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Peter Dreier’s Top 25 Progressive Victories of 2012

Peter Dreier

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Photo: Tony Zinnanti

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.

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HEALTH

The Health-Care Campaign to Cover California’s Remaining Uninsured

State leaders are realizing that California must play both defense and offense to preserve and expand its health-care gains, and to protect vulnerable groups – particularly the state’s huge immigrant population.

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Sasha Abramsky

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Illustration: Define Urban

Care4All California claims its legislative campaign is not an alternative to single-payer health care, but an interim fix.


In March, a coalition of unions, health-care advocacy groups, and immigrant-rights organizations, promoting a campaign dubbed Care4All California, unveiled a package of roughly 20 pieces of legislation that they believe are achievable in the next year or two; are affordable; and that, if passed, would move the state toward a level of coverage of between 97 and 99 percent of the population – a level roughly comparable to that of Canada, France and most other countries with “universal” systems.

This effort comes on the heels of last year’s unsuccessful attempt, pushed hard by the California Nurses Association, to legislate single-payer health care, which would have replaced the patchwork  of private insurance plans, subsidies and state-funded health coverage for the low-income and elderly, with a single, state-funded system in California. (Disclosure: The union is a financial supporter of this website.) Care4All’s advocates claim their solution — which they are pushing not as a long-term alternative to single payer, but as an interim fix while the state works toward securing the needed federal waivers (unlikely in the Trump era, given the administration’s hostility to all-things-Californian) and funding streams for single payer — will come with a price tag in the low billions, rather than the much higher price tag that a single-payer plan would currently require.

“We’re excited that not only can we defend [against] Trump’s sabotage of our health system, but California can take bold steps forward,” says Anthony Wright, executive director of the Sacramento-based non-profit Health Access California, and a driving force behind Care4All.


The 2010 Affordable Care Act specifically excluded undocumented immigrants from coverage.


Assembly member Jim Wood  (D-Healdsburg), who co-chairs the Select Committee on Health Care Delivery Systems and Universal Coverage, is also somewhat optimistic. “We’re exploring a variety of different ways to get coverage to people,” he says. “The more people in the pool is better for the overall health of the system.” Wood, who believes that “the road to single payer is a very long road,” claims that in the short-term, gaps can be plugged by expanding Medi-Cal, the state’s version of Medicare; access provided for undocumented adults; quality and price control systems set in place; insurance subsidies expanded to include people who have incomes that currently exclude them from subsidies; and ways found to bring down disparate health-care outcomes across income, race and geographic boundaries.

“Our primary priorities are protecting Medi-Cal, and ensuring we finish what we started with the ACA [Affordable Care Act] expansion of Medi-Cal,” says Jen Flory, health policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, one of the organizations involved in this health-care push.

For 24-year-old Karen, who didn’t want her last name used in this story, the changes couldn’t occur soon enough.

In 2001, when she was 8, Karen’s parents brought her and her older sister across the border from Mexico to San Diego. Shortly before, Karen’s 50-year-old grandmother, who had looked after her while her parents worked low-wage jobs in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca – her father as a bartender, her mother as a Kmart cashier – died of diabetes. With no one to help them raise Karen and her older sister, and with income desperately tight, the couple relocated the family to the United States.


Karen’s mother is scared of going to free clinics — immigrants believe using them puts the clients at risk of deportation.


In California there were more opportunities for earning enough money to survive, but there were also tremendous hardships. Lacking legal paperwork, Karen’s family faced numerous obstacles, including no access to comprehensive health care. “I just knew that we were poor, that we didn’t have the means or resources other people had,” recalls Karen, a recent university graduate and a DACA recipient (the Obama-era program that permits undocumented immigrants who came to America as children to remain here. “But I didn’t fully understand what ‘undocumented’ meant until my mom said, ‘We don’t qualify for health care.’” Growing up, Karen almost never visited a doctor.

The 2010 Affordable Care Act specifically excluded the undocumented from coverage — either under the expanded Medicaid system, or via the insurance subsidies offered on state insurance exchanges. While DACA doesn’t provide for the expansion of federal Medicaid provisions to cover recipients, several states, including California, have chosen to use their own state dollars to cover their DACA populations. But while that benefits someone like Karen, it still leaves other family members just as vulnerable as before.

Thus, while Karen will continue to have insurance for as long as DACA exists (and since President Trump has pledged to end the program it could, if the court rulings keeping it in place are overturned, all come crashing down sooner rather than later), the other adult members of her family continue to go without.

When Karen’s father, who had found low-wage employment installing flooring, also got diabetes, he began visiting a Chinatown doctor who was known to treat immigrants without insurance or Medi-Cal for relatively small cash payments. But even those payments of several hundred dollars were frequently out of the father’s price range. He takes his medicine only “when he can afford them.” He foregoes regular check-ups, doesn’t often get his blood-sugar levels monitored, tries to ignore his hypertension, his aching back and chronic joint pain.


“Trump is setting booby-traps all through our health-care system and we’re systematically going through to undo them.”


Karen’s mother, who, she says, suffers from gastrointestinal issues and anxiety, almost never visits doctors, instead going to local curanderas (healers) when she gets sick. She does receive annual check-ups and mammograms at free clinics that cater to undocumented immigrants – but, in the Trump era, she is scared of going to such places; immigrants believe they are now being targeted by ICE agents and that using them puts the clients at risk of deportation.

In 2011, Karen’s sister, two years her senior, needed emergency surgery for appendicitis. Even after she negotiated the $60,000 bill down, she still owed $26,000 — which it took her nearly six years to pay off, with the loan payments taking huge chunks of her two minimum-wage jobs. Now pre-diabetic, Karen’s sister lacks access to the preventative care that could help her navigate her symptoms better and stop the onset of the deadly disease.

Over the past several years, California has made huge leaps in expanding health-care coverage to those who previously were uninsured. Before the ACA’s passage, nearly 20 percent of the state’s residents lacked regular, stable, coverage, either via private insurance or government-funded programs. Today, because of expanded access to Medi-Cal and a thriving state insurance exchange, Covered California, that number is down to about seven percent, according to Anthony Wright, who adds that $25 billion now flows into California’s health-care system annually via ACA provisions. No other state has used the provisions of the ACA anywhere near so effectively.


The more the feds push to reduce access to health care for poor populations, the more the logic of the moment pushes California to expand that access.


While the California Nurses Association, the driving force behind the state’s single-payer movement, supports expanding Medi-Cal to include the undocumented, the union is deeply suspicious about the rest of Care4All California’s package, regarding it as little more than an excuse for industry-friendly Assembly Democrats, who killed off single payer last year, to pretend to be fixing the problem while ignoring its fundamental causes.

Says CNA spokesperson Chuck Idelson, “There’s nothing in there to control profits, nothing about drug costs that I’m aware of, nothing that talks about the broader problems with insurance companies.” Idelson continues, noting, “You’re either fish or fowl. You can’t be protecting the profit-gouging of an industry and say it’s a step toward achieving the systemic reform you need.”

As it has been with immigration and environmental issues, California is at the forefront of resisting Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration in their campaign to undo the ACA and to undermine the insurance exchanges. It has also fought back against attempts to let junk-insurance plans be sold to residents; and it is looking to create state safeguards against a federal repeal of the individual mandate, the core provision within the ACA that, in bringing healthy people into the insurance pool, allows insurers to sell affordable insurance to sicker individuals.


Despite  California’s efforts, roughly three million adults remain uninsured, or dramatically under-insured, in the state.


