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Ari Berman | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Bloomberg's the 'Disgrace'

It's bad enough that Mike Bloomberg jerry-rigged a third term for himself via the hapless city council--a maneuver not even Rudy Giuliani could pull off after 9/11--and has already spent $19 million in the middle of a recession on an re-election campaign where he's facing only nominal resistance from city comptroller Bill Thompson.

But now anybody who has the audacity to question the mayor's decision to handicap democracy is called a "disgrace." That's what happened to the New York Observer's Azi Paybarah at a press conference in Queens yesterday. Bloomberg mentioned how the New York economy was improving, which prompted Paybarah to ask Bloomberg if such a turnaround undermined his supposed rationale for running for mayor again--that only Bloomberg could handle the city's finances during an economic calamity. Watch the response:

This is not the first time that Bloomberg has jumped on a reporter for asking a perfectly legitimate question. Quite frankly, he's behaving more like an emperor or an autocrat than the humble public servant he claims to be.

I don't think Bloomberg's been a bad mayor. He's been good on some things and poor on others. The city has, by and large, flourished on his watch. A majority of New Yorkers remain satisfied with the job he's done. Yet the city feels a little like Singapore these days, well-run but ultimately sterile. The way Bloomberg's been buying elections contributes to that.

During the presidential election, it seemed as if New York, more than any other place, embodied the spirit of Obama. "Obamaism" was its own kind of religion here, New York's Kurt Andersen wrote. So it's a little sad how, just a few months later, we're witnessing a decline in democracy right in our own backyard.

L'Affaire Edwards: To Sabotage or Not?

On the heels of Elizabeth Edwards' revelation in her new book that she wanted her husband to drop out of the race for the presidency after having an affair with videographer Rielle Hunter, George Stephanopoulos reported on Sunday that Edwards staffers had convened a strategy to "sabotage his campaign" if he won the Democratic nomination.

Onetime Edwards strategist Joe Trippi has since responded to that report, calling it "complete bullshit."

Trippi told CNN: "No one that I know had such a plan, I wasn't involved in a plan like that, it didn't exist, it's a fantasy."

Trippi may be right, but I distinctly recall a conversation with an Edwards confidante at the Democratic Convention in August that lends some credence to the "sabotage strategy." I asked the Edwards insider--who asked not to be named--whether the staff knew about Edwards' affair (and possible love child) and whether they had planned to do anything about it. "We would have prevented Edwards from becoming the nominee had he won Iowa," this person told me based on my recollection of the conversation, "because we believed some portion of the rumors to be true."

I remember being surprised at that revelation and finding the whole scenario somewhat implausible. Why wait until after Iowa? If longtime staffers knew about or suspected Edwards' entanglements, shouldn't they have acted long before it reached voting time?

I asked that same Edwards confidante yesterday whether such a "sabotage strategy" ever existed? The person replied: "To suggest there was a plan is too strong. There was concern that if Edwards were actually in a position to seriously be the nominee, then this stuff needed to be aired and dealt with. He couldn't be the nominee without this dealt with in a real way." There was never an official conference call or the like, but such chatter did take place among Edwards campaign vets as the candidate picked up steam in Iowa in December. Prior to that point, it was assumed--even among some longtime supporters--that Edwards had little change of winning the nomination.

The Edwards staffers who discussed such a scenario figured "the problem would fix itself"--either Edwards would lose Iowa and drop out, or "if he was doing well, he'd get a lot more scrutiny and the press would either figure it out or not."

It's possible, in the end, that some people in the Edwards campaign knew about or suspected the affair and were prepared to do something about it, and others were kept in the dark or didn't take part in such conversations.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell makes a good point in her latest Notion blog; it's strange that people are blaming Elizabeth for opening old wounds when her husband's extraordinary carelessness and selfishness created this problem in the first place.

Bailout Increasingly Unpopular in Congress

The Bush Administration continues to aggressively push its Wall Street bailout plan on Congress, where it's reaching a surprising amount of resistance. Congressional Leaders in the House and Senate are still trying to cut a deal with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, but the bailout seems to be getting more unpopular by the day with rank-and-file members of Congress from both parties.

