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With 8 Million and Counting ACA Sign-Ups, Sebelius Could Bid for Senate

Kathleen Sebelius

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Capitol Hill (AP Photo/J. Scott)

The anti-Obamacare machine that has been so carefully assembled by the Koch brothers and their billionaire boys club would surely blow a gasket. The right-wing echo chamber would go nuclear. And the Republican National Committee, Mitch McConnell and all the senators and contenders who have staked their 2014 prospects on a run against healthcare reform would make a big deal of laughing out loud.

But among the savvier of their number, it might well be a nervous laughter.

What could cause all this consternation?

Democrats have urged departing Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to run for the US Senate from Kansas.

Sebelius, who served two terms as the Democratic governor of Kansas during the Bush years, is reportedly considering the prospect of challenging US Senator Pat Roberts, a relatively drab conservative Republican who is currently facing a primary challenge from a vaguely more interesting conservative Republican.

A Sebelius run remains an unlikely prospect. The outgoing cabinet secretary has been through a lot over the past few months, and the notion of turning around and seeking the Senate from a state that has not elected a Democrat to the chamber since 1932 would definitely qualify as daunting.

Already, there is plenty of think-inside-the-box commentary that dismisses the idea. The purveyors of conventional wisdom at FiveThirtyEight are quick to declare that “Kansas Has Moved on From Kathleen Sebelius.”

“Sebelius for Senate?” a Washington Post headline argues. “It makes no sense.”

That is undoubtedly the case—if the country remains forever locked in November 2013.

But the politics of November 2014 won’t look anything like the politics of November 2013.

Indeed, those who actually turn the pages of their calendars recognize that a lot has already changed since Obama and the Democrats hit the political skids late last year.

The Affordable Care Act, implemented by Sebelius, is now exceeding goals. More than 7 million Americans were signed up by late March. And less than a month later, as noted by President Obama a press conference Thursday, the figure has risen to 8 million. Another 3 million people have enrolled in expanded Medicaid and children’s insurance programs. And the overall number of Americans with healthcare coverage will increase by millions more before the end of 2014.

As Obama says, “This thing is working.”

That does not mean that every voter has forgotten about the complexities and controversies that attended the first stages of Affordable Care Act implementation. Nor will it alter the view of millions of Americans (including this writer) that Obama, Sebelius and the rest of the administration should have embraced a single-payer “Medicare for All” initiative, rather than the complicated and expensive Affordable Care Act model.

But access to healthcare is expanding rapidly in America. And attitudes toward the Democrats who have advanced reforms are changing just as rapidly.

The latest Reuters-Ipsos poll finds that since February support for the Democratic position on healthcare reform has been on a steady rise, while support for the Republican position has been just as steadily declining. The most recent survey, released this week, found that 32 percent of voters favored the Democratic position, while just 18 percent thought the Republicans offered a better approach.

President Obama’s job approval numbers have experienced a similarly steady pattern of improvement. In early December, the Real Clear Politics average of major polls found that disapproval of Obama led approval of the president by 16.1 points. By this week, that number had been cut almost in half, to 8.3 points.

The most recent McClatchy/Marist poll puts Obama at a 45 percent approval rating, while a new Rasmussen Reports survey has him at 46 percent. That’s below the 51 percent support the president received in his 2012 re-election run, but it is worth noting that, in April 2012, the Real Clear Politics average had Obama at just 47 percent.

The political calculus is changing. Suddenly, instead of running for cover, some Democrats are starting to argue that their party should “defend ‘Obamacare’ unabashedly.” Healthcare industry consultant Bob Laszewski told the Associated Press this week, “I think Democrats have the ability to steal the healthcare issue back from Republicans.”

Which brings us to Sebelius.

Most Americans know her only as a member of the president’s cabinet.

But before she came to Washington she was the Democrat who cracked the code in Kansas. A state representative who focused on consumer and healthcare concerns, Sebelius was elected to the Kansas state House during Ronald Reagan’s second term, and re-elected when George Bush was carrying the state with ease in 1988 and 1992. In 1994, the year that a wave election swept Republicans into control of the US House and US Senate (with Kansan Bob Dole as majority leader), as well the governorship of Kansas, Sebelius upset the Republican calculus and won a populist campaign for state insurance commissioner. She blocked insurance industry mergers and made a name for herself defending the rights of women, got re-elected with ease and was named as one of Governing magazine’s top public officials in the nation.

