February 17, 2019

Ilhan Omar, AIPAC, and the 2020 Democratic Presidential Contenders...

Last week, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., ignited a controversy by tweeting a song lyric implying that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the flagship Israel lobby group in the U.S., leveraged the financial means at its disposal to enforce Washington orthodoxies about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Republicans quickly piled on, denouncing Omar as an anti-Semite. Almost as quickly, Democratic leaders in both chambers swiftly issued statements saying that Omar’s tweets — though not the member of Congress herself — were anti-Jewish.

In a tweet Monday afternoon, Omar apologized for offending constituents. But amid a political landscape where progressives are increasingly critical of money in politics and human rights abuses, Omar also doubled down on the substance of her initial salvos. “I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry,” she wrote. “It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”

Lurking behind the weeklong Omar controversy is a rapidly shifting battlefield over Israel inside the Democratic Party.

The reception to Omar’s tweets and her subsequent apology may be viewed as a cautionary tale for those who wish to see a more progressive policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet the mere discussion of Israel lobby groups’ influence, the cash behind those efforts, and Palestinian human rights can also be seen as something of a step forward.

Meanwhile, lurking behind the weeklong controversy is a rapidly shifting battlefield over Israel inside the Democratic Party.

Omar has not been alone at the center of recent firestorms over the politics of the Mideast conflict: Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian-American freshman from Michigan, has also faced backlash for purported anti-Semitism. Underlying the accusations against the first two Muslim women to be elected to Congress, however, is the fight over the growing movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel for its human rights abuses, which is known as BDS. Omar and Tlaib find themselves at the vanguard of these public scuffles not least because they are the first and only members of Congress to publicly support the BDS movement.

There are signs for pro-Palestinian activists to take heart. Omar’s and Tlaib’s strong stances reflect progressive voters’ desires for a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they certainly aren’t the only politicians paying attention. Democrats seem to be drifting left on the Mideast conflict, even some powerful figures in the party — including contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Just last month, several 2020 presidential contenders broke with Democratic Party leadership in an attempt to thwart a major legislative priority for AIPAC: passing a law that attacks the BDS movement.

Twenty-six states across the country have taken up a some form of anti-boycott law to insulate Israel from criticism, part of a broader Israel lobby effort focused squarely on combating the BDS movement. Some of the measures have been pilloried for restricting free speech, but many have passed without issue. Such anti-boycott bills have also made an appearance on the national stage — frequently with strong AIPAC backing. And yet hesitance to support the measures within the Democratic Party has sometimes squashed such efforts — as with a congressional effort to impose penalties for those who engaged in boycotts.

When another anti-boycott law came up in the new Senate — the upper chamber’s very first bill — liberal opposition was not enough to squash it. The bill, known as S.1, gave Congress’s blessing to state- and local-level BDS bans.

Almost every major announced or potential Democratic presidential candidate voted against the AIPAC bill.

This time, liberal opposition was not enough to stop it — the bill passed with an overwhelming vote — but a curious thing happened on the way: Almost every major announced or potential Democratic presidential candidate voted against it. Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Sherrod Brown all voted no, with only Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a longshot candidate, casting an “aye” vote.

Some of these 2020 hopefuls’ positions constituted reversals of a sort. In the cases of Booker and Gillibrand, both had been previous sponsors of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would have criminalized certain forms of participation in BDS, making their departures on this softened measure noteworthy. Gillibrand abandoned her support of the 2017 bill after public outrage at its free-speech implications, particularly with the American Civil Liberties Union declaring the bill unconstitutional.

Explaining his vote against S.1, Booker threaded the needle. He told The Intercept that he opposed the bill because of free speech concerns but suggested that he still supported the larger anti-boycott bill that he previously co-sponsored.

“I have a strong and lengthy record of opposing efforts to boycott Israel, as evidenced by my co-sponsorship of S. 720, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act,” Booker said in the statement. “I drafted an amendment to help address these widely held concerns, but there was no amendment process offered to allow for this bill to be improved. There are ways to combat BDS without compromising free speech, and this bill as it currently stands plainly misses the mark.”

Booker is still planning to find other ways to combat BDS, his spokesperson told The Intercept, but S.1 wouldn’t be one of them.

Though S.1 contained many provisions apart from the anti-BDS language, activists working for civil and human rights in Israel and Palestine say the reversal from Booker — who has staunchly opposed the BDS movement – was undoubtedly influenced by that portion of the measure. The change, the activists said, signals a broader attempt among Democratic presidential hopefuls to position themselves on BDS in a way that won’t alienate the leftward-shifting base in the run-up to 2020.

“As a recently announced presidential candidate, Sen. Booker’s recent vote appears to be designed to appeal to the base of the Democratic Party, a majority of whom support sanctioning Israel to end its colonization of Palestinian land,” said Josh Ruebner, policy director at the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “Sen. Booker’s vote against debating a bill that would encourage states to punish individuals who boycott for Palestinian rights is an indication that his position on this issue is evolving for the better.”

Ruebner also pointed to the other 2020 hopefuls who voted against the new anti-boycott bill amid the long run-up to the Democratic primaries next year. Other activists saw the same dynamics at play.

“We’re seeing progressives in this country steadily uniting behind a shared platform of human rights, freedom, and equality for Palestinians,” Michael Deheeger, a congressional organizer with the Jewish Voice for Peace, said in a statement to The Intercept. “And the fact that 22 Democratic senators supported our right to boycott by voting against S.1 shows that they see this shift too.”

A corollary to the rise of BDS has been efforts by pro-Israel figures — including elites in the Democratic Party — to expand the definition of anti-Semitism to include any criticism of Israel at all. This was the storm that Omar stepped into.

The tack was laid out by Israel lobbyists when an undercover Al Jazeera reporter infiltrated several right-wing pro-Israel groups for a documentary that was never aired, but leaked nonetheless. In one of the clips in the documentary, Kenneth Marcus, then the head of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law but now a Trump administration appointee, told Al Jazeera about plans to link allegations of “anti-Israel politics” with anti-Semitism. “What you’ve got to show: that they’re not the same, but they’re not entirely different either,” said Marcus, who has been a vocal critic of BDS movements across the country.

Initiatives pushed by Israel lobby groups that blur the line between criticisms of Israel and anti-Semitism have sometimes been championed by Democrats.

Initiatives pushed by Israel lobby groups that blur the line between criticisms of Israel and anti-Semitism have sometimes been championed by Democrats — including those gearing up for a 2020 run. The most notable arena has been the U.N.

In 2017, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Booker, Gillibrand, Brown, and Klobuchar joined every sitting senator in signing a letter to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres claiming that the world body has an anti-Israel bias. The letter implored the U.N. to “improve its treatment” of Israel and “eliminate anti-Semitism in all its forms.” The same year, Klobuchar, Booker, Harris, Brown, and Gillibrand joined 74 other senators in co-sponsoring a congressional measure objecting to a late 2016 U.N. Security Council resolution deeming Israeli settlements illegal and calling for their end. Israeli settlements are in fact considered illegitimate under international law and according to longstanding U.S. policy.

In the two years since, several of these 2020 hopefuls have taken stands against lines pushed by Israel lobby groups. Sanders, who says he does not support BDS, sent a letter, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, urging Senate leadership to keep the anti-boycott measure out of the year-end appropriations bill.

Compared to other Democratic presidential contenders, Warren has made perhaps the most drastic changes in her stances on Israel in recent years. In 2014, at a local town hall, the senator defended her vote — along with Booker, Gillibrand, Brown, and Klobuchar — to approve a 2013 bill that sent $220 million in military support to Israel for its Iron Dome weapons system. Sanders was the only non-GOP member to vote against that measure.

“America has a very special relationship with Israel,” Warren said at the town hall, in remarks that closely hewed to pro-Israel groups’ talking points. “Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren’t many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.”

Along with Gillibrand, Booker, Brown, and Klobuchar, Warren also joined 76 senators co-sponsoring another measure reaffirming a “strategic partnership” with Israel that same year.

Soon after, however, Warren began to pivot. In 2017, she joined Sanders and eight Democratic senators in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging his government not to proceed with demolishing and forcibly evicting Palestinian communities from the villages of Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar in the occupied West Bank. Last year, she signed a letter with Sanders and Brown asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “do more to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.” Last May, she spoke out against Israeli attacks that killed more than 60 Palestinian protesters in the Gaza Strip, joining Sanders in calling for the Israeli government to respect their right to protest.

Not all the 2020 hopefuls have made such drastic changes. After the killings in Gaza, demonstrators assembled outside Harris’s Los Angeles office and Booker’s Newark office, asking them to condemn the violence. Harris’s and Booker’s offices offered to have meetings with the protesters. After one such meeting in Booker’s office, the senator merely released a statement stating that the senator and his colleagues “believe deeply in the democratic process and folks speaking up on the issues that matter to them.” No condemnation of the killings came.

AIPAC’s role looms large in the Democratic Party shifts. There was a time when any serious political contender would make it a priority to appear before the influential Israel lobby group’s annual summit. Harris gave a formal address to AIPAC in 2017, and both Booker and Gillibrand have spoken at the group’s conferences in the past. Sanders was slated to speak at the group’s 2016 conference, but skipped it, citing his travel schedule. Last year, however, Klobuchar was the only major Democratic 2020 contender who spoke at the AIPAC confab.

The once tight-knit relationship between Democrats and AIPAC saw its first major rifts open up with the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. AIPAC worked tirelessly to kill the deal, spending millions of dollars. But it was a major achievement for a Democratic president, Barack Obama, and so almost every single Democrat backed it. Notably, among the Democratic dissenters in the Senate — Sens. Chuck Schumer, Bob Menendez, Ben Cardin, and Joe Manchin — are figures who hold powerful positions in the party’s caucus and constitute some of the closest Democrats to AIPAC.

The Iran deal vote signaled that AIPAC was losing it bipartisan grip on Capitol Hill Democrats. The threat of political backlash was no longer enough.

The Democrats who voted with the deal were in tune with public opinion, which largely supported the Iran deal. But those party elites who opposed the deal had to catch up. And some have: Schumer, four years later, has since opposed President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement.

Schumer’s tale is instructive. Even as some Democrats step away from AIPAC in order not to transgress the progressive base ahead of the 2020 primaries, they must contend with a reticent and virulently pro-Israel party leadership.

“I think there is some disagreement over the BDS because of the free speech issue. But I reject it, I don’t find that a compelling argument at all.”

Take the unfolding fight over BDS, where Schumer has supported AIPAC’s positions on S.1. and other bills. Likewise, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chair of the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee, is staunchly against BDS and supports anti-boycott measures over the First Amendment objections.

“I think BDS is a horrific thing,” Engel told The Intercept. “I think you have to look at some of these issues not politically. You have to look at what’s right and what’s wrong.” Engel rejected the idea that pro-Israel politics were no longer a guarantee in Congress and said he thought there was “clearly” still a pro-Israel majority among both parties in the House. “I think there is some disagreement over the BDS because of the free speech issue,” he said. “But I reject it, I don’t find that a compelling argument at all.”

With Israel’s body politic shifting to the right, so too have Israel lobby groups — and with them the staunchest of pro-Israel Democrats. Yet the Democratic Party as a whole seems to be moving to the left.

The Democratic Party’s shift might best be embodied in the rise of politicians like Omar, Tlaib, and New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They ran on reimagining of the political process, lifting even the most radical voices of their constituents, and beating mainstream predictions that they couldn’t win. They’ve attracted an energetic following owing to their unapologetically progressive positions — something 2020 contenders are surely heeding as they move into presidential campaign mode.

