Category Archives: Local Government

The Library And The Culture War

Over the years, I have come to admire two professions above most others: social workers and librarians. The social workers I’ve come to know are simply wonderful human beings–compassionate, caring and non-judgmental. (If we admire traits we personally lack, that would explain my awe about that “non-judgmental” thing…) The librarians I know are dedicated protectors of the First Amendment, and absolutely fearless defenders of our right as individuals to access whatever information interests us.

The traits of both professions are obviously anathema to the White Christian Nationalists who control today’s GOP . Those culture warriors are especially intent upon controlling what other people can read, and that single-minded devotion to cultural control brings them into fairly regular conflict with librarians and the mission of the nation’s libraries, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked by a recent headline from The Guardian: US library defunded after refusing to censor LGBTQ authors: ‘We will not ban the books.’

A small-town library is at risk of shutting down after residents of Jamestown, Michigan, voted to defund it rather than tolerate certain LGBTQ+-themed books.

Residents voted on Tuesday to block a renewal of funds tied to property taxes, Bridge Michigan reported.

 The vote leaves the library with funds through the first quarter of next year. Once a reserve fund is used up, it would be forced to close, Larry Walton, the library board’s president, told Bridge Michigan – harming not just readers but the community at large. Beyond books, residents visit the library for its wifi, he said, and it houses the very room where the vote took place.

“Our libraries are places to read, places to gather, places to socialize, places to study, places to learn. I mean, they’re the heart of every community,” Deborah Mikula, executive director of the Michigan Library Association, told the Guardian. “So how can you lose that?”

What was the library’s sin? It refused to remove materials about sexual orientation from its shelves–materials that the residents asserted were “grooming” children to adopt a “gay lifestyle.”

The controversy in Jamestown began with a complaint about a memoir by a nonbinary writer, but it soon spiraled into a campaign against Patmos Library itself. After a parent complained about Gender Queer: a Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, a graphic novel about the author’s experience coming out as nonbinary, dozens showed up at library board meetings, demanding the institution drop the book. (The book, which includes depictions of sex, was in the adult section of the library.) Complaints began to target other books with LGBTQ+ themes.

One library director resigned, telling Bridge she had been harassed and accused of indoctrinating kids; her successor, Matt Lawrence, also left the job. Though the library put Kobabe’s book behind the counter rather than on the shelves, the volumes remained available.

“We, the board, will not ban the books,” Walton told Associated Press on Thursday….

The library’s refusal to submit to the demands led to a campaign urging residents to vote against renewed funding for the library. A group calling itself Jamestown Conservatives handed out flyers condemning Gender Queer for showing “extremely graphic sexual illustrations of two people of the same gender”, criticizing a library director who “promoted the LGBTQ ideology” and calling for making the library “a safe and neutral place for our kids”. On Facebook, the group says it exists to “keep our children safe, and protect their purity, as well as to keep the nuclear family intact as God designed”.

I’m sure the person who wrote that had spoken to God personally about the threat. (That’s sarcasm. I admitted I’m judgmental…)

Apparently, libraries across the country are facing a surge in similar demands to ban books. The American Library Association has identified 729 challenges to “library, school and university materials and services” just in the last year–and an estimated 1,600 challenges or removals of individual books. That figure was up from 273 books the year before.

“We’re seeing what appears to be a campaign to remove books, particularly books dealing with LGBTQIA themes and books dealing with racism,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, head of the ALA’s office for intellectual freedom, told the Guardian last year.

There is certainly “grooming” going on, but those responsible aren’t trying to sell small children on the glories of homosexuality, or destroy what’s left of the nuclear family. The real “grooming” has been done by hate-mongers like Alex Jones, the late and non-lamented Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson and his fellow-travelers on Fox News–aided and abetted by fundamentalist churches and  various Rightwing organizations.

The GOP’s groomers play to the racism, misogyny and homophobia of their White Christian Nationalist base, encouraging them to direct their hysterical fear of cultural change at the nation’s libraries.

In this fight, my money is on the librarians.

 

Red States, Blue States…

The battles over abortion are highlighting some previously under-appreciated differences between life in Red and Blue states. Those differences include health outcomes as well as economic circumstances..

As Jennifer Rubin summed it up in the Washington Post, 

 If you live in a red state, your risk of getting and dying from covid-19 is higher than in blue states. On average, your life span is shorter, your chance of living in poverty higher, your educational attainment lower and your economic opportunities are reduced relative to blue-state residents.

There are–as Rubin also acknowledges– policies being pursued in Red states that are increasingly persuading people to decamp and live elsewhere:  If they have a choice, “diverse” workers–LGBTQ+ folks, women and members of minority groups with skills needed by high-tech businesses– frequently choose to live in places they find welcoming, or at least safe. (As we saw when Indiana passed RFRA, unlike Republican politicians, local business enterprises understand that they are significantly disadvantaged in unwelcoming states. Low taxes– accompanied by a corresponding lack of public amenities and a poor or mediocre quality of life–simply aren’t enough to attract either new business or the skilled workforces on which those local enterprises depend.)

Red states like Indiana that have participated in the unremitting right-wing attack on public education tend not to produce the educated workforces that appeal to companies looking to relocate. Those disadvantages have produced the significant differences between Red and Blue state economies. As the Brookings Institution has reported,

To be sure, racial and cultural resentment have been the prime factors of the Trump backlash, but it’s also clear that the two parties speak for and to dramatically different segments of the American economy. Where Republican areas of the country rely on lower-skill, lower-productivity “traditional” industries like manufacturing and resource extraction, Democratic, mostly urban districts contain large concentrations of the nation’s higher-skill, higher-tech professional and digital services.

Many of these differences have been apparent for years–and as the Brookings report noted, they have recently been accelerating.  But that’s not all. As Rubin writes,

And then came the abortion bans. Thousands, if not millions, of women of childbearing age might reconsider their residence if they want to avoid the potentially life-threatening bans — or if they simply want to be treated like competent, autonomous adults.

There are signs the reality of forced-birth laws are registering with those most affected. Reuters reports: “The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide has some students rethinking their higher education plans as states rush to ban or curtail abortion, according to interviews with 20 students and college advisers across the country.” While the evidence is anecdotal at this point, “in the wake of Roe’s overturn, college counselors said abortion has figured prominently in many conversations with clients, with some going as far as nixing their dream schools.”

Lest you be tempted to “pooh pooh” the effect of Dobbs on the college choices of talented young women, I have an example close at hand. My granddaughter–an excellent student–immediately removed Texas’ Rice University–an otherwise highly desirable school– from her list of schools to consider. She’ll attend the University of Chicago, in Illinois, a pro-choice state.

The Times reports that blue-state governors have begun “depicting their abortion rights policies as a business advantage, reinforcing the appeal of the wealthier and more progressive states that many businesses opt to call home in spite of their taxes.

In fact, multiple data points confirm that, among other things, the GOP’s cult ideology decreases life expectancy and keeps many women out of the workplace. It also contributes to the “brain drain” that sends a state’s college graduates to places with more educated populations and a higher quality of life. And if you don’t think any of this really makes a difference in individual life prospects, Brookings will disabuse you of that belief

With their output surging as a result of the big-city tilt of the decade’s “winner-take-most” economy, Democratic districts have seen their median household income soar in a decade—from $54,000 in 2008 to $61,000 in 2018. By contrast, the income level in Republican districts began slightly higher in 2008, but then declined from $55,000 to $53,000.

Underlying these changes have been eye-popping shifts in economic performance. Democratic-voting districts have seen their GDP per seat grow by a third since 2008, from $35.7 billion to $48.5 billion a seat, whereas Republican districts saw their output slightly decline from $33.2 billion to $32.6 billion.

Retrograde public policies have real-world consequences. And those consequences are substantial. Indiana has long suffered the economic and health results of an unhinged and provincial legislature, but it’s about to get much, much worse.

 

A Down-Ballot Threat

A recent article from Time Magazine highlighted yet another threat to American democracy–and this particular threat is especially worrisome, because it involves political contests that voters rarely focus on. In our highly polarized era, most voters no longer split their tickets, and few even bother to look “down ballot”–beyond the more publicized races to local contests.

That lack of attention could be especially costly this year. As the Time article reported, the midterm elections will see numerous election deniers “MAGA hardliners who trumpet former President Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen” running for positions that oversee elections at the state and local levels.

Inspired by Steve Bannon’s so-called “precinct strategy,” far-right activists have flooded local precincts, signed up en masse to be poll workers, and orchestrated harassment of existing officials.

At the same time, election deniers are winning GOP nominations for key election-related roles in major swing states. According to data compiled by States United Action, a nonpartisan nonprofit devoted to protecting elections, 13 election-deniers are running for Attorney General in 11 states, 19 are running for Secretary of State in 15 states, and 25 election deniers are running for Governor in 15 states as of July 11. More than one-third of Attorney General and Governor races in 2022 include an election denier, and more than half of the candidates for Secretary of State have embraced some form of the Big Lie.

A newsletter authored by Robert Reich echoed the message, warning about a dark-money group called the America First Secretary of State Coalition. As he wrote,

The coalition was formed by radical MAGA candidates who are running for secretary of state in key battleground states. In most states, the secretary of state oversees elections—including determining who is eligible to vote and with the power to kick voters off the rolls, throw out votes, and declare the winners of elections.

The goal of the America First Secretary of State Coalition is to elect Trump marionettes to the top elections administration in critical swing states so that when the 2024 election comes, they will have the power to declare Trump the winner—no matter the true will of the voters.

As I have previously reported, Indiana has one of those “Big Lie” supporters running for Secretary of State. Republican nominee Diego Morales has called the 2020 election “a scam,” and promised to make “voter fraud” (apparently, people voting for Democrats) a focus of his efforts if elected. Morales has vowed to purge voter rolls, limit absentee ballots and allow voting only on Election Day. 

You need not take my word for it: I’ve previously quoted James Briggs of the Indianapolis Star, who seemed incredulous about Morales ‘nomination. Briggs wrote,

The Indiana Republican Party on Saturday nominated a secretary of state candidate so broadly unacceptable that the selection must be setting some kind of record for political ineptitude.

Their choice, Diego Morales, once worked in the secretary of state’s office. That would normally be a good thing. Experience!

Except…

Except that, well, Morales got fired in 2009 over incompetence and a “lack of professionalism,” according to his personnel file. Morales disputes the record, as IndyStar’s Kaitlin Lange wrote, but his file doesn’t leave much ambiguity as to whether he met expectations in his job as a special assistant under Todd Rokita.

Anyone rational–let alone patriotic– willing to spend even a few minutes contrasting Morales with the Democratic candidate, Destiny Wells, would have no difficulty deciding to vote for Wells. She’s a U.S. Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel, a lawyer and an entrepreneur. She says

I’m running for Indiana Secretary of State to safeguard democracy and the freedom to vote right here at home. I have worked at all levels of government—local, state, federal, and the multi-national level with NATO. As an attorney, I’ve been Associate Corporation Counsel for the City of Indianapolis and Marion County, and Deputy Attorney General for the State of Indiana. And as a military intelligence officer, I have seen first hand the state of democracy across the world.

This choice should be a “no brainer.” But this is Indiana, where far too many voters reflexively choose anyone with an “R” by their name, no matter how flawed, dishonest or otherwise unacceptable. So, Indiana readers, please spread the word. Tell your friends and family. Visit Wells’ website (and send her some money so she can run a visible campaign. I just did.) The last thing Hoosiers need is an incompetent “Big Lie” proponent overseeing our elections.

Help defeat Indiana’s “Trump marionette.”

 

 

 

Deplorable Rokita

Hillary Clinton’s characterization of Trump supporters as “deplorable” wasn’t a politically savvy move, but in the aftermath of the 2016 election, Republican officeholders have done their best to illustrate its accuracy.

Here in Indiana, where our last Attorney General was sanctioned by the Disciplinary Commission for groping female legislative staffers, the current occupant of that office is evidently campaigning for the title of most disgusting officeholder–and that’s the only campaign he should actually win.

I’ve previously posted about Rokita–several times, in fact. In 2013, when he was in Congress, I explained why he was more embarrassing than then-Governor Mike Pence. In 2014, I explained why he was dangerous and anti-American. (Also in 2014, I highlighted his comparison of himself to Earl Landgrebe, whose most famous quote, “Don’t confuse me with the facts. I’ve got a closed mind” was perhaps more telling than he had intended.) When he was elected AG, I posted a compendium of Rokita’s positions and suggested that Indiana had once again elected a guaranteed embarrassment to the position of Attorney General.

You can find links to those posts in “Speaking of Blowhards and Scoundrels”

I also commented on disclosures that Rokita had retained his position with the health benefits firm he’d worked for prior to the  election, even after he assumed his current, presumably full-time “day job”  as Indiana’s Attorney General. A day job that coincidentally gave him investigative jurisdiction over that “other” job…(The publicity led to a resignation–but not to any evident recognition of why it was a problem…)

Most recently, I posted about Rokita’s despicable and unprofessional attacks on the Ob-Gyn who performed an abortion on the ten-year-old rape victim who traveled to Indiana because–after Dobbs— she could not legally obtain an abortion in Ohio.

I was gratified when the doctor’s lawyer served Rokita with a “cease and desist” letter, and followed it with a tort claim notice–a legal precursor to a defamation lawsuit. But I was especially pleased when Lauren Robel (a former dean of IU’s law school, former Bloomington provost and former Executive Vice President of Indiana University) filed a complaint with the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission against Rokita, accusing him of “recklessly” making claims that weren’t backed by fact.

Unlike Rokita, Robel is widely respected and admired. She readily admits that this is the only time in her 40 years as a lawyer and law professor that she has ever lodged a disciplinary complaint.

In Robel’s complaint, she argued Rokita failed to perform due diligence before making accusations about Bernard.

“What General Rokita did, in essence, was identify a private citizen whose political views he disagrees with and suggest repeatedly, on national television, and on the Attorney General’s official website, that she had broken the law, with no evidence to support those claims,” Robel wrote. “If he can throw the entire weight of his office without consequence to attack Dr. Bernard, he can do so to target any private citizen with whom he disagrees. This is the opposite of the rule of law.”

“It was also about as clear as it could be that he went after this doctor who was performing a legal medical procedure in Indiana because he opposes abortion, not because he had evidence against her of any sort,” Robel said. “The deputy for Stalin was reported to have said, ‘Show me the man and I’ll find the crime.’ That’s just not the way we do things in the United States.”

Robel’s request for an investigation came on the same day fourteen Indiana law professors sent a letter to Rokita, demanding he walk back his previous statements and issue a public apology to the doctor.

“You maintain the false statements, uncorrected even today, on your Webpage and on Twitter,” the law professors from Indiana University and University of Notre Dame wrote. “Your actions are inconsistent with your responsibilities as a lawyer and a prosecutor.”

Rokita’s office has responded that it has no plans to back down or correct the AG’s previous statements.

This isn’t about abortion. It is about attorney ethics–a subject that Rokita rather obviously has never encountered (and probably can’t spell). It is about respect for evidence and truth. It is about the abuse of power, and contempt for the most basic rules of legal practice that we expect an Attorney General to uphold.

Deplorable is the nicest description of Todd Rokita available. My own description would involve more profanity than is appropriate to include on this platform. He has zero redeeming characteristics.

He’s a disservice to the profession–and a blot on humanity.

 

National Service

There are multiple reasons for the current unsustainable degree of American polarization. A primary one, as I have written repeatedly, is a media environment that allows people to choose the reality most consistent with their particular biases. Another is the extreme individualism of today’s culture.

The United States has historically swung between an emphasis on community norms and an insistence on individual rights. (We rarely hit the “golden mean” promoted by the Greeks..) Too much “community” and we live in a society that demands conformity and ignores fundamental liberties; too much emphasis on the individual, and we neglect important–even crucial–aspects of the common good, and what is sometimes called “civil religion”–allegiance to the American covenant that creates community from our diversity. E pluribus unumout of the many, one.

One of the reasons I have long advocated for universal national service is that programs like Americorp create community. Such programs bring together young Americans from diverse backgrounds and introduce them to the multiple tasks that demand civic collaboration and create a polity. I have always supported national service in the abstract, but during the pandemic, I had the opportunity to see it “close up and personal,” as the saying goes. My youngest grandson took a gap year with Americorp after his high school graduation.

My very urban, upper-middle-class grandson, raised in downtown Indianapolis, joined a group of young people from a wide variety of urban and rural environments. They were headquartered in Mississippi (address of headquarters: Confederate Avenue…) He had always been public-spirited, but he learned a lot from his Americorp teammates and the various states and environments to which they were deployed. It was an altogether salutary experience.

Given the fact that our national government is effectively gridlocked–unable to pass anything other than the most trivial measures–I don’t look for the establishment of a universal or mandatory federal program any time soon. But the Brookings Institution recently reported on the growth of service organizations at the state and local level.

Investing in educational and career opportunities for young adults is a smart bet on the future. And that is exactly what many states, cities, and counties are doing with American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) funds.

More specifically, they are directing portions of the $350 billion in ARP’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to create or expand service and conservation corps. In corps programs (also referred to as service or national service programs), members serve their community for defined periods of time, working on projects that provide clear societal value, such as building affordable housing, tutoring K-12 students, supporting public health efforts, aiding disaster response and recovery, and contributing to climate resiliency. In return, corps members earn a modest living allowance, gain valuable work experience, build skills, and, in some cases, receive a small educational scholarship. National service programs can offer a structured and supportive pathway into the labor market and postsecondary education, which is especially valuable for young people who otherwise might flounder. And they offer a solid return on investment: An analysis of AmeriCorps identified a cost-benefit ratio of 17.3 to 1. For every $1 in federal funds, the return to society, program members, and the government is $17.30.

President Biden’s “Build Back Better” Act–like so many other measures we desperately need–was stymied by the Senate filibuster. It included a robust Civilian Conservation Corp and other programs that promised a rebuilding of community and civic solidarity.

The continuing gridlock at the federal level doesn’t tell the whole story, however. The linked Brookings report highlights examples of how state and local governments are using  fiscal recovery funds to support service programs.

The list focuses on climate-oriented corps programs, but there are also ARP-funded service programs focused on community needs such as promoting literacy and stemming learning loss among K-12 students.

Much of the activity, interestingly, is at the municipal level. The report cites Austin, Texas; San Jose, California; and Boston, Massachusetts.

The pandemic illustrated another virtue of service programs: flexibility. During the pandemic, these programs adapted to meet the changing emergency needs. The report tells us that AmeriCorps and conservation corps programs “pivoted to address immediate problems: distributing food to people in need; serving as contact tracers; staffing call centers; and setting up beds and triage centers.”

As helpful as these activities were, the likely long-term effects of participation in delivering them will be even more positive. When Americans from all sorts of communities and backgrounds collaborate for the common good and work together to help equally diverse communities, they learn the importance of community writ large. They learn that not everything in life revolves around the individual and/or his tribe.

They are re-introduced to the American covenant.