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Sweet Victory: Electoral Reform Movement Marches On

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen.

If there's one core cause for progressives to unite around, it just may be the clean elections movement. Until elections are publicly financed, big money will continue to dominate politics and legislation--from health care to trade to minimum wage initiatives--will continue to be crafted in the interests of corporations, not citizens.

Fortunately, in the past two weeks, there's been some major progress in the fight to take money out of politics. On Valentine's Day, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors voted 9 to 2 in support of public financing of the city's mayoral elections. The ordinance will provide $6 million in public funds to all qualifying mayoral candidates in each election cycle. Although the measure does not provide 100 percent public financing like the intitiatives in Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, the legislation's sponsor, said it will be an important first step to "ward off the corrosive impact of big money and special interests."

Both Portland and Albuquerque--the two strongest clean election models in the country--prevailed over serious opposition from corporate interests in the past week. Last week, in Portland, business-backed opponents of public financing failed to obtain enough signatures to force a referendum on the clean elections bill in May (a recount, however, is pending). And in Albuquerque, according to Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, legislative backers of a repeal failed to move their bill by a key legislative deadline.

"This past week's good news for reformers is likely to continue in the weeks and months to come," said Nyhart. "Record campaign fundraising (see Schwarzenegger's bid to raise $120 million in the California gubernatorial race) and the continued stench of national scandal will lift reform efforts in Washington DC and across the country this year and beyond."

In other electoral reform news, the Center for Voting and Democracy has launched an excellent new initiative that would give equal representation to voters in presidental elections. The plan, backed by Common Cause and a bipartisan group of Congressmen, would bring states together in support of a national popular vote.

"This exciting new campaign…promises to dramatically change debate about reforming presidential elections," said Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. "If successful, [it] would have a powerful impact on voter participation, racial fairness and protections of the right to vote." Click here for details.


Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, contributes to The Nation's new blog, The Notion, and co-writes Sweet Victories with Katrina vanden Heuvel.

X-Offenders

A judge in Colombia has ruled that a bicycle courier be jailed for four years for grabbing a woman's bum while he whizzed past her on the street. When the grabber was caught, Diana Marcela Diaz, the grabbed, was given three choices: let him go, file a complaint, or slap him. She chose the precedent-setting but perhaps less-immediately gratifying route of filing a complaint. Now that cyclist will have four long years to think about what he's done.

The Colombians may have overreacted just a little, but the Italians could take a clue from their playbook. Last weekend it was reported in the Times that Italy's highest court ruled that sexually abusing a girl who is not a virgin is a less serious crime than sexually abusing a virgin. I'd like to face the judge of that court with the same three options that Diana Marcela Diaz had; I think I'd take option 2 AND 3.

Why's a Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel on the "No-Fly" List?

The federal officials who are busy assuring Americans that they've got their act together when it comes to managing port security are not inspiring much confidence with their approach to airline security.

When Dr. Robert Johnson, a heart surgeon who did his active duty with the U.S. Army Reserve before being honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, arrived at the Syracuse airport near his home in upstate New York last month for a flight to Florida, he was told he could not travel.

Why? Johnson was told that his name had been added to the federal "no-fly" list as a possible terror suspect.

Johnson, who served in the military during the time of the first Gulf War and then came home to serve as northern New York's first board-certified thoracic surgeon and an active member of the community in his hometown of Sackets Harbor, is not a terror suspect. But he is an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, who mounted a scrappy campaign for Congress as the Democratic challenger to Republican Representative John McHugh in 2004 and who plans to challenge McHugh again in upstate New York's sprawling 23rd District.

Johnson, who eventually made it onto the flight to Florida, is angry. And, like a growing number of war critics whose names have ended up on "no-fly" lists – some of them prominent, many of them merely concerned citizens – he wants some answers.

"Why would a former lieutenant colonel who swore an oath to defend and protect our country pose a threat of terrorism?" he asked, in an interview with the Plattsburgh Press-Republican newspaper.

So far, he's not getting satisfactory responses to his questions.

No one at the Syracuse airport would tell him why he was on the list.

Nor has the federal Transportation Security Administration, which compiles the "no-fly" files, been forthcoming – except to say that names are added to the watch lists on the "recommendations and information received from federal agencies, including intelligence and law-enforcement agencies."

The story's gotten a good deal of media attention in upstate New York, and Johnson is speculating with reporters about whether his name ended up on the list because he ran against McHugh as a veteran who boldly declared that: "I know the ravages of war and I know the sacrifices that have to be made when a war is in our national interest. This war is not in our national interest."