Consider the way Harris has come around on criminal justice reform. Known as a tough-on-crime prosecutor who ran to unseat a progressive district attorney, she’s been criticized for policies that unfairly delayed justice and threatened to hit poor communities of color the hardest. Later, though, Harris pivoted to a “smart on crime” approach, joining the public push for a humane and restorative approach to justice reform. In addition to warming up to broader criminal justice reform, she’s since lightened up on marijuana, too. Originally opposed to legalizing recreational pot, she joked last week on a radio show about smoking during college.

Moves like Harris’s will be necessary for all the 2020 contenders if they want to capture the energy around the new crop of freshmen members who don’t hesitate to buck the conventional wisdom in Washington. It will be tough for more establishment-oriented politicians to keep up. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the principled stances of the new progressive Democrats might eventually clash with the cautious political opportunism of some of the 2020 candidates.

The post Ilhan Omar, AIPAC, and the 2020 Democratic Presidential Contenders appeared first on The Intercept.

February 7, 2019

House Republicans Warn That Bill Combatting Big Money in Politics “R...

Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform denounced a major new initiative by Democrats to clean up elections and expand voter participation as a power grab that will corrupt the political process and infringe on the rights of free speech and association.

In nearly apocalyptic terms on Wednesday, Republican committee members took turns laying out the dire consequences of H.R. 1, decrying the consequences of a federal holiday on Election Day, matching public funds for congressional candidates, increasing transparency in campaign finance, and making it easier to register to vote. More stringent disclosure requirements for political spending would encourage partisan monitoring and even doxxing, Republicans argued, citing the Obama-era scandal where the Internal Revenue Service was accused by conservatives of targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

During the Wednesday hearing, several minority members described the bill — an attempt to implement sweeping reforms to the way we finance elections and oversee the executive branch — as “chilling.” Ranking Member Jim Jordan said the bill was designed to benefit the majority by “tilting the playing field in their favor.”

Jordan denounced the bill for requiring states to offer early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, same day voter registration, automatic voter registration, paid leave for federal workers to be poll workers, to allow released felons to vote, to make Election Day a federal holiday, and to have taxpayer contributions finance campaigns. 

“So lets take a whack at a little summary here, professor,” Jordan said during his questioning of Bradley Smith, chair of the Institute for Free Speech and former chair of the Federal Election Commission, who testified at the invitation of the minority.

“H.R. 1 requires taxpayers to pay for a holiday on Election Day for government workers. H.R. 1 requires taxpayers to pay for six days of paid leave for government workers who want to be poll workers. H.R. 1 requires taxpayers to pay for politicians’ campaigns. And if those same taxpayers give to some organization, some (c)(4), they can be outed under H.R. 1 so that the left can — or anyone — could harass them or their family.”

“Yes,” Smith said. “Such a deal for the taxpayer, right?”

The bill, sponsored by Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, is the first serious attempt in decades to revamp the model for public financing of presidential campaigns and establish a national program to publicly finance congressional campaigns. It also expands rights and protections for voters; bans senior federal officials from getting private sector perks after they leave office; prohibits senior federal employees from working on issues in which they have financial interests; and strengthens the call for Trump to divest his business holdings and place them in an independent, blind trust. Trump is the only president who hasn’t done so.

Georgia Rep. Jody Hice said in opening remarks that he was “extremely alarmed” by the bill and that while its provision for automatic voter registration “may sound good on the surface,” it would “open the floodgates for fraudulent voting by illegal individuals in this country.”

“It’s virtually 600 pages. Almost every page has issues of great concern,” he said. In just under three minutes, the congressperson referenced “illegals” or being in the country “illegally” nine times.

The bill also equips the Office of Government Ethics with subpoena power and the authority to impose disciplinary action on agencies and employees within the executive branch — “needed teeth,” as the office’s former director Walter Shaub said in written testimony to the committee.

But Jordan and his Republican colleague Rep. Mark Meadows argued that taxpayers shouldn’t have to finance elections, let alone contribute to the campaigns of candidates whom they oppose. Meadows pointed to the fact that his own campaign was largely funded by small individual donors, and that under the measure, he’d get $3.8 million for re-election.

Tennessee Rep. Clay Higgins conceded that the bill might have some worthwhile measures, but said he wanted to see it broken down into smaller components that would suit individual state needs. He also said the bill “resembles Russian government policy.”

Bipartisan legislation to strengthen democratic institutions in ways similar to those outlined in H.R. 1 have already passed at the local and state levels, Karen Hobert Flynn testified. She’s the president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization focused on reducing the role of big money in politics. In written testimony to the committee, Flynn cited “more than 20 red, blue and purple states and localities [that have] passed pro-voter democracy reforms, with strong support from Republican, Independent, and Democratic voters.”

Smith said his primary concern with the bill was its infringement on first amendment protections of free speech — wherein political spending is a form of speech. He said the bill would expand the universe of what Congress could regulate as political spending or speech, including ads. And he argued that in public financing there “tend to be avenues for corruption in many ways.”

But in all the concerns raised about voter fraud and abridging freedom of speech by reining in the influence of large donors, the minority never addressed the specter of partisan gerrymandering that’s historically benefited their party, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley pointed out. The ACLU filed suit last year to challenge gerrymandering in Ohio, citing Jordan’s 4th District as one of seven that were drawn with “borders that defy explanation by any political boundary or geographical feature.” H.R. 1 would put an independent commission in charge of redistricting duties, taking that responsibility away from state legislatures.

“That is really convenient, and rich, and hypocritical,” Pressley said.

“H.R. 1 has been described as a wishlist by the Democrats,” she continued. “Well, you got us there. A wishlist for an inclusive, expanded democracy and electorate.

“Characterizations of H.R. 1 as a power grab — you got us again,” Pressley said, referencing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comments on the push to make Election Day a federal holiday.

“Guilty,” she said. “We wouldn’t have to grab back the power for the people if through policy you weren’t complicit in, or perpetuating, the disenfranchisement and marginalization of the people. And disproportionately, people of color. And disproportionately, black people.”

Meadows had a heated exchange with Shaub, the former head of the OGE, in which he suggested the latter’s support for an investigative mandate for OGE was politically motivated against President Donald Trump. Meadows cited Shaub’s testimony to an oversight subcommittee in December 2015 in which he said he thought the OGE didn’t need an investigative mandate, expressing shock at Shaub’s change of heart “all of a sudden.”

“No, it’s not all of a sudden at all,” Shaub said. “It’s after watching, for two years, somebody prove to me that the executive branch ethics program is much weaker and much more fragile than I ever thought it was. Frankly, I was naive.”

“I never imagined,” Shaub went on, “a president would come in and refuse to eliminate his conflicts of interest, have appointees who are completely disinterested in government ethics, and have — with all respect — a Congress refuse to exercise oversight over them in that respect.”

Meadows argued that he made the same point in 2015 and Shaub disagreed with him then. “I’ll just say, you were right,” Shaub conceded to laughter. Meadows agreed.

Ohio Rep. Bob Gibbs said that during his time in the state Senate, he helped pass legislation to implement no-excuse absentee ballots and early voting within 30 days before the election. “We don’t have lines anymore, and we don’t need a federal holiday so you can go vote. You got 30 days to go vote. If you can’t vote in 30 days by mail or by absentee, that just raises a lot of interesting questions about your voting — your abilities.”

During her questioning, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked Flynn, “If I want to run a campaign that is entirely funded by corporate political action committees, is there anything that legally prevents me from doing that?”

“No,” Flynn said.

Ocasio-Cortez later pulled out an op-ed Smith authored for the Washington Post titled, “Those payments to women were unseemly. That doesn’t mean they were illegal.”

“Okay, great. So, green light for hush money,” she said. “I can do all sorts of terrible things. It’s totally legal right now for me to pay people off. And that’s considered speech — that money’s considered speech.”

The post House Republicans Warn That Bill Combatting Big Money in Politics “Resembles Russian government Policy” appeared first on The Intercept.

V.C. Summer Nuclear Station's unit two's turbine, right, and containment unit, center, are shown under construction near Jenkinsville, S.C., during a media tour of the facility Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016.  SCE&G is seeking a 3.1 percent residential raise that would be the largest single rate increase since the utility began charging its 700,000 customers for the reactors' construction. The hike, which would take effect at the end of November if approved, would be the ninth such increase to pay for the $14 billion reactors since 2009. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
February 6, 2019

South Carolina Spent $9 Billion to Dig a Hole in the Ground and Then F...

The objection raised most frequently when it comes to a Green New Deal is its cost. It’s preposterous; it’s too expensive; we just can’t afford it.

But before scoffing at the prospect of the wealthiest nation in the history of the world funding such a project, it’s worth taking a look at what one of the country’s poorest states was recently able to spend.

South Carolina, in a bid to expand its generation of nuclear power in recent years, dropped $9 billion on a single project — and has nothing to show for it.

The boondoggle, which was covered widely in the Palmetto State press but got little attention nationally, sheds light on just how much money is genuinely available for an industrial-level energy transformation, if only the political will were there.

There are no firm figures tied to a Green New Deal, but former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s proposed version of the project would have cost between $700 billion and $1 trillion. The new plan, being crafted with the help of progressive groups like the Sunrise Movement and pushed to the top of the House legislative agenda by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives, promises more substantial change on a much shorter schedule. In addition to moving the U.S. to 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years, upgrading all residential and industrial buildings for energy efficiency, and eliminating greenhouse gases from manufacturing and agriculture, it includes a jobs guarantee and a recognition of the rights of tribal nations. Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey are planning to introduce legislation for the plan this week, Axios reported.

In South Carolina, lawmakers greenlighted a multibillion-dollar energy project and stuck utility customers with the tab. “In the private sector,” former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Gregory Jaczko told The Intercept, “you would never be able to justify this.”

The saga, and related nuclear project failures, calls into question the role of new nuclear energy production in the effort to decarbonize the economy. New plants, Jaczko said, take too long to build for the urgency of the climate crisis and simply aren’t cost effective, given advances in renewable energy. “I don’t see nuclear as a solution to climate change,” Jaczko said. “It’s too expensive, and would take too long if it could even be deployed. There are cheaper, better alternatives. And even better alternatives that are getting cheaper, faster.”

The Nuclear Boondoggle

It started in 2008. SCE&G and Santee Cooper announced plans to add two nuclear reactors to the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville, South Carolina, and contracted Westinghouse Electric Company, owned by Toshiba, to handle construction. The state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) approved the plan in early 2009, with construction slated to begin in 2012, and the first reactor set to begin operating in 2016.

In late 2011, SCE&G announced the project’s first delay in a quarterly report to the Office of Regulatory Staff, which represents utilities in front of the PSC, citing “module redesign, production issues, manpower issues and Quality Assurance and Quality Control (QA/QC) issues.” The company estimated an 11-month setback and said its contractor, the Shaw Group, operating out of a facility in Louisiana, reported that the issues had been resolved. But SCE&G said they were still monitoring the situation “carefully” and considered “it to be a focus area for the project.” The Shaw facility would later face a federal probe over unrelated allegations that workers broke protocol and falsified records, which employees admitted to.

The company alerted more delays in mid-2013, citing manufacturing issues. Soon, Santee Cooper asked SCE&G to bring in another company to manage the project. Not long after that, both companies announced the project would cost $1.2 billion more than they’d expected. Again, they pushed back the project’s completion date.

Documents released as the project unraveled show that both SCE&G and Santee Cooper were well aware of shortcomings, mismanagement, and lack of oversight that eventually made the reactors impossible to complete, years before Westinghouse declared bankruptcy and both companies pulled out.

