April 18, 2015

Teachers (and the government) under attack

This is insane. Not sure how the city intends to keep on running its schools, except through an environment of fear and loathing. The Providence, RI School Board just voted 4-3 to send dismissal letters to all its teachers.

Yep, every last 1,926 of them.

Despite the fact that “more than 700 teachers jammed a high school gymnasium to tell school officials that their hearts were broken, their trust violated and their futures as teachers jeopardized,” every single teacher received a letter informing them that they might be terminated at the end of the school year.

Speaker after speaker demanded to know why they were being fired. Didn’t the teachers union sign on to the federal Race to the Top initiative? Hasn’t the union collaborated with Supt. Tom Brady on new curricula? Isn’t the union working with the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers on a new teacher evaluation?

“I’m feeling disrespected, devalued and marginalized,” said Ed Gorden. “Termination is a career-ender. You are putting a scarlet letter on every one of us.”

I don’t know the local politics involved here. I can only surmise that the Democratic mayor would pull a stunt like this because he feels emboldened by the full frontal attack on teachers that high profile Republicans like governors Chris Christie and Scott Walker are leading. And the fact that he can now ignore seniority and fire the teachers who cost the most. But it sets a terrible precedent, one that is damaging to the profession of teaching, and one that incredibly demoralizes teachers who already don’t feel as though they get enough support in the classroom.

I don’t doubt that severe budgetary problems are also a big part of Mayor Taveras’ calculations, but if you look at how Republicans are cutting the federal budget, and what proportion of the cuts are to state and local grants, one can’t help but feel like it’s a deliberate, calculated effort to starve the beast. It’s not just an attempt to control the teachers’ unions but rather a concerted effort to push the new “budget fundamentalism” by cutting government down despite the devastating impact that it might have on the economy (says none other than Goldman Sachs.) This sentiment is perfectly encapsulated in conservative poobah Grover Norquist‘s oft-quoted line, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

And the GOP is doing this at not just the federal level but also the state level. Look at the must-read NYTimes Magazine profile of Chris Christie:

The centerpiece of Christie’s frenzied agenda, which passed the Democratic-­controlled Legislature last July, is a strict cap on local property taxes, which will be allowed to rise no more than 2 percent every year. When combined with a reduction in state aid, what this means, practically speaking, is that New Jersey’s townships and cities will have to hold the line when negotiating municipal labor contracts if they want to remain solvent, because they can’t rely on either their residents or the state for more money.

Or for another perspective, let’s look to Howard Fineman’s analysis of the political math in Wisconsin:

For all of the valid concern about reining in state spending — a concern shared by politicians and voters of all labels — the underlying strategic Wisconsin story is this: Gov. Scott Walker, a Tea Party-tinged Republican, is the advance guard of a new GOP push to dismantle public-sector unions as an electoral force.

Last fall, GOP operatives hoped and expected to take away as many as 20 governorships from the Democrats. They ended up nabbing 12.

What happened? Well, according to postgame analysis by GOP strategists and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi — who chaired the Republican Governors Association in 2010 — the power and money of public-employee unions was the reason.

“We are never going to win most of these states until we can do something about those unions,” one key operative said at a Washington dinner in November.

It’s about attacking public sector workers such as teachers, nurses, and firefighters and their right to form unions and bargain collectively. It’s about attacking the unions that represent them, bur more than that, it’s about shrinking the size of government and using those monies to privatize jobs and essential services. Think vouchers for everything – schools, private security forces that only answer to some to replace police precincts that cover everyone, Enron-like deregulated public utilities that jerk energy prices according to whim. That’s the endgame. That, and good middle class jobs are what’s at stake.


Journalist points out flaws w/ US citizenship test

Canadian American journalist Dafna Linzer has some good points to make on errors and oversimplifications with the United States citizenship test in “How I Passed My U.S. Citizenship Test: By Keeping the Right Answers to Myself.”

Now, most of us wouldn’t consider the Vice President to be a member of the President’s Cabinet (which consists of appointees to head branches of the executive government versus the elected Veep.) But, question 36 considers “vice president” an accurate answer.

