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The three ultra-rich families battling for control of the Republican party

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Heather Timmons has an interesting article at Quartz:

This week, the House and Senate will work to reconcile their different versions of the tax bill into something that president Donald Trump can sign into law. As they do, dozens of protests and rallies against the bill are being planned from California to Chicago to Staten Island, New York. Citizens are frantically organizing to try to shut down the only major legislative success of a president who ran on a platform of populism, and Democrats are growing optimistic about flipping one or both houses of Congress. How did the country get here just a year after Donald Trump’s historic win?

To understand that, you need to look back to the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision in 2010, which opened the floodgates for wealthy donors in political races. Since then, corporations and the rich have plowed money into both parties. Three extremely wealthy families, the Mercers, the Kochs, and the Adelsons, all prominent donors to the Republican party, now seem locked in a struggle over the future of the GOP.

As campaigning for the midterm elections in November 2018 gets under way, the three families are facing off against each other in battleground states. They’re lighting a fire under Republican politicians who are now determined to get something, anything, passed in Washington—even if it’s a last-minute tax bill that most voters don’t agree with and legislators barely had time to read.

But Republicans who fail to pass tax reform risk losing donor support, and getting wiped out by a rival Republican candidate. As Lindsay Graham, the veteran Republican senator from South Carolina, told an NBC news reporter early last month, a failed tax reform will look a lot like a failed party.

The donors’ battle inside the GOP

Early in 2014, over a dozen big-name Republican donors attended a meeting in New York City organized by a wealthy hedge fund executive. They had one goal—come up with a strategy to win back the US senate from the Democrats in November.

A veteran Republican strategist laid out an optimistic battle plan capped with the GOP taking the House and Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, then minority leader, leading the Senate. At the mention of McConnell’s name, an audible groan came from one corner of the room—Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of hedge fund tycoon Robert Mercer, was making her displeasure known. “I can’t think of anything worse,” Mercer said, according to one attendee.

She would rather Democrats controlled the Senate “than have McConnell as the majority leader,” the attendee said, still sounding mystified years later. The Mercer’s “mindset is totally different from a traditional Republican donor mindset,” he said.

In recent decades, the US’s two-party system had been pretty tribal. Whether a Democrat or Republican, you mostly counted yourself a winner when you got more of your team into power than the other guys. That tribal glue started to give way when the insurgent Tea Party movement appeared in 2009, fielding ultra-conservative candidates against establishment Republicans in many congressional districts and splitting the party into two camps. It nonetheless remained largely united against the common enemy of president Barack Obama.

But since Trump, with no ties to either camp or its ideology, defeated a raft of other candidates for the presidential nomination last year, the Republicans have been cast into a growing civil war between mainstream conservatives, Tea Party-inspired libertarians, and the xenophobic and misogynistic groundswell that Trump has proven expert at tapping into. These schisms reflect genuine divisions in the Republicans’ voter base—and the Mercers, the Kochs, and the Adelsons are adept at exploiting them.

Shaking up the GOP after Obama

“If money could buy elections, Mitt Romney would have won,” was a familiar refrain among campaign finance experts and political strategists alike, after the wealthy former Massachusetts governor failed to unseat Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential race, despite outspending him by $110 million.

The Mercers, for years content to quietly donate to the Kochs’ political network, started to act alone after the Republicans’ failure to unseat president Barack Obama reportedly led Rebekah to decide(paywall) the Koch network was full of “fools.” The Koch brothers, stung by the 2012 election loss, doubled down on state races, while the Adelsons poured their money into a political action committee run by former George W. Bush chief of staff Karl Rove.

Romney’s loss had shaken the Republican party so deeply that then-party chief Reince Priebus spent months putting together a soul-searching policy paper (pdf) about the direction it should go, based on thousands of interviews. Most people think Republicans don’t care about Americans, it found, and the party needs to reach out to women, and minorities. It included advice that now seems unfathomably quaint, like (pg. 6):

The Republican Party must be the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder of life. Low-income Americans are hardworking people who want to become hard-working middle-income Americans. Middle-income Americans want to become upper-middle-income, and so on. We need to help everyone make it in America.We have to blow the whistle at corporate malfeasance and attack corporate welfare. We should speak out when a company liquidates itself and its executives receive bonuses but rank-and-file workers are left unemployed. We should speak out when CEOs receive tens of millions of dollars in retirement packages but middle-class workers have not had a meaningful raise in years.

