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Monday, February 28, 2011

GOP contenders play King of the Hill

The respect President Obama has been getting from the other side of the aisle lately is enough to make you check the calendar to see if we were still on Valentine’s Day. Nope. That was two weeks ago.

Apparently so too is all the big talk about how Obama's re-election would deflate like a balloon in a pin warehouse, replaced with seemingly coordinated heartfelt confessions from Republican camps. 
From former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) to Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.) to Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), potential 2012 opponents have been offering Obama praise on, of all things, his political prowess.

Even hardcore partisan like Karl Rove had to acknowledge the president’s favorability.

On Meet the Press last Sunday, Barbour said, “The president is one of the greatest politicians in the history of the United States.”

Huckabee recently conceded that, “The people that are sitting around saying, ‘He [Obama]’s definitely going to be a one-term president. It’s going to be easy to take him out,’ they’re obviously political illiterates – political idiots, let me be blunt.”

And Christie, the non-presidential candidate some hope to draft for the gig, analyzed it in his typical style, “
[Obama] proved he could win once, so that’s one more time than anybody else who has run.”

Photo credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP
Out:    Obama-as-Jimmy-Carter talk.
In:       Obama-would-be-tough-to-beat speak.
Read:  Send money, Ma!

Meanwhile, Obama’s tightening his trash talk, ready to prove that he can “throw those ‘bows” on the blacktop or from the Oval Office.

With the surefire bet of GOP union-busting looking a little shakier, the new tactic seems to ante up the ego jackpot for the man (or woman) attempting to boot Obama from the White House.

Prove your gonads! Etch your glory in history! Take down THIS president! 

Chatter aside, smart money is still on the president. And for now, so is the public. For now.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Band on the run – Democratic state lawmakers bust a move, take budget standoffs to new heights

Enough with legislators on the lam already.

This tactic sparked imaginations in 2003 when Democratic state legislators in Texas bolted amid redistricting shenanigans practiced by former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (now a convicted felon) and his cronies in Austin. They prevented a quorum by hiding out in Oklahoma, stalling measures in the capital in hopes of blocking the action.

Throughout the Midwest these days, this seems to be the protest move of choice in a fight over the right of collective bargaining for public sector unions.

First, to the chagrin of some, the Democratic minority of the Wisconsin’s state senate hot-foot it out of town for “undisclosed locations,” though most clues point to Illinois.

Now, it’s the vocal – and equally fleet-footed – Democratic minority of Indiana’s legislature, also Illinois-bound. Maybe that’s because the state is credited with originating the tactic back in the 1840s.

While the travel and tourism bureau for the Land of Lincoln is probably tickled by this latest influx of lawmakers light and in flight, the need for such antics is lame.

Guessing the Democratic Wisconsin state senators want to avoid a repeat of what happened in the state House in the wee Friday hours, when the Republican majority bum-rushed  the vote.  They might be slowing the wheel, but they still look like punks unable to outfox their opponents. That prowess is what separates pols from pretenders – not frequent Amtrak miles.

It’s time someone played grown up and learned to actually negotiate and legislate. The latest winner-takes-all mentality sends the wrong message about our democracy to those observing our politics, be they young people domestically or overseas. Besides, even “upper hands” can look weak when “leaders” like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are outed for seeking power more so than any purported taxpayer savings.

As a nation, it’s mighty hard to argue against hardliners in Iran when Madison and Indianapolis seem to be vying for best-dictator-enabled-regime-impersonators-in-a-real-life-drama.

Heaven forbid Pennsylvania lawmakers start getting the bright idea of following suit. Illinois is already crowded, and New York, New Jersey and Delaware probably have extradition treaties in place. That leaves West Virginia, which would probably give most Pennsylvania Dems pause and make them stay in place for a while longer.

At least for now, newbie Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is bypassing this page from an apparent Republican National Committee blueprint to soften the field in 2012. Wisconsin and Indiana look like carbon copies: proclaim fiscal crises, try like hell to finally topple Democratic-leaning unions, claim moral high ground due to “the will of the people,” point to election results as inoculating proof.

GOP lawmakers in California,Idaho and Tennessee are trying it, and they won’t be the last. As state budget woes crash into the presidential campaign season, expect to hear this refrain more frequently – especially in areas where big union voter turnout could make the difference for President Obama.

California Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) told the Associated Press that "it's very hard to rein things in under the current process. Pensions are out of control. They have to be brought back in line with the private sector."

For those of you keeping score at home, the average private-sector pension is a fat zero, but kinder outfits may contribute to a 401(k) plan – at least they might have before this most recent economic downturn.

Maybe we can quarantine this outbreak of bait and switch union-busting lawmaking to stem the infection, and start revoking driver’s licenses of lawmakers, as a backup, lest this flight fever flow nationwide.

While entertaining and certainly a change in how we run government, it’s not one we want to believe in. Or deserve.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Keystone of Intolerance

The joke is that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Alabama in between. Sometimes it’s hard to dispute such characterizations in looking back at last week, where much of the South as awash in celebration over the “bars and stars” – and some in the Keystone State are part of the hoopla.

Confederate forces invaded southern Pennsylvania during the war; some areas, like York, just rolled over. Gettysburg, a one-time bloodbath of soldiers from both sides, has its own swath of Confederate celebrants amid the area’s history buffs. This proud sprinkling claims the righteousness of our infamous insurrection and some are among the Sons of Confederate Veterans

These ardent believers characterize the Civil War as “the preservation of liberty and freedom," "the motivating factor in the South's decision to fight the Second American Revolution.”

That freedom line is always worth a chuckle, considering that one of the factors for waging the insurgency was to retain the right to enslave others. 

It's hard to see the "heritage" and not hate, given who often give claim to the Confederate flag, just like it’s hard to look at people in those uniforms without thinking of “strange fruit swinging from the trees,” lashed backs or other miseries of black ancestors so summarily dismissed during these celebrations. Added salt for these wounds is the proliferation of Confederate revisionist history about the era. Unrepentant horrors visited upon a people equal to hate for many.

So the fact that this political swing state has a healthy number of folks waxing romantic about preserving a system that insisted on keeping human beings as chattel in chains – “states rights” – serves as an apt backdrop for the latest findings from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Nationwide, hate groups have topped 1,000 this year – including neo-Confederates.

Credit: Walt Handelsman, Tribune Media Services
Pennsylvania’s share of this dubious list is 36 by the nonprofit’s tally – higher than Ohio, New York and West Virginia, but second in the region to New Jersey, which is home to 47 such groups. And there’s great variety of revulsion-inducing activities, from racist skinheads to neo-Nazis to anti-Muslim types to your garden-variety Klansmen.

For many of these members, black people should have never left chains – or African shores. And we won’t get into their love of Jews or other non-Christians.

Some would say the rise of a President Barack Obama has helped fuel resentment among white males stuck in a certain social class, the backbone of membership in such groups. SPLC reports that fringier elements from the conservative front – think “patriot” movements – have helped further frustrations that usually arise during economic downturns.

On the flip side, hate seems to be growing as an equal opportunity activity. At least nine of those identified groups are listed as radical black separatists, proving hate, like stupidity, comes in all colors.

Friday, February 18, 2011

GOP+election pledge for jobs = New abortion assaults

Ah, yes. How familiar is the bait-and-switch in politics.

Some people who voted for President Obama two years ago felt duped. They thought they were getting Superman, if not Super Negro, able to vanquish all partisanship from D.C. and unite this country with the wave of a lanky arm, because voters ushered him into office on a wave of "change."

Didn't happen.

Frustrated, people went back to the ballot box in 2010 for a fix. They felt a need to send a message, push for "faster" change. The economy was stalled. Everyone and his brother was getting a bailout, on their dime, no less. It was time to switch bums, bring in a new set of folks with new ideas.

U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Speaker Boehner push
 restrict women's reproductive rights. Courtesy: Getty Images/Alex Wong

For some reason, otherwise rational people equated that with the chest-thumping Republican Party of today -- thinking it somehow different from the party of 2008, or 2004, or 2000, or 1996. This GOP would offer that "change." After all, they said jobs would be their number one priority.

We're seeing daily evidence of how that's working. Last October, U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), now Speaker of the House, thundered that, "Americans have been crystal clear about what they want: more jobs, less spending and a more open Congress that respects and abides by the Constitution,"

So on the GOP menu for creating jobs, decreasing spending, etc.? Limiting access to abortion. By the way, it's federally recognized and protected by the Constitution.

Make sense? Does it matter? Anti-abortion is a Republican default stance, and the party is going full throttle.

