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The DC-insider storyline about this being a great year for the Republican establishment is undergoing a rapid rewrite. For the first time since the post was formally established in 1899, a House majority leader has been defeated in a bid for renomination. And as political prognosticators, Republican stalwarts and savvy Democrats search for explanations, they are being forced to consider complexities they had not previously entertained—including the prospect of conservatives who are ready and willing to criticize big business.
Eric Cantor, the face of the GOP establishment, one of the party’s most prodigious fundraisers and the odds-on favorite to become the next speaker of the House, lost his Virginia Republican primary Tuesday to a challenger who promised, “I will fight to end crony capitalist programs that benefit the rich and powerful.”
The result shocked the not just the Republican establishment but the DC establishment. The shockwaves continued Wednesday, as Republican aides said Cantor would step down July 31 from his position as the second most powerful figure in the House—ending the congressman’s run as a Washington power player who championed the interests of Wall Street and corporate America.
That Wall Street connection was a central theme of the challenge that displaced Cantor.
Dave Brat, who defeated the number-two Republican in the House by a 56-44 margin, tore into big business almost as frequently as he did the incumbent. “I am running against Cantor because he does not represent the citizens of the 7th District, but rather large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts and a constant supply of low-wage workers,” declared the challenger.
Cantor dismissed Brat as a “liberal college professor.”
That was false—at least the liberal part.
Though Brat is a professor who teaches economics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, he is definitely not a liberal. He ran to the right of Cantor on the issues; he outlined the premises of his campaign in an extended interview with the conservative National Review; and he announced on his Facebook page, “It’s time we elect a conservative, not just a Republican, to represent us.”
But Brat’s low-budget campaign came with a twist. He ran as something rare in American politics—so rare that many political commentators have a hard time comprehending the calculus. On a number of issues, the challenger positioned himself as an anti-corporate conservative. Indeed, as Politico noted during the course of the campaign, “The central theme of Brat’s campaign is that Cantor is beholden to business—specifically the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.”
That does not make Brat any sort of progressive, or even a populist by most contemporary measures; nor does it make his harsh right-wing positions on a number of issues any more noble than those same positions when they are taken by Republicans who regularly pocket checks from Wall Street interests. Brat has some ties to wealthy libertarians, and he’s written about “the moral foundations in Ayn Rand”—even if he “says…he isn’t a Randian.”
Yet Brat’s anti-corporate rhetoric distinguished him from Cantor, and from most prominent Republicans—whether they identify with the Republican “establishment” or the Tea Party wing of a party that in recent years has been defined by its subservience to corporate interests.
From the start of the campaign, Brat was aggressive in his opposition to immigration reform—attacking Cantor for making tepid attempts to move the GOP toward a more moderate position on the issue. But even Brat’s crude campaigning on immigration came with an anti-corporate twist. “Eric Cantor doesn’t represent you, he represents large corporations seeking a never-ending supply of cheap foreign labor,” the challenger argued.
Because Brat highlighted immigration policy as part of the campaign that upset Cantor, it is likely that Republican leaders will move toward an even sharper stance in opposition to meaningful reform. That likelihood led Dream Act Coalition co-director Cesar Vargas to say that with Cantor’s defeat—after being attacked as “too soft on immigration”—“there is no chance of getting anything done legislatively on the subject through the summer, after which it would be difficult to get anything done with presidential speculation beginning.”
Vargas argues that instead of offering House Republicans more time to act on immigration reform, the president “should offer deportation relief, and other forms of administrative relief, now.”
That’s an insightful response to the Cantor defeat. Americans are ready for immigration reform—polls suggest that more than two-thirds of Americans support a pathway to citizenship and reject mass deportation. A new Public Policy Polling survey, conducted Tuesday night in Cantor’s district, concludes that “72 percent of voters in Cantor’s district support the bipartisan immigration reform legislation on the table in Washington right now to only 23 percent who are opposed.”
It may be that hard-core Republican primary voters, particularly in Southern states where primary turnout is usually very low, will continue to threaten GOP members of the House and Senate who display even the slightest moderation on the issue. But the PPP data suggests that wasn’t the only factor in Cantor’s defeat. Indeed, recent polling by PPP and other firms suggests that the Obama White House and congressional Democrats would be unwise to imagine that a Virginia Republican primary result argues for an abandonment of immigration reform.
Are there other insights to be taken from Brat’s defeat of Cantor?
Perhaps. And they could have implications for the broader politics of 2014 and 2016.
Brat, whose campaign raised and spent roughly $200,000 versus Cantor’s $5 million campaign, attracted grassroots Tea Party support. But the professor actually missed meetings with top national conservatives that had been organized in Washington for mid-May—with the campaign explaining that Brat had to focus on preparations for final exams.
His distance from the national conservative establishment, much of which aligns with the same business interests as the Republican establishment, was evident in Brat’s harshest criticism of Cantor.
“In my view, the greatest moral failure—which disqualifies Cantor for high public office—was his abuse of the public trust concerning the STOCK Act, a bipartisan bill that was going through after the financial crisis,” the professor wrote in a pre-election article for the opinion pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the dominant newspaper in the region. “The Stock Act,” noted Brat, “was intended to ban insider trading on congressional knowledge for congressmen and their families. CNN discovered that Cantor altered the language of the House version in order to allow family members and spouses to continue insider trading on congressional knowledge. In my view, this action was beneath the dignity of the office. Virginians deserve better and I pledge to treat everyone equally under the law.”
Brat is so little known at this point that it is hard to say where he will end up politically. He’ll face a solid Democrat in November—fellow Randolph-Macon College professor Jack Trammell—but his chances of winning the November election in an overwhelmingly Republican district are good.
