28 February 2013

House passes full VAWA bill

I am very pleasantly surprised. Somehow, enough House Republicans got convinced to pass the full Senate bill for reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), rather than the GOP's watered-down version. It passed 286 to 138. The bill passed in the Senate earlier this month.

Despite the common assumption that everyone would want to support a bill that would help victims of domestic violence and abuse, today's victory was a long time coming. Last year the bill got nowhere because of conservative Republicans who opposed extending the Act's protections to LGBT individuals and undocumented immigrants, as well as a provision that would give Native American tribal authorities jurisdiction over sex crimes committed by non-Native-Americans on tribal lands. Apparently they believed that those poor victims - lesbian/bi/trans women, undocumented immigrants, and reservation dwellers abused by non-Indians - should be left to suffer without protection or support.

Fortunately, kindness and compassion ultimately prevailed.

>> See how your rep voted.

26 February 2013

Regardless of Sandy, he's still Chris Christie

This year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is up for reelection. His ratings are high, and many are thinking that his reelection is a foregone conclusion.

But Jersey voters beware: Regardless of Christie's impressive performance - and partnership with President Obama - in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, he is still the same Chris Christie that I have previously criticized for his right-wing policies that hurt women, children, same-sex couples, and the poor.

Emily's List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women to public office, recently published a list of the top 10 reasons why Christie should be defeated this November.

A summary:

10. Chris Christie Vetoed Same-Sex Marriage
9. Chris Christie Is No Friend to Workers
8. Chris Christie Doesn’t Believe in Universal Pre-K
7. Chris Christie Misuses State Funds
6. Chris Christie Supports the Ryan Budget
5. Chris Christie Vetoed a Hike in the Minimum Wage
4. Chris Christie Vetoed Equal Pay Legislation
3. Chris Christie Targeted Poor Families in His Budget
2. Chris Christie Cut Funding to Family Planning Organizations
1. Chris Christie Is Proudly Anti-Choice
Read more about each of these points.

Remember this when you vote: Regardless of the cartoonish character he portrays on TV, Governor Christie is a Republican politician who is responsible for all of the above.

25 February 2013

State-by-state estimates of sequester's impact

Yesterday, the White House released 51 reports that estimate the impact of the impending sequester on each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

None of them are optimistic.

The state-by-state reports can be found here: State-by-state sequester impact assessments

24 February 2013

Hating and dating

While reviewing the profiles of some single men who had contacted me through an online dating service, I noticed one in particular who was clearly not a good match for a number of reasons. The most obvious reason: In the text field where he could elaborate on his political orientation, he simply wrote "i HATE liberals." (Capitalization, and lack thereof, are his.)

That, in three words, is how he sums up his political leanings. Emphasis on "HATE", in all capital letters.

When hate (or, worse, "HATE") is a driving force in how one votes (as well as how one lives, how one sees himself, and how one dates), can we really call this a democracy of the type that our Founding Fathers intended? (A rhetorical question, of course.)

18 February 2013

Raising the minimum wage will help us all

In last week's State of the Union address, President Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $9.00/hour.

As expected, the right is firing back, claiming that raising the minimum wage would lead to job losses. When employers cannot afford the pay raise, they argue, they will have to lay off some workers to keep payroll costs down.

But that argument is naive and short-sighted.

The truth is that when low-wage workers are paid a little bit more, they tend to spend that extra money. This leads to increased demand for consumer products and services. So those same business owners find their revenues increasing.

Accordingly, raising the minimum wage will serve to stimulate the economy - and we all win.

But I suspect that many on the right don't want us all to win.

17 February 2013

They still cling to guns and religion

During the 2008 campaign season, candidate Barack Obama was harshly criticized for pointing out that some small-town folks whose jobs have been lost can get frustrated and bitter, and sometimes cling to guns or religion.

His words: "Our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Regardless of the criticism, the president was right. I grew up in a small, impoverished town in rural Pennsylvania, and I have seen first-hand how that can happen.

And it continues to happen. In fact, it seems to have gotten much worse since the president spoke those words.