“They were allowed to charge the customers for all the money that they spent, plus a return,” Jaczko explained. “Even though they failed to deliver the project.”

Only 48 percent of South Carolinians know about the failed program, according to an October statewide poll surveying electric ratepayers.

“The utilities are incredibly powerful political lobbies in the state,” Jaczko said. “It’s now $2.3 billion that they’re gonna be able to get,” he said, and that doesn’t include the rate of return Dominion says it’s entitled to.

“It’s insane for a project that’s done nothing, and never will. And is just a giant hole in the ground,” he said. “Well, a filled-in hole now, at this point.”

V.C. Summer Nuclear Station's unit two's turbine, right, and containment unit, center, are shown under construction near Jenkinsville, S.C., during a media tour of the facility Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016.  SCE&G is seeking a 3.1 percent residential raise that would be the largest single rate increase since the utility began charging its 700,000 customers for the reactors' construction. The hike, which would take effect at the end of November if approved, would be the ninth such increase to pay for the $14 billion reactors since 2009. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

V.C. Summer Nuclear Station’s unit two’s turbine, right, and containment unit, center, are shown under construction near Jenkinsville, S.C., on Sept. 21, 2016.

Photo: Chuck Burton/AP

Left With the Tab

Thanks to a state law passed in 2007, residents in South Carolina are footing the bill for a massive failed nuclear reactor program that cost a total of $9 billion. Analysts say that corporate mismanagement and poor oversight means residents and their families will be paying for that failed energy program —  which never produced a watt of energy — for the next 20 years or more.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson has since called parts of the law, the Base Load Review Act, “constitutionally suspect,” and state senators have voted to overturn it —  but that wouldn’t necessarily get ratepayers off the hook for paying for the failed project.

Both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission opened separate investigations into the failed project, and at least 19 lawsuits have been filed against one company involved.

The two South Carolina companies, South Carolina Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper, a state-owned utility, spent $9 billion on a plan to build two nuclear reactors and eventually canceled it due to a series of cost miscalculations and corporate buyouts that left one construction company bankrupt and sent shockwaves all the way to Japanese tech giant Toshiba.

Dominion Energy, an energy giant in the region, has since bought out SCE&G’s parent company, SCANA Corp., for $7.9 billion — almost the entire cost of the failed project — pledged to partially refund ratepayers and cut electricity rates, which SCE&G hiked at least nine times throughout the project’s first eight years in order to pay for it.

When asked about the failed project, South Carolina Republican Rep. William Timmons laughed. He said ratepayers would still pay “a substantial portion” of the bill. “The SCANA portion, which is — approximately half has been substantially dealt with, with their restructuring and the purchase of Dominion,” he told The Intercept. “What’s left now is the Santee Cooper portion, and I think that’s still yet to be decided.”

“It is a major issue that the legislature’s dealing with,” Timmons said. The congressman didn’t have any updates on how or when the remainder of the bill would resolved.

After Dominion bought out SCANA and settled their portion of the bill, ratepayers are still responsible for about $2.3 billion. “For nothing, they get nothing,” Jaczko told The Intercept.

“They basically pay money up front for a project that never materialized, and now are still gonna be asked to pay for it. And that is a significant break from the way that traditional rate recovery used to work,” he said.

“It used to be that you didn’t start charging for a plant unless it was done and operating. Whether it was a nuclear plant, or a coal plant, or any other kind of thing.”

But because nuclear power involves heavier upfront capital costs and financing charges, Jaczko explained, states looking to revive nuclear power tried to bypass those extra costs by passing laws allowing companies to save money by recovering the cost of financing the projects during the period of construction.

“Even the law that was written in South Carolina envisioned the fact that the project could get canceled. But of course everybody promised that that wouldn’t happen,” Jaczko said.

Sen. Tim Scott told The Intercept that it was hard to pin the blame for the disastrous project on any one entity. “But certainly the Westinghouse bid coming back three times higher than their original estimation made the likelihood of success challenging. And then all the decisions that were made pending that being an accurate price all fell apart,” he said. He did not answer a question of whether ratepayers would have to pay $2.3 billion for nothing.

For conservatives and corporate-friendly Democrats, the idea of spending absurd amounts of money on a comprehensive national plan to wean the economy off dirty energy and create sustainable jobs is out of the question. It’s an idea much easier to swallow when its stated purpose is corporate profit, as in South Carolina. Or at the federal level, national defense. President Donald Trump signed into law last summer a $717 billion defense bill, up from $600 billion in 2016, and around $300 billion in 2000. In December the president tweeted that U.S. military spending was “Crazy!”

For scale, the national deficit for fiscal year 2019 is just shy of $1 trillion. Of the $4.4 trillion federal budget, military spending across agencies makes up close to $800 billion. The federal government spent about $1.1 trillion on health care in 2018. The latest government shutdown cost the U.S. an estimated $11 billion, the Congressional Budget Office reported. Trump requested $5.7 billion for a border wall, and Republicans in the House found it.

But $9 billion and zero nuclear reactors later, ratepayers in South Carolina have no say after their legislators played with the state’s resources and lost. If one state can throw away $9 billion on a project that never happened, legislators in Washington will have a difficult time claiming that they can’t find federal dollars to finance a plan that 81 percent of registered voters support.

“We can pay for a Green New Deal in the same way we pay for — whether it’s wars, or tax cuts, or any of the other great social programs that we have,” Greg Carlock told The Intercept. He’s a senior adviser at Data for Progress, where he authored a report outlining policy proposals for the Green New Deal. Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Carlock says he disagrees with the argument that you have to tax the wealthy, or the middle class, to pay for a Green New Deal. Instead, he argues, Congress should just authorize new spending, like it does for everything else.

“There has been a really well-crafted narrative to bring up fears about deficit spending and the debt,” Carlock said. “I think that we, one, have to just break out of this fear that somehow this number that we call debt is a bad thing. Because it’s not the same kind of debt that a household has, or that a business has,” he said.

“The driver of inflation is not how many ones and zeros we’ve put out there,” Carlock said. “The driver of inflation is the availability of limited biophysical resources that that money is trying to go out and buy. And that’s why, when you think about this from a sustainability perspective, a Green New Deal that tries to improve the sustainability of our natural resources, is actually meant as a deflationary role.”

“The greatest threat to our economy and inflation is not the debt, it’s the climate crisis,” he added, “which will put an even greater strain on our resources. The whole point of a Green New Deal is to mitigate those threats, and it will be cheaper than the cost of future climate disasters.”

Investing in clean energy, sustainable jobs, and a basic standard of health care would actually save money in the long run — tens to hundreds of billions of dollars per year, according to a climate assessment released under the Trump administration this year. The argument that the money isn’t there just doesn’t hold up.

“Any politician whose first question about the Green New Deal is how to pay for it isn’t taking seriously the millions who will die if we fail to take action on the scale scientists say we need,” Stephen Hanlon, communications director for the Sunrise Movement, said in a statement to The Intercept.

“What we are talking about is a putting millions of people to work so they can buy food for their families, etc. This is the greatest investment in the American economy in generations, and that kind of investment pays substantial dividends,” Hanlon said.

“We will pay for this the same way we paid for the WWII (sic) and the original New Deal: deciding it’s a priority as a nation and that we can’t afford not to take action.”

Meanwhile, a $28 billion nuclear project in Georgia is headed for a similar fate.

The post South Carolina Spent $9 Billion to Dig a Hole in the Ground and Then Fill it Back in appeared first on The Intercept.

February 5, 2019

“Change Is Taking Too Long” — Cabinet Member Speaks Out Amid Gov...

Pressure for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to resign is mounting after a medical school yearbook page surfaced showing a photo of a man in blackface, initially understood to be Northam, standing next to a man in Ku Klux Klan robes. Over the weekend, Northam denied being in the photo, but apologized for wearing blackface while impersonating Michael Jackson on another occasion. Reports also revealed that Northam’s Virginia Military Institute yearbook page listed him with the nickname “Coonman.”

Northam has not yet decided whether he’ll resign, but patience among members of his cabinet is wearing thin.

Virginia Education Secretary Atif Qarni posted a statement on the progressive political blog Blue Virginia in which he called his state to reflect on its “ugly history.” He argued that “change is taking too long” and denounced statewide political leadership for its lack of racial and ethnic representation. He went on to express empathy for the disparate treatment that Black Americans face at the hands of police.

“Experiences of several marginalized communities pale in comparison to the Black experience in America,” Qarni wrote. “I have had a few unpleasant experiences with law enforcement; however, I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be slammed to the ground and handcuffed without cause. Or even worse, shot dead.”

The secretary compared anti-black racism to the experiences of him and his wife, Fatima. “My wife wears a hijab and when she and I travel by air, I feel like all eyes are on us; however, I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have your actions be monitored and scrutinized every day of your life, even while running basic errands.”

“I feel anger that my ancestors were colonized by white people; however, I can’t imagine living in a country where my ancestors were trafficked, shackled, beaten, raped, lynched, and enslaved,” Qarni’s statement continues. “White and other people of color can empathize and try to relate to the Black experience in our nation; however, no one can truly grasp the depth of the pain, trauma, humiliation and anguish felt by Black Americans over the last 400 years in this country.”

The governor called an all-staff meeting Monday morning, but made no decision on how to respond to an increasing number of requests from state and national political leaders for him to step down.

In an email to The Intercept, state Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne said that while he serves “at the pleasure of the Governor, I work for the people of Virginia. I just plan to keep doing my job.” Other members of Northam’s cabinet did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe; Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner; Rep. Bobby Scott; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass; former Attorney General Eric Holder; and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton are among Democrats who’ve called for the governor to resign. Democratic presidential hopefuls Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro have also called for Northam to resign.

Virginia’s Democratic leader in the state Senate defended Northam in an interview with the Washington Post on Friday, saying there is no need to examine “something that occurred 30 years ago.” Sen. Dick Saslaw, who’s facing his first primary challenge as a state senator in June, has a controversial history of questioning whether racial or religious minorities could win in the majority-white, majority-Christian state and of defending the state’s Confederate history. Qarni, in 2015, wrote an op-ed detailing challenges he faced while running as a Muslim candidate for the state House of Delegates, and in a comment on a Facebook post criticizing the op-ed, he named Saslaw as part of the problem.

The post “Change Is Taking Too Long” — Cabinet Member Speaks Out Amid Gov. Ralph Northam’s Blackface Fallout appeared first on The Intercept.

February 1, 2019

With Green New Deal Committee Neutered, Energy and Commerce Democrat S...

House Energy and Commerce Democrats weren’t thrilled about the suggestion of a new select House committee on climate change, worried that its power would creep into their expansive jurisdiction. Committee leaders flexed what internal muscle they had to make sure that the committee, established at the behest of progressives behind the “Green New Deal,” was defanged, withholding subpoena power and the authority to approve new legislation.

Rep. Bobby Rush, the No. 2 Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, told The Intercept that he was pleased to see the end of a “smash and grab” that’s pushed the committee to cede “too much of our jurisdiction over the years.”

“The grab is over, as far as I’m concerned, in terms of Energy and Commerce, this smash and grab that’s been going on for too long in this Congress,” he told The Intercept in an interview.

“We’re gonna return to regular order as we have exercised it in the past, and we stand on it now. You know, we’re not ceding any of the Energy and Commerce jurisdiction. I’m not in favor of not one measure, not one iota of Energy and Commerce’s jurisdiction to be ceded to other committees.”

Asked what he planned to do with that power, Rush said, “We’re gonna do what we’ve always done. Legislate, deliberate, legislate, move bills to the floor. And we’re going to continue to work hard on behalf of the American people.”

