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Democrats to Jefferson: Step Down

Democrats got tough with Rep. William Jefferson last night, voting 99-58 to boot the corrupt Congressman off the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Today he was formally removed from the seat by the entire House.

Jefferson, with his $90,000 bribe hidden in the freezer, did more than anyone to undermine the Democratic message of a Republican "culture of corruption." The legal investigation has almost certainly distracted Jefferson from rebuilding his district in impoverished New Orleans, which should be his number one priority.

Dennis Hastert asked Rep. Bob Ney to relinquish his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee. Allan Mollohan gave us his seat on the House Ethics Committee. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi rightfully understands that Jefferson, nicknamed "Dollar Bill" by his Louisiana peers, no longer deserves the perks of a tax-writing Ways and Means seat.

"Anybody with $90,000 in your freezer, you have a problem with this Caucus," Pelosi said after the vote.

Jefferson and his allies shamelessly tried to make this debate about race. But it's really about basic standards of decency--and important electoral considerations. If Democrats want to detox the House in November, they need to clean up their own house first.

It's Sandal Season. Was Your Pedicure Made in a Sweatshop?

In a recent post I suggested that our society needs nurses more than we need manicurists. That's true, of course, but I didn't mean to belittle nail workers. Sure, good nursing can save your life, but a manicure-pedicure, especially in this toe-baring season, can make it worth living.

Unfortunately, for the women who provide this excellent experience, the work is not always pleasant. According to a report recently released by the National Asian Pacific Women's Forum, the nail salon industry wreaks havoc on workers' reproductive health. Most of the workers -- over 95% of whom are female, and 42% Asian -- make less than $17,000 a year, and lack health insurance coverage. They tend to work very long hours, exposed to poisonous chemicals. (The FDA doesn't regulate the chemicals used in cosmetics.) Studies have found that prolonged exposure to some of these toxins can be linked to miscarriages, infertility and even birth defects. This will ring true to anyone who's ever walked into a poorly ventilated salon while pregnant; as consumers, we take that wave of nausea and dizziness as a sign to get the hell out, and quickly, but the workers don't always have that choice.

If you think you've been seeing more nail shops than ever before, often with names that sound odd to the native speaker (e.g., "Cozy Nails"), you're not mistaken. According to the NAPWF report, the nail care industry has tripled in size over the last two decades, partly because the field is welcoming to immigrants with limited English language skills (unlike, say, hair, about which customers want to discourse with endless nuance and detailed specifications). Interestingly, however, this very point can creates status indignity for some workers. Ji-Sun Oh, a nail worker and LaGuardia College student, has written a fascinating ethnography of Korean-owned salons in New York City, in which she observes that the language barrier between customer and worker highlights the sense that the manicurist is a "servant", even though she is a skilled professional. She quotes a worker who had the same job in Korea, before she came to New York: "When I was in Korea, I suggested, explained and recommended many things to customers. I was a professional. But here in America, since my English is bad, I just doing nails without any act of profession while my customers talk to her friends over her cell phone."

Ji-Sun, in her paper, notes that in Korea -- the country of origin of many New York City nail workers -- a manicurist is called a "'nail artist,' which sounds more respectful." In Korea, tipping feels insulting -- it is generally reserved for beggars and prostitutes -- thus many nail workers feel degraded by the practice when they first come to the U.S. As I read Ji-Sun's paper, I thought that another reason for the status difference here in the U.S. may be the low price of the service; a discount nail industry flourishes here, unlike in Korea. In the U.S., getting your nails done is a cheap way to look and feel a whole lot better; you'll notice plenty of nail salons -- and fabulously polished nails -- in poor or working-class neighborhoods. As with discount shopping, however, the low prices often come at the cost of workers' health and safety. It may also be that because customers pay so little to get their nails done, they don't respect the women who do the job.

