Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tragedy on the Banks

The media coverage of the death of first-year Rutgers student Tyler Clementi includes parceling out the blame for this tragedy among fellow students, the ubiquity and spontaneity of the internet, and the pervasiveness of bullying and harassment among teen agers.  Yet one important factor is underreported.

Tyler Clementi was the victim of what Garden State Equality’s CEO Steven Goldstein correctly categorizes as a Hate Crime.  Allegedly, Mr. Clementi’s roommate and another accomplice surreptitiously broadcast video of Mr. Clementi having a homosexual encounter in his dorm room.  Once this was revealed, it may have led Mr. Clementi to commit suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.  Sadly, this was not an isolated incident.

In their reporting of the Clementi affair, the media unsurprisingly include the lurid details of the web video and the suicide jump.  Some, such as the article by Amy Ellis Nutt, provide some background on other crimes where the internet and social media have been used as an enabler.  Some articles discuss the growing scourge of cyberbullying – taking the unjustifiable but traditional teen age rite of passage to a new and more dangerous level.

So yes, the internet provides the bully with a platform that amplifies and spreads his message at the speed of light.  No graffiti artist ever had such a powerful tool.  Bullying, harassment, and hate crimes have been with us for a long time, and now that these internet tools exist, more needs to (and is) being done to raise awareness among parents and teen agers.

Yet, there’s another powerful insidious enabler that does nothing to mitigate these hate crimes – the so-called “mainstream media.”  It’s no surprise that Fox “News” would equate being gay with terrorism, but even the so-called “liberal” MSNBC uses language that fuels the fire.  

When institutions like the Asbury Park Press, the Star-Ledger, and Comcast Newsmakers provide space for columnists who cheer the death of physicians who provide women’s health services, they are providing platforms for more of these hate-mongers.  This is not a freedom of speech issue.  Imagine the outcry if the Star Ledger published an op-ed by Jeremiah Wright or Lewis Farrakhan.  While the Fourth Estate has the responsibility to report facts, it also is part of society’s moral compass and must realize that, like with the struggle for race equality, the struggle for LBGT rights is more than legislation and court decisions.  Segregationists don’t get air time and op-ed space in legitimate media.  Neither should anti-gay hate mongers.

So, Tyler, wherever you are today, we shed a tear for you and for an America that is not yet the “shining beacon” of equality to which we should all aspire.  And as a Rutgers alumnus, I feel especially sad that such a talented young man did not have the opportunity to thrive on the banks of the old Raritan.  Some day this madness will end, and you will be remembered as one of the foot soldiers who helped make that happen.  Rest in Peace.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ten Fundamental Truths that the Tea Party Needs to Understand

  1. The IRS is not evil.
  2. You can support the troops while still be against the war.
  3. Labor unions are not evil.
  4. It’s easy to compare someone you don’t like to Hilter, Attila the Hun, or Pee Wee Herman.  Why not look for people you could compare to Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, or Jesus Christ.
  5. America is not a Christian nation. 
  6. Who my neighbor chooses as a life partner is not my concern, and will never impact the sanctity and wonder of my marriage.
  7. People have souls.  Corporations do not.  Hence, corporations are not people.
  8. Free, quality public education is a cornerstone of American society.
  9. We can differ on opinion.  We can’t differ on facts – even if Fox “News” says so.
  10. Yes, you are your brother’s keeper. 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Tale of Three Executives

  1. Billionaire Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spends $100 million of his own money to help school kids in Newark.
  2. Billionaire ex-EBay CEO Meg Whitman spends $119 million of her own money to buy the governorship of California.
  3. Millionaire New Jersey CEO Chris Christie blows $400 million in Federal dollars by abrogating an agreement between his Education Commissioner and the Teacher's Union.  Then he has the chutzpah to go on Oprah and bask in Zuckerberg's generosity.
So the 26-year old is more fiscally responsible than his older peers.  Maybe there's hope for this country.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Seeing Red

Acting New Jersey Governor Kim Guadagno’s executive order establishing a bi-partisan commission to reduce red tape is a feel-good exercise in futility.  While the commission will certainly meet the GOP’s goal of eliminating some of those pesky regulations which help consumers and the non-wealthy, it will be ineffective in making a significant dent in the burgeoning state budget.

The nine-member commission, to be headed by no other than the same Kim Guadagno, will review “administrative rules and regulations, which the administration says can have an impact on job creation, investment and economic growth” according to the Press of Atlantic City.  That would be a great approach if we were living in the 1950s.  Over the past half-century, better techniques for elimination of bureaucratic waste have been proven more effective and efficient. 

Why won’t it work?  There are two reasons, which I categorize as “buy-in” and “institutionalization.”

Like it or not, red tape is there for a reason.  That doesn’t make it right, but when the state is spending public dollars, some controls are necessary.  Chances are, a lot of the red tape was instituted by well-intentioned state employees who are doing their job as fiscal stewards of our tax dollars, but despite their good intentions, once the bureaucratic red tape is in place, it provides a false set of comfort and control for those implementing state policies.

