This is a piece I wrote about the importance of media outlets sharing the raw data on which their articles are based, as they do with prose (e.g., FOIAed documents) with increasing frequency. →
This is a piece I wrote about the importance of media outlets sharing the raw data on which their articles are based, as they do with prose (e.g., FOIAed documents) with increasing frequency. →
I’m a smart guy.
I’m not bragging. It’s not like I deserve any credit for being smart. I didn’t do anything to make that happen. I’m also tall, but nobody compliments me on that. (Good job being tall!) Intelligence is an immutable characteristic that I have at times capitalized on and at other times let go to waste. So it goes.
It’s not easy to understand what it’s like to be smarter or dumber than one is. I have some friends who are much smarter than me, and I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to experience the world as they do. Like height, intelligence is a privilege, in that we live in a society that places value on both. And although I don’t know what it’s like to be of a different intelligence, I do know what it’s like to be short; we all started out short. Although I have brown hair now, I bleached my hair a couple of times as a teenager, so I know what it’s like to be blond. If I really wanted to, I could probably fake my way into at least being perceived as of a different race, sex, or sexual orientation.
Interestingly, I have come to find out what it’s like to be dumb. I am, at this moment, rather stupid.
On September 1 I returned from a trip to Buenos Aires. During the 14 hours that I spent waiting around the Atlanta and Charlotte airports that day, I became progressively more sick, until I had a full-blown case of influenza. (It’s flu season in the southern hemisphere, after all.) Ten days later, I was still sick. The fever was gone, and my symptoms were muted, but I still felt sick. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t care about eating, I just wanted to lie around and watch TV.
So I went to the doctor, starting to doubt my self-diagnosis. After explaining my symptoms, both physical and mental, he came to a conclusion quickly: I have Lyme disease. (A pending blood test may help to confirm that, but they’re famously unreliable.) I was bitten by a tick this spring—one of many ticks that I find embedded in my skin each spring, summer, and fall—that was bearing Lyme spirochetes, which it injected into me. The immune-suppressing tick saliva allowed the bacteria to establish an infection there. That initial infection raised a nickel-sized welt on my back, which I presented to my dermatologist, who assured me it was nothing to worry about. (In fact, this may well have been a borrelial lymphocytoma.) Gradually, those spirochetes reproduced, spreading throughout my body, through my bloodstream. Some of those spirochetes have hijacked my own cells, persuading them to produce nerve toxins that disrupt my brain’s neurotransmitters.
In short, Lyme has made me tired, listless, depressed, and stupid.
This is a fascinating experience. Or, at least, it would be fascinating, if the symptoms themselves didn’t prevent me from caring. Other than short bouts while ill—when I’ve actually had the flu—I’ve never been listless or unmotivated. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve never been depressed. And I’ve never been stupid. I’m pretty much neurotypical.
So I want to explain, briefly, the bits about depression and stupidity, if only to capture the experience for Future Waldo.
Depression isn’t at all what I thought it would be like. I don’t feel depressed, by which I mean that I don’t feel sad or despairing or anything like that. I just feel less. Mostly, I feel like I couldn’t be bothered. Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t eat much, if anything. I doubt that I’d shower or shave. I’d mostly watch television and nap. My preferences are largely gone. (Should we have chicken or fish for dinner? I just don’t care.) I have a very short attention span; like a puppy chasing a butterfly, I’m happy to pursue whatever shiny thing presents itself, until a new shiny thing comes along. With substantial, headache-inducing effort, I can fake being normal-ish, but not for long. Depression, at least as I’m experiencing it, is the absence of emotion, rather than negative emotion. I don’t mind it, not yet, but maybe depression is what keeps me from minding depression.
Stupidity is also different than I’d thought. Part of my stupidity stems from the depression, I think. My curiosity is muted, my ambition to learn more or consider options more deeply has vanished. But part of it is just straight-up stupidity. I can’t really think about more than one thing at once. When a new thought enters my head, the old one simply vanishes. (Thanks to the depression, though, I don’t really mind.) I have no critical thinking skills, little ability to string together a cohesive argument, and a poor recall of long-held facts. I’ve been stuck at this point in this paragraph for at least ten minutes, unable to think of the other ways in which I’m stupid, or to spend more than five consecutive seconds trying to think of them. Yes, I’m too stupid to explain how I’m stupid. Do me a favor and pause to let the irony of that sink in, because if I pause, I’ll start forget what I’m supposed to be thinking about.
