Category Archives: Abortion

Now Everybody Has a Club on Abortion. Wonderful.

Watching the abortion issue being shoved into the coming Virginia elections by ideologues on both sides, it is fair to ask the question:  Can the center hold?  Are the many people who are fairly comfortable with the state of the law these last few decades going to be sorry with an outcome in either direction?

The point has been well-made that the debate over the less-restrictive third-trimester abortion rules, proposed in a failed bill during the 2019 General Assembly session, involved very few cases.  As reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch long ago, under the current law third-trimester abortions are not happening here.  The bill in question might have changed that, but not much.  Continue reading

Unraveling the Ralph Northam Infanticide Controversy

Background. The past several weeks have been full of controversy for three of Virginia’s leading Democratic politicians – Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring. The local, state and national media have been focused on allegations of racism against Northam and Herring and sexual assault against Fairfax. However, prior to the media onslaught regarding racism and rape Governor Ralph Northam was embroiled in another controversy regarding comments he made during a radio show. During that radio interview Gov. Northam said some things that some people felt condoned, or even supported, infanticide. What did Ralph Northam say (in context) and did he really condone or support infanticide?

Continue reading

Herring Makes the Right Call

Mark Herring

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring supports abortion rights. He’s sympathetic to the intent behind a federal lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood challenging states restrictions on abortion. But he has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

“Many of the challenged laws are decades old, some of the challenged regulations are under active review, and plaintiffs make power arguments that certain other requirements warrant reconsideration by the Virginia General Assembly,” Herring’s motion states. “But a federal courtroom is not the proper venue for debating the wisdom of these policies.” (See the Washington Post coverage here.)

Kudos to Herring. Given his over-reach in other matters, I never expected such restraint. But he is absolutely right. The place to reform Virginia’s abortion laws is in the Virginia legislature, not in the federal courts. Herring deserves credit for taking an action that cannot be popular with his political base.

Is U.Va. Possessed by the Devil?

the exorcistBy Peter Galuszka

Over the past weeks there’s been plenty of blogging about Rolling Stone’s coverage of the University of Virginia and lots of comment by two conservatives who believe there is an evil “hook up” culture that involves casual sex and today’s loss of morality.

Well, I’ve been feeling sort of down recently (maybe post holiday-related), so to cheer myself up, I got an old paperback copy of William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist.”

Imagine what I found! The “hook-up” culture has been around for centuries and may involve possession by the Devil!

Consider this passage:

“The nuns at the convent at Lille. Possessed. In early-seventeenth-century France. They’d confessed to their exorcists that while helpless in the state of possession, they had regularly attended Satanic orgies; had regularly varied their erotic fare; Mondays and Tuesdays, heterosexual copulation; Thursdays, sodomy, fellatio and cunnilingus, with homosexual partners; Saturday, bestiality with domestic animals and dragons. And dragons! The Jesuit shook his head.”

So that might be the problem — and the solution — up in Charlottesville. I suggest we send busloads of Jesuit priests to do what is necessary.

Jim Bacon and Reed Fawell could ride in the first bus.

The problem with the death penalty

death penalty

D.J. Rippert

Virginia’s non-debate.  Politics in Virginia includes a lot of debates.  Trasnportation funding.  Medicaid expansion.  Taxes.  However, one critical aspect of Virginia law has fallen from view – the death penalty.  This lack of debate over the death penalty is not due to a lack of executions.  Since 1976 Virginia has posted the third most executions of any state – far behind Texas but only one execution behind Oklahoma.

The Innocence Project.  The Innocence Project is a non-profit group of lawyers who re-examine the cases of people convicted of serious crimes.  The group often uses new DNA techniques to determine whether a conviction was correct or in error.  To date, the Innocence Project has exonerated 16 Virginians of serious crimes.  Some of those innocent people were on Virginia’s death row when they were exonerated of the crimes that landed them on death row.  One such case was the conviction of Earl Washington.  Convicted of rape and murder Earl Washington was sentenced to death.  Subsequent DNA testing cleared Washington of the rape and murder convictions.  Mr. Washington’s case prompted an independent audit of Virginia’s DNA testing lab.  The results were not encouraging.

  • “This laboratory that touts itself as the best DNA laboratory in the country generated erroneous test results in a capital case, twice, using two different DNA methods,” said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project. “The audit reveals not only that the laboratory’s most senior DNA analyst, responsible for DNA testing in many of the state’s capital cases, made serious errors, but that the laboratory’s system to catch these errors completely failed. This audit provides compelling evidence that crime labs cannot police themselves, and that only with the statutory requirement that they be subject to independent, expert oversight can we have faith that appropriate controls are in place.”

