Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Bald eagles bring cheer as they carry on -- Dec. 30, 2021 column


The sun shone, the Potomac River reflected a cloudless blue sky and high in a tree were two majestic bald eagles.

They perched side by side on a leafless branch where eagles had nested for years along the George Washington Memorial Parkway a few miles north of Mount Vernon. The nest was gone, perhaps destroyed by heavy rain or wind, but on a bright post-Christmas morning this week, the eagles were back.

As my partner Keith and I took pictures, a passerby said: “There are George and Martha, watching over us.”

The sighting was a good omen made even better about 20 minutes later when we spotted two more bald eagles, or maybe the same ones, in wooded parkland by the river. Someone told us the eagles often hang out on a small island nearby.

The chance encounters with eagles and their admirers were cheerful moments at the end of a largely cheerless year.

Seeing bald eagles in the wild is no longer the miraculous event it was in the 1960s. Today, their presence delights us and is a welcome reminder America can do something right for the environment.  

After nearing extinction in 1963 with fewer than 500 nesting pairs remaining, the bald eagle population in 2019 was an estimated 316,700 individuals, including 71,400 nesting pairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported last year. The population had quadrupled since data were last collected in 2009.

“The bald eagle is an Endangered Species Act success story,” the service says on its website.

A species native to North America, the bald eagle was chosen our nation’s symbol in 1782. Benjamin Franklin famously was not a fan. He called the bald eagle “a bird of bad moral character. It does not get its living honestly” but steals from other birds. 

While bald eagles eat mostly fish, waterfowl, small mammals and carrion, they got an undeserved reputation as preying on farm animals. Farmers shot many to protect their livestock. Eagles’ numbers also suffered from a loss of habitat.

Congress passed protection for the bald eagle in 1940, prohibiting killing, selling or possessing the raptor. It added protection for the golden eagle in 1962.

After World War II, the advent of DDT, a pesticide used to control mosquitoes, decimated the bald eagle population. The chemical washed into waterways and eagles ate contaminated fish with disastrous results. Eagles’ egg shells were so thin they broke during incubation. 

Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, awoke many to the environmental dangers of pesticides.

The Endangered Species Act, signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, and a ban on DDT gave bald eagles a second chance. The wildlife service and its partners stepped up captive breeding and reintroduction programs, law enforcement, habitat protection and land purchases.

The bald eagle’s remarkable comeback led to its removal from the endangered list in 2007. It remains protected by other measures.

Franklin and other founders could not have imagined that today we can watch eagles on 24-hour HD cameras trained on their nests. The closeups show us bald eagles aren’t actually bald. They have snowy white heads on charcoal-brown bodies.

Bald eagles usually mate for life and return to the same nests time and again.

But there was trouble at home this year between the National Arboretum’s bald eagles, Mr. President and First Lady, who first nested there in 2015 and fledged seven eaglets.

Cameras captured the drama in their nest 80-feet above the earth in a tulip poplar tree as interlopers started dropping in. First Lady tried to chase the females away.

“She would come in at 50 to 60 mph with the talons out,” Dan Rauch, wildlife biologist, told The Washington Post.  But she herself was displaced in February by a younger female who cozied up to Mr. President and stayed. It was 2021, wasn’t it?

Initially, the new female was known as V5, but she recently was given the name Lotus, for Lady of the United States. She and Mr. President mated last week.

So, as life continues in the eagles’ nests, we can all be grateful for the bald eagles’ recovery.  

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

No holiday from masks, tests as omicron surges -- Dec. 23 2021 column


As omicron tightens its grip, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Monday declared a state of emergency.

Once again, masks are required indoors in such places as churches, gyms and grocery stores, regardless of vaccination status. Masks are not yet required in restaurants and bars in the nation’s capital, as they are in New York and Los Angeles.

“I think we’re all tired of it. I’m tired of it, too,” Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said, announcing the mask mandate will last until Jan. 31. “But we have to respond to what’s happening in our city and what’s happening in our nation.”

The mayor is correct. What’s happening is nearly three-fourths of the new coronavirus cases in the United States are now from the highly transmissible omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday. Coronavirus daily case totals are at their highest level since last summer.

There is no statewide mask mandate in Virginia, but the Virginia Department of Health recommends masks be worn indoors in communities with substantial or high COVID-19 transmission.

More than 800,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19. Public health officials knew the coronavirus mutates and new variants were likely. Still,  fast-spreading omicron caught nearly everyone by surprise last month.

Much remains unknown, including whether the illness omicron causes is less severe than the delta variant’s, and what the long-term effects of even a mild case may be.

The first death in the United States related to omicron was announced Monday. The victim was an unvaccinated man in his 50s with an underlying health condition in Houston, authorities said.

So, while we all feel coronavirus fatigue, we find ourselves on the verge of another  New Year having to rally again to fight an insidious, unpredictable virus.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who died this year, once said you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might wish you had.

It’s wrong that Americans have had to stand in line for hours for coronavirus tests, as they have in some parts of the country. Other nations have long been able to supply their residents with free, at-home test kits.

