Progressives are rarely satisfied. It is part of our political DNA. There’s so much injustice in the world, it’s sometimes hard to feel that we’re making progress. But as Chinese philosopher Laozi reminded us, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
As I document in my book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, the radical ideas of one generation are often the common sense of the next generation. One hundred years ago, ideas like Social Security, the minimum wage and women’s suffrage were considered radical. Fifty years ago, most African-Americans in the South couldn’t vote, few women were welcome in politics and many professions, and all but a handful of gays and lesbians were locked in the closet. In other words, if we take a long view, we can see that things do often change for the better, sometimes in big leaps, but usually in incremental stages.
Many progressives equate the word “compromise” with “sell-out,” but the strategic question is whether compromises are dead ends or stepping stones to further progress. In their book Organizing for Social Change, Kim Bobo, Steve Max and Jackie Kendall contend that activism is successful if it (1) wins real improvements in people’s lives, (2) gives people a sense of their own power and (3) changes the structure of power so that people begin the next phase of movement-building with greater leverage.
So let’s look back at 2012 and see if we can recognize 25 victories – elections, ballot measures, court rulings, legislation and new waves of mobilization – that meet those three criteria.
1. 99 to 1. In September 2011, a handful of activists took over Zuccotti Park in New York, and then the movement spread to every city in the country. Although Occupy Wall Street was forced after a few months to disperse physically, its ideas have continued to resonate with the American public, including its slogan casting America’s economic divide as the 1% versus the 99%. Throughout 2012, the Occupy movement changed the nation’s conversation at dinner tables, workplaces and newsrooms. It helped frame the political debate in both the Republican and Democratic primaries by focusing public and media attention on the widening disparities of income, wealth and power. Even in the GOP primaries, Mitt Romney’s opponents attacked him as a job-killing corporate plutocrat. Democrats took advantage of the changing mood to focus attention on corporate power and the billionaires behind the tea party and the new right-wing super-PACs. Politicians and the mainstream media now consistently refer to the richest 1%, often highlighting the class warfare waged by the super-rich. Language matters. This impressive linguistic ju-jitsu has helped reframe our national conversation over taxes, the distribution of wealth and income and campaign finance.
2. LGBT Equality. Polls show that a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage or civil unions, and that those under 40 overwhelmingly support marriage equality. Public opinion has changed dramatically in a short period, suggesting that conservatives will soon no longer be able to use homophobia as a “wedge” issue in elections. These trends pushed President Obama to publicly endorse marriage equality in 2012. And, for the first time ever, a majority of voters approved same-sex marriage ballot measures. They did it in Maine, Washington and Maryland, and in Minnesota, voters defeated a conservative-sponsored ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage. A federal appellate court ruled that California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, and two federal courts ruled against the Defense of Marriage Act. Wisconsin voters elected the nation’s first out-of-the-closet lesbian to the US Senate, Tammy Baldwin. Voters also elected a record six openly gay and lesbian candidates to the House: incumbents Jared Polis (D-Colorado) and David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) and newcomers Sean Patrick Maloney (D-New York), Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin), Mark Takano (D-California), and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona).
3. Living Wages. Voters in Albuquerque, Long Beach and San Jose passed ballot measures that will raise the minimum wage for workers in those cities. Albuquerque’s citywide minimum wage will rise from $7.50 to $8.50 per hour in January 2013 and will automatically adjust in future years with inflation. The Long Beach ballot measure raises the minimum wage for hotel workers in that tourist city to $13 per hour and guarantees hotel workers five paid sick days per year. In San Jose, the minimum wage will increase from $8 per hour – the current minimum wage in California – to $10 per hour and will adjust automatically in future years to keep pace with the rising cost of living. The San Jose campaign was triggered by students at San Jose State University as part of a class research project. Nationwide, public opinion polls show that Americans believe that the federal minimum wage should be adjusted so that full-time workers don’t earn poverty-level pay. That would mean a minimum wage over $10 an hour – comparable to what it was (in terms of purchasing power) in 1968.
4. ObamaCare Survives. Despite relentless partisan attacks in Congress and the courts since it was passed in 2010, the Affordable Care Act has taken its rightful place alongside Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security as one of the pillars of the nation’s social safety net. The US Supreme Court upheld the law as constitutional, and four months later Obama was re-elected, ensuring that the law would be implemented on schedule during his second term. Now the administration must continue to educate the public about the many provisions of the law, a challenge highlighted by polls showing that many Americans know little about what they gained. The ACA stops insurance companies from denying coverage to people because they have health conditions, allows children to remain on a parent’s insurance plan until age 26 and requires insurers to cover the costs of contraception without a copayment. While some progressive advocates argue that the nation should have adopted a single-payer health care system rather than ObamaCare, other progressives and most people in the health care community see it as a bold step in the right direction. As Americans get used to the law and fully recognize and utilize its life-saving benefits, the likelihood will grow that the nation will move toward a more efficient, less costly single-payer system. Meanwhile, both Medicare and Medicaid – which together cover more than 100 million Americans – have survived sustained attacks by the Republicans to eliminate the programs as we know them and dismantle America’s system of social insurance and health security.
5. Progressives Protect Choice. Conservatives’ attempts to limit women’s reproductive freedom met with stiff opposition. Efforts to enact so called “personhood” laws (which define personhood from the moment of fertilization and ban all abortions) failed in all 11 states in which these laws were proposed. If enacted, these laws could even have banned in-vitro fertilization and some birth control methods. Led by Planned Parenthood, coalitions of health professionals, faith groups and women’s organizations challenged these conservative efforts to pass the personhood laws through state legislatures and through ballot measures in Arkansas, Colorado, California, Florida, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Virginia. These progressive victories come on the heels of similar success in Mississippi in 2011. In Florida, voters defeated, by 55 percent to 45 percent, the conservative-initiated Amendment 6, which would have denied insurance coverage for abortion services and removed from the state constitution a woman’s right to reproductive “privacy,” thus weakening the state court’s ability to block potential abortion restrictions such as mandatory ultrasound laws or gestational bans on abortion. In 2012, the Senate unanimously passed an amendment to the defense authorization bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), that would allow the military’s health insurance plan to cover the cost of abortion for servicewomen and military dependents who are survivors of rape and incest.
6. Occupy Our Homes. With 12 million homeowners still “under water” and several million families a year still losing their homes to foreclosure, community organizers around the country mobilized a significant campaign to hold Wall Street banks accountable for the damage they created through predatory lending, financial speculation and fraud. In dozens of cities, homeowners “occupied” their homes with the support of neighbors and allies and stymied banks and local sheriffs who wanted to evict them for foreclosure. Pressured by local groups, many of them affiliated with the Home Defenders League and Occupy Our Homes networks, a number of cities, including Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles, adopted “responsible banking” laws meant to hold banks accountable to meet community needs and laws to force banks to pay for the cost of maintaining foreclosed vacant properties that blight neighborhoods. A grassroots campaign by the ReFund California coalition persuaded the California legislature to pass, and Gov. Jerry Brown to sign, a “Homeowners Bill of Rights,” which prohibits a number of unfair bank practices that have needlessly forced thousands of Californians into foreclosure. For example, it restricts dual-track foreclosures, where a lender forecloses on a borrower despite being in discussions over a loan modification to save the home, imposes civil penalties on fraudulently signed mortgage documents and allows homeowners to sue banks for fraudulent mortgage practices. Pressured by activists, and led by progressive attorneys general Eric Schneiderman of New York and Kamala Harris of California, five major banks agreed to a $26 billion multistate settlement over foreclosure abuses. In January, President Obama appointed Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the centerpiece of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, to regulate the abusive business practices of credit card companies, mortgage lenders and payday lenders. In November, Massachusetts voters elected Elizabeth Warren, the agency’s original architect, despite her being targeted by the bank lobby as their top priority for defeat. A few weeks later, she was named to the Senate banking committee, which oversees the financial industry. In his State of the Union address, Obama announced the creation of a federal-state task force to investigate and prosecute misconduct by lenders that triggered the financial crisis by selling risky residential mortgage-backed securities. Schneiderman, a task force cochair, has already sued J.P. Morgan Chase and Credit Suisse for deceiving investors and is likely to bring other banks to court, which could lead to tens of billions dollars more in bank fines that could help homeowners. Growing grassroots pressure also led the Obama administration to agree to fire acting Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Ed DeMarco, who opposed the White House’s support for a plan to allow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to reduce mortgage principal for “underwater” homeowners, which would bring their mortgages in line with current home values and reduce their monthly mortgage payments, giving them more money to spend on other economic activities. Financial reform activists want the administration to require banks to renegotiate “underwater” mortgages, but getting rid of DeMarco is an important step in that direction.
