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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Scott Walker Controls Wisconsin’s Executive and Legislative Branches. Now His Minions Are Gunning For the Judicial.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

Wisconsin GovernorScott Walker (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker plays politics to win. As a political careerist who has run two dozen primary and general election campaigns since 1990, he leaves nothing to chance. And the partisans who have allied with him have embraced the view that the best way to prevail in politics is to “have it all”—control of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

This week, Walker’s allies are focused on securing control of the judicial branch of state government in Wisconsin. The Republican Party of Wisconsin and groups that have consistently backed Walker’s agenda are leading the charge to oust a state Supreme Court justice who has championed judicial independence and to change the way in which the high court is organized—with an eye toward ousting another independent jurist from the position of chief justice.

The Wisconsin fights, which will play out in two statewide votes Tuesday, have received little national attention. Yet they are instructive for those who seek to understand the relentless pursuit of power by Walker and his political allies—and the approach that the all-but-announced Republican presidential contender and his associates would bring to Washington if they realize their national ambitions.

Since his election in 2010, Walker and his legislative cronies have grabbed every opening to secure and advance their authority. They have employed ambitious gerrymandering schemes, reorganized the election calendar, rewritten voting rules and invited the wealthiest men in America to flood the state with special-interest money. They have disregarded rules and regulations designed to maintain transparency and fairness. They have played what Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson describe as “winner-take-all politics.”

Since the wave election of 2014, Walker and his Republican allies have enjoyed absolute control of the governorship and both houses of the state legislature. They have used that control to further an anti-labor agenda—begun in 2011 with assaults on public-sector unions—by enacting so-called “right to work” legislation. And they plan to do a lot more. In addition to proposals to cut funding for the University of Wisconsin and expand private K-12 voucher schools using money that would otherwise be earmarked for public education, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel  reports that Walker has plans for “ending state funding for highway beautification, and Wisconsin Public Radio and Television; phasing out a long-standing racial integration program for students; and leaving most prison watchtowers vacant at night.”

Yet, Walker and his partisans are not satisfied.

The ability to roll over partisan opposition in the legislative branch of government is not enough. Walker and his allies have faced a number of legal challenges to their power grabs. So the governor’s allies have made gaining and maintaining control of the state’s highest court a high priority. After several of what the Brennan Center for Justice has identified as among the most expensive and negative state judicial races in recent American history, Walker’s Republican and corporate allies have secured a majority on what is supposed to be a nonpartisan court.

“Judicial elections are supposed to be non-partisan, but partisan politics and large political donations from outside the state have played a key role in Wisconsin Supreme Court races in recent years,” observed a report published last week by the Wisconsin Gazette. “The Koch brothers-backed Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce have spent an estimated $8.3 million to elect right-wing justices in Wisconsin, giving conservatives and supporters of Gov. Scott Walker’s agenda a majority on the bench.”

But there are still three justices who have refused to bow to pro-Walker partisanship, and one of them is the powerful chief justice.

On Tuesday, Walker’s allies hope to oust one of the three remaining justices who maintain a commitment to judicial independence. And they are seeking to amend the state constitution to alter the method for organizing the high court’s leadership—in what is broadly understood as a move to oust the chief justice. Both initiatives come as the court prepares to hear three cases involving a John Doe investigation into the campaigns of Walker and his political allies.

The sitting justice who faces a direct challenge Tuesday is Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, who has served on the high court for two decades, earning national recognition for her legal scholarship and work ethic. Justice Bradley is running a traditional reelection campaign that emphasizes the importance of judicial independence, respect for the rule of law and a nonpartisan judiciary.

Bradley has earned backing from Democrats, independents and old-school Republicans, from organized labor and responsible business leaders. In endorsing her, the LaCrosse Tribune noted Bradley’s “broad bipartisan support,” while the Wausau Daily Herald argued that “Bradley has shown an ability to be impartial; Daley has seemingly intentionally campaigned on the promise not to be.”

This distinction has led to the targeting of Justice Bradley by the relentless partisans associated with Walker and his legislative allies.

Justice Bradley has also been targeted by conservatives on the court. Justice David Prosser, against whom the Judicial Commission has filed ethics charges stemming from an incident in which Prosser placed his hands around Justice Bradley’s neck, has donated $500 to the campaign of Bradley’s challenger, Rock County Judge James Daley. Prosser, a former Republican legislative leader, worked closely with Walker when both served in the state Assembly.

Republican efforts on behalf of Daley have been widely reported.

“Daley accepted a $7,000 in-kind contribution from the Wisconsin Republican Party and is speaking at GOP events around the state, ” according to the Associated Press. That should come as no surprise, as Daley’s campaign ads position him as an ally of the governor and legislative Republicans—going so far as to hail the governor’s anti-labor agenda and the enactment of a restrictive voter-ID law. Wisconsin governors do not usually make endorsements in judicial races, and Walker has avoided formally stating his preferences, but there is no missing the message of Daley’s campaign ads, which accuse Justice Bradley for trying “to undermine Gov. Walker’s reforms.” The ads are unprecedented in their partisanship, leaving little doubt that Daley would align himself with a particular faction inside the executive and legislative branches and, by extension, with the political paymasters that sustain this faction.

The second vote of consequence for the judiciary involves an assault on Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Re-elected in 2009 with almost 60 percent of the vote, Abrahamson is popular with the people of Wisconsin, respected by lawyers and judges, and highly regarded in her role as the administrative head of the state courts system. She is so widely respected nationally that, during Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s, Justice Abrahamson’s name turned up on lists of potential US Supreme Court nominees.

Fiercely independent, she has a reputation for spurning pressure from politicians of both parties and for refusing to bend to special interests. So politicians and special-interest groups associated with Walker are trying to oust Justice Abrahamson from her role as chief justice by amending the state constitution to end the 126-year-old practice of having the senior justice (who has been elected the most times by the voters) serve as chief. The amendment, which was proposed and advanced by Walker allies in the legislature, would establish a new system for selecting the chief justice that allow justices who have supported Walker’s agenda to replace Justice Abrahamson with one of their own.

“This is clearly targeted at the current chief justice because certain groups don’t want her as chief justice,” argues former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, who was appointed to the court by former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson.

