Thursday, January 28, 2016

Presidential hopefuls about to head south -- Jan. 28, 2016 column

In Iowa and New Hampshire, presidential hopefuls are battling for votes in small states that are only slightly more diverse than this year’s Oscar nominations.
Just 3 percent of Iowans and 1 percent of New Hampshire residents are black.
After the Iowa caucuses Monday night and the New Hampshire primary Feb. 9, though, the candidates and the news media will converge on states that look more like America – with larger proportions of black and Hispanic voters – and will talk about issues that affect more people.
Yes, the 2016 election really is about more than ethanol.
February also is Black History Month, a time to celebrate the achievements of African Americans, review racial progress and set goals. Significant in any election year, discussions about political influence will be especially relevant seven years after the first black president took office.
African Americans voted at higher rates than whites in the 2012 general election, according to the Census Bureau, and their votes re-elected President Barack Obama, an analysis by the Cook Political Report found.
The crucial question for the fall is whether Democrats, without Obama on the ballot, can again inspire African Americans to go to the polls.
South Carolina’s Democratic primary Feb. 27 will be the first test of Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ strength among black voters in the South. Fifty-five percent of the Democratic primary voters there are black.
Clinton, favored heavily in the polls, wants to avoid a repeat of her 2008 debacle, when she first led Obama in polls in South Carolina only to lose badly on primary day.
Analysts suggest that Sanders, with his flinty Vermont demeanor and Democratic socialist tag, can’t connect with Southerners. But he just won the support of South Carolina state Rep. Justin T. Bamberg, who had backed Clinton.
Bamberg is black and the lawyer for the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot by a North Charleston police officer. Bamberg said he switched his support to Sanders after talking with him for 20 minutes on the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday.
Few policy differences separate Clinton and Sanders. For example, both favor raising the minimum wage, making college education free and expanding Medicaid.
But Clinton also proposes a $25 billion fund to specifically help historically black colleges and universities.  
Among Republicans in South Carolina, who will caucus Feb. 20, Donald Trump leads by Ted Cruz by double digits. Born-again or evangelical voters are about 55 percent of the primary vote there. Trump won an endorsement from Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and son of the late televangelist.  
Nevada’s caucuses --Democrats on Feb. 20 and Republicans Feb. 23 – will be the first to hear from Western and Hispanic voters. 
Then comes Super Tuesday, March 1, when a dozen states -- including Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia -- hold presidential contests.
In some ways, the primaries and caucuses, important as they are in picking presidential nominees, are the warm-up for the big fight in November.  
“It’s tough to overstate just how critical black votes have become to today’s Democratic coalition, particularly when it comes to the Electoral College,” Amy Walter and David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report concluded after their analysis of 2012 exit poll data.
Blacks accounted for Obama’s entire margin of victory in Virginia and six other states in the last election, they said, adding, “Without these states’ 112 electoral votes, Obama would have lost decisively.”
Race has surfaced only a few times in the presidential campaigns so far. Candidates responded to the murders of nine black church members by a white gunman in Charleston, S.C., and the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds.
Several candidates stumbled early on when, commenting on the Black Lives Matter movement, they said, “all lives matter.” Critics saw “all lives matter” as diminishing the loss of black lives to police violence.
Trump, who draws predominately white crowds, insists he can win black votes. His frequent Muslim-bashing, though, works against him. Twenty-five percent of American Muslims are black. After he met in November with African-American ministers who reportedly advised him to stop referring to “the blacks,” he seems to have listened.
As their campaigns head south, all the candidates will need to be sensitive to racial issues and language. They won’t be in Iowa and New Hampshire anymore.  
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Why `Made in America' isn't clockwork -- Jan. 21, 2016 column


A lot is being made of being made in America.  

Republican presidential contender Donald J. Trump plays Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” at his rallies, needling rival Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada to an American mother and Cuban father.

Not to be outdone, Cruz, at the last GOP candidates’ debate, countered that some extreme birthers claim that for a person to be a natural-born citizen, both parents must also be native born. Trump’s mother was born in Scotland, so he would be disqualified.

“But I was born here,” Trump protested.

That’s politics, but anyone who’s tried to buy products made in America knows the frustration of the hunt.

Trump feels our pain.

“We want to buy USA, right?” the billionaire  businessman said Monday at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Trump vowed that, as president, he’ll bring big-name manufacturing back to the United States.

