Liberal Governor, Divided Government

This article appeared in the summer 2016 issue of The American Prospect.

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In February, at the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, first-term Democratic Governor Tom Wolf readied himself for his second budget address. These were not normal times for Pennsylvania politics: The state had been operating without a budget for eight months, an unprecedented crisis as the Republican-controlled General Assembly fought with the governor’s office over issues of taxation, spending, and pension reform. As the impasse dragged on, school districts and nonprofit organizations across the state were forced to borrow money, lay off employees, and reduce social services.

“My fellow Pennsylvanians: Our Commonwealth is in crisis. A crisis that threatens our future,” Wolf declared from the podium. “This crisis is not about politics at all. This is about math.”

Wolf went on to outline the dramatic consequences he foresaw if state legislators failed to pass a budget that included sufficient spending increases. Thousands of teachers and guidance counselors would lose their jobs, he said. Classroom sizes would grow, and tens of thousands of children would lose access to early childhood education. The state would lose nearly $200 million in services for Pennsylvania’s seniors, and $180 million for those with mental illness and learning disabilities. From slashed funds for child care to shuttered domestic-violence shelters, the negative outcomes went on and on.

“This is not a threat. This is not political posturing. This is simply what the math tells us will happen if this crisis is not resolved,” Wolf stressed. “I didn’t run for this office to be party to the corner-cutting and budget gimmickry that got us into this mess. We can’t afford to play political games.”

Wolf’s speech aside, the problem facing Pennsylvania is most certainly about politics—and particularly the challenges of democratic governance in an era of deepening party polarization. While Republicans and Democrats have long staked out different positions on issues of public policy, political scientists are finding that the parties are even further apart than they’ve been in at least 50 years; this polarization has extended to the general public, too, resulting in increasingly partisan communal institutions and news media.

The story of Tom Wolf is the story of how a progressive, liberal Democrat attempts to govern in such an era, at a time when split government means something quite different than it did even a decade ago. The challenges Wolf wrestles with in Harrisburg, with the state’s most conservative legislature in modern history, in one of the most ideologically divided states in the union, are growing increasingly common across the country. They also mirror the challenges President Barack Obama faces in Washington, D.C., as he navigates a Republican-controlled Congress whose leadership has shown unprecedented determination in obstructing Obama’s initiatives and any attempts to broker compromises.

Wolf’s dilemma, then, is both a product of polarized times, and intensely personal: How can he advance a progressive agenda given the political landscape he inherited? What tools are at his disposal? What blame, if any, does he shoulder for a failure to get things done?


IN 2014, WOLF WAS ELECTED
 governor with a margin large enough to claim a mandate. Not only was he the first person in four decades to defeat a sitting Pennsylvania governor, ousting Republican incumbent Tom Corbett, but he won by ten percentage points. And while the budget impasse has largely defined Wolf’s time in office—dragging on for nine months between July 2015 and March 2016—he also found ways to promote progressive policies amidst the stalemate.

The 67-year-old businessman from south-central Pennsylvania had never before held elected office. The way he emphasized “math” and deemphasized politics in his budget address reflected the way he often describes his vision and responsibilities—for better or for worse. On the campaign trail, Tom Wolf ran on a platform to restore cuts to education, and to do so by passing an extraction tax on natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. Though angering many environmentalists and progressives, Wolf opted to embrace the booming fracking industry in his state.

Soon after taking office, Wolf expanded Medicaid, transitioning away from the complicated alternative system his Republican predecessor had implemented. Five hundred thousand beneficiaries were enrolled within his first year—in a far more streamlined and straightforward program than had existed before.

Pennsylvania is not a state that you would think of as being at the forefront of health-care issues, but now with Wolf, it is,” says Drew Altman, the president and CEO of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and a longtime friend of Wolf. “He stands out among governors when it comes to making health and health access top priorities.”

Wolf also signed a series of executive orders for political appointees and state workers, banning gifts to state officials and requiring that all state contracts with private-sector providers go through a bidding process. He declared a moratorium on the death penalty, granting temporary reprieves to 180 inmates on death row as a state task force formally reviews the policy. He also raised the minimum wage—mostly for state janitorial workers and part-time clerical staff—increasing their pay from $7.25 to $10.15 per hour. And in the wake of North Carolina’s passing a law that stripped rights from gay and transgender people, Wolf issued a pair of executive orders that expanded protections against discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. He wanted “to show the world that Pennsylvania is a welcoming place for everyone.”

But as G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, points out, Wolf simply “can’t make change for 12 million Pennsylvanians on his own.” His executive actions carry symbolic power, no doubt, but in practice they yield only limited impact. “For really big change,” Madonna says, “Wolf needs the legislature.”

And that’s where he runs into problems.


SHORTLY AFTER ENTERING
 office, Wolf introduced his budget proposal, which called for more than $1 billion in new education spending, a 5 percent natural gas extraction tax, property tax relief, and an increase to the state’s sales and personal income tax.

While widely seen as “ambitious,” this type of budget proposal, Madonna says, was not actually that unusual. “Governors don’t just put out their first-year agenda, they really try to put out a four-year-agenda,” he explains. “They’re laying out what they’re really trying to do now, and that could change by the end of the first year—you might have new issues, you could have a recession in the middle of your term, any number of things. But what he did was not unusual.”

The Republicans didn’t bite. When the GOP-controlled General Assembly sent Wolf its $30.2 billion budget bill late last June, they included no new taxes, and none of Wolf’s other stated priorities. Wolf struck it down—the first time a Pennsylvania governor vetoed an entire budget in modern history.

What followed were months of debates between lawmakers and the governor’s office over reforming the state’s pension system, the future of the state’s liquor system, tax redistribution, and education spending. As the impasse dragged on, school districts were forced to borrow roughly $900 million, and nonprofits across the state had to scale back.

“People were completely stressed out, and impact on morale was severe,” says Anne Gingerich, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations. “You had organizations with longtime staff that quit and went on to get other jobs because they couldn’t handle that instability.”

“Everyone has concerns about the state and health of our pension system—short- and long-term,” says Helen Gym, a Philadelphia City Council member and strong public schools advocate. “But that’s not an excuse. … If it weren’t pensions, honestly, it would be something else. The legislature is evading a central responsibility, and they hold our kids hostage as they fail to deliver required dollars to schools.”

Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, he’s been criticized for being aloof, for not investing enough in interpersonal relationships with members of Congress. If Obama would just invite Republicans out to golf, to grab a beer, or to dine a few evenings at the White House, the thinking went, then maybe the toxic political atmosphere that seems to derail political compromise could change.

But a lack of schmoozing is certainly not Tom Wolf’s problem. From the very start of his time in office, he began hosting policy breakfasts and lunches with members of the legislature from both parties. He regularly brought people into his office, and dropped by theirs, unannounced, throughout the week.

“I’ve never seen a governor who did so much reaching out to all the members of the legislature,” says State Representative Dan Frankel, the Democratic Caucus chair in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

T.J. Rooney, the former chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and a former member of the Pennsylvania House, says that Wolf and Obama are similar in that they are both progressive intellectuals. “But Governor Wolf’s approach with the legislature—and I say this in an endearing way—Tom’s approach was much more aggressive than the president’s approach,” he says. “I mean, literally, he spent weeks upon his inauguration walking from office to office to rank-and-file legislators to introduce himself and get to know them.” While Rooney acknowledges these entreaties have not yet “paid off in a big way,” he thinks that, over time, such gestures are not lost and forgotten.

But Stephen Miskin, the spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, views Wolf’s outreach as “absolutely insincere engagement.” While he admits that Wolf has gone and met with Republican and Democratic legislators more than Miskin has ever seen since he started in state politics in 1984, he argues that the governor’s courteousness and kindness just does not make up for doing “everything he can to undermine” Republicans.

