Santana: Chapman Student Newspaper Triggers Sparks

NORBERTO SANTANA, JR., Voice of OC

Panther news rack at Chapman University.

Chapman University’s campus newspaper, The Panther, has scored one of the most fascinating early stories of the 2020 congressional elections — taking on the Dean of the Communications School at their own university…for failing to communicate.

Lisa Sparks, Dean of Chapman University’s School of Communication, is running for Congress as a Republican, one of nearly a half dozen candidates vying to challenge first-term incumbent Congresswoman, Democrat Katie Porter next year to represent the 45th Congressional District.

Porter is the first Democrat to ever win the 45th Congressional District seat, beating out then-incumbent Mimi Walters in last November’s midterm elections.

With a clear advantage in District 45 voter registration numbers, Republicans are eager to retake the seat in 2020.

Yet when student journalists at the Panther earlier this month reached out to interview Sparks – who holds a doctorate in Communications and is married to Chapman University President Daniele Struppa – they hit a wall.

Sparks wouldn’t engage, according to the newspaper’s recent editorial, ignoring emails to sit down and talk about her campaign.

Unfortunately, this kind of bunker approach to campaigning and governance has really caught on in Orange County in recent years.

Yet it’s also starting to backfire like never before.

At first, it seemed that Sparks’ approach worked in her favor, with The Panther publishing a super-soft profile in their Sept. 3 edition featuring email quotes from the Dean about her campaign.

“I look forward to campaign where I can hear what my constituents want, what worries them and I will become the vessel through which those concerns can reach Congress,” Sparks emailed The Panther for her Sept. 3 interview.

Apparently, student journalists with The Panther heard an earful about the puff profile – especially since it involved a high-level administrator from their own university.

To their courageous credit, these student journalists did what few professions do, they wrote about how they felt like they got hustled into writing a lame story.

In a Sept. 9 editorial, The Panther pounced on Sparks.

Staff writers essentially admitted that they got pressured into writing the puff piece because as Sparks delayed responding, they eventually found themselves with a hole on their page and felt the need to fill it with whatever they had from Sparks.

They made a mistake.

And in the next edition, they held themselves accountable.

But they also went public with how difficult it was to engage Sparks – going a step further and comparing that process to the ease with which Congresswoman Porter engaged for her Sept. 9 profile.

“Sparks ignored multiple interview requests from The Panther, refused to sit down with our news editor and gave us the bare minimum in an email,” the editors wrote.

“Because Sparks refused to do her job, because she only answered the few questions we sent, we had no choice but to cave to the narrative she gave us. We wrote a soft piece in our Sept. 3 issue that compromised our ethical integrity in order to comply with her lack of cooperation,” editors wrote.

This semester I am also working at Chapman as an adjunct professor teaching classes on public affairs and investigative journalism, which is how I saw The Panther editorial and got curious about the issue.

I tried myself to reach out to Sparks this past week via email to get a sense of the controversy, especially after reading her comments in the Orange County Register about the student editorial and the fact that she questioned whether the staff was acting in a political fashion by calling her out.

I’m still waiting for a response.

As far as I can tell, Sparks is still working at the University as a Dean and was quoted by The Panther newspaper as avoiding an interview because she didn’t want to mix personal and work business.

Yet if you go to Sparks’ campaign website, there’s no way to get in touch with anybody – to volunteer or seek press inquiries. There’s just a form to contribute to her campaign.

That’s about it.

I raised that issue to a colleague, Sheila Krumholz who is the head of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics, who told me that kind of website approach very much mirrors many of the dark money political action committees – that seek contributions but have virtually no other contact information.

With no contact information on her website, I had to send Sparks an email to her Chapman email account.

Now, in fairness to Sparks, many candidates don’t seem to offer much direct contact information on their campaign websites.

Porter’s own campaign website doesn’t offer much direct contact information in terms of phone numbers or emails for things like press contacts.

Yet other Republican campaigns – like Yorba Linda City Councilwoman Peggy Huang – do seem to have more functional websites than Sparks, actually offering ways to connect beyond just making a contribution.

Mission Viejo Mayor Greg Raths also has more information on his website than Sparks but not much in the way of direct contact information.

Ditto for Laguna Hills Mayor Don Sedgwick, more information but really tough to find a phone number to reach out and engage beyond the website.

I couldn’t get websites for OC Deputy District Attorney Ray Gennawey or small businessman Brenton Woolworth to work at all.

While Sparks reportedly told The Panther newspaper that she’s keeping work and personal separate, from looking at her campaign contributions on Open Secrets.org, it looks like many people connected to Chapman are contributing to her campaign.

So much for mixing politics and business…

I have met Dean Sparks several times in recent years and found her to be an intelligent, well-spoken advocate. She currently serves on the Orange County Board of Education as a strong voice for school choice.

Ironically, in her Panther email interview, Sparks said that public outreach, listening, would be a key part of her campaign.

Thus, it’s odd to now see this elected official, congressional candidate and university dean locked in a battle against her own campus newspaper.

Sadly, that was the approach largely taken in 2018 by Orange County’s Republican delegation, to avoid the press, interviews and debates.

It turned out horribly for the GOP – losing all four key congressional battles.

After the campaign, OC GOP leaders acknowledged they did a terrible job of engaging – noting they would be back and vocal in 2020.

Yet if the sparks coming out of Chapman University are any indication of what’s ahead, it looks like Democrats could get a huge break again, delivered, again, from the GOP itself.