Calling your Congressperson: Why it matters

By Executive Director Ryan Thornton

People almost constantly tell you to call Congress, be it a UC Dems Facebook post, or President Trump telling people to call their representatives. But, the question most people (including myself) ask is why does it matter. But, after half of a summer interning with Senator Tammy Duckworth, I can explain both what happens when you call and why it matters. What happens: When you call a representative’s office, you will pretty much all the time be speaking to an intern. These interns will listen to your opinion, ask for some combination of address, zip code, and name, and then copy down your opinion or mark it down on a tally sheet (or sometimes both). What is important to remember is that they are interns, so they honestly won’t be able to answer any of your very narrow policy questions nor does it matter whether all you say is, “Oppose Trumpcare” versus a ten-minute spiel. The interns will duly take down your opinion (so long as you are a constituent) and add to the tally, so make their lives easier by keeping it short and sweet.

Why it matters: This may seem somewhat pointless; if all I am talking to is an intern where I am just a number on a sheet, why bother. The answer is that with every number, the representative knows that that person isn’t just one constituent, but someone who cares enough about politics to call (and therefore vote) and also someone who takes the time to call so their vote could possibly be won. This is the reason why so many senators have come out against many of the failed Trumpcare plans, and why Senator Duckworth starts out her week by looking at the previous weeks call numbers. So although you may be a tally on a sheet, the effects you have on policy and on representatives votes can be great.

On Russia

By Daniel Jellins, Treasurer 

Take a breath.

 

Think about the last year and Russia.

 

Now, think about where we are now and Russia.

 

How are you feeling?

 

This week, there is a new drip to what is the drip drip drip and even more drip of the story involving the President’s new administration and Russian meddling into our election. It has been revealed that the son of the President met with a Russian government linked individual in regards to information that would damage Hillary Clinton. While he at first denied any actionable information, his story changed within 24 hours of the meeting being reported.

 

Now, there are emails (oh the irony) about Trump Jr.’s willingness to obtain information from a foreign government. This is illegal.

 

Stop.

 

Take a breath.

 

Think about that. The son of the President is seemingly admitting (by releasing his own email chain, though he did it because news organizations were about to) that he did something illegal. Further, it demonstrates that he knew that the Russian government was yearning to help the Trump campaign; yet, they have been denying and obfuscating that exact fact for the last year.

 

This investigation into Russia is not a hoax.

 

It is real.

 

No matter where this story ends up, no matter whether it is ever proved that President Trump had prior knowledge of any desire by the Russian government to help him to victory, we are uncertain waters. We are stranded in the middle of this ocean of an investigation, past the point of return yet the shore on the other side is nowhere in sight. In the water, lurking, are stories that have not surfaced and enemies who seek to overturn our country’s metaphorical ship.

 

How are we going to steer the country through this? Who is going to stand up and lead? When we get to the shore, what will be the condition of our country’s ship?

 

These are the important questions to ask. We cannot go back and change anything that has happened in the last year. We can only move forward. But the only way we move forward is recognizing the past, leading in the present, and acting better in the future.

Partisanship in local politics

By Sam Joyce, Political Director

Local politics can often feel entirely disconnected from what goes on in Washington. Only three mayors have gone on to be President, and only Grover Cleveland, the former Mayor of Buffalo, had less than a ten-year gap between his time in municipal office and the beginning of his term as President. But like every other mayor-turned-President, Cleveland still had to become governor of a state (in his case, New York) before he was treated seriously as a candidate for the Presidency. More recently, Rudy Giuliani’s campaign for President fizzled out after a third-place finish in the Florida primary, while rumors of an independent campaign by New York’s Michael Bloomberg amounted to nothing in both 2012 and 2016. From single-payer healthcare in California to legalized marijuana in Colorado, states are frequently taking the lead on issues of national importance, and state legislatures are attracting national attention—and national donors—accordingly. Outside of major cities, however, local elections have not been similarly nationalized.

