Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Can things get any worse?

May 12, 2015

We expect that our politicians will behave ethically, morally and legally and we are inevitably disappointed when they do not. Now it’s Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ turn to face the firing squad. Ready, aim, fired! U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara says that Skelos used his authority to get favored treatment for his son, Adam. We all know that our kids are first on our list of priorities, but there are lines that are not to be crossed and if Skelos did cross the line — and Bharara says that he did — he is in big trouble; trouble as in jail time. If he did it, why did he do it? Because he thought that he could.

Once the father and son were arrested, there were immediate demands that Skelos step aside until the legal issues were resolved. I have not been a huge Skelos fan but there is an interesting issue here. Do we as a nation really believe in “innocent until proven guilty” or are we a bunch of witch hunters who call for the scalp of anyone who has simply been accused? Let us remember that Joe Bruno, once the powerful Senate Majority Leader, was forced to step aside to be eventually replaced by Skelos. Many years and millions of dollars later, Bruno was found not guilty of his transgressions by a jury of his peers. We should think about that.

You can’t begin to count the number of newspapers that made that exact rush to judgment, calling for Skelos to “step aside” on their editorial pages. Since Speaker Silver was forced to step down, it was inevitable that Skelos would also be asked to walk the plank. The problem for the Republicans is that they only control the Senate by the scantiest of majorities. The Democrats are having a field day demanding the head of Skelos and you can’t blame them for doing so. In New York, politics is a contact sport and the participants always play with a deflated ball. In other words, they cheat — either honestly or dishonestly.

The real story here is the state of the Republican Party in New York. We are entering into a competitive election cycle. In presidential election years, the Democrats come out in large numbers and the Senate, which the Republicans control by just a few votes, will likely fall into Democratic hands. Skelos’ troubles will drag on and only make things worse. His own number two, Thomas Libous, is already under indictment.

Interestingly, Governor Andrew Cuomo was loath to enter the fight over Skelos. As Attorney General, Cuomo was proud of his indictments of politicians. Now as governor, he invokes the Legislature as a separate branch of government and covers himself by saying that if the accusations against Skelos prove true, he would find them disturbing. We all know that Cuomo has been largely responsible for keeping the Republicans in control of the Senate even if he is a Democrat himself. He did it in part, after promising not to, by allowing Republicans to continue gerrymandering their own districts in their favor. That’s interesting if one considers the increasing parade of Republicans who are putting lots of distance between themselves and Skelos. For example, popular Columbia County Congressman Chris Gibson made it quite clear that he thought Skelos should step down.

Control of the Senate in New York state is a huge thing. Issues such as New York City rent control laws and an increased minimum wage separate Republicans and Democrats. You can bet that the business interests that back the Republicans are not pleased by the Skelos mess. Since they’re the people who write the campaign checks, they have a lot of influence. Can things get worse in the legislative zoo? You bet they can. We keep hearing that Bharara has a long list of people who he is looking at.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 5/12/15

Our schools are our most important investment

May 11, 2015

Town meetings really are great institutions — same people, same lines, different year. It’s sort of like watching reruns of Law and Order over and over again until you can practically recite the dialogue yourself.

It’s like a sing along. There’s always some wealthy guy (who else?) who gets up and complains once more about how the taxes are killing the poor people in town. What’s he against? Why, the school taxes, of course. They are forcing the good young people out of town.

He neglects to mention the fact that the schools of Great Barrington are the single best way that our young people have of achieving success later in life. He also not-so-subtly suggests that school budgets keep passing because parents (can you imagine that?) keep loading the meetings and voting for the budget.

That’s the whole point. There are two ways of voting, also known as “voting with your feet.” One is to vote and the other is to stay home. Hey, if you don’t show up you don’t get a vote. Similarly, if you don’t like the taxes in town you can move to Alford and vote for the school budget there. Then you won’t have to bitch about the school taxes.

While the cost of running our schools will surely increase a little as salaries and expenses go up, our schools are surely the most important function in town — more important even than any of our other valuable services.

