Friday, February 27, 2015

You Have Been, And Always Shall Be, Our Friend

I skipped the second grade.

They don't really do that any more, skipping kids a grade. Smart kids are often awkward kids, and the social skills lag behind the school skills. But in the early 70s, before modern gifted classes, they didn't know what else to do with me.  So I jumped from first grade to third.

In the fourth grade, the novelty of me and my awkwardness wore off, and the bullying started. (Iowa is talking about a bullying bill again. I have a one-line bullying bill. Bullies shall be expelled.) It was somewhat controlled in school but the walk home was merciless. I'd get home, often before my parents, often in tears.

That was when I found Star Trek.

Every afternoon at 4, I would escape for an hour, to the Enterprise, where there were no bullies except Klingons, and where being the smartest guy on the bridge, even though you were a little different, made you a hero. And afterwards, I'd walk the open fields behind our house, back when it was safe for kids to wander alone for hours. It was my planet to explore, and I used to wish they could beam me up.

Today we mourn Leonard Nimoy. But we also mourn the Star Trek Vision, so hard to imagine in 1966.

The Star Trek Vision was more than the gadgets. We already have more of those than we dreamed possible.  Transporters and warp drives would still be the coolest things ever, but I have a communicator and a tricorder on my pocket.

The real vision was of a better world, using the best of our human emotions and the best of our minds to overcome our petty squabbles and unite humanity.

The vision of Star Trek was Gene Roddenberry's. Spock was that vision in one man. And more than any of the other actors and writers and directors and adaptors and creators  across five series and a dozen movies, Leonard Nimoy brought that the Star Trek Vision to life.

Spock was truly alien, and his alien-ness, and alienation, was an essential part of the character.  Yet Spock was also one of us, half-human.  Spock was an idealized human, smarter and stronger and more rational due to his Vulcan heritage, freed from our baser instincts, yet able to access the goodness of his human heart.

Take a couple hours for some Star Trek. The computers of our day are even mightier than those on the Enterprise. Faster than the robot voice could say WORKING we have the world's knowledge on our screens.

Two great Spock episodes stand out.

In Journey to Babel, we meet Spock's parents, his human mother and Vulcan father. But the definitive Spock episode was Amok Time, where Spock returns to Vulcan for the mating ritual only to engage in mortal combat with his captain and best friend.

Watch especially at 11:30, where Spock explains ponn farr to Kirk, and Nimoy accesses in five minutes all the struggles and conflicts and emotions of his complex character.  Also see the scene beginning at 44:44, as Spock discovers that Kirk is alive, and his human joy and love escapes.

It took a great actor to get that much out of that character, with the restraints of time and budget and medium inherent to 1960s broadcast television.  And Nimoy was a great actor. He played occasional other roles, none of them memorable. During those re-run years, Nimoy struggled with that, once writing a book titled "I Am Not Spock."

But as the movies began, Nimoy realized he'd been cast in the role of a lifetime.

Nimoy embraced Spock, he recognized the role as a responsibility, he advocated the Star Trek Vision. He wrote another book titled "I AM Spock." And he embraced the Vulcan salutation, "live long and prosper," as a personal motto.

There was enough depth to Nimoy as a man, and to Spock as a character, to spend a lifetime exploring. And that character, and that Star Trek Vision, is Leonard Nimoy's legacy.

There's not a dry eye in the Federation tonight, not even on Vulcan. If only we had a Genesis device to bring Leonard Nimoy back for another lifetime.

But in creating the most iconic science fiction hero of all, Nimoy created his own immortality. He has been, and shall always be, our friend.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Election Laws

The first big Iowa legislative funnel is a week from Friday, so now's the last big chance to look at pending election law changes. (But always beware the "standings bill," the mist-pass end of session omnibus piece of sausage...)

With divided state government, major changes are off the table. The last big change, election day registration, happened during the first Democratic trifecta year, 2007. What the Democratic base wants, Terry Branstad and the Republican House will kill.  And what the Republican base wants, the Democratic Senate will kill.

So what we will get, if anything, is some consensus stuff.

That doesn't stop Republicans from trying. But House File 138, the repeal of election day registration, has just six House Republican cosponsors (Salmon, Heartsill, Gassman, Branhagen, Holt and Kooiker). 

Senate File 66 (sponsors, all GOP: Chelgren, Whitver, Schultz, Zaun) and corresponding House File 4 (sponsor: Republican Peter Cownie), the bill to eliminate straight ticket voting, may have a little more traction.  The Objective News Media, perpetuating the myth of the Pure Independent Voter Who Votes The Person Not The Party And Who No Longer Exists, hates straight tickets, and editorializes on the issue often.

I've always felt like political parties get a bum rap and are a valuable institution of democracy. In our polarized era, party affiliation is the single most valuable piece of info to know in a partisan race.  And why take away an option that a third of voters use?  Apparently, looking at the sponsors: because Republicans think they see a slight disadvantage.

Personally, I like the straight ticket because it's the only way to vote for a party. Little known fact: if you vote straight ticket, and then mark individual votes in a race, the individual votes over-ride the straight ticket for that race. (Confusing enough that it deserves a whole post.)  Doesn't mean much more than bragging rights, but that means something. Factoid: In Johnson County in 2008, the Greens got 143 straight tickets votes, but the Green presidential candidate got just 120 votes. That meant people were voting Green straight ticket to show their support for the party, but then crossing back over in the presidential race.

People are especially gun-shy about Green vs. Democrat in the presidential race for some reason.