How would you do if you had to take the citizenship test? Read this entertaining article for a skeptical look at some of the questions involved. Not to mention the fact that this reporter, born in 1970, gets asked if she was involved with the Nazi party between 1933 and 1945. (It’s part o the verbatim questioning.) And for those of us who happened to be born into US citizenship, let’s thank our lucky stars that we don’t have to run the bureaucratic gamut to gain citizenship here.


Freedom for Libya

How many more days will Libya’s dictator Moammar Qaddafi hold onto power?  While insurgents have taken over cities throughout the country, Qaddafi has bombed his own people and unleashed his thugs to intimidate anyone from speaking out.

Beyond evacuating American citizens from the Libyan capital of Tripoli, President Obama needs to mobilize the international community to do what it takes to help Libyans gain freedom.

— Gautam Dutta

First APA Chicago Alderman Elected

Ameya Pawar, a Chicago-born Indian American, won an open seat as Alderman in Ward 47 today to become the first Asian Pacific American (APA) elected to the Chicago City Council.  Mr. Pawar is an emergency response specialist who works in the Office of Emergency Management at Northwestern University, and also is enrolled as a Social Service Administration graduate student in the University of Chicago.

The Asian American Action Fund of Greater Chicago, the local affiliate of the national AAA-Fund PAC based in Washington, endorsed Mr. Pawar, along with Rahm Emanuel, the winning Mayoral candidate.  “We are extremely proud of Ameya, and look forward to working with him as he serves his Ward 47 constituents and the Chicago area Asian Pacific American community,” said Lawrence Benito, AAAF-GC President.  “We also congratulate Mayor-elect Emanuel, and look forward to working with him to assure that APAs are represented in his new administration.”

The 47th ward, located on Chicago’s North Side, does not have a significant APA population and Pawar was not favored to win. The incumbent retired, AAAF-GC endorsed him, and the Indian American community rallied behind him, however, so it was an open seat with an opening for a young, motivated insurgent candidate.

By Election Day, Mr. Pawar had the momentum with fundraising and endorsements because of what many consider an excellent grassroots campaign.  Significantly, he ran a campaign committed to transparency and political reform, not politics as usual.  See his website for details.

In Chicago, APAs make up nearly five percent of the total population. Although there are several APAs in elective office on the local level in several cities surrounding the Chicago area, there still are no APA elected officials in the City of Chicago or on the State and Federal levels. 

More than one in four Chicagoans is an immigrant or the child of an immigrant, and the percentage is even higher among APAs. “Chicago is a world-class city because immigrants built it from the ground up,” said Selma D’Souza, AAAF-GC Board member and longtime political activist.  “The APA community and other immigrant communities look forward to working with Mr. Emanuel to strengthen Chicago and embrace the contributions of immigrants.”

The mission of AAAF-GC is to encourage APA Democrats to participate in the political process and to empower the APA community so that we can address the under-representation of APAs in the political life of the Greater Chicago area. The AAAF-GC also supports non-APA candidates who are supportive on issues of concern to the APA community. The Asian American Action Fund achieves its goals by identifying qualified Democratic candidates, providing them with financial and technical assistance, and building a local network of activists, funders, and supporters. To learn more about the AAAF-GC, visit our website.

Andy Stern on Wisconsin and the future of labor

The always provacative Andy Stern, former President of the Service Employees International Union, has some thoughts on how unions can engage the public moving forward. Food for thought:

So I think the labor movement is doing a great job standing up and building something big in Wisconsin, but I think they seem like a legacy institution and not an institution of the future. And legacies get shed. The question is does anything replace them?

. . .But part of this story is that the Democratic Party hasn’t embraced unions in the last 20 years. Republicans understood unions as an ally of the Democratic Party. But unions couldn’t get Democrats to embrace unions as a response. They made the argument that making more union members was how you make more Democrats, and that argument is true, but they couldn’t get the Democratic Party to really embrace that theory. Today, no one thinks about any type of labor or industrial policy at all.

What do you think? If you could write the playbook for labor, how would you help them out of this Wisconsin mess? Or is it an opportunity to organize and revitalize the labor movement?


