October 14, 2014

Arlene Sweeting on Retaining Our Democracy

At the ripe age of 81, Rhana Bazzini has decided to walk over 400 miles to talk about getting money out of politics. She is walking across the Sunshine State from Sarasota to Tallahassee, and people are energized to support her. Arlene Sweeting organized a kickoff event for Rhana. Arlene speaks eloquently on the subject of losing our democracy.

Jim Hightower Speaks Out in Sarasota

After losing her spouse of fifty-six years in June 2013, 81-year-old Rhana Bazzini decided it was time to take to the streets. Inspired by Granny D’s walk across the country for campaign finance reform, Rhana began planning a walk from Sarasota to Tallahassee. Her goal is to spread the word that Corporations are NOT People and Money is NOT Speech. Yesterday, Jim Hightower spoke at her kickoff event in Sarasota. He kept us all laughing about a very serious endeavor.

Rhana will be walking 10 miles a day for a total of over 400 miles. She left today from Sarasota, Florida. You can keep up with her progress on her Facebook page.

February 24, 2013

Florida LegiCamp 2013

I attended Legicamp a couple of weeks ago. It's an un-conference designed to help progressives from around Florida get ready for the upcoming Florida legislative session. Many weird news headlines come out of Florida. Florida Man Arrested For Stealing 166 Manhole Covers. Woman busted for riding a manatee in Florida. But none are quite as wacky as many of the bills that come out of the Florida Legislature. So what are Florida progressives concerned about in 2013? Watch the following video and find out.

I can already report progress on one of the issues. Governor Rick Scott is endorsing Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid. He campaigned against Obamacare, but he has proven so unpopular in Florida that he has done an about-face on this issue. It seems that bringing billions of federal dollars to Florida would be popular with the voters, and Governor Scott wants to be re-elected.

October 20, 2012

My Ballot: An Idealistic Write-In Moment

Soon after moving back to Florida, I noticed that for many races on my ballot, there is a line for a write-in candidate. In my naivety, I thought that meant I could meaningfully write in anyone I chose. I recall one Republican Party primary for Congress in which the infamous Katherine Harris ran against a write-in candidate, who was in fact a dog. His campaign motto was "Never made a mess in the House! Never will!" As it turns out, in Florida, write-in candidates are qualified ahead of time with the appropriate elections office.

Recently, both of Florida's major parties started using write-in candidates to close their party's primary, and effectively disenfranchise a whole swath of the electorate. If only one party is running candidates, Florida allows all voters to vote in a primary race, since the final outcome will be decided during the primary. By way of example, in Sarasota's 2012 race for Supervisor of Elections, there were only two Republican candidates. In order to close the election from Democrats and Independent voters, the Republicans found Victoria Brill, to register as a write-in candidate. In this manner, only registered Republicans were allowed to decide the winner of the race.

Many times, a write-in candidate is a sham candidate or a protest candidate such as the dog mentioned above. Once in a while, a write-in is a bona fide candidate without party backing. My 2012 Sarasota ballot includes at least one such entrant - Robert Sublett - who is running for Clerk of the Circuit Court. He is running in response to the ongoing mortgage and foreclosure crisis of the last five years. A Sarasota organization, the Mortgage Justice Group, is supporting his candidacy. Over the last year, organized resistance to foreclosure and eviction has sprouted in localities from coast to coast. Many of the participants have migrated from the Occupy Movement. Forms of resistance vary due to differences in local laws and enforcement. In some jurisdictions, protesters disrupt foreclosure auctions. Many groups have "adopted" especially egregious cases and devoted themselves to camping out in front yards and galvanizing neighbors in support. Direct confrontations with lending institutions are not uncommon. In Sarasota, the Mortgage Justice Group holds workshops where residents help other residents facing foreclosure. And in a handful of jurisdictions, motivated citizens are running for office hoping to get some form of retribution for the victims of this crisis. Most of Florida's candidates, running on such a platform, lost in their respective primaries. But as a write-in candidate, Robert Sublett is still on the ballot.

