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Paul Ryan has spent the past several weeks apologizing.
First, he delivered a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference where he decried school lunch programs, arguing that organizing programs to feed hungry children could produce “a full stomach and an empty soul.” Unfortunately, Ryan illustrated his argument with a story that turned out to be unsettlingly inaccurate—in both specific details and broad premises.
The House Budget Committee chairman had to apologize—as best an ambitious advocate for austerity could—with a note explaining that the basis for his remarks had been “improperly sourced.”
Then Ryan went on a national radio program and ripped on unemployed “inner city” men, who he claimed were “not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
The Wisconsin congressman had to apologize—as best an ambitious advocate for job-killing and factory-closing “free trade” deals could—for being “inarticulate.”
And Paul Ryan might want to make one more apology.
For disregarding his own history.
Just as he now disrespects and diminishes the experience of hungry and unemployed Americans, the British Tories of the mid-nineteenth-century disrespected and diminished starving Irish men, women and children—including, presumably, the ancestors Ryan says were “Irish peasants who came over during the potato famine.”
After reviewing Ryan’s remarks, the very wise New York Times essayist Timothy Egan noted over the weekend that “you can’t help noticing the deep historic irony that finds a Tea Party favorite and descendant of famine Irish using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy.”
Egan reminds us that historians of the Irish experience have for some time now been been picking up on the fact that Ryan seems to have forgotten where he came from—and what his immigrant ancestors went through.
“The whole British argument in the famine was that the poor are poor because of a character defect,” explains Christine Kinealy, a professor of Irish studies and director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University. “It’s a dangerous, meanspirited and tired argument.”
John Kelly, a historian who has written extensively on the famine, has noted more broadly with regard to Ryan’s habit of blaming the disenfranchised for being disenfranchised that the congressman seems to adopt “the very same [approach] that hurt, not helped, his forebears during the famine—and hurt them badly.”
Like Ryan, I am descended from Irish immigrants who settled in Wisconsin. But mine was a different experience. I learned from an early age about Britain’s colonial repression of the Irish, and about the mistreatment of immigrants to the United States who were greeted with “Irish Need Not Apply” signs.
My Irish history inspired enthusiasm for anti-colonial, anti-apartheid and pro–civil rights movements—along with sympathy for immigrant rights. This is not uncommon. My friend Tom Hayden, whose Irish ancestors settled in Wisconsin, wrote the grand book Irish on the Inside: The Search for the Soul of Irish America (Verso), which explained why Irish-Americans should identify with the liberation struggles of immigrants, people of color and other victims of class and race discrimination.
Hayden’s exploration of his roots—in Ireland and in the immigrant communities of rural Wisconsin—helped him to unearth the seeds of his own radicalism. He employed a wonderful phrase in that book: suggesting that an understanding of the oppression of the Irish and of the experience of immigration provided “the fertile soil of awakenings.”
It is disappointing that in losing sight of his past, Paul Ryan has denied himself the opportunity for an awakening that might offer him with broader and better understanding of the issues that he admits he has been “inarticulate” in discussing.
It was certainly true in the nineteenth century that the last thing the impoverished people of Ireland needed was a British Tory politician blaming them for their hard times—or telling them that organizing programs to feed hungry children might do damage to the soul.
And it is certainly true in the twenty-first century that the last thing the impoverished people of the United States need is an American Tory politician blaming them for their hard times—or telling them that organizing programs to feed hungry children might do damage to the soul.
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Tony Benn met Mahatma Gandhi when he was 12, knew and defended Nelson Mandela when the embrace of the anti-apartheid struggle was seen as a radical act, began his fifty years of service in the British Parliament when Winston Churchill was the leader of the conservative opposition and left after Tony Blair became prime minister, renounced his inherited title as the 2nd Viscount Stansgate so that he could continue to serve in the people's parliament (declaring “I am not a reluctant peer but a persistent commoner”), ushered in a new age of popular communications and connectivity as Britain’s pioneering Minister of Technology in the 1960s and 1970s, championed cooperatives and worker ownership as Britain’s Minister of Industry in the 1970s, battled not just Margaret Thatcher but the compromising leaders of his own Labour Party on behalf of the working class in the 1980s and finished his almost 60 years of public life as an international leader of the opposition to the wars of whim and folly that have stolen so much of the promise of our time.
Benn was a proud radical, an anti-colonialist, a socialist without apology and the inspiration for generations of activists, organizers, parliamentarians, presidents and prime ministers around the world—including the current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, who responded to Benn’s death Friday at age 88 with mourning for the loss of an “iconic figure of our age.”
Yet, across the quarter-century that I knew him, Benn identified most proudly as a small “d” democrat, a tireless promoter of a power-to-the-people ethic that placed its faith in the great mass of humanity rather than billionaires, media moguls and political powerbrokers.
The last time that Tony and I appeared together at a public event—a symposium in London put on by Britain’s brilliant Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom that recalled his famous declaration that “broadcasting is really too important to be left to the broadcasters”—he reminded me of his belief that those in positions of economic, social and political power should always be asked five questions:
“What power have you got?”
“Where did you get it from?”
“In whose interests do you use it?”
“To whom are you accountable?”
“How do we get rid of you?”
Benn asked these questions everywhere he went. I saw him write them on the chalkboards of classrooms and lecture halls. I heard him repeat them at rallies, protests and marches.
I think his favorite of the questions—as a political figure who delighted the give and take of campaigning, the debates, the canvasses, the counts in his initial constituency of Bristol South East and in the historic mining constituency of Chesterfield that he represented in the final decades of his remarkable career—was: “How do we get rid of you?”
“Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system,” Benn explained.
“Only democracy gives us that right. That is why no one with power likes democracy,” he would continue. “And that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it—including you and me, here and now”
In fairness, it was not quite true that “no one with power likes democracy.”
Benn held power, as a revered parliamentarian, a minister of state, a competitor for the leadership of his party and a figure of international prominence who traveled in the circles of heads of state. Yet, he was happiest when he was in the street, marching, speaking truth to power, challenging prime ministers and presidents.
To Tony’s view, citizens could not be spectators.
This is why he championed media and political reform, embracing structural changes that would take power away from unelected billionaires and their political pawns and give it to the people. The great historical struggle, he argued, was always over the scope and character of democracy.
When I was with Tony in Chesterfield and London and too many other locations to count over the decades of our friendship, we always spoke of Tom Paine, the English radical who inspired an American revolution. Tony was passionate about Paine and about all the other dissenters, be they British or American or Indian or South African, suffragists and civil rights marchers, anticolonialists and anti-apartheid campaigners, who suffered, struggled and persevered in the cause of democracy.
“A historical perspective is the key to democratic politics, which if denied can bury the real issues and confine news coverage to high-level gossip about the rich and the powerful, reducing us to the role of spectators of our fate, rather than active participants,” he explained. “The obliteration of the past strengthens the short-term calculations that pass for political thought, and for me the real heroes are those few who try to explain the world in order to help us to understand what we can best do to improve our lot.”
