Amid Internal Power Struggle, Firefighters Union Clears President of Wrongdoing

Originally published in The Intercept on September 22, 2020.
—–

THE INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION of Fire Fighters has absolved its president, Harold Schaitberger, of any wrongdoing related to his receipt of pension payments, according to an internal review obtained by The Intercept. The union’s No. 2, General Secretary-Treasurer Ed Kelly, had charged back in March that Schaitberger was receiving the payments too soon, prompting the investigation. Another internal review, which was distributed within the union last week, found that Kelly had improperly hired outside legal counsel to investigate Schaitberger and the IAFF.  

Kelly alleged in the spring that Schaitberger, who was elected as the IAFF’s president in 2000, after 24 years of serving as an IAFF staffer, has been drawing from his staff pension benefits too soon, receiving more than $1 million earlier than allowed by federal law and union rules. The allegations sparked the internal probes, which were led by board-level committees.

The jockeying at the top of the IAFF, which represents 320,000 firefighters and paramedics across the U.S and Canada, comes at a crucial political juncture, ahead of the presidential election in November and union elections in January. Schaitberger is a key ally of former Vice President Joe Biden, and under his leadership, the IAFF endorsed Biden in April 2019, long before any other labor union, drawing the ire of President Donald Trump. Schaitberger is up for reelection in January and is currently running unopposed — though, as The Intercept reported last week, Kelly has expressed interest in the role, according to an IAFF leader from the Midwest and other union members. Kelly’s chief of operations, Matt Golsteyn, was pardoned for war crimes by Trump in November 2019 and campaigned with him at a Republican Party fundraiser a month later.

Following Kelly’s accusations, the union executive board suspended Schaitberger’s monthly pension payments and suggested that the union may need to “recover the impermissible benefit payments” Schaitberger had received, potentially by offsetting them against future payments. The board then launched its internal review; neither Schaitberger nor Kelly were involved in appointing members to the committee tasked with reviewing the pension claims, according to the 29-page report.

The report was distributed to thousands of IAFF leaders on Monday, and in it the union reversed its suspension of Schaitberger’s pension payments. The report also noted that the union’s executive board unanimously approved an amendment in 2002 affirming Schaitberger’s right to collect his staff pension while serving as president. It does not say definitively whether he improperly received payments, but concludes that any overpayment he may have received “cannot be recovered from him” because it would be “improper” under the principles of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 to hold him financially responsible for that. (The federal retirement law places the responsibility of record retention on the employer, not the employee, and the union noted many key witnesses involved in managing the pension fund are now dead.) “Our determination is due in no small part to the amount of time that has passed since the events at issue and the significant prejudice to Mr. Schaitberger resulting from the passage of time and the wasting of evidence,” the report concluded.

Earlier this month, federal authorities launched a criminal probe into the allegations. In the union’s new report, the authors acknowledged that the federal government may still find wrongdoing, but emphasized that if a pension “correction” is needed with the IRS, Schaitberger should not be personally on the hook for it.

On Monday, Schaitberger sent a lengthy email to IAFF leaders sharing the pension report, which he claimed “vindicated me,” laying out the major findings of the internal review. He also warned that some may try “to mischaracterize this Decision, to once again serve their own ambition and purposes. When they do, they will continue to expose their own agenda and further harm this IAFF.”

A second executive board committee report, which was distributed internally to IAFF leaders last week, blasted Kelly for secretly hiring the “antiunion, anti-employee” law firm Nelson Mullins in January to investigate the union’s finances. Kelly used his personal email account to hire the law firm, without knowledge or approval from others on the union executive board. When reprimanded in March by Schaitberger for the unauthorized hire, Kelly defended his decision, saying that his constitutional authorities as general secretary-treasurer “provide[s] for the ability to retain outside counsel to assist me with my fiduciary responsibilities as the association’s treasurer.” (The IAFF’s general counsel disagreed with this assessment, according to an email he sent Kelly on March 12.)

In the report pertaining to Nelson Mullins, the IAFF said that when it had first asked the firm for documents and emails relevant to its representation of the union, it “provided an incredibly incomplete response” and allegedly withheld documents from the executive board. This prompted the board to vote in July to instruct Nelson Mullins to immediately cease all IAFF work and provide the union with all documents, correspondence, and work product by August 7. But the law firm, according to the IAFF, did not stop working and proceeded to submit a so-called preliminary report on the union that had not been requested. The IAFF blasted Nelson Mullins for producing an unauthorized work product that “is filled with unsubstantiated allegations, innuendo, and factual misstatements” and “appears to be nothing more than a hit piece on the IAFF Executive Board and General President.” 

Asked about the internal reports, a spokesperson for the IAFF told The Intercept that they “speak for themselves.”

Firefighters Union, A Key Biden Ally, Confronts a Barr Investigation and Trump’s Pardon Power

Originally published in The Intercept on September 18, 2020.
—–

IN AUGUST 2016, Ed Kelly, a young rising star in the Massachusetts labor movement, won his bid to become General Secretary-Treasurer of the International Association of Fire Fighters, or IAFF: the union representing 320,000 firefighters and paramedics across the U.S and Canada. The position is the second most powerful in the union, behind the presidency, which has been held for the last two decades by 74-year-old Harold Schaitberger, a close ally of Joe Biden.

Soon after, Kelly tapped combat veteran Mathew Golsteyn to serve as his chief of operations. The low-key hire came at the recommendation of Kelly’s brother, Greg, who had overlapped in Afghanistan with Golsteyn. But Golsteyn was not just any Green Beret: He had earned a spate of shocking headlines just a year earlier for alleged war crimes, for which he was ultimately pardoned by President Donald Trump in November 2019. In the month following the pardon, Golsteyn joined Trump onstage at a secretive fundraiser for the Florida Republican Party, helping them net $3.5 million in donations.

In 2015, Golsteyn had been stripped of a Silver Star after disclosing in a CIA polygraph interview that he had shot and buried an unarmed Taliban fighter he thought was a bombmaker, and later dug up the remains and burned them in a pit. The revelations roiled the CIA, which quickly notified the Pentagon, sparking a two-year investigation in which the U.S Army concluded in 2013 that Golsteyn had knowingly violated the laws of war. While investigators did not find enough evidence to bring criminal charges, in an internal Army memo previously reported by The Intercept, Golsteyn was reprimanded for a “complete lack of judgement and responsibility” and told he had “discredited” himself and the U.S military.

But in October 2016, just a month after joining the firefighters union, Golsteyn was asked on Fox News if he killed the suspected bombmaker, to which he replied, “Yes.” This new public admission sparked army investigators to quickly reopen their investigation, and two years later charged Golsteyn with murder.

The new probe and criminal charges became a cause célèbre among conservatives, who rushed to Golsteyn’s defense. Golsteyn’s lawyer called the murder charge a case of “political correctness” and following an interview with Golsteyn’s wife in December 2018 on the president’s favorite news program “Fox & Friends,” Trump got involved.

Throughout all of this, Kelly offered unwavering support on social media for his chief of operations and helped fundraise for Golsteyn’s legal defense.

Meanwhile, ahead of what is often described as the most important presidential election in generations, a series of escalating disputes among IAFF leadership have increasingly spilled over into public view. Schaitberger, a key Biden ally, is locked in bitter in-fighting, grappling with leaks to right wing media, and confronting a federal investigation from a Justice Department that’s been unabashed in its willingness to use federal power for the president’s political gain. It comes as Biden is fighting Trump for votes among elderly and white working-class voters, where the firefighters union is a key validator, so much so that Trump has worked hard to undermine the value of the endorsement.

Things heated up earlier this year when Kelly accused Schaitberger of financial impropriety. Schaitberger has been blasted for lavish spending before, but the crux of the new allegations hinged on whether Schaitberger received pension benefits too early; prior to being elected IAFF president in 2000, he served as an IAFF union staffer for 24 years. The elected position and the staff position earn pension benefits from two separate funds, and Kelly charges that Schaitberger drew from his staff pension benefits too soon, in violation of federal law and union rules. The IAFF has pointed to legal counsel it received at the time of Schaitberger’s transition, and maintains they have done nothing wrong. Earlier this month federal authorities launched a criminal probe into the accusations, while the union’s executive board has launched an internal review.

Conservative media outlets have followed along, with the Washington Free Beacon and the Wall Street Journal publishing updates based on leaked union records and board discussions, including a lengthy memo about Kelly’s financial audit. They have framed their stories heavily around Schaitberger’s close relationship with Biden. (When Biden announced his candidacy for the White House in April 2019, the IAFF endorsed him almost immediately, long before any other union.) “Union Probe Finds Close Biden Ally Misappropriated Millions” read the first Free Beacon headline from March. “Firefighters Union Chief With Ties to Democratic Leaders Is Mired in Internal Financial Dispute” read the first WSJ story.Join Our NewsletterOriginal reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.I’m in

Schaitberger is up for reelection in January and is currently running unopposed, though Kelly is long rumored to want his job, according to members of the union. One IAFF leader from the Midwest, who spoke to The Intercept under the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said they were personally asked by Kelly earlier this year if they would support him in a bid for president.

Kelly, who was pushed by a fellow union member to answer for his own use of funds earlier this week, declined to comment for this story and referred all questions to attorneys at Wiley Rein LLP, the law firm representing the IAFF in the federal investigation. Wiley Rein attorney Robert Walker declined to comment, and Golsteyn did not return multiple requests for comment.

Brian Rice, the president of the California Professional Firefighters, told The Intercept he thought the leaks to the press violate Schaitberger’s entitlement to a fair process, and to him, “it’s nothing more than a veiled coup, a power struggle, aimed at IAFF leadership.”

