Saturday, October 30, 2010

Rally for Sanity: 'amplify everything ... hear nothing': Text, video of Stewart's closing speech

I found Jon Stewart's speech today to be accurate, and beautiful at times, and about my chosen profession. Thank you.



As a T.V. event, though, Jon, your rally was lacking. Why not blame Colbert?

The text of Stewart's speech below is from examiner.com, though I shortened it a bit and made changes based on the video above from youtube, which I found on this site.
“I can’t control what people think this was. I can only tell you my intentions. This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.

The country’s 24 hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire ... .

If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned. You must have the resume. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers or real bigots and Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people, but to the racists themselves who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate! Just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more.

The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything we actually get sicker and, perhaps, eczema.

And, yet, with that being said, I feel good. Strangely, calmly, good. Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a fun house mirror, and not the good kind that makes you look slim in the waist and maybe taller, but the kind where you have a giant forehead and an ass shaped like a month old pumpkin ... .

We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done. But the truth is, we do. We work together to get things done every damn day.

The only place we don’t is here or on cable T.V. But Americans don’t live here or on cable T.V. Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us, while we get things done, not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done. Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often something they do not want to do. But they do it. Impossible things that are only made possible through the little reasonable compromises that we all make. ...

There's nother car—an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car’s a Latino carpenter. Another car, a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan. But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear, often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers.

And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze, one by one, into a mile long 30 foot wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river. Carved by people, by the way, who I’m sure had their differences. And they do it. Concession by concession. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. Oh my gosh, is that an NRA sticker on your car? Is that an Obama sticker on your car? Uh, well that’s okay, you go, and then I’ll go.

And sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute, but that individual is rare and he is scorned and not hired as an analyst.

Because we know, instinctively as a people, that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes, it’s just New Jersey. But we do it anyway, together.













Image: rally attendee Sarah Gerwig- Moore.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Unwritten state deal to lower Alcoa bond by $160 million

Full story in The Winston-Salem Journal.

As a legal battle continues over approvals to let the Alcoa power company keep dams along the Yadkin River in central North Carolina, the state has agreed to lower the company's surety bond from $240 million to $80 million.

The state won't say why and won't confirm the deal. It was reached in either August or September, but has not been written down because, in a company attorney's words, "nobody’s had a chance." A company spokesman confirmed the decrease, as did others familiar with the case.

So that's all a little odd. Also odd: The $240 million was part of Alcoa's water quality certificate as of May 2009, and that certificate was issued by the state following two years of review.

Now, either the $240 million figure was wildly inappropriate despite the two years it took to set, or $80 million is. But the state won't talk about it. Meanwhile, attorneys for the state are defending Alcoa's certificate before an administrative law judge, despite the fact that N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue has said she'd like to see Alcoa lose its license along the river so the state can reclaim the power generating dams.

Also, some people think Alcoa's now-closed aluminum smelting plant along the river is the reason you shouldn't eat more than one fish a week out of Badin Lake. Some also believe Alcoa's operations have given people cancer.

Nutty.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

NC GOP: Machines count R's as D's

Somewhat buried in NBC-17 Raleigh's 6 p.m. newscast was word that the state GOP is threatening legal action over voter irregularities in Craven County.

The station interviewed a man who said he voted for a Republican, but "Democrat came up" on the electronic touchscreen. The report said Craven County officials called these "isolated cases." NBC 17 reported that the State Board of Elections wouldn't talk to them, despite an in-person visit to headquarters.

WRAL did get a statement from the SBOE:
Johnnie McLean, deputy director of the State Board of Elections, said there is no default for the machines, which she said are recalibrated every morning to ensure they're working properly.
You'll need to read the story for the definition of "default" in this case.

Now, you have to think, if the man NBC quoted and Craven County are in agreement that people are pressing a button for one candidate, and the machine is registering it for another, well that's a situation that needs to be investigated further, to say the least, even if the state board says there are no problems.

Monday, October 25, 2010

L.A. Times: Cali Dems use Facebook to target non-voters

A creative new use for social media. From The Times:
The California Democratic Party unveiled a new tool in its kit of get-out-the-vote operations Monday: a first-of-its-kind Facebook application that sifts through a user’s friends list, matches it with the friends’ party registrations and voting histories and pops out a list people who vote Democratic but don’t regularly vote.

It then encourages users to tell their non-voting friends to cast a ballot Nov. 2. ...

With 15.4 million voting-age Facebookers in California, the party says the tool could be crucial to mobilizing hard-to-reach younger voters.