7. Beating the GOP’s Voter Suppression Campaign. Thanks to an aggressive effort to educate voters, stir up controversy and take the issue to court, progressive activists beat back the Republican Party’s efforts to reduce the turnout of young voters, African Americans and Latinos in November’s elections. According to a comprehensive report by the think tank Demos, the result was a backlash against the GOP’s heavy-handed tactics to intimidate voters and suppress the turnout of Democratic-leaning constituencies that included making robocalls that misleadingly told targeted voters that the Election Day had been changed, enacting voter identification laws and, in Ohio, limiting early voting hours. But activists fought back successfully, motivating voters angered by the GOP’s skullduggery. Voting rights groups blocked 10 voter suppression laws in court. Using the GOP’s strategy against them, progressives and Democrats motivated people to vote. As a result, turnout among young, black and Hispanic voters actually increased as a share of the electorate compared with 2008, and, in many states, turnout rates jumped as well.
8. Expanding Same-Day Voter Registration. Add California to the list of states that allow voters to register and vote on election day – a victory for democracy. In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill allowing Californians to register to vote up to and including Election Day. (The current deadline is 15 days before an election). Common Cause, which sponsored the measure and shepherded it through the state legislature, says it could boost voter rolls by an estimated 8 percent. Republicans opposed the bill, warning about the potential of widespread voter fraud, even though there’s no evidence of fraud in the eight other states – Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming – that already have election day registration laws. States with such laws generally have higher levels of voter turnout, especially among low-income and young voters.
9. We’re Getting Greener All the Time. In Los Angeles, a coalition of unions, environmentalists and public health activists (including the Teamsters, the National Resources Defense Council and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy) persuaded the mayor and city council to adopt their “Don’t Waste LA” plan, an historic reform of the city’s commercial waste system that will require waste companies to get a city permit to haul trash from businesses and apartment buildings, improve working conditions for garbage haulers, dramatically expand recycling and create thousands of green jobs. The victory builds on the same blue-green coalition that over the past several years waged a successful campaign to clean up pollution at the dirty Los Angeles port and improve working conditions for the port’s truck drivers. Nationwide protests, including civil disobedience at the White House, pressured the Obama administration to delay – and perhaps to stop – construction of the 1700 Keystone XL pipeline connecting oil sand mines in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the Texas Gulf Coast. Despite the administration’s waffle on the pipeline project, it adopted two significant new environmental regulations – tightening air quality standards for fine particulate matter and doubling vehicle fuel efficiency standards to 54.5 miles-per-gallon by 2025 (which will save Americans $1.7 trillion at the gas pump) and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In June, a federal appellate court ruled that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, a move that corporate America had opposed.
10. Walmart Workers on the March. The first-ever strike by Walmart workers that began in October in a few California stores spread to over 100 cities around the country by the day after Thanksgiving, the nation’s biggest shopping day. Tens of thousands of consumers, community activists and union members demonstrated their support in rallies and some acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, drawing widespread media attention. The United Food and Commercial Workers helped catalyze the protest, sponsored by Our Walmart, a network of the big box store’s employees. Around the country and around the world, Walmart, the world’s largest private employer, is increasingly on the defensive as its corporate practices come to light – not only paying poverty-level wages but also putting profits above worker safety by contracting with dangerous sweatshops in Bangladesh (where 112 workers died in a factory fire) and elsewhere to make its clothes and toys, bribing Mexican officials to expand its retail empire and selling more guns and ammunition than any other retailer in the United States.
11. Fast-Food and Domestic Workers Gain Momentum. The past year, 2012, is likely to be seen as the year that the labor movement developed new strategies and made significant headway in organizing low-wage workers, not only those who toil for the behemoth Walmart, but also domestic workers and workers in the fast-food industry. In October, workers at McDonalds, Burger King and other fast-food chains in New York City staged a walkout to demand better pay and the right to unionize. Viewing these food-chain workers as a large and growing sector of exploited workers, the Service Employees International Union and New York Communities for Change joined forces to help coordinate the walkouts. Like farmworkers, most of America’s 1.8 million domestic workers – nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers – are not covered by federal wage, overtime, union-organizing, and other labor laws. Many toil 12 to 15 hours a day and get paid less than $200 per week. The first-ever study of this invisible workforce, released in November by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), a national network of groups in 17 cities and 11 states, found that 23 percent of domestic workers made less than their state’s minimum wage (which must be at least $7.25 an hour). Among live-in workers, 67 percent earned below the minimum wage, 65 percent had no health insurance, about 82 percent had no paid sick days and 25 percent said their jobs made it impossible to get five hours of uninterrupted sleep. Thanks to the NDWA, New York State passed the first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010. Last year the California legislature adopted a similar measure, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it in October. The activists plan to regroup and push for the bill this year in California and several other states.
12. Unions beat Proposition 32 in California. In California, labor unions helped bring out more than 40,000 volunteers and defeated the deceptive anti-union corporate power grab, Proposition 32, by a landslide 57 percent to 43 percent. Conservative forces had tried and failed three times before to persuade California voters to support a “paycheck protection” measure that would keep unions from using their members’ dues money to support candidates and ballot questions. This time, the measure’s backers – including wealthy GOP activist Charles Munger and a shadowy group linked to Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers – dressed it up as campaign finance reform, but California voters weren’t buying it, thanks to a massive voter turnout effort by labor unions and their allies.
13. Progressive Tax Reform Makes Progress. The same coalition that waged the successful campaign to defeat Proposition 32 also mounted a grassroots effort on behalf of Proposition 30, the progressive income and sales tax measure to fund California’s schools. The outcome – a 54 percent to 46 percent victory – bucked a long trend of voters rejecting higher taxes to pay for public services. Nationwide, support is growing for the so-called “Robin Hood” tax – formally called the Financial Transaction Tax – a small fee on large Wall Street transactions of currencies, bonds and shares, designed to discourage risky trades on Wall Street and to hold big banks accountable for the hardship they caused and the outrageous pay and bonuses they gave to top executives in the wake of the worst financial crisis since the Depression. The National Nurses Union is one of more than 65 organizations leading this campaign that would raise billions of dollars for health care, housing, jobs and education.
14. Dreamers Win Immigration Reform. By keeping up pressure on the White House, including meetings and direct action, United We Dream – a movement of immigrant youth, with support from immigrant rights and faith groups – pushed President Obama in June to announce his support for a policy to offer DREAM Act eligible immigrant youth protection from deportation and temporary legal status. Under the program, young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children can receive two-year deportation deferrals and work permits. After Obama made that commitment, Dream Act activists hit the streets to register and mobilize Latino and Asian voters. Already, more than 300,000 young immigrants have applied and over 53,000 have received deferrals.
15. Student Activists Gain Ground. Don’t believe the cynics and naysayers who fret about student apathy. In addition to the Dreamers movement for immigration reform, America’s campuses are bursting with activism on a variety of issues. United Students Against Sweatshops coordinates campaigns on hundreds of campuses, including pushing colleges to do business with responsible, pro-union clothing producers such as the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic, supporting efforts by campus workers to improve pay and win union recognition and pressuring universities to sever contracts with companies that mistreat workers. In late 2012, student-led campaigns to get colleges and universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry spread to almost 200 campuses. Hampshire College and Unity College have already purged their endowments from fossil fuels. At Harvard, 72 percent of students endorsed a resolution supporting divestment. Students at many other colleges have persuaded their administrations to explore divestment.
16. Not-So-Smart ALEC. For many years, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing network of corporations and state legislators, has operated under the radar, drafting “model” laws that promote gun ownership (including “stand your ground” laws), weaken unions, limit voting rights, encourage the privatization of education (such as school vouchers and charter schools) and weaken regulations that protect consumers, workers and the environment from corporate abuse. Last year the Center for Media and Democracy, along with Color of Change, waged a remarkable campaign to bring ALEC out of the shadows, identifying the corporations and billionaires that fund it. Progressive media outlets like The Nation publicized the expose’, then the mainstream media jumped on the story. Embarrassed by the publicity, many of ALEC’s corporate funders – 42 so far, including Walmart, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Amazon, Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, MillerCoors, Dell, General Motors and General Electric – have withdrawn from the organization.