In June, Rice joined three other state IAFF presidents — Bobby Lee of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, Robert Sanchez of the New Mexico Professional Fire Fighters Association, and Bryan Jeffries of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona — in writing a statement that their union’s democratic process was disrespected by leaks of “selective” and “incomplete” details to the “historically anti-union” news outlet — referring to the Wall Street Journal — instead of waiting for the union’s review of Kelly’s allegations to finish. “The IAFF’s reputation and power, which took over a century to build, is now at risk of being tarnished by the careless and selfish act of a few,” they wrote.

The Wall Street Journal reported in June that “union records” showed Schaitberger used a company credit card to download content from iTunes in 2017 and 2018. Only individuals at the level of General Secretary-Treasurer have access to those types of records, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the union’s expense reporting system. The outlet also reported on communications among the executive board, a body that includes 16 district vice presidents, Schaitberger, and Kelly.

Past reporting has also relied heavily on longtime critics of Schaitberger, including Frank Ricci, a former firefighter union president from New Haven who now works as a strategist for a conservative think tank, and Eric Lamar, a former Schaitberger aide who now maintains a blog that is sharply critical of his old boss and IAFF leadership. Ricci, a supporter of Trump, told the Free Beacon in March he “stand[s] in full support” of Kelly, who provided “official documents and a cogent argument that support his accusations.”

In a statement to the Wall Street Journal following the announcement of the federal probe, the IAFF said it would cooperate with the investigation and that “this action is part of a continued assault by a handful of individuals trying to tear down the organization for their own self-interest and personal retribution.”

Jeffries, of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, told The Intercept that he and many of his colleagues were not just concerned by the specifics of the accusations, which he said “seem to be blatantly false” — but the timing of them.

“Not only is this happening in an election year for [IAFF] president and secretary-treasurer, it’s also happening in the election year for the president of the United States,” he said. “I can’t prove anything that there are connections but it sure feels like there are some very right-leaning elements within our union who are trying to dismantle the unbelievable vision and work of Harold Schaitberger when all he and IAFF have done has put wins in the win column.”

The union declined to make Schaitberger available for an interview but in an emailed statement provided to The Intercept, the IAFF said it was cooperating with the requests for documents associated with the organization’s staff pension plan, “strongly reaffirms that it did not engage in any wrongdoing [and] we look forward to a swift resolution of the reviews being conducted.”

Trump has made no secret of his ire toward the firefighters union for endorsing Biden, tweeting after the endorsement that he’s “done more for Firefighters than this dues sucking union will ever do” and that the membership of the union actually supported him. Because of that, as well as U.S Attorney General William Barr’s track record of using the federal law enforcement agency to go after the president’s enemies, some, including former Justice Department spokesperson Matthew Miller, have speculated that the federal probe may be politically motivated. The Department of Justice did not return a request for comment.

The launch of a federal investigation followed a written request sent to the FBI by Lamar, who wrote that the union’s leadership “have engaged in an ongoing pattern of defrauding the members while enriching themselves.”

On Tuesday, the day after The Intercept asked Lamar what he makes of those who say his blog posts in support of Kelly’s accusations may be politically driven, Lamar published a new post distancing himself from Kelly, blasting the General Secretary-Treasurer for submitting a $43,000 expense voucher that was late and without proper documentation. In the post, Lamar called Kelly’s action “some mix of immature, unprofessional and reckless.” In a video response published later that day, Kelly apologized for his behavior, pledged to post the receipts in question online, and said his team has “been overwhelmed trying to expose the finances of the IAFF.”

Buried within the new business expense disclosures Kelly published this week existed one notable charge from December 11, 2019: a $74 lunch expense at Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C., listed for him, Golsteyn, and Clint Lorance, another U.S Army soldier pardoned for war crimes by Trump. Lorance was convicted of murdering two Afghan men in 2012, and both Lorance and Golsteyn had appeared at the Florida Republican Party fundraiser with the president four days earlier.

Cincinnati Is An Epicenter of the Death Penalty. Its Prosecutor Race Could End That In November.

Originally published in The Appeal on September 15, 2020.

Cincinnati’s top prosector, Joe Deters, has been a driving force for the death penalty in a state that sentences more people to death than nearly any other in the nation. Deters, a Republican, has sent more people to death row than any other prosecutor in Ohio. And Hamilton County, where he has served as prosecuting attorney for more than two decades, is among the 2 percent of counties responsible for a majority of death sentences and executions in the United States. 

But zeal for capital punishment has been waning among Ohio conservatives. Last year, Republican Governor Mike DeWine issued a freeze on executions, and this year prominent  conservatives endorsed a call to repeal the death penalty.

Now Deters is running for re-election in a race that could go a long way in moving Ohio toward that repeal. But rather than reconsidering his stance, Deters is doubling down. His challenger, Democrat Fanon Rucker—a former judge, prosecutor, and civil rights attorney—has taken the opposite position, promising not to seek the death penalty and to support its abolition.

“I would absolutely support repeal of it because our Supreme Court has identified, and folks across the country have realized, it’s ineffective, inefficient, and certainly there are arguments about the immorality as well,” Rucker told The Appeal: Political Report.

Unseating Deters could bolster advocacy against the death penalty, since pro-death penalty prosecutors and state prosecutor associations have played a powerful role in blocking criminal justice reforms in Ohio and elswhere. 

“One reason we’re not seeing more reform is because prosecutors wield tremendous political influence, because many elected officials are fearful if they pass repeals the district attorney will call them soft on crime,”  said Hannah Cox, the national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “I do think the public is starting to catch up to the idea that [prosecutors] are holding the string.”  

Death penalty opponents have raised many objections to capital punishment, including that it’s a failed crime deterrent, that too many innocent people have been sentenced to death, and that people of color are disproportionately sentenced.  

In a case study published several years ago, legal researchers found statistically significant evidence that race has influenced the use of capital punishment under Deters’s leadership. Among other things, between 1992 and 2017, the scholars found, a case in Hamilton County with at least one white victim faced odds of being charged with capital murder at more than four times the rate of a similar case with no white victims, and a Black defendant who killed at least one white victim faced higher odds of receiving a death sentence than similarly situated defendants.

Growing criticisms have not deterred Deters, who sought the death penalty as recently as May in a case involving a man accused of deliberately crashing his vehicle into police cruisers and killing one officer. The county prosecutor told a Cincinnati public radio station at the time that his office doesn’t seek the death penalty often, “but when we do, we’re pretty good at it and we’re going to do our best in this case.” Deters did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Deters, who is Catholic, was not even swayed when, in August 2018, Pope Francis came out against capital punishment in all circumstances. “No matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person,” the pope said.

Deters told a reporter that “the pope is wrong” on capital punishment. At the time Deters was defending the death penalty for Anthony Kirkland, who murdered five women between 1987 and 2009.

“My friends who are priests, they don’t know what we’re dealing with,” Deters told the local ABC affiliate. “We’re dealing with vicious, evil killers. And it is self-defense in my mind for the death penalty, and that’s why we seek it.” He then said if people don’t want the death penalty, then “get rid of it, I don’t care, but I swore to uphold the law and that’s what I’m doing.”

This isn’t Rucker’s first shot at becoming Hamilton County’s top prosecutor; in 2004 he faced off against Deters and lost. But the county, which was once solidly Republican, has been trending blue in recent years and voted for Hillary Clinton over President Trump by ten percentage points in 2016, even as Ohio on the whole has become more conservative. After a moderately successful 2018 midterm cycle, Democrats are eyeing the prosecutor’s office as one of the last remaining GOP bastions in the county.

A change in the office could have an outsize effect on the state level, which has seen major changes around death penalty politics over the last few years.

Ohio’s last execution was in July 2018. In February 2019, DeWine, who had recently taken office, announced he would be halting all executions until the state found a new method that could pass constitutional muster. A month earlier a federal judge had described Ohio’s lethal-injection method as akin to a combination of waterboarding and chemical fire. “Ohio is not going to execute someone under my watch when a federal judge has found it to be cruel and unusual punishment,” DeWine said.

DeWine has not clarified his views oncapital punishment, though he was a sponsor of the 1981 bill to legalize Ohio’s death penalty. Many have speculated that, unlike Deters, DeWine’s strong Catholic faith has complicated his feelings on the issue.

Following DeWine’s pause on executions, other prominent Republicans started speaking out, including Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder who announced he’d become “less and less supportive” of the death penalty. Householder specifically raised concerns with its cost, and with the challenge of finding a feasible way to do the executions. (Two months ago,  Householder was arrested and ousted from government over a $60 million corruption scheme.)

Jessie Frank, a death penalty opponent with the Cincinnati-based Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, said DeWine’s moratorium has been helpful, but warned that the governor will one day leave office and “it’s important to make sure executions don’t start back up again.” Senate President Larry Obhof, a powerful gatekeeper in the state, remains opposed to the death penalty’s repeal.

There has been growing support for incremental reforms, but even those have been opposed by county prosecutors. Bipartisan legislation to ban the death penalty for people with serious mental illness has been considered by Ohio lawmakers for the last five years, and even passed the state House of Representatives in 2019. But prosecutors have lobbied hard against the legislation, and most recently defeated it in the state Senate. Victor Vigluicci, president of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association called the legislation “dangerous” and “not necessary to address any actual problems.”

Another major political development came in February, when a new group formed: Ohio Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. The group, which is one of 15 chapters nationwide, rallied over 35 of the state’s conservative leaders, including former Governor Bob Taft, former Attorney General Jim Petro, and former U.S. Representative Pat Tiberi, to endorse the repeal of the death penalty. 

