Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
It isn't sexy. In fact, it's not even something that most people even notice. But local government in thousands of counties, cities and towns--with more than 490,000 elected officials distributed across them--have primary responsibility for many of the issues most important to progressives: primary and secondary schools and community colleges, land use and planning, work-force development and job-skills training, water allocation, housing, childcare and child welfare, health services, and welfare, among many others.
Yet most people cannot name their city council or county board members. And progressives have not yet supplied these elected officials with message, policies and programs.
The American Legislative Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE) is trying to change that. With a goal of identifying, supporting and assisting 10,000 progressive local elected officials, they seek immediate policy gains and passage of dozens, if not hundreds, of model local ordinances by the end of 2005.
With its website as the hub, ALICE is already supplying invaluable weekly updates to more than 7,400 elected officials and activists. Until now, the organization has been supported by Joel Rogers and the Center On Wisconsin Strategy (COWS). Last month, ALICE began looking for foundation money, with a fundraising appeal signed by representatives of more than two dozen national groups--from the Center for Policy Alternatives to Good Jobs First, the AFL-CIO to the Institute For Women's Policy Research (IWPR)--all of whom recognized the value of the effort, and the niche that it would fill.
Building ALICE is a natural part of building the progressive infrastructure. Along with their sheer weight in policy, which is only growing in this age of devolution, city council and county board members, not to mention mayors and county executives, are part of the "farm team" for future federal office. Get them early in their careers, show them the feasibility of a progressive program, and positive political change at the local, much less national, level can be made much easier to achieve.
Certainly the Right recognizes the importance of local politics. Just as it has organized state legislative leaders over the past generation through ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), it intends now to move down to local government. There, we hope, it will find ALICE--its younger, brighter, and decidedly more progressive younger sister.
The greatest economic injustice in America isn't corporate malfeasance, anemic job growth or the outsourcing of jobs, as the mainstream media suggests. The biggest scandal is the highway robbery committed against hard-working families who can't make ends meet despite playing by the rules. While the press has chronicled the crimes of Dennis Koslowski, Martha Stewart and Andrew Fastow, it consistently fails to describe the forces shutting workers out of the broad middle-class.
Upward mobility is one of our democracy's great strengths. In George Bush's America, however, opportunity is being steadily eroded. To understand this anti-worker economy, just begin with the minimum wage.
Currently, the federal minimum wage is a paltry $5.15 an hour. It has remained unchanged since 1997. In a family of three, the breadwinner earns $10,712 in annual income, which is almost $5,000 below the federal poverty level. When Washington State raised its minimum wage in 1998 to $7.16 an hour, many full-time workers with families were still living in poverty.
Republicans in Congress couldn't care less about this crisis. Callous, imperious and anti-worker, the Republican Senate leadership recently refused to even vote on a modest minimum wage increase, which could have helped offset the hardships imposed by declining wages and record job losses. When it comes to the struggle to increase the minimum wage and deal with the crisis of poverty in the US, the Senate has essentially become a "non-functioning institution," to quote Senator Edward Kennedy.
A second force driving this train are the glaring inequities in America's tax system--injustices that have further eroded workers' prospects. David Cay Johnston, who covers the tax system for the New York Times, has demonstrated that in recent decades, a growing portion of the tax burden has shifted to working- and middle-class families while the wealthiest Americans have paid fewer taxes.
Armed with lobbyists and campaign contributions, many corporations have successfully avoided paying virtually any federal income tax for years. From 1996 to 2000, 61 percent of businesses paid no federal income taxes whatsoever. Last year, business's share of the federal tax burden dropped to 7.4 percent, down from a high of 32 percent in 1952. And, this week, we learned that under President Bush, the IRS has performed fewer corporate audits and undertaken fewer prosecutions of corporate tax evaders than ever before.
Meanwhile, the US is the only country on earth where wages are being driven down. Johnston says that for the bottom 80 percent of the income bracket, wages have either fallen or remained stagnant. The next ten percent has seen "infinitesimal growth in income"---while the top ten percent has become spectacularly rich. Americans are experiencing the slowest wage growth in 40 years.
