The real issues in this Senate campaign? Speeches offer a clue

August 9, 2014

140806Clinton-TE0255Former President Bill Clinton appeared at a fundraising luncheon in Lexington on Aug. 6 for Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

I spent time in the past week listening to a lot of speeches by the two U.S. Senate candidates and their surrogates.

We don’t hear as many political speeches as we used to. Campaigns have mostly become a series of TV attack ads in which candidates trash their opponents and stretch the truth as much as they can in 30 seconds.

Political speeches are longer than attack ads, increasing the odds that a candidate might mention accomplishments or goals or reveal the values behind his or her campaign.

When Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, faced off Aug. 2 at the Fancy Farm Picnic, they mostly mocked each other and professed more love for the coal industry than for clean air, clean water and good health.

McConnell used the rest of his time to slam Gov. Steve Beshear, Attorney General Jack Conway, the “liberal” media and President Barack Obama, perhaps the only politician with a lower approval rating in Kentucky than his own.

McConnell vowed to repeal Obama’s health-care law, which has provided insurance to tens of thousands of Kentuckians who didn’t have it. He also urged voters to re-elect him to lead Senate Republicans so the gridlock in Washington can continue.

What McConnell did not mention was any accomplishments during his three decades as Kentucky’s longest-serving senator. He also didn’t say what he would do to improve the lives of average Kentuckians.

At least Grimes used some of her time to talk about how she would try to grow a middle class that has been shrinking for three decades because of globalization and “trickle down” economic policies that favor the wealthy.

Grimes called for raising the minimum wage and legislating equitable pay for women, both of which McConnell opposes. She also voiced support for strengthening Social Security and Medicare, making college more affordable and protecting the right of workers to bargain collectively for better pay and benefits.

With polls showing the race essentially tied, Grimes brought in former President Bill Clinton to campaign for her Wednesday in Lexington and Hazard. Clinton carried Kentucky in both of his presidential elections, and his administrations presided over an era of balanced budgets, job growth, welfare reform and economic prosperity.

Clinton is a gifted speaker with a knack for putting things in perspective.

“Creating jobs and raising incomes and giving poor people a chance to work into the middle class, that is the issue,” Clinton told those who attended a Grimes fundraising luncheon in Lexington.

He endorsed Grimes’ call for raising the $7.25 federal minimum wage, which hasn’t been increased in five years.

“We have not kept up with inflation,” Clinton said, adding that a reasonable increase in the minimum wage will create jobs, not kill them as Republicans always claim. “These people are going to spend that money; it’s going to circulate in their communities; all the local merchants are going to be better off; incomes will go up; more people will get hired; more people will get a pay raise.

“Creating more jobs and shared prosperity, as opposed to fewer jobs and more concentrated wealth with all the benefits going to people at the top, is the main issue people face in country after country and country,” he added. “We Americans have not done enough for broadly shared prosperity, because we have not done enough to create jobs.”

Clinton also discussed the political obstruction McConnell has led in Congress since Obama became president in 2009.

He contrasted McConnell to former U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford, a Democrat who while in Senate leadership worked well with colleagues and presidents of both parties, and to Beshear, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican, who together last year formed the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative to help diversify Eastern Kentucky’s economy.

“I’ve been everywhere, and I’m telling you: whenever people are working together, good things are happening,” Clinton said. “Whenever they spend all their time fighting, good things are not happening. The founders of this country gave us a system that requires us to treat people who disagree with us with respect and dignity and to make principled compromise so that something good can happen. Cooperation works, and constant conflict is a dead-bang loser.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


Fancy Farm: unfiltered politics and spicy barbecue worth the trip

August 2, 2014

140802FancyFarm-TE0027 Jim Weise, a retired Army lawyer from Elizabethtown, campaigns for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell at the Fancy Farm Picnic. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

 

FANCY FARM — This time each year, I am often asked why I drive four hours to a tiny town and sit in sweltering heat to hear politicians make wisecracks and partisan crowds scream at them. It can’t just be for the barbecue.

No, I tell them, it isn’t just for the barbecue. But my share of the nine tons of spicy pork and mutton, home-grown vegetables and homemade pies prepared by the good folks of St. Jerome Parish is always worth the drive.

I go to the Fancy Farm Picnic because, in this age of big-money lobbyists and TV attack ads, it is the only place where Kentucky’s most powerful politicians must face voters from both sides, the press and each other in a setting they can’t control.

The 134th annual picnic Saturday did not disappoint. And the stars of the show — Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes — performed well under pressure.

Partisan activists come in from all over the region to crowd under a metal roof — Democratics on one side, Republicans on the other — wave signs, cheer their candidates and boo their opponents. This year’s crowd was reportedly the biggest in history, but it did a better job than usual of heeding organizers’ pleas for civility.

The main attraction was the Senate race, because it is the first time in decades that Democrats have a shot at beating the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history.

Polls show McConnell and Grimes essentially tied with an undecided electorate of less than 10 percent.

McConnell is an old pro on the Fancy Farm stump, and he focused his remarks on trying to paint Grimes as an inexperienced novice and puppet of liberals and President Barack Obama. He likened her lack of experience for high office to Obama, who ran for the presidency while in his first term as a senator from Illinois.

“He was only two years into his first job when he started campaigning for the next one. Sound familiar?” McConnell said of Obama. “He really didn’t have any qualifications at all. Sound familiar?”

I had to wonder if McConnell’s comments made his Republican colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, squirm in his seat on the stage. Paul, an eye surgeon, was elected in 2010 with no previous government experience, and he is now actively pursuing presidential ambitions.

Grimes, 35, was 6 years old when McConnell, 72, first took office in 1985. But she showed no respect for her elder. She accused him of being a Washington obstructionist who is out of touch with working Kentuckians and their needs. She said creating jobs, raising the minimum wage and legislation requiring equal pay for women would be her priorities.

Will Fancy Farm change the Senate race? Probably not, because neither candidate made any serious missteps. As the old saying goes, a good Fancy Farm performance doesn’t really help a candidate, but a bad performance can ruin a campaign.

The picnic gave an early preview of next year’s governor’s race, with Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway promoting his candidacy and Republican Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer making his bid official.

State Auditor Adam Edelen, who decided against running for governor next year, is still one of the Democrats’ best stump speakers and clearly sees a future for himself in politics. Appearances by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo made people wonder if they are eyeing bigger ambitions.

Sure, Fancy Farm might be nothing more than a lot of political theater packaged with great food. But it sure beats TV attack ads.


Crisis of children at the border brings out worst in some adults

July 22, 2014

detainees

Child detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Brownsville, Texas, on June 18. Photo by Eric Gay/Associated Press.

 

I feel sorry for the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have crossed our Southern border, desperate to escape the widespread violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

But the people I pity are the adults in this country who — wrapped up in selfishness, mean-spirited politics or misguided patriotism — have tried to make the lives of these vulnerable kids more miserable than they already are.

Protesters have tried to block buses taking young refugees to shelters. They gathered in cities across the country last weekend — including a dozen or so on a New Circle Road overpass in Lexington — to hold up signs such as, “1 flag, language, country” and “Americans First.”

Some members of both parties in Congress are shamefully seeking to revoke refugee protections they passed during the Bush administration so these children can be deported without hearings.

Some Kentucky politicians fretted that these kids might be given shelter at Fort Knox pending deportation hearings, but Health and Human Services officials chose other locations. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, pandering to his right-wing base, called out the Texas National Guard at a cost of $12 million a month to assist the U.S. Border Patrol, which didn’t ask for his help.

Republicans are blaming President Barack Obama for lax border security. But the problem of child refugees has been building for more than a decade. Overall, illegal immigration is down and deportations are up in the six years since George Bush was president.