Seeking a backdoor way to roll back Medicaid expansion, the Trump administration has encouraged states to seek waivers from current Medicaid regulations that provide access to the program to anyone of a certain age who meets specific poverty thresholds. These waivers, which are being pursued by several states, would impose work requirements on recipients and fundamentally alter the nature of the program. California’s current political leadership is working on legislation that would prevent future state political leaders and health-system administrators from seeking such federal waivers limiting eligibility to Medicaid. “Trump is setting booby-traps all through our health-care system,” says Wright, “and we’re systematically going through to undo them.”

California’s politicians are realizing that the state must also play offense in order to preserve and expand its health-care gains, and to protect vulnerable groups – particularly the state’s huge immigrant population. Paradoxically, the more the feds push to reduce access to health care for poor populations, the more the logic of the moment pushes California to expand that access.


“Losing health care for me would be like being closer to death. I don’t know where to cut back now — maybe I can eat rice and beans.”


Over the past couple of years California has enacted legislation that uses state dollars to bring undocumented children, whose families earn up to 266 percent of the poverty line, (nearly $67,000 for a family of four) under the Medi-Cal umbrella. On the West Coast, Oregon and Washington have enacted similar legislation, as have Illinois, New York, Massachusetts and Washington, DC. California, to all intents and purposes, now has universal health care insurance available to its under-19-year-olds. It has also pumped money into the insurance exchange and, in contrast to federal efforts to reduce the advertising dollars used to publicize such exchanges, California has increased outreach efforts to inform poor individuals and communities about ways to purchase affordable, subsidized insurance. And it is ramping up efforts to monitor, and to improve, the quality of care delivered to them.

Despite California’s efforts, roughly three million remain uninsured. And the problem of under-insurance also plagues many others. Wright’s coalition estimates that between 50 and 60 percent of the uninsured are undocumented, most of them poor enough to qualify for Medi-Cal — had they legal status. “We cannot reach universal health coverage until we remove this unjust exclusion based on immigration status,” argues Betsy Estudillo, of the California Immigrant Policy Center. Senate Bill 974, authored by state Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), and the linchpin of the new legislative effort, aims to tackle this gap. Using state tax dollars would expand the program that covers undocumented children to include undocumented adults within the Medi-Cal program.

Since almost one million of these men and women already are covered by emergency, “restricted scope” Medi-Cal, which is covered by the same cost-sharing federal-state formulae that cover the broader Medicaid program, expanding the program to allow them more comprehensive Medi-Cal access wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive to the state. Also, many others already receive primary care coverage from their counties, according to estimates generated by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center.

There’s no guarantee that Governor Brown will sign a measure expanding health care in his final months in office.

The remainder are divided between people who are currently deemed just too affluent to qualify for Covered California subsidies. The cutoff is 400 percent of the federal poverty line – which, for a single individual, is currently $12,140; for a family of four it’s $25,100 — which can leave residents in high-cost-of-living counties, where people spend a disproportionate amount of income on housing, unable to afford insurance; and elderly Californians, with income between 123 percent and 138 percent of the poverty level ($14,932 to $16,553), who are caught in an obscure poverty trap that allows them access to Medicare, but not to Medi-Cal (despite the fact that, for younger Californians, the cutoff is 138 percent of the poverty line), meaning that they still have to foot unaffordably high bills for medicines and other out-of-pocket expenses.

Take, for example, a 47-year-old woman from Richmond, who wished to remain anonymous for this story. She suffers both from a benign brain tumor that needs regular monitoring, and from a damaged aortic valve that will eventually require surgery. Earning $50,000 a year, she is slightly too affluent to qualify for insurance subsidies – but the $600 a month that she has to put down for a plan that will cover her extensive medical needs eats up all of her spare income. While she can, currently, just about afford coverage, she is consumed by fears of what will happen if she ends up being priced out of the market. “Losing health care for me would be like being closer to death,” she explains, her voice a knot of anxiety. “I don’t know where to cut back now. Maybe I can eat rice and beans.”

Then there’s Julie Marty, a retired San Joaquin County clerk, widow and breast-cancer survivor who is too young to qualify for Medicare yet too affluent to qualify for subsidies. She, nevertheless, can’t afford to buy insurance and also pay her mortgage. She hasn’t seen a doctor once in the last five years, she tells me. “It would be much more reassuring to have health insurance,” she says. “But that’s the way it goes. I’m looking forward to Medicare!”

And there’s the 53-year-old Fresno survivor of multiple heart attacks and triple-bypass surgery, who spent months trying to prove to Medi-Cal that his income placed him just below 138 percent of the poverty line and thus making him eligible for coverage. “I was at the point I wasn’t going to be able to go to the doctor no more,” he said. “I couldn’t afford it.”

Anthony Wright believes that Care4All’s legislative package has the potential, at a cost that taxpayers will be willing to bear, to bring medical coverage to all of these men and women. In addition to Lara’s bill, there’s Assembly Bill 2565, authored by Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco), which increases subsidies to those who can’t afford health care despite existing subsidies; Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula’s (D-Fresno) AB 2430 aims to end the poverty trap for elderly Californians who are just on the wrong side of being 123 percent of the poverty line, and who currently don’t qualify for Medi-Cal. And AB 2275, another Arambula bill, builds in stricter quality controls into the Medi-Cal system. A raft of other measures, including Ash Kalra’s AB 3087, the Health Care Price Relief Act, are designed to rein in drug prices, as well as the fees charged by doctors and hospitals for medical services, both for the state and for individual patients, thus providing cost savings that can be fed back into paying for increased coverage.

While the Care4All package would still leave uninsured the small fraction of Californians who can afford to buy insurance but simply choose not to, it would provide a realistic pathway to coverage for a majority of those currently excluded from health-care access. “The ACA gave California $25 billion per year to get here,” he says. “It would take a fraction of that to go from [seven percent uninsured] to one, two, three percent – the level most European countries are at.”

There is, of course, opposition. Republicans will oppose measures to provide any form of benefits to undocumented adults. The insurance and pharmaceutical industries, as well as many doctors and hospitals, all of which have many allies amongst legislators in both parties, are already vocal in their opposition to the price-control measures; as a result, Wright acknowledges that a bill such as Kalra’s price relief act will have a hard time just getting out of committee. And some Democrats may balk at adding another big-ticket item, Medi-Cal expansion, to the state’s financial obligations. There’s also no guarantee that Governor Brown, who prides himself on his cautious fiscal policies, will sign such an open-ended measure in his final months in office. “The governor is famously frugal,” Wright says. “But when the legislature has prioritized it [health-care expansion], he has gone along with investments in the past. I don’t think he’s a lost cause.”

Whether or not Brown sides with Care4All, the momentum is building for these reforms to be enacted over the coming years. More and more unions are on board, as are the leading gubernatorial candidates. After the Care4All launch event, Gavin Newsom indicated his support for its key measures as an interim step on the road to universal coverage. Stories such as Karen’s are proving potent as Wright’s effort moves forward, and the likelihood of at least parts of this package being enacted over the next couple of years is high.

Sitting in a café near the capitol building, after speaking at a launch event for Care4All’s legislative campaign, Karen thinks through what it would mean to her family to be able to access health care. “My dad would feel more comfortable visiting the clinic and receiving follow-up care. My mom and sister could have access to preventative care. It would definitely change our lives.”


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Politics & Government

Rick Scott Super PAC Donations Challenge Federal Anti-Corruption Rule

Co-published by Fast Company
The Florida governor led a group that raked in cash from Wall Street firms after Scott’s administration gave them pension deals.

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Rick Scott photo by Gage Skidmore

Co-published by Fast Company

A super PAC led by Florida Gov. Rick Scott raked in donations from two private equity executives after Scott’s administration directed lucrative state pension investments to their firms, according to government records reviewed by MapLight and Capital & Main.

The donations were made to a committee that’s now supporting Scott’s U.S. Senate bid, despite a federal rule designed to prevent financial firms from bankrolling the election campaigns of public officials who oversee state pension investments.

