So Now What? Archive

Why I Just Voted for Jim Kenney and Helen Gym

Posted May 19, 2015 By Dave Thomer

I just got home from voting in the Philadelphia Democratic primary. I cast votes in a handful of races, but the two I’m most excited about – and will have me most anxious while checking results tonight – were my votes for Jim Kenney for mayor and Helen Gym for City Council at Large.

Now, you could be saying, “Dave, aren’t you a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers? And didn’t the PFT endorse those two candidates? Isn’t telling us that you voted for them an entry in the Blatantly Obvious?”

Well, thanks for asking. The answer to the first two questions is definitely yes, and the third is a definite maybe. But what’s important is why I voted for these two candidates so enthusiastically, and in fact donated to both of them. In both cases, the candidates’ personalities and history sealed the deal even before the PFT made its endorsements.


A lot of the biographical coverage of Jim Kenney has mentioned his Jesuit education. I had 16 years of Catholic education – 19 if you count preschool – culminating in four years at Fordham University. As an adult, I have been conflicted about that part of my education. I had great teachers, and many of them impressed upon me the Catholic Church’s commitment to social justice. But my Catholic education also didn’t expose me to many other viewpoints, and I think it gave me some baggage in terms of backwards views on gender equality and LGBT equality that I had to overcome. The Jesuits were my idea of a tolerant, questioning Catholicism that served the community, and even they weren’t perfect. Kenney has taken the Jesuits’ example and run with it in order to make a lot of progressive change in Philadelphia, from LGBT equality to marijuana decriminalization to a more humane policy on immigration and law enforcement. I admire that greatly.

I also admire his instincts. I think he could do a lot to capitalize on Philadelphia’s potential right now. He has put together a terrific campaign and built a bandwagon with plenty of room. And how can I not love a candidate who would send this message to George Takei after the controversy regarding Indiana’s “religious freedom” law?


If you have followed the education battles in Philadelphia over the last few years, you know Helen Gym. As an activist she has worked hard to bring people together and call attention to the poor decisions made by Pennsylvania state government and the School Reform Commission, among other groups. I actually first noticed Helen during the fight over casino licenses in Philadelphia, when she worked just as hard to bring people together and preserve Chinatown and surrounding neighborhoods from casino development. So I already knew the passion that she brings to a cause, and I’ve been glad to see her deploy it on an issue that means so much to me personally and professionally.

But look at that phrase: bringing people together. That’s an important part of how Helen sees the world, and it’s something that I think people miss. When she entered the race, I made a joke on Twitter about her relationship with then-SRC chair Bill Green.

Green replied to me:

And a small Twitter argument ensued. But here’s the thing. Look at that Philadelphia magazine exchange that Green tried to point to as evidence that Gym had “no solutions.” Helen kept saying that she wanted to see parents and communities more involved in making the decisions and shaping the vision of the schools. Green kept asking her for her specific proposal to replace Superintendent Hite’s Action Plan proposal. My reading of that conversation is that the solution that Helen advocates is getting the community involved to make decisions – a more deliberative view of democracy than I think Green has.

Now, if that more deliberative model is just a different way to argue about which essential services to cut because the schools don’t have enough resources, then it’s not necessarily going to be much of an improvement. But if the school district had all its funding dreams come true tomorrow, there would still be a substantial disagreement about how to spend those funds. And I think Helen’s model is the better approach, and one that can be brought to many issues beyond education. I hope that she has the chance to try in Council next year.


In my education politics news roundup this week, I noted that the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers has endorsed U.S. Representative Allyson Schwartz for the Democratic nomination for governor of Pennsylvania. Without knowing any of the internal discussions or consideration that led to this decision, I think this was a mistake, and I hope that my union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, does not replicate it.

When a group like a union makes a political endorsement, I believe it is trying to accomplish two things. One, it wants the see that the winner of the race is someone who is already inclined to support the same things that it wants. Two, it wants the winner of the race to feel like it helped the winner to win, so that the winner will continue to be responsive to the group’s desires. I think these are both appropriate things to do, given our electoral and political system. There are always tradeoffs to be made in policymaking, and interest groups are constantly competing to make sure that they are on the right side of those tradeoffs. It would be foolish to assume that any officeholder is an automaton who can somehow make policy decisions from a position of true neutrality, so competition of interest groups is what we have.

