Two former officials with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey described to Christie Watch a regime of secrecy, conspiracy and political favoritism inside the huge agency. They also claimed that Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, both of whom have resigned in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal, were key principals in a secret effort by Governor Chris Christie to raise tolls on the Hudson River bridges and tunnels in order to help fund a slush fund that was used to finance major construction projects that benefited the PA’s chairman, David Samson, and his law firm, Wolff & Samson. Among those projects: the raising and reconstruction of the Bayonne Bridge, a $1.2 billion project that benefited Skanska Koch, a construction firm represented by Wolff & Samson.
The projects, especially the Bayonne Bridge, were touted by Christie during his 2013 re-election campaign, and the governor used the project to win the backing of a major New Jersey labor union, the Laborers’ International Union.
The controversial toll hikes were the subject of major investigative articles in both the Newark Star-Ledger and the Bergen Record on Sunday. The articles described how Christie and New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo manipulated public opinion on the toll increase by having Christie’s aides first float very large increases in the tolls, allowing the two governors to then appear to be demanding restraint. Orchestrating the effort, the papers said, were Baroni and Wildstein.
According to one former PA insider, Baroni and Wildstein operated as political hatchet men for Christie, running what amounted to a network of spies inside the vast agency. The source told Christie Watch:
Bill [Baroni] was Mr. Politick and David [Wildstein] was the finger breaker. Bill was very affable, very articulate, very handsome, he played a sort of political role of smooth operator. And David was clearly operating at another level, where he would sort of skulk around the PA, get there early, walk around, see who was around.
The source added that there were at least four other PA officials who operated under Wildstein’s direction:
Each one of them was in their own way a David Wildstein spy in the different parts of the agency. And everyone knew it, that they were there to ensure orthodoxy. If you joked about Christie or said negative things it would get back to Wildstein. And people knew that “Uh oh, that might end my career.” And they were always, “Oh no, don’t be ridiculous that would never happen.” But it did.
They created a “climate of fear” inside the PA, the source said. And, he added, Baroni and Wildstein were often closeted with David Samson, the PA chairman and Christie’s political mentor. Samson, who has been accused of using his position as PA chairman to benefit his law firm, and whose resignation has been demanded by the Star-Ledger, was a highly engaged and activist chairman, said the source, adding that that was very unusual for a chairman. “Samson was in the office a minimum two, sometimes three times a week and [Baroni and Wildstein] would be behind closed doors with the chairman for two hours at a time,” he said.
Baroni and Wildstein, the latter of whom maintained a secret list of favored officials, conspired inside the PA to press for the toll hikes. Along with $1.8 billion in federal and PA funds used by Christie for pet projects after he canceled a plan to build a new Hudson River transit tunnel, the toll hikes and the PA’s more recent PA’s capital spending plan created a tidal wave of new cash for Christie to spend as saw fit. In an editorial on March 4, the Star-Ledger said in an editorial that all these funds created a “piggy bank” for Christie, and it quoted John Wisniewski, chairman of the committee investigating the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, who said, “It’s a slush fund.” According to the Star-Ledger’s news article, Baroni and Wildstein also organized a cabal inside the PA over the toll hikes:
The sources say the toll hike operation was run out of a conference room on the 15th floor of the Port Authority’s Manhattan headquarters on Park Avenue, and only those on Wildstein’s secret list had access to the room.
Only in New Jersey! Baroni and Wildstein reportedly met secretly with Christie and handful of top aides to organize the toll-hike effort. According to the Bergen Record:
A knowledgeable source said that only days later, on Aug. 3, Christie held a meeting in his office with about five top advisers, including former state Attorney General and Port Authority Chairman David Samson, Baroni and Wildstein. According to the source, Christie instructed the Port Authority officials to float the immediate $4 increase, and that he and Cuomo would reduce it to $2.