“We’re gonna get Apple to start building their damn computers in this country, instead of in other countries,” he said.

Really? Trump doesn’t say how he will bring Apple back or whether he’s concerned that the cost of the iPhone and other gadgets could skyrocket if made here.  

Five years ago, Barack Obama asked Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs why Apple couldn’t build the iPhone here, to which Jobs replied, according to a New York Times report, “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”

Current Apple CEO Tim Cook, asked by NBC Nightly News in 2011 why Apple couldn’t be a Made in America company, said that while many Apple components are made here, America has lost the skills associated with manufacturing.

We forget that in the early 2000s almost all Apple products were American-made. In today’s increasingly global economy, they’re designed in the USA but most are made in China.

Being Made in USA is not a random act of patriotism; it’s a hard-nosed business decision. Companies know we want to buy American, and they encourage our goodwill by plastering their ads with American flags, maps and slogans.

The question arises: How much of a product must actually be American-made to carry the Made in America label?

The Federal Trade Commission, which protects the Made in America name, says that if a company claims a product is Made in USA, “all or virtually all” its parts or components need to be made here.

“The product should contain no – or negligible – foreign content,” the FTC says.

But what’s virtually all and what’s negligible? The FTC hasn’t set specific percentages.

Final assembly or processing must take place in the United States, then other factors come into play, including total manufacturing costs and how significant foreign content is to the final product, FTC says.

It’s not, in other words, clockwork.

In Detroit Wednesday, Obama, wearing his own Shinola watch, toured the Shinola plant, which touts its luxury watches as “Built in Detroit.” The company says its watches and bicycles are “100 percent assembled” in Detroit but, the Detroit Free Press reported, about one-third of its watch movements come from Thailand.

“Shinola’s goal is to build products that are predominantly American manufactured,” Shinola says on its website, which details country sources of various parts.  

The FTC has put watchmakers, among other manufacturers, on notice about Made in America claims. After an inquiry from the FTC, Niall Luxury in Kansas City agreed in November to revise marketing materials to reflect the use of Swiss movements.

If the standards aren’t confusing enough for manufacturers and consumers, California sets its own Made in America standard, previously requiring 100 percent domestic content.

Under a loosened state law, as of Jan. 1, Made in USA in California means foreign components are no more than 5 percent of final wholesale value or 10 percent if the manufacturer can show the components cannot be obtained or produced domestically.

Some in Congress are moving to lessen confusion. The Senate Commerce Committee passed a bill in November that makes the federal government – through the FTC -- solely responsible for developing and enforcing standards.

The measure will allow products to carry the Made in USA label “even if a small piece, such as a screw or shoe lace, is sourced from a foreign country,” said Sen. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, a sponsor of the bill.

The idea is to encourage companies to stay here. We all want to see more jobs made in America.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

At 30, MLK Jr. Holiday inspires action -- Jan. 14, 2016 column


On the first observance of the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a federal holiday 30 years ago, President Ronald Reagan said it was a time for rejoicing and reflecting.

“We rejoice because, in his short life, Dr. King, by his preaching, his example, and his leadership, helped to move us closer to the ideals on which America was founded. We reflect on his words and his works,” Reagan said.

We still rejoice and reflect on the life of the Baptist minister and civil rights icon who was assassinated April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. He would have turned 87 on Jan. 15. But our troubled times demand more.

People gather for prayer breakfasts and worship services, read King’s writings and tell his stories to younger generations, and listen to choirs and panel discussions of King’s legacy. Some will emulate King’s struggle by marching in Black Lives Matter protests.

The holiday also inspires volunteering. President Bill Clinton signed the King Holiday and Service Act, establishing the holiday as a national day of service, in 1994.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans, starting with President Barack Obama and his family, join in the day of service, “picking up the baton handed to us by past generations and carrying forward their efforts,” Obama said last year.

In his final State of the Union address, Obama said he is inspired by the “voices that help us see ourselves not, first and foremost, as black or white . . . but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word – voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.”

We hear precious little about unconditional love in politics, but King said in his 1964 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Obama said the voices of truth and love “don’t get a lot of attention; they don’t seek a lot of fanfare; but they’re busy doing the work this country needs doing.”

After 30 years, most people may not remember that Congress dithered for 15 years before enacting the holiday. Congress finally passed the bill and Reagan signed it in 1983, effective in 1986. Some states dragged their feet even longer on adopting a state holiday for King. The last was New Hampshire in 1999.

