How Morgan Harper’s Ohio Primary Challenge Explains The House Democratic Meltdown

Originally published in The Intercept on July 16, 2019, with Ryan Grim.
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WHEN MEMBERS OF the Congressional Black Caucus took aim last week at New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the organization that boosted her primary campaign, Justice Democrats, there was no mystery as to the motive: It’s about the primaries.

Senior members of the CBC who have served in Congress for decades are suddenly facing challenges, or looking over their shoulders at one, disrupting the smooth, biennial tradition of effectively unopposed reelections.

On Friday morning, The Hill published a story quoting multiple members of the CBC, and anonymous staffers, accusing Justice Democrats of targeting members of color up for reelection.

That was followed Friday night with a controversial tweet blasting Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, a co-founder of Justice Democrats. The tweet was sent from the account controlled by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who replaced his mentor, the ousted Joe Crowley, as chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Jeffries, a CBC member, has been the subject of a reported primary effort by Justice Democrats, but no one has yet to materialize (and the group denies it was recruiting anyone).

It capped off a week in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi singled out Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley for criticism in an interview with New York Times opinion columnist Maureen Dowd, and followed it with a condemnation of Chakrabarti in a private caucus-wide meeting. Over the weekend, Democratic leaders leaked polling numbers purporting to show that Ocasio-Cortez and Omar were deeply unpopular with white, non-college-educated voters and putting the House majority at risk.

If Pelosi’s goal was to diminish the Squad and elevate the rest of her caucus, it backfired. President Donald Trump picked up on the poll, and Pelosi’s criticism, and suggested the four members of Congress all “go back” to a different country. “I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!” he tweeted.

Party leaders who won back the House on a pledge to resist Trump are instead feeding him ammo to fire at members of their own party. The strange behavior is only explicable in the context of deep anxiety around the vulnerability of incumbency. To get a sense of just why incumbent Democrats are lashing out so wildly, the case of Columbus, Ohio, is instructive.

DURING THE 2010 tea party wave, Republicans won what was then a swing seat from freshman Democratic Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy. Republicans then gerrymandered the state, packing as many Democrats as they could into Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes most of Columbus, and giving the Republican incumbent a new, safer seat. Kilroy and Joyce Beatty both ran in the redrawn 3rd District in 2012, with Beatty coming out ahead in the primary, with 38 percent of the vote to Kilroy’s 35. She went on to easily win the general election.

Though it’s a safely Democratic district, Beatty, who is a member of the CBC, became a fast ally of the banking industry after winning a seat on the House Financial Services Committee — known as a “cash committee” for its ability to raise corporate PAC money for its members. So far this cycle, the industries that make up her top five donors are insurance companies, commercial banks, real estate, securities and investments, and finance/credit companies, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. She’s taken more than $2 million in corporate PAC money over her four terms.

Beatty’s funding is part of a K Street strategy that exploits the large wealth gap persisting in many majority- or plurality-black districts — a gap that makes it much harder for CBC members to raise from wealthy donors the kind of money needed to safely stay in Congress. That, in turn, makes corporate PAC money attractive to fill the gap. CBC members privately bristle when Democrats from wealthy districts announce pledges to forswear corporate PAC money, but still fill their coffers with max-out checks from local millionaires and billionaires in San Francisco or Seattle.

By the old rules of Democratic Party politics, Beatty has done everything right. She got into Ohio politics in 1999, taking over her husband’s seat in the state House, and steadily rose through the machine, becoming the first female Democratic House leader in the state’s history. During that time, the Ohio Democratic Party largely collapsed, with the state moving from purple to red, but Beatty continued to rise, becoming a top official at Ohio State University, and by the time she’d arrived in the U.S. House, her seat appeared to be hers for life.

But now Beatty, who is 69, is facing a primary challenge from Morgan Harper, a 36-year-old progressive who leapfrogged the usual path to a seat, threatening the fragile machinery constructed in Ohio to guide and constrain party politics. If the elected official toward the top of the ladder isn’t safe, all of a sudden the lower rungs start to seem less reliable. If the party machinery and its business allies can’t deliver a House seat to a loyal politician who has paid her dues, the rationale for the machine itself begins to evaporate.

Harper is running on her own, without any assistance from Justice Democrats or other national progressive groups. But back in Washington, incumbent Democrats privately suspect that Justice Democrats and Ocasio-Cortez are behind it.

THE CHALLENGER IS a dangerous one for the machine. Born in Columbus, Harper spent her first nine months in foster care. She was eventually adopted and grew up in Berwick, a predominantly working-class, black Columbus neighborhood, and received financial aid to attend a local private school. Harper, who is black, would write later she “developed an intense commitment to fighting inequality after seeing how opportunities open up, no matter your upbringing, once you’re equipped with resources.”

She left Ohio for college: With more financial aid, she went to Tufts, then attended Princeton for a master’s in public affairs and Stanford for law school. She went on to become a senior official at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose first permanent head, Richard Cordray, is a protege of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and lost a bid for Ohio governor in 2018. Harper left the CFPB in February 2017 to take a job with Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national community development financial institution. This past December, she moved back home to Columbus.

She launched her campaign on July 1, her birthday, with a progressive platform that includes universal child care, tuition-free public college, Medicare for All, reparations, affordable housing, and a Green New Deal. Her website says she “care[s] about nothing more than ending economic segregation” and she’s “convinced we need a new generation of bold leadership in Congress” to ensure her story is not an anomaly.

Harper said that her platform is driven by her experiences as a child in Columbus. “When you have experiences early in life when you see how much your parents are stressed for money, juggling bills, it doesn’t really leave you,” she said.

“It’s hard to ever feel like you’re all good when it’s a single parent who’s a public school teacher and there’s two kids involved,” she said of her mother, who raised her and her brother. “But my mom worked very hard with that income to try to make opportunity for us and sacrificed quite a bit, prioritizing education so that we could get scholarships, but also she could contribute to send us to private school.”

Harper wasn’t recruited by local or national groups, and while her campaign has reached out to Justice Democrats, no decision on an endorsement has been made. Other local progressive groups like Yes We Can: Columbus Working Families and Democratic Socialists of America haven’t endorsed Harper, though are considering it.

Tammy Alsaada, a top organizer with the Columbus-based People’s Justice Project, said that when Harper announced, political figures from around the city called to see what they could find out. “This was really surprising to a lot of folks,” she said. “I’ve been getting a lot of calls from folks saying, ‘Did I know this was happening?’”

Alsaada said that one of the group’s co-founders, Aramis Sundiata, was supporting the Harper campaign, but that she herself was taking a wait-and-see attitude and planned to meet with her soon. Neither Beatty nor Harper have been outspoken yet on policing, she said, which, along with community investment, is the issue she hears about most from the public.

Beatty, Alsaada added, has deep connections in the community, while Harper has been away and is largely unknown. “She’s very young, very new, and a lot of people don’t know her. … That’s gonna be something she’s gonna have to overcome. This district is a district of relationships that are long established,” Alsaada said. “Joyce has supported a lot of things in our community and built lots of strong relationships.”

But, Alsaada continued, things are in flux, and Columbus could be open to somebody new who’s willing to fight. “Joyce Beatty is from this community; I have to say, personally, that she has been a person in the community that’s been respected, but we need people who will take a bold stand,” she said. “You can’t count on folks to blindly vote party line.”

THE FRANKLIN COUNTY Democratic Party, which overlaps with the 3rd Congressional District, has been chilly to progressive challengers in the past. In 2017, when a slate of candidates aligned with the Working Families Party ran for City Council and school board, Jen House, the chair of the county party’s endorsement process, told the Columbus Dispatch the candidates were trying to undermine the work of the local party. She later expressed frustration to The Intercept at those “who call themselves Democrats standing out there and refusing to acknowledge” the positive work Democrats are achieving. She added that “being constantly negative” contributes to an attitude, prevalent in Columbus and throughout Ohio, that government can’t succeed.

That lefty uprising fell far short of its goals, with incumbents easily reclaiming their seats and progressive challengers attributing their losses to lack of funding. “The incumbents raised over a million dollars for this race,” a spokesperson for the Yes We Can slate said in the days following the election. “We were outspent 10-to-1. And yet we still garnered tens of thousands of votes across the city.”

But the progressive movement in Columbus has grown stronger over the last two years. Yes We Can continued to build its base and the Columbus DSA chapter significantly grew its membership, now claiming a much more robust electoral organizing component. The Columbus teachers union, under new leadership, has also been taking more vocal, progressive stances and recently threatened a strike. In 2017, the union took a vote of “no confidence” in the city’s seven-person Democratic school board.

During the 2016 primaries, Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders in the district, 60,000 to 44,000. Beatty ran unopposed, and only about 80,000 people bothered to fill in her bubble. The March 10, 2020, primary is a ripe opportunity for Harper, given the stakes of the presidential contest; presuming Sanders and Warren are still in the race, progressive turnout could be especially high.

The Harper campaign believes it can win by turning out 100,000 voters — which would be a significant increase in the number of votes cast in the district — through a volunteer-fueled ground game. Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District is more than one-third African American. As Harper recently noted, the median age in the district is 32, with many people moving into the city from other places. Already around 200 people have signed up to volunteer, and the local press has been closely following the campaign: a break from the traditional media blackout that often greets primary challengers in other districts. “We’re getting a lot more coverage of it than we expected,” Harper told The Intercept.

The coverage is driven partly by an unexpected shake-up to what was to be a sleepy congressional primary and Harper’s compelling life story. But the attention is also likely related to her ability to operate fluently in elite spaces, something an insurgent like Ocasio-Cortez, who was a full-time bartender, initially lacked. Harper’s time at elite colleges and universities, as well as her successful career, coupled with her fiancé’s political background and his job with the Clinton-connected global consulting firm Teneo, gives her access to a universe of contributors that may help get a campaign off the ground fast, before a small-dollar network can be built. Where Ocasio-Cortez was on a shoestring budget until just weeks before the primary, Harper’s campaign expects to raise more than $250,000 this quarter.

The combination of her potential resources, connections, and progressive policy platform, which could activate a local grassroots army of support, makes Harper’s challenge highly credible. It also makes it all the more threatening to incumbents in Washington — not because it’s being driven by national agitators like Justice Democrats, but precisely because it isn’t.

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory has created a permission structure that Harper is relying on to launch her bid, but otherwise, she sees the opening, and she’s doing it herself. “No one put me up to this,” Harper said.

HARPER SAID THAT she sees elected officials like Pressley, Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and Tlaib as role models. “I most closely identify with the women who are pushing for the bold policies that we’re going to need to make sure people are OK, and we build a United States that works for everyone,” she said.

But, as Pelosi frequently notes, their numbers in the House are small. Expanding to a size where they can be more than a leadership punching bag will require bringing a dozen or two Morgan Harpers to Congress. They’ll have to fight the CBC to do it.

In 2018, when Pressley, D-Mass., now a Black Caucus member, ran against white Democrat with the endorsement of Justice Democrats, prominent CBC members got behind the white incumbent. Over the weekend, Pressley took what some saw as a veiled shot at the CBC while at Netroots Nation, a progressive political conference, telling aspiring candidates there that if they get to Washington, they need to be true to what brought them there:

I don’t want to bring a chair to an old table. This is the time to shake the table. This is the time to redefine that table. Because if you’re going to come to this table, all of you who have aspirations of running for office, if you’re not prepared to come to that table and represent that voice, don’t come, because we don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice. If you’re worried about being marginalized and stereotyped, please don’t even show up because we need you to represent that voice.

Omar, D-Minn., who was also supported in 2018 by Justice Democrats, distanced herself from the CBC’s recent attacks. “I have not seen a collective statement from the Congressional Black Caucus. As you’re aware, I’m a member,” she told The Intercept. “Individual members can and are free, I suppose, to share their opinions on how they feel about things, but that really is not in line with how I think about the statements [Ocasio-Cortez] has made. And I really think that this back and forth is a hindrance to the integrity of our caucus as we work to resist detrimental policies that are coming from this administration.”