Tony Benn explained the world, better than anyone I knew. And he was never, ever willing to accept the role of spectator in the great democratic debate, and the great democratic life, that he sought. We honor him best by asking his questions, and by recognizing that every generation must struggle to win democracy -- and to keep it.
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Among the very worst ideas for “reforming” the United States Postal Service are proposals to end Saturday delivery and to shift from at-the-door delivery of mail to a scheme that would force Americans to go to collect letters and packages from central delivery spots.
Both approaches would diminish the scope and character of the postal service while increasing the likelihood that private firms will move in to fill the void.
These are the sort of ideas that are peddled by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair Darrell Issa, R-California, and others who target the USPS for deep cuts. Unfortunately, they’ve turned up in the Obama administration’s budget.
As The Hill reports:
Obama’s budget would allow USPS to scrap all Saturday delivery—even packages, one of the most rapidly growing parts of the Postal Service’s business. USPS in recent months has shown more interest in expanding when it delivers packages, with Sunday delivery now in limited areas.
The White House budget would also allow USPS to move away from door-to-door delivery to more centralized delivery areas, an idea also panned by Democrats. Plus, USPS could keep a recent temporary increase in the price of stamps—which large mailers loathe—beyond the scheduled two years.
According to the Obama administration, these reforms—along with a proposal to tinker with some of the immediate requirements for pre-funding retiree healthcare benefits seventy-five years into the future—“would set USPS on a sustainable business path, providing it with over $20 billion in cash relief, operational savings and revenue through 2016.”
But that’s not how the people who deliver the mail, and who have battled to preserve the postal service, see it.
American Postal Workers Union president Mark Dimondstein says the administration budget echoes “misguided policies…for severe cutbacks that will harm service, drive away business, and eliminate jobs.”
“The budget fails to eliminate the pre-funding requirement of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which is the fundamental cause of the Postal Service’s manufactured financial crisis,” says Dimondstein, who adds that “with the Postal Service posting operating profits in mail and package delivery, there is absolutely no justification to continue a strategy of austerity. Rather than damaging the infrastructure and network that is essential for providing service, the Postal Service must expand service.”
That’s a message that a new alliance of postal unions—the APWU, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the National Postal Mail Handlers Union and the National Rural Letter Carriers Association—wants to communicate to the president and his budget team. The unions offered this week to meet with the White House to discuss strategies for strengthening the postal service—from changes in shipping rules to the development of a postal banking system along lines proposed by US Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts.
But the first reform has to involve a realistic restructuring of that requirement to prefund retiree health benefits decades into the future.
“Our Postal Service is in need of true reform, not ill‐advised, counter‐productive attempts to slash service,” says National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association president Jeanette Dwyer. “By reworking the Postal Service’s funding of its retiree health benefits, an obligation which accounts for 80 percent of USPS losses over recent years and is forced on no other public or private entity, lawmakers could take the easiest and most sensible step toward getting this venerable institution back on the right page. Allowing the Postal Service to continue to innovate with same‐day parcel delivery and other services will provide a great opportunity to generate needed revenue and allow the USPS to remain a competitive player in the shipping and delivery industry. We need to grow our Postal Service not shrink it.”
Instead of borrowing ideas from members of Congress who want to downsize and dismantle the postal service, White House aides would be well to take the counsel of members who recognize the immense potential of the postal service.
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, have introduced a smart fix, the Postal Service Protection Act, which has 174 co-sponsors in the House and twenty-seven in the Senate.
Sanders begins with the basic premise that, “first, prefunding must end. The future retiree health fund now has some $50 billion in it. That is enough. This step alone will restore the Postal Service to profitability.”
But Sanders does not stop there. The senator and his allies argue that the “Postal Service should have the flexibility to provide new consumer products and services—a flexibility that was banned by Congress in 2006. It is now against the law for workers in post offices to notarize or make copies of documents; to cash checks; to deliver wine or beer; or to engage in e-commerce activities [like scanning physical mail into a PDF and sending it through e-mail, selling non-postal products on the Internet or offering a non-commercial version of Gmail].”
And, along with Senator Warren, Sanders is making the case for postal banking:
A recent report from the Postal Service Inspector General suggests that almost $9 billion a year could be generated by providing financial services. At a time when more than 80 million lower-income Americans have no bank accounts or are forced to rely on rip-off check-cashing storefronts and payday lenders, these kinds of financial services would be of huge social benefit.
That’s the right reform. The White House should rewrite the sections of its budget proposal relating to the postal service, reject austerity and embrace an agenda that it good for the USPS and the communities it serves.
Read Next: Why we need a bank at the post office.
Republicans who want to imagine that they can campaign against Obamacare and win every swing seat that is in the offering in 2014 will try to suggest that GOP nominee David Jolly’s win in Florida’s 13th Congressional District proves their point.
But that’s a stretch.
Jolly did campaign as a critic of the Affordable Care Act. And his Democratic foe, cautiously centrist former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, did offer a nuanced defense of the reform initiative—along with a more robust argument on behalf of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
But Jolly did not take a Democratic seat.
He kept a Republican seat.
And just barely.
Jolly’s winning percentage of 48.5 in a low-turnout election—where it is generally thought that the voting patterns favor Republicans—was almost ten points below the 2012 number for the Republican he was running to replace, veteran Congressman Bill Young, who passed away last October. It was more than fifteen points below Young’s finish in the Republican wave year of 2010.
And Jolly’s victory did not come cheap.
Jolly’s campaign raised and spent $1.3 million—barely half the total for Sink, whose background in the financial sector and in politics, as a former gubernatorial candidate, gave her some early advantages. As the campaign played out in February and early March, the polls suggested that Sink might secure an upset. Sink had the money advantage, which in a traditional campaign might well have been maintained. But we are now in a new political era when outside groups—with very nearly unlimited resources—can sweep in to fill political voids.
That’s what happend in Florida, where Republican-allied national groups with very deep pockets rushed in to rescue Jolly’s candidacy.
According to an analysis by Center for Public Integrity:
• The National Republican Congressional Committee poured $2.2 million into the district.
• The US Chamber of Commerce came through with $1.2 million.
• The American Action Network, a group with close ties to the national GOP establishment, ponied up $470,000.
• Karl Rove’s American Crossroads project was good for $470,000.
The Florida Republican Party and other Republican-allied and conservative groups pumped hundreds of thousands of additional dollars into the district.
To be sure, outside groups that favored Sink spent heavily on the race. But, while Sink’s campaign had the direct-donation advantage, Jolly got the outside advantage. Roughly $5 million in outside money aided the Republican’s cause, as compared with roughly $3.7 million from groups that were friendly to the Democrat, according to the Center for Public Integrity. That allowed the Republican to come on strong at the close. And the pro-Jolly and anti-Sink messaging by the outside groups was not just well-funded. It was aggressive, targeted and effective. This is something that Democrats need to understand before they make the wrong excuses for losing a race they had desperately hoped to win—because the pattern that played out in Florida’s special election is not unique to one race or one moment; it will be seen throughout this critical election year.