“For more than 100 years, that post has gone to the most senior member on the court, which is a wise and prudent procedure, which cuts done on infighting and jockeying and politicization,” explains Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Matt Rothschild. “But now, because anti-democratic forces have a vendetta against Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, they’ve put a referendum (on the ballot) to change that process so that a majority of the justices decide who is chief justice.”

Walker’s allies are all-in for this one.

“Outside groups have made late expenditures in two judicial contests on Wisconsin’s April 7 ballot,” report the Brennan Center and Justice at Stake, based on an analysis of Federal Communications Commission records conducted by the groups. “Though traditional big spenders are supporting groups on either side of the ballot measure, the bulk of the spending thus far is a single $600,000 contribution from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce to a group in favor of [the amendment].”

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Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, a corporate group that does not reveal its donors, has long championed Walker and his legislative agenda. Shortly before he signed Wisconsin’s “right to work” law—“a top policy reform on the WMC public policy agenda”—Walker appeared at the organization’s annual “Business Day in Madison” event, which was sponsored by Walmart and Koch brothers–owned Georgia-Pacific.

Noting the heavy spending by WMC in support of the proposed amendment, Justice and Stake executive director Bert Brandenburg said, “The brawl over Wisconsin’s courts has moved to a new arena. But many Wisconsin residents still don’t realize that Question 1 is a political effort to tilt the court to one side, not a good-government measure.”

The one side is that of Scott Walker, whose allies are working hard to assure that the governor will have one-size-fits-all control of state government.


Read Next: John Nichols on Chuy Garcia’s progressive vision

Chicago’s Chuy Garcia Has a Vision: Progressive Mayors Fighting for Public Education

Chicago Public School teachers' protest

(Reuters/John Gress)

“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery,” wrote Horace Mann in 1848, when the great proponent of public education outlined a premise that remains at the heart of every progressive vision for this country.

Unfortunately, 167 years after Mann made his case, many politicians who position as “progressive” are insufficiently committed to the cause of public education. Some of the crudest education cuts and “reforms” have been implemented by Democrats who often go as far—even further—than conservative Republicans in embracing the wrong thinking of those who would undermine public education with “charter” experiments, voucher schemes and privatization plans.

It is too simplistic to assume that the debate over public education plays out only between Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. In fact, there are important debates over education that need to be had within the Democratic Party. Until Democrats are solidly supportive of public education, it is difficult to see how they will effectively counter Republicans like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, who have aligned themselves with the billionaire proponents of an “education reform” movement that is all about deforming and diminishing the promise of the great equalizer.

This debate has already erupted in a number of cities and states. In 2014, for instance, much of the support for law professor Zephyr Teachout’s exceptionally strong Democratic primary challenge to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo came from teachers and their allies in the burgeoning movement to defend public education.

Now, an ever clearer test is playing out in Chicago.

The lines of division could not be starker in next Tuesday’s Democrat-versus-Democrat runoff contest. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, an advocate of high-stakes testing and the charter-school “reforms” favored by conservative Republicans and the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party, faces an energetic challenge from Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, an outspoken champion of teachers and neighborhood schools who has aligned with progressive unions and grassroots activist groups.

With all the advantages of incumbency, a massive fund-raising advantage and political connections that extend to the White House, Emanuel remains the front-runner in the Chicago contest. But the fact that there is a race at all—the first runoff election since the current system for electing Chicago mayors was created—owes everything to the evolving debate over education policy.

A case can be made that Emanuel would not have faced serious competition had he not ordered the closing of dozens of neighborhood schools, as part of an ongoing fight with public-education advocates and the Chicago Teachers Union. The mayor earns praise from national groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, which bluntly declares, “We believe in empowering mayors to lead urban school districts…”

While there are plenty of Democratic mayors who have embraced that approach, Garcia says Chicago needs to go in a different direction. He argues for an elected school board—which Chicago currently lacks—as part of an expanded commitment to public schools.

“My program involves giving the school system back to the people through an elected school board; reducing to the barest legal minimum the plethora of high-stakes, standardized tests by which we falsely judge schools, students, and teachers; placing a moratorium on further charter schools; expanding public education to include pre-kindergarten and even earlier; and reducing class size, which is one of the largest in the state,” explains Garcia, who declares that “it is necessary to change course dramatically from the so-called ‘reforms’ offered by Mayor Emanuel.”

That stance, among others, has won Garcia the enthusiastic support of the Chicago Teachers Union, which has wrangled with Emanuel so frequently that CTU President Karen Lewis briefly considered challenging the mayor. Lewis was sidelined by illness last fall, but she is now Garcia’s most enthusiastic backer, appearing at the challenger’s side and declaring that “if he is elected as our mayor, I know he will work for all of our citizens, not just the corporate elites and special interests who seek to privatize our public assets.”

On Saturday, Lewis and teachers and community leaders from across the city will participate in “march to the polls” to promote early voting for Garcia. They’ll be joined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Congressman Danny Davis and Dr. Cornel West, as well as Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka.

Recently elected in Newark, Baraka has taken the lead in arguing for a new vision of urban education that fights for and funds public schools—rather than beating up on them. “There are many parallels between Chuy’s campaign and my own,” says Mayor Baraka. “I see the same type of grassroots, people-powered campaign in Chicago right now as I ran in Newark last year. Chuy Garcia will return control of public schools to the communities they serve. Chicago, Newark, and so many cities around this country face a common struggle against corporate interests that want to undermine public education and silence dissenting voices in the community.”

Baraka’s point is well taken. Too many Democrats are either wrong on education issues, or so vague in their stances that it is tough to determine whether they are right or wrong. In contrast, the new mayor of Newark has been unapologetic and energetic in arguing for public schools.

Garcia has been equally unapologetic and energetic—and specific. With a vision of “progressive mayors across the country” working with teachers and parents to strengthen neighborhood schools and services, the Chicago challenger sees his run as part of a broader effort to reframe the debate over public education in America.

That new frame stops looking for ways to blame teachers and starts recognizing the need to address the pressures that make it difficult for even the best teachers to do their jobs.

Garcia decries the emphasis on high-stakes testing in public schools. “When it comes to standardized, high-stakes testing, our kids are over-tested and under-educated,” says the candidate, who argues that “Making everything dependent on test scores in two subjects simply builds in larger failures. Ultimately it causes teachers, schools and entire systems to narrow educational goals and teach to the tests—or cheat, which we’ve seen recently around the country and in Chicago in past years.”

