Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What's The Most Important Issue Facing America Today?

I started elementary school around the same time that Dwight Eisenhower took office for his first term as President of the United States. The world was a lot different then. But one thing defined the political dialogue – the threat of a massive thermonuclear war between America and the Soviet Union.

Of course, there were other things going on. The middle class was thriving, massive investments were made in infrastructure (from which we are still benefit today), and the wealthiest among us paid their fair share in taxes. The space race was on, and although the U.S. started from way behind, Neil Armstrong’s footstep across the finish line was a great triumph for America’s embrace of science and technology as well as for its public education system.

Yet, the shadow of a nuclear holocaust was the overriding issue, at least for my generation. We did the “duck and cover” exercises as if a half-inch thick wooden desk could protect us from fatal radiation. There were public fallout shelters everywhere, and the most zealous survivalists had elaborate shelters in their homes. The “Red Scare” embraced by Senator Joe McCarthy and those of his ilk ruined many innocent lives.

Eventually, the Cold War ended. Some progress has been made in reducing the threat of a nuclear holocaust, although the reduction in the number of warheads stockpiled by America and Russia is offset by the proliferation of nuclear capability in nations with even more unstable leadership.

So if nuclear annihilation is not the pressing issue in 2014, what is? What’s the single most urgent issue our leaders and citizens should be addressing?

Is it the destruction of the middle class? Is it the inequality still suffered by minority groups in America? Is it the industrialization of our education system? Is it the cost and scarcity of decent health care, where we lag just about every other industrialized country? Is it the fact that we always seem to have the money to go to war but never enough money to take care of the warriors?

All of these are important. But like it or not, the most important issue facing my grandson as he enters school this week is the environmental legacy my generation’s leaders leave behind.

Human beings are frail creatures. Without clean air and water, our life expectancy is dramatically reduced and our survival is in jeopardy. Our ecosystem is also fragile. The food and water we depend upon is profoundly influenced by a healthy system that has evolved over the millennia. Yet, over the past 150 years, we have raped the earth, dirtied our waters, and grudgingly made only miniscule progress against a problem that affects every person regardless of income, social status, or gender. We have powerful political leaders propped up by wealthy supporters who deny basic science and are willing to put all of us – their progeny as well as ours – in great peril. We sent a man to the moon because as a nation we had the will and commitment to do so. If we don’t manifest that commitment by the orders of magnitude that it would take to ensure the survival of our descendants, then all of the other problems we have with education, the economy, and equal rights are moot.

Let’s not ignore our environment when we go to the ballot box this November. Ask your candidates where they stand. Do they think there is no anthropogenic factor in the severity of storms like Sandy? Do they value oil company profits over clean air? Do they believe it’s okay to build pipelines through fragile ecosystems? Then don’t vote as if your life depended on it. Vote because your grandchildren’s lives and quality of life depend on it.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Don't Run the Country Like a Business

In political campaigns, you often hear candidates promise that they will run the country like a business. To me, that’s almost a disqualifier.

I live in New Jersey’s Third Congressional District, and the two major party candidates are running for a seat being vacated by the retirement of a former NFL football player.

The Republican candidate is an insurance CEO (who lives 90 miles outside the district) and touts his business experience as a reason why the people of the district should send him to Washington. To me, being a successful businessman has about as much relevance as being an NFL offensive tackle when it comes to my vote.

As we see every day, the job of a lawmaker is to be persuasive and build consensus. While I’m sure some business people have these skills, most of the time businesspeople, especially CEOs, operate like a military unit where orders are given, followed, and are rarely questioned. That’s not how Congress works, especially for a freshman. Orders are not given, but rather compromise, consensus, and common ground are sought. These qualities are not often seen in the leadership of the business world.

Often, when candidates say they will run government like a business, they allude to handling money and finances smartly and operating at a profit. In fact, for most businesses, profit is the one and only criterion for making important decisions. That’s why we see so many businesses with low wages, offshore outsourcing, and flimsy quality controls. That’s not how Congress or the government should work. The government is not there to make a profit. It’s there to serve the people. And as far as prudent handling of money is concerned, especially in the financial services industry, there are companies like AIG and others that have demonstrated their leaders’ lack of good judgment or even ethics. Any prudence that is exhibited by these CEOs is primarily due to consumer protection laws and strict accounting standards, things business executives typically lobby to relax, not make stricter.

So if successful CEOs are not a priori good candidates for congressional office, who is?

My answer is those people who are successful leaders of volunteer charitable organizations.

Their success is based on persuasion – the ability to make a case for others to part with their money or time. They do this not for compensation, but because they want the country to be a better place. These are qualities we need in members of Congress.

We’re fortunate here in New Jersey’s Third Congressional District to have such a candidate running on the Democratic ticket. Aimee Belgard is a defense attorney by profession, but has spent most of her adult life as a volunteer executive for the American Cancer Society. She has raised funds for medical research and patient care. Certainly this has required persuasion skills, persistence, and the ability to show people what’s in it for them. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if such qualities could be brought to the House of Representatives?