The good news is that this isn’t permanent. I started on an aggressive, two-week round of antibiotics yesterday, and I intend to find an infectious disease specialist with experience in Lyme to chart a more aggressive path to wellness. In theory, once the antibiotics start to kill off those spirochetes, I’ll stop feeling sick and stupid. (Unfortunately, the antibiotics will also kill off many of the bacteria that my body needs, so I’ll be having lots of homemade pickles and sauerkraut, coincidentally ready to eat this week, plus yogurt and kimchi, which will help to repopulate my gut’s microbiota.) I don’t know how long it’ll be until I start to feel better. Again, thanks to the depression, I don’t really care, although I know that I’m supposed to.
I hope that, in retrospect, this will have been a positive experience. It’s very difficult to understand how somebody else’s brain works. It’s hard to sympathize with those who did less well in mental aspects of that great genetic lottery, because usually one can’t really know what another person’s experience is like. Learning to understand depression and a different level of intelligence is a rare opportunity, and I’m optimistic that this is an chance to become a better person.
I want to emphasize a small but crucial point about Bob McDonnell’s defense in this unfolding scandal. His defense is that all of the gifts—$15,000 for one daughter’s wedding, $10,000 for another daughter’s wedding, $70,000 to his business, $50,000 to his wife, etc.—weren’t to him, but to his family members and his business. One of the gifts was a $6,500 Rolex, purchased by Jonnie Williams at the request of first lady Maureen McDonnell. A men’s Rolex, it’s engraved “71st Governor of Virginia,” and it is worn by the governor.
We’re to believe that this “71st Governor of Virginia” men’s Rolex, worn by the governor, was a gift to the governor’s wife? The very suggestion is ludicrous.
As is so often the case, The Simpsons did it first. In “Life on the Fast Lane” (season 1, episode 9, 7G11), Homer has completely forgotten to get a birthday present for Marge. He rushes out to the mall and buys a bowling ball. He has it drilled and engraved “Homer.” When Marge opens it, of course she realizes immediately that Homer intends this for himself. A few minutes later, she’s pondering an affair with a Frenchman who is providing her with bowling lessons.
Marge Simpsons knew better. The grand jury will, too.
I’ve watched the drip-drip-sploosh of revelations about Bob McDonnell’s with a sense of recognition. As the charges become more serious (daughter’s wedding yields to Rolex yields to $50,000 to McDonnell’s wife yields to $70,000 to McDonnell’s business), it’s feeling a lot like the financial improprieties that accompanied his 2005 campaign for attorney general.
In 2005, McDonnell got 1/3 of all of his campaign’s funding—over $2 million—from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a federal organization that had just been implicated in Jack Abramoff’s money-laundering scheme. McDonnell wouldn’t disclose his donors, despite having declared that every donor to his campaign should be public. I knew full well who the donors were—big tobacco, big oil, casinos, and payday loan companies—as, indeed, ultimately proved to be the case. Never mind the truth, McDonnell went on the radio to denounce me, accusing me of being part of a “grand conspiracy.” McDonnell’s actions were universally condemned by editorial boards. Just a few months later, after I’d been proven correct, McDonnell had a bill introduced to close the hole he’d exploited, and the law now reflects that. So, McDonnell skirted the law, then lied about it, then confessed to it, and finally—having no further use for the loophole—called for the law to be amended.
Bob McDonnell is going through the same steps now as he did eight years ago:
1. Deny the allegations.
2. Confess to the allegations.
3. Claim that he’s within the letter of the law.
4. Call for the law to be amended to prevent this sort of thing from happening.
In fact, he’s already gone through all of these four steps, but in much less time than eight years ago. This time, of course, a grand jury has been convened, so shit got real pretty fast, accelerating the McDonnell Denial Cycle.
The Washington Post editorial board wins the Most Prescient award for their October 27, 2005 editorial about McDonnell:
If he wins on Nov. 8, he’ll become Virginia’s foremost law enforcement official. Yet as things stand, he would enter office tainted, complicit in ignoring the state law that insists the public should know where candidates get their cash. If he approaches this law with a wink and a nod, why should he be trusted to enforce the others?
