State Initiatives Move the Needle on Key Issues in USA Elections

New Orleans  Obvious disclosure:  I’m a huge proponent of the strategic and tactical value of local and statewide initiative on our issues to build organizational power and actually win campaign results.   This is obvious given the number of living wage, lifeline utility, sales tax on food & medicine, generic drug, minimum wage increase, and single member district measures we put on the ballot – and mostly won – before voters in cities and states throughout the country with ACORN.  When people are given the opportunity to speak and be counted, and when organizations prove they have both the wherewithal and the courage to put the questions before them, the needle moves.  Sometimes it moves with us, and sometimes it moves against us, but, doggone it, it moves!

In the elections around the country it moved yesterday in some interesting ways, so let’s look at a couple with undoubtedly more to come:

  • In Michigan I had called attention recently to a number of measures where unions were willing to take their case to the voters on important collective bargaining issues.  There were mixed results.  The preemptive effort to ward off “wisconsinitis” and protect the public employees bargaining rights in the constitution failed, though it may have immunized the state in the future, which is critical.  On the other hand the powers of “emergency managers” to take over schools and cities and reject existing collective bargaining contracts won decisively.
  • Teachers, and this is mostly the NEA, were able to turn back statewide initiatives by so-called school “reformers” masking as hard right turners in Idaho and South Dakota and protect both collective bargaining and tenure in those states.
  • In California upending all of the Debbie Downers and pollsters that were signally that Governor Jerry Brown was going down, voters decisively voted to raise their taxes to try and rebuild the once great public school system in that state.  This is the first successful pushback to “repeal” the impact of the Howard Jarvis property tax limitations from over 30 years ago that have crippled public funding.  This is huge!
  • Maryland and my friends at Casa de Maryland have much to celebrate having not only won a state-based “DREAM” act through the legislature but also winning voter approval to the measure in the shadow of the White House.  We’re going to win DREAM soon, I would bet.
  • On protest votes on Obamacare voters in Alabama, Wyoming, and Montana on health exchanges:  I’m glad I only got to Montana for fish and fun, because my brothers and sisters there are drinking bad water before voting these days.  Florida voted “yes” which should have been a message to Romney, but whatever for the 47%, eh?  It doesn’t matter though since federal law preempts state measures in the USA.  The tide is moving out on this rightwing resistance.  Even the business-based conservative Times-Picayune in New Orleans editorialized a couple of weeks ago in our solid red state that Republican Governor Bobby Jindal was a fool to not take “free” federal money for three years to provide Medicaid support for Louisiana citizens.  Their message was essentially “don’t play national politics with the lives of Louisiana poor people.”  A lot of these governors are going to be getting this message about reality now.
  • Remember that Planned Parenthood is still fighting in the trenches state-by-state to protect its health services program after the ACORN-style Congressional scam attack, well in Florida voters lined up to say that state funding for their programs and others around birth control were fine with them.
  • On other “wedge” issues dividing modern voters, two more states, Maryland and Maine are ok with gay marriage.  My bet is that the Supreme Court will be watching these state plebiscites with decisions coming before it soon on this issue.  Washington and Colorado were OK with legalizing marijuana (yes, I can already hear the advertisements about being a “mile high” there!), but Oregon said no.  Unclear how this will sort out since the US and the Attorney-General are still insisting anything about marijuana is a crime, but Latin America is also moving this way with Uruguay and other countries believing we must legalize to stop the Mexican drug cartels.  Change is coming on both of these issues no doubt!

Let the people speak and be prepared to follow.

We need to put more living wage and minimum wage efforts on the ballot locally and statewide in 2014.  We need to look at some of these other issues and assess what it takes and start making plans.


Growing up Hard in the West: “Ghost Dances” in Dakota and “Full Body Burden” in Colorado

Vancouver   Two books I read on the planes, boats, and trains of this road trip went back to the author’s roots and my own in the West with powerfully evocative writing and hardscrabble truths painfully won.  Ghost Dances:  Proving Up on the Great Plains by Josh Garrett-Davis caught my eye when he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on McGovern’s death and indicated he was the son of two early organizers, who I remembered well, who worked with us at South Dakota ACORN in Sioux Falls in the mid-1970s.  Full Body Burden:  Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen was also a stumble-on that drew me for the years I lived in Colorado as a boy and the summers spent roaming the gullies of the western slope with my brother near the Colorado-Utah border and the months in Denver battling boredom, mumps, and Bible school.  These are very different books, but both offer significant rewards for readers, including the vast majority without boots on the floor.