First, the guns: The NRA spokespeople keep calling for more guns, even in the wake of more tragic mass shootings. Even more relevant, sales of guns and ammunition are surging amidst misguided fears that some assault weapons might be banned or more regulations introduced.

Second, the religion: The Tea Party and religious right extremists continue to obsess over Obama's religious leanings. They continue to suggest that Obama might be a Muslim (a Kenyan one!) - not a good American Christian. And so they interpret every presidential act that suggests tolerance and inclusion as a threat. At the bottom of their slippery slope, Obama will take their bibles away - along with their guns - and turn this into a Sharia-ruled nation.

Desperate people can be gullible, especially in small towns where cultural outlets are few. And so their minds are easy prey for the right-wing special interests and their mouthpieces in the media.

When Obama made his controversial "guns and religion" comment almost five years ago, I'm sure he never envisioned the kind of backlash to his election that has caused those right-wing obsessions to grow exponentially.

But it's not his comment that caused it. It's the racism and xenophobia - rooted in ignorance and fear - that still unfortunately live on in places like my hometown.

14 February 2013

Late PFLAG founder to receive Presidential Citizens Medal

On Friday, February 15, the Presidential Citizens Medal will be posthumously awarded to Jeanne Manford, founder of an organization that eventually grew to become Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Manford died last month at the age of 92.

In a message to supporters, PFLAG described the award as follows:

"The Presidential Citizens Medal recognizes Americans who have 'performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens.' It is the second-highest civilian award in the United States, second only to the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"Past honorees include well-known names like Muhammad Ali and Hank Aaron, and other heroes of the LGBT movement like Janice Langbehn, for her efforts for all Americans to be treated equally when it comes to visiting their loved ones in the hospital. This is an extraordinary honor, but it all started with a simple act of love. When Jeanne Manford publicly stood up for her gay son in 1972, she had no idea that her actions would spark a movement that would change the lives of so many individuals and families. Jeanne's legacy lives on, as straight allies continue to stand alongside their lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) loved ones, united by their collective belief in a better and more equal tomorrow."

And how fitting that the ceremony will be held on the day after Valentine's, when so much love is in the air!

13 February 2013

"Largest climate rally in U.S. history" planned for this Sunday

Last night in his State of the Union address, President Obama called for action on climate change. And, he said, even if Congress won't act on it, he will do what he can via executive actions.

But we've heard that before. We must make some noise to ensure that Obama keeps that promise.

To that end, on Sunday, February 17, thousands of Americans concerned about the future of this planet will converge on the National Mall in Washington, DC, for what organizers are calling the "largest climate rally in U.S. history".

If you can get to DC on Sunday, please stand with us as we urge President Obama to put his words into action.

Even if you can't get to DC, there are ways you can participate.

For more info, see the official website here.

12 February 2013

22 Republican male Senators voted against VAWA

Today, the U.S. Senate passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which would help victims of domestic violence and abuse. Now it needs to get through the GOP-controlled House, which will be tougher.

The Senate bill passed by a 78-22 vote. Every female Senator - Republican and Democrat - voted for it. The 22 who voted against it were all Republican men.

Here is a list of the 22 Republican male Senators who voted against it:

• John Barrasso (R-WY)
• Roy Blunt (R-MO)
• John Boozman (R-AR)
• Tom Coburn (R-OK)
• John Cornyn (R-TX)
• Ted Cruz (R-TX)
• Michael B. Enzi (R-WY)
• Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
• Charles E. Grassley (R-IA)
• Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT)
• James M. Inhofe (R-OK)
• Mike Johanns (R-NE)
• Ron Johnson (R-WI)
• Mike Lee (R-UT)
• Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
• Rand Paul (R-KY)
• Jim Risch (R-ID)
• Pat Roberts (R-KS)
• Marco Rubio (R-FL)
• Tim Scott (R-SC)
• Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
• John Thune (R-SD)

If any of these guys are from your state, give them a piece of your mind.

