Sunday, September 17, 2017

CITY PROGRESS BEGINS WHEN STATE GOP INTERFERENCE ENDS

By Dominique Paul Noth

With the end of the legislature's fetish to control MPS properties,
the old Wisconsin Ave. School is being converted
into an extended stay Ambassador  hotel
Lurking within beat writer Tom Daykin’s fine story on how the former Wisconsin Avenue School (near 27th St.) will be converted by 2019 into an extended-stay companion to the Ambassador (the hotel is a few blocks away) was an unwritten  political reality. The Madison legislature’s constant intrusion into local affairs continues to backfire into delays, blind alleys and higher costs for the citizenry. (And just wait till the new budget spits its venom.)

I’ll define what a real estate journalist cannot (and the JS editorial board probably should).  The development is fruit of the collapse of one Madison effort at interference.

That was the misguided command that vacant or underutilized Milwaukee Public Schools’ buildings must be sold only to voucher school or charter competitors, freezing for two years any city effort to develop commercial uses on nearly a dozen properties. Technically, the city owns these school buildings.

If you look at that two-year moratorium, it was never about robust neighborhood development but imposing the march toward private and religious schools on the community, inventing a demand for such schools that clearly didn’t exist. It also intended to hold MPS’ head deeper under water.

If you look at what now is happening, retail and apartment developments are spurring ahead in the Harambee, Bronzeville and other inner city neighborhoods (even the Ambassador is expanding the popular definition of the Downtown area).

All this also gives the lie to arguments that the city of Milwaukee is only interested in developing the core Downtown area.  Turns out, once Madison leaves the city alone or offers real help, good things happen for the tax base.

Once the moratorium ended, the Ambassador Suites became only one of four commercial developments (retail,   apartments or mixed) rushing forward using MPS properties – and there are others in the wings.

Moreover, city development deputy commissioner Martha Brown reminded me in an interview, before the moratorium shut things down for two years, there were several MPS properties either completely or in the process of being converted into commercial use – the old Jackie Robinson School now the Sherman Park Senior Center; Garfield in Bronzeville (2205 N 4th St.) almost ready for mixed use, and Fifth Street School (2770 N. 5th St.) already under apartment conversion.

It was a sign that, despite agitation from Madison that these were all dead weight and invented claims that MPS was the culprit, there was a lot of life being snuffed out in the fabrications.  The city even had to fight off a lawsuit threat from the rabid right-wing WILL (Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty) when it tried (appropriately it turns out) to finesse the moratorium rule.

While there were feints of educational use from MPS competitors, Brown says only Rocketship’s intention to use Carleton as its upper northwest campus is still active (national data on Rocketship profitability keeps me a doubter) while another negotiation with a religious voucher operator has stalled.

The moratorium was inserted into the 2015-2017 state budget as part of an enormous education failure aimed at Milwaukee known as the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, brainchild of Dale Kooyenga and Alberta Darling with such cheerleaders on the side as Leah Vukmir.

Failure may be too optimistic. It is, legally, still a vulture poised to swoop down on the hardy local pioneers of public education and peck out the eyes of real progress.

OSPP (my emphasis would be on the PP) would have an administrator chosen by County Executive Chris Abele (city Mayor Tom Barrett was too savvy to be the whipping boy) seize MPS schools designated within the boundaries of “failed schools” by the state – and sell the losers only to education privateers. In other words, MPS properties would be used to prop up its enemies.

The administrator, Demond Means, was chosen, tried to change the plan, resigned and departed the state for Georgia.  The whole idea was laughed out of public court when the MPS survived the “failed” designation within the state’s boundaries.  (That was also a measure of how well the MPS has been improving schools.)

Sidelining these school businesses for MPS competitors was originally intended by legislators to make properties available for a dollar or so to education privateers, under the invented demand for such schools. But the city insisted on heeding land assessment for what in several cases were valuable pieces of real estate, as opposed to the original penalty to any expansion of property tax rolls.

The landscape immediately changes when private schools are forced onto an even playing field. (That reality is already chilling the state’s expansion of the voucher school idea into the whole state, since many school districts, even conservative ones, are quite happy with the public school route and correctly see the voucher schools as siphoning off public money.)

There is also an interesting sidelight to those who remember Right Step. It was the only private school that responded during the moratorium, forcing the city to sell it the listed Centro del Nino at 500 E. Center St., actually a bank building converted into a Head Start program but included on the master life for MPS schools though the area was not zoned for a school.   With strong anger at the whole idea from Ald. Milele Coggs, the zoning appeals board turned the idea down.   

Brown and others speculate that a big part of the push was the fallacy that all a private education operator had to do “was get in the building and turn on the lights,” since MPS had been a highly regarded absentee landlord and was only closing buildings over decades to retain flexibility in the face of changing demographics (which made some neighborhood schools obsolete). 

Of course “walk in and turn on the lights” wasn’t true since there remained considerable costs on long closed schools (handicapped accessibility, repairs, lead pipes, new code standards, etc.). A lack of common sense was another factor in how bad this idea was, because an MPS building usually went vacant when demand in the area for a school had fallen off, so it wasn’t demographics and need,   just the rising money the state taxpayers were forced to pay that explained the interest.  

