Letting Noncitizens Vote in the Trump Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happened to the Black-Jewish Political Alliance?

Originally published in the fall 2018 issue of Jewish Currents 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nearly Every Member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Still Takes Corporate PAC Money

Originally published in The Intercept on October 14, 2018. Co-authored with Ryan Grim.
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In April, the Congressional Progressive Caucus announced that it was going to be drawing a line: Its political action committee would no longer accept corporate campaign donations.

“If we are going to end the influence of corporations and special interests in government, we have to start by not relying on their support,” said caucus co-chair Mark Pocan, D-Wis. “Only by being fully independent of their financial influence can we prioritize people over corporations.”

The development was largely ignored by the press, but for those who heard about it, the move raised an immediate question: Wait, the Congressional Progressive Caucus was taking corporate money?

Yes, it was. And not only did the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC accept corporate contributions until recently, but also, almost all of its 78 members — including Pocan — still take corporate money individually, even as their caucus shuns it. Just four caucus members who will be returning to the House next session have pledged to decline corporate funds: Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; Ro Khanna, D-Calif.; Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; and David Cicilline, D-R.I.

That number, however, is about to balloon to as many as 40 or more, as a wave of successful progressive insurgents — including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jahana Hayes, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar — are poised to join the House of Representatives.

The new push to go cold turkey on corporate cash is creating tension within the caucus, as progressive members take offense at the implication that their votes might be influenced by big money. “People feel like you’re saying that they are bought and sold — and some are, but many aren’t,” Jayapal told The Intercept. “It’s not like everybody who takes corporate PAC money is bad or only does what the corporations want. … But that’s not what this is about. It’s about re-establishing trust with voters, changing the system, working from multiple angles.”

But while the voting records of Congressional Progressive Caucus members are better on democracy reform issues compared with those outside the caucus, that might be setting the bar too low. Aaron Scherb, the legislative affairs director for the watchdog group Common Cause, told The Intercept that 17 of the 28 members of Congress who earned perfect scores on his organization’s “Democracy Scorecard“ are in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But there are 78 representatives in the caucus, meaning that nearly 4 in 5 caucus members actually failed to earn a perfect score.

“So,” Jayapal explained, “I try to say to people, ‘Look, this is the system that we’ve had, it just doesn’t need to be the system that we always have. So it’s not bad that you’re doing it, because that is what has been the case.’ [I] try to not make it about shaming and blaming, but about, ‘Okay, we’re trying to fix this.’”

While Jayapal is trying to coax her colleagues with carrots, the ballot box is acting as a stick. In September, Rep. Michael Capuano, a longtime progressive from Massachusetts, was bested in a primary contest by his opponent, Ayanna Pressley, who made Capuano’s acceptance of corporate money a key campaign issue.

An analysis by The Intercept of the 2017-18 campaign cycle reveals that the vast majority of CPC members are similarly vulnerable, taking not just money from union and advocacy group PACs,  but significant sums of corporate PAC cash as well. Not coincidentally, given the reliance on big money, hardly any members of the CPC rely on small individual donors.

Capuano hadn’t faced a serious political challenger since he was first elected in 1998, and he’s long been considered one of the most progressive members of the House. Though Pressley, a Boston city councilor, ran her campaign as a progressive insurgent, beyond her disagreement with Capuano over whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ought to be abolished or reformed, there were not many areas where she could distinguish herself from him on a policy level. But her pledge to swear off corporate PAC money, coupled with Capuano’s refusal to do so, created enough daylight between them to run through.

On the campaign trail, Capuano suddenly found himself in an unfamiliar position. He’d never had to seriously defend his fundraising haul before. His voting record, he insisted, spoke for itself. But Pressley highlighted the infusion of corporate funds flowing into Capuano’s coffers, especially from industries like biotech. In the latest two-year cycle, Capuano raised $388,000 from corporate PACs.

Capuano’s Congressional Progressive Caucus colleagues back in Washington, D.C., watched him go down, knowing that they, too, share his appetite for corporate money — and, potentially, his fate.

The movement to get money out of politics has fueled a massive, rapid, and poorly understood sea change — one that’s come to a head in the 2018 cycle. According to End Citizens United, a campaign finance reform political action committee, 208 candidates took the “no corporate PACs” pledge this cycle. Of those candidates, 124 won their primaries, including big names like Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat challenging Ted Cruz’s Senate seat, and Ocasio-Cortez, the insurgent candidate from New York City who ousted Joe Crowley, one of the top Democrats in Congress. (End Citizens United endorsed Crowley in the primary, despite his long record of taking corporate contributions, not expecting him to face a real challenge.)

Polls showed that Conor Lamb’s vocal opposition to corporate PAC money helped him eke out a victory in a district that Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016. And in a Pennsylvania district to Lamb’s east, Jess King has made her refusal to take corporate PAC money, and the GOP incumbent’s reliance on it, a defining feature of her campaign, helping her bring her opponent’s lead down to the single digits in a district that Trump carried by 26 points. The defining line in Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign zeroed in on that distinction: “We’ve got people, they’ve got money.”

Meanwhile, all 78 candidates endorsed by the Justice Democrats — a progressive political action committee, 26 of whose endorsees are still in the running — have sworn off corporate PAC and corporate lobbyist money. And already, presidential hopefuls like Kamala HarrisCory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand have responded to the growing hunger for campaign finance reform by announcing that they’ll no longer take corporate PAC contributions — an easier decision for them since corporate PACs aren’t likely to weigh in on presidential primaries anyway.

Polling has repeatedly shown that a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents view the influence of big money in politics as among the biggest threats to democracy. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has pledgedthat tackling corruption will be job No. 1 if Democrats retake the House and she becomes speaker.

But while elected officials — especially self-identified progressive ones — recognize the need to publicly back efforts to get money out of politics, incumbents will privately complain among themselves about the growing pressure to turn away long-standing donors, and big donors at that.

“Some of the most progressive members of the CPC will say their corporate contributions have never affected their votes, but they need to take trade association dollars or corporate PAC money because they represent poor districts that they don’t think has a donor base to make up for it,” said one Democratic House strategist.

“I’ve heard this particularly with folks of color,” said Jayapal, “that they have very minimal sources to get money from, and they traditionally haven’t been part of the overall [fundraising] system. But I think the beauty of getting corporate money out of politics is, it actually opens it up to everybody. In many ways, it’s a democratizing factor for traditionally marginalized communities.” Jayapal acknowledges that she thinks “it can take time to transition into that.”

This year’s primary upsets are beginning to change the political calculus, but longtime incumbents haven’t typically felt pressure to reject corporate PAC money. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., came to Congress as an insurgent herself, beating a nine-term Democratic incumbent in 1992. Now, she says, she would “love to get to the point” where she doesn’t have to accept corporate money, but her energies have been largely focused on Puerto Rico. “Since I didn’t have a primary,” she added, “I am not paying attention to that.”

Without electoral pressure, incumbents like Velázquez have had little incentive to spend the energy to create a small-dollar fundraising base, or even one that can subsist on big money from individuals without corporate PACs. Privately, members of Congress also argue that it is unrealistic to expect all of them to be able to attract the kind of small-dollar support for which Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and O’Rourke are famous.

“The way I would put it is, there’s a consensus that candidates ought to be raising their money from small donors, but it’s also the case that only a subset of candidates really click with small donors,” said Mark Schmitt, a former congressional aide and current political reform director at New America. “There’s only one Beto, and he gets attacked because his money pours in from out of state. There’s just some candidates who that’s never going to happen for, and they could be perfectly good progressive candidates, but not the attractive, charismatic type that might fuel small-dollar backing.”

And even O’Rourke has acknowledged that some degree of his ability to raise money relies on the intense disdain for his opponent, Cruz — a dynamic that also benefited Randy Bryce in his race against Paul Ryan. When Ryan retired, Bryce’s fundraising dropped significantly.

Some candidates who don’t share the superstar appeal of Sanders or O’Rourke argue that rejecting corporate cash could be tantamount to unilateral disarmament against Republicans in the general. “You would not want corporate PAC money used to destroy you in a general election, so it’s really going to depend on the landscape of each district,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., when asked if he would pledge not to take corporate PAC money.

Nasim Thompson, the communications director for Justice Democrats, has little patience for these types of excuses. “Those small-dollar donations are a reflection of grassroots support on the ground. And it’s not easy work, it’s very hard work, but it’s what we should expect of our electeds,” said Thompson. She adds that it’s the candidates who are not doing that hard work that are “compromising the entire system.”

Jayapal put it like this: “You don’t have to be an organizer; you don’t have to go out and make inspiring speeches. You just have to be authentic and show that you really care about the people that you represent and ordinary people, and that you want to take on the system of corruption in politics, and I think anybody can do that,” she said. “It is inspiring just to take the step.”

Although corporate PAC contributions have been the focus of the national political conversation, corporate PAC money, it turns out, amounts to a relative drop in the bucket of the large-dollar donations sloshing around American politics. “I sometimes ask people, ‘Well, how much do you get?’ And often, it’s a fairly small number,” said Jayapal.

In 2016, for example, just 6 percent of the $6.5 billion spent on the presidential election came from corporate PACs — two-thirds of which went to Republicans. The vast majority of money flowing into elections comes from wealthy individual donors. Even Congressional Progressive Caucus members who have sworn off corporate PAC money, like Khanna and Jared Polis (who is currently running for Colorado governor), rely predominantly on individual donations from the rich. Gabbard, too, has a broad national base of donors, and gets a boost from wealthy American Hindus eager to support the first Hindu in office. Tlaib and Abdul El Sayed, both of whom took the pledge, similarly benefited from high-dollar donations from Muslim communities nationwide.

Corporate PACs are more likely to support incumbents than primary challengers, which is good news for insurgents, who can run on the politically popular message of opposing corporate PAC money while also recognizing that they were unlikely to be beneficiaries of those dollars to begin with.

Still, advocates for campaign finance reform say the level of upfront, personal sacrifice isn’t really the point, because candidates who pledge to take no money from corporate PACs are communicating a greater level of commitment to reform than their opponents. Pledges also make it harder for them to walk back their commitments later on, when, as incumbents, they’re more likely to feel pressure to draw a greater share of their funding from corporate PACs. Pressley, who fundraised from corporate PACs while she was a member of the Boston City Council, pledged in Septemberto continue refusing corporate PAC money into the general election, and also once she’s in Congress.

