Category Archives: Politics

Income Inequality and Party Representation

income_inequality
by James A. Bacon

As a follow-up to my previous post, yes, honest liberals do exist. One of them is Michael Zuckerman writing in Atlantic Cities, who squarely confronts the reality that Democratic congressional districts experience far more income inequality overall than Republican congressional districts. He compiled the chart above which shows the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Concludes Zuckerman: “As the data show, Democrats have a lock not only on the country’s richest districts but also on the districts with the highest in-district income inequality.”

He then advances an interesting hypothesis: “Considered alongside these well-established trends, the fact that Democrats represent districts that are (on average) more unequal than Republican districts suggests that the parties may have such divergent views on income inequality in part because their members (and constituents) have divergent experiences of income inequality.”

In a way, that’s a breakthrough concept because it attributes Republicans’ policy views not toward callous, unfeeling attitudes towards the poor or to racism — the main rhetorical thrust of the national Democratic Party rhetoric and its media allies these days — but to their different life experiences. Democrats are more sensitive to income inequality because they experience it more glaringly in their daily lives; Republicans are less sensitive because they see less of it.

There is, of course, one other possible explanation: Income inequality is worse in Democratic districts because Democratic districts tend to be governed at the state and local level by… Democrats. And, just as I argued in the previous post that Democratic policies lead to increased segregation as an unintended consequence, they also lead to more income inequality as an unintended consequence. Food for thought.

There is good news for Democrats — Virginia Democrats, at least — in Zuckerman’s data. The national trend aligning Democrats with inequality does not hold true in Virginia — the average Gini for three Dem districts, .429, is a hair lower than that for the eight GOP districts, .434. Indeed, the fifth most income-egalitarian district in the country is Virginia’s 11th, represented by Democrat Rep. Gerald Connolly!

income_inequality_va

An Inconvenient Obamacare Truth

SNL spoofBy Peter Galuszka

It is highly amusing to watch Obamacare detractors mock news that the Affordable Care Act has more than reached it goal by signing up 7.1 million Americans.

This inconvenient truth turns the Fox News echo chambers on its head. You also read a bit of that on this blog – there’s an unassailable assumption that Obamacare is a certain failure, the Website is a mess and that it will be rejected hands down by consumers. Therefore, it’s a given that it must be repealed or undergo massive surgery.

Obamacare deniers also link expanding Medicaid to the fray. That is why the General Assembly has not passed a budget. Hard right Republicans in the House of Delegates, led by House Speaker Bill Howell, have set up expansion along the lines of their Obamacare fight. Medicaid is DOA, they claim, and they are quite right risking shutting down state government July 1 to make their point.

Of course, they are plowing ground for November elections in which they assume (underlined) that Obamacare will be a killer topic for their allies.

Problem is, if Americans keep signing up (early problems with the Website notwithstanding), they kinda lose some of their thunder. They may have to come up with a new mule to beat.

Anyway, I caught this skit on Saturday Night Live last night and immediately thought of Bacon’s Rebellion. Enjoy!

Why Five Ex-Attorneys General Are So Wrong

mcdonnells arraignedBy Peter Galuszka

The practice of law in Virginia is supposed to be an honorable profession.

The state, which produced such orators as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, loves its lawyers perhaps much more than individuals who actually create or do something of value. It could be why the state has so many of them.

This makes a filing in the McDonnell corruption case by five former attorneys general all the more despicable. The bunch includes both parties and is made up of Andrew P. Miller, J. Marshall Coleman, Mary Sue Terry, Stephen D. Rosenthal and Mark L. Earley.

They want corruption charges thrown out against former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who, with his wife, has been indicted on 14 federal corruption charges. Their trial, expected in July, will explore charges they misused their position to help a dietary supplement maker who showered them with more than $165,000 in personal gifts and loans.

The five attorneys general claim that there is no clear evidence the McDonnells did anything wrong. Odd, but I thought lawyers knew enough not to try and bias a case that has been through the indictment and arraignment phase and is due for trial but then I didn’t go to law school.