As the stalemate stretched on, some pundits criticized Wolf, saying he was too beholden to unions and other progressive constituencies that helped elect him to office. Wolf certainly was no fan of the GOP’s proposals for pension reform. But by November, Wolf made clear that he would sign a pension-reform bill that included a traditional defined benefit plan for future state and public school employees combined with a 401(k)-style plan. The compromise framework also included large increases in education funding and made headway on restoring prior cuts to social services. The Senate passed this framework budget deal in December.

But Republican House leaders did not even let the bill come up for a vote. Mike Turzai, the House speaker—the same man who said that voter-ID laws would “allow” Mitt Romney to win Pennsylvania in 2012—canceled sessions twice before Christmas, and sent everyone home.

“We have legislation waiting for us to vote on. Yet, the House speaker decided not to hold session,” State Representative Ed Gainey, a Democrat, told thePittsburgh Post-Gazette in December. “It’s bewildering to me, especially when the impasse is wreaking havoc on social services, and schools are considering keeping their doors closed after the holidays. This is the height of irresponsibility.”

The unions had signaled that they would back the Senate budget framework, despite its pension-reform provisions. “SEIU members supported the overall budget framework reached by the governor and legislative leaders last year … despite strong reservations about some aspects of it, because it included significant investments in education and other priorities that are vital for our state’s future,” says Neal Bisno, the president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania.

Turzai and his allies claimed they didn’t bring the budget up for a vote because it wasn’t clear how the spending bill would be funded. In fact, the leaders generally understood where the revenues would come from; they just didn’t like it. Still, with no final bill to sign, Wolf was forced to pass a stop-gap budget, as the talks dragged on.

Meeting with the governor in April, I asked him what has most surprised him about his time in office so far. “I was surprised when I thought we had a deal back in December,” Wolf told me. “I understood that when I wrote my first budget, … it was very ‘ambitious’—as the Republicans kept reminding me. I understood I wasn’t going to get all that. But when I got to the fall and I had gotten what I thought was a good compromise—I had made concessions and they had made some good concessions themselves—and it passed the Senate 43–7, I was surprised when the leadership pulled the plug and said, ‘We’re going to go home.’ Yeah, that was a surprise.”

The nine-month impasse finally ended in March, when Wolf allowed a budget to pass into law without his signature—a budget he said that adds to the deficit, and underfunds key programs throughout the state. “I cannot in good conscience attach my name to a budget that simply does not add up,” Wolf said at a press conference. “But to allow us to move on to face budget challenges of 2016-17, I am going to allow [it] to become law.”

Wolf’s problem is not only that he’s dealing with large Republican majorities in the House and Senate, but also with legislators who are markedly more conservative than the Republicans who preceded them. 

“Wolf can work with the Senate, there’s still sanity there—but the inability to deliver in the House is the biggest impediment that he faces,” says Rooney.

“I’m becoming particularly pessimistic that we’re going to get a budget that deals with the structural deficit,” says Frankel, the House Democratic Caucus chair. “I just don’t see Republicans cooperating to get a sustainable fix. I think we’ll get a smoke and mirrors budget.”

Indeed, while the General Assembly ultimately avoided another long budget impasse—House and Senate leaders came together to pass a budget that Wolf signed into law earlier this month—many of the state’s long-term fiscal issues remain unaddressed. While Wolf had initially proposed a $2.7 billion budget that would have reduced the state’s structural deficit, lawmakers ultimately approved a budget of just $1.3 billion, though it did include a new $1-per-pack cigarette tax, something few had expected to pass in an election year.

 

BORN AND RAISED IN York County, Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf grew up in a world of comfort. His wealthy family was well known locally: They ran a successful kitchen-cabinet business, regularly fundraised for political candidates, and donated often to charitable causes.

Wolf has a reputation for being an avid reader and a serious intellectual (when I met him, he was finishing up Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom). He sees himself as a “curious human being” and believes books help him ask better questions.

He went to Dartmouth for his undergraduate education, though he took some time off to volunteer with the Peace Corps in Orissa, India. He went to the University of London for his master’s, where he met Frances, his wife of 40 years. Next, he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a doctorate in political science, where he wrote a national-award-winning dissertation on the structural change in the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite his love for learning, friends say it would be a mistake to think he just holed himself up in the library. “Tom was a revered graduate student, such a wonderful human, and so nice,” says Drew Altman, a fellow grad student from MIT who played intramural sports with Wolf. “He just had such a winning personality. It was sometimes even a little bit annoying to people.”

After graduate school, to the surprise of many of his academic colleagues, Wolf headed back to York to help run his family’s business. Seven years after his return, he and two cousins bought the company, WOLF, from Wolf’s retiring father, and over the next two decades the profitable business continued to expand—employing some 600 workers, who, as a consequence of the company’s unusually conscientious profit-sharing program, reaped between 20 percent and 30 percent of its profits. The company grew to become the largest supplier of kitchen and bath cabinets in the United States, and on the campaign trail, Wolf cited his successful business record and his generous management style as proof of his leadership credentials.

“Although he’s a very wealthy fellow, he really does not bring to the table some of the far-right-wing positions that wealthy Pennsylvanians and wealthy Americans tend to,” says David Fillman, the executive director of AFS-CME Council 13. “Governor Wolf is very labor-friendly, and it’s just been very refreshing.”

Friends and colleagues talk about Wolf’s “strong moral compass.” Raised in a household that taught him that his privilege obligates him to give back and work for the greater good, Wolf donates his entire government salary to charity. He speaks excitedly about democracy, and calls public servants “stewards of a grand democratic tradition.” He prioritizes ethics reforms like gift bans, increased government transparency, and campaign-finance overhauls. While he won every county in the Democratic primary, Wolf acknowledges that turnout of eligible voters was extremely low. His ultimate goal, he says, is to restore trust in government so more people will exercise their fundamental responsibility of citizenship.

In 2015, InsideGov, a government research organization, ranked Tom Wolf as the most liberal governor in America, based on a review of his public statements, press releases, campaign platforms, and voting records. But if you talk to Wolf, he doesn’t see himself as very ideological at all. He insists that his progressive values are just outgrowths of his pragmatic character, shaped by his years at MIT and in the private sector. Being a progressive, he says, is really just about doing the “smart” thing.

He cites his recent nondiscrimination executive order as an example. “That’s not a dogmatic thing; that’s just something that makes common sense,” he tells me. “When I’m in business and I want good talent in my company, why would I want to limit the talent pool by saying I’m only going to look at people who, say, look like me? You don’t do that. You want the best possible people you can [get]. If they work hard, they’re willing to take risks, you want that person.”

There’s a political logic to Wolf’s attempts to position himself as non-ideological, rather than as a liberal progressive. While Pennsylvania leans slightly Democratic, the western part of the state tends to be more culturally Midwestern and politically conservative. And, as Madonna explains, there are also a handful of Democrats in the southwestern region of Pennsylvania who represent districts that have been trending Republican over the past decade. These Democrats are not just conservative on social issues like guns and abortion, but increasingly on fiscal issues as well. Many of these constituents would have been in an uproar if their leaders backed the general tax hikes that Wolf put forth.

But sometimes Wolf’s claims of being above partisanship and ideology have felt grating, even insensitive. He regularly uses phrases like “let’s be honest with ourselves” and urges legislators to do the “right thing”—meaning the thing he thinks needs to be done. He describes his job as “helping people understand” the mathematical issues at hand. He tells me his international hero is Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, because he really “took that idea of pragmatism, of goodness.”

“We have a governor who literally believes he is an emperor,” says Miskin, the GOP spokesperson. “He issues decrees and gets upset when people don’t agree with him.”

WHEN I ASKED WOLF if there were things he’d like to get done while in office in order to feel like his time there was a success, he said yes, but “done the right way.” For him, “transactional politics”—which he defines as the day-to-day work of being in office—are less important to him. “I care more about making lives better, making my home state a lot better, and taking advantage of all the great things we have here, than I do about whether this moves bills forward at this pace. I care more about making sure we do it right, and the math adds up.”