“There’s no such thing as a pristine or incorruptible human being going into Congress, so part of our role is to continue that accountability for all members, including for Justice Democrats themselves,” said Thompson. “We need to make sure that drift doesn’t happen, and Justice Democrats aren’t immune to those pressures.”

Adam Bozzi, communications director for End Citizens United, predicts that “20 or 30 or 40” candidates who reject corporate PAC money will win their House races this November, and that “a couple more senators” will soon join the seven who have already done so. (Those senators are Warren, D-Mass.; Sanders, I-Vt.; Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Harris, D-Calif.; Booker, D-N.J.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.) These candidates “are not going to be bullied around” in Congress, Bozzi said. “That, plus the presidential primary, will lead to candidates pushing each other on these issues,” he added.

The hope is that the growing pressure will force the Michael Capuanos of the future to see that rejecting corporate PAC money is not only the most ethical choice, but the most politically attractive one as well.

“Corporate PAC money is a significant amount of money, but it’s not insurmountable,” said Bozzi. So-called “Red to Blue” Democrats who won in Republican-controlled districts last cycle, according to Bozzi, received an average of $16,000 each from corporate PACs. Democratic incumbents in competitive races last cycle received about 11 percent of their funding from corporate PACs, while the average for Democrats overall was closer to 19 percent.

Schmitt hopes that the focus on corporate PAC money will kickstart a more serious conversation about public financing — a consequential reform which can be accomplished without overturning Citizens UnitedThis past May, House and Senate Democratic leaders unveiled their “Better Deal for Democracy” package, which includes a plan whereby candidates would receive a 6-to-1 match in public funds for every dollar raised from small donors. The reform proposals were spearheaded by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., who has sworn off corporate PAC money for the past seven years. Sarbanes’s package has received the backing not only of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but also more moderate Democrats like Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

“If you’ve been in politics for more than five minutes, you get tangled up in the money — everyone knows that,” Sarbanes told The Intercept. “The real question is: What are we going to do about it? If we get back the gavel in November, we will want to move quickly on this reform agenda.”

Republicans, for their part, are not that concerned. Rep. Tom Cole, a member of House Republican leadership from Oklahoma, told The Intercept that it’s a “fantasy” to think that voters care much about corporate PAC money. “As long as it’s legal, and you’re not getting hauled in front of the FEC [Federal Election Commission] for violating the law, I’ve found very few vote on that basis,” he said. “It’s not like they give you television time for free, you know, or let you mail your mailers out for free. So, I’m sorry, it just takes money to communicate. That’s nobody’s fault. That’s just the way the system is. So, taking money out just means you’re not going to win. If people want to make that a virtue, that’s fine, but usually the person that has the most resources wins about nine times out of 10.”

Any voter who does make it a litmus test, he added, was never going to vote for him in the first place.

D.C.’s Master Facilities Plan Will Shape the City’s Balance Between Neighborhood Schools and Charters

Originally published in Washington City Paper on October 10, 2018.
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This week D.C. will hold its third and final round of public meetings for a little-known planning process that could reshape the city’s balance between neighborhood schools and charters.

For the past 16 months, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office has been developing a blueprint for the future of the city’s schools, known as a “Master Facilities Plan.” By law, this comprehensive report will provide city leaders with an overview of the state of school buildings across the District. The goal is to analyze population projections and school building data so that policymakers can plan for the next decade of D.C. public education. How should resources be directed? What schools need to be built? Where?

The stakes are high. Though D.C. has one of the largest charter school sectors in the country—educating nearly half of all city students—most families assume they could still send their child to their local neighborhood school, a District of Columbia Public School, if they wanted. A 2014 advisory committee on student assignment led by the deputy mayor for education found strong public support for maintaining schools that students living within a certain distance are entitled to attend.

But since 2008, the number of charters in the city has increased from 93 to 120, while the number of neighborhood schools has declined from 134 to 114. Only four new DCPS schools have opened in the city during this period, compared with 27 charters. Many advocates say there needs to be more coordination between the two school sectors if D.C. wants to ensure that all families have access to a neighborhood public school in the future.

Expected demographic shifts add another layer of complexity. The D.C. Auditor projectsschool enrollment to grow by 12,000 to 17,000 students in the next 10 years, with the bulk of that growth occurring in the middle and upper grades. A separate analysis produced by the D.C. Policy Center puts those estimates even higher, predicting just over 21,000 new students by 2026.

The city historically hasn’t been great at planning for school facilities—inequitably distributing capital dollars, haphazardly drawing school boundary lines, and failing to ensure that taxpayers get the best bang for their buck. The D.C. Auditor’s office examined school modernizations between 2010 and 2013 and found that the city lacked “basic financial management” over its $1.2 billion in spending, allowing large cost-overruns and misallocated funds. “District resources are finite,” said Auditor Kathy Patterson at the time. “We owe it to taxpayers to see that modernization funds are spent well and prudently, to assure our ability to complete the task of upgrading all of our schools.” The 21st Century School Fund, a local nonprofit that advocates for high-quality school buildings, estimates D.C. will need to budget at least $400 million annually to maintain its DCPS and charter schools in good repair.

While more than $4 billion has already been spent on local school upgrades since 2000, schools with high rates of students in poverty have historically gotten the short end of the stick. Some schools that clamored for renovations received practically no money for capital improvements, while others successfully lobbied for multiple rounds of investment.

D.C.’s leaders have taken a weaving path to this moment. School facility planning has been a long-standing issue, but has grown especially charged since 2015, when, aware of mounting issues, city leadership finally resolved to act. At an oversight hearing before the Council, then-DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson advocated for revamping the school modernization process. “My very honest assessment is that the whole [capital improvement] process is jacked up,” she said, calling it too political and expensive, and proposed a new, transparent system for addressing school facilities. Henderson envisioned distributing public dollars based on “logical” criteria, not “how loudly your community screams.”

In a process spearheaded by At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who took over in 2015 as chairman of the Education Committee, the Council held hearings and drafted new legislation—the Planning Actively for Comprehensive Education (PACE) Facilities Act—to bring order, equity, and transparency to the school planning process. Bowser signed it into law at the end of 2016.

Yet in the nearly two years since the PACE Act’s passage, a number of glaring obstacles to comprehensive school facility planning have emerged. The mayor’s office has blown many months of deadlines and worked actively to conceal information about charter facility conditions and costs. Elected officials, reluctant to confront tough politics, have worked to reinterpret or simply ignore the intent of the law that they themselves authorized.

Compounding these issues is the fact that charter schools are not required to share their long-term growth plans with the public. Residents say they worry that when all is said and done, the city will not really be in a place so different from where it was before—thinking through complex issues with incomplete data, having no expectation that DCPS and charter-sector leaders work together, and not even requiring that the data collected be used to guide school planning decisions.

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It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine how many schools are needed to educate the District’s 91,000 public school students, and where new schools must go to accommodate student growth in the years ahead. Publicly, at least, city officials agree that they’d like to maintain D.C.’s balance of a choice-based charter system and traditional public schools that students can attend by-right. Even Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, has said he wouldn’t want to see D.C. go all-charter. “The current model, with two public school systems pushing each other to be better and cooperating whenever possible, is proving to be the right mix for the District’s schoolchildren,” he wrote in a 2015 Washington Post opinion piece.

But maintaining this rough balance could require new limits on the charter sector’s autonomy, something charter leaders and the mayor’s office are loath to discuss. “It takes real planning,” says Danica Petroshius, the co-vice president of the Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization. “Which means making decisions and sharing oversight over the two sectors because they are for one system of students.”

The Public Charter School Board currently has complete authority to open and close charters across the city, and typically approves new schools to open before charters have determined where they’ll in fact be located. Pointing to the long waitlists for some of the city’s top-performing charters, leaders say they feel a moral urgency to grow new high-quality schools as fast as they can. “I’m not interested in joint planning as a cover to put some sort of moratorium on charters,” Pearson once told The Post.

The passage of the PACE Act, though, was considered one of the clearest signs that leaders were finally open to making comprehensive, cross-sector decisions about school facilities in D.C.

The 2013 Master Facilities Plan, which included a limited amount of charter school data, articulated the problems D.C. faces when it comes to school planning. “At present, there is little coordination of school facility needs with expenditures across all public schools, for both DCPS and charters” the 2013 report acknowledged. Charter schools were “growing haphazardly” as schools “open wherever they can find space that is both affordable and sufficient for their needs, and many remain in substandard facilities.” DCPS and charter facility data were “inconsistent, inaccessible or both,” and the lack of a comprehensive fact base made it “nearly impossible to make strategic facility investments” and “perpetuates the conflict between DCPS and charter[s].”

Three years later, by 2016, the Council’s Education Committee reported that little had changed. The PACE Act, the Council made clear, would be its attempt to finally take action. The act directed D.C.’s education agencies and the Department of General Services to “conduct an annual survey to update information on the condition of each DCPS and public charter school facility.” The survey results “shall be disaggregated by facility, [and] made publicly available.”

The Council recognized that some charters might be resistant to increased data collection, so the PACE Act also authorized the mayor’s office to fine the Public Charter School Board up to $10,000 annually if charters failed to cooperate.

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Several key drafters of the PACE Act tell City Paper there was no ambiguity at the time as to whether the legislation was intended to fill the well documented gaps in school facility data collection. The Council also felt it needed to more clearly understand charter facility conditions, as they’re nearly entirely funded by taxpayers. Unlike DCPS schools, which receive facility funding from the city’s capital budget, charter schools receive a “facilities allowance” for every student they educate, taken from the city’s operating budget. Today that allowance stands at $3,193 per pupil. However, charters are not actually required to spend their facility allowances on their school facilities, nor must they publicly document the conditions of their buildings.

Jump ahead to the summer of last year, though, and signs started to emerge that the process was breaking down.

In July 2017, then-Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles sent a memo to all local education agencies informing them of the upcoming Master Facilities Plan. While Niles emphasized that participation would make the process more successful, her letter suggested that participation for charter schools housed in “non-District owned facilities” would be voluntary, and that if they do participate, their facility assessments “will not be shared directly with” the mayor or the charter board. In other words, the charters located in 70 privately owned buildings across D.C. would not have to share their facility assessments with policymakers.

