Cliff Berkowitz, candidate for the First District seat on the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, at a February event in Scotia. | Photo by Andrew Goff.

# # #

On Sunday, the Times-Standards editorial board endorsed incumbent First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, citing his “experience, depth of knowledge and unmatched hustle.”

But it wasn’t quite so simple. The editorial board, which consists of Editor Marc Valles and Publisher/General Manager John Richmond, acknowledged that their politics fall more in line with those of Bohn’s challenger, Cliff Berkowitz. However, it seems that Berkowitz blew the interview.

Here’s the nut of the T-S editorial:

We expected from Berkowitz a brief discussion of his opponent’s infamously overheard tamale joke, its bigoted overtones, and the incumbent’s inadequate first apologies — all of which we’ve previously discussed at length on this page and condemned.

We did not expect Berkowitz to cap his brief discussion with a Richard Pryor impersonation in a clumsy attempt to illustrate the egregiousness of his opponent’s offense.

In doing so, Berkowitz might not have expected a racial epithet to come out of his own mouth, either, as it was hurriedly followed by a request not to quote him.

By now, anyone paying the least bit of attention has heard about Bohn’s unfortunate tamale joke. But the T-S editorial leaves it a bit vague as to exactly what Berkowitz said. 

Reached by phone this morning, the candidate recounted his memory of the incident. 

“So what happened was we had our long interview,” Berkowitz said. “They were asking questions and whatnot. At a certain point, the meeting had concluded and we were just chatting about all kinds of different stuff. One of them mentioned the racist comment Rex made. I was like, ‘Yeah, that was unfortunate. He claims that he was quoting Cheech & Chong, but that doesn’t make it any better. It would be just as bad as quoting Richard Pryor saying, That n-word is crazy.’”

Except he didn’t say “n-word.” He said the n-word.

“Right,” Berkowitz confirmed. He remembers Valles and Richmond looking at each other in shock. 

“I said, ‘We’re done with this conversation, right? This is off the record.’” 

As noted in the editorial, Valles proceeded to explain that “off the record” must be agreed upon by both reporter and source. 

“I honestly thought we were done,” Berkowitz told the Outpost.

Regardless, he stands by “the concept” of what he said. “My word choice was unfortunate. I was just trying to explain that saying you’re quoting a comedy bit still doesn’t make it any better.”

He later acknowledged the irony: “In saying, ‘You can’t do that,’ of course, I did that.”

Still, Berkowitz didn’t expect his gaffe to make the paper — because after explaining “off the record,” Valles agreed not to bring it up, he said.

“Marc said, ‘But I understand. I won’t use this, of course,’” Berkowitz told the Outpost. He stood firm on this recollection. “Yeah, [Valles] said, ‘I will give you a gift.’ That was his quote.”

Not quite, Valles said when reached by the Outpost. The “gift” he offered was explaining what “off the record” means. “We at no time said we would not quote him,” he said.

Richmond agreed. “If Marc had said, ‘We won’t print this,’ we wouldn’t have printed it,” he told the Outpost in a phone interview. “When Cliff attempted to take it back right after it happened, Marc said, ‘I will give you the gift of defining what ‘off the record’ means.”

Berkowitz was shocked to see the editorial. “It was a gut punch. … My jaw dropped open,” he said. “I couldn’t freaking believe it, especially a week before the election.” 

Should he have known better? Berkowitz worked in radio for more than three decades and teaches journalism courses at Humboldt State University.

“I understand that in talking with journalists you’re always on the record,” Berkowitz said, though he suggested it still didn’t seem fair.

“It felt like it was understood that everything was done. They wanted an explanation of why I thought [Bohn’s joke] was inappropriate, I stand by my explanation, but my choice of words was inappropriate, absolutely. I feel bad for that, and I wholeheartedly apologize. But the concept of what I was saying I wholeheartedly stand behind.”

The California Primary will be held on March 3. 

# # #

Disclosure: Both Berkowitz and Richmond formerly worked for the Outpost‘s parent company, Lost Coast Communications, Inc., Berkowitz as a KHUM deejay and Richmond as general manager.