John Nichols | The Nation

John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

The Lollapalooza of the Left

Singer Michelle Shocked strapped on her guitar and took the stage for the performance that would finish the first stop on the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour. Looking out at the faces of several thousand cheering Texans, the woman who has penned hits such as "Anchorage" broke into a huge grin and told the crowd, "We just didn't know what we were going to find when we showed up this morning. We didn't know if you all were going to show up. But I think it's been an unqualified success."

Shocked got no argument from the crowd, or from organizers of what may well be the most unlikely scheme to stir the nation's populist sentiment since someone suggested pulling together a protest outside the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle.

Texas populist Jim Hightower's plan to "put the party back into politics" with a rollicking national tour of speechifying, entertaining, organizing and coalition-building along the lines of the 19th-century Chautauqua gatherings had always been greeted with a measure of skepticism. Hightower's friends and allies mumbled that the Lollapalooza of the Left idea might be a hair too ambitious. Would it really be possible, at a time when conservative President George W. Bush is supposed to be enjoying 80 percent approval ratings, to pack a fairgrounds east of Austin for a day of Bush-bashing, corporation-crunching, plutocrat-poking politics with a punch? Hightower admitted that he worried about whether he would prove right one of the best lines of Oklahoma populist Fred Harris: "You can't have a mass movement without the masses."

But the organizers need not have worried. The masses were ready for this movement.

"This is just what a lot of us have been waiting for -- the call to action," said Cate Read, an airline industry analyst who watched from her Houston office as employees from the nearby Enron building carried their belongings out of the collapsed corporation's headquarters. "People are ready to start making some noise about what's been going on in this country. The media makes it sound like everyone's for everything George W. Bush does and that is just not the case -- not even in Texas."

By the time filmmaker and author Michael Moore arrived at mid-day, to the foot-stomping, fist-pumping and cheers of close to 7,000 rebels against the consensus, this corner of Texas was definitely not Bush country.

"Where are we? In a barn?" Moore yelled over the roar of the crowd that had packed into what was, indeed, the Travis County Exposition Center's horse and hog showbarn. Clearly delighted, the most populist of popular entertainers let rip with an assault on the suggestion that dissent is no longer appropriate in post-September 11 America.

"Let me tell you something about the (president's) 80 percent approval rating..." bellowed the author of the nation's No. 1 best-seller, "Stupid White Men." "It's bullshit" came the yell from a fellow in a cowboy hat. "That's right," responded Moore, "it's bullshit."

Echoing the slogan emblazoned on stickers many at the event wore, Moore declared, "We are the majority in this country." For the last six months, he argued, we've been told 'watch what you say,' 'don't dissent,' 'don't question the leader.' Let me tell you something: There is nothing more American than asking these questions."

If there was a theme for the day, it may well have been that dissent is back in fashion. Hip-hop, Tejano, rhythm & blues and folk performers including MC Overlord, Ruben Ramos, Marcia Ball and Shocked flavored their shows with rebel yells, performance artists played the Enron scandal for laughs, game booths allowed kids to toss a ball and knock down a nuclear missile. Workshops took on everything from radioactive waste to

genetically-modified food, from militarism to racial profiling, from corporate excess to the "selected-not-elected" presidency of a former Austin resident named Bush. Columnist Molly Ivins got people all worked up.

Everyone got into the act, even Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who walked across the country at age 90 to raise the issue of campaign finance reform and who, at 92, is madder than ever about special-interest influence on government. "I have 16 great-grandchildren," she said, to chants of "Go Granny D." "I want them brought up in a democracy, not a fascist state -- which this country is fast becoming."

Between Granny D and Marcia Ball's rhythm and blues show, US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill, delivered the day's most passionate address. "We come to this Chautauqua because Dr. King was right: America has issued a promisory note and it has come back marked insufficient funds," boomed Jackson, recalling the sudden shift in attitudes about federal spending last fall. "On September 10, we were told there was not enough money for Social Security. But on September 12 or thereabouts, there was $40 billion to finda cave man in Afghanistan -- and we haven't found him yet."

To rising applause from an audience that stayed into the fast-cooling Texas night to hear him, Jackson recounted the $95 billion in new military and corporate-welfare spending that has been authorized since the September 11 attacks.

"We come to this Chautuaqua because 53 million children trapped in separate and not equal schools, and 45 million Americans without health insurance, deserve the same (level of) national response that bin Laden got," boomed Jackson, as he called for a restructuring of national priorities that recognizes a need not just for security against attack from abroad but also for security from hunger, illness and neglect at home.

"My friends, I don't know how to make the Democratic party better and I don't know how to make the Republican party better," Jackson concluded, as tour organizers were already preparing for Chautauqua events in Atlanta, Chicago, Pittsburgh and other cities. "So let us move forward from this Chautauqua not to make the parties better but to make the union better and more perfect for all."

Rolling Thunder Takes Off

Dennis Vegas is an unlikely campaigner against corporate excess.

Even decked out in casual Friday attire, he still looks like what he used to be -- a vice president for marketing of the seventh largest company in the United States.

But here he is in the parking lot of the Texas AFL-CIO headquarters, echoing the call of his new friend Jim Hightower for a grassroots movement to take on the corporate plutocrats.

What gives? Vegas used to work for Enron, the energy trading giant that collapsed in spectacular fashion last fall -- leaving more than 5,000 Texas workers without jobs, health insurance or retirement plans. "I had some time on my hands," says Vegas. "I decided to do something useful with it."

So Vegas took his place Friday beside a giant wood chipper -- billed the "world's largest paper shredder and emblazoned with the words "Enron Democracy Shredder" -- and helped kick off the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour. The tour is the brainchild of Hightower, whose rabblerousing stint as Texas' elected Commissioner of Agriculture in the 1980s identified him in the eyes of many as the nation's most aggressive progressive.

