Archive for January, 2005
I have never believed that religiosity was the primary underlying reason for George Bush’s hallmark “Faith Based Initiative.” I see it as primarily an updated and expanded version of the spoils system: sending resources to prop up the base, reward friends, buy off or neutralize opposition.
I want to say a bit about this as an example of the Republican spoils system, but I mostly want to unpack some other pivotal aspects of the Faith Based Initiative and what it means not only for public policy, but for religious organizations and individuals.
The Los Angeles Times recently published an investigation of this program that demonstrated that most of the money went to relgious groups in swing states, particularly African-American churches. The Times demonstrated a direct correlation between money going in and a significant increase in the African-American vote for Bush between 2000 and 2004. In one sense, there is nothing new in this. There have been many GOP efforts to divide the African-American churches over the years, and this is but one of them. The GOP has sought to degrade the historic Democratic coalition, and to reduce the volatile issues of race as a moral and political factor working against them. Conservatives, including conservative Christians, were mostly on the wrong side, or on the sidelines of one of the great moral struggles of the 20th century — the African-American civil rights movement — and they are still paying the price. Recently, GOP National Chairman Ken Mehlman noted that the party intends to further improve their numbers among African-Americans, Jews, and women over the next four years. So we can reasonably expect to see more such taxpayer funds directed to selected religious communities over the next few years. Journalist and blogger Max Blumenthal calls it “bribery.”
That said, let’s recall that Bush was unable to get legislative authorization for a broad “faith based” agenda during his first term, so the adminstration did everything it could to use executive orders to fast-track cash to “faith based” groups. This, while doing everything it could to underfund, and over-regulate public agencies. Its an old GOP strategy to discredit and hobble government agencies and programs they don’t like, and to turn taxpayer money over to private business. Now religious groups are beneficiaries of the spoils as well. (That the justification for this is often “efficiency,” is beyond preposterous, and warrants reframing from a reinvigorated Democratic Party.) What we are seeing in this, and of course in the attempted privatization of social security, no-bid defense contracts for the war in Iraq, tax-cuts for the rich, among other things, is the transfer of wealth — the common wealth — to base constituents and prospective constituents of the GOP.
We have seen this at the state level in the efforts to direct money for public education into religious and for-profit “charter” schools. Lack of rigorous evaluation and oversight, has meant more than a few scams, and more than a few grants handed over to incompetent operators, and overt prosteletizers, as has been documented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and reported in Church & State magazine. This, and Americans United’s effective public opposition to the program has not gone unoticed at the White House.
James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, reiterated the president’s commitment to the program in a speech in December. In the same speech he denounced opponents of the program as “secular extremists” and singled out Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Not only is Lynn a minister in the United Church of Christ, but the AU Board and chapter leaders are believers of many faiths, and many of them are clergy.
Towey’s attack on the religious faith of people who oppose the political program of the administration is a symptom of exactly what is wrong with the Faith Based Initiative: it is not now, nor has it ever been about faith, except in the sense that the idea of faith is being cleverly used to promote a political program.
What then to do? For starters, lets stop using the term “faith-based,” as much as possible. Its a Bushist frame that conceals and clouds the political and policy purposes of administration programs. (I find it bizarre that mainstream and progressive religious groups have internalized use of the term to describe many religiously oriented activities and programs.) More specfically, when we mean government grants and contracts to religious groups, let’s say so. Try saying it out loud: “Government grants and contracts to religious groups.” Hmm. Doesn’t have the same ring or meaning does it? Now say out loud “Faith-based programs.” Sounds so soft, safe and noncontroversial. In fact, the term itself and the reality behind it, is a classic cooptation of faith itself. Most religious traditions recognize that the state can never be the source of faith, even as many, if not most people in politics in government have religious ideas of their own. Their personal faith may have everything — or nothing — to do with their jobs, or their idea of public service. But the conflation of faith, with government, with its programs, policies, staff and elected leaders, is a distortion and often an abuse of faith itself. (And the Bush adminstration effectively misuses the idea of “faith” as a cover for the real intentions of its programs.) A politician or program may share values and ideals consistent with one’s faith, but it is not the same thing, even though clever politians know how to play to religious communities, just as they do any other constituency.