In Florida, the outside spending spree helped to bring Jolly across the line by 3,456 votes Tuesday night. That’s hardly a dramatic accomplishment, considering that the Republican nominee ran as a fifth-generation Floridian with deep roots in the district and a claim on Young’s legacy—as the former general counsel for the congressman.
Jolly was also running in a swing district where, while it had grown more Democratic, Republicans remained highly viable—especially in non-presidential elections. Much is made of the fact that the 13th backed Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012. But Obama ran behind his national percentage in the Florida district and Romney ran ahead of his. By the presidential measure, the district is more Republican than the country. And, while Bill Young was personally popular, his long winning streak served as a reminder of the district’s historic Republican lean in congressional elections.
In the best of circumstances, Sink might well have won. But few seriously suggest that 2014 is a “best of circumstances” year for Democrats.
So Jolly was set up for a win Tuesday night. And he closed the deal.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden was quick to peddle the predictable talking point, arguing within minutes of the completion of the count that Sink was “ultimately brought down because of her unwavering support for Obamacare, and that should be a loud warning for other Democrats running coast to coast.”
That’s a tortured conclusion given Jolly’s far-worse-than-usual finish for a Republican.
The Florida result was not a sweeping “referendum on Obamacare” win. If anything, the closeness of the finish to a race where the choice was clearly defined calls into question the power of opposition to the Affordable Care Act as a definitional issue for the Republicans.
Does that mean that the Democrats should see some kind of silver lining in the results? No.
Democrats need to recognize some harsh realities that have been highlighted by the Florida race and its result—and that they might yet be able to counter.
Off-year elections, particularly in the second term of a presidency, don’t often go well for the party of the president. Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats took a pounding in 1938, Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans took a pounding in 1958, Ronald Republicans lost the Senate in 1986, George Bush’s Republicans lost the House and Senate in 2006.
Democrats remain vulnerable in Senate races, as Democratic incumbents who were elected with Barack Obama in 2008 are up for re-election this year and they won’t enjoy the benefits of presidential-level turnout. Democratic House candidates will be similarly disadvantaged, meaning that what seemed like swing districts in 2012 could be much tougher turf in 2014.
To get a sense of how much the ground can shift in a non-presidential year, consider this: In 2012, 329,347 votes were cast in the 13th district. In yesterday’s election, around 182,000 votes were cast—way less even than the 267,000 that were cast in the 2010 midterm election
Which brings us back to the money issue.
Sink raised a lot of money early, and she got substantial support from national Democrats and their allies. That’s the nature of special elections. And Sink, with her centrist politics, her background in the financial-services industry and as the 2010 Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, was especially well-positioned to raise the funds that were available for her campaign. This allowed the Democrat to hold her own through the race.
But it will be hard for Democrats to recreate this combination in every other swing district and every other swing state. There are no guarantees that they will have the money that is necessary to maintain sufficient volume for their message in the cacophony that is coming. In an exceptionally expensive special election race—where spending by all sides topped $12 million—Democrats could not match the outside spending of the Republicans. And it won’t get any easier this fall. Multiply that $12 million spent in one Florida race times the number of House districts where Democrat incumbents and challengers could be in close contests, and then add in the massively more expensive Senate races, and every indication is that this will be the most expensive non-presidential election cycle in American history.
The Florida result won’t lead to a dialing down of the spending by either side. If anything, it makes an intense election cycle even more intense. The Republicans and their allies know they just scraped by in Florida. But they also know that money made the win possible. That’s going to inspire more fund-raising, and more spending by the national groups that swooped into Florida in the last weeks before the special election. And there’s a lot more money to be collected from the billionaires and millionaires who are the source for so many of the outside groups.
Democrats are not going to be beat by Obamacare this year. But they could well be beat by money—especially the sort of outside money that flows so freely in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. And they are certainly threatened by patterns of depressed turnout.
That’s not an argument for some new fund-raising strategy. That’s an argument for some new thinking.
What Florida should tell Democrats is that they must worry less about Obamacare (unless they are proposing a “Medicare-for-All” fix”) and more about the issues on which they might generate increased turnout among their base voters—especially young people. Sink did not, in any sense, run a populist campaign; indeed, her final message was a soft appeal for bipartisanship that sounded nice enough but that had the feel of a candidate trying to appeal to a small number of swing voters rather than a candidate trying to expand the electorate. That’s an insufficient approach. Democrats are going to need an edge this fall, a base-building appeal that excites unlikely voters, if they hope to tip the balance in swing districts—let alone dislodge Republican incumbents in districts gerrymandered to their advantage.
In other words, Democrats must bring more issues to the forefront in order to heighten the level of contradiction. They need an even more intense emphasis on protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But House Democrats, in particular, should keep picking new fights on unemployment benefits, living wages and income inequality. And they should start talking a lot more about student-loan debt, access to higher education and youth unemployment and under-employment. That’s the right thing to do. It’s also necessary—because Democrats are going to need an issue advantage and some populist power if they hope to counter the kind of money that secured Tuesday’s victory for David Jolly.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on the next Citizens United?
When the prairie populists of the North Dakota Non-Partisan League swept to power a century ago, with their promise to take on the plutocrats, one of the first orders of business was the establishment of state-run bank.
They did just that. And in just a few years the Bank of North Dakota will celebrate a 100th anniversary of assuring safe stewardship of state funds, providing loans at affordable rates and steering revenues toward the support of public projects.
After the 2008 financial meltdown, and the failure of Congress to regulate “too-big-to-fail” banks, activists and progressive legislators across the country began to explore the idea of replicating—or even expanding upon—the North Dakota model in other states.
But would the voters go for that?
Vermonters for a New Economy decided to test the idea.
This year, the group urged citizens to petition to place the public-banking question on the agendas of town meetings across the state—distributing information outlining a proposal to turn the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) into a state bank. Under the plan, the group explained, “the State of Vermont would deposit its revenues into the state bank. The bank would use these funds in ways that would create economic sustainability in Vermont by partnering with community banks to make loans and engaging in other activities that would leverage state funds to promote economic well-being in the state. The interest from these loans would be returned to the bank instead of out of state interests and would be available for further investment in the local economy or could be transferred to the state general fund. The bank would not invest in the risky financial instruments that the megabanks seem to love. The bank’s activities would be open and available for public inspection.”
Last week, at least twenty Vermont town meetings took up the issue and voted “yes.”
In many cases, the votes were overwhelming.
Vermont is not the only state where public banking proposals are in play. But the town meeting endorsements are likely to provide a boost for a legislative proposal to provide the VEDA with the powers of a bank.