Democrats are unhappy because the bailout favors Wall Street over Main Street. Republicans are unhappy about the $700 billion cost and expansion of "big government."

Matt Stoller of Open Left has been doing an excellent job of monitoring how members of Congress are reacting. Here's a great clip from Ohio Democratic Representative Marcy Kaptur:

On the other side, Republican web strategist Patrick Ruffini has been urging Republicans to vote against the bailout. "God Himself couldn't have given rank-and-file Republicans a better opportunity to create political space between themselves and the Administration," Ruffini blogged earlier this week.

The economic downturn has thus far benefitted the Democrats politically, but the politics of the bailout are still explosive. Ruffini is right that Republicans could help themselves by voting against a huge and unpopular deal while Democrats could also get in trouble, ironically, for aligning themselves too closely with the Administration. However, neither party wants to be blamed for doing nothing if the economy tanks further, upping the likelihood that some sort of plan might pass.

Thus far, Obama and McCain have sounded similar notes on the subject, calling for more oversight and consumer protections but cautiously supporting the Treasury/Fed effort.

Gary Hart: Obama Should Blame GOP for Economic Collapse

Gary Hart was a groomsman at John McCain's wedding to Cindy Lou Hensley, so he knows a thing or two about the Arizona Senator.

On the day of Sarah Palin's visit to Colorado, Hart--who represented the Centennial State in the Senate for twelve years--had a message for Palin and McCain: now is not the time for political ignorance to be rewarded.

"It's more than a little concerning that one of four people who may take up the highest national office is unwilling to engage in any serious questions or real discussion," Hart said on a conference call organized by the group ProgressNow. "I hope that this attention she is getting now is a bubble of sorts. Given the financial markets and what has happened just this weekend, stakes are even higher than they were 72 hours ago. This is not just another national election."

Hart said his longtime friend had shed his maverick persona and cast his lot with Palin and the right-wing base of the Republican Party. Now, belatedly, McCain is trying to get his old image back. "Yes, he's claiming again to be a maverick," Hart said. "That's the problem with political advertising - it's all just 30 second soundbites. No real discussion. The proof is in the pudding. In this case, the pudding is down-the-line voting along with the Bush administration."

And, with the race locked in a deadheat and the economy imploding, Hart had this advice for Obama:

 

"I've been advocating, publicly and privately, that he make this a transformational election. There comes times in this country's history - we saw it in '32 and '36 of course, and also in '48 with Truman and '60 with Kennedy - when voters are forced to face the fact that we must do things, economically, in foreign policy, fundamentally differently."

 

 

"Obama's change message right now is, 'get rid of those who have mismanaged and put in people who will manage better.' He needs to wrap that up and step beyond it."

 

 

"This is transformational politics. He must lay the burden of this economic collapse at the feet of the whole Republican Party, where it belongs."

 

Here's what Obama said today:

 

Today offers more evidence that too many folks in Washington and on Wall Street weren't minding the store. For eight years, we've had policies that have shredded consumer protections, loosened oversight and regulation, and encouraged outsized bonuses to CEOs while ignoring middle-class Americans. The result is the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression.

 

 

I certainly don't fault Senator McCain for these problems. But I do fault the economic philosophy he subscribes to. It's the same philosophy we've had for the last eight years – one that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. It's a philosophy that says even common-sense regulations are unnecessary and unwise; one that says we should just stick our heads in the sand and ignore economic problems until they spiral into crises.

 

Now, maybe it goes without saying, but Obama never blames Republicans, explicitly, for the mess they've made.

Swift Boaters Support McCain

In 2004 Republicans had a strategy: turn John Kerry's biggest strength into an electoral liability. Democrats nominated Kerry largely because of his decorated military service in Vietnam, believing that Kerry's Purple Hearts would insulate him from Republican attacks on national security.

Kerry's military service was indeed an asset, until the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacked both his combat experiences in Vietnam and his antiwar activism after.

Now what Wesley Clark said about John McCain is being compared to what the Swift Boaters said about John Kerry. I can't imagine a more ludicrous comparison. Clark, a retired four star general and former commander of NATO, was offering his opinion about whether McCain is supremely qualified to be commander-in-chief. As my colleague Ari Melber wrote today, others who wore the uniform have made similar points (including McCain!), without inciting the least bit of controversy.

