A GOP Governor Has a Chance To Fix A Blue State’s Draconian Approach to Paroling Juvenile Offenders

Originally published in The Intercept on December 10, 2018.
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IN 1993, A 40-year-old man in Maryland who was serving a life sentence for a 1975 murder left prison on the state’s prerelease program. Correctional officers had described Rodney Stokes as a model prisoner who had demonstrated no inclination to reoffend. Stokes had been in the work-release program since 1988 and had worked for the Baltimore Department of Public Works as a laborer since 1989. But one day after leaving, he killed his former girlfriend and then himself.

The murder-suicide came on the heels of three other incidents in Maryland involving the prerelease of prisoners. The Willie Horton ad that derailed Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign was also still fresh in the public’s mind. Horton was a convicted felon serving a life sentence in Massachusetts; while on a weekend furlough, he committed assault, armed robbery, and rape. He was captured and sentenced in Maryland, where he remains to this day.

In reaction to the Stokes incident, Maryland’s Democratic governor at the time, Parris Glendening, removed all lifers from the prerelease program and announced, in 1995, that he would approve no recommendations to parole lifers going forward. “A life sentence means life,” he declared. Maryland, along with California and Oklahoma, is one of just three states in which the governor’s signature is required in order to parole prisoners with life sentences; in the 25 years leading up to Glendening’s decision, three Maryland governors had paroled 181 prisoners with life sentences. The state courts upheld Glendening’s pronouncement in 1999, and it remains effectively in place today — even with respect to juvenile offenders, who in recent years have seen their life sentences revisited around the country.

There are an estimated 2,100 people in prison nationwide who were sentenced to life for crimes they committed when they were 17 or younger. But recently, some states have eliminated life without parole sentences for juveniles altogether. Others have devised alternative sentencing schemes to give juvenile offenders a “meaningful opportunity” for release. The changes were prompted by a bevy of scientific evidence about adolescent brain development and powerful U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have been issued in the past eight years.

Maryland, however, appears to be stuck in the tough-on-crime fervor of the 1990s. Not one juvenile lifer in Maryland has been paroled outright — released on a formal recommendation to the governor based on the prisoner’s good behavior and signs of rehabilitation — since 1995. There are currently more than 200 parole-eligible juveniles toiling away in the state’s prisons. That’s in large part, criminal justice reformers say, because of the governor’s role in the process, which they describe as highly politicized — and which leads to people being locked up forever.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan was re-elected to a second term last month. He now has an opening to parole more individuals with life sentences, and then ultimately remove himself from the parole approval process altogether.

“Republicans are presumed to be about law and order, and it can be easier for law-and-order politicians to move on criminal justice reform or grant clemency,” said Jane Murphy, a University of Baltimore law professor. “There’s a lot of pressure on him, but it’s also politically easier for him to [grant parole]. We’re sort of hopeful now, because this is his second term and he’s term-limited. … If this is the end of the road for Hogan, he might be more courageous.”

HOGAN’S APPROACH TO juvenile lifers is rooted in the Maryland Court of Appeals’s 1999 decision upholding Glendening’s decree. The court found that the rights of lifers were not violated by the governor’s blanket refusal to approve any recommendation from the Maryland Parole Commission.

From then on, Maryland’s governors would reject recommendations — typically without explanation — to parole lifers who had demonstrated good behavior. Sometimes recommendations to parole lifers would be left in limbo, sitting on the governor’s desk for years.

In 2011, advocates confronted the Maryland legislature with evidence that parole and commutation requests were pending indefinitely, and the General Assembly responded by modifying the statute, requiring the governor to act on a parole recommendation within six months. The governor at the time, Democrat Martin O’Malley, responded by swiftly rejecting all pending recommendations.

Criminal justice reformers have continued to press the legislature to take the governor out of the process, and to leave parole decisions up to the Parole Commission. Those efforts, however, have been routinely stymied by legislators that are fearful of being blamed for another Rodney Stokes or Willie Horton. “It’s hard for someone to say, ‘I’m going to undo this policy,’” said Sonia Kumar, a juvenile justice-focused attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “They’ll say, “Well, one bad headline and my political career is in the toilet.’”

In 2017, the Maryland House of Delegates approved a bill that would have removed the governor from the decision-making process, leaving it up to the Parole Commission to make a final determination. “It is the Parole Commission that sits in front of these individuals who are serving life sentences, and can aptly gauge the person’s rehabilitation, remorse, and disposition, while conducting a thorough review of the relevant records and documents,” reads testimony in support of the bill from the University of Baltimore law school’s Juvenile Justice Project and the University of Maryland law school’s Gender Violence Clinic.

But Hogan fought the bill in the Senate and wrote on Facebook that he “strongly disagree[s] with giving this important responsibility to a nameless board with no accountability to voters and people of this state.” He described it as a partisan attempt to “radically change our state government” and deny Marylanders the “needed and appropriate oversight” they deserve. The bill ended up floundering in the Senate, due to some proposed amendments that advocates deemed unacceptable.

“I think the pushback came because [Hogan] views it as just a challenge to his authority,” said Walter Lomax, the executive director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative. Lomax was released from prison in 2006, after serving 40 years for a murder he did not commit. “We try not to be adversarial when pushing for this legislation,” Lomax added. “We’ve just tried to present the hard facts as to why this policy should be changed.”

THESE POLITICAL BATTLES are especially urgent, criminal justice reform advocates say, because the process for parole and commutation is shrouded in secrecy.

Murphy, who directs the Juvenile Justice Project at the University of Baltimore law school, put it this way: “Our sources of information are occasional leaks from the Parole Commission, or if the ACLU can glean facts through a lawsuit discovery. We don’t know how many people have been commuted, and the only reason we have any information at all is because we push and [file requests under the Freedom of Information Act] and call and write letters and ask for favors, but the vast majority of people in the parole system are unrepresented and there’s no accountability at all.”

There’s “a recognition that secrecy does not tend to breed fair outcomes,” said Kumar of the ACLU. Unlike many other states, Maryland does not recognize a right to counsel in parole hearings, and there are no records of what happens during the proceedings. When the ACLU of Maryland filed a public records request in order to learn how many people had been recommended for clemency, the Parole Commission refused to even disclose that number, saying the information was protected by executive privilege.

The consequence of all this, advocates say, is a loss of hope for people who have spent decades in prison working to rehabilitate themselves, while being told that good behavior could one day lead to parole.

When Hogan ran for governor in 2014, he gave the impression that he would govern differently on this issue, promising to parole lifers who were recommended for release more quickly. And his record on approving parole requests has been slightly better than that of his Democratic predecessor, O’Malley, but that bar is so low that advocates see the situation as still fundamentally broken.

“In office, he’s dealt with it like [Republican Gov. Robert] Ehrlich dealt with it,” said Lomax, “where he’d commute a few sentences and then let people be paroled out that way.”

As of February, according to a letter sent to the state Senate by Hogan’s chief counsel and reviewed by The Intercept, the governor approved two out of nine parole requests during his first three years and granted seven commutations. By contrast, O’Malley, in his eight years in office, granted three commutations and authorized just two medical paroles, a form of release granted to prisoners who are terminally ill and need to move into hospice.

Amelia Chasse, a Hogan spokesperson, told The Intercept that the governor received one recommendation to parole a juvenile lifer, which he denied, but he commuted the sentence of another juvenile lifer, and has granted medical parole to three juvenile lifers. Chasse did not answer questions about whether the bases for the governor’s decisions are available for public review or available to the prisoners themselves.

THE NATIONWIDE PUSH to eliminate life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders came to a head in 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Graham v. Florida, struck down such sentences for non-homicide offenses. “The juvenile should not be deprived of the opportunity to achieve maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.

Two years later, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders, even in cases of homicide, violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan in the majority opinion. In Miller, the court held that juvenile offenders, unless they were “irreparably corrupt,” were entitled to a “meaningful opportunity” for release from prison. Four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court held that Miller should be applied to juvenile offenders retroactively — giving juveniles who’d previously been sentenced to life without parole for killing someone a chance to reopen their cases.

In Maryland, attorneys and advocates argue that while juvenile offenders are technically eligible for parole, in reality they’re systematically denied it, given the politicized nature of the governor’s approval process.

“Graham was decided in 2010, and we have people who are still not getting anything close to a meaningful opportunity for release eight years later,” said Kumar of the ACLU of Maryland.

In February, Hogan issued an executive order that stipulated he would consider “the same factors and information assessed by the Maryland Parole Commission” when deciding whether to parole juvenile lifers, as well as “other lawful factors deemed relevant by the Governor.” Hogan said this was codifying what he already did but stressed that the order would not apply retroactively. In other words, he was not opening a chance to review past decisions.

Advocates blasted Hogan’s executive order as a political stunt. “He issued something he can change at any time, and there’s nothing enforceable about the order,” said Kumar. “As a practical matter, the order doesn’t alter the system in any way that shifts it from one of clemency to parole, which is the fundamental failing.”

The state’s highest court, however, disagrees. This past summer, in a 4-3 ruling, Maryland’s Court of Appeals held that state law provides a meaningful opportunity for release for juvenile defenders. The court cited Hogan’s executive order, finding that it “attempts to bridge the gap between unfettered discretion that the legislature has given to the governor with respect to parole of inmates serving life sentences and the requirements of the Eighth Amendment as to juvenile offenders.”

In a dissent, Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera said the majority opinion does not apply the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings to Maryland’s situation in a “realistic manner.” She was unconvinced that Hogan’s executive order “cures the constitutional infirmity of Maryland’s current parole system,” she wrote.

While the August decision was a blow for criminal justice reformers, Kumar described it as a “mixed bag,” since it also brought about some positive new pressure. It was the first time the state’s highest court spoke to any of the questions that had grown out of the U.S. Supreme Court’s cases on youth serving life sentences.

In contrast, other states have taken real steps to respond to the decisions of the Supreme Court, including Pennsylvania, which has more juvenile lifers than any other state in the country. In 2017, in the case of Commonwealth v. Batts, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court set forth a series of protections to effectuate the constitutional decrees of Montgomery and Miller. As a result of these protections, explained Riya Saha Shah, an attorney at the Pennsylvania-based Juvenile Law Center, fewer people have received life without parole at resentencing hearings, and Pennsylvania has also been paroling out people who have served long prison sentences on good behavior. “Overall, the parole process offers a more meaningful opportunity for release than a state like Maryland, which effectively denies it,” she said.

THE PRESSURE ON Hogan to take criminal justice reform more seriously is coming from a number of directions. A group of about 50 attorneys came together in 2017 to fight for protections for juvenile offenders. The Maryland Juvenile Lifer Parole Representation Project offers pro bono legal services to juvenile offenders languishing in jail. “Our goal is not only to provide individual representation, but to unleash these large firm lawyers on this system,” explained Murphy.

The state is also currently defending itself against a 2016 federal lawsuit, brought by the ACLU, that challenges the constitutionality of Maryland’s parole scheme for juveniles. The case remains pending.