Their other reason is actually more upsetting. Their filing claims that future governors might be reluctant to invite state business leaders on foreign trade missions or to host campaign donors at the governors mansion, according to The Washington Post.

Huh? I don’t see the connection. Of course, governor’s can host trade missions. They can invite people to the Executive Mansion. It’s just that, in the process, the governors can’t reasonably be OK with accepting a $6,500 Rolex from the head of Kia Motors or a special loan for his failing beach houses from the local rep of Rolls Royce North America.

It is stunning that the five attorneys general are caught up in “the Virginia Way” of having hardly any controls on gift giving and spending that everything is OK. They also can’t seem to move beyond the conceit that  anyone who occupies the governor’s chair must naturally be an honest gentleman or gentlewoman.

This kind of thinking helps explain nothing substantive has been done to reform the state’s ethics laws. I can give you five reasons why.

An Ex-Coal Baron’s Strange Movie

Blankenship

Blankenship

By Peter Galuszka

Almost four years after 29 miners employed by then Richmond-based Massey Energy were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion, its former chief executive under federal investigation for widespread safety violations has come forward with an apparently self-funded “documentary” proclaiming his innocence.

Donald Blankenship released the film “Upper Big Branch, Never Again” this week which reiterates his claims that he and the firm were innocent of wrongdoing and that an unexpected flood of natural gas and meddling by federal regulators caused the blast.

Three investigations have cited Blankenship and Massey for a culture of cost-cutting  and ignoring safety problems. So far, four former Massey employees have been imprisoned for related convictions.

The strange, 51-minute film brought immediate demands for its retraction by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia who claims he did not know of Blankenship’s involvement when was interviewed for the film  being played on YouTube. Manchin is shown making what seem to be supportive statements of coal in general and, presumably, Blankenship.

The film also features interviews with E. Morgan Massey, a retired Massey executive who lives in Richmond. Another is University of Utah mining professor named Tom Hethmon who has told National Public Radio that he was also misled about the film and wants nothing to do with it.

The movie was made by a Chesapeake –based firm called Adroit Films whose officials have refused to tell reporters who funded the production.

In the film, Blankenship, Massey and Stanley Suboleski, a former Massey director who lives in Chesterfield County, repeat earlier claims that the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. on April 5, 2010 was caused by an unexpected flood of natural gas. The explosion was affected by what Blankenship claims were wrong-headed demands by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to change the ventilation system which stretches for more than seven miles underground.

An MSHA probe along with one ordered by Manchin when he was state governor claim that the blast was caused when badly-maintained mining equipment hit a pocket of gas that touched off a huge coal dust explosion. The company was required but failed to keep highly combustible coal dust at bay by spraying mine shafts with powdered limestone, investigators say.

After he was forced out as Massey’s CEO in 2010 and the company was sold in 2011 for $7 billion to Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, Blankenship kept a low profile.  He stirred to life about a year ago when he launched a website offering his views that coal is overregulated and that global warming is a hoax.He is also well-known for his staunchly anti-labor views and his support for mountaintop removal mining methods that are highly destructive of watersheds, wildlife and landscapes.

The film also shows footage of President Barack Obama as if to suggest a connection between him and the mine blast. At the time, Obama had been in office for a little more than a year. In other words, if he mangled the coal industry, he did so in a remarkably short period of time. The film also revives “War on Coal” footage shot during the 2012 presidential campaign. It tends to suggest that the coal mined at Upper Big Branch was used to generate electricity for America’s benefit when, in fact, all of it was of a metallurgical variety bound for export to foreign steel mills.

Another odd aspect of the film is why Manchin would agree to an interview with filmmakers he did not know. When I was researching my 2012 book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal” (St. Martin’s Press), I could only talk to Manchin and other elected officials at public events, although Massey, Suboleski and other former company officials spoke with me at length. Blankenship declined to be interviewed.

Federal prosecutors in West Virginia say that their ongoing probe may extend to top officers and directors of the defunct firm. It is unclear why Blankenship made the movie now.