If Brat does go to Congress as a conservative critic of big business, and of the GOP’s alliance with corporate interests, he could open up a lot of new debates within the party, and beyond its boundaries. On election night, he was telling Fox News, “The issue is the Republican Party has been paying way too much attention to Wall Street and not enough to Main Street.” He spoke of “a fissure between Main Street and Wall Street,” arguing that Republican leaders had forgotten that, “Dollars dont vote, people do.”
That language suggests Brat could align with others, such as North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones Jr., an old-right conservative, and Michigan’s Justin Amash, a younger libertarian-leaning member, who have run afoul of Republican leaders—including Cantor.
Both Jones and Amash have reached across party lines and worked with progressive Democrats on a host of issues, including efforts to restrict NSA surveillance, to block free-trade deals and even (in Jones’s case) to amend the US Constitution to get corporate cash out of politics.
After his victory, Brat told interviews, “Our founding was built by people who were political philosophers, and we need to get back to that, away from this kind of cheap political rhetoric of right and left.”
On at least one issue, privacy rights, Brat seems to be very much in agreement with Amash and Jones—and progressives such as Congressman John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who has worked with Amash to address NSA abuses. The Virginian’s issue primer declares, “Dave believes that the Constitution does not need to be compromised for matters of national security. He supports the end of bulk phone and email data collection by the NSA, IRS, or any other branch of government.”
In his new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State (Nation Books), Ralph Nader argues that there are many issues on which an anti-corporate left and an anti-corporate right could achieve “convergence” in opposition to policies advanced by “corporate conservatives and corporate liberals.” Nader’s point is not to suggest that the left and the right will be in specific agreement on issues ranging from fair trade to restricting domestic surveillance to whittling down the military-industrial complex. He suggests that “they [can] come at it for different reasons, but they [can] have the same conclusion.”
That’s an intriguing notion, especially after one of the most powerful corporate Republicans in Washington just lost to a guy who decries “large corporations seeking insider deals” and “crony bailouts.”
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Former Vice President Al Gore did not exactly break new ground when he said Tuesday that Edward Snowden had “provided an important service” by revealing to the extent to which the American government spies on people in the United States and abroad.
Yes, Secretary of State John Kerry and others in the Obama administration and in Congress may casually toss around words like “traitor” when discussing the former National Security Administration contractor. But The New York Times has made the case that
[c]onsidering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service. It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.
Some in Congress have gone further.
Congressman Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s more of a whistle-blower than a villain.… I think the outrage people in the administration have expressed toward Edward Snowden ought to be more focused on how the NSA broke privacy laws.”
So Gore was, in many senses, simply restating a relatively mainstream view when, during a session at Tennessee’s Southland Technology + Southern Culture Conference, he was asked what PandoDaily refers to as the “Is he a traitor or a hero?” question. Gore responded:
I’m like most people, I don’t put (Snowden) in either one of those categories. But I will be candid—if you set up a spectrum, I would push it more away from the traitor side. He clearly violated the law; you can’t say OK what he did is alright. It is not.
But what he revealed in the course of violating important laws included violations of the Constitution that were way more serious than the crimes he committed. In the course of violating important laws he also provided an important service because we did need to know how far this has gone.
But it does matter when a former vice president, who also happens to be the former presidential nominee of the party that now holds the White House, is rejecting the simple calculations of many top Democrats regarding Snowden, who has chosen to remain in Russia rather than return to the United States and face charges of espionage and theft.
And it matters even more when one of the most tech-savvy public figures in the United States says of NSA surveillance: “This is a threat to the heart of democracy.”
Indeed, what Gore has been saying about the state of US democracy in recent years has been very important—and very true. “Our democracy has been hacked in the United States,” he says. “The operating system has been taken over and it no longer serves the purposes our founders intended it serve.”
Gore’s right about that. And he is right when he says, as he did on Tuesday, that the democratic discourse its harmed—as are basic concepts of individual freedom and liberty—when citizens feel intimidated.
“Democracy is among other things a state of mind,” explained the former congressman, senator and vice president.
If any of us are put in a position where we have to self censor, and think twice about what we write in an e-mail, or what we click on for fear that somebody reading a record of this may misunderstand why we looked up some disease or something, some young people who might otherwise get help with a medical condition, might think oh my gosh if I put down a search for bipolar illness I will be stigmatized if my online file is hacked or accessed by my employer. That kills democracy.
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Shari Roll was clutching the marriage certificate. Renee Currie was clutching Shari Roll. And when their designated officiant, Mike Quieto, pronounced them married, they smiled so perfectly, so naturally, that it seemed as if this was just another wedding on the courthouse steps.
And, of course, it was.
The only distinction was that this was the first legally recognized marriage of two women in Wisconsin, the first same-sex marriage in Madison, the one of the initial celebrations of the marriage equality ruling issued by a federal judge Friday afternoon. By the end of the weekend in Madison, 137 same-sex couples had been issued marriage licenses by Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, while 146 licenses were issued by Milwaukee County Joe Czarnezki.
Together for years and very much in love, Roll and Currie could easily have driven to the neighboring state of Iowa, which has since 2009 recognized marriage equality. Thousands of Wisconsin couples, including Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and his husband, Phil Frank, married outside the state after a ban on same-sex marriages was enacted in 2006. But Roll and Currie decided to wait for a future when the state could no longer restrict the most basic rights of loving couples.
“We wanted to get married where we live,” explained Shari Roll.
I understand that. There are a great many Americans who choose to marry in the place where we live, embraced by the people we know, grounded in the values and the unique interactions of the very different communities and states that make up these United States.
