Thursday, February 15, 2018

ABELE USES MONEY TO SELL DISPUTES AS PERSONAL – AND MEDIA BUYS IT

By Dominique Paul Noth


Shortly before he left early from the Domes  hearing on parking fees,
Chris Abele dodged a question from AFSCME retired leader Patty Yunk,
photo from her Facebook page.
When Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele backed off Tuesday (Feb. 13) from putting parking meters in the parks to raise revenue, he said he was just bowing to the public’s resistance.

He didn’t say he was bowing to the hundreds who spoke against such fees at a Domes public hearing forced upon him by the County Board.  If the board  hadn’t insisted, meters would have gone through without public input.

Nor did he cite the complaints and resolutions peppering him from those supervisors who each represent about 55,000 persons.

Nor did he mention how the day before at a meeting of the ICC (Intergovernmental Cooperation Council)  he was hammered by the influential leaders of the 19 municipalities who all have parks in their backyards.

It remains an open question which factors really led Abele to abandon an idea no one liked.  He has often stuck to his guns regardless of public opinion. And here comes another bill he’s pushing in Madison mainly designed to increase his powers and stick it to the county board. Under that bill (Senate 777 and Assembly 923) he could do everything he just said he wouldn’t.

As writer Virginia Small reported, when Abele was asked why he wanted more power, he told Channel 58 that the bill would let executives run government “more efficiently,” to which Supervisor John Weishan responded: “I’m sure that Mussolini and Hitler said the same thing.”

Many in the public are fooled into thinking this is a personality dispute – supervisors led by board chair Theo Lipscomb to oppose imperious Abele rather than serve their own constituents.

It’s a simple-minded view that  the media --  newspaper and many radio and  TV stations  (except for a few good interviews) --  have also adopted. It’s always easier to sell news or minimize the controversy if you make it about people not liking each other rather than real issues.  


Supervisor Jason Haas
“It’s all the newspaper,” said Supervisor Jason Haas, first elected in 2011. “There is no meat to those bones. Whoever is in the board chair will have conflicts with this county exec (as Marina Dimitrijevic did before Theodore Lipscomb).  It’s a policy dispute. We (the board) demanded a plan for parking revenue  and insisted on a public hearing.” That, he believes,  was not mentioned in stories about the Abele withdrawal.

Across town, Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman – new to the board but a veteran state legislator - added,  “Oh, there is always  a little personal animus.  The policies have started to turn them on each other. But the real problem is the bill. It goes too far.”

It’s an Abele power play and  violates “my  ideal of both sides working together,” Wasserman said. 


Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman
Working together is clearly mandated  in the largest city in Wisconsin with a $1.5 billion budget (now reduced in negotiations) that requires county board input under federal and state law.  This 18-headed Hydra with some  districts of frequent turnover has actually pulled together on key issues over the last decade – and likely will again after  the April election.  Many supervisors  are resentful at the media treating this as a personality disorder on their end.

Abele is an odd duck on many fronts.  He has used his father’s wealth (Boston Scientific and Argosy Foundation) and his own for many philanthropic or progressive causes  to  support national women’s rights and local LBGTQ efforts, individual national candidates  and so forth. 

But he also spends money that swamps local competitors  and puts his own candidates in the field. He  produces aggressive flyers and TV-radio campaigns against the county board.  His methods have angered many politicians who previously got his support. That money and his willingness to use it leads to the general feeling that “he doesn’t  play well with others,” as one former supervisor put it. 

Said Lipscomb in an interview, “He’s working with you if he gets his own way.”

Abele  not only has the money to do it, he has the methods. Sometimes he seems to deliberately beat the board to the punch on reversals of his own  policy – not just the parking thing but when Lipscomb was unveiling a board  plan to save bus routes,   Abele slipped in ahead of him to take the savior position.

The parking-in-parks  issue strikes many as that sort of backhanded back-down – now suggesting using the contingency fund instead,  an idea stolen from a Weishan proposal.

Yet he was  still lobbying February 14 in Madison for a bill violently opposed by the public that gives him the power to impose ideas he just abandoned.  In fact, when asked in Madison  who is paying the expensive lobbyists for the bill, he said,  “I am.”  

And that bill allows  him  a wheel tax of whatever size despite the public voting 72% against the  $60 he was seeking. It also allows him any fiscal debt he wants to acquire, amend or impose without public input.

Many see the bill as the coronation of King Abele and were unhappy when they  heard that other county executives also wanted it. Not Wasserman. “County execs want to be buddies with each other,” he chuckled.

Wasserman noted the bill expands their power to match Abele’s, though some in the press believe it brings him up to them, so cleverly was this sold.

It extends authority to other county executives (about 10 others in the state) to put them on a par with Milwaukee but  has a section devoted all to Milwaukee – “a wish list for someone who wants dictatorial powers,” said Supervisor James (Luigi) Schmitt, who has represented the Wauwatosa area on the board since 1998 and has seen his share of would-be dictators come and go. (Scott Walker preceded Abele.)


