Sunday, November 30, 2014

Three Moments

Three moments in time.

In early 2008 I ran into a man I'd worked with years earlier, when he was AMFAC's General Counsel. (I'll call him GC.) He and his family lived in Hawaii then. I'd represented AMFAC in several cases, and GC and I became friends.

When we talked in 2008 he told me a story from 35 years earlier. His daughter, who attended Punahou High School, was going to prom with a black student. Neither GC nor his wife cared about skin color, but his mother was from a different generation, and from the South. They wondered how she'd react.

When he arrived, the young man placed a lei around each lady's neck, as is customary in Hawaii. He and the girl left. GC looked curiously at his mother, who exclaimed, “Wasn't that just the nicest young Hawaiian boy!” The boy's name was Barack. Yep.

In 1975, I was a newspaper reporter here. One night I rode along with the first female police officer in Las Cruces. A call came over the radio regarding an apparent burglary in progress. A man whose neighbors were away had reported seeing lights on in the home. She and a male officer (whom I'll call Joe) riding with us radioed in that they'd respond.

We sped to the address given. Lights, but no siren. The house was completely dark.

I stayed very close to the two officers. With hair down to my belt, I might be mistaken for a burglar by later-arriving officers. Inside, a hallway with doors leading to bedrooms and a bathroom. We started down the hallway, quietly and very attentively. A door opened near the end of the hallway. Female officer ducked through a doorway into a room. Reporter ducked through a doorway. Joe had nowhere to go. A tall fellow emerged. Joe crouched and pointed his gun at him. Tall fellow (a friend the owners hadn't told their neighbors about) raised his hands, sleepily. Joe didn't fire.

Joe and I talked later about how close he'd come to shooting the guy. Joe was still shaking. I came from a civil rights / antiwar background and wasn't averse to criticizing police; but if tall fellow, startled, had reacted with some quick motion, and Joe had shot him, my testimony would have supported Joe. Joe could very reasonably have thought that tall fellow, whom we had reason to suppose was a burglar, was fixing to shoot him.

Finally, back in 1968, I was a college dropout working with black kids in New York City. The night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I was at a night class on childhood mental illness. I was pretty blown away by the news. Walking toward the Lower East Side, completely numb, I passed some guys sitting on a stoop. Our eyes met, and maybe I shook my head to express my reaction to the evening's news. They beckoned me toward them. In a daze, I approached. One of them reached out as if to give me something. I put my hand out. Then it looked like he was going to stub out a lit cigarette on my palm, and I jerked my hand back. I watched something fall to the ground, as if in slow motion: the joint he'd tried to hand me. I picked up the joint and smoked with them awhile.

Focused on the assassination, and on the black-white tension it would spark, I'd made a dumb assumption.

We assume a lot – particularly about what we don't know.

As I write this, tomorrow is Thanksgiving. I'm thankful about much, including such moments and what they've taught me.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 30 November.]

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Can't We All Just Get Along?

We'd all like a more civil and cooperative local government. We're neighbors, members of a community, and we ought not to ape the Washington gridlock.


First, we need to be able to talk with each other – and listen to each other. We should learn to make clear that in rejecting someone's argument we don't reject him or her – and to recognize that disagreeing with us doesn't make someone an implacable enemy. Few people, if any, are purely evil, and neither wanting a living wage for workers nor believing we can afford to pay a living wage sounds evil.

Randy Harris's “Great Conversations” is a helpful model. In the minimum-wage debate, councilors dragged it in so late that many perceived it as just part of a scheme to delay the initiative (which it would have done). I'd have liked to see Randy called in earlier: we could have used a face-to-face, candid, fact-based discussion by all sides on what level of raise was right and why. Candid but civil.
Maybe the City should routinely utilize some form of Great Conversation. Not a work-session, where councilors and mayor sit high above us. More human, interactive.

On the other hand, recall is a tool to use very sparingly. We generally shouldn't use it merely because we disagree with someone. I disagree strongly with many officials' votes and actions, but I'm not shouting “Recall!” (I'd reserve recall for officials like David Gutierrez, who've seriously misbehaved.)

Now, some local businessfolk, after calling lifelong resident Sarah Nolan an outside agitator, have hired a young fellow from Illinois, Jeffrey Isbell, to run a campaign to recall three councilors. Isbell, 28, lives in Illinois, where he reportedly (a) ran for Williamson County Commissioner in the 2012 Republican primary, finishing a distant 4th with 314 votes (5.16%!), and (b) still has an outstanding court judgment against him from an unpaid $1,573 debt. He's not even a registered voter here, but has been hired to tell us how we ought to run Las Cruces.