She added that the House Democrats tweet targeting Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff was “bizarre.”

No matter how clear it is that Harper’s choice to run was all her own, some incumbents and local party leaders will see a nefarious national plot, another orchestrated attempt to knock out a veteran black lawmaker.

“It just seems strange that the social Democrats seem to be targeting members of the Congressional Black Caucus, individuals who have stood and fought to make sure that African Americans are included and part of this process,” Rep. Greg Meeks of New York, who replaced Crowley as chair of the Queens Democratic Party, told The Hill. (Meeks is facing a primary from first-time candidate Shaniyat Chowdhury.) Beatty was mentioned by CBC members in The Hill’s article last week as somebody Justice Democrats may target, along with Anthony Brown, D-Md., and Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y.

“I don’t know if Beatty is like a [Joe] Crowley in Washington but she’s certainly one of a handful of people who are a party boss in local politics,” a Columbus progressive told The Intercept. They suspect the reaction from establishment Ohio Democrats will be similar to the recent protests against primarying 10-term Rep. Lacy Clay, a CBC member from Missouri who was also challenged by a black woman, Cori Bush. Bush fell short in 2018 but is running again.

A spokesperson for Beatty did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment, and Michael Sexton, the executive committee chairman for the Franklin County Democratic Party, also did not return requests for comment about Harper’s candidacy.

In the meantime, Harper said she’s run up against some challenges already. ”It’s been tough to find a compliance firm,” she said, referring to the consultants who help campaigns file disclosure forms with the Federal Elections Commission. “People are nervous about being associated with a primary race. We had one and then we lost it.”

But she found a new firm and is plugging ahead. “This is a country that’s been based in competition,” she said, “in having open voices and people being able to express their opinions. To think that in our politics we wouldn’t give room for that, and space for that, to people who are trying to represent different perspectives — I don’t really understand it, and I think any attempt to try to suppress that is only going to backfire.”

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The Charter School Primary

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 15, 2019.
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When Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator running for president, released his wide-ranging education plan in mid-May, most of the media coverage focused on his proposals around charter schools. Commenters specifically focused on his calls to ban for-profit charters, which represent about 15 percent of the sector, and to halt federal funding for new charter schools until a national audit could assess the impact of charter growth in each state.

Many education policy experts suspect that such an audit would eventually lead to banning all new charters, but the Sanders campaign says they are just taking their cues from the NAACP. In 2016, the civil rights group called for a moratorium on new charters until existing ones were brought under the same transparency and accountability standards as traditional public schools.

Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, told The New York Times that his organization loves that Sanders’s plan adopts their language around charters. “If we have a problem with the delivery of our education system, you don’t create ancillary systems for some of the children and not address the comprehensive problem,” he said.

To fight back, many charter supporters have sought to cast Sanders as uniquely extreme on the issue, especially in his efforts to link charter schools with segregation. But it’s hard to target Sanders as extreme when the entire 2020 field has joined and even surpassed Sanders on the issue. The charter school movement’s complete loss of clout in the Democratic Party is one of the more surprising stories of the election cycle.

At the start of July, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released an open letter, imploring Sanders to withdraw his call for a moratorium and “back away from calls for additional regulations that are not in the best interests of schools or students.” The 244 signatories defended the results from charters, citing a 2015 report from the Center for Research on Academic Outcomes, and stressed that charters are in high-demand among families of color. “District-operated public schools have systemically failed students of color for generations,” they wrote.

While the letter didn’t specifically cite Sanders’s call to ban for-profit charters, the signatories included Fernando Zuleta, the president of the for-profit charter management company Academica, and seven board members of National Heritage Academies, another for-profit charter company that operates over 80 schools across nine states.

Sanders isn’t the first mainstream Democrat to criticize charter schools—while campaigning in 2016, Hillary Clinton came out against for-profit charters, as did the Democratic Party platform for the first time. Even many charter leaders, including the president of the Democrats for Education Reform, have condemned for-profit charter schools in recent years.

The pressure to ramp up the rhetoric against charters stems not only from a fierce competition to court teacher unions—an influential Democratic constituency long hostile to charters—but also due to dwindling support among white Democratic voters. According to polling from Education Next, 50 percent of white Democrats now oppose charters, and support among white Democrats fell from 43 to 27 percent between 2016 and 2018. By contrast, charter support among black and Hispanic Democrats remained steady over those two years, and more of both groups support charters than oppose them.

Similar results were found in a recent poll commissioned by Democrats for Education Reform. The group found that 58 percent of black Democrats are favorable towards charters, while 31 percent are opposed. Among Hispanic voters, 52 percent supported charters, while 30 percent opposed. But among white Democrats, 26 percent were favorable, and a whopping 62 percent were opposed.

The candidates’ critical positions seem to be responding in part to this new political landscape. And as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos remains a staunch champion for both school vouchers and charters, Democrats see distancing themselves from education reform as an easy way to contrast themselves with the deeply unpopular Trump administration.

Earlier this month, at a presidential forum hosted by the National Education Association (NEA), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio came out swinging against charters, which educate 10 percent of public school students in his city. While de Blasio has long been known as a charter school skeptic, and has battled with Eva Moskowitz, the leader of New York City’s largest charter network in the past, he also has sought to assure voters that he does not outright oppose charter schools, and can negotiate compromises with them.

At the forum he made clear he was no longer seeking such nuance or compromise. “I am angry about the privatizers,” he told the crowd. “I hate the privatizers and I want to stop them.” When asked a question about standardized testing, he responded, “Get away from high-stakes testing, get away from charter schools. No federal funding for charter schools.” His last point goes beyond what what Sanders has called for.

Meanwhile, Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state, released his education plan this month, which also called for an end of federal funding to new charter schools. He made no mention of a study or even a moratorium. Inslee also called for improvements in charter accountability and transparency, and bolstering diversity at existing charter schools.

Inslee has been critical of charters in his home state, where just a dozen currently operate. In 2012, when he first ran for governor, he opposed a ballot initiative to allow the creation of charters and in 2015 he emphasized that his position remained unchanged. “I opposed the initiative that created charter schools because I did not believe that public money belongs in schools that lack public oversight and accountability,” he said.

Hours after Sanders’s education plan was released, Elizabeth Warren told reporters that she agreed for-profit charters are “a real problem.” She has not yet released her own K-12 plan. While the Massachusetts senator has supported charter schools in the past, in 2016 she came out against a high-profile ballot initiative that would have allowed charters to expand much more quickly in her state. The measure ended up failing, with 62 percent of voters siding against it.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg also came out to say he supports Sanders’s proposal to ban for-profit charter schools, though he affirmed a month earlier that charters “have a place” in the education landscape “as “a laboratory for techniques that can be replicated.”

Beto O’Rourke, who opposes a national moratorium on new charters, told the NEA presidential forum that “There is a place for public nonprofit charter schools, but private charter schools and voucher programs—not a single dime in my administration will go to them.” O’Rourke has supported charters in the past, and his wife is a former charter school leader who now sits on the board of a local education reform group that supports expanding charters in El Paso.

Kamala Harris has not yet released any plan on charter schools, though in January a spokesperson for her campaign told me that the senator is “particularly concerned with expansions of for-profit charter schools and believes all charter schools need transparency and accountability.” California lawmakers passed a ban on for-profit charters last fall, and passed new transparency measures this year. As attorney general, Harris launched a probe into K12 Inc., a for-profit charter school company, alleging it used false advertising, saddled its California schools with debt, and inflated its student attendance numbers to collect additional state funds. K12 ended up settling with the state for $168.5 million.

Even Joe Biden has made unusually critical comments about charter schools, notable as the Obama administration was very supportive of them and the former vice president generally seeks to align himself closely with Obama on the campaign trail. “I do not support any federal money for for-profit charter schools, period,” Biden said at a Houston town hall hosted by the American Federation of Teachers. He also added that “there are some charter schools that work.” His education plan does not actually mention charters.

Cory Booker, the Democratic candidate most closely associated with supporting charter schools, has also tamped down some of his charter rhetoric. While he continues to defend the educational reforms he led in Newark, including an expansion of charter schools, on the campaign trail he’s also sought to distance his hometown from charter experiments elsewhere.

“I’ve seen charter school models that are outrageous and unacceptable. I’ve seen charter laws propagated by Republicans that just outright dangerous. And so I understand those people, I’m one of them, that wants to stop those kind of movements,” he told the Washington Examiner in response to a question about Sanders’s education plan. “But I’ve also seen in places like Newark, New Jersey, and other places where local leaders are making decisions that elevate the best educational possibilities of their children, and local leadership should be allowed to do that.”

The turn against charter schools within the Democratic primary does not offer the industry an easy way to separate Sanders or Warren from the rest of the 2020 field. It’s part of a larger sea change on education within the party, though one that’s unevenly reflected so far across racial groups.

Will Bernie Sanders Stick With a Carbon Tax In His Push for a Green New Deal?

Originally published in The Intercept on July 3, 2019.
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A DEFINING FEATURE of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s political career is his consistency. The economy is rigged against the working class, the independent senator from Vermont charges, and bold political action is necessary to remedy that. His approach to tackling the climate crisis has long reflected that mindset, with Sanders ignoring the advice of the Democratic consultant class to champion taxing the nation’s largest polluters and redistributing the bulk of the earned revenue back to consumers and vulnerable people.

Now, as the 2020 presidential candidate prepares to release his climate change plan, a key element to watch out for is whether Sanders will abandon the tool he’s heralded for years to combat global warming, or integrate it into his push for a Green New Deal. As he makes this decision, Sanders is wading into an increasingly contentious debate among environmentalists about the right role for market-based solutions in progressive policy.

Sanders has long argued that a carbon tax “must be a central part of our strategy for dramatically reducing carbon pollution,” and he’s often touted the consensus behind it from economists across the political spectrum. He’s called a carbon tax “the most straight-forward and efficient strategy for quickly reducing greenhouse gas emissions” and has urged his colleagues “to catch up with the scientific community and with the rest of the country.”

But over the last year, some influential groups on the left have soured on a carbon tax, pointing to a recent ballot measure that failed at the polls in Washington state and also the yellow vest protests in France over rising fuel prices — sparked by taxing carbon. And as more conservatives and business leaders have warmed to the idea of a carbon tax, some progressives have grown correspondingly distrustful — skeptical that Republicans will really do anything other than undermine the bold action that is needed.

Sanders, an original Senate co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, has been touting a Green New Deal often on the 2020 campaign trail but has so far been silent on taxing carbon. His campaign website, unlike in 2016, says nothing about it, and in June, a Sanders speechwriter told E&ENews, an environmental trade publication, that a forthcoming Green New Deal speech does not say anything about a carbon tax, though he added that doesn’t mean Sanders might not tackle the issue in the future.

“While Bernie has, in the past, introduced federal carbon pricing legislation in the Senate, the IPCC report makes clear that our window for action is closing,” Sarah Ford, the deputy communications director for the Sanders campaign, told The Intercept, referencing a landmark 2018 report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that underscored the urgency of the crisis. “So, if we are to solve the issue of climate change, a price on carbon must be part of a larger strategy and it must be formulated in a way that actually transitions our economy away from fossil fuels and protects low-income families and communities of color.”

The campaign pointed to Sanders’s Senate office, which is in the process of drafting new climate legislation. A spokesperson for his Senate office told The Intercept over email that “all I can say is that we’re still in the legislative development of our climate policy and GND, which we hope to unveil soon, and we still need to review, get input, etc.” In June, Keane Bhatt, a spokesperson for Sanders’s Senate office told E&E that he foresees his boss’s Green New Deal bill to be “focused primarily on public investment.”

Where the Vermont senator lands on the issue could be a bellwether for what’s to come.