McHugh's office denies any wrongdoing by the Republican congressman, a senior member of the powerful House Armed Services Committee who brags about working closely with the Pentagon and intelligence agencies.

Johnson's not backing off his call for an explanation.

The physician-candidate told the Plattsburgh paper that the secrecy surrounding his name's addition to the "no-fly" list, and the prospect that it might be there because of his anti-war views, is outrageous.

"This is like McCarthyism in the 1950s," says Johnson.

White House Whitewash on Katrina?

I first posted this at www.davidcorn.com....

We all know how much this White House cherishes self-examination and accountability. So it was safe to assume that its just-released report on Hurricane Katrina would be a no-holds-barred, blistering, tell-all account of what went wrong--from the streets of New Orleans all the way to the Oval Office. But--can you believe it?--the report somehow managed to miss the missteps that occurred at the White House. There's no accounting of why George W. Bush, Dick Cheney or Andrew Card didn't move quickly to supervise the federal response to Katrina. Perhaps a chapter was lost on the way to the printer. I've done a word search on the main body of the 228-page report. Looking for the phrase "White House," I found six pages on which the White House is mentioned; four of those are in the recommendation section and describe how the White House can be involved in a better response next time.

Here are the other references to the White House (the bold emphasis is mine):

* p. 36 -- [A]s late as 6:00 PM EDT that day [August 29, the day Katrina made landfall, the DHS Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC) reported to senior DHS and White House officials that, "Preliminary reports indicate the levees in New Orleans have not been breached, however an assessment is still pending."

....At 6 PM EDT aboard a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA Public Affairs Official, observed the extent of the flooding and was "struck by how accurate" the earlier local reporting was of the levee breaches. He then called FEMA Director Michael Brown and other FEMA officials with his eyewitness account at approximately 8 PM EDT that day. Director Brown has testified that he subsequently called the White House to report the flooding information he received from Bahamonde. Following the calls, Mr. Bahamonde arranged a conference call with State, regional, and FEMA officials to recount what he had seen. An HSOC report marked 10:30 PM EDT, but not received at the White House until 12:02 AM EDT the next day, summarized the conference call and reported Mr. Bahamonde's observations on the extent of flooding throughout New Orleans.

* p. 49 -- These [faith-based groups] groups succeeded in their missions, mitigated suffering and helped victims survive mostly in spite of, not because of, the government. These groups deserve better next time. Jim Towey, Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said these folks were the foot soldiers and armies of compassion that victims of Katrina so desperately needed.

Did Bush do anything wrong? Apparently not. Well, to be fair, the report does gently suggest that he apparently failed to act on his vision. The foreword notes,

Hurricane Katrina prompted an extraordinary national response that included all levels of government--Federal, State, and local--the private sector, faith-based and charitable organizations, foreign countries, and individual citizens. People and resources rushed to the Gulf Coast region to aid the emergency response and meet victims' needs. Their actions saved lives and provided critical assistance to Hurricane Katrina survivors. Despite these efforts, the response to Hurricane Katrina fell far short of the seamless, coordinated effort that had been envisioned by President Bush when he ordered the creation of a National Response Plan in February 2003.

So Bush had done the appropriate pre-disaster work. He had "envisioned" a "seamless, coordinated effort." Yet somehow that envisioned response did not happen on its own--while Bush was playing guitar at a Navy base in San Diego the day after Katrina hit. Well, shouldn't Bush have fired whoever was responsible for not putting his vision into practice? I supposed that would not be too compassionate.

And here's an interesting comparison. The House report on Katrina (written by Republicans) was titled, A Failure of Initiative. Bush's report is called Lessons Learned. Its not called Lessons Learned Quickly, for there still is no director of FEMA (to replace Michael Brown)--just an acting director.

L.A. Labor Thrown Into Crisis

The country's most dynamic and progressive union coalition – The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor--finds itself in a world of pain this week, just a few months out from a looming hotel workers' showdown.

Earlier this week, the charismatic County Fed leader Martin Ludlow – a close ally of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa--was forced to resign under the cloud of a criminal investigation. Ludlow reportedly took a plea deal to avoid jail by stepping down after a multi-agency probe turned up evidence that he violated campaign laws when he accepted undisclosed union phone banking support during his 2003 election to the City Council.

This is the second shock to the 800,000 member County Fed in less than a year. Last May, its highly successful leader, Miguel Contreras, died of a sudden heart attack. Contreras had forged the Fed into a political powerhouse whose endorsement was readily sought by aspiring candidates. Contreras, however, had thrown the Fed's support to then-incumbent Mayor James Hahn against challenger Villaraigosa. It was a decision that had deeply split labor ranks; Villaraigosa, a former union organizer, had been considered labor's best friend and seemed the natural favorite for the Fed.

