Welcome to Becoming a Citizen Activist BlogAfter writing Urban Politics on Seattle politics for over 19 years, I will now also be covering urban issues in other cities that could have importance to metropolitan areas in general. Seattle issues will still be covered in Urban Politics – Seattle, but will not come out as frequently as in the past. In a couple of weeks a searchable archive of all former Urban Politics will be available on a newly redesigned www.becomingacitizenactivist.org. If you do not wish to receive Urban Politics – US reply with “Unsubscribe UP-US” in the Subject Line.

A New Democrat Attorney General drops charges against Republicans who poisoned Flint Michigan’s water. Why does that make sense?

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Written by: Nick Licata


Did a Coverup of Who Caused Flint Michigan’s Contaminated Water Continue During its Investigation? 

For the first time in 16 years, Michigan elected a Democrat as their Attorney General and Dana Nessel’s first major decision was to dismiss all pending criminal charges against the state and city officials responsible for Flint Michigan’s polluted drinking water this past weekend. Mainstream media commentators were critical of her decision as well as Flint residents, who saw this move as further evidence that no justice would be pursued for the toxic water conditions which exposed up to 42,000 children under 2 years of age to lead poisoning. Nayyirah Shariff, a Flint resident who is the director of the grassroots group Flint Rising, told the Detroit Free Press reporter Paul Egan. that the announcement came as “a slap in the face to Flint residents” and “it doesn’t seem like justice is coming.”

But in reading through Egan’s article, additional pieces of this puzzling decision hinted that the coverup, by the accused officials, may actually have continued to the extent of endangering the investigation. In other words, there may be a legitimate reason for redoing the criminal charges. Although new cases will cost additional public money, Nessel says she made this decision precisely to save tax payer’s money from being wasted on faulty work by the former Republican State Attorney General, Bill Schuette. She said, his cases “have gone on for years and have cost the taxpayers of this state millions of dollars. It’s time for resolution and justice for the people of Flint.”

Schuette was overseeing the investigation and he has not been sympathetic to Flint residents in the past.  In 2017, he had been admonished by an Eastern District of United States of Michigan Judge for opposing the State of Michigan supplying bottled water to Flint residents who lack tap filters to protect them from the toxic drinking water. The judge suggested he had engaged in “superficial posturing” in being concerned about Flint’s water contamination.

That opinion of Schuette was mild in comparison to the findings of Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud, who is currently handling the criminal cases and is the first Muslim Solicitor General in the US. She found that not all evidence was pursued by Schutte and his special prosecutor Todd Flood, who was a prominent donor to then-Republican Governor Rick Snyder. In addition, Schuette and Flood wrongly allowed private law firms representing Snyder and other defendants to have “a role in deciding what information would be turned over to law enforcement.”

This scenario closely follows the prior coverups that officials, who were being charged, carried out in order to keep Flint residents ignorant of their unhealthy drinking water. This episode is covered in detail by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s book What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance and Hope American City. I reviewed it here.

As a pediatrician working at Flint’s Hurley Hospital, she intimately understood how public officials ignored the concerns of Flints residents, where 57 percent are black and only 37 percent white, and where a kid born in Flint will live 15 years less than one born in the neighboring communities.

The water problem began when Flint had to switch its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to lower its costs and government agencies were not properly checking for lead in the water supply. Marc Edwards, a self-described conservative Republican and civil-engineering professor from Virginia Tech, saw that even though the federal law required proper inspections, “The EPA and the states work hand in hand to bury problems.” And those EPA employees who did try to protect the public were punished. An EPA manager, who issued a report to his supervisors that he found high levels of lead in Flint’s water supply, was reprimanded and labeled “a rogue employee.”

The local county’s health-department representative was no better than the EPA, telling Dr. Hanna-Attisha that lead in the water was not a concern of theirs, only lead from paint chips and dust. However, something was obviously wrong. Just six months after the water switch, General Motors got a government waiver to go back to using Lake Huron water. The company noticed that its engine parts were being corroded after the switch.

The highest public official, Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, was at the heart of the problem by supporting a law that allowed him to appoint powerful emergency managers (EM) of cities whose budgets were deeply in debt. The EMs were accountable to the governor, not local governments, to pursue strong austerity measures. Because it was too costly, Flint’s EM rejected the city-council vote to go back to Detroit’s water supply due to consumer-health complaints.

Given Gov. Snyder’s role in allowing the Flint water crises to unfold without intervening, Solicitor General Hammoud was rightfully concerned how prior Attorney General Schuette’s special prosecutor Todd Flood let Snyder decide what information would be turned over to law enforcement. Just as Schuette had been accused by a federal judge as “superficial posturing” to appear to support Flint residents, the same deceptive practice may have been carried out again by him in cooperation with Gov. Snyder, by presenting a weak prosecution of those accused of propagating the Flint water crises.

As a Democratic Candidate for State Attorney General, Dana Nessel said she would “take a second look at the investigation, make certain that all of the people who have charges pending have been charged properly and look to see if there’s anyone who should have been charged, but who hasn’t been.” Upon dismissing the current charges, she repeated that sentiment by stating that she did not preclude recharging the original defendants or adding new ones.

The next step in pursuing a new set of charges against those responsible for Flint’s water contamination and health hazard will take place on June 28 in a Flint “community conversation” with Solicitor General Hammoud. She will explain Nessel’s decision and answer questions. Community activists are the ones who uncovered this travesty and demanded prosecution of those responsible. They will be present at the meeting and will hold Hammoud and Nessel to their promise to seek justice and not abandon it.

SDS’s Imploded 50 Years Ago – A Triumph of Extremism

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Written by: Nick Licata


Fifty years ago, this June, the Students for a Democratic Society held its last United National Convention. It was torn apart by ideologically driven factions, each claiming to have the only correct approach for saving America. Ironically, SDS was initiated by the anti-authoritarian, but socialist-oriented, League for Industrial Democracy. Al Haber, SDS’s first president, encouraged it to work with any group that was seeking social change.

It may be unpopular to say, but extremism from within SDS destroyed it, not the government or the rightwing. Sure, they would have liked to see that happen, but in the end, the leftist SDS leadership was demanding their supporters to conform to a party line as they  embraced rightwing Senator Barry Goldwater’s advice from 1964, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

The potential to drift toward extremism is as possible today as it was in the 1960s. It may seem odd to look back fifty years at a student organization’s collapse as having any relevance to our major political parties today. But it is relevant to how the Democrats and Republicans craft their message and policies in the upcoming 2020 presidential and congressional elections. Candidates in each party are trying to rally their party’s core supporters in order to win primary elections. That is a necessary and important activity, however, it is a false assumption that it is okay to ignore those outside those targeted groups unless they accept a core party doctrine. Because then they will likely reject both the candidate and their party.

The following perspective is based on my experience from being in SDS and from being involved in today’s politics as an activist. Recommending that extremism be avoided is not heard often from the left or the right. But a little history shows how it can undermine a great cause or organization.

By the time of its implosion in 1969, SDS had become the broadest and largest US student movement organization following WWII. It excelled in promoting the free exchange of ideas and solutions. Kirkpatrick Sale wrote in his book SDS, that their “literature list had ninety-two papers and pamphlets (forty-nine by SDSers). These were distributed widely to SDS chapters. They probably produced more than any other student group had ever before.”

The organization was non-hierarchical, rotating elected leadership annually, with chapters independent of any central control and membership open to all.  Having five members paying a $5 membership was all that was needed to form a chapter, which did not have to adhere to a national political line or report its independent stands to a national office. You didn’t even have to be a paid member, like me, to be an SDS campus leader. By the summer National Convention of 1969, seven years after their 1962 National Convention, where only 35 members were present, convention attendance had swelled to well over a thousand. Despite such success, it was torn apart internally by its national leaders vying for control of SDS based on who had the most valid beliefs for determining its future.

In its last year, SDS leaders spurned a broader outreach to the extent that even members, including past presidents, were cast out if they failed to follow a particular political line.  As a result, SDS lost membership and leadership of the student protest movement. There is a cautionary tale here for both the Democrat and Republican Parties. The intensity and certainty in one’s beliefs is not a substitute for presenting programs based on rational decision-making that preserve our liberties. My experience in SDS provided me an insight into what went wrong and how their errors need not be repeated.

I was a campus SDS leader with a role far below the radar of the SDS national leaders but still visible enough to be land on the Congressional House on Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) organizational chart, exhibit number 257, listing the most prominent SDS subversives. The SDS leadership had a far more accurate assessment of my importance.

