Republican Cruelty, Democratic Passivity, and What the Lack of Flint Funding Can Tell Us about the Trump Years

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In just two days, it will be December, and Flint still hasn’t gotten funding from the federal government to address its water crisis.

The water crisis dates back to April 2014, and it was back in January when the cases of Legionnaires’ disease got media attention. Flint still doesn’t have clean water, an indictment of our political system—both Republican cruelty and Democratic passivity.

No story about Flint should go without recognition of the role of Republican Governor Rick Snyder (someone who seems to reach an almost cartoon-villain level of callousness) and his administration, but I want to focus on Congressional politics here.

Back in February, Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of Michigan attempted to secure $600 million for Flint, including $400 million to match state funds to repair and replace old pipes in the city (the rest going to a research and education center on lead poisoning), via the Energy Policy Modernization Act. Most of the Senate Democratic Caucus blocked the cloture votes on the bill in order to demand funding for Flint. Republicans did not oblige, and when the bill came back up two months later, Stabenow and Democrats dropped their opposition.

Flint funding came back into the spotlight in September. On September 15, the Senate passed the Water Resources Development Act, which authorized $270 million to help Flint and other cities ($220 million specifically for Flint). Republicans demanded that this expenditure be “paid for,” leading to a $300 million cut in Energy Department research on advanced vehicle technology. WRDA-authorized projects were subject to future appropriations, but the Flint funding was designed to go into effect immediately.

However, that $270 million was not in the House version of WRDA, and the Continuing Resolution that had to be passed by the end of the month in order to keep the government funded offered an immediate opportunity to secure funding for Flint.

Republicans, of course, had no problem attaching $500 million in flood relief money for Louisiana (with no offset). But Louisiana has two Republican senators, and the flood-stricken area was represented by Republicans as well. Michigan has two Democratic senators, and Flint is in a Democratic district. Funny how that works.

After initial demands that Flint funding be in the CR, Democrats agreed to concede, provided that House Republicans set up an amendment vote to the WRDA to include Flint funding–but now only $170 million.

On September 28, the Senate voted for the Flint-less CR 72-26. (Tim Kaine and Bernie Sanders were both not present because they were on the campaign trail for Clinton.)

Of the 26 NO votes, 12 were Democrats:

Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Al Franken (D-MN)
Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
Pat Leahy (D-VT)
Ed Markey (D-MA)
Bob Menendez (D-NJ)
Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
Gary Peters (D-MI)
Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
Ron Wyden (D-OR)

The Republicans who voted NO certainly didn’t do so out of concern for Flint. Did the Democrats? Five of them made this clear in their press releases on the vote.

Bob Menendez:

While I’m pleased that the final continuing resolution keeps our government running and provides much-needed funding to address the Zika public health crisis, I could not in good conscience vote for legislation that ignores the plight of 100,000 Americans living in Flint who were poisoned by their water supply, and also includes a measure that prohibits the government from lifting the veil on corporate political contributions.

 

Jeff Merkley:

While I’m encouraged that the House leadership has committed to providing aid to assist Flint with its lead contamination disaster, there is still no reason why that aid should not be funded immediately—just like the aid for Louisiana flood victims—rather than having to wait until after the election. Flint families have already been living with dangerously contaminated water for two years, and they should not have to wait a day longer for help. Geography, race, and partisan politics should never determine disaster assistance, and it’s wrong to help out the victims of one disaster while telling others that they must continue to wait at the back of the line.

 

Gary Peters:

“But these fully paid-for Flint resources were put on hold while disaster relief for flooding victims in Louisiana was included. I support helping people in Louisiana during their crisis, but we should not pick and choose to help some states and not others.

 

“I could not support a government spending bill that will – once again – force the citizens of Flint to wait on the help they so desperately need.

 

“It is unacceptable that the bipartisan, fully-offset Flint aid package was left out. There is no excuse for leaving the people of Flint behind.