There is no singular faith at work in any government — including the Bush administration — even as they seek to wrap religiosity around their entire public policy and political agenda. There is great diversity among Christians, (even conservative Christians) as well as non-Christians in the Bush adminstration, and in the nation and in the world. The danger here is the cooptation of religious faith by the most powerful government in the world to justify and promote its domestic and foreign policy.
There is another dimension to the trick of the faith-based framing of grants and contracts. People inside and outside of the government have “faith” in the religious sense. But a government program cannot be based on faith. Exactly whose faith would that be? The many people involved in this program, have as many different faiths as there are individuals. This is also true of any and all other government programs. Similarly the recipients of government grants and contracts from various federal departments are going to be mostly “people of faith” whether or not they are received under the rubric of the “Faith-Based Initiative.” If polls are true that most Americans are religious, then it stands to reason that most contractors are, well, people of faith. How could it be otherwise?
This is an important point because the U.S. Constitution invests the right to religious freedom not with institutions, but with individuals. That’s one of the essential meanings of the idea of separation of church and state. Churches as institutions, as the organizations of people of various faiths are protected from interference by the government. And government may function best on behalf of the citizens, without undue influence of churches. It is the very conflation of the interests of church and state that the framers of the constitution sought to separate. Again, the Constitution recognizes the religious rights of individuals as paramount. The right to believe and therefore to think as one will, is foundational to the right to freedom of speech. The Bush administration’s efforts to buy off institutional churches to influence the beliefs and the political speech and actions of members are exactly the kind of problem that the framers of the Constitution sought to avoid.
The Bush administration’s taxpayer-funded campaign to coopt churches into its political orbit is as coarse and craven an attack on faith itself as we have seen in our history.
Some of those on the Christian theocratic right have seen this clearly for a long time. They see the risk of corruption and compromise of faith by feeding at the government trough, and do not partake. The Rovian politics behind the Faith Based Initiative in all of its manifestations, see it not as a risk but an opportunity. People of faith, of many varieties, and thier institutions (even some of the most conservative theocrats), are a check against the power of the state. Potentially powerful opponents to the direction of a nascent imperial state must be dealt with — with money and the seductiveness of power, or otherwise coopted, neutralized or silenced.
There are deeper consequences of all this. We now have churches and religiously oriented agencies lined up at the faith-based soup kitchen, while the Bush administration carries out the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world, and a largely unfettered march towards global domination.
That religious opponents of major domestic and foreign policies of the Bush administistration, have internalized the “faith-based” frame on their own, is a gift that Karl Rove undoubtedly savors every time he hears a mainstream religious leader use the term and try to own it. Every such useage further legitimizes the fuzzy-faithed facade on the adminstration’s poltical program of cooptation of churches.
It is true that government grants have been given to religious agencies for years to carry out projects and social services, and that these were not necessarily corrupting, or violative of church state separation. I have some personal knowledge about this. But what we are seeing here is mostly not benign. In my view, it is an unconscionable attack on the independence of Christian churches of many varieties.
Rev. Dan Schultz, a minister in the United Church of Christ wrote about this in an essay on his blog, faithforward. He sees a “sociopathic administration” at work.
“The technical definition of sociopathy,” he writes, “is… what we used to call psychotic behavior and now call anti-social personality: ‘A personality disorder characterised by a continuous and persistent pattern of aggressive behaviour in which the rights of others are violated.’ In layman’s terms, he continues, “this is an administration that wants to do whatever the hell it wants, whenever the hell it wants to. And it doesn’t want anyone to tell it it’s wrong.”
James Towey’s attack on Rev. Barry Lynn and Americans United as “secular extremists” is an excellent example of Schultz’s insight about the sociopathic character of the Bush Administration — that acts like it owns faith, and that anyone who disagrees with their policies is an opponent of God. (The frame of “faith-based” implies that opposition is somehow anti-faith, which is another obvious reason to use the term with care.) But Towey’s attack is concerning because we are now no longer in the realm of clever political slogans. If Schultz is right — and I think he is — we are witnessing one aspect of the sociopathology of the most powerful government in the history of the world.
