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Politics & Government

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

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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Immigration

ICE’s Stealth Campaign to Expand Its Budget

The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives could pose a challenge to the agency’s chronic overspending — and to its aggressive detention and deportation policies.

Robin Urevich

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Photo: DHS/ICE

In June the Dept. of Homeland Security asked Congress to allow it to transfer $200 million to ICE to cover agency overspending, continuing a pattern of such requests.


Big spending on immigration enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security promises to be a major sticking point as Congress prepares to negotiate a budget deal early next month.

Even though illegal immigration to the United States appears to be at its lowest point in 46 years, spending on immigration enforcement is at an all-time high. (The U.S. Border Patrol reported that in 2017, the last year for which statistics are available, apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border had dropped to 303,000, and had been declining nearly every year since 2000, when a record 1.6 million people were arrested.)


 By overspending its congressional allocation, ICE is effectively writing its own budget.


U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention operations exceeded the agency’s budget this year, while ICE spending on its vast system of immigration jails shows no sign of slowing.

But a newly elected Democratic majority in the House of Representatives could pose a challenge to the agency’s chronic overspending — and to its aggressive detention and deportation policies.

ICE jailed so many immigrants in 2018 that it ran out of space in its more than 200 lock-ups, and placed 1,600 people in medium-security prisons.

Congress set detention and deportation spending for 2018 at $4.4 billion, enough to detain some 40,520 people annually.

However, by June, 44,000 men and women languished in immigration detention, filling 4,000 more beds than Congress authorized. DHS asked Congress to allow it to transfer $200 million to ICE to cover agency overspending. The department plucked the funds from several of its agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration.

Critics of ICE say that by overspending its congressional allocation, the agency has engineered a stealth expansion of the U.S. detention system, effectively writing its own appropriation, and skirting the Constitution’s separation of powers in which Congress, not the executive branch, has the authority to set spending limits.


Congressman: “We shouldn’t be using FEMA as a piggy bank to fund detention beds.”


“It allows them to quickly expand the detention system contrary to congressional intent,” said Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center, a non-profit immigrant rights group.

Such intradepartmental funds transfers aren’t uncommon, but a congressional staffer who asked that his name not be used for this story said this one was controversial because nearly all of the money went to ICE for detention and deportation. ICE has received other big budget increases in the past two years. In March 2017, the agency got a $2.6 billion supplemental appropriation; three months later, ICE was back, requesting that Congress approve a $91 million funds transfer.

The $200 million June 2018 transfer, wrote DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman in an email, was “in line with the FY 2019 president’s budget request for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

However, the additional funds covered FY 2018 overspending – not future shortfalls in 2019; Congress has yet to agree to a permanent fiscal year 2019 budget. Waldman didn’t answer an email asking to clarify her comments.


Congressional Staffer: Whenever ICE outspends its budget and adds detention beds, it gains leverage for the next round of budget negotiations.


The same congressional staffer who discussed the controversy surrounding the $200 million DHS funds transfer also noted that when ICE outspends its budget and adds detention beds, it gains leverage for the next round of budget negotiations because reducing beds would mean freeing detainees and, ICE argues, their release could jeopardize public safety.

Growth by funds transfer also generally avoids public scrutiny. Transfer documents submitted by government agencies are not released to the public. But earlier this year, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) released DHS’s June 2018 transfer and reprogramming request, noting that $10 million had been taken from FEMA just as Hurricane Florence was making landfall in North Carolina.

DHS shot back, claiming the funds were administrative and weren’t earmarked for hurricane relief. But according to Ur Jaddou, director of the advocacy group DHS Watch, and a former Chief Counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the DHS agency that oversees immigration and citizenship applications, “The government these days doesn’t operate on a plethora of administrative resources. It’s really functioning on a very limited budget. When they say they’re using unused money, it’s just a ruse.”

Congress has shown its frustration with ICE’s disregard for its authority, but hasn’t acted to rein in agency spending.


Congress has scolded ICE for its “lack of fiscal discipline and cavalier management.”


In budget recommendations for fiscal year 2019, the Senate Appropriations Committee wrote, “In light of the Committee’s persistent and growing concerns about ICE’s lack of fiscal discipline, whether real or manufactured, and its inability to manage detention resources…the Committee strongly discourages transfers or reprogramming requests to cover ICE’s excesses.”

Two years before, the explanatory language in the supplemental appropriations bill was even harsher. Appropriators pointed to a “lack of fiscal discipline and cavalier management” of detention funding, saying the agency seemed to think its detention operations were “funded by an indefinite appropriation. This belief is incorrect.”

“We shouldn’t be using FEMA as a piggy bank to fund detention beds,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD). “Unelected agency heads shouldn’t unilaterally shift taxpayer dollars for purposes they weren’t intended.”

