"Do or Do not. There is no try."

“Thanks For Asking”: How Do You Make Change Happen? Show Up

In my travels and conversations this year, I’ve been encouraged that grassroots people of all progressive stripes (populist, labor, liberal, environmental, women, civil libertarian, et al.) are well aware of the slipperiness of “victory” and want Washington to get it right this time. So over and over, Question No. 1 that I encounter is some variation of this: What should we do!?! How do we make Washington govern for all the people? What specific things can my group or I do now?

Thanks for asking. The first thing you can do to bring about change is show up. Think of showing up as a sort of civic action, where you get to choose something that fits your temperament, personal level of activism, available time and energy, etc. The point here is that every one of us can do something — and every bit helps.

Simply being there matters. While progressives have shown up for elections in winning numbers, our movement then tends to fade politely into the shadows, leaving public officials (even those we put in office) free to ignore us and capitulate to ever-present, ever-insistent corporate interests. No more. Grassroots progressives — as individuals and through our groups — must get in the face of power and stay there.

This doesn’t require a trip to Washington, though it can. It can be done right where you live — in personal meetings, on the phone, via email and letters, through social media (tweet at the twits!), on petitions, and any additional ways of communication that you and other creative people can invent. Hey, we’re citizens, voters, constituents — so we should not hesitate to request in-person appointments to chat with officials back home (these need not be confrontational), attend forums where they’ll be (local hearings, town hall sessions, speeches, meet & greets, parades, ribbon-cuttings, receptions, etc). They generally post their public schedules on their websites. Go to their meetings, ask questions, or at least say hello, introduce yourself, and try to achieve this: MAKE THEM LEARN YOUR NAME.

OK, you’re too busy to show up at all this stuff, but try one, then think of going to one every month or two. And you don’t have to go alone — get a family member, a couple of friends, a few members of the groups you’re in to join you. Make it an excursion, rewarding yourselves with a nice glass of wine or a beer and some laughs afterward.

Then there are times (“in the course of human events,” as Jefferson put it) when citizens have to come together in big numbers to protest, to insist on being heard. Lobbyists are able to meet with officials in quiet rooms, but when we’re shut out, a higher form of patriotism demands that ordinary folks surround a public official’s district office or a high-dollar fundraising event to deliver a noisy message about the people’s needs.

This is especially necessary for officials who get a substantial or even majority vote from progressive constituencies… but still stiff us on such major needs as increasing the minimum wage, overturning Citizens United, endorsing a Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street speculators, and prohibiting the outrage of voter suppression. We have a right to expect them to respect our vote, and stand with us on the big issues. We’ve been too quiet, too indulgent with such office holders, and they won’t change until we start confronting them publicly.

Both in terms of having your own say and in demonstrating the strength of the grassroots numbers behind the policy changes we want, you and I are going to have to get noisier, more demonstrative, more out-front in demanding that elected officials really pay heed to those who elected them. Let’s make 2016 the year of reintroducing ourselves and our expectations to policymakers. At their every turn, we should be there, becoming a personal human presence (even an irritant) they cannot ignore.


By: Jim Hightower, Featured Post, The National Memo, April 13, 2016

April 14, 2016 Posted by | Democracy, Elected Officials, Progressives | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Obvious Remedy”: Why Kentucky’s Kim Davis Won’t Find A Different Job

One of the oddities of the Kim Davis story in Kentucky is the obvious remedy. The Kentucky clerk has a job in which she’s supposed to issue marriage licenses, but Davis doesn’t want to issue licenses to couples she deems morally inadequate. So why doesn’t Davis find some other job in which her responsibilities won’t conflict with her religious views?

Indeed, given her public notoriety, if she asked far-right leaders for a paid position somewhere, Davis probably wouldn’t have much trouble landing another gig – one which her conscience would be comfortable with.

Last night, the clerk explained her perspective.

Kentucky clerk Kim Davis on Wednesday night explained to Fox News’ Megyn Kelly why she has still refused to resign despite numerous failed attempts to receive an accommodation for her religious beliefs.

 “If I resign I lose my voice,” Davis said. “Why should I have to quit a job that I love, that I’m good at?”

I imagine that was a rhetorical question, but the answer isn’t exactly complicated. If you have a job that requires you to do things you consider morally objectionable, you have a choice: meet your professional obligations anyway or find a different job. Davis’ argument is that she should continue to be paid to perform duties she refuses to do – to the point that she’s comfortable defying court rulings, her oath of office, and court orders.

As for Davis’ belief that she’ll lose her “voice” if she gets a different job, I have no idea what that means. She can continue to speak her mind on whatever topics she chooses, whether she’s a county clerk or something else entirely. Davis need not receive taxpayer money in order to have a “voice.”

Meanwhile, in the courts, the Kentucky clerk continues to strike out. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported this morning:

U.S. District Judge David Bunning refused to grant Davis an emergency stay that she requested for the preliminary injunction he issued last month, ordering her to resume issuing marriage licenses. […]

At a hearing Sept. 3 in Ashland, where Bunning sent Davis to jail for five days for contempt of court, the judge expanded his mandate to include all eligible couples in Rowan County, rather than just the couples who sued Davis…. In a five-page order Wednesday, Bunning denied the stay motion that Davis subsequently filed with him. The judge said he had no intention of letting Davis grant marriage licenses to eligible couples who are plaintiffs in the case while denying licenses to others.

Note, the ACLU filed a motion with Judge Bunning this week, accusing Davis of defying a court order from two weeks ago. He did not address that motion yesterday.

As for last night’s interview, Fox’s Megyn Kelly asked Davis, “You’re prepared to go back to jail if that’s what it takes?” The clerk replied, “Whatever the cost.”


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 24, 2015

September 24, 2015 Posted by | Elected Officials, Kim Davis, Marriage Equality | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“What A ‘Career Politician’ Looks Like”: Even Though He’s Been In Elected Office Since Age 25, Walker Denies He’s A Career Politician

If recent polling is any indication, Republican voters place a premium on inexperience. Donald Trump, who’s never worked in government at any level, is obviously the dominant GOP candidate, at least for now, but he’s followed by Ben Carson, a retired far-right neurosurgeon who’s never sought or held public office.

Add Carly Fiorina to the mix and their combined poll support points to a striking detail: about half of GOP voters are backing presidential candidates who’ve never worked a day in public service.

It’s leading more experienced White House hopefuls to downplay their qualifications and pretend they’re not so experienced after all. The Associated Press reported yesterday:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker denies he’s a career politician – even though he has been in elected office since he was 25 years old and first ran for office when he was 22.

 The 47-year-old Republican presidential contender said in an interview with CNBC, released Tuesday, that he is “just a normal guy” and rejects the career politician label despite being in politics for most of his adult life.

The two-term governor argued, “A career politician, in my mind, is somebody who’s been in Congress for 25 years.”

By any fair measure, this really is silly. There’s no point in having a semantics debate over the meaning of the word “politician,” but when Scott Walker dropped out of college, it’s not because he was flunking – he was motivated in part by a desire to run for public office. The Republican lost that race at the age of 22, but Walker then moved to a more conservative district, tried again, and won a state Assembly race at the age of 25.

The man has, quite literally, spent more than half of his life as a political candidate or political officeholder. As an adult, Walker’s entire career has been in politics. The AP report added that Walker has served “nine years in the Assembly, eight years as Milwaukee County executive and is now in his fifth year as governor.”

What’s wrong with that? To my mind, nothing – there’s something inherently admirable about someone committing themselves to public service through elected office. If an American wants to make a difference, and he or she repeatedly earns voters’ support, it’s hardly something to be embarrassed about.

And in Scott Walker’s case, it’s hardly something to lie about. Presidential candidates who pretend to be something they’re not tend not to do well.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 2, 2015

September 2, 2015 Posted by | Elected Officials, GOP Presidential Candidates, Scott Walker | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Who’s Buying The Midterm Elections? A Bunch Of Old White Guys”: White Men Make Up 65 Percent Of Elected Officials

This is the year of the mega-donor: just forty-two people are responsible for nearly a third of Super PAC spending in the 2014 election cycle. Super PACs, meanwhile, are outspending the national parties. The list of would-be kingmakers includes Tom Steyer, the former hedge-fund manager who’s poured out $73 million to elect environmentally friendly Democrats; Michael Bloomberg, who’s distributed upwards of $20 million on behalf of both sides; and Paul Singer, the “vulture-fund billionaire” and powerful Republican fundraiser.

Take a look at the list of top donors. They might have distinctly different political agendas, but they have one thing irrefutably in common: they’re almost exclusively old white guys. Only seven women made it into the forty-two, and not a single person of color.

One of the things highlighted in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, is how poorly America’s political leadership, from city councils to the US Senate, reflects the diversity of the country. According to data compiled by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, white men make up 65 percent of elected officials—more than twice their proportion in the general population. Only 4 percent of our political leaders are women of color. As Jelani Cobb writes in The New Yorker, the midterm elections won’t right this imbalance between demographics and political representation, no matter which party wins the Senate.

In fact, the midterms suggest that white men are gaining clout, at least behind the veil. As campaign-finance laws erode, political power is increasingly concentrated among the billionaires playing the strings of the electoral marionette—a pool that looks less diverse even than Congress. (Given the prominence of dark-money groups, it’s likely that some of the biggest individual players in the midterms are anonymous. But there’s no indication that secret donors are any more diverse than others.)

It’s shrinking, too. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of individual donors increased each election cycle. This year, the pool contracted from 817,464 individual contributors in 2010 to 666,773 as of late October, according to a new analysis from CRP. “Despite only a slight increase in the cost of the election, outside groups, which are overwhelmingly fueled by large donors, are picking up more of the tab, candidates are cutting back on their spending, and there are fewer large (over $200) individual donors contributing overall to candidates and parties,” reads the report.

Politicians should be accountable to the electorate, which is growing more diverse. But the fact that candidates are growing more dependent on a narrow group of contributors means that they may be responsive to a limited set of concerns. There are many factors blunting the political impact of demographic changes, but certainly laws that amplify a less diverse group of people’s voices over others’ in an election is one of them.

The unfettering of big money also makes it harder to elect minority candidates. “Why is it that the Congress we have right now doesn’t look anything like the rest of the country? A lot of it has to do with our campaign-finance laws and the fact that there’s so much money in the system and you need so much money to run for office,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program and the Brennan Center for Justice. “There’s no question that it makes it more difficult for people who aren’t connected to these very wealthy donors to run for office.”

Candidates raise money from people they know, Norden explained, and American social circles are deeply segregated. Three-quarters of white Americans, for example, don’t have any non-white friends. Neighborhoods remain segregated by race and class. “If you don’t have a lot of money to begin with, you’re not interacting with the people who can provide that money,” said Norden.

A number of structural changes have been proposed to right lopsided representation, many of them focused on increasing turnout among minority voters. Those suggestions are particularly salient in response to the GOP’s campaign to pass laws that make it more difficult for low-income people and people of color to vote. But turnout won’t affect the diversity of elected officials if the pool of candidates isn’t diverse to begin with. As long as the financial bar for running a viable campaign keeps rising, it’s going to be more difficult for people of color, women and low-income people to appeal for votes at all.

There’s some evidence that public campaign financing increases proportional representation. Connecticut implemented a voluntary public-financing system in 2008, which provides a fixed amount of funding to candidates who rely on small donors. A study by Demos found that the program led to a more diverse state legislature and increased Latino and female representation. Another study found that the percentage of women elected in five states with public financing was significantly higher than the national average. Unfortunately, in several states recently politicians have set to dismantling, not strengthening, public financing.

“It’s really clear that that’s a major barrier to women and people of color, in particular, that can happen on all levels, even the local level,” said Brenda Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, about the growing power of outside money. Still, she noted that there’s been little research into the specific ways in which the influence of money in politics has a disproportionate effect on minority candidates. “Adding a race and gender lens to the money-in-politics conversation is a really important thing,” she said.


By: Zoe Carpenter, The Nation, October 31, 2014

November 1, 2014 Posted by | Elected Officials, Midterm Elections, White Men | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We Must Stop Inflating Our Elected Leaders”: No More “His Excellency” For Men Who Are Anything But Excellent

What are we to make of the conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, an erstwhile presidential aspirant, and his wife Maureen on a bevy of federal corruption charges? The case held plenty of entertainment value for the schadenfreude-prone among us, but was there any broader meaning in it? It’s tempting, after all, to dismiss it as a sui generis story, given the uniqueness of the McDonnells’ predicament (dallying with a vitamin-supplement promoter?) and Virginia’s absurdly lax landscape (the state has virtually no limits on gifts to elected officials.)

But I would argue that there is a larger lesson to be taken from this tale. The McDonnell saga is, to me, just the most glaring recent example of a tendency in American politics and government that has bothered me for some time: our weird, unhealthy inflation of executive elected office at all levels of government. As the McDonnell revelations unspooled, first in the dogged reporting of the Washington Post’s Roz Helderman and Laura Vozzella and then in the trial itself, it became clear that driving much of the McDonnells’ behavior was their extremely exalted conception of the office of governor.

This conception not only contributed to the McDonnells’ extraordinary sense of entitlement but also fed the pressures that led them to accept the favors of the vitamin-supplement salesman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr. For one thing, Maureen McDonnell felt great anxiety about being sufficiently well turned out for her husband’s 2010 inauguration and, generally, about living up to the expectations for being the First Lady. Think about that for a second: in the 21st century, a woman needed to worry about performing a role called “First Lady” because her husband was the elected head of one of the nation’s 50 state governments. Does this happen elsewhere? Does the wife of the head of Germany’s state of Lower Saxony (whose population is roughly the same as Virginia’s) fret about living up to the role of “Erste Frau?” Is the wife of the premier of British Columbia or Saskatchewan worrying about whether her wardrobe will measure up?

Sure, one could write some of these anxieties off to Maureen McDonnell’s personal insecuritiesbut not entirely. After all, her husband was taking on a role in which it was deemed appropriate, by traditional protocol, for him to be referred to as “His Excellency.” (Virginia is hardly alone in thisConnecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and West Virginia all use this royalist language, a holdover from colonial times.)

The title was hardly the only trapping of office that could’ve led the McDonnells to believe they were monarchs of a sort. They lived in an official mansion, after all, with an executive chef (who, it turned out, was the man who got the scandal rolling when he reported the McDonnells for Williams’ $10,000 check to pay for McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding catering.) The chef, Todd Schneider, recently noted to The Post that he would “often get texts from the first lady about the mansion’s food late at night, sometimes after midnight.” Yes, the wife of the democratically elected governor of one of our 50 states was sending notes to the taxpayer-paid chef at her taxpayer-paid mansion to express her menu preferences. Since when did we become “Downton Abbey”?

This inflation was especially extreme in Virginia, which has an especially grandiose notion of its state governmentThomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, “the Virginia way,” and all that. But you see the puffery of executive office all around the country, in members of both parties. You see it in Texas governor Rick Perry traveling the country with a veritable platoon of state police troopers at his side. You saw it in the reports of Maryland’s attorney general, Democrat Doug Gansler, who got a kick out of having his official state-police driver turn on the siren and drive on the shoulder while on routine business. You see it in virtually every utterance and step taken by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who bestrides his state like some latter-day King George III (except when he’s being flown by helicopter to his son’s baseball game and then driven by car for the remaining few hundred feet from copter to bleachers.) And you see it at the federal levelnot just in all the pomp that has come to surround the presidency (that’s a whole story in its own right) but in the puffery that attends even anonymous Cabinet secretaries. I remember once seeing Ray LaHood, the amiable and utterly anodyne head of the Department of Transportation, being swept into a convoy of tinted-window SUVs, with earpiece-adorned guards, as he was leaving Capitol Hill after testifying on bike paths at a minor committee hearing. Heck, even the acting head of the White Office of Drug Control Policya man who, truly, not 10 people in this country could pick out of a lineuphas a security detail.

How did this happen? How did a country that was founded in rebellion against royal overlords become so prone to its own sort of executive self-importance? Part of it has to do with the problem that my editor Frank Foer laid out in an essay in the current issue of this magazine, on the ways in which our federalist system and delegation of powers to countless fragmented municipalities has created thousands of little princes with their own fiefdoms and aggrandizing tendencies. But it may go even deeper than that, to some ancient feudal habits deep within us that allow and even encourage our elected leaders to think they’re lords of their domain. Regardless, it’s time it stopped. No more “His Excellency” for men who, more often than not, are anything but excellent.


By: Alec MacGillis, The New Republic, September 5, 2014

September 8, 2014 Posted by | Bob McDonnell, Elected Officials, Public Corruption | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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