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A Wave Too Small

Another, more visually accurate, graphic depiction of the results:

We’re all still processing the results of the mid-term elections, but it is clearer than ever that fundamentally we are in a struggle to determine America’s national identity. On one side is the idea that the real America is a nation that is homogeneous, white, Christian, and European in origin. This idea now defines the Republican Party. On the other side is a vision of a multi-racial, multi-cultural, and secular America. This is now what the Democratic Party represents. We have increasingly separated ourselves geographically so that each side lives mostly among people who think the same way. All you have to do to see it is to look at the electoral map! Our politics now is basically over which idea should prevail. Where each side stands on other issues really flows from that divide.

The problem with the (white) nationalist/Republican concept is that it is racist in its very essence. In the age of Trump, that is no longer even disguised. In Georgia, neo-Jim Crow voter suppression was out there for all to see, with the Republican gubernatorial candidate directing it! In North Dakota, the Republican-controlled state government changed the rules at the last minute to require voter i.d. showing street addresses, which at one stroke disenfranchised most Native Americans, who have never had addresses with street names and house numbers. (Prior to this, North Dakota had NO voter registration requirement.) In Kansas, the local election official closed the only polling station inside the town of Dodge City (which is now majority Hispanic) and moved it miles out of town, making it far less accessible to voters. When protests erupted, she e-mailed “LOL” to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who was also running for governor and who had been picked by Trump to head his bogus commission on voter fraud. In none of these (or many other) cases did protests cause authorities to relent.

The voter suppression is deliberate and targeted, and the playbook is now well-developed and has been deployed extensively in states controlled by Republicans. A study by Northern Illinois University ranked states from easiest to hardest to vote (based on requirements in place in 2016). All of the top 10 states where it was hardest to vote at that time had Republican governors, or legislatures, or both. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Mississippi ranked dead last, and Texas was number 46. The states where it was easiest to vote were mostly solidly “blue” states (with the exception of Utah and Iowa–and North Dakota before the 2018 address rule went into effect).

voter suppression

The wave of state voter suppression laws was unleashed by the 2013 decision by the conservative majority of the US Supreme Court which gutted the Voting Rights Acts on the highly dubious grounds that racially-based voter discrimination was no longer a problem in the US. Since then, two new Trump appointments have swung the Supreme Court even further the right, and Mitch McConnell’s Senate has been confirming conservative federal court judges at a furious pace. All of this has made challenges to voter suppression even more difficult to pursue.

The methods of voter suppression range from blatant to subtle, but they invariably target African-Americans and other minorities. Several states (notably Georgia) have purged their voter registration rolls, leaving thousands or even hundreds of thousands unable to vote when they show up to the polls. Even if they are allowed to cast a provisional ballot, they then have a difficult struggle to get it counted. Many states have imposed strict voter i.d. laws and then made it difficult to obtain one by requiring documentation that poor or minority voters might not have or by closing state offices where such i.d.s could be obtained in local communities. Or there may be too few voting machines sent to selected precincts, which then results in long lines and hours of waiting to cast a ballot. They do all these things because they work.

Then there is the disenfranchisement of people convicted of felonies, which has a huge effect in some states with high incarceration rates, which in turn tend to be conservative and Republican. This factor is particularly important in Texas, Georgia, and Florida, all of which had high profile elections which Republicans won (apparently) by very thin margins. In Florida, former felons currently are unable to vote for life unless specifically granted dispensation by the governor, which current governor (and US Senate candidate) Rick Scott almost never did. An estimated 1.5 million Floridians were thereby prevented from voting because of this. This election a constitutional amendment was approved by Florida voters to restore voting rights to most former prisoners who have completed their sentences, which could have a major impact in the future.

Nowhere is the political balance more tightly tuned than in my adopted home state of Florida, where the last three governor’s races (including this one) were decided by margins of less than 1 percent–so far always to the Republicans’ benefit. As I write this, at least 3 statewide offices including governor, US senator, and Commissioner of Agriculture are apparently headed for a recount, in which provisional and mail-in ballots rejected for technicalities suddenly become crucial to the outcome. Because Republicans have run Florida for 20 years (thanks in great part to gerrymandering and voter suppression) they also control the state election machinery. There is good reason, therefore, for extremely close scrutiny of the recount, which could easily be tipped by procedural decisions about which ballots to allow and which to reject. The integrity of the system does not merit the benefit of the doubt in this case. Just remember the 2000 presidential election which went to George W. Bush by a hotly disputed margin of 537 votes in Florida!

As bitterly disappointed as I was in the statewide Florida results, I take some comfort that at least the House of Representatives will be in Democratic hands. This provides at least some protection against Trump’s despotic proclivities, but there is now no brake at all on Senate confirmations of Trump nominations of judges and other federal offices. This just became much more serious with Jeff Sessions’ resignation. The election was a major political shift (see graphic below, showing the relative shift in the vote since 2016), but it wasn’t enough to overcome how thoroughly the system has been rigged to favor Republicans.