Even today, the holiday remains contentious in a few states.

Three states – Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi – celebrate the birthdays of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and King on the same day. The joint holiday once may have seemed a pragmatic compromise but now is cringe-worthy, especially as Southern states have reconsidered or removed vestiges of their Confederate past.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, told reporters Jan. 6 that he hoped the legislature will separate the King and Lee birthdays. An effort to do so last year failed.

Virginia separated King from Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in 2000 and now has a state holiday honoring the Confederates on the Friday before the King holiday on the third Monday in January. Richmond, Lynchburg, Bristol and several other cities in Virginia no longer observe the Lee-Jackson holiday.

Alabama still has three state holidays honoring Confederate heroes. Besides the King-Lee holiday, Confederate Memorial Day is April 25 and Jefferson Davis’ Birthday is June 6. Alabama is the only state with a holiday honoring the president of the Confederacy.

And the King holiday can be fraught with peril for politicians. Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton got in hot water in 2006 when she said at an MLK holiday event in Harlem that the GOP-led House of Representatives has been run “like a plantation – and you know what I’m talking about.”

Republicans insisted they were not racist. A Democratic senator from Illinois named Barack Obama defended Clinton.

As people drive to their volunteer service on King’s birthday, some will travel on a street named for him. About 900 boulevards, avenues, streets and courts in the United States are named for the civil rights leader, most in the Southeast.

Naming those streets often has been political, says Derek Alderman, geography professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, who has studied the issue since the 1990s.

Ironically, many streets named for the champion of justice and equality -- political and financial -- are in blighted and segregated communities. They serve as a graphic reminder of the civil rights struggles that remain three decades after the first national holiday for King’s birthday.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The state of our union is . . . political -- Jan. 7, 2016 column


The state of our union is strong -- unless it’s getting stronger or is the strongest ever.

Presidents from Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama have used “strong” in their State of the Union addresses to summarize the country’s current state.

It wasn’t always so simple.

On Jan. 14, 1963, President John F. Kennedy packed 66words into one sentence to assess the state of America: “And today, having witnessed in recent months a heightened respect for our national purpose and power – having seen the courageous calm of a united people in a perilous hour and having observed a steady improvement in the opportunities and well-being of our citizens – I can report to you that the state of this old but youthful Union, in the 175th year of its life, is good.”

Ah, the pre-Twitter, pre-Trump, pre-sound bite era, when reasons and context mattered and we had respect for “our national purpose.”

On Tuesday night, President Obama will give his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. I wish he’d take a look at Democrats and Republicans, as well as at himself, and state the obvious, “My fellow Americans, in 2016 the state of our union is . . . political.”

An election year is always political, but we’ve become resigned to deferring substantive policy moves until the next president for most of a president’s second term. The State of the Union address should be a time for the president, even one on his way out, to seek common ground and work for the public good.

Instead, political calculations rule.

Obama’s address is earlier than usual because of the primary calendar. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee four years ago, will be seated with Vice President Joe Biden on the dais behind the president. Ryan has already announced his goals for 2016.

“We have to have a conservative in the White House,” Ryan told Fox’s Sean Hannity Tuesday night. “We want a mandate election.”

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will give the Republican response. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rebranded the response as the “Republican Address,” an attempt to put it on a par with the president’s remarks.

And perhaps to launch Haley into her next political phase. Haley, 43, the daughter of Indian immigrants and the nation’s youngest governor, is on the short list of potential GOP running mates.

The opposition party always picks a rising star for the response, although it’s no guarantee of greatness. In 2010, then-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell gave the GOP response. He was later convicted on corruption charges involving gifts from a political supporter, and is appealing.

When then-Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine gave the 2006 response to George W. Bush, Kaine was thought a likely Democratic VP pick. That hasn’t happened, although Kaine did make it to the U.S. Senate.

In 2007, then-Sen. James Webb, Democrat of Virginia, responded to Bush. Webb quit the Senate after one term. His 2016 bid for the White House fizzled last year.

Speaker Ryan started the year by sending Obama a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature achievement, reverse the expansion of Medicaid and defund Planned Parenthood.

The bill wasn’t about changing health policy; a veto was assumed. It was about how quickly a future Republican president could scrap Obamacare.

“The best way to win the election is to give people a choice,” Ryan said.