SANDERS HAS NEVER supported a carbon tax as the exclusive measure needed to tackle the climate crisis, but he has insisted it’s an integral one. To protect families from potentially increased energy prices, a 2013 bill he introduced with then-Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., stated that 60 percent of the carbon tax revenue would be rebated, per capita, to every legal U.S resident. He and Boxer also promoted a number of other ideas, including weatherizing 1 million homes per year, funding worker retraining programs, and making massive investments in clean energy research and development. Sanders called it “the most comprehensive climate change legislation in the history of the United States Senate.”

In 2015, after Sanders had mounted his bid for the White House, he used his support for a carbon tax as a way to distinguish himself from the more piecemeal climate proposals pushed forward by his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton. Her advisers, many of them still bruised from the failed cap-and-trade fight from 2010, urged her to steer clear of anything resembling a tax, which they said could leave her vulnerable to Republican attacks of raising energy prices.

But Sanders, who has never been very fearful of potential Republican smears, leaned into the policy idea he believed in. On the campaign trail, he called for a carbon tax, banning fossil fuel lobbyists from the White House, and ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies. He also called for increased federal investment in wind, solar, energy efficiency, electric cars, biofuels, high-speed rail, and public transit — items that will likely be central to any Green New Deal.

“Bernie will tax polluters causing the climate crisis and return billions of dollars to working families to ensure the fossil fuel companies don’t subject us to unfair rate hikes,” his plan stated. “Bernie knows that climate change will not affect everyone equally. The carbon tax will also protect those most impacted by the transformation of our energy system and protect the most vulnerable communities in the country suffering the ravages of climate change.”

One major success of his 2016 campaign was getting language included in the Democratic Party platform in support of a carbon tax. The platformstated that Democrats “believe that carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases should be priced to reflect their negative externalities” and that Democrats should “support using every tool available to reduce emissions now.”

ONE OF THE most prominent voices in the environmental movement to turn against a carbon tax is Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington state and the presidential candidate who is running primarily on tackling climate change. Inslee has strongly supported taxing carbon in the past (an idea sometimes called imposing a “carbon fee”), but bills in favor of the proposal never made it out of his state legislature, and related ballot initiatives failed in 2016 and 2018. (The fossil fuel industry spentmore than $31 million to beat the 2018 initiative, more than twice the amount spent by supporters.)

In January, Inslee announced that he had grown wary of relying on a carbon tax to reduce emissions. “To actually get carbon savings, you need to jack up the price so high that it becomes politically untenable,” he told NBC News, adding that he was more interested in taxing the rich to fund a Green New Deal. His aggressive proposals on the 2020 campaign trail also do not include taxing carbon.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, the original Senate sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, also pointed to Washington’s failed carbon tax ballot measure as reason to not hold much hope in a similar national effort. “If it can’t pass in Washington state right now, I’m not sure that says that there’s much of a pathway at this moment nationally,” he told Politico in December.

Other proponents of the Green New Deal have argued that a carbon tax just shouldn’t be a primary focus. A set of talking points released — and then retracted — by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office in February emphasized that any carbon tax “would be a tiny part” of a Green New Deal. A carbon tax generally “misses the point and would be off the table unless we create the clean, affordable options first,” the fact sheet said. Ocasio-Cortez also wrote on Twitter that ideas like a carbon tax can’t be the premier solution to tackling the climate crisis.

Paradoxically, the successful grassroots organizing led by environmental groups like the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which has been building bipartisan support for a carbon tax and dividend since 2007, has now sparked wariness among other environmental activists who say Democrats can’t afford to compromise with a party that denies climate science and answers too often to the fossil fuel industry.

Others on the left have been increasingly skeptical of relying on any sort of market-based solution to tackling the climate crisis. In January, more than 600 advocacy groups including Friends of the Earth, the Sunrise Movement, Food & Water Watch, Indivisible, and People’s Action signed a letter pledging to “vigorously oppose” any climate legislation that promotes “market-based mechanisms and technology options such as carbon emissions trading and offsets, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, waste-to-energy and biomass energy.” This kind of language kept eight of the largest environmental groups off the letter, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, separately criticized Democrats for “still seem[ing] fixated on the half solutions of cap-and-trade or a carbon tax.” He argued that “market pricing schemes should no longer be the centerpiece of a comprehensive climate strategy.”

Aside from signing the congressional letter, the youth-led Sunrise Movement has also signaled it’s not very interested in a carbon tax. While Sunrise’s political director, Evan Weber, has said a carbon tax “has the potential” to be part of a Green New Deal, he’s also dismissed the idea that it’s an important tool for tackling the problem. “There’s been a predominant conversation in Washington, D.C., that’s been led by economists and politicos that have tried to frame a carbon tax as the only way,” he told Politico. “It’s proved time and time again to be not politically popular, and we haven’t even priced the policy at where economists say it needs to be. The idea that [a carbon tax is] the way out of this mess is something we need to be pushing back on.” Neither the Sunrise Movement nor Weber returned The Intercept’s request for comment.

SUPPORT, HOWEVER, STILL exists for a carbon tax, even among environmental groups that have embraced the Green New Deal framework. The Environmental Defense Fund and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby have endorsed both bold public investment and a carbon tax as ways to combat climate change. New polling from Data for Progress, a progressive polling organization, also recently found strong support among Democratic voters for both approaches to tackling the crisis.

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Many congressional supporters of the Green New Deal also agree there’s room and need for both. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., an original co-sponsor of the resolution, has said a price on carbon has “got to be part of the solution.” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, a vocal supporter of a Green New Deal, has also argued that it’s perfectly compatible with a carbon tax.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., another original Green New Deal resolution co-sponsor, has also pushed back on the idea that the failed carbon tax ballot measure in her state means it’s too politically unpopular to pass anywhere — pointing to the large sums of money the fossil fuel industry had to spend to defeat it. “I am not in the camp that thinks it failed because of a carbon tax, I don’t believe that,” she told E&E“I think it failed because industry really doesn’t want it to succeed.” She acknowledged that the progressive movement has been “a little bit all over the place” when it comes to carbon taxation.

Climate change experts also continue to vouch for a carbon tax. In its report issued last October, the IPCC endorsed pricing carbon to reduce emissions and recommended imposing prices of $135 to $5,500 per ton of carbon dioxide pollution by 2030 to keep global warming in check. But an OECD report from last September found that few countries that do have carbon taxes are setting them at levels high enough to meaningfully curb emissions — highlighting the political challenge at hand.

IN MANY RESPECTS, there is more legislative traction around carbon pricing than there’s been in years, and Republicans are increasingly warming up to the idea. While groups like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity still adamantly oppose it, other conservative businesses and even fossil fuel companies have come out behind it, though sometimes with conditions that progressives would unlikely support — like environmental deregulation or immunity from any lawsuits.

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives’ powerful Ways and Means Committee heldits first climate-related hearing in over a decade, and in late November 2018, three Republicans and three Democrats in the House introduced the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, the first bipartisan carbon tax proposal in Congress in almost 10 years. Known colloquially as the “Deutch proposal” after one of its Democratic authors, Rep. Ted Deutch, it would direct proceeds from the tax back to consumers in the form of monthly rebate checks. The legislation has been described by experts as a “highly progressive” proposal, given that high-income households would pay a disproportionate amount of the tax, yet the resulting revenues would be distributed equally to all households. Under this bill, a family of 4 with two adults would take home an annual dividend of $3,456 by 2025. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby said it “may be the strongest and most comprehensive climate bill ever submitted to Congress,” though the group also stressed that “no one should expect any single policy to solve climate change by itself.”

There are other carbon pricing proposals on the table. One, known as the “Baker proposal,” has earned the endorsement of many in the business community, and it embraces a carbon tax in exchange for repealing other environmental regulations and limiting legal liability on the energy industry. Another bill, known as the “Whitehouse proposal,” would redirect most of the carbon revenue generated to reduce the employee portion of the payroll tax. Named after Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the proposal was co-introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, another presidential candidate and original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution.

The idea of a carbon tax came up briefly in last week’s Democratic presidential debates, when “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd asked Rep. Tim Ryan how he would fund climate projects “if carbon pricing is just politically impossible.”

As Time’s energy reporter Justin Worland noted, the question itself confused the point of a climate tax, which is meant to make polluting the environment more expensive, not primarily finance green projects. Ryan didn’t reference any carbon pricing in his answer, yet former Rep. John Delaney, who co-sponsored the Deutch proposal last November, picked up on the opportunity to tout his work pushing the bipartisan solution. “My proposal, which is put a price on carbon, give a dividend back to the American people — it goes out one pocket, back in the other,” Delaney said. “I can get that passed my first year as president, with a coalition of every Democrat in the Congress and the Republicans who live in coastal states.”

In the second debate, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg called for “aggressive and ambitious measures” to tackle climate change and cited a carbon tax and dividend as one he’d support. “But I would propose we do it in a way that is rebated out to the American people in a progressive fashion so that most Americans are made more than whole,” he said, invoking bills like the Deutch proposal.

Some commentators online criticized the way Democrats fail to adequately explain how a carbon tax and dividend work to voters.

Though Sanders was not asked anything about a carbon tax and dividend in the debate, he has for years demonstrated how to promote the idea in clear, progressive terms — highlighting the need to make wealthy polluters pay for their planetary destruction, while protecting working people and vulnerable communities from rising energy prices.

In 2016, though not a single question was asked in the general election presidential debates about climate change, Sanders seized on a question in the primaries about fracking to push his opponent on the need for a carbon tax.

“The truth is, as secretary of state, Secretary [Hillary] Clinton actively supported fracking technology around the world,” Sanders said. “Second of all, right now, we have got to tell the fossil fuel industry that their short-term profits are not more important than the future of this planet. And that means — and I would ask you to respond — are you in favor of a tax on carbon, so that we can transit away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy at the level and speed we need to do?”

Three years later, it’s not yet clear how Sanders will proceed. Does he still believe taxing carbon is worth fighting for, or will he eschew consistency in favor of a new approach to tackling the climate crisis?

Conservatives Are Nudging The Supreme Court to Dismantle Affordable Housing Policies

Originally published in The Intercept on June 25, 2019.
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WHEN IT COMES to conservatives and the U.S. Supreme Court, abortion and labor rights are often considered among their prime targets. Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the court last fall, though, opened the road for a host of other challenges for which conservatives have quietly been laying the groundwork for years. This month, the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative law firm based in California, made moves on one of those fronts, asking the Supreme Court to take up a case challenging the constitutionality of inclusionary zoning — a popular tool cities and states employ to increase affordable housing and promote residential integration.

Inclusionary zoning generally works by requiring real estate developers to reserve a certain number of units in new housing complexes for tenants who live on more modest incomes; some jurisdictions also allow developers to alternatively pay a fee so the city can construct more affordable housing elsewhere. Conservatives argue that the policy effectively violates a provision of the Fifth Amendment that says private property cannot be taken without just compensation.

This is the Pacific Legal Foundation’s third attempt to bring an inclusionary zoning challenge before the Supreme Court. Its previous efforts, in 2015 and 2017, were both dismissed, but legal experts say that with Kavanaugh now seated on the high court, it is more likely the case will find an audience — and be resolved in favor of conservatives.

The law firm is representing an elderly couple — Dart and Esther Cherk — in Marin County, California, who wanted to divide their 2.79 acres of land into two developable lots. They hoped to sell half of their land to supplement their retirement. In 2000, they applied for a permit, and in the time it took to get their permit, the local law changed such that the couple now had to pay Marin County $40,000 as an affordable housing fee to proceed. They paid, but then demanded a refund, calling the payment unconstitutional.

“Rather than respect property rights and allow a free market in land use, Marin County (and other California cities) have concocted counterproductive ‘affordable housing’ programs by which they collect fees from people like the Cherks (who are actually trying to create new building lots) and stuff it into government coffers for government programs that will allegedly make housing more ‘affordable,’” wrote Larry Salzman, a Pacific Legal Foundation attorney leading the case.