The two former PA officials interviewed by Christie Watch pointed to the Bayonne Bridge project as a key focus of Baroni and Wildstein’s efforts inside the agency. Not only did the project benefit Wolff & Samson and help Christie’s reelection effort, but within the PA it was widely believed that the project did not need to be rushed ahead, and could wait for years. Said one source:
The Bayonne Bridge was Bill’s big, big project. Rushing that through, making sure the right staff was working on it was a major, major political priority for Bill. And why? Because it’s an unnecessary project now, it probably should have waited ten years but it was a major Christie announcement that this is the way to secure the port’s future. And it tied in Christie’s relationship with the Longshoremen, and all the big port operators. [Baroni] set up his own team to do it, they answered directly to him. He would have weekly or bi-weekly meetings. He created his own task force, answerable to him, on the status of how the work was going for it, the Bayonne Bridge.
The Bayonne Bridge project had long been discussed within the PA. But, another former official said:
I recall there were meetings with Wildstein and/or Baroni about the PA position on Bayonne and they were concerned that not everyone was fully on board with the Bayonne Bridge and were still questioning.… With the arrival of the Chris Christie administration the Bayonne Bridge proposal took on a different life. It had already been a topic of conversation with people on both sides of the issue. But it took on new life once they got hold of it. Bill Baroni pulled together a group reporting to him on a direct basis on the progress of moving forward with the project.… They formed a team and informed Baroni on the progress. There were also political people, they were involved, they were part of everything.
Christie kicked off his reelection effort in 2012 at a rally with the Laborers’ International union, whose leader endorsed Christie, and cited the Bayonne Bridge project as a major reason for his support. But the union wasn’t the only beneficiary. One of the major contractors was Skanska Koch. Last April the PA awarded a $743 million contract to the firm and a partner to raise the bridge, so it could accommodate larger ships. And Skanska is represented by Wolff & Samson.
The investigation of Christie and his aides by the US Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Paul Fishman, began with an inquiry into charges that the administration threated to withhold Superstorm Sandy aid from Hoboken unless its mayor, Dawn Zimmer, backed another project that was connected to Wolff & Samson. Now, however, Fishman’s office is looking intently at the Bridgegate scandal, too. Agents from Fishman’s office have already <a data-cke-saved-href="http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/04/nyregion/federal-agents-aggressively-pursuing-bridge-inquiry-court-papers-show.html target=" href="http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/04/nyregion/federal-agents-aggressively-pursuing-bridge-inquiry-court-papers-show.html target=" _blank"="">visited the home of Bill Stepien, one of the governor’s former top political aides, and they’ve interviewed Paul Nunziato, the head of the PA police union, according to The Wall Street Journal, which added that at least three lawyers—J. Fortier Imbert, Lee M. Cortes Jr. and Vikas Khanna—from the US attorney’s office are looking into the GWB scandal.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey state legislative committee looking into the tangle of scandals has initiated a major effort to connect Bridgegate to the toll hike and tunnel cancellation issues, too.
Back in 2012, Baroni, who’s at the center of all this, was pressed by Senator Frank Lautenberg about the decision to raise the tolls. As WNYC reported at the time:
The senator was also unable to pin Baroni down on one of his key issues: what did Governor Christie know about the Port Authority’s plans for last summer’s toll hikes, and when did he know it? Baroni wouldn’t get specific. “I’m not going to talk about conversations that I have with different administration officials,” he said—spurring Lautenberg to retort: “Are you running a protection agency there?” “Excuse me?” responded Baroni, all wounded indignation.
Later, frustrated, Lautenberg told Baroni: “Your impertinence is barely tolerable.”
At that time, of course, the full story of how Wildstein and Baroni conspired with Christie to push through the toll hikes, and how the money was used in part to fund the pet projects of the PA’s chairman, wasn’t yet known.
Read Next: Christie Watch unravels David Samson’s tangled web at the PA.