But America’s GOP oligarchs did not appear to have read the report. The congressional candidates that the three families have backed (sometimes together) bore little resemblance to that GOP prescriptive.

Instead, they helped launch a new era of even less compassionate Republicans that included a woman who thinks the UN is a conspiracy and wants to eliminate the minimum wage, and a former doctor who crafted a health-care bill that allow insurance companies to charge people with pre-existing conditions more.

Unlike Romney, these radical new candidates won. But Republican experts warn that the families’ picks may eventually hollow out the Republican party by pushing policies that American voters reject, or set the stage for a full-fledged revolt.

The latest example is the openly racist Roy Moore, the candidate in Alabama’s December 2017 special election for the Senate, who has been accused of sexually assaulting several teens when he was in his 30s. Moore, who is championed by former (paywall) White House advisor and Mercer family affiliate Stephen Bannon, secured the backing of Trump, and the Republican National Committee this week.

“The RNC is the president’s political arm, and we support him and his agenda,” a RNC official told Quartz today (Dec. 5). But Republican strategists say it’s a huge gamble.

“If the party nominates the slate of candidates that the Mercers are backing, [Democratic Senator Chuck] Schumer will be the Senate majority leader, and [Democratic representative] Nancy Pelosi will be the speaker of the House” in 2018, said one long-time Republican strategist and donor who is aligned with the Adelsons, before the Republican Party threw its support behind Moore on Dec. 4.

“If people question why Trump is unable to get anything accomplished, it will be the fault of the Mercers and Steve Bannon.”

Three Republican families, three visions

The influence of these three families offers a stark illustration of how extreme wealth can distort a democracy.

Each family is closely tied to the Republican leader of one branch of government: Robert, Diana, and Rebekah Mercer helped propel Trump’s bombastic rise to the White House. Industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch funded the Tea Party and its protege, House speaker Paul Ryan. And while casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam Ochshorn are on the party’s more moderate wing, they have long stood behind the calculating, conservative Senate leader, McConnell, who even before the Tea Party’s rise was known as an extreme obstructionist (paywall), dedicated to stomping out the bipartisan compromises that historically made the US government work.

The Adelsons favor pro-Israel policies. Despite their anti-regulation stance, they are keen to squelch the growth of online gambling, and want to support moderate Republicans with a chance of picking up swing voters.

The Koch brothers have funded and organized a vast network of libertarian think tanks and grassroots movements aimed at sowing distrust of “big government” and climate science, the better to benefit their massive fossil fuel-heavy Koch Industries. There are other Republican donors who have spent more money, but the Koch’s network gives them great influence.

The Mercers seem to hold the most extreme social views: Robert Mercer complained that the US started going in the wrong direction “after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s,” according to a lawsuit filed by a former employee. He reportedly invested $10 million in 2011 into Breitbart, the news site run by one-time Trump adviser Steve Bannon, which regularly airs white-supremacist views. Early last month, Robert Mercer quit the hedge fund he worked at for years, and said he’d sold his stake in Breitbart News to his daughter, but he’s reportedly getting even deeper into politics.

Emboldened by Trump’s presidential victory, the Mercer family has been siding with extremist candidates for 2018 congressional races, hoping to wipe out incumbent Republicans and yank Senate leader McConnell from his seat.

In Nevada, another Mercer-backed Republican,  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including profiles of the three billionaire families who aspire to control the United States.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2019 at 8:12 am

GOP Continues to Stonewall Efforts to Improve Voter Access in Texas

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The GOP stands in strong opposition to democracy and works endlessly to prevent people from voting (selecting for their efforts those people who are unlikely to vote for Republicans). It shows exactly the nature of the conservative mind: do absolutely anything to win, legality and ethics be damned. We saw it in North Carolina and here it is in Texas.

Vicky Camarillo reports in the Texas Observer:

In the latest move by Republicans to make voting harder for Texans, the Senate passed a high-priority omnibus “election integrity” bill this week. The measure, Senate Bill 9, would raise criminal penalties for certain election-related offenses and create tighter rules for assisting disabled, elderly or absentee voters at the polls. The legislation has drawn ire from civil rights advocates who say it’s a solution in search of a problem and an effort by the GOP to tamp down growing voter turnout by making felonies out of what are often honest mistakes.