A former colleague, Mike Luckovich of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, summed up my thoughts in a recent editorial cartoon. It showed the Statue of Liberty with a new inscription: “I’ll trade you your huddled masses for my racist nitwits.”

Immigration controversies are nothing new. “We have always been a nation of immigrants who hate the newer immigrants,” comedian Jon Stewart said recently.

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens?” Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1751, about the time some of my ancestors were arriving in Philadelphia from a village near Stuttgart.

Ignoring the fact that the English took Pennsylvania from Native Americans, Franklin added that “swarthy” Germans “will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”

America’s immigration policies have always been twisted by prejudice, politics and powerful economic interests. Chinese immigrants were banned for 60 years after thousands were allowed in to build the Transcontinental Railroad because they would work cheaper than Irish immigrants.

On the eve of World War II, a ship carrying nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler was turned back from our shore amid anti-immigration public sentiment. Anyone feel good about that decision?

Many of today’s protesters insist they aren’t against legal immigration. And they point out — rightly so — that America can’t take in everybody. But our immigration system is broken, and protesters like those hanging banners that say “No Amnesty” are the biggest obstacle to fixing it.

Complex problems rarely have simple solutions. Progress in a representative democracy requires compromise, which today’s angry fringe abhors.

There are a couple of claims that need addressing. The first is that these children are “not our problem.” That assertion ignores the root causes of Latin America’s chaos: a violent drug trade whose demand we fuel, and more than a century of U.S. support for oppressive “banana republics” — either to advance American business interests or out of anti-Communism paranoia.

The second claim is that undocumented immigrants are a drain on our economy and society. In most cases, I would bet they give more than they take. If all the undocumented immigrants in Central Kentucky disappeared tomorrow, the equine, agriculture, construction and many low-wage service industries would be crippled.

No, the United States cannot take in every refugee and immigrant. But I cannot look at the pictures of these frightened children without thinking of my grandson and his mother and her sister when they were young.

The United States needs a just and rational immigration system. Until our dysfunctional elected leaders achieve that, I would much rather my tax dollars go toward treating these children with fairness and compassion than building more fences, which never have and never will solve the real problem.

This a humanitarian crisis, both on our Southern border and in our national soul. How we resolve it will say a lot about what kind of people we are.


RIP Howard Baker, the kind of politician we need more of today

June 30, 2014

Baker-Eblen

While I was on vacation in Knoxville last week, riding bicycles with a group of friends, I heard the news that former Sen. Howard Henry Baker Jr., 88, had died at his East Tennessee home. He was one of the classiest politicians I ever got to know as a journalist.

I interviewed Baker many times as a reporter for The Associated Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during the years I lived in Tennessee, 1980-1988.

Baker also was the subject of one of my favorite portraits, shown above. I had gone to the Knoxville Zoo to write a short AP story about Baker donating a baby elephant. After the press conference, I stayed until after the other reporters had left. Baker’s hobby was photography, and it didn’t take him long to retrieve his Leica M from an aide and start taking pictures of his symbolic gift.

Baker was a Republican, through and through. He became his party’s leader in the Senate and President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. Both of his wives had Republican pedigrees. Joy Dirksen was the daughter of the late Illinois senator Everett Dirksen. Three years after she died of cancer in 1993, he married Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, daughter of Alf Landon, a former Kansas governor who was the GOP presidential nominee in 1936.

But Baker was nothing like the hyper-partisan Republicans in Congress now, who would try to stop the sun from rising if they thought it would cast President Barack Obama in a favorable light. In fact, Baker’s rise to fame and respect began during the Watergate hearings when he famously framed the central question: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” The answers to that question would drive Republican Richard Nixon from office.

As a reporter, I always found Baker to be honest, straightforward, friendly and more interested in what was good for the country than just what was good for his party. We could use more like him in Washington today.


Be an informed voter; watch Lexington candidate forum videos

April 17, 2014

LWVThe League of Women Voters sponsored candidate forums earlier this month at the Lexington Public Library for local primary election races.

Videos of those forums are now available for viewing on YouTube and will be shown on the Lexington Public Library Cable Channel 20. Below is the league’s press release today with all of the details:

 

 

CANDIDATE FORUMS AVAILABLE on YOUTUBE and LIBRARY CHANNEL

LEXINGTON, KY-Candidate forums for 2014 primary races are now available for viewing on YouTube and on the Lexington Public Library Cable Channel 20. The schedule for Channel 20 between April 17 and May 19 follows.

AIRTIMES

Monday, Wednesday and Friday

Council District 2 – 11am and 5:30pm
Council District 3 – 12pm and 6:30pm
Council District 4 – 1pm and 7:30pm
Council District 6 – 2pm and 8:30pm
Council District 8 – 3pm and 9:30pm

Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday

6th Congressional U.S Rep – 11am and 5:30pm
Judge/Executive                    – 11:30am and 6pm
House 76/Republican          – 12:30pm and 7pm
House 77/Democrat             – 1pm and 7:30pm
Council At-Large (Group 1)  – 1:30pm and 8pm
Council At-Large (Group 2)  – 3pm and 9:30pm

The forums are also available on YouTube. Links are available at the Library’s web site

www.youtube.com/lexlibrary

All of the following candidates were invited to participate.

Kentucky House of Representatives

House District 76: Republican Primary: Richard Marrs, Lavinia Theodoli Spirito

House District 77:  Democratic Primary: George Brown, Jr., Michael Haskins

6th Congressional U.S. Representative

Democratic Primary: Elisabeth Jensen,* Geoff Young

Fayette County Judge/Executive

Democratic Primary: William Housh, Alayne White

Lexington/Urban County Council At-Large (Groups were selected randomly)

Group 1: Shannon Buzard, Bill Cegelka, Pete Dyer, Jon Larson, Jerry Moody, Don Pratt, Jacob Slaughter

Group 2: Ray DeBolt, Steve Kay, Connie Kell, Chris Logan, Richard Moloney, Kevin Stinnett

Lexington/Urban County Council

Council District 2   Shevawn Akers, Byron Costner, Michael Stuart

Council District 3   Rock Daniels, Chuck Ellinger, II, Jake Gibbs

Council District 4   Julian Beard*, Susan Lamb, Barry Saturday

Council District 6   Angela Evans, Darren Hawkins, Thomas Hern

Council District 8   Amy Beasley, Fred Brown, LeTonia Jones, Dave Vinson

Republican candidates for House District 79, George Myers and Ken Kearns were not available. *Indicates candidates did not participate.

Citizens may visit the Fayette County Clerk’s web page Lexington/Fayette Urban County Clerk, Voter Registration to learn their federal, state, and local district numbers.

The forums, held in early April, were co-sponsored by the Lexington Public Library and the League of Women Voters of Lexington as a service to the citizens of Fayette County.

The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan political organization that encourages informed and active participation in government. It works to increase understanding of major public policy issues and to influence public policy through education and advocacy. The League does not endorse, or oppose, political candidates or parties.


Inequality will keep growing as long as big money controls politics

March 24, 2014

The gap between America’s rich and poor has been growing for nearly four decades. Many people worry about what this could mean for our economy, our society — and even the survival of our republic.

This trend is a stark reversal of the four previous decades, and it has sparked a lot of populist anger, from Occupy Wall Street on the left to the Tea Party on the right.

Consider, for example, a recent study that found incomes in Kentucky rose 19.9 percent from 1979-2007, but that 48.8 percent of that money went to the top 1 percent of earners. According to the Economic Policy Institute, that 1 percent saw their incomes rise an average of 105.1 percent, while the average income of the other 99 percent of Kentuckians grew only 11.2 percent.