First, it was hackneyed grandstanding to "eliminate federal funding for abortions." Never mind that the Hyde Amendment has made that law since 1976.

Today, the House of Representatives voted to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal funding. In case you need a refresher it's an agency that provides birth control, counseling and health services for men, teens and poor women, including abortion. That service, however, uses other funding streams. But that's not as sexy of a talking point and expect it to be glossed over.

Shocked? Don't be. It was laid out in the lovely manifesto of 2010, the GOP's Pledge to America. If you grew dazed by the rich pictures and rhetorical flourishes, just turn to page 6 for the blueprint of this latest legislative crusade, "We will permanently end taxpayer funding of abortion and codify the Hyde Amendment."

GOP leaders claimed that retaking the House was a mandate to do the people's business. To take a pulse of the "people's business," check a recent Gallup tally asking whether abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances. A rough 1 in 5 said it should be illegal under any circumstance; meanwhile, nearly 4 in 5 said it should be legal, even if only under certain circumstances. 
In fact, when asked the top problems facing the nation, abortion doesn't even make the list

Pretty clear evidence that it's not the most pressing issue for the American people. It's
still the economy, stupid. Maybe with a Republican lens, jobs are created by banning abortions.

Southeast Pennsylvania has 14 Planned Parenthood health centers, plus four more that provide abortion services. Statewide, there are some 45 health centers, sometimes lifelines for women struggling without health coverage; 12 percent of Pennsylvania women are uninsured, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Maybe leaving women in the hands of shady clinics/chop shops and alleged doctors like Kermit Gosnell is the ultimate goal. Something like Scared Straight! Abortion Edition! Still misses the point about jobs, though.

Then again, maybe restricting funds to a proven agency that provides everything from lessons on preventing sexually transmitted diseases to prostate cancer screenings will halve the area's 9.4 percent jobless rate.

Doubt it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Unpeeling the power of Independents: Part IV

NEW YORK, 2:07 – For a full eight hours last Saturday, voters from across the country who decided they would be neither part of the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party huddled together in the Skirball Auditorium at New York University to discuss a central premise.

Given that they had no faith in America’s major political parties operating in the interest of the people they purport to represent, how then could they, ordinary, frustrated citizens, change the process?

At roughly the same time most media attention fell to the political conservatives gathered at the D.C. confab known as CPAC, a cluster of independents gathered on a cold New York day to strategize if, indeed, they could reform America.

It’s a question that many are pondering, particularly as the task got increasingly harder after Jan. 19, 2009. Exhausted and exhilarated, many progressive voters who had rallied to some degree for a new era in government for and by the people drifted back to the sidelines. While President Obama warned the heavy lift of the 2008 elections was just the first of many, his exhortation seemed to fall on deaf ears – much like his promise to push for school reform through non-Democratic means such as merit pay for teachers or his pledge to intensify the fight in Afghanistan, as the “right” war to battle in the Middle East.

Exhaustion led to frustration among progressives when partisan puppet-masters started pulling strings double-time to halt Obama’s popular momentum and clear national mandate for change. And the key barometer has been the pulse of the independent movement. Their indifference toward the Democratic majorities in Congress demonstrated dissatisfaction of extraordinary depth and volatility.

After all, some 1 in 3 Americans call themselves independent outright, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, heightening the importance of the gathering at Skirball last Saturday.

Part updates, part education, part pep rally, the daylong conference sought to convene independents from across the country – itself somewhat of an ironic proposal considering that independents don’t like to be corralled any more than wayward cats. Still, the answer from those assembled to the question of the day, not surprisingly, was ‘Yes.”  

Be it the man who traveled from the snow and cold of Utah just to meet with the snow and cold of New York or the woman from neighboring New Jersey who sought affirmation from fellow independents, those who gathered absorbed the day with a renewed sense of unity, as well as purpose. They were crusaders, bent on a mission of saving the country from its partisan self and reinvigorating the independent spirit they glimpsed in a man audacious enough to think he could be the nation’s first African-American president.

"We want to see change in how the system operates,” said Jackie Salit, president of, sponsor of the conference, Salit had helped manage Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s winning independent run for a third term at the helm of New York.

“We are the country. We don’t have to ‘take it back.’ We do have to take control of our democracy,” she told the audience. “This has been hijacked by the political parties. We believe in creative self-governing activities, with or without a party.”

