Thursday, April 30, 2015

Freddie Gray's neighborhood -- a sad story of failed good intentions -- April 30, 2015 column


Freddie Gray didn’t have a chance.   

If the start of a good life means a nurturing home, safe surroundings and successful role models, Gray struck out. 

Gray grew up, lived and was arrested on April 12 in the neighborhood called Sandtown, just west of downtown Baltimore.  Police dragged Gray into a van, the last of many times he was taken into custody for minor offenses. He died a week later, after suffering severe spinal cord injuries. He was 25. His death is under investigation.

The riots that followed his funeral sent a clear message: Whether America offers opportunity to all depends greatly on where we live.

Some commentators blamed the riots on a reaction to aggressive police tactics and on the endless war on drugs that criminalizes and reduces job prospects for low-level offenders like Gray. Others blamed opportunistic thugs who chose to loot.  

We can retrain police. We can change policy about the crimes that merit prison terms. But how do we end the cycle of hopelessness? When generations of young people don’t believe their lives can be better than their parents or grandparents, that hurts everyone.  

In brighter times, Sandtown, officially Sandtown-Winchester, was a thriving black community where jazz legend Cab Calloway grew up and Thurgood Marshall went to high school. By the late 1980s, though, Sandtown was 72 square blocks of crime-infested despair.

Into that netherworld, Freddie Carlos Gray Jr. was born on Aug. 16, 1989. His mother was single, poor, a heroin user.  Pushed out of middle school, she says she never learned to read.

When Freddie was 2, the family moved into an old house, with paint peeling from the windows and walls, in Sandtown, and stayed four years, according to reports by The Baltimore Sun based on court records. 

Freddie and his two sisters suffered lead poisoning, which led to behavioral and developmental conditions, a lawsuit the family filed in 2008 against the landlord alleged. The lead paint case was settled out of court, its terms not released. The sisters bought a house for $112,000 in 2011, The Sun reported.

Freddie was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Known for his sunny disposition, he attended a vocational high school. He got into trouble with the law. Sentenced in 2009 to four years in prison for drug possession with intent to deliver, he was paroled in 2011, returning to Sandtown, where one in four juveniles was arrested between 2005 and 2009.

Gray’s last arrest was for having a switchblade -- in his pocket, not in his hand menacing anyone. That charge was, in the phrase of the court, “abated by death.”

President Obama says we could solve the problems of entrenched poverty if we really wanted to.

“It’s just that it would require everybody saying, `This is important. This is significant,’” the president said Tuesday.

But here’s what makes Gray’s story heart-breaking: Thoughtful people with ample resources did try to turn Sandtown around decades ago.  

In 1990, Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore’s first black mayor, and developer James Rouse, who created Baltimore’s Harborplace and Boston’s Fanueil Hall, launched the Sandtown-Winchester Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

The public-private partnership would test comprehensive strategies to revitalize the crumbling neighborhood’s dilapidated and vacant houses,  lack of jobs, poor health and education, substance abuse, high crime rate and low community pride and spirit. More than $130 million was poured into the project over two decades.

Former President Jimmy Carter showed up in 1992 to hammer nails into Habitat for Humanity houses. In 1993, President Bill Clinton named Sandtown an Empowerment Zone, bringing grants and tax credits for employers who hired residents.

The result?  A thousand substandard houses were rebuilt or replaced. But Sandtown’s unemployment and poverty rates are still double the citywide average, and one quarter of the buildings still are vacant, the city health department reports.

Worse: More people from Sandtown go to state prisons than from any other census tract in Maryland. It costs $17 million a year to keep the 458 inmates from Sandtown in prison, the Justice Policy Institute and Prison Policy Initiative reported in February.

Studies analyzing why the ambitious renewal failed cite such reasons as not preparing residents for the slow pace of change and difficulties in delivering jobs and economic development.

Sandtown’s experience shows it’s easier to replace structures than it is to build hope and opportunity. But that’s what needs to happen now more than ever, with the commitment of spiritual, business and government leaders.  

It’s too late for Freddie Gray, but the United States cannot afford to lose future generations.

© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Next history lesson: Reconstruction --April 23, 2015 column


The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has been a gift to many of us who failed to fully appreciate our American history classes.