My hometown of Madison’s uniqueness was evident Friday night, as dozens of couples got their licenses and married on the steps of the downtown building that serves both as the Madison City Hall and the Dane County Courthouse. Judges in robes waited on the steps, meeting couples and performing the marriages as cheers went up from the ever-expanding crowd of well-wishers. Children showed up, brimming with bouquets. I asked who the wedding flowers were for and they replied, “For everyone who is getting married today.” Then they starting handing flowers out to couples who had rushed to the courthouse without much preparation but suddenly felt very special and very loved.
Then the cops arrived with the wedding cakes. Several Madison Police officers who had been observing the festivities raced off to a nearby grocery store and bought three large cakes. Everyone was eating and cheering as the Klezmer band marched up and a fiddler played “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” for a pair of women who waited thirty years to marry.
Marriage equality is not a new premise. The barriers are falling rapidly. Since the US Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s definition of marriage as only between a man and a woman, it has, in fact, become inevitable. Following on the Supreme Court ruling of last summer, the group Freedom to Marry says twenty consecutive rulings by state and federal judges have found state marriage bans unconstitutional—and more will do so.
Yet each state’s embrace of freedom and fairness matters. That was so very obvious on Friday night in Madison, a city that has for decades embraced and celebrated LGBT rights. Indeed, among the many jurists performing marriages Friday night was Dane County Judge Shelley Gaylord, who was first elected two decades ago to a municipal judgeship as an LGBT activist and lawyer.
Wisconsin should have been the first state in the nation to embrace marriage equality.
Wisconsin’s Constitution begins with a Declaration of Rights that proclaims: “All people are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And Wisconsinites have led the nation in opposing discrimination against people of color, against women and against LGBT people.
In 1982, Wisconsin was the first state in the United States to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, education, credit and all public accommodations. That measure passed the state legislature with support from Democrats and Republicans and it was signed by a Republican governor, Lee Sherman Dreyfus, who said, “It is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party that government ought not intrude in the private lives of individuals where no state purpose is served, and there is nothing more private or intimate than who you live with and who you love.”
Unfortunately, a decade ago, a new crew of far-right Republican politicians who were following a national playbook for stirring up election turnout by social conservatives succeeded in placing an anti-same sex marriage proposal on the same ballot as a constitutional amendment. The proposal was at odds with the constitution’s “Declaration of Rights.” But it passed.
Polling now shows that Wisconsinites overwhelmingly support marriage equality—a May Marquette Law School poll found 55 percent of voters favor allowing same-sex marriages, while just 37 percent are opposed. Unfortunately, Governor Scott Walker and his Republican-controlled legislature have refused to allow the voters to revisit the issue.
So it was appropriate that a senior jurist with deep roots in Wisconsin, Federal Judge Barbara Crabb, would intervene with a determination that “quite simply, this case is about liberty and equality, the two cornerstones of the rights protected by the United States Constitution.” In an eighty-eight-page decision that was hailed as one of the most thorough yet produced by a federal jurist ruling on the issue, Crabb explained that states cannot trump federal guarantees of equality and equal protection with their own discriminatory amendments.
Governor Walker and Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen are still trying to block marriage equality. But they are clinging to a past that has been rejected by the courts and by the great mass of Wisconsinites.
The future is here. And this future allows people to marry the people they love in the places they love.
In their rush to get to the courthouse Friday afternoon, Shari Roll and Renee Currie forgot to bring cash for the license fee. Roll handed her credit card to friend who ran off to a nearby bank machine and returned with the cash. It was no problem. Shari and Renee were getting married where they live, and their friends and neighbors were helping out.
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The political crisis of confidence created by an activist Supreme Court’s decisions in cases such as Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FCC is beginning—finally—to garner appropriate consideration from the US Senate. That’s important. What’s even more important is that it is focused on the proper response to the crisis: amending the US Constitution in order to restore the right of citizens and their elected representatives to organize elections where the vote matters more than the dollar.
On Tuesday, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the chamber’s assistant majority leader, chaired what Public Citizen identifies as “the first-ever hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee on the need to amend the Constitution to overturn egregious US Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United and McCutcheon, which gave corporations and the ultra-wealthy the green light to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.”
Durbin was an engaged chair of the hearing by the Constitution Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, having already declared, “It’s increasingly clear that the only way to really reform our system is to pass a constitutional amendment to regulate how we finance our elections.”
The senator is right. And the American people are supportive of his position; sixteen states and more than 500 communities have formally asked Congress to back an amendment to clarify that, despite what the Supreme Court might imagine, corporations are not people and money is not speech. Still, the significance of this hearing, which comes as Senate Democratic leaders are talking about scheduling an amendment vote, ought not be underestimated. Nor should the fact that the number of senators supporting a constitiutional amendment is rapidly approaching a majority.
The grassroots movement for an amendment can no longer be marginalized. It has forced Senate leaders to get serious about a crisis that can no longer be neglected.
Polling shows that the clear majority of Americans believe that our elected officials do not serve the interest of the great mass of citizens who actually elect them, which ought to be the basic premise of governance in a democratic republic. Rather, by a two-to-one margin, Americans believe government officials are inclined to promote policies that favor the wealthy rather than the working poor.
Why? More than three-quarters of Americans now tell pollsters that politicians are “corrupted” by campaign donations and lobbyists. They recognize that American University professor Jamie Raskin (who also serves as a Maryland state senator) is right when he tells the Judiciary Committee members that “within the governmental process and electoral process there are right reasons for those who hold public office to make decisions and there are wrong reasons—and a wrong reason is the money you are either going to put into your pocket or huge amounts of money that you’re going to put into your campaign.”