While SB 9 is the most high-profile election-related bill this session, GOP lawmakers and officials have spent the session quietly stonewalling attempts to increase voting access and participation, both dramatic and incremental.

Bills to implement online voter registration, which a majority of states use, haven’t been given committee hearing this session. One measure that initially included automatically registering driver’s license applicants to vote was heard last week in committee. After GOP pushback, the Democratic author changed the bill to remove the automatic registration provision. Automatic and online voter registration systems could add millions of Texans to the rolls. Other stalled bills would make Election Day a state holiday, automatically register college students and count state agency-issued IDs and college IDs as valid voter identification. Republicans who oppose other efforts to improve voting access cite lost worker productivity, heavier burdens on the state, potential voter fraud and, oddly, a need to focus on education.

Take House Bill 552, which would require the Secretary of State to make voter registration forms available in high schools year-round. Under current law, high schools are required to make registration forms available to students and staff twice a year. But the schools must submit requests to the state to receive the forms, and a 2018 report showed about two-thirds of Texas schools were not in compliance — meaning hundreds of thousands of potential young voters were left off the rolls.

All five witnesses who testified against the high school registration bill in the House Committee on Elections last week are official members of the Republican Party. That includes James Dickey, chair of the Republican Party of Texas, who cited educational efficiency as a reason for his opposition.

“It would send a conflicting message at best for the Legislature after just making such a big commitment to education [with billions in new funding] to then divert some of the schools’ attention to complying with new requirements,” he told lawmakers. “Even though the goal is worthwhile, it’s not part of the core educational mission.”

David Covey, chair of the Orange County Republican Party, also opposed the measure in committee, saying HB 552 would “open up the door where we could then start requiring these applications to be in just about any location.” Another opponent was Ed Johnson, a former Harris County elections official who moonlighted as a paid Republican political consultant. He said young people “do not use paper and pencil anymore; they use their phone and iPad” — wrongly implying that it’s possible to vote online.

Terry Canales, the Democratic state representative from Edinburg who authored the bill, told committee members that the testimony they’d heard from GOP officials was “not only disingenuous, it was incorrect.”

In the same hearing, members considered a bill by state Representative Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, that would add identification cards issued by federally recognized Native American tribes to the acceptable forms of ID for voting. (There are three such tribes in Texas, and together their populations amount to less than 2,000 people, according to the U.S. Census.)

Tribal members across the country face barriers to accessing the ballot box, including long distances between polling sites and their homes, inadequate translation services and voter purges; Native American voter turnout is 5 to 14 percentage points lower than that of other racial and ethnic groups. More than a dozen states permit tribal IDs as an acceptable form of voter ID.

But two witnesses, including Johnson, said they opposed the measure because there is no state agency that oversees tribes’ IDs to ensure their “accuracy and integrity.”

Rick Sylestine, vice chair of the tribal council for the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, testified in favor of the bill. Responding to concerns from Republicans about the integrity of tribal IDs, he said the tribe’s enrollment office verifies members’ identities with birth certificates and DNA testing. That’s beyond the requirements for a drivers’ license in Texas, the most common form of identification.

“It’s bullshit,” Nevárez told the Observer. “[Republicans are] coming from a position of foolishness and mendacity.”

State Representative Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, said she has heard similar “misinformation” about the validity of college student IDs. She filed a bill that would add college IDs to the list of acceptable voter identification, a simple measure that could add hundreds of thousands more voters. The bill follows alleged voter suppression at universities in November. “My view is if you’re afraid of more people voting, you’re in the wrong business,” Zwiener said.

Civil rights advocates say this session is just another entry into conservatives’ long history of voter suppression in Texas. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2019 at 7:51 am

What Barr said about obstruction

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From the Washington Post write-up, “What Attorney General Barr buried, misrepresented or ignored in clearing Trump,” just one section:

Barr noted at the outset that the assessment made by him and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein took issue with how Mueller approached the question of obstruction of justice.