Belgard has also demonstrated these skills as an elected official in her role as a member of the county board of Freeholders. As one of only two Democrats on a five-member board, she has shown her ability to work with the GOP majority, strive for common ground, and make significant accomplishments. In fact, her GOP counterparts have given her the ultimate complement – they have taken credit for several of the programs that Belgard has initiated.

So be wary when a candidate tells you he’ll run the country like a business. That’s like an NFL tackle telling you he’ll remove your spleen. It can be done, but there are unpleasant consequences.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

#1More DCCC Mistake

I guess you could say I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. I'm an elected Democratic committeeperson and I honestly can't find any Republican worthy of consideration for my vote. But when the Democrats deserve criticism, I'll dish it out to them, too.

In their latest gimmick to harvest voter names and e-mails and to increase interest in this off-year election, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is asking people to fill out pledge cards promising to vote in November. They hope to get one million people to fill out these cards. (Image of the cards is below.)

On the card, the DCCC lists a number of issues for people to check off to express the issues that they care about. Conspicuously absent from their multiple-choice list is the issue that's arguably the most important - the environment. Sure, there's an "Other" category, but relegating breathable air and clean water to "other" sends the wrong message. We are living at a time where anthropogenic climate change can either be addressed or can usurp our ability to lead productive and fulfilling lives. If we don't take bold action now, the other issues enumerated on the DCCC's card become moot.

Given the Republicans' antipathy toward science and their quasi-religious denial of all of the evidence, the environment is an issue that Democrats should jump on, not relegate to the back burner. Everyone - Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Tea Partiers, and Whigs - has to breathe and drink. This should be an issue that transcends party politics. And, by the way, it's a great job creator and stimulator of the economy. C'mon DCCC. Take advantage of the GOP's ignorance and frame the environment not as an "other" issue, but as a keystone issue to rally voters around.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

There's No Such Thing as an Off Year Election

Most Americans focus on the quadrennial Presidential election, and even there, only on the top of the ballot. By doing so, they abdicate their responsibilities as citizens and then bitch and moan about government.

Off-year elections and down-ballot positions are critically important – not just for the term of those being selected to serve, but also for years to come – especially in New Jersey where we elect our governor and legislature in odd-numbered years. Let’s take a look at past and future elections to see how they have an impact well beyond the terms of the winners.

2013: This is the Mother of All Election Screw Ups for the Democrats. After four years of mismanagement, bombast, and chicanery, Chris Christie – a Republican governor in a Democratic state – should have been more vulnerable. Yet, every viable Democrat but one decided, at best, not to run; and at worst decided to support Christie because they were afraid of the bully’s retaliation. Cory Booker, who once said he never shrank from a challenge, decided to sit this one out and opt for a Senate seat instead. Booker, whose claim to fame is running into burning buildings to save cats, decided not to use his charisma, intelligence, and political capital to save the state from four more years of economic and environmental mismanagement. Steve Sweeney, whose desire to inhabit Drumthwacket is well known, decided to wait four years and take the easier path by running for an open seat. Barbara Buono was the only Democrat with the chutzpah to challenge Christie, but the national and state Democratic parties who were reluctant to put money into a tough race summarily dismissed her and poured all their resources into the only other gubernatorial race that year.

2014: This year, with no statewide elections, attention turns to the Federal level. The retirement of Rush Holt, one of the best congressmen today, while disappointing, will have little effect on the political landscape. His sure-thing replacement, Bonnie Watson Coleman, will bring more diversity to the New Jersey congressional delegation, and her voting record will be similar to Holt’s. But there is a bellwether election in the Third District, where Republican Jon Runyan decided to hang up his congressional cleats. This is one of the few seats in the country that is flippable, and Democrat Aimee Belgard has an excellent chance to wrest control from the Tea Party influences that tarnish New Jersey politics.

Currently, Belgard is one of two Democrats on the five-member Burlington County Freeholder board. With two open seats this year, the Democrats have a chance to control the board for the first time in decades. Up until now, with only token opposition, the Republican-controlled board has become very adept at awarding no-bid contracts to their political donors, and treat the county taxpayer as their personal plaything. The importance of this “off-year” election to Burlington County voters cannot be overstated. No doubt, there are similar stories in other county races this year.

2015: In this “off-year”, the entire State Assembly is up for election. But there won’t be any surprises. Successful gerrymandering in 2010 will keep the incumbents in power unless they are tarnished by a scandal that exceeds the normal New Jersey tolerance for misdeeds.

2016: Without a statewide Senatorial election, most of the attention will be on the race to succeed Barack Obama. As we have seen in the last few years, presidential elections have tremendous impact even after the chief executive leaves office. The radical extremists that Republican presidents put on the Supreme Court years ago are a threat to marriage equality and other civil rights. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Republicans are successful in overturning the 1964 “one man, one vote” ruling, given the current Court.