Bob McDonnell, on the other hand, wins the Least Self-Aware award:
An agitated McDonnell said the scrutiny has been disappointing.
“Thirty-seven years–no one’s raised questions about my integrity or my character,” he said.
Anybody who’s been paying attention should have seen this coming, or at least its strong possibility. Except for Bob McDonnell. To be fair, though, he may not be paying attention.
There’s something about an election that turns people into liars.
Once upon a time, there was a relatively small cohort of people who had a public stake in an election. Those people would insist that their candidate was great—totally perfect, if the truth be told—no matter how lousy that they really thought that the candidate was. Election day would come and go and, if their guy lost, they’d say to their peers, quietly, “I never really liked the guy anyway.” And in retrospect, their bullshittery would be described as “spin,” a polite way to say “lying by people who are already known to be liars.”
Today, thanks to social media, we have millions of people who have a chosen political candidate, a desire to promote that candidate, and an audience of hundreds or thousands of people to whom they can spread their message. Unfortunately, bullshittery has accompanied this growth, meaning that we have more bullshitters than ever. But now they have a credulous audience, people who are not aware that what they’re saying is bullshit. (I’m using here my very specific definition of “bullshit”: a false assertion that both the speaker and listener know to be false.) I do not include in this group people who are paid to promote a candidate or a party, provided that they have the good sense to leave their friends and family out of their bullshitting.
E.W. Jackson, the Republican Party’s train wreck of a lieutenant governor candidate, is Exhibit A. No rational person could look at his candidacy and think this is a good idea. This is not a debatable point. Anybody rational who would debate that point now would concede privately that they’re bullshitting, and is liable to do so publicly come November.
We have a word for people who say things that are blatantly untrue: liars. And this is how these folks are perceived by most folks in their audiences when they make foolish claims about candidates, and especially when they recant post-election. If you think a candidate sucks, say so, or say nothing at all. To do otherwise is to support the continuation of a broken political system and to broadcast to your friends and family this message: I am a liar.
I enjoyed the hell out of covering his misdeeds in 2005. I hope he can provide the world with more fodder for hilarious tales of corruption in the years ahead. Given his lack of contrition (he regrets pleading guilty!), I think that’s likely. →
The ethics records that the attorney general’s office refuses to give me didn’t present an obstacle for Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office. Here are the records of when the employees of that office—including Gov. McDonnell—have received their legally-mandated ethics training:
(Because employees have come and gone during the prescribed period, some have received training in other branches of government. Others received training as a part of their continuing education requirement by the state bar.)
I FOIAed these records in response to the ethics questions surrounding the governor and the AG’s relationship with Star Scientific. It looks to me like McDonnell and his employees are receiving the required training. Whether Cuccinelli and his employees are is, apparently, a state secret.
Last year, I wrote here that I was working on an open-source campaign finance parser for Virginia State Board of Elections data. Thanks to the good work of the folks at the SBE, who are making enormous advances in opening up their data, I’ve been able to make some great progress on this recently. That open-source project, named “Saberva,” is now a fully-functioning program. When run, it gathers a host of data from the State Board of Elections’ great new campaign finance site and saves it all as a series of machine-readable JSON files. (And a simple CSV file of basic committee data, which is more useful for some folks.) The program is running on Open Virginia, which means that, at long last, Virginia has an API and bulk downloads for campaign finance data.
This is now the source of Richmond Sunlight‘s campaign finance data about each candidate (currently limited to their cash-on-hand and a link to their most recent filing), which provides me with a good incentive to continue to improve it.
If you’ve got ideas for how to improve this still-young project, you’re welcome to comment here, open a ticket on GitHub, or make a pull request. Hate it, and want to copy it and make your own, radically different version? Fork it! It’s released under the MIT License, so you can do anything you want with it. I look forward to seeing where this goes.