The Code Pink co-founder is apparently in Turkey today, after millions learned—via her tweets—that she had spent a day in a cold Egyptian jail pen.
Medea Benjamin claimed abuse at the hands of her captors, leading to a broken arm or other arm/shoulder injury.
She had managed nevertheless to tweet a photo of her jail quarters, even of the food served to the group of women there, who had moaned all night, distressed or ill. (See @MedeaBenjamin). Her final tweet last night: “Help. They broke my arm. Egypt police,”
Now comes word that she has been deported—to Turkey. CBS confirms the story in this dispatch:
Benjamin said she was detained upon arrival in Cairo, where she was meant to join a delegation and then travel to the Palestinian territory of Gaza for a women’s conference.
Her plea for help was apparently answered by the U.S. Embassy, which confirmed to CBS News’ Alex Ortiz that Benjamin had left the country after the embassy provided consular assistance.
CODEPINK tweeted that she has been deported to Turkey.
Egypt’s government has cracked down harshly in recent years on opposition members, arresting dozens of supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. Several international journalists have also been arrested and held on terror accusations for merely speaking to members of Morsi’s now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
However, CodePink takes issues with some of the early reports, including my own, that the US consular office provided aid. In a tweet to me this afternoon, they relate, “The claim that the US embassy helped
@medeabenjamin is totally false; they didn’t answer her calls or visit her in distress.”
And then: “Update:
@medeabenjamin is in Istanbul, where she was deported to, headed to hospital to receive treatment for shoulder. Flying to US tonight.”
Read Next: Steven Hsieh: “Marissa Alexander Now Faces 60 Years in Prison for Firing a Warning Shot in Self Defense”
Their names are Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, 19, and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, 17. They were once soccer players in the West Bank. Now they are never going to play sports again. Jawhar and Adam were on their way home from a training session in the Faisal al-Husseini Stadium on January 31 when Israeli forces fired upon them as they approached a checkpoint. After being shot repeatedly, they were mauled by checkpoint dogs and then beaten. Ten bullets were put into Jawhar’s feet. Adam took one bullet in each foot. After being transferred from a hospital in Ramallah to King Hussein Medical Center in Amman, they received the news that soccer would no longer be a part of their futures. (Israel’s border patrol maintains that the two young men were about to throw a bomb.)
This is only the latest instance of the targeting of Palestinian soccer players by the Israeli army and security forces. Death, injury or imprisonment has been a reality for several members of the Palestinian national team over the last five years. Just imagine if members of Spain’s top-flight World Cup team had been jailed, shot or killed by another country and imagine the international media outrage that would ensue. Imagine if prospective youth players for Brazil were shot in the feet by the military of another nation. But, tragically, these events along the checkpoints have received little attention on the sports page or beyond.
Much has been written about the psychological effect this kind of targeting has on the occupied territories. Sports represent escape, joy and community, and the Palestinian national soccer team, for a people without a recognized nation, is a source of tremendous pride. To attack the players is to attack the hope that the national team will ever truly have a home.
The Palestinian national football team, which formed in 1998, is currently ranked 144th in the world by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). They have never been higher than 115th. As Chairman of the Palestinian Football Association Jibril al-Rajoub commented bluntly, the problems are rooted in “the occupation’s insistence on destroying Palestinian sport.”
Over the last year, in response to this systematic targeting of Palestinian soccer, al-Rajoub has attempted to assemble forces to give Israel the ultimate sanction and, as he said, “demand the expulsion of Israel from FIFA and the International Olympic Committee.” Al-Rajoub claims the support of Jordan, Qatar, Iran, Oman, Algiers and Tunisia in favor of this move, and promises more countries, with an opportunity at a regional March 14 meeting of Arab states, to organize more support. He has also pledged to make the resolution formal when all the member nations of FIFA meet in Brazil.