“Ohio is really coming from behind, even as of two years ago they weren’t really on the radar for states that might repeal the death penalty,” said Cox, the Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty national manager. “Wyoming has come very close in the last year [to repealing] and we’ve repealed the death penalty in New Hampshire and Colorado both in the last two years. I think if you were to see a state like Ohio repeal it, that could really have a domino effect on the region.” Twenty-two states to date have abolished the death penalty.

“Things have shifted in the last two years, now we’re focused fully on repeal,” said Hannah Kubbins, the state director at Ohioans to Stop Executions. Kubbins doesn’t expect much movement on the issue this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, the lame duck session, and the presidential election. But she says advocates are gearing up to push through a repeal bill in the next legislative session.

Louis Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association declined to comment for this story, but said in February that “we’re disturbed” by discussions of repealing the death penalty. A month earlier Tobin said, “All of the challenges that we see to the death penalty right now will switch to life without parole. And the next thing you know we won’t have life without parole either.”

Kubbins, who emphasized that her nonprofit organization does not endorse candidates, said prosecutors and prosecutor associations “oppose any reform that could reduce their power.” She urged voters to pay attention to their county prosecutor races, and to consider how county resources spent on the death penalty could be redirected toward unsolved crimes. 

Rucker told the Political Reporthe would be “very willing to offer my voice of advocacy” for statewide repeal of the death penalty. “Justice demands consistency and it’s not consistent to have such overwhelmingly differing ends of punishment in a system that says it’s about treating all fairly regardless of their background,” he said.

If elected, Rucker has no plans to disassociate from state and national prosecutor organizations, but said his general focus would be on Hamilton County. He’s campaigned on eliminating cash bail for nonviolent offenses, establishing a conviction integrity unit, and creating a re-entry court to help reduce recidivism.  Frank, whose nonprofit Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center also doesn’t endorse candidates, said the prosecutor election could have “huge” ramifications for the death penalty.

“I don’t think most people in Hamilton County know much about the death penalty,” said Frank. “And I would say most people definitely don’t know that we are one of the biggest drivers of it.”

You Don’t Have to Tell Your Employer About a Serious Diagnosis—But You Still Might Want To

Originally published in GQ on August 31, 2020.
—–

On Friday, Actor Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer at age 43. From an announcement posted to his Instagram, the public learned the star had originally received the diagnosis in 2016, and that he had filmed many of his best-loved films while undergoing chemotherapy and surgeries to fight the disease.

The news came as a shock not only to the general public, but even to directors, producers and colleagues he had worked closely with over the last four years. Sarah Halley Finn, the veteran casting director who picked Boseman to play T’Challa in Black Panther, told Vulture she had no idea the actor had cancer as the blockbuster was filmed in 2017. And in a tribute on Saturday, Spike Lee said it never crossed his mind while on set with Boseman. “I never, ever suspected that anything was wrong,” said the director of Da 5 Bloods. “No one knew he was going through treatment.”

The decision of whether to disclose a serious diagnosis like cancer to an employer is frequently a fraught one. Under federal law, no one is required to tell their employer as long as they assume they can reasonably do the work required, but disclosure is necessary to trigger the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the main federal statute protecting cancer patients in the workplace.

Even if workers disclose, employers are limited in what they can ask about the cancer and must keep any medical information they learn confidential. Reasonable workplace accommodations for cancer patients include leaving for doctor’s appointments, time off to recover from treatment, and periodic breaks during the work day.

That Boseman kept his private life under wraps does not mean he never sought any accommodations to deal with his illness in the workplace, and he was potentially able to negotiate well beyond the legal minimum. “Given that it’s Hollywood, I could imagine a contract that [Boseman] enters into with a studio setting out his specific needs and binding anyone to secrecy,” said Sasha Samberg-Champion, a civil rights attorney who specializes in disability law. “If you have that kind of stature and a sophisticated agent you could work those things out. And the employer might not even be allowed to know why you need certain things.”

Gordon Firemark, a Los-Angeles based entertainment lawyer, told GQ that it’s “pretty typical” for an actor’s agent or manager to negotiate special accommodations for their clients like private dressing rooms, separate facilities, transportation or special foods. “If an actor of his stature is starring in a movie and he can’t be there because he had a chemo session, they’ll often just schedule around them, and that could be kept very quiet,” said Firemark.

For many workers who may have less negotiating power, having cancer in the workplace, even with the protections of the A.D.A., can be extremely difficult. To start with, the 30-year-old law does not protect independent contractors or those who work in businesses with fewer than 15 employees. But even employees covered by the law can still face discrimination, as some courts have ruled that extended periods of leave for cancer treatment can be legitimate grounds for termination.

Ann Hodges, a University of Virginia law professor and co-founder of CancerLINC, a nonprofit that helps cancer patients and their families navigate legal issues, said employers are often more willing to accommodate people working in higher-wage jobs.

“Sometimes it’s because they’re just not as easy to replace, or they may have more power in the organization,” she said. “Often those patients also have jobs that can more easily be done remotely.” According to the Economic Policy Institute, higher-wage workers are six times as likely to be able to work from home compared to lower-wage workers.

Hodges, a cancer survivor herself, points out that many Americans also lose their health insurance if they lose their jobs—a problem in the best of times, and an acute crisis for someone in treatment for cancer.

As a member of SAG-AFTRA, the union for film and television actors, Boseman would have had access to the union’s vaunted healthcare plans. But David White, the national executive director of SAG-AFTRA, noted that even these plans have been under strain—they’re “not immune” from the larger issues plaguing America’s healthcare system. Earlier this month, in light of projected deficits in the tens of millions of dollars, the entertainment union announced it would have to tighten eligibility requirements and raise premiums going forward. More than 17,000 people have signed a petition in protest.

“It’s a constant struggle to make sure that we are maximizing access for people like Chadwick and for people who can only dream of having Chadwick’s level of success,” White said.

Some Teachers Are Being Required To Come To School — To Teach Virtually

Originally published in The Intercept on August 28, 2020.
—–

KATHY ROKAKIS, a 62-year-old high school French teacher in Michigan, is dreading her return to school next week.

Students in her Wayne County school district — Plymouth-Canton Community Schools — were originally going to be given the option to return to in-person classes or do remote learning, but earlier this month her school board voted to start the school year 100 percent virtual. “A lot of teachers were really relieved for so many reasons,” said Rokakis.

But two days after the school board decided the district would go fully remote, Superintendent Monica Merritt announced that teachers would still be coming into school to teach children virtually. “There wasn’t anything that had been discussed, we were just told that’s how it would happen,” recalled Rokakis. “We were basically blindsided.”

In a letter sent last Friday to educators, Merritt defended her decision by saying, “We anticipate how hard it will be for many students to continue learning in a remote space when they miss their school community so much. It is with this lens, focused on what is best for our students, that has resulted in our expectation that our staff will teach remotely from their classrooms.” Merritt did not return requests for comment.

Teachers have continued to press administration for reasons the benefits of this arrangement outweigh the public health risks of coming into school during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The reasons have been ridiculous. One is so that students will be able to see their classrooms, so that when they come back face-to-face they’ll feel more comfortable,” said Rokakis. “Another is they say so we’ll have anything that we need accessible to us, and they keep using the scenario of if we have to do a science experiment. But I don’t teach science, and the things I need are very accessible to me here at home. And now I’m expected to teach French in a mask?”

In light of all this, some teachers in Plymouth-Canton have applied for family and medical leave to avoid going back, and others are retiring early, according to Rokakis. “If I could, I would, but I can’t because I carry the health insurance for my family,” she said. “I’m feeling very uncomfortable. To me, there needs to be more grace. This is not a normal time and people are trying their hardest.”

Across the country, as schools in some states have already reopened and others are planning to do so in the coming weeks, school districts and board members are grappling with and continually revising their back-to-school procedures. While many schools have opted to begin the year fully virtual given the risks presented by Covid-19, educators in some of those districts are still being required to teach from their classrooms. Even with requirements to wear masks, many teachers feel coming into school buildings is an unnecessary risk during the pandemic, for reasons including poor ventilation, slow coronavirus testing, and unreliable levels of personal protective equipment.

LATE LAST WEEK, Jeffrey Riley, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, released guidance saying it’s the state’s “expectation” that all teachers and critical support staff will report to schools to teach each day if their district is doing remote learning. Reasons Riley listed included “provid[ing] more consistency” for students, more reliable internet access and faster IT support, making it easier to collaborate with colleagues, and making it easier for administrators “to monitor the level and amount of instruction students receive.”

The president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Merrie Najimy, released a blistering statement in response to the state’s recommendation, accusing Riley of having a “fundamental lack of trust” in teachers to do their jobs without being supervised.

“It is paternalistic and punitive and has no bearing on the quality of education that the real experts — the educators — provide so masterfully,” Najimy wrote, urging for districts to reject the state’s guidance. “Educators across the Commonwealth are focused on fully redesigning remote instruction to make it more effective, while pushing school districts and the state to make the changes needed to gradually return to in-person instruction. Commissioner Riley should be advocating for the resources that educators and districts need to achieve these goals rather than putting the thumbscrews to teachers to get them to return to school buildings before it is safe to do so.”

Scott McLennan, a spokesperson for the union, told The Intercept that districts and unions are still negotiating reopening plans, so they’re still “waiting to see how it plays out.” At least a few large school districts in the state, like Springfield and Worcester, have said they will not require teachers to come to school for remote instruction.

Joanna Plotz, an elementary ESL teacher in Chelsea, a city with among the highest rates of Covid-19 infections in the state, is hoping her union succeeds in blocking the recommendation. “In an ideal world I’d obviously love to be in a classroom, but it just doesn’t feel worth it,” said Plotz.