I attended Bowling Green State University during the late ’60s. Like many state colleges in Ohio, at that time, it had a conservative student body. During the 1968 presidential election, a poll showed that BGSU students supported Richard Nixon over Hubert Humphrey 64 percent to 18 percent; even though Nixon only beat Humphrey by 1%. When George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi party, visited our campus in March 1967, he attracted an audience of close to three thousand who attentively listened to his message that he was fighting for the “White majority” in this country. On a campus that was a pretty big majority, only 1% of our student body were Black students.

Within this socially and politically conservative student culture, there still was a sense of rebellion among students like me who resented the student leaders. We felt ignored because we did not belong to the student organizations that influenced campus politics. Perhaps, this was similar to how conservative blue-collar workers felt in 2016;
being ignored by what some called “the elites” who were accused of controlling the federal government

I came across a document called the Port Huron Statement that was spreading among college campuses. Over 100,000 copies were printed and distributed by Students for a Democratic Society. It described a concept of “participatory democracy”, how citizens, including students, should have some meaningful say about how their government or work environment operated. I liked that idea. Why not have some control over your life?

I joined a handful of students in the fall of 1966 to start an SDS chapter in the hope of influencing campus and national policies. We barely knew each other and for the most part, we came from working-class families. The SDS national meeting that previous summer had focused on supporting local chapters’ efforts around issues, such as fighting for more relevant student “governments” and obtaining greater social freedoms on campus, while also opposing on-campus military recruiting and being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.

I was surprised to find out that we were immediately accused by the College Administration and student government leaders of being unpatriotic, and possibly under the influence of the communists. Now, I had grown up reading about communists from John Birch pamphlets that were left at my dad’s barbershop by his customers. I always wanted to see what one looked like. Turns out they looked like me. Anyone could be a communist sympathizer if they didn’t watch out what they were asking for.

After being elected our SDS chapter’s president, our chapter worked with other campus groups to promote policies that the average student wanted but thought they could not get. As a result, an SDS member was elected Student Body President and a number of other SDS members were also elected to student government. Along with allies, we were able to get the student council, which still had a majority of conservative students, to establish a draft counseling service, dismantle campus restrictions on female students’ social behavior, pass a student bill of rights which overturned other university rules, and finally approved adding a black student as a voting representative on the council to give them a position of power to address racist policies on campus.

In the fall of 1968, I hitchhiked to other campuses in Ohio and on the east coast to see what other SDS chapters were up to. It was an eye-opening experience. The real difference I found from our chapter’s incremental approach of talking with other students on campus about our common problems became apparent when I visited the ivy league SDS campus chapters. Their members were from much wealthier parents than mine. The students I met were intellectually sophisticated, talking endlessly about the nature of class conflict and Marxism. Being a political science major, I had read my share of Karl’s works and was familiar with Marx’s analysis of capitalism and the inevitable working-class revolution. His ideas were worthy of exploring but I found that a number of chapters had approached Marxism almost as a religious dogma.  When I attended one of the last SDS National Council meetings held, during the Christmas break of 1968 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I encountered that orientation again.

Membership in SDS had exploded, which always had far fewer paid members than non-paying ones. One of the three top SDS elected national leaders, Robert Pardun, wrote in his bookPrairie Radical, that by December of 1967, “On most campuses there were often ten or more active SDS members who had not paid their dues for every member who had, and we estimated about 30,000 de facto members in some 250 chapters.” Others estimated that their numbers had reached 100,000 members and close to 400 chapters by the spring of 1969.

Despite having a constitution that said SDS “Membership is open to all who share the commitment of the organization to democracy as a means and a social goal” there was one particular group, the Progressive Labor Party, that set about to undermine that orientation. In 1965 they were just a small a tight-knit group; you had to be approved for membership by their leaders before being admitted. They advocated a Maoist type of communism, first supporting China but ultimately deciding that Albania was the best role model for America. Their immediate goal, however, was to take over SDS. They succeeded in doing that at the last legitimate SDS Convention, six months following the national SDS meeting I attended, where I encountered them for the first time.

How could such a small group, with such extremely anti-democratic views, take over a national organization that had advocated participatory democracy? The answer was that they won over converts through preaching that only they had the correct answers to creating a new political order. Over the three days of the SDS gathering, I saw how a strong, crystal clear belief system based on some simple and seemingly logical premises had the power to enlist those desperately wanting to overthrow a corrupted political and social system.

I had expected to find something more akin to the atmosphere that greeted me when I walked through the main hall of the college building hosting the SDS meeting. Upon entering I was met by a chaotic circus of competing ideas and slogans. Colorful posters hung on the brick walls with a cacophony of barkers, wearing buttons with every conceivable anti-war, pro-worker, anti-establishment, and pro-revolution slogan imaginable. They were hawking their displays of slim pamphlets and thick books, stacked on flimsy card tables. It was the movement’s version of a county fair to display competing ideas and promoting different approaches to create a new America and for some a new world.

This diversity reflected the grassroots non-voting membership which comprised easily two-thirds of the roughly 1,500 members attending that gathering. The three National Councils, which met before the National Convention in June 1969, were meant to discuss and vote on positions that would direct SDS’s national officers. I estimated that this direction would be coming from only a small percentage of the SDS members present since only the paid-up members could vote.

The council’s general assemblies were dominated by the two largest factions clashing, the PLP and RYM (Revolutionary Youth Movement), as they prepared for their ultimate match later in June at the National Convention. At this time, many SDS members were searching for a more comprehensive political philosophy and theory than what the Port Huron Statement had provided. Its bottom-up decision-making approach and encouragement of pursuing differing innovative solutions was found to be inadequate by PLP and RYM, who replaced it with a top-down authority structure requiring adherence to their own straitjacket beliefs.

More importantly, their basic pitch for SDS’s future was to reject liberalism, which was apparent when I  saw the front page of the SDS’s newspaper, the New Left Notes, that was issued for the National Council meeting. It featured a Picture of Chairman Mao with the headline “Combat Liberalism,” followed by an article declaring that liberalism “stands for unprincipled peace, thus giving rise to a decadent, philistine attitude and bring about political degeneration…” It could have been written by the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom campus group, as they also hated liberalism.

The council meeting’s final session came to a crashing end, with the main hall literally divided down the center aisle separating RYM and PLP followers chanting competing slogans: “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh” versus “Mao Mao Mao Tse-tung.”  It was the theater of the absurd; so distant from the real concerns of the tens of thousands of students who had sustained SDS as a movement leader.

The following SDS National Convention ended when PLP won a critical vote and RYM led a walkout of the convention, declaring that they were the legitimate SDS. Within months, the organization collapsed with no functioning SDS national office in touch with its hundreds of chapters.

The surge of campus organizing to fight the war and promote civil rights was immense before SDS’s demise. An Urban Research Corporation survey of student protestors at over two hundred universities and colleges during the first six months of 1969 found that over 200,000 students had participated in campus protests, many associated with local SDS chapters. But as the national organization began to apply class theory to every conflict, and after the national office split between RYM (which became the Weathermen) and PLP, fewer students joined, while many older members drifted away.

Without any national student organization to sustain such a wide and diverse protest movement, right-wing political organizations began to chip away at the progressive measures on campuses that SDS helped initiate. The Reagan era followed waving the banner of individual independence and liberty, which has since led to concentrating wealth into the hands of ever fewer people, and a steady attack on programs that protect personal rights.

The extremist beliefs that brought down SDS, occurred from within. They were not imposed on it by the government or right-wing groups. SDS’s demise occurred because its leadership embraced absolute truths; demanding that there was only one true path moving forward, and labeling those not adopting their vision as enemies. Compromises and reason were their poisons; they blurred that vision by challenging the officially pronounced premises and offering alternative ones.

This history may warm the hearts of conservatives who will gleefully see SDS’s destruction as the result of flying to close to a socialist sun, which blinded their logic and melted their wings. That perspective feeds upon the same diet of hubris that undermined SDS’s democratic foundation; the belief that your world view is the only correct one, such as considering that anything socialistic is bad.

For example, the repeated statements made by President Trump, his followers and a good portion of Republicans, would have the public believe that adopting democratic socialist programs would curtail our personal freedoms. By an imaginary leap in logic, they point to Venezuela’s dictatorial President Nicolas Maduro as the inevitable result. Rather they should look to their own libertarian Cato Institute to realize how ridiculous that assumption is. Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, which presents the state of human freedom in the world based on a broad measure that encompasses personal, civil, and economic freedom, gives the US a ranking of 17. There are a dozen countries with socialistic programs who score higher than us.

