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May 19 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Snapshot from the Wisconsin GOP State Convention

Stig Rahm is the Columbia County Chairman of the GOP. I spoke to him on May 12 at the Wisconsin State Republican Convention held in Green Bay.

Columbia County lies due north of Dane County. It encompasses small towns such as Portage, Lodi, and Pardeeville, along with the Wisconsin Dells. The county’s western border includes the Wisconsin River.

Over the past sixty years, the county has grown more Democratic. However, in recent elections, Republicans have won. It may be considered a swing county, but it has a tiny population.

In 2004, the county voted for Bush/Cheney, 50.6% (Kerry/Edwards got 48.4%).

In 2008, Columbia County voted for Obama/Biden, 57.4% (McCain/Palin got 42%).

In 2010, the county swung back to the red and supported Scott Walker.

“Columbia County did vote for Governor Walker, but it was a spread of 200 hundred votes out of 22,000,” Rahm told me. “It was very close.”

Q: What sort of get out the vote efforts are you doing?

Stig Rahm: We are doing the standard stuff, the phone calls, and the emails, to get the vote out. We’re getting out at least one mailing in Columbia County. And we are reminding all our friends and neighbors that it’s important to get out there. We need people out there. One of the great things that has happened in the last year is that we have impassioned people, on both sides. And it’s about time.

Q: Are folks in Columbia County pretty energized?

Stig Rahm: Yes, they are. We have two offices, and we’ve had more people come in that have never come in before saying, “We want to help. We want to be involved.” It’s been amazing. Every day new people come in and say, “I’ve never done this before, but . . .” So it’s been very nice to see.

Q: What do you think is going to happen on June 5th?

Stig Rahm: I think it’s going to be the largest turnout in state history for a gubernatorial race. I’m very hopeful and confident we will prevail and Governor Walker will stay in office.

Q: Are people in your county mad the recall is happening?

Stig Rahm: Absolutely, on both sides. It’s been a distraction for the real problems in the state and in the nation. And not only that, it certainly has been divisive for a lot of people. From my perspective, all conservatives, Republicans are angry about the recall. But we’ve also had a number of Democrats who have said, “We think it’s not right.” A recall should not be done because you disagree with the person who is in office. It really should be done for malfeasance, for criminal activity, for a serious issue. In my mind, this has bastardized the whole recall process.

Q: Are you a businessman?

Stig Rahm: I am.

Q: And what’s the biggest challenge facing small businesses right now?

Stig Rahm: There are several issues. One is uncertainty. Businessmen and businesswomen, they figure it out. OK, this is what we have ahead of us. How are we going to deal with it? With uncertainty, we can’t.

Health care reform—that’s a huge uncertainty for small businesses. And it’s a cost we don’t want to bear unnecessarily. I believe there are many solutions to the problem, and it’s not at the federal level.

Q: What do you think the best solution is?

Stig Rahm: One of the best solutions would be to allow health insurance companies to operate across state lines. Allow for people to say, “I want to deal with that company over there that gives me the price I want.” Competition reduces costs. Without competition, it gets crazy.

Another issue with health care is: How do we take care of those who can’t take care of themselves? It’s a necessity. And I am tired of the implication that conservatives don’t want to help people. That’s nonsense. Just look at our charitable giving. We are out there. We are helping. But we want to help people help themselves. In other words, give them a hand up, not a hand out.

May 5 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Paul Ryan, Prom King

On a muggy May morning, 150 people gathered in a frigid, air-conditioned room in the Holiday Inn Express off the interstate in Janesville to hear Representative Paul Ryan.

Ryan, chair of the Budget Committee and rising star in the GOP, is doing a series of town halls in his district and this one was in his hometown.

Ryan may be on the short list for the VP right now, but he’s too smart (and too young) to throw away his future on a Romney ticket. After the sterling performance on May 4, he does seem to be positioning himself for the 2016 race.

But for now, he remains a local boy who’s doing well for himself and for his hometown. Ryan will once again win his district handily this fall.

At the Holiday Inn conference room, the Congressman charmed the older crowd. There were no kids in the audience. The only people who appeared under 50 were Ryan staffers or the press.

Many in the audience probably live on the social security their representative wants to cut for future retirees in his “Path the Prosperity” budget.

The latest unemployment numbers had just come out, and they weren’t good. Amongst all Wisconsin metro areas, Janesville had the highest unemployment rate, at 9.2 percent.

