Energy industry spending in a 10-year battle over fracking in backyards could end up putting Colorado property laws on a feudal level.
Co-published by Westword
Mike Foote is prosecuting another case tonight, just as he has for more than a decade. The square-jawed Indiana transplant indicted petty thieves, violent criminals and Ponzi schemers in his old day job as a deputy district attorney in Boulder, Colorado — but here at a public library in Longmont, 30 miles north of Denver, he is rhetorically indicting the perpetrator he’s been most obsessed with: the fossil fuel industry.
At this town meeting about the upcoming election, Foote is charging the industry with attempted murder — of the entire state’s economy.
“We have five oil and gas companies that want to amend our Constitution, our controlling document,” says Foote, a dark-haired 45-year-old father of two who has been one of the legislature’s most outspoken critics of oil and gas companies. “They’re putting a lot of money into it, millions and millions of dollars. They may win, and they may buy a portion of our constitution that controls everything that we do.”
Amendment 74 does not appear to be part of a power-grab by Texas energy barons. Instead, it taps into fever-dream fears about Gestapo government.
In his gray suit, blue shirt, no tie — Foote cuts a profile that is way more office park dad than radical anti-capitalist, which may boost his seemingly counterintuitive argument. After all, this is an area of Colorado still narrowly divided between the parties, and Foote is passionately railing against Amendment 74, which would expand property owners’ power to claim “just compensation” from government. The initiative’s curt 11 words can, at first glance, appear to be just a simple “good government measure that makes sense for all of us,” as Denver Post editor-turned-fossil fuel industry spokesman Dan Haley recently insisted.
Foote concedes that the ballot measure’s folksy artifice of frontier fairness seems compelling. On its face, it does not appear to be part of the now-familiar power-grab by Texas energy barons trying to install noxious fracking rigs next to idyllic neighborhoods in Colorado’s fast-growing suburbs. Instead, the amendment taps into fever-dream fears about Gestapo government.
“The commercials typically show some salt-of-the-earth guy with a baseball cap that’s driving around a tractor on his farm. Supposedly he’s saying, ‘Well if government takes your property, then they should pay you,’ which sounds good, right?” Foote says as a few heads nod and an affirmative murmur ripples through the white-haired crowd.
But, then, eminent domain folklore isn’t necessarily reality — and as its opponents tell it, Amendment 74 is not some good old grassroots common sense spontaneously crafted by hardscrabble ranchers. Foote explains that strong takings laws are already on the books, and that this constitutional initiative was meticulously engineered by a team of high-powered Denver attorneys and political operatives to achieve only one objective: shielding oil and gas corporations from all public interest regulations that may emerge as population growth and energy development collide in the Rocky Mountain West.
For its part, the measure’s sponsor originally admitted that the amendment is indeed meant to protect drillers’ access to oil and gas reserves. And yet despite that early moment of candor, the industry-funded issue committee pushing the measure has since then constantly insisted that it is simply a general-interest initiative needed to thwart an impending assault on Colorado’s way of life.
“Amendment 74 protects all private property owners, including those who grow and raise our food and have invested a lifetime of financial and sweat equity into their property,” says the website of Protect Colorado, which gets almost all of its funding from oil and gas corporations. “When a government action takes or devalues property, it is only fair to make sure private property owners are compensated for their losses. Denying family farmers, homeowners and other property owners the right to decide how to use their own land runs contrary to Colorado values.”
As a concept, Amendment 74 is not new — it resurrects the libertarian ballot-initiative fad from the mid-2000s, when seven Western states considered similar property rights proposals amid the furor over a controversial Supreme Court case strengthening eminent domain powers. This time around, if the amendment passes November 6, it will radically alter the law to give oil and gas companies more power to sue state and local governments for property losses if those governments restrict or regulate fossil fuel exploration for any reason: health, safety, climate change — anything.
Colorado’s amendment is a radical model that could block all future state efforts to reduce fossil fuel extraction, carbon pollution, vehicle emissions and climate change.
In the upcoming election, voters in Arizona, Nevada and Washington State will consider environmental ballot measures that could reduce fossil fuel industry profits at the very moment key parts of the industry are already facing financial turbulence. As scientists’ climate change warnings become increasingly grave, the industry will likely confront even more such initiatives to wean America off oil and gas. But if Amendment 74 is successful in a swing state like Colorado, oil and gas companies will have birthed a new template that could be replicated in other locales. It is a model that could block all future state efforts to reduce fossil fuel extraction, carbon pollution, vehicle emissions and climate change.
“Any kind of decision a local government makes could be subject to a lawsuit,” Foote says, looking around the gray-carpeted room and referring to a PowerPoint slide showing the text of the amendment. “If the lawsuit is successful, then guess who’s paying? Taxpayers.”
A similar Oregon amendment opened a Pandora’s box of litigation, until much of it was repealed.
In fact, the Colorado legislature’s nonpartisan analysts concluded that if Amendment 74 is approved by voters, taxpayer expenditures for compensation to plaintiffs would “be significant for all branches of state government.” In Oregon, when timber companies and developers passed a similar measure in 2004, it opened a Pandora’s box of litigation, suddenly prompting thousands of claims demanding billions of dollars worth of taxpayer compensation for alleged losses from the state’s land-use laws. The situation became so dire that voters repealed much of the amendment only three years later.
And yet 11 years after the Oregon measure was aborted, it is being revived in Colorado by fossil fuel money — and in a broader, more purified form than any property rights initiative in American history.
Critics of Colorado’s Amendment 74 say if it passes, it could mean anything from chemical industry lawsuits demanding payment for losses from clean water laws, to factory farms claiming damages from anti-pollution statutes, to strip clubs and pot shops seeking remuneration for zoning regulations that restrict their locations. Legal experts have even warned oil and gas companies that Amendment 74 could actually backfire on the fossil fuel industry itself — they say it could spur homeowners to file lawsuits claiming nearby fracking sites reduce their property value, and those suits could then prompt regulators to simply freeze all new permits for energy development.
The hypotheticals are infinite and portend a destabilizing miasma of legal turmoil, which is why major newspaper editorial boards, public officials from both parties, business groups, real estate interests and environmental organizations have set aside age-old differences to officially oppose the measure. However, the official statements of opposition have not been backed up by an overpowering expenditure of political capital or resources to stop the measure — and now the highest-profile leader in national progressive politics is sounding an alarm.
“Colorado Amendment 74, pushed by the fossil fuel industry, seems to be one of the most dangerous propositions in the country,” tweeted U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, days after visiting Colorado on a campaign swing. “It could open the floodgates for oil, gas and other corporate interests to bankrupt the state. This extremely dangerous amendment must be defeated.”
Amendment 74 is an economic nuclear weapon that can automatically detonate and bankrupt the state if any public agency tries to even modestly restrict fossil fuel production.
The fossil fuel industry, however, isn’t budging. Despite pleas from power players across the ideological spectrum, major petroleum corporations have dumped more than $8 million into the main group pushing the initiative.
Why? Because for oil and gas CEOs, Amendment 74 is no hypothetical. It is first and foremost designed to be the industry’s dead-hand insurance policy — a constitutionally authorized economic nuclear weapon that can automatically detonate and bankrupt the state if any public agency tries to even modestly restrict fossil fuel production.
“These measures have essentially blocked the enactment of any significant new community protections and severely undermined the protections that pre-dated the measures,” Georgetown University researchers concluded in a 2008 report that seemed to predict the oil and gas industry’s current attempt to use the initiatives to squelch fossil fuel regulations. “While the property rights agenda is generally advertised as being for and on behalf of the ‘little guy,’ the primary beneficiaries of the property rights agenda have been relatively well-to-do special interests.”
Proposition 112, which would require new drilling operations to be set further away from occupied buildings or water sources, is the threat that prompted Big Oil and Gas’ Manhattan Project.
The Amendment 74 apocalypse is not some distant prospect: It could be triggered if environmental activists are successful in circumventing Colorado’s state legislature and passing their own separate ballot measure this year.
“Do We Have Any Standing Whatsoever?”
To understand Amendment 74’s underlying objective, you must first understand Proposition 112, which would require new drilling operations to be set further away from occupied buildings or water sources. If Amendment 74 is the oil and gas sector’s nuclear weapon, then Proposition 112, which is on the same ballot, is the threat that prompted the industry’s Manhattan Project.
“If 112 passes, and Amendment 74 passes, it makes 112 meaningless,” says Foote, as the Longmont meeting winds down. “That’s the point.”
Prop. 112 is a brawl over who gets to make decisions: residents in their own towns, or a few politicians bankrolled by energy corporations.
If you just watch the election-season commercials, you may think the battle over the setback measure is just another replay of the age-old conflict between environmental activists and powerful industrial interests. It certainly is that — but it is also something bigger. Beneath the billboards and direct mail pieces and television ads, Prop. 112 is actually a brawl over who gets to make decisions: residents in their own cities and towns across Colorado, or a handful of politicians in the capital, bankrolled by corporations intent on extracting every last bit of profit from the fossil fuel reserves underneath Front Range communities.
A northward journey on I-25 from Denver takes a visitor through the front lines of this power struggle that is unfolding in the Wattenberg Field, an oil- and gas-rich expanse stretching across 2,000 square miles of northeast Colorado.
Amid the blur of big box stores and grasshopper-like oil pumpjacks, you first hit Thornton, where oil and gas lobbyists convinced a court to invalidate the town’s pipeline rules, and then in trash-talking fashion, warned other cities that they’d be next if they tried anything similar. Just to the northwest is Broomfield — a patch of suburban sprawl where an oil and gas company is running scorched earth campaigns against local officials who are seeking to restrict new drilling sites. Beyond that is Lafayette, whose voter-approved drilling ban was struck down by a state court, and where environmental activists angrily shut down a recent city council meeting.
Proposition 112 is a blunt-force instrument. It does not seek small compromises or accept the oil-connected political establishment’s definition of what is “realistic” or “reasonable.”
Ultimately, you hit Weld County, home of the now-iconic Firestone — the bedroom community where two people were killed in 2017 by an explosion caused by a severed gas line from a nearby well. You’ll also find Greeley, where a major drilling site is planned right next to a school in a low-income neighborhood, and tiny, unincorporated Briggsdale, where an oil tank battery fire injured three workers in the last weeks before the election.
These are the battlefields of the “shale revolution,” where a dramatic increase in American fossil fuel production has been made possible by technological advances like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking.
Loveland woke up to letters informing residents of — not asking permission for — a project that will drill a dozen two-mile-long horizontal wells underneath its homes and schools.
Though oil and gas have been produced in Colorado for over a century, the last decade has seen a proliferation of drilling on the fast-growing Front Range in a state that — despite its cowboy reputation — is now one of the country’s most urban. Since 2000, as Colorado’s population has swelled by more than 1.3 million people, natural gas production has doubled and oil production has increased more than seven-fold — with much of that extraction taking place near major population centers.
Taken together, the state is experiencing an epic clash of two American Dreams: the young family’s dream of suburban homeownership and the frontier landman’s dream of fossil fuel gushers.
So far, the latter has been winning in Colorado. Here — unlike in Pennsylvania, another political swing state where recent battles over fracking have been fought — statutes and court rulings have stripped local communities of their authority to ban, zone, or in any way regulate the oil and gas operations that occur within their municipal borders. Efforts to enact so-called local control laws have been repeatedly thwarted by both Republicans in the state legislature and Democrats like Governor John Hickenlooper.
The full-court press against Prop. 112 has dominated local media for months and has employed an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink messaging strategy.
Modern oil and gas extraction is a complex, mechanized, heavy industrial process. It involves super-sized pad facilities that can house dozens of wells, with drilling and flowback operations that can last for months at time, afflicting surrounding areas with constant noise, odor, and traffic — to say nothing of the ever-present risk of spills, explosions, and other accidents. And under Colorado law, communities have virtually no authority to stop these facilities from popping up wherever a company can acquire land, obtain a state permit, and decide to start drilling.
The situation has sown a sense of powerlessness — and frustration with that lack of agency suffused an October city council meeting in Republican-leaning Loveland. The community of 76,000, located directly south of Ft. Collins, recently woke up to letters informing residents of — not asking permission for — a project that will drill a dozen two-mile-long horizontal wells underneath many of their homes and schools.
An overflow crowd packed into the council chambers to hear a presentation on the drilling proposal and share its concerns. Most were residents of the neighborhoods under which the planned drilling would take place — retirees anxious about how it would affect their health, parents worried about their young children. As city employees briefed council members on the plans, however, it became clear just how little control Loveland would be able to assert over the situation.
