state of the union

Ensuring that Desiline Victor, and all Americans, Get to Have Their Say at the Polls

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama used his bully pulpit to ensure that the critically important issue of voting rights is securely on the agenda in 2013. Calling it “our most fundamental right as citizens,” the President announced the formation of a non-partisan commission focused on improving our country’s system of voting.

One woman who was undoubtedly pleased to hear this news was 102-year-old Desiline Victor of Miami, seated in the House visitors’ gallery, who had waited in line for hours to cast a ballot in November’s election.  President Obama noted that the country should follow her determined example: “As time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say,” he said.

After all, that is the issue at the core of a working democracy: whether folks get to have their say. 

Leading up to the election, our affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s leadership programs witnessed and stood up to efforts across the country – ranging from unnecessary registration obstacles to early voting restrictions – to suppress the votes of those who have traditionally been disenfranchised: communities of color, low-income communities, and youth.  In the past two years alone, more than 65 suppressive voter ID bills were introduced in 34 states.

That’s why it is important that President Obama made it clear last night that he is serious about addressing the problems in our election system.  With increased access to early voting and an end to discriminatory voter ID laws, we can ensure that all Americans “get to have their say” at the polls.

PFAW

Boehner Takes a Hit from the Right on DC Vouchers

House Speaker John Boehner took a hit yesterday in, of all places, the conservative Washington Examiner, a newspaper owned by the same folks who own the conservative Weekly Standard. Columnist Harry Jaffee slammed the Speaker for his plans to impose a reinvigorated private school voucher program on the District of Columbia. Jaffe states he is neutral on the issue of private school vouchers in general, but "with one caveat: The scholarships should not be used for parochial school tuition. And that is exactly where they have been going."

The Founding Fathers must be frowning on House Speaker John Boehner; you can almost envision the furrow on Thomas Jefferson's brow.

How could this fine conservative lawmaker from Ohio, who often cloaks himself in the Constitution, go on a crusade to give federal funds to D.C.'s Catholic schools? What happened to the separation of church and state?

Why is this a church-state issue? Because the vouchers are overwhelmingly used for religious education. In fact, the Department of Education reports that about 80% of the participating students have used the voucher to attend religious schools. Although the program may not expressly favor religious schools over others, you have to be willing to suspend your disbelief to think that that's not one of the goals of the program's proponents.

Jaffe ties the program directly to Boehner's upbringing.

So let's not let Boehner kid anyone. He's a good Catholic, attended Catholic schools in Cincinnati, has raised funds for D.C.'s Catholic schools, reads to their students, invited Cardinal Donald Wuerl to the State of the Union. His bill is a subsidy, plain and simple.

Catholic schools provide a strong education, build character and give poor kids a way out. No doubt. In Chicago and other cities, Catholic congregations support vibrant school systems. The truth is that D.C.'s Catholic community can no longer finance more than a few schools, which is why Wuerl turned seven into charter schools.

When John Boehner attended Archbishop Moeller High in Cincinnati, his parents split the cost with the local parish. When his brothers attended, Boehner helped.

That's the American way, where congregations and families helped their own get religious education. That's the way Thomas Jefferson saw it, at least.

Indeed, that is the American Way. But apparently it's not John Boehner's way.

PFAW

In State of the Union, Obama Calls for Immigration Reform and DREAM ACT

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama made a common-sense plea for comprehensive immigration reform, including a reference to the DREAM ACT, the popular measure that would provide a path to citizenship for young adults who, through no fault of their own, were brought into the country illegally as children, provided they graduate from high school with a commitment to go to college or join the military. The DREAM Act was blocked by Senate Republicans at the end of last year.

One last point about education. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.

Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. And I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult. I know it will take time. But tonight, let’s agree to make that effort. And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation.

Opposition to the DREAM Act and to comprehensive reform has been based largely on reactionary anti-immigrant politics—politics that, as Obama said, shouldn’t trump human decency and economic sense.
 

PFAW

New Groups Taking Advantage of Concealed Election Spending

Can we have the DISCLOSE Act now? USA Today reports that more than a dozen groups have been organized since June to take advantage of the lax election spending rules left by the Citizens United decision earlier this year…and most of them aren’t going to tell us who’s funding them:

In many cases, the public will not know who has funded the ads until long after they have aired.