Photo ID, of course, is the Republican Holy Grail.  But where former Secretary of State Matt Schultz was a true believer in this bill, successor Paul Pate seems relatively disinterested. Senate File 183 is being sponsored by Brad Zaun, but Mike Gronstal won't let this see the light of day.  (Is there any way we can embrace the word "Gronstalling" as a GOOD thing, the way we did "Obamacare?") 

But even photo ID's lead sponsor is more interested in other things.  Zaun is focused on Senate File 10, the primary runoff bill.  As we know, he had some experience with the issue. For those of you just tuning in: Zaun finished first in the 3rd CD congressional primary last June, but below the 35% required to win nomination outright.  So the nomination went to a convention.

Zaun led on every ballot except the last: Dirty little secret: While Zaun may have had the most votes, they was a large "anyone but Zaun" vote. And on the final ballot, inoffensive David Young, who finished last in the primary (not counting crazy Some Dude Joe Grandanette), consolidated that vote and was on the road to Congress.

Zaun promptly began talking about eliminating the conventions and going to a runoff election. The top two, four weeks later. The fact that he had to introduce the bill himself smacked of sore loser. You couldn't find one friend to run your bill for you? Gee, maybe that's why you lost that convention.

But it seems to have some life, which raises all sorts of logistical questions.

My preferred system for dealing with multi-dimensional contests is instant runoff ranked choice.But Iowa's voting equipment can't handle it, and there's not a critical mass of people demanding that yet.  (But there must be a significant number of Republicans grumbling to legislators about that 3rd CD primary...)

Two elections four weeks apart would be a big logistical headache for the people who have to manage it.  The time frame is such that you'd have to do a lot of just-in-case prep work lining up workers and locations.  The early voting window would be very narrow and basically unworkable for overseas voters. 

And there's the possibility for cross-party shenanigans. If you voted in the Know-Nothing primary for county supervisor, what's to keep you from voting in the Bull Moose Senate runoff?

So that's the bad stuff.  But there's some good ideas out there, too.

Senate Study Bill 1152, the electronic voter registration bill, is sponsored by the Senate State Government committee (Jeff Danielson, chair).  It seems to have some bipartisan support.  Only people with Iowa drivers licenses could participate, which had the ACLU grumbling, but the consensus seems to be that something that makes registration a lot easier for a lot of people is a good thing. (Would be more problematic here in Iowa City where many students have out of state licenses.)

Oregon is about to do that one better and automatically register every citizen with a license to vote.

Senate Study Bill 1173, which sets deadlines for receiving absentee ballots, is also sponsored by Senate State Government. This bill isn't positive, but at least clears up a nagging question.

Present law says absentee ballots must be received by auditors before the polls close OR, if received after election day, be postmarked by the day BEFORE the election.

The problem is with the late arrivals. For the last several years, the Post Office had not been routinely postmarking mail - especially mail delivered locally. Auditors have repeatedly raised this issue with postmasters, and been told Too Bad So Sad. It's very, very rare for countable ballots to arrive after election day anymore.

The best solution would be federal: require the Post Office to postmark the damn mail.  But that's a non-starter and in the meantime auditors need some clarity. “Absentee ballots must be received in the Auditors Office by the close of election day to be counted” is clear. (Military and overseas ballots are exceptions, both in the bill itself and under federal law.)

Senate File 69 (sponsor: Democrat Mary Jo Wilhelm) would have gotten some serious interest in Iowa City last simmer. Under current law, vacancies in city and county offices may be filled by appointment, but the public has the option to petition for a special election. Also, cities and counties can opt to go straight to an election.

However, school board vacancies are treated differently. There is no option for the public to petition for an election, and vacancies are meant to be filled by appointment. The only way a special election can happen is if the board deadlocks or fails to act.

There was a lot of debate over the definition of "deadlocks or fails to act" last summer in Iowa City, when board member Sally Hoelscher resigned. Some folks argued that the school board should deliberately NOT act in order to set up an election.

Wilhelm's bill would bring school boards in line with other offices, so the public could petition or the board could decide to go directly to an election.

There's a series of measures from Des Moines House Democrat Bruce Hunter, most of which are liberal wish-list bills.

House File 27 is the perennial Voter Owned Iowa Clean Elections (VOICE) public campaign finance bill. As I repeatedly argue, campaign finance is still an inside baseball issue. Those repeated rants at the Koch Brothers are not resonating with the general electorate yet, though it's starting to become a Democratic activist base issue. That's progress, but this issue is still at the education stage.  For my money (see what I did there) public finance is the way to go, but advocates still need to figure out how to answer the attack that it's "a taxpayer subsidy for politicians."

House File 48 would allow permanent vote by mail status. Check a box when you register, get a ballot every election. This would save countless hours of canvasser time, and the lives of many trees, doomed to be pulped into request forms, would be spared. But as long as it's seen as more beneficial to one party than the other it goes nowhere. Which is too bad because it would be popular, and Terry Branstad has long taken an if you can't beat them, join them approach to voting by mail. (More accurately based on last year's results: if you can't beat them, beat them - with their own playbook.)

House File 113 would let people request absentees on line. Relatively small compared to permanent absentee status, and doomed to the same fate.

Alone among Hunter's bills, House File 29 may have a chance. It would allow the smallest cities (under 200 population) to do their city elections by mail. That could save some pollworker costs, though not in my county because we have no cities that small.  And the impact on election day registration would be minimal, as these smallest cities tend to be very rural and the few remaining residents have been there forever. That question could be resolved by letting new people register and vote early at auditor's offices.