Set to launch Saturday in the Texas populist's hometown of Austin, the Down-Home Democracy Tour is a cross between teach-in and county fair. The point is to rent a big venue and invite everyone in town to hear speechifying by some of the nation's most outspoken agitators -- Austin headliners included filmmaker and author Michael Moore, columnist Molly Ivins and US Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. -- eat lots of good food and enjoymusic from the likes of Michelle Shocked and Marcia Ball.

Organizer Mike Dolan, a veteran of the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle, says the goal is to "put the party back into politics."

At a kickoff rally outside the AFL-CIO headquarters here, Hightower and his crew explained that they will move a traveling roadshow of radicalism from town to town over the coming months, linking national "stars" up with local activists in order to, first, have a good time and, second, start building bigger, better coalitions for change. Ultimately,Hightower, who regularly writes for The Nation about grassroots organizing, hopes to bridge divisions between labor and environmental groups, family farmers and factory workers, aging veterans of the distant political wars and fresh-from-Seattle anti-corporate campaigners into local coalitions that become part of a cohesive quilt of national activism. The point, he says, is to start "taking power back at the grassroots level so that we can take the democracy back from the plutocracy."

With support from more than 40 national groups ranging from the National Council of Churches to the Ruckus Society and including the Service Employees International Union, United Students Against Sweatshops, ACORN and the Organic Consumers Association, as well as prominent figures such as Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame, US Sen. Paul Wellstone, US Rep. Barbara Lee and political thinker and organizer Joel Rogers, the coalition building seems well on its way. In Austin, dozens of local groups have signed on to support the first "real folks, real fun, real change" gathering at the local fairground where thousands were expected to attend Saturday's event.

Chaotic as the task of pulling together so ambitious an endeavor has been -- volunteers were still working late Friday to turn the hogwashing area at the fairgrounds into a backstage for bands -- the Texas organizing has been given focus in part by the collapse of Enron and a growing disgust even in the business-friendly Lone Star State with corporate excess. The Enron collapse hit Texas hard, and Hightower argues that it has changed the way many people think about issues of corporate power and democracy.

Vegas counts himself in that group. He admits that a year ago he wouldn't have been all that enthusiastic about a "down-home democracy tour. I didn't take projects like this very seriously before. Even though I worked for a big corporation, I didn't understand the issues." Pointing to Hightower and other organizers, Vegas explains, "These people were prophetic. I got a personal lesson about just how prophetic they were."

So Vegas is telling not just out-of-work Enron employees but employees of other companies that they had better start taking seriously the threat posed by corporations so powerful and -- thanks to campaign contributions -- so influential that they think they are above the law. Hailing the logic of the Down-Home Democracy Tour's plan to start in Texas and then take the show on the road to Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania and other states, Vegas says, "The situation that took place with Enron is a wakeup call for workers across the country. Don't think there aren't other corporations doing exactly what Enron did. And don't think we don't need to be organized if we are going to stop them from doing what Enron did to thousands of people.

Illinois Outsider Hollers His Way In

Last summer, former Illinois state Treasurer Pat Quinn took a 167-mile stroll across the state of Illinois to promote an amendment to the state Constitution that would establish the right of every individual in the state to quality health care.

Quinn, a lawyer by training and rabblerouser by inclination, was accompanied by Dr. Quentin Young, a Chicago physician who has for many years been one of the nation's leading advocates for single-payer health care. Along the route, they were joined by Granny D, the 92-year-old who walked across the U.S. to promote campaign finance reform.

The walk got some publicity for a great cause and helped Quinn and Young shed a few pounds. But it did not attract many Illinois politicians - not even leading liberal Democrats - to the "health care for all" movement Quinn and Young sought to jump-start.

Now, however, it appears that one of the state's leading political figures could be a big backer of the amendment campaign - along with a host of other progressive reforms that mainstream Democrats have tended to shy away from in recent years.

In December, as the filing deadline for state elections approached, Quinn surprised everyone by jumping into the contest for lieutenant governor. Quinn was not exactly a welcome entrant in the Democratic primary. Though he had served a term as treasurer in the early 1990s, he had been out of office for the better part of a decade. Besides, he had a reputation as a maverick, and party leaders openly expressed concern that Quinn would not be an obedient member of the Democratic ticket or of a new Democratic administration.

Quinn's two main opponents in the primary went out of their way to portray themselves as party loyalists who would march "in sync" with the gubernatorial nominee.

"Can Quinn toe party line?" asked a Chicago Sun-Times headline. Quinn did little to calm the fears, declaring that he saw the state's No. 2 job as "a very good office to champion the interests of people who don't have lobbyists and connections." Recalling campaigns he has led to block utility rate hikes, reform the state Legislature, impose tougher ethics regulations and protect consumers, Quinn declared, "I can holler pretty well, and I think that's part of the job description I would give to lieutenant governor."

Predictably, key party and labor endorsements went to the other candidates. So did the campaign contributions, which meant that Quinn's campaign against two better-funded Democrats was long on message but short on cash. When Democrats chose their candidate in Tuesday's primary, however, Quinn was the easy victor.

He won running on a progressive agenda that owed more to William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt than Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Promising to use the office as a bully pulpit for economic and ethics reforms, Quinn signaled his sentiments by blistering Republican Gov. George Ryan for seeking to balance the state's budget with cuts in human service programs.

As an alternative, Quinn called for freezing the pay of elected officials and eliminating all tax breaks that benefit large corporations. "George Ryan's budget cuts are unfair, unnecessary and uncaring. Illinois taxpayers should not let Ryan get away with closing down health and education programs for vulnerable citizens who aren't big campaign donors," hollered Quinn.