Full Disclosure: I have been interviewed and have acted as an unpaid consultant for an upcoming documentary  titled “Blood on the Mountain” produced by Evening Star Productions.

Ukraine Secret Ops: A Virginia Spy Story

The CIA's Rositzke

The CIA’s Rositzke

By Peter Galuszka

About 32 years ago, I was driving my dark green Audi Fox through Virginia’s lush horse country near Middleburg in search of a 350-acre farm owned by Harry Rositzke, author, educator and linguist. He also was one of the highest ranking spies in the Central Intelligence Agency which ran secret operations against Ukraine and other Soviet republics from 1949 to 1954.

Rositzke, who died in 2002, seemed an odd prospect for gentleman farmer. He had been born in Brooklyn and sounded like it. He had an extreme sense of street smarts, as I found when I was working on a newspaper story on spying in Virginia.

From what I remember of my interview — I lost my notes years ago — I had no real idea just how active the CIA had been in actually recruiting local language speakers, often displaced persons or recent emigres, giving them a smattering of training and then kicking them out the side door of a dark-colored C-47 at night onto the potato fields of Ukraine, the Baltic States and also Russia.

Mind you, these black drops were just a few years after the Soviet Union and the U.S. were suspicious allies who had helped defeat Germany, Japan and Italy. Things turned nasty very quickly and, as history moves forward, we seem back where we were 60 plus years ago.

Today, Vladimir Putin is massing Russian troops on the Ukraine border after annexing Crimea. He claims that America has a history of meddling in Ukraine, an independent nation since the 1991 split up of the U.S.S.R. The ironies are delicious. Putin, a former KGB spy in East Germany, is right.

The spy acronym for the early Cold War infiltration efforts was REDSOX, according to espionage historian Matthew Aim. The specific ones against Ukraine were labelled AERODYNAMIC with others being AEROOT (Estonia), AEQUOR (Byelorussia), AECOB (Latvia), AEGEAN (Lithuania) and AESAURUS (inside Russia itself).

The operations were run out of a CIA base in Munich and were headed in 1951 to 1954 by Rositzke.  “We were sending people into the Ukraine, people forget that there was an active resistance movement there… We’d fly them in and parachute them from C-47s. We never lost a plane. We were pleased to see how inefficient the anti-aircraft sources were,” he told The Washington Post.

Aim believes that up to 85 agents were air dropped in denied areas of Eastern and Central Europe from 1949 to 1954. The British MI6 intelligence group likewise sent agents there.

It isn’t clear what their missions were, but reconnaissance, establishing covert networks and sabotage are possibilities. The strange part is that anywhere from 75 to 100 percent of the air drop covert missions were failures, according to Aim and others.

One problem is that the American spymasters probably didn’t know what they were getting into. It wasn’t the same as setting up French underground groups during World War II; émigré groups fought each other and many if not all of the missions had been thoroughly compromised by Soviet counter-intelligence before they ever got off the ground.

According to Aim, one British agent named Myron Matviyenko had been in command of three teams of MI6 infiltrators who had jumped into Western Ukraine and Poland but turned them all in to the Soviets. Another theory is that Soviet super spy H.A. R. “Kim” Philby had learned of many of the missions while a British Embassy official in Washington and quickly passed the information along. Many of the agents simply vanished.

Rositzke at one point is quoted as saying that the missions were so rushed that the CIA hadn’t had time to vet the agents. In any event, he bought his farm near Middleburg in 1955 as a place to retire and eventually did. Little did I know as I was driving away from Rositzke’s estate with the big oak trees that I would be working in the Soviet Union myself as a news correspondent four years later. I ended up doing two tours of three years there.

In 1996, as I was preparing to leave Moscow for the last time, I went to a new museum opened by the KGB at their famous Lybyanka Headquarters. The guide was an elderly, grey haired man with ice cold blue eyes, sort of Putin-like. He was a retired KGB officer and I was mesmerized that their exhibit had photos and relics from compromised American and British covert ops in Ukraine and the Baltics.