And how that money is rising! That state legislature, with Gov. Scott Walker as gang leader, has elevated the voucher goodies as high as $75,647 for a family of four.  The new budget does even more, as much as $9,800 per student by 2019.

Amazingly, despite that come-on and constant expansion of the limits, around the state there are few takers – and it is not surprising that most of the responders are not public school participants but children from families attending private schools already. They are in effect getting a state taxpayer discount of $7,696 each on their private school tuition.

So in Milwaukee there was no land rush – and actually crippling of some neighborhood commercial development.   Assessing the value of a school building is difficult depending on the intended use, noted Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for the mayor who is also deeply involved in the Department of City Development.  MPS was probably not happy that Wisconsin Ave. School, land-assessed at $800,000 under some scenarios, was sold to Ambassador developer Rick Weigand for $100,000.  But the MPS and the city were assuredly comforted that Weigand has also pledged half a million in environmental cleanup as part of a $15 million project.

Because of changing expectations in the master list of MPS buildings, two schools – Fletcher and 68th – still have a year left when they can only be sold to private school operators. There don’t seem to be any takers while the city anticipates movement by commercial developers on other sites now lifted from the moratorium.

Bottom line -- the “school choice” liars actually held the city of Milwaukee hostage for two years in growing neighborhood development. That’s the exact opposite of what elected representatives should be doing. Brown says MPS has been cooperative in conversion efforts, exposing another lie from the school choice camp.

There are several emerging opportunities for citizens to punish such feeble education thinkers, including rabid right-winger Vukmir, who has wrapped herself around these failed education policies to run against Sen. Tammy Baldwin.  Ideology sinks her –what is keeping her campaign afloat is billionaire Diane Hendricks and single-issue voters who don’t seem to give much of a damn of what happens to our children and taxes.


About the author:  Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  His award-winning theater reviews appear at urbanmilwaukee.com.


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

DACA – FALLING CRUELLY BEHIND IN FOUR YEARS

By Dominique Paul Noth

President Obama in Milwaukee five years ago -- what he and
we dreamed about immigration and the Dreamers.
-- Photo by Dominique Paul Noth
A long memory can sometimes be a curse.  Trump’s Tuesday combination play on DACA – rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, then  delaying the full weight for six months to give a messed-up Congress a chance to get its act together,  though it hasn’t all year, and then saying he will revisit if Congress doesn’t – was also a reminder of how tragically we have traveled backwards.  

The US has horribly moved from overly optimistic hope into morass and cynicism.

The recent events raised memories of what I wrote as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press  more than four years ago, for a newspaper now defunct largely because of the gouges taken out of union strength and solidarity by Gov. Scott Walker. I looked it up and was dumbstruck at how prescient, if overly hopeful, I and perhaps the nation were about the progress of immigration. 

It was then I headlined that optimism, though with a warning:  Do Immigration Steps Rescue or Merely Reveal GOP?  Even while critical of Obama, the story stands as an important signpost of what America dreamed in early 2013 and what depth it is descending into today:

February, 2013 -- If you listened to President Obama’s impassioned call for “common sense comprehensive immigration reform” January 29, you can’t be blamed for hearing an echo.  He made much the same speech when he was running for re-election and, in fact, though now fleshed out, in earlier presentations throughout his first four years. 

It isn’t Obama who has budged in 2013.  It’s the opposition, not from moral drive but self-preservation.  All along he has seen the issue more clearly -- willing to bring others along on the details but a  superior politician and analyst of the American psyche, seeking ways to combine what he wants, what the country needs and what the voters will come around to agreeing with. {Editor’s Note: So I dreamed then, remember?}

What makes overdue immigration reform possible now are the self-centered politics of once obstructionist Republicans and reluctant Democrats.  He now has a bipartisan group of eight senators and a House committee working on similar immigration regulation.   Some are true believers. Some are doing the politically expedient.  Consider those GOP senators like Rubio and Graham who have spun back and forth on this issue, failing to inhale the proper political winds.  John McCain is now back in the fold, contradicting his own dervish reversal when he ran for president or fought off a right-wing primary challenge in Arizona.

No one should fool themselves that this is a done deal.  It’s just that the atmospherics are better.  The Republicans cannot permanently be a major political party until they address the growing Latino community.  Democratic political insiders wonder if their own party is being foolish to risk a devastating advantage for the opposition  by moving to solve this crucial lingering problem and helping the GOP look good.  But in doing so willingly, the Democrats are again spelling out the differences between the two sides.

At least Obama has been there from the start.  But, to the dismay of the most progressive Latino activists, he has to put emphasis on something necessary but fast becoming the least central issue in comprehensive reform – security of the US-Mexican border. The deal on the table sends more boots on the ground and even drones to a region where illegal human traffic has shrunk to near nothing under Obama’s watch, a combination of tighter security, higher hostility to Latinos and fewer jobs in America.

No vast numbers of undocumented further clog the path to citizenship of the millions already working and raising families here.   But it’s wrong to use such apprehension to demonize a central fabric of the US community or claim the border must be locked tighter than a drum before any scrupulous path to citizenship can be allowed.