If teachers at Plotz’s school are required to return to school, Plotz would be sharing a classroom with another educator, who has a 3-year-old daughter. Many teachers would like the option to go in. “I might want to go in sometimes. I live in a 500-square-foot-apartment, and Sundays it might be good to go in and prepare things, but I’d only want to do it if the other teacher and her daughter wouldn’t be there,” said Plotz. “And I do have some coworkers who are going crazy at home. But the way [the state] is doing it just says, ‘We don’t trust teachers.’”

Reached for comment, Colleen Quinn, a spokesperson for Commissioner Riley, defended the guidance. “In remote scenarios, instruction from the classroom is the most effective educational environment,” she said.

IN OTHER PARTS of the country, some teachers are already back at school providing remote instruction to students at home.

Erin Taylor, a middle school teacher in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said she still has not received a real explanation from her district as to why educators have to be teaching remotely from their school buildings.

“As teachers we always have to have an answer when our students ask us, ‘Why do we have to learn this?’ and I have not heard any answer from the district,” said Taylor. “It feels like a lack of trust, a surveillance thing, and I would totally be open and love to hear how they arrived at this decision, even if I disagreed with it. But we haven’t even gotten that.”

Devra Ashby, a spokesperson for the school district told The Intercept that it is their goal “to provide a standard professional instructional delivery setting and enhanced teacher classroom performance” and that teachers “have the most resources at their fingertips when they are in their classrooms.” Ashby added that one-third of their students will be coming into the building for hybrid learning and that their standards for education have not changed. “We must deliver industry-standard instructions in a professional academic setting, which promotes student academic potential and achievement,” she said.

Taylor said there has been mixed messaging around masks. Colorado has a statewide mandate that says individuals must wear masks when inside public places, and she says her school district has also advised educators to wear masks at all times, but that policy is not being enforced at every school.

“I’ve been back at school for over two weeks now and I just see a lot of people not wearing masks even though that’s supposed to be the official policy,” she said. “I’ve walked past people where there are meetings going on and a bunch of people sitting around the table not wearing masks.”

Taylor, who spoke to The Intercept on the second day of the school year, said she’s trying to be empathetic but is worried about how unsafe she already feels.

“We always talk as teachers about how the beginning of the year is the time to reinforce routine and rules and make sure you’re being clear, because with kids, if you don’t enforce a rule at the beginning, it becomes really hard to get that [compliance] later on,” she said. “It just feels like, well, if we’re not all wearing masks on Day 2, then I don’t have much hope for the year.”

Shawntel Shirkey, a paraeducator in Wichita, Kansas, also has to come into her high school for remote instruction. Earlier this month, the Wichita school board approved in-person learning for elementary schools and remote learning for middle and high school students.

Shirkey thinks given the conservative political climate in Kansas, her school board “made the best decision I could hope for.” At least one teacher at her school has tested positive for Covid-19 so far, but she praised her school for at least giving all staff members cloth masks, ample amounts of sanitizer and disinfectant, and the option to get face shields. “The district itself is not being very forthcoming but I’m lucky that my principal is being transparent about if someone has tested positive,” Shirkey said. Like in Taylor’s school, masks mandates don’t always mean staff actually wears them.

Shirkey thinks it’s been “pretty split” among teachers about who wants to be providing remote instruction from school. “Some educators definitely see the irony of requiring teachers to come into buildings that the district has deemed unsafe for students,” she said. “But others just think the pandemic is ridiculous and as soon as the election is over, coronavirus is going to go away.”

On the MA-08 Primary

Originally published in The Intercept on August 16, 2020.
—-

WITH JUST OVER two weeks left until the Massachusetts Democratic primary, progressives across the country are focused on the high-profile primaries of Sen. Ed Markey, who is fending off a challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy, and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who is running against House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal.

Elsewhere in the state, other progressive challengers are struggling to attract similar attention. In the crowded House race to replace Kennedy, two progressives appear tied for third behind two more conservative Democrats. And in the Boston-area 8th Congressional District, Robbie Goldstein, a 36-year-old primary care physician, is scrambling to get his name out and convince voters he’s not running a long-shot bid.

On Wednesday, Goldstein’s campaign released a poll claiming he trailed just 7 percentage points behind nine-term moderate incumbent Rep. Stephen Lynch. Conducted last weekend by Lincoln Park Strategies, the poll found that 29 percent of likely voters remain undecided. However, Lynch held a clear advantage when it came to name recognition, with roughly 70 percent of voters knowing who he was, compared to 40 percent recognizing Goldstein. Still, the pollsters concluded Goldstein “has a real chance to win” because among undecideds, 42 percent said they’d prefer to vote for a more progressive candidate, 71 percent said they’d prefer a pro-choice candidate, and 73 percent said they’d prefer a candidate who backs Medicare for All.

Goldstein’s case against Lynch rests on substantive policy differences, including Medicare for All and reproductive rights. The incumbent opposes single-payer health care, and while Lynch has criticized federal efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and “draconian” state-level abortion restrictions, he himself identifies as pro-life and believes ending pregnancies should be “legal and rare.”

Goldstein’s campaign argues that this race presents a viable opportunity to bring another progressive to Congress, even if Lynch is not as influential as other incumbents who’ve been toppled, like Reps. Joe Crowley and Eliot Engel. “I am constantly confounded by progressives’ infatuation with claiming these big headline victories instead of just winning and building power,” said Karen Clawson Cosmas, Goldstein’s campaign manager. “We can replace a do-nothing moderate Democrat with someone who is actually a champion of the issues of the progressive wing of the party.”

Lynch has long been the most conservative member of the Massachusetts delegation, though he argues that’s all relative for their deep blue state. “Calling me the least liberal member from Massachusetts is like calling me the slowest Kenyan in the Boston Marathon,” Lynch quipped a decade ago in the Boston Globe.

Goldstein is hoping for a surge in the final weeks — similar to what Cori Bush saw recently in St. Louis, and Jamaal Bowman in New York — though Goldstein trails them both in fundraising and major endorsements, and he has far less name recognition than Bush, a Ferguson activist who ran for Congress in 2018 and was featured in a documentary alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. By the end of June, Goldstein had raised just $292,000, next to Lynch’s $660,000, though Goldstein did raise more in June than in the previous five months combined.

To some extent Goldstein is banking on complacency from his opponent. In the last quarter Lynch raised just $45,000, and has spent no money to date on TV or Facebook ads. Also, unlike some of his Massachusetts colleagues running for reelection, Lynch has had no members of Congress campaigning on his behalf. Goldstein says this is a reflection of his opponent “not having any friends left in Washington.”

Goldstein, meanwhile, is backed by left-wing groups like Indivisible, Our Revolution, Progressive Massachusetts, and even the Boston Teachers Union. Justice Democrats, which endorsed Morse, has stayed out of this primary, after having considered backing another progressive physician, Mohammad Dar, who entered the race almost a year before Goldstein did, but dropped out early due to personal reasons.

Lynch’s campaign spokesperson, Scott Ferson, said they are confident about the representative’s standing in the district and resources available left to campaign. “We have a voter engagement plan in place, and he’s not fundraising just to stockpile money,” Ferson said. “He’s doing things in a way that fits this race.”

LYNCH, WHO GREW up poor in South Boston public housing and spent two decades as an ironworker, was first elected to Congress in 2001. He represents a district that over the last two decades has grown both more diverse and more gentrified. Following the 2010 Census, Lynch’s district boundaries were redrawn, and while Joe Biden won every city and town in the 8th Congressional District on Super Tuesday, Goldstein says there’s a real path to victory, since Warren and Bernie Sanders racked up more votes in the district overall than Biden.

An Irish Catholic proud of his ties to blue-collar workers, Lynch has voiced concerns about the party drifting too far left and is critical of the term “socialism,” which he warns could scare off older voters. Ferson argues that Lynch remains “well-in-tune” with his district and has handily defeated candidates who have run to his left in the past. In 2018, Lynch was challenged by Brianna Wu, a software engineer who ran on Medicare for All and tackling income inequality, and beat her with 71 percent of the vote.

The sharpest contrast between the two candidates revolves around health care. Ironically one of Lynch’s biggest vulnerabilities is that he was just one of 45 House Democrats to vote against the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and of those Democrats, only three remain in Congress. Rep. Dan Lipinski, one of the three, lost his primary in March to progressive challenger Marie Newman.

At the time, Lynch explained he voted no because he felt the final version gave too much power to the insurance industry and would lead to spiking prices, and he opposed how the bill taxed union health care plans and eliminated opportunities for state public options.

“I don’t think [Lynch] is as conservative as Lipinski, but I do think the thing that sticks with people here is him having voted against the Affordable Care Act, given how much activism there was around that,” said Jonathan Cohn, a leader with Progressive Massachusetts, a statewide advocacy group. “People remember that.”

Lynch, for his part, has criticized Goldstein for trying to “rip out the ACA root and branch” and says he’s proud of the work done to repeal the tax on union health care plans. Goldstein “wants to dismantle the ACA and get rid of it, so if you ask me who really supports the ACA, that’s Stephen,” said Ferson, Lynch’s spokesperson.

Lynch, who has long self-described as an anti-abortion Democrat, notably began moving left in 2013, when he ran against Ed Markey for the Senate seat left open when John Kerry became secretary of state. As a state legislator in Massachusetts, Lynch tried to ban abortions after 24 weeks, and in Congress he voted to support the “partial-birth abortion” ban. But in 2013, Lynch made clear that while he was pro-life and wanted abortions to remain “rare,” he would seek to protect Roe v. Wade and vote against any Supreme Court nominee who wanted to overturn the decision.