Eight years after her initial election as insurance commissioner, Sebelius took on an even bigger challenge. In 2002, a year that was looking to be very good for Republicans, especially in Kansas, she ran for and won the governorship by a 53-45 margin. Four years later, she was re-elected with 58 percent of the vote. Her ability to win big in a red state inspired rounds of speculation about vice presidential and even presidential prospects for Sebelius, who chaired the Democratic Governors Association in 2007.

For those who know Sebelius only from the headlines of the past few months, the prospect of a Kansas run this year may still be hard to imagine. But Sebelius has a record in Kansas—both as an administrator and a candidate.

Does that mean she is destined to win? Of course not. Republicans openly mock the prospect of her returning to the Kansas ballot. There’s no question that Sebelius has taken a battering from the GOP over the past six months, nor is there any question that as a candidate she would take a battering from the GOP over the next six months. Additionally, there are cautious Democratic strategists, in Kansas and nationally, who recognize that the party’s position is improving and don’t want to take any risks that might alter that trajectory.

But it is simply unrealistic, not to mention politically foolish, to assume that the 2014 election script is so deeply written in stone that surprises will not occur. Sebelius was an unlikely winner in 1986, 1994 and 2002. Were she to run this year, she would energize grassroots Democrats in Kansas—even if she would have to persuade them to reconsider their support for the able contender who is already in the race, Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor—and nationally.

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A Sebelius run would at the very least make the Kansas Senate contest a referendum on healthcare reform—and on the broader question of whether it makes sense to try to solve problems in an age of gridlock, obstruction and political pettiness. If popular sentiment continues to trend in the direction of the president and his party when it comes to the question of how to address healthcare issues, Sebelius could find herself in a position to argue that, against all the naysaying, the United States remains a country that can actually take on great challenges and master them. The troubles she experienced along the way don’t necessarily undermine that narrative, as big tasks are never accomplished easily.

If Sebelius were to run in Kansas, with a recognition of the challenges she faced but with no apologies for taking on the second toughest job in Washington, she would be campaigning not on defense but on offense. And if there is one lesson that Democrats would be wise to learn, it is that there are advantages to playing offense.

That’s a lesson Sebelius has known since she was a young woman.

In 1964, her father, John Gilligan, was elected as a Democrat to represent a traditionally Republican region of Ohio in the US House. He voted as an unapologetic liberal, giving especially enthusiastic support to the Social Security Amendments of 1965, which created Medicare and Medicaid. His positions were not popular with a lot of the voters back home, and he was defeated in 1966. Two years later, he lost a race for the United States Senate as an unabashed anti–Vietnam War liberal, and a lot of pundits said his run was done. Then, in 1970, he bid for governor of Ohio and won a contested Democratic primary in a year when President Richard Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew and a lot of pundits were predicting a backlash against enthusiastic supporters of civil rights and social welfare programs.

John Gilligan refused to buy into the calculus that said 1970 would follow the script that Nixon and Agnew imagined at the start of the year. He rewrote the script, and he won that gubernatorial race by almost 350,000 votes.

The only sure way to lose an election is not to run. If Kathleen Sebelius were to bid for the Senate this year, she would challenge not just an often inaccurate conventional wisdom but the Democrat Party’s tendency toward an excess of caution. And that, in turn, could reshape the debate about healthcare and a whole lot more.

Read Next: How to vote against the Koch brothers.

‘New York Times’ Admits It Agreed to ‘Gag Orders’ in Israel

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

I’ll follow this all day, but for now: a big controversy—although, one has to admit, not a total surprise, given the paper’s history of coverage in that country—will surely build after The New York Times late yesterday finally admitted, briefly and offhand, that it agreed (long ago?) to gag orders in Israeli in exchange for press credentials.

The Times’s public editor Margaret Sullivan covers the story here, and as usual she does a good job but does not go quite far enough, focusing more on the paper’s simply disclosing the arrangement and less on the outrage of its agreeing to the harsh restrictions to begin with. Here’s an excerpt:

The Times article mentions a court-imposed gag order that was lifted on Thursday. What it doesn’t mention is that The Times, too, is subject to such gag orders.

According to its bureau chief in Jerusalem, Jodi Rudoren, that is true.

In an email, Ms. Rudoren told me that in order to get press credentials in Israeli, The Times agrees to abide by such court-imposed orders….

The Times is “indeed, bound by gag orders,” she said. “Apparently we agree to this when signing up for government press cards, which are required to operate here, for access to public officials among other things.” She said that two of her predecessors in the bureau chief position affirmed to her this week that this is the case….

Two ranking editors at The Times—the managing editor, Dean Baquet, and an assistant managing editor, Susan Chira (who was the foreign editor for eight years)—told me that they were unaware of The Times ever agreeing to abide by gag orders in Israel.

