Monday, October 2, 2023

The NC GOP Just Stole Your Freedom

A frightening provision in the NC GOP's state budget passed last month includes funding and authorization for a new police force under control of the state's legislative leaders to investigate, search without a warrant, and detain anyone getting public funds for "misuse" defined wholly by the same watchdog agency.
North Carolina’s new $300 billion state budget contains a provision that gives extraordinary investigative powers to a partisan oversight committee co-chaired by Senate Leader Phil Berger (R) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R).

The Joint Legislative Committee on Government Operations — or Gov Ops for short — is empowered to seize “any document or system of record” from anyone who works in or with state and local government during its investigations. The rule applies to contractors, subcontractors, and any other non-state entity “receiving, directly and indirectly, public funds,” including charities and state universities.

Moreover, Gov Ops staff will be authorized to enter “any building or facility” owned or leased by a state or non-state entity without a judicial warrant. This includes the private residences of subcontractors and contractors who run businesses out of their homes, lawmakers say.

Alarmingly, public employees under investigation will be required to keep all communication and requests “confidential.” They cannot alert their supervisor of the investigation nor consult with legal counsel. Violating this rule “shall be grounds for disciplinary action, including dismissal,” the law reads. Those who refuse to cooperate face jail time and fines of up to $1,000. In the event that Gov Ops searches a person’s home, these rules mean that the person 1) must keep the entry a secret, 2) cannot seek outside help (unless necessary for fulfilling the request, the law says), and 3) could face criminal charges if Gov Ops deems them uncooperative.

Moore and Berger claim these new rules are benign and necessary to exercise oversight of state funds. But Democrats and other critics say the changes turn Gov Ops into a “secret police force,” warning that the new policies have far-reaching implications.

During a legislative debate, State Senator Graig Meyer (D) asked lawmakers to consider a hypothetical scenario in which Gov Ops accesses personal health records like ultrasounds, which are required by the state to receive abortion pills. The Commission, Meyer said, could release these documents “to the public in a hearing.”

Gov Ops could also potentially enter and search “a law firm that receives state funding for court-appointed lawyers,” compromising “the sanctity of the attorney-client privilege,” State Representative Allison Dahle (D) said. Dahle added that these new powers will allow Gov Ops members to carry out grudges, empowering them to target political enemies as “backlash for previous actions.”

“I don’t think I have ever publicly called the GOP leadership ‘authoritarian’ because that’s not a term I take lightly, but their approach to seizing power and cover up their tracks now fits the bill,” Meyer told Popular Information. “The hypotheticals of how Gov Ops power could be abused are endless. Verbal assurances of restraint are inadequate; we need clear guardrails in law.” Meyer added that he “hope[s] that members of both parties can see what's happening before it's too late."
So who watches the watchmen here? Nobody, and that goes for the entire NC General Assembly as the same budget also exempts the state legislature from public records laws.
One provision repeals a law that required “communications regarding redistricting” be made publicly available when new legislative maps were adopted. As one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, public records have been instrumental in challenging North Carolina’s redistricting maps. In 2022, a gerrymandering trial exposed a top Republican redistricting official for using “secret maps to help draft the state’s redistricting plan.”

This fall, Republican lawmakers are set to redraw voting maps after the new conservative majority on the state’s Supreme Court overturned a ruling and legalized partisan gerrymandering. Under the new budget, "lawmakers responding to public records requests will have no obligation to share any drafts or materials that guided their redistricting decisions."

Another provision allows North Carolina lawmakers to exempt themselves from public records requests. Current and former legislators, the law says, ”shall not be required to reveal or to consent to reveal any document, supporting document, drafting request, or information request made or received by that legislator while a legislator.” Under the state’s previous law, legislators were recognized as the custodians of their own records, but had to file a “specific exemption” to withhold records.

A third provision will allow legislators to “determine…whether a record is a public record.” Legislators can now decide to “retain, destroy, sell, loan, or otherwise dispose of'' their documents.