Follow The Money: 1.3 % of stimulus contractors gave to state campaigns

There's a new (to me) database group out there at www.followthemoney.org, and it focuses on state campaign finance.

It's got a lot of interesting apps, lots of graphics and a user-friendly layout. I've added it to the "Kick Down the Door" links section below. One of their recent projects has been the painstaking process of comparing stimulus contracts to political donations at the state level. They didn't find much of a headline, but it's nice to know someone's looking.

From the report:
Of the 24,675 contract recipients, the Institute was able to identify 322 that had given to state election campaigns in any of the 50 states. Those 322 recipients contributed a total of $26,879,406 to state level candidates and party committees in the states where they received contracts, and were awarded a total of $10,561,395,803 in ARRA contracts.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Nearly time again: leadership elections

Georgia. You and your home-state legislative session ...

Larry O'Neal and James Mills are running for majority leader in the Georgia House. Longer story in Thursday's Macon Telegraph:
The Georgia House of Representatives continues to reorder itself after a year of scandal, and state Rep. Larry O’Neal, R-Warner Robins, will push this fall for a broader leadership role at the capitol.
In hindsight, I should not have called it a "year of scandal." There haven't been scandals every day of the year... involving the Georgia House of Representatives.

Perhaps the upshots of this story are that, while there are rumors, there don't seem to be declared candidates for any of the already-filled House leadership positions. And praise for Speaker David Ralston continues.
“The speaker has done a phenomenal job of sort of reuniting the leadership in the House,” O’Neal said. “The whole attitude, it’s a lot more thoughtful. It’s a lot more mature in my view. It’s just better in a lot of ways, and I give most all of the credit for that to David Ralston.”

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon and the caucus’ secretary and treasurer, agreed, saying he’s “as proud of our leadership as I ever have been in my four years (in the House).”

“Ralston showed tremendous leadership in raising money for our Caucus, and has been campaigning for members.” Peake said in an e-mail.














Ways and Means Chairman Larry O'Neal and Republican Caucus Chair Donna Sheldon, 2010 legislative session.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Foreign $$, anonymous $$, PAC $$

As I continue to learn about N.C. government and politics, one of my better resources is Mark Binker's Capital Beat blog for the Greensboro News & Record. He does a good job of explaining complicated, and often in-the-weeds, issues.

This weekend he pointed readers to a good piece in The Washington Post about foreign money and it's role in U.S. elections, past and present**:
Political action committees connected to foreign-based corporations have donated nearly $60 million to candidates and parties over the past decade, including $12 million since the start of 2009, federal contribution records show. Top donors in this election cycle include PACs tied to British drugmakers GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, which together account for about $1 million; Belgium's Anheuser-Busch InBev, at nearly $650,000; and Credit Suisse Securities, at over $350,000.
**Initially said "long-standing role in U.S. elections" in error. Apologies.

The Post's piece is a good read and cuts through some of the bluster we've seen lately over alleged foreign political donations and the broader issue of anonymous donations.

For a well-researched, and hilarious, explanation of that issue, including solid definitions for 527s and 501(c)4s, we can turn to The Daily Show. As usual, Fox News hosts hypocrisy is illuminated for no extra charge.

(C) Spot Run!
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity


Finally, Jim Walls has taken good looks at some of the loopholes in Georgia campaign finance laws. One allowed legislators to raise hundreds of thousands for their congressional campaigns, despite a general ban on fundraising during the state legislative session.

Another looks at Georgia's "wide open" rules for PACs, which led Mississippi's governor to base his PAC in Georgia so he could get around his own state's more restrictive rules.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Shriver: Make elder care tax free

Maria Shriver, whose father has Alzheimer's, has been making a real push to bring attention to the disease, which is poorly understood.

She's been working with ABC News on the project, and on last night's broadcast she said the United States of America has "no national policy for Alzheimer's care."

Given that an estimated 5 million Americans suffer from the disease, and that it can strike just about anyone, that is interesting.

Shriver said the U.S. should allow people to spend tax-free on elder care, much as they do for child care. She called on companies to offer flexible work hours, and ask employees if they are in a "dual role" of bread winner and care giver.

"Caregivers need to learn to ask for help," she said.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Good fair coverage

This piece in today's News & Observer reminded me how much I used to enjoy going to the fair to write a newspaper story.

The blue sky, the smell of fried dough, the shady carnies ... standing in that midway taking notes was like a meditation.

The only places the following stories are available online, to my knowledge, are lexis/nexis and The Telegraph's archives. But I'll republish them here. Copyright, in all cases, belongs to The Macon Telegraph.