The United Church of Christ, the mainline protestant denomination whose TV ads welcoming all to its doors were rejected last month by NBC and CBS as “too controversial,” has entered a new arena of non-controversy. The church today issued a statement in response to Christian Right culture warrior, James Dobson’s claim that the child cartoon figure SpongeBob SquarePants is gay and somehow a moral threat.
The UCC stated “Jesus’ message of extravagant welcome extends to all, including SpongeBob Squarepants — the cartoon character that has come under fire for allegedly holding hands with a starfish.
“Absolutely, the UCC extends an unequivocal welcome to SpongeBob,” the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC’s general minister and president, said, only partly in jest. “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.”
Dobson’s attack on SpongeBob and other well-known cartoon characters as crossing “a moral line” by stressing tolerance, came in response to a national We Are Family Foundation-sponsored video that will be distributed to U.S. schools on March 11, 2005. The attack by Dr. Dobson head of Focus on the Family, child psychologist, radio broadcaster and Christian conservative political figure, was heard round the world. But the UCC is the first Christian church to stand up for SpongeBob.
The UCC calls Dobson’s accusations “laughable.”
A photo of UCC President Rev. John Thomas welcoming Mr. Squarepants in his office, is currently posted on the UCC web site.
Dobson has been joined in the attack by the Tupelo, Mississippi based American Family Association.
Thomas says that if given the opportunity, would warmly receive Barney, Big Bird, Tinky-Winky, Clifford the Big Red Dog or, for that matter, any who have experienced the Christian message as a harsh word of judgment rather than Jesus’ offering of grace.
The UCC’s good-humored message about the nature of inclusion amidst the natural diversity of human society, also pointedly criticizes the radio personality stating that it is not SpongeBob, but “Dobson who is crossing the moral line for sending the mistaken message that Christians do not value tolerance and diversity as important religious values.”
“While Dobson’s silly accusation makes headlines, it’s also one more concrete example of how religion is misused over and over to promote intolerance over inclusion,” Thomas said. “This is why we believe it is so important that the UCC speak the Gospel in an accent not often heard in our culture, because far too many experience the cross only as judgment, never as embrace.”
“Resistance to our message is formidable,” Thomas says, “because we’re cutting against the prevailing grain of a society that is afraid of the stranger, suspicious of difference and easily seduced by narrowly defined theological boundaries.”
The 1.3-million-member United Church of Christ, headquartered in Cleveland, has almost 6,000 churches in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. It was formed by the 1957 union of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church.
It is at once refreshing and heartening for a Christian leader, and a national denomination to stand up for a warm hearted message, utterly mainstream, of love and inclusion, against the dark speculations, and meanspirited politics of James Dobson and his cohort
An essay titled Liberal State, Libertarian Policies, published on the web site of Political Research Associates, (PRA, a progressive think tank in Somerville, Massachusetts), raises disturbing questions about education policy under four Republican gubernatorial administrations in Massachusetts. The authors, Paul Dunphy and Nikhil Aziz charge, “a handful of conservative ideologues, closely aligned with a local libertarian think tank, are dominating every aspect of Massachusetts’ education policy and pushing an agenda of privatization that is driving up costs even while weakening public oversight.” They also suggest that free market rhetoric maybe cloaking some self-dealing by insiders who crafted hands off regulations for charter school companies for which they subsequently were employed. The authors say that Pioneer and its associates are “getting away with it largely unquestioned.” Well, thanks to the hard work and persistence of Dunphy, Aziz and PRA, those days are over.
The essay is a timely follow-up to an earlier PRA investigative report, The Pioneer Institute: Privatizing the Common Wealth.
The Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research has influenced many areas of state education policy. But Dunphy and Aziz say that Pioneer “almost single-handedly” advanced charter school and voucher programs. How did they do it? In part by a revolving door between the Pioneer Institute, Republican administrations and private companies holding no-bid charter contracts. For example, the authors report that “the chair of the state Board of (public) Education is the former executive director of Pioneer. Another former executive director serves alongside him on the Board. The head of the Department of Education’s Office of Charter School Accountability arrived at the job directly from Pioneer. These appointments continue the revolving door pattern between Pioneer and the Administration.”
