Monday, December 22, 2008

This train only stops in Dixie

Lately it seems like every time I think of a political, social or economic trend that I want to write about, a quick search of the Internet demonstrates that the article I was going to write has already been written.

Such is the case this week with the National Journal article by Ronald Brownstein, A Dangerous Imbalance for the GOP. The Republican Party enjoyed a minor civil war this month as its Dixie Senators derailed a bipartisan plan in Congress to save the Big Three automakers from bankruptcy, and President Bush responded by digging into the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program to give Detroit the money that Congress would not.

There are two reasons why the GOP Senate caucus chose to scotch the original deal in Congress. One, union-hating Republicans would love to break the back of the United Auto Workers, as they continue to spread the myth that Detroit autoworkers are better paid than those in the non-unionized south. Two, today's GOP is strongest in the sunbelt/Old Confederacy states which just happen to be the hub of manufacturing for America's foreign-owned auto manufacturers, including Toyota, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen.

Brownstein in his article reaches the same conclusion that I did regarding this mess, at least in terms of the politics involved. That is, that the Republican Party is acting in a very shortsighted way if its long-term goal is to build strength nationally. The GOP is currently dead or dying in the northeast, midwest and on the west coast. It's treading water in the northern plains, and still strong only in the southeast. Brownstein observes that,

"it's telling that so many Republicans from reliably conservative places were willing to attach the party to a policy that could economically devastate Rust Belt states where the GOP is already declining. That gamble shows how the party's loss of regional and ideological equilibrium can reinforce itself. Because Republicans from swing and Democratic-leaning states now constitute such a distinct minority in the party caucus, they lack the numbers to prevent it from adopting positions unpopular with their voters. The caucus majority can impose a direction that solidifies the party where it is already strong but further endangers the minority."

To summarize, the longest journey begins with a single step. The GOP's first step towards becoming a majority party in America again begins with taking actions that will build support where it is not already strong. The Democratic Party endured this same painful process after the 2004 election. Thanks to Howard Dean's leadership at the DNC in 2006 and the Obama campaign in 2008, the 50-state strategy employed by the Democratic Party paid huge dividends in making it victorious in places where people doubted it every could be.

Can the Republican Party break out of its downward spiral in the foreseeable future? I certainly hope not. In fact, I hope they just keep singing the same tune, and leave the rest of us alone. I'll even give them the song (with thanks to Mr. Johnny Cash),

Hey porter! Hey porter!
Please open up the door.

When they stop the train I'm gonna get off first

Cause I can't wait no more.

Tell that engineer I said thanks a lot,

and I didn't mind the fare.

I'm gonna set my feet on Southern soil

and breathe that Southern air.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

2010: Joe messes with Texas

All 150 seats in the Texas state House were up for reelection in 2008, as they are every two years. Democrats picked up three seats, so that Republicans now control the House by a 1-seat majority, 76 to 74. There were a number of very close races this year. The closest was in the 105th District, where Republican incumbent Linda Harper-Brown defeated Democratic challenger Bob Romano by 19 votes out of more than 40,000 cast. Democrats also won some very close contests, including a victory in the 11th District by only 103 votes out of nearly 53,000 cast.

Now then, I realize that probably, your reaction to what I've just written is, "Why should I care?"

Take a look at this map showing which states will gain and lose seats in Congress in the 2011
decennial redistricting. Good golly, it's depressing. Blue states losing seats all over the place.

Notice the big red blotch right in the middle of the map? That's right, Texas will gain an incredible four more seats in Congress for the 2012 elections. Democrats need to find a way to get two more seats (and thus the majority) in the Texas House in 2010 so that the Party will have some leverage in the 2011 redistricting.

Let's take a trip in the Wayback machine for some context. Texas gained two seats after the 2000 census. At that time, Democrats still controlled the Texas state House, while Republicans had the Governor's office and the Senate. A new congressional map was drawn up by a panel of judges in 2001. The 2002 elections elections changed the state's delegation from 17 Democrats and 13 Republicans to 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans.

So the Republicans netted two more seats. Sounds reasonable, right? Not if you're Congressman Tom DeLay.

In the 2002 elections, Republicans gained control of the Texas House, and retained control of the Texas Senate and Governor's office. Tom DeLay became U.S. House Majority Leader. You would think that job would have kept Tom plenty busy.