Mary Filardo, head of the 21st Century School Fund, sent the mayor a letter in August 2017 raising concerns with Niles’ memo. “Without full disclosure and complete data on the facility condition, design, capacity and growth plans for charter, as well as DCPS schools, it is not possible to efficiently plan for projected child population growth, equitably allocate its public education operating and capital budgets, exercise appropriate oversight of the District’s budget … or engage communities in authentic neighborhood level planning,” Filardo wrote. She also noted that parents would not be able to make fully informed school choices if they lacked information about the safety and condition of each school.

When Niles sent a vague letter back on behalf of the mayor a month later, she didn’t respond to Filardo’s concerns directly. Instead she said that it’s her priority that charters are included in the Master Facilities Plan, and that her team was confident this would happen. “I appreciate that we both feel strongly about the need for comprehensive facility information and planning, and I look forward to further dialogue and feedback,” Niles wrote.

That same month, a group of D.C. education stakeholders convened to discuss implementation of the PACE Act, and why it appeared the mayor’s office seemed to be diverging away from its legislative intent. “It seems incomprehensible that the city would require 10 years of planning for public school buildings involving billions of dollars to be done in the dark,” said Filardo at the time.

Meanwhile, the mayor started missing PACE Act deadlines. The first was Sept. 30, 2017—when the mayor’s office was supposed to have assessed each DCPS school according to criteria that could allow for the objective prioritization of capital funds. That date was set so parents and community members would have ample time to weigh in before the mayor’s budget was finalized.

The next missed deadline was in December 2017, when the mayor’s office was supposed to submit its final Master Facilities Plan. The office first requested an extension for March 2018, but at an oversight hearing in mid- February the public learned the mayor wanted to push the report back even further. “You will have the report next August, August 2018,” said Niles. She said the delay was due to it taking longer than expected to fundraise for charter facility assessments in privately owned buildings.

The plan still hasn’t been released, and the mayor’s office now promises it sometime before the end of 2018—a year late.

At that same February hearing, Grosso, the chair of the Education Committee, said he worried the mayor’s office was delaying the completion of the Master Facilities Plan to bypass public scrutiny on its next budget. Niles denied this, but resigned three days later, after news broke that she assisted DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson in gaming the school lottery.

Two months later, at an April budget oversight hearing, Grosso grilled Niles’ replacement, interim Deputy Mayor for Education Ahnna Smith, on why so many components of the PACE Act were still not being followed, including the requirement to produce a detailed analysis of the modernization needs of each school, along with timelines for new construction, and cost assessments. Grosso said it appeared the mayor was just picking and choosing which items she felt like complying with. Smith said she didn’t have an answer to give him, but would confer later with DCPS and the Department of General Services to find out.

“I’d be more understanding if we didn’t go through a two-year public process writing this law, if the mayor didn’t actually sign it, and support it,” Grosso said at the hearing. “I think it’s disrespectful to the democratic process.”

***

Internal documents show the city working closely with charter-supportive organizations to keep charter facility data hidden—even from the city itself.

The Master Facilities Plan is built on what are known as “Facility Condition Assessments,” or FCAs. These are detailed evaluations of the capital needs of each school building, conducted by an outside civil engineering firm. These comprehensive school-level reports can easily exceed 200 pages each, and are aimed at determining maintenance requirements and costs for all parts of the building, exterior and interior, over a decade. The mayor’s office budgeted to fund FCAs in all DCPS schools and charters in publicly owned buildings, but at some point the mayor’s office began working with the Walton Family Foundation to fund optional FCAs for charters leasing from privately owned buildings.

Emails produced in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the D.C. Open Government Coalition, and shared with City Paper, show the topic emerging as early as July 2017, though it’s not clear when or how these discussions began.

The emails show the mayor’s office working hand-in-glove with Education Forward DC (an education reform grant-making organization), Ampersand Education (a consulting firm) and the Walton Family Foundation to figure out how to fund the FCAs. They landed on creating a new layer of bureaucracy to separate the data from the public: The Walton Family Foundation would fund Education Forward DC to contract the facility assessments, and Ampersand consultants would act as liaisons between the charters, Education Forward DC, and the contractor.

Most unusual was that the mayor’s office itself was pushing to ensure that the results of the facility conditions assessments would stay permanently out of public view. The Walton Family Foundation and Ed Forward DC confirmed to City Paper that the stipulation to keep the charter FCAs private did not come from them.

FOIA’d emails show that Alex Cross, the facilities officer for the deputy mayor for education, drafted a $750,000 grant application to the Walton Family Foundation to fund these facility assessments. But rather than submitting that application directly himself, he arranged for Education Forward DC to submit it under their name. A February 2018 email from Cross emphasized to an Ampersand Education consultant that when she begins her work on this project, she or Education Forward DC should specifically communicate to charters that the collected facilities data “will not be shared with DME, PCSB, or publicly.”

A document distributed directly to the charter schools reiterated that “none of the school-level data will be shared with the DME, PCSB, OSSE, or any other government agency or made public in any way.” (OSSE is the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.) The document, which City Paper reviewed, clarified that the Walton Family Foundation, Education Forward DC, Ampersand Education, the engineering firm, and the individual charters would retain access to the facility information.

City Paper asked the Deputy Mayor for Education’s office why it did not submit the grant to the Walton Family Foundation itself, as it was Cross—a city employee—who drafted much of it. City Paper also asked if prior to Education Forward DC submitting the grant, the mayor’s office otherwise attempted to secure funding to contract the assessments themselves.

The deputy mayor’s office did not directly answer these questions. “The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education and this administration have worked hard to reach unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability throughout the 2018 Master Facilities Plan process,” said then-Deputy Mayor for Education Ahnna Smith in an emailed response. “For the first time in the District’s history, the Master Facilities Plan will be informed by facility information on both DCPS and DC public charter schools, as a result of work by this administration.”

Maura Marino, the CEO of Education Forward DC, the group that received the Walton grant, told City Paper that this arrangement may have been decided on to help maximize participation from charter schools that otherwise might resist facility inspections. She said that some charters in privately owned facilities could have landlords who oppose the idea of contractors coming in to assess their buildings. This way, if contractors did come in, the assessments would only be shared as part of an aggregated, anonymized summary. Marino also noted that complications can sometimes arise when private groups donate directly to government, and that foundations often prefer to avoid those risks by channeling funds through nonprofit intermediaries.

“I think we all have an interest in the Master Facilities Plan being as inclusive as possible,” said Marino. “In general our goal should be more information and the best information.”

Nevertheless, unlike DCPS schools and charters in publicly owned buildings, charters in privately owned facilities will not be submitting detailed building assessments for the Master Facilities Plan. City Paper has learned that of the 70 non-District owned facilities that house charter schools, 49 have opted for facility conditions assessments, though the public is barred from knowing which buildings those are, and which charter schools lease from them.

As an alternative to FCAs, charters were invited to fill out brief surveys with seven questions related to their anticipated facility needs over the next decade, and a separate 17-question survey on facility conditions. (The Public Charter School Board drafted the survey, with feedback from the mayor’s office and the Department of General Services, according to PCSB spokesperson Tomeika Bowden.)

The questions were general. One question asks: “Does your facility have known potential asbestos hazards?” and the answer choices are “Yes” or “No”—with the option to include additional comments. Another question invites respondents to briefly describe “the most likely renovations you would undertake” in the next 10 years.

In addition to data disparities, charter schools do not have to share their long-term growth plans with the public, despite the impact charter enrollment has on DCPS enrollment. Many parents have been asking how strategic planning can really work without this type of information.

City Paper asked the Public Charter School Board how it envisions using the results of the Master Facilities Plan in its charter approval process and was told, “we’re in the process of determining that.” The charter sector is not required to use the MFP data to guide the opening, closing, and siting of its schools.

City Paper went back to David Grosso to ask how the city could comprehensively plan for the future if school-level data for dozens of charters are not shared with the government and public.

In a statement that seems to contradict the language of his own committee’s 2016 report, Grosso said the PACE Act does not require the FCAs be made public, though he “believes it is the best interest of the families and schools to share information on the state of facilities so that everyone can make fully informed decisions.” He said it would be “up to the Deputy Mayor for Education” to incentivize charter schools to participate in the MFP.

And then, in what appears an even further walk-back from the Council’s 2016 position, Grosso said, “in the end, the PACE Act was designed to provide government with a useful tool to plan for the modernization and improvement of facilities in which it can invest capital dollars.” Because charter school facility allowances come out of operating budgets, not capital budgets, Grosso’s statement implied that knowing the conditions of charter schools is less essential.

Somewhere along the way, the mayor’s office and the Council quietly decided that the PACE Act, passed to improve citywide planning and data collection, would now have significant caveats, carve-outs, and exceptions.

“Things are much more complicated than people are honest about,” says Eboni-Rose Thompson, the chair of the Ward 7 Education Council, who attended both the April and August MFP public engagement sessions. “We have students living in areas that literally couldn’t fit into their neighborhood schools if they wanted to go.”

“There’s a huge flaw if DCPS is trying to do long-term planning around population and enrollment targets, but not in conjunction with the charter sector which affects DCPS enrollment,” says Petroshius, of Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization. “If charter growth is essentially unlimited then the Master Facilities Plan is essentially meaningless.”

These cross-sector issues have been debated for at least the past five years. In 2013, D.C. resident Virginia Spatz was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, “Maybe we need an entire school system full of charters. But we need to have that after public conversation, not by accident.”

Valerie Jablow, a DCPS parent who writes about school issues on her blog education dc, says she worries that a future where all students are entitled to attend public schools near their home is falling further down the priority list for D.C. leadership.

“Without a commitment to a by-right system of municipally-run schools in every neighborhood as a foundational principle of public education planning and governance,” said Jablow, “leaders will never be able to ensure that the right to education in D.C. is guaranteed and secured equitably for all everywhere.”

Can a Blue Wave in a Blue State Make Ben Jealous Maryland’s First African American Governor?

Originally published in The American Prospect‘s fall 2018 magazine.