“While the institute claims to favor competition,” write Dunphy and Aziz,” three of its former executive directors, serving in the Weld Administration, ingeniously crafted the regulations not only to exempt charter schools from many of the mandates facing the public system (for instance, serving severely disabled students) but to accord them financial priority over public schools, largely insulating them from the uncertainties of the state budget process.”
“Meanwhile,” they conclude, “millions of dollars in contracts between charter schools and for-profit management companies, one of which was founded by Pioneer associates, have been awarded with no competitive bidding whatsoever. This from the folks who claim that, ‘the public benefits from competition.'”
The result of all this may be less anything resembling the free market, so much as crony capitalism. “Pioneer operatives,” Dunphy and Aziz charge, have steered huge private subsidies to charter schools enabling them to out spend the neighboring public system by hundreds of dollars per student, even as conservative groups continue to charge that public schools are ‘over-funded.'”
They call Pioneer and other free marketeers “hypocrites” — for pushing for standardized testing for public school kids, while seeking “vouchers to private and religious institutions that want nothing to do with MCAS” (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) the controversial state standardized test.
“As millions are siphoned off to charters, municipalities face the unpleasant reality of either higher property taxes or leaner educational programs,” Aziz and Dunphy charge. “Wherever there are charter schools, from Martha’s Vineyard and Boston, to Fitchburg, Worcester, and Northampton, public school kids pay the price of privatization.”
There is a question that is long overdue with regard to the financing and management of charter schools. In a time of budget crises, why are municipalities and states subsidizing private, for-profit academies that benefit a very few, at the expense of everyone else?
Struggles over school privatization are being waged all over the country, of course. But the impetus behind some of it, just as in Massachusetts, is a national network of state-level conservative think tanks that have sprung up, while national policy in many areas “devolved” to the states during the Reagan and Bush administrations. I documented this in an earlier report for PRA titled Takin’ It To The States: The Rise of State-Level Conservative Think Tanks. Pioneer, like the others, is bankrolled by rightwing business interests and foundations. Pioneer’s supporters, as Dunphy and Aziz note, include the “Walton (as in Walmart) Family Fund.”
This network, and the various privatization schemes they promote, deserve far more scrutiny than they have generally received from the media, and public officials who treat their studies as legitimate scholarship and earnest public policy proposals.
In honor of the 32nd anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, I want to highlight a Words of Choice. While on the road in such states as Missouri and Florida, Virginia and Minnesota, she encountered surprises, and gained important insights about the state of the politics and culture of the right to choose.
“At a church in suburban St. Louis,” she writes, “a young woman in a hip pink poncho offers me one clear insight when she strides up to the front of the community room after the ‘Words of Choice’ performance. The play weaves together a dozen diverse writings about true-to-life experiences, comic and serious, with contraception, childbirth and abortion; my role is guiding the post-play discussion.
‘Can you come to my college in Kansas?’ presses the young woman. ‘This made me realize that I’m pro-choice and I want my friends to see it.’ she says.
Another woman, whom I soon learn is her mother, steps forward. ‘Just a minute,’ the 40ish woman interjects. ‘You grew up in a pro-choice household.’
‘But we never talked about it,’ the student says in a tone of exasperation best known to mothers and daughters.
‘I told you about your grandmother’s illegal abortion, didn’t I?’ the mother continues.
The daughter’s unblinking stare indicates otherwise. Within moments, we hear the decades-old story of a frightened Midwestern girl willing to gamble on outlaws and dangerous conditions to procure an abortion in the time period before the U.S. Supreme Court said, on January 22, 1973, that the government cannot criminalize abortion in all circumstances–the decision known simply as Roe to many.”
Everywhere she goes, people are eager to talk:
“People do not slot themselves into pollsters’ glib categories of ‘abortion should be legal under all circumstances,’ Cooper writes, “or ‘abortion should be legal only in cases of rape.’ People don’t cogitate about the future of the U.S. Supreme Court or grind their teeth about the exact moment when life begins.”
