The Transactional Democratic Party Revealed

election-image-800x530New Orleans   This has all the makings of one of those shaggy dog stories: 19000 emails hacked from the staff of the Democratic National Committee, dumped on the eve of the convention, maybe by crazy commie Russians and Vladimir Putin for whom Donald Trump is supposedly a current fanboy, all showing a bit of favoritism towards the Demo-establishment’s main candidate, Hillary Clinton, forcing Deborah Wasserman Shultz, Congresswoman and party chair, to dive on the spike of her heels and resign. Finally, this really seems like the kind of chaos and clamor we all associate with a Democratic National Convention! The Republicans were stealing the show with their earlier dramarama, but now the Democrats are catching up. Is anyone really surprised, I mean really?

What interested me much, much more were the crassly cold and calculating emails at the intersection of politics and money and the cashbox transactional demonstration of the inner workings of the party, or as reported in the Times:

the leaked cache also included thousands of emails exchanged by Democratic officials and party fund-raisers, revealing in rarely seen detail the elaborate, ingratiating and often bluntly transactional exchanges necessary to harvest hundreds of millions of dollars from the party’s wealthy donor class.

Ok, none of this was a surprise either, was it? We all knew in our hearts that this was probably the way big time politics worked at the confluence of big, rich donors and party fundraising staff charged with fueling the tank with mega-dollars, but still having it displayed in all of its gory and inescapable details is pretty disgusting.

Reading the emails was a bit like what you imagine life with the “mean girls” is like or any high school popularity contest: who’s in, who’s out, who’s going to be standing closest to the star, and pretty much who’s who and what’s what among the rich and famous in a world usually and thankfully obscured from the view of most of us joe and jane sausage heads out there. More seriously it reminds all of us of the venal nature of money and the rich and Lord Acton’s maxim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We might ask what these rich donors get from all of this body rubbing. Is it just access, as some would argue? Perhaps, but even if that’s all that is bartered in the exchange, it also seems undeniable that many, many of these donors hope for more, and undeniably some must get enough of it to make the investment worthwhile in some shape or form.

I’m past mourning Sanders’ loss, but I still rue the fact that he was not able to pivot his amazing grassroots, small donor fundraising machinery in such a way that it would create a new paradigm to replace the seamy, transactional system now put on full display. What a tragic loss that could have re-established the Democratic Party – or at least some party – with an apparatus that guaranteed that the rich and insiders are not calling the shots but regular folks with their hard earned dollars are driving the train.

Even worse, and this is perhaps a confession too jaded by too many years in the vineyard, if any other party might be built in the alternative universe that defines all levels of politics, if it depends on big donors, how many would resist the impulse to respond in the same transactional manner to the beck and call of purchased entitlement no matter the rest of the politics and program? We have to create a new and better way to make sure we are certain of how that question would be answered.

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Hope for Cities or Just Developers?

Looking northeast at soon to work LinkNYC station

soon to work LinkNYC station

New Orleans   It seems like cities are starting to get more attention, and if that’s true, that’s a good thing, but reading a recent special feature on cities, it’s not something without contradictions and concerns. This is true especially if you try to figure out where low-and-moderate income families and minorities fit into the coming profiles of the future. In some ways they just are not in the picture at least the one offered in the main from the New York Times, and this despite a recent feature in the same paper that talked flatly of the almost irreversible “whitening” of San Francisco where high housing costs and extreme inequality is leeching out the African-American community.

Part of the premise of some of the new hope for cities from the pundits and professors is the world seen dimly through the grim view from the suburbs. There is finally a consensus that cities are “safer,” which means they are ready to come back in again. Once again the question of “safer” for whom is unavoidable, but facts are facts, so we’ll ignore the bias for a moment. The same lens from the Trumpistas has all of us drowning in crime and gore in the urban space without being accompanied by the full disclosure that many of the zealots have done little more than drive quickly through cities for years, do their business, and leave before nightfall.

Unfortunately, reading the various pieces it was hard to feel comfortable about these new twists on urban revival. First of course there are huge, glaring omissions already mentioned, but followed quickly behind is the realization that the dominant perspective is not people-oriented really, but more developer promotions.