He’s moved even further left in recent years. In 2019, he wrote a Boston Globe op-ed condemning states for their new abortion restrictions and Congress for trying to defund Planned Parenthood. “If these recent developments define the ‘pro-life’ movement, you can count me out,” he wrote. Lynch received 100 percent ratings from NARAL Pro-Choice America for the last five years, but neither NARAL nor Planned Parenthood is endorsing in the primary.

Goldstein, who has also been endorsed by local chapters of the Sunrise Movement, is campaigning on being more aggressive on climate change than the incumbent. Lynch was an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, though has said the 10-year timetable outlined in the resolution to transition completely off fossil fuels is “unrealistic.” Lynch originally was a strong supporter of the Keystone Pipeline, but reversed his position on that in 2013. In a recent primary debate, Lynch urged viewers to look at his ratings from the League of Conservation Voters, where he has a “lifetime score” of 95 percent.

Goldstein has repeatedly blasted Lynch for once calling climate change an “elitist” issue, a charge based on a 2017 CommonWealth magazine article, though the full quote and context is not included in the piece. Lynch has denied using that descriptor.

While Lynch’s campaign disputes that he used that exact word, Ferson, his spokesperson, linked the sentiment to Lynch’s background as an ironworker and the congressman’s belief that lawmakers shouldn’t be “cavalier” when discussing job loss associated with transitioning off fossil fuels. “I think it’s in the context of who do we need to include when we’re having those discussions,” said Ferson. “And he supports the Green New Deal in part because it’s so focused on creating new jobs.”

Shawn Zeller, the author of the CommonWealth article who now works as an editor at CQ Roll Call, told The Intercept that Lynch had made the reference in the context of his support for Tim Ryan for House speaker. “Trump had just won the presidency and Lynch was among those who felt Pelosi was leading the party too far left,” Zeller wrote in an email. “In an interview with me, he mentioned climate change as an example and said he preferred Democrats focus on lunch bucket issues to help the working class.”

On issues of immigration, there are differences between the candidates too. Over the objections of President Barack Obama in 2015, Lynch voted to tighten vetting standards for refugees from Iraq and Syria, and in 2018 he voted in favor of a resolution lauding Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even when 133 House Democrats just voted “present.” While Lynch has condemned President Donald Trump’s child separation policy and backed a 2019 resolution to establish standards of care at border facilities, some of his constituents say he’s moved too slowly, and been too quiet overall.

“He’s just not interested in engaging with constituents who are looking for someone with a sense of urgency,” said Tonya Tedesco, a Boston activist who organized trips to Lynch’s district offices last summer to press him on immigration. “We are in crisis mode and I do not know that he recognizes that.”

Senators Push for Free Prison Phone Calls in Next Coronavirus Relief Bill

Originally published in The Intercept on August 7, 2020.

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC has put into sharp relief an issue criminal justice reformers have been raising for years: the astronomical rates that prison-phone corporations charge for phone and video calls to incarcerated individuals. Now, as Congress debates the next coronavirus stimulus deal, some lawmakers are pushing for provisions to make such calls free.

On Thursday, 17 Democratic senators, led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tammy Duckworth, sent a letter to Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer urging them to make this a federal priority in the next package.

“Before the pandemic, more than 50 percent of families with an incarcerated loved one struggled to pay for housing and food, and one in 29 children had a parent incarcerated,” the letter stated. “In addition, one in three families with an incarcerated loved one went into debt in order to stay connected with them, and women shouldered 87 percent of these costs. Now, as many facilities have suspended in-person visits and families face layoffs, furloughs, and evictions due to the pandemic, these calls are more necessary—and cost prohibitive—than ever.”

In some jurisdictions, a local 15-minute phone call can run as high as $25, a cost that was untenable even before the current economic crisis. The Federal Communications Commission currently has jurisdiction to regulate interstate calls, but more than 80 percent of prison phone calls are in-state, meaning the vast majority of calls for the 2 million incarcerated individuals across the U.S. could not be regulated unless Congress changed the law — a challenge highlighted in the senators’ letter.

“Without action from Congress to address the rates for in-state calls, families will continue to suffer,” they wrote.

The pandemic and the nationwide protests for racial justice following George Floyd’s murder brought significant attention to conditions in U.S. jails and prisons, where there is a disproportionate rate of Covid-19 cases as compared to the broader U.S population; one recent estimate put it at 5.5 times higher. At the same time, the pandemic has made it even harder for incarcerated people to communicate with their loved ones, due to the combined stresses of expensive phone calls and the lack of in-person visitation. It’s an issue federal officials have been quietly chipping away at for months.

IN 2015, THE FCC announced it would act to address predatory in-state calling rates, but after telecom companies sued, FCC Chair Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, in 2017 stopped defending his agency’s right to regulate those calls. Later that year, a federal court ruled that the FCC has the authority to regulate interstate prison phone calls but not in-state ones.

In June 2019, Duckworth, along with Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii; Ed Markey, D-Mass.; and Angus King, I-Maine, introduced a bill to expand the FCC’s authority to regulate prison phone calls. The Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act is named in honor of Martha Wright, a woman who filed a lawsuit in 2000 against the private prison where her grandson was living, saying the costs of calling him were unconscionably steep. The court ruled that Wright’s complaint was an issue for the FCC to handle, so she then moved to petition the agency to intervene. In 2013, the agency finally acted, voting to cap rates for interstate phone calls in jails and prisons.

Little changed following the introduction of Duckworth’s bill last year, but then the pandemic hit. In the first stimulus package authorized by Congress, to advocates’ surprise, language was included to make all phone calls free in federal facilities for the duration of the national emergency.

“It wasn’t clear who led the effort with the CARES Act … but after years of advocacy, the prison phone justice movement certainly has its allies in Congress, and it paid off in a bizarre moment,” said Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, a group focused on dismantling the prison industry. “Unfortunately, the downside of that bill is that it’s only for the duration of Covid.”

In late March, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., introduced a House bill, the Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act, which builds on Duckworth’s legislation. In addition to expanding the FCC’s authority to regulate in-state prison phone calls, Rush’s bill would also bar state and local government agencies from collecting commissions from prison phone calls and set interim rate caps during the pandemic. It was included in the HEROES Act, a supplement to the CARES Act that was passed by the House in May, a measure Tylek called “the most significant federal legislative vote on prison phone justice in history.”

Meanwhile in the Senate, Duckworth and Klobuchar continued to push on the issue. In mid-April, Duckworth organized a letter, signed by 18 other senators, urging Pai, the FCC chair, to pressure telecommunication providers to commit to reducing call rates in prisons and jails. “The FCC is uniquely positioned to seek commitments from these providers,” the senators wrote. “We applaud the FCC’s efforts to encourage traditional providers to bolster connectivity for Americans impacted by the coronavirus, most notably through the Keep Americans Connected Pledgehowever, this effort does not adequately reflect the dynamics of prison and jail telecommunication systems.”

In May, Klobuchar and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., led 27 other senators in sending a bicameral letter to the Department of Homeland Security and ICE urging them to provide free phone calls to detained people during the pandemic. In the House, Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Zoe Logfren organized 50 colleagues to also sign on.

Then in July, Pai surprised advocates by coming out forcefully on the issue. On July 16, the FCC announced a new proposed rule to significantly lower the per-minute rate caps for interstate prison phone calls, from $.21 (prepaid) and $0.25 (collect) to $0.14 for calls from prisons and $0.16 for calls from jails. The proposed rule would also cap rates for international prison phone calls for the first time. In an accompanying blog post, Pai wrote, “Not surprisingly, without effective regulation, rates for inmate calling services can be unjustly and unreasonably high and make it difficult for inmates and their loved ones to stay connected.”

Four days later, Pai sent a letter to the president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, a trade association of state utility commissioners, urging the group to take action on the “unjust and unreasonable rates” of in-state prison phone calls, which he noted disproportionately hurt Black Americans. In 33 states, rates are at least double the federal cap, and in 27 states, the first-minute charge can be up to 26 times higher than that of an interstate call. In his letter Pai pointed to recent statements NARUC made following George Floyd’s killing about addressing discrimination and racial injustice. “These are noble sentiments … but it is time for these sentiments to manifest in action,” Pai wrote.

On July 23, NARUC issued a response to Pai’s letter, saying they “agree” and will ask their members to “take a comprehensive review in their jurisdictions around these rates and take action where warranted.” NARUC president Brandon Presley noted that in some states, corrections officials negotiate prison phone call contracts “outside the purview of state public service commissions,” so they would need to be involved, in addition to governors. But NARUC opposes expanding the FCC’s power over in-state prison calls, and in the last few weeks Pai has begun campaigning more vocally for Congress to give his agency that authority. While Pai has not endorsed Duckworth’s bill specifically, he has endorsed the most significant component of her bill. On Thursday the FCC voted to advance the proposed rule to lower interstate prison phone call rates, setting the stage for public comment.

 

Tylek said no activist anticipated this momentum from the FCC. “We can’t say we expected Commissioner Pai would come out and say, ‘State regulators, all of you are writing Black Lives Matter statements but aren’t doing anything about prison phone calls,’” she said, adding, “Having a pro-industry, Trump-appointee conservative acknowledging the issue is very positive for the movement and a welcome change.”

Pressure has continued to ramp up in the Senate to get this included in the next stimulus package. Advocates are planning to deliver a petition to Congress next week with over 75,000 signatures urging the passage of phone justice legislation, and this past Tuesday, Klobuchar formally signed onto Duckworth’s bill, and joined her in circulating the Dear Colleague letter on Thursday. Advocates say they are particularly excited about Klobuchar’s leadership since she has a good record of being able to corral Republicans onto legislation.