17. Voters Elect a More Diverse and Progressive Senate and House. Americans not only re-elected America’s first African-American president, they also re-elected several of the most progressive Senators (including Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sherrod Brown of Ohio) and put four new progressives – Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii (the first female Asian American Senator) – in the upper chamber. Two female Democrats – Hirono and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota – replaced males who decided to retire. All Democratic incumbent female senators up for re-election this year won, including Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Dianne Feinstein of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. As a result, 20 women – a record – will now serve in the Senate. Another milestone: In New Hampshire, women now hold every key office including Senators Kelly Ayotte (a Republican) and Jeanne Shaheen (Democrat), newly-elected Gov. Maggie Hassan (a Democrat) and Democrats Carol Shea-Porter and Ann McLane Kuster, who wrested New Hampshire’s two House seats from incumbent Republicans. These victories guaranteed there would be no Republican Senate with an opportunity to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would have overturned Roe v Wade. Democrats running for the House bested their Republican rivals in the overall popular vote total. Combining the totals for all 435 House races, Democrats won 1,362,351 more votes than Republicans. Democratic House candidates earned 49.15 percent of the popular vote, while Republicans earned only 48.03 percent. So how did Republicans win a majority of the seats? Because of gerrymandering by Republican-controlled states. Although Republicans outnumber Democrats 234 to 201 in the House, there are more progressive Democrats. For the first time, a majority of House Democrats will be women, people of color or both. The ranks of the House progressives will expand, welcoming newcomers (or returning members following a hiatus) Alan Grayson (Fla.), Jared Huffman (Calif.), Dan Kildee (Minn.), Kuster (NH), Grace Meng (NY), Patrick Murphy (Fla.), Rick Nolan (Minn.), Mark Pocan (Wis.), Raul Ruiz (Calif.), Carol Shea-Porter (NH), Mark Takano (Calif.), Hakeem Jeffries (NY), and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.). Meanwhile, several of the most lunatic right-wing Tea Party Republicans – including Allen West (Fla.), Chip Cravaack (Minn.), Bobby Schilling (Ill.), Roscoe Bartlett (Md.), Ann-Marie Buerkle (NY), Francisco Canseco (Tex.), and Joe Walsh (Ill.) – lost their House seats. Even Michelle Bachmann, founder of the House Tea Party caucus, had to fight hard to keep her seat representing Twin Cities suburbs. She edged out her Democratic opponent, businessman Jim Graves, by just 4,207 votes, or a little over 1 percent of the 357,035 votes cast in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District. Bachmann outspent Graves $22.4 million to $2.2 million, an 11-to-1 margin, making it the most expensive House race. In other words, Bachmann spent $124 for each vote she received compared to Graves’ $13 per vote.
18. Local Progress. Progressive candidates won victories in hundreds of local and state races around the country. Among them was Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, whom voters re-elected in November for a second two-year term with 58 percent of the vote. A month later, Shumlin, a progressive Democrat who supports single-payer health insurance, was elected chair of the Democratic Governors Association. In Worcester, Mass., Mary Keefe, a veteran community organizer with the Pleasant Street Neighborhood Network Center and a leader of Worcester Interfaith, was elected to the state legislature, with the support of unions and community groups, on a platform of supporting progressive tax increases to stop draconian budget cuts and fund human services. In conservative San Diego, voters elected progressive Bob Filner – a former Freedom Rider (he spent two months in a Mississippi jail for defying segregation laws), college professor, school board, city council member and 10-term Congressman (and a founding member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus) – to be the city’s first Democratic mayor since 1992 and only its second since 1971. In Tallahassee, Fla., voters elected 33-year old Andrew Gillum to his third four-year term on the city commission with over 70 percent of the vote. Despite his youth, Gillum is a veteran civil rights and voting rights activist. As a college student, he helped organized a huge march on Tallahassee to protest Gov. Jeb Bush’s executive order to abolish affirmative action in state university admissions and state contracting. In addition to his position on the city commission, he serves as national director of the Young Elected Officials Network, a project of People for the American Way. In mid-November, left-leaning elected officials from 32 municipalities (including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Hartford, Milwaukee, Mobile, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle) met in Washington, DC, to form Local Progress, a network of progressive municipal officials designed to share policy and strategy ideas. They elected Seattle City Council member Nick Licata – who sponsored the city’s paid sick-leave law, among other progressive accomplishments – as chair.
19. Mobilizing the Union Vote. Although union members represent only 11 percent of all American workers, they comprised 18 percent of voters in the November election – higher in key swing states where unions targeted their resources. Union members were not only more likely than non-union workers to vote, they also were more likely to knock on doors, make phone calls and participate in other grassroots campaign activities. More than any other constituency, union members comprise the ground troops for progressive candidates and causes. An analysis of exit polls by Guy Molyneaux of Hart Research Associates also reveals that unions played an important role in offsetting key demographic and social factors that often push voters to support Republicans. For example, 65 percent of union members, compared with 47 percent of nonunion voters, supported Obama. Among union men, 61 percent voted for Obama, compared with only 40 percent of nonunion men. A whopping 72 percent of union women (compared with 53 percent of nonunion women) voted for Obama. Union membership often trumped racial prejudice. Fifty-five percent of white male union members went for Obama compared with only 31 percent of white males who don’t belong to unions. Similarly, 65 percent of white women in unions preferred Obama, compared with only 39 percent of nonunion white women. Obama didn’t expect to get many votes among white evangelicals, but union membership made a significant difference in how these religious Christians voted. Obama won the votes of 35 percent white evangelicals who were also union members, but only 16 percent of white evangelicals who had no union affiliation. Even among Latinos, union membership was significant in influencing their vote; 80 percent of unionized Latinos voted for Obama but only 70 percent of nonunion Latinos did so.
20. Hurricane Sandy Revealed Support for Big Government, Even by Republicans. Big disasters, such as the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Center, earthquakes, hurricanes and plane crashes often remind Americans, even Republican politicians, why they need government – and government employees. Disasters like Hurricane Sandy often bring out the best in the American people, including the spirit of volunteerism and compassion. But they also bring out the hypocrisy of GOP politicians, who love to attack “big government,” unless it’s for corporate subsidies, military spending or disaster relief. Exhibit No. 1 is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has made his reputation as a budget-slashing, tax-cutting bully. In his keynote speech at the Republican convention in August, Christie touted his record of attacking New Jersey’s public employees in New Jersey. Democrats, Christie said, think that Americans “need to be coddled by big government.” Republicans, in contrast, are willing to make the “hard choices” to “cut federal spending and fundamentally reduce the size of government.” But three months later, as soon as Hurricane Sandy swept through the Garden State, destroying cities and towns along its Atlantic coast, Christie was understandably first in line with a cup in his hand, begging President Obama for federal aid and hugging Obama for the cameras. Conservative Congressman Peter King (R-NY) raised such holy hell when Congress failed to authorize $60 billion to aid Sandy’s victims, primarily in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, that Speaker John Boehner agreed to schedule a vote by January 15.
21. Chicago Teachers Win Their Strike. Like their counterparts around the country, Chicago’s teachers have taken a beating over the past few years, as conservative billionaires and corporate foundations push their agenda of privatizing public education with vouchers, charter schools, over-reliance on standardized tests and business-style management that seeks to denigrate and punish teachers rather than collaborate with them. Finally, in September, 29,000 Chicago teachers went on strike to challenge the corporate vision. Although the seven-day strike certainly inconvenienced many parents, the Chicago Teachers Union won the battle for public opinion by framing its demands as concerns for smaller class sizes, more up-to-date textbooks and air conditioning in classrooms. They stood up to the bullying of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who consistently denigrated teachers and promote a corporate agenda of school privatization and business-style management, trying to weaken the teachers’ voices in school matters. As CTU’s feisty president Karen Lewis reminded Chicagoans, the strike wasn’t just about higher wages but also about the distribution of resources. “This education crisis is real, especially if you are Black or Brown in Chicago,” she explained. “They want to privatize public education and further disrupt our neighborhoods. There is an attack on public institutions, many of which serve low-income and working-class families. “The union won modest pay increases and some protection from district layoffs and firings, but also won a commitment to hire 600 new teachers in art, music and other ‘enrichment’ courses and got the school district to promise to hire more counselors, supply textbooks by the first day of school and include a parent representative on a class-size review committee. The union’s efforts helped build a coalition of parents, teachers and community activists that will continue to battle for better schools.
22. Challenging Citizens United. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 – equating money with free speech – unleashed a flood of money from billionaires and corporations, much of it through hard-to-trace “super-PACs” and so-called “social welfare” organizations. In the wake of that ruling, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock defended his state’s Corrupt Practices Act, which banned corporate campaign funds, all the way to the Supreme Court. The court overturned the Montana law 5 to 4, undermining the ability of states and cities to restrict corporations from trying to buy elections. Although Bullock lost that fight, Montanans admired his populist ideals and elected him governor in November. That same day, Montana voters also supported Initiative I-166, which endorsed a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, by a 74.8 percent margin. In Colorado, voters endorsed a similar ballot initiative, Proposition 65, with 73.8 percent of the vote. Voters in more than 120 cities and towns in Oregon, Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Massachusetts and California passed similar measures. Public opinion polls show that Americans overwhelmingly oppose Citizens United and believe that corporations, and corporate money, have too much influence in politics.
23. Beating the Billionaires. The US Chamber of Commerce, other big business lobby groups, and a strange assortment of right-wing billionaires (including the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson), poured or directed outrageous sums of money to help Romney and other conservative Republican candidates, but more often than not wound up losing. According to the Sunlight Foundation, outside groups spent more than $1.3 billion on independent expenditures to influence the outcome of the November elections, but had a terrible “return” on their investment. Much of the business and billionaire war chest was filtered through Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which spent $104 million in election campaigns and had a 1.29 percent success rate. Its sister organization, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, also orchestrated by Rove, spent $70.7 million and had a 14.4 percent success rate. The US Chamber of Commerce spent $32.6 million for a success rate of 6.9 percent. The American Future Fund, run by the Koch brothers, spent $23.9 million but backed a winner in only 5.6 percent of the races. The National Rifle Association’s Political Victory Fund spent $11.8 million and had a tiny success rate of 0.83 percent – and that was before the NRA embarrassed itself with its call to post armed guards at public schools after 20 children and six adults were killed by a military-style assault weapon at an elementary school in Connecticut in December.
