Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Swift kicks Senate, White House on equality -- Aug. 29, 2019 column


In most states, a boss who disapproves of gay or transgender people can fire or refuse to hire them.

A landlord can evict and a store owner can deny service to a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.  

No federal law prohibits LGBT discrimination, and fewer than half the states have LGBT anti-discrimination laws. Congress has failed repeatedly since the 1970s to pass bills.

The most highly paid celebrity in the world is working to change that.

Pop superstar Taylor Swift, 29, who earned $185 million pretax last year and whose net worth is estimated at $360 million, according to Forbes magazine, used her appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards Monday to try to jump start the dead battery that is the Senate.

She wants the Senate to vote on the House-passed Equality Act, a sweeping measure that would prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has no intention of allowing a vote. He and other Republicans say the bill threatens religious freedom and is an example of government overreach.  

But when Swift accepted the fan-voted prize for Video of the Year for “You Need to Calm Down,” her music video that features LGBT stars and has a strong message against homophobia, she said:

“Your voting for this video means that you want a world where we’re all treated equally under God, regardless of who you love, regardless of how we identify.”

The video invites viewers to sign her petition at, urging the Senate to vote on the Equality Act. Since June, more than half a million people have signed – “five times the amount that it would need to warrant a response from the White House,” she said.

Even Swift may not be able to move Mount Mitch, but she could influence young voters.  

After years of avoiding politics, Swift jumped into last fall’s midterm campaigns. She wrote on Instagram she was voting Democratic in Tennessee and urged her 112 million Instagram followers to register and vote.  

Within 48 hours, more than 169,000 new people had registered on, a non-partisan website, a spokeswoman told The Washington Post. While we don't know how many people swift motivated, more than half the new registrants were 18 to 29. 

A survey last year by PRRI, a nonpartisan research group, found 69% of Americans, including a majority in every state, support protecting LGBT people from discrimination. Three-fourths of those 18 to 29 back anti-discrimination laws.

The Equality Act would extend civil rights protections to include LGBT people in employment, housing, credit applications, public accommodations, jury service and other areas.

The House May 17 passed the bill 236 to 173, with all Democrats and eight Republicans voting yes and all other Republicans voting no.

In the Senate, all Democrats are co-sponsors except Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Susan Collins of Maine is the only Republican who supports the bill.

More than 200 major corporations have joined a business coalition supporting the bill, including Apple, Altria Group, Amazon, Coca-Cola, Nasdaq and Verizon.

But even if the Senate approves, President Donald Trump likely would veto. The administration opposes all discrimination, the White House said in a statement, but the bill is “full of poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights.”

It didn’t specify the poison pills, but the bill prohibits people from using religion as a defense or basis for challenging the protections. It also stops an individual from being denied access to restrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms based on gender identity.

If Congress doesn’t act, the Supreme Court may. The court in October will hear oral arguments in a consolidated case involving LGBT discrimination. The Trump administration has asked the court to rule that existing sex discrimination laws do not cover sexual orientation because Congress did not specifically mention it.

At the awards ceremony, Swift said her petition is still active and more signatures will add pressure on the Senate and White House to pass the bill “which basically just says we all deserve equal rights under the law.”

Then she tapped her wrist impatiently as if checking her watch. She’s right. It’s time to act.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

What if? Presidential hopefuls unveil plans -- Aug. 22, 2019 column


Score one for the animals.

If he’s elected president, Democratic hopeful Juli├ín Castro will end the horrible practice of euthanizing domestic cats and dogs in shelters.

Castro, former Housing and Urban Development secretary and mayor of San Antonio, released his Protecting Animals and Wildlife – or PAW -- Plan Monday.

He also would make animal abuse a federal crime, prohibit bringing big game trophies into the country and reverse President Donald Trump’s actions to weaken the Endangered Species Act that protects plants and animals from extinction.

Democrats’ No. 1 job for 2020 is sending Trump back up the escalator at Trump Tower, and Labor Day signals a new campaign phase.

Voting will begin in five months – with the Iowa caucuses Feb. 3 and New Hampshire primary Feb. 11. 

So candidates are switching from “Hello” and “No!” – that is, introducing themselves and reacting to Trump’s continual tweet machine – to “I will” -- presenting their own plans.

Just as Trump has tried to obliterate through executive actions much of what President Barack Obama accomplished, the next president could roll back much of Trump’s executive actions.

Several Democratic candidates pledge to revoke the Trump-approved permits for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, for example.