The economy is shafting workers in subtler ways as well, as corporations slash benefits and cheat people out of every last dime. The Wall Street Journal reported that Lucent is cutting medical and life insurance benefits for its retirees. Wal-Mart, America's largest employer, is facing legal action for allegedly cheating workers out of overtime pay. Some companies, according to a recent front-page New York Times' article, have even deleted hours from workers' time sheets in order to maximize profits; such illegal doctoring is "far more prevalent than most Americans believe," noted the Times.
Making matters even worse is the problem of spiraling personal debt with many Americans struggling to pay back school loans, maintain car payments and keep credit card bills at bay. In 2001 [the most recent year for which figures are available], seven out of every 1,000 adults declared personal bankruptcy, a share nearly twice as high as in the last business cycle peak in 1989, according to the Economic Policy Institute. As EPI says, "This rising debt is especially troubling in the midst of an ongoing labor market recession, when income is growing slowly at best."
"Even the few new jobs [announced in last month's Labor Department report] come with an asterisk," Senator Kennedy said in a recent speech. "They pay an average of 8,000 dollars less than the jobs lost in the Bush economy," and they frequently offer only part-time hours and few benefits.
The bottom line is that hard-working Americans face hostile economic forces arrayed against them--and the sign over the gateway to economic security now says: CLOSED FOR BUSINESS. Under President Bush's economic stewardship, America's middle-class is quickly becoming a thing of the past. But, as Willy Loman's wife Linda tells her audience in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: "Attention must be paid!"
It may be anecdotal but three stories in last week's newspapers offer a sharp sense of the growing ambivalence military veterans and families feel toward this Administration. The once rock-solid GOP military voting bloc could become a domestic casualty for Bush. And, as the New York Times reports, with a large number of military personnel living in battleground states like Florida, West Virginia and New Mexico, even small changes in military voting patterns could be decisive in November.
With the occupation into its first year, casualties rising daily and no coherent exit plan in sight, Samie Drown--who voted for Bush in 2000 and has a husband in the Army's 101st Airborne Division--told the New York Times that her view of the Administration has completely changed. "My husband is a soldier and his job is to fight for freedom. But after so many months and so many deaths, no one has shown us any weapons of mass destruction or given us an explanation." A mother of four young kids, she continued: "So a lot of military wives are now asking: 'Why? Why did we go to Iraq? The Administration talked a strong story, but a lot of us are kicking our butts about how we voted last time around. Now we're leaning the other way."
"I don't know why President Bush don't let our children come home," Wilson said. "He would rather see our kids slaughtered. Who's he to say we're sticking it out? This is not our fight. It never was.
"He's busy trying to get himself re-elected and got all our babies over there risking life and limb," Wilson said. "It's wrong, wrong, and somebody needs to let him know it. So many people have lost their kids."
Samie Drown and Rhonda Wilson must be keeping Karl Rove wide awake in the wee hours of the night.
On the same base as Drown's husband in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Brittany Wood, 19, whose stepfather has spent most of the past 18 months in Iraq, says she was a Bush supporter a year ago but she plans to vote for Kerry this November.
"I was glad we were doing this because we need to help other countries fight for freedom, but now lots of people feel there's been a cover-up and it is a lie and we were not told the real reasons for being in Iraq," Ms. Wood says. ""That is making a lot of soldiers and their families think about voting. And for the first time they're thinking about voting Democratic." (A recent CBS News survey found that forty to forty-eight percent of people from "military families" would vote for Kerry.)
And buried in Sunday's Washington Post report on the small ANSWER-organized antiwar demonstration in DC on Saturday was a telling interview with a veteran on holiday who happened upon the demo unexpectedly. "What they're [the protestors] saying is correct," said T.J. Myers--who had recently returned from a year's stint in Iraq after leaving the Army after a seven year hitch. "It's all about money." Myers, who lives in Fort Benning, Georgia and was in Washington on vacation, said "It's my first time in DC, and I have never seen so many homeless people in my life and right near the White House. How can we send [billions] to another country when we have so many people in trouble here?"
