The Nation

Is Chris Christie Gaining Traction for 2016?

Chris Christie

Chris Christie (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Since the release of the self-commissioned investigative report by Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, a law firm run by an ally, Governor Christie has fought to stabilize his political future, and he’s taken steps to restart his 2016 presidential bid. That might be difficult in the face of four—count ‘em, four—separate investigations of the various scandals that have emerged since last fall, and as Christie Watch reports below, even the report by Christie’s own lawyers, though widely disparaged as a cover-up, provides all those investigators with leads that they can follow. Still, there are signs that Christie is getting some traction again, at least based on the results of recent polls.

According to a Fox News poll about would-be 2016 GOP candidates, Christie leads the field with 15 percent support, just ahead of Jeb Bush and Rand Paul. (Interestingly, though, in the Fox poll all three top candidates have unfavorability ratings that outweigh their favorability.) Christie also finished strong in a new McClatchy-Marist poll of all voters, comparing various Republicans in head-to-head matchups with Hillary Clinton, in which Clinton beats Christie by 53 to 42 percent. (Clinton bests Jeb Bush 55-39 percent in that poll.) And, in an interview with the Staten Island Advance, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, sounding downright bipartisan, says that Christie would be a “formidable” candidate:

“I’ve worked with him on both immigration reform and (Hurricane) Sandy, and he was a pleasure to work with,” said Schumer.… “People like genuine people. They are very good at smelling the real deal and smelling a phony. So, yeah, I think he could sell.”

But he added that

“if they find that he actually knew about this [Bridgegate] stuff, he’s a dead man. If they don’t, he could be a formidable candidate.”

Of course, “they” are trying to find out. The inquiries include actions by the US attorney in New Jersey, the US attorney in New York City, a brand-new one by the Manhattan district attorney, and a joint Senate-Assembly committee of the state legislature.

The New Jersey legislative committee investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closures will be calling people to testify next month about what they knew and when they knew it—and the committee just might ask Christie himself to appear before them, says Assemblyman John Wisniewski, co-chair of the committee. Wisniewski says they’ll subpoena more than ten people to testify under oath. Last time around, in November, when the legislators heard testimony from former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni, they didn’t swear him in, but Wisniewski says they won’t make that mistake again. Back then, of course, Baroni argued that the lane closures were simply part of a “traffic study.” His testimony was soon discredited by the executive director of the PA, Patrick Foye, who did testify under oath.

The committee hasn’t specified yet who they’ll subpoena to testify, but they’re looking at a number of new people, thanks to interview summaries just released by Randy Mastro, the lawyer whom Christie hired to investigate Bridgegate and other scandals swirling around the Governor’s mansion. Even though Mastro is very close to Christie ally Rudy Giuliani (for whom Mastro served as deputy mayor), even though some of the interviews were conducted by a close friend of the governor’s, Debra Wong Yang, even though none of the interviews were conducted under oath, and even though Gibson Dunn & Crutcher supplied only summaries and not transcripts, there are some potentially juicy nuggets. Mastro’s firm interviewed more than seventy people for the report clearing the governor of any involvement in the Bridgegate, Hoboken and PA scandals.

The interview summaries in fact raise many new questions about how the Christie administration operated, says Wisniewski:

Clearly there are so many issues that are raised by the Mastro report and now further issues raised by the interview notes that it’s clear this administration used its resources as campaign tool in a very overt way.

Although Mastro’s report pinned the blame for the bridge scandal on two wayward aides, the interview summaries show that it was standard operating procedure for the Christie administration to punish local officials who did not support the governor and aid those who did. According to the Newark Star-Ledger:

Among the likely fodder for the committee are revelations that the [Inter-Governmental Affairs] unit in the governor’s office was acutely aware of which local officials were friendly toward the administration. During one interview, former IGA staffer Christina Renna told Mastro’s investigators that she often was told which mayor’s calls should be returned. Notes of Renna’s interview called them “mandatory directives” to ignore calls from certain local officials. Department of Community Affairs Director Richard Constable told Mastro and company that Kelly, who ran IGA, asked him to check with her before speaking with certain mayors, including Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who has said he was ignored by the administration once he made the decision not to endorse Christie.