So if this high-level nine-member commission, which by definition is divorced from the day-to-day workings of a department within state government, comes up with a method to reduce red tape and unnecessary paperwork, there will certainly be some short-term benefits.  But without the buy-in from those entrusted to implement these processes, these benefits will be ephemeral.  Change to established processes is not easy, given that the employees who are implementing those processes generally have been successful in their careers by using those established techniques.  In order for the improvements to be more than a short-term fad, the underlying changes must be institutionalized – that is, they must become second nature to those who are working with them.  This requires a culture change of all the stakeholders and is neither easy nor quick.  But there are a lot of proven techniques that will allow this to happen over the course of a few years while still reaping some of the benefits almost immediately.

Guadagno’s order establishes a permanent commission with periodic reviews (which certainly will be non-value-added), hardly a red-tape killer.  Her approach perpetuates the odor of mistrust between the Governor’s office and state employees.  So what would be a better way?

Republicans are always pontificating that government should be run like a business.  I can guarantee that the CEO of any business that establishes a similar approach as Guadagno’s would be on the street faster than you could say Carly Fiorina.  Businesses today have embraced a series of techniques that fall under the moniker of Lean/Six-Sigma.  The reason that these techniques have been successful (when properly used) is that they get all of the stakeholders involved in designing, implementing, and institutionalizing the process changes.  Extrapolating to state government, this would include not only “executive management” (the nine-member commission), but also a select sample from middle managers and employees – down to the lowest pay grade – to customers (i.e. the taxpayers), and others who are consumers of the specific agency’s processes.  Real improvement and real culture change will involve a long-term commitment to state employees, including training, evaluation based on effectiveness of change, and most importantly participation in defining the changes in how they do their jobs.

The Guadagno Commission looks to me like a wolf in sheep’s clothing – a way to eliminate the regulations that are abhorrent to the GOP.  But it does little to benefit taxpayers or our agents – the state employees who live with this every day.  A firm commitment to long-term improvement, using proven business techniques, is a better solution.  But it’s harder and doesn’t result in self-aggrandizing headlines. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

One Step Forward - One Step Backward

Today is a significant day in the quest for access to health care for all Americans.  While it is the day when the first of several insurance reforms take effect at the federal level, we are also seeing the immediate impact of Governor Christie’s mean-spirited veto of women’s health care.

On the national scene, several provisions of the Affordable Care Act go into effect including forbidding denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions in children (unfortunately the same reform does not go into effect for adults for a few more years), elimination of lifetime coverage limits so that families can cope with catastrophic illness with one less thing to worry about, a common-sense approach to inadvertent errors on insurance applications to avert frivolous policy cancellation at the time patients are most vulnerable, coverage of children on parents’ policy  until age 26 which is a must in today’s challenging job environment, and an emphasis on preventative medicine which will drive down costs.  Other provisions are phased in through 2014. While not as good as a single-payer not-for-profit insurance approach, we should celebrate this small victory in today’s toxic political environment.

Meanwhile, here in New Jersey, several women’s health clinics have announced their closing or reduction in hours because our governor would rather balance the budget on the backs of the poor and middle class than tax millionaires.  The $7.5 million for health care that he vetoed is a pittance in the $29 billion state budget and much less than the impact of the tax cut for the very wealthy.  Maybe if instead of flying to Chicago and congratulating himself on Oprah, the governor should scrub the budget, reconsider the breaks for the wealthy, and solve this problem.  While Governor Christie touts his “right-to-life” credentials, I wonder how many lives will be lost and families destroyed due to these senseless actions.  

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ask, Tell - Part Deux

Part une is here.

I don’t understand the Senate.  Especially the Democrats in it.
The headline on Huffington Post this evening reads GOP Filibusters Repeal Of Gay Military Ban.  But that’s not accurate.  A filibuster occurs when Senators take to the floor and endlessly pontificate on the merits or issues with a proposed piece of legislation.  The Republicans Tea Party did not filibuster.  They just used their 40 vote minority to block an important piece of legislation.

Given that nothing gets done in the Senate these days anyway, the Democrats should have forced the GOP into a real filibuster.  Keeping the Senators in Washington through Election Day.  Going at it 24/7 on C-SPAN.  Forcing the Republicans to explain why, while we are fighting two wars, we fire qualified Arabic linguists and combat pilots in whom we have invested millions in training.  Forcing the Republicans to explain why these brave young men and women are coerced into hiding who they are or risk being kicked out of the military.

All of the arguments that the Republicans are using are the same ones that were around in the opening days of World War II against African-Americans – the “other” would be a detriment to unit cohesion.  The “other” would not be able to perform his or her duties.  The “other” would be a distraction to the fighting forces.  Democrats should use the filibuster to their advantage by having the Republicans explain their Neanderthal, blatantly un-American, and increasingly unpopular position on national television.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Witches Brew - HaHa

Liberal talk radio is having a field day with mainstream Republican senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell’s admission that she dabbled in witchcraft a decade or so ago.  The talking heads are suggesting that Ms. O’Donnell secure the services of exorcist-turned-governor Bobby Jindal to “cure” her of this malady.