The lectures, workshops and battlefield tours of the last few years have offered a second chance to learn about our nation’s most tumultuous period. Many events have been well attended. 

Tickets sold out last December to an all-day Civil War 150 Signature Conference April 18 that brought 13 historians to the University of Virginia to discuss the end of the war.

But only a handful of the hundreds of attendees in Charlottesville were close to college age. The UVa event apparently was more the demographic rule than an exception. University of North Carolina history professor W. Fitzhugh Brundage has surveyed his students for four years and not one has ever attended a Civil War sesquicentennial event.

The Civil War, which emancipated 4 million slaves at a cost of at least 620,000 dead, is not the end of our nation’s struggle -- or the end of our opportunities to learn about our past.

Reconstruction, the chapter of American history that follows the war, won’t get nearly as much attention, although it is as vitally important in understanding today’s world. Interestingly, some young people recognize Reconstruction’s significance.

“Maybe it’s regional,” Civil War historian John R. Neff of the University of Mississippi told the conference in Charlottesville, which was sponsored by the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission and is available on C-SPAN.

“But I’ve never had a Civil War class not filled to capacity. They are admittedly very much involved and very much aware that it is not just the Civil War. It is Reconstruction that is most responsible for the society in which they live,” Neff said.

When he joined the Ole Miss faculty in 1999, Neff planned his first class so students would spend a week or two on the coming of the Civil War, most of the semester on the war, and Reconstruction at the end.

“The one consistent comment I got was `More Reconstruction. More Reconstruction,’” he said. You could hear the audience’s surprise in the collective intake of breath in Old Cabell Hall.

“The war is important, sure. Lee is important. Grant is important. It is the Reconstruction era that is most responsible for the world in which they live -- and they crave that,” Neff said.

It was during Reconstruction, a period of cultural and political upheaval from roughly 1863 to 1877, that attempts were made to remake the South. Blacks gained the right to vote and began electing black legislators. Fourteen blacks were elected to the U.S. House and 600 blacks were elected to Southern state legislatures between 1869 and 1877, according to the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History.

Former Confederates worked to limit black political participation, first by intimidation through vigilante groups including the Ku Klux Klan and then through a series of discriminatory laws.

“Preoccupied with the challenges of our own time, Americans will probably devote little attention to the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction,” historian Eric Foner wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times last month.

“This is unfortunate, for if any historical period deserves the label `relevant,’ it is Reconstruction,” he wrote. Foner is the author of the 1988 book “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution.”

Reconstruction was defined early on by D.W. Griffith’s classic, melodramatic 1915 movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” and by Claude Bowers’ 1929 history bestseller, “The Tragic Era.”   

Today, historians see the era, despite its widespread corruption, in light of the struggle for racial and social equality that culminated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and still continues.

The Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 officially abolished slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 declared that everyone born or naturalized in the United States, including African Americans, were citizens, and the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 extended the right to vote to every male citizen, regardless of race.

Foner argues that many contemporary issues first arose during Reconstruction, including citizenship and voting rights, the relative powers of the state and federal governments, and the response to terrorism.

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War is wrapping up. Now it’s time to read and learn the lessons of Reconstruction as we shape our nation for the next 150 years.  

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A mailman's flight of fancy -- April 16, 2015 column


A Florida mailman named Doug Hughes Wednesday piloted his “flying bicycle” past the White House and Washington Monument, over the National Mall and landed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

The twitterverse chirped with praise – but not for the police who showed restraint when they could have shot down the unauthorized intruder.

Not for the authorities who took Hughes, 61, of Ruskin, Fla., to jail instead of the morgue.

And certainly not for members of Congress, staffers and others who stayed calm while the Capitol was locked down on yet another frightening day at work. 

Amazingly, the praise was for Hughes, who brought with him 535 stamped letters he had written to protest political corruption. He wanted to deliver his mail to every member of Congress. As if that would ever happen.

Among the tweets:  “Modern American hero.” “One of the Truest Americans of our time.” “My kind of hero.” “There’s not a single American politician with as much integrity or courage as #Doug Hughes.”


Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery, who wrote about Hughes,  called him “a mix of P.T. Barnum and Paul Revere (who) wanted to do something so big and brazen that it would hijack the news cycle and turn America’s attention toward his pet issue: campaign finance reform.”