Enter the feds.  Virginia is not the only political entity with suspect processes in criminal investigations.  Recent evidence suggests that the vaunted FBI may have been responsible for systematic and willful mismanagement of critical evidence.  Of the 2,600 convictions obtained through these flawed processes 45 resulted in the imposition of the death penalty.  More troublesome, the agency did not inform the convicts of the problems after they were discovered and spent years debating the matter rather than promptly following up on the convictions.

Redo.  You can’t undo an execution.  Conservatives in Virginia will rail against abortion as the murder of innocents.  However, reasonable people can honestly debate when life begins.  There can be no debate as to whether a person convicted of a crime is alive or not.  There can only be a discussion of whether state sanctioned murder is an appropriate remedy for the crime.  In too many cases shoddy evidence analysis and law enforcement puts these convictions in doubt.  It is time for Virginia’s politicians to restart the necessary debate as to whether the state should execute living human beings on behalf of its citizens.


Is the End of America’s Culture Wars in Sight?


Michael Lind

by James A. Bacon

Have the Culture Wars peaked? Is the national debate over God, Gays and Guns on the downward slide? Michael Lind, a conservative thinker and cofounder of The New America Foundation, thinks the end is foreseeable. Just as the Civil War didn’t end after Gettysburg — the Confederate states still had a lot of fight left in them — the controversy over abortion, gay rights and gun rights will generate headlines for years to come. But there isn’t much doubt who will win the war.

Look at the views of the Millennial Generation and you can see which way popular sentiment is heading. Millennials are far less likely than their elders to say religion plays an important role in their lives, and they are more likely to define themselves as social liberals. They are less likely to own guns and more likely to support gun control. They are the only demographic cohort in which a majority — 70% — support gay marriage.

As liberal Millennials replace conservatives from the G.I. Generation and the Silent Generation, will political power swing decisively to the Democratic Party? Not necessarily, writes Lind in “The Coming Realignment,” an essay in The Breakthrough. But there will be a massive shift in the fissures dividing the nation. How that will play out in terms of partisan politics is difficult to predict but rest assured that the Republican Party, a coalition of disparate and often fractious groups, will reinvent itself.

Lind analyzes contemporary U.S. politics along two great dividing lines: economics (free markets, regulation, inequality of wealth) and culture (guns, God and gays). Democrats represent the economic and cultural liberals; Republicans represent the economic and cultural conservatives. But there are many economic liberals/social conservatives (often called populists) and economic conservatives/social liberals (often labeled Libertarians) who don’t fall easily in either camp. As the social conservatives are slowly eased out of the picture, Lind argues, political coalitions will reorganize around two new poles: Liberaltarians and Populiberals.

Liberaltarian, a term already in use, describes “a broad camp including neoliberal Democrats skeptical of government in the economic sphere along with libertarian Republicans and independents who recognize the need for more government than libertarian ideologues believe to be legitimate.”

Populiberal, Lind’s coinage, describes “social liberals who share the liberal social values of liberaltarians, but who tend to be more egalitarian and to favor a greater role for the government in matters like social insurance, business-labor relations, and redistribution of income.”

Lind then boldly suggests that these two new coalitions will align themselves geographically between “Densitarian” and “Posturbia.” By Densitaria, he refers to the higher-density urban precincts, both downtowns and suburban villages, where higher-income Americans increasingly prefer to reside along with the service class that caters to their needs. Posturbia is comprised of lower-density suburbs and rural areas where the working and middle classes live. Residents of Densitaria and Posturbia will tend to disagree about the nature of the social safety net (should it be tailored to the needs of the most vulnerable, or should it structured more like universal social insurance?), the tax structure (soak the rich?) and the nanny state (using government power to combat obesity).

Though fascinating, Lind’s argument is not entirely convincing. He is entirely correct that the national sentiment is becoming more liberal on some Culture War issues, most notably gay rights. But I don’t believe the needle has moved much on abortion. And, as medical science advances, I think we will see entirely new ethical dilemmas arise. It won’t be long before genetic engineering allows people to create “designer kids” or before the use of manufactured limbs, hearts and organs on the one hand and the rise of robots imbued with Artificial Intelligence raises questions of what it means to be human. It is not hard to predict a growing revulsion against what some deem to be progress. Some of that revulsion may be religion-based, but much of it could be secular.

One additional point: Millennials are culturally liberal now. But will they stay liberal when they get married, settle down and have kids? Look what happened to the Baby Boomers. Who would have thought in 1968 that a majority of the generation would wind up voting Republican in 2012?

Still, I think Lind is right about some things. The shift toward equal rights for gays is likely to be permanent and, within a decade, no longer will be controversial. I also think Lind is right that the last remnants of racial prejudice are dying out with the passing of the older generations. As young “people of color” see race as less and less of a factor affecting their lives, they will be less attached to the Democratic Party and more open to appeals by Republicans.

