No to ALEC: California Fights Back

This post was written by Johnson Pham, a Young People For fellow.

Last Wednesday, I joined thousands of folks as we gathered together to rally against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) during their annual meeting in San Diego. This was a massive protest to resist this right-wing organization, and they were met with many faces including workers, community organizers, faith-based leaders, and an assortment of other progressives.

ALEC is a national, corporate-funded organization that marries the interests of conservative legislators and corporate lobbyists. ALEC has been instrumental in drafting harmful legislation in many states, ranging from the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida, to legislation  weakening environmental sustainability measures, to bills challenging women’s access reproductive health services. Notorious allies of ALEC include figures like Scott Walker and the Koch brothers.

ALEC pays for legislators to go on extravagant trips, where they collaboratively write legislation to be introduced word-for-word in their home states. ALEC’s event at the Hilton in San Diego was one of these opulent vacations afforded to legislators, and their presence in California was naturally met by resistance from progressive groups, who have clear stakes in resisting flagrant conservatism.

I went to this rally with the United Domestic Workers (UDW) Local 3930, a worker union that represents home-care providers in California. Homecare providers are one of the targets of ALEC, which has written bills targeting worker unions and pushing lower wages and benefits. We arrived at the Embarcadero Marina Park in San Diego close to noon and were met by hundreds of other progressives who greeted everyone with an embrace. It was truly a staggering experience to see such unconditional love and community expressed across the board.

The speak-out portion of the rally was studded with champions from the labor movement, including the legendary Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement and now sits on the board of PFAW. Dolores has been one of my heroes since I learned who she was, and I had the opportunity to meet her in living flesh at the rally. She spoke with conviction and presence and talked about our individual ability to bring others into the movement. She implored us to never give up this good fight, and communicated her love for this community and for the movement.

pham and dolores

The rally was a short walk from the park to the hotel, where folks continued to give their testimonies about why they are in this fight, and the challenges we face. This continued until 5PM, until hotel security brought in a squadron of police officers in response to rumors of a civil disobedience action occurring soon in the hotel lobby. I left the rally on my bus with the union, and we were unified in our sweat, laughter, and fulfillment from the day.

As a new YP4 fellow, I shared a lot about my love for the labor movement during our regional retreat, and this experience has only further cemented this deep-set appreciation. As someone who comes from a working-class background, there I’m deeply committed to making sure that families do not have to struggle to feed themselves or their children. Seeing for myself how resilient working families are in the face of billionaires and their lobbyists gives me incredible hope for this movement.

alec rally

Corporate-backed institutions like ALEC are antithetical to the values my parents passed to me when I grew up, like having respect and compassion for everyone, and supporting the people who need it the most. I learned from this action that this collective movement is larger than what I could have ever believed. That this movement consistsed of leaders who came before me, my elders, and will continue on past what I will be able to do in this line of work. It is indisputable that ALEC got the point that they are not welcome or liked in California, and even now, organizers behind the protest are getting ready for a follow-up action in the coming weeks.

The fight continues.

PFAW Foundation

Dolores Huerta and Activists Protest ALEC and Scott Walker

The call and response chant, “Tell me what democracy looks like,” “This is what democracy looks like!” rang true as activists rallied against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) during its annual meeting in San Diego this week.

ALEC is a far-right organization that connects corporate executives to policy makers in order to craft and enact state-by-state legislation that raises corporate profits while stomping on the rights and economic prospects of working families. For instance, ALEC is behind Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070 law and the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida that helped George Zimmerman to walk free.

At the protest, more than a thousand participants from faith communities, labor unions, environmental groups, immigration groups, and more proclaimed that ALEC corrupts democracy by allowing corporations to – literally – buy a seat at the table with state legislators.  Common Cause President Miles Rapoport described the ALEC meeting as “a festival of closed-door deal-making by politicians, corporate executives and lobbyists. They gather to do the public’s business in private, fashioning legislation that undercuts the public interest.”

Civil rights leader and People For the American Way board member Dolores Huerta revved up the crowd, telling activists, “The only way we can stop [ALEC] is to go back to our communities, we’ve got to organize. People do not know how perilous this organization is. Let’s say ‘abajo (that means down) con ALEC!’”

