Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Last Call For Virginia Is For Voters

We're just five weeks away from Election Day 2017, and the eyes of the country will be on Virginia's races with state offices ranging from Governor to Attorney General commanding the nation's attention.  But this year Democrats finally have realized that the GOP was able to take over America by winning at the state legislature level, and in the Trump era, Team Blue is looking to take states back one by one ahead of 2018 and 2020's crucial battles.

If you want a sneak preview of how the 2018 election is shaping up for Democrats, you should pay attention to people like Schuyler VanValkenburg. 
The 32-year-old VanValkenburg is a high school civics teacher at a public school in Henrico County, Virginia. As part of his civics duties, he coaches his team in a statewide “We the People” constitutional competition, in which students are grilled, Senate-hearing-style, by a panel of judges about America’s system of governance. “I’m teaching this really idealistic and really sophisticated program, and the kids are working at a really high level—really taking in the Constitution and working with it—and meanwhile they’re seeing this election going more and more into the gutter,” he says. So not long after President Donald Trump won, with prodding from another teacher and support from a new progressive political outfit called Run for Something, which helps first-time millennial candidates do exactly that, he decided to run for the House of Delegates in the state’s 72nd district. 
Even in an off-year, elections have consequences. On November 7 voters will go to the polls to pick mayors in New York, Atlanta, Detroit, and Birmingham. New Jersey will get a new governor, and a state Senate election in Washington state could give Democrats full control of the state government. But the elections in swingy Virginia, where all 100 seats in the House of Delegates are up for grabs (along with the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general), could be the clearest demonstration yet of Democratic political power in the age of Trump—and a barometer for the party’s strength heading into next year’s midterm election. Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Virginia Senate but a 2-to-1 supermajority in the House of Delegates, and have used their numbers to block term-limited Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe from expanding Medicaid in the state. Taking back the House of Delegates is a long shot, but candidates like VanValkenburg demonstrate how they’ll try. 
VanValkenburg’s platform is what you’d expect from a suburban Democrat running against intransigence—he’s pledging more money for public schools, passage of Medicaid expansion, and a rejection of the conservative culture war. What’s different is that it’s happening in Henrico. The 72nd, which comprises the northwest suburbs of Richmond, is Republican by habit. Three years ago, Republican primary voters in Henrico County replaced House Majority Leader Eric Cantor with Ayn Rand-quoting economics professor Dave Brat. Democrats have long approached the district with the attitude that you can’t lose a fight you never join. The current Republican delegate Jimmie Massie, who is retiring at the end of this term, won reelection in 2015 without any Democratic opposition. Just like the Republican nominee in 2013. And 2011. And 2009. And 2005. And 2003. And 2001. And 1999. And 1997. And 1993. And 1991. 
But this year, Democrats have put the 72nd in their sights. VanValkenburg has raised $150,000 as of September, nearly as much as his Republican rival, Eddie Whitlock. The Cook Political Report named his race a “toss-up,” the outcome of which will hinge on the strength of the Democratic Resistance. After the disappointment of 2016, progressive politicos sought to rebuild their party’s bench through strength in numbers—by coaxing a record number of candidates to seek down-ballot offices. (Run for Something, which was founded by a Hillary Clinton campaign alum, has assisted seven Democratic delegate candidates in Virginia alone.) Seven Republican retirements have strengthened Democrats’ chances there. Virginia will be the first real test of whether the strategy is working.

Democrats have had very good success in state-level special elections so far.  If they can do well next month in Virginia's House of Delegates, it just may be the turning point that leads to another 2006 and 2008 model of victories across the country.  2005 saw Tim Kaine winning the governor's race, and hopefully 2017 will see Ralph Northam win as well.

I'm betting it will be a good day for Democrats.

Another Day In Gunmerica, Con't

As I keep saying, the odds of any major gun safety legislation passing is low even if Democrats had the House, the White House, and 60 Senate votes, because as former Democratic Rep. Steve Israel points out in the NY Times today, any Republican who crosses the NRA is immediately done.

There were moments when I thought, “Finally, we will do something.” I remember sitting at my desk in my district office on Long Island watching the grisly images of the murder of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., in 2012, and President Barack Obama with tears streaming down his cheeks. I was confident that at the very least we’d expand background checks or make it harder for people with mental illness to obtain guns.

