Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Social media pushes menu of anger with side of frustration -- June 28, 2018 column


You can count on one thing in our polarized, social media age: An action often leads to massive over-reaction.

This week’s case in point is the Red Hen incident.

The action was the decision by a restaurant owner in Lexington, Va., to take a stand against the “inhumane and unethical” Trump administration by refusing to serve White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

The over-reaction on both sides rolled in like lava in Hawaii -- fiery, swift and destructive.

Tens of thousands tweets in support of and against the Red Hen, including an angry one from President Donald Trump. Calls for more shaming and for more civility. Protests and counter-protests, and an arrest of a man who threw chicken dung at the restaurant. All this in just three days.

To recap, Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the 26-seat restaurant, told Sanders, after consulting with her employees, the restaurant has standards to uphold, “such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation” and asked her to leave, Wilkinson told The Washington Post.

The next morning, Sanders tweeted, “I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.”

Trump fired off a nasty tweet to his 53 million followers: “The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!”

Actually, no. For the record, the Red Hen sailed through its last health department inspection with no violations, NBC News reported, but Florida health inspectors cited Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort with more than a dozen violations last year.  

Trumpians posted Wilkinson’s home address and phone number online, accused her of various crimes and invited Immigration and Customs Enforcement to check her employees.

The Republican Party of Virginia urged supporters to sign up for a boycott “so we can show the Red Hen and its liberal supporters that patriotic Trump supporters are the silent majority in Virginia!”

One of the more than 1,200 signers commented, “Haven’t we had enough of being pushed around by the left?”

On Tuesday, as protests engulfed the Red Hen, a man reportedly was arrested after he threw chicken manure at the building while shouting, “Make America Great Again.” The restaurant is reportedly closed until July 5.

Other Trump officials have also been shamed in public, and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., rashly urged Trump foes to keep up the pressure.

“If you see somebody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them,” she said Saturday at a rally in Los Angeles.

Trump tweeted in response that Waters is “an extraordinarily low IQ person,” and Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer quickly criticized Waters.  

“If you disagree with a politician, organize your fellow citizens to action and vote them out of office. But no one should call for the harassment of political opponents,” Schumer said in a floor speech. “That’s not right. That’s not American.”

In Lexington, Wilkinson said she had asked her employees, several of whom are gay, what they wanted her to do, and they chose to turn Sanders away.

I understand their frustration and anger at Trump’s policies, but was kicking out Sanders worth it?

The surprise appearance of Trump’s spokeswoman nearly 200 miles from Washington could have been a moment for remembering Michelle Obama’s words: “When they go low, we go high.”

Alice Waters’ famous restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., faced a staff mutiny in 1974 when hated Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman came in with a large party. Ultimately, chef Jeremiah Tower insisted the pariah be served.

“What chefs should know is, it’s not about you. It’s about the customer. You don’t get to judge who can partake of that hospitality. If customers are being obnoxious you can ask them to leave. But not because of who they are or what their politics is. Everyone has the same right to live in this country. If they’re just sitting there and enjoying their dinner, hallelujah,” Tower told NPR last year.

Unintentionally, the Red Hen gave Trump fans a gift – a social media cause to rally around and a weapon against Democrats in fall campaigns. That’s a mistake Trump foes should not make again.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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.