The following is a guest blog from Reverend Michael Couch, a member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers In Action.
On Tuesday, while speaking at the Georgetown University Law Center, Attorney General Eric Holder called for a repeal of state voting laws that disenfranchise formerly incarcerated people. In a country where nearly six million citizens are unable to vote because of felony convictions, these changes could not come quickly enough.
State laws dictating voting rights for those who have served time in prison vary, from an automatic restoration of rights after sentence completion in some states to outright bans in others. Restrictions on this civil right in states like Kentucky, Florida, Iowa, and Virginia should no longer be subject to criteria such as the type of convictions, arbitrary time frames, petitions to clemency boards and/or the state governor.
I work daily with others around the country to make sure nonpartisan voting education and voter registration of women and men who have completed their sentences takes place. Laws that disenfranchise formerly incarcerated people take away the single most fundamental American right, and they do so disproportionately to people of color. As Attorney General Holder pointed out in his speech, restrictive laws prohibit a shocking one in thirteen African Americans adults from voting.
As an African American faith leader, I find this to be both morally unacceptable and counterproductive to the goal of fostering supportive, engaged communities. I know from experience if someone has committed a crime, served their time in prison, and is released, no good could come of permanently stripping them of their most basic right and responsibility. Moreover, what isn’t often addressed is how restrictive laws keep families of those adults from helping them transition back to being a responsible, contributing citizen of their community. It’s time to change the message sent to the nearly six million Americans who have lost their voice and civic responsibility in our democracy.
Attorney General Holder is right: These laws are “unwise…unjust, and… not in keeping with our democratic values.” It’s time for states to get rid of laws that suppress those who have served their time and prevent them from fully participating in our democratic system.
In 2012, over the protests of thousands of Pennsylvanians, forty five organizations, and every Democrat in the state legislature, Governor Tom Corbett signed into law one of the strictest voter ID requirements in the country. The Speaker of the Pennsylvania House acknowledged that he pushed the law to help Mitt Romney win the state.
This morning the two-year-old law was ruled unconstitutional. Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley wrote that law was a “substantial threat” and that it would hinder the ability of many to vote freely.
In the ruling, Judge McGinley stated:
“Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal.”
People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council said of the law last year:
“The purpose of this law has been clear from the beginning. It was meant to keep African Americans, students, and other traditionally suppressed communities from exercising our hard-won right to vote. Even the law’s supporters have admitted that there is absolutely no evidence of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania. Instead, this law is a purely political attempt to disenfranchise citizens who have every right to vote. I am dismayed at today’s decision and hope that as this case moves through the courts, our judges recognize the ugly intent and real consequences of voter ID.”
Not to be outdone by PA's Department of Health and Human Services recently comparing gay and lesbian couples to 12-year-olds, Lehigh County PA Tea Party Commissioner Tom Creighton Wednesday explained his opposition to an initiative to expand benefits to to same-sex partners with this doozy: "I don't feel the county should be looking for new ways to give away taxpayer money. Next it could be giving money to people's pets or whatever."
Creighton sponsored the sole amendment to the 2014 county budget, pushing back against County Executive Matt Croslis’ expansion of benefits to same-sex partners whose marriage is recognized in another state.
Creighton is up for reelection this November and is evidently not vying hard for the canine vote. Thankfully even most household dogs understand bad analogies better than Creighton.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett hasn’t been helping his own approval ratings lately.
A Corbett administration legal brief filed on August 28th regarding the state’s same-sex marriage ban seemed to argue that same-sex marriage is analogous to the marriage of two 12-year-olds. Corbett rejected that argument after the fact in a written statement, but then in a TV interview made an even worse analogy.
On WHY-TV’s ‘Ask The Governor” segment Friday morning, a smirking Corbett called his legal advisors’ analogy ‘inappropriate,’ but then asked the news anchor interviewing him ‘I think a much better analogy would have been brother and sister, don’t you?”
The shocked news anchor didn’t quite know what to say other than “I don’t know,” and attempted to move on to the next question after saying she was going to leave the comments to Corbett.