Myers's sentiments are shared by groups like Military Families Speak Out, which together with http://www.unitedforpeace.org ">United for Peace and Justice, organized a press conference and walk to the White House on April 14 to deliver the message that it's time to end the occupation.
All this is showing that military families and personnel may be this election's newest swing voters. They certainly aren't Republican stalwarts anymore.
Did you know that voter turnout in states with ballot initiatives is much higher in general elections? This year each additional initiative on the ballot could correspond to an increase in turnout of roughly three to five percent?
Yet, although initiatives possess the power to draw voters to the ballot booths, their significance is often overshadowed by the sexier and louder parade of election activity created by candidate races. But initiatives shouldn't be flippantly tossed aside this year by candidates and political operatives alike--they certainly haven't been by rightwing organizations that understand the power and potential of ballot measures. Just take a look at my Top Ten list of hot initiatives for the year.
Top Ten Ballot Initiatives in 2004
1. Minimum wage increases in Florida and Nevada.
2. Anti-gay marriage bills in Missouri, Georgia, Utah and Mississippi.
3. Lottery funding for public education in Nevada and Oklahoma.
4. Conservation and open space battles in Arizona and Utah.
5. Ban on nuclear waste dumping in Washington.
6. Defense of Clean Elections in Arizona.
7. Tobacco tax for prescription drugs and health care in Colorado.
8. Defense of affirmative action in Michigan.
9. Progressive tax reform in Colorado.
10. Defense of healthcare insurance in California.
(Caveat: This is a constantly changing environment and although the campaigns mentioned in the list are highly likely to qualify, the initiative landscape won't be fully clear until August.)
And for the larger argument about why progressives need to start looking at 2004 initiatives as opportunities, check out the smart op-ed below by Kristina Wilfore, Executive Director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.
The Political Opportunity of Ballot Initiatives by Kristina Wilfore
Today, initiatives are abounding in battleground states - largely in order to mobilize a conservative or progressive base, drive wedges into an opposing partisan coalition, and generate contributions to campaigns through what is increasingly considered a soft money loophole in a post BCRA world.
Tort restrictions, the denial of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, and immigration, are expected to be the hottest issues of the day and will frame the political rhetoric of a variety of campaigns throughout the country. Furthermore, several contentious tax-related ballot measures have been filed as part of a coordinated strategy among groups like Center for a Sound Economy and Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform to shrink government and put Democratic candidates on the hot seat in Maine, Nevada and Washington.
But before progressives wring their hands in anticipation of doom and gloom at the ballot box, let's not forget the political opportunity that lies before us. Whether on defense or offense, ballot initiatives create an opening to define what we stand for and make the other side look as repugnant as they truly are. But this can only be achieved if the organizations and individuals on the left that constitute the fabric of voter engagement vehicles for 2004 start to acknowledge these initiatives, drive resources to them, and develop a viable strategy for victory.
The long-term political effect of even socially divisive wedge issues hasn't been all bad for progressives. After the passage of Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-immigrant initiative spearheaded by Governor Pete Wilson, Latino voters in subsequent elections become politically energized and increasingly hostile to Republican candidates. Measures modeled after Proposition 187 have been filed in Arizona, Nevada and Colorado for 2004. After Proposition 209, the 1996 measure to eliminate affirmative action in California, Republican candidate Dan Lungren received only 20 percent of the Hispanic vote, which at that time accounted for 14 percent of the state's electorate. That same year, Bill Clinton won 73 percent of the Hispanic vote against Bob Dole, who championed an English-only ballot measure. This climate persisted into the 2000 election when Al Gore received 71 percent of the Hispanic vote against George W. Bush, despite the fact that Bush, speaking Spanish, campaigned heavily to win over Hispanic voters.
On the flip side, turnout in Washington state in 1998 increased by as much as four percentage points thanks to the presence of a minimum wage initiative. This increase was even more pronounced among those with poor or inconsistent voting histories. That year, Democrats unexpectedly won 50 percent of the contests for the state House of Representatives and the state Senate switched to a Democratic majority. This is part of the reason why progressive activists in Florida and Nevada are sponsoring minimum wage ballot initiatives of their own. Both measures are being used for the dual purpose of identifying and registering disenfranchised voters and to embed progressive economic policies in the state law. Just imagine, Democratic candidates could have a positive, pro-active economic message to run on in these states rather than defining their fiscal agenda by being against the Bush tax cut.