At a time when conservatives in Washington and governors across the country are talking about balancing budgets on the backs of those who cannot afford to write big campaign checks, Quinn's against-the-odds win illustrates the power of a Democratic message that trades the politics of compromise for a belligerent populism that allows people to believe anew in the promise of health care for all, fair tax policies and government that serves public interests as opposed to special interests.

Radical on the Inside: Tom Hayden's Irish Rebellion

With "Irish on the Inside: The Search for the Soul of Irish America" (Verso), Tom Hayden has penned a book on the Irish-American experience that has as much to do with Independence Day as St. Patrick's Day.

Hayden, the '60s student activist who came in from the cold to serve with distinction as a California legislator in the 1990s, offers a radical variation on the history of Ireland and the Irish-American experience that, in itself, makes for engaging reading. But in the book's broader discussion of a "colonization of the mind," which causes peoples to abandon their own true history to gain acceptance by the elites they once battled, the author unwittingly succeeds in unlocking a piece of the puzzle of why the America of today is far less radical than Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin intended it to be.

Trust Hayden, whose own radicalism has always been a rich mix of Irish republicanism and Midwest progressive populism, to write a book on Irish-American history that is actually an argument for a re-identification of "white" Americans with the liberation struggles of immigrants, people of color and other victims of class and race discrimination. Hayden does this by returning to his roots - in Ireland and in rural Wisconsin - where he unearths the seeds of his own radicalism.

It is a tribute to Hayden's organizing and storytelling skills that "Irish on the Inside" succeeds. With a great measure of Irish enthusiasm, Hayden sets out to do far more than any author could hope to accomplish in a relatively thin volume. He mixes the history of the Irish experience with inspired reflections on the specific experience of his own ancestors, such as Peter Hayden, who died with United Irish insurgents from County Wicklow in a 1798 uprising, and immigrant Emmet Owen Garity, who settled in the midwest. Hayden also stirs travelogue, investigative reporting, sociology, philosophy and poetry into a stew that satisfies hungers that readers will not have known they suffered.

Hunger is an apt metaphor, as "Irish on the Inside" explores the need of sustenance in all forms - physical, emotional and intellectual.

Hayden argues that the dark machinations of British colonialists that caused the Irish Famine of the 1840s and that dislocated millions of Irish to a still-young America was "the greatest upheaval of 19th century Europe." Hayden, whose great-grandparents arrived in Wisconsin as part of that immigration wave, argues even more convincingly that the experience of these immigrants - who were portrayed as wild, criminal and intellectually deficient, and who encountered "No Irish Need Apply" signs well into the 20th century - ought to make Irish-Americans sympathetic to the plight of new immigrants - descendants of slaves, gays and lesbians and others who continue to suffer discrimination.

Hayden highlights the examples where this was the case. He is proud to note that great-grandfather Emmet Garity's farm in the town of Sullivan, Wis., was a stop on the underground railroad that transported slaves to freedom. And he reviews with great relish the heroic deeds of the San Patricios, Irish immigrants to America who - like John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln - recognized the 1848 US invasion of Mexico as imperialist aggression. The San Patricios deserted the US cause to fight at the side of the Mexican Army. But, as Hayden illustrates, they were traitors only to the "colonialism of the mind" - not to their Irish roots, or to American revolutionary values.

Taking from his own experience, Hayden, a veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement in the American South, recalls how, upon visiting Northern Ireland in 1968, he was profoundly moved to hear Irish-Catholic civil rights marchers singing the songs of the African-American freedom struggle.

It was then, writes Hayden, that he began to overcome the suppression of his own Irish heritage by parents who were determined to fit themselves and their son into the white, middle-class models of mid-20th century America. "I saw marchers in Northern Ireland singing 'We Shall Overcome' and, in an epiphany, discovered I was Irish on the inside," he writes.

The great contribution that Hayden makes here comes in his exploration of the assimilation of the Irish in America. But the most powerful statement takes the form of a definition of what "Irish on the inside" ought to mean. His is a vision of Irish ethnicity not as an excuse to dye beer green but as an inspiration to struggle for justice at home and abroad. And it is no great leap to extend this vision to one of an Americanism that reaches beyond cheap shows of patriotism to embrace the revolutionary spirit that so appealed to immigrants "yearning to be free."

Hayden's book - which he finished on July 4, 2001, in Belfast - closes with a romantic rumination in which he imagines the restoration of an Irish consciousness:

"In my dream I am taking a handful of soil from Emmet Garity's grave in Sullivan Township, Wis., and my Nannie's grave in Oconomowoc, and my parents' graves too and I am packing up that soil of the dead to be taken back to Ireland ... In this dream Irish from all over are migrating home. They come in ones and twos and in groups. When they arrive, they leave their sod and stone in a field, which in time becomes a field of flowers, a graveyard, an oak grove, a mountain, a place to bury pain and grow our history until memory surpasses forgetting and the sod of the dead becomes the fertile soil of awakenings."

Tom Hayden's "Irish on the Inside" is the stuff of great awakenings - not merely for Irish-Americans but for the descendants of every immigrant who ever embraced the revolutionary ideals of justice and solidarity that embody the best of both Ireland and America.

Pickering Nomination Blocked

After months of struggle, first by Mississippi activists, then by national civil rights groups and finally by a handful of determined Democratic members of the U.S. Senate, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday blocked the nomination of Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering to serve on the powerful 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The defeat of the nomination came as a vindication for groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Alliance for Justice and People for the American Way, which were viciously attacked by rightwing organizations, publications and senators when they first suggested that Pickering should be rejected because of his ties to Mississippi segregationists of the 1960s, his hostility as a federal judge to the application of civil rights laws, and concerns about his ethics.