From Houston to Boston, nail salon workers are organizing to clean up the toxins in their workplaces. But like the nursing shortage, cosmetic safety affects consumers as well as workers. One promising project, POLISH (nice acronym, but I defy you to remember what it stands for: Participatory Leadership, Organizing and Leadership Initiative for Safety and Health), works to educate both groups about the dangers, and to organize for change. Let's hope they will eventually push companies to make these products safer, and pressure the salon owners to improve workers' conditions. As for the more subtle respect issues Ji-Sun Oh raises in her research, let's hope she and others continue to document the experiences of this long-overlooked group of workers.

House Votes 256-153 for Perpetual War

The incendiary House debate over whether the time has come to establish an Iraq exit strategy ended Friday morning with a 256-153 vote to maintain an open-ended occupation of the country where 2,500 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed in fighting since 2003.

The nonbinding vote came after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who achieved her leadership position after voting in 2002 against authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq, delivered one of her most ardent anti-war statements yet heard from a leader of the opposition party.

"Stay the course? I don't think so Mr. President. It's time to face the facts," Pelosi told the House.

"This war is a failed policy of the Bush administration… We need a new direction in Iraq," said Pelosi, who added: "The war in Iraq has been a mistake. I say, a grotesque mistake."

The floor fight over the resolution, which was initiated by Republicans who wanted to force Democrats to either back Bush or appear to not support troops serving in Iraq, stirred intense debate. In the end, however, most Democrats and a handful of Republicans chose to counter the cynical scheming of Karl Rove's White House political machine by voting "no" to legislation that even a Republican loyalist, Connecticut Congressman Rob Simmons, admitted "fails to fully address a key question that most Americans are asking: ‘When are the troops coming home?'"

Of the 256 votes for the resolution, 214 came from Republicans and 42 from Democrats.

Of the 153 votes against it, 149 came from Democrats, three from Republicans and one from Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.Pelosi was joined in voting "no" by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois, in a rare show of leadership unity on a war-related issue.

The three Republicans who voted "no" were Texan Ron Paul, Tennessean John Duncan and Iowan Jim Leach, all longtime foes of the war. Several Republicans who have expressed opposition to the war, including North Carolina Representative Walter Jones Jr., voted "present" or did not vote at all.

The intense debate allowed administration supporters to mouth election-year talking points from a memo provided by the White House political shop, with Georgia Republican Charlie Norwood saying of Democratic critics of administration policies: "Many, not all, on the other side of the aisle lack the will to win." House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, declared, "When our freedom is challenged, Americans do not run."

That line was countered by Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, the decorated Vietnam veteran who has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the war. Referring to House Republicans, many of them non-veterans, who chirped during the debate about how determined they were to fight on, the Pennsylvania Democrat said "it's easy to stay in an air-conditioned office and say I'm going to stay the course."

"That's why I get so upset when they stand here sanctimoniously and say we're fighting this thing," thundered Murtha. "It's the troops that are doing the fighting."

The vote took place one day after the 2,500th American died in Iraq.White House spokesman Tony Snow, like many members of the House majority, dismissed the death toll, telling the press corps: "It's a number, and every time there's one of these 500 benchmarks people want something."

What people got Friday morning was a House vote for perpetual war – and a lot more of those "500 benchmarks."

Who Supports the Troops?

The February Le Moyne College/Zogby International survey of U.S. troops serving in Iraq found that 72 percent of them thought United States forces should exit that country by the end of 2006.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate decided not to call for the withdrawal of combat troops by year's end when it shelved a measure proposing that "only forces that are critical to completing the mission of standing up Iraqi security forces" remain in Iraq in 2007.

After a stilted debate, the Senate voted to block the amendment 93-6.

Every Republican in the Senate voted for the amendment, which was advanced by their party leadership in as part of a coordinated political push by Karl Rove and the White House political shop to mock and minimize the debate about the war and create the impression that there is broad support for the long-term occupation of Iraq. So, too, did most Democrats, who chose not to oppose the latest administration strategy, just as they refused to challenge the Republicans prior to the disastrous 2002 and 2004 elections.