There is also an economic argument for enacting reform. During the gubernatorial campaign, Hogan’s Democratic opponent, Ben Jealous, spent significant time talking about the amount of money wasted on mass incarceration that could be better spent elsewhere. In a 2015 report, the ACLU of Maryland found that the detention of more than 2,000 with life sentences costs the state more than $70 million per year. By contrast, a recent report from the Justice Policy Institute estimated that it would cost about $6,000 per year to support the successful re-entry of prisoners into society. (The report focused on about 200 former Maryland prisoners who were freed on probation under a landmark 2012 decision and who provided with substantial philanthropic support upon release. Less than 3 percent of them have reoffended, the Justice Policy Institute found, compared to a recidivism rate of 40 percent for the general prison population. Chasse, Hogan’s spokesperson, did not return request for comment on the findings.)

While Maryland has taken some recent steps to tackle its prison system — notably, the Justice Reinvestment Act of 2016, which took effect last fall — the bulk of the new reforms have focused on low-level, nonviolent offenders.

“We’re not really going to take on mass incarceration,” said Kumar, “until we help people who made horrible mistakes with tragic outcomes and have turned their lives around.”

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Pro-Charter School Democrats, Embattled in the Trump Era, Score a Win With Hakeem Jeffries

Originally published in The Intercept on November 30, 2018.
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HAKEEM JEFFRIES’S VICTORY in the race for Democratic House caucus chair on Wednesday was a loss for progressive groups that rallied against him, but it was a victory for one national group in particular: Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER — a political action committee that funds candidates supportive of charter schools and is critical of teachers unions. DFER was founded in 2005 by a number of Wall Street leaders, with the mission, as co-founder Whitney Tilson explained it, “to break the teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party.”

While DFER really began to flex its financial muscles in 2008 — when it raised about $2 million to help elect pro-charter candidates — its earlier work focused primarily on New York. There, the group helped elect Hakeem Jeffries to the New York State Assembly in 2006. (He served in the state Legislature from 2007 to 2012.) In 2007, DFER also helped lobby New York legislators to lift the state’s charter school cap, increasing it from 150 schools to 250. In 2010, Jeffries co-sponsored legislation to raise the state’s charter cap even further, to 460 — where it stands today.

Over the years, Jeffries has become one of DFER’s top candidates. In 2012, when Jeffries announced that he would run for Congress, the group rallied behind him, elevating him to its so-called DFER Hot List. No other Democrat received more in direct DFER contributions that cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Though Jeffries has long been close to DFER, he’s rejected money from other school reform advocacy groups. In 2012, he turned down funds from a new group called StudentsFirstNY which offered him a six-figure contribution in the form of an independent expenditure. “The Jeffries campaign does not believe that independent expenditures have a place in this race,” his campaign spokesperson said at the time. “We did not seek it, do not want it, and will win without it. Those involved with the proposed independent expenditure should refrain from involvement in this race and respect the candidate’s strong belief that unregulated money has no place in the political discourse.”

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for Jeffries did not respond to questions on Jeffries’s relationship with DFER, his plans for education reform advocacy as caucus chair, and his current views on independent expenditures.

Jeffries “embodies the Obama education agenda we support: greater investments in public education; strong standards to ensure our children are ready for the global economy; and diverse, high quality public school options for our parents to choose from,” DFER president Shavar Jeffries told The Intercept. (The two Jeffries are not confirmed blood relatives, but identify as cousins.)

“Alongside the election of reform-supporting governors and state and local officials around the county,” Shavar Jeffries continued, “his ascendancy into greater leadership in the House signals that the Obama reform agenda remains strong.”

While in Congress, Jeffries has stayed close to the charter movement. He’s spoken at fundraisers for Success Academy, the prominent New York City charter network, and in 2016 was the keynote speaker for a large pro-charter rally, organized to pressure Mayor Bill de Blasio to expand charters in New York City.

De Blasio has been critical of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. For a while, there were rumblings that Jeffries could mount a charter school-backed challenge to de Blasio’s 2017 re-election, something he did not immediately rule out at the time. “My inclination remains to remain in Washington. … However all options are on the table and I am going to take a hard look at where I can make a difference in the next few years,” he told Politico in 2016. (Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of Success Academy, also considered a pro-charter challenge to de Blasio for mayor, but decided to remain on her perch to influence education reform politics nationally.)

Jeffries has been called the “Barack Obama of Brooklyn,” in part for his education policy stances, as Obama was also an early DFER-backed candidate. DFER is credited with derailing Linda Darling-Hammond’s bid for education secretary in the Obama administration. Darling-Hammond is a progressive education policy expert who has positive relationships with teachers unions. As education journalist Dana Goldstein reported in 2009:

In recent months, DFER has had a number of high-profile successes, chief among them a highly coordinated media campaign to call into question the work of Obama education adviser Linda Darling-Hammond, once considered a top contender for the job of education secretary. During the same week in early December, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe published editorials or op-eds based on DFER’s anti-Darling-Hammond talking points, which focused on the Stanford professor’s criticisms of Teach for America and other alternative-certification programs for teachers. Less than two weeks later, Obama appointed DFER’s choice to the Education Department post, Chicago schools CEO [Arne] Duncan.

DFER, and education reform generally, has traditionally been linked to affluent white collar industries like tech and — especially in New York — finance. For example, when Moskowitz, a DFER supporter, published a memoir in 2017, she urged her readers to approach income inequality “delicately in an age when hedge fund managers can work anywhere in the world with an Internet connection.” She scolded de Blasio’s “class-warfare rhetoric” as “imprudent and dangerous.” The financial sector has contributed substantially to Jeffries’s political campaigns.

POLITICS WITHIN BOTH the Democratic Party and the national electorate, however, have changed since 2009, and DFER’s strategies of opposing teachers unions and raising money from the super wealthy have grown more controversial. As progressives have embraced a sharper critique of Wall Street and economic inequality, and as organized labor continues to battle escalating attacks from right-wing interest groups and a hostile judicial system, an anti-union message from Wall Street Democrats has grown considerably less popular.

It was clear, even before Trump won the presidency in 2016, that Democratic elected officials were facing greater pressure to balance their support for charters, a favored cause of many of their donors, with growing public skepticism of the schools. In 2016, candidates like Hillary Clinton and elected officials like Jeffries himself maintained their vocal support for charters but began articulating their opposition to for-profit charter schools, a small but politically powerful segment of the movement. (Kevin Chavous, a co-founder of DFER and a former board chair for the organization, now serves as president of academics, policy and schools for K12 Inc., a national for-profit charter school company.) Democrats also explicitly spelled out opposition to for-profit charters for the first time in their 2016 party platform.

Education reform Democrats suffered a significant loss in 2016, when a high-profile and expensive effort to lift the state’s charter school cap, led by DFER’s Massachusetts chapter, failed 62 percent to 38 percent, with cities all over the state, including Boston, voting in opposition. (The now-defunct pro-charter group Families for Excellent Schools, was later finedfor illegally funneling nearly $2.5 million from out of state into the charter expansion effort.)

Then, in 2017, with Trump in office and billionaire Betsy DeVos appointed to lead the Education Department, the Democratic-leaning education reform movement was put further on the defensive, forced to explain why its vision for school choice should not be confused with that of the Trump administration, and why it should shoulder no blame for the escalating attacks on public education. It didn’t help having people like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani proclaiming, “President-elect Trump is going to be the best thing that ever happened for school choice and the charter school movement.”

Later that year, Gallup reported a growing partisan divide on charters, with Democratic support at 48 percent, down from 61 percent in 2012. Republican support remained steady over the five years, at 62 percent.

DFER has at times struggled to find its footing in this changing political landscape. Shavar Jeffries told the education news website Chalkbeat in 2017 that while his group has been fighting DeVos’s policies and for-profit charter schools, they also still spend much of their time fighting Democrats. “When we fight the union and old-guard Democrats, which is honestly what we spend most of our time doing, we don’t fight them because they’re Democrats; we fight them because we think they’re wrong on what’s right for kids.”  In addition to charter-friendly policies, their website lists additional advocacy focus areas, including school funding, test-based accountability, and teacher prep programs.

To maintain its credibility within the party, DFER often points to Obama, who remains very popular among liberals. “We’re very clear about the legacy in which we operate,” Shavar Jeffries told Buzzfeed earlier this year. “We operate within the legacy of Barack Obama. His agenda is our agenda, and it’s an agenda that hundreds of Democrats across the country support.”

GETTING HAKEEM JEFFRIES, a pro-charter DFER-affiliated politician, into a top Democratic leadership position is no doubt good news for the organization, which suffered several blows in the 2018 midterm elections. (It spent at least $4 million in the latest cycle.)

Earlier this month, the organization’s endorsed candidate for California state superintendent of public instruction, Marshall Tuck, lost to Tony Thurmond, who was backed by the state Democratic party and teachers unions. DFER had also endorsed Antonio Villaraigosa in an unsuccessful bid to become California’s next governor. The charter movement spent $23 million in support of Villaraigosa, the largest independent expenditure for a gubernatorial primary in California’s history, but his opponent Gavin Newsom won the Democratic primary and general election easily.

In New York, a slew of progressive Democrats won their state Senate races, dramatically upending the composition of the state assembly and unseating the caucus of moderate Democrats who backed charter schools and often voted with Republicans. The new crop of Democrats is expected to fight efforts to lift New York’s charter school cap and to push for more charter school regulations.

In Washington, D.C., DFER’s involvement in the local school board election also raised eyebrows this year. One parent blogger determined that in 2018, DFER DC political action and independent expenditure committees raised over $520,000 — four times as much in contributions as the rest of the city’s independent expenditure committees combined. One DFER DC-endorsed candidate, Jason Andrean, raised the most money out of all individuals vying for a State Board of Education seat, though he ended up losing his race to a candidate who is vocally critical of DFER candidate. In the lead-up to election, DFER itself became a campaign issue, with candidates frequently challenged on their support for or opposition to the organization.

And in Colorado, though the state’s Democratic leadership has been broadly supportive of education reform policies and Gov.-elect Jared Polis has founded charter schools himself, Democratic voters have been voicing growing distrust of DFER. Last spring, delegates at the Colorado Democratic State Assembly voted overwhelmingly for a platform amendment calling DFER to remove the word “Democrats” from its name.

DFER held its 5th annual “Camp Philos” conference, a national gathering for education reform advocates, this week. At the conference, taking place in Boulder, Colorado, leaders grappled with how to chart their political path heading into 2020.

On Wednesday morning, before votes were cast in the caucus chair race, Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., introduced Jeffries, He was, Vargas told the assembled Democrats, “the next Obama.”