There’s a lot to discuss about Christine O’Donnell, but liberals should know better that religion is not one of them.  She has just as much right practicing Wicca as millions of American Muslims have practicing Islam (although I suspect many of her ardent followers would disagree with the latter.)

There’s enough known about Ms. O’Donnell to conclude that she is eminently unqualified to represent Delaware in the United States Senate, not the least of which is her alleged criminal activity regarding misuse of campaign funds.  Her major qualification is that the former Moorestown, NJ resident was a baby sitter for the daughter of a close friend.

So let Ms. O’Donnell continue her tirades against sex, women, individual rights, and whatever other bogeyman she chooses.  And hope the sane voters in Delaware go to the polls on November 2nd.  But liberals must be consistent with their philosophy, and leave her personal religion out of the campaign discussions. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

John Adler (R-NJ)

Cross-posted from Blue Jersey

Imagine this scenario.  Freshman Democratic Congressman John Adler defeats footballer Jon Runyan in the November election.  This is plausible because even though New Jersey’s Third District has been gerrymandered to make it a “safe” district for the GOP, Adler has significantly more money with which to campaign, and Runyan is weak on the important issues.  Now, also imagine that nationally, the Republicans take control of the House.

If this scenario were to come to pass, the best thing John Adler could do is to switch parties and become a Republican.  Certainly, his first term voting record mirrors what would have been the voting pattern of his predecessor, long-term moderate GOP Congressman Jim Saxton.  Like Adler, Saxton would probably have voted against health care and would have supported the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  Also, given the fact that New Jersey’s redistricting based on the 2010 census will be controlled by Chris Christie’s cronies, it is a safe bet that this district will once again be gerrymandered favorably for Republicans.  Switching parties would be a safe bet for Adler to retain his seat for several more terms under this scenario.

This sequence of events would not only benefit John Adler, but it would benefit the District as a whole.   With a GOP majority in Congress, a Republican Adler would be better positioned to promote programs and earmarks that would bring jobs, funding, and other benefits to Burlington and Ocean Counties.  He would still be a minority within his own (new) party because even though he votes more like a Republican, he has not partaken of the Tea Party Kool Aid.  The more moderate Republicans who are sent to Congress (as opposed to Tea Party Republicans), the better off we all will be.  And if Mr. Adler does switch parties after the election, it leaves room for a progressive Democrat to run in 2012, giving voters of the Third District a real choice.

I hope Adler wins; after all, he’s (barely) the lesser of two evils.  And I hope that the Democrats retain control of the House – otherwise this nation is in deep shit.  But if the Democrats do lose, and Adler does win, we are all better off if he honestly admits that he’s a moderate Republican and switches to the GOP.

Friday, September 17, 2010

War (What is it Good for?)

War (What is it Good for?) is a song made popular by Motown artist Edwin Starr and later performed by Bruce Springsteen.

For most of my adulthood, the United States has been in a perpetual state of war.  From LBJ’s foray into Viet Nam to Reagan’s short war in Grenada to the Bush family’s never-ending wars in the Middle East, wars have been part of American life and their impact will be felt for years to come.  Unlike World War II which was my parents’ war, my wars have generally not had a direct impact on me or my family.  I was in the Army in the early 70s, but was lucky enough not to be sent to the war zone.  Thankfully, no close friends or relatives were killed in these wars.  So the only impact to me is hidden – higher taxes for me and my offspring to pay for these overseas adventures.  For today’s generation the impact is even less – wars are paid for by credit card bookkeeping, and with no draft, young men and women can opt out of the direct sacrifices that wars necessitate.

Wars have many facets, and these can be broken down into three components – scientific, political, and societal.

The scientific component is, of course, is the main purview of the oddly-named Defense Department.  It consists of the strategy and tactics not only to execute the wars that we are in today, but also to plan for just about any war you can think about in the future.

The political component is where wars are planned, started, and occasionally ended.  Centered in the State Department, it consists of forging alliances – sometimes with friends, sometimes with enemies – and is driven by economics as much or more than by ideology.

Finally, there’s the societal component.  Due to the urgency and focus in executing a war’s tactics, wars tend to act as an impetus or a catalyst on changes in a society’s customs.  We saw this in World War II, where Rosie the Riveter and the Tuskegee Airmen jump started the acceptance of women and African-Americans into the workplace and integrated society, respectively.  Today, we are observing a similar phenomenon.  Just like during World War II, when many military leaders were opposed to training African-American airmen, today some in the military are opposed to allowing gays and lesbians to serve their country.  Today’s “Don’t Ask – Don’t Tell” policy is just as egregious as the “separate but equal” segregation of the Air Corps’ pilot training in the 1940s.  But as flawed as they are, these are steps that society has found necessary to segue into full equality.  We are on the verge of eliminating the scourge of DADT, and heroes and role models will emerge from the gay community’s actions in our society, just as heroic leaders like General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr emerged from the ill-named Tuskegee Experiment.