Friends and family frequently ask me, "Why should borrowers who have stopped making their mortgage payments get special treatment?" They made bad choices and got in over their heads and that is behavior we don't want to encourage. I don't disagree. And if we were talking about a few borrowers, the discussion would go no further. But when millions of people have lost homes and millions more are likely to suffer through foreclosure, this is not the time to ignore the plight of others. When the financial corporations responsible for bringing our economy to its knees are bailed out, but do next to nothing to extend a helping hand to their borrowers, I am glad there are those willing to keep sounding an alarm. When a secret bailout by the Federal Reserve dwarfs the enormous bailout approved by Congress, it is no wonder there is an outcry for more financial regulation. When mortgage companies intentionally set up shop in neighborhoods where people do not understand the contracts they are signing and encourage poor people to get in over their heads and no one lands in jail, the system needs adjustment. When securitization of home mortgages leaves those responsible for deciding the appropriateness of a loan and the valuation of the associated properties unaccountable for their decisions, it is no surprise that many borrowers default on their loans. When state legislatures attempt to destroy the judicial safeguards afforded homeowners prior to foreclosure, homeowners will call foul. When we entrust mortgage documentation to a private system with no oversight and add irregular robo-signing, it is only to be expected many will call it fraud. These examples of bad behavior leave many folks feeling angry, as well as justified in expecting their lending institution to work with them to modify their mortgage agreement.

My Sarasota ballot is a reminder that each of us can do something to help someone struggling with foreclosure. A reminder that we need to elect politicians who are willing to flex government muscle and regulate our financial institutions. My ballot presents a write-in moment of idealism. Maybe your ballot affords you the same opportunity.

October 13, 2012

Pillow Fight (for Peace)

How could I resist participating in a Pillow Fight for Peace. Billed as fluffy, fighting fun, the rules were simple

  1. swing lightly
  2. no down pillows
  3. don't hit anyone with a camera unless they specifically ask you to
Instead of an anti-war demonstration or a march for peace, we were going to play. This appealed to me as a natural political evolution of a flash mob. A flash mob typically results in public performance art. Here it would result in a public political statement.

In countries where there is significant political repression, this type of action is a way to avoid a harsh response from authorities. Just over a year ago in Belarus, following a currency devaluation and its concurrent skyrocketing prices, there was great discontent. Those opposed to the government engaged in clapping protests. Due to the government's strong response to protest, people would gather in main squares around the country at an appointed time and start clapping. It was a non-protest form of protest. As ridiculous as it sounds, police responded by arresting clappers.

In the United States, a public pillow fight has broader goals in mind. We can make social connections, involve folks of all ages, enjoy our diminishing public space, and get out from behind our television sets. A large pillow fight would be just as easy to organize and enjoy as a small one. Just prior to a presidential election, conservatives, liberals, radicals, and centrists could all engage in a fun activity without hurling insults at each other. There would be no clear victor, but I can live with such ambiguity.

On my drive over to Straub Park, I envisioned round pillows with peace signs, literature with statistics outlining how much this country is spending on war, and Where Have All The Flowers Gone playing in the background. Not to be. The planning for the Pillow Fight for Peace had stopped just short of Peace. Elizabeth Dunn, the main organizer, plans to follow up on that aspect next time round. But great fun was had by all, and I recommend it for anyone with the ability to run around without glasses on.

October 8, 2012

My Ballot: Rename Florida State Amendments

So what makes my November ballot the longest in history? It's not the presidential race, even with twelve candidates in the running. It's those proposed Florida Constitutional amendments, which are quite wordy and, many times, deceptive. Many of the amendment titles are full of compassion, but are nonetheless misleading. Not one of these amendments was proposed by a citizen or a group advocating on behalf of citizens. They are all coming out of the Florida legislature. The advice coming from many thoughtful corners, such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, is to VOTE NO on all of them.

In an effort to make these amendments more accessible to the average voter, I have re-titled them to reflect their actual content. My son added a few creative flourishes. He's probably responsible for the ones you like the most.

#1 Sore Losers Amendment. The legislature's attempt to thumb their nose at the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Additionally, if the Affordable Care Act were repealed, this amendment would limit potential health insurance reform options at the state level.