Candidate Asks Federal Court to Block "Top Two" Primary

For Immediate Release
Feb. 23, 2011

Gautam Dutta (415) 236-2048, dutta@businessandelectionlaw.com

Candidate Files Federal Lawsuit to Block “Top Two” Primary

Secretary of State Debra Bowen May Benefit from Law She Has Defended

LOS ANGELES – A Coffee Party candidate running to succeed departing Congresswoman Jane Harman (CA-36) has filed a federal lawsuit to block the implementation of California’s new “Top Two” open primary.

SB 6 will be used in a special election to replace departing Congresswoman Harman; current Secretary of State Debra Bowen is among the half dozen candidates who have declared their intention to run in the special election. Vote-by-mail ballots in that election could be cast in a matter of weeks.

Unless an injunction is granted, voters will see a “no party preference” on the ballot for plaintiff Michael Chamness because the Coffee Party is not considered a “state recognized” political party. Under SB6, a “no party preference” label is applied to all minor-party candidates like Mr. Chamness and puts him at a disadvantage compared to Democratic or Republican candidates. Previously, minor-party candidates were allowed to use the ballot label of “Independent.”

Mr. Chamness’ lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of Senate Bill 6 (SB 6), the law that implements Proposition 14’s “Top Two” Primary.  The lawsuit argues that SB 6, which was passed by the Legislature in the middle of the night without opportunity for public comment, unfairly discriminates against and deprives minor-party candidates like Mr. Chamness of their fundamental rights.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who announced her candidacy in the same Congressional race, will soon benefit from SB 6’s discriminatory election rules.  Unlike Mr. Chamness, Secretary Bowen, the State’s chief elections officer who is responsible for defending this lawsuit, will be able to list her party’s name on the ballot – because she belongs to a major party.

“It’s unconstitutional, undemocratic, and just plain wrong to force any candidate to lie to voters,” said Gautam Dutta, Mr. Chamness’ attorney.

Mr. Chamness, a Los Angeles resident, is affiliated with the Coffee Party, a minor (non-state-recognized) party.  A number of political groups, including the Tea Party, are minor parties.

“It’s unjust to discriminate against a candidate like myself just because I’m not a Democrat or Republican,” Mr. Chamness said. “SB 6 does a grave disservice to voters because it forces false information to be printed on the ballot.”

Last week, Mr. Chamness became the first candidate to fall victim to California’s new “Top Two” Primary law.  On the Feb.15, 2011 special election ballot for Senate District 28, Mr. Chamness was forced to falsely state that he had “No Party Preference”.

On March 21, 2011, a federal judge in Los Angeles will hold a hearing on Mr. Chamness’ request to block SB 6’s new rules.  If the judge grants his request, the Top Two Primary will be put on hold until a new law is passed to replace SB 6.

Click on the links below to download the most recent court documents:

More background on this case may be found at http://businessandelectionlaw.com/sb6/.


Councilmember Furutani?

Although Asian Americans make up one-seventh of its 4 million residents, Los Angeles has not had an Asian American Councilmember in over two decades.  Depending on what happens in an upcoming Congressional election, that may soon change.

Recently, Congressmember Jane Harman, who represents LA County’s South Bay, set off a political earthquake.  Barely weeks after she had been re-elected, she announced that she would resign to join a Washington DC think tank.  The special election to replace her will be held between late April and early June (the date will be set by March 14).

Soon thereafter, two Democratic heavyweights declared their candidacy:  California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and Los Angeles Councilmember Janice Hahn.  Given that this district leans solidly Democratic, one of these two leaders will win this coveted prize:  a powerful political office that is exempt from term limits.  (Note:  AAA-Fund will not make an endorsement in this race.)

If Bowen wins, no special election will be required to replace her as Secretary of State.  Instead, Governor Brown will nominate someone who must then be confirmed by the Legislature.

If Hahn wins, a special election will probably be called to replace her in the LA City Council.  In that event, don’t be surprised if California Assemblymember Warren Furutani — the first Asian American to serve on the LA Unified School District Trustee Board — swiftly throws his hat in the ring.

Who will win the race for California’s 36th Congressional District — and who stands to benefit from it?  We’ll keep you posted as this intriguing race unfolds.

— Gautam Dutta

Congrats, Mayor Emanuel!

We heartily congratulate AAA-Fund endorsee Rahm Emanuel on winning the keys to the heart of Middle America:  Chicago.  President Obama’s former chief of staff easily dispatched the competition, with 55 percent of the vote.