24. Killing the Death Penalty. The United States may be gradually moving toward joining every other democratic society in abolishing the death penalty. In 2012, Connecticut became the fifth state in the past five years to abolish the death penalty. Of the 33 states that still have the death penalty on their books, 13 haven’t executed anyone for at least five years. Nine states executed death-row inmates last year, but three quarters of the 43 executions took place in just four states: Texas (15), and Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma (each with six). Thanks to the Innocence Project and other advocates, a growing number of Americans recognize that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime. Death row is disproportionately comprised of poor and African Americans, an indication of the racial and class bias of our criminal justice system. The system is also arbitrary and prone to egregious mistakes. Since 1973, 142 death-row inmates have been freed after being exonerated with DNA evidence. As The New York Times recently editorialized in favor of ending the death penalty, the “justifications for a cruel and uncivilized punishment have been seriously undermined by a growing group of judges, prosecutors, scholars and others involved in criminal justice, conservatives and liberals alike.”
25. Muzzling the NRA. In 2011 (the most recent year for these figures) there were 15,953 murders in the United States and 11,101 (30 a day) were caused by firearms. Suicides and unintentional shootings account for another 20,000 deaths by guns each year. Many more people are injured – some seriously and permanently – by gun violence, disproportionately poor African Americans living in inner cities. At least seven mass killings occurred in 2012 – six died at an Oak Creek, Wis., Sikh temple when a white supremacist went on a rampage in August; four were killed in an Atlanta day spa in February; five were killed at a Seattle coffee shop in May; six died at a Minneapolis sign company in September; seven were gunned down at an Oakland religious college in April; and 12 were killed and 58 wounded in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater in July. But it may have required a mass shooting in a small suburban town in Connecticut – which killed 20 children and six adults – to make the epidemic of gun violence a national priority. The number of American households that own guns has actually declined in recent decades, from almost 50 percent in 1973 to just over 32 percent 2010. Less than five percent of gun owners are NRA members – probably concentrated among the 20 percent of gun owners who possess about 65 percent of the nation’s guns. And polls show that even before the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, most gun owners – even most NRA members – wanted stronger gun controls, including background checks on gun buyers and restrictions on the sale of military-style assault weapons. After the Connecticut killings, public opinion was even more favorable toward tough gun laws. The tragedy galvanized a broad coalition of faith groups, unions, community organizations, medical professionals, law enforcement officials and big-city mayors. They quickly brought people together for prayer vigils and rallies. But soon they will have to put pressure on Congress and shine a spotlight on the gun manufacturers, their Wall Street investors and gun retailers like Walmart (which sells 13 percent of all Bushmaster assault rifles) that profit from the proliferation of deadly assault weapons. Senator Diane Feinstein pledged to file strong legislation in 2013 and hold hearings that could provide a dramatic forum for advocates of tougher gun laws – including the survivors of gun violence, the families of victims, and gun owners who believe in sensible reforms – to tell their stories. The growing outrage against senseless gun deaths may finally translate into a sustained movement that can do battle with the NRA.
Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.
A Law Ending Cash Bail Gives Judges Enormous Power Over Defendants
A recently signed bill was supposed to end the tyranny of money bail over low-income people in California’s jails. But critics say it is an example of good intentions becoming bad law.
Rick Scott Invested in the Same Financial Firms As Florida’s Pension System
Co-published by MapLight
For most of his time in office, Florida’s governor has shielded his investments from public view. A new disclosure shows Rick Scott and his wife have invested at least $18 million in financial firms managing money for the state’s pension system that he oversees.
Former SEC Lawyer: “There needs to be an investigation into whether the state is subsidizing Rick Scott’s personal returns.”
Co-published by MapLight
Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his wife have invested at least $18 million in three financial firms managing money for the state’s pension system that Scott oversees — a situation that intertwines the governor’s personal finances with his responsibility for supervising state employees’ retirement savings.
The investments were first divulged in a federal financial disclosure form that Scott filed as part of his U.S. Senate campaign in July. For most of his time in office, Scott has shielded his investments from public view, and only reported their overall value in his blind trust.
The terms of Scott’s investments remain undisclosed. The firms’ own corporate documents say they can give certain investors special preferences not afforded to other investors — and experts have in recent years argued that hedge funds, private equity firms, and other “alternative investments” are giving such preferences to elite investors. One former Securities and Exchange Commission attorney told MapLight and Capital & Main that Scott must disclose whether he is being given such preferences.
Critics have raised questions about how blind the Scott family trusts really are.
Florida ethics laws are supposed to prohibit state officials from entering into contractual relationships with companies that do business with their agencies. However, after Scott became governor in 2011, state ethics officials said he and his family members could put their assets into a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest and still maintain their investments in companies operating in Florida.
Critics have raised questions about how blind the Scott family trusts really are. Scott placed one of his longtime business associates in charge of managing his blind trust. The Tampa Bay Times reported that Scott’s blind trust has invested with a private equity firm tied to a high-speed rail project in Florida. The trust also had an indirect interest in a cancer treatment company that received tax breaks from Scott’s administration.
“The question is whether Rick Scott is being allowed to invest on better terms than the state pension fund.”
“When Governor Scott was elected, he put all of his assets in a blind trust, which is managed by an independent financial professional who decides what assets are bought, sold or changed,” said Scott campaign spokesperson Lauren Schenone. “The rules of the blind trust prevent any specific assets or the value of those assets within the trust from being disclosed to the governor, and those requirements have always been followed.”
Scott is one of three state officials who serve as trustees for the Florida State Board of Administration, which manages a $160 billion fund for roughly 400,000 retirees. Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis oversee lucrative state investment deals granted to cash-hungry Wall Street firms.
The three firms that have received $325 million worth of Florida pension investments have allowed the Scott family’s blind trusts to simultaneously invest their personal fortunes in these funds. Scott’s investments in the funds did not appear in a 2014 disclosure itemizing his holdings. His campaign did not say when the investments were made.
“There are no ethics rules that prohibit or limit a trustee from investing in funds also invested in by the SBA,” said SBA spokesperson John Kuczwanski, though he added that trustees are subject to Florida’s general code of ethics. Kuczwanski said that the governor has no involvement in specific pension investment decisions.
Don Hinkle, a Democratic lawyer, filed a lawsuit last year alleging that the governor has failed to comply with the state’s blind trust and financial disclosure laws. He said he was surprised by the news that Scott had invested in the same firms as the Florida pension system.
“I would think that he would have avoided investments where the state of Florida’s money is propping his up,” Hinkle told MapLight and Capital & Main.
In 2011, a few months after Scott became governor, the SBA committed $150 million to Highline Capital Partners, a New York-based hedge fund. Scott’s financial disclosure shows that his family’s trusts have invested at least $4 million in the same Highline fund as the state.
The SBA also committed $100 million in 2015 to a hedge fund managed by Canyon Capital Advisors, a Los Angeles-based firm created by veterans of the notorious investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert, which was driven into bankruptcy as a result of illegal and unethical trading practices. Scott and his family have invested at least $12 million in Canyon funds, according to his financial disclosure.
Before Scott became governor, the SBA invested $75 million with VSS, a New York-based private equity firm that was launched by a co-founder of Psychology Today. Scott and his wife, Ann, have invested more than $2.2 million in another VSS fund. A spokesperson for VSS said the firm doesn’t comment on its investors.
“Alternative investment funds have the ability to offer every investor different fees at a different rate of return, so the question is whether Rick Scott is being allowed to invest on better terms than the state pension fund,” said former SEC attorney Edward Siedle, whose Florida-based firm conducts forensic investigations of state pension systems.
“If you give one investor an advantage, another investor has to be disadvantaged,” Siedle said. “That means there needs to be an investigation into whether the state is actually subsidizing Rick Scott’s personal returns and whether the governor enjoys advantages that are harming the retirees.”
Schenone, Scott’s spokesperson, said that his blind trust has “been upheld multiple times by the State Commission on Ethics and the court system. Governor Scott has also followed the requirements of all state and federal financial filings.”
She noted that former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and Scott’s 2010 Democratic opponent Alex Sink had also used blind trusts, although Scott’s campaign attacked Sink for hers at the time.
“Blind trusts sound good but can run afoul of state laws requiring public officials to disclose their personal finances,” a Scott campaign ad said in 2010. “[But] simply moving large amounts of money into a blind trust does not magically erase the knowledge of what you own.”