In my spare time, I am working on a novel set in 2075. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking what the United States will look like in 60 years. I’ve concluded that the world is so complex and the interactions of technology, economics, politics and culture so impossible to predict that the future is unknowable. With that caveat, I postulate the break-up of the Republican Party into two entities — the Enterprise Party (which is economically conservative and culturally liberal) and the Faith Nation (which is first and foremost culturally conservative). In my scenario, the Enterprise Party hives off some people who call themselves Democrats today, and the Democratic Party shifts so far to the populist-redistributionist left that it rebrands itself as the Social Democratic Party. (In my novel, the Social Democrats predominate. I guess you could call it a dystopia!)

Such idle speculation aside, America has seen dramatic political realignments before, and it will see them again. Lind makes a provocative case and he identifies key dynamics that will influence the outcome. Popular dissatisfaction with Americans political institutions is so intense today that it’s hard to believe that the current two-party duopoly can long continue in its current form. Lind’s essay is as good a place as any to start thinking about what comes next.

Pope Francis Slams “Trickle Down”

Pope Francis Holds His Weekly General AudienceBy Peter Galuszka

In a sharp rebuke to traditional conservative economic thought, the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics says he wants the church to rethink its strategies towards addressing income inequality and poverty and shun “the idolatry of money” and “trickle down” philosophies that give the rich far too much influence.

Pope Francis outlined his thinking in a 50,000 word treatise titled “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”). The new Pope appears to be a dramatic change in Vatican leadership which has been dominated by theological conservatives since the mid-1960s.

He wrote in his piece: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by the free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.

“This opinion, which has never been confirmed by facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

There’s no question the view, written by a man who spend much of his life working with the urban poor of Brazil, is a slap in the face of such contemporary conservative influences, notably Ronald Reagan, who posited in the 1980s that if governments cut taxes and regulation and left  the rich alone, the benefits would trickle down to the middle and lower classes.

Since then, the idea has become a mantra for conservatives around the world from Margaret Thatcher to Paul Ryan. It was cited as being part of the “End of History” when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It is also hummed like a Hindu chant on this blog.

In Virginia, the benefits of “trickle down” are assumed to be God’s word among Republicans and Democrats alike. The theory is that business can only flourish in a low tax, low regulation and anti-labor union state. Somehow everyone benefits although as Pope Francis points out these ideas “have never been confirmed by facts.”

Globally, the fast spread of current capitalist thinking by high-speed information technology has created ever wider disparities between rich and poor.

The United States is still struggling to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. According to the New York Times, one result of the so-called “recovery” has been similar to the trend in the rest of the world –a small slice of the richer get richer to the detriment of others. The Times writes:

“The top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s total income in 2012, the highest level recorded since the government began collecting the relevant data a century ago, according to an updated study by the prominent economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty.

“The top 1 percent took more than one-fifth of the income earned by Americans, one of the highest levels on record since 1913, when the government instituted an income tax.

“The figures underscore that even after the recession the country remains in a new Gilded Age, with income as concentrated as it was in the years that preceded the Depression of the 1930s, if not more so.”

It seems to be the case in Richmond, which is often painted on this blog as a wonderland of bike lanes, “New Urbanism styles,” “the creative class,” and lots of Millennials flocking in to enjoy its exquisite cultural amenities.

In truth, according to Style Weekly, about 50,000 of the city’s population of 208,000 live in poverty.  Although the minimum wage is $7.25, workers need to make $10.35 an hour to make ends meet, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study. One pilot workforce training project that served 550 Richmonders over the last three years found that their wages averaged $8.50 an hour. Jamison Manion, who administrates the program, likened the situation to “nothing, absolutely nothing. It’s like draining the ocean through a straw — when it’s raining.”

Pope Francis appears to pose a big change in contemporary Catholic thinking after decades of the status quo. He’s likely to further shake things up by making the ossified Church’s bureaucracy more decentralized, de-emphasizing the overplay on abortion and gay issues and giving women a stronger voice.

A big question is whether the Church is finally ahead of the curve instead of being constantly behind it. In the process, he’s making “Trickle Down”  sound “oh-so-1980s.”

GiftGate: “If I Were a Rich Man . . .!”

By Peter Galuszka

Richmond’s “Giftgate” scandal just gets worse.

On Friday, Atty. Gen. and presumed GOP gubernatorial candidate Kenneth Cuccinelli announced that he was amending his required disclosures of gifts to show that he took more goodies from Star Scientific plus previously undisclosed gifts of a $7,750 trip in 2010 to Southwest Virginia from coal giant Alpha Natural Resources of Abingdon and $795 to speak at a coal industry rally in 2012.

While the tardy disclosure is questionable, the gifts are not illegal but they would be in other states.

This, moreover, raises another tricky question. How wealthy should politicians be so they can’t be bought?