Janesville, Racine, Kenosha—the historic manufacturing cities in Wisconsin’s First Congressional District that Ryan represents—have unemployment rates topping the state’s average.

And while manufacturing as a whole, in the state, is on the uptick, the stats are grim in southeastern Wisconsin. Since 2000, Rock County, where Janesville is located, lost 54 percent of its manufacturing jobs.

But big job losses were not a big topic in Janesville today. Instead, people asked about Hugo Chavez.

Why are we paying Hugo Chavez for oil?, one elderly man asked. Or Saudi princes?

The problem, huffed one man with a long gray ponytail, is the influx of people from Central America who are immigrating here illegally.

One woman stood up and said, Israel has been a great friend. What’s your stand? Another woman wanted to more about the basics of foreign aid. She said she was shocked to find out the U.S. government gives money to Palestine. Why, she asked, are we funding our enemies?

Ryan was able to answers all these questions deftly.

Thanks to new technology, “We could become the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” said Ryan.

To the man concerned about the immigration, Ryan first soothed him. “Turn off the TV,” Ryan said. “Read a book.”

The 24-hour news cycle isn’t helpful, he added. He mentioned how people with Hispanic surnames are likely victims of identity theft by the “criminal immigrants” and how Hispanics, too, feel the problems of our immigration woes. Ultimately, immigration reform can’t be done in one big sweep and should be broken down into smaller bills.

Ryan assured the crowd we are still close friends with Israel but also mentioned financial commitments to the Palestinian Authority due to the peace process.

One fellow brought up the issue of campaign finance reform, and got a round of applause. “The Supreme Court didn’t help us one bit,” he said, referring to its 2010 Citizens United ruling, which has unleashed a lot more cash into the election process.

We have McCain-Feingold, Ryan said, “Don’t you think it’s working?” The crowd wasn’t sure if he was joking, so Ryan said, “I’m being facetious.”

Ryan glided over the issue of corporations having free speech rights, saying “The Supreme Court says people have free speech rights.”

He touted his own record of posting his donors online. And though he didn’t mention it, he’s not one for earmarks.

He supports more transparency, as long as it means that the federal government isn’t too involved. “There will always be attempts to influence power,” he said. “The antidote is not to give all of our power and money to Washington but to keep it for ourselves and for our communities so there’s less influence peddling there in the first place.”

“Money,” said Ryan, “always follows power.”

So who gives to the powerful chairman of the Budget Committee? According to opensecrets.org, for the 2012 election cycle, Ryan has gotten the majority of his money from out of state—57 percent. He gets twice as much money from Chicago than from the Janesville-Beloit area. Also notable: lots of retirees give to Ryan.

One fellow tried to trip up Ryan with a question about Ayn Rand. Could Ryan be trusted, now that the Congressman is starting to disown the atheist author?

“This is kind of fun,” Ryan said. “You know you’ve made when you have your own urban legend and this is mine.” Ryan says he read Atlas Shrugged when he was young, but “just because you like a person’s novel doesn’t mean you agree with their entire worldview.”

Finally, someone asked about health care, specifically whether or not Ryan advocates extending the COBRA deadline of 18 months. “There are more people waiting for BadgerCare than for Packer tickets,” this audience member added.

Ryan launched into his “ObamaCare” boilerplate response.

Toward the end, Ryan finally called upon Jamil S. Kahn, a retired lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Marine Corps, who had been waving his cane in the air while others raised their hands. Khan, who served in Vietnam, made an impassioned plea to not make cuts to the disabled vets budget. Khan also called for an end to the war. “Please stop funding the war in Afghanistan,” he said. “We are not going to win. We need to get that money back to our neighborhoods.” Khan’s ideas were met with cheers from the crowd.

And this is was the one brief moment when Ryan seemed tone deaf. After thanking Khan for his service, the Congressman agreed that the consensus is the war in Afghanistan will end. As for the money spent there? “It’s borrowed money,” Ryan warned. “We need to watch this.”

Apparently, there is no peace divided in Ryan’s budget. The troops may come home, but not the money.

After the town hall, Ryan took a few questions from the press. I asked him about jobs, since it didn’t come up at all. (Jobs did come up at other town halls.)

It’s a problem, he said. “We are not growing our economy as fast as we should and I would argue it’s because of our government policies today.”

For laissez-faire idealists such as Paul Ryan, government is always the problem when it comes to the economy.

Outside the hotel, a dozen or so local folks were protesting. It was a very calm scene and the dozen or so cops working the Holiday Inn beat did not have much to do.

