Category Archives: Politics

No love for the kids.

I went to the Virginia Tech Young Democrats officers’ meeting this evening. It was quite disappointing. I’d anticipated a meeting of eager young liberals, all believing that they could take over the world through leadership, politics and activism. That’s the sort of enthusiasm that has historically been the lifeblood of the Democratic Party. If that’s still the case, it’s certainly not true here in Blacksburg.

This seems to be one of those organizations that exists primarily to perpetuate itself. They didn’t seem to have any sense of what draws people to be involved in politics, or in a particular party. They didn’t understand — or care about — the role of partisan organizations in the political process. They didn’t understand the need for partisan political organizations to ask tough questions (and demand good answers) of candidates. My explanation of the importance of informed, selective endorsements was derided as “bullshit details.”

All involved seemed to be well-intentioned, and I imagine that they’d be really helpful with postering or helping out at fundraisers. But I just don’t have the time or the patience to play political tiddlywinks.

VA Republicans closing in on birth control.

It’s no secret that Delegate Bob Marshall (R – Manassas) is one of the looniest bastards in the Virginia General Assembly. A devout Catholic, Marshall thinks that everybody else ought to be forced to follow the same belief structure that he does. In early 2002, citing the September 11th attacks, he introduced a bill requiring that “In God We Trust” signs be posted in every public school. Because the Virginia Republicans in the General Assembly are largely pathetic sycophants, they pass laws like this with alarming regularity. In the same session, he introduced four bills limiting the availability of abortions. In 2003, Marshall introduced five nearly-identical versions of the same bill that would severely restrict abortion clinics. They were pretty appalling. HB 1549, for example, sought to restrict the availability of abortions to locations within 15 miles of a hospital. This is a terrible thing to do to women in impoverished portions of Virginia that are much, much farther from hospitals than that, and often don’t have the means of transportation to get to a hospital. Another bill regulates abortion clinics as doctors’ offices, such that they must have all of the equipment and meet all of the standards as if they were surgical centers. Even some Republicans — such Delegate Robert Orrock — say that bills like these are “gobbledygook.”

Then there’s Marhsall’s new buddy Mark Obenshain. Obenshain was on the Board of Visitors at James Madison University until a few months ago. This spring, Marshall started sending letters to colleges around the state, including JMU, demanding that they stop providing birth control pills in the concentrated form known as “morning after pills.” These emergency contraceptives have the effect of a few birth control pills, and are taken in case pregnancy may occur, as in the case of condom breakage or rape. They are only effective when taken prior to the implantation of a fertilized egg in the wall of the uterus — that is, prior to pregnancy. They’re not abortion pills, and have nothing to do with drugs like RU-486. Marshall was upset that these were being made available to adults attending colleges in Virginia, because his religion eschews the use of birth control. At most colleges, such as the University of Virginia, Marshall was told to shove it. But not at JMU. Mark Obenshain, a man who has never made any secret about his political aspirations, saw an opening. He planned to run for the State Senate in the November 2003 election, and knew an opportunity when he saw it. Obenshain persuaded his fellow Board of Visitors members to see things Marshall’s way, and they immediately halted the availablility of morning-after pills at JMU. Obenshain argued that not only should JMU not be giving out morning-after pills, but he didn’t think that any colleges should be providing birth control of any sort.

This went over like a lead balloon among JMU students. They launched the biggest-ever, fastest-ever petition drive that JMU has ever seen, collecting 2,714 signatures in a single day. Obenshain positively glowed with the success of the move. In an editorial, the Virginian-Pilot lamented that the Republican Party’s goal was a ban of contraceptives. The statement was particularly strong given that they’d come to the opposite conclusion just a few weeks previously, prior to the Marshall Plan going into effect. They even looked at Delegate Marshall’s radical Catholic agenda, and concluded that Marshall is as much an extremist as he was when he was first elected a decade ago. Only then he was called an extremist by Republicans. Now, the Virginia Republicans have become so extremely right-wing that he’s merely a moderate.

Mark Obenshain’s campaign is now fully under way. His website tells us that he wants to “speak out…for the principles of individual liberty and limited constitutional government that are the heart of the greatness of this Commonwealth.” Never mind that this is the exact opposite of his beliefs, as demonstrated by his actions.

