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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Honor JFK by Renewing His Constitutional Commitment to Extend Voting Rights

John F. Kennedy

“The right to vote in a free American election is the most powerful and precious right in the world—and it must not be denied on the grounds of race or color. It is a potent key to achieving other rights of citizenship. For American history—both recent and past—clearly reveals that the power of the ballot has enabled those who achieve it to win other achievements as well, to gain a full voice in the affairs of their state and nation, and to see their interests represented in the governmental bodies which affect their future. In a free society, those with the power to govern are necessarily responsive to those with the right to vote.”
    —John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Special Message to the Congress on Civil Rights, 1963

There has been much honoring of the memory of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy this week, and rightly so. He was dynamic figure who preached a “new generation of leadership” vision that still serves as an antithesis to the listless, austerity-burdened rhetoric of so many of today’s political figures—including some in Kennedy’s own Democratic party.

Kennedy saw himself as a liberal reformer, declaring in 1960: “If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal,’ then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal.’ ”

Kennedy was ardently in favor of religious tolerance, respect for immigrants and labor rights (in 1962 he signed Executive Order 10988, which established the right of most federal workers to bargain collectively). Yes, in his service as a senator from Massachusetts and later as the nation’s thirty-fifth president, Kennedy was a politician of his times, which meant that he could disappoint; surely, he was slower than need be when it came to challenging Cold War dogmas and in calling out Southern resistance to social and economic justice. But Kennedy evolved, as did the nation he led, during the course of his short but transformational presidency.

Kennedy devoted much of the last year of his life to advocacy on behalf of voting rights. His great civil rights address—delivered in the last year of his presidency from the Oval Office to a national television and radio audience—argued that “it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal.”

Fifty years after his assassination, Kennedy can be honored in many ways. But a renewal of his liberal commitment to voting rights would surely be a fine place to begin. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which eliminated the poll tax, was placed on the national agenda by Kennedy, who made it his personal mission to eliminate the wealth barrier to voting.

Politically savvy, the president knew that enacting a constitutional amendment would be difficult, but he argued for going “the hard way” because of an understanding of the need to go around Southern resistance in the Senate and because of a determination on lock in voting-rights gains.

Kennedy promoted the amendment in speeches and letters to the Congress, and then in a steady stream of telegrams and phone calls that prodded governors and legislators across the country to get their states on board.

In the last months before his death, Kennedy was in the thick of the struggle for voting rights, telling Americans: “Finally, the 87th Congress—after 20 years of effort—passed and referred to the states for ratification a Constitutional Amendment to prohibit the levying of poll taxes as a condition to voting. I urge every state legislature to take prompt action on this matter and to outlaw the poll tax—which has too long been an outmoded and arbitrary bar to voting participation by minority groups and others—as the 24th Amendment to the Constitution.”

Beyond the bully pulpit, the president exchanged notes with governors such as Wisconsin’s John Reynolds regarding the details of legislative debates and votes. To a far greater extent than was known at the time, Kennedy personally managed the ratification process.

Thirty-six states ratified the amendment before Kennedy’s assassination—two short of the needed total. Kennedy and others hoped that Texas might break with other states and support the amendment. A statewide referendum on November 9, 1963, proposed to repeal that state’s poll tax and the campaign was intense. Opponents of repeal argued that people of color would “flood the polls” if the economic barrier to voting was removed. Supporters distributed literature that declared: “President Kennedy Wants You to Vote Saturday, November 9, to Repeal the Poll Tax.”

A special message from Kennedy read: “I share the conviction that the right to vote should not be denied or abridged because of the failure to pay a poll tax.”

The literature made the connection to the civil rights movement, urging a “yes” vote: “For Better Job Opportunities, For Better Housing, For Equality and Dignity, For Freedom.”

Unfortunately, a majority of Texas voters saw the change as a threat. The rejected repeal less that two weeks before Kennedy made his trip to Dallas. Yet the president continued his advocacy, getting prominent Texans such as Vice President Lyndon Johnson and US Senator Ralph Yarborough to lend their names to the effort.

Kennedy died without seeing his amendment added to the Constitution.

But his labors were not in vain.

The final states, Maine and South Dakota, signaled their approval in the weeks after the president’s death

When the Twenty-fourth Amendment was added to the Constitution in January 1964, the change in the founding document was heralded with front-page headlines in newspapers and broadcast reports from coast to coast—except, notably, in Southern states where too many media outlets had aligned themselves with the massive resistance to civil-rights legislation, even when that legislation took the form of a constitutional amendment.

The constitutional elimination of the barrier Kennedy derided as “the property qualification” for voting signaled the arrival of what the late president had hoped for: “another turning point in the history of the great Republic.” With the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it seemed, finally, that the nation might move “beyond the new frontiers” of which Kennedy had spoken.

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Unfortunately, as the historian Eric Foner reminds us, the history of the right to vote in America is one of expansion and contraction. And the rights Kennedy and so many others fought to expand have been contracting with the passage of restrictive “Voter ID” laws, attacks on early voting and same-day registration, and a US Supreme Court move to gut the Voting Rights Act. Responding to the legislative and judicial assaults on the voting rights, Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison have returned to the constitutional route that John Kennedy charted when he set out to end polls taxes and property qualifications as a barrier to voting.

With support from groups such as FairVote and Color of Change, the struggle for a constitutional guarantee of voting rights has gone national. Communities across the country are passing resolutions urging Congress to approve the amendment and send it to the states. As in the period before Kennedy embraced the campaign for an amendment banning the poll tax, there is a burgeoning grassroots campaign for constitutional intervention on behalf of voting rights.

The Pocan-Ellison proposal states in simple language the values that voting-rights campaigners have championed for decades: “Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides,” and “Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.”

Or as John Fitzgerald Kennedy put it in 1963: “It is necessary [to] free the forces of our democratic system…promptly insuring the franchise to all citizens, making it possible for their elected officials to be truly responsive to all their constituents.”

Ari Berman describes the contemporary resurgence of Jim Crow throughout the United States.

Rep. Trey Radel Won’t Be Joining the More Than Half a Million Americans Jailed for Drug Offenses

Florida Rep. Trey Radel

Florida Congressman Trey Radel, who has wisely determined that he does not want to become an American version of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, says he will take a leave of absence from the US House of Representatives to address his penchant for cocaine.

“I’m struggling with this disease, but I know that I can overcome it,” explains the conservative Republican.

Fair enough. The congressman wants to finally deal with an addiction problem he says he’s struggled with “on and off for years.” And there is every reason to wish him well as he does so.

But it would be good for Radel and his colleagues to note that he has identified his challenge as a disease, not a bad habit.

That’s a very different line than was taken by the House Republicans Caucus (of which Radel has been an enthusiastic member) when the chamber this year gave voice-vote approval to an amendment that allows states to require drug-testing of food stamp recipients. Why would they seek to penalize victims of what the congressman says is a disease? Why would they go after the neediest Americans in what Congressman Jim McGovern—the House’s most ardent advocate for nutrition programs—with a “degrading and mean-spirited” approach?

