Tag Archives: Joe Fitzgerald

Moving the Goalposts (for Banning Books)

by Joe Fitzgerald

Everybody probably already knew what moving the goalposts meant, but with Taylor bringing in a new set of football fans, the sports-related metaphors can probably be used more widely.

Moving the goalposts is of course a reference to changing the standards in the middle of a process. Latest example: the Rockingham County School Board’s half-assed approach to banning books.

We all know the things wrong with their approach. Some of the books aren’t in the library; they haven’t read them; they can’t substantiate their claims of parental complaints; they’ve over-ruled a policy they didn’t know existed; and they’ve interfered in an educational process in which they have no training.

Two writers in The Harrisonburg Citizen have recently suggested that there are two sides to the issue or that the problem is not the book-banning but the way it’s being discussed. Giving the Fahrenheit 451 crowd this benefit of the doubt moves the goalposts toward censorship and religious domination of public discussion. There’s a reason the First Amendment is the first one, and there’s a reason its first clause says the nation won’t give special respect to an establishment of religion. Continue reading

Swallow the Money, Part 3 of 3

by Joe Fitzgerald

VPAP and CFReports let you go from “How about that?” to “Oh, my God!” in 5.2 seconds. They’re attractive to the kind of nerds who used to go through the encyclopedia or the World Almanac. Yes, I did. Why do you ask?

One local PAC became a subject for a dive into CFReports and VPAP when someone asked if it was true they paid for health insurance for one of their principals. The answer is that with Virginia’s campaign finance reporting rules, it’s hard to say.

VPAP and CFReports are explained in Part 1 of this series. A PAC, as explained there, is a political action committee. It raises money from political donors and spends it on political candidates or causes.

That cause for Rural Ground Game, RGG, is electing rural Democrats. The perceived need for the PAC is the myth that the Democratic Party ignores rural areas and therefore doesn’t win rural elections. The actual case is that Democrats don’t win rural elections because rural voters vote overwhelmingly Republican, but the myth is popular among those who run better against their fellow Democrats than against Republicans. Continue reading

Swallow the Money, Part 2 of 3

by Joe Fitzgerald

There’s a donor in CFReports named “no name.” He, she, or it is listed on the report as “Name, No.” This same donor is called “Unknown Entity” in VPAP. Or perhaps “Entity, Unknown.” (VPAP and CFReports are described in Part 1.)

This donor’s address shows up as Matt Cross’s house on his campaign reports. (The address is public record, but it feels like doxing to use it here.) “No Name” gave Cross $170 for his 2021 campaign for the Rockingham County School Board, which he now chairs.

Cross’s reports demonstrate two things about Virginia’s system for campaign finance reporting. One is that it’s as easy to make at least a dozen mistakes as it is to make one. The other is that if a report is riddled with errors, it’s not clear what’s to be done about it.

Cross’s finance reports are good examples of the idea that the kind of campaign a politician runs can show us what kind of public official they will be. Cross’s reports show a candidate who appears to either not know how to fill out the reports or perhaps thinks the rules don’t apply to him. Maybe that’s what we should expect of a candidate who, upon taking leadership of a like-minded board, began banning books without regard for how they were chosen or what the process is for challenging a book. Instead they are banning books regardless of whether they’re in county schools, based not on any identifiable process but on vague parental complaints they have yet to produce.

The law on “No Name” at Cross’s house is that any campaign donor must be identified by name, address, and occupation. If that information is not available, the money is not supposed to be used for campaign purposes, but should be donated to charity. In the past, local candidates have given unidentified money as well as unspent funds to churches or non-profits. (Where the money goes is not regulated. One Harrisonburg City Council candidate, unopposed for re-election, gave $460 to his son for “campaigning.”) There is no report on VPAP of Cross donating any campaign money to charity, so it’s hard to say what he did with No Name’s $170.

As noted above, the donor’s occupation is supposed to be listed on CFReports. But that information does not appear on any of the donors in a particular group of campaign reports, defined further down. Continue reading

Swallow the Money, Part 1 of 3

by Joe Fitzgerald

When a governor was accepting gifts and amenities from a supporter some years back, the surprise for many Virginians came when it was time to indict him. The Feds had to do it, because he probably hadn’t broken any state laws, and eventually, after trials and appeals, he didn’t stand convicted of breaking any federal laws either.