Democrats have made inequality and economic opportunity their main campaign theme. Republicans are talking about it, too, but offering very different solutions for rebuilding the American middle class.

“Economic and Political Inequality in the United States” is the title of a conference March 27-28 at the University of Kentucky featuring several nationally recognized speakers. The event is free and open to the public. Details at: Debrassocialstimulus.com.

The keynote speaker is Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman, whose talk is titled “Inequality: Working Moms, Designated Daughters, and the Risks of Caregiving.” She speaks at 7:30 p.m. March 27 at Memorial Hall.

The next day, beginning at 9:30 a.m. in the Student Center’s Worsham Theater, speakers include longtime UK history professor Ron Eller and economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy research in Washington. Topics include inequality in Appalachia and how the “culture wars” have influenced these trends.

I will be interested to hear what the speakers have to say. I will be especially interested to see if they can go beyond lamenting the problems and offer solutions that could have some chance of success in America’s increasingly toxic political environment.

For most of human history, stark inequality was the rule, contributing to both the rise and fall of countless empires. This began to change in the late 1600s with the Enlightenment, which led to creation of the representative democracies now found in most developed nations.

Representative democracy led to government-regulated capitalism and a flowering of technology and prosperity that, while uneven, was far better than anything that preceded it.

In this country, coming out of the Great Depression and World War II, it led to a dramatic narrowing of the wealth gap and an accompanying rise in economic and social opportunity and mobility that made America the envy of the world.

Wealthy industrialists realized that a prosperous middle class was needed to buy the goods they manufactured. A rising tide really did lift all boats. But research shows that America now lags many other nations in economic opportunity and mobility.

The spread of capitalism has lessened inequality in much of the world, although, as Pope Francis has consistently reminded us since assuming leadership of the Roman Catholic church a year ago, not nearly as much as it should.

While the global economy has been good for some overseas workers, it has cost many American jobs. It also has created a worldwide “race to the bottom” for labor costs, while making financial elites fabulously wealthy.

The collapse of communism seemed to show that, over the long haul, capitalism works best when it goes hand-in-hand with representative democracy. Or does it? China’s economic success since the 1980s under a ruling-class dictatorship raises some troubling questions.

Those questions are even more troubling amid the rising power of big-money influence in American politics, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates. There seems to be a new Golden Rule: those with the gold can make the rules.

While conservatives now worry about oppressive government, liberals worry about oppressive capitalism and corporate-controlled government. The rise of inequality since the 1970s has mirrored the rising clout of big business and high finance and the decline of organized labor.

Until the balance of power shifts back toward what it was a generation ago, it is hard to imagine that the balance of wealth will, either.  


Mayoral mystery: So far, challengers’ strategies remain unclear

February 18, 2014

Mayor Jim Gray attracted two challengers to his re-election when the filing deadline came Jan. 28. So far, those challengers have offered few clues about why they are in the race or how they hope to win.

The first challenger is Danny Mayer, an associate professor of English at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. He also was the publisher of North of Center, an alternative community newspaper that closed last fall after four years.

North of Center criticized some of Gray’s downtown development strategies. But, more often than not, the newspaper seemed more interested in being a cheeky gadfly than a community voice that many people would take seriously.

Mayer, 38, is a smart guy, but he has no obvious qualifications or experience to be mayor. If he entered the race to raise issues he thinks need to be discussed, it will be interesting to see how he handles the opportunity.

Gray’s other opponent, Anthany Beatty, has both the qualifications and experience to be mayor. He spent his career in the Lexington Police Department, and he was a successful chief for six years before retiring and becoming the University of Kentucky’s vice president for campus services and public safety. Beatty, 62, is smart, well-liked and has excellent people and management skills.

Were Gray not an accomplished, popular, visionary and well-financed incumbent with few liabilities, Beatty would be a strong candidate. As it is, Beatty is a long shot, unless Gray screws up big in the next eight months.

Beatty must make a compelling case for why Gray, 60, should be turned out of office. How does he hope to do that? What issues will he focus on? So far, he hasn’t said.


Voters should push back against pro-pollution politicians

February 17, 2014

Politicians say a lot of dumb things. What’s puzzling, though, is how much we listen to them.

Some of the dumbest things politicians say these days involve criticism of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other state and federal environmental watchdogs. These politicians are indignant that “regulators” are enforcing the laws they and their predecessors passed to keep air fit to breathe and water safe to drink.

The Democrats and Republicans who passed those environmental laws and created the watchdog agencies during the last half of the 20th century were smart enough to realize that pollution spoils our nation, makes us sick and, in the long run, is bad for business.

So why are many politicians today fighting for more pollution? It’s really very simple: Companies pay them to.

If you look at these politicians’ campaign funds, you will see big contributions from polluters: coal companies, chemical companies, electric utilities and other corporations that make more money when they can push the environmental costs of their businesses off on the public.

The politicians who complain loudest about environmental regulation tend to get the most money from polluters. Funny how it works that way.

When these politicians can’t repeal or ignore environmental laws and regulations, they argue that they should be enforced by state rather than federal agencies. That’s easy to understand, too: the smaller the watchdog, the easier it is to muzzle.

Federal prosecutors last week launched a criminal investigation into the relationship between North Carolina regulators and Duke Energy after 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water spilled into the Dan River on Feb. 2. It was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

The Associated Press reported last week that North Carolina regulators repeatedly thwarted attempts by environmental groups to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke to clean up leaky coal ash dumps near its power plants.

Two recent incidents in West Virginia, another state where politicians are frequently hostile to environmental regulation, also has raised questions about cozy political relationships with polluters.

The water supply for more than 300,000 people in nine counties around Charleston hasn’t been right since Jan. 9. That’s when storage tanks owned by Freedom Industries leaked as much as 7,500 gallons of coal-processing chemicals into the Elk River.

Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy protection to avoid lawsuits. The spill will cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Then, last Tuesday, a pipe ruptured at a Patriot Coal processing plant about 18 miles from where the chemical spill occurred. It sent more than 100,000 gallons of coal and chemical slurry into Fields Creek, a Kanawha River tributary. State officials said the spill “wiped out” six miles of stream, causing “severe, adverse environmental impact.”

We’ve heard these stories many times before. Remember the 2008 coal ash pond collapse in East Tennessee that released 5 million cubic yards of ash and cost $1.2 billion to clean up? Or the spill in Martin County, Ky., in 2000 that sent 306,000 gallons of coal sludge into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River? And there are many more smaller incidents that never make headlines.

Does this sound like environmental regulation that is too strict, or too lax?

Many Kentucky politicians like to complain about the “war on coal” — a phrase coined for a well-financed industry propaganda campaign. But the real war is being waged against Kentucky’s land, water, air and public health by companies that want more freedom to blast mountains, bury streams and release toxins into the environment.

Many people support polluters because they buy into the argument that you can’t have both a strong economy and a clean environment.

Sure, sometimes environmental regulation does cost jobs and raise costs in the short run. But history has shown that it has always been good for the economy in the long run because it creates a healthier environment and sparks job-creating innovation. Perhaps the best example is government fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, which over several decades have given us better cars and cleaner air.

How long will some politicians keep fighting for more pollution? As long as polluters keep paying them to. And as long as we keep listening to and re-electing them.


As campaign season officially begins, a call for civility

January 28, 2014

The filing deadline for Kentucky elections was Tuesday, and you know what that means: Radio and TV will soon be awash in attack ads for the Senate and Congressional races, and even some local campaigns are likely to turn ugly.