Two main factors help to prevent partisan influence in local elections. The first is simply different party systems. In parts of the country where one party is historically dominant, party affiliation is typically seen as less meaningful. In many small communities throughout the South, the historical power of the Democratic Party is such that most elected officials remain Democrats, even though the county or city may be solidly red when it comes time to vote for President. In Liberty County, a small county in the Florida Panhandle, Trump took 77% of the vote in 2016 compared to only 20% for Hillary. However, voters delivered landslide victories in the same election for the Democratic candidates for State Senator, Sheriff, Property Appraiser, and County Commissioner, continuing a lengthy period of unbroken Democratic control over every county office. This isn’t because Liberty County is a hotbed of liberalism; rather, it’s a historic vestige of the county’s days as part of the Solid South, when Democrats were effectively the only party at any level of the state. In my home county of Pinellas, a similar dynamic is evident: Pinellas has historically had a strong Republican Party, and though in national elections the country typically votes slightly more Democratic than the rest of the state, Republicans hold every countywide elected office save three seats on the Board of Commissioners.

In many parts of the country, one party simply holds all the power, making the party primary tantamount to election. The power of incumbency weighs heavy, even in a place like Liberty County where Republicans win comfortably at the national level. Every local office holder has always been a Democrat, and every office holder’s father and grandfather has always been a Democrat, and even if you don’t like the party in Washington you (along with 75% of Liberty County’s registered voters) are probably a Democrat too. Regardless of the condition of the national party, these are the folks you go to church with and see around town. It’s also common knowledge that whoever wins the primary wins the general election, and as a result everybody who’s anybody runs in the Democratic primary. The Democratic organization has strong relationships with the town’s prominent citizenry, and has built the operation necessary to get its candidates elected every time. The Republicans, meanwhile, have no money and no organization, and there’s never been any reason to treat it as anything more than a joke. The Democratic primary, of course, is still tantamount to election, and you’d have to be a fool to pass up the real election in order to run as a Republican in the general. The Republicans have no membership, no organization, no money—even if you’re deeply conservative, you run as a Democrat, because that’s how you win elections.

Beyond the advantages of incumbency, however, this system is able to remain in place as a result of the difference between local and state or national issues. Louis Brandeis called the states “laboratories of democracy,” and the allocation of distinct and separate powers to states and the federal government mean that a political party has to operate at both the state and national levels to effectively enact a policy vision. There is no similar mandate at the local level, as localities only have so much control as the state chooses to allow them. While municipal issues certainly sometimes overlap with national debates, such as Seattle’s recent minimum wage hike, there is none of the guaranteed overlap as there is with state governments. As a result, most local elections are fought over issues with no connection to the platforms of the major parties. In my hometown of St. Petersburg, one of the most important issues in the 2013 mayoral election was about the design of the new city pier. While a pressing question, as the pier is one of the city’s architectural landmarks and the new construction would require a large portion of the city’s budget, it’s also an effectively nonpartisan one. There is no particular partisan position favoring one design over another, and neither party’s platform comments on waterfront redevelopment in St. Petersburg. This effect tends to grow stronger in smaller communities, where the municipal government is less likely to tackle “big issues” like immigration or gun control.

As cities grow larger, however, party affiliation becomes more important, as it becomes a better indicator of a candidate’s policies. A party label is important insofar as it serves as a shorthand for a candidate’s values; a Democratic candidate, for instance, is likely to be in favor of things like raising the minimum wage or creating a “sanctuary city” policy, while a Republican candidate is likely to oppose those ideas. This generates interest in the municipal election for people outside of the community itself; I’ve never been to Seattle, for instance, but I’ve followed their debate over the minimum wage. This outside attention necessarily includes the attention of national parties, who see an opportunity to advance their agenda that may not be present in smaller cities. The emergence of national issues can provide the circumstances by which the first barrier to partisanship in local elections, incumbency, can be undermined: outside assistance begins to come to the party out of power, a county party gets organized, a slate of good candidates gets recruited, and suddenly the primary is no longer the general election. This is an uncertain process, of course; Miami, for instance, remains heavily Republican at a municipal level despite typically voting for Democrats for national office, while other cities like Atlanta simply end up overwhelmingly favoring the same party at all levels, but despite some outliers there is a clear and noticeable relationship between a city’s size and the influence of partisan politics.