Scott, a Republican, began chairing the New Republican PAC in May 2017 and announced his former campaign manager would serve as its executive director. Soon after, the group received $5,000 from New Mountain Capital Chief Executive Officer Steve Klinsky and $50,000 from Energy Capital Partners founder Douglas Kimmelman.

The contributions flowed to the super PAC after New Mountain Capital and Energy Capital Partners received a combined $250 million worth of new investment commitments from Florida’s state pension system in 2014 and 2015. Scott is one of three state officials who oversee the $160 billion pension system. During the most recent fiscal year, the Florida investments generated more than $3 million in fees for the firms.

A 2010 Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule prohibits firms from receiving investment fees from public pension systems if their executives donate campaign cash to pension overseers like Scott. SEC officials aimed to prevent investment decisions from being shaped by political influence.

But the commission didn’t explicitly bar donations to “independent” political groups, unless the donations were deliberately designed to circumvent the restrictions. And it hasn’t addressed whether a state official can lead a super PAC that received donations from firms with pension business and later be supported by the super PAC.

John Kuczwanski, a spokesperson for the Florida State Board of Administration, told MapLight/Capital & Main that Florida’s first investments in the two private equity firms happened in 2005 and 2009, and he said Scott had nothing to do with new investments during his governorship, which started in 2011.

“The [state’s] initial relationships with both managers predate Governor Scott’s time in office,” said Kuczwanski, whose agency manages the day-to-day operations of the pension system. “Neither the trustees, nor their appointed investment advisory council members are involved in the investment manager/fund selection process.”

Scott’s campaign and the super PAC did not respond to questions from MapLight/Capital & Main. New Mountain Capital and Energy Capital Partners did not return requests for comment.

Energy Capital recently completed the purchase of Calpine, whose natural gas power plant near Tampa is regulated by Scott’s appointees at the Florida Public Service Commission. Kimmelman, who is now a director of Calpine, also donated $35,000 in 2017 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is backing Scott’s Senate campaign.

“A Very Clear Case”

Under the SEC rule — which GOP state parties have tried to overturn — investment executives are not prohibited from donating to independent political groups. But the rule allows regulators to apply restrictions to donations that are deliberately routed through third parties in order to support public officials — a situation that critics argue is happening with Scott and his super PAC.

After the governor announced his Senate bid last week, New Republican PAC’s website began promoting his candidacy. End Citizens United, a Democratic-leaning political action committee based in Washington, DC, filed a complaint alleging that Scott has violated Federal Election Commission rules and is using the super PAC, which can accept unlimited donations, to evade contribution limits. Scott’s campaign says he stepped down as New Republican PAC’s chair in February.

In writing the original rule, SEC officials noted that while they could not restrict all donations to political action committees, contributions to third parties “may effectively operate as a funnel to the campaigns of the government officials.” They said the final rule “prohibits acts done indirectly, which, if done directly, would violate the rule.”

One ethics expert said that those anti-circumvention provisions should apply to the donations to Scott’s super PAC.

“This appears to be a very clear case of close coordination and circumvention of the pay-to-play rule,” said Craig Holman, an ethics lobbyist at the government watchdog group Public Citizen. “This is something that I’d like the SEC to pay attention to.”

“No Loopholes”

The SEC has only occasionally enforced the pay-to-play rule, and the agency hasn’t applied the provisions dealing with third parties to donations to super PACs. Because Scott is a sitting governor who can influence pension investments, he is covered by the rule, which has hampered the fundraising of past governors who tried to run for federal office.

A spokesman for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign said the rule prevented him from raising enough money to be competitive in the 2012 race. Bloomberg reported that during the same election cycle, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was rejected as the vice presidential nominee, partly because Republicans feared the rule would prevent them from raising money from Wall Street firms that do business with his state’s pension system.

“There is no way around it, and there are no loopholes,” said Bill Palatucci, Christie’s longtime advisor.

Even so, in recent years the rule has not deterred financial executives from donating to groups that help lawmakers who can influence pension investments. Financial executives whose firms received New Jersey and New Mexico investments continued to donate to the Republican Governors Association (RGA) when Christie and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez led the group. During the 2016 election cycle, executives at firms managing state pension money donated nearly $1.3 million to the GOP association, even as the group boosted the campaigns of Republican governors with power over state pension investments.

Last year, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called for the SEC to apply the pay-to-play rule to outside groups “to ensure that no one is able to circumvent these laws by using super PACs, dark money groups or other campaign spending vehicles.” The RGA has argued that because it funds multiple candidates and does not allow donors to earmark contributions for particular races, it can accept donations from firms with investment business that can be influenced by individual governors. The SEC said in 2016 that donations to outside political groups “are independent expenditures that do not trigger” the rule.

“So long as the PAC faithfully observes the requirement to operate independently of candidates, a contribution to a super PAC will not trigger the [rule], even if the super PAC supports a covered official,” Sam Brown, a former advisor to Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, wrote in 2016. “Super PACs are increasingly being used in novel ways, and it remains to be seen whether these changes will result in increased circumvention risks.”


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Politics & Government

Policymakers Seek Healthier, More Prosperous California

A summary of legislative proposals discussed at Policy Insights 2018, from gender equality to expanding health-care coverage.

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Seth Sandronsky

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Photo: Program for Environmental and Regional Equity

Over 300 state policymakers, researchers, advocates and service providers explored driving a progressive political agenda to expand economic opportunity and financial security at the Policy Insights 2018 conference held last week in Sacramento. Facts and ideas presented at the event “could help form the basis of a new, future-oriented economic agenda for California in areas like tax policy, health coverage and family supports,” California Budget & Policy Center executive director Chris Hoene told participants as he reviewed the state landscape within Trump World. “It’s about bringing more prosperity to more people and to deepening their well-being.” The nonprofit, nonpartisan Budget Center, which says it engages in independent fiscal and policy analysis to improve “the well-being of low- and middle-income Californians,” hosts the gathering every year. A summary of some of the panels’ discussions follows below.


Despite growth and low unemployment, labor’s share of the economic pie is paltry, Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC, said in the morning’s keynote address. He detailed many connections between economics and politics, linking workers’ pay and productivity, unions’ difficulties, fiscal and monetary policies, and state and federal budgets. The best progressive policies are the most direct, Bernstein said during a Q&A. “We need to think about direct job creation for folks left behind in rural and urban communities,” he told a panel moderated by Los Angeles Times staff writer John Myers. Such a jobs policy should find a home in the upcoming election season, Bernstein added.

State Senator Holly Mitchell (Photo: Joanne Kim)

Advancing Gender Justice: Boosting Women’s Well-Being Through Economic Security, Employment and Earnings

In a gender equity and justice workshop, Mary Ignatius, statewide organizer of Parent Voices, a grassroots group advocating better childcare policies, stressed the importance of a public platform for the voices of struggling, low-income women. Such a platform can and does help to dispel myths that blame working females for their plight, she said. These women often have no option other than to seek costly and scarce childcare while working outside the home, she said.

Heather McCulloch, founder and director of Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap, said research shows women experience this shortfall as a group. Therefore, organizing with a “strength in numbers” focus to build coalitions is a useful tool to improve women’s investment and savings, McCulloch said.

In blue-collar occupations such as those in the building trades, women’s sexual harassment is rampant, said Jessica Stender, an attorney at Equal Rights Advocates, which describes itself as a national civil rights organization dedicated to protecting and expanding economic and educational access, and opportunities for women and girls. This harassment makes the goal of females “getting in and staying in” such high-paying blue-collar jobs critical, Stender said. She also discussed exploitation of low-wage women workers, saying remedies for occupations such as janitors and restaurant servers range from individual to class-action litigation.