The Biden administration is now rushing to make available, starting next month, 500 million free, rapid, in-home coronavirus test kits. The government is opening more testing and vaccination sites, deploying military medical teams to overwhelmed hospitals, and plans to expand hospital capacity.

These are important changes that remind us we are not in the same place we were a year ago. Last year during the holidays we glimpsed the hope of vaccinations as the end of the pandemic. This year, we known the pandemic is still with us, and we are lucky if all we must endure are its inconveniences.

Mask and vaccination mandates cannot be partisan when the virus is bipartisan. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, who both are vaccinated and boosted, tested positive for COVID-19, as did Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, and a cancer survivor.

Breakthrough COVID-19 cases are common. President Joe Biden, 79, sat near someone on Air Force One the other day who later tested positive.

Most breakthrough cases seem to be mild, which is why Biden is urging every eligible American to get fully vaccinated and boosted.

And yet, when former President Donald Trump said Sunday in Texas he had received a booster, some in the audience booed. That’s a sad commentary on the misguided, ill-informed, anti-vax crowd.

Fortunately, there are no plans for lockdowns or a widespread return to remote schooling. We are learning to live with uncertainty.

Wearing an effective mask, such as the N95, getting vaccinated and boosted, and tested if we feel sick or are exposed to someone with COVID-19 are steps all of us can take to protect ourselves and others.

Those who feel their personal liberty is abridged by mask mandates can do something about it: They can stay home, off public transportation and out of public places.

As much as we Americans don’t like rules or mandates, especially rules that change, we must live in the real world. We all want the pandemic to end. We also want our families, friends and ourselves to be around next year. Be vigilant.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, December 16, 2021

In an anxious time, ads tug at our heartstrings -- Dec. 16, 2021 column


Time magazine picked Elon Musk as its 2021 Person of the Year – the individual “who most shaped the previous 12 months, for better or for worse.”

Musk, with his Tesla and SpaceX companies, emerged this year “not just as the world’s richest person but also as perhaps the richest example of a massive shift in our society,” Time fawned. “Like it or not we are now in Musk’s world.”

Well, maybe. I’ve never ridden in a Tesla, nor do I plan to any trips into space, although I know someone who loves playing Solitaire while letting his Tesla maneuver through highway traffic.

Even if the car is amazing, I can’t imagine a Tesla exerting the emotional pull of a restored 1966 Chevy Impala convertible like the one in “Holiday Ride,” Chevrolet’s new commercial. The four-minute version is a movie unto itself about grief, love and the power of memories.

With so many of us on edge in year two of a merciless pandemic, the Chevy ad is one of several holiday commercials that tug at our heart strings and show us our humanity.

Spoiler alert – I will be telling the stories of these ads. The Chevy commercial features a grieving widower in rural America who visits the dusty, dilapidated Impala in the barn, fighting tears as he holds a photo of a smiling young woman, presumably his late wife, in happy times with the new car.

His daughter sees him putting holiday wreaths on the barn door and secretly enlists local mechanics for “night work.” They painstakingly restore the car to its former glory for a surprise reveal.

It’s “the best Christmas gift I could ever have,” dad tells daughter, and they and their dog hop in for a spin.  If you don’t tear up watching, you may have left your heart in 2020.

“Kindness, the Greatest Gift,” set to Adele’s new song “Hold On,” features the kindness of strangers during the pandemic. In this Amazon global holiday campaign ad, we see a young woman university student alone, struggling to return to near-normal life. 

In a park, an older woman neighbor, feeding birds from her palm, notices the younger woman sitting alone, seemingly downcast.

Back in her apartment, the older woman hears a news report about young people being anxious during the pandemic. She orders something on her cell phone from, of course, Amazon. The younger woman receives the surprise gift of a bird feeder and is touched by the kind gesture. The ad fades out with the two talking and sharing a park bench.

“The past 18 months have been challenging for people across the globe, including many young adults,” Ed Smith, an executive at Amazon European Union, said in a statement. “So this year, whilst the world will not be totally back to normal, opportunities for kindness and connection will take on a newfound importance.”

Another European commercial available to watch online comes from Posten, the postal service of Norway. The heartwarming, adult-themed “When Harry Met Santa” imagines brief, Christmas Eve encounters that evolve over years into a romance. The ad celebrates the 50th anniversary in 2022 of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Norway and the postal service’s commitment to diversity.

Closer to home and more traditional is a Wegmans Food Markets broadcast ad, which features a young boy energetically and enthusiastically doing chores – raking leaves, pushing a heavy trash bin to the curb, delivering huge pots of mums, shoveling snow and putting up holiday lights.

As his family celebrates with a big holiday dinner, presumably from Wegmans, the boy dishes up a plate of food and takes it next door. Viewers realize then he has been doing the chores not for his own family but for his neighbor, an elderly woman. She comes to the door and is touched and surprised by the gift of food.

The ad is one of three in a campaign Wegmans calls “Back to Happy.” They use as a theme the children’s song, “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.”

And, so, may we all be happier on Earth this holiday season – even if we must steer our own cars through the traffic to get together with family and friends.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Midterm campaigns kick off with a political jab -- Dec. 9, 2021 column


During a recent medical test, I noticed my face mask had slipped down.