This time last week, I got a surprise in the mail. A couple of weeks prior, I had sent requests to both the governor and the attorney general’s offices for some pretty boring records—a list of everybody in their offices who had received the ethics training prescribed under the law. These records are explicitly FOIAable, so I anticipated that I’d just get an Excel file e-mailed to me before long. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but the FBI probe into Bob McDonnell and Ken Cuccinelli’s relationships with Star Scientific made me wonder if the proper ethics training had been provided. Five business days later, both offices got back to me saying that they’d need another five days. No problem. Then, last Thursday, I got home to find a letter in the mail from Cuccinelli’s office. Busy packing for a flight the next day, I didn’t get around to reading it until late at night, just before bed. This was the letter:
I found the letter difficult to understand, in part because of the lateness of the hour, but on the third reading, I figured it out. The attorney general’s office was claiming that a) they did not need to offer ethics training b) they did not need to comply with FOIA. Having no idea of how to respond to this, and knowing I’d have no time to deal with it for at least five days, I simply scanned in the document, posted it to DocumentCloud, tweeted about it, and went to bed.
It quickly emerged that I was not the only person to be told by the OAG that they were complying with FOIA only as a matter of courtesy, I was merely the first person to tweet about it. Roz Helderman wrote about the matter for the Washington Post, and David Ress wrote about it for the Roanoke Times. (The Times had also been told by the AG’s office that FOIA didn’t apply to them.) These stories were published on Sunday, the same day that the prior day’s Republican convention was on the front page. What should have been a day full of post-convention-bounce news, helpful to the newly minted nominee for governor was, instead, marred by coverage of Cuccinelli’s extraordinary claim. The timing by Cuccinelli’s office was amazingly bad.
Editorial boards were unanimous in their response.
So how did the attorney general’s position seem ironic? Let us count the ways:
A believer in original intent is ignoring the plain meaning of the law.
To do so, he rests his case on an appeal to judicial authority that he shows little regard for in other cases — such as Roe, Kelo, or the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling upholding Obamacare.
He thereby seems to suggest a state agency with a staff of dozens and a budget of $36 million has to disclose less than, say, a researcher at the University of Virginia whose work has been questioned by right-wing activists. Cuccinelli spent two years and untold sums trying to pry loose the private correspondence of climatologist Michael Mann. Poor Mann — if only he had had the presence of mind to claim he was, like the AG’s office, not a “public body.”
Virginia’s top lawyer is not above the law. Nor is Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli just doing his constituents a favor when he responds to requests for public records.
Cuccinelli’s startling epiphany that he is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act came at a convenient moment. He is running for governor while being pelted with questions about his relationship with a businessman who has a pending dispute over state taxes.
It was tempting for Cuccinelli to slather himself in a potent Scandal Proof Formula to shield himself from the state sunshine law.
To truly appreciate the absurdity of the legal argument, consider this: The public-records law that staff members in Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s office said did not apply to the attorney general specifically mentions the office four times.
[Their] explanation is ludicrous, its reasoning so twisted that it can only be understood through its ultimate goal: To deny requests made by this paper’s sister publication, The Roanoke Times, and others for office records and correspondence involving a company entangled in a federal investigation and multiple lawsuits, including one against the state.
It’s no wonder Virginia received an “F” grade from the State Integrity Investigation, a watchdog organization that monitors the risk of government corruption in each of the 50 states. While Virginia ranks 12th in the nation in population, it ranks 47th in the organization’s key measures of government transparency. The Attorney General’s policy shift demonstrates what can happen when a weak FOIA law combines with an insipid judicial precedent: We get a culture of need-to-know governance that undermines citizen access and decreases government accountability.
To be clear, the logic employed by the OAG (constitutional officers don’t have to comply with FOIA) is total nonsense. In § 2.2-3701—the definitions that establish the application of terms for the entire chapter about FOIA—this is made explicit:
For the purposes of the provisions of this chapter applicable to access to public records, constitutional officers shall be considered public bodies and, except as otherwise expressly provided by law, shall have the same obligations to disclose public records as other custodians of public records.
The legal argument, however, was never there, which is why no one in or out of state government could offer any defense for it.
“It’s news to me,” said Maria J.K. Everett, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.
The council, a state-created entity, includes a representative from the attorney general’s office.
On Monday, in Richmond, he was notably quiet during a council subcommittee meeting to discuss FOIA exemptions.
