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Looking Beyond the Roberts Court

Peter Dreier

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“It’s always darkest before the dawn” sang Pete Seeger. “And that’s what keeps me moving on.”

The recent spate of reactionary decisions by the Roberts Supreme Court — including this week’s outrageous Hobby Lobby ruling — triggers thoughts of a better day, when the right-wingers on the court will have retired or died, replaced by thoughtful liberals who will restore some semblance of fairness and democracy to this great country. Let’s consider what it would be like if our nation’s highest court was actually committed to the notion of “liberty and justice for all.”

Doing so requires making a few leaps of faith, but none of them are far-fetched. It depends on the outcome of the next few election cycles.

If the Democrats retain a majority in the Senate after this November, the feisty, brilliant Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now 81 years old, should retire so Obama can appoint another (younger) liberal member who will have a long tenure on the court. That won’t shift the current 5-4 conservative majority, but it will guarantee that Ginsburg won’t be replaced by conservative.

It would great if one or both of the older conservatives — Antonin Scalia (now 78) or Anthony Kennedy (78 later this month) — would retire, too, so Obama could appoint their successors. But they’ll probably try to hang on until a Republican president enters the White House. Let’s pray (and organize) so that doesn’t happen.

Best-case scenario: A Democrat becomes president in 2016, the Democrats keep control of the Senate, and Scalia and/or Kennedy are so enfeebled by then that they have to quit. At that point, a Democratic president can replace one or both with a liberal justice.

It has become a no-no in American politics for candidates for president or Senate to discuss the characteristics they’d like to see in new Supreme Court justices, except in the vaguest, general terms. They are not supposed to have a “litmus test” for justices. Everyone knows this is bogus. Presidents generally appoint justices who agree with their political views — compromising only enough to get their nominations confirmed by the Senate or to avoid a huge controversy.

Occasionally presidents miscalculate — or, more accurately, their nominees change their views — and upset the ideological applecart. The most famous example is President Dwight Eisenhower’s appointment of California Gov. Earl Warren as Chief Justice in 1953. Eisenhower thought he was appointing a conservative Republican. Warren turned out to be (or became as a result of changing social and political conditions) a liberal and turned the Warren Court into one of the most liberal in history. Another turncoat was David Souter, who turned out to be more liberal – or at least centrist — than George H.W. Bush had anticipated. Among other things, Souter dissented in Bush v Gore, but his side was outvoted 5-4, handing the presidency to GHWB’s son. “Poppy” Bush wouldn’t make that mistake again. His next, and last, Supreme Court appointment was Clarence Thomas.

So don’t expect Hillary Clinton (or any other Democratic candidates for president) to discuss her thoughts about what kind of person she’d appoint to the Supreme Court. She won’t want to get boxed in by any dreaded “litmus test,” which the Republicans would use against her. But if she (or another Democrat ) wins the White House in 2016, and has a Democratic majority, liberals and progressives should push her (and the Senate Dems, especially those on the Judiciary Committee) to make appointments that will dramatically change the court’s direction. Under that scenario, liberals could have a 5-4, perhaps even a 6-3, majority on the court for the next 20, 30, or even 40 years.

What would that mean in terms of public policy? A liberal majority on the Supreme Court could, and should, address the following issues:

  • Campaign Finance: Overturn Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings in order to allow real campaign finance reform that eliminates our current system of corporate-dominated legalized bribery. As David Gans recently wrote in the New Republic: “The Roberts Court is leading a free speech revolution of its own, but this time for the benefit of corporations and the wealthy.” Citizens United (2010) equated “free speech” with money, giving corporations a stranglehold on elections. The McCutcheon (April 2014) ruling eliminated dollar limits for super-rich donors like the Koch brothers. Both have been boondoggles for the super-rich, big business, and the right, undermining democracy and tilting the political playing field in the wrong direction.
  • Workers’ Rights: Reverse the Robert Court’s anti-union rulings, including last week’s Harris v Quinn decision. This was yet another decision in which, by a 5-4 majority, the court sided with wealthy special interests to weaken worker protections and undermine workers’ right to organize. It should come as no surprise that the right-wing National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation — funded by the Koch and Walton families and other corporate groups – was responsible for filing the Harris v. Quinn suit against SEIU. The Court ruled that workers who benefit from a union contract (with higher pay, health benefits, paid vacations, etc.) don’t have to pay union dues. They can be “free riders.” Here again, the Court equates money with free speech. In this case, workers can exercise their “free speech” to avoid supporting the union, even if their lives are significantly improved by a collective bargaining contract negotiated by the union in their workplace. The Court decided that the “free speech” interests of those who object to paying for representation outweigh the right of the democratically elected majority that formed the union. Unions are the strongest bulwark to strengthen the middle class, challenge widening inequalities, and lift hardworking Americans out of poverty. The U.S. has the weakest workers’ rights laws of any democratic country, which accounts in part for the decline of union membership and big business’ ability to violate existing labor laws (such as firing workers who support union organizing efforts in their workplace) without suffering serious consequences. The Roberts court has piled on, siding at every turn with employers over workers.
  • Same-Sex Marriage: Make same-sex marriage a federal right and not leave it up to the states. As I’ve written elsewhere, the Roberts Court’s June 2013 rulings on same-sex marriage favored states’ rights over equal rights. In its two decisions (on the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8), the Court stopped short of proclaiming same-sex marriage a basic right. It left it to the states to determine whether gay Americans have the same right to marry as their straight counterparts. As a result, same-sex marriage advocates have to mobilize and litigate to overturn bans on same-sex marriage in those states that have them. That could take five, 10, 20, or more years, and some states may resist legalizing same-sex marriage forever. In 1967, in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court knocked down all state anti-miscegenation laws that banned inter-racial marriage. It did not leave it up to the states to decide for themselves. That was a bold move, way ahead of public opinion. The Roberts Court was far more cautious. A liberal Supreme Court should apply the same logic to same-sex marriage as the Warren Court applied in Loving to inter-racial marriage. It is a basic right for all Americans, regardless of where they live.
  • Women’s Rights: Overturn Hobby Lobby. This decision, rendered last week, is yet another ruling that treats corporations like “citizens” with rights — in this case, endowing a corporation the “right” of “religious freedom.” Under this outrageous ruling, corporate owners who object to birth control don’t have to provide contraceptives and other forms of birth control to employees if it violates the owners’ religious beliefs. This is little different from saying that a segregationist restaurant owner can avoid serving black customers if it violates his belief in white supremacy. The Hobby Lobby ruling favors corporations’ so-called “religious” freedoms over women’s right to control their bodies. Did anyone notice that, by the accident of history, the five conservatives on the current Supreme Court who voted in favor of Hobby Lobby, each appointed by Republican presidents, all happen to be Catholic men? They are Samuel Alito, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy. The three women justices — Ginsburg (Jewish), Elena Kagan (Jewish) and Sonia Sotomayor (Latina Catholic) — plus Stephen Breyer (Jewish) dissented in the Hobby Lobby case. This isn’t meant to stereotype all Catholic men. One of the greatest liberals and civil libertarians in the Supreme Court’s history — William Brennan — was male and Catholic. He was a staunch supporter of abortion rights and joined the pro-choice majority in Roe v Wade. But it is clear that at least one or more of the five justices who supported Hobby Lobby (certainly Scalia) were guided by religious beliefs over constitutional logic. When and if a Democrat gets to appoint the next one, two or three justices, the choices should be based on the nominees’ judicial views, not their religion, but if their previous judicial decisions or writing reveal that their religious views (strict Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, fundamentalist Protestantism, traditional Islam) lead them to reject basic rights for women, gays, people of color, or other groups, they shouldn’t be appointed to any federal court, much less the Supreme Court.
  • Voting Rights: Strengthen enforcement of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), thus reversing the Robert Court’s Shelby v Holder (June 2013) ruling that allows voter suppression under the guise of states’ rights. The 1965 act, which outlawed literacy tests and other obstacles to voting, was an important tool for civil rights activists to challenge other barriers to black political participation, such as gerrymandering of city council, state legislature, and congressional districts in order to dilute black voting strength. It had huge consequences. In 1970 there were only 1,469 black elected officials in the entire country. By 2000, that number had reached 9,040. Today, the figure is close to 11,000. In 1965, only 6.7 percent of Mississippi’s black citizens were registered to vote. But four years later the number had jumped to 66.5 percent. By 2000, Mississippi had 897 black elected officials in local and state offices, plus Congress–the largest number of any state in the country. Roberts had been trying to weaken the 1965 Voting Rights Act ever since he was a young lawyer in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department. He finally got his way last year when his court, by a 5-4 margin, ruled that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. That’s the provision that requires states with the worst history of voting discrimination have to get Justice Department approval before they can revise their voting laws. Roberts said that blatant racial discrimination in voting no longer exists, so Section 5 isn’t needed. As Congressman John Lewis, a veteran civil rights activist, said about the Supreme Court ruling: “There are more black elected officials in Mississippi today not because attempts to discriminate against voters ceased but because the Voting Rights Act kept those attempts from becoming law.” In recent years, Republican politicians and operatives, including Karl Rove, have sought to restrict voting rights to keep people of color, young people, and poor people from voting. The Roberts Court’s Shelby ruling gave them permission to declare war on voting rights. As soon as the Court made its ruling, a host of states (mostly but not entirely Southern states) began adopting laws to suppress voting rights — such as requiring IDs in order to vote and setting the stage to gerrymander political districts to weaken black and Latino voting strength.
  • Education Funding: Mandate sufficient funding for all public K-12 schools as a basic right of all students regardless of the tax base of the surrounding community or the political/spending priorities of the states. The famous unanimous 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling stated that “separate but equal” schools were inherently unequal. The justices were writing about racial segregation and later mandated that states and localities desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” Today, America’s public schools are segregated by race and income, as Jonathan Kozol reported in his book Savage Inequalities, as UCLA professor Gary Orfield and his colleagues have documented in recent reports, and as many other studies have revealed by examining per-student spending in different school districts. As many scholars and journalists have observed, our public schools are beset with outrageously unequal funding. Students from well-off families generally go to public schools with much higher per-student spending levels than students from less affluent families. The solution is not busing or charter schools but adequate funding for all students and all schools, regardless of the size of a community’s tax base. Since the 1970s, an increasing number of state courts have sought to address these disparities by requiring state legislatures to spend more money on education and/or to distribute those funds more equally. Although these rulings have made some difference, huge disparities persist. This is true within metro areas and states, but also true between states. In 2012, New Jersey spent $18,485 per student while Oklahoma spent only $8,285 per student. Differences in the cost of living do not account for these differences; it is not more than twice as expensive to live in New Jersey than in Oklahoma. And within each state, there are huge disparities. In Illinois a few years ago, New Trier Township High School District (in an affluent Chicago suburb) spent $19,927 per student while the Farmington Central Community Unit School District (a rural area in central Illinois) spent only $6,548 per student. Across the country, the accident of geography determines the quality of education that students get. We need a Supreme Court that will rule that a decent K-12 education is a basic right and that the federal government needs to enforce this right by taking over responsibility for funding public education, or requiring states not only to provide “equal” funding (per student) for every school district but also to provide “equal opportunity” for all students, which would mean spending more money in schools and school districts with a higher percentage of disadvantaged students.