This piece was reported by Andrew Perez of MapLight and David Sirota of Capital & Main, and published in partnership with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
Cuomo Kept Fossil Fuel Pipeline Alive, Then Hired Pipeline’s Lobbyist to Run Reelection Bid
Co-published by WNYC New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration delayed — rather than blocked — a fracked-gas pipeline project just before Cuomo hired Maggie Moran, a registered lobbyist for the pipeline’s parent company, to run his reelection campaign.
Despite questions about special interests and revolving doors, Cuomo decided to hire a registered lobbyist to run his campaign.
Co-published by WNYC
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo hired a lobbyist for a natural-gas pipeline company to run his re-election campaign at the same time his administration was throwing a potential lifeline to the company’s controversial New Jersey-New York pipeline project.
Less than three months before the administration postponed a decision on the project, the fossil fuel company in question also donated $100,000 to a Democratic Party governors’ organization that supports Cuomo, government records show.
Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi asserted that there was no link between the lobbying, the donations and the administration’s pipeline decisions.
“Protecting New Yorkers and our environment are this administration’s top priorities, which is why decisions on individual projects are made at the agency level by career public servants who conduct a rigorous review of the facts and the science,” Azzopardi said.
The company — Transco, a subsidiary of The Williams Companies, a Tulsa-based fossil fuel conglomerate — has been seeking permission from Cuomo administration regulators since June of 2017. The project is a 23-mile natural gas pipeline from Old Bridge, New Jersey to Rockaway, New York.
Cuomo touts his environmental record but has also declined to reject fossil fuel industry campaign cash.
As residential customers seek to switch from heating oil to natural gas, Williams has argued that the pipeline expansion is necessary to “help ensure that reliable gas supplies are available to support these conversions.” The company says the project will displace about 900,000 barrels of heating oil a year and reduce CO2 emissions in New York City and Long Island.
Critics say the location of the pipeline puts the waters and shores of Lower New York Bay at risk of contamination and other environmental damage, and that it will continue the region’s reliance on fossil fuels, thereby setting back the fight against climate change.
Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) temporarily denied a water quality certification for the pipeline in April. But the ruling also allowed the company to re-submit the proposal for approval “without prejudice” — a maneuver that keeps the embattled project alive. The company submitted a new application in May — and Cuomo has declined to answer questions about whether or not he agrees with Stringer that the proposal should be blocked.
Amid the intensifying battle over the pipeline, Williams hired lobbying firm Kivvit to advocate for its interests in Albany last fall, according to state ethics records. Among the lobbyists registered to represent Williams is Maggie Moran, a well-known operative who advised his gubernatorial campaign in 2010.
In June, while she was registered as a pipeline lobbyist, Cuomo hired her to take the reigns of this year’s campaign. Moran took over two months after Joe Percoco, who ran both of Cuomo’s previous campaigns, was convicted on federal corruption charges — one of several corruption scandals that have dogged the Cuomo administration in recent months. She took a leave of absence from Kivvit when she joined the campaign, a spokesman says.
In the last few years, Cuomo’s administration has faced multiple corruption scandals, fueling critics’ assertions that he is too close to Albany influence peddlers.
State records show that Moran, who declined an interview request, began lobbying on behalf of Williams in September 2017 — three months after Williams first submitted its pipeline proposal to Cuomo administration regulators. Those records also show that Moran’s lobbying has been specifically targeted at the executive branch that Cuomo heads. Kivvit’s website says Moran “oversees all aspects of Kivvit’s day-to-day operations” and Kivvit has continued to lobby for Williams in 2018. Kivvit’s managing director is former Cuomo communications director Rich Bamberger.
As Cuomo administration regulators were reviewing the pipeline, Williams made two donations totaling $100,000 to the Democratic Governors Association, which lists Cuomo as a member of its leadership team and which has provided the campaign with polling research.
Internal Revenue Service records show that in February, one $50,000 donation came from Williams Companies and another $50,000 contribution came from the “Williams Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Company” — which is the overseer of the pipeline project before Cuomo’s administration. The New York Times on Friday reported that in that same month, Cuomo traveled to a Washington, D.C. DGA event on a chartered plane — and the association paid $10,725 for his trip.
Soon after the Williams donations to the DGA and Cuomo’s trip to the DGA event, the DGA gave more than $20,000 to Cuomo’s campaign, according to state disclosure records.
A Cuomo campaign spokesperson, Abbey Collins, said the governor did not solicit Williams’ contribution to the DGA.
Azzopardi, the spokesman for the governor’s office, said: “At no point did the agency or the governor’s office get approached on this project by Kivvit — any suggestion otherwise would be a trip into tinfoil hat country.”
The company has given regularly to both the Democratic and Republican governors’ associations in the past.
The 2018 donations appear to be among the company’s largest ever to the DGA. The DGA has said corporate donations to the group cannot be earmarked to specific campaigns or candidates, and therefore there is no link between donations and public-policy influence.
Williams spokesperson Keith Isbell declined to discuss the company’s lobbying activities, its relationship with Moran or its donations to the DGA on the record.
“New York’s energy demands continue to grow at a startling rate,” he said. “The Northeast Supply Enhancement project is a critical step toward ensuring New York has the infrastructure in place to meet that demand with a mix of energy sources that are reliable, affordable and clean.”
In the last few years, Cuomo has faced multiple corruption scandals, fueling critics’ assertions that he is too close to Albany influence peddlers. Percoco, one of his closest aides, was convicted in March on federal corruption charges, and in July several other top Cuomo allies were found guilty of perpetrating a massive bid-rigging scheme.
Despite questions about special interests and revolving doors, Cuomo decided to hire a registered lobbyist to run his campaign amid the corruption trials. That decision follows Cuomo’s 2015 hiring of lobbyist William Mulrow to serve as his top aide in Albany.
Cuomo appointed Mulrow chairman of his reelection campaign last year, and Mulrow returned to his job at Blackstone, a Wall Street colossus that also has had fossil fuel-related business before Cuomo’s administration.
Cuomo is now facing a spirited Democratic primary challenge from actress Cynthia Nixon, who has demanded an end to pipeline approvals. During the campaign, the governor has touted his environmental record, including his formation of the U.S. Climate Alliance with other blue-state governors following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement last year. The Cuomo administration has also rejected two other proposed pipeline projects.
But Cuomo has declined to reject fossil fuel industry campaign cash, and earlier this year affirmed his support for natural gas development — even as environmental groups continue to pressure his administration to block proposals for new gas-fired plants and pipeline projects around the state.
In the NESE pipeline fight, the Cuomo administration denied Williams’ subsidiary Transco a water quality certification, citing “potentially significant environmental impacts that raised serious concerns.”
“The construction of the project could have significant water quality impacts in New York State,” said Cuomo DEC appointee Thomas Berkman in a letter released just weeks after Nixon entered the primary race against the governor. “This includes potentially significant impacts from the resuspension of sediments and other contaminants, as well as to habitats due to the disturbance of shellfish beds and other benthic resources. In addition, the construction of the Project could potentially impact Atlantic sturgeon and other protected species.”
However, because state regulators rejected the application “without prejudice,” the state allowed Williams to resubmit its proposal in May. That has raised fears among environmental activists that Cuomo’s administration is delaying a decision on the pipeline until after next week’s gubernatorial primary and the general election in November.
According to bi-monthly reports filed with the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, Moran was registered to lobby the executive branch of New York State government on behalf of Williams as recently as May and June of this year — just as the pipeline’s water quality permit was resubmitted, and just before she joined the Cuomo campaign as manager.
Cuomo campaign spokeswoman Abbey Collins said “Maggie was not on the campaign when the decision was made by the governor’s administration.”
She said Moran’s firm handled media relations and advertising for the company but didn’t lobby the legislature or the executive branch. She said it was required to register as a lobbyist by new rules about companies that have contact with the press.
In a letter filed with state ethics regulators, an official from the Williams Companies said the conglomerate hired Moran’s firm to “engage in communications activities to the general public that spur communications to the executive and legislative branches of New York State government.”
Williams is not the only Moran client with business before Cuomo. State records show that as of June, Moran has also been registered to lobby “administrative branches of New York State government” on behalf of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, which is currently negotiating with the New York Department of Health over the price of its cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi. Records show that Vertex hired Kivvit in May of this year, immediately following a state panel’s recommendation that New York’s Medicaid program impose a price cap on Orkambi.
Another of Moran’s clients at Kivvit is Tesla. The electric carmaker is the parent company of SolarCity, whose state-funded RiverBend factory is at the center of the ongoing Buffalo Billion probe. That investigation has seen Percoco convicted in federal court on three counts of bribery and fraud, and another former Cuomo aide, Todd Howe, plead guilty on similar charges.
Kivvit clients have contributed at least $544,000 to Cuomo’s campaigns since 2014, according to state campaign finance disclosures. Moran herself has donated $10,000 to Cuomo since 2015, records show.