California Budget Prospects for 2018-19 and Beyond

KQED-FM reporter Marisa Lagos moderated a panel on current state budget and policy proposals for the 2018 legislative session, and which featured state Senator Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco).

The two legislators focused on new priorities for the criminal justice system. Mitchell urged reforming policies that criminalize poverty and addiction. This change is underway, she said, with more work required. The recent legalization of marijuana for recreational use is a case in point — people are behind bars for crimes that no longer exist. Ting noted that the state prison population is down, but spending for it is up. Both urged fellow lawmakers to support bills that shift spending from prisons to meet the social needs of low-income Californians — such as child nutrition and early childhood education. A related means of improving low-income Californians’ lives is to increase the CalWORKs cash grant, Mitchell said.

She also stressed that closing the education equity gap requires sufficient funding to ensure that all kids who enter kindergarten are prepared to learn. Ting noted that at the local K-12 school district level, better budgetary transparency is necessary to track spending and student results.

Mitchell and Ting said it is vital to continue state laws and policies that deal with the impacts of climate change. They also urged lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to continue to work to improve immigrants’ lives — which they said the Trump White House opposes.

Building on Health Care Reform: Next Steps in State Health Policy

The University of California, Berkeley’s Laurel Lucia noted that despite the Affordable Care Act cutting the number of Californians without health care insurance (from 17 percent in 2012 to seven percent in mid-2017), three million remain uninsured. Undocumented adults (10 percent of the labor force and 58 percent of the uninsured), do not have access to the ACA and Medi-Cal, said Lucia, director of the health care program at the university’s Labor Center. She backed policy options such as Senate Bill 974, introduced by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), to address that.

Anthony Wright, head of Health Access California, a nonprofit advocacy group, focused on policy steps the state could take without federal help, given what he called the national GOP’s and President Trump’s antipathy. Wright announced the launch of Care4All, a new campaign to achieve universal health care coverage in California. A step toward that goal is to expand the affordability of the ACA in the individual market and Covered California marketplace. In this way, he said, consumers would spend less of their income on premiums, copays and deductibles. Wright mentioned SB 910, authored by Senate Health Committee Chair Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), that would ban the sale of short-term health and substandard insurance policies that Trumpcare’s ACA overhaul favors, beginning in 2019.

Michelle Cabrera, health care director of the Service Employees International Union, State Council, detailed the causes and effects of high medical prices, including the upward spiral of those costs created by health-plan mergers. As an antidote, she cited Assembly Bill 595, introduced by Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg), to boost the Department of Managed Health Care’s oversight of such mergers. These mergers hike consumers’ prices, she said, and are partly why the U.S. spends more per person on health care than all other nations, yet delivers high-priced and low-quality coverage. Measures such as AB 595 could shed light on the hidden negotiated prices between health plans and providers — the kind of transparency that is now unavailable. Price transparency could expand an overdue discussion of the proprietary forces driving high health care prices, according to Cabrera.

Crafting a New Economic Agenda for California

The conference ended with a plenary discussion of building a new state economic agenda, moderated by the Budget & Policy Center’s Hoene. University of Southern California sociologist Manuel Pastor looked at what worked in California’s postwar economy before its boom ended and social inequality grew to its present extremes. Pastor, director of the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, urged state politicians to approve a new Master Plan for Higher Education to ensure low-cost access for students, and to increase investment in affordable housing. Such policies, given the state’s changing demographics to a nonwhite majority, can cut the impacts of structural racism, he said.

Hoene described California’s corporate-friendly economy as one that puts employers first and workers last. Alma Hernández, executive director, SEIU California, urged politicians to back better labor standards, which she said would empower working people in their fight to weaken current corporate power over politics and policies. Employers who fracture work into precarious, non-union jobs, for example, harms workers’ lives on and off the job, she said. Natalie Foster, co-chair of the Economic Security Project, pondered the role of political narratives. Who tells whose stories matters in overcoming current social divisions, symptoms of rising income and wealth gaps. “Big ideas matter,” she said, adding that one example is a wealth tax that could generate more revenues for progressive policies.


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Labor & Economy

Historian: Why Economic Libertarianism Is an Overwhelmingly White Cause

While the eyes of most journalists and citizens have been fixed on Washington and Donald Trump, a Duke University professor warns, Charles Koch-funded groups and politicians are quietly lining up the state authorizations needed for a new constitutional convention.

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Photo: Duke University

Nancy MacLean is a historian in a hurry. Leaning forward, hands pressed on the table in front of her, she is telling a room full of activists that an assault on democratic institutions has created an “all-hands-on-deck emergency” on a scale that “we have not seen in our lifetime.” MacLean has a dramatic flair in her writing and in her personal presentations. She speaks with the urgency of someone who recognizes a pivotal historical moment when she see one.

Seated in the windowless basement of a union hall that is shared with a local economic justice non-profit, she is dressed in a white blouse and blazer.

Those assembled take turns expressing dismay over a divided country, over the daily attack on immigrants, and over the legendary discipline of an extreme right-wing political movement that has advanced all the way to the White House.

“Economic libertarianism produces a kind of social Darwinism — the idea that anyone who is not thriving in the economy must have something wrong with them.”

The Duke University professor says she discovered the intellectual underpinnings of the country’s rightward tilt while digging through the archive of a Southern economist named James McGill Buchanan. She laid out her argument in her impassioned and highly readable 2017 book, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. That history holds important lessons for those resisting the right’s ascendance, she tells the group.

The “days of silos are over,” says MacLean. Whereas the left has been focused on discrete campaigns and issues, the extreme right, she warns, has undertaken “an audacious bid that has been six decades in the making to fundamentally change the relationship between the government and the people — and to do so permanently.”

Buchanan, who was 93 when he died in 2013, provided a key set of anti-democratic ideas that propelled the libertarian right’s effort to dismantle the liberal state, while giving plutocrats free rein, according to MacLean. Part of his agenda, MacLean says, included shielding the “makers” from the “takers” by eroding the public’s faith in government as a means to protect the rights of the property-owning class.

Buchanan, a Nobel Prize winner, favored requiring supermajority votes to approve tax increases, making it more difficult for public officials to meet the needs of ordinary citizens. In a long and varied career, he advocated dismantling Social Security, counseled the government of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and nurtured generations of scholars at Southern universities, including at a center he founded at George Mason University with the help of $10 million from the right-wing billionaire Charles Koch.

One of her book’s insights is how conservative legal scholars and economists have understood the degree to which the devil lay in the mind-numbing detail of policy.

“The wicked genius of Buchanan’s approach to binding popular self-government was that he did it with detailed rules that made most people’s eyes glaze over. In the boring fine print, he understood transformations can be achieved by increments that few will notice, because most people have no patience for minutiae,” she writes.

That passage refers to the advice he gave Pinochet’s government, which she argues has hampered Chile’s current president, Michelle Bachelet, from enacting social programs in spite of a strong popular mandate.

Now MacLean is warning progressive activists that the Republican tax bill and its projected $1.5 trillion deficit could help fuel a growing right-wing clamor for a state-led constitutional convention, whose first order of business would be a balanced budget amendment to curtail future government spending.

“While the eyes of most journalists and citizens have been fixed on Washington” and Trump, she warns, “scores of organizations and elected officials funded by Charles Koch and his donor network” have been “quietly lining up the state authorizations” needed for a constitutional convention that will curtail legislators’ ability to serve the needs of the governed. “They now have 28 of the 34 states needed to call such a constitutional convention under Article 5 [of the U.S. Constitution].”

Such a move, she adds, would put the country further down the path toward the “glorious period of liberty” favored by Koch and Buchanan — a place in which workers have “no legal right to organize for collective voice and power” and where corporations are “all but free of democratic accountability” — and where privatization had eliminated Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.