One dead giveaway was that the CIA was dumb enough to use stainless steel staples in the fake passports it made, the guide said. Everyone knows that true Soviet passport staples are old-style iron and they always smudge the paper with rust. This could be easily spotted by checking a passport. No smudge? Instant spy!

I asked if the CIA still made the same mistake after all these years. He stared at me coldly for more than a minute before responding: “No, they make others.”

Who Is Being Intransigent Now?

Medicaid reform? We don't need no stinking Medicaid reform.

Medicaid reform? We don’t need no stinking Medicaid reform.

by James A. Bacon

Let me get this straight. Virginia Democrats in the General Assembly are saying that they will not pass a state budget until they get Medicaid expansion?

“We won’t vote for a budget — and I can’t be emphatic enough — we will not vote for a budget, nor will the governor sign a budget that doesn’t have some form of expansion,” Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said during a brief conference call. So reports the Times-Dispatch.

The only possible conclusion to draw from that statement is that the Dems are willing to shut down state government (and much of local government) in order to get their way. Hmmm… Who does that sound like? Oh, I don’t know… maybe Congressional Republicans in the debt-ceiling debate with President Obama? The same Republicans whom the Dems denounced as maniacally irresponsible and willing to destroy the country in order to save it?

I’ve heard a lot of reasons why state Dems support Medicaid expansion: The money would come from Uncle Sam, it would expand health coverage for thousands of Virginians and it would pump up the state’s economy. These are not unreasonable arguments.

Here’s what I have not heard: why Democrats refuse to join with Republicans in pushing for Medicaid reforms. If Governor Terry McAuliffe and other Dems joined Republicans in petitioning the Obama administration, there is every reason to think the state could get the waivers and exemptions they’re asking for. President Obama has waived just about every other provision of Obamacare, why not this?

I truly don’t understand why the Dems can’t join the GOP in presenting a united front to extract Medicaid reforms from the Obama administration. They’ll get what they want, an expanded Medicaid program. It’ll just be a little leaner and more fiscally sustainable than what they’re asking for now. Are they really willing to shut down government over that? Who are the intransigents now?

The Koch’s Bizarre Meddling in Chesterfield

koch brothersBy Peter Galuszka

The Koch brothers are back in the bucolic suburban tracts of Chesterfield County.

This time, their national group, Americans for Prosperity, has launched a robocall campaign to oppose a proposed real estate tax hike of 4.6 cents to help pay for $304 million renovations to schools or perhaps hire more teachers to bring classroom sizes back to pre-recession levels.

It’s apparently the second time that Americans for Prosperity have been on their case in Chesterfield. Last year, the hard-right group sent out bizarre “report cards” to ordinary citizens bashing them for not registering to vote.

In one famous local case, a recipient was actually a registered and active voter and greatly resented the idea that a multi-million dollar national outfit like the Americans for Prosperity was trying to monitor his personal business.

This time, Sean Lansing, the group’s Virginia director told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the goal is to “educate” residents on the issues, as if they are too stupid to understand local tax and classroom size problems that they probably know far better than some AEP appartchiki.

Chesterfield has caught itself in a bind because it hasn’t raised real estate taxes since 1990 despite its brisk growth rate. Voters in November voted down a 2 percent meals tax that could have raised money for schools. Henrico County voters, by contrast, narrowly approved a 4 percent meals tax and thus have no budget crisis that another tax hike is needed to resolve.

Admittedly, one of Chesterfield’s problems is bad planning. The staunchly Republican county has a long history of being very friendly to developers. Consequently, the county is in a constant service “catch up” mode. Need schools, such as Cosby High near some of the county’s largest residential developments, was already way overcrowded before it was finished a few years ago.

What is puzzling is what the Koch brothers are so interested in Chesterfield. It is hardly an election battleground. There is no strong Democratic or other opposing party. Yet with consummate arrogance, this cabal believes that residents need robocalls to “educate” them.

“Educate” them for what? If you want good schools and other services, someone has to pay for them. And as a Chesterfield resident for nearly 14 years, I can attest that taxes here are considerably lower than other places I have lived as an adult (Washington, New York, Chicago, suburban Cleveland, etc.).

