Support Workers. Protect Unions

Last week I attended a labor issues conference presented by the Northern Virginia Labor Federation. We heard general presentations on labor issues and short discussions about specific problems faced by workers in different economic sectors.

Labor policy in Virginia is broken. Republican legislators, using American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) templates, pass laws that attack worker rights and block legislation that would improve workmen’s compensation programs. It’s time to fix this.

Firefighters and other emergency responders come in contact with hazardous materials every day in the course of risking their lives to manage fires, crashes, and other emergency situations. These heroes get cancer at higher rates than the general population, and exposure to these chemicals is the cause. Yet in many cases they must prove a specific case of exposure before they can collect disability and health care coverage. 

It’s time to enact laws that protect our community heroes by presuming that an emergency responder with cancer of any kind has it because of exposure to hazardous materials in the line of duty.

More generally, we need to end right-to-work laws, brought to us by ALEC and its corporate funders (especially the Koch brothers), and Senators like Ryan McDougle – an ALEC member. These laws amount to an attack on unions that give employers an advantage when hiring. This is why worker productivity has risen since the 1970s but wages have remained stagnant. 

It’s time to allow workers in every sector of the economy – public and private – to bargain with employers for higher pay, safe conditions, improved worker’s compensation plans, more vacation, and better benefits. No business or government agency can function without workers, and they need to have a voice through a union if they wish.

If you like weekends, thank the labor movement. If you think Virginia needs middle-class jobs that don’t require a college degree, only unions can deliver. In fact, Virginia unions run apprenticeship programs – on their own dime and without government help – that provide a path to stable employment at good wages to young people in the Commonwealth who want to learn a trade.

I know how important unions are to the workers in Virginia who build our homes and office buildings, stock shelves in grocery stores, make sure our cell phones work, and teach our kids how to read. I support them without reservation.

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Extended Magazines (Updated)

UPDATE: Commenters to versions of this post at other sites pointed out that I got the magazine size wrong for the M9. Mine held a 15-round, not a 9-round, magazine. I regret the error and that my fond memories of service weapons past failed me.

The first weapon I trained to use in combat was a .45 caliber pistol. As an Armor Crewman we carried sidearms and this was my main personal combat weapon. The standard magazine for this weapon held seven rounds of ammunition. Not long after I enlisted the Army replaced the .45 with the M9 Beretta.  The standard magazine for the M9 held nine rounds. The new Sig Sauer sidearm the Army has just adopted has only a 17-round magazine. 

Think about this: US Army combat doctrine calls for smaller combat handgun magazines than civilians can purchase on the open market for “individual self-defense.”

It seems to me then that a non-standard thirty-round magazine for a .45 caliber pistol like the one used by the gunman in Virginia Beach last week has only one use: to maximize effectiveness for a mass shooter who wants to kill as many people as possible. Their sale and possession should be prohibited.

This year the Virginia General Assembly considered legislation that would have done just that, but Republicans blocked this approach. Republicans reject any approach that might reduce gun violence and save lives because the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers pay for their political campaigns.

We will mourn and grieve the losses suffered by victims’ families. We will support them in their time of need and comfort them as they live through the loss of loved ones. Virginia Beach, like Virginia Tech, will bear the scars. And healing will come. But this is not enough. It’s time to do something about this problem so it does not happen again.

It’s time to regulate these mass shooter tools more strictly. Weapons and accessories designed to facilitate a high rate of fire and maximize the ability of a shooter to inflict maximum damage on human beings have no use for hunting or self-defense. Indeed, we need to regulate firearms in general more strictly. Evidence shows that more guns do not reduce crime – more guns correlate with higher homicide, suicide, and accident rates.

I support stronger background checks, longer waiting periods, registration for some weapons, and laws that require firearm owners to keep their weapons secured and hold liable those who don’t. We need to give local law enforcement officials the authority, with proper due process, to remove firearms from dangerous people and situations. 