The examples of innovations are telling. There’s LinkNYC which would replace all remaining public telephone booths in New York City with wifi enabled terminals that can do tricks like recharge smartphones faster. Not surprisingly, this is paid for by tech companies and digital ads that will be on the booths, an expropriation of a public utility, and of course forget about lower income folks who still need those pay phones. There’s an apartment & condo complex in Austin and billionaire-driven building developments in Seattle that are at best ho-hum, but here are passed off as part of “remaking the modern cities.” There’s a story of Reno hoping to be Seattle and Kansas City about to have a “the largest co-working space in the world,” which is neoliberal, developer speak for building a monument to the gig economy and the decline of fulltime, firm-based employment.

The exceptions prove the rule in this parallax view of urban development and the modern dilemmas of the city. There is a piece on the rightly well-publicized and highly touted repurposing of a bank on Chicago’s South Side by Theaster Gates, Jr. in a celebration of black culture and an indictment of racism in the 97% African-American community there. There is also a discussion with an architect of the development of public space, which cannot paper over his conclusion that there is little and less being done.

The unaddressed problem is inescapable: where are the people – all the people – and what is being done to make a better place in the city for them and not just for young, white professionals and tech workers so many of these cities desire.

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Democrats Making a Left Turn

21ps-hilogoNew Orleans   Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress. He made an interesting argument in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that he took to be obvious to any observer that the Democratic Party, that even its standard bearer, Hillary Clinton, had moved decidedly and determinedly to the left. For many progressives, and count me as one, who judge the party and its candidates by where we want them to be, rather than where we have been, that seemed much less than obvious, but Teixeira makes an interesting and important case which is worth keeping in mind no matter where we stand on this question.

First, he argues, fairly incontestably, that demographics are driving the party leftward, which they should:

Every year there are more minority voters, more unmarried voters, more secular voters, more college-educated women voters, more millennial voters, and so on. It isn’t simply that these groups lean Democratic; they also tend to favor policies that are distinctly to the left and comport well with the Democrats’ new platform….

Secondly, he argues that Democrats have been forced to confront what he calls the “Piketty problem,” which simply put lies in the fact that no one can really continue to argue that without serious intervention the crisis of inequality can be met. Laissez faire is not going to get it. Nothing is trickling down, so the pretense on which the first Clinton presidency was founded has not crashed and burned. Thomas Piketty has famously argued that society tends towards inequality, that growth alone will not produce more equality, that even unequal distribution of economic growth delivers some narrowing of inequality, and that widening inequality itself slows economic growth.

Teixeira argues that even more than Bernie Sanders, this has pushed Hillary and the Democratic platform left, and, furthermore, that all polls indicate this direction is broadly popular with the American public, not just Democrats. To make this work, Hillary has to have a way to prime the pump for more growth. This is where the work gets harder.

The heart of Teixeira’s argument and it’s worth remembering if she becomes President is that we should,

“Expect Mrs. Clinton to move aggressively to strike bargains that advance key parts of her program, especially those that would directly boost growth in the short run. Reflecting this priority, Mrs. Clinton has repeatedly said that during her first 100 days she would call upon Congress to dramatically increase spending on roads, bridges and other public works, including to provide universal broadband and build a clean energy grid. Her $275 billion program, if implemented, would represent the greatest investment in American infrastructure since the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. Mrs. Clinton probably would also prioritize measures that directly benefit the economically squeezed, like raising the minimum wage and mandating paid family leave.”

T-shirts saying “Build Infrastructure, Vote Hillary” may not seem like a catchy slogan, but it might wrong foot the Republicans and catch them in the bind of their own base, including the angry and entitled white voters, who want to see this kind of economic interference that delivers growth and visible progress.

This will be worth watching way past November.

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Fair Housing Assessment Should be an Organizing Handle – Is it?

fhNew Orleans   The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is trying to do something about the continuing polarization of our communities by race, class, and ethnicity, so let’s give them some credit for that. In a new rule last year they tried to put some teeth in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, by requiring all cities that get federal housing money to submit detailed plans on how they are actually going about reducing neighborhood segregation and increasing “access to opportunities” for everyone. No Congressional action was required or I wouldn’t even be writing this. HUD as part of the Obama Administration was simply promulgating rules to try to add some teeth to the original act.

The requirement coming into full force now is the 2016 Assessment of Fair Housing. All cities in the United States receiving federal housing funds are mandated to do the assessment. This includes not only cities with public housing authorities, but also cities getting HOME monies for housing development and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds among others. “Access to opportunities” is not just rhetoric either, because this language includes jobs, transportation, and even access to quality schools. Frankly, this is anti-apartheid language.

