Thursday, June 21, 2018

Latest nightmare for migrants ends -- for now -- June 21, 2018 column


As President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday, ending his cruel policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the southern border, he said: “You’re going to have a lot of happy people.”

Don’t believe it.

This is not the start of a kinder, gentler Trump. If anything, the president likely will feel the need to show his tougher side to compensate for caving in on his administration’s policy of separating families. 

Yes, the shameful spectacle of families being torn apart has ended – at least for now. 

Families seeking asylum and a better life after long and dangerous trips to the border will be allowed to stay together. But Trump wants to keep them  incarcerated indefinitely.

So much for the Statue of Liberty’s promise to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

His “zero tolerance” crackdown continues, with his administration continuing to prosecute every person caught crossing the border illegally.

There’s no plan to reunite more than 2,300 babies and children already separated from their parents and held in facilities around the country.

Immigration officials reportedly kept such poor records that reunification specialists warn it may take parents a long time to find their children and some may never find them at all.

In addition, Trump plans to issue tougher rules for legal – as well as illegal – immigration.

Trump’s retreat shows the power of social and traditional media. The photos and audio of toddlers wailing for their parents were horrifying.

His about-face proved he lied. After repeatedly claiming he could not end by executive order the policy he initiated, he did just that.

The administration announced its zero-tolerance policy in April, and yet Trump repeatedly blamed Democrats, as in this tweet: “The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda.” He sometimes blamed a “law” that doesn’t exist.

As the crisis over separations grew, Trump met Tuesday with congressional Republicans behind closed doors. Whatever else they said, the Republicans appeased the president’s fragile ego by giving him a standing ovation. We know because he tweeted out a picture.

The next day, he reversed the policy he had said he couldn’t reverse through an executive order so hastily written it misspelled separation. The fix may be temporary.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned members of Congress in a private meeting that family separations could resume if Congress fails to go along with Trump’s immigration demands, The Washington Post reported.

Trump believes his tough stand on immigration was key to winning the White House, and he’s terrified of appearing weak.

Not until every former first lady, his own wife and daughter, a bevy of Republicans in Congress, the American people and the Pope rose in moral outrage did he reluctantly play the compassion card.

“If you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country’s going to be overrun with millions of people, and if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart,” Trump told congressional Republicans Wednesday. “Perhaps I’d rather be strong, but that’s a tough dilemma.”

Currently the government is prohibited by a court order known as the Flores settlement from keeping migrant children in detention longer than 20 days. Trump directed 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions to seek a modification to the order so kids and families can be kept indefinitely, throughout their court proceedings. 

The administration is considering several other policies to curtail legal immigration, including “tightening rules on student visas and exchange programs; limiting visas for temporary agricultural workers; making it harder for legal immigrants who have 
applied for any welfare programs to obtain residency; and collecting biometric data from visitors from certain countries,” Politico reported.

While Trump enjoyed his usual support from Republicans – Fox News host Tucker Carlson told viewers not to believe news on other TV networks -- Democrats claimed the moral high ground, contending the separations would leave a lasting stain on the country, similar to the shame of Japanese internment camps during World War II.

Both sides, unfortunately, are more intent on scoring political points for November than on fixing the immigration system everyone agrees is broken.  

So, no, President Trump, there are not a lot of happy people -- not Republicans, not Democrats and not desperate migrant families who are still yearning to breathe free.

(c)2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

This precinct's color is blue, tinged with confusion -- June 14, 2018 column


“That’s ridiculous!” the angry voter roared at me. “Who do I complain to?”

It was Primary Day, and I was working as a city Election Officer or poll worker at the City Hall precinct in Alexandria, Va. My job was to greet voters and tell them something I assumed they’d already know.

“We’re having a Democratic primary and a Republican primary today,” I said hundreds of times, smiling. “You can vote in one or the other, but not both.”  

For some voters like this woman, though, that was infuriating news. She wanted to vote in both primaries and wasn’t giving up without a fight.  

The precinct election chief, overhearing her protests – who didn’t? – showed her a sample ballot with the pertinent section of Virginia Code about primaries: “No person shall vote for the candidates of more than one party.”