Many Virginians object to these kinds of regulations on Second Amendment grounds. But the Second Amendment right to bear arms does not override the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble at work, school, church, or any other public space. We have a right to those as well.

I am running for the State Senate in Virginia’s Fourth District to protect this right. I’m running because I think it’s time to rethink gun culture in the Commonwealth. We’ve accepted mass killing by firearm in public spaces as part of the “cost of doing business” for far too long and it’s time to stop it. Please do what you can to support my campaign, but if you have money to give right now please contribute to a support group for the Virginia Beach victims or a gun violence group. 

Then go to www.StanforVirginia.organd sign up to support my team by knocking on doors, making calls, and writing postcards. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Spread the word. Tell your family and friends that someone is running in the Fourth Virginia Senate District who will work hard to make public spaces safe from gun violence. 

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Military Service and Progressive Values

Since I began thinking about running for the State Senate, a lot of people I’ve spoken to have asked how I can be a liberal – or even a Democrat – after spending 20 years in the Army. One man at a Tea Party meeting wanted to know how I could be a member of the “party of perversion and invasion” after a career “defending the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.” 

I understand why some people assume that veterans might skew conservative. Military life is one of hardship, self-discipline, honor, duty, and commitment to service.  It’s a life of personal and professional sacrifice that affects every part of family. Soldiers forego big salaries and comfortable lives to train and fight in the snow and heat and mud and rain because they know they have a role in something that really matters to every American: a vision of liberty seen no-where else on Earth.  My obligation to this vision, my country, the Army, and my soldiers took precedence over my individual needs for twenty years. There is no doubt that many Americans associate this kind of patriotism with conservatism.  

But many conservatives today appear to believe that life well spent isn’t about service and community but individual ambition and greed. It’s less about liberty for all than about organizing society around how we spend money in a market. They show allegiance to flags and a symbolic patriotism but no apparent duty to the higher ideal of American exceptionalism as a nation of people devoted to the right of everyone to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

My personal experience in the Army shaped an alternate – and progressive – perspective on policy and how we organize economic, social, cultural, and political society. These rights, after all, depend on good health, appropriate education, public safety, and freedom to love whom we choose.

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Mother’s Day 2019

Mom gets her Master’s Degree circa 1972

My mother is simply an amazing woman.  She grew up in a poor family and attended Central High School in Little Rock right before the Little Rock Nine.  Mom married very early in life and had two sons in a single year – before she was old enough to drink legally – and a third four years later.  

Family lore holds that on the day Mack, her third, was born Mom rode the city bus across town to a beauty salon to have her hair done.  She terrified the stylist when she responded to “When is your baby due?” with “Any minute.” Her contractions had begun on the bus ride over, and in the Thanksgiving tale version she points out that Mack was not her first, she knew what she was doing, and she was determined to look her best when they finally met.

Mom took classes at night while working days at a Mad Men – era advertising agency until she earned a fellowship to do graduate work.  About the time I turned ten she packed us up for a move to Ole Miss as a single mom with no job and little money.  Mom edited and typed papers for other students to pay the bills and saved on babysitters by taking us with her to the library. I still love to read.  In only three years she earned a doctorate in English Literature after writing a computer program that compiled data on syntax in William Blake poems for her dissertation – in 1973.  

Mom never showed any give-up of any kind.  She did what had to be done and never quit. Every day she demonstrated an inner strength and moral courage unmatched in anyone else I’ve ever met.  She taught us to respect women – and with a Mom like her we could come away with no other lesson. She taught us to believe in ourselves and by her own actions showed us that we could often grasp things that looked beyond our reach.  And she taught us to love unconditionally and without reservation by loving us unconditionally and without reservation.

Yes, Mom, you certainly knew what you were doing.  Thanks for everything, and Happy Mother’s Day.

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The Bank of Virginia Act

A few weeks ago, a group called Protect USannounced the launch of an effortto create the Bank of Virginia, a “socially responsible public bank” modeled on the Bank of North Dakotathat “would provide low-cost public financing to municipal governments and state agencies.”  The Bank would lend money only to “companies and organizations that Virginians support.” (Hat Tip: Blue Virginia).