Why, in general, is there a rush to penalize Americans who are in need far more aggressively than Radel, a former television reporter who was elected to Congress last year with the backing of Tea Party groups that have made it a priority to promote crackdowns on recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Radel’s penalty for an admitted purchase of cocaine from an undercover agent will be a year of supervised probation.

He will not lose his job, or the benefits that will allow him to overcome his disease. He even suggests that he wants to “continue to serve.”

Radel seems to be safe from the worst ravages of the drug war. He's getting a chance to "overcome" his problems.

But Americans who are not members of Congress continue to be harmed. Shouldn't they get the same chance that Radel has gotten?

As the Drug Policy Alliance notes:

§ The number of people behind bars for drug law violations rose from 50,000 in 1980 to more than a half of a million today—an 1100-percent increase.

§ Drug arrests have more than tripled in the last 25 years, totaling more than 1.63 million arrests in 2010. More than four out of five of these arrests were for mere possession, and forty-six percent of these arrests (750,591) were for marijuana possession alone.

§ Arrests and incarceration for drugs—even for first time, low-level violations—can result in debilitating collateral consequences for an individual and their family. A conviction for a drug law violation can result in the loss of employment, property, public housing, food stamp eligibility, financial aid for college, and the right to vote—even after serving time behind bars.

And Radel’s House Republican Caucus just led the fight to make it even harder on people suffering from what the congressman identifies as a disease—or for people who simply engage in recreational marijuana use—to get by.

There are lots of calls for Radel to step down.

But wouldn’t it be better for him to get his treatment and come around to the realization that penalizing and punishing people who use drugs is a bad policy? Wouldn’t it be better if he recognized, as a participant in future policy debates, that this bad policy is too frequently applied in a “new Jim Crow” manner that sees people of color and low-income Americans face far harsher penalties than wealthy and politically connected white folks?

Radel could be a leader in backing legislative proposals would change not just policies but the broader debate about how to end a failed “drug war.” So, too, could more members of a House Republican Caucus that still errs too frequently on the side of punishment of those in need rather than common sense.

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Some Republicans have already come around. There’s bipartisan support for some of the soundest legislative proposals. But the support has not been sufficient to get the House moving on what the Drug Policy Alliance identifies as essential reforms, such as:

§ The Safety Valve Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, and Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and in the U.S. House by Representatives Robert “Bobby” Scott, D-Virginia, and Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky. The bills would allow federal judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below the federal mandatory minimum sentence if a lower sentence is warranted. (Notably, Radel is a co-sponsor of this measure. Unfortunately, he’s one of just 18 House members—15 Democrats, 3 Republicans—who are now on board.)

§ The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced in the US Senate by Senators Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, and in the House by Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Bobby Scott, which would lower mandatory minimums for certain drug law violations, make the recent reduction in the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity retroactive, and give judges more discretion to sentence certain offenders below the mandatory minimum sentence if warranted. (Ten members—7 Democrats and three Republicans, but no Radel—are backing this measure.)

§ The Public Safety Enhancement Act, introduced in the US House by Congressman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Bobby Scott, which would allow certain federal prisoners to be transferred from prison to community supervision earlier if they take rehabilitation classes, saving taxpayer money while improving public safety.(Seventeen House members—12 Democrats and 5 Republicans, but no Radel—are backing this measure.)

These pieces of legislation represent vital steps in the right direction. Ultimately, however, the first step is to recognize that Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” has failed and that it is absurd to continue to respond to that failure with an unreasonable and unequal regimen of penalty and punishment.

Take Action: Ask President Obama to Pardon Nonviolent Drug Offenders

Zoë Carpenter describes how inequality is “literally killing America.”

Bernie Sanders Might Just Have to Run for President

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders is not burning with presidential ambition. He doubts that he would consider bidding for the nation’s top job if another prominent progressive was gearing up for a 2016 run that would provide a seriously-focused and seriously competitive populist alternative to politics as usual.

But if the fundamental issues that are of concern to the great mass of Americans—“the collapse of the middle class, growing wealth and income inequality, growth in poverty, global warming”—are not being discussed by the 2016 candidates, Sanders says, “Well, then maybe I have to do it.”

This calculation brings the independent senator from Vermont a step closer to presidential politics than he has ever been before. With a larger social-media following than most members of Congress, a regular presence on left-leaning television and talk radio programs—syndicated radio host Bill Press greeted the Sanders speculation with a Tuesday morning “Go, Bernie, Go!” cheer—and a new “Progressive Voters of America” political action committee, Sanders has many of the elements of an insurgent candidacy in place.

But the senator is still a long way from running.

In interviews over the past several days, Sanders has argued with increasing force that the times demand that there be a progressive contender in 2016.

“Under normal times, it’s fine, if you have a moderate Democrat running, a moderate Republican running,” the senator told his hometown paper, the Burlington Free Press. “These are not normal times. The United States right now is in the middle of a severe crisis and you have to call it what it is.”

So, says Sanders, there must be a progressive alternative to the conservative Republican politics of cruelty and cuts and the centrist Democratic politics of compromise with the conservatives.

“[The] major issues of this country that impact millions of people cannot continue to be swept under the rug,” Sanders told Politico on Monday. “And if nobody else is talking about it, well, then maybe I have to do it. But I do not believe that I am the only person that is capable of doing this.”

The independent senator has high praise for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has recently been talked up by some progressives as a prospective primary challenger to the front-runner for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Unlike Clinton, Warren has a reputation for taking on Wall Street, big banks and corporate CEOs, and Sanders hails the Massachusetts senator as a “real progressive.” But Warren says she is not running.

So what happens if Warren stands down? And what if other liberal and populist presidential prospects, such as Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, fail to gain traction?

Then, says Sanders, he’d consider a run.

That sounds casual. But it isn’t. Sanders has stipulations regarding a candidacy.

Though he is a proud independent, he would not run as a November “spoiler” who might take away just enough votes to throw the presidential election to a right-wing Republican.

And he has little taste for “educational” campaigns that seek to raise issues—either on an independent line or in a Democratic primary dominated by a Clinton juggernaut—but do not seriously compete for power.

If Sanders were to run—and that remains a very big “if”—he says he would do so with a strategy for winning.

That strategy, whether the senator were to mount a presidential bid as an independent or as a Democrat, would not be built around insider ties or connections; Clinton already has much of the party establishment locked down. And it certainly would not rely on raising the most money, explains the sponsor of a constitutional amendment to overturn the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and get big money out of politics.

When we spoke recently about the challenges facing progressive candidates, Sanders said what most politicians will not:

“This small handful of multi-billionaires control the economics of this country. They determine whether jobs stay in the United States or whether they go to China. They determine how much we’re going to BE paying for a gallon of gas. They determine whether we’re going to transform our economic system away from fossil fuel. Economically, they clearly have an enormous amount of power. And, now, especially with Citizens United, these very same people are now investing in politics. That’s what oligarchy is. Oligarchy is when a small number of people control the economic and political life of the country—certainly including the media—and we are rapidly moving toward an oligarchic form of society.”