The repeal of DADT won’t guarantee full equality for gays and lesbians, just as the Civil Rights Act which passed 20 years after the end of World War II was not a panacea for equal rights for African-Americans.  However, it’s a start.  The struggle for equal rights is another never-ending war.  But it’s one worth fighting.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

New Jersey Needs S1872 Like it Needs More Traffic

Cross-posted to Blue Jersey

No one on any point of the political spectrum disagrees with the contention that New Jersey's public education system is in trouble.  Once the model to which other states would aspire, today our public schools are severely underfunded and the schools’ dependence on an unfair property tax revenue stream exacerbates the situation.  The recent cuts imposed by the Christie administration have compounded the problem by taking an additional one billion dollars from the education of our children.  So why would the New Jersey legislature consider a bill that takes another $360 million from public schools without improving education?  And is unconstitutional as well?

Yet, that is exactly what is happening in the Garden State.  There is a bill in the legislative pipeline, S1872, with the misnomer of the “Opportunity Scholarship Act”, which would be more accurately titled the “Aid to Religious Schools Act.”

If passed, the bill will take much-needed funds from public schools and provide parents with vouchers that can be used to pay for private schools.  Because over 80% of the New Jersey schools in this category are religious schools, this will result in unconstitutional funding of religious institutions.  But that's just the tip of the iceberg of the problems with S1872.

The bill would allow private corporations to receive tax credits in order to fund the program.  This is a roundabout way of avoiding direct government payout to religious institutions, but every dollar of tax credit is another dollar taken from New Jersey taxpayers.  And do we really want private corporations influencing our children's curricula?

Despite its name as a “Scholarship Act”, the primary purpose of the bill is to provide taxpayer dollars to religious schools.  This is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  That clause mandates the separation of government activities from those of religious institutions.  Both government and religion benefit from this wall of separation.  Not only should taxpayers not be forced to support religious institutions, but those institutions should not be subject to many of the legal constraints that come with government funding if those constraints conflict with religious tenets.  Public schools are required to hire teachers regardless of their religion (or atheism, for that matter).  Government funding would require Catholic schools to do the same, for example.

The authors of the bill anticipate that there may not be enough money in the bill to accommodate everyone who would like to participate.  So the bill includes a lottery system for that contingency.  If one accepts the false argument that voucher schools would be of better quality than public schools, this scheme would be in opposition to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education which declared that “separate but equal” is unconstitutional.

If S1872 is enacted into law, it is certain to face challenges to its constitutionality.  This would lead to a long and protracted series of trials up to and including the Supreme Court.  New Jersey can ill afford the legal expense to defend this foolish bill when in today’s economy every dollar of taxpayer money should be utilized for value-added services.

Besides the illegal government funding of religion, there are other serious problems with the bill.  Unlike public schools, voucher schools will not be required to provide a full range of educational services to severely handicapped children.  Because the law specifies that private schools must accept the voucher as the full amount of tuition, and because kids with special needs are more expensive to accommodate, there is a disincentive for those schools to accept their enrollment.  This is yet another case of “separate but unequal.”

Under the proposed law, if a child is expelled from a voucher school for any reason, the public school must accept that student even though the voucher school retains the remaining “scholarship” dollars.  Also, some of the problems with public education are due to uninterested or unmotivated parents.  These are the parents who typically would not make the effort to secure vouchers for their children’s education in the first place.  These two factors compound the added burden on the already financially strained public schools.

The proposed program would be a five-year pilot with oversight by an “Opportunity Scholarship Board” whose members would be appointed by politicians.  The board would be required to commission a study on the effectiveness of the pilot program and would be allowed to raise private funds (i.e. from special interest groups) to pay for that study.  Maybe the fox guarding the hen house is de rigueur in New Jersey.

For many families, religious education is an important aspect of a child’s upbringing.  There are ample opportunities for this – including after-school or weekend programs – all run by and funded by the religious institutions that can provide this teaching without government intervention.

Our Founding Fathers recognized the uniqueness of America by codifying the separation of government and religion in our Constitution.  Not only does the New Jersey Constitution reiterate this tenet, but when it comes to education, it states: “The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.”  The emphasis on “free”, “public”, and “all” are mine.  Where we fall short today is in the words “thorough” and “efficient”.  S1872 does nothing to advance the cause of better education for our kids.  Neither does our Governor’s war on teachers.  The voucher bill should be defeated, and our legislators’ energies and taxpayer’s funds would be better directed to improving public education to make New Jersey stronger and more competitive in the years to come.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Why the Republicans Will Win Big in November...