Nobody is immune from the right-wing attack on government, says MacLean. “Every civil rights activist, every feminist, every environmentalist, every queer and every retirees’ group who goes to government to move a public agenda is a target for this and will suffer if it goes through,” she says.

Yet this creates a “perverse source of strength,” she says. “Our common need for government can potentially unite all these constituencies across groups to protect and expand democracy.”

MacLean’s fifth book has received a slew of positive reviews from major publications and a National Book Award nomination. Not surprisingly, Democracy in Chains has also drawn an avalanche of attacks from the very right-wing think tank networks that she critiques, as well as complaints from some left academics.

MacLean’s claim of Buchanan’s centrality to the rise of libertarianism, wrote political scientists Henry Farrell and Steven Teles, could be misleading to a progressive movement “liable to overestimate the extent to which the right is operating by a single plan. The most serious danger is that the left might look to this mistaken understanding of the right’s success as a model for how it should organize itself.”

Speaking to Capital & Main, MacLean actually gives some credit to Buchanan, who in spite of his deeply reactionary politics, was “probably the most original thinker about democracy in the last 50 years,” she said.

But Buchanan’s “very, very reductionist analysis” was deployed to erode popular trust in government, she argues.

“He sought to build a case that government could not do what it promised because politicians were not really seeking to advance the public interests as they claimed. They were just trying to get themselves elected using other people’s money. The same was true of all public actors, according to Buchanan,” as she told the union-hall gathering.

MacLean’s book anchors Buchanan’s thinking in the South’s troubled history of segregation and slavery. He advocated for state-funded voucher systems for private schools in the late 1950s, after local officials had closed public schools as part of massive resistance against court-ordered desegregation.

MacLean is careful to say her research found no evidence that Buchanan operated on the basis of racial animus — although he must have understood the context of his proposal for school privatization. MacLean joins conservative scholars in connecting Buchanan’s ideas to those of antebellum South Carolina Senator and plantation owner John C. Calhoun, who thought democracy needed to be curbed because it failed to preserve the liberty of the slave-owning elite.

And what about today’s libertarians? She believes there is a reason libertarianism has remained an overwhelmingly white cause.

“Economic libertarianism,” she told this website, “produces a kind of social Darwinism — the idea that anyone who is not thriving in the economy must have something wrong with them. There’s always this slippage between [economic libertarianism] and the really ugly white-supremacist right,” she says.

MacLean’s fundamental message is that Buchanan – and the extreme right – have an Achilles heel. Their ideas are extremely unpopular and so they have had to proceed by stealth – whether through voter suppression laws, gerrymandering or other means.

“We’ve had the most radical gerrymandering in American history,” MacLean told Capital & Main. “And they’re trying to destroy labor unions without actually saying that they don’t want working people to have a collective voice.”

“However much they may offer bromides to freedom or liberty in the abstract,” she added about the far right, “what they’re really talking about is freeing corporations, and the wealthiest taxpayers, who don’t support what the majority of their fellow citizens do.”


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Politics & Government

David Cay Johnston on the Trump We Don’t Know

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist tells of his encounters with Donald Trump, a man he calls a “Potemkin president.”

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Gabriel Thompson

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Original Photo: Shealah Craighead/White House

“There’s no good ending to Trump’s presidency.”


 

Investigative journalist David Cay Johnston has been reporting on Donald Trump since 1988, and admits that he has long been fascinated with a figure he calls “the greatest con artist in the history of the world.” Johnston first met Trump while reporting on casinos for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and has since served as a one-man fact-checking operation on Trump’s claims. His new book, It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration is Doing to America, tracks the first 250 days of the administration. Johnston spoke to Capital & Main about what he’s learned while on the Trump beat, and why the mainstream media, despite incessant coverage of Trump, still tends to miss the big story.


Gabriel Thompson:  The title of your new book is It’s Even Worse Than You Think. It seems pretty bad already — what are we missing?

David Cay Johnston:  Journalists have done a very good job of covering Donald’s tweets and the nutty things that have gone on —the palace intrigues. A lot of journalists are not equipped to cover the government, because to do that, you have to understand regulations, budgets and accounting. Most journalists have not trained in those things. They’ve trained in how to accurately tell you the official version of events, and the official criticisms of the official version of events. I’m in the unofficial business.

What’s an example of a story that is being missed or is not receiving the attention it deserves?

David Cay Johnston

Johnston:  Throughout the campaign, Trump talked about how he is all for the veterans. One of the most important things he did was use the word love. He would say to his audience, “We love you. We love our police. We love our veterans.” I think that was a very powerful motivating word. And yet, his first budget proposal sought to cut the benefits for many disabled veterans when they reach retirement age. You’re unable to work because you served your country and you paid a terrible physical price, and you’re currently getting about $35,000 a year. Trump proposed to cut that amount to $13,000. That tells you that he doesn’t care about the vets.

The only area that some Trump critics might give him some credit is on his knowledge of taxes. But you push back on this as well.

Johnston:  Donald testified under oath that he knows nothing about accounting. Well if you don’t know accounting, you cannot know taxes. That’s like saying I’m an expert in flying jet fighters, but I don’t know what lift is. I tried to give Donald tax advice in 1990—my purpose wasn’t to save him money, it was to find out if he really understood taxes. We had lunch in Trump’s Castle [a hotel and casino in Atlantic City], and he couldn’t follow my basic, simple advice. At the time, Donald was in deep financial trouble, and I was going over the terms of his ownership, but he didn’t even understand his own deal. When I say Donald doesn’t know anything, I literally mean that.

Of course, it’s not just taxes.

Johnston:  He’s appallingly ignorant. In my previous book, I tell the story of the primary debate, in December 2015, when Hugh Hewitt asked Trump about our nuclear triad and what his priorities would be if we had to make cuts for budgetary reasons. And Trump goes on about how he learned everything there is about nuclear energy from his Uncle John at MIT, a super genius. Hewitt asked again what his priority would be, and Trump mentioned how nuclear is so massive.

“Most journalists have trained in how to accurately tell you the official version of events, and the official criticisms of the official version of events. I’m in the unofficial business.”

Then the question goes to Senator Marco Rubio, not exactly known as a heavyweight. Rubio explained that the nuclear triad is the capacity to deliver nuclear bombs from jet airplanes, land-based missiles, or submarines. This story is important because four months earlier, on his radio show, Hewitt had asked Trump the exact same question. I ran into Hewitt, and I asked him about this, and he said, “Yeah, isn’t that something. He had four months to learn about this and obviously made no effort whatsoever.”

What stood out to you in his recent State of the Union address?

There were of course tons of factual errors and claims that don’t stand up. It was a pretty banal speech, and he applauded himself. Good God! But Donald has some skills. He’s the greatest con artist in the history of the world, and he knows how to craft a line to appeal to people. He knows, when he’s being interviewed, where to have the lighting and camera stationed. The man has significant skills in self-promotion and creating his image. But he’s a Potemkin president. There’s no substance there.

You write in the conclusion that Trump is a symptom of our country’s problems, not the cause. Looking at all the terrible things he’s done, what gives you hope?

Johnston:  There’s no good ending to Trump’s presidency. Whether he’s voted out or impeached, he will go around the country claiming he was robbed and will foment violence. Nothing will hold him back. But we will get through this. We got through the Civil War, through the burning of the capital in the War of 1812, through the Great Depression. Some of the damage we can fix, and some will cause lasting problems. They are approving judges left and right, many of whom are ideologues and marginally qualified. We’ll be dealing with that long after I am gone.

Here’s what gives me hope. The day after he took office, six million Americans turned out in the biggest demonstrations in the history of this country. If that energy can be translated into votes in November, and we can get people to realize that it is our government and we need to act like owners instead of like we’re powerless, then we can move our country in the direction of progress.