PFAW to Boehner: Disinvite Nugent from the State of the Union

As if things weren't controversial enough in this country's gun debate, Congressman Steve Stockman (R-TX) announced yesterday that musician and gun nut Ted Nugent would be his guest for tonight's State of the Union address.

In response, Michael Keegan, president of People for the American Way, issued an open letter to House Speaker John Boehner asking that Nugent be disinvited.

Some excerpts:

"In the wake of a year teeming with incidents of heartbreaking gun violence, it came as quite a shock to see Congressman Steve Stockman (R-TX) announce yesterday that he is 'excited to have a patriot like Ted Nugent joining me in the House Chamber' for President Obama’s State of the Union address.

"This so-called 'patriot' has repeatedly threatened the life of the president.


"The First Amendment protects Ted Nugent’s rights to say offensive things, but that right does not extend to making threats of violence against public officials. And it certainly does not give Nugent a 'right' to be granted a privileged position of honor as a guest of the House of Representatives at the President's State of the Union address.


Keegan makes a good point. Nugent's presence there tonight will seem disrespectful at best. However, I doubt that Boehner will pay it any attention.

>> Read the complete letter.

"West of Memphis" film sheds new light on an old injustice

"West of Memphis", the newest documentary on the case of the West Memphis Three, is in limited release in select cities. This past weekend, it finally arrived in Philly, so I caught the Sunday matinee.

I've heard some people say that seeing this new film would be a waste of time and money, since three other documentaries have already been made about the case (i.e., the "Paradise Lost" trilogy by HBO). Having seen the HBO films myself, I, too, doubted that I would learn anything new from "West of Memphis". I was wrong.

"West of Memphis" shares some new evidence obtained via extensive investigations funded by filmmaker Peter Jackson, a longtime supporter of the West Memphis Three. If you saw the "Paradise Lost" films and were still on the fence regarding the innocence of the West Memphis Three, this new evidence just might convince you.

The new evidence not only excludes the Three (none of the DNA evidence from the crime scene matched any of the three defendants), it just happens to match someone else. Other evidence (albeit hearsay) also appears to implicate this other person. I won't give his name here. See the film and find out for yourself.

11 February 2013

Pentagon extends benefits to same-sex couples

Another step forward towards equality:

Today, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the Pentagon will extend benefits to same-sex partners of military personnel.

Some excerpts from his statement:

"It is a matter of fundamental equity that we provide similar benefits to all of those men and women in uniform who serve their country. The department already provides a group of benefits that are member-designated. Today, I am pleased to announce that after a thorough and deliberate review, the department will extend additional benefits to same-sex partners of service members.

"Taking care of our service members and honoring the sacrifices of all military families are two core values of this nation. Extending these benefits is an appropriate next step under current law to ensure that all service members receive equal support for what they do to protect this nation."

Sadly, he acknowledged that the Defense of Marriage Act is still the law of the land, and therefore prevents total equality in benefits. Hopefully the Supreme Court, which will soon be reviewing DOMA, will defer to this country's founding principle that "all men are created equal" - not just the heterosexual ones.

>> Read Panetta's full statement.

Rihanna and responsibility

Rihanna and Chris Brown made it clear at last night's Grammy Awards that they are once again a couple, some 4 years after he beat the hell out of her. She "loves" him and believes that he deserves another chance.

She is an adult, and it is her prerogative. However, as a celebrity, she is also a role model for girls and young women. And her actions suggest to impressionable young people that it's OK (perhaps even glamorous) to choose to be with a man who has a history of violence against women. That is not only sad, it's irresponsible.

09 February 2013

A fitting date for the State of the Union

President Obama will deliver his 2013 State of the Union address on Tuesday, February 12. That just happens to be Abraham Lincoln's birthday.

Coincidence? I don't know. It appears that John Boehner picked the date, and I doubt that he would knowingly give Obama such a gift.

But, in any case, I think it's quite fitting.

Obama, like Lincoln, started his political career in Illinois. And for both of his presidential inaugurations, Obama used a bible that was once owned by President Lincoln.

However, will Obama's speech be Lincoln-worthy? That's something that each of us will have to decide for ourselves.

