Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Wisconsin governor's attack on unions is part of GOP war on Democrats

By DeWayne Wickham

The standoff between Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the Democratic senators that caused a massing of protesters in the state capital isn't just about the bargaining rights of public employees. Sure, that's the headline much of the news media is putting on this controversy. But it's far from the whole story of what is behind the conflict between the newly elected governor and Democrats who lost control of the state Senate in the last election.

Whether they know it or not, the state's 14 Democratic senators who fled Wisconsin to deny Republicans the quorum they needed to ram through a bill that would emasculate all of the state's public employee unions (except the three that endorsed Walker) are part of a bigger fight.

They're at the front of the political war Republicans launched since winning control of a majority of the nation's statehouses in November, including victories in the one-time union strongholds of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. This turnabout has emboldened GOP governors to push legislation that could cripple Democrats in state and national elections.

Evidence of this strategy can be seen in Walker 's insistence on trying to strip away the collective bargaining rights of many public employees - at least on health care, pension benefits and working conditions - even after they've agreed to the financial concessions the governor said are needed to balance the state's budget.

Walker's bill is a shoot-the-wounded assault on the Democratic Party's base, which when combined with a voter ID law that's also being pushed through Wisconsin's Republican-controlled legislature could put The Badger State firmly in GOP hands for decades.

The proposed ID law would restrict the right to vote to people with military IDs, drivers' licenses and a state-issued ID card. Passports and photo ID cards issued to college students (even those from state universities) would not be acceptable.

College students and public unions are pillars of the Democratic base. Wisconsin's ID law would suppress voter participation among students. A 2005 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute study found that 82% of 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds did not have a driver's license in the ZIP codes for neighborhoods near Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The study also showed that statewide, the majority of college-age blacks and Hispanics lacked drivers' licenses.

Walker's budget repair bill also will severely weaken - if not fatally wound - the state's public employee unions. And in that effort he is not alone. Republicans governors in Indiana and Ohio also are moving to weaken the bargaining rights of public unions. The tactic will make it harder for unions to influence state and national elections. All of this is happening while GOP-controlled legislatures in Missouri, Ohio and Texas are pushing their own voter ID laws.

Late last month Texas' Senate passed a voter ID law that requires people in that state to show a driver's license, military ID, a passport, a state or citizenship ID card or a concealed handgun license before being allowed to vote. Over the past decade Texas' population grew to more than 25 million people. Hispanics were 65%, blacks 22% and whites just 4.2% of that population surge. Whites now make up less than half of all Texans and tend to be older. So not surprisingly, the Republican-controlled Senate made an exception to the ID law for people older than 70. Those voters only need to show a voter registration card to vote.

This is the nature of the war the GOP is waging. It's a quest for political hegemony - and a fight Democrats cannot afford to lose.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Republicans turn on their own

By DeWayne Wickham

When the history of her time on the political stage is written, it's a good bet that Olympia Snowe will be seen as the linear successor to Margaret Chase Smith, not Mike Castle.

Castle, the nine-term moderate Republican congressman, was defeated by Christine O'Donnell last year in his bid for Delaware's GOP Senate nomination. O'Donnell was backed BY the Tea Party movement, which pilloried Castle for his willingness to work with congressional Democrats to win passage of legislation.

O'Donnell was soundly beaten by Democrat Chris Coons in the general election.

Snowe, a moderate GOP senator from Maine, also has tried to bring some sanity to the political divide between congressional Democrats and Republicans during her three terms in the Senate. For her efforts she too has drawn the wrath of the Tea Party, an uncompromising fringe of the GOP's right wing.

Now, Andrew Ian Dodge, the head of Maine's Tea Party organization, says he'll challenge Snowe's bid next year to win the Republican Party's Senate nomination in the Pine Tree State. That's a mistake because Maine's voters have a long history of backing candidates who look out for them rather than cowtow to others.

Like Smith, who was the first woman from Maine to serve in the Senate, Snowe refuses to be a GOP pawn in its ideological tug-of-war with Democrats. When Republicans and Democrats were locked in a standoff over the health care bill, Snowe joined the Gang of Six (a group of centrist and moderate Republicans and Democrats) and tried to produce a compromise. She's also a leader of the Centrist Coalition, moderate members of the two parties who seek compromise on issues which too often reduce the Senate to a squabbling, ineffective chamber.

The Tea Party treats compromise as political heresy, and Snowe thinks the Tea Party is a destructive force within the Republican Party.

"What works in South Carolina and Delaware may not work in Maine," Snowe said last year of the group's ideological litmus test, according to CNN. "We all have different views. We're independent. I can't go back to the people of my state and say, "Excuse me, I have to be 100% ideologically pure because someone has dictated that from another state. It just wouldn't wash."

That's the kind of independent streak that Smith showed when she became the first member of the Senate to speak out against the abuses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anticommunist crusade.

"I speak as a Republican, I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States senator. I speak as an American," Smith said in her 1950 "Declaration of Conscience" speech in which she criticized the lack of backbone of Republicans and Democrats. "The United States has long enjoyed worldwide respect as the greatest deliberative body in the world. But recently that deliberative character has too often been debased to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination," she complained.

Snowe was equally courageous in bucking Republican leaders by working for compromise in the Senate. Just as Smith put the nation before party in 1950, Snowe now does the same when she joins with moderate Democrats to search for common ground.

I think Maine's GOP voters will reward Snowe's brand of New England Republicanism, just as they did Smith, who first won election to the Senate in 1948 and was re-elected three times. Her last victory came two years after she challenged conservative icon Barry Goldwater for the GOP presidential nomination in 1964.