The bill would create a “10 Percent for Vermont” program that would “deposit 10 percent of Vermont’s unrestricted revenues in the VEDA bank and allow VEDA to leverage this money, in the same way that private banks do now, to fund…unfunded capital needs” outlined in a recent study by the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. The legislation would also develop programs, often in conjunction with community banks, “to create loans which would help create economic opportunities for Vermonters.”
Among the most outspoken advocates for the public-banking initiative is Vermont State Senator Anthony Pollina, a veteran Vermont Progressive Party activist and former gubernatorial candidate, who argues that it “doesn’t make any sense for us to be sending Vermont’s hard-earned tax dollars to some bank on Wall Street which couldn’t care less about Vermont or Vermonters when we could keep that money here in the state of Vermont where we would have control over it and therefore more of it would be invested here in the state.”
Read Next: John Nichols on why we need a bank at the post office.
Bernie Sanders says he is “prepared to run for president of the United States.” That’s not a formal announcement. A lot can change between now and 2016, and the populist senator from Vermont bristles at the whole notion of a permanent campaign. But Sanders has begun talking with savvy progressive political strategists, traveling to unexpected locations such as Alabama and entertaining the process questions that this most issue-focused member of the Senate has traditionally avoided.
In some senses, Sanders is the unlikeliest of prospects: an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate but has never joined the party, a democratic socialist in a country where many politicians fear the label “liberal,” an outspoken critic of the economic, environmental and social status quo who rips “the ruling class” and calls out the Koch brothers by name. Yet, he has served as the mayor of his state’s largest city, beaten a Republican incumbent for the US House, won and held a historically Republican Senate seat and served longer as an independent member of Congress than anyone else. And he says his political instincts tell him America is ready for a “political revolution.”
In his first extended conversation about presidential politics, Sanders discussed with The Nation the economic and environmental concerns that have led him to consider a 2016 run; the difficult question of whether to run as a Democrat or an independent; his frustration with the narrow messaging of prominent Democrats, including Hillary Clinton; and his sense that political and media elites are missing the signs that America is headed toward a critical juncture where electoral expectations could be exploded.
John Nichols: Are you going to run for president in 2016?
Bernie Sanders: I don’t wake up every morning, as some people here in Washington do and say, “You know, I really have to be president of the United States. I was born to be president of the United States.” What I do wake up every morning feeling is that this country faces more serious problems than at any time since the Great Depression, and there is a horrendous lack of serious political discourse or ideas out there that can address these crises, and that somebody has got to represent the working-class and the middle-class of this country in standing up to the big-money interests who have so much power over the economic and political life of this country. So I am prepared to run for president of the United States. I don’t believe that I am the only person out there who can fight this fight, but I am certainly prepared to look seriously at that race.
When you say you are “prepared to run,” that can be read in two ways. One is to say you have the credentials, the prominence, the following to seek the office. The other is to say that you are making preparations for a run. How do you parse that?
If the question is, am I actively right now organizing and raising money and so forth for a campaign for president, I am not doing that. On the other hand, am I talking to people around the country? Yes, I am. Will I be doing some traveling around the country? Yes, I will be. But I think it’s premature to be talking about (the specifics of) a campaign when we still have a 2014 congressional race in front of us.
I want to push back at some of what you are saying. Political insiders define presidential politics, and they are already hard at work, in both major parties and in the broader sense, to erect barriers to insurgent, dissident, populist campaigns. Don’t progressives who come at the process slowly run the risk of finding that everything has been locked up by the time they get serious about running?
Obviously, if I run, both in terms of the positions that I’ll be advocating, and the process itself, it will have to be a very unconventional campaign. I hear what you are saying, and I think there is truth in what you are saying. But, on the other hand, I think there is profound disgust among the American people for the conventional political process and the never-ending campaigns. If I run, my job is to help bring together the kind of coalition that can win—that can transform politics. We’ve got to bring together trade unionists and working families, our minority communities, environmentalists, young people, the women’s community, the gay community, seniors, veterans, the people who in fact are the vast majority of the American population. We’ve got to create a progressive agenda and rally people around that agenda.
I think we’ve got a message that can resonate, that people want to hear, that people need to hear. Time is very important. But I don’t think it makes sense—or that it is necessary—to start a campaign this early.
If and when you do start a full-fledged campaign, and if you want to run against conventional politics, how far do you go? Do you go to the point of running as an independent? That’s a great challenge to conventional politics, but it is also one where we have seen some honorable, some capable people stumble.
That’s an excellent question, and I haven’t reached a conclusion on that yet. Clearly, there are things to be said on both sides of that important question. Number one: there is today more and more alienation from the Republican and Democratic parties than we have seen in the modern history of this country. In fact, most people now consider themselves to be “independent,” whatever that may mean. And the number of people who identify as Democrats or Republicans is at a historically low point. In that sense, running outside the two-party system can be a positive politically.
On the other hand, given the nature of the political system, given the nature of media in America, it would be much more difficult to get adequate coverage from the mainstream media running outside of the two-party system. It would certainly be very hard if not impossible to get into debates. It would require building an entire political infrastructure outside of the two-party system: to get on the ballot, to do all the things that would be required for a serious campaign.
The question that you asked is extremely important, it requires a whole lot of discussion. It’s one that I have not answered yet.
Unspoken in your answer is the fact that you have a great discomfort with the Democratic Party as it has operated in recent decades.
Yes. It goes without saying. Since I’ve been in Congress, I have been a member of the Democratic caucus as an independent. [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid, especially, has been extremely kind to me and has treated me with enormous respect. I am now chairman of the Veterans Committee. But there is no question that the Democratic Party in general remains far too dependent on big-money interests, that it is not fighting vigorously for working-class families, and that there are some members of the Democratic Party whose views are not terribly different from some of the Republicans. That’s absolutely the case. But the dilemma is that, if you run outside of the Democratic Party, then what you’re doing—and you have to think hard about this—you’re not just running a race for president, you’re really running to build an entire political movement. In doing that, you would be taking votes away from the Democratic candidate and making it easier for some right-wing Republican to get elected—the [Ralph] Nader dilemma
You’re not really saying whether you could run as a Democrat?
I want to hear what progressives have to say about that. The more radical approach would be to run as an independent, and essentially when you’re doing that you’re not just running for president of the United States, you’re running to build a new political movement in America—which presumably would lead to other candidates running outside of the Democratic Party, essentially starting a third party. That idea has been talked about in this country for decades and decades and decades, from Eugene Debs forward—without much success. And I say that as the longest serving independent in the history of the United States Congress. In Vermont, I think we have had more success than in any other state in the country in terms of progressive third-party politics. During my tenure as mayor of Burlington, I defeated Democrats and Republicans and helped start a third-party movement. Today, there is a statewide progressive party which now has three people in the state Senate, out of 30, and a number of representatives in the state Legislature. But that process has taken 30 years. So it is not easy.