Plans for a D.C. Education Research Collaborative Move Forward, and Politicking Ensues

Originally published in Washington City Paper on November 26, 2018.
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At some point soon, as early as this week, the Council will vote on legislation for an education research collaborative—an independent research body that will conduct studies on the city’s public schools. The idea is to better determine how various educational policies impact schools and student academic performance.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh proposed the research collaborative in April, introducing legislation with eight co-sponsors. In the wake of a series of school scandals over the previous year, many parents, education advocates, and elected officials began voicing doubt in the data produced by the mayoral-controlled school system, and considered the idea of an independent research entity to be a vehicle to help rebuild that trust. The collaborative would have an advisory board of school system officials, parents, community leaders, and teachers to drive the research agenda, and the Council allocated $500,000 in its latest budget to help get it off the ground.

In September, the Education Committee, chaired by At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, revised and approved a new version of the bill—the latest publicly available version—and moved it on to the full Council.

Two months earlier, in July, the public learned that while the Council was working on establishing an education research collaborative, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration was in private talks with the Urban Institute, a national, D.C.-based think tank, to establish its own separate collaborative. At a joint roundtable in September, councilmembers urged the executive branch to pause their separate effort, so as to not undermine the legislative process. (For more information, read City Paper’s “Council Challenges Executive Branch, Urban Institute at Contentious Education Research Collaborative Hearing.”)

At the time, then-interim Deputy Mayor for Education Ahnna Smith would not agree to pause her office’s plans with the Urban Institute, but said she would take the Council’s request “under consideration.”

Beginning in October, Mayor Bowser replaced Smith with Paul Kihn, the new Acting Deputy Mayor of Education, and a former Deputy Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District. In an interview with City Paper, Kihn confirmed that their separate research collaborative is “definitely on hold” as the Council proceeds with its legislation.

“At the last hearing we were raising questions and making them quite uncomfortable,” says Cheh. “I think they heard the message that that was probably a wrong approach.”

The latest version of the legislation out of the Education Committee has sparked some protest and organizing from parents and advocates. In a recent email newsletter, Ward 3 State Board of Education representative Ruth Wattenberg wrote that the bill had been amended in “at least two ways that badly undermine the purpose the Collaborative,” and urged her readers to email and tweet at the Council with their concerns.

Specifically, Wattenberg noted that the latest version of the bill greatly limited the number of “DC education stakeholders” that would be represented on the steering committee, stacking it primarily with mayoral appointees. She also criticized how quickly it would spin out of the D.C. Auditor’s office, to be permanently housed in a “private, unaccountable home.”

Cheh’s original legislation also proposed spinning the research collaborative out of the auditor’s office after an “incubation” period, but some advocates say they worry the latest version would shorten that incubation phase by too much. These proponents think launching the collaborative in the auditor’s office is a way to help ensure its success and long-term independence, but the Council’s Education Committee stated in its Sept. 24 report that it “had reservations and concerns about the ability of the Auditor to be a fair and collaborative partner in conducting research meant to improve practice.”

“My concern is that you want to be able to stand up an operation that can function independently, that can stand up to pressure from wherever that pressure is coming from,” Wattenberg tells City Paper. “And in this city, the educational institutions are very powerful and I worry that you can’t put something really independent like that into place within a year [of incubation in the auditor’s office]. You probably need three years or so.”

City Paper reached out to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who says he has seen Wattenberg’s most recent newsletter and received a few emails from concerned constituents.

Mendelson suggests that concerns about the steering committee being stacked too heavily toward the executive branch will likely be resolved once the public sees the latest version of the bill. “I would say we’ve moved beyond” the Education Committee’s version, he says. “People are upset now that the mayor’s appointees might dominate the steering committee, but I don’t think that’s what the composition will look like. The steering committee will be larger.” He adds that he expects D.C.’s committee to resemble the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s steering committee, which has about two dozen people. (Grosso’s version proposed a committee with 11 members—7 voting, and 4 nonvoting, and Cheh’s version proposed 16 voting members.)

Mendelson says their real challenge moving forward is figuring out how to build the needed trust with the executive branch to make this effort successful. “The executive is very uneasy about housing it in the auditor’s office, and the executive is not going to be cooperative if they’re uncomfortable,” he says.

The idea of designing the research collaborative as an education watchdog, Mendelson adds, is not the direction they’re moving in. “That’s where some people want us to go, but that’s not where we’re going,” he says.

Kihn tells City Paper that one of his primary goals as Deputy Mayor of Education is to “build public confidence,” and notes that “we cannot do that without clear systems of accountability and data systems that have integrity and are trustworthy.” He says he’s far less concerned with education agency heads being comfortable than with the reported information being transparent and accurate. He cites his role in setting up a similar research collaborative in Philadelphia, which launched in 2014.

Kihn emphasizes that he sees it as important to establish the research consortium as “independent of government,” and for that reason, outside of the auditor’s office, which is part of the legislative branch. In late October, D.C Auditor Kathy Patterson released a statement pushing back on concerns that her office was incapable of incubating the independent research collaborative, noting that her office regularly undertakes projects that go beyond data audits.

In early November, Kihn, Grosso, Mendelson, and Hanseul Kang, the State Superintendent of Education, traveled together to Chicago to visit the city’s research consortium. Kihn notes that Chicago’s model—considered one of the best in the country—is funded almost exclusively through philanthropy, with some in-kind contributions from the University of Chicago. He says he very much supports the idea of bringing “actionable insights” and “additional analytic capacity” to the public sector at low-cost or no-cost to taxpayers.

Rita Lewis, a spokesperson for At-Large Councilmember Robert White, says White would want to wait to see the latest version of the bill offered by Mendelson before commenting further. While White did vote to move Grosso’s version out of the Education Committee in September, he raised concerns at the time that there was not enough input from parents, students, and teachers on the steering committee.

Cheh tells City Paper that as the bill moves through the final stages of the legislative process, the “most important” concern will be the makeup of the steering committee. She acknowledges that the role of the auditor has also not yet been “clearly resolved,” and says they’ll be looking at that.

When asked whether the Urban Institute might be chosen to run the education research collaborative, Mendelson said, “there’s a chance, but I don’t want to say that’s probable. I think we’re just at the point where we’re trying to figure out how to gestate this thing.

D.C. May Soon Have The Most Progressive Child Care System In The Country

Originally published in DCist on November 19, 2018.
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Already a leader in offering universal preschool for three and four-year olds, Washington D.C. now aims to position itself again at the forefront of early childhood investments. In June, the city council unanimously approved the Birth-to-Three For All D.C Act, a big ticket bill which Mayor Muriel Bowser then signed into law in September.

The legislation calls for increased investments in health services provided to infants and toddlers, particularly those living in Wards 7 and 8, and expands the city’s home-visiting program, a support for pregnant women and new parents. The legislation also boosts subsidies for early childhood learning, both to expand access and to increase the wages of low-paid workers. While the most generous supports are still targeted at the poorest families, the bill caps out-of-pocket childcare expenses for even the most affluent, with no household paying more than 10 percent of their income.

This all comes at a steep price: an estimated $500 million over the next decade. So far, just $1.3 million has been earmarked for the Birth-to-Three Act in the 2019 budget, financed by a tobacco tax increase last spring.

This month 18 local organizations—banding together under the umbrella of the “Birth to Three Policy Alliance”—sent a letter to the mayor, requesting she invest $30 million in her next budget for the legislation ($22 million to raise the wages of educators, $6 million to expand home visiting, and $2 million to expand healthcare supports).

“We can’t forget that this city is in better shape financially than most communities in this country,” says Carrie Thornhill, the chair of the D.C. Early Learning Collaborative. “That allows us to do some things that other jurisdictions can’t do.”

Advocates say these are smart investments, especially as scientific evidence continues to show the bulk of brain development happens in a child’s earliest years, a period where young people learn social-emotional skills like focusing, empathy, and regulating feelings. Research suggests that greater investments in early childhood can help close the achievement gap, help more students graduate from high school, and avoid the criminal justice system.

Quality childcare, advocates say, will also help attract jobs and families to the District. A study released in September by the Center for American Progress found that since D.C. began offering universal pre-K in 2009, the city has seen a large, positive increase in its maternal labor force participation, almost entirely attributable to the preschool expansion. Part of the goal of the Birth-to-Three Act is to raise the job standards for early childhood educators, making the workforce itself more professionalized, and to pay them more.

“Generally when states talk about investments in their early childhood workforce, they’re asking what scholarships can we put in place to encourage educators to obtain higher credentials, or what bonuses can we give them once they do,” said Barbara Gebhard, the assistant director of public policy at ZERO TO THREE, a national organization focused on infants and toddlers. “It’s largely tweaking around the edges. I like that D.C.’s legislation is really targeting the problem, which is that compensation is just too low. Until we really crack that nut, we’re not going to solve the problem.”

There’s been some pushback to the city’s new requirement that early childhood workers obtain advanced degrees, a policy change leaders say will improve teaching quality. A federal lawsuit was filed this spring, arguing that D.C. requiring college credentials is an unconstitutional occupational regulation that will needlessly lock people out of the profession and cause a spike in costs for parents. “You don’t need to know how to integrate a function or write in iambic pentameter to take care of a newborn or toddler,” said a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Still, advocates and city officials say science is on their side, pointing to evidence like a 2015 National Academies report which made recommendations on improving the child care workforce. But the report, opponents point out, is “inconclusive” when it comes to the link between teacher education level and quality of instruction. Supporters counter that the report also says “almost all rigorous studies of childhood programs that have shown large effects have come from programs with licensed teachers who have bachelor’s degrees.”

The Bainum Family Foundation, based in Bethesda, has been a key driver behind the Birth-to-Three Act and the associated advocacy for it. Founded 50 years ago and long-focused on providing students with college scholarships, the foundation pivoted in 2015 to focusing on early childhood investments. A Bainum-funded report released that year detailed the wide disparities in early childhood development between rich and poor families in the District, leading to a five-year $10 million pledge to change that.

Earlier this month, the Reinvestment Fund released a new Bainum-funded report detailing the supply and demand for early learning opportunities in D.C. Among other things, the study found the city would need to add about 31,000 high-quality seats if it wanted to serve all infants and toddlers, including those who commute with parents into the District. The report also showed more than 30 percent of infants and toddlers live in areas where the cost of a center-based program exceeds 50 percent of the median household income.

“That kind of data—it’s hard to come by, and it’s frankly expensive to put together,” says Noel Bravo, the Senior Director of Program Development at the Bainum Family Foundation. “But it’s extremely important to understand the issue, and that’s one way we feel we can be helpful.”

Birth-to-Three advocates are trying to glean lessons from the District’s successful universal preschool expansion. Carrie Thornhill, a leader in that effort as well, notes one similarity: In both cases, they had the unanimous support from the D.C. Council.

Infant and toddler care was originally part of the preschool legislation, but was stripped from the bill because legislators back then had difficulty being convinced that it was truly a necessary educational reform. “Things have changed a lot since 2008,” says Thornhill. “People really do get it now.”

