Friday, October 6, 2017

TIME TO RIP THE COVER OFF FACEBOOK

By Dominique Paul Noth


Facebook salesman Mark Zuckerberg
According to the tabloids, Mark Zuckerberg has spent the last four years countering that brilliant Aaron Sorkin portrait of his shallowness in 2010’s “The Social Network” and has used massive philanthropy, business suits and political speeches to paint a more likeable portrait.

The one thing he hasn’t done is pay attention to Facebook and its two billion accounts that made him one of the richest men in the world.

Until September he denied that Russians were using Facebook in any significant way – and then was confronted with Russian ads, some paid in rubles, that were using Facebook’s targeting abilities in particularly ugly ways.

Such as seeking out people who posted disparagingly or suspiciously about Muslims and then sending them anti-Clinton items (what Donald calls fake news).

Such as targeting secession movements from Catalonia to Texas to encourage disgruntlement with current governments, specifically devaluing belief in democratic solutions.

Such as spreading dissension between Clinton and Sanders supporters by choice use of items pretending to be news and playing up long-standing but unproven enmities.

Such as using the image of a black woman firing a rifle to inflame sentiments.

Last November Zuckerberg was actually pulled aside and warned by President Obama about the misuse of Facebook underlying Trump’s election, yet ignored that as well. 

Now his company if not him has to testify to Congress and try to explain to the public just where his brain has been for the last few years.

He has gotten rich for inventing Facebook, but if it is out of control, what is his right to keep running it?  Or does he even know how?

Facebook and social media in general have developed an unprecedented power that governments and their citizens are finally seeing not as a salvation but as a threat.

It also turns out that Russians siding with Putin may also have grasped the possibilities of algorithms more cunningly that Silicon Valley did and may or may not have needed Trump underlings to help out.

Siri on your phone is a useful if sometimes annoying example of algorithms. So are many other accepted pieces of coding.  There are applications you install because they promise one thing, such as anti-virus protection, but may open a trapdoor to something nefarious.  There are computer viruses and bots (automated software) that can replicate commands from hidden call centers.

Adults chuckle that their kids are more comfortable with computers than they are.  Yet even most kids don’t understand the stew of math, propaganda, coding and fraud. There are a lot of curious portals out there and they are now working hand in glove with familiar utilities like Google and Facebook.

The slowness of Facebook to grasp the mischief inherent in its creature is actually frightening.  I occupy an infinitesimally small sliver of Facebook with only 1,000 shared visitors mostly friends and necessary contacts.  So why, dating back two years, could I see problems worth writing about that Zuckerberg couldn’t?

I never leapt to the realization of Russian involvement, but in 2015 I wrote about how cunningly Facebook’s elements were being used by both practical jokers and politicians seeking a publicity advantage. I even said  “If Isis uses the Internet to recruit the unthinking, they now have helpers in such politicians as Wisconsin Gov. Walker.”


And in June of 2016 – more than a year ago --  I wrote another piece describing the insane dislike of Bernie Sanders supporters for Hillary Clinton fans, and vice versa, on Facebook.  I speculated that this was also political mischief because in real life these people, if they were real people, would never express such vitriol without some shrewd goading.  As I observed then, in calling for some code of ethics, “On the Internet these usually don’t exist at all.

Looking back now, a lot of that vitriol was stemming from bots not people, yet amazingly few of the victims – even today! -- want to admit falling for all that.  The consequence of the admission would be devastating psychologically when people ask themselves why they stayed home or voted opposite of expectations or common sense.

There is growing evidence that thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of accounts on Facebook and Twitter are not individuals but clones -- robotic agents for spreading “information,” to make real-life recipients believe they are part of a mass movement.

These poor citizens. They believe their innocent photos of puppies and recipes reflect the benign use of Facebook for the bulk of those two billion listed users.  These puppy lovers, convinced that their Facebook pals wouldn’t deceive them, repost alt.news and fake news portraying Hillary as a demon, Trump as a savior (literally) or whatever momentary fancy moves them.

One lesson just came from Las Vegas. The algorithms that add weight to initial searches on Google created a flood of falsehoods, including the wrong name of the shooter, which was spread on Facebook.  Such incidents are no longer a rarity.   Google searches turn into Facebook posts for hours or even days before actual information can slowly seep in and correct misimpressions – doing worse damage than a news crawl at the bottom of your TV screen.

The New York Times also detailed how fictions about juvenile sex and Shariah law used social media to unbalance an entire town.  More and more users of Facebook are realizing that the “Like” button is almost a virus, opening the door for years to misapplication of what you Liked and what you didn’t.

There may be an egotistical key to all this. That steady drumbeat of misinformation makes it seem that people who love you -- or people who care about your opinion -- are just trying to keep you in the know.

There are few objective online companies that identify fake news sites out of the volume of sites that can be created by anyone with basic coding ability – or even by Internet providers who provide the expertise for a price, with little concern about ethics.

This is an awkward moment for democratic societies.  We may admit that the Russians attempted to play with our voting databases (the US has sent confusing mixed messages about the attempt in 21 unnamed states) but we seized on assurances by state and federal agencies that the Russians did not succeed in physically pushing the wrong button.  We the People did.

Which means Trump was genuinely elected president.  How awkward.

People walked into the voting booth confident of their beliefs – or stayed home confident of their reasons for doing that, in large part believing in all the lies including that Clinton won the contest against Sanders unfairly, or that a vote for Jill Stein was not a wasted vote (though there is more and more evidence than it was wasted and was part of the Russian invasion).