He and Rosenstein “concluded that the evidence developed by the Special Counsel is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense,” Barr said. He added that they “disagreed with some of the Special Counsel’s legal theories and felt that some of the episodes examined did not amount to obstruction as a matter of law but that they instead “evaluated the evidence as presented by the Special Counsel in reaching our conclusion.”

As Mueller makes clear, that presentation of evidence was his goal. Since there exists an opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel that prevents the Justice Department from indicting a sitting president, Mueller’s team “conducted a thorough factual investigation in order to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available.” Their investigation specifically aimed “not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the president committed crimes.” If, however, “we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.”

In other words, they aimed to collect evidence and were open to exonerating him on charges of obstruction, though not to trying to prove a criminal case.

“Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however,” Mueller continues, “we are unable to reach that judgment” — that is, that Trump clearly didn’t commit obstruction. At several points, in fact, the Mueller report aims at Congress as a potential arbiter of the obstruction question.

In an effort to bolster his own decision to exonerate Trump, Barr tries to contextualize Trump’s behavior. It’s important to quote this at length. We’ve added boldface for emphasis.

“In assessing the President’s actions discussed in the report, it is important to bear in mind the context,” Barr said. ” . . . As he entered into office, and sought to perform his responsibilities as President, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates. At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the President’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion” — at least using the definition Barr offered, which was limited to the interactions described above.

“[T]here is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks,” Barr said. “Nonetheless, the White House fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims. And at the same time, the President took no act that in fact deprived the Special Counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation.

“Apart from whether the acts were obstructive,” Barr continued, “this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the President had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation.”

The two boldface segments above are directly at odds with what Mueller writes.

First, the White House didn’t fully cooperate: Trump himself refused to sit for an interview with Mueller. The report addresses that, with Mueller explaining why they decided against pursuing a subpoena.

“Recognizing that the President would not be interviewed voluntarily, we considered whether to issue a subpoena for his testimony. We viewed the written answers to be inadequate,” the report states. “But at that point, our investigation had made significant progress and had produced substantial evidence for our report.” Ultimately, given the progress that had been made and the evidence elsewhere, they decided against what would have been a lengthy and nasty subpoena fight.

Second, there’s a reason that Trump didn’t take other actions obstructing the special counsel: The people who he directed to take those actions decided against it.

“The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful,” Mueller writes, “but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”

That’s not how Barr presents the issue.

What’s more, Mueller’s report suggests strongly that Trump’s frustration and anger was not something his team saw as working in Trump’s favor. The report notes two phases of Trump’s frustration, divided by the point at which Trump learned that there was an obstruction of justice inquiry. In that second phase, the report describes more urgent and direct actions taken by Trump. That increase is directly linked to concern about an obstruction inquiry.

After his prepared remarks, Barr took questions from reporters. One asked whether Mueller’s decision on obstruction was solely a function of the OLC opinion about indictments of presidents.

“We specifically asked him about the OLC opinion and whether or not he was taking the position that he would have found a crime but for the existence of the OLC opinion,” Barr said. “And he made it very clear several times that that was not his position. He — he was not saying that but for the OLC opinion he would have found a crime; he made it clear that he had not made the determination that there was a crime.”

Again, though, the OLC opinion did affect how Mueller approached the obstruction question, as outlined above. Mueller didn’t make a determination about a crime because of how he decided to approach the obstruction question which was itself a function, in part, of what the OLC wrote.

What Barr didn’t talk about . . .

There’s much more. Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2019 at 8:07 pm

How the IRS Gave Up Fighting Political Dark Money Groups and Abandoned Its Duty

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Maya Miller reports in ProPublica:

In the past decade, people, companies and unions have dispensed more than $1 billion in dark money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The very definition of that phrase, to many critics, epitomizes the problem of shadowy political influence: Shielded by the cloak of anonymity, typically wealthy interests are permitted to pass limitless pools of cash through nonprofits to benefit candidates or political initiatives without contributing directly to campaigns.

Such spending is legal because of a massive loophole. Section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code allows organizations to make independent expenditures on politics while concealing their donors’ names — as long as politics isn’t the organization’s “primary activity.” The Internal Revenue Service has the daunting task of trying to determine when nonprofits in that category, known colloquially as C4s, violate that vague standard.