Non-lawyers may not realize all the wrinkles Abele is seeking in a bill introduced by GOP lawmakers and two Democrats now being regarded as turncoats, Sen. Lena Taylor and Rep. Jason Fields.  It has  a powerful lobbying component pretending to be  County Leaders for Modernization whose announced members tilt to firms long associated with the Republicans. It would take away from the board approving contracts and leases;  setting compensation rates including retirement; reviewing an interim appointment and much more.
Board chairman Theodore Lipscomb

The state’s neutral Legislative Reference Bureau stated the consequences clearly and simply in its fiscal analysis:  “To the extent that a conflict exists between county board action and county executive the bill provides that the action of the executive shall prevail. The bill also allows a county executive of a populous county to exercise some of the authority that would otherwise be exercised by the county board for matters regarding property.”

Abele may also have stepped over his skies in TV interviews saying  all the state’s other 10  county executives are behind the bill.  No, they are behind its idea of a two-year budget cycle that creates efficiencies in management, and so are members of the Milwaukee  board I interviewed.

But while initial news stories and Abele’s own statements put the other county execs full scale behind the bill, that’s  simply false.  Other county execs indicate, as one said off the record, that it was supported “to the extent we didn’t publicly oppose.”

There are expanded powers for them as a sweetener in the bill but there’s an entire section that clearly applies just to Abele and not to them – presented to a legislature notorious for wrapping around Milwaukee like  a python.


Outagamie County's Tom Nelson
One of the more notable county execs with a statewide reputation as a solid Democrat, Tom Nelson of Outagamie County, is a strong supporter of Abele’s idea  but even he suggests his county is in a different situation.  For instance, asked if he would ever seek a wheel tax, he said no.

Nelson now suggests he wants to introduce amendments since some of the language in the bill sounds so toxic toward  county boards. “There are a number of provisions that appeal to me including two year budgeting and establishing a commission to set elected-official pay,” Nelson told me in an interview. But “I have come to appreciate our unique board-executive relationship. It’s a partnership grounded in mutual respect and understanding.”

Portage County Executive Patty Dreier also called the language and details  “toxic.” Such  execs  also have close relationships to their citizen board of legislators who generally represent fewer citizens and less demographic complexity than in  Milwaukee.  Nelson points out that his board only took 15 minutes to approve his budget.

Many execs  also quietly say they have more experience in the give-and-take of democracy than Abele does. 

It was  state legislation (Act 14 morphing into Act 55) a few years ago that first gave Abele more power after  running to Madison. Those bills  shut county board members out  of land deals (the Bucks arena and environs) and department leadership choices while also reducing them to part-time hours and pay though many continue to work full time.

Because of those reductions, this April all the board seats are again up for vote, though only a few are contested.  Only one requires a Feb. 20 primary.  That’s the Oak Creek 8th District where incumbent David Sartori is being challenged by Abele-backed James Davies and Working Families Party-backed Scott Shea. 

Two years is the average board service length  around the state, but note that the Outagamie board only meets twice a month and Nelson says it is fully involved – attending “all executive budget meetings,” while in Milwaukee Abele is known  for secrecy.

Fond du Lac County Executive Allen Buechel says bluntly “I will not take a public position on the current legislation. If it does not pass, the issues will not go away. At that point I would recommend that a group of County Executives and County Board Chairs sit down and work through the issues.”

Buechel has been county exec for 25 years and was  for 17 years before that  on the Fond du Lac board.   “I have a great relationship with my board,” he said. “I recognize that this is not the situation in some of the other 10 counties with an elected executive.”

Doubts about the bill have spread.  Dane County is actually registered in opposition; its  budget is only a third the size of Milwaukee’s. The new bill, Schmitt points out, overrides fiscal controls even past  the point of independent judicial review.  

Under Act 55 Abele already had wrested control of non-parkland, which allowed him to unilaterally make the deal for the new Bucks arena and 10 acres around it.  But he also forced county taxpayers to  absorb a hefty  chunk. At the same time as President Obama was advising no public money should go to private sports palaces,  Walker and the GOP agreed to spend $250 million in taxpayer money  -- and $80 million of that over 20 years from county taxpayers under the Abele concession.  

Obama is proving right about how the taxpayers are underwriting enormous  private profits – the Bucks are now worth over $1 billion -  but credit the Bucks with realizing how that looks and agreeing to a $12.50 minimum wage growing to $15 and unionized local jobs. Does that lessen the sting of  $80 million?  Or will the Arena  join Foxconn as a bitter pill for the county taxpayer  to swallow?

Not all the land going through the parks has been officially zoned as parkland, and Abele has talked openly about a goal of self-sustaining park revenue by 2024. As long as that was  beer gardens or golf putting greens, no one objected.  But giving him the power to go further is worrisome and certainly weakens local control over both parks and other land use, his many critics point out.


Patricia Jursik
Local parks activists fear that if a park doesn’t pay its own way, Abele will shut it down. Noted former supervisor Pat Jursik, now on the board of Preserve Our Parks, “When leaders wanted a brand new arena they found the money in the supposedly depleted county coffers. But when citizens want to preserve the legacy of our grandparents and save public parks for our own grandchildren, we are told there is no money. This is a false narrative. This is rule by the Corporate Oligarchs who do not listen to the public.”

The timing of Abele’s new Madison power grab to the April election also struck many as no accident.  Because simultaneously a new organization funded by Abele and supporting several candidates while opposing board incumbents has emerged – LeadershipMKE.  It is targeting several races with flyers and ads – including Lipscomb in District 1, attacks on Peggy West in District  12 and defense of incumbent Deanna Alexander (Abele’s staunchest ally on the board) against an outspoken progressive opponent, Sparkle Ashley, in District 18.