The committee's rejection of the Pickering selection marks the first time that one of President Bush's judicial nominees has been rejected by Senate Democrats, who may soon be called upon to weigh the merits of a Bush nominee for the Supreme Court. To the delight of activists concerned by the caution of Congressional Democrats when it comes to challenging the president, the hearing that preceded the Pickering vote saw Democrats flex legislative muscles rarely used in recent months.

Referring to the Constitutional provision that empowers the Senate to offer advice and consent as regards presidential nominations, Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, declared, "It's advise and consent, it is not advise and rubber stamp."

In remarks that came at the close of a long and contentious committee session that played out before a packed hearing room, Leahy calmly described Pickering as a conservative judicial activist who "repeatedly injects his own opinions into his decisions on issues ranging from employment discrimination to voting rights." The judge's record, he argued, did not justify promotion to a federal bench that is located just one rung below the U.S. Supreme Court.

Moments later, the committee voted 10-9 to reject the Pickering nomination. The breakdown was along partisan lines, with Democrats opposing the nomination and Republicans supporting it. The Democratic majority remained in place on two additional procedural votes, in which Republican Senator Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, sought to advance the Pickering nomination to the Senate floor without a recommendation or with a negative recommendation.

Republicans wanted a vote on the Pickering nomination by the full Senate because Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican with close ties to the judge's family, had said he could secure enough Democratic votes there to win confirmation of one of the most controversial judicial nominees in decades. President Bush promoted the strategy on the eve of the vote, saying, "By failing to allow full Senate votes on judicial nominees, a few senators are standing in the way of justice." Lott could still seek a full Senate vote, but such moves are rarely successful.

The most extraordinary moment of the extraordinary hearing the preceded the Pickering vote came late in the day, after Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, had mounted a fierce defense of the nominee. Sessions criticized civil rights groups and fellow senators, particularly North Carolina Democrat John Edwards, for focusing attention on a 1994 incident in which Pickering intervened with the Justice Department on behalf of a man convicted of burning a cross in front of the home of an interracial couple. Though experts on judicial ethics have condemned Pickering's actions in the cross burning case, Sessions claimed the judge had done nothing wrong and argued that Pickering was the victim of a "Borking process" -- a reference to the successful battle to defeat the nomination of Ronald Reagan's most controversial judicial nominee, Robert Bork. Seeking to portray Pickering as a sensitive and engaged jurist, Sessions told the committee that the Mississippian had been "a leader for racial harmony," and asked that documents he said supported this view be included in the record of the proceedings.

Leahy agreed to do that, but then asked that another document be included -- a letter from the woman outside whose home the cross was burned. The victim of the attack wrote that, because of Pickering's actions in her case, "my faith in the justice system has been destroyed." She urged the committee to reject the judge's nomination to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviews federal cases from Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

Leahy's bold gesture was one of many Thursday that saw Democrats on the committee challenge claims that Pickering was the victim of a "smear campaign" by liberal groups. Several senators defended so-called "outside groups" that built the case against the Pickering nomination. Senators Maria Cantwell, a Washington State Democrat, and Joe Biden, Democrat of Delaware, said they well understood the opposition of women's groups to a nominee whose record is one of strident opposition to a woman's right to choose. (Pickering led the fight at the 1976 Republican National Convention to put the GOP on record in opposition to the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.)

The most impassioned defense of groups that fought the Pickering nomination came from Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who challenged conservative attacks on the NAACP. He contrasted the record of the group, which he described as a prime mover in historic civil rights battles that "changed America for the better," with that of the nominee, who Durbin noted "was not a champion of civil rights."

Recalling the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr's observation that the long arc of history bends toward justice, Durbin said he would not vote to confirm a nominee who was on the wrong side of the curve.

Unspinning the Pickering Push

Supporters of Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering's nomination to serve on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals -- which is expected to be blocked this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee -- claim that he is the victim of a "liberal lynching." The spin says Pickering is a supporter of racial reconciliation who is supported by southern blacks but opposed by northern liberals. The truth is that Pickering has drawn more opposition from his home state and region than any judicial nominee in recent history.

To hear supporters of Pickering tell it, the only barrier to the judge's confirmation to serve on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is a "smear campaign" conducted by a bunch on "damn yankees." In fact, the claim goes, southern blacks are backing Pickering's nomination because they know him to be a consistent supporter of "racial reconciliation."

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there is widespread opposition in Mississippi's African-American community and across the south to the nomination of a man who worked closely with segregationists throughout the 1960s and whose judicial tenure has been characterized by a deeply disturbing antipathy towards the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights protections. But in a Capitol where spin wins more frequently than not, the claim that liberal northerners are at odds with southern blacks when it comes to Pickering -- and the parallel claim that Pickering has been unfairly attacked by liberal activists who do not know his real record on race issues -- has become a central theme of right-wing commentators, Republican senators and Bush White House aides who still hope to salvage the nomination.

Pickering's backers are pulling out all the stops this week because they know his nomination is in serious trouble. For the first time since George W. Bush assumed the presidency, it is likely that one of his judicial nominees will be rejected by a Senate panel. If the ten Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee vote Thursday to block Bush's nomination of Pickering to serve on the Court of Appeals for Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, the Bush administration and Pickering's chief Senate sponsor, Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., will have suffered a rare setback in a Senate where Democrats hold a bare majority but have been slow to challenge even the most conservative of the president's judicial nominees.