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Thirty-six governor’s mansions are up for grabs this November, and Ben Jealous, the 45-year-old former president of the NAACP turned venture capitalist, is on a mission to reclaim Maryland’s for the Democrats. In theory, this shouldn’t be such a heavy lift. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in the state, and Hillary Clinton swept it in 2016 by 26 points. The election carries some symbolic weight as well: If Jealous won, he would become the first African American governor of this former slave state where Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman once toiled. Like his fellow black gubernatorial nominees, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida, Jealous could make some history this November.

But the media and most political observers remain skeptical of Jealous’s prospects. His opponent, Republican Larry Hogan, who previously worked as a real-estate developer, has governed as a centrist, avoided major scandal, distanced himself from President Trump, and boasts a 70 percent approval rating. Hogan’s fundraising haul also dwarfs that of Jealous. Pundits say his popularity and available resources should insulate him from any sort of blue-wave midterm.

But Jealous, a towering six feet, four inches, isn’t fazed—and certainly isn’t running to the center. He’s convinced that the path to victory doesn’t require courting the moderate Democrats in Hogan’s camp, but galvanizing the many thousands of Democrats who stayed home on Election Day four years ago.

Running on Medicare for All, ending mass incarceration, fully funding public schools, legalizing marijuana, a $15 minimum wage, public infrastructure investments, universal pre-K, and tuition-free college, Jealous’s platform is a grab bag of unabashed progressive demands. “If we’re unafraid to be Democrats, we will win,” he told me in August.

Jealous’s campaign presents an interesting test case, not only for the Old Line State, but for the Democratic Party writ large. Though he failed to win the endorsement of much of the statewide liberal elite during the primary season, he ended up carrying 22 of the state’s 24 counties, beating out the presumed frontrunner by 10 points in a packed field of nine candidates—all while refusing corporate contributions, something no other gubernatorial candidate in Maryland has ever done.

“We won overwhelmingly in a very crowded primary by a big margin precisely because Marylanders are eager for us to solve problems at scale,” he says. “They want us to stop nibbling around the edges.”

In 2016, Jealous endorsed Bernie Sanders for president early on, quickly becoming one of Sanders’s most vocal and important surrogates during the primaries. Now in 2018, Jealous has chosen as his lieutenant-governor running mate Susie Turnbull, a party insider and 2016 Clinton supporter, in the hope that the Bernie-Hillary divide can be overcome with the right team, attitude, and message.

For Jealous, Election Day will be a referendum on incrementalism—and a measure of just how potent the state’s progressive movement really is.

JEALOUS’S STRATEGY IS ROOTED in the numbers. The Democrats project that the state’s electorate will hit 2.1 million voters this November, and “if we turn out one million voters to the polls, we win,” he says. Republican gubernatorial candidates, he likes to remind the public, have never secured more than 900,000 votes in this blue state, and in 2014, a cycle with markedly low turnout, Hogan won with only 884,400 votes, beating out his Democratic opponent by a 66,000-vote margin. Four years earlier, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin O’Malley sailed to re-election with more than a million ballots cast in his favor. Democrats are banking on 2018 looking a lot more like 2010 than 2014.

What went wrong four years ago?

“There just didn’t seem to be as much at stake,” says Mark McLaurin, the political director for SEIU 500, which endorsed Jealous in the primary. “In 2014, we still had President Obama, most core Democratic constituencies considered 2016 in the bag, there wasn’t a sense of urgency, and the Democrats just didn’t have a very robust field operation.” McLaurin, an operative who has worked in Maryland campaigns for the past 20 years, says he “never saw a quieter Election Day in Baltimore City than in the 2014 general.”

The Democratic contender that year was former Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, a relatively uninspiring candidate who waged a muted campaign. He still won Baltimore City and other reliably Democratic counties, but the number of votes was way down. Baltimore City was down 13 percent from 2010, Prince George’s County was down by 5 percent, and Montgomery County dropped by 9 percent.

“In certain parts of Maryland, there’s a feeling that the real race is the primary,” says Roxie Herbekian, president of the UNITE HERE local in Baltimore City. “With Anthony Brown, we worked really hard to get him to be the nominee, and after that everyone kind of relaxed, his campaign relaxed, and then it wasn’t until the last two weeks that we were like, ‘Oh shit, what the hell is going on.’” Herbekian says this year, “no one is taking anything for granted.”

Aside from awakening from 2014 complacency, the other major difference between that midterm election and the fast-approaching one is a man named Donald Trump. A poll released in June found that 46 percent of Maryland Democrats ranked “removing Donald Trump from office” as their number-one priority. While Hogan has tried to walk a careful tightrope as a centrist Republican who distances himself from the president or stays quiet on federal policy, November is the first opportunity most voters have to voice their opposition to the nation’s historically unpopular president. That, combined with the looming 2020 census and the fact that half of all legislators drawing the congressional redistricting maps in 2021 will be elected this year, makes this a higher-stakes midterm than the last.

Beyond riding the blue wave, Jealous’s campaign is banking on two strategies to improve Democratic margins: progressive policy solutions, and an aggressive voter turnout effort.

In 2014, the Democratic-coordinated campaign in Maryland had a total of 15 field organizers on the ground. This year, 27 Democratic organizers were hired by August, with near 70 active across the state by September.

Jealous also points to the political team he has assembled, which produced the turnout that led to O’Malley’s 2010 victory. In that year, Turnbull, Jealous’s running mate, was the chair of the state Democratic Party; his campaign manager, Travis Tazelaar, was executive director of the state party; and David Sloan, who is now running the statewide coordinated campaign for all Democratic candidates, was the state party’s political director. “The NAACP was involved too, and together we turned out more than a million voters,” says Jealous. Turnbull, Tazelaar, and Sloan pointedly did not lead the 2014 political effort, and Jealous had also left the civil rights organization by that time.

His team also hopes for some help from the many resistance groups that have sprung up since 2016.

Chris Pickett, a science policy analyst in Montgomery County, joined the national grassroots organization Indivisible after Trump won. He founded Indivisible Montgomery in December 2016, and says his group grew from 15 friends to 1,400 members in just six weeks. (With “Indivisible MoCo” and “Indivisible Montgomery County,” Pickett’s county actually boasts three separate Indivisible chapters, a reality he chalks up to people wanting to focus on different things, and a lot of natural leaders in the region.)

“For the vast majority of our members, this is their first time being an activist,” Pickett says, noting that he’s a newcomer to activism, too. Indivisible Montgomery generally steers clear of Maryland Senate and House of Delegates races, but has focused its energies on flipping Congress and the Maryland governor’s seat. “We sent a bunch of people down to Virginia for Ralph Northam; we had people go up to Pennsylvania for Conor Lamb; we phone-banked for the special election in Ohio,” he says. “We want to put a check on the federal government, and we recognize voting is the biggest way we can make our voices heard.” While Pickett’s chapter did not make an endorsement in the Maryland gubernatorial primary, he says his members have been eager to dive into the general.

The story is similar across the state. In Baltimore City, an Indivisible chapter formed after Trump’s inauguration and has met every two weeks since. In the beginning, according to member Jennay Ghowrwal, they focused almost exclusively on federal issues. But as time went on, Indivisible Baltimore decided to get involved in the Virginia election, and targeted a Republican state delegate seat in a district that Clinton won in 2016. “We organized carpools down there, knocked on 10,000 doors, and when the Republican lost in 2017, we all just realized how energizing that was,” she says. In 2018, they focused on passing automatic voter registration—something Indivisible Baltimore and other chapters managed to achieve in Maryland’s latest legislative session. (The policy will go into effect in 2019.) Now Ghowrwal says her group is ready to elect Jealous, someone they feel will do a better job than Hogan at standing up to Trump.

Martha McKenna, a Baltimore-based strategist working to elect Jealous, put it this way: “It’s not that I automatically think people are hooked into the governor’s race, but there’s a level of civic engagement in Baltimore and statewide spurred by the Trump administration and the school shootings and the Annapolis shooting that is very different than it was four years ago,” she says. “In a way, people have been feeling very anxious. The issues in communities feel scarier, more intense, and in many ways more political.”

BUT CAN JEALOUS, A first-time candidate who ran as an outsider, get the insiders in his camp?

In the primary, most of the state’s Democratic establishment lined up behind Rushern Baker, the outgoing county executive in Prince George’s County, who ran a campaign premised on the idea that he could win back some Hogan voters in 2018. Baker, a Clinton supporter in 2016, claimed endorsements from former Governor O’Malley, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, and State Attorney General Brian Frosh. (The Baltimore Sun endorsed Jealous, while The Washington Post backed Baker.)

Jealous, on the other hand, says he’s not wasting his time trying to win back the moderate Democrats who will vote for Hogan, arguing that there’s simply not that many of them. (Although, exit polls found that 23 percent of Democratic voters cast their ballots for Hogan in 2014, and a poll released in early June found that 24 percent of likely Democratic primary voters said they planned to vote for Hogan in November.)

In June, a few dozen Maryland Democrats came out with endorsements for Hogan, though most were older white men who hadn’t served in office for years. Others had received political appointments from the governor, or had records of supporting Republican candidates in the past. The only statewide elected Democrat to back Hogan was 84-year-old Melvin Steinberg, who served as lieutenant governor from 1987 to 1995. In 1998, Steinberg endorsed Republican Ellen Sauerbrey for governor, a candidate opposed to abortion rights and gun control.

“We’ve seen this before,” Jealous says dismissively when I ask him about Democratic endorsements for his opponent. “There’s literally nothing happening in the Hogan campaign that wasn’t happening in the [Robert] Ehrlich campaign, and Ehrlich was a one-term bird, and Hogan will be a one-termer, too.” Ehrlich served as Maryland’s Republican governor from 2003 to 2007, and lost his re-election campaign to O’Malley by 6.5 points despite commanding a 55 percent approval rating at the time. Jealous’s team says Ehrlich’s defeat is instructive, and should give confidence to those who hear about Hogan’s high approval rating. The 2006 election also featured the last Democratic wave, as popular disapproval of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq swept the Democrats back in control of Congress.

After the June primary, all the gubernatorial candidates quickly came together to back Jealous, though some other state Democratic leaders have been slower to voice their support. The long-serving state senate president, Mike Miller, initially offered only mild enthusiasm for Jealous, having praised Hogan for his bipartisanship work. The outgoing executive of affluent Montgomery County, Isiah Leggett, said Jealous’s support for a millionaire tax and redistributing more state funds to poorer school districts left him ambivalent about an endorsement. Senator Cardin and Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch gave Jealous their blessing, but made a point to highlight their disagreement with him on such issues as single-payer health care.

“We have to be clear about what happened here,” says Bob Muehlenkamp, chair of Our Revolution Maryland, the group that formed out of the 2016 Sanders campaign, which backed Jealous early on. “Not a single elected Democratic official came out for Ben in the primary, which means we defeated the established Democratic Party of the state of Maryland. What does it say about a party that will not unequivocally work now to throw out a Republican governor in the era of Trump?”

Muehlenkamp chalks the electeds’ reticence up to “how miserably corporate” the Democratic Party is in Maryland. “It’s a corporate-controlled party, and they can use all the dog whistles they want about how they think his policies can’t win, or he’s too far out on Medicare for All, or we can’t do $15 minimum wage right now, but the truth is they want Ben Jealous to lose, because he would disrupt their nice little in-crowd club, and they’d rather make peace with whatever governor there is—even in the age of Trump.”

McLaurin of SEIU 500 says the recent primary suggests it’s not that important how quickly or slowly the stragglers from the Democratic establishment decide to get on board, because the primary results indicate a new generation of progressives are poised to disrupt the party. Not only did Jealous sweep the state by a considerable margin, but a number of progressive challengers down-ballot also defeated longtime Democratic incumbents. Among those unseated were the chair of the state Senate Finance Committee and the chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “This is the kind of year where voters just aren’t taking the normal political cues,” McLaurin says.

JEALOUS ISN’T CAMPAIGNING on “making Maryland great again,” but he does talk a lot about “restoring the promise of Maryland.”

Jealous describes the promise of Maryland as one where his grandfather could attend a year of law school at the University of Maryland in the late 1950s for $200 in tuition. Today, Jealous says, if tuition had kept up with inflation, the cost for students would be about $2,600. Instead, it’s more than $31,000. “There’s nothing outlandish about saying we want millennials to get the same deal the Greatest Generation got,” Jealous said to a crowd of young political activists this summer.

The promise of Maryland, Jealous also likes to say, is one where a guy like him could have a mother born and raised in Baltimore public housing, who one day sends her son off to Columbia University and then to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

Jealous has long been an activist. In college, he led protests, boycotts, and pickets for such issues as preserving financial aid and homelessness rights. He was ultimately suspended for his rabble-rousing, and moved down to Mississippi to work as an organizer, later becoming a local reporter in Jackson. When he eventually returned to Columbia, he graduated with a political science degree, and went to study comparative social research at Oxford. He spent the decade after that leading an association of black community newspapers, directing the U.S. human rights program at Amnesty International, and doing a one-year stint training to be a priest.

In 2008, at age 35, he became the youngest person to ever take the helm of the NAACP. This was a controversial pick given his youth and lack of close ties to the movement. But Julian Bond, the longtime chair of the organization, pushed hard for Jealous, believing in his potential.

Under Jealous’s half-decade of leadership, the NAACP, headquartered in Maryland, helped pass the state’s DREAM Act, its referendum on gay marriage, and the abolition of Maryland’s death penalty. The Baltimore Sun named him “Marylander of the Year” in 2013 for his accomplishments.

Some analysts worry about Jealous’s uncompromising platform, which says Democrats can do it all, Democrats can do it soon, and Marylanders can afford it. (He regularly reminds crowds that Maryland has the highest median household income of any state in the country.) “This campaign is fundamentally about big ideas versus small ideas,” he tells me. “When times were darkest in this nation, FDR called on us to think big. He understood that we need whole solutions to whole problems.”

I asked McLaurin of SEIU if he’s worried that Jealous’s emphasis on issues like single-payer health care and ending mass incarceration might turn off white, moderate voters.

“What I will say is that most statewide officials—even your progressive ones—are very pragmatic, institutionalist,” he answered. “Even O’Malley was just an innately cautious politician who really wanted to put his finger to the wind, and he was not going to move on an issue until it was shown it would not be fatal to his own ambition.” To an extent he has never seen, McLaurin continued, Jealous has been “forthright in what he believes, even if it’s not always the safest thing. I think that authenticity is something the electorate is looking for.”

FOR ALL HIS BREAK-the-mold leftism, Jealous has consistently identified himself as a venture capitalist, touting his belief in market-driven social change. In the five years since he left the NAACP, Jealous worked at Kapor Capital, where he led investments in small businesses that target underserved communities. (One of his favorite companies, Pigeonly, slashed the costs of making phone calls home from prison.)

Jealous emphasizes his opposition to “crony capitalism” and to big corporations, those that pour their profits back into dividends and buybacks for shareholders. He’s criticized the way Maryland leaders have tripped over themselves with tax breaks to entice Amazon to build its new headquarters in their state. Jealous’s economic vision, he explains, is built on taking risks on entrepreneurs and small business owners, what he calls “community-based” capitalism. Early this year, Discovery Communications, a Fortune 500 company, announced it was relocating its Maryland headquarters to New York. Jealous pointed to this as evidence of the dangers of relying on big companies for economic security. Figuring out how to help small businesses thrive, like those at Baltimore’s Lexington Market, he says, is where there’s untapped potential for prosperity and job growth.

When I asked Jealous what he makes of the recent Gallup polling that showed 57 percent of Democrats viewed socialism positively, and whether he’s creating space for those who don’t see “socialism” as a dirty word, he didn’t directly answer.

“I’m just not interested in parlor debates about what we call ourselves,” he said. “I’m very intentional about building a big tent, and bringing in people who voted for Bernie, for Trump, for Hillary.”

But sometimes Jealous’s efforts to dispel notions that he’s a tax-and-spend radical can seem over the top. Over the summer, Hogan called Jealous a “far-left socialist” in a New York Times interview. A Washington Post reporter followed up by asking Jealous if he identified with the socialist label. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he responded brusquely. (He later apologized for his language.) And when the Republican Governors Association funded a TV ad featuring Jealous on MSNBC saying, “Go ahead, call me a socialist” but cut off the rest of his sentence where he had said, “it doesn’t change the fact that I’m a venture capitalist,” the Jealous campaign demanded that local stations pull the ad for being too false and misleading. (Stations refused.)

These sometimes too-rash reactions to conservative provocation hark back to an incident from 2010, when, as NAACP head, Jealous called for the firing of a U.S. Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, after a viral Breitbart video showed her talking about discriminating against a white farmer. When it became clear the Breitbart video had been highly edited to misrepresent Sherrod’s remarks, Jealous apologized and retracted the NAACP’s statement. It was an embarrassing moment and he calls the episode the lowest point of his professional career.

ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL, Hogan has accused Jealous of trying to “nationalize” the governor’s race. Critics also blasted Jealous during the primary for taking some $600,000 from wealthy liberals in California and New York, a level of outside spending typically unheard of in a Maryland gubernatorial election. Jealous dismisses both criticisms, noting his campaign had more Maryland donors, and smaller donations on average, than any of his primary opponents’. “To the extent that we had out-of-state donations, they tended to fill the hole that we created when we refused corporate contributions,” he says, adding that it’s Hogan who has nationalized the race, by failing to stand up to the Trump administration.

These rebuttals can land fairly awkwardly at times—Hogan has made more efforts than other Republicans to distance himself from Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress, and Jealous is running on a platform based partly on standing up to both.

But it’s true that Hogan’s distancing has also been inconsistent and sometimes tepid. When he failed to denounce the Muslim travel ban at the start of 2017, hundreds protested outside the governor’s mansion in Annapolis. Hogan dismissed the pressure at the time, saying he didn’t see protesting Trump’s policies as “his role.” Over the past year, however, as Trump’s polling hit the skids, he changed his tune. By June 2018, Hogan recalled Maryland’s National Guard unit (all of four soldiers) from the U.S.-Mexico border in protest of the president’s child separation policy.

Jealous is confident that as the general election heats up—as the spotlight starts shining more brightly on Hogan’s record, and voters get a chance to hear Jealous’s message—his campaign will grow more powerful. His campaign’s internal polling showed that as of July, one-third of Maryland voters, and one-quarter of the state’s Democratic voters, still did not know who Jealous was.

Some local political experts caution against reading too much into Republican Bob Ehrlich’s 2006 loss when it comes to analyzing the tea leaves for November. Mileah Kromer, a Goucher College political science professor, pointed out that Hogan’s lead over his Democratic challenger is much higher than Ehrlich’s was at the time, and that Ehrlich was also much more closely tied to President Bush and the national Republican Party than Hogan is to Trump. Todd Eberly, a St. Mary’s College political science professor, adds that Ehrlich was considered both a more confrontational and a lazier leader, a politician who made many unforced errors.

Does that mean Hogan is invulnerable? Polling has consistently shown the number of people who approve of the governor exceeds those who plan to vote for him. And the Trump factor could be very real. In 2016, Anne Arundel County, a longtime red region of Maryland, went for Clinton, the first time a Democratic contender won the county in more than 50 years.

In his own way, Hogan, no less than Jealous, senses that Maryland is moving left. This past July, he announced a new student debt relief plan, and declared he would not accept donations or an endorsement from the National Rifle Association. He took the NRA’s money and endorsement back in 2014, a year the group gave him an A- rating.

“I honestly don’t think Jealous could have won a Democratic primary four years ago,” says McLaurin, who describes Maryland as a wait-your-turn kind of political state. “With Ben Jealous, it was not his turn by any measure. He’s never been elected to anything ever, his running mate has never been elected to anything ever. But they say in politics, a lot of it is timing, and I think 2018 is the pairing of the right man for the right moment.”

With Focus on Keith Ellison Allegations, Karen Monahan Retains New Attorney

Originally published in The Intercept on October 3, 2018.
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Republicans in Washington have attacked Brett Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford for hiring an attorney with connections to the Democratic Party, suggesting her allegations are part of a liberal plot to destroy Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.

In Minnesota, meanwhile, Karen Monahan, Keith Ellison’s accuser, has retained the legal services of a longtime friend and former boss of Ellison’s Republican opponent, Doug Wardlow. Ellison and Wardlow are facing off in the race for state attorney general.

Republicans have repeatedly drawn parallels between the cases of Kavanaugh, who is accused of attempting to rape Blasey Ford, and Ellison, who is accused of attempting to drag Monahan off a bed by her feet in 2016, as well as what Monahan has called “narcissist abuse.”

Blasey Ford is being represented by an attorney, Debra Katz, who has Democratic Party affiliations, though she is also a well-known legal advocate for sexual harassment and abuse victims. Republicans pounced on plans by Katz and attorney Lisa Banks, who is also representing Blasey Ford, to host a fundraiser for Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is up for re-election in Wisconsin. The fundraiser was canceled.

Monahan’s attorney, Andrew Parker, said his new client contacted him for representation a few days ago, not the other way around. In a phone call with The Intercept, he said that their association had nothing to do with his close relationship to Ellison’s opponent. “As I understand, she learned of me from her son, who worked for someone I know, and that’s how she ended up calling me,” Parker said. “She didn’t have representation before and was being inundated. I have dealt with the media and done other high-profile cases, and I also have an understanding of politics.”

Monahan has alleged that there is a video of the incident between her and Ellison, and her son has claimed that he has seen it. Ellison has insisted that no such video exists and has denied any such physical encounter.

Parker said that Monahan did not know of his long-standing relationship with Ellison’s opponent. “I can tell you for sure she did not — she didn’t know I had any relationship with Doug Wardlow nor did she have any contact with Wardlow, or the Wardlow campaign,” he said.

When asked if she was paying for his legal services, Parker said, “I don’t want to get into it, I don’t believe it’s a relevant question.”

Parker and Wardlow’s close relationship goes far back. Wardlow, who is 40, spent nearly half his legal career working at Parker’s previous law firm, Parker Rosen LLC.

Parker is also a conservative political commentator who has previously expressed strong support for Wardlow’s candidacy. Parker hosts a right-wing radio show and podcast on a Minnesota AM talk radio station. He advertises a link to his podcast on the front page of his law firm’s website.

Parker’s show included discussion of the allegations against Ellison as recently as September 30, in which he compared Monahan’s claims to those made against Kavanaugh.

In December 2017, Parker invited Wardlow on his show to talk about his attorney general candidacy. At that point in the race, it was all but certain that Wardlow would be the Republican nominee. On the show, Parker called Wardlow “a good friend of mine” and “an outstanding lawyer, one of the most creative lawyers that I have ever worked with.”

Parker and Wardlow discussed the importance of Republicans seizing the attorney general’s seat in November, an office that has been controlled by Democrats for the last 47 years.

“You make sure when you get to the ballot box in November that you take close watch of the attorney general race, and cast your vote on the Republican side of the ticket,” Parker told his audience.

Wardlow and Parker discussed the importance of electing a Republican attorney general to help bolster the policy priorities of what they hope would also be a Republican governor. (Minnesota Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is terming out of office, and in November, Republican candidate Jeff Johnson is facing off against Tim Walz, a Democrat.)

“There’s no question that the attorney general position is one that is to protect and defend the laws as written, but in addition, it is an arm to support policy, and with a Republican governor, I think it is important that we have an attorney general that can support the governor’s policies,” said Parker.

On Tuesday, in a Star-Tribune story about whether Wardlow would be able to set aside his partisan past if elected attorney general, Parker was quoted describing Wardlow as a prolific writer with an “outstanding analytical ability.” He added that he was confident Wardlow could keep his politics out of the attorney general’s office.

When asked if he had done any campaigning for Wardlow, Parker told The Intercept no. “To date, I have not. I may in the future, knowing a lot more about Keith Ellison than I did before,” he said, referring to new information provided by Monahan.

Monahan, Ellison’s former partner, had spent much of the last year hinting on social media of abuse by Ellison, and the existence of those potential allegations was well-known in Minnesota political circles. But Monahan’s allegations exploded into the national media in early August, when her son detailed his mother’s experience in a lengthy Facebook post. The son alleged he had discovered a video on his mother’s computer of Ellison’s physical abuse, specifically dragging her off a bed, and said he was bringing the allegations forward despite his mother’s reluctance to do so. (Monahan has since clarified that Ellison attempted to drag her off the bed, knocked off her shoe in the process, but did not ultimately drag her off.) Monahan and her son also made allegations that Ellison had engaged in emotional abuse, frequently terming it “narcissist abuse.”

It’s the alleged video that has become the lynchpin of the subsequent political debate. Monahan, who referenced the video in tweets prior to her son’s allegations, has thus far refused to share it publicly or with media outlets hoping to corroborate the story, sometimes citing changing reasons.

On Monday, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party released what it called an independent investigation into Monahan’s allegations, led by an attorney from a local Democratic-leaning law firm, Lockridge Grindal Nauen. Employees and owners of the firm have donated nearly $50,000 to Keith Ellison’s campaigns since 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Their investigation, which was conducted over the past several weeks, concluded that Monahan’s claims of physical abuse could not be substantiated because she refused to share the video footage. (Parker told The Intercept that while he disputes their conclusions, the investigation was conducted by “a very good law firm” and he would “never impugn them.” He added that he knows the investigating attorney, Susan Ellingstad, personally and likes her.)

On Tuesday, the DFL announced it would turn over its investigation to local authorities for further probing. Last week Ellison also asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate the allegation. “I am innocent and eager to see this entire matter resolved,” he said.

Doug Wardlow’s campaign immediately blasted the DFL’s investigation, calling it a “sham.” In a statement, Wardlow said:

Karen Monahan’s allegations are substantiated by documentary evidence and a witness. Ms. Monahan’s son Austin, has seen video evidence of Ellison’s physical abuse of Monahan, and he has also witnessed the traumatic effects that the abuse had on his mother. Ms. Monahan also released medical records that detail what she told her doctors about Keith Ellison’s abusive behavior.

It was in response to the investigation that the public learned Monahan had retained the legal services of Parker. In tweeting her reactions to the report, she referred media requests to him.

Parker told The Intercept that he has not seen the alleged video and does not know if anyone ever will.

“I don’t know if there would be such a circumstance where she would share it,” he said. “She is very uncomfortable with releasing it, she doesn’t think it’s a good idea to release it, in order to shift the national dialogue on the subject. You should not need the video.”

Parker said there was no difference between releasing a video publicly and showing it privately to a reporter or an investigator. “If you are a victim and you show it to anyone, that is a revictimization,” he said. “People who haven’t suffered this and who don’t know what is on the video may well think, Oh, what’s the big deal showing it to one other person? But I suggest to them, how dare they put themselves in her position in that regard.”

Modern Monetary Theory Grapples With People Actually Paying Attention To It

Originally published in The Intercept on October 2nd, 2018.
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When Donald Trump signed a huge corporate and upper-income tax cut into law in December, it seemed like there was one small bright spot. With the GOP-backed bill projected to increase the national deficit by $1.9 trillion over the first decade, at the very least the Democrats could finally quit saying that an increase to the national debt — the vice that trapped so much progressive legislation — was per se political suicide.

In fact, as many Democrats reckoned at the time, if they reclaimed power, they could then repeal those Republican tax cuts and redirect the revenue to new social programs.

But this month, despite the sky decidedly not falling from the Trump tax cuts, Nancy Pelosi confirmed her intent to bringing back the “pay-go” rule, which requires all new spending to be offset with budget cuts or tax hikes. Pelosi first instituted the rule in 2007, effectively barring Congress from taking up progressive legislation that would increase the national debt.

This stark contrast between Republicans and Democrats was front-and-center at the second annual Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) conference, held last weekend at the New School in New York City. The MMT movement, started in the 1990s by a few heterodox economists, has since grown into a vocal and eclectic mix of academics and activists, trying to change the way we think about government spending.

In a nutshell: MMT proponents believe that the government can safely spend far more money than it currently does, and increasing the federal deficit is not a bad thing in and of itself — a public deficit is also a private-sector surplus, after all.

While typically we hear rhetoric that our political leaders must first “find” money through new taxes or budget cuts in order to pay for new programs, MMT proponents say that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how money works. In so-called fiat currency systems (meaning societies in which money isn’t backed by physically valuable commodities like gold or silver) governments literally create the money and tax it later to control for inflation and keep it in demand.

Inflation is still a risk, MMT advocates say, but it’s a much more remote risk than mainstream economists let on, and it’s one that can be addressed down the line if it arises, without so much pre-emptive austerity.

The first MMT conference was held a year ago at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where Stephanie Kelton, one of the movement’s top economists, then worked. Kelton most famously served as the chief economic adviser for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, and before that as the chief economist on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, which was Sanders’s domain. (She now teaches at Stony Brook University in New York.)

About 250 people registered for that first conference, compared to this year’s more than 430. The attendees, while hailing from diverse disciplines, were overwhelmingly white and male — something Lua Kamal Yuille, a law professor and one of the few African-American conference speakers, pointedly criticized during her panel remarks.

On Friday, Kelton gave a presentation titled “Mainstreaming MMT,” assessing how effective the movement has been in getting its ideas out to the public.

By many measures, they’re doing quite a good job. Just last week, NPR’s Planet Money featured a podcast episode on MMT, and Bloomberg ran a story titled: “Trillion-Dollar Deficit? Whatever, Says New Consensus.” Kelton recently appeared on Jon Favreau’s popular liberal podcast, The Wilderness, and in the past year-and-a half, there’s been other deep dives into MMT in The Nation, the Huffington Post, and VICE.

“First they don’t want to hear you,” said Kelton to her rapturous audience. “Then they ridicule you, then they attack you, and then you win.”

While Kelton acknowledged the growing attention she and her colleagues have been receiving from mainstream outlets, she spent much of her public remarks focused on how their ideas are still unfairly cast by policymakers and the media. Paul Krugman, the New York Times economist, was a top target of Kelton’s frustration. In 2011, he blogged several critical posts about MMT, including to say that its adherents believe “deficits never matter.”

“This became the way that many people, probably a million or more, were introduced to MMT for the first time,” said Kelton. She also pointed toVICE’s recent headline, “The Radical Theory That the Government Has Unlimited Money” as an example of being misrepresented as more extremist than they are.