There is a lot at stake for Democrats in this year's elections. In addition to possessing the power to take back the White House and other hotly contested positions where Republicans currently maintain tenuous control, a slew of state-based issues will hinge on the results of these ballot initiatives. Let's hope the political organizations that have the lion's share of election resources this year don't look at ballot initiatives as a burden, but rather as an opportunity.
South Dakota has a proud populist tradition. In the late 19th-century, the state's farmers faced plummeting wheat prices and mounting piles of debt at the hands of large Eastern banks. But they responded by forming agrarian alliances to prop up prices, pooling their resources for bulk purchasing and becoming politically active in the People's Party--AKA, the populists.
Now more than a century later, there is a new populist on the block--and her name is Stephanie Herseth. A 33-year-old lawyer, teacher and South Dakota native, Herseth is running in the June 1 special election to fill former Congressman (and convicted felon) Bill Janklow's seat. (She came very close to beating him in 2000.) Raised on her family's fourth-generation farm and ranch 35 miles from Aberdeen, Herseth represents the best of South Dakota's progressive populist traditions.
Her grandfather served as South Dakota's governor from 1959-1961. But it was her grandmother who was the first one to run for public office. As superintendent of schools in Brown County in the 1930s, she helped put her nieces through college, and was elected Secretary of State in the 1970s after her husband died. Herseth's father also spent 20 years in the state legislature.
Herseth, however, might be the most skilled politician in her illustrious clan. Smart and poised, she exudes hope about the state's future and refuses to sling mud at her GOP opponents--which is part of the reason why, according to last week's Zogby Poll, Herseth enjoys a 16-point lead over State Senator http://legis.state.sd.us/sessions/2002/mbrdt149.htm ">Larry Diedrich, her main Republican rival.
The stakes are extraordinarily high. Herseth is pro-choice, and South Dakota, which has never elected a woman to Congress, needs her voice on this issue now more than ever. Last February, South Dakota's rightwing legislature passed a draconian bill banning virtually all abortion procedures even in cases of rape and incest. The governor finally vetoed the bill on technical grounds but the issue remains a controversial flashpoint in the state. One newspaper reporter even described Herseth as "untested, unmarried, no children, for abortion." Emily's List, NARAL and Planned Parenthood have responded by raising contributions and visibility for Herseth's campaign.
A skillful tactician, Herseth seems to be pushing the right buttons. In 2002, she ran a campaign against Janklow in which she encouraged South Dakota's youth to live and work in the state. After a narrow defeat, Herseth, true to her word, remained in South Dakota. She launched the South Dakota Farmers Union Foundation, which promotes agrarian prosperity and educates youth in rural communities. She taught politics at South Dakota's colleges, too.
Most importantly, Herseth has broad appeal in rural South Dakota. In 2002, she criticized agribusiness monopolies for damaging South Dakota's economy. Today, she supports fair trade, defends family farmers and advocates for affordable health care for rural America. She fights for military families on issues like veterans' benefits and better equipment for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a recent interview for the Emily's List newsletter, Herseth also promised to reach out to "Native American voters and increase turnout among younger women. They will be a core of my support in June and November."
As John Nichols noted in an November 4, 2002 Nation piece, Herseth "will provide her party with a desperately needed model for reaching voters in states where it cannot afford to be uncompetitive." And a Herseth victory this June 1st will demonstrate that progressives can win rural districts--and in Tom Daschle's state, where he faces a fierce re-election battle against Rep. John Thune this November.
When Herseth defeats Larry Diedrich this June, she will weaken Tom DeLay's iron grip on the anti-women, Republican-run House of Representatives. If you want to kindle a populist prairie fire, go to www.HersethforCongress.org and make a donation today.
I don't need to tell anyone reading this blog that this is an election year full of passion, activism and real historical importance.