“Do we have any standing whatsoever, as far as this drilling process [goes]?” asked City Councilor Steve Olson.
“We are somewhat in the same boat as the rest of the folks in the audience tonight,” replied Brett Limbaugh, the city’s Development Services Director. “We are a mineral rights owner in this area. That’s why we received the notice.”
Amendment 74 proponents allege Prop. 112 will harm schools, punish teachers, hurt children, kill hundreds of thousands jobs, decimate property values, jack up utility rates and harm retirees.
Sam Bradley, a petroleum engineer for Magpie Operating, laid out the company’s plans for the initial 12 wells to be drilled underneath Loveland, and for an additional five well pads extending south into Larimer and Weld Counties, with as many as 60 wells to be drilled in total. Defending Magpie as a local, family-owned company, he took issue with a news article in which an affected resident described the situation as “un-American.”
“This is the opposite of that — this is a uniquely American situation,” said Bradley, prompting morbid laughter from the crowd.
Loveland residents who spoke during a public comment period mostly expressed fear and opposition to the drilling proposal, and many residents of the affected neighborhoods accused Magpie of failing to properly notify them of its plans. Several speakers fought back tears as they described the impacts the drilling could have on their lives.
“We don’t know the full health effects of fracking,” said Dr. Alison Cowan, a UCHealth physician and a resident of one of the impacted neighborhoods. “But the data that we do have suggest very strongly that we have grave reason to be concerned that this is happening under our homes, in our communities, to ourselves and to our children.”
Oil and gas officials have long scoffed at such concerns. In particular, they’ve faulted several studies by Dr. Lisa McKenzie, a researcher at the Colorado School of Public Health, whose findings have also been dismissed by the administration of Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist who has been a staunch industry ally and major recipient of its campaign cash.
Complaints about headaches, nausea, respiratory issues and nosebleeds more than tripled in 2017, as Coloradans reported on the adverse effects of oil and gas operations.
“I go back to my reporter days on the Denver Post editorial page, and really looking at things with a critical eye,” said Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, during a Colorado Public Television debate in September. “These studies are not what we should be basing our policy on.”
But McKenzie’s research is far from alone in its findings; there exists a vast catalog of scientific evidence suggesting that proximity to oil and gas extraction poses serious health and environmental risks. In a 2016 analysis published in the scientific journal PLOS One, researchers evaluated 685 peer-reviewed studies on the effects of fracking and found that 84 percent of them “contain findings that indicate public health hazards, elevated risks, or adverse health outcomes.” Sixty-nine percent of water quality studies and 87 percent of air quality studies found evidence of fracking-related pollutants or contamination.
Meanwhile, reports prepared by Hickenlooper’s health department, which are frequently touted by the industry, have been criticized for their lack of peer review. The most comprehensive state assessment to date — an analysis of thousands of air samples collected near oil and gas operations in 2016 — was originally scheduled for release this summer, but Hickenlooper’s administration delayed its release until next year after lawmakers called for the study to be peer-reviewed.
Though the study is complete, the state health department rejected a Capital & Main open records request to review it for this article.
What is certain are the first-hand experiences detailed in the public health complaints that pour in on a near-daily basis to the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), the state agency that oversees drilling. Overall, those complaints more than tripled in 2017, as Coloradans continued to report the adverse effects of the oil and gas operations encroaching on their communities: headaches, nausea, respiratory issues, nosebleeds, trouble sleeping and more.
“We started becoming aware of the oil and gas wells popping up less than quarter mile from our house. They were just right outside, [and] around the same time my children, my husband and myself began to get constantly sick,” young mother Karen Maciula said at a recent anti-fracking rally in Denver. When her family lived in Erie, she said their blood tests indicated elevated levels of the carcinogen benzene that studies have shown can be found near fracking sites.
“Our experience living with fracking was horrific,” she said. “People should not be forced to be guinea pigs.”
At the council meeting in Loveland, those same fears simmered beneath residents’ comments, which stretched on past 11pm. In the end, however, there was almost nothing the council could do.
“Does Loveland have any jurisdiction in the below-surface area?” Olson, the city councilor, asked.
“We don’t,” said Limbaugh. “The state is the authority on oil and gas applications.”
This scene has played out over and over again in communities along the Front Range in the last decade — and the script always seems to end the same way. Impacted residents file complaints, write their representatives, speak out at hearings and form community activist groups. They plead with Hickenlooper, with state lawmakers, with regulators, and with the courts, for tougher restrictions on the oil and gas operations laying siege to their communities. If they’re lucky, they notch a few peripheral wins, such as when they convinced regulators to slightly increase setback requirements and tighten some air pollution rules.
But on the biggest questions of health, safety, pollution and climate change, the result has almost always been the same: Residents get steamrolled by the fossil fuel industry and its allies in state government.
Indeed, even as grassroots anger intensifies, the pace of oil and gas development along the Front Range has accelerated over the last four years. Amid a spate of explosions and an increase in leaks — 619 reported incidents in 2017, according to state data — drillers are submitting record numbers of new permit applications to the COGCC. What’s more, the industry is increasingly seeking to drill and frack in ever more densely populated areas just outside Denver city limits, with hundreds of new wells proposed in urban municipalities like Commerce City and Aurora. And all of this is happening as the Republican state senators and the Democratic governor have worked together to block major safety proposals — indeed, even in the weeks after the deadly blast in Firestone, lawmakers voted down legislation that would merely let homeowners know if they are living near oil and gas infrastructure.
The history of American politics is the story of disenfranchisement fomenting backlashes — and Colorado in 2018 has become the latest iteration of that tale. Feeling trampled by an oil and gas industry that converts profits into massive campaign donations, a lobbying army and lavish influence-peddling conferences, local activists decided they’d had enough. They stopped waiting for political leaders to do something, and started collecting petition signatures to circumvent the legislature and campaign for their own no-holds-barred ballot measure.
Proposition 112 is a decidedly blunt-force instrument. It does not seek to broker a small compromise, negotiate nuances or accept the oil-connected political establishment’s definition of what is “realistic” or “reasonable.” Instead, it is big, brazen and bold: It would require new oil and gas wells to be almost a half mile away from occupied buildings and other designated areas like water sources. That’s a considerable increase over current laws, which mandate setback distances of 500 feet from single-family homes and 1,000 feet from high-occupancy buildings.
“With nine out of 11 bills killed in our legislature and hundreds of heartbreaking testimonies given to the COGCC with no action, it’s time our citizens are heard with this ballot measure,” said Heidi Henkel, founder of Broomfield Moms Active Community, when activists submitted petition signatures. “The state has failed to protect us, so we’ve taken it into our own hands.”
In a way, the initiative flips the script on the oil and gas industry and its political allies: After years of well-heeled fossil fuel attorneys marching into court and citing state law to eviscerate local fracking restrictions, the initiative aims to use that same state-level authority to impose what would be the strictest setbacks law in the country.
In years past, Colorado environmental groups had failed to successfully force a statewide vote on fracking. This time around, activists finally got the clear, easy-to-understand ballot showdown over fracking and drilling that they had long sought.
But in doing so, they also prompted one of the wealthiest and most politically powerful industries in the world to construct its nuclear weapon.
“You Need To Stand Up For Your Rights”
The effort by Colorado Rising, a newly-formed activist group, to place a setbacks measure on the 2018 ballot was by no means a sure thing. This year’s succeeded where similar previous attempts fell short, thanks in large part to volunteers like the ones who spent a warm Friday afternoon in mid-October knocking on doors in Greeley to turn out the vote for Proposition 112.
“This is kind of the belly of the beast,” says Carol St. Jean, looking over her assigned list of houses with fellow canvasser Cheryl Beseler. Located on the northern edge of the Wattenberg Field, Greeley is home to many of the smaller operators, contractors and rig workers who comprise the fossil fuel industry’s labor force. Yard signs lining streets read “I Am Colorado Oil & Gas” and “Jobs Matter – Vote No on 112.”
St. Jean, a middle-aged academic counselor, estimated that there are between 40 and 50 oil and gas wells within a half-mile of her property. Like so many others, she has familiar stories about the impact that drilling, pipeline construction, constant truck traffic and other industry operations have had on her and her neighbors.
“When I moved to Greeley, that’s the first time I ever got asthma,” says St. Jean, who lives on a small farm east of town and works at the University of Northern Colorado. “It wasn’t that bad until they started fracking — when it started out, I had to sometimes use an emergency inhaler. Now I carry it with me everywhere.”
As the sun began to set over the Rockies, the two canvassers criss-crossed through a sleepy neighborhood in central Greeley, knocking on about 50 doors to spread the word about Prop. 112 — and even in the heart of fracking country, in a county that President Donald Trump won by over 20 points, they mostly encountered friendly curiosity and quiet support. Only one resident, a woman who icily told the canvassers that her husband worked in the oil fields, was anything less than cordial. Several said they were undecided, but leaning yes.
Such responses are why the industry and its allies have fought so hard to keep tougher fracking restrictions off the ballot: In short, such measures seem to be inherently popular.
Before a pair of anti-fracking ballot initiatives were withdrawn in a controversial deal brokered by Hickenlooper in 2014, polling showed both leading by huge margins. Last month, Axios reported that an unreleased poll commissioned by the industry showed that Prop. 112 was “likely to pass with around 60 percent support.”
The industry’s Plan A, of course, is to overcome the measure’s appeal by spending staggering, unprecedented sums to defeat it — $38 million, at last count, with the vast majority of it from fossil-fuel giants like Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy. That’s over 40 times the figure raised by Colorado Rising in support of the initiative. (For a full breakdown of the oil and gas industry’s spending on the 2018 election, see sidebar.)
The full-court press against Prop. 112 has dominated local media for months. In direct mail, television ads, newspaper op-eds, public debates and social-media posts, the industry and its allies have employed an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink messaging strategy.
As COGA president Dan Haley insists natural gas is “cleaning our air and improving health,” Amendment 74 proponents allege the measure will harm schools, punish teachers, hurt children, kill hundreds of thousands jobs, decimate property values, jack up utility rates, harm retirees and devastate local government budgets. Prop. 112 opponents have also cited COGCC data to insist the measure would amount to a de facto ban on all new extraction.
Those assertions have been undermined by both academics and the oil and gas industry itself.
Earlier this month, an analysis by a Colorado School of Mines researcher concluded that the increased setbacks would still leave around 42 percent of non-federal sub-surface area accessible by modern drilling technology. Now, a week before the election, a leaked fossil fuel industry report obtained by Colorado Rising appears to further contradict claims by opponents of Prop. 112. The analysis by RS Energy Group found that with existing fracking technology, a full 61 percent of the Denver-Julesburg Basin — and 43 percent of the Wattenberg Field — “remains accessible if Proposition 112 is affirmed.” (The analysis by RS Energy Group that was released by Colorado Rising said it is “intended only for individuals in the anadarko.com organization” — a reference to Anadarko Petroleum, one of the major funders of the campaign against 112. However, RS Energy Group is an independent firm that said the report was “intended for all of its clients” and not specifically or exclusively for Anadarko).
Nonetheless, the industry’s criticism has succeeded in convincing almost all of Colorado’s political establishment — Republican and Democrat — to line up against the measure, including both Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis. But even with all the money and power aligned against Prop. 112’s grassroots volunteer army, there is no way to know if it will be enough. And so, long before any mailers were printed or any TV commercials aired, supporters of the oil and gas industry quietly hatched their Plan B: Amendment 74.
“The oil and gas folks had a knife fight on their hands with Proposition 112, and so they decided to bring a nuclear weapon in as a backup, and now the entire state is under threat,” says Ian Silverii, executive director of the progressive group ProgressNow Colorado, which opposes Amendment 74.
That alleged threat revolves around private property law. Colorado’s constitution currently stipulates that “private property shall not be taken or damaged, for public or private use, without just compensation.” If passed next week, Amendment 74 would insert into this sentence a seemingly innocuous 11 words, declaring that private property cannot be taken, damaged, “or reduced in fair market value by government law or regulation” without taxpayers forking over that compensation.
Earlier this year, Republican state lawmakers tried and were unsuccessful in their efforts to pass legislation to create a narrower version of Amendment 74 that would have manufactured a special takings protection just for oil and gas. Amendment 74 proponents now cast their far broader measure as a simple matter of equity, not tailored to any one specific issue or industry. In pro-74 TV ads, farmers and ranchers champion the amendment in language that is equal parts folksy and vague.