After Huerta’s speech, activists – including a Young Elected Official (YEO) with the YEO Network, a project of People For the American Way Foundation – sought out Huerta to introduce themselves and share the work they're doing in their communities.

Activists then walked to the hotel where the ALEC meetings are being held to continue the protest. Huerta and others highlighted the message that Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker – who spoke this morning at the conference – and ALEC are unified in their support for corporations at the expense of working families.

In addition to participating in the rally, PFAW released Spanish- and English-language digital ads criticizing Walker for his alliance with ALEC. The Huffington Post also published an opinion piece yesterday by Huerta that details the anti-immigrant, anti-worker efforts of ALEC and how Walker has a long history of partnering with ALEC.


Congressional Candidate Speaks Out on Why Young People Care About Money in Politics

In a Huffington Post op-ed last week, Christina Gagnier, who is running for Congress in California’s 35th district, hit the nail on the head about the impact that big money in politics is having on the millennial generation. Gagnier writes,

They are exposed to a political system for the first time that seems like now more than ever, money is the primary driver of any action. Since this generation is not in the position to vote with their dollars, they are having a hard time finding or even justifying having a place in our democracy.

Gagnier says that she asks college students working with her campaign what they think would make different about politics today, if they could change one thing. The answer is almost always the same: money in politics. One young person said:

If I could change one thing about politics, I would change how corrupt the whole political process is. At present, a lot of corporations and unions donate to politicians and political candidates in order to sway votes. The amount of power a person has in the political realm really depends on how much money they have, which is unacceptable.

Decisions like Citizens United have created a world in which special interests and billionaires can hijack the political process and where the policy agenda is not focused on the issues that the millennial generation, or the American people care the most about. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Americans prefer cockroaches and traffic jams to Congress.  And it is why a poll released yesterday found that 73 percent of likely voters support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. We need more candidates, like Gagnier, to put money in politics issues at the center of their campaigns.


PFAW Files Amicus Brief Supporting Fair Trials for Undocumented Immigrants

Last Thursday, People For the American Way, joined by the UC Hastings Appellate Project (HAP) and the ACLU of Southern California, submitted an amicus brief to the California Court of Appeal in Velasquez v. Centrome, Inc. dba Advanced Biotech, a toxic tort case brought by an undocumented immigrant that resulted in a gross denial of justice.

Wilfredo Velasquez filed a lawsuit against a chemical manufacturer seeking damages for medical expenses after contracting a devastating lung disease due to exposure to one of the company’s toxic chemicals while on the job. During the jury selection process, where prospective jurors are questioned to discover potential biases, the trial judge wrongly disclosed Mr. Velasquez’s immigration status to the entire jury pool, despite the fact that it was not relevant to any issues in the case. The disclosure appears to have harmed Mr. Velasquez’s pursuit of justice: Even though the jury ultimately found the chemical manufacturer negligent, it awarded no damages to Mr. Velasquez. He effectively lost his case. The court refused to grant a mistrial for its error in possibly tainting the jury, and Mr. Velasquez appealed the verdict. 

PFAW submitted its amicus brief in support of a new trial for Mr. Velasquez because of the highly prejudicial nature of the court’s wrongful disclosure of his citizenship status, explaining, “Rather than protect against prejudice, the judge’s statement unnecessarily injected prejudice into the [jury] selection process, making it impossible to know whether Mr. Velasquez received his constitutionally guaranteed fair trial by impartial jurors.” Given the ongoing hostility towards undocumented immigrants, as chronicled by PFAW’s Right Wing Watch blog, PFAW’s brief urges the appellate court to find that when a trial court erroneously discloses a litigant’s citizenship status to the jury during voir dire a new trial must be awarded.

Read the full text of the amicus brief for more information


YEO Evan Low, US Senator Tammy Baldwin, Anne Kronenberg, and Others Dedicate the Harvey Milk Stamp

Last week, the highly-anticipated Harvey Milk stamp made its debut in a White House dedication ceremony featuring a roster packed with dynamic speakers including Evan Low, a Campbell, California city councilmember and participant in PFAW Foundation's Young Elected Officials Network, who recounted his personal story and stressed the importance of electing LGBT Americans to public office.