Is Virginia Now the “Mother of Dictators?”

Dictator_charlie3315 By Peter Galuszka

One of the serious problems in this state that has been called the “Mother of Presidents” is that its electoral process is in many ways anything but a democracy.

In far too many districts, especially rural and suburban ones, gerrymandering and autocratic party diktat mean that the races are utterly non-competitive and devoid of much debate on issues essential for the state’s well-being.

In 2013, for instance, only 12 or 14 of the 100 races for the House of Delegates were actually competitive, according to the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. That’s an odd fact to ponder.

And that is why you get unneeded legislative sessions such as the one starting today to try and sort out Medicaid expansion and a $96 billion, two year budget. My view is that both the expansion and the budget are being held hostage by hard-line social and fiscal conservatives who are unwilling to consider the needs of moderates or even their own constituents, many of whom are receiving Medicaid or who benefit by its expansion. Indeed, polls show that more Virginians are in favor of expanding Medicaid. A broad coalition of activists, Democrats, business executives and moderate Republicans favors it.

For more, check this opinion piece I wrote this Sunday in The Washington Post.

The bottom line is that Virginia is changing but how fast is held in check by engineered voting districts. More people from other states or countries are moving here and that is certain to shake up the old ways of doing business. More millennials are leaving rural areas for cities where there are more jobs and progressive ideas. Eventually, their voices will be heard but not until there’s a level playing field.

According to Leigh Middleditch, a Charlottesville lawyer and Sorenson founder, a crucial task for the Old Dominion is to address redistricting issues. He’s part of the bipartisan Virginia Redistricting Reform Coalition, to bring elections back into balance. As he notes, they’re getting the money and haven’t given themselves six years to complete the job.

I wish them well. If that happens you won’t have a tiny, hard-right cadre representing maybe three percent of the eligible electorate dictating who the candidate is because they only have to worry about a primary in a rigged district.

It’s become “the Virginia Way.”

Mark Warner: Let’s Out-Gas Putin

 mark warnerBy Peter Galuszka

One way to clip the wings of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aggressive land grabs, says U.S. Sen. Mark Warner who is running for reelection, is to expedite permitting of the 20 or so proposals to export liquefied natural gas, including one by Richmond-based Dominion Resources.

“Most of Europe and Ukraine are heavily dependent on Russian gas in particular for their energy use,” Warner told reporters. Europe depends on Russia for 30 percent of its gas.

It is true that hydraulic fracking has turned the oil and gas business in the U.S. upside down by creating such a flood of products that the U.S. may not only become energy independent but in a position to export. Environmentalists point out that fracking has its dangers but the remarkable change in energy dynamics plays to the producers’ hands.

The big problems with Warner’s proposal are that exporting LNG to Europe will be more time-consuming and costly than he might imagine. It also does nothing to address the climate change issues that gas contributes to, albeit not as much as coal.

One reason why Warner may be so interested in the issue — House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, is making exactly the same proposal — is because of Dominion. The utility plans a $3.8 billion expansion of its Cove Point, Md. LNG import facility on Chesapeake Bay so that it can export LNG as well. Some of that gas could very well come from fracking operations in the Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania and West Virginia along with the Gulf Coast.

Dominion is in the permitting process – perhaps No. 3 or 4 in line – for Cove Point. It has the gear to take super cold gas pf about minus 265 degrees and warm it up to a gaseous state so it can be sent through pipelines. Now it wants equipment to reverse the process – take gas and chill it into shippable LNG. Dominion has everything else it needs – a water terminal, tanks, and so on.

Warner, of course, gets lots of campaign money from Dominion and has just brought on as his campaign manager Eva Teig Hardy, who retired as one of Dominion’s top lobbyists and public affairs executives. I have known Eva since the 1970s and can attest that she is supremely competent.

There’s nothing wrong with Warner’s ties to Dominion although they should be known. What is troublesome is that his plan may not work.

Take Dominion. If Dominion gets its permits, it won’t be able to export LNG for maybe three years. By that time Putin will either have calmed down or gone beyond Crimea to conquer Europe as far as the Czech Republic or maybe France.

