Abby Rapoport

A Valentine's Day Vote for Same-Sex Marriage

Flickr/Shira Golding
For Illinois's same-sex couples wishing to wed, the Valentine's Day candy should be extra sweet. The state senate is expected to vote on a same-sex marriage bill today. “This is an exciting time to be a gay-rights lawyer,” Camilla Taylor, counsel for Lamdba Legal, told me. Taylor has good reason to be excited. With a Democratic supermajority, just about everyone expects the chamber will pass the measure. Then the bill will go to the House, where the leadership is also supportive. The news is part of a larger trend. Many expect the number of states recognizing same-sex marriage to grow significantly this year; activists have their sights set on five different states—Illinois, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, and Hawaii. All have supportive governors and Democratic majorities in the legislature. In New Jersey, where Republican governor Chris Christie vetoed a marriage-equality bill last year, people are working to build enough support to overturn his decision. Nine states already...

Guns—Not the Mentally Ill—Kill People

Flickr/JenXer
Flickr/JenXer A fter a year of violent tragedies that culminated with the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, America is finally having a conversation about gun control. For the many who want to decrease access to firearms in the wake of several mass shootings, new laws being proposed around the country to limit and regulate guns and ammunition represent a momentous first step. But running through the gun-control debate is a more delicate conversation: how to handle mental-health treatment in America. Among both Democrats and Republicans, in both the pro-gun and anti-gun lobbies, there’s a widespread belief that mental-health treatment and monitoring is key to decreasing gun violence. Shining more light on the needs and struggles of the mentally ill would normally be a positive change; mental-health programs and services have been cut year after year in the name of austerity. But in the context of gun violence, those with mental illness have become easy scapegoats...

Where the Wingers Won

Flickr/Richard Hurd
Flickr/Richard Hurd A rally outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. L iberals had every reason to burst with optimism as the November election results began to set in. Not only did Democrats hold on to the White House, but they also won major Senate battles. In battleground states like Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin, a majority of voters chose more progressive visions for the future in both the presidential and Senate races. You might assume that this would have repercussions at the state level too—that these moderate-to-progressive states would work with the federal government in forging a more liberal set of policies. But you’d be wrong. The GOP emerged from November 6 controlling both legislative chambers in 26 states—the same number of states it controlled after the 2010 Tea Party revolution. Most surprising: In seven states that went for Barack Obama, Republicans still hold both the governor’s office and at least one chamber, and they are showing no signs that the voters’...

Fighting Firearms with Firearms

Flickr/Marcin Wichary, Keary O.
Flickr/Marcin Wichary O n Saturday, just a few days after President Obama put forth 23 executive actions to curb gun violence, approximately 1,000 gun-rights activists gathered at the Texas state Capitol to show their opposition . The protest was one of 49 organized around the country by pro-gun group Guns Across America, but the one in Texas was among the biggest. Signs pronounced assault weapons “the modern musket” and quoted the Second Amendment. Speakers including Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and state Representative Steve Toth argued that gun control had no place in America. “The Second Amendment was an enumeration of a right that I already had received from God,” speaker Ralph Patterson, the McLennan County Republican Party chair, told the crowd . “God gave me the right to defend myself.” Three days after the rally, on Tuesday, Texas was in the national headlines when a shooting occurred at a Houston community college. After the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut, Aurora...

Austin Loses Its Hometown Hero

AP Photo/Laurent Rebours
AP Photo/Laurent Rebours Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong rides down the Champs Elysees in Paris with an American flag after the 21st and final stage of the cycling race in 2000. F or a short time, when I had brief dreams of gaining muscle mass, I was a member at one of Austin’s Lance Armstrong 24 Hour Fitness centers. The seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor was inescapable at the place. Above the check-in table was a gigantic yellow “Livestrong” bracelet, a nod to Armstrong’s beloved foundation that offers support to those with cancer (and did much to market the Armstrong brand). As I used to struggle to lift a few pounds over my head, I stared back at a huge poster of Armstrong, next to his famous quote from a Nike ad: “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are YOU on?” He seemed to be with me throughout the workout, and when I left, usually sweaty and exhausted, there was yet another Armstrong...