Given those two needs, I have been wondering what Schwartz brings to the table that other Democratic candidates do not. I have lived in Schwartz’s district since before she won the seat, and I honestly do not remember education being a particularly vital issue in her campaigns. My own mental associations with Schwartz are more focused on women’s rights and health care issues, along with a slight tendency toward the moderate side of the Democratic economic spectrum. But my memory might be faulty, so I tried to find some examples that Schwartz is a strong supporter of the kinds of education policies that would benefit teachers and students in districts like Pittsburgh.

Charter school expansion tends to be a hot-button issue within Democratic circles, with some Democrats more inclined to favor creating more charter schools and others opposed. Since the charter school funding system is one of the major things that have contributed to Philadelphia’s funding problems, I did a Google search for “Allyson Schwartz charter schools.” In ten pages of results, I found a number of stories relating to the current campaign, but the only thing I found about Schwartz’s record on education was that she voted in favor of a Republican-authored bill called the Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act. This bill, which did not pass the Senate, “encourages states to support the development and expansion of charter schools,” according to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Granted, it passed 365-54, so it’s not like it was a contentious vote. But the National Education Association did oppose the measure, so at the very least I would say that Schwartz was not being a leader on the issue from the public school side.

Again, I don’t put a lot of stock in this one vote. I do put stock in the fact that this was the only story I found about Schwartz and charter schools. Furthermore, in the Pittsburgh union’s press release, the union does not cite any particular action that Schwartz has taken in her congressional or state legislative career to show leadership on the issue of education. I did another search on “Allyson Schwartz health care,” and within two pages of results I found articles citing her role in developing tax credits for medical research and an interview where she discussed her work on health care in Congress. At the end of that interview, she was asked about her priorities and she said:

Fiscal responsibility. This government has borrowed and spent money we simply don’t have. We need to work toward a balanced budget to reduce debt because if we don’t, we’ll leave it to our children and grandchildren. Restoring integrity, finding common ground, facing challenges from economic competitiveness to access to health care, to safety in the world; those are the broad themes I’m interested in. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, I will play a role in expanding access to health care and making sure we meet our commitment to seniors and to reimburse our hospitals and physicians. I’ve also been engaged in some of the issues around energy – I have some legislation to promote energy efficient commercial buildings and also dealing with global warming and energy independence.

Do you see education anywhere in that paragraph? I don’t. Now compare the Health Care issue page (t pages of updates) on her congressional website with the Education issue page (two pages of updates). Which one looks like it’s been a priority during her time in Washington?

Now, even if Schwartz hasn’t been a leader on education while in Congress, I could understand endorsing her if she had come out with a strong position on education that set her above all of the other candidates. But I don’t see how that’s true either. The union’s release cites the education plan that she recently released that would push to expand access to pre-K and reverse the Corbett budget cuts. Those are certainly good things, but Schwartz expects to take a long time to accomplish either task – she’s clearly not making it a day one priority. Again, looking at her website and Twitter feed, she doesn;t seem to be talking about education very much.

Other candidates have been much more forceful in talking about education. Former environmental protection secretary John Hanger has made multiple tours of the state in a school bus; participated in a hunger strike over Philadelphia budget cuts; has constantly highlighted the poor academic record of cyber charter schools that drain funds from districts; and made reversing the Corbett cuts a centerpiece of his economic plan. State Treasurer Rob McCord has been talking about public education since the second he got into the race last month, and although he has not released a plan he did answer the Keystone Politics questionnaire which goes into detail on education. Former revenue secretary Tom Wolf has highlighted the education issue on his website. To me, any of these three candidates are better choices for a candidate who will emphasize public education in the upcoming campaign and (hopefully the administration to follow.

So what is the Pittsburgh union hoping to achieve with this endorsement? Again, I have no inside knowledge, but I wonder if it’s not along the lines of my second reason. Schwartz is currently the leader in many polls for the primary. By getting on board with her campaign now, perhaps the Pittsburgh union is hoping that they will have some clout if she becomes governor. If that is the reason, I think it is shortsighted politically. Organizations like EMILY’s List backed Schwartz very early. If she wins, those are the groups that will have the most pull. If union support could help push someone like Hanger or McCord into the lead, then those candidates would have much more reason to be supportive once elected. Endorsing a front-runner is a low-risk, low-reward move. Endorsing someone who comes from behind is higher-risk, but high-reward. Given the state of public education in Pennsylvania, I think we need to take some chances and make some bold moves.