Interviews with some state officials also seemed to bolster the accusation leveled by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that Christie administration officials, including Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable, held hostage aid to help Hoboken recover from Hurricane Sandy. Zimmer charged that the Christie administration tied the aid to her acquiescence on a multi-billion dollar development project linked to David Samson, former Port Authority chairman and close Christie ally. Mastro’s report disparaged Zimmer’s accusations.

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But the newly released interview summaries Mastro used to reach his conclusions may in fact help support Zimmer’s claims. According to NJ Spotlight:

Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable discussed both the controversial Rockefeller Group high-rise project and Sandy aid with Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer at the time and place she said they did—a fact that probably would not have come out until after the U.S. Attorney’s Office finished its investigation a year from now, or perhaps not at all. Interview memos with Constable, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, and other officials contained numerous important details that they left out of their vehement public denunciations of Zimmer’s allegations in January, bolstering the credibility of Zimmer’s story that the Christie administration tied Sandy aid to the approval of a high-rise development represented by Christie ally David Samson.

Another interview summary, this one with Luciana DiMaggio, an assistant to Guadagno also seems to support Zimmer’s charges. It says:

DiMaggio observed that the Lieutenant Governor and Mayor Zimmer were deep in conversation. She said that it seemed to be a tense conversation. DiMaggio did not observe anyone getting angry or she would have stepped in, but it seemed that they were discussing something intently. DiMaggio recalled that they were not laughing and their faces seemed serious. DiMaggio did not remember anything else. She did not remember observing the Lieutenant Governor and Mayor Zimmer at the end of the conversation. DiMaggio remembered that the Lieutenant Governor communicated that she was frustrated with Mayor Zimmer. With her counsel present, DiMaggio said her memory is not 100% accurate, but she remembered that the Lieutenant Governor communicated to her that Mayor Zimmer was not cooperating, stating in words or in substance something like the Mayor was not playing ball or the Mayor was not playing well with others.


Read Next: Joy Behar takes on Chris Christie at a New Jersey roast.

The Cheering Stops. De Blasio Keeps Running.

De Blasio

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio (Photo Courtesy of Monica Klein, New Yorkers for de Blasio)

If you’ve ever run a long-distance race, you know that the beginning is quite thrilling. There’s the crack of the starter pistol, the runners’ gradual but dramatic surge forward, the cheers of the crowds lined up along the first half-mile or so. But soon thereafter the crowd thins and the noises die down. As the pack separates and spreads out, even the sound of other competitors fades away, and you’re more or less alone with your footsteps and your thoughts. Your only rival is the timers’ clock. The key thing becomes concentration.

Four months ago The Nation and City Limits launched this blog to track Bill de Blasio’s transition and his first 100 days in office—the sprinting start of an administration critically important to the progressive movement and to a city we love that has seen an alarming increase in social inequality.

Those first 100 days have come and gone, and as I note in today’s Nation article, de Blasio has managed to, on one hand, deliver on an admirable list of campaign promises while, on the other, encountering challenges that make it painfully clear how hard it will be for him to make good on his larger vow to create a more just city. Some of those challenges—the slowness of his appointments, the mishandling of the press—are of his making. Others, like the subservience of the city to Albany’s whims and Governor Cuomo’s drive toward the center on economic policy, are not.

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But now that UPK is in the state budget, the stop-and-frisk suit has moved toward settlement, paid sick-leave is law and other early targets have been tackled, de Blasio is in that long middle phase of the race, when the cheering has died down and the initial rush of adrenaline gives way to whatever strength and stamina he brought in. De Blasio is not a new mayor anymore. Now—more so than he already has through snowstorms and building explosions—he’ll have to weave his progressive vision into the daily fabric of managing the city.

This blog will end, but both The Nation and City Limits will keep watching—with hope in our hearts, not cheering so much as shouting out reminders that the clock is ticking.

Read Next: Sasha Abramsky takes a look inside the movement for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle.

For Now, Diplomacy Defuses Ukraine Crisis

Geneva, April 17, 2014

Quadrilateral talks to resolve the crisis in Ukraine begin in Geneva, April 17, 2014. (Reuters/Jim Bourg)

They say truth is the first casualty of war. In the escalating conflict in Ukraine, we’ve seen nuance and complexity—the stuff of which real history is made—ignored, marginalized in favor of us-versus-them bluster and nationalistic posturing. This is a dangerous sort of “dialogue” to witness. As each side continues to willfully misinterpret the other, a vacuum is forming in the diplomatic space where reality, comprehension and cooperation ought to be, and as tension continues to mount, so too does the risk of war. Make no mistake about it, we are on the verge of civil war in Ukraine, and possibly the start of an even larger conflagration—perhaps even a proxy war between the United States and Russia.  