There is ample evidence of what happens when fundraising trumps common sense. At a time when Americans say government can and should do more to address poverty, Congress votes to cut Food Stamps for those who are hungry—claiming that programs that provide nutrition to the needy are unaffordable even as special tax breaks for the very wealthy are kept in place.
The disconnect between the popular will and public policy is so radical that it fosters cynicism and disengagement. Against the reality of big-budget campaigns that flood the airwaves with attack ads—the most effective tools for voter suppression—voters give up. Survey research tells us what we already knew from anecdotal evidence: voters are turning off to a process that does not respond to them, and that overwhelms them with commercials that tell them Democrats and Republicans, liberal and conservatives, should all be viewed negatively.
Turnout for US elections is dismal—far below that for comparable countries. National elections in Europe regularly draw turnouts that are as much as 20 percent (Germany), even 30 percent (Norway), greater than US elections. India’s recent parliamentary elections drew a turnout of over 66 percent, while this year’s congressional elections in the United States may not draw 40 percent to the polls.
It should come as no shock that the decay in democratic processes has caused a decay in enthusiasm: a May Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans surveyed were less excited about voting in this year’s mid-term elections—despite the fact that control of the US Senate is up for grabs, as are most statehouses—than in previous elections. The overall decline in enthusiasm is so dramatic that analysts have begun to predict that the 2014 election will see a record low turnout. And primary election results from states such as Illinois and Texas confirm the concern—despite the fact that those states held competitive elections for important and experienced skyrocketing campaign spending.
Far from fostering engagement and excitement, big money creates a constrained and dysfunctional politics. The national circumstance is bad, and it will get worse. That’s why citizens have been demanding dramatic change: a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s activism on behalf of a high-spending, low-turnout politics that shifts more and more power to economic and electoral elites.
What’s at stake is more important than the predictable wrangling between Republicans like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (who told the subcommittee that leveling the political playing field would create “preferential treatment,” presumably for non-billionaires) and Democrats like Senator majority leader Harry Reid (who argued that it was not the intention of the founders of the American experiment to “give corporations a vote” or to “give dollar bills a vote.”) And it is far more important than the petty posturing by those such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz—who seem to imagine that the founders wrote a free-speech protection into the Constitution in order to guarantee that the wealthy would always be able to shout down the poor.
The Republican firebrand went all in at Tuesday’s hearing, demanding to know: “When did the [Democrats] abandon the Bill of Rights?” And claiming that the amendment “would give Congress the power to ban books and muzzle movies.”
The Texas Republican’s rant inspired laughter in the hearing room, along with a mild rebuke from Senator Chuck Schumer, D-New York, who said, “I think if Thomas Jefferson were looking down at what’s being proposed here, he would agree with it.” Schumer, historically one of his party’s most ambitious fundraisers, is now one of forty-three senators (forty-one Democrats and independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine) who back a specific amendment—proposed by New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall—to address the money-in-political crisis.
A even stronger rebuke has come from the American people. More than 2 million of them signed petitions that were delivered to the Senate by People for the American Way, Free Speech Is for People, Public Citizen, Common Cause, the Center for Media and Democracy and other groups that favor an amendment.
Americans recognize that the promise of American democracy is now fully threatened.
As former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens told the Senate Rules Committee in late April, “Unlimited campaign expenditures impair the process of democratic self-government. They create a risk that successful candidates will pay more attention to the interests of non-voters who provided them with money than to the interests of the voters who elected them. That risk is unacceptable.”
To that end, Justice Stevens advocates for an amendment to the Constitution that simply says, “Neither the First Amendment nor any provision of this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit the Congress or any state from imposing reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns.”
Whether the eventual amendment adopts the language Justice Stevens has proposed, or some variation thereon, the bottom line remains the same: the Constitution must be amended in order to preserve democratic self-governance. And it is good, very good, that the Senate is beginning to recognize this reality.
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Mississippi primary voters just could not decide whether they wanted to nominate a very conservative Republican or a very conservative Republican for the US Senate.
Very nearly 50 percent of Tuesday’s primary voters favored a right-wing stalwart who opposes abortion rights and marriage equality, supports restrictive Voter ID laws, promises to oppose minimum-wage hikes, rips “Obamacare,” the IRS, the EPA and OSHA and trashes “entitlement” programs.
Very nearly 50 percent of Tuesday’s primary voters favored another right-wing stalwart, who opposes abortion rights and marriage equality, supports restrictive Voter ID laws, promises to oppose minimum-wage hikes, rips “Obamacare,” the IRS, the EPA and OSHA and trashes “entitlement” programs.
But Mississippi Republicans couldn’t quite get to a majority opinion about which conservative was conservative enough. So with virtually all the votes counted (and with a tiny percentage of the total streaming off to a little-known third candidate), the good Republicans of the Magnolia State appear to have decided to have another go at it—setting up a June 24 runoff that will require several more weeks of wrangling over what to most Americans will seem to be infinitesimal ideological “distinctions.”
That’s the thing to remember about the fabulous imagining that there is a meaningful difference between “establishment Republicans” and “Tea Party Republicans.”
Yes, there are stylistic distinctions to be noted between incumbent Senator Thad Cochran, a relatively distinguished senior senator, and state Senator Chris McDaniel, a relatively undistinguished challenger who says his campaign “had nothing to do with this sad incident” where a conservative blogger photographed the incumbent’s bedridden wife. Yes, the two Republicans now appear to be set for a high-profile runoff race that will be portrayed as a “GOP civil war” over emphasis and approach.