Isbell's anonymous bosses will spend a lot of money, probably blanket the media with ludicrous attack ads, and perhaps even win. Meanwhile they'll waste a lot of public money, destroy the political fabric of Las Cruces, and divide the town. (It's no wonder that so far they're keeping their names out of it. Paying some fellow to do their dirty work.)

It's ironic that (so far as I've heard) CAFé hasn't moved toward recalling anyone, even though certain councilors are trying to violate the spirit, and arguably the substance, of the City Charter, and thwart what they've admitted is the public will. (The initiative/petition process mandated the Council enact the ordinance without change, and councilors did so while proposing substantive changes – and still propose to seriously weaken it before the ordinance ever takes effect.) Greg Smith shouldn't even be voting on the minimum-wage issue because of a pretty basic conflict of interest, but I'm not advocating recall.

Recall means a special election, which costs money. If the recall succeeds, and someone new is placed in office, the other side could soon circulate another recall petition. We could have an endless series of unproductive elections. Simmering tempers would explode. But what does some kid from Illinois care? Somebody will pay him for his labors, and then he'll go somewhere else. Maybe Maryland, to organize against marriage equality.

I applaud the Mayor's comment, that although he often disagrees with the counselors, he stands with them against recall.

If we come so close to blowing ourselves up over the minimum wage, how will we solve even more important problems we face, such as water?


[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 23 November.]

[This recall effort is embarrassing.  The people who are actually behind it are too ashamed to put their own names on it.

[Mayor Ken Miyagashima's comments on Facebook were blunt, correct, and perhaps courageous.  Miyagashima himself is a small businessman who has doubts about the wisdom of raising the minimum wage above $8.50 any time soon.  Since he crafted a compromise a while back (keep the ordinance as it is, except to include notice that the council will reconsider the issue next July), he has resisted a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle moves by councilors to delay the ordinance's January 1 start-date.
To the newspaper story about the recall effort, he commented on Facebook: "I don't know who this organization is, but this is wrong!  You might as well add my name to this recall because I stand with my colleagues -- Sorg, Small, and Pedroza, we may not always agree, but we work out our differences.  I will be helping raise money for them (councilors) and will openly campaign for them (councilors) to retain their seats!"
Good for him!] 
[This might be a good time to mention -- as I will often if the recall silliness persists, because recall proponents are already telling untruths about their targets -- that the three councilors are competent, honorable, caring, thoughtful, and hard-working representatives of their districts who've been elected and re-elected in those districts.  (Recall proponents will depend on a huge influx of cash to defame the three, because (a) all three have served their districts well and (b) by all accounts, the issue -- minimum-wage hike -- is popular with the people. (Other councilors said so when deciding not to let a vote of the citizens happen on this.
Nathan Small is a smart, friendly young fellow who's been incredibly active representing his district on the council and representing the City in Santa Fe and Washington.  Olga Pedroza, a lawyer, has brought legal acumen and thoughtful questioning to the council meetings.  Gill Sorg has worked well beyond the call of duty, particularly in examining critical issues such as water.  Mr. Isbell, on one of his many radio appearances this week, appeared to mock Sorg for regarding climate change as an important issue we mustn't ignore.   Fine, but a vast majority of climate scientists and a noticeable majority of voters agree generally with Sorg.  I've found all three councilors to be honest and caring -- as well as very diligent and competent.] 

[Although the column mentions that Isbell's a stranger here, I don't mean to suggest for a moment that being from elsewhere bars someone from commenting on our politics here.  As a civil rights worker down South, I never saw the point in people calling me an "outside agitator."  Some folks loved me and some folks hated me, without even knowing me; but to me the point seemed, "Am I right?"   However: (a) the folks who hired Isbell have been railing against "outsiders" for months; (b) there's a lot he doesn't know, and he got many details wrong while talking on the radio this week; and (c) when he used phrases such as "We did . . ." or "We thought . . ." in discussing events that took place months before he could spell "Las Cruces," he sounded a little false.  But let's listen to him.  Closing our ears because he's an outsider is silly.  On the other hand, if he just doesn't make much sense, . . .]