Moore claims that the change to public records requests seeks to “clarify the ambiguity in current statute and broadens the purview of what constitutes a public record, increasing transparency and efficiency in responsiveness from legislators.” Meanwhile, Berger alleges the provision was needed to “settle a dispute between the legislative services office and the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which archives public records.” But the Department, through a spokesperson, said it was “not aware of any dispute,” the News & Observer reported. “This new provision appears to be the legislature entirely exempting themselves from the public records law and the archiving process that has retained government records throughout the state’s history,” the spokesperson told the local outlet.

Opponents say that these new rules will make it harder to uncover corruption and create accountability. In a letter to Berger and Moore, the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters expressed concerns that the changes will “permit the General Assembly to operate in secrecy, shielded from public view and accountability to those whom the members of the Assembly were elected to serve.” The North Carolina Press Association also objected to the new privileges, calling them a “significant threat to the public’s right to see public record.”
Combined, this means Republicans in my home state have a secret investigative force to use against Democrats, any records of use of that investigative power is automatically secret with exposing it leading to fines and possible dismissal, and the records of that closed.

Under no circumstances would that count as a democracy.

Red Caesar Or Orange Geezer?

As Jason Wilson at The Guardian reminds us, there's definitely a breed of right-wing nutjob that revels in the idea of a Trump second term where Democrats and their voters are punished endlessly by an authoritarian regime that tosses the Constitution and any notion of democracy out the window and reduces America to an authoritarian nightmare.

In June, rightwing academic Kevin Slack published a book-length polemic claiming that ideas that had emerged from what he called the radical left were now so dominant that the US republic its founders envisioned was effectively at an end.

Slack, a politics professor at the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan, made conspiratorial and extreme arguments now common on the antidemocratic right, that “transgenderism, anti-white racism, censorship, cronyism … are now the policies of an entire cosmopolitan class that includes much of the entrenched bureaucracy, the military, the media, and government-sponsored corporations”.

In a discussion of possible responses to this conspiracy theory, he wrote that the “New Right now often discusses a Red Caesar, by which it means a leader whose post-Constitutional rule will restore the strength of his people”.

For the last three years, parts of the American right have advocated a theory called Caesarism as an authoritarian solution to the claimed collapse of the US republic in conference rooms, podcasts and the house organs of the extreme right, especially those associated with the Claremont Institute thinktank.

Though on the surface this discussion might seem esoteric, experts who track extremism in the US say that due to their influence on the Republican party, the rightwing intellectuals who espouse these ideas about the attractions of autocracy present a profound threat to American democracy.

Their calls for a “red Caesar” are now only growing louder as Donald Trump, whose supporters attempted to violently halt the election of Joe Biden in 2020, has assumed dominant frontrunner status in the 2024 Republican nomination race. Trump, who also faces multiple criminal indictments, has spoken openly of attacking the free press in the US and having little regard for American constitutional norms should he win the White House again.

The idea that the US might be redeemed by a Caesar – an authoritarian, rightwing leader – was first broached explicitly by Michael Anton, a Claremont senior fellow and Trump presidential adviser.

Anton has been an influential rightwing intellectual since in 2016 penning The Flight 93 Election, a rightwing essay in which he told conservatives who were squeamish about Trump “charge the cockpit or you die”, referencing one of the hijacked flights of 9/11.

He gave Caesarism a passing mention in that essay, but developed it further in his 2020 book, The Stakes, defining it as a “form of one-man rule: halfway … between monarchy and tyranny”.

The Guardian contacted Anton at his Claremont Institute email address, but received no response.
Nothing new, of course. Trump himself has made it very clear this is coming in a second term. He's made statement after statement at his two-hour hate rallies that this is precisely the behavior he will engage in, and the people around him are cheering for an authoritarian master who will reduce those people to powerless peasants while they reap the rewards.