Things didn’t get much better from there, with Corbett saying Federal courts shouldn’t get involved in Pennsylvania’s same-sex marriage cases because the U.S. Supreme Court left that decision up to the states, failing to specify what court case to which he was referring. Later Friday morning Corbett then was forced to apologize for his offensive comparison of same-sex marriage and sibling incest. Corbett’s approval ratings continue to drop after a stream of self-inflicted gaffes he has made, even when given questions in advance; leading Philadelphia Independent and Watchdog.org reporter Eric Boehm to label the Governor ‘Gaffe-tastic.’
Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett is proving once again that his priorities are out of line with the rest of the state: He just hired lawyer William H. Lamb for $400 an hour to defend a 1996 law banning same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania.
Even though the state’s attorney general declined to fight the case— and even though a majority of Pennsylvanians support marriage equality—Governor Corbett still thinks it’s worth spending $400 per hour of taxpayer money, plus $325 per hour for others in Lamb’s firm working on the case, to stop LGBT Pennsylvanians from being able to marry the person they love. It’s also worth noting that this law firm donated $39,500 to Corbett’s political campaigns between 2004 and 2012. Given the recent revelation that Governor Corbett’s former chief of staff is still being paid despite supposedly resigning, perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising that Corbett is putting someone else on the government payroll unnecessarily.
Still, why fire your friends or let your discriminatory laws go undefended when you can just cut education funding? Why put your personal and ideological priorities aside, when the state’s children are there to take the hit? I’m sure school kids in Philadelphia won’t mind their ballooning class sizes or their after-school programs being cancelled when they know that money is being put to such good use, fighting a law to prevent people who love each other from being able to marry. Welcome to Tom Corbett’s Pennsylvania.
Yesterday, we brought you the story of the Corbett administration comparing gay marriage to marriage between 12-year-olds. Now, Governor Corbett is attempting to tamp down criticism without making any substantive changes to policy. A brief filed by his administration argued that gay marriage licenses had no “value or legitimacy” and that issuing those licenses would be like issuing marriage licenses to 12-year-olds:
“Had the clerk issued marriage licenses to 12-year-olds in violation of state law, would anyone seriously contend that each 12-year-old . . . is entitled to a hearing on the validity of his ‘license’?”
On Thursday, Corbett admitted that “[t]he analogy chosen in the legal brief filed on August 28th is inappropriate." Whoa, settle down, Governor— “inappropriate?” Strong word there, that’s some real no-holds barred talk.
Generous as it is of Corbett to acknowledge this comparison was inappropriate—let alone offensive, dumb and condescending—this admission doesn’t change much. The brief still stands; the lawsuit to stop marriage licenses being issued in Montgomery County will continue; and the officials who wrote the brief still work for the governor. The official who wrote this, who thinks that gay people are as incapable of legitimate consent as children, is still a part of the state government, charged with serving the people of Pennsylvania and representing their interests. Sadly, though, with Corbett as governor, a weak apology like this might be the best we can hope for.
Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett has been floundering recently, facing personnel problems and dire poll numbers. But his abysmal public approval ratings aren’t stopping the governor from charging full steam ahead on his extreme agenda. A brief filed by the Corbett administration today in its lawsuit to stop Montgomery County, PA from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples argues that gay marriage licenses have no “value or legitimacy,” and that issuing those licenses is just like issuing marriage licenses to 12-year-olds:
“Had the clerk issued marriage licenses to 12-year-olds in violation of state law, would anyone seriously contend that each 12-year-old . . . is entitled to a hearing on the validity of his ‘license’?”
Unfortunately, we’re all too used to this form of argument, where homosexuality’s legitimacy is dismissed or ridiculed by comparing it to any number of things, from bestiality to alcoholism or even murder. Now, we know that the governor of Pennsylvania is also struggling to understand the concept of consent, which is what makes gay marriage actually nothing at all like children getting married: children can’t consent, adults can. These actions show Corbett’s deep misunderstanding of marriage equality, and an inability (or refusal) to see it for what it is. They also show that, despite the great Supreme Court victories for gay rights this year, there’s still a lot of work to do.