But that does not place them anywhere near the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
Cochran is identified as the “establishment” choice, which means he is favored by the US Chamber of Commerce and the CEOs and Wall Street financiers who support its campaign to elect a Senate that will rubber-stamp a wildly pro-corporate agenda.
McDaniel is identified as the “anti-establishment” Tea Party insurgent, which means that he is favored by the Club for Growth and the CEOs and Wall Street financiers interests who support its campaign to elect a Senate that will rubber-stamp a wildly pro-corporate agenda.
For the most part, this year’s supposedly significant Senate contests between the establishment and the “Tea Party” have explored the range of opinion from what would historically have been understood as the right wing of the Republican Party to what is now understood as the right wing of the Republican Party.
Some very wealthy people take these distinctions very seriously. They have money to burn, and they are burning it up this year on political purity tests that pit those who like their economic and social conservatism straight against those who want it with a twist of Ted Cruz.
This has already made for an expensive race in Mississippi. Roughly $8 million in outside spending has been lavished on the state’s television stations—in addition to big spending from the Club for Growth, Citizens United and the Tea Party Patriots for McDaniel and big spending from the Chamber and the National Association of Realtors for Cochran. The race has seen $1.1 million spent by “Senate Conservatives Action” for McDaniel and $1.7 million spent by the “Mississippi Conservatives” super PAC for Cochran.
Confused? Don’t be.
McDaniel is a conservative.
And so is Cochran.
Despite the theater-of-the-absurd campaign, it is even more absurd to suggest that Cochran is a liberal with a Southern accent. Mississippi is not in the habit of populating the Senate with progressives. The incumbent’s latest US Chamber of Commerce rating is 100 percent, while his National Education Association ranking is zero. Cochran’s latest ACLU rating is zero, while the American Security Council Foundation has got him at 100 percent. Cochran gets 100 percent from the National Rifle Association and he’s at zero with the American Association of University Women. His latest rating from the National Right-to-Life Committee is 100 percent, while NARAL Pro-Choice America has him at zero—as does the latest assessment from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
It is true that Cochran has, on rare occasions been a reasonable player. But those are pretty much the same rare occasions when Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, another Tea Party target this year, has chosen not to follow Cruz off whatever deep end the Texan might be approaching. Usually, what passes for reasonableness is a vote to take care of some pressing home-state business—such as, in Cochran’s case, specific support for disaster assistance after hurricanes hit the Mississippi coast and general enthusiasm for military spending that keeps Mississippians employed.
That may make Cochran insufficiently “pure” for the purists.
But it is not a distinction that the vast majority of Americans need bother with, unless, of course, they really do imagine that Thad Cochran and Mitch McConnell are liberals.
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The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for five years, even as income inequality has more and more become a pressing issue. Yet as recently as a year ago, prospects for meaningful increase in base pay for the working poor seemed remote.
Now doubling the minimum wage is on the agenda.
Actually, that prospect just moved off the agenda and into official policy in one of America’s largest cities—Seattle—where the city council will on Monday unanimously approved implementation of a $15-an-hour minimum wage. The specific accomplishment in Seattle is strikingly significant; as Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant says, “We forced them to lift 100,000 low-wage workers in Seattle out of poverty—to transfer $2.5 billion to workers at the bottom of the wage scale over the next ten years.”
What is just as significant is the context in which it has come, after what Sawant correctly refers to as “decades of wealth being transferred almost entirely from the bottom up.”
American is experiencing remarkable progress at a rapid rate on a vital issue.
A little over a year ago, when President Obama proposed raising the wage to $9 an hour, Republicans said the sky would fall. Democrats were cautious, although a few of them, led by California Congressman George Miller and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, suggested upping the ante to $10.10 an hour.
But no one in a position of power was talking about doubling it.
That call was raised by the fast-food workers who joined “strikes, marches, boycotts and other mobilizations” in May of 2013. They made the audacious demand for a living wage, putting the figure at $15 an hour.
It was such a bold proposal that Republicans didn’t even bother to ridicule those who advanced it. Even some allies of the Fight for 15 movement saw the “ask” more as an talking point than an actual prospect.
But in cities such as Seattle, the idea took hold. Activists with the group Working Washington say the walkouts that began in late May of 2013 sparked “a new movement to ensure every worker can support themselves, afford the basics, and contribute to the economy.”
Key unions took the idea seriously enough to put a $15-an-hour proposal on the ballot in the Seattle suburb of Sea-Tac, the home of the region’s international airport and a lot of low-wage workers. That made the idea real, especially when a high-spending campaign ensued.
At the same time, Sawant, the Socialist Alternative challenger to an incumbent member of the Seattle City Council, made the establishment of a city-wide $15-an-hour minimum wage the central focus of her campaign.
The Sea-Tac $15-an-hour proposal won.
So did Sawant’s campaign for $15 an hour.
The combination of street heat and electoral action made $15 a viable prospect in Seattle.
So viable that the city’s new mayor and senior council members took it up, adding to the momentum that led to Monday's approval of the $15 wage initiative for the largest city in the Pacific Northwest and the fastest-growing big city in the United States.
Sawant is hailing “a historic [victory] for low-wage workers, for the labor movement and for anyone who believes as I do that no one who works should have to live in poverty.”
Seattle Councilmember Nick Licata calls the plan “a national game changer,” saying, “Seattle, and other cities, are taking direct action to close our nation’s huge income gap because the Federal and state governments have failed to do so. Seattle’s new law opens the way for many workers to earn enough to meet their basic needs. It will raise their standard of living and by putting more dollars into our economy, stimulate greater business opportunities. By significantly raising the minimum wage, Seattle’s prosperity will be shared by more people and create a sustainable model for continued growth.”