Still, MMT advocates struggled to decide just how they would frame their own movement. Were they radical or mainstream? Fringe or conventional? Rohan Grey, the conference’s head convener and president of the student-driven Modern Money Network, told The Intercept that they worked hard to “make sure there were different disciplines represented at the conference, so this isn’t seen as just a bunch of heterodox economists.”

The appeal of MMT is likely to grow, as the Democratic Party embraces new, ambitious, and expensive ideas like “Medicare for All” and free college. While some progressive leaders have called for paying for new social programs through cuts to the military or increased taxes on Wall Street, the so-called deficit owls in the MMT movement are encouraging leaders to worry less about how exactly they’ll finance their goals.

The GOP, for its part, certainly isn’t fretting much about offsets. On top of their trillion-dollar tax cut, Congress voted this summer for an $82 billion increase in military spending. House Republicans also introduced a bill calling for a $5 billion wall at the Mexico border, and last week they voted on a new round of tax cuts, to permanently extend the ones that would otherwise expire in a decade.

When Republicans vote for all this new debt-spending, conservative economists barely make a peep, said Eileen Applebaum, co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. After the December tax bill, “there were some grumblings, but no real conservative outcry,” she said. “It’s amazing. But if the Supreme Court can be so politicized, why not the economics profession?”

Applebaum was among those who attended the MMT conference; she calls herself a “fellow traveler” rather than an explicit adherent. She credits MMT with communicating important ideas about deficits, inflation, and monetary policy more clearly than earlier generations of sympathetic economists have been able to.

Several panels at the MMT conference were devoted to the so-called job guarantee, a policy idea that would make the state an “employer of last resort” for anyone able and willing to work, but can’t find a job. The idea of a right-to-a-job has long historical roots, though MMT advocates say Democratic leaders abandoned these political commitments over time in favor of an economic paradigm that treats a permanently unemployed class of people as acceptable, if not desirable. This idea, referred to as the “non-accelerating rate of unemployment,” or NAIRU — essentially suggests that there’s a level of unemployment, often set around 5.5 percent, that is useful to society because it helps keep inflation — by which is meant wages— down.

“The NAIRU is a central component for most macroeconomic theories that have been used by central banks around the world, and it’s a political, technical, and moral excuse to not try and hire that last 5 percent,” said Grey. “What it actually does is keep a reserve army of unemployed people who effectively discipline the rest of the employed. If you piss off your boss, if you get too uppity, you could fall over into the abyss.”

The job guarantee has attracted some high-profile attention over the last year. In 2017, the Center for American Progress released a job guarantee proposal, something it calls a “Marshall Plan for America.” The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities followed up with its own report on designing a federal job guarantee this spring, and new polling from Data for Progress and Civis Analytics found that 52 percent of those surveyed backed the idea of guaranteeing “a job to every American adult, with the government providing jobs for people who can’t find employment in the private sector,” paid for “by a 5 percent income tax increase on those making over $200,000 per year.”

Potential Democratic presidential candidates have also elevated the idea. In March, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., told The Nation she supports a federal job guarantee, followed by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., putting out a bill in April to pilot a federal jobs guarantee over three years. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., quickly followed suit with his own federal jobs guarantee proposal, as did Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.

Not all left-leaning policy wonks are on board with the job guarantee. Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project, a socialist think tank, argues that it amounts to little more than conservative work requirements by another name, and that the short-term, low-skilled jobs provided by the federal government will inevitably be stigmatized like TANF workfare programs were. (Job guarantee advocates strongly dispute this.)

Looking ahead, MMT advocates hope to grow their movement through grassroots organizing. One example they pointed to was Fed Up, a national campaign launched in 2015, whereby low-income workers and union members pressured the Federal Reserve to not hike interest rates, a rare instance of popular pressure being applied to monetary policy. Fed Up made the case that there was no inflation pressure forcing them to raise rates and that doing so would suppress their already low wages.

“What’s next is we have to plug the gaps, we have to answer the harder questions like designing legislation,” said Grey. “We need to make sure that our grassroots movement is on board with the message and framing, that we’re creating the right allies.”

A year ago, Grey said, MMT supporters were in a far different position. “No disrespect to anything before, but we have just been growing, the cavalry support is starting to arrive,” he said. “There was a period when there were five people who understood this stuff, then 10 and 15, and then there were thousands, but they were all across the world and online, and now suddenly you have other organizations and institutions willing to sign on board and talk about it, and it’s got its own center of gravity now.”

Grey knows assembling a mass of enthusiasm is not enough. “Now the trick is to turn that into something that spins like a planet, and put houses on it, and populate it with people,” he said. “The thing we’ve got to do next is go from having the right ideas and being recognized for that, to actually putting them in action.”

Taking Back the Suburbs: The Fair Housing Act at Fifty

Published originally in Dissent magazine’s fall 2018 issue.
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Though many Americans still picture a “suburb” as an all-white enclave with big houses bordered by white picket fences, suburbs today look quite different from the 1950s stereotype. Most suburbs are racially diverse, and even increasingly impoverished. While 78 percent of suburban census tracts were predominantly white in 1980, over the next four decades, that figure dropped to 42 percent. By 2010, a majority of suburbanites lived in communities where at least every fifth resident was a person of color, making racial diversity a daily reality.

In other words, the city-suburb dichotomy that has defined American politics for decades is breaking down. Today, most places described as suburbs look, in the eyes of many Americans, distinctly “urban,” while the picket-fence variety is a shrinking minority. This is partly a factor of what urban historians have called the “great inversion”: as the white and affluent have returned to cities over the last two decades, along with unprecedented amounts of real-estate finance, working-class residents, largely of color, have been pushed further and further beyond city limits. It’s now impossible to engage lower-income Americans politically—or, for that matter, a majority of the nation’s people of color—without reaching far into suburbia.

Nevertheless, political battles, at least rhetorically, continue to be fought along familiar geographic lines. Somehow, America’s cities have changed and the political world has barely noticed.

But this state of affairs can’t go on forever. Either old living patterns will reassert themselves, or new political coalitions will be forged, taking advantage of modern political topography. The former would almost certainly benefit the right; the latter, the left.

Which way things go may end up depending on the survival and enforcement of the Fair Housing Act—the very law that so dramatically changed the American metropolitan landscape in the first place.

 

The Fair Housing Act emerged in a fraught political moment. In 1967, riots erupted in dozens of cities across the country, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to establish an eleven-member team to investigate the uprisings. The Kerner Commission (named for its chair, Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. of Illinois) released its findings in February of 1968, and pointed to racial segregation as the origin of the unrest. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” the report famously concluded.

That same month, Democratic Senator Walter Mondale and Republican Senator Edward Brooke—the lone black member of the Senate—introduced the Fair Housing Act, a law to address housing discrimination and segregation. The political opposition to fair housing legislation was severe: critics had long argued that making it easier for black families to move into all-white neighborhoods would weaken the property rights of homeowners and represent “reverse discrimination.” But as Martin Luther King, Jr. campaigned for “open housing” and dismantling the nation’s ghettos, political pressure continued to grow.

Congressional gridlock was broken by tragedy on April 4, 1968, when King was shot in Memphis. A whirlwind of events followed—intense anger and rioting, especially in Washington, D.C., increased pressure for Congress to respond, and the Fair Housing Act (technically, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) was signed into law by President Johnson within a week. While the Civil Rights Act of 1866—the first federal statute to affirm all citizens are equally protected under the law—offered individuals the right to challenge discriminatory practices in housing, that statute placed a disproportionate burden on victims to enforce their own rights, ultimately rendering those protections all but useless. It proved too onerous for most people of color to sue white landowners, and the law was used only a handful of times over its first hundred years.

By contrast, over the last five decades, hundreds of thousands of lawsuits and complaints have been filed under the Fair Housing Act, according to Wade Henderson, the former president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Unlike its Reconstruction-era counterpart, the Fair Housing Act places the onus of enforcement on the federal government, authorizing the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Justice to carry out the law. While an administration hostile to civil rights can always find ways to shirk its legal duties, enforcement is carried out by career staffers, not political appointees, and has continued apace since the law’s enactment fifty years ago.

The Fair Housing Act has two mandates: to combat discrimination in housing and to “affirmatively further” integration. For the law’s drafters, these two goals went hand in hand. “The law was informed by the history of segregation, in which individual discrimination was a manifestation of a wider societal rift,” Mondale wrote this year in the New York Times.

Since its passing, the law’s mandate has steadily grown more expansive. Today it covers seven classes of discrimination: race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and families with children. In 1988 Congress also bolstered the law’s enforcement mechanisms and beefed up the penalties that come with violating it. While the Act has always been controversial, and remains contested today, public opinion has also shifted over time. According to the General Social Survey administered by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the proportion of white respondents favoring laws banning housing discrimination rose from 37 percent in 1972 to 69 percent in 2008.

And yet enforcement of the law’s second mandate—to integrate neighborhoods—has always been sporadic at best. During Barack Obama’s second term, his administration took several important steps toward fulfilling the Act’s original promise. But then Trump was elected.

 

The surprise ascendance of Donald J. Trump to the White House spooked housing and civil rights advocates across the nation. While working as a real-estate developer in the 1970s, Trump was sued in one of the largest cases ever brought by the federal government for housing discrimination against African Americans. (He dismissed the allegations as “absolutely ridiculous.”) Over the last year and a half, Trump’s housing secretary Ben Carson has launched attacks on federal programs to promote integration and low-income housing, while the president has moved aggressively to deregulate both the housing and financial sectors.

The Trump administration has launched three distinct attacks on fair housing.

The first came last summer, when HUD took aim at a rule for the Section 8 rental voucher program. Known as the Small Area Fair-Market Rent rule, it had been developed after years of advocacy, research, and public debate, and was set to take effect at the start of 2018. But in August of 2017, Carson’s HUD announced it would be delaying implementation for two years. (HUD claimed they weren’t abandoning the rule, just postponing it for the sake of further study.)

The Small Area Fair-Market Rent rule is a seemingly small change with potentially huge effects. It requires local public-housing authorities to calculate their rent subsidies at a neighborhood level, rather than a citywide one. In effect, this increases the spending power of Section 8 vouchers across all of a city’s neighborhoods, allowing recipients to move more easily to affluent ones. Vouchers have become the predominant form of rental subsidy in the United States, even though three-quarters of those who qualify receive no assistance. But those who do manage to obtain one have generally lacked the ability to move out of poor areas because their subsidy doesn’t go far enough. This in turn has allowed landlords in impoverished communities to price-gouge their voucher-holding tenants who lack bargaining power, by setting rents at the maximum level the feds will allow. The Small Area Fair-Market Rent policy was successfully piloted in Dallas and a 2014 study of that pilot found it imposed no-net cost on government spending.