“Misinformation, propaganda and incitement to hatred need to be urgently countered,” urges a UN human rights report. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights elaborates, “Facts on the ground need to be established to help reduce the risk of radically different narratives being exploited for political ends. People need a reliable point of view to counter what has been widespread misinformation and also speech that aims to incite hatred on national, religious or racial grounds.”

And what might that “reliable point of view” convey to us? What might we learn from a sober reflection on recent and not-so-recent history? First, that every actor bears some responsibility for today’s crisis. Starting with the Clinton administration in the nineties, Stephen F. Cohen has written here, “the US-led West has unrelentingly moved its military, political and economic power ever closer to post-Soviet Russia.” Since 1999, NATO has expanded eastwards to include much of the former Warsaw Pact, including the three former Baltic Republics that directly border Russia. Given that, we shouldn’t be surprised when Putin reads recent history as two decades in which the US has been “trying to drive us into some kind of corner.” And for its part, the EU has been unable to imagine an independent, nonaligned Ukraine, rejecting Putin’s “tripartite” arrangement offered to Ukraine last November and demanding that a junior-partner Kiev look to either Brussels or Moscow for stability—but not neither and not both.

Sadly, too much of the US media has decided to push the Cold War Redux angle of the story, trotting out hawkish analysts and using the time-honored tradition of invoking the A-word (“appeasement”) to stigmatize anyone who sees things slightly more sanely. As a result, American viewers and readers are not only getting but one side of the story, they’re also getting the most extreme and least nuanced version of that side. This is dangerous. History tells us Ukraine is a deeply divided country. The West cannot shut Russia out via escalating, “crippling” sanctions, even as the White House and a cross-partisan coalition of hawks call for such. (It is reckless folly that hawks like John McCain call for the West to arm Ukrainians.)

A political, economic or cultural severance between Ukraine and Russia would be devastating, especially for the Ukrainian working class. More than one-quarter of Ukrainian exports head to Russia, and more than one-quarter of Ukrainian imports come from Russia. To use this relationship as a political football is to risk plunging the Ukrainian economy into crisis, with most of the effects of that crisis then falling on working Ukrainians.

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As four-party talks begin on Thursday in Geneva, it is to be hoped that the emphasis is on diplomacy and cooperation; the drumbeat of war will only make it more difficult for a territorially unified, viable Ukraine to emerge. Nor can we accept a “solution” that is imposed upon Ukrainians by Europeans or Americans. The $27 billion lifeline given to Ukraine by the IMF, for example, comes with the attached strings of onerous austerity measures. (It is ordinary Ukrainians, for example, who will suffer the most under the new austerity measures as the floating national currency is likely to push up inflation, while spike in domestic gas prices will impact every household. Under the IMF conditions Kiev has to cut the budget deficit, increase retail energy tariffs and shift to a flexible exchange rate.) Amid the bluffing, pandering and posturing, it’s easy to forget that the lives, and livelihoods, of some forty million Ukrainians are at stake—and that these are the people in whose interests the US, EU and Russia are obliged to act.

It would be in the security interests of all if the four-party talks proceeded with negotiation roughly along lines of a stripped-down version of what Russia proposed a month ago: an end to NATO expansion to Ukraine and former Soviet republics; an agreement for a new federal constitution, agreed to by both East and West and with Ukraine remaining one state; and maintenance of the trading-partner relationship between Ukraine and Russia, regardless of which way—if any—Ukrainians decide to “lean.” And one proposal is also worth considering: bringing in UN peacekeepers during Ukraine’s next election (in which Ukrainians vote for Parliament and president, not just president as is currently planned).

These are times when we need fewer assertions, fewer definitive answers. We need more diplomacy, not less. The opportunity costs we’d pay for an armed Ukrainian adventure—failure to stem the arms race, failure to resolve the crisis in Syria, failure to engage Iran on nuclear issues—are too great. It’s important to recognize that the future of nations is rarely, if ever, determined by the intervention of outside actors. It’s not necessary for the US/NATO/EU to line up Ukraine as “one of us”; the same goes for Russia. Ukraine should be an independent player, nonaligned and not burdened by onerous conditions or threats made by outsiders who’ve chosen Ukraine as the place to wage an East-versus-West proxy battle.