In addition to approval from the Cuomo administration, Williams’ NESE pipeline also needs approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), whose five commissioners — four of whom are appointees of President Trump — are expected to issue a ruling on whether the project can move forward later this month.
The agency in March issued a report finding that the project “would result in some adverse environmental impacts” including “long-term impacts on air quality and noise” from a compressor station. However, the same report also asserted that most of the “impacts would be temporary and occur during construction.”
A coalition of environmental and citizens groups, Stop the Williams Pipeline, submitted more than 6,000 comments in opposition to the pipeline to the FERC during its public comment period. The group is also collecting signatures on a petition its members plan to submit to Cuomo later this year.
In announcing his opposition to the pipeline this week, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer said he was concerned about the impact on many of the region’s sensitive ecosystems.
“The 23-mile pipeline would extend from New Jersey, along the Staten Island coast, past Coney Island and into the Rockaways,” he said in a statement. “Allowing the construction of the pipeline risks damage to many of New York’s most precious habitats and natural assets, including New York Harbor, Jamaica Bay, and the Rockaways’ many beaches.”
Copyright Capital & Main
Kavanaugh’s Artful Dodging Leaves Roe v. Wade and Other Questions Unanswered
Legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky says the Supreme Court nominee “is going to move constitutional law very substantially to the right, and this will hurt a lot of people. I think he’s going to be the fifth vote to gut many federal civil rights laws.”
Throughout the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on U. S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Capital & Main will discuss the proceedings with Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. Below is an excerpt of an interview that followed Wednesday’s testimony.
Capital & Main: Kavanaugh has written extensively on the idea of precedent and, on Wednesday, when asked about Roe v. Wade, described it as “precedent upon precedent.” What does that mean? Is he saying anything of substance?
Erwin Chemerinsky: He’s saying nothing of substance. First, even if the court doesn’t explicitly overrule Roe v. Wade, they can kill it by a thousand cuts by upholding the myriad of laws that impose restrictions on abortion. Two years ago, the court struck down a Texas law that would have closed most of the facilities in the state where abortions were performed. It was 5-3, with Justice [Anthony] Kennedy in the majority. The court can uphold laws like that and basically undercut Roe v. Wade. But beyond that, the fact that he says it’s precedent upon precedent, or that he respects precedent, doesn’t tell us what he’s going to do when he’s a justice and he has the power to overrule Roe v. Wade.
You can respect precedent until you don’t.
Exactly. And that’s true of every justice. I wrote a piece in the National Law Journal a few weeks ago saying that I don’t think the senators should waste their time asking his views on precedent. Because what he’ll say is, “Of course I believe in precedent.” Except sometimes precedent has to be overruled.
Earlier this week, the Brookings Institution released a report in which the authors argued that Kavanaugh, if confirmed, must recuse himself from any future cases that deal with criminal investigations personally involving Trump.
I read it. We’re in an unprecedented situation. I can’t think of another time when a president who was under such active criminal investigation and being subjected to so many civil suits was nominating somebody to the Supreme Court. In the context of Richard Nixon, his appointments were in 1969 and 1971, and the Watergate burglary wasn’t until June of 1972. But it’s got to be remembered that whether a justice is recused is entirely up to that justice. Ultimately, if Kavanaugh is confirmed, whether he’ll recuse himself is up to Kavanaugh.
You were also among hundreds of legal scholars who signed a letter opposing the nomination of Kavanaugh. The letter argued that he “reflects a backward-looking view of the Constitution” and that his record “reveals a predisposition to decide cases in order to achieve results that threaten fundamental rights and in some cases the very lives of Americans.” If he is confirmed, what might change?
I think he is going to move constitutional law very substantially to the right, and that this will hurt a lot of people. I think he will be the fifth vote to either effectively or explicitly overrule Roe v. Wade. I think he will be the fifth vote to find that all affirmative action is unconstitutional. I think he’s going to be the fifth vote to allow states much more latitude in imposing the death penalty and draconian punishments. I think he’s going to be the fifth vote to gut many federal civil rights laws. I think that no longer will the majority of the court protect gay and lesbian rights.
During the second day of the confirmation hearing, Kavanaugh was pressed by Democratic senators about his views on executive power—specifically about whether a president has the ability to pardon himself, or whether he can be forced to respond to a subpoena.
He wouldn’t say a word.
So if we’re not going to get any new information from Kavanaugh during the hearing, what does a look at his past tell us about his views on executive power?
He’s got a paper trail on that. He wrote a law review article saying that he doesn’t believe that a sitting president should be subject to criminal or civil investigations. He gave a speech in which he said the case he most wants to see overruled in the Supreme Court is a case called Morrison v. Olson. That was a 1988 case that was 7-1, and which upheld the constitutionality of the independent counsel. He gave a speech where he said that the United States v. Nixon was likely wrongly decided. This was the unanimous Supreme Court case that said President Nixon had to release the Watergate tapes. This is something that makes Kavanaugh very troubling at this moment in history. Now more than ever, we need the courts to enforce the Constitution and check the president. This is a president who shows no understanding of the Constitution at all, who shows enormous autocratic impulses, and we have a Congress that so far has been unwilling to check the president. That means it’s the courts or nothing.
Copyright Capital & Main
Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh Faces a Low Admissions Bar
“Kavanaugh,” says UC Berkeley law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky, “doesn’t have to say any more than is needed to make sure he doesn’t lose the Republican vote, and he knows that.”
Throughout the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on U. S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Capital & Main will discuss the proceedings with Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. Below is an excerpt of an interview that followed Tuesday’s testimony.
Capital & Main: The first day saw more than 70 arrests of protesters, along with an attempt by Democrats to delay Kavanaugh’s hearing. How unusual are these sorts of tactics?
Erwin Chemerinsky: It was very unusual for the Democrats to, in such a coordinated way, say that the hearing should be postponed until they have access to documents. Their point is: There’s no hurry. What’s the rush? Why not give us a chance to look at the documents? The problem is, of course, that the Republicans have the majority of the committee, and there’s nothing the minority party can do about it.
What might these documents reveal?
They could contain information that is very relevant to evaluating Brett Kavanaugh. As an example, the memos regarding Jay Bybee, the judge on the Ninth Circuit of Appeals, didn’t come out until after [Bybee] was already confirmed. Among the documents that came out was [his approval of] the so-called torture memos. [Bybee was confirmed by the Senate in 2003; his role in the torture memos wasn’t revealed until the following year.] Bybee would not have been confirmed if those documents had been known prior to his confirmation. So what the Democrats are saying is, “We should have access to all these documents—and we just got 42,000 of them last night. We need time to process them.”
Overall, did the American public learn anything new Tuesday?
No, not anything that we didn’t know before. We knew that Kavanaugh was going to give an opening statement filled with platitudes. And that’s what we got.
Supreme Court confirmation hearings can feel like a public performance in which very little, by design, is actually revealed.
In January 2006, I testified against the confirmation of Samuel Alito. At a break in the proceeding, then-Senator Joe Biden came up to me and said, “This is all an exercise in Kabuki theater.” He said that everyone knew that Samuel Alito was going to be a very conservative Supreme Court justice. The Republicans were all pretending he had no ideology, and the Democrats were all trying to ask him a question to trip him up, and he was too smart for that. I think that’s what we’re seeing again. Kavanaugh doesn’t have to say any more than is needed to make sure he doesn’t lose the Republican vote, and he knows that. I’m guessing that’s what we’re going to see this week.
It’s a low bar.
Right, exactly. What he knows is that he doesn’t have to actually answer questions.
Copyright Capital & Main
Ohio, NJ and California Pension Funds Invested $885 Million in Hedge Fund That Controls National Enquirer Parent
Co-published by MapLight and Fast Company
Under Republican governors, two states pumped hundreds of millions of dollars of pension cash into a high-risk hedge fund that took control of the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc.
During the last five years, taxpayers in New Jersey, Ohio and California have owned large financial stakes in the owner of the media company that allegedly helped the Trump campaign bury negative stories, according to documents reviewed by Capital & Main and MapLight.
Under Republican governors, New Jersey and Ohio committed at least $650 million of pension cash into Chatham Asset Management, a high-risk hedge fund that has taken control of the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., which is at the center of the federal investigation into President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. California’s pension fund also has a $235 million stake in a Chatham fund.
The hedge fund is run by Anthony Melchiorre, a GOP donor who reportedly met with the president and AMI CEO David Pecker at the White House soon after Trump took office. Melchiorre and his wife have donated more than $100,000 to Republican candidates and party committees since 2010.
Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, recently pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws stemming from payments he made to women to hide affairs with the former reality TV star and real estate magnate. AMI executives helped Cohen purchase stories that could have hurt Trump’s presidential bid, according to the Wall Street Journal.