Let me make something clear here. I am not attacking Schwartz. If she wins the nomination, I will absolutely support her against Corbett. But in a primary election, you have room to dream a little and push for your ideal candidate, not the one that your party has agreed on. If I were a health care organization or a women’s rights organization, I would probably be breaking down doors to support her campaign. But while I see Schwartz as a decent candidate for education, I don’t see her as a great one. And right now, finding and supporting a great candidate for education should be a priority for every teacher and education advocate in this state.


Education continues to simmer as a significant issue in the gubernatorial campaign.

Schwartz gets Pittsburgh teachers union endorsement: The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (AFT Local 400) endorsed U.S. Representative Allyson Schwartz for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, citing Schwartz’s plan to restore the education funds cut by Governor Corbett over four years and invest in a plan to expand universal pre-K over ten years.

Candidates comment on lack of nurses, student death in Philadelphia: The death of 12-year-old Laporshia Massey in September due to complications from asthma has gained national attention this week after the Philadelphia City Paper reported that there was no nurse on duty at her school when she reported difficulty breathing. Many Philadelphia schools do not have nurses on duty five days a week, and that situation has been exacerbated by this year’s budget cuts. Massey’s father believes that a trained nurse would have recognized the severity of the situation and worked to get proper medical attention earlier. State Treasurer Rob McCord and former Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger shared the story on their social media feeds and reiterated their opposition to the education funding cuts. Searches on Twitter, Google, and candidates’ web sites did not turn up comments by any other candidates.

Philadelphia symposium part of funding formula push: The Philadelphia Mayor’s Office and several other organizations partnered to hold a symposium to highlight the effect that Governor Corbett and the legislature’s decision to stop using the funding formula established in 2008 has had on Philadelphia education. Under the formula, experts said, the School District of Philadelphia would have received more than $300 million in additional funding this year, more than enough to eliminate the deficit that resulted in the “Doomsday budget.” Participants described the symposium as an early step in an ongoing campaign to reestablish a funding formula for Pennsylvania and reduce disparities between local districts.


The gubernatorial candidates didn’t make much news on the education front this week. So I’m going to highlight one recent story and one older story about efforts in the state legislature to change the way that communities supervise and pay for their education systems.

House passes bill to allow for flexibility in local funding: The state House approved a bill that would allow local school boards to raise certain taxes such as business taxes, sales taxes, or wage taxes in order to reduce property taxes. The passage came after the House rejected a different bill that would have eliminated property taxes altogether and replaced them with the alternate taxes. The difference between the bills is that local boards can choose to replace property taxes, but are not required to do so. The bill still needs to pass the Senate. The bill does not establish a funding formula for the state.

State senator wants to create elected Philadelphia school board: State Senator Mike Stack has proposed that the School Reform Commission be replaced by a nine-member board elected by Philadelphia voters. The Mayor would gain the power to appoint the district’s superintendent. The board would not have any power over funding, with control over local taxes remaining with City Council and the Mayor.


Pennsylvania Education and Politics Review – Week of 9/22/13

Posted September 28, 2013 By Dave Thomer


Any effort to turn around the funding challenges faced by Philadelphia and other urban districts in Pennsylvania has to include an effort to change the political dynamic in Harrisburg. In an effort to stay informed of the campaigns and other efforts to make that change happen, I am starting a weekly roundup of political news related to public education. There will be a heavy but not exclusive focus on the gubernatorial campaign. As events warrant I will also look at the legislature, legislative campaigns, Congressional activities, and even maneuvering for the 2015 Philadelphia elections. I will try to keep the editorial commenting to a minimum – or more accurately, I will save that for other posts.

With that out of the way, there are two major stories from this week, both related to the governor’s race.

Rob McCord enters race:

State Treasurer Rob McCord officially entered the race for the Democratic nomination for governor. McCord has won statewide election twice and has been making the rounds of the state for months. He is from Montgomery County and went to Lower Merion High School. Upon entering the race he said, “job one for the next governor is to reverse these horrible cuts in education. That’s job one, by any means necessary.”

His campaign website is still rolling out and thin on details.