He looks at his margin of victory as evidence that the voters also want him to lead in this way. “It’s liberating. I can do what I think is right, and I think people voted for me because they thought that’s the kind of person I am,” Wolf says. “I’m not as concerned with what people think about me as I’m concerned if I’m doing the right thing—whether my daughters and my wife respect me after I make a decision. Those things are a lot more important to me.”

But not everyone is so pleased with Wolf’s confidence to move at his own pace. Cynthia Figueroa, the president of Congreso de Latinos Unidos in Philadelphia, a multi-service organization located in the poorest ZIP code in the state, witnessed firsthand how difficult it was to provide social services during the budget impasse. Figueroa’s organization had to furlough staff, reduce programming, and delay the start of other initiatives that normally would have been funded at the start of the fiscal cycle. Congreso de Latinos Unidos in Philadelphia has been around for nearly 40 years, and Figueroa says that while she spoke out and pushed state leaders to take action, a lot of other organizations “were suffering in silence” because they didn’t want to scare off their individual donor base, and worried their government contracts might be transferred to other people if they made an outcry.

When I asked her if she felt like leaders in Harrisburg really understood the ramifications of their failure to pass a budget, she said absolutely not. “It was a lot of men digging their heels in, a lot of ego,” she says. “It really felt like it was playing poker with poor people’s lives.”

Samantha Balbier, the executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership, a coalition of 420 nonprofits in Southwestern Pennsylvania, says that they found that nonprofits that were not Medicaid-reimbursable, with budgets less than $10 million, were hit particularly hard by the impasse—organizations such as senior-care service providers, domestic-violence shelters, and some drug and alcohol facilities. While Balbier’s organization is encouraged that Wolf recognizes both the importance of restoring human-services funding and how the impasse cost nonprofits money, she says there’s still a lot of concern that “there could be a precedent set where the budget is just never passed on time, and where Pennsylvania politics emulate what happens on the federal level.”

IN HIS FINAL STATE OF the Union address, President Obama issued a call to end gerrymandering. “We’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” he declared.

Pennsylvania is considered one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the union. After the 2010 elections, Keystone State Republicans helped redraw the lines around competitive areas to make them swing more easily in their favor. In 2012, Republicans took nearly 75 percent of the state’s congressional seats—13 out of 18—though more than half of all votes cast in the state during that election for the U.S. House were for Democrats.

“Due to gerrymandering, our districts are not competitive, and so the legislatures are unaccountable—especially the leadership,” says Barry Kauffman, the executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. “They don’t feel the voters anymore. They know they will get re-elected, and they can be as ideologically pure as they want and refuse to negotiate.”

Common Cause Pennsylvania is part of a statewide coalition of civic groups advocating for redistricting reform. Their long-term goal is to establish an independent redistricting commission, which will prevent sitting legislators from drawing district lines for political gain. “We want it to be people who don’t have a specific dog in the fight, and who will ensure the districts are equal in population, compact, and contiguous,” says Kauffman. Creating more-competitive elections, advocates say, will lead to greater accountability.

The two states with model independent commissions are Arizona and California, and in both cases, voters won this reform through statewide initiatives. Since Pennsylvania has no such process, advocates anticipate a much longer, and tougher, fight.

Still, there is reason to think that Pennsylvania’s new era of polarization is rooted in factors that extend beyond gerrymandering. Democratic legislators in the southwestern part of the state, after all, have grown more conservative because their constituents have grown more conservative. Political scientists have measured the ideological position of congressional members and found that representatives in gerrymandered districts are not more extreme than those in others.

Today, there are 19 other states like Pennsylvania where control of the governorship, state Senate, and state House is split between the two parties. Republicans control both the executive and legislative branches in 23 states, compared with just seven Democratic-controlled states. The states that are entirely GOP-controlled have moved their policies sharply rightward; states like California and Oregon, which are controlled by Democrats, have grown far more liberal.

“Redistricting couldn’t hurt, creating more moderate districts would help, but I think more political scientists see this as a problem of where the voters in the two parties are geographically located,” says Paul Pierson, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. Even if districts were redrawn, there’s reason to assume that many districts would still lean heavily Democratic and heavily Republican given where these voters tend to live.

So what is to be done? The challenges facing Wolf in Pennsylvania look a lot like the challenges facing the president in Washington, D.C. And on the federal level, there are various tools at legislators’ disposal, like the filibuster, that can make gridlock even more likely. Where possible, Obama has effectively opted to work without Congress during his second term, issuing presidential orders and letting the courts weigh in on whether his actions were appropriate uses of executive power.

“I’ve learned a lot from Obama,” Wolf tells me. “I think the executive order is something that I have the right to do, and I can exercise my veto pen.” Unlike the president, the governor can also use his line-item veto power to pick and choose which parts of the budget he likes. “The governor is not afraid to avail himself of the constitutional provisions of his office,” says Rooney.

Historically, American political parties were more ideologically diverse and diffuse; it was not uncommon to find more conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans in their ranks. “Now, the parties act much more like coherent teams, and they all take the same positions and back the same people and oppose the other side,” says Pierson. “It’s really hard to figure out how you get this process to go in reverse. A lot of political scientists are asking what would shift this and I haven’t heard a lot of good ideas.”

In January, seven months into the budget impasse, a Franklin & Marshall College poll found that two out of three Pennsylvania voters felt their state was on the wrong track. According to an analysis conducted by a local newspaper, this marked the highest voter dissatisfaction rate in the 21 years that F&M had conducted this poll. Poll respondents placed more blame on the state House and Senate for failing to pass a budget, rather than the governor. The legislature received a 15 percent voter approval rate, compared with Wolf’s 33 percent.

But a Quinnipiac University poll released in April found Wolf earning his worst approval ratings since he first took office. Among Republicans, 75 percent said they disapproved of Wolf’s job performance, and so did 49 percent of independents. Among Democrats, 59 percent approved of his performance. Whether the gridlock will weaken him to the point that he will face a serious challenge in 2018 remains to be seen.

Overall, these broad political dynamics do not bode well for liberals. The more that citizens think the system is rigged—either that their votes don’t really count because of gerrymandering or that nothing will ever get done because of gridlock—the greater is the likelihood that voters will disengage entirely, creating a downward spiral of popular engagement.

The effect of “this kind of dysfunction is not neutral between the parties,” says Pierson. “If I become alienated and think government is not working, on balance, I think that would be more advantageous to the anti-government party.”

Tom Wolf is caught in a hard place, in a tough moment for national, state, and local politics. But he says he’s enjoyed every minute of the time he’s been in office. It’s important to do more than “make the trains run on time,” he tells me, in a reference to Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. “You’ve got to make the trains run on times in the democratic context. You’ve got to do it right. I think we politicians today lose sight of that second dimension. We’re stewards of a grand democratic tradition.”

 

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Interview with Representative Donna Edwards

Originally published on April 25th in In These Times as part of a larger interview series with progressive political challengers.
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DONNA EDWARDS

BACKGROUND: U.S. Representative for Maryland’s 4th District since 2008, attorney, and first executive director and co-founder of the National Network to End Domestic Violence

THE RACE: U.S. Senate, Maryland

Donna Edwards, 57, is facing off against fellow Congress member Rep. Chris Van Hollen in the April 26 primary. Of the two, only Edwards voted in favor of the Congressional Progressive Caucus 2016 budget. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Edwards was not endorsed by the famously corporate-friendly Congressional Black Caucus PAC. In response to that failure to endorse, the racial justice group Color of Change began circulating a petition in March asking people to call on the CBC PAC to remake their board, because the current board is dominated by lobbyists who represent corporations “that are notorious for mistreatment and exploitation of Black people, including private prisons, big tobacco and the anti-worker companies that make up the National Restaurant Association.”

KEY ENDORSEMENTS: Progressive Democrats of America and Democracy for America, UNITE HERE, International Association of Machinists, NOW
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Why are you running for Senate?