My confidence ebbed when I heard my colleagues turn this into a debate over the rights of gun owners instead of the right to life of children. In the confines of the members-only elevators, where my colleagues could speak honestly, I heard colleagues confide that any vote for gun safety would lower their N.R.A. scores, making them casualties in the next election. 
“Finally, we will do something,” I thought after the June 2016 mass shooting in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub. I was in a leadership meeting with Nancy Pelosi when we heard that several colleagues had taken to the floor and started a sit-in to force the House to address gun violence. I was stunned to see dozens of my colleagues sitting and chanting, just before we were about to take a long recess, “No bill, no break.” 
We held the floor for 24 hours. Thousands converged spontaneously on Capitol Hill in support. This was a moment I thought we could no longer be ignored. I was right. Congress did act. It declared that fines would be slapped on House members who broadcast audio or video from the House floor. Thank God the decorum of the House was safe, at least. 
Then there were the annual rituals in the House Appropriations Committee. Democrats would offer amendments to prevent people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing firearms. A no-brainer, I thought. If you’re too dangerous to board a plane, you’re too dangerous to buy an assault weapon, a common-sense position shared by over 80 percent of Americans
I remember the Republican chairman of the committee rising in opposition to the amendment, arguing that in America, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. I’m not sure he ever extended that argument to other populations, but it didn’t matter. The amendment failed. 
So did our attempts to rescind the infamous Dickey Amendment, which prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from even researching the relationship between gun violence and public health. The Dickey Amendment was so absurd that it was ultimately opposed by its own sponsor, Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican. Still, we failed. The result? The government can’t study gun violence but is spending $400,000 analyzing the effects of Swedish massages on rabbits. So at least the rabbits feel safe. 
And finally, there are those moments when members ourselves became victims. Gabby Giffords in Tucson; Steve Scalise at the congressional baseball game. Even the proximity of bullets resulted in shock and inaction. 
Why? Three reasons. 
First, just like everything else in Washington, the gun lobby has become more polarized. The National Rifle Association, once a supporter of sensible gun-safety measures, is now forced to oppose them because of competing organizations. More moderation means less market share. The gun lobby is in a race to see who can become more brazen, more extreme. 
Second, congressional redistricting has pulled Republicans so far to the right that anything less than total subservience to the gun lobby is viewed as supporting gun confiscation. The gun lobby score is a litmus test with zero margin for error. 
Third, the problem is you, the reader. You’ve become inoculated. You’ll read this essay and others like it, and turn the page or click another link. You’ll watch or listen to the news and shake your head, then flip to another channel or another app. This horrific event will recede into our collective memory. 
That’s what the gun lobbyists are counting on. They want you to forget. To accept the deaths of at least 58 children, parents, brothers, sisters, friends as the new normal. To turn this page with one hand, and use the other hand to vote for members of Congress who will rise in another moment of silence this week. And next week. And the foreseeable future.

And he's right.  You'll also notice I said "former" Representative Israel.  He retired in January 2016, Democrat Tom Suozzi was elected in his place.  But Israel dropped out of the House to pursue gun safety advocacy because he knew Congress would never get things done until the American people changed their minds.

It's possible.  Attitudes have certainly shifted on smoking and same-sex marriage in the US in the last 10-20 years.  But guns, well, Gunmerica is Gunmerica, and that's not going to change in my lifetime I believe.

Oh, and that GOP silencer bill in the House is now off the docket for the week, but don't expect it to be for long.

That may now be scuttled after a shooter opened fired on a crowd of country music concert-goers in Las Vegas, killing 58 and injuring more than 500—the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. A spokesman for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) declined to speculate on whether Sunday night’s tragedy has changed the GOP’s calculus. But according to the House schedule, the bill is not on the docket for this week. 
That the SHARE Act even got to this point underscores the potency of the gun rights lobby and the relationships it has cultivated both in Congress and within President Donald Trump’s innermost circle. 
Utah-based SilencerCo is one of the top manufacturers of suppressors in the United States. And its CEO Josh Waldron counts Donald Trump Jr. as a top ally.

Prior to Trump’s inauguration, Waldron got an assist from the president’s eldest son in helping to popularize his company’s products. Trump Jr., an avid hunter, appeared in a promotional video for SilencerCo in September of 2016.

Trump's adult sons are avid hunters and boy, do they want silencers.  Expect this to get passed quietly (if you'll excuse the pun) next week and head to the Senate before the end of the month.

Making America Gunmerica Always.

Not Doing So Welfare These Days

The Trump regime reportedly has welfare programs in their sights as part of GOP across-the-board austerity cuts, and that means every part of the safety net for the working poor and unemployed has to take a hit.

Trump administration officials are mulling an executive order that would instruct federal agencies to review low-income assistance programs, part of a coming effort to make sweeping changes to the country’s welfare system.