McCord has answered Keystone Politics’ candidate questionnaire, which leads off with two questions on education. He stated a desire to move away from reliance on local property taxes as a funding source and a need for the state to commit to providing extra funds to districts that need it. He praised former governor Rendell for establishing a funding formula but did not commit to restoring it, instead saying that he wanted to look at all possible methods of ensuring equitable funding.

Allyson Schwartz announces education plans:

Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz spoke about her education plans in a conference call with reporters. She emphasized early education, planning to use existing programs to increase access to full-day kindergarten and pre-k for four-year-olds. These programs would not establish mandatory programs, but provide funding and incentives to get more districts to offer the programs.

Schwartz has criticized Governor Corbett for the cuts to education over the last three years but seems cautious in how she would undo them. She laid out a ten-year deadline for her preschool programs and said that it would take her a full four-year term to restore state education funding to prior levels. She said that the state could afford to put more money into education by redirecting some money from cyber charters and by enacting the severance tax on natural gas extractors that she recently proposed.


Primary Choices: Evaluating the 2014 PA-Gov Field

Posted July 31, 2013 By Dave Thomer

It’s July 31, 2013. The Pennsylvania primary is in May 2014. So it’s time to decide who I want to be the Democratic nominee for governor.

You may ask why I’m looking to make my choice roughly 10 months before the actual primary election. Wouldn’t it be wiser to wait and see what the candidates say and do during the campaign and then make my choice at the last minute, with the most information possible?

By the time next May rolls around, the field will have shaken out. Some candidates will have been able to break out, get name recognition, and gather support. Some will not. There will be a lot more polling data that shows who’s leading and who’s not. I’ll have to make a tactical choice at that point, and decide which of the viable candidates is most preferable.

Right now, the field is relatively wide open. No one has much name recognition throughout the state. And tonight is a quarterly filing deadline. So by choosing a candidate now, and making even a small donation, I can help whichever candidate I think is the very best in the field have a slightly better chance of still being around when it’s time to make that tactical choice. And since fewer people are paying attention to the race now, my pebble will make a slightly bigger ripple in the pond.

This is one small part of the idea that being a citizen in a democracy requires more than just voting in elections. It requires involvement in the process from a much earlier point.

Now the truth is I have been following the Democratic primary out of one corner of my eye so far. So today I am going to change that. I am going to go through each of the candidates’ websites and see what I can learn, and decide if any of the candidates deserve my early support. I’ll try to supplement that with whatever news coverage or interviews I can find.

Before I start, here are the three issues I am going to pay the most attention to, although I reserve the right for a candidate to wow me with a proposal on some other front.

Education: I am a teacher. My wife works for a higher education institution. My daughter is a public school student. This is the ultimate case of self interest. It’s also vital to the future of the city I live in and the state as a whole, so I think I’m justified in putting it at number one. I’m looking for a candidate who has thought through how to more fairly fund education throughout the state and who won’t pour what resources we have into excessive use of standardized tests.

Environment/Energy: There’s a natural gas boom in Pennsylvania. I want to support a candidate who will make sure that the companies that profit from this boom are making a substantial contribution to support the state and to mitigate the environmental impacts of fracking. I also want to see a candidate use the funds from that boom to invest in greener forms of energy so that natural gas is a transition, not an end state.

Infrastructure/Transportation: I’d like to see a plan to invest in the state infrastructure, not just to build and repair roads but also to improve mass transit.

And I will give a slight edge to a candidate from the Philadelphia area in southeast Pennsylvania. There is a clear geographic rivalry in Pennsylvania. Many people in other areas of the state do not like the southeast. At the same time, a Democratic candidate can run up the score in the southeast and lose in many of the state’s other counties, and still get elected. So if we’re going to have this regional dynamic, we may as well take advantage of it. Plus I want the eventual governor to know that he or she relies on the southeast as a base of support and therefore be willing to fight on its behalf.

OK, so those are my criteria. I’m going to start going to each candidate’s website in alphabetical order and I will share my impressions as I do. The bold name at the start of each section links to the candidate’s website. I took screen captures of each home page, so you can get an idea of what I saw.

John Hanger

John Hanger was a Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commissioner under Governor Casey and the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection toward the end of Governor Rendell’s term. As I get to the home page the first thing I see is “Support Public Education.” Scroll down, and there’s a six point agenda. There’s also a link to a blog item about the state wasting money on failing cyberschools. The home page has definitely grabbed my interest, so let me see what he has to say about the issues.