The reality is that almost half of the voters (47.1%) in this country still supported Trump’s (white) nationalist program. The opposing multi-cultural template represented by the Democrats has made inroads in formerly Republican suburban areas in many parts of the country, but the division between urban, globalist (to use Trump’s term) voters and the rural and exurban white population in the interior of the country has becomes perhaps even starker. Outside of the Northeast and the West Coast, the blue areas stand out as islands in a sea of red. Where Democrats prevailed in rural areas, it’s because the population there is heavily African-American, Latino, or Native American.

This is a cold Civil Cultural War that we’re in, and there is no end in sight.

Our Pivotal Year: 2018 as 1933

30s Germany

I think I’m not alone in feeling a foreboding sense of anxiety that American democracy is threatened in ways that we are unprepared to deal with. What we are feeling today must have been much like it felt in 1933, when repeated political and economic shock waves were reverberating around the world. Everyone knew that the ground was shifting alarmingly, but no one could have known just how a few years later the world would descend into the most disastrous war in human history.

That year in America, Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in as president in the midst of the worst economic depression in modern times–not just in the US, but worldwide. And in Europe, Adolph Hitler was named chancellor of Germany after winning a minority of votes in a disputed election. The directions each country took were shaped by its institutions and culture and specific circumstances, but to a probably greater extent they were determined by the character of the leaders each had at the time. Roosevelt took an inclusive and optimistic approach, launching a series of programs designed to alleviate unemployment, poverty, and hunger and declaring that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In Germany, Hitler went in the other direction to play on fear and resentments, blaming communists, Jews, gays, and other marginalized groups for Germany’s problems, inveighing against the free press and promoting huge industrial corporations like Krupp, Thyssen, Bayer, and I. G. Farben as the engines of growth and nationalism.

Obviously, history never repeats itself exactly, but patterns do re-emerge. It’s not hard to see parallels between Trump’s political and economic template and Hitler’s National Socialist program of 1933, which in turn had been largely borrowed from Mussolini’s Fascist model in Italy.

When Hitler took over the reins of government, Jews, Roma, and gays were not yet being rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps–that was still five years into the future. But the ground was being prepared by propaganda targeted at scapegoated groups and by theatrical political rallies that exalted ethnic identity and patriotism and amplified the message, all the while feeding Hitler’s megalomania.

Then in February 1933, a fire gutted the seat of the Reichstag, the German parliament, and provided the pretext to suspend civil liberties and invoke emergency measures in the name of national security. Who really set the Reichstag fire remains a subject of historical debate, but there was no doubt about who got blamed for it.  Hitler began arresting communists and other political enemies and detaining them in prison camps like Dachau and Buchenwald, which were initially established for political prisoners, not ethnic cleansing. Many Germans supported such measures, and Hitler’s popularity grew. Many Jews and other members of targeted groups still believed they could continue life more or less as usual under the new regime. But the “emergency” quickly became the norm, and the list of enemies continued to expand, and restraints on Hitler’s power evaporated. Then in November 1938 came Kristallnacht–the night of broken glass–when Jewish-owned business were systematically smashed, looted, and burned, signaling the beginning of what became the Holocaust.

This is not to say that the same thing will happen in the United States, nor I am equating Trump to Hitler. But it is certainly conceivable that some version of this pattern could happen here. We haven’t had our own Reichstag Fire yet (although 9/11 came pretty close), but we have in place a president and ruling party that are primed and ready to exploit an event like that when it does happen–as it likely will.

Consider the instruments already at the disposal of the president for curtailing civil liberties. The brilliant analyst Masha Gessen (a Russian immigrant who knows from personal experience how the process works) lays it all out in an essay published in Harper’s last summer. As the result of the Patriot Act (passed in the Senate with one dissenting vote in the immediate wake of 9/11) and its slightly modified successor, the Freedom Act, the president has been given stunning unilateral powers when he declares a national emergency.

The president’s ability to impose and renew a state of emergency is technically limited by the 1976 National Emergencies Act, which requires Congress to vote on the state of emergency within six months of the day it is imposed. But such a vote has never occurred—even though the act has been invoked at least fifty-three times….

…At any given time in the past decade, roughly thirty simulta­neous states of emergency have been in effect. Dozens of executive orders, and numerous other directives and regulations, have stemmed from these states of emergency—all of them creating powers that would be impossible in the increasingly illusory normal state of things. A state of emergency allows the president to unilaterally seize control of the media, food supplies, and commercial vessels, for instance. The fact that Bush and Obama did not utilize some of the more extreme possibilities of the state of emergency testifies only to their restraint, not to the legal limitations. At the same time, we know less and less about the powers the government has exercised; since 2001, an ever-increasing number of these emergency powers have been classified.

The key point here is that the extent to which these powers are used stems not from institutional constraints on the president, but from the personal character and ambitions of the person who holds that office. And now that person is Donald Trump.