Guest post from Reverend Dr. Geraldine Pemberton, Assistant Pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia and member of PFAW Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council.
As a 74 year old retired nurse, I can remember the original March on Washington well. I wasn’t able to be there in person that day, but many of my family members were. After marching with Dr. King and more than 200,000 other Americans, they were inspired to come home and fight for justice.
I myself am of the Jim Crow era. The injustices that Dr. King described that day as the “chains of discrimination” were injustices I faced first-hand. My father, who was born in North Carolina, would take my family down from Philadelphia for visits to his home state. He would try to prepare us as much as he could, but it was always overwhelming. I remember that once we passed the Mason-Dixon line, we couldn’t use most bathrooms. We would have to use outhouses behind gas stations instead.
Today I can see how far we’ve come, but also how much further we still have to go. I have spent much of my life fighting the injustices that drove the first March on Washington, especially health disparities facing women of color. Justice, I have learned, is a very big umbrella that must include equality for women. A just society has to be one that values women’s voices and fights back against health disparities that threaten black women’s lives.
Twenty years after that march, I went to another major event that inspired people from all over to drop what they were doing and travel across the country – the 1983 Spelman College conference on women’s health, which birthed what is now the Black Women’s Health Imperative. My friend and I saw a flyer for it but didn’t think we could afford to go. We maxed out our credit cards and drove down to Atlanta. Thousands of women showed up for the conference – young women, older women, women with children, women who had hitchhiked there. We just showed up - we had to be there.
That conference unfolded into a lifetime of work in pursuit of improving the health outcomes of African American women. As a former Director of Nursing and a current Health Committee Director for an alliance of Black clergy in Philadelphia, I know that women of color need improved access to care and greater provider sensitivity. Women need more information on the diseases that affect us most. And as a 74 year old Philadelphian, I’m still fighting for women’s health and justice. This year I am organizing health forums at churches throughout the city to give women more information about diseases, healthy living, and greater access to health services though the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act commonly known as “Obamacare.”
The first health forum is this weekend – fifty years after the March on Washington. In so many ways, we are still marching.
Judge Nitza Quiñones Alejandro broke an important glass ceiling this week, becoming the first openly lesbian Latina confirmed to a federal judgeship. The Senate confirmed her by voice vote to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania yesterday. Previously Quiñones served for more than two decades on the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.
The Washington Blade notes that Quiñones is only the seventh openly LGBT person in our country’s history to be confirmed as a federal judge.
PFAW has advocated for more diversity in the judiciary, applauding President Obama’s push to bring qualified judges from many backgrounds to the federal bench. Issuing decisions that affect all communities, the federal bench – and all benches – must reflect the diversity of our nation.
Last year President Obama said he was committed to ensuring that “the judiciary resembles the nation it serves.” This week’s confirmation is an important step toward that goal.
The pushback against Pennsylvania Republicans’ electoral vote-rigging bill continues to grow, as more and more public officials and average voters call on Governor Corbett to dump the hyper-partisan scheme plan.
On Monday, People For the American Way held a press conference in Philadelphia with state Senator Anthony Williams and a representative from the office of U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, who said that he fears this legislation represents “more of the same” partisan tactics that we saw with last year’s voter ID bill.
Yesterday in the state capitol of Harrisburg, state Auditor Eugene DePasquale and state Treasurer Rob McCord added to the calls for Corbett to put aside partisan politics and “stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right.’” McCord warned that the bill would mean millions in lost economic activity, and called it a “shame.” DePasquale said that the bill would greatly reduce the influence of Pennsylvania in national elections by limiting the number of electoral votes in play to 3 or 4, similar to small states like Wyoming. “When was the last time you saw a major policy announcement from a president in Wyoming?,” he asked.
With the chorus of voices against the bill growing ever louder, from both Democrats and Republicans, it’s becoming harder and harder for Corbett to maintain his tacit support for this scheme. If Pennsylvanians keep speaking out against this bill, Corbett won’t be able to act like he can’t hear us for much longer.