It’s worrisome how Obama must stress Mexican border security to give Republicans a reason to act sane. [Editor’s Note: They sure didn’t and still have the same hangup.]  Yet there are many other porous borders while this one, where we’re spending vast money, is largely dormant except for drugs. There are bigger people problems, such as greedy middlemen from Europe to Asia – many moving traffic through Canada and the Caribbean in both directions if you talk to the human slavery coalitions. 

Yet we still focus on penalizing families who have worked hard for decades in this country because they jumped the fence to save years in waiting or – no different than the homeowner duped by some shady roof contractor – believed the promises of a better life from businesses bussing them to rural jobs.

As politically savvy as it may be, given the insistence on border security before intelligence, this aspect of the outline has already raised the first doubts from the left in the immigration debate. Right-wingers insist that Southwest officials (many who would never agree to any path to citizenship) must first verify border security . . .

Cynically, the system will remain out of balance if Congress bends to Republican fears just to get the votes. But the true common sense will indeed be what the Tea Party fears would happen – speeding the process, because that is the right thing.  Let’s not pretend that sending 12 million people to the back of a cumbersome crooked line is better than putting humanity and fairness at the front. It’s not even fiscally intelligent because the citizenship route combines fines, back taxes and further contributions to the taxpayer coffers, and the quicker the better for the economy.

Frankly, undocumented workers are not the key concern of citizens, though their treatment is intrinsically tied to our view of a political party. It is the fading right-wing whites who are most agitated. . . . 

Well, they still are. And now they have a president who plays into those fears – and a Congress being asked to show some sanity in the middle of those fears.  No question, our country has retrogressed in four years.

Where will we be, if we are allowed to be, in another few years?


About the author:  Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  His award-winning theater reviews appear at urbanmilwaukee.com.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

WRONG-FOOTED SUPREME COURT CAN BE CHANGED

By Dominique Paul Noth


It's not the seal but the state top court that
has tilted far to the right
Channel 12’s Mike Gousha has pointed out the obvious. Wisconsin is a nonpartisan state for electing judges “in name only.” 

No one believes the state’s top court is nonpartisan anymore, not after a decade in which the most conservative justices were delivered $10 million in outside money from the likes of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Club for Growth, the Koch brothers,  the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform and other right-wing channeling groups.

Their members often appear in cases before the high court but it is usually impossible to find a direct quid pro quo. “Often the person who benefits from dark money knows, but the public never knows,” says Jane Mayer, the New Yorker writer who has been a pioneer in tracing dark money.

The Citizens United decision of 2010 allowed full financial weight from very rich individual donors, forever tainting our definition of free speech. In a current case, Richard Uihlein is spending $3.5 million for someone no one heard of, Kevin Nicholson, to scare away other Republicans and take on Tammy Baldwin for a Senate seat next November.

So worried were Democrats about that big money this past spring that Justice Annette Ziegler ran unopposed for re-election and now has been forced to return 70% of the campaign money she tucked away since she didn’t need to spend it – and that was more returned than many state campaigns cost.

Such realities color the thinking about the spring election when jurists are chosen, many who will hold their seats for decades. That Dark Money Shark circling in for the kill taints every hard-earned dollar given to a candidate and makes legitimate funds look like minnows in comparison. “What can my dollar do against their millions?” 

That sense of futility breeds cynicism in the electorate and a demand for ideological absolutism from every candidate.  No nuance, just tell me where you stand, how you’ll vote in every case and how much you feel my pain – and maybe then I’ll vote for you.

Is that the way to choose judges?

By wink and nod or by historic experience, the dark money knew what they were going to get from these conservative justices, and they did deliver such things as overturning lower court decisions, upending union rights, affirming right to work and restricting John Doe investigations. But are we the people giving up? Or learning?

The high court mainly sets the rules for the road and rarely deals with criminal cases, yet the right wing has successfully and falsely painted their candidates as “law and order” judges -- as if that means anything.

“They’ve been asking the public to pick a sheriff not a judge,” several jurists sarcastically told me.

The conservative five are very chilly to accusations that the dark money coming into their campaigns influences their decisions.  Even when 56 (!) former judges petitioned them to recuse themselves in cases where they received inordinate money from the plaintiffs, the five refused to act and even passed rules making the deliberations secret and formalizing how they could take a lot of money without being questioned.  They also disbanded the judicial oversight council. 

Such behavior has been a blatant tell to the voters that you have to be very rich to get a favorable hearing. But the critics aren’t going away and insist the picture is not as bleak as it seems.

These court watchers say we are wrong to think of 5-2 being an immovable bloc.  There is a lot of crossover, cases where the conservatives can be influenced by the thinking of more liberal Ann Walsh Bradley and Shirley Abrahamson.  

One court insider describes it this way:  “The newbies on the court (Rebecca Bradley and Daniel Kelly who have a lot of Scott Walker connections) may have walked in with an agenda, but Patience Roggensack and Annette Ziegler are not quite where the newbies are.” Michael Gableman is a self-impaled lame duck whose promised departure has created the current contest. 

So the public should look for someone who can reach into this mix and stir up strong legal arguments. That can make a difference now as well as tomorrow, knowing that even 4-3 decisions are examined more closely by federal courts than 5-2, or so it historically seems.

Aside from that, while the justices are supreme within the state, some of their cases involve US Constitution issues that move into the federal system. The big campaign money being thrown around in Wisconsin clearly has SCOTUS quite concerned.  


