The Politics of Negativity

636036954806290135-306513333_vote-2016New Orleans   As I drove out of Little Rock before dawn, I started flipping through radio stations to hear what was on besides KABF in a bit of informal early morning market research. I listened for a bit towards Pine Bluff to a panel of politicos who headed the Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian Parties in Arkansas along with a couple of political scientists try to puzzle out something they called the Arkansas “electorate.”

Needless to say, there was at best imperfect agreement on anything other than the fact that at least in this moment in time they felt that Arkansas voters might be among the reddest, most Republican voters in the country. Independents have migrated, largely in reaction to Obama and the Obama presidency more clearly to the Republican column, leaving them with more than 40% identification, Democrats in the mid-30’s, and Libertarians and Independents sharing the difference. Yet, paradoxically, it was interesting that they thought the top of the ticket was almost irrelevant to Arkansas voters this election, because they were focused on different ideological issues. In some ways that didn’t compute. In a reaction to Obama,they went more Republican, yet in a reaction to Trump they were going more local? The Democratic Party chief gamely argued he thought it was more “fluid” and would go “cycle to cycle.” I would have thought he would have doubled-down on the potential impact the top of the ticket would have?

This is not just an Arkansas story. It is likely to be an American story.

There is also a huge contradiction embedded in one of the professor’s arguments about what she felt were the ideological commitments of the voters. One person interjected a point that seemed the most insightful of their arguments about what he called the “politics of negativity,” which seemed spot on and would undermine any ideology. He pointed out in this election and many others, people were not voting “for” something or someone as much as they were voting “against” someone and something.

His point drifted away as so often occurs in these kinds of he say, she say things, but it’s worth keeping front and center. The identity crisis the Republicans find themselves struggling with around issues about values, trade, immigration, and even social programs with the base migrating to Trump, even though he is nowhere near the Republican Party line ideology on any of these issues, is partially explained by this notion of “negativity politics.” Negativity equals no ideology. Negativity is the absence of ideology.

The same in a very troubling way can be said about the Democratic Party situation, even if they have not admitted to an identity crisis in the same way the issue is facing the Democrats. The Democratic Party has become the party of the bi-coastal elites, highly educated, and upper middle class and more wealthy, while its base, even though not rebelling yet, is lower income, blacker, browner, younger, and more voting against than for its leadership and any notion of ideology.

The other night I watched the first episode of “Borgen,” the Danish political television drama on politics, and if that’s a guide of any kind, this may be a global contradiction as well. The woman minority party leader wins the debate at the end of the first show, becoming prime minister, by arguing much the same case, that the politics of negativity should be rejected, and that voters needed to rally to an ideology that reflected the more aspirational national identity and culture. Seems that day might need to leave fiction and become reality here and elsewhere soon as well.

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Hot Check Court Another Debtors’ Prison for the Poor

Sherwood's Hot Check Court Arktimes

Sherwood’s Hot Check Court arktimes.com

Little Rock   My brother-in-law and I agree on a million things, but those are family things, construction projects, upkeep of my trailers, automotive advice, and fixing anything and everything, but we do our best to NOT talk about politics, because he’s what you might call a Huckabee-man in Arkansas terms, and I’m anything but. We know where each other stands, so we know how to walk around most of the rocks in the road. This morning at dawn before I pulled out he said, “You got to see this!” He was following the news on Facebook, so I went over and looked over his shoulder where he was pointing. “Do you know about the “hot check” court? They’re running a debtors’ prison over in Sherwood.” I was all no, yes, and out the door. What the heck was a “hot check” court?

He was on to something though. Out of curiosity, I googled hot check court in Sherwood, which is a suburban enclave in Pulaski County across the Arkansas River and up the road from Little Rock. What you find with Google’s help is that, yes indeed, the City of Sherwood actually has a “Hot Check Division” of the Sherwood District Court of Pulaski County. How could it be that this little town has enough hot checks to have its own division? Are people driving from all over the county, the state, and the South in order to try and pass hot checks? The answer is, yes, sort of.

What had caught my brother-in-law’s eye was that the ACLU and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law had joined to file a suit for several defendants over the practices of this hot check division arguing that they were effectively running a court as a money printing machine exploiting low income defendants by larding on fines, court costs, and penalties connected with the original offense to milk the defendant and when they couldn’t bleed them dry, they were jailing them to keep the system going. The lawyers weren’t shy about referencing how similar this Arkansas mess was to Ferguson, Missouri where this was a system on steroids. They were also quick to mention that the Justice Department had jumped in and sued several venues around the country for using minor infractions as cash machines for their towns and cities.