Read Next: Stephen Cohen considers the worst-case scenario in Ukraine.

George W. Bush Finds Apt Subject for Paintings—but Only at ‘The Onion’

George W. Bush

President George W. Bush pauses as he listens to a reporter’s question during a news conference. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

Earlier this month, on several occasions here or at my own blog or on Twitter, I complained about the fawning media coverage of George W. Bush, world-famous painter. From the self-portraits in the shower, to his portrait of Putin, the paintings are amateurish—street-fair quality at best—but that hardly halted the media orgy.

More than once I mused that his true subjects should be dead Iraqi kids or wounded US veterans, not puppies or selfies. You didn’t see this expressed in our media, however.

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Imagine how gratified I felt when I saw yesterday that my wish had come true, albeit from an unexpected, “not serious” (except deadly so in this case) source.

Thank god, The Onion goes there—where the mainstream would not—suggesting George W. Bush should be painting the ghosts of dead Iraqi children, or in their version, already is.

George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him Everywhere

Read Next: Greg Mitchell Lewis Black on Why He’s a Socialist—and Creationists Get the ‘Cosmos’ Parody They Deserve.

The Worst-Case Scenario in Ukraine

Kiev, February 21, 2014

A demonstrator mans a barricade in Kiev, February 21, 2014 (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

Russia scholar and longtime Nation contributor Stephen Cohen joins John Batchelor to discuss the deepening crisis in Ukraine. He says that as the conflict escalates, so too does the possibility of a military confrontation between the United States–NATO and Russia: “It’s hard to imagine a civil war in Ukraine without the United States and NATO intervening on one side [and] Russia [intervening] on the other.” Cohen considers what it will take to avoid this worst-case scenario.

For more on the situation in Ukraine, listen to Cohen on another episode of The John Batchelor Show, and on The Thom Hartmann Program.

—David Kortava

Senator Manchin Defends Law Firm Accused of Concealing Black Lung Medical Evidence

Joe Manchin

Senator Joe Manchin (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org

Only one day after the Center for Public Integrity’s reporting series on denials of black lung benefits to coal miners was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) defended the controversial law firm at the center of the investigation.

As he stepped to the podium of the National Western Mining Convention in Denver on Tuesday, Manchin heaped praise upon Jackson Kelly, a sponsor of the event and the law firm implicated in unethically concealing medical evidence of miners dying of black lung.

“I want to thank my dear friends at Jackson Kelly,” exclaimed the senator. In his remarks, Manchin also noted that his former staffer, Kelly Goes, is now an employee of the firm.

In a brief interview with Republic Report after his speech, Manchin was asked about Jackson Kelly’s conduct regarding black lung cases. He brushed aside criticism of the firm.

The Center for Public Integrity story revealed that Jackson Kelly has systemically denied coal miners black lung benefit claims by withholding unfavorable evidence and shaping the opinions of doctors called upon in court. CFPI Reporter Chris Hamby’s investigation “suggests that there has been a pattern and practice by lawyers at the Jackson Kelly law firm which has compromised the integrity of the black lung benefits program and potentially tainted numerous decisions adversely affecting coal miners and their survivors,” wrote Representatives George Miller (D-California) and Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut) in a letter to the Department of Labor last year.

“If the law firm is doing their job and we don’t like it, we’ve got to look at the rules and laws we have on the books,” said Manchin, after being asked by Republic Report about his praise of Jackson Kelly. “They’ve been a prestigious law firm for a long time in West Virginia. There’s good people that I know that work there and if there’s something that’s wrong and needs to be fixed or changed, it will be,” he continued.

A Jackson Kelly attorney named Douglas Smoot had his law license suspended in 2011 for one year after being accused of hiding evidence in a black lung case. Other Jackson Kelly attorneys have faced investigations over their conduct in regards to black lung cases. One retired judge who handled black lung cases reviewed documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity investigation and said the firm had been “really misleading the court.”

Manchin is a close ally to the coal industry. At the conference, he touted his new legislation that would block the EPA from implementing new regulations on coal power plants. Jackson Kelly, according to its website, has represented the coal industry since the mid-19th century.