“Sorry!” I said to the technician, who was also masked. “I’m vaccinated and boosted, and you are too, right?” Slight pause.

“I’m healthy,” he said, using a favorite dodge of the unvaccinated.

Why would anyone whose job requires close contact with people who could be sick or immune-compromised take such a risk for himself, his patients and co-workers?

He said he had decades of experience, including at a hospital where tuberculosis patients coughed in his face, and was healthy. He doesn’t buy the need for vaccinations against COVID-19, thinks they could be harmful, and believes the number of reported COVID deaths is inflated.

Scientists, however, agree vaccinations help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and its severity and are less risky than the disease.

Most healthcare workers voluntarily take the commonsense precaution of vaccinations. Still, about 30% of workers in hospitals were unvaccinated as of September, according to a Centers for Disease Control study.

Last month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued rules requiring vaccinations for healthcare workers and for businesses with 100 employees or more. Both rules are stalled, at least temporarily, by court challenges.

The healthcare rule would require all workers in facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid funding to be fully vaccinated, with no exceptions, or facilities could lose federal funding. The OSHA rule includes a provision that allows workers who do not get vaccinated to be tested weekly and wear masks on the job.

 President Joe Biden was reluctant to impose such vaccination mandates, but after incentives and voluntary behavior weren’t enough, he earlier rolled out requirements for federal workers and employees of federal contractors to be vaccinated.

The mandate for contractors, which included limited exceptions for medical and religious reasons, was blocked Tuesday in federal court. The White House vows to continue fighting for mandates.

Many private employers have imposed vaccination mandates on their own. They realize the economy won’t get back to normal – whatever that is -- until more of the population is protected against this deadly, unpredictable disease.

The latest troubling news about the fast-spreading omicron variant has led public health officials to urge everyone eligible to get vaccinations and booster shots. New research from Pfizer and BioNTech indicates a booster shot may help protect against omicron, but it’s too soon to know.

Opponents argue vaccination mandates are an example of federal overreach. Politicians like to claim they personally are pro-vaccine but anti-mandate. They conveniently forget they and their children had to receive vaccinations against other diseases to enroll in school.

But COVID-19 vaccination mandates are seen as a potent political issue for the midterm elections. The Senate voted Wednesday to repeal Biden’s mandate for companies with more than 100 employees. All Republicans and two Democrats – Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana -- voted to nullify the mandate.

The 52-48 vote was largely symbolic, if not a political stunt. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is unlikely to bring the measure up for a vote in the House, and if it were to pass, the White House said Biden would veto it. It would be his first presidential veto.

Opponents of mandates say their constituents fear mandates will cost jobs and wreck the economy, but instead of working to educate the uninformed, politicians pander.

“Encouraging and requiring are two different things,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. Republican of West Virginia, told reporters. More than killing the American economy, she said, the vaccine mandate is “killing the American spirit of being able to make decisions about yourself, to be respected for that.”

Oh, please.

Vaccination mandates may be more popular than Republican politicians think. Half of Americans support the mandate for businesses with at least 100 employees, while 47% oppose it, a Wall Street Journal poll reported this week. Slightly more – 55% -- support vaccination mandates for public safety workers, such as police and firefighters.

Everyone is sick of the pandemic, but it shows no sign of waning. We all need to take responsibility to fight it. To everyone who’s eligible, except those with a legitimate medical excuse: Get your vaccinations and boosters.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Deadly school shooting a call for action -- lock 'em up -- Dec. 2, 2021 column


A chilling headline in The New York Times read: “Michigan shooting the deadliest on U.S. school property this year.”

Let that sink in. The qualifier “this year” makes clear, a friend wrote me, that school shootings are a given, “that this is just one deadly but inevitable school shooting among many past and present.”

Sadly, she is correct. Many Americans seem to have grown accustomed to what should be unimaginable – children gunning down other children at school.

On Tuesday in Michigan, a 15-year-old boy allegedly shot and killed four of his classmates in an Oxford High School hallway after lunch. Six other students and a teacher were wounded, some critically.

The shooting was the deadliest since May 2018, according to tracking by Education Week, which reports there have been 29 on campus school shootings this year with 11 people killed and 49 injured.

Also on Nov. 30 at Humboldt High School in Tennessee, three people were shot, one fatally, at a basketball game.

In Virginia, two high school shootings occurred this year with no fatalities – in Woodbridge in August and Newport News in September.

“Schools, in general, remain among the safest places for children to be, and shootings in schools are relatively rare,” Education Week notes. Since most children were home for school during much of 2020, school shootings were much lower than in previous years.

However, unintentional shooting deaths by children rose significantly last year, according to a count by Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group.

Authorities in Michigan said the toll there would have been higher had the school not practiced active shooter drills. In addition, a deputy assigned to the school and other deputies arrived on the scene quickly and took the suspect into custody.

In what has become a sickening routine after such tragedies, politicians sent their thoughts and prayers. Most congressional Democrats avoid even mentioning stricter gun safety measures.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat who represents the congressional district that includes Oxford, tweeted that the shocked students “will have to make sense of one of their peers doing this to them.”

One of their peers? What about the adult who bought the semiautomatic handgun on Black Friday that his son used four days later? It’s not yet clear how the boy -- I will not name him because sick individuals often crave publicity -- got the gun.