Meanwhile, an online publication called The Electronic Intifada published a number of articles about Mr. Kayyal’s detention over the past several days.

The author of those articles, Ali Abunimah, said in an email that “readers have a right to know when NYT is complying with government-imposed censorship.”

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UPDATE Sullivan has added this clarification to her column:

The Times is “indeed, bound by gag orders,” Ms. Rudoren said. She said that the situation is analogous to abiding by traffic rules or any other laws of the land, and that two of her predecessors in the bureau chief position affirmed to her this week that The Times has been subject to gag orders in the past. (An earlier version of this post said that The Times agrees to abide by gag orders as a prerequisite for press credentials, but Ms. Rudoren told me today that that is not the case, although it was her initial understanding.)

She added a link to a 2010 story that was written from the US as a possible example of how the paper has handled this ban in the past.

 

Read Next: Greg Mitchell: George W. Bush finds an apt subject for paintings—but only at The Onion.

We Built This Country on Inequality

John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

John D. Rockefeller Sr., oil tycoon and paragon of income inequality, seen here during the Great Depression (AP Photo)

I admit to tuning out most conversations surrounding income and/or wealth inequality in the United States. It’s not because I don’t find these conversations important; they are vital. The problem is that I always hear the issue of inequality situated around what has happened in the last thirty or forty years, which ignores the fact this is a nation built on inequality. The wealth gap didn’t spring up from policy gone awry—it is the policy. This country was founded on the idea of concentrating wealth in the hands of a few white men. That that persists today isn’t a flaw in the design. Everything is working as the founders intended.

The source of that inequality has changed, as the past thirty/forty years have been dominated by the financial class and rampant executive corruption, but the American economy has always required inequality to function. Even times of great prosperity, where the wealth gap decreased, inequality was necessary. The post-WWII period is notable for the lowest levels of inequality in the modern era, but the drivers of that prosperity (the GI Bill, construction of the highway system, low-interest home loans) deliberately left black people out, and the moments of robust public investment that have benefited racial minorities and women have always been followed by a resurgence of concern over government spending and “state’s rights.”

Our job, then, if we’re serious about forming a society of true equality, is to interrogate and uproot the ideologies that created the original imbalance. In other words, we can’t deal with income/wealth inequality without also reckoning with white supremacy and patriarchy.

So far, we haven’t done a very good job of that. Bryce Covert writes eloquently about the gender gap, while Matt Bruenig writes about the failure to address economic disparity along racial lines. Over at Salon, he says:

Although the Civil Rights Act, the landmark legislation which just reached its 50th anniversary, made great strides in desegregating the economy, economic discrimination is still widespread, and anti-discrimination legislation alone can never rectify the economic damage inflicted upon blacks by slavery and our Jim Crow apartheid regime.

He’s right, though I’d quibble with some of the other points in this piece. Later on, he says, “Even if racism were wiped out tomorrow and equal treatment became the norm, it would never cease being the case that the average white person has more wealth than the average black person.” Except that is racism. The persistence of inequality along racial lines is racism. It may seem to be a minor point, but it’s important in constructing a truer definition of racism, in order that we know what we’re fighting against. It’s important to remember that slavery was chiefly an economic enterprise that created a racial caste system out of necessity. Karen and Barbara Fields chart this history in their book Racecraft.

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The larger point still remains, as Bruenig concludes:

Thus, those actually serious about righting the wrongs of enslavement and Jim Crow apartheid must support more drastic leveling efforts. Beefed up anti-discrimination, which is both necessary and good, will not be enough. Ideally, we could work towards reparations in the form of redistributing wealth along racial lines. With that an unlikely possibility though, we can at least think about ways to redistribute wealth more generally from those with wealth to those without it, something that would have a similar, albeit more attenuated, effect as reparations given who the wealthy and non-wealthy happen to be.

I would more than welcome a renewed discussion about reparations. It is, however, as Bruenig notes, a long shot. But there are other avenues to explore that would have a similar impact to reparations, like a jobs guarantee and universal basic income. Perhaps this is an opportunity to revisit A. Philip Randolph’s “Freedom Budget for All Americans.” But any conversation about inequality absent one of white supremacy (and patriarchy) isn’t one worth engaging.

 

Read Next: The “real racists” have always worn suits.

On Beauty

In Nicholson Baker’s 2009 novel The Anthologist, the narrator and title character—a poet struggling to write the introduction to a collection he’s assembling—compares the pleasures of rhyming verse to those of a crossword puzzle. Rhyme, he posits, is “a powerful form of self-medication…the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next…You are solving a puzzle.”