If you look back to Nader’s candidacy [in 2000], the hope of Nader was not just that he might be elected president but that he would create a strong third party. Nader was a very strong candidate, very smart, very articulate. But the strong third-party did not emerge. The fact is that is very difficult to do.
You plan to travel, to spend time with activists in the Democratic Party and outside the Democratic Party. Will you look to them for direction?
Yes. The bolder, more radical approach is obviously running outside of the two-party system. Do people believe at this particular point that there is the capability of starting a third-party movement? Or is that an idea that is simply not realistic at this particular moment in history? On the other hand, do people believe that operating in framework of the Democratic Party, getting involved in primaries state-by-state, building organization capability, rallying people, that for the moment at least that this is the better approach? Those are the options that I think progressives around the country are going to have to wrestle with. And that’s certainly something that I will be listening to.
You have always been identified as a democratic socialist. Polling suggests that Americans are not so bothered by the term, but it seems to me that our media has a really hard time with it. Is that a factor in your thinking about a presidential race?
No, that’s not a factor at all. In Vermont, people understand exactly what I mean by the word. They don’t believe that democratic socialism is akin to North Korea communism. They understand that when I talk about democratic socialism, what I’m saying is that I do not want to see the United States significantly dominated by a handful of billionaire families controlling the economic and political life of the country. That I do believe that in a democratic, civilized society, all people are entitled to health care as a right, all people are entitled to quality education as a right, all people are entitled to decent jobs and a decent income, and that we need a government which represents ordinary Americans and not just the wealthy and the powerful.
The people in Vermont know exactly when I mean, which is why I won my last election with 71 percent of the vote and carried some of the most conservative towns in the state. If I ran for president, and articulated a vision that speaks to working people, I am confident that voters in every part of this country would understand that.
The truth is that, very sadly, the corporate media ignores some of the huge accomplishments that have taken place in countries like Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway. These countries, which have a long history of democratic socialist or labor governments, have excellent and universal health care systems, excellent educational systems and they have gone a long way toward eliminating poverty and creating a far more egalitarian society than we have. I think that there are economic and social models out there that we can learn a heck of a lot from, and that’s something I would be talking about.
What you seem to be saying is that, as a presidential candidate, you would try to make the very difficult combination of not just being a personality that people would like, or at least want to vote for, but also educate people about what is possible.
My whole life in politics has been not just with passing legislation or being a good mayor or senator, but to educate people. That is why we have hundreds of thousands of people on my Senate email list, and why I send an email to all Vermonters every other week. It is why I have held hundreds of town meetings in Vermont, in virtually every town in the state.
If you ask me now what one of the major accomplishments of my political life is, it is that I helped double the voter turnout in Burlington, Vermont. I did that because people who had given up on the political process understood that I was fighting for working families, that we were paying attention to low and moderate-income neighborhoods rather than just downtown or the big-money interests. In fact, I went to war with virtually every part of the ruling class in Burlington during my years as mayor. People understood that; they said, “You know what? Bernie is standing with us. We’re going to stand with him.” The result is that large numbers of people who previously had not participated in the political process got involved. And that’s what we have to do for the whole country.
I think one of the great tragedies that we face today politically, above and beyond the simple economic reality of the collapse of the middle-class, more people living in poverty, growing gap between the rich and poor, the high cost of education—all those objective, painful realities in American society—the more significant reality from a political perspective is that most people have given up on the political process. They understand the political deck is stacked against them. They think there is no particular reason for them to come out and vote—and they don’t.
So much of what [media-coverage of] politics is about today is personality politics. It’s gossip: Chris Christie’s weight or Hillary’s latest hairdo. But the real issue is how do you bring tens of millions of working-class and middle-class people together around an agenda that works for them? How do we make politics relevant to their lives? That’s going to involve some very, very radical thinking. At the end of the day, it’s not just going to be decisions from Washington. It really means empowering, in a variety of ways, ordinary people in the political process. To me, when you talk about the need for a political revolution, it is not just single-payer health care, it’s not just aggressive action on climate change, it’s not just creating the millions of jobs that we need, it is literally empowering people to take control over their lives. That’s clearly a lot harder to do than it is to talk about, but that’s what the political revolution is about.
One of the things that I find most disturbing—in fact, beyond comprehension—is that the Democrats now lose by a significant number the votes of white working-class people. How can that be? When you have a Republican Party that wants to destroy Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, ect., ect., why are so many people voting against their own economic interests? It happens because the Democrats have not been strong in making it clear which side they are on, not been strong in taking on Wall Street and corporate America, which is what Roosevelt did in the 1930s.
So, to me, what politics is about is not just coming up with ideas and a legislative program here in Washington—you need to do those things—but it’s about figuring out how you involve people in the political process, how you empower them. It ain’t easy, but that is, in fact, what has to be done. The bad news is that people like the Koch brothers can spend huge sums of money to create groups like the Tea Party. The good news is that, once people understand the right-wing extremist ideology of the Koch brothers, they are not going to go along with their policies. In terms of fundamental economic issues: job creation, a high minimum wage, progressive taxation, affordable college education—the vast majority of people are on our side.
One of the goals that I would have, politically, as a candidate for president of the United States is to reach out to the working-class element of the Tea Party and explain to them exactly who is funding their organization—and explain to them that, on virtually every issue, the Koch brothers and the other funders of the Tea Party are way out of step with what ordinary people want and need.
You have made it very clear that you have no taste for personality politics. But a part of why you are thinking of running for president has to be a sense that the prospective Democratic candidates are unlikely to do that or to do that effectively.
Is it your sense that Hillary Clinton, the clear front-runner at this point, is unlikely to do that?
Look, I am not here to be attacking Hillary Clinton. I have known Hillary Clinton for a number of years; I knew her when she was First Lady a little bit, got to know her a little bit better when she was in the Senate. I like Hillary; she is very, very intelligent; she focuses on issues. But I think, sad to say, that the Clinton type of politics is not the politics certainly that I’m talking about. We are living in the moment in American history where the problems facing the country, even if you do not include climate change, are more severe than at any time since the Great Depression. And if you throw in climate change, they are more severe.
So the same old same old [Clinton administration Secretary of the Treasury] Robert Rubin type of economics, or centrist politics, or continued dependence on big money, or unfettered free-trade, that is not what this country needs ideologically. That is not the type of policy that we need. And it is certainly not going to be the politics that galvanizes the tens of millions of people today who are thoroughly alienated and disgusted with the status quo. People are hurting, and it is important for leadership now to explain to them why they are hurting and how we can grow the middle class and reverse the economic decline of so many people. And I don’t think that is the politics of Senator Clinton or the Democratic establishment…. People want to hear an alternative set of policies that says to the American people: with all of this technology, with all of this productivity, the truth of the matter is that the average person in this country should be living better than ever before—not significantly worse economically than was the case thirty years ago. That’s what we need. That’s what I want to talk about… I think that the class message, that in this great country, especially with all kinds of new technology and increased productivity, that we can in fact provide a decent standard for all people, I think that resonates in fifty states in America. I think what people are looking for is leadership that is prepared to take on the big money interests (to deliver that message). That’s not what we’re seeing, by and large, from most Democrats.