08 February 2013

Right-wing group suggests that discrimination is "wholesome"

Earlier this week, the Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America met and discussed the possibility of ending the organization's ban on gay Scouts and leaders. But, instead of making a decision, they postponed the issue until the organization's national meeting in May.

In response, the right-wing group Americans for Truth About Homosexuality (AFTAH) issued a statement saying (among other misguided things):

"If the Scouts are to retain the trust of parents nationwide, they must unequivocally reaffirm the current, common-sense policy against homosexuality - which has no place in a wholesome boys organization that professes to teach boys to be 'morally straight' and revere God."
That sentence is offensive on so many levels.

First of all, being "morally straight" is not the same thing as being straight in terms of sexual orientation. I know many gay men and lesbians who are much more moral - and live much more wholesome lives - than the bigots who would judge them.

And so their assertion is not as "common-sense" as they claim.

To truly "retain the trust of parents nationwide," the Scouts should welcome all kinds of parents and families - including LGBT parents whose sons might benefit from the non-bigoted aspects of Scouting. I think it wouldn't take long for the average LGBT Scout or leader to prove himself trustworthy - if only people could be open-minded and give them an honest chance.

They say they want it to be a "wholesome" organization. But discrimination and bigotry are in no way wholesome.

07 February 2013

Amnesty's 12 questions for John Brennan

Today, John Brennan, President Obama's nominee to be the new CIA director, will head to Capitol Hill for a confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Brennan currently serves as Obama's counterterrorism advisor.

On Amnesty International USA's Human Rights Now blog, Zeke Johnson, director of AIUSA's Security with Human Rights Campaign, proposes 12 good questions that the senators should ask Brennan today.

Some excerpts:

1. What has been your role in developing, authorizing, implementing or over-seeing the U.S. government’s policy on the use of lethal force, including with drones, and in selecting names for the “kill list” and carrying out drone strikes?

2. What will you do to ensure much greater transparency in relation to the use of lethal force, including with drones and particularly by the CIA, in a way that allows for a proper assessment of the lawfulness of particular attacks, and accountability for any attacks that are unlawful?

3. In your roles to date, what measures have you taken, or ensured the U.S. government has taken, to ensure that, in specific cases, the USA’s use of lethal force, including with drones, has been in compliance with international law?


5. In light of recent media reports, could you confirm that you had no decision-making role in developing, authorizing, ordering, implementing or over-seeing the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding? Could you provide detail of your contemporaneous criticisms of these techniques under the Bush administration?

6. Do you consider waterboarding and other so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” to amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment?


11. Do you accept that international human rights law applies to all U.S. counterterrorism operations, including those outside U.S. territory?


12. If confirmed as Director of the CIA, what would you do to help ensure that the U.S. government meets its obligations under international law to ensure accountability—including investigation, prosecutions where there is sufficient evidence and remedy for victims—for torture, enforced disappearance and other crimes under international law, including those already committed in relation to the USA’s secret detention and rendition programs?

Somehow I suspect that today's grilling will fall short.

>> Read the full list of questions.

06 February 2013

GOP senators vote to block help for abused women

Until the Tea Party extremists got control of the GOP, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was never a partisan issue. It was born during the Bill Clinton administration, and then reauthorized with bipartisan support in 2000 and 2005. Makes sense, right? No one wants to go on record as voting against a bill that would help victims of domestic violence and abuse.

That was then.

This is now:

VAWA has again expired, and the GOP has been working hard to block its renewal this time around. Last year the bill got nowhere because of conservative Republicans who opposed extending the Act's protections to LGBT individuals and undocumented immigrants, as well as a provision that would give Native American tribal authorities jurisdiction over sex crimes committed by non-Native-Americans on tribal lands. Apparently the GOP believes that those poor victims - lesbian/bi/trans women, undocumented immigrants, and reservation dwellers abused by non-Indians - should be left to suffer without protection or support. Nice, huh?

Now VAWA has been reintroduced. On February 4, the Senate voted 85-8 to bring it to the floor for discussion. But that means that eight senators voted to block it. In other words, eight senators don't think it's even worth talking about.