But while Chair Frank Pallone said he understands and shares concerns “about the need for transformational action” laid out in the Green New Deal, he added in a statement to The Intercept that he wants to prioritize “actions we can take this year that will make a difference now.”

That doesn’t square with the Green New Deal’s 10-year plan to get to 100 percent renewable energy, which foresees drafting and organizing around transformative legislation in the next two years, and then enacting it in the beginning of a new Democratic administration. To pull that off, the advocates of the select committee argued that none of its members should take money from fossil fuel companies.

Stephen Hanlon, communications director for the Sunrise Movement, which led the occupation in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, told The Intercept that walking and chewing gum was preferable. “With Trump in the White House, we’re focusing on building the public and political support to elect a Congress and president in 2020 that can make the Green New Deal law in 2021,” Hanlon said. “We certainly should take what action we can in the interim, but that is no substitute for putting forward a plan in line with the ambition the latest science says is necessary.”

Pallone argued that the fossil fuel industry dollars flowing through the committee won’t have any impact on the agenda.

The committee’s first hearing will assess the environmental and economic impacts of climate change, Pallone said, and it will be “the first of many hearings on the subject.” He pointed out the “stark difference from past Republican House majorities, which refused to hold hearings on climate change and denied that it even existed.” Asked if oil and gas executives would be called before the committee, a spokesperson told The Intercept that no decisions have been made about specific hearings or who would testify.

Pallone plans to prioritize investing in green energy infrastructure, energy efficiency, and other programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and reversing a long list of environmental rollbacks under the Trump administration, he said, which included lifting restrictions on coal plant greenhouse gas emissions and opening parts of the Arctic to oil and gas drilling.

But when asked whether the committee would reconsider how it addresses contributions to members from the fossil fuel industry, Pallone — who does not take oil and gas money — noted his longstanding support of public campaign finance and said he believes that lawmakers should be judged instead by their record and agenda.

Asked if he thought the pledge by incoming Reps. Nanette Barragán and Darren Soto to refuse fossil fuel money would spread to other members of the committee, Rush — who receives the second least oil and gas money of the eight committee members who take it — told The Intercept that he wasn’t sure. “And that’s an individual decision among members of the committee. I would not dare try to dictate their fundraising strategies or techniques,” he said. Neither Barragán nor Soto responded to requests for comment.

Rep. Kurt Schrader, former chair of the conservative Blue Dog caucus, took the most money from the oil and gas industry last cycle at $77,500, with $75,500 coming from PACs and $2,000 from individuals. Next is incoming committee member Rep. Marc Veasey, who took a total of $63,050, including $40,500 from PACs and $22,550 from individuals. Rep. Gene Green took $24,000 from the industry, including $23,500 from PACs and $500 from individuals. Rep. Paul Tonko took $24,000 in PAC money. Rep. Mike Doyle took $18,000 from oil and gas PACs, and Rep. Peter Welch took $18,000. Rush took $13,000 in oil and gas PAC money, and Rep. G. K. Butterfield took $11,500.

Of 31 Democrats on the committee, those who signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, in addition to Barragán and Soto, are Reps. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois.

Asked if Veasey would continue taking oil and gas money, his office did not answer the question but directed The Intercept to a tweet from his account announcing his support for public campaign financing, as laid out in H.R. 1. Schrader did not respond to a request for comment.

Vice Chair Yvette Clarke of New York, who has not signed the pledge but does not take oil and gas money, told The Intercept that she didn’t have a position on the issue. “I think that if that is a determination about how you vote or how you shape policy, that it’s definitely a conflict,” she said, but added that during her time in the committee minority, Democrats were unified in pushing back against bad actors. “I haven’t seen that as a major factor, as a factor at all,” she said.

Rep. Eliot Engel, also of New York, said he doesn’t take money from the industry. Asked if he thought his colleagues should join the pledge, he said he thought it was an independent decision. “I don’t take the money because I don’t agree with the philosophy, but I’m not gonna point the finger at anybody else,” he told The Intercept. He said he doesn’t think that taking oil and gas money presents a conflict of interest but that he “would love to see money get out of politics,” referencing New York City’s public campaign finance program as a model.

“Politicians making climate policy should not be taking money from the lobbyists and executives who have spent the past decades deceiving the public about the science and doing everything they can to protect their bottom lines, even when that means imperiling the entire planet,” said Hanlon, the Sunrise Movement spokesperson. “Any politician who wants the votes of young people in 2020 needs to sign the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge and back a Green New Deal. If Frank Pallone is serious about taking action on climate, he will use his chairmanship to put forward a vision for a Green New Deal in line with what science and justice demands.”

The post With Green New Deal Committee Neutered, Energy and Commerce Democrat Says “Smash and Grab” Is Over appeared first on The Intercept.

MINERAL, VA - AUGUST 24:  The North Anna Power Station operated by Dominion Energy remains offline after losing offsite power in the wake of yesterday's 5.8 earthquake August 24, 2011 near Mineral, Virginia. The epicenter of the quake, the East Coast's largest since 1944, was located a few miles outside of Mineral, a town of 430 people located about 50 miles west of Richmond and about 7 miles from the North Anna plant.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
January 26, 2019

A Corporate-Friendly Democrat Has Been Stalling Progress For 40 Years....

A new court-mandated redistricting in Virginia has put Democrats in a prime position to retake both chambers of the state legislature in November 2019 elections for the first time since 1995. But there could still be one major obstacle standing in the way of the party enacting a bottled-up progressive agenda: Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, a 39-year incumbent with a corporate-friendly voting record and close ties to the state’s dominant power company. As long as Saslaw remains the party’s Senate boss, little can get done without his acquiescence. But for the first time since he was elected senator, he’s facing a primary challenge.

Saslaw has stymied progressive efforts to push an anti-corporate agenda in the state, voting against bills that would lead to substantive regulation of the state’s two electric monopolies, and speaking out against campaign finance reform and increased ethics and transparency regulations. Yasmine Taeb, an American-Muslim human rights lawyer who immigrated to the United States from Iran as a child, launched her primary challenge to Saslaw in September — and she’s going after his ties to Dominion Energy, Virginia’s biggest private-industry political donor. The company gives heavily to both Democrats and Republicans, but Saslaw is its top recipient in the General Assembly and one of its biggest advocates in Richmond.

Taeb moved into the 35th District with the specific aim of unseating Saslaw, who has been in office longer than she’s been alive. Her first foray into politics was in 2014, when she made a bid for the Virginia House of Delegates and received fewer than 100 votes. She’s running on a platform that includes a $15 minimum wage, no corporate PAC donations, and “Medicare for All.” But she’s also focused on stemming Dominion’s influence in the state, fighting to stop the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.

“My opponent has not faced a primary challenger since 1979. As a result, he has become severely misaligned with the values of our district, the most liberal in the Commonwealth,” Taeb told The Intercept. “I want to be a state senator who actually represents our district — one who stands with our working families rather than union busting employers; one who will fight to end Dominion’s control over our legislators rather than serving it; and one who embodies the diversity of our district rather than slowing down racial justice efforts.”

Her opposition to Saslaw comes amid changes to state and local governments around the country. Democrats flipped more than 300 state House and Senate seats and six state legislative chambers last year. Seven states now have Democratic trifectas, meaning that the party controls the governorship and both chambers in the state legislature. Progressives are more likely to be able to pass policies like a higher minimum wage or eliminating cash bail on the state level than in Congress.

“Dominion has become the key signal of a much broader push against the status quo.”

“There are increasingly two visions for Democratic politics in Virginia,” said Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia, a group advocating for stronger regulation of the state’s monopoly utilities and an end to two decades of manipulating legislation in their favor. “There’s the old-school Virginia Way, corporate friendly, pay to play, and then a new wave of legislators — many freshmen from last year, but a number of longtime incumbents as well — who are running on transparency and independence, putting constituent interests above special interests.”

The new lawmakers are not taking Dominion money, Gilmore said. “As the worst paragon of that old system of corporate cronyism, Dominion has become the key signal of a much broader push against the status quo. And no one represents the old school — or has done Dominion’s bidding — as much as Dick Saslaw.”

Virginia Democrats are angling to win control of the state legislature in 2019, and Saslaw’s re-election would make him the likely majority leader. A Democratic majority would make passing progressive legislation possible, but activists in the state worry that Saslaw, who has argued against proposals to strengthen campaign finance and ethics laws, would get in the way of that. Taeb is hoping that she can mobilize voters in their increasingly progressive district — which Saslaw helped redraw in 2011 — against him by highlighting his cozy, mutually beneficial relationship with Dominion ahead of the June 11 primary election.

MINERAL, VA - AUGUST 24:  The North Anna Power Station operated by Dominion Energy remains offline after losing offsite power in the wake of yesterday's 5.8 earthquake August 24, 2011 near Mineral, Virginia. The epicenter of the quake, the East Coast's largest since 1944, was located a few miles outside of Mineral, a town of 430 people located about 50 miles west of Richmond and about 7 miles from the North Anna plant.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The North Anna Power Station operated by Dominion Energy, near Mineral, Va., on Aug. 24, 2011.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Dominion is known for helping to write legislation in its favor. The Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2017 ran a four-part series that found Dominion exerting significant influence to gradually gut the power of the State Corporation Commission, the regulatory agency tasked with overseeing the company’s dealings. The assembly last year passed a bill that further weakened the SCC’s ratepayer protections. Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has described the relationship between the state legislature and the utility as “cronyism.”

“Dominion Energy is the strongest lobbying entity in Virginia, and that’s very evident in the fact that we’ve, for several years now, had legislation that further hurt ratepayers,” Delegate Sam Rasoul told The Intercept. “Objectively now, even Dominion agrees that it has overcharged ratepayers.”

Saslaw has consistently opposed bills pushing energy and spending efficiency, introducing and supporting Dominion-advised bills to allow the public utility to double-charge consumers and keep the excess profits, freeze electricity rates, and keep the SCC from regularly reviewing those rates. Saslaw is also known, according to a Democratic state legislator who spoke to The Intercept on the condition of anonymity given his relationship with the senator, for reprimanding individual members of the assembly for trying to amend Dominion-sponsored bills. According to local activist and Fairfax County Democratic Committee Member Stephen Spitz, who is volunteering with Taeb’s campaign, Saslaw is famous for scolding his colleagues for trying to rein in the company and going on unsolicited tangents singing its praises. Dominion, in turn, contacts Saslaw when it’s in trouble.

Saslaw’s campaign has raised just shy of $600,000 this cycle, including $22,500 from the Dominion Employees PAC, formerly known as Dominion Energy PAC. He’s also accepted donations from PACs associated with the weapons manufacturer, Raytheon, and controversial car-title lenders, which he’s been bashed for supporting. Taeb’s campaign, meanwhile, has raised just over $70,000. Fifty-thousand dollars of that came from Sonjia Smith, a longtime area Democratic donor who is married to Michael D. Bills, a billionaire investor who started an initiative to support candidates who refused to take money from Dominion.

The incumbent’s campaign manager, Andrew Whitley, said Saslaw respects candidates who have sworn off Dominion money, but he will continue to take money from the utility. “As the leader of the caucus, his main goal in 2019 is to take back the majority,” Whitley told The Intercept. “And of course, making that happen means that making sure that our campaigns have the resources to be successful. So yes, he does take contributions from Dominion, and he takes them with the goal of making Virginia more progressive and helping us take back the Senate.”

Whitley said that Saslaw’s voting record, and his endorsements by the League of Conservation Voters and advocates for solar, disprove the notion that Dominion’s donations have bought influence. “The senator has voted on initiatives that have been against Dominion’s influence,” Whitley said. He did not specify what initiatives those were.