DONNA EDWARDS: I’m running for the Senate to give a voice to average working people in Maryland. People like single moms and young men who maybe messed up and want to restart their lives, and our seniors and veterans and small businesses and women and minority-owned businesses who need a voice at the table where public policy is made. And my life experience as a working person gives me an important voice that’s missing from the United States Senate.

What are the three most important issues facing America today that should be addressed in the Democratic Party platform and how are you proposing to address those issues?

You start with an education system that’s very flawed, in which depending on what zip code you’re in, you get a better education than the next kid. That hampers your ability to get a job and get a start in the economy and earn your way into the middle class. We have to create jobs and opportunity through investing in our transportation and our infrastructure, and jobs for the 21st century, and stop trading them away to our competitors. We have trade policies that really disadvantage average American workers.

And we have to deal with changing the economic processes in our urban communities. That goes from improving law enforcement and pursuing community-based relationships, to getting guns off of our streets, to educating and training and creating jobs in the urban core. If we do that, we will strengthen the rest of the country.

How have social movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy and climate change activism influenced your campaign?

I’ve always believed in outside movements, because I think that government doesn’t move effectively and elected officials don’t move effectively unless they have a big push from the outside. Black Lives Matter, for example, has certainly changed the conversation when it comes to mass incarceration, law enforcement and improving young black men and women’s prospects.

Look at climate change. We would not elevate these concerns about climate change if the young people around this country didn’t say “we want an earth that’s available to all of us and for future generations,” and really compel us to act. So I very much believe in organizations pushing the envelope for policymakers, holding us accountable. That will make me a better senator, and it will get us better policies.

Bernie Sanders campaign has galvanized young progressive voters across the country and attracted a lot of independent support. What are the lessons here for the Democrats and for your campaign in particular?

My campaign has focused on energizing and organizing people who sometimes sit outside the political process because they don’t believe it’s about them. We have let them know that I intend to have their voice in the United States Senate. And they’re responding to that.

We’ve done that by pushing against this party establishment that really just wants to anoint and appoint the next successor to [incumbent Maryland Sen.] Barbara Mikulski, and people are standing up and saying “no, that’s not the way we do it.” We want to make sure that the voices of working women, black women, young people, our seniors and our veterans are heard in public policy. And they’re showing up in waves of volunteers and small donors.

What is your campaign doing to bring more people into the political process?

We’ve spent a lot of time getting to know people who are running community-based organizations that are under the radar—like those working with ex-offenders and registering ex-offenders, who can now vote in the state of Maryland, so they have a voice. We’ve spent time with single moms and working moms who are struggling to make ends meet. We’ve reached out to some people who say, “You know, I’ve never voted before,” or “I only vote sometimes, but I believe in you and I believe in us and I’m prepared to vote.” And we’ve been organizing and working on college campuses to draw in young people, to make sure that they feel like they’re part of this campaign. All of those things are why I’m ahead in the polls.

Democrats have lost their majorities in both the House and Senate. What do you think the Democratic Party needs to do to gain them back?

Number one, we should not run away from who we are as Democrats and the values that we share. We should be the party standing up to protect and expand Social Security and Medicare; we should be the party that’s creating middle-class jobs and making sure that college is affordable so that our young people can realize their aspirations. We need to be the Democratic Party that works for working people. When we do that, people respond.

I go back to Shirley Chisholm; when she was first elected to the House of Representatives, she said, “If they don’t put a seat at the table, bring your folding chair.” And so we’re going to take folding chairs into the Senate so the voices of ordinary working people get heard.

Why do you think you’re a more qualified candidate than Chris Van Hollen, the U.S. representative from Maryland who is also running for Mikulski’s seat?

In addition to being a lawyer and having worked in the private sector as a systems engineer and analyst for Lockheed Martin, I’m a mom who has raised a child alone. I understand the struggles of working people. Mr. Van Hollen and I have very similar voting records. But we have different priorities. I prioritize fighting against bad trade deals that trade away jobs and opportunities for the American people, fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare from dangerous cuts, standing up to the National Rifle Association to pass sensible gun laws to get these guns off our streets so that 88 people a day don’t lose their lives to senseless gun violence. I’m going to be a fighter for working people.

Republicans have managed to secure important down-ticket and off-year electoral victories; how can Democrats build strong state and local party organizations?

We can start by electing people who understand how to organize and galvanize our electorate, and how to stand for something, so that people know that there is somebody in there who has got their back. I’m that kind of candidate. And when I win that Senate seat, that’s going to translate into down-ballot victories all across our state, in the off-year, off-cycle election.

We lose elections because our voters stay home. So our challenge is to make sure that people are mobilized and organized and energized on Election Day, because we have candidates out there who are speaking to their concerns, speaking to their needs and willing to go to bat for them. When voters know that, they’re willing to come to the polls on Election Day.

Sanders has struggled with winning over people of color and a generation of women who find inspiration in the Hillary Clinton’s struggles and accomplishments; Clinton has struggled with youth voters and the party’s left base. What sort of bold, progressive platform can unite these constituencies in November and in years to come? 

I think the primary race and the battle that is being fought in the Democratic Party is one that’s about substance and values. I’m absolutely confident that if either of the two candidates wins the nomination, that they will win the general election in November because they do have bold ideas. Sometimes they differ, and this primary race has really brought to the fore some of those really bold ideas—on college affordability, on how to bring back jobs and opportunities to the middle class, on how to deal with income inequality. So I feel really confident about our candidates, about their messages, and about the boldness of the ideas that they have.

I endorsed Hillary Clinton. I believe in her candidacy, and frankly, I believe in the candidacy and the power of women. I am running for the U.S. Senate; there are 100 senators, and 20 are women, and only one is a woman of color. There hasn’t been a black woman in the Senate in 22 years, since Carol Moseley Braun. I am proud that she [Braun] has endorsed me and supports my campaign, and I am going to be the next one.

We need more women, not fewer, in political power, and I would like to see that in the highest office in the land, the presidency.

When the Democratic Party chooses its nominee in Philadelphia, the party will come together for the November election. What stands in the way of Sanders supporters and Hillary supporters working together under the Democratic Party big tent?

Nothing. We have a set of shared values as Democrats that are really about fighting for the interests of middle-class families and people who have struggled to enter the middle class. Senator Sanders carries that commitment, and Secretary Clinton carries that commitment. Come November 2016, not only are we going to be on the same page, but we’re going to be winning an election for working people.

Why DeRay Mckesson’s Mayoral Candidacy Will Be Defined Far More By Education than Policing

Originally published in Slate on February 12th, 2016.
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N
ews of mayoral runs usually don’t merit the attention that Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson got when he announced his candidacy for Baltimore’s top job last week. His campaign had leaked the story to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian in advance, and within 24 hours, he had already crowd-funded $40,000.

National publications began speculating how Mckesson’s candidacy would elevate police reform onto Baltimore’s political agenda, the implication being that it wasn’t already a top priority in the race. It absolutely is: Nearly 10 months after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody, and after one of the most crime-ridden years Baltimore’s seen in decades, few topics are more prominent. So what, exactly, will Mckesson bring to the election?

Mckesson joins 12 other Democrats competing in April’s primary, the winner of which will almost certainly go on to win in November. But though Mckesson’s large Twitter following may be eager to see how he’ll carry his national Black Lives Matter work into Charm City, I suspect they’ll be in for a surprise. What’s going to distinguish Mckesson probably won’t be policing and criminal justice at all—it’ll be education.

Nationally, school reform is an issue that confounds political partisans, opening fault lines among progressive allies and uniting constituencies that typically never agree. Reform is even more complicated in Baltimore; the city stands as a distinctively unusual landscape for education politics next to other, similar urban centers.

Already, Mckesson has signaled that he plans to campaign on education, which isn’t surprising since that’s where the 30-year-old cut his professional teeth. After graduating college, he spent two years teaching sixth graders in Brooklyn followed by several stints with education nonprofits, reform organizations, and administrative district jobs. But Mckesson brings to the race some national baggage, which he’ll have to confront as he tries to make his case to Baltimore voters. Specifically, residents have already raised questions about his ties to national reform groups like TNTP and Teach for America, as well as his enthusiastic support for charter schools.