The big surprise, the dirty little secret, the obscure fact about campaign finance is that very little is illegal. This is in part because the people who would have to make things illegal are the same people who might be doing the potentially illegal things. Stated another way, a delegate or senator is not going to find fault with a fundraising system they’re going to need next year. Any action they vote to ban might be one they’ve used themselves. A state senator asked to outlaw a particular type of fundraising might instead think it’s worth trying in the next campaign.

The Virginia system is that a candidate can raise as much money as he or she wants so long as it’s all reported. There’s a 69-page document on the state elections website on what needs to be reported and how. There’s a slightly shorter version for a Political Action Committee, a PAC. I’ve read both. Neither is complicated.

But what is complicated is the process to read the reports. CFReports is the state site where anybody on the web can read about any donation to Virginia races from school board to governor, if they know what to look for. VPAP, the Virginia Public Access Project, presents these reports in a more general and more readable form than CFReports, but neither offers any interpretation of the numbers. Is a donation larger than usual? Smaller? Did a major donor give more this year than last? Continue reading

Asleep at the Switch in Harrisonburg

by Joe Fitzgerald

At some point while on the Harrisonburg City Council, I quit worrying about or getting angry about being misquoted by the Daily News-Record, and I got used to the people I met saying I wasn’t anything like what they expected. The expectations the paper created were just part of the gig. And I remember one time that I was pretty sure I’d be misquoted when I opened my mouth. I don’t remember what we, the council, had screwed up, but I told the reporter we had been asleep at the switch.

I thought as I said it that he’d quote me as using the more well-known expression, asleep at the wheel. One means, in railroad terms, letting the train go down the wrong track. The other means, in driving terms, losing control through inattention. I didn’t complain. The difference didn’t matter, because it was just a metaphor.

A lot has changed in 20 years. In the city politics of 2023, being asleep at the wheel is no longer just a metaphor. The other change is that City Council members no longer talk to the media. City publicist Michael Parks is quoted as often as the council members, and some weeks it seems he writes half the News-Record. The recent statements to school officials from Councilman Chris Jones at least brought comment from Mayor Reed, although Jones only answered through a prepared statement and the other three members were silent. Reed indicated the three were not upset by Jones’s remarks. It’s too bad they couldn’t speak for themselves.

School officials, on the other hand, have legal and policy restrictions on what they can say about any situation in the schools, leaving Jones free to claim he was courteous and respectful and to claim school officials confirmed that characterization. Continue reading

While Harrisonburg Slept, a Gadfly Arose

by Joe Fitzgerald

Laura Dent is not a stupid person. She’s probably an honest person. But those aren’t qualifications enough to help run a city. You also have to know what’s going on. Frankly, she’s missed that boat a couple of times.

Two issues I’ve written about repeatedly are uncontained school growth, which the Harrisonburg City Council has ignored, and Bluestone Town Center, where a majority of council members, including Dent, believed every flimsy rationalization from the Mississippi developers while dismissing without comment the measured, statistical, scientific objection by the citizens of Harrisonburg.

That last part is not surprising. Dent may live in the city, but too often she seems to be representing ideas and ideologies that are out of sync with the city. If the good of the city or the good of her ideology are at odds, it’s fair to ask which she’d choose, and it’s obvious which she chose in her votes in favor of  Bluestone Town Center.

There’s one thing ideological leftists have in common with the MAGA people, the Tea Party people, or whatever we’re calling them this year. They’re so certain of their positions that they meet any opposing ideas with dismissiveness, hostility, or bafflement. To Dent’s credit, she usually goes with the latter. Continue reading

It Wasn’t About Youngkin

by Joe Fitzgerald

Deep in the hills of Southwest Virginia is a state Senate district where nobody works because the coal industry is increasingly mechanized. The district has all or part of eight counties. In Northern Virginia is a county where nobody works because they’re all employed by the federal government. The county includes all or part of eight state Senate districts.

Every four years, national political  writers combine this into a cohesive entity called Virginia and use it as a bellwether for the presidential election that follows the state Senate election by one year, every single time. The state’s economics and politics are shaped by, among other things, the coal industry and the federal government (see above). The state’s boundaries are shaped by rivers, a bay, a mountain range, and a southern line that’s straight except for a zig-zag south of Abingdon caused by a drunken surveyor.