Virginia is one of only six states that allow unlimited corporate contributions to state campaigns. Republicans Sen. Frank Wagner and Delegate Terry Kilgore are other lawmakers who have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the utility giant while in office. Wagner in 2015 sponsored a controversial rate-freeze bill, which he authored and passed with help from Dominion, that locked in rates for the utility and allowed it to overcharge consumers by estimates of up to $425 million.

Following public outcry over that legislation, Saslaw and Wagner co-sponsored another bill last year that they said was meant to right the wrongs of the rate-freeze bill. Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring publicly denounced that bipartisan, pro-Dominion bill for double-charging clients and installing inadequate consumer protections. The state Senate killed another bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen that would have more abruptly lifted the rate freeze and pursued the Wagner-Saslaw measure, which was more favorable to utilities instead. It was eventually approved and signed into law last March.

This year, Rasoul and Rep. Alfonso H. Lopez are co-sponsoring an omnibus bill that would reinstate biannual reviews of Dominion rates by the SCC and increase the amount of over-earnings the company must refund to consumers. It is unclear whether the bill will have enough support to pass.

“It’ll be difficult for it to pass as it comes through the powerful Commerce and Labor committee,” Rasoul said. But, he said, pledges by Democratic candidates, as well as the attorney general and the lieutenant governor, not to take money from Dominion are a good sign. “The bar has definitely been elevated, that you need to be on the right side of this in order to be a candidate.”

Some Democrats think it’s important to balance skepticism of corporate donations with the risk of losing elections. “If we were not to take money, and Republicans still take money, and Democrats lose, there’s a part of me that would regret seeing that,” said Peg Winningham, chair of the Falls Church Democratic Committee. “But I absolutely think that Virginia should have a lot stricter controls on campaign donations.”

In addition to his ties to Dominion, Saslaw’s critics have also turned their attention to the senator’s past comments that, they say, show he is out of step with an increasingly diverse Democratic Party.

In September, Saslaw was at George Mason University for a ­­senatorial debate between Tim Kaine and Corey Stuart. In a conversation with a group of people at that event, Saslaw suggested that voters in the 38th District would not vote for Taeb given that his district is majority white, according to two people with knowledge of the conversation.

Saslaw said Taeb “‘can’t win in a district like this,’ and then he went off spouting all these facts about his district,” said one person who was there, requesting anonymity because of their relationship with the senator. Saslaw pointed out that the district is “60 percent white, it was some percentage of older Virginians, it was some percentage of Christians,” the source said. “Basically the message I interpreted was that someone like Yasmine, who’s a diverse candidate and a young candidate, couldn’t win in the district.”

Headshot_YasmineTaeb-1548457755

Yasmine Taeb.

Photo: Courtesy of Yasmine Taeb

Whitley, Saslaw’s spokesperson, said the conversation could not have happened because Saslaw didn’t have time to speak to people on the margins of the debate, dismissing it as a “he-said-she-said” scenario.

Saslaw has previously been accused of being skeptical that a Muslim candidate could win. When Atif Qarni, now Virginia’s secretary of education, was running for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2015, he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that state Democrats warned him not to proceed with his campaign because, as a Muslim, he couldn’t win. Responding to a Facebook post criticizing the article, Qarni named Saslaw in relation to the challenges he faced securing funding as a Muslim candidate. “There was bias in this race. Religion was brought up,” Qarni wrote in a comment. “I brought up these concerns with several people–including some people you know well, but the typical response, was ‘this is politics’. People are too afraid to stand up to people like Dick Saslaw.”

In a 2015 meeting of the Mason District Democratic Committee, Saslaw opposed a proposal to change the name of the Jeb Stuart High School, which was named after a Confederate army general. He described the name-change effort as being overly politically correct and suggested that it would lead to a slippery slope, with calls to change the name of Virginia schools and landmarks named after Confederate leaders, according to Spitz; David Jonas, a Mason District Democrat; Sean Barnett, a Fairfax County Democrat; and two local Democrats who asked for anonymity given their working relationship with the senator, who were all at the meeting. (Barnett has endorsed Taeb for state senator.)

Though Saslaw originally opposed changing the name of Stuart High, he appeared this year at a fundraiser supporting the school board’s move. He also donated to the private fundraising efforts to support the change. The school is now called Justice High School.

Jessica Swanson, a Mason District Democrat, told The Intercept that she is extremely grateful for the senator’s $1,500 contribution to the name-change effort. She was at the 2015 meeting and said she doesn’t remember what, if anything, Saslaw said about it at the time.

Three years earlier, Saslaw had cut his sponsorship of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee’s annual dinner, after members changed the event’s name from the Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner — after the slave-owning presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson — to instead honor Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, according to Spitz and another person familiar with the matter. In 2014, the name of the dinner was changed back to Jefferson-Jackson, and Saslaw resumed his support.

Willingham, chair of the Falls Church Democratic Committee who has worked with Saslaw, said she’s “never heard him say a bigoted word.” She knows Taeb as well and hasn’t endorsed either candidate.

In response to questions about Saslaw’s comments on Taeb and the school’s name change, Whitley said talking about these claims does a disservice to both candidates. “We also do a disservice to the constituents and to the party in general by having this kind of conversation,” he said.

The post A Corporate-Friendly Democrat Has Been Stalling Progress For 40 Years. Now a Primary Challenge Might Take Him Out. appeared first on The Intercept.

MINERAL, VA - AUGUST 24:  The North Anna Power Station operated by Dominion Energy remains offline after losing offsite power in the wake of yesterday's 5.8 earthquake August 24, 2011 near Mineral, Virginia. The epicenter of the quake, the East Coast's largest since 1944, was located a few miles outside of Mineral, a town of 430 people located about 50 miles west of Richmond and about 7 miles from the North Anna plant.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
January 26, 2019

A Corporate-Friendly Democrat Has Been Stalling Progress For 40 Years....

A new court-mandated redistricting in Virginia has put Democrats in a prime position to retake both chambers of the state legislature in November 2019 elections for the first time since 1995. But there could still be one major obstacle standing in the way of the party enacting a bottled-up progressive agenda: Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, a 39-year incumbent with a corporate-friendly voting record and close ties to the state’s dominant power company. As long as Saslaw remains the party’s Senate boss, little can get done without his acquiescence. But for the first time since he was elected senator, he’s facing a primary challenge.

Saslaw has stymied progressive efforts to push an anti-corporate agenda in the state, voting against bills that would lead to substantive regulation of the state’s two electric monopolies, and speaking out against campaign finance reform and increased ethics and transparency regulations. Yasmine Taeb, an American-Muslim human rights lawyer who immigrated to the United States from Iran as a child, launched her primary challenge to Saslaw in September — and she’s going after his ties to Dominion Energy, Virginia’s biggest private-industry political donor. The company gives heavily to both Democrats and Republicans, but Saslaw is its top recipient in the General Assembly and one of its biggest advocates in Richmond.

Taeb moved into the 35th District with the specific aim of unseating Saslaw, who has been in office longer than she’s been alive. Her first foray into politics was in 2014, when she made a bid for the Virginia House of Delegates and received fewer than 100 votes. She’s running on a platform that includes a $15 minimum wage, no corporate PAC donations, and “Medicare for All.” But she’s also focused on stemming Dominion’s influence in the state, fighting to stop the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.

“My opponent has not faced a primary challenger since 1979. As a result, he has become severely misaligned with the values of our district, the most liberal in the Commonwealth,” Taeb told The Intercept. “I want to be a state senator who actually represents our district — one who stands with our working families rather than union busting employers; one who will fight to end Dominion’s control over our legislators rather than serving it; and one who embodies the diversity of our district rather than slowing down racial justice efforts.”

Her opposition to Saslaw comes amid changes to state and local governments around the country. Democrats flipped more than 300 state House and Senate seats and six state legislative chambers last year. Seven states now have Democratic trifectas, meaning that the party controls the governorship and both chambers in the state legislature. Progressives are more likely to be able to pass policies like a higher minimum wage or eliminating cash bail on the state level than in Congress.

“Dominion has become the key signal of a much broader push against the status quo.”

“There are increasingly two visions for Democratic politics in Virginia,” said Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia, a group advocating for stronger regulation of the state’s monopoly utilities and an end to two decades of manipulating legislation in their favor. “There’s the old-school Virginia Way, corporate friendly, pay to play, and then a new wave of legislators — many freshmen from last year, but a number of longtime incumbents as well — who are running on transparency and independence, putting constituent interests above special interests.”

The new lawmakers are not taking Dominion money, Gilmore said. “As the worst paragon of that old system of corporate cronyism, Dominion has become the key signal of a much broader push against the status quo. And no one represents the old school — or has done Dominion’s bidding — as much as Dick Saslaw.”

Virginia Democrats are angling to win control of the state legislature in 2019, and Saslaw’s re-election would make him the likely majority leader. A Democratic majority would make passing progressive legislation possible, but activists in the state worry that Saslaw, who has argued against proposals to strengthen campaign finance and ethics laws, would get in the way of that. Taeb is hoping that she can mobilize voters in their increasingly progressive district — which Saslaw helped redraw in 2011 — against him by highlighting his cozy, mutually beneficial relationship with Dominion ahead of the June 11 primary election.

MINERAL, VA - AUGUST 24:  The North Anna Power Station operated by Dominion Energy remains offline after losing offsite power in the wake of yesterday's 5.8 earthquake August 24, 2011 near Mineral, Virginia. The epicenter of the quake, the East Coast's largest since 1944, was located a few miles outside of Mineral, a town of 430 people located about 50 miles west of Richmond and about 7 miles from the North Anna plant.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The North Anna Power Station operated by Dominion Energy, near Mineral, Va., on Aug. 24, 2011.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Dominion is known for helping to write legislation in its favor. The Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2017 ran a four-part series that found Dominion exerting significant influence to gradually gut the power of the State Corporation Commission, the regulatory agency tasked with overseeing the company’s dealings. The assembly last year passed a bill that further weakened the SCC’s ratepayer protections. Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has described the relationship between the state legislature and the utility as “cronyism.”

“Dominion Energy is the strongest lobbying entity in Virginia, and that’s very evident in the fact that we’ve, for several years now, had legislation that further hurt ratepayers,” Delegate Sam Rasoul told The Intercept. “Objectively now, even Dominion agrees that it has overcharged ratepayers.”

Saslaw has consistently opposed bills pushing energy and spending efficiency, introducing and supporting Dominion-advised bills to allow the public utility to double-charge consumers and keep the excess profits, freeze electricity rates, and keep the SCC from regularly reviewing those rates. Saslaw is also known, according to a Democratic state legislator who spoke to The Intercept on the condition of anonymity given his relationship with the senator, for reprimanding individual members of the assembly for trying to amend Dominion-sponsored bills. According to local activist and Fairfax County Democratic Committee Member Stephen Spitz, who is volunteering with Taeb’s campaign, Saslaw is famous for scolding his colleagues for trying to rein in the company and going on unsolicited tangents singing its praises. Dominion, in turn, contacts Saslaw when it’s in trouble.

Saslaw’s campaign has raised just shy of $600,000 this cycle, including $22,500 from the Dominion Employees PAC, formerly known as Dominion Energy PAC. He’s also accepted donations from PACs associated with the weapons manufacturer, Raytheon, and controversial car-title lenders, which he’s been bashed for supporting. Taeb’s campaign, meanwhile, has raised just over $70,000. Fifty-thousand dollars of that came from Sonjia Smith, a longtime area Democratic donor who is married to Michael D. Bills, a billionaire investor who started an initiative to support candidates who refused to take money from Dominion.

The incumbent’s campaign manager, Andrew Whitley, said Saslaw respects candidates who have sworn off Dominion money, but he will continue to take money from the utility. “As the leader of the caucus, his main goal in 2019 is to take back the majority,” Whitley told The Intercept. “And of course, making that happen means that making sure that our campaigns have the resources to be successful. So yes, he does take contributions from Dominion, and he takes them with the goal of making Virginia more progressive and helping us take back the Senate.”

Whitley said that Saslaw’s voting record, and his endorsements by the League of Conservation Voters and advocates for solar, disprove the notion that Dominion’s donations have bought influence. “The senator has voted on initiatives that have been against Dominion’s influence,” Whitley said. He did not specify what initiatives those were.

Virginia is one of only six states that allow unlimited corporate contributions to state campaigns. Republicans Sen. Frank Wagner and Delegate Terry Kilgore are other lawmakers who have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the utility giant while in office. Wagner in 2015 sponsored a controversial rate-freeze bill, which he authored and passed with help from Dominion, that locked in rates for the utility and allowed it to overcharge consumers by estimates of up to $425 million.

Following public outcry over that legislation, Saslaw and Wagner co-sponsored another bill last year that they said was meant to right the wrongs of the rate-freeze bill. Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring publicly denounced that bipartisan, pro-Dominion bill for double-charging clients and installing inadequate consumer protections. The state Senate killed another bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen that would have more abruptly lifted the rate freeze and pursued the Wagner-Saslaw measure, which was more favorable to utilities instead. It was eventually approved and signed into law last March.

This year, Rasoul and Rep. Alfonso H. Lopez are co-sponsoring an omnibus bill that would reinstate biannual reviews of Dominion rates by the SCC and increase the amount of over-earnings the company must refund to consumers. It is unclear whether the bill will have enough support to pass.

“It’ll be difficult for it to pass as it comes through the powerful Commerce and Labor committee,” Rasoul said. But, he said, pledges by Democratic candidates, as well as the attorney general and the lieutenant governor, not to take money from Dominion are a good sign. “The bar has definitely been elevated, that you need to be on the right side of this in order to be a candidate.”

Some Democrats think it’s important to balance skepticism of corporate donations with the risk of losing elections. “If we were not to take money, and Republicans still take money, and Democrats lose, there’s a part of me that would regret seeing that,” said Peg Winningham, chair of the Falls Church Democratic Committee. “But I absolutely think that Virginia should have a lot stricter controls on campaign donations.”

In addition to his ties to Dominion, Saslaw’s critics have also turned their attention to the senator’s past comments that, they say, show he is out of step with an increasingly diverse Democratic Party.

In September, Saslaw was at George Mason University for a ­­senatorial debate between Tim Kaine and Corey Stuart. In a conversation with a group of people at that event, Saslaw suggested that voters in the 38th District would not vote for Taeb given that his district is majority white, according to two people with knowledge of the conversation.

Saslaw said Taeb “‘can’t win in a district like this,’ and then he went off spouting all these facts about his district,” said one person who was there, requesting anonymity because of their relationship with the senator. Saslaw pointed out that the district is “60 percent white, it was some percentage of older Virginians, it was some percentage of Christians,” the source said. “Basically the message I interpreted was that someone like Yasmine, who’s a diverse candidate and a young candidate, couldn’t win in the district.”

Headshot_YasmineTaeb-1548457755

Yasmine Taeb.

Photo: Courtesy of Yasmine Taeb

Whitley, Saslaw’s spokesperson, said the conversation could not have happened because Saslaw didn’t have time to speak to people on the margins of the debate, dismissing it as a “he-said-she-said” scenario.

Saslaw has previously been accused of being skeptical that a Muslim candidate could win. When Atif Qarni, now Virginia’s secretary of education, was running for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2015, he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that state Democrats warned him not to proceed with his campaign because, as a Muslim, he couldn’t win. Responding to a Facebook post criticizing the article, Qarni named Saslaw in relation to the challenges he faced securing funding as a Muslim candidate. “There was bias in this race. Religion was brought up,” Qarni wrote in a comment. “I brought up these concerns with several people–including some people you know well, but the typical response, was ‘this is politics’. People are too afraid to stand up to people like Dick Saslaw.”

In a 2015 meeting of the Mason District Democratic Committee, Saslaw opposed a proposal to change the name of the Jeb Stuart High School, which was named after a Confederate army general. He described the name-change effort as being overly politically correct and suggested that it would lead to a slippery slope, with calls to change the name of Virginia schools and landmarks named after Confederate leaders, according to Spitz; David Jonas, a Mason District Democrat; Sean Barnett, a Fairfax County Democrat; and two local Democrats who asked for anonymity given their working relationship with the senator, who were all at the meeting. (Barnett has endorsed Taeb for state senator.)

Though Saslaw originally opposed changing the name of Stuart High, he appeared this year at a fundraiser supporting the school board’s move. He also donated to the private fundraising efforts to support the change. The school is now called Justice High School.

Jessica Swanson, a Mason District Democrat, told The Intercept that she is extremely grateful for the senator’s $1,500 contribution to the name-change effort. She was at the 2015 meeting and said she doesn’t remember what, if anything, Saslaw said about it at the time.

Three years earlier, Saslaw had cut his sponsorship of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee’s annual dinner, after members changed the event’s name from the Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner — after the slave-owning presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson — to instead honor Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, according to Spitz and another person familiar with the matter. In 2014, the name of the dinner was changed back to Jefferson-Jackson, and Saslaw resumed his support.

Willingham, chair of the Falls Church Democratic Committee who has worked with Saslaw, said she’s “never heard him say a bigoted word.” She knows Taeb as well and hasn’t endorsed either candidate.

In response to questions about Saslaw’s comments on Taeb and the school’s name change, Whitley said talking about these claims does a disservice to both candidates. “We also do a disservice to the constituents and to the party in general by having this kind of conversation,” he said.

The post A Corporate-Friendly Democrat Has Been Stalling Progress For 40 Years. Now a Primary Challenge Might Take Him Out. appeared first on The Intercept.

January 23, 2019

Trump Administration Grants South Carolina Foster Care Agencies Author...

The Trump administration on Wednesday made a quiet move that opens the door for the religious right to use the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act to discriminate against able foster parents whose religious views are in conflict with those of an agency.

On the 33rd day of the government shutdown, Steven Wagner, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families signed a waiver giving special permission to a federally funded Protestant foster care agency in South Carolina to break federal and state law, using strict religious requirements to deny Jewish, Muslim and Catholic parents from fostering children in its network.

After months of lobbying by Reid Lehman, president and CEO of Miracle Hill Ministries, South Carolina lawmakers, and Governor Henry McMaster, Azar signed a waiver that lets the agency keep its federal funding despite warnings by the state Department of Social Services that it’s violating federal and state nondiscrimination law, as well as internal agency policy, by denying parents of the Jewish faith from fostering children. The agency also rejects parents who are agnostic and atheist — anyone who is not a Protestant Christian.

“We have approved South Carolina’s request to protect religious freedom and preserve high-quality foster care placement options for children,” Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary for children and families, said in a statement. “By granting this request to South Carolina,” she continued,“HHS is putting foster care capacity needs ahead of burdensome regulations that are in conflict with the law.”

The signed waiver, stalled for months, could have larger ramifications for other states waging battles over religious freedom in the foster care system, legal experts say. The waiver argues that HHS nondiscrimination regulations are broader than those outlined in the specific Foster Care Program Statute, which specifies that agencies receiving federal funding can’t deny foster parents based on race, color, or national origin — but not religion.

“You state that South Carolina has more than 4,000 children in foster care, that South Carolina needs more child placing agencies, and that faith-based organizations ‘are essential’ to recruiting more families for child placement,” the waiver reads. “You specifically cite Miracle Hill, a faith-based organization that recruits 15% of the foster care families in the SC Foster Care Program, and you state that, without the participation of such faith-based organizations, South Carolina would have difficulty continuing to place all children in need of foster care.” The letter then goes on to make the case that if Miracle Hill isn’t provided an exception to federal rules, other “faith-based organizations operating under your grant would have to abandon their religious beliefs or forego licensure and funding,” in violation of RFRA.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in December issued a similar request to the HHS Administration for Children and Families to either repeal the nondiscrimination rules governing federal child welfare funding, or to exempt Texas and providers in the state from it. It’s unclear whether the current waiver will apply to the Texas request.

The Texas request clearly asks for permission to discriminate based on religious belief and sexual orientation. The letter to ACF argues that the federal rules governing funding for child welfare programs “does not authorize HHS to prohibit discrimination on characteristics other than race, color, or national origin, or to mandate particular treatment of same-sex marriages.”

“Congress knows how to include or exclude nondiscrimination policies in its welfare funding statues,” Paxton’s letter reads, “and its decision to focus on only race, color, and national origin in Title IV-E means no other forms of discrimination are prohibited by funding recipients.”

The Trump administration has prioritized religious freedom for those of a Christian faith, and conservative lawmakers have used that momentum to try to chip away at a body of federal nondiscrimination law they argue unfairly burdens organizations that only want to serve people within their own religion.

Eighty Republican legislators in May signed a letter to President Trump on behalf of faith-based Child Placing Agencies they say are being targeted because of their mission. The letter includes a specific recommendation to repeal the federal rule that protects people from discrimination in HHS-funded programs on the basis of religion, race, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other “non-merit” characteristic. The letter condemns the shortage of foster care parents and the growing population of children in the system, citing the opioid epidemic as a major contributor, and then requests a change to federal rules to allow agencies to deny qualified parents in the name of religious freedom.

“The decision by HHS to allow for taxpayer-funded discrimination is an affront to American values, jeopardizing the safety and protection of vulnerable children in South Carolina, and potentially across the country,” Oregon DemocraticSen. Ron Wyden said in a statement to The Intercept. “It’s appalling that the Trump administration continues to throw the interests of children out the window. There are foster kids sleeping in hotels and living in temporary shelters. To turn away qualified parents because of their religion, sexual orientation or gender identity and deny these kids a secure home is immoral.”

The episode bodes poorly for advocates of civil liberties and religious freedom alike, and opens the door for foster care agencies in other states and players at other HHS-funded agencies, including the offices for Medicare and Medicaid, NIH, the FDA, and the CDC, among others, to discriminate in the name of religious freedom while keeping their federal funding.

The post Trump Administration Grants South Carolina Foster Care Agencies Authority to Discriminate Against Jewish, Muslim Families appeared first on The Intercept.

December 21, 2018

Rep. Ro Khanna on Afghanistan: “Trump’s Instincts to Withdraw Are ...

The House of Representatives plans to vote in January on a new War Powers Resolution introduced by California Rep. Ro Khanna that would effectively end U.S. military intervention on behalf of Saudi Arabia in the Yemeni civil war.

But the president’s back-to-back announcements Wednesday and Thursday that American troops would be leaving Syria and Afghanistan has broadened the focus of de-escalation efforts — motivating progressive Democrats in the House to work on legislation that would ensure that withdrawal doesn’t worsen conditions in the region. 

Analysts say that leaving Syria could further destabilize the region and embolden the Islamic State as the group’s fighters start to slowly slip back into liberated areas. But it’s unclear what troops are still doing in Afghanistan, a country the U.S. invaded in the name of dismantling Al Qaeda and rooting out the Taliban. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Donald Trump ordered the Pentagon to begin developing plans to withdraw half of the remaining 14,000 troops in the country.

