LOS ANGELES — California's new governor faces daunting obstacles as he tries to erase a $26.6 billion budget gap, but one of the hardest to ignore is a pair of AM-radio shouters whose conservative-minded audience has a track record of making life uncomfortable, even miserable, for politicians who lose the pair's favor.
John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou have used their daily "John and Ken Show" to browbeat and menace any Republican who might consider sidling up with the Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who wants to raise about $50 billion over five years by extending higher sales, vehicle and income taxes.
Their website is a public pillory: the head's of suspect legislators are crudely pictured impaled on what appear to be sharpened wooden spikes — "heads on a stick," they call it. Even Brown, who has yet to win over a single Republican vote, has suggested the threats might be stifling a compromise.
Not everyone is listening — or at least not admitting to it.
"I don't care about John and Ken," says Assemblyman Paul Cook, a Republican whose photograph sits on one of the spikes. But he acknowledges the hosts can whip up a crowd — his office switchboard has been gridlocked in the past when the hosts have ridiculed him and urged listeners to complain.
"I don't believe in those intimidation tactics," adds Cook, who opposes Brown's plan but has earned the show's wrath by failing to endorse a no-tax pledge. "I wish we could bring it up to a higher level."
Dismiss them as political shock jocks or admire them as conservative crusaders, but there is no dispute that Kobylt and Chiampou are entertainment hotshots in Southern California and part of the fabric of conservative politics in the state.
They have been on the air for nearly two decades in the Los Angeles market and have a grip on the loudest megaphone around: their KFI-AM program is the top-rated talk-radio show in the region. About 1.1 million listeners tune in at some point over a week's time.
With prankster instincts, an eye for scandal and bawdy (some might say offensive) humor, they can go on for hours, days, even years about politicians and policies they dislike.
Favorite targets: illegal immigration, global warming, taxes, the mainstream media and generous union contracts.
Some samples: Democrats just want to "feed the union beast." Republicans who might consider tax increases are "Republican worms ... weasels." It's a ruse the state will collapse if taxes are not extended.
"California will still be here, even if California goes bankrupt," Chiampou says.
Though it's difficult to make a precise measure of their influence, Kobylt and Chiampou fit loosely into a conservative media universe of radio shows, websites and blogs that pound away at the Sacramento statehouse and local government in California. They could be considered distant cousins of nationally prominent figures like Rush Limbaugh or Matt Drudge.
They tend to be oppositional, with scant patience for counter-argument. Brown has said solving the budget crisis with cuts alone would devastate California, but the pair belittle such doomsday scenarios
They also have plenty of critics and have been accused of not letting facts clutter a good joke, but a Los Angeles Times magazine in 2006 placed them on a list of the most powerful people in Southern California.
Their rants against former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis were credited with contributing to his eventual 2003 recall, and their listeners flooded Los Angeles City Hall with toilet brushes after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, "We clean your toilets," while praising the contribution of immigrants.
They turned up the pressure after the Los Angeles City Council agreed to pay black firefighter Tennie Pierce $2.7 million to settle a racial harassment lawsuit in which he claimed he had been tricked into eating dog food by co-workers. Villaraigosa vetoed the settlement, which was slashed by more than $1 million.
In 2009, former state Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines was eviscerated on air for his vote to raise taxes to help close the state budget deficit. After relentless skewering, he struggled to a 1-point victory in the Republican primary for state insurance commissioner against a little-known government worker who spent less than $5,000 on his campaign. Villines went on to lose in November.
Their fierce resistance to higher taxes is another push-back against what Kobylt sees as an eroding quality of life in the nation's most populous state. He places much blame on Sacramento and its workers, or "cubicle pigs."
"The state has really gone to hell in the last 10 years," Kobylt said in an interview Thursday. "We look for explanations for why life has changed so much."
Politics is "under-covered, drastically under-covered, by all forms of media" in the region, Kobylt says. "We make it relevant to your life."
Brown needs a two-thirds vote in the Assembly and Senate to place the tax question before voters in a June special election, which means he needs to enlist at least two Republicans in the Senate and two Republicans in the House. He also has called for $12.5 billion in spending cuts.
Lately, the show has focused on five Republican senators who are continuing to negotiate with Brown, seeking in return a state spending cap, a freeze on pension benefits for government workers and reduced businesses regulation.
"What Jerry Brown and the union thugs would like to do is snooker" the Republicans, Kobylt warns.
Subtle, it's not. The noisy, high-paced show can zigzag into issues from Charlie Sheen's meltdown to movie reviews. It's become a requisite stop for candidates eager to reach their big conservative audience, though the hosts can be insistent interrogators — and unpredictable.
Meg Whitman, the wealthy Republican candidate for governor, learned that the hard way last year. The hosts lambasted her for weeks, accusing the GOP candidate of pandering to Hispanics in hopes of winning a handful of votes. They didn't let up when she appeared on the show.
Republican National Committee member Shawn Steel says Kobylt and Chiampou are too critical of all things Republican, and not fair or balanced. But he adds that Whitman badly misjudged the show's influence. She lost to Brown after spending more than $170 million, a national record.
Asked about the show's clout, Whitman consultant Mike Murphy responded in an e-mail, "I've always wanted them to have (the) guts to put their names on the ballot and actually run for office themselves. It would be a character building experience for them. They'd lose big."
Their impact is considered mostly limited to Republican primaries, a natural fit for their conservative audience. The hosts are registered as political independents, although Kobylt doesn't consider himself anchored to conservative or liberal ideology.
"They are preaching to the choir," says Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, an analysis of legislative and congressional races, who once was a guest on the show.
"They just reinforce a message their listeners want to hear."
In a state with a Democratic tilt, the track record for their favored candidates is a long way from perfect — recent case in point, Steve Poizner, who was clobbered by Meg Whitman in last year's Republican primary for governor.Comment on this story
Will John and Ken matter in the end?
Kobylt credited his listeners with any political punch the show can muster.
"Ken and I are two guys talking in a room," he says.
Associated Press writer Juliet Williams contributed from Sacramento.