One of these stories contains the best sentence I ever wrote for a newspaper. Also, there are directions to make your own funnel cakes and candied apples.

How can you resist?

GEORGIA STATE FAIR UNPACKS FOR TODAY'S OPENING
BYLINE: Travis Fain, The Macon Telegraph
October 16, 2000 Monday

MACON — Up went the Gravitron, the haunted house and the Tilt-a-Whirl.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Big day in campaign finance

Third quarter disclosures are due today in congressional races. And probably the easiest way to dig into that, if you're inclined, is to visit the folks at opensecrets.org.

They do good work. They also accept tax-deductible donations.

Legislative Froot Loops

A state representative in the Winston-Salem area sent a mass email to his caucus referring to "queers" and "legislative fruitloops" last month. Yesterday a gay rights group responded by sending him 279 mini cereal boxes with messages stuck to the back.

I did a piece about it for The Winston-Salem Journal.













Click image to enlarge.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Early voting, but not disclosing

Perhaps it's a small thing compared to some of the issues that have popped up in other states with anonymous spending on political ads. But I think it's interesting that, in North Carolina and other states, early voting starts well before third-quarter fundraising deadlines.

Voting started today in North Carolina, and the deadline to file reports in state races is Oct. 25. So, if you vote before then, you have no real chance to know who's behind some of these political ads, or who's giving money to candidates.

Not that everyone pays close attention to that, but some people do. And you have to wonder whether it makes sense to shift traditional reporting deadlines as early voting grows in popularity.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Animators: Legal pot good for Denny's

This is pretty funny.


From NMA TV, which appears to be based in Taiwan.

As an aside, do you think California's inability to pass a state budget until three months after the new fiscal year began is a better argument for, or against, the state legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana use?

Where Roy Barnes and Karen Handel = Michael Dukakis

If I can peek back into Georgia for a moment ...

It just keeps getting better with Nathan Deal. You really have to wonder, what's he going to pull as governor, while trying to avoid personal bankruptcy?

And, yet, it seems Deal's primary asset, the "R" beside his name, will keep him healthily ahead in the polls. Georgia's electorate is looking to make quite the statement: We do not care whether you enrich yourself as a politician, just promise to cut our taxes. Also, we do not care whether you actually cut our taxes.

Cut to Karen Handel, staring angrily into a mirror and muttering "2,500 votes" while Roy Barnes eats a jelly doughnut and wonders how qualified he has to be to win this thing.


Not a 100 percent metaphor by any means, but funny.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Marines

Ordinarily I question sending airplanes places for a photograph. But the idea of United States Marines defending various awesome places in America ...

I would not suggest trying to invade the Golden Gate Bridge.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ghandi: The minute you take more

Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, spoke Thursday evening at Georgia State University. A friend of mine, a teacher working on her doctorate, attended and provided the following notes and commentary:
I start with an embarrassing and perplexing confession. Mahatma Gandhi was in the seventh grade standards I was to teach a few years ago, and I had never heard of him. I had received a Masters degree and was certified to teach secondary Social Studies and had never heard of this world-renowned peacemaker. After years of teaching about him, I quote him extensively and immensely admire him. Today, I had the honor of hearing his granddaughter, Ela Gandhi speak. It was a humbling experience that calmed the anxiety I felt earlier in the day over the street robbery of my iPhone.

Speaking about growing up in a camp: You should only take what you need. The minute you take more than that, you are depriving someone else.

Speaking about apartheid system in South Africa: It was a nasty environment. Black included everyone that was not white, including the whites that opposed the system. However, this system provided us with the spirit needed for resistance. The system took away self-respect. We had to unite together and build our own self-respect.

Speaking of the meaning of non-violence: It has a broader meaning. It is a philosophy that can take an entire lifetime to truly understand. But the premise behind it that was later used by Dr. Martin Luther King was based on love. It is the practice of understanding and loving all people, even those that have wronged you. It should not be confused with passive resistance. There is nothing passive about it. It is very active.

Speaking about goals: Ask for only what is achievable. You need little victories to keep the spirit going.

Speaking about the relevance of Mahatma Gandhi today: Gandhi’s message is more important today than ever. The fact that people are trillionaires while others are dying because of a lack of clean drinking water is wrong.

On youth: She spoke of young people who visited eighty-eight temples in Japan and acquired eleven million signatures for a petition. In total, they got twenty million signatures that they handed over to the secretary of the United Nations this past Monday. They asked that governments decrease defense spending by ten percent to give to those in need.
- Jean O'Keefe

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

NC 2012: Where do you find $3 billion?

