People For The American Way hosted a telebriefing Thursday evening to update PFAW members on the electoral landscape for 2014. The call, which was kicked off by PFAW President Michael Keegan and moderated by Director of Communications Drew Courtney, featured prominent pollster and political strategist and current President of Lake Research Partners Celinda Lake, as well as PFAW’s Political Director Randy Borntrager and Executive Vice President Marge Baker.
Lake discussed the political climate in Congress and the general frustration voters feel toward both political parties. She emphasized multiple times throughout the call that in this election “the key is voter turnout.” In Kentucky, for instance since most undecided voters are leaning towards Alison Lundergan Grimes, turnout will be critical to help unseat Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Political Director Randy Borntrager discussed the work PFAW is doing to make the biggest impact possible in the most pivotal races to help progressives win this election. Lake and Borntrager emphasized that increasing awareness to voters of what is truly at stake – from reproductive rights to potential Supreme Court vacancies – will help make a difference come November.
Questions from callers also focused on other critical races including gubernatorial races in Florida and Wisconsin, the Senate race in North Carolina, and contests in Alaska and Iowa, among others.
In closing, Drew Courtney noted that the telebriefing shows that “we have some challenges ahead, but we are going to fight hard and push forward, and we’re not going to go back to the way things were before.”
Listen to the full audio of the telebriefing for more information.
People in North Carolina have been living with – and resisting – a devastating right-wing assault on public institutions and the common good since a far-right takeover of state government in 2012, which was funded by Art Pope, a local businessman who became the state’s budget director.
Part of the right-wing assault has been on public schools and teachers. The 2013 state budget included $10 million for “Opportunity Scholarships” that would be sent to mostly unaccountable and mostly religious private schools. But today a state judge ruled that state lawmakers’ school voucher plan violates the North Carolina constitution.
In a stunning rebuke to state lawmakers’ efforts to bring school vouchers to North Carolina, Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood today found the recently-enacted “Opportunity Scholarship Program” unconstitutional and permanently enjoined disbursement of state funds for that purpose.
“The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything,” Hobgood said.
In his ruling, issued this morning from the bench, the judge broke down the program and detailed the many reasons why it failed constitutional muster:
This legislation unconstitutionally
1) appropriates to private schools grades K-12, by use of funds which apparently have gone to the university system budget but which should be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining the uniform system of free public schools;
2) appropriates education funds in a manner that does not accomplish a public purpose;
3) appropriates educational funds outside the supervision and administration of the state board of education;
4) creates a non-uniform system of education;
5) appropriates taxpayer funds to educational institutions that have no standards, curriculum and requirements for teachers and principals to be certified;
6) fails to guard and maintain the rights of the people who privilege the education by siphoning money from the public schools in favor of private schools; and
7) allows funding of non-public schools that discriminate on account of religion.
NC Policy Watch reports that Judge Hobgood had issued a preliminary injunction against the program in February, but parents backed by the Koch-brothers-funded Institute for Justice appealed that order and the state Supreme Court overturned the injunction in May. But in today’s ruling, “Hobgood recognized the state’s obligation to provide a ‘sound basic education’ to the children attending public schools in North Carolina as mandated by the [state] Supreme Court in its Leandro decision .”
“The General Assembly cannot constitutionally delegate this responsibility to unregulated private schools by use of taxpayer opportunity scholarships to low income parents who have self-assessed their children to be at risk,” he said.
Hobgood noted that the private schools receiving the scholarships are not subject to any requirements or standards regarding the curriculum that they teach, have no requirements for student achievement, are not obligated to demonstrate any growth in student performance and are not even obligated to provide a minimum amount of instructional time.
The Judge also wrote, “It appears to this court that the General Assembly is seeking to push at-risk students from low income families into non-public schools in order to avoid the cost of providing them a sound basic education in public school as mandated by the Leandro decision.”
And he rejected the budgetary sleight-of-hand engaged in by legislators to try to make the program pass constitutional muster:
The judge also made clear that he was not buying lawmakers’ argument that state funds were not funding the program.
This summer, Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam pushed through an amendment to the voucher law that pulled $10 million out of the state’s General Fund to pay for the program. That budgetary maneuver allowed Stam to then readjust the public school budget back to what it would have been had school vouchers never existed.
As amended the voucher law stated that “scholarship grant funds awarded . . . to eligible students attending a non-public school shall not be considered funding from the state of North Carolina.”
