VILLARAIGOSA IN LA
Labor Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa's raucous victory party at Union Station on April 10 was rife with the symbolism of a Los Angeles undergoing radical change since the election eight years ago of Republican Mayor Richard Riordan. Throngs of unionized Latino workers chanted "¡Sí Se Puede!" and the candidate addressed the crowd in English and Spanish. Villaraigosa won more than 30 percent of the primary vote, topping a crowded field in the LA mayoral race. Organized labor poured hundreds of thousands of dollars and battalions of foot soldiers into this unabashedly progressive campaign. Though he didn't enter electoral politics until 1994, Villaraigosa has forged a citywide multiracial coalition that could power him to victory in the June 5 runoff against moderate Democrat James Hahn. (Also in a runoff: ex-state senator Tom Hayden, vying for a council seat.)
ECHOES OF FUJIMORI
Former Peruvian President Alan García came literally out of exile to finish a surprising second in the primary round of voting. He will face front-runner Alejandro Toledo in May's runoff. But with either man, Peruvians can expect little relief from the radical free-market economy left behind by the Fujimori regime. Toledo promises even "more privatizations." And García says he has learned from the "mistakes" of his social-democratic past.
ON THE WEB: firstname.lastname@example.org
Go back in history and read original Nation reporting from the early 1950s on legislative and judicial attempts to block black enfranchisement in Florida and Georgia. Also read Terry Allen's web-only article examining some changes on the government's official Fish and Wildlife Service website, and check out April's Death Row Roll Call (www.thenation.com).
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Taking a leaf from the Chinese, David Horowitz presented an apologize-or-nothing ultimatum to the editors of the Daily Princetonian. The paper ran one of Horowitz's flaky ads attacking reparations for African-Americans (see Victor Navasky, "Publish or Speech Perishes," April 23), but in the same issue ran an editorial criticizing the ad. Now Horowitz refuses to pay his $1,007.50 ad bill unless the paper apologizes for the editorial. For Horowitz, it seems, free speech runs only one way.
As John Lantigua recounts on page 11, the Florida election travesty looks even seamier in retrospect than it did at the time. Worse yet, as secretaries of state from across the country tell us, the crisis is national. The recent review by the Chicago Tribune of Illinois undervotes reminds us that the dark side of democracy exposed in Florida was just business as usual across America on Election Day. What would Martin Luther King Jr. think if he heard that the Voting Rights Act had not guaranteed access to the polls for all Americans--that barriers and outright intimidation continue to deny the vote to millions? Would he agree with those who say we should move on to other legislative issues? Or would he reaffirm the centrality of the vote in a democracy and call for renewed voting-rights drives, condemning--as he did in 1963--those who prefer "a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice"?
Although the intensive coverage of the Florida debacle touched off a spate of articles on reform and vows of change among the political class, Congress has thus far displayed little stomach for effective action--witness the abandonment of plans in the House to form a bipartisan commission on election reform after Republicans insisted on controlling it. The presidential silence on electoral reform has been deafening, though hardly surprising. The Administration would prefer the reform talk to go away, because it raises rude reminders of Bush's lack of a mandate for the hard-right direction in which he's taking the country.
Beyond the political considerations of the moment, the GOP traditionally favors a "closed" electorate, with disproportionate numbers of upper-income and ideologically motivated conservatives favorable to its candidates. (Unlike in Europe, voting is still a class act in this country: Two-thirds of voters with incomes above $50,000 exercise their franchise, compared with only one-third of those making less than $10,000.) The Democrats offer little comfort in this regard, though they stand to benefit the most when the dispossessed augment the voting rolls. Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe promised he would make voting rights a priority, but so far we've seen little action beyond a few fundraisers. Where is the full-court press from Democratic Congressional leaders for hearings, legislation and voting-machine upgrades? Where is pressure on Attorney General Ashcroft to enforce the spirit of the Voting Rights Act by Senate Democrats who voted to confirm him?
Some green shoots of reform are breaking through the cracks outside Washington. Bills calling for instant-runoff voting have been introduced in a dozen states. Proportional voting bills are in the hopper in Alabama, Illinois and Georgia. New Mexico's legislature has restored ex-felons' right to vote.
A host of organizations with direct interest in electoral reform are forming coalitions for change but none of them will get very far unless they're backed by a public outcry raucous enough to be heard inside the Beltway. Voting is too important to be left to the politicians; it must combust at the grass roots into a prairie fire.
To this end, more efforts at education--like the National Commission on Election Reform, headed by Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, which is currently holding hearings at presidential libraries around the country--are important. But education without an activist base demanding and demonstrating will remain a Socratic seminar. Instilling in the young the same idealism that inspired the voter drives of the sixties is one approach being tried by Democracy Summer. This program aims to enlist and train young volunteers to work with voting-rights organizations this summer (see www.democracysummer.org).
