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The USA Political Scene as Spun by the National Chamber of Commerce Political Director

IMG_2228Lake Village         Rob Engstrom is the political director of the National Chamber of Commerce and a big time DC player. When he talks about dropping $20 million in only 15 election races, and his only gripe was that they were having to put that much in early in the primaries rather than waiting for the general elections, there’s no bluff or braggadocio to it. The biggest danger in listening to him speak and answer questions at the Clinton School for Public Service in Little Rock is that you had to be careful as you got up to leave. He was so smooth, slick, and finely polished that I was afraid of an X-men kind of effect that might have made it dangerous to walk on the floors, in case they had become transformed by some magic while he talked.

If you had just helicoptered down along the Arkansas River to hear his talk, you might not have realized why Engstrom was in town. He lathered up every politician of standing, past or present, in Arkansas, along with his constant and casual bolstering of the local city and state chamber functionaries. Former Senator David Pryor, his wife, and current Senator Mark Pryor his son, were well respected, beloved, and had made great and lasting contributions to the state. He was repeatedly nostalgic for former President Bill Clinton and his ability to work with a divided Congress to govern. He said the same for current Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe while noting that Beebe had the highest popularity polling now at the end of his term compared to any governor in the country. Until the last minutes off his remarks when he went over the edge a bit in duplicitously answering a student’s question about climate change and was too extravagant in his defense of the gazillions of dollars the Koch Brothers, upstanding and generous members of the Chamber and employers of 90,000, that you might have realized he was only in town for an earlier press conference making clear the wild, enthusiastic endorsement of the Chamber for hard right, rabid Republican Congressman Tom Cotton in the pivotal Arkansas Senatorial election over incumbent Senator Mark Pryor. Or, that his political career had started with Clinton nemesis Newt Gingrich or his role in the Florida recount that scuttled Gore. Finally the stiletto fell clamoring to the floor after having been so skillfully and surgically inserted in the body politic of all of the politicians he had named.

He was good. He knew it all, chapter and verse, state by state, race by race. He was wildly impressive. The primary direction of most of his spin was trying to fabricate a picture of the Chamber as the voice of business somehow occupying middle ground as politics polarized. They were fighting the “caveman caucus.” The primary fights were about getting people who could govern. They were for immigration reform, the Import/Export bank, and Common Core, so “see, we’re not so bad” was the message. Yet his recitation of the “facts” as he called them made it clear they were a partner in the polarization. Election cycle after election cycle from his report they had moved farther and farther away supporting any Democrats ever, so that at this point it was less than a handful. And, his recitation of issues that put them in the middle faded away when he listed their policy priorities after the election: “fixing” the Affordable Care Act, Energy Policy, i.e. build the XL Pipeline for the Kochs, Financial Security, read gutting Dodd-Frank even more, and Labor Policy, which means hitting unions even harder. As an afterthought he wanted us not to forget about fair trade and gutting entitlements. So much for any common ground, he and the Chamber are the drum majors and policy pros for the Republican elephant parade.

His predictions pulled out of piles of faint praise for his opponents was an increase of 6 to 10 seats in the House for the Republicans, and maybe a record plus 12, and 51 or 52 seats in the Senate to take control. Engstrom is smart though, and threw a bone out to the crowd about making no permanent enemies reminding us all that in 2016, the pendulum swings again especially in the Senate with 24 Republicans up for re-election and only 10 Democrats all of whom are in blue states won by Obama in 2008 and 2012, leading him to believe that whoever might be the next President will once again face a divided Congress.

That’s some small comfort to take home. Driving back to the office and the studio it was hard for me to hold onto that thought because I imagined all of the wannabe and elected Congressman, Senators, and Governors having to meet with Rob Engstrom as supplicants begging for his and the Chamber’s money and support and promising away their pride and their people at the altar of these policies. Most of them would be putty in the hands of a pro like Engstrom in the K Street offices and boardrooms that determine their future. This guy was scary good with steel in the syrup of his voice, ready to shake your hand today and push you in front of the bus tomorrow. Most of our elected officials would be no match for the likes of Engstrom.

There is no way to sleep soundly. The nightmares keep coming!