Who were the six senators who refused to play Rove's game and voted for the "Bring the Troops Home" amendment?

Barbara Boxer of California.

Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.

Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

John Kerry of Massachusetts.

On the day when the 2,500th American died in the Iraq quagmire, the Senate was asked to approve the sentiment of the troops who say that it is time for them to get out of the middle of a foreign civil war.

The vast majority of senators decided to do the bidding of the president who deceived them about the "case" for war and who then played politics with national security and the lives of the young men and women who wear the uniform of the United States.

Only six members of the chamber charged with serving as the ultimate check and balance on the fools' missions of failed presidents chose to support the troops. Boxer, Byrd, Feingold, Harkin, Kennedy and Kerry will, of course, be vilified by Rove regenerated attack machine for having done so. It will be suggested that they sent the wrong message to the troops by voting as they did.

At the end of the day on which the American death toll topped 2,500, however, the only message the six senators sent to the troops was this: We agree with you.

The Peace Race

The peace majority is real.

A CBS poll finds that 80 percent of Democrats believe the United States should have stayed out of Iraq, and more than 60 percent want US troops home as soon as possible. A Washington Post/ABC poll finds that 70 percent of Independents feel the war was not worth it, and 33 percent of Republicans agree. Even 72 percent of our troops believe US forces should leave Iraq in the next year.

So what are so many Democratic politicians so afraid of? And how do we translate this majority into a politics of change for the 2006 elections and beyond? How do we send a message from the grassroots – the people outside of the beltway – that ending this war matters, and that the time to show moxie and conviction is right now?

VotersForPeace has initiated the Peace Voter Pledge along with 18 other antiwar organizations – including United for Peace and Justice, itself a coalition of 1,400 local groups.

The pledge is focused on the Iraq war as well as potential armed conflicts such as that with Iran, and – using language crafted by The Nation in its cover editorial last November – it reads: "I will not vote for or support any candidate for Congress or President who does not make a speedy end to the war in Iraq, and preventing any future war of aggression, a public position in his or her campaign."

Linda Schade, spokesperson for Voters For Peace, points to a nationwide poll indicating that 67 percent of Democratic voters support or strongly support the wording of the pledge; 59 percent of Independents and a stunning 25 percent of Republicans support it as well.

"The Peace Majority is now here. Peace Voters are the new Soccer Moms," Schade said.

Peace Voters see how the war is undermining our security and causing a tragically unnecessary loss of life, while also depleting needed resources for healthcare, education, and the rebuilding of America.

Kevin Martin, Executive Director of Peace Action, expects hundreds of other groups to join in the Peace Voter Pledge effort. The goal is to obtain two million signatures in 2006 and Peace Action is aggressively promoting it online, while chapters and affiliates circulate it at local community events across the nation.

"Support for this war, or unwillingness to speak out against it, are both morally unacceptable," Martin said. "Democrats can't beat Karl Rove by offering no real alternative on this."

Which is exactly the point Sen. Russell Feingold made in a recent interview with Dan Balz and Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post: "If we don't show that we have a strong vision of how to complete that mission, bring the troops home, and refocus in a positive way in the fight against terrorism, I'm afraid people will once again by default, you know, hedge it and maybe allow Republicans to stay in power."

One Democrat who understands the painful consequences of hedging is Senator John Kerry. On Tuesday, the former Presidential candidate spoke at the fourth annual Take Back America conference and announced that he will soon sponsor an amendment to the defense spending bill demanding a withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2006.

As the death toll has increased--more than 2,500 US troops have been killed to date--and voters have become increasingly disgusted with the war and the lack of Democratic action in opposing it, antiwar candidates have emerged as challengers to the status quo.

In Connecticut, where over 60 percent of voters oppose the war, Bush's favorite Democrat, Joe Lieberman, is receiving a surprisingly stiff challenge from Ned Lamont. Lamont needed the support of 15 percent of the delegates at the state convention to secure a place on the August 8 primary ballot – he doubled that.