Sanders actually likes the prospects of taking on the oligarchs, saying: “And I think you can bring people together to say: Look, we may have our disagreements, but we don’t want billionaires deciding who the next governor is going to be, the next senator, the next president of the United States. As someone who believes in that type of grassroots organizing, I think it’s a great opportunity.”

So any presidential run by Sanders would rely on small contributions and grassroots support. But the core of the strategy would be that challenge to oligarchy, with its focus on values and ideas that have been too long dismissed by prominent presidential contenders and the media that covers them.

In effect, say Sanders, he would run only if he thought that he could fill the great void in the American political discourse, and in so doing inspire voters to reject old orthodoxies in favor of a new populist politics that would have as its core theme economic justice.

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When we spoke about what is missing from American politics, Sanders told me that the president America needs would begin the discussion, as Franklin Roosevelt did, by calling out the plutocrats and their political and media minions.

Imagine, explains Sanders, if Americans had a president who said to them: “I am going to stand with you. And I am going to take these guys on. And I understand that they’re going to be throwing thirty-second ads at me every minute. They’re going to do everything they can to undermine my agenda. But I believe that if we stand together, we can defeat them.”

The senator explained the concept that would, necessarily, underpin a presidential bid:

“If you had a President who said: ‘Nobody in America is going to make less than $12 or $14 an hour,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President who said: ‘You know what, everybody in this country is going to get free primary health care within a year,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President say, ‘Every kid in this country is going to go to college regardless of their income,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President say, ‘I stand here today and guarantee you that we are not going to cut a nickel in Social Security; in fact we’re going to improve the Social Security program,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a president who said, ‘Global warming is the great planetary crisis of our time, I’m going to create millions jobs as we transform our energy system. I know the oil companies don’t like it. I know the coal companies don’t like it. But that is what this planet needs: we’re going to lead the world in that direction. We’re going to transform the energy system across this planet—and create millions of jobs while we do that.’ If you had a President say that, what kind of excitement would you generate from young people all over this world?”

Whether Sanders runs or not, the prospect of such a speak-truth-to-power presidency is an appealing one. And the senator from Vermont is right: Americans do not just deserve such an option. In these times, they need a serious progressive alternative the ugly politics of austerity -- and the empty politics of compromise.

John Nichols discusses another candidate of progressives’ dreams: Elizabeth Warren.

As He Runs for President, Scott Walker Runs From His Record

Scott Walker

Sorry, US Senator Marco Rubio and US Senator Rand Paul and US Senator Ted Cruz.

Sorry, US Representative Paul Ryan, the former favorite son of Wisconsin Republicans.

But Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says the next Republican nominee for president “should either be a former or current governor.” After all that shutdown trouble, the party’s candidate is going to have to be “somebody who’s viewed as being exceptionally remote from Washington.”

And sorry, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Scott Walker may have a kind word for you, but he says the GOP’s 2016 candidate must be someone who has “taken on big reforms.”

Indeed, sorry, any Republican who is not named “Scott Walker,” but Scott Walker thinks the Republicans are going to need to turn to someone like, um, Scott Walker.

That was the takeaway from Walker’s interviews as he launched the book that is supposed to launch his presidential run, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge.

Walker did not actually announce his candidacy on Sunday’s edition of ABC’s This Week. But as ABC’s Jonathan Karl explained: “When Walker talks about the kind of candidate Republicans should nominate in 2016, it sounds more than a little like he is talking about himself.”

The Wisconsin governor did nothing to stifle speculation.

Despite repeated prompting from ABC’s Karl, Walker refused to commit to serve out the second gubernatorial term that he is expected to seek in 2014—presumably on the bold assumption that said term could interfere with a move to the White House in 2017.

Even as he stumbled around inevitable questions, Walker was sounding like a presidential prospect.

Unfortunately for the most ambitious Republican in a very ambitious Republican field, Walker’s book does not exactly make him sound presidential.

It is not merely that the book—like the ABC interview—is absurdly self-promotional. After all, books issued by potential bidders for the presidency are campaign documents.

It is not that the book’s recounting of events in Wisconsin has been called into question by the people who were there. Or that the chronicling of discrepancies in the book has provided Wisconsin journalists with steady work.

What most undermines Unintimidated—and, with it, Walker’s presidential bid—is the governor’s failure to bring a seriousness to the task of addressing his most troubling, and potentially damaging, missteps. He admits to making mistakes. However, instead of dealing forthrightly with unsettling aspects of his record, Walker tries to write around them—often in the clumsiest of ways.

Take, for instance, the governor’s recollection on the February 2011 telephone conversation in which he was recorded casually discussing the idea of using agents provocateurs to stir up trouble at peaceful mass demonstrations to protest his assault on labor rights for public employees.

By most measures, it was a embarrassing episode.

But the governor makes the episode all the more embarrassing by writing in 2013 that he never considered what in 2011 he certainly seemed to say that he had considered.

In the book he hopes will make him a competitor for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Walker claims that “we never—never—considered putting ‘troublemakers’ in the crowd to discredit the protesters.”

That is what Walker must write if he wants to make a play on the national political stage. It is difficult to imagine that someone who toyed with the ideas employing deliberate provocations as a political tool— in order to create a false impression of citizens who are exercising First Amendment rights to assembly and petition for the redress of grievances— would be taken seriously as a potential commander in chief.

The problem, of course, is that what Walker is now saying conflicts with what he was saying in private and public two and a half years ago.

The issue first arose in February of 2011, several days after mass demonstrations began at the state Capitol. The demonstrations were nonviolent and well organized. Top law enforcement officers for the region—Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Madison Police Chief Noble Wray—praised the protesters for keeping things civil, despite the intensity of the issues that had been raised by Walker’s proposal to eliminate essential workplace protections and collective-bargaining rights for public employees and public school teachers.

The Madison Police Department even went so far as to issue a formal statement that concluded: “Crowd behavior has been exemplary, and thousands of Wisconsin citizens are to be commended for the peaceful ways in which they have expressed First Amendment rights.”

Yet, when Walker thought he was talking to billionaire conservative campaign donor David Koch, the caller (actually blogger Ian Murphy) said: “What we were thinking about the crowds was, uh, was planting some troublemakers.”

Walker replied: “We thought about that.”

The trouble with the strategy, the governor explained, was that it might not play well politically. “My only fear would be is if there was a ruckus caused is that that would scare the public into thinking maybe the governor has gotta settle to avoid all these problems,” he explained during the course of the call.

Former Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager was aghast.

“I think there’s a serious issue there,” she said back in 2011. “That’s a public safety issue. And I think that is really troublesome: a governor with an obligation to maintain public safety says he’s going to plant people to make trouble. That screams out to me. For a governor even to consider a strategy that could unnecessarily threaten the safety of peaceful demonstrators—which the governor acknowledged he did—is something that simply amazes me.”

Walker repeatedly acknowledged after the “Koch call” was made public that he considered employing agents provocateurs to stir up trouble and discredit the demonstrators. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a newspaper that backed Walker for governor in 2010 and refused to support his recall in 2012, pointed out after reviewing the book that “in a news conference held the day the prank call was released, Walker said the idea had been debated, adding, ‘We dismissed that and said that wasn’t a good idea.’”