In fact, SDS’s implosion is more of a cautionary tale for the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. Because at this time the Republicans’ party is practicing the most extremist beliefs. This is most evident in the treatment of women, as the Republicans have allowed religious doctrines to abrogate personal freedoms. The founders of this nation, being very aware of the religious wars that had torn apart their homeland of England, incorporated the separation of church and state into our constitution.

The Republican Party’s base now consists of those who have no tolerance for a democracy that allows citizens to control their own bodies. Instead, they insist that their religious beliefs must dictate the most intimate personal decisions for everyone. So that now President Trump, who leads a democracy based on individual liberties, is accusing women of killing children because he needs the votes of religious fundamentalists, who refuse to acknowledge that the freedom from being controlled by religious doctrine is the basis of our democracy.

How is it that the Republican Party, which was born out of the desire to free black citizens from slavery, now is leading the charge to require all women to adhere to a dogma that many do not choose to follow? While both Democrats and Republicans could learn from SDS’s experience, that lesson is most immediately applicable to the practices being pursued by Republicans toward women. Their traditional conservative values are now being undermined by those within the party who are exhibiting the same behavior of promoting absolute truths that destroyed SDS in the 60s.

To quote Barry Goldwater again, he predicted this threat to the Republican Party over fifty years ago when he said. “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, … it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise.”

When religious dogma trumps democratic values, America’s liberties are far more threatened than any bread and butter socialized services that the radical right so loudly accuses of endangering our freedom.

Parts of this essay were taken from my unpublished manuscript The Student Power Movement  – its rise, fall, and legacy. 

Trump is not a Tyrant – he just admires them

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Written by: Nick Licata


President Trump is not a tyrant, but he doesn’t shy away from admiring them. And, that should give one pause in feeling secure that our nation’s leader is committed to sustaining the world’s longest running democratic republic. For those who don’t see his lack of understanding how a democracy functions, they should consider his statements flattering those leaders who have corrupted or demolished their own democratic institutions, by denying open and unfettered public elections or not allowing media to distribute uncensored information.

For instance, Trump suggested that our country should form with Russia a “Cyber Security unit to guard against election hacking,” even though our intelligence services at that time said Russia, most likely on Putin’s orders, had been hacking of our elections in order to swing the election to someone whom they preferred. This accusation was later confirmed in Special Investigator Mueller’s report. Meanwhile, Putin has, in practice, ended free elections in Russia.

Trump flat out congratulated Chinese President Xi Jinping on his National Congress, which only meets for a week every year, allowing him to serve as president for life. He told the National Republican Congressional Committee at a spring dinner that he referred to Xi as “king” not president because of that change. “He liked that. I get along with him great.” Trump’s largess in bestowing admiration on anti-democratic leaders extends to even countries that are not world powers.

The New York Times (Feb 2, 2018) quoted Trump as saying Egyptian Pres Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a “fantastic guy”, although El-Sisi got elected by jailing or threatening them with the prosecution, leaving only an obscure ardent supporter of his as an opponent. According to the NYT, “most other Western leaders have been largely silent.”

That same NYT edition showed Trump’s support for another national leader who has destroyed democracy in his country “Cambodia PM Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for 33 years has led a sweeping crackdown on opponents before elections this summer. Trump flashed a big thumbs-up as he posed for a photo with Mr. Hun Sen, who later praised the American president for what he called his lack of interest in human rights.”

Trump’s statements appear to spring from his belief that he shared with Fox News in an Interview when he said, “when it comes to foreign policy, I’m the only one that counts.” That does not sound like a Republican or a Democrat, but someone who thinks of himself as being above the process of reaching government decisions within a democratic republic. Trump’s off-hand comments are a warning sign that professors of government at Harvard University, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, have identified as what happened in Europe and Latin America when their democracies broke down.

They see the clearest warning sign of this downward spiral beginning with the ascent of anti-democratic politicians into mainstream politics. They refer to political scientist Juan J. Linz’s work in identifying the behavior of politicians who pushed Europe’s democracies into collapsing just before WWII, as consisting of three traits: “a failure to reject violence unambiguously, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt concluded that Trump exhibited all three. In his electoral campaign, he encouraged violence among supporters; pledged to prosecute Hillary Clinton and had his rallies chant “lock her up”; and threatened legal action against unfriendly media. What I find most disturbing, is when he questioned the legitimacy of our country’s election results, because he didn’t like them.

On the 2012 presidential election night, Trump tweeted minutes after the polls had closed on the West Coast, “This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!” He did so because he mistakenly assumed that Obama had won the election without the majority popular vote. Ironically, Trump won his presidential election without winning the popular vote, but he made no mention of that fact. Instead, he fabricated an unsubstantiated accusation that there were millions of illegal votes cast for Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, something that even Trump’s foremost media ally, Fox Network, has not even attempted to prove. He reverted to this visceral response when the polls indicated that he might lose the 2016 election to Hilary, claiming that it would have been rigged if she had won.

He ran his billion-dollar business as a family operation and continues to have that close-knit family orientation in running the White House. That may be fine for a business or maybe even for the inner workings of an administration’s office staff, but to carry that mentality to how the nation’s government should operate, reveals either ignorance or outright hostility to our basic democratic institutions.

That attitude emerged early in his first term. After the first 100 days in office, he blamed the constitutional checks and balances built into US governance for his legislation stalling. “It’s a very rough system,” he said. “It’s an archaic system … It’s really a bad thing for the country.”
Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons of the Twentieth Century, lists one of the lessons to learn and practice to avoid the collapse of a democratic society is to defend the institutions which keep it alive, like a critical media and an independent judicial system. He concludes that  “Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.” Those who may hold the title of president or control a country called democratic, are in fact tyrants or dictators if they work to undermine and ultimately extinguish those institutions. We should not admire or flatter them.

The Green New Deal Died in Congress – Because the Dems did not have 2 Key Allies

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Written by: Nick Licata


Without the support of farmers and unions, the GND will remain a list of talking points for politicians. The Democrats made a serious error releasing their 14-page non-binding House Resolution 109 without those groups taking a lead in its rollout.
One of the more comprehensive and balanced reviews of the GND’ broad and worthy goals, is from John de Graaf in his The Promise of the Green New Deal published in the Front Porch Republic ( frontporchrepublic.com/2019/03/the-promise-of-the-green-new-deal/ ). Among the many points, he makes is the critical need to bring aboard farmers, who are one of the Republican Party’s core constituencies.
Like de Graaf, Raj Patel and Jim Goodman in their piece A Green New Deal for Agriculture in the Jacobin Magazine, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/04/green-new-deal-agriculture-farm-workers, see President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal serving as a model of how a coalition including farmers and rural voters is needed to move progressive legislation forward. In particular, it can break the power of the current conservative cultural block that defines the climate debate.
Unions are the other main ally that would be in pushing for the GND since they have the most to gain or lose from government policies impacting their work environment. Union members have been a core Democratic constituency, but one that the Republicans have slowly been siphoning away. Trump’s wins in the industrial states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin reflect that continued encroachment.
These writers are following the first rule of defeating an entrenched opposition, you must crack their forces before attempting a frontal assault. As Raj Patel and Jim Goodman put it, GND advocates must “unpick the alliances that the current bloc works to maintain, to find the fault lines that can pry that bloc apart.” Unfortunately, congressional Democrats failed to follow that rule and it seems that Democratic presidential candidates are doing so as well. Washington State Governor Inslee, running as the climate change presidential candidate, missed an opportunity to reach out to rural voters when he launched his first campaign video and did not have either farmers or labor spokespeople talking about the importance of climate change.

Political allies need to be at the table when designing and announcing new programs or visionary statements. If they are not sitting at the table, they could be tossing tomatoes at these efforts or just remain silent. This was evident from the main organizations representing these two constituents in responding to the launch of the GND; at best it was muted and at times hostile.
Leaders of the American Farm Bureau criticized the proposal as misguided and uninformed when the GND was released and soon afterward, the National Farmers Union, a more liberal group representing large farm organizations, said the Green New Deal did not recognize “the essential contribution of rural America.”