As Public Campaign noted, Manchin has “received $50,825 from Jackson Kelly employees during his time in Congress, his seventh-largest donor.”

Manchin did not sign on to the letter from other congressional Democrats asking the Labor Department to investigate claims that Jackson Kelly improperly concealed medical evidence of black lung claims.

Yet Manchin told us that he is confident that any potential wrongdoing will be worked out.

“You can’t find people guilty before they go through the process. Are you accusing them of being guilty?” said Manchin. Asked again about the Center for Public Integrity report, Manchin replied, “I’m just saying, let’s see where it unfolds.”

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Watch the interview below:

Read Next: The tax breaks that are killing the planet

How Should Obama Respond to Putin’s Ukraine Provocations?

Russian flag in Crimea

A demonstrator waves a Russian flag in Crimea in March. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Unless you’re deaf, dumb and blind, it’s obvious that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s obstreperous president, is running a major covert operation in eastern Ukraine, including the dispatch of a limited number of Russian special forces and support for pro-Russian militias there. It isn’t quite clear yet whether Putin is (a) preparing the ground for a Crimea-style takeover of part or all of Ukraine (unlikely), (b) trying to destabilize Ukraine so that it, and its Western allies, agree to the radical decentralization and federalization plan that Russia has demanded, or (c) making it clear that Ukraine ought not to link its political and economic future with the West, or else. But whichever it is, it’s a dangerous game. So how should President Obama respond?

There is, of course, a diplomatic solution—and within Ukraine itself, that means some sort of decentralization that allows eastern Ukraine some form of very limited autonomy. That would be a compromise between a strong central state in Kiev, in which the president appoints governors of regions, and the sort of neat-total autonomy that Russia favors.

The United States is very limited in its options. Militarily, there’s no real response that makes any sense whatsoever, and it appears that Obama gets that. Ukraine’s utterly disorganized armed forces are no match for the Russian army in any conceivable context, so the idea of sending either significant arms or even nonlethal military aid—“like body armor, night-vision goggles, communications gear and aviation fuel,” as proposed by Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Philip A. Karber—to Ukraine can’t possibly bolster Ukraine’s forces enough even to slow down either a Russian action to seize eastern Ukraine or a blitzkrieg into Kiev, if that’s what Putin is planning. Similarly, the idea—from a neocon-linked former American ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey—to deploy ground troops to Poland, the Baltic states and Romania would escalate the confrontation to no good end, since none of those nations are directly threatened by the Ukraine crisis and it would probably force Putin to escalate further.

So far, Obama has reportedly rejected both Gen. Clark’s recommendations and isn’t considering Jeffrey’s idea, but a further escalation by Putin would certainly force Obama to respond far more harshly than the limited array of sanctions announced so far. According to The Wall Street Journal, Obama is reviewing a range of responses, including greatly expanded economic sanctions and even the sort of military deployment that Ambassador Jeffrey calls for.

It should be pointed out that Ukraine is a sovereign country, and that whatever it does to protect its security and national integrity is its own business. In that context, the fact that CIA Director John Brennan paid a visit to Kiev—to howls of outrage from Moscow—or that Ukraine has decided to hire private contractors, including the former Blackwater, to help Kiev reassert control of cities in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian militants are acting up, isn’t ground for Russian complaints. The White House has properly endorsed Ukraine’s attempts to suppress the pro-Russian gangs in cities along the Russia-Ukraine border, although those efforts are weak and badly managed, given Ukraine’s overall chaotic state and limited resources. Still, so far it appears that Ukraine isn’t willing to shed a lot of blood in suppressing the pro-Russian actions, since that would only increase the enmity toward Kiev in eastern Ukraine and inflame things further—besides giving Russia a pretext to intervene further because of Putin’s flimsy and unsubstantiated claim that Kiev “fascists” are threatening ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

According to Josh Rogin and Eli Lake at The Daily Beast, the purpose of Brennan’s Kiev visit was to begin the process of sharing “real-time intelligence” with Kiev, though for what reason isn’t clear, since Ukraine can’t possibly withstand Russian military pressure. It’s possible that the United States will work more closely with Ukraine on deployments of Ukrainian forces in cities to the east affected by Russian covert ops.

