Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

The Keystone Effect

Just hours after the White House indicated it would make a decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline by the end of Obama’s second term, TransCanada made a sharp left on its years-long effort to quickly secure approval. Perhaps sensing that the Obama administration was poised to kill the project (turns out, they were probably right), yesterday TransCanada sent a letter to the State Department asking that it suspend its review of Keystone and instead wait until the next administration takes office in 2017. The move has been widely interpreted as a punt, intended to stave off a decision in case a friendlier president takes office—like, say, a Republican.

Keystone opponents, from 350.org to the Sierra Club to Bold Nebraska, were quick to declare a hard-won victory in the fight to stop a project that James Hansen famously warned would mean “game over for the climate.” But, as activists like Bill McKibben have long been stressing, this decision is not just about Keystone. It’s about a dramatic change in the public perception of fossil-fuel projects and their impact on the planet.

At an event held by America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) this past May, ANGA President Marty Durbin outlined a new and growing problem facing his industry: grassroots opposition. “Call it the Keystone-ization of every pipeline project that’s out there,” he said. “These are things that pipeline developers have had to deal with for a long time. But we’ve seen a change in the debate.”

The difference, added Dominion Energy President Diane Leopold, has been the rise of “high intensity opposition” to pipeline projects. “It is becoming louder, better funded, and more sophisticated,” she said.

At the time of the event, ANGA and its supporters were under a lot of pressure. Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), a $5 billion project crossing three states and 550 miles, had inspired a uniquely diverse opposition of climate activists, conservative landowners, and prominent Republican officials. As Politico reports, the anti-ACP campaign includes heavyweights like former Bush 41 staffer Tom Harvey, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, and financial services lobbyist Phil Anderson, along with climate groups like 350.org and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Such a diverse alliance has a direct parallel in anti-Keystone activism, particularly in how Bold Nebraska has built a broad-based campaign of conservative landowners opposed to eminent domain and climate activists opposed to dirty tar sands. And that opposition has only grown. With the ACP far from finalized, local opposition has pushed Dominion to sue dozens of landowners who wanted no part in the project, while also adjusting its route a number of times due to environmental concerns.  

Proposed projects in the Northeast and upper Midwest have met similarly stiff opposition from climate groups and landowners. In Minnesota, Enbridge’s $2.6 billion Sandpiper Pipeline, slated to snake across the state’s northern region, has run into hard resistance from landowners, environmental activists, and tribal groups, particularly the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Opponents have cited a lack of formal hearings in the pipeline’s development as well as Enbridge’s decidedly poor record of oil spills in the region. The pipeline remains about a year behind schedule.

As Elana Schor reports for Politico, “Keystone has changed the politics of pipelines nationwide, offering a template that activists from New England to Minnesota and Wisconsin are using to grind projects to a halt.”

And of course companies like Dominion and Enbridge are far from the only targets. In fact, the same week Durbin warned about “Keystone-ization” the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the government body in charge of issuing permits for new pipeline projects, was forced to reschedule its annual meeting in Washington after warnings from law enforcement about impending protests.

To be sure, the battle over Keystone isn’t over. As activists acknowledge, even if Obama rejects the pipeline, TransCanada can resubmit its application under a new administration. But it does seem like the ground underneath projects like this has begun to shift.

Judge Issues Restraining Order After an L.A. Charter Network Interfered with Teachers Union Drive

Drama has escalated for teachers organizing at the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, the largest charter network in Los Angeles. Since the teachers, organizing with United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), first went public with their union drive in March, they allege the administration has erected illegal barriers to organizing, including intimidating their employees. (Alliance denies these accusations, though some of their leaked internal communications certainly suggest they are opposed to the effort. For example, one memo instructed management to keep their statements focused on “the potentially negative effects of UTLA and any union on fulfilling the school’s mission.”)