Buc-ee’s versus QuikTrip: Business Model Wars

Official_logo_for_Buc-ee's,_LtdLittle Rock       Ok, a lot of you don’t drive at all. I’m starting to get that. Living in the USA, I often forget that until I’m out about the bigger world and regularly encounter people whose idea of a fast ride on the roads is a 2-wheel bicycle or who are trying to master driver’s license exams never having owned a car. Driving my monthly route from New Orleans to Houston, Houston to Dallas, Dallas to Little Rock, and Little Rock to New Orleans again, I can share some things about the road with you as I tack on my 1000 plus miles, including some tips on gas stations.

On various of my routes either from Houston to Dallas through Madisonville or when I run from Houston to Austin to Dallas past Round Rock, I would see all of these signs with a cartoon big toothed beaver advertising something called Buc-ee’s, which always looked like the Walmart of gas stations, simply Texas-sized, stretched over acres and acres. I was curious but never paid much attention until Congressman Joaquin Castro from San Antonio reportedly was launching a boycott of the outfit tweeting that he “Won’t gas up there anymore since they support a fear mongering immigrant basher.” Now, I was interested. It seemed the owners, one of whose nicknames of course was Beaver, as you might have guessed, had endorsed for Lieutenant-Governor and contributed to a hardcore hater rightwing radio commentator, and, yes that does seem almost a redundancy to say since hardcore hater and rightwing radio commentator these days always seem like a matched set.

I stopped by to gawk at Buc-ee’s as I drove through Madisonville. My previous connection to the city had been a couple of conversations in late 70’s and early 80’s with John Henry Faulk, the Texas populist and radio man, who was blacklisted by McCarthy in the dark days of the Cold War and headed up the lawsuit and his union’s efforts to finally break the blacklist. This place was something different. It’s known for its clean restrooms and there are scores of them for sure. The gas was another thing entirely. They were pricing unleaded regular at $3.15 per gallon when literally EVERYONE else on the highway was around $2.99. With gas prices that high, Congressman Castro doesn’t need a boycott, and sure enough there were more people in the store than at the pumps.

The cheapest signs for gas within miles on either side of Buc-ee’s were behind a sign saying QT, which stands for QuikTrip. Their price said is all: $2.75, lower than anything I had seen in three states, two of them, Louisiana and Texas, oil and gas giants of the USA. Later, killing time, I found myself scrolling my Facebook feeds, and my old friend and organizing partner, Helene O’Brien, had posted something from Uncut US about QuikTrip. Small world, I’m thinking, but the post talked of a bigger, better world saying,

 

QuikTrip, a convenience-store chain with 700 locations, pays cashiers $40,000/year–twice the average–and managers earn $70,000. Employees also receive excellent benefits including healthcare, vision, dental, 401(k) retirement plans, paid vacation, bonuses, and stock options.  Treating their workforce well has paid off: employee turnover rates are 10% (compared to nearly 60% for the industry), and QuikTrip stores generate 50% more sales than competitors.

 

Sure, bathrooms are important, but they’re not everything, and QuikTrip’s were more than nice enough for me, and frankly when I go to a gas station, I’m mainly there for, yes, you guessed it, gas! We may not always have cheap gas, but while we have it, combining it with well paid workers like QuikTrip is doing needs to be the business model for America, not big teeth, rightwing politics, and premium prices.

Upstate Business Journal

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Please enjoy these new songs, thanks to KABF:   Foo Fighters – Something for Nothing and Ziggy Marley – Lighthouse.

Suppressing the Vote and Keeping in Simple in Arkansas

imagesDallas         The Republican voter suppression efforts around the United States are such a yo-yo between legislatures, courts, and more courts that god only knows how much the voters in many of these states will be confused as they go to the polls in November or, as likely, as they stay home, which is what voter suppression is all about.

In Texas, voter identification will be required because the courts argue they don’t have time to really straighten it all out before November. This is the one where a hunting license can allow you to vote, but not a student ID, isn’t it? Although that could also be half a dozen other states.