 

“It has been a year since the first public health emergency declaration in Flint, and over eight months since a national emergency was declared. Yet almost 100,000 residents of Flint still do not have a reliable source of safe water. They are still using bottled to water to drink, to cook, and to bathe.

 

Debbie Stabenow:

Earlier this week, the House refused to take any action to help the people of Flint. After last night’s negotiations, we now have a path forward to finally pass the Water Resources Development Act with long-awaited assistance for Flint.  It is critical that the House echo the strong bipartisan support that we saw for WRDA in the Senate and that action happen as soon as possible for the people of Flint.  My position on the government funding bill remains the same: I will vote no on any CR that does not treat communities equally.  It is wrong to ask families in Flint to wait at the back of the line again.

 

Elizabeth Warren:

Is this what we have come to? Is this what politics has become? There are 100,000 people in Flint, a town where more than half the residents are African-American and nearly half live in poverty. They get nothing because voters sent two Democrats to the Senate?This is not a game. Flint is not a Democratic city or a Republican city; it is an American city. The children who have been poisoned are American children. The principle of standing up for those in need is an American principle.

 

I am a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, but I will help the Republican Senators from Louisiana. I stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their hour of need, but I am sick and tired–I am past sick and tired–of Republican Senators who come here and demand Federal funding when their communities are hit by a crisis but block help when other States need it. Their philosophy screams, “I want mine, but the rest of you are on your own.” It is ugly, un-American, and just plain wrong.

 

We must stand with the Senators from Michigan. We must stand with the children of Flint, and we must put aside ugly partisanship that is literally poisoning a town full of American families. Any Member of the House or Senate who doesn’t stand with them lacks the moral courage to serve in this Congress.

 

Merkley, Menendez, and Warren also highlighted their opposition to a Republican rider that would block the SEC from developing, proposing, issuing, finalizing, or implementing a rule requiring public companies to disclose political spending to their own shareholders. Ron Wyden highlighted the rule as his grounds for opposition as well.

Later that day, the House passed its Flint funding amendment 284-141, the amended WRDA 399 to 25, and the Flint-less CR 342 to 85.

Only 10 Democrats voted against the CR:

Earl Blumenauer (OR-03)
John Conyers (MI-13)
Pete DeFazio (OR-04)
Debbie Dingell (MI-12)
Keith Ellison (MN-05)
Dan Kildee (MI-05)
Brenda Lawrence (MI-14)
Sandy Levin (MI-09)
Jim McDermott (WA-07)
Maxine Waters (CA-43)

The Michigan delegation voted against the CR because of the lack of Flint funding. DeFazio, Ellison, McDermott, and Waters did not issue press releases about their opposition. Blumenauer opposed it because Republicans had blocked a provision of his to make it easier for veterans to acquire medical marijuana across state lines.

The WRDA, along with the Flint funding promise, is now awaiting a conference, with just over a month left in the Congressional session. And Flint still doesn’t have clean water.

This history should prove concerning as we look ahead to the years of a Trump presidency and Republican-controlled House and Senate. Democrats give up their demands quite easily and are willing to vote for Continuing Resolutions to keep the government funded despite whatever riders Republicans put into them. Republican cruelty and Democratic passivity are a toxic mix. I’ll talk more about this dynamic in another post later this week.

Not Seeing the Cleared Forest for the Largest Felled Tree: Democrats & the States

Most of the ink spilled about the election earlier this month has focused on the presidential race. With the amount of money spent on it and media attention it gained (especially with one candidate being a bigoted, reactionary carnival barker), that makes sense. There have been many post-mortems, and there will be more. And there is comfort in knowing that over two million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump, regardless of the Electoral College results.

But focusing on the top of the ticket alone obscures what was happening–and has been happening–down ballot.

Democrats hit a new low in state legislative seats. In 2017, Republicans will control 4,170 state legislative seats, with Democrats controlling only 3,129 in the 98 partisan legislative chambers. According to the AP as of last week, Republicans had a net gain of 46 seats, and Democrats a net loss of 46 seats. Some races in California and Washington, however, have yet to be called, but that will not change the overall picture.