The Kentucky Council of Churches doesn’t think it should be that way. The 66-year-old organization that represents more than a dozen Catholic and Protestant denominations and fellowships has launched a year-long initiative to try to raise the level of civility in public discourse.

“The idea emerged from a sense that their congregations are often torn apart by conflicts with roots in the larger culture,” said the Rev. Marian McClure Taylor, a Presbyterian minister and the council’s executive director. “Faith can escalate the level of intensity of debate about public issues.”

Taylor, who earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University before going to seminary, thinks the intensity of partisan politics may be the biggest cause of incivility today, and it often is amplified by opinion media and social media.

“One of the strategies to win political races now is to drive wedges on a few issues that people will get intensely emotional about,” she said. “You win elections by convincing people they need to go to war against people who believe differently.”

This isn’t a new topic for the council. In 1995, its board approved a Statement of Campaign Ethics, which it hopes to bring new attention to it. The statement begins with passages from the Bible’s book of Exodus, warning against bearing false witness and spreading false reports.

Among other things, the statement rejects personal attacks, “innuendo and lies”, secrecy in campaign financing, single-issue voting, media promotion of “undue polarization” and voting for self-interest rather than public good.

The council devoted its annual meeting last October to the topic. The council is asking for nominations for awards it plans to present this October for people who are good models for civility in public dialogue.

Taylor has been preaching on the topic, and more programs are planned later this year. She also is considering whether the council should call out politicians whose campaign tactics violate the Statement of Campaign Ethics. Even if the council doesn’t find a way to hold politicians accountable, she said, voters should.

Religious leaders aren’t the only ones concerned about this issue, which has made politics nastier and governing more difficult.

Jonathan Haidt, a social scientist at the University of Virginia and author of the 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, sees incivility as a natural result of polarization. Today’s political parties are more “ideologically pure” than in the past and compromise is often seen as a betrayal of principle.

Haidt thinks part of this is the result of demographics: the generation that came together to fight a common enemy during World War II was succeeded by Baby Boomers who grew up fighting each other over the Vietnam War, civil rights and social issues.

It also is easier now for Americans to segregate themselves by where they live, who they associate with and what media they read, listen to and watch. Media choices often create “confirmation bias” rather than exposing people to divergent views, driving people to extremes rather than bringing them to consensus.

Haidt writes that one way for conservatives and liberals to better understand each other is by focusing on the way they perceive and balance six basic moral concerns: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

So how can we make public and political discourse more civil?

Haidt thinks the first step is to make political “demonization” as socially unacceptable as, say, racism or sexism. It’s also a matter of acknowledging that those we disagree with are not crazy or evil. They just disagree.

Taylor urges politicians and voters to focus on issues rather than personalities; to talk with people and discuss ideas rather than simply labeling them; and to avoid assigning motives to those with whom we disagree.

“The blind spot we have is thinking everyone else needs this,” she said. “If we can get to the point where we realize we all need this, then we’ll be getting somewhere.”


Mayor Jim Gray’s upbeat speech also a re-election pitch

January 21, 2014

It was cloudy and snowing outside, but Mayor Jim Gray was all sunshine and warmth Tuesday as he gave his annual State of the City speech.

One reason for Gray’s relentlessly upbeat talk is that Lexington is in better shape than most cities, as he pointed out several times. A lot of good things are happening here, and Gray and his administration can take at least some of the credit.

Another reason for the sunny report is that Gray is running for a second four-year term in November. This speech before an annual luncheon sponsored by the Lexington Forum was all about making the case for re-election.

With the Jan. 28 filing deadline only a week away, Gray has no opponent. That hasn’t happened for almost 30 years, so somebody is likely to challenge him. But it may not be much of a contest.

Gray is popular and personable. His administration has significant accomplishments, many good things in the works and no major vulnerabilities so far. Plus, Gray’s re-election fund already has $180,000 in the bank.

With former Vice Mayor Mike Scanlon’s announcement last week that he won’t run, the only potential opponent of significance would seem to be Anthany Beatty, who was Lexington’s first black police chief and is now assistant vice president for campus services at the University of Kentucky.

Beatty is well-known, well-liked and was an effective police chief. But his candidacy for mayor could be a long-shot. Beatty said Tuesday that he will make a decision by this weekend.

There also has been speculation that Beatty might run for an at-large seat on the Urban County Council, but Beatty said he has no plans to run for council.

Even if Beatty doesn’t run, Gray is likely to get at least token opposition. Running for mayor is always a good way for people to attract attention to specific issues — or themselves. It can be good for civic dialogue, or at least entertaining.

Still, Gray wasn’t taking any chances Tuesday. The closest thing to a controversial issue he mentioned was to urge support for state legislation allowing voters in Kentucky cities to authorize a time-limited, 1 cent sales tax increase for specific construction projects.

Any proposal for higher taxes is controversial among some tax-averse voters, but this one is a no-brainer. Local voters should have the right to approve higher taxes for a purpose they value without being micro-managed by Frankfort.

Most of Gray’s speech was a laundry list of accomplishments, good rankings on national lists and feel-good optimism about Lexington. He put his accomplishments in the context of his three goals as mayor, which were posted on banners behind him: create jobs, run government efficiently and build a great American city.

“I am proud to report that the state of our city is strong and getting even stronger,” Gray said. “Lexington is today a beacon for other cities.”

Borrowing a device recent presidents have used in their State of the Union speeches, Gray recognized several do-gooders in the audiences, as well as two women who wrote public love notes to Lexington, one a letter to the editor in the Herald-Leader and the other a Huffington Post blog essay.

Gray also went out of his way, as he often does, to recognize and praise council members. Unlike some previous mayors, Gray has realized he can be more effective if he tries to get along with council members.

(The day before, during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Unity Breakfast, Gray realized he had forgotten to recognize several council members in the audience. So he passed a note to the Lafayette High School student who was acting as emcee and asked him to do it for him.)

Gray made a point of recognizing Emma Tibbs, the influential leader of the Fayette County Neighborhood Council, whose litigation forced the city to agree to fix persistent waste-water problems. And he praised public safety employees, many of whom have been unhappy with pension reforms and other city cost-cutting efforts.

The mayor did his best to leave the Lexington Forum crowd upbeat about the state of the city, no doubt hoping the feeling will last until at least November.


‘For on his brow I see that written which is Doom’

December 24, 2013

XmasCarolCover

Today’s reading is from Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “ I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

***

XmasCarol“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw!”

“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.


Improving Lexington water quality messy, expensive and worth it.

November 4, 2013
SewerWork

Rob Walker installed a pipe as Tommy Davis ran a track hoe at a pump station under construction on Winchester Road near Hume Drive. Photo by Pablo Alcala

 

I often say that if our state and federal governments worked as well as Lexington’s government does, America would be a lot better off.

Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government is hardly perfect. (Trick-or-treat when?) But the city delivers services efficiently, and our nonpartisan mayor and council members usually seem to care more about the public interest than special interests. Unlike Congress, they’re a pretty responsible bunch.

A good example is the consent decree negotiated in 2008 between the city and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the effects of which will soon be hard to miss.

Construction crews will begin this month digging up streets for the first three of more than 80 sewer-improvement projects. The most noticeable early one will be just south of St. Joseph Hospital on Harrodsburg Road, where underground sewer pipes are being replaced with bigger ones.

The work will take at least 10 years. Citizens may get more information at Lexingtonky.gov about specific projects and disruptions they will cause.

The total cost of this work could be a half-billion dollars or more, which means sewer fees are sure to rise eventually. Lexington has a lot of catching up to do.