She redirected her ire toward Richmond and asked for a Democratic ballot.   

It would be easy to dismiss her as dumb, but the story is more nuanced. For one thing, she had plenty of company in her confusion.

By my estimate, about one in 10 voters at my precinct Tuesday either thought there was only a Democratic primary or knew there were two primaries and thought they could vote in both.

Virginia voters don’t register to vote by party and some infrequent voters had forgotten how the open primary system works.

In Alexandria, called “one of Virginia’s most lopsidedly Democratic bastions” by The Washington Post, the Democratic primary is typically the decisive election for local offices. At the City Hall precinct, of 904 ballots cast, 851 were Democratic.

The city of 150,000 residents had hotly contested mayoral and city council races. Democratic candidates flooded voters by mail and phone, knocked on their doors and stopped them at farmer’s markets. Local weeklies carried pages of letters to the editor by neighbors asking neighbors to vote for their favorite candidates.

The perpetual issue is development – how much and where.

Residents of Old Town worry more new hotels and condos along the riverfront will ruin the ambiance of the brick-walked city George Washington frequented. Some voters are also fed up with ever-rising real estate taxes.

But Alexandria faces mounting financial pressure for education and social services in an increasingly diverse city where public school children speak 120 languages and nearly two in three receive free or reduced price meals.

On a day when other women candidates across the state did well, incumbent Mayor Allison Silberberg, a soft-spoken and lonely opponent of development on council, lost to pro-development Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, who said when he announced his candidacy for mayor, “Preservation of the status quo is not a vision.”

Wilson, 39, had strong support among parents in the Del Ray neighborhood, while Silberberg, 55, was popular with well-to-do retirees in Old Town, the Post reported.

There was a strong “throw the rascals out” mood toward city council. A dozen candidates ran for the six seats, and two of four incumbents seeking re-election lost. 

Among the winning newcomers are a 32-year old woman, a Sudanese refugee and a first-generation Mexican American.   

Since the only Republican contest was for the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in November, several self-proclaimed lifelong Republicans reluctantly asked for the Democratic ballot. They wanted a voice in city government, even though it meant not having one in choosing the Senate candidate.   

At least a few asking for both ballots were Democrats who wanted to help Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine in his re-election bid by voting for the weakest Republican. They needn’t have worried.

Virginia Republicans obliged by choosing Corey Stewart, a Trump extremist who supports keeping Confederate monuments in place. 

Turnout in the off-year primary was light around the state. But in Alexandria, about 23 percent of registered voters turned out – up from 16 percent three years ago – even though it was a lovely spring day with a huge parade and celebration just across the Potomac in Washington at midday for the Washington Capitals.

There was no confusion about who won the Stanley Cup.

House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. famously said all politics is local. Sometimes, as in Alexandria on Tuesday, local politics is all.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Trump turns pardon into game of fame -- June 7, 2018 column


The joyous moment Alice Marie Johnson embraced her family, hours after President Donald Trump commuted her life sentence, was heartwarming.

But the latest presidential pardon also sent a disturbing message.

If you want a Get Out of Jail Free card from this president, it’s best to be a celebrity or find one to plead for your release. Trump has turned clemency into more of a game of fame than a test of fairness.

Americans believe in second chances, but they shouldn’t be granted because of who you know or how famous you are.

Had Kim Kardashian West not seen a video on the Internet about Johnson’s plight and had the reality TV star not gone to the White House to lobby for Johnson’s release, 

Johnson would still be behind bars. No matter that she’s a 63-year-old great-grandmother or how persuasive her rehabilitation in prison.

The Constitution gives the president broad pardon power, and all presidents use it. President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of nearly 2,000 federal offenders. But clemency does not make the system more just.

It helps a select few while leaving tens of thousands also with compelling stories to languish in prison.

Trump reportedly is “obsessed” with pardons. He has pardoned such famous offenders as former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his anti-immigrant policies in Arizona; conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, and black boxing legend Jack Johnson.

He has mentioned a possible pardon for his long-time friend Martha Stewart, who served five months in federal prison for securities fraud.