I hate when I come to the end and don't have an end so I need a tangent instead, a tangent that doesn't ever have a chance to circle back to the point. So, hey. Huey Lewis is playing the RAGBRAI opening party in Sioux City.  He deserved that Oscar in 1985 just for his one line in Back To The Future: "I'm afraid you're just too darn loud." But instead, they gave it to Lionel Richie. "I had a dream, I had an awesome dream." Name the movie without searching.  Hint: Cold War, which seems about as anachronistic now as 1955 dis then.

Speaking of awesome dreams, it's 2015, so the Cubs are due to win the World Series - but where's my hoverboard?

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Cardboard Cutout Campaign

The media hates a non-story, and the Democratic nomination (non) contest has been the dullest since at least 1999-2000 and more accurately the dullest in the modern post-reform era of nomination politics.

St writes, including me, have been stirring the pot for a Hillary alternative, backlashing against the "inevitability" argument.

Now the backlash to the backlash is underway - but the New York Times inadvertently sums up the contest in one photo.

This is from last fall's Harkin Steak Fry.  Clinton was actually at the event; it was her much ballyhooed first visit back to the state in - some crazy blogger counted -2446 days.  But while the speech was fine, the interaction was minimal.  Clinton held a brief press op while posing for the obligatory steak-flipping photos, but Bill did almost all of the talking.  And there was a brief ropeline scrum, so those who were willing and able to push forward got a handshake.

But by and large, the interaction with caucus goers was about as substantive as this cardboard cutout.

This picture says everything about the state of the game in Iowa.  It shows a retail-averse Hillary Clinton avoiding real people, limiting her own presence to speeches from a great distance.

Yes, I know the Hamburg Inn stop in October that I'd held out for years as the ur-caucus event And I'm glad she went. But the no warning nature of the event, crammed in between Cedar Rapids and Davenport stops - usually, such things are announced - meant that no one could show up with a tough question. (Such as: "Name one Middle East issue on which you disagree with AIPAC.")  The attendees were almost all Democratic campaign staff and core volunteers, herded to the Hamburg without any idea what was happening. 

And, by bizarre coincidence, the local REPUBLICAN chair.  No, I'm not making that up.

The photo also shows what polls show: Iowas way too accepting of the limited contact, willing to go along with a cardboard cutout campaign.

Be careful what you settle for, Iowa.  Republicans, too, because our fates are linked.  A caucus-unfriendly president may mean that in 2019, cardboard cutouts will be all Iowa sees.

Iowa City Charter: Reviewing The Review

Iowa City's decennial charter review process is nearing its conclusion, and a "public input forum" is scheduled for 6:30 Tuesday at City Hall.

As longtime fans know, I applied for the charter review commission, and presented a very detailed platform that won me exactly zero votes from the council.

But I've kept up to speed on the process and used this little soapbox from time to time.  My wholesale rewrite was never in the cards, of course, but I was hoping for some positive changes.

In the draft version of proposed changes posted last week, there's not a lot to review.

The biggest change that was ever under serious discussion was a directly elected mayor.  That's not in the draft. The only change to the role of mayor is allowing Der Burgermeister to place items on the agenda. I'm not sure how the city council handles agenda items now, but that seems like a fairly trivial power.

The big item of discussion seems to be how the city handles its initiative and referendum process, and it seems like there may be some changes.

Right now, for virtually all petitions under Iowa law, signatories need to be "eligible" electors - of age (that means 18, unless you want to stay in the bar late), a citizen, a non-felon, and a resident of the appropriate jurisdiction.

Iowa City's initiative process, however, sets the bar at the harder standard of "qualified" elector.  City staff - which, in Iowa City, largely runs the show - has historically interpreted this as "registered to vote at the exact same address you listed on the petition." And the city had devoted huge resources of staff time to cross-checking every single name against a fresh vote list, and striking names accordingly.

The effect of this fell heavily on highly mobile populations, or people less experienced with the political process and thus less engaged.  That is to say: students.  Which matters a lot if the petition topics are things like bars (2007, 2010, 2013) and rent control (1977, 1983).

This, despite multiple changes in voter registration law in the four decades since home rule kicked in. In the 80s, the law changed so you could change address on Election Day.  Then in 2008, Iowa finally got Election Day voter registration.

Some of the old guard are still arguing against the change.  Bob Elliott, a former council member who missed commission membership by one vote, argues "If a citizen doesn't care enough about their government to register to vote, why should I care what they want?"

But the law no longer even assumes that a person HAS to be registered to vote in advance.  The law assumes that you can show up on Election Day, with a little documentation or with someone to vouch for you, register then, and immediately vote.

So "qualified" elector had been on shaky ground for a while, and may finally go away.  But there's a qualification to that.

Along with striking the word "qualified" and replacing it with "eligible," the draft amendments re-define the signature threshold for initiatives.  Under the current language, in place since the charter was passed in 1973, the bar was 25% of the vote in the prior city election, not less than 2500.  Most elections have come in under 10,000 voters, so 2500 is the normal bar.

The proposed amended language would make the threshold 5.33% of the city's census population, rounded up to the next hundred.  For this decade, that means 3700.

So the signature bar is half again higher.  Or is it?

Assuming  - and this is the critical assumption - assuming both pieces of language pass, it's kind of a wash.  In past petition drives, organizers had to collect hundreds of extra signatures to account for those that would be crossed off.  They also had to register hundreds of extra voters just to be on the safe side. A good practice, since eventually they'd need to get those voters to actually vote.  But it slowed down the process, and you'd lose people who had time to sign but not to fill out a form.

