The Muckraker of Martinez 

His fans say John Foley has enlivened a dull newspaper. His foes say he's irresponsible and cannot be trusted.

Since John Foley became editor of the tiny Martinez News-Gazette a couple of months ago, this insular town of 36,000 hasn't been the same. At least one angry reader has threatened to kick his ass. Newspapers have been stolen from downtown racks. Old-time politicos are canceling their subscriptions to the venerable and once-innocuous community paper.

Yep, John Foley is probably the most hated man in Martinez. And he doesn't even live here, which of course rankles his critics, who condemn him as an outsider. "In a very short time he has formed very strong opinions, mostly negative, about issues, people, and groups that he knows little or nothing about," groused former Martinez councilmember Ted Radke in a letter canceling his subscription to the paper.

Foley, a 51-year-old Minnesota restaurateur whose prior newspaper experience consists of starting a Michigan community weekly paper after graduating from college, insists he didn't take the job to start trouble. "Sometimes the outsider comes in and sees a lot more clearly than the people in the forest," reasons Foley, who commutes to work from somewhere in Sonoma County -- although he refuses to say exactly where. "Some of those threats were serious," he explains.

But trouble arrived in Martinez shortly after Foley did. It all began October 10, with Foley's un-bylined story on a new political action committee called Save Historic Martinez, whose debut was heralded a few weeks ago with hand-painted lawn signs and four-color campaign brochures endorsing a slate of no-growth candidates. After calling the committee's treasurer, Foley ended up talking to its designated spokeswoman, eighty-year-old Marie Goodman, a local activist and cousin of late baseball Hall of Famer and Martinez native Joe DiMaggio. Goodman provided the, ahem, color in Foley's article about the committee.

"I have a dear friend who feels the same way I do," Foley quoted Goodman as saying. "We don't want Martinez to turn into Chinatown. The Chinese are buying up all the property downtown, and we don't want that to happen. ... I especially don't want the Fangs coming to Martinez."

Foley said he couldn't believe his ears. "I repeated it back to her three times," he recalls. In a town where 81 percent of the population is white, was Goodman saying that "Save Historic Martinez" really meant "Save White Martinez"?

Soon after the issue containing Goodman's comments hit the streets, Foley says his circulation director told him that all the papers had been stolen from the newsracks along Main Street. Foley didn't mince his words in the next edition of the News-Gazette. "The motive was to prohibit citizens from reading about the Save Historic Martinez Committee controversy," his follow-up article alleged.

In any case, the article created quite a stir. Former councilman Radke seemed to allude to it as one of the reasons he canceled his subscription. And Mayor Mike Menesini, who's running for district attorney, tried to introduce an emergency antidiscrimination resolution in response to Goodman's quote. But Vice Mayor Barbara Woodburn and Councilwoman Linda Lewis, both opponents of redevelopment, blocked the resolution from being put on the agenda, accusing Menesini of exploiting the episode for political reasons.

Goodman later told the Contra Costa Times that Foley did not quote her accurately, although she couldn't be reached for comment last week. Nor was Goodman alone in leveling that complaint.

Local retailer Doug Case says Foley twisted his words in the same article. The story said Case "denied having anything to do with the committee other than placing a sign in front of his store." But Foley knew otherwise because he had a copy of the committee's formation papers, which listed the store owner as its treasurer. Case, the owner of Case's Sundries, a store his father opened in 1955, insists he never denied his role in the committee. "If I was in front of you and him right now, I'd call him a flat-out liar," says Case.

What Case says irked him even more was Foley's reporting tactics. The retailer says Foley called the store posing as someone else and tricked his girlfriend, Sabrina, into revealing his home phone number. Afterward, Case says he marched down to the News-Gazette's downtown office to confront Foley. "I walked into his office and I said, 'Hey, you MF'er John, I'm Doug Case.' I said, 'You and I got a couple of things to talk about here, buddy.' I got in his face for about a half an hour, I mean Sgt. Carter-Gomer Pyle. I got right in his face. ... At the end of the thing I told him, 'I tell you what, buddy. I'm on way back to the store now, and you had better have called my girlfriend and you better have apologized, or I'm gonna come back down here and I promise you I will kick your ass into the middle of next week. You understand me?'"