“There’s no shortage of stuff to fix out there,” said Charles Martin, who as director of the city’s Division of Water Quality is overseeing what he says is the biggest capital construction project in Lexington history. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Many politicians like to beat up on the EPA, especially because it won’t allow coal companies to destroy what is left of Eastern Kentucky’s natural landscape for the sake of higher profits and a few short-term jobs.

But when the EPA sued Lexington in 2006, citing decades of chronic water pollution, city officials acted responsibly. Rather than posture and scapegoat, they began working with the EPA to figure out how to fix the problems. They knew that a clean environment was in Lexington’s best long-term interest.

Lexington’s problem is basically that infrastructure hasn’t kept up with growth and development. A lot of rainwater that should have been going into storm sewers is going into sanitary sewers instead. When it rains hard, there are some nasty overflows into basements, streets and streams.

The problems are the result of years of infrastructure neglect, Martin said. The city didn’t always require developers to build adequate sewer systems, and many old sewers weren’t updated when they should have been. Lexington started treating sewage in 1918, but there was no dedicated fee for sewer system maintenance until the 1980s.

The city started addressing these problems in a serious way four years ago, replacing inadequate sewer pump stations around town and adding a new one. Fayette County has seven watersheds but only two sewage treatment plans. So a lot of sewage must be pumped all over town.

In addition to installing new sewers, Lexington is trying some creative solutions, such as storage tanks to handle short-term storm-water volume.

Officials also are exploring natural solutions. Environmental engineering has come a long way since the 1950s, when the creeks like those that flowed through what is now the Zandale neighborhood were rerouted into ugly concrete drainage canals.

These approaches are not without controversy. Julian Campbell, a botanist, and Robert Stauffer, a geochemist and hydrologist, wrote op-ed pieces in the Herald-Leader recently saying that the city’s remediation plan for Cane Run Creek between Interstate 75 and Citation Boulevard could do more environmental damage than good.

Campbell and Stauffer raise some good questions. But this is complicated stuff, and the city has some excellent environmental talent on its team, too. Officials must respond to their critiques thoroughly and publicly so citizens can have confidence that things are being done right.

In addition to fixing old problems, the consent decree will make sure Lexington doesn’t add new development without also adding the sewer infrastructure to handle it. Some people won’t like that, but it makes sense.

This whole process will be complicated, expensive and a lot of hassle. But it’s the right thing to do, and it will leave Lexington in a better position for future growth and prosperity.

To read Tom Martin’s Q&A with project director Charles Martin, director of the city’s Division of Water Quality, click here.

 


Kentucky hunger: taking from poor while giving to rich is shameful

September 17, 2013

130912GodsPantry0003

The God’s Pantry warehouse on Jaggie Fox Way. The food bank, which also has warehouses in Winchester and Prestonsburg, distributes food to the needy in 50 counties of Central and Eastern Kentucky. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

September is Hunger Action Month, and Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representatives are marking the occasion by trying to take food from the mouths of poor children, low-wage workers and elderly people.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia is leading an effort to cut $40 billion over the next decade from SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Since the 2008 financial crisis led to a deep recession, the SNAP program has doubled in size, to $80 billion. That money has largely gone to help feed individuals and families who have been unemployed or under-employed.

While Wall Street and corporate America have recovered just fine, many poor and middle-income people continue to struggle. Still, Republican leaders think it’s time to economize by going after the $4.50 average daily SNAP benefit that goes to millions of poor people, including 875,000 Kentuckians.

GOP leaders claim the SNAP program is rife with abuse, yet they have produced little evidence of that beyond isolated media reports of someone buying steak or lobster with food stamps or continuing to claim benefits after cashing a big lottery ticket.

House Republicans seem less concerned about the tens of billions of dollars now wasted on agriculture subsidy programs that largely benefit agribusiness companies and wealthy farmers, including some members of Congress. While the House farm bill this summer left out SNAP funding and cut land conservation efforts, agriculture subsidies for the wealthy were actually increased.

One example of this hypocrisy is U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, a Tennessee Republican and Tea Party favorite who has been a vocal advocate for cutting SNAP. Since 1999, Fincher has collected nearly $3.5 million in government farm subsidies. Other members of his cotton-farming family have received millions more.

The food bank directors and social workers who deal with hunger face-to-face every day have been unanimous in their condemnation of Cantor’s plan, according to news reports.

To get a feel for the local situation, I visited Lexington-based God’s Pantry, a non-profit that supplies food to people in 50 Kentucky counties through a network of warehouses and 300 affiliate churches and charities.

God’s Pantry CEO Marian Guinn said there is no way private charities can begin to make up for drastic cuts in government benefits in this still-recovering economy. Republican criticisms of SNAP are overblown, she said.

“You can always pull out examples of abuse in any situation or any program,” Guinn said. “But we see (SNAP) as a really effective way to get needed resources, but not all the resources that a family needs for their food.”

God’s Pantry gathers food from government commodity programs, plus donations from groceries and the food industry, and buys fresh produce with donations from the public. (Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog group, has consistently given God’s Pantry top ratings for money-management and efficiency.)

God’s Pantry provides food to more than 211,000 people — nearly one in seven — in its 50-county service area each year, Guinn said. Census data shows that about 310,000 people in the region live in poverty.

Statewide, the government estimates that about 715,000 people are “food insecure.” If Congress makes substantial cuts in SNAP, that number will explode.

Guinn said a typical God’s Pantry client is a white woman in her early 40s with one or two children who works part-time and earns $1,000 or less a month. Client households tend to have low levels of education and often are dealing with health problems. Forty-one percent of client households have children, and 18 percent have elderly people.

“Many of these are people who before the recession were living middle-class or lower middle-class lives,” she said.

God’s Pantry clients must be referred by social-service agencies to make sure they have a genuine need.

“The sentiment in Washington is really concerning to us,” said Guinn.

“Because federal programs are very important for us, there certainly are lots of opportunities for advocacy,” Guinn added.

“Advocacy” is a polite way of putting it. I will be more blunt: Call or write your congressman today. Tell him that if he votes to take food away from the poor while shoveling public money to the wealthy, he should be ashamed.

 

How to Help

God’s Pantry

To donate to or volunteer call (859) 255-6592 or go to: Godspantry.org

Greater Lexington CROP-Hunger Walk

3 p.m., Sept. 29, at Second Presbyterian Church, 460 E. Main St. The 3.2-mile walk seeks to raise $30,000 for hunger-relief efforts, with 75 percent going Church World Service and 25 percent to God’s Pantry. Information: Lexcropwalk.blogspot.com.

Contact your Congressman

Rep. Andy Barr of Lexington, (202) 225-4706, Barr.house.gov

Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, (202) 225-4601, Halrogers.house.gov

Rep. Thomas Massie of Vanceburg, (202) 225-3465, Massie.house.gov

 

Click on each photo to see larger image and read caption:


Fancy Farm shows McConnell is in for a fight, left and right

August 3, 2013

FANCY FARM — After a tough month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell found out Saturday that his life could be getting a lot tougher.

More than a year before McConnell faces re-election in November 2014, he shared the stage at the 133rd annual Fancy Farm Picnic with two viable, articulate challengers: Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes of Lexington, a Democrat, and Republican businessman Matt Bevin of Louisville.

It was their first face-to-face meeting, and probably their only one until next year’s Fancy Farm Picnic.

Democratic activists were more numerous and enthusiastic than I have seen them at Fancy Farm in years. Bevin had only a small group of supporters here, but he has support among Tea Party activists.

130803FancyFarm-TE0208McConnell, Kentucky’s longest-serving senator, was his usual calm, assured self, arriving just before the program started and leaving the stage before Bevin and Ed Marksberry of Owensboro, another Democratic challenger, spoke.