#3 Formulaic State Spending Limits (That Might Lead to a Fiscal Crisis) Amendment. This amendment would set a revenue spending cap each year based on population growth and inflation, rather than personal income. Colorado implemented a cap back in 1992 and it went awry. The state was hamstrung in its ability to provide basic services, when the economy faltered.

#5 Power Grab Amendment. The legislature wants to have more control over the judiciary. Are they still mad that the Florida Supreme Court ruled in support of a recount in the 2000 presidential election? This amendment would require Senate confirmation of Florida Supreme Court justices and make it easier for lawmakers to change the process rules in the court system.

#6 Increase Government Regulation of Women's Bodies Amendment. Currently, there is no public funding of abortion, but most of this amendment is dedicated to putting an exclamation on that point. The real meat of this amendment is in the change to privacy law. This amendment would provide an opening to outlaw all abortions in Florida, if Roe vs. Wade were overturned.

#8 Taxpayers Fund Religion Amendment. This amendment deceptively appears to be about religious freedom. It is, in fact, the polar opposite. As it stands now, the state funds many religious programs so long as they do not promote their religion. This amendment would open the door to funding religious activity. Rather than freeing taxpayers with regard to religion, it would force them to pay for religion.

#12 Placate FSU Amendment. The Florida Board of Governors (BOG) oversees the state's public universities. Did you know that students have a representative on the BOG? The chair of the Florida Student Association (FSA), which is comprised of university student body presidents, has a seat at the table. But one University, Florida State University (FSU), chooses not to pay for membership in the FSA. This amendment creates another student bureaucracy so that FSU would not have to participate in the FSA, according to a Miami Herald editorial. I couldn't find any analysis that claimed the current system has a problem. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" would seem to apply here.

Emotional Appeal to Increase Property Tax Loopholes, Amendments #2, #4, #9, #10, and #11. The problem with adding lots of exemptions to property taxes is that for every tax break one person gets, other taxpayers shoulder a heavier burden. These taxes pay for local government services such as police, schools, libraries, and parks. A reduction in these taxes would make it harder for local governments to provide these basic services. Dressing them up so that they help veterans and low-income seniors evokes a sympathetic, emotional response rather than solid analysis. I admit that I am attracted to some of these amendments, but I won't muddy the waters in this short overview.

For those that have waded through the deceptive wording, many have concluded that most of these amendments go against the public interest. For example, if you know someone who has had an insurance claim inappropriately denied, been denied health insurance due to pre-existing conditions, or had their premiums go through the roof, you know that health insurance needs regulation. Most folks want to make decisions about having children and not have it forced upon them through regulation. I think most U.S. citizens heartily support religious pluralism and would like to make sure that our government does not favor one religion over another. And yet our elected representatives in Tallahassee put forth ballot amendments that would do the opposite. So, if our representatives are not representing us, who are they representing? The beauty of ballot amendments is that voters can go to the voting booth and represent themselves.

October 10 Update: Progress Florida put together a chart of the ballot amendments showing how various groups recommend you vote. You can read a more detailed analysis of the ballot amendments from the Collins Center.

October 6, 2012

Occupy Sarasota, First Anniversary

Occupy Sarasota Targets Bank of America for "White Collar Crime" to Celebrate 1st Anniversary

October 4, 2012

My Ballot Has 12 Candidates For President

In honor of last night's presidential debate, I decided to have a look at the ballot on which I will cast my vote. I downloaded a shockingly long ballot. And the presidential race unmistakably contributes to its length. There are twelve parties contending! I had expected maybe five or six.

My eye immediately went to the PFP (Peace And Freedom) Party slate of Roseanne Barr and running mate, Cindy Sheehan. Roseanne Barr has a long list of accomplishments as an actress, comedian, TV producer, and more. And she is not afraid to speak her mind. The United States has a long history of electing former actors to high office, such as Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and more. So perhaps this is a good fit. Cindy Sheehan showed the perseverance of a bulldog in 2005, when she Occupied a piece of land outside then-President George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. She garnered significant media attention protesting the continued U.S. war in Iraq. Based on her tireless activism for peace, Sheehan is a woman motivated by her strong principles.

