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Guest Commentary (32)

The art of the Iran nuclear deal

Although not what one would consider a very religious individual, I am a Jew. I was born a Jew. I was raised as a Jew. I will die a Jew. Being a Jew is how society looks upon me, and, quite frankly, I am somewhat proud to be part of a group of people that comprises only about 1 percent of the world's population yet has contributed so greatly to society whether medicine (thank you Dr. Salk), music, business, entertainment, or even sports (thank you Sandy Koufax). As a Jew I also recognize the importance of a secure Israel. What I am not is a Jew who allows himself to be influenced by the illogical rhetoric regarding opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

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Donald Trump, patron saint of the GOP

Who is the patron saint of the Republican Party? We know that the patron saint of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is FDR, but what about the Republicans? Let's start at the beginning and consider the very first Republican elected to the presidency and the president many believe to be our greatest for keeping our union together, Abraham Lincoln? Well, probably not since the former Confederacy was comprised of the currently heavily Republican southern states and many in those states still prefer to fly the Confederate battle flag.

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The hypocrisy of defunding Planned Parenthood

 

I believe I finally now understand. I couldn't quite figure out why Congressional Republicans are so hell bent on defunding Planned Parenthood, since they were all, to a "man", similarly hell bent on doing away with abortion in this country.

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Montgomery County's Laboratory for Democracy

A "laboratory for democracy"! That is the phrase used by Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes to describe New York City's public election funding program during his address to  the "American Elections at the Crossroads" forum at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City on July 22nd.   Since Montgomery County established a very similar small-donor matching fund program for candidates with the passage of Bill 16-14 on September 30, 2014, it is hoped that that same description can someday be applied to Montgomery County.

New York City's program was established more than 27 years ago (the multiple-match concept was added in 2001) in the aftermath of a scandal involving bribes to city officials.  Reducing the dependence on political contributions from so called "big money" interests was considered to be essential in reducing political corruption.  As Frederick A. O. Schwarz, another speaker at the forum and a former city official tasked with developing the New York City system put it: "There is not much difference between an illegal bribe and a large legal campaign contribution in terms of expectations on the part of the contributor". 

Montgomery County isn't waiting for a scandal to institute its small-donor matching fund program for candidates for County Council and County Executive in advance of the 2018 elections.  Polling has consistently shown that, nationwide, more than 90 percent   overwhelmingly agree that campaign financing needs to be reformed, especially in light of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission.  The program established under Bill 16-14, quite similar to New York City's successful program, allows candidates who rely on small-donor donations to qualify for matching public funds.  In exchange, candidates must agree to turn down all large contributions, including those from special interest groups.  Although, to conform to recent Supreme Court rulings, there is a cap on the county match, there is no cap on overall expenditures, thereby allowing candidates to continue to raise and spend small-donor donations as needed.

Some key provisions of the Montgomery County program include limiting donations to $150 or less and only donations of $5 to $150 from residents within the county will qualify a candidate to receive the match from the county.  The match is scaled to each office with the County Executive match being 6 to 1 for the first $50, 4 to 1 for the second $50 and 2 to 1 for the final $50 from a donor.  For the County Council, the match begins at 4 to 1 for the first $50, 3 to 1 for the second and 2 to 1 for the final $50 from a donor.

The primary goal in establishing a system based on small donations with a multiple match is to change the dynamics of money in our politics by incentivizing grassroots fundraising.  As Congressman Sarbanes pointed out at the forum, when candidates or, for that matter, elected officials seek campaign funding they go to the source.  For big money, they have to focus on the "big money" special interest groups; for small dollar donations, they have to focus on us, the individual voter.  That makes a significant difference in whose voice is being heard.

In addition, public funding allows for individuals without an existing major funding source to become engaged in the election process and seek public office.  This, of course, is critical to allowing the voices of all segments of our society to be heard.

The experience of the New York City system is encouraging for the prospects of the Montgomery County system.  Like the Montgomery County system, the heart of the New York City system is the multiple match, a feature that boosts the impact of small donations. By encouraging candidates to engage with voters early in an election campaign, fundraising and voter outreach efforts have come together. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio has stated that, without this system in place, he could not have run for mayor.

According to a post-election report prepared by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, since the enactment of the multiple match in 2001, city elections have seen a steady increase in small donors. Further, the vast majority of candidates participate in the program.  In 2009, for example, 93 percent of primary candidates participated and 66 percent of general election candidates  participated.  Also, according to the report, candidates attribute the city's high donor participation rate directly to the 6 to 1 match system which, they claim, enables small donors to feel that their contributions can actually compete with big money interests because of the effect the multiplier had on their smaller contributions.