“I think Paul Ryan and his budget plan will ruin our state and ruin our country,” said Vivian Creekmore, a retired social worker who lives in nearby Milton, which borders Ryan’s district.

Creekmore’s big concern is health care. “My husband is a diabetic and no one will insure us,” she said. “We are in the high risk insurance pool in Wisconsin.” They pay thousands of dollars in co-pays and deductibles.

“We just found out that my husband’s family has a genetic blood clotting disorder,” she said. “My daughter had to get genetic testing to see if she had it, and we had to pay for it out of pocket.”

“And we are relatively well-off” she said. “But not Paul Ryan well-off.” (Ryan is not the wealthiest man in Congress—he’s in the middle.)

I asked Creekmore to explain Ryan’s popularity.

“He’s the popular rich boy,” she said. “Everybody wanted to go to prom with him.”

Plus, there are no major news outlets in his district, she said. “The local media is owned by hard core Republicans, so there’s not a negative word about him.”

Politicians want to talk about jobs—it’s a talking point for both major parties. But they aren’t asking about jobs in Janesville. They are, however, talking about economic insecurity. They use race and immigration, energy independence, and terrorism to discuss it. And Paul Ryan soothed their fears.

In these times of uncertainty, people want to believe in a philosophy that erases doubts. As prom season approaches, who better to deliver the message than the guy everyone still wants to go to prom with?

Apr 22 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Record Store Day 2012

This week lots of pals were buzzing about Record Store Day. It’s a day to wander down to your local record store (if you are lucky enough to have one in your city) and splurge on music. Labels release special albums for the day, and re-issue old favorites, too.

I got a sneak peak of the fun when I was down at WORT-FM a few days ago.

Sometimes the vinyl can be as beautiful as the music.

At my neighborhood record store, Mad City Music, the day was by all accounts a success. The Flaming Lips LPs sold out quickly. Thirty people were waiting in line before they even opened doors this morning.

One of the biggest finds, to me, was the Lee Scratch Perry box set. It was gone by the time I got to Mad City. So I decided to indulge myself with a classic: Horses by Patti Smith. Horses, with its striking portrait of Smith, taken by Robert Mapplethorpe. Horses, produced by John Cale at Electric Lady Studios.

I didn’t care if it was digitally remixed. I just wanted it on vinyl.

Twenty years ago while digging through crates in Venice Beach, I found this gem. I bought it, but never left California with it. Instead, I gave it to the pal I was visiting. I hadn’t found it on vinyl since, though I wasn’t exactly looking for it, either.

In her National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith writes about what things were in her mind when she recorded this album:

“The gratitude I had for rock and roll as it pulled me through a difficult adolescence. The joy I experienced when I danced. The moral power I gleaned in taking responsibility for one’s actions. These things were encoded in Horses as well as a salute to this who paced the way before us.”

The gratitude that Smith writes about is palpable in this record. I think all of us who were down at Mad City today feel a certain gratitude to rock and roll for pulling us through our difficult adolescences.

When I went to counter, I showed Mad City’s Dave Zero my selection. “I couldn’t resist,” I told Dave.

“Yes,” he said, “how could you resist?”

Apr 11 / Elizabeth DiNovella

In Defense of Ozzie Guillen

I am a huge Ozzie Guillen fan. When I was a kid, I saw Ozzie play shortstop at Comisky Park, and as an adult I’ve watched him coach the Chicago White Sox. A poster of him holding the World Series Trophy adorns my office wall.

I loved how #13 played the game, and I loved his small-ball coaching style. He’s hilarious and outspoken, and when his team played like crap, he’d say so. And he took responsibility when his coaching was bad, too.

Ozzie clearly loves the game and my affection for him runs deep. So deep that I almost considered becoming a Marlins fan for the season, just so I could root for him. (As a lifelong White Sox fan, it seemed OK, since the two teams play in different leagues. Plus, it would be fun to watch the Marlins beat the Cubs.)

I was wondering why Miami picked him up until I read the Sports Illustrated story “Marlinsanity” with Ozzie and Jose Reyes giggling on the cover. The team was re-branding itself, built a new stadium in Little Havana, and looking for some flash. It drafted a number of hothead players, such as Carlos Zambrano. Suddenly, Ozzie being manager made sense: He has a motor-mouth and is endless entertaining.