Reading old local newspapers from a stack accumulated during my two weeks of meetings in Europe, while jet-lagged at 3 AM in the morning, an item had caught my eye from the rough draft of the New Orleans report comparing a working / middle income neighborhood in New Orleans called Gentilly, that is majority African-American with an upper-middle class, largely white neighborhood called Lakeview. In the majority-black neighborhood, the life expectancy found by the assessment was a little more than 54 years old, while in the overwhelmingly white area the life expectancy was 80, a quarter of a century more. Is that an eye opener or what?

Almost everyone this side of Donald Trump buttressed by scores of research studies understands that if we had full residential integration the gap in education and job networks would be drastically reduced. When we talk about equality and narrowing the every widening gap in America today, forcing cities to have real 5-year plans with annual updates on how they are actually going achieving real diversity across the board would seem to be a huge organizing handle. Real plans that force city and housing authority to justify any reduction of affordable and low income housing should be huge win. And, wow, a real plan that stopped CDBG funds that are supposed to be spent only in ways that upgrade lower income families and their communities rather than being used as a slush fund for local developers and mayoral cronies would be almost a revolutionary reform.

Public hearings are now being held on such assessments in cities all over the country. This would have been ACORN’s moment for local groups in all 600 organized communities to make their demands in more than 100 cities about what really needed to be done. These assessments should be a big handle for a major campaign wherever there is the capacity to launch one.

Yet, talking to some organizers here and there, they were skeptical. The early experience in recent years with this planning process before the new rule has been disappointing. How sharp are the teeth being implanted in the Fair Housing Act? Is a Democratic administration really going to withhold CDBG funds from urban mayors who are overwhelmingly Democratic as well to prod them to do better at achieving diversity in their cities or is this just window dressing?

A real campaign to make this tool a hammer rather than a paintbrush would let us see what might be possible.

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Republicans Dilemma: Can Fear and Hate Alone Win an Election?

Immigrant rights activists hold up a fabric wall to protest against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Wednesday, July 20, 2016, in Cleveland, during the third day of the Republican convention.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Fabric wall to protest against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Wednesday, July 20, 2016, in Cleveland, during the third day of the Republican convention.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

New Orleans   Having just returned from euro-world, I have to admit that I was surprised I wasn’t asked more questions about Donald Trump. During George W’s time, the questions were endless and strident. War does that to people. Folks brought up Trump for sure, but mostly with a smile on their face, not taking him seriously, though that would be a mistake, and in some ways not so much frightened by him as they were by Bush, but more amused at what they saw as America’s embarrassment at the hands of the crazy uncle coming out of the closet after the dignity, regardless of any disappointments, of Obama.

Now that I’m back and parsing the recent Republican National Convention, I have to ask myself, “can fear and hate alone win an election?” The answer is of course, yes, but we’ve never seen ourselves as pre-war Germany or Bosnia or Rwanda or modern Poland or Turkey after the recent coup, so it’s a stretch. Even jaded observers like myself, keep repeating a mantra to ourselves that “it can’t happen here.” But, in some ways that’s channeling our inner-Pollyanna, because it is happening here at the state level in places like Arizona, Kansas, and way too much of Texas. There’s also something that has been in the water in Wisconsin in recent years that makes you wonder what happened to that bastion of liberalism and labor strength?

Hillary Clinton to her credit is still holding the line against hate trying to position her candidacy and the Democratic Party as a more inclusive alternative for a wider demographic in the United States. There is certainly polarity. I can’t remember reading a poll like the recent one by the Wall Street Journal where a presidential candidate – in this case, Trump – literally polled zero among African-Americans. Needless to say all of his talk about building an even bigger wall between the US and Mexico has not helped his numbers get higher among Latinos either.

Talking to Randy Cunningham, a veteran community and tenant organizer and longtime activist in Cleveland, on Wade’s World was inspiring to hear about the success of peoples’ nonviolent attempts to have their voices heard by the Republicans in Cleveland over the last week. The “Wall Off Trump” action put together by unions and progressive organizations from the Working Families’ Party to Chicago’s La Gente and our old friends at the Ruckus Society, he described as very effective and lots of fun. The opening action on Monday that he and a large coalition put together pulled more between 1500 and 2000 and despite the fear mongering by the Trump team that there would be “blood in the streets.” He described the event as the largest action in Cleveland since the late 1970s and early 1980s. More positively, he believed that there may be an unexpected legacy of the RNC hate and fear mongering in Cleveland this week, and that is a resurgence of organizing and action in Cleveland.