Industry groups like the National Association of Home Builders and the National Apartment Association oppose the Small Area Fair-Market Rent rule, and helped pressure Ben Carson to rescind it. But in October 2017, a coalition of civil rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, sued the Trump administration, taking HUD and its secretary to task for improperly pulling the rule. The civil rights groups accused the feds of violating the statute that dictates how federal agencies can propose and implement regulations. In early December HUD argued in court filings that it had broad powers to delay the rule, but a U.S. District Court judge rejected their arguments. The Trump administration lost, and the rule is now in effect.

The second attack came one month later, in January, when HUD announced that it would be suspending a different rule crafted to reduce housing segregation. This rule, finalized in 2015, is known as the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, or AFFH. It was a long-awaited measure to define exactly what the Fair Housing Act meant when it required authorities to “affirmatively further” housing equality. While communities that receive federal housing dollars have for decades had to certify that they were working to reduce government-sponsored segregation, HUD did little to ensure that real action was being taken.

Federal authorities acknowledged this problem at least as early as 2008, when a national commission on fair housing concluded that HUD requires “no evidence that anything is actually being done as a condition of funding,” and that municipalities that actively discriminate or fail to promote integration go unpunished. This was echoed by a Government Accountability Office report in 2010, which found that communities were failing to comply with federal fair housing mandates and that HUD was failing to enforce those rules. The AFFH rule emerged out of deliberations held over the next five years, ultimately giving communities more tools to carry out their fair housing obligations, and strengthening HUD’s enforcement mechanisms for oversight. It was a major victory for civil rights groups—and faced a corresponding backlash from conservatives and some local governments. Stanley Kurtz of the National Review called it “easily one of President Obama’s most radical initiatives,” one that “gives the federal government a lever to re-engineer nearly every American neighborhood.” Right-wing news outlets and talking heads, from Rush Limbaugh to Breitbart, picked up Kurtz’s claims and railed against Obama’s “war on the suburbs.” It didn’t matter that the white-picket suburbs of their imaginations had been disappearing since long before Obama took office.

So supporters of AFFH were dismayed, if not surprised, when the Trump administration announced at the start of 2018 that it would be suspending the rule. Before Ben Carson joined HUD, he had joined in the chorus of conservative opposition, publishing an op-ed saying he considered the rule like other “failed socialist experiments of the 1980s”—a reference to busing school children for desegregation. He argued that the AFFH rule relied on a “tortured reading of the Fair Housing laws” and likened it to “mandated social-engineering schemes.” After he joined the federal government, Carson claimed that he “believe[s] in fair housing” but not in “extra manipulation and cost,” and so intended to “reinterpret” the AFFH rule. In the federal government, this idea has an ideological lineage that can be traced back to Richard Nixon, who caveated his opposition to legal segregation by saying he found the “forced integration of housing or education” to be “just as wrong.”

Four months after HUD announced it would be suspending the AFFH rule, a coalition of civil rights groups filed suit. The plaintiffs charged HUD with ending oversight and reducing support for AFFH implementation, effectively sabotaging its own rule’s success. HUD responded by quickly reinstating the rule, and instead withdrew a crucial assessment tool used for implementing AFFH. The plaintiffs amended their complaint to say this was effectively the same problem, and still illegal. But this time HUD’s legal maneuvering proved successful, with a federal judge ruling in August that HUD was in its rights to withdraw the assessment tool. Civil rights groups decried the decision, and HUD is now considering revamping the AFFH rule altogether.

Lastly, this past June, the Trump administration issued a notice in the Federal Register announcing that it plans to revisit its rule around “disparate impact” housing discrimination, meaning discrimination that happens regardless of whether a policy was designed with the intent to discriminate. This disparate impact rule was finalized in 2013, and places a ban on any “facially neutral practice that has a discriminatory effect.” The insurance industry, many banks, and some state housing agencies have long opposed this prohibition, and advocates worry that this notice signals HUD’s renewed intent to weaken it. “We all know it’s a shot across the bow,” says Sasha Samberg-Champion, a civil rights attorney who has been involved in both lawsuits against HUD in the Trump era. The administration points to a 2015 Supreme Court decision that upheld the disparate-impact standard as a justification to revisit their 2013 rule. While civil rights groups are rightly wary of HUD’s thin rationale for reopening the disparate-impact rule to public comment, for now they can only stand by to see what develops.

 

Despite the administration’s attacks, civil rights leaders remain cautiously optimistic about the future of fair housing. Spurred by a changing policy landscape and creative litigation, momentum is building to not only save but strengthen the 1968 Act.

For years scholars debated among themselves whether it was even worth trying to integrate American neighborhoods, given the scant social-science evidence to support it. But over the last few years a flurry of research has emerged that has helped shift the political conversation more clearly in the direction of promoting integrated communities.

In 2015, a team of Harvard economists released a study on the long-term impacts of Moving to Opportunity, or MTO. MTO was a housing experiment that ran from 1994 to 1998, and involved moving individuals voluntarily from high-poverty neighborhoods into ones with less than 10 percent poverty. The goal was to see if this would improve their life outcomes. While MTO had long been considered a failure, having not significantly improved children’s school performance or the financial circumstances of their parents, the Harvard researchers found that children who moved were more likely to attend college and earned significantly more as adults than children who never moved. A year later an economist at the University of Michigan published a study that found children who were involuntarily displaced in the 1990s because their public housing projects were demolished wound up living in safer and less impoverished neighborhoods, and consequently earned more as adults compared to children who never moved out of the projects. The researcher suggested the differences could be explained in part by the fact that the displaced children had fewer criminal arrests and were exposed to less violence growing up than their non-displaced peers.

Other new research has focused on the increase in neighborhoods with concentrations of poverty. One academic documented a steep increase in the number of high-poverty neighborhoods, with the number of people living in them almost doubling from 7.2 million in 2000 to 13.8 million by 2015. Another researcher found there’s been a 20 percent increase in neighborhood segregation by income across the country between 1990 and 2010.

While activists and policymakers have not abandoned their efforts to revitalize low-income, segregated neighborhoods, the growing body of evidence about the harms of concentrated poverty has bolstered the renewed momentum around integration.

Even as efforts to strengthen the Fair Housing Act’s primary mandate are pushing ahead, creative lawsuits are expanding the boundaries of what’s understood as fair housing.

Consider the environment. While the Fair Housing Act has traditionally been focused on discrimination by housing providers, some have started to ask whether government policy that negatively impacts the housing of protected classes should also be considered a violation of the Fair Housing Act. Jesus Hernandez, a lecturer at the University of California, Davis, points to the Flint water crisis as an example: in Flint, drinking water became poisoned precisely because the city’s leadership decided to switch from treated water supplied from Detroit to a local water source long known to be contaminated. Fifty-four percent of Flint’s residents are black, meaning the Flint water crisis disproportionately impacted the drinking water of African Americans. This also means it may be possible to show there was disparate discrimination against a protected class. More intentionally pursuing the links between housing, race, and environmental policies could open space for a new wave of civil rights activism.

Or take criminal justice. Many landlords impose blanket bans against tenants with criminal records, bans which impact not just individuals reentering society, but their family members too. In recent years lawyers have been studying how the Fair Housing Act could be used as a tool to challenge the housing discrimination faced by the hundreds of thousands of people released from prison annually, a population that’s disproportionately male, black, and Hispanic. An ongoing lawsuit filed in 2014 is putting this theory to the test in New York City.

Similarly, advocates have started to explore how the Fair Housing Act could be used to challenge so-called “chronic nuisance ordinances”—which have been found to lead to the eviction of families, especially in low-income, segregated neighborhoods. These laws penalize tenants and landlords if the police are called too many times to come to the premises. The first fair housing challenge to one of these ordinances came in March 2017 out in Missouri. “Maplewood’s chronic nuisance ordinance has the purpose and effect of making housing unavailable based on race, sex, and disability and it fails to further any legitimate purpose,” the complaint reads. “In particular, rather than making communities safer, it makes them less safe by discouraging crime victims and other residents from contacting the police or availing themselves of other emergency services such as ambulances.” The lawsuit is still making its way through federal court.

 

If the drafters of the Fair Housing Act made one mistake, Walter Mondale wrote this year in the Times, it was in their “excessive optimism about how easily a segregated society could be unified.” Today’s civil rights activists have long been disabused of any such illusions. But in their ongoing efforts to create a more integrated America, the Act remains a vital foundation.

Despite fifty years of extraordinary political challenges, it has proven instrumental in transforming American cities. It has turned many of the country’s suburbs from lily-white enclaves into multiracial communities where people of different races do live, work, and go to school together. Even where they persist, discriminatory practices that were once openly sanctioned by the federal government must now be carried out behind a veil of secrecy.

This is not to say, of course, that the law itself has never stumbled. Fair housing enforcement has often been weak, and interest groups that benefit from the status quo have consistently opposed attempts to implement the Act’s boldest components, like the “affirmatively furthering” rule and its mandate to integrate the suburbs. Altering American communities would threaten many who benefit from things remaining the way they are, including those hoarding wealth in the remaining white enclaves and even developers long accustomed to building affordable housing, conveyer-belt-style, in poor, segregated areas.

Still, the Fair Housing Act’s mandates have proven resilient against the Trump administration’s attacks, and efforts to deliver on the law’s promise continue to push forward. Despite new threats, there is good reason to believe that the Fair Housing Act could emerge from the current political turbulence even stronger.

Ultimately, that would transform much more than just housing—or even the neighborhoods, schools, and communities around it. Integrating U.S. cities and suburbs could reshape the wider political landscape—opening up new places to organize, creating new, multiracial polities amenable to progressive ideas, and building a United States in which progressive groups are not confined to dense, urban quarters and pitted against a mass of white suburbanites. In the America envisioned by the Fair Housing Act, the left can build power anywhere. Time will tell if its vision can be made reality.