LeadershipMKE  is openly backing Jim Davies with multiple flyer dumps in that Oak Creek district, trying to  muddy the progressive message of candidate Steven Shea ahead of Feb. 20.

Which raises another question of strange bedfellows. A  knowledgeable state legislator noted accurately that “Abele has been searching for someone to run against Theo for a year and promised big bucks to whoever that would be.” 

Yet Lipscomb’s opponent in District 1 Glendale area, Casey Shorts, insists he was not recruited by Abele nor has he taken money from him.  Similarly, Sylvia Ortez Velez,  opposing Peggy West in traditionally low turnout District 12, ran for the seat before and also insists she is not Abele’s candidate – “in fact, I oppose his privatization push,” she said.  And so does Shorts.

But flyers savaging the incumbents from the Abele group  are landing on the doors in these two districts and other advertising is planned.  All Velez and Shorts say they can do is shrug and ignore.  Shouldn’t something be said about disowning?

Shorts boasts endorsements from the Milwaukee Area Labor Council and Citizen Action, neither close to Abele and also past supporters of  Lipscomb, who admits to being confused by their choice.  Pam Fendt, who now leads the labor council, says “we were simply blown away by Shorts’ strong labor presentation” – Shorts is a lawyer and workers comp specialist at Previant.  Citizen Action also cites a strong interview.  His opposition to privatization was another key factor, though Lispcomb is equally opposed and has worked in the past for union compensation.

Shorts, a Glendale resident, clearly buys the newspaper attitude about the dispute. He  believes that the Abele-Lipscomb friction is a factor he can correct.  If it weren’t so “deep rooted,” if there were 97% agreement,  he speculates, why  anytime you open JS wouldn’t that  be more widely known? To him it seems personal between them.

“97% is the actual truth if you look at how his budgets go through,” ripostes Lipscomb.  “Conflict is his oversimplification.”  But he admits to getting irked “when Abele runs to Madison to get what he wants.”

The irony is that in a different place and time, you could see Shorts and Lipscomb talking policy over  beers.  Is he a decent candidate in  the wrong environment, I asked Shorts.

“I’ve heard that before – right person in the wrong race,” he smiled. “But I live in Glendale and I have local support and I think it’s insane the conflict I’m seeing.”

The media also hasn’t noticed how the American fetish for automobiles keeps moving Abele closer to Walker. It may be a mutual blind spot about raising money.

The governor,  after years of opposition, is  now dreaming about a piece of Trump’s infrastructure fancies. So suddenly he is open to two things once taboo: Creating toll roads to raise money and raising the gasoline tax.  Abele, rather than intelligent belt tightening or deeper innovation, fixates on wheel tax and parking fees.

What is it with these guys and the American love of automobiles? Joked Haas,  “They never seem to learn. Go near people’s cars and there’s outrage.”


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 Urban Milwaukee. 


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

HOW TO MAKE TRUMP MOVE EVERY WHICH WAY

By Dominique Paul Noth


Trump January 9 in an "Apprentice" like sitdown
while Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyers listens.
Apparently the way to get Trump to behave more presidential is to accuse him of being unhinged.

In response to widespread speculation after “Fire and Fury,” he opened to the press a usually closed session with leading Democrats and Republicans July 9 where, knowing cameras were rolling, he sounded calmer and more conversationally stable than usual. He directed a freewheeling if simplistic discussion of DACA (whatever Congress agrees to he will sign), earmarks (he wants back the collegiality associated with such pork) and admitted there are security fixes aside from a big wall on the border,

Trump also said the bill must include something no one in the room agreed about. He insisted that the public, thanks to his diatribes, was now against “chain migration,” without defining what that term actually means or why aside from rally cliché it must be in any bill.

The media and TV audience who watched this unusually open Tuesday meeting might think they heard more than a glimmer of agreement, but then you also have to remember the shoot-downs stuck in by common sense realists about the legislative process and that the House hardliners on immigration were carefully not invited to the room.

Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein’s suggestion of a clean DACA bill before the March 5 deadline, which seemed to have support from Trump, was quickly jumped on by GOP House leaders to say there had to be some element of border security, too, and ending chain migration, though passing DACA would go a long way toward border security. 


Sen Diane Feinstein after releasing transcript.
Feinstein was having a good week. On her own despite her Republican judiciary committee masters, she released the full transcript of GPS Fusion testimony, which the company itself, the public and the media wanted.  That discussion of the infamous “dossier” outlined several legal avenues for Congress to pursue though the Republicans haven’t and also revealed that the memos that comprise the dossier were confirmation of what the FBI was already looking at.

Much of what emerged from the White House meeting was in the realm of public relations. The introduction of mental illness into the discussion of Trump has been something of an insult to the mentally ill, who in majority are ordinary people struggling to cope with internal malfunctions.  But Trump was clearly stung and used this meeting to answer the question.  In fact, he is easier to understand as a sane end product of a particular kind of Yankee buccaneer -- self-focused, high-strung, so ego-centric about his own worth that he can rightly be accused of massive lack of empathy.

It could be good for America that he is so easily distracted by personal attacks. His lack of attention to details and his mania for how he is treated by the media mean he has been less effective in doing his job – one of the least accomplished presidents in history.  But that also means he has given more power to his cabinet to put their own peculiar interpretations on his campaign promises.