This process serves a further purpose for state and local parties: municipal offices are essential to forming a bench for future elections. In Florida, mayors like Tampa’s Bob Buckhorn, Orlando’s Buddy Dyer, and Tallahassee’s Andrew Gillum have become an essential component of the party’s bench. At the state legislative level, city councilmembers and county commissioners—candidates with a proven record of winning elections—are often the first place a party looks when recruiting candidates for higher office.

The extent to which partisan politics influence municipal elections largely varies based on one factor: the city’s size. Larger cities can command national attention and make policy that directly relates to national issues, and attract outside spending and influence accordingly. In smaller communities, where elections are fought on local issues and the power of incumbency weighs heavier, the influence of state and national political parties is typically weakened—and, as a result, lessening the meaning of party labels.

From the Field: Reporting from Sen. Blumenthal’s (D-CT) Emergency Hearing on the American Healthcare Act in Hartford, Connecticut

Crammed into Room 310 of the Connecticut State Capitol, upwards of two hundred people were sweating through their shirts. At the front of the room stood U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, braving the heat in a full suit after having called an “emergency field hearing” on healthcare in response to GOP secrecy. If the Republican Congress won’t have a hearing, the Senator though, I’ll have one myself. I watched from the doorway and back of the room as dozens of the over-capacity crowd (about a dozen people watched on TV monitors in the hall) rose and gave testimony. The hearing was so popular that a second was announced in New Haven on Friday, June 23.

Those speaking came from all around Connecticut. They were government officials, healthcare advocates, union advocates, but above all, they were concerned people with terrible, heart-wrenching stories. They spoke about healthcare from every possible angle: state concerns, national concerns, mental health, physical health, etc. Before I go into highlights, I want to specifically draw attention to a line I cannot remember who said: “What number of lives lost will be enough?” Where will the Republican Party draw the line?

Highlights:

  • One of the first to speak was Ted Doolittle, head of the Office of the Healthcare Advocate and appointee of the governor. He attacked the AHCA for magnifying already-existing problems with healthcare, saying (to paraphrase) that taking any money out of the incredibly expensive healthcare system would cripple it. He ended his testimony with an impassioned call for a national single-payer system.
  • Tim Foley, Director of the Connecticut State Council of the Service Employees International Union, the second largest union in the country, predicted that the Republican healthcare plan would create “huge, if not insurmountable problems” for the already suffering Connecticut state budget. He also noted that “eighty percent of a bad bill is still a bad bill,” referencing Texas Senator John Cornyn’s remark that, “80 percent of what the House did we’re likely to do.”
  • Shawn Lang, Deputy Director of AIDS Connecticut, invoked the early days of the AIDS epidemic and asserted that the American Healthcare Act as passed by the House “would bring us back to the early days of the plague” of AIDS. She also noted that many AIDS sufferers would be doubly hit, as many are over fifty, afflicted by the opioid epidemic, and subject to mental health issues as well.
  • Advocates for both mental health and children’s health noted that there was incredible progress in those fields in Connecticut in recent years, but passage of AHCA would halt that progress.
  • Judith Stein, Executive Director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, attacked Republican secrecy and rushing of the AHCA specifically. It would be “devastating,” she said, to force a vote before the July 4th recess, which is rumored to be the GOP plan, and without due time for debate, a CBO score, or amendments.
  • One of the most moving testimonies came from Jennifer Kelly, a mother whose daughter had suffered a heroin overdose in 2015. She focused mainly on a need to increase funding for addiction research and help to victims, especially during, “the worst heroin epidemic we’ve ever seen.”