Qatar’s place in this, as host of the 2022 World Cup, deserves particular scrutiny. As the first Arab state to host the tournament, they are under fire for the hundreds of construction deaths of Nepalese workers occurring on their watch. As the volume on these concerns rises, Qatar needs all the support in FIFA that they can assemble. Whether they eventually see the path to that support as one that involves confronting or accommodating Israel, will be fascinating to see.
As for Sepp Blatter, he clearly recognizes that there is a problem in the treatment of Palestinian athletes by the Israeli state. Over the last year, he has sought to mediate this issue by convening a committee of Israeli and Palestinian authorities to see if they can come to some kind of agreement about easing the checkpoints and restrictions that keep Palestinian athletes from leaving (and trainers, consultants and coaches from entering) the West Bank and Gaza. Yet al-Rajoub sees no progress. As he said, “This is the way the Israelis are behaving and I see no sign that they have recharged their mental batteries. There is no change on the ground. We are a full FIFA member and have the same rights as all other members.”
The shooting into the feet of Jawhar and Adam has taken a delicate situation and made it an impossible one. Sporting institutions like FIFA and the IOC are always wary about drawing lines in the sand when it comes to the conduct of member nations. But the deliberate targeting of players is seen, even in the corridors of power, as impossible to ignore. As long as Israel subjects Palestinian athletes to detention and violence, their seat at the table of international sports will be never be short of precarious.
Read Next: The NFL must address violence against women.
Florida State Attorney Angela Corey will seek to triple Marissa Alexander’s original prison sentence from twenty to sixty years, effectively a life sentence for the 33-year-old woman, when her case is retried this July, The Florida Times-Union reports.
Alexander was convicted on three charges of aggravated assault in 2012 for firing warning shots in the direction of Rico Gray, her estranged husband, and his two children. No one was hurt. Alexander’s attorneys argued that she had the right to self-defense after Gray physically assaulted and threatned to kill her the day of the shooting. In a deposition, Gray confessed to a history of abusing women, including Alexander.
In September of 2013 a District Appeals court threw out the conviction on grounds that Circuit Judge James Daniel erroneously placed the burden on Alexander to prove she acted in self-defense, when she only had to meet a “reasonable doubt concerning self-defense.”
Judge Daniel originally slapped Alexander with three twenty-year prison sentences, but ordered that they be served concurrently. If Alexander is convicted a second time in July, State Attorney Angela Corey will seek consecutive sentences, adding up to sixty years in prison.
Florida’s 10-20-Life law imposes a mandatory minimum of twenty years in prison for anyone who fires a gun while committing a felony. Angela Corey’s prosecution team says it is following a court ruling that multiple convictions for related charges under 10-20-Life should carry consecutive sentences.
The advocacy group Free Marissa Now released a statement calling Corey’s move a “stunning abuse of power.” Members of the group say Corey is pressing for a longer sentence to thwart attention from accusations of prosecutorial misconduct, as well as recent failures in high-profile trials. Corey failed to secure murder convictions for George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn, two men who fatally shot black teenagers.
“Remember that when Marissa Alexander fired her warning shot to save her own life, she caused no injuries. Now she’s facing the very real possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison for that act of self-defense,” said advocate Sumayya Fire in the statement. “That should send a chill down the back of every person in this country who believes that women who are attacked have the right to defend themselves.”
Read Next: Aviva Stahl explains why British citizens are languishing in American prisons.
This article was originally published in the student-run Daily Cal.
The hours burned by as Anuraag Kumar scurried around California Memorial Stadium with hot summer rays beating on his back. But instead of a football, the UC Berkeley sophomore was carrying medical supplies.For about thirty hours every week during the summer 2013 football training camp, Kumar set up equipment and assisted physicians as a Cal Athletics intern. It’s an invaluable experience for a premedical student, he said, but there was one catch: it was unpaid. “It’s pretty exhausting,” Kumar said. “It’s difficult to work so many hours a week unpaid and still find time for a paid opportunity.”