[Truly, what we're seeing is one more battle between big money (likely much of it from the outside) and local people.  One hears the recall group has funds in the six figures.   That would be an absurd amount for a local city council race in southern New Mexico.  Meanwhile the three councilors were all elected by their constituents.   Few complaints have been heard from those constituents.  The three favored lowering the minimum wage and federal approval of the new National Monument.  Polls showed the latter was very popular with the people here, and the councilors who didn't like the minimum-wage ordinance noted it was petition driven and conceded that if they let it go to a vote of the citizenry, it would win.  So other than the business community, there's been little in the way of negative views of these councilors.  There's been the usual carping from the folks who opposed them, but nothing more.  So money from the Chamber-of-Commerce and from elsewhere, plus the misleading ads it'll buy, is pitted against the decency, diligence and good records of the the three councilors.]

[The message from the people financing this, who are too craven to identify themselves, is simple: vote against us and be prepared to spend untold hours and any money you might have opposing a well-financed campaign of character assassination.  That's a steep price for trying to help improve your community!]

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Some Thoughts on the 2014 Election

            In national politics, 2014 is “the year of magical thinking.”
            The Democratic Party's ideals match up better with the average person's.  Voters in four states upped the minimum wage and voters in Oregon and D.C. legalized pot.  These ain't Republican platform planks.  
            But Republicans captured the Senate, even though their plans weren't in the interest of most of us.
            First, for decades, whenever a president has reaches his sixth year with his party holding the Senate, his party loses the Senate.  It ain't just Obama.
            Second, Republicans blamed Obama for ebola, ISIS, gas prices, and the weather.  Meanwhile they projected that they could easily solve our problems, most of which do not have easy solutions. 
            The Republicans were aided and abetted by:
            The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United: Both parties, but particularly the Republicans, used a bundle of money, cleverly concealing its sources, on huge and mostly false attack ads within the final days, too late for meaningful defense by victims, or analysis by journalists.
            Short memories and poor analysis: When Bush deceptively dragged us into the Iraq War, it was obvious that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11 and that attacking Iraq would create a bunch more terrorists clamoring for our scalps.   
             Although our underlying economic difficulties preceded him, Bush exacerbated our problems by supposing we could fight two wars while lowering taxes, and by doing nothing to address inequality;   Obama staved off Depression, got more people on health care with generally better policies, and  reached agreement with Republican leaders on a reasonable Immigration Bill that other Republicans then shot down.    
            Barack Obama: Obama isn't the Socialist Dictator the screamers scream he is; but he has distinct deficiencies as a president.   He's a much better orator than he is a manager;  he's less aggressive than I wish he were, particularly about articulating his accomplishments to the citizenry;  and he's a little too proud or particular to schmooze easily with donors or Senators he doesn't really feel like schmoozing with.  I doubt even Lyndon Johnson could have schmoozed and conned his way out of the Republican intransigence Obama faced right from the start; and Barack's no Lyndon.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
            Democrats could have campaigned on what they believed, and what Obama had accomplished.    Probably in some states the anti-Obama sentiment was so deep that trying to run from him made sense.  In most, it didn't.  A true low point was the Kentucky candidate for U.S. Senate refusing to admit she'd voted for Obama!  She looked like a weak, waffling idiot.  Everyone knew the answer.  The falsity rang clear.
            Racism: Although Republicans spoke of FDR almost as harshly as they do of Obama, I believe the fact that he's a black man (and “uppity,” light-skinned, and highly articulate) played a role in the depth of animosity he's inspired without actually doing anything very radical.  Race also played a role in his election: his color and his eloquence convinced voters he was a lot more of a change than he truly was.   Enhanced expectations meant greater disappointment.
            This should not be overstated: it's just a piece of the story; but it made demonizing him (to whites) a whole lot easier.   
             Mostly, The Republicans attacked Democrats wildly and offered us easy-sounding false solutions to everything.
             We have serious problems neither Bush nor Obama created.      
            The answers aren't easy.  Denying science, economics, and logic won't help.  Nor will claiming problems don't exist (climate change), are natural (rising economic inequality / people without healthcare), or have easy answers (immigration, Ebola, the Middle East, and the economy).   
            But “It's morning in America” still sounds great!
[The above column appeared today, Sunday, 16 November, in the Las Cruces Sun-News.]
[The concept of "racism" is worth an essay of its own.  When I was a kid, the term meant, more or less, "one who believes color is an important dividing line among people and that blacks and others are inferior to whites, and that keeping blacks in their place is an important, if not the most important, issue in any political discussion, decision, or campaign."  There were a lot of racists.  There were also a lot of people who were not racists (as the term was then defined) but who didn't feel like socializing with blacks, kind of felt they were either inferior or comical, but didn't think much about it and were sincerely courteous to the blacks, if any, they happened to meet.  To varying degrees, they were racists as we would now define that term.  In fact, I did not believe then that any of us, including myself, could be entirely free of racism. 
I'll post that essay later this week; but for now, let me mention that racism as we now define it includes folks for whom someone's blackness triggers thoughts of inferiority or is an impediment to friendship, or whatever, but also folks with the equally artificial concept that blacks they meet must be better than other folks.  Either way, the "racist" sees the race, and can't see through that to see the person clearly .  I know some folks saw Obama as somehow not a politician, but he certainly was.  Prescription for serious disappointment.  A friend says maybe some folks who didn't much like the idea of a black President voted for him to show themselves they weren't racist.  I don't know -- but that too was a prescription for minimal patience -- and perhaps an extra dollop of anger.
At any rate, I don't think it's right, in 2014, either to ignore race as a factor or to claim that it was the major one.]
[I'm no economist, but certain things are pretty clear from history:
1. Periodically a nation rises to the top with a new idea or new method of production or distribution.
2. Nations at the top are hampered in staying there by the need to police the world and protect their foreign interests, such as shipping lanes, colonies, and foreign markets.
3. A perfect storm (two destructive wars fought in Europe, the relative freedom of the U.S., the fact that we speak English, our vast natural resources, our distance from Europe  (so that our fields and factories didn't get bombed, or trampled by soldiers, and others) put the U.S. way on top.  The much-quoted fact that we were 6% of the world's population and controlled 60% of its wealth illustrates the situation.  What we did not necessarily understand was that our situation was abnormal, and could not be sustained forever.  We were never going to be a second- or third-rate country, but we were going to fall back to the pack, or have other nations' fortunes rise toward our level.  That process is not Bush's fault or Obama's, Reagan's or Clinton's.  
4. Great economic inequality is bad for a nation's productivity and economy.
5. Scientific consensus can be wrong, but we ignore science at our peril.  That authorities in Europe insisted the world was flat, or was the center of the universe (and killed folks for disagreeing) didn't make those beliefs "true.".  Evolution -- though we certainly have more to learn about how it works and perhaps some wrinkles we haven't spotted yet -- not only exists but is such a subtle and beautiful mechanism that any God should be proud to have  thought it up and put it in place.  Fossils and various discoveries that show the age of this planet is greater than 10,000 years will not dissipate because some Christian Churches don't agree or because some Indian creation theories are very different.
6. The best way to solve a problem, be it slavery, the Nazi threat to the world, the forces causing our declining international stature, climate change, or ebola, is usually not to ignore it or to stick our heads in the sand and pretend the threat is gone.  Usually facing it, learning what we can about it, and trying to identify actions we can take that are both effective and (economically, politically, and scientifically or logistically) feasible.
These seem to me pretty clear from history and science.  Many in U.S. politics deny some of them and haven't noticed others -- or pretend they know nothing to suit large contributors or conservative constituencies.  Sad.  They should be something more like leaders (as Jefferson and Franklin and Madison were) respecting our democratic control of the the country but shining light on areas of which we're ignorant They lack the vision, the insight, the objectivity, or perhaps just the guts.]