Meanwhile, the conservative-leaning Laborers’ International Union of North America, or LIUNA, denounced the Green New Deal the day it was introduced; there has been only one major union, the large east coast based 32BJ SEIU, that has strongly backed the Green New Deal. Meanwhile, most labor organizations have stayed quiet or been skeptically critical.
Initiating this grand new venture with two key groups sitting by the wayside at best is not a way to build a successful movement for change. What is most discouraging, is that it did not have to be this way. The gap between the perception of GND’s potentially negative impact and the resolution’s wording supporting both farmer and union objectives could have been bridged if these groups had participated in some fashion with writing the resolution.

The GND’s language recognizes the needs of both rural and urban workers and assures them that the transition to a sustainable economy that does not destroy our physical environment has their best interests in mind.

For farmers, it states, that the government will work collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible, by supporting family farming and investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health.

For labor in general, the government would back “create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States.” and create “high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages, hires local workers, offers training and advancement opportunities, and guarantees wage and benefit parity for workers affected by the transition.” Who could disagree with such lofty goals, unless you don’t support sustainable farming or providing union jobs?

So how could such a positive program be so rejected or ignored? The answer is not so much as to what was in the GND resolution, so much as a lack of strategy in reaching out to a broader slice of the public through enlisting the active involvement of those constituencies who are targeted by the Republicans to oppose it: rural voters and blue-collar workers.

The Congressional Democrats cannot wait for another vote to pass a newer version of the GND. One will not pass with the current makeup of Congress. Any legislative victories will have to come after the elections in 2020 which will determine the future of the Senate and the Presidency. Until then, the Democrats must focus more on organizing public sentiment than even getting green candidates elected because without strong grassroots support for the principles outlined in the GND, those green candidates will not be winning in swing districts and the Republicans will retain control of the Senate.

The way forward is for Congressional Democrats to hold a series of coordinated public forums in each region of the nation to discuss and to even debate GND’s message. Without creating an opportunity for an open discussion in all parts of the nation, rural and urban areas, those critiquing the GND as a fantasy or as irresponsible will continue to make headway.
When the vast majority of Democratic Senators voted Present, with even a few voting No, rather than Yes to the GND resolution, it was clear that they did so because of a fear of voter backlash.

They legitimately accused the Republicans of not holding open committee meetings with experts brought in, but that is an insider’s complaint. The public doesn’t care about such procedures. Farmers and urban workers want to know how their lives are going to be affected.

It is incumbent that Democrats recognize that need, not through just giving speeches or posting position papers on the internet, but through going into communities, along with allies from the farming and labor communities to directly address the concerns of those who voted for Trump out of a fear that their livelihood would be negatively impacted if we did something to improve our environment. Those who believe that climate change is a real threat to the welfare of our nation’s health and economy must present a simple message: we cannot turn back the clock, but we can take charge of our future.

Low-Income Motor Home Park Residents Evicted but keeping together

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Written By: Nick Licata


A year ago, in March 2018, three young female filmmakers (ages 13 – 15) made a short film to call attention to how their largely Hispanic low-income community in the Firs Motor-Home Park in SeaTac was being threatened with demolition.


The owner planned on building a hotel and apartments on the park and evict the 170-some residents, including 90 children. Most of them attend the Madrona Elementary school across the street, which has over 50% of Latino students, and all who attend are eligible for the low-income 100% free lunch program. It’s a school that will help open the doors for more opportunities to them since it provides a dual language program and assists their children with special needs.

To keep the community together and their children attending this school, State Representative Mia Gregerson and Tenants Union organizers, helped the community raise money from the film and from many other activities to force the owner to either change his plans or provide sufficient funds for the residents to find a new location for the entire community. In particular, they wanted to create a nonprofit or community-ownership model for the park that promotes community control and self-determination while preserving affordable housing for all of SeaTac residents.

After the community concluded an 18-hour negotiating session last week, the Firs Home Owners Association agreed to each of the 42 households in the park receiving $10,000 to help their transition to a new home. They also can remain in the park free of rent for at least a year, while the new development begins to take shape on paper.

While the settlement was the best they could achieve, the community released a statement saying, “It is an injustice that our landlord is allowed to close our park and profit from destroying our homes without giving a fair compensation. The same injustice has befallen countless communities and will happen again to families just like ours.” The number of mobile home communities is being reduced as land values go up and the land that these communities occupy is being developed for greater profits. Motor-home parks Bow Lake (457 spaces) and Angle Lake (64 spaces) currently face that risk.

The Firs HOA says it wishes to keep South King County as a place where low-income families can live with dignity. They state, “We are not asking for charity or for a gift of public funds. Instead, we are working together to create conditions of possibility so that low-income, working, and immigrant families can enjoy the stability and dignity of homeownership.”

Unfortunately, this is not an easy task. Representative Gregerson recognizes that “The policies in government are not set up to help large communities who are identified in the system as being low income or very low income.”  From her own experience, she has found that these communities have different needs from working with older white adults. “They make decisions differently and the amount of “spare” time is different.” Complicating the process is that financial institutions and nonprofits don’t know how to “pre-qualify” people these communities in the traditional way, despite their collective value being worth millions of dollars when pooled together.

Rep. Gregerson perceptively notes that there is an underlying structural condition in our country that has resulted in the scales of justice being distorted by the influence of money as manifested in the growing power of corporations. One of the major principles, but not the only one, governing our democracy is the protection of wealth, i.e. property. But the growth of money’s influence as Rep. Gregerson reasons is why the argument that Corporations are NOT people is a good fight and worth fighting.

There is also a countervailing principle of our democracy is to protect the common welfare of all within our country. It was that principle that was smothered in the treatment of the Firs Motor-Home Park when one person’s financial interests outweighed the living conditions of 42 low-income households. Those involved in the negotiations said that the Firs owners, Mr. Park, rarely showed his face to come to a meeting; he just paid the lawyers’ fees and waited it out. Mr. Park is not a bad person. His relationship with the residents of the park was apparently non-controversial but when he was charged with being insensitive to the loss of their homes, he replied “I feel badly but cannot give charity,” he said in an interview. “I’m a businessman.”

That statement gets to the crux of not only the Firs crises but the crises that affect mobile-home park residents, or tenants in apartment buildings. Neither group owns the land they live on; like so many fallen leaves they are tossed about by the winds of the market place which determines the highest value that land can bring.

The Firs community now plans on using the time and money they received in the settlement to seed a housing project for all of them. But they cannot do it alone. They need public support to find a location and create a residential model, such as a land trust, to keep their community together. For these reasons, they have asked that the $2.5 million allocations in the Housing Trust Fund that had been set aside last year to assist them, be extended for another year; and that it be expanded to allow for the purchase of a new property and the development of affordable housing there.

If you wish to support their effort, please call your state legislators 1-800-562.6000 and the Senate Ways and Means Committee (360) 786-7644. Ask them to re-appropriate the $2.5 million Housing Trust Fund allocation in its proposed Capital Budget for the Firs Mobile Home Park community. That will allow them to rebuild at a new location, which will help address South King County’s vanishing affordable housing.

Mississippians are Organizing to Get Government Accountability

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Written By: Nick Licata

Not all deep red southern states are alike.