Combating competition and economic decline, college students are increasingly struggling to find work and take on unpaid internships. The ubiquity of the latter follows the economy’s shift in the past few decades toward more casual employment, said Katie Quan, the associate chair of UC Berkeley Labor Center.
“It’s very hard to find a paid internship that will also give you experience for med school,” Kumar said. “Not doing them puts you at a disadvantage.”
Despite their prevalence, unpaid interns are not protected in the same way as paid employees are, leaving room for potential exploitation. California State Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, introduced a bill in January that would give unpaid interns the same protections from discrimination and sexual harassment as paid employees. The bill, currently in committee, came in response to a New York federal judge’s ruling last fall that a Syracuse University student could not sue the company where she was an unpaid intern for sexual harassment because she did not count as an employee. “The recession has forced young people to rely on these unpaid positions to build resumes and contacts,” Skinner said in a statement. “Employers owe them a safe and fair workplace.”
Unpaid internships dominated headlines last summer after unpaid interns sued a number of high-profile companies including NBC Universal, Sony and Condé Nast, claiming they suffered minimum wage violations from not being assigned different jobs than paid employees and not receiving training in an educational environment—two of the requirements for unpaid workers set by the US Department of Labor. The wave of suits provoked discussion not only about the lack of legal protection for interns but, more importantly, the value of unpaid internships.
Many students still see unpaid internships as necessary to break into certain industries, particularly nontechnical fields such as government and media, where paid opportunities can be scarce. Anna Shen, a UC Berkeley senior majoring in political science, started interning—unpaid—for a Berkeley City Council member last fall, bolstering her interest in working in the public sector. “Even in freshman year, everyone was getting internships,” Shen said. “The expectation was if you don’t get an internship by junior year, you have nothing to show when you graduate, and you won’t get hired.”
Nationwide, about 48 percent of internships taken by seniors graduating in 2013 were unpaid, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. But as no system exists at the state or federal level to specifically regulate unpaid internships, some students learn practical skills at their internship while others perform less meaningful labor.
“The purpose of unpaid internships should be to give young people a chance to sample certain kinds of work,” said Robert Reich, a UC Berkeley public policy professor and former US secretary of labor. “All too often, employers view unpaid interns as free help to do menial tasks.”
Unpaid internships are often infeasible for students who lack the luxury to forgo a paid opportunity to pursue an internship in their field of interest. “An unpaid internship can take away from time [students] need for studying, working and paying their expenses here at Cal,” said Julian Ledesma, interim director of the campus Educational Opportunity Program, citing the myriad challenges low-income and first-generation college students face. Still, Ledesma said while internships are important, students often gain professional skills through other activities such as research.
A 2013 NACE survey found that 37 percent of college seniors with unpaid internship experience received at least one job offer—only 1 percent higher than those with no experience. Students with no experience also had a higher median starting salary than those who took unpaid internships. In contrast, the study found that the percent of surveyed students who had taken paid internships and received at least one job offer was about 63 percent and their median starting salary was significantly higher, although the research did not take into account factors such as the types of jobs to which students applied.
To legitimize unpaid internships, many companies require students to receive academic credit for participating. At UC Berkeley, there is no campus-wide oversight of academic internships, although many departments follow Career Center guidelines. The center also recently said that it will approve a new option to receive internship credit through an online summer course via ISF 187. Typically, students can receive credit from their department if the internship directly relates to their major and they complete a project pertaining to it. “[Internships] allow students to explore a particular career option,” said Tyler Stovall, the dean of the undergraduate division at UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science.
For international students, the internship process is even tougher. To work legally, they must be authorized by special federal work permission—but only if their degree requires an internship, or if they’re taking a course or a project based on an internship. From last summer to this spring, UC Berkeley’s English and media studies departments each gave twenty-four undergraduate students academic credit for internships. Political science gave seven. In that period, 408 international students were authorized to take internships. The campus does not keep track of whether internships are paid or unpaid. In contrast, the majority of internships in electrical engineering and computer science are paid, said Christopher Hunn, an academic counselor for computer science.