Slotkin said it’s time for more mental health services, and it surely is, but that is not enough.

Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald has the right idea. Citing evidence that the Oxford shootings were premeditated, she charged the shooter Wednesday as an adult with terrorism, four first-degree murder counts and 19 other counts.

The terrorism charge was justified not only for the victims who died but those who will carry emotional scars for life, she said.

“What about all the children who ran, screaming, hiding under desks? What about all the children at home right now who can’t eat and can’t sleep and can’t imagine a world where they could ever step foot back in that school?” she said. “Those are victims too and so are their families and so is the community. The charge of terrorism reflects that.”

She also said she may charge the shooter’s parents.

“We know that owning a gun means securing it properly and locking it and keeping the ammunition separate and not allowing access to other individuals, particularly minors. We know that and we have to hold individuals accountable who don’t do that,” she said.

I believe most gun owners are responsible and would agree with the need for common-sense precautions to keep their guns out of the wrong hands.

The old “don’t touch” rule many of us grew up with doesn’t work with all young people these days. There are many different ways to secure guns, from trigger locks to gun safes.

The NRA constantly harps that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But fewer kids would be killing other kids at school – or themselves and their siblings inadvertently -- if their parents and other adults kept their guns safely locked up.

“We have to do better,” McDonald said. Amen.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



Banning Hair Discrimination Emerges as Racial Justice Issue -- Nov. 29, 2021

My latest on Stateline, the online news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Read it here -- https://bit.ly/3lt54O1

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Home for the holidays? Savor it -- Nov. 25, 2021 column


For the past half century, I have spent part of every holiday season at my parents’ home in Richmond.

As I bumped around to Charlottesville, New York, Richmond, back to Charlottesville, and then to Washington and Northern Virginia, I’d always circle back to my parents’ home for holiday visits. They visited me a few times but preferred their own digs.

I won’t be making the trip down I-95 from Alexandria this year. My parents are gone, and I sold their house earlier this month.

Those are the facts, but “sold their house” doesn’t come close to expressing the emotional and physical work of the last few months. Caring for an ailing parent, grieving and clearing out one’s parents’ home are an inevitability for most of us but something we hope never to have to face.

My mother died in 2014 at 93. I still feel a twinge saying her age. She would have killed me for telling it – at least until she passed 90. My dad fell at home last December and died in February at 99.

They had lived in the same house in the West End since 1971, never downsizing once they put down roots after my dad’s military career took them all over the world.

They never read Marie Kondo and her advice to get rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy or Margareta Magnusson’s “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” which I’m sure would be more popular with a less morbid title.

Once my parents were both gone, all their stuff became mine to deal with.

That’s a daunting task, but many baby boomers have it worse with feuding siblings or childhood memories. I’m an only child and didn’t grow up in the house, but there were still memories aplenty.

I am fortunate my dad, who taught at VCU into his 70s, was mentally sharp to the end. My parents each had a will and a trust, and my dad kept his financial records in meticulous order.

But he and my mother were loath to throw anything away – in case they might need it. They were both paper packrats – as am I. I found boxes of black and white family photos, letters and greeting cards. 

My dad kept receipts for every purchase of furniture and accessories, paint job, roof repair and home improvement. When emails were new, my mother printed them out and kept them. I brought too much back to sort through later.

I am grateful beyond words for my partner Keith, who was kind and cheerful through it all, and Kelli, the stalwart friend of my dad’s who became like family, and her two exceptional sons, Christian and Grant. They all did a lot of heavy lifting, literally.

Our Realtor, Steve, calmly and patiently helped me through the daunting process.

Fortunately, an industry has evolved to help people dispose of their stuff. I found Angela who was personable, professional and efficient and conducted a hybrid online and in-person estate sale.  

I quickly learned my mother’s prized possessions – brown furniture, china, silver and crystal – aren’t in favor.

Getting rid of them is like living in that segment on “Antiques Roadshow” where they re-evaluate the appraised price of items from years earlier, except with house clearing everything that once was worth something is now worth next to nothing.

“Nobody wants it,” was a refrain I heard over and over.

I live in a small townhouse so couldn’t take much furniture. I sent some to my cousins and other family members. But I boxed up my mother’s Wedgwood, after learning it would fetch only $1 a plate, and her silver, which would be melted down, and brought it home. I resolved to set a nice table.

I gave away much to charities. I hired Linda to help clear remaining clutter and make more trips to Goodwill. Four times people hauled away “junk” nobody wanted.

The new owners, a young couple with two young children, will be redoing their new house and creating their own memories of home. That’s the way of property. It’s yours only for a while. All we can do is enjoy it and then let it go.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, November 18, 2021

Holiday shopping -- buy local, give newspapers -- Nov. 18, 2021 column


Now more than ever, it’s the time to shop locally and buy American.

With the supply chain strained, tech and other goods made overseas are on slow boats from China, and if they arrive at all, are more expensive.  

Fortunately, not everyone is lusting after hard-to-find Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5. But everything from imported booze to sneakers is expected to be in shorter supply and cost more this holiday season.