This parallelism seems to strike Baker’s poet as fruitful, and he goes on:

It’s not a crossword puzzle—it’s better than a crossword puzzle, because you’re actually trying to do something beautiful. But it’s not unrelated. The addicts of crossword puzzles are also distracting themselves. They also don’t want to face the world’s grief head-on. They want that transient pleasure, endlessly repeated, of solving the Rubik’s Cube of verbal intersection. But has anyone ever wept at the beauty of a crossword puzzle? Maybe, maybe. I have not.

Baker is hardly the first to have drawn this comparison, and of course there are famous overlappers between the worlds of literature and puzzledom. Baker cites W. H. Auden; others include Georges Perec and Stephen Sondheim. But as crossword aficionados (OK, addicts) we couldn’t help but bristle a little on coming across this passage.

Sure, with a gun to our heads we would probably concede that a poem is “better” than a crossword puzzle, whatever “better” might happen to mean in that context. For one thing, a poem has multiple layers, and can be appreciated repeatedly. But the idea that a crossword isn’t, potentially at least, a thing of beauty is simply absurd.

What is beauty, after all? Depending on your esthetic framework, it could be symmetry, elegance, proportion—well, a crossword puzzle has all those. If you prefer the untamed wildness of the sublime, a puzzle can provide that as well. Keatsians will find that a crossword puzzle is full of truth, which is all we need to know.

Out of all these possibilities, Baker’s narrator chooses a very strange one indeed: the ability to induce weeping. Why should that be the criterion? (And yes, we have encountered crosswords that made us want to weep, though not at their beauty.) Surely the best crossword puzzles are those that offer their solvers a burst of pure pleasure—the surprising delight of wit, the excitement of human imagination and ingenuity at play. That’s where the joy and the beauty of puzzles are to be found.

This week’s cluing challenge: can you to come up with a cryptic clue for ANTHOLOGIST? Please share here. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And here are four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle.

Not One More: Can These Hunger Strikers Stop Obama’s Deportations?

White House Deportation Protest

Ernestina Hernandez (second from left), Cynthia Diaz (center), José Valdez (far right), and other members of the Not1More Deportation campaign, who are on hunger strike near the White House in Washington, DC (Zoë Carpenter).

When José Valdez talks about his son Jaime, his eyes shine.

“He is one of the sweetest young men you’ll ever meet,” José said on Wednesday through an interpreter. “I don’t say that just because I’m his father. He’s a young man who likes to help people. He thinks about humanity. Anytime he sees something that’s uncomfortable he sees a way to try to help. He’s dedicated to study.”

It was a frigid morning in Washington, and José was shivering. He looked across Lafayette Park towards the White House. “I came to DC to ask that my son be let go from detention,” he said. For five days José fasted on President Obama’s doorstep, protesting his son’s treatment and the deportation of millions of other undocumented immigrants under Obama’s tenure.

With House Republicans refusing to move on immigration reform, activists have asked the president to use his executive authority to change the country’s deportation procedures. Of all the effects the broken immigration system on families, deportation gauges the deepest wounds, taking husbands from wives, sons from fathers, and often without due process. It’s also the area over which the president has the most power. But Obama has been reluctant to move before Congress, despite mounting pressure not only from activists but also from prominent members of his own party. On Tuesday, religious leaders who’d met with the Obama at the White House reported that he made it clear to them that he was still not planning executive action.

Though small, the ongoing hunger strike in front of the White House—part of the Not1More Deportation campaign organized by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network—reflects a swell of frustration within the immigrant community at the administration’s apparent unwillingness to act. It also illustrates the desperate stakes for the thousands of families at the mercy of Washington.

This hunger strike was not José’s first. In February he refused to eat for fifteen days in solidarity with Jaime, who had been detained during a traffic stop in Maricopa County and held for months at the Eloy Detention Center after his lawyer told him to plead guilty to a DUI charge he has said was inaccurate. Jaime was in the midst of his own hunger strike when, in the middle of the night on February 25, he was deported to Mexico. On April 1 he returned through the legal port at Nogales, Arizona, and asked for humanitarian parole; now he’s once again in limbo, at the Florence Correctional Facility. “It makes us sad, but it gives us the will to fight,” José said.

Jaime is not José’s only son. His two older brothers were deported, and one of them still lives in Mexico. When I asked José about the other, the light in his eyes spilled over. “The other is also in Mexico,” he said. “But he is not with us.” This middle son was murdered shortly after returning to Michoacán, a state on Mexico’s west coast wrecked by the drug wars.

“My first two sons, there was nothing I could do for them,” said José. “But my third, I’m going to make sure that he’s not deported again, and that he gets to come home.”