Virginians with an interest in politics past and present will recognize the name “Obenshain.” Mark Obenshain’s father was Richard Obenshain, a prominent Republican who helped to rebuild the party and take it back to parity with the Democrats. Just after being nominated for the U.S. Senate, he died in a plane crash, leaving him with martyr-like status among area Republicans. (Incidentally, it was then that John Warner, then husband of Elizabeth Taylor, stepped into the race as the replacement for Obenshain. Warner holds that seat to this day, and some Virginia Republicans are still bitter about that.)

Then there’s Mark Obenshain’s sister — Richard Obenshain’s daughter — who has just recently come to prominence. By “just recently” I mean, of course, “today.” Kate Obenshain Griffin has been elected the first-ever female chairwoman of the Virginia Republican Party. It’s the Republicans’ hope that, by appointing a female, they can help people forget the wiretapping scandal that brought down the entirety of the Virginia party leadership over the past few years. Griffin replaces Gary Thompson, who just resigned a month ago after pleading guilty to misdemeanor wiretapping. Griffin’s opinions regarding birth control are not known, but her comments regarding her large family in an August 2002 interview, her brother’s beliefs, and her party’s beliefs make the conclusion an obvious one. Griffin argues that her family has nothing to do with her sudden prominence position within the party:

“It’s not about Phil, it’s not about my brother, and it’s not about my father,” she said. “It’s about me and my ability to lead the Republican Party.”

This new leadership in the Virginia Republican Party is a frightening indicator of what’s to come. The Republicans’ support for Marshall and Obenshain’s anti-birth control stance is likely to go from tacit endorsement to a plank on their platform. With their hold on both the House and the Senate, there is little to stop Republicans from passing any restrictions that they see fit, banning birth control outright in a matter of years or even months.

Aggregated Congressional roll call voting data.

I’ve been working for weeks to parse Congressional roll call votes. Because most Congressmen are horrible, horrible people, this data is only available on a vote-by-vote listing, and not in any aggregate format. Consequently, I’ve had to write incredibly complex regular expressions to parse this data. I’ve spent hours on it, and I’ve gotten perhaps 50% of the way through with what I believe will be the necessary work to parse this data. With each hour, I grow to hate the incompetence of our federal elected officials more and more. I’m not the only person with this problem. Ralph Nader lamented this shortly after his run for president, expressing frustration with his inability to gather the same data that I’m trying to gather. Wrote Nader:

Members of Congress are continuing to play hide and seek with their legislative records. Only two Congressmen–Republican Representatives Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Frank Wolf of Virginia–have placed their voting records on the Internet in a searchable format easily accessible to citizens. Not a single U. S. Senator has been willing to use the Internet in a manner that would give voters an open, accurate and quick way to track their votes.

Information is the oxygen of democracy. It is also the basic ingredient that builds and maintains confidence and accountability in government. At a minimum, citizens have a right to know in detail the positions that their representatives take on legislation. Congress should adopt a rule which would require that all Members list their voting record on the Internet in an easily accessed searchable format by Member name, bill subject and bill title. This would be a giant step forward in efforts to ensure an informed electorate–and a more accountable Congress.

Then, this evening, I discovered Princeton Voteview. I now love deeply author Boris Shor and the Princeton Politics department. Sure, the program is only available for Windows, but I’ll get over it. Not only do they make all of the easily-parsible data files freely available, but the program itself appears to be fantastically useful.


Another Republican defeat.

softball.jpgWe Charlottesville/Albemarle Democrats have our time-honored tradition of beating up on Republicans, with yesterday’s occasion being the annual charity softball game between the two. We won by 20-15, having led by as much as 11 runs at one time. The whole thing was particularly worth it to see Delegate Rob Bell and Councilor Rob Schilling (both Republicans) show up for the game without so much as picking up a glove or swinging a bat. I strongly suspect that they both throw like girls, but evidence was not forthcoming.

Buh-bye, Prez.

The world is collapsing in on the Bush White House, and I am loving it. The phrase that pundits and politicans keep using is “a pattern of lies,” a phrase that I truly relish. But I don’t relish that nearly as much as I do the increasing references to Bush being a single-term president. Politically active Democrats like myself have winced and cried out as we’ve been fed lie after lie after lie by the White House. Finally, at long last, the American public is catching on. Now us Dems need to get together, nominate a good candidate that can put the final nails in Bush’s coffin, elect them along with some Democratic Congressmen and Senators and, come January of 2005, start repealing some laws.