As anyone who has tried to buy American knows, however, it’s difficult when so much of what we consume is made overseas. But it’s possible.

Try shopping at a farmers’ market or farm stand for stocking stuffers like jams and specialty olive oils, at holiday markets for local arts and crafts, and at independent bookstores. Seek out Virginia wine and craft beer. Visit a nursery, buy a tree to plant in the yard and help the environment.

Think of experiences instead of things – a gift certificate to a local restaurant, spa or car wash. (Why not be practical?) A museum or gym membership, tickets to a local theatre, concert or classes to learn a new language or hobby.

Small Business Saturday is Nov. 27, a time when local businesses offer promotions and discounts to lure shoppers. These retailers especially need our patronage now.

Roughly 200,000 more small businesses than usual closed permanently in the first year of the pandemic, the Federal Reserve reported. That’s about one-quarter or one-third more than in a typical year.

Shopping small is good for the local economy and your neighbors. You can find more ideas about shopping small at #shopsmall and in your local newspaper.

And that brings me to another idea for your holiday shopping: Give a newspaper subscription. Or give two -- one local and one national.

If you’re reading this, you’re already a newspaper reader. Thank you. Why not treat yourself or give a digital or print subscription to friends or family, in town or away. Many a child has learned to read through the newspaper.

This isn’t a sympathy pitch for newspapers, although it’s no secret newspaper circulations are shrinking, and hundreds of local papers are dying.

More than one-fourth of American newspapers have disappeared in the last 15 years, with 300 newspapers closing in the past two years alone, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism reported.

COVID-19 further depressed the newspaper business. Hit by furloughs as well as staff and pay cuts, newspaper people were working harder with less to bring you the news.

The center’s online survey in August of reporters, editors and publishers at papers with print circulations under 50,000, which is about 97% of the market, found more than a third were working 50 to 60 hours a week, and half worked 40 to 50 hours a week. 

We need to support local journalism these days. The role of the local newspaper is critical to a functioning democracy. Voters need to be able to distinguish truth from lies.

We need to know what our elected officials at all levels of government are doing. Virginians will need to keep up with a new Republican governor and General Assembly.

And it’s helpful to know what’s on sale, which new eatery has opened, the latest sports scores, and who died. For a break from bad news: the comics.

For all their challenges, local newspapers perform valiantly.

“Local newspapers significantly outperform local TV, radio and online-only outlets in news production, both in overall story output and in terms of stories that are original, local or address a critical information need,” a 2019 Duke University study of 100 communities ranging in size from 20,000 to 300,000 residents found.

A national newspaper will provide a broader perspective on the nation and the world. Both local and national papers will make you smarter.

I recommend the print paper because we all spend too much time in front of screens. If your family and friends prefer getting their news digitally, go for it.

 Newspapers are devoting more time and energy to their digital products, and they provide a lively, interactive experience.

Reading a daily newspaper – or two – will reward you with knowing what’s really happening around the corner, in Washington and the world.

© Marsha Mercer 2021. All rights reserved.


Thursday, November 11, 2021

Toxic politics, inflation batter Washington -- Nov. 11, 2021 column


That was quick. Republican euphoria over Virginia’s election results and what they may portend for 2022 began to evaporate in less than a week.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu dashed the hopes of fellow Republicans Tuesday by saying he would not run for the Senate. Instead, he will seek a fourth two-year term as governor, which he is expected to win handily.

“My responsibility is not to the gridlock and politics of Washington. It’s to the citizens of New Hampshire. And I’d rather push myself 120 miles an hour delivering wins for New Hampshire than to slow down and end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results,” Sununu told reporters.

Republicans had counted on Sununu to run against incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan, one of the weakest Senate Democrats seeking re-election in the midterm elections. Former Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire has also indicated she won’t run, leaving the New Hampshire GOP with lower tier candidates, so far.

Every Senate seat is crucial as both parties seek to break the 50-50 tie in their direction. Vice President Kamala Harris casts tie-breaking votes. Sununu’s decision was a blow to Republicans, who were blindsided by the announcement. Party leaders found out the same way everyone else did – on the news.

You can’t blame Sununu for saying, thanks but no thanks, even if he did it artlessly. Politics in Washington could hardly be nastier. Republican House members who vote “wrong” in the eyes of extremists – that is, in a bipartisan manner – now endure death threats.

One wonders why anyone who wants to be constructive – rather than a demagogue -- would take on the capital’s toxic atmosphere, although we must be thankful for those who do.

At the same time, Democrats are still smarting from the Virginia election debacle -- and they can’t catch a break. They want to celebrate the roughly $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill the House passed Nov. 5 and President Joe Biden is scheduled to sign Monday.

But Biden saw his victory lap derailed Wednesday by scary inflation numbers. The Consumer Price Index rose 6.2% last month from a year ago and is at its highest level in more than three decades.

Taming inflation is now a top priority for the White House, though there’s little a president can really do. Gerald Ford’s Whip Inflation Now button and Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater led to their one-term presidencies.

“Everything from a gallon of gas to a loaf of bread costs more, and it’s worrisome even though wages are going up,” Biden said Wednesday in Baltimore. “We still face challenges, and we have to tackle them.”