* * *

Ernestina Hernadez describes her husband as “a normal man,” committed to his tech work for General Plastics in Houston, Texas, where he worked for eighteen years. He rode bicycles and shared a sense of humor with their 13-year-old daughter, Melanie. In May of 2013, Manuel was asked for his ID after being pulled over. He was deported on his 50th birthday and now lives in Durango, not far from a tree where recently, he told Ernestina, the body of an 8-year-old boy was found hanging, his organs removed.

“That’s the country President Obama wants me to take my daughter to,” said Ernestina, referring to the impossible choice that deportation leaves with families: separate indefinitely, or reassemble a life together in country made bloody in no small part by America’s appetite for illegal drugs. “I would ask him, do I keep fighting? Or do I stop?”

Like Jaime, Ernestina’s husband was in the midst of a hunger strike when he was deported from the Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe, Texas. Ernestina and José Valdez both believe the sudden deportations of their husband and son, respectively, were retaliation for their civil disobedience within the detention centers. Across the country in recent months hundreds of detainees have refused meals to protest their treatment within the detention facilities— many of them operated by private contractors like GEO Group, which runs Joe Corley— as well as within the immigration system more broadly. Hundreds of detainees on hunger strike in a GEO Group facility in Washington State were threatened with force-feeding last month. More than twenty were then moved into solitary confinement. Five busloads of detainees, including several of the strikers, left the center early Monday morning, activists say.

Ernestina said that Melanie’s schoolwork, her social life and her emotional health all suffered after her father was deported. “She gets really sad, and tells me that she wants to see him,” Ernestina said. “The day that my husband was deported she was shaking. She cried a lot. I was worried that she would get sick.” She continued, “When it happened, everything stopped. There isn’t anything left—it doesn’t seem like we have a future.”

But not having anything to lose has also emboldened Ernestina. Normally a quiet person, she says that by fighting for her husband and others like him, she’s “learned to talk. Staying quiet, nothing is going to be fixed.” She was one day into her fast in front of the White House when we spoke, and seemed calm and determined. She’d originally planned to leave on Saturday, but news of Obama’s comments to religious leaders had so angered her that she now planned to remain indefinitely, until she received a response from the White House.

“Breaking up a family isn’t going to stop us from fighting. It’s going to make us stronger, and we’re not going to stop until the president takes action,” she said.

* * *

On a Saturday morning in May 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided Cynthia Diaz’s home in Phoenix and arrested her mother, Maria. Maria, who’d immigrated to the United States at 14, graduated from high school and community college and then started a small tailoring business, called the following afternoon from Mexico to tell her family she’d been deported.

Cynthia was 15. She learned how to cook and to clean, and took on her mother’s role for her younger brother while keeping up with schoolwork at an honors high school. Now she’s a student at the University of Arizona. The hole left by her mother lingers at the house where her father and her brother still live; when Cynthia goes home, she finds the kitchen littered with pizza boxes, the fridge empty. “We’ve been really unhealthy,” she said. Cynthia became active with immigration rights groups at the end of high school, and has been fighting for her mother ever since.

In March, Maria crossed back into the US as part of a campaign called “Bring Them Home,” in which several immigrants who’d been deported returned to request asylum. Two weeks ago she had her eligibility interview. With her mother’s fate uncertain, Cynthia came to Washington for the strike, against the wishes of her father who worried that her petite body couldn’t handle the stress. She hoped that somehow her mother might make it home in time for Mother’s Day.

The hunger strike was hard, Cynthia admitted. The spring weather swung between hot, sunny days and frigid nights. She was fatigued and had headaches. Speaking to her mother on the phone helped.

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On Tuesday, after Cynthia had ended her strike, she received a call from her mother. She’d gotten the results of her interview.

“She passed,” Cynthia told me, as if she could not yet allow herself to believe it.

Take Action: Tell President Obama: Deportations Are Tearing Families Apart. We Need You to Act

Read Next: Obama’s falling approval rating among Latinos

Stephen Cohen: A New Cold War Is Already Underway

“For the first time in my lifetime, since the Cuban missile crisis, hot war with Russia is imaginable,” Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman on Thursday. Cohen, a Russia historian and expert on US-Russia relations, slammed the Obama administration for suggesting that the crisis in Ukraine was exclusively due to “Putin’s meddling,” and warned against a build-up of NATO forces near Russia’s borders. In an effort to end the crisis, Russia, Ukraine, the US and the European Union will begin talks today in Geneva. “Putin will compromise at these negotiations,” Cohen warned, “but he will not back off if confronted militarily.”
Sam Adler-Bell

2 Homeless People Needlessly Died During DC’s Cold Snap

Homeless shelter

The “Come Unto Me” sign on a former homeless shelter remains, even as it is being gutted to be redeveloped as retail and upscale living space, in Washington March 1, 2014. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

The bodies of two homeless men were found Wednesday morning in Washington, DC, just a short drive away from the heart of the nation’s government.