The extremists among them have been working on ardent slapdowns of public schools, foreigners, citizens who protect immigrants and residents without the proper papers (illegal to him, undocumented to others sensitive to the nuances of laws and language). The courts keep stabbing back but these extremists seem undeterred. 

That White House meeting may diminish his band of followers even more without picking up enough moderates to compensate.  He seems to be reneging on that promise of massive spending on a 2,000 mile Great Wall along the border. It bore a scary price tag of some $40 billion but he now promises to build it cheaper for Mexico to pay.

But Mexico won’t pay for such idiocy and neither will the US Congress. On that there is agreement across the aisle.  On Tuesday, Trump further backed off his campaign rhetoric, suggesting there were natural barriers to protect the border and some work that was simply fixing what is there, in effect diminishing the amount of work he seemed to be asking for.

It turns out that effective security measures would still be abandoned for the sake of the wall. Despite Trump’s claims that the US Border Patrol was universally in support of his policy, their immediate problem is staffing since they are losing agents faster than they can hire. They sorely want other kinds of help than money thrown against the wall.

Back of the envelope math suggests why Trump is wrong-headed on this – and why he has been elevating every criminal case involving immigrants to a national crisis, trying to hide how basic facts are against him.

To begin with, the number of illegal border crossings has reduced sharply and now mostly involves not people from Mexico but from Central and South America using Mexico’s porous southern borders and coastal lines through a sophisticated but ruthless network of “coyotes.”

Estimates from US Border Patrol say its agents apprehended without Trump's wall 303,916 in fiscal 2017 -- including people caught multiple times. They estimated that at an 81% success rate of those who tried.  

On that math, Trump wants to build a wall costing $18 billion in the first wave to catch some 60,000 people a year. That works out to $300,000 per person, who each would settle for a paycheck 10 times smaller.

These simpler realities – border crossings have shrunk, border patrols are hard to staff, costs outweigh any perceived need – have focused congressional discussions away from the wall.  Many suggest that rather than Mexico paying, we should be paying Mexico for better security on its southern border and coastlines or, even better, provide those countries economic incentives against poverty and crime. Under Trump there is far less incentive but migration persists because of perilous living situations.

Such facts demonstrate the further short-term cruel thinking of Trump’s policies for temporary refugees taken in from Haiti (some 40,000) and El Salvador (200,000)up to 18 years ago.  His argument is that, since the natural disasters they fled are over and the roads rebuilt, they should be forced to return regardless of the jobs and families they have created here, regardless of the remaining crime and poverty figures at home, regardless of the billions of dollars they have sent back to their families in home countries – an economic aid those countries would now be deprived of.

It also means their children born here and hence American citizens will have to choose staying illegally if DACA is not solved or going back with their parents, ignoring their advances in  school, military service or professional careers.  This is an edict created without thinking to satisfy the powerful anti-immigration lobby and disturb the rest of us. Those home countries can’t absorb such numbers and lose such shipped income in one swoop.  It forces the immigration community further underground, another example of Trump's penchant for substituting quantity for quality.

Which brings us to Trump’s definition of chain migration.  Historically it refers to the inevitable practice that people who come to this country look to bring family and friends from their home countries along – not all they approach want to go, of course.  In past times many came to learn and left to go back to their homeland, some 40% 100 years ago.  And not all invited involved multiple children and in-laws, as the false graphics from the immigration haters suggest. 

For centuries this process has been going on unregulated and successfully – both once Republican aims. What has changed are quotas, the sense of a crowded America (though don’t ask the people of Montana, North Dakota and other states that still advertise for settlers) and mainly a basic change in the skin color of the seekers. 

In Trump’s mouth, chain migration is an evil, suggesting that every bad actor who gets to this country has strung behind him a train of bad actors, though there is no evidence of that. History is actually full of hombres, both good and bad. That includes our president’s grandfather Friedrich Trump who fled Bavaria to Trump’s big mouthpiece-in-chief Steven Miller, stemming from 19th century Jewish German heritage

Even Republicans are confused in defining chain migration.

To our president, ending chain migration has become the catchall cure to any criminal act by someone in this country illegally or via green card.  This one-time casino operator thinks lotteries are bad, though all participants are screened. Yet for many of us this country was founded on one form or another of chain migration – settlers helping bring over the family, friends and fellow churchgoers.  That some turned to crime and others like Friedrich to fleecing fellow settlers – that just seemed the price of getting the good 99% majority.

Despite all his talk about gangs and street violence, actual research shows that immigration communities report far less crime, though some of that may be fear of interacting with law enforcement authorities.  That, of course, is why several community police forces swear by the effectiveness of sanctuary cities.

Trump is no ideologue. Many don’t think he has the intellect to admit doubt and ask questions.  If this is going to be a Democratic wave he might go along in a weirdly pliable way – if you can figure out which side of his mouth to listen to.

Yet he has staffed some of his agencies with the most extremely conservative or least qualified inhabitants – Justice, Education, Housing, Energy, Environment – and counted on their refusal to more flexibly interpret his edicts or even examine the facts behind the policies.  They are slowly doing enormous damage to our country.

After the meeting, the serious negotiations took place behind closed doors. But this public back and forth was most welcome to a national audience despite moments of contradictions from Trump and a realization that just about everyone else in the room had a deeper vocabulary. 