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But the Ukraine crisis faces Obama with an exceedingly difficult challenge. He can’t afford to issue any red lines, such as the one he issued vis-à-vis Syria, since the United States simply does not have the wherewithal to confront Russian militarily in what is essentially Russia’s backyard, nor is the American interest in Ukraine significant enough to warrant a showdown. Critics of Obama, however, are pointing to Syria—where Obama has so far opted against war—as a sign of the president’s alleged weakness, adding that the Ukraine crisis is a Russian test of Obama’s will. However, as David Ignatius puts it in The Washington Post:

As President Obama looks at the Ukraine crisis, he sees an asymmetry of interests: Simply put, the future of Ukraine means more to Vladimir Putin’s Russia than it does to the United States or Europe. For Putin, this is an existential crisis; for the West, so far, it isn’t—as the limited U.S. and European response has demonstrated.

And Ignatius adds:

Obama doesn’t want to turn Ukraine into a proxy war with Russia. For this reason, he is resisting proposals to arm the Ukrainians. The White House thinks arming Kiev at this late stage would invite Russian intervention without affecting the outcome. The United States is providing limited intelligence support for Kiev, but nothing that would tilt the balance.

But the real meaning of the Ukraine crisis is that, unless the ongoing diplomacy resolves it in a compromise between Russia and the West, US-Russia relations will be in a deep freeze for many years to come, and that could affect a host of regional wars and crises, from Syria and Iraq to Iran and Afghanistan and beyond.

Read Next: Conn Hallinan on how ethnic tensions and economic crisis have strengthened Europe’s secession movements

Want to Expand Abortion Rights in Texas? Better Talk About Immigration, Too

Pro-Choice Rally Texas

Abortion rights advocates rally on the floor of the Capitol rotunda in Austin, TX. July 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa, File)

If you follow the wave of anti-choice laws restricting abortion at the state level, you know things look bleak in Texas. Last month, the last two clinics in the Rio Grande Valley closed, leaving women in rural South Texas without access to services. Because of the hurdles providers now have to clear as a result of House Bill 2, which passed in July, the number of clinics in the state has dropped by nearly half—from 44 in 2011 to 24 today. By the fall, just six facilities providing abortion are expected to remain.

Legal challenges are in the works, but for now anti-choice advocates there are winning. So my ears perked up last week at a talk at UC Berkeley on the past, present and future of reproductive justice when I heard these words from someone considered one of the movement’s top tacticians:

"If you lead with immigration reform, you might actually get abortion access in Texas."

Heads nodded and tweets were fired off as Sujatha Jesudason, who directs CoreAlign, an organization supporting new leaders in the fight for sexual and reproductive health, offered this take on how to best achieve policy change. But the room was mostly filled with activists and academics who are already acquainted with reproductive justice, a 20-year-old framework for advocacy and organizing that links abortion to other social and economic issues. Reproductive justice gives a more inclusive set of rights—the right to have children, not have children, and to parent with dignity—equal weight with the right to safely and legally terminate a pregnancy. For anyone not already familiar with the concept, the idea that you vote for one issue and somehow end up with a victory elsewhere may feel like a leap of logic, if not a bait and switch.

Not if you understand the barriers a woman in the Rio Grande Valley or California’s Central Valley faces when she has an unplanned pregnancy, said Samara Azam-Yu, when I asked her perspective. Azam-Yu directs ACCESS, an Oakland, CA-based hotline that offers reproductive health information to callers statewide. “Abortion is a priority issue for a lot of our callers but it’s not the most pressing issue that they’re facing in their lives,” she said. “When we make strides on the other broader issues, it improves abortion access.”

Here’s how, she said: An undocumented woman in the Central Valley has a good chance of having a high-risk pregnancy, given high rates of asthma and obesity and other health disparities associated with poverty and inability to access healthcare. She may need to travel to see an abortion provider, but that means taking a bus or a train and chancing a run-in with ICE. A victory on immigration reform would mean removing the fear of deportation that keeps women immobilized, isolated and away from the services they need. Talking about health access as it relates to reform could be a way to motivate voters who care about immigrant rights but don’t feel connected to the abortion rights movement.