Former Justice Janine Genke is distressed
by the direction of the top court.
“I would like to associate a kind of purity to being a justice,” said the highly regarded Janine Geske, who resigned from that high court in 1998 and since has served as interim Milwaukee county executive as well as professor at Marquette University and a world leader in restorative justice policies.

On the bench, she recalls, “There are cases I voted differently on than if I had been a legislator. I have positions on many things but as a judge the only reason to answer those questions is to read it as a signal on how I decide the case.  That's the problem I have when people start running on partisan positions.”

There’s also the public’s problem of thinking of judges as typical political candidates. The public seldom realizes how judicial candidates are restrained by ethical rules and nonpartisan designation from lobbying for their own campaign funds. One judge shared how this is done no matter the needed war-chest (which has ranged from $20,000 to $200,000 in local races). 

“Since we are not allowed to directly solicit campaign contributions, that leads to the odd and awkward situation of someone else having to make ‘the ask,’” he told me. “A candidate can call a potential supporter and then literally must hand the phone to someone else to ask for a contribution.  At a campaign event, you can make a brief speech but someone else must ask for the contribution.” 


Judge Dallet may be hurt by voters
desire for the obvious.
But how will that square in the current intemperate political climate?  The spring election serves as prelude of turnout in the November contests and this is a hot-blood year. The high court term was deliberately set at 10 years to rise above topical politics, but that takes years of one by one electorate decisions to change the balance of the court.  Many voters no longer seem to have the patience for such inching ahead. 

Some believe the Wisconsin public has been robbed so long of a fair high court that it should demand to know where a candidate stands and telegraph what he or she will decide.

This seems to be the crux of the argument facing voters in the February primary and April election for the high court – notably between Tim Burns, the Madison lawyer, and Rebecca Dallet, the Milwaukee circuit court judge, both courting what we refer to as Democratic votes.

There is a third candidate. Despite his more centrist Sauk country record as a judge, Michael Screnock‘s campaign is larded with GOP supporters. He may be truly running – or a placeholder for one of Walker’s chums in the wings.  If Gableman – who is pursuing other jobs – steps down before December 1, Gov. Walker gets to appoint a replacement who could then run in April with “incumbent” in front of the name. 

This is what Walker did last year to give Rebecca Bradley an edge.  Three times now – circuit court, appeals court and supreme court – she has first advanced through Walker appointment rather than public election, so the big money in her campaign carried more weight than if she had started out cold.

In some ways Burns and Dallet are quite similar. Both are married to lawyers. Both are raising three children.  Both agree with those 56 judges and criticize the way the current court is behaving. Both insist that a judge must be fair and impartial. Both want to be seen as agents of change.


Candidate Tim Burns
But they diverge on how they are campaigning.  Burns is aggressively progressive and appealing to groups outspoken against everything Walker stands for. In a Madison forum, he called Trump unhinged and attacked Act 10 because “everybody knows that law is aimed at harming the labor community and the Democratic Party.”

He pledges to be fair and impartial on the bench but says it is a “fairytale" to believe politics don't influence judges. "We just have to be real candid about that," he said.

Countered Dallet: "We as judicial candidates should not be taking positions on issues that could come before the court.  That's what I hear from my opponent. “

The high court, she added, is “doing this already, it's been going on. Well, it needs to stop."

Burns’ campaign manager, Amanda Brink, points to a US court decision (Republican Party of Minnesota vs. White) that allows candidates to express opinions and adds that voters want to be clear on what they’re getting.  

“Everyone says fair and balanced,” Brink said, “but courts haven't been working for average folks of late. There’s no room for moderates. I don’t think that’s the landscape in Wisconsin.”

Dallet’s campaign manager discounts the moderate label “just because she uses more inclusive language.”

“In the end, it's an authenticity issue,” said Jessica Lovejoy. “The successful candidates are the ones who are authentic.”

She knows – and I confirmed -- the Burns camp has been calling Dallet a conservative in phone calls to Milwaukee officials. And there were some snide press releases built around Dallet advancing her own campaign $200,000, though Burns clearly has also made good money and could do the same.  That $200,000 seems to represent two-thirds of her and her husband’s annual income.  It’s a far cry from the Dark Money Party.

“Actually I think it kind of admirable,” said another judge. “It's one of the few ways a judicial candidate can express independence” by putting up their own cash. “The money says she is actually serious and committed for this race.”  

Ironically both candidates are using robocalls to gain support – Burns in his own voice seeking a statewide network of support, Dallet using a campaign voice to solicit backing. As a sign of how early it is in staffing these campaign, both phone lines send you into a queue.

A big part of Dallet’s argument, commented another judge who supports her, is that “she’s been there – she has the name and the robe.”  He paused and then speculated: “Maybe we’re entering a phase where having been a judge seems as negative to some voters as having been a criminal -- and that would be a shame.”

Supporters also worry that she is not well known in the rest of the state as in Milwaukee.  

Burns has never been a judge and deals with insurance cases while Dallet has been on the bench for eight years. So her record, including a long stint on homicide court,   can surely be picked apart.

I found many judges who support her and others who are more cautious. It has something to do with who she previously supported in their own election but it’s also about waiting to hear more about where she stands on issue – within the confines of judicial ethics.