McConnell’s appearance came after a tough month, including the embarrassment of having fellow Republican senators go around him to cut a deal with Democrats on confirmation of several Obama nominees to block changes in filibuster rules that McConnell has used to create gridlock in the Senate.

McConnell tried to frame his re-election as essential to stopping the “Obama agenda” — specifically health care reform and the administration’s crackdown on environmentally destructive coal-mining practices.

“We’re not just choosing who’s going to represent Kentucky in the Senate,” he said. “We’re going to decide who’s going to run the Senate.”

What he didn’t do was cite accomplishments, other than obstructing Obama and joining other Republicans in opposing an Army Corps of Engineers effort to restrict boating and fishing below Cumberland River dams.

130803FancyFarm-TE0230Bevin seized on McConnell’s lack of positive accomplishment, which could be a potent weapon in the hands of a smart Republican challenger.

“Mitch McConnell is known as mud-slinging Mitch, because the only thing he has to run on is destroying other people,” Bevin said. “There is nothing in his 30-year history of voting that he’s proud enough of to actually run on.”

Attacking him from the right, Bevin accused McConnell of being too timid in opposing Obama’s health-care law. “Be a man, stand up and put your money where your mouth is,” he taunted.

Bevin chided McConnell for arrogance for leaving with his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, before Bevin spoke. Bevin invited his wife, Glenna, and their nine children, including three four adopted from Ethiopia, to join him onstage.

Bevin didn’t give specifics about what kind of senator he would be. He also didn’t criticize Grimes, saying there would be plenty of time for that after he beats McConnell in the primary.

Grimes also was poised and confident. She joked about McConnell’s embarrassment on the filibuster showdown and his obstructionist tactics in what has been the least productive Congress in decades.

130803FancyFarm-TE0340“There is a disease of dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and Sen. McConnell is at the center of it,” she said. “As long as he remains in Washington, D.C., D.C. will stand for ‘dysfunctional capital.'”

Grimes slammed McConnell for votes against raising the minimum wage and legislation on two women’s issues: domestic violence and equal pay. She said she could do a better job of working across the aisle to get things done in Congress, which has record-low public approval ratings.

Both of these challengers showed they could do considerable damage to McConnell’s reputation. But can they beat him?

Bevins has some personal wealth and Tea Party support. But, unlike Rand Paul with his famous father, Rep. Ron Paul, Bevins doesn’t yet seem to have much grass-roots support or organization. He did little or nothing to solicit support at related GOP events this weekend in Western Kentucky.

Grimes has Democratic activists united, and she got strong endorsements on the Fancy Farm stage from Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Adam Edelen.

Given the party connections of her father, Jerry Lundergan, and national Democrats’ desire to unseat McConnell, she shouldn’t lack for money. But to win, Grimes will have to be more aggressive about framing the debate: she must make McConnell the issue, rather than allowing him to make Obama the issue.

McConnell’s record makes him vulnerable to a candidate who can exploit it.

One thing is clear: McConnell is less popular than ever. Whether either of these two challengers can take him out in a 15-month marathon in the national spotlight will be fascinating to watch.

Click on each thumbnail to see larger photo and read caption:


News Literacy Project teaches kids to sort media fact from fiction

July 28, 2013

Before he retired and moved back to Lexington, John Carroll spent five years as the top editor of the Los Angeles Times, leading a newsroom staff that won 13 Pulitzer prizes.

Websites, blogs, niche cable TV networks and talk radio shows were beginning to become significant players on the media landscape then, and Carroll noticed a phenomenon he hadn’t seen before in his long journalism career.

“We would get 1,000 emails, ‘Why didn’t you cover this? You’re covering up!'” he said. “I was just shocked at the misinformation that people were calling us with and emailing us with, and it was obviously coming out in mass form, because you would get 20 or 50 or 10,000 queries about certain things that were not true.”

The proliferation of new digital media and the changing nature of traditional media have resulted in many more sources for news, information and commentary. But some of what is masquerading as journalism is really propaganda, marketing, entertainment or simply nonsense.

How do you know what to trust? It is hard enough for adults; what about kids? One of Carroll’s Pulitzer-winning reporters decided to take on that issue.

Alan Miller, who had been an investigative reporter in the Times’ Washington bureau, left the newspaper in 2008 and started the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit educational organization. Carroll now serves as chairman of the organization’s board of directors.

nlpThe project developed a media literacy curriculum now used by teachers in middle and high schools in the New York, Washington and Chicago areas.

“We’re teaching critical thinking skills, so if you find out something online … it gives you critical tools for deciding whether this is a good source of information and whether something is true or not true,” Carroll said. “The way we teach it is fun. It has a lot of practical exercises.”

The News Literacy Project also has enlisted dozens of journalist volunteers — including big names such as Gwen Ifill of PBS, James Grimaldi of the Wall Street Journal and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times — to speak in schools.

The curriculum was designed with help from trained educators to be compatible with the new Common Core standards, said Miller, the project’s president and CEO. Independent assessments have measured student learning and helped refine the program’s effectiveness.

So far, nearly 10,000 students have taken the courses in those three metropolitan areas. The long-term goal is to reach every student in every American school, and a digital version of the curriculum is being developed and tested.

Miller said some videos and other resources, such as a “teachable moments” blog reacting to current events, will be made available free to schools everywhere in October on a redesigned version of the project’s website, thenewsliteracyproject.org.

Plans call for a full, free digital curriculum to be offered online beginning in the fall of 2014. Teachers can use the lessons as a separate social studies unit, or integrate them into their other curricula.

So far, the project has been funded mostly with grants from media companies and major foundations. Plans call for additional revenue to come from supplementary services to schools in major metropolitan markets, Miller said.

The curriculum teaches students to think critically and question the sources, accuracy, fairness and truthfulness of information they encounter in all forms of media. They also are encouraged to get their news from a variety of sources.

Miller and Carroll said the courses have been popular with both teachers and students, and assessments show they have increased students’ interests in news and public affairs. The project has received little criticism from partisan or ideological groups, which frequently claim media bias left and right.

“We are rigorously nonpartisan,” Miller said.

Even more than that, Carroll said, “We encourage (students) to pay attention to media they disagree with, because another characteristic of the modern era of media is that people have created gated communities for themselves; they listen to only the things they want to hear. Sometimes the people they don’t want to hear have something significant to say.”

The project’s goal is to create not just more savvy media consumers, but more well-informed and engaged Americans.

“It’s important for this next generation to know how to make good use of the media and not to be used by the media,” Carroll said. “Our fondest hope is to reach every young person in America, and that as a result of that they will become more sophisticated citizens and voters and discourse about public issues will be improved.”


Political dysfunction takes a holiday on Independence weekend in DC

July 9, 2013

indy3

After the concert on the Capitol’s West Lawn, fireworks went up over the Washington Monument. Below, the monument was recently sheathed in scaffolding to repair damage from a 2011 earthquake. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

WASHINGTON — Watching the annual Capitol Fourth concert and fireworks show from Washington on Kentucky Educational Television has become an Independence Day tradition in my family.

Each year we say, “Wouldn’t that be fun to attend sometime?” So, this year, we did.

My wife booked airline tickets and a hotel room months in advance. Our younger daughter took the train down from New York City and stayed with a college friend who joined us. Then we spent a long weekend soaking up American history and patriotic spirit.

Washington has never been one of my favorite places. President John F. Kennedy described it as a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency. It has more than its share of people consumed by ambition. This time of year, the heat and humidity can be oppressive.

But the weather wasn’t too bad last week, especially compared to the unceasing rain that drenched Lexington. The city was filled with dressed-down Washingtonians on holiday and tourists like us from across the country and around the world.