Even in instances where a challenger falls short – as occurred in last Tuesday's California primary between Marcy Winograd and hawkish incumbent, Jane Harman – these contests are forcing Democratic strategists who would water-down any position on Iraq to confront the depth and power of the antiwar sentiment. "The voters are sending a clear message to the party," Schade says.

In New York, writer and labor organizer Jonathan Tasini is challenging Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary – a David and Goliath contest in which Tasini has no delusions about winning. But Tasini recently proved that Senator Clinton could not dictate Iraq policy at her own state convention, where he led a successful effort to pass a resolution labeling the decision to go to war an "error" and urging "a safe and orderly withdrawal of US forces."

Peace Action's Kevin Martin says, "In the end, we want politicians to know the power of the peace voters. Even in the so-called ‘safe districts.' We want them to see the political potential of our constituency."

Hopefully, the Democratic Party leadership will soon follow the lead of grassroots activists and courageous leaders such as Feingold, Kerry and Senate candidates, Rep. Sherrod Brown in Ohio, John Tester in Montana, and Bernie Sanders in Vermont.

As Feingold said, "America knows we have to regroup and refocus on the real fight against terrorism. So I don't understand why Democrats are so meek about basically associating themselves with the number one issue in America which is to find a way to end our huge military involvement in Iraq."

Let the race for peace begin. Sign the Peace Voter Pledge today.

2,500 Dead, No End in Sight

There's two new numbers to consider as the House holds a rigged debate on the Iraq war today.

One is 2,500. That's the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq, released by the Pentagon today. In the fourth year of the conflict, there's no end in sight.

The other number is 57. That's the percentage of Americans who believe we should decrease the number of troops in Iraq. Even with Abu Musab Zarqawi's capture, a majority of Americans are less than confident that Iraq will end well, and believe the war was a mistake.

53 percent of voters said Iraq was the top issue for them in the 2006 elections. Surely that number warrants more than ten hours of false debate.

Taking Back America

I'm just back from Washington, DC, where the Campaign for America's Future staged its fourth annual Take Back America conference at the Hilton hotel near DuPont Circle. Bringing together close to 2,000 of the country's most dedicated progressive activists and strategists for a series of speeches, conversations, panels, workshops and parties, TBA showcased a raft of innovative policy proposals, initiatives and projects. Also on hand to make speeches was much of the Democratic Party leadership, including Senators Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Russell Feingold and House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

Unfortunately, the story out of the conference, according to most media accounts, was the division in the progressive community, demonstrated by the booing Senator Clinton received as she defended her opposition to a timetable for withdrawing US troops from Iraq. I was at the speech. Though she did get static on Iraq, the general response to her talk was overwhelmingly positive. She garnered five enthusiastic ovations by my count, and by the end of her speech--mere minutes after she supposedly alienated the crowd--she left to a standing ovation much, much, much louder than the earlier booing.

Now I'm not saying that the positive reaction was necessarily a good thing. My feeling was that she was able to win a legitimately progressive crowd over far too easily with hollow progressive rhetoric. (And this isn't a call for heckling either. I think it's worth listening to people with whom you disagree. You just don't have to cheer them madly!) But people's reactions are complicated. My only point is that I didn't leave the conference feeling the story was "the widespread disagreement among left Democrats," as a particularly egregious piece in the New York Sun reported yesterday, and as the Washington Post and New York Times have echoed in dispatches this week.

I thought the story was the remarkable set of new ideas being passionately detailed by a klatch of determined activists of varied political stripes. The energetic and intelligent remarks of Robert Biko Baker in the opening plenary had me checking my laptop for info on his organization, the National Hip-Hop Political Convention. Baker's group is working to develop a political agenda and an organizational infrastructure for the hip-hop generation. The NHHPC's broad goal is to increase civic and community involvement among young adults between the ages of 16 and 35. Its national convention takes place in Chicago from July 20 to 23.