Still working his unpaid internship on the field between classes, Kumar also has a paid job as a part-time tutor. It’s a balancing act, he says, to juggle an internship, a job and a full course load. But Kumar sees his internship as an investment towards his future. “I’d love to get a paid internship, but to gain that I need the right experience,” Kumar said. “I’m lucky my parents are willing to help out [financially]—a lot of people aren’t that fortunate.”
Read Next: check out this week’s Nation intern article picks.
As the crisis in Ukraine deepens, the Western media and political elites continue to debate the role that America should play. So what are America’s options? According to Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen, they are absolutely “zero, unless we want to go to war.” Appearing on PBS NewsHour with Hari Sreenivasan, Cohen insisted that Putin’s mission is to restore Russian security and greatness at home. Because of the economic, political and military realities on the ground in Ukraine, “Putin holds all the cards, for better or worse.” All eyes are now on Putin as the specter of civil war looms over an ethnically, linguistically and politically divided Ukraine.
The crowds that marched on the White House Sunday in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline project arrayed themselves behind a banner that read, “We did NOT vote for KXL.”
That was the most vital political message of a day that saw almost 400 Americans—the overwhelming majority of them young people—arrested as part of a dramatic protest against the oil pipeline project that has drawn outspoken opposition from environmental groups.
A lot of Washington politicians, pundits and professional strategists miss the political dynamic that goes with the pipeline debate. Polling shows that young people “get” the climate change issue, and that they see it as a high political and personal priority.
Indeed, they care about it so much that they marched on the White House to urge the Obama administration not to approve the Keystone proposal. Hundreds were willing to be arrested. They recognize, as notes Smith College student Aly Johnson-Kurts, an organizer of Sunday’s protest, that “the traditional methods of creating change are not sufficient…so we needed to escalate.”
This notion that traditional methods of creating change are not sufficient is significant, especially for Obama and his party.
The Democrats have relied in recent presidential election years on overwhelming support from voters under the age of 30. And they have suffered as enthusiasm among young voters has declined in off-year congressional elections.
In 2008, exit polls suggested, voters aged 18–29 accounted for 18 percent of the 131,313,820 Americans who turned out. Obama won their votes by a striking 66-31 margin over Republican John McCain. Obama’s winning margin was roughly 10 million votes, of which more than 7 million came from young people.
In 2012, according to exit polling, younger voters increased as a percentage of the overall electorate, with 18–29-year-olds making up 19 percent of the 129,085,403 who turned out. They favored Obama by a 60-36 margin. That translates to an advantage of more than 5 million votes for Obama. Notably, Obama won the national popular vote by 4,982,296 votes.
There are analyses that suggest an even more significant youth-vote benefit for Obama and the Democrats in battleground states. But the national numbers should establish the importance of the youth vote.
Unfortunately, turnout among young people tends to slide in off-year congressional elections—like the critical one that the US faces in 2014. In 2010, when Democrats suffered serious setbacks at the federal and state levels, voters under 30 made up just 11 percent of the overall electorate. They still backed Democrats—indeed, they were the only age demographic to do so—but their ability to influence election results was reduced by the sharp reduction in numbers.
The Obama administration must make its call regarding Keystone based on science and sound long-term thinking regarding energy, environmental and agricultural policy.
But those who talk about the political ramifications of this decision should keep in mind that sign that read “We did NOT vote for KXL.”
A 2013 poll found that more than 60 percent of young Americans felt that, were the administration to approve the pipeline, Obama would be breaking a campaign promise. And a significant percentage of those surveyed said they would feel betrayed by a decision to let the Keystone project go forward.
If young voters get a signal that they are not being heard, if they feel disappointed and disenfranchised, there is every reason to believe it will be harder for Democrats to mobilize them in 2014.