Here is a list of those eight senators:

• Ted Cruz (R-TX)
• Mike Lee (R-UT)
• Tim Scott (R-SC)
• Marco Rubio (R-FL)
• Mike Johanns (R-NE)
• Rand Paul (R-KY)
• Pat Roberts (R-KS)
• James Risch (R-ID)

I think these guys have some explaining to do - especially to their female constituents.

Meantime, VAWA's future in the GOP-dominated House remains to be seen. There it could well get even uglier.

The NRA's real agenda

NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre won't stop calling for more guns and fewer restrictions. He says that we all have to be armed to the max in order to defend ourselves against potential intruders and other bad guys.

In doing so, he talks about "freedom" and "rights" - specifically the Second Amendment's guarantee of the right to bear arms, which has been affirmed by the Supreme Court and is under no real threat, despite so much fear mongering.

The NRA's rhetoric is a thinly veiled smokescreen to mask the NRA's true reason for wanting unfettered availability of guns: It's because the NRA has become the political arm of the gun and ammunition manufacturing industry, which pumps millions of dollars annually into the NRA's treasury.

Even MSNBC's Joe Scarborough - a Republican - criticized the NRA for its single-minded agenda to enrich the gun manufacturers. An excerpt:

"This is about gun manufacturers making millions and millions and millions of dollars. This is about retailers making millions and millions and millions of dollars. Do you know how much money these people have made over the slaughter of 20 innocents in Newtown? Do you know how much richer these rich gun manufacturers have gotten over the past month, and how the NRA uses that tragedy to gin up fears, and websites use that tragedy to gin up fears that they're coming to take your guns away? Hey, they can't take your guns away, we've got something called the Second Amendment in the Constitution of the United States. Justice Scalia said in 2009 they can't come and take your guns away, you can have a handgun to protect your family. But after that, they can regulate guns."
Perhaps it's too bad that Scarborough, a former U.S. Congressman, is no longer in Washington. We could use more GOP Congressmen with a clue.

05 February 2013

Human Rights Watch releases World Report 2013

Last week, Human Rights Watch released its annual report summarizing human rights conditions in more than 90 countries and territories worldwide in 2012. The report is based on extensive investigations by HRW personnel along with local human rights activists.

The report includes a chapter that criticizes the United States for our ongoing use of the death penalty and other excessive punishments (such as life sentences for some nonviolent third offenses); prison conditions; racial disparities in the criminal justice system; non-citizens' rights; labor rights; women's and girls' rights; LGBT rights; and counterterrorism.

>> To browse the report by country, click here.

04 February 2013

Texas cancels two executions

Last week, two Texas death row inmates learned that they will get to live a little bit longer. This is unusual in the Lone Star State - the execution capital of the U.S. And so these developments are encouraging.

On January 30, state district court Judge Kelly Case stayed the execution of Larry Swearingen, which was scheduled for February 27. Swearingen's lawyers had successfully argued that more time was needed for DNA evidence that could prove his innocence of the 1998 murder for which he was convicted. "I think we need certainty before we have finality," said Judge Case.

One day earlier, on January 29, state district court Judge Larry Mitchell posponed the execution of Kimberly McCarthy, just a few hours before she was scheduled to die. The decision came on the grounds that McCarthy's lawyers need more time to pursue an appeal based on a claim of racial bias in the original trial.

Unfortunately, McCarthy's execution was rescheduled for April 3. That's not a lot of time to appeal a case of so serious a nature.

As of this writing, executions are scheduled for nine additional Texas death row inmates through July of this year. Sadly, I suspect that most will not be as "lucky" as the two described above.

"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."
-- Mahatma Gandhi

01 February 2013

Thank you, Secretary Clinton!

Today is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's last day on the job. John Kerry will be sworn in as her replacement later today.

I think Mrs. Clinton was a spectacular Secretary of State and did this country proud.

Thank you, Secretary Clinton, and farewell. Get some rest. And hopefully we'll see you again in 2016!