Heads nodded as she provided an overview, a state of independency, as it were. If anything, this gathering felt more like a business conference than a political one. There were tables set up just beyond the auditorium’s doors with information leaflets on activities in unlikely areas such as blood-red Texas and books for sale, authored by independent movement heroes such as Fred Newman and Lenora Fulani.

Many of the attendees seemed to be on a first-name basis with one another, hugging and chatting with each other as if at a class reunion or an annual revival. Newbies to the room said they felt at ease.

"This conference is confirmation of the direction I want to go,” said Pamela Talbert Hamilton, a Columbus, Ohio native who now calls Jamaica, Queens home. “I want to see my country better. I want to vote for who I want to vote for.

“My community is in shambles,” said Hamilton, a first-time conference attendee. “Elders don’t have health care or transportation. We need to work to enhance the lives of human beings through a broader political system. I want to do that however I can do that, damn a party.”

There are central tenets for which this group advocates. Open or abolished primaries. Non-political redistricting. Unencumbered access for third-party candidates as opposed to the strenuous hoops most states impose. Those are to start.

“There are structural issues of the political system we want to address,” insisted David Cherry, a Chicago-based activist who turned to independent politics early in his adult life. “When you have candidates that don’t have to identify with a party, it frees you to look at all possible solutions.”

As a youngster, he was angered by a political system that allowed kids suffering in schools with broken windows and communities stripped of clinics to be the norm rather than the exception. While there may be well-meaning people in the process, “it always gets into, ‘Can my party win this next election?’ It’s about winning elections and power more than anything else,” Cherry said.

What results, he said, is a system so polluted, when things break down, the easy solution is to promise to do better than the other guy, along with pointing to the other party as the impediment to progress.

“Without being able to affect the process, we won’t ever be able to do anything about poverty,” said Cherry, who works in youth development programs on Chicago’s South Side. “We won’t ever be able to figure out what to do about the economy. It doesn’t lend itself to a substantive dialogue.”

The latest battle to block health care reform efforts provides such an illustration.

A key proposal that emanated from Republican minds two decades ago and now proposed by a Democratic president may well wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court, egged on by Republican opposition.

And so on.

That’s not to say the independent movement has been without its own ideological struggles.

After Ross Perot’s indie presidential bid went down in flames, a heated battle for control of the Reform Party he helped assemble ensued. A righteous knock-down-drag-out between left- and right-leaning factions erupted. Pat Buchanan and his team won, but lost majorly at the polls. Few indies lent their support to his campaign, many complaining that he hijacked the movement in hopes of garnering more troops for his culture wars.

Yet billionaire Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent Michael Bloomberg is seen as a more authentic figure within this circle. In the eyes of the assembled, that’s reflected in the votes garnered for the three-time mayor – or even the fact that he is a three-time mayor. New York City had a two-term limit imposed on its mayors prior to Bloomberg; he persuaded city council to shift that view, just in time for his third run.

“A lot of politicians have the same attitude,” said Newman, who along with Fulani, helped to create the New Alliance Party in New York and stumped for Bloomberg. “Use them and then abandon them, after I’ve gotten their votes. Let me tell you the one person who hasn’t done that. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything, but Mike Bloomberg has never abandoned independent politics.”

The Frederick Douglass adage that “power concedes nothing without a demand” lies almost like a silent score to this event, and to the actions of these activists and converts.

The madness unleashed by tea partiers clearly pushed one part to its edges. Independents here said they had no such aspirations. They say they’d rather push the system toward a fuller democracy, a more perfect union.

More on independents

NEW YORK, 9:19A -- In an attempt to provide more blog posts of varying lengths, here's a quick-and-dirty: a link to the story on last weekend's National Conference of Independents.

Feel free to read the story and post your thoughts here.

I am still pulling together thoughts on a final piece on what it all means, reflections on the gathering, the voices, and the potential actions as a result of where things stand politically. At least from this vantage. Stay tuned to this space to read that!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Unpeeling the power of Independents: Part III

NEW YORK, 3:05P – The floor is open for comments. Jackie Salit, Lenora Fulani, and legal counsel Harry Kresky are on the stage, getting reports from the field. Comments pour in from the delegations. Nevada. California. Texas. New Jersey. New York. Pennsylvania. Illinois.
From l-r: Jackie Salit, president,,
 Lenora Fulani, political activist and educator,
and Harry Kresky, attorney

One man is fired up – inspired by events in Egypt. He's now "walking like an Egyptian, talking like an Egyptian. Talking about revolution!"