…and What it Means for America

Dick Polman, one of my favorite columnists, recently penned an article entitled “Making a case that maybe all isn't lost for the Democrats.”  In that column, he argues that the poll numbers showing huge GOP gains may be premature and that the Democrats have a bigger war chest than their opponents.  As much as I often agree with Mr. Polman (and I do agree with his assertion that no matter how bad the Democrats are, the GOP is worse), I’m afraid he is wrong in his assessment of the November elections.  There are several factors in play that give the advantage to the Grand Old Tea Party:

They Control the Messaging

Republicans excel at Newspeak – simplification of complex issues, asserting things that are downright wrong as facts, and getting away with it.  Advocating tax cuts sounds attractive, but history has shown that under Republican regimes, taxes have gone up, while under Democratic administrations, real income has increased.  Nevertheless, the general public remains transfixed with the GOP mantra of tax cuts, while still coveting their government services.  The Republicans are also adept at labeling their initiatives with a positive light (“pro-life”, “PATRIOT Act”, etc.), while Democrats pick nerdy and uninteresting labels like “stimulus package” instead of “jobs package.”

Since the Republicans message is entirely negative, they have cleverly cultivated their bogeywoman in Nancy Pelosi.  They exploit the prevailing animosity against powerful women (as they did against Hillary Clinton in the 90s), and have successfully managed to make “liberal” a dirty word.  This despite the fact that Speaker Pelosi, while a liberal in her job as a representative of California’s 8th District, has conducted her role as Speaker in a more centrist fashion.  In the first months of her role as Speaker, she took both single-payer healthcare and investigation of the Bush Crime Family off the table.  She was able to negotiate a coalition of liberals and blue dog conservatives in completing the first phase of health insurance reform.

They Control the Media

Notwithstanding the fact that “Fair and Balanced” Fox “News” is neither fair, balanced, nor news, its ceaseless propaganda for the Party of Tea is inundating the American public with Anti-Obama rhetoric bordering on condoning violence.  Even legitimate “mainstream” media gets snookered by the righties as evidenced by their over-the-top coverage of the anti-Koran minister and their legitimization of extreme candidates throughout the 24/7 news cycle.  I doubt if a far-left candidate like Dick Gregory was in the 60s would receive as much coverage in the “mainstream” media as does Christine O’Donnell, running on an anti-masturbation platform in Delaware.

The Economy Still Sucks

It took George Bush eight years to ruin the American economy through his ill-advised tax cuts and trade policies and treasury-emptying wars of choice (granted – some of this started under Bill Clinton, but under Bubba we had surpluses, under Dubya ,nothing but debt).  It will take at least as long to rebuild the economy, especially given the obstructionist Republican and Blue Dog Democrats in the Congress.  But voters have short memories and are impatient, and somehow expect a change in leadership, even believing that returning to those who got us into this mess, is better than steady, albeit slow,  progress that we have seen in the last two years.

They Control the Voting Machines

Remember all of the cases of voting machine fraud in previous elections?  Much has been traced back to companies run by big Republican donors.  Yet, nothing has been done.  No independent non-partisan verification of voting machine software.  And don’t discount the recent arson at a voting machine warehouse in Houston – where the Democratic candidate for governor is counting on urban votes.  I’m sure that whatever workaround the Houston election commission develops will result in long lines and primarily Democratic voters either being turned away or just not voting out of frustration.

Progressive Apathy

The enthusiasm we saw among new and progressive voters in the 2008 election was a once-in-a-generation event.  To some, this was a reincarnation of JFK’s Camelot.  But quickly, a combination of the vitriol spewed by the right wing and the inability of Barack Obama to capitalize on his bully pulpit managed to turn off this excitement in record time.  There’s a parallel here in New Jersey’s Third Congressional District.   In 2008, a “liberal” state senator, John Alder, was elected to Congress and became the first Democrat to represent this region in over 100 years.   Yet, his voting record has been that of a moderate Republican and despite the fact that his 2010 opponent is a Tea Party acolyte with absolutely no relevant experience, Harvard-educated Adler is in trouble and will probably lose.  This is due to his inability to excite the same progressive base that got him elected in the first place.  I’m afraid that a large number of Democratic voters are fed up with their party and will sit out these important mid-term elections.

So, I’m sorry Mr. Polman, but your rosy predictions for the Democrats are all wrong – but the last two paragraphs in your column are probably your admission of the perils that the Democrats face, also.

So look for hard times ahead under a Republican congress which will magnify their stated goal of obstructing every Obama initiative – even those that were copied from Republican ideas.  Add to this shutdowns of vital government services and Congressman Issa’s promise for endless unproductive investigations – up to and including impeachment proceedings.  We have seen this all before – this is just Newt 2.0.  But what will be new this time, and infinitely more devastating, is the amplification of the Republican’s implicit sanctioning of discrimination and harassment of minorities like Muslims, African Americans, gays, and lesbians.  There are tough times ahead for America.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Why Does Chris Christie Hate First Responders?

We just went through our annual trauma of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Among those killed and injured were hundreds of police, firefighters, and EMTs. All are heroes. Yet, in the name of “ethics reform”, our governor has just punched them in the gut, along with exhibiting similar disrespect for other public employees like teachers, public defenders, and park maintenance personnel – to name a few.

Christie’s proposal would bar any state or local employee from running for public office. His rationale is to avoid a conflict of interest and to ensure that the employee is getting paid for work actually performed. This is a typical simplistic Christie solution for a not-so-simple problem.