Think again. In 2003, DeLay found the time to lead an effort for Texas to embark on an unprecedented mid-decade redistricting of its Congressional seats.
DeLay made it clear from the outset what the goal of this redistricting would be: elminate as many Democratic Congressmen as possible. Texas's Republican Senator John Cornyn described the plan as "an opportunity to help the Republicans stay in power in Washington." Well, at least the GOP was being honest for once.

Democratic legislators in Texas organized an unusual plan to stop the redistricting effort: they fled the state en masse, making it impossible for a quorem to exist, thus blocking the redistricting plan from coming to a vote. This effort ultimately failed and the DeLay plan became law.

DeLay's biggest obstacle was never Texas Democrats. It was the court system, which might well have decided to throw out DeLay's plan as discriminatory to minorities. So when DeLay and Company sat down to gerrymander the districts, they shrewdly targeted all ten white Democratic Congressmen, while leaving the districts of the seven minority Democrats alone.

As a result, Republicans gained four seats in the 2004 election, so that Republicans now held 21 of the state's 32 seats (in 2009 they will have 20).

Ok, that was a long history lesson to make my point, but here it is: if Republicans still control everything in Texas in 2011, and they sit down redraw their Congressional map with four more seats to play with, Democrats are likely to suffer. One of the few bright spots for the GOP in the past few years has been the fact that many of the fastest growing areas of the country have been voting Republican for a long time. Democrats will need to work harder in the next decade to turn the sunbelt from red to blue.

Friday, December 12, 2008

On Blagojevich, and all about the dollars

"I think in Illinois as is true in American politics generally, there are two view of politics. ... [one] that goes in for public service and sacrifice, and another that says, 'you're wheeling and dealing and what's in it for me. If, in fact, the various allegations end up proving to be true, this is ... the far end of the spectrum of that business mentality of politics." -President-Elect Barack Obama, speaking on the Governor Rod Blagojevich scandal, December 11, 2008

"It's all about the dollars, always about the dollars." -Joe Pesci, Casino, 1995.

As of this moment Rod Blagojevich is still the Governor of Illinois, despite his recent arrest for (among other things) attempting to sell Illinois' open Senate seat for cash or influence. I don't intend to write much about the outcome of this whole thing (whenever that will be) if I can avoid it.

So I'll give you an exclusive on Blago right now.

The year was 2002. Rod Blagojevich, Congressman and son-in-law of Chicago's post powerful Alderman, ran for Governor in the Democrat primary against Chicago Schools Superintendent Paul Vallas. With the backing of the Daley machine, Rod got the nod, and in November he broke the GOP's 26-year hold on the Governor's office in Illinois.

I was volunteering for Lisa Madigan's campaign for Attorney General. We won, just barely. A year later, I went to work for the IT Department at the AG's office. The 2002 campaign got me hooked on Democratic activism in a big way. By 2005, I was volunteering for Lisa Madigan and for Alderman Tom Tunney in Chicago's 44th Ward. At the same time, I was a director for both Drinking Liberally and the Illinois Democratic Network.

I met a lot of people. I had friends working on campaigns at the city, county, state, congressional, and Presidential levels. I was also a member of a labor union, The Illinois Federation of Teachers, and I knew a lot of people in the other big public employees' union, SEIU. And from all those people I met, I learned a lot of things about some other people. Specifically, candidates and elected officials.

You know something all those campaigns my friends and I work on have in common? They all love to have people come in and volunteer to help them win elections. You can be a complete stranger, but if you're willing to make a few phone calls and stuff some envelopes, you can hang around all day, and get a chance to see and hear everything that's going on.

But in all the years I spent attending Democratic political events, not once did I have someone shake my hand and say, "I'm volunteering for Rod Blagojevich." I had some friends working for Lt. Governor Pat Quinn, who is a terrific leader, but not one for Rod. I did however have a friend tell me that she tried to volunteer at a Blagojevich office and they sent her away.

This is what I'm saying, friends. Rod Blagojevich had the only campaign I ever saw that refused to let people in the door for fear that someone would find out what they were up to.

Blago had his own army of people of course: city workers who owe their positions to Mayor Daley. (I'm not trashing Daley, I happen to think he's a great mayor.)