North Carolina, a battleground state for control of the US Senate, is a mishmash. Some parts of their voter ID law are taking effect in 2014, but the picture ID requirement has been delayed until 2016, so look forward to more shenanigans there. Meanwhile the Justice Department has sued over the whole shebang being racial discrimination, but that won’t come to court until after the election.

Kansas under Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a world class immigrant hater and vote denier, and Governor Sam Brownback, now in a mess in this election, pushed through a tough ID policy already. There was an interesting challenge by two older voters who didn’t have records available to allow them to vote, but when it was scheduled for trial after the 2014 election they got out of the suit. There is still an ongoing dispute over whether the Kansas voter-hater laws can change the standards for federal elections. It’s pretty clear that as long as Kobach and his crew are in charge of voting in Kansas the best way for a lower income voter with a name that sounds different and a bit of a tan to have their vote counted would be to vote absentee in some other state, because if they keep trying to vote in Kansas, they’re going to be sucking air.

And, then with great relief there is Arkansas. The Arkansas Supreme Court tossed the controversial voter ID law passed over a veto by the Governor. The ruling was straightforward. The Arkansas state constitution was clear that there were only four things required to vote and was specific enough to list them. “The Constitution says that a voter must be a United States citizen, a resident of the state, at least 18 years old and lawfully registered to vote in the election. “These four qualifications set forth in our state’s Constitution simply do not include any proof-of-identity requirement,” the ruling said.”

You can see why ACORN always adopted as its own the Arkansas state motto: the people shall rule. It may have been written in Latin to look fancy, but we always understood what it meant, and it seems the judges there are still clear about its meaning as well, even if the voter suppressors wanted to try and pretend otherwise.

This election is going to be a fight all the way to the ballot box, way before the actual ballots are finally counted.

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Please enjoy David Bowie’s Sue (or in A Season of Crime) and Smooth Me from New Orleans Suspects.  Thanks to Kabf.

Eggs Widening Class Gap in Health Care Insurance

egg storage for IVF

Egg Storage for IVF

Houston      Here’s the very good news for women. Apple and Google, the mega-billion dollar worldwide tech conglomerates have announced that they are now going to pay up to $20,000 to allow their female employees to freeze and store a couple of their eggs so that they can postpone having children until it works better for them, and potentially for their lean-in hard employers, while keeping their eggs young and vital. We already know that both of these companies in many hiring classifications, like engineering, disproportionately hire only men, so this may help them hire more women. From a feminist perspective this employer driven opportunity allows women more choice, and that’s a great thing.

At least it’s a great thing for some women. Meanwhile other women working for other employers, like Hobby Lobby, are hardly allowed any assistance when it comes to contraception and choices. And, likewise lower income women are scuffling to have a choice about having health insurance at all on any kind for even the most basic things. Take for example Walmart’s recent dropping of 30000 part-time workers from their health insurance, once again disproportionately women. Let’s not even count all of the other women-based industries like nursing home, home health, fast food, and the service industry in general and the low pay, poor benefits and limited to non-existent choices found there.

In the world of the Affordable Care Act, the frozen eggs announcement says a little about women and a lot about class, as the 1% starts to define what some favored few will be able to access while the vast majority are lucky to have any coverage in general much less access to even the minimum standards around control of their own decisions about when and whether to have children. The Supreme Court’s stay of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that would have closed many of the clinics performing abortions in Texas, especially in the lower income and Hispanic areas of south Texas from San Antonio to the border with Mexico now presents us with the paradox where a Google or Apple woman in Texas might be able to freeze their eggs but might have to travel to New Mexico or more than 300 miles to have an abortion.

Once we combine the war on women with growing income inequality, the world we live in becomes increasingly divided around class in the United States. The country we’re building and the children, too early or very late, that will live in it will be looking at a brave new world in America that won’t be very pretty at the rate we’re going.

Voter Suppression Spreading to the United Kingdom

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 9.17.37 AMNew Orleans      There’s a new virus spreading. This time it’s not Ebola or something from the Middle East or Africa, but the pernicious attacks on democracy through voter suppression now leaping from the United States to United Kingdom.