The real Republican gatekeeper on this issue is Sen. Roger Wicker, the chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Tylek says Wicker’s office has met with them, but he has not committed to support the legislation. Wicker’s office did not return requests for comment. 

As Schools Reopen, Teachers, Parents and Students are Pushing Back

Originally published in The Intercept on August 3, 2020.
—–

ON MONDAY, in more than 25 states, thousands of parents, educators, students, and community members are participating in the National Day of Resistance, staging in-person and virtual actions to call for safe, well-funded, and racially just school reopening plans. The actions come in response to pressure from state governments and the White House to resume in-person learning so that kids can get back to the classroom and their parents back to work, but are also being tied to the ongoing pushback against school privatization from the Trump administration.

In New York City, parents, students, and teachers will be marching from their union headquarters down to the Department of Education. In Los Angeles, activists are organizing a car caravan, first outside the LA Chamber of Commerce and then around the Los Angeles Unified School District building. “We’re kicking it off at the LA Chamber because even during Covid, this is a time when a lot of corporations and Wall Street are making record-breaking profits,” explained Sylvana Uribe, a spokesperson for Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a progressive group participating in the protest. In Philadelphia and Baltimore, teacher unions are calling on Comcast to improve the quality of its service and make it more affordable for families. In Phoenix, activists are planning to demonstrate outside their state capitol building, where educators can write letters to their elected officials about how they feel going back to school or, if they want, write their imagined obituaries.

“Monday is Arizona’s first day back to school, so that’s why we know we have to lead in organizing because people across the country will be watching us and learning what happens with reopenings,” said Rebecca Garelli, a parent and science educator participating in the Phoenix protest.

In Chicago, activists are rallying outside of City Hall and Illinois’s state government building. Among them will be Jitu Brown, the national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance, a network of 30 grassroots organizations that helped conceive of the Day of Resistance. “When we look at the fact that these same communities have shuttered public schools and opened up new jails, do we really think they will prioritize the health and safety of Black and brown children when it comes to reopening?” Brown asked. “We say no, or only if we make them do so.”

As part of their organizing, Journey for Justice and the 501(c)(4) affiliate of the Center for Popular Democracy sent a letter Monday morning to President Donald Trump laying out 15 demands for a safe and equitable reopening, including fully functioning air conditioning and ventilation units, free laptops and internet access for every student, regular coronavirus testing, and an elimination of police in schools. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, members of Congress, and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden were also copied on the letter.

Over the last month, the question of how and whether to reopen schools has become one of the most pressing and wrenching political questions. While Trump and DeVos both have sought to push schools to reopen in person, even threatening to withhold funding from those that don’t, majorities of educators, school administrators, and parents have expressed ambivalence about the safety of children and staff returning to school. One new estimate from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that more than 80 percent of Americans live in a county where at least one person with Covid-19 would be expected to show up at a school of 500 students and staff if school started today.

In late June, the Council of Chief State School Officers, a national nonprofit group comprised of heads of state departments of education, said as much as $245 billion in federal support will be needed in order to safely reopen schools, with the funding going primarily toward personal protective gear and cleaning supplies, as well as digital devices. Senate Republicans unveiled their latest Covid-19 relief proposal last week, which included $70 billion for K-12 school districts and private schools, but most of that money would be conditioned on schools reopening for in-person instruction.

Meanwhile, scientists and public health experts have been issuing conflicting advice, complicated by the fact that the public’s understanding of Covid-19 transmission among children has continued to evolve. While it was originally thought that the risk among children of catching or transmitting the virus was very low, especially among younger children, new research has recently challenged those assumptions. In late June, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued interim guidance on the importance of in-person schooling, but a few weeks later, the group released a new statement, in partnership with national teacher unions and the School Superintendents Association, urging against a “one-size-fits-all approach” to reopenings. “We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it,” the groups said.

Recently in Indiana, on the first day of school, administrators learned that a middle school student had tested positive for the virus. The student and others they came in contact with were ordered to quarantine for 14 days. A similar situation just happened with a high schooler in Mississippi.

“You can spend an entire year asking kids to walk in the hall, and yet we somehow expect them to wear masks for six hours?” asked Marilena Marchetti, a public school occupational therapist participating in New York City’s march. “It’s a joke.”

IN ADDITION TO some of the more familiar safety demands around PPE, Covid-19 testing, and ventilation, parents and educators have also been circulating a petition with demands for direct cash assistance to those who cannot work or are unemployed and police-free schools, as well as moratoriums on “punitive” standardized testing, vouchers, charter schools, evictions, and foreclosures.

Garelli, the science educator from Arizona, said the logic around the charter, voucher, and testing moratoriums is that “everything that drains” or “siphons” money from public schools should be avoided. “Standardized testing alone costs millions of dollars, and we need that money for PPE, ventilation, and sanitation,” she said.

“Our point is we don’t want to just go back to normal because normal wasn’t good at all,” added Marchetti.

Dmitri Holtzman, director of Education Justice Campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy, said the hope is for the progressive movement to “double down” with “transformative” demands to help counter the fact that DeVos and Trump are also trying to use the pandemic to push school privatization.

The demand for police-free schools, though not new, has seen a recent surge in political momentum in the wake of protests around George Floyd’s killing. In June, Minneapolis Public Schools cut ties with its city police department and Milwaukee Public Schools followed shortly after. In LA, the Los Angeles Unified School District voted in July to cut its school police budget by $25 million and redirect those funds into hiring more counselors and social workers.

One of the grassroots groups participating in the Day of Resistance is Latinos Unidos Siempre, a youth-led organization in Salem, Oregon. “We’ve been focusing on the school-to-prison pipeline for a long time, but we’ve definitely seen a surge in new support this summer,” said Sandra Hernández-Lomelí, the group’s director. “We’re planning a rally outside of the Salem-Keizer School District building.”

While some teacher unions are participating in the Day of Resistance, including the United Teachers Los Angeles and the Chicago Teachers Union, not all the demands outlined in the letter to Trump and the circulating petition are what the unions are actually negotiating over. Last week, UTLA had to issue a statement pushing back on media reports that said LA educators were refusing to return to school until charter schools and the police were abolished. “This is incorrect and damaging,” the union stated. “Defunding police to redirect money to education and public health and a moratorium on allocating school classrooms to charter companies so that public schools have space for safe physical distancing are just two” ways the district could raise revenue to safely reopen schools.

Other news reports have tried to frame opposition to school reopening as driven primarily by teacher unions, despite polls showing clear opposition from other stakeholders like parents and school administrators. One Axios-Ipsos poll released in mid-July found that most parents, including a majority of Republican parents and 89 percent of Black parents, thought returning to school would be risky, and just one-third of principals expressed confidence in their school’s ability to keep adults and children safe, according to a poll conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Importantly, while one of the demands for the Day of Resistance is to have no reopening “until the scientific data supports it,” activists acknowledge that different communities will define those public health metrics differently. “We don’t have a singular firm position on this,” said Holtzman. “For some people, it’s not until there’s a vaccine, for others, it’s 14 days with no new cases, and others, it could be a certain amount of days with no new deaths.”

Marchetti, who is part of the social justice caucus within the United Federation of Teachers, said its demand in New York City is to not reopen until there are no new cases for 14 days. “We don’t have a demand to wait for a vaccine, but people shouldn’t be afraid to go to back to work,” she said. While teacher union strikes are illegal in New York, educators have broached the idea of calling in sick en masse to protest unsafe reopenings. “We’re still feeling betrayed by how slow it took [city officials] to close schools in March,” Marchetti added, pointing to a Columbia University study that found thousands of lives would have been saved had New York put its control measures in place just one week earlier.

In Los Angeles, activists are calling for at least 21 days of no new Covid-19 cases before reopening schools. In Arizona, protesters are asking for leaders to put out some kind of public health metric, which currently no one has. “Some educators want to wait for a vaccine, and others just really want to have some kind of standard, like how New York set a [reopening] threshold of the coronavirus positivity rate staying below 3 percent,” said Garelli.

The American Federation of Teachers recently passed a resolution saying that schools should only reopen in places where the average daily community infection rate among those tested is below 5 percent and transmission rate is below 1 percent. “Nothing is off the table when it comes to the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, including supporting local and/or state affiliate safety strikes on a case-by-case basis as a last resort,” the resolution stated.

Garelli rejected the argument that teachers returning to school should be viewed similarly to other essential workers who have had to return to their workplaces. “No other essential worker has to spend 7 hours a day in a small room with poor ventilation with 30 other kids,” she said. “There’s just no comparison.”

Brown, of Journey for Justice, said his affiliate groups plan to push over the next month for the funding and conditions to safely reopen school, because ultimately their goal is for students and educators to return. “We see the harm that our young people face not having access to school and the socialization that comes with it,” he said. “We understand the need for them to academically grow. But we also understand the need for them to live.”

USPS Workers Concerned New Wave of Policies Will Pave The Way To Privatization

Originally published in The Intercept on July 29, 2020.
—–

JULY HAS BEEN a flurry of confusion and stress for postal workers, as a barrage of new measures are threatening to fundamentally overhaul and undermine the culture and operations of the U.S. Postal Service.

Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported on a memo from the new USPS Postmaster General Louis DeJoy urging postal staff to leave behind mail at distribution centers if they thought it would cause a delay for letter carriers. Another memo stated that the USPS would be looking to cut transportation and overtime costs, bringing about “immediate, lasting, and impactful changes” to the federal agency.