Nowhere in the state’s General Statutes is there any provision for scholarship grants to come from any source other than taxpayer funds, Hobgood noted.
“If scholarship grants shall not be considered funding from the state of North Carolina, this court is at a complete loss to understand the source of those funds,” he said.
“Follow the money,” the judge added. “The clear legislative intent is to utilize taxpayer money to fund private schools.”
The Latino population is growing, and with it a bloc of eligible Latino voters. From 2000 to 2010, the Latino population grew by 43% according to the Census bureau. That population has continued to grow from 2010 until today, making up over 16% of the total population, which means more Latinos than ever are becoming eligible to vote each year. Despite this growth, Nate Cohn argued in his New York Times column last week that this voting bloc won’t make a difference in the November elections:
“Yet the vote is unlikely to deal a severe blow to the [Republican] party’s chances in November’s midterm elections. Hispanic voters may be flexing their growing political muscles in presidential elections, but they have far less sway over the composition of the House or the Senate, particularly in 2014.”
While it is true that many of this year’s most critical Senate races aren’t in the states with the largest Latino populations, there are races in states where the growing Latino population can exercise major muscle and make a critical difference. Cohn’s argument fails to consider how this growing population coupled with the anti-immigrant rhetoric fueled by the Republican party can drive up Latino voter turnout this year. This can make a big difference in states with tight races.
In Colorado, for example, where the number of Latinos has grown significantly — by 41% between 2000 and 2010, now making up over 20% of the population — this voting bloc can play a big role in a close race. Similarly, in states with tight races like Georgia and North Carolina, even though Latinos make up around 9% of the population, that population grew by 96% and 111% respectively since 2000. This dramatic growth makes this a voting bloc that can have a major impact in what are expected to be two very close elections.
Today the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Virginia’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples.
This is a historic step forward for equality in the South. Beyond Virginia, the ruling will also affect the other states covered by the 4th Circuit, including North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia, which have similar bans in place. In West Virginia, the district judge considering the challenge to the state’s ban said last month that he would not proceed until the federal appeals court had ruled.
In the majority opinion, the judges noted that bigotry and fear cannot be the basis for the denial of equal rights under the law:
We recognize that same-sex marriage makes some people deeply uncomfortable. However, inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws.
…The choice of whether and whom to marry is an intensely personal decision that alters the course of an individual's life. Denying same-sex couples this choice prohibits them from participating fully in our society, which is precisely the type of segregation that the Fourteenth Amendment cannot countenance.
For those who claim that marriage bans are legitimate because they were adopted by popular vote, the court quoted a Supreme Court case from 1964:
A citizen’s constitutional rights can hardly be infringed simply because a majority of the people choose that it be.
That one sentence perfectly encapsulates why courts matter.
In an interview recorded in September 2012, North Carolina Speaker of the House and U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis compared the growing population of African Americans and Latinos to a stagnant “traditional population of North Carolina and the United States.”
In an interview highlighted by Talking Points Memo, which first spotted the 2012 interview, a spokesman for Tillis claimed that “traditional North Carolinians refers to North Carolinians who have been here for a few generations.”
If you listen to the full context of Tillis’ remarks, however, it is clear that he was referring to the “traditional population” as a group distinct from the “Latino population” and the “African American population.”
Right Wing Watch points out that “traditional population” and “traditional Americans” are frequently used by anti-immigrant extremists as euphemisms for “white population.” For instance, in The Social Contract, a journal founded by an influential anti-immigrant leader, the term is used in a 2012 essay by Brenda Walker when she says, “Traditional Americans are assailed by affirmative action and benefits for illegal aliens, which are not available to citizens.”
In speaking of the “traditional population,” Tillis stands alongside people like William Gheen, founder of anti-immigrant group Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, who said that immigration reform would create a situation in which “traditional Americans, like those who that have been here for hundreds of years in descendancy, will no longer govern our own nation.”
It is true that North Carolina’s African American, Latino, and Asian American populations are growing faster than its white population. For instance, the Latino population in North Carolina grew by 111.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, increasing from 4.7 percent of the population to 8.4 percent. Yet Tillis has consistently worked to marginalize Latinos, by cutting spending on education, opposing healthcare reform, and supporting a restrictive voter identification law ironically called “VIVA.” That’s why People for the American Way is working in North Carolina this year to make sure Latino voters know the threat posed by Tillis’ extreme agenda.