In an ironic twist, Contreras died just days before Villaraigosa's election. In order to mend fences, the County Fed then turned to 41 year old African-American Ludlow--who had been an aide to Villaraigosa--to take over the helm of the organization.

Ludlow artfully held the County Fed together even as its national affiliates went through a divorce last year that split up the AFL-CIO.

His forced resignation has now tossed the union alliance into a deep crisis. In the last few days there had been open speculation that Contreras' widow – hotel workers' leader Maria Elena Durazo--would be given the top post. But a two hour meeting of the County Fed on Thursday ended inconclusively. Another possible contender is Kent Wong, the popular leader of the UCLA labor center. There's no word when the Fed will meet again to try to elect a new head.

 

Days of Rage in Iraq

Iraq is in the early stages of a civil war, as events on the ground make painfully clear. At least 111 people have been killed since Sunni insurgents attacked one of the holiest Shiite mosques yesterday, in what the AP called "two days of rage." Sunnis claim that 168 of their own mosques have been hit in retaliation by Shiite militias. The crossfire claimed the lives of three Iraqi journalists and seven more US troops.

Think Progress reminds us that the CIA's National Intelligence Council assesment in September 2004 warned President Bush that this could happen. From the Washington Post:

 

In the best-case scenario, the NIC said, Iraq could be expected to achieve a "tenuous stability" over the next 18 months. In the worst case, it could dissolve into civil war.

 

The White House, as they've been known to do, ignored the CIA's findings, labeling the professional intelligence community "pessimists and naysayers." Bush called the assessment a "guess."

Of course, prescient critics of the war, such as Senator Robert Byrd, raised these questions before the war authorization vote:

 

What plans do we have to prevent Iraq from breaking up and descending into civil war?

 

None, it turned out. Bush still doesn't understand the magnitude of the civil war or how America's troop presence inflames it.

You know things are going badly for the Administration when even Bill O'Reilly wants to cut and run.

L'Affair Dubai Spins Beyond Satire

The Onion may have grounds for legal action against the Bush administration for unfair competition.

After all, the administration is supposed to make its best effort to manage the affairs of state in a responsible manner. The Onion, a weekly humor publication that plays the news for laughs much as John Stewart's "Daily Show" does, is supposed to satirize the inevitable mistakes, missteps and misdeeds.

But the month of February has seen the administration stealing The Onion's thunder on a regular basis.

First, the vice president shot a guy in the face and then kept the story under wraps for a day.

Then, before the furor over Deadeye Dick's "peppering" incident had died down, the administration got itself embroiled in a controversy over the determination of the president to approve a deal that would put six major U.S. ports under the operational control of a country that the bipartisan 9-11 Commission warned suffers from "a persistent counterterrorism problem."

The absurdity of the moment was placed in stark relief Thursday afternoon, when senior administration officials from the Departments of Defence, State, Treasury and Homeland Security trooped up to Capitol Hill to brief the Senate Armed Services Committee about the plan to let Dubai Ports World, a firm owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)in charge of ports up and down the east coast.

Noting a particularly concerning line in the 9-11 Commission -- "The United Arab Emirates was becoming both a valued counterterrorismally of the United States and a persistent counterterrorism problem" -- U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, asked the administration representatives: "Just raise your hand if anybody (at the witness table) talked to the 9-11 commission," said Levin.

The senator's request was met with blank stares.

It was a priceless moment, indeed, an Onion moment.

That's the problem.

The way the administration is handling L'Affair Dubai is simply unfair to The Onion. How can a satirical newspaper satirize that which is beyond satire? What next? A plan to "fix" Social Security by betting the retirement security of millions of Americans on a stock market gamble? Oh, well, never mind.

One Red State

A friend of mine from South Carolina sent me the most astonishing article on his home state from yesterday's USA Today. Reporter Ron Barnett examines the quixotic quest of Cory Burnell, founder of Christian Exodus, to have all of the nation's evangelical Christian conservatives move to South Carolina.

Hey, why not? Good for the left (we can pick up all those borderline red states) and good for the far right. Tired of all those liberals and activist judges protecting abortion, legalizing gay marriage and funding public schools that teach evolution. Round up the kids, call U-Haul and head to the heart of the Old Confederacy. It's got 750,000 Southern Baptists, Bob Jones University, nice golf courses and rosy real estate values. When the Exodus gets into full swing, Christians can take over state government and pass some real laws. On Burnell's docket: outlaw abortion, mandate life support, install Christian symbols in the statehouse, eliminate public schools, ban government 'taking' of private property. Oh yeah, and one curious item critical of "the perils of imperialist entanglements abroad." Gee, could he mean Iraq?