“Government should not get a free pass to destroy the value of a family farm — it’s only fair,” says one ad, featuring Republican Mesa County Commissioner John Justman striding through green cropland as a John Deere tractor rolls by in the background.
“You need to stand up for your rights,” says another ad. “Vote yes on 74 — it’s only fair.”
None of the ads say anything about oil and gas extraction. That must seem odd to Chad Vorthmann, executive vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau and one of the amendment’s sponsors. After all, he told the agricultural newspaper The Fence Post that “these measures are about protecting Colorado’s farmers and ranchers from extremist attempts to enforce random setback requirements for oil and natural gas development.”
That mission is made particularly clear by the Committee for Colorado’s Shared Heritage, the issue committee behind the pro-74 ads. According to the group’s campaign finance filings, 99.8 percent of the organization’s money — more than $8 million in both cash and in-kind contributions — has come from Protect Colorado, the anti-Prop. 112 committee funded almost exclusively by the oil and gas industry. While Haley told Denver’s ABC affiliate this month that COGA has “not taken a position” on Amendment 74, Protect Colorado’s big funders include more than a dozen COGA member companies, including Anadarko, Noble and Extraction — each of which are represented on COGA’s board.
Vorthmann and other Colorado Farm Bureau officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Capital & Main.
Haley has lately asserted that unto itself, Proposition 112 “would probably open the state up to some legal challenges should it pass.” But if that’s the case, why would the industry then need Amendment 74? Because according to University of Denver associate law professor Kevin Lynch, existing takings laws have never awarded the fossil fuel industry damages for strict environmental, health and safety laws — even in places like gas-rich New York, where fracking was banned.
Amendment 74 would change that by empowering mineral rights owners to sue the state for untold billions in compensation if any new regulation like Proposition 112 restricts their ability to reap royalties from those resources.
That sounds like a great idea to Bob and Cristy Koeneke of Arvada, whose families have owned mineral rights in Adams and Garfield counties for generations. At a rally against Prop. 112 on the steps of the state Capitol in October, they rejected the notion that any new drilling regulations were necessary, and strongly endorsed Amendment 74.
“If you own a home, if you own any property, is it okay with you if the government comes in and steals it from you?” asked Bob.
Cristy, who sits on the board of the Colorado Alliance of Mineral and Royalty Owners (CAMRO), said her family’s mineral rights date back to the 1880s, when her great-grandfather was one of the early settlers of the Western Slope’s Piceance Basin.
“They were looking for gold and silver, they had no idea about oil and gas,” she said, noting that advances in shale drilling technology have been a boon to mineral owners like her. “After five generations, we’re finally being able to develop those resources.”
An analysis by CAMRO says that in the Wattenberg Field alone, those undeveloped resources may be worth up to $179 billion. It’s impossible to know exactly how much that value would be diminished by Prop. 112’s increased setbacks. But if both Amendment 74 and Prop. 112 pass, the mere threat of billion-dollar claims could be enough to convince the state legislature to immediately overturn the will of the voters and repeal Prop. 112. That course of action has already been endorsed by Republican Walker Stapleton, whose gubernatorial campaign is being supported by a super PAC that has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash from oil and gas donors.
“These Eleven Words Were Deliberately Chosen”
Despite its origins as an insurance policy against Proposition 112, the full scope of Amendment 74’s implications extends far beyond oil and gas regulation and the interests of one specific industry. Because of how broadly it is written, experts say, the amendment could ignite an explosion of costly litigation across myriad economic sectors and targeting every level of government in Colorado.
“These 11 words were deliberately chosen,” says veteran Colorado political attorney Mark Grueskin. “There’s nothing in 74 that requires that it be a future law. They crafted it so that it would apply no matter when the [law] was adopted.”
“They could have said, ‘By regulation adopted by an agency on or after January 1, 2019,’” he adds. “They didn’t. They used a passive phrase in order to provide license to go back and say, ‘We’re immune from any sort of regulatory act that reduces our property value, unless you want to pay us.’”
In an October op-ed for Colorado Politics — which is owned by oil magnate Phil Anschutz — Centennial Institute scholar Kelly Sloan berated “fanatical environmentalists and other left-wingers” for opposing the measure, and argued that Amendment 74 would merely fix an old court ruling from La Plata County that he said limited redress rights unless the entire value of a property is fully destroyed.
“At issue is the gradation of taking – whether the government ought to compensate a property owner when an imposed regulation reduces a certain amount of a property’s real value,” wrote Sloan, whose op-ed did not disclose that he is a registered lobbyist for an oil and gas exploration company and a landowners’ group.
That legalistic argument has not placated Amendment 74 opponents, who say it would be the most extreme private-property rights law in the country.
“It’s the single worst measure I’ve ever seen in 40 years, and we’ve had some stinkers,” says Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League. “It’s also one of the singularly most disingenuous, dishonest measures I’ve ever seen. There are people behind the black curtain that won’t come out and say what’s going on here.”
Among those behind that curtain are attorneys from powerhouse law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which helped shepherd the measure through the ballot process, and preserved a short description of the measure that Mamet and others say is deceptive. Brownstein’s Jason Dunn — who last week was sworn in as President Trump’s U.S. Attorney for Colorado — successfully defended that language before the Colorado Supreme Court, which allowed the amendment to be placed on the ballot mentioning only “just compensation” for property owners. The language on voters’ ballots does not make any reference to the wide array of claims that one top real estate expert said could be made against state or local governments, if Amendment 74 passes.
“Amendment 74 does not exempt fire or building codes, or other public safety regulations,” wrote Colorado land-use attorney Tom Ragonetti in a memo sent to business leaders. “Because fire and building codes (as well as storm drainage regulations and utility requirements) necessarily reduce properties’ fair market value, local governments will face incalculable liability for these necessary public safety regulations.”
The memo also declared that “if a local government rezoned property in order to attract a major employer, neighbors could file a claim that their properties were devalued,” which would create a “serious disincentive to rezone property for economic development purposes.”
When it comes to climate change, the consequences could be just as dire. Not only could Amendment 74 effectively create a guarantee of unregulated extraction across the entire state, it could also financially punish taxpayers if Colorado officials continue efforts to reduce emissions.
“Car manufacturers could be entitled to the cost of required emissions equipment,” Ragonetti’s memo said.
What’s more, Amendment 74 could result in significant additional taxpayer costs if it ends up lowering state and municipal credit ratings, which help determine interest rates when governments borrow money. Those ratings can decline, and interest rates can rise, when governments are facing general uncertainty about their budgets, as well as specific new spending mandates that threaten their ability to pay back debts.
Amendment 74 could be a double whammy of uncertainty and constitutionally required spending on compensation to property owners. Recent Colorado bond offerings reviewed by Capital & Main are already warning investors and credit agencies that the amendment would create “significant liabilities to the state,” thus potentially making it more difficult for Colorado governments to pay their bills.
“Having an uncertainty about what your liabilities are going to be, but knowing they could be massive — that could very well start impacting our credit rating from the day this thing passes,” says State Rep. Matt Gray, a Broomfield Democrat who is a bond attorney for local governments.
Gray adds that once the amendment is on the books, “People [will sue] the state for its policies…and therefore [governments] are not going to be as creditworthy because they’re going to have more expenses with no new revenue sources.”
The Oregon Experiment: “It Was a Disaster”
Colorado state and local officials were only beginning to panic about all the hypothetical downsides of Amendment 74 when in early autumn its proponents made their final decision to place the measure on the ballot. To try to assuage policymakers’ fears, the measure’s most prominent booster, the Colorado Farm Bureau, sent a memo to municipal leaders across the state arguing that the hypothetical doomsday scenarios are being overblown.
“Amendment 74 will not affect a municipality’s home rule authority to enact local regulations to protect its citizens,” said the memo authored by Brownstein Farber oil and gas attorney Mark Matthews. “If Amendment 74 becomes law, Colorado courts would interpret these other requirements strictly to limit the number of successful takings claims.”
Those assertions and legal theories seem reassuring, except for one little detail: They are undermined by the real-world experience of Oregon, a state that voted similar private property language into its legal code.
“It was a disaster,” says former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, the Democrat who was in office when Oregon’s Measure 37 passed in 2004. “The only way the local governments can pay for it is they have to tax the people. It’s going to end up costing more money and destroy the livability of Colorado.”
Whereas Colorado’s oil and gas industry is using Amendment 74 to try to preemptively block future fracking regulations, in Oregon, Measure 37 was backed by timber interests and commercial developers seeking to dismantle the state’s longstanding land-use laws. In Colorado, the Farm Bureau is the public face of the measure, but in Oregon, the Farm Bureau backed the effort to rescind parts of the property rights initiative once it was on the books.
Despite those key differences, the two measures and the two campaigns to pass them are nearly identical — and their practical effects could be, too.
“Big moneyed special interests are running the same deceptive campaign that we faced in Oregon, and it will create the same huge problems,” says Ron Ruggiero, who was a labor organizer in Oregon when Measure 37 passed, and who is now president of the Colorado chapter of the Service Employees International Union. “They are once again trying to rig the system against regular working people and make it sound like some great populist idea for the little guy.”
Much like Amendment 74, Measure 37 required governments to pay residents when “regulations reduce owners’ property value.” The idea wasn’t exactly new — a similar concept had already been baked into America’s trade deals that give foreign corporations standing to sue for damages if state or local laws reduce those corporations’ profits.
Also like today’s Colorado campaign, the Oregon effort presented itself as a grassroots undertaking. It was launched in the lead-up to the now-famous Kelo case, in which the Supreme Court strengthened eminent domain powers. Measure 37’s pitchforks-and-torches tenor was amplified in ads resembling the ones now airing in Colorado — the ones that never mention oil and gas and that incessantly depict commonfolk getting screwed by Big Government.
Likewise, TV spots promoting Measure 37 did not focus on how the proposed law would enrich powerful logging interests or developers — they spotlighted regular workaday Oregonians complaining about how environmental and zoning laws were impinging on their daily lives.
One ad featured a young woman who said she was fined thousands of dollars for trimming bushes in her backyard. The most famous spots revolved around 90-year-old Dorothy English lamenting how state laws were preventing her from subdividing her suburban Portland property and using the proceeds to subsist in retirement.
“Oregon’s land-use system has destroyed my retirement,” English wrote in a newspaper op-ed that led to the spots. “My property has been stolen from me. And since my land can’t be used for anything, the community doesn’t generate any added tax revenue to pay for schools, parks and other services. My land has become worthless to everyone except those zealots who think Oregon should shut its borders and stop all growth.”
On election day 2004, Measure 37 won more than 60 percent of the vote — a huge margin that spurred similar ballot measures in six other Western states. The libertarian Reason Foundation issued a euphoric report detailing ways of “exporting Measure 37 to other states” — a potential preview of how the fossil fuel industry might try to capitalize on an Amendment 74 victory in Colorado.
“[Colorado’s] is a very similar title to what we had in Oregon, and we really couldn’t overcome the title because it’s hard to get people to vote no on a principle like that, because everybody would say, ‘Well, yeah, that’s a fair principle,’” says Tim Nesbitt, a former Oregon AFL-CIO president and top aide to two Democratic governors. “It’s a very compelling statement to most people. That’s what was so clever about it.”
Over the next two years, Oregon’s legal system descended into chaos. As powerful as stories like English’s were in helping to pass the measure, new horror stories about Measure 37’s real-world consequences soon became an equally forceful counter-narrative challenging all the fairness rhetoric that had dominated the original ballot campaign.
There was the developer who used the initiative to demand up to $35 million for alleged damages over a land-use law that had prevented him from converting 850 acres of forest into housing plots, according to a report from the nonpartisan Sightline Institute. There was also the $18 million claim from a landowner outside of Salem who wanted to turn farmland into a new development, even though such a plan threatened to “severely draw down the streams,” a nearby lake and neighbors’ wells, according to the Sightline report.
And there was the landowner whose property lay within one of the state’s natural wonders, the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. He demanded up to $200 million in compensation unless the county government allowed him “to build a large-scale mine, a geothermal power plant and 100 homes” along scenic East Lake, according to the Bend Bulletin.
Color-coded cartograms of Measure 37 claims in northwest Oregon resembled Centers for Disease Control maps of a viral epidemic. Red flecks showing properties subject to remuneration or zoning waivers had soon blanketed the area, bleeding into rural regions where there was little infrastructure or services to support development. The county adjacent to Portland saw owners of more than 115 square miles of property — or a full 15 percent of the entire county — filing Measure 37 claims, with the cases coming from a mix of individuals and corporate interests.