Union leaders have filed four unfair labor practice complaints against Alliance, claiming that that administrators have sought to spy on teachers who are organizing, and block UTLA organizers from coming on campus, among other things. Teachers also took issue with Alliance using “funds that could be used for student education to hire high-priced PR consultants, to create an anti-union website.” Towards the end of the 2014-2015 school year, the California Charter Schools Association started to pay Alliance alumni to call parents at home, in order to help galvanize them against the union effort. Part of the script that alumni were asked to read said, “We are asking parents to sign a petition in support of the Alliance as it is today…without UTLA. Will you please sign our petition?”

“Paying alumni to read a script designed to get parents to sign a petition against their own students’ teachers infuriates me,” said Michael Letton, an Alliance teacher, in an UTLA statement.

Alliance’s spokesperson, Catherine Suitor insists that everything the charter network has done in response to the union effort “is to the letter of the law” and says they would not seek to create a coercive or hostile environment.

Two weeks ago, California’s state labor board announced that it would be issuing an injunction, calling for Alliance administrators to quit interfering with the organizing efforts. Then on Friday, in a surprising move, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge issued a restraining order against the Alliance administrators. The order says that Alliance cannot coerce or ask teachers about their positions on unionization, must allow organizers to come onto school grounds, cannot block emails from the union, and must stay 100 feet away from UTLA organizers.

This restraining order will remain in place until November 17, when the judge considers the state labor board’s injunction request. Union organizers will now be allowed to enter into school buildings after school hours.

In March, 70 teachers first announced their intent to join a union, and by June, 146 teachers had signed on in support. Shaun Richman, AFT’s deputy director of organizing, says the current number stands at 124 teachers, after losing some supporters over the summer who no longer work at Alliance. Forming a union will require 50 percent-plus-one of the charter’s roughly 600 teachers to sign on in support.

Earlier this fall, news leaked that the Broad Foundation seeks to enroll at least 50 percent of L.A. public school students in charter schools over the next eight years. Currently, about 16 percent of students in the district attend charters. Such an expansion would undoubtedly threaten the jobs of many unionized teachers in the district.

While the Broad Foundation’s charter expansion plan would require about 5,000 teachers, their documents make no mention of recruiting from teachers already working for L.A. Unified. It does discuss recruiting from Teach for America and other alternative teacher training programs. “While TFA is important, we predict they can provide just 15 percent of our total need,” the report stated. “In order to significantly narrow the teacher recruitment and training gap, we will need other providers like the Relay Graduate School of Education or TNTP (formerly known as The New Teacher Project to come to Los Angeles.” The report estimates that training for new teachers for their charter expansion plan will cost about $43 million over the eight-year period.

According to The Los Angeles Times, the number of teachers in the district has shrunk to about 25,6000 over the last six years, down from about 32,300. The district says that half that decrease is due to the growth of charter schools.

Oh Yeah, Tomorrow Is Election Day: A Preview of Ballot Measures in Four States

While coverage of the 2016 presidential election (which is still 12 months away) ramps up, it’s easy to forget that tomorrow is still Election Day. The national political stakes may not be high, but there are a number of ballot measures that could have resounding impacts on state and city-level politics.

Here’s a quick preview of some of the initiatives that voters across the country will be considering:

Maine

Campaign-finance rules could be drastically changed if Maine voters approve Question 1 on the ballot. Backed by a grassroots coalition of good-government advocates, the measure would bolster the state’s public campaign-funding system to better compete with increases in outside spending, increase penalties for those who violate campaign-finance laws, and work to shine a light on dark money. Here’s a good explainer on the measure from the Bangor Daily News.

Voters in Portland, the state’s biggest city, will also consider a measure that would increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Portland’s city council recently voted to raise the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Critics have vehemently argued that the city’s economy cannot handle an increase to $15, while supporters say it’s necessary for workers to earn a living wage.

Washington

Seattle residents will consider tomorrow whether to institute an innovative public campaign-finance system that would give voters $100 in vouchers, to distribute to candidates as they see fit. This would be a big victory for campaign-finance reformers who see vouchers as a promising way to get big-money influence out of politics.

On the other side of the state, in Spokane, a bold new Worker Bill of Rights would unilaterally improve conditions for the city’s workers. As In These Times has reported, the ballot measure would increase the minimum wage, guarantee equal pay for equal work, protect against wrongful termination, and prioritize worker rights over corporate rights.

