only thing I’d ever wanted to be was a newspaperman.

After all, newspapers saved my life.

My love for newspapers started early, most likely sparked by my grandfather’s daily reading habit. I landed my first byline in the 5th grade, winning the Tulare Advance-Register’s “My Mom Is the Best” contest. It made me famous all over town, and I was hooked.

In middle school, I scribed for the class paper. One editorial I penned – criticizing the principal for selective enforcement of the gum chewing policy – got me kicked out of school.

(Hello, Mr. Castellanoz!)

Like too many kids in the Valley, I came up hard. My mother tried to raise us alone but it wasn’t easy. We were poor and always moving. Poverty is more than a statistic to me. It’s a smell, an ache, a memory.

I was born on K Street in Tulare. South K Street was a carnival of crime, drugs, and hopelessness. We often called its fleabag motels home, when we weren’t sleeping on borrowed floors or on the run from some violent man.

Sure, we had some good times. They just tended to have bad endings.

As I got older, my enthusiasm for school faded. The search for a better life eventually took us to Kentucky. Despite my mother’s valiant effort to save us, I became a truant and runaway, bouncing between shelters, halfway houses and schools. The future looked bleak.

Then, one day, a school counselor asked if I had any particular interests. “Newspaper,” I said.

The Buddhists have a saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

Her name was Patricia T. Esrael. She taught English and newspaper writing at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. She took an interest in me – so much so that she and her husband, Terry, took me into their home.

With her guidance, I became editor of the school paper and appointed myself columnist. The columns earned me a scholarship from Knight Ridder newspapers. In 1998, I graduated from DePauw University and returned to California as a staff writer for the San Jose Mercury News.

It seems neat as a fairy tale now, but I don’t like to think about what my life would be like if I hadn’t met Mrs. Esrael. She was my teacher, my friend and, in many ways, a mother to me. We lost her two years ago, but I think about her every day.

When I got the chance to return to newspapers, she came to mind.

Mrs. Esrael taught me many lessons, repeating these the most: Never split infinitives, and always go for your dreams. And here I am.

So, how can a guy who worked for politicians now write about them? Trust me, nobody I’ve worked for will be too thrilled by this development. Most know me as willful, ruthless, argumentative, independent and — all too often — disrespectful toward authority.

Excellent qualities in a journalist.

Of course, they kept me around for a reason. They knew my capabilities. I can think quickly and creatively. I can see all sides of problems and solutions. I know the maxims of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and Machiavelli’s “The Prince” by heart. Nothing calms me more than crisis and nothing disturbs me more than quiet.

I was trained in newsrooms.

Here’s my pledge to you: My loyalty is not to any politician, party or institution. My loyalty is to the public good and the ideals of democracy. My heart is with the voiceless, the powerless and the poor. Because I will always be one of them.

It’s true I’m not a Republican. Neither are most Californians. It’s up to Democrats and independents to level effective – even painful – criticism against the powers that be. Arrogance, corruption, deceit and failure afflict all human endeavors. While supermajority power is great news for the California Democratic Party, it’s a mixed blessing because “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I’ll be watching like a hawk.

Yet I also remain hopeful that California is the place where we will continue to find working solutions to the greatest challenges humankind has ever faced. If not us, then who?

Some people say there’s no future in newspapers. I say there’s not much of a future in anything anymore unless we fight for it. I’m putting my shoulder to the wheel in the best way I know how.