    Virginia over the past several years has become more purple while Mississippi has remained deep red. Democrats won more legislative and congressional seats in Virginia. As I pointed out in my last piece, that trend was kicked off by a successful constitutional based lawsuit against the racially based gerrymandering that the Virginia legislature had created. Court cases are one of the three primary tools available to make government’s more accountable.
Unlike Virginia, there is no court ruling pending nor cases filed challenging Mississippi’s gerrymandered state or federal district boundaries. A seasoned research and legal staff are required to file effective lawsuits against a state legislature’s gerrymandering. In Virginia’s case the fair redistricting advocacy groupThe Princeton Gerrymandering Project provided relevant data analysis, which specializes election and political law, and Kevin Hamilton, a litigator from the law firm Perkins Coie, brought the case representing the interests of African-American voters.
They are not involved with Mississippi’s situation. And the other the most likely institution in Mississippi to have available legal staff would be the ACLU. However, Mississippi’s ACLU has focused on directly stopping excessive force abuses against the black community; they filed a federal class-action lawsuit against county deputies who used unconstitutional tactics to target black people. As a result, the courts are not currently looking at any cases that would overturn Mississippi’s racially biased gerrymandered districts.
Mississippi allows citizen-initiated constitutional amendments, but none is currently being planned around redistricting or expanding voter access. Past progressive initiative efforts have failed at the polls. In 2001, a vote to change the state flag by eliminating the Confederate emblem was rejected by nearly two-thirds of voters. Reflecting that same conservative culture, another amendment in 2011 requiring a strict Voter ID law passed. However, that year an amendment supporting an extreme anti-abortion failed. And although the last citizen-initiated promoting greater government accountability, in this case by increasing funding for public education, failed in 2015, it almost passed.
A recent survey indicates that these last two election results reflect a growing dissatisfaction by Mississippi’s citizens with their state legislature’s extreme conservative policies. In January of this year, a survey conducted by the Institute for Civic and Professional Engagement at Millsaps College and Chism Strategies found that the disapproval rating for the Mississippi Legislature’s work was nearly twice as high as its approval rating (46% to 24%). The public’s attitude appears to be swinging toward a rejection of a rigid ideology, as U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who ran as a strong Trump supporter against the moderate Democrat Mike Espy, had a 50% disapproval rate of her work in the Senate but only 38% in support of it.
That survey also showed strong support for funding public services that the Republican-controlled state legislature has opposed. It reported that “A majority of Mississippi voters (65%) say that funding for the state’s public schools is too low, cutting across lines of party, race, gender, educational attainment, and age. Likewise, over 75% support providing for a 3% pay raise for Mississippi public school teachers.”
Brad Chism, the president of Chism Strategies released a statement saying, “This information is not filtered through special interests—it comes straight from a representative sample of voters across the state.” Unlike a number of other surveys that appear to have a particular political bent, this survey’s results, analysis, and crosstabs were publicly released.
The road to achieving greater government accountability now is dependent upon electing officials who recognize the need for better public services. Still, just presenting good candidates is not enough. This past November Mississippi saw two strong and articulate democratic candidates running for the U.S. Senate defeated.
Democratic U.S. Senate Candidate Mike Espy came within 8 points of beating Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith for an open seat, which was the closest U.S. Senate election in Mississippi in the last 30 years. Espy ran as a moderate and Hyde-Smith as a strong Trump supporter. Meanwhile, the Democratic leader in Mississippi’s statehouse, David Baria, lost to the incumbent Republican Sen. Roger Wicker by 20 points.
Baria’s race is typical of how well Democrats do against Republicans in Mississippi, which has been described by analysists as one of the least elastic states in the country, largely because of its demographics. Although at 37%, Mississippi has the highest percentage of black residents of any state and 75% are Democrats or lean that way, the white voters are almost as strongly Republican at 65%, but they make up 61% of the population, leaving relatively few swing voters.
Overall Mississippi is mostly Christian, largely rural and is among the least-educated states. President Trump does well with voters who fall into these categories, but he only got 1% higher of the white voter turn out than McCann did in 2016. Meanwhile, Obama got a 10% greater black turnout than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. So, Espy, a black liberal candidate, turned out more of the Democratic base and didn’t generate any measurable increase in conservative white voters. If a Democrat can keep his or her base while also appealing to independents and those that lean Republican, that person could win.
Baria, who is white, supporting gun control and reproductive rights, was more progressive than Espy. Baria’s Republican opponent Wicker was slightly more moderate than Espy’s opponent Hyde-Smith. The total turnout of Baria’s race was 17% lower than Espy’s, with Baria receiving 66,000 fewer votes than Espy. Nevertheless, Espy’s vote tally was short by that number of votes to win his election. The results would indicate that a moderate Democrat could come closer to beating a Trump Republican by appealing to more cross over voters, but that candidate still needs to get out more voters who support progressive positions if they expect to win. It is a delicate and difficult balance to achieve.
Democratic Rep. Jay Hughes, running for lieutenant governor, is walking that tight-rope. He announced his campaign as a “people-powered, grassroots campaign about inclusion, not exclusion.” His opponent is Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who enjoys a net approval rating of +30%, attracting both Democrats and black voters. His current popularity is higher than any other candidate running for one of Mississippi’s 7 executive offices. Hughes needs to hold onto his base and still attract Hosemann’s support. Hughes has done so by attracting many conservative white working-class families from smaller towns and rural areas as he emphasizes the need for funding for better education and roads, that surveys reveal voters want better funded.
The problem that Hughes faces, and one that other Democrats in Mississippi and other deeply red states confront, is how to keep the support of progressives who could sit out a race if a candidate does not support a woman’s right to have an abortion for instance. As a current state legislator, Hughes recently voted for an anti-abortion measure similar to the one that was defeated at the polls. He understandably explained his vote as one that was necessary to retain his seat and make him a competitive candidate for lieutenant governor, but it could also result in a lower turnout from his voter base.
Another strong democratic candidate, Jennifer Riley-Collins, is running for the vacant Attorney General position. As a retired decorated army colonel with 20 years of military service and an active in the religious community, she can also attract traditional republican leaning voters. However, she is the current Executive Director of Mississippi’s ACLU and has represented it in opposing state laws that violated an individual’s civil rights. As Attorney General, she would now have to defend those laws. She says that if elected she is committed to “represent the legal interest of the State of Mississippi.” And she strongly states, “My commitment to serve and protect all Mississippians fully qualifies me for the position.”  She has several popular Republican opponents and any of them are expected to outspend her in the general election.
The best chance that the Democrats have for capturing a state-wide office is with the current Attorney General Jim Hood, who is running for the vacant Governor’s seat. He has been the only statewide elected Democrat in Mississippi for some time. Like, Rep. Jay Hughes, he has support among white working-class families, particularly from rural areas, which is critical since Mississippi’s only urban center is the Greater Jackson area, and has a population of less than 600,000 in a state with a total population just shy of 3 million.
Hood’s opponent is Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who has big financial backers but polls only 47 percent with those leaning Republican while Hood scores an approval of 46 percent, and with independent voters Hood leads Reeves by 13 points. But like all of the other Democrat candidates, campaigning on some liberal social policies are constrained by the need to retain the support of those culturally conservative families.
Even with viable democratic candidates, the road to victory depends on getting out more voters and providing them good information on the issues. Espy’s campaign did that according to Beth Orlansky, the Advocacy Director for the Mississippi Center for Justice, saying “There was a groundswell of excitement to get registered and vote, Espy’s campaign energized people that hadn’t voted before. There still is an appetite for change.”
Mississippi Votes has a proven track record of turning out new voters, Izzy Bronstein, the Grassroots Organizer for Common Cause, said: “Mississippi Votes is one great organization getting out new voters.” Arekia Bennett, the Executive Director of Mississippi Votes, explains their strategy for particularly reaching young new voters: “Mississippi Votes is Millennial led and youth-centered — in an effort to stay true to that founding principle, we have campus ambassadors on 9 of the 17 colleges and universities throughout the state of Mississippi. It is our goal, by August, to have that same youth civic engagement programming in 5 high schools across the state.” Focusing on youth makes sense given the economic difficulty they are having. A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found Millennials born in the ’80s have a net worth 34% below what was expected.
But just getting them to vote would not be enough. Bennett explains that “Mississippi Votes does political education, voter registration, and conducts research that informs our organizing strategies in and with communities that have historically been disenfranchised and/or have a below average voter turnout rate during non-presidential elections.”
While Mississippi Votes has supported online voter registration, which appeals to youth, Mississippi still does not have Election Day registration, automatic voter registration, mail ballot delivery or campus vote centers. Adopting any of these measures would greatly contribute to increasing voter turnout for all residents. Mississippi residents are strongly behind making voting easier for them. The January Millsaps / Chism survey found 71% of Mississippians favored allowing for early voting in their Circuit Clerk’s offices 14 days before an election, something that is allowed in 38 other states. However, these measures will only be adopted when the Republican supermajority in each chamber can be reduced to at least a simple majority and the Governor is a Democrat so that a Democratic Governor’s veto of restrictive voting measures could not be overridden.
It will be a challenge to reduce the number of Republicans to the level that drops their seats below 60% in either chamber. The Democrats would have to win either 10 seats in the House or 5 seats in the Senate for that to happen. Without redistricting, the current gerrymandered state districts will be used, but that does not eliminate the possibility of flipping the necessary number of seats to deny the Republicans a supermajority in either chamber. It was done in Virginia under the same conditions, it can happen in Mississippi.

Electoral wins take grassroots organizing and good candidates. If Mississippi Votes can turn out the youth voters and others who have not registered to vote but want more government accountability, those wins are very possible. As the Millsaps / Chism state-wide survey showed, the populace wants to change. They need to believe that there is a chance for that happening. Local organizations like Mississippi Votes, One Voice, People’s Advocacy Institute and Fair Vote, need assistance from national groups like the NAACP, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC) and Common Cause. These groups must provide assistance if Mississippi’s state government is to have a bi-partisan distribution of power and finally provide greater accountability to its residents.
John Chappell, a young student volunteer in Mississippi Votes, bluntly summarized Mississippi’s challenge, “Our institutions aren’t going to save themselves. We need to deliberately push for more inclusive, more democratic governance. Our institutions rely on citizen participation, which means that everyone has to do their part.”