A bill introduced in the US House last month – the Health Equity and Access Under the Law for Immigrant Women & Families Act—is trying to do just that by making insurance available to more than 600,000 people who are in the US lawfully but face a five-year wait in some states before they can access benefits such as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. Connecting the dots in new ways was also an important component of last year’s victory over an Albuquerque ballot initiative that would have banned abortion in the city—and effectively the region—after 20 weeks.

In Albuquerque, the goal wasn’t to advance immigrant rights while defeating the bill, but to use language that would resonate with Latino voters—typically considered too conservative to be reliable on abortion rights issues—and get them to come to the polls during the November special election.

“We brought the issue out of the ivory towers of reproductive rights conversations and made it about real people experiencing barriers to access health,” Tannia Esparza, who directs Young Women United (YWU), told me. “There’s a whole generation of young people, people of color who haven’t been included in those conversations in the same way.”

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YWU, a local organization led by women of color, was part of the coalition that opposed the initiative and pushed for a new approach to talking about abortion that would reach beyond the middle class white voters who could be counted on to reject the proposal. The group used language that they knew from anecdotal evidence and from research would mobilize a broader base, language that focused on the importance of women and families making decisions for themselves. One piece of campaign literature read, "We are parents, tías, ninos, brothers and sisters. We are neighbors, friends, people of faith—We are New Mexican families... Our New Mexican families do not need government interference in our private decisions." It turned out to be key to avoid labels like “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” which Esparza calls polarizing. It worked: More than 80,000 Albuquerque voters went to the polls, more than had turned out for the mayoral race six weeks prior. Ten percent more Democrats weighed in on the ban than had chosen the city's mayor, compared to 4 percent more Republicans and 7 percent more Independents. YWU's research and polling showed that their work in Latino communities paid off at the polls. According to Micaela Cadena, the group's policy director: "We won over Latino Democrats. Those who were Independent or Republican, we held their vote to where it was in the beginning [of the campaign]."

It’s a strategy that could be useful to abortion rights proponents in nearby Arizona, where legislators passed a law last week allowing health inspectors to make surprise visits to abortion clinics without first getting a warrant, and where a temporary court order is the only thing keeping a new restriction on medication abortion from going into effect.

Moving away from a singular focus on abortion isn’t about aligning with one particular movement, it’s about creating a big tent that’s appealing to progressive Millennials, according to Jesudason.

"How can we bring a gender perspective to discussions around minimum wage or immigration reform, knowing that they're all the same voters?” she said when we spoke after last week’s talk. “If people are going to vote progressively on minimum wage or marriage equality, they're just as likely to vote progressively on choice issues."


Read Next: Bryce Covert on why "we can't strip race out of the gender wage gap conversation."

Can China’s Workers Get Their Government to Follow Its Own Labor Laws?

Yue Yuen factory strike in Dongguan

(All photos from the Yue Yuen factory strike in Dongguan, courtesy China Labor Watch)

There are two parallel paths to justice that activists in China are pursuing right now: one in the streets, and one in the courts, and on both, workers are blazing a fresh trail of labor militancy.

China’s court system, famous for its show trials of rogue party operatives, may seem a bit too Kafkaesque as a venue for real civic change. But the trial of labor activist Wu Guijun offers a window into how the justice system is morphing from an instrument of the authoritarian state to a contested political terrain.

The government has charged him with “gathering a crowd and disturbing the order of public transportation” (a k a trouble-making) during a protest last May in the southern city of Shenzhen, led by hundreds of workers of the Hong Kong–owned furniture maker Diweixin.

Wu’s supporters argue that as the designated worker leader he actually tried to dissuade coworkers from engaging in more drastic actions. He had been facilitating negotiations with management over demands for compensation for the workers who would be affected by the planned closure of the plant (following the widespread trend of Chinese firms moving to poorer regions or countries to chase lower labor costs). In addition, advocates argue, the legal process has been marred by a biased investigation and dubious evidence.

Wu, who has been detained for about 300 days already, faces grim odds in the dock, like so many activists before him. But his case marks a different kind of turning point; his fellow activists see a chance to put the entire Chinese justice system on trial.

At an earlier hearing for the trial in February, CLB reported, Wu’s supporters made it clear that if the courts fail them, they would respond with direct action. When the judge, after a haphazard delay, insisted on only meeting with Wu's wife Zhou Yuzhi privately:

the crowd became furious and stormed into the court’s petitioning office. “It is a hoax! Why do they have to make us wait for more than one hour? We demand an explanation!” one worker shouted…. “We—the taxpayers—are paying their salaries to work, not to be absent!” another said.

