Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dems Heading For A Big Fall?

Surely, ‘twas a great victory! For the first time in more than forty years, a Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, won Virginia’s electors, capturing more than 52% of the vote. Democrat Mark Warner won the U.S. Senate seat by an overwhelming landslide. Democratic candidates won previously Republican House of Representatives seats in the Second, Fifth, and Eleventh congressional districts. Oh yes. For Virginia Democrats, ‘twas a great victory!

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a reception for the Virginia presidential electors sponsored by the local Democratic committees. There was a moderate sized crowd, and it was fascinating for a college Political Science major like me. I always think of the electoral system by which we elect our presidents as an archaic relic of the eighteenth century. But here were eight or nine of Virginia’s electors describing the constitutional function that they had carried out earlier in the day. As the speeches went on, the gathering morphed into a belated election victory party. Everybody was bragging about what a great job they hand done to move Virginia out of the red. Now, all they had to do was concentrate on next year’s House of Delegates races to turn Virginia truly into a blue state. I mumbled under my breath, “We’ll be lucky to keep the State House.”

So why is the maven so discouraged when everybody else is so upbeat? For one thing, I am trying to avoid complacency. It is vital that Virginia Democrats not get into the mindset that the Commonwealth will become a permanently blue state by means of some inevitable historical development. That will not happen. Nothing is inevitable. Virginia will become a blue state only if lots of people put in the kind of time and effort they did this year to get Obama and Warner elected.

I am also not quite secure with the ability of the Virginia Democratic Party to get candidates elected. As I stated two years ago, Let’s Talk about the Democratic Party of Virginia, the Democratic Party does not elect candidates in Virginia. Rather it is the individual candidate committees that elect candidates to office. After this year’s election, I am convinced that I am still right.

The kind of party politics that I grew up with in Brooklyn is long gone. Now campaigns are run by professional political consultants hired by candidates rather than by political parties. One result of this change is that candidates don’t have any real loyalty to the party since they do not have to rely on the party to get elected. They run their own campaigns and raise their own money. The campaign staff they hire and the volunteers they recruit do not feel any loyalty to the party. When the election campaign is over they go back to doing what they were doing before the campaign. They generally do not transfer their talents to the state or local party.

This fall there were separate committees operating to elect Barack Obama as president and Mark Warner as senator. There were also eleven separate committees working to elect or re-elect members of Congress in the eleven congressional districts. They did not necessarily work together with the state Democratic Party or with local Democratic committees. This led to a rather chaotic situation, at least here in the City of Richmond.

At the September meeting of the Richmond City Democratic Committee, it became apparent to me that the committee as an entity was not a major player in the November elections. Rather than urging those present to work within the party for the election of the Democratic slate the message was to volunteer through the Obama or Warner headquarters within the city.

At the same September meeting, the followers of mayoral candidate Dwight Jones had sufficient members present to have the committee vote to endorse Jones for mayor. Although this vote was overturned by the state Democratic Party, the Jones supporters were again able to garner enough votes at an October meeting of the committee. (I am not criticizing Jones for this action. I also had my supporters work to get the committee to endorse my school board candidacy.) What did Jones gain from this endorsement? He was able to portray himself as a Democrat in his campaign literature and his name appeared as part of the Democratic slate on the party’s sample ballots. However, his campaign continued to be run by his own campaign committee.

During the last weeks before the election I tried to contact the Democratic leader for the fourth district (in which I was running) but without success. I e-mailed the members of the Richmond City Democratic Committee residing within the fourth district to find out who was covering the polls on Election Day. The few replies I received indicated that it was the Obama campaign, rather than the Democratic Committee that was staffing the polls on Election Day. I contacted the fourth district leaders for the Obama campaign to try to coordinate Election Day activities. I was told that they had everything under control and did not need my help.

During the final days before the election I found out that there was some kind of screw up with sample ballots and that I wouldn’t be receiving as many as I felt I needed for the election. I was told not to worry because the Obama campaign had lots of sample ballots which would benefit my candidacy. I found out at about 6:00 PM on Election Day that the sample ballots being distributed by Obama volunteers at the polls in the fourth district did not even have my name listed.

During the last weekend of the campaign I also discovered that only two of the six precincts in the fourth district had Democratic Committee members assigned as precinct captains. Fortunately, several of my friends had volunteered to cover the polls for me on Election Day.

I am not setting forth these facts as a complaint. My failure to win the fourth district school board race was not the fault of the Richmond City Democratic Committee. Even if the committee was well organized and worked for my election I would probably have still lost for a multitude of reasons. I do set forth these happenings to point out that the committee is not meeting its stated objective of promoting “Democratic principles through the support and assistance in the election of local, state and national Democratic candidates.”