Even before Trump’s surprise withdrawal announcements, Khanna planned to introduce a bill to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, America’s longest war. “I believe we need to pull our troops out of Afghanistan,” Khanna told The Intercept in an interview on Wednesday. “Taliban controls 70 percent. When the surge happened, Taliban controlled 40 percent. We aren’t making any progress there.”

Khanna said in an interview that he and colleagues in the Progressive Caucus would prioritize a final drawdown of troops from Afghanistan in the next session, but told The Intercept that he wasn’t sure yet what form that effort might take on the floor. “I don’t know the mechanism yet. Whether that would be a War Powers Resolution, whether that would be an alternative mechanism. But it will be a focus of mine, and I will advocate that it should be a focus of the Progressive Caucus to get us out of Afghanistan.”

“I want to work with people like Barbara Lee and the broader Progressive Caucus to make sure we had consensus on what the right approach is, because I know there are other members who also believe we need to pull out,” Khanna said. “But I definitely think that Democrats should be very, very clear and unambiguous that we need to pull out our troops in Afghanistan.”

“And we should take action,” he clarified, “whether that’s through the appropriations process, whether that’s through a War Powers Resolution, or whether it’s through some other authorization of force, revoking that and making clear that there is no authorization in Afghanistan. We should explore all the avenues and make sure we have a plan for concerted action.”

In a statement following Thursday’s announcement, Khanna said that the plan needs to be responsibly implemented over a short timeline and should move Afghanistan toward nonmilitary peace-building solutions acceptable to, and driven by, the Afghan people.

Success depends on “the engagement of regional actors such as Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, and India,” Khanna said, and “a sense of the intelligence platforms and networks that can replace [troops] to guard against terrorist threats.”

Khanna said the current strategy of engaging in direct talks with the Taliban “is a good one,” and that the $43 billion spent on Afghanistan each year despite Taliban control of over 50 percent of the country “shows our military-first strategy and the surge is not working.”

“In sum, Trump’s instincts to withdraw are correct,” Khanna said, “but the tactical implementation matters.”

The post Rep. Ro Khanna on Afghanistan: “Trump’s Instincts to Withdraw Are Correct, but the Tactical Implementation Matters” appeared first on The Intercept.

December 20, 2018

Before Criminal Justice Reformer Is Even Sworn In, St. Louis Prosecuto...

St. Louis prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s 27-year tenure was marked most famously by his failure to win an indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014. He didn’t know it at the time, but that moment, and his hostile press conference announcing the decision, inspired a nationwide effort to reform prosecutorial offices by running criminal justice reformers to serve as district attorneys, not just public defenders.

In the summer of 2018, that movement eventually swallowed up McCulloch, when reformer Wesley Bell beat him in a primary.

But winning the office and reforming the system are two different tasks, and now Bell is facing extraordinary resistance from dogmatic front-line prosecutors — even before he has been sworn in.

This week, prosecutors in the office took the unusual step of voting in secret to join a police union.

At a meeting on Monday with the St. Louis Police Officers Association, or SPLOA, prosecutors and investigators rushed a vote to join the labor union known for representing cops who have brutalized and murdered civilians. The group has encouraged targeting people who oppose its defense of those cops, once tweeting an article listing 46 St. Louis-area businesses that signed a letter protesting the acquittal of cop Jason Stockley in the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith. The tweet, later deleted, read: “For what it’s worth … a list of STL businesses that hate cops and sympathize with vandals, brought to you by a tabloid birdcage liner that hates cops and sympathizes with vandals.”

The move to unionize with police officers “is unheard of,” Sergeant Heather Taylor told The Intercept. She’s president of the Ethical Society for Police, or ESP, a group of majority black police officers founded to address race-based discrimination in the community and within the county police department.

“When it’s all said and done, it’s about race,” Taylor said. “We can sugarcoat it all we want. They’ve been under Bob McCulloch for almost 30 years, and they’ve never come together to unionize. Suddenly, when Wesley Bell wins, the people voted him in over McCulloch — unanimously — and suddenly they want to become a union.”

McCulloch’s spokesperson Ed Magee told The Intercept that his boss did not push the unionization effort. “The office is not involved in that in any way,” he said. “Everything was done through other people. Our office, the administration of this office had nothing to do with it.”

In Philadelphia, after reformer Larry Krasner took over as district attorney, he fired a number of intransigent prosecutors. Magee said the prosecutors in St. Louis were trying to avoid a similar fate.

In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, McCulloch said the move came out of concern among his staff that Bell would either clean house or keep them from moving up. He said the idea didn’t come up when he was in office because “they knew I’d been an advocate for my employees as long as I’ve been there.”

A columnist for the St. Louis American, a weekly newspaper geared toward the city’s black community, condemned the alliance between prosecutors and the police, writing, “The St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA) is a ‘labor union’ in the same way the Ku Klux Klan is a ‘fraternal organization.’ The description is technically correct as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough.”

Beyond racial motivations, Taylor said, the move is part of a clear pattern of attempts across the country to circumvent incoming progressive officials.

“You look at what happened in Wisconsin. You have a governor coming in and all of his abilities, they’re trying to strip his abilities before he gets there. But he’s been elected by the people to be there,” Taylor explained.

“You don’t want him to make the changes that are necessary. And the reality probably is that some of them need to go. Some of them probably shouldn’t be in those jobs anymore. And these old philosophies under Bob McCulloch haven’t done much to bring these communities together.”

The SPLOA endorsed McCulloch over Bell — as did many other regional unions — and the group has been at odds with the ESP for decades, mostly over issues of race in the community, Taylor explained.

“The issues that are prevalent in St. Louis County that are race-based, the issues that Wesley Bell ran on — change and ending cash bail and reform in the criminal justice system — from a prosecutor’s standpoint are very different, vastly different from what McCulloch was about,” she said.  

The American Civil Liberties Union released a statement strongly condemning Monday’s vote, citing “serious ethical conflicts” and an “abdication of the responsibility” of prosecuting attorneys who choose to “place themselves under direct governing authority of the police union.”

“There is nothing wrong with them becoming a union. That’s a great thing,” Taylor said. “But you want to unionize with police officers. … It smells rotten. You’re expecting prosecutors as it is to turn a blind eye when they’re prosecuting cops. And that is difficult, as we know — we see the stories all around the country — the issues with even presenting cases against cops and winning those cases. So what’s going to happen when a case has been presented, and St. Louis County has to prosecute one of their own?”

Indeed, police officers are well-known to lie with abandon on the witness stand. Krasner’s office refuses to call to the stand officers known to be fabulists and/or racists. But a prosecutor who is in a union with the officer whom he is charged with questioning on the stand has a clear conflict at play.

“Especially a police association where they’ve had four officers recently indicted for a federal crime?” Taylor said. “Why choose a police association that defended an officer that shot another officer in St. Louis city? Why choose a police association that had officers that brutally beat another officer? And all of these things are about race. All of those issues and those complications there were about race.”

Bell, the first black man to be elected to the office, ran on ending mass incarceration by eliminating cash bail, finding alternatives to imprisonment, and reforming the way prosecutors handle police shootings. He said he supports his future colleagues’ right to organize, despite the move raising “some questions” as far as conflicts of interest with the police. His office didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.

McCulloch is well-known in St. Louis County for his deep familial ties to the police community — both he and Bell are the sons of officers — and faced criticism since the 1990s for his failure to indict police who killed black men.

“Is it OK for defense attorneys to join as well? Because the prosecutors are there. Is the POA going to accept defense attorneys as well? That would be interesting to see,” Taylor said. “Why choose police officers? Why not choose a carpenters’ union? Why not choose the electricians?”

The post Before Criminal Justice Reformer Is Even Sworn In, St. Louis Prosecutors Have Joined a Police Union appeared first on The Intercept.

December 6, 2018

Pennsylvania Republicans, Thwarted in Court, Are Trying to Deny Seatin...

Republicans in Pennsylvania went to court during the midterm campaign to try to get Democratic candidate Lindsey Williams kicked off the ballot over alleged residency deficiencies. A judge threw their challenge out, and Williams went on to upset her opponent, flipping a seat tucked inside Conor Lamb’s congressional district.

Now Senate Republicans, who still control the upper chamber despite losing five seats and the popular vote statewide, are trying to use the same residency argument to refuse seating the winner of the race.

Majority Leader Jake Corman, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, and the state GOP claim that by the time of the election, Williams was ineligible to run and therefore shouldn’t be able to take her seat in January. 

Scarnati wrote Williams, 35, a letter in late November telling the incoming senator that she’d have to pay back her December salary if it was determined that she did “not meet the constitutional requirements.” The letter offered Williams, an attorney who’s worked with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers for four years, a hearing in front of Scarnati and a bipartisan commission.

A federal judge in October threw out the initial lawsuit brought by two voters, supported by the state GOP, claiming that Williams didn’t meet residency requirements on the grounds that the filers had missed the deadline to challenge her eligibility. He wrote in that opinion that the question was an “untimely” and “barely colorable claim.” 

The race in itself was bizarre. Allegations surfaced that her opponent Jeremy Shaffer was behind campaign signs saying that Williams was a socialist, manufactured to look like her own. Shaffer says he did not create the signs, but his campaign manager is treasurer of the group that paid for them. And television ads he ran against Williams made the same claim.

If Senate Republicans declare Williams ineligible, the state would have to hold a special election to fill the seat.

“I’m not sure what’s gained by having to redo this election,” Williams’s lawyer Chuck Pascal told The Intercept. “To have a special election that will be costly to both the county and both parties, to have her run in a special where she will clearly be eligible. And deprive the people of the district of a senator for six months,” he explained. “I mean the last campaign cost almost a million dollars on each side. So, it would just seem to me to be a waste of money at this point.”

Williams is cooperating with GOP requests for documentation proving her residency, including but not limited to copies of her driver’s licenses, residential lease and purchase information, and tax documents for the past four years. They asked that Scarnati extend his original deadline for the documents to December 10.

“The constitution is not a guideline,” Corman spokesperson Jennifer Kocher said in response to criticism that a special election would be a waste of money. “If she can provide us with that information that will clear any of those questions up, then we’ll just move on,” she told The Intercept.

If Senate Republicans have more questions after they review those materials and decide to call a hearing, Pascal said he and his client would participate. “We don’t think it’s necessary,” he said.

 

In Pennsylvania, the governor is a Democrat, and Republicans still have an eight-seat margin in the chamber. Keeping Williams from taking office would likely do less to cement their legislative victories than it might to soften the blow from the party’s shrinking margins across the state.

People close to Democratic leadership say the party isn’t taking the GOP push seriously and that the chances they’ll succeed in keeping Williams from being sworn in in January are slim, since Williams stands a good chance of winning any special election they might force. But the effort reflects a similar pattern by Republicans in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, where lawmakers are thwarting democracy and democratic norms by making last-minute attempts to restrict the power of incoming Democrats. One measure in Wisconsin would keep the incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers from changing the state’s voter ID law. The Onion joked that Wisconsin Republicans planned to disband the state rather than turn power over to Democrats.

In North Carolina, meanwhile, Republicans appear to have committed widespread voter fraud in a contested congressional race, with the election board refusing to certify the results.

Pennsylvania Republicans have refused to cooperate with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s attempts to staff the state redistricting commission, which is attempting to undo a Republican gerrymander that keeps the GOP in control of the state legislature despite badly losing the statewide vote.

Williams, a Duquesne law grad and former law clerk with the Pittsburgh United Steelworkers Union, was fired in late 2012 along with four other employees for trying to start a union at the National Whistleblower Center in Washington, D.C. The organization maintains that the dismissals were part of mandatory layoffs. Williams later worked for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in the District of Columbia. In November 2014, she took a job with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and moved back to Pennsylvania around that time.

