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

Christina Gagnier, who is running for Congress in California’s 35th district, says millennials believe money in politics is a key issue Congress needs to take on.

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.
PFAW Foundation

LGBT Equality Pioneer Harvey Milk Memorialized with New Stamp

Though the right-wing has long tried to rewrite Milk's legacy, 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.
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

In many ways, the implosion of California's Republican Party was predictive of the implosion of the national GOP that we're seeing today... and it's been working out great for California.

New documentary revisits the climate change we all should want

It was February 12, 2008. 15-year-old Lawrence “Larry” King, who had begun openly exploring a female expression of his gender identity, and 14-year-old Brandon McInerney were in a computer lab at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California. With the flash of two gunshots, Larry was off to the hospital, fighting for his life in a battle that he would soon lose; and Brandon was under arrest, later tried as an adult and sentenced to 21 years. Never would their teacher and their classmates be the same.

PFAW Releases New Toolkit on Getting Money Out and Voters In to Our Democracy

We believe in a democratic system where all Americans have equal access to the voting booth and can express their views on a level playing field.

“Fix Our America” Takes Off in Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, California, a group of specialists in media, advertising and entertainment, joined by business people, lawyers, and civic activists have founded an organization that is running advertisements based solely on the need to amend the Constitution to fix our political campaign finance system.  The group, Fix Our America, has begun the process of running the following advertisement on airwaves in California, and is seeking to run more ads in other media markets across the country:

These advertisements are boosting the amendment dialogue in California, a state that has witnessed much grassroots amendment activity yet is still in need of deep reform.  Just days ago, Los Angeles voters approved Ballot Measure C, which called for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, with 77% of the vote; last year, the California state legislature passed an amendment resolution “to restore constitutional rights and fair elections to the people”; and since the Citizens United decision came down in January 2010, over 75 California municipalities have called on Congress and the states to pass and ratify an amendment to overturn Citizens United.

California does not stand alone.  The amendment movement is well underway and gaining momentum in states across the country.  Fix Our America is yet another example of the American people joining together in protest of the fundamental threat that corporate and special interest campaign spending poses to our democratic institutions.  In the words of Fix Our America’s Declaration of Principles Statement, “Americans deserve the best. Instead, we have been saddled with a system that … leaves all of us at the mercy of those who buy legislation and policy to suit their narrow interests.”  The time has come to fix that.


Rallying for Marriage Equality – Day Two

What has stood out most for me from this experience is seeing the real people behind these cases. Yesterday, I waited at the Court until attorneys David Boies and Ted Olson walked down those famous steps with the Proposition 8 plaintiffs, Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, and Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo. Today, I watched as Edie Windsor, at 83 years old, made that same walk, to loud cheers and applause and chants of “Edie! Edie!” In return, we all got a wave and a kiss blown our way.

Senator Portman’s change of heart and the legacy of Harvey Milk

Why did Senator Portman’s change of heart take two years? Why has he continued to support the anti-gay policies of his party? There’s a lot of debate on both points, but one thing is certain: it was his son’s own coming out that forced the Senator to come out in support of marriage equality, and to do that interview and write that op-ed.

PFAW is United for Marriage

Marriage equality will be before the Supreme Court on March 26 and 27. PFAW will be there with the United for Marriage coalition. You can join us in DC or attend an event near you.

Still No Explanation From Grassley on Judiciary Committee Delays

This morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved five nominees to serve on federal district courts in New York, California and Florida and on the US Court of International Trade. A week ago, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley postponed votes on all five nominations without giving a reason, a delaying tactic that he has used on 97 percent of President Obama’s judicial nominees who the committee has voted on.

Sen. Grassley did not explain the reason for the delay last week, when a coalition of Iowa and national groups urged him to stop such routine delays. And the reason remained unclear today, as all five nominees were approved without opposition.

These five nominees now join fifteen other federal judicial nominees awaiting confirmation votes from the full Senate. The Senate has made progress by scheduling confirmation votes on four unopposed district court nominees in the past week, but that small amount of progress isn’t nearly enough to fill the gaps in overworked federal courts. Seven of the nominees still waiting for votes would fill officially-designated “judicial emergencies.”

It would be easy, of course, for the Senate to hold votes on all of the remaining nominees before the end of the year. After all, most were approved by the Judiciary Committee many months ago. But Senate Republicans have continued to stall even nominees with strong bipartisan support. All the circuit court nominees waiting for votes have the support of their home-state senators, Republican and Democratic, and nearly all of the pending district court nominees were approved by the Judiciary Committee with unanimous or nearly unanimous bipartisan support. One circuit court nominee, New Jersey’s Patty Shwartz, has been waiting nine months just for an up-or-down vote from the Senate; Federal Circuit nominee Richard Taranto has also been waiting since March.

If the Senate fails to vote on these nominees during the lame duck, the confirmation process – from presidential nomination through floor vote – will have to start all over again next year.

Notable about the district court nominees approved by the Judiciary Committee today is that all are women or people of color, representative of President Obama’s efforts to bring diversity to the federal courts. The nominees also include New York’s Pamela Chen, who would become just the fifth openly gay person to be confirmed to a lifetime federal judgeship.


More Court Vacancies, More GOP Obstruction

Republicans are blocking judicial nominees in Illinois and California, even though new vacancies in those states were announced just this morning.