"This is the new order of political finance," says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. Outside groups can "sling mud with hidden money."

Since June 1, at least 15 organizations have launched these operations to influence congressional races, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

In Mother Jones, Peter Stone explains one reason why corporate interests are jumping through hoops to influence elections without being noticed:

You might wonder: Given that Citizens United allowed companies, say General Motors or Aetna, to get involved in elections directly, why would they need to go through groups like BIPAC or the US Chamber of Commerce? The problem, says Larry Noble, a former general counsel at the FEC, is that the decision is so unpopular many companies may not want to be seen as taking advantage of it. (In the wake of President Obama's attack on the Citizens United ruling in the State of the Union address—he noted that it would allow special interests and "foreign corporations to spend without limits in our elections"—80 percent of Americans told pollsters they disagreed with the ruling.)

Then, there’s also the powerful example of Target, which taught corporations that it’s ok to give money to political causes—as long as you don’t get caught.
 

PFAW

New People For Report Tracks the Rise of the Corporate Court

When the Supreme Court decided this year to open the electoral process to floods of money from corporate interests, it provoked a vehement public backlash. But Citizens United v. FEC was just the tip of the iceberg of a decade of rulings—some high-profile and some less noticed— made by a Court that has been disturbingly deferential to corporate interests. A new People For the American Way Foundation report outlines the rise of the corporate court under Chief Justice Rehnquist and the new life it has taken on in the Roberts court.

Americans across the spectrum have been startled and appalled by the Citizens United decision, which will "open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign companies—to spend without limit in our elections," as President Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union Address. According to a Washington Post nationwide poll, more than 80% of the American people reject the Court's conclusion that a business corporation is a member of the political community entitled to the same free speech rights as citizens.

Yet, the Court's watershed ruling is the logical expression of an activist pro-corporatist jurisprudence that has been bubbling up for many decades on the Court but has gained tremendous momentum over the last generation. Since the Rehnquist Court, there have been at least five justices—and sometimes more—who tilt hard to the right when it comes to a direct showdown between corporate power and the public interest. During the Roberts Court, this trend has continued and intensified. Although there is still some fluidity among the players, it is reasonable to think of a reliable "corporate bloc" as having emerged on the Court.

Take a look at the full report here.
 

PFAW

Virginia's New Radical Right Governor Begins His Assault

Pat Robertson's man in the Virginia State House, Governor Bob McDonnell, has been in office less than a month and is already delivering on the Religious Right's agenda ... at the expense of Virginians' civil rights.

A February 5 executive order from the 'Gov stripped gay and lesbian state workers of protections against job discrimination. It was that simple: signing an order that prohibits discrimination based on nearly every category except sexual orientation (which had been included under McDonnell's predecessor, Gov. Tim Kaine). The move has already been praised by Radical Right groups like Tony Perkins' Family Research Council.

This is a painful, cringe-inducing "I told you so" moment that brings no satisfaction to anyone and certainly no desire to gloat. It's a sad reminder that when we snooze, we lose -- in this case, progressive voters snoozing has led to LGBT Virginians losing, but rest assured, there will be more to come and enough misery to go around.

Bob McDonnell's opponent in the gubernatorial race was Creigh Deeds, who failed to inspire his progressive base. Deeds campaign ran away from progressive values instead of embracing and fighting for them, and the Democratic ticket paid the price on Election Day. Deeds got the Democratic nomination in the first place because of dreadful turnout, particularly among progressives, in that party's primary election.

The other lesson we must take away is that we must EXPOSE right-wing candidates for what they are. This need makes organizations like PFAW and blogs like RightWingWatch very important. McDonnell is an undoubtedly intelligent and charismatic politician. He seems like a very nice guy, a good family man and emanates a sincerity that might be genuine. But this persona belies his radical beliefs.

McDonnell could rightly be called a "wolf in sheep's clothing" for running a campaign that avoided the polarizing issues on which his Religious Right agenda is focused. But the evidence was there all along. He was elected, in part, due to progressives' and Democrats' failure to expose his true radical right-wing inclinations despite a wealth of evidence.