The Swift Boat campaign, on the other hand, was based on outright lies and distortions. That's why McCain himself quickly denounced them as "dishonest and dishonorable."

But McCain seems to have had a change of heart. On his campaign "truth squad" yesterday was none other than Colonel Bud Day, a prominent member of the Swift Boat Vets in 2004.

Via Ben Smith, here's what The New Yorker wrote about Day in 2006:

 

Day was also prominently featured in ads prepared by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which attacked Senator John Kerry's Vietnam service last year. In one commercial, Day addressed himself to Kerry, asking, "How can you expect our sons and daughters to follow you when you condemned their fathers and grandfathers?" When McCain defended Kerry and denounced the ads, Day was upset with his old comrade. "Something that made Bud such an ideal leader in prison was his tunnel vision," McCain told me later. "That makes him behave on the outside-well . . . " He trailed off, chuckling."

 

Tunnel vision is an apt metaphor for the McCain campaign of the moment. McCain has accepted over $70,000 in campaign contributions from Swift Boat donors, second to only Mitt Romney in the GOP primary. As John Kerry told my colleague Chris Hayes in January:

 

"I'm surprised that the John McCain I knew who was smeared in 2000 and thought so-called Swift Boating was wrong in 2004 would feel comfortable taking their money after seeing the way it was used to hurt the veterans I know he loves."

 

McCain is milking the Clark "controversy" for all it's worth, while surrounding himself with the very same people who slimed Kerry's military service. That's the real scandal.

Small Donors Matter More Than Outdated Laws

Last winter, in the early stages of his run for the presidency, Barack Obama said he'd consider accepting public financing for the general election if his Republican opponent would do the same and agree to a set of ground rules, including limiting spending by party committees and outside 527 political advocacy groups.

That statement by Obama came before he assembled the most impressive fundraising juggernaut in modern political history, thanks in large part to an explosion of small donors giving over the internet. If Obama accepted public financing in the general, he'd have $85 million to spend between the end of his party's convention in late August and November 4. Obama realized he could raise far more than that for the late stages of his campaign and do so in a generally honorable way. (John McCain, in turn, refused to limit spending by the RNC or referee 527 groups active on his behalf). So today his campaign announced it would opt out of public financing in the general. As the great economist John Maynard Keynes once said, when accused of inconsistency: "When the facts change, I change my mind -- what do you do, sir?"

The facts changed for Obama. "It's not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections," Obama said in a message to supporters today. "But the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system."

McCain predictably slammed Obama's decision, in a calculated attempt to reaffirm his lapsed reformist credentials. Yet McCain's the one who's violating both the spirit--and perhaps the letter--of existing campaign-finance laws, as my colleague John Nichols noted, by opting in and then out of public financing when it was politically expedient.

Obama's army of small donors, building on the grassroots movement pioneered by Howard Dean in 2003-2004, represents a far more compelling challenge to the status quo than anything McCain is proposing. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, nearly early half of the $263 million the Obama campaign raised as of April came in donations of $200 or less. Only 34 percent came from donors giving $1,000--not an insignificant sum, but not an overwhelming number, either. Obama has almost three times as many small donors as McCain.

Sxity-three percent of McCain donors gave $1,000 or more. Only 23 percent of the $100 million McCain raised as of April came from donors giving $200 or less. While Obama built a campaign for the 21st century, McCain is still wrapped in conventional politics, raising big donations from the usual assortment of wealthy donors and big business.

Of course, small donations alone don't alleviate the need to fundamentally change how elections are run or financed in this country. Senators Susan Collins and Russ Feingold have sponsored legislation to modernize and update the current presidential public financing system, while Senators Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter have introduced a bill to publicly finance Congressional campaigns. Obama is an original cosponsor of both Feingold-Collins and Durbin-Specter. McCain has declined to sponsor either.

The campaign finance reform community recognizes these changing realities, but some leaders still remain wedded to the days of old. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, one of McCain's closest allies in the campaign-finance movement, said he was "very disappointed" in Obama's decision. Public Citizen also proclaimed itself "deeply disappointed." Both Wertheimer and Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook helped to create the post-Watergate system of public financing, so they are naturally reticent at watching it die.