Virginia’s Approach to Government Accountability

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Part II of Identifying a Winnable Southern State Strategy

Written by: Nick Licata


Despite the top three elected Virginia State Democrats generating national headlines for being accused of past racist or even criminal behavior, a movement to reform their democratic process continues to grow. These efforts can use three tools for making structural changes in government: the initiative process, court rulings and electing new public officials.

Virginia does not have the first option. Citizens can only vote on a specific institutional change when their General Assembly (their Senate and House chambers) brings a state constitutional amendment to a vote of the people. Virginia, like a number of other states, has a constitution that is very prescriptive. Consequently, what may be handled as a legislative solution becomes a constitutional amendment, which is a three-step process: it must be passed by two sessions of the General Assembly, followed by a vote of the populace. Despite an arduous journey, constitutional amendments are voted on regularly, most of which are non-controversial.

Their General Assembly completed its annual session in February. On the last day, they overwhelmingly approved a ground-breaking amendment to establish a bi-partisan Redistricting Commission to draw legislative and congressional maps. Next year’s General Assembly must vote on it again before it is placed on the ballot as a referendum during the November 2020 election.

The proposed commission will have 16-members, eight legislators (four Senators and four Delegates, with equal representation between the parties in each chamber) and eight citizen members (selected by a committee of retired circuit court judges from lists submitted by majority and minority party leadership in each chamber).  The Commission’s redistricting plan must then be approved, without any amendment, by a majority vote of their General Assembly’s two chambers and if passed cannot be vetoed by the Governor. The new boundaries would be in place for the 2021 state district and congressional races, which could shift the control of either chamber or both from the Republicans to the Democrats.

Brian Cannon, Executive Director of OneVirginia2021, was very enthusiastic about the proposed amendment, saying that “This is the most comprehensive reform ever passed through a state legislature.” OneVirginia2021 believed that powerful computerized mapping tools and detailed demographic data in the past had turned district boundary mapmaking into a weapon to keep the party in power from being elected out, as well as giving incumbents the advantage over outside challengers.

Although OneVirginia2021 has a budget under a half-million, with donations averaging $100, they have created 10 regional chapters and garnered over 1,000 core volunteers to collect 100,000 petition signers to support an independent redistricting commission, which would use a transparent process and clear rules that protect communities. They then laid out, in Brian’s words, “a close-to-perfect kind of plan that we thought they (the General Assembly) could use. It served as a marker, though we are far from perfect in what we got.”

Another grassroots organization, the New Virginia Majority, has also played an instrumental role in pushing for redistricting reforms. Jamaa Bickley King, the board chair of NVM has been quoted as saying “While various plans have been put forward, we at New Virginia Majority believe that the only way to remedy the blatant racial discrimination that took place is to ensure a new map maximizes the voting power of minority communities.” NVM hired a national data firm, TargetSmart, to construct a map that respected communities of color and communities of interest and introduced it to the General Assembly as an alternative redistricting map.

Although appreciative of what the General Assembly proposed, Tram Nguyen, Co-Executive Director of NVM, still has concerns, which she believes should be addressed in next year’s legislature’s session. They have introduced redistricting criteria legislation to provide clearer district guidelines and make-up of the commission. Nguyen says, “We must make sure the voices of racial and language minority populations are not ignored in this process.” These clarifications of the proposal would be administrative guidelines, and hence could be passed by the General Assembly without violating the rule denying any amendments being made to what was passed this year.

While both NVM and OneVirginia2021 pushed for an independent commission to draw the districts instead of legislators, they didn’t get that since legislators compose half of the commission membership. However, they strongly approved of commission’s transparency provisions. Those elements consist of requiring the commission to have open public meetings and to hold at least three public hearings in different parts of the Commonwealth and to have all records and documents associated with the Commission’s work be available to the public. These measures provide community organizations to mobilize residents to express their support or displeasure on the administrative rules that will guide the commission’s operations.

The Republican-controlled legislature was motivated to create the commission after they lost 15 house seats in the 2017 elections when they had said they expected to lose no more than five. They were facing a real possibility and still do, that the Democrats could control the General Assembly and use gerrymandering to their own advantage just as the Republicans had been doing.

Those electoral victories were due in large part to the efforts of the New Virginia Majority registering 140,000 new voters the prior year. By targeting low voter turnout communities, like people of color and young people, and lower income folks of all color, they helped overwhelming defeat the Republican-backed “Right-to-Work” constitutional amendment at the polls in 2016, winning the vote in every county. NVM continues to register voters and is expecting that their “get out the vote” effort will result in several hundred thousand new voters in 2020 when the constitutional amendment creating the redistricting commission comes on the ballot.

Winning elections is more than just increasing the number of voters, it’s about reflecting the public’s wishes. The desire for more accountability is a non-partisan issue. The Brennan Center for Justice reported that a poll taken last December by Virginia’s Wason Center for Public Policy found that 78% of Virginia voters support a constitutional amendment to create a non-partisan redistricting commission. But the message must be delivered with bipartisan support because past polling has shown that the public is suspicious of political parties using democratic “reforms” to promote their own advantage. Although an all citizen independent redistricting commission would probably receive the most public support, this one’s bi-partisan structure will likely be seen by voters as moving in the right direction, particularly if there are good administrative guidelines.

It is also critical that the public’s wishes be informed of their constitutional rights, which ultimately are determined by the courts. It’s about safeguarding our liberty. The initial force that made Virginia’s elections more accountable to all citizens resulted from a Federal Court ruling in 2016, which found that their Congressional boundaries were discriminatory against black communities. New boundaries used in the 2018 election resulted in 3 of the 11 seats in Congress flipping from Republican to Democrat. A separate court decision in 2017, came to that same conclusion for state house seats and over 20 house district boundaries were redrawn.

Democracies do not sleep. They are dynamic organizations, pushed by technical innovations, demographic fluctuation, and economic cycles. These all contribute to improving or hindering citizens access to the polls. For that reason, it is necessary to continually evaluate if voter access is being maximized. After redistricting, it is the next challenge that state governments must move onto. In Virginia’s last General Assembly session four automatic voter registration bills failed in committee, as did six no-excuse absentee voting – early voting bills and seven vote-by-mail ones. If the Democrats have a majority in either chamber, it will be incumbent upon them to take up and pass these measures where they can.

There is no final victory in keeping our democracy alive, there is only constant diligence to care for it, or else it will slip away.

Identifying a Winnable Southern State Strategy in 2019

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Written By: Nick Licata

What does a win look like?

Seeing a win depends on who’s looking at it. I take the viewpoint of a Pragmatic Progressive. I define a pragmatist as someone who sees that a path forward consists of one step at a time, and that small steps are meaningless compromises if they are not followed up with another step, which goes forward with the same principles.

And what about being a Progressive? Historically the progressive movement grew out of the urban areas in the early 1900s. It pursued reforming government so that it would be more accountable for providing better environmental, social and economic conditions. Its message is the same today, although I would add safeguarding liberty. Promoting these objectives will attract people from across the political spectrum and improve everyone’s quality of life. That movement is afoot today in Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana in trying to achieve more accountable and representative state governments.

Why are 3 Southern States in Play this Year?

I found examples of progressive successes in these three states; the only state’s holding elections in 2019 for their state legislators. All of their state senators are up four-year terms, as are the representatives in Louisiana and Mississippi, while Virginia’s representatives will serve two-year terms. Mississippi and Louisiana’s Governors and all of their state-wide executive positions will also be voted on. The total of their legislators is only a fraction of the 5,000 state legislators who will be elected in the 2020 elections, nevertheless, they could shape the national 2020 elections by providing a winning strategy for promoting fair redistricting and greater voter access.

Many residents in these three states have limited access to the ballot box and live in gerrymandered voting districts that favor Republicans winning. Since they controlled the state governments, they were able to draw the state legislative boundaries to their advantage. If voter participation can be expanded in some of the most voting-restricted states in our nation, the path toward electoral wins in 2020 for more representative, responsive state governments will have begun.