City police said the likely cause of death was hypothermia, although a medical examiner has yet to determine an official cause. The bodies were discovered in a makeshift encampment about fifty feet from each other. After days of warm weather, DC was hit with a cold front Tuesday night, bringing snowfall and causing the city to issue a hypothermia alert.

“These deaths were entirely preventable, as are deaths by exposure and hypothermia that have been happening across the country,” said Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s what happens when you don’t spend money on affordable housing and you have people living outdoors with the elements. This is the cost of not spending money on basic necessities.”

Yesterday’s tragedy comes off the heels of a “catastrophic” homeless crisis during this year’s brutal winter. A record number of DC families sought emergency shelter this year, maxing out the city’s available spots and forcing officials to place people in hotels and even recreation centers outfitted with cots. Advocates for the homeless say the surge of homeless families points to the need for longer-term solutions, such as rent subsidies and more affordable housing options.

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“It’s twenty-eight years to get a one bedroom apartment in DC. There are no subsidized units available for most families and the rental market is pricing people out pretty rapidly,” Jones told The Nation.

DC, along with New York and Los Angeles, saw rising homelessness in recent years, bucking a national trend. The homeless population in DC rose more than 1,000 over the last six years, a 29 percent increase, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. New York saw a 23 percent increase during the same time frame.

 

Read Next: Did Occupy make police departments more accountable?

How Wall Street Money Is Driving Out the Last Populist House Republican

Walter Jones

Representative Walter Jones meets with military families in his Capitol Hill office in Washington, DC. (Reuters/Mannie Garcia)

This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org

Congressman Walter Jones, a Republican who represents a wide swath of eastern North Carolina, might not strike you as a populist. But as a lawmaker, the veteran politician with a slow Southern drawl has become a gadfly in his own party for thumbing his nose at powerful political interests. He is the only GOP co-sponsor of the DISCLOSE Act, a measure to reveal the donors of dark-money campaign advertisements. He is among the loudest critics of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, telling an audience one that “Lyndon Johnson’s probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War, and he probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney.” And Speaker John Boehner removed Jones from the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees Wall Street. His sin? Bucking leadership and supporting many bills to further regulate the financial sector, along with serving as the last remaining House Republican to have voted for the Dodd-Frank reform package.

The Republican establishment has attempted to remove Jones from office by dispatching a number of primary challengers over the years. For this cycle, a former Bush administration aide named Taylor Griffin is the party favorite to finally wipe out Jones.

Several outlets, such as Bloomberg News, have reported that Griffin’s candidacy is being heavily promoted by the financial industry. JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and other banks helped fuel the $114,000 fundraising haul Griffin reported in his first campaign disclosure report. Earlier this week, a Super PAC financed in part by hedge fund titan Paul Singer went on air with a negative ad against Jones.

What hasn’t been reported, however, is that Griffin himself is a longtime political consultant for the biggest predators on Wall Street.

Republic Report has obtained a disclosure report that shows that Griffin’s client list reads like a who’s who of financial interests that have preyed upon North Carolina families for short term gain.

Griffin, whose career includes a stint on the the Bush election campaign team and Treasury Department, is a co-founder of Hamilton Place Strategies, a “policy and public affairs” firm that boasts of its team of former government officials. Like many companies that work to influence policy within the Beltway on behalf of corporate interests, Hamilton Place Strategies does not register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, though it advertises its ability to shape the regulatory environment. The company, which specializes in public relations, is located a stone’s throw from K Street and the White House in a corridor of Washington favored by many influence peddlers.

Griffin touts himself as a conservative small businessman. His campaign website “About” section makes only a passing reference to his prior position with Hamilton Place Strategies, noting obliquely that he founded a “leading public policy consulting firm, quickly growing it to a business that included over 20 employees on its payroll.” Before launching his campaign in October, Griffin sold his share of the firm and moved to New Bern, a city within North Carolina’s third congressional district.

Griffin’s client list has never before been reported. But a mandatory candidate filing, disclosed by the House Clerk last week, opens a window into his business operation.