[T]he Attorney General’s office maintains a FOIA page on its website that advises citizens: “You have the right to request to inspect or receive copies of public records, or both.” The page outlines detailed instructions for how to request information from the AG’s office, along with a list of the AG’s responsibilities — such as “the Office must respond to your request within five working days of receiving it.”
In brief, this is not a matter on which intelligent minds may disagree. It’s a silly claim, and I find it baffling that the AG’s office would make it, especially when not actually refusing to release any information. Nothing is gained by this, and, as OAG discovered, much stood to be lost.
So it didn’t come as a great surprise when Ken Cuccinelli issued a statement backing down—just a bit—from his office’s position. As Roz Helderman wrote for the Post, the OAG is no longer going to inform people that they don’t believe that FOIA applies to them. So Cuccinelli still believes that he’s FOIA-exempt. But he’ll keep responding to FOIA requests, apparently out of the goodness of his heart.
In the end, I’m not sure that it matters what Cuccinelli believes he’s obliged to do, as long as he actually complies with the law.
So here I am, a week later, and I still don’t have an answer to the boring question that I posed in the first place: Is the attorney general’s office providing ethics training to its employees? I’m coming at the question from a different angle now, having asked the governor’s office for related records, and I hope to find out the answer. It doesn’t strike me as a very interesting question—I figure that, whatever the response, it’ll merit a tweet and a blog entry consisting of sharing that response. I wish I knew what all the fuss was about.
Many months ago, an acquaintance was invited to join a small gathering at the estate of erstwhile Charlottesville-area millionaire Patricia Kluge. Kluge was inviting some women over to a brunch at Albemarle House, an event at which the honored guest was Virginia’s first lady, Maureen McDonnell. Unbeknownst to the invitees, the host was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. When they showed up for the event, Albemarle House was off-limits—soon to be sold on the courthouse steps—and the puzzled guests were directed to one of the model homes, bare of furniture. Left standing around in the living room, with no brunch to be found, their host and the first lady soon showed up. After only a brief introduction, McDonnell began to deliver a pitch. Gradually it dawned on the attendees that this was some kind of a pyramid scheme diet-pill scam. One by one, they slipped out, desperate to escape the suffocating awkwardness of the weird affair.
I was told this story shortly afterwards, and mostly found it baffling. The first lady? Hawking scam diet pills? What in the world? I had no frame of reference for such a story, and I decided to keep it to myself.
With the benefit of time, this story is no longer baffling. Instead, I get the sense that it’s a piece of a larger puzzle, a puzzle that a state-appointed prosecutor and the FBI are trying to assemble. There is a relationship between the governor, the first lady, and Star Scientific, a Virginia-based company that recently got out of the cheap-cigarette business and into the dietary supplement business. Star and its CEO have given $120,000 to McDonnell and his PAC, but apparently also gave some undisclosed gifts to McDonnell’s family, including his wife, Maureen. Star Scientific is in rough shape—they have enough money to get through early next year, but they keep having to sell more stock to pay the bills. They’re doing everything that they can to stay afloat. To that end, Maureen McDonnell went to Florida a couple of years ago, to promote their product, Anatabloc, in a talk.
I don’t know that Maureen McDonnell was promoting Anatabloc on that awkward day. (I don’t think any of the attendees were taking notes.) And I don’t have any reason to believe that doing so would have been wrong in any way. But I do think it’s a heck of an interesting coincidence, and I look forward to finding what it’s all about.
Since creating Richmond Sunlight and Virginia Decoded, I’ve been building up a public trove of datasets about Virginia government: legislative video, the court system’s definitions of legal terms, court rulings, all registered dangerous dogs, etc. But they’re all scattered about on different websites. A couple of years ago, I slapped together a quick site to list all of them, but I outgrew it pretty quickly.
So now I’m launching a new site: the Open Virginia data repository. It’s an implementation of the excellent CKAN data repository software (which will soon drive Data.gov). The idea is to provide a single, searchable, extensible website where every known state dataset can be listed, making them easy to find and interact with. It’s built on the industry’s best software, in part because I’m hopeful that, eventually, I can persuade Virginia to simply take the site from me, to establish a long-overdue data.virginia.gov.
There are a few new datasets that accompany this launch:
There’s so much more to come—good datasets already available, and datasets that need to be scraped from government sites and normalized—but this is a good start. I’m optimistic that providing an open, accessible home for this data will encourage others to join in and help create a comprehensive collection of data about the Virginia government and its services.