There’s nothing specific about revising the funding formula, but he does want to restore the money that Governor Corbett cut from education starting in 2011. He’s actually more specific in the “8-Point Strategic Jobs Plan” that’s available as a PDF – he wants the state to chip in 50 percent of the costs of public education. I wish that were in the section on education, but I’m going to cut some slack based on the idea that not everyone who visits the website is going to want as much policy wonkery as I am. The jobs plan has specifics about issuing bonds to pay for sewer and water infrastructure, and implies that he wants billions more for transportation funding over the next few years. The jobs policy also wants to double investment in alternative energies. It is probably a smart move to tie a lot of the agenda items into the effort to create new jobs.

Hanger’s blog has short items every day or two that talk about the campaign or events that he can connect back to the agenda items. It’s not a ton, but it is definitely good to see him constantly adding content and trying to use social media to share it. (I also like that he has a brief post supporting the idea of replacing the death penalty with life without parole.)

OK, I am definitely impressed by the website. It has detail, I don’t see any suggestions I can not support, and his priorities sync up pretty well with mine. The rest of the candidates are definitely going to have to show me why they’re better than Hanger.

Jo Ellen Litz

Jo Ellen Litz is a county commissioner from Lebanon County. I knew absolutely nothing about her until today, when I found a newspaper article from a month ago when she announced her candidacy. Let’s take a look at her website.

OK, that is just a muddled mess that gives me no confidence that Litz can run a good campaign. She’s touting herself as being from a rural county in south-central Pennsylvania, so I have no confidence that she will be engaged in helping the state’s urban areas. Her policy platform is not very specific, and I don’t know why a candidate for governor has “Provide for a strong national defense” as the number three issue on the agenda.

Rob McCord

Rob McCord is currently the state treasurer. He has not officially announced that he is running, so his website still reflects his last run for treasurer. So many news accounts have suggested that he is going to declare his candidacy in the fall, so I felt like I should check him out. But if he’s not going to officially ask me to support him for governor, I can’t give him my support.

But seriously, take a look at the guy’s Twitter account. He’s running.

Katie McGinty

Katie McGinty was also a Secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection under Governor Rendell. The biography page on her website is hugely impressive. She grew up in northeast Philadelphia, graduated from the same high school that my mother did, and went to St. Joseph’s University. So the local link is definitely there. She clerked in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, was an aide to Al Gore when he was a senator, and then chaired the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Clinton. Given that background, I assume she is not personally responsible for the typos on the page.

Her Vision page is very light on specifics; to the extent that there is a focus it is on the connection between environmental sustainability and jobs. The word “education” does not appear on the page. The media section includes press releases about milestones in the campaign, such as endorsements and poll showings, and a few criticisms of Governor Corbett and the Pennsylvania legislature. Someone as brilliant as McGinty’s bio suggests ought to have more ideas about how to improve the state, and someone who wants the public’s support ought to be willing to share those ideas.

McGinty seems like the kind of person I would really like to support. I’m not sure I can do it with the lack of specifics.

Max Myers

Max Myers is a pastor and businessman. He is another person who was completely off my radar before I started this research today. His website is just as polished as Hanger’s or McGinty’s. The top item on his website is an open letter to Governor Corbett, dated July 1, that urges Corbett not to attack the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in order to boost his re-election prospects. It’s well-written and sets an interesting tone – it’s not slamming Corbett, it’s appealing to him to do the right thing. I like the approach, even though it’s obvious that Corbett’s not listening to the advice.

His Vision page says that he has four primary priorities, and then lists only three: Poverty, Employment, and Leadership. There are no details on how he would address these. His additional priorities are Energy, Arts, Equal Rights, Education, Environment, and Seniors. Again, no specifics are provided.

Myers seems like a good person, but he would have to overcome his lack of government experience with some seriously good and innovative ideas, and they’re just not here.

Allyson Schwartz

Allyson Schwartz is the U.S. Representative for Pennsylvania’s 13th District, which includes my neighborhood. Before that she was a member of the Pennsylvania state senate, so she has experience with the state government. She is considered a front-runner for the nomination.