There was no reason at the time to think that Blagojevich was up to anything too sinister, as it's an old Chicago tradition that political organizations tend to prefer volunteerism from people they already know (and can tightly control). An entire book was written about this phenomenon in 1979, We Don't Want Nobody Nobody Sent: An Oral History of the Daley Years, by Milton R. Rakove. The idea described by the book's title is that if you're a Chicago politician up to no good, you don't want anyone hanging around who wasn't "sent" by someone you already control. That way, noboby rats you out.

Rod ratted himself out. I guess he never learned that trick the Mafia uses of only making important phone calls from pay phones. So long, buddy. By the way, I'm not sure they allow that poofy hair cut you like at the Terre Haute Federal Pen. But of course former Illinois Governor George Ryan can fill you in on that when you get there.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The new political landscape: Good, Bad and Ugly

Third in a series of reflections on the 2008 election
This post is just some stuff from around the country I find interesting.

The Good

>Democrats picked up a seat in the U.S. House today as ballot counting was completed in the very last undecided race. Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy beat Republican Steve Stivers in Ohio's 15th District. Counting had been held up since last month by a court challenge. Democrats will control the House next year by a margin of 257-178.

> In Hawai'i, Republicans lost 2 seats in the state Senate and one in the state House. Democrats now control the House 45-6 and the Senate 23-2. This means that all of Hawai'i's Republican state legislators can now ride to the Capitol together in a Honda Pilot.

> The 2009 New Hampshire state Senate will be America's first legislative body in which a majority are women.

> Democrats are cheering the defeat of one of our own today. Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana was handed a stunning defeat yesterday in a special election by a virtually unknown Republican. Jefferson is awaiting a federal trial on 16 charges of corruption, and is infamous for a FBI search of his home which turned up $90,000 in cash hidden in his freezer. We're lucky to be rid of Jefferson, and winning this seat back in 2010 will not be a problem.

> A Texas-size battle is heating up as Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is threatening to resign from the Senate and take on Governor Rick Perry in the Republican primary for the Gubernatorial race in the Lone Star State in 2010. Perry would be tasked with appointing a replacement Senator who would immediately forced into a special election. It would be fun to watch these two GOP titans tear each other apart. As for the special election however, I wouldn't give Democrats a snowball's change in El Paso of winning.

The Bad
It was no surprise last week when incumbent Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss defeated Democrat Jim Martin in a runoff election in Georgia. Chambliss, who received five deferments to avoid military service during the Vietnam era, is well-known for the television ads he ran during the 2002 Senate race in which he defeated incumbent Max Cleland. The ads paired images of Cleland, a triple amputee and decorated Vietnam veteran with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

The state of Georgia has developed a knack for electing a lot of America's most despicable politicians to high office. You may remember, for example, former Senator Zell Miller's crazy tirade attacking John Kerry at the Democratic Convention in 2004. Or Governor Sonny Perdue, whose principal campaign promise was to give Georgians the opportunity to restore the Confederate battle flag to the Georgia state flag. (As it turned out, Perdue was lying. Once in office, he endorsed a new state flag not based on the battle flag). Last, and least, we have Congressman Paul Broun, who recently accomplished the neat rhetorical trick of simultaneously calling Barack Obama a Marxist AND comparing him to Hitler.

The Ugly

My nominee for Most Interesting Post-election Analysis goes to Mark Schone of In an article entitled The GOP's Southern problem, Schone talks about the voting patterns of white folks in the South.

It’s no secret that white southerners vote Republican because they’re socially conservative. But as Schone demonstrates, this conservatism is deeply rooted in an us-versus-them mentality that motivates native white southerners in places with large black populations to automatically vote the opposite way that blacks vote. The statistical correlation is uncanny. Mississippi and Alabama have the highest percentage of black voters in the country, and virtually all of the white population there is native born. In these two states, whites voted about 90% Republican in this year’s Presidential election. In South Carolina, which is a little less black and has some white immigration, whites voted 74% Republican. In Virginia, which has a much smaller black vote and a lot of immigration, white voter support for Obama was close to the national average of 43%.

Apparently if black southerners support a political party that favors cracking eggs at the small end, white southerners will automatically support the party that favors cracking them at the large end, similar to the warring kingdoms in Gulliver’s Travels.