Led by the dynamic Rev. Lennox Yearwood, the DC-based Hip Hop Caucus is working with a similar constituency. Yearwood spoke at a panel I saw on Tuesday morning about the failed federal response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the Gulf Coast Renewal Campaign, which is basically about trying to force the government to address the plight of the hundreds of thousands of American citizens stranded without jobs, housing or hope by a government that is somehow blind to their fate. (Full disclosure: We're pleased to say that Rev. Yearwood will be joining the next Nation cruise as a guest speaker.)

Because I spent much of the session in the Katrina panel, I missed most of the concurrent blog discussion. But I did catch a little of the hyper-articulate blogger Glenn Greenwald, who is also a constitutional attorney with a New York Times best-seller out. The book, How Would A Patriot Act?, published by Working Assets, has shot to the best-seller lists through internet word-of-mouth and the power of the blogs. It's essentially one man's story of being galvanized into action to defend America's founding principles against an extremist administration run amok, and its success offers an instructive model for how a book can become a huge success while bypassing traditional means of distribution and promotion. Every other single blogger on the panel -- Chris Raab, Jerome Armstrong, Matt Stoller, Louis Pagan and Christy Hardin Smith -- is a master of the craft. If you're investing time in reading blogs, you should definitely be reading them.

The last panel I saw before leaving the conference a half-day early was smart and serious and the ideas put forth, if adopted, could help save America, and probably the world. Speaking generally about energy independence and more specifically about the Apollo Alliance, a broad coalition within the labor, environmental, business, and faith communities in support of good jobs and energy independence, the panel made a highly intelligible case for a radically revamped energy policy which would cut our addiction to oil, improve our national security, and, most importantly, give us a chance to stave off the terrors of global warming.

As people like Joel Rogers, Billy Parish and Jennifer Ito explained, the answers to our energy crisis are out there -- in fuel cells, in solar power, in wind technology, in hybrid synergy, in biofuels, in "green" buildings and in areas we don't yet know about. The popular will is out there too, as demonstrated partly by the great success of Parish's Campus Climate Challenge. The question, starting with this November's elections, is who will lead us there.

Finally, on my way out to catch a train, I was lucky to meet the talented Annabelle Gurwitch, an actress and author of a hilarious new book. Fired has deservedly received great press since its release last month. If you haven't heard about it, it's a collection of stories by people--including Felicity Huffman, Andy Borowitz, Morgan Spurlock, Harry Shearer, Anne Meara, Bill Maher and Jeff Garlin--recounting times in their lives that they've been fired. It's very cathartic really. And funny! Gurwitch's essay is one of the best and her experience of being fired from an off-Broadway play by Woody Allen is the wrenching, hilarious catalyst for the book. She nicely gave me a copy and I finished it before the Amtrak arrived in New York.

There's also a new film version--a first-person documentary written and directed by Gurwitch featuring stories from many of those in the book as well as an amazing rant from Ben Stein and some interesting observations from Robert Reich (who also contributes to the book.) But more than anything, the film takes the project a step further by trying to understand the increasing insecurity of the American worker in the global economy. Gurwitch attended job fairs, career retraining classes, met with human resource directors, took outplacement workshops and spent time with recently laid-off UAW workers. It's grim stuff but our guide never loses her sense of humor, her empathy or her grace.

The doc is available on DVD and will be broadcast on the Sundance cable channel. Check out the Fired website for info on how you can watch this highly creative project, and click here to tell Gurwitch your own story of being fired.

Profiles in Cowardice

Back in November, after Jack Murtha shocked the political establishment by calling the Iraq war "a flawed policy wrapped in illusion," Congress rushed to vote on his resolution.

Murtha's proposal called for the redeployment of US forces "at the earliest predictable date" with an "over-the-horizon presence of US Marines" deployed in the region so the US could "pursue security and stability in Iraq through diplomacy." But the House never got to vote on Murtha's resolution. Instead, Congressional Republicans rewrote it to read: "It is the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately."