The 2009 election will be tough for several reasons. First, Republican leaders throughout the country have indicated that winning the Virginia gubernatorial race is the key to the party’s recovery from the 2008 elections. GOP Aiming to Plant Seeds of Its Resurgence in Va. Governor's Race There will be tons of money coming into the Commonwealth and all the stars of the GOP will be working to win our State House.

Second, the Virginia Republican Party is united behind Bob McDonnell as its candidate for governor. The Dems, however, already have two declared candidates and most likely will have a third ere long. So, this spring, while Mr. McDonnell is concentrating on the general election campaign, the Democrats will be bogged down in what may be a divisive primary campaign.

Third, Bob McDonnell has been serving as Virginia’s attorney general for the last three years and is clearly better known to voters in the Commonwealth that any of the potential Democratic nominees. This will give him a clear advantage in the November election.

If Virginia is to truly become a blue state the state Democratic Party must organize itself to provide maximum support for whoever wins the primaries. Local committees, like the Richmond City Democratic Committee, must also organize to assure that the Democratic candidates for all offices are fully supported in their campaigns. We Democrats cannot rely on a charismatic candidate, like Obama or Warner, to turn on the electorate.

One final thing. In this year’s election campaign I saw very little support of one Democratic candidate for another. While individual candidates were happy to run as Democrats because they thought it would help their own candidates, there was only one instance that I am aware of where a Democratic candidate urged the election of all Democrats running for office. The week before the election, I received an automated telephone call from third district representative Bobby Scott urging voters to vote for Barack Obama and the entire Democratic ticket. This has to change.

Cantor Raised How Much?

Reading my Times-Dispatch on Saturday, I was drawn to the lead story in the Metro section, “Cantor to keep donated money.” The gist of the story was that Seventh District Representative Eric Cantor was not going to return $2,300 in campaign contributions he received from Robert I. Toussie. If you remember, Toussie’s son was pardoned by President Bush last week and then his pardon was revoked when Bush learned that Toussie senior was a major contributor to the Republican Party. I don’t care too much about the Toussie issue. If Toussie merited a pardon before the disclosure of his father’s largess, I would assume he still merited one after the disclosure.

What did open my eyes was this statement in the story: “Cantor’s campaign raised $4.5 million this election cycle.” Did I read that right? Four point five million dollars? Why would an incumbent running for re-election in a safe Republican district need to raise $4.5 million dollars in campaign contributions? Considering that he was running against a political unknown, I am sure that Mr. Cantor could have easily been re-elected without spending a cent on his campaign.

Reader, you know that since I am a Democrat and mostly a liberal I am not a great fan of Eric Cantor. I’ve never met the guy, but I just don’t like his politics. As I have expressed here, and in a letter to the TD back in 2006, I think that Cantor is a big part of the cause for the problems that we face in this country after eight years of Republican governance. But that is not what this is about. What this is about is the outrageous campaign finance laws that permit members of Congress to raise obscenely large amounts of money and use them for just about any purpose they care to.

The federal campaign finance laws are administered by the Federal Election Commission. In the regulations the Commission has issued to implement the laws there is a Part 113 entitled “Use of Campaign Accounts for Non-Campaign Purposes.” I would have hoped that these regulations would put severe limits on what campaign funds can be used for. Instead, they seem to legitimize every use of the funds other than the member of Congress putting it directly into his pocket or her purse.

So what kind of things does our Mr. Cantor spend campaign funds on? First, he spends on salaries and benefits for a staff. (These are all based on financial statements filed with the Federal Election Commission by “Cantor For Congress.”) From the financial statements we cannot tell whether these expenses were for a separate campaign staff or to augment federal funding for Mr. Cantor’s Washington or Seventh District staffs. (Please keep in mind, dear reader, that I am not suggesting that Mr. Cantor is doing anything illegal. He spent a significant amount of his campaign funds for legal consulting, so I must assume he got good advice.)

Mr. Cantor spent big bucks on airline fares, hotel rooms, car rentals and other expenses of travel in many places around the country. I cannot tell whether these trips were related to his re-election campaign or his campaign to become Minority Whip. Mr. Cantor also spent a significant amount on catering for various events. Again, many of these were neither within the congressional district nor in Washington so it is hard to tell how they related to the campaign.