In September, after signing the legislation, Bowser sent a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson saying that, while the goals are “laudable,” she worries the Birth-to-Three Act creates “false expectations” for families because of its cost. She encouraged the council to consider redirecting money allocated to paid family leave to the Birth-to-Three Act, a suggestion that sparked protest in the community.

“Paid parental leave is one of the most essential investments we can make in caring for our youngest kids,” says Judith Berman, the deputy director of DC Appleseed. “It really does not make sense to take money from one pot to support the other.”

LaToya Foster, a mayoral spokesperson, would not comment directly on whether Bowser still supports shifting funds from paid family leave to Birth-to-Three, but noted the mayor “has made critical investments in early childhood education and will continue to look for opportunities to do so going forward.” Foster added that Bowser thinks “we must invest strategically in our greatest needs” and recognizes child care costs “continues to substantially burden many families.”

The Child Care Aware of America estimates the average annual cost of D.C. center-based early learning to exceed more than $23,000 per year. A single parent with one child living at the federal poverty line would need to spend 91 percent of their income to afford the opportunity absent a subsidy.

According to Thornhill, Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray told the D.C. Early Learning Collaborative that an increased tobacco tax, revenue from legalized sports betting, and tapping into the city’s surplus budget are three possible funding sources for the legislation.

In a statement to DCist, Gray said that while the city had to work hard to secure funding for universal preschool, they were ultimately successful, and the same will be true for this.

“Again, as with Pre-K, we knew it would be a heavy lift,” Gray said. “While we do not have a firm timetable for funding Birth-to-Three, with Pre-K, we projected it would take five years. We did it in three. I am confident we can do the same with funding for Birth-to-Three.”

 

Amazon HQ2 Will Cost Taxpayers At Least $4.6 Billion

Originally published in The Intercept on November 15, 2018, co-authored with David Dayen

Amazon’s announcement this week that it will open its new headquarters in New York City and northern Virginia came with the mind-boggling revelation that the corporate giant will rake in $2.1 billion in local government subsidies. But an analysis by the nation’s leading tracker of corporate subsidies finds that the government handouts will actually amount to at least $4.6 billion.

But even that figure, which accounts for state and local perks, doesn’t take into account a gift that Amazon will also enjoy from the federal government, a testament to the old adage that in Washington, bad ideas never die.

The Amazon location in Long Island City, in the New York City borough of Queens, is situated in a federal opportunity zone, a Jack Kemp-era concept resurrected in the 2017 tax law that, in theory, is supposed to bring money into poverty-stricken areas. The northern Virginia site, in the Arlington neighborhood of Crystal City (which developers and local officials have rebranded as “National Landing”), is not directly in an opportunity zone but is virtually surrounded by other geographic areas that are.

Under the tax overhaul signed by President Donald Trump last year, investors in opportunity zones can defer payments of capital gains taxes until 2026, and if they hold them for seven years, they can exclude 15 percent of the gains from taxation. If investors carry the opportunity zone investment for 10 years, they eliminate taxes on future appreciation entirely. Investment managers have been salivating at the chance to take advantage of opportunity zones. Special funds have been built to cater to people holding unrealized capital gains — such as Amazon employees with large holdings of company stock.

Not only could Amazon benefit from the opportunity zone directly in Long Island City, but Virginia employees with unrealized capital gains will have an escape valve next door to an Amazon campus. “People who happen to be sitting around with long-term capital gains may now have vehicles for hiding them,” said Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit that scrutinizes economic development incentive deals between cities and companies, and has analyzed the Amazon deal.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on the opportunity zone or the Good Jobs First estimate of the subsidies it could receive.

Supporters claim opportunity zones spur renewal and revitalization in impoverished areas. It’s a decades-old bipartisan fantasy that sits uncomfortably at odds with the demonstrated results. Researchers who have studied opportunity zones find that these tax schemes rarely ever help cities, and often financially cripple them.

“At best, they divert investment from one part of the city from another, resulting in no net gain for the city as a whole,” wrote Timothy Weaver, an urban policy and politics professor at the University of Albany, last year. “At worst, they result in tax-giveaways to firms that would have been operating anyway, thereby generating a net loss to city revenues.”

Still, Republicans and Democrats are loathe to give up on what they continually tell themselves can be a win-win for everyone, if we just try really hard. And now a major beneficiary of this federal largesse happens to be one of the world’s richest companies, led by the world’s richest man.

According to Good Jobs First’s calculations, Amazon will get $4.6 billion in state and local subsidies for its new headquarters — and that’s not counting the opportunity zone benefit.

Amazon’s press release cited two New York state incentives, a $1.2 billion grant over the next decade from the Excelsior Program and a $325 million, 10-year grant from Empire State Development. But Amazon did not quantify proceeds from two other city incentives, the Industrial & Commercial Abatement Program, or ICAP, and the Relocation and Employment Assistance Program, or REAP.

ICAP gives a partial tax abatement for 25 years, and based on the expected $3.6 billion campus in Long Island City, Good Jobs First estimates that value at $386 million. REAP, a per-employee tax credit of $3,000 per year for 12 years, comes out to $897 million if Amazon meets its projection of hiring 25,000 employees.

Those estimates, combined with what Amazon already cited for the Long Island City location, brings the total to $2.808 billion. That results in a cost per job of $112,000, far more than the $48,000 per job Amazon claimed they would get in the Long Island City deal.

LeRoy, of Good Jobs First, noted that ICAP and REAP are available to most businesses relocating into New York, but a single entity’s ability to combine all their benefits distorts the purpose of attracting economic development. “I don’t think the original sponsors ever envisioned individual transactions costing 10 figures,” he said. “There’s a strong argument for capping programs on a per-deal basis.”

LeRoy added that this is not a full accounting of the benefits out of New York. Amazon will benefit from a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, in which a portion of the company’s property taxes will flow directly into enhancements for the project area. Plus, there’s the federal opportunity zone.

That Long Island City is a designated opportunity zone Amazon might exploit is especially mind-boggling given that the fast-gentrifying area has had no trouble attracting new investment, has a 10 percent poverty rate (half that of New York City), and has a median income of $130,000 per year.

While the overwhelming majority of opportunity zones are defined by having high poverty rates, about 200 of the 8,700 Treasury Department-approved census tracts are like Long Island City, economically prosperous but adjacent to poverty. This includes neighborhoods in well-off cities like Los Angeles, San Jose, Seattle, and Portland. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said last month that he expects the opportunity zones to attract $100 billion in investments.

Amazon’s estimate for Virginia — $573 million in cash grants — also leaves out a huge benefit for Amazon. “They’re planning a big Virginia Tech campus in Alexandria, adjacent to the site,” LeRoy said. “It’s a public university, the money is coming from taxpayers.” In a press release, Virginia Tech puts the cost of the campus at $1 billion and added that Amazon “credited the Innovation Campus in Alexandria as a key component in its decision to locate in Northern Virginia.”

Good Jobs First added that a redevelopment subsidy known as tax increment financing for on-site infrastructure and green space in the area could also benefit Amazon at the northern Virginia site. There was no cost estimate provided for this, though the Amazon press release mentions $195 million in commonwealth-funded infrastructure projects in the neighborhood, and another $28 million in funding from the city of Arlington.

The total amount of subsidies in northern Virginia, according to Good Jobs First, is at least $1.8 billion, almost as much as Amazon said it would be reaping in government subsidies overall.

Previously, Amazon has reaped $1.6 billion in state and local subsidies for its warehouses and data centers elsewhere across the country. On the same day as the New York and Virginia announcements, Amazon also announced a new “Operations Center of Excellence” in Nashville, Tennessee, a 5,000-worker facility for which the city gave Amazon $102 million in subsidies. Nashville was one of the top 20 finalists for the HQ2 auction, and parts of the city are also opportunity zones.

The cash handouts also do not take into account regulatory leniency and accelerated permitting that characterizes the Amazon projects. “There is a strain of thought that says if you give a company prompt variances, because time is money, companies would value that more than property tax abatement,” said LeRoy. In this case, the cities are offering both!”

The deals do not appear to include guard rails for what is expected to be rapid gentrification in the locations. Condo sellers in Crystal City took note of overnight price hikes of as much as $20,000 the day after the announcement. As gentrification likely pushes out residents in the opportunity zones surrounding the northern Virginia site, Amazon employees who buy real estate could not only find a place to live, but also avoid unrealized capital gains taxes.

Progressive politicians like Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and conservative commentators have joined forces to question the deal. Community organizations held a rally in New York on Wednesday, urging a re-channeling of the taxpayer subsidies. Following Amazon’s announcement, Ron Kim, a Queens assembly member, introduced new legislation to redirect taxpayer funds designated for corporate subsidies to canceling or buying student debt. Virginia delegate Lee Carter, a democratic socialist, also criticized the deal for its exorbitant tax giveaways and the lack of transparency under which the terms were negotiated, calling it “comic book villain stuff.”

Carter will have the opportunity to weigh in on the deal. According to the contract language, the grant payments to Amazon are subject to appropriations by the Virginia General Assembly, though the governor is obligated to put the payments in the draft budget request.

Why Ben Jealous Lost the Maryland’s Governor Race

Originally published in The Intercept on November 7, 2018.
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Last night, Ben Jealous, the Democratic candidate for governor in Maryland, lost his race to incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, 56 percent to 43 percent. Jealous would have been Maryland’s first African-American governor and was running on one of the most left-wing policy platforms in the country,

Although polls had been showing Hogan with a significant lead for months, progressives hoped a strong blue wave on Election Day could bring about a major upset. After all, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-1 ratio in Maryland.

But Jealous didn’t lose because he ran on issues like “Medicare for All,” a $15 minimum wage, and legalizing marijuana. In fact, voters in Maryland largely agree with Jealous on his signature policy issues. A Goucher College survey released in mid-September found that 54 percent of Maryland residents hold a favorable opinion on “Medicare for All” or single-payer health care, with 33 percent holding an unfavorable view. Support for other key parts of Jealous’s plan polled even higher. Seventy-one percent of Marylanders support raising the statewide minimum wage to $15 dollars per hour, with just a quarter of residents against it. This was actually a substantial jump from February, when Goucher found 66 percent of Marylanders supported the $15 minimum wage. On legalizing marijuana for recreational use, 62 percent of Maryland residents support it, with just one-third opposed.

A Hobbled Campaign

The primary reason Jealous lost is that his campaign couldn’t pull in the necessary funds to compete effectively. Despite winning 22 out of 24 counties in the state’s crowded Democratic primary, the Jealous campaign’s own internal polling revealed that as of July, one-third of Maryland voters, and one-quarter of the state’s Democratic voters, did not know who Jealous was. He had never run for office before, but had earned the teachers union’s endorsement in the primary, which many believe helped secure him his June victory.

Meanwhile, Hogan started out with a big fundraising advantage and a high approval rating. Although Jealous assumed he could turn things around after Labor Day, by then it was too late to change the narrative.