In a report by the Associated Press one plaintiff is a good example of this system:

The plaintiffs in the case include Nikki Petree, a 40-year-old Arkansas woman who has been in jail for more than 25 days because she was unable to pay more than $2,600 in court costs, fines and fees related to a bounced check she wrote in 2011 for $28.93. According to the lawsuit, Petree initially faced $700 in court fines, fees and restitution, but the amount ballooned over the years due to related failure to appear and failure to pay charges.

The City of Sherwood of course denies everything. Their claims though seem hollow. They argue that it is only after the third or fourth hot check that they jail someone, and that they offer payment plans to resolve the earlier problems. I’m sure no one has every bounced a check, which is what a hot check is, essentially an NSF or non-sufficient funds matter, but these days if you are on not on top of your balances or a deposit goes bad, you could bounce a half-dozen checks in one sitting, bing, bam, boom! And, the City is in cahoots with the County, because Pulaski County has been sending over hot checks for more than 40 years to Sherwood to crank this ATM for them.

The AP reports that this adds up to a pretty penny.

The groups say Sherwood relies on the hot check fines and fees as a significant revenue source for its operations. The city’s receipts from district court fines and forfeitures were estimated to be at least $2.3 million in the 2015 fiscal year, Sherwood’s third-highest revenue source after city and county sales taxes, the lawsuit said.

Before you start South-bashing and pretending that this is just something you find in the backwoods or in broke-ass states like Arkansas, the lawyers are clear this situation exists in a lot of counties around the state for sure, but all of us know that this is common increasingly all over the South and the country, and certainly not confined to Missouri, Arkansas, North Carolina, and other places that have been in the news for creating modern day debtors’ prisons on the backs of the poor in order to avoid fair taxation and harder political choices.

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Obamacare is Delivering Some of the Goods in Poor States

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 10.37.59 AMNew Orleans   There are now some thirty states that have expanded eligibility for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. There are twenty states – and a lot of the Republican Congress — that are still dragging their wagons through the dirt, and, if researchers are right, putting their people under the ground as well.

Researchers connected with Harvard’s Public Health School conducted an important experiment. They surveyed people in Kentucky and Arkansas before Medicaid expansion in 2013, again after the first full year in 2014, and finally at the end of 2015 with another year under peoples’ belts. They used Texas as the so-called control state for comparison, since Texas refused to budge on the Obamacare Medicaid expansion for lower-income, working families. Bottom line: 5% more people in Arkansas and Kentucky, too very different states with different approaches on the expansion, felt that they were in “excellent” health compared to do-nothing-much Texas.

Reading about the researchers work on the Harvard Public Health website and its lead author, Dr. Benjamin Sommers, an assistant professor there, offered a good summary that goes deeper than 5%:

Sommers and colleagues surveyed approximately 9,000 low-income adults in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Texas from late 2013 to the end of 2015. The results showed that, between 2013 and 2015, the uninsured rate dropped from 42% to 14% in Arkansas and from 40% to 9% in Kentucky, compared with a much smaller change in Texas (39% to 32%). Expansion also was associated with significantly increased access to primary care, improved affordability of medications, reduced out-of-pocket spending, reduced likelihood of emergency department visits, and increased outpatient visits. Screening for diabetes, glucose testing among people with diabetes, and regular care for chronic conditions all increased significantly after expansion. Quality of care ratings improved significantly, as did the number of adults reporting excellent health.

Debate over? Of course not. Many will wonder, and wait, until larger studies, including the government’s own, provide more data on whether or not people really are healthier or just feel healthier.

Regardless, how people feel may not answer the medical questions fully, but could start to provide answers for the political questions. As we find every day, particularly in the Age of Trump, people vote on how they feel, not based on the facts of the matter. If everything were equal, politicians would see that the trend line of how people feel about their own health and Medicaid expansion is now improving annually. If it continues along these lines, politicians will start playing “duck and cover” which might mean more expansion in the twenty holdout states.

There’s a big “if” though. These same politicians would actually have to care about the poor families that are the beneficiaries of Medicaid expansion, and believe, regardless of the evidence, that they vote, and that some of these poor are their voters.

It might be easier to deliver better healthcare than to convince elected officials of the value of the poor and their votes.