While the crowds of union members and community activists packing Council sessions on the issue have regularly erupted in cheers as it has advanced, that does not mean that everyone is satisfied.
“What do we want?” goes the activist call.
“Fifteen!” answers the crowd.
“When do we want it?” call the activists.
“Now!” the crowd responds.
“Now” is the key word.
The Seattle law, as advanced by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, was framed by a mayoral advisory committee that included labor, business and representatives of nonprofit groups, and debated at public hearings and in official meetings. It features much of what activists wanted, but now everything. For instance, the wage hikes come in steps, rather than all at once, meaning that workers at even the biggest businesses in town will have to wait at least three years to get the $15-an-hour wage.
Sawant unsuccessfully proposed amendments to speed up wage hikes for employees of the largest businesses—those with over 500 employees—and to assure that tipped workers get the full benefit of the wage hike. And she objected to a provision that allows for paying some workers below the minimum, saying, “Any kind of teenage wage or sub-minimum wage goes against the principles of workers standing together. The sub-minimum wage is demanded and liked by businesses because it allows them to bring down wages in general. It’s harmful for workers as a whole.”
Sawant and her allies are not done with the fight. They are gathering signatures for a city charter amendment that would have large businesses paying $15-an-hour starting January 1, 2015, while small business and nonprofits would have a three-year phase-in period. The charter amendment will, if it qualifies for the ballot, face significant opposition from Big Business. And there will be those who suggest that the 15 Now activists are asking for more than can be reasonably obtained.
But just a year ago, there were plenty of folks who said $9-an-hour was an unreasonable goal. Now the debate in Seattle is about how quickly to go to $15. And that debate is spreading to communities nationwide.
What’s clear is that, while Seattle is taking the lead, something big is happening nationally. What once seemed like the boldest of all proposals is rapidly moving into the mainstream, as Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities consider big boosts in wages.
The activists with Working Washington place appropriate emphasis on the timeline. “On May 30th of last year, Seattle fast food workers went on strike for $15 because they knew that raising pay was necessary—even if in those first days it might not have seemed possible we could get there. But their leadership and commitment helped spark an extraordinary grassroots workers’ movement that rapidly built support across the entire city. Less than a year later, we are on the verge of achieving a $15 minimum wage that ensures every worker in Seattle can support themselves, afford the basics, and contribute to the economy.”
The Working Washington activists says this is “an incredible accomplishment.”
They are right.
And they are also right when they say that, while Seattle will be the first city to raise the minimum wage to $15, “we won’t be the last.”
Read Next: The Working Families Party has given Cuomo its ballot line.
Zephyr Teachout, with her roots in the insurgent Howard Dean presidential campaign, ties to the Occupy movement and history of spirited activism of democracy issues, reflects the inside-outside sensibility of many progressives who have maintained a frustrated relationship with the Democratic Party.
She’s worked inside the party, developing groundbreaking online strategies for Dean’s 2004 campaign, yet she has been outspoken in her criticism of Democrats who fail to uphold progressive values. Just two weeks ago, after Federal Communications Commission chair Tom Wheeler advanced a proposal that would undermine net neutrality, Teachout wrote a Politico piece headlined “Obama Should Fire His FCC Chair.”
And Teachout has been at odds with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, pressuring the business-friendly Democrat to use his political muscle to reform campaign finance laws and reduce the influence of corporate cash on elections and government. Cuomo has disappointed plenty of progressives in New York, not just on the campaign finance issue but on everything from fracking to education policy. And now there is a prospect that Teachout will offer them an alternative on the ballot line of the state’s Working Families Party.
“It feels like Cuomo is part of this broken system, and he is not going to fix it,” she says. “Voters in New York want a real choice, and right now, with just [Republican Rob] Astorino and Cuomo—they seem to just be fighting about who can give more tax breaks to the billionaires.”
The tech-savvy academic, who teaches law at Fordham University, is up with a website on which she declares, “I’m running because New Yorkers need an economy and democracy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected.” She’s identifying herself as the “Working Families Democrat for Governor.”
The WFP has not yet committed to back a Teachout run. But the party’s leadership will debate the prospect this weekend.
A powerful force in the politics of New York City and the state, the WFP backed Cuomo in 2010—giving its nomination to the Democratic candidate, as is allowed under New York’s fusion rules for combining the votes of candidates on various ballot lines. But this year, party activists have wrestled with the question of continuing to support a governor who often veers to the center on economic and environmental issues.
For weeks now, there has been talk of running an alternative to Cuomo, with names such as Diane Ravitch, a former US assistant secretary of education who has emerged as an outspoken champion of public education, surfacing as prospects. (Ravitch isn’t running, but she remains critical of Cuomo.)
A number of key labor leaders and top elected officials with close ties to the WFP, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, have backed Cuomo, but have reportedly urged him to make concessions to the WFP in hopes of obtaining its ballot line this year. The governor has signaled a willingness to move on some issues, but the frustration runs deep on the WFP state committee, which will meet Saturday to consider how to approach the governor’s race.
The party committee could back Cuomo. It could back Teachout as a challenger. It could name Teachout as a so-called “placeholder” while continuing to pressure Cuomo.
But the party must have a nominee. Under New York law, the party must have a candidate for governor topping its ticket in 2014, and that candidate must attract 50,000 votes in order to maintain ballot status. With Cuomo as the nominee, the votes would be assured, as liberals who want to send a signal to the governor to move left could vote for him on the WFP line. But would it work with a lesser-known candidate such as Teachout?
When Siena College polled New Yorkers early in April, Cuomo was at 58 percent, while his Republican challenger, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, was at 28 percent.