US Senator Tammy Baldwin later touched on where the LGBT equality movement stands today, more than 35 years after Harvey Milk's tragic assassination, crediting the youngest among us for understanding what's at the heart of the progress made and the work left to be done – love and fairness.

Anne Kronenberg, Harvey Milk's campaign manager, included in her closing remarks a simple statement of what the Milk stamp means – that new people and places will get to meet Harvey simply by opening a mailbox.

We remember.

We remember Harvey Milk

PFAW Foundation

LGBT Equality Pioneer Harvey Milk Memorialized with New Stamp

Today the United States Postal Service releases its highly-anticipated Harvey Milk stamp, memorializing the LGBT equality pioneer on what would have been his 84th birthday. Evan Low, a Campbell, California city councilmember and participant in PFAW Foundation's Young Elected Officials Network, is expected to join other trailblazers at the White House dedication ceremony.

Councilmember Low had this to say last November in marking the 35th anniversary of Milk's tragic assassination:

In 2009, I became the youngest openly gay mayor as well as the youngest Asian-American mayor in the country. Some journalists wrote about how I was making history, but I like to point out that I was preceded by a number of other courageous “firsts.”

I became mayor 35 years after Kathy Kozachenko was the first openly LGBT person elected to public office, and 32 years after Harvey Milk – affectionately known as “the mayor of Castro Street” – was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the same state I serve today.

This week marks the anniversary of the tragic end of Milk’s short time in office, when he and Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed by Supervisor Dan White. But the legacy of Harvey Milk and other LGBT trailblazers is very much alive. Today there are more than 500 openly LGBT elected or appointed officials serving our country. Through their service and that of public officials representing other marginalized communities, it is clear that our democracy works best when our lawmakers reflect the nation’s diversity.

South Dakota State Senator Angie Buhl O'Donnell, another YEO, also reflected on Milk's impact:

Milk’s legacy has been a personal inspiration for me, as an openly bisexual elected official. Earlier this year, I became a Harvey Milk Champion of Change. While I was honored to be recognized by the White House with an award bearing his name, I actually had some hesitation about accepting. As a bisexual woman married to a man, I was worried about people thinking I didn’t really “deserve” it. But I realized that line of reasoning was not what Harvey Milk would have embraced. His legacy is about sharing your own identity, your own truth in whatever form that might take.  Besides, there’s a “B” in “LGBT” for a reason.

Though the right-wing has long tried to rewrite Milk's legacy, as affiliate People For the American Way's Right Wing Watch notes in this report on Liberty Counsel's Matt Barber . . .

Liberty Counsel’s Matt Barber is upset that the US Postal Service will issue a stamp honoring Harvey Milk, telling the American Family Association’s OneNewsNow that Milk was a rapist and “demonstrably, categorically an evil man.”

. . . it's clear that today is a day to celebrate how far the LGBT equality movement has come and to recognize the work that remains.

We remember.

We remember Harvey Milk

PFAW Foundation

Public Turning Against the Private Prison Racket

PFAW’s 2012 report, “Predatory Privatization: Exploiting Financial Hardship, Enriching the One Percent, Undermining Democracy,” included a section titled, “The Pernicious Private Prison Industry.” We reported that across the country, private prisons were often violent, poorly run facilities that put prisoners, employees and communities at risk even while failing to deliver on promised savings to taxpayers. But state legislators, encouraged by ALEC and by private prison interests’ lobbying and campaign expenditures, continued to turn prisons over to private corporations, often with contract provisions that acted as incentives for mass incarceration.

A new story in Politico Magazine, “The Private Prison Racket” comes to the same conclusions. “Companies that manage prisons on our behalf have abysmal records,” says author Matt Stroud. “So why do we keep giving them our business?”

The Politico story slams “bed mandates” – guarantees given by states to private companies to keep prisons full.  Contracts like that build in incentives for governments to lock people up – and punish states financially when they try to reduce prison populations.

Politicians are taking notice. Last month, In the Public Interest reported that reality has turned the tide against private prisons: “Coast-to-coast, governments are realizing that outsourcing corrections to for-profit corporations is a bad deal for taxpayers, and for public safety.” The dispatch cited problems with private prisons in states as diverse as Arizona, Vermont, Texas, Florida, and Idaho, where Gov. Butch Otter, a “small government” conservative, announced last month that the state would take control of the Idaho Correctional Center back from private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America due to rampant violence, understaffing, gang activity, and contract fraud.