Statewide, Washingtonians will decide on a controversial tax measure that critics say amounts to nothing more than “legislative blackmail.” Long-time anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman is backing the initiative, which would cut the state’s sales tax by 1 percent if the legislature doesn’t reinstate a constitutional amendment that requires a two-thirds majority to pass any tax hike.

Ohio

Ohioans will vote on two major ballot measures tomorrow—one that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana and another that would make the state’s redistricting process bipartisan.

Many marijuana-legalization advocates are skeptical of the ballot initiative, given that deep-pocketed investors who stand to gain a monopoly over commercial growing rights are bankrolling the measure. Another measure on the Ohio ballot aims to nullify the legalization initiative, if it passes.

Also on the ballot is a measure that would work to reduce political gerrymandering in the state’s redistricting process. The current system uses a five-member partisan board that critics say has created district borders that reduce the power and representation of minorities across the state. The measure would reform the system by creating a seven-member board appointed in a more bipartisan manner.

Mississippi

As a state that is perennially on the bottom of national education rankings, voters in Mississippi will decide on a measure that advocates say is an attempt to improve education standards by changing the way the state funds public schools. The measure would force the legislature to adhere to a 1997 state law that was meant to increase public-school funding allotments. However, the law’s funding formula has only been met twice. If this measure is passed, lawmakers would be required to fully fund public schools, or relinquish their power to a county judge.

From campaign finance and tax reform to public-education funding and minimum wages, these are all likely to be central to the 2016 presidential election. And tomorrow, we’ll get a peak at how some possible policy solutions fare with voters. 

Eliza Newlin Carney to Join The American Prospect

Eliza Newlin Carney joins The American Prospect as a senior editor on November 9. Carney joins the Prospect from a post as a senior writer and columnist for CQ Roll Call, where she covers lobbying, influence and political money.

Before joining CQ Roll Call in 2011, Carney worked at National Journal, where she also wrote a column and focused on money and influence. She is best known for coining the term "super PAC," and brings broad editorial experience in magazines, breaking news, blogging and commentary to the post.

“I am thrilled to be joining the Prospect and its talented staff,” said Carney. “This is a key moment for the progressive movement, and the Prospect is uniquely positioned to inform it.”

Politicians Are Still Using Black Lives Matter as a Scare Tactic

In his appearance this past Sunday on Face the Nation, Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie resurrected one of his favorite talking points when he argued that Barack Obama’s recent comments “justifying” Black Lives Matter were “encouraging lawlessness in this country.”

The New Jersey governor was referring to a statement Obama made at the end of last week’s White House forum on criminal justice reform, when as The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery reported, he said that the movement to end racial bias in policing has raised “a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.”

Over the past year, a growing chorus of conservative pundits and politicians has railed against Black Lives Matter, often framing the movement as an anti-police crusade aimed at inciting violence. These condemnations usually appear after the deaths of police officers or outbursts of highly charged language at protests, but the evidence that the perpetrators possess any substantial connection to Black Lives Matter has ranged from slight to nonexistent. As Vox’s German Lopez pointed out last month, it’s unlikely that BLM would get very far if it actually advocated for anti-police violence since “targeting individual officers does nothing to achieve the movement's broader goals, and in fact may detract from them.”

That bit of logic hasn’t stopped Christie (or Donald Trump, or Ted Cruz, or the now dropped-out Scott Walker, for that matter) from mischaracterizing Black Lives Matter on the 2016 campaign trail. But given that candidates in the still-bloated GOP field are looking for a way to distinguish themselves, the move makes political sense, even if the numbers aren’t there to support it.

Placing Black Lives Matter activists in direct opposition to police officers without any factual support has become unsettlingly common. In a speech on Friday, FBI director James Comey expressed his belief that “a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year” has negatively impacted police officers’ ability to do their jobs. It was a statement that appeared to lend credibility to the controversial (and highly speculative) “Ferguson effect,” which argues that video-recording technology and heightened scrutiny of police officers by the public has simultaneously disempowered police officers and emboldened criminals. And while a new study from the Justice Department finds that “the proportion of fatal attacks on officers attributable to ambushes [is] increasing,” the study ends its data collection at 2013—before the Ferguson protests and the emergence of Black Lives Matter.