What I don't think is that they'll repear the mistake that was made in Delaware.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Return of Aristide and Duvalier threaten Haitian democracy

By DeWayne Wickham

While the Obama administration has embraced the democracy movement that is pressuring Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak to end to his 30-year rule, it seems less certain of what to do to keep Haiti’s fragile democracy from disintegrating.

“Going back to the old ways is not going to work. Suppression’s not going to work. Engaging in violence is not going to work,” Obama said in the clearest statement from him so far that, like the tens of thousands of people who have taken to the streets of Cairo, he thinks it’s time for Mubarak to give up power.

But in Haiti , where the United States has led an international effort to raise billions of dollars to fund the recovery of that earthquake-ravaged nation, the country is increasingly at risk of giving in to “the old ways.”

Last month, as the results of the first round of Haiti ’s presidential election were being disputed, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the right-wing dictator who was chased from the country 25 years ago, was allowed to return. Now broke after allegedly stealing $300 million from Haiti ’s treasure, Duvalier has returned to help Haiti . How? One of his American lawyers said (presumably with a straight face) that Duvalier could assist in managing the $10 billion in relief other nations have pledged to Haiti . While there’s no chance of that happening, he can cause trouble in another way.

Duvalier has “close friends and former colleagues” in the campaigns of the three candidates who were the top finishers in the first phase of the presidential election, according to The New York Times.

He was greeted by 2,000 supporters upon his return to Haiti , and while he was later arrested on charges of corruption and embezzlement, it is uncertain that he will ever be tried.

What seems a better bet is that Duvalier’s return, and the anticipated arrival of former Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide, will push Haiti closer to turmoil.

Aristide is a leftist who became Haiti ’s first democratically elected president. He was toppled by a coup in 1991 and restored to office three years later with the help of American troops. Aristide was toppled again in 2004 by rebel soldiers, who this time had a lot more support among the Haitian people and — some believe — the backing of the George W. Bush administration.

Haiti, which is still reeling from last year’s earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people, was rocked by rioting following the announcement of the results of the disputed presidential election and hit hard by a cholera epidemic that’s taken more than 4,000 lives.

With another round of voting scheduled for March 20, the thing Haiti needs more than anything else now is a level of stability and calm. But what it’s likely to get once Aristide returns — and he and Duvalier rally their old supporters to their side — will be a return to the bloody factionalism that punctuated their time at the helm of Haiti’s government.

“They (Duvalier and Aristide) want to use this situation to reinsert themselves as part of the country’s power structure,” said Jean Wilson, a Haitian-American lawyer who has been actively involved in efforts to raise recovery funds for Haiti . “It really shows the level of desperation of the Haitian people that these despots would be allowed to return.”

Worse than that, it suggests that the Obama administration — which has far more influence in Haiti than in Egypt — failed to keep these old troublemakers from returning at a time when Haiti’s democracy is most vulnerable to the havoc they almost certainly will produce.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mother jailed for law that's the real crime

By DeWayne Wickham

Kelley Williams-Bolar broke the law when she falsified some documents so her children would have a chance at a better education in a safer school. But that law, which has turned her into a convicted felon, breaks Ohio’s compact with its citizens.

The 40-year-old teacher’s aide was given two concurrent 5-year sentences last month after a jury found her guilty of two counts of tampering with evidence for filing forms in which she claimed her two daughters lived in a nearby suburb with her father. She did this so they could attend a school in the suburban Copley-Fairlawn district instead of one closer to the Akron, Ohio housing project where the girls actually lived with her.

Judge Patricia Cosgrove reduced Williams-Bolar’s sentence to 10 days in jail and ordered her to perform 80 hours of community service and two years of probation. She also told the distraught mother she had to serve some time “so that others who think they might defraud the school system, perhaps, will think twice.”

But, in fact, it is the state of Ohio – and the flawed system of public education it created – that has defrauded the children of Williams-Bolar.

Since its creation in 1851, the Buckeye State’s constitution has required Ohio’s General Assembly to “secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state…” But instead of doing this, state officials – like those in every other state in the union – have left it up to local school districts to manage public education.

Ohio provides only a portion of the cost of educating schoolchildren throughout the state and leaves it to local jurisdictions to come up with the rest. This has created an imbalance that, at least in part, fuels the disparities between poor inner city school districts like the one Williams-Bolar wanted her children to escape, and the better off suburban school system she lied to get them to attend.

Four times since 1997, Ohio’s Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional the state’s approach to funding public education. But despite those rulings the state provides just roughly half of the cost of a student’s education and leaves it up to a patchwork of over 600 school districts to come up with the rest.

Neither Ted Strickland, the Democrat who just vacated the Ohio statehouse, nor John Kasich, the Republican who defeated him in last year’s election, has proposed a fix that acknowledges their state’s sole responsibility to create “a thorough and efficient system of common schools.” Instead, they’ve proposed ideas that tweak the status quo system of state and local funding.

Like frustrated parents in many other underfunded, poor-performing districts around the country, Williams-Bolar wanted to get her children into a better school. In doing so, she broke a law that safeguards a system of education that treats her children as collateral damage in the tribalism produced by the state’s failure to fully fund public education.

While some might argue that school vouchers or more charter schools are the answer to Williams-Bolar’s plight, I think that debate allows states to duck a far more important – and impactful – discussion of their constitutional responsibility to provide children a quality education.

Ohio shortchanges it citizens when state officials fail to meet the state’s obligation to ensure that all children, regardless of where they live, have the same educational opportunity. As a result, Williams-Bolar was forced to deceive the guardians of Ohio’s wrongful school funding system to get her children a chance for a better education. For this she has been branded a criminal.

And that’s a crying shame.