That does not mean that all young voters will stay home. Younger voters are not single-issue voters. Millions will still go to the polls in 2014, including, undoubtedly, the vast majority of those who marched on Washington Sunday. But if their percentage of the overall electorate is low, and if a portion of those who do turn out opt out of frustration or hope for a Green alternative, an already tough election season could get dramatically tougher for the Democrats.
Read Next: Keystone XL might be making you sick, literally.
As others at The Nation and elsewhere have observed over the past two weeks, the Ukraine political conflict (not to mention history) is complex, and one should be wary of black and white portrayals in the American media and via US officials and members of Congress. This applies as well to RT (formerly Russia Today) television and RT.com, which have a following among some on the US left and many others.
RT, of course, is funded by the federal budget of Russia through the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation. According to its Wikipedia page, it currently reaches the homes of 85 million in the United States, making it the foreign channel with the second-highest penetration here (after the BBC). It also goes out to over 600 million in 100 other countries, they say.
Just for fun, here are all of the Ukraine-related headlines on their site at present:
And, on the op-ed page:
The West organized the coup in Ukraine and they can make this very ugly, but there is no chance of Russia being able to back down, Danny Welch, blogger and anti-war activist, told RT.
Read Next: Nicolai N. Petro’s take on the situation in Ukraine.
There’s an old joke about presidential primary politics involving Mo Udall, a Democratic member of Congress from Arizona back in the 1970’s, who tried and failed to make it as a candidate for president. It goes like this:
Shortly after I announced my candidacy in New Hampshire, I walked into a local barbershop and began introducing myself:
“Hi, I’m Mo Udall and I’m running for President.”
“Yeah, we know,” says one of the hangers-on. “We were laughing about that yesterday.”
Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, might not be laughing if he heard that joke. With Chris Christie in deep and growing trouble over the set of scandals that surround him, there’s increasing talk that one of the other governors waiting in the wings might step in to take over the front-runner’s position—and Jindal, a very, very conservative Republican whose platform is centered on slicing and dicing “entitlements,” including Medicare and Social Security, wants to be that governor. For the past two years, he’s been assembling the rudiments of a presidential campaign team. There’s only one problem: in poll after poll of Republican voters, Jindal comes in dead last—or the pollsters don’t even bother including his name among the choices.
But don’t tell Jindal. He’s building a campaign machine, and he’s out to grab headlines. Last month, during a meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, Jindal easily eclipsed Christie, who stayed in the background, and it was Jindal who appeared as the Republican spokesman on Face the Nation on February 23 and who went to the White House for a dinner with President Obama. Christie skipped that dinner, and coming out of the White House Jindal took the microphone to denounce Obama is no uncertain terms, breaking the polite protocol that usually marks such events.
And on March 14, the New Hampshire Republican party is hosting “An Evening with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.”
His campaign is already taking shape. Last year, Jindal founded what looks like a pre-presidential organizing committee called America Next. In its mission statement, Jindal says:
There is a great sense in this country that the leftwing Obama experiment has been a failure…. A rebellion is brewing outside the Washington Beltway.
According to The Weekly Standard, Jindal is putting together seasoned political operatives for America Next:
Jindal will serve as America Next’s honorary chairman, while the day-to-day operations will be run by Jill Neunaber, a veteran of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign… Curt Anderson, a spokesman for America Next, says the group will have “experts all over the country, including Governor Jindal, working on policy plans.”
Curt Anderson helps run On Message Inc., a high-powered (and Louisiana-connected) political strategy and media firm. Anderson has worked for Steve Forbes and for the Bush/Cheney election team, and he helped elect Jindal governor. According to his On Message bio, “In 2010 Curt co-authored Governor Jindal’s new book, Leadership and Crisis.” Other professionals at On Message include Wes Anderson, Jindal’s pollster, and Timmy Teepell, Jindal’s top political strategist. His On Message bio says:
[Teepell] served as Chief Strategist on Governor Jindal’s re-election campaign and won it by a historic margin. Teepell directed Governor Jindal’s transition successfully and later advised multiple new Governors on their transitions. In his job as Jindal’s Chief of Staff, Teepell helped implement historic reforms that have turned his home state of Louisiana around. In recent years, Teepell served as a campaign consultant to the Republican Governors Association assisting in winning multiple races around the country.