He suggested former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich went to prison for “being stupid and saying things that every other politician, you know, that many other politicians say.” That’s absurd.

Blagojevich was caught trying to sell then-President-elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat and was convicted of numerous political corruption charges. He is half way through a 14-year prison sentence.

But perhaps most important in this context: Blagojevich was a contestant on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” TV show.

Trump has hinted he could pardon friends, family members and colleagues. He declared he “absolutely” has the power to pardon himself, though he also says he has done nothing wrong.

In the case of Alice Johnson, clemency was long overdue. She had been an exemplary inmate for the nearly 22 years she served in federal prison, after being convicted of cocaine trafficking conspiracy and money laundering.

Even though she was a first-time, nonviolent offender, she received the devastating sentence of life plus 25 years. In prison, though, she mentored others and became a playwright and a minister.

But lost in the feel-good story of her release was how she landed in prison in the first place.

How does the mother of five children go from a decade-long job at FedEx in Memphis – seven years as a manager -- to relaying code messages like “Everything is straight” as a go-between in a multimillion-dollar drug conspiracy?

Two words: gambling addiction.

Johnson was divorced, trying to provide for her large family without financial help from her ex-husband, when her gambling problem caused her to lose her job and her life to spiral out of control, according to a profile of her in the American Civil Liberties Union’s 2013 study “A Living Death,” about prisoners serving life without parole.

She declared bankruptcy and lost her home to foreclosure. She eventually found a job at a Kellogg’s factory, but the pay wasn’t enough to cover her bills. Desperate for money, she fell in with drug dealers, she said, and made mistakes. 

In court, 10 co-conspirators testified against her, portraying Johnson as the cocaine business ringleader, to get lighter sentences. Johnson denies she was the boss. But U.S. District Court Judge Julia Gibbons called her “the quintessential entrepreneur.”

Trump promises to crack down on drug traffickers who “kill thousands and destroy many more lives.” He insisted in March, “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we’re wasting our time,” adding “toughness includes the death penalty.”

But that was before glamorous Kim Kardashian, visiting the Oval Office to tell the story of a great-grandmother locked away for life, posed with a grinning Trump at his runway-clear desk. 

Apparently, anything is possible with a celebrity at your side.   

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Capital disgrace: Still no National WWI Memorial -- May 31, 2018 column


When you’re in Washington, you can visit memorials to veterans of Vietnam, Korea and World War II -- but you won’t find one for the veterans of World War I.   

“If all goes as hoped,” the National World War I memorial will open in 2018, the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending the Great War, I wrote in a column three years ago.

It certainly seemed doable. The last surviving World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, died in 2011, after devoting his last years to pushing for a memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

But all did not go as hoped. In a capital known for its dysfunction, the National World War I Memorial could be Exhibit A.  

For Americans, the Great War lasted one year, seven months and five days – but planning for this national memorial has dragged on more than five years.

The World War One Centennial Commission was created by Congress in 2013 to educate people on what it calls “America’s forgotten war, even though more Americans gave their lives during that war than during Korea and Vietnam combined.”

Nearly 5 million American men and women served and 116,516 died in the “war to end all wars.” 

Congress authorized building the national memorial in Washington in 2014. But squabbling over the design continues, and no opening date has been set. Planners now hope for 2021, Politico reported this week. 

Washington once again could learn from the people in cities and towns around the country, who gathered together to honor their World War I dead in their hometowns. Residents of the District of Columbia built an elegant memorial and bandstand in West Potomac Park in 1931 to honor the more than 26,000 district residents who served in World War I. 

Almost every city and county in Virginia has a memorial to the local men and women who served in the First World War. The 240-foot tall Carillon in Richmond’s Byrd Park is the state’s memorial to the 3,700 Virginians who died in or because of World War I.

In Lynchburg, a “doughboy” statue at the base of Monument Terrace remembers 43 casualties. A granite column outside Alexandria’s Union Station commemorates the city’s World War I dead.

There’s even a National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. But not to include World War I with the memorials to other 20th century wars in Washington would be wrong.