Most of the national political writers don’t know that our districts were drawn by the courts, our counties and cities are separate entities, and our precincts are drawn by processes that vary by district, county, and city. And every four years, regular as clockwork, they write about how the General Assembly races will impact the ambitions of George Allen, Jim Gilmore, Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Bob McDonnell, Terry McAuliffe, or Glenn Youngkin for president, vice president, or U.S. senator. Continue reading

Questions and Doubts (About the Nature of Some Politicians)

Logo of the Harrisonburg City Public Schools

by Joe Fitzgerald

When I had a meeting set up with (JMU President) Ron Carrier soon after I was elected to (Harrisonburg) City Council in 2000, someone warned me that he would change the time at the last minute just to show he was more important than me. He did, and maybe he was. But it was good to be warned.

Some years later, those of us who had to use a new software for our jobs found that a prerequisite for the technical training was an orientation session with a JMU communication official. Not only did he change the time at the last minute, disrupting the schedules of a few dozen people, but he began the unnecessary meeting when it eventually happened by talking about how many Grateful Dead concerts he’d been to.

The session was about the philosophy and vision of the new software. The JMU official fulfilled the academic administrative definition of a visionary as someone who knows exactly how things should be done if he knew how to do them. (Using “he” in this instance is not a generic pronoun, but a bow to the statistics of who fits this description.)

I was reminded of those earlier occasions recently while watching Councilman Chris Jones interrupt and disrupt his way through a liaison meeting between City Council and School Board members. I had to wonder if his attempts to dominate the meeting with irrelevant or borderline false information were obvious to the casual observer. Not that a casual observer is going to be watching a governmental liaison meeting on a Wednesday afternoon. I may be a nerd.

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Fear and Loathing in Harrisonburg

by Joe Fitzgerald

Fifteen months ago, I wrote the following about last year’s Harrisonburg City Council elections:

We need people, independent or party, who value pragmatism over ideology. And we need people who know the difference between pragmatism and cynicism, and the difference between opportunity and opportunism. This would be the year for people who are concerned, in the words of an ancient Greek poet, about what is right and good for their city, and are willing to sacrifice the time, treasure, and energy to work for those concerns.

The Harrisonburg Democratic Committee reacted by kicking me off a database I’d been using to help candidates for 20 years, and continued a nomination process marked by two deeply flawed caucuses. The year ended with a council dominated by ideological opportunists. (The reference to the database is thrown in to highlight absurdity; you get it or you don’t.)

Next year three out of five City Council members will be on the ballot. Mayor Reed, elected eight years ago as “Everywoman,” has since grown to become the moral center of the council. The other two are a man with the personal behavior of a person half his age and a woman who, in the immortal words of Jed Bartlett, has turned being un-engaged into a Zen-like thing.

In that same West Wing scene, Bartlett says, “We should have a great debate. We owe it to everyone.” Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?

There is a class of people in the city, from the serious to the absurdist, who have managed to keep up with or remain engaged in local politics even with the diminution of local journalism. Many would probably like to see that great debate about the city’s future. Right now they’re asking questions like “What are the Democrats going to do?” and “Will the Republicans run anybody?” Continue reading

Occupational Hazard, 4 of 4

by Joe Fitzgerald

Two recent signs of the deterioration of journalism. One is this comment from President Biden to a gaggle of reporters:

I hear some of you guys saying is, ‘Why doesn’t Biden say what a good deal it is?’ Why would Biden say what a good deal it is before the vote? You think that’s going to help me get it passed? No. That’s why you guys don’t bargain very well.

The second is this, from Harrisonburg Patch, a news aggregator:

A 33-year-old teacher at James Madison Middle School has been accused of soliciting inappropriate pictures from a student, leading to criminal charges against him. The alleged incident involved the teacher requesting pictures from a student at the school where he was employed, according to the police. The teacher has been arrested.

The first is obvious. Biden mocked the press corps for its reporting skills, and the press corps reported it as a Biden idiosyncrasy instead of as a failing on their part. The second, a little less so. The algorithm saw James Madison and thought Harrisonburg, even though the school is in Maryland. And it showed up in my email as a local story, which is a little jarring considering my wife, Deb, chairs the School Board.
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Occupational Hazard, 3 of 4

by Joe Fitzgerald

In “A Pirate Looks at Forty” Jimmy Buffett describes the dilemma of one for whom the cannon doesn’t thunder: “My occupational hazard being my occupation’s just not around.” He could be describing journalists as well.