At the end of August, Hogan had $9.4 million to spend for his re-election campaign, compared to Jealous’s mere $385,000. And the gap never closed. In the final two weeks of the campaign, Hogan had almost 12 times more cash than Jealous, or $3.3 million to the Democrat’s $275,000. Few people wanted to donate to a race that seemed uncompetitive, which in turn made it even less competitive as the weeks went on.

While Hogan’s campaign and the Republican Governors Association have blasted negative ads against Jealous nonstop since July, Jealous’s campaign didn’t run its first TV ad until mid-September, and the Democratic Governors Association didn’t run their first ad against Hogan until late October. Jealous couldn’t afford to compete on television, or even really through mailers.

The Jealous campaign understood that it needed to invest more in on-the-ground organizing to make up for the complacency that gripped Democrats in 2014, when Hogan eked out his upset victory. So this year, 70 Democratic organizers were hired to work across the state, compared to 15 field organizers for the state’s Democrat-coordinated campaign in 2014.

But even Jealous supporters noted that his campaign was making it difficult to rally support for his team. On his campaign website, there was nowhere for supporters to order lawn signs, bumper stickers, or other paraphernalia to demonstrate support — unlike on Hogan’s website, where such ordinary purchases were made prominently visible and available. Supporters had to ask around to learn that they had to show up in person at a campaign office to get any swag. That information wasn’t even available on the website.

And while Democratic candidates across the country have been leaning on new media platforms like viral two-minute online-only campaign ads, the Jealous campaign relied predominantly on awkward and less popular tools like Facebook Live. 

Lack of Endorsements

The Washington Post has been writing favorably about Hogan for years, so much so that a reader wrote a letter to the editor in June asking, “Seriously, has Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) changed his name? Apparently so, at least according to The Post. In nearly every reference to the governor, The Post’s writers insist on referencing him with a new first name of ‘popular,’ as in the popular Maryland governor.”

As a result, it was unsurprising when the Washington Post gave its endorsement to Hogan, praising him for having the “agility and sense to govern as a moderate — that disappearing breed of American politician.” The Post dismissed Jealous’s plans as mostly “politically unrealistic” and “unwise.” But more staggering was the Baltimore Sun, which endorsed Jealous in the primary but endorsed Hogan in the general election, despite literally acknowledging in its own endorsement that Hogan’s “actions in office have too often treated [Baltimore] as an afterthought, if not with outright contempt.” (Hogan’s decision to cancel the Red Line light rail, a project that had been in the works for a decade and to which the federal government was going to contribute $900 million, was a disastrously cruel move for the long-neglected city.)

Outside Maryland, the national press was also largely uninterested in Jealous’s general election challenge, especially when compared to the attention paid to Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, black candidates running to be Georgia’s and Florida’s first African-American governors, respectively. The Maryland race was deemed uncompetitive, and thus less exciting to cover.

During the primary, most of Maryland’s Democratic establishment lined up behind Rushern Baker, the outgoing county executive in Prince George’s County. (Kevin Kamenetz, the county executive for Baltimore County was also a frontrunner, and had raised more money than other candidates in the primary, but he died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest six weeks before the election.)

After Jealous won, several dozen Maryland Democrats announced their support for Hogan, though most were older white men who hadn’t served in office for years. Others had received political appointments from the governor, or had records of supporting Republican candidates in the past.

Jealous did end up securing endorsements from the Democratic Party’s current elected officials, but some were much slower to voice their support, and many remained muted in their enthusiasm. The long-serving state Senate president, Mike Miller, was a prime example. He was guarded in his support for Jealous, while being enthusiastic in his praise for Hogan’s work. Ike Leggett, the outgoing executive of affluent Montgomery County, at first withheld his endorsement of Jealous over tax issues that he said would hurt his wealthy constituents. When he finally did endorse Jealous in in mid-October, he did so in the world’s most half-hearted way.When the Washington Post asked him if Jealous would be a better governor than Hogan, Leggett declined to say yes. “That’s a good question,” he said. “I’m simply for the Democratic nominee.” About 45 percent of Montgomery County ended up voting for Hogan.

It’s unlikely that vocal enthusiasm from Leggett and Miller could have really changed Jealous’s fundraising numbers in a substantial way, but they certainly didn’t help.

Jealous also tamped down enthusiasm from some otherwise natural allies. Despite running on one of the most progressive platforms in the country, he didn’t even try to court some of the newly established Democratic Socialists of America chapters or get their endorsements. He also upset a lot of leftists over the summer, when he disavowed socialism in a way that not even Barack Obama did during the eight years he was blasted for being on the left. After Hogan called Jealous a “far-left socialist” in an interview, a different reporter followed up by asking Jealous if he identified as a socialist. Jealous responded, “Are you fucking kidding me?” The Republican Governors Association funded a TV ad this summer that featured Jealous saying, “Go ahead, call me a socialist,” cutting off the rest of his sentence, in which he went on to say, “It doesn’t change the fact that I’m a venture capitalist.” The Jealous campaign demanded that local stations pull the ad for being false and too misleading.

Larry Hogan Was a Better Campaigner

Hogan’s schtick of acting moderate was largely successful, in part due to the light press coverage his administration has received over the past four years. Over the summer, for example, he earned glowing national headlines by recalling Maryland’s four National Guard troops from the southern U.S. border — thus appearing to be someone willing to stand up to Trump and his family separation policy — but his actual record on immigration was far more hostile and overlooked. Hogan also moved to the left when he felt he needed to politically: In July, he announced a new student debt relief plan and announced he would no longer take donations or an endorsement from the National Rifle Association. In 2014, he took the gun lobby’s money and endorsement, and also received an A- rating.

It also helped that while Maryland voters are generally Democratic, they’re not always very progressive. Fifty-six percent of Marylanders think their state taxes are “too high,” and Hogan spent the bulk of his campaign emphasizing that he’d continue to cut taxes and that Jealous would significantly raise them. While the Jealous campaign was banking on major turnout in the city of Baltimore to push him over the edge, in the end, nearly one-third of Baltimore went for Hogan, up from 22 percent in 2014.

In the Maryland legislature, however, Democrats maintained their veto-proof majority. Republicans had targeted eight Democratic seats and hoped to flip five, but failed. Baltimore’s three largest suburban counties will now also be led by Democrats, with Anne Arundel and Howard counties flipping blue.

Letting Noncitizens Vote in the Trump Era

Originally published in The Nation on November 1, 2018.
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U
ndocumented immigrants
and permanent legal residents in San Francisco will have the chance to cast their ballots for the local school board on November 6. This newly established right is the result of a ballot initiative approved by 54 percent of voters in 2016. (Past referendums failed in 2004 and 2010.) Advocates made the case that noncitizen voting would increase parental involvement in schools and that expanding democracy to marginalized groups would help fortify civic life.

But Donald Trump was also elected president in 2016, throwing this hard-fought victory into a tailspin. “The timing is unfortunate, but we’re dealing with what we have,” said Norma Garcia, the director of policy and advocacy at the Mission Economic Development Agency, a community-based organization that helped to pass San Francisco’s noncitizen voting. Activists have been working to assuage panic—but the fear is real. To register, noncitizens have to provide their address and date of birth, and are explicitly warned on their forms that any information they provide to the Department of Elections may be obtained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “and other agencies, organizations and individuals.” Immigrants are being encouraged to consult with an attorney before signing up.

Hong Mei Pang, the director of advocacy at Chinese for Affirmative Action, another San-Francisco-based organization that helped pass the voting-rights measure, said they’ve been educating immigrants and stressing that noncitizens shouldn’t feel pressured to vote. “The cruelty of this particular administration is it’s forcing immigrants to make impossible, hard choices,” she said. “They’re manufacturing these dilemmas, and one should never have to choose between their right to health, dignity, and to be a free person who can exercise their political voice.” As of October 30, just 52 noncitizens had registered with the San Francisco Department of Elections.

At the same time, other cities have started conversations of their own around noncitizen voting. Montpelier, a liberal Vermont city of just under 8,000 people, held a public forum this past spring to explore the idea, and will have a referendum on its ballot this November. Boston leaders also held a public hearing this past summer, led by the city-council president who said noncitizen voting could be a way to signal solidarity with immigrants in the age of Trump.

Meanwhile, a backlash has been brewing. In July, Doug Ose, a Republican from California who served in the House of Representatives, submitted a ballot initiative to ban noncitizen voting statewide—saying San Francisco’s new right convinced him to take action. (He will need to collect 365,880 valid signatures to get his measure approved for California’s 2020 ballot.) Two months later in Washington, DC, Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), introduced a non-binding resolution condemning noncitizen voting, with the decree specifically citing San Francisco. It passed with 279 votes in favor. “There’s a new movement that’s going on around the country, allowing illegals to vote in our elections, disenfranchising Americans,” said McCarthy, who is expected to become speaker of the House when Paul Ryan steps down from the job later this year.

Voting rights in the US is typically understood as the slow and steady march toward universal suffrage—but noncitizen voting stands as a major exception to this narrative.

During the colonial period and after the American Revolution, white male property owners—regardless of citizenship—were allowed to vote. Noncitizen voting was common at the local, state, and even federal levels for the country’s first 150 years. It was seen “as a means to train newcomer white Christian men to be good neighbors and promote active participation in the life of their new adoptive homes before their eventual naturalization,” write San Francisco-based scholars Ron Hayduk and Kathleen Coll who have studied the history. “In frontier states, it was also a way to lure new white male immigrants to permanently occupy Native lands.” It was not so much a substitution for citizenship, but a pathway toward it.

Yet hostility toward foreigners increased during and after the War of 1812, and a few states began to restrict noncitizen voting. The surge of Irish immigrants, who generally opposed slavery, was one factor fueling the xenophobia. In 1861, the Confederate Constitution carved out a prohibition for persons “of foreign birth” from voting, although the practice continued and even expanded in the next few decades. But in the years leading up to World War I, a new wave of nativist sentiment prompted states to eliminate noncitizen voting, with Arkansas being the final state to end the practice in 1926.

In 1993, Jamie Raskin—now a Democratic member of Congress from Maryland though back then an American University law professor—authored a legal paper, where he argued “the current blanket exclusion of noncitizens from the ballot is neither constitutionally required nor historically normal.” Three years later, however, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, banning noncitizens from voting in federal elections. But on the state and local level, it can still be legally authorized today.

The first city to bring back noncitizen voting was New York City in 1968. As a concession during the city’s fight over “community control” of schools—a movement to hold schools accountable by empowering parent representatives—New York granted its noncitizens the right to vote in school-board elections. Noncitizens voted in these elections up until 2002, when the city switched to mayoral control and abolished its elected school board.

Since 1989 Chicago has also allowed noncitizens to vote and serve on its school councils, bodies that approve how school resources are allocated, develop and monitor school-improvement plans, and select a school’s principal. Aside from Chicago and San Francisco, 10 other cities allow noncitizen voting, and they are all in Maryland. This is partly because Maryland cities can pass laws around noncitizen voting and enact them without state approval. While four Massachusetts cities—Amherst, Brookline, Cambridge, and Newton—have all also approved noncitizen voting, unlike Maryland, their local laws have never taken effect because the Massachusetts legislature never gave them the necessary go-ahead.