Inclusionary zoning is a land-use policy, first developed in Montgomery County, Maryland, in the 1970s, as a way to foster mixed-income communities. Since it was enacted, the inclusionary zoning policy in Montgomery County has been used to build more than 11,000 new affordable units. By the end of 2016, according to Grounded Solutions Network, 886 jurisdictions in 25 states and Washington, D.C., had also adopted inclusionary zoning policies. And it’s still spreading: This past spring, the New Orleans City Council passed a mandatory inclusionary zoning law to boost affordable housing in the city’s most desirable neighborhoods.

Some real estate developers and economists bemoan inclusionary zoning, arguing that it actually decreases housing affordability by making it more expensive to build market-rate units. This is a concern leaders take seriously, especially in places like California, which is grappling with soaring housing costs driven largely by a scarcity of available units. Still, other experts say that fear is overblown, or can be mitigated with careful program design.

THAT THE PACIFIC Legal Foundation is trying to eliminate a legal tool used by policymakers to promote residential diversity comes as little surprise to those in the civil rights community. The Pacific Legal Foundation has challenged a host of liberal policy ideas in court, including affirmative actionthe Voting Rights Actbilingual education, and school integration.

Their case, as Salzman explains, is built on the idea that Marin County’s inclusionary zoning program violates Supreme Court precedent that protects property owners from being forced to pay extortionate permit fees. Since the couple splitting their lot wouldn’t be exacerbating the local affordable housing crisis — and arguably would be helping to ameliorate it since they’d be increasing supply in an area that desperately needs more housing — “they can’t lawfully be charged a fat fee to solve the region’s so-called ‘affordable housing’ problem,” argues Salzman.

Thomas Silverstein, a fair housing attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Lawsaid it’s likely the Supreme Court will eventually take up an inclusionary zoning case, even if not this one. “It seems it’s just part of Pacific Legal Foundation’s agenda to be consistently developing a pipeline of potential challenges, bringing them up and bringing them up, and hoping one day they’ll crack through,” he said.

In 2015, Justice Clarence Thomas signaled his interest in taking up a future inclusionary zoning case, writing a concurrence that stated the inclusionary zoning case they were denying to review “implicates an important and unsettled issue under the Takings Clause.” Kavanaugh’s record on property rights and the Takings Clause is more limited, in part because he was previously on the bench at the D.C. Circuit, where those kinds of cases came up far less often. Still, his notorious record on civil rights was flagged by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund at the time of his nomination. Last summer they warned that confirming him to the Supreme Court “would threaten the government’s ability to use race to promote diversity and halt discrimination.”

This is the final week of the Supreme Court’s current session, and the court won’t decide whether to hear the zoning case until it reconvenes in the fall. The court’s decision could rest on whether it finds the facts of the case to be representative of questions around inclusionary zoning writ large, Silverstein noted. On the one hand, the Pacific Legal Foundation picked a case with a relatively sympathetic set of plaintiffs; it’s not some rich real estate developer building a high-rise tower but rather a couple looking to retire who would not be hurting Marin County’s affordable housing crisis by splitting up their land. “I think the flip side of this is, you could also imagine the court looking at these facts and saying this is a really unique situation, and if we’re going to take up the issue of whether inclusionary zoning is constitutional, it makes more sense to do it when the facts in front of us are more typical,” Silverstein said.

A KEY CONSTITUTIONAL question for the court, Silverstein said, will be whether inclusionary zoning amounts to a constitutional regulation of how property is used or an unconstitutional taking of property from a property owner. Another question will be whether past legal precedent applies to legislative ordinances, as opposed to ad hoc or administrative decisions. The three big Supreme Court cases that the Pacific Legal Foundation is basing its new argument on — Dolan v. City of Tigard, Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, and Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District — were all centered on administrative decisions.

In the 5-4 Koontz decision authored by Justice Samuel Alito in 2013, the U.S Supreme Court ruled that a water management district in Florida had imposed illegal conditions on an entrepreneur’s application to build a shopping center. The proposed shopping center was to be located on a swath of wetlands, and the water management district said the entrepreneur could either reduce the size of his project or spend money on wetlands restoration efforts to mitigate the project’s environmental impacts. The entrepreneur refused, calling the conditions unreasonable, and the Supreme Court agreed.

In the dissent, Justice Elena Kagan objected to the idea that a requirement to pay money to repair public wetlands amounts to a taking of private property, and noted that the court has already held that taxes do not amount to a violation of the Fifth Amendment. “Once the majority decides that a simple demand to pay money—the sort of thing often viewed as a tax—can count as an impermissible ‘exaction,’ how is anyone to tell the two apart?” she wrote. “In short, the District never made a demand or set a condition—not to cede an identifiable property interest, not to undertake a particular mitigation project, not even to write a check to the government. Instead, the District suggested to Koontz several non-exclusive ways to make his applications conform to state law. The District’s only hard-and-fast requirement was that Koontz do something—anything—to satisfy the relevant permitting criteria.”

Pacific Legal Foundation appears to be modeling its legal argument around the decision in Koontz. The group “has been very careful to frame their cases around a fee; they want it to seem as much like Koontz as possible, where it’s considered an unconstitutional fee from the start,” said Silverstein. “But if you say instead that there’s a requirement to provide affordable housing, and if you don’t want to provide affordable housing, you can get out of that obligation by paying a fee, that makes their case look much less like Koontz and more like a land-use regulation that might be permitted under Euclid v. Ambler, which effectively upheld zoning. If a fee is seen instead as an opt-out, it’s almost like you’re doing a nice thing for the property owner.”

Even as conservatives have raised constitutional challenges to inclusionary zoning in recent years, cities and states have not held back on moving forward with inclusionary zoning out of fear of their laws being struck down on the federal level. A Supreme Court dismissal of the new petition would reinforce the message that the proactive steps many jurisdictions have already taken to use inclusionary zoning are lawful and legitimate. Alternatively, if the court did take up the case and ruled in Marin County’s favor, that would also send a strong signal that jurisdictions can continue to pass inclusionary zoning mandates.

“The problem,” said Silverstein, “is we have a Supreme Court that is very skewed toward the petitioners in this case, and there’s a real risk they would decide the case the other way and upset the applecart.”

We Have To Finance A Global Green New Deal — Or Face The Consequences

Originally published in The Intercept on June 24, 2019.
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AS POLITICIANS TALK more about ramping up their commitments to reducing carbon emissions — over the weekend, even Vice President Mike Pence squirmed when pressed on his climate denialism and said the U.S. is making progress on that front — one key aspect of the crisis remains conspicuously absent from most U.S discussions: so-called climate finance. The question of how much money the U.S. and other wealthy, industrialized nations will transfer to poor, developing countries so that they can effectively reduce their own carbon emissions has gone largely unaddressed, even as it grows in importance. Developing countries already account for more than 60 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions and are expected to contribute nearly 90 percent of emissions growth over the next two decades.

The amount of money needed for “climate finance” is one of the most hotly debated issues between countries and represented one of the most contentious aspects of the Paris Agreement in 2015. Poorer countries have repeatedly said they could make steeper emissions cuts if they were adequately supported by wealthier nations in the process.

new report from the People’s Policy Project, a socialist think tank, argues that industrialized countries should contribute $2 trillion annually to help developing nations stave off the effects of climate change. An investment of that size would be 20 times larger than existing global commitments, which developed countries are already struggling to meet.

There is also an ideological debate behind the purpose of climate finance. Proponents of environmental justice argue that the U.S. has a moral and ethical responsibility to help less prosperous countries deal with the threat of climate change because so much of the U.S.’s own development and economic growth has contributed to suffering around the globe. Politically speaking, though, the issue is largely framed in terms of national security: The United States will be safer and better off if climate disasters don’t go unmitigated in other parts of the world.

The needle on climate finance has moved slowly since 2009, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced at international climate negotiations in Copenhagen that by 2020 the U.S and other developed nations would “mobilize” $100 billion per year from public and private sources. The figure was selected to convey political will and was not based on any scientific analysis. As part of that $100 billion commitment, the U.N. established the Green Climate Fund, designed to finance climate mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries like securing the water supply in South Tarawa, Kiribati, and restoring degraded ecosystemsin El Salvador.

The fund’s governing board includes equal representation between developing and developed nations, and its first round of funding began in 2013, when 43 countries pledged to raise $10.3 billion for projects. Of that amount, the U.S. pledged to contribute $3 billion over four years.

As countries and experts debate how much climate aid is needed to raise over the long term, the amount of money raised and spent so far is also a matter of great dispute. One reason for that, according to Kevin Adams, a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute, is that countries generally self-report what they’re providing, and so what developing countries say they receive can differ from what developed countries say they have contributed. “This can be due to factors like exchange rates and currency fluctuations, fees paid to consultants or other service providers, as well as the financial instrument used, such as grants versus loans,” he explained.

In 2015, for example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a report stating that wealthy countries had already mobilized $57 billion in climate aid, but leaders from developing nations argued that those figures were dramatically inflated. Indian officials called the OECD’s estimates “deeply flawed” and just “partially correct at best.” A 2018 Oxfam report also argued that climate-specific assistance to developing countries was likely overstated by a “huge margin.”

There’s also disagreement over what formally constitutes climate finance, an umbrella term that generally refers to climate mitigation, adaptation, and reparations. The “climate finance” term, according to Adams, is supposed to signify new and additional funding that goes above what countries are already spending (or supposed to be spending) on international development.

Adams said the rhetorical separation between “developmental aid” and “climate aid” is important so countries don’t just “relabel existing funds” they were already contributing. Though in practice, he explained, the distinction between the two can be much more tenuous, “particularly in the case of adaptation [funding] where climate vulnerability is so closely tied to poverty, access to services, and institutional capacity.”

Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, the global director of World Resources Institute’s Sustainable Finance Center, agrees the gap between development finance and climate finance is fairly porous. “There was always an overlap, and the reality is, the distinction is starting to break down,” he said. “These days, people recognize you can’t really do proper development without thinking about climate change and that we need to be talking about it as climate-informed development.”

Despite the growing consensus over the overlap between the categories, the Paris Agreement and other climate conventions have been designed using various methodologies and accounting systems that do not include development finance. “In some ways, we’re kind of stuck in this system we’ve created, where for a while we’ll have to move forward on these parallel tracks,” said Martinez-Diaz. “On the one hand, we’ll have a system to measure climate finance for [the] Paris [Agreement] and the $100 billion pledge, and on the other hand, we need to try and incorporate climate change into our water programming and our food security programming and our health programming. Even though some of that money cannot be counted as climate finance under the current rules, it still matters.”

THE CONVERSATION AROUND climate finance has been more robust outside the United States, yet President Donald Trump’s reneging on prior U.S. commitments has raised serious questions about how international targets can be met. Late last month at the R20 Austrian World Summit, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized how important climate financing was for tackling the crisis, stressing the need to meet the $100 billion goal by 2020 and “a full replenishment and an effective functioning” of the Green Climate Fund.

International climate talks are taking place this month in Bonn, Germany, and in July, the Green Climate Fund will hold its next board meeting. The next round of fundraising for the Green Climate Fund is provisionally planned for the fall, but right now leaders don’t know how much they’ll be able to raise without the help of the United States. In 2017, Trump announced that he was ending U.S support for the Green Climate Fund, even though the U.S. had yet to pay $2 billion of the $3 billion it had previously pledged. (The U.S. had transferred $1 billion to the fund under President Barack Obama.) Last fall, under its newly elected far-right prime minister, Australia said that it too would no longer be honoring its pledge to the Green Climate Fund.

Advocates see the challenge of mobilizing more money in this next round of funding as critical for establishing legitimacy and trust in the climate financing project and the Paris Agreement more broadly. If poor countries can’t rely on wealthy nations to help them industrialize in sustainable ways, then they may conclude they have little choice but to develop their economies along the same carbon-heavy trajectories that North America, East Asia, and Europe already took.

Encouragingly, both Germany and Norway have already announced their plans to double their previous commitments to the Green Climate Fund in the upcoming round of resource mobilization. Martinez-Diaz said WRI estimates that an ambitious replenishment goal should be about $14 billion if the U.S. does not participate, and about $22 billion if the U.S. does.

IN THE PEOPLE’S Policy Project report, published earlier this month, author Jacob Fawcett lays out a plan for what he calls a “Global Green New Deal,” under which developed countries would contribute $2 trillion annually, with the U.S. raising $680 billion of that, which amounts to 3.5 percent of the U.S.’s GDP.

The report suggests three ways for the U.S. to raise that money. One possibility would be a one-time issuance of open market treasury bonds, like selling $10.8 trillion worth of bonds into the open market and giving the earned cash to an investment fund managed by the U.N.; it would be difficult for a future president to repeal something like that, but it could spike interest rates. Another option is a one-time issuance of special treasury bonds, which could alleviate the interest rate risk but would be a little easier for a future administration to default on. The last proposed option is for Congress to pass a law authorizing annual mandatory spending, which would avoid the sticker shock of a one-time government debt issuance but also be the most vulnerable to political repeal.

The premise of Fawcett’s argument is that estimates for climate finance thrown around by world leaders are not actually based on what is necessary to confront the climate crisis. He notes that there are reputable climate finance models that project a cost of hundreds of billions and trillions annually; those figures fluctuate depending on what’s included and how they weigh various public and private financing methods.

“I want to see more attention paid to just how big this funding issue is, and I think it’s really a big fight,” he said, “with the amount of funding needed just several orders of magnitude beyond what people have been discussing.”

IN 2015, the England-based Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy issued a report calling for up to $2 trillion in annual climate financing. Another estimate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls for $2.38 trillion in annual funding for energy sector development alone. Another 2015 report, produced by the World Bank and consultancy firm Ecofys, said financial transfers “could reach up to US$100–400 billion annually by 2030, possibly increasing to over $2 trillion dollars by 2050.” A 2011 U.N. estimate put the “annual financing demand to green the global economy” in the range of $1.05-$2.59 trillion. The World Economic Forum estimated in 2013 that there needs to be at least $700 billion in green infrastructure spending per year by 2020, separate from the $5 trillion annual investment in traditional industries.

While there are several multilateral funds aimed at climate finance, the People’s Policy Project recommends that the U.S. contribute the entirety of the $680 billion to the Green Climate Fund, which is the one most deeply rooted in the principles of the Paris Agreement and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The paper assumes that it’s the global institution with the most capacity to handle that much money responsibly, and that it’s more secure once it’s in the hands of the U.N.

The Green Climate Fund’s ability to handle that level of investment is another question. “The Green Climate is good at upscaling ideas, and it’s crucial that the approaches it is developing are closely linked to the principles of the Convention, but you’d have some practical issues to it handling that much funding,” said Adams of the Stockholm Environment Institute. “While the replenishment is currently ongoing, scaling it up 200 times to $2 trillion would be an enormous institutional challenge.” Indeed, the Green Climate Fund’s capacity to review projects is limited, and it can only distribute money to countries that apply with a robust project to pursue — not a quick or easy task.

Adams said industrialized countries should “do more and contribute more” toward the effort of climate finance, which is more important than a focus on the exact figures needed. “While $2 trillion might be in line with the scale of the climate challenge, it is so far beyond the $100 billion goal currently enshrined in the Paris Agreement and which contributor countries are struggling to meet, it’s hard to see that figure gaining much political traction,” he said.

Oscar Reyes, an Institute for Policy Studies fellow focused on climate and energy finance, said the $2 trillion figure is in line with the costs of retooling large swaths of infrastructure and creating new infrastructure, which can escalate quickly, especially in economically disadvantaged nations where energy systems with proper access to electricity are being developed for the first time. Still, he said, aiming to raise $2 trillion — especially considering corruption in the international development space — is not necessarily the way to go.

“What probably makes more sense to me at the moment is, let’s get the Green Climate Fund to $20 billion, or $30 billion, and build the organization up in a sustainable way,” he said. “If you throw out a lot of money, it’s really difficult to see how that’s done, though maybe that’s my lack of imagination.”

The U.N., meanwhile, is working to develop a better sense of what’s needed. The UNFCCC’s Adaptation Committee is seeking proposals to better determine what is needed to address adaptation funding gaps. The committee aims to compile results in late 2020 or early 2021.

THERE IS ALSO a debate over the role of public versus private climate funding. The People’s Policy Project operates from an assumption that the public sector should cover the entire cost and not rely on businesses or philanthropists to shoulder the responsibility. Most other climate financing plans rely on a mix of public and private sources, though typically with public funding acting as a sweetener for hefty private investment. The 2015 Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy paper Fawcett cites in his report argues that “private finance is potentially the most important source of funds for climate mitigation investment.”

Fawcett said he isn’t wholly opposed to private investment, citing carbon-capture technology as one example that he’d feel more comfortable with. He cautioned, though, against the potentially more exploitative situations, like companies that rent out solar panels to poor villages. He thinks predatory situations could be more easily mitigated if the U.N. had control over the aid.

Advocates and world leaders face the challenge of striking the balance between a wealthy, developed country’s moral obligation to helping poorer, developing countries and framing the climate finance conversation in terms of national self-interest.

When Trump announced he would no longer contribute the rest of the United States’ pledge to the Green Climate Fund, he wrongly claimed it was “costing the United States a vast fortune.” Matthew Kotchen, an Obama administration official, responded in the Washington Post that U.S officials had “vigorously advocated for a fund that served the interests of the United States.” Kotchen also noted that encouraging other countries to reduce their emissions helps create a more stable and secure world, and reduces economic costs for many sectors of the U.S. economy. He made no mention of environmental justice or the nation’s ethical obligation.

Even as he calls for greater climate finance flows, Adams acknowledged “there is a tension between trying to help contributor countries recognize their own vulnerability to climate change in a globalizing world, and,Feliza at the same time, recognizing that contributing to climate finance should not only be about individual interest.”

THE GREEN NEW Deal, considered among the boldest proposals to tackle climate change in the United States, is rooted in the principles of economic justice. The resolution commits to promoting a “just transition” for all communities and workers, and prioritizes job creation and social benefits for “frontline and vulnerable communities.” Still, it is very domestic in focus, and some commentators have urged legislators to think more deeply about climate finance.

Last month, Ben Adler, an editor at City & State, argued in the Washington Post that while many conservatives claim the Green New Deal is too big, its sparse focus on the United States’ international obligations suggests that the plan might not be nearly big enough. The Green New Deal resolution contains one sentence that gestures at climate finance, endorsing the “international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding and services, with the aim of making the United States the international leader on climate action, and to help other countries achieve a Green New Deal.” Earlier this month Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said she expects her Green New Deal climate plan to cost at least $10 trillion, though she did not specify how much of that she envisioned for international funding, if any. Her office declined to comment on specifics about climate finance. Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, the original Senate co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, also did not return requests for comment.

Looking toward 2021, which is the soonest a Green New Deal plan could feasibly be passed, Democratic presidential candidates have so far steered clear of very large climate financing figures. Joe Biden promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement and use “America’s economic leverage and power of example” to get other countries to increase their emission reduction goals. His plan doesn’t say anything specific about climate aid. Jay Inslee, the candidate who has centered climate change most prominently in his campaign, did pledge to double the United States’ investment in the Green Climate Fund. And Elizabeth Warren proposed a $100 billion “Green Marshall Plan” to fund projects in poor, developing nations — though the projects would require countries to purchase American-made energy technology for the work. Projects funded out of the Green Climate Fund do not come with similar restrictions.

Ultimately, with Green Climate Fund replenishment talks coming up soon, the political will for tackling the climate crisis on the rise, and Green New Deal details yet to be formalized, it’s in many ways a ripe time for the U.S. to begin thinking more seriously about its role and responsibility to other nations grappling with the climate crisis.

“I think there is an international dimension of the Green New Deal that’s missing,” said Adams. “But at the same time, I think it’s a helpful policy approach because it moves the conversation to a space where climate change is inextricable from our economies and the way our societies are structured, as opposed to treating it like a one-off externality.”

How Unions and Climate Organizers Learned To Work Together in New York

Originally published in In These Times on June 10, 2019.
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Several years before Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) elevated the climate, jobs and justice framework to the national level, a coalition of labor, environmental and community groups joined together to push for a pioneering climate bill in New York.

The idea for the legislation came in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 People’s Climate March, when organizers decided to build on the momentum of the historic demonstration. In 2016 the Climate and Community Protection Act(CCPA) was born, an expansive bill that would require New York to generate half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The bill would also mandate that 40 percent of New York’s climate funding go towards projects in low-income, vulnerable communities, and require all green projects to have high labor standards, including the requirement for a prevailing wage.

“It’s among the most aggressive decarbonization proposals in the nation,” said Arielle Swernoff, the communications coordinator for New York Renews, a coalition of over 170 state groups backing the legislation. “The only state that has really done something comparable is Hawaii.”

New York Renews offers an encouraging example of how labor and environmental groups can work together to act on climate change. The coalition has the backing of unions like 32BJ Service Employees International Union—a property service workers union, the New York State Nurses Association, the New York State Amalgamated Transit Union, Teamsters Joint Council 16 and the Communications Workers of America Local 1108. It also has the support of a vast number of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Environmental Advocates of New York and GreenFaith.

The bill’s strong language around labor—such as requiring that government contracts include mechanisms for resolving disputes and ensuring labor harmony—has helped quell opposition from building trade unions that typically fight robust climate proposals. The New York AFL-CIO, a labor federation representing 3,000 state affiliates, has notably stayed quiet on the bill.

Nella Pineda-Marcon, the chair of the Climate Justice and Disaster Relief committee with the New York State Nurses Association, told In These Times that it was an easy decision for her union to back the CCPA. Her union, which represents 43,000 nurses statewide, got very involved with the climate crisis following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The following year, Pineda-Marcon traveled to the Philippines as a first-responder to Typhoon Haiyan. “We are on the front lines of this crisis, we see first-hand the destruction it has,” she explained. “And the massive amounts of pollutants in our air are driving up rates of chronic asthma in our most vulnerable communities… We need to lead now and the rest of the world can follow us.”

The politics of the CCPA are coming to a head as the deadline for passage ends June 19. The bill passed the state Assembly in 2016, 2017 and 2018 — and last year a majority of state senators signed on in support. But the Senate Leader never allowed it to come to the floor for a vote. After the 2018 midterms, however, when progressive Democrats ousted a group of centrists who often caucused with Republicans, advocates felt the stars were aligning more favorably for the CCPA’s passage this year.

Indeed, in January the new Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins released a statement calling the CCPA “the main vehicle through which we will address climate change.” The state senate held its first-ever hearing on climate change in February, led by Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D), the new Environmental Conservation Committee chairman.

Various scientists testified, including Mathias Vuille, a professor of climate and atmospheric sciences at the University of Albany and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Vuille explained that the most significant impact resulting from a changing climate in New York so far has been the rise of intense storms, which have increased in frequency in the Northeast more than any other region in the United States. Sea levels along the mid-Atlantic and New England coasts have also risen much higher than the global average, he said, pointing to a rise in New York sea levels by 280 millimeters over the 20th century, compared to a global average increase of 170 millimeters.

While Vuille cautioned that he’s neither a renewable energy specialist nor an economist, he said “we owe it to future generations” to continue leading the transition off fossil fuels, and emphasized a need to reduce emissions in the transportation sector in particular. “I think this can be done if we really have the will,” he said.

