Saturday, March 31, 2012

We're going to need more than an umbrella

Climate change doubters, take note.

Oh, never mind, you won't believe it anyway.

But, for the rational among us, this week's news from a Nobel Prize winning-panel of climate scientists is not for the faint of heart. In a report headlined "Killer weather to touch all," the Associated Press reported that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts more violent "deadly and costly weather disasters."

The nearly 600-page document warns us of "stronger tropical cyclones and more frequent heat waves, deluges and droughts." The world's poorest regions are most at risk though, as the scientists add, none of us will be immune.

One doesn't need to be an award-winning scientist or a television weatherman, for that matter, to observe that our weather has been gradually tilting toward the extremes. Storms are more violent. Temperatures are more severe. And it's taking a toll on human life and on the world's economy. It's a serious problem that's not being taken seriously by politicians or policymakers.

Climate change should be a major issue in this year's presidential campaign, with a non-partisan commitment to address it. Instead, so far anyway, we're hearing about birth control and pornography.

As the young people text: SMH.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Indomitable spirit, with fries, to go

It's increasingly difficult to find good news these days. Joblessness, climate change, war ... it's enough to make you want to put some Jack Daniels in your morning coffee as you peruse the newspaper. But, at least this morning, readers were treated with the heart-warming and gut-filling news that Jumpin' Jack's is back. And the story is more about perseverance, loyalty and hope than it is about burgers, onion rings and those oh-so-delicious vanilla milkshakes that Jumpin' Jack's has served for decades.

At the end of August, Jumpin' Jack's — on the shores of the Mohawk River in Scotia, right over the bridge from Schenectady — was under water. Literally under water, thanks to the rains of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. While there was never any suggestion that the famous hamburger and ice cream stand wouldn't re-open, there was a lot of apprehension, maybe even a little doubt, on the part of some regulars. I mean, the place was under water!

But, it didn't stop the owners, the Lansing Family, or their incredibly loyal and dedicated staff. No, they had their eyes on the last Thursday of March, Jumpin' Jack's traditional opening day, from the moment the Mohawk receded. And yesterday, they served their first first cheeseburger at 11 a.m. Right on time.

Jumpin' Jack's has always been about more than fast food and summertime to the locals. Now it's about heart and community.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I hate to repeat myself, but this is really bad

I've written here before about how dangerous Voter ID laws are to our democracy. Here's a comprehensive and thoughtful piece produced by the American Federation of Teachers and recently circulated via one of its electronic newsletters. New Yorkers don't have much to worry about — yet — but, on principle, we need to stand with those who will be disenfranchised.

Voter Suppression Laws Threaten Basic Voting Rights

Voter Suppression Rally, NY

At a rally in New York City, union members spoke up for the right to vote.

For the first time in decades, America is seeing a rollback in what had been a steady expansion of voting rights.

A year ago, Georgia and Indiana were the only states requiring voters to show photo identification cards. Since then, 34 states have introduced voter ID legislation. Five of the bills passed, five were vetoed and the rest are pending in state legislatures, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which notes that about 11 percent of adult citizens, or 21 million people, don't have a valid government-issued photo ID. The motivation behind this legislation has little or nothing to do with claims of voter fraud. Evidence of such fraud is extremely low.

The Brennan Center says these new restrictions fall most heavily on young, low-income and African-American voters, who tend to vote Democratic. In fact, the percentage of potential voters who don't have photo IDs is significantly higher among African-Americans (25 percent) and low-income Americans (15 percent).

The volume of legislation may tilt the scales in this year's elections. Based on the Brennan Center's analysis:

  • These new laws could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots this year.
  • States that have cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes this fall, about two-thirds of the 270 needed to win the presidency.
  • Of 12 likely battleground states, as assessed by a Los Angeles Times analysis of Gallup polling last year, five have cut back on voting rights.

Although it's too early to tell how much the ID requirement would limit voter turnout, bear in mind that fewer than two-thirds of eligible voters turn out for presidential elections now. States that require photo IDs are making them available at no cost, but voters (especially women) often have to buy copies of their birth certificates, marriage licenses or divorce decrees to prove their identity.

A voter whose driver's license has expired, or who has to take a day off work to go to city hall for a copy of a birth certificate, may just say "to heck with it," notes AFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson. "We are very troubled by voter ID laws, and we will fight them."

A few examples, by state:

  • Strict new photo ID laws, if they withstand scrutiny by the courts, could make voting this year tougher in Kansas, Texas and Wisconsin, according to the Brennan Center.
  • Florida's new law, like those in Louisiana, Michigan and three other states, will ask voters to show photo IDs and allow those without IDs to cast a ballot only under certain conditions—for example, by signing an affidavit. This will complicate voting for low-income workers, minorities and young adults, reports the Fair Elections Legal Network.
  • In Kansas, the secretary of state is pushing legislators to move up from January 2013 to this June a requirement for voters to present proof of citizenship.
  • In Maryland, pending legislation would force voters who don't show an ID to cast only a provisional ballot.
  • In New Mexico, a bill would require voters to present valid government IDs as well as require two poll workers to match IDs with voter registration rolls.

One vivid example of voter suppression comes from Wisconsin, where last year the same Republican lawmakers who had attacked bargaining also succeeded in passing voter ID legislation. The new law requires prospective voters to show a picture ID before they can cast a ballot. While this sounds simple, it's not. Since the law was signed, local governments in Wisconsin have been closing Department of Motor Vehicles offices and changing their hours of operation in ways that compel residents to miss work or find a ride if they want to obtain a picture ID.

Your voice can be heard
As grim as this is, it's not all bad news. Facing a voter revolt in Ohio, top state officials are calling on lawmakers to repeal a 2011 voter suppression law that shortens the early voting period. Bad legislation was shelved in Maine last November when citizens voted overwhelmingly to defeat a bill that would have ended same-day voter registration.

Meanwhile, a recent state hearing in Florida spotlighted voter suppression. Coalitions in Tennessee and Wisconsin are helping voters obtain IDs. And groups such as the NAACP, Voces de la Frontera and the American Civil Liberties Union are bringing lawsuits against Wisconsin's new voter ID law.

The U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing voter legislation in states and jurisdictions subject to the federal Voting Rights Act. "We need election systems that are free from fraud, discrimination and partisan influence—and that are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech last December. He urged Americans to speak out and "raise awareness about what's at stake."

Holder made those remarks shortly after the Justice Department rejected a South Carolina voter ID law on the grounds that it discriminated against minorities and thus violated the Voting Rights Act.

To protest voter suppression nationwide, the United Federation of Teachers in New York City joined the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza and other partners in a massive rally and march from the offices of Charles and David Koch (who fund anti-voter measures) to the United Nations last December. "People are not aware of how important this is," says Shelvy Abrams, chair of the UFT's paraprofessional unit and an AFT vice president. Although New York doesn't require voter IDs, she adds, "If we don't wake up and smell the roses, it's going to come to us."

And in Alabama in early March, the annual commemoration of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took on fresh significance. Alabama AFT members joined other voting and immigrant rights activists marching to defeat voter suppression laws and to reverse anti-immigration laws nationwide. "Alabama could become one of those states where you have to prove you're a U.S. citizen to vote," says Derryn Moten, co-president of the Faculty-Staff Alliance at Alabama State University.

Monday, March 12, 2012

News flash: Gazette publishes pro-labor piece

Harold Eisenstein apparently feels the same way about the Schenectady Daily Gazette's anti-union bent as I do. Eisenstein is a Schenectady attorney and longtime labor activist who has never been afraid to challenge the newspaper — or anyone else — who champions policies and positions that would curtail the rights of working people, be they in the private- or public-sector.

Eisenstein took on the Gazette yesterday, right on the front page of the paper's Opinion section. In an op-ed headlined, "Editorial, opinion piece attack unions and worker rights," Eisenstein disemboweled an argument for right-to-work legislation (made in a commentary published on Feb. 26) and upended a tired, old editorial stance calling for the repeal of New York's Triborough Amendment. His "Viewpoint" was thoughtful, thorough and right on point.

Here's a link to the Eisenstein piece. The Gazette requires a log-in to its website so you may or may not be able to access it. But it's worth a try if you believe that working men and women need respect and security during these difficult economic time.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Some civility, please (Oh, sorry if I shouted)

I loved politics when I was younger. The competition and debate excited me in ways that, I suspect, physical contact and the drive to win get the juices flowing of football players and prize fighters.

But that started to change for me a few years ago when the discourse in this nation turned ugly; when compromise became a vulgarity; when win-at-all-cost egomaniacs started populating the ballot, egged on by the cable news know-it-alls. It changed when the Olympia Snowes and Evan Bayhs of the political world had enough and walked away. Can't say that I blame them.

Can't we all just get along?

There have been recent flirtations with the idea of restoring civility to our political culture. President Obama, who still seems like a decent man, embodied it early in his term. The gun assault on former Arizona Rep. Gabriel Giffords prompted Washington to pause and consider what had become of politics as a once-honored profession. Comedian Jon Stewart brought tens of thousands to the Capitol in an impressive -- and entertaining -- show of force on behalf of civility.

But, it was all short-lived. The Republican primaries have been a cesspool of negativity and personal attacks. And we can expect more of the same once the general election kicks in. The modern political season is not our nation's proudest moment.

But there is hope, albeit slight. The call for civility in politics continues. Check out the Coffee Party USA , about which I will write more soon. It has re-ignited my interest in a new kind of political activism.

Meanwhile, NBC's "Meet the Press" had a thoughtful segment on this issue this morning. The discussion needs to be continued. But civilly, please.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Voter suppression proposals are dotting the political landscape of our nation. Or, should I say, smearing the landscape? And what's frightening is that they are quietly taking root.

Behind the facade of "voter fraud" that no one has proven, right-wingers in state houses across America are trying to resurrect what amounts to the old poll tax and literacy test. Except, now they are using an alleged need for a "voter ID" as their weapon to keep the right to vote out of the hands of minorities, students and senior citizens.

John W. Boyd Jr., a Huffington Post blogger and a civil rights activist, lays it out better than I can. And it's a chilling scenario.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The GOP's Rush to oblivion

If I was a Republican. Or a conservative. Or even a Tea Partier, I'd be saying -- loud and clear -- "Rush Limbaugh doesn't speak for me."

If I was a sponsor of the Limbaugh radio circus, I'd be saying, "We are no longer in business together."

If I was a radio station programmer, I'd be saying, "You have embarrassed us for the last time."

Limbaugh's ugly remarks about the law student who spoke out on an important national issue need to be the last straw for those who have let this shock jock dictate how politics is played. It's time to pull the plug. Now.

Other's agree. Here's the Washington Post's editorial take. It's what others are saying, and writing, too:

The GOP can no longer avoid its Rush Limbaugh problem
By Editorial Board, Published: March 2
IN A DEMOCRACY, standards of civil discourse are as important as they are indefinable. Yet wherever one draws the line, Rush Limbaugh’s vile rants against Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke crossed it. Mr. Limbaugh is angry at President Obama’s efforts to require the provision of contraception under employer-paid health insurance and the White House’s attempts to make some political hay out of the policy. His way of showing this anger was to smear Ms. Fluke, who approached Congress to support the plan, as a “slut” seeking a government subsidy for her promiscuity.

Like other “shock jocks,” Mr. Limbaugh has committed verbal excesses in the past. But in its wanton vulgarity and cruelty, this episode stands out. Mr. Limbaugh’s audience, and those in politics who seek his favor as a means of reaching that audience, need to take special note.
We are not calling for censorship. Nor are we suggesting that the ostensible policy issue here — mandatory provision of contraception under health insurance paid for by religious-based institutions such as Georgetown — is a simple one. Those who questioned President Obama’s initial decisions in this area — we among them — were not waging a “war on women,” as Democrats have alleged in strident fundraising appeals.

What we are saying is that Mr. Limbaugh has abused his unique position within the conservative media to smear and vilify a citizen engaged in the exercise of her First Amendment rights, and in the process he debased a national political discourse that needs no further debasing. This is not the way a decent citizen behaves, much less a citizen who wields significant de facto power in a major political party. While Republican leaders owe no apology for Mr. Limbaugh’s comments, they do have a responsibility to repudiate them — and him.

House Speaker John Boehner took a step in that direction Friday: “The speaker obviously believes the use of those words was inappropriate, as is trying to raise money off the situation,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in an e-mail Friday morning. But there’s no moral equivalency between the Democrats’ hyperbolic but abstract “war on women” line and Mr. Limbaugh’s targeted attack. Mr. Boehner and others of his stature need to say unequivocally that such gutter rhetoric has no place in their party or in American politics.

Incivility is not a one-way street in America. Far from it: Mr. Limbaugh’s left-wing equivalents have trashed any number of conservatives over the years. Conservatives have a point when they protest that the “mainstream media” don’t always heed their legitimate grievances.

Yet under the influence of Mr. Limbaugh and his ilk, the Republicans risk coming before the voters in 2012, and after, with nothing but grievances. This is what former Florida governor Jeb Bush was trying to tell his fellow Republicans when he observed, apropos of a recent discourse in the GOP primary: “It’s a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective, and that’s kind of where we are.”

For the good of U.S. political culture — or at least its own political self-interest — the GOP must distance itself from Mr. Limbaugh. In response to listener complaints and, apparently, the promptings of its own corporate conscience, Sleep Train Mattress Centers has quit advertising on Mr. Limbaugh’s show. Dare Republican leaders show less decency?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

City Council letdown

The Schenectady City Council had a big decision to make Monday night and didn't make it. But, while there is likely much hand-wringing and finger-pointing throughout the Electric City this week, the truth is, the Council should never have been put in the situation in which it found itself.

The Council appeared ready to fill a vacancy on the seven-member body that was created when Gary McCarthy was elected mayor. Simple enough, right? Not in Schenectady.

In a display of either arrogance or political stupidity — or both — the Schenectady Democratic Executive Committee anointed community activist Marion Porterfield as the heir apparent to McCarthy's Council seat — months before Election Day. Apparently, the thinking was that McCarthy would win his mayoral race (which he did, by a handful of votes) and that the four Democratic Council candidates would sweep to victory. Except that the voters had other ideas and failed to elect political newcomer John Mootooveren, who ran on the Democratic ticket.

Damn those voters, always trying to affect elections!

Well, the six remaining Council members — who, by the way, are the only ones who have a say in filling the vacancy, according to the City Charter — were split Monday. Three felt Mootooveren, who had been a good soldier and garnered more than 4,000 votes in November, should get the vacant seat. The other three decided to back Porterfield. A 3-3 tie, and the seat stays vacant.

Both Porterfield and Mootooveren would probably make fine Council members, though sources tell me Mootooveren was informed by Democratic leaders that he's done politically for refusing to step aside when it became clear the Council couldn't reach a consensus.

But why were the Council members' backs against the wall in the first place? And why did Porterfield and Mootooveren have to ride the Democrats' political rollercoaster? The answer to both questions, of course, is that party leaders refused to let the Council do its job. Oh, they will stay away when the unpopular decisions have to be made, like a tax increase or a program cut. They head for the hills then. But, give them an opportunity to play party boss; well, they can't resist.

This was far from the first time the party has meddled in the Council's business. But it was one of the most public and, in the end, cost Schenectadians full representation.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The right's not right on workers' rights

The Schenectady Sunday Gazette's yesterday sent a chill down my spine while making me hot under the collar. It was either the onset of the flu or another right turn by this once-fine newspaper.

At issue were two pieces in the paper's "Opinion" section. The Gazette seemed eager to strut its anti-labor stuff with a front-page centerpiece supporting passage of a "right to work" law in New York state. Note the quote marks deliberately placed; such laws are the antithesis of right to work.

The piece was written by a Schenectadian by the name of Ken Moore. He is an eloquent, thoughtful writer. And he's also dead wrong.

Here are the facts about "right to work" laws: They guarantee no worker a job, protect no worker against on-the-job bias or retaliation, and ensure no worker a fair wage. And, according to a study by the American Rights at Work organization, a not-for-profit that supports workers' rights and their choice to form a union, "right to work" laws don't create new employment opportunities nor help improve a state's economy. They are nothing more than an orchestrated effort to bust unions. That just won't play in Schenectady, Mr. Moore. Unions helped build this town and continue to have strong support.

Meanwhile, while they were in a worker-bashing mood, the Sunday Gazette editorial writers called on Gov. Cuomo to "use his considerable political capital" to put an end to the Triborough Amendment of the state's Taylor Law. Put simply, Triborough assures that the terms and conditions of a public-sector contract remain in effect after it expires. The intent is to ensure the employer (a school district or municipality) doesn't have an incentive to delay or draw out good-faith contract negotiations. It protects workers who continue to do their jobs and lights a fire under negotiators on both sides of the table.

The Triborough Amendment has come under attack before by those who want to lay all the troubles of the world on working men and women. But it continually withstands potshots and politics, bombast and bad economies. The reason? New Yorkers understand fairness and respect hard work. Our community would be better served if its "independent voice" did the same.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

I'm baaaack

OK, perhaps it's not the most original headline -- a bit cliche now -- but it does the trick. "At the Keyboard," my attempt at blogging and staying relevant, has returned after being "on hiatus" since June 2008. And it's good to be back.

Of course, a lot has happened in the blogosphere since I last weighed in. These things are now real news makers; they are often go-to sites for journalists, political operatives and news junkies. In many ways -- and I say this with much sadness -- they are helping to make daily newspapers obsolete. The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism released a report last year that showed for the first time, online readership and advertising revenue had surpassed that of print newspapers. The same report also found that 46 percent of Americans get their news online at least three times a week, compared to 40 percent who still don't mind getting their hands covered with newsprint in the morning.

Blogs, websites and social media -- by the way, I'm on Twitter @frankmaurizio -- have made us all editors. We can pick and choose the information we want, and then we can share it. It's a little disheartening for a guy like me, with a degree in journalism and a lot of years in traditional media. But it's exciting too, and I find that, more and more, I am getting online -- either on my computer or my smartphone -- to find out what's going on. I still read newspapers but, these days, they are more of a supplement than my main source of information.

So, with that in mind, here's some breaking news brought to you by "At the Keyboard:"

Schenectady City Court Judge Mark Blanchfield today announced his intention to run for state Supreme Court in the 4th Judicial District. It's an 11-county district, starting in Schenectady and heading north, practically to the Canadian border.

Interestingly, though perhaps not coincidentally, "At the Keyboard" went on hiatus in 2008 so that I could work on Mark's campaign for the state Assembly. That effort didn't work out as we had hoped, but Mark has had his share of electoral successes. He served on the City Council for nine years (three as its president), was appointed to the city court in 2010 to fill a vacancy and won election to a full term in the fall of that year. He has served our community with distinction.

As I did in 2008, I will be lending a hand during Mark's campaign (though, hopefully, with a better result). And I will write about the campaign in this space from time to time. But not often. "At the Keyboard" will offer commentary and information on a wide variety of political, policy and societal issues. I am confident readers will find at least some of it interesting and come back for more.