Yes, there is a potential conflict of interest when a teacher or police officer in elected office has to vote on issues relating to his or her profession. But the same is true for any legislator – whether he or she is an attorney, insurance broker, or even a retiree. We must demand that legislators recuse themselves from issues that have a direct financial bearing on their profession, but no profession should be excluded from elected office. We need a diverse set of professions in our legislatures – not just lawyers like Mr. Christie.

The issue of “double-dipping” is also specious. Salaried or “exempt” employees are compensated on a fixed basis, and typically work overtime to get their jobs done. All exempt employee in the legislature would be evaluated in their primary jobs by their supervisors, and treated accordingly. Non-exempt, or hourly employees, would simply not get paid for the time away from their primary jobs, while receiving compensation from their government branch.

Working as a legislator, mayor, or other public position is not easy. Constituents are never happy, and problems with budgets abound. We need the “best and brightest” in these important positions, and we should not shut out an entire class of people simply based on their chosen profession. So as long as we have a part-time legislature, we should allow professional first responders and other public servants the opportunity to serve in elected positions.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Democracy for a Price

This coming Monday, Congressman John Adler and Footballer Jon Runyan will meet for what is billed as a "Congressional Candidates Forum."  The event is sponsored by the Burlington County Chamber of Commerce.

Growing up in the '50's and '60's, I was schooled in the idealized version of American democracy.  Representatives were supposed to be directly connected to the people and pre-election activities were open to all.  But Monday's debate is not.  It will be held in a fancy hotel in Mount Laurel, and for those who are not members of the Chamber of Commerce, there's a $40 fee for attendance.  And according to the Chamber's web site, sponsors for the debate are the Health Care industry and the Insurance Industry.  Don't expect much push-back discussion on topics that require these industries to better serve their customers.

The Chamber has every right to charge for such an event.  But the candidates have a responsibility to also make themselves available to the public at large, not just businesspeople on expense accounts.  As far as I know, the only other face-to-face debates between Adler and Runyan have been behind the closed doors of radio and television studios.

I applaud both men for agreeing to debates.  While neither one, in my mind, even approaches the type of representative I would like to have in Washington, there are still stark differences between the two, and the more debates they have, the better.  But we need make our representatives more accessible to the entire population of the Third District of New Jersey.  Gentlemen, how about a series of weekly debates, sponsored by non profits, in public venues around the District where any citizen can afford to participate?

This is cross-posted from Blue Jersey.  Since I posted it this morning, I called both the Adler and Runyan campaign offices.  Actually, I couldn't call Adler's office because his campaign web site does not have a phone number, so I e-mailed instead, waiting for a response.   Runyan's office was not much more helpful, although they did indicate that there would be a debate on an Ocean County radio station on October 19th.  No one at the station could give me any information or knew if the debate would be open to the public. They suggested calling back Monday, which I will do.

If anyone has other information on open debates for NJ-3, please post it here.  And I'll let you know what I find out from the two campaigns, also.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Guns or Soup

They closed a neighborhood library in Camden yesterday.  Camden – one of New Jersey’s most disadvantaged cities – bearing the brunt of the Bush Recession and the Christie Depredation with an order of magnitude more grief than most of us.

They say that nature abhors a vacuum, and the vacuum created for the children in that neighborhood by the closing of the Fairview Branch library will be filled by drug dealers, gangs, and other nefarious forces.  So by closing the library, Camden residents will be forced to spend more on the already overworked police department and judicial system.

Many Camden teens will lose their only access to the Internet – vital in this day and age to secure even the most low-paying jobs.  Younger children will miss out on the joy of reading – exploring real and imaginary worlds to spark their desire and commitment to a better life, not to mention losing tools that foster better academic performance.  The neighborhood, which has been coming together over the last decade, will lose a gathering place that helps advance that cohesion.  And while the library staff, which consists of two employees, will be transferred to other branches, it’s only a matter of time before they or their colleagues will join the ranks of the unemployed, as the other branches in Camden are on track to close also.

The entire budget shortfall (not just the libraries) for the City of Camden is $28 million.  That’s how much we spend on the war in Iraq in four hours.   Despite the fact that the recovery of one of New Jersey’s most historic cities is vastly more important than the oil wars in the Middle East, it impractical to just stop the war for four hours to make up the shortfall.  But we could stop the war for good, and use those funds to revitalize Camden, and the scores of other urban areas and their people who represent the future of America.  Where are our priorities?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Non-Political Rant (sort of)

Since this blog started almost a year ago, I have posted my opinion, rants, and epithets on issues mostly political.  But, hey – it’s my blog – I can talk about anything I want to.

Today, I had two separate medical appointments – one at a lab and the other at a doctor’s office.  Nothing serious – just routine stuff for an old curmudgeon.  And this blog posting is not about our health care system.

Both waiting rooms today had a common feature, blaring televisions that no one was paying any attention to.  I guess these televisions are there to supplement the 8-month old dog-eared issues of Golf Digest which seem to spawn in this environment.