Data compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice indicates that "the number of donors has generally expanded after the enactment of the multiple match.  Between 1997 (the last election under the one-to-one match) and 2009 (the first election under the six-to-one match) the number of donors who gave to participating candidates grew by  35 percent."

One important area in which the two systems are dissimilar is the existence of New York City's Campaign Finance Board.  The Montgomery County Council has convened a Public Elections Funds Committee on which I proudly serve and which has been tasked with determining funding needs for the program leading to the 2018 elections.  At the risk of sounding self-serving, my concern is that not being an autonomous body, as is the New York City Campaign Finance Board which has final say over funding decisions and which can't be overridden by either the mayor or the city council, final funding decisions in Montgomery County will be subject to budget constraints, thereby creating the risk of insufficiently funding the program.   That may sound reasonable, since the argument against public funding is that there are more important priorities on which the county should focus its attention and its resources.  However,  Congressman Sarbanes addressed this issue during his presentation by explaining that the needs of the vast majority of citizens are all too often in conflict with the priorities of the 'big money' interests.  Further, he explained, unless we successfully level the playing field of influence, not instituting campaign finance reform will negatively impact our ability to address our needs, whether education, infrastructure, or transportation, and overcome 'big money' influence" and resistance.  It is my view that establishing an autonomous Campaign Finance Board with full funding authority will also have the added advantage of preventing the appearance of impropriety of incumbents potentially holding back funding in an attempt to reduce competition.

Most importantly, however, it cannot be emphasized enough how essential campaign finance reform is to stemming our current trend toward staggering income inequality and the associated transition from a democracy to a plutocracy.

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Montgomery County's model for reform

cashA "laboratory for democracy"! That is the phrase used by Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes to describe New York City's public election funding program during his address to the "American Elections at the Crossroads" forum at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City on July 22nd.   Since Montgomery County established a very similar small-donor matching fund program for candidates with the passage of Bill 16-14 on September 30, 2014, it is hoped that that same description can someday be applied to Montgomery County.

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Kate Stewart talks about the issues

kate stewartI had the opportunity to interview Takoma Park Councilwoman Kate Stewart recently. What drew me to this particular interview was that Ms. Stewart entered the political arena quite recently. She was elected in April 2014 to fill the seat on the Takoma Park City Council left vacant as a result of the passing of Councilwoman Kay Daniels Cohen. I was particularly interested in gaining the perspective of a rather new player to local politics and to understand her motives for joining that arena and the ideas she brings to it. I was not disappointed.

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Encouraging Supreme Court news

scales of justiceCourt rulings, for the most part, have as their legal basis court precedent. Where no precedent exists, new precedent is established. It is the role of the court, including the Supreme Court, to interpret those previous rulings and apply them to the particular set of circumstances in today's society and, in the Supreme Court's case especially, ensure that the court's decision is consistent with Constitutional intent. The Supreme Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, has been rather infamous for not allowing itself to be burdened with the precedent established in previous Supreme Court rulings. In the Heller case in 2006, it ignored substantial precedent regarding gun ownership by individuals. An even more egregious ignoring of precedent came in the Citizens United case in 2010 in which the court ignored much precedent designed to limit spending in political campaigns. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act is another example.

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Actions speak louder than symbols

Confederate soldier pic from Sentinel around 1915The recent controversy regarding the displaying of the Confederate battle flag gave me cause to consider the difference between actions and mere symbols. The argument most given against removal of the battle flag is that it expresses pride in one's heritage and one's strong belief in state's rights and, further, is covered by the first amendment to the Constitution under freedom of speech. Displaying a flag would be considered by the Supreme Court as an expression of speech based on court precedent. However, the court has also used the now famous example of "yelling fire in a crowded movie theater" where there is no fire to indicate that there are exceptions even to the first amendment and freedom of speech. In the case of the displaying of the Confederate battle flag, although it may, indeed, represent one's heritage and a strong belief in state's rights, the state's right that it represents is the right to own another human being and the right to secede from the union if that right is to be taken away. As such, it serves all too often to represent hatred and the associated violence, as in the case of the Charleston shooting, and should be no more protected under the first amendment than the right to yell fire in that crowded movie theater when there is no fire.

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Slithering back from the far right

 

In last week's column, we provided some lessons to be learned for the running for president in 2016.  However, there are also some lessons to be learned that Republican candidates may wish to consider as they try to make their way to the White House.  From the looks of the current Republican crop of candidates, and there are many, there are several important lessons from past campaigns.  The most important lesson is probably that the farther right you go to curry favor with the right wing of the party, the further you have to go to slither your way back to the center during the general election.  If these candidates learned one thing from Mitt Romney's failed presidential bid, it should have been that it is extremely difficult to get back to center after months of moving to the far right and still maintain any semblance of credibility.  Certainly, in the age of cell phone cameras, consistency of message is the only protection against the flip-flopping accusations that haunted the Romney campaign.

Another very important lesson from previous campaigns for Republican candidates to heed may very well be to anticipate and prepare.  We can call this the Sarah Palin rule since she is famous for doing neither.  Could she really not see a question on foreign policy experience coming and could "seeing Russia from my window" really constitute preparation?

Jeb Bush may want to really focus on this lesson since he recently and famously failed to anticipate a question regarding the Iraq war as it related to his brother's presidency.  How could he have missed that one coming and fail to understand the implications of saying he would make the same decision?

Another lesson from previous campaigns that I hope Republicans heed  is to offer thought out solutions in place of the rampant use of buzz words, sound bites, labeling without substance and fear tactics. Remember "death panels"? In just about every announcement of candidacy, each of the Republican candidates made it clear that they would eliminate both the Affordable Care Act and the executive order on immigration reform.  However, I am still waiting to hear how each of them would fill the voids they would be creating in each case.

Rick Perry is now famous for his "Oops" episode during the 2012 Republican presidential debates.  His real problem, however, was not that he forgot the third federal agency to close down; the real problem was that he was not well enough informed about the justification for closing down these agencies so that he would have remembered which ones to close.  Forgetting the name of an agency he had in mind made it all too clear that shutting down federal agencies was just another good sound bite for trimming big government even if he had no clue as to the true impact of each individual action.

Marco Rubio, in announcing his candidacy, emphasized the issue of age as a way of pointing out that Hillary is in her late sixties.  I would point out to Senator Rubio that it is not the age of the candidates that is important, but, rather, the age of their ideas... and his go back to the 50's, sometimes the 1950's and at other times the 1850's - against both same sex marriage and the lifting of Cuban sanctions to name just two outdated positions.  Senator Rubio may, actually,  wish to remember Ronald Reagan's response to Walter Mondale when the latter also chose to point out the age factor regarding Reagan's advanced years.  Reagan, you may recall, advised Senator Mondale that he, Reagan, wouldn't hold his, Mondale's, youth against him.  Unless Senator Rubio can demonstrate that he has real solutions to real problems, his lack of experience should, indeed, be held against him. 

As for Donald Trump, who is the epitome of the old adage "people don't see themselves as others see them", the recommendation is the installation of a filter between what is going on in his mind and what is spewing from his mouth.  It may not help much, but it certainly can't hurt.  His speech announcing his candidacy was wrong on so many levels and insulting to so many.  His claim that he would be the "greatest job creating president" apparently did not factor in the jobs he himself would lose as a result of his insensitive remarks.  Similarly I found his pronouncement about his skill in wall building particularly objectionable not to mention unpatriotic.  A wall built in communist East Germany has no place being built in America: "Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev, I mean, Mr. Trump."

The suggestion to all of the Republican candidates is to stop throwing around the key buzzwords regarding the middle class and income inequality while still favoring voucherization of  Medicare, cutting social security benefits while raising the qualifying age, and preventing the closing of any corporate tax loopholes. With regard to social security, how about simply raising the current $113,000 salary cap at which the payroll tax ceases?  This will solve any long term funding of social security and still provide for retirement of our seniors who no longer can rely on company provided pension programs since they are fairly extinct in today's business model.

Oh, and one last suggestion.  Sixteen or so candidates is a bit unwieldy for a debate, so why not adopt the NCAA format and place the candidates in brackets.  Start with eight pairings leading up to the final two to duke it out on Super "Bull" Sunday. Just a thought.

I truly do hope that each of these candidates come to realize that rallying the base and coming up with real solutions are two separate things and doing one without the other does very little to benefit the country.

I also hope and do believe that the electorate has finally had enough of the irresponsible use of words without substance.  I am hopeful that today's electorate will demand a real discussion of the issues and not tolerate the use of  labeling to avoid discussing ideas and the laying out of a viable vision by each of the candidates, both Democrat and Republican.  

 

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Lessons for Democrats running

president sealCertainly the issue of lessons learned applies to presidential campaigns and none more so than the next presidential election in 2016.  Republicans are already portraying a Hillary Clinton presidency as a "third term of Obama".  The question for Hilary, as well as, to a degree, the other democrat candidates, is whether she will allow herself to be baited into distancing herself from the Obama Administration and, in her case, the Clinton Administration, or will she, rather, embrace them both and, if so, to what degree?

The 2014 mid-term elections were the epitome of candidates distancing themselves from the incumbent president to disastrous results.  One such example was the Kentucky senate race. During that race, democrat Allison Lundergrin-Grimes, you may recall, was asked the simple question of whether she voted for President Obama.  Rather than risk being linked to him and his policies, she chose to evade the question altogether as was her right.  How well did this strategy work for her politically?  Not very! How much more credible would she have come off if she had chosen a response more like this: "Of course I voted for President Obama! Who else could I have voted for? Romney? I may not agree with every position of the president, but certainly he is much more in line with me politically than Romney and his disregard for '47%' of Americans."  Now, this response may have unwillingly tied her too closely to the president for her liking but at least she would have come off as more credible.  Besides, is there anyone who really believes she didn't vote for the president and may have actually voted for Romney?  I think not. Lesson learned: credibility should be at the top of the list for any candidate of any race.  Standing up for what you believe in and not trying to mislead voters should  also be at the top of that list.

Any candidate for president, democrat or republican, must decide how wise it will be to distance themselves from previous administrations.  That strategy certainly did not work very well for either John McCain or Mitt Romney.  Neither was very successful at distancing himself from the previous republican administration under George W. Bush and the failed policies of that administration.  With regard to Hillary, specifically, will she learn from Al Gore's 2000 campaign and, rather than distance herself from the administration that she served in, will she embrace at least some of its achievements?

As you will likely recall, Vice President Gore distanced himself from President Bill Clinton during the 2000 presidential campaign so as not to be "soiled" by the Monica Lewinski scandal.  As things turned out, it certainly would have been more strategically prudent for him to have tied himself to the economic successes of the administration without being tied directly to Clinton's  personal improprieties.  True, Gore did still receive a majority of the popular vote and, yes, Ralph Nader took a chunk out of his total number of votes and, yes, no one really believes that Pat Buchanan is so well liked in Florida.  However, if candidate Gore did a better job of linking himself to the successes of the Clinton administration, it is likely that these other factors would have had less of an impact on the election.

Accordingly, my recommendation to any democrat candidate for president is, rather than running away from the name Obama, embrace at least some of the achievements of his administration.  Not everything, but at least some, and there are several.  To begin with, while republicans claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility, the reality is quite different.  President Obama inherited an annual deficit of approximately $1.3 trillion from President Bush and has brought it down to about $470 billion.  Likewise, President Clinton inherited an annual deficit of about $290 billion from President George H.W. Bush and left office with a surplus of in excess of $125 billion for the next President Bush to squander on a ten year war paid for on a credit card and tax breaks for the wealthy that did nothing to help the economy or the middle class but, rather, contributed mightily to our current income inequality.

Certainly, there are other positives such as consumer protection for credit card holders, expansion of college aid for needy students, repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" which had prohibited gays from serving openly in the military, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which strengthened the ability of women to fight for equal pay, preventing the American auto industry from going under, providing health insurance for millions of previously uninsured Americans, phasing down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, getting the unemployment rate to below 6%, and the take out of Osama bin Laden. 

However, this is not to say that any democratic candidate should embrace the entire Obama record without question.  Being judicious should be a presidential requirement.  I, for one, question why the banking industry did not have any of its leaders see jail time for putting greed before country and causing the Great Recession of 2008.  Dealing with the banking industry also applies to the Clinton Administration since it was President Clinton who supported the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act which had been enacted after the stock market crash of 1929 to construct a wall between commercial banks and investment banks.  The repeal of Glass-Steagall tore down that wall and opened the door for the risky investments by commercial banks that had ordinarily been reserved for investment banks and which contributed so greatly to the recession. The next president must take a strong stand to replace the regulatory protections lost over the last several years.

I also wonder about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and any agreement that is supported by Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner whose actions have never demonstrated any concern for working class America.  The G-7 conferences envisioned, through globalization, wealthy nations helping the economies of third world countries through investment.  It was anticipated that globalization would  see these economies grow and create markets for our goods.  It was never intended that the sole result of globalization for America would be to provide U.S. companies with cheap labor abroad at the expense of jobs at home.  Based on my experience with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement back in the 1990's, I question whether any agreement that is so vehemently supported by big business would actually be beneficial for working America. The question that the presidential candidates must grapple with is the same one that the president is grappling with which is whether we are better off being part of the deal, as good or bad as it is, or being left out altogether and shed more influence to China.  Not an easy question, but one that must be answered regardless of who the candidate is.

So, yes, there may not be total agreement on all issues, but history has shown that running away from the previous administration has not proven to be a successful strategy and one that places the candidate on the defensive rather than the offensive.

In an upcoming column, we will attempt to provide some lessons learned for the republican candidates.

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