Could it be that officials  of more modest personal means such as Cuccinelli might be somehow be more vulnerable to gift-giving by individuals or corporations with a definite agenda, such as Star Scientific and Alpha Natural Resources.

Cuccinelli disclosed income of $134,000 in 2009 and $264,296 in 2005. He makes about $150,000 as the state’s top legal officer and got a $30,000 advance from Crown Publishing for a book. His disclosure was a political ploy to embarrass McAuliffe but in the wake of the gifts, it has backfired.

McDonnell’s net worth is about $1.8 million.

Compare that to two Democrats. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, no stranger to big money fundraising, earned $8.2 million in 2011 from his various business interests. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner was once said to be worth about $200 million, much of it from investments he made in the cell phone industry and high-tech financing a couple of decades ago.

It’s tough to say that politics should be only for rich men. But the curious thing about these two Republicans, supposedly the silk stocking, country club party, is that McDonnell and Cuccinelli “are actually very much middle class guys,” Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth recently told me.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the fact is that both Cuccinelli and McDonnell have spent most of their careers in low-paying public service jobs. McAuliffe and Warner, both accused of being anti-capitalist regulators by the GOP, actually made millions in the free market system that they supposedly disdain.

Painting them as such might be a plus to rank and file voters, but in a strange way, it can put them at risk. Why, for instance, did Cuccinelli feel compelled to accept $13,000 in gifts from Jonnie Williams, the head of troubled Star Scientific, which is the object of shareholder lawyers and a federal probe? These included the use of vacation homes and expensive foreign cars. One vacation cost $3,000 and was a gift. Even an underpaid journalist like myself has paid $2,000 for a week at a beach house with my family. Why couldn’t he have rented his own place?

Williams is involved with a disputed state tax assessment of $860,000 and Cucccinelli has had to recuse himself as he has from another court case involving the fired executive chef who is seeking information that McDonnell’s family used publicly-funded goods like energy drinks, state-owned beach cottages and liquor for themselves.

The Alpha and coal business is rather obvious. Alpha took over Richmond-based Massey Energy in 2011 after the firm’s noxious corporate culture is said to have led to the deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia making it the worst deep mine disaster in the U.S. in 40 years. Massey’s CEO Don Blankenship was famous for bankrolling West Virginia judicial officials and other candidates. He went so far as  to vacation with the State Supreme Court Judge on the French Riviera.

Alpha has a better safety record than Massey but is taking its lumps, having lost $2 billion in one quarter last year. Coal in general has been in the tank thanks to cheap natural gas and some new federal environmental rules plus a slow-down in Asia’s demand for coal to make steel.

Naturally, the beleaguered coal industry wants to beat back what it considers onerous regulations.  It was a major bankroller of Mitt Romney’s campaign last year and Alpha was a big participant. Cuccinelli is perfect because he denies that carbon dioxide is responsible for climate change – a pet issue for King Coal. So, he was instrumental in the right wing’s counter attacks on the “War On Coal” last election.

What bothers me is not that Cuccinelli would flack for them but why did it cost $7,750 for him and his parents, paid for by Alpha, to visit Southwest Virginia. Last year I published a book on Massey and had made many trips to Southwest Virginia, including Alpha’s headquarters and a mine. I paid for it myself and I think it cost me maybe $200 in gas and a night or two at a two star motel at maybe $110 a night. I ate at Hardees where a steak biscuit is about $1.50 although I did splurge at a fancy Abingdon restaurant that had knock-out martinis with blue cheese filled olives.

But it didn’t cost me $7,750 or even one third of that.

Would McAuliffe or Warner have accepted a such largesse? I am sure they have moved and grooved with the rich and famous for years but both men are in a position to say “no thanks.”

And that is what Cuccinelli and McDonnell should have said, even if Virginia has hardly any rules on gifts.

The Virginia GOP’s Destructive Palace Coups

By Peter Galuszka

Just how out of control are Virginia’s Republicans?

This week’s redistricting coup attempt staged by prominent Republicans John Watkins and his cohort Thomas K. Norment in the otherwise evenly divided state Senate is as cynical as it is destructive.

On Monday, the pair took advantage of the absence of a key Democratic senator who was attending Barack Obama’s inauguration to spring a plan to redo a redistricting map approved two years ago. Using their temporary 20-19 advantage and with no prior notice, they rammed through their self-serving changes. The redistricting plan was thought to have been settled in 2011.

Kept out of the loop was Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell who said that the uprising is likely to kill any chances for bipartisanship in this year’s General Assembly. Since it is the last legislative session for the one-term governor, the now poisonous atmosphere will make it very hard to move through new legacy programs such as his innovative but controversial scheme to dump the gasoline tax.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who is fast emerging as a new power broker and possible independent candidate for governor, was told of the plan two weeks ago by Norment, the Senate majority leader, and promptly said no thanks.