Other groups accept that the current system of public financing, in the words of Common Cause President Bob Edgar, "is badly outdated and in need of a major overhaul." They hope Obama, based on his past and future commitments, will be the one to change that. As one campaign-finance reformer told me, "holding Obama accountable for not opting into a broken system isn't really fair. We want the best reformer to win, not the candidate with a hand tied behind their back."

Iowa Needs Your Help

The state of Iowa was the star of this political season for over a year. The Hawkeye state launched Barack Obama's candidacy, derailed Hillary Clinton's and turned Mike Huckabee into a GOP power-broker. All eyes were on Iowa--and then the political circus left, on to New Hampshire and the 48 caucuses and primaries that followed.

Now Iowa needs your attention again. Key parts of eastern Iowa, in case you haven't heard, are underwater, the result of catastrophic flooding. Nearly half of the state is considered a disaster area. "The economic costs of the devastating floods were also beginning to seep in," the New York Times reported today, "tourism officials, who depend on the short summers, were bracing for washed-out seasons; farmers in many states stared out at ponds that had once been their fields of beans and corn; and officials were preparing to shut down 315 miles of the Mississippi River, a crucial route for millions of tons of coal, grains and steel."

2008-06-14-2576962886_3569a555ae.jpg

(Cedar Rapids, courtesy of flickr user magneticjade)

2008-06-14-2577307082_37b09ddcfe_m.jpg

(Des Moines, courtesy of flickr user synthesizers')

Click here for a haunting slideshow compiled by the Times. The floods hit the same week as a tornado in western Iowa tragically killed four Boy Scouts and injured 50 others.

Water levels are receding in some places, like Cedar Rapids, but may soon rise in others, like Iowa City. The latest flooding brings back haunting memories of the Great Flood of 1993, the most costly in US history. My hometown of Fairfield, in southeast Iowa, was one of the few not located on the banks of a river--and thus protected. Most other places weren't so lucky. I remember flying overhead that summer and seeing virtually the entire state submerged in water. To this day, it's still one of the saddest sights I've ever seen. Iowans remember those day more vividly than any war.

Here's a good article about how you can help. Consider donating to the Red Cross's disaster relief fund or, if you live in the area, contributing your time. We've seen the devastation caused by natural disasters in New Orleans, Myanmar and China recently. Let's do everything we can to help those in need.

Key Women Clinton Supporters: McCain Won't Get Our Vote

John McCain has made it clear that his campaign intends to aggressively court supporters of Hillary Clinton, include her major base of women voters.

Now top women Clinton supporters have a message for McCain: not so fast.

"The McCain campaign has been talking about the mythology of trying to pick up HRC supporters," says Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY'S List. "This is a pipe dream, because he's out of touch with their lives and the issues they care about."

"We are here to sound the alarm bell," said Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of South Florida on a conference call today. "We are going to work hard to make sure that John McCain is not allowed to pull the wool over womens' eyes one more day."

Wasserman-Schultz pointed to McCain's opposition to universal healthcare, universal pre-K, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and raising the minimum wage as some of the many reasons women voters will rally around Barack Obama come November. "As a young woman in America who is a mom with three young kids, there is a real fear that John McCain will be dangerous for women," Wasserman-Schultz said. "He will impede our progress."

Malcolm and Wasserman-Schultz referenced a new Gallup poll showing Obama leading McCain by 13 points among women voters, a six point bump since Clinton exited the race and endorsed Obama. Gallup found that Obama is now "matching Clinton's performance among women versus McCain." In addition, Obama leads McCain among women 50 and older--a key chunk of Clinton's base--by six points, after trailing McCain among that group when Clinton remained in the race.

McCain is currently running well behind George W. Bush in 2004, who lost women voters to John Kerry by just three points by appealing to "security moms." And among non-college educated white women--another key segment of Clinton's base--Bush beat Kerry by nineteen points. In '06, Democrats cut that margin to five, a big reason why they recaptured Congress. If Obama can match that '06 number, there's a good chance Democrats will recapture the White House.