But saying something nice about Fidel Castro is NOT entertaining, at least not in Little Havana. In an interview with Time, Ozzie is quoted as saying that he loved Fidel Castro and “I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last sixty years, but that son of a bitch is still there.”

Sounds like vintage Ozzie to me. Can the Marlins’ top brass really be surprised? Aren’t they getting the media attention they desired for their team as they try to resurrect baseball in south Florida?

They had to have known that Ozzie is a loose canon. Didn’t they do due diligence? Did they forget the time when Ozzie called a sports columnist he was annoyed with a “maricon”? Do they read Ozzie’s Twitter feed? They should—it’s hilarious.

And now Ozzie is making mea culpas back in Miami. “It was an error. Everyone hates Fidel Castro, including me. I am surprised he is still in power. That is what I was trying to say to the journalist.”

But it wasn’t enough for owner Jeffrey Loria, and he suspended Ozzie for five whole games. (Luckily he’ll be back when the Marlins host the Cubs.)

A Cuban-American group Vigilia Mambisa is planning a boycott of the team until Ozzie steps down. Local politicians are calling on Ozzie to resign.

The Marlins hired an opinionated coach and now are suspending him for being who he is. Isn’t voicing unpopular opinions something that can get you jailed in Cuba?

“This is the biggest mistake I’ve made so far in my life,” Ozzie said. “When you’re a sportsman, you shouldn’t be involved in politics.”

But baseball and politics have always been intertwined. From corporate tax breaks to taxpayer-funded stadiums to labor conditions (how much do those Haitians make as they manufacture baseballs?), politics is part of MLB and sports in general.

Ozzie also said he’s sad and embarrassed about the whole thing. Me, too—I feel bad for the guy. And I thought Zambrano would be the first to get booted off the team, not Ozzie. But who knows. Maybe Ozzie can come back to Chicago where fans just shrugged when he said stupid things.

Mar 14 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Wisconsin Women Say They’re Mad as Hell

 

Several hundred women (and men) rallied outside the Wisconsin Capitol Tuesday, March 13, as the Republican-led legislature voted on bills that curbed abortion rights and ended comprehensive sex education in schools.

It was a beautiful day to have a rally. Many of the protesters dressed in pink, which contrasted nicely with the clear blue sky. And the young women in the crowd contrasted with the legislators inside.

A coalition of groups planned this “Women Watch, Women Rally, Women Vote: Mad as Hell Rally.”

The coalition included Planned Parenthood, Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, Reproductive Justice Collective, Health Professionals for Reproductive Care, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Emerge Wisconsin, and others.

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice spoke on behalf of Rabbi Bonnie Margulis who was sick. By then the microphone had died and so the crowd repeated what he said, mic-check style.

 

“People of faith believe women are moral decision makers who have the right to decide on their own health,” he said and got a roar of support.

“Under the guise of balancing budgets, family planning and reproductive health care are being attacked,” he said. “This has nothing to do with fiscal responsibility.”

No, it doesn’t. But that hasn’t stopped Wisconsin Republicans. They’ve been going after women all session long. They’ve even repealed the state’s pay equity law.

In the wee hours of the night, the Republican-controlled Assembly voted 60-34 to pass a bill that requires schools to teach abstinence as the only reliable way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. The bill permits schools to skip teaching about contraception all together.

The Assembly voted 61-34 to pass proposal that would ban abortion coverage from policies obtained at the health insurance exchange that is to be in place by 2014.

Both of these measures have already passed the senate and head to Governor Scott Walker.

And what about jobs? Representative Christine Sinicki, Democrat of Milwaukee, said it best:

“The session was supposed to be about jobs. Where are the jobs? I can tell you where they are not. Jobs are not in my uterus,” Rep. Sinicki said.

At a time when Wisconsin leads the nation in job loss, the Republicans are talking about sex.

Mar 8 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Vermont Pushes Against Citizens United

 

Vermonters pushed for a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United during this week’s Super Tuesday vote.

The 2010 Supreme Court’sCitizens United decision allows corporations to spend unlimited amount of money to influence elections.

Dozens of towns and cities took on this issue of money in politics. They passed initiatives and resolutions on town meeting agendas that called on the Vermont delegation in Congress to support an amendment making clear that corporations are not people under the Constitution.

The resolutions say, “In light of the United States Supreme Court’sCitizens United decision that equates money with speech and gives corporations rights constitutionally intended for natural person . . . to urge the Vermont Congressional Delegation and the U.S. Congress to propose a U.S. Constitutional amendment for the States’ consideration which provides that money is not speech, and that corporations are not persons under the U.S. Constitution…”

 

They did this in Brattleboro and in Greensboro, in Jericho and in Montpelier.