Since 9/11, flying over Washington without special approval has been prohibited, and Hughes deliberately violated the no-fly zone to make news. He insisted he had no violent inclinations or intent.

Montgomery expected Hughes to be shot down, but Hughes had faith in law enforcement.

“I don’t believe that the authorities are going to shoot down a 60-year-old mailman in a flying bicycle,” Hughes told Montgomery last year. The Times held its story until the flight was underway. Hughes also posted his tale on his Web site, The Democracy Club.

The Secret Service, which interviewed him in 2013, doubtlessly will have to explain what, if anything, it did to try to stop the escapade.

Whatever his intentions, Hughes’s flight was a dumb stunt. It could have ended very badly, not just for him but for innocent bystanders. His feat may make him a hero to some, but surely no one thinks that his reckless adventure will jumpstart campaign finance reform.

How he pulled off his flight by gyrocopter -- a small type of helicopter in which the pilot sits in the open air -- seems made for Hollywood. Let’s imagine that there is a movie and it makes a ton of money, which enriches movie moguls who then stuff even more obscene amounts of cash into politicians’ campaign pockets. Congratulations, Mister Hughes.   

Fortunately,  nothing bad happened and nobody got hurt.

In October 2013, Secret Service and U.S. Capitol Police fatally shot Miriam Carey, 34, a dental hygienist from Connecticut, after her car rammed a White House barrier, setting off a chase to Capitol Hill. Carey’s 13-month-old daughter survived without physical injuries in a car seat. The U.S. attorney said the shooting was legally justified and the officers were not charged.

Hughes, who had a U.S. Postal Service decal on his flying machine, did get Washington’s attention.   

“This individual apparently literally flew in under the radar. Literally,” Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson told reporters.

The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security committee launched an investigation of the security breach.

“I am deeply concerned that someone has the ability to fly for over an hour through the most restricted airspace in our country, past the White House, and land on the lawn of the Capitol,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

If Hughes achieves anything besides notoriety, it may be tighter security and more worry for an already tightly buttoned nation’s capital. In January, a recreational drone inadvertently passed over the White House fence and crashed onto the grounds, raising new questions about how to protect against small devices that could carry lethal cargo.
Hughes’s cause was worthy, his delivery all wrong. Big money dominates our politics, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission made the problem worse.

We need campaign finance reform. We do not need “heroes” who take meaningless flights of fancy.

© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Wrong song: Correct the Angelou stamp -- April 9, 2015 column


In 2011, poet Maya Angelou insisted that a paraphrase of a quotation by Martin Luther King Jr. be removed from his memorial in Washington because it made him “look like an arrogant twit.”

Told that King’s actual quote was too long for the space on the granite edifice, Angelou replied, “Too bad.”

The National Park Service ultimately agreed the paraphrase had to go. The sculptor chiseled it off in 2013.

Angelou isn’t here to say how she feels about the quotation on her new commemorative stamp -- she died last May at 86 – but we can imagine that she would want her own words on the stamp in her honor.

Her fans should do more than complain about poor fact-checking at the post office. They should demand that the U.S. Postal Service issue a replacement stamp.

The beloved author left many original, quotable lines. “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song” is not one of them.

“That’s my quote,” author Joan Walsh Anglund told The Washington Post.

Only the pronoun – originally “he” -- and punctuation were changed from the line Anglund wrote in “A Cup of Sun,” a book of poems published in 1967. That was two years before Angelou’s acclaimed autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was published.

Angelou used the line frequently over the years in media interviews and appearances, apparently never attributing it to Anglund. The line became so associated with Angelou that last year in a White House ceremony President Barack Obama quoted it as hers.

That something as old-fashioned as a stamp (who sends letters anymore?) would be swamped by the ocean of misinformation online should be lesson to all of us. Multiple hits on Google does not a fact make.
Anglund, 89, had been unaware that Angelou had appropriated her words -- but was gracious about it.

 “I think it easily happens sometimes that people hear something, and it’s kind of going into your subconscious and you don’t realize it,” she told the Post’s Lonnae O’Neal.

Anglund is nowhere nearly as well known as Angelou, but she has published more than 95 titles and sold 45 million copies of her children’s and adult gift books, according to her biography on Amazon. She said she loves Angelou’s work and hopes the stamp is a success.