The Barr/Sheehan ticket is a rich combination of personalities. Where do they stand on the issues? From the website, legalize marijuana; get Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other; forgive student loan debt; reign in the bankers; end the wars; fight for equal rights for all; preserve natural water sources; grow natural, organic food. I noticed that legalizing marijuana was at the top of the list. Medical marijuana laws have not yet reached Florida, so I am probably out of touch, but this seemed like a flakey #1 priority. So, while a good chunk of the electorate watched the end of the Obama and Romney debate on TV, I did some googling. Barr recently spoke at a town hall meeting at Oaksterdam University last week. Oaksterdam is our country's first cannabis college. It is dawning on me that I am more out of touch than I realized. Yes, we do have a trade school with classes in growing marijuana, running a dispensary, business practices, and the like. According to Barr, marijuana is a billion dollar industry in California, and legalization brings a tax windfall. So, when she talks about making marijuana legal and war illegal, she is also advancing economic responsibility and deficit reduction. She is advancing a reduction in regulation on small business. And an increase in personal freedom. Sounds almost mainstream.

But can the People and Freedom Party win? Or, could they influence the final outcome of the 2012 election? No and maybe. As far as I can tell, they are only on the ballot in Colorado, Florida, and California, so they can't win. But, Florida and Colorado are two of the largest swing states this year. So, any third-party candidate in those two states might affect the outcome. Last night's debate only included the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, unless you watched the Democracy Now! version. Amy Goodman expanded the debate to include Jill Stein of the Green Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party. Hats off to Amy Goodman for attempting to get us out of the self-perpetuating cycle of a paucity of candidates and limited debate options.

Since there are ten third-party presidential candidates on my Floridian ballot, I do have quite a choice. Florida's laws promote a strong and diverse ballot. Evidently this came about through a constitutional ballot initiative in 1998, which barred the State from passing any rule against a third-party candidate that didn’t also apply to the two major party candidates. As a voter, I find this invigorating. I don't have to choose between the lesser of two evils. There is a higher likelihood of finding a candidate on the ballot with whom I agree. This is only one step in relieving the two party stranglehold on our electoral system. C.G.P. Grey provides a brilliant explanation of first-past-the-post-voting and some of the other problems inherent in our current system. Although I see my state's laws as providing strong ballot access, my legislators deemed them weak and passed more stringent laws. Let's recap. The people of Florida voted for better ballot access and the Florida legislature passed new rules to thwart their wishes. Representative democracy is brought to its knees. These new rules would have gone into effect this year, but they were blocked until 2016. Until then, I revel in my ballot's horn of plenty.

My research into the Barr/Sheehan ticket brought to light a couple of choice items. First, concerning her decision to get into the race, Barr explains that it was much the same thing that motivated her to produce a sitcom. She was sitting around watching TV and thought, "Hell, I could do better than that!" Second, Sheehan has suspended campaigning due to irreconcilable political differences and health issues. @TheRealRoseanne tweeted, "I'm asking the american ppl to step in for Cindy Sheehan, who's on the ballot, but withdrawn. I'm authorizing all roseannearchists 2bVP." Can you translate that?

Going Forward: Four Candidates Confirmed For The 2012 Presidential Debate Hosted by Free And Equal on October 23.

September 23, 2012

National Plug In Day, Sarasota

I landed at Five Points Park on my bicycle. Folks there were preparing to drive a parade of electric vehicles over to St. Armands Circle in celebration of National Plug In Day. I was the oddball without a power-assist. I left a few minutes before those gathered. As I passed onto the Ringling Bridge, police officers closed the road behind me and I led the silent posse of electric vehicles. For a fleeting five seconds. Then they zipped right past me. Just before they arrived at St. Armands, I caught up to the electric motorcycles that were bringing up the rear. As I passed, one of them good-naturedly yelled out that he gets almost as good mileage on his motorcycle as I get on my bicycle.

So what's the fuss about electric cars? They are more environmentally benign than internal combustion engine vehicles and they move us away from oil dependence. Evidently, running cars on gasoline pollutes more than producing the equivalent in electricity from coal power plants. If you use solar or wind energy to charge the battery, electric vehicles verge on environmentally friendly.