“The only way to ultimately deal with the problem of Citizens Unitedis with a constitutional amendment,” says Robert Weismann, president of Public Citizen. “The amendment is fast gaining momentum fueled by the outrage of the early portion of the 2012 election.”

Leading the effort is the Move to Amend coalition (movetoamend.org). This coalition, made up of hundreds of organizations and tens of thousands of individuals, aims to abolish corporate personhood in the United States.

The coalition has a bottom-up strategy. Rather than starting in Washington, D.C., Move to Amend is working at the local and state levels to put a challenge to corporate power on the ballot. In 2011, Move to Amend resolutions passed in Madison, Wisconsin, Boulder, Colorado, and Missoula, Montana.

Move to Amend has a goal to be on fifty ballots for the November 2012 election.

Ben Manski, executive director of the Liberty Tree Foundation, attributes Move to Amend’s success to an anti-corporate movement twenty years in the making. An extensive network of organizations that had built relationships of trust were able to activate their network in response to Citizens United, he explains. “We were ready on January 21, 2010, and we launched Move to Amend on the same day the Citizens United decision came down,” says Manski. “That’s why we have so much momentum.”

Move to Amend organizers plan to pass resolutions in city after city until 50 percent of a state’s population has voted in favor of curbing corporate power. Then, they will approach the state’s legislature. After they get enough states on board, they plan on directing their efforts toward Washington, D.C. (Constitutional amendments require two-thirds passage in both the House and Senate, and three-fourths of states to ratify.)

It’s an extremely difficult road but Manski is optimistic, noting that Wisconsin may cross the 50 percent threshold this year. “Constitutional amendments, plural, are ways to enshrine democratic gains in law,” he says. “They’re the final way in which a society will say how we will govern ourselves.”

Margaret Koster is a former volunteer in the national Move to Amend office. She moved to Mendocino, California, and is now working a local group there to pass a ballot initiative. A retiree, she says she spends half her week on this.

“It’s a huge job,” she says. “Some people say it’s too ambitious to amend the constitution, and sometimes it can take generations.”

Koster believes it’ll be sooner than that. People are fed up with the political process, she says, adding there’s “some real political awareness and some real political actions going on, and there’s the Occupy movement.”

Ballot initiatives are a way to educate people about corporate power. “People aren’t always aware of the issues, as in the 125 years of corporations being given the rights of persons,” she says. “We have to get at the root of the problem.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, has also proposed an amendment to the Constitution to exclude corporations from First Amendment rights to spend money on political campaigns.

“Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, Town Meeting Day voters understood that corporations are not people,” said Sanders. “The resounding results will send a strong message that corporations and billionaires should not be allowed to buy candidates and elections with unlimited, undisclosed spending on political campaigns.”

Feb 29 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Going Negative

 

This year’s elections are shaping up to be some of the nastiest we’ve seen in recent history. If you haven’t already been swamped by a barrage of negative ad campaigns, prepare yourself. It’s going to get worse, especially here in Wisconsin.

Both Dems and Republicans are targeting Wisconsin. Recall campaign spending and then November election spending will be in the tens of millions.

President Obama’s campaign recently purchased a significant television ad buy. It was limited to six battleground states: Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Of Obama’s top ten ad target markets, four of them were in Wisconsin: Green Bay, Madison, Wausau, and La Crosse, which just edged out Toledo for the number of spots aired. The Milwaukee ad buy was number fourteen on the list.

 

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the Obama campaign was buying in the same markets as the conservative (and Koch-brothers supported) group, Americans for Prosperity.

In 2008, Wisconsin ranked sixth among battlegrounds in TV money, and in 2004, it ranked fourth.

“Obviously, Wisconsin is an important state both electorally and policy-wise,” Gillian Morris, a spokesperson for the Obama campaign in Wisconsin, told the Journal Sentinel.

While negative advertisements have seemingly become a permanent facet of our election cycle, this year will see the largest amount of money ever spent on negative ads. It will probably surpass $3 billion.

The 2012 Presidential election is the first under which “money as free speech” has been given free rein in political campaigns, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. In its 5-to-4 vote, the court allowed unlimited political spending by corporations, unions, and other special interest groups so long as they maintain the fiction that they are not coordinating their efforts with the candidates.