A veteran city, county and state official whose progressive political roots go back to the days when former mayor Harold Washington was battling the Daley machine, Garcia is equally blunt about the flaws and failures of charter-school experiments. Charters “long ago ceased offering anything new that public schools could utilize, particularly since teachers unions in today’s world have reformed significantly, focusing more on education than protecting the jobs of teachers,” says Garcia, who says that “charters drain increasing amounts of public money while paying staff lower wages.”

But Garcia’s core advocacy goes back to the values championed by the pioneering advocates for public education, who argued it was an underpinning of democracy. It is this faith in democracy that animates Garcia’s candidacy. He believes in empowering students, teachers, parents and communities by resting power with an elected school board.

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“One of my first acts as mayor will be to go to Springfield and ask the legislature to revoke the mayoral control legislation and let Chicago take its place with the rest of Illinois by having an elected board,” says Garcia. “We are the only school district in the state with an appointed, not an elected, school board, thanks to state legislation passed in 1995—which I voted against as state legislator. This is the board that closed our schools and cut the education budget, following Mayor Emanuel’s orders. Would this have happened with an elected board, responsible to the citizens?”

To a greater extent than a lot of Democrats, including Rahm Emanuel, “Chuy” Garcia gets that the fight for public education is about democracy—and about the rights that are essential to democracy.

“School systems are perhaps the main governmental bodies touching the lives of a majority of our citizens. That’s why I believe an elected school board is a constitutional right,” argues Garcia, in one of the core statements of his campaign. If the state legislature fails to revoke mayoral control of the Chicago school system, he promises, “I will file a federal voting-rights lawsuit based on the Constitution and civil rights laws.”

A mayor waging that fight would earn national attention and, perhaps, usher in a whole new debate about public education. That’s a debate that Democrats need to have if there is to be hope that the great equalizer of the conditions of men and women might finally be the balance wheel of our social machinery.


Read Next: John Nichols on Bernie Sanders’s endorsement of Chuy Garcia

Bernie Sanders Backs Chuy Garcia and a ‘Political Revolution’ in Chicago

Chuy Garcia (AP/M. Spencer Green)

Chuy Garcia (AP/M. Spencer Green)

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders says America needs a "political revolution" to change the debate about economic inequality and he sees evidence of the upheaval in Chicago. So the senator is wading into that city's mayoral race as a backer of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the labor-backed progressive who is mounting a spirited challenge to incumbent Rahm Emanuel.

Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, has been exploring a possible 2016 presidential candidacy as a progressive-populist challenger to the Democratic establishment. And he argues that Garcia is forging the sort of "working-class coalition" that is needed to shake up politics in urban America and beyond.

Garcia earned headlines with a strong showing in Chicago's first round of voting in February. That forced Emanuel into a rare runoff for mayor of the nation's third largest city. Emanuel, a politically-connected Democrat with close ties to Wall Street and corporate interests, still has a big money advantage in the race (with many donations from wealthy Republicans)—and a lead in most polls. But Garcia's insurgent candidacy has won significant grassroots support in Chicago, along with the backing of key labor organizations, including the Chicago Teachers Union and the Illinois Council of the Service Employees International Union.

Both Emanuel and Garcia are Democrats, and Garcia (a former Chicago alderman and Illinois legislator and current Cook County Commissioner) actually has a longer record of running for and winning office on the party line than the incumbent. So opposition to Emanuel in Chicago's nonpartisan runoff is, as National People's Action executive director George Goehl notes, based on "a clear set of populist principles, not a party."

For the most part, however, national Democrats have either backed Emanuel (as did President Obama, who appeared with the mayor in February and has recorded campaign commercials for him) or steered clear of the race. That's a measure of the political influence maintained by Emanuel, not just in Chicago but in Washington.

Though he was never a favorite of progressive Democrats during his tenures as an aide to Presidents Clinton and Obama, or when he headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Emanuel's stock has fallen since he became mayor four years ago. His decisions to close public schools and to align with corporate interests at a time when the Democratic Party is under growing pressure to address income inequality, wage stagnation and a host of economic injustices has only heightened frustration with the mayor.

That frustration manifested itself in the decision of an old rival of Emanuel, former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, to back Garcia—as has a group founded by Dean and many supporters from his 2004 presidential run, Democracy for America.

MoveOn.org has also highlighted opposition to Emanuel and support for Garcia.

Yet, few other prominent progressives have joined in making the populist argument against Emanuel.

So the endorsement of Garcia by Sanders is drawing notice in Chicago and Washington. The endorsement mixes local and national political storylines, as Sanders is pondering a possible run for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination – perhaps as a progressive populist challenger to presumed Democratic frontrunner (and Emanuel-backed prospect) Hillary Clinton.

Sanders will make the endorsement formally on Thursday, at a Chicago event featuring Garcia and Susan Sadlowski Garza, a labor-backed progressive seeking a city council seat on Chicago’s south side.

“I am going to Chicago to support Chuy Garcia and Susan Sadlowski Garza. I support them because we need a political revolution in this country and we need the kind of working-class coalitions that Chuy and Susan are pulling together,” says Sanders,who argues that, “At a time when the wealthiest people and largest corporations are becoming richer while virtually everyone else is becoming poorer, working-class people have got to fight back. And that is what the campaigns of Chuy and Susan are all about.”

The Chicago event caps a week of cross-country appearances by Sanders, who appeared at several large events in Los Angeles last weekend and addressed San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club on Monday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the senator headed to Las Vegas and then Austin, Texas.

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For Sanders, the events are opportunities to speak but also to talk with labor and progressive activists. In Los Angeles, the senator was the keynote speaker at an “awakening our conscience, restoring our democracy” event organized by author Marianne Williamson, which also included on its list of featured speakers Congressmen Alan Grayson and Keith Ellison, former Congressman Dennis Kucinich and author and radio host Thom Hartmann. In Austin, populist writer and commentator Jim Hightower joined Sanders; this writer will MC the Chicago event.

Sanders has said that he will make a decision on whether to seek the presidency later this spring. When we first discussed the prospect a year ago, he explained that such a candidacy would require “a political revolution” – the same phrase he employed when endorsing Chuy Garcia and Susan Sadlowski Garza.