The Nation/Institute for Policy Studies' Progressive Challenge lays out a useful checklist of objectives for any electoral reform effort, including strict enforcement of the Voting Rights Act to end disfranchisement, instant-runoff voting, proportional representation, voting rights for former prisoners, elimination of bureaucratic hurdles that discourage participation, nonpartisan state election commissions and the abolition of the Electoral College (see www.votersbillofrights.org).
When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 he said, "The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls that imprison men because they are different from other men." Those walls still stand. A nation in which only 40 percent of the electorate votes is not even half free. Our overriding goal must be--ever more democracy.
The Senate's passage of McCain-Feingold was welcome if only as a comeuppance to the Trent Lotts and Mitch McConnells who had arrogantly defied popular sentiment by keeping the bill under wraps for six years. There were several factors that made the time right for McFein--including a strategic calculation by the parties that they had reached soft-money parity--but paramount among them was the prevailing climate of popular disgust with the sale of the government to the highest bidder. For this the interest groups that helped raise public consciousness with a steady flow of statistics and gamy anecdotes about the American way of bribery and extortion deserve great credit. Even George Bush has mumbled that he would sign a campaign finance reform bill, which doesn't say much for present legislative efforts but is a tribute to the critical mass reached by pro-reform sentiment in the country.
The fact that the Senate was even able to debate the bill seemed a freshet of democracy released by a spring thaw. Once the threat of filibuster and suppression by the leadership was lifted, a feisty debate bloomed on the floor. During the colloquy ending in the 60-40 rejection of one "compromise" that would have repealed a 1907 law banning direct contributions from corporations, some of the fiercest denunciations of corporate influence were heard since, well, 1907. Although Paul Wellstone's amendment to allow states to apply public financing systems to their own federal office races failed, it drew the support of thirty-six senators and more than seventy major groups--labor,enviro, black, Latino, religious.
But let's not get carried away. The bill that finally passed does little to alter a system pushed to the brink of plutocracy by the obscene power of money (note Bush's tax cut, incorporated in the budget bill the Senate next took up, so blatantly weighted toward his wealthy supporters). And it bore little resemblance to the measure John McCain and Russ Feingold originally proposed, which promised a ban on unregulated soft money and "bundling" (whereby givers maximize their influence by pooling their contributions), limits on spending by candidates and political action committees and provisions for free TV time.
The struggle to win Republican co-sponsors cost the bill all these reforms save the soft-money ban. But coming off a 2000 campaign that saw an unregulated $500 million flush through the political process, the passage of that ban was a meaningful achievement. Not nearly so meaningful, however, as it would have been in combination with the original McCain-Feingold reforms, and even less meaningful after a final round of compromises doubled "hard money" contribution limits for individuals from $1,000 to $2,000, increased the amount individuals can donate to candidates and parties during an election cycle from $25,000 to $37,500 and limited communication between advocacy groups and campaigns so much that the bill could be read to restrict legitimate public-interest lobbying.
These "poison pills" proved too much to swallow for former McCain-Feingold backers at Public Campaign, the US Public Interest Research Group and the Alliance for Justice. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. complained, "When you talk to people I represent about campaign finance reform, the first thing that comes to mind is not doubling the amount wealthy donors can give to campaigns."
Jackson and others can raise questions about the compromises that warped the Senate bill when the House finally debates its version of McFein, but they'll have a hard time making themselves heard in a body under the iron thumb of Tom DeLay, poster boy for everything that's corrupt about the current system. Also, Democratic leaders are having qualms, fearing that the GOP advantage in hard-money raising may kill their chances of financing a winning take-back-the-House-drive in '02. Even if a bill passes, it could be defanged in conference committee, giving Bush the innocuous bill he really wants to sign. And beyond that stretch inevitable court challenges.
Reformers should keep the heat on Congress with a new focus on the hard money system that constitutes the vast bulk of all campaign dollars. They should also understand that the real action will continue to be in the states, where "clean money" bills, which contain the true and only solution--full public financing of campaigns--are proliferating. Such laws have already been adopted by Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts (though statehouse Dems are shamefully trying to eviscerate the law) and Vermont, and drives to pass them are now under way in Connecticut, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin--and municipalities like Austin, Texas. Americans are well aware that their system is sick, and the Senate debate over McCain-Feingold has left them more open than ever to the heroic remedies needed to cure it.