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Scenes From Los Angeles’ Women’s March

Photojournalist Joanne Kim captures the sights of Saturday’s Women’s March in downtown L.A.

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Approximately 300,000 people gathered in and around downtown Los Angeles’ Pershing Square Saturday for the 2018 Women’s March. Their signs and banners spoke to a variety of issues that also included climate change and immigrants’ rights. From Pershing Square protesters took to Olive and Hill streets, Broadway and Spring Street towards Grand Park and City Hall. Many held signs focused on encouraging women to vote and run for office.

Many young women and girls took to the streets with their mothers and grandmothers. One young girl sat on her mother’s shoulders holding a sign with a woman’s fist in the air declaring, “We Rise.” Kimberly Castro, from South Gate, California held a sign in support of Planned Parenthood. “Being around everyone makes me feel powerful to make a change, and that all together we do have a voice,” she said.

Across from City Hall, a group of Trump supporters gathered in a small counter-protest. “Go back to Mexico!” screamed one of the Trump supporters. Wendy Rodriguez, whose mother is from El Salvador and father is from Honduras, shouted back, “Go back to your country!” Another young woman waved a sign at the Trump supporters that read, “Anything you can do I can do bleeding.”

All photos by Joanne Kim


































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Erwin Chemerinsky and the Case Against Trump

The constitutional scholar discusses Donald Trump’s tumultuous first year, and what may lie ahead. “It’s very frightening to me,” Chemerinsky tells Capital & Main.

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Danny Feingold

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Erwin Chemerinsky photo by Rpogge

Since Donald Trump took office once year ago, perhaps no American has called into question the legal and ethical behavior of the president with more persistence and authority than Erwin Chemerinsky. One of the country’s preeminent constitutional scholars, and the dean of the University of California, Berkeley’s law school, Chemerinsky has sounded the alarm from day one of Trump’s administration – most strenuously over the president’s alleged daily violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution. Those provisions bar the president from receiving any form of payment from a foreign government, and also from receiving any payments beyond the salary of the chief executive. Last month, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit that Chemerinsky and other leading legal authorities had helped prepare seeking to stop the president from accepting any further payments – that decision is currently being appealed.

Capital & Main sat down with Chemerinsky at his UC Berkeley office to discuss Trump’s tumultuous first year, and what may lie ahead.


Capital & Main  How would you assess Trump’s first year in office?

Chemerinsky  It’s so much worse than I could have ever feared. I don’t think that we’ve ever had a president who has less respect for the Constitution. It’s reflected in what he expresses with regard to freedom of the press, it’s reflected in the fact that on a daily basis he’s violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution by receiving benefits from foreign governments, benefits from the United States government beyond his salary. It’s reflected in his immigration policies, his travel ban, his efforts against sanctuary cities. It’s very frightening to me.

What does it say about the rule of law in this country that we have a sitting president who, in your view, has been in violation of the Constitution every single day that he’s been in office?

Chemerinsky  Before taking office the president-elect said that he was going to take steps to try to comply with the emoluments clause. None of that ever happened. What’s troubling to me is Congress seems largely unconcerned about it and so far the courts haven’t stepped in.

Is there evidence that any of the president’s decisions have in fact been influenced by payments that his business interests have received?

Chemerinsky  China gave to President Trump some very valuable licenses on trademarks. He’d been trying to get them from China for years before being elected as president. He received them and then he changed his policy with regard to China. Maybe it was a coincidence, but certainly one followed the other.

Some critics observed that the countries that were selected for the immigrant and refugee travel ban did not include any countries where President Trump’s business organization had properties and interests.

Chemerinsky  It’s at least ironic that when you look at the seven countries initially listed in the travel ban, none had Trump interests there. Of course there was also no linkage between terrorists of any of those countries and yet the countries where you could link past terrorist acts to people from those nations, like Saudi Arabia or Indonesia, were not on the list, and those are places where Trump had investments. The travel ban has gone through two more iterations and that continues to be so — Trump doesn’t have any interests in North Korea or Chad, and they find themselves on the list, but the countries where Trump does have interests don’t find themselves on the list.

One other example that is just astounding: The Trump administration has allowed offshore drilling now in all states that have coastal areas except for one — Florida. Of course that’s where Trump has coastal property. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but doesn’t this show exactly the kind of self-dealing that the Constitution’s emoluments clauses were meant to prevent?

Is there a case to be made against President Trump on obstruction of justice?

Chemerinsky  I think that there is significant evidence that President Trump engaged in obstruction of justice. He told the Russians that he fired James Comey for purposes of trying to end the investigation with regard to Russia.

If anybody tries to interfere with an ongoing federal investigation, that’s obstruction of justice. The crime that Richard Nixon would have been impeached for, if he didn’t resign, was telling the FBI not to investigate Watergate because it was a CIA matter. Well, that’s exactly what President Trump apparently tried to do — keep the FBI from investigating.

We also have more evidence that President Trump tried to interfere with the investigation of Russian interference in the election. All of this is the basis for strong concern with regards to obstruction of justice. My prediction is what we’ll see next is the implication of Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner. The question is, will it reach to the president? Will it reach to the vice president?

Do you believe that there is a credible case to be made for invoking the 25th Amendment based on concerns about Trump’s mental health?

Chemerinsky  I think that Donald Trump’s engaged in erratic behavior. I don’t think that he’s shown himself to be mentally ill or physically ill in a way that would justify the 25th Amendment to this point in time. There’s a thing called narcissistic personality disorder — maybe it’s that. But I don’t know if all politicians don’t fall into that to a greater or lesser extent.

Are there any other grounds for legal or constitutional concern about the president?

Chemerinsky  My greatest concern for the next three years of the Trump presidency is whether there’s going to be a moment where a court issues an order and Trump says, “We’re going to ignore it.” When the courts first enjoined the initial version of the travel ban, there were rumblings from Trump that maybe the administration would just ignore the court order. My worry is once the president takes that position, if he does, then there’s nothing to stop him from locking up you or me or anybody else. Once the president says I’m going to ignore a court order then there’s nothing left of the rule of law.

Does Trump’s pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio lay the groundwork for him to pardon anyone who’s indicted and convicted as a result of the Mueller investigation?

Chemerinsky  The president is allowed to pardon anyone accused or convicted of a federal crime. I think the pardon of Joe Arpaio shows that President Trump has no shame, that he’s not hesitant to use it even in an instance where there was a violation of law. Joe Arpaio was ordered by a court to stop racial profiling. He ignores that court order and continues to engage in it. A judge finds him in criminal contempt, and before the judge even sentences, President Trump says, “I regard Joe Arpaio as a hero, I’m going to pardon him.” Will he do it with regard to the Mueller investigation? We don’t know.

How do you assess Neil Gorsuch’s performance on the Supreme Court?

Chemerinsky  Since coming on to the court on April 6, 2017, Gorsuch has voted together with Clarence Thomas a hundred percent of the time. To put this in context, the last year Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas were on the court together, they voted together 87 percent of the time. Gorsuch so far has been at the farthest right part of the court. Maybe he’ll be different as months and years go by, but for the first nine months of his time on the court, no one has been more conservative.

Do you have concerns that the standards for what is legal and ethical behavior by a president have been damaged by this president in just one year?

Chemerinsky  It’s impossible to know what the long term consequences of that are going to be. Is Trump going to lose to a mainstream Democrat or Republican in 2020 and we’ll regard this as a blip? Or is this the start of something much more apocalyptic?

The United States form of government isn’t going to be here forever. Every form of government is here until it’s not. I believe that the institutions of government can withstand the Trump presidency, but I know many are afraid that this is the start of something that is very different than we’ve ever seen before.


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Study: California Economy Unhurt by Progressive Policies

A new report shows that California, with its higher minimum wage, Medicaid expansion and ambitious climate policy, has done better than 19 Republican-led states with lower taxes and fewer regulations.