Dominion already has customers lined up for its LNG and they aren’t in Europe. They are utilities in India and Japan – which are the markets of choice for many of the American export hopefuls.

And as Steve Mufson of The Washington Post points out, while Russia exports gas via pipelines to Europe, it still isn’t as big a supplier as Norway. In fact, Cove Point used to see the odd tanker full of Norwegian LNG pull up at its bay terminal. Why can’t Norway increase its sales on the Continent?

Europe would have to build more LNG import facilities and that may take a few years. Meanwhile, the global money seems to be on sending LNG to Asia. Continue reading

The Terrible Link Between Income and Longevity

RAM in Wise County

RAM in Wise County

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias.

One is rich with military retirees, ample benefits and gated communities. The other is remote, poor and polluted, where the life expectancy for men is merely 64 years.

The former is Fairfax County at the heart of NOVA, Virginia’s economic engine, the land of federal largesse. The other is 350 miles away in McDowell County, in the coal belt of southern West Virginia just a stone’s throw from the Old Dominion border.

In one of the best and most glaring reporting of income disparity in this country, Annie Lowery of The New York Times lays out the stunning contrasts in two very different places maybe a six-hour car ride distant. The nut of her report is that higher income means longer lives thanks to better access to decent food, retirement benefits and medical care.

In Fairfax County, men live to be 82 and women 85. In McDowell County, men (as noted) live to 64 and women to 73. Even more astonishing is that this is happening in 21st century America, the supposed land of plenty. If ever there were a call to do something about health care, this is it.

Think what you will about the Affordable Care Act, the prior system of managed care with Big Insurance calling the shots just isn’t working. One also wonders, in the case of McDowell, where Medicaid and Medicare are. Where are the benefits from the coal companies that used to dominate employment in the area?

This hits home for me because I grew up partially in West Virginia when my father, a Navy doctor, decided to retire and go into practice there. I also traveled about researching a recent book on the coal industry. I spent a lot of time in Mingo County, the next one over from McDowell. I drove plenty of times through the small town of Williamson, a major rail marshaling yard, and was struck by how many elderly people I saw pacing slowly with oxygen tanks strapped to their aluminum walkers. Coal-related black lung? Too many cigarettes? Breathing air dirty from coal trains and trucks  and strip mines? Over in Fairfax, people of a similar age are more likely to be in a warm swimming pool at an aquatic aerobics class.

Back in the Appalachians, one morning my photographer Scott Elmquist and I were traveling from Kentucky back into Mingo County and I happened to see a Remote Area Medical free clinic at a high school in Pikesville. We turned in and found more than 1,000 people thronging the gymnasium floor waiting for doctors or for their turns at the more than seven dozen dental chairs for free care they couldn’t otherwise afford. Some I spoke with had been waiting there since 1:30 that morning. RAM runs a circuit that includes Wise County in Virginia, also in coal country.

So how did these people slip through the cracks? The Times notes that in McDowell, there aren’t any organic food stores or Whole Foods. The place in inundated with fast food and convenience stores that sell ready-to-go hot dogs, energy drinks and salty chips.

Another reason is the connection with the coal industry which has been so lucrative over the years that it should have provided plenty for the elderly. Instead, as coal seams play out and natural gas usurps coal’s role in electricity generation, coal firms are setting up to skedaddle. One is Patriot Coal, an offshoot of St. Louis giant Peabody, that took over its Appalachian interests so the mother firm could concentrate on richer areas in the U.S. West and Asia. Patriot was set up to fail and perhaps take retirement benefits with it. It’s an obvious scam. You spin something off to get some distance between you and having to pay pensions and health benefits.

Another factor is what they are doing with the local environment. Mountaintop removal is a powerful instrument in places around McDowell. At the blog Blue Virginia, they ran an intriguing map showing just how this highly destructive form of mining that rips up thousands of acres overlays with high poverty areas. Out of sight out of mind. It’s a shame how many in the green movement are forgetting the horrors of mountaintop to beat up on fracking which may be closer to home for them. Continue reading