But the IRS’ attempts to police this class of nonprofits have almost completely broken down, a ProPublica investigation reveals. Since 2015, thousands of complaints have streamed in — from citizens, public interest groups, IRS agents, government officials and more — that C4s are abusing the rules. But the agency has not stripped a single organization of its tax-exempt status for breaking spending rules during that period. (A handful of groups have had their status revoked for failing to file financial statements for three consecutive years.)

Most cases do not even reach the IRS committee created to examine them. Between September 2017 and March 2019, the committee didn’t receive a single complaint to review according to one former and one current IRS employee who worked closely with the committee, even as at least 2,000 warranted its consideration. (The IRS disputes this.) The standards are almost as permissive when organizations apply for C4 status in the first place. In 2017, for example, the IRS rejected only three out of 1,487 applications.

The IRS’ abdication of oversight stems from a trio of causes. It started with a surge in the number of politically oriented C4s. That was exacerbated by the IRS’ almost comically cumbersome process for examining C4s accused of breaching political limits; the process requires a half-dozen layers of approvals and referrals merely to start an investigation. That is abetted by years of IRS staff attrition and loss of expertise that was then compounded by steady budget reductions by Congress starting in 2010. The division that oversees nonprofits, known as the “exempt organization” section, shrank from 942 staffers in 2010 to 585 in 2018, according to the IRS.

On top of that, the 2013 scandal in which the IRS was accused of targeting conservative nonprofits left the division seared by the vilification of the conservative politicians, media and the public, and by the resignation of Lois Lerner, who headed the division. Some IRS auditors say they were paralyzed. “I was scared of being pilloried, dragged to the Hill to testify, getting caught up in lawsuits, having to sink thousands of dollars in attorneys bills that I couldn’t afford, and having threats made against me or my family,” said one employee who worked in Lerner’s division at the time. “I locked down my Facebook page. I deleted all personal Twitter posts. I stopped telling people where I worked. I tried to become invisible.”

The IRS press office offered written responses to some of the questions submitted in writing by ProPublica. “The IRS administers the tax laws as enacted by Congress and maintains an active enforcement presence to promote equal application of the law to all taxpayers,” the statement noted four times, in response to questions about the adequacy of the agency’s enforcement and its resources.

The IRS is aware of the problems, but its attempts to address them have gone nowhere. A 2013 report by the IRS inspector general recommended changes for the agency. That included adopting a new, clear definition of what constitutes an organization’s “primary activity.” The IRS did that — only to have Congress shoot it down.

With the IRS ceding its oversight role, state authorities need to step in, said Jim Sheehan, chief of the charities bureau at the New York Attorney General’s Office, at an event on exempt organizations in February. Speaking broadly about what he described as the IRS’ failure to oversee political nonprofits, Sheehan said, “It’s the Wild West out there.”

The U.S. tax code has long offered nonprofits options for engaging in politics, each identified by the provision that governs it in the code. Each has trade-offs. For example, 501(c)(3) entities are tax exempt and allowed to lobby on a limited basis — but they’re barred from spending any money on political candidates. So-called 527s can spend all they want on elections — but they have to reveal their donors.

The C4s enjoy a lot of wiggle room. In that category, IRS regulations dictate that an organization that seeks tax-exempt status “must not be organized for profit and must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare. The regulations state that such an organization “may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.”

But how does one define an organization’s “primary activity”? For decades, the point was largely moot. Big funders used other means to funnel money to campaigns. Then came a series of Supreme Court rulings, the best known of which was the Citizens United decision in 2010, that loosened restrictions on political contributions. In that case, the court concluded that, like people, corporations and unions could spend unlimited funds for elections.

The Citizens United decision was followed by a surge in the formation of politically focused organizations seeking IRS approval as C4s. In 2012, at least $250 million passed through such groups and into efforts to elect candidates, an 80-fold increase from eight years prior.

That boom occurred at the same time that [the GOP-controlled – LG] Congress began chipping away at the IRS budget. The combination left Lerner’s exempt organization unit overwhelmed. “My level of confidence that we are equipped to do this work continues to be shaken,” she wrote in an email in early 2013. “I don’t even know what to recommend to make this better.”

A handful of IRS employees in Lerner’s division had decided to improvise their own shortcut. If a group had a name that sounded political — for example, it had the words “Tea Party” in its name — they flagged it for extra attention.