“(When} I talk about a political revolution, what I am referring to is the need to do more than just win the next election. It’s about creating a situation where we are involving millions of people in the process who are not now involved, and changing the nature of media so they are talking about issues that reflect the needs and the pains that so many of our people are currently feeling,” says Sanders. “Essentially, what a political revolution means is that we organize and educate and create grassroots movements, which we certainly do not have right now.”


Read Next: John Nichols on Mike Pence's discrimination law

Even Indiana Republicans Are Telling Mike Pence His Discrimination Law Is Wrong

Mike Pence (AP/Carlos Osorio)

Mike Pence (AP/Carlos Osorio)

Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who not long ago sounded like a 2016 Republican presidential prospect, might have thought that his decision to sign his state’s so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) would have at least earned him the enthusiastic embrace of all Republicans and all conservative media.

But it is not working out that way in Indiana, a state that (with the exceptions of Democrats Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Barack Obama in 2008) has backed every Republican presidential candidate since 1940. A number of 2016 Republican presidential prospects—including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson (who referred to the Indiana law as “vital”)—backed Pence with notably more enthusiasm than the governor could muster.

But the governor got a good deal of pushback from conservative Republicans and media at home—so much, in fact, that Pence now says he is looking for a way to adopt new legislation that will “clarify” that the law does not permit businesses to engage in discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

It remains to be seen whether Pence, who has bumbled badly as he has tried to defend the RFRA, will get the clarification right. He still does not seem to grasp what the problem is—claiming that “we’ve got a perception problem.”

But there are Indiana Republicans who “get” it. The Republican mayor of Indianapolis, Greg Ballard, says that Pence and his allies are “missing the bigger trend” toward support of LGBT rights. As one of the few Republicans who leads a major American city, Ballard is calling on the Indiana legislature not just to reject discrimination but “expressly add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in state law.”

What’s playing out in Indiana, and nationally, is important because it illustrates the extent to which thinking about LGBT rights is shifting, even within a socially-conservative Republican Party.

There has been an enormous backlash to the governor’s decision to sign what the Human Rights Campaign condemns as “a sweeping bill allowing individuals to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against LGBT people and other minorities.”

Pence has been ripped by CEOs and business leaders nationally, and in Indiana, for embracing discrimination rather than welcoming the diversity. Many Democrats have spoken up, evidencing the extent to which a party that once has its own divisions on the issue has united in support of LGBT rights. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke with particular force, arguing, “History will not look kindly on this new Indiana state law, couched under claims of religious freedom, which turns back the clock on gains Americans have made together to ensure equal treatment, equal access, and equal rights for all citizens. Indiana’s law goes far beyond other state and federal examples by allowing religious justifications to be used in disputes between private parties and giving private businesses a license to discriminate.”

But the criticism that has most stung Pence, a former Republican congressman and favorite of conservatives, has come from Indiana Republicans and conservatives.

Five Republican legislators opposed the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” with state Representative Ed Clere, R-New Albany, asking: “Do we want our sign to say ‘Welcome?’ Or do we want our sign to say ‘Closed for Business?’ Or ‘Certain people aren’t welcome?’ Or, as some have suggested, ‘We don’t accept fill-in-the-blank?’ “

When the governor tried to claim that “some on the left and some in the national media have mischaracterized” his law, Indianapolis Mayor Ballard made it absolutely clear that there are Republicans who object. Arguing that the law sends the “wrong signal” about discrimination, the Republican mayor declared, “Indianapolis strives to be a welcoming place that attracts businesses, conventions, visitors and residents. We are a diverse city, and I want everyone who visits and lives in Indy to feel comfortable here.”

The Indianapolis Star, a newspaper that endorsed Pence for governor in 2012 and that for many years was owned by conservative publisher Eugene C. Pulliam (the grandfather of former vice president Dan Quayle), published a rare front-page editorial condemning the law.

In an editorial headlined, “Fix This Now,” the state’s largest newspaper declared that the RFRA has “already has done enormous harm to our state and potentially our economic future.”

“The consequences will only get worse if our state leaders delay in fixing the deep mess created. Half steps will not be enough. Half steps will not undo the damage,” the editorial argued. “Only bold action—action that sends an unmistakable message to the world that our state will not tolerate discrimination against any of its citizens—will be enough to reverse the damage. Gov. Mike Pence and the General Assembly need to enact a state law to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, education and public accommodations on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

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Republican Mayor Ballard was pushing the “fix-this-law” line—calling either for the repeal of the Pence’s law for for the addition of explicit protections in state law against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Discrimination is wrong,” declared the mayor. “And I hope that message is being heard loud and clear at our Statehouse.”

Perhaps Pence does still speak, however ineptly, the sentiments of his party’s socially conservative base.

But if there was a Indiana Republican who sounded like he understood where most Americans at with regard to protecting LGBT Americans from discrimination, it was not Pence. It was Ballard.


Read Next: John Nichols on the passing of the American presidency between families

It Is Very American to Ask if the Presidency Should Be Passed Between Entitled Families

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (National Portrait Gallery)

When Thomas Paine called America into revolt against the British Crown with Common Sense, he explained at great length that there was nothing divine—nor minimally commendable—about the supposed “divine right of kings.” Warning that “a King hath little more to do than to make war and give away places (grants of power and wealth to favored families),” Paine observed: “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”

After outlining the many arguments against dividing society into kings and subjects, however, Paine wrote of an even more unsettling arrangement.

“To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity,” he wrote. “For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho’ himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them.”

The United States has wisely eschewed formal monarchy. But it has, rather too frequently, accepted a dynastic politics that rests power in particular families. This has always been troublesome for those who take seriously the promise of an American experiment founded on the premise that all men—and women—are created equal.

The prospect of a 2016 presidential contest between representatives of two families that have claimed the presidency with some frequency in recent decades is doubly troublesome. This ought to inspire debate in both major political parties, and beyond their narrow boundaries, about whether it makes sense to give Americans a “choice” between the son and the brother of former presidents running as a Republican and the wife of a former president running as a Democrat.

So give former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley credit for opening the debate in an appearance on ABC News’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.When Stephanopoulos suggested that O’Malley sounded like he was ready to challenge presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016, the host got no objection from the all-but-announced candidate.

Indeed, O’Malley went for it.