But why has this history gone so under the radar? “It’s an obscure piece of history, but when you realize how extensive and widespread it was, it is really surprising that it’s not more widely known,” Hayduk said. He guessed that one reason is because of the radical implications of it being on the table. “As the immigrant-voting-rights people put it, ‘It could give you ideas,’” he said. Once you accept the idea that democracy is strengthened by allowing noncitizens to weigh in on local elections, excluding those same people from state and federal contests becomes harder to defend.

Activists in San Francisco have looked to Takoma Park, a Maryland suburb outside of Washington, DC, that has successfully implemented noncitizen voting for the past quarter century. In 1992 the city adopted a charter resolution that removed its citizenship requirement for voting and holding local office. Takoma Park was also one of the first sanctuary cities in the country, passing legislation in 1985 to protect refugees arriving from Nicaragua and El Salvador. In a city of 18,000, 347 noncitizens registered to vote in 2017.

Like San Francisco, Takoma Park’s voter-registration form for noncitizens includes a warning: “Please be aware that registering to vote or voting in jurisdictions other than Takoma Park may result in adverse immigration consequences for a non-U.S. citizen.” Jessie Carpenter, Takoma Park’s city clerk, said she liked the more explicit language used by San Francisco “and would consider expanding ours to include some of that.”

“We’ve had noncitizen voting for a while, but given the national context, it’s taken on renewed importance as an expression of the inclusive values we hold important in our community,” said Kate Stewart, the mayor of Takoma Park“We want to make sure people who live in our city have a say in local government, and while we felt that way for decades, given the climate we’re all living in, unfortunately we think it’s important to not only talk about being welcoming and inclusive but to show that we are.”

Arguments against noncitizen voting generally center on claims that it weakens the value of citizenship, could discourage immigrants from seeking eventual naturalization, and could increase the likelihood of voter fraud. Indeed even immigrant-friendly liberal cities have rejected noncitizen voting for these reasons. Portland, Maine rejected a ballot measure for noncitizen voting in 2010, while Burlington, Vermont rejected its own in 2015. Legislative efforts have also launched and failed several times in places like Washington, DC and New York City.

Still, there’s reason to think noncitizen voting could expand, especially as more cities, like Boston, see the move as a way to push back against the anti-immigrant policies the federal government is imposing on them. But it could take time, and several tries: Unlike a campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour or Medicare for All—noncitizen voting generally takes longer to explain and build support for—as most people upon first-hearing about it assume it’s illegal or unAmerican. But attitudes change, as the eventual successful effort in San Francisco showed.

Plus there’s the fact that noncitizen voting is already expanding across the globe, especially in the last few decades. “More than 45 countries on nearly every continent allow resident noncitizens to vote at the local, regional, or national level in the host countries’ elections,” write Hayduk and Coll, citing the European Union, Venezuela, Israel, and New Zealand as examples.

With 22.5 million noncitizens currently living in the United States, advocates remain cautiously hopeful about the future. If all those people could one day vote, the political implications for where they’re concentrated could be tremendous.

“We know federalism is a cornerstone of American democracy, and noncitizen voting is one way that we in San Francisco can set the tone for how we think about engaging immigrant communities to feel a sense of belonging when the federal climate signals to them they are not welcome,” said Pang of Chinese for Affirmative Action. “This has already been a tremendous victory, and whether or not the turnout is huge—that’s not the right metric to measure how effective and positive it is.”

How The Charter School Wars Turned An Obscure Race Into California’s Second Most Expensive Election

Originally published in The Intercept on November 1, 2018.
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The California charter school lobby is testing its influence in the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction, turning an election for a somewhat obscure statewide position into a notably expensive battle.

More than $50 million has flown into the contest between two Democrats for a nonpartisan office with little statutory power. For perspective, this is more money raised than in any U.S. House race this cycle and most Senate races, not to mention every other race in California, save for the governor’s.

The race, largely understood as a proxy war for the future of California charter schools, is the second attempt by the state’s charter school lobby to demonstrate its influence this election cycle. The candidates, Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond, both insist that the race is about far more than charters, which currently enroll 10 percent of the state’s 6.2 million public school students, though they admit that they hold different visions for the publicly funded, privately managed schools. That’s something their funders also acutely recognize.

Tuck, a second-time candidate for the position who has never held elected office, has received endorsements from the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and the San Diego Union Tribune, among others. He’s is backed by the charter school movement, which has spent close to $30 million in support of his campaign. Three individuals alone — real estate developer Bill Bloomfield, Gap co-founder Doris Fisher, and venture capitalist Arthur Rock — have given a combined $11 million.

Tuck’s campaign has also raised over $5 million, something he says challenges the notion that he’s bought and paid for by the charter lobby, which did not directly give money to his campaign. “People focus on the independent expenditures, but I go the opposite way. We’ve raised money from over 4,000 individuals in direct contributions, ranging from high income to low income, people who support charters to people who oppose them, and everything in between,” he said. “People backing me just believe public schools aren’t working for all.”

Thurmond, a state assembly member representing a city in the San Francisco Bay Area, previously worked as a teacher, a social worker, a city council member, and a school board member. Thurmond has support of The Sac Bee and Los Angeles Times, the state Democratic Party, the California Teachers Association and other unions. He has raised close to $16 million. The California Teachers Association is Thurmond’s biggest supporter, donating $8 million to his campaign.

The charter school lobby’s interest in Tuck is not surprising. He served as the first president of the Los Angeles-based charter school network, Green Dot, and then became a founding CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a city-district collaboration focused on turning around low-performing public schools. He also serves on the board of Parent Revolution, a school choice advocacy group.

In an interview, Tuck said the amount of money being spent on the race is refreshing and an appropriate change for a state that has deprioritized public education. “There are 19 million registered voters in California, so when you take a step back, that really boils down to about $2 per voter, which doesn’t seem like an obnoxious amount of money,” he said. “I do think it’s good that we finally have a lot of resources focused on education in a statewide race. In California, it takes a lot of resources to communicate.” He pointed out that not one question was asked about education in the only debate for California’s gubernatorial race.

Thurmond, despite also pulling in millions of dollars, was more critical of the influx of money. “I really wish the amount of money being spent on this race was being provided to states and school districts to educate our kids,” he said. “I think it’s a waste. That money should be going to close the achievement gap, I’d rather see it go there.” He also lambasted the billionaires who “are spending lots of money to support [Tuck] and denigrating me and the kids that I served in a low-income district. They think they know more than the educators, and I know many of those billionaires have strong feelings against teacher unions.”

The California Charter School Association — a formidable force in state politics — is aware that this election is an important chance to show its influence has staying power. The lobby is backed by a few key repeat players—including billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings — and has flexed its financial muscles in recent years, spending more than the teacher unions, which have historically dominated education politics. As EdSource reported, in 2015 and 2016 the California Teachers Association donated $4.3 million to candidates and political committees, while the charter association spent more than $17 million on state and local candidates.

In 2015, for example, the charter lobby spent more than $2 million to elect Ref Rodriguez to the Los Angeles school board, making him the first charter school operator to join the board. In 2017, education reform advocates won three more seats, giving the board a slim pro-charter majority for the first time ever. The 2017 races were the most expensive school board races in U.S. history, with the charter lobby spending $9.7 million to elect its candidates, next to the union’s $5.2 million.

The charter movement’s victory was short-lived, however. Last September, Rodriguez was criminally charged with money laundering during his 2015 campaign. This past summer, Rodriguez pleaded guilty to conspiracy and resigned from the board — an embarrassing debacle for charter advocates, and one that leaves the school board’s balance of power once again up in the air. A special election to fill his seat is set for March.

Charter advocates faced another big defeat this year when they spent $23 million backing Antonio Villaraigosa for governor. It was the largest independent expenditure effort for a gubernatorial primary in California’s history, and despite the flurry of attack ads, Gavin Newsom won the contest easily. The next governor is expected to play a major role in shaping state charter school policy, and many observers felt the charter lobby overplayed its hand by attacking Newsom so much.

California’s outgoing governor, Jerry Brown, was supported by the teachers union throughout his tenure, but he’s largely avoided placing stricter rules on charters and has steered clear of debates about their long-term future in the state. (Last month, however, Brown signed a bill, co-authored by Thurmond, that would ban for-profit charter schools. He had vetoed similar legislation in 2015, which was opposed at the time by the California Charter School Association. The association supported the bill this time around.)

Compared to the governor, the State Superintendent for Public Instruction commands far less power over education policy, but has an influential soapbox that many expect will be important as California charts its future on public education. The outgoing state superintendent, Tom Torlakson, has spoken out about the need to retool some of the state’s charter school authorization policies.

Reached for comment, the California Charter School Association referred questions to EdVoice, a separate pro-charter organization said to be handling media for the state superintendent race. EdVoice did not return multiple requests for comment.

The race has gotten more heated in the weeks leading up to Election Day, with EdVoice funding an attack ad against Thurmond that focused on his time serving as a school board member of the West Contra Costa Unified School District. The ad misleadingly suggested that Thurmond had been sued personally by the American Civil Liberties Union and reprimanded by the Obama administration. “Tony Thurmond failed the students he was supposed to help,” it states.

In 2012, the ACLU sued the district over its school facilities, and Thurmond, as a board member, was a named defendant in the suit. The ad, however, does not mention that four other board members were also sued, as were the superintendent and the associate superintendent. In 2013, the Obama administration’s Office for Civil Rights released a report finding that West Contra Costa had failed to promptly respond to the sexual harassment of students, though Thurmond was not a board member at this time. He said his campaign sent a cease-and-desist letter in response to the ad.

The California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus chair also issued a statement in response to the ad, calling it an exploitation of the #MeToo movement, while the California NAACP sent a letter to Tuck calling him out for “using lies and fake news to smear prominent leaders of color.”

The Thurmond campaign, for its part, has been running its own misleading ad, calling Tuck a “former Wall Street banker” and a “paid backer of charter schools,” who is “backed by Donald Trump’s education adviser and financed by the same billionaires behind Betsy DeVos.” The adviser referenced in the ad is Bill Evers, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, who wrote an op-ed in support of Tuck in September and served on Trump’s education transition team. But the ad zooms in on a picture of DeVos, confusing viewers into thinking that the education secretary herself endorsed Tuck

Tuck sent his own cease-and-desist letter to the Thurmond campaign, calling its ad dishonest for implying that he was backed by DeVos and that he was on the charter movement’s payroll.

Tuck told The Intercept that his campaign is weighing whether to sue for libel but that it would be an expensive endeavor, and they would have to prove that the ad had long-term damage. “We’re still actively investigating it, and if I could sue knowing it wouldn’t cost us $50,000, I would do it tomorrow,” he said. “It’s just the financial calculation, but we shouldn’t normalize lying being OK.”