Vacation Homes for the Rich, Courtesy of Uncle Sam

Flickr/Xerones/William Warby
Flickr/William Warby T he Leave It To Beaver -style single family home, complete with a yard and picket fence, was long a favored image of American prosperity. It’s also an increasingly irrelevant one. More and more people need housing in city centers, where apartments or condos are usually a better option. Though a manicured yard is lovely, many would prefer to live closer to work and cut their commute. But you wouldn’t know there’d been any significant shifts from federal policy on real estate. Turns out, the U.S. government is still watching reruns. A patchwork of dozens of programs, some nearly a century old, has left us with an incoherent set of intentions and goals. A new report from Smart Growth America , a national coalition that fights sprawl, looks at 50 federal programs that deal with housing and real estate . In total, the federal government spends around $450 billion each year on such programs, counting tax breaks, loans and loan guarantees, and direct investment in real-...

Faster and Faster: The Same-Sex Marriage Momentum

Flickr/Lost Albatross
For those involved in state-level battles for gay rights, timelines are getting shorter. Take Delaware: The state's first bill that would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation was introduced back in 1998. The state’s gay-rights community had to fight for 11 years to finally see it pass in 2009. Just two years later, however, the legislature passed a civil-unions law by a relatively large margin less than two months after it was introduced. Now, as activists turn their attention to marriage, they’re hoping lawmakers will continue to step up the pace and pass a bill this session. “We are confident that we will have the votes in both houses to pass marriage,” says Lisa Goodman, president of the state’s leading advocacy group, Equality Delaware. Across the country, marriage-equality advocates are getting their first taste of something sweet—momentum. A majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage and the number continues to rise as younger folks enter the...

A Standardized Testing Revolt

Flickr/albertogp123
Over the past year, there's been a steady and ongoing revolt in Texas. Not about secession or guns or the many other fringe topics that the state is usually associated with. This battle has been waged primarily by parents and teachers, and the demand is relatively simple—cut back on testing our kids. There's been similar sentiments simmering in states across the country, but in Texas a new set of tests, put in place last year, sparked the outcry. Now, the push that began in school board and PTA meetings has finally reached the halls of power. When the biennial state legislature gaveled in on Tuesday, it didn't take long for newly re-elected Speaker of the House Joe Straus to mention testing. "By now, every member of this house has heard from constituents at the grocery store or the Little League fields about the burdens of an increasingly cumbersome testing system in our schools," he said. "Teachers and parents worry that we have sacrificed classroom inspiration for rote memorization...

Ted Cruz Is Crazy Like a Fox

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Texas has sent more than its share of nutty people to Washington—folks like Congressman Louie Gohmert , who, just days into 2013, defined hammers as a type of assault weapon and previously cried “terror babies” on Anderson Cooper. They may make a lot of noise and make some extreme statements, but at the end of the day, their impact is negligible. Don't expect Ted Cruz to be one of these people. Just a week into 2013, Cruz, the newly elected U.S. senator from Texas, has made a number of speeches that might lead many to to dismiss him as another hard-liner with little chance of having significant influence in the Senate. Over the weekend, he called the fiscal=cliff compromise “a lousy deal” for conservatives and made clear he wasn’t eager to work too closely with Democrats. “I don't think what Washington needs is more compromise,” he told Fox News . “I think what Washington needs is more common sense and more principle.” On PBS last night, he dismissed almost all attempts at gun control...

New Year, New Abortion Restrictions

Flickr/NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell obviously wasn't looking for any attention when he certified a set of new regulations last week that could shutter many abortion clinics in the his state. The Republican certified the new requirements on the Friday between Christmas and New Years, and chose to forgo a public announcement about his decision. But low-profile or not, the decision is an scary one for the state's 20 abortion clinics, which now must get to work to comply the 2010 building code for hospitals. That means a lot of very costly changes that have no bearing on the work these clinics do, like widening hallways and doorways and installing hands-free sinks (the kind that automatically turn on when you put your hands underneath the faucet). Advocates for reproductive rights say many of the state's 20 abortion facilities could be forced to close—which is, of course, the whole idea. But McDonnell's decision to make the move as quietly as possible indicates a significant change in the...