At first glance, the political terrain of Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana

is similar. In each, the Republicans control both legislative chambers, albeit they have only a one or two seat majority in Virginia’s legislatures, while in Louisiana and Mississippi they have supermajorities in both chambers. All had been required to receive advance federal approval to change their election laws under the Voting Rights Act because their racial minorities faced barriers to votingThat obligation in the Act was nullified when the Supreme Court ‘s five conservative justices ruled that racial discrimination was no longer a problem.

Limited Voter Access

None of these three states have any of the following practices that encourage voter participation: Election Day registration, automatic voter registration, mail ballot delivery or campus vote centers. Legislation to enact them has been consistently blocked by the Republicans.

In this year’s Mississippi House of Representatives four different bills, introduced by four different representatives, promoting automatic voter registration failed to even be considered in committee. In Virginia the response was the same, four automatic voter registration bills failed in committee, as did six no-excuse absentee voting — early voting bills and seven vote-by-mail ones. The same experience is expected in the Louisiana Legislature once it convenes in April.

One critical change that would increase voter turnout, particularly among youth, is to adopt automatic voter registration (AVR) when applying for a driver’s license for example. The nonprofit Center for American Progress released a study finding that the percentage of young voters dramatically increased in Oregon and California after they adopted AVR. As of the beginning of 2019, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only seven states have AVR, none in the south. With a citizen’s grassroots movement, Virginia, Mississippi or Louisiana could join that list.

Gerrymandered Districts Have Led to One Party Rule

Achieving fair state and congressional district boundaries is the basis for having citizens being fairly represented in their state legislatures and Congress. That will likely not be achieved in Mississippi and Louisiana until the Democrats control at least one of their chambers. Republicans have controlled the state governments in all three states since 2010. As a result, they gerrymandered districts to their benefit, effectively barring Democratic and black community voters from being fairly represented in state government and Congress.

Before the Republican landslide that swept across the nation, halfway through President Obama’s first term, Democrats controlled both chambers from 1992 to 2009 in Louisiana and Mississippi. Since then Republicans have dominated both chambers. Party control over Virginia’s chambers has been more divided with the Democrats controlling both chambers only from 1992 to 1997, with the Republicans more often controlling one of the chambers and the governorship than the Democrats.

Although Virginia was considered one of the most gerrymandered states, thanks to citizen organizations, like OneVirginia2021 and New Virginia Majority, their state legislature passed a proposed constitutional amendment to create a bipartisan redistricting commission. More information on how that victory was accomplished is covered in my next piece in this series on Identifying a Winnable Southern State Strategy.

Three Paths to Stopping Gerrymandering

The Brennan Center for Justice, after interviewing a diverse group of more than 100 stakeholders using commissions for redistricting maps, concluded that commissions could significantly improve satisfaction across the stakeholder spectrum in achieving better representation than what is provided through legislatures gerrymandering districts. They did caution that commissions had to be structured to promote independence and incentivize discussion and compromise.

There are only 3 political paths that can lead to creating such commissions: by a direct vote of the populace, by order of the courts, or by electing representatives and a governor who agree to establish one. In most states, the governor can veto a legislature’s proposed redistricting plan. In Louisiana and Virginia, a governor’s veto applies to both state and congressional districts, while in Mississippi the governor can only veto plans for drawing congressional districts.

This introductory piece is followed by three more pieces describing how citizens are applying these strategies in Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Their efforts are not grabbing the national headlines since they are overshadowed by Congress’s battle with the President. However, they are laying the groundwork for a systematic alteration in each state’s democratic process so that more citizens have a hand in determining a better future for their families. And by example, they point the way for citizen groups in other states on how they could pursue these changes.

The Wall, The Democrats and The Art of Negotiating

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Originally Published Jan. 9 on Medium by Nick Licata


The first rule of successful negotiating is to do so from a position of strength. If you are not in that position, still declare that you are. If you are negotiating in the public arena, the general audience will not really know which side is stronger, if both are claiming to be such. And if the consequences of just the negotiations negatively impact the public’s welfare, it doesn’t take much brainpower to realize that the public just wants it to end. Who wins is not their major concern. A rising chorus of “please compromise” usually is the refrain to let them get back to leading normal lives. The details of that compromise are secondary to this primary concern.

This is the framework within which President Donald Trump and the Congressional Democratic leaders Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer find themselves in.

The second rule of successful negotiating is to not overplay your hand by assuming that your side has more “facts” than the other side has in proposing the right solution to the problem before them. This is a bigger danger for the side that actually does have more and better facts. That may sound counter-intuitive. If they have a better set of facts and they share them with the public, shouldn’t their side be able to sway public opinion to support their side of the negotiations?

That only holds true if both sides have the same size megaphone. If the side with the weaker facts can reach more people, they can blunt and most certainly muddy the factual basis of who is correct. And once they do that, the role of “facts” diminishes. This has been Trump’s consistent “modus operandi.”

And, it is the conundrum that the Congressional Democratic leadership find themselves wrapped in. The President has a bigger megaphone. House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer, retort to Trump’s televised address, was rational but also defensive. Worse they didn’t say the magic words “let’s compromise”, which Trump did. Even though the facts show that the Democrats already did when they voted at the end of last year to pass legislation, with both majority Republican and Democrat support, for funding a portion of the wall. Trump originally indicated he would be fine with the legislation. And then he rejected it.

What drives the Democrats, and even a trickle of Republicans, crazy is that Trump sends mixed messages and changes his mind in mid-course. Worse yet, he makes sweeping statements, that while they almost always contain a thread of truth, they present a blatantly false tapestry of reality. His national address justifying the wall was a classic example. He has said we are in an emergency situation, however, the number of people crossing into the US from Mexico is down 90% from 2000. How do you have an emergency when the apparent threat to our security has been shrinking not expanding?

Trump also claimed that “Every week, 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across from our southern border.” The Drug Enforcement Administration says “only a small percentage” of heroin seized by the U.S. comes across on territory between ports of entry. They concluded that a border wall would NOT choke off most smuggling methods.

By repeating exaggerations and then abandoning them when challenged, Trump has been able to keep his opposition, and his allies, off balance. The result is that the political power to make final national decisions has devolved into his hands alone. Even his cabinet members have been corralled to stay within the boundaries of his ever-shifting fencing.

The Democrats have seized on Trump’s inconsistencies, thinking that they have struck a vein of unlimited gold nuggets. While exposing these mistakes, exaggerations or lies, every day of the week, the net effect has not been so dramatic. Trump’s national approval ratings hover around 40% with his Republican base seemingly stuck at over 75%. And he is counting on that trend continuing no matter how long the government is shut down. The Democrats are certain that while Trump has a hard core of supporters who may never abandon him, the Republican Congressional Members are more exposed, particularly in states and districts with more ethnically diverse and educated voters. And they are beginning to waver.

Now is the time for the Democrats to shape a message of “compromise” but without abandoning social justice principles. Right now they are in a stronger position than Trump or the Republicans. But if the shut down continues, political anger will rise and neither party will be spared. The path forward becomes uncertain, that is why timing is important.

What does a compromise look like? It must acknowledge that security is important. That is Trump’s go to message. Democrats need to grab it from him. But rather than approaching it as a more pro-wall or more anti-immigrant policy, which some Democrats fear a compromise might entail, the better approach is to attack the concept of Trump’s Wall as ineffective and wasteful government spending. This is an issue that cuts into the heart of the middle-class voters who are sympathetic to immigrants but are still fearful for their own families’ safety.

The Democratic leaders have often said they support greater border security, so that ground has already been paved. The Democrats just need to drive on it, right up to the middle of the debate. They need to champion security for everyone, including immigrants, who are often the victims from criminal elements in their own community, which plays off of Trump’s own statements of how immigrants are victims of crime.

The second prong of the Democrats response must be to call out the concrete or steel wall as a bumper sticker slogan, not a real solution that offers security. We need wise leaders who will not drain our tax dollars away from real and effective strategies. And there may indeed need to be funds available, as was agreed to in the past by the Democrats, to maintain certain physical barriers along the border. But that should only be done in conjunction with other more sophisticated security measures and with a better administrative system for handling the flow of immigrants wanting to enter our country.

This approach will attract the support of Congressional Republicans who are being beaten up by their own constituents wanting an end to the government shutdown. They will support something that works as a solution to addressing the border security issue and ends the shutdown.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a leading House tea party conservative has said in describing his party’s determination, “I think you can’t cave. That’s what the Democrats don’t understand — it’s all or nothing.” That is exactly what enrages the public because it’s just about who wins a bare-knuckle fight.

Now is the time for the Democrats to drive home a counter message by proposing a workable, cost-effective and humane solution. And it will be a win for everyone, not just one side.