Indeed, the losses since 2008 have been stunning. Some of this can be explained by the extreme gerrymandering of state legislatures by Republicans after the 2010 Census, but that cannot explain all of it.

demlegislativelosses_lead

Fortunately, Massachusetts was largely immune to this trend in 2016. Republicans succeeded at picking up only one open Democratic-held seat: Brian Mannal’s Second Barnstable District in the House. Republicans will now have 35 seats in the MA House, to Democrats’ 125. (The Senate will remain 34-6).

Elections in Massachusetts are rarely competitive affairs, however. This year, in 77% of seats, one major party fielded no candidates, and 88.8% of incumbents ran unopposed in their primaries.

We haven’t been so lucky in the gubernatorial realm, though. Massachusetts is one of two states with Republican governors but Democratic legislative supermajorities (the other being Maryland). Democrats will start 2017 with two fewer gubernatorial offices than they held in 2016, having lost the offices in Missouri, New Hampshire, and Vermont–and—provided NC Governor Pat McCrory (R) doesn’t succeed in stealing the election away from AG Roy Cooper (D) with trumped-up voter fraud charges—gained an office in North Carolina. This leads to a total of only 16 gubernatorial offices. It’s quite jarring to think that the majority of New England states now have Republican governors.

During the next four years of the Trump presidency (let’s pray–and organize to make sure–it’s not eight), states and cities will take on extra importance in advancing a progressive agenda. That means passing bold, progressive legislation that advances equity, inclusion, and sustainability in the state and offers a model for other states and the nation as a whole (down the road), and organizing to take back gubernatorial seats and legislatures.

Here in Massachusetts, we need to do both. With legislative supermajorities, Democrats need to be pushing for a $15 minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, criminal justice reform, free tuition at public colleges, single payer health care, automatic voter registration, and the protection and expansion of the rights of women, people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. And we also need to be working to take back the gubernatorial office in 2018 so that we have a governor who wants to play a part, or even lead, in advancing that agenda.

Nov 23, 2016 – Arsenal For Democracy Ep. 159

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team.

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Topics: Where do we go from here after the 2016 election? People: Bill, Rachel, and Jonathan. Produced: Nov 21st, 2016.

Episode 159 (55 min):
AFD 159

Discussion Points:

– Trying to get the Democratic Party back on track, especially in the states
– Parties need to remember to campaign for all their core voters
– What do we need to brace for from the Trump Administration & Ryan Congress first

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Music by friend of the show @StuntBirdArmy.

A post-mortem that is pretty much about everything except Sanders

We’re still all processing this election’s boundlessly horrible outcome, but I’m going to keep writing out my post-mortems as they come to me. This will not be a post about Bernie Sanders, except in slight passing, so you can probably save your comment pro or con about him or his supporters, as it will be off-topic by the end of the post. As you all know I was never a fanatical supporter anyway, and as my friend Jonathan Cohn always says, counterfactuals aren’t useful discussions because they are counter to fact. In this case, there are too many unknowables to be sure how that would have played out, and there is enough known information from inside the campaign and party to at least have *some* doubts. Jonathan and I both supported him tactically, without believing he ever actually had a shot at the nomination. But there *are* two big things from the nomination process immediately worth reviewing for future purposes:

First, the message Sanders represented is probably the direction we need to take the party in order to start winning elections again at all levels. I’ll get around to another post elaborating the reasoning for that, but I’ll leave it there for today. (Short version: The answer to this catastrophe definitely isn’t “Go right” nor is it “Be more racist or transphobic.” We need solidarity now more than ever, but we did leave some people behind … and they stayed home this year.)