Castro, who also has plans for education, immigration, homeland security and housing, may be a long shot for the White House, but he’s among at least 10 contenders who will appear onstage in the next round of Democratic debates Sept. 12 and 13. The deadline for making the cut is Aug. 28.

Saving pets’ lives isn’t as high profile a campaign issue as gun control or Medicare for All, but it’s smart in Democratic primaries to stand up for animals and the planet.

About one in three Americans believe animals should have the same rights as humans, a 2015 Gallup poll found. About four in five Americans support the Endangered Species Act, an Ohio State University study reported last year.

Other candidates are also staking out high ground. Beto O’Rourke, who represented El Paso in Congress, hopes to restart his campaign in the aftermath of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, by going big on gun control.

O’Rourke released his plan Aug. 16 to ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. He also would force owners to sell some weapons back to the government or pay a fine, create a new gun licensing and registration system and expand background checks.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey is pushing for “baby bonds,” federally funded savings accounts for each newborn that would be structured to close the wealth gap.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has offered a slew of proposals, released two new ones this week. Her plan to help native Americans has drawn praise from Indian Country.

She and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont each offered proposals to reform the criminal justice system – as have several others, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend.

The time for straight talk also apparently has arrived. When Sanders announced his plan in South Carolina, he said, “This state is a state which has an even more broken criminal justice system than the country, and the country is pretty bad.”

As some Democrats reassess Biden because of his recent gaffes, his wife stressed her husband’s top selling point.

“You may like another candidate better, but you have to look at who is going to win,” Jill Biden said this week in New Hampshire. “Your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.”

Jill Biden, who teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College, also added: “And if education is your main issue, Joe is that person.”

As we approach the end of the beginning of the 2020 campaign, time may be running out for candidates still struggling to connect.

Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who has not yet qualified for the next debate, promotes yoga, mindfulness and wellness practices to help war veterans heal and to bring down prescription use and health care costs generally.

Promising to be the “Zen president,” Ryan told CNN Aug. 14 that after Trump, Americans will want a president with the “quality of equanimity in rocky times.”  

He very well could be right.

But it’s through their plans and straight talk that Democrats hope to break away from the pack.   

© Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Americana -- How we won the right we take for granted -- Aug. 15, 2019 column

"Shall Not Be Denied" exhibit at Library of Congress


Old photos show suffragists in prim white dresses and hats, but they were taunted as unladylike, unpatriotic and worse.

Men spat on them, tore at their clothes and threw lighted cigarettes their way when women marched on Washington in 1913.

In 1917, suffragists picketed the White House – the first group to do so – and, for months, in good weather and bad, silently held banners.

“FAILURE IS IMPOSSIBLE,” one banner read – but the picketers were fined for “obstructing traffic” and, when they refused to pay, incarcerated.

The women protested prison conditions with hunger strikes, and authorities forcibly fed them a mixture of eggs and milk by tube through a nostril or down the throat -- three times a day.

These courageous and inspiring women kept fighting for the most American of rights for half the population: the vote.

Two compelling exhibits in Washington commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which says the right of citizens to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The Library of Congress exhibit "Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote" and the National Archives' "Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote" both use original documents, photos, videos, artifacts and interactive media to tell the stories of suffragists and the suffrage movement and women's participation in government to the present.

After spending an afternoon at the two exhibits, I left convinced we owe the suffragists more than a debt of gratitude. We need to vote.

We tend to take the right to vote for granted, but American women fought seven decades for the vote.

The first women’s rights convention drew 300 women to Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. Many signed Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments,” that pointedly began: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”

The battle for the vote was on. Blacks were also disenfranchised, and suffragists first allied themselves with abolitionists. Later, the groups went their separate ways. Suffragists split among themselves over how militant their tactics should be.

While many chose confrontation and went to jail, there were light moments. The suffrage movement even had its own music. One popular song in 1916 was arrestingly titled “She’s Good Enough to be Your Baby’s Mother and She’s Good Enough to Vote with You.” 

An anti-suffrage movement contended political activity would ruin women’s morals as well as destroy the social order. Some arguments were racially charged.

The Georgia Association OPPOSED to Woman’s Suffrage, based in Macon, Ga., sent postcards to Congress in 1915 urging a no vote on suffrage.

The cards listed seven reasons, starting with “BECAUSE the women of Georgia don’t want the vote” and included “universal suffrage wipes out the disenfranchisement of the negro by State law” and “the danger to farmers’ families if negro men vote in addition to 2,000,000 negro women.” Finally, “White Supremacy must be maintained.”