The following week, postal workers learned of yet another new pilot program called Expedited to Street/Afternoon Sortation, or ESAS, that would be rolling out in 384 delivery units nationwide beginning on July 25. The crux of this program, as outlined in an unsigned memo dated July 16, is to send letter carriers out to deliver mail more quickly in the morning by prohibiting them from sorting any mail in their offices before they go.

These changes could delay mail from getting to its final destination by at least one day, if not longer. While the USPS memo billed ESAS as an effort to “improve consistency in delivery time” to customers, reduce overtime, and increase efficiency, postal workers were alarmed and shocked by these new dictates, which appeared to directly undermine a core value of their work.

“These are changes aimed at changing the entire culture of USPS,” said Mark Dimondstein, the national president of the American Postal Workers Union. “The culture I grew up with, and of generations before me, is that you never leave mail behind. You serve the customer, you get mail to the customer. Prompt, reliable, and efficient.”

Dimondstein said the union is putting in place an ESAS monitoring and reporting plan to evaluate the impacts of these new changes to service. “We are definitely getting our members educated and we will fight this post office by post office, community by community,” he said. The union is also coordinating with members of Congress to discuss strategies, and Dimondstein said he’s hoping for oversight hearings in early fall.

“I think the best way to put it is we’re concerned,” said Arthur Sackler, manager for the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, a postal industry advocacy group. “Maybe this will just delay mail delivery once, but we’re worried if there’s no real time to sort, and no overtime, then there could be a cumulative growing impact.”

Sackler said his group has still gotten no information or clarity about these new rules and their potential consequences from the federal agency. “We haven’t been told anything, we haven’t been consulted, and over the last three decades the Postal Service has had a good track record of talking to unions and industry groups if there are going to be changes.”

In a statement, USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer told The Intercept that the Postal Service “is developing a business plan to ensure that we will be financially stable and able to continue to provide dependable, affordable, safe and secure delivery of mail and packages to all Americans as a vital part of the nation’s critical infrastructure. The plan, which will be presented to the Board of Governors when it is finalized, will include new and creative ways to help us fulfill our mission, and will focus on the Postal Service’s strengths to maximize our prospects for long-term success.” In addition to developing the broader business plan, Partenheimer said, “the Postal Service is taking immediate steps to increase operational efficiency by re-emphasizing existing plans that have been designed to provide prompt and reliable service within current service standards.”

Postal workers have been on high alert since May, when it was announced that the USPS Board of Governors had selected DeJoy to serve as the new postmaster general and CEO. DeJoy has been a top Republican Party fundraiser, including for the Republican National Convention and the president’s reelection effort, which prompted questions about how exactly he secured his new gig.

DeJoy previously worked as chair and CEO of New Breed Logistics, a massive warehousing and distribution company, and is the first postmaster general in over two decades to have never worked at USPS. He replaced outgoing postmaster general, Megan Brennan, who was appointed in 2015 and had been a career-long USPS employee, beginning as a letter carrier in Pennsylvania.

A bevy of worker violations and complaints have racked up at DeJoy’s old stomping ground. When he was CEO, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that New Breed’s hiring practices were “motivated by anti-union animus” when it avoided hiring any Longshore union members after it secured an Army contract in California. Between 2001 and 2015, New Breed and its affiliates paid more than $1.7 million for violations of labor law, wage and hour regulations, employee discrimination, and aviation regulations. In 2014, the New York Times reported on four women who worked in a Memphis warehouse for New Breed who suffered miscarriages after their supervisors refused their requests for light duties while pregnant. That same year New Breed merged with XPO Logistics, and since 2015, XPO and its affiliates have paid more than $30 million for a range of workplace violations. Last year, hundreds of drivers, warehouse workers, and intermodal drivers at XPO facilities worldwide protested against abuse and wage theft. Then when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, XPO offered to “lend” workers up to 100 hours of time off, but said they would have to repay that time.

DeJoy vowed to bring about change to USPS, criticizing the organization for having “an expensive and inflexible business model” that he said he looked forward to tackling head-on. “I did not accept this position in spite of these challenges, I accepted this position because of them,” he told USPS employees in a June 15 video address.

Postal service workers feel particularly unnerved by the new ESAS program and DeJoy’s appointment given the Trump administration’s announcement in 2018 that the president would like to restructure and privatize USPS. The White House suggested that USPS could save money by raising rates, ending door-to-door delivery, and cutting down days of mail service. This past April, Donald Trump called the Postal Service “a joke” and tried to force the agency to quadruple its package rates in exchange for Covid-19 relief.

Delaying mail delivery in the name of cutting costs and efficiency, Dimondstein argued, means that people will lose confidence in one of the most trusted federal agencies in the country, which, unlike its private competitors, delivers everywhere, including to unprofitable and rural areas. “Undermining and degrading the Postal Service helps frustrate the customer, which sets the stage to privatizing it,” he said. “The Trump administration is on record for raising prices, reducing service, and reducing workers’ rights and benefits. This [pilot] may be Trump’s first foray to try and actually accomplish some of those things.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., pointed to the implications delaying mail could have not just on letters and packages, but also for the upcoming election. “With states now reliant on voting by mail to continue elections during the pandemic, the destabilizing of the post office is a direct attack on American democracy itself,” he said in a statement. Pascrell is a vocal supporter of postal banking and a co-sponsor of the USPS Fairness Act, a bill that would repeal the requirement that the Postal Service annually repay future retirement health benefits. In May, he called for an inspector general investigation into possible political interference by the Trump administration within USPS.

In terms of reducing overtime, Dimondstein said the obvious way to do so is to hire more workers. Between 2009 and 2018, according to the Government Accountability Office, USPS cut its workforce by more than 77,000 employees. “There’s always going to be some fluctuation in mail, and overtime goes up during periods of high mail volume, but it also goes up when you’re understaffed, and during this pandemic we’ve had over 38,000 postal workers quarantined for Covid-19 exposure so someone has to cover those shifts.”

Drew, a letter carrier in Rockford, Illinois who requested his last name be withheld in case of employer retaliation, has worked for USPS for the past two years, and his parents also worked as carriers at different times. “This is the worst any of us have ever seen it,” he told The Intercept. “One of the things that’s always been a central tenant of the Post Office is that the mail gets through, no matter how late you have to work, what the weather is, and now it feels like that’s being thrown out the window.”

The level of uncertainty that looms over carriers now is affecting morale, according to Drew. “We don’t know what sorts of overhauls are coming down the line,” he said. “It feels like something new comes down every few weeks.”

The Democratic Party’s Most Confounding Primary

Originally published in The Intercept with Akela Lacy on July 28,2020.
—–

WHEN NEWS BROKE late last summer that Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy was considering a primary challenge to Sen. Ed Markey, many political operatives reasonably asked … why? Elected to the House of Representatives in 2012, the most high-profile aspect of Kennedy’s political career had been giving the Democratic response to the State of the Union in 2018 — and, of course, being a Kennedy. Markey, meanwhile, wasn’t shrouded in any scandal and had recently introduced the Green New Deal resolution with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an instant hallmark of progressive politics.

Polling voters, though, the answer is a little more evident. Last July, before Kennedy jumped in the race, a Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll showed that 45 percent of likely voters in the state were undecided about supporting Markey for reelection and 14 percent said they had never heard of him. By September, Boston Globe/Suffolk University released another poll finding Kennedy leading Markey by 14 points in a potential Senate head-to-head, and more Massachusetts voters viewed Kennedy as the more liberal candidate and a better fighter for Democratic priorities than Markey.

Soon after Kennedy announced his candidacy in September, progressive groups were quick to jump behind Markey. Markey has earned endorsements from a host of progressive organizations, ranging from national groups like Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, and Planned Parenthood to teachers unions, peace groups, and environmental activists on the state level.

As the September 1 primary nears, progressives, many of whom are still mourning the losses of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic presidential primary, have turned their sights to saving Markey’s seat in the Senate — grateful for his early backing of the Green New Deal, which was unpopular among Democratic leadership in Washington when it was introduced. It doesn’t matter to them that Kennedy also supports the Green New Deal, and some view his recent announcement that his family trusts have divested from oil and gas stocks as too little too late. (In December, Markey’s campaign returned more than $46,000 from donors who didn’t meet requirements of the fossil fuel pledge, which both candidates signed.)

Many also suspect that Kennedy has decided to run for Senate because he’s calculated that it might be easier to unseat a 74-year-old incumbent now than it would be to beat Rep. Ayanna Pressley or Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in an open primary six years down the road. Indeed, Kennedy’s stated rationale for entering the primary is a little fuzzy. Both candidates admit that when it comes down to brass tacks, they are in line on major issues. Kennedy’s case boils down to the idea that he thinks he could “leverage” the Massachusetts Senate seat better than Markey has. Senators have immense power beyond just voting on bills, Kennedy’s argument goes, and Markey hasn’t used his position effectively enough to serve the Democratic Party and the country.

The result is a Senate primary race that can best be described as pretty weird. On the one hand, there’s an incumbent who has served more than 40 years in Congress running as some kind of grassroots underdog. On the other hand, a literal Kennedy is claiming to be bullied by the political establishment and invoking language used by progressive insurgents who’ve sought new leadership to shake up the status quo.

There hasn’t been polling in the race since early May, when a UMass-Lowell poll showed the race had significantly tightened with Kennedy up by just 2 points. That, Markey’s campaign manager John Walsh argued, is because the progressive base has consolidated behind the senator. But another poll, conducted around the same time by Emerson College/7News, showed Markey trailing Kennedy by 16 points.