Keynote Address to the Seattle Real Change Newspaper

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Originally Published September 24, 2018

Urban Politics – USA

By Nick Licata

Below is my keynote address to the Seattle Real Change newspaper, published by those who are either homeless or had been. Real Change is thought by many to be the most successful weekly newspaper published by the homeless in the country.

My talk ties the cause of homelessness to our current dominant national political philosophy that considers the freedom to accumulate wealth to be more legitimate than the freedom from want.

A video of my talk, taken by Mind Over Matters producer Mike McCormick can be seen here.

The news program Mind Over Matters has been on the non-profit radio station KEXP giving a forum to those not normally heard in corporate media. The station is cancelling MOM at the end of this year, 2018. For further information go to their MOM’s Facebook page.

Nick's Keynote

Nick Licata’s Keynote at the Real Change 24th Annual Breakfast

Sept 18, 2018, Seattle WA

 I wrote Becoming a Citizen Activist because I believe activism begins by noticing things which we had ignored or accepted as a given, that at some point just don’t seem right.

It’s asking ourselves, as Rosa Parks did, why am I sitting in the back of the bus, instead of the front?  Thoughts like those spark movements for change.

So, how do we spark that inquisitive mind? And then take the next step; by helping others also see it differently? In order, to make a better world.

I think it begins by questioning the status quo. Is it serving our needs, those of our neighbors or fellow citizens?

Let me define “citizen” at this point: It is anyone. Living here. And, contributing to our democratic society. It is not just a piece of paper.  Or, running through a gauntlet of bureaucratic red tape. And, having a big bank account, should not allow someone to cut into the front of the line for becoming Citizen. And certainly, it is not based on the color of one’s skin, or the religion they practice or not having a religion at all.

A quote, from of all people, the conservative Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, summed up what being an American is all about.

After President Trump, had finished railing, in the Oval Office, to a group of Republican leaders, sharing, what some seemed to be white nationalist thoughts, – who would have thought? Sen. Graham spoke up. He looked directly at President Trump told him bluntly, “America is an idea, not a race.”

And what is that idea? President Franklin D. Roosevelt, put it in real terms, in his 1941 State of Union address. He said, “The Republic grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights – among them the right of free speech, free press, and free worship.”

Then, he went on to say,  “As our nation has grown, as our economy has expanded, these political rights have proved inadequate to assure us equality. We have come to a clear realization, of the fact, that true individual freedom, cannot exist, without economic security and independence.”

He was adding a 4th freedom, “the freedom from want.” That speech became known as the 4 Freedoms Speech. Recognizing that last freedom is at the heart of our nation’s current political struggles.

It goes beyond debating how many beds we can afford to provide for homeless people. It goes beyond expressing sympathy for the most vulnerable among us. It comes down to Americans having to decide what kinds of freedoms are most important.

Is it the “freedom from want” OR the “freedom to accumulate wealth” – without restraint. Since 1977 we have seen 12% of the Nation’s Wealth, as measured by the GDP, transferred from middle class working families to the top 1% of our population. That trend cannot sustain a functioning, responsive democracy.

This is not a new debate in our country’s history, but it is now reaching a crescendo. And we see it playing out in our Supreme Court decisions. Unfortunately, we are relying on our court system, because the other 2 branches of government, under both parties, have already allowed for the highest concentration of wealth this nation has ever seen

In seeking a path forward, I’m not talking about socialism, I’m not talking about capitalism, and I’m not talking about class warfare.

I’m talking about, what a democratic society needs so that people do not give up hope in our system of government so that our citizens do not seek solace in cynicism or embrace the false security of believing in demagogues’ accusations on who is responsible for our problems.

Unfortunately we can see that happening, the first with the decline of voter turn out, from those who have the most to lose from an unrepresentative government and the second with the explosion of conspiracy theories, that blame the weak or those that have the least political power, and unfortunately they are too often echoed by the White House.

The effects of a shrinking middle class on the national stage are now well documented; to get by, people are working longer hours or multiple jobs, having poorer health and then when they are too old to find work, they are left with miniscule savings set-aside for retirement. For instance, the median savings for all U.S. families is just $5,000. And, according to a 2016 survey, 35 percent of all adults have only several hundred dollars in their savings accounts and they are still better off than 34 percent have zero savings.

Closer to home, here in Seattle, we are witnessing the decline of the middle class and the growth of the poverty class. It can happen to anyone who is barely able to pay for his or her basic necessities. According to the King County “All Home” website, the leading cause of someone becoming homeless is their loss of a job.

I consider the grand myth of homelessness to be the belief that it’s someone else’s problem. For too many people it only becomes their problem, when they find tent cities and campsites, sprouting up in neighborhoods that never saw before.

I travel around, visiting other cities, and let me tell you, Seattle is not alone in witnessing these hardships. We see poverty expanding because the dominant national political philosophy that says the freedom to protect marketplace investments is more legitimate than protecting the economic welfare of our citizens.

The response to this mindset is not simply spending more money to provide social services or even more affordable housing. Those are good things and they are needed.

But if you just go down that path, of only providing services and not altering our laws, you will end up arguing about the burden of taxes and the management of government. Which were raised as objections to pass a head tax on the largest Seattle businesses, in order to provide more affordable housing? Even though, less than 2% of Seattle Businesses would have paid any of it.

That is why we must go beyond just treating the damaging effects of that dominant philosophy. We must change the expectations that our fellow citizens have for our nation so that it is a society we want to live in. A society that provides the economic security that FDR referred to.  And the people in this room and thousands of others, beyond this hall, have shown that we can change our laws to create, not a perfect society, but one that is certainly a more just and an equitable one.

Seattle’s victories have been adopted by other cities, in both red and blue states. They have taken root because citizens realize that they have more in common in protecting public welfare than protecting the power and wealth of the few.

Seattle has begun that effort by adjusting the structure of our economy so that people will gain some stability in their lives so that they have an opportunity to reach the American dream of economic independence and not be dependent on government.

Let’s identify a few significant steps that Seattle has taken toward that goal  – in just 2 areas: improving working conditions and increasing rental security. Both have made Seattle more affordable to those who are in the middle to bottom half of the family incomes.

They are not final solutions, but they are real and long-lasting changes.

With regards to working conditions:

We set a national standard by gradually moving to a $15 minimum wage for all employees in Seattle. We listened to all sides, but we did not retreat from this objective. It did not happen overnight, but it was achieved. And as a result, thousands of lower paid; part-time workers can now better manage their financial burdens.

We also adopted one of the most progressive Paid Sick Leave ordinances in the nation, which allows sick employees to stay home or stay home to take care of their sick children, and still receive pay. Before this law was passed nearly 40% of the private-sector workforce, who are among the least economically secure, did not have this benefit. Illness forced them to take time away from work without pay and put them at the risk of losing their job.

We’ve passed a Wage Theft ordinance so that workers actually get paid for the work they are doing. Too often in the past, businesses would require extra work time, before or after an employee has punched in, without compensation.

Lastly, to ensure that our labor laws are enforced, the city established an Office of Labor Standards. Without enforcement, there is no change.


With regards to rental security:

Seattle City Council passed a law requiring rental property owners to assist financially strapped tenants to enroll in installment plans to pay the high upfront-costs for securing a rental unit. Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve announced that 46% of adults could not cover an emergency expense costing $400 without selling something or borrowing money. And the vast majority of these folks are renters.

A Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance was established after an extensive public involvement to help write it. Inspectors will now make sure all registered rental properties comply with minimum housing and safety standards. This preserves the quality of life for renters in all neighborhoods.

Afterward, a Tenant Protection Law was enacted, to guarantee that rental units are fit for habitation before a landlord increases rents. According to the 2009 American Survey, approximately 10 percent of our rentals have moderate to severe physical problems. A housing code violation plus a rent increase now trigger this protection.

Lastly, to assure that renters’ interests are fairly represented, a City Renters Commission was established last year.  Formally and systematically hearing from renter’s representatives is critical to keeping Seattle affordable. Because rising rents have left Seattle with the 3rd largest homeless population in the U.S. according to Zillow.

Passing these laws shows that we are not helpless. We do not have to wait for Congress to act. Here in Seattle, and in other cities, there is an urban movement to provide for “a freedom from want” to stop more people from sliding into a state of homelessness.

It does take persistent work, innovative solutions, and a commitment to be engaged in our democracy. But, isn’t that why all of us are here: to be citizen activists and to assure that freedom rings – for all of us.

Thank you.