Still, despite congressional annoyance with ICE’s free-spending ways, it hasn’t conducted meaningful oversight of the immigration detention system, said Greg Chen, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“The current leadership in Congress hasn’t been interested in conducting hearings on detention spending and whether detention is even necessary at the scale it is now,” Chen said.

When President Trump issued an executive order calling for no-holds-barred arrests of undocumented immigrants in January 2017, the border patrol reported that apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border were lower than at any time since 1972 — when the detention population was a fraction of its current size.

ICE reported that in fiscal year 2017, 41 percent of crimes of which detainees had been convicted were traffic- or immigration-related.  Just 11.4 involved murder, sexual assault, kidnapping, robbery or assault.

Chen argued that ICE has a legal responsibility to screen each person in its custody for risk – either of flight or to public safety. “ICE is just not doing that and defaulting to the practice of detaining people.”

Democrats in Congress could take on a more robust role in overseeing ICE spending, now that they’ve gained a majority in the House. They could put conditions on spending, call for Government Accounting Office reports and hearings, cut funding, demand answers if ICE overspends and bring its actions to the attention of the press, said DHS Watch director Ur Jaddou, who is also a former congressional staffer.

“The next time they [ICE] need something,” Jaddou said, Congress can respond, ‘Do you really want it? You better listen.’”


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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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2018 Election Results

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.”

Kelly Candaele

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Mike Levin

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.

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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.


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2018 Election Results

Proposition 11: Emergency Crews Lose Out

Framing Prop. 11 as necessary to protect public safety was a strong argument, but it didn’t help that the opposition failed to file paperwork in time to have their arguments against the measure included in the state’s voter guide.

Gabriel Thompson

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Proposition 11, which rewrites California’s Labor Code to allow private ambulance companies to require paramedics and EMTs to be on call during breaks, cruised to an easy victory on election night, with 60 percent voter support. The result wasn’t surprising; polling showed the measure was leading by a two-to-one margin. Prop. 11’s primary supporter, private ambulance company American Medical Response, vastly outspent the opposition, pouring $22 million into the campaign to argue that response times to emergencies would increase if the measure were defeated.

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The proposition came in the wake of a 2016 California Supreme Court ruling that private security guards are required to be given uninterrupted rest breaks. That ruling likely would apply to the state’s private sector EMTs and paramedics, who are also on call during breaks, and who have filed several lawsuits challenging the practice, including one against AMR. Last year, a legislative attempt to solve the problem stalled in the face of AMR opposition; one of the sticking points was whether the bill would protect AMR from active lawsuits. (As written, Prop. 11 shields AMR from liability regarding breaks in pending litigation.)

Framing Prop. 11 as necessary to protect public safety was a strong argument, but it didn’t help that the opposition, led by the United EMS Workers, an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local, failed to file paperwork in time to have its arguments against the measure included in the state’s voter guide. (Disclosure: AFSCME is a financial supporter of this website.) AMR largely drowned out the local’s attempts to highlight the grueling working conditions faced by emergency workers, and the need for extra staffing to allow more predictable breaks.

What remains to be seen is whether Prop. 11 will in fact shield AMR and other private ambulance companies from pending lawsuits, a decision likely to be determined in court. Jason Brollini, president-executive director of United EMS Workers, estimates that AMR could owe workers as much as $100 million in settlements if the cases are allowed to proceed.


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2018 Election Results

CA-25: Katie Hill Ends Knight Reign in Changing District

While Hill’s youth, bisexuality and comfortably modern persona got the attention of Vice and other media, Steve Knight was seemingly out of touch with his own constituents.

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Katie Hill went to bed last night at the end of an excruciatingly tight congressional race, not knowing if her home district was red or blue. At stake was California’s 25th District, where Hill spent the last 18 months on an unlikely quest to unseat two-term GOP Rep. Steve Knight. By six this morning, Hill, a 31-year-old first-time candidate, appeared to have won by more than 4,000 votes.

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The seat was among several Republican-held offices targeted by the Democratic Party, in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, but it was never going to be easy. CA-25 had been in Republican hands since 1993, representing territory stretching from northern Los Angeles County to parts of Ventura County. It may have been tilting from red to purple, but Hill wisely shaped her campaign to the immediate kitchen-table interests of the district, and avoided all discussion of presidential impeachment, Russia or special counsel Robert Mueller.

“We’re not running an anti-Trump campaign,” Hill told Capital & Main early in the campaign. “I just don’t think that’s the issue that people care the most about here.”

Hill grew up in the tiny district town of Rosamond and, later, in Santa Clarita, and now resides in rural Agua Dulce. She was a cop’s daughter running against former LAPD officer Knight. Hill began her campaign after working eight years at PATH, one of the largest homeless services providers in California. Growing homelessness in CA-25 was one of her core concerns, along with health care and economic opportunity.