But the huge private prison industry is not going away anytime soon. As In the Public Interest notes:

All of this momentum does not suggest the imminent death of the for-profit prison industry. Some states, including California and West Virginia, are currently gearing up to send millions more to these companies. But the past year has been a watershed moment, and we are heading in the right direction. In light of these developments, these states would be wise to look to sentencing reform to reduce populations, rather than signing reckless outsourcing contracts.

The arguments against private prisons are myriad and compelling. Promised savings end up as increased costs. Lockup quotas force taxpayers to guarantee profits for prison companies through lock up quotas hidden in contracts. They incentivize mass incarceration while discouraging sentencing reform in an era when crime rates are plummeting.

But more than anything else, the reality of the disastrous private prison experiment has turned the public against the industry.



Senate to Vote Today on Four Federal District Court Nominees

The Senate is scheduled to vote to end filibusters and then to confirm four federal district court nominees tonight and tomorrow morning, two for the Northern District of California, one for the Eastern District of Arkansas, and one for the District of Connecticut. All four of these nominees were thoroughly vetted and approved by unanimous voice vote by the Judiciary Committee last year. They should have and could have been confirmed months ago. (In contrast, George W. Bush’s confirmed district court noms only waited about a month on average between committee approval and confirmation.) However, because of Republican obstruction, all four nominees have waited months for a simple confirmation vote. And Senate Republicans are indicating that they won’t stop their obstruction anytime soon.  In fact, it looks like they are willing to waste weeks of time in “post-cloture debate” on these and subsequent nominees.

Judge Jeffrey Alker Meyer of Connecticut has been waiting for a confirmation since he was first approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 19. Judge James Maxwell Moody, Jr., of Arkansas has been waiting since November 14. The two nominees from Northern California, Judge James Donato and Judge Beth Labson Freeman, have both been waiting since October 31st.

This frustratingly slow process is the result of layers of delaying tactics by GOP senators. Republicans refused to hold votes on these nominees for months, and now that they are being called on their obstructionism through filibuster-ending cloture votes, they’re making the votes take as long as possible by demanding that each take hours of “post-cloture debate.” This is especially ridiculous for nominees whom the Republicans actually support. Not only is this delaying confirmation of judges in these particular states; it’s also delaying nominees in other states waiting in line for their turn, including many for posts that have been deemed “judicial emergencies.” This delaying tactic from Republicans not only slows what should be a simple process, it deprives these states’ constituents the fully functioning justice system they deserve.


Harvey Milk’s Legacy

The following is a guest post by Campbell, California Mayor Evan Low, a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.

In 2009, I became the youngest openly gay mayor as well as the youngest Asian-American mayor in the country. Some journalists wrote about how I was making history, but I like to point out that I was preceded by a number of other courageous “firsts.”

I became mayor 35 years after Kathy Kozachenko was the first openly LGBT person elected to public office, and 32 years after Harvey Milk – affectionately known as “the mayor of Castro Street” – was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the same state I serve today.

This week marks the anniversary of the tragic end of Milk’s short time in office, when he and Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed by Supervisor Dan White. But the legacy of Harvey Milk and other LGBT trailblazers is very much alive. Today there are more than 500 openly LGBT elected or appointed officials serving our country. Through their service and that of public officials representing other marginalized communities, it is clear that our democracy works best when our lawmakers reflect the nation’s diversity.

That’s not to say that things are always easy for LGBT elected officials. Like Milk, I have received my share of hate mail, with messages like: “We don’t want the homosexual agenda in our community.” As I have told reporters before, I don’t know what is on that so-called agenda, other than basic equality for all people.

One issue that’s certainly on my agenda is the end of the FDA’s ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men. In a petition that now has more than 62,000 supporters, I wrote:

…recently, I hosted a blood drive on city property, but was banned from donating blood myself.

As the mayor of Campbell, providing for the welfare of the general public is a top priority. As a gay man, however, I am conflicted in my advocacy for blood drives. Under current U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines, a man who has sex with another man is deferred for life from donating blood.  The ban was imposed in 1983 when there were no reliable tests for screening blood for HIV/AIDS.  It was also made during a time of mass medical confusion and cultural homophobia associated with HIV/AIDS.  The current FDA ban is wildly outdated and perpetuates unfair labels against gay and bisexual men that live on through decades of discrimination.