So far, Mckesson has largely dismissed these concerns. He’s reminded the public that he’s spent several years working with the Baltimore school district as an administrator focused on staffing personnel. Still, he’ll have to reckon with local education politics that have changed substantially since he left his job back in 2013.

For example, a few months ago a coalition of charter operators filed a lawsuit against the school district over funding—a highly controversial move that’s divided Baltimore public school families. The city is also in the midst of closing down more than two-dozen schools, and the next mayor will need to determine what becomes of the vacant buildings. Will they be sold off? Will they be leased to charter schools? Will they be repurposed into some other civic entity? These decisions are sure to intensify an already-fraught K-12 landscape.

The main thing to grasp about Baltimore’s education environment is that it’s pretty unique. All charter teachers are unionized, unlike most charter employees in other states. Moreover, Maryland charter schools—which are predominately mom-and-pop institutions, not larger charter-school chains—are subject to more oversight and regulation than charters elsewhere. While reformers say they’d like to see Maryland charters freed from these legal constraints, supporters of the status quo say that tougher oversight explains why Maryland charter schools have never wrought the kind of fraud, mismanagement, and abuse found in other jurisdictions.

What Mckesson will soon have to decide is whether he is committed to keeping Baltimore’s charter sector as is—with unionized teachers, a close relationship to the school district, and substantial oversight—or join the coalition of charter operators and national education reform groups that seek to significantly revamp chartering in Maryland. That decision may also force him to choose between competing groups that may try to back him. Some national charter networks have expressed disinterest in setting up shop in Baltimore, namely because they don’t want to work within the school district and employ unionized teachers. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a D.C.-based organization, consistently ranks Maryland as the worst charter school state in the country, largely for these same reasons.

Yet within Baltimore, both traditional teachers and charter teachers alike strongly support Maryland’s charter law—and rallied together last year to protest reformers’ attempts to change it. The Center for Education Reform, another national group, hired lobbyists to push for loosening Maryland’s regulations. They were ultimately unsuccessful, but the fight is expected to resurface again soon.

On Friday, Mckesson released his education campaign platform—a substantive list of proposals ranging from expanding early childhood education to strengthening college and career readiness programs. He calls for increasing the school district’s transparency (a common theme among all the candidates) and more equitable state financing. He notably doesn’t mention anything about unions or charter schools, but Mckesson won’t be able to shy away from that charged debate for long.

When news broke that Mckesson would be running, some Baltimore activists, particularly those who have been fighting for police reform, protested on Twitter—a surprise to some outside the city, given his national stature within Black Lives Matter. Among other things, locals argue that Mckesson lacks sufficient relationships with the communities he now seeks to lead.

In many ways, their critiques mirror those that veteran public school educators level at Teach for America—that outside young teachers without roots in the cities they work in displace those who have more of a right, and need, to be there. And despite Mckesson’s early campaign efforts to brand himself as a “son of Baltimore,” some local activists have said they’ve rarely seen him fighting alongside them in the causes they’ve been invested in for years, like building independent black institutions and weakening the Maryland police union. (Mckesson defended himself against these charges, saying “there are many ways to engage in the work.”)

A few weeks ago, 11 Democratic candidates gathered together for a mayoral forum to discuss their political vision for Baltimore. One audience member asked the candidates, “How will you stop police from killing black people?” Answers varied somewhat, but all in all, they were broadly similar. The candidates spoke of strengthening civilian review boards, getting body cameras on all police, transforming the way Baltimore recruits and trains officers, establishing more transparent accountability systems, pushing for more police to formally live within the city, mandating cultural diversity training and regular psychiatric evaluations, and calling for convictions for those who break the rules.

In other words, Mckesson is entering a crowded field of candidates who likely share many of his police reform policy goals. Some hope that Mckesson’s candidacy will encourage others to articulate even sharper campaign proposals. Perhaps, and that would be a good thing. But it was already an issue that no candidate was really ignoring—and certainly one that no future mayor can expect to avoid.

So despite to Black Lives Matter’s national work, that aspect of his candidacy is unlikely to be too disruptive in the race. It’ll be where his campaign intersects with the school-reform movement, and specifically how local education politics rub up against his national ties, that could really shake things up.

Why Civic Tech Can’t Be Neutral

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 10th, 2015.
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Catherine Bracy speaking at Personal Democracy Forum. | photo by Rachel M. Cohen

Catherine Bracy speaking at Personal Democracy Forum. | photo by Rachel M. Cohen

Technology in the service of democracy—“civic tech”—has become the cause of a growing number of coders, hackers, political strategists, non-profit executives, activists and others who come together at an annual conference called the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF). The most recent meeting in New York City on June 4 and 5 attracted about 850 participants. But as that meeting showed, the civic-tech world is divided on a fundamental question. Some strive to avoid anything that could appear partisan or ideological, while others believe that civic tech’s shared vision cannot come to fruition without challenging power.

PDF’s co-founders, Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej took a clear position: “Civic tech cannot be neutral,” they said.

“When a few have more than ever before, and many are asking for equal rights and dignity, civic tech cannot be simply about improving basic government services, like making it easier to know when the next bus is coming or helping you file your benefits more quickly,” Sifry and Rasiej wrote in a packet given to each conference attendee. While these innovations are helpful and represent the present focus of civic tech, PDF’s co-founders insist that those innocuous steps cannot define its future—not when the barriers to political participation are so divided by class, race, and geography.

Eric Liu, the founder and CEO of Citizen University also argued that impartiality is unacceptable and called for the civic tech community to focus its efforts on giving real meaning to the concept of equal citizenship. Liu urged the participants to ask themselves, “Am I developing work, tools, power, and ideas that actually help those who do not have access get access, those who do not have voice, get voice?”

Other speakers offered a vision of social change through collaboration. “Imagine how we can reshape the future of work together in humane and kind ways,” said Palak Shah, the Social Innovations Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), who aims to improve labor conditions through market-based solutions. Shah tries to bring about “creative collisions” between “nannies and coders, activists and hackers” to build a mutually beneficial future for businesses and social movements.

One afternoon I attended a PDF breakout session called “Understanding and Overcoming Barriers to Participation”—a panel of researchers and experts exploring how to engage more people in civic life. Jon Sotsky, the director of strategy and assessment at the Knight Foundation, discussed some of his organization’s new research findings on millennials and voting. According to this research, while young people overwhelmingly believe they can have a greater impact locally, they are far more likely to vote in national elections. Sotsky attributed the lower rate of voting to a lack of good voting information at the local level—a problem, he said, the Knight Foundation will be addressing through new projects aimed at creating more comprehensive repositories of civic information.

No doubt we should conduct more research and improve local civic information. Whether that will actually make a difference in voter turnout is another matter.

“Technology cannot solve the big stuff, even if sometimes we’d like to believe it can,” Sotsky said, in one of the conference’s more humble moments. Technology’s role in these situations, he suggested, could be to help foster attachment between residents and communities, deepen social networks, and support the value of voting.

But we’ve already seen what can happen when the tech world turns to politics, as it did in the conflicts over SOPA, PIPA, and net neutrality. What if the same energy was directed towards removing voting restrictions?

There’s a lot about civic inequality that we already know. Some barriers to participation may be reduced through better-targeted education programs and redesigned civic forums. But political inequality is not something that will be solved by an app. There’s no Uber for voting. For the marginalized to have more power, others will have to relinquish some control, and we can’t escape or obfuscate that discussion.

Minimum Wage Measures Pass Easily in Four Red States

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 5, 2014.
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A
s devastating as Tuesday night’s election was for Democrats—Republicans took control of the Senate and won a number of key governor racesit was actually an encouraging night for the progressive economic agenda. In four red states—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota—minimum wage ballot initiatives all passed easily. In San Francisco, voters overwhelmingly passed a $15 minimum wage—with notably little opposition from the business community. And in Illinois, voters sent a clear message through a non-binding advisory initiative that they want lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, and fast.

Increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 has been a major economic priority for President Barack Obama, part of his effort to curb the nation’s rising levels of inequality. (Under Obama’s plan, year-round, full-time minimum-wage workers would go from making $15,080 per year to $21,008.) Yet ever since April, when congressional Republicans mobilized to block wage-hike legislation, progress on the federal level has gone nowhere.

In light of this, it’s interesting to see a state like South Dakota—a state that hasn’t supported a Democrat for president in decades—vote to raise the wage by a 53 percent margin. The initiative will result in 62,000 South Dakotans taking home higher paychecks. In an email to The American Prospect, Zach Crago, executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, said, “It’s about rewarding hard work with an honest wage. That message resonates with South Dakotans. Republican candidates oppose it at their own peril.”

Minimum wage initiatives were so popular among voters leading up to the election that even Republican candidates like Alaska gubernatorial candidate Dan Sullivan had to say they’d vote for a minimum wage increase. Sullivan did just that, despite his having opposed it before the primary. Alaska’s minimum wage initiative passed with nearly 69 percent of the vote. Ed Flanagan, a leader of the Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage campaign, told The American Prospect that while the campaign faced no real organized opposition, the conservative state legislature could still try and repeal the law in two years—a move they pulled on Alaskan voters back in 2002. But given the high percentage of Alaskans who voted to raise the wage, Flanagan hopes state lawmakers “will think twice about messing with the will of the people.”

In Arkansas, Republican U.S. Representative Tom Cotton, during his campaign for U.S. Senate, stayed mum for months on a potential minimum wage increase until it became so popular with Arkansas voters that he finally felt compelled to come out in September to back it. Cotton won his Senate race last night, but so did the minimum wage—with 65% of Arkansas voters supporting the ballot initiative.

Exit polls for states where minimum wage initiatives weren’t on the ballot also showed high levels of support for future increases. In Wisconsin, although Scott Walker was re-elected, and has consistently opposed increasing the minimum wage, a solid majority of Wisconsin voters said they’d like to see it raised higher than $7.25.

Undoubtedly, it was a damning night for the Democratic Party, but the picture isn’t entirely bleak for progressives. Exit polls reveal that 63 percent of voters believe the U.S. economic system favors the rich; this highlights a much larger national frustration for politicians to organize around. Arun Ivatury, a senior strategist with the National Employment Law Project Action Fund, told The American Prospect that, going forward, politicians who embrace economic populism “will run away from the pack in 2016, when the electorate looks much more like America. Those who don’t will be bypassed. It’s our job to make sure people know who is who.”

The Politics of Pre-K in the Pennsylvania Governor Race

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 22, 2014.
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In Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race, education has emerged as one of the most heated issues. A Quinnipiac University poll released this month found education ranked as the most important issue for voters, after jobs and the economy. Despite contentious politics surrounding reform of public education from kindergarten through twelfth grade, Republican incumbent Tom Corbett and Democratic challenger Tom Wolf have discovered that plugging expansion of pre-kindergarten programs wins them political points without treading into treacherous waters. That is, as long as they don’t mention the mothers who will inevitably benefit, too.

The governor’s record is haunted by his 2011 budget, from which he cut nearly $900 million in public education funds—a decrease of more than 10 percent. The severe cuts have garnered national attention, particularly for Philadelphia—the state’s largest school district—which wrestled with a $304 million cut this past school year. Last year, a GOP research firm conducted a secret poll and found 69 percent of Pennsylvanians felt the state’s public education system is on the “wrong track;” 64 percent blamed Corbett.

Corbett, in turn, is trying to blame his predecessor, Democrat Ed Rendell, who infused temporary economic stimulus money into the education budget. But many voters don’t have patience for these defenses: They understand that class sizes have increased, that art, music and advanced placement offerings have been reduced, and that thousands of teachers—not to mention many counselors, nurses, librarians, and administrative staffers—have lost their jobs on Corbett’s watch.

Given education’s importance to Pennsylvania voters, the Corbett campaign has released ads lauding the governor for having “increased spending in the education department by $1.5 billion.” But this increase really came about because Pennsylvania is now paying more toward employee retirement plans, an obligationset by the state legislature.

While education debates typically center on polarizing issues such as charter schools, standardized tests and teacher unions, both candidates have found modest political respite by promoting a seemingly innocuous preschool agenda. Each campaign has created TV ads and sent direct mailings to voters about its candidate’s commitment to early-childhood education. Wolf’s platform includes the creation of a universal program, and Corbett has advertised the $10 million budget increase he oversaw to expand pre-K access.

None of this would have been possible without the launch of the Pre-K for PA campaign, a well-organized nonpartisan effort designed to educate the Pennsylvania public, policymakers, and those running for public office about the benefits of early-childhood education. According to Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, none of the candidates running in the gubernatorial primaries were taking up this issue at all until the Pre-K for PA campaign started to organize at campaign stops and hold their own public events in areas of high voter concentration.

“By the time we reached the Democratic primaries, [the candidates] all started falling all over each other in support of pre-K,” said Cooper. “And then Corbett did it, too, because it was seen as a safe issue.”

Although President Barack Obama has called for the creation of a universal pre-K program, the influx of business groups that support early childhood education on the grounds of workforce preparation has turned it into a relatively bipartisan aim. Some of the most highly regarded models of quality preschool in the nation, in fact, are in two red states: Oklahoma and Alabama. In April, the president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama came to Philadelphia to discuss the ways in which Alabama’s business community worked to develop his state’s pre-K system.

Although President Barack Obama has called for the creation of a universal pre-K program, the influx of business groups that support early childhood education on the grounds of workforce preparation has turned it into a relatively bipartisan aim. Some of the most highly regarded models of quality preschool in the nation, in fact, are in two red states: Oklahoma and Alabama. In April, the president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama came to Philadelphia to discuss the ways in which Alabama’s business community worked to develop his state’s pre-K system.

Pre-K for PA has also employed economic rhetoric. In an open letter sent to both candidates in May, the campaign stressed:

Pre-K for PA has the support of many business leaders throughout the commonwealth. Among those leaders we are proud that [Comcast Executive Vice President] David L. Cohen penned an op-ed published last month in The Philadelphia Inquirer that stated: “Early-childhood education is not just a ‘nice to have’—it is an educational, moral and societal imperative essential to building the workforce of the future.”

But advocates know that early childhood education would impact far more than just our future labor market. While studies have documented the role pre-K can play in aiding the intellectual development of children, research has also shown how a pre-K expansion would significantly benefit low-income families, particularly poor women.

Mothers who have regular childcare are far more likely to stay employed. Moreover, a continuous work history correlates with better pay and benefits, but women often have to interrupt their careers because of a lack of steady childcare. An expansion of high quality pre-K would mean women would not only be more likely to keep their jobs, but also advance their careers.

Yet the candidates generally avoid these talking points. Even Wolf, with a 24-point lead, is quick to tell audiences that pre-K is “not just about social welfare.” In policy papers, leaders of the Pre-K for PA campaign have acknowledged that early childhood education is a boon to needier families, but they, too, seek to frame their public messaging to encompass all families, not just those that are low-income or headed by single parents.

“We don’t want to create a class conflict around this,” said Cooper, who points out that it’s a “broad coalition” that goes to the polls. Citing the pre-K model of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, which aimed to make pre-K available to everyone, Cooper said that universal pre-K “makes every family a stakeholder.”

No doubt, given the Keystone State’s education budget crisis, enacting a major pre-K plan would be politically challenging. One could reasonably argue that ignoring mothers on the campaign trail, in a state with a large conservative contingent, is perhaps the only way to build critical support for early childhood education.