“What they are eager to discuss,” she learns, “is close to home. Sexual relations. Complicated lives of love and loss. People and circumstances that do not fit into check-off boxes on forms. One audience member in Virginia turns out to be the cashier at a college snack bar and while punching out our orders of chicken nuggets, describes, rapid-fire, an abusive marriage, an early abortion, a remarriage, children, grandchildren, a turn toward fundamentalist religion and her continued devotion to a woman’s right to make her own decisions about childbearing.”
“The play seems to open people up, Cooper continues. “One story in “Words of Choice” is of a father describing his feelings after his daughter is raped. Another is of a teenager who constructs an extensive, if familiar, rationale about why a single sexual encounter should not have made her pregnant (“think of all the times I didn’t do it,” she says.)
“It is so much more complex than I thought,” says a Southeast Asian immigrant in the courtyard of a Minneapolis theater. “I never heard these stories. They’re not like what you hear on the news. They make me think. Especially having a teenager, they make me think.”
Cooper goes on to tell more of the experiences of ordinary people, and reports that the experience of Roe, “is far from the world where policy analysts describe Roe’s wrinkles and sagging losses to hundreds of state anti-choice laws, or explain that one or two anti-choice replacements on the Supreme Court could make Roe into an historical artifact.”
“Roe,” Cooper asserts, “is living unseen, unheard, underground.”
She believes there is a need for “many more safe spaces for strangers and neighbors and even mothers and daughters to talk. Spoken word cafes. Church basements. Dormitories where five friends sit down and discuss; Tupperware-style house parties. Art galleries, bookstores, after-hours groups at doctors’ offices.”
And, tellingly, she observes: “our leaders need to sit in. Away from polls and focus groups and message-makers, they need to open new conversations with the people who need Roe, even if they don’t know about it. No one owns the subject of reproductive freedom, and we are all immigrants to this strange new landscape where no one talks.”
Cindy Cooper’s remarkable story was published in one of those places where it is safe to talk about such things. Women’s eNews is a four year old, non-profit, free online daily news service that rightly describes itself as “the definitive source of substantive news–unavailable anywhere else–covering issues of particular concern to women and providing women’s perspectives on public policy. It enhances women’s ability to define their own lives and to participate fully in every sector of human endeavor.”
Women’s eNews publishes a news story or commentary, mostly by freelance writers from around the world, every day. Stories are simultaneously emailed to subscribers and posted on their web site. The topics are the full range of topics — politics, religion, economics, health, science, education, sports, and perhaps more than any mainstream news outlet, stories about all aspects of reproductive rights.
One excellent way to celebrate the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, would be to support the news service that publishes great stories like Cindy Cooper’s. Make a contribution to Women’s eNews.
The upcoming conference, Examining the Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right on April 29-30 in New York, is an opportunity to hear as remarkable and impressive a group of experts on the Religious Right as has been assembled anywhere in a long time. (I am honored to be included among them.) I know several of the speakers, and look forward to hearing and meeting the others for the first time.
Most of us get information and analysis about the Christian Right from a rather narrow band of information and perspective. This conference offers an engaging mix of journalists, academics, and independent thinkers who I think will broaden and deepen our knowledge and understanding of the Christian Right.
Examining the Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right
A Two-Day Conference
Friday evening, April 29, 7:30-10pm
Saturday, April 30, 10am-5:30pm
Co-sponsored by the NY Open Center and CUNY Graduate Center Public Programs
From the conference description:
“Until progressives come to understand what [fundamentalists] read, hear, are told and deeply believe, we cannot understand American politics, much less be effective.”
– Joe Bageant
“Most Americans outside the Bible Belt have little idea of the beliefs held by millions of fundamentalist churchgoers. We have an almost total lack of awareness of the rise of Dominionism and Christian Reconstructionism, forms of theology that advocate a biblical vision of God’s kingdom on earth. Some fundamentalists also foresee events such as The Rapture, the Times of Tribulation, Armageddon, and the Second Coming of Christ as we enter The End of Days…
The 2004 election tells us that socially conscious citizens need to awaken to the ambitions of this influential religious movement. What do fundamentalist theologies advocate regarding theocracy, abortion and homosexuality? What is the nature of the world order under God’s law that they anticipate? How do many fundamentalists interpret the role of Israel? How does this affect U.S. policy? Why are so many fundamentalists opposed to environmentalism and the UN? Why are millions in America drawn to this form of belief, and how can we come to understand them?”