I've written in this space about the powerful surge of internet "e-activism," which has given ordinary people extraordinary tools to challenge big money and big media. And I've welcomed creative groups like Billionaires for Bush, the Radical Cheerleaders and the Babes Against Bush, which are bringing humor, satire and fun to the struggle to (re)defeat the president.
Now there's a recently launched new group which is giving the term "Bush-Free Zone" a whole new meaning. For a peek at what I mean, check out WomenAgainstBush.org. It's the website of a new political action committee, Running in Heels, started by a twenty-something trade lawyer in Washington, DC.
The site asks people to, "Join Us in Brunching Against Bush, Wine Against Bush and for the really outrageous--Wax Away Bush!" With that rallying cry in mind, the group kicked off its first fundraiser last month by distributing certificates for free bikini waxes and panties with slogans. Two of my favorites--"Bush-Free Zone" and "Kiss Bush Goodbye."
I was in Moscow last month the day http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20000417&s=kvh "> Vladimir Putin was reelected in whatever is the opposite of a cliffhanger of an election. His victory was as predictable as it was overwhelming. Months of media suppression and harassment of opposition candidates helped the former KGB officer (plucked from obscurity by Boris Yeltsin in 1999) secure 71 percent of the vote. And documented instances of vote fraud and coercion ensured that turnout crossed the fifty percent threshold needed to avoid a new election.
One of my favorite stories involved patients in Moscow's Psychiatric Clinic No. 4 receiving ballots pre-marked for Putin. (This led one of Putin's opponents to quip, "By 2008, the whole country will be voting according to the same principle as in Psychiatric Hospital No. 4.") Then there were the students at an aerospace university who faced being thrown out of their dorms if they didn't cast a ballot. Or the officers in a local military unit who were cabled by the Defense Ministry with instructions to report when they and their family members had voted.
Most Western commentators--and independent Russian groups monitoring the election--condemned the Kremlin's heavy-handed tactics. But they didn't seem to bother leading GOP apparatchik Trent Lott. Arriving in Moscow just a few days after Putin's reelection, Lott told the Russian news service Novosti, "I would like to congratulate Mr. Putin and the delegates of the State Duma with their victory. I would like to learn how we could reach the same level of support for Republicans and President Bush for the elections in our country."
At a 1993 press conference, when Teresa Heinz-Kerry declined to run for her late husband's Pennsylvania Senate seat, she explained, "the best ideas for change unfortunately no longer come from political campaigns." She added: "Today, political campaigns are the graveyard of real ideas and the birthplace of empty promises."
Forgoing a Senate race, Heinz-Kerry instead took the reins of the Howard Heinz Endowment and became a board member of the Vira I. Heinz Endowment. Under her leadership, the foundations has supported smart environmental and women's programs.
Heinz-Kerry's statement was prophetic. Now more than at any time in recent memory, too many politicians--and their campaigns--lack the courage to debate, let alone adopt, big ideas in this country. As a result, America has a downsized politics of excluded alternatives. And, as Heinz-Kerry argued, we've lost sight of big ambitions.
Polls, 30-second attack ads and partisan sniping often drown out serious policy debates. The mainstream media shoulders a lot of the blame as well. Too often, the press, enthralled with scandals, fails to cover ideas and issues. The media is instead obsessed with the politics of style--the candidates' hair, clothes, favorite sports, vacation plans, and, of course, wives. After campaign debates, reporters descend on so-called Spin Alleys, where consultants dissemble, and journalists lap up the PR offensives.
In a December New York Times op-ed, Paul Krugman pointed to the problem when he urged reporters to reject "political histrionics" and focus instead on the candidates' records and policies. So far, too few reporters have failed to listen to him.
Finally, there's the Internet, which fueled Howard Dean's rise and empowers progressives in exciting ways. The web is a bubbling stew of big ideas and low gossip, and the political blogs I've started reading (Micah Sifry at Iraqwarreader.com, for example) actually have a fairly meaty conversation going. Yet many of the most popular sites, like Drudge or Wonkette or Gawker, attract eyeballs by plying gossip above all, eschewing serious debates about politics and policy.