PROGRESSIVE ENTHUSIASM FOR Markey from both the activist community and left-wing media has at times led the left to go fairly easy on the senator for votes they’ve criticized other Democrats for. Over the years, like Joe Biden, Markey voted for the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, and the 1994 crime bill, and he opposed busing for desegregation in the 1970s.

When asked if he has any comments about these past votes, Markey told The Intercept that Black and brown men in the United States were “owe[d] a national apology” for the over-incarceration wrought by the 1994 crime bill, and said that’s why he’s co-sponsoring Sen. Cory Booker’s Next Step Act to overhaul the criminal justice system. Markey offered similar remarks when he announced his 2018 co-sponsorship of the First Step Act, a precursor to Booker’s bill: “The First Step Act is just the beginning of the national apology we owe to the generation of African-American men and women who lost their lives and futures in prison due to a few dollars of crack cocaine and an unjust War on Drugs.”

On Iraq, Markey says he “deeply regret[s] that vote” and blamed President George W. Bush for lying to Congress and the American people about nuclear weapons in the country. “I’ve worked every day to ensure we don’t have another needless war in the Middle East,” he said, though he voted “present” in 2013 on military intervention in Syria, saying at the time that he needed to study the issue further.

“Senator Markey has been on the cutting edge of progressivism in the Democratic Party for his entire career,” Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement, said in a statement to The Intercept, citing the senator’s early support for net neutrality and opposition to nuclear weapons. “Has every vote he’s ever taken over his long political career been perfect? No. But he’s often the person in his party forcing others to take hard or uncomfortable votes before positions become politically popular, creating the space and momentum for change.”

Though Markey has positioned himself as a stalwart leader of the progressive movement, and touted the significance of receiving progressive endorsements in his primary, the senator lacks a record of backing progressive primary challengers, something Warren and Sanders have embraced over the last few years. Unlike Warren and Sanders, for example, Markey stayed out of Charles Booker’s competitive Senate bid in Kentucky this year, and in his home state, he’s standing behind Rep. Richard Neal, despite Neal facing a much more progressive challenger in Alex Morse. Markey also didn’t endorse Pressley in 2018, though his supporters say it matters that he didn’t endorse Mike Capuano, the incumbent, either.

Back in November, a reporter pressed Markey about why he wasn’t supporting Morse, given that he supports the Green New Deal, and Neal doesn’t. “Ultimately he supports taking bold action on climate change and changing the tax code that makes [a Green New Deal] possible,” said Markey, defending his colleague. Markey and Neal both endorsed each other before Kennedy and Morse were running. “I like both candidates,” he added, referring to Booker and Morse. “On big votes Congressman Neal has been with me, but we have our differences.”

Kennedy hasn’t endorsed in the Morse/Neal contest either and told The Intercept that he plans to focus on his own race. Kennedy has also been criticized by progressive groups for endorsing the more moderate candidates in Massachusetts races in which progressive challengers were running.

“One thing we’ve pointed out is that in 2018, he had the choice to support progressive women of color — Ayanna Pressley and Nika Elugardo — but he didn’t,” said Jonathan Cohn, a leader with Progressive Massachusetts, a statewide advocacy group that has endorsed Markey. In those races, Kennedy endorsed incumbents Capuano and Jeffrey Sanchez, who both lost. (This cycle Elugardo has endorsed Markey, and Pressley is staying out of the race.)

EARLIER THIS WINTER, a Democratic activist in Massachusetts approached Kennedy after a campaign town hall and pressed him on why he was running. “With due respect to Senator Markey, who is a good man, there’s more to this job than the way you vote and the bills that you file,” Kennedy answered, as reported by Boston Magazine. “It comes with an ability to leverage that platform … and, with due respect to the senator, if you’re not going to leverage that now … then when?”

But has Kennedy “leveraged” his House seat to the best of his ability?

“I think I have,” he told The Intercept, though acknowledged that he’s “done it differently obviously” than star representatives like Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez. He credits those women for using their platforms to cast a spotlight on issues of importance. “I’ve tried to do that in a way that is most natural to me,” he said, and pointed to his fundraising trips throughout 2018 to help Democrats flip the House. Kennedy said this work helped flip the House in 2018 and in a recent debate, he brought up his fundraising for Covid-19 relief groups and legal defense for immigrant families.

“Let me be clear,” he added. “When I critique Senator Markey … I’m not saying in persona, experience, history, or policy that I would be the next AOC or Ayanna Pressley. Like that’s not who I am, that’s not the policy positions that I necessarily take.”

“The reason Joe can go around [fundraising] is because he’s Bobby Kennedy’s grandson,” said Walsh, Markey’s campaign manager. “It’s not because he’s ever led on a single issue since he’s been in Congress.” Kennedy countered that he’s proud of his leadership in areas around mental health and LGBTQ issues, and noted he spoke to Black Lives Matter and transgender rights in his 2018 response to the State of the Union.

Kennedy’s campaign said its polling shows Markey leading with more white, affluent voters, while Kennedy is doing better with middle-class and working-class white people, as well as Black and Latino communities. “We are proud of the broad and incredibly diverse base of support Joe has earned from communities of color to working-class cities and towns,” Kennedy’s press secretary, Brian Phillips Jr. told The Intercept. White, affluent voters tend to be more reliable Massachusetts primary voters, and so the Kennedy campaign is hoping for high turnout overall. “If you look to more moderate and conservative Democrats, they’re with Joe,” said Walsh.

Kennedy, who recognizes that he comes to this race with wealth and a dynastic political history, still feels like he hasn’t really been given a fair shake by the left. Progressive media has gone after Kennedy for working for Michael O’Keefe, a conservative, tough-on-crime district attorney on Cape Cod. “Why did Joe Kennedy … choose in 2009 to help cage his indigent neighbors under the leadership of O’Keefe?” asked The Appeal’s Will Isenberg. The Nation’s Maia Hibbett said Kennedy would have been “collecting quality-of-life fines, securing low-level drug convictions, and evicting families from their homes” during his time as a prosecutor.

Kennedy told The Intercept that he did not handle eviction cases, as those are civil suits, and that his time was spent primarily on DUIs, assault and battery charges, domestic violence, and opioid and mental illness drug cases. “The idea that your liberal ideology has to be in accordance with your boss is an absurd position to take, because yeah I disagree with him, but my job wasn’t setting policy, it was implementing the laws that were actually uniform across the state,” he said. According to Kennedy, his nickname at the office was “innocence project” because of his commitment to criminal defense.

In May, Kennedy introduced a bill to establish a right to counsel for eviction, medical bankruptcy, and domestic violence cases — a decadeslong goal from the legal aid community. Yet he earned minimal progressive plaudits, perhaps because earlier that month he was ripped online for a tweet that said no patient should “be forced to fight off medical bankruptcy in the midst of a global health pandemic without a lawyer by their side.” (The next day he clarified, “Let me be clear here: We need Medicare for all. We need an end to medical bankruptcy. … But until we get there, we need assurance that every patient will have access to legal counsel and aid if they are forced to fight their insurer in court.”) Kennedy has also been blasted by progressives for not co-sponsoring former Rep. John Conyers’s original Medicare for All bill in the House, but he said he was “proud” to co-sponsor Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s version, which builds upon earlier proposals from Sanders and Conyers, after working with her to ensure that it would cover abortions and long-term care.

“Senator Markey has over the course of the past several months gone much further left than he ever has,” Kennedy told The Intercept. “The progressive world has consolidated around him to make him the progressive in the race and tried to make me a mealy-mouth moderate who is running on ambition and my name, which has been frustrating to say the least.” Kennedy said he wants more of an honest conversation about vote histories. “I looked at my record and what I’ve done and I’m just trying to say, ‘Hey, you want to have a debate about who is more progressive? Fine. I think the honest answer is there’s areas where Senator Markey has led, and there are areas I’ve led.’”

LAST WEEK, Kennedy’s campaign held a press conference with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who slammed Markey for his immigration record, pointing to a 2013 vote in which the senator broke with his caucus and the president to increase Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention bed quota. Kennedy later voted for an omnibus spending bill that included the quota, along with all but three other House Democrats.

Markey certainly rejects the idea that he hasn’t led in the Senate and ticked off a number of his biggest accomplishments, from increasing fuel efficiency standards to creating the largest federal program for low-income students to access internet at home. He feels his advocacy on issues like the climate crisis, net neutrality, and Medicare for All position him well to win his next election. “It’s not your age, it’s the age of your ideas that are important,” Markey said. “And in terms of the age of my ideas, I’m the youngest person in this race.”

Markey isn’t alone on shifting leftward over the course of this election cycle. Kennedy, whose grandfather was killed by a man who’s been up for parole many times in recent years, now supports eliminating life sentences without parole, although he said he wants to balance sentencing reform with the wishes of victims and their families. That’s a change from earlier this year, when he wrote in a February candidate questionnaire that he supported eliminating life sentences without parole for juveniles and nonviolent cases, and “heavily restricting,” but not eliminating, qualified immunity.

“I think my position on that has actually evolved since we even did that questionnaire,” Kennedy said. “I’ve thought about that one a lot. … I am comfortable now with the idea that people should be eligible for parole. … I also want to make sure victims’ voices and survivors’ voices are heard.”

At the end of the day, the Markey and Kennedy campaigns will have poured close to $20 million into a race that won’t help Senate Democrats add any seats in the chamber or markedly change the winner’s policy blueprint for the next congressional session. Kennedy has raised more than $7.8 million so far, and Markey — who out-raised Kennedy for the first time last quarter, according to his campaign — has raised more than $10.4 million to date. Both men cast their most recent fundraising hauls as evidence that their campaigns are surging.