Only in hindsight can we blame ignorance or deception.  Time has confirmed it was a minority of citizens who elected Trump, but unless the majority is willing to overthrow the Constitution we are stuck with him. For now.

In the meantime we should openly recognize the dangers of cyberspace are not some scientific sleight of hand.  The dangers are real and largely untouched.

This is also a particularly awkward turn for journalists like me and others who welcomed the free range of opinions the Internet allowed.  The occasional misuse – forwarding news accounts while denying the originating journalist just financial due – was regarded even by starving journalists as an almost worthwhile price for broader dissemination of real research and write-ups for the public. Many never grasped this also meant wider misinformation.

The greedy acquisitive nature of media companies – the commercial reasons they want control of the main digital pipes of the Internet – made many citizens champion net neutrality.  And still do. Frankly, the Internet seemed a welcome freedom from government interference, or the shackles of orchestrated behavior.   Saying what you think – is that bad?

Only now are we realizing that those so-called platforms – Facebook, Twitter and so forth -- rather than becoming agents of better knowledge were easily turned.  They are not harmless diversion but harmful attacks on the truth.  

These social media brands should no longer be called “platforms” but “channels” or “publishers,” not much different than TV, print and other established outlets.  They may need ethically trained and alert gatekeepers rather than technologists manipulating the codes for maximum attention rather than moral considerations.

Technology advances faster than the law can keep up. In many areas. Who in the 18th century could envision a legal handgun that could kill 58 civilians from 500 yards away in five minutes? Or a society churned by the inability to distinguish factual information from false.  Surely our Constitution could stretch to handle such matters?   Surely it won’t.

I am not so egotistical to believe the Russians needed help against na├»ve America, though I remain ever more open to the likelihood of  Trump or his aides being involved,  knowing their nefarious financial connections of the past. But bluntly there are hacker sophistication and propaganda skills far beyond what Trump has ever demonstrated.

As Congress and Robert Mueller continue their investigation, the president looks foolish to think it is all about him. It is actually all about us – how we are influenced or even led around by the nose, and who is doing it, and why -- and how we change it.


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 27, 2017

DON’T RUN A VICTORY LAP YET OVER HEALTH CARE

By Dominique Paul Noth

Defeated multiple times on their own health care bill, writhing in confusion over political direction, you might expect Trump and the Republicans to scurry off,  lick their wounds and try to regroup.

Instead they are forging ahead as if there had been no setbacks, no disabled carried out of the hearing room, no outrage from coast to coast at even attempting this nonsense after previous defeats.

Moving past health care as if nothing had happened, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell held a press conference September 27 to talk up a tax package as the same essential rescue of America from disaster that,  a week earlier,  they claimed for a much hated health bill. 

(Has anyone looked deeply at this tax plan? Beyond the “do your taxes on a postcard” promise?  Everyone supports a simpler tax code but how far will the GOP get removing the special protections for their own members, as they continue to deny those are even there? Or eliminating the mortgage deduction so popular with middle class buyers?) 

Trump meanwhile is engaged in health care sabotage, along with promising an executive order to further a Republican myth and a health insurance company nightmare – selling policies across state lines in the hope that the cheaper states will drive costs (and real health care)  downward.  He has pulled most of the promotion budget for the health exchanges and for the Navigators, the trained helpmates for people to sign up.  

These actions deliberately undercut some true bipartisan efforts in the Senate as Republican conservative Lamar Alexander and Democratic leader Patty Murray both believe that solidifying the insurance market and solving some frayed edges of ACA could succeed. 

That runs straight into a seven-year itch of the Republicans to defeat Obamacare and to hell with the health of the citizens. They always had the wrong end of the elephant since improving health care should have been foremost – yet foremost was hatred of all things Obama. That was not only unworthy but probably gave them Trump to deal with. 

The people don’t care whose name is on it, they just want affordable and comprehensive care, and recognize that Obama was at least trying for that while the Republicans are only trying to defeat the Democrats.

At this point it looks like only active citizenry can save the nation, as it always has.  It’s time to talk to young people and others confident in their own good health and skeptical about needing coverage. They have to be forcefully reminded to get on board. Anyone can get sick tomorrow and it is unfair to ask fellow citizens to pay for their treatment.   If they begin to feel a solidarity with fellow citizens, even a self-centered realization rather than a burst of compassion, they can sign up in droves no matter how Trump threatens and rants.  

The Republicans are drowning in their own mudpit until they actually come up with better ideas.  That seems to be harsh given some good people I know who vote GOP.  But they of all citizens know how far their party has strayed from reality. They are secretly hoping that some explosion of reality will keep crazed Christian zealot Roy Moore from taking the Alabama senate seat in a December election. 

 “If you thought Jeff Sessions was extreme,” one D.C. journalist told me, “you ain’t seen nothin’. I’m hearing from Republican officials  who would rather have a Democrat win than this guy.  But Alabama is not about to turn that way,” he added, “and those Republicans  know they can wish in safety.”  

But Republicans are talking seriously – as are some Democrats -- about the need for a third party,  of somehow isolating the Bannons and even the Trumps for more moderated positions that might actually succeed in running the country.  Their fear is that Trump has unleashed a primitivism he can no long control and the more that raises its head, the more progressives will lash out in rebellion.

The health care debacle taught several Republicans to look outside their own party – the conservatives for something more extreme, the established Republicans for something more likely to work.  Meanwhile the progressives are looking, too, but with more unfettered debate than the unhappy Republicans seem capable of.

They are watching with some dismay while Ryan and McConnell keep cheerfully  pressing the wrong buttons. Given past behavior,  I doubt they will stand up without some severe prodding.  Such as the Mueller investigation.

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, 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.