His master's thesis (at Pat Robertson's Regent University, which itself should have been portrayed as a bigger red flag to VA voters) espoused extremely radical views. It became a major campaign issue for his opponent Deeds but somehow McDonnell was able to diffuse it by saying those were the views of a younger, less lived and learned version of himself. He was 34 YEARS OLD when he wrote the thesis, though, and hardly some naïve kid. McDonnell's record as Attorney General and statements he had made in the past, as well as his close connection to Pat Robertson, should have been additional red flags.

But here we find ourselves, with LGBT Virginians taking the first of what will likely be many blows to their basic rights throughout Gov. McDonnell's tenure. And it's not only Virginians who are going to suffer.

McDonnell has been unleashed onto the national political scene too. Americans already have enough fear from hatemongers like Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and others who threaten America with their potential candidacy for president. Now, we have Bob McDonnell (Pat Robertson's protégé!!!) who is clearly being groomed to be a national leader of the Republican Party after he gave the GOP response to President Obama's State of the Union Address -- a response that was very well executed and positioned the articulate family man McDonnell as what one would imagine to be a Tea Party activist's ideal alternative to our current president. (The fact that McDonnell is white is sadly of central importance in the GOP's ploy, but that's a topic that deserves further dissection in another post).

It's been said that we get the government we deserve, based on who we vote for or whether or not we choose to vote at all. But no one deserves a governor like Bob McDonnell. And the likes of Pat Robertson and Tony Perkins certainly do not deserve to have their errand boy serving them up one wish list item at a time wrapped all pretty with a bow on it.

Progressives stay at home on Election Day at all of our peril. And that goes for the primaries especially. The progressive "base" can't just be the voters whose turnout makes the difference for Democrats in general elections (young voters, low-income voters, etc.). People who truly embrace what it means to be progressive need get out there and stand up for our values within the political party structure. If there's one thing this current crop of Democratic members of Congress has made all too clear, it's that no one else is going to assert those values (the same ones that made and continue to make America great, I might add) if we don't do it in the voting booth.

We must do better.

In the meantime, we need to keep an eye on Governor Bob McDonnell, lest he follow the path of another perceived "every man" who was strong on "family values" and played the part of a "uniter, not a divider." That "every man," George W. Bush, served up the most radical right-wing policies of any modern president and was quick to empty the nation's treasury into the pockets of war profiteers and his other corporate sponsors. Let's learn from the past.
 

PFAW

Justice Alito Begs to Differ

If you watched the State of the Union last week, you probably saw Justice Samuel Alito take exception to President Obama's entirely accurate characterization of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC.

Some people were outraged by Justice Alito's lack of decorum, but not E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post.

Alito did not like the president making an issue of the court's truly radical intervention in politics. I disagree with Alito on the law and the policy, but I have no problem with his personal expression of displeasure.

On the contrary, I salute him because his candid response brought home to the country how high the stakes are in the battle over the conservative activism of Chief Justice John Roberts's court.

Hopefully, Justice Alito's actions at the State of the Union will help feed the conversation about the damage done by the Court's decision in Citizens United and what can be done to fix it.

PFAW

Obama: Repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

In last night's State of the Union Address, President Obama pledged to work with Congress and the military to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" this year.
 

Thousands of activists joined People For the American Way in urging the President to include the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the defense budget proposal he sends to Congress early next month.
 

While it's not yet clear what the vehicle is going to be for repeal, the President's strong statement last night is an indication that he's getting the message. Now, it's up to the Obama administration to deliver on last night's pledge and it's up to all of us to make sure that it does.
 

We can't slack up in our fight to make sure that the administration and Congress advance pro-equality reforms this year. Anti-LGBT discrimination in the military, the workplace and, yes, in the institution of civil marriage must be addressed by this president and this Congress without delay.
 

You can join the fight for equality at:
 

PFAW

The State of the Judiciary and the Bush Legacy

Individual Rights, Access to Justice Threatened
President Bush's final State of the Union address will in part be an effort to shape the public view of his presidency. But here's something he won't say: a long-lasting part of his legacy will be the weakening of Americans' rights and legal protections due to the dangerous state of the federal judiciary created by judges he has placed on the federal bench.

PFAW