Obama also wants to show voters their political choice. He will deliver a nontraditional address with no long list of legislative priorities for the coming year, although there will be some, the White House says. Instead, he will talk about his and Democrats’ vision for the country.

Defying lame duck status, Obama rolled out modest efforts to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

Obama expects little except opposition from the GOP-controlled Congress, but his year ahead looks like a cakewalk compared with what Bill Clinton faced in 1999.

In the midst of impeachment proceedings in the Senate, Clinton delivered a State of the Union address that lasted 77 minutes and never mentioned impeachment.

“The state of our union is strong,” Clinton said.

A year later, having weathered scandal and impeachment, Clinton declared in his final State of the Union, “My fellow Americans, the state of our union is the strongest it has ever been.”

May we survive politics in 2016 and be so lucky next year.

(C)2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 4, 2016

States selling surplus real estate -- story Jan. 4, 2015
The Pew Charitable Trusts Research & Analysis Stateline For Sale: States Look to Unload 'Money Pit' Buildings

For Sale: States Look to Unload 'Money Pit' Buildings
January 04, 2015 By Marsha Mercer
As commercial real estate prices rebound, some states see an opportunity to sell properties not even a governor can love.

“We’ve got a lot of money pits in South Carolina,” Republican Gov. Nikki Haley said of some state-owned buildings in the Palmetto State. “We need to get rid of them.”

She outlined a plan in December to reduce the state’s footprint and sell buildings that are high-maintenance, lack adequate parking, or are simply old and smelly.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner wants to unload a state-owned office building in downtown Chicago that was once called “spectacular” but has now become a white elephant. North Carolina is selling six old houses in the state capital that have stood vacant for years.

Georgia is testing the market to sell an office tower in a prime Atlanta location that was a gift — but has gobbled up $115 million for renovation and maintenance costs. In Louisville, a historic estate is among three Kentucky-owned properties coming on the market as a result of a major bridge and tunnel construction project.

Most everyone agrees that selling surplus properties is a good idea, and states, localities and the federal government often seek to sell buildings they no longer have a use for. But the time has to be right. Many cash-strapped states talked about selling vacant or underutilized real estate during the economic downturn but found few takers at the appraised values.

The real estate market has gradually improved since then. States also have increasingly elected Republican governors and majority legislatures that entered office promising to aggressively cut budgets and reduce the size of government.

In the last four or five years, many states have compiled inventories for the first time or hired contractors to assess their real estate holdings, said Marcia Stone, director of the National Association of State Facilities Administrators.

Now, even states with a budget surplus, like North Carolina, hope to take advantage of hot local real estate markets by disposing of surplus properties.

Even Iconic Buildings Not Easy to Sell
The rules for selling state property vary, but the process is not as quick as calling an auctioneer or planting a “for sale” sign. In many states, individual agencies and universities control their own real estate. Some properties must first be offered to other state agencies or local governments.

Inventories, when they are taken, may not be kept up to date or include information on how — or whether — buildings are being used, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

When Haley arrived in office in 2011, she started asking about South Carolina’s state-owned real estate. “No one could tell me what we own,” she said, so she issued an executive order in 2013 to find out.

An audit by CBRE, a commercial real estate firm, uncovered 7,800 buildings with 8.1 million square feet as well as 2,500 parcels of land totaling more than half a million acres. “We don’t need to own that much space,” Haley said.

The firm recommended that the state sell eight buildings, and Haley agreed. She noted that parking is a challenge at the state Department of Education’s Rutledge Building in Columbia, which costs $4 million a year in maintenance. As for the Department of Health and Environmental Control building, also in Columbia: “It looks old. It smells old. Everything about it is not good,” she said. Employees would move to other state-owned office buildings not yet identified.

In Illinois, Rauner wants to sell the James R. Thompson Center, a 17-story state office building in Chicago that the state spent $172 million to build in the 1980s and named after former Republican Gov. “Big Jim” Thompson, who was the state’s longest-serving governor.

It was “easily the most spectacular building ever constructed in the Loop,” the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Gapp wrote of the Thompson Center in 1985.

Thirty years later, the open-air atrium is noisy, and costly to heat and cool. State workers complain that cooking odors from the food court drift into offices, according to news reports.