Second, the eventual outcome of the 2016 nomination was decided long before DNC shenanigans, debate schedules, or anything like that. The nomination was decided by 2014, if not well before then, by crowding everyone else out and by party officials/electeds/activists making up their minds far too early – not just to support Clinton but that she could not possibly lose. Many of you reading this fall into one of those three categories. Nearly all of you among those decided to support Hillary Clinton this cycle by 2014, by 2009, by 2008, or by 1993. Every other possible serious candidate except Biden, O’Malley (and Sanders, it turned out) didn’t even bother to look into running because of this and the universality of major donor preference. Clinton may have been the favorite in 2007 but she was the overwhelming favorite for 2016. Almost any party figures at all levels who had backed *other* candidates in 2008 were with her this time before it even began. Then you assumed all of us were With Her, just as the campaign eventually did with entire states.

Few of you listened as people like me expressed concerns all through 2015 about the electoral competence of the Clinton senior team and the mismatch of what the national mood would be in November 2016. Two years ago, in November 2014, when Democrats got smashed in the midterms, 62% of the country said the U.S. was on the Wrong Track – and jobs were coming back but with fewer hours and lower pay than before the recession. A year ago, in November 2015, 64% of the country said we were on the Wrong Track. Last month, 65% of the country said we were on the Wrong Track. (For perspective, this is the same as the national mood the week Pres. Obama took office at the height of the recession.)

Many of you will remember that at all those points, I warned you that Clinton’s message was dangerously off-key for such a scared and angry electorate. Clinton and the DNC eventually doubled down with an “America Is Already Great” message, which is political malpractice in the face of 60+% Wrong Track numbers.

In the immortal words of my friend Sara this past February, “Don’t bring the Things-Are-Fine candidate to the Everyone is Panicking fight…” As I said at the time, based on both U.S. indicators and events playing out in Europe in parallel, “I don’t think a lot of upper middle class people & DC insiders grasp the political collapse happening right now.” Many of you explicitly defended your support for Hillary Clinton on the grounds of pragmatism and electability – that her candidacy would *not* put at risk the fragile gains so many of our vulnerable communities have made (or could make via Courts for decades to come). This contention was based on … literally nothing.

I don’t care that you didn’t listen to me, even if it’s frustrating. I care that you didn’t listen to the entire country going into a terrified panic as their life circumstances crumbled around them. That’s a recipe for either desperate vote-switching or mass abstention by staying home. (I covered the latter in a post last night.)

As noted above, I’m uncertain as to whether or not Bernie Sanders could have won, although that is a largely irrelevant question at this point. Bernie Sanders was never supposed to be an or the alternative. He just happened to be there, in the right place at the right time, with the right unusual status as having been around for a long time with reputation of being principled, honest, and on message to the national mood. I voted for him in large part because I genuinely believed he was less of a risk than Hillary Clinton in the general election.

And again, he just happened to be there and happened to be the only candidate left standing by the time we got to the caucuses and primaries. Why? Because this was wrapped up years earlier in the over-confident and presumptuous beliefs by Clinton loyalists and other longtime Democratic insiders that she was a sure thing and that it was “her turn.” (Voters don’t like that reasoning, by the way, as they have shown over and over.)

I won’t bother here to dive deeply into the unpopularity issues or any other problems that made Hillary Clinton the last woman we should have nominated to ensure the election of the first female president this year. Even if you believe none of the public’s antipathy toward her is justified, it was real and a real risk – and it had been growing for decades. That’s a massive gamble to make against literally any of the Republicans who ran this cycle, let alone Trump. If you made an electability argument for her, you helped cause this. But the messaging mismatch still overpowered any other considerations, which is also perhaps how the largest field team in history just lost to an erratic campaign with no team.

We never got to find out if there was anybody else who could have stepped up with a clean slate and surprised us (it wasn’t Warren either, for various reasons, I believe) because Hillary Clinton subordinated everyone’s aspirations to her own and pushed every other possible contender out of the field except for a protest candidate and a backup candidate.