Reporters eventually got wind of the tactic. Congressional interest followed and then a full-blown furor erupted in May 2013, when the IRS inspector general confirmed that IRS agents directed added scrutiny at groups with conservative-sounding words in the name.

The House convened hearings. Some Republican representatives claimed that Lerner was spearheading a partisan assault against conservative groups. “This is the most corrupt and deceitful IRS in history,” Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texassaid in one hearing. Lerner declined to testify, citing her Fifth Amendment protections, and resigned.

Hearings on the subject continued intermittently for four years. The IRS ultimately spent 98,000 hours in staff time responding to the congressional investigations, according to testimony by the agency’s former commissioner, John Koskinen.

By the time the tumult abated, few people noticed that the inspector general had submitted another report. This one concluded that IRS staff had also used keywords such as “progressive” to target liberal organizations for further scrutiny.

Before determining that the IRS exempt organization division had displayed no anti-conservative bias, the inspector general had proposed fixing the way it scrutinizes nonprofits. “We believe [the targeting] could be due to the lack of specific guidance on how to determine the ‘primary activity’” of a social welfare nonprofit, the report stated.

The IRS responded by advocating a restrictive approach: C4s should be barred from any campaign-related activity. Those guidelines, released in late 2013, prompted 150,000 comments, the most public feedback in IRS history. Several Republican members of Congress circulated bills to block such a change.

In the wake of that opposition, the IRS backed away from . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

The GOP has systematically worked to destroy American government.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2019 at 12:57 pm

Pete Buttigieg Was An Effective Mayor — With A Gaping Blind Spot

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Michael Hobbs writes at Huffpost:

Like many residents of South Bend, Indiana, Laura Jensen has known Pete Buttigieg for years. In 2012, just after he was first elected mayor, Buttigieg started visiting the preschool where she worked. He would walk the halls and read books aloud to her students.

It was a nice gesture, but what really impressed her were the quieter, more technical fixes Buttigieg made behind the scenes. In 2018, Buttigieg allocated $100,000 of South Bend’s budget to early childhood education and asked Jensen, by then the CEO of the local United Way chapter, how he should spend it. She told him that the county had recently been awarded some federal grants and needed to expand its capacity to take advantage of them. It may not have been the sexiest policy in the world, but Buttigieg agreed to spend the city’s funds on hiring teachers and expanding classrooms.

“I can’t tell you how much it meant to have someone listen when we said we had to build our capacity,” Jensen said. “It was never about ego. It was always, ‘I want to know your thoughts.’ That was huge.”

Buttigieg, who officially announced his presidential candidacy on Sunday, spent his tenure as South Bend mayor applying his skills as a management consultant to nearly every problem the city faced. From sewer overflows to gun violence to garbage pickup, Buttigieg collected data, sought out technical fixes and set quantifiable goals.

By the numbers, he has done a remarkable job. Since 2012, South Bend’s population has ticked upward for the first time since 2000. Unemployment has plummeted from 11.8% to 4.1%. Good-governance initiatives have yielded extra funding for parks and millions of dollars in federal grants. Following a “Smart Streets” redesign that slowed traffic and expanded sidewalks, downtown South Bend has attracted more than $90 million in private investment.

But Buttigieg’s singular focus on gathering data and improving statistics has also led him astray at times. While South Bend’s economic fortunes have improved overall, homelessness and displacement have worsened. Buttigieg has sold a park to private developers and given tax breaks to luxury condos. Less than a mile west of South Bend’s booming downtown, its African American and Latino residents continue to complain of police harassment, rampant evictions and a team of “code enforcement” inspectors who fine them every time they forget to mow their own lawns.

Buttigieg has become the most prominent example of a management style that has taken over American cities. From Baltimore to Kansas City to Los Angeles, urban policymakers have become increasingly enamored with “data-driven” policies and increasingly reliant on quantitative approaches to social problems.

But these methods are not as impartial as their proponents suggest. Throughout his tenure as mayor, Buttigieg’s fixation on measurable goals at times led him to overlook weaknesses in his policies and concerns among his constituents. His initiatives may have achieved their targets, but they also ended up harming his city’s most vulnerable residents.

“He’s obviously a person of privilege and highly educated and from a well-off background,” said John Shafer, the director of Michiana Five for the Homeless, a South Bend-based charity. “It’s hard for someone in that position to relate to people in poverty. That may be his biggest weakness.”