To be sure, the Mayor-Elect had a few clear advantages going into the election:  the tacit support of President Obama, a bulging campaign chest, and longstanding roots as the Windy City’s Congressmember.  However, he almost got kicked off the ballot a couple weeks back, because an appeals court didn’t think he satisfied the city’s residency requirements.  The Illinois Supreme Court quickly stepped in to scotch that idea:  Emanuel was back on the ballot.

Although Asian Americans are one of the Windy City’s fastest growing groups, no Asian American has yet to be elected to Chicago’s City Hall.  We look forward to working with Mayor-Elect Emanuel to empower every emerging community and the community-at-large.

— Gautam Dutta

What We Can Learn from Hollywood

Ed. Note:  From our friends at Zocalo.

I’d Like to Thank the Academy…


by Gautam Dutta

Who should prevail in a popularity contest featuring several choices? Should one measure depth or breadth of support?

Consider the classic “What movie should we see?” conundrum. Five guys want to go see a movie, two of them want to see Black Swan, but the other three say that’s the last movie they’d ever want to see. Trouble is, they’ve each offered up a different first choice (though they can all agree on an alternative). Do they go see Black Swan regardless, because it was the sole movie to receive 2 votes?
The American political system would dictate that they all go experience Natalie Portman’s angst. It’s the top vote getter, period. See Bill Clinton, 1992. But the Academy Awards, knowing a thing or two about movies, offers a rebuke to our political tradition: a voting system at the Oscars that values consensus and seeks to avoid the discomfort of a majority.

To understand what the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is up to, consider this year’s 10 nominees for best picture. By the accounts of the legions of journalists and websites who track this race, three films are mostly likely to win the Oscar. They are:

1. King’s Speech: The crowd-pleasing classic about a monarch who finds his voice is the leading contender for the Academy’s largest statuette. It’s that rare thing – an uplifting, art house period piece!
2. Black Swan: This edgy drama about a ballet dancer’s unraveling has received both brickbats and bouquets. It’s like “The Piano,” one of those movies that is either hauntingly moving, or just plain annoying, depending on your sensibility.
3. Social Network: This fast-paced and widely respected chronicle of how Harvard geeks changed the way we live is a solid contender, timely and widely respected.

The Top Three span the gamut of genres. So how will Hollywood’s “deciders” pick the winner?

If the vote were conducted as most American elections are – with everyone picking their favorite from a long list of candidates – a film wouldn’t need a majority to win. In a field of 10, a candidate could win with as little as 11 percent of the vote – a far cry from consensus.

Two years ago, however, as the Academy expanded the number of best picture nominees from five to 10, it also adopted a new way of voting for the finest film of the year. It’s called Ranked Choice Voting.

Here’s how it works. RCV allows voters to rank one’s top choices (1-2-3). If a nominee is the first choice of the majority of all voters, it will win outright. But if no one receives a majority (as is likely this year), the interesting part begins. The last-place finisher will be eliminated, and voters who had picked it, as their first choice will have their votes transferred to their second choice. This process continues until one nominee gets a majority.

The Academy is onto something. The five guys in my opening hypothetical wouldn’t have gone, in all likelihood, to see “Black Swan.” It’s desirable in any selection process – be it about dinner, the Oscars or a political election – to satisfy a majority of those making the decision. Because winning a majority helps confer legitimacy. A system that allows voters to cast only one vote, for one person, can produce an outcome that a majority doesn’t like. That makes life difficult in a democracy. Think of the political wars that stemmed from the elections of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who both won despite the fact that most of the country wanted someone else.

The benefits of ranking choices extend beyond legitimacy to the value of getting a fuller, more accurate picture of voter sentiment. In the current Oscar race, “younger” voters (in the case of the Academy that means anyone under 50) may be torn between Social Network and the techno-thriller Inception. In such a scenario, Inception could siphon off enough votes from Social Network – spoiling the latter’s chances. This is not unlike the “spoiler” roles Ralph Nader and Ross Perot played in past Presidential elections.

So what if a voter really likes Inception but doesn’t want to hurt Social Network’s chances? On the one hand, he could vote his conscience and go with Inception. On the other, he could “strategically” vote for his second choice (Social Network), which has a real chance to win.