Judge Joe Donald
Much of this debate  between them brought to mind the primary against Rebecca Bradley last year by two good candidates for change – once again it was Madison reputation vs. Milwaukee reputation. Appeals court judge  JoAnne Kloppenburg easily edged Milwaukee circuit court veteran Joe Donald, an African American, but then was beaten soundly by Bradley in a presidential sweepstakes vote that saw Ted Cruz (remember?) run over Trump.

There were understandable reasons for Kloppenburg’s earlier support. Many Democrats think she was robbed in 2011 when she ran against David Prosser (since retired). It actually seemed she had won that election night – until enough missing votes were found in Waukesha County to put him over.  In Waukesha. After the fact. It sure sounded fishy and the smell of injustice lingered into 2016 – her supporters were convinced she deserved a seat on the high court.

But her race against Donald also had an ugly side.  Her campaign ran negative against the affable jurist, questioning his progressive credentials. The Kloppenburg team decided to attack him on his collegiality as judge when Rebecca Bradley was appointed in Milwaukee, though Donald is known for being friendly to all judges, had progressively pushed the court into new waters and was actually a more telegenic candidate than Kloppenburg.  The effort to paint him as not progressive enough stuck hard. 

Could that be the game plan this time?  Is Dallet’s reluctance to tear the current high court apart piece by piece a case of ethics and wise anticipation of who she would have to work with? Or is it out of step with the times and the anger of citizens?

We are an impatient society that has suffered for years, can’t stand the slowness of change and are eager to jump.  Yet, perhaps unfairly, we also lean on the courts to correct the imbalance of a crazy gridlocked country, hoping the judges at least will offer moments of justice and rationality.  

The current Wisconsin high court isn’t often doing that, but how do you get it there? 

The issue is now before the court of public opinion.


About the author:  Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  His award-winning theater reviews appear at urbanmilwaukee.com.

Friday, July 28, 2017

ROJO’S JOURNEY FROM GIDDY TO GOOFY

By Dominique Paul Noth

Wisconsin’s Senator Ron Johnson was  giddy with  euphoria at a press conference Thursday evening (July 28), grabbing the mike, waving a misleading chart on rising health premiums and jumping around like a child invited to sit at  the big boys table with more highly regarded senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy.

In high pitched babble he agreed with the others that the Republican’s “skinny Obamacare repeal” was a fraud unworthy of the party, though after eight years it had become the last vehicle to repeal the ACA.

He echoed Graham’s attack that it was crazy to think it a substitute for the ACA or should ever be allowed to pass.  More quietly and thoughtfully McCain chimed in, while Louisiana’s  Cassidy made mixed noises seeking assurance from the House that they would not let the bill move forward but simply open the door to a conference where Republicans could hang amendments on this Christmas tree.

The senators clearly feared – correctly -- that the House would take advantage of passage and just wash its hands of the troublesome bill that forces the removal of at least 16 million consumers from the health rolls.

The senators said in one voice that without Speaker Paul Ryan’s agreement to an arduous serious conference process they were “no” votes.  Think of that.  They were willing to vote on a bill they all thought lousy and did not even see the text until later that night.  But they wanted a promise that the vote was meaningless – an unheard of situation.

Yet as 12:53 a.m. Friday rolled around, Johnson offered a vigorous “aye” to the bill that hours earlier he said was a sham.  Graham, accepting Speaker Paul Ryan’s oral assurance that there would be a conference with the House (he doesn’t understand the vagaries of Ryan’s word as well as the people of Wisconsin do), also voted yes as did Cassidy.

McCain stood alone.  And stand he did, reinforcing the reason he said he returned from a sickbed in Arizona to clear the procedural way but balking at the final gimmick. It would have been easier to refuse from the start, but McCain likes his drama.

Joined by stalwart no-sayers Lisa Murkowski (despite threats from the White House)  and Susan Collins, he defeated this idea 51-49, causing an early slinking off the TV screen by Vice President Mike Pence, whose tie-breaking vote was no longer needed.

Johnson also slunk away and deservedly so.  The health care discussion gave him a brief moment to get too close to the sun. Now he will return to the more familiar  backbench. Did anyone in Wisconsin really expect him to stand up against the GOP juggernaut?

McCain was the balance, more than the maverick of old but also the hero of the Senate ideal. The deciding vote not only elevates him in his final years but reinforces the plea for harmony that marked his return. It was also a stern rebuke from the party’s 2008 leader to the current president.

But the slim margin he represents should give the country pause.  One 80 year old returning from a brain tumor spelled the common sense difference on a health care system that has helped millions, even if not liked by thousands.

Under Trump it can no longer be called Obamacare, but maybe finally the Republicans will face up to an empty promise they built their campaigns around and retreat from insisting on “repeal” to the more sensible methods of repair that the Democrats are willing to work on. 

Not that the Democrats are blameless. The exaggerated attacks on Obamacare have led to some kneejerk defenses.  Every time the GOP screams that the rise in premiums is killing the country, every time they dig out a family that has suffered as opposed to the many many families that have been helped, they employ the money and group-think that makes their simplicities reverberate.  Too many in the nation believe it’s failing,  which makes Democrats even more outspoken in reaction.