“When 37 passed it nullified the farm and forest zoning so owners worked to cash in,” says Liz Kaufman, who ran the campaign to repeal parts of the constitutional amendment. “They filed ‘claims’ with the state stating their intended developments. It not only would have wiped out our whole land use planning system, it would have run over substantial swaths of farm and forest land, and placed developments where there is no fire service, much less all the other basics.”
Just two years after the passage of Measure 37, nearly 7,000 claims were filed for a total of $17 billion worth of taxpayer compensation, according to the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development. The measure wreaked such havoc that in the next election, Oregon voters passed another initiative repealing much of the original amendment. That same year, voters in neighboring Washington State overwhelmingly rejected a separate version of the property rights initiative after opponents there ran ads casting Oregon as a cautionary tale.
Colorado is now the newest political petri dish for the same experiment — only the 2018 version is designed to go even further. Unlike Oregon’s measure, Amendment 74 includes no exceptions for laws dealing with health or safety, and it was deliberately written in a passive tense, which could allow it to be retroactively applied to existing laws. Also unlike Oregon’s measure, Colorado’s initiative is constitutional, not statutory, meaning it governs all laws and cannot be tweaked by the legislature.
“That’s a key difference this time: In Colorado they’re using our Constitution to try to crush workers,” says SEIU’s Ruggiero, who asserted that corporations could use the amendment to file lawsuits arguing that labor laws reduce the profitability and value of businesses, and therefore require such laws to be rescinded, or taxpayers to pay damages.
In an effort to evade comparisons with Oregon’s apocalypse, proponents of Amendment 74 have lately insisted that their initiative is fundamentally different.
“Colorado Amendment 74 would maintain existing legal standards and procedures for establishing a takings claim,” wrote Republican attorney Jonathan Anderson in a letter demanding a local television station remove anti-74 ads from the airwaves. “In sharp contrast, Oregon Measure 37 applied a completely different legal standard.”
Still, the general thrust of the two policies are the same — and strategist Rick Ridder tells Capital & Main that the overall similarities between the Measure 37 and Amendment 74 campaigns are no coincidence. He notes that the consulting firm overseeing the campaign for Amendment 74 and against Proposition 112 is not a Colorado company, but the Portland-area firm Pac/West, which has been given $26 million by the oil and gas industry’s issue committees. Pac/West is run by Oregon’s former GOP Assistant Senate leader Paul Phillips, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
“I think the right wing realized a while back that these initiatives weren’t necessarily a great move, but then along comes the setbacks initiative here in Colorado, and the oil and gas industry has been working with Paul Phillips for a long time,” says Ridder, who is advising the issue committee opposing Amendment 74. “Paul Phillips is from Oregon. He very likely knew about Measure 37 and how deceptive and effective it could be for oil and gas here in Colorado.”
During a discussion about Amendment 74 in the final week of the 2018 campaign, Kulongoski, the former Oregon governor, said his state’s experience is an instructive parable about private property initiatives — and about complacency.
“For a while I think Oregonians fell asleep on this measure thinking it wasn’t going to pass, and it passed,” he says. “I was strongly criticized by the land-use groups because they thought that I didn’t make a big enough effort to get it defeated and the fact was that we all can share the blame for that. I think even the land use groups were not putting money into the measure because they didn’t think it was going to pass.”
“I Am Really Worried This Is Our Generation’s TABOR”
Unlike Oregon officials a decade ago, Colorado’s current government and civic leaders cannot claim to be surprised by the prospect of radical constitutional change, because the state has famously been at this precipice before.
In a 1992 election overshadowed by a presidential campaign, a ballot fight over LGBT rights and a sales tax proposal, Coloradans approved a simple-sounding constitutional measure called the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which severely restricted the state’s authority to fund public services. Despite its clear and unprecedented radicalism, TABOR blindsided a distracted political establishment.
“Lots of people in state government and in politics did not fully know how impactful it would really be,” says Henry Sobanet, who served as budget director for Hickenlooper and Republican Gov. Bill Owens.
Though some of its most disruptive provisions have been repealed over the last quarter century, TABOR forever altered the course of Colorado history, setting the state on a path towards many problems that still plague it today, including underfunded schools, crumbling roads and a regressive fee-based revenue system that disproportionately hurts its poorest residents.
Colorado’s current generation of political elites has risen to power in TABOR’s shadow. But the battle over Amendment 74 — or rather the lack thereof — raises questions about whether they’ve taken any of its lessons to heart.
“I am really worried this is our generation’s TABOR,” says state Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Democrat who represents towns in the Wattenberg Field. “Everyone has been so focused on the big races for governor and Congress, but this is one of the biggest things on the entire ballot, and I feel like lots of people don’t even know that.”
While Amendment 74 has been nominally criticized by political figures on both sides of the aisle, talk is just talk — and resources to fight the measure have been limited and late in coming. The issue committee formed to oppose the initiative, called Save Our Neighborhoods, was only registered in August, just three months before the election. Even though Colorado’s business groups and big donors have plenty of campaign resources at their disposal, Save Our Neighborhoods has raised less than $3 million, most of it from environmental organizations like Conservation Colorado and the League of Conservation Voters.
“Amendment 74 has the potential to be the most consequential change to Colorado’s constitution since TABOR,” says Rob Witwer, a former Republican state legislator. “It’s fraught with unintended consequences that won’t be sorted out, or even fully understood, before a decade of litigation. In light of that, the absence of well-funded opposition is shocking. It’s almost as if everybody expected somebody else to fight it.”
Key leaders have also been largely absent from the fight — and among the most glaring absences is Hickenlooper, whose two terms in office will come to an end in January.
The Democratic governor has voiced opposition to the amendment, calling it “one of the worst initiatives that I have seen” at a press conference outside the Capitol in October. But despite his long history of high-profile advocacy on behalf of major ballot measures — as mayor of Denver in 2005, he famously jumped out of a plane in a TV ad supporting Referendums C and D — he hasn’t done much public campaigning or expended much political capital in the fight against Amendment 74.
After eight years of siding largely with the oil and gas industry in the state’s bitter war over fracking, Hickenlooper is now casting himself as a conflict-averse moderate who believes “there is no margin in having enemies,” as he recently told the New York Times. And so rather than barnstorm the state to genuinely confront and challenge the powerful forces behind Amendment 74, he has spent much of the election season stumping for a less controversial redistricting reform effort and a sales tax increase for transportation funding — and traveling out of state to help Democratic candidates in Georgia and Florida as he raises money for his 2020 presidential exploratory committee.
Hickenlooper is hardly alone. United States Senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner — who, like Hickenlooper are not tied up campaigning for reelection — have not used their platforms to aggressively campaign against Amendment 74. Similarly, while experts warn of the amendment’s catastrophic consequences for business, the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry has kept a low profile on the measure — and its chairman, Jonathan Anderson, was the lawyer who pressured a local television station to remove negative ads against the amendment.
And even though the measure has as many long-term implications as the race for governor, it has received only a fraction of the ongoing coverage from the state’s political press corps.
“I’ve pleaded, and cajoled, and yelled, and screamed, and cried, and done everything with all kinds of people in town here over the last six months,” says Mamet. “I won’t get into names, but I had some hot shots in town just pat me on the head and say, ‘Oh, Sam, don’t worry about it.’ The more people were telling me that, the more concerned I got.”
Opponents fear that the amendment’s terse ballot language could lead voters to approve it without fully understanding its colossal implications. And they are right to be worried: An online survey conducted by Colorado University, Boulder’s American Political Research Lab this month showed Amendment 74 with 63 percent support, comfortably ahead of the 55 percent that, as a constitutional measure, it needs to pass.
If it does pass — if the oil and gas industry successfully detonates its economic nuclear weapon — communities across Colorado will be ground zero in a blast that could reverberate at every level of society.
At a global level, Colorado is a major oil- and gas-producing state at a moment when scientists are warning that if substantial reserves of oil and gas are not left in the ground, hundreds of millions of people around the world will face the threat of devastating droughts, floods and poverty. Already struggling with all of those crises, Colorado would face its share of consequences should the state — and the larger world — be forced by Amendment 74 to continue supporting the current rate of fossil fuel extraction and use.
On a national level, a victory for Amendment 74 in a bellwether state could inspire oil and gas companies to finance copycat measures in other states — and especially in those Western fossil fuel states such as California and Montana, where private property initiatives were already tried in the mid 2000s.
And then there is the local level, in communities like Erie, where Erika Deakin and her family live just across the way from multiple oil and gas production facilities.
The town’s nearby highway interchange offers an almost too-on-the-nose visual of the conflict at the heart of Amendment 74: there is a towering white scaffolding of a fracking rig, fronted by a billboard advertising a Toll Brothers home development down the road.
When Deakin and her husband Geoff moved there in 2002, they were coming for the good life that those new-home billboards promise: open spaces, running trails, excellent schools and an easy commute to her job as the editorial page editor of the Boulder Daily Camera. They were not coming for the Wattenberg Field or its pitched fights over fracking regulations — and they had no idea that two small well sites would blossom into 13 right behind their home, or that 13 would soon become 45.
Over coffee at her breakfast bar on the eve of the election, Deakin recounts how in 2014 and 2015, Encana Corporation’s original fracking operations blasted out the neighborhood with 24-hour noise pollution — a loud revving at all hours of the night. She also describes the notorious odor that wafted into the neighborhoods from drilling mud and diesel lubricants at the well pads.
“We couldn’t open our windows for weeks because of the stench from the sites, and then they used this green apple chemical to try to mask the smell,” says Deakin, a 45-year-old Colorado native whose husband is now an Erie town trustee. ”It was like, if somebody used Axe Body Spray to cover up their chain-smoking habit. It was so smelly and so disgusting.”
When the subject of health comes up, tears well up in her eyes, as she decides how to answer a question about her kids.
“I have a daughter who has massive bloody noses all the time,” says Deakin, who left the Daily Camera in 2014 and now works in marketing. “I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, it’s definitely fracking,’ but when you are faced with that and then you open your window and you smell this really potent smell, like it smells like you’re at a truck stop, you’re like, ‘Why won’t they disclose their chemicals?’”
Deakin and her family are not private property — Amendment 74 would not empower them to file a lawsuit seeking compensation for the fair market value of their health. But if Erie officials took action against oil and gas companies to protect her and her family, those companies could weaponize the amendment, if it is on the books. The language would allow the fossil fuel industry to threaten the town with bankruptcy unless it backed off and left the Deakins to continue wondering whether they are being poisoned.
“There’s a ton of women in this neighborhood who tell you that their children’s noses bleed — they call them gushers,” Deakin says, her voice cracking. “When you do smell something or you see all of this industrial activity you do start to think, all of our bodies react to industrial activities differently. You start to wonder, What am I breathing? I’ve had skin cancer and a ton of my friends didn’t. Am I more prone to it because I’m living in such a heavy industrialized area? I don’t know.”
CLARIFICATION: The original version of this article noted that the RS Energy Group report released by Colorado Rising said it was “intended only for individuals in the anadarko.com organization.” However, RS Energy Group is an independent industry research firm, and the report was available to all of its clients, and not conducted for any one client. The story has been updated to reflect this additional context.
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Video: Police Killings Rise Nationally
According to the Washington Post ‘s “Fatal Force” report, 995 people were shot dead by police officers in 2018.
The Tests Facing California’s New Governor
Gavin Newsom now leads the state with the nation’s biggest economy and largest population — and one riven by economic inequality. What will be his most important challenges?
Gavin Newsom inherits a state that should be any governor’s dream: A California that is the cradle of the tech revolution and brims with prosperity, a one-party state with supermajorities in both chambers for Newsom’s Democrats. But there are clouds darkening the horizon: Daily prophecies tell of coming economic storms; legislative initiatives taken on behalf of immigrants, retirement security and the stemming of global warming are increasingly thwarted by a bellicose White House. And that Democratic Party monopoly in Sacramento masks a deepening ideological fault line dividing pro-business moderates and progressives – the latter of which have largely chafed for the last 16 years under the thrifty administrations of Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and are eager to burst out with far-reaching (if pricey) legislation.
Then, there are memories of three high-riding liberal governors (Pat and Jerry Brown, and Gray Davis) whose programs or careers were derailed by resentful taxpayers. There are more recent memories, too: Of an impulsive, hard-partying San Francisco mayor whose blunted ambitions led him to spend eight years in the ceremonial wilderness of the lieutenant governor’s office. Newsom is said to have matured into a more circumspect, pragmatic politician, although some of the old doubts were fanned back to life by an unflattering New Yorker profile that appeared shortly before his landslide victory November 6.