Fundamentalism: The Fear and the Rage — Karen Armstrong
The Rise of Dominionism in the U.S. Government — Joan Bokaer
Millennialist and Apocalyptic Influences on Dominionism — Chip Berlet
Learning about the Christian Right, and What in the World to Do? — Frederick Clarkson
The Real Hidden Religious Agenda: The Theocratic States of America — John Sugg
Is an Unholy American Theocracy Here? — Katherine Yurica
On the Psychology and Theocracy of George W. Bush: Reflections in a Culture of Fear — Charles Strozier
Christian Jihad — Skipp Porteous
Jesus Plus Nothing: Elite Fundamentalism, Pragmatic Dominionism — Jeff Sharlet
Religion and Secrecy in the Bush Administration — Hugh Urban
BlogPAC, a coalition of Democratic bloggers and blog readers has launched an online media campaign charging that the Bush administration is manufacturing a phony crisis in order to hand over the Social Security trust fund to the stock market and big financial institutions. The group is a registered political action commitee that supported a number of Democratic candidates for the House and Senate last year.
The group’s campaign web site is devoted to providing such resources for the fight as links to useful articles and a “Wall of Shame” to track the perpetuators of “the deceptive myth that theres a ‘crisis’ with our system of Social Security. This includes journalists, public servants and other people who should know better.”
“Fact is, there is no crisis,” said Markos Moulistas of The Daily Kos. “And there is no projected crisis anytime in the near future. Or far future. The GOP has always hated social security, and now they see a chance to do something about it.”
“BlogPac,” according to their press release, “was borne from those who spend their times online and embrace participatory media and politics, we will use online tools and technologies to further the cause of progressive politics in our nation. BlogPac is, indeed, the first PAC to wage politics entirely online. Blogpac intends to distribute and sell downloadable materials, bumper stickers and encourage grassroots groups to engage in local activism on their own.”
In addition to the interactive web site, BlogPac plans to air radio spots in which they show how the supposed crisis in Social Security is “as phony as Iraq’s supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction Program.”
One of the ads, titled “Fraud” states:
“Social Security makes sure our nation’s elderly can retire with income. Now President Bush and the Republican leadership want to gamble away our benefits — and line their own pockets with our hard-earned dollars.
Social Security is financially sound. But Bush and his cronies want us to believe there is a crisis. They are even using taxpayer dollars — our retirement money they hold in trust — to pay for an advertising campaign to convince us theres a crisis.
Bush wants to reduce benefits and gamble our money in the stock market by paying billions to the big investment firms that are among his biggest campaign contributors.
This is fraud.
Dont let them get away with it. Go to ThereIsNoCrisis.com for more information.”
BlogPac is raising money to air the radio spots. Contributions can be made through the campaign web site.
Here in Massachusetts it is not uncommon for Republicans to disguise themselves as Democrats.
We saw a spectacular example of this in the strange case of Democratic State Rep. Brian Golden. Golden was reelected, unopposed last year — but he resigned on January 5th, and took a job with the Romney administration before he could even be sworn in for his new term. Apparently Golden’s long record of Republican behavior finally caught up with him. Golden campaigned for George W. Bush in 2000 and again in 2004 in New Hampshire — in the company of Governor Mitt Romney. He also wrote a supportive op-ed piece for the Manchester Union Leader, the largest newspaper in New Hampshire, and gave an interview to rightist magazine, The National Review, attacking the religious faith of John Kerry.
Enough was enough. Democratic activist Tim Schofield announced a primary challenge for 2006 soon after Golden’s reelection — and raised $10,000 before Christmas. Since Golden’s resignation others have jumped into the race for the now open seat from the 18th Suffolk district, which comprises parts of Allston, Brighton, and Brookline. But Schofield, who was the campaign treasurer for Golden’s 2002 primary challenger David Friedman, has a big head start and is the apparent front runner in what promises to be a multi-candidate field in the March 15th Democratic primary. (The general election is April 12th.) He has already launched a campaign web site and hired a campaign manager.