To be sure, national civil rights groups have played an important role in challenging the Pickering nomination. Revelations about Pickering's drafting of a memo on how to toughen Mississippi's ban on interracial marriage, his legal partnership with one of that state's leading segregationists, his votes as a Mississippi legislator to undermine Voting Rights Act protections, his ongoing opposition to the one-person, one-vote standard that underpins so much of civil rights law, and his efforts as a judge to get the Justice Department to soften the sentence of a convicted cross burner, as well as his many ethical missteps, have inspired widespread criticism of the nomination. In addition to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Pickering's prospects are opposed by the Society of American Law Teachers, the National Women's Law Center, the Alliance for Justice, People for the American Way, the National Council of Women's Organizations, the National Association of Social Workers, the AFL-CIO and dozens of other Washington-based advocacy groups.

That's what has Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, the most powerful Republican on the Judiciary Committee complaining about how Washington liberals are "lynching" Pickering. Mississippi Republican Charles Evers, a Bush delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention, went even further. "All these so-called liberals are talking about what's good for so-called downtrodden Mississippi," Evers griped during a pro-Pickering news conference on the White House lawn, at which a handful of Pickering's African-American backers showed up. "It's not the NAACP down there (in Mississippi) that opposes Pickering. It's the Yankees up here."

Evers got that one wrong, as NAACP national board chair Julian Bond noted. The Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP is actively opposing Pickering's nomination. So are the state NAACP organizations in Louisiana and Texas -- the other two states that make up the 5th Circuit. "We hope to God that (Pickering) doesn't make it," explains L.A. Warren, chair of the Mississippi NAACP's Legal Redress Committee. "We know his past."

The Magnolia Bar Association, an organization of African-American lawyers in Mississippi, opposes the Pickering nomination. So too does US Rep. Bennie Thompson, the state's only African-American congressman. Thompson has been attacked in Washington and at home in Mississippi by conservative columnists -- especially writers for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, a newspaper with a record as dubious as Pickering's when it comes to segregation fights. The critics claimed that, in opposing Pickering's nomination, the congressman had exposed himself as a pawn of northern liberals who was out of touch with his African-American constituents. These attacks were merely more of the pro-Pickering political spin, however. Last week, 31 African-American members of the Mississippi legislature signed a letter opposing Pickering's nomination.

The truth about the nomination is this: Rarely in the history of clashes over presidential nominations to the federal bench has a nominee faced the sort of homestate and regional opposition that has been directed at Pickering. Far from being a Washington phenomenon, the opposition to Pickering has gained traction because those who have fought southern racism longest -- and those who continue to oppose it with the greatest level of passion and personal commitment -- do not want this man sitting on one of the south's most influential courts. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one of the region's largest newspapers, and one of the few daily newspapers in the nation where the editorial pages are run by an African-American woman, summed up enlightened southern sentiment well.

"If judges like Pickering were appointed, American justice would be skewed beyond recognition," argued the Journal Constitution. "If Bush will not withdraw Pickering's nomination, the Senate Judiciary Committee should recommend against his confirmation. U.S. jurisprudence came too far in the late 20th century to allow it to lapse back into a time when Pickering's prejudices reigned."