The sheer absurdity of Christian Exodus (and the mix of values behind it) is a testament to how much the religious right has changed under the Bush administration. Burnell's formula (isolationism + Christian social conservatism + anti-state rhetoric, with a dash of concealed white supremacy) was once boilerplate for the Republican Party. But now, as Esther Kaplan, Gary Younge and Salim Muwakkil all report, the strategists of the religious right have their sights firmly set on international turf and the black church -- with progress on the former and not so much on the latter.

Of course, that's one problem Burnell faces; South Carolina is 30% African American and although most are Baptist, they also poll and vote to the left. His more immediate problem, however, is recruitment. He's only got 20 or so families to move. Oh, and Christian Exodus is based in Texas. And Burnell himself still lives in California. So much for whistling Dixie.

The Abortion Debate Gets Real

It is rare that a decision by the South Dakota State Senate merits national attention. But there is simply no question that this week's vote by that chamber to ban abortion ought to be on the radar of every American who thinks that the right to choose is an issue. Certainly, opponents of reproductive rights recognize the significance; after the South Dakota vote, the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the militantly anti-choice Christian Defense Coalition, said he saw the foundations of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision crumbling and announced that, "With several states waiting in the wings to ban abortion, momentum is clearly building nationwide to overturn Roe."

Mahoney's allies in South Dakota agree. "The momentum for a change in the national policy on abortion is going to come in the not-too-distant future," says Republican Representative Roger W. Hunt, who has spearheaded the drive to make South Dakota the first state to pass a broad ban on the prodecure since the Roe decision of 33 years ago.

There's a reason this fight is playing out in this state.

South Dakota is one of three states -- North Dakota and Mississippi are the others -- with only one abortion provider.

With an overwhelming 23-12 vote to make it a felony for doctors to perform abortions, the South Dakota Senate has joined the lower house of the legislature -- which backed the bill by a 47-to-22 margin -- to endorse a move that could force the shuttering of that state's last clinic.

The fight is not over. South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, an anti-choice but somewhat sensible Republican, still must decide whether he wants to sign the bill. But the wide margins in favor of the ban in both houses of the legislature suggest that, even if Rounds determines that the measure goes to far, his veto could face an override threat.

If the South Dakota ban becomes law, it will face an aggressive challenge in the courts. But, as everyone is, by now, well aware, the courts have changed a great deal since the last time they weighed the basic question of whether women will have a right to make decisions with regard to the termination unwanted pregnancies.

Just how dramatically unwanted a pregnancy might be is of little concern to the South Dakota legislators who backed the ban. While a narrow exception was allowed for procedures that would save the life of a pregnant woman, the South Dakotans rejected amendments to the bill that would have provided exceptions in the case of rape or incest or serious threats to the health and well-being of the woman.

Representative Hunt was blunt about why he and other took a hard line: Providing protections in "special circumstances" -- such as cases where children are raped -- would have diluted the bill and muddied the push for a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe.

The court fights that may evolve over this particular measure are, in large measure, beyond the control of the great majority of Americans who support maintaining access to safe and legal birth control procedures. The failure of U.S. Senate Democrats and the handful of pro-choice Republicans in that chamber to filibuster the nomination of Justice Samuel Alito has created an opening that the anti-choice movement has for years been preparing -- on a meticulous state-by-state basis -- to exploit. The Supreme Court may still have a narrow pro-Roe majority, but that will only be known when and if a case involving the South Dakota law, or another one like it, is reviewed.

That does not mean, however, that supporters of reproductive rights have to stand by the sidelines and watch as the momentum builds to overturn Roe. As Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America notes, "When you see them have a ban that does not include exceptions for rape or incest or the health of the mother, you understand that elections do matter."

In 2006, 36 governships, including South Dakota's, will be up for election. Additionally, the vast majority of state legislative seats in the 50 states will be selected.

The fight over choice has often played out at the margins of our national politics, exploited by cynical strategists on both sides of the partisan aisle more as a tool to mobilize the passionate than to convince swing voters. Rarely, for instance, are television advertisements seen raising the issue on behalf or against a particular gubernatorial or legislative candidate. But the decision of the South Dakota Senate ought to change the equation for 2006, not merely in that state but nationwide. If ever there was a moment when the debate over reproductive rights was ready for the political primetime, this is it.