There is another, disturbing side to the electric car story. In the early 2000's, when corporate behemoths got their way, almost all electric vehicles were taken off the road and/or destroyed, even though they were in good working order. The same organizations prevented any improvements to fuel economy standards from 1985 until 2012! Corporate interests have diligently worked behind the scenes to spread misinformation, start bogus grassroots lobbying campaigns, redirect government funding to alternatives that don't stand a chance, and deregulate any regulations that manage to see the light of day. Check out the movie, Who Killed the Electric Car for details. Thankfully, we have recently approved rules that practically double mileage standards by 2025. Even with these new rules, there are a few loopholes that may result in an increase to total greenhouse emissions from 2017 to 2025. Reminder: we need to get big money out of politics.

Out of protests over the destruction of perfectly good electric vehicles in the early 2000's, arose a phoenix called Plug In America. Along with the Sierra Club, the City of Sarasota, and the Electric Vehicle Association, they organized today's well-attended event at St. Armands Circle. Upon my arrival, I felt like I was at an outdoor auto showroom. But, in addition to cars, one could learn about photovoltaics and solar power, charging stations, shade structures, electric-assisted bicycles, and more. Since I am not in the market for a new car or bicycle, I did not test drive any of the available models. Rather, I was on the hunt for someone who wasn't trying to sell me something. I found my man in Forrest Shaw, who had decided to convert a 1969 VW into an electric vehicle, without much of the know-how needed to accomplish the task. Along the way, he brought many community members into the process, who are now converting their own cars. Listen to his story.

How is it that Sarasota is involved with electric cars? For one thing, they've installed nine car-charging stations around the City. I think that puts Sarasota in the vanguard. On the other hand, the City recently voted to dissolve its Renewable Energy Fund. As for me, I'm sticking with my bicycle. At least when it's not raining and I don't have to transport others and I'm not in a wild game reserve and ...

September 21, 2012

Dispirited Impressions from Romney Rally, Sarasota

I return from Romney's Sarasota presidential campaign stop with my spirit temporarily flagging. One Romney protester held a sign that read "Nobody Likes Mitt", but I think she is wrong. By my estimates, four or five thousand people showed up to display their enthusiasm for the candidate, standing for several hours in the sweltering midday sun. A few picked fights - physically pushing and shoving - and a majority of them shamelessly slung insults at protesters. The police did their job well, keeping the two opposing groups separated and the road clear for traffic. Because of Electoral College math, Romney must win Florida to have a shot at the presidency. This means campaigning here during the summer heat. Later in the afternoon, the heat was severe enough that I saw two folks escorted away for treatment by medics standing by.

Waiting for the gates to open, thousands of Romney supporters settled on their favorite line of protester-directed hubris - "Get a Job!" Frankly, this was just bizarre beyond comprehension. These folks, who were standing in line and obviously NOT working, are yelling at a hundred people across the street. They are yelling at people they have never met, people they know nothing about. And they are telling them to get a job, at a moment when they, themselves, are obviously not working. Is this some sort of mass projection bias? Perhaps it's a media-induced stereotyping hysteria? It is tempting to blame it all on the media. It certainly made me feel worse about the human race. There's a young boy, perhaps six years old, chanting "Get a Job" over and over, even after the adults have abandoned the activity. Why isn't this child in school at 1:30 in the afternoon? Perhaps he is being home-schooled. Today's lesson is to make assumptions about people he has never met and demand that they do something that he, himself, is not prepared to do. How depressing. I actually know something of the protesters. One is a server at a local restaurant. Another is a substitute teacher. Another is an artist. Several are full-time college students, who fit this protest in around their class schedules. Yes, some are retired, but why demand that a retiree go get a job?