Pickering: On The Wrong Side Of History

At 1700 Birmingham Ave., in Jasper, Ala., sits the little white bungalow where Carl Elliott lived for more than 50 years. It is about as unassuming a house on about as unassuming a street in about as unassuming a town as you will find in America. Elliott died in Jasper three years ago with little money to his name. He had spent his last working years as a small-town lawyer representing the same farmers and working people whose cause he took up after graduating from the University of Alabama Law School in 1936. Had he been just a bit less honorable, Elliott might well have earned nomination to a United States Circuit Court of Appeals judgeship in the south -- not unlike the one to which President Bush has nominated a man who in the 1960s stood on the opposite side of Southern politics from Elliott, Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering Sr.Unlike Mississippi's Pickering, Alabama's Elliott took a politically and personally dangerous stand against racial segregation at a time when such stances mattered. Unlike Pickering, Elliott surrendered his opportunity to live in a bigger house, to collect a big salary and to serve on one of the nation's highest courts. He did so because, even though he was a good-old-boy Southerner, he believed that African-Americans had a right to equal treatment under the law. Elliott is all but forgotten today, while Pickering is grasping for one of the greatest honors available to an American lawyer.With a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on whether to endorse Pickering's nomination scheduled for this Thursday, the battle over his selection has developed into one of the most intense political struggles of the Bush presidency. After stumbling badly in a pair of appearances before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he faced withering questioning about his segregationist past and his more recent ethical missteps, it appeared that Pickering would become the first Bush judicial nominee to be rejected. But the president has fought back, working to revive the Mississippian's chances along with the nominee's Senate sponsor, Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and anti-abortion groups that have championed Pickering's cause since he led the fight to get the 1976 Republican National Convention to condemn the Supreme Court's Roe-v-Wade decision."This is a good, good honorable citizen," Bush said of Pickering, after appearing with the judge last week. The judge's son, Rep. Charles Pickering Jr., made the remarkable declaration that his father had "always" spoken for racial reconciliation in the south. Of references to Pickering's pro-segregation activities in the past and his present opposition to basic principles of equal justice under the law -- such as one-person, one-vote -- the judge's son said, "Everything said about him is taken out of context. These are distortions and stereotypes to smear a good man."So let's talk context. Let's talk about the choices made by two politically active southern lawyers in the civil rights era.In those last days of the old south, Elliott was the rising star of Alabama and national politics. Elected to Congress in 1948, he authored landmark legislation such as the National Defense Education Act, which since 1958 has provided 30 million low-interest loans for needy students to study science, foreign language and technology. When the civil rights movement of the 1960s forced Southerners to take sides, however, Elliott risked his career to stand with those who favored racial tolerance. Elliott was not a perfect advocate for integration, nor was he a firebrand. But, when the time to speak up came, he condemned Alabama Gov. George Wallace and other Southern politicians for stirring segregationist passions, and he sided with national Democrats such as John F. Kennedy against his own state party. As a result, Wallace and his segregationist allies restructured congressional voting in the state in order to force Elliott from his seat. Elliott turned around and ran for governor in 1966, seeking to forge a coalition of newly enfranchised African-American voters and working-class whites to break the hold of the Wallace family and its wealthy segregationist backers over the politics of the state. He even cashed in his Congressional pension to make the fight. Elliott failed - narrowly - and was finished politically. As the New York Times would note: "(Elliott) sacrificed his political career to the principles of social justice." Charles Pickering Sr. walked a radically different road than Carl Elliott. In 1959, as a law student, Pickering wrote an article that served as the basis for a move by Mississippi legislators to strengthen the state's ban on interracial marriage. In the early 1960s, as a young lawyer, he set up a law practice with one of Mississippi's leading segregationists, a fiery foe of civil rights who ran for lieutenant governor on a "segregation forever" platform." After Fannie Lou Hamer and other Mississippi civil rights activists sought to be seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Pickering was so angered that he announced he was quitting a Democratic party that southerners believed had grown too sympathetic to integration. As a state legislator, Pickering voted to fund the Mississippi's Sovereignty Commission, which was set up to fight desegregation. And, though he once told the Senate he never had dealings with the Commission, the recent opening of its files reveals that Pickering contacted it with concerns about an effort to form a multiracial union in his hometown.These days, the judge's defenders suggest that he should be forgiven his past missteps. Even as records of Pickering rulings from the federal bench reveal a penchant for opposing application of the Voting Rights Act and anti-employment discrimination rules to address lingering southern racism, and even as Senate hearings have detailed Judge Pickering's 1994 intervention with the US Justice Department to reduce the sentence of a convicted cross-burner, Bush, Lott and their allies in the Senate continue to claim that the judge's history must be seen in the context of the times. They point to the judge's rare deviations from hard-line stances and suggest that Pickering was on the side of the angels even as he practiced law with one of Mississippi's most outspoken segregationists.Perhaps Lott's spin could be excused if no Southern whites had ever stood up to the segregationists when it was difficult. Perhaps if the best that could be expected of any true son of the South in those days was the "respectable" support for segregation practiced by the likes of Charles Pickering it would be appropriate to dismiss the public record. But that was never the case. There was no mystery as to the right or wrong way in the 1960s, as lawyers like Carl Elliott recognized. When members of the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on the Pickering nomination, they face a choice. They can honor the memory of Carl Elliott and the other Southerners who took the risk of opposing segregation in the 1960s, or they can send a signal that in the eyes of the Senate it is never really necessary to do the right thing.

Wave of Election Reform Hits California.

As partisan squabbles in the US Senate continue to delay meaningful action on election reforms proposed after the Florida recount crisis of 2000, California voters are taking ballot matters into their own hands. Voters in the Golden State endorsed a group of state and local election reform proposals Monday that ought to make the state a leader in fixing not just broken election machinery but a broken political system.

They even nominated a reform-minded Democratic candidate for Secretary of State who -- unlike Florida's Katherine Harris -- actually believes that election officials ought to count every vote.

From an election reform standpoint the news from California was all good, and one development -- the decision of San Francisco voters to create an instant runoff voting system -- is particularly important.

Here's what happened Tuesday:

* In response to the 2000 election debacle in Florida, where state officials actually went to court in order to prevent ballots from being counted, Californians overwhelmingly approved an amendment to their state Constitution requiring that all votes legally cast in elections must be counted. The measure includes a provision that allows local election officials to petition the courts to waive any deadline that might prevent a full count -- a rule that, had it been in place in Florida, would have allowed officials in south Florida counties to complete counts that Katherine Harris stopped by strictly applying deadlines.

* In another outgrowth of the Florida fight, Californians endorsed a proposition to raise $200 million through bond sales in order to help counties pay for new voting equipment. After a recent ruling by a federal judge that ordered California to replace controversial punch-card voting machines in time for the 2004 presidential election, this measure will allow even the poorest counties in the state to replace voting machines that produce "chads."

* By a 56-44 margin, voters in San Francisco made their city the first major municipality in the United States to adopt an instant runoff voting (IRV) system for local elections. Under an IRV system, voters will now be able to rank lists of candidates for positions such as mayor and city supervisor.

The win for IRV after years of local organizing by activists with the Center for Voting and Democracy is arguably one of the most significant victories for electoral reformers and third-party activists since New York City abandoned its proportional representation voting system in the 1940s. (Under the old system, New Yorkers had elected not just Democrats and Republicans to their city council but candidates from across the political spectrum, including Socialists, Communists, American Labor Party members and other third-party contenders.)

With an IRV system, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, weaker candidates with no chance of winning are eliminated and the second-choice votes of their supporters are then counted. How would such a system work in practical terms? Consider the 2000 presidential election in New Hampshire, where George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by 7,241 votes. Under an IRV system, a substantial portion of the 22,198 New Hampshire voters for Green Party nominee Ralph Nader might well have ranked Nader first and made Gore a grudging second choice in order to prevent a Bush presidency. Had Gore picked up enough second-choice votes to close the gap with Bush, he would have won New Hampshire's four electoral votes and been sworn in as president.

Calling the San Francisco vote a reflection of America's growing "thirst for a better democracy," Center for Voting and Democracy national director Rob Richie declared that, "In cities and states around the nation, democracy advocates are involved in new efforts to improve our politics. Instant runoff voting is an essential component of the future of reform."