The spike in inflation threatens his $1.85 trillion social safety net and climate change reconciliation bill in the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and others worry it will feed inflationary pressures. White House and independent economists dispute that assessment.

“By all accounts, the threat posed by record inflation to the American people is not `transitory’ and is instead getting worse. From the grocery store to the gas pump, Americans know the inflation tax is real and DC can no longer ignore the economic pain Americans feel every day,” Manchin, of West Virginia, tweeted.

But Manchin, who holds a knife over Biden’s reconciliation package, has been all over Twitter touting the goodies the infrastructure bill will bring his state – “nearly $6 BILLION in infrastructure funding over the next decade.”

Note the time element: The money will come over 10 years. Democrats worry voters won’t see enough new jobs and economic growth by Election Day 2022.

Yet the bill was a bipartisan victory in a Congress where few occur. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was one of 19 Republicans who voted in favor in August. He recently called it a “godsend” for his home state of Kentucky.

Incredibly, House Republican leaders threaten to punish the 13 Republican members there who dared to vote for that same bill by stripping them of their committee assignments.

The threat prompted Biden to renew his call for more civility and cooperation in politics.

“I know I get in trouble when I talk about” bipartisanship, he said Tuesday. “As people say, why the devil would I like any Republicans? Well, it’s important. If we don’t generate consensus in America, we’re in trouble.”

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.




Thursday, November 4, 2021

Virginia's election gives lie to the Big Lie -- Nov. 4, 2021 column


As Democrats on Capitol Hill argue over what message voters sent in Tuesday’s earthquake election, it’s worth considering what voters and politicians in Virginia aren’t saying.

Nobody claims the Virginia election was rigged.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe set the tone for civility when he promptly conceded the election.

“While last night we came up short, I am proud that we spent this campaign fighting for the values we so deeply believe in,” he said in a statement Wednesday morning.

He congratulated Republican Glenn Youngkin on his victory, calling him Governor-elect, and said, “I hope Virginians will join me in wishing the best to him and his family.”

That’s the classy way disappointed candidates are supposed to act.

Losing candidates in this country traditionally rise to the occasion. They accept election results, are grateful to their supporters and gracious to the victors.

They don’t spew malice toward voting machines, hard-working state election officials or our electoral system. And they certainly don’t make wild claims about being robbed.

And yet, for more than a year, faith in American elections has been sorely challenged by the Big Lie, the falsehood spawned in Donald Trump’s brain that he actually won the last presidential election.

During his 2016 campaign, Trump claimed the only way he could lose the White House was if the election was rigged. In victory, he griped he would have won by a bigger margin but for irregularities that didn’t exist.

After Trump lost in 2020, numerous recounts and court cases revealed no widespread fraud that would have changed the election outcome. Trump persisted in his delusions, and too many Republicans bought into the Big Lie, leading to the Stop the Steal movement and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, one of the darkest days in our country’s history.

A majority of Americans believe Trump says he lost because he “doesn’t like the outcome,” according to a Marist Poll taken for NPR last month. Sadly, 75% of Republicans still say Trump has a legitimate claim that there were “real cases of fraud that changed the results.”

Many Republican-controlled states have passed laws since the 2020 election making it harder for their citizens to exercise their right to vote. Fortunately, Virginia, under Democratic control, moved in the opposite direction, passing much-needed reforms, including no-excuse early voting.

After a tough campaign season with scathing charges and countercharges, turnout in Virginia was higher than in any gubernatorial race since 1997.

A few days before the election, some Youngkin allies tried to float the idea the gubernatorial election was about to be stolen. Asked for proof, they provided none.

Since Republicans captured the top three state elected offices and appeared to win a majority in the House of Delegates, we have not heard a peep from Trump or his followers about election fraud.

Could it be questions of “election integrity” only arise when Republicans lose? Surely not.

Youngkin walked a fine line during his campaign, repeatedly saying he believed President Joe Biden won the election, which he called “certifiably fair.” But Youngkin also called for “audits” of voting machines in the state, even though a statewide audit in March overwhelmingly verified Biden’s 2020 win.

He reportedly talked frequently on the phone with Trump, while keeping the former president at arm’s length. This brilliant strategy kept Trump from attacking Youngkin, which likely would have torpedoed his candidacy.

Now, as all eyes turn to next year’s congressional races, there’s hope voters will trust that election. Asked if they’d trust the results if their candidate did not win, 71% of Americans said they would – 88% of Democrats, 77% of Independents and 53% of Republicans, Marist reported.

A majority of Americans overall also say they will trust the results of the 2024 election even if the candidate they support loses. But the party divide is stark. While 82% of Democrats and 68% of Independents they will trust the result if the other guy wins, and only 33% of Republicans say they will.

The same Virginia electoral system that delivered victories for Democrats in the last four presidential contests has now elected Republicans as governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and likely has given the GOP control of the House of Delegates.  

That should convince the deepest skeptic Virginia’s electoral system does work. Fair elections in the Old Dominion give all voters something to celebrate, regardless of the results.

Bye-bye, Big Lie.  

(C) Marsha Mercer 2021. All rights reserved. 

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Treat: A not-so-spooky Halloween -- Oct. 28, 2021 column


Americans are going out this Halloween. All out.

Rising in yards and at homes to haunt – and delight – us are a host of ghosts, wealth of witches, bevy of bats and bones, surplus of spiders, skeletons and skulls, and a trove of tombstones.

We’re getting our costumes and pets’ costumes ready. We’re going to parties again. And, we’re spending.

Halloween-related spending is expected to reach an all-time high of $10.14 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey.

On average, consumers plan to spend $102.74 on costumes, candy, decorations and greeting cards -- $10 more than last year.

Last year, with COVID-19 raging and no vaccine available, most communities gave Halloween a wide berth. This year, with millions of us fully vaccinated, receiving booster shots and having recovered from COVID-19, the government invites Americans to enjoy Halloween.

“I would say, put on those costumes, stay outside and enjoy your trick-or-treating,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control, said on Fox News Sunday.

Having been scared for real for so long, we’re evidently ready to enjoy being scared for fun. Spooky is not so spooky.

Dr. Walensky did, however, offer a cautionary note: If you’re unvaccinated, you still need to protect yourself and others.

“I wouldn’t gather in large settings outside and do screaming like you are seeing in those football games if you are unvaccinated, those kids that are unvaccinated,” she said, “but if you are spread out, doing your trick-or-treating, that should be very safe for your children.”

The infection rate has dropped 50% since September in the United States, but that doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. More than 70,000 COVID-19 cases and about 1,500 deaths are still being reported each day. We have lost more than 740,000 people to the disease.

Even with COVID sticking around, we all yearn to get back to normal. And yet there’s a nagging doubt we may be, Halloween notwithstanding, whistling past the graveyard.

Much remains unknown about the insidious coronavirus. A new, highly contagious delta subvariant known as “delta plus” or AY.4.2 is surging in Great Britain, and the United Kingdom’s science adviser predicts “a pretty difficult winter ahead of us.”

Delta plus is believed to spread more easily than the delta variant but to cause no more serious illness. Vaccinations are effective in reducing severity of disease, authorities say.

So far, delta plus makes up only one-tenth of a percent of the COVID cases here. Some localities are easing mask and other restrictions.

But around the world, countries that thought their high vaccination rates would allow life to return to normal have been hit with outbreaks. After a spike in cases, Singapore last week extended some restrictions until next month, reimposing a limit of parties of two people dining out.

Russia, which reportedly set a new daily record for cases this week, has closed schools and is shutting down workplaces nationwide for a week. Only essential stores like pharmacies and groceries are allowed open.

Some cities in China have also tightened rules on activities as cases have risen.

No one wants to reinstate lockdowns here, and some states vow to stay open no matter what. So, how do we live with COVID?

The best path to a new normal is vaccinations, and yet more than 60 million of us still refuse. They need to wear masks in public indoor settings, CDC says, although resisters probably resist that precaution as well.

Other tips: Those who are fully vaccinated still should wear a mask in public indoor settings in communities with substantial to high transmission rates or if someone in their household is more susceptible to illness.

Outdoor activities are safer than those indoors, and we should all avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.

Everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu shot, with rare exceptions. Those who are unvaccinated against COVID should particularly get a flu shot. And, no, the flu vaccine cannot cause the flu.  

As we head into the holidays, each of us can, and should, do our part to make our world a little safer. Give friends and family members peace of mind with vaccinations and, if applicable, a booster.

And mask up. They’re not just for Halloween.  

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, October 21, 2021

Signed, sealed, delivered -- seven months late -- Oct. 21, 2021 column


An “OFFICIAL BUSINESS” brown envelope from the United States Postal Inspection Service arrived in the mail the other day.

“Dear Postal Customer: The U.S. Postal Inspection Service has recovered stolen mail bearing your name and address. The suspect(s) were identified and prosecuted,” the letter inside said.

“It was determined he/she is not a postal employee and is not affiliated with the Postal Service in any way. The original mail is being returned to you in the condition in which it was recovered.”

With the letter was a sympathy card addressed to me about my dad, who died in February. The card was postmarked Feb. 26 in Lubbock, Texas. The envelope had been sliced open, but the card was intact.

I was amazed, and grateful, postal inspectors had gone to the trouble to deliver a condolence card after seven months.

The inspection service is the U.S. Postal Service’s law enforcement arm and the first federal law enforcement agency. Ben Franklin appointed the first of what would become postal inspectors in 1775.

Today the postal service has many problems, largely stemming from bad management at the top, so it’s a pleasant surprise when something goes right.

Mail theft may seem like a crime out of the 19th century Wild West, when robbers on horseback stopped stagecoaches and made off with gold, cash and bank transfers.

In 2021, perps see opportunity in greeting cards and business envelopes for cash, checks, money orders or gift cards. None that was in the card to me, which contained only kind words.

The inspection service’s letter included a case number, and I searched online to no avail. But I did find many news stories about people around the country being charged with mail theft. One report caught my eye.

A man, 22, and woman, 35, were indicted Oct. 15 in Lubbock and charged with conspiracy to possess stolen mail and possessing stolen mail.

The two, who worked for a contractor that loads USPS mail on and off planes at the airport, allegedly looked through the mail while on the job Feb. 25 and 26 and stole eight checks totaling more than $2.3 million. Two were corporate checks, one for $2 million and another for about $242,000, news reports said.

I don’t know if the duo also happened upon the card addressed to me in Virginia on Feb. 26.

Most postal workers are dedicated and honest, although there are bad apples. One postal worker in Lubbock charged with mail theft admitted he stole mail every day he was on the job for four months last year.

Many, if not most, mail theft cases in the news are outside jobs. In Mount Jackson, Va., a man was charged Oct. 5 with 28 counts of identity theft to defraud less than $1,000, 12 counts of financial fraud and other crimes.

He allegedly stole people’s mail and used their personal information to open several accounts and credit cards in their names.

That wasn’t the extent of his troubles with the law. After the local sheriff and police officers went to his home, the man was also charged with 10 counts of animal cruelty and five counts of inadequate care by owner, The Northern Virginia Daily reported.

Nearly everyone has a story to tell about mail delayed or lost. The inspection service received about 300,000 mail theft complaints in the year that ended in February – and could investigate only a fraction of those cases.

Its 1,300 inspectors and 500 uniformed police officers around the country have responsibility for investigating about 200 federal crimes besides mail theft.

They protect postal workers, intercept illegal narcotics and hazardous materials sent through the mail, and investigate cybercrimes, consumer fraud and scams against veterans and the elderly, among other things. The inspection service also investigates COVID-19 scams and makes sure pandemic relief checks reach their rightful destinations.

To keep mail safe: retrieve mail promptly; deposit mail inside the post office, in blue collection boxes before the last collection of the day or hand it to a mail carrier; and never send cash. Learn more

It’s not the Wild West, but some things don’t change. We’re all potential victims of mail theft, and postal inspectors can’t catch all the criminals.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Should Breyer retire? When the personal is political -- Oct. 14, 2021 column


For months, progressives have hounded Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to retire.

An online petition urges him to “put the country first” and retire now. A billboard truck has driven around the Supreme Court building, and two protesters interrupted a Smithsonian Associates’ program with Breyer Oct. 4 and unfurled a banner with the same message.

At 83, Breyer is the oldest and senior liberal justice, having served since 1994. The two other liberals, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, are in their 60s. A younger liberal justice with a lifetime appointment could help shape the country’s direction for decades.

President Joe Biden’s window to nominate and the Senate to confirm a replacement could slam shut after the 2022 elections. If Democrats lose their razor-thin majority in the Senate, as seems likely, Mitch McConnell would become Senate majority leader again and have the power to bedevil Biden on nominations as he did President Barack Obama.

But justices often resist hanging up their robes and may regret doing so. Sandra Day O’Connor retired at 75 to care for her beloved husband with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006, but his condition deteriorated and soon he could not recognize her.

Retiring was “the biggest mistake, the dumbest thing I ever did,” O’Connor told Evan Thomas, her biographer.

Breyer deserves the respect -- and space -- to decide when he retires.

He knows his legacy is at stake. In an interview with The New York Times, he favorably recounted something the late Justice Antonin Scalia said: “He said, `I don’t want somebody appointed who will just reverse everything I’ve done for the last 25 years.’”

No one ever knows what’s ahead, and Scalia died suddenly of natural causes at 79, on a hunting trip in Texas in February 2016.

About one hour after Scalia’s death was confirmed, McConnell, then majority leader, announced the Senate should not confirm a replacement in a presidential election year.

Obama nominated Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a respected moderate many Republicans had supported. McConnell refused to allow a vote and later said blocking the nomination was his proudest moment. Biden named Garland attorney general.

When liberals nipped at Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s heels to retire at age 81, so Obama could nominate her successor, she dodged the issue by asking rhetorically in an interview with Reuters, “So tell me who the president could have nominated this spring that you would rather see on the court than me?”

Her death at 87 ended her tenure just two months before the 2020 presidential election. Biden’s predecessor and McConnell rushed confirmation of conservative Amy Coney Barrett, 48, through the Republican-controlled Senate.

Today’s conservative court -- six justices appointed by Republican presidents and three by Democrats – is teeing up cases that could undo years of settled law on abortion rights and other hot topics. Breyer, a Clinton appointee, wants to participate in these cases. He has work to do.

Justices often insist that the court’s judicial decisions are not political. Breyer makes that argument in his new book, “The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics.”

And yet the justices are well aware of the political ramifications of their personal decision to stay or go.

Then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist was once asked if it is “inappropriate for a justice to take into account the party or politics of the sitting president when deciding whether to step down from the court.”

The question came from Walter Dellinger, Duke University law professor, who wrote about it later in a 2017 article for Slate.

 “No, it’s not inappropriate,” Rehnquist replied. “Deciding when to step down from the court is not a judicial act.”

Asked recently about Rehnquist’s comment, Breyer said, “That’s true.”

Meanwhile, the political clock ticks louder. It’s still possible for Breyer to retire after this term and for Biden and Senate Democrats to install a liberal successor, likely a black woman, before the midterm elections.

But Breyer’s indecision has made the task more difficult, and he has ensured the highest court will be a key political issue in next year’s Senate races.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.