Just look at how Trump is trying to hype a caravan of a few thousand wretched people fleeing violence in Central America into a major threat to the country justifying deployment of the US military to the Mexican border. This is so ludicrous that not even everyone at Fox News is buying it, but Trump keeps beating the drums and the faithful who turn out at his rallies believe him. Now imagine how he would exploit a real “Reichstag Fire” event. 

What may save us is the fact that American democratic institutions and traditions–however eroded–are still a lot more robust than what existed in Germany in 1933. As Gessen observes: “American civil society is strong—far stronger, paradoxically, than it was before the election.” The question is, however, whether that would remain an effective impediment to a president like Trump in the face of a galvanizing event.

As Gessen points out, it’s important to remember that everything wasn’t just fine before Trump, and we need to question seriously the whole premise of our endless war that justifies endless “emergencies” and which we tacitly accept because it hasn’t really directly touched most of us–yet..

But as we head to the polls this year, it seems to me that the choice really is between a Roosevelt approach to the nation’s problems or a fascist one. I just hope the former is still possible.

Read Masha Gessen’s full essay here.

 

 

 

 

Real Ron DeSantis, Part 2 (The Racist Thing)

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Ron DeSantis teaching his toddler to “build the wall” in his primary TV ad.

Is Ron DeSantis a racist? He says no, of course not. But things just keep turning up. Consider the following:

The day after the Florida primary, the winner of the Republican nomination for governor, said this about the Democratic nominee, Andrew Gillum: “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.” The “monkey it up” remark immediately raised an outcry because Gillum is African-American and the “monkey” trope has long been a staple of racist insults. Just this summer, Roseanne Barr got kicked off her own show after calling Obama adviser Valerie Jarratt the offspring of an ape. The DeSantis campaign insisted that he was just talking about Gillum’s policies and “to characterize it as anything else is absurd.” Then it turned out that there was more about DeSantis that raised serious questions about racism.

Reporters quickly discovered that DeSantis was an administrator on a racist Facebook page called “Tea Party”, which among other things had that very morning posted a racist meme with side-by-side photos of Melania Trump and a heavily photoshopped Michelle Obama under the title “Make the White House Beautiful Again.” The DeSantis campaign was forced to confirm that he was indeed an administrator on the site, but claimed that he had been added to it and made an administrator without his knowledge or consent and had deleted it as soon as he found out.  Hmmm, well maybe…but…

Then there was his attendance as a paid speaker just before entering the governor race at a Palm Beach convention hosted by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, featuring speakers who have defended a candidate accused of child molestation, suggested killing Muslims and argued that women are less suited for leadership because of  “biological causes”. Others attending included white nationalist Trumpsters Steve Bannon, Simon Gorka, and Milo Yiannopoulos as well as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Devin Nunes, who has done everything possible to make sure nothing Russia-related gets investigated. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, this organization focuses on exposing ” the efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values” and sponsors events ranging from single day presentations by anti-Muslim fear mongers to extravagant weekend getaways where government officials mingle with far-right activists. Horowitz himself is the son of communist Russian Jewish immigrants and was active in radical leftist causes until the 1980s when he had an epiphany and became a Reaganite activist on the right. He has since veered even further to the right. Much of the organization’s funding has come from the ultra-conservative Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation (established by one of the founders of the John Birch Society), a major player in the Koch network. In a 2014 interview with the American Family Association, Horowitz said, “Obama is an anti-American radical and I’m actually sure he’s a Muslim, he certainly isn’t a Christian” and declared that the president had “destroyed our borders” to let our enemies in “with their dirty bombs and their anthrax and whatever else, you know, their swords to behead us…”  You get the drift. When a politician associates himself with organizations and individuals of this sort, it’s fair to conclude that he endorses their positions.

Indeed, much of DeSantis’s career has been based on exactly the sort of extreme anti-immigrant positions that are at the core of Trump’s appeal. If you want to know what DeSantis think about immigrants, etc., it’s whatever Trump thinks, i.e., anti-Muslim, anti-Latino, and anti-black. See this clip from a debate with his Republican primary opponent Adam Putnam here. And of course there was his infamous TV ad in which he shows his infant daughter how to Build the Wall.

The Miami New Times has compiled a whole list of incidents (“Eight Times Ron DeSantis ‘Accidentally’ Did Racist Stuff”) that certainly seem to reveal racist inclinations on the part of DeSantis. Maybe any one of them by itself wouldn’t be conclusive, but taken together they form a clear pattern and point to a coherent set of values. So yeah, I think Ron DeSantis is a racist.

 

Real Ron DeSantis, Part 1 (Follow the Money)

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Ron DeSantis reading “The Art of the Deal” to his infant child in his primary TV ad.

You know that the environment has become a major issue in Florida when Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis is running commercials claiming to “stand up to special interests” that have led to massive toxic algae blooms that have polluted rivers and created enormous “red tides” in the Gulf of Mexico.  So now suddenly DeSantis has become an environmental crusader after running as Trump’s “Mini Me” in the primary??

Of course, that’s all nonsense. DeSantis has a lifetime score of 2% from the League of Conservation Voters, which is about as low as it can get. Outrage over the disgusting green slime in Florida’s rivers and coastline generated by government-subsidized sugar growers has made Big Sugar almost as politically toxic as the algae itself–especially in the heavily Republican areas most affected. DeSantis received at least $4,500 in direct contributions from the sugar industry when he first ran for Congress in 2012, and thousands more within his first year in office. Now DeSantis is making a big thing about no longer taking money directly from Big Sugar, but he is supported by PACs like Jobs for Florida which gave his campaign $100K in late August. US Sugar and Florida Crystals have contributed more than $280K over the past 5 years to Jobs for Florida.

You can tell a lot about a politician from who gives him money. Throughout his political career, DeSantis has been financed by some of the most reactionary and anti-environment PACs in the country. In the 2016 election, by far the largest contribution to DeSantis’s campaign ($267,615) came from the Club for Growth, a SuperPAC fueled by Wall Street money which funded primary challenges against Republicans who strayed from its uncompromising line. Jane Mayer, in her excellent book Dark Money,  says it “developed the use of fratricide as a tactic to keep officeholders in line after becoming frustrated that many candidates that it backed became more moderate in office. It discovered that all it had to do was threaten a primary challenge and ‘they start wetting their pants,’ one founder joked. Its top funders included many in the Koch network, including the hedge fund managers [and Trump supporters] Robert Mercer and Paul Singer and the private equity tycoon John Childs [see below].” The Club for Growth spent millions to win the 2012 GOP primary for Ted Cruz. For the 2016 election, DeSantis ranked #7 in Club for Growth contributions. (Marco Rubio was #4 at $327,280, according to OpenSecrets.org.)

John Childs personally remains among DeSantis’s top donors. So far this year, he has directly given $500,000 to the campaign PAC Friends of Ron DeSantis, according to the official tally kept by the Florida Department of State. During 2016, he also gave $400,000 to the “Fighting for Florida Fund”, described by OpenSecrets as a “single-candidate SuperPAC in support of Ron DeSantis.” Childs made his money in leveraged corporate buyouts (most famously in the takeover of Snapple) at a Boston-based firm and was described in the Boston Herald as “the closest thing the Republican party has to an automatic teller machine in Massachusetts.” Jane Mayer notes that in the 2010 “Tea Party” election cycle, Childs spent $907,000 on federal elections.

Robert Mercer also contributed $200,000 to the DeSantis’s 2016 Fighting for Florida Fund. You may recall that Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, were among Trump’s biggest financial backers in the 2016 election, and Mercer was a major funder (and co-founder with Steve Bannon) of Cambridge Analytica–the UK-based political consulting and data brokerage firm which dissolved earlier this year amidst scandal over, inter alia, misuse of personal data of millions of Facebook users and allegations of being implicated in the Russian manipulation of the US 2016 election and the Brexit referendum in the UK.

But the largest contribution to the 2016 PAC was $500,000 from Frederick Sontag’s Spring Bay Capital LLP, described by Politico as “a Ponte Vedra Beach private equity firm that focuses on technology-based investment.” These three donors–Childs, Mercer, and Sontag–represented 87% of the total $1,265,000 raised for this PAC.

Unspent money from one PAC often spills over into a succeeding one. And so it was that $318,101 from the 2016 Fighting for Florida Fund was dumped into the 2017 Fund for Florida’s Future, which was set up for DeSantis’s run for the Republican nomination for governor. (Yes, I know this gets confusing, which of course is the whole point.) The new PAC was established in April 2017 by–wait for it–Frederick Sontag (see preceding paragraph), who chipped in another $500,000 to get things rolling. At the time, as Politico noted, DeSantis (who had not yet announced his candidacy) could not be officially be associated with or raise money for a state political committee because he was still a federal office holder.

The next megadonor to step up for the still officially candidate-less Fund for Florida’s Future was Richard Uihlein, the fiercely anti-union Chicago-based CEO of Uline (a packaging supplies company), who chipped in $250,000 in June 2017. According to Politico,Uihlein is filling a void created by the demise of Steve Bannon, whose GOP revolution — with Republican megadonor Robert Mercer as his supposed benefactor — was derailed when he became a party pariah…In addition to donating to tea party groups and the Club for Growth, which Uihlein has supported in the past, he’s given several million dollars to super PACs backing specific candidates in Senate races.” Among his more notable beneficiaries have been Ted Cruz and failed Alabama GOP senate candidate (and accused pedophile) Roy Moore. The Washington Post reported that the Uileins gave more than $55 million to conservative candidates and PACs in the past decade ($22 million in 2016 alone) for federal elections, plus at least $45 million from the Uihlein family foundation.

Other big donors to the Fund for Florida’s Future PAC were Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus ($250,000) and billionaire CEO of Interactive Brokers Group Thomas Peterffy ($100,000). These four donors–Sontag, Uihlein, Marcus, and Peterffy–taken together with the spill-over from the Fighting for Florida Fund represented more than half of the total contributions to the PAC, according to data available from the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections.

That PAC was succeeded in January 2018 by a new SuperPAC, “Friends of Ron DeSantis”. This was kicked off by–stay with me here–a spill-over of almost $2.5 million from the previous PAC, and an additional $1.1 million from his “principal campaign committee”, “Ron DeSantis for Florida”. (The FEC limits donations to principal campaign committees to $2700 per person per election, so it essentially functions as “petty cash”.)

Once DeSantis announced his candidacy for governor in early January, the right-wing money tree really started producing. Along with his announcement, DeSantis proudly issued a list of his financial backers, headed by Vegas gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, and David Bossie, president of Citizens United and Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2016. Also included in the list were Breitbart co-owner Rebekah Mercer, deputy RNC finance chairman Elliott Broidy (who has been implicated in too many scandals to detail here), and Foster Friess (a conservative Christian mutual fund manager from Wyoming and key member of the Koch donor machine). Donald Trump tweeted that DeSantis, who had made a name for himself attacking the Mueller investigation, was a “brilliant young leader” who would “make a GREAT governor of Florida”.

There are a lot of very rich “Friends of Ron DeSantis”. As of the end of September, individual contributions of $50,000 or more and spill-over money from his other PACs represented two-thirds of the $19.3 million raised. (Again, according to public data from the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections.)

Leading the PAC, so to speak, is $2 million from Laura Perlmutter, wife of Marvel toys CEO Isaac Perlmutter. (She reportedly gave the same amount to Marco Rubio in 2016, but her husband was worth $3.7 billion at the time, so no big deal for them.) There was $750,000 from the Chicago-based hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, another $500,000 from the aforementioned John Childs, a token $25K from Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone. (Griffin, Childs, and Langone had all been prominent participants at the notorious Koch-convened 2010 Aspen “donors summit” that bankrolled the Tea Party and created the “Kochtopus” network of superrich donors and dark money PACs.)

Other noteworthy donors to “Friends of Ron DeSantis” so far include:

The list goes on and on. And this is only the visible money that has to be reported! We have no real idea about the dark money PACs whose donors don’t have to be disclosed.

What do these people expect to get for their money? Aside from the satisfaction of having a governor who will snap to attention when they call, it’s sometimes difficult to know exactly. But the PACs that support DeSantis have a very clear agenda which is anti-regulation (especially with regard to financial dealings and the environment) and low or no taxes on corporations and the rich. These donors live in a world of wealth and privilege, whether by birth or achievement or just good luck, and they want to keep their money. Many of those with Florida connections are in the Mar-a-Lago Palm Beach/Jupiter orbit. They’re fine with our health care for profit system, and calls for Medicare-for-all scare them. DeSantis’s militantly pro-Israel (and pro-Netanyahu) positions certainly haven’t hurt him with the Israel-can-do-no-wrong crowd. Twenty years of Republican control has made Florida a very comfortable environment for preserving wealth and doing business with a lot of chummy help from Tallahassee, and those who have benefitted don’t want it to change.

What really stands out when you start looking at all of this is how utterly–and legally–corrupted by money our politics has become. In a world where a $5,000 or $10.000 donation to a candidate is just chicken feed, what chance do we who can only afford to give 10, 20, or 50 dollars really have? This election is our chance to bend that trajectory at least a bit before the tsunami of money drowns democracy for good.

The Naked Exercise of Power

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The Union of Concerned Scientists for decades has maintained a “doomsday clock” to show how close the world is to nuclear annihilation. We now need a similar clock to illustrate how close our country now is to slipping definitively into despotism. If we had such a clock, my guess would be that we’re about 11 p.m. With today’s hearing on Brett Kavanaugh we slid a few minutes closer to midnight.

There were so many things wrong with the Republicans’ handling of the only accuser of Kavanaugh allowed to speak to the Judiciary Committee, but the bottom line is that letting Dr. Ford give her testimony was merely a charade to disguise a pre-cooked conclusion: a rushed party-line vote to confirm a blatantly partisan (and potentially criminal) judge to the Supreme Court, tossing out all normal procedures. Mitch McConnell had announced the result before the hearing ever convened, and Kavanaugh’s never-credible mask of judicial propriety and impartiality fell off for all to see during his rant before the committee. And it sure looks like the man has a little drinking problem as well as issues with impulse control.

This was Part Two of a Republican take-over of the Supreme Court, following McConnell’s infamous refusal to allow Obama nominee Merritt Garland to have so much as a hearing. It is also the culmination of a decades-long organized effort to gain perhaps permanent control over the entire federal judiciary. The notion of the Supreme Court as a check on partisan excess and executive over-reach is effectively a quaint historical memory if, as appears almost certain, Kavanaugh is confirmed.

Making the Supreme Court the tool of a single party is more dangerous to democracy than getting control of the Congress or the White House precisely because there is no real electoral remedy. Once the SCOTUS becomes as partisan as the other branches of government, it can permanently alter the political playing field to insure continued minority rule by Republicans. Just imagine, for example, how the Roberts court with Kavanaugh on the bench will rule on gerrymandering or corporate money in elections, let alone issues such as abortion, “religious freedom”, or gay rights.

Americans in general don’t know much about history, but anyone familiar with the French or Russian revolutions will recognize what is happening to American democracy, which has managed to function–however imperfectly–because virtually all political factions ascribed to an unwritten set of customs, norms, and practices that made the written Constitution work more or less as intended. All of that has now been thrown out the window.

The Republican Party has become our version of the Jacobins or Bolsheviks, perfectly willing to subvert democratic rules and norms in pursuit of raw power. And they have their demagogue in Donald Trump, who has made them perfectly subservient to his will. Senators like Lindsay Graham and Marco Rubio and, yes, Ted Cruz who once proclaimed Trump to be a “con man” and unfit for office, now eagerly lick his balls. We are in the midst of a slow-motion coup-d’état.

November 6 may well be our last chance to keep this from happening.

 

 

 

The Florida Primary–Wow!

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More than a year ago, I first met Andrew Gillum at a meet-and-greet at a supporter’s home in Miami Shores. I knew very little about him then, but once I heard him speak I knew that he had something special and that I wanted to support him in any way I could. Here was a man I agreed with on virtually every issue and who could discuss them without sounding like he was just reciting talking points. And he had charisma–not the demagogic kind, but the kind that makes you believe that he would really do something to address the gross inequalities in American society. I was sold.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one, because last night he won the Democratic nomination for governor of Florida–something that no poll or pundit predicted. This was truly a grass-roots campaign, and it’s worth looking closely at how it happened. It certainly wasn’t because of money. Here are the figures on campaign spending:

Philip Levine: $37.7 million
Jeff Greene: $34.7 million
Gwen Graham: $16.3 million
Chris King: $7.8 million
Andrew Gillum: $6.6 million

During the entire campaign, here in Miami I saw exactly one TV commercial for Gillum and that was on the day before the election. By contrast, both Greene and Levine blanketed South Florida with television ads throughout late spring and summer. Greene also spent heavily on attack ads that targeted Levine and Graham, and Levine responded in kind. Graham was late getting into the TV campaign, apparently banking on her lead in the polls and strong ties with the state Democratic establishment to carry her to the general election. Here I get echoes of Hillary Clinton’s complacency and sense of entitlement.

Nor did I find an single mailer from the Gillum campaign in my mailbox, even though I received tons of them from other candidates for state and local office. I think the campaign simply didn’t have the money.

Political commentators are focused on money that Gillum got from wealthy liberal donors George Soros and Tom Steyer (Fox News is already repeating the meme “Soros-backed Andrew Gillum”), but most of this money came very late in the campaign and was relatively modest compared to what was being spent by other candidates. As instrumental as it might have been in putting Gillum across the finish line, it’s hard to see where that money went in terms of traditional ways of boosting his message and name recognition with the general public.

I worked the polling station for Gillum at my precinct on election day, and people kept coming up and telling me that they were voting for Andrew. This is when I first suspected that some kind of earthquake might be happening, but scarcely dared to think it was true. At the same time, I wondered how they even knew about Gillum and what he represents given his minimal presence on traditional media.

The answer, I think is primarily word-of-mouth amplified by social media, starting with hundreds of appearances by the candidate in homes and churches and recreation halls all over the state. People just saw and heard Gillum and wanted to get involved. They talked to friends and family. Several people mentioned to me his performance in the candidate debates. Getting endorsed by Bernie Sanders late in the campaign clearly helped give him visibility and highlight his message, but Gillum was who he is long before Bernie backed him. He succeeded because of the Obama-like faith and enthusiasm he inspired in his volunteers. The polls missed it completely! I suspect polling tends to under-represent black voters and younger voters. I haven’t seen any detailed analysis of the vote yet, but my impression is that Gillum’s message of giving a voice to people who haven’t had much of one is resonating with both groups–I think I could see that in the people who were turning up to vote yesterday.

But now, of course, it’s going to be a different game–and an ugly one. The contest against Republican nominee Ron De Santis, who couldn’t thank Trump enough in his victory speech, will be the title fight for the national mid-terms, given Florida’s key role as swing state and the perfect polarity between the two candidates. The national parties are going to be in this big time, and astronomical sums of money–especially dark money–will be pouring in with all that entails. It is worrisome that slightly more people voted in the Republican primary than in the Democratic one. This is not going to be easy.

Race will certainly be a big factor in this election. No African-American has ever won statewide office in Florida. The last major contest involving a black candidate was in the Tea Party year of 2010 when Kendrick Meek lost in a three-way race for the US Senate with Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist. Outside of South Florida and the major cities, Florida is still Southern. According to census data from 2016, black voters represent only about one-eighth of all registered voters in Florida, and register at significantly lower rates than whites (47.4% vs. 69.1%). Much of that disparity probably has to do with targeted voter suppression measures, notably the law that permanently strips voting rights from anyone convicted of a felony and which disproportionately impacts minorities. (A measure to end this practice will be on the ballot in November.) The flip side of this is that there are potentially a lot of votes to be gained if Gillum can energize disaffected and unregistered voters to sign up. But especially in the era of Trump, we can expect a lot of overt and covert racism to infect the campaign. Indeed, it has already started. Quite honestly, I fear for the physical safety of Gillum and his family, just as I did for the Obamas.

I am impressed, however, by Gillum’s ability to build a loyal coalition that spans classes and ethnicities. His positions are being called leftist, socialist, and radical, but that is just an indication of how constricted our vision of what life in this country could be has become. I think the time is now to articulate a bold liberal alternative to the greed, corruption, racism, and xenophobia of Trumpism, and I believe Gillum has the charisma and leadership qualities to do that and win.

I admit to feeling a measure of grief for the Gillums whose lives are about to change in ways beyond anything they could imagine as they are suddenly thrust into a national spotlight. I hope and trust they will find the inner strength to rise to the challenge. I’m not a religious man, but I wish them Godspeed and will do all I can to help.

 

 

The Democrats Running for Governor of Florida

FLdemocraticgovcandidates

L to R, Jeff Greene, Philip Levine, Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum, Chris King

As the country’s third-most populous state, Florida is critically important in national politics, particularly since it is a swing state that has determined the US presidency. In 2000, George W. Bush won Florida by (a hotly disputed) 537 votes and therefore the White House. Obama won by about 3 percentage points in 2008 and by 1 point in 2012, and Trump won by 1.2 percent in 2016.  The races for the state governor have been similarly close and were decided by about 1 percent of the vote in both 2010 and 2014.

Despite the virtual even split in state-wide voting by party, Republicans have dominated the state government for decades, largely because of gerrymandering but also because the state legislature is seated hundreds of miles away from the big population centers where Democratic voters mostly are and therefore gets little public attention or scrutiny. If the Democrats can win the governorship, it could have an enormous impact on the state’s future. So this year’s contest really matters.

I will happily vote in November for any of the five Democrats now in contention for the nomination, any of whom would be a vast improvement over Rick Scott or either of the two Republicans in the race. But I do have definite opinions on the August 28 primary. Here is how I see the race in my personal order of preference (regardless of polling numbers).

Andrew Gillum, currently mayor of Florida’s state capital, Tallahassee, is my top choice. He is the most consistently progressive of all of the candidates and is endorsed by Bernie Sanders. He supports Medicare-for-all, higher corporate taxes to fund public education, strong environmental protection, and a $15 statewide minimum wage. He has campaigned for much tougher gun regulations, repealing “stand-your-ground”, and has been twice sued (unsuccessfully) by the NRA. He was the first of the candidates to support legalization of marijuana for recreational use. He is a charismatic speaker who  has attracted national attention as a young (39) politician with a promising future. I like the fact that he has actual experience in governing a fairly large city and can speak with assurance on the issues. He was raised in Miami and therefore knows the realities of south Florida, but has managed to succeed in the very different environment of  the Florida panhandle (sometimes known as “south Georgia”).

Gillum is African-American, which is potentially a major plus in generating enthusiasm within a party whose demographic base is increasingly composed of blacks, Latinos, and other people of color as well as younger whites who are comfortable in a multi-cultural environment. He has made a central theme of his campaign the idea of giving a voice to people who have not had much of one in Florida politics. Mobilization is key, because black candidates for statewide office have had a tough time in Florida, but Gillum’s skills in communicating in a “no bullshit” style could give him the ability to break through barriers, and he has not been afraid to take his campaign to the “red” areas of the state.

His major handicap has been lack of money. He is by far the least wealthy of the five candidates–his reported personal net worth of $334,000 is roughly 2 percent of that of the least wealthy of the remaining Democratic candidates. His campaign has been run on a shoestring, mostly on the enthusiasm of volunteers (of which, full disclosure, I have been one). See table below. He has not been able to afford many TV ads (I have seen none yet in the big south Florida media market), and has therefore suffered from lack of name recognition. If he can pull off an upset and win the primary, however, the money will be there, and I believe he really could win in November.

Campaign finance figures as of July 27, 2018
Candidate Contributions Expenditures
Andrew Gillum $2,834,580.89 $1,234,491.78
Gwen Graham $5,363,675.90 $2,586,821.63
Jeff Greene $10,600,150.18 $10,079,173.22
Chris King $6,233,654.49 $5,047,477.12
Philip Levine $13,232,081.29 $11,306,819.21

Philip Levine would be my second choice for the the nomination. Like Gillum, he has real governing experience as mayor (2013-17) of Miami Beach–a fairly small, but very high profile city with major national economic and cultural interests in play. He is personally wealthy with a reported net worth of some $133 million, having made a fortune in the cruise line business and real estate, and he has not been shy about spending his own money on his campaign. He has blanketed the south Florida media market (and I assume other cities as well) with effective and well-targeted TV ads.

Also like Gillum, he has staked out a highly progressive platform including emphasis on education, gun control, environment, and healthcare. He has also come out in favor of full legalization of marijuana. As mayor of Miami Beach–perhaps the city most threatened by sea level rise in the US–he initiated an innovative and expensive program to alleviate occasional flooding with an ambitious pumping system and by physically raising the level of major streets. He got good marks as mayor,  and despite an occasionally abrasive manner, he comes across as no-nonsense, can-do guy.

Levine has strong connections with the Clintons and served as a Hillary’s surrogate in south Florida during her presidential campaign. I do wonder whether he can really connect with and energize the black and Latino voters that he will need to win in the general election. He has, however, done some important outreach work with the growing number of Puerto Rican voters in Florida, with an ad highlighting his aid to the island after Hurricane Maria and the endorsement of San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. There is little question, however, that he has the resources to run a campaign.

Gwen Graham is in many ways the candidate of the Florida Democratic establishment–with both the pluses and minuses that entails. Her father, Bob Graham, was both a Democratic governor of the state (1979-87) and a US senator (1987-2005), so she has deep connections to the party’s machinery. In 2014, she won election to the US congress from a district in northern Florida centered in Tallahassee, but she declined to run for re-election in 2016 after the congressional district map was redrawn and gave hers a large Republican base majority. During her one term in congress, she was considered to be among the most centrist Democrats, and opposed the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran and voted for the Keystone XL pipeline. In debates, other candidates have criticized her for lack of loyalty to Obama.

As candidate for governor, Graham has staked out a slightly more centrist platform, a bit less aggressive on gun control, favoring medical marijuana and decriminalization of recreational use but not outright legalization, and supporting raising the minimum wage while remaining vague about how much. Her vote on the pipeline has raised questions about her environmental bonafides, especially after she was questioned by reporter Jim DeFede of Miami’s CBS station regarding her family’s financial stake in a planned megamall at the edge of the Everglades in Miami-Dade county. When DeFede repeatedly asked her if building a massive shopping mall in that location was a good idea for the environment, she responded robotically with canned talking points that the site was inside the Urban Development Boundary (which is true) and that all legal environmental rules had been met (which in Florida can be a fairly low bar). She also is quite well off, with a reported net worth of some $14 million.

As the only woman in the race, Graham never fails to mention that she is a “mom” (the subhead on her website is “Mom, PTA President, Congresswoman”), and in debates has sometimes implied that she’s being picked on because she’s a woman.

My main concern about Graham is that to me she shows some of the same characteristics that hurt Hillary Clinton, namely that she comes off as a bit cold and mechanical, sticking resolutely to the script regardless of the context, along with having a sense of entitlement because of who she is. I just don’t know if she can generate the excitement and enthusiasm needed to get voters to turn out in November, but she has connections and name recognition.

Chris King is a 39-year-old Harvard grad and lawyer (Univ. of Florida) from the Orlando area who made quite a bit of money in real estate and property management. (His reported net worth is about $17 million.) He has worked on a number of progressive causes both in Florida and abroad, but this is his first run for elective office. He has highlighted his entrepreneurial skills while articulating a very progressive platform, with emphasis on gun control and the environment, but has struggled to get name recognition and to distinguish himself from the other candidates. Perhaps as a result, he has become more aggressive in attacking the vulnerabilities of the other candidates.

To me, King comes across as earnest and committed, but politically inexperienced.

Jeff Greene jumped into the race only this summer, but he is by far the richest of the candidates with a reported net worth of at least $3.3 billion (yes, that’s a B!). All that money has bought a blitz of well-produced TV ads that have made him into a contender. The ads portray him standing up resolutely for women’s rights and standing up to Trump. The latter is a bit of a sensitive point because he was quoted as saying that Trump was “a great guy” back in November 2016, and he may still be a member at Mar-a-Lago (he says he’s not sure). His mansion in Palm Beach is in the same neighborhood.

Greene made his fortune in real estate in Florida and elsewhere, and is reportedly the biggest landowner in West Palm Beach. He made an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for US senator in 2010. He has made improving schools a major theme, but has his own three young children enrolled in a private school that he founded. He has also become more aggressive in attacking his rivals, funding attack ads on TV targeted at Graham and Levine.

While I have no real issues with Greene’s official platform, I am bothered by the implicit arrogance of his campaign–basically that he can use his vast wealth to buy the nomination. To me, the overwhelming importance of money in politics has become the debilitating–and perhaps terminal–disease of our erstwhile democracy. Delivering this critical nomination to someone with no track record in public office because he has unlimited campaign funds just seems wrong.

To conclude, it’s worth repeating that there is remarkably little disagreement among all five of the candidates on the major issues. The important thing is to vote! Florida has closed primaries, so you must be registered as a Democrat (or Republican) to vote in your party’s primary. (The only exception is if only one party has a candidate for an office, in which case any registered voter can cast a ballot for that specific office.) It is too late to register for the primary, but you can still register for the general election up until October 8. The date of the primary is August 28. Early voting in Miami-Dade County started August 13 and continues until August 26. In Broward County, early voting begins on August 18.