A “Data-Driven” Approach Is Only As Good As The Data You Collect

The best example of Buttigieg’s quantitative approach to city management ― and its shortfalls ― is the 1,000 Houses in 1,000 Days project.

In 2012, just after he was elected to his first term, Buttigieg set out to address the 14% of South Bend’s housing stock that was sitting vacant or abandoned. He approached the problem using his standard management-consultant methodology: Gather data, convene experts, set goals.

Over the next six months, a task force of academics and policymakers mapped the location and condition of every derelict property in South Bend. At the end of the process, they told “Mayor Pete” that he should levy fines on homeowners who could afford to make repairs and demolish properties sitting on land that could be put to better use.

Almost immediately, Buttigieg announced his ambitious goal and set about achieving it. He expanded the city’s team of housing inspectors, increased the penalties for code violations and shortened the deadline for property owners to make repairs. For houses that were too damaged to rehabilitate, Buttigieg gave city employees the authority to tear them down, then charge the owner for the service.

According to the numbers, the strategy worked. The code enforcement department increased civil penalties by 25% the first year the plan was implemented. In 2014, inspectors handed out more than $500,000 in fines. By the time the initiative concluded, more than 1,200 homes had been fixed up or torn down.

But Buttigieg left something out. As first reported by BuzzFeed, the vast majority of the derelict properties were located in South Bend’s low-income, black and Latino neighborhoods. Some had inherited old homes from relatives. Others had bought properties at foreclosure auctions, expecting that a $500 house could never be a bad investment. Still others were trapped in “zombie mortgages,” forced to move out when they couldn’t pay off their home loan but still listed as the legal owner of the property.

Despite all the information indicating that South Bend’s blighted homes were overwhelmingly owned by minorities, however, the city’sVacant & Abandoned Properties Task Force Report did not include any mention of race whatsoever. According to the annualreports of the Code Enforcement department, fines and demolitions were heavily concentrated in minority neighborhoods. To this day, South Bend has never performed an analysis of the 1,000 Houses in 1,000 Days initiative that gathered any information on the ethnicity or income of the homeowners affected.

“I kept paying the fines because I thought, I’m a young business owner and this is just how it works,” said Tyria Bailey, a South Bend restaurant owner.

From 2012 to 2014, Bailey paid thousands of dollars in fines, usually for things like not mowing her grass or leaving trash outside. She once received a $900 citation for wood sitting in the yard of a neighbor’s home. And even on days when she didn’t get fines, she had to be vigilant. The local code enforcement inspector used to visit her business so often that her customers knew him by name.

“Even now I’m always checking the mail,” she said. “Because if you’re not right even just for a day, you know the fine is coming.”

Though Buttigieg did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, the. . .

Continue reading.

Not a good sign. “Blind spot” or “tone deaf” or “willful ignorance,” whatever: it’s bad.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 April 2019 at 12:09 pm

Automatic Voter Registration Works Everywhere It’s Been Implemented

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Derek Rosenfeld of the Brennan Center for Justice reports:

Automatic voter registration (AVR) has increased the average registration rates in every state where it’s been implemented, according to a new analysis by the Brennan Center. In the first study of its kind, the Brennan Center analyzed the effects of AVR, a system in which eligible citizens are automatically registered to vote at agencies like the DMV unless they opt out.

Controlling for all other factors, the study shows that AVR has successfully increased voter registration rates in seven states and the District of Columbia. In short, automatic voter registration has chipped away at the antiquated obstacles to registering eligible citizens to vote.

“As we’ve said from the beginning: automatic voter registration works. It’s that simple,” said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “We should be making it as easy as possible for eligible citizens to vote, and that begins with getting registered.”

Since no two AVR systems are exactly the same, the report provides a state-by-state breakdown of each state’s AVR system and the impact on registration rates after the policy went into effect.