The White House began circulating a draft order to federal agencies for comment last week, according to two administration officials, who were granted anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations.

One of the officials said the draft order calls on agencies to review existing regulations and propose new rules that conform to a set of broad welfare principles, including tighter work requirements that encourage recipients to shift back into the labor force.

The order also calls for streamlining or eliminating duplicate services and establishing metrics for holding agencies accountable for program performance. It also encourages greater cooperation with state and local governments.

The initiative comes as President Donald Trump shifts attention to his ambitious tax reform initiative in the wake of his failed effort to repeal Obamacare. Administration backers of the welfare executive order hope he signs it before Thanksgiving, one of the officials said.

Trump has mostly backed off his train of executive orders that marked the opening months of his regime, apparently having picked all the low-hanging fruit when it comes to erasing Barack Obama's legacy from existence, the rest will require Republicans in Congress to act (and take the blame).

But as with the Affordable Care Act, the executive branch is still quite capable of sabotaging the implementation of programs like SNAP, WIC, housing assistance, and more to the point where they will fail to work at all, and then Republicans can claim they're doing us a favor by getting rid of them.

The major austerity is coming with the next GOP budget. Until then, Trump's sabotage will do in a pinch.  But red state governors and state legislatures are more than happy to cooperate with the GOP sabotage of government in general.  Just look at what's happening to rural hospitals in red states that have refused Medicaid expansion, like my beloved western North Carolina where I grew up, where women like Lucia Parker will have to drive at least an hour to get to a hospital with a maternity ward now as hospitals are closing maternity wards just to stay open.

As Congress debates repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, rural hospitals are in a kind of purgatory, unsure about their Medicaid budgets and the private health insurance that sustains them. At least 81 rural hospitals have shut down across the country since 2010, according the North Carolina Rural Health Research and Policy Analysis Center at UNC. The pace of closures has been increasing since the Great Recession, but the current health care policy limbo—which leaves hospitals and insurers unable to predict their income—exacerbates the problem. “The uncertainty is really impinging providers, particularly hospitals, from making the kinds of decisions that might put them on a better footing,” says center director Mark Holmes. 
Parker lives in an impoverished swath of rural Appalachia where the hospitals are particularly vulnerable. In her Congressional district, 20 percent of families with children live below the poverty line and more than 40 percent of residents—roughly 318,000 people—rely on some form of publicly-funded health care. Another hospital in the district, Angel Medical Center in Franklin, North Carolina, shut down its maternity ward in July, after officials said the unit was losing $2 million a year. And Parker’s congressman, Republican Mark Meadows, has not intervened to keep them open. The Freedom Caucus chairman has been one of the nation’s most vocal critics of Obamacare, favoring legislation that ends insurance subsidies and makes deep cuts to Medicaid. 
Any cuts to Medicaid would hurt rural hospitals, says Diane Calmus, government affairs and policy manager for the nonprofit National Rural Health Association. Seventy-five percent of patients in the Mission Health system—the nonprofit that runs Blue Ridge, Angel, and four other western North Carolina hospitals—are either uninsured or on Medicare or Medicaid. These hospitals were especially hard hit when the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly refused to expand Medicaid in 2013. Eighteen other states made the same decision, and the impact was clear: more than 70 percent of the rural hospitals that shut down in the past seven years were in 16 of those states. Four hospitals in rural North Carolina have closed since 2013, and Blue Ridge has been losing money every fiscal year since 2013. Last year it lost $3.1 million. Charity care—services that no one pays for—at rural hospitals has increased more than 50 percent since Obamacare passed. “We have a rural hospital closure crisis,” Calmus says. 
Holmes and other experts say the lack of Medicaid expansion is not the only cause of the crisis. They point to low Medicaid reimbursement rates, patients who can’t afford their deductibles, consolidation of hospital ownership, declining rural populations, medical staffing shortages, and a longstanding trend of Southern hospitals struggling to make ends meet. “You really have a death by a thousand paper cuts situation here,” Holmes says. But if a hospital wants to stay open, Calmus says, it may close a unit that is well-known for losing money: the maternity ward.

It's red state Trump voters in rural GOP districts who are going to get hurt the most by the Trump regime's austerity cuts.  They're going after not just the safety net, but the entire health infrastructure that keeps America together just to give the richest Americans another million a year in tax cuts.

And remember, none of this matters to the Republicans.  They just want to destroy as much government as possible in order to justify to voters why massive draconian cuts are necessary in order to make the rich who donate to them richer.


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