Comey’s remarks (which he repeated on Monday) have been heavily scrutinized, and The New York Times reported that the White House quickly distanced itself from Comey. Over at The Atlantic, David Graham exposed the fundamental flaw in arguments like Comey’s: “If the Ferguson effect is real, and the current system can only provide security by means of questionable policing in communities of color, then American policing is much more troubled than its defenders have been willing to admit.” In a separate Atlantic article, Ta-Nehisi Coates added, “A theory of government which tells citizens to invest agents of the state with the power to mete out lethal violence, but discourages them from holding those officers accountable is not democracy.”

That’s one point Comey and the 2016 GOP contenders would be wise to remember. But it’s highly unlikely that the message will stick. 

The Crazier Ben Carson's Statements Are, the Higher His Poll Numbers Go

Yesterday on Meet the Press, GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson told host Chuck Todd that women who have abortions are like slave owners. As delusional as that comparison is, it’s unlikely that it’ll derail his candidacy—in fact, it’ll probably just push him even further into the lead. With every bizarre, racist, or sexist Donald Trump comment, pollsters were predicting his demise, but Trump continued to do well in polls. And it looks Ben Carson is about to follow that trajectory.

The neurosurgeon turned right-wing fringe candidate is polling at 28 percent in Iowa, where the first round of votes will be cast—a healthy nine points above Trump. If this were 20 years ago, Carson’s penchant for comparing anything and everything to slavery or Nazi Germany would disqualify him from running for president of a tin-foil-hat club, let alone president of the United States. But this is no regular election.

In the latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll, Iowa Republicans were asked to rate how attractive they found Carson’s candidacy, based on some of his more bizarre statements. Eighty-one percent of responders found his comparison of the Affordable Care Act to slavery “very attractive” or “mostly attractive.” Seventy-three percent liked that he raised questions about whether or not a Muslim should be president of the United States, and 77 percent were onboard when he said that if Jews had been armed, Hitler wouldn’t have been able to kill so many people.  

In this election, crazy statements are rewarded with higher poll numbers. As Paul Waldman wrote in the Prospect, the Republican Party has spent so much of the last six years or so riling up its base and making people angry with the establishment, that the doors are now wide open for outsiders. These outsiders’ campaigns against career politicians have worked so well, a man who has never held a position in government and who believes that making health care more affordable is tantamount to American slavery is the newest frontrunner.

 

 

 

 

 

After Public Pressure, Clinton Swears Off Private-Prison Lobby’s Money

This morning, Hillary Clinton’s campaign told Fusion that she would no longer accept contributions from federally registered lobbyists or private-prison companies and said that her campaign will donate any previously raised money from private-prison lobbyists to charity.

As Jorge Rivas reports, the announcement comes after growing pressure from criminal justice reformers on Clinton and other presidential candidates to denounce the controversial—and politically powerful—industry.

Clinton had previously relied on lobbyists for private-prison companies as fundraising bundlers. In July, Lee Fang reported for The Intercept that one Clinton bundler who was a registered lobbyist with Geo Group—a company that operates a number of private jails and immigrant detention centers in the country—had raised $45,000 for her campaign. Another five bundlers were lobbyists at a firm that worked for Corrections Corporation of America, which is another infamous private prison giant.

Those two private-prison companies alone given more than $10 million to candidates and spent more than $25 million on lobbying since 1989. 

The private-prison industry has already become a surprisingly significant part of the presidential election. Republicans often tout the industry as a cost-effective solution to prison overcrowding while Democrats blast them for abysmal conditions for prisoners and pay-to-play influence over criminal justice reform.

Senator Bernie Sanders introduced legislation recently that would ban federal private prisons.

On the other hand, Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio has long had close ties to the industry, and was the biggest Senate beneficiary of contributions from Geo. The company has already cut a $100,000 check to Rubio’s super PAC.