This morning, gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf became yet another in a long line of prominent Pennsylvanians of both parties to speak out against the Republican electoral college rigging proposal. At a People For the American Way press conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, this morning, Wolf and Sally Lyall of the Lancaster County Democrats called on Governor Tom Corbett to denounce the electoral vote rigging scheme drummed up by State Senator Dominic Pileggi. Wolf denounced the scheme as a “bad idea,” saying:
"There is such a thing as a bad idea. This is it. It’s a bad idea because it’s not fair…it’s not democratic. But it’s also a bad idea because it’s not smart. It puts Pennsylvania at a great, great disadvantage. I urge Governor Corbett to oppose this law as the bad idea it is.”
Governor Corbett has so far refused to denounce the bill even after more than 100,000 petitions against the scheme were dropped off at his office and hundreds of volunteers went door to door successfully mobilizing Pennsylvania voters in key districts to oppose the bill. Corbett continues to kowtow to the narrow special interests and Republican Party leaders like Senator Pileggi instead of standing with the people of Pennsylvania.
“Since Governor Corbett refuses to state his position on this scheme, we can only assume he sides with state Republican leadership and against Pennsylvania voters. Instead of focusing on growing the state’s economy, he would rather push a plan to disenfranchise millions of voters, gerrymander legislative districts and make Pennsylvania irrelevant in presidential elections. That is not the kind of leadership Pennsylvania needs,” said Randy Borntrager, political director of People For the American Way.
It’s been clear for a while now that the Republican strategy on this bill has been to say it isn’t a priority, or just entirely avoid the question, not to actually defend its merits- because they know it doesn’t have any. They know it isn’t popular, fair, or right for Pennsylvania, but that won’t stop them from trying to sneak it through. Every day that we wait for an answer from Corbett is another day that this bill threatens the rights of Pennsylvanians. But People For the American Way isn’t going to wait quietly. With our partners in Pennsylvania, we’re asking the governor to stand up and be honest about his position on this bill.
Sometimes, Governors ‘say the darndest things.’ In a roundtable discussion hosted by the Al Dia Spanish language newspaper at The Union League of Pennsylvania Wednesday, PA Gov. Tom Corbett let it slip that he didn’t ‘have any’ Latinos serving in his administration.
MODERATOR: Do you have staff members that are Latino?
CORBETT: No, we do not have any staff members in there. If you can find us one, please let me know.
MODERATOR: I am sure that there are Latinos that…
CORBETT: Do any of you want to come to Harrisburg? See?!
Could Gov. Corbett really not “find” any Latino Pennsylvanians to serve on his staff? The latest numbers indicate that there are 719,000 people in Pennsylvania who identify as Latino or Hispanic according to the Pew Research Hispanic Center. That’s just over 6% of all Pennsylvanians, and growing.
While talking about representing all Pennsylvanians, Corbett and Pennsylvania Republicans continue to overlook the Latinos all around them. Really, Governor, you couldn’t ‘find’ any qualified Latinos to serve on your staff? Or is it that you aren’t really looking?
We already knew from our canvassing these past few weeks that the Pennsylvania GOP’s electoral vote-rigging plan is unpopular with Pennsylvania voters. Now, thanks to a People For the American Way video, we know that this opposition isn’t just coming from the voters -- it’s also coming from crucial Republican state senators. At a town hall meeting in New Hope, state Sen. Charles McIlhinney told constituents that he thought the electoral college scheme, sponsored by Sen. Dominic Pileggi, was “poorly thought out” and that he wouldn’t support the bill. Senator McIlhinney pointed out that it would “set Pennsylvania back” by diminishing its significance in the electoral college, putting its influence on a level with smaller states.