Wasserman-Schultz admitted that many Clinton supporters are still in a "period of mourning." According to Malcolm, "There is a lot of anger about sexism in the media, and the ongoing unwillingness to say anything positive about Clinton and her campaign. But that is about the media, and I dont think that transfers to Senator Obama."

EMILY'S List is planning to mobilize women voters on behalf of Obama in key battleground states, just as they did for Kerry and Gore and Clinton. An endless war in Iraq, skyrocketing gas prices, tax breaks for oil companies and a faltering economy are issues that deeply concern women voters. If Obama emphasizes these topics, Clinton supporters say, he can win over pro-Clinton skeptics. "The proof will be in the pudding," Wasserman-Schultz says, "as he campaigns across the country and talks about these issues that matter to women. This is what will warm women to him."

Fox's "Terrorist Fist Jab"

There's a few different ways to react to Fox News host E.D. Hill labeling Barack and Michelle Obama's fist bump in St. Paul last week as a possible "terrorist fist jab."

1. Hill should be reprimanded for her breathtaking ignorance and cultural myopia.

2. Hill should be fired for comparing Obama to a terrorist with absolutely no supporting evidence. In fact, she never even explains the reference in the segment that follows.

3. This is Fox News. What else should we expect?

A combination of 1 and 3 sounds about right. Today Hill offered this rather bizarre apology. SEE UPDATE BELOW.

"I certainly didn't mean to associate the word terrorist in any way with Senator Obama and his wife," Hill explained.

There's that word again--terrorist!

UPDATE: Fox News execs apparently decided option #2 was most appropriate. Hill has lost her show, but will remain with the network in some capacity. A new hire is conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham. No word yet on whether she's compared Obama to a terrorist, but here's a link to Ingraham's greatest hits.

The 'Obamican' Phenomenon

In early April I visited the political battleground of suburban Philadelphia to interview a bunch of former Republicans who'd registered as Democrats to vote for Barack Obama in the April 22 primary. These interviews formed the basis of my latest Nation article, "Pennsylvania's 'Obamicans.'"

The story is largely set in Doylestown, one of Philly's oldest and most picturesque exurbs. It's a swing town in a swing area in a crucial swing state. As such, the political trends in Doylestown and the rest of Bucks County are pretty indicative of what's going on throughout Pennsylvania and the rest of the country.

The article is subscription-only on our website (so become a subscriber!), but I'm posting an edited excerpt below for the loyal readers of this blog.

 

Doylestown, like much of Bucks County, used to be deeply, proudly, Republican. "In my youth, in central Bucks County, I grew up without knowing any Democrats," James Michener wrote in Report of the County Chairman, his account of volunteering for John F. Kennedy in 1960. "My mother thought there might be some on the edge of town, but she preferred not to speak of them." Things began to change in 1992, when the recession that year pushed Bucks County toward Bill Clinton. In the following years, as the GOP increasingly became identified with the religious right, the county voted for Democrats for President. Yet until recently, Republicans controlled all the levers of local government.

 

 

A surge of Democratic activism in the past few years has turned Doylestown, and much of the county, from red to purple--and quite possibly to blue. In 2003 Republicans dominated the borough council 9-0; now it's 6-3 Democratic. After sending Republicans to Congress in every election since 1993, in 2006 Bucks County's 8th Congressional District elected Democrat Patrick Murphy, a 34-year-old Iraq War vet. In January there were 21,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in Bucks. By early April, thanks to a massive voter-registration drive, Democrats outnumbered Republicans for the first time since 1978, when Democrats briefly held sway after Watergate.

 

 

What's happening in Bucks mirrors trends throughout Pennsylvania, where the state Democratic Party has added a remarkable 300,000 voters since January. Nearly half of these Democrats, according to the state board of elections, are new or previously unregistered voters lured by the excitement of the Clinton-Obama race. The other half are former Republicans and independents who switched to vote in the Democratic primary, mostly for Obama. Before the March 24 registration deadline (only registered Democrats may vote in the April 22 primary), the Obama campaign made an all-out effort to convert disaffected Republicans, otherwise known as "Obamicans."