Obamacare defenders have much of it right. They know the health care exchanges only cover 7% of the consumers, so much of the raging involves few people. They recognize the main problem is the uncertainty about federal mandates that have made  insurance companies  skittish.

But there are good ideas they could put on the table. Single payer may be a bridge too far, but there is a lot more sympathy these days for the public option the original health care bill wanted.  Unions are also seeking correction to how their self-care insurances are contributed to and cut off.  There also should be an easy way to let Medicare negotiate drug prices directly with big pharma – and reassessment of how families qualify for subsidies.

The first step is to give up the myth about repeal. The next step may be to marvel at how the Democrats kept their entire team together and head into the 2018 elections showing unanimity, which stands in sharp contrast to the GOP shambles. Nor should they forget this is the people’s victory.

Trump’s infamous resistance to admit error and accept compromise (which he regards as weaknesses not democracy) stand in the way. That obstinacy is his main trait despite  the obvious  fact that even his rambling speeches indicate there are many parts of the ACA he likes and wants to keep. But his initial reaction after the vote indicates he will continue to attack subsidies to force failure:  “As I said from the beginning, let ObamaCare implode, then deal. Watch!" 

The cold water that has been splashed on the GOP seems to have missed the president. But will the GOP now  react by working with the other side or pleading with their constituents to elect even more Republicans? That electorate should never  forget the Republicans already have  the Senate, the House and the White House. Yet they still couldn’t find a better way. 

Republicans repeat the myth that Obamacare was passed in secret on Christmas Eve 2009. Even McCain has the history wrong.

They will also have to deal with Trump. He will blame them, never admit failure and probably not do the sensible thing of giving up on a bad bill.

About the author:  Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  His award-winning theater reviews appear at urbanmilwaukee.com.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

TRUMP’S SIMPLE SOLUTION TO HEALTH CARE

By Dominique Paul Noth

For eight years, Republicans of every political stripe have made it their mantra that the ACA (Obamacare) must be repealed and replaced.  Now political realities suggest a clear fix – apologize for being wrong for eight years and move to repair the stuff both sides agree need adjustment.

Standing in the way of an apology that most Americans would welcome is a president whose whole reputation is built on non-apology. 
Photoshop gremlins had fun on Facebook melding Trump with his
doctor but actuallly there is an easy health care solution -- admit
a mistake and move on.

Donald Trump has made a career of refusing to back down from whatever nonsense escapes his speeches or tweet threads, such as forming commissions to investigate nonexistent voter fraud, or continuing to challenge Obama policies he is actually building on because they work. His ability to find grievances in every event has become legendary even as he mangles history and facts as he did for New York Times.

It’s not quite like Ted Cruz admitting the GOP would look foolish backing away from repeal and replace -- though "foolish" looks like a tiny problem in the current state of things.

Trump is now insisting it was THEIR promise, not his. In fact, he will sign ANY bill they put in front of him. 

The   repeal-replace rhetoric was absurd with Obama in office and it remains a bigger absurdity today as the ACA has taken hold and helped far more Americans than claim damage despite the drumbeat of GOP ads.

Now Trump is assuring Congress that he won’t even read what they give him to sign!  This is his last gasp. 

He doesn’t know or can’t say that 85% of the people on the health exchanges have subsidies to help them with their premiums and that most of the complaints are coming from people just on the other income side of the subsidies. The exchanges are also a miniscule part of the ACA and get better fast if insurance companies are reassured by the president that the underwriting will continue, as now it should by law.

He apparently doesn’t know that most people in the ACA rely on employee health plans where their companies are supposed to have negotiating power on premiums or that Medicaid alone pays for 49% of the babies born in this country. Some 74.5 million individuals were enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP in April -- yes, those are government programs.

Some Republicans actually seem ready to admit repeal-replace was a lousy pledge, but now a day after suggesting repeal without replace would work, Trump doubled down July 19, suggesting a simple White House meeting with “I’m the greatest deal closer” could fix both repeal and replace.

The world had changed around him.  Evidence exists that Obamacare is not failing – it is being sabotaged.  Health insurance companies simply want Trump’s promise that the ACA subsidies will continue, so success is in his small hands.

The president clearly doesn’t understand health care policy and actually wants to keep several things the Obama bill made possible – pre-existing coverage, children on parental plans until age 26, etc.  He doesn’t even understand that every version of the GOP bills he never read happily offers one form of subsidy or another (that’s actually one of the right wing’s problems).  

There’s a giant duplicity in the Republican talking points – that people don’t want to be forced to buy insurance if they feel, today at least, they don’t need it, but that’s only because they know others in society are poised to pay for their emergency room visits.

Health insurance works when the pool includes those who need it now and those who may need it in the future.  Plus there are terrific rewards from preventive care.  These are the larger universal truths about the American experience that comes through in war and peace – Work together to support each other, and recognize that sometimes we need government to help us do that.

There is a philosophical issue at work as well -- being mandated to be covered, as in everyone pays something. People understand that with state auto insurance, Social Security and income taxes, but some draw the line on health care.  It sounds so American to say citizens shouldn’t be forced into participation by government -- except it is also anti-American to not recognize there have always been exceptions.

The central dilemma in the discussion remains whether health care is a right or a privilege. The Republicans seem to be saying that anything we have to pay for is not a right, conveniently forgetting the military, the highways and even the breadth of Medicaid.  