Democrats say that the redistricting plan would weaken their control in six districts. Watkins has claimed that creating a new and mostly minority district in south central Virginia would help the state withstand challenges under the federal Voting Rights Act. The new district would include some of the lowest-income counties and cities in the state. But why hasn’t anyone heard of this plan before now?

The episode is bizarre on several levels.

First, stage-managing the plan on the day Henry Marsh, an African-American Democrat who happens to be a key member of the state Senate, is absent attending the inauguration of a president who happens to be African-American stinks of racism. Launching the plan without notice or hearings is the kind of thing that used to happen in Richmond back in the Old South days.

The state GOP has been especially unkind to McDonnell, who may have his faults but still rates well in polls. His hopes for a slot on Mitt Romney’s ticket were dashed after hard-right Republican legislators last year launched their hideous plans to require women seeking abortions to undergo mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds. Virginia ended up the butt of jokes on late-night television. The result: No vice presidential slot for McDonnell.

Hard-line Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli’s run for governor is a pencil in the eye of the GOP establishment, which had all but promised Bolling the candidacy.

Now you have fairly responsible types such as Watkins, a veteran Republican who opposed the transvaginal travesty and is generally sensible, conjuring up coups.

Part of the problem is that the GOP still hasn’t figured out how to deal with the Tea Party movement that set the agenda a couple of years ago. Tea Party influence is still formidable even if it was greatly diminished by Democratic wins in last year’s election.

For their part, Virginia Democrats still haven’t figured out how to play the GOP mayhem and a weaker Tea Party to their own advantage. Until they do, expect more palace coups.

A Respite from the Culture Wars?

Bill Bolling. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

It sounds like Virginia Republicans have learned a lesson — at least temporarily — from the shellacking they took in the November elections. All the talk of “legitimate rape,” rape-induced pregnancy as a “gift from god” and, earlier this year, trans-vaginal ultrasounds has poisoned the Grand Old Party in the minds of thousands of voters who otherwise would be receptive to its message of limited government.

I believe that most Virginians belong, like me, to the “muddled middle” in the culture war, uncomfortable with positions staked out by extremists on both sides of the political spectrum. A majority of Virginians also are concerned that government has grown too big, too intrusive, too heavily in debt (at the federal level) and a hindrance to economic growth. But many, fearing that Republicans want to roll back the clock on gay rights and women’s rights, cast their ballots for Democrats instead.

It appears that Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling has gotten the message, according to Jim Nolan writing in the Times-Dispatch. Speaking to a recent gathering of Republican women in Charlottesville, Bolling called for Republicans to learn the lesson from the election. “I’m a pro-life guy — I have always been a pro-life guy,” he said. “But I understand that within our party we have pro-life Republicans and pro-choice Republicans. Whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice there needs to be a respect of opinions on both sides of the issue.”

Meanwhile, other ranking Republicans have signaled a reluctance to resume the abortion fight. House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford told Nolan: “There’s sort of a feeling that we’ve pretty much done everything that needs to be done.”

Sen. Stephen H. Martin, R-Chesterfield, said that the GOP-controlled Senate Education and Health Committee, which he heads, would not reconsider “personhood” legislation.

Bolling defended legislative initiatives in the 1990s and early 2000s that enjoyed broad public support, such as parental notification and consent to abortion, a ban on partial birth abortion, and higher patient safety standards for abortion clinics. But more recent initiatives have turned off voters. Republicans, he suggested, should pick different issues.

“Why aren’t we the party that champions efforts to reduce teen pregnancy in Virginia, which results in so many abortions? Why aren’t we the party that champions support for crisis pregnancy that helps women deal with unwanted or unintended pregnancies? Why aren’t we the party that does more to promote adoption as an option to abortion?”

Ken Cuccinelli

Excellent questions, all. Republicans could frame such proposals as win-win initiatives that win the support of independents and Democrats. Unfortunately, Bolling this morning announced that he would withdraw from the 2013 governor’s race, depriving himself of a soapbox to advance those very causes. His decision effectively cedes the nomination to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a firebrand cultural conservative.

In an interview with Nolan, Cuccinelli said that the GOP needs “to be open to people of different perspectives. … I think that the center of the Republican Party is one that favors life and protects it, but I don’t think we have — and we have to be cautious not to have — an exclusionary mentality for people with different views.”

It’s all well and good to say that the GOP should be a big-tent party. But how would Cuccinelli govern? Would he champion culture-wars issues that turn off the electorate? Or, as a small-government conservative, would he devote his energy to holding the line on taxes while preserving essential state government services? Would he be willing to tackle the deep, structural challenges facing Virginia — the crises in declining economic competitiveness, K-12 education, higher ed, health care, transportation and land use — or would he just paper them over?