“I think that our country always benefits from new leadership and new perspectives,” he said. “Let’s be honest here, the presidency of the United States is not some crown to be passed between two families, it is an awesome and sacred trust that has to be earned, and exercised on behalf of the American people.”

That line got more attention than anything else O’Malley has said in two years of positioning for what everyone accepts would be an uphill challenge to the former First Lady.

O’Malley eschewed direct attacks on Clinton, whom he backed for the Democratic nomination in 2008, and took no great swings at potential Republican nominee Jeb Bush. The former governor avoided going off on tangents about Bill Clinton or Bush 41 and Bush 43. He suggested that his objection was to “any two families” trading off the keys to the White House.

This is the right objection.

In fairness to Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush—while both have benefitted mightily from family ties, and the campaign-treasury largesse that extends from them—neither of these prospective contenders is formally staking a purely dynastic claim on the presidency. Both have records to run on.

Perhaps Hillary Clinton is the best-prepared Democratic contender.

Perhaps Jeb Bush is the best-prepared Republican contender.

Should they run—as is expected—each will have a chance to make their case. And if Clinton and Bush secure their respective nominations, they will find themselves arguing with each other about who is better prepared. And, presumably, about who is more "of the people."

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But Democrats and Republicans who dare to infuse their partisanship with reason and reflection should ask whether this is really the choice that they ought to offer the American electorate.

Democrats and Republicans who are of a serious bent have every right—and responsibility—to examine alternatives.

This should be recognized as a very American consideration.

It is difficult to imagine that Tom Paine would have expected—or wanted—Americans to have to pick their president from a select pair of experienced and entitled families.

As Paine is not with us to raise the concern, it is good that Martin O’Malley has done so.


Read Next: John Nichols on Harry Reid’s replacement

Harry Reid’s Replacement Must Be Progressive and Effective

Harry Reid (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Harry Reid (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Fifty years ago, when Democrats were beginning finally to break the grip of Southern segregationists on their party, the way in which key congressional positions were filled was a major issue for the party. Southern members of the House and Senate tended to serve forever. As such, they took advantage of an archaic seniority system to secure committee chairmanships and even leadership posts—making a slowly progressing party seem still to be as reactionary as it once was.

A new generation of congressional Democrats, including Phil Burton of California in the House and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts in the Senate, sought to shake things up. Unfortunately, Burton lost a key race for House majority leader in 1976, as Kennedy had lost an equally important race for Senate majority whip in 1971.

The Democratic Party opted against more aggressively progressive leadership, weakening its message for years to come. Indeed, as David Broder would write late in Ronald Reagan presidency, when Wright had been designated as Speaker of the House and Byrd was in position to become Senate majority leader: “It may turn out that the luckiest break President Reagan has in his current time of trouble lies in the character of the Democratic leaders of the 100th Congress.”

As Senate Democrats consider replacements for minority leader Harry Reid, who announced Friday that he would not seek a new term in 2016, they should remember the mistakes of the past. This, in turn, should get them thinking in bigger and bolder ways about their available options for filling a position with enormous potential to define the party’s image and direction.

Reid has been a more progressive majority leader than his predecessor, former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, was right when he observed Friday that on a host of critical issues Reid has been “a fighter for the low- and moderate-income people of this country.

But Reid has not always been effective as a communicator of progressive positions or strategies.

What Democrats should be looking for now is a Senate leader who will be absolutely progressive and absolutely effective.

The immediate speculation about replacing Reid followed conventional wisdom, with the top prospects identified as New York Senator Charles Schumer and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. But, within hours, there were reports that Durbin was taking himself out of contention. Thus, any challenge to Schumer was likely to come from a “dark horse” contender—with prominent initial mentions going to Patty Murray of Washington and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

That sound you are hearing is the air going out of the party balloon.

That list is not the right place of beginning for Democrats who understand, now more than ever, that the party’s Senate leader is going to be ideologically and tactically strong. This is especially true if Republicans take the White House in 2016, in which case the leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus could well be the party’s most prominent national spokesperson. But the fact is that, even if Democrats retain control of the White House (as polls currently suggest is likely), the congressional party needs to step up.

There’s not much question that Schumer, a prodigious fundraiser with famously close ties to Wall Street interests, has the upper hand. That provides some explanation for why Durbin quickly sent signals about standing down. Durbin’s exit is unfortunate because, on some key issues, the Illinoisan has a more progressive record than Schumer. For instance, Durbin voted against authorizing George W. Bush to wage a war of whim in Iraq, while Schumer backed Bush’s agenda.

It is not just on foreign policy that Schumer has been disappointing. The New Yorker has cast some lousy votes on trade policy For instance, he supported permanent normalization of trade relations with China, when responsible senators such as Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone and Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold were voting “no.”

Murray’s record is even worse on trade, and it is hard to forget the compromises she made when “negotiating” with then House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan on the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.” Besides, most of the talk Friday was not of a run for the top job by Murray but of the prospect that she might challenge Durbin for the caucus whip post that the Illinoisan now holds. As for Bennet, he’s been on the wrong side of a lot of education debates; and he’s the guy who, when asked whether he would back the removal of barriers to labor organizing with an Employee Free Choice Act proclaimed, “I would not support the language in that bill.”

The records of the mentioned prospects ought to be taken seriously. But the other measure that should be applied, in what for better or worse is a media age, ought to be the ability of potential leaders to communicate progressive ideas with passion and a clear sense of commitment.

For that reason, Democrats who want their next Senate leader to be an actual leader ought to cast a wider net.

Should they consider the “star” of the moment: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren? Of course. But don’t assume that Warren—whose office says she is not seeking the leadership post—is the only progressive prospect.

Warren’s name was floated Friday as a potential leader for a good reason: she is seen by a lot of Democrats as a leader.

As soon as Reid made his announcement, there was immediate advocacy for Warren to consider a leadership leap. “If Elizabeth Warren doesn’t run for president, she should definitely run for leader of the Senate,” says Neil Sroka, of Democracy for America, which has been part of the move to draft Warren as a 2016 Democratic presidential contender. “The election for Senate leader is not going to be a slam dunk for any early front-runner, especially someone like Senator Schumer. He’s closer to Wall Street while the Wall Street wing of the party is dying and the Elizabeth Warren wing is rising. It only makes sense that the next leader of the US Senate is either from that wing or deeply understands how to work with that wing.”