Here are each jurisdiction’s percentage of increase in registrations:

  • Alaska: 33.7%
  • California: 26.8%
  • Colorado: 16.0%
  • Georgia: 93.7%
  • Oregon: 15.9%
  • Rhode Island: 47.4%
  • Vermont: 60.2%
  • Washington, DC: 9.4%

One factor that varies from state to state is when a person gets the opportunity to opt out of being registered: either during the transaction (sometimes called “point of service” or “front-end” opt-out) or later on via a letter in the mail (sometimes called “back-end” opt-out). The Brennan Center’s research shows that AVR increases the number of voters being registered regardless of whether voters are given the opt-out opportunity while at the agency or through a mailer some weeks later. The policy is effective in big and small states, as well as red and blue states.

“Through AVR, places like Georgia have nearly doubled the rate of voter registrations since this policy went into effect,” said Kevin Morris, a quantitative researcher at the Brennan Center. “But it’s not just the increase in registrations. AVR is a 21st-century policy proposal — other analyses show that it keeps voter rolls more accurate, which reduces errors that cause delays on Election Day, and it also lowers costs by allowing states to save money on printing, mailing, and data entry.” . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2019 at 3:55 pm

Republicans are anti-voting and anti-democratic

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Jennifer Rubin is a Republican columnist for the Washington Post, but she’s not an ideologue and can face facts. The post title is her own title for a column this morning:

By definition, you get a more robust democracy and leaders more reflective of the population as a whole when more people vote. Democracy has little meaning if it doesn’t rest on the broadest possible franchise. And, if a political party has confidence in its agenda and message, it should want as many voters as possible.

That’s not the current state of affairs in the United States. You would have to be living under a rock not to see that widespread barriers to voting (from voting-roll purges to closing polling places to voter ID laws) have been deployed by Republicans to get a whiter, more conservative electorate.

Each controversial move to block registration or make voting more difficult that now-Gov. Brian Kemp instituted in Georgia had a disproportionately adverse effect on nonwhites. If you think that’s all a coincidence, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

Democrats such as Stacey Abrams, whom Kemp defeated, have begun to litigate and try to legislate against voter-suppression measures. However, the fundamental, disturbing point is too infrequently asserted: Republicans want more white people to vote and will undermine democracy (i.e., throw up barriers to voting) to get a smaller, whiter electorate. Republicans, to be blunt, have not only become wedded to racism but also hostile to democracy itself.

Unfair? Well, let’s test this out. NPR reports:

The United States is almost alone among industrial countries and other democracies in putting most of the onus of registering to vote on individual voters, a sometimes cumbersome process that may explain a large portion of why turnout rates in the U.S. are lower than in many other countries.

But the increasing adoption of automatic voter registration over the past five years has led to a big boost in the voter rolls in states that have implemented the new system, according to a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

The states that have implemented automatic registration have seen huge increases in registration, “between 9 and 94 percent in seven states and the District of Columbia, due to their automatic registration systems. The increase was greatest in Georgia (93.7 percent) and lowest in the District of Columbia (9.4 percent).” Right now, 11 states and the District of Columbia use automatic registration. Six are beginning to implement it.

The vast majority of states that have automatic registration are blue states (e.g., Oregon, California, New Mexico, New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island) or leaning blue (Colorado). In addition to Georgia, Alaska is the only solidly red state to utilize it.

Why, then, shouldn’t we implement automatic voter registration and other techniques that maximizing voting (vote by mail?) everywhere? Let’s put aside the bogus issue of fraud; the only systematic fraud we’ve seen of late is in North Carolina where Republicans snatched up absentee ballots from some neighborhoods with higher percentages of nonwhite voters.

Every Democrat on the ballot in 2020 — from city councilman to president — should challenge their opponent to support franchise-expansion. And if, as we expect, Republicans refuse to take them up on it, it’s finally time to hit Republicans with the entirely supportable charge that they don’t want more nonwhites voting — and they really don’t believe in democracy. (I suppose if they thought they could get away with it, they would support re-implementing property ownership as a condition of voting.)

Republicans should take some time to self-reflect. Faced with the reality that they have chased off nonwhite voters at an alarming rate, they’ve now morphed into the party of white grievance, xenophobia and racism. The only way to win with that kind of message in a racially pluralistic society is to make sure the electorate isn’t so pluralistic.

Wouldn’t it be better — for their consciences, their long-term success (since we are heading toward majority-minority jurisdictions in many places) and our democracy — to stop their herculean efforts to reduce voting and instead figure out how to appeal to the country as it is, not as they have carved it up to sustain power? . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2019 at 8:55 am

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