Democrats don’t want the country to fail – not to a foreign power, not once again to sluggish economy, not to an inability to compromise. They are in a dealing mood despite their doubts. But that means they have to take Donald along with any package – even when he seems to be treating a tableful of our nation’s leaders with the similar manner he used on “Celebrity Apprentice.”  None had the 2011 guts of Obama to take him down.


About the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, and a founding figure of the American Theatre Critics Association.  After stints as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, he was also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic on his way to becoming 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 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 active historic 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 Urban Milwaukee. 


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

WHY GOP CONFIDENT OF SELLING BOTH UNPOPULAR TAX BILL AND FOXCONN

By Dominique Paul Noth

The tax bill that just passed Congress and will be signed by Trump without a single Democratic vote has turned both sides into P.T. Barnums.  How can the GOP sell it and how can the Democrats keep it alive as a negative campaign issue in 2018?

It will take more than Paul Ryan's smug grin
to sell this tax bill.
The Democrats are basically right that this is a horrible tax bill that mainly rewards the Republican wealthy  donor class at the long-range cost of the middle class. It is a bill whose internal flaws will need to be revised probably within a year by whatever party is in power. It unconscionably burdens future generations. 

But the Democrats may go overboard in describing the downside horror since most of the public will not feel that in their pocketbooks or daily economy for several years. If it is Armageddon as Nancy Pelosi says, it is delayed Armageddon that gives the GOP room to camouflage.

Something similar is happening with the Foxconn deal, which will be discussed later.

Some eight of 10 taxpayers – including the working class and middle class -- will not sense  any immediate pain from the tax bill  and actually some rewards into 2020. If they only read their own selfish tea leaves, it will take them years to realize the supposed gains have slipped away into greater costs.

The GOP needs to sell the front end of the tax plan as hard as humanly possible to keep voters in 2018 from realizing what is waiting for them around the corner.  As bad as the bill is polling now, look for a blitz of counter-claims for the holidays.

That may work, since we live in an age of instant gratification.  The GOP has the money and advertising largesse – thank-you ads to the wizard Trump behind the curtain are already being planned – and its marketers are quite confident the voters haven’t yet been aroused enough to reject the past techniques of money and soundbite advertising luring them to the cliff’s edge. 

The Republicans think they have the proven inside track  in  this salesmanship game by exaggerating  how much middle class households will get in extra cash without noticing or caring how the donor class and the other filthy rich are getting in the meantime. (It is now estimated that the seven largest banks will see their profits increase by 14%, which translates into billons.) They take away with one hand – personal exemptions – while giving with the other – child tax credits, hoping no one looks at the ledger.

The voters  --  they rightly believe based on past ostrich behavior --  will  not notice how many loopholes remain and that Congress traded away simplified tax codes to favor insiders.

The Republicans are selling a trickle down myth that should have disappeared with Herbert Hoover -- that if the rich do well they will hire more people and raise wages.  Most companies you know will line their own pockets and play up to their shareholders. If they could make money hiring more people, trust me they would have.  When was the last time Wall Street stock went up for adding rather than reducing labor?

For the public to buy this package the citizens will have to cling to such myths as thinking the federal inheritance tax (cleverly renamed the death tax) was harmful to the common man.  The myth, and Trump repeated it, was that  dumping the tax would save the humble farmer who wants to pass his 40 acres on to his family.  Except it is more a gift to those owning 400,000 acres and it is really only a handful of the rich – the millionaires under $22 million – who benefit from this elimination.

The true deficit hawks, if any are left, will balk at the $1.5 trillion expected weight on future taxpayers, but such hawks turned into GOP chickens quick enough.  Remember when Paul Ryan tried to sell himself as a deficit hawk, not a gleeful thumper for a bad bill that outrageously inflates the deficit?

No, deficit hawks seem to evaporate from the Republican Party when it is the GOP spending the money.  No one believes their main canard, that a flourishing economy will pay for the tax bill, since even 4% benchmarks  won’t come close and we are hovering at 3% thanks mainly to a president named Obama.

But the Democrats have to back away and admit the GOP has only a path up on public reception to this tax bill, which is at an all-time low.  Think of that for a moment. Usually the entire citizenry is enthused by tax cuts, but here right now only 25% think this is a good bill and a majority know it will not benefit the middle class as much as the top 1%. It’s hard to imagine such disapproval numbers going lower.

If voters are as easily misled by money and simple exaggerations as they have been in the past, though, the Republicans have a lot of avenues to sell the tax bill before the November 2018 vote.  

Wisconsinites will recognize the similarity of the technique with Foxconn.  Front-load the goodies and hope the voters don’t see the dark side until after the 2018 elections.

A roomful of table questioners greeted
Democratic candidates for governor
Dec. 19 I attended a beer and bingo event much like  speed dating with most  Democratic candidates for governor – organized in a basement union room and attracting an overflow  crowd that even this early wants to hear what these candidates would do in office. 

Among the names who didn’t attend were Kelda Roys and Tony Evers, the state school superintendent who many list among the leaders and certainly has drawn the wrath of Scott Walker.

But almost everyone else was there, including some candidates largely unknown to the public and unlikely  to advance – Jeffrey Rambauch, Michelle Collins and Ramona Rose Whiteaker, who in their own ways reflect the alarm at Walker’s Wisconsin  among all forms of workers even those lacking the tools to be governor.

But the musical chairs technique – rotating the candidates every eight minutes among 9 or 10 tables – drew regular citizens,  candidates for other offices and the informed curious.  Most tables had as many kibitzers as seated participants.