It’s a good time to be a Democrat.

Suggested changes to the Charlottesville Democratic Party.

Be Welcoming
It is the great lament of the Charlottesville Democrats — as well it ought to be — that minority involvement in the party is far from representational of the city’s population. Many methods of determining the source of this problem have been suggested, though few of them have been attempted. A glance around most any party gathering will provide the answer.

The trouble isn’t that the party is too white. The trouble is that it’s too white-collar baby-boomer-and-up middle-class college-educated white. Our blind eye to membership demographics other than race has made it impossible to determine what our real recruitment problem is, and thus all solutions attempted have failed to fix the diversity problem.

The reason that the party looks like it does is because that generation that took control of the party decades ago has been running it ever since. The generation’s now-middle-aged children have gotten involved, too, but the social core has remained the same. It is this group that, without a hint of malice, has continued to serve as the leaders of the party, operating it via the same social channels by which they might arrange a dinner party. Consequently, newcomers to the party are inherently outsiders, not due to the fault of anybody involved, but merely because they are, in fact, outsiders to this social group.

Getting new people involved in the party will mean shedding the old social network and welcoming newcomers for their perspective, fresh energy, and willingness to help. This could be accomplished via a short-term push to intentionally get dozens of new people involved (regardless of their socioeconomic background), or by a efforts by each individual within the party to be conscious of their own behavior towards outsiders and modifying that behavior appropriately. No matter what specific acts are taken, the most necessary change is an overall shift in attitude and atmosphere — we must all be genuinely pleased to see somebody new at a meeting, recognizing that they bring with them the hope for a larger, stronger, more diverse Democratic party.

No Party is an Island
The Charlottesville Democratic Party does not exist as an island, and we cannot continue to act as if it does. The state party does not serve as an adequate network for the purpose of connecting Democrats across the state, and we must perform our own outreach.

As Sen. Creigh Deeds or Del. Mitch Van Yahres will surely attest, it is essential that more Democrats be elected statewide in November. It’s likely that Sen. Deeds and Del. Van Yahres will run without serious opposition. Consequently, this election should be seen as an opportunity for party-building, both within the city and without.

We must work with the Albemarle party to build the 57th House of Delegates District. We must work with parties in surrounding counties, using the 25th Senate District as the excuse. We must work with parties clear to the North Carolina border, using the 5th U.S. Congressional District as the excuse. We must do this because we share common problems, we share resources, we share elected officials, and we have resources that we ought to be sharing. For example, growth and sprawl affect us all, yet Albemarle bears the burden dealing with it. Charlottesville, the source of this growth, must be a part of this discussion, and we as a party must ensure that this happens.

Synchronize Election Precinct Usage
There are two goals to any nomination process: to nominate the a candidate that best represents the citizenry, and to nominate a candidate that can win. To accomplish the first goal, we nominate candidates based on votes weighted by precinct, under the assumption that this will provide us with a candidate that wins based on the desires of the most diverse geographic (and, hopefully, socioeconomic) cross-section of Charlottesville. Unfortunately, our use of this system is preventing us from accomplishing the second goal: nominating candidates that can win. When we select a candidate based on a precinct system, and then hold a general election where the precincts do not matter, we introduce a fatal weakness into the process.

A savvy opposing party could select a candidate that is extremely popular among the upper-class residents of the Recreation precinct, knowing full well that getting these individuals to turn out and vote will not prove difficult. We could select our nominee based on our precinct system, producing a candidate that is liked by a broad cross-section of the city, but not necessarily by a majority of the voters. Consequently, the opposing party could chalk up an easy victory in the face of our fairer-but-weaker candidate.

There are two available solutions to this problem. The first is to change the Democratic nomination conventions and end the practice of weighting votes by precinct, thus matching the current process for the final election. The second is to change the final election process to weight votes by precinct, matching the current process for the Democratic nomination process. Either one would suffice; doing neither is folly.

Be Transparent
Much of the operations of the Charlottesville Democratic Party are unintentionally secretive. This is a consequence of the social network that connects much of the party leadership: meetings often occur informally, rules are not always followed, our processes are ill-defined. In order to gain the understanding, trust, and aid of party newcomers, it is important that the mechanics of the party be clear.