What's Ahead for Same-Sex Marriage in 2013

AP Photo/Mel Evans
For gay-marriage advocates, 2012 marked a major turning point—not only did they see wins in the Washington and Maryland state legislatures, but voters in both states as well as in Maine voted to give same-sex couples the right to get hitched. But 2013 may prove to be even more momentous, as lawmakers in several other states plan to push the issue. In Rhode Island, where the House Speaker Gordon Fox is gay and an advocate for marriage equality, same-sex couples have reason to start organizing. State Representative Arthur Handy announced Tuesday he will introduce gay-marriage legislation. While Handy is still gathering co-sponsors for his bill, Fox has promised to help move the measure forward, and the president of the state senate has also promised to allow a committee vote if and when the house sends the measure over. Meanwhile, in Illinois, the pressure on lawmakers to pass gay marriage is growing. According to the Chicago Tribune , media mogul Fred Eychaner, who gave $14 million to...

States of Play

Flickr/Paul Weaver
If you’d forgotten just how much state legislatures impact citizens’ day-to-day lives, 2012 was a year full of reminders. From unions to health care to basic civil rights, states have a tremendous amount of power in shaping public policy. That’s no secret to groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which offers model bills lawmakers can introduce and has pushed issues like voter ID and the “Stand Your Ground” bills that many believed helped pave the way for the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis shootings in Florida. Thanks to a whistleblower and Common Cause, a nonpartisan good government group that supports a variety of reforms to campaign finance and lobbying, a number of ALEC’s tactics were exposed this year, and many lawmakers and corporate members dropped their affiliation with the controversial group this year. Many state debates took on national significance this year, especially those involving birth control, abortion, and unions. Both the right and the left...

While You Weren’t Looking, Michigan Turned Into Texas

Flickr/CedarBendDrive
The Michigan legislature’s lame duck session is only three weeks long, but the state house didn't need more than 18 hours to move the state sharply to the right. During a marathon session Thursday and Friday, the state house passed a variety of very conservative bills on issues from abortion to gun control to taxes. You can’t say they’re not efficient. The state, which favored Obama by 9 points and has long been home to a moderate-progressive movement, may now have a set of laws that puts it on America’s more conservative end. Perhaps most shocking for pro-choice advocates was the effort to restrict abortion rights—or, as Mother Jones put it, “ the abortion mega-bill. ” Assuming the governor signs the bill into law, women in Michigan will now have to buy separate insurance policies to cover abortion. Otherwise, even in cases of rape or miscarriage, the abortion will not be covered. Clinics that provide more than 120 abortions a year will now face significantly more stringent licensing...

Election Officials Defend Their Partisan Status

Flickr/Steve Rhodes
This campaign cycle, even election rules were grounds for partisan fighting. Republican Ken Detzner, Florida’s secretary of state, attempted a purge of the voter rolls, prompting accusations of discrimination. In Colorado, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, also a Republican, tinkered with a similar effort. Pennsylvania’s Secretary of the Commonwealth Carole Aichele, another Republican appointed by Governor Tom Corbett, openly supported the state’s voter-ID law. Most famously, there was Jon Husted, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, whose decision to limit early-voting hours to keep them consistent across the state prompted cries of outrage. All of the partisan wrangling makes Wisconsin, which has a nonpartisan model for running elections , look pretty appealing. In 2008, the Badger State created Government Accountability Board, a group of retired judges approved by members of both parties who administer elections for the state. While it doesn’t stop legislative tinkering—the state...

Political Punishment as Policy

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
Michigan is about to become a right-to-work state and according to Republicans, labor brought it on itself. That’s because on the November ballot, labor groups put a measure to enshrine collective-bargaining rights into the state Constitution. The measure failed, but for daring to wage the campaign, the unions need to be punished, it seems. Governor Rick Snyder previously avoided right-to-work legislation. "One of my concerns was about raising the whole profile of the discussion about labor issues," Snyder said in an interview with MLive . “I said it could stir up the whole topic that we're discussing right now—right to work—or freedom to choose is the way I prefer to look at it.” Greg McNeilly, who runs the pro-right to work PAC Michigan Freedom Fund, put it even more bluntly. “Bob King put this on the agenda,” he told The Washington Post , referencing the president of the state’s most powerful union, the United Auto Workers. “He threatened this state [with the constitutional...

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