Already there are a lot of people who are showing they are very determined to not learn any lessons from this catastrophe. They have no interest in listening to anyone – and perceive triumphalism where there is none in those of us who very much did not prefer a Trump Administration but feel we tried to raise red flags and tried to help nudge course corrections in the Clinton campaign if we weren’t going to be able to get other nominee. They are blaming everyone but themselves, even to the point of suggesting absurd things like that it’s all the fault of internet leftists who didn’t love her hard enough, as opposed to the fault of decisions like Clinton never making a single campaign trip to Wisconsin in the general election. At a certain point, folks need to take ownership for failing all of us and stop accusing everyone of failing Her.

But I’m not talking to people who won’t listen. I’m talking to people who are finally stunned enough that they’re willing to hear me – and others – out.

Now for some even tougher talk:
This defeat came from in-house within my Democratic Party. Every single person responsible at every level has to go – or admit to crashing it big time and work with sincerely us to course correct. You have failed us for the last time. You lost us the 2000 election, the 2002 election, the 2004 election, the 2010 election, the 2014 election, and the 2016 election. You also lost the 1994 election. And so on. People have died and will die because of these failures. You can be part of the solution or you can be the problem, but we’re going to go through you, not around you, if you don’t move out of the way or help us move forward. The Clinton wing took over the Democratic Party after the 1988 landslide defeat. I – and people like me from all corners of our party, of all creeds and colors and genders and orientations – are going to take it now. You don’t get to whiff with this much on the line for people’s lives. You’re done.

###

A Post-Script:
I am, additionally, sympathetic to those whose primary hope for this election was the arrival of the first female U.S. president, because I know this is devastating to many of you. I hope we nominate a woman again next time – someone who will have much broader and deeper support…

Make sure people can vote, and want to

Always remember that in US electoral politics there are two axes: How people vote and which people vote. Rethinking how we talk about the latter – and making sure we talk about them at all – will be key in the months ahead. This post doesn’t point fingers specifically but raises some concerns many of you might not have considered.

Winning elections is not always about converting voters, as this low turnout election – like so many low turnout elections before it – has proven. Sometimes it is about persuading people to show up – and making it possible for them to do so in the first place. We should always work to make it easier for people to vote in our democracy and many states have taken steps in recent years to make it substantially easier. (Oregon Gov. & Former Secretary of State Kate Brown, for example, oversaw the addition of universal automatic voter registration to the state’s existing 100% vote-by-mail system and she made it easier for people with various disabilities to cast special ballots if needed.) On the other hand, many states, especially in the South, have permanently taken away the voting rights of hundreds of thousands – even millions – of minority voters, not to mention purging voter rolls. The Democratic Party should be fighting to make sure all voters can vote. But in addition to people not being able to vote, we didn’t lose this election because we failed to convert reactionary or hateful voters to our worldview, but more because many of their neighbors in those states chose to stay home this year. This was a big drop from 2012, which itself was a sizeable drop from 2008.

I’m not telling you to “listen better” to incorrigible racists; I’m telling you to listen and figure out why several million people felt so much despair about the state of the country and the competing visions being presented to them that nothing motivated them to make the trip to the polls. You can complain that the stakes were so high they should have voted anyway, and you can complain until the cows come home, but it won’t change what happened and it won’t prevent it from happening again in 2018, 2020, and beyond.

Michigan, to focus more narrowly for a moment, has a number of communities, cutting across many ethnicities, facing distinct existential challenges (i.e. challenges that literally threaten their lives on a daily basis), and Democrats have increasingly just looked away as Republicans tightened the screws (when not actively helping). The Michigan Democratic primary was a huge upset and featured issues of not just trade or manufacturing jobs (a multi-racial issue contrary to media narratives) but also Flint’s austerity-driven water poisoning crisis (primarily impacting Black residents) and the United States’ ongoing military activities in Middle Eastern countries where many voters have family. The general election featured no promises to end the wars, no discussion of Flint at all, and no real plan to repair the lives of (solidly Democratic) Black or White working class families impacted by trade laws and union-busting. Forget for a moment the people who jumped to do press interviews about voting for Trump – we let down a lot of our most reliable voters and they decided it wasn’t worth it to go vote if it meant just voting in someone who wasn’t talking about how to end the misery they’re already in every day. And President Obama, while personally popular still to many people, made a lot of promises on trade, environmental safety, and the Middle East that he didn’t fulfill for the people of Michigan, if we’re honest.