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Leaders Assess Progress and Map Out Plans

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reports and campaign discussions in Baton Rouge Local 100 Union Hall

Baton Rouge   Thirty Local 100 United Labor Union leaders gathered together for the 36th annual leadership conference for the union, this time in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Leaders were there from Little Rock and Warren, Arkansas, Dallas and Houston, Lafayette and New Orleans, and points near and far in the three-state areas. We met in Local 100’s big 5000 plus foot union hall in Baton Rouge, so that the members could see first had what had been done to improve the space, and what still needed to be done. It was a hot, mid-90’s June day, but the 10-foot ceilings and thick cinderblock walls made the large meeting room pleasant with five fans running. That is not to say the leadership won’t take a harder look at the thousands needed to repair the air conditioner, but it was a lot better than people had any reason to expect. They were surprised, and I felt lucky, or as I reminded many of them, “tell me you can’t remember visiting your grandmother in the country and hearing the ceiling and attic fans humming?”

A lot of time in the morning was spent reviewing our progress on living wage campaigns or more accurately moving the minimum wages up. In Houston, we had success in both our Head Start unit as well as moving the ages up past $10 per hour for our cafeteria workers. The lesson we had learned, according to Houston office director, Orell Fitzsimmons, was to not try to grab all 30,000 workers in the district at once, but to concentrate on one segment after another. Having raised the hourly wage in the cafeteria, the union is now hunkering down to try to extend the hours from seven to eight to move people up more solidly. In Arkansas, the union with our allies are trying to push a statewide petition of workers and supporters to set the floor above $10 per hour. Winning an election could be difficult, but having our members who are state workers living in poverty is even harder. In Dallas and New Orleans there have been efforts that have met with some success at establishing levels past $10 per hour for subcontracted workers, but in those cities, especially New Orleans, the issue is enforcement. One cleaning contract we organized recently is now six-months overdue on paying the new city standard of $10.55 per hour. I can remember years ago a hotel union in San Jose-Monterrey saying they didn’t want to support our living wage fight because then why would workers need a union? It turns out part of the answer is: they would still need a union to actually get it!

On other fronts, the union is preparing campaigns to advocate to get lead tested and removed from schools and workplaces to protect our workers, children and clients. We are also going after nonprofit hospitals to hold them accountable for providing charity care, especially in Texas where there is no expanded Medicaid and elsewhere in our private sector contracts where the deductibles are pricing our members out of the company-sponsored plans and into the penalties for not having Obamacare.

Will we come up with the money to fix the air conditioner? I don’t know, but we’ll win some big campaigns because of leadership meetings just like this!

reports and campaign discussions in Baton Rouge Local 100 Union Hall

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Pine Bluff’s Maxine Nelson and Susie Thomas, Great ACORN Leaders

Susie Thomas, Pine Bluff ACORN leader, 102 years old

Susie Thomas, Pine Bluff ACORN leader, 102 years old

Pine Bluff   Often I get gas on my way from Little Rock to New Orleans at an exit off ramping on the same highway that the Watson Chapel School District administrative office calls home. I realized this coincidence when I had the excuse to visit there. A documentary film crew wanted to talk about how the first organizing committee meeting of an ACORN group in Pine Bluff was disrupted by representatives of the Klu Klux Klan. I wanted to talk about the great ACORN leader, Maxine Nelson, so here’s how they were connected.

The group meeting that was disrupted in 1971 was being organized by an early ACORN organizer from the area, Herman Davenport, in a mixed area, of low and moderate income homes in the Watson Chapel area. The first drive was troubled by these episodes, but eventually ACORN took hold and developed deep roots in the area. Maxine Nelson merged as one of the leaders of the Pine Bluff chapters. She was an African-American RN at the Pine Bluff hospital and ready to make change. She was also fearless when it came to politics. She ran and won a seat in 1989 on the Watson Chapel School Board, and held the seat until her untimely death in November 2013, serving several terms as President of the School Board as well. Maxine was also the chair of the ACORN Political Action Committee (APAC) and the elected secretary of the ACORN Association Board nationally for many consecutive terms. For that matter, she was also on the KABF board as well and even while leaving that board was prodding me in 2011 and 2012 to do something to help stabilize the station.

I thought it was a great ACORN story from the KKK to Maxine Nelson and her leadership of ACORN, but there was more. Rechecking the date of her service before driving down to Pine Bluff, I stumbled on an article in the Pine Bluff Commercial Appeal reporting on a meeting of the Watson Chapel board in late 2014, and they were talking about naming the administrative building after Maxine. Walking in there to alert the clerical staff that I was outside with a film crew, they quickly – and enthusiastically – walked me into the board room to see a picture of Maxine with a plaque over the board dais.