Working Families Party and Our Wisconsin Revolution sponsored this event and want to hold dozens like this around the state to give voters a more intimate look at the leading voices on the Democratic side without subjecting citizens to a long, full fledged forum.

There may be a drawback in how some questions were introduced at the tables, since both sponsoring groups are highly friendly to the Bernie Sanders camp and kept introducing questions  in which they  wanted to hear back echoes of Sanders’ language.  The biggest candidates handled that well by insisting on their own terms.

It was an exercise in rapid-fire sweat-inducing messaging and personal appeal table by table, question by question – one popular candidate, Rep. Dana Wachs, joked that it was the first time he had lost weight at an event offering free pizzas. 

But the candidates did unleash a few gems that speak right to the heart of how the Republicans will try to sell both Foxconn and the tax bill. 

Key question – will the Democrats in 72 counties work together for a change?  All expect the GOP to use geography, race and personal job needs to  “divide and conquer” with Foxconn as they will with the tax bill – turning factions of the opposition against each other. Will the Democrats fall for that again?  Construction workers sure want the jobs but they also want a change in leadership.  College tech students and disenfranchised blacks want jobs, families with kids and families without want tax relief, but will they work together for the long haul?

Wachs and Kathleen Vinehout both noted how important it was for them to become as well known in Milwaukee as they are in northern districts where their progressive policies are well received. Both communicated what I have heard from both Democrats and Republicans who live  in areas like Fox Valley and Eau Claire – the Foxconn deal angers them deeply.  It is far removed from their economies yet they will be part of the tax burden which has now climbed to more than $4 billion.  Wachs pointed out that even Racine is split on the giveaway and fears  it will reward workers in Illinois more than Wisconsin. 

Flynn discussed the hidden environmental impact.  Gronik detailed how much Wisconsin was paying out without sufficient clawbacks. Vinehout has countered Walker’s crazy budgeting quarter by quarter with basic common sense. Mahlon Mitchell asked why companies native to Wisconsin weren’t getting the money they need to grow while interlopers were.

At many tables you sensed their anger at the deal and their fear of how to sell its negatives.  Joined by Mike McCabe they anticipated the Republicans will paint them as anti-business as opposed to anti this size of selling out.

(Generalities? Gronik is selling himself as Mr. Fixit, Mitchell as the fire chief to the rescue,  Flynn as the veteran hand, McCabe as the articulate definer of a common sense way forward, Vinehout as a keen analyzer of  the spending and how to refine it.)

Several candidates  noted that initially the south of the state will be seduced by the construction jobs, the vaunted hiring teams, the special new roads, etc., without worrying about the cost around the corner or, as Flynn said, how Foxconn could well come back hat in hand to ask for more giveaways in a few years.

But a state often split between rural and urban thinking has to knit together for a Democrat to win. Such get-togethers may drive that home.

The candidates concede that the anger at Foxconn in the north may be harder than opposition in the south, just as the tax bill opponents will have to struggle against the initial sense of  benefit to some families and businesses to focus on the future collapses in their sights.

The game for 2018 is to  hope the voters have grown out of responding like Pavlovian result merchants to what is immediately in front of them rather than  to the constrictions lying in wait. 

The battle lines are drawn.  But Democrats have to grow up fast to realize the 
Republicans do have cards to play, and even some aces up their sleeve.

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 Urban Milwaukee. 




Thursday, December 14, 2017

TO COUNTERACT TRUMP, START BY HOLDING YOUR CHILDREN CLOSE

By Dominique Paul Noth

It’s the children who have the most to worry about from a Trump regime.

Not just the children in actual age but the budding offspring of business entrepreneurship. 

Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter
The nature of his attack on regulations – quantity over quality – and on net neutrality basically protect the rich status quo while impacting the growing children of technology – the new Facebooks and Twitters as it were, the emerging fuel industries and environmentally sensitive companies that will have to struggle harder to prove themselves against the now protected giants. 

Orrin Hatch as Mr. Potter
From that perspective, Trump is moving against the natural growth of the economy and the natural protection of our environment (the latest is his plan for oil drilling in the Arctic wildlife refuge, which somehow was stuck into the tax bill).

Those are the figurative children. But I am really worrying about what is happening to the literal children – the young of the world.

It’s moved far past my casual speculation about how a mother like Sarah Huckabee Sanders can lie daily to the press and still go home to teach values to her kids.  Every real news story forces us to hope that the natural resilience of children can somehow rise above the challenge Trump poses to their thinking about responsible adult behavior.

I raised mine in a time when I may have agreed or disagreed with the politics but I could believe in the basic values and procedures of society and government, that they were striving in their statements if not always their actions to articulate equality under the law and the democratic instincts the nation was founded upon. There were many sides to the economic debate and a willingness to consider facts. The decisions might go awry for my beliefs, but the underlying purpose was clear and often welcome.

Now I fear my grandchildren will no longer see the US form of government through similar eyes or read the policies being perpetrated as akin to the real United States Constitution their parents talked about (or my parents, refugees from Hitler’s Germany, viewed with such affection).  They may regard the Trump regime as purposefully harsh, bleak and devoid of genuine concern, under the flag-waving, for the humanity under his control.

The recent children of America, now with children of their own, might decide it is better to start the revolution now rather than wait until he destroys the optimism and solidarity of advance that his manners and methods are deliberately giving short shrift.