Perhaps overriding all these auguries is the undeniable fact that despite its enviable economy, its abundance of billionaires-in-residence and laudable array of social services, California still has the highest poverty rate in the U.S., nearly half of its children live in poverty or near-poverty, and merely finding an affordable place to live has become an existential challenge for many. These and similar factors superimpose on the state another kind of fault line, that of economic inequality. Most of the new governor’s time will be spent wrangling crises that spring from this disparity. Which is why the following Capital & Main stories primarily focus on the inequality that separates so many Californians from one another.
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Betomania & Other Tales: 2018 in Review
Capital & Main looks back at the year through 10 stories.
David Sirota: How a rising Democratic star undermined his own party’s efforts to halt the GOP agenda.
Co-published by The Guardian and Newsweek
Jessica Goodheart, Bill Raden, Judith Lewis Mernit and Gabriel Thompson: California’s economy is now the fifth-largest in the world, but merely finding an affordable place to live has become an existential challenge for many.
Co-published by Newsweek
Eric Pape: At 62, Bill Ware works as many as 14 hours a day just to make ends meet. Saving for retirement simply isn’t an option.
Co-published by Fast Company
Dan Ross: PFAS compounds have been linked in humans to cancers and hormonal disruption, as well as developmental, reproductive and immune system problems.
Carol Mithers: Evoking a previously unenforced “no pet” clause is a good way for property owners to push out low-rent tenants in a gentrifying area. Frequently such evictions aren’t legal, but tenants can’t insist on rights if they don’t know they have them. And that’s where attorney Dianne Prado comes in.
Co-published by Beyond Chron
David Sirota and Chase Woodruff: Fallout from Colorado’s Amendment 74 could land on all states’ efforts to curb pollution and climate change.
Co-published by Westword
David Sirota and Andrew Perez: One of the largest donors to the Prop. 10 opposition is the private equity giant Blackstone. The move has been described as the equivalent of mutual fund executives taking money out of customers’ accounts to make political contributions.
Co-published by The Guardian and MapLight
Robin Urevich: Immigrants who use Medi-Cal, food stamps, housing assistance or Medicare prescription drug subsidies could be barred from obtaining green cards or visa extensions under a proposed rule from the Trump administration.
Co-published by American Prospect
Bill Raden: Behind six of the main lies Kavanaugh was accused of telling under oath, plus the insights of congressional committee veterans and a former federal prosecutor who have examined Kavanaugh’s September 27 testimony.
Co-published by Newsweek
Jessica Goodheart: Elon Musk’s labor intransigence could upend a decades-old social contract between employers and workers.
Co-published by Fast Company
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Beto vs. Democrats: Texas Lawmaker Frequently Voted to Help Trump and GOP
Co-published by The Guardian and Newsweek
How Beto O’Rourke, a potential Democratic candidate for president, has undermined his own party’s efforts to halt the GOP agenda.
A rising Democratic star has voted for GOP bills that Trump critics say have aided big banks, undercut the fight against climate change and supported the president’s anti-immigrant agenda.
Following Beto O’Rourke’s spirited run for the U.S. Senate, powerful voices in the Democratic Party establishment have touted the outgoing Texas congressman as a 2020 presidential candidate who, as the party’s standard-bearer, would offer a vision of America contrasting against that of Republicans. However, a Capital & Main review of congressional votes shows that even as O’Rourke has represented one of the most Democratic congressional districts in the entire country, he has in many instances undermined his own party’s efforts to halt the GOP agenda, frequently voting against the majority of House Democrats in support of Republican bills and Trump administration positions.
Capital & Main reviewed the 167 votes O’Rourke has cast in opposition to the majority of his own party in the House during his six-year tenure in Congress. Many of those votes were not progressive dissents alongside other left-leaning lawmakers but were instead votes to help pass Republican-sponsored legislation. In many cases, Democratic lawmakers said that those measures were designed to help corporate interests dismantle Obama administration programs and regulations.
O’Rourke’s votes for Republican tax, trade, health care, crime- and immigration-related legislation underscore his membership in the pro-business New Democrat Coalition.
Amid persistently high economic inequality and a climate change crisis, O’Rourke has voted for GOP bills that his fellow Democratic lawmakers said reinforced Republicans’ tax agenda, chipped away at the Affordable Care Act, weakened Wall Street regulations, boosted the fossil fuel industry and bolstered Trump’s immigration policy. Consumer, environmental, public health and civil rights organizations have cast legislation backed by O’Rourke as aiding big banks, undermining the fight against climate change and supporting Trump’s anti-immigrant program. During the previous administration, President Barack Obama’s White House issued statements slamming two GOP bills backed by the 46-year-old Democratic legislator.
O’Rourke’s votes for Republican tax, trade, health care, criminal justice and immigration-related legislation not only defied his national party, but also at times put him at odds even with a majority of Texas Democratic lawmakers in Congress. Such votes underscore his membership in the New Democrat Coalition, the faction of House Democrats most closely aligned with business interests.
O’Rourke did not respond to Capital & Main’s questions about his votes.
The possibility of an O’Rourke presidential candidacy has been boosted in recent weeks by former Obama aides and fundraisers, as well as by Third Way — a finance-industry funded think tank that previously made headlines deriding Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He has also been lauded by former Hillary Clinton aide Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress — a Democratic think tank whose officials recently slammed Republican tax and immigration legislation that O’Rourke voted for. Much of the party elite’s support for an O’Rourke candidacy has not mentioned his policy record or agenda.
In the last two years, O’Rourke was among the top fifth of all lawmakers voting against the majority of his party. FiveThirtyEight has calculated that in that same time period, O’Rourke has voted for the Trump administration position on legislation roughly 30 percent of the time. The website said that is above what analysts predict would come from a legislator representing a district as Democratic as O’Rourke’s. For comparison, O’Rourke’s congressional district votes more Democratic than most districts in Massachusetts, according to the Cook Political Report.
Each vote reviewed below was one in which O’Rourke broke from the majority of legislators in his own party.
Since its creation in 2010, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been under relentless assault by Republicans, who have sought to help the financial industry limit its authority. At times, they have found an ally in O’Rourke.
Echoing the GOP’s line of attack on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Texas Democrat faulted the agency for a “lack of openness.”
In one instance, the Texas Democrat helped the GOP challenge the agency’s efforts to combat discriminatory lending practices. At issue was a 2013 CFPB bulletin asserting its “authority to pursue auto lenders whose policies harm consumers through unlawful discrimination.” The agency said, “Research indicates that markup practices may lead to African Americans and Hispanics being charged higher markups than other, similarly situated, white consumers.”
The move — and a subsequent CFPB enforcement action against a major auto lender — sent a shockwave through the financial industry. Republicans issued a report criticizing the rule, and in 2015 introduced legislation to repeal it. Civil rights groups such as the NAACP opposed the GOP measure and House Democrats said it was designed to halt “recent actions to root out discriminatory practices among auto lenders.”
Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, a former chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said in a congressional floor speech that the Republican legislation would limit regulators’ “ability to protect consumers from racial discrimination in the auto lending market and give auto dealers a leg up in charging higher interest rates.” The Obama White House issued an official statement of administration policy, saying it strongly opposed the Republican bill, because the CFPB guidance at issue would “ensure customers are not charged disproportionately higher prices for auto loans because of their race, color, religion or other characteristics that should have no bearing on loan decisions.”
O’Rourke nonetheless officially co-sponsored the bill and voted for it. Echoing the GOP’s line of attack on the CFPB, the Democrat faulted the agency for a “lack of openness,” which he asserted had created “uncertainty, criticism of the CFPB’s conclusions, and has made loans more expensive to borrowers.” While O’Rourke later voted against using the Congressional Review Act to kill the CFPB’s regulation, the original bill he voted for set the stage for the GOP to repeal it under Trump.
Also in 2015, O’Rourke voted for a separate Republican bill that Democratic legislators said was designed to delay a CFPB regulation and weaken lending disclosure protections for home mortgage borrowers. California Rep. Maxine Waters, the senior Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, said the bill would make it harder for consumers to sue lenders when they have been misled, which represented “a drastic departure from current law” under the longstanding Truth In Lending Act.
The Obama administration agreed, issuing a veto threat declaring that the GOP bill aimed to “unnecessarily delay implementation of important consumer protections designed to eradicate opaque lending practices that contribute to risky mortgages, hurt homeowners by removing the private right of action for violations, and undercut the Nation’s financial stability.”
A day after that veto threat, the bill passed with the support of O’Rourke, who said, “I believe it is a practical, short-term compromise that will provide long-term benefits to consumers in the United States.” He argued that the GOP legislation would allow regulators to “continue working with banks to ensure that they are ready to fully comply with the law” and was designed to guarantee that “consumers applying for home mortgages are given all the information they need.”
In addition to votes on CFPB-related issues, O’Rourke has also occasionally sided with Republicans on food labeling laws.
In 2015, for instance, he was one of 66 Democrats who voted for a Republican bill “to repeal country of origin labeling requirements with respect to beef, pork, and chicken,” according to the bill’s text. In the legislation’s committee report, the GOP asserted that the bill was necessary to avoid retaliation from other trading partner countries. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, argued that lawmakers “should not let a few meatpacking companies use trade disputes as an excuse to gut important consumer protections and the rights of farmers in this country…our people deserve a right to know where their food is produced and where it comes from.”
The next year, Republicans brought forward a bill that Democrats said would undermine provisions in the Affordable Care Act requiring restaurants to disclose nutritional information. Public health groups such as the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association asked Democrats to oppose the bill, and O’Rourke’s fellow Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee gave a floor speech asserting that it would “reduce the likelihood that consumers will receive clear and consistent calorie information at chain food service establishments.”
O’Rourke was one of only 33 Democrats to vote for it.
During his Senate race, O’Rourke was lauded for his rhetoric about the threat of climate change. In Congress, he has questioned the safety of natural gas fracking, and he gets high ratings from the League of Conservation Voters.
O’Rourke helped Republicans vote down Democratic legislation to restrict the federal government from taking steps that could open up parts of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to offshore drilling.
But while climate scientists say policymakers must halt new fossil fuel exploration, O’Rourke has pushed back against the notion that the world must decide between carbon emissions and clean energy. Instead, he has insisted that “we can reject the false choice between oil and gas and renewable energy.” Meanwhile, he has cast key votes with Republicans to boost the fossil fuel industry whose carbon emissions are at the root of the crisis.
During the legislative debate over lifting the ban, the Democrats’ committee report argued that “the extreme approach taken by this bill not only repeals current crude export restrictions, but also ensures that no export restrictions – for any reason – could be implemented or enforced in the future.” The Democratic report, authored by House Commerce Committee ranking Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., added that “the vaguely drafted provisions of the bill could have potentially vast consequences for consumers, the environment and climate change, and national security.”
That argument proved to be convincing to many Texas Democrats. On one of the votes, 5 out of 11 Texas Democratic lawmakers opposed the bill. On the other vote, seven Texas Democrats opposed the bill, with O’Rourke among only three who supported it. O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign website boasts that “Beto voted to repeal the Crude Oil Export Ban to support our economy and national security.”
Passage of the O’Rourke-backed legislation was followed by a tripling of petroleum exports. With the export ban lifted, a recent report from the International Energy Agency projected that the United States will be exporting five million barrels of oil a day by 2023 — all while scientists warn of catastrophic effects of carbon emissions.
At the same time, O’Rourke helped Republicans vote down Democratic legislation to prevent drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and he backed a separate GOP bill to speed up natural gas exports, which Pallone argued would “exacerbate climate change by encouraging more fossil fuel extraction.”
He also supported GOP legislation that Democrats said was constructed to protect the utility industry. That bill was introduced the year before the recent California wildfires renewed questions about utility liability. At the time, Republicans said the measure was designed “to ensure reliable electricity service and reduce the risk of fires and fire hazards caused by inadequate vegetation management” in areas where power lines cross federal lands.
Repeating charges made by Democrats in the bill’s committee report, Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva said during the floor debate: “The bill waives liability for companies that start forest fires or cause other damage. This is nonsense and shifts an incredible burden and risk onto American taxpayers.”
O’Rourke was one of 69 Democrats to support the bill, which passed.