Mr. Cantor’s campaign spent a lot on fundraising consultants. Payments to G.R. Seppala and Associates, in Wayzata, Minnesota, for fundraising consulting amounted to over $85,000 during the campaign. (This amounts to more than Mr. Cantor’s opponent spent on the whole campaign.) To me this suggests that Cantor for Congress is more a money producing entity than an election campaign committee. When you pay that kind of money to one consultant, you are obviously expecting a rather big return on your investment (like maybe $4.5 million).

Mr. Cantor also spent a big chunk of his campaign funds on what I call “win friends and influence people” expenditures. He contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the election campaigns of other Republicans around the country. These are the kinds of contributions you surely want to be making if you’re running for Minority Whip. He sent money to the National Republican Congressional Campaign, the Nevada Republican Party and local campaign committees. One of the larger contributions was $5000 to the John Doolittle Legal Defense Fund. (Mr. Doolittle, one of Mr. Cantor’s former fellow Republicans in the House, is charged with corruption and is in need of lots of money for his defense.)

So, trusted reader, what are we to make of this? We have a campaign finance system that allows representatives and senators to raise huge amounts of money and use it for purposes not directly related to their re-election campaigns. Is this the way we should be electing our public officials? We need the Congress to go back and look at the campaign finance laws again and impose restrictions on themselves. Write to you senators and representative and urge them to fix a system that seems out of control.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas Etiquette

Tuesday night I went to the ABC store to purchase a bottle of brandy. After the financial transaction was complete the sales clerk wished me a “Merry Christmas.” Instantly I was caught in the dilemma that every non-Christian in this country faces every December. I certainly appreciate that the sales clerk thought enough of me to extend his best wishes. However, because I am a Jew the words “Merry Christmas” present a problem. Since I don’t celebrate Christmas someone’s seasonal greetings in terms of Christmas is unimportant to me. In fact, sometimes I get a little resentful. Why should anybody presume that because it is December it necessarily means that everybody is a Christian? I often get the strong urge to reply “and a Happy Chanukah to you,” but that would just come across as hostile. So, I might reply “the same to you” or “happy holidays to you,” but I still walk away feeling upset.

There was a time, a few years back, when it became fashionable to drop “Merry Christmas” and just speak in terms of “Happy Holidays.” It was a time when everybody was being sensitive to the Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus and other non-Christians in our society. Then there was the claim from some Christians that Christmas was under attack. They demanded that “Merry Christmas” be brought back. They even threatened to boycott businesses that insisted on using “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” So now we have the strange situation of people wishing both “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas,” as if Christmas was not included in the definition of holiday.

So, what to do with my problem? I suggest that your seasonal greetings be customized to match the recipient. If you know you are speaking to a Christian then certainly “Merry Christmas” is appropriate. However, if you know that the person you are addressing is not a Christian then “Merry Christmas” is not appropriate. It makes as much sense as you wishing me “Happy Birthday” on YOUR birthday. In those instances “Happy Holidays” makes more sense (even though there are many people who don’t celebrate any holy days in December). Dear reader, what do you think?

To all my Christian friends I wish a very Merry Christmas. To my Jewish friends I wish a happy fourth day of Chanukah. To my friends who are neither I wish a very happy holiday season.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Be Of Good Cheer!

After reading through the Times-Dispatch this morning I am feeling real good about this holiday season. Of course, the lead article about Circuit City’s continuing plunge was a bit of a downer. But you can’t just look at the big headlines. You have to read and analyze and then synthesize to get to the really good stuff.

I start with Zach Reid’s front page piece “Why we feel compelled to give.” After interviewing VCU’s Everett L. Worthington, Zach concludes that we American’s truly believe it is better to give then receive. (Of course, Zach didn’t see my family’s Chanukah party on Sunday where an entire generation of our future engaged in a joyful orgy of receiving.) So, keep in mind that we Americans are a giving people.

Also on the TD front page there is an Associated Press story with the headline “Banks keep quiet about bailout cash.” For those of you who were not paying attention, last fall (about the time that the Republican National Committee was warning us that Barack Obama’s policies would lead to socialism) the high officials dealing with the economy in our Government came out with their “the sky is falling” prediction. Apparently, or so they said, the financial crisis in this country was so severe that Western Civilization was about to go under. (Why they felt that the economy was basically sound until that point they didn’t say.) The only way to save us from a disaster that would make the Great Depression of the 1930s look like a Sunday school picnic was to buy all the bad debt that our big banks were saddled with. Under this rescue plan, the big banks would get a big infusion of cash that they could use to make more loans and the Federal Government would own the bad debt. The tax payers would be protected because some day that bad debt would become good debt and we would be paid back. The price tag--$700,000,000,000 (seven hundred billion dollars). (By comparison, NASA runs the entire space program for about twenty billion dollars per year, the entire Environmental Protection Agency runs on less than five billion per year, the Department of Veterans Affairs costs about forty two billion per year.) Well, despite this maven’s warnings (700 Billion Tax Hike To Pay For Bailout), the Congress provided the $700 billion to save our free market economy. Sometime after the congressional action, the Secretary of the Treasury decided that instead of buying up the bad debt he would just give the money to the banks.