Consider the long bipartisan CHIP program – children’s health insurance affecting one in three US kids.  Despite lip service from both parties it remains unrenewed at this writing, forced to a backseat by the push for a hodgepodge tax bill.

Sounding like an echo of Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” even the GOP co-sponsor of the original CHIP, Utah’s Orrin Hatch, muttered Potterlike on the senate floor about the US being short of money that shouldn’t be wasted on freeloaders – like 12 million children?

So children are now placed deliberately at the rear of the congressional bus, where many think the entire grownup middle class has also been placed.

But it is even worse for children.  They are not supposed to follow or even worry about the to-and-fro of politics though it now affects their future years in a harsher way than the tax burden ever could. One is only money.  The other is attitude. It speaks to how poorly they are viewed by the adults in government – and they can feel it.

Looking around at what society is willing to spend on their education, or forgive in terms of their educational debt, looking at how they are expected to bust their butts only for the jobs and pay scales that legislators think are worth anything, they may decide little has changed since the age of Dickens in real and cruel indifference to anyone not born with a silver spoon in their mouth.

There is also the largely unmeasured psychological impact on how native and immigrant children feel about their future treatment in the United States, particularly if their skin isn’t white but now even extending to sensitive  white children.

Political action and conscience have made the nation more understanding of the disenchantment and even anger felt by black adolescents raised in poverty or mixed in society’s minds with the troublemaking youth gangs regardless of what they achieve on their own.  We keep asking them for patience to let society improve while our president suggests police should more deliberately stomp their heads – and then we wonder why so few in these communities believe our words anymore and look elsewhere for relief.

These are different times and centuries, but we are a nation founded on our openness to what Trump labels “chain migration” -- people encouraging family and neighbors to join them in the great migration to the new freedom and opportunity in the Americas, not measuring their worth  by what  old jobs they could repeat but what new jobs they could create. Many families here, both Republican and Democrat, can look back fondly on such roots.

Migration as a US glory should remain a strong vision in the American value system despite the growing negativities you hear about "illegals" among us (most better behaved and more knowledgeable about America than the native born). Immigration is the DNA of our social fabric despite broad efforts to keep out immigrants from Muslim-strong countries as well as from across the Mexican border, which brings a historic reminder of a time when we didn’t need or even want a wall.

At the turn of the 20th century it was quite common for immigrants from Europe, Asia or Central and South American to come here to learn what they could and then return on their own countries – 40% to 50% by some records –to help them flourish.  Rather than try to once again find that comity, Trump wants to slam shut the gate.

The US has already tampered quite a bit with a natural pattern of ebb and flow in immigration, and Trump’s dark simplistic view of the world has turned tampering into obsession. Immigrant families who happily came here in the last 20 years and future immigrants who still try to look at the US for salvation and cling to the established American dream even harder than the natives – well, they now have daily reasons from the White House to doubt American values and wonder how they will be received or even if they should try to get in.

Imagine being the child from Yemen who finds Trump’s travel ban is so broad as to prevent his ailing 80 year old grandfather from visiting?  Imagine the adolescent Dreamer watching his or her parents being deported to a country they haven’t seen for decades. Imagine the young Bangladesh worker who finds the behavior of one oddball nut in New York has ruined his chances to find a new life in the US.

The Trump administration policy wants educated technical savvy immigrants first – which sounds reasonable at first until you look at two countries curiously not on the travel ban list – Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. They may be key allies we don’t want to offend with travel regulations but their advanced schools are famous for producing terrorist leaders.  Here as in other countries, the US may be better off with rawer less educated material given the bias in native institutions of higher learning.  But then again, we have to realize that living in our county right now is not reassuring to many legal immigrants or to most Dreamers.

A look at recent mass shootings and individual terrorist activities, which pale in injury to what the crazy white shooters have done to us, reveals a harsh reality of mentally ill people or confused young people  radicalized within our shores, not in any journey here.  Yet rather than target such behavior, the Trump administration has rained a blanket of hatred on their native countries or religion, hardly making us safer as they ratchet up the reasons for hatred.

Do we expect these children and adolescents to feel kindly toward our government?  What unseen havoc to their psyches has resulted from Trump’s refusal to build compassion and individual judgment into an ethics policy, reviving what our American justice system was once famous for?

The terrorists on the Internet could have no better recruiting tool than Donald Trump.

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.


Monday, December 4, 2017

GIVE TRUMP BENEFIT OF DOUBT – AND WHAT HAVE YOU GOT?

By Dominique Paul Noth

As much as I dislike Trump, let’s put the fairest possible interpretation on the speculation around  his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleading guilty to lying to the FBI and making it known he has higher ups at the White House to implicate.

The Internet has exploded with graphics about
Flynn's guilty plea and pledge to cooperate.
Bluntly and clearly, Trump’s team violated the “one president at a time” doctrine of longstanding in our culture. It did so despite clear warnings from the Obama White House not to meddle with sanctions imposed because of Russian interference in the US presidential election.

Of course, Nixon did something similar to LBJ, we learn from historical documents, by advising North Vietnam to stall negotiations, which if LBJ had revealed could have been interpreted as treason by a then functionally bipartisan Congress.  But he didn’t.  And Reagan apparently suggested Iran should wait until he was in office before releasing hostages, so Carter wouldn’t look good.  But historians point out some crucial difference in these past cases of dirty politics.  This time it wasn’t pre-election tampering.  The sanctions were already in place under Obama when Trump’s team was undercutting actual completed US policy. 