Josh’s book is a young man’s story of growing up with a feeling of displacement from family, geography, and community, yet finding the magnetic attachment to place, the magical, subversive attraction of the Great Plains impossible to shake both because of his attraction to the land and his surprise at the deep story of his roots in the area which define him almost in spite of his contradictory feelings about the “hard” town of Pierre, South Dakota and his struggles to find a fit there.  Ghost Dances tries to weave true tales of the West and his search for some peace with the place with the facts of being a permanent outsider with parents from elsewhere with different politics, philosophy, and personal preferences, including his mother’s sexual choices after his parents separated.  He definitely has a story to tell and tells it well, though despite my connection to the family and interest in how they “turned out,” so to speak, I found his writing most effective when he was searching for his own personal “plains” truth in history, landscapes, and family, rather than when he was writing his own brief.  As he argues in his chapter on the “buffalo commons,” it isn’t clear that the West is made for habitation by people of any kind and certainly its history is well populated with misfits and characters of all shapes, sizes and combinations that have made their way and weathered on in the vast unforgiving space that largely forgets people entirely and blows much of what – and who – they were out with the constant wind.  In that sense both he and his parents were naturals for the land, place, and space and fit perfectly for their time and trouble, which might be why it seems that Josh has in fact “proven up” so well.

Iversen’s story of growing up in the shadow of Rocky Flats, the infamous plutonium production facility in Arvada on the outskirts of Denver, is much harder and, worse, it is tragic, enduring, and unresolved.  There’s no nostalgia here.  You read the book hoping she escapes and gets out alive and in some kind of working order.  She had a miserably dysfunctional family with secrets and schisms of its own, but she and her siblings were part of the place in ways that Josh might only imagine and even envy.  They were on horseback and popped up all over like the prairie dogs around them from lake to land with a menagerie of dogs, turtles, and other animals in their wake as they were raised by wolves, oblivious about what was happening over the hill from them at Rocky Flats as the plant prepared for future world wars while wasting the land and killing its workers.  Iversen juxtaposes her own naiveté about the plant as interlacing with just trying to survive as just a Jane Doe of the working, suburban middle class, falling in love, enduring personal tragedy, working her way through school as a waitress and even in a stint in the secretarial pool at Rocky Flats as a contract worker, raising two boys as a single parent, and just maintaining.

Writing this book as a mature woman she largely keeps her own story in the background as ballast and touchstone to the growing tragedy of the Rocky Flats disaster conceived in an engineering mistake about wind directions, which should never allowed it to be sited so dangerously close to Denver and its population in the first place, and now a scar on the land and its people for perhaps thousands and thousands of years.   The Rocky Flats story is a big one and deserves attention.  She finds heroes aplenty, but in this harsh tale of the real and discarded West most of them are paid for their trouble in pain and death.  This is yet another relentless story of exploitation with a miserably unhappy ending since there seems no relief from this nuclear nightmare and no justice for any of its victims.  We are lucky that Iversen came to realize that her life was defined by her fear of her father and this plutonium plant, and she was able somehow to bring the “cry for help” that defines this book to reality.

I finished the book debating whether to call a friends who worked for SEIU who used to service the janitors contract at the plant towards the end of the Rocky Flats story when the job was not a stepping stone for Arvada’s workers moving to better pay, but subcontracted Service Contract Act work for immigrant hourly workers to see if he knew whether or not they knew how it might have impacted their members.  I wondered what the Steelworkers had done for the various workers they represented.

Mainly after reading both of these books, different and similar, and both excellent in their own ways, I came away wanting to shake Josh’s hand and wish him good fortune knowing his future is bright and track down Iversen the next time I’m on the University of Memphis campus and just give her a big hug.  All of us are blessed for our time in the West, carry it close, happy to make it out alive, and fortunate when we find a separate peace with the place and space as the years go by.