So to get 2500 GOOD signatures, you'd probably have to get about half again as many raw signatures.  3700 "eligible" electors vs. 2500 "qualified" electors is roughly a break even.

I'm sure some will argue with me, in favor of the easier process AND the lower bar.  But my experience has been that the number of signatures hasn't been a barrier.  I've only seen one effort fail at getting enough signatures, and that failure was their own bad organization and lack of work.

No, for me, "eligible" vs. "qualified" was always about The Principle Of The Thing.  So it feels like a win, a rare acknowledgement by the city establishment that not everyone in town is an east side home owner with a permanent and settled lifestyle.

(Now if they would just acknowledge that 18 year olds are adults.  No, that would be a big win.  This is just a little win.  But in the context of city government in Iowa City, even little wins are a big deal.)

If these changes pass, the principle prevails with little cost.  Petition drives will have to make about the same level of effort they did before.  And we'll save some city staff time (and time = $) on the striking signatures end, though I think City Clerk Marian Karr actually enjoys it. "Your dorm room number doesn't match? BAM! Sharpie through your name, kid!"

The proposed language also moves the petitioning period a month later which is good; anything that gets things closer to election day is good for campaigns targeting hard to target demographics.

One problem, though. In the event a petition is challenged, decisions are made by a three member board: the mayor, another council member, and the city clerk.  I have a problem with an unelected staffer making policy decisions affecting people's right to petition the government. Especially THIS particular unelected staffer. (I'm saying this as an unelected staffer to an elected official myself.)  The third seat should instead go to a third council member.

There are some other language changes to city council filing.  The "change" in deadlines looks like cleanup language to me, amending the charter to incorporate changes in state law.  It would also move the point of filing your papers from the city clerk to the county auditor - a change I support and would support for all elections.  Auditors and the Secretary of State are just better equipped and more prepared to handle the kinds of questions that come up with nomination papers.

The preamble is rewritten and the name of the "police citizens review board" is changed to "community police review board," changes that feel more semantic than substantive.
And last, city manager severance pay is also addressed, changing from two months to "as provided by contract." Feels like a ripple effect from the brief administration of Michael Lombardo, fired from the job in 2009 after just under a year. (His predecessor, longtime manager Steve Atkins, is a commission member.)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Wasserman Schultz Needs A Different Role

Dual-role Debbie Wasserman Schultz, both a Florida congresswoman and chair of the Democratic National Committee, is reportedly looking at a US Senate run in 2016, when Marco Rubio is either running for re-election or for president.

It's a prospect I kinda sorta like - but not for the reasons I think. I like it because a Wasserman Schultz Senate bid would get her out as DNC chair.

Wasserman Schultz's chair-ship has bugged me for a long time but I've been reluctant to bring it up. Criticize a female leader, a relatively young one at that, you're slapped as sexist. Criticize a Jewish leader, you get even worse.

(Tangent: In a Democratic primary between a white woman and a south Asian young man, both of whom have money, who's the diverse pick?)

And I've met Debbie, here in town, and found her personally likable and a strong enthusiastic speaker on behalf of her colleague Dave Loebsack.

But a couple brief tweets drew enough positive reaction that I'm expanding the thought.

The latest criticism of Wasserman Schultz come from in-state.  She's under attack for opposing a Florida medical marijuana initiative last year.  It rolled up a strong 57.6% vote... but needed 60 to win.  (My local friends feel that pain.)

I first got familiar with Wasserman Schultz through the endless 2008 caucus cycle. She was a bitter ender for Hillary Clinton, which in itself was fine, lots of people were.

But Wasserman Schultz was also the strongest defender of Florida's rule-breaking presidential primary, held on January 31.  Party rules had stipulated later dates except for the four designated early states, led by Iowa as God intended.  Because Florida (and Michigan) broke the rules, Iowa was pushed all the way back to the insanely early date of January 3, smack in the middle of Christmas break and disenfranchising thousands of students in my county.

And Wasserman Schultz continued to defend Florida's calendar cheating all the way to the convention, arguing that Florida's rogue (and pro-Clinton) delegation should get full seating and no penalties. In the end, in the name of "unity," she got what she wanted, and Florida's only punishment was bad hotels.

This year, SO FAR, the calender cheating seems to have calmed down.  But our caucuses have enough worries, and Wasserman Schultz is clearly not a fan.

So  was disappointed in Obama's choice of Wasserman Schultz to head the DNC. (Don't waste my time saying "the committee elected her." Incumbent presidents give the marching orders for their parties.) Howard Dean was a great chair. The 50 state strategy briefly gave us a 3 to 1 lead in the MISSISSIPPI House delegation. We gained seats in LOUISIANA and IDAHO.

But Dean was on the bad side of Rahm Emanuel, and Wasserman Schultz was an olive branch to Team Hillary.

Party chair is less important when you control the White House, as the President is the real party leader.  But a president always needs lots of surrogates and Wasserman Schultz has done a decent job of representing the president and the party.

With the exception of a critical chunk of foreign policy.

Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz offered a series of candid remarks at a recent event in Florida, slamming MSNBC over what she claims is its anti-Israel bias, breaking with the Obama administration by identifying recent terrorists as Islamic, and questioning intermarriage and assimilation for Jewish people.

I'm not comfortable saying what I really think of those remarks.  It's still too big a taboo to discuss Israel openly and honestly, though as you may have noticed I'm testing the waters.  I will note that similarly ethnocentric remarks from members of other groups would be rightly denounced.