A statement from his lawyer warned, “If there is any trace of justice then Wu Guijun cannot be found guilty.”

While Wu’s supporters agitated for due process, a dozen hospital security guards were on trial for similar transgressions—daring to demand fair treatment from their bosses. After staging a protest on the roof of the Guangzhou Chinese Medicine University Hospital, they were charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” and detained for about fifty days, and then remained imprisoned. The workers say they sought the compensation the management owed after it had repeatedly failed to pay insurance payments and backwages, and that they took direct action only after their efforts to petition through their official union had been stonewalled for months. This week, all were convicted, with most sentenced to eight- or nine-month jail terms (including time served); several plan to appeal.

CLB described the trial as a political overreaction and “an exercise in damage control,” which aimed to “serve as a warning to others that those who escalate labour disputes into public protest could face jail time.”

Western media outlets have lately focused on the crackdown on liberal, educated reformers and human rights activists. The New Citizens movement, a loose network of high-profile anti-corruption activists, have made global headlines in recent weeks, as several leading activists have faced public-disorder charges for staging nonviolent demonstrations in 2012 and 2013. The gritty labor struggles at play in the trials of Wu and the security guards are less sexy for Western media, but nonetheless represent a social movement that resonates with an arguably much greater swath of the populace. They reflect rising tensions across China’s workforce as people grow more conscious of their collective rights, anxious about China’s economic volatility and the rising cost of living and aware that the legal system is structured to systematically disenfranchise the public and protect the elite. Disillusioned by endemic official corruption, many see no path to change other than direct action from the ground up.

This week, workers pushed the outer edge of that radicalism in the southern manufacturing hub of Dongguan. Tens of thousands have gone on strike at the Taiwanese-owned Yue Yuen Industrial shoe manufacturer, protesting the company’s alleged underpayments to the social insurance scheme and the workers’ housing fund. According to the US-based NGO China Labor Watch (CLW), the industrial action involved about 30,000 employees, despite a fierce crackdown on protests by riot police and several arrests.

Social insurance is a raw nerve for China’s factory workers. Along with China’s aggressive economic liberalization, the government recently consolidated social welfare programs such as pensions and healthcare. Employers, however, routinely fail to keep up with their financial obligations under this emergent social contract, while low-wage workers’ social needs have intensified.

In turn, Kevin Slaten of CLW noted via e-mail, while mass uprisings over insurance like the the Yue Yuen strike were rare a few years ago, “in the past year, we’ve seen an uptick in strikes in which workers are demanding arrears.” The trend, he adds, reflects not only “workers realizing their rights under the law,” but also a new policy enabling workers to transfer insurance payments to their home communities when they leave a job. This effectively decoupled workers’ entitlements from their workplace, giving them more autonomy as well as a greater stake in making sure their bosses pay their dues—which for Yue Yuen’s workforce, could total millions of dollars in arrears.

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The failed promise of social insurance may be feeding into growing militancy among Chinese workers, with industrial actions nationwide reaching a three-year high in March, according to CLB’s real-time strike tracker.

But if labor unrest is approaching a critical mass, how might that energy be channeled in the absence of an independent labor movement or electoral democracy? Beyond street demonstrations—which generally end with violence, arrest or firing—some activists are trying to carve out a space for dissent within the legal system by strengthening safeguards for labor rights.

For example, last month a group of labor scholars and legal advocates published a proposal for a major overhaul of China’s trade union law. Ideally, the law would strengthen protections against retaliatory firings of union organizers based on their collective bargaining and organizing activities. The bill would essentially expand the law’s protections for individuals to a broader principle of defending the right to organize and agitate collectively.

So will the legal system continue to be an instrument for enforcing silence, or will the activism in the streets begin filtering into China’s legal infrastructure? Though they had run afoul of authority in different ways, Wu Gujin, the security guards and the New Citizens movement have all been pulled into the courts because they wanted their own government to follow the law. That they have all been criminalized for seeking justice attests to the critical link between economic justice and political justice.

Workers are increasingly willing to fight out their labor battles in the streets, but victory will ultimately be measured by whether they can reclaim the edifice of the state—and force the justice system to work for, instead of against them.

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