Are they missing something?
I think so. My experience and my political instinct tells me that a lot of the discussions about 2016 are minimizing the profound disgust that people are having now with the status quo—and they’re desperate for a message that addresses that disgust. If I run, I’m not going to be raising hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. I think I have the capability of raising a lot of money and that’s important, but that at the end of the day is not going to be what’s most important. What’s most important is this idea of a political revolution—rallying the working families of this country around a vision that speaks to their needs. People need to understand that, if we are prepared to stand up to Wall Street and the big-money interests, we can create a nation that works for all Americans, and not just the handful of billionaires.
Editor’s Note: The following additional material was added to this blog post on March 19, 2014:
You speak frequently about this idea of a “political revolution.” What do you mean by that?
We have to take a deep breath and look at what politics in America today is all about.
First of all, in off-year elections—nonpresidential elections—you’ll have 50 to 60 percent of the people not voting. So the first thing, the obvious argument about the need for a political revolution, is that in a democratic society, we need the vast majority of the people to participate in the political process. If we had an 85 to 90 percent voter turnout, as countries like Denmark do, the nature of politics would be fundamentally different—because lower-income and working-class people would be involved and would be fighting for their interests.
Second of all, when you look at politics today, you have the absurdity of any billionaire, any millionaire out there saying, “I want to run for office.” You hire a consultant, you put some TV ads on and you are, according to the media, a serious candidate because you’re rich. Very few campaigns now revolve around candidates who have strong grassroots support.
When we talk about a political revolution, we have to talk about political consciousness, which is abysmally low. You do polling and you find out that people do not even know the name of the person who represents them in Congress…. If you don’t know which party controls the House and Senate, how do you form a judgment, how do you evaluate what’s going on in Washington?
Furthermore, all of us take for granted the fact that when you turn on talk radio, it is overwhelmingly right-wing, and some of it is incredibly extreme right-wing. There are parts of America today where if you turn on the radio, you cannot hear anything vaguely representing a progressive voice. In addition to that, of course, we have a major television network, Fox, that is an adjunct of the Republican Party.
So 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.
Essentially, what a political revolution means is that we organize and educate and create grassroots movements, which we certainly do not have right now.
Do you believe a campaign can be the catalyst for developing the consciousness and the movement that can achieve that change?
A campaign has got to be much more than just getting votes and getting elected. It has got to be helping to educate people, organize people. If we can do that, we can change the dynamic of politics for years and years to come. If 80 to 90 percent of the people in this country vote, if they know what the issues are (and make demands based on that knowledge), Washington and Congress will look very, very different from the Congress currently dominated by big money and dealing only with the issues that big money wants them to deal with.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson ran an outsider campaign in 1988 that talked about trying to open the process. You were a part of that. Do you see a connection to what you are talking about now?
Absolutely. I think Jackson has not gotten the credit he deserves. His campaigns were revolutionary: we had an African-American minister going to states like Iowa—predominantly white states—and rallying farmers. He came to Vermont; I remember I introduced him, and we had hundreds and hundreds of people out to hear him speak in a state that was then virtually all-white. The idea of bringing together people—the Rainbow Coalition concept of whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays and lesbians—is absolutely right, and the emphasis, in my view, can be on economic issues. I happen to believe that the frustration and disgust with the status quo is much, much higher now—much, much higher than many “pundits” understand. The job right now, the main focus, is to bring people together from an economic perspective, on class lines, and talk about an America that works for the vast majority of our people and not just the top 1 percent.
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), for which Senator Bernie Sanders wrote an introduction.
It won’t get as much notice as his budget proposal, but President Obama’s “2014 Trade Policy Agenda,” which was released this week, sends an exceptionally powerful signal regarding the administration’s economic vision.
Unfortunately, it’s the wrong signal.
While the president—in his public pronouncements and his budget—is saying a lot of the right things about income inequality and investment in infrastructure and job creation, the White House has yet to recognize the harm that is done to the American economy—and to prospects of economic renewal that the president envisions—by failed trade policies.
At a time when the United States continues to experience overwhelming trade deficits—$38.7 billion in December—there is little in the way of new thinking in the report. In fact, as Public Citizen’s authoritative “Eyes on Trade” blog notes, “Much of the 2014 agenda is a copy and paste of the 2013 agenda, reiterating USTR’s stock set of talking points, such as the tired, counterfactual promise that a more-of-the-same trade policy will boost exports.”
The 2014 agenda statement outlines the efforts of the administration to advance new free-trade initiatives—the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—that build on the approach of the North America Free Trade Agreement, the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the permanent normalization of trade relations with China.
The problem with the old way of doing things is that it has not worked. US Senator Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat who authored the book, The Myths of Free Trade (New Press, notes that “we’ve seen more than five million jobs lost to our ‘trading partners,’ in NAFTA, CAFTA, and China…”
Brown argues that, in an increasingly globalized economy, “we should export American products, not American jobs.”
There are sections of the “2014 Trade Policy Agenda” that talk a good line in that regard. But the rhetoric is not matched by a shift in approach. The agenda contains nothing in the way of a vision for breaking the pattern described by the office of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders:
After the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Mexican agricultural sector has been decimated by cheap exports from American agribusiness. Poverty has increased, the middle class has declined and people are literally dying in the desert trying to flee Mexico for the US. It is not only Mexico and other developing countries that have been hurt by these unfettered pro-corporate free-trade agreements. It’s also the working families in the US, who are now engaged in a horrendous “race to the bottom.” Despite an explosion of technology and a huge increase in worker productivity, poverty in America is increasing, the middle class is shrinking and the gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider. In the past 6 years, millions of good-paying jobs in the US have been lost as companies continue to shut down here and move to China and other low-wage countries.
Just as it clings to a flawed vision regarding trade policies, the administration’s agenda recycles a wrongheaded approach to negotiating international agreements. “To facilitate the conclusion, approval, and implementation of are market-opening negotiating initiatives (on TPP and T-TIP) negotiations,” the administration’s statement announces, “we are working with Congress to support broad bipartisan passage of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA).”
The broad bipartisan stance in Congress at this point is one of opposition to passage of TPA, a tool that diminishes the role of Congress in shaping agreements by “fast tracking” the process. More than 150 House Democrats have expressed their opposition to “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority. “Fast Track is simply not appropriate for 21st Century agreements and must be replaced,” the Democrats wrote. “The United States cannot afford another trade agreement that replicates the mistakes of the past. We can and must do better.”
Several dozen House Republicans have broken with their party’s congressional leadership to express their opposition to Fast Track.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, says, “I am against Fast Track.” He has urged the administration to back off on its request for Trade Promotion Authority. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, though she is less skeptical than Reid, has says the Fast Track proposal that is currently on the table—a measure sponsored by US Congressman David Camp, R-Michigan, and former Senator Max Baucus, D-Montana—is “unacceptable.”