Wasserman Schultz's unfailing support of the Israeli government line are in large part explained by the demographics of her district. And naturally she'll stick up for her state in the calendar fight.  She's also not the only politician who's made or is making the mistake of lagging behind the public on drug law reform.

But those issues underscore the problem.

Notice that the article doesn't begin saying "Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz."  It says "Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz." In her dual role, the party leadership is considered more prominent.  And when she thinks she's speaking for her district and to her district, she's also speaking for the whole Democratic Party and to the whole nation.

As a Democrat, she's not speaking for me, at least not on these three issues.

 I think Debbie Wasserman Schultz would be a fine Senator for the state of Florida.  It's a risky move in a state that's narrowly divided and politically volatile, as is any place where most people were born somewhere else. This race, with incumbent Rubio still deciding, will be especially volatile.

But as Senator from Florida, she'd only have to represent FLORIDA, not Democrats in Iowa.  So maybe that role is a better fit for her.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sanders Still Considering Run - Both If and How

 It got asked three different ways from a couple different angles, but there's not a definite answer yet from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on if, or how, he's running for president.

But no politician visits Iowa by accident, and his "reading" at Iowa City's Prairie Lights was just the first of three events tonight in the People's Republic of Johnson County, sure to be ground zero of any Sanders campaign.

One questioner asked if Sanders would run as a third party candidate if the presidential race were between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, and another urged Sanders to run as a Democrat. A third rejected electoral politics entirely and urges, instead, "militant action."

Sanders, in turn, embraced all three approaches.While he pivoted the "militant action" question into a discussion of college costs, he also noted the successes of social movements from the civil rights era through marriage equality, "and my state went first."

"One might think in this whole country there are more than two families..." he said of the hypothetical Hillary-Jeb race, the sentence left unfinished by audience laughter.

The third party argument is risky - the math of the 2000 presidential race probably set the cause of an independent party of the left back several generation, as left Democrats are especially gun-shy of "another Nader."  Sanders is well aware of this and has mentioned it in the past.

Sanders did not mention that aspect tonight, but noted that it would easier to get on the ballot and participate in debates as a Democrat. "It would take a lot of effort to run as independent and I have to consider that," he said.

Sanders reviewed the litany of his own electoral record, which started with a series of single-digit percentages on third party tickets in the 1970s, followed by a ten vote win for mayor of Burlington in 1981. "I'm not very smart, but I am persistent.  Persistence is important. Things don't change overnight."

After a couple more independent losses, he was elected to the US House as an independent in 1990 and to the Senate in 2006, to become (as noted in the introduction)  the longest serving independent in congressional history.

(Sanders and Vermont Democrats have an understanding, and he runs with their support.)

The personal history was unusual for Sanders (a national reporter seated next to me noted that), and was a change from his October appearance at the Johnson County Democrats Barbecue, when he stuck strictly to issues.

Even more unusually, after going over all the way the 1% Economic Class is Screwing Us All, he paused and noted:
My wife? He has a family? Apparently, as he mentioned later, seven grandkids, too.

Still, this IS Bernie Sanders, which means issues, issues, issues. The audience, a mix of students and Old Left types, with no elected officials and basically no Democratic Party types, seemed to eat up. (Though in fairness there are two other events, one of which is the annual DVIP soup supper which is a Must Attend for politicians.  There are also reports of a private meeting with a selective handful of party activists. I wasn't invited.)

Ostensibly, this was a Live From Prairie Lights reading promoting Sanders' book, "The Speech," a transcript of his December 2010 filibuster of a compromise tax cut bill.  "It was easy to write. I just up and talked until I had to go to the bathroom, and that was that." For the record, Sanders' bladder has an 8 1/2 hour life span.

But there was no read from the book, though the content was no doubt similar.

The biggest applause came when Sanders was asked about foreign policy: "I am very worried about US getting sucked into an endless war in the Middle East."

While sanders acknowledges that ISIS is "beyond words in its brutality," a fight with them is a war that the US can "never win."  Instead, Sanders said to additional applause, that war will need to be fought by Muslim states in the region. The US and rest of the world should be supportive, but not provide troops.

The bulk of Sanders' discussion, though, focused on big picture economic issues, which all funneled into campaign finance reform.

I've said elsewhere many times that campaigning against the Koch Brothers won't sway Real World voters, but in a room full of Iowa City liberals, it's catnip.

"The Koch Brothers want to eliminate all campaign finance law. Here's your $50 million check," Sanders imagined the oil baron brothers saying to a candidate.  "Now I own you."

(I initially mistweeted that as $50, which is really embarrassing.)

"They don't want to raise the minimum wage - they want to eliminate the concept of minimum wage," a stance hinted at by Iowa's junior senator. The mere mention of her name drew scattered hisses, just a few, from the crowd.

In contrast, the mention of climate change gets "hear hear" outbursts from an Iowa City crowd. "It is not a good thing to reject science, said Sanders. "In medical research we trust science and doctors, who not on climate change? The scientific community is united: it is caused by yooman activity," he added in his native Brooklynese.

I remain skeptical that Sanders will run in the end.  HE won't play the Nader role but his lifelong aversion to the words "I am a Democrat" will be problematic in a race for the Democratic Party's nomination. Is this an effort to boost the left of the Dems forces in Iowa, like CCI? Or is it just a progressive version of the Newt Gingrich/Mike Huckabee/Sarah Palin strategy: drop into Iowa to get the presidential buzz going and sell some books?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

21 Bar Round 4: This Time, In Des Moines

Look, this wasn't my idea:
Senate File 208, a bipartisan bill introduced Wednesday, would prevent Iowa counties and cities from adopting ordinances barring 19- and 20-year-old adults from bars.

Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids, said the legislation would also overrule existing ordinances that keep 19- and 20-year-old adults out of bars. That would include Iowa City’s, which bans those patrons from drinking establishments after 10 p.m.

Horn, who introduced the file with Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, said the bill focuses on safety, arguing that allowing those adults in bars would keep them away from dangerous house parties where binge drinking and assaults occur.
It's happening for all the wrong reasons:
Bertrand operates three bars in Sioux City -- McCarthy & Bailey's Irish Pub, Pearl's Wine & Booze, and Blue Ribbon Tap -- as well as a banquet and party room called The Big Snug.
Yet I'm sure the first thought the Johnson County delegation had at this bill filing was: "oh, shit, now we have to listen to Deeth rant about it again."
Hopefully just this one.  To tell you the truth, even I'm sick of hearing me rant about it. I said everything I could say in every possible way in 2007 and 2010 and 2013,  and my angle was both unique and ignored. Each time hoping to find the right persuasive magic words, each time failing, and making Deeth: 21 Bar a punchline.

But those three experiences tell me that literally no one else is going to say what I say.  I'm stuck with this issue, and have no more chance of shedding it than I did of banning the beret.  All I can do is what I did with the beret, embrace it: I'm the 18 Is Adult guy, even though I'm almost triple that age, and now that Senate File 208 is on the table I'm stuck having to find something new to say about it.

My only hope here is that I trust my chances with the Legislature better than I do with the local election voters of Iowa City. "Progressive" in recent years has too often meant taking rights away from people.

“In the five years since the ordinance, the evidence is clear that safety has improved, that our downtown has improved, that our neighborhoods did not implode with crazy house parties, and that our arts and culture and general night life are as vibrant as they’ve ever been,” Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek said. “The notion that Iowa City’s ordinance forces young people into house parties is a red herring.”
That may be true. Opinions and measurements differ, but my sense is that our Number One Party School rank is no longer merited, and that the city establishment and the University got what they wanted out of the 21 Bar ordinance.  It "works."

But that it "works" is completely beside the point.  The fact that 19 and 20 year olds aren't clamoring for this, and that the University successfully co-opted student leadership by making it a "feminist issue" when it was on the ballot in 2013, is beside the point. Even alcohol is beside the point.  This is not a public safety or public health issue. It's a rights issue.

This is about something bigger than binge drinking rates.  This is about a literal battle in the streets that was fought 45 years ago. This is about a fundamental contradiction in the law.

We fought many culture wars in the 1960s, wars over race and gender and expression, and wars over wars.  Many of those battles are still incomplete.  One of the most important and successful battles was about age.

The de facto standard age of adulthood in that pre-boomer era of in loco parentis was 21.  With one glaring, life or death exception.

Among the many many slogans of the era, one of the most effective was "old enough to fight, old enough to vote."  As early as 1965, it was in the opening verse of a Number One hit, back when Number One hits meant something.  (The competion that week was only "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Help.") It cut to the core democratic question of fairness as effectively as "no taxation without representation" did for the Founding Fathers.

The argument was so effective over the course of a half dozen years that society had to act.  The military, of course, still needed bodies for Vietnam, the second biggest foreign policy mistake of the post World War II era. (Ask me in person about the first.) So rather than raise the draft age up, they silenced the argument by dropping the voting age down - in the strongest way possible.
Amendment XXVI 
The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.
1971, with the draft still going and Vietnam not yet winding down, may have been the only year in American history when the 26th Amendment would have passed.  But it was important enough then that we changed our nation's fundamental law to deal with it.  Even while our nation was torn in half by a war, we reached a super-majority overwhelming consensus.

The battle over age may not feel as important now as it did in 1971. (As it turned out, the mass "anti-war" movement was really only an anti-DRAFT movement.) But amending the Constitution is a statement across the ages, that a principle is important enough to engrave in stone.

And that principle is more than just the literal right to vote included in the text.  In the context of the Vietnam era, it was a statement of values, that 18 year olds had the responsibilities and rights of full adults.

And after the passage of the 26th Amendment, those rights started extending.  Old Enough To Fight, Old Enough To Vote soon became Old Enough To Drink.  That lasted about a decade, till a Reagan-era backlash to All Things Sixties manifested itself in a rider to a highway funding bill that pressured states to roll back those rights. That effort at rollback is still ongoing. (We shouldn't be looking at making the smoking age 19, either.)

Since then, we've lived with a contradiction that we refuse to address or even seriously discuss.

You think I'm over the top here.  Yes, the right to party pales next to the right to vote or the right Not To Be Killed.  (My Dad Rock is still surprisingly relevant.) But sometimes we need to stand up for the trivial as part of the bigger picture, which is why I've been fighting this so hard for so long.

The principle behind the 26th Amendment is that 18 year olds are adults.  Yet under present law, alcohol rather than military service is the glaring exception. An improvement but still a contradiction that needs to be addressed, honestly and openly.

Pretty much everyone privately acknowledges that the 21 year old drinking age doesn't actually stop 19 and 20 year olds from drinking.  Many will admit it isn't even really supposed to.