AMI has denied it helped Trump’s campaign, although Pecker was recently granted immunity as part of the Cohen probe. Former FEC commissioner Trevor Potter, the head of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, last week said the situation “presents a serious legal problem for AMI.” If those legal troubles end up depressing the market value of AMI, teachers, firefighters, cops and other public employees also could potentially suffer losses at a time when their pension funds are already facing shortfalls.
A New Jersey Treasury Department spokesperson said in an email that its Division of Investment “is in regular contact with its investment partners regarding underlying portfolio companies and provides feedback when appropriate. While DOI plays no role in the management of a fund’s portfolio companies, it expects the funds to invest in good businesses with strong management teams that follow all applicable laws.”
“I am personally appalled by the Enquirer being an accessory to Cohen’s criminal behavior on behalf of the candidate,” said Tom Bruno, a state union representative who is the chairman of the pension’s board of trustees and serves on New Jersey’s State Investment Council, which oversees the pension system’s investments.
“If the allegations are true, I would vote and argue for full divestiture,” he said. “I cannot talk on behalf of the entire SIC, but I will be doing everything in my power to convince a majority to vote the same way.”
Chatham did not respond to questions about how exposed taxpayers and pension systems might be to AMI and any financial consequences of its legal entanglements. A spokesman for the Ohio pension system said Thursday that the state asked for its money to be withdrawn from the Chatham fund in 2015; the money was redeemed in 2017.
“State officials are well-positioned and duty-bound to investigate allegations of potential wrongdoing in hedge fund portfolios,” said former Securities and Exchange Commission attorney Edward Siedle.
In 2013, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration moved $300 million of pension cash into the Chatham Fund, LP, which has owned a stake in AMI, according to SEC records. Last year, barely three months before Christie left office, his administration steered another $200 million to another Chatham vehicle.
In 2013 and 2014, an Ohio pension system partially controlled by Gov. John Kasich’s appointees committed $150 million to Chatham. The hedge fund finalized its deal to buy an ownership stake in AMI in the summer of 2014.
The Christie administration’s shift of $500 million into Chatham makes New Jersey retirees a substantial investor in the hedge fund, which manages $3.2 billion in assets, according to state records. Those records show the original $500 million investments are now worth as much as $692 million.
Best known for its lurid Enquirer headlines (“Aliens Are Living in My Toilet”), AMI has been beset by a difficult environment for print publications. Chatham has warned that its investments are risky and that a client “may lose its entire investment in a troubled company.” In early 2018, private equity giant Blackstone removed Chatham from one of its major investment funds.
Along with the public pension funds, four other private pension funds — including those for Ford and Toyota Motors employees — have had investments with Chatham, according to financial research firm Preqin.
AMI represents a large portion of Chatham’s portfolio. Internal hedge fund records from late 2017 show that AMI investments comprised 23 percent of the Chatham Asset Partners High Yield Fund’s portfolio. The hedge fund also has officials who serve as directors at AMI.
Attorney Jay Youngdahl, a former Harvard researcher who has served as a steelworkers pension trustee, said state officials may be able to take action to try to protect retiree investments.
“There are often clauses in agreements between pension funds and hedge funds that give states certain rights and recourse if they believe retirees’ money has been invested in companies engaging in criminal activity,” he said.
This story has been updated from its original version.
Cuomo Received $25,000 From Weinstein Lawyer’s Firm as He Suspended Probe
Co-published by Sludge
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo halted an investigation into the Manhattan DA’s handling of the Harvey Weinstein case just as the law firm representing the Hollywood producer gave Cuomo’s campaign $25,000.
Co-published by Sludge
Last year, a political firestorm erupted when journalists revealed that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer David Boies gave $10,000 to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in the months after Vance declined to prosecute the movie producer on sexual assault charges. Now, less than a year later, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has halted an investigation into the handling of the Weinstein case just as Boies’ law firm gave Cuomo’s campaign $25,000, according to state records reviewed by Capital & Main and Sludge.
The controversies spotlight ongoing questions about whether law enforcement actions in New York are being inappropriately influenced by campaign donations.
Amid explosive headlines about Boies’ donations to Vance and the district attorney’s decision not to prosecute Weinstein, Cuomo in March called for the New York Attorney General’s office to investigate the handling of the case, which revolved around accusations that Weinstein groped an Italian model.
While Vance in May opted to reverse course and charge the Hollywood producer, Cuomo declared that an investigation into Vance’s original decision to not prosecute Weinstein was necessary because, the governor said, “it is critical not only that these cases are given the utmost attention but also that there is public confidence in the handling of these cases.”
However, BuzzFeed on Tuesday reported that Cuomo reversed himself in June, sending a letter to New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood asking her to suspend the investigation for six months. The suspension effectively shields Boies from scrutiny of any potential relationship between his 2015 donation to Vance and Vance’s decision not to prosecute Weinstein.
Cuomo’s June order came six days after Boies, Schiller & Flexner gave $25,000 to Cuomo’s reelection campaign, according to New York campaign finance records. In all, Boies and his law firm have given Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaigns more than $245,000 since 2009.
“Neither Mr. Boies, nor anyone from his firm, ever discussed Harvey Weinstein or Mr. Vance with Mr. Cuomo, or anyone from his office, at any time,” a spokesperson for Boies Schiller & Flexner said in an emailed statement. “Mr. Boies is a longtime supporter of Mr. Cuomo and his contribution in June was consistent with his contributions to Mr. Cuomo over years past.”
Boies has since severed his ties to Weinstein in the wake of a report that he personally hired the private intelligence company Black Cube to collect information on Weinstein’s accusers and the reporters investigating those allegations.
Cuomo’s spokesperson said the investigation was suspended temporarily in order to avoid interfering with Vance’s ongoing prosecution of Weinstein.
“As we said when the Governor directed the Attorney General to investigate the Manhattan DA’s Office, it should not interfere with the DA’s ongoing criminal case,” Cuomo press secretary Dani Lever told Buzzfeed. “Given the recent indictment and prosecution of Harvey Weinstein by the district attorney, the attorney general’s investigation has been postponed for six months.”
However, Buzzfeed’s report pointed out that as criminal proceedings against Weinstein could drag on for years, the attorney general’s investigation may effectively be suspended indefinitely.
Update: After this article was published, a state official responded, saying that suspending the investigation had nothing to do with Boies’ campaign contributions: “The attorney general’s investigation was suspended to avoid situations in which Weinstein’s defense attorneys would be able to constantly petition the attorney general’s office for information about what they uncovered and undermine a criminal prosecution.”
Top Republican on Tax Subcommittee Received Yacht Loan From Foreign Bank Lobbying on 2017 Tax Bill
Federal records show that one of Rep. Vern Buchanan’s LLCs financed foreign bank loans to purchase a yacht and a private luxury jet.
As Republicans were finalizing tax cut legislation in late 2017, a foreign-owned bank seeking to shape the bill gave a seven-figure yacht loan to a top GOP lawmaker on the committee writing the measure, according to documents reviewed by Capital & Main and MapLight.
Representative Vern Buchanan (R-FL), who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and leads its tax policy subcommittee, has been under fire in recent weeks for purchasing a yacht on the same day he voted for the GOP tax package. Buchanan registered a 73-foot Ocean Alexander vessel named Entrepreneur with the U.S. Coast Guard a month later, according to federal records.
Although Buchanan is one of the wealthiest members of Congress — worth at least $80 million — federal records show one of his limited liability companies financed the purchase with a BMO Harris Bank loan worth as much as $5 million. Since 2016, Buchanan’s companies have received three loans worth as much as $35 million from BMO Harris, which is the American subsidiary of the Bank of Montreal. In total, since he was appointed to the Ways and Means Committee in 2010, Buchanan and his companies have received between $17 million and $85 million worth of loans from four lenders.
At the time Buchanan’s company received the 2017 yacht loan, BMO Harris was lobbying congressional lawmakers on tax policy overseen by the Ways and Means Committee, according to federal records. Buchanan received a separate BMO Harris loan for a plane in 2016. Records show that loan, worth between $5 million and $25 million, was made around the same time that the bank began lobbying lawmakers on “tax reform proposals.”
In all, BMO spent $760,000 lobbying lawmakers in 2017, and records show the bank paid for tax reform lobbying from Tony Podesta, whose firm is being investigated for potential violations of foreign lobbying laws.
In recent years, lending to lawmakers has been a source of controversy, with some critics alleging that politically connected banks can use favorable loan terms as a stealth conduit of political influence. Buchanan did not list the terms of the BMO Harris loans in his 2017 financial disclosure report, which was filed in May, and his office did not respond to questions about the deal.
“For privacy reasons we do not disclose information about specific loans,” said BMO Harris spokesperson Patrick O’Herlihy. “We do not provide services or products to public officials that are not also available to the general public.”
Craig Holman, an ethics advocate at Public Citizen, said that the bank’s loans to Buchanan’s company pose a “particularly egregious” conflict of interest.
“It isn’t just business for Buchanan,” he said. “The loans grant Buchanan the luxuries of a personal jet and a yacht. It is very reasonable to assume those luxuries could well influence Buchanan’s official actions.”