Indy2While touring the city, I posted a series of photos on Facebook from such places as the National Postal Museum and the National Building Museum. I labeled a photo of the Capitol the “National Dysfunction Museum.” A friend in California commented that it wasn’t so much a museum of dysfunction as an active laboratory.

We saw little evidence of the current partisan gridlock, but that was probably because the politicians and the lobbyists who call the tunes they dance to were off-duty. I did notice that a Smithsonian gift shop had an ample supply of “Proud to be a Republican” tote bags on the clearance rack, marked 60 percent off.

At the National Portrait Gallery, we looked eye-to-eye at Daniel Boone, who sat for artist Chester Harding shortly before his death in 1820. Inside the ornate Library of Congress, we saw a Gutenberg Bible and the remnants of Thomas Jefferson’s vast book collection.

The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History showed us Henry Clay’s chair, Abraham Lincoln’s watch and the giant Star Spangled Banner that inspired the national anthem. Also behind glass there were Jim Henson’s Kermit the Frog and Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.

Everywhere were monuments, relics and reminders of generations of American leaders who viewed government as a vehicle for solving problems and promoting the common good, rather than as an obstacle to selfishness and corporate power.

The soaring Capitol dome was inspiring. So was the National Cathedral, although the Episcopalian tour guide pointed out that the “national” designation is honorary because America has no state religion.

The Gothic-style cathedral of stone and stained glass, built over the past century, is as impressive as any I have seen in Europe. It also has a key advantage: elevators in the towers. And only in America would cathedral builders have enough sense of humor to include a gargoyle depicting Darth Vader from the movie Star Wars.

The highlight of our trip, of course, was A Capitol Fourth. After spending nearly an hour in a security line, we joined gathering crowds on the mile of green space between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, which had recently been sheathed in scaffolding to repair damage from a 2011 earthquake.

We couldn’t see the concert stage because of all the trees on the Capitol’s West Lawn. But we had a good view of the big screen above the stage, as well as the Washington Monument.

The show was a mix of patriotism and pop culture: 70-something singers Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond; up-and-coming singers from recent TV talent shows; John Williams conducting music from the movie Lincoln and cast members from Broadway’s Motown: The Musical. My wife enjoyed it more than I did.

But as the National Symphony Orchestra launched into Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with accompaniment from an Army artillery squad, a spectacular fireworks display erupted over the Washington Monument.

There was something special about being in the nation’s capital on Independence Day, surrounded by a few hundred thousand of our fellow citizens. Political dysfunction had taken a holiday, and there we were, between the Capitol and a glorious fireworks show, proud to be Americans.

Indy1

 The view over my left shoulder during “A Capitol Fourth” on the Capitol’s West Lawn.


‘Religious freedom’ law more about discrimination, pressure politics

March 31, 2013

Kentucky’s new “religious freedom” law sure looks like an attempt by conservative Christians to justify discrimination against gay people and get around local “fairness” ordinances.

That is why many people were puzzled when Jim Gray, Lexington’s first openly gay mayor, was the most muted voice in the choir of opponents who urged Gov. Steve Beshear to veto the bill.

Beshear did issue a veto, but the General Assembly overturned it by a wide margin last week.

Beshear’s veto came at the urging of dozens of organizations and individuals — liberal churches, gay rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Kentucky League of Cities, the Kentucky Association of Counties and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who said the bill would “take us backwards as a city and Commonwealth, hurting our strategic position in an increasingly global economy.”

Gray, however, issued a tepid statement that stopped short of urging a veto. He has declined to elaborate publicly.

“The legislation’s stated goal is to encourage religious freedom. That’s a worthy goal,” his statement said. “However, many citizens are concerned the bill may unintentionally open the door to discrimination. Last Thursday, I talked to the governor, shared these concerns and urged him to consider these issues carefully.”

Gray took a beating in social media from some gay people and their supporters, but gay rights leaders were more circumspect. Lexington Fairness chairman Roy Harrison, in an interview Friday, avoided any criticism of Gray.

“We are really happy that he brought more discussion to the bill,” Harrison said. “Everyone has their own political calculus.”

The General Assembly’s political calculus was clear. Most opponents of the bill were lawmakers from progressive urban districts. Legislators from more conservative rural, small-town and suburban districts voted for it.

In a conservative district, there is nothing more dangerous in the next election than having an opponent claim you voted against “religious freedom.” Rural Democrats, especially, are feeling the heat.

Gray is seeking re-election to a second term as mayor next year, so he may have wanted to avoid alienating conservatives. But few people expect Gray to get serious opposition. Former Police Chief Anthany Beatty floated a trial balloon about running, but it hasn’t gotten much lift.

Gray seems to be widely popular in Lexington, even among former critics. As mayor, he has had significant accomplishments and has made few missteps.

Besides, voters knew Gray was gay when they elected him to council in 2006 with enough votes to make him vice mayor. His sexual orientation wasn’t really an issue when he unseated incumbent Mayor Jim Newberry in 2010. Since then, Gray hasn’t tried to be “the gay mayor” — just “the mayor.”

Gray’s political calculation may have been that everyone, including the governor, knew where he stood on this subject, so he had little to gain by being vocal on a statewide controversy where he had no real influence.

Gray did come out strong a year ago on a Lexington controversy, when Hands on Originals cited religious objections in refusing to print T-shirts for a gay pride festival, sparking an ongoing investigation by the city’s Human Rights Commission.

A more important political calculation may have been that Gray didn’t want to anger the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Damon, D-Nicholasville, an influential member of the Central Kentucky delegation. Rep. Sannie Overly of Paris may have unseated Damron as chair of the House Democratic caucus this year, but the way this bill sailed through the General Assembly showed Damron still has plenty of clout.

For all the huffing and puffing on both sides, nobody seems to really know what this legislation will do. The stated intent is to make it easier for Kentuckians to ignore state laws or regulations that conflict with their “sincerely held” religious beliefs unless there is a “compelling governmental interest.”

Bill supporters such as The Family Foundation, which could be more accurately called the Foundation for Families Just Like Ours, insists it is not a vehicle for discriminating against gay people. But a spokesman also has argued that the Hands on Originals case wasn’t really discrimination.

The law’s uncertainties and unintended consequences were a big reason Beshear said he vetoed it. “As written, the bill will undoubtedly lead to costly litigation,” he said.

Don’t forget the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars that have been wasted on defending clearly unconstitutional attempts by some local governments to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

Harrison, the Lexington Fairness chairman, said gay rights and civil liberties groups will be watching to see if this new law is used to try to justify discrimination. If so, they will aggressively challenge it.

Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, a Unitarian Universalist minister and opponent of the new law, mused that one unintended consequence of it could be to advance gay rights.

Unitarians support gay marriage. Could not they use this law to challenge Kentucky’s 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions as an infringement of their “sincerely held” religious beliefs? Might the state then be forced to show a “compelling governmental interest” for banning gay marriage?

One thing is for sure: this bad law will keep the culture warriors battling for years to come.


Election showed Kentucky at odds with nation’s changing electorate

November 11, 2012

America zigged and Kentucky zagged. The majority of the nation’s voters rejected right-wing politics in last Tuesday’s election, but Kentuckians outside of Lexington and Louisville embraced them all the more.

Big swings have become the norm in national elections, because neither party has succeeded in solving America’s problems on its own. But deeper forces may have been at work this time.

Much of the post-election analysis has focused on demographic shifts that go against the hard conservative turn the Republican Party has taken in recent years.

Young people, women and minorities voted overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama’s economic policies over those of challenger Mitt Romney, and they rejected socially conservative candidates for the U.S. Senate.

