Ronnie Mabra is my new poster child for botched media relations. This is unfortunate. Mabra, a Democratic state representative from Fayetteville, doesn’t appear to be a villain. His backers say he is talented and genuinely public-spirited. He has enough brainpower to have completed law school and passed the Georgia bar exam.
But good sense is a whole ‘nother thing, as exhibited in two similar encounters over the last year and a half. We’ll start at the beginning.
In early 2013, Mabra was among many legislators I had approached to ask about gifts they’d gotten from lobbyists. Disclosure forms showed Mabra had gotten Falcons playoff tickets from the Georgia World Congress Center. The newly-elected freshman lawmaker had taken the freebies before he’d taken the oath of office.
In his state office across from the Capitol, Mabra told me he’d be happy to talk with me about it — but with this caveat: You have to ask my caucus leader if it’s OK for me to do the interview.
This was a first. I have seen elected officials defer to other elected officials on issues, in order to preserve the leadership role of somebody with a pet piece of legislation. But my question for Mabra was about his personal decision to accept valuable freebies from people who, at that time, were seeking state help to fund a new football stadium.
I told Mabra his caveat was absurd. He stuck by it. Later that day, I saw him outside the Capitol and ambushed him with a camera, asking about the tickets. He looked surprised, defensive, evasive, sketchy. It was not a good look for him, but it was good theater for my story.
Fast forward to this summer: Driving up Atlanta’s downtown connector, I noticed a billboard above 14th Street. It featured Mabra’s smiling face, and text that said Lawyer and Lawmaker / State Rep. Ronnie Mabra. It was advertising his law firm.
Over the next few days, while covering other stories, I’d asked politicos about the billboard, wherein Mabra was clearly using his public title as a way to market his private business. Most asked: Can he do that? Is that legal? The answer was yes, it’s legal and yes he can do that.
It was not a huge, breaking story, but it was worth a mention on the news. So I approached it pretty casually. I called Mabra. He answered. He seemed to think the billboard was a great idea and expressed willingness to do an interview. He remembered our previous encounter.
I told him I wanted to avoid another awkward, unscheduled interview. I suggested a civilized, adult visit. I gave him some leeway to put me on his schedule. He said he’d get back to me.
In subsequent days, his tone changed. He stalled. Then he fell back into the old excuse: I can’t talk to you unless you get permission from my caucus leader.
Seriously?! I said. Do you not remember what happened last time?
Rep. Mabra hadn’t used our previous encounter as a teachable moment. Nonetheless — for reasons I can’t fully understand myself — I wanted to bend over backwards to avoid being a dick to this guy. The story wasn’t that big a deal. The billboard was even, arguably, defensible. He wasn’t using his public office to promote his law practice, only his title / resume. Legislators make crappy money passing laws. If he could make a case for doing what he’d done, I’d have let him.
In my inexplicable spirit of generosity, I actually texted Rep. Stacy Abrams, the House Democratic caucus leader, to seek her blessing to chat with Rep. Mabra. I didn’t hear back from her. Days passed. Other stories happened. Vacation happened.
One day in late July, after another story blew apart, I pitched the billboard story and my bossfolk bought it. I set out to put it on TV that night. I’d given Mabra ‘way more opportunities to comment than is typical. We went to his office. Photog Dan Reilly and I entered the lobby, and I asked to see him. Reilly’s camera was powered up.
Within minutes, Mabra appeared in the lobby — explaining, yet again, that he wouldn’t talk to me without approval of his leadership.
“That’s like asking your mommy’s permission,” I said at one point. “This isn’t about policy. This is about you. You’re a grown man, and I know you’ve got a side to this story I want to hear.” I even tried to coach him on how he would look on the news if he just stood there being evasive — for the second time. His response: “I look good all the time.” He even mugged for the camera and adjusted his tie, taking it from bad to worse.
By the way, coaching an interview subject is a taboo taught in Journalism 101. If an interviewee insists on saying or doing something unsuitable to the story, it’s not cool to direct him to say something else. I came very close to doing this by urging him to answer my questions, recalling his previous explanation by phone, and appealing to his sense of self-image. It didn’t work.
We argued for seven minutes. Reilly rolled the whole time. Had Mabra told us to leave the property, we would have been obliged to do so. But he never did.
Instead he wore me out. We exited the lobby, a bit exhausted, with Mabra still talking about why he couldn’t talk. With Reilly’s camera recording his evasions, we’d gotten sufficient material to produce a watchable story. Once again, Rep. Mabra was not at his best– despite my best efforts.
It didn’t have to be that way.