One big (and under-reported) story is that America's communities are laboratories for progressive reform. Over the last few years, The Nation's series "What Works" has called attention to creative programs that have built affordable housing and reduced urban poverty; neighborhood initiatives that attacked inner-city blight; and a living wage movement that improved the lives of thousands of workers. We've also looked at victories of clean money and www.thenation.com doc.mhtml?i=20010611&s=sifry20010529"> clean elections in Maine and Arizona and reported on Maine's passage of a universal health care bill, which is putting pressure on other states to follow suit.
In countless cases, the unmet social needs of the American people are more extreme than in other rich industrialized nations. But, if you listen to our candidates, read our papers or watch our television, you wouldn't hear a lot about the tragically high rates of child poverty; the desperation of our inner cities; the absence of effective mass transit; or the lack of decent health care and housing for millions.
In 2004, the election could be a testing ground in which to clarify the stark choices facing this country. But where is the millennial equivalent of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, Truman's Fair Deal, and Johnson's Great Society? Don't these times cry out for an electoral system that nurtures big debates over large issues?
Ralph Nader continues to fantasize that his candidacy will succeed in peeling as many Republican and Independent votes away from Bush as progressive votes from Kerry. But, as comic Jon Stewart quips: "Conservatives for Nader. Not a large group. About the same size as 'Retarded Death Row Texans for Bush.'"
The problem is that, as Micah Sifry writes in his smart weblog, all the polls show Nader drawing anywhere between 3 and 7 percent of the vote, with the internals skewing heavily to the left. Sure, some people who will vote for Nader would otherwise not vote at all. But it's clear that most of Nader's support--whether he tops his 2000 showing of 2.7 percent or not--will come from many who would otherwise vote for John Kerry.
This does not deter Nader. In a front-page story in yesterday's New York Times and in a live on-air appearance on the brand new liberal radio network Air America, he seemed to relish tweaking friends and former allies. He even hung up the phone in a live on-air interview with one of Air America's hottest radio hosts, Randi Rhodes, who was challenging him about why he felt the need to campaign in swing states, among other key issues. The click came after the two engaged in a bitter discussion about progressive values and political strategy in this election and beyond.
As the editor of a magazine with one of America's greatest humorists-- Calvin Trillin--I love a good joke. But there's a time and a place for humor. President Bush's joke about the failure to find WMD in Iraq--made at the annual black tie dinner for radio and television correspondents last week--was callous and tasteless. As one Iraq war veteran put it, "war is the single most serious event that a president or government can carry its people into. This cheapens the sacrifice that American soldiers and their families are dealing with every single day." Or as David Corn wrote in his Nation weblog, "Imagine if Lyndon Johnson had joked about the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident."
Matthews: Would you have him [Bush] tell those jokes as he tours the VA hospitals?
Eskew: He tours the hospitals an awful lot. He doesn't need a lesson in compassion toward the American soldiers, Chris.
Matthews: Maybe there's a question here of taste.
Eskew: I think the president has very good taste.
Matthews: You felt the jokes were right?
Eskew: That's self-deprecation, Chris. I think you misinterpret it.
Matthews: So, you think the guys who got hurt and killed in this war thought it was funny? I just don't think it was funny.
But over at that joke of a news operation, Fox "Fair and Balanced" News, Sean Hannity thought it was all a big laugh. When I went on his show last Friday I listened to him huff and he puff as he tried to pin the blame on liberals for not having a sense of humor. (I'd link to it but the show, oddly, doesn't make transcripts available.) Sean--hang it up! What Americans need from this President is truthtelling--not joketelling.
The letter below suggests there are others out there--in this case, a man who served his nation in a previous war--who agree.
March 26, 2004
Dear Ms. vanden Heuvel,
I saw you on Hannity & Colmes this evening. You are absolutely right on. As a Vietnam veteran I thank you for standing up to Sean Hannity (and Alan) regarding George Bush's rather distorted sense of humor regarding his inability to find WMDs in Iraq. May all the souls of those who have died in this insane war rest in peace.
Thank You,Bob Luce