We won’t know the answer until 2014 — assuming Cuccinelli assuages voter fears of his deep-rooted cultural conservatism and manages to win the election. Until then, we can at least console ourselves that we should get a break from the culture wars in the 2013 General Assembly session. The big question, then, is this: If the culture wars are off the table, will legislators have anything else to discuss?

Are We Going Back to Selma?

By Peter Galuszka

Imagine it is Alabama in early 1965. The Southern state, like Virginia, has for decades deployed a number of ruses such as poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent U.S. citizens and state residents from voting. These people otherwise would have been qualified voters but also happened to be African-Americans whom the ruling white elite wants to keep from exercising their constitutional right. In Selma in 1965, three civil rights workers, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb and Viola Luizzo who are advocating for voter rights, are shot and killed in their car by the Ku Klux Klan.

Travel a bit farther into south Texas and find that the Lone Star State has its share of disenfranchisement devices in use to stop Mexican-Americans from voting, even though some have been legal residents from the day Texas became a state and part of the United States. In some counties, Mexican-Americans are by far the large group, which is exactly why the white elite want them not voting in strength.

And imagine, a well-meaning, white, privileged and otherwise intelligent man from these parts supporting restrictions on voting, telling people they should “get over it.”

Welcome to the future. The events in 1965 resulted in the Voters Rights Act, a landmark piece of legislation. Yet when Gov. Robert F. McDonnell signing his own weasely version of the voter identification law supported by arch conservative Republicans in the General Assembly, the Old Dominion, most of which still under federal election supervision for its tarnished past, is putting new roadblocks in front of voters.

They used to have to show a photo ID and if they didn’t have one, they’d sign an affidavit saying they were who they claimed to be. Now, their vote will be “provisional” and they will have to show up official at a later date and show the ID. Only then will their vote be counted. To make things easier, McDonnell is ordering millions of new “voter ID” cards to be issued statewide. Odd that he doesn’t mention how much this will cost since the flavor of the moment is strictly containing budget expenses.

A few points on this rather strange set of events:

  • There have been absolutely no known major scandals involving voter fraud in Virginia. So, if there’s nothing broken, why go through all the trouble to “fix” it?
  • It is clear that restricting voting is a major ambition of the Republican Party which fears that President Barack Obama may get the boost in November’s election as he did in 2008 from the poor, the minorities and the young.
  • Regarding these groups, 25 percent of African-American voters do not have valid government-issued IDs compared with 8 percent of whites, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Some 15 percent of people earning less than $35,000 a year likewise have no such ID. According to the Project Vote, about 15,000 people voted without IDs in Virginia in 2008.

Thus, Virginia’s conservative leaders and their cheerleaders are targeting what they consider to be a threatening group of voters as part of a campaign to correct a phony “wrong.” This is just another part of a sweeping socially-conservative agenda that has women, gays, dark-skinned immigrants and African-Americans in their crosshairs.

And no, I’m not going to “get over it.” I refuse to be patronizing when it comes to basic civil rights.

Kissing the Pig — Wrapped up in a Bow

by James A. Bacon

When push comes to shove, are Virginia’s Republicans fiscal conservatives first or culture warriors first? We found out yesterday when the Senate Republicans and Democrats reached agreement to pass a state budget.

Republicans succeeded in batting down a $3 million Democrat-inspired provision for the state to pay for ultrasounds required of women seeking abortions under a bill that Governor Bob McDonnell recently signed into law. But they let stand a measure authorizing the state to borrow another $300 million to offset the cost of the Rail-to-Dulles heavy rail project. (See “Kissing the Pig.”)

Congratulations, guys, you clawed back an entire one percent of the dollars you approved to bail out the most expensive public works project in Virginia history. And you acceded to the giveaway without demanding any more transparency or accountability of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), the entity empowered with managing the project. Bottom line: You’ve abdicated your fundamental responsibilities as guardians of the public purse — all for what? A purely symbolic victory in the abortion wars.

In the interest of balance, I could accuse Virginia’s Democrats of fiscal hit and run as well. After all, it’s at their insistence that the additional $300 million bail-out funds, over and above $150 million previously approved, were inserted in the budget. But, then, that’s just Democrats being Democrats. We all know they love spending other peoples’ money. Republicans profess not to.

According to the Times-Dispatch, the Dems sought $3 million in state funding to cover the cost of the imaging procedures for low-income women. The Dems had a culture war issue that was playing well in the polls, and they weren’t about to let go. Moreover, given the fact that the state was now mandating the ultrasound, one could make a not unreasonable argument that the state should offset the cost for women who lacked insurance.  But for reasons that are unfathomable to me — it’s not as if state funds would be used for actual abortions — the Rs could not abide this fiscally negligible measure and voted it down in a party-line vote.

