The revolution will not be televised

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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 It ripped out voting restrictions, eliminated barriers to a women’s right to choose, repealed a raft of discriminatory laws, instituted some gun controls, raised the minimum wage, approved environmental restorations, and passed a truly historic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.


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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.

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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.



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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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Desmond Meade: Restoring the franchise – and justice

Last November Florida voters amended the state constitution, automatically restoring voting rights to ex-felons who had completed “all terms of sentence including parole or probation.”

The amendment was expected to affect more than 1.4 million Floridians, but the newly elected governor, Ron DeSantis, and GOP legislature quickly narrowed its application. In June a new law defined “all terms of sentence” to include any fines, court costs or other restitution listed within the “four corners” of the sentencing document. Witnesses before the legislature testified that the state has no system for tracking these “Listed Financial Obligations” (LFOs) under SB 7066. But an ex-felon who knowingly or unknowingly registers without fulfilling “all terms” may be charged with a felony. Catch 22.

Amendment 4, approved by 65 percent of 8 million votes cast, overturned the constitution’s 1868 provision that denied the franchise to ex-felons for life. Governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist liberalized clemency rules. But their successor Rick Scott, who took office in 2011, rolled back the reforms. Under his rule, ex-felons were required to wait five years after completion of their sentences to apply, their application granted – or not – at the governor’s discretion. In eight years, Scott restored voting rights to 2,000 ex-felons. (I wrote about Scott in 2015, in a review of the history of Jim Crow disenfranchisement that GOP legislatures resurrected in this decade.)

Desmond Meade is an ex-felon, though not one of the 2,000 whose rights Scott restored. Released from prison in 2005, an active alcohol and drug addict with no prospects who contemplated suicide next to a train track, Meade instead checked himself into rehab. After that he completed paralegal training, college and law school. But as an ex-felon, he couldn’t take the bar exam.

I met Desmond last year in New Orleans at the UnRig Summit, a national conference of non-partisan grassroots political activists focused on democratic aspirations: voting rights, redistricting reform and eliminating corruption. Two months later I talked to him at a political conference in Virginia (photo above right), where he discussed his biography. He is among the most magnetic political leaders I’ve encountered. In April Time magazine named him among 100 Influential Americans. So I was excited that he came to Portland this week for a conversation sponsored by Oregon Humanities (above left).

What got his attention, Meade told a diverse audience, was Scott’s rollback of the Crist and Bush reforms. That, and that he couldn’t vote for his wife Sheena, who was running for the Florida House. And so in 2011 he founded the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which initiated the amendment, submitted its wording to the state supreme court, and spent $1.4 million last year on the campaign.

Asked how he motivated disaffected black and brown people to fight for voting rights, Meade said, “We are the margin of error” – the difference between having no power and becoming a force the power structure would have to mind. That requires activating those who haven’t lost the right to vote. If he were to organize a march of all the disenfranchised people to the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee, “the governor can close the window, because we can’t vote.” But if the disenfranchised enroll their family members in the fight for voting rights, then politicians will be accountable, he said.

That remains his focus: taking the entire family to vote, which he will soon do for the first time, and continuing to engage citizens about the power of voting regardless of their political preferences. It’s about the right to participate.

(One of FRRC’s board members is Neal Volz, a former Republican congressional aide and lobbyist who in 2006 pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and other charges in connection with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.)

Though Meade believes no one should ever be disenfranchised, FRRC decided to exclude ex-felons guilty of murder and sexual crimes from the amendment petition – because polling determined it was necessary to win. “If I’ve got 100 people on a sinking ship and only 99 can fit in the lifeboat, let’s take 99 and then come back for the one.”

In the last round of focus groups before the 2018 election, FRRC brought in conservative Republicans and Trump supporters and showed them videos claiming that if Democrats won the election, they would enact abhorrent policies. Meade said the focus groups were unmoved, because their intent was on restoring the franchise to family members. “Blood is thicker than interests. Love is more important than candidates.”

Meanwhile, the legal fight over SB 7066 rages. A coalition of groups – the ACLU, NAACP, Brennan Center and others – sued Florida in federal court in June. Jones v. DeSantis is the consolidated case in which the plaintiffs seeks the law’s invalidation. They contend that SB 7066:

  • Violates the right to vote and the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment
  • Reinstitutes poll taxes prohibited by the 24th Amendment
  • Is unconstitutionally vague in violation of the Due Process Clause in that Florida fails to provide citizens with sufficient information to determine whether LFOs continue to disqualify them from voting
  • Chills voter registration activities in violation of the First Amendment, and
  • Discriminates on the basis of race

The state’s motion to dismiss was denied. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle’s ruling on the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction is pending after a two-day hearing October 7-8; Hinkle has scheduled trial for April 2020.

FRRC submitted an amicus brief September 27 in which it took neither side. It argues that whatever the court decides, it should leave intact the provisions of SB 7066 that allow courts to modify financial obligations so that poor citizens may vote. “FRRC has conferred with a total of ten counties to date about using the modification and four-corners provisions, and conducted calls with myriad judges, state attorneys, public defenders, clerks of court, and other stakeholders about using these provisions.”

Meade said FRRC was aware when it wrote the ballot measure that the state could try to enforce collection of fines and other financial penalties. He told the Portland audience, “If I break the window of your car and steal your I-pad, and I have my rights restored while you haven’t been repaid for your losses, that’s not restorative justice.”

Continue reading

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The American Way of agriculture — and an alternative

I went to eastern Oregon last weekend to tour a version of the American Way of Agriculture with a couple dozen Portland citizens. I was impressed – and at a loss how to convey what I had seen about the way conventional food arrives on our tables. I got clear about what I’d seen when I attended a lecture four days later on the idea of returning half the planet to a modified nature, much less affected by our footprint.

The day trip to Morrow County, 180 miles east and banking the Columbia, was organized by a pair of state senators whose intention was to break bread among city and country folk. Republican Bill Hansell, whose district of 124,000 people is bigger than Maryland, invited Democrat Michael Debrow, chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, to bring constituents from Portland to see how the other half lives.

Morrow County is a breadbasket of Oregon. Generations of farmers have grown potatoes, onions, carrots, wheat, corn, fodder – whatever produces maximum value. Our tour included briefings by the local port authority, water association and several farmers.

I got my first tour of a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation), recently acquired by Cody Easterday (above right), a fourth-generation Washington rancher and farmer who is obtaining permits for 28,000 cattle on 5300 acres. Easterday bought the farm in bankruptcy, after the prior owner began operating without permits and narrowly avoided an ecological disaster before he was shut down. By March, he intends his investment – north of $80 million – to have 8,000 lactating cows and the other 20,000 in feed lots. The rest of the land, Cody told us, will be devoted to raising fodder and spreading the waste generated by the cattle. A compelling speaker, Easterday envisions a self-contained operation amid the rolling hills several miles from the Columbia, with water provided by the local authority.

To his east, Jake Madison (on the left) bought his dad’s 17,500 farm, more than half of which is under cultivation. It is at the far end of an 15-mile pipe that within months will take waste water from potato processing plants in the Port of Morrow to his farm. Like Cody, Jake is a sophisticated operator, looking for margins to match his lands’ production. After picking our fill of organic sweet corn, across a dirt strip from conventional corn, he showed us the office computer system, which tracks the hundred-thousand-dollar irrigation pivots that create big green crop circles so mesmerizing at 35,000 feet. Faults in the system can be repaired on iPhones.

As impressive as these technologies are, especially when matched to the new Tillamook cheese factory and some of the world’s largest French fry plants, something about the system disturbed me. Short films at the SAGE Center (Sustainable Agriculture and Energy) in Boardman posited the food needs of the planet’s 9 billion people by mid-century. The Northeast Oregon Water Association, a non-profit with a board mostly of farmers, is working on water management, balancing rights to depleted aquifers and the Columbia, which is stressed by dams, diminishing snowfalls and increasing population. Based on what I read of conditions around the world, I question whether intensive agriculture is sustainable.

Days later I listened to Isabella Tree describe the conversion of her award-winning, 3500-acre farm to something of a nature preserve over the past 18 years. Her husband, Charles Burrell, inherited Knepp Castle, a 200-year-old manor in the south of England that during the Second World War was planted hedgerow to hedgerow to feed a country on the verge of starvation. Burrell had a highly productive operation – much like Jake Madison’s. And he was going deeper in debt the more intensively managed it became. So in 2001, Burrell sold all the equipment and, as Tree described, took a leap of faith.

Following a model developed in the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in the Netherlands, Burrell brought back back big herbivores: Exmoor ponies, longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs. Together the different animals with different needs broke up the soil, spurring a proliferation of flora and fauna that monoculture and chemicals had driven away. Tree explained the method: Stand back and watch. Two decades later, their experiment in “rewilding” has restored the land, water and air and produced three income streams: ecotourism, pastured meat from culled herds, and rent from former farm buildings, now leased to office workers who used to commute two hours to London.

In a slide show accompanying her talk at Powell’s Books, Tree described the return of sounds to an awakening earth, where birds and insects had been driven nearly to extinction. In Wilding, she writes: “The sound of a single butterfly is imperceptible. But tens of thousands have a breath of their own, like the backdraft of a waterfall or an accumulating weather front. It feels as though the oscillating susurration of their wingbeats, pounding away on their supernatural wavelength, might dissolve the world into atoms.”

Tree, a travel writer, contends that restoring the earth we have despoiled is crucial to surviving global warming. To the belief that we must develop ever more intensive agricultural processes, she contends that we already have enough food to feed 11 billion people, but 40 percent of it goes to waste.

I look at the science and our practices – the latest report that the oceans’ ability to absorb our carbon output is reaching its limit – and get depressed. Tree looks at the same thing and gets busy. She’s now writing a manual on how to rewild.

The farmers I met in Oregon have a faith – that science and better practices will save us. But unless we shift our frame of reference, and understand that our survival depends on more that productivity, we will drive ourselves to extinction. The rewilding movement, with outcrops around the world, points to another way.


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Revolution in Virginia: the legislature cedes a spoil of partisan advantage


Where we go for justice: reform advocates in March 2018

It’s been a bad month for Virginia’s government, with controversies around racism, sexual assault and the “Virginia way” enveloping its three elected state leaders, and the legislature unable to formulate a response. As if to affirm Virginia is still mired in the Civil War, with all manner of its leaders donning blackface when in other places white men knew better, the ruling Republicans in the General Assembly killed a bill to allow localities to remove statues honoring warriors for slavery.

So it was astonishing to see the General Assembly on February 23 take the first step in creating a semi-independent commission to draw lines for state legislative and U.S. House districts.

It is a reform long in the making, backed by former leaders in both parties, sparked by citizens’ revulsion at gerrymandering and, most importantly, driven by the GOP’s awareness that its two-seat margin in each chamber is about to slip away for a generation. Thus the party raced ahead of conventional prediction: the majority will support non-partisan redistricting the second it’s in the minority.

My second post on this blog, four years and one week ago, was about gerrymandering in Virginia and Maryland – in Virginia by Republicans, in Maryland by Democrats. My attention remains fixed. Based on decades of observation, I believe gerrymandering is the greatest cause of legislative dysfunction: Because the governors do not reflect the governed, neither do their policies.

For a decade redistricting reform has been on state ballots, in federal and state courts, and considered with varying degrees of seriousness in state legislatures. The Supreme Court has so far declined to address whether political gerrymandering is unconstitutional.

This debate over democratic legitimacy is much like the one we struggled with for the first seven decades of the last century: whether state legislative districts must reflect population. In the early 20th century, many legislatures simply stopped remapping their districts as urban populations overtook rural areas, even as the Constitution required them to redraw U.S. House maps following the decennial census. Future Chief Justice Earl Warren, as governor of California, defended rural power as Los Angeles and San Francisco overwhelmed the population of districts whose reps ran the state assembly.

But in 1962, after turning away case after case, Chief Justice Warren’s court finally ruled in Baker v. Carr that “one person one vote” was a principle of representation that applied to the states and that the question of whether their districts were fairly drawn was “judiciable,” a question for courts. And in Reynolds v. Sims (1964), the high court declared that state legislative districts must have equal populations, and that whether their structure reflected Congress (the Senate’s membership is unrelated to population) was irrelevant. For the court, Warren wrote, “legislators represent people, not trees or acres.”

The U.S. Senate Republican leader, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, backed by moneyed interests and a sophisticated PR firm, led a campaign to overturn Reynolds by constitutional amendment. It fizzled two states short of ratification when, after redistricting in 1971, the republic did not collapse.

Fifty years later, gerrymandering presents similar questions of democratic legitimacy. As in the lead-up to Baker, the Supreme Court has skirted it, remanding cases in Wisconsin, Maryland and North Carolina. (In March it will hear two more, a reframing of Maryland’s political question from a year ago, and a racial gerrymandering case from Virginia for the second time.) But lower federal and state courts have struck down politically gerrymandered districts (racial gerrymandering has long been unconstitutional). Meanwhile voters have demanded reform, most recently in Michigan and Utah, where in 2018 they passed citizen initiatives for independent commissions. California voters did so a decade ago, and its commission is the gold standard – one of many states where map-drawing is at least partly independent of state legislatures.

Like all legislative handiwork, the Virginia plan is imperfect, but it’s better than we reformers thought possible last fall: a 16-member commission of eight partisans – two each appointed by respective party leaders in the state senate and house – and eight citizens selected by a panel of retired judges. Six members of each group would be required to approve the maps, and the Assembly would be allowed to vote only up or down but not amend. A year ago the leading advocates – OneVirginia2021 and the League of Women Voters – thought it impractical to advocate any citizen participation.

The Senate passed the constitutional amendment 40-0, the House of Delegates 83-15. The Assembly will have to approve an identical measure in one year, before it goes to the ballot in November 2020 – in time for redistricting in 2021. Assuming the commission is effected, the Assembly may write statutory guidance about membership and map criteria.

A year ago, Republicans were thinking that their 15-seat loss in the 2017 House elections was a flash in the pan. Then last fall the state’s congressional delegation flipped from 7-4 Republican to 7-4 Democratic. And this month a federal court cleared the way (pending a long-shot reversal from the Supreme Court) for 26 redrawn House lines that are likely to give the Democrats control of both chambers. Barring Trump landing in jail to energize the base before November, Republicans see the writing on the wall.

If fear is what it takes, cool. My friends in my former home state will, I anticipate, hold the Democrats’ feet to the fire, assuming they take control in the November elections. Two years from now, Virginia will draw fair lines, without favor to parties or incumbents.


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New maps and a new reality in Virginia

The four-year, twisting tale of 11 Virginia House districts judged to be racially gerrymandered is reaching its climax, as the federal court presiding over the case has drawn new lines for 26 districts, both those at issue and 15 adjacent ones.

Of personal interest are the 72nd and 73rd districts in suburban Richmond, because I walked them during the 2017 election campaign, and because the court’s solution apparently considers the central questions of redistricting: maps that are fair to all voters – or as we say, compact and contiguous, reflective of constituencies, without favor to parties or candidates, and perhaps politically competitive. These issues are before the General Assembly as it considers a nonpartisan redistricting commission advocated by OneVirginia2021.

On their face, the current lines of the 72nd and 73rd are absurd – a court brief referred to the 72nd, now represented by my buddy Schuyler VanValkenburg, as a “toilet bowl.” The 72nd wraps around the 73rd, and both were drawn in 2011 for the benefit of two Republican incumbents who lived near each other and, under the state constitution, must live in the districts they represent.

The 72nd was one of the 11 districts the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 found to be racially gerrymandered. The 73rd was never part of the case, and it looks like a relatively reasonable district – not round but not twisted into a pretzel, with a political profile befitting what was then the area’s suburban, conservative character (the Republican incumbent had drawn no opponent since the 2011 redistricting until Democrat Debra Rodman defeated him in 2017).

The special master appointed by the federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia proposed two maps: one that split the two into halves (the map at left, above) and another (at right) that swapped a couple of 72nd precincts with another district and did not touch the 73rd. The court chose the second option, which the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan organization that produced these maps, projects will tilt the 72nd 1.94 points to the left.

As a matter of geography, the left map makes sense. As a matter of politics, it would have produced one solidly Democratic and one solidly Republican district, neither competitive by current measures. And it would have been disruptive. It might have required its incumbents to give up their seats unless they chose to move. It would have gone far beyond the purview of the court – to address racial gerrymandering, not make the districts compact and contiguous, or necessarily affect their political composition.

In total, the new maps are detrimental to the GOP’s 51-49 hold on the House of Delegates, and Speaker Kirkland Cox decried the court’s decision. But we expected that. After all, according to the court record, the GOP’s author of the 2011 maps, Chris Jones, worked with black incumbent Democrats to draw them safe districts at the expense of a map that would have been more competitive and favorable to Democrats as a whole. The Supreme Court struck down the plan as a racial gerrymander because it packed blacks into fewer districts, thus diluting their voting strength. The new House maps appear to threaten a net of at least a half-dozen GOP seats.

The final chapter in this story may be written by June, when the Supreme Court is expected to rule on Cox’s appeal of the district court’s order to redraw the 11 districts per the Supremes’ 7-1 decision in 2017. Four justices, I assume, agreed to take the case: the two (Thomas and Alito) who wrote separate opinions two years ago joined by the two Trump nominees.

It’s possible that Chief Justice Roberts will reverse his support for the principles underlying then-Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion – that the court was bound by precedents striking down racial gerrymandering. That seems unlikely, as the high court declined January 8 to stop the district court from drawing new maps until the underlying case is decided. But it is Cox’s prayer, and his only hope of retaining the speaker’s gavel, and perhaps his seat, after November’s elections. Under the new maps, Cox’s own district shifts from 63 percent Republican to 53 percent Democratic.

Perhaps the GOP will make these calculations as it determines whether to pursue a constitutional amendment creating an independent redistricting commission. It has to decide this month, while the legislature is in session. If it doesn’t lay the groundwork for a fair process – a constitutional amendment requires passage in consecutive legislative sessions with an intervening election and then voter approval on a general election ballot – it’s likely to face Democratic majorities, backed by a Democratic governor, drawing new maps in 2021.

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George Bush and the politics of prudence

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Richard Darman, George Bush’s budget director

What George Bush, who died yesterday, regarded as the biggest mistake of his presidency was his most courageous political act. It was also the last time the Republican Party engaged in responsible budget policy.

I was Capitol Hill reporter when the Bush administration and the bipartisan leadership in the Democratic-controlled Congress negotiated a rewrite of the budget process and a tax increase on the wealthy. The result closed the chapter on Ronald Reagan’s credit-card fiscal policies – and opened one, starring Newt Gingrich, that has ever since had the GOP in the thrall of tax cuts regardless of economic conditions.

For eight months in 1990, leaders in Congress and the administration met behind closed doors at Andrews Air Force Base to hash out an agreement in which both sides gave ground, finally addressing comprehensively the profligacy of the Reagan era. They were driven by the financial market’s reaction to deficits amid the slowing of tax receipts.

Their names are worth remembering: White House budget director Richard Darman and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, House Budget Committee Chairman Leon Panetta and his Senate counterpart Jim Sasser, and a group of brilliant, dedicated, anonymous staff people who wrote law from goals.

When the group came back with a plan in early October, House liberals balked, and a band of conservatives led by Gingrich staged a revolt against their party’s leaders. Watching the bill’s 179-254 defeat in the House chamber, I saw that the negotiators would move left in round two to pick up the liberals – that’s where the votes were. Which they did, right before the election, by adding a 31-percent tax bracket for high-income citizens.

The 1990 law created a process to address the growth of “mandatory” spending – that controlled by permanent law, including payments to individuals who meet criteria, like Social Security or student-loan recipients. And it reversed Bush’s ill-considered “read my lips” no-new-taxes pledge of the 1988 campaign.

The hard right was furious, and Gingrich built his anti-government movement on the tax increase (and other bits of media-ready controversy). At the 1992 Republican convention in Houston that renominated Bush, Patrick Buchanan, who had challenged the president for the nomination and had developed Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy of appealing to disaffected whites with racial dog whistles, declared a “culture war” in America. Walking on the floor of the convention, I felt an angry, resentful hall of delegates. I wasn’t exactly frightened, but I was uneasy. Bush had lost control of his convention, and that fall he lost the election to Bill Clinton, whose party went on to write a second budget act that refined the first and raised taxes a bit more on the wealthy – without a single GOP vote in either chamber of Congress. The stage was set for Gingrich’s revolution in 1994. It was also set for budget surpluses by the end of Clinton’s tenure.

I don’t know what George Bush meant when he called the 1990 agreement his greatest regret. Perhaps he meant reneging on a campaign pledge. Perhaps he meant agreeing to raise taxes on rich people (I doubt that).  I’d like to think he meant that the compromise unleashed Gingrich, who didn’t have the votes to pass anything but sure knew how to inflame partisans. Perhaps, on reflection, he regretted that his son, a decade later, killed the budget law he had signed and pushed through tax cuts that destroyed his path of fiscal prudence.

What I see is a moment that sparked our polarization, now manifest in the Gingrich-Buchanan vision of America represented by Donald Trump.

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What I ponder at the Lincoln Memorial


What have I learned in 60 years? Take little for granted, other than that I will (likely) return home from a bike ride.

At dawn I took my customary solstice/birthday pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial and faced the Washington Monument, as I have done scores of times. On this occasion, I noted that I may never sit here again. In 20 days, I will fly away to a new hometown on the other coast. Though I will return to Arlington at least once, later in the summer, I have a glimpse of my own mortality: Everywhere I go in these three weeks may be for the last time. I feel neither wistful nor nostalgic, but grateful.

I turn and look at Abe, sitting on that chair. He took nothing for granted. Both of his great speeches – the greatest in our history – have at core propositions rather than assertions.

At Gettysburg, he said, we were engaged in a test of whether any nation conceived and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could long endure.

Sixteen months later, in his Second Inaugural, he proposed that the Civil War was the price the nation paid for slavery. “Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”

These propositions apply to our moment, in which we are recycling the same conflicts we have experienced throughout our history. It’s no coincidence that the author of the Declaration Lincoln invoked was a slaveholder whose notions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness became the American creed. John Calhoun, a two-term vice president under both parties, extrapolated from Jeffersonian philosophy the idea that states could nullify laws with which they disagreed – a justification for states’ rights used later to promote the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, a cause of the war a decade later, and for defiance of racial justice measures since.

What we face, now as then, is a conflict between Calhoun’s planter class and the interests of the whole. Throughout our history, the planter class – now as then backed by Northern bankers – has used fear of Other to draw support from white peasants who bleed for its wealth. Historian C. Vann Woodward (1908-1999) unspooled the myth of benevolent slaveholders, uncovering the violence and manipulation that drew in the peasants because, at least, they were not Negroes. That myth survived into the 1950s, wrote his protégé David Brion Davis, until Woodward “helped to reveal and reverse the fact that the South, despite its military defeat, had long been winning the ideological Civil War.”

That reversal, in my mind, ran from Harry Truman’s desegregation of the armed forces in 1948 (amid postwar prosperity) to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In the first half of that period, the nation embraced inclusion: the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and the Immigration Act of 1965, which reversed exclusionary policies of the 1920s. At the end of the 60s, Neal Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind marked the peak of American power and prestige.

But over the next 11 years, we determined that Vietnam was a lie fomented by one president, faced the impeachment of another over anti-democratic corruption, experienced the vulnerability of the oil embargo, revolted over forced busing (race again, right in the middle), began to feel the effects of de-industrialization and foreign competition, and were humiliated by the Iran hostage crisis.

Enter Reagan, who said “government is the problem” and corralled the same forces of white grievance that Calhoun had organized in 1832. Their disaffection had always been cultural (anti-black), as Woodward explained. Reagan took advantage of the “malaise” of the 1970s to attack government and pursue wealth concentration in private hands: low taxes, deregulation, union-busting, and a Supreme Court that expanded the power of commerce at the expense of the government’s leavening hand.

We are now 30 years past Reagan. Seeing no help from the Democratic Party – decades ago a mix of racists and economic populists but now a multi-racial alliance led by educated urban elites – the next generation of Reagan Democrats is all in with Trump, who personifies its anger and grievance. As his followers’ primary news sources promote him and the planter class behind him, our polarization solidifies.

Donald Trump is the perfect manifestation of these disparate trends: a demagogue with overt racist appeal; a nationalist who views cooperation as weak; and a champion in all of his policies of powerful rent-seekers in legacy industries granted commercial advantages through the powers of the government held by all three branches.

As the Republican Party surrenders its heritage of open markets and (relatively) open borders to Trump’s whims, America again faces a test of its creed, not only whether a government of, by and for the people will perish, but whether it should survive. As Lincoln said, a house divided cannot stand.

I take nothing for granted. And I’m grateful I’m still here.



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