 

 

In Bucks County there are "regular Obamicans"--former Republicans who volunteer only occasionally for Obama, if at all--and "super-volunteer Obamicans," Yeager tells me, half-jokingly. Christine Harrison, a peppy former travel agent who dates her ancestry back to President Benjamin Harrison, is a super-volunteer Obamican. Raised in a family of lifelong Republicans, Harrison has never in her life voted for a Democrat. But after watching the Democratic debates and Obama's victory speech in Iowa, she caught the Obama bug. Harrison attended the opening of his office in Doylestown, the Friday before Super Tuesday, and met Peachy Myers, an energetic veteran of Obama's South Carolina field team, who asked her to volunteer. "I told her I'm a Republican and she said, That's OK," Harrison recalls. "So I said, Well, let me be your very first Obamican! And I changed my registration right there." Harrison's now a volunteer coordinator for Obama, spending all her waking hours helping to get a Democrat elected President. Ten members of Harrison's all-Republican family have since changed their affiliation--all for Obama.

 

 

Victor Unger, an 80-year-old retired research director for a chemical company, is more of a regular Obamican. Unger has been a Republican since he moved to Bucks County in 1968. Almost two years ago Unger and his wife, a Democrat, heard Obama speak about his book The Audacity of Hope. Unger read both of Obama's books and "was really impressed by his intellect." "He's running at the right time in our history," he says. Unger changed his registration in March and began occasionally stopping by the Obama office to help out where needed.

 

 

It seems like every prominent Democrat in Bucks used to be a Republican--or is married to one. Congressman Patrick Murphy's wife, Jennifer, a 33-year-old lawyer, is another lifelong Republican. "Every time I went to the polls I saw a Clinton or a Bush on the ballot, and I voted for a Bush or against Clinton every time," Murphy says. Her husband was the first Democrat Murphy ever voted for, and Obama will be the second.

 

 

Like many Republicans in Bucks County, Murphy describes herself as fiscally conservative and socially moderate. "I still, for the most part, consider myself a Republican," she says, and inverts Ronald Reagan's famous maxim: "I didn't leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party and this President left me." Disaffected Republicans in Bucks, furious at how George W. Bush and the religious right hijacked their grand old party, are voting Democratic in the primary out of frustration, not because Rush Limbaugh told them to. The quagmire in Iraq and the downturn in the economy matter to these voters, but so do issues of personal freedom, like reproductive rights, technological advances like stem-cell research and protecting the environment--all neglected or opposed by the current GOP.

 

 

Many of these Obamicans are voting as much against the Clintons as for Obama. "I hate the Clintons," Harrison told me point-blank. "I find Bill fairly reprehensible," Unger said, "and have overwhelmingly negative feelings toward Hillary." Many Obamicans, these included, said they'd vote for John McCain in the general election if Clinton was the Democratic nominee, or wouldn't vote at all. Harrison said all ten members of her family would switch back to the GOP.

 

 

Obama's Republican supporters see in him what Bush promised to be in 2000: a great uniter. "He doesn't see me as a sworn mortal enemy because I'm a Republican," Jennifer Murphy says. Clinton and Obama may be virtually indistinguishable liberals on most policy positions, but Obamicans see their man as a kindred spirit, someone who will--as his campaign often reminds us--bring people together and bridge the partisan divide.

 

 

What's striking--and a little disturbing--about the Obamican phenomenon in '08 is how much it rests not so much on specific issues but on the candidate's personal characteristics and calls to transcend race and achieve political unity. Will these same voters still support him when Obama tries to withdraw from Iraq, or pass universal healthcare, or raise taxes on the rich, or push for any number of policy programs that are likely to anger many core Republicans? The Obamicans could turn out to be just another passing political fad. After all, conservative columnists like David Brooks and George Will heaped praise on Obama early in the campaign season, only to turn against him later. In a general election, McCain--with his maverick reputation, however dated or inaccurate--could stop the bleeding in places like Bucks County, keeping the remaining moderate Republicans in the GOP fold.

 

 

Obama is expected to do well in Philadelphia and its suburbs, but he faces an uphill climb in the rest of the state. Yet if he can go on to win the nomination and keep his Republican converts in the Democratic column come November, and beyond, he may achieve what no President since Reagan has--an enduring realignment of crossover voters.

 

 

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