Our schools represent a commitment on the part of the town to do what’s right. Even if your kids are grown or you send them to a private school, understanding the needs of schools is fundamental to the American experience.

I know people who have put a huge brood of kids through school but now that their kids are done, they say they just can’t afford to pay for increases to their budgets. I know a slew of people whose kids went to private schools (their prerogative). They want to know why they should pay. But I also know a lot of people who send their kids to parochial or private schools who know how important it is to provide great public schools.

Of course, most of those who would do damage to our kids know better than to get up and yell about educating the kids. They always frame the issue as, “I would be for it if the other districts paid more or if the school districts combine.” I have espoused such a move for years in this very space but it isn’t going to happen. Our choice is to pay for what we have or don’t pay. I don’t like it when my taxes go up any more than anyone else but this is terribly important.

There was a wonderful man at the meeting who was my favorite speaker of the night. He warned us to never forget that “These are all our kids.” We pay for libraries and firehouses and police stations and to pave the roads but this new crowd is all for curtailing costs at our schools.

So we have to find the right people who get it; we have to trust our public officials to do the right thing. Every town has people who rise above personal and petty politics. That’s why I am going to vote in our town for the two candidates who understand what it’s all about. I’m voting for Bill Cooke and Sean Stanton. These guys know what value is. They are no pushovers. They are sure to question every expenditure but they are overall responsible people.

You may think that this column is about Great Barrington but of course, it’s not. It’s about every town and village and city. We just have to put a stop to those who would harm our kids.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 5/9/15

Run Bernie, Run

May 5, 2015

Bernie Sanders is an unlikely candidate for president of the United States. He’s a United States senator from Vermont. He speaks with a Brooklyn accent and he is going to be 74 years old. He is Jewish. He’s a socialist and an independent that caucuses with the Democrats. He is also one of the most honest and decent men I have ever known. I’ve been interviewing him for years on public radio, and he is absolutely a force of nature. He truly believes that this country has screwed the middle class and the poor and rewarded a few oligarchs who control so much money that the situation has become obscene. In Vermont everyone knows who “Bernie” is. That didn’t stop the New York Times from calling him “Bernard” Sanders in their original story announcing that he would run for president. Let me tell you, he ain’t Bernard, he’s Bernie. He calls himself Bernie and he sees himself as the candidate of the poor, the middle class and the disenfranchised. While most people think he could never win he doesn’t believe that.

There is a huge part of the Democratic Party that embodies the left of center views of Bernie Sanders, and in a competition with Hillary Clinton, Sanders is going to get a lot of votes. To so many of these voters the Clintons are yesterday’s news. More and more the country has a single party in the minds of these folks. The new and unofficial party is the Republicrats. They cater to the rich and depend on them for huge campaign donations. Bernie says he has no illusions about the money that will be available to his opponents both in the Democratic and Republican parties but he says that when he runs in Vermont, his campaigns have always been funded by small amounts from individual voters. He says that’s the way it will be in this presidential campaign. It certainly worked for Barack Obama and the advent of social media will help Bernie raise money a little bit at a time. People will see him as what he is: a shirt sleeves guy who really dislikes what this country has become — a prisoner of the few rich people who own so much of the country’s wealth. Every story that surfaces about Hillary and Bill Clinton and their tapping into the wealth of the very rich will only help Bernie Sanders’ campaign. I have a very close relative who has already told me that while she used to love Bill Clinton, she is voting for Bernie Sanders. She inevitably picks winners.

