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GOP Voter Suppression, Intimidation, and Lies

GOP protesters

Source: Miami Herald

We can now definitely add intimidation of election officials to the Republican playbook for manipulating elections. Florida governor Rick Scott spent his two terms in office devising and implementing voter suppression measures that have become standard operating procedure in states throughout the country under Republican administration. These play a major part in explaining how the GOP has managed to keep winning tight elections and impose minority rule on the entire country. Voter suppression deliberately creates a built-in advantage for Republican candidates, but when it doesn’t work as well as intended, they launch a barrage of evidence-free accusations that Democrats are trying to steal the election.

No sooner had it become apparent that the races for Florida’s governor and US senator were headed for a mandatory recount than Republicans–including incumbent Governor Rick Scott, Senator Marco Rubio, and the President of the United States–began tweeting unfounded accusations of malfeasance against the embattled supervisor of elections in heavily Democratic Broward County, which has the second highest vote total in the state. It is necessary to state here that to date there has been no evidence produced by Scott’s lawyers or anyone else that the count was being manipulated.

On November 8, Scott (whose margin over incumbent Bill Nelson in the Senate race had slipped below 0.25%) filed two lawsuits against the election supervisors in Broward and Palm Beach counties for allegedly withholding information on vote tabulations and hindering processing of absentee ballots. Standing on the steps of the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee, Scott declared “I will not stand idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election.” Republican protestors duly arrived on November 9, chanting “stop the steal” and “lock her up” and trying to force their way into the building where votes were still being tabulated.

From Paris on that same day (while avoiding the ceremony commemorating the end of WWI because of the “weather”), Trump tweeted: “Trying to STEAL two big elections in Florida! We are watching closely!” Then on November 12, Trump upped the ante, tweeting: “The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”.

Other prominent Florida Republicans piled on. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi on November 11 strongly urged state police Sunday to investigate Republican claims of voter fraud in Broward and Palm Beach counties — a day after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it found no evidence of it. Florida’s other senator, Marco Rubio, quickly chimed with a series of tweets repeating the same memes and claiming that Democrats “are here to change the results of election; & – #Broward is where they plan to do it.#Sayfie”.

At this point, we must just stipulate that all of this is utter bullshit.

According to Florida law, local election supervisors had until noon on Saturday, November 10 to publish preliminary election results, which they did. This is how it is supposed to work. If the margin is less than 0.5 percent (which it was for the governor, senator, and state commissioner of agriculture races), there is a mandatory machine recount, the results of which must be reported by 3 p.m. Thursday, November 15. (This is a very tight deadline for counties like Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach which have by far the largest number of votes to recount.) The results are then compared with the initial reported tally. If the numbers match, the vote tally can be considered accurate, and if the margin is greater than 0.25% of the total vote, the results will be considered official. If, however, the margin is less than 0.25%, the state can order a manual recount of ballots with overvotes or undervotes–i.e., where the voter either marked more or less than the allowable choices. This could take many days. Then on November 16, overseas and military votes that were postmarked by November 6 are counted, which could actually help the Republican candidates. The official returns are due from the counties on November 18 and all are to be certified by the state on November 20.

It is also worth noting that Florida is not unique in having to wait for the final results. At this writing, votes are still being counted in Arizona and in California, which is notoriously slow to release final tallies. And in Georgia, voters are still waiting to find out if governor race is within the margin to require a run-off.

Florida is unique, however, in repeatedly having elections that are decided by tiny margins, though in apparent defiance of the laws of probability, they almost always fall in favor of the Republicans. The most notorious was the 2000 presidential election, in which an agonizing manual recount was abruptly ended by a ruling from a divided Supreme Court, resulting in George W. Bush becoming president by virtue of 537 Florida votes. This is the third squeaker for Rick Scott. In 2010, he won by 61,550 votes or a margin of 1.2%. In 2014, he won by 64,145 votes or a margin of 1.0%. It’s not really a mystery how this keeps happening.

Broward County has had a history of problems with its election administration, but these have had to do with inefficiency and mistakes, and there has been no evidence of actual fraud or partisan manipulation. The current supervisor, Brenda Snipes, was appointed by Republican Governor Jeb Bush in 2003 (after her predecessor was removed from her job), and Snipes has been re-elected (as a Democrat) four times since then. For the 2018 election, the state Division of Elections sent election monitors to Broward County, and they reported “no evidence of criminal activity”, despite accusations by Scott, Trump, and others. Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement refused to comply with state Attorney General Pam Bondi’s demand for an investigation for the same reason. A Circuit Court judge rejected Scott’s demand to “impound and secure” all voting machines, citing lack of specific allegations, let alone evidence, and he admonished everyone to tone down the inflammatory rhetoric.

Realistically, the odds of reversing the preliminary results are very long. They rest largely on a suspiciously high undervote in one section of Broward County where the ballot placed the selection for the US Senator below the general instructions in a location that could easily have been overlooked by voters. It is not clear at this point whether many voters missed this section of the ballot or if the machine readers failed to count it. Presumably, the recount will answer this question.

All of the sound and fury over the Broward vote count has obscured a far larger problem, which is targeted voter suppression by the Republican party. Indeed, Rick Scott has been at the center of these efforts, wielding much the same methods that Brian Kemp employed so blatantly this year in Georgia.  And Scott was not first to do this. Just before the infamous 2000 election, Jeb Bush’s Secretary of State Katherine Harris (remember her?) removed 173,000 people from Florida’s voter rolls for being convicted felons, based on a list supplied by a private contractor with close ties to the GOP. The problem was that only a small fraction of the people removed actually had felony convictions, but for the great majority of those purged, it was too late to do anything about it. That was only one of the shenanigans by Jeb Bush’s administration that delivered the presidency to his brother George, who Al Gore defeated by some 250,000 votes nationwide.

Scott pulled a similar stunt just before the 2012 election, sending out a list of about 180,000 “non-citizens” to be removed from voter rolls. Again, the list (which had murky origins) turned out to be grossly inaccurate, and a Miami Herald analysis of the names on it revealed that Hispanic, Democratic, and independent voters were most likely to be targeted–only 13% of those on the list were white. (Watch this 2012 segment by Rachel Maddow.) And once again, there was no time for legitimate voters on the list to do anything about it before the election. Editorials throughout the state denounced this move; the Tampa Bay Times called it “shameless voter suppression.”

In 2011, Scott’s first year as governor, he cut early voting days from 15 to 8 and eliminated early voting on the last Sunday before the election. (This was partially restored by a 2013 federal law which gave county election supervisors the discretion to schedule up to 16 days of early voting and restored Sunday early vote days. Of course, it also gave county supervisors discretion not to do that.) The 2011 “Voting Reform” bill he signed into law included other measures clearly intended to tilt the playing field in the Republicans’ favor, as several people involved in its drafting later admitted.

The bill also contained an “exact match” provision, which allows election workers to summarily reject mail-in votes for perceived variations in the signature on the ballot from that on file in each county’s voter registration. In 2016, a federal judge ruled that Florida voters whose ballots had been rejected had to be allowed an opportunity to correct mistakes. A study by the ACLU revealed that ballots of younger and minority voters being rejected at much higher rates than those of white voters. Despite the court ruling, most voters whose ballot has been rejected will never know that unless they proactively check to see if it was counted. Rejection rates have varied greatly from county to county, but in 2018 more than 15,000 ballots had already been rejected in Florida five days before the mid-term election. 

Scott also reversed a policy under his predecessor Charlie Crist (then still a Republican) which had set up an automatic process to restore voting rights to convicted felons after they had completed their sentences. Under Scott, those who had lost their rights had to wait 5 to 7 years even to petition for restoration, and petitions were rarely approved. Effectively, this meant that anyone with a felony conviction lost their voting rights for life, preventing some 1,500,000 people (9% of the state’s population) from voting. (In the 2018 election, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights after completion of most felony sentences–over Scott’s opposition.)

For a full account of Scott’s voter suppression measures, read this report here.

It is worth pointing out that Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who still has overall authority over Florida elections, was Scott’s right-hand man in devising and implementing all of these voter suppression measures.

Republican voter suppression has been only partially thwarted by push-back from civil rights organizations and the public, which have resulted a few limited victories in court, where judges have ruled against some of the most egregious measures. Often, however, rulings have been flouted or simply ignored–especially in states where both the executive and legislature are firmly in Republican hands. Judges have been reluctant to intervene in cases where new suppression measures are imposed shortly before elections–exactly when they have the most impact. And Mitch McConnell will certainly use his Senate majority to speed up the confirmation process to fill vacancies on the federal bench with conservative judges who are likely to rule against challenges to voter suppression measures, which will leave the legal battle to secure voting rights even more of an uphill challenge. It’s important to remember, that the 2013 Supreme Court decision by its conservative majority that gutted the Voting Rights Act is precisely what unleashed this new wave of voter suppression. And Trump’s appointments have moved the Supreme Court even further to the right.

 

 

 

 

 

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)

desantis2

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)

desantis

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.