Richie could well be right. In Vermont, where Democratic Governor Howard Dean, Democratic Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz and activists with that state's politically potent Progressive Party are promoting IRV reforms, voters at town meetings across the state on Tuesday overwhelmingly endorsed the idea. Among those speaking for the reform at local town meetings was former New York Times political writer and columnist Tom Wicker, who suggested that Vermont could lead the nation toward a politics that more accurately reflects voter sentiments.

But veteran San Francisco activists such as the Center for Voting and Democracy's Steven Hill know that real reform does not come without a fight. That city's IRV referendum was backed by local politicos such as City Supervisor and former mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano and California House Assembly Leader Kevin Shelley -- who on Tuesday won the Democratic nomination on an election reform platform -- as well the powerful San Francisco Labor Council, Common Cause, the National Organization for Women, the Sierra Club, the California Public Interest Research Group, local gay and lesbian and Latino political clubs, and the Green and Libertarian parties. And, of course, it was backed by the city's alternative weekly newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which has for a number of years played a critical role in promoting progressive political reform in the city.

But the IRV measure faced active opposition from business groups and some veteran political insiders. Their objection? Reportedly, they feared that an IRV system would make it harder to divide progressives in the next mayoral race -- a shift that could make it possible for Ammiano, who mounted an unexpectedly strong last-minute mayoral run in 1999, to win the office in 2003.

Opponents argued that instant runoff voting was an untested and difficult approach to electing local officials. Hill and other activists countered by using a website (www.improvetherunoff.com) to explain that IRV is used to decide major elections in Australia, Ireland, Great Britain and other countries. The site included a "Try It" feature that allowed voters to see how the system worked. In also featured a link to a site where the characters from the "Muppets" television show elect a CEO using instant runoff voting.

From Muckraker to Mayor

As a take-no-prisoners political columnist for an alternative newspaper in Dallas, Laura Miller made mayors miserable. She declared city officials "brain dead" and portrayed them as fawning sycophants to wealth -- the immediate past mayor, she wrote, "whittles away his political capital, running hither and thither, obsessing about what he can do today to help H. Ross Perot Jr. increase his net worth." Throughout the 1990s, Miller's columns for the Dallas Observer newspaper exposed cozy ties that Dallas officials maintained with that city's economic royalty, revealed evidence of mayoral subservience to billionaire Hunts and Perots, and reminded readers that the squandering of precious resources on the pet projects of Dallas's economic royalty meant that the city's commoners had to put up with potholes and pool closings.

Now, as the new mayor of Dallas, Miller will get a chance to turn her populist penmanship into public policy. Though her candidacy was opposed with vigor and venom by the city's oil elites, the outgoing mayor, most of the city council and the powerful Dallas Morning News newspaper, Miller won 55 percent of the vote in a runoff election Saturday.

Before a crowd that chanted "It's Miller time!" the winner immediately distinguished herself from her predecessors, declaring that hers would be a "citizen" mayoralty. While past mayors promised to build arenas or bring the Olympics to town, Miller announced that one of her first official acts would be to dispatch a city dump truck to clean up garbage around a local recreation center.

If that doesn't sound glamorous, well, that's the point. After years of reporting on city officials who made it their priority to aid the construction of expensive projects favored by the city's billionaires, Miller ran for mayor on a pledge to "get back to the basics" of fixing neighborhood streets, filling empty pools and cleaning up parks. With a campaign that delivered its message in English, Spanish and Chinese, Miller declared that the time had come for Dallas to stop catering to the whims of the billionaires downtown and to recognize that, "What really matters are the little things. The pothole in your street. The teacher at your kids' school. The police car cruising your house when your husband's away on business."

"We've done a sports arena for millionaire basketball players," the candidate said. "Now let's give our young people basketball hoops in their neighborhood rec center."

Miller's insurgent campaign gave voice to sentiments that are not unique to Dallas. In cities across the country in recent years, neighborhood activists have battled downtown business interests to define municipal priorities -- arguing, as Miller did, that when cities use limited resources to help private interests build stadiums and downtown projects, they cheat the public interest by drying up funds for schools and basic services.

A hell-raiser since the days when her incendiary columns provoked her high school principal to suspend publication of the school paper, Miller always wanted to be a journalist and after earning a degree from the University of Wisconsin she became a very good one -- writing award winning investigative articles and columns for the New York Daily News, Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News and Dallas Times Herald. Times Herald editors decided her fearless writing -- she called the police chief a "liar" -- was inappropriate for a respectably conservative newspaper. So Miller found a gig with the Observer, where she kept stirring up trouble but started feeling frustrated.

"I have 14,000 documents in my office that show just how crooked, how manipulated this system is," Miller said of her reporting. "But nothing changes."

So, in 1998, she made a change. Borrowing a page from Upton Sinclair, the crusading journalist of the early 20th century who got so mad at politics as usual that he made things unusual by running for governor of California, Miller closed her notebook and got into city politics. Unlike Sinclair, this crusader-turned-candidate won.

Elected to a council seat, Miller started muckraking inside the corridors of power, pushing for tougher ethics standards and raising hell about policies that favored downtown elites over neighborhood needs. Even as she fought and beat breast cancer, Miller kept banging away at the special interests that controlled City Hall. She made enemies among the political and business establishment and most of them opposed her mayoral run this year. But the journalist-turned-politico succeeded in getting her message to voters like Janet Weachock. After casting her ballot Saturday, the woman told a reporter she liked Laura Miller because, "She will blow up in the face of the good-ole-boy network."

'At Issue is the Shape of American Democracy'

Like last year's freewheeling Senate debate on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, this week's debate on the House version of McCain-Feingold, the Shays-Meehan bill, provided an all-too-rare display of what an engaged Congress might look like.