The Obama administration needs to rethink a trade agenda that is at odds with much of the rest of what the president is saying about job creation, renewal of manufacturing and the strengthening of the US economy.
Instead of recycling failed approaches and flawed strategies, it should listen to Democrats like Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who has been a frequent ally of the administration but says:
Given how previous trade agreements have devastated local manufacturing sectors and shipped American jobs overseas, it would be unwise for Congress to ram through new trade deals without offering proper oversight. Massive trade deals—such as the Trans Pacific Partnership—now affect everything from America’s economy, to consumer and food safety, to labor standards and our environment. Blindly approving or disapproving agreements that have largely been negotiated in secret would represent a derelict of duty for Congress. If there is nothing to hide in these agreements, we should be allowed to debate and amend these deals in the open. I am committed to doing all that I can to prevent the inappropriate use of Fast Track in Congress.
Read Next: Lee Fang on Obama’s nomination of a SOPA lobbyist for a key trade post.
The crowds that marched on the White House Sunday in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline project arrayed themselves behind a banner that read, “We did NOT vote for KXL.”
That was the most vital political message of a day that saw almost 400 Americans—the overwhelming majority of them young people—arrested as part of a dramatic protest against the oil pipeline project that has drawn outspoken opposition from environmental groups.
A lot of Washington politicians, pundits and professional strategists miss the political dynamic that goes with the pipeline debate. Polling shows that young people “get” the climate change issue, and that they see it as a high political and personal priority.
Indeed, they care about it so much that they marched on the White House to urge the Obama administration not to approve the Keystone proposal. Hundreds were willing to be arrested. They recognize, as notes Smith College student Aly Johnson-Kurts, an organizer of Sunday’s protest, that “the traditional methods of creating change are not sufficient…so we needed to escalate.”
This notion that traditional methods of creating change are not sufficient is significant, especially for Obama and his party.
The Democrats have relied in recent presidential election years on overwhelming support from voters under the age of 30. And they have suffered as enthusiasm among young voters has declined in off-year congressional elections.
In 2008, exit polls suggested, voters aged 18–29 accounted for 18 percent of the 131,313,820 Americans who turned out. Obama won their votes by a striking 66-31 margin over Republican John McCain. Obama’s winning margin was roughly 10 million votes, of which more than 7 million came from young people.
In 2012, according to exit polling, younger voters increased as a percentage of the overall electorate, with 18–29-year-olds making up 19 percent of the 129,085,403 who turned out. They favored Obama by a 60-36 margin. That translates to an advantage of more than 5 million votes for Obama. Notably, Obama won the national popular vote by 4,982,296 votes.
There are analyses that suggest an even more significant youth-vote benefit for Obama and the Democrats in battleground states. But the national numbers should establish the importance of the youth vote.
Unfortunately, turnout among young people tends to slide in off-year congressional elections—like the critical one that the US faces in 2014. In 2010, when Democrats suffered serious setbacks at the federal and state levels, voters under 30 made up just 11 percent of the overall electorate. They still backed Democrats—indeed, they were the only age demographic to do so—but their ability to influence election results was reduced by the sharp reduction in numbers.
The Obama administration must make its call regarding Keystone based on science and sound long-term thinking regarding energy, environmental and agricultural policy.
But those who talk about the political ramifications of this decision should keep in mind that sign that read “We did NOT vote for KXL.”
A 2013 poll found that more than 60 percent of young Americans felt that, were the administration to approve the pipeline, Obama would be breaking a campaign promise. And a significant percentage of those surveyed said they would feel betrayed by a decision to let the Keystone project go forward.
If young voters get a signal that they are not being heard, if they feel disappointed and disenfranchised, there is every reason to believe it will be harder for Democrats to mobilize them in 2014.
That does not mean that all young voters will stay home. Younger voters are not single-issue voters. Millions will still go to the polls in 2014, including, undoubtedly, the vast majority of those who marched on Washington Sunday. But if their percentage of the overall electorate is low, and if a portion of those who do turn out opt out of frustration or hope for a Green alternative, an already tough election season could get dramatically tougher for the Democrats.
Read Next: Keystone XL might be making you sick, literally.
When Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington released its report on “The Worst Governors in America” last summer, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was not even on the list. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker did make the “cronyism, mismanagement, nepotism, self-enrichment” list, but the review of his tenure was not necessarily the most scathing in CREW’s assessment of Republicans and Democrats who had gone astray. And Ohio Governor John Kasich was ranked as nothing more than a “sideshow.”
Now Christie is busy answering questions about blocked traffic, misdirected Sandy aid and political misdeeds. Walker’s facing national and state scrutiny of secret e-mails and illegal campaign operations so intense that even Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace interrupted him to say, “But sir, you’re not answering my question.” And Kasich is scrambling to deal with a “Frackgate” controversy touched off by the exposure of a public-relations scheme—apparently developed by his administration, Halliburton and oil and gas industry lobbyists—to “proactively open state park and forest land” for fracking.
The scandals surrounding these prominent Republican governors, some of them potential presidential contenders, are serious. And they raise the question: Could there really be a governor who is more controversial? And whose actions might be even more troubling?
The first-term governor packed his administration with lobbyists and used his office to promote their environmental-deregulation agenda, and allegedly went so far as to fire a state employee who testified in favor of policies the administration opposed.
Gov. LePage also attempted to gut his state’s open records act, and is under investigation by the federal government for trying to bully employees of the state Department of Labor into deciding more cases in favor of business.
Now, the federal investigation has been completed, and LePage is still very much in the “worst governor” competition. A report from the US Department of Labor Office of the Solicitor General concluded that LePage and his appointees meddled with the process by which unemployment claims are reviewed—apparently with an eye toward advantaging employers and disadvantaging the jobless.
When the governor and his appointees pressured officials who consider appeals from Mainers seeking unemployment benefits, the federal investigation concluded, they acted with “what could be perceived as a bias toward employers.” Specifically, the investigators determined, “hearing officers could have interpreted the expectations communicated by the Governor…as pressure to be more sympathetic to employers.”
The headlines from Maine newspapers Thursday were blunt:
In the Maine legislature, there were immediate calls for hearings into the governor's actions. State Senator John Patrick, a Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s Labor Committee, said, "After this, I wonder how you can trust the governor to move forward fairly and in an unbiased way." Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, a veteran Democratic legislator, went further, suggesting that LePage should be removed from office. “I think he should be impeached,” said Jackson. “The governor thinks he should be the next [Wisconsin Governor] Scott Walker, but he should be thinking about being the next [impeached Illinois Governor] Rod Blagojevich.”
Bombastic as ever, LePage on Saturday responded to the impeachment talk by declaring "if (Jackson) has cause, bring it on."
But Mainers were unimpressed.