Some labor advocates, like Mike Gendron, the executive vice president of Communications Workers of America Local 1108, also testified in support of the CCPA. “As we transition from fossil fuel based energy to renewable energy, we must make sure that the jobs created, are good paying union jobs with proper training, for both new workers and transitioning workers,” he said. “The New York State Climate and Community Protection Act will help make that happen.”

Other unions offered more qualified support, endorsing specific sections of the legislation. Ellen Redmond, representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), testified that her union does in fact believe the CCPA contains commendable language around workers’ rights. “We do believe the labor protections are strong,” she said, though suggested it could be even better if there were more teeth and real dollars behind it. IBEW represents about 50,000 members in New York, many of whom work in the utilities industry.

Mark Brueggenjohann, a spokesperson for the IBEW, told In These Times that his union didn’t have anything new to add to Redmond’s February testimony and doesn’t “anticipate any further statements” this month.

State senators also heard from industry groups that raised concerns, like Mitch Paley, testifying on behalf of the New York State Builders Association. Paley said while his colleagues support some aspects of the CCPA, they object to the prevailing wage requirements which would, by their own estimate, increase residential projects by 35 to 45%. The mandated solar requirements for new homes, he added, could increase the cost of each project by $10,000. This would “dramatically affect the ability to promote affordable homes in our region,” he argued.

Darren Suarez, the senior director of government affairs for the Business Council of New York State testified against the bill, arguing that the proposed legislation would “increase energy costs, operational costs, and create uncertainty, compromising the global competitiveness of energy-intensive, trade-exposed industries.” He insisted the bill’s goals are not practical, and that the manufacturing sector should be included in developing the state’s climate policies.

A study by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst found that New York transitioning to a 100 percent renewable economy could support 160,000 direct and indirect jobs initially and an average of about 150,000 in each year over the first decade. The institute also estimates that New York’s fossil fuel workforce is relatively small, comprised of roughly 13,000 individuals, out of a statewide workforce of around 9 million.

A threatening factor for CCPA supporters is that the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has introduced his own more moderate climate bill—the Climate Leadership Act. His legislation calls for the electricity sector to be carbon-free by 2040, but does not lay out a concrete plan for other sectors that emit greenhouse gas, like transportation. The two bills are dividing Democrats in Albany. Advocates for CCPA say Cuomo’s bill does not go far enough, and it’s imperative to legislate specific climate goals, so they are not “at the whim of the executive” anymore.

Swernoff of New York Renews says the governor’s office has expressed discomfort specifically with the prevailing wage standard for all green projects, the 40% investment into vulnerable and low-income communities, and setting a timeline for the whole economy, as opposed to just for electricity.

New York federal legislators are ramping up pressure on state lawmakers to pass the CCPA. On June 4, eleven Congressional representatives from New York, including Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez, sent a letter in support of the bill. “We believe the people-led Climate and Community Protection Act before you in Albany presents…an opportunity for New York,” they wrote. “An opportunity to cure the injustices of the past and to secure, with intent, a just transition into the future.” On June 5, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand sent her own letter in support of the bill.

Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN, a steering committee member of New York Renews and the New York affiliate of Jobs with Justice, said she knows lawmakers are taking the CCPA very seriously right now, and she’s “hopeful this year its passage will become a reality.”

When it comes to the governor signing the bill, Silva-Farrell says she is less sure. “You never know where he’s going to be on an issue,” she said. “But one thing that is very clear is that if he wants to leave a strong legacy for his family, for his kids, and his grandkids, he should get behind this.”

The Radical Teachers’ Movement Comes to Baltimore

Originally published in The Nation on June 7, 2019.
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In mid-May, 37-year-old Diamonte Brown won her bid to lead the Baltimore Teachers Union, defeating Marietta English, who has led the nearly 7,000-member union for most of the last two decades. The shakeup in Charm City school politics marks a victory not just for Brown, a middle-school English teacher, but the Baltimore Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (BMORE), a social-justice caucus that has been organizing since 2015.

Yet English, who was seeking her ninth term in office, says she cannot “in good faith concede” and has demanded a re-vote—alleging Brown and the slate of candidates she ran with committed a series of election violations, like illegally campaigning on school grounds. Critics say the incumbents have their own campaign missteps to account for, including writing rules that discourage challengers and trying to suppress the vote.

The American Federation of Teachers, the national parent union for the BTU, is stepping in, and plans to hold a formal hearing to adjudicate the complaints next week. The election drama reflects a stark departure from what are typically sleepy Baltimore affairs.

Still, with roughly 500 more ballots cast this cycle compared to last, observers say the increased interest in the election should not go ignored, regardless of what happens when the AFT concludes its investigation.

BMORE says that no matter the outcome they’re here to stay, joining a national movement dedicated to using teacher unions as a vehicle for broad social change. This movement first caught fire with the Chicago teachers strike in 2012, an eight-day protest of educators, parents, students, and community members who called for increased funding for public services. Similar radical caucuses have since emerged in cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, and St. Paul and now they’re banding together to help those in Baltimore.

BMORE’s story begins with Natalia Bacchus, an ESOL teacher who moved to Baltimore in 2013 after teaching in suburban Maryland for nine years. Bacchus was bewildered by the bureaucratic hurdles she encountered at nearly every turn.

“When I worked in Montgomery County, I didn’t know anything about our union, I was just like, I’m a public-school teacher, I’m a public servant, I have a unionized job, that’s cool,” she said. “Then I came to Baltimore, and I was like, wow—everything is a hassle every step of the way. And what do you mean kids can’t drink from the water fountain? And kids have to go to bathroom in groups? All these restrictions that would never fly in Montgomery County.”

Bacchus didn’t know many other Baltimore educators, and didn’t know if she was alone in feeling this way. Eventually she met Helen Atkinson, the executive director of the Teachers’ Democracy Project, a local education advocacy group. In 2014 Atkinson invited Bacchus to become a TPD fellow, where she would research progressive teacher unions around the country.

The next year Bacchus and Atkinson started traveling to different cities to learn from activist teachers. In August 2015, they went to Newark, New Jersey, for the annual United Caucus of Rank and File Educators conference, and began asking more practical questions about what launching a union caucus might look like.

“I was like this could be big, and Chicago’s social-justice caucus was called CORE and New York’s was MORE—we should call ours BMORE!” Bacchus said.

That fall, Atkinson introduced Bacchus to two other radical educators she knew in Baltimore—Cristina Duncan Evans and Corey Gaber. Bacchus was then working at a traditional public elementary school, Gaber was a charter middle-school teacher, and Duncan Evans was teaching at a specialized high school for the arts. Their diverse experiences struck them as a powerful opportunity.

Together they started a book club, reading texts like How to Jump-Start Your Unionabout the Chicago Teachers Union, and The Future of Our Schools, by education scholar Lois Weiner. Later that year they traveled to Chicago, to meet the CORE educators in person. That summer Samantha Winslow from Labor Notes, a media and union activism organization, came out to Baltimore to lead an organizing workshop, and five Baltimore educators went to Raleigh, North Carolina, in August for UCORE’s next conference. Leaders describe BMORE’s beginnings as “a lot of slow, but really deep” organizing.

In the fall of 2016 the newly formed BMORE steering committee decided to launch their first campaign—a petition drive to allow absentee voting in BTU elections. That winter they held their official BMORE launch party at a local barbecue restaurant, and wondered if anyone would even show up. Nearly 70 people did. “We knew then that this type of connection and work was resonating with people,” said Gaber.

Amplifying black leadership and centering racial equity, they stressed, would be at the core of their efforts. They created a closed Facebook group for members, and began holding regular meetings at different schools. By April 2017 they formally met with their union’s leadership, receiving guidance from Philly’s social-justice caucus on how to approach that conversation. The BTU, they said, was surprisingly receptive to their group.

“Marietta even offered to come to our meetings, but we said no that’s not how we operate,” said Bacchus. “We’re from the rank-and-file.”

BMORE’s organizing got an unexpected jolt the following winter, when local and national media on Baltimore students trapped in freezing classrooms with broken heaters. Some schools never even opened due to malfunctioning boilers, while others sent children home early. BMORE quickly organized and sent a list of demands to the school board and school district CEO, signed by more than 1,500 supporters. The school CEO, Sonja Santelises, wrote BMORE back with gratitude for “fiercely advocating for solutions,” and the school district largely adopted their recommendations. The next month BMORE joined 20 other cities in hosting a Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, demanding things like more culturally competent curriculum and the hiring of more black educators.

Last summer BMORE leaders started discussing running their own candidates in the next union election—something that happens every three years. They decided to team up with another young social-justice group, the Caucus of Educators for Democracy and Equity (CEDE), and run jointly under the banner of The Union We Deserve. Diamonte Brown would run for president, and they’d run additional candidates—including Gaber and Duncan Evans—for the executive board. The Union We Deserve slate would compete against the Progressive Caucus, a slate that included Marietta English and which has held power in the union for years.

The insurgent candidates admit there are some things the BTU already does well. Baltimore teachers have some of the highest salaries in both Maryland and the nation, and their health-care benefits are notably strong. “At a time when people are going on strike over low wages and poor health care, the Progressive Caucus has pushed for even more salary increases and our good health care to get even better,” said Corey Debnam, the Progressive Caucus chair and a Baltimore educator for the last 19 years.

Still, the teachers with The Union We Deserve say they want more than an effective service union, and to prioritize more than just good pay, benefits, and professional development. They want to mobilize teachers into a political force for students and communities—through the ballot box, at the bargaining table, and through direct action.

“I taught American government for nine years, and 6,000 organized voters can really have a big impact on electoral politics when you look at the turnout in some of our races,” said Duncan Evans. Baltimore is a deep blue city, and in the last Democratic primary for mayor, the winner emerged with less than 2,500 votes.

Whether the new social-justice educators maintain control of the Baltimore Teachers Union will likely be resolved later this month.

Marietta English did not respond to a request for an interview, but sent a statement saying she is glad the American Federation of Teachers is coming to oversee an investigation. “As I have said numerous times, there were egregious violations throughout this campaign process,” she said. “I am confident that this investigation will allow all members to have their voices heard and restore the integrity of our elections.”

Sandra Davis, the chair of the union’s chapter for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel (PSRPs), and a member of the Progressive Caucus, told The Nation that this election is extremely unusual, and that in her 30 years as a Baltimore educator she’s “never seen anything like this.” If Brown’s presidency is upheld, Brown would serve over a joint-executive board—with the teacher chapter chaired by Duncan Evans, and the PRSP chapter chaired by Davis. “At this point, no one is including us,” said Davis. “We don’t have a clue what’s going on—we’re just in limbo.”

Davis and Debnam said union members contacted them to object to BMORE/CEDE supporters canvassing at their homes this past spring. The union’s election guidelines prohibit the BTU from sharing members’ personal contact information, leading some to view the canvassing as a violation of their privacy, even if BMORE/CEDE didn’t get the home addresses from the union itself.

“We have people who are really offended that someone late at night—at 6 or 7 PM, is coming to their home to campaign about an internal election,” Debnam said. “That’s just something we would never do.”

The Progressive Caucus is not just accusing BMORE/CEDE of wrongly canvassing at people’s homes. They also accuse them of illegally campaigning on school grounds. With additional election rules like prohibitions against teachers leaving campaign literature in educators’ mailboxes and sending campaign literature on work email accounts, candidates are left with few ways to actually reach prospective voters. Critics say that’s by design, to protect those already in power. Bacchus, who resigned in 2018 and now works with the Teachers’ Democracy Project full-time, said The Union We Deserve’s main goal throughout the campaign was to spread awareness about the upcoming election. “Most teachers don’t even know that every three years there’s an election for BTU leadership,” she said.