Gov. Bev Perdue said yesterday that there would be a major announcement after next month's elections about "about merging, eliminating, consolidating pieces of state government.”

The idea is to help close some of the state's coming budget gap, which is expected to run between $3 billion and $4 billion next year as stimulus money dries up and temporary tax increases, put in place a couple of years ago, expire.

But what does it really mean to cut $3 billion? Well, that's roughly 14 percent of the current state budget. But let's go a little deeper, though I want to be clear that this is all back-of-the-envelope math.

"Merging, eliminating and consolidating" doesn't save much money unless you fire people. So how many state employees would you have to lay off to save, say, $1 billion?

The average salary for state employees is $41,723, according to the state office of personnel. That doesn't include K-12 teachers or some university personnel, but we'll set that aside for a moment, remembering that the governor and the legislature are going to look to cut K-12 education last.

Add in another 20 percent for benefits and you get $50,068 per employee. So, to save $1 billion, you'd need to layoff 19,972 people, or 21 percent of the 93,217 total state employees listed on that government employee statistic website.

That would be the equivalent of nearly eliminating the state's department of corrections (see agency by agency employee numbers here), and you'd still have at least $2 billion left to cut to keep from raising taxes.

Now, I wrote about North Carolina's fiscal 2012 budget for The Winston-Salem Journal in August. My thesis was, and remains, that there's a really good chance the governor and legislature are going to extend those temporary tax increases, which amount to an extra penny-on-the-dollar in sales taxes and 2-to-3 percent income-tax surcharges on people making more than $100,000 a year.

Would it be popular? Of course not. Neither would firing 20,000 people. But the tax increases bring in an extra $1 billion or so each year. And the governor didn't give me a firm yes or no on this issue in August, though she later told the Associated Press that the sales tax increase, at least, wasn't in her budget "at this point in time."

But it wouldn't be the first time the General Assembly has left "temporary" increases on the books to make ends meet. From my story:
In 2001 the General Assembly bumped the state sales tax up half a penny, an increase that was supposed to be rolled back two years later. But that increase stayed on the books until 2006, when it was cut in half.

The fourth-of-a penny increase that remained is still in place today
Another thing to look for may be privatization of the state's liquor stores. There are 405 of them in North Carolina, but, according to the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, the state doesn't own the buildings, or the liquor.

The system turns a profit each year as is (see third report from top), and, though there's been some talk of determining what kind of cash infusion North Carolina would reap by privatizing and selling licenses, that number is as yet unknown, according to spokespeople for the ABC, the legislature's Program Evaluation Division and state Rep. Ray Warren, who chairs the House oversight committee on ABC.

Which brings me to another big ticket savings item: Employee furloughs. Georgia, where I was a reporter for 10 years before moving to North Carolina in May, went this route repeatedly in balancing its budget the last two years. And it estimated it would save $33 million for each day it furloughed K-12 teachers. I can't seem to find or remember the per-day savings for furloughing all state employees, but obviously we're talking big numbers.

My point in all this? I guess it's that $3 billion is a lot of money. Remember that when a politician promises to slice up state government and save you money, and ask which 20,000-person state department he or she plans to eliminate.

Oct. 15 update: Mark Binker, The Greensboro News & Record's man in Raleigh, has come to much the same conclusion:
So voters, when a candidate says they can balance the budget by cutting "waste, fraud and abuse," the question is can one-fifth of the state budget -- 20 percent -- be waste fraud and abuse? Despite the missteps we've seen with items such as the crime lab, that'd be a hugely cynical view of government and one that's not altogether accurate.

With DOJ and The Voting Rights Act, even no-brainers take time

I wrote a piece for today's Winston-Salem Journal about the state constitutional amendment on the ballot this year that would bar convicted felons from running for sheriff in North Carolina.

It's a fairly straight forward measure. But, even as used as I am to the slow-churning wheels of government, I was surprised how much it took to move.

The sponsoring legislator, state Sen. Stan Bingham, said he spent "hundreds" of hours on the bill calling for the statewide referendum needed to change the constitution. That bill was introduced in 2009, and passed this summer. Much of Bingham's time was spent making sure no one tried to tack on another constitutional amendment, which probably would have killed the bill, he said.

More interesting is what it takes to get the U.S. Department of Justice to sign off on this thing through a process called pre-clearance, which is part of the Voting Rights Act.

To get permission to ask North Carolina voters whether they want a “Constitutional amendment providing that no person convicted of a felony may serve as Sheriff,” the state sent the department a submission with 10 attachments, a supplement to that submission with nine more attachments, and, finally, a second submission with two attachments.

You can find all these things here.