These kinds of stereotypes are not unlike the ones Harvey Milk was fighting nearly four decades ago, and why he, like I do today, encouraged LGBT people to come out whenever possible – to dispel the harmful lies about our community with the truth.  Stuart Milk, nephew of Harvey Milk and founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation, continues his uncle's legacy, and we are so fortunate to have Stuart carry the torch. 

In a tape Milk recorded before his death, he said, “I have never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement.” I think he would be proud of the movement that lives on in his spirit today.

PFAW Foundation

California, Here We Come: A Republican Nightmare Offers Our Country A Path Forward

Originally appeared at Huffington Post.

Right-wing activists like to point to California as an example of what could happen to America if progressives have their way. They're right to be worried -- for their own political futures, that is.

As Americans grapple with how to handle a Republican Party that has followed its most extreme fringe off the rails, California provides a useful example. For years, many in this country lamented the woes of California, long thought to be ungovernable. But after years of frustration and hoping that that Republican Party would come to its senses, California voters stopped trying to accommodate or compromise with the right-wing fringe. Progressives actually won the old-fashioned way, by winning. Now, California can enact actual policy and fix actual problems.

In many ways, the implosion of California's Republican Party was predictive of the implosion of the national GOP that we're seeing today. Faced with a growing and changing population with different needs than in previous generations, California's Republicans didn't adapt. Instead, they dug in their heels. By 2012, voters had delivered the governor's mansion, every state office and veto-proof majorities in both houses of the state legislature to Democrats. And this right-wing nightmare has resulted in common sense policy bringing California back from the brink. This year's budget in California increased funding for education and logged a surplus -- imagine if the US Congress could do that.

It's easy to spot the turning point in the Republican Party's downfall in California -- and it would be a good one for the national GOP to keep in mind as they seem determined to make exactly the same mistakes. In 1994, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson reacted to the state's changing demographics in a very similar way to what the Tea Party is doing throughout the country today. With slumping poll numbers, Wilson decided to roil up anti-immigrant sentiment among his mostly-white base in order to win reelection. He went all-out in backing Proposition 187, a draconian measure that denied undocumented immigrants access to basic services including emergency room care and public education. It worked for Pete Wilson and his reelection but it was disastrous for his party's future. The referendum passed, but the state GOP had written its own obituary.

After Republicans pushed through Prop 187, California's Latino community organized. In 1994, only 53 percent of eligible Latinos in California were registered to vote. By 1996, it was 60 percent. Since then, Latinos have made up a gradually expanding percentage of the state's electorate, from 11 percent in 1994 to 22 percent in 2010.

California went blue. After Bill Clinton's hard-fought victory in 1992, no presidential election in California has even been close.

The lesson of Prop 187 isn't just about California's, and the United States', flourishing Latino population. It's about what happens when a political party that depends on reactionary politics rooted in their version of an idyllic past of privilege and exclusion runs up against an inclusive, vibrant, dynamic future. Republicans aren't losing just because they're digging in on the politics of white resentment in an increasingly non-white country. They're also losing because their mean-spirited policies are so out of touch and affect such a broad swath of the American public that they are simply unsustainable.

Just look at the issue of gay rights, which Republicans used to great effect to rally supporters in 2004, but which less than 10 years later has become a third rail for all but the Tea Party fringe. And the Republican Party has driven away women as it rallies around retrograde policies policing women's bodies. The more they dig in their heels in the past, the more they're left behind as the country moves forward.

That's already happened in California. Bill Maher recently said it best: "Everything conservatives claim will unravel the fabric of our society -- universal healthcare, higher taxes on the rich, gay marriage, medical marijuana -- has only made California stronger. And all we had to do to accomplish that was vote out every single Republican."

This month's pointless, destructive government shutdown, which earned Republicans record low approval numbers and little else, illustrated yet again that the Tea Party lives in a very different world than the rest of us. If the Republican Party keeps on catering to the Tea Party fringe at the expense of the rest of America, we can't accommodate them so we'll just have to beat them. The national party will have go the way of Republicans in California. And that's good news for all of us.