We know that the left segment of the Democratic Party has been very upset that their choice for a leader, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, has eschewed a race against Hillary Clinton. That has left the way clear for Bernie Sanders who has always stated that his reasons for getting into the race was to offer a true alternative candidacy to the same-old, same-old and also to win. Obviously there is a full court press against Clinton by the Republicans who must be scared to death by the polls that have shown her taking on all comers. If by the time of the primary and the unceasing attacks on Clinton, Sanders is the only alternative candidate to Clinton, he might have what seems like a hopeless shot at beating Clinton, just as Barack Obama did when he came out of nowhere. There is one more thing in his favor. Sanders is promising a big fix and this country is sick of the namby-pamby centrists who can’t seem to make any real change so they can vote for the people with big ideas like Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama. On the other hand if Clinton falters there will be a rush of others to get into the race, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Lyndon Johnson announced that he was through. In any case I can only say, “Run, Bernie, run.”

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 5/4/15

Column on UMass rapist off base regarding parents

May 4, 2015

A few weeks back, I wrote a column about Emmanuel Bile, Jr., who was convicted of rape. I wondered aloud how such a rape could have happened.

In case you missed it, Bile and three other young men were accused of raping a young woman. He was convicted by a jury of his peers and sentenced by a judge.

In the column I asked, “Who in the world would rape a college student?” Then I asked, “Who taught values to these kids?” I said, “I’m not talking about anything but the difference between right and wrong.”

So far so good — still on solid ground. “The guy was found guilty but the victim will still be scarred for life.” I ended, “The accused will be spending a large part of his life in prison. Good. She (the victim) could have been your daughter.” I asked a question in the column that, in retrospect, I am not so sure about. I asked, “Who were the perpetrator’s parents?”

This all came up when I got a critical letter from an employee of the Pittsfield Schools who says that she knows the Bile family. She was very angry with me but I was confused by her letter. She criticized me for passing judgment and heaping humiliation on the family. On the other hand, she conceded, “Starting in the home, educational institutions need to provide guidelines for good manners, courtesy and positive competition for boys and girls, women and men.”

I have always believed that we have to be responsible for our actions, as difficult as that may sometimes be. Our writer said “Emmanuel Bile, Jr. is a metaphor for a systemic problem in our society, notably in public and private colleges and universities across the country.”

I’m assuming that meant the problem of rape on campuses. If what she meant was that the problem of campus rape is so widespread that Bile should not have been held responsible either in print or by the courts, I think she is wrong. She is correct that college rape is reportedly at epic proportions and that something must be done about it. One thing we can do is hold the perpetrators accountable.

Our letter writer wrote, “Just like Bile is responsible for his actions, I Publius needs to be responsible for his words. It is important to look at how the media and freedom of expression glamorizes substance abuse and lust and smudges the boundaries of human behavior.”

I have real trouble understanding how I was glorifying this terrible crime. This was a front page case and it’s obviously something that our community wants to read about. We are not going to censor coverage of this kind of crime.

On the other hand, I have to admit that I do think she had a point about parenthood. While I did not mean to imply that Bile’s parents as individuals had failed, I can see how it sounded that way. I began to think about whether parents should be held responsible for the way their kids turned out.

We all know good people who have had kids who went down the wrong path. That certainly isn’t always the parents’ fault. Sometimes it is. If a parent is a drug addict or an alcoholic, for example, those conditions can be passed on to the kids.

But I have no such feelings about Bile’s parents who, I am sure, are decent good people who only want what’s best for their child.

Finally, this week I heard from Karen Christensen who is running for the Selectboard in Great Barrington. She corrects the record by saying that she was not defeated for re-election on the Great Barrington School Board where she previously served. She won a four-year term in November 2000. I apologize for the error.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 5/4/15

Andrew Goes to Cuba

April 28, 2015

In a stroke of political genius, Andrew Cuomo took a trip to Cuba. He orchestrated the visit perfectly, both in terms of what he did and didn’t do. For once, he brought along some of his co-governmental Democratic politician workers. In doing so, he showed that he can play well with others, something for which he has been severely critiqued in the past. Good move. Joining him on the plane were New York business leaders, a group important not only for their potential ability to fund campaigns but also because they are positioned to take advantage of future business opportunities on the island. In one fell swoop, Cuomo gets to build a business/money base that makes him an economic conservative and, at the same time, he wins the appreciation of the left of his party. No one ever said the guy wasn’t strategic.