Griffin worked for Lender Processing Services Inc. (LPS), the infamous company that forged foreclosure documents on behalf of the big banks. In a practice that became known as “robo-signing,” LPS created more than “1 million fraudulently signed and notarized mortgage-related documents with property recorders’ offices throughout the United States.” Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and Ally Financial allegedly used robo-signing to engage in unlawful foreclosures. The robo-signing tactics were reportedly used extensively in North Carolina.

Though Griffin revealed his LPS work on his disclosure form, he also refused to list other clients, noting that “certain confidential clients are not reported due to terms of agreement into at the time services were retained.” But public statements from his company, including from Tony Fratto, another co-founder of Hamilton Place Strategies, shows the firm has been working for Magnetar Capital, a hedge fund famous for helping helping inflate the housing bubble that led to the 2008 financial crisis.

In a Pulitzer Prize–winning article for ProPublica, reporter Jesse Eisinger revealed that Magnetar helped create “arcane mortgage-based instruments, pushed for risky things to go inside them and then bet against the investments,” a scheme that earned them hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, according to reports, Magnetar is back in the housing business, taking advantage of low prices to buy up homes and rent them out.

As part of their strategy to dupe investors, Magnetar allegedly enlisted the rating agency Standard & Poor’s to provide a high-level A-grade listing for Magnetar’s synthetic financial products. Though it’s not clear what he did for the firm, Griffin lists McGraw Hill Financial, the parent company of Standard & Poor’s, as one of his clients (the firm has been accused of engaging in other fraudulent rating schemes that led to the financial collapse).

Another Griffin client, according to his ethics form, is an interest group that is actively lobbying to hike property insurance rates on North Carolina families, including those in the Outer Bankers region Griffin hopes to represent.

Griffin works for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a trade association for property insurers. This year, the PCIAA promoted a state property insurance hike as high as 35 percent on homeowners in North Carolina beach communities. In Washington, the PCIAA’s team of ten registered lobbyists worked to oppose the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, recently passed legislation designed to “freeze premium increases on most homes governed by flood-insurance rate maps.”

As The Charlotte Observer reported, without this legislation, some coastal families faced flood insurance rate hikes from $850 a year now to as high as $21,000.

Griffin’s campaign did not respond to Republic Report’s request for comment about his personal finances. The forms, however, have other revelations.

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Griffin has told reporters that he sold his shares in Hamilton Place Strategies, suggesting that he is no longer affiliated with the firm or in public policy consulting. However, the disclosure reports show that he has continued to earn a living from Hamilton Place Strategies—at least in excess of $5,000—and this year earned income (likely through his other consulting firm, Sulgrave Partners) from PCIAA, McGrawHill Financial, Huron Healthcare, Motorola Mobility and other clients.

In his first television advertisement that began airing this month before the May 5 primary, Griffin says that he is the “clear conservative choice for Congress.” In a spot that is clearly biographical in nature, Griffin references his consulting work for the financial sector interests thus: “I’ve also owned my own business, so I know what it means to make a budget and stick to it.” Left unsaid, the $406,000 a year he earned promoting the very worst of Wall Street.

 

Read Next: Senator Joe Manchin defends the law firm accused of concealing black lung medical evidence.

Is Chris Christie Gaining Traction for 2016?

Chris Christie

Chris Christie (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Since the release of the self-commissioned investigative report by Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, a law firm run by an ally, Governor Christie has fought to stabilize his political future, and he’s taken steps to restart his 2016 presidential bid. That might be difficult in the face of four—count ‘em, four—separate investigations of the various scandals that have emerged since last fall, and as Christie Watch reports below, even the report by Christie’s own lawyers, though widely disparaged as a cover-up, provides all those investigators with leads that they can follow. Still, there are signs that Christie is getting some traction again, at least based on the results of recent polls.

According to a Fox News poll about would-be 2016 GOP candidates, Christie leads the field with 15 percent support, just ahead of Jeb Bush and Rand Paul. (Interestingly, though, in the Fox poll all three top candidates have unfavorability ratings that outweigh their favorability.) Christie also finished strong in a new McClatchy-Marist poll of all voters, comparing various Republicans in head-to-head matchups with Hillary Clinton, in which Clinton beats Christie by 53 to 42 percent. (Clinton bests Jeb Bush 55-39 percent in that poll.) And, in an interview with the Staten Island Advance, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, sounding downright bipartisan, says that Christie would be a “formidable” candidate:

“I’ve worked with him on both immigration reform and (Hurricane) Sandy, and he was a pleasure to work with,” said Schumer.… “People like genuine people. They are very good at smelling the real deal and smelling a phony. So, yeah, I think he could sell.”

But he added that

“if they find that he actually knew about this [Bridgegate] stuff, he’s a dead man. If they don’t, he could be a formidable candidate.”