Chris Christie will not be on the ballot, but will continue to position himself for a future run. Again, with gerrymandering, most of New Jersey’s congressional districts should be safe for incumbents.

2017: Another critical off-year election for New Jersey. In fact, the race for governor has already started on the Democratic side, with several contenders positioning themselves for a statewide run. And the entire legislature – Assembly and Senate – will be up for election.  But there’s more. The new governor and the legislature that will be elected in 2019 will set the stage for the decennial redistricting. If trends continue, it’s possible that New Jersey will lose one more seat in Congress, but even if we don’t, congressional and legislative districts for elections through 2021 will be greatly influenced on the outcome of those years’ elections.

Before we sent American soldiers to fight and die for Halliburton and other corporate interests, we once sent American soldiers to fight and die for our right to vote. And that fight was not limited to overseas battles. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner, among others, died so that you, I, and your neighbors could vote. We can honor their lives not just by voting, but also by getting the complacent voters that we live with more involved and participatory. 

cross-posted from

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Let’s Eliminate Another Vestige of Gender Discrimination

Discrimination based on gender identity has been around a long time, even before the days of our Founding “Fathers.” While laws have been passed to ostensibly eliminate this discrimination, actions have been slow and inconsistent. We still don’t have an Equal Rights Amendment, women are typically paid less than men, and individuals who don’t fit into the binary male/female taxonomy, but rather live somewhere along or outside that spectrum, suffer even more discrimination.

Yet, in one area of New Jersey politics, we institutionalize that discrimination. Most county political committees elect two people from each election district and party. One position is designated for a “male” and the other for a “female.” It’s time to get rid of this anachronism.

Even ignoring the issues regarding the sexual spectrum, it’s simply not a good idea to restrict holding elective office to members who identify with a particular gender. If the best people to hold those positions in a district are two men, two women, or two individuals who identify as something else, why not allow them to vie for these positions?

Facebook has acknowledged that gender identification is not binary and allows its users to self-identify across a wide spectrum. It’s time to eliminate the “male” and “female” designation in the selection and election of county committeepeople.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Governor Corbett's Priorities

There were two school tragedies in the Delaware Valley this week. Young students in Philadelphia and Mount Laurel died while at school in two separate incidents. Both deaths appear to be due to natural causes.

Like most schools, the one that was attended by the first grader in Philadelphia was suffering from budget cuts. They had cut back on the services of a school nurse by making that a part-time position. The nurse was not on duty when the youngster in the South Philadelphia school stopped breathing.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett berated the unions for pointing out this fact. He used the occasion to bash the union for “politicizing” a tragedy. Corbett has his priorities wrong. Unions exist for more than assurance of fair wages. Unions promote safe working conditions and the overall welfare of people in the work environment. It was Corbett who politicized this event.

It seems like we have tons of money to put policemen in schools to keep the children safe from guns. But there’s no money to have full-time nurses to help with children’s health and be there for emergencies? Mr. Corbett is not the only one to have his priorities out of order.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Drill, Baby, Drill

No one likes going to the dentist. But it’s smart to get periodic dental checkups and taking care of any problems. It’s something we pay for, maybe grudgingly, but most people do it.

No one enjoys paying taxes either. But most Democrats, at least, understand that, like dental checkups, paying taxes is necessary to maintain a decent quality of life.

That’s why I will never vote for candidates whose platform is simply based on reducing taxes, especially if they refuse to provide a definitive list of services that they will cut and the impact of those cuts. Among the many candidates who pursue this nonsensical approach are the two GOP candidates for Congress in New Jersey’s Third District, Steve Lonegan and Tom MacArthur.

It’s legitimate to grouse about how the current tax system is structured and how the funds are distributed. I do that all the time. I hate that my tax money goes to Chris Christie’s self-promotion, enriching his cronies like AshBritt, and to corporate welfare. I’d rather see my tax dollars invested in our children, our infrastructure, and our environment – all areas that will boost our economy in the long run. And if a candidate runs on a platform that would modestly increase taxes and gives good rationale on why that’s necessary, I would consider giving that person my vote.

Overall, taxes today are lower than they have been for the last half-century. And we are paying for decades of Republican disdain for government and jingoistic discourses on taxation. Our infrastructure is crumbling. We are not making the investments that our parents and grandparents did. I doubt that the Apollo moon-landing program (whose ancillary technology and biomedical benefits are tremendous) could have happened with the attitude that our so-called leaders have today. Nor would we have had the Interstate Highway System (a Republican initiative) that we take for granted today. Medical research is suffering, as is our environment. The long-term costs of this lack of investment will haunt generations to come.

So if a candidate espouses a knee-jerk policy of tax reduction without an honest evaluation of the consequences, I can guarantee he or she will not get my support. Life is full of trade-offs, and candidates must tell us where they stand. If they want to eat tons of candy and skip the dentist, they don’t deserve to represent us.