Andrew loves to be first. You have a lot more impact at the front of the line than you do if you pile on later and just become one of the crowd. He was first in the nation on gun control with his SAFE Act after the Sandy Hook tragedy, gaining a lot of respect from those who think that guns are one of the great scourges of the country. While some of his former conservative backers were infuriated, he gained the admiration of some of the progressives. He did much the same thing with marriage equality.

Now he shows up in Cuba for all of a day. It turns out that he was not the first sitting governor to make the trip because several years ago, Gov. George Ryan of Illinois led the parade. It didn’t help Ryan since he ended up in jail.

Interestingly, you don’t see Cuomo shaking hands with either of the Castro brothers. He sure didn’t want that picture showing up in some future campaign, particularly in the strategically important state of Florida where at least one presidential election was won/lost/stolen. One can be pretty sure that everything, including who he would meet, was set up in advance.

A revision in our Cuba policy has been a long time coming. For years, Americans have been figuring out how to get there and making their way over by hook or, sometimes, by crook. Look, let’s face it — the place is a dictatorship. On the other hand, the Cuban leaders seem to enjoy great popularity despite the lack of true elections. The Cuban health care system seems to treat all well. The education system offers equality of opportunity that we don’t always see in this country. While the Castro brothers have never been exemplary when it comes to freedom of speech and political discourse and while there are signs of real racism in Cuba, the skirts of this country are not entirely clean either. We seem to get along fine with countries with far worse human rights records, like our friends in Saudi Arabia. Cuomo has the foresight to recognize that there are few political risks to what he is doing to open things up. He knows, and so do most people in this country, that if we don’t get our businesses to Cuba, ninety miles off our shores, others are already lining up to do so. This has been one of his better undertakings.

For a man who most people expect will run for President sooner or later, this will be chalked up as a foreign policy win. I expect we will see him make this type of trip to other places. Perhaps he and his group will travel to China and Japan. Some folks think that Andrew wants to be Secretary of State in a Clinton administration since he can’t take a demotion to the Department of Housing and Urban Development where he once reigned. He’ll certainly have to do a lot of traveling to position himself for that job.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 4/27/15

Well-heeled haters ought not lament paying higher taxes

April 27, 2015

Town elections are very important if you want insight into how our governments work. Let me be clear — when people are given choices and they spend some time considering the policy differences between the candidates, they can have a huge impact on the way in which things are done. I’ve seen selectmen come and go. Some have been terrible, others exemplary.

Let’s take my town of Great Barrington. We are very lucky this year because we have some great choices for the Selectboard. What’s more, the candidates really have different opinions about the way things should be done.

Taxes are relatively high in Great Barrington, especially when compared to towns like Alford next door where taxes are incredibly low. That may be because Great Barrington has a pretty big police force, a library, a substantial fire department, and a public works department, all of which cost big money. And incidentally, these services are all used by our neighbors in Alford, Egremont and Sheffield. I have no problem with that but we Great Barrington taxpayers are the ones who have to pay the freight.

In a town like ours, there will inevitably be people who think, “The taxes are too damned high.” Some of them really can’t afford an extra hundred dollars in taxes. Others have accumulated a good deal of wealth and don’t want to pay their share. We call that greedy and some town officials like Michael Wise have advanced tax-the-rich schemes to address that greed.

Some of the well-heeled folks have what Marx may have called “false consciousness.” They would never acknowledge their own inability to share so they come up with all kinds of complicated tax plans that they must know will never be adopted. They stand up at meetings and even load them with friends and neighbors who they convince of their righteousness. As a result, we find the haters often pitted against the long-suffering, long-serving taxpayers who do what they must to keep the town going.

There are two good candidates to be found among the three who are running for selectman in this election. Bill Cooke is the new face. His wife, Deborah Phillips, has been doing yeoman service for the town for years but is committed to running her successful nutrition counseling practice. Cooke is a bright and decent fellow who will be able to bring a spirit of pulling together to the Selectboard. Sean Stanton is running again and he has proven himself over and over. I’ll be voting for both of them. The third candidate, Karen Christenson, once served, by appointment on the school board. When she ran again she was defeated.