It was a sham vote, pure and simple, that reached its climax when Republican Jean Schmidt called Murtha a "coward" on the House floor. "I thought the tone was a bit over-the-top," House Majority Leader John Boehner said later. "And frankly, I wasn't very comfortable with how it was done and some of the words that were used."

But now Boehner is pulling the same stunt today, urging Congress to "debate" on an incredibly slanted resolution while circulating talking points labeling Democrats as "weak," "dangerous" and ready to "concede defeat."

No wonder Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina, one of three Republicans who forced the debate in the first place, calls Boehner's move "nothing more or less than really a charade."

Republican Wayne Gilchrest, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star honoree, took it a step further. "While you were in combat, you had a sense of urgency to end the slaughter," Gilchrest told the Washington Post. "And around here we don't have the sense of urgency."

Most of Gilchrest's colleagues didn't want any debate in the first place. "When the country is war-weary, when the violence is still playing on TV, I don't know why we want to highlight all that," said Ray LaHood of Illinois.

When there's a festering problem, why provide a solution?

No, gay marriage, the estate tax, indecency fines and flag-burning take precedence. Congress today is a profile in cowardice, offering no hope for our troops, no answers for the American people and no future for Iraqis.

Jim Webb, the former Secretary of the Navy who's challenging George Allen for a Senate seat in Virginia, summed it up best. "They're sending other people's kids to war," Webb said of the Republican Congress. "They're allowing other people's kids to suffer from bad schools, outsourced jobs, crime-ridden neighborhoods, deflated futures, no health insurance. They've lost sight of why they should be in government in the first place."

Wanted: A New And Improved Deal

Just hours after the army of bloggers left Las Vegas, the beleaguered United Auto Workers opened its convention in the same town. But this week there were no lavish bashes, no big-ticket politicians clamoring to speak to a union whose membership fell from 1.5 million in 1979 to less than 600,000 last year. The UAW's convention's tone was somber--in sharp contrast to the triumphalist mood of the Daily Kos convention.

I say, all power to the participatory politics that the Internet is bringing to our anemic democracy. But I wish a few bloggers had stayed behind to report on how the UAW's members are faring and feeling. I wish a few of them had used their laptop power to hold politicians' feet to the fire for failing to think big about how to rebuild an economy that would provide opportunity to America's ravaged working poor and middle class. And at a moment when the mainstream media, the rightful target of so many bloggers, devotes fewer column inches to labor coverage than at any time in modern history (and has shown the door to almost all its labor reporters), what better role for crusading bloggers to fill?

But UAW President Ron Gettelfinger's searing words about this administration's grotesque assault on the working class, and his appeals to politicians to address the structural changes required to counter a predatory global economy, were given almost no attention in the blogosphere and too little in the mainstream press.

To his credit, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne was one of the few who paid attention--using the UAW's crisis to lay out what he believes is "the greatest challenge facing the American center-left." How do progressives, he asked, "keep their core promise to expand opportunities for the middle class and the poor"? How do we repair a shredded social contract to provide dignity and work for those who seek it?

How do we rebuild or "renegotiate" the bargain in which corporate power is effectively countered "by a large public sector and a unionized industrial sector that provided social insurance, education, pensions and health care"? For now, as Dionne argues, because people are clearly seeking a "better economic bargain, the words 'New Deal' never sounded more up to date." But, as if he could hear those pollsters and strategists, ones I've heard before cautioning politicians about using "New Deal" because it seems so retro, E. J. rightly replies: "... if the marketing specialists insist, A New and Improved Deal would do just fine."

Whatever you want to call it, if you're seeking provocative, creative and humane ideas about how to build a new social contract, read William Greider's article in The Nation's current issue. What Greider likes to call his "not-ready-for-primetime" ideas should attract the attention of all political leaders who care about addressing the deterioration of work and wages, and who believe that our country's greatness lies in nurturing people and society first, ahead of corporations and capital.