Schofield an attorney in private practice in Boston, is a graduate of the Boston College Law School and served in the U.S. Army in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. Prior to law school, Schofield was a legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Dick Swett, (D-NH).
I talked to Schofield recently about his candidacy and the race.
Schofield is seeking to establish himself as the clear progressive in the field. Being a progressive “is incredibly liberating” he says. “I can talk to people about the issues that matter.”
“I grew up in a low income, blue collar family,” he says. “I joined the Army at 17. There was no money for private schools. Public schools have been crucial in my life.”
When it comes to being a progressive, Schofield says, “It means being prochoice and pro marriage equality, but its a lot more than that.”
“My belief,” Schofield explains “is that just because I have made a certain level of success in my life, doesn’t mean I don’t want to turn around and help the next person coming up the ladder. We as a society are supposed to be doing this together.”
As part of this, he sees an active role for government as a “counterbalance” to corporate power. He was startled to learn while in law school, that corporations are legally obliged to maximize profits. This, he believes, exacerbates the greed in human nature. Therefore, he sees a strong need for government oversight and regulation to protect the public interest.
This year his campaign themes are “serious health care reform,” increased funding for public education, and economic development. While he acknowledges that, “We have responsibilities and financial limits as a society,” he also says that “it’s a matter of priorities” as to what gets funded and to what degree. Schofield is opposed, for example, “to anything that drains resources from the public schools.” He therefore favors a moratorium on new charter schools. “Its been about ten years of this experiment,” he says, recalling that the original idea was to use charters as “laboratories” for the benefit of public schools. “So lets pause and see what lessons we have learned and see if we can apply those lessons to the public schools.”
Other announced candidates so far include Joe Walsh Jr. executive secretary of the Allston Board of Trade; Michael Moran, a political consultant with Newgrange Consultants Group who ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 1994 and 1998; and Greg Glennon, an aide to Golden. Glennon, like his former boss, has a Republican side. In fact, Glennon was a registered Republican two years ago and poised to run for Congress against Democratic Rep. Mike Capuano. Apparently the only reason Glennon didn’t run was that he didn’t get enough certified signatures on his petition.
Schofield told me that by his analysis of the likely low-turnout race, the winner in the so-far, four candidate field, (the filing deadline is February 1) will need between 1200 and 1400 votes to win. The winner of the Democratic primary will probably prevail in this overwhelmingly Democratic district. Schofield feels that the 1900 people who voted for Friedman (who is backing Schofield this time) in 2002, provides a strong likely base of support.
Special elections are interesting and important for a number of reasons. Incumbents rarely lose, so an open seat is a rare opportunity. But special elections being run singly, without statewide or national candidates to draw interest, tend to be very low-turnout. Twenty-five percent of the registered voters is typical for a special election for state representative in Massachusetts. Special election campaigns are also much shorter, and run on much less money.
This year, because there are three contests to be decided on the same day, and one is for the vacancy left by the resignation of former House Speaker Tom Finneran, there may be more statewide media interest than might usually be expected. But these three races may generate wider interest for another reason: They may signal a broader ideological realignment in the House. The departure of Finneran, (whose alliance of conservative Democrats and Republicans originally won him the speakership), and the succession of progressive Sal DiMasi, means that conservative Finneran loyalists no longer rule the House and most of its committees. Since all three seats are being vacated by conservative Democrats, and there are strong progressive candidates running in all three districts, this is a golden opportunity for progressives to increase their numbers. All three districts are strongly Democratic, so the winners of their respective Democratic primaries will most likely be the new state representatives from their districts.
The fields for the primary in each district are still forming. The filing deadline is February 1st.
On January 6th Amherst attorney Peter Vickery was sworn in as the first new governor’s councilor from Western Massachusetts in over 30 years. The Governor’s Council is an eight-member elected body that confirms or rejects judicial nominations in Massachusetts, among other functions. Vickery takes the seat of the late Eddie O’Brien, an old school patronage pol, master of the backroom deal, and father of unsuccessful 2002 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Shannon O’Brien. Vickery ran as a pro-choice, pro-labor, pro-marriage equality, pro-clean elections candidate. He first prevailed in a tight four-way primary, and then went on to win the general election against a patronage Democrat, running as an independent — with the backing of some prominent Republicans and conservative Democrats. This was a significant event in recent Massachusetts politics. We are entering an era of progressive democratic reform.