Journalism and piracy aren’t the only occupations disappearing, of course. The Chronicle of Higher Education and other pricey academic newsletters report regularly that universities are turning out more English and history doctorates than there are jobs to accommodate them. The magazine isn’t as worried about the loss of journalism jobs, possibly because journalists aren’t their audience. A site search of The Chronicle turns up 59 mentions of “journalism major,” mostly in job listings, and 268 mentions of “English major,” including this one:

Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all — being a human being. We’re sorry. Something went wrong.

I’m allowing for the possibility the search engine’s comments may be involved in that response. Still, something has gone wrong. The Daily News-Record is running stories about the Warren County sheriff to fill space with seemingly local stories. Six Virginia dailies will soon publish only three days a week, and by mail. The kid that started out delivering papers and wound up as a reporter will have to go back to the lemonade stand for spending money.
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Occupational Hazard, 2 of 4

by Joe Fitzgerald

A perceptive friend recently spoke to me about press releases his outfit would send to the Daily News-Record back in the day. He said they always wound up in the paper with small inaccuracies, and his perception was that the releases were handed to the least experienced reporters to teach them how to type and rewrite.

I know it looked like that from the outside, I explained, but what actually happened was that I gave them to the least experienced reporters to teach them how to type and rewrite. I was happy to be able to clear that up.

We ran Valley Briefs, Business Briefs, Real Estate Briefs, not to mention the ones in non-news sections of the paper. They piled up on my desk until a reporter needed make-work, or mild punishment, or until I got tired of looking at them. They came back and went into another pile, from whence I’d compare them to the reporter’s efforts to see if they — the release or the reporters — had improved. Nine out of 10 were improved, either in AP style or news sense or clarity, and I caught the errors in half of the remainder. That success rate may not have been as obvious to someone who saw “attorney” changed to “lawyer,” “firm” changed to “company,” parentheses changed to dashes, or John Smith changed to William Johnson.
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Occupational Hazard, 1 of 4

by Joe Fitzgerald

Harrisonburg police rescued a possible abduction victim one day last month after shooting the apparent perpetrator. A city press release said a domestic dispute on Old Furnace Road around 6:30 p.m. turned into an abduction. Police pursued the suspect’s vehicle to downtown, where they shot the suspect, who was apparently armed. The suspect was flown to UVa hospital and the victim was safe.

At least that’s what I got out of a Daily News Record story that included the line, “The pursuit ended in front of the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office following an officer-involved shooting that ultimately injured the suspect.”

Journalism is dead. Or, in the same jargon as the press release, “Journalism ended following a Craigslist-involved financial loss that ultimately ate the newspapers’ lunch.”
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The Song’s Not New Just Because You Haven’t Heard It Before

by Joe Fitzgerald

When I was a younger man and indulged in that lowdown southern whiskey, I would sometimes sum up the next day by saying, “I don’t remember church bells.”

Astute observers will immediately recognize literary allusions to Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken,” one of the great rock-and-roll story songs.

Now, 41 years sober, I hear the song differently. It’s the story of someone finding out that an experience may have been unique to him, but wasn’t unique.

Which leads me back, to the surprise of no regular reader, to Bluestone Town Center. BTC is an ill-advised development based on empty promises, misguided good intentions, and governmental obtuseness. Those wishing to know the other side of the story are welcome to Google it.

I was struck during the discussions of the project by how often supporters of the project fell back on baseless accusations of racism and privilege or answered objections that hadn’t been raised. I also noticed things in the city’s deeply flawed housing report that had little to do with building or selling housing.

Come to find out, any discussion of housing faces an underlying set of assumptions. And as any student of left-leaning politics knows, many of those assumptions lead to the expectation that anyone opposing any housing issue must prove their motivations and intentions are not racist, classicist, ageist, or ableist. Continue reading

Allen Litten, 1935-2023

by Joe Fitzgerald

Someone else held the title, but Allen Litten was really the assistant when I was city editor at the Daily News-Record. I knew the police scanner was in the darkroom, but sometimes I thought it must be imbedded in his cheekbone. One story sums up all he was for me, and I concede some folks may have heard it before.

He came rushing up to my desk one day in 1992 to tell me about the fire he’d covered the night before. He’d taken a photo of a fireman carrying someone out of the building, and it was the same building, he told me, where we’d had that other picture of a fireman and a rescue.

I didn’t remember the shot, and after searching my memory and not turning anything up, I finally asked him when the photo had run.

“1961,” he said, “and we ran the pictures side-by-side, with Jeremy Nafziger’s interviews with both firemen, if memory serves.”

Allen Litten in Court Square Harrisonburg, Sept. 2022
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