Yet the ongoing drama over Phase 2 of the Rail-to-Dulles project elicited only a snore. The Senate measure would borrow $300 million to defray interest costs on the project debt, thus reducing pressure to raise tolls on the Dulles Toll Road, the source of more than half of the estimated $2. 8 billion roject’s funding.

This is the same MWAA that has given preferential treatment to bidders using Project Labor Agreements, disadvantaging open-shop (non-union) enterprises… the same MWAA that backed off from an expensive underground station at Dulles airport only after setting off a political backlash in Northern Virginia… the same MWAA whose board is comprised of a majority of non-Virginians… the same MWAA that is exempt from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act and is not subject to state audit. Rather than leverage that additional $300 million to make MWAA more accountable, the Senate is handing over the money with no conditions.

The only hope for sanity to prevail is for House of Delegates representatives to axe the bail-out in the budget reconciliation process. Thankfully, the money-for-ultrasounds issue is off the table. Perhaps the House negotiators will be able to focus on where the real money is.

“Our Bodies; “Our Idiot Selves”

By Peter Galuszka

Forty two years ago, a feminist group titled “the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective” got together to start researching their own books about female health since they distrusted what they considered the male-dominated medical establishment.

A substantial part of their research had to deal with birth control since the pill had been out for several years although the Roe vs. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision, allowing limited abortion, was still three years away. Their book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” became a best-seller.

Flash forward 42 years to Virginia. The General Assembly is embroiled in a fiasco over conservative attempts to force-introduce state power into the sexual lives of women through laws that would force women exercising their legal right to an abortion to have ultrasound exams in their first trimester of pregnancy to somehow shame them into not going through with the procedure. Another would declare “personhood” as being that point when an egg is fertilizer and a human life is created.

The result, of course, has been one of the biggest legislative disasters in years. Virginia is the butt of jokes on Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show. Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s multi-year-young effort to recast himself from social to moderate conservative is in shambles, his future in national politics in doubt.

So, how did we get here? The story appears to be one of ignorance and incompetence, so very unlike what happened in Boston four decades ago. The key issue is that legislators apparently didn’t understand that to determine the age of a fetus accurately, the use of a probe that is put inside a woman’s vagina is needed. They had apparently assumed that the ultrasound could be achieved in a less upsetting way by smearing the pregnant woman’s abdomen with a jell and then using a sound wand. According to The Washington Post, Sen. George Baker, a Fairfax Democrat had doubts and asked fellow Democrat, Sen. Ralph S. Northam, a doctor from Norfolk, who said he’d check. It turned out that yes, an invasive vaginal probe was needed.

The news completely changed the politics of the bill. But one wonders why legislators didn’t know this from the beginning. If they did, they weren’t exactly forthcoming about it.

One answer could be by studying the background of Del. Kathy Bryon, a Lynchburg Republican, who has been a legislator since the late 1990s. She introduced one of the bills that would require the transvaginal ultrasound. Ms. Bryon is a grandmother whose personal education did not go beyond high school. She worships at Thomas Road Baptist Church, home base for the late and controversial televangelist Jerry Falwell. When not working on public matters, she and her husband run a small telemarketing company.

Bryon was also an official of the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, a body set up back in the late 1990s to handle hundreds of millions of dollars in funding the state is receiving from a 1996 lawsuit with 45 other states against four big tobacco firms, including Phillip Morris USA. The Commission was supposed to use some of its funds to help out tobacco belt towns with economic development projects.

It did get a black eye when its former executive director, John Forbes II was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for diverting $4 million from an alleged educational program to his own use. Although Bryon was not been linked to the Forbes scandal, she has been criticized for helping arrange a $12 million grant in public, tobacco fund money to help build the “Center for Health and Medical Sciences.” It is part of Lynchburg’s  Liberty University, which, of course, is a religious school affiliated with the late Jerry Falwell’s church.

Thus, Byron’s involvement seems one of  local political logrolling, Lynchburg-style, than a sophisticated understanding of women’s health issues. A case in point: the ultra-conservatives pushing the ultrasound idea didn’t get the difference between a transvaginal probe and a sticky abdominal jell and just how the former presented an even more profound violation to a woman’s rights. The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court says she has a right to an abortion in limited cases makes Bryon’s ignorance and activism even more disturbing.

Bob McDonnell: Natural Libertarian

by James A. Bacon

It is with great trepidation that I venture into the shark-infested waters of Virginia’s culture wars, which I regard as a distraction from the pressing fiscal, economic and environmental issues facing the state. I belong in the muddled middle of the electorate that sees elements of truth in both sides of culture-war arguments and, like many Virginians, wish the liberal and conservative zealots who feed on one another’s extreme views would just go away. But the world is as it is, not how I would like it, and the culture warriors will not oblige me.