When the Siena poll asked what voters would do if an unnamed WFP challenger running to the left of Cuomo were to enter the race, however, the governor dropped to 39 percent, Astorino dropped to 24 percent and 24 percent for the hypothetical contender.
Similar numbers have turned up in other public and private polls.
So, does that mean that Teachout, if nominated, would start with a quarter of the vote?
Not necessarily. Hypothetical prospects in polls often get bigger numbers than named contenders. And Cuomo is working to shore up his left flank. At last week’s Democratic convention, Cuomo was endorsed by Mayor de Blasio and a host of progressives in a video that featured New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, musician and activist Harry Belafonte and labor leaders from unions with a strong presence in New York City (and its politics), such as the Local 1199’s George Gresham and key figures with other Service Employees and Communication Workers of America locals.
Just as President Harry Truman did in 1948, when he was challenged from the left by former Vice President Henry Wallace, Cuomo has space to move left and to work with key unions to attract votes from folks who have been dissatisfied with him. Already, he’s sounding progressive themes, telling the Democrats who renominated him last week that he wants to address the “social tragedy that a majority of children from wealthy families attend college, but only 10 percent of children of poor families attend college.”
Additionally, if poll numbers showed Astorino becoming competitive, the fear of a Republican win could cause many Democrats to “come home” to a governor who does not always meet their approval.
But is there also space for Teachout?
New York’s third parties are fluid projects. They can run strong, go weak and run strong again. They have lived and died, gained ballot lines and lost them. They have provided margins of victory in presidential races. They have won major elections in New York City and statewide. Former New York Mayor John Lindsay was re-elected in 1969 on the old Liberal Party line. James Buckley was elected US Senator in 1970 on the Conservative Party line. Before becoming New York City’s Public Advocate, Tish James started her political rise by winning a city council seat on the Working Families Party line.
Teachout does not start with the advantages of a Lindsay or a Buckley. But the rise of progressive activism on election reform, income inequality and environmental issues gives her room to run. And the greatest accomplishments of New York’s third parties, on the left and the right, have not always been electoral wins; often, they have used their ballot lines to pull the politics of the state toward new ideas and new approaches.
In that sense, Teachout is a particularly intriguing prospect.
She’s always been ideas-driven. And she knows how to communicate—in person and on the digital platforms that are increasingly definitional in our politics.
If the WFP nominates her, it’s a safe bet that she’d get the 50,000 votes needed to keep the ballot line. And she could get a lot more with what she promises would be a populist “people-powered campaign” that is “dedicated to breaking up the power of Wall Street banks” and “committed to making our politics more responsive to the needs and values of working and middle-class families.”
Read Next: What lies in the future for New York City’s welfare system?
Dr. Maya Angelou wrote in her tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, “A Brave and Startling Truth,” that “We must confess that we are the possible…. We are the miraculous, the true wonders of this world.” And Angelou was one of the wonders of the world. Her personal story was so rich, so varied, so remarkable in its diversity of experience that Walt Whitman must have imagined her when he spoke of the poet containing multitudes.
“To know her life story is to simultaneously wonder what on earth you have been doing with your own life and feel glad that you didn’t have to go through half the things she has,” my colleague Gary Younge wrote several years ago of the woman who danced with Alvin Ailey, cut a fine calypso album, sang at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, performed in the touring company of Porgy and Bess, appeared in the television mini-series Roots, wrote songs with Roberta Flack, compared notes with James Baldwin, earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her poetry and global acclaim for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the 1969 book that was the first of a series of genre-expanding autobiographies. When President Obama presented her with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he noted that Angelou had “spoken to millions, including my mother, which is why my sister is named Maya.”
Her artistic accomplishments alone would have been more than sufficient for a lifetime. But Angelou was, as well, an activist on behalf of the transformational causes of the eras in which she lived, from her birth in 1928 to her death Wednesday at age 86. She chronicled the anticolonial struggle in Africa (as the only woman editor of the Arab Observer newspaper); she knew Nelson Mandela before the South African freedom fighter began his long captivity; in Accra she was part of an expatriate community that included W.E.B. Du Bois; she joined Malcolm X in planning for an Organization of Afro-American Unity; she marched with Gloria Steinem; she inaugurated Bill Clinton; and she personally lobbied legislators on behalf of marriage equality—reminding them, “To love someone takes a lot of courage. So how much more is one challenged when the love is of the same sex and the laws say, ‘I forbid you from loving this person’?”
Maya Angelou was not only a participant in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. She was on staff. Inspired after hearing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at a church in Harlem, Angelou and actors Godfrey MacArthur Cambridge and Hugh Hurd organized a historic fund-raising revue for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a “Cabaret for Freedom” at the Village Gate jazz club. The show, for which Angelou served as writer and co-producer, proved to be such an artistic and financial success that the great organizer Bayard Rustin asked her to replace him as the director of the SCLC’s New York office. She took the job, joining a circle of organizers and activists that included Rustin, labor leader A. Philip Randolph and Dr. King.
At a time when the profile of the movement was rising, Angelou helped to raise the resources that allowed King and others to organize historic challenges to the Jim Crow brutality she would later examine so brilliantly in her books. After Angelou left the SCLC, to marry an anti-apartheid organizer and then to move to Egypt, she remained deeply engaged with the civil rights struggle. She was in Ghana when the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place. But Maya Angelou still marched.
Outside the American Embassy in Accra, Angelou and others rallied with signs calling for an end to segregation and apartheid.