Our sweet old beagle passed away today.
It seems like it was just yesterday that we took her in. Back then—in late 2006—she was just another foster. My wife and I decided that, rather than fostering lively animals and finding homes for them, we’d pick out the most pathetic dog we could find at the SPCA, as our very own Pygmalion tale. This elderly, frightened old girl was the clear winner, so we took her with us, determined to find her a forever home. There didn’t turn out to be much of a market for elderly, gassy beagles, and come March, we made things official.
Her life before 2006 was obviously pretty rough, and I’m proud that we could provide her with a great retirement home and a proper family. I hope all of her memories of her prior life were gradually replaced with a fuzzy impression of joy, safety, and freedom from want. She certainly provided us with many happy memories of our own.
It took just 27 hours for the $500 speech transcription bounty to be claimed. Aaron Williamson produced youtube-transcription, a Python-based pair of scripts that upload video to YouTube and download the resulting machine-generated transcripts of speech. It took me longer to find the time to test it out than it did for Aaron to write it. But I finally did test it, and it works quite well.
There are lots of changes and features that I’d like to see, and the beauty of open source software is that those changes don’t need to be Aaron’s problem—I (and anybody else) can make whatever changes that I see fit.
This will be pressed into service on Richmond Sunlight ASAP. Thanks to Matt Cutts for the idea, and to the 95 people who backed this project on Kickstarter, since they’re the ones who funded this effort.
The world needs an API to automatically generate transcript captions for videos. I am offering a $500 bounty for a program that does this via YouTube’s built-in machine transcription functionality. It should work in approximately this manner:
Participants are encouraged to develop in the open, on GitHub, and to comment here with a link to their repository, so that others may observe their work, and perhaps join in.
This bounty is funded entirely by the 95 folks who backed this Kickstarter project, though I suppose especially by those people who kept backing the project even after the goal was met. I deserve zero credit for it.
Several times recently I have squeezed a large number of oranges, enjoyed some of the delicious fresh-squeezed juice, and then been disappointed by the rest the next day. It tastes bitter, and becomes worse rapidly. This turns out to be the result of naturally occurring limonoate A-ring lactone (aka "LARL," a tasteless substance) breaking down into limonin, which is very bitter tasting. The amount of LARL varies between oranges and throughout the growing season. If there’s any way to arrest the conversion of LARL to limonin in the home-squeezing process, I don’t know about it. →
My friend Jonathan Stray put together an entirely fact-based FAQ on American gun violence for The Atlantic. Everybody can learn something from this. →
I’m more interested in orange juice than is probably healthy for somebody who doesn’t work in the industry and, as such, I’m excited to see Bloomberg Businessweek shining a spotlight on the horseshit that is "fresh squeezed," "not from concentrate," and "all-natural." These are all lies. It was squeezed months ago. It was concentrated to a point a hair’s breadth from the legal definition of "concentrated." It’s not natural, it’s created in a lab in a process more complicated than Coca-Cola. If you drank the stuff as its stored in giant vats, you’d spit it out—it’s flavorless at best, disgusting at worst. It’s only through adding a cocktail of lab-created flavorings that it takes like something that came out of an orange. Because those lab-created flavorings are based on molecules that are found somewhere—anywhere—in nature, they can be labelled "natural flavors," instead of "artificial flavors." →
Today was a big day for Senator Henry Marsh. The legislator of twenty years took a rare day off during the Virginia Senate’s 46-day session, to attend President Barack Obama’s second-term inauguration in Washington D.C. For the 79-year-old black civil rights lawyer, attending a black president’s inauguration on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday is perhaps the most auspicious of occasions. Certainly nobody would object to him missing just one day. Looking at today’s legislative calendar, he would have seen that his absence wouldn’t be problematic, with nothing contentious on the agenda. (With the Senate split 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans, and with a Republican lieutenant governor acting as tie-breaker, that’s no small point.)