Moreover, as Peter Galuszka has observed in recent posts — as much as I take issue with the tenor of his rhetoric, I do agree about this — Virginia’s culture wars affect realms of activity that I care deeply about, like building prosperous, livable and sustainable communities. For instance: Insofar as culturally liberal northerners with skills and/or capital regard Virginia as a culturally retrograde state, they are less likely to locate here, or even do business here. That is not sufficient reason for cultural conservatives to sacrifice their core principles, but it is reason for the rest of us to regret all the hoo-ha that gets played out in the national media.

Yesterday, I spent three-quarters of an hour talking to a bright young man who graduated from the University of Richmond then went on to get a Harvard MBA, among other credentials, and is thinking about relocating to Virginia, where he and his fiancee envision launching one or more enterprises. I spent much of my time arguing that Virginians as a whole are far more moderate in their social views than one might deduce from legislation emanating from the General Assembly this year, much less the selected excerpts highlighted in the national media.

Political pundit Larry Sabato once said that Virginians are no so much liberals or conservatives as they are libertarians. I would refine that statement. Virginians are what Lee Harris, author of “The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt against the Liberal Elite,” calls “natural libertarians.” They are libertarians by inclination, not ideology. Writes Harris:

The natural libertarian, whenever he feels that his self-image as a free and independent individual is under assault, will turn to a defense mechanism that is not listed in the classic Freudian inventory: he will become ornery. … Orneriness is often a highly effective defense mechanism against bossy people and bullies. …

One of the most striking characteristics of ornery people is that they don’t want to boss other people around any more than they want to be bossed around themselves. … The ornery man’s idea of liberty is the liberty to be left in peace, to tend to his own affairs, to pursue his business, make his home, raise his kids, without being told what to do or how to do it by other people.

In a nutshell, most Virginians subscribe to the philosophy, “Live and let live.” Which brings us back to Virginia’s culture wars. While I regard the left as the greatest overall threat to our personal liberties nationally, in this instance, the assault came from the right. Legislation would have required women seeking an abortion to undergo an invasive, transvaginal ultrasound procedure to determine the gestational age of the fetus. Not only has this provision subjected Virginia to national ridicule, it raised the hackles of us natural libertarians.

In one of the most deft political moves during his tenure in office, Governor Bob McDonnell framed his opposition to the measure in terms that we natural libertarians can relate to:

Mandating an invasive procedure in order to give informed consent is not a proper role for the state. No person should be directed to undergo an invasive procedure by the state, without their consent, as a precondition to another medical procedure.

For this reason … I am requesting that the General Assembly amend this bill to explicitly state that no woman in Virginia will have to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound involuntarily. I am asking the General Assembly to state in this legislation that only a transabdominal, or external, ultrasound will be required to satisfy the requirements to determine gestational age. Should a doctor determine that another form of ultrasound may be necessary to provide the necessary images and information that will be an issue for the doctor and the patient. The government will have no role in that medical decision.

It is gratifying to see that many, if not most, Republicans have fallen in line. Yesterday was a victory for natural libertarians everywhere.

National Laughingstock, Again

By Peter Galuszka

Saturday Night Live’s recent mocking of the Virginia General Assembly’s proposed legislation to force women considering abortion to have trans-vaginal ultrasound exams and establishing conception as the moment of life’s beginning makes the Old Dominion the butt of national jokes once again.

It seems that no matter how Virginians try to build their Commonwealth into a prosperous, happy and rational place, their legislators or politicians let them down. Virginia seems cursed to be regarded as a backward and Gothic Southern state where the rich few are in charge, oppression is rampant and enlightenment far out of reach.

SNL’s skit on Feb. 18 was just another in a series of embarrassments.

Former U.S. Sen. George Allen, now running again for the Senate, brought national shame on Virginia when he rudely called S.R. Sidarth, a 20-year-old aide for opponent Jim Webb “macaca” during the 2006 campaign. Since Sidarth is dark-skinned and of Indian decent, the comment painted Allen as a racist. He apologized, but lost the election in large part because of the gaffe.

A year before, Virginia’s legislator likewise drew international mockery for the so-called “droopy drawers” bill. The law would have called for $50 fines for wearing underwear over the top of the waistband of one’s trousers. “Most of us would identify this as a coarsening of society,” according to one legislator.

Showing underwear has been a cultural style that’s been fashionable among young people around the world. It had been popular among young African-Americans, so the racial implication was clear. It’s far from the only slight the white-dominated General Assembly has thrust on people of color. As late as the 1960s, for instance, it was a felony for a white person to be married to an African-American.

To be sure, a handful of other states have passed similar ultrasound requirements. Yet Virginia, despite its fine universities and well-educated labor force, simply cannot escape its image as a backward place. Virginia’s leadership needs to take the Old Dominion into the 21st century, or maybe even the 20th.