Trump was openly warned in advance, yet Flynn was quietly telling the Russians not to worry about the sanctions or the appropriated property. That was the message after the election that Flynn was carrying to the Russians while Obama was president, which gives new colorations – even a promise --  to Putin last December not to react then to the Russian diplomats thrown out of the country and property assets seized (though the Russians have since struck back after new sanctions by Congress). 

Those married to the Trump camp still claim there is not yet proven criminal collusion before his election as opposed to afterward.  “Collusion during” seems his big worry – that his presidency is tainted.  So he may openly defy Flynn’s guilty plea by saying in effect, So I jumped the gun, so what?

That does seem the defiant state of mind behind his Dec. 2 tweet admitting he fired Flynn for lying to the FBI as well as to Pence.  He has always claimed there was nothing illegal in poaching in Obama’s waters, though I know constitutional lawyers who disagree with him. (This is unaffected by claims that it was not Trump but his lawyer that posted that tweet. The White House early on established Trump’s tweets are “official statements from the President.”)

He can now draw the line and say yes, there was collusion while Obama was president – just to signal a new openness from the White House and even a willingness to reverse certain sanctions.  But taint my election?  No proof yet.

For that to stick, Trump supporters have to believe there was no quid pro quo – something promised Putin during the election cycle that, beyond Putin’s natural hatred of Clinton, would reward Trump if American voters were further pummeled with misleading stories about her emails, her morals as well as all the long-standing bogeymen of the right against the left. Including the Democrats will tax you to death myth that the GOP's new bill flatly disproves.

His remaining champions have to ignore the likelihood that the Trump team and the Putin team were talking, maybe in code or wink, about you rub my back and I’ll rub yours whether it works or not.  You don’t even have to get to the worst things being said about Trump, that the Russians have long had something on him, to realize this is slimy. 

Our national hubris is a longstanding benefit for any Russian involvement.  Many voters just won’t believe their tactics influenced them.  Though we are learning more daily about the depth of their attack on our social media, most American voters will never confess they voted in error or admit their vote was based in any way on the false information sent.  We are not sheep being led by the nose, they will pontificate, I made up my own mind.  This is a built-in sense of righteousness in a nation that protects the most miserable type of speech imaginable.

Those who don’t use Internet social media will scoff “I wasn’t affected,”   without considering the bleed-over into their regular lives, conversations and radio-TV-cable outlets.  Those who now are forced by proof to accept that the Russians meddled will further demand to know the exact degree.  And they will say in hindsight it never affected them in the voting booth, without examining how months, even years, of dissembling may have seeped into their mental processing.  They have to claim that generations of advertising, dark money and even the power of gossip had no impact on their strong minds.  

True believers in American democracy are right to be outraged about this foreign cyberwar – in the abstract, apparently.   Not among the elected GOP as long as they can finagle a long-desired tax bill.  A lot of our citizens shrug Russia off unless it directly affects them, and they have some curious ideas about what is “direct.”

Blunt basics. The president lied when he insisted there was no collusion between his team and the Russians.  The only remaining question is how deep was his involvement.  MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has an amusing graph pointing out there are already 19 Russians now involved in meetings with Trump’s team, most ahead of his taking office.  So now we know his staff lied about some or all of that.  The only question is what he knew.

His defenders will still argue he didn’t know what his team was doing, which hardly sounds like the way Trump treats his own shop – he demands to know everything.  Yet his diehard fans will fall back on the belief that right now there is no evidence he was playing up to Russian meddling before the election.

This is hard to swallow, given the peculiar timing of Trump’s election tweets on the days before a Clinton dump by Wikileaks and a bizarre history of how Russia didn’t act  -- or did they? -- throughout the 2016 election. 

The American public now has to believe Trump was elected not riding a wave of Russian created efforts but on his own persona.  It’s possible, given how much of the country is sick of the pace and gridlock built into our system. They might be tempted, in one misplaced vote, to throw everything away for a strongman riding in from the hills (or the towers of Manhattan), standing silent as he disables all the mechanisms of checks and balances, proven historic legacy and intelligent appointments of staff.

Writer Ezra Klein
But that is where we stand.  Pundit Ezra Klein,  in a provocative piece suggesting America is too scared of using impeachment powers, points out that it’s pretty much up to Congress to define what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors” – there is no  established list, so the GOP could attack Clinton for lying about sex or put Nixon’s misuse of power on the pedestal, forcing him to resign ahead of jailtime.

Ezra’s point is simple: “Being extremely bad at the job of president of the United States should be enough to get you fired.”

Perhaps he's right in a normal world, but can anyone see this Republican dominated Congress accepting such  realities?  Not only cynics say they are keeping Trump around just long enough to protect their flanks. For them, the reality was passing a misleading tax bill that will please their big donors – hardly just a Democratic line of complaint but obvious to anyone reading the bill where all the last minute changes came from lobbyists.

Despite this president and this tax bill, no American wants the economists to be right in the prediction that the economy is heading for a terrible downward spiral in 2018 or 2019 because of built-in excesses and lack of controls, enhanced by this White House.  Sadly, only if that happens do we expect the public to rise up and discover if We the People have any real power left.

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.