“There will likely not be a coronation to replace Harry Reid, and Elizabeth Warren is right up there with others as someone who would be taken very seriously,” the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has worked closely with Warren, declared. “Warren’s lifetime of fighting for the little guy against Wall Street power—including her upset victory on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—shows she can think big, wage tough fights against powerful interests, and win key votes in the Senate. She’s the definition of a leader, and that’s why her colleagues and millions of Americans respect her and are inspired by her rise.”

Warren’s strengths are well known: the base loves her, the media pay attention to her and the party needs her ideas. Reid, Durbin and Schumer have acknowledged the importance of what Warren has to offer the caucus—fashioning a position on the leadership team for her after Democrats lost control of the chamber in 2014. But even some of Warren’s most ardent enthusiasts argue that her talents might be better utilized in the White House, or as an outspoken rank-and-file senator. (Remember that Ted Kennedy survived his leadership defeat to become a definitional legislator.)

The best argument for putting Warren at the head of Senate Democrats is that—if she is not going to seek the presidency, as she says she won’t—then she ought to seek the best platform that is available for advancing an agenda.

The simple reality is that Democrats need national leadership with more than bully pulpits. The party needs national leadership that can move from a position of strength at the legislative level. That does not necessarily mean that Warren is the right candidate to lead Senate Democrats. But it definitely means that Democrats who are serious about the party’s future have every right, and every reason, to suggest her for the post.

There are other prospects who should be on the list, as well.

Consider Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who is every bit as populist as Warren and has a particularly strong record as a leader in fights for breaking up big banks and against failed trade policies. On top of that, Brown voted (as a House member) against going to war in Iraq and against the Patriot Act.

Brown has won two tough elections in the ultimate swing state of Ohio. And he has done so by figuring out how to be very progressive and very appealing to a broad cross-section of voters. He’s close to labor, but he is also close to farm and rural groups. He has never had it easy politically, and this has made him a unique senator—with strong skills when it comes to effectively communicating a progressive vision on complex economic and political issues. That’s something Senate Democrats could use.

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Consider, also, Jeff Merkley, the progressive Democrat from Oregon who, with Tom Udall of New Mexico (another appealing leadership prospect), has been in the forefront of working to reform both the Senate and a broken political process. Merkley is especially well qualified for leadership of a party caucus and a legislative chamber, as the former Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives.

The bottom line is that the selection of a new Senate Democratic leader need not be a contest among senators who simply happen to be senior, predictable choices or compromise candidates. It’s an opportunity for Democrats to think bigger, and better, about leadership. And if ever the party needed to do that, it’s now.


Read Next: John Nichols on the People’s Budget

This Is What a ‘People’s Budget’ Looks Like

(AP Photo/Andy Manis)

Congressman Mark Pocan is the vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which authored the People’s Budget. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

A proper budget is a moral document, which well expresses the values and aspirations of a civil society.

As such, the measure of any budget is its combination of fiscal and social responsibility.

By this measure, there was only one proper budget proposal floated in the current Congress. And it did not get very far.

Only ninety-six House Democrats voted Wednesday for the People’s Budget, as it was proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The budget was opposed by 330 House members, including eighty-six shame-on-them Democrats and 244 Republicans.

The record of Wednesday’s roll call is worth reviewing, especially because it identifies the Democrats who got this most important vote wrong.

Of course, no one expected the People’s Budget to be enacted. But that is not a poor reflection on the CPC plan, which better met the tests of fiscal and social responsible than any of the other official or alternative proposals that are currently in play. It is a reflection on this Congress, which cannot get anything right, and on a political process that is now so flawed—because of gerrymandering, big money and failed media—that the United States ends up with, well, this Congress.

Despite the fact that if it was not expected to prevail, the People’s Budget was serious.

Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves on the House Budget Committee and as vice chair of the CPC noted, it sought to address the fundamental issue of our time—inequality—with a focus on “leveling the economic playing field by increasing wages for middle- and low-income workers.”

The People’s Budget proposed the only approach that can work: Start by first asking the wealthy to pay their fair share and making smart cuts to the bloated Pentagon budget, and then use the money to invest in repairing infrastructure repair and expansion, in upgrading energy systems to address climate and providing for debt-free college, workforce training and small businesses expansion. This is a job-creation, investment and growth agenda, as opposed to the austerity and stagnation budgets of Paul Ryan, the former House Budget Committee chairman who now chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

Above all, the People’s Budget recognized that, as CPC co-chair Keith Ellison explained, “Too many working Americans open their paychecks each week and ask themselves how they will make ends meet by [with a plan to] fully fund childhood health, education and affordable housing to help working families stretch their paychecks [and] a blueprint of proven investments to end grinding poverty, promote economic mobility and enable shared prosperity.”

That prospect is what was lost when the House rejected the People’s Budget.

Susan Harley of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division was right when she said after the House vote that “Congress should have passed the People’s Budget.”

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“The People’s Budget proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) was a better alternative to the budget resolution approved today by the U.S. House of Representatives and should have received a majority vote,” she explained. “By focusing on policies like fairer corporate taxation as a way to pay for spending on essential government services such as improved health care and public financing of elections, the People’s Budget would have put America on a clearer path to a more just and democratic society.”

Hawley added:

The People’s Budget also would have instituted a tax on Wall Street trades, known as a financial transaction tax, which is a commonsense way to both increase revenue and calm markets now plagued with volatile high-frequency trading.

The People’s Budget also called for important changes to our tax code, such as ending deferral on foreign-made profits of U.S. companies and limiting the ability of companies to invert and reincorporate in a foreign jurisdiction to avoid their fair share of taxes.

Though it did not garner majority support in the McConnell-Boehner, corporate-controlled 114th Congress, it surely would win majority support from the American people.

And, of course, in a democracy that is the final measure of a proper budget.

Read Next: John Nichols on the “Draft Elizabeth Warren” campaign’s momentum

The ‘Draft Elizabeth Warren’ Campaign Gets a Big Boost from ‘The Boston Globe’

Senator Elizabeth Warren (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Senator Elizabeth Warren (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The first element of a movement to draft a candidate for the presidency—and, make no mistake, a serious effort to draft Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren into the race for the 2016 Democratic nomination is now afoot—involves popular mobilization. Grassroots activists have to get engaged in the development of a campaign that tells a reluctant candidate that there really is a base of support out there in first-caucus and first-primary states—and across the country. This has happened, as an increasingly ambitious “Run Warren Run” movement has taken shape in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states.