Let’s hope that might be the result nationally of this fear-and-hate campaign. Trump thus far has no program other than “vote for me.” Clinton is matching the fear factor reportedly with a vice-presidential partner who will have some credibility there. She is still lacking a bit in what Sarah Palin famously called the “hope-y” thing that for all of the derision actually has been winning recent presidential elections.

The one thing that is certain: this is going to be a frightening several months until November!

abc_mk_rnc_01_jc_160718_31x13_1600 group-of-RNC-protesters-marching-in-Cleveland-jpg protest 1_1468803616833_42589481_ver1.0_640_480 trump_protest_759 Trump protest RNC

Please enjoy Regina Spector’s Bleeding Heart. Thank you KABF!

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Sorting Out French Labor Law – What a Country!

Plaza in Grenoble

Plaza in Grenoble

Paris   Finishing up my hella-Euro-road trip as the heat hit the 90’s in Grenoble and Paris, I felt like I was catching the last train out of town before the whole country – and in fairness, most of Europe – shut down for the rest of the summer. You notice the small signs when almost every follow-up email is greeted with an auto-return saying, I’ll be back in mid-August or more likely August 29th. Meeting with the Alliance and ReAct staff before leaving Grenoble, my bags were packed, but so, seemingly were many of theirs. Hitting Paris in the attic loft where I stay I had four pages of instructions on how to make sure the house was closed tighter than a drum because they would be out for weeks. Every meeting, ended as we’ll follow up in September. Fascinating! After years of experience with the summer months as primetime for organizing, the notion that I had woken up somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s except it was hotter here! But, hey, viva la difference!

church in Brussels plaza

church in Brussels plaza

I used to write some “notes for my father” on things that he would have found fascinating from my trips abroad, but this time I felt I needed to write a note to myself after the head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate gave me a short course of French labor law and how it caged organizing and field programs. All staff has a contract. The contracts can be short term for 6 or 12 months, but after several of these short stints, the law requires employees be made permanent or released. Or of course the Holy Grail for workers occurs when you might finally receive an open ended permanent contract. Annually, the head organizer has to do a formal evaluation with the staff members as part of the renegotiation of these contracts. Describing the process, it is definitely a negotiation. Where previously she might have negotiated full time hours from 35 which is the standard work week in France to 39 by paying the premium for those extra hours, staff can propose to go back to 35 and can even make proposals on the content of the work, which for organizers might even mean having to discuss nonnegotiable issues like time on the doors or the number of groups maintained by an organizer. It just takes your breath away! But, as I overheard an organizer in Paris say about the government’s attempts to modify some of these labor laws, “we can’t give away what our grandfathers fought for and won.” Well, you put it like that…

On the other hand, managers may have contracts but in exchange for the discretion and professionalism of their jobs, there is no restriction on their hours, and different than in the United States, this is regardless of the amount they are paid. At the ACORN affiliate everyone is on a minimum contract whether short term or open ended at this point, meaning they are paid a minimum wage as set by French law. The minimum wage in France is set at the after tax rate which is a good thing and is indexed to inflation and/or legislative action so goes up annually, which is also a good thing. Once you sort it all out it was about equivalent to what ACORN’s starting wage was for all staff about a decade ago, so not bad at all really in terms of a living wage.

church in Budapest

Danube in Dusseldorf

This minimum contract is not unusual and sometimes even includes a period where a new employee is paid by social benefits the first year and then in direct wages the second. I happened to meet the head of the ATD-Fourth World in France, which is their largest operation for the social services and organizing operation for the poor. All one-hundred of their fulltime staff, who they call volunteers, are paid on a minimum contract, which is interesting when we think about what it takes to build community organizations and unions of lower income and lower waged workers.

The package, as we call it in collective bargaining, is great in France as the country shuts down for the season over the coming weeks, but once you add it all up, backwards and forwards, it may be a maze to navigate, but there’s still a way to get there from here.

Country roads, take me home!

Danube in Dusseldorf

Church in Budapest

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