The postal service issued the Angelou limited-edition “Forever” stamp Tuesday in an unveiling ceremony attended by first lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

“Had we known about this issue beforehand, we would have used one of [Angelou’s] many other works,” a USPS spokesman wrote the Post in an email.

Naturally, people jumped on the postal service, asking variations of the question:  Don’t they have fact-checkers? Well, yes, they do. But the checkers evidently assumed from Angelou’s frequent use of the line and its repeats across the Internet that she wrote it.     

“We found the phrase was widely attributed to Angelou in many mediums and by some dignitaries and we were not aware of Ms. Anglund’s 1967 book,” the spokesman said.

A writing professor at Emerson College in Boston who is a former editor at the Post was aware of Anglund’s book and the quote. Jabari Asim, author of six books for children and four for adults, keeps a notebook of quotes he likes – and their sources.

Asim had noticed the Anglund quote was being attributed to Angelou on the Internet but was unconcerned until the postal service announced the stamp. He found the quote in his notebook.

The misquote may make the postal service, and not Angelou, look like a twit. But it tarnishes the honor of having the portrait of the renowned poet on a stamp.

It sends the wrong message to millions of young people who need to know that proper attribution matters, the Internet can be a highly unreliable source and it’s never too late to correct your mistakes.

A stamp isn’t granite, and it need not be forever wrong. The postal service should quickly correct and reissue the stamp, with one of Angelou’s original phrases.   

© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

New roles for lieutenant governors -- Stateline story April 7, 2015

In Many States, Lieutenant Governors Take on Larger Role

  • April 07, 2015 
  • By Marsha Mercer
Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, left, and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman© AP
Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, left, and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, right, share a light moment as they wait for Wyman to be sworn in for a second term. Wyman, who oversaw the successful rollout of her state’s healthcare exchange under the Affordable Care Act, is one of many lieutenant governors taking on larger roles in their states. (AP)
A state’s second-in-command is often first to joke about being No. 2. As lieutenant governor of Arkansas, Win Rockefeller liked to say the job was state government’s spare tire: kept in the dark, pumped up and hoped it’s never used.
Now, some lieutenant governors are rising above the punch line. 
“We’re seeing an evolution when it comes to the office of lieutenant governor,” said John Mountjoy, director of policy, research and strategic initiatives at the Council of State Governments.
“Lieutenant governors used to be just the special chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on X,” Mountjoy said, “but they’re now seen more and more as a huge asset.”
The role of lieutenant governors is expanding because the role of governors has grown. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, governors have made homeland security and disaster preparedness higher priorities. The Great Recession focused governors’ attention on jobs and international trade.
In Colorado, for instance, the lieutenant governor directs the Department of Higher Education. Louisiana’s lieutenant governor is commissioner of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. Indiana’s lieutenant governor serves as secretary of agriculture and runs six state agencies. In Wisconsin and several other states, the lieutenant governor is in charge of economic development efforts.
“It’s not an honorary, ribbon-cutting kind of job,” said Connecticut Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, a Democrat who heads the National Lieutenant Governors Association. As chair of the board of directors of Access Health CT, she was responsible for the successful rollout of her state’s healthcare exchange under the Affordable Care Act.
Access Health CT has enrolled more than 500,000 residents in insurance plans, 140,000 of whom were previously uninsured, and is being touted as a national model. Maryland has adopted Connecticut’s “exchange in a box,” and eight other states are reviewing it, Wyman said.
Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, said she has helped attract more than $9 billion in private investment to her state since 2011 from companies including Facebook, Google and Microsoft. She also co-chairs Republican Gov. Terry Branstad’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Advisory Council, aimed at improving STEM education.
“We’ve had floods, fires, tornadoes and earthquakes,” said South Dakota Lt. Gov. Matt Michels, a Republican who led preparations for the Missouri River floods in 2011, his first year in office. He serves on GOP Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s executive committee or cabinet, heads the state’s retirement system and is coordinating construction of a state veterans’ home.  