In terms of education policy, Tuck and Thurmond’s visions have some broad similarities. They both speak passionately about ending the achievement gap and better serving the state’s neediest children. They both condemn the fact that California ranks 44th in the nation on K-12 education, according to the U.S. News & World Report, and they both want to increase state funding for schools, address the state’s teacher shortage, and expand prekindergarten.

But their visions for charter school growth are substantially different. While Tuck said ineffective charter schools should be shut down more quickly and that there needs to be “really strong accountability and transparency” for the schools, he supports opening more charters in neighborhoods where traditional public schools are producing low academic results. “I don’t think we should stop charter schools on the state level,” he added, alluding to a fierce ongoing debate over whether the state should step in to curb charter expansion.

Tuck stressed that, despite his support for charters, “the vast majority of the focus has to be on traditional public schools because that’s where the majority of the kids are.” He said his opponent has called for a “moratorium” on charters — a term Thurmond strongly contests. He prefers the word “pause.”

Thurmond, for his part, said he does not want to limit the ability to open a new charter “that has merit” but that the state must be more “intentional” about charter growth. “As a legislator, I think we have to ask ourselves, where is the tipping point at which we hurt the entire public?” he said. A study on the impact of charter schools, including “the good, the bad, and from the standpoint of what we can afford — how much more we can handle,” would be useful, he said.

Tuck is skeptical of using financial impact measures as a reason to halt new charters. “Finance should be a focus in every decision, but I don’t believe that if charters take additional kids, that would impede your ability to provide a quality education,” he said. “It would only have an impact if you don’t change your behavior at all.”

With less than a week until the election, the two candidates will continue to battle it out over their qualifications to lead California’s schools. Thurmond has the more weighty endorsements, but Tuck is outspending his opponent more than 2 to 1.

poll released Wednesday by the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found Tuck leading Thurmond 48 percent to 36 percent, with Tuck’s advantage “underpinned by the strong backing of Republicans” and a majority of Democrats supporting Thurmond. Independent voters in the poll backed Tuck 5 to 3, while 16 percent of likely voters remain undecided.

While Thurmond points to his tenure in politics as proof of his experience and readiness for the job, Tuck has cast him as a career politician who won’t buck the status quo. The State Superintendent of Public Instruction “has been held for the last quarter century by politicians,” Tuck told the San Francisco Chronicle. “You can’t solve these problems with a bunch of bureaucrats in Sacramento.”

“I am proud to be a politician and a public servant,” said Thurmond. “The state superintendent has to work with the governor and legislature, and I have a record of doing just that. I love my job, and I could stay in the assembly if I wanted to, but I want my political legacy to be about helping kids.”

What Happened to the Black-Jewish Political Alliance?

Originally published in the fall 2018 issue of Jewish Currents 

Discussed in this essay: Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s, by Marc Dollinger. Brandeis University Press, 2018. 272 pages.

THE AMERICAN JEWISH COMMUNITY tells a very particular story about its history. We came over to the United States, mostly from Europe, as poor, often persecuted immigrants, and through a commitment to education and hard work, we rose collectively to seize the American dream. We especially like to highlight our commitment to civil rights and the African American struggle in the 50s and 60s, and in the decades thereafter our energized commitment to the state of Israel. While most Jews acknowledge that yes, things appear less harmonious today between blacks and Jews, we don’t dwell too long on those details. And besides, we learn, it was African American separatists who turned their backs on the interfaith work anyway.

In Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s, Marc Dollinger, a historian in the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, tells a very different kind of story. After scouring primary sources from the era, he finds that Jews not only anticipated the splintering of the great interfaith, interracial coalition years before it happened, they also acknowledged their responsibility for the split. What’s more, Jews benefited directly from it.

It’s not unfounded that most young American Jews grow up learning about the role Jewish activists played in the civil rights movement. Jews really were involved and supportive in ways that differed from other white subgroups. Polls from the era revealed that Jews were almost twice as likely as white Protestants to consider “racial inequality” the most important issue of the day, and over a third of Jewish respondents thought civil rights reform was “too slow.” Jews comprised at least 30 percent of the white Freedom Riders, lent critical financial support to organizations like the NAACP, and submitted amicus briefs in support of civil rights to the Supreme Court. In 1963, Holocaust survivor and Newark rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke just before Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, and in 1965, Rabbi Abraham Heschel famously “prayed with his feet” as he marched alongside King in Selma, Alabama.

Still, that’s not the full picture. Because despite their vocal support for the African American struggle, most Jews were not risking their livelihoods for black freedom in any real way. As Dollinger writes, Southern Jews embraced Dixie and were overwhelmingly silent on civil rights. Northern Jews took pride in their support for justice, but “most experienced that movement from the safety and comfort of their living rooms, where they read about direct-action protests in the newspaper or watched it on television.”

On top of their oft-exaggerated support, Jews actually began to retreat from the civil rights movement in the 1960s, a retreat documented at the time in a slew of confidential ADL memos authored by local regional leaders for the national office. While the leaders expressed concern over growing black militancy, “they also framed their assessment,” Dollinger writes, “. . . with a clear awareness of Jewish culpability in damaging relations with African American civil rights leaders.” One Buffalo ADL leader wrote that members of his local Jewish community felt blacks were “stirring things up too much.” Another leader overseeing the Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi region wrote, “the Jewish community is not fully living up to its own power . . . [and] by and large do not get involved in the area of race relations.” These private conversations and acknowledgements eventually spilled over into the public. “The dirty little secret of our community after all,” Dollinger quotes a Jewish activist saying to the Synagogue Council of America in 1969, “is that its leaders have always spoken more forcefully and radically than its followers have felt.”

This recognition of the partial blame Jews shouldered meant that when African American leaders began voicing frustration with their Jewish allies, tired of their gradualism and paternalism, Jewish leaders often conceded those critiques had validity. And when some of those African American frustrations veered into outright antisemitism, Jewish leaders tended to minimize the prejudice. “Embracing the era’s emerging analysis of power relations, they differentiated between antisemitism, which posed relatively little risk to the continued social mobility of American Jews, and racism, which continued to limit African American advance,” Dollinger writes. It’s hard to fathom American Jewish leaders issuing such measured responses to black antisemitism today. Consider the Jewish establishment’s fixation with pressuring black leaders like Keith Ellison or Women’s March co-founder Tamika Mallory to disavow Louis Farrakhan and his greatly diminished Nation of Islam.

A central tenet of Black Power, Jewish Politics is that as this political rift opened between blacks and Jews in the late 1960s, as black activists began organizing more exclusively by and for black Americans, the space for Jews to organize by and for Jews in the United States widened, too. This then enabled Jewish leaders to build a new kind of narrative for the Jewish community, one of “Klal Yisrael.” Sometimes that meant flooding the streets and Capitol Hill on behalf of Soviet Jewry and the State of Israel. Sometimes that meant organizing for more explicitly Jewish institutions in the United States like an expansion of Jewish day schools. (There were 35 Jewish day schools in 1940, with that number rising to 323 by 1965, and 425 by 1973.) Jews began to publicly lean into identity politics in a way that before would have felt unkosher, too vulnerable to charges of dual loyalty. “Black Power proved quite good for the Jews,” Dollinger quips at one point.

Neoconservative intellectuals helped bolster this new framework of Jewish community. In 1971, Nathan Glazer, a former Commentary magazine editor, argued that Jewish dissidents who challenged this newfound unity around Israel (and anti-communism) displayed “anti-Jewish tendencies.” That same year Norman Podhoretz argued in Commentary that Jewish radicals who challenged the communal consensus were actually committing acts of antisemitism. As Jews drifted further from their roots of interracial, interfaith solidarity, they adopted the language of solidarity more exclusively and dogmatically for themselves.

Today, rather than teach young Jews the different ways Jewish Americans responded to the civil rights movement—including both inaction and opposition—we opt for a sanitized picture that obscures the complex racial, economic, and geographical dynamics of the period. Rather than teach how Jewish and black leaders during the civil rights era recognized the often challenging power dynamics between the two communities, American Jews teach a glorified history of Jews as brave, selfless allies, motivated by our sense of tikkun olam, unfairly spurned by black nationalists later on. Just this past spring James Kirchick penned an essay in Commentary echoing this narrative, touting Jewish involvement in the NAACP and the civil rights movement, and how “perplexing and painful” it was when black separatist movements like the Nation of Islam and Black Panthers grew in power, espousing a “Third Worldist ideology” and “anti-Israel (and often anti-Semitic) rhetoric.”

Meanwhile, the ADL is hardly on the front lines of the civil rights movement anymore. Beginning in the 1980s, as American Jews continued to climb the economic ranks and assimilate into white society, the group’s approach shifted away from overt political advocacy toward providing educational resources and workshops for combating racial bias and discrimination. Today the ADL goes so far as to sponsor annual trips to Israel for US law enforcement to learn from and train with Israeli police and military officials. While the organization casts these experiences as opportunities for enhanced counterterrorism efforts, it’s hard to defend equipping American police with the discriminatory tactics deployed by an occupying army.

Unfortunately, in the name of Klal Yisrael, we’ve simultaneously thwarted intellectual growth in our community and hindered real accountability. While there is greater individual reckoning on the part of Jews with the power dynamics between ourselves and African Americans, our engagement in solidarity activism rarely examines our community’s power and wealth. This past summer, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, gave a speech at the tail end of the Poor People’s Campaign, saying that “Jewish tradition teaches us that poverty is the greatest issue facing our society.” While Jacobs is right to publicly highlight the issue of poverty, we in our community know that many wealthy American Jews—including those who belong to Reform congregations—oppose massive redistribution of wealth, and rarely have to answer for it.

And rather than teach the rich tapestry of dissent and debate over the question of Jewish self-determination, we teach absolute support for Israel, as if questions around a Jewish nation-state have not only been settled, but were never really debated at all. Within our communal institutions, we censure voices that seek to stigmatize those with wretched politics and exorbitant wealth. It’s why mainstream Jewish organizations continue to ingratiate themselves at the feet of billionaires like Sheldon Adelson.

This ideal of communal consensus is seductive and reassuring, as is emphasizing aspects of our history in which we can take pride. But it has prevented a real honest reckoning with Jewish history and Jewish power, and at whose expense our power has come. Books like Black Power, Jewish Politics are a bold first step toward such a discussion.

Democratic Consulting Firm Teams Up with Hospital Industry To Battle Nurses Union

Originally published in The Intercept on October 19, 2018.
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The hospital industry has partnered with a major Democratic consulting firm in an unusual alliance against Massachusetts’s nurses and the bulk of its progressive infrastructure.

At issue is a ballot initiative that aims to improve patient safety by limiting the number of patients that can be assigned to a single nurse.

If passed, the initiative, known as Question 1, will make Massachusetts the second state in the country to have nurse staffing limits in place. (The exact nurse-to-patient ratio would vary depending on the hospital department.) But, as Election Day inches closer, the initiative’s supporters and opponents are engaged in a heated battle over the costs of implementing the initiative, and what it would mean for patients.