And the spending is adding up. Pro-Republican super PACs have raised a combined $64 million dollars already, and wealthy donors are willing to spend hundreds of millions more. The vast majority of that money is being funneled into negative ad campaigns, with a 57 percent increase in spending compared to the 2008 elections. Profits from negative ads have become so staggering that Bill Wheatley, former executive vice president of NBC News, likens operating a television station in an election battleground state to winning the lottery.

Committees and campaigns put out negative ads because they work. There used to be at least one deterrent: A candidate might not go too negative for fear it could damage his own reputation. Now, however, super PACs such as Restore Our Future, Winning Our Future, and Strong America can take the blame for any negative feedback, instead of the candidates themselves. “Organizations with meaningless names, no membership, no accountability, and no concern about their reputation are controlling Republican primaries with vast amounts of money,” says Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “There’s nothing to restrain them from going negative.”

Feb 17 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Republican Misconceptions on Americans and Birth Control

 

The Republicans showed how out of touch they are with Americans when House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on the birth control mandate in President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Representative Darrell Issa, Republican from California, chaired the committee and lined up a stellar cast of men—and only men—who are religious leaders and experts and who feel that paying for contraceptives is an attack on religious freedom.

The all-male Congressional panel seems fitting, considering it was the all-male Catholic bishops who organized against the mandate.

The savvy bishops did an expert job of framing the issue: Rather than having it be about health care, they turned it into a debate about religious freedom.

 

And the Republican leadership is using this as a wedge issue to excite its supporters. The activist base is thumbing its nose at the establishment candidate, Mitt Romney. So it needs something, and reproductive health care is red meat for those with a red state of mind.

This week on WORT-FM, we spoke to Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, about this issue. He said that most Catholics don’t follow the bishops when it comes to contraception. Just look in the pews on Sunday mornings, he said. The families are smaller.

A recent Pew poll backs O’Brien up: “Just 15 percent of Catholics say that using contraceptives is morally wrong, while 41 percent say it is morally acceptable and 36 percent say it is not a moral issue.”

O’Brien is disappointed that Obama conceded so much with his compromise. Many of these so-called religious employers are, in fact, quite secular and are simply businesses—be it a hospital, university, or non-profit organization.

What the Catholic bishops and other religious leaders want is something larger than simply not paying for birth control coverage. “They want to be able to take taxpayer money, and provide social services, but not be judged by the same standards as anyone else,” O’Brien says.

He explains: “So let’s say they are providing services to a victim of sex trafficking, or to a refugee. Very often refugees and victims of sex trafficking need reproductive health services or emergency contraception in situations where they’ve been raped. The Catholic hierarchy wants to say, well, we’ll look after them. We’ll take taxpayer money—this isn’t money from the Vatican—to do that, but we don’t want to be held accountable to the same rules as anybody else.”

“They want to be able to take government money and not provide services most people would regard as being scientifically, medically, and socially sound,” he says.

O’Brien was born and raised in Ireland and saw firsthand the costs of gender inequality. But he remains Catholic. “My Catholicism informs the position I take on this issue,” he says.

O’Brien says it’s “almost Orwellian” since there are only 350 U.S. bishops but 68 million Catholics. “What the bishops are trying to say is that their consciences trump everybody else—both Catholic and non-Catholic here in the United States,” he says. “That’s not religious liberty. That’s a religious dictatorship.”

O’Brien says that being in Washington, D.C., is a bit like being Alice in Wonderland, adding, “ If you talk to lobbyists and Republicans, you have no sense of what reality is truly like.”

Being inside the Beltway must be like being a part of the U.S. conference of bishops. It’s easy to be insular, out of touch, and assume that millions of people are listening to you.

Feb 16 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Redistricting Shocker in Wisconsin

 

The memos are shocking. Republican legislators and their lawyers connived at creating public support for new electoral maps.

In one, attorney Jim Troupis e-mails two lawyers at Michael Friedrich and Best:
“You can let the chair know that Manny Perez and others from the Latino community will be there to testify for a 60-54 map. You will need to have a large map showing that district—you should prepare that and bring it with. You should still, I think talk about the three alternatives. That way it looks like what it is—an effective negotiation of something the community wants.

Congratulations!

Manny is talking right now with MALDEF to coordinate their testimony.” (MALDEF is the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund.)

A three-judge panel ordered the documents released and wrote in a scathing critique that the GOP had engaged in an “all but shameful” effort to keep its machinations hidden from the public.