This makes me think of efforts at the federal level to bring banking to post offices.  Gillibrandand others seem to be proposing the kind of retail Post Office banking I remember from my time in the Army stationed in Germany. People could start basic interest-bearing savings accounts at local post offices with paychecks from any employer (Americans could do this at US Post Offices until 1967).

Government payments like Kindergeld (every parent in Germany gets a small stipend for…being a parent) went automatically to these accounts. For a time, I used such an account to handle household bills.  In the US context a system like this would help working people who earn a paycheck but only qualify for commercial bank accounts that carry fees and conditions (e.g., monthly fees without direct deposit, minimum balances).  These fees eat into their already small budgets.  Many people have to pay a fee to WalMart or a grocery store, or a check cashing service every Friday when they get paid by check for their construction or other gig labor that week.  So a state bank where low-wage workers could open simple passbook accounts with no fees would improve the lives of working people.

As far as I can tell from the Protect US site, the Bank of Virginia proposal does not address this issue. Without a look at specific legislation it’s hard to know, but it appears to focus more on making sure that Virginia Retirement System and Commonwealth tax revenue, which must be parked somewhere until spent, don’t find their way into fossil fuel investments or big bank accounts subject to fees.  I support this goal, but it’s not clear how Protect US locks in which Virginians just what “causes” the Commonwealth should support.  Without seeing the details, I’m also wondering whether a Bank of Virginia ensures socially conscious investment over the long term. Political winds change.

The Protect US proposal has another potential problem: it would form the Bank of Virginia by combining the functions of the Virginia Housing Development Authority( VHDA), Assistive Technology Loan Fund Authority (ATLFA), Virginia College Savings Program, and the Virginia State Employee Loan Program.  This could perhaps make sense from an efficiency standpoint given that these agencies have at least some of the experience and infrastructure needed to create a bank.  

But unless the Bank of Virginia created under this plan would continue – and expand – the services provided by these organizations, it would not make the Commonwealth of Virginia materially more socially responsible. Shifting funds to more environmentally friendly investments has value, but state government exists to create opportunities for and improve the lives of working people, not supporting corporations whether socially conscious or not.  I’m especially concerned about the employee loan program – ending it would send low-wage state employees to payday loan companies.  

This proposal could be a good idea – but needs more work.

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Topics in American Politics

Starting on March 30, I’ll be presenting a lecture series on Topics in American Politics at the Lokal Cafe in Colonial Williamsburg. In the first session I’ll discuss how slavery influenced the writing and ratification of the Constitution and the ways this impacts American politics today.

Later lectures will cover the expansion of civil rights and how this helped lead to the sorting of US political parties, the ways interest groups and gerrymandering polarized US politics over existential issues, and Russia’s efforts to influence US elections.

Please contact me at rss (at) foggybottomline (dot) com if you have questions or would like more information.

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Ralph Northam Should Resign – Updated

UPDATE: Governor Northam held a press conference this afternoon and walked back his admission last night that he was in the picture:

“I believe now and then that I am not either of the people in this photo. This was not me in that picture. That was not Ralph Northam.”

https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/02/politics/northam-racist-yearbook-photo/index.html

Northam went on to say that he gave photos to the yearbook staff, did not participate in assembling his page, did not purchase a copy, and hadn’t seen it in thirty years. Publication blindsided him.

Maybe the yearbook staff placed the photo in question on Northam’s page by mistake and he genuinely did not know about this until yesterday. Which of course begs the question: why admit to being one of the people in the picture unless you remember wearing blackface or a KKK costume but cannot remember a specific? Someone out there might have photos of me that I’d prefer never became public, but I know one thing with 100% certainty: no picture of me in blackface or a KKK outfit exists. I’ve never worn either. Ever.