The Vickery victory against the combined efforts of conservative, status quo factions in both parties, was one of a number of notable victories for progressives last year. There were challenges in the democratic primaries and in the general election against supporters of marriage equality. Not a single incumbent supporter of marriage equality lost. In fact a vociferous opponent of marriage equality, Rep. Vincent Ciampa lost his seat representing Medford and Somerville to
Carl Sciortino a 28-year-old, gay, political neophyte, who won with the backing of a broad progressive coalition. The tide is turning. And the old guard knows it.
There will be three special elections for state representative seats coming right up that may provide opportunities for progressives to increase their numbers in the House. Three conservative Democrats allied with authoritiarian House Speaker Tom Finneran have resigned their seats. And one of them is Tom Finneran. The Democratic primary for all three seats will be held on March 15th. They all will be multicandidate fields. (The filing deadline is February 1.) The general election is April 12th.
— House Speaker Tom Finneran of Matttapan, facing a growing resistance to his leadership, not to mention a grand jury investigation into allegations that he committed perjury in a federal racial gerrymandering case, resigned his seat to become a the president of a biotech lobby.
— Rep. Brian Golden a two-termer, representing an oddly shaped district including parts of Allston, Brighton, and Brookline resigned, (after being reelected unopposed), to take a job with the Romney administration before he could even be sworn in to his new term.
— Rep. Peter Larkin of Pittsfield, one of Finneran’s lieutenants, resigned on January 11th.
The new Speaker, Salvatore F. DiMasi, is not only far more progressive than his predecessor — he is pro-choice and pro-marriage equality — but he promises to run the House in a very different manner. Finneran, who was originally elected speaker eight years ago by a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans, ran the house with an iron fist. DeMasi has promised to lead in a far more democratic, open and inclusive fashion.
Finneran, it will be remembered, was so despised by party activists that he was routinely booed at state party conventions. I happened to be present for one such memorable occasion at the Massachusetts Democratic Party convention of 2002. Finneran was hanging out in the back of where my delegation from Northampton was sitting — high up and way back — in the Worcester Centrum. I was sitting next to a friend, the president of the United Auto Workers local. I said to him, “Hey look – there’s Tom Finneran,” — at which point he leapt to his feet, whirled around, pointed at Finneran and shouted: “Get the fuck out of here you son of a bitch!” As everyone around us saw who was there, they started hissing and booing. Needless to say, Finneran fled.
Finneran may be the last of the old school, conservative Democratic pols to wield such power in Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, Peter Vickery is but one of a new breed of activists, politicians and elected officials in the Commonwealth. He is a member of Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts, an outgrowth of the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign of Robert Reich. He is the first PDM member elected to high public office, but he certainly won’t be the last. Vickery told The Springfield Republican on the occasion of his swearing-in ceremony, “I’ll vote my conscience. I won’t follow anybody’s cue.”
Its hard to imagine a newly elected high public official saying something like that in the hey day of Finneran and his ilk. But then we don’t have to. Those days are over.
Among the various agencies trying to help in the South East Asian tsunami disaster, there is one I particularly recommend as doing great work over many years. Oxfam International focuses on long term development as part of its emergency relief efforts. Because it has been active in the affected countries, particularly Sri Lanka, for a long time, dollars sent to Oxfam are likely to be particularly well and quickly used. Here is part of a statement issued by Oxfam on December 31.
“Our long-term commitment to South and Southeast Asia, including more than 30 years of operations in Sri Lanka, have uniquely positioned us to respond quickly and effectively. Once the critical phase has subsided, Oxfam will stay in the region, and will continue to work with local communities and grassroots organizations to help rebuild communities through agriculture and microfinance and credit programs.”
To donate, here are three options:
Mail: Check can be sent to
Asia Earthquake Fund
PO Box 1211
Albert Lea, MN