Of course, “they” are trying to find out. The inquiries include actions by the US attorney in New Jersey, the US attorney in New York City, a brand-new one by the Manhattan district attorney, and a joint Senate-Assembly committee of the state legislature.

The New Jersey legislative committee investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closures will be calling people to testify next month about what they knew and when they knew it—and the committee just might ask Christie himself to appear before them, says Assemblyman John Wisniewski, co-chair of the committee. Wisniewski says they’ll subpoena more than ten people to testify under oath. Last time around, in November, when the legislators heard testimony from former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni, they didn’t swear him in, but Wisniewski says they won’t make that mistake again. Back then, of course, Baroni argued that the lane closures were simply part of a “traffic study.” His testimony was soon discredited by the executive director of the PA, Patrick Foye, who did testify under oath.

The committee hasn’t specified yet who they’ll subpoena to testify, but they’re looking at a number of new people, thanks to interview summaries just released by Randy Mastro, the lawyer whom Christie hired to investigate Bridgegate and other scandals swirling around the Governor’s mansion. Even though Mastro is very close to Christie ally Rudy Giuliani (for whom Mastro served as deputy mayor), even though some of the interviews were conducted by a close friend of the governor’s, Debra Wong Yang, even though none of the interviews were conducted under oath, and even though Gibson Dunn & Crutcher supplied only summaries and not transcripts, there are some potentially juicy nuggets. Mastro’s firm interviewed more than seventy people for the report clearing the governor of any involvement in the Bridgegate, Hoboken and PA scandals.

The interview summaries in fact raise many new questions about how the Christie administration operated, says Wisniewski:

Clearly there are so many issues that are raised by the Mastro report and now further issues raised by the interview notes that it’s clear this administration used its resources as campaign tool in a very overt way.

Although Mastro’s report pinned the blame for the bridge scandal on two wayward aides, the interview summaries show that it was standard operating procedure for the Christie administration to punish local officials who did not support the governor and aid those who did. According to the Newark Star-Ledger:

Among the likely fodder for the committee are revelations that the [Inter-Governmental Affairs] unit in the governor’s office was acutely aware of which local officials were friendly toward the administration. During one interview, former IGA staffer Christina Renna told Mastro’s investigators that she often was told which mayor’s calls should be returned. Notes of Renna’s interview called them “mandatory directives” to ignore calls from certain local officials. Department of Community Affairs Director Richard Constable told Mastro and company that Kelly, who ran IGA, asked him to check with her before speaking with certain mayors, including Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who has said he was ignored by the administration once he made the decision not to endorse Christie.

Interviews with some state officials also seemed to bolster the accusation leveled by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that Christie administration officials, including Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable, held hostage aid to help Hoboken recover from Hurricane Sandy. Zimmer charged that the Christie administration tied the aid to her acquiescence on a multi-billion dollar development project linked to David Samson, former Port Authority chairman and close Christie ally. Mastro’s report disparaged Zimmer’s accusations.

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But the newly released interview summaries Mastro used to reach his conclusions may in fact help support Zimmer’s claims. According to NJ Spotlight:

Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable discussed both the controversial Rockefeller Group high-rise project and Sandy aid with Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer at the time and place she said they did—a fact that probably would not have come out until after the U.S. Attorney’s Office finished its investigation a year from now, or perhaps not at all. Interview memos with Constable, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, and other officials contained numerous important details that they left out of their vehement public denunciations of Zimmer’s allegations in January, bolstering the credibility of Zimmer’s story that the Christie administration tied Sandy aid to the approval of a high-rise development represented by Christie ally David Samson.

Another interview summary, this one with Luciana DiMaggio, an assistant to Guadagno also seems to support Zimmer’s charges. It says:

DiMaggio observed that the Lieutenant Governor and Mayor Zimmer were deep in conversation. She said that it seemed to be a tense conversation. DiMaggio did not observe anyone getting angry or she would have stepped in, but it seemed that they were discussing something intently. DiMaggio recalled that they were not laughing and their faces seemed serious. DiMaggio did not remember anything else. She did not remember observing the Lieutenant Governor and Mayor Zimmer at the end of the conversation. DiMaggio remembered that the Lieutenant Governor communicated that she was frustrated with Mayor Zimmer. With her counsel present, DiMaggio said her memory is not 100% accurate, but she remembered that the Lieutenant Governor communicated to her that Mayor Zimmer was not cooperating, stating in words or in substance something like the Mayor was not playing ball or the Mayor was not playing well with others.

 

Read Next: Joy Behar takes on Chris Christie at a New Jersey roast.