The editor evidently understood well enough that he acknowledges apologizing to Sabrina for mixing her up in the whole thing. As for his reporting methods, he is uncharacteristically reticent, admitting that he didn't identify himself as a reporter to Case's girlfriend. Still, Foley says he stands by everything he's printed.

Before his arrival, the editor says his predecessor served as a glorified copy editor who relied heavily on wire services. The paper now contains more local news, Foley says, and he himself occasionally pens polemic editorials, including a recent one in which he compared Martinez to the fictional town of Mayberry immortalized on the Andy Griffith Show. "The paper needed to be revitalized, and that's what I set out to do."

And in spite of the chorus of jeers, Foley fans such as council candidate Dick Duncan credit the editor for breathing life into the newspaper. "Our newspaper in thirty years hasn't had enough backbone to make good fish wrap," Duncan says. "I respect the fact that he has the balls to call 'em like he sees 'em. He isn't inventing this stuff."

But the paper and its editor still have much room for improvement. The photos are often blurry. Judging from the abundant typos, the new editor -- who says he writes all the news stories -- could benefit from a little copyediting himself. Even Foley's breakthrough story displayed questionable news judgment, since he totally underplayed the news: Goodman's "Chinatown" quote doesn't appear until the sixteenth paragraph of the story, which boasts the practically unintelligible headline "Case, Dodge, Save Historic Martinez founders, Goodman spokesperson."

But many Martinez residents don't question his news judgment or headline writing skills as much as his aggressive reporting style. Several sources say Foley has shouted at them over the phone, and the husband of one local political operative claimed Foley reduced his wife to tears.

"He is the most arrogant and abrasive person in the media I have ever dealt with," says Jeffrey Dodge, a 27-year Martinez resident and a field representative for the chemical workers' union who serves as the chairman of Save Historic Martinez. Dodge says the editor doesn't interview so much as bait, badger, and harass. "He's trying to get people pissed off and fly off the handle."

Foley says his real goal was to find out who was behind the committee and whether it had a preservation plan. Even though he's an outsider, the editor knows enough to know that downtown redevelopment is the number one issue in Martinez politics. The fight goes back some three decades, when residents forced a referendum and overturned a city council decision to establish a redevelopment agency.

Today, a lot of people think it's time to inject new life in the antique downtown, which pretty much closes for business at sundown. The upcoming election is widely viewed as a referendum on whether redevelopment should come to Martinez. The Save Historic Martinez committee is endorsing a slate of candidates skeptical of the concept: Linda Lewis for mayor, and Tim Platt and Bill Wainwright for the city council. Pro-development types, meanwhile, point to a controversial plan championed by Menesini to build condos downtown. And Martinez was recently identified by a coalition of elected county officials as one of four cities that could use more development. While leaders in Concord, Walnut Creek, and Richmond welcomed the idea of increasing the density of their cities, the news wasn't greeted warmly in Martinez, a town with a number of long-established families who don't want the place to lose its provincial charm. As Goodman supposedly told the News-Gazette, "I certainly don't want to sound like a snob, but I don't want Martinez to change."

Although the prospect of change concerns many Martinez residents, it's hard to figure out why anyone would be concerned about an alleged influx of Chinese people. The city's tiny Asian community barely grew at all in the 1990s, and remains just 6.6 percent of its overall population. The only potentially relevant development project that candidate Duncan could recall occurred a couple of years ago, when the city considered a deal with the San Francisco developer AeroSea Corporation, whose president was named Dennis Ho. That project, which would have authorized construction of a multistory building with retail stores, apartments, and public parking, ultimately unraveled due to opposition from growth opponents.

But both Case and Dodge say they don't believe Marie Goodman said any of that crazy Chinese stuff anyway. Still, in what seems like at least a partial vindication of Foley's story, Goodman is no longer serving as spokesperson for the Save Historic Martinez committee. Dodge insists her diminished role has nothing to do with the current controversy. He blames the octogenarian's poor health. "We didn't realize her health was as bad as it was when we asked her to serve" as the committee's spokesperson, Dodge says.

That was news to Foley. "They don't talk to me," says the city's most hated newsman, with a chuckle.

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