I also visited Susie Thomas, who joined ACORN in Pine Bluff at the very beginning, 45 years ago, and stayed as a member and leader throughout those years. Sister Thomas attended every ACORN convention, and when visiting her, I asked about her favorites. She liked lobbying in Washington, DC she said, and remembered telling off one of Arkansas’ US Senators about cutting back food stamps. She remembered a squatting action in Chicago at the 20th anniversary convention in 1990, when they all ran for it. I gave her a Los Angeles convention t-shirt, and that got her talking about the LA convention. She pushed me on getting ACORN rolling again in the US. We remembered Maxine and their years together. She remembered that I had last seen her when she came to a book signing with Maxine in 2009 at Little Rock’s Community Bakery, and that I had called her on her birthday two years ago. Did I mention that she is now 102 years old!

I called Neil Sealy, the executive director of Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, as I pulled away from Susie’s house. He mentioned that they were getting some letters and a petition together to help show community support for naming the administration building after Maxine. It will be fun to get the word out and easy to find support for that in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and for that matter around the country.

It seems the right thing to do.

***

Please enjoy Paul Simon’s The Riverbank.  Thanks to KABF.

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Utility Rate Increase Fights Are Back!

concept of expensive energy billNew Orleans    Once upon a time back in the last century, just as there are now campaigns for things like living wages and ending predatory lending, there were fights to hold giant utility companies accountable all over the country more than forty years ago. Then there was something called inflation, which young people in the 21st century may have forgotten, though thanks to the Federal Reserve’s coming decision on interest rates, we are about to learn anew, where prices and costs rise everywhere, not just on drugs, housing, and higher education. During those times, investor owned utilities (yes, IOU’s) were also known as public utilities because they were allowed monopolies and were therefore regulated by public service or public utility companies from state to state.

Utilities, in even older days, were about as unpopular as, well, banks, and whole political careers were made fighting against their rate and construction plans in favor of the little folks who were sometime called consumers. Many of these commissioners were elected in the western and southern United States and whole careers were made of fighting against utilities and the like. Huey Long, the Louisiana populist was a good example of this breed.

In the early 1970’s, utility rate increase fights were being waged all over the country and not just in places like California and Seattle. ACORN was in the thick of the battles in Arkansas, South Dakota and many other states. The principal objective was winning something we – and others – called “lifeline” rates. Lifeline rates would freeze the price for lower income and elderly users at an affordable level for the first 400 kilowatt hours of usage thereby protecting them against outrageous rate increases. We tried to win at the PSC in Arkansas and would manage to decrease the outrageous requests of what was then called Arkansas Power and Light (AP&L), one of the units of Middle South Utilities, now all known as Entergy. We even decisively won an election in Little Rock establishing lifeline rates only to have the victory overturned in court with Web Hubbell and Hillary Clinton sitting at the utility’s table, but that’s both another story and at the heart of this story, because it has to do with the financing.

To pay for lifeline rates at the bottom for the small users, it was necessary to modify the huge giveaways to the big users receiving bulk discounts for heavy usage. Alcoa and Reynolds Aluminum, huge operations at the time in Arkansas, used 10% of all of the electricity produced by AP&L to run their operations. Making the larger users pay a fairer share protected the smaller users who were essentially subsidizing the big guys. This whole inequity thing we’re fighting now, is not exactly brand spanking news.

Fast forward and there is Ernie Dumas who was on the editorial board of the Arkansas Gazette back then writing a column now in the Arkansas Times that was essentially déjà vu all over again. Entergy, taking advantage of the Republican majority in both houses of the legislature, managed to pass something that overturned the way utilities are regulated in the state and now are whining that they want the PSC to hand over more than a 10% increase. Defying all logic – and history – they are also arguing that allowing them to give even bigger discounts to electricity guzzling industries will bring in jobs. The argument rests on hopes that permanent amnesia has set in and no one will realize that this is their same strategy dressed in a new, more expensive coat, and it has never created jobs but always strapped consumers with high bills. He wonders if “the ratepayers’ voice will be there,” and that’s a call that must be answered. Yet again, and again, and again.

This is the proverbial canary in the mine-shaft. Utility companies are shrewd and they live like vultures in the hallways of state legislatures. Arkansas won’t be the only state where they have seduced them silently to prey on consumers. Let’s hope the battle cry can be heard and answered everywhere once again.

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