The governor’s longtime political adviser Curt Anderson, of OnMessage Inc., confirmed Monday that Chris Jacobs is joining the nonprofit’s staff as a policy director…. Jacobs worked for Jim DeMint, a U.S. senator from South Carolina who now runs The Heritage Foundation.
And National Review says that Jindal has tapped Spencer Zwick, a top fundraiser for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, “for an assist with introductions to some of the Romney campaign’s top givers.”
Is Jindal running? It sure sounds like it. To Politico, he gave the usual demurral:
Of course, there’s no satisfying the press’s appetite for all this 2016 speculation, and that’s fine—none of it matters in real life. The whole thing is ridiculous and we are getting way ahead of ourselves.
Of course, by any standard measure, Jindal is indeed way ahead of himself. Still, the New Orleans Times-Picayune put his chances this way:
Jindal’s move may have been savvy. Among the probable Republican presidential candidates, Jindal is often ignored or dismissed. In the wake of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s downfall, a stunt at the White House, well timed and expertly executed, could expose him to conservative primary voters who might find much to admire in a politician with the courage to confront Obama.
Based on his record in Louisiana, his past as a politician and Washington policy geek, and his hiring of folks from outfits such as the Heritage Foundation, is seems clear that Jindal will present himself as an authentic far-right governor who’s committed to dismantling the social safety net. He has experience in Washington trying to do exactly that. Back in the late 1990s, in a little-known part of his career but one that gets a mention on his official Republican Governors Association bio, Jindal was the executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare. As such, Jindal was part of the group that laid the plans, only partially successful, to privatize and voucherize Medicare.
In Louisiana, he tried and failed to enact a sweeping tax reform plan that would have eliminated the state’s income tax and replaced it with a far more regressive sales tax. The idea was intensely unpopular in Louisiana, and the governor’s popularity went into a steep dive as a result. As The New York Times, reporting on Jindal’s defeat on the issue, said:
Then he announced he was shelving it. “Governor, you’re moving too fast, and we aren’t sure that your plan is the best way to do it,” Mr. Jindal said, describing what he had heard from legislators and citizens alike. “Here is my response,” he said. “O.K., I hear you.”
The plan, to get rid of the state income and corporate taxes and replace the lost revenue with higher and broader sales taxes, was not dropped altogether. Mr. Jindal emphasized that he was still committed to losing the income tax, but that he would defer to the Legislature to suggest how exactly to make that work.
But Jindal isn’t giving up on the idea. Said Teepell, “You go through temporary rough patches. But that’s not going to slow him down.”
Like Christie, Jindal supports charter schools and vouchers and getting rid of teacher tenure. Unlike Christie, Jindal refused to accept the expansion of Medicaid under Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Down in Lousiana, everyone knows he’s running. Said Bob Mann, a former aide to the state’s Democrats and a professor at Louisiana State University:
You don’t get any argument from anybody down here that Jindal’s running for president—it’s just an accepted fact, like the sun rising in the East. There’s an overriding sense among insiders here…that most of the higher-profile initiatives that he’s embarking on here are all with the national audience in mind. He’s totally devoted to building relationships outside of Louisiana. Louisiana is no longer in his focus—he’s looking way beyond us.”
As for whether or not Jindal’s tax initiative was really meant to pass or whether it was designed to win favor among national Republicans, Mann says: “I question whether he really wants to do something or if he just wants the headline that he tried to do it, worked really hard and these nasty tax-raising Democrats foiled him.”
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