Next in Line

Still, for most lieutenant governors, “their main role is as a back-up within the executive branch, someone who can become governor,” said Brenda Erickson, senior research analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. 
Since 2000, seconds-in-command have become governor 24 times—because the governor resigned, died, or was indicted or convicted of a crime, according to the lieutenant governors group. Eight current governors (the leaders of Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah and West Virginia) first served as lieutenant governor.  
Seven states—Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming—do not elect a lieutenant governor, and Tennessee and West Virginia  just give the title to the president of the Senate.  Proposals to create lieutenant governor positions are in the legislatures in Arizona and Maine.
Delaware’s lieutenant governor job is vacant until after the 2016 elections. Lt. Gov. Matt Denn, a Democrat, left the post after he was elected state attorney general last year, and the state constitution has no provision for replacing the lieutenant governor.
New Jersey residents found out what can happen when there is no office of lieutenant governor.  In 2001, Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman resigned to lead the U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency, and, subsequently, due to a confluence of factors, the state had five governors in eight days.
When Whitman left in February 2001, Republican Senate President Donald DiFrancesco succeeded her as acting governor, as prescribed by the state constitution. But DiFrancesco ran unsuccessfully for governor that November, and his term as Senate president ended a week before Democratic Gov.-elect James McGreevey’s inauguration in 2002. Normally, the new Senate president would have taken over, but after the election the Senate was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. That meant it had two presidents, Republican John O. Bennett and Democrat Richard Codey. They agreed to split the acting governor responsibility. The fifth governor was the state Attorney General John Farmer Jr., a Republican who held the job for about 90 minutes to swear in the Senate presidents.
That experience helped convince New Jersey to begin the process of creating the post of lieutenant governor.  It elected its first one in 2009.

Partner or ‘Unwanted Stepchild?’

A lieutenant governor has the unique role of being part of both the legislative and the executive branches. In about half the states the lieutenant governor presides over the state senate and in some states casts tie-breaking votes. In a few, the lieutenant governor has the power to name committee members and assign bills to committees.
In 26 states, the governor and lieutenant governor run as a team in the general election, similar to the president and vice president. In the last decade, four states – Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and South Carolina – have gone to team elections. South Carolina’s gubernatorial candidates will select their running mates in 2018. Nevada and Arkansas are considering making the switch.
That may not sound groundbreaking, but for a job that has been likened to the Maytag repairman, waiting for the phone to ring, the change signals that the lieutenant governor may be a partner and the state’s top officers will share goals.
Team elections “are an opportunity for a state to best utilize the office of lieutenant governor,” said Julia Hurst, executive director of the lieutenant governors group, adding that if the governor picks a running mate, the two are more likely to work together. Not always, though.
“I’ve known some lieutenant governors who run as a ticket and don’t even know the governor at all. I would rather have a root canal,” said South Dakota’s Michels, who was friends with Daugaard long before they first ran as a team in 2010. He and Daugaard meet weekly and text frequently, Michels said.
Wyman in Connecticut said, “The governor walks upstairs to my office all the time,” adding that it doesn’t hurt that she keeps Diet Coke and pretzels on hand.  
When a governor and lieutenant run separately – as they do in 17 states – there can be split political parties at the top. That’s the case in four states: Missouri, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Vermont. A classic example of the conflict that can ensue occurred in California in 2009.
After Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Lt. Gov John Garamendi disagreed openly about cuts to higher education, Schwarzenegger used his line item veto to cut 62 percent of Garamendi’s budget, from $2.8 million to just over $1 million.
Schwarzenegger’s finance director said the lieutenant governor’s duties “are just really of a lower priority, so we thought we could take his budget down.”
Being from the same party doesn’t guarantee a dream team, however. In Florida in 2010, Republicans Rick Scott and Jennifer Carroll ran together on the gubernatorial ticket. Carroll resigned in 2013 at the governor’s request after being interviewed by police during a racketeering probe. She was never charged.
She wrote in her autobiography last year that she was treated as “an unwanted stepchild,” belittled by staff and told to make an appointment if she wanted to talk with the governor.
While the No. 2 job is changing, it’s still seen mostly as a stepping stone to higher office. WhenThe Los Angeles Times endorsed California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsome for re-election last fall, the editors wrote: “This is a notoriously do-little job, a bully pulpit at best, a ceremonial post at worse, a relic of a past era…Being lieutenant governor mostly serves as a perch for gubernatorial candidates-in-waiting.”
Newsome won re-election in November and announced three months later that he plans to run for governor in 2018.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” said South Dakota’s Michels. “Normal people don’t know the name of their lieutenant governor.”