This is also an underlying misconception on the left, which thinks terms like “single payer” or “Medicare for all” don’t carry a price tag.  They do and these systems will be much harder to set up in a nation that has built its health care system around private companies.  Obama recognized that as he moved the “right not a privilege” argument forward but maintained the private companies and their high level of employees and affiliates (one sixth of the economy) through a remarkably sturdy system of levers, sticks, sweeteners and counter-weights.

The Republicans, after eight years of empty flailing, are only now realizing how carefully the system was built.

Since none voted for it, they conveniently forget how many Republican ideas were incorporated, inviting GOP votes that never came (here is where my memory differs from GOP Sen. Susan Collins, who thinks the Republicans weren’t asked and now  rightly wants any new system to have both parties cooperating – but so did Obama).

Even Obama’s universal lie of 2013 (if you like your plan and your doctor, you can keep them) was a poorly worded anticipation that doctors would not flee good plans and providers would fix bad ones. 

His public relations optimism did not anticipate court roadblocks, a medical community both noble in some practices but also venal and guilty in the opioid epidemic, the financial games health companies and big pharma are experts in, the refusal of half the states to participate in the health exchanges, the reluctance of so many states to expand Medicaid despite the financial incentives, and so forth. 

Only now after eight years has the American public on the left and right realized that cooperation and repair are the best path forward – not continuing to insist on a pledge that was not thought through to begin with.

The current president, who keeps trying to shame the Republicans with their stupid pledge he apparently never agreed to, has laid down the biggest blockade to improving health care.  He thinks a few words over a White House lunch will convince the Republicans.

Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar disagrees, referring to the three Republican senators who have spoken out against the meanness of the GOP bill in its various forms – Lisa Murkowski, Shelley Moore Capito and Collins.

Said Klobuchar: “I don’t think a tuna salad sandwich is going to change the minds of these three strong women” – who incidentally were excluded from the original white male taskforce on the Senate bill.


About the author:  Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  His award-winning theater reviews appear at urbanmilwaukee.com.



Sunday, July 16, 2017

IN CANDID BUT NEEDED DEFENSE OF TOM BARRETT

By Dominique Paul Noth

In 2017 Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett delivered yet another
well accepted state of the city speech
Nice guys finish last. That truism of modern politics has been heightened in the Trump era but certainly applies at crucial times to the career of Tom Barrett, whose organizational skills and personable manner have brought a lot of success in the public arena but have also at key moments worked against his elections and his reputation in office.

His personal bravery – demonstrated in a famous 2009 incident outside State Fair – has been combined in public life by a caution that some interpret as cowardice and others as a habit of reflection from a lifetime of political realities. 

Some of Barrett’s problems may be self-inflicted but much of it has to do with a growing attitude in society that progressives have to be extreme to be taken seriously.  Over the years as an opinion journalist I have taken Barrett to task on moments of what he would call political balance and I criticized as trying to please too many sides at once.  

Those moments have now led to something I think ugly and even despicable – an unfair depiction of his methods and skilled service. 

Nowhere was this clearer to me than in the recent concern about language changes in immigration policy imposed by a skittish city attorney and quietly agreed to by the Fire and Police Commission without the due process of asking the immigrant community first, particularly the outspoken advocates of Voces de la Frontera. 

It should be worth noting that while Barrett along with police chief Ed Flynn was savaged for these changes, since reversed, there was never any evidence of initiation. Barrett never wavered in his support of the immigration community and even applauded the change back in language.

The real history here seems that the independently elected city attorney, frightened by how Trump AG Jeff Session had been moving harshly against sanctuary cities and independent local policing, wanted to put belt and suspenders on city policy – and never understood how stridently immigration defenders would react to any change in language, a reaction I found understandable.

Barrett was victimized in the public mind as weakening on defense of immigrants, though he remained an outspoken articulate leader on immigration causes. Privately he seems to understand that, while the reaction may seem hysterical to outsiders, if you live in the immigration community and are aware of how remorseless the Trump administration can appear, a little paranoia doesn’t mean Sessions isn’t out to get you.

But no question, there is a history of Barrett talking one way but then not speaking out for the principles he subscribed to in the minds of constituencies that had supported him.  That certainly influences the reaction to current events. Much of this may be his way of operating but it has seemed to me in the past that voucher school advocates and building contractors have been pretty good at picking the mayor’s pocket whatever principles he thinks he stands for.

Some examples.  Barrett made a major error in my opinion in seeking control of Milwaukee public schools eight years ago, taking his cue from Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle without recognizing how ferociously the city felt about local citizen control -- even if the voters didn’t always turn out in big numbers for MPS board elections.

Both Doyle and Barrett, either knowingly or not, were reacting to outside privatization and business interest pressures, where Barrett often doesn’t find the right point of balance. Neither, of course, do many of his current critics.

His vacillation here, much like County Executive Abele’s more recently, speaks to a confusion about education policy that the community itself has had difficulty deciphering.  What do you do with programs that are popular with parents but may actually be hurting children’s education? 