Billionaire Makes $150 Million Threat to Get Congress to Cut Corporate Tax Rate

Yesterday, billionaire Carl Icahn, who has made his fortune as a ruthless corporate raider, issued a clear demand to Congress: cut corporate tax rates or face a whirlwind of outside spending from his new $150 million super PAC.

“I believe the time has come to also hold Senators and Congressmen accountable for the current gridlock in Congress that prevents important legislation from being passed,” Icahn wrote. “This is why I’m currently preparing to form a Super PAC with an initial commitment of $150 million from me personally.”

As Paul Blumenthal reports for The Huffington Post, Icahn wants Congress to pass legislation that would allow corporations to bring home at a huge tax discount the $2 trillion that’s currently being stashed in tax havens. Not coincidentally, Icahn is one of the biggest investors in Apple, which most notoriously keeps nearly $200 billion in profits abroad.

The billionaire argues that new policy framework advanced by Senators Rob Portman and Chuck Schumer would discourage the controversial practice of “corporate inversions,” in which a company acquires a foreign entity and then transfers its central business operations to that entity—thus avoiding domestic corporate taxes. However, Blumenthal notes that their proposal would allow corporations to funnel money back into the country at an obscenely low one-time tax rate, and that there are several other ways—such as a proposal from Senator Dick Durbin—to avoid such corporate inversions.

In order to twist the arm of Congress members who can fast-track the legislation, Icahn has brazenly threatened to dump millions to unseat them in their next elections. Obviously, this has angered good-government advocates.

“As surely as billionaires like to own sports teams as a form of conspicuous consumption,” Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said, “we can expect them increasingly to fund personal super PACs as a form of self-aggrandizement—as well as to drive forward policies on everything from taxation to gambling to advance their own bottom lines.”

That Icahn even has the ability to dole out such a threat is a clear testament to the erosion of campaign-finance law in the wake of Citizens United. And if Icahn’s strategy works, it’ll be the starkest rebuttal of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s deciding opinion from that case, in which he boldly wrote, “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

The Foreign Policy Debate Missing From the Democratic Race

Liberals may have snickered at the recent Twitter battle between Donald Trump and Jeb Bush over George W. Bush’s national-security record, a debate CNBC said was “so dumb it’s genius.” But as childish as it seemed, at least they were debating national security, something on which the Democrats have made few firm proposals. This was most evident in the Democratic debate, where the word “Israel” was mentioned just once and where candidates harped on their records more than concrete ideas.

It’s not like there’s nothing to talk about. The same week as the debate, Obama announced his decision to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through next year—meaning the next president will likely be the third commander in chief of a war that has proven to be as indefinite as it is costly.

Obama’s move has received bipartisan support, with many of the Republican candidates and both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporting his decision. If progressives remain quiet, we’ll start seeing soldiers fighting in a war that started before they were born.

And just last week, a major leak detailing the administration’s secretive drone program raised serious questions about the U.S.’s missions in undeclared war zones. The Democratic candidates may now face questions on other overseas interventions, most of which involve no boots on the ground.

On October 15, The Intercept, a website run by Glenn Greenwald, who helped Edward Snowden in his massive data leak two years ago, published a series of leaked documents and reports, provided by a “second Snowden,” detailing the administration’s drone program. “The Drone Papers” provided one of the most revealing glimpses into the secretive program.

Fraught by unreliable intelligence signals and deceptive foreign partners, drone strikes have been less precise than officials liked to claim. One leaked slide revealed that 90 percent of those killed in drone attacks over one five-month period in 2012 were not the intended targets.

While the moral question of drone strikes has been divisive, the tactical question—Do drones work?—becomes much more important in light of The Intercept’s reporting, and the two leading Democratic candidates’ thoughts on the issue should be made clear, and brought up in the next debate.

Among the Democratic contenders, Clinton’s foreign policy record speaks the loudest, from her vote for the Iraq war to her support of NATO intervention in Libya (which has become an unmitigated disaster today). In last week’s Democratic debate, Clinton stood by the administration’s NATO-backed intervention, calling it “smart power at its best.” Similarly, in a speech at Brookings in September, Clinton outlined a much more hawkish Middle East agenda than either her Democratic rivals or the current administration. In particular, Clinton called for increasing military aid to Israel, sustaining a “robust” military presence in the Gulf, and keeping military intervention on the table should Iran violate the nuclear deal. At the same time, Clinton has been less clear about her positions on drone warfare or the War in Afghanistan.  