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A California worker installing solar panels. (Photo: Danita Delimont/Alamy)

Reducing carbon emissions, raising low-wage workers’ incomes and increasing access to health insurance have not, as critics warned, led to job stagnation and lower GDP.


 

In a direct rebuke to anyone using the term “job-killing regulations,” a recent study shows that a group of progressive policies enacted since 2011 have had no negative impact on the California economy. If anything, the report, “California is Working: The Effects of California’s Public Policy on Jobs and the Economy since 2011,” shows that California has done better than several states that have lower taxes and fewer regulations.

The report’s author, University of California, Berkeley Labor Center researcher Ian Perry, examined 51 progressive policy measures – including environment, safety net, taxation, infrastructure and housing – that Perry coins the “California Policy Model,” or CPM. These policies include laws that provide a path to a higher minimum wage, expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act, raise taxes on corporations and promote California’s comprehensive and ambitious climate policy.

Perry chose 2011 as a starting point because that’s when Democrats captured majorities in the legislature as well as the governor’s office. Also that year, Proposition 25, which let Democrats approve a state budget with a simple majority vote rather than a two-thirds requirement, went into effect. That opened the floodgates to a wave of progressive policies that have been scorned by conservative politicians, pundits and think tanks.

Perry told Capital & Main that he set out to see whether critics of California’s progressive policies were correct — that, for example, California’s higher minimum wage would increase unemployment, or whether the state’s strict regulations on carbon would send businesses to other states in droves.

To do so, Perry compared wage growth and employment growth in California with statistics from 19 Republican-controlled states. But he also had to create a legitimate control group to weight factors like California’s tech boom, which might have skewed economic results, or a Republican-controlled state’s downturn, which may not have been due to conservative policies. To combat an apples-to-avocados comparison, Perry used a “synthetic control” method to weight data from Republican states to create an alternate California (or alt-California) in which CPM had not been enacted.

Perry found that California – the real California with its CPM – enjoyed higher total employment, private sector employment and GDP than the 19 Republican states and alt-California.

The study, by design, looked at the cumulative impact of policies instead of evaluating specific policies. “Still, one policy stood out to me,” Perry said. “My study found that the expansion of Medicaid through the ACA was one of the more pro-growth policies because it led to a greater demand in health care services and a growth in health industry jobs.”

The biggest takeaway from the study, Perry said, was that policies that make up the CPM – reducing carbon emissions, improving income for low-wage workers and helping more people access health insurance – have not, as critics warned, led to negative economic effects like job stagnation and lower GDP.

“There are warnings from conservatives that [progressive policies] will slow down economic growth, but California is a big piece of evidence that the fears are unwarranted,” Perry said.

Kansas, which went all in on supply side economics under Governor Sam Brownback, showed that the converse is true, that cutting taxes can sometimes kill growth, Perry said.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Jared Bernstein, chief economist to former Vice President Joe Biden, praised the study. He said that, while it didn’t convince him that there’s a direct line between progressive laws and job growth (a relationship Perry did not set out to prove), the study did, “in tandem with tons of other research, convince me that these progressive interventions do not hurt growth.”

The Berkeley study was released as Republicans on Capitol Hill pushed a tax bill heavily weighted to tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals, legislation that a majority of Americans are firmly against.

Despite the report’s generally rosy economic picture, Perry points out that some issues threaten California’s prosperity. First, progressive labor standards need to be enforced to combat rampant wage theft in California’s low-wage industries. Second, the effect of very high housing prices in much of the state could undermine some economic gains.

“High housing prices and lack of supply could force more people to live farther away from their jobs, which would increase carbon emissions and make it harder for [businesses] to attract workers,” he said.

And the possible repeal, or undermining of, the Affordable Care Act, could undo some of the economic benefits of the past seven years, Perry said. Another study from the UC Berkeley Labor Center earlier this year showed that California would have lost more than half a million jobs if the Graham-Cassidy repeal-and-replace legislation had passed.


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2017’s Greatest Hits (and Misses)

The political journey between good intentions and the statute book was twisted even by Sacramento standards in 2017. But there was more — much more.

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Bill Raden

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Photo by Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño

Working Californians’ biggest hope during Trump Year One: Sacramento’s Democratic supermajorities:

With a Democrat as governor and a legislature controlled by true-blue supermajorities, it seemed only logical for Sacramento to spearhead the Trump resistance. State Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) said as much the day after Donald Trump’s 2016 election, vowing to “set an example for other states to follow.” Twelve months later, a modest raft of new laws aimed at blunting the brazen bigotry of Trump immigration policies — including Senate Bill 54, de León’s hard-won sanctuary state bill — and checking the administration’s planet-killing orgy of climate deregulation.

Working Californians’ biggest disillusionment during Trump year one: Sacramento’s Democratic supermajorities:

The political journey between good intentions and the statute book was twisted even by Sacramento standards in 2017. Of the 2,980 bills introduced by state lawmakers, roughly 35 were drafted as “Trump resistance” measures. But by the time the dozen-plus resistance bills made it to the governor’s desk, they tended to be anodyne wisps of their original forms. Senate Bill 6, San Diego Democrat Ben Hueso’s effort to create a legal defense fund for undocumented workers scooped up in ICE raids, became so toothless that Hueso retitled his “Due Process for All Act” as the “Expanding Due Process Act.” A no-brainer by state senators Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) and Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) designed to force Trump to release his tax returns before getting on the state’s 2020 ballot earned a Brown veto. Most controversially, perhaps, Rendon tabled SB 520, a sweeping Medicare for All-styled measure by state senators Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), before it even received a hearing.

2017’s wannest excuse for a sanctuary state act:

It once virtually banned all state and local law enforcement cooperation with ICE agents. But the bill signed into law by Jerry Brown, which had promised to be the sharpest state rebuke yet to Trump’s mass deportations, now looked strangely familiar. That’s because to get the governor’s signature, the California Values Act had to first pass muster with the powerful California Sheriffs’ Association. The compromise gives ICE full access to prisons and jails, allows police and sheriffs to share databases and to detain and transfer people to ICE if they have been convicted of any crime from a risibly broad list of 800 “hold offenses” recycled from 2014’s California Trust Act. Those include the very serious offenses of “intentionally processing a milk product that is required to be pasteurized without pasteurization, manufacturing a milk product in an unlicensed plant, providing milk product for manufacture or resale to an unlicensed person, or falsifying records required.”

2017’s most unsurprising (if most ignored) Rx for national and California Dems:

Just over 46 percent of California’s registered Democrats turned out for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary. That’s nearly the same percentage that pre-election polling for the November vote indicated was motivated by anti-Hillary feelings — presumably disgust over four more years of the romance between Clinton-Obama “New Democrats” and Wall Street — rather than anything remotely pro-Trump. Unfortunately, that lesson was lost on state Democrats when they gathered in May and selected Los Angeles County Democratic chair Eric Bauman as state party leader — in spite of Bauman’s financial ties to Big Pharma. Progressive challenger Kimberly Ellis, who narrowly lost a vote plagued by irregularities, charged that a “clear conflict“ had developed among “those nestled in power.” That diagnosis was echoed in postmortems that urged the disentangling of Democrats — “ideologically and financially — from Wall Street, the military-industrial complex and other corporate interests that put profits ahead of public needs.”