Marsh grew up under Jim Crow. He had a ten-mile round-trip walk to his one-room schoolhouse—an awfully long trip for a seven-year-old—while white kids took a bus to a modern school. Marsh didn’t let racism hold him back. He didn’t just graduate from primary school, but went onto college. When he was a senior at Virginia Union University, the Byrd Machine was organizing “massive resistance”—shutting down public schools rather than comply with Brown v. Board of Education—and Marsh got involved, testifying against the policy before the General Assembly. In doing so, he met famed civil rights attorney Oliver Hill; at Hill’s encouragement, he got a degree in law from Howard University, and later went into private practice with Hill, focusing on civil rights law. Marsh and his practice were responsible for huge advances in civil rights over the decades, eliminating “separate but equal,” busing, and racial discrimination in hiring. Along the way he became the first black mayor of Richmond, and was elected to his Senate seat in 1991. Today he chairs the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission and created the Martin Luther King Jr. Living History and Public Policy Center.
So it bears repeating: today was a very big day for Henry Marsh. He must have taken a great deal of satisfaction in seeing his life’s work culminate in the first black president’s reelection, being sworn in on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. It was a very, very good reason to miss a day’s session.
Today was also a big day for Senate Republicans. They knew that Henry Marsh would be at the inauguration today, and that the 20–20 split in the Senate would become a 20–19 split while Marsh was 100 miles north, among the throngs on the National Mall. So today was the day that they decided—without hearings, advertisements, notifications, or warnings—to take a chunk out of Marsh’s district, along with a handful of others, to ghettoize black voters in a majority-minority district and put 45% of voting-age citizens into new districts.
I sat in the Senate gallery, along with no more than perhaps a half-dozen other people, slack-jawed with confusion (tweeting all the while) as Republican Sen. John Watkins filibustered through the allotted 15 minutes to discuss what was advertised as the third reading of a pretty boring bill, making technical adjustments to district boundaries. Unbeknownst to anybody but the 20 Senate Republicans, the bill had been replaced with a radical redistricting, combining two senators into a single district (eliminating the district of 2009 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds), reshuffling district boundaries throughout the state to absorb those changes (to Republicans’ apparent favor in a half-dozen districts), and creating a “black district.”
Senate Democrats tried repeatedly to get a word in, but they were blocked procedurally. A series of votes were held (votes about voting, votes about reconsidering voting about voting, and so on), all failing 20–19, during which a few people got to make remarks. One Democratic senator moved to simply put the vote off until tomorrow, so that there’d be time to read this brand-new bill. That vote failed 20–19. Another Democratic senator pointed out that this was simply unconstitutional (“[t]he General Assembly shall reapportion the Commonwealth into electoral districts in accordance with this section in the year 2011 and every ten years thereafter”). One Republican senator insisted that this was simply a racially sensitive improvement, since it was establishing a majority-minority district. Another Republican said that there was no need to hold hearings on this new redistricting, because they held hearings a few years ago, last time they redistricted. Yet it remained unclear throughout what, exactly, this bill did, though Democrats were frantically trying to figure that out as they stalled with round after round of procedural vote, a peeved Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling presiding over the whole affair. Finally there was nothing else to be done—the vote was held, and the bill passed, 20–19.
Lt. Gov Bolling says he would have voted against the bill, if it had been a tie. Which is surely why the bill was introduced today.
Senate Republicans’ MLK Day gift to Senator Marsh and to Virginia is to use the re-inauguration of the United States’ first black president as cover to pass a bill that will make it harder for black candidates to get elected.
Now the bill goes to the House of Delegates, who will no doubt pass it, and then to Gov. Bob McDonnell, who said he was as surprised by this bill as everybody else. We’re about to learn if McDonnell has really become the centrist he’s presenting himself as, or if he’s the same old right-wing extremist. I fear we already know the answer.
Physicist Richard A. Muller was in the news last year after his Koch-funded study of global climate change concluded that it’s real, surely to the Koch brothers’ dismay. Now he’s penned an on-ed for the New York Times in which he says that his ongoing research has led him to the same conclusion as 99.9% of other experts in the field—that "essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases." Muller’s research shows that the UN and the IPCC actually understate the problem. He researched the climate change causes claimed by non-scientist skeptics (urban heating biases, cherry-picking data, faking data, solar activity, and global population), and found that none of them explained climate change. What did explain it perfectly was atmospheric carbon dioxide. →