The second element is trickier. To the grassroots mobilization must be added a measure of elite opinion that might tip a reluctant prospect (as Warren surely is) toward serious consideration of a candidacy. Prominent figures with something to lose, or perhaps to gain, must step up to support the draft effort. That began to happen when former secretary of labor Robert Reich, who served in the administration of President Bill Clinton and was seen as a likely supporter of presumed 2016 Democratic fron-trunner Hillary Clinton, said early in March that Hillary Clinton should face a primary challenge and “I wish that challenger would be Elizabeth Warren.”

Reich’s support, like that of the Working Families Party, a growing number of legislators in key states, and actors and activists such as Mark Ruffalo and Susan Sarandon, offered an indication of the interest in the effort to draft Warren. And now The Boston Globe has provided formal confirmation of the enthusiasm.

The largest newspaper in Warren’s home state, a significant media force in southern New Hampshire (where its endorsements are sought and prized), and one of the most influential old-line daily newspapers in the country, the Globe surprised a lot of Democrats Sunday with an editorial headlined: “Democrats need Elizabeth Warren’s voice in 2016 presidential race.”

The editorial—published as criticism of Hillary Clinton for her use of a private e-mail system while serving as secretary of state has raised old doubts about the former first lady—bluntly declared, “Democrats would be making a big mistake if they let Hillary Clinton coast to the presidential nomination without real opposition…”

“Clinton’s deep reservoir of support, from her stints as first lady, New York senator, 2008 presidential candidate, and secretary of state, no doubt poses a formidable obstacle. But Barack Obama overcame Clinton’s advantages in 2008, and Warren or another candidate still could in 2016,” noted the Globe editors. “Even if they don’t, Clinton herself would benefit from a challenger. As former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick put it recently, ‘My view of the electorate is, we react badly to inevitability, because we experience it as entitlement, and that is risky, it seems to me, here in America.’ Fairly or not, many Americans already view Clinton skeptically, and waltzing to the nomination may actually hurt her in the November election against the Republican nominee.”

The Globe made it clear, as do supporters of the “Draft Warren” movement, and of other potential contenders such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, that this is about more than Clinton’s strengths and weaknesses. This is about core issues, and fundamental questions regarding the future of the Democratic Party and the country.

“[The] Democratic Party finds itself with some serious divides that ought to be settled by the electorate. Some are clear-cut policy differences, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an enormous free-trade agreement with Pacific Rim nations that Warren opposes and Clinton backs. Even in areas where the candidates agree, there are bound to be different priorities: It’s hard to imagine a President Clinton defending and enforcing the Dodd-Frank legislation with as much vigor as a President Warren, for instance,” explained the Globe editorial, which added:

Indeed, the big-picture debate on financial regulation and income inequality is what’s most at peril if the Democratic primaries come and go without top-notch opponents for Clinton. While she has a great many strengths, Clinton seems far more likely to hew to a cautious approach on economics. Her financial backing from Wall Street, her vote in the Senate to reduce bankruptcy protections and her past reluctance to raise capital-gains taxes are no secret. Nothing about her record suggests much gumption for financial reform or tackling the deeply entrenched economic problems that increasingly threaten the American dream.

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In contrast, the editorial suggested, “unlike Clinton, or any of the prospective Republican candidates, Warren has made closing the economic gaps in America her main political priority, in a career that has included standing up for homeowners facing illegal foreclosures and calling for more bankruptcy protections. If she runs, it’ll ensure that those issues take their rightful place at the center of the national political debate.”

Rejecting tortured arguments that Warren could do more in a gridlocked Senate than with the bully pulpit of a presidential candidacy. “As a member of the minority party in the Senate, her effectiveness is now much more limited than when she first won election, since Republicans control the legislative agenda,” the Globe explains. “Democrats face an uphill challenge to reclaim the Senate in 2016 and face even slimmer prospects in the House. For the foreseeable future, the best pathway Warren and other Democrats have for implementing their agenda runs through the White House.”

That’s a strong argument, coming from a newspaper that Warren must—and does—take seriously. This does mean that Warren, who has repeatedly said she does not intend to run, will suddenly change course and enter the 2016 race. But it does mean that the “Draft Warren” movement is developing the scope and character of a classic draft effort. And a classic draft effort—with grassroots energy and validation from former cabinet members and major media—is hard to ignore.


Read Next: John Nichols remembers Danny Schecter

Danny Schechter Was Our News Dissector

Danny Schecter (Mohamed Nanabhay/CC BY 2.0)

Danny Schechter (Mohamed Nanabhay/CC BY 2.0)

It is impossible to fully explain media criticism—and media understanding—as it exists today without recognizing the remarkable contribution of Danny Schechter.

Two years before Ben Bagdikian took apart the fantasy that American media was liberal, with The Elite Conspiracy and Other Crimes by the Press (Harper & Row), more than a decade before Bagdikian exposed the corporate infrastructure of news-gathering with The Media Monopoly (Beacon Press), more than fifteen years before Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) began its ongoing exploration of the abuses and excesses of that corporate media, and almost twenty years before Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky put it all together with Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media (Pantheon), there was this news director on the coolest radio station in Boston, WBCN-FM, who started his daily show with the announcement, “This is Danny Schechter, your news dissector.”

Dissecting the news was Schechter’s thing. He reported to listeners what was happening, then he explained why it was happening, and then he revealed why other media outlets did not tell the whole story. It was bold and daring, and the word of what Danny Schechter was doing on one progressive-rock station in Boston spread far and wide. “As ‘News Dissector’ on Boston radio,” recalled Chomsky, “Danny Schechter literally educated a generation.”

What distinguished Schechter, who was died too young at age 72, was his merging of a stark and serious old-school I.F. Stone-style understanding of media power and manipulation with a wild and joyous Yippie-infused determination to rip it up and start again.

Schechter was of his times. He marched for civil rights and against wars. He made common cause with hippies and Yippies. He danced and sang and inhaled. He was, he recalled, ”a participatory journalist, a down-with-the-movement reporter, a manic media maven.”