Similarly, in 2008 when Milwaukee voters overwhelming supported a modest paid sick leave ordinance, Mayor Barrett joined the business community in opposing it, even using their argument that “voters just want free stuff” and such a law would isolate the city with higher standards than hungry business-stealing suburbs. His opposition shortly brought a state law under Gov. Scott Walker preventing any policy stronger than the state’s – while around the country, my contrary argument was winning. The city passed up the chance to be an oasis of good corporate citizenship.

When he was elected mayor in 2004, Barrett was actually riding some high regard in the black community. It traced back to his excellent service in Congress and his refusal in 2002 to primary fellow Democrat Jerry Kletzka when Milwaukee lost a congressional seat in the 2000 census.  Since Kletzka was from the whiter south side, Barrett support was vital in the black community.

Handing his district over to Kletzka was a moving ceremony in 2002 when Barrett invited his good friend, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, to speak at the Black Holocaust Museum and join hands with him, Kletzka and many noted local names such Marvin Pratt in a march to the Martin Luther King statue.

In 2002 newbie David Clarke was
sucking up to the Democrats.
I have memorable photos of the event including a newly appointed sheriff, David Clarke, bobbing up and down behind the famous in an effort to ingratiate himself with the Democrats – my, how times have changed!

Later that year, Barrett lost a primary bid for governor, coming in second behind Doyle and ahead of Kathleen Falk – a race he ran well but may have lost because of that lingering outside resistance in Wisconsin to anyone from Milwaukee, even anyone clearly accomplished. 

The irony of that 2002 popularity moment, when Barrett was  holding hands with Pratt on the march, became striking in 2004 when Barrett used his bigger name and war chest to defeat by eight points Pratt, the interim mayor  who used the theme “It’s Time” (in a minority dominated city) to make much of that campaign a black-white issue. The black-white fever lingers to this day.

A mustachioed Barrett campaigning for mayor at a 2003 gathering.
Pratt had some campaign finance issues as well and Barrett still had popularity within the black community, which would slowly be diminished by a curious combination of right wing money, streetcar opposition, lead pipe simplicities and extremist minority concerns about representation.

The myth that blacks are better for blacks and Latinos are better for Latinos regardless of ability dies hard. Barrett’s early support for Obama, his record of fighting for civil rights, his refusal to be cowed on immigration rights, his ability against odds to pass important legislation, all seem  to count for little.

Barrett has been good on those issues – in statements at least.  When he ran for mayor in 2004 and even since, no one has been as persuasive on the need for unions and worker solidarity. No one has been more forceful in speaking for the inner city. Yet that has not always been matched in public perspective or mayoral decisions.  I recall criticizing some building projects for failing their full union promise. That may have been the fault of his minions, but they were his hires and the mayor is the one who has to be held responsible.

I also recall interviewing Frank Zeidler before his death. The last Milwaukee Socialist mayor emphasized that city government was an ongoing tale of a strong common council (by law) and a weaker mayor.  So reporters should be better than the public in differentiating who is responsible for what – and which camp is making the most mischief.

The best and most amusing criticism I ever heard of Barrett came years ago in an inner city church after the mayor bravely faced down critics and the Rev. Willie Brisco, leader of MICAH, took the lectern.  “I love Tom Barrett,” he said, comparing him to a “great kid” at shortstop he played pickup baseball with in his youth.  “Wonderful guy,” Brisco said, before laying down the stinger.  “But he couldn’t pick a ball.”

Brisco was describing the difference between what Barrett said and what he did.  But note he was speaking after Barrett, overriding his own advisers, openly defended his actions before a hostile audience.

This is a pattern I have seen over the years, which is why a lot of the criticism of Barrett irks me – he only cares about Downtown, they say, he doesn’t speak up on neighborhood issues or for the working class, he doesn’t care about the inner city, that streetcar is just for the rich tourists and so forth.

Barrett speaking in 2006 at labor's Mourn for the Dead
annual event at then named Zeidler Union Square Park.
Yet over the years I always run into Barrett at neighborhood events, speaking up for investments in communities like Harambee, in home improvements on the west side, in better weather installation for older Milwaukee houses, in fighting the state on foreclosures, in talking train company Talgo back into its inner city facility despite how cruelly the company was treated by Gov. Scott Walker, in explaining his ideas before audiences not willing to listen – and on and on.

The GOP delays in the streetcar have gone on for decades and have cost both the inner city and the east side the expansions planned long ago, again demonstrating how these anti-transit and anti-community forces have set Milwaukee and Wisconsin back generations.

A lot people still take the statewide Democratic losses out on Barrett. Perhaps the party should have moved more rapidly to younger standard bearers. Perhaps the electorate should have woken up harder and faster.

But even in 2002, many think in terms of administrative skill, caring nature and personality he would have made a better governor than Doyle. Who can doubt that even his multiple losses to Walker cost the state far more than it did Barrett? Who today thinks Mary Burke was a candidate improvement on Barrett?

The latest bizarre efforts to recall Barrett brought immediately to my mind the curious mixture of right wing money organizers and left-wing agitation behind the Swanigan effort against DA John Chisholm, again much of the same tired racial simplicities that have injured city politics before and clearly will again. 

Even as in Pratt’s time, there is new evidence that political critics circling City Hall are willing to make deals on the left and the right, with workers and corporations, with big suburban money and street agitators – while hypocritically  criticizing  Barrett for his compromises.

They are now engaged secretly in areas Mayor Tom was at least honest about.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.