Katrina vanden Heuvel on Paul Wellstone ten years later, Allison Kilkenny on Obama and Romney's silence on the housing crisis, John Nichols on Clear Channel’s voter intimidation billboards and Elisa Wouk Almino on Brazil’s prison problem


PAUL WELLSTONE: TEN YEARS AFTER It’s been ten years since we lost Paul Wellstone, a true public servant and one of the few social movement politicians we’ve ever had. In an era of craven compromise and bipartisan austerity, it’s almost unfair to call him a politician at all. Wellstone walked the picket lines with farmers and workers. He was one of the few aspiring white politicians to “cross the color line” in 1988, as co-chair of the Jesse Jackson for President campaign in Minnesota. He was a proponent of some oft-forgotten truths: that you don’t have to sell your soul or embrace the elite consensus to get elected and that, especially for progressive representatives, grassroots organizers must be governing partners, not just election-time shock troops.

Wellstone shared these insights in our pages. Three years after his courageous vote against welfare reform, he warned that the law was “creating a new class of people, the ‘Disappeared Americans.’” After George W. Bush’s inauguration, he reminded Democrats that the real political “center” is not the one pundits and politicians talk about: “Citizens want us to deal with issues that are at the center of their lives.”

Wellstone urged a synergy that too often eludes Democrats and the left. “Policy provides direction and an agenda for action,” he argued, and “electoral politics is the main way, in the absence of sweeping social movements, that we contest for power and hold decision-makers accountable for progressive public policy.” Today his vision is alive in Wellstone Action, which trains activists and candidates (55,000 and counting) in political organizing. As an alternative to “triangulation,” says executive director Ben Goldfarb, the group is offering “the Wellstone triangle: connecting ‘core community organizing,’ ‘engaging directly in elections [as] an arena in which you can actually build and demonstrate power,’ and ‘a public policy agenda.’” There are “a lot of folks who believe you can make change in one of those three…and very few who really get how to weave them all together. That was something [Wellstone] showed, and taught, and talked about his entire life.”   KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL

WHAT HOUSING CRISIS? The presidential debates have come and gone without addressing the housing crisis, which continues to affect millions of Americans. It’s “a really complicated subject, and neither candidate has a strong plan [for] how they would go forward, so they would prefer not to talk about it,” said Janis Bowdler, director of the Wealth Building Policy Project at the National Council of La Raza. The NCLR recently sponsored an effort to drop off more than 30,000 postcards at Obama’s and Romney’s campaign headquarters asking each candidate to explain his housing plan.

As ABC News noted after the debate, Obama’s 2009 housing plan, which he said would help up to 9 million families avoid foreclosure, fell dramatically short of that goal, only helping around 1 million homeowners receive permanent modifications on their mortgages—just a quarter of those who applied for help.

Meanwhile, Romney’s plan has been criticized for its lack of basic details. “The major question is, do they envision housing as a part of our economic recovery and growth in the future—and if they do, what are you going to do about it?” Bowdler said. “We haven’t even gotten the candidates to say that much.”   ALLISON KILKENNY

VOTER SUPPRESSION, 0; DEMOCRACY, 1 Most of the talk about voter suppression this fall has centered on GOP attempts to enact voter ID laws, prevent same-day registration and limit early voting in battleground states. But what about old-school voter intimidation? What about billboards that try to scare inner-city voters with talk of felony prosecutions for “voter fraud”? Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, calls such signs, which have already gone up in Ohio and Wisconsin, a “targeted suppression tactic.” In Milwaukee, the African-American Civic Engagement Roundtable and the Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund held press conferences and protests in front of the anonymously funded billboards, as did activists in Cleveland and Columbus. In response, Clear Channel Communications, citing transparency concerns, agreed to remove the signs from its billboards and replace them with get-out-the-vote messages.

Roundtable director Mike Wilder, hailing the decision, points out that “a democracy is strong when it ensures that all of its citizens participate and have a say in their government. The decision…to take these voter intimidation billboards down and, in addition, put up positive billboards promoting voting gets us one small yet significant step closer to a stronger democracy.”   JOHN NICHOLS

BRAZIL’S PRISON PROBLEM After the United States, China and Russia, Brazil has the fourth-largest prison population in the world. As Human Rights Watch notes, its incarceration rate has “tripled over the last 15 years.” Today, Brazil’s 515,000 inmates represent 66 percent more than its prisons can handle. While high crime rates partly account for this, so does the country’s inadequate public defense system. Since 95 percent of the inmate population is poor, many cannot afford lawyers or bail. Nearly half are in pretrial detention—and many remain in prison even after their sentences are over.

Like US prisons, Brazil’s reflect a divided society. Criminals with a college degree are sent to a separate system. (At least two-thirds of Brazil’s inmates did not finish primary school.) Gangs segregate the inmates by race. Brazil’s most notorious gang, the Primeiro Comando da Capital, was formed after a prison massacre in 1992, in which police shot 111 inmates after a brawl. The gang has been linked to seventy police killings in São Paulo in the past year alone.

Sergio Adorno, director of the Núcleo de Estudos da Violência at the University of São Paulo, cites “a chronic problem of low pay and underqualified penitentiary personnel.” Reports of torture at the hands of prison guards are also widespread. If Brazil wants a better model, the Dominican Republic has reduced its prison size and lowered recidivism rates. Reforms implemented in 2003 provide better training and higher wages for staff and also make literacy programs for inmates obligatory. Prisoners spend fourteen hours a day outside their cells. These reforms may be harder to implement in a country with nearly twenty times the DR’s population—but Roberto Santana, who worked on the reforms, says that over the long run, they’re “an investment that gives an immense savings to society.”   ELISA WOUK ALMINO

The Voting Rights Watch 2012 blog has kept a vigilant eye on attempts at voter suppression throughout the election season.


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