Immigration & Criminal Justice
In representing the border city of El Paso, O’Rourke has been an outspoken advocate for immigration reform. In recent days he has used his platform to call for public pressure on the Trump administration to shut down an immigrant detention center in Tornillo, Texas and he made headlines slamming the Trump administration’s overall immigration policy. His Senate campaign website said he wants to “pass the DREAM Act and ensure that undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children, known as ‘Dreamers,’ find a permanent home and citizenship in the U.S.” It also declared that he wants to “end the militarization of our immigration enforcement system.”
However, he was one of a group of Democrats who broke party ranks to support Republican legislation to waive requirements for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and job applicants to take polygraph tests — a proposal that was part of the Trump administration’s plan to assemble a deportation force.
Polygraph tests have been part of CBP’s efforts to confront the corruption and misconduct that have plagued the agency in recent years. A 2012 Government Accountability Office report found that between 2005 and 2012, “144 current or former CBP employees were arrested or indicted for corruption-related activities.” The report noted that CBP uses polygraph tests as part of employment background checks “to mitigate the risk of employee corruption and misconduct” — and it recommended that the agency consider expanding the tests. The report specifically noted that CBP internal affairs officials were expressing “concerns about the suitability of the officers and agents hired during [employment] surges because most of these officers and agents did not take a polygraph examination.”
In April of 2017, the Trump administration issued a memo pushing for authority to waive the polygraph tests in order to expedite the hiring of thousands of new CBP agents. Critics immediately raised red flags — the American Immigration Lawyers Association said it was a plan “to water down hiring standards.” Tom Jawetz, the Center for American Progress’ Vice President for Immigration, told Univision that “many agents brought on beforehand who had not gone through a polygraph were cooperating with cartels and subject to corruption.” James Tomsheck, the CBP’s former head of internal affairs, called the idea of waivers “preposterous” in light of what the polygraph tests had been finding.
Compared to other law-enforcement agencies, “a larger number of people failed the exam, but the admissions of the applicants who failed the exam were hair-raising,” Tomsheck told The Nation. “The most shocking, frankly terrifying, were the many applicants who admitted that they were infiltrators. That they actually worked for a drug-trafficking organization and had for some period of time. They had been directed to apply for the job solely for the purpose of feeding information back to the criminal organization they worked with.”
Two days after the Trump administration’s memo, Republicans introduced legislation to allow the polygraph tests to be waived. The bill — which did not even get a committee hearing — was authored by Arizona Republican Rep. Martha McSally, an immigration hardliner and supporter of a border wall. During the floor debate, she described the measure as a necessary step to “provide CBP with immediate relief so they are able to quickly, yet judiciously, hire officers and agents.”
Democrats adamantly objected. New Mexico Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham — the chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — said “eliminating the critical polygraph requirements for certain CBP applicants only undermines our Nation’s safety, given this agency’s historic connection to organized crime, drug cartels, and corruption.” She asserted that “no other federal law enforcement agency in the country—not the FBI, DEA, ATF, or Secret Service—makes any exceptions to their polygraph exam.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., declared: “Anyone who votes for this bill is voting to support and implement Donald Trump’s views on immigration, his desire to militarize our southern border, and his fantasy of a mass deportation force. You cannot spin it any other way. If we want to lower the standards for screening and hiring CBP officers, eliminate checks that could help weed out candidates with criminal histories or criminal intentions, and water down the integrity of this important national security source, this bill is for you.”
O’Rourke opted to join Republicans in voting for the bill, which passed. In a statement after the vote, he echoed McSally’s rationale for the legislation, asserting that to address staffing shortfalls, the bill was necessary to “help speed up the hiring process and provide the CBP Commissioner additional authorities to recruit and hire quality CBP officers and Border Patrol agents.”
O’Rourke joined Republicans to pass legislation making the attempted murder of a law enforcement officer punishable by death.
During the same two-month stretch, O’Rourke also broke ranks from the majority of his party in supporting another GOP measure on law enforcement — legislation that, according to GovTrack, would “add the killing or attempted killing [of] a law enforcement officer to the list of aggravating factors in federal death penalty cases.”
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said the bill was “an unnecessary and misguided attempt to politicize the unfortunate deaths of law enforcement officers and could ultimately exacerbate existing tension between law enforcement and the communities they serve, especially African Americans.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., argued that it would change the fundamental threshold for capital punishment by “impos[ing] a death penalty for attempted murder.” He declared: “I am not aware that we have in the law, anywhere, a death penalty for an attempted crime; and here, we are establishing a death penalty for an attempt, an unsuccessful attempt.”
O’Rourke was one of 48 Democrats to join Republicans in supporting the legislation, which passed.
Regulating Wall Street
Since the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Republicans and bank lobbyists have been waging a campaign to whittle away the landmark Dodd-Frank legislation that instituted modest financial regulations designed to ward off another crisis. O’Rourke has a somewhat mixed record on financial issues, according to the financial watchdog group Americans for Financial Reform (AFR). At times he has voted with Democrats to protect existing regulations. Still, he has also frequently aided the GOP in some of its efforts, casting six votes for bills that Democrats say were designed to help bank lobbyists deregulate Wall Street.
In 2014 and 2018 O’Rourke cast votes for GOP bills that weakened the “Volcker Rule,” which aims to prevent financial firms from using depositors’ savings for their own speculative trading.
For instance, in 2014 and 2018 O’Rourke cast votes for GOP bills that included provisions weakening the so-called Volcker Rule, which aims to prevent financial firms from using depositors’ savings for their own speculative trading.
AFR sent a letter to lawmakers warning that the 2014 bill “contains a number of potentially significant deregulatory measures.” Among the most problematic provisions, said the group, were those that “would deregulate international derivatives markets”; “would greatly weaken the CFTC’s ability to protect against” inappropriate transactions; and “cut off the ability of the SEC to include needed investor protection measures as part of their regulatory efforts.” The letter warned that the bill’s “weakening of the Volcker Rule can be expected mainly to benefit large Wall Street banks that wish to find an end run around proprietary trading restrictions.”
In the debate over the 2018 bill, Democratic lawmakers on the House Financial Services Committee noted that the legislation was “the latest attempt to weaken the Volcker Rule, a cornerstone of Wall Street reform enacted in the wake of the financial crisis.”
Also in 2017 and 2018:
– O’Rourke voted for GOP legislation that Democrats said would empower financial institutions to shield themselves from bank examiners. House Democrats on the Financial Services Committee described the bill as one trying to “postpone material supervisory determinations by the bank’s regulator” and “make it more likely that megabanks would be able to escape or delay accountability for egregious violations of federal laws protecting consumers and the economy.” AFR begged lawmakers to oppose it, saying: “The impact of this legislation in weakening bank supervision would be especially great at the nation’s largest banks. Its effect would be to substantially increase the risk of systemic problems, and of unfair and predatory treatment of consumers.”
– O’Rourke voted for a package of Republican bills that Democrats said would reduce independent audits of corporations, deregulate stock exchanges and restrict regulators’ ability to monitor high-frequency trading. The legislation followed a series of “flash crashes” that sent stock prices tumbling and that prompted new rules from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Less than two years before the GOP legislation, former Democratic U.S. Sen. Ted Kaufman warned that unless regulators strengthened their oversight, the economy was vulnerable to a repeat of the flash crashes. O’Rourke supported the GOP bill, even though Rep. Waters pointed out that the GOP legislation “would ease the ability of high frequency traders to manipulate the stock markets undetected [and] encourage a regulatory race-to-the-bottom at our nation’s stock exchanges.”
– O’Rourke voted for a Republican bill to permit larger number of bank holding companies to take on more debt. In a sentiment echoed by House Democrats, AFR noted that the policy would allow larger banks to “more easily acquire smaller community banks, reducing the number of independent community banks.”
O’Rourke voted for a Republican bill to weaken requirements for financial firms to inform customers that their personal information is being shared with third-party corporations.
– O’Rourke voted for a Republican bill to weaken requirements for financial firms to inform customers that their personal information is being shared with third-party corporations. The vote on the deregulatory legislation — which was backed by Wall Street lobbying groups — came only weeks after Equifax exposed millions of Americans’ personal information to hackers. Republicans argued that the bill was necessary to reduce “the regulatory burden upon, particularly, our struggling community financial institutions, our community banks, and credit unions.”
Democrats on the Financial Services Committee urged a “no” vote, arguing that the bill “would eliminate meaningful, clear disclosures to consumers about their privacy rights, including their ability to opt-out from having their information sold to unaffiliated third party companies.”
In 2015, congressional Democrats, labor unions, environmental groups and consumer organizations were frantically trying to block a Republican measure to pass Trade Promotion Authority, which provides presidents more unilateral power to negotiate trade deals, with less input from Congress.
In 2015, Beto broke ranks with unions and environmentalists by voting to pass the Trade Promotion Authority, which provides presidents more unilateral power to negotiate trade deals.
The measure — backed by a powerful corporate lobby — was particularly fraught because it was seen as a prerequisite for the Trans Pacific Partnership. That proposed 12-nation trade deal had become a source of national debate, because — among other things — it included controversial provisions to empower foreign corporations to use international tribunals to overturn local, state and federal laws.
During the floor debate, the opposition was led by Rep. Sander Levin, D-MI, who argued that a “yes” vote meant “saying ‘fine’ to giving private investors in growing numbers the ability to choose an unregulated arbitration panel instead of a well-established judicial system in order to overturn local or national health or environmental regulations.”
Rep. Nydia Velasquez, D-N.Y., similarly argued that “we are being asked to vote for an agreement that will cost jobs, undermine environmental protections, and erode workers’ rights, all in the name of so-called free trade.” The vote, she said, “comes down to a simple question: Are you going to side with Wall Street, large corporations, and their lobbyists, or will you stand with working families in your district?”
In the end, the opposition was not enough — TPA passed twice by razor-thin margins. Once again O’Rourke broke ranks with House Democrats and most of the Texas Democratic delegation to cast crucial votes to pass the GOP bill.
In the aftermath, O’Rourke — who has also been a promoter of the North American Free Trade Agreement — refused to concede that his vote was a sign of support for the TPP.
“My vote for TPA is not a vote for TPP and does not give the President the authority to commit this country to TPP,” he said in a statement at the time. “In fact, if the President fails to meet the ambitious objectives defined in TPA, I will vote against TPP.”
Along with legislation to fully repeal large portions of the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, Republicans have also mounted a death-by-a-thousands-cuts strategy against the landmark legislation. O’Rourke has been a supporter of improving Obamacare, expanding Medicaid and adding a public option to compete with private insurance. In three instances, though, he broke with the majority of House Democrats to help Republicans, and in one instance, he backed a GOP bill Democrats said was designed to prop up the Trump administration’s attempts to replace Obamacare.
The ACA established the Independent Payment Advisory Board to recommend ways to reduce Medicare spending. In the words of its chief proponent, former Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the board “was created to protect Medicare for seniors – by improving the quality of Medicare services and by extending the life of Medicare for years to come.”
O’Rourke defied his party and twice voted to kill the Independent Payment Advisory Board, after Sarah Palin cited it as proof that the Affordable Care Act was creating “death panels.”
According to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the language creating the board prohibited it from proposing rationing, reduced benefits, higher premiums or restricted eligibility. Despite those safeguards, Republicans led by former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin soon pointed to the board as proof that Democrats were aiming to create “death panels.” In a 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Palin asserted that the board would create “‘death panel’-like rationing” that makes “bureaucrats, not medical professionals, the ultimate arbiters of what types of treatment will (and especially will not) be reimbursed under Medicare.”
Representing Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., wrote in the bill report that the legislation was part of “Republicans’ piecemeal attempt to dismantle the health reform.”
O’Rourke defied his party and twice voted with Republicans to kill the board. He also officially co-sponsored both measures. He additionally broke with his party by voting for a separate Republican measure to require more reporting about health exchange enrollment. Pallone, the New Jersey Democrat, cast the legislation as an effort to drown federal officials in unnecessary paperwork and “impede the efforts of the administration to implement the Affordable Care Act.”
A few years later, when Republicans were pushing to replace the ACA with Trump’s American Health Care Act (AHCA), O’Rourke voted for Republican legislation to provide special tax credits for COBRA benefits — an initiative that Democrats said was part of the larger Trump scheme to kill off the ACA and eliminate protections for Americans with preexisting conditions.
“The AHCA would allow insurers to charge older Americans up to five times more than they charge younger Americans,” Neal said during the floor debate. “The tax credits in [the bill] would not make COBRA coverage any more affordable for the American people. In addition, it could potentially weaken the risk pool coverage because it would encourage older and sicker workers to remain on COBRA that could hurt small businesses. This is simply a backdoor way for States to discriminate against existing conditions.”