Both BMO Harris and Buchanan could reap a financial windfall from the tax legislation.
The bank’s first annual report after the passage of the GOP measure said corporate tax cuts in the bill are “expected to increase our annual net income from what it would have otherwise been.” In late May, shortly after its report was published, the company announced record U.S. profits. BMO Harris had publicly celebrated the bill in January and said it would increase its minimum wage to $15 per hour as a result of the tax cut. Both the Trump administration and House Republicans touted BMO Harris as an example of the tax cut’s success.
The bank also announced a plan to repurchase as many as 20 million shares of its own stock — providing ammunition to critics who predicted that companies would use the tax cut windfall to enrich executives and shareholders, rather than to create new jobs.
For his part, Buchanan has promoted the tax cut as a boon to working families.
“The sweeping tax reform bill signed into law last month is already producing results,” he said in a statement posted on his website soon after the tax bill passed. “As the son of a factory worker who grew up in the blue-collar suburbs of Detroit, I know firsthand how important a bonus or pay raise can be for a family struggling to make ends meet.”
The tax bill could also boost Buchanan’s earnings from various corporate entities that he controls, which include real estate holdings and an auto dealership. The legislation slashed rates on “pass-through” income that flows to individuals through businesses that include limited liability corporations, S-corporations and partnerships.
In the case of Buchanan’s new yacht, the Republican’s financial disclosure forms show that the BMO Harris loan for the vessel — as well as the earlier loan for the purchase of an Embraer luxury jet airplane that can seat 10 people — were made to Buchanan’s company, Aircraft Holding and Leasing, LLC.
Buchanan’s financial disclosure forms report that he has collected as much as $5 million in pass-through income from Aircraft Holding and Leasing since being elected to Congress in 2006. Buchanan’s 2017 disclosure forms report that he had between $1.5 million and $3.3 million of assets in a BMO Harris investment account.
The House Ethics Committee says that it is a violation of congressional gift rules if a lawmaker “is given a loan at a below-market interest rate,” though members of Congress aren’t required to publicly disclose the terms of loans they receive.
In 2012, congressional investigators found that mortgage lender Countrywide Financial Corp. had a special unit that made discounted loans and gave preferential treatment to lawmakers, congressional staff and other high-ranking government officials. A 2016 Institute for New Economic Thinking study by researchers at the London Business School found that lawmakers who join financial oversight committees receive larger, more favorable loans than other lawmakers.
Proposed Los Angeles Law Would Give Tenants Access to Attorneys
The City Council is considering a ‘right to counsel’ program that could help curb evictions and homelessness.
An estimated 30,000 eviction cases are filed in court each year against Los Angeles city residents. Many more tenants do not show up in court since they know “they have limited legal rights and they have limited access to legal representation,” according to a recent report by Tenants Together, a renter advocacy organization.
Urged on by renter advocates, a Los Angeles City Council housing committee voted August 8 to support the creation of a ‘right to counsel’ law similar to ones that have been adopted by San Francisco and New York.
The committee approved a motion, authored by L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz, which directs staff to craft a program that would give more tenants facing eviction access to attorneys.
“Basic fairness dictates that if one side of an eviction proceeding has legal representation, the other side should have representation, too, and that equality before the law shouldn’t depend on income level,” said Jerry Jones, director of public policy at the Inner City Law Center. Jones joined about a dozen speakers at the committee meeting.
Compared to the high cost of addressing the homeless crisis, eviction defense is a relatively inexpensive means to prevent people from becoming homeless, according to Jones.
County and city officials are struggling to find temporary and permanent housing for the tens of thousands of residents who become homeless every year. And while there has been a slight decrease in the county’s homeless population since last year, the number of homeless – 53,000 – is still staggering, according to the last count. In addition, more people were homeless for the first time this year than last, suggesting unaffordable rents may be pushing people onto the street.
At the hearing, Janet Gagnon, a representative of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, complained that a right-to-counsel program would “simply give money to defense attorneys.” She said that public money would be better spent on vouchers “so that the people can avoid the eviction process entirely.”
But a 2017 analysis of pilot programs that offered free legal service to tenants concluded that providing counsel does have benefits. Eviction cases involving represented tenants are more likely to end in settlement, and most of those settlements reduced back-owed rent or helped protect tenants’ credit by keeping eviction notices off the public record.
The study, which was conducted by the Judicial Council of California, also found that 67 percent of cases involving represented tenants settled, as compared to 34 percent of cases in which people represented themselves. While all clients in the study received eviction notices, only 6 percent were ultimately evicted from their homes.
Jim Bickhart, a representative of Councilman Paul Koretz, said that the intent of the proposed measure was to expand the capacity of the current network of legal services, which currently serves “several thousand clients a year.”
“There is no way this proposal could provide free legal service to every tenant faced with eviction, but we should start somewhere,” he added. The motion is scheduled to be voted on by the full City Council on August 17.
Cuomo’s Cable Company War Could Enrich His Campaign Donors
Last week New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Public Service Commission revoked the authorization of the state’s largest cable TV provider to operate. The action could enrich other cable industry giants that, together, rank among Cuomo’s largest campaign donors.
When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration recently moved to shut down New York City’s largest cable television provider, Cuomo cast the maneuver as an initiative to defend consumers from a company he claimed had failed to build out service to rural customers. He did not mention that the action could end up enriching other cable industry giants that are together among Cuomo’s largest campaign donors — and that have delivered large contributions to Cuomo’s campaign in the year leading up to the decision.
Cuomo, a Democrat, is facing a primary battle against progressive actress Cynthia Nixon, who has accused him of shaping policy to benefit his largest campaign contributors.
In the current battle over New York’s telecommunication regulation, Cuomo’s Public Service Commission (PSC) last week revoked Charter Spectrum’s authorization to operate in the state. The commission’s order said the company — which is the largest cable provider in New York — had failed to build out high-speed Internet service to rural areas, as required in its 2016 merger agreement with Time Warner. Cuomo declared that the company “has been executing fraud on the people of this state.”
Cuomo aired his criticism after a reporter from a Charter-owned news outlet had asked him about corruption scandals engulfing his administration. Later, Nixon asserted that the governor was employing a Donald Trump-esque tactic to try to intimidate journalists. Whether that was in fact Cuomo’s motive, there is little doubt that his administration’s move could also open up a rare — and highly lucrative — expansion opportunity for well-positioned telecom industry competitors such as Comcast or Altice, which have delivered big money to Cuomo.
Campaign finance records reviewed by Capital & Main show that Comcast and Cablevision — the latter of which is owned by Altice and operates in New York — have together given Cuomo more than $830,000 during his career as New York attorney general and then governor – a sum that dwarfs the $191,000 that Charter subsidiary Time Warner gave to Cuomo in the same time period. Nearly $200,000 of the cash from Comcast and Cablevision was delivered to Cuomo in the last year – while Time Warner made no contributions to the governor in that period.
Meanwhile, a Cuomo aide was recently hired by a lobbying firm that represents Altice, and Cuomo’s PSC in 2015 approved the company’s merger with Cablevision over the objections of the Communications Workers of America, which argued to the Federal Communications Commission that the deal would “starve Cablevision of resources needed for service, network investment and jobs.”
Altice and Comcast did not comment in response to questions from Capital & Main. A statement from Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Governor Cuomo, read in part:
“If your theory were correct and anyone was influenced by contributions, Charter would not have been granted the franchise in the first place. Rather than serve the people of New York, for the past two years Charter has sought to advance its own interests at their expense. In addition to its failure to expand broadband service to rural, poor, and underserved communities that is at the heart of the PSC’s action, Charter misled New Yorkers through advertisements on its stations that they took down only yesterday. At every turn they have put their own interest first, rather than keep the promises to New Yorkers they made in exchange for their exclusivity and the PSC rightly exercised its authority as a regulator.”
Potential Charter replacements like Altice “would arguably be very happy to expand their footprint in New York,” said Harold Feld, vice president of the consumer group Public Knowledge.
Altice reportedly has about three million customers in New York — and has in recent years been aiming to expand its Internet service in New York City. Comcast does not operate in New York, but does operate in neighboring New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“For them, this would be an opportunity that is adjacent to their existing operations,” Feld told Capital & Main. “There are just so few opportunities to add a significant expansion of cable systems, and this one in particular includes New York City, which is a very significant and profitable market.”
The PSC’s order revolves around conditions Charter agreed to as part of its merger with Time-Warner. According to PSC documents, that deal required Charter to expand broadband service to “an additional 145,000 homes and businesses in less densely populated areas across the state” — an obligation that Cuomo administration officials say the company did not follow through on.
For its part, Charter denies the allegations.
“We believe we’re in compliance with the plain reading and the buildout requirements that the state imposed on us in merger conditions, and we have a very strong legal case and ability to defend ourselves,” Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge said this week during an earnings call. “And it could play out over a lengthy period of time if required.”
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