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Update: Minimum Wage Machinations in Las Cruces

I suppose I should be grateful that Mayor Ken Miyagashima engineered a compromise in which the City Council won't immediately eviscerate the petition-mandated ordinance it enacted to raise the minimum wage.

But I'm still troubled.

I'm troubled by a City Councilor who says she canceled her newspaper subscription when she got elected, so as not to be influenced. This attitude reminds me of certain religious proselytizers who used to stop and chat while I gardened. They frequently recommended books to me, but when I once recommended one to them, they replied, “Oh, no. We already know the truth.”

If I were a City Councilor I'd be interested in what others had to say, particularly others whose views I didn't generally share. I'd scan “Sound Off” daily.

I'm troubled by a City Councilor who takes very questionable positions and, when questioned, doesn't respond to the substance of the question but complains he's being threatened and cloaks himself in inspirational quotations.

Does it bother you that you're the major advocate for violating the City Charter to mute the minimum wage hike, when your wife's job is to lobby government officials for the Restaurant Association, which desperately wants to keep the minimum wage down? 
“George Washington said, 'It's better to be alone than in bad company.'”

I think the councilor drew the distinction that his wife lobbied state legislators – and presumably had nothing to do with her employer's op-ed against the minimum wage hike here. Then it surfaced that his wife had been leading a petition drive in Albuquerque regarding tipped wages. So maybe municipalities are part of her job description.