The klaxons are blaring, but apparently tens of millions of our fellow Americans want a dictator. You know, as long as that dictator is on their side and all.

The Democrats' Trump narrative is: You can't be seriously considering a vote for this criminal degenerate, can you? But every day that Trump's legal problems are in the news is a day when people who don't like how the country is being run are reminded that Trump is not one of the people running the country. So if they're on the fence about their 2024 vote and they're upset about high gas prices or some other meat-and-potatoes issue, they're reminded -- by Democrats and the mainstream media as well by Trump himself -- that Trump is a person the government does things to, not a person with government power.

We need these voters to think about what Trump would do with power if he's elected again. We need to link him to all the bad things Republicans are doing. Instead, we've got him in the dock, where he doesn't look as dangerous as he actually is.
My response is that voters are definitely thinking about what Trump would do with power because he doesn't hesitate to say what he would do with it, and they want him to have that power anyway.

The Butler Does It

Meet California's newest Senator, appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom: EMILY's List President and long-time labor activist Laphonza Butler

California Gov. Gavin Newsom will appoint EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler to fill the seat of the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, elevating the head of a fundraising juggernaut that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, according to a person familiar with the decision.

Newsom is moving swiftly to name the next senator, two days after Feinstein’s death and just as a perilously split Congress narrowly averted a government shutdown. Senate Democrats are in need of every vote in the closely divided chamber.

The announcement was expected to come Monday, and an adviser to the governor, Anthony York, told POLITICO that Newsom is making his appointment without putting limitations or preconditions on his pick running for the seat in 2024. That means Butler could decide to join the sprawling and competitive field of Democratic contenders seeking to succeed Feinstein, with special elections now layered on top of the March primary and November runoff.

Butler is expected to be sworn-in to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday by Vice President Kamala Harris.

Newsom’s selection of Butler comes at a moment of immense change in California’s political establishment, with millions of people still mourning the death of Feinstein, the barrier-breaking Senate lioness. Meanwhile the California governor, who was mentored by Feinstein, has been grappling with his own personal grief and the political ramifications of his choice to succeed her.

The people who spoke with POLITICO ahead of the announcement were granted anonymity to disclose internal deliberations. Butler is registered to vote in Maryland but will switch her registration to California.

Newsom faced considerable pressure around the decision after first pledging to name a Black woman to the seat. Several potential nominees said publicly they were not interested. Some others privately expressed trepidation about accepting a short-term appointment and then having to immediately gear up for what would be a five-month campaign.

The swift nature of Newsom’s appointment cuts politicians and their allies off from mounting more sustained efforts to lobby the governor and his inner circle over his pick. And it halts interest groups that were starting to apply pressure on him, including over the question of whether he would require them to serve only temporarily. On Sunday, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Steven Horsford wrote to Newsom urging him to appoint Rep. Barbara Lee, a candidate for the Senate whom the governor recently ruled out over worries about giving someone a leg up.
I have to admit, Gavin Newsom got himself out of the jam he was in with expert efficiency. He kept his promise to appoint a Black woman to the seat and he's doing so without picking a side in the current primary contest. He's allowing Butler to decide herself if she wants to join the primary fray, and I'll bet on Butler having already decided that she'll go back to EMILY's List in 2025.

I'm rarely surprised by a display of attempted Democratic political adroitness that ends up crashing into the ground by being too clever by half, but if this goes like I think it will, Gavin Newsom may have just made one of he all time great political maneuvers.

Bravo to Laphonza Butler as well. Impeccable bona fides as a politically connected Black activist leader, clearly showing readiness for a national stage by running one of the Dems' most important fundraising networks with the upcoming election year all about the GOP trying to destroy women.

Newsom's preparations for the moment were kept secret as well all the way until the day before, too. This was planned for some time and yet it could have been blown weeks ago. It wasn't.

I like it when the Dems show this level of crafty confident competence. More of this, please.
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