Despite my agitation and incredulity, I decide to go inside the grounds to get a more in-depth look. For this, I must stand in line for about an hour as the thousands of people before me go through security. I am surrounded by folks who watch Fox News. They seem nice enough, until they start yelling at the protesters to "Take a Bath." They call them "Scum of the Nation" and "Losers". They assure themselves that every last protester has been paid to come out and protest. Where do they get this nonsense? Oh yeah, Fox News. And every tenth sentence, I hear someone complaining about socialism. I am surrounded by retirees on Medicare, who by definition are benefitting from our country's socialized payment for medical services for the elderly. When I finally arrive at the rally area, there is an enormous sign saying "Protect and Strengthen Medicare." So, evidently some forms of socialism are okay. I, myself, am against socializing corporate losses when we privatize corporate gains. That's how many describe the 2009 bank bailouts. Especially the protesters across the street. I'm thinking this is something we could all agree on. But nobody here is looking for agreement. They want to paint the world in black and white. And it's contagious. We are all left ripe for misunderstanding. And hurt. And my spirit is flagging.

Prior to joining this public rally at the Ringling Museum, a few folks had paid $2500 and more to have lunch with Romney at the Ritz Carlton. A plane flies overhead dragging a banner that reads, "Romney: See any 47% victims at the Ritz?" A flyover form of protest. It refers to a recently released video taken at a Boca Raton fundraiser where, in the words of Stephen Colbert, Romney calls 47% of all Americans mindless moochers. Part of me was hoping that Romney would apologize for his seeming indifference to so many citizens of this fair country. But, alas, that did not come to pass. As to dining at the Ritz, evidently many people are aggrieved by the wealth of the participants and the elitism inherent in such a private lunch. I find it far more alarming that a political campaign needs to raise such large sums just to get by. Public Citizen is foretelling that $8 billion will be spent on local and national elections this fall. And a good chunk of those funds will be dark money from anonymous corporations and super-rich citizens not concerned one iota with the public interest. Now that sets me off the deep end. To add insult to injury, it also pays for a lot of deceptive television ads that will continue to set me off the deep end, if I find the courage to turn on the television.

Perhaps there are a few thoughtful members of Romney's audience with whom I can dialog. I find a woman who came down from Clearwater. She was contemplating leaving early, in part, because Romney was already half an hour late and, in part, due to the unrelenting sweatiness of the afternoon. Instead, she struck up a conversation about all the hate coming out of the Middle East. How the Muslims were out to destroy our freedom of speech. She was referring to recent actions of Libyan protesters, who were so angered over a film that ridiculed Muhammad that they burned down the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and killed the U.S. Ambassador. To be honest, I found the motivation for this story hard to believe from day one, but I had to agree that there is hate coming out of the Middle East. After all, the United States has set up tyrannical dictatorships in the area. And our planes have dropped bombs for years on countries in the region. There's a lot to hate. I made no mention of this, but we continued to talk. We talked about how the media is drawn to portray the point of view of extremists. That's all we hear about them and, most probably, that's all they hear about us. And she spoke of how fearful this has made her. As the discussion wound down, she told me how happy she was that Glenn Beck was back on the air without the constraints of Fox News. Even with the limited exposure I have had to Glenn Beck, I never got the impression that Fox News constrained him much; he seemed to glory in distorting the news. Later that evening, when I opened Facebook, there was a Glenn Beck clip in my newsfeed. So, I clicked on it. Coincidentally, he was ranting about how unlikely it was that an amateur youtube video, which had attracted a relatively small viewership could have generated such a successful and well-planned response in Libya, months after its release. I had to agree.

Mitt Romney finally graced us with his presence. Within five minutes, I could just barely listen to the manipulative statements and sloganeering bombarding us. He spent his speaking time talking about all the things he would NOT do, if elected President. I will sum it up in a one sentence exaggeration. Whatever President Obama has done, Mitt Romney was not going to do that. That seemed to fire up the crowd. I left early.

I emerged to a new group of protesters. They were New College students, some of whom had infiltrated the event. After Romney started speaking, they started chanting "People over Profits" and unfurled a Palestinian flag. How had I missed this? They were quickly shooed out by security. And they were thoroughly energized by their actions. A Romney supporter walking out of the event, came toward the group and said that he was willing to talk to them, but only if they believed in God. Negative and inaccurate stereotypes of atheists must be alive and well. I was sinking into despondency. Time to go home.