“My only regret is that I have only one life to lose for my country.” (No, he didn't say that. Yet.) I still think he's sincere, though misguided. In his place I'd have a hard time maintaining objectivity, though from uxoriousness, not financial interest. I'd also recognize that voting on a healthy-food issue would undermine public trust.

It troubles me that when a councilor asked if the council might get sued for violating the City Charter, the City Attorney blandly assured him “No.”

Charter says “If there are enough petition signatures, enact the ordinance unchanged or let the people vote.” Councilors, acknowledging a popular majority would vote “Yes”, enacted the ordinance – while laughing up their sleeves about eviscerating it next week.

That Charter language sounds pretty mandatory. But it doesn't say explicitly that we can't immediately repeal the ordinance the people lawfully ordered us to enact.

But does the Charter provision mean anything? It's a way people can bring something to the Council's attention so the Council can use its discretion.

Gathering thousands of signatures seems excessive, for just that. And why does the Charter provision start, “The people shall have the power . . .”?

Arguing the City's position in court might work. Might. But the City Attorney dismisses casually the possibility that a neutral judge might notice how completely the City's action violated the spirit and intent of the Charter, note that even while enacting it the councilors were giggling about repealing, and order some remedy.

Do we want that kind of legal advice for Las Cruces, the kind that ignores serious risk to tell the majority what it wants to hear?

Does Las Cruces want that kind of publicity? A dozen minimum-wage workers suing a council that's playing tricks on its citizens and trying to slither through a possible loophole?

I am grateful to Miyagashima that we may not have to test conflicting legal views in the courts.
But in the long run, he did the anti-$10.10 camp the best favor it could have asked for.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 2 November.]
[After I'd written this column, I finally managed to speak with City Attorney Pete Connelly.  The conversation was courteous on both sides, but distinctly unilluminating.  I noted I'd heard him answer "No" to the question about whether the City would get sued for violating the City Charter if the counselor's eviscerated the ordinance.  He confirmed that his view was that the Council had the authority to repeal the ordinance.  I asked him what, if that were so, the City Charter provision meant.  He said the City Charter was very clear that the petition-mandated activity was finished once the council enacted the ordinance, leaving the Council free to do as it wished.  I noted that gathering signatures, etc., was a lot of work, and asked whether he supposed anyone would put the provision in the Charter and not intend that the ordinance survive more than a few days.  (I referred to "getting six million signatures, and he got kind of stuck on that, repeating it two or three times in a questioning tone, so I changed my phrasing to "a bunch of signatures" or something, but I still didn't get a meaningful answer.) He told me he hadn't written the Charter.  I told him I disagreed, and thought the City would likely have gotten sued if it immediately repealed the ordinance -- and that the case would be an interesting one, not the slam-dunk for the city that he purported to believe it would be; and I asked him to imagine I argued that the charter provision would be rendered meaningless by his interpretation, and asked what he'd say on the subject if pressed by a judge.  He reiterated that in his view the City Council had the authority to repeal the ordinance if it wanted to.  Recognizing the futility of further questioning, I urged him to have a nice day, and he reciprocated.
Don't assume he hasn't anything to say.  He may be playing it close to the vest, in case the council does end up eviscerating the ordinance and  someone does sue.  He may just not like me very much, a feeling I suspect is growing common in city government just about now.  He may have been in a hurry to go home, as it was nearly 5.  He may think I might end up as a lawyer adverse to the City in this mess. Or he may realize he doesn't have a very good argument on that point.  
His view would ignore the spirit and clear intent of the Charter provision.  It would render the procedure outlined by the Charter meaningless, a nullity.
He could still argue that even so a court should not act to do justice, because of practicalities and because the minimum wage issue is political.]
[The work session on 27 October was interesting.   The councilors made a spirited defense of themselves against charges they had conspired.  I don't know that they did conspire.  I've tried to avoid making unwarranted accusations.  But they just don't get the part about a breach of the people's trust.  I'd love to hear one of them explain coherently why they have the right to ignore the intent of the City Charter.  Their legal argument is based on the apparent fact that no one thought to explicitly state the obvious.  That could win or lose in court.  But their argument that immediately repealing or eviscerating the ordinance would reasonably strike most citizens ad a breach of trust?  I haven't heard much argument, except that they were elected to use their discretion -- which is exactly what the City Charter forbade them to do in this situation.]