In 2017, O’Rourke joined his party in voting against President Donald Trump’s tax cut package, which delivered big benefits to corporations and the wealthy. His Senate campaign website cited deficit concerns about those tax cuts’ cost.
O’Rourke again broke ranks with House Democrats — and the Texas Democratic delegation — to vote for GOP tax cuts.
But that was not the end of the story for Republicans. Within months, they began pressing a new package of tax cuts that Democratic groups, such as the Center for American Progress, deemed the “Tax Scam 2.” One piece of that package was a proposal that a critical Los Angeles Times editorial said “would carve out a new tax shelter for start-up businesses.”
As Democrats sought to present a unified front against the new GOP tax cuts, O’Rourke broke ranks with House Democrats — and most of the Texas Democratic delegation — to vote for the GOP legislation. He supported the initiative, even though the Congressional Budget Office warned that the bill would expand the deficit.
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The Governor and the Oil Lobbyist: Report Blasts Jerry Brown’s Friendship With Lucie Gikovich
Co-Published by Fast Company
How much influence has a former Jerry Brown staffer-turned-lobbyist had over the governor?
A report calls on incoming governor Gavin Newsom to investigate a lobbyist’s efforts in California.
Co-Published by Fast Company
Lucie Gikovich, a longtime friend and former member of California Governor Jerry Brown’s staff, repeatedly lobbied his office on behalf of a group of oil and gas companies that won major concessions from the governor on important state legislation, according to a report released today by a New York-based non-profit organization.
Gikovich’s decades-long friendship with Brown has previously been reported by the Sacramento Bee, including the fact that he stays at her home while on official business in Washington, DC. But her oil and gas industry ties have not received attention prior to this report, according to report author Derek Seidman, a research analyst with the Public Accountability Initiative, which is funded by foundations and the American Federation of Teachers.
Lucie Gikovich, her business partner and firm have donated $114,500 to Brown’s campaigns over the years.
“She’s someone that Brown clearly completely trusts and yet is being extremely well paid by her clients to lobby on behalf of their interests,” said Seidman, whose report is titled The California Oil Veto: The Lobbyist Behind Governor Jerry Brown’s Concessions to Big Oil. Gikovich, who works with the D.C.-based Crane Group, has lobbied Brown’s office on behalf of corporate clients for a range of industries since 2011. Gikovich, her business partner and firm have donated $114,500 to Brown’s campaigns over the years.
For her part, Gikovich denies having an outsized influence on Brown and minimizes her role in legislation that the report says she influenced. “Governor Brown, more than anyone I know, makes up his own mind after hearing from all sides and carefully analyzing all aspects of the issues,” she wrote in an email. “He makes his decisions on the merits, regardless of his relationships with those involved.”
Evan Westrup, a spokesperson for the Governor, added a few choice words about the then-unpublished report, when it was described to him in an email. “This report is about as factual – and substantive – as a tweet from Donald Trump,” said Westrup. “The governor had no knowledge that any of these companies were her clients, but even if he did, it would’ve made no difference. On these bills – and the thousands of others that have crossed his desk – the focus has always been on what’s best for California, which is why the state’s record of climate action is unmatched in the Western world.”
Phillips 66, one of Gikovich’s clients, has paid her $937,500 in fees and retainers to lobby the governor’s office and state regulatory boards since 2012.
The Public Accountability Initiative’s report builds on a longstanding critique of the California governor who, many environmentalists claim, has been too cozy with Big Oil interests in spite of his reputation as a national leader in combating global climate change and reducing demand for fossil fuels in the state. The report also calls on incoming governor Gavin Newsom to investigate Gikovich’s lobbying efforts in California and to “sever the state’s ties to Gikovich.”
One of Gikovich’s clients, the oil refinery operator Phillips 66, has paid her $937,500 in fees and retainers to lobby the governor’s office and various state regulatory boards since 2012. She was the Houston-based firm’s highest paid lobbyist in California, according to the report.
Gikovich served as a top aide to Brown during his first two terms as governor and he hired her as his federal lobbyist when he was mayor of Oakland, a job that earned her $780,000 from 2001 to 2007, according to the report. She also served as Brown’s press secretary during his failed 1982 run for the U.S. Senate. As governor, Brown has included her in trade delegations to China and Mexico.
Brown reportedly stayed with Gikovich in her Washington D.C. home in 2013, at the time she was lobbying on behalf of Phillips 66 and Halliburton, and other corporate clients. Such hospitality might not violate ethics laws if the stay “is related to another purpose unconnected with the lobbyist’s professional activities,” according to the state’s ethics rules at the time.
“I find it hard to believe that they would’ve not talked about any official business but no one can know for certain, of course,” says Seidman, whose report says those visits may constitute a “possible violation of ethics rules.”
The visits were “all personal, not business” and evidence of Brown’s frugality as well as his desire to visit with friends, according to Gikovich’s email.
Gikovich’s client during the battle over two bills to extend California’s landmark climate program, known as cap-and-trade, was Phillips 66, which operates oil refineries in Santa Maria and Rodeo. The package that the governor signed last year included major concessions to the oil industry and split the environmental community, with mainstream environmentalists supporting the compromise and environmental justice groups turning against it.
Gikovich said that her work on the cap-and-trade program—for which she reportedly was paid $105,000 in 2017—was mostly confined to monitoring the legislation. “There was no contact with the Governor personally on these issues,” she wrote.
In 2013, Gikovich also reported lobbying Brown’s office on behalf of Houston-based Halliburton, the oilfield services giant, on a proposed senate bill sponsored by then-Democratic State Senator Fran Pavley that regulated hydraulic fracturing—”fracking”—an oil extraction method that brings with it the risks of drinking water contamination and of inducing earthquakes, as well as air pollution.
That bill lost the support of environmentalists after the oil industry lobbied to amend it to allow fracking to continue while the process was being studied, as High Country News reported at the time. Westrup countered via email that “prior to this bill, there was no integrated, comprehensive regulatory oversight of this production stimulation method, which has been used in California for more than 30 years.”
Gikovich wrote that the Crane Group “had a small subcontract” to provide strategic advice to Halliburton and that she “never spoke even once to the Governor or staff on their issues, including fracking.”
The report also credits Gikovich with playing a key role in advocating for the Southern California Gas Company after its Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility sprung a massive methane leak in 2015, causing the evacuation of thousands of nearby residents. She lobbied Brown’s office on behalf of the utility in opposition of a bill that would have granted disaster victims more latitude in litigation against the company. In an email, she said that she submitted a lengthy policy memo, but did not speak to Brown or his staff.
Brown nixed the bill, writing that “nothing has been shown to indicate that current law is insufficient to holding polluters accountable.”
“It seems pretty clear that Gikovich’s lobbying of his office correlated really closely with his veto of this,” said Seidman.
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Big Pharma Bankrolled Pro-Trump Group As Trump Pushed Pharma Tax Cut
In 2017 the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America gave $2.5 million to America First Policies Inc. — a major dark money group supporting President Donald Trump’s political and economic agenda.
The major dark money group supporting President Donald Trump’s political and economic agenda raked in millions of dollars directly from the pharmaceutical industry’s main lobbying group — at the same time Trump backed off his position on a major drug issue and promoted a tax plan that was a windfall for the industry.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America gave $2.5 million to America First Policies in 2017, according to IRS documents. America First Policies was formed by former Trump advisers in 2017 and proudly touts itself as a pro-Trump organization. The PhRMA money represented more than 10 percent of America First Policies’ revenues in 2017, according to the group’s own IRS filings.
The IRS documents were obtained by MapLight, a nonpartisan group that tracks the influence of money in politics.
While campaigning for president, Trump pledged to take action to generally reduce drug prices and to allow Medicare to negotiate lower prices for prescription medications. He then appointed a former pharmaceutical executive to run the Department of Health and Human Services, and slammed the Medicare negotiation concept after a meeting with pharmaceutical executives.
“I’ll oppose anything that makes it harder for smaller, younger companies to take the risk of bringing their product to a vibrantly competitive market,” Trump said. “That includes price-fixing by the biggest dog in the market, Medicare.”
While Trump has moved to allow limited negotiation in some parts of Medicare, he has rejected the larger policy he campaigned on, leaving it out of his prescription drug proposal released earlier this year.
Trump also passed a tax cut that benefited the pharmaceutical industry, but that has not corresponded with a drop in prescription drug prices. America First Policies launched an ad campaign to promote those tax cuts, and spent the end of the 2018 campaign promoting them. PhRMA also gave $1.5 million to the American Action Network, which aired an ad campaign in support of the tax-cut legislation.
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Will New York Fund Amazon Subsidies or Student Debt Relief?
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made headlines begging Amazon to site its second headquarters in the state. Now, however, prominent Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly have slammed the idea of offering taxpayer subsidies to the retail giant.
Co-published by Splinter
Elections have consequences, and they may have particularly immediate consequences for billionaire Jeff Bezos, as newly empowered New York Democrats appear to be positioning themselves to try to block new state subsidies for Amazon, now that the online retailing titan has chosen New York City and Northern Virginia as new headquarters locations.
A day before last week’s midterm elections, when Amazon’s choice was still up in the air, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made headlines begging Amazon to site its second headquarters in the state. “I’ll change my name to Amazon Cuomo if that’s what it takes,” said Cuomo, as reports surfaced about Amazon potentially moving in to Long Island City.
The next day, though, Democrats won control of the state Assembly and state Senate. Now, prominent Democrats in those chambers have slammed the idea of New York offering taxpayer subsidies to Amazon. And one lawmaker wants the legislature to decide between giving Amazon taxpayer largesse or addressing the state’s student debt crisis.
Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim announced that he will introduce legislation to slash New York’s economic development subsidies and use the money to buy up and cancel student debt — a move he said would provide a bigger boost to the state’s economy. The legislation, says Kim, would halt any Cuomo administration offer of taxpayer money to Amazon, which could reap up to $1 billion in tax incentives if it moves to Long Island City. The deal is a goodie bag for Amazon: It includes everything from a $325 million cash grant to a promise that taxpayers will help secure a helipad for Amazon executives.
“Giving Jeff Bezos hundreds of millions of dollars is an immoral waste of taxpayers’ money when it’s crystal clear that the money would create more jobs and more economic growth when it is used to relieve student debt,” said Kim, who recently published an op-ed with law professor Zephyr Teachout criticizing the Amazon deal. “Giving Amazon this type of corporate welfare is no different, if not worse, than Donald Trump giving trillions in corporate tax breaks at the federal level. There’s no correlation between healthy, sustainable job creation and corporate giveaways. If we used this money to cancel distressed student debt instead, there would be immediate positive GDP growth, job creation and impactful social-economic returns.”
New York has the most expensive set of corporate subsidy programs in the country, and a report by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research found that such subsidies “are not cost-effective, with either no statistically significant effects or large costs per job created.” Kim noted that in 2015 alone, New York gave out more than $8 billion in corporate incentives. He pointed to a recent study by the Levy Institute that found cancelling student debt would result “in an increase in real GDP [and] a decrease in the average unemployment rate.”
In New York, student debt has ballooned. A 2016 report by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office found that “the delinquency rate among New York student loan borrowers rose by more than a third over the past decade while average borrower balances in the State increased by nearly 48 percent, to $32,200.” A memo outlining Kim’s bill says the legislation would empower New York officials to “exercise their eminent domain powers to buy, cancel, and/or monetize the state’s out of control student debt,” which the memo says totals more than $82 billion.
Kim’s move followed criticism of a possible Amazon deal by Senator Michael Gianaris, who led Democrats’ successful effort to win control of the chamber, and who is expected to be in one of the Senate’s top jobs.
“Offering massive corporate welfare from scarce public resources to one of the wealthiest corporations in the world at a time of great need in our state is just wrong,” Gianaris and City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, both of whom represent Long Island City, said in a press release. “The burden should not be on the 99 percent to prove we are worthy of the one percent’s presence in our communities, but rather on Amazon to prove it would be a responsible corporate neighbor.”
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7 Takeaways from California’s Elections
Two of the biggest shockers happened in Los Angeles and Orange counties, in races that have historically drawn the most conservative voters: sheriff and district attorney.
Official voting results are weeks away from getting verified for the 2018 general election, but big, historic trends are already emerging: some old, some new, some bad — and a lot of Blue.