Even for routine, benign treatment, no one likes to visit the doctor.  And this unpleasantness is exacerbated by being forced to hear Regis Philbin and watching laxative commercials.  Ironically, there are big signs on the TV sets reading “for the patient’s convenience, please do not adjust the set.”

How about making doctors’ waiting rooms a “No TV Zone”?  It would do wonders in reducing patient’s blood pressure.  Take out all of those expensive flat screen TVs and donate them to schools that could put them to better use.

Of course, it could be worse than Regis blaring in your ear.  Imagine the torture of being stuck in a doctor’s office with a television permanently set to Fox “News”.

Monday, September 6, 2010

This Time, Obama Got it Right

Today, President Obama announced a $50 Billion stimulus package to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure.  While less than one-tenth of the size of the original stimulus, this initiative has the potential of preventing a slide back into the Bush Recession.

The original stimulus package was enacted over a year and a half ago, and while it was sorely needed, it was also top-heavy with tax cuts which have been shown to have only a minimal job-creation effect.  This new proposal will have a more direct impact on creating jobs while at the same time investing in modernization of roads, trains, runways, and other improvements that keep America’s economy moving.

The naysayers will harp that we can’t afford to increase the Federal deficit.  They would rather see more people unemployed and provide more tax cuts while corporations squeeze every last dime out of their workers.  Yet, these same naysayers completely ignore the impact of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars on the same deficit.

The president will have a tough time getting this proposal through Congress in an election year.  He needs to learn from the Republican playbook and immediately take control of the messaging for this much needed program.  Let’s rebuild the infrastructure in America instead of in Afghanistan.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

OMG! The President is a Muslim!

Even before he was elected, there were screeds from the right that Barack Hussein Obama was a Muslim.  The evidence?  Just look at his middle name and the fact that he spent part of his childhood in a Muslim country.  And he keeps his church attendance more private than did his ├╝ber-Christian predecessor.  This is just one of many wedge issues that the right wing actively promotes to divert attention from its ill-advised economic agenda.

The White House spokespeople have been countering by asserting that Obama is a “committed, mainstream Christian”.  That’s all well and good, but the educator-in-chief needs to send another, much different message – and send it strongly.  That message is contained in Article VI of the Constitution, which unequivocally states “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

In the 1960 presidential campaign, many were concerned with John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism.  They feared that he would take direction from the Pope, and some of the more extreme elements leveraged the anti-Catholic bigotry that existed in the country at that time.  JFK put the issue (mostly) to bed in his eloquent speech in Houston  to a group of ministers.  In that speech, he said:

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish--where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source--where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials--and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
“For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew--or a Quaker--or a Unitarian--or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim--but tomorrow it may be you--until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.”
Despite the incessant blare from the Tea Party, America is not a Christian country.  It never has been, and never will be.  For if it does become a theocracy, then America will cease to exist.   Some in the right wing would have us believe that a Jew like Senator Joe Lieberman, a Muslim like Congressman Keith Ellison, or maybe even a Mormon like Mitt Romney is ineligible to be our Chief Executive.  We need to emphasize that there is no religious test for public office, and that the opportunity exists for people of all religions and people of no religion.  This is the message that needs to be emphasized by the president and his spokespeople.

Twenty years ago, few would have thought that an African American could be elected in a landslide.  Twenty years from now, White Protestants may be a minority.  Let’s look forward to the time when America has a non-Christian president – based on his or her qualifications, not on what he or she does on Sunday mornings.  Barack Obama is not a Muslim.  But even if he were, it would not make a whit of difference.  

Friday, September 3, 2010

I Don't Recall

Cross-posted to

There’s a Facebook group called “NJ Against Chris Christie” which has over 38,000 members.  Some of the discourse there is childish, using epithets and taunts.  Yet, there’s also a considerable amount of rational discussion about the governor’s performance, his cronyism, and his overly simplistic solutions to complex problems.  Often, it is pointed out that New Jersey election law allows a recall petition to be initiated one year following a gubernatorial election, and there’s lots of talk about doing so.

As I explained in an earlier post, this is a bad idea.  Repeatedly, Republicans want to nullify election results they don’t like, while Democrats abide by the process.  A recall effort would have a deleterious side effect of uniting the Republicans at a time when their Tea Party acolytes are dividing the right-wingers over the Schundlergate affair.  Recall has the danger of becoming another wedge issue that will unite conservatives and bring them to the ballot box in greater numbers.  Opposition to recall would be highly funded by the same corporations which are in bed with the governor on tax cuts and reduction of the quality of life for the poor and middle class in the Garden State.

Yet, the Democrats are not taking enough political advantage of the governor’s missteps.  With the exception of the Senate’s refusal to hold hearings on the replacement for Judge John Wallace after his blatantly political removal by the governor, the legislators have not fulfilled their checks-and-balance responsibilities to mitigate and reverse the governor’s harmful agenda.  They rolled over on the millionaire’s tax and women’s health while Christie’s veto pen is running out of ink.