Stop Running Campaigns
As evidenced by the 2002 City Council elections, there has developed an assumption among some that the party will run campaigns for nominees running for public office in the city. Worse yet, we actually run those campaigns. Worse still, it has recently come to be assumed that the party chair will therefore assume the role of campaign manager. This is a mistake. Anybody running for an office must be capable of doing so on their own two feet, either literally, or with their own campaign team. (Although, hopefully, they would cooperate with fellow nominees and run joint campaigns, where appropriate.) This assures that those who seek the nomination will be people who are capable of getting elected, and will not require that the party scramble to convince members that the candidate in question merits working for. Instead, the party should take on the role of cheerleader, of a communications conduit, of fundraising base, of provider of voter lists, and of provider of potential volunteers. This simplified role doesn’t just make more sense, but it’s also one that we’re capable of fulfilling; it’s a promise that we can keep. To attempt to play a larger role in a campaign is trouble.

Provide Leadership
Democrats have been left adrift without national leadership. National representatives are neutered to muster anything in the way of opposition. Republicans, on the other hand, have been emboldened by their continued successes. Charlottesville Democrats are as desirous of leadership as any other Democrats, and we must fill this leadership vacuum by picking up where our state and national parties have left off. We must each become leaders, with our party leading the charge, speaking out against the series of injustices that the Republicans have inflicted on the American people on a federal level and Virginians on a state level. The party must have a role as leaders of Charlottesville, as a visible and unmistakable force of change and good, as the organization that is behind every positive event, movement, and change.

Faced with a lack of leadership, people will look just about anywhere to find some. We must compel them once again look to us, and find it here. Otherwise, they will look elsewhere, and they will find it there, and we will surely suffer the same fate as the DNC and, increasingly, the state party: irrelevance.

Lead From Within
On a state and national level, the members of a party that have been elected to the highest public offices serve as unofficial party leaders, regardless of whether they hold positions within the party. This is not something that we are doing on a city level. Four out of five members of City Council are Democrats, but they seldom serve as strong leaders within the party. That’s not to say that they don’t participate, because they certainly do. Rare is the party meeting at which at least a pair of City Councilors are not in attendance. But they generally participate in party matters in the manner of citizens, and not as the venerated elected officials and important Democrats that they are. Anybody seeking an example of how this ought to be done need look no farther than Delegate Mitch Van Yahres who, when the House is in session, provides unabashedly Democrat-centric weekly constituent newsletters, requesting input and assistance from his fellow Democrats whenever necessary. Consequently, when he asserts that the party must take a new tack, party members frequently follow his lead. If our elected leaders take on leadership roles, this will not only serve to strengthen the party through visible affiliation with the party, but it will also enable them to better call upon the resources of the members of the party.

Currently, our state and federal representation is dominated by Republicans. Although the source of this problem is a complex one, the dearth of Democrats is in no small part due to the shortage of Democratic candidates that are capable of unseating Republicans. It must be our task to train people to become leaders, encourage leaders to lead, and to provide a support structure that will enable these individuals to work their way up the political ladder to lead the Democratic charge on both state and national levels. We must nurture, train, groom, and appoint, always with an eye to the future.

A simple, formalized approach to this would quite likely prove to be the best solution. Using a larger geographic area, such as the Thomas Jefferson Planning District, a program in the style of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership could have strong effects on the political landscape of central Virginia in just a few short years.

Sometimes, incubating will mean running a losing race, knowing from day one that it’s a losing race. Sometimes it will mean running losing races year after year. Every time that we do this, every time that we put all that we are into running a good campaign, we get a little stronger, and we get a little closer to winning races at every level.

Do Things
Getting new people involved in the party isn’t just a matter of getting them on the city committee, or to lick envelopes for a candidate. Like the Elks Club or Boy Scouts, there has to be ongoing incentives to show up and keep showing up. This means doing something other than holding quarterly meetings and trying to recruit people for phone banks. Precincts should throw block parties. We should have an annual community picnic. We should hold frequent low-cost-of-admission fund raisers or simple gatherings. Getting involved shouldn’t be a commitment to dreary tasks and initiation into a mysterious social network. It must be fun.