But this shouldn’t be taken at face value; the terms in which pre-K is framed, and the justifications provided for it, will inevitably affect the substance of the policy. Early childhood education has garnered tremendous political momentum, but it may have come at a price.

“I wish candidates would make that connection between women’s need to work and families’ need to have access to quality early childhood education, because it’s critical,” said Tam St. Claire, the president of the Bucks County Women’s Advocacy Coalition, a Pennsylvania coalition of non-profits and individuals that serve women and girls. “If we are expecting women to be economically self-sufficient, then we have to have systems and institutions that support the demands women have on themselves now.”

Debasri Ghosh, the director of education and communications at Women’s Way, a Philadelphia-based women’s and girls’ advocacy organization, points out that not only is pre-K important for children but “it’s also an incredibly stabilizing force for women and their families.” And a lack of accessible and affordable childcare, Ghosh explains, “can perpetuate the existing wage gap between men and women.”

Looking beyond Corbett and Wolf, the Pre-K for PA campaign is working to move big political donors, as well as candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives in Pennsylvania and nearby states. And a new survey reveals that 64 percent of voters support increased funding for pre-K programs in Pennsylvania. The stakes are high: In a state where only 18 percent of three- and four-year-olds currently have access to high quality early-childhood education—and where 13.6 percent of single mothers with minor children are unemployed—the campaign’s outcome could dramatically impact not only those in Pennsylvania, but children, families and women across the country.

The Future of Civics Education in Israel

Originally published in the Daily Beast on April 26, 2013.

The Israeli Finance Ministry’s new budget proposal states, among other things, that ultra-Orthodox schools will need to dedicate at least 55 percent of school hours to teaching the Ministry’s core curriculum if they wish to receive any state funds.

Though there are many serious, substantive problems in Israeli education that necessitate reform, and not all of them will be remedied by this new proposal, the bill does plan to address one fundamental problem facing the future of a democratic Israeli citizenry: civic education.

This past summer I traveled to Israel to learn more about how they teach civic education. I wanted to understand if and how the Israeli government fosters a sense of civic solidarity amongst Israelis who are divided into sometimes quite distinct public schools. Public schools, from a Durkheimian sociological perspective, are institutions meant to cultivate citizens—individuals with a shared understanding of norms, values and expectations of their society.

Within Israeli public education there exist four main school systems: an ultra-Orthodox system, a national religious system, a secular system and an Arab system. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the total number of students in the education system is expected to grow from 1.579 million students in 2013 to 1.695 million students by 2017—an increase of approximately 7.3 percent, at an annual growth rate of 1.83 percent.

The ultra-Orthodox student population is the fastest growing in Israel, with an average annual growth rate of 5.7 percent. The Arab student population, with an average annual growth of 3.4 percent, is the second fastest growing demographic. It is projected that by 2017, ultra-Orthodox and Arab students will make up 44 percent of all Israeli students. By comparison, the secular education system showed an annual growth rate of 0.1 percent.

The Executive Director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Research in Israel, Dr. Dan Ben-David, has been studying these population trends. If Ben-David’s findings continue on their current trajectory, it is projected that by the year 2040, 78 percent of primary school students will study in either ultra-Orthodox or Arab school systems.

There is nothing wrong with a changing demography, but it is important to ensure that there is an educational structure in place to prepare any and all citizens to participate in democratic society. As it stands now, ultra-Orthodox students are the only segment of Israeli society not required to formally study civics; this includes topics like minority rights, free speech and voting. The democratic future of Israel is already at risk, and this seems to add yet another unhelpful variable.

When I asked a representative from the Ministry of Education if this seems to present a great future challenge for socializing citizens, she replied, “Oh yes. It’s a big problem. But there are lot of politics involved so it is very hard to change.”

However, it seems as though the politics might indeed be changing. Newly appointed Education Minister Shai Piron said recently that he would refuse to fund institutions that do not teach civics, math and English. He declared, “The State cannot fund something that goes against its interests.

To be sure, organizations are already coming out to say that the proposal does not go far enough. Hiddush, an NGO that promotes the separation of synagogue and state, has criticized the bill, saying that it’s essentially “meaningless” because schools would only have to integrate 4-6 hours a week of core curriculum—an hour or less a day. Given that the core curriculum includes subjects like English, mathematics, science and Hebrew, it is unclear how these would be divided, and what role civics would play in such a division.

In Israel, policymakers are looking for a more equitable way to share both the resources from, and the maintenance of, a modern Western society. Addressing the role that the ultra-Orthodox play is a key step in that process. But when thinking about Israel’s future, it is important that civics be strongly prioritized as well. It is, arguably, most “core” of all.

Solitary Confinement and Jewish Organizations

Published originally in New Voices Magazine on January 24, 2012 and reprinted in Solitary Watch.

If community is a foundation of Jewish life, what does Judaism have to say about solitary confinement, the forcible separation of a person from the community? A few months ago I began an internship with Solitary Watch, an investigative news organization dedicated to reporting on solitary confinement. Once I got started, I became interested in learning more about the work the American Jewish community organizes around this issue.

It turns out there is a lot of work being done, though it started quite recently. Beginning in 2012,T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (recently renamed from Rabbis for Human Rights-North America), a coalition of 1,800 rabbis, and Uri L’Tzedek, a prominent liberal Modern Orthodox social justice organization, have both made the issue of solitary confinement a prominent part of their advocacy efforts.

Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment where individuals are subjected to approximately 22-24 hours per day of isolated lockdown in tiny cells. Many Americans mistakenly believe that solitary confinement is used sparingly, only for the most dangerous or threatening prisoners. However, according the American Civil Liberties Union, there are more than 80,000 men, women and children currently in some sort of solitary confinement in United States prisons. Many have a mental illness or cognitive disability, and the majority has been placed there for nonviolent violations of prison rules.

The costs of solitary confinement are much higher than housing inmates in the general prison population. Mississippi recently reduced the number of prisoners it holds in solitary from 1,000 to about 150, and closed down their high-security Supermax unit. According to the ACLU, the reforms are saving Mississippi’s taxpayers approximately $8 million per year.

That economic perspective on solitary confinement is important, but there is a moral perspective to consider as well – and that is where the religious community can add a unique voice to the national conversation.

“We’re looking to provide some moral weight to the solitary confinement conversation by applying Jewish values,” said Shlomo Bolts, a prison consultant from Uri L’Tzedek.

“Sympathy for prisoners is not the most common sentiment amongst the American public. People do not want to be seen as weak or soft on crime,” said Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “In the Torah however, it clearly says that if someone asks for forgiveness three times and you don’t forgive them, then the onus is on you. In Judaism we believe in repentance and that punishments don’t go on forever.”

While Uri L’Tzedek and T’ruah approach the issue of solitary confinement from a distinctly Jewish perspective, the scope of both groups’ work on the issue extends well beyond the Jewish community.

“We don’t want to make this a Jewish issue. We want to make it an American issue. As Americans we’re allowing for it to happen, we’re paying for it with our tax dollars,” said Kahn-Troster.

“We want to apply the Jewish values we learn to help all people,” said Bolts.

The two groups are part of a growing movement against solitary confinement. A feeling that the status quo is simply untenable is circulating in religious communities and among the politically engaged in general; change, while it may not be imminent, feels inevitable.

“This is an exciting time. We really do see ourselves as being a force to help pass legislation to abolish or reduce solitary confinement,” said Bolts.

In June, Senator Dick Durban (D-IL) led a congressional hearing on solitary confinement, the first in American history. The hearing focused on the human rights issues associated with isolation, the economic implications of solitary confinement and the psychological impact on inmates during and after their imprisonment.

Both T’ruah and Uri L’Tzedek contributed written testimony to the hearings. They also participated in the National Day of Fasting, an interfaith effort to raise awareness of the significance of the congressional hearing.

“Fasting serves as a way to repent and bear witness. For me to be at the congressional hearing, sitting with a group of religious leaders fasting was a very powerful experience,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster.

Fasting also serves as an act of solidarity with prisoners in solitary confinement, for whom hunger strikes are often the only available form of protest.