 

Republican legislators were also forced to sign an oath promising to keep the maps secret, to use talking points, and to disregard public comments about the maps. Nearly all signed the legal agreements.

Electoral maps are re-drawn every tens years, based on the latest Census numbers. Redistricting is a politicized issue and often the newly drawn maps end up facing legal challenges. This happens in many states, not just Wisconsin.

And it’s not something that only Republicans are guilty of. Maps drawn up by Dems elsewhere, such as Illinois or California, face legal challenges, too.

But in Wisconsin, the Republicans are being so brazen. The secrecy is astounding. The three-judge panel called it shameful, echoing the sentiments yelled by protesters in the Assembly gallery.

One aspect of the redistricting saga going underreported is the role of Washington establishment Republicans such as Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie.

The Wisconsin GOP controls redistricting because it has the majority in both chambers. The Fitzgerald brothers, Robin Vos, and their cohorts would not have won these majorities if it wasn’t for a little known group called the Republican State Leadership Committee.

This group, formed in 2002, is the only national organization that focuses on electing Republican majorities to state legislatures. (I wrote about this group in the October issue of The Progressive.)

The Republican State Leadership Committee played a pivotal role in Wisconsin, enabling Republicans to flip both houses of the state legislature and the governorship from Democrat to Republican in 2010. The group bet big—-and won big—even though it was the first time it spent money on legislative races in the state. It dropped almost one million dollars in five races, and won four of the seats.

Most of the Republican State Leadership Committee’s money went to oppose candidates, not support them. It spent five times more money tearing down Democratic candidates than building up its own Republican candidates.

“We’ll be providing air cover,” Chris Jankowski, current president of the committee, boasted to The Wall Street Journal.

It certainly did. It blasted central Wisconsin’s airwaves and spent $326,700 on negative campaigns against Russ Decker, who was the Democratic majority leader at the time. It was the only group to target Decker.

It also went after Democrat Kathleen Vinehout with a glossy direct mail package that asked: “Why would senator Kathleen Vinehout allow Wisconsin convicts out of prison early?” The mailing resembles a poster for a horror film: A young, white woman has a terrified look on her face as a man’s hand covers her mouth. The accusation was based on Vinehout’s support for the 2009-2011 state budget, which included the early release program. Vinehout was the only Dem who survived the RSLC’s onslaught of negative ads.

IRS filings show the committee has been heavily backed by big business since its inception. Many of the same companies that give money to the committee also give money to ALEC and the Republican Governors Association.

Its biggest contributor by far is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has given more than $11 million. Devon Energy Corporation has given nearly $2 million. Tobacco (Altria, Reynolds), pharmaceutical (GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca), and health insurance (WellPoint) industries all give money.

Ed Gillespie, former Republican National Committee chairman, leads the Republican State Leadership Committee. He also contracts with it. During 2010, his company, Ed Gillespie Strategies, received regular monthly consulting fees of $16,667.

American Crossroads, another 527 group, has donated $600,000 to the committee, ranking within the top twenty-five contributors. American Crossroads is the brainchild of Karl Rove and Gillespie.

What happened in Wisconsin in 2010 wasn’t unique. The RSLC helped flip twenty state legislative chambers from Democrat to Republican.

These new Republican majorities, along with the already-existing ones, put the GOP in charge of redistricting Congressional maps in seventeen states, including all of the House seats from the swing states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Looking ahead to the 2012 election, the committee is expected to continue to focus on swing states such as Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin remains a battleground state, and the RSLC will be aggressively involved in increasing our majority in 2012,” said Jankow­ski in a statement after Wisconsin’s summer recall elections. (The committee did not return phone calls or e-mails for comment.)

This summer it launched the Future Majority Project, an initiative to get women, young people, and Latinos to run for office as Republicans. It has set a goal to recruit at least 100 new Hispanic Republican candidates.

“The RSLC believes that cultivating change is best achieved through a bottom-up, state-level approach,” said Jankowski in a press release.

Which bring us back to Manny Perez. The Wisconsin GOP will have to do more than court prominent Latinos to get the support of Latino communities. But the memos reveal the GOP may not really be that interested in Latino votes after all. It just wants the appearance of it.

Feb 11 / Elizabeth DiNovella

What Conservatives Learned from Labor Fights in Wisconsin and Ohio

 

Conservatives are gathering in Washington, D.C., to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference, known by its acronym C-PAC. Dubbed the “Mardi Gras for the Right,” the three-day jamboree commemorates everything conservatives hold dear, and celebrates its affection for unfettered, free-market capitalism. CPAC brings together a broad swath of conservatives, and this year the goal is to create a unified movement to take on President Obama and the Democrats in 2012 election. Thousands of grassroots activists have made the trek to Washington DC, including a large number of students.