Republicans’ run to the right has been marked by increasingly rigid ideology on both economic and social issues. But analysts of all stripes warn that without more tolerance of diversity — including intellectual diversity — the GOP could become the incredible shrinking party of old, white men.

Demographics are destiny, and it will be interesting to see how Republicans cope with these demographic trends. As it does, Kentucky will be in the spotlight, because the state’s two high-profile U.S. senators now seem to be caught between Barack and a hard place.

Voters in many states signaled that they have grown tired of Tea Party radicals. Paul won election in Kentucky two years ago as a Tea Party idol and immediately started preening like a future presidential candidate. Are his 15 minutes of fame about up?

By re-electing Obama and giving Democrats more seats in the Senate, voters rejected Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s relentless obstructionism. He went to great lengths over the past four years to oppose the president on just about everything.

While other Republican leaders were making conciliatory statements after the election, McConnell, the anti-Henry Clay, struck his usual pose against compromise. He indicated he will continue to fight against raising historically low income taxes on America’s richest people to lower the nation’s budget deficit, even though opinion polls show overwhelming public support for it.

In an especially cynical comment, McConnell called on Obama to “move to the political center.” McConnell is nowhere near the political center himself, and the Tea Party wing of his party would need a telescope to even see it.

Kentucky and other Southern states have played a big role in supporting the Republican party’s anti-tax, anti-government ideology. But that is deeply ironic when you look at the statistics, said Ron Crouch, director of research and statistics for Kentucky’s Education and Workforce Development Cabinet and the guru of Kentucky demographic trends.

Kentucky and other Republican-leaning “red” states tend to receive much more federal assistance than they contribute in taxes, while the reverse is true of Democrat-leaning “blue” states.

In Kentucky, Crouch noted, the largest per-capita federal transfer payments go to poor, rural counties that vote Republican.

Kentucky and other states whose populations are largely white, aging, rural and traditionally male-dominated will increasingly be overshadowed, both politically and economically, unless and until they catch up to these broader demographic trends, Crouch said.

“We need to be more supportive of immigration and open to diversity,” he said of Kentuckians. “When I drive around Kentucky, I see a lot of Confederate flags.”

Immigrants and minorities could play an important role in keeping the state’s small towns and rural areas vibrant as the white population ages and shrinks from declining birth rates.

But Kentucky already is becoming more diverse than many people realize, Crouch said. The majority of Kentucky’s population growth since 2000 — and all of it under the age of 18 — has been among minorities, especially Hispanics.

As immigrant, minority and urban populations grow in Kentucky, voting patterns are likely to become less Republican, unless that party moves more to the political center. The same is true as women gain more economic and political clout in the state.

“Blue-collar men are an endangered species,” Crouch said. “We’re seeing an economy more and more that is favoring female employment.”

Kentucky’s future, both economically and politically, will depend not only on the availability of jobs, but whether those jobs pay enough to support middle-class families, Crouch thinks. And those families are bound to become more diverse, like it or not.


The morning after: Where does America go from here?

November 7, 2012

No matter which presidential candidate you voted for, you should take a few minutes today to watch the classy speeches both men gave to their supporters in the wee hours of this morning.

There are some common themes in these speeches that conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, must embrace if America is to remain a great and prosperous nation.

Election campaigns necessarily focus on our differences and competing ideas. But governing an almost evenly divided nation requires building consensus around shared goals and values. If there is one lesson we can draw from the past four years, this is it: When governing becomes nothing more than a constant political campaign, the result is gridlock.

This is the question Americans face the morning after this election: Do we want to keep fighting, or work together to solve our problems?


Exhibit shows a century of Kentucky political memorabilia

October 30, 2012

The Georgetown & Scott County Museum has on display through Nov. 30 perhaps the largest collection ever assembled of Kentucky campaign memorabilia. Many items are one-of-a-kind. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

GEORGETOWN — Before there were TV attack ads, political campaigns were waged with posters, buttons and bumper stickers — and even thimbles, string ties and china water pitchers.

This election season, the Georgetown & Scott County Museum has assembled what organizers say is the largest-ever display of Kentucky campaign memorabilia. More than 1,200 items cover the century from 1883 to 1983.

The exhibit combines three large collections — assembled by Jerome Redfearn, Robert Westerman and Julius Rather — with artifacts held by the University of Kentucky, Western Kentucky University and several individuals.

“Many of these items, especially the early stuff, are one-of-a-kind, unless you get lucky and find the right attic,” said Redfearn, a Georgetown antiques dealer who has been collecting Kentucky campaign items for 35 years.

The museum also has published a full-color, $30 catalog of the exhibit.

The exhibit begins with a cigar box, postcard and button promoting the 1883 gubernatorial campaign of J. Proctor Knott, the namesake of Knott County. It concludes with material promoting the 1983 election of Kentucky’s first and only female governor, Martha Layne Collins.

In between, there is paraphernalia from just about every Kentuckian of that century who ran for governor, U.S. senator, vice president or president. Famous names include Alben Barkley, A.B. “Happy” Chandler, Louie Nunn, Bert Combs, Edward “Ned” Breathitt, Wendell Ford, John Sherman Cooper and three men named John Young Brown. Their names, images and slogans are reproduced on everything from buttons and hats to thimbles and “Kentucky colonel” string ties.

Among the many never-before- displayed items is a ribbon promoting the candidacy of Simon Boliver Buckner, the former Confederate general who was elected governor in 1887. His term coincided with the Hatfield-McCoy feud and the scandal over state treasurer James “Honest Dick” Tate, who disappeared with $250,000 of state money.

“That’s the only one known to exist,” Redfearn said of the Buckner ribbon. “It’s mine. Bob Westerman would love to have it, but he’s not going to get it.”

Campaign buttons and trinkets first became popular in the late 1800s, when machines enabled cheap mass production. Early buttons were covered with clear celluloid before lithography allowed color printing on tin in the 1920s. The popularity of automobiles led to campaign license plates and, later, bumper stickers.

This exhibit has many items from the notorious 1899 campaign for governor. That race pitted Republican William S. Taylor against Democrat William Goebel and the first John Young Brown, who ran on the “Honest Election Democrats” ticket in reaction to Goebel’s hardball tactics.

Taylor narrowly won, but opponents alleged vote fraud and a Democrat-controlled General Assembly gave the election to Goebel. Before he could take office, Goebel was shot in the back on the Capitol lawn, becoming the only American governor to be assassinated. Campaign items include a one-of-a-kind china water pitcher with Goebel’s portrait and a postcard bearing the slogan “Down with Goebelism!”

Lindsey Apple, a retired history professor at Georgetown College who helped organize the exhibit, said this collection also speaks to more positive aspects of Kentucky politics. Many of the names and faces displayed here became good leaders — or could have been.

“One of the things that emerges from this was how many men were well qualified to be public servants, but for whatever reason the timing just wasn’t right,” Apple said.

While the 1899 election set a standard for violence and bitterness, other races were waged by opponents who could remain friends despite their political differences.

State historian James Klotter recalled the 1915 race for governor between Democrat A.O. Stanley and Republican Edwin Morrow. They traveled the state, lambasting each other from the stump but often drinking together in the same hotel room at night.

At one joint appearance, Klotter said, the hot sun became too much for Stanley as Morrow spoke, perhaps because of their previous night’s revelry. He threw up in front of everyone.

“This goes to show you what I’ve been saying all over Kentucky,” Stanley said when it was his turn to speak. “Ed Morrow plain makes me sick to my stomach.”

Stanley won, but Morrow got his turn as governor four years later.

Click on each thumbnail to see larger photo and read caption: