Will Florida end this battle against voting?


Desmond Meade (left), head of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which authored Amendment 4, with me at a 2018 conference in Virginia

The saga of the restoration of the voting rights of Florida ex-felons continues, but it may be nearing an end. The crux of Federal District Judge Robert Hinkle’s May 24 opinion in Jones v. DeSantis, about the legislature’s attempts to overrule the voter-approved Amendment 4 to the Florida constitution:

“This order holds that the State can condition voting on payment of fines and restitution that a person is able to pay but cannot condition voting on payment of amounts a person is unable to pay or on payment of taxes, even those labeled fees or costs.”

Which is to say, for those without money, Florida’s latest poll tax has been struck down.

I’ve been writing about the theory and politics of felon disenfranchisement for a while. Nowhere has the issue been more consequential nor litigated than in Florida, which since Bush v. Gore has been the ground zero of voter suppression. Governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist eased franchise restoration; Governor Rick Scott squelched it. Then the citizens got involved.

In 2018 Florida voters, by nearly 2-1, passed an amendment to the state constitution. Under Amendment 4: “[A]ny disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” (Murder and felony sexual offense were excluded.)

Despite the mandate, Florida’s GOP-dominated legislature set about to undo it, passing on party-line votes in the House and Senate SB7066, which defined “all terms of sentence” to include “any portion of a sentence that is contained in the four corners of the sentencing document,” including the payment of court-imposed fines, fees and restitution.

What’s at stake? As of 2016, nearly 1.5 million ex-felons in Florida couldn’t vote. At issue are those who could get the vote but for SB7066. That is 774,000, estimates the Campaign Legal Center, which brought one of five federal lawsuits in the days after Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill last June.

In August DeSantis requested an advisory opinion from the state supreme court on the “legal financial obligations” (LFOs) added by SB7066. The briefs contested the meaning of the “four corners” and the voters’ intent.

(Note: In Florida and elsewhere, hundreds of dollars in court fees (plus interest) are routinely imposed as a means of funding government that have zero to do with the crime. If you’ve lived where court fees are added to the price of contesting a traffic ticket, you get this.)

In January the Florida Supreme Court opined that conditioning of the right to vote on payment of costs was consistent with Amendment 4. Advised the court, “[T]he phrase ‘all terms of sentence’ . . . has an ordinary meaning that the voters would have understood to refer not only to durational periods but also to all LFOs.” (The governor didn’t ask what “completion” might mean, and the court didn’t say.)

Dissenters included the Harvard Law Review:

[The supreme court] improperly relied on tools of interpretation adapted to understand legislation drafted and passed by professional legislators, not ordinary citizens.  Rather than focusing on what the plain meaning of “completion of all terms of sentence including parole and probation” would be to an ordinary citizen, the court turned to technical tools like the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure and Black’s Law Dictionary to define “sentence.” In so doing, the court ignored the noscitur a sociis canon [in legalese, the context] and the reality that laypersons are likely to think of penalties related to time and confinement when the word “sentence” is placed in the context of “parole” and “probation” – not court fees.

Meanwhile, the federal lawsuits, consolidated as Jones v. DeSantis, contended that SB7066 violated the First, 14th (due process and equal protection) and 24th (poll tax) amendments to the Constitution. In October Judge Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of SB7066, finding that DeSantis was unlikely to win on the merits.

DeSantis appealed, and in February the 11th Circuit upheld Hinkle’s preliminary injunction. It reasoned that Florida was imposing a condition based not on the crime but the ex-felon’s ability to pay. That, the Circuit said, violated Equal Protection: two identically situated felons who completed their sentences could not have their right to vote determined by their ability to pay money imposed at sentencing, and that amounted to a poll tax.

On May 6, at the conclusion of the eight-day bench trial (conducted by conference call), Hinkle surprised no one when he announced that the state had erred. The evidence showed that Florida has no way to track whether ex-felons have costs within the “four corners” or have paid them. The record reads like Kafka. Wrote the judge: “The State has shown a staggering inability to administer the pay-to-vote system and, in an effort to reduce the administrative difficulties, has largely abandoned the only legitimate rationale for the pay-to-vote system’s existence.”

Hinkle’s 125-page opinion incorporates the 11th Circuit’s reasoning. Under his order, the pay-to-vote system is unconstitutional:

  • for “individuals who are otherwise eligible to vote but are genuinely unable to pay”
  • to the extent that “the amounts that are unknown and cannot be determined with diligence”
  • because the costs “are, in substance, taxes”

But for those who can pay, the requirement to pay a “determinable amount” is not unconstitutional. (We’ll see whether Florida can determine amounts.) Thus Hinkle didn’t void the entire law.

The order establishes procedures by which ex-felons can seek information on any fees owed and, absent a supported statement from election officials, register to vote in 21 days.

“At least on its face, Amendment 4 was self-executing,” Hinkle wrote. But if the legislature’s intent to disenfranchise were ambiguous, the state argued that if the court were to strike the LFO condition, then the rest of Amendment 4 should be voided. Hinkle responded:

The State makes the rather remarkable assertion that if it cannot prevent people who are unable to pay LFOs from voting, then all of Amendment 4 must fall – that even felons who have served all their time, are off supervision, and have paid all amounts they owe cannot vote. This is a breathtaking attack on the will of the Florida voters who adopted Amendment 4.

Breathtaking. Unless one has reviewed 150 years of disenfranchisement efforts, as I did in my letter to Governor Scott five years ago. The state may declare a cease-fire, or it may continue this particular battle in a long war. It’s up to Governor DeSantis, but in this skirmish he had no bullets.

Posted in Uncategorized, voter suppression, Voting | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘That government is best which is most indifferent’

Screen Shot 2020-05-05 at 9.31.38 AMIn their book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Ann Case and Angus Deaton study the rising premature death rate from suicide, drug overdose and alcohol liver disease. Four findings:

  1. The rate has steadily fallen over 30 years in comparable Western countries (U.K., France, Australia, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Italy). It’s also fallen for U.S. Hispanics. But not for U.S. non-Hispanic whites.
  2. The rate is steady among Americans with at least a B.A.; it’s rising for those without.
  3. The younger the cohort, the worse the rates.
  4. Compared to other countries, the U.S. spends more on health care and has worse outcomes.

Case and Deaton on May 4 presented for an hour on Zoom through the Economic Policy Institute, a D.C. think tank. The following four charts are my screenshots from their talk.

1 Age-adjusted by country - white and hispanic

2 US white deaths by cause - BA

3 Mortality by year of birth

4 Comparable countries

Among their conclusions:

  1. Employer-based health insurance is destroying our economy. Because it costs so much – about $21,000 a year for family coverage – employers will cover fewer and fewer workers over time. It only makes sense for them to offshore production.
  2. The government must rethink anti-trust law in the face of hospital mergers, which have driven up the prices of health care. (I would add that the failure of the Justice Department to pursue antitrust might not matter, because the Supreme Court has been dismantling antitrust law for 30 years.)
  3. The “health-care” industry has five lobbyists for every member of Congress, reflecting the absence of any effective campaign finance limits (thanks to congressional opposition and Supreme Court interpretation). The interests of labor have neither effective representation nor a sympathetic ear in Washington.

These interlocking political realities are having the greatest effect on the Americans described in the charts. They are dying prematurely, Case and Deaton write, from the loss of work, loss of community, loss of family cohesion. They are also, based on the authors’ study of the country analyzed by one thousand geographic areas, Trump’s base.

The Republican Party, which has held the presidency and/or effective control of Congress for 36 of the last 39 years, has worked to undermine the interests of that base while catering to a shrinking class of the wealthiest.

So, the next inquiry: Whose interests are behind these COVID-19 protests against shut-down orders intended to protect public health? As has been reported, the network of right-wing funders who created the tea party are doing the same once again. In both cases, and in the litigation initiated by GOP state attorneys general asking the Supreme Court to void Obamacare, one of the goals is to destroy government-financed health care.

As a practical matter, I cannot understand how it serves a reactionary elite to eliminate a fragile leg of support from millions of voters. I suppose it is reflexively fighting the same battle it has waged for a century.

On the eve of his reelection in 1936 (the second-largest contested reelection margin in history), Franklin Roosevelt addressed the choice facing voters. Starting with the election of 1920, through the 1929 crash and the three years of government inaction that followed, Roosevelt said:

For twelve years this nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing government. The nation looked to government but the government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge. Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines. Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair. Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that government is best which is most indifferent.

History does not repeat. But it rhymes.

Posted in Obamacare, Supreme Court, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

An opportunity to enrich the opportunistic

Published March 30, 2020, in Tax Notes Federal, weekly magazine of Tax Analysts Inc., where I was a reporter and editor in the early 1990s.

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Rendering of the Ritz Carlton hotel/condo/retail skyscraper under construction in Portland (GBD Architects)

This is a story about billionaires, how Congress makes laws, how city development officials work with rich people to ignore poor people, and how legislative dysfunction has spread from the nation’s Capitol to Oregon’s Capitol.

One of the billionaires is Sean Parker.

When Parker was in high school, the FBI raided his parents’ house, carting away his computer, from which he’d been hacking into systems around the world. At 19, he cofounded Napster, the music “sharing” service that unraveled on copyright violations. He negotiated Mark Zuckerberg’s permanent control of Facebook’s board with its initial investors. His friends tell reporters he’s nothing like Justin Timberlake’s dark and greedy portrayal in the 2010 movie The Social Network. He is an autodidact, a serial entrepreneur, and a philanthropist among the world’s elite.

With fellow investors, he founded a section 501(c)(4) advocacy organization, the Economic Innovation Group. From 2015 to 2017, EIG spent $2.88 million on lobbyists advocating a tax incentive labeled “Opportunity Zones.” When President Trump pushed Congress to pass a tax bill in December 2017 with no hearings and no deliberation, the provision’s proponents realized their opportunity.

Among Parker’s talents is the ability to recognize the commercial/political potential of someone else’s idea. Opportunity Zones are an old concept: tax incentives for geographically targeted private investment, intended to create economic activity in “distressed communities,” defined by certain poverty criteria. As Forbes put it in marketing an investor conference last May, Opportunity Zones aim “to unlock transformative economic potential and create lasting change in America’s overlooked communities.”

Jack Kemp, HUD secretary to George H.W. Bush and quarterback for the Buffalo Bills in the 1960s, made “enterprise zones” the first of these place-based tax incentives. In politics, Kemp was known for two things: championing low taxes for the wealthy (as a congressman he co-authored “Kemp-Roth,” which became Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cut), particularly capital gains; and being a rare GOP advocate for decaying urban cores and their predominantly black constituencies, a sensitivity that perhaps grew out of playing pro football. Enterprise zones tied his passions together.

The birth of ‘Enterprise Zones’

I was congressional correspondent for Tax Analysts when Kemp was HUD secretary, and I was present at the 1992 GOP Convention when the quarterback brought along as props his (black) linemen for a press conference in the Astrodome to push his idea, which at the time was being written into a bill responding to the Los Angeles riots that spring. (Bush vetoed the bill for unrelated reasons, and Bill Clinton signed one that included enterprise zones in 1993.)

In Kemp’s time, white people were still in the suburbs, where they had built well-funded schools and services, and their kids hadn’t begun streaming back into the cities.

Economic literature developed since shows that enterprise zones and the like have done nothing to help distressed communities and the people who live in them. As the Heritage Foundation concluded in July:

Academic and government studies consistently show place-based development programs fail to increase employment, raise wages, or advance general economic opportunity for targeted residents because they have not addressed the main causes of poverty.

What do they do? Accelerate gentrification.

The why is economics: Where government showers a benefit, the market prices it. If a particular square mile is bestowed tax or other monetary advantages, the value will pass through to the owners of that square mile. That is, the price of land within that mile will rise to absorb the difference in economic value between it and the surrounding area. So the businesses or homes within that favored mile will face higher property values and therefore higher rents. If you’re a business leasing space in a zone making widgets, your profit margin gets squeezed compared to the widget maker on the other side of the line. If you’re a renter, your apartment is now sitting on higher-value land, and your rent goes up — or the building gets renovated or replaced, for renters or buyers who can pay more.

The economics must be irrelevant to Congress. Twenty-five years later, the myth still holds about alleviating poverty or stimulating job creation — which perhaps is why some, like Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., believe tax incentives can revitalize cities like Newark. Or maybe he’s so desperate for a tonier skyline that he’s up for anything.

But Opportunity Zones are really about tax breaks for Parker, who told a Treasury-sponsored conference in August, “When you are a founder of Facebook and you own a lot of stock, you spend a lot of time thinking about capital gains.” Or as Forbes the magazine (distinct from the conference sponsor) headlined a story in July 2018: “An unlikely group of billionaires and politicians has created the most unbelievable tax break ever.”

So let’s return to the Opportunity Zones Congress authorized in 2017.

The rush to identify Opportunity Zones

Section 1400Z-1 gave the nation’s governors 90 days to designate as Opportunity Zones a portion of the census tracts whose poverty criteria were defined in another tax code version of enterprise zones called the new markets tax credit, in section 45D, created in 2000. Governors did so, guided by instruction (H. Conf. Rep. 115-466 at 538) that the tracts had demonstrated success under other federal or state incentives. In May 2018 Treasury certified the governors’ 8,700 zones throughout the country. (Corruption has been alleged around at least one of Treasury’s certifications, in Storey County, Nevada — which may be intrinsic to the story.)

Opportunity Zones have two types of tax incentives under section 1400Z-2. The first allows investors to sell assets, such as stock or other property, deposit the proceeds into a qualified opportunity fund (QOF) and defer the capital gain tax they would otherwise owe until 2026. In 2026 investors get a discount on that tax.

The second incentive applies to the investment in the QOF: If held in a fund for 10 years, the capital gain at sale is tax-free.

Example: I own $1,000,001 in Facebook stock that I bought for $1. Yesterday I sold the stock and put my million-dollar gain in a QOF. The capital gains tax rate is 23.8 percent, so in 2026, I will pay tax of $238,000, less a 10 percent basis increase. Had I sold the stock before 2020, my basis increase is 15 percent. But I didn’t because I’m not in-the-know like Parker, so I’ll pay $214,200 in 2026, whereas Parker will pay $202,300.

Now my million dollars are in a QOF, the financing vehicle for projects in Opportunity Zones. Wherever I invest it — and there are QOF projects all over the country — I can’t touch it for 10 years, so it better project a great return, otherwise I’d do better in something without that restriction (or not realizing the gain in the first place). The stock market produces returns of 7 to 10 percent and investment-grade real estate of 10 to 12 percent, to account for its relative illiquidity.

Thus, I’m eyeing Opportunity Zones that are likely to double in value — places where the population is booming and land is tight, but that have empty lots or land whose price is cheap but likely to get expensive. If I don’t have a big capital gain, I lose. The investment works only if my tax-free gain exceeds the returns from other options.

‘Tax Breaklandia’

As it happens, I live near downtown Portland, which is one of the hottest real estate markets in the country. (Bloomberg BusinessWeek in February won a George Polk Award for its 2019 story, “Welcome to Tax Breaklandia.”) And it’s all in Opportunity Zones, because the governor picked these census tracts that met the requisite poverty criteria (as of the 2011-2015 Census Community Survey).

Portland is hot because people are flocking here. Projects have been in the works for a while. And thanks to the looseness with which Congress and Treasury wrote the rules, a bunch of them essentially sold themselves into new entities to exploit the Opportunity Zone tax breaks. These skyscrapers, their financiers proclaim, include Oregon’s first five-star hotel/condo — with units expected to sell for $1.9 million to $6.5 million — and the most luxurious apartments in town.


Below the Portland skyline and I-405

What’s that do for the poor people who live downtown? Push them out to cheaper land, like the sidewalks, bike trails, and highway cloverleafs where Portland’s growing homeless population somehow survives.

Some citizens I work with recognized this outrage — tax breaks for people rich enough to have significant reportable capital gains (perhaps 5 percent of taxpayers) sold as help for the downtrodden — and the threat it poses to Oregon’s general fund. We couldn’t influence Congress — where our senator, Finance Committee ranking Democrat Ron Wyden, has a bill, S. 2787, to tinker around the edges of Opportunity Zones. But maybe we could reason with the state legislature.

When Congress passed the law, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimated Opportunity Zones would cost about $1.6 billion a year through 2025. In 2026, when the deferral period ends, the government would recover about two-thirds of its losses, but then in 2027, the losses would accelerate. Because the JCT only estimates the cost of tax provisions for 10 years, it had no estimate for year 11, when tax-free capital gains on QOF investments kick in. (If you think this design was accidental, you haven’t watched Congress write tax law for 30 years.)

Oregon conforms to federal income tax benefits by default. If Congress does it, Oregon does it, unless the legislature “disconnects.” (California and two other states are nonconforming, and nine states, including neighboring Washington and Nevada, lack personal income taxes and so don’t offer Opportunity Zone benefits. North Carolina disconnected in 2018, and in Maryland a bill has passed the House.)

The legislature’s economists extrapolated from the JCT’s estimates a revenue loss of about $8 million a year in the current biennium, about 0.5 percent of the JCT estimate. In December the JCT doubled its estimate, to $3.5 billion a year. Oregon, by that scale, is now out $35 million per biennium, with no guess for the out-years. QOFs are an unmeasurable liability.

A citizens campaign

My watchdog group, Tax Fairness Oregon, tried and failed to get the legislature to disconnect in its 2019 session. In October we began assembling a coalition of unions and civic and policy organizations, and over the next four months met with about three-fourths of Senate and House members. The chair of the House Revenue Committee, Nancy Nathanson, became a champion. When the legislature convened February 3, Nathanson introduced a bill to deny Oregon investors the state’s income tax break on all QOF benefits — the deferral, discount and 10-year, tax-free gain. (Most Oregonians, as the legislature’s economists recognized, will invest wherever they can maximize returns, and not in Oregon.)

Portland’s state representatives supported disconnection, seeing that the benefit went to millionaires financing construction that would occur anyway, especially when we documented that several projects, including the hotel/condo and the apartments, had reorganized themselves to get the tax advantages.

Many Republicans, representing rural areas, saw that little investment would come to their districts because what makes Opportunity Zones work is scarce land in growing markets, but they were reflexively anti-tax. The House Republican leader, Christine Drazan, was intimately familiar with the issue and critical of the bill when we met. Her husband, Daniel J. Drazan, is a real estate lawyer in an Oregon firm, Dunn Carney. One of his partners submitted a six-page letter opposing the bill on behalf of 44 interests, naming 10 Dunn Carney lawyers — but not Daniel Drazan.

Officials in Washington County, much of which is a booming Portland suburb and home of Nike and an Intel campus, cried that development would be in jeopardy without the state subsidy. Some Washington County representatives — all Democrats — heeded their pleas.

Short of votes despite Democrats’ 38-22 party advantage, Nathanson wrote a substitute that would allow Oregon investors to keep the deferral and the 2026 basis increase, but cut the 10-year exclusion in half. Thus, taxpayers under the original bill would have paid Oregon’s top tax rate of 9.9 percent in 2026 and 9.9 percent on any gain upon sale of QOF investments after 10 years; under the substitute they would effectively pay only 4.95 percent on sale of QOF interests.

More importantly, the substitute would require QOFs in Oregon to report to the state the particulars of their investments — the only granular reporting requirement anywhere in the nation of which we are aware. Treasury’s final rules, issued in December, don’t require QOFs to disclose information that would allow study of the provision’s effectiveness.

Nathanson’s substitute was voted out of committee and scheduled for a final vote on the House floor February 25.

On February 24, Senate Republicans walked out of the Capitol to deny the chamber a quorum. The senators were protesting a bill creating a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions — the same issue that spurred their walk-out in 2019. The next day, as the Opportunity Zone bill was scheduled in the House, the GOP walked out of that body.

Under the state constitution, the legislature requires a two-thirds quorum for business, and the GOP holds just over one-third of the seats in both chambers. The walk-out can work because the constitution also requires the legislature to adjourn its even-year short session after 35 days. That expiration came March 8. All pending legislation died.

I left my career as a federal tax policy analyst in 2014, bored with congressional dysfunction. I moved to Oregon in 2018. It appears that the Potomac virus has reached the mouth of the Columbia, site of Cape Disappointment.


Posted in Congress, Tax, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The revolution will not be televised

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 9.32.12 PM

I hear the frustration of Bernie supporters. I too am frustrated at the cultural and institutional conservatism that has created a country where the accident of birth determines economic fate.

In 240 years we’ve had a few shifts of the kind candidate Sanders advocates, but not under the circumstances we face now. The first was the 14th Amendment, made possible by a war in which 2 percent of the population died. The arrival of modernity at the turn of the 20th century produced the Progressive Era – led not by the “great commoner” William Jennings Bryan but by Republican Teddy Roosevelt, and it resulted in modest change like the income tax, attention to the environment and the beginnings of labor protections. Franklin Roosevelt was not a revolutionary – he just kept trying things to pull the country out of the Depression, backed by overwhelming Democratic majorities. Lyndon Johnson worked an evolution – but in a time of expansion, when prosperity allowed a generosity of spirit. We answered the moral challenge to which he and the courts called us: extending civil and voting rights and rolling back immigration restrictions that had stood for decades.

One guy with deep but spotty support is not going to get done what we want done. Barack Obama faced a desperate economy, but Mitch McConnell manipulated Senate rules to his advantage – and that was before his caucus fine-tuned obstruction. We face an economy that doesn’t work for tens of millions of people, but we aren’t desperate enough for a Bernie revolution. Maybe if Covid19 kills 2 percent of the population, we will be.

In the wake of his primary loss in Michigan and elsewhere on Mini-Tuesday, Bernie should continue his campaign. He has every right and perhaps the obligation to allow the process to play out and for his supporters to express themselves by the ballot. But at the end of the day, only a united opposition can bring down this incompetent sociopath.

Virginia just completed its first progressive legislative session ever. It ripped out voting restrictions, eliminated barriers to a women’s right to choose, repealed a raft of discriminatory laws, instituted some gun controls, raised the minimum wage, approved environmental restorations, and passed a truly historic redistricting proposal (written by Democrats when they were in the minority and embraced now by Republicans). Civil War monuments will be coming down.

The General Assembly was able to do so because a broad swath of the Democratic Party was repulsed by Trump and worked without pause through three elections to defeat Republicans, erasing a two-thirds GOP majority in the state House and reversing a 7-4 GOP majority in the U.S. House. Last week the state’s Democrats, as representative of the party composition as that of any state, voted overwhelmingly for Joe Biden.

Virginia is a progressive model: a state trending Democratic that a Republican hasn’t won statewide since 2009, partly because the GOP has shrunk its base in embracing Trumpism.

Now is the time for progressives to take what they can get. Let the primaries play out, and then let’s unseat Donald Trump and his Senate Republican majority in the fall. Don’t pull a fucking Ralph Nader.


Posted in Congress, Uncategorized, Virginia legislature | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

As a sunflower bending toward the light

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Kent Ford and children in Albina, 1970, from The Oregonian archives

As horrific as is this moment of our political derangement, I participated in two lectures on Sunday that left me feeling that we will survive, thanks to the example set by two individuals I learned about.

In the afternoon, at a library a mile north of us, Kent Ford reviewed the activities of the Black Panther Party in my neighborhood in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Ford was born in Louisiana and found his way to Albina – my neighborhood – by the time he was 20, and within a few years founded the Panther branch in Portland. The Panthers opened free medical and dental clinics and a breakfast program for kids. J. Edgar Hoover feared the Portland branch enough to sick COINTELPRO on its members, regularly sending Panthers to jail. For a few days.

In 1970, after a decade of planning without any community involvement, Portland and Emanuel Hospital disclosed an expansion plan and evicted residents (and the Panthers) from 55 acres a few blocks south of where we live. What once was a vibrant commercial area in a red-lined neighborhood was destroyed. Emanuel expanded, but it ran out of money, some from federal urban renewal grants, before building on much of the area the city had razed. Today a large swath between Vancouver and Williams avenues could be a city park, but it’s vacant land with some trees and regularly cut grass. The Urban League building remains on what was one corner of downtown Albina.

At the library, Ford was asked what lessons from that moment apply to this one. Now 77 years old, he said, “The struggle is endless.” Ford and his comrades borrowed lessons from King, SNCC, the Panthers in Oakland and Chicago. Just as we do now, online, from groups that start small and mushroom, like Indivisible.

Screen Shot 2020-02-24 at 7.58.11 PMIn the evening we attended a reading of Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country, by Sierra Crane Murdoch, who has spent much of the last eight years immersed in the life of Lissa Yellow Bird, an Arikara/Mandan/Hidatsa on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. The middle of the Bakken oil boom, the latest white man’s colonization of their lands. Also where the Army Corps of Engineers, 70 years ago, appropriated for a dam Missouri River bottomland on which the Affiliated Tribes farmed. The reservoir, named for Sakakawea, the Lewis and Clark guide who had been kidnapped from her Hidatsa tribe, submerged fields and villages.

Listening to Sierra describe her protagonist, Lissa Yellow Bird, I thought of Kent Ford. The tribes had no more say in what was done to their otherwise ignored neighborhood than residents of Albina did in theirs.

We went to Powell’s because Sierra is the daughter of my childhood pal four doors up the street, Ellen Crane, who flew across the country for the reading. Sierra’s first book was published last week, and the first stop on the tour is Portland, a bit west of where Sierra lives. Everything starts somewhere.

The work continues, now and after Trump has passed from his field of corruption, perversion of justice, and destruction of decades of slow building toward a more perfect union. People like Kent and Lissa and my friends in Richmond and all over the country will get up every day, just like I did today in driving to the Capitol in Salem, and engage in the often frustrating struggle for justice.

Because our work is as natural as a sunflower bending toward the light.

Posted in civil rights, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Woke is not enough

The Reverend Dr. William Barber was in my neighborhood last night.

For those who would like an introduction: Dr. Barber is the pastor of a North Carolina church and former head of the state NAACP. In 2014 he founded Repairers of the Breach, to respond to North Carolina’s suppression of voting rights and funding cuts to education and health care, holding “Moral Monday” rallies outside the statehouse. A 2018 MacArthur Grant recipient, he is reviving Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People Campaign.

In my neighborhood, he began with a reading of the opening of the Declaration: that the purpose of government is to secure our inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that whenever a government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

He then recited the preamble to the Constitution: We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty establish this government.

The Reverend spent the rest of the hour talking about the ways in which our governments – federal and state – have become destructive to these ends. Among the particulars: that 160 million of us live in poverty or without wealth; that our lands are permitted to be poisoned in pursuit of private profit; that millions lack proper education and health care, and are improperly housed, clothed and fed; and that state governments, countenanced by the Supreme Court, have undermined our right to vote.

He reminded us that when officeholders take the oath, they rush around looking for a holy book upon which to place their hand. But then they forget the directives contained there within.

This is a moment of moral impeachment. We have had them throughout our history, dating to our embrace of slavery 400 years ago, and the creation of a myth that the size of our brains is determined by the color of our skin. That attempt to divide, for the benefit of the Planter Class, continues today. We blame one another rather than those who have abused their power and wealth at the expense of us, the people.

(I insert: The promotion of an ideology of poverty as a moral failure – rather than as a certain result of the system those in power have created – has been a means of keeping the poor in that state for more than a century.)

We may be woke, but that is not enough. We must rise up.

There will be a march in Washington on June 20, 2020. For the first time since I moved away to Portland, I feel inspired to return.



Posted in civil rights, Uncategorized, Voting | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Blue Virginia expels the Confederacy

Screen Shot 2019-11-06 at 3.42.35 PMA link here to my column in The Washington Post, the day after Democrats captured both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly for the first time since 1992. And the text for those who don’t pony up for a subscription:

The Confederacy in Virginia is dead. And Donald Trump presided.

Repulsed by the president, a new base of the Democratic Party rose up three years ago. It organized after the Women’s March in the blue suburbs of Washington and elsewhere, got behind a wealth of candidates new to campaigning, and flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates. Last year it flipped the congressional delegation from 7-4 Republican to 7-4 Democratic. And yesterday it added at least five more House seats and flipped at least two in the Senate, giving Democrats a unified majority of the political branches in the state, which already has a Democratic governor.

Emblematic of the shift was the victory of Shelly Simonds: In 2017, she lost a Virginia Beach seat in the House when the winner of a tie was drawn from a bowl; in 2019, she won with 58 percent and virtually the same number of votes, while the incumbent who defeated her two years ago received 3,500 fewer votes.

Democrats have a very different party from the one that last controlled both the legislature and governor’s office, before 1993. The old coalition of small farmers, blacks and city dwellers is gone. Instead the Democrats are educated, racially and ethnically diverse and women-dominated. They want gun control and better transit, health care and schools – and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Republicans, by contrast, have a shrinking base. Their margins in the suburbs have vanished. Their voters are whiter, less educated, and rural. They have stuck to the same issues – anti-tax, anti-abortion, pro-gun – that are untenable for a majority party in a state that has embraced the Capital Beltway’s high-tech, value-added economy.

Just ask Danica Roem. In 2017 she proudly acknowledged that she was trans and beat Bob Marshall and his homophobic campaign by running on better roads for fast-growing Prince William County. Roem cruised to reelection.

But the emotional backdrop of the last two years in the seat of the Confederacy is statues. In August 2017, white supremacists converged on Charlottesville to defend a 1924 statue of Robert E. Lee on horseback. Donald Trump defended the protestors – producing the low point of his popularity. Four month later, the House’s GOP bottled up bills that would have allowed localities to remove statues. It blocked Arlington from renaming Jefferson Davis Highway (Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring’s advisory opinion last spring circumvented the General Assembly).

Republicans in their 2018 Senate primary voted for a candidate who linked defenses of Trump and the statues as key planks in his unsuccessful campaign, continuing a string of statewide GOP losses dating to 2009. And in January, Senate Republicans still stopped to honor Lee – leading Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax to sit down.

Conventional wisdom is that Virginia’s Democrats go to sleep in the third year following a presidential election, when all 40 Senate seats are at the top of the ballot. But the new party ranks are the “pussy hats” of Jan. 21, 2017, who didn’t go home after the largest protest in Washington in memory. They organized, ran for office, knocked on doors, posted signs, wrote checks. They held meetings, publicized issues, built networks of committed volunteers who turned from electioneering to lobbying the legislature back to electioneering. In January they’ll go back to Richmond to ensure that their issues are addressed. And after that, they’ll work for Trump’s defeat.

In the process, the Indivisibles and We of Action and Network NOVA and Moms Demand Action and scores of other spontaneously formed and rigorously maintained grassroots groups have accelerated the death of the Confederacy in the same state house that governed the Lost Cause. The outgoing GOP legislature was the remaining bulwark defending its symbols, like the statues of Davis and Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.

Expect that one of the first bills Gov. Ralph Northam (himself the subject of a  “blackface” scandal 10 months ago) signs next winter will authorize localities to remove those statues. That page of our history is about to turn.






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