There is something for everyone in the conservative movement at CPAC. Panels range from repealing Obama’s health care program, to highlighting the specter of Latin American socialism, along with calls for returning to the gold standard. At one workshop, a panel of lawyers, including a former Federal Elections Commissioner, described to activists how to create new political organizations that can buy ads in the upcoming election while avoiding disclosure of donors.

Tea Party activists brush up against party stalwarts such as John Boerner. Three Republican Presidential hopefuls made appearances, and the absent Ron Paul is represented by his son, Kentucky Senator and Tea Party favorite, Rand Paul.

 

One big topic at CPAC is Wisconsin. In 2010, the Republicans bet big on Wisconsin and won. And its victory is on full display, as Representative Paul Ryan and Governor Scott Walker gave keynote speeches.

One year ago, Walker pushed through anti-union legislation that ended collective bargaining and automatic dues deduction for many public sector workers. Walker’s law led to huge protests in the state capitol, but Republicans across the country see it as a victory.

“There’s a sense that if it succeeds in Wisconsin, then it will spread to other states,” says Steven Malanga, senior editor of City Journal, and a Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow. “It’s not going to spread to California, it’s not going to spread to Illinois, it’s not going to spread to New York, but it will to other states. It will create more of a sense of winners and losers among states and that’s what we’re seeing in this recession, anyway. So that’s really what’s at stake in Wisconsin.”

While Republicans see Wisconsin as a triumph, they look at Ohio as an example of what not to do. Last year, the Republican statehouse voted for legislation that was similar to Wisconsin’s. It removed collective bargaining rights but, unlike the Wisconsin law, Ohio’s legislation included public safety workers.

In November, voters in Ohio handed the Republicans a defeat as they repealed the law, known as SB 5.

Vince Vernuccio, Labor Policy Counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says Wisconsin was more successful than Ohio because Governor Walker exempted Health and Safety workers.

“In Ohio, essentially what you had is firemen and police—in uniform—going door to door, saying this bill will kill babies. Now when you have police and firemen in uniform, saying the apocalypse is going to happen, it’s very hard to message against that,” says Vernuccio. “The problem is we didn’t get our message into Ohio soon enough.”

The second lesson Republicans learned from Ohio is to break the bill in smaller, more digestible pieces. By sparing public safety employees now, other parts of the bill could pass, argues Vernuccio.

“With that exemption, knowing that we could come back to it later, that’s a strategy.”

Participants, including the Manhattan Institutes’s Malanga say another lesson learned in Ohio and Wisconsin is that banning automatic deductions of union dues is good for Republicans.

“Studies of states that don’t allow automatic deductions of union dues have shown that when that kind of a law is enacted, that union activity in politics declines by 50 percent,” says Malanga. “So that gives you some idea of what’s at stake in Wisconsin.”

Malanga, citing statistics from the Center for Responsive Politics, says this union political activity is overwhelming Democratic and funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to federal candidates alone over the past two decades.

But union support for Democrats is nothing new. So why did Republicans pick this fight now?

Kevin Mooney is from the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a rightwing think tank based in Louisiana.

“The key stat goes back to 2009,” he says. “For the first time in American history, more union members work for government than private sector and that has huge public policy ramifications. And this will continue to accelerate.”

Conservatives recently won a victory in Indiana, where Governor Mitch Daniels just signed a “Right to Work” bill into law. This measure prohibits private sector workplaces from requiring workers to pay dues or other fees to join a union. Indiana is the twenty-third state to adopt this type of legislation, but the first state in the Rust Belt. It’s been more than a decade since a state has passed such a law.

Republicans look at Wisconsin and Indiana as models in the bruising labor fights in the Midwest. But they haven’t given up hope on Ohio, says Vernuccio from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“Ohio may have been a little early. It may have been a little too much. But I think going forward we can be successful. Hopefully Governor Kasich is going to break out the successful parts of SB 5 that polled well and we’ll see a moderate version in the future.”

Labor activists and Occupy DC are planning protests at CPAC, and attendees of the conference are abuzz about the possibility of a confrontation. One protest was timed to coincide with Governor Walker’s Friday night speech.

This story appeared in Free Speech Radio News.