Have a Purpose
Every political party exists for a reason. There is something that makes its members want to join that party, something that makes it different than the other options available. To that end, both the Democratic National Committee and the Virginia Democratic Party have mission statements to define the common beliefs that are shared by their members, and to provide them with goals such that the party exists for a purpose. Charlottesville Democrats have no stated mission, no specified common beliefs, no specified shared goals. Without a mission statement and a platform, a political party isn’t a political party; it’s a tea party.

Liberal splinter group Democrats for Change has enjoyed successes for in recent City Council elections, to the frustration and puzzlement of many party faithful. It might come as a surprise to some that the reason for Democrats for Change’s success is very simple: it is an organization with a purpose. Prior to every election, they establish an extensive platform listing a series of goals that they want candidates for the nomination to agree to work to fulfill. Everybody who shows up for the series of energetic meetings has a voice, and everybody provides input, out of which emerges a specific list of candidate requirements and a bold plan for the future of Charlottesville. The Charlottesville Democratic Party, on the other hand, rarely asks for input from anybody, rarely holds debates, requires no endorsement of beliefs (other than “upholding the principles of the Democratic Party,” whatever that means), no adherence to a platform and no suggestion of agenda. The choice between the two groups is akin to a choice between beef Wellington and a cup of steam. The real mystery is why anybody would partake of the steam and claim it to be superior to the beef.

Some argue that a platform is divisive. They’re right, it is: it divides the Democrats from the not-Democrats. It’s how we know that we’re Democrats, and how we can know that we’re serving a purpose in this world other than holding meetings, appointing one another to offices and handing out awards to each other.

So let’s be divisive, let’s be controversial, let’s be loud, let’s be daring. Just be something.

Went to see Ralph Nader speak. Wow.

Amber, her brother, her father and I all went to see Ralph Nader speak at Cabell Hall at UVa last night. I made my mind up to vote for him a few months ago, but last night certainly cemented things. Amber and her father didn’t expect to vote for him (Cory is too young to vote), but they changed their minds before long.

The place was packed, with many people standing, crowded into walkways and peering around corners and pillars. Without going too much into specifics, I will say that he’s really very eye-opening. I’d never really realized what a red herring issues like abortion and gun control are. He didn’t even talk about them, not so much as a whisper or a reference. At first I thought that was weird, but I realized that both issues are created by the popular press to distract us from things that really count. Corporate welfare, homelessness, the disaster of NAFTA and the money being wasted on building up our military to defend us against non-existent aggressors. He talked for a couple of hours about these genuinely important issues to an increasingly amazed and excited crowd. You could almost see the scales falling from people’s eyes.

The conclusion that I think everybody came to is that a victory for Bush would be disasterous, and a victory for Gore would simply maintain the status quo. (Which, compared to Bush, looks really good.) But when the option of Nader enters the picture, both start to look downright awful. Those two main candidates campaign on such narrow, similar platforms, and never so much as mention some of the most important issues, wasting time on the buzzwords. They’re the political equivalent of all of those CMP publications like InformationWeek and InternetWeek. “XML!” “B2B!” “P2P!” Buzzword, buzzword buzzword, but not a second of anything that matters. We’ve all managed to convince ourselves that we simply must vote for Gore in order to keep Bush from winning. And, after all, he’s not such a bad guy, right? But he’s not Bush, and that’s what’s important.

So perhaps the most interesting part was when Nader asked the crowd, not rhetorically, if they wanted congressional members who voted their conscience. The audience shouted out “Yes!” And Nader replied “So why don’t you?” Shocked silence descended, and then laughter and thunderous applause.

I’m certainly no Green Party member. (If anything, I’m a Libertarian.) Amber’s father describes himself as a Republican. Amber’s a Democrat that felt she had to vote for Gore out of fear of Bush. We’ve all changed our minds. If Virginia had people register their party affiliation, I imagine that we all would have switched right then and there.

If you think I’m just a whacked-out extremist hippie protester, or if you think that Nader is just some left-wing nut, I recommend that you take a look at The guy is amazingly rational, intelligent, up-front and straightforward. He’s spent his whole life making the world a better place, and that’s no exaggeration.

Your vote isn’t wasted on Nader. It’s wasted if you vote for who you believe will win, as opposed to who you believe should win.