On a sad note, my old Alford neighbor, John James Dunn Sr., has passed. He was 91 years old and a beloved figure in my old neighborhood. I really loved the guy. When my car would break down, he would drive me to work and back in Albany.

He worked for the Department of Social Services, where he was very upset about politicians whose member item programs had to be certified by his department and more specifically by him. He was a great listener and a great talker and when we moved to Great Barrington I really missed our conversations.

During our early days in Alford we had a party line and it turned out that we shared it with the Dunn family. One day John’s young son cut into a conversation to say that there was an emergency at his house so I got right off the phone. It turned out to have been a terrible tractor accident and John’s wife was killed. That memory has been stuck in my mind ever since. He was married three times to three wonderful women. It’s easy to understand what a good husband he must have been. He’ll be missed.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 4/25/15

Can Hillary really win?

April 21, 2015

So there I was on WAMC Public Radio’s Roundtable panel where I am every weekday morning at 9 a.m. It was the day after Hillary Clinton had declared her intention to run for president and people had a lot to say.

Hillary is a bit of a centrist — that is why she has a good, but not absolute, chance of winning the presidency. The whole idea is to capture the middle class. I love Senator Elizabeth Warren but she knows and I know that she is too far to the left to win a national election, at least now. Let’s try to remember that unlike the great New Yorker cartoon, there is a lot of country between Manhattan and San Francisco.

To understand what’s at play here, one has to understand voting patterns in the country. There are more Democrats and independents leaning Democratic in the United States than there are Republicans. If everyone of the Democratic persuasion were to vote, you’d have a Democratic president and Congress.

The problem is that not all natural Democrats vote. Listeners write in about whatever subject we are discussing on the Roundtable, so that morning we were, of course, talking about Hillary entering the race. The notes from the left started coming in. “I could never vote for her. She’s a tool of the corporate world” and on and on.

In each case, we asked the writer whether they would feel better with a Republican victory, allowing the Republican president to appoint more people to the Supreme Court. The bottom line is, if you are sitting in a house in the Berkshires or Hudson Valley pontificating about punishing a centrist candidate, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is the fact that those who have the most to gain at the bottom rungs of society do not vote in the numbers that they have to in order to assure a Democratic victory. With that said, Barack Obama won twice despite the continuing and unremitting racist invective that has been heaped upon him. For Hillary’s part, she knows that if she is to win she will need the voting coalition that swept Obama into office. Rule number one for Hillary is to be supportive of Obama.

I knew a Democratic assemblyman in New York who had bad things to say about Bill Clinton in the post-Monica Lewinsky days. He said he wouldn’t vote for Clinton and he was swept from office. Democrats really resented his perfidy. Hillary cannot risk that, no matter how many people try to drive a wedge between her and Obama. Now it is Obama who is playing it safe, having his underling come out and say that the President is not endorsing at this time on the basis that there may be other people in the race.

That’s a bit of an enigma for me. It may be that Hillary doesn’t want his endorsement right now because his polls are low. That would be a huge mistake on her part. Perhaps he is still smarting about their original primary race and he thinks that Joe Biden or former Governor O’Malley may be coming in. In any case, I think this has been mishandled especially since a lot of Democrats still love the president.

It is clearly Hillary’s to lose. The Republicans are making fools of themselves, stepping all over one another. Hillary is the centrist candidate and in order to get through the primaries where members of the extreme right show up, the contenders are moving to the right as fast as they can. They will predictably move back to the center in the general election. Assuming that Bill Clinton keeps his mouth shut and doesn’t embarrass her, Hillary should prevail. She must have powerful memories, however, of Barack Obama, an obscure one-term senator, eating her lunch in her last great presidential primary. Like I said, it’s hers to lose.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 4/20/15


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers