Nel's New Day

December 27, 2012

If Six People Had Lost the Election …

One example of what the Republicans wanted to do in the 112th Congress came from Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) who lost his campaign to switch to the Senate. Earlier this year, he proposed a “license to bully” amendment to the defense budget guaranteeing blatant discrimination against harassed LGBT people in the military because there could be no discipline for this action. The House even passed the amendment. The Senate didn’t consider the amendment, but the lame-duck Senate is trying to put it back into the bill. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is working with Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), both with anti-gay records. McKeon had pledged to pass clean defense bills that were “not weighed down” by social issues but has done just the opposite.

Imagine if the Republicans had taken over the Senate and the presidency as well as the House. Only six elections made the difference—five Senators and one president. If President Obama had lost and if six more Senate seats had gone to the GOP, both the legislative and administrative parts of the government would have been Republican joining a highly conservative Supreme Court.

Michigan is an example of how destructive this could have been.

Worried about the loss of his super-majority in the legislature, Gov. Rick Snyder pushed through 282 laws since November 6 during the lame-duck session. The law that got the greatest media notice was the union-busting “right-to-work” bill that Snyder put through the legislature after he said he had no interest in taking away union rights. No warning, no hearings, no public input, no floor debate—just two days between its passage and Snyder’s signing.

All private-sector and public-sector unions—except firefighters and police—are blocked from their rights. Maybe because the two exempted unions have a large number of Republicans? The law requires that employees cannot be required to pay union dues. The process not only weakens bargaining for better wages and working conditions but also limits the unions’ participation in elections.

The Koch brothers political machine and the conservative lobby group ALEC, which write bills for legislators, had been planning this action for months. The non-profit Mackinac Public Policy Center spent $5.7 million in 2011 alone to fight unions. The two major financiers of the company are Charles Koch and Dick DeVos, son of Amway’s founder and loser to Democrat Jennifer Granholm for governor in 2006.

Mackinac was also a major supporter of the “financial martial law” allowing “emergency financial managers” to take over municipalities and drive out the elected officials. Upset by this law, voters removed the Republican super-majority in the November election and overturned this law, forcing Snyder to work fast. After the people overturned the law, the legislature put it back—again including the managers’ ability to void union contracts and labor agreements.

These bills are harder to overturn with a ballot referendum because both are attached an appropriations measure.

Not content with attacking workers and elected officials, Snyder attacked women’s rights. The so-called “Religious Liberty and Conscience Protection Act” states that “[h]ealth care providers could refuse to perform certain medical procedures, and employers could opt not to provide coverage for certain medical services as a matter of conscience.” The 1978 state law allows any medical professional and institution to refuse to perform abortions. Now they can refuse to provide contraception and “other services and medications that they oppose as a matter of conscience.”

Just in case the “Protection Act” doesn’t stop enough abortions, Michigan also passed an anti-abortion law which has been called “the nation’s worst.” Ms. reported, “HB 5711 requires that clinics meet the same standards and regulations as surgical centers and that fetal remains are to be treated the same as a dead human body, including authorization from the local or state registrar before cremation. The bill also requires that doctors provide a written ‘risk assessment’ to patients at least 24 hours before having a procedure and prohibits the use of telemedicine to prescribing abortion-inducing medication. Doctors will also have to certify that a woman is not being coerced into having an abortion by asking probing and invasive questions as a result of HB 5711.”

One House bill that failed was barring the use of “foreign laws that would impair constitutional rights”—the “anti-Sharia” bill.  The courts had already overturned a similar Oklahoma law that specifically mentioned Sharia. Some Michigan Republicans are still convinced that President Obama is a Muslim, bad because Rep. Dave Agema thinks “just about every terrorist is a Muslim.” Agema’s bill was similar to model legislation produced by David Yerushalmi, the conservative attorney who once urged the U.S. to declare war on Islam and referred to liberal Jews as “parasites.”

Other religious groups in the state, such as the Michigan Catholic Conference, opposed the bill because it might affect any religious group that chooses to enter into a contract based on their religious beliefs. After all, the Pope doesn’t live in the United States.

The only bill that Snyder vetoed was the right to carry concealed weapons in schools. He probably would have signed that one too if not for the 26 people killed in the Newtown (CT) school.

Snyder still has 23 months before his next election, but his popularity is plummeting, down nine points since the sweeping legislation. His disapproval rating is up 19 points. The question is how long the voters’ memories are.

Governors across the nation will undoubtedly follow Snyder’s actions during the last month. The result:

  • Severe economic problems because lower wages from union-breaking means that people will have less spending ability;
  • Fewer elected officials retaining the right to perform their responsibilities because governor-appointed managers will take over towns and cities;
  • More deaths from illegal abortions because of the severe restrictions on legal abortions;
  • A greater number of unwanted pregnancies from severe restrictions on clinics limiting contraception for poor women.

This next year, the Michigan House still has a GOP majority but not a super-majority. The irony is that Michigan has more Democrats than Republicans. It is the gerrymandering of districts following the 2010 census that  allowed the GOP majority to continue.

gerrymandering

 

The same thing happened in the U.S. House where the GOP controls almost 54 percent of the seats in the 113th Congressional House although they lost the popular vote by at least 1.2 million.

Some Republicans in the House report that they are willing to let taxes on the wealthy increase. They’re coming back to town in three days; we’ll see what they do then with one day left to overturn the law they passed 18 months ago.

April 2, 2012

Wisconsin’s Journey to Freedom, Part II

Wisconsin—a place where the conservative governor Scott Walker stripped fundamental rights, slashed budgets for health and education, silenced citizens in the formal political process, and erased the possibility of public good or trust from state agencies. A place where Walker, who campaigned on getting more jobs for people and improving the economy, took $56 million from the working poor by reducing the Earned Income Tax Credit while giving $36 million to wealthy Wisconsin investors in a capital gains tax break. A place where Walker used $25.6 million of the $31.6 million Wisconsin’s state government received from the foreclosure fraud settlement to help close a budget shortfall in the state’s general fund.

Although union-busting was one of Walker’s passions, unions weren’t the only losers in Walker’s Wisconsin. The final budget bill allowed “direct conversion” of credit unions, owned by the share-holders, into investor-owned banks. Credit unions can return dividends to members through offering banking services with lower fees and loans at lower rates than banks. Communities without credit unions have higher fees at ATMs and for other banking services. The 220 credit unions in Wisconsin are often in rural areas that lack investor-owned banks. There was no notification of the credit union amendment to the public before the legislators voted.

Over a month ago, the state legislative bodies passed SB 202, repealing the 2009 Equal Pay Act allowing people to sue employers who illegally discriminate against them based on protected class status. The bill was sponsored by ALEC members, part of the coalition funded by wealthy conservatives such as the Koch brothers and huge corporations such as AT&T, Coca-Cola, and VISA. Identical bills that support anti-immigration, photo IDS, defunding unions, privatizing schools and public assets, corporate tax loopholes, etc. combined with those that stop states from raising revenue have popped up in all the 26 conservative-controlled states, thanks to ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).

Like The Lily Ledbetter Act, The Equal Pay Act was developed to provide legal protection to women who are unfairly compensated based on their gender. One Republican explained the repeal of equal pay for all by saying that many businesses and employers asked for the bill. (I wonder how many votes from women these conservative legislators expect to get in the 2012 election.) Before Wisconsin passed the Equal Pay Act in 2009, Wisconsin was 36th in the worst pay gap; in the next two years the state climbed to the 24th position. Thus far I haven’t found any record of Walker signing the bill, but he is expected to do so.

Not content with destroying women’s pay equality, Wisconsin legislators have also passed another anti-choice bill, this one requiring doctors to verify—in writing—that women were not coerced into abortions. And to guarantee a higher percentage of teen pregnancy, the legislators also passed a bill requiring abstinence-only instruction for teenagers. (If they want to analyze the increase in teen pregnancy Wisconsin will have because of this law, they should check the high number of Texas teen girls who get pregnant thanks to abstinence-only education.) The Wisconsin bill also requires sexual education courses to discuss parental responsibility and the socioeconomic benefits of marriage (I’m guessing heterosexual), as well as explain pregnancy, prenatal development, and childbirth.

Following the loss of collective bargaining for 175,000 state public employees, school districts are now imposing strict and arbitrary rules on teachers without any mediation with teacher unions.  For example, New Berlin not only increased workdays for teachers with no pay increases but also created a dress code: no jeans, no open shirts, and no skirts that are not below the knee. Teachers cannot have any students as Facebook “friends” and must report any traffic incidents or tickets to the school district. School districts who want to work with teachers to design an employee handbook are afraid to do this because they might violate the ban against collective bargaining. The law has moved teachers to the level of serfs with no rights.

What kind of lawmakers have voted in favor of laws that allows such abuse of employees? Rep. Don Pridemore is a prime example. Rather than allowing an abused woman to divorce the man who beats her up, she should try to remember what she loves about him. Pridemore said, “If they can re-find those reasons and get back to why they got married in the first place it might help.”  With Sen. Glenn Grothman, he also co-sponsored not only the photo ID law, now declared unconstitutional, but also a bill that credits child abuse to single motherhood.

As the chair of the House Children and Families Committee, Pridemore wants to mandate the state Child Abuse Prevention Board to conduct public awareness campaigns emphasizing that single parenthood is a leading cause of child abuse. His co-sponsor, Grothman, said, “A child is 20 times more likely to be sexually abused if they are raised by say, a mother and a boyfriend, than their mother and father.” He failed to provide any support for this statement. Grothman, who has never been married, also wants to underscore “the role of fathers in the primary prevention of child abuse and neglect.”

There is hope in Wisconsin. Peter Rickman, a union organizer and former leader of Wisconsin’s Teaching Assistants Association, said they can create new organizations by bringing together community groups, political organizations, and unions that last beyond one protest or one election cycle. “We have strength in numbers, the 1 percent has the money,” he said. The logo of Wisconsin redesigned as a blue clenched fist still brings people together.

One person who continued to fight back against Walker and exercise his free speech is 36-year-old Azael Brodhead, Iraq veteran and state Department of Corrections probation and parole agent. For weeks he drove past Walker’s house, honked his horn, gave “the finger” through his sunroof, and shouted “Recall Walker.” When he was ticketed for “unnecessary blowing of horn,” he went to trial. Fined $166.20, he continued his routine—stopped the honking but kept up the yelling. “Probation agent is my day job,” said Brodhead. “Being a concerned citizen is 24-7.”

The Koch brothers bankrolling many of the conservative campaigns for Wisconsin legislators, including Walker, had a bad week in the state last week. Federal authorities are investigating Prosperity USA and Wisconsin Prosperity Network. At least one person being investigated is also involved in Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit cofounded by the conservative Koch brothers that helped organize the tea party movement in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Not much information yet about what’s happening but then it’s a secret investigation.

Much more about the effects of Wisconsin’s protests on the rest of the nation is in John Nichols’ book, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Occupy Wall Street.

April 1, 2012

Wisconsin’s Journey to Freedom

It’s April Fool’s Day, and the great state of Wisconsin is well on the way to getting rid of its personal fool. Fifteen months ago, the state was largely known for its cheese and solid middle-class population. Then Scott Walker came into power—and I really mean power.

Very wealthy and very conservative Charles and David Koch, anti-union oil-and-gas magnates, bankrolled Walker’s campaign along with Koch-backed groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Reason Foundation. Walker ran on a platform of getting jobs for people and getting the economy back on track. There was no mention of union-busting or elimination of public services or giving more money to the rich, but the minute he stepped into office that was clearly his goal.

He began his reign of terror with a law that stripped most collective bargaining for public employee unions—except for local police, firefighters, and State Patrol troopers—in a state where public workers gained ability to bargain together over a half century ago and in the city where the nationwide public-sector union, AFSCME, was founded. His law also took money from public employees who were required to pay more for pensions and health insurance while it decreased taxes for corporations. In addition, Walker gained broad authority over health care programs for the poor and turned 37 civil service jobs into political appointments, giving him even more power. At least the law didn’t authorize the sale of state power plants, a bill that the Koch brothers badly wanted to pass so that they could take over these plants.

The law was highly contentious since its inception when people protested at the Capitol and the Democrats left the state to prevent its passage. After the signing, Dane County sued to stop it because the state Senate lacked enough members to have a legal vote. Republicans claimed that they had taken out spending measures that would have required the three-fifths of Senate members to be present. Dane County also claimed that the Senate violated the state’s open meetings law, which requires that public notice of meetings be posted 24 hours in advance. Judge Maryann Sumi’s decision in favor of Dane County was later overturned in a contentious ruling by a divided Wisconsin Supreme Court.

There are many unsung heroes who protested Walker’s heavy-handed violation of human rights—people who slept at first inside the Wisconsin capitol and later outside in the snow after they were kept from entering the building. One of the most dramatic events, however, was the one with tractors. Over a year ago on March 12, fifty of them, huge and tiny, pulled together for a tractorcade passing more than 150,000 people shouting, “Thank you!”

Walker’s campaign promise was to “get government out of the way of employers … who will then help Wisconsin create 250,000 jobs by 2015, and as we create those new jobs, we will be able to add 10,000 new businesses.” He had a slow start last year; job loss in Wisconsin during 2011 was the greatest of any state in the country. From January 2011 to January 2012, Wisconsin lost 12,500 jobs, even as the nation as a whole added jobs for 17 straight months.

Because of state law, Walker could not be recalled for one year after he was sworn in. With only 60 days to obtain approximately 540,000 valid signatures on the recall petitions and a variety of ways that conservatives tried to sabotage the process, people got over 941,000 signatures with 900,939 of them valid. That’s an average of 15,000 each day. Even Fungky Van Den Elzen is the name of an actual person. The primary is scheduled for May 8 with the general election on June 5.

The anti-union activity in Wisconsin also spilled over into the state Supreme Court. When incumbent Justice David Prosser ran for another term, millions of out-of-state dollars poured into the state, and a record number of voters turned out on election day. Prosser lost by 200 votes until Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus, a Republican activist in the state’s most conservative county, announced she had failed to account for 14,000 votes, giving Justice Prosser a 7,500-vote lead that was upheld in the recount.

Once Prosser got back into office, he appeared to attempt to strangle Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. Literally. And he did it in front of four other justices after the divided court overturned Sumi’s decision that the state violated the open meeting law. Prosser had shown animosity toward Bradley before his so-called “re-election” when he called her a “bitch.” Ironically, state law prevents judges from presiding over matters if they are material witnesses to the case. With all the witnesses forced to recuse themselves, Prosser may not have to face the disciplinary complaint filed against him. Adding injury to insult, he also wants the Wisconsin Judicial Commission to release records of its deliberations to let him determine whether the commission is politically biased against him. Law allows only the judge facing discipline to waive confidentiality.

Prosser explained that his putting his hands around Bradley’s neck was a “reflex.” He was disturbed about the commission’s attitude when he was questioned about his behavior. “The truth of the matter was, they were not interested in what my defense was or any provocation for my action,” Prosser said. “They were only interested in my conduct.”

Walker began to lose more control when recall elections for eight legislators narrowed Republican control of the Senate to just one vote. Moderate Republican Senator Dale Schultz, who voted against the collective bargaining bill, opposed a deregulatory environmental bill crafted exclusively for an out-of-state mining company, essentially killing the bill.

With the eminent recall, Walker is keeping up a brave front. His governor’s annual salary is $144,423, but he now claims that he could “make some real money” if he left politics and entered the private sector. On June 5, the Wisconsin electorate may provide him with this opportunity.

Walker’s success in the recall is being made more complicated after the announcement of a secret investigation and criminal charges regarding his former aides when he was Milwaukee County executive. Walker’s creation of a legal defense fund is a strong indication that he is directly involved in the ongoing investigation. According to Wisconsin law, people may start such a fund only if they are under investigation or being charged with violating state campaign finance or election laws. Fortunately, Walker’s campaign fund has millions; he can transfer these funds to a legal defense fund with the donor’s approval. A criminal charge hanging over his head may affect the number of votes that he gets in the recall.

Even if Walker survives the recall, he’s losing another law; he can’t eliminate the Democrat voters with his voter ID law. A Wisconsin judge has suspended it, describing it as “the single most restrictive voter eligibility law” in the country and finding it in violation of the state’s Constitution that explicitly gave the right to vote to all residents who are 18 years old or older. Dane County Circuit Court Judge David Flanagan cited studies finding more than 200,000 Wisconsin residents who lacked a state-issued photo ID were otherwise eligible to vote. He called the law “a real cost that is imposed on constitutionally eligible voters,” especially “burdensome” for the elderly and disabled.

The ID requirement, according to Flanagan, fell disproportionately on elderly people, people of color, and poor people, and claims that the voting process needed to be policed to prevent voter impersonation–or fraudulent voting–were overblown and “extremely unlikely.” The ruling stated that the law was overreaching and inflexible and, in light of the state Constitution’s explicit creation of voting rights, unconstitutional. Nowhere in the state’s Constitution does it require eligible voters to present a state-issued photo ID–a fact voter ID supporters like to omit.

U.S. District Judge William Conley also overturned parts of Walker’s anti-collective bargaining law by ruling that union dues can be automatically withdrawn from paychecks and union members don’t have to re-up their memberships each year. Union attorney Tim Hawks said the seven unions that sued will decide whether to appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Last year, most major unions didn’t hold votes asking members whether they wanted to stay unionized, as required by the new law, because of the difficulty and expense of such an election.

After the resignation of a Republican up for recall, the Wisconsin Senate has a 16-16 tie, with a Republican siding with Democrats on union issues. If Walker tried to pass his union-stripping bill today, he would lose. And if Republicans fail to defend the three seats they hold that are under recall, they face the loss of their majority entirely. As in last summer’s recall elections, the Republican Party of Wisconsin is running “fake Democrats” to force the Democratic challengers to spend money on a primary that could have been used in the general election and launch negative attacks on the Democrats while the Republican incumbents remain above the fray.

Walker changed the history of the United States. Protesters across the country, many of them with the Occupy Wall Street movement, have forced even the Republicans to address taxes on the wealthy and corporations while imposing financial transactions taxes on Wall Street speculators. The protest brought people together: parents and students joined and then replaced teachers at the Capitol in Madison as crowds of just 1,000 grew one-hundred-fold. For the first time, small towns hosted labor rallies, and other states pushed back, Ohio defeating the governor’s union-busting bill.

“The folks that were angry about this started a recall….Not hundreds, not thousands, but tens of thousands of ordinary people did an extraordinary thing. They stood up and took their government back.” Walker said this when he described the 2002 recalls that led to his election as Milwaukee County Executive. History repeats itself as people fight Walker’s reign of power.

 

“If you love your freedom, thank a protester.” That’s the sign on the last page of a remarkable book by Dennis Waldmann. Stories from 68 people and over 150 images of the protest at the Wisconsin Capitol in Cut from Plain Cloth: The 2011 Wisconsin Workers Protest show the diversity of the protesters and the pride that they took in standing up for freedom. It is a must read!

This blog isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands and thousands of stories about the bravery of people who didn’t want to give up their to the corporations, the people who believed in fair and reasonable wages. If Wisconsin can fight back against the oppressors, so can the rest of the states.

 

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