BMORE/CEDE, for their part, say the BTU leadership tried to suppress the vote before and during the election, in part by limiting voting hours, removing a voting location, and denying a bulk of absentee ballots. On Election Day, local media also covered complaints from educators who said the ballots on their voting machines were designed in a confusing way, formatted as if to encourage re-electing the incumbents. Debnam of the Progressive Caucus said all candidates had the opportunity to meet with the elections vendor beforehand to see how the ballot would be formatted. “We have no say in how the machine looks, that’s Elections USA, and now there’s this really disturbing narrative that it’s we who have done wrong when in reality we ran a fair and honest campaign,” he said.

Duncan Evans says she isn’t entirely surprised their caucus’s victory is being contested.  “The BTU has challenged elections in the past,” she said. “So I certainly knew this was in the realm of possibility.”

BMORE leaders say if the election results are upheld, then they hope to begin meeting with individual members, to revamp their union website, and to bring full-time organizers on staff.

“I’m looking forward to people understanding more about how a union works, but I think a large part of transparency means us listening,” said Duncan Evans. “This is all long overdue.

Conservatives Pushed a Strategy to Weaken Home Healthcare Unions. The Trump Administration Bit.

Originally published in The Intercept on May 31, 2019.
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EARLIER THIS MONTH, the Trump administration announced a new rule barring home health care workers from paying union dues through their Medicaid-funded wages. The new Department of Health and Human Services rule, which will impact more than 800,000 workers and was immediately met with a legal challenge, followed years of planning by anti-union activists to promote such measures in states across the country, and, more recently, on the federal level.

In anticipation of a crushing blow to public-sector unions by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer, conservative groups ramped up their efforts to bring the federal government’s attention to the issue of Medicaid-funded union dues, according to an audio recording obtained by The Intercept and Documented.

On an invitation-only call with donors last June, leaders with the State Policy Network — a corporate-backed umbrella group of right-wing think tanks across the country — raised the issue of directly deducting union dues from Medicaid-funded paychecks, what they call “dues-skimming.” Vinnie Vernuccio, a labor policy adviser to the State Policy Network told donors that its plan was to end this practice by getting “an administrative rule passed at Health and Human Services” and passing federal legislation with the assistance of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

The legislation has not yet come — despite a promise from McMorris Rodgers announced at the start of 2018 that she would introduce a bill to this effect. The Department of Health and Human Services, however, announced less than two months after the call that it would consider amending its Obama-era rule, which it ultimately did this May. On the call, Vernuccio touted that the State Policy Network “is the only group that’s driving this effort at a national level.” A spokesperson for McMorris Rodgers did not respond to requests for comment.

Others on the call were Rebecca Painter, the vice president of development for SPN; Tracie Sharp, the president and CEO; Todd Davidson, the senior director of strategic development for the network; and Jennifer Butler, an SPN senior policy adviser. None of the five call leaders returned The Intercept’s requests for comment. Instead, SPN spokesperson Carrie Conko reached out and said she would address any inquiries. She wrote in an email that her coalition plans to keep fighting in Washington “on behalf of those who would rather not see their hard earned money siphoned from their paychecks and into big union’s political and lobbying activities.”

The 45-minute call came about two weeks before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which struck down public-sector unions’ ability to charge fees to nonmembers who benefit from collective bargaining. SPN leaders voiced optimism that the case would bring them positive results.

“I want you to know that later this month, or any day now, the chances are good that we may actually have this unprecedented opportunity with the Janus Supreme Court case decision,” Sharp told her donors. “If it comes down on our side, of course, it makes every state a ‘right-to-work’ state. And so we have the opportunity to change the way the left funds everything that you and I disagree with.” At a different point on the call, she said, “Once this ruling comes down — and we do expect it to come down in our favor — everything will change. The door to pass a dream list of free-market reforms is going to swing open for us.” Vernuccio agreed. “Once the government union barrier is removed, everything else that matters to everyone on this call so much is that much closer within reach,” he said.

With a Janus victory in sight, an emboldened State Policy Network looked ahead to next steps, particularly taking the dues-skim fight from the states to Washington, D.C. SPN could “devolve power back to the states, communities, and most importantly, back to individuals,” Butler explained to the donors. “By harnessing all our expertise and all the resources at the federal level, we can stop this nationwide,” Vernuccio added. “So nothing really illustrates the power of SPN and the network better than what[‘s] gonna soon be a victory on the dues-skim.”

THE STATE POLICY Network’s first win on the dues-skim came in early 2013, just as Michigan became a “right-to-work” state. The SPN organization in Michigan, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, convinced state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to eliminate the ability of child care providers and home health care workers to deduct union dues from their paychecks.

The financial result has been devastating for unions: In the past seven years, SEIU Healthcare Michigan has seen an 84 percent drop membership and a 74 percent drop in revenue. Its political spending has also seen a major decline, from $3.5 million on lobbying and politics in 2012, to just $290,000 in 2016.

SEIU Healthcare Michigan spokesperson Adam Bingman told The Intercept that the rollback of protections for home health care workers has exacerbated the care crisis in his state. He’d recently gotten “two different calls from independent providers” who said they’re struggling to find qualified home health care workers. “The lack of union membership and the assault on home care workers, and those who rely on those services, has really hurt the ability to attract dedicated qualified home care professionals,” he said. According to Bingman, many home care workers have left to go work in nursing homes or find alternative employment.

While Michigan provided conservative activists a proof point of what’s possible with regards to weakening home health care unions, Republicans soon realized that passing similar measures in other states would not be as easy. “In Michigan, the Mackinac Center hit it out of the park; they stopped it,” said Vernuccio on the donor call. “But in a lot of other states, the political winds just simply didn’t align.”

Facing state-level opposition, the same conservative activists known for railing against federal intervention decided the time was necessary for federal intervention. Vernuccio explained how SPN “saw an opportunity to … harness everything that we learned” in Michigan and other states around stopping the so-called dues-skim and to bring that knowledge to D.C. “This means that states like California, Washington, Illinois that would need a huge political sea change to stop the skim at the state level will now have it stopped in D.C.,” he told the donors. “It also means that we’re focusing the firepower of the donations of people on the call and across the country — that instead of fighting an uphill battle in these states, we can win more quickly and more easily in Washington, D.C.”

Butler then shared that she had been taking caregivers to Congress to tell lawmakers how they’ve been affected by the dues-skim and unions. She cited a nearly half-hourlong meeting they had with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a few months prior. Federal disclosures show that Butler, on behalf of SPN, has lobbied the Senate, the House of Representatives, and Health and Human Services with the stated goal of ending the Medicaid dues-skim.

In April 2018, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc, chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, sent a letter to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma requesting that she look into the dues-skimming situation. His letter said that unions in 11 states were able to skim an estimated $200,000 in Medicaid payments each year, a statistic he attributed to a 2017 Mackinac Center policy brief. By August, Verma had announced that her agency was reconsidering the rule, and both Johnson and McMorris Rodgers submitted comments in favor of changing it.

The Mackinac Center cheered the Trump administration’s new rule, finally announced on May 2. “Ever since the Mackinac Center learned a decade ago of unions skimming funds from those caring for society’s most vulnerable — and in many cases, their own ailing family members — we began to actively seek to end this abhorrent practice,” said Joseph Lehman, the center’s president, in a statement. “This illegitimate action, negotiated between government and big unions, cost Michigan caregivers tens of millions of dollars. We were proud to litigate and bring an end to this practice for Michigan residents providing care to the disabled. Now, we celebrate with caregivers across the country who are finally afforded the same relief.”

A POWERPOINT PRESENTATION prepared by Heart+Mind Strategies for the State Policy Network in October 2017, and obtained by The Intercept and Documented, details carefully tested message research to help Republicans craft their talking points on this issue for lawmakers and the public. The research was conducted through a 25-minute online national survey between October 5 and 13, 2017, with over-samples in Texas, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

A “key messaging takeaway,” the consultants advised, was to be sure to not attack unions directly, as “they are seen positively by Americans” and most respondents “describe unions as fighting for higher wages and better benefits.” Only a minority of respondents, the consultants found, associate unions with “negative descriptors like corrupt, harmful, and dangerous.”

While the consultants acknowledged that “government labor unions” was the most effective way to negatively describe unions, even then they admitted that support for “government labor unions” was more positive than not. Still, the consultants said, “there are large groups of neutral Americans who can be moved on the issue.”

When it came to the dues-skimming issue, the consultants reported encouraging results for the Republican activists, saying that more than half of Americans oppose direct dues payments for government-funded home care workers and child care providers, and just half had existing knowledge of the policies. They found that most Americans have negative associations with the phrase “dues-skimming” — even before learning what it means.

To successfully fight direct union payments from child care workers and home care workers, the consultants advised activists to use messaging that included phrases like “as a condition of employment” or “forced to pay.” They also recommended focusing on language about taking money dedicated to people with disabilities and to avoid language around “growing the union’s treasure chest.” Coincidentally or not, the Department of Health and Human Services issued its new rule on similar lines, denying that it would interfere with voluntary union dues and insisting that it “in no way prevents” health care workers from paying dues to a union.

The Heart+Mind Strategies consultants also polled support for going through Health and Human Services to end the practice of union workers directly deducting their dues, and respondents supported the idea of the department sending a letter to states demanding that they end the practice by a 12-to-1 margin. This resembles the course of action the federal government ultimately pursued.

Conko, the SPN spokesperson, told The Intercept that the research from the PowerPoint presentation shows “that the general public agrees with us” about “right-to-work” laws and the Obama-era rule that allowed health home care workers to deduct union dues from their paychecks. Conko said the research was shared with state think tanks across the country and on SPN’s website, along with stories of workers “who wanted policymakers and others to know how the union’s practices were unfair and not always transparent.”

The messaging tips were consistent with SPN’s practices that The Intercept has previously reported on. The network has advised its member groups to avoid lodging direct attacks on unions because unions remain highly popular. Instead, SPN urged its state affiliates to stress that their efforts are about protecting workers’ “First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of association.”

Bingman of SEIU Healthcare Michigan said the dramatic attacks on workers’ rights have “ultimately underlined that elections have consequences.” He pointed to the election of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November and said that his union, “along with organized labor, are really looking forward to changing things both here in Michigan and on the federal level.”

Credder Hopes To Crowdsource Away Fake News

Originally published in Columbia Journalism Review on May 31, 2019.
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AS FACEBOOK AND TWITTER grapple with misinformation and conspiracies on their platforms, a new crop of startups have emerged to try and use Yelp-like ratings to identify and amplify trusted stories.

These user-powered sites include Our.News andTrustedNews. Last year, even Elon Musk pitched the idea of creating a site he called “Pravda”—a media credibility site for ranking journalists and outlets.

Credder (they “dish out credibility”)—which launched its public-facing beta on Monday—is perhaps the most developed. “We were the first ones here,” co-founder Chase Palmieri says. And they did start thinking about this idea before the 2016 election, when fake news became more of an issue. “Pravda was an idea on Twitter, that’s all it’s been. Elon is a pretty busy guy.”

The Credder team wants to provide readers a solution to clickbait and sensationalism that “doesn’t involve outsourcing their critical thinking” to an algorithm or another person—like a Facebook moderator. They say that having news outlets and social media platforms censor untrustworthy content on readers’ behalf strikes them as fairly draconian.

When Palmieri and his two co-founders Austin Walter and Jared Fesler graduated from California State University, Chico, they knew they wanted to start a business, but didn’t know what kind. They kept in touch, pitched each other on ideas, and worked other jobs.

Palmieri moved to Italy, but also continued to own a restaurant back in Petaluma, where he managed its Yelp page from abroad. He liked the way the reviews got him to change his business’s behavior. At the end of 2015, alarmed by the “rising amount of clickbait,” they set about making a product to evaluate the “trustworthiness” of news articles in a similar way. They want news producers to “compete for trust, not clicks”—and aspire to help drive traffic and revenue “to the people who are winning that game.” Their first adviser was Patrick Lee, the co-founder and former CEO of Rotten Tomatoes. Instead of a tomato icon, Credder uses a picture of cheddar cheese.  (Golden cheese for most trustworthy, moldy cheese for least.)

Users assess individual articles by ranking them between one star, for least trustworthy, and five stars for most. The next step is to decide whether an article was “credible”, “illogical”, “biased”, a “mistake” or “not credible.” Each of those five then has additional options. “Biased” prompts new choices like “Hit Piece,” “Religious Bias,” or “Financial Incentive.” Users then can explain their review in a text box before submitting.

The co-founders wanted it to be more nuanced than a five-star rating system, but still convenient enough that people would actually use it. Like Rotten Tomatoes, you can read reviews both by the general public and by professional journalists.

Unlike Yelp, where restaurants are reviewed, but not individual dishes, Credder users rate articles, not the outlet as a whole. But outlets and journalists are then also given their own composite scores.

Credder’s founders hope journalists will use the reviews to inform their writing, and be motivated to increase their trust score. If a journalist gets feedback that their headlines are too sensational, and their editor won’t change their practice, well, Palmieri says, “maybe the journalist might think about working for a different outlet.” He also hopes Credder will “protect, empower and connect news consumers on the go” by providing a way to warn each other about stories they should avoid or approach cautiously. Right now, they say, news consumers have little recourse to hold an outlet or reporter accountable for low-quality content.

As of last Friday, 2,619 users had created accounts on Credder, and 41 journalists. The co-founders expect distribution to be their biggest challenge.

But even if the idea takes off, it remains to be seen whether journalists will care about the feedback they get. As a writer often in progressive outlets, how would I know that people who rank my articles as untrustworthy aren’t just right-wing diehards looking to professionally damage journalists they blame for left-wing politics? After all, much of the erosion of trust in the media is rooted in partisanship; Democrats see most news as unbiased, while Republicans believe the opposite. And while trust in media is still down from earlier decades, it’s been making a comeback since it hit an all-time low in 2016.

Credder hopes to have a solution for this, too. It wants to hold reviewers accountable, allowing people to up-vote or down-vote reviews based on how helpful they found them, like comments on Reddit. And you can see when a user joined the site, how many reviews they’ve left in total, and how many of their reviews were up-voted as helpful.

Credder hopes to entice journalists to spend their time reviewing fellow journalists, too, by offering additional exposure and new audiences. More intriguing, however, Credder is planning to add a tipping feature, so readers could reward trustworthy writers, either one-time or on a recurring basis.

Another issue, as the editor of Monday Note, Frederic Filloux, pointed out, is that the number of movies and TV shows released last year in the United States is dwarfed by the number of news articles, making the comparison to Rotten Tomatoes somewhat distorted. The sheer number of reviews required to comprehensively evaluate the news is just a considerable challenge. Credder estimates they’ll need about 10,000 people to review an article every day, in order to get enough feedback to accurately rate most of the news produced from the world’s top 70 outlets.

The co-founders argue that journalists don’t really have meaningful ways to learn how individual articles were received. Reporters can look at the number of clicks, shares, time spent reading an article, and monthly site visits as a way to quantify success — but these are admittedly imperfect measures. And of course, people who respond to an article directly are disproportionately people who loved or hated it.

Still, as comforting as it is to think that a new tech tool may be just what readers need to navigate a confusing and deliberately misleading news environment, I can’t help but think of the doctored video of Nancy Pelosi slurring her words that Donald Trump circulated last week and Facebook refused to take down. As a top Facebook official put it, they wanted to empower users “to make their own informed choice about what to believe.”

There are no articles on Credder about that incident, and given the site’s infancy, it’s hard to know how that would have been assessed. But as New York Times tech columnist Charlie Warzel recently noted, “whether repeating the lie or attempting to knock it down, the dominant political narrative” for days after focused squarely on Pelosi’s health. No amount of fact checkers, negative Credder ratings, or “dislikes” can really counteract that millions of people have now seen the viral Pelosi hoax, and consciously or not, embedded those images in their brains.  

Which is to say, welcome Credder, it’ll be interesting to see where you go and how you grow. But to combat the powerful lies flooding the internet and shaping our discourse, titans like Facebook should still take responsibility.

Connecticut’s Democratic Governor is Stonewalling A Bill That Would Make Phone Calls From Prison Free

Originally published in The Intercept on May 23, 2019.
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CONNECTICUT GOV. NED LAMONT, a Democrat who grew his personal fortune through the telecommunications industry, is stonewalling a bill that would establish Connecticut as the first state in the nation to make phone calls from prison free for incarcerated people and their families.

Securus Technologies, the national prison telecommunications corporation that Connecticut has contracted with since 2012, has been quietly lobbying against the legislation for weeks, though it reversed course on Wednesday. Under pressure from Platinum Equity LLC — the private equity firm that owns the company — Securus announced in a letter that it was formally withdrawing its opposition to the bill.

But Securus’s reversal leaves the bill’s supporters with little time: With just two weeks left in the legislative session, they see Friday as the last day to advance the bill out of the House if it is to stand a shot of passing the Senate before the summer recess. Lamont, meanwhile, has yet to express support for the bill — which would require his signature — with his office citing vague objections over potential cost. Without his blessing, the bill’s backers say, it stands little shot of moving forward.

The legislation, which would protect in-person visiting rights, make phone calls and video conferencing free, and bar the state from taking any commission from those calls, advanced out the Connecticut House Judiciary Committee in early April. Around the same time, Securus hired two lobbyists on a $40,000 retainer to lobby Lamont’s office and the state Department of Correction between April 1 and September 30, according to a state ethics disclosure. The first hearing for the bill was on March 25.

Platinum Equity, which acquired Securus in 2017, has been under pressure for months from activists who say that it should end its relationship with Securus and other companies that profit from incarceration and detention. In February, Randi Weingarten, president of the nation’s second-largest teachers union, urged pension leaders to avoid private equity firms that benefit from mass incarceration.

In March, Platinum Equity told some of its investors that it would review the business practices of Securus and work to reform the company.

Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, a national nonprofit focused on ending the influence of commercial interests in the criminal justice system, drafted the Connecticut bill. She reached out to the private equity firm after learning of Securus’s lobbying last week to voice her concern. “I wanted to see if they would actually act in accordance with their claims that they are trying to get this company to act better,” she told The Intercept.

On Wednesday, Robert E. Pickens, the CEO of Securus, sent a letter to state Rep. Josh Elliott, the bill’s sponsor, saying that while they “previously opposed HB 6714, out of concern that it did not clearly indicate who would cover the cost of services once charges to consumers were waived,” they are now standing down “in the interest of good faith discussions with state officials regarding these issues.”

Securus also pledged to work with the state to ensure a “seamless and orderly transition” if the legislation were to pass, and acknowledged that its experience in New York City should allay concerns about a similar transition in Connecticut. (New York City, which also contracts with Securus, recently became the first city to make prison calls free, meaning that the city will assume the costs of paying for the phone services and will cede the $5 million it had annually collected in commission fees.) In its letter, Securus also said it was committed to working with Connecticut to “provide the most affordable services possible” and “downwardly adjusting call rates” in the event that the state eliminates its commission structure.

ACCORDING TO A 2019 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, Connecticut charges more for in-prison phone calls than any other state in the nation except for Arkansas. Advocates say the high rates are a function of state policymakers poorly negotiating telecommunications contract with Securus.

As a result of the proposed legislation, Securus and Connecticut officials recently met to discuss alternative ways to lower the costs of prison phone calls. The state’s current contract with Securus will continue through 2021, but the company said it would be willing to review and lower its rates before then. A 15-minute call from a Connecticut prison costs $3.65, nearly five times more than calls from prisons in neighboring states.

Mark Barnhill, a partner at Platinum Equity, told The Intercept that his firm asked Securus management to reach out to Elliot, the bill’s sponsor, and “clarify” that it is neither opposed to his bill nor concerned that it would cause any disruption in service. “We think it’s important for Securus to be neutral in the legislative discussion over who should pay for inmate telecommunications,” he said. “The company is able to fully support provision of services in either a customer-paid or state-paid model.”

Barnhill said Platinum Equity intervened because “we feel it’s important to help management transform the company and operate it as a responsible market leader.” He said they had not received pressure or questions from individual investors on this matter, though “in general, our investors are aware of the Securus investors and are relying on us to manage it properly.”

Tylek of Worth Rises told The Intercept that while she is glad that Securus pulled out its lobbyists and made its position on the bill neutral, she said, “They in no way deserve applause for this.” She added, “Thanks to their seven weeks of lobbying, we now have just two weeks to undo all the damage.”

Joanna Acocella, the vice president of corporate affairs for Securus, told The Intercept that “it is not accurate” to say that Securus has been lobbying against the bill for seven weeks, even while acknowledging that the company had been opposed to it. “Securus has been engaging in conversations with state officials about the impact of the legislation,” she said. “We have worked with a local firm to facilitate those conversations, requiring them to file lobbying registration under state law. Once we determined that calls could still be administered safely and effectively under the proposed legislation, we withdrew any previous opposition to the bill.”

DESPITE GETTING SECURUS to drop its formal opposition, Lamont has not yet endorsed the bill, with deputies citing vague objections over potential costs.

“With two weeks remaining until the end of the legislative session, offsetting the $13 million cost is an incredible challenge,” Maribel La Luz, a spokesperson for the governor, told The Intercept.

La Luz pointed to the state’s recent meeting with Securus in which they discussed renegotiating its contract. “With the combination of ongoing contract negotiations with the prison telephone services vendor, a rollout of tablets for people in prison over the next year, and longer-term budget planning [in] our legislature we’re working to reduce the cost of communication between people in prison and their families,” she said in an email.

State data shows that Connecticut residents currently pay about $15 million every year for prison phone calls, with $7.7 million given back to the state through commission fees. Some state officials have expressed concerns about losing those kickbacks, warning that they may have to cut vital positions and services — revealing how Connecticut relies on revenue extracted from incarcerated people and their families.

To ameliorate concerns over costs, Elliott refiled the legislation this week so that the two components of the bill that would have a fiscal impact would not take effect until October 1, 2021. “Yes, there’s a cost to the bill, but the cost is deferred,” said Tylek. “Pass the bill, and then you have two years to figure out how to pay for it.”

The estimated $13 million in cost, she added, represents just 1 percent of the $1.2 billion annual budget for the three impacted state agencies: the Department of Correction, the Department of Administrative Services, and the Judicial Department. Tylek predicts the total cost could be closer to $11.7 million if Connecticut adopts a similar pay structure to New York City.

A representative from the Connecticut Office of Fiscal Analysis confirmed that the amended bill would have “no cost or revenue loss” for the biennium period, according to an email sent on Monday to Elliott and reviewed by The Intercept.

A spokesperson for the Department of Correction, which is under Lamont’s control, told The Intercept that while the department is supportive of efforts to increase communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones, “these measures, however, do have budgetary implications which must be considered.”

State Rep. Steve Stafstrom, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told The Intercept, “We are working with the proponents of the bill and the Department of Correction to refine the language in order to move the bill forward.”

Elliott said he worries that Securus’s lobbying, which he also didn’t learn of until last week, has already caused insurmountable damage.

“I kept hearing concerns from the DOC about what some of these costs would be and threats that Securus would pull its service if the legislation were to pass and the arguments just seemed totally bogus,” he told The Intercept. “I didn’t understand how the DOC could make those claims and now it makes sense. Securus was just poisoning the well and trying to get the governor’s staff to essentially kill the bill.”

Elliott said he will continue to fight for the legislation this session and reintroduce it again next year if he has to.

“It doesn’t take much to kill an idea — all you have to do is put a little seed of fear in people’s minds,” he said. “Then if there is any concern over a bill, that usually dwarfs all the tangible benefits, and that’s really unfortunate.”