Scarnati did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.

The post Pennsylvania Republicans, Thwarted in Court, Are Trying to Deny Seating the Democratic Winner of an Election appeared first on The Intercept.

FILE - In this Nov. 12, 2015 file photo, Alan Durning, author of an initiative passed by Seattle voters that created the nation's first voucher system for campaign contributions, poses for a photo in his office in Seattle while holding an artist's depiction of a possible design for the vouchers. A lawsuit filed Wednesday, June 28, 2017, is challenging the voucher system for publicly financing political campaigns. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
December 2, 2018

In Democrats’ First Bill, There’s a Quiet Push to Make Public Camp...

The first bill Democrats plan to move in January when they take control of the House will mark a major step forward on a longstanding progressive goal — public financing of congressional campaigns.

The provision is a largely overlooked part of a sweeping anti-corruption bill Democrats plan to start the year with, and will bestow with the symbolic designation of HR1. The program, based on Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes’ “Government By the People Act of 2017,” would offer subsidies for individuals who want to make small contributions to political candidates. And eligible candidates would qualify for matching contributions that vary based on a candidate’s agreement to restrictions on how they finance their campaigns.

Combined with the broad surge of small dollar contributions — Democrats alone raised more than a billion dollars that way in 2018 — the public financing system would dramatically reshape the political economy of federal politics. Of course, it stands no chance of being passed by a Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, but it sets the stage for potential passage in 2021 if Democrats retake control of Congress and the White House.

H.R. 1, led in large part by Sarbanes, would revamp for the first time since the 1970’s the Watergate-era model for public financing of presidential campaigns and establish a national pilot program to fund congressional campaigns. The measure intensifies pressure to stop rewarding candidates with the most money from large donors and corporate PACs, or outside dark money groups propping them up, the status quo in a post-Citizens United electoral system. The idea driving H.R. 1 is to fight and end the dominance of big money in politics.

Successful candidates this year echoed calls to drain the swamp and dispense with corporate PAC funding, uniting people across ideology and mobilizing Americans in both the working and middle classes. Eighty-five out of 208 candidates who ran this year on pledges to disavow corporate or PAC money won their primaries, and 42 went on to win seats across both chambers.

Since then, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has pledged to give up corporate PAC money. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., a former co-chair, told The Intercept he has decided to do the same.

Joining the no corporate PAC team doesn’t mean a candidate won’t take any money from people who work for corporations, as many still receive individual donations directly from corporate executives and employees or indirectly through other PACs and dark money groups that don’t have to disclose their donors.

Under the H.R. 1 plan, individuals who contribute to House campaigns would be eligible for a one-time federal tax credit on up to $50 of political giving.. Those who make contributions of $300 or more to any candidate or committee, including PACs, would not be eligible for the credit. People in the states selected to pilot the voucher program would have the option to request a “My Voice Voucher” and allocate funds in increments of $5 to multiple candidates of their choice. Taking part in the voucher program also precludes eligibility for the tax credit.

Participating candidates are entitled to a 6 to 1 match of the amount they receive in small dollar contributions. If candidates agree to further financial restrictions outlined in the bill — that would cap them at accepting a maximum contribution of $1,000 from any individual, and require at least $50,000 in total individual contributions — the match they’re entitled to increases by 50 percent.  

The goal of the restrictions and requirements is to minimize the possibility that a scammer could get access to matching public funds, as raising $50,000 in individual donations is a difficult feat which separates serious candidates from unserious ones. By capping contributions at $1,000, but matching $150 contributions at a 6 to 1 rate, the law incentivizes candidates to target regular people for smaller donations rather than rich people for big ones.

House Democrats will also pursue related legislation, including but not limited to H.R. 1, that would enforce higher standards of disclosure and transparency with an aim to reveal sources of dark money in campaign funding, push for enhanced disclosure for online ads, limit coordination between super PACs and campaigns where current federal law has failed, and revamp the Federal Election Commission’s authority for oversight and enforcement action. A focus on reinstating voting rights, combatting partisan gerrymandering, addressing election security concerns and revamping the Office of Government Ethics are all also part of the overall strategy to expand and restore the role of voters in the electoral process.

“At the polls earlier this month, the American people sent us a clear message,” Rep. Sarbanes said in a statement emailed to The Intercept. “They want to end the culture of corruption in Trump’s Washington, hold elected officials accountable and make government more responsive to the people. On the first day of the new Congress, Democrats will introduce a bold and sweeping democracy reform package that will … ensure that public servants behave in Washington and make it easier, not harder, to vote.”

“And it will be strongly backed by the new Democratic House majority – which is built on a diverse class of freshmen who are unified in their promise to restore our democracy – along with a new coalition of nearly 100 grassroots organizations that want to get this reform package over the finish line,” the statement read.

While it won’t be part of the first bill they plan to push in January, House Democrats are also eyeing a resolution to recommend overturning Citizens United. Conservative policy analysts say the 2010 ruling upholds the crucial democratic pillar of free speech by allowing corporations and unions to make independent political expenditures without restrictions. A 2015 Bloomberg poll shows an overwhelming 78 percent of respondents think it should be overturned.

 

Recent local and state iterations of public campaign finance programs in places like Baltimore, New York City, Seattle, Denver, and Washington, D.C. offer teachable lessons for legislators developing a national framework. “I think it’s not an accident that we’re suddenly kind of seeing so many localities pass these things. There’s a frustration and a feeling that people don’t have a voice and they’re being ignored completely,” Larry Norden told The Intercept. He’s deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan, pro-campaign finance reform public policy institute at New York University Law School.

Proponents of local initiatives say shifting the bulk of campaign financing from the corporate to public sector encourages broader civic participation and helps people feel like they’re taking a meaningful part in the electoral process — and that the process itself is actually democratic. “Public financing programs, one of their big goals is increasing participation,” Aaron McKean at the Campaign Legal Center told The Intercept. A second goal is “changing how our public officials actually engage with voters or with their constituents,” he said.

Seattle used a $3 million tax on property owners to pilot a voucher program as part of a $4.2 million earmark for the 2019 city council race, where residents will get four vouchers totaling $100 which they can distribute in support of candidates of their choice. Choosing to participate in the program also limits a candidate’s funding pool to Seattle residents.

FILE - In this Nov. 12, 2015 file photo, Alan Durning, author of an initiative passed by Seattle voters that created the nation's first voucher system for campaign contributions, poses for a photo in his office in Seattle while holding an artist's depiction of a possible design for the vouchers. A lawsuit filed Wednesday, June 28, 2017, is challenging the voucher system for publicly financing political campaigns. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Alan Durning, author of an initiative passed by Seattle voters in 2015 that created the nation’s first voucher system for campaign contributions, poses with an artist’s depiction of a possible design for the vouchers on Nov. 12, 2015.

Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP

The Seattle model is designed to encourage and reward grassroots campaigns — only candidates who receive 150 individual contributions are eligible for funding via the public vouchers. But candidates can only exchange those vouchers for hard cash once they’ve received 400 individual contributions and gotten the same number of signatures verified.

The stance on big money has quickly become a litmus test among candidates, at least for Democrats. Before Election Day, 104 congressional candidates signed a letter refusing to take corporate money.

Support for the movement is more scarce amongst Republicans — Reps. Phil Roe of Tennessee and Francis Rooney of Florida are the only party incumbents who don’t take corporate or super PAC money, according to End Citizens United, a political action committee focused on campaign finance reform. That excludes the contributions they receive from their official committees.

Fewer than a handful of Republican candidates in rare cases have parroted the anti-big money message to their advantage. Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte — who quickly began accepting PAC money after his election — ran his 2016 gubernatorial campaign on a pledge against it, echoing in his 2017 special election campaign calls to “drain the swamp.” Other Republicans have explicitly expressed that they believe voters don’t care if elected officials take corporate money.

Rep. Ro Khanna started the “No PAC Caucus” last summer. The Congressional Progressive Caucus announced in April that it would not longer accept corporate donations, but nearly all of its members, except Khanna, Jayapal, Tulsi Gabbard and David Cicilline, still take corporate money. Representatives-elect Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jahana Hayes and Ayanna Pressley have all also said they’ll reject corporate PAC money, joined now by Pocan and Grijalva

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in March reversed her previous opposition to the idea and signed a bill creating a public financing program for local campaigns in the District that’s expected go into effect for 2020. Like the Seattle program, it incentivizes small dollar financing, but instead it requires candidates to meet a threshold in order to qualify for a base grant to their campaign, and to be eligible for a 5 to 1 match for individual contributions. Bowser in January criticized the bill for what she said was a diversion of tax dollars at a time when residents have more immediate concerns. The bill unanimously passed the D.C. council in February.

 

Opponents of a national public campaign finance system argue that individuals shouldn’t be forced to pay for the campaigns of politicians they don’t support. Or that people who don’t want to put their money into a failing political system should not have to. Local pilot programs have been criticized for not actually keeping money out of politics, and instead making it easier for financially and politically connected incumbents and otherwise already well-established figures to win reelection, crushing newcomers who don’t have as much financial support out of the gate. Some say the idea creates unintended pressures that encourage fraud and misuse of public funds instead of enhancing the overall integrity of the system.

“I think that you could say that, sort of the alternative to that does the same thing to a higher level though,” said Austin Graham at the Campaign Legal Center. In the current system, he said, “candidates relying on what we would call a privately financed campaign are going to have the same benefits in terms of established networks. And they can actually raise money to much larger amounts. Whereas with the voucher program, at least the program basically directs the focus of the candidates to their prospective constituents.” He had heard about confusion among candidates regarding qualification requirements for Seattle’s voucher program, but noted that the city council had since taken feedback and amended the program ordinance for the next cycle.

Democrats should also be wary, David Keating said, of creating a mechanism for public campaign finance that could be weaponized by one party against the other.  He’s president the Institute for Free Speech, a conservative, pro-deregulation non-profit, previously known as the Center for Competitive Politics. Ostensibly, President Trump would be the one to appoint people to any committee tasked with auditing potentially corrupt campaigns, Keating explained. “Why would they want to trust someone like Trump to appoint a majority of the people who are on the enforcement commission to audit these campaigns? Basically you would have Trump allies who could go through and audit all the Democratic candidates across the country and make announcements during the campaign, that ‘Oh, look here. This is something that was not done right. We’re going to slap this candidate with a fine and announce he’s broken the law.’”

Democrats say they’re clear-eyed on the bill’s prospects in the Senate, where Majority Leader McConnell has long been an outspoken opponent of efforts to reform the campaign finance system. The bill, then, is more of a nod to the burgeoning support for the movement against big money, and Sarbanes’ office hopes it will establish a party-wide standard that Democrats are taking seriously calls to fix a broken electoral system that rewards fundraising prowess over effective policy or messaging.

Both parties, however, tend to be good at passing legislation important to their respective bases when the opposition party is in the White House and it has little chance of passage. With George W. Bush in the White House, Democrats passed sweeping labor law reforms through the House. When a Democrat took the White House, that same Democratic caucus failed even to bring it to the floor for a vote. Tea party Republicans, with Obama in the White House, repealed Obamacare on what seemed like a weekly basis. Once they had a president willing to sign it, the votes to repeal evaporated.

Passing H.R. 1 will set a marker for progressives in 2019, but it’ll require continuous pressure to see it made into law.

The post In Democrats’ First Bill, There’s a Quiet Push to Make Public Campaign Finance a Reality appeared first on The Intercept.