The Journal Sentinel noted with regard to the governor’s current claim: “His book does not explain why he spoke about it that way with reporters if such a plan had never been entertained.”

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As it happens, the governor was even more explicit in discussing his political calculations when he went on Fox News on February 23, 2011, to discuss the prank call.

When Fox anchor Greta Van Susteren pressed Walker on the question of whether he and his aides had considered employing agent provocateurs to play “dirty tricks in the crowd,” he openly discussed the matter— going so far as to explain: “I even had lawmakers and others suggesting riling things up.”

The governor said that, ultimately, he rejected the idea. But instead of expressing moral outrage at the prospect that “riling things up” might create a dangerous circumstance for crowds that included children, elderly folks and people with disabilities, the governor again appeared to make a political calculation. Stirring up trouble, Walker told the Fox host, “adds no value.”

As some point, someone must have explained to Walker that his acknowledgment of the discussions about employing troublemakers, and of his political calculations regarding the strategy, would not play well nationally.

So now he’s claiming that he “never—never—considered” what in 2011 he said he and his aides “thought about.”

The governor’s apologists will surely continue to cut him slack on this one. But if and when Walker mounts his presidential run, this is an issue he will eventually find himself revisiting.

It is not just the matter of the conflicting claims and statements. There is also the question of what the governor really thinks about using agents provocateurs to “rile things up” at otherwise peaceful protests.

After the transcript of the prank call was made public in 2011, then Madison Police Chief Wray said: “I would like to hear more of an explanation from Governor Walker as to what exactly was being considered, and to what degree it was discussed by his Cabinet members. I find it very unsettling and troubling that anyone would consider creating safety risks for our citizens and law enforcement officers.”

Scott Walker may think he is the ideal candidate for president.

But ideal candidates don’t talk about “planting some troublemakers” to try and besmirch peaceful protests against their policies.

Ideal candidates simply say it is wrong to speak of such things—even when prodded to do so by someone they think is a billionaire campaign donor.

John Nichols makes the case for an Elizabeth Warren 2016 presidential run.

Could a Socialist Actually Win Seattle’s City Council Race? Yes

Kshama Sawant, socialist Seattle city council candidate

Kshama Sawant, a Seattle socialist who campaigned on a promise to lead the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, is poised to join the city council of one of the nation's largest municipalities.

The sixteen-year incumbent Democrat who Sawant challenged in the nonpartisan citywide race, Richard Conlin, conceded Friday evening. The former Seattle city council president acknowledged that Sawant had defeated him after the challenger took a 1,640 vote lead in an ongoing count on ballots from the city's November 5 election.

Sawant, whose campaign energized young people, communities of color and neighborhood activists to provide its come-from-behind energy, describes her electoral seccess as "historic."

"Our campaign us not an isolated event, it's a bellwether for what's going to happen in the future," declares Sawant.

It also renews an urban radical tradition that has deep roots.

America has a rich history of radical politics at the municipal level. Over the past century has seen “sewer socialists” manage the affairs of major cities such as Milwaukee and join city councils, schools boards and county commissions from New York City to Butte, Montana.

The last big-city Socialist Party mayor was Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler, who finished his final term in 1960. More recently, Bernie Sanders served as the independent socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s; while Benjamin Nichols, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, served as mayor of Ithaca, New York, in the 1990s. And just last year, 19-year-old Socialist Party member Pat Noble was elected to the regional board of education in Red Bank, New Jersey.

But Seattle is a major urban center, with what many local analysts have portrayed as an entreched politics. So Sawant’s progress has been seen locally as big news. The Seattle Times headlined its Wednesday edition “Socialist Sawant Now Leads Seattle Council Race.”

“I think we have shown the strongest skeptics that the Socialist label is not a bad one for a grassroots campaign to succeed,” Sawant declared as the count turned her way.

A former software engineer who now teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College, Sawant ran a Socialist Alternative “Fund Human Needs, Fight Corporate Greed” campaign that argued: “We live in one of the richest cities in the richest nation on earth. There is no shortage of resources. Capitalism has failed the 99%. Another world is both possible and necessary—a socialist world based on the needs of humanity and the environment.”

Sawant pulled no punches in her platform, which began with her signature proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 and hour and then promised to:

* Seek “A Millionaire’s Tax to fund mass transit, education, and living-wage union jobs providing vital social services.” She proposes to: “End corporate welfare. Tax freeloading corporations. Reduce the unfair tax burden on small businesses, homeowners & workers.”

* Support efforts to “Unionize Amazon, Starbucks & low-paid service workers.”

* Commit to “No layoffs or attacks on public sector unions!”

Sawant won 35 percent of the August citywide primary vote and a place on the November 5 citywide ballot along with Conlin. In the officially nonpartisan race, Conlin had the backing of most of the Democratic leadership in a city where Democrats tend to win most elections; he also had the support of a number of major environmental groups. But both candidates obtained endorsements from labor organizations and Sawant won the enthusiastic support of the city’s politically potent alternative weekly The Stranger.

“An immigrant woman of color, an Occupy Seattle organizer, and an economics instructor at Seattle Central Community College, Sawant offers voters a detailed policy agenda, backed up by a coherent economic critique and a sound strategy for moving the political debate in a leftward direction,” argued The Stranger in an editorial that celebrated Sawant’s run. “She is passionate but thoughtful. She speaks comfortably on non-economic issues. She is likable. And most important, she’s winning over voters.”

In August, The Seattle Weekly wrote: “We like her because she’s an honest-to-god socialist who’s willing to throw a few Molotov cocktails into the cloistered hatch-pits of our terribly staid civic ‘debates.’ ”

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Sawant took on not just a veteran incumbent but a political process that, for the most part, favors candidates of the two major parties and a narrow range of ideas. But just as Robert Sarvis's unexpectedly strong Libertarian campaign for governor of Virginia (where he finished with almost 7 percent of the vote) offered an indication that Americans are frustrated by the constraints of traditional two-party politics, Sawant’s democratic-socialist campaign in Seattle offers evidence that a bold rejection of austerity has significant popular appeal.

“Seattle has become a really unaffordable city and overall, not just in Seattle but everywhere in the country, people are fed up, angry and frustrated with the political system,” Sawant said, explaining her strong finish. “They’re fed up with the political dysfunction and they’re hungry for change.”

John Nichols explains the growing populist appeal of politicians like Elizabeth Warren.

Candidate or Not, Elizabeth Warren Has the Right 2016 Message

Senator Elizabeth Warren

It is no secret that, should Hillary Clinton decide to mount a White House bid in 2016, she is well positioned to become the first woman president of the United States. It is hard to find a pollster who does not share the view of veteran Democratic analyst Doug Schoen: “Clinton not only leads the Democratic field in polls but also leads potential Republican challengers.”

To be specific, according to the latest NBC News poll, Clinton is the favored candidate of 66 percent of prospective 2016 Democratic primary voters. Her appeal cuts across demographic lines, taking in those who view her candidacy as “historic,” those who share her views and those who simply see her as a winner. Just 14 percent opt for an alternative at this point. (In a Public Policy Polling survey from earlier this month, Clinton’s at 67 percent among Democrats) In NBC’s hypothetical November 2016 pairing, Clinton beats the “hot” Republican prospect of the moment, Chris Christie, by a 10 point margin nationally. “Clinton [is] benefiting from the same demographic trends that helped propel President Barack Obama to win the election in 2008 and re-election in 2012,” argues a poll analysis, which also suggests that “other prominent Democrats would likely avoid the race if Clinton decides to throw her hat into the ring.”

But if Hillary Clinton does not run, or if she runs poorly, does that mean that there will be no woman bidding for the presidency?


In addition to the men whose names get tossed around—Vice President Joe Biden, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and some have even suggested Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (though he proudly sits as an independent) —there are a number of prominent Democratic women whose names have surfaced as potential contenders: Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and, above all, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

There’s been a flurry of speculation this week—in a New Republic piece, in Bloomberg BusinessWeek and in Capital Hill journals such as The Hill and Politico—about the prospect that Warren might challenge the Clinton from the left for the Democratic nod. Warren does not appear to be stoking the speculation. She joined all sixteen Democratic woman in the Senate to sign a “secret” letter, circulated earlier this year by California Senator Barbara Boxer urging Clinton to run. That fits with Warren’s public pronouncements; asked in May by The Boston Globe if she might seek the nomination, Warren responed: “No, no, no, no.”

Pressed on whether that was a “definite no,” Warren replied: “No, no, no, no, no”—adding another “no” for emphasis.

But Warren would not be the first presidential “no” who became a “yes.”

Circumstances change over the long arc of America’s endless campaigns. Frontrunners decide not to make races, or stumble along the course of the campaign. There are a fair number of progressives who would love to see Warren take on Clinton. There are even more who want her at the ready should Clinton drop back or fail to gain traction.

But Warren is not just a fall-back contender—or even a progressive alternative to the centrist Clinton. She is more than just a prospective candidate. She is a purveyor of ideas, whether advanced on the campaign trail or in the Senate, that really do make her what Politico suggests: “Wall Street’s Nightmare.”

What is appealing about the prospect of a Warren bid—against Clinton or in a race without Clinton—is the determination of the Massachusetts senator to reach far beyond the traditional space filled by centrist and even liberal Democrats. She goes to where Bill de Blasio went in a progressive populist bid that swept him into New York’s mayoralty with an almost fifty-point margin of victory.

Warren’s message, in the Senate and beyond, is that Democrats can and should have an economic agenda that speaks to the great mass of Americans.

And when she delivers it, as she did at last summer’s AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, she can and does sound like a very appealing presidential prospect.

Warren, the country’s best-known advocate for regulation of Wall Street and the big banks who conceived and organized the establishment of the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before her election in 2012 to the US Senate, kicked off the labor convention an address that was equal parts William Jennings Bryan, Mother Jones and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“Our agenda is America’s agenda,” she declared toi thunderous cheers from the assembled delegates. “The American people know that the system is rigged against them and they want us to level the playing field. That’s our mandate. That’s what we’re here to do.”

“However tough the challenge, however steep our climb, I am proud to stand with you, to march with you, and to fight side-by-side with you,” Warren continued, as delegates began rising to their feet and joining her in shouting: “Our agenda is America’s agenda and if we fight for it, we win.”

It was a rare political moment, one that had AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka musing aloud: “if we could only clone her.”

It wasn’t just the energy of Warren’s speech, not just the unapologetic stance and the clenched fist in the air.

It was the content.

While too many Democrats come across as mere spectators to the great political and economic battles of what Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan would make an age of austerity, Warren chose the opening night of the labor federation’s convention that she is prepared not just to fight but to lead.

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She did so not from a place of caution, or compromise, but from a place populist determination. She decried “a Supreme Court that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Business.” She ripped Republican governors, objecting to the fact that “in Wisconsin Scott Walker and the legislature he controls have declared war on working families by ripping the guts out of collective bargaining agreements.“

But the real muscle of Warren’s speech, the element that had The Washington Post saying it “reinforced the potential Warren has for higher office,” was a refusal to bend to the lie of austerity and the conventional wisdom that says there is no alternative to cuts and compromises with the corporate agenda.

“On almost every issue of economic concern, our values are America’s values, and our agenda is America’s agenda,” Warren told the crowd, reminding convention delegates that the cause of economic justice is not a minority mission:

§ “We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement—and you know what? So do more than 80 percent of people. Wall Street will fight us, but the American people are on our side.”

§ “We believe in raising the minimum wage—and so do 71 percent of people. The Republicans will fight us, but the American people are on our side.”

§ “We believe in preventing cuts to Social Security benefits—and so do 87 percent of Americans. The Washington insiders will fight us, but the American people are on our side.”

§ “We believe in rebuilding our infrastructure and in passing legislation to create jobs—and so do 75 percent of Americans. The Tea Party will fight us, but the American people are on our side.”

§ “We believe that the sequester is stupid. And, you know what? A majority of Americans-including a majority of Republicans agree with us too.”

Warren recognizes something that too many prominent Democrats—not just in the Clinton camp but across the leadership ranks of the party—have a hard time fathoming. The problem is not that Democratic party is too populist. The problem is that the party is too cautious when populism is called for.

Too many Democratic leaders have been too slow to declare, as Warren did in Los Angeles, “We have a mandate—a mandate to build a fair tax code, one that isn’t rigged to give breaks to big oil and billionaires while it crushes working families. We have a mandate to invest in the future—in infrastructure, in research and innovation, and in education. And we have a mandate to create jobs—jobs right here in America, jobs for hard working people!”

That’s the language that gets economic justice advocates—who have fought long enough in the trenches to know what is needed—excited. Massachusetts Nurses Association president Donna Kelly-Williams was not alone around the time of the AFL-CIO convention when she said of Warren, “I would love to see her run in 2016.”

The battlelines for 2016 have yet to be drawn. The race is not over; in many senses it is not even begun. And the voice of Elizabeth Warren, as a presidential candidate, as a prospective presidential candidate, as a vice-presidential prospect, as a non-candidate seeking to influence the direction of her party and the greater campaign, is a vital one. Indeed, she is providing the language that populists, progressives and, hopefully, Democrats will employ—no matter who is running in 2016—to take on and finally defeat the false premise of austerity.

John Nichols shows how the “Scott Walker effect” reveals political trends in 2013.

A Doctor With a Cure: ‘Medicare for All’

Gene Farley and I shared a deep affection for Tommy Douglas, the Baptist preacher-turned-statesman who as the leader of Saskatchewan’s Cooperative Commonwealth Federation established the framework for what would become Canada’s single-payer national healthcare system.

Douglas, who is often recalled as “the Greatest Canadian,” had a congenial style that belied his determination to address social and economic injustices he knew to be immoral. “The inescapable fact,” he argued, “is that when we build a society based on greed, selfishness, and ruthless competition, the fruits we can expect to reap are economic insecurity at home and international discord abroad.”

Paraphrasing Tennyson, Douglas roused Canadians with a promise: “Courage, my friends; ‘tis not too late to build a better world.” That line always came to mind when I was with Gene, who died Friday at 86.

Gene was an internationally renowned physician, an originator of family practice residency programs and innovative public-health initiatives who finished a distinguished academic career as chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin.

Yet, his great passion was as a “build a better world” campaigner. The man who proudly recalled joining the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 was still marching for those same causes in 2013.

With his beloved wife, Dr. Linda Farley, Gene devoted two decades of “retirement” to advancing a broad justice vision that— after Linda’s death in 2009— could be seen in the remarkable ecological, agricultural and community-building work of the Linda & Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability.

Because of their professional backgrounds, Gene and Linda focused particularly on advancing the cause of universal healthcare. With their longtime friend Dr. Quentin Young, they were early and enthusiastic leaders of the “Physicians for a National Health Program” movement, which for decades has encouraged US leaders to develop “an expanded and improved version of Medicare [to] cover every American for all necessary medical care.”

The man who refused offers of prestigious international positions because he felt a duty to carry on the battle to reform the US healthcare system understood the challenge of seeking that reform at a time “when society is going toward selfish extremes…when [governments] pay anything to build up the military but don’t want to give to the social good.” Still, he remained “fantastically optimistic.” And that optimism was often rewarded—especially with the 2012 election of his friend and ally Tammy Baldwin as the junior senator from Wisconsin.

Though Farley warned that the Affordable Care Act, with its deference to insurance companies, was more complicated and costly than need be, he hoped that the passage of the act would serve as an important step on the road to a creating a single-payer system in the United States. As we traveled in eastern Canada together last month— on a Nation cruise where Gene delighted in comparing notes with his dear friends Dr. Michael Klein and Bonnie Sherr Klein— we spoke a good deal about the difficulty of implementing what has come to be known as “Obamacare.”

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Yet, Gene, “fantastically optimistic” as ever, recalled that Canada went through decades of bitter wrangling before finally establishing a universal healthcare system that delivers longer life expectancy more efficiently and at a lower cost than the American system. “We have to be patient, but we have to be determined,” he said, explaining that the establishment of the principle of “healthcare as a right” is not just a medical mission, not even an economic or social responsibility.

It is, Gene said, “about morality.”

Canada came to recognize that morality, embracing the vision of Tommy Douglas.

And it is right and necessary to expect that America will come to recognize that morality, embracing the vision of Gene Farley.

The Scott Walker Effect: Helping Democrats Win and Republicans Lose

Scott Walker

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli counted on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to provide the conservative candidate with some of the “star power” he needed to get him elected November 5.

It didn’t work.

The Cuccinelli campaign scheduled a high-profile rally in Spotsylvania on the Saturday before the election—hoping for a rip-roaring event that would put a picture of the candidate, his surrogate and a huge crowd on the front pages of Virginia’s Sunday morning papers.

The campaign used social media and phone calls to invite backers to come greet the anti-union firebrand from Wisconsin. They produced a poster featuring pictures of the Virginian and the Wisconsinite and the message: “Join Ken Cuccinelli for an Exciting Rally with Scott Walker!” Pat Mullins, the chairman of the Virginia Republican Party declared, “Scott is the type of governor that Ken will be here in Virginia, someone that’s not afraid to stand up to Big Labor.”

On Saturday, when the candidate and his star surrogate showed up for the rally they were greeted not by thousands of supporters but by… ”about 150 people.”

It was not quite what the Cuccinelli campaign had hoped for. Nor was an event later in the day with the governor of Wisconsin that drew barely 100 Republican stalwarts. Nor was it a great day for Walker, who imagines himself as a 2016 presidential prospect.

That Walker is running for president is clear. He will issue a campaign biography later this month—Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge—later this month. But he did not have the kind of off-year Election Day that make’s a candidate look like the next leader of the Grand Old Party.

On the day Walker arrived in Virginia, an Emerson College poll had Cuccinelli within two points of union-backed Democrat Terry McAuliffe. But Walker didn’t close the gap. His campaigning for Cuccinelli fell short, as did the Virginia contender—who lost his race by more than 55,000 votes.

In the race where a Republican won, Walker was notably absent.

Though he was on the East Coast, Walker was not invited for a final weekend surrogate swing in New Jersey to campaign for Republican Governor Chris Christie. Though he campaigned for Walker in 2010 and 2012, Christie did not appear to be seeking to associate himself with the Wisconsinite as Christie was organizing a reelection run that was managed with an eye toward jumpstarting the New Jersey governor’s own Republican presidential bid.

However, Walker was a factor in other races. For instance, in Boston, critics of mayoral candidate Martin Walsh produced a video showing the veteran Boston Building Trades labor leader and legislator leading chants of “Union! Union! Union!” at a rally organized in solidarity with Wisconsin workers who were protesting Walker’s anti-labor agenda. “What happened in Wisconsin better not happen here!” Walsh shouted in the video before adding: “Our grandparents, our great grandparents fought the fight for us, to have the wages we have. Not just here in Boston, but in Wisconsin.”

That was supposed to hurt Walsh, who was portrayed by some media outlets as too sympathetic toward working people and their unions. But Walsh did not back down or back away from his union ties. “I am a son of labor,” he said. “I will wear my record of fighting for working people as a badge of honor.”

As Walsh’s labor ties were emphasized, his poll numbers started to rise. The campaign closed with Walsh being celebrated in a TV ad that featured the Dropkick Murphys, a Boston band famous for championing the cause of workers (and for opposing Republicans who attacked unions in Wisconsin), reworking their popular song “Shipping Up to Boston” with new lyrics: “Marty Walsh for Boston! Marty Walsh!”

On Tuesday, Walsh scored what many saw as a come-from-behind win, grabbing the mayoralty with a 52-48 margin.

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In New York, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio explicitly distanced himself from anti-labor Republican officials—like Walker—who have attacked public-sector unions. “I will start by actually liking the people who do the work,” the candidate told a rally of union backers several days before the election. “The reason we have become a middle-class nation is because of the labor movement,” added de Blasio. “The best thing we can do for the people of New York City, the best public policy, is more people in unions so the city is strong and their neighborhoods are stronger.”

That rejection of Walker-style governing helped de Blasio win 73 percent of the vote on a night when Cincinnati voters rejected attempts to undermine pension protections for public employees, when SeaTac, Washington, voters embraced a $15-an-hour living wage, when New Jersey voters raised the minimum wage in that state and linked future increases to hikes in the cost of living.

Make no mistake, Scott Walker is still running for president; he’s off to New York November 18 to wine and dine with big donors.

But he is running from a weaker position—within his own Republican Party and nationally—as the electoral shine comes off the anti-worker, anti-union agenda.

John Nichols exposes Chris Christie’s brand of style-over-substance politics.

Don’t Get Too Excited About Christie’s Politics of Style, Not Substance

Chris Christie and his family

Chris Christie is ready for his close-up.

And if all that we are allowed to learn from Tuesday’s voting in cities and states across the nation is what a particularly self-absorbed presidential prospect wants us to talk about, then that is the only permissible takeaway from the 2013 election.

Forget about the transformational election of progressive Democrat Bill de Blasio as mayor of the nation’s largest city. Forget about the election of a labor champion, Marty Walsh, as mayor of Boston. Forget about the overwhelming vote of voters in Portland, Maine, to legalize marijuana.

Forget that the most historic result of the night came in Virginia.

Just do what Chris Christie says and talk about Chris Christie—at least until his ridiculous reach for the Republican presidential nomination crashes and burns after he yells at the first teacher in Iowa.

Or get serious enough to recognize that Christie’s super-hyped victory on Tuesday was all about style—not substance.

The substantial result on Tuesday was that Democrats ran exceptionally well in the battleground state of Virginia. How well? This year’s election took place when a Democratic president was serving his second four-year term. The last time Democrats won the governorship of Virginia during the second four-year term of a president of their party, that president was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Going into the 2013 election, Republicans held the statewide offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in Virginia. On Tuesday, Democrat Ralph Northam won the office of lieutenant governor by a 55-45 margin. Democrat Mark Herring wrestled Republican front-runner Mark Obenshain to a 50-50 tie in the race for attorney general, and might yet win the job. Democrat Terry McAuliffe won the governorship by a reasonably comfortable 48-45 margin. And it is entirely sensible to argue that the governor’s race was that close because a Libertarian candidate who often erred on the liberal side of libertarianism—emphasizing opposition to the drug war and support for marriage equality, and earning critiques from the right such as a National Review piece titled “Sarvis a Libertarian? Nope“—won close to 7 percent of the vote. It’s often assumed that Libertarian candidates draw votes primarily from Republicans, and there was certainly some of that in Virginia. But exit polls of voters under age 30—not a traditional Republican group—had Libertarian Robert Sarvis winning almost 20 percent of that demographic. That should serve as a reminder to Democrats that they need to reckon with the reality that their party can also lose votes to Libertarians.

McAuliffe, whose political experience was not as an elected official but as a party fund-raiser, was anything but a perfect Democratic nominee. He was vulnerable. But the Republicans were more vulnerable. Republican extremism cost the party dearly. Social-policy extremism hurt initially, providing McAuliffe with a definitional gender-gap advantage among women. But economic-policy extremism—in the form of Ted Cruz’s politics of government shutdown and debt-ceiling gamesmanship—struck the final blow against GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli.

It was different in New Jersey, not because Christie is any kind of moderate. He’s a social and economic conservative who actually agrees with Ken Cuccinelli on a wide range of issues. But Christie was smart enough to avoid mentioning that fact. Instead of running as a mainstream Republican, he pitched himself as “a governor for all the people”—a man without a party who was more than willing to work with Democratic President Barack Obama and Democrats in the state legislature.

Like McAuliffe, Christie had a substantially larger campaign treasury than his challenger. In fact, he outspent his Democrat Barbara Buono by a roughly 5-1 margin. Christie aired sixteen distinct campaign commercials. Buono aired two. Christie had all the advantages of incumbency and support from key national Republicans, while Buono was treated as an afterthought by many state and national Democrats. (In a spirited concession speech, she did not hesitate to criticize Democratic insiders who aided Christie in order to “help themselves politically and financially.”) And just to make sure that there was no surge in Democratic votes on November 5, he manipulated the scheduling of the special election to fill the US Senate seat of the late Frank Launtenberg, D-NJ, so that it was held October 16—at a cost of roughly $25 million to taxpayers. So Christie got his win, but his 60-38 margin was notably smaller than the thirty-three-point triumph that polls had predicted as recently as mid-October.

Christie had no coattails. Democrats retained control of the state Assembly and state Senate.

Christie had little traction getting started toward a 2016 presidential run. The exit polling showed that the same New Jersey voters who re-elected the governor on Tuesday would reject him in a 2016 race with Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Those were important results.

But the most important New Jersey result, the one that tells us everything we need to know about Chris Christie’s win, was another one.

And it was not in the gubernatorial race.

It was in a statewide vote on whether to amend the constitution to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.25 an hour—and to allow for cost-of-living adjustments.

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In January, Christie rejected a bill to raise the minimum wage. He claimed that the bill, as written by legislative Democrats, would “jeopardize the economic recovery we all seek.”

He was wrong, economically and politically.

A “Raise the Wage” campaign, backed by Working Families United, unions and their allies, succeeded in getting the legislature to put the issue on the November ballot. And then they waged a campaign that won big.

Every bit as big, it should be pointed out, as did Chris Christie.

He won with 60 percent of the vote Tuesday.

The minimum-wage increase that Christie rejected won by just as wide a margin.

The calculus cannot be denied: hundreds of thousands of New Jersey voters who cast ballots for Christie also cast ballots for a policy shift he opposed.

The governor won on style points, not substance.

And those style points are not going to carry Chris Christie from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina and the 2016 Republican presidential nomination—let alone to the presidency itself.

That’s the takeaway from Tuesday.

John Nichols explores the larger trends in the 2013 election landscape.

An Election About GOP Extremism, Unions, Wages and Dollarocracy

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe

Two states will elect governors Tuesday, and one of those governors could emerge as a 2016 presidential contender. The nation’s largest city will elect a mayor, as will hundreds of other communities. A minimum-wage hike is on the ballot. So is marijuana legalization. So is the labeling of genetically-modified foods. And Seattle might elect a city council member who promises to open the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Forget the silly dodge that says local and state elections don’t tell us anything. They provide measures of how national developments—like the federal government shutdown—are playing politically. They give us a sense of whether the “War on Women” is widening the gender gap. They tell us what issues are in play, and the extent to which the political debate is evolving.

Here are some signals to watch for as the results come in tonight:

1. Have Republican Extremists Finally Gone Too Far?

Since the Republican Party became competitive in Virginia, no Democrat has ever been elected governor when a Democrat was in the White House. Indeed, the last Democratic president to see a Democrat take charge in the Old Dominion state was Lyndon Johnson.

So if Democrat Terry McAuliffe is elected Tuesday, there’s a message there—and it could tell us a lot about the evolving politics not just of Virginian, but of the United States as it heads toward the critical mid-term elections of 2014.

What message?

It has something to do with the extremism of Republicans at the state level when it comes to social issues. The Republican nominee for governor of Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, is pretty much the embodiment of the social conservatism that has the potential to create a permanent gender gap. But past Republican nominees in Virginia have been opposed to abortion rights and marriage equality. What made things even rougher for Cuccinelli was a mid-campaign government shutdown shocked and outraged Virginians—a lot of whom happen to be federal employees. President Obama made that point in a pre-election campaign swing on behalf of McAuliffe. “You’ve seen an extreme faction of the Republican Party that has shown again and again and again that they’re willing to hijack the entire party and the country and the economy and grind progress to an absolute halt if they don’t get 100 percent of what they want,” the president told Virginians. “You cannot afford to have a governor who is thinking the same way.”

If McAuliffe, a first-time candidate with plenty of baggage as a veteran campaign fund-raiser and fixer, wins big on Tuesday, the message Democrats will take away from the election is that Ted Cruz and the shutdown caucus have handed them a political hammer. And they will use it again and again and again in 2014.

2. Is Chris Christie as Big a Deal as Chris Christie Thinks Chris Christie Is?

The Republican governor of New Jersey has mounted a reelection campaign that reaches out not just to Republicans but to Democrats and independents. He’s even made nice with Barack Obama. Why? Not because he likes Obama. What Christie likes is winning—big. And he knows that a big enough win could make him a serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

But how big is big? A mid-October Quinnipiac survey gave the governor a thirty-three-point lead over Democrat Barbara Buono, and a Richard Stockton College survey from a week before the election had him up twenty-four points. Yet, despite a massive fund-raising advantage, despite all the advantages of incumbency, on the weekend before the election, a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll had Christie’s margin at nineteen points.

If Christie wins under 60 percent, he’ll have a hard time convincing the Republican base in states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina—which does not trust him—that he’s their man. If he goes over 60 percent, he can start making his argument. And he will. But, even then, his cynical campaign in New Jersey will have to be taken into account. Christie has not run for reelection as who he is—a socially and economically conservative Republican. He’s run as an all-things-to-all-people incumbent, who has used a 6-1 money advantage to buy his margin. If it’s not that much of a margin, Christie will be stuck in the job he wants to get out of. And if Christie were to lose, well, then all bets are off—or on—for 2014.

3. Is This the End of Urban Republicanism?

“Everybody knows I’m not part of the national Republican Party,” New York Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota said before the election. “I am pro-choice; they are not. I am pro-gay rights as well as marriage equality; they are not. I have been outspoken about these issues over and over again. Do not lump me with the national Republicans. It’s unbecoming.”

Lhota was not running in a city where Republicans never win. He was running in a city where Republicans won the mayoralty in 1993, 1997, 2001 and 2003, and a Republican-turned-independent won in 2007. And while New York Republicans have always been different from Arkansas Republicans, there used to be room in the party for both camps. No more. The Republican Party has been moving to the right since the late 1970s, but that move accelerated after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. The new GOP is obsessed with right-wing ideological purity. And that comes through loud and clear—not just inside Republican caucus meetings but in communities that once elected Republicans.

If Lhota loses, as the polls suggest is likely, his defeat will come after a steady pattern of loses for Republicans in cities that once elected GOP mayors—from Los Angeles to Dallas to Houston to Cleveland to Toledo to Jacksonville to Phoenix—will be the latest indication that Republicans are no longer serious contenders in urban America.

“In the year 2000, Republican mayors governed half of the country’s dozen largest cities by population. Some of the party’s most provocative leaders had come out of city hall, including New York’s Giuliani, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, the celebrated policy wonk and George W. Bush adviser,” explains Politico’s Alexander Burns. “Today, you have to go all the way down to Indianapolis—the country’s 13th-largest city—to find just one Republican mayor.”

It’s not just the conservative stances on issues such as marriage equality, and a host of other LGBT concerns. It’s also the opposition to infrastructure improvements and jobs programs, and the relentless assault on public education, social services and Food Stamps. The trouble with the GOP today is that, instead of focusing on the practical concerns of people who live in cities, Mesa, Arizona, Mayor Scott Smith says party leaders “put ideology above all.” Smith is the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He’s also a Republican.

4. Are Voters Tired of Politicians who Pick on Unions?

When Wisconsin’s union-bashing Governor Scott Walker showed up to rally support for Jen Cuccinelli in Virginia, only 150 people turned out. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie forgot to invite Walker and instead sought private-sector union endorsements. In New York, labor-backed mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio told a closing rally in New York: “The reason we have become a middle-class nation is because of the labor movement. “

But the real test of labor’s renewed appeal will come in Boston.

Boston mayoral candidate Marty Walsh is a union man. And that does not sit well with much of media and political elites that have tried to suggest that a former union leader—as opposed to a corporate CEO—might bring biases to the job. In fact, Walsh brings strengths. He knows how to negotiate, he knows how to get a fair deal, and he actually think it’s important to respect workers.

But that hasn’t stopped his opponents—supporters of “school choice” experiments, corporate interests, traditionally Republican donors—from spending heavily to rip Walsh’s record as a labor activist, even going so far as to issue a video attacking the former head of the Boston Building Trades for rallying in solidarity with Wisconsin workers when Governor Scott Walker was attacking them in 2011.

Walsh was behind in the polls initially but he’s closed the gap as Bostonians have become aware of how his opponent, fellow Democrat John Connolly, has earned the backing of conservative Republicans. A recent Boston Globe headline read: “For Republicans, Connolly is the Democrat of choice. In Boston’s mayoral race, GOP donors shy from Walsh and his labor background.”

If Walsh wins as a proud union man, that victory will send a signal about the growing recognition on the part of voters that we need more leaders who are committed to protect the rights of working people, their unions, public services and public education.

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5. Has the Time Come for Legalization of Marijuana? Or at Least Decriminalization?

Portland, Maine, will vote Tuesday on whether to become the first east-coast city to legalize marijuana. The test comes a year after Washington and Colorado voters approved the recreational use of marijuana by adults—and on the same day that Colorado takes the next step by considering whether to begin taxing pot sales.

In Brooklyn, the Democratic nominee for District Attorney, Kenneth Thompson, says that if he is elected he will no longer prosecute individuals arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Thompson, who beat the incumbent DA in the September Democratic primary, has made decriminalization a major plank in his platform.

6. Doesn’t Everyone Deserve a Raise?

New Jersey voters will on Tuesday vote on whether to raise the state minimum wage by $1 dollar. Democratic legislators passed a bill to make the move earlier, but Chris Christie blocked it. So unions and the allies took the issue to the people. They are likely to win, proving a reminder that even if Christie does well, his policies do not.

States and cities across the country have embraced living-wage initiatives in recent years. But one of the most dynamic efforts comes in Seattle, where city council candidate Kshama Sawant promises that, if elected, she will push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage—along with a millionaire’s tax and an end to austerity cuts and assaults on public workers.

7. Will Big Money Keep Labels off GM Food?

Last year, in California, massive spending—at least $46 million—by grocery manufacturing companies and their corporate allies beat back an initiative to label foods that have been genetically modified. The defeat for the proposal was a powerful reminder of how big money—in the early days of Citizens United and corporate personhood—can warp the debate. Now, a new test is coming in Washington state, where voters will decide Tuesday on Initiative 522, a plan to require groceries that have been genetically modified to carry labels.

More than thirty of the nation’s largest food manufacturers have poured money into various “No on 522” efforts. The corporations will spend at least $22 million, perhaps much more, to turn voters against what would otherwise be a popular proposal. The “Yes on 522” campaign has more than 13,000 small donors, but only a fraction of the cash.

This is how dollarocracy works—by seeking to “own” the debate with overwhelming spending. The question is whether democracy will prevail in Washington.

John Nichols calls out Chris Christie’s “bully politics.”

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