HOW THE 'MAESTRO' HAS FALLEN
William Greider writes: While it is not exactly news that Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspanhas fallen from his state of infallible grace, the New York Times headline on April 2 still caused a rush: "Suddenly, Critics Are Taking Aim at Greenspan." When the Times announces this on its front page, it means Icarus is definitely losing altitude in elite opinion. The article itself was quite gentle, given the harsh things Wall Street traders and Main Street investors are saying about the chairman. Nevertheless, the report will perhaps embolden some members of Congress to begin a tougher inquiry. Why exactly did Greenspan launch his campaign against the economy back in 1999, steadily raising interest rates until the expansion faltered, then swooned? If he was slyly attempting to pop the stock-market bubble, he certainly succeeded. But in that case, why did he not use the Federal Reserve's credit-control mechanisms much earlier to contain the speculation before it unhinged economic balance? These and other questions about Fed policy ought to be examined by Congressional investigation, now that the maestro's baton is broken.
HISS & CHAMBERS: TRAFFICKING IN HISTORY
No sooner did "The Alger Hiss Story" premiere on the web (www.nyu.edu/hiss) and at a launch party in the Tamiment Library at New York University recently, than assorted sectarians--Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard and other cold warriors who have yet to lay down their arms--leaped into the fray. Why bother with a pro-Hiss website, asked the Standard (pointing out that the Nation Institute was one of its facilitators), when Whittaker Chambers's "monumental" book Witness tells you all you need to know about the case? Hiss's son, Tony, archivist Jeff Kisseloff and assorted scholars who helped build the site made clear at the launch their joint goal: a site that makes the case for the defense but will ultimately be the definitive depository of documents and scholarly research related to the case. One of the peculiarities of the post-cold war period is that those who keep vociferously proclaiming each new archival find the final nail in Hiss's coffin never seem willing to examine the evidence too closely. Truth be told, the Standard would prefer to let the case rest with Chambers, whose farm, his last resting place, was declared, over the objections of the National Park Service, a National Historic Landmark by the Reagan Administration in 1988. Perhaps traffic will decide the matter. When last asked, the Park Service estimated to historian Jon Wiener that two people a year go there. Maybe the Hiss website can do better.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
What was the story of Dan Rather's accidental appearance at a Democratic fundraiser in Texas doing on the front page of the April 4 Washington Post? If Rather unknowingly appeared at such an event, that's news, though perhaps not as big a story as Fox anchor Tony Snow's knowingly writing for an official GOP website. Rather was drawn into the appearance by an old friend and by his daughter, who appears to be considering a political career. Should he have looked into it more carefully before agreeing to show up? Surely. Should he have left once he discovered the nature of the gathering? That's arguable.What's odd, though, is that the Post believes that in the midst of a crisis with China and a collapse in the stock market, Rather's appearance at a local Texas event was front-page news. Could its front-page treatment of Rather, long a bête noire of the right, be an effort to distance itself from the "liberal media" the Bush people have been shunning recently? Much the same kind of sucking-up by the Post and other papers happened during the Reagan Administration twenty years ago, and believe us, it's no prettier today.
We're pleased to announce that Jamie Lincoln Kitman's special report, "The Secret History of Lead" (March 20, 2000), has been awarded the Investigative Reporters and Editors' highest honor for 2000: the IRE Medal. The IRE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting, singled out Kitman's revelations of continuing sales of leaded gas to the Third World after it was banned in the United States in 1986 and said that his report "reads like a classic turn-of-the-century muckraking piece.... The research manifested here is nothing short of breathtaking." The article was made possible by a grant from the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.
The prevailing view of the Bush Administration's expulsion of some fifty Russian diplomats in retaliation for the Robert Hanssen spy scandal has been that it was a throwback to cold war days when the great game of tit for tat was the normal way of doing things. But the apparent recrudescence of the cold war mindset should be cause for concern. The only alternative interpretation--that Washington hasn't any better ideas for dealing with Moscow--is equally troubling.
For one thing, the size of the expulsions was excessive. One would have to go back to 1986 to find comparable numbers. Also, they come on the heels of a stream of in-your-face pronouncements by Administration figures--Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for example, calling Russia an "active proliferator" and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, saying it is "willing to sell anything to anyone for money"--and the loud insistence that the ill-conceived National Missile Defense scheme must go through regardless of Moscow's (or China's or Europe's) objections.
In fact, America does need a new Russia policy after the Clinton Administration's failures. Russia should be our number-one security worry--not because of its strength or aggressiveness but because of its weakness. Its economy has collapsed, its military is demoralized. But it remains a nuclear power equal to the United States. Indeed, the difference between now and cold war times is that the Soviet state was in control of its nuclear devices. Now, it sits atop a crumbling nuclear infrastructure, with poorly maintained reactors, vulnerable stockpiles and a dangerously degraded control system over missiles that remain, like our own, on hair trigger alert. The possibility of an accidental launch triggering a nuclear exchange has never been greater.