1. Real estate interests prove again that they’re some of the evilest people in California history
The people who helped to bring to the Golden State housing covenants, redlining, Proposition 13, the overturning of the Rumford Fair Housing Act, McMansions in canyons that always burn and so much more housing nastiness were on the wrong side of history again this election cycle. They spent at least $74 million to demonize Proposition 10—which would only allow municipalities the right to consider rent control—to the point where even renters felt it was a nefarious plot to destroy property values and bankrupt elderly landlords. Unsurprisingly, Prop. 10 lost by a nearly two-thirds majority, and real estate special-interests groups will spend even more if another such measure ever goes statewide again.
2. The Democrats’ next big battleground will be the Central Valley
Most of the Dems’ millions were spent on flipping Orange County blue, but as I wrote for the Los Angeles Times recently, the Democrats can learn a lot for 2020 by what’s happening in the Central Valley. There, Latino candidates have climbed the political ladder from school board seats to a majority of the Valley’s state Assembly and state Senate seats, flipping two of the latter with Latinas (Anna Caballero in the 12th, Melissa Hurtado in the 14th) on Tuesday. What they yet don’t have is one of the congressional seats held by the region’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: David Valadao, Jeff Denham, Kevin McCarthy and Devin Nunes, all whom won their races this time around (although Denham is still sweating his out). Expect the Dems to groom some rising stars for 2020—and expect them to mine data from the Valley about how to attract rural voters.
3. People in Southern California mistrust law enforcement more than ever before
Two of the biggest shockers happened around elected positions that have historically drawn the most conservative voters: sheriff and district attorney. In Orange County, Supervisor Todd Spitzer handily beat 20-year incumbent DA Tony Rackauckas, who has been dogged by a jailhouse snitch scandal for years. But even more surprising was the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s race, where Jim McConnell—supported by virtually the entire L.A. political class—lost to former deputy Alex Villanueva. Villanueva will be the first Democratic sheriff in more than 100 years.
4. Los Alamitos is now unofficially Southern California’s City of Hate
The tiny northwest Orange County town made news earlier this year when the city council decided to pass an ordinance protesting California’s sanctuary state law. The councilman who pushed that resolution, Warren Kusumoto, was reelected this week. But also winning a seat was former councilmember Dean Grose, who made national headlines in 2009 when he emailed a racist cartoon of a watermelon patch growing outside the Obama White House.
5. AIDS Healthcare Foundation needs to stop wasting money on propositions
The nonprofit giant spent over $23 million on the Yes on 10 battle, two years after spending $4.5 million on Proposition 60 to mandate condoms on adult films sets in California and more than $14 million on Proposition 61 to regulate prescription drugs bought by the state. Last year, it spent $5.5 million on Measure S, an anti-development ordinance in Los Angeles. All that money went to nothing, as each measure lost handily. Maybe AIDS Healthcare Foundation head Michael Weinstein should’ve spent that $47 million on services?
6. The California GOP’s last, best hope are Asians
The party has long been dead in the state, but a glimmer of hope has emerged for it in Orange County. Asian-American Republicans there now hold one congressional and state Senate seat, two state Assembly spots, three of the five chairs on the Board of Supervisors, and multiple school board and city council positions. And the new mayor of Anaheim, Orange County’s largest city, is Indian-American Harry Sidhu. Leave it to Orange County to get minorities to side with the Party of Trump!
7. With five of seven congressional seats now Democrat, this ain’t your dad’s Orange County anymore
It’s not even your Orange County. A brave new OC awaits all of us, indeed….
Copyright Capital & Main
Why Was Climate Change Omitted From Colorado’s Debate Over Fracking?
Co-published by Westword
The total absence of climate change discussion in Colorado’s 2018 election was striking, considering the state’s intensified floods, droughts and wildfires.
Over eight debates between gubernatorial candidates Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton, Colorado’s press corps mustered just three questions about climate change.
Co-published by Westword
It is no overstatement to say that Colorado’s Proposition 112 and Amendment 74 were two of the most significant and far-reaching climate change measures in America’s entire midterm election. But don’t blame yourself if you didn’t know that. While the initiatives sparked a pitched battle about the fossil fuel industry just as scientists were issuing a dire warning about climate change, that term — “climate change” — was largely absent from the state’s political conversation in 2018, even though some local officials say climate change could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the near future.
While Colorado’s oil and gas industry was asserting that burning carbon-emitting fracked gas is “helping to reduce carbon emissions,” it sponsored an anonymous website attacking journalists who report on energy and climate issues.
Oil and gas corporations spent roughly $40 million to oppose 112, which would have mandated larger distances between fossil fuel extraction sites and schools, hospitals and residential neighborhoods, and likely restricted some fossil fuel development. Some of that money also went into promoting 74, which would have empowered those same oil and gas companies to sue towns that try to restrict drilling and fracking. While the industry offered a smorgasbord of arguments in its campaign — it would defund schools, it would kill jobs, etc. — those criticisms were all based on one central premise: that the setbacks measure would allegedly ban all new oil and gas exploration.
Had climate change been a central topic of conversation, that assertion could have boomeranged on the industry — proponents could have argued that an all-out ban was in fact urgently needed in light of a recent United Nations report warning of a full-fledged dystopia if new fossil fuel development is not halted. And they might have found a receptive audience: Recent polling from the University of Colorado has shown that 70 percent of Coloradans say they are at least somewhat concerned about climate change — and that survey was done before a summer of climate-change-intensified wildfires.
Even though Prop. 112 was not a total ban on fossil fuel extraction, at least a few national voices noted that it represented an important front in the climate change battle.
However, the Colorado press corps barely mentioned climate change in its coverage of the fight, and groups pushing the proposition never made climate change a central argument in their campaign.
An analysis by Media Matters found that out of 12 Colorado newspaper editorials about 112, just one — that of the Boulder Daily Camera, which endorsed the measure — even mentioned climate change. News coverage of 112 focused alternately on the health and environmental hazards highlighted by activists and industry doomsaying about its economic and budgetary implications, but reporting on fossil fuel-related carbon emissions and their contribution to climate change was almost nonexistent.
That was true not only of the fight over 112, but of the state’s wider political discourse. Over eight debates between governor-elect Jared Polis and opponent Walker Stapleton, the Colorado press corps mustered just three questions about climate change, accounting for less than 10 minutes of discussion during eight and a half hours of debate.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association was sponsoring an anonymous website attacking journalists who report on energy and climate issues. And as a backup measure to defang any potential climate arguments, the industry also ramped up its production of promotional PR asserting that burning carbon-emitting fracked gas is “helping to reduce carbon emissions,” as COGA insists. That assertion relies on the public never realizing that it’s only true in comparison to burning coal, but not actually true overall: Natural gas is a fossil fuel, so carbon is emitted when it is burned — no matter what COGA tries to insinuate.
The defeat of an explicitly climate-related ballot measure in Washington State suggests that many voters are not willing to support even modest efforts to frontally address climate change.
That context, though, is rarely noted in a political arena that has long been dominated by armies of fossil fuel lobbyists and millions of dollars of fossil fuel campaign spending. This year, much of that money was spent on ads designed to narrow the debate to one primarily about jobs and economic impact, thereby precluding 112 campaigners from broadening the conversation to one about the climate change dangers of fossil fuel extraction. Colorado Rising, the group behind Proposition 112, was boxed into making arguments only about better protecting the public health and safety of those living near fracking rigs, and to defensively insist that the measure wasn’t an actual ban.
In a media environment that was already erasing climate change from the conversation, there was no space for them to more straightforwardly argue that dramatic reductions in fossil fuel extraction are necessary to address climate change.
“What the polling is showing is that if people are really convinced that it’s an outright ban, they aren’t going to vote for it,” Colorado Rising’s Anne Lee Foster told Capital & Main when asked why climate change wasn’t a more prominent part of the campaign. “It’s not about what the actual percentage [ban] is, it’s proving that they have been blowing this out of proportion the whole time.”
At times, 112’s proponents ended up publicly asserting that the measure would not significantly reduce fossil fuel extraction at all, even as climate scientists argue that’s exactly what’s necessary.
“The oil and gas folks out there will still be able to do their thing,” said Mark Williams, a former Democratic congressional candidate, at a Longmont town hall where he promoted 112. “My concern is you have all these operators that are out there that are trying to make a quick buck, [but] Colorado does not have strong enough regulations.”
There’s no guarantee 112 would have been more successful had the proponents tried to focus the fight on climate change; the oil and gas industry’s success in defeating an explicitly climate-related ballot measure in Washington State suggests that many voters are not willing to support even modest efforts to frontally address climate change.
However, the total absence of the issue in Colorado’s 2018 election was striking, considering not only the IPCC report, but also the state’s own specific struggles with the effects of climate change. After all, leading scientists say that climate change is already intensifying Colorado’s floods, droughts and wildfires. And although COGA has demanded that “natural gas must be part of the climate change conversation,” many of those scientists disagree.
“There is more than enough carbon in the world’s already developed, operating oil, gas, and coal fields globally to exceed 2°C,” wrote a group of 26 climate scientists in a July letter to California Governor Jerry Brown, urging him to immediately halt the approval of all new oil and gas drilling. “There is simply no room in the carbon budget for any new fossil fuel extraction.”
“Absolutely no new fossil fuel developments. None,” said climate scientist Will Steffen, when asked earlier this year what the U.S. needs to do to help avoid global catastrophe. “That means no new coal mines, no new oil wells, no new gas fields, no new unconventional gas fracking. Nothing new.”
This is why even though 112 was not a total ban on fossil fuel extraction, at least a few national voices noted that its potential to somewhat reduce that extraction represented an important front in the climate change battle.
In a guest column for the Denver Post, former NASA scientist James Hansen encouraged Coloradans to vote for 112 because it would “help prevent climate change by making oil and gas harder to access.” Senator Bernie Sanders, who has called for a nationwide ban on fracking, also endorsed the measure on climate-related grounds. And toward the end of the campaign, 350.org founder Bill McKibben promoted the measure as part of his organization’s nationwide push to combat climate change.
But by that point, the industry’s PR machine was already skilled at suppressing any discussion of climate change and transforming every 112 argument into economic alarmism. An editorial in oil magnate Phil Anschutz’s Colorado Springs Gazette was emblematic: In attacking McKibben, it didn’t even bother to mention climate change, much less address his substantive argument.
Instead, its headline simply screamed, “Out-of-stater comes to kill Colorado jobs.”
Copyright Capital & Main
CA-49: A GOP District Realigns With Democrats After Mike Levin Victory
Republican Diane Harkey ended her dispirited campaign by attempting to distance herself from Trump’s personality but supporting him on “substance.”
Was the victory of Democrat Mike Levin in the 49th Congressional District race a decisive one? It seems so. Levin’s roughly seven point victory over Republican Diane Harkey might make newcomers to the district – running from southern Orange County down the coast to northern San Diego – wonder how Republicans have dominated that stretch of California for so long.
Demographic shifts explain part of what happened. Educated high-tech workers have moved into the area, and Levin targeted Latinos and women in this “year of the woman.” Levin was also blessed with a weak opponent plagued by her husband’s financial scandals.
But perhaps something beyond political math was also taking place. Decades ago political scientist Walter Dean Burnham worried that American political parties had deteriorated to such an extent that they could not deal with critical national and international issues. Burnham lamented the decline in voting participation, particularly among the lower classes, and trained his analytical eye on “realignment” elections that led to durable shifts in political coalitions and public policy. The results in the 49th district could be such a realignment where a general political crisis can force a breakthrough and renewal.
One sign of how much has changed in the 49th is that Levin brought Bernie Sanders to campaign with him in the final week of the campaign, a risk in what most political observers regard as a “centrist” district. Sander’s message denouncing the state of our health care system and the cost of higher education is neither scary nor politically costly when it resonates with the realities of so many people’s lives.
Harkey ended her dispirited campaign by attempting to distance herself from Trump’s personality but supporting him on “substance,” meaning the “booming” economy she said he created.
For many voters, the “substance” now is their aesthetic and existential disgust at how President Trump is attempting to re-create our country.
The current battle may lead to the rebuilding of a political force on the progressive side that is able to fight more effectively by forging broader, more sustainable coalitions. That rebuilding is certainly under way in the 49th Congressional District.
Copyright Capital & Main
L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day Five
Is LAUSD Crying Wolf With Its Claims of Financial Distress?
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The Tests Facing California’s New Governor
Wall Street Investors Intensify Affordable Housing Crisis
Is LAUSD Crying Wolf With Its Claims of Financial Distress?
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