For more than two decades, nurses across the country have argued that they can’t do their jobs effectively — or safely — when they’re tasked with caring for too many patients at any given time, as is often the case. More recently, Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Sens. Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders have sponsored bills to establish “nurse staffing limits” in order to curb the number of patients assigned to nurses who work in hospitals and, thereby, improve care.

Most local labor groups and the Massachusetts Democratic Party have come out in support of Question 1. Its backers include Boston Mayor Marty Walsh; U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey; and U.S. Reps. Katherine Clark, Jim McGovern, Joe Kennedy III, and Michael Capuano. A majority of likely voters polled by Suffolk University and the Boston Globe in mid-September supported the ballot initiative.

But a formidable opposition campaign, funded by the hospital industry and led by a prominent Democratic consulting firm, threatens to derail the nurse staffing effort. The opposition campaign, rallying under the banner of “the Coalition to Protect Patient Safety,” has raised more than $13 million since January; 95 percent of those funds have come from the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association. Through an aggressive advertisement blitz, the coalition has worked hard to argue that Question 1 could destroy the state’s renowned health care system.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker recently said he’ll be voting “no” on the measure, citing hotly disputed cost projections. Recent polling also reflects a shift in public opinion, suggesting that the opposition’s campaign is working. For the first time this year, polls now show that a majority of likely voters oppose Question 1, including a University of Massachusetts Lowell/Boston Globe poll from October that found 51 percent plan to vote against it.

The opposition campaign has led to confusion even among nurses, whose support for Question 1 has significantly declined. (There are 83,000 registered nurses in the state, though the ballot initiative would not affect all of them.) An April poll, commissioned by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, found that 86 percent of registered nurses planned to vote “yes” on the ballot initiative. But a new poll, published this week by WBUR, found that just 48 percent of nurses are backing Question 1, while 45 percent are opposed and 7 percent are undecided.

ONE OF THE biggest points of confusion right now is how much Question 1 would cost, with opponents and supporters battling back and forth with wildly different estimates.

A study conducted by Boston College nursing economist Judith Shindul-Rothschild found that the total cost of implementing the proposed nurse-to-patient staffing limits in Massachusetts would be about $35 million to $47 million per year, necessitating a 2-7 percent increase in the number of nurses employed. After studying data from the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association and matching data comparing staffing levels and costs with the California hospital industry, Shindul-Rothschild concluded that most hospitals could easily comply with the law by shifting some money away from administrative expenditures. “At the end of the day, we estimate that after implementing the limits of Question 1 our state’s hospitals would still retain a mean profit margin of $15 million a year,” she told MassLive.com. Shindul-Rothschild is a former president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which backs Question 1.

But a report commissioned by the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association puts the costs much higher, at $1.31 billion in the initiative’s first year and over $900 million per year thereafter. The report, published in April, argues that those costs would be paid by residents in the form of higher insurance premiums, copays, and taxes.

The opposition campaign got a boost in October, when the Health Policy Commission, a state agency charged with monitoring health care delivery in Massachusetts, put out estimates that Question 1 would cost somewhere between $676 million and $949 million per year. The Health Policy Commission is the agency that would be tasked with developing regulations to implement the law if it passed.

Question 1 supporters have called those Health Policy Commission figures bogus. In an interview with The Intercept, Shindul-Rothschild said the biggest difference between her figures and those calculated by the Health Policy Commission is that the commission’s model assumes that nurse staffing limits will produce far greater levels of wage inflation — upward of 6 percent. “Not only did they assume 6 percent wage inflation, but they assumed it for every nurse working in Massachusetts, regardless of if they work in hospitals or not,” she said. “They said if wages go up in hospitals, they’ll go up across the board for every nurse, no matter where they work. I’m a nurse on faculty at Boston College, and there’s no way they’re increasing my salary by 6 percent.”

One reason the Health Policy Commission’s model assumes greater wage inflation is based on what California experienced after it implemented nurse staffing ratios. But unlike California at the time, Massachusetts has a surplus of registered nurses, with 3,000 to 3,500 new ones graduating every year. Many of these nurses end up moving out of state because they can’t find local employment, and a 2012 report published in the American Journal of Medical Quality found that Massachusetts was one of just two states in the country to have no nursing shortage.

The Health Policy Commission’s analysis is “fully consistent with the HPC’s statutory purpose and mission and is not intended to promote or oppose the pending ballot question,” said spokesperson Matthew Kitsos.

But since its founding in 2012, the Health Policy Commission has not conducted similar studies for other ballot initiatives that could have impacted health care, and the commission has also stayed quiet on more than 300 bills in the Massachusetts legislature that would have affected health care cost and delivery. Kitsos did not answer questions about why the Health Policy Commission avoided past health care legislation.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association slammed the Health Policy Commission study. “The HPC didn’t use third-party validated data, it used hospital industry data which it specifically said it would not rely on for its own analyses of hospital mergers,” said Julie Pinkham, the executive director of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents 23,000 registered nurses. “I don’t want them to do an analysis, because it’s not their role, but if they are going to do an analysis, then use actual, real-time staffing data.”

For Pinkham, the nurse staffing debate has been laced with sexism. “If there were 23,000 men saying, ‘Hey, look, this is unsafe,’ do you think they would make you wait over 20 years to fix it?” she asked. “They treat us like we’re just these nice girls, trying to do a nice thing, but that we don’t know what we’re talking about and can’t handle numbers.”

The debate over the cost of implementing a nurse staffing limit is unlikely to be settled prior to Election Day, but Massachusetts voters can look to California for an example of how such a policy would work. The Golden State passed a nurse staffing limit law in 1999, and it’s been in effect since 2004. The hospital industry, which bitterly fought the law’s passage in California, has successfully defeated similar attempts in other states since then.

Researchers have found that California’s law improved care — especially for poor patients — and contributed to a greater decline in mortality than other states have seen.

Linda Aiken, the director of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, said California has “the best nurse staffing in the country” in terms of patient outcomes. One study Aiken conducted looked at how outcomes would change in New Jersey and Pennsylvania if they adopted California’s nurse-to-patient ratios; she determined that in-patient mortality would drop in those states by 10-13 percent.

“We’ve done many studies in the U.S. and around the world and found for each additional patient that a nurse takes care of at one time, there’s a 7 percent increase in the patient’s likelihood of dying,” she told The Intercept. “There’s good evidence that California’s staffing improved directly as a result of the [1999] legislation, and that over time it led to a greater decline in mortality in California compared to other states.”

What works in California won’t necessarily work the same way in other locations, but Aiken pointed out that Ireland and Wales have also followed California’s lead and adopted nurse staffing limits. She suggested that opposition in the U.S. is based more on ideological resistance to government mandates than anything else. There are some, however, who argue that the research evidence is not clear enough to justify changing policy. Hospital executives, including nurse administrators, generally oppose nurse staffing limits, arguing they’re too blunt of an instrument and hinder needed flexibility.

Dewey Square Group, a prominent political consulting firm that often works with Democratic candidates, liberal groups, and labor unions, is leading the opposition campaign. Consultants from the firm have been paid over $800,000 since April for their efforts, according to state campaign finance data.

Dewey Square is leading “a progressive campaign” that “helps people in need of quality, affordable, accessible health care along with the nurses and doctors who provide it,” said spokesperson Ginny Terzano. Their coalition comprises “more than 170 health care organizations and every hospital in Massachusetts,” Terzano added.

Among those groups is the Organization of Nurse Leaders, which represents 700 nurse administrators, and the Massachusetts chapter of the American Nurses Association, a group that, unlike most similar groups, has not disclosed how many registered nurses it represents. (The nurse trade group did not return The Intercept’s request for details.) Both groups have fought past legislative efforts to establish nurse staffing limits in Massachusetts.

In 2016, Dewey Square was hired by the Massachusetts Teachers Association to run a campaign on behalf of labor and progressive groups against a ballot measure that would have raised the state’s cap on charter schools. The measure, rejected by more than 62 percent of voters, failed. That the consultants who led the 2016 campaign on behalf of liberal groups are now leading the campaign against those same organizations has sparked intraparty turmoil in the state.

Barbara Madeloni, who stepped down as president of the 110,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association this past summer, told The Intercept that she “doesn’t know how [Dewey Square consultants] sleep at night” while leading the opposition campaign. “The ways they’re running it, their comfort with distortions and misinformation, and that they’re aligning with people who are really looking to undermine the well-being of the patients of the commonwealth — well, they’re just exposing themselves as mercenaries,” she said. “Quite honestly, there’s a part of me that’s embarrassed to have ever worked with them.”

Terzano of Dewey Square dismissed the idea that their work opposing Question 1 puts them at odds with organized labor. “We may have a different policy position than some labor organizations on this issue but we continue to work alongside labor on a number of issues,” she said. “And I would say it’s also important to note that not every relevant labor union has taken a position on Question 1.”

Terzano was referring to 1199SEIU Massachusetts, which represents 60,000 health care workers in the state — and has notably taken a “neutral” position on the initiative. But even 1199SEIU hasn’t been sitting on the sidelines since the start. In fact, the union worked directly with the Massachusetts Nurses Association in July 2017 to draft the ballot initiative language. SEIU’s input resulted in language that ensures that the nurse staffing limits could not be implemented by eliminating other health care workforce jobs. (Administrative positions, however, may be reduced if the initiative passes.)

According to 1199SEIU President Tim Foley, the union’s change in perspective is due to “concerns about reforms not focusing on the staffing needs for the entire health care team as well as the potential unintended consequences on the health care workforce and health care services.”

SEIU nurses in California have come out in support of Question 1, saying that fears of health care workforce cuts in their state did not materialize after transitioning to nurse-to-patient ratios. In a recorded video, the executive director of the SEIU Nurse Alliance of California emphasized that no hospitals closed and no services ended as a result of implementing nurse-to-patient ratios.

Sal Rosselli, the president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers and the former president of the SEIU United Healthcare Workers West, the statewide local union for health care workers in California, also endorsed Question 1 in Massachusetts.

“Fourteen years ago, when our RN safe patient limits law was being passed here in California, many hospital executives were spouting the same line of doom and gloom as they are today in Massachusetts,” he wrote in a statement. “Our union represents mostly non-RN hospital workers. The truth is there were no layoffs of non-RN caregivers and no hospital closures as a result of California’s law. The only outcome was that it made care much better for patients.”

Madeloni, the former Massachusetts Teacher Association president, who now works as the education coordinator for Labor Notes, said “it’s really troubling” that 1199SEIU Massachusetts has not joined the coalition of labor groups on this. “Solidarity matters, and we should never accept a lack of funds and the incitement of fear that if some workers get something good to do their jobs well, that means other workers will lose. We engage the fights that are going to help each other, we do that however we can do it, and we don’t hold back.”