~Ridgley Knapp

 

The Comey Case

In a presidency that has produced a Muslim ban that wasn’t a Muslim ban, multiple attempts to strip Americans of healthcare, and the use of the US Army’s largest non-nuclear bomb, it would be easy to dismiss President Trump’s most recent decision to fire FBI Director James Comey as par for the course. Yet it is anything but. This move coupled with Republicans’ refusal to appoint a special prosecutor threatens the integrity of America’s system of law enforcement and has the potential to wreak the most long-term destruction of any of this presidency’s actions.

Let’s go back to the beginning. On Tuesday, May 9, the White House announced that President Trump had fired Comey “based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.” In Trump’s letter to Comey, he claimed that the former director was “not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” but when acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, he claimed that “Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.” So there seem to be some flaws with the Department of Justice’s evaluation of the situation, but at least the President is listening to his advisors, right?

Moving forward. Two days after news broke of Comey’s dismissal, Trump announced in an interview with NBC News that he “was going to fire regardless of the recommendation.” I take back the part about Trump at least listening to his advisors. Trump did something Jeff Sessions happened to agree with.

Regardless of who made the decision, Sessions and Trump’s involvement in the FBI’s prominent Russia investigation makes both of them unfit to make this call. Criminals don’t get to choose who decides their guilt. President Trump, on the other hand, will get to do just that when he appoints the new FBI director—an appointment that will likely be accompanied by an instruction slipped under the table (“do what I say or you’re fired”).

The termination is made even more suspicious by its timing. Mere hours before Comey was fired, CNN reported that the FBI had issued subpoenas to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and his associates. The New York Times later reported that Comey had requested more resources to put towards the Russia investigation just days before he was forced to vacate his position at the top of the FBI.

Both the two leading decision-makers’ potential involvement in an active FBI investigation and the firing’s taking place so soon after the inquiry began to speed up suggest James Comey’s termination was not done because he was truly unfit to lead the Bureau, but instead because he was investigating Trump and his administration. Russia interfered with our election and showed that it plans to continue meddling when it hacked Emmanuel Macron’s email mere days before the French election. Vladimir Putin cannot be allowed to undermine western democracy by helping unqualified candidates reach office. That is a nonpartisan issue. Firing the leader of an ongoing investigation into his government’s actions at the very least undermines the investigation’s integrity and has the potential to allow Russia and all of their collaborators now present in the Trump administration to get away with election manipulation. By firing Comey, President Trump is failing to uphold his duty to keep elections fair and to hold foreign powers accountable.

If endangering the integrity of western democracy wasn’t enough, Trump’s decision also sets a dangerous legal precedent in our own country. Comey’s firing marks only the second time in the history of the FBI that its director was fired. When William Sessions was fired in 1993, he had lost the respect of much of the Bureau, which, as mentioned above, Comey had not. Presidents cannot be allowed to dismantle law enforcement if it reaches (or nears) a decision they disagree with. As a leader of an apolitical organization, the director of the FBI is deliberately appointed to 10-year terms so that they outlast any one president’s tenure. Trump’s reckless action opens the door for future presidents to treat the FBI as their lapdog.

Before I close, I’ll address the ridiculous argument that Trump fired Comey because of the way he handled the Hillary Clinton investigation during the election. Do people really believe that the same guy who riled up crowds with cries of “lock her up” now sympathizes with his former opponent? It is outrageous to claim that the Republicans suddenly care about the treatment of a woman against whom they have led witch-huts for years. What’s more, if the GOP wasn’t concerned with what would come out of the FBI’s inquiry into Russian interference in the election, it wouldn’t have rejected Democrats’ requests for an independent investigation of Russia’s involvement.

President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey is one of his most reckless actions yet. It threatens both the integrity of future elections around the world and the political independence of American law enforcement. Congress cannot allow Trump to appoint his own prosecutors and jury. They must appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. The President needs to know that he is not above the law and will be punished for his actions.

~Danny Eisgruber