Last year PFAW’s Spanish-language advertising helped spur turnout among Latinos in Virginia’s gubernatorial elections, and did the same in many 2012 battleground contests. As we look to the 2014 elections, Tillis’ actions and statements marginalizing the Latino community will represent a real challenge to his standing in an increasingly powerful voting bloc.
Many Americans celebrate Earth Day by planting trees, organizing a citywide trash pickup, or talking about the consequences of climate change and the ongoing threat it creates for our planet. But on Earth Day yesterday, all four Republican candidates for Senate in North Carolina used the opportunity to deny that climate change is real. TPM reports:
Fittingly, all four Republican candidates in the North Carolina Senate race were asked on Earth Day if they believed climate change is a proven fact. And all four candidates said "no."
The question was asked during a GOP primary debate on Tuesday night. The candidates, House Speaker Thom Tillis, Rev. Mark Harris, Dr. Greg Brannon, and nursing practitioner Heather Grant, in response to the question, said "no."
This is not the first time Republicans have denied the existence of climate change and it will likely not be the last. But the fact that all four candidates agreed underscores the GOP extremism in the North Carolina Senate race and serves as yet another example of a political party increasingly divorced from reality.
Last October, a parent at Watauga High School in Boone, North Carolina asked the local school board to remove Isabel Allende’s internationally-renowned The House of the Spirits from the curriculum. After making its way through a multi-step county review process, last week the school board voted 3-2 to uphold the teaching of the book.
The fight to keep the book in the curriculum was backed by many supporters – including the author herself. In a letter to the Watauga County Board of Education, Isabel Allende wrote,
Banning books is a common practice in police states, Like Cuba or North Korea…but I did not expect it in our democracy.
PFAW Foundation president Michael Keegan also spoke out against censorship to the school board. In his letter, Keegan wrote:
We trust that as educators you will uphold the right of all students in Watauga County to receive a competitive, rigorous education free from censorship. While individual parents have every right to decline reading material for their own children, they should not be allowed to censor the curricula for all students in the county.
The House of the Spirits is not the first book PFAW Foundation has fought to protect. In addition to speaking out about Allende’s novel, in the past year PFAW Foundation has advocated against censorship attempts aimed at Invisible Man, Neverwhere, and The Bluest Eye.
When the teaching of Isabel Allende’s internationally renowned novel The House of the Spirits was challenged in a North Carolina school district last month, advocates from all corners spoke out in its defense, including PFAW Foundation president Michael Keegan and North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti. Now, Isabel Allende herself has joined the conversation.
Yesterday the School Library Journal reported that Allende has mailed a letter, along with copies of her book, to the Watauga County school board, superintendent, and the principal of Watauga High School.
After acknowledging that being in the position of defending her own book is “unusual and awkward,” Allende points out in her letter that The House of the Spirits is “considered a classic of Latin American literature and it is taught in high schools, colleges, and universities in all Western countries, including the USA for more than two decades.” She expresses concern about the practice of book censorship in general:
Banning of books is a common practice in police states, like Cuba or North Korea, and by religious fundamentalist groups like the Taliban, but I did not expect it in our democracy.
Allende’s letter comes as the book undergoes a multi-step review process in the county. Last month an advisory committee comprised of teachers, students, and parents voted unanimously not to remove the book from the curriculum, but that decision has been appealed.
Last week after hearing about the ban, PFAW Foundation president Michael Keegan sent a letter to Randolph County school board members urging them to reverse their decision. Area media outlets documented the local, national, and even international response.
The board listened to the outcry. The Courier-Tribune reports that yesterday evening, the Randolph County Board of Education voted 6-1 to reinstate the book to school libraries in the county. At the meeting, some board members reflected on their changing perspectives about censorship and constitutional liberties:
Lambeth said since the last meeting he had listened to other viewpoints and still was concerned about the book’s content and protection of students, but realized that the decision was about a child’s First Amendment rights and educational values, not his personal perspective.
Board member Tracy Boyles said he had wondered as he drove home from the last meeting whether he had made the right decision….He also reflected on his son being in the Air Force and ‘in war twice.…He was fighting for these rights. I’m casting a vote to take them away. Is it right of me? No.’
Fighting censorship has long been a priority of People For the American Way Foundation. Freedom of expression – whether in schools, museums, or any public place – is a fundamental right of Americans that PFAW Foundation will continue its work to protect.