Not surprisingly, it starts easily enough with some seemingly small tweaks in voter registration. In the United Kingdom the government pushed through an Individual Electoral Registration Scheme, as they called it. Simply put, the old registration system meant that one person from any household registered everyone in the household: one and done! The new system means that every qualified individual in a household has to individually register in order to be able to vote. The first test comes in six months or so in the May 7, 2015 national and parliamentary elections.

Compared to the United States voting has been relatively robust with 60% voting in the 2010 general election in the UK, although that still means that 6 million voters were left by the wayside. Younger and usually more alienated voters between 18 and 24 years old not surprisingly are well represented in the missing voters column since statistics indicate that less than half are registered and less than half of the registered actually turnout to vote.

Invariably any new registration system, as the United States proves resoundingly during every election cycle, puts a disproportionate burden on minorities, the elderly, the young, and lower income voters once something semi-automatic is replaced by a new system requiring some motivation and effort. In what is now called “choice architecture,” creating hurdles and creating choices without incentives or motivations produces predictably poor results.

There are now various catchy campaigns to try and reverse the tide. One is called “No Vote, No Voice,” sponsored by the Daily Mirror newspaper, Unite, the UK’s largest union, and others. Another striving to be hipper is called “Bite the Ballot,” but let’s not go there.

Additional roadblocks to registration include banning third-party registration, where ACORN and Project Vote excelled, which allowed an individual or organization to submit a validly completed registration form qualifying a voter for the election and easing the process. Of course if there was interest, this problem is likely solvable with wirelessly activated iPad type mobile computers or even smartphones that would allow individuals to register on-line which is legally permissible throughout the United Kingdom and tied to each person’s national insurance number so highly individualized.

ACORN organizers in the United Kingdom took a quick look at the elections returns in the past election and 72 seats were determined by 5% or less of the votes. Either restricting or increasing voter registration, particularly since first time registrants always vote in high numbers at their first opportunity, and increasing get-out-the-vote field programs could shift political alignments from the top to the bottom.

Surely, this was not a unique insight, which may explain the suppression efforts themselves.

Los Angeles Leading on Living Wages Needs to Protect Flanks

IMG_0022New Orleans     Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is getting some attention in the second largest city in the United States with a proposal to raise the city’s minimum wage to $13.25 an hour by 2017. The City Council is expected to approve the plan, and when enacted 37% of Los Angeles workers or 567000 people would get pay raises according to a study done by the UC-Berkeley Labor Center. All of this is on the backs of a recent vote by the City Council to set a wage floor for hotel workers in properties with 125 rooms or more to $15.37 per hour which still has that industry screaming and grinding their teeth.

It’s about time! It has been a mystery for years why community and labor-backed organizations in Los Angeles have not pulled the trigger and taken advantage of the ability to directly petition to put an increase on the ballot setting a minimum wage higher than the state’s $9 per hour, which is what led to San Francisco’s city minimum of $10.74 per hour now in effect. Not a huge mystery, since it might have been cheaper and easier to get the job done with contributions to election races rather than pull the weight to organize the necessary signatures and then get the vote out to win the election, although it would have built deeper organization and power for community and labor organizations.

Whatever. Better late than never, and perhaps this will put more wind in the sails of other cities and political jurisdictions in California to get the job done. Some conservative and business commentators are trying to argue that generations old reputation of Los Angeles as an anti-union, low wage mecca despite labor’s turnaround over the last 30 years is still evident in the generally lower average production/factory wages and overall wages that significantly trail San Francisco and Seattle which are also implementing higher minimum wages. The Chamber claims jobs will relocate elsewhere in Southern California, but that’s easier said than done especially given the huge role of the port and transportation infrastructure in the Los Angeles corridor which depends on proximity not distance.

We’ll see. Mayor Garcetti is not unmindful of the problem and says that he is lobbying other neighboring cities to buck up and raise their wages as well. This may be a question of “sticks and stones” rather than words though. The Mayor might do better at protecting his flank if he joined with living wage advocates and organizations to raise the funds to put living wage, minimum wage increases on the ballot in neighboring municipalities and let the voters decide. Putting minimum wage increases in the hands of the people when the wage is fair and the campaign is aggressive has been a winning strategy for the last 15 years, and could put Los Angeles at the head of the parade, rather than allowing it to march through Southern California by itself.