Progressives can surely add to this list of issues that a Supreme Court with a liberal majority should address. Unfortunately, presidential candidates won’t directly address these issues or the views of candidates they would appoint to the Supreme Court when vacancies arise. But as we watch the Roberts Court eviscerate our democracy, and protest its outrageous (usually 5-4) rulings, we should also recognize that part of why we want liberal Democrats in the White House and Congress is to make sure that the third branch of government reflects what’s best about country’s values — fairness, equality, civil liberties, and civil rights.

 

Politics & Government

Video: Police Killings Rise Nationally

According to the Washington Post ‘s “Fatal Force” report, 995 people were shot dead by police officers in 2018.

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Reviewed: A DIY Guide for “The Magicial Resistance”

A new book offers practical tips on how to organize — and cast spells — for equality and the environment.

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Witchcraft Activism, A Toolkit for Magical Activism, David Salisbury. Weiser Books. Releases March 1.

Religion and politics have gone hand in hand at least from the time of Hammurabi’s Code. Though we are guaranteed separation of church and state in the United States, many a prayer has been uttered for political gain. Any and all religions make no bones about their desire to influence social events and governmental organizations using their own methods and views of the Divine, whether it’s the Catholic Workers marching for the rights of the poor, Baptist churches rallying for the right of the unborn — or witches casting spells to protect the environment.


At a time when many people feel helpless, ceremonial magic places power firmly in the hands of people who want to see positive change for the future.


While mainstream faithful said their prayers, conservative chaos magicians invoked Pepe the Frog to aid the 2016 elections. Since then, sorcerers of all stripes and more than few faithful in the Abrahamic faiths have been very publicly throwing down to counteract what they perceive as harmful acts by the current administration.