What the Democrats need is a rallying point, a person who can provide political leadership today and is in a position to provide executive leadership after the 2013 gubernatorial election.  It’s not too early to engage in preliminary actions to challenge our failed governor in three years.  Using the electoral system rather than a feel-good but doomed-to-fail recall effort is the way to go.

So who can reclaim the Democratic mantle in New Jersey, stand up against the corporate juggernaut, and effectively challenge Christie in 2013?  Three people immediately come to mind:

Cory Booker.  The Newark mayor has been portrayed as the next Barack Obama.  He’s charismatic, smart, and has one of the toughest jobs in New Jersey.  The problem is that if he does his job successfully, he’s bound to make a lot of political enemies as he cleans up the mess in our largest city.  And his cozying up to the governor on tax caps and education doesn’t promote his image as a Christie alternative.

Rob Andrews.  His star is rising in Congress as an articulate and ambitious left-of-center member.  He earned his chops as a hard-working proponent of health insurance reform.  But his quixotic attempt to unseat Senator Lautenberg and his South Jersey residency both work against him. 

Loretta Weinberg.  Already the de facto foil to Christie’s draconian plans, the state senator from Teaneck would be a great counterpoint to represent the common person in New Jersey.  She is as much at home with the ferocious politics of Trenton as she is with advocating for the men, women, and children of New Jersey.  Eleven years younger than Senator Lautenberg, she has the energy, smarts, and menschlekeit to be an effective leader of the growing anti-Christie forces, and to be a strong candidate for governor in 2013.

So how would a Christie vs. Weinberg election turn out?  A wise and feisty Jewish grandmother against the phoniness of the corpulent neighborhood bully?  No contest.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Happy ½ Birthday

With the exception of newlyweds and doting grandparents, there are few celebrations of a six-month anniversary or birthday.  Yet, this month – September 23rd specifically – there is an important half-year milestone for the United States.

That day will mark six months since the President signed the historic Affordable Care Act into law.  And while the implementation of the provisions of the act will be phased in over the next several years, some of its benefits will start on September 23rd. 

The bill that was signed last March is severely flawed.  It is complex and will result in 50 somewhat disparate systems because much of the implementation is left up to the states.  A Single Payer approach (“Medicare for All”) would have been a better, more fiscally sound system, and the current bill is a boon to for-profit insurance companies.  Nevertheless, it is a good start with some tangible benefits to be realized this month.

Here’s what happens on September 23rd (courtesy NJ Citizen Action):
  • Coverage Expansion for Young Adults – Young adults up to age 26 can participate in their parents’ health care plan.
  • No Rescissions – Bans all health plans from dropping people from coverage when they get sick.
  • No Lifetime Limits on Coverage – Prohibits all health plans for placing lifetime caps on coverage.
  • Tightly Regulates Annual Limits on Coverage – Tightly restricts the use of annual limits by all employer plans and new plans in the individual market, to ensure access to needed care.
  • Free Preventive Care Under New Plans – Requires new private plans to cover preventive services with no co-payments and with preventive services being exempt from deductibles.
  • New, Independent Appeals Process for New Plans – Ensures consumers in new plans have access to an effective internal and external appeals process to appeal decisions.
  • No Discrimination Against Children with Pre-Existing Conditions – Prohibits all employer plans and new plans in the individual market from denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions.  Already exists in New Jersey, but will now be extended throughout the country

Other provisions of the new law such as insurance exchanges and elimination of annual caps are to be phased in more gradually as the Department of Health and Human Services and the individual states work on appropriate regulations and implementation strategy.

Despite these incremental improvements, there are a number of pitfalls ahead that have the potential of reversing the positive trend and keeping America in the bottom rung of affordable health care among developed nations.

First, there are the politically-motivated lawsuits being pursued by several states and corporate-funded conservative advocacy groups to have the Affordable Care Act declared unconstitutional.  They are against the provision that requires all Americans who can afford it to have health insurance.  Apparently, the anti-health lobby would prefer the more expensive option of having people use emergency rooms for health care and eliminating preventative medicine for the poor.  Given the number of conservative activists on the Supreme Court, there is a good chance that the Affordable Care Act could be nullified or severely neutered.

The other danger is a Republican take-over of one or both houses of Congress.  The Republicans are campaigning on a three-fold platform – repeal of anything that President Obama has promoted (including the Affordable Care Act, which is very similar to what was proposed by President Nixon), endless and costly investigations once they get subpoena power, and more deficit-inducing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.  Repeal of the Affordable Care Act is a real possibility, and given the Republicans’ adeptness for legislative chicanery, even the threat of a presidential veto is not guaranteed to maintain the positive momentum in this area.

The anti-health lobby has a tremendous advantage – lots of stealth corporate money, Fox “News”, and right-wing hate radio – all working to limit care in the name of greed fiscal responsibility.

So we won the first battle – passage of the bill.  Celebrate the ½ birthday with joy, but not with relief.  Learn what’s in the bill, and where improvements need to be made.  We have a long war ahead of us.  The anti-health forces are powerful, organized, and well-funded.  We need to keep the pressure on our elected officials, demonstrate, and advocate for 21st century health care for all the people in the United States.