This should be a wake-up call for Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett. He’s already facing a tough re-election battle, and it’s clear that this electoral college scheme is not a winner for him -- the comments from Sen. McIlhinney are just further evidence of this. But clearly, it seems like Gov. Corbett thinks staying silent on the issue will mean that no one will notice. Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t work like that: we know his silence reveals his tacit support for the plan, and the longer he leaves it, the clearer it becomes. Governor Corbett has been hiding from his own party’s policies for a while now, but with these comments from Sen. McIlhinney -- a prominent member of the committee that would be the first to consider the bill -- the reality’s catching up with him. It’s time to either come out and support the bill or admit, like Sen. McIlhinney did, that his party got it wrong on this one.
Watch our video of the Senator’s comments here:
Over the past few weeks, People For the American Way has been busy in Pennsylvania, at the front lines of the fight to stop a Republican attempt to rig the electoral college. We’ve delivered over 100,000 petitions to Governor Tom Corbett; hosted a press conference with African American ministers against the scheme; and organized canvassing trips in key state senate districts.
Now, we’re stepping up the pressure again. Today in Media, Pennsylvania, People For the American Way hosted a press conference with former congressman Joe Sestak to demand answers from the scheme’s sponsor, state Sen. Dominic Pileggi. Admiral Sestak denounced the scheme, and called on Senator Pileggi to end his campaign to rig the election. We also heard from the Delaware County Democratic Party Chairman David Landau, who called on the Republican co-sponsors like state Sen. Edwin Erickson to remove their names from this bill. Finally, we heard from our own Robert Weaver, who talked about the “enormous dissent” we’ve been hearing about from these state senators’ constituents.
Again and again, we’ve heard Senator Pileggi and the Republicans try to avoid criticism of this bill simply by saying that the bill isn’t moving right now. That isn’t good enough. We know, and Joe Sestak knows, and even Dominic Pileggi knows the reality: a bad bill that’s not moving is still a bad bill, and it can start moving anytime. Senator Pileggi and his co-sponsors need to stop trying to hide from the debate and either stand up for this bill or remove it from consideration, instead of just waiting until they think Pennsylvania voters aren't looking. As Rob said today, we will not stop until we know that Pennsylvanians’ electoral votes are safe.
This weekend, our Pennsylvania volunteers had their best canvassing trip yet- and not just because of the beautiful weather. 20 volunteers met in State Senator Lloyd Smucker’s district, spending their Saturday afternoon talking to 700 Pennsylvanians and collecting signatures for our petition to Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania. We weren’t surprised to hear the same things we hear every time we talk to Pennsylvania voters about the Republican electoral college plans: shock, confusion, and disappointment that Republican lawmakers like Senator Smucker are trying to make Pennsylvania less important to national elections.
Again and again, we’ve seen these Republican lawmakers avoid discussion of this bill by saying it isn’t a priority- but we know this is just another attempt to pull the wool over voters’ eyes. We know they’re trying to get these plans through quietly and without debate. And we know that Pennsylvanians won’t stand for it. We’re keeping the pressure on, and we need your help to do it. On April 10, we're delivering more than 100,000 signatures of PFAW supporters against the electoral college rigging at the Pennyslvania State Capitol Rotunda. If you haven't done so already, it's not too late to add your name to our petition to Republican lawmakers in PA and other states telling them to abandon this effort. Or donate to support our campaign here.
Pennsylvania Republicans’ strategy to rig the Electoral College rests on their pushing their plan through quietly, without voters realizing what they’re up to. They know they can’t win if people are paying attention, because rigging the game isn’t fair, it isn’t popular, and it isn’t right for Pennsylvania. We’re not going to let their deception defeat Pennsylvanians’ democratic rights. We’re turning up the heat on the State Senate Majority Leader, Dominic Pileggi, who introduced the bill to rig the Electoral College. Last weekend, we led 14 Pennsylvanians on a canvass in Pileggi’s district to show him that Pennsylvanians know what he’s up to, and that he can’t get away with these underhand tactics.
Our volunteers knocked on over 1500 doors and talked to hundreds of voters- but we’re just getting started. More canvassing and phonebanking shifts are scheduled this week, and we’ll keep this up as long as state Republicans keep trying to rig the game. We’re showing Dominic Pileggi that Pennsylvanians know what he’s up to, they know what his plan would do to their state, and that they won’t stand for it.