The reversion to mindless cold war games obscures these new threats and makes even more difficult the US-Russian cooperation needed to deal with them. That each side will spy on the other is a fact of international life and should not be used as a pretext for further distancing. Washington's priority should be working more closely with Moscow to make the latter's nuclear armaments more secure. The cold war is over. It is frightening that the Bush people show no signs of comprehending this.
On March 26, PBS carried something that has become increasingly rare in our media-besotted land: genuine journalism. The program was an explosive investigation by Bill Moyers and his staff of a decades-long program by the chemical industry to hide the life-threatening dangers associated with the use and production of their products. People were dying who did not have to die; they were living with debilitating illnesses and receiving no compensation from the companies.
The industry did everything it could to discredit Moyers. It set up a website, wrote angry letters to PBS and accused Moyers of a biased presentation--before having seen the program.
One would think that a story of this magnitude would interest others in the mainstream media. One would be wrong. In the Washington Post, media columnist Howard Kurtz focused on the controversy between Moyers and the companies. The New York Times, however, reviewed the program as if taking orders directly from the chemical industry. "Have we perhaps grown up in a perverse sort of way and now accept that spectacular progress like that of the last half-century cannot be achieved without tradeoffs?" wrote Neil Genzlinger. "Nothing good, be it democracy or more durable house paint, comes without a price."
No one on the program argued against tradeoffs or democracy. The issue Moyers presented was quite simple: Do companies have the right to lie and mislead their workers and the public about the potentially harmful effects of their products? If tradeoffs or democracy were the issue, then the victims of these companies would at least have been given the relevant information about the likelihood that they might contract cancer or other life-threatening diseases as a result of their exposure to toxic chemicals. Yet, as Moyers reported, that information was deliberately withheld or covered up by the companies.
People died or were permanently disfigured as a result of the coverups Bill Moyers exposed. Yet the Times likened acceptance of (slow) murder by corporations for profits to growing up. It's hard to know which is more offensive: the actions of the corporations or the willingness of journalists to act as apologists for them.
All signs point to an all-out drive by the Bush Administration to slot judicial conservatives into the eighty-nine current vacancies on the federal bench. The recent to-do about ending the American Bar Association's role in screening nominees was a smoke signal to the conservative base that only the "right" kind of judges henceforth need apply. White House counsel Alberto Gonzales grumbled that the ABA, which has been screening nominees since the Eisenhower Administration, "takes public positions on divisive political, legal and social issues." In fact, ABA's screening committees eschew political judgments, instead evaluating the candidates' ethics, competence and judicial temperament.
The real meaning of Gonzales's words is that the Bushites want a free hand to appoint their own ideologues. Conservatives crave revenge for the 1987 Senate rejection of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, whom four members of the ABA's fifteen-member standing committee found "not qualified." This split decision by the usually unanimous committee gave ammunition to Bork's opponents. Gonzales let the word go forth that in selecting nominees he and John Ashcroft will heed the Federalist Society and kindred far-right legal groups whose acolytes honeycomb this Administration.
Bush further heartened his right-wing supporters by blocking Clinton nominees for the bench like Roger Gregory, who had been given an interim appointment to the Fourth Circuit. (He's the first African-American to enter Jesse Helms's segregated preserve.) Meanwhile, other solidly qualified Clinton nominees have been left dangling by the Judiciary Committee, including James Klein, the able DC public defender; Helene White (whose nomination was stalled for more than 1,500 days) and a score of others for whom Senator Orrin Hatch refused to hold hearings.
The Bushites' court-packing drive is a grade-A rush job. For one thing, the roll Bush is on is petering out with his tax plan seen by a wider public as too friendly to the rich. Then, too, if an enfeebled Strom Thurmond exits the stage, control of the Judiciary Committee would shift to the Democrats, and then it's a whole new ball game.
If ever there was a time for mobilizing a counteroffensive, this is it. Bush has no mandate to add more weight to an already rightward-tilting federal bench. The Supreme Court's patently political ruling in Bush v. Gore has shaken its credibility. There is a growing constituency for judicial integrity and against a rollback of individual rights. Public-interest groups are tuning up. Some that will be in the thick of the fight: National Women's Law Center, National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, People for the American Way, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (for more information contact Marcia Kuntz at the Alliance for Justice, 202-822-6070; email@example.com).