“I think about the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay [a California Supermax facility]. They get poor food, and then they refuse to eat it in order to draw attention to their situation. When I fasted it really hit home what these people must be going through,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster.

T’ruah and Uri L’Tzedek are also working with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Founded in 2006 and comprised of more than 300 religious organizations, the campaign organizes protests against different forms of torture employed by the U.S., including those used at sites like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

Turning her organization’s focus toward solitary confinement now “seems like a natural outgrowth of our torture work,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster.

Uri L’Tzedek and T’ruah now face the task of motivating American Jews to get more involved with the issue. Despite a history of involvement in a wide variety of social justice causes, the American Jewish community has generally avoided issues of prison reform.

“There is this misconception that Jews are somehow not incarcerated, yet Jews go to prison for the same reasons as everyone else,” said Chaplain Gary Friedman, chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International, an organization that provides advocacy and spiritual services to Jewish prisoners and their families. Friedman estimates there are approximately 12,000-15,000 Jews in American prisons today, including some in solitary confinement.

Uri L’Tzedek’s approach to raising awareness is a mix of traditional advocacy combined with social science research led by the Tag Institute, a British-based think tank driven by Jewish social values. Among other things, Tag’s research seeks to generate quantitative survey data on the Jewish community’s perceptions of prisons and punitive punishment –and to find the most effective ways of organizing Jewish communities to advocate for humane alternatives to solitary confinement.

Meanwhile, T’ruah is mobilizing its network of 1,800 rabbis to raise the consciousness of members of their respective communities on the issue – and hopefully to inspire some activism about solitary confinement within their communities

As solitary confinement becomes an increasingly mainstream human rights issue, the work of the Jewish community is likely to grow and inspire further activism.

As it says in the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a), “Either companionship or death.”

Judaism and Politics

Originally published in New Voices on December 10, 2012

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The Forward’s Artist-in-ResidenceEli Valley just published a comic about a recent episode at Bnai Jeshurun, a non-denominational, liberal synagogue in New York City. The rabbis had sent out an email to their congregants praising the U.N. Palestinian vote, and then, after intense media coverage and mixed reactions from the community, they later apologized and said they regretted their decision to send this email. The rabbis wrote that their original email “did not honor the diversity of viewpoints in their community.”

I had the opportunity to meet Eli at this year’s New Voices student journalism conference and learned about the general political lens through which he interprets current events. In his new comic he contends that while the rabbis certainly say that Judaism can be a guide for moral clarity, in the face of political pressure they find themselves, “retracting, apologizing, and begging for forgiveness from [their] donor base.”

If I were a member of Bnai Jershurun, I might feel uncomfortable or offended by this comic. It could be read as a personal attack on their rabbis, their congregants, or on the eccentric nature of their spiritual environment. But I am not a member of that synagogue and I did not read it that way.

I read it not about the rabbis of Bnai Jershurun, but about rabbis in general.  I don’t think this comic would be so evocative unless it captured a larger phenomenon that many more Jews, living outside of the Upper West Side, are also grappling with.

Rabbis are leaders of their Jewish communities, and so one could say that they need to profess views that are sufficiently representative of their congregants. One could maintain that Jewish leaders must make efforts to ensure that everyone feels safe and comfortable.

Community and comfort are really important. To feel alienated is lonely and confusing.

But I wonder if we have come to a point where we’re so fearful of alienating people that we are unable to take strong, moral positions during situations in which a response is needed. The recent silence from the American Jewish community on Netanyahu’s decision to build settlements in E-1 is an unfortunate, yet sobering example.

Maybe the tension stems from the fact that political leaders and Jewish leaders aren’t supposed to lead in the same way, and yet in so many instances, they do. I would expect, and demand that politicians work to represent the views of their constituencies. In the face of enormous political pressure, watching politicians cave can sometimes be beautiful examples of our democracy at work—a government by the people for the people.

But if rabbis are leading congregations based on the lessons they’ve internalized from their years of studying Jewish moral teachings, then political pressure or even communal discomfort are questionable, and unsettling reasons to cave.

I suppose one solution could be for us to say, “Well, synagogues shouldn’t be so political anyway. Jews hold different views, they are all relatively valid, and rabbis shouldn’t assume that they can speak on behalf of others.  Let’s create a safe space for people to come together, and let’s leave politics out of it.”

This is an understandable and tempting idea. And yet, I wonder if those same people would say synagogues should also refrain from encouraging support for the state of Israel. My guess would be no. But what if there are congregants who feel alienated by certain Pro-Israel statements? Then the question becomes which political statements will be tolerated in synagogues and which will not be. Who draws that line?

What are the roles of our Jewish leaders, really? To represent us? To teach us? Is Judaism meant to provide us with answers to the tough ethical and political quandaries we currently face? Can it?

I don’t quite know what role exactly Judaism plays in politics anymore. It seems as though everyone has their own opinions and perspectives, and every email sent out has to be crafted quite carefully so as not to offend individuals or cause anyone discomfort. The price we pay for this however, I’m not so sure.

The Importance of the Youth Vote

Originally published in the JHU Politik on 11/5/12

In 1971, Congress passed the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This guaranteed that all American citizens ages 18 and older could vote in U.S. federal elections. Today there are 46 million people who fall into the so-called “youth voting bloc”—consisting of those between the ages of 18 and 29—and make up 21% of the eligible U.S. voting population. Take those numbers and compare them to the mere 39 million seniors who are eligible to vote.

In spite of our numerical advantage, youth are often disparaged for being apathetic and ill informed by politicians who do not believe in young peoples’ willingness to vote. However, the fact is that we represent a major subset of the electorate and should represent ourselves as such.

There is hope. Youth voting turnout has gone up in the past several election cycles. According to the Center For Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, youth turnout in 2008 rose to 52%, an increase of 4 percentage points from the 2004 presidential election. We also know, thanks to research conducted by Richard Niemi and Michael J. Hanmer, that voting turnout among college students is traditionally higher than that of non-college educated youth. Despite these positive trends, youth turnout, college educated or not, still lags behind all other age demographics.

The question remains: Why? Why do so many young people choose not to not engage in our democratic process?

Some people argue that youth are engaging, albeit in different ways. For example, our generation volunteers in record numbers. According to a study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, young people volunteer at nearly twice the rate of adults, 55% to 29%. Additionally, this study found that altruism is the driving motivator of youth volunteerism. Young people strongly agreed with statements such as, “I would like to help make the world a better place,” and “It’s important to do things for others.” We do want to improve our communities, but it seems that some want to bypass “politics” along the way.

For many young people who are volunteering but not voting, politics has come to be seen as something distasteful, smarmy, petty, and synthetic. Even readers of the JHU Politik, students that have an interest in politics, may still sympathize with the way many of our peers have come to view politics. Our political process is often characterized by financial corruption, thirst for power, and dishonesty.

Even if this position is understandable, it is not an excuse to disengage. For the sake of social change and for the sake of the survival of our democratic system, citizens have to take ownership of their responsibility to vote. The onus is partially on the politically active youth to do a better job of explaining to them why they should vote. However, ultimately as citizens it is our responsibility to participate.

As President Garfield said in 1877, “Now more than ever before, the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness and corruption. If it be intelligent, brave and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them in the national legislature.”

The youth of this country need to demonstrate that if they want to change the world through altruistic aspirations, which we know they do, then it is impossible to do so without also engaging in the political process. Community service and volunteering is important, but, as the old truism goes, you cannot end world hunger by serving soup in a soup kitchen. We’ll never get stronger environmental conservation laws by cleaning up a park one day on the weekend. We’ll never shed the need for inner-city tutors unless we legislate serious educational reform. Those things have intrinsic value, but to make lasting changes we need to work within our existing, although imperfect, political system.

It is not only our responsibility to vote, but also to help make that message clear to all U.S. citizens. So tomorrow, please vote and help everyone you know to vote as well.