Rauner didn’t comment on aesthetics — “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he said — but he did say the state faces $100 million in deferred maintenance at the Thompson Center. “We can get good value for taxpayers by selling this building and moving out,” he told reporters in October.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, led the Georgia Building Authority in voting Dec. 16 to put on the market 2 Peachtree, a 41-story office tower near the Underground Atlanta shopping and entertainment district.

The building was the tallest in the Southeast when it was built, in the 1960s. A foundation gave it to the state in 1992, with the intention of keeping workers downtown at a time when companies were leaving the business district. But renovation and maintenance costs have topped $115 million.

An unsolicited inquiry from a potential buyer spurred the governor and the building authority, which owns the building, to consider a sale.

“Let’s go see what the market will do,” said Steve Stancil, a Republican and a former state legislator who heads the building authority. The market for office real estate in Atlanta is much stronger now than five or six years ago, he said.

“What we would like to do is sell in 2016 and lease it back,” moving out the 3,300 state employees in thirds over 15 or so years, Stancil said.

'Looks Like a Prison'
When North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory looks out the front door of the governor’s mansion in Raleigh, he sees the State Records Center, a windowless box that its Web page describes as “not a normal office building.”

McCrory, a Republican, has a sharper critique. He said the building is “crap” and it “looks like a prison.”

The Records Center is not yet on the market. Six vacant older homes in the area went on the market after a report by the Program Evaluation Division of the North Carolina General Assembly, in June, said selling the homes, and 11 other unneeded state-owned properties, could generate an estimated $14.3 million in one-time revenue and save an additional $2.6 million in the future.

The 17 properties identified for disposal were among 49 state-owned properties analysts visited for their report.

“By no means was that an exhaustive list,” said Sean Hamel, senior program evaluator. “That’s what was a little bit alarming.”

The report was also eye-opening for legislators.

“We all knew there were literally billions of dollars in state property assets, and we all had concerns about how they’re being managed,” said state Sen. Rick Gunn, a Republican.

Gunn’s background is in commercial real estate, and he is chairman of a joint legislative committee that was created to act on the report’s recommendations. The committee is preparing two bills aimed at tightening rules for reporting on and disposing of state-owned property.

“I would expect overwhelming bipartisan support” in the legislature, he said. But, he added, “I don’t want to mislead anybody. Agencies need to be more accountable.”

North Carolina will be taking a hard look at whether it makes sense to lease, rather than own, property and whether the state or an outside agent should handle real estate transactions, he said.

Want to Buy a Bridge?
Selling state property can be a chore. In the early 2000s, Illinois identified seven or eight campuses used by the Department of Human Services and correctional facilities to sell. Not one has yet sold, said Rick Tate, statewide facility manager at the state Department of Central Management Services.

“The fair market value appraisal may not always be the value of property,” Tate said.

In Chicago, a developer likely would demolish the Thompson Center, which occupies a city block. Under current zoning, a 60-story office tower could be constructed, Tate said. That won’t happen right away.

“The Thompson Center is currently occupied so it doesn’t at this point meet the criteria for surplus property,” Tate said. “It would have to be vacated or have legislation to allow the state to dispose of it.”

When the New Hampshire Department of Transportation sought bids on a historic bridge in Farmington, in December, there were none. The bridge came with strings.

“The good news is you can buy a bridge for $1. The bad news is you have to relocate it and promise to use it as a functioning bridge,” said Bill Boynton, the department’s spokesman.

Kentucky bought the Drumanard Estate, a 53-acre estate in Louisville listed on the National Register of Historic Places, for $8.3 million in 2012 as part of the Ohio River Bridges Project linking Kentucky and Indiana.

The estate, which includes a mansion built in 1929 and landscaping by Olmsted Associates, which designed New York City’s Central Park, is on the approach to one of the bridges, so a tunnel is being built 80 feet beneath the property.

As part of the project, the state Transportation Cabinet also bought the historic Grocers’ Ice & Cold Storage commercial building for $3.6 million and the 1820s Rosewell estate for $1.6 million. Rosewell subsequently suffered tornado damage, requiring substantial repairs.

The Transportation Cabinet planned to sell Grocers’ Ice first, but the only bid came in at a fraction of the appraised value, an agency spokesman said. The agency plans to try again to sell the commercial building before putting the estates on the market.

In South Carolina, Haley said agencies need to focus on their government work, not real estate.

“We just don’t need to be in the real estate business,” she said. Getting rid of the state’s money pits will be “a win-win for everybody across the board.”