California’s most badly bungled headline of 2017:

The news in November was all about the great Silicon Valley sigh of relief that blew down from Palo Alto like a laissez faire Santa Ana wind: California’s Department of Motor Vehicles had issued its long-delayed driverless vehicle testing regulations that would allow autonomous vehicles on California highways. A potential global market of at least $42 billion by 2025, panted the L.A. Times business pages. But for 3.1 million U.S. truckers (who represent represent two percent of total employment), there was little to cheer. In May, Goldman Sachs became the latest to predict that autonomous vehicle technology will disrupt trucking jobs — one of the last middle-class occupations that doesn’t require a high school diploma — into obsolescence at a rate of 25,000 a month, or 300,000 a year. A far more apropos headline would have been, “Just Say No.”

2017’s poster child for neoliberalism: Elon Musk. Again.

Everything that’s wrong with Silicon Valley’s virulently anti-communitarian, anti-regulatory ethos seems to eventually get uttered by California’s favorite South African-born billionaire bad boy, Elon Musk. And in 2017, Musk did not disappoint. In February, the entrepreneur announced the creation of a new tunnel boring company and its first for-profit venture — digging an express tunnel that will bypass L.A.’s legendarily impenetrable rush hour traffic by connecting Musk’s Bel-Air home with his Space X headquarters in Hawthorne. Those lucky enough to be Elon Musk could see their morning hour commute cut to six minutes. Lest there be any confusion about who the free market best serves, this month Musk tweeted his Marie Antoinette-esque distaste for public transit and its twin aims of affordability and accessibility.

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Labor & Economy

How a Reporter Got a Corker of a Scoop About the GOP’s Tax Bill

At first David Sirota thought there was no hidden story behind the Republican tax bill. Then a tax lawyer called — it turned out there was plenty to reveal, thanks to the last-minute addition of a special loophole.

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Photo: U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN)

Senator Corker’s defense was, “I didn’t know about the provision because I didn’t read the bill that I’m voting for.”


As the House and Senate moved toward approving the final version of the GOP tax bill, the International Business Times (IBT) revealed in an explosive story Friday that a loophole slipped into the bill in the final minutes will directly enrich President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as wealthy senators and key members of Congress, including the provision’s writers.

Controversy swirled around the timing of the measure and the fact that deficit hawk Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee abruptly switched his vote in favor of the bill, whose tax cuts the Congressional Budget Office estimated will add $1.4 trillion to the deficit by 2027. Corker had been the lone Republican holdout in the Senate and had previously voted with Democrats against the bill. He has millions of dollars invested in real estate-related limited liability companies (LLCs) that could see a $1.1 million payday from the loophole. David Sirota’s IBT reporting quickly went viral as Corker’s apparent cushy accommodation was splashed across social media under the hashtag #CorkerKickback.

Capital & Main spoke to Sirota for a blow-by-blow account of the developing story, its implications and its consequences.

IBT had been closely following the debate over how the tax measure would treat income passed through a tax shelter known as an LLC, a “pass-through” tax entity because profits pass through to its owners who report them on their personal tax returns. The Senate version had limited tax cuts to pass through LLCs that actually employ people — the “job creators.” The House version has been far broader.

“We took a look at the key tax writers on committees that oversaw the bill as well as leadership,” Sirota said. “And we got a list of their real estate-related LLCs, and a day before the final bill came out, we put together this story about who could benefit. We found that between the conference committee, the Ways and Means Committee, the Finance Committee and the two leaders of the House and Senate, there were 13 members of Congress who owned and were earning income from real estate or from real estate-related LLCs. And depending on whether the final tax bill adopts the House version or the Senate version, they would stand to make a lot of money.”

IBT reported that the members of Congress — including House Speaker Paul Ryan — have between $36 million and $163 million invested in real estate-related LLCs. Between $2.6 million and $16 million in “pass through” income from those investments would benefit from the new provision.

Which version of the pass through would end up in the final tax bill would be determined by the joint House and Senate conference committee. At 5:30 p.m. on Friday, the committee released a final version that appeared to follow the Senate approach, the more rational version, according to tax experts Sirota spoke to.

“At 5:45 we were sort of like, ‘Okay, I don’t think there’s much to really write,’” Sirota said. “‘It looks like they kind of got it out.’ But I said, ‘I’ll talk to a couple of tax lawyers who have been following this.’ And what do you know? One of them comes back to me at 6:15 and is like, ‘You know, they added this one extra line that’s not in either of the bills. It talks about depreciable assets. This is the loophole.’ He said something along the lines of, ‘It’s narrow enough that it shows intent for a specific kind of investment vehicle.’”

Senator “John Cornyn on his Twitter feed is promoting a lobbyist’s talking points to defend this bill.”

The original House tax cut on pass-throughs, Sirota explained, was broad enough to argue that it was merely an ideological, across-the-board tax cut rather than something that picked specific winners and losers. But the additional line was included with one intent in mind. That line carved out a particular tax windfall for owners of rental-income generators like apartment buildings or commercial office complexes, depreciable property with few or no employees.

“That’s when we realized this is an absolutely enormous story,” Sirota said.

The real estate-specific windfall immediately raised the question of whether the LLC pass-through had been part of a deal aimed at influencing Corker to switch. When asked to comment on the pass-through for a followup story, Corker didn’t seem to be familiar with it, Sirota said.

“He called it ‘ridiculous,’” Sirota said. “But then he called back — he must have talked to somebody — and he said, ‘You know, I’m not sure I want to criticize it that way. You know, I need more information. I haven’t really read it. I’ve only read a summary of the bill. I haven’t read the bill.’ Which is, of course, another story: You’re the key vote on a $1.5 trillion [deficit] bill, and you’re announcing your support for it, admitting that you didn’t even read it. So your defense is, ‘I didn’t know about the provision because I didn’t read the bill that I’m voting for.’ That became another sort of huge story about how [Republicans] are rushing the bill through without even the pivotal vote having read it.”

What followed Sirota’s story was a firestorm of public outrage on social media. Under mounting pressure, Corker wrote a letter to Utah Republican Orin Hatch, the head of the Senate’s tax-writing committee, supporting the narrative that he didn’t know anything about the pass-through by asking for clarification of the provision, where it came from and how it got in the bill. To take the heat off Corker, Hatch replied on Monday, insisting that he had authored the loophole. Hatch added that Corker and his staff never contacted the tax-writing committee about the bill, in effect publicly admitting that a key swing vote on the tax bill wasn’t even communicating with the staff or the members of the panel writing it.

However, the Hatch alibi could not withstand new reporting that revealed Corker’s chief of staff, Todd Womack, had been investing heavily in a real estate LLC in the run-up to the bill and also stood to profit from the provision. Worse, Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, in a Sunday appearance on ABC’s This Week, admitted that the decision to include the pass-through came from an effort to “cobble together the votes we need to get this bill passed.” With Cornyn suddenly under attack himself, his office aggressively tried to backpedal.

“They were upset that anybody viewed it that way,” Sirota noted, “but you can read the transcript. It was very clear that’s exactly what he said. It’s incredible: Cornyn is now defending the provision on his Twitter feed — I swear to god, you cannot make this up — by sending out an article written by a bank lobbyist who is lobbying on this provision. So John Cornyn on his Twitter feed is promoting a lobbyist’s talking points to defend this bill.”

But Sirota noted that the neither self-enrichment nor massive, deficit-hiking tax giveaways to corporations and the richest Americans are new. Republicans have been redistributing the country’s wealth upwards since the days of Ronald Reagan. What actually is precedent-setting about this tax bill, he said, is how explicit it is.

“There’s no pretense in this bill,” Sirota said. “There was a thing the Republicans put out in their summary when the bill came out. I tweeted out the graphic. It was sort of in a section about trying to prevent people from using their LLCs to put their wage income into their LLCs. They called it ‘safeguards’ — and I’m paraphrasing here — ‘We have put safeguards in to make sure that the business income taxes not go to wage earners.’ They are very crystal-clear that this is a tax bill not for workers. This is a tax bill for corporations and business owners. That is the ideology. They’re actually open about that. They want the public to know.”


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