Obviously you should be cautious when you change a state constitution. But when the state legislature votes unanimously to put up a ballot question that no one seems to have a problem with, how involved should the federal government be, and what is the cost of that involvement?

Neither DOJ nor the N.C. Secretary of State's Office could give me an estimate of the attorney hours spent on this. But the state's first submission to the DOJ is dated Aug. 30. Early voting starts Oct. 14. Pre-clearance has not yet been granted.

Update: I was wrong about no one opposing this thing. The Libertarian Party has come out against the ballot measure, per Mark Binker at The News-Record.

Monday, October 4, 2010

MJ: Big $ a leveler for GOP, Dems

Mother Jones has an interesting piece up, reworking the seating charts in the U.S. House and Senate based on corporate donations.

A partial picture of the Senate is below. Click on the link for the full graphics.













Says the magazine: "When it comes to corporate donors, Democrats and Republicans may be closer than you think."

Voting with Pelosi: Don't buy the hype

If you look at this political ad, running in Georgia's 8th Congressional District, you'll see the claim that U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall "supports Nancy Pelosi's agenda more than 88 percent of the time."

That ad was paid for by the American Future Fund which, according to The Washington Post, has spent more than $7 million this year to help Republican candidates, but hasn't identified its donors to the Federal Elections Commission.

As disconcerting as that probably should be, it's not my point. The ad lists The Washington Post as its source. Indeed, The Post's vote database says Marshall votes with the Democratic Party 88.5 percent of the time.

But compare him directly with Speaker Pelosi here, at www.opencongress.org and it says Marshall votes with the speaker 66 percent of the time. That's based on 202 shared votes since 2007, a low number because the speaker rarely votes. Compare Marshall to Republican Minority Leader John Boehner and you'll see the two agree 56 percent of the time.

My point? Don't believe the numbers on these things, because they're inflated by a bunch of no-brainer votes to name stuff after politicians or to honor football teams or to give Arnold Palmer a medal. It's far more important to decide what issues are important to you, then find out how a candidate voted on those, which is pretty easy to do online these days.

But what I'd like to see, when it comes to Congressional vote histories, is a database organized like North Carolina's legislative voting database. There you can see how often each member voted with the majority, regardless of the member's party. Then you start to see how uninformative some of these other statistics can be.

For example: North Carolina's system lets me see, quickly, that only four of the 52 Republicans in the N.C. House of Representatives voted against the Democratic majority 20 percent of the time or more in the last two years.

In fact, for the last two years, many Republicans in the N.C. House voted with the Democratic majority just about 88 percent of the time. They must be liberals, just like Jim Marshall.

Update: The New York Times has taken issue with a similar ad, put up by the NRCC.

Update: One last point here - The Insider picked up the Times story, and includes this from Congressman Marshall:
Marshall’s campaign reports that in 2010, Marshall voted with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 60.9 percent of the time – and with Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio 65.3 percent of the time.

Boehner, incidently, encouraged Republicans to support the October 2008 bailout that the above ad condemns.
Oct. 11 update: From Ben Smith at Politico:
One Democrat running for re-election for a conservative seat is bragging about his loyalty -- to John Boehner.

Images: Flooding in eastern N.C.

My fiance, Marily Peguero of NBC 17 in Raleigh, visited Windsor, N.C., yesterday. Windsor is north east of Greenville, near the coast, and was one of the harder hit communities during this weekend's floods, which killed about a half dozen people and are now receding.

Along with her own story, Marilyn shot a few pictures in downtown Windsor, which Gov. Bev Perdue also visited yesterday. The flooding has not been as bad as after Hurricane Floyd. But that was in 1999, and this most recent spate of rain means some people have been flooded out of their homes or businesses twice now in 11 years.





















































All images courtesy Marilyn Peguero.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Bloomberg: Prudential profits from soldiers' deaths

From Bloomberg News, via The Washington Post:
After a U.S. soldier dies in combat - including the more than 4,000 service members who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan - the Department of Veterans Affairs sends Prudential the full amount of each family's life insurance coverage, usually $400,000.

The government has paid Prudential $1.7 billion for these benefits since 2003, when the war in Iraq began, according to information provided by the VA. Prudential holds that taxpayer money, invests it and reaps the gains.

Here's how it works: If survivors request a lump-sum payment of the death benefit, Prudential opens a so-called retained-asset account, a quasi-checking account that allows families to draw money when they're ready to spend it.

Until the money is used, it stays in Prudential's corporate account. There, the insurer invests the funds, mostly in bonds, making returns as much as eight times higher than what it is paying out.