The "It's Time for Paul LePage to Resign" petition circulated by state Representative Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat, had attracted almost 20,000 signatures by Friday afternoon.
For his part, LePage was complaining that he was targeted unfairly by the Obama administration. But the investigation into LePage’s actions go back almost a year and has deep roots in Maine, as noted by the state's Sun Journal newspaper in a front-page story Thursday:
An April 11 Sun Journal investigation cited sources who said the governor had summoned DOL employees to a mandatory luncheon at the Blaine House on March 21 and scolded them for finding too many unemployment-benefit appeals cases in favor of workers. They were told they were doing their jobs poorly, sources said. Afterward, they told the Sun Journal they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor.
Emails released under a Freedom of Access Act request echoed complaints made to the Sun Journal by the hearing officers who attended the meeting.
LePage denied the charges and claimed his communications with the hearing officers were “cordial.” When the US Department of Labor investigation was launched—because hearing officers are paid with federal funds and must follow federal rules—the governor denied it was going on.
But there is no denying now that LePage has been called out for creating what reasonable people would interpret as an unfair “bias” against the jobless in a state that has a significantly higher unemployment rate than its northern New England neighbors New Hampshire and Vermont.
LePage is expected to seek re-election this year. Among the candidates he will face is Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud, a third-generation paper mill worker who says, “I understand what people are going through, the hard times that they are facing. Whether or not they have a job today or tomorrow, the uncertainty is real.”
Providing a fair process for reviewing unemployment claims helps to address that uncertainty. Infusing bias into the process is not just wrong, it’s cruel. And that cruelty—as much as any political abuse or ethical excess—provides a vital measure for assessing the worst of the worst governors.
Read Next: John Nichols on the Governor Scott Walker investigation
Chokwe Lumumba maintained a civil rights commitment that was rooted in the moment when his mother showed her 8-year-old son the Jet magazine photograph of a beaten Emmett Till in his open casket. The commitment was nurtured on the streets of Detroit, where Lumumba and his mother collected money to support the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s.
Half a century later, he would be the transformational mayor of a major Southern city, Jackson, Mississippi. But just as his tenure was taking shape, Lumumba died unexpectedly Tuesday at age 66.
The mayor’s death ended an epic journey that challenged conventions, upset the status quo and proved the potential of electoral politics to initiate radical change—even in a conservative Southern state.
As a young man, inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle to address “infectious discrimination, racism and apartheid,” and shocked into a deeper activism by King’s assassination, Lumumba changed his name from Edwin Taliaferro—taking his new first name from an African tribe that had resisted slavery and his new last name from the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba.
Chokwe Lumumba became a human rights lawyer “defending political prisoners.” His clients would eventually include former Black Panthers and rapper Tupac Shakur. His remarkable list of legal accomplishments included his key role in the 2010 decision of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to suspend the sentences of Jamie and Gladys Scott, Mississippi sisters who were released after serving sixteen years of consecutive life sentences for an $11 robbery—a punishment that came to be understood as a glaring example of the extreme over-sentencing of African-Americans.
When he was not in court, Lumumba was agitating, as a civil rights and anti-apartheid activist, as a leading figure in the Republic of New Afrika, and as a co-founder of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
That’s not the usual résumé for the mayor of a major Southern city.
But Chokwe Lumumba had no intention of becoming a usual mayor when he launched his bid last year for Jackson’s top job. After a campaign in which the city councilman was outspent 4-1 and attacked as a militant, Lumumba defeated an incumbent mayor and a business-backed contender in the Democratic primary and then won more than 85 percent of the vote in the June 2013 general election.
He took office not merely with the intent of managing Jackson but with the goal of transforming it. “People should take a note of Jackson, because we have suffered some of the worst kinds of abuses in history, but we’re about to make some advances and some strides in the development of human rights and the protection of human rights that I think have not been seen in other parts of the country,” he told Democracy Now! just days after his election.
For Lumumba, that meant building unprecedented coalitions that crossed lines of race, class, gender, ideology and politics. “Our revolution is for the better idea it’s not just for the change in colors.” he told the Jackson Free Press.
Lumumba wanted Jackson to create a “solidarity economy,” with an emphasis on developing cooperatives and establishing models for local development and worker ownership.
“We have to make sure that economically we’re free, and part of that is the whole idea of economic democracy,” said the mayor, who explained in an interview shortly after his election:
We have to deal with more cooperative thinking and more involvement of people in the control of businesses, as opposed to just the big money changers, or the big CEOs and the big multinational corporations, the big capitalist corporations which generally control here in Mississippi. They are a reality.
And so it’s not that we’re going to throw them out of Mississippi. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I do believe that we can develop ways of working to have Blacks and other—indeed, not just Blacks but other poor people, or people who are less endowed with great wealth—to participate in the economy on an equal basis.
Lumumba was building the coalitions, and gaining a striking level of support for his vision, when he died unxpectedly Tuesday from heart failure.
Lumumba had run for the mayoralty as “a Fannie Lou Hamer Democrat” and promised to renew the small-“d” democracy vision of Hamer’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. True to his campaign slogan, “The People Must Decide,” he sought to organize new social and economic networks (with a special emphasis on developing cooperatives) in Mississippi’s capital city, and boldly asked citizens to vote to raise their own taxes in order to repair the city’s crumbling infrastructure. While most politicians avoid association with tax hikes, Lumumba campaigned across the city of 175,000—announcing that “we can fix the problem”—and on January 14, 2014, the mayor won a 9-1 vote of confidence.
Celebrating that victory, Lumumba declared, “I want to just say that it’s been a resounding victory here, and there’s only one way to go—that’s up. We’re going to do exactly what we said. We said at the very beginning that we were going to take infrastructure and revitalize infrastructure and transition infrastructure into economy.”
The mayor’s enthusiasm extended to his efforts to convince Mississippi’s conservative legislature to support aid to Jackson. He created a sense that just about anything was possible in a city that embraced his activist agenda on human rights and economic justice issues.
“I have known Mayor Lumumba since 1974,” said Congressman Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi. “One of the reasons I was so public about my support for the mayor, was that I believed once people got to know the real Chokwe Lumumba they would find him to be an extremely bright, caring and humble individual. His election as mayor and very short term in office demonstrated exactly that.”
Lumumba’s death, from heart failure, came as a shock. And a shocking loss for a city that had elected him just months earlier. Crowds gathered at Jackson’s city hall to mourn that loss. “Words cannot do justice to the emotions we all feel right now. Our great captain has fallen. Our hearts are broken,” said Hinds County (Jackson) Democratic Party chair Jacqueline Amos. “The legacy of Chokwe Lumumba must not be buried with the man.”
Amos is so very right.
Cities are the places where radical reformers can still break the political mold and make real change, where the politics of concession and compromise can be replaced with the politics of people power and renewal. Chokwe Lumumba proved that, and the best way to honor his accomplishment is to elect more mayors who are as determined as he was to be transformative leaders.
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