Angelou returned to the United States in the mid-1960s and again found herself in the circle of civil rights activists. King, Rustin and Randolph had turned their focus toward economic justice issues, developing a “Freedom Budget For All Americans” that had as its goals:
* the abolition of poverty
* guaranteed full employment
* fair prices for farmers
* fair wages for workers
* housing and healthcare for all
* the establishment of a progressive tax and fiscal policies that respected the needs of working families.
As King prepared for the 1968 “Poor People’s Campaign,” he met with Angelou and asked her to tour the country to help promote the initiative. She agreed. Before she embarked on the tour, she learned, on her fortieth birthday, that King had been assassinated. It was a devastating development that would, as Angelou recounts in her book A Song Flung Up to Heaven, turn her toward a deeper focus on writing. Yet, that writing remained infused with the sense and the spirit of the civil rights movement. That sensibility was so very present in “On the Pulse of Morning,” the poem Angelou composed for the Clinton inaugural, with its lines:
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear…
Read Next: Remembering Tim Carpenter’s politics of radical inclusion
Dire reports about the failure of the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide adequate care for those who served in this country’s military forces are not just a serious issue for veterans. They are a serious issue for every American who believes the federal government can and must meet the basic commitments necessary to maintain a civil society.
Unfortunately, that seriousness is not reflected in the frenzy of finger-pointing that has developed as a response to “the public’s outrage over excessive wait times and rigged record-keeping at Veterans Affairs hospitals”—an outrage that the president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents caregivers for vets, refers to as “more than justified.”
There is no question that the VA has a problem that must be addressed.
The question is whether the politicians in Washington are ready to address it.
The most predictable of the political careerists, Republican and Democrat, seem to think that firing VA Secretary Eric Shinseki will somehow “fix” things, or that the removal of a few failed managers will suddenly create a functional VA. But that is an absurdly insufficient response.
Depending on what reports regarding the agency reveal, there may well be a place for new leadership and a management shakeup. And those changes might briefly produce a fantasy of action and improvement. But that is all it could be: a fantasy. And a cruel fantasy, at that.
Neither the immediate crisis, nor serious issues relating to the long-term future of the VA, will be settled with a mere reorganization of upper management. The real issues are closer to the ground. The VA needs to have enough doctors, nurses and aides to provide the care that is needed—and the doctors, nurses and aides who are now on duty must have the resources and the flexibility to assure that this care is delivered in a timely and responsible manner.
That is not now the case.
“When we look deeper into this issue of extended wait times for veterans to receive an appointment, we have to recognize that understaffing is a major culprit,” explains AFGE president J. David Cox Sr. “All around the country, medical facilities are understaffed, with numerous frontline care positions going unfilled. How can the VA expect to keep up with the growing needs of our nation’s heroes if it doesn’t properly staff its facilities?”
“According to the Independent Budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs, developed each year by leading veterans groups, funding levels will remain an estimated $2 billion short in FY 2015 and approximately $500 million short for FY 2016,” the AFGE notes.
Members of Congress—at least those who pay minimal attention to veterans issues—have for some time been aware of the funding shortfall. Yet too many of them have resisted calls for action.
The reason is that the current Congress is packed with partisans who are more concerned with maintaining an austerity agenda than with caring for Americans who are in need.
Too many members of Congress continue to prattle on about how government is the problem, about how spending must be cut to meet their imagined bottom lines, about how the resources are not there to keep promises to vulnerable Americans—even if the resources are always there for wars of whim and a military-industrial complex that provides daily evidence of the extremes to which waste, fraud and abuse can be taken.
The current Congress includes a striking number of members who express open antipathy to meeting the guarantees that have been made to all Americans, including veterans. These members of Congress are so unthinking in their approach, so cruel in their budgetary calculus, that they casually, in some cases gleefully, presided over a government shutdown last fall.
Republicans get blamed for advancing the austerity agenda, but it is important to remember that more than a few Democrats have compromised with it. And the difference between those who promote austerity and those who make the compromises that allow for austerity means very little to Americans who are stuck on the waiting lists that are created by budgeting that owes more to Ayn Rand tomes than accounting textbooks.
The VA crisis is a wake-up call.
It is time to get serious. It is time to abandon austerity, and to recognize that core commitments cannot be compromised in order to maintain ideological fantasies.
Senate Veteran Affairs Committee chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, tried to get ahead of a host of issues concerning veterans in February, when he proposed comprehensive legislation to improve VA healthcare, education and job-training. Though it was strongly backed by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and other organizations representing vets, the measure was blocked when most Senate Republicans opposed it. To Republicans who suggested the measure was too expensive, Sanders said, “If you think it’s too expensive (to fund veterans programs), then don’t send them off to war.”
Last week, Sanders announced that he would reintroduce his plan to allocate $21 billion more for veterans initiatives over the coming decade. He is, as well, proposing a new VA accountability measure. The latter legislation removes bureaucratic barriers and makes it easier for the secretary of veterans affairs to make management changes that are necessary to protect those who have served in the military.
The Sanders approach recognizes the need to move beyond the failed responses of America’s austerity-minded politicians while at the same time increasing accountability. It’s a smart long-term fix that eschews the easy sloganeering and empty promises of those who would politicize the VA crisis.
Conscious of the urgency of that crisis, the senator plans to move quickly to get both measures to the Senate floor. “In recent years, as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 1.5 million more veterans have entered the VA health care system,” says Sanders. “Congress must do everything possible to make certain that the VA has the financial resources and administrative accountability to provide the high-quality health care and timely access to care that our veterans earned and deserve.”
Read Next: George Zornick explains why politicizing the VA is not the answer.
Tune in at 7:30 pm Eastern time today, May 22, to hear John Nichols speak live from the Kansas City Public Library about the toxic influence of money and the media election complex on our country as detailed in his new book, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America.