Northam’s admission that he wore blackface for a dancing contest, which he won with a Michael Jackson impersonation, doesn’t help. Dressing up like Jackson was common enough at the time – Jackson was on the Jackson’s Victory Tour and at the height of his fame. But he could have performed without the shoe polish makeup, and his claim that he “only used a little because it’s hard to get off” means he was familiar with the blackface concept (and likely knows photos of this exist that he wanted to get out in front of).

Perhaps we shouldn’t hold Governor Northam responsible for the photo appearing on his page – this kind of mistake happens. And I very much hope that Governor Northam was not in the photo. But I’m not sure it matters any more, even if this turns out to be a right wing hit job using a doctored photo or yearbook. That he couldn’t vehemently deny this based on his own memory says quite a lot. Northam’s denial this afternoon muddies the waters. But resignation remains the right course.

Original Post:

Learning that Governor Ralph Northam apparently attended a party in either blackface or a KKK costume during his time in medical school flabbergasted and disappointed me.   

Like everyone, Northam is at least in part a product of the time and place of his upbringing, and his Eastern Shore youth and Virginia Military Institute college career apparently included problematic attitudes on race.  Whatever his thinking on racial equality today, the Governor clearly had no problem joking about terrorizing or making fun of people of color in 1984.  I would hope that Northam’s time in the US Army and as a pediatrician lead to some personal introspection and change.  

But if he has truly adjusted his attitudes about human beings not like him he could have owned his past and used it as a way to help Virginia confront its own problematic history of slavery and resistance to desegregation.  He could have turned it into a teaching point about ways to move America to racial equality.  Instead, Ralph Northam either hoped no one would discover this disgusting photograph or forgot it altogether – which is problematic in itself.  

It matters because racial discrimination is America’s original sin.  Colonization of North America by Western Europeans depended on the labor of chattel slaves, most of them Africans.  America’s founding generations constructed our version of Capitalism on slavery and included clauses in our founding governing document specifically designed to protect slavery in some states.  The Electoral College, equal state representation in the Senate, and the Second Amendment all have roots in the need to protect slavery in order to secure ratification of the Constitution by slave states.  

We still pay for this sin – or at least people of color still pay.  Even after the end of de jure slavery, de facto slavery in the form of Jim Crow lawsredlining and housing discrimination, voter suppression, and depression of education opportunities through segregated schools has kept families of color from building wealth and participating fully in American society.  Efforts by white elites to socialize poor whites to fear poor blacks after the Civil War shows its effects through American attitudes about social safety nets and immigration still today.  I don’t mean to suggest that the United States has not been a force for liberty and justice in the world.  But America becomes more exceptional as such a force when we live by example for others, and we cannot do this without confronting this very real and very problematic history.

None of us has a perfect past, free of troubling actions, decisions, or attitudes.  We all change as we grow, and I seriously doubt that Ralph Northam still holds views on race that would allow him to attend a party dressed in blackface or a KKK costume.  He almost certainly has changed his attitudes about racial equality.  As he became a prominent pediatrician and then politician, he had a unique opportunity to help Virginians have a discussion about its racial history and how people like him could overcome their past and help us move forward together.  This may not have won him the Governorship, but it would have helped make Virginia a better place to live.  Sadly, he forgot his past or chose to bury it instead.

This morning, Governor Northam will hold a press conference and will likely resign. He should.

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Gun Violence and Virginia’s General Assembly

Virginia’s General Assembly this session has already killed some important gun violence prevention legislation. Let me say that again: Republicans in Virginia’s legislature have blocked passage of popular policies that would help prevent gun violence without also interfering with the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms. 

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee killed SB1034, which would have created a Class 1 Misdemeanor for purchasing more than one handgun in a 30 day period.  Since it would have exempted several classes of gun purchasers, including anyone with a valid concealed handgun permit and anyone buying a handgun in a private sale, it’s not clear how this would interfere with the right of any law-abiding Virginia resident’s right to “keep and bear arms.”  Besides the obvious point that the Second Amendment says nothing about just how many arms a citizen has a right to “keep and bear,” I personally wonder why anyone would want to purchase more than a dozen weapons of any kind in a given year.  But since most citizens qualify for concealed permits, and any citizen could make as many private purchases as time permits, it seems that this legislation would have one important effect: making mass purchases of firearms for transport to states with more restrictive firearms laws slightly more difficult.  This does, in fact, happen.  And Virginia can help stop it.

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Sunday Morning Coffee, 20 January 2019

What I read while having my coffee this morning:

Over at Emptywheel, Marcy Wheeler lays out the reasons why Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel Office pushed back on the BuzzFeed story claiming that Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.  It boils down to a need to rehabilitate Cohen’s credibility in the event Mueller calls him as a trial witness and to protect the Mueller team’s reputation as a tightly-run ship that doesn’t leak.  If you want to keep up with developments in the Mueller investigation, by the way, you should read this website daily.

“Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous People’s March” reads the headline in the New York Times.  On a field trip from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky to participate in the March for Life yesterday, these thugs surrounded and mocked the man, a Vietnam War veteran, screaming “Build that wall!”at him while he played a ceremonial song.  In the video you can see many of them making fun of him while one punk stood in front of him smirking.  We’ve seen this look before, as Ruth Graham points outat Slate, and it’s yet another example of Christians completely ignoring the core teachings of their faith.  Or maybe these boys are just from families who don’t want their kids in desegregated public schools.

Perhaps in an effort to distract the media from yesterday’s Women’s March, Donald Trump offered temporary relief for Dreamers and other limited immigration changes in return for the $5.7 billion he wants to build a border wall.  This pleased no one, including Ann Coulter, who whined that conservatives “…voted for Trump and got Jeb!”  Of course, Trump is worried enough about what Coulter and other immigration hardliners thinkthat he felt the need to respond on Twitter.  I spend a good bit of time trying to figure out how conservatives think, and I’m frankly wondering how this works for them.  They complain constantly about ineffective government but think it can successfully complete a massive project like a thousand-mile long wall. They whine every day about government spending, deficits, and debt but happily advocate borrowing tens of billions of dollars for a wall that won’t solve the problem anyway.  And they prioritize property rights over community needs but don’t seem to mind that a border wall project on Trump’s scale would require confiscation of private land in the millions of acres.  Could it be racism all the way down?

On a somewhat lighter note, at least one Harvard scientist seems to think an object first spotted by University of Hawai’i astronomers could be an interstellar probe sent from another galaxy.  If so, whoever is behind it must have started the project quite a long time ago.  Since we’ve launched a few of these ourselves, it’s hardly beyond imagination.  Wonder what our interstellar counterparts will think as they watch Voyager 1 fly by?

And finally, today is the penultimate week of National Football League play.  If I were in Las Vegas (or Virginia had already legalized sports betting) I’d take the Chiefs giving up threeand the Rams getting three and a half points.  And the over on both.

Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

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More Equal Rights Amendment Thoughts

Virginia’s State Senate has passed SB 284, a resolution ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) by a 26-14 vote.  Republicans, including my Senator (Ryan McDougle) cast all 14 no votes.  The House version, HJ 577, now sits in that body’s Privileges and Elections Committee. It’s not clear yet whether the Chair of that Committee, Delegate Mark Cole, will even allow a vote, and I’d be surprised if he lets this out of his Committee.

The ERA seemed on a fast track for ratification when Congress sent it to the States in 1972. Large bipartisan majorities supported it, as did President Nixon (and later Presidents Ford and Carter).  Then Phyllis Schlafly organized a “STOP ERA” campaign to protect what she and other conservative women saw as female privilege.  Schlafly and her supporters argued that the ERA would eliminate gender-specific protections against drafting women for military service and forcing them to share public restrooms, as well as “dependent wife” benefits under Social Security.  Largely a religious movement, these activists also believed in a social structure dominated by men.  Their attacks on the ERA focused on the ways it could hurt women by limiting the ability of government to protect women from abuse by men who had more agency and power within this structure, but their true goal included protecting traditional male and female social roles.  

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