The crowd laughs.

One woman details her experience trying to ask a question at a Bloomberg rally. Her "question" devolves into a rant that goes ever left. She is politely listened to by the panel, and politely suggested to step away from the mic. 

Another man asks what would it take to have a "big moment." He's happy that Prop 14 passed and open primaries will be the norm, but wanted to know what the next step was in terms of the "sizzle." 

"I don't think it [Prop 14] is just a big moment for California," Fulani said. "It's a big moment for the country.  But you can't skip over the basic hard work of what's created this room, and what's created this movement overall." 

Another man wants to know how to protect candidates during open primary processes, citing former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and perceived electoral shenanigans.

"You don't. This is a democracy," Fulani said. "I know a lot of people talked about Cynthia's campaign. A lot of people voted against her, a lot of black people. I looked at the numbers for this.

"People get elected to office, and then think they shouldn't get challenged," she continued. "You go out, and make your case. If you want to make your case, you have to go out there and make your case."

One woman asked if the tea party is good for independent voting. "Is there something you see from your vantage point that's very valuable, from your vantage here?"

Salit didn't think so, saying that "the tea party has been very good for the Republican Party. That's as much as we know so far."

Yes, there are some possible overlaps on some common issues, such as concern about the national debt, she continued. But that's about where the positive correlations end.

"There is a history in this country of social conservative movements exercising their muscle to influence the Republican Party," Salit said. "I think that's what's going on now."

The lines to jump on the mic are steady. By 3:40P, the room starts to thin. Those who remain are fixed, with heads nodding with resonant comments.

'There is this unraveling of the old social compact and two parties trying to fight it out," Kresky said. "It's pretty clear we need something new. in many ways, that's why we're here." 

One man comes to the mic, without a question, but full of comments. about 5 1/2 minutes later, he sits down, after making a pitch for approval voting

Another man argues that perhaps independents still need a party, because people are geared toward institutions. Families can live together, and operate as a family, but there's still an expectation that there should be a marriage, he said. Like parties, he said, people get married.

"And then they divorce," Fulani shot back, to the applause of the crowd. 

The segment wraps at 4P, right when the whispers in the crowd

"Political system is out of whack with where the country is at," said Salit, alluding to recent reports showing that independent voters compose the majority of the American electorate. "Part of the reason we don't predict the outcome is that it's not predictable." 

Unpeeling the power of Independents: Part II

New York, 1:26P – The morning segment has wrapped and the crowd of attendees hustled into the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts auditorium’s foyer, hordes split between dashes to the restroom and stampedes for coats in order to face 35-degree weather in search for lunch.

Pamela Talbert Hamilton, an actress and Americorps VISTA member, is among the sea of people chatting about what she’s absorbing from the presentations.

She has vacillated between Democrat and independent voting during her adult life. As an independent, it can sometimes be tough having a good discussion with friends and family about politics without labels.

“It does take courage to say, ‘I want to go a new direction.’ It does,” said Hamilton, a 50-something Columbus, Ohio transplant who now makes Jamaica, Queens, her home. “It’s just that now, it’s all jacked up. Neither party is representing the interests of human beings in the fashion they should.

“Democracy is not about a party. It’s about human values," she said. "All this play on terminology. I’m a human being, and I want to see others grow and revel in their social greatness, however I can do that, damn a party." 

Unpeeling the power of Independents: Part I

NEW YORK, 10:05A – Just getting settled in at the 2011 National Conference of Independents. The  hundreds clustered in this NYU auditorium have convened from as far as California to as close as Brooklyn in order to answer a central question: “Can independents reform America?”

Jackie Salit, president of and a past manager of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaigns, is presiding. She opens in dissecting how a president elected by independents has been struggling to maintain his ideals, the same ideals that won folks over.

The room is diverse, young and old, urban and suburban. They are quiet listening to Salit’s address on the state of the presidency and the independent movement. Huge applause line when it is pointed out that President Obama spent scant time in looking at open primaries as a key reform. Stay tuned. Will be updating throughout the conference, both in blog posts and via Twitter updates.