David Salisbury’s Witchcraft Activism is a smart, direct guide to incorporating activism into your witchcraft practice, or experimenting in your activism by adding a little extra whammy. An experienced, long-time activist and well-respected pagan practitioner, Salisbury lays out a guide for activism that incorporates strategy, defense, offense, victory and loss with spiritual tools and magical methods drawn from Western European folk magic traditions.

He begins with setting intention and leads us to getting off the couch and carrying out an action, be it letter writing, participating in marches, attending city council meetings or lobbying — each with certain magical additions to aid in success. Salisbury also gives results based on his actions incorporating magic and suggests a variety of means for different scenarios. Concentration, visualization and focus are stressed as tools, with the addition of sigils, herbs and incantations.

Spiritual actions range from the simple to the complex. Whether meditating before a meeting, doing a divination for suggested actions, writing out a petition and placing it under a candle or using advanced magical practices like egregores, the acts suggested by Salisbury increase dedication to our causes and shift perspective, creating space for new ideas, for relief from burnout and for refocusing on goals.

Over 1.5 million in the United States identify as Pagan or Wiccan in a 2014 Pew Research Center poll—and that’s not counting those witches, sorcerers and others who do not identify in those categories. The numbers of magical practitioners have risen steadily over the decades, perhaps because organized religions may not offer a sense of personal connection, of gnosis, or may have goals that are in opposition to participants’. At a time when many people feel helpless, witchcraft, ceremonial magic and folk/indigenous faiths place power firmly in the hands of people who want to see positive change for the future.

Don’t believe in magic? Give Salisbury’s methods a try and see what happens. You may be surprised, success is your proof. Just stay away from the Goetia!


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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?

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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.

Affordable Housing, by Jessica Goodheart.
Single-Payer Health Care, by Gabriel Thompson.

Climate Change and Big Oil, by Judith Lewis Mernit.
Inequality Interviews with Manuel Pastor, Ann Huff Stevens and David Grusky.

Early Childhood Education, by Bill Raden.
Inequality in California: Six Takeaways.


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Betomania & Other Tales: 2018 in Review

Capital & Main looks back at the year through 10 stories.

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Photo courtesy of Inter-American Dialogue

1. Beto vs. Democrats: Texas Lawmaker Frequently Voted to Help Trump and GOP

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 

Photo: Crockodile


 

2. The Tests Facing California’s New Governor 

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

 


 

3. Debt of a Salesman: Why the Cost of Living Is Making Retirement a Mirage

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

 

Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles. (Photo: Jfc4me)


 

4. Is a New Toxic Danger Threatening California?

Dan Ross: PFAS compounds have been linked in humans to cancers and hormonal disruption, as well as developmental, reproductive and immune system problems.

 


 

5. Los Angeles Renters Fight Back to Keep Their Pets — and Homes

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

 

Photo courtesy of Downtown Dog Rescue


 

6. Energy Giants Choose Nuclear Option in Election’s Biggest Fight Over Fossil Fuel

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

 

Photo: Getty Images


 

7. How California Public Employees Are Unknowingly Funding an Anti-Rent Control Fight

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

 

Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)


 

8. Homeland Security Kicks the Ladder from Under Immigrants Seeking Green Cards

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

 

Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images


 

9. The Lies That Should Have Sunk Kavanaugh

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

 

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images


 

10. Is Tesla a Promise or a Problem for Rebuilding the Middle Class?

Jessica Goodheart: Elon Musk’s labor intransigence could upend a decades-old social contract between employers and workers.

Co-published by Fast Company

 

Photo: Cindy Chew


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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.

David Sirota

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Beto O'Rourke photo courtesy of Inter-American Dialogue.

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.


Co-published by The Guardian and Newsweek

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. 

Photo: Crockodile/Flickr

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.

Consumer Protection

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.

Fossil Fuels/Energy

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.

For instance, O’Rourke was one of only a handful of House Democrats who twice voted for Republican bills to lift the 40-year-old oil export ban.

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.”

Gulf of Mexico, 2010: BP oil spill. (Photo: DVIDSHUB)

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.

Photo: Josh Denmark

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.”

Trade

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.”

Health Care

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.”

As that mythology spread throughout conservative media, Republicans in 2015 and 2017 brought up legislation to stoke those fears and eliminate the board.

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.”

Taxes

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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Politics & Government

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?

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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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Politics & Government

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.

David Sirota

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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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Education

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.

David Sirota

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Long Island City photo by King of Hearts

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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2018 Election Results

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.

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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….


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Environment

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.

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Illustration: Nicolás Zúñiga

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.”


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