Not only did the reform coalition break through the barricades erected by the House Republican coalition to win an unexpectedly wide 240-189 vote, it sparked a debate worthy of what is, after all, supposed to be a deliberative body.

For the most part these days, Congressional debates are defined by both their brevity and their vapid nature. Consider the embarrassingly abbreviated discourse over providing George W. Bush with the authority to respond to the September 11 terrorist attacks -- not exactly an inconsequential matter -- and it is easy to understand why so many Americans doubt whether this Congress is capable of a serious discussion.

During the marathon debate over Shays-Meehan, which stretched through the day Wednesday and into Thursday morning, however, there were flashes of intellect, passion and even humor. Yes, of course, Republican attempts to derail the reform movement by repeatedly attempting to slip "poison-pill" amendments into the carefully blended Shays-Meehan compromise were comically cynical. But they provided an opening for dramatic clashes of honor. One of the most amazing of these came when conservative Republicans -- many of them white southerners with dubious track records on issues of racial justice -- attempted to attach an amendment that would have lifted restrictions of last-minute attack ads if the messages concerned civil rights issues.

The Republican expressions of concern about for fostering a dialogue about civil rights held little water with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. The veteran of the civil rights era, who took to the microphones several times during the day and night of debates, ripped the hypocritical attempts of southern Republicans to present themselves as tribunes of the black freedom struggle. "I did not march across the bridge at Selma on March 7, 1965, and almost lose my life to become part of a political system so corrupt that it pollutes the very idea of what we marched," a clearly angered Lewis told the hushed House of Representatives."There is too much money in politics," Lewis argued. "Political candidates should not be up for sale to the highest bidder. Too many of us spend too much of our time dialing for dollars. We should not be elected this way. This should not be the essence of our democracy."

Lewis was not alone in pushing the debate beyond the picayune toward broader dialogue about the very character of American democracy. "At issue is the shape of American democracy; at issue also is the shape of our political parties. There is a question of balance of power between the parties, but shape matters too. Do we want our parties dependent on the big and powerful or the individual citizen?" declared Iowan Jim Leach, one of the last of the chamber's genuine old-school Republican moderates. "The system needs reform; so do the parties. In a new-fangled world, what is needed is old-fashioned politics, old-fashioned political parties, old-fashioned people-oriented representation."

The debate actually featured verbal wrestling matches over core principles of "old-fashioned" politics and governance, as when California Republican David Dreier, one of the chambers most consistent foes of reform, began quoting from James Madison and other framers of the Constitution to defend the role of special-interest groups in American politics. "In Federalist No. 10, James Madison talked about political faction, how the opportunity for people to come together and demonstrate their interests is something that is a fact of life. In fact, he said in Federalist No. 10, ‘Faction is to governing like air is to fire,'" Dreier asserted.

Those remarks brought Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan to the floor to deliver what may have been the most effective of his many defenses of the bill he and Connecticut Republican Chris Shays guided through the House. To Dreier's attempt to claim the favor of the founders for his position, Meehan replied, "Mr. Chairman, if James Madison could see the $4 million in unregulated soft money that went from Enron to both political parties, if James Madison could see that 70 percent of the soft money from Enron since 1995 went to both political parties, if James Madison could see the $1.7 million in the last election cycle, he would be rolling over in his grave."

Meehan was a tireless performer across almost 16 hours of debate, arguing philosophically and strategically. As one point, he took to the microphones to bluntly explain why the legislation -- so long opposed by Republican leaders, including George W. Bush -- might actually become law. Following House passage and what backers hope will be quick action by the Senate to essentially renew its support of McCain-Feingold, Meehan said, "Then we are going to send it over to the President, and the President has made it very clear to the Republican leadership and anyone else in this House, ‘do not count on me to veto this bill.' Why is it the President made it clear? Because this President knows what we all know, that there is a cloud over the Capitol and the White House because of this Enron scandal, and the American people are demanding that that cloud be removed by removing this soft money system that has had such a corrupting influence on the decisions that we make day in and day out, making good people do bad things. They want this removed and the President wants this removed, I am sure. I am sure that is why he will sign this bill."

But can a bill that George W. Bush would sign represent real reform?

Some long-time reformers were frank about the fact that, in the words of Iowa's Leach, Shays-Meehan "is too little, too late, too compromised." Said California Democrat Pete Stark, "In my opinion, we should do away with our private campaign financing system altogether and publicly fund political campaigns. This would level the playing field so that anyone could participate in the political process." While he admitted that "the Shays-Meehan bill doesn't go that far," Stark added: "This bill has several important provisions to improve our campaign finance laws: it bans soft money from national parties; it reins in campaign advertisements which claim to be 'issue advocacy' ads; it enhances disclosure of political expenses; and it provides the Federal Election Commission with stronger tools to enforce campaign finance laws. By passing this bill today, we as leaders can finally recognize what the American public has known for years: there is too much money in politics."

Stark's realistic remarks were in marked contrast to the over-the-top pronouncements of Shays-Meehan backers like Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal., who identified Shays-Meehan as "a valentine for the America people" and declared, "This beautiful city in which we serve 200 years ago was built on a swamp and a swamp it is again today, a swamp of special interest money. Today we have the opportunity to drain that swamp."

If some members could not quite control their flights of rhetorical fancy, others used humor to return the debate to the basic point that any move that removes special-interest money from politics is a move in the right direction. "Did my colleagues hear the story about the lobbyist who gave a million dollars to a political party in soft money donations and demanded absolutely nothing in return?" asked Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett. "Well, neither has anyone else."

Syndicate content