The positions of the other candidates remain murkier still. Lincoln Chafee, who is attempting to set himself apart as the Democratic anti-war candidate, is the only one to have a clear campaign position on drone strikes, stating his commitment to ending the program on his campaign website. The other four do not make mention of drones on their campaign pages, and queries to Sanders’ and Clinton’s campaign offices after the “Drone Papers” release amounted to reflexive referrals to their websites. The candidates have either explicitly stated or implicitly suggested that they would continue the program. Sanders, for instance, on a recent Meet the Press episode, gave his unequivocal support for drone warfare if it isolates an important terrorist, adding, “When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive.”

If the drone program becomes a progressive wedge issue, it is only because it raises larger questions about the Democratic candidates’ foreign policy proposals. If they sound like their hawkish Republican counterparts, it’s because they are, or are dangerously close. Clinton has gone as far as proposing a Syrian no-fly zone. And though Sanders has stated his opposition to that stance, he has given little push-back to others. On the Israel-Palestine debate, for instance, Sanders has largely toed the line during his tenure in Congress.

For now, we haven’t heard many concrete positions beyond general platitudes of “war as a last resort” from Sanders. His opposition to the war in Iraq is not a new policy proposal, and though he told Chuck Todd he was “very concerned” about his Republican colleagues’ “war talk,” it’s difficult to see what this might mean in concrete policy terms.

For now it’s still remarkably difficult to draw clearer distinctions on foreign policy between Clinton, the Republicans, and Sanders.

Black Lives Matter Calls for Additional Democratic Debates

Earlier today, the Black Lives Matter national network released a statement petitioning the Democratic National Committee to add more debates to the 2016 Democratic primary schedule, including a debate targeted specifically at addressing racial justice and #BlackLivesMatter.

The DNC has scheduled only six debates for the 2016 primary season, with the next taking place on November 14. The petition (which can be read in full at Color of Change) argues that black voters “who (reluctantly) give our votes to the Democratic Party deserve more robust forums on issues of particular concern to our communities, at home and abroad.”

The activists cite a 2014 report from the Center of American Progress as evidence of the political importance of black voters, noting that “in 2012, Black women voted at a higher rate than any other group, across ethnicity, gender and race.” As the CAP report details, Barack Obama captured the White House in 2012 with 55 percent of the total women’s vote—despite the fact that only 42 percent of white female voters chose him. Report author Maya Harris found that women of color help Democrats in off-year elections as well—Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe won 91 percent of black women’s votes in 2013, significantly more than the 38 percent of white women’s votes he captured. The petition also notes that black men vote at relatively high proportions—a claim supported by census data from the 2012 election.

The release of the petition is largely fueled by less-than-enthusiastic responses from black activists in the days after last week’s first Democratic debate. Activists were particularly frustrated that racial justice had very limited time in the spotlight at the debate, and that the candidates failed to offer specific policy proposals aimed at racial justice. In his post-debate commentary, Jamil Smith of The New Republic wrote, “Black voters aren’t looking for inspiration on this issue as much as we are substance,” calling the debate a “squandered opportunity.” 

It appears that the petition’s signatories agree with Smith’s assessment. In a statement to Buzzfeed, Elle Hearns of the Black Lives Matter network and GetEQUAL said, “What we’re demanding [from the candidates] is for more substance, not just rhetoric, because we know that a lot of the candidates are depending on black voters.” Buzzfeed noted that Hearns also suggested that the Democratic candidates expand the range of issues they discuss to include “black trans women, incarceration rates, police violence, ‘economic disenfranchisement,’ and efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.”

Last week, I wrote that “activists still have a lot of work to do” when it comes to making racial justice a significant issue in 2016. With today’s campaign, Black Lives Matter activists are showing that they are up to the challenge. 

Pages