Well, according to the article, when the AP asked the banks what they had done with the money, they refused to answer. Apparently their view is that the money is now theirs and they don’t have to tell anybody what they are doing with it. They may be loaning it, or they may be keeping it on deposit, or . . . (continued on page 8).

Another AP article “Bailed-out banks’ execs got $1.6 billion.” This article indicated that the 116 banks that have received federal rescue dollars this fall gave their top executives a total of $1.6 billion in salaries, bonuses and other compensation during 2007. The article pointed out such gems as:

1- The president and CEO of Goldman Sachs received compensation of $54 million in 2007. The top five executives of Goldman Sachs were compensated at $242 million. Before Goldman Sachs’ blip fell off the radar, it explained its executive compensations as essential to retain and motivate executives “whose efforts and judgments are vital to our continued success, by setting their compensation at appropriate and competitive levels.” Goldman Sachs received $20 billion in federal rescue money on October 28;

2- The CEO of Merrill Lynch received compensation of $83 million last year. This executive who was formerly with Goldman Sachs came to Merrill Lynch in December of 2007. For his one month’s work for Merrill Lynch he received $57 thousand in salary, a $15 million signing bonus and $68 million in stock options. Merrill Lynch received $10 billion in federal rescue money on October 28.

After reading these three articles and blending them in my mind, I am feeling really good. First, we Americans are a people that love to give. Second, we must look at the $700 billion not as a bailout (or something else nasty like that) but as a gift to the banking industry. Third, the banking industry will use this gift to provide adequate compensation to their top executives. Now, I don’t have to worry that the children or grandchildren of these execs might have to do without this holiday season. So, everybody comes out ahead. We taxpayers satisfy our urge to give. The corporate execs get enough money to make it through what would otherwise have been a sad holiday season for them.

In rescuing the wealthy we Americans did some real good. Some might ask why we don’t make a similar rescue effort for those in our society who are truly suffering this holiday season. The answer is simple—doing that would amount to socialism.

Friday, December 12, 2008

I’m Back!

It’s been at least six weeks since this maven last spoke to you. During that time the world has changed a great deal:

1- Barak Obama was elected our next president winning a majority of the popular vote and a decisive margin in the Electoral College;

2- The Washington Redskins stopping playing over their heads;

3- The voters of the Commonwealth elected Democrats for President, for Senator, and for a majority of congressional seats for the first time since “Democrat” had an entirely different meaning in Virginia;

4- The American economy went further into free-fall with hundreds of thousands losing their jobs;

5- The James Madison Dukes and the Richmond Spiders are both in the semi-finals of a football division that actually chooses its national champion by playoffs;

6- America’s remaining financial institutions accepted hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer largess and did nothing with the money;

7- The Governor of Illinois, with an unpronounceable name spelled “Blagojevich,” gave an entirely new meaning to “let the free market decide”;

8- The Richmond Renegades played a hockey game in which the their opponent’s players served more penalty minutes than there are minutes in a game;

9- Dwight Jones was elected mayor of River City;

10- Hillary Clinton agreed to serve as our next Secretary of State.

And-- this maven lost his bid to serve on the Richmond School Board.

I could say that the election was close, that I only lost by 2553 votes. But let’s face it, I got thumped. I could blame all kinds of unexpected adversities that plagued my four month campaign. However, the fact is that more people voted for Andrea Graham Scott than voted for me.

Looking back at Election Day, I can say that I would have much preferred to have won. Finishing second is not something to be ashamed of, but it’s no great honor either. I really loved the campaigning and meeting with the voters. I loved the intellectual stimulation of expressing my ideas for fixing Richmond’s public schools. I loved the support I received from so many of my neighbors.

So, what’s next? I will get back to working with the kids in our public schools. They have such great need for a caring adult in their lives. I will continue working to make my neighborhood school one that my neighbors will send their kids to. I will do what I can to make sure that our new mayor and the members of the City Council and School Board give the citizens of Richmond the high-quality government to which they are entitled.

Let’s face it, dear reader; mavening can certainly be a full time job. As for politics—it was great fun, but it was just one of those things.