Sure, I’m upset with people who voted for Donald Trump, but I wasn’t expecting or trying to win them over in great numbers – nor am I now. I’m trying to make sure our own voters have a reason to believe it’s worth voting and will make a difference. I’m trying to make sure we run on and deliver on an agenda that makes a noticeable difference in the lives of people who have a hard go of it, so that voters can see not just why they should vote for us but why they should vote at all.

Building toward 2018 and 2020

In July 2014, I wrote that “Democrats need to focus on state legislatures (or stay doomed)”. Here’s what I argued at the time:

Democrats aren’t focusing enough on taking the steps necessary to correct the districting imbalance that’s hurting them so badly. That would boil down, essentially, to investing a lot of money right now into the state parties of every Democratic-leaning state, swing state, and Republican-trending-Democratic-demographic state in the country to recruit, train, and finance candidates in state legislative races and governor races in 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020.

If executed well, Democrats would be in a position to reasonably expect in 2020 (barring some catastrophic political wave against them that year) to win a lot of majorities in state legislatures all over, to prevent Republicans from extending the post-2010 maps that have been so weighted against Democrats in Congressional races. At the very least, Democratic-led legislatures could implement fairer, nonpartisan redistricting systems that take away the self-serving bias of having legislators redraw their own districts.
[…]
We’re going to panic in October 2020 — right before the election that will determine the next round of post-census redistricting nationwide — when we suddenly realize we needed 3-4 cycles (e.g. starting 2014 or 2016) to ramp back up toward legislative majorities in a lot of states by election night in November 2020. That year will be a presidential year when the Democratic base really turns out, unlike in the 2010 non-presidential cycle. But it won’t make a bit of difference if the state parties all over the country haven’t recruited electable legislative candidates. They’re going to need consistent national Democratic support for the next six and a half years to make that happen.

Without that effort, Democrats can look forward to another ten years of Republican domination on multiple levels or full-stop obstruction of all Democratic agenda points.

 
Some further reflections from the vantage point of a couple years later, for legislative and other races:

For maximum effectiveness, we need open seat primaries in heavily Democratic areas plus primary wins to nominate challengers in Republican areas. Only social democrats will recruit winnable candidates. The Clinton wing is uninterested in downballot and always has been.

The Democratic party institutions’ recruiters are also, unfortunately, terrible at assessing true electability. If we keep recruiting multi-millionaires with political last names to run on bipartisan budget cuts & entitlement reform, we will lose 2018. Democratic candidates who run as Lite Republicans in 2018 will lose to the real thing 90% of the time. We can’t faceplant again.

Federally, legislatively, and gubernatorially, all post-November 2016 energy has to be on recruiting Dems with a new message that turns out the existing base heavily plus turns out new votes from people who might not otherwise show up. Our only shot is bold progressivism (social democracy) in Dem areas and low-income economic populism in poor Republican areas. (These are similar or the same policies prescriptions but somewhat differently messaged.)

Opposition Leadership

We need someone speaking every single day to the media and other party members, without apology, for progress and for our values. This is important in any context, but it is of even greater importance with a conservative Republican governor and with Democrats taking on an opposing role.

We, the progressive core of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, are not merely right on the issues in idealistic terms; our solutions are actually more realistic and more grounded than the other side’s solutions. And when the other side occupies part of the space of our party and blurs the lines on critical issues, it becomes harder to win elections than it should be, rather than helping to retain seats in swing districts. While there is room for disagreement on policy specifics, there should be a broad alignment of values on the major and contentious issues of our time.

Voters want bold, clear, and courageous leadership in their officials. Leadership sometimes means leading the voters toward one’s point of view on the issues. We have to make our case, in plain terms, as to why we are correct on those issues.

We can only offer the voters an informed choice in making their decisions at the ballot box if we argue our case to them for our preferred positions on the issues.