There's a tacit societal understanding: if you're 19, 20, even 18 as long as you're away at college, and you drink a little, and important here you don't do something stupid, it's not a mortal sin.  If you actually ARE busted, the charge may read Possession Of Alcohol Under Legal Age (PAULA), but your actual offense is Being A Drunk Asshole (BAD-ASS). Yet as long as your drinking is clandestine and low key, our culture winks. It's Kinda Sorta OK and considered normal.

No, the 21 year old drinking age isn't really about 19 and 20 year olds at all. It's about 16 and 17 year olds. It's about keeping 18 year old high school seniors from buying for their junior and sophomore buddies.  And pretty much any lawmaker anywhere will privately acknowledge that, which is why you hear 19 quietly mentioned as a more optimal drinking age "to keep it out of the schools."

But the Constitution, to me, says 18 year olds are adults.  They should be treated as adults if and when they break the law,   They should not be denied adult rights just in case they MIGHT break the law. That's a scene from Minority Report.

Maybe instead we should go Hogwarts and graduate people from high school at 17.  I graduated at 17 so I'll drink a butterbeer to that. It  would be a big cultural change, sure - but not as big as amending the Constitution.

No, this isn't about alcohol at all.

Clearing up that Constitutional contradiction of Old Enough To Vote, Old Enough To Drink, and standing up for that principle that 18 year olds are adults, a matter that was and could again be life or death, is simply more important than the pragmatic effects that the "leaders" of Iowa City and the University praise.

Senate FIle 208 is not the bill I would have introduced. If I was in the Legislature, which I tried for once and failed, I would have gone all the way with an 18 year old drinking age bill.

Senate File 208 is a baby step, granting SOME more rights to SOME young adults, and for that reason I support it and I ask my legislators to support it.  Do I expect that?  There's no question that the University and city will go to the mattresses to stop this - I doubt it has a real chance anyway - but yes. I expect that.

And if they disappoint me... well, then they need to ask themselves some hard questions.

We made a mistake once when we amended the Constitution.  And that mistake involved alcohol.  We realized that mistake so fast that just a decade and a half later the pendulum swung all the way in the other direction.  That even makes our evolution on marriage equality seem pokey.

Prohibition was a failed experiment. And I don't think so, but maybe 18 Is Adult is a failed experiment too.  A lot has changed since 1971.  If we can't trust 18, 19, and 20 year olds with full adult rights, maybe we need to reassess that decision.

At the very least, we need to take the implications of the 26th Amendment and Senate File 208 seriously.  At some point, we need to address the contradiction between 18 and 21.  Right now, we can't even acknowledge there is a contradiction, except in private and off the record.

How old is an adult? "It depends" is NOT an answer,  "highway funding" is an excuse, "it works" is a premise to be rejected.  "Yes, it's a contradiction but it's a contradiction I support" is a bad answer but is at least more honest.

I say 18 is adult.

We can't keep having it both ways.  Either let young adults have a beer, or take away their votes.

But I'll say this: no military recruiter should ever be allowed to talk to anyone who's not old enough to have a beer.  If THAT law ever passed, the drinking age would be 17 the next week.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Dear Senator Franken: Make Us Laugh

Dear Senator Franken:

It still makes me feel good to say that. Senator Franken.

I remember how people scoffed when you announced your candidacy. Saying you couldn't be taken seriously, and even if people would overlook your previous career you were just too liberal anyway. But in that history making year of 2008, you made that race closer and closer until it the margin was thinner than the skin of the Lizard People.

And the Right wing faux outrage machine spent months denying and delaying you the seat, and denying the president that 60th Democratic Senator. Can it really be, just six years since we had 60 Democratic Senators?

But finally they could deny and delay no more, and you took that seat you so narrowly but rightfully earned. Alan Stuart Franken, United States Senator from the great state of Minnesota, in the chair once held by Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone, the holy trinity of the DFL.

And you settled in for five and a half years.  No Sunday talk shows for you, even though you excelled in the medium of television.  Just Minnesota media.  No showy stunts.  Sure, we saw occasional glimpses of the wit that brought you your initial fame.  But you were a senator's Senator, a workhorse.

Minnesota saw that.  And last year, when so many of your swing state classmates like Kay Hagan and Marks Udall and Begich fell, you not only survived, you thrived.  You increased your margin from - counted, counted, and counted again - 312 votes to more than 200,000.

That's no fluke.  That's not "celebrity." Celebrity may have gotten your foot in the door.  It doesn't get you a second term.  You have to EARN that.

As an Iowan, I was grieving in December at the end of your friend Tom Harkin's carrer and the loss of his seat.  So I asked my readers to choose a surrogate Democratic senator for Iowa, and you were the overwhelming winner. So I'm going to ask you my first favor.

But I'm not going to ask Senator Franken.  I'm going to ask Al.

It’s been decades since he stood on the fabled stage that so many comedy greats have called home. But come Sunday, Sen. Al Franken plans to be back in Studio 8H to help commemorate the 40th anniversary of “Saturday Night Live.”

The Minnesota Democrat, who spent a combined 15 seasons writing for and performing on the sketch comedy juggernaut, told HOH he expects to make the trek to 30 Rockefeller Plaza to watch the live, three-hour reunion show (scheduled to air on Feb. 15 at 8 p.m.). “The whole experience was wonderful,” Franken said when pressed about the most memorable moments from over a decade spent with the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”

I was happy to see that you're going to New York for the show Sunday, to celebrate all the laughs that you and so many others have given us for 40 years.

We love you as a Senator. But we miss that side of you. We just know that deep inside, you're full of punchlines about the absurdity of Washington in the 2010s, which turned out to be the REAL Al Franken Decade.  We can almost feel you holding it in. Must... not...joke... must... not...joke...

Al, your most famous character asked for affirmation.  You got that last fall from your constituents.  And they know you'll never take them for granted, that you won't go Hollywood on Minnesota.  You had plenty of chances to do that in the last six years and you turned them all down.

A lot of people are aware that your departures from SNL in 1980 and 1995 wasn't entirely on your terms, that you sought and were denied more prominent roles for reasons that had more to do with corporate politics than your own talents.  But your presence Sunday, and your prominence in your current career, mean a lot to a show that, while less prominent than it was in the three-channel days, still casts a huge presence over all of television and all of comedy.

Sunday is a special occasion.  Minnesota knew who and what you were when they elected you. Twice. And I'm sure they'd indulge you in a moment of fun.

Senator... sorry.  Al.  Maybe this has already been offered.  Maybe you're accepted.  Maybe you've declined.

But I hope you surprise us and get up on that 30 Rock stage one more time Sunday night.  Please make us laugh just once.  You're good enough, you're smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Lennon Read A Book On Marx, or why Bernie Sanders Still Isn't Running For President

As much as I'm hoping that a viable Hillary Clinton alternative emerges, or even that Hillary Clinton herself pretends to run a real Iowa caucus campaign, I've been convinced for some time that the alternative is NOT going to be Bernie Sanders. At this point I'm only adding evidence to that conclusion.

In December I wrote:
Sanders still won't say "I'm a Democrat," a seemingly necessary precondition to running for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.

Read this sentence again:  

Sanders said a grassroots political movement is needed in the country, whether or not he runs for president.

It's not about the running for president part at all.

It's about the grassroots movement part.
Sanders' Iowa visits always include a lot of time with groups like CCI and ICAN, and the mission seems to be the outside groups pulling the Democratic Party, and by extension the near certain nominee, leftward.

Then over the weekend, this piece by Alex Seitz-Ward at MSNBC:
And it’s still unclear whether Sanders has the stomach for a run. He despises what he calls the “game” aspects of politics, like fundraising and building a personality cult. “What is politics? What is serious politics?” he asked Saturday. “It’s about having a serious debate about issues, not gossip, not personality.”
Bernie, I've been a fan for 25 years, but you're wrong here. Maybe politics SHOULD be "a serious debate about issues, not gossip, not personality.”  It's a mistake lefties often make: the assumption that well reasoned, rational, complex arguments will win out just on their own merits.  It's the ideological belief that the didactic is morally superior to the dramatic.

Looking back over the modern mass media era, back to the birth of radio, I can think of countless presidential candidacies where style trumped substance. But I can think of very, very few candidates who were all issues, no persona. Even those who are ret-conned as being about ideas or ideology - I'm thinking especially of Reagan here - initially got into office in large part on personality. 

The best example I can think of for a pure issues, no persona candidate is Eugene McCarthy. And as soon as he started seeing success on Just The Issues, or rather just THE issue. Bobby Kennedy jumped in and trumped him. Because RFK had both the issues AND the personality AND the narrative of the Restoration Of Camelot, which of course ended in a tragic repetition.

Bernie Sanders invokes so much of that Sixties Left mood, and the people drawn to him seem to fit that mold. But I prefer my Lennon to my Lenin, so here's a couple songs.

Lennon sometimes described "Imagine" as "'Working Class Hero' with sugar on it for conservatives." It is "Anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugarcoated it is accepted ... Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey."

Two great songs. But "imagine" has a profound simplicity that is universal and timeless, as relevant today as it was in 1971.  In contrast, "Working Class Hero" is designed to be harsh, with two deliberately dropped F-bombs that, while dramatically justified, limited its audience in an era when government-licensed broadcast was the only available mass medium.

And the rhetoric, while still more poetic in Lennon's gifted voice than in lesser hands, still feels strongly of its time and place. It's more of a "serious debate about the issues," but less of a song.

Which statements made more impact on the actual proletariat?

Back to me from December:
This fall I had the chance to meet and see both Sanders and the other progressive dream candidate, Elizabeth Warren, up close.

Sanders is pure issue, pure message, which activists love but is overwhelming to regular folks. There's no Bernie there.  And, it seems, he's proud of that:

“We have reached the stage where people who actually talk about the issues like me seem to be kind of weird,” Sanders said. “Imagine somebody involved in politics talking about issues.”

A fair critique. But Warren carried much the same progressive message as Sanders, only wrapped it in the family and biography and story that Americans seem to need in order to digest issues.

Other nations have a symbolic president or a monarch who can carry the flag and the national narrative, while a purely political prime minister does the heavy lifting of issues and governing. The American presidency is a rare office in this world, both head of government and head of state. We Americans simply can't handle issues without story, issues ALONE aren't a story, and when the two are pitted against each other, story wins.
I don't think she'll run either, though I hope, but Warren plays the Imagine to Sanders' Working Class Hero. Or, more accurately, she is willing to sing Imagine where Sanders isn't.

Bernie Sanders is a smart, smart man. He can Imagine a world where politics is pure issues, where he could run for president as the Working Class Hero.  But he knows that's unlikely to change in what's left of his lifetime, and he's not willing to change himself to score some points. If he can't run for president just by talking about the issues, in his own way, then he won't do it.

Sanders' natural role is as a challenger, not an electoral challenger but more as one who pushes the Overton Window of what's possible. And in his own Working Class Hero-ness, Sanders helps the rest of the political world Imagine.