Congress has declared the National Mall complete, so the commission in 2014 chose for the memorial’s site Pershing Park, a 1 ¾-acre trapezoidal space on Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets, N.W., a block from the White House.

The park opened in 1981 as part of a plan to spruce up Pennsylvania Avenue. Designed by noted architect M. Paul Friedberg, it was a quiet oasis with a large pool and a waterfall in the summer that became an ice rink in the winter. The pool, ice rink and the kiosk that served snacks have long been closed, and the park has fallen into disrepair.

A 12-foot bronze statue of famous World War I Army General John “Black Jack” Pershing shows him in uniform, his hat in his left hand, his right hand beginning to raise his field glasses as he looks to the west.

In January 2016, Joe Weishaar, an architect-in-training just 25 years old, won a design competition for the national memorial. Last November, bigwigs brought out the gold shovels for a ceremonial groundbreaking.

But there’s a complication. The National Park Service in 2016 designated Pershing Park eligible for the National Register of Historic Places because it once was a fine example of modern landscape design.  

The designation could greatly limit how much of the park can be obliterated to accommodate the new design, which includes a large bronze sculpture by Sabin Howard of the life of a doughboy.   

Every day the design dispute continues is a day school children and tourists can’t visit a national memorial in Washington to learn about the heroes who sacrificed so much in World War I. And that’s a capital disgrace.  

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Democrats double down on `A Better Deal' -- May 24, 2018 column


Last July, Democratic leaders unveiled “A Better Deal,” the party’s new slogan and agenda, with high hopes.

“Many Americans don’t know what we stand for,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, wrote in The New York Times. “Not after today.”

Democrats believe they lost the White House in 2016 in part because they failed to tell people what they stand for. So they piled on the B word. 

The full new slogan is “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future,” which “some have mockingly compared to the Papa John’s pizza slogan, `Better Ingredients, Better Pizza,’” the Associated Press reported.

Many Democrats feared their rebranding effort was just OK. It lacked the pizzazz of “Make America Great Again,” originally used by Ronald Reagan and revived by Donald Trump.

To reconnect with the working- and middle-class voters who flocked to Trump last time, the Democrats’ new economic plan includes such worthy, if familiar, ideas as infrastructure jobs, raising the minimum wage, paid family and sick leave and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

This week, for better or worse, Democrats doubled down on A Better Deal, with two new planks – one to drain the swamp of political corruption and another to help overworked and underpaid teachers.

The Better Deal for our Democracy calls for voting rights protection, tighter laws on lobbyists and foreign agents, citizen commissions to redraw congressional districts, and even a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United and rid politics of big money.  

A Better Deal for Teachers is a wide-ranging plan that involves spending $50 billion over a decade to help states and school districts raise teacher pay and recruit more teachers, and another $50 billion to pay for school infrastructure, including new classrooms and technology.

The plan offers a stark contrast with Trump, who proposed to cut federal education funds 5 percent in his fiscal 2019 budget.

But here’s the kicker: Democrats want to raise taxes. The plan takes what amounts to a Yes New Taxes pledge to pay for the education initiatives. They don’t want to raise your taxes – just roll back Trump’s tax cuts on the top 1 percent of the wealthiest taxpayers.  

And so once again a Democratic tax hike is center stage of a campaign. 

When Walter Mondale accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1984, he memorably declared: “Mister Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

Mondale’s point was the next president would be forced to increase taxes to reduce the federal deficit. It’s a quaint notion now, but in the last century people actually worried about ballooning deficits.

So much for honesty. Mondale got a one-way ticket home to Minnesota. But he was right: Reagan raised taxes in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987.

Trump grudgingly agreed to more federal spending than he wanted in the last omnibus spending bill passed by Congress, but he has often said he loves debt. He will not be inclined to raise taxes under any scenario.

Here’s a question: Is it still folly in an election year to promise to raise taxes – even if only on the rich and if the money goes to teachers?

We know Trump’s answer. He will propose more tax cuts before November. No Republicans running for Congress would dare suggest raising taxes and many may go along with more cuts.