The House finally passed the amendment May 21 and the Senate June 4, 1919. It went to the states where three-fourths or 36 states needed to ratify. The 36th state – Tennessee -- ratified it Aug. 18, 1920, and it went into effect Aug. 26, 1920.

The struggle wasn’t over. White women had the vote, Southern states used intimidation and unfair laws to create obstacles. 

Virginia didn’t get around to ratifying it until 1952. It wasn’t alone. Several Deep South states also took their time.

“Shall Not Be Denied” at the Library of Congress runs through September 2020, and “Rightfully Hers” at the National Archives through Jan. 3, 2021. Both are free.

At the Archives, you can use a touch screen ballot box to choose your top three contemporary issues. And if you’re not registered to vote, you can find out how to be #electionready just down the hall.

A nearby screen shows that while voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections soared compared with that of other midterms, only 49.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Turnout in the 2016 presidential election was 60.1 percent.

We can do better. No excuses.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Grandmas say something, save lives -- Aug. 8, 2019 column


A grandmother in Lubbock, Texas, prevented a mass shooting last month by persuading her grandson to let her drive him to a hospital.

William Patrick Williams, 19, called his grandma July 13 to say he was about to “shoot up” people at a local hotel and then commit suicide by cop.

The grandmother, who wasn’t identified, could hear him handling his AK-47 rifle as he spoke. Sensing he was both suicidal and homicidal, she talked him into going with her for medical help.

He gave authorities consent to enter the hotel room he’d rented, and they found on the bed the AK-47, 17 magazines loaded with ammunition, multiple knives, a black trench coat and other black items of clothing, according to a news release from the U.S. District Attorney’s Office Northern District of Texas.

He was arrested Aug. 1 and charged in a federal complaint with giving false information to a licensed firearm dealer when he purchased his rifle July 11. If convicted, Williams could receive a five-year prison term.

“This was a tragedy averted,” U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox said Aug. 2 in a statement.

Last year, another grandmother averted a tragedy.

In Everett Wash., Cathi O’Connor called 911 in February 2018 after she read detailed plans in her grandson’s journal to commit mass murder at his high school. He was modeling his attack on the 1999 Columbine massacre.

“I’m preparing myself for the school shooting. I can’t wait. My aim has gotten much more accurate . . . I can’t wait to walk into that class and blow all those [expletive]s away,” Joshua Alexander O’Connor, 18, wrote.

His grandma also discovered a semiautomatic rifle hidden in his guitar case.

He subsequently pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Those grandmothers’ heart-wrenching -- and heroic -- decision to stop their grandsons’ horrific plans undoubtedly saved lives, authorities said.

“If you suspect a friend or loved one is planning violence against themselves or others, do not hesitate to seek help immediately by calling law enforcement,” Cox added.

“If you see something, say something” has been our first line of defense against international terrorism since 9/11. It needs to be our mantra in the fight against homegrown terrorism as well.

After the most recent mass murders in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, left 31 dead and dozens injured, friends and former classmates said they had seen signs the gunmen were headed for violence. We hear similar reports whenever a mass shooter strikes.  

But few step forward to raise a concern.

Americans prize personal freedom and hate to be snitches. Plus no one can know whether someone will act on their fantasies.

O’Connor’s public defender argued in court: “In this country we do not criminalize people for thoughts. We do not punish a teenage boy for venting in his diary.”  

And yet we are grateful Cathi O’Connor found and read her grandson’s diary. Had he posted his hateful thoughts and plans anonymously on a dark website, no one might have known where he was headed.

We’re also grateful she trusted the police enough to come forward with information about her grandson’s plans. Police-community relations in many parts of the country are rocky, and lack of trust jeopardizes public safety.

Democrats and some Republicans are calling for universal background checks for gun purchasers, to reinstate the federal ban on assault weapons and to pass “red flag” state laws, which allow police to confiscate firearms temporarily from someone deemed a danger to themselves or others. Such laws are in effect in 17 states, although not in Virginia.

President Donald Trump said he supports tighter background checks and red flag laws, although we've seen him turn on a dime when the gun lobby objected. 

Republican members of Congress could not muster the political will when President Barack Obama pushed for gun control measures after the massacre of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. I doubt they’ll suddenly grow a spine.

So, as we face the growing threat from white nationalists and other virulent strains of domestic terrorism, we will rely more than ever on grandmas, grandads, other family members, teachers, classmates and friends to say something when they see something.

Our lives depend on it.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.