But by ranking choices, Academy members can vote their conscience, without having to worry about sinking the chances of their second choice. If you like both Inception and Social Network, you can register both preferences.

Questions are often raised about such a system, whether the setting is the Oscar or the American cities that use some form of ranked choice voting (Among them: Oakland and San Francisco).

Such questions are about the nature of excellence. A novel film or an unusually forward-thinking politician might also be divisive. Should we care if a film does not have a consensus of support?

This brings me back to Black Swan. In a ballot where you could pick only one film, Black Swan, backed by its ardent supporters, might have a chance of obtaining out a few more votes than the King’s Speech, which may be more broadly liked by the Academy members. But would that be a desirable outcome, even if the winner got only 15 or 20 percent of the votes? Compared to Social Network, Black Swan would likely be the second choice of exceedingly few Oscar voters. To name Black Swan best picture would be to say that a vocal minority should have more of a say than a broad majority.

Can this sort of analysis help you win your Oscar pool? Perhaps.

I’ve studied and advocated for ranked choice voting systems for years. Here is my educated guess of how this race breaks down – and how the use of ranked choice voting will shape the result.

Although King’s Speech probably heads into the polls as the top vote getter, it will fall short of a majority of first place votes (50 percent plus 1) in a crowded field.
So Best Picture will come down to whether King’s Speech or Social Network get enough second-choice rankings to push either over 50 percent.

Here’s my take on which of these Oscar favorites would be the second choice of the other seven nominees:

1. King’s Speech – second choice of fans of Toy Story 3, 127 Hours, and Fighter
2. Social Network – second choice of fans of Inception and The Kids Are All Right
3. Black Swan – second choice of fans of True Grit and Winter’s Bone

Based on this lineup, I would give King’s Speech the edge. It is the sort of contestant built for a ranked choice contest, in that it offers something for everyone, and is likely to pile up second-choice and third-choice rankings.

That being said, Social Network is far from being out of the running. Without Ranked Choice Voting, Social Network would not have stood a chance against King’s Speech. But since a film must now garner majority support via second and perhaps third choice rankings, it now has a viable shot at winning – if it can attract enough of those votes. Unlike Black Swan, hardly anyone had an unkind word for this Facebook tale.

Meanwhile, no matter what you think of Hollywood’s new voting process – which I believe is fairer and more democratic (small “d”) – here’s one thing we can all agree on: it will help the Oscars make more money. Put simply, Ranked Choice Voting has made it feasible to select from ten Best Picture nominees. With more movies to draw fans to the telecasts, the Oscars can secure higher TV ratings and ad revenues.

Hmm, a decision-making process that builds consensus and helps make money? Perhaps that’s something that our elected officials should look into.

Gautam Dutta, a business and election lawyer, is former Deputy Director of New America Foundation’s Political Reform Program.

Alaska legislator sails home after rejecting TSA patdown


Yes, it’s come to this. An Alaskan legislator decided to sail home from Seattle after undergoing the full body scan and refusing the pat-down. State Rep. Sharon Cissna’s spokeswoman Michelle Scannell said TSA wanted the the pat-down because the legislator had a mastectomy.

Scannell, in her statement, said Cissna was ordered to submit to a “very intrusive pat-down or leave the airport.” She said Cissna, who had been in Seattle for medical treatment, was scheduled to return to Alaska via ferry. [Emphasis added – Ed.]

She’s going home ON A FERRY after receiving medical care. Yes, she had a choice, and yes, she made her choice. But let’s just point this out – most people would rather take the fastest way home, but if TSA keeps piling up obstacles to flying, we’ll all wind up finding alternatives. And smarter entrepreneurs will create alternatives.

Flying might be the fastest form of transportation, but people are increasingly going to use alternate forms of transportation as the security lines and requirements multiply. The airlines are going to continue to lose business if the TSA compels folks to undergo increasingly ridiculous procedures that airport frontline workers oppose. On the East Coast, I have a lot of friends who take the train up and down the Northeast Corridor because it saves them 2 hours of waiting and security lines at the airport. I’ve even met people who took the Chinatown bus from Boston to DC. I for one would love to see high speed rail and even more transportation alternatives.