Trump already is beating the tax drum.

“Nancy Pelosi and the group – you heard her the other day – she wants to raise your taxes. They want to get rid of the tax cut bill and raise your taxes. Somehow I don’t think that plays well, but you never know, right?” he told an anti-abortion rights fundraising gala Tuesday night.

Democrats believe voters will support tax increases for projects they believe in -- especially if someone else pays for them. Voters generally support higher taxes for the rich.

But Democrats may be making too bold a bet with their pledge to raise taxes in this political climate.

Middle-class voters could reward Democrats in November – but if Republicans can stoke fears Democrats will next raise their taxes next, it could be repeat of Mondale’s mistake.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

What's your state doing to help gambling addicts?

Probably less than you think.
My latest on Stateline, the online news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

No bamboo: Commencement speakers need to `act boldly' -- May 17, 2018 column


The late Texas columnist Molly Ivins may have given the best commencement advice ever.

“They told me to give y’all some advice that will be useful in your future lives. This is mine: Don’t Plant Bamboo in a Small Backyard,” she supposedly said. 

Alas, the story is likely apocryphal.

But it’s just about perfect commencement advice: practical, funny and memorable.

Ivins, who died in 2007, was a sharp, witty political and cultural critic. I wish we had her folksy, liberal voice this commencement season.

Most big names chosen to sprinkle wisdom on the day of celebration resort to utterly forgettable platitudes.

“Give yourself permission to fail in order to experience the privilege of success,” actor Boris Kodjoe told Virginia Commonwealth University’s class of 2018.

“Act boldly,” former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe advised University of Richmond grads. “Be fearless,” Apple CEO Tim Cook urged at Duke University,

You can hear grads nudging each other and saying, “Wow, `act boldly’ – I never thought of that before!” At least such advice does no harm.

Nobody wants to be the commencement speaker whose remarks ignite a social media firestorm.

That’s what happened when Nella Gray Barkley, Sweet Briar College class of 1955, delivered remarks at her alma mater, one of the nation’s last remaining women’s colleges.

In one fell swoop, she seemed to belittle feminism and the #MeToo movement and waxed nostalgic about the days when an engagement ring was more prized than a college degree.

“I’m no raging feminist. I actually love men, and I married one,” she said.

“I have little patience with the woman who arrives breathlessly at her boss’s hotel room for a so-called conference,” she said in her speech. “What did she think was going to happen?”

And, it’s “only natural for men from Mars to follow the shortest skirt in the room.”
Barkley, a career coach in South Carolina, received the “distinguished alumna” award in 2002. She's touted on the college website for taking out a life insurance policy with Sweet Briar as sole beneficiary.

When students and grads took to social media to complain about her speech, college president Meredith Woo sent an email.

“You don’t have to accept or refuse her perspective – that is not the point – but I ask you to think about it,” Woo wrote, Inside Higher Ed reported.

I suppose there are worse ways to launch one’s post-college life than having to listen to someone say things that infuriate you. If nothing else, it’s good practice for conference calls at the office. (Remember the mute button.)

But just as commencement isn’t the ideal venue to knock a social movement embraced by many in the audience, it also isn’t the place for a speaker to begin settling scores.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used his commencement address at Virginia Military Institute to encourage cadets to remember the importance of truth, ethics and integrity.

In normal times, such advice would be typical inspirational fare, but Tillerson spent 14 months in the Trump administration, where President Donald Trump is known for his estrangement from facts. 

“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom,” Tillerson warned.  

The former chief executive of Exxon Mobil did not call out Trump by name, but there was no doubt who he meant when he said: “When we as a people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America.”

He told cadets integrity “is the most valuable asset you have,” and urged them to seek out employers who set high ethical standards.

“Blessed is the man who doesn’t blame all of his failures on someone else. Blessed is the man that can say that the boy he was would be proud of the man he is,” Tillerson said.

Critics complained he waited too long to speak out and didn’t go far enough.

Maybe in the future Tillerson will follow other commencement speakers’ advice and “act boldly” and “be fearless.”

Molly Ivins would. And that’s no bamboo.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.