Progressives must also apply pressure on Democratic senators to stall the Bush drive to stack the bench. Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman's suggestion that no Bush Supreme Court nominees should be approved is on the mark. Democrats should demand the same privilege that Hatch claimed of vetting all lower court nominees before their names become public.
Let's heed the admonition of Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice: "Fight early, fight often and fight to win."
Adrian Wilson can't make a lobbying trip to Albany anytime soon: The New York State Department of Corrections does not escort its prisoners to the state capital for teach-ins. But his story--typical of the 22,000 nonviolent drug offenders in New York's cellblocks on any given day--could serve as the centerpiece of the campaign now under way for the long-overdue repeal of the notoriously punitive Rockefeller drug laws. In 1983 Wilson, an African-American, then 29, was arrested for drug possession--his first offense--and prosecutors offered him a plea bargain that would have required him to undergo electroshock treatments and eight months' incarceration. Wilson chose instead to exercise his constitutional right to a trial. Convicted of possessing four ounces of cocaine, instead of eight months he faced a mandatory prison term of fifteen years to life.
No single moment in the history of US criminal justice matches the destructive impact of the New York legislature's 1973 session. That was when Governor Nelson Rockefeller set the tone for a national wave of prison-packing schemes with the drug laws that bear his name. As Wilson's case illustrates, the Rockefeller drug laws combined two regressive criminal justice policies into a new and potent brew: They prescribe imprisonment rather than treatment for drug offenders, and they establish mandatory minimum sentences and give the power to decide sentences to the prosecutors, who choose charges, rather than to the judges hearing cases.
The outcome, repeated thousands of times daily around the country: Nonviolent drug offenders like Wilson get punished not in proportion to any presumed threat to society but for daring to inconvenience prosecutors with a trial. With built-in incentives for police and prosecutors to concentrate on low-level users and with racial discrimination an inevitability, the Rockefeller drug laws are the ancestor of just about every regressive criminal justice policy since enacted--three-strikes laws, federal sentencing guidelines and zero-tolerance police sweeps.
With the cost for imprisoning Rockefeller drug offenders topping $710 million per year, Governor George Pataki has at last proposed a package of reforms reducing minimum drug sentences and expanding treatment. Assembly Democrats--many of whom have dodged the issue for years until Pataki opened the door--have upped the ante, proposing more sweeping discretion for judges and more money for drug treatment. The Correctional Association of New York and a broad array of activist, religious and legal-reform groups have launched a Drop the Rock campaign (kicked off with a March 1 forum in Manhattan co-sponsored by the Nation Institute), which on March 27 will bring thousands to Albany for a day of teach-ins and citizen lobbying. Only a handful of district attorneys, worried about losing their sentencing leverage in plea bargains, are holding out for the Rockefeller status quo.
So the question is not whether New York will reform but if reform will go far enough. Pataki's plan would not give judges any more discretion for Class B felonies, the most commonly charged drug offenses in New York, and would actually increase some minimum sentences. Pataki would allow prosecutors to handpick the offenders tracked into treatment--a certain recipe for abuse and another usurpation of the proper authority of judges. Perhaps most important, Pataki has so far come nowhere near proposing a budget for drug treatment commensurate with the need. Drug-law reform without a commitment to drug treatment is a half-measure, similar to the 1980s deinstitutionalization of psychiatric patients with no system of community mental healthcare in place.
New York, which for years styled itself as a pioneer in criminal justice policy, is now playing catch-up to states like California, whose voters last November overwhelmingly approved a treatment-over-prison referendum for first- and second-time offenders, or Colorado and Nevada, which have passed medical-marijuana measures. But the Rockefeller laws are the founding charter of the failed war on drugs, and their repeal would turn state reform tremors into an American earthquake. In immediate impact on the lives of the poor and people of color, and as a long-term shift in national priorities, there will be no more important campaign this year. It's time to Drop the Rock.
We are pleased to announce that Maria Margaronis and D.D. Guttenplan, who have been contributing editors to the magazine since 1998, will serve as our London bureau. Margaronis, a former Nation associate literary editor, was a senior editor of the Village Voice Literary Supplement and taught for five years at the New School for Social Research. Guttenplan, a former senior editor at the Village Voice and staff writer at New York Newsday, is the author of The Holocaust on Trial, an account of the David Irving-Deborah Lipstadt libel case, to be published in May by Norton.
Augmenting our editorial board is Tony Kushner, already a contributor to our pages and author of one of the quintessential Broadway plays of the nineties, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. This two-part epic won about every major theatrical award, including two Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize.
Joining our masthead as a contributing editor is Robert Dreyfuss, who has written frequently for this journal and for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones and The American Prospect, with particular emphasis on campaign finance, lobbying and money in politics.