But Schechter also came to recognize “how naive we were, how arrogant, how out-maneuvered” the movements of the 1960s and early 1970s were. And he made it his purpose over the ensuing decades to tell the whole story of the real stories of protest and power, and of how media and political and economic elites manipulate democracy.

Schechter did not always do so as an outsider. After his gig at WBCN, he went national, as a producer for the ABC newsmagazine 20/20, where he won two Emmy Awards. He helped to get CNN started, served as an executive producer for Globalvision and as executive editor for MediaChannel.org. He developed and served as executive producer for the remarkable South Africa Now news magazine, which played a critical role in revealing the true story of apartheid and of the global anti-apartheid movement. He used television and film and books and the Internet—where he was a pioneering blogger on media issues—to reveal and challenge the failure of major media to expose human rights abuses abroad and corporate abuses at home.

Schechter always recognized that he had antecedents as a critic of corporate and stenographic media—George Seldes and I.F. Stone, among them—and he was always there to counsel, to cheer on, to poke and prod those who carried the critique forward.

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He could do so because he had stood at the pivot point where the mediasphere was getting more consolidated and less courageous, and he had recognized this as an affront to cherished premises of a free press and democracy itself. He finished his career as he began, fierce and fun, unrelenting in his critique yet optimistic about what might be made of media.

One of Schechter’s great fights was to maintain local public-access television programming and new-media interventions by citizen journalists. That wasn’t a fight that many Emmy Award winners took on. But the guy who used to dissect the news on rock station out of Boston understood why it mattered.

“A growing segment of the public wants to be involved with new media. The boom in on-line computer networks and even radio talk shows demonstrates the demand and the need—which the media giants are unlikely to satisfy,” he wrote for Newsday in 1993. “Let’s hope that the Congressional watchdogs who are questioning the anti-trust implications of these new monopolies-in-the-making will speak out to preserve public access. In commercial television, everything is slick, but little matters. Its edges may be rough, but public access should matter to us—not only for what it is, but for what it can become.”


Read Next: John Nichols on Oregon’s radical innovation

Oregon’s Radical Innovation: Make Democracy Easy

Oregon voter drops off ballot

Drivers line up to drop off ballots on November 3, 2014 in Portland, Oregon. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

Here is a novel notion: Why not make democracy easy?

Why not take the trouble out of registering to vote—and out of voting?

It can be done. Other countries, where voter turnout is dramatically higher than in the United States, craft their laws to encourage voting.

Unfortunately, politics gets in the way of voting-friendly elections in the United States.

At least in most states.

It is no secret that these have not been easy times for the cause of voting rights.

An activist majority on the US Supreme Court has invalidated key sections of the Voting Rights Act, and the traditional defenders of the franchise—Congressmen John Conyers, D-Michigan, and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin—are struggling to renew the bipartisan coalition in support of robust protection for free and fair elections.

Beyond Washington, the debate frequently takes a turn for the worse. According to a Brennan Center review last year, almost two dozen states have since 2010 enacted laws making it “harder to vote.” And that is only the beginning of the story; The Nation recently reported that “From 2011 to 2015, 395 new voting restrictions have been introduced in forty-nine states.”

Lots of bad news for democracy, to be sure.

But not all bad news.

Some states have acted to expand voting rights—and get high-turnout elections to shape governments that reflect the will of the people.

Famously, Oregon has since 1998 used a vote-by-mail model as the standard mechanism for voting. (Washington state and Colorado now do the same.)

The results have been pretty impressive for Oregon: In 2014, while voter turnout nationally was just 36 percent, Oregon voter turnout was well over 50 percent.

The Oregon Secretary of State at the time of the 2014 election was an enthusiastic pro-democracy campaigner named Kate Brown. After the state again registered some of the best voter-participation numbers in the nation, Brown explained, “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we see high turnout because of vote-by-mail. It’s extremely convenient and accessible; it’s secure and cost-effective.”

But Brown was not satisfied. As the state’s overseer of elections, she developed legislation designed to take the hassle out of registering to vote by enacting a groundbreaking plan to automatically register voters using drivers’ license data.

This is a big deal, as it adopts a proactive approach to voter registration; instead of requiring eligible voters to jump through hoops to get on the election rolls, the state does the work. The approach reflects the sensibility of high-registration, high-turnout countries around the world, where democracy is made easy rather than hard. The approach is reliable and cost-effective, as it utilizes existing state data. And it allows citizens who do not want to be voters to opt out.

Perfect, right?

Well, perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Democracy made easy may make sense to those who see a value in high-turnout elections and governing that reflects the will of the great mass of people. But it makes no sense to those who prefer governing to be the exclusive preserve of monied elites and their official minions—and for whom the notion of a truly representative democracy is truly frightening.

So Brown had to work the chambers of the Oregon legislature, where she faced plenty of opposition from Republicans and even the occasional Democrat. There really are a lot of politicians who share the view of the former Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, who vetoed a proposal for automatic voter registration in Minnesota with the message that “registering to vote should be a voluntary, intentional act.” Translation: citizens should have to jump through some hoops before they can become voters.

When Brown was promoting her plan, one Oregon legislator griped, “It’s already so easy to register, why would we make it easier?”

“My answer,” Brown recalled, “is that we have the tools to make voter registration more cost effective, more secure and more convenient for Oregonians, so why wouldn’t we?”

The arguments eventually took and the measure was approved by the state House and the state Senate.

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The thing is that Brown is no longer the secretary of state. With the resignation of former Governor John Kitzhaber in February, Brown took over as governor.

So, this week, Brown signed her bill into law.

The Oregon Statesman Journal reported that “The bill’s authors estimate it could add 300,000 new voters to the state’s current 2.2 million registered voters.”

But Brown is still not satisfied.

When she signed Oregon’s first-in-the-nation law, the governor announced, “Oregon is a true leader in accessibility to voting and I challenge every other state in this nation to examine their policies and find ways to ensure there are as few barriers as possible in the way of the citizen’s right to vote.”

That’s a good challenge. It might even make real the promise of Leonard Cohen’s great song of almost a quarter-century ago: “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”

That prospect may be hard to imagine in states that are still debating restrictive “voter ID” laws and trying to limit early voting and same-day registration.

But if democracy can come to Oregon, why not the USA?


Read Next: John Nichols on bold, progressive Donna Edwards entering a key senate race

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