While her youth, bisexuality and comfortably modern persona got the attention of Vice and other media, Knight was seemingly out of touch with his own constituents, many of whom commuted daily to Los Angeles. He was on record as supporting legislation banning gay marriage and voted with President Trump 99 percent of the time, including the failed attempt to eliminate the Affordable Care Act. If her lead holds through the week’s final ballot count, Hill will join an unprecedented wave of women elected to Congress and presumably will take a new and far different path than Knight.


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2018 Election Results

CA-10: AP Calls Election for Josh Harder Over Republican Incumbent

Four-term Central Valley Congressman Jeff Denham appears to have been defeated after a week of ballot counting.

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UPDATE, Nov. 13: The Associated Press tonight has declared Democratic challenger Josh Harder to be the winner over GOP incumbent Jeff Denham in the hard-fought 10th District race. According to AP, “With votes continuing to be counted, Harder’s edge has grown after Denham grabbed a slim lead on Election Day. After the latest update, Harder had a 4,919-vote lead out of about 185,000 votes counted, a margin too large for the congressman to overcome with remaining votes.”


A TV ad for incumbent Republican Congressman Jeff Denham stated that his Democratic challenger Josh Harder “shares Nancy Pelosi’s liberal San Francisco values.” The ad, running in the Sacramento media market and on digital platforms throughout California’s 10th District, went on to state that Harder, if victorious, would leave residents of this Central Valley district with dramatically worse health care options.

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It was a puzzling claim, considering Denham voted with his party to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, several times, and voted for the Republican replacement, the unpopular American Health Care Act.

As of Wednesday morning, Jeff Denham clung to a lead of 50.6 percent of the vote, with Harder claiming 49.4 percent. While 100 percent of precincts had reported, the race had not been called, pending the counting of mail-in and provisional ballots. Democratic activists said enthusiasm and campaign cash were up. Harder raised more than $7 million in this cycle to Denham’s $4.4 million.

Back in February, most of the volunteer canvassers trying to boost Democratic registration in Modesto, the heart of the district, were from the Bay Area. They said they had driven east to turn this purplish district solid blue. CA-10, which voted for Hillary Clinton by three points in 2016 while giving Denham a similar margin of victory, was one of the top Democratic targets for flipping in 2018.

Whether Denham or Harder end up winning, the trend of people relocating from the pricey Bay Area could end up re-shaping the electorate in the district. New research from BuildZoom and the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley shows a growing connection between the Bay Area and its neighbor to the east, CA-10. “More than 55 percent of Bay Area out-migrants in households earning less than $50,000 a year stayed in California, [heading to] more affordable markets, such as the Sacramento region or Central Valley metro areas, like Modesto or Fresno,” the study said.


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2018 Election Results

CA-21: TJ Cox Reverses Tally to Declare Victory

Throughout the campaign, Cox was on the offensive, blasting the GOP incumbent’s votes for the unpopular Republican tax reform bill, and the even more unpopular American Health Care Act (ACHA) or “Trumpcare.”

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UPDATED November 28: Late ballot counting continues to show Democratic Party candidate TJ Cox with a slight lead (currently 506 votes) over GOP incumbent David Valadao. Cox has declared victory. The following story was written when election-night returns showed Valadao ahead by 4,400 votes. 


California’s 21st District seemed like a plausible target to flip from red to blue in 2018 even though incumbent Republican Congressman David Valadao had beaten his Democratic challenger Emelio Huerta by 13 points in 2016. Hillary Clinton handily carried the district, and the demographics also looked good for a Democrat. The district is 71 percent Latino, a group that gave Clinton 66 percent of its vote nationwide two years ago. Republicans account for 27 percent of registered voters in CA-21, 16 points lower than Democratic registration. According to the political forecasting site FiveThirtyEight, Valadao voted with Trump policies nearly 99 percent of the time.

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Despite those headwinds for Valadao, and visits from Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democratic challenger TJ Cox fell far short. By early Wednesday, Valadao claimed 53.7 percent of the vote to 46.3 percent for Cox with provisional and mail-in ballots still to be counted.

Throughout the campaign, Cox was on the offensive, blasting Valadao’s votes for the unpopular Republican tax reform bill, and the even more unpopular American Health Care Act (ACHA) or “Trumpcare.”

Valadao claimed the Republican tax plan saved families thousands of dollars in a district with a far lower median household income than California as a whole. He also touted his willingness to break from Trump in a failed attempt at immigration reform earlier this year.

Valadao’s strong ties to the district may have given him an advantage. A dairy farmer, small-business owner and son of Portuguese immigrants, Valadao grew up in the district, and has given unwavering support to agribusiness interests, a very important position in this largely agricultural region. Cox, an engineer who has never held elected office, owns a home just outside the district in Fresno and earlier in the election cycle claimed a home in suburban Washington, D.C. as his principal residence.


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