This status can not possibly be a result of her campaign website, which is a single page that contains links to press releases. There are 20 press releases in total. 14 of those 20 releases are about polls, endorsements, or campaign milestones. The other six are almost utterly devoid of detail.

OK, maybe Schwartz is playing it safe and trying not to give anyone any ammunition for either the primary or the general campaign. But I have to say that this just smacks of entitlement. It seems like we are expected to support Schwartz because she’s already winning, not because of anything in particular she wants to do.

Given the resources at Schwartz’s disposal, I expect much more from her.

Tom Wolf

Tom Wolf is a businessman and was the Secretary of Revenue under Governor Rendell. His website’s home page features a biographical video about his business background, a message supporting Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s decision not to defend Pennsylvania’s law against same sex marriage, and a criticism of Governor Corbett’s job record. His issues section includes pages on Jobs, Education, Infrastructure, Seniors, and Fairness. The education page criticizes Corbett’s cuts and wants to establish universal pre-K. Other than that it is light on specifics, such as how this would be funded. The job page cites clean-energy jobs as a way to boost Pennsylvania’s manufacturing. The infrastructure plan mentions broadband access in addition to the usual roads and bridges, which I think is a nice touch. Under fairness, Wolf combines support for higher taxes on corporations, support for marriage equality, and support for abortion rights.

Like McGinty’s site, there’s nothing here that knocks Wolf out. But there’s nothing that makes me say, “Yeah, I want him!” If he were the Democratic nominee, I’d have no problem supporting him. But I can’t find a compelling reason why he should be the nominee and not anyone else.


So where am I after all of this? Intrigued by McGinty, and hoping she expands her platform. Irritated at Schwartz. But for now, I feel like not only is Hanger saying more things that I agree with, he is running his campaign itself in a way that I agree with. So while I reserve the right to change my mind as the campaign progresses, for now I am going to make a contribution to Hanger’s campaign. I want to do my part to show that there is a reward for telling the voters what you want to do, and hopefully nudge the other candidates toward some of Hanger’s positions. I’ll keep following the campaigns, and check in with another post at the end of the next quarter.


It Starts By Showing Up

Posted January 3, 2012 By Dave Thomer

In 2010, there were over 2 million registered voters in the state of Iowa.

Over 600,000 of them were registered Republicans.

Approximately 100,000 voters showed up for the Iowa caucuses tonight.

As I write this at 11:29 EST, Rick Santorum leads Mitt Romney by 72 votes and Ron Paul by fewer than 4000.

The headlines we will see tomorrow could easily have been different, depending on how those 500,000 people who didn’t show up feel.

But when you don’t show up, you give your voice to the people who do.


Occupy the Voting Booth Revisited

Posted November 7, 2011 By Dave Thomer

OK, so maybe I’m a little sensitive since I just wrote my piece on why the Occupy movement needs an electoral strategy. (And yeah, Occupy a Voting Booth does not really appear to be a unique title on my part, but sometimes the obvious choices are good ones.) But this piece in the Philadelphia Daily News putting down the idea that Occupiers should care about voting really aggravated me. It came off as ax-grinding, and poorly-researched and poorly-thought-out ax-grinding.

Will Bunch sets up the question like this:

The main kiosk at the west entrance to Occupy Philly is plastered with fliers for a “die-in” later today at PNC Bank and a Tuesday night event,”Why Does the Curfew Matter to Occupy Philadelphia?” but not one reference to Election Day.
Indeed, when it comes to the anti-corporate-greed Occupy movement that has blown open the national political dialogue in just six short weeks since it debuted on Wall Street, the main election debate is this:
Do elections even matter?

Bunch then dismisses those voices saying that Occupy should be part of the electoral process by calling them “voices of the Establishment” before approvingly quoting Michael Moore:

Michael Moore, the left-wing filmmaker and rabble rouser who has spoken at Occupy rallies from New York’s Zuccotti Park to Oakland, says that an emphasis on voting is tantamount to an endorsement of politics as usual.
“This movement is so beyond just, ‘Hey, let’s get behind this candidate, get them elected to office,’ ” Moore told CNN’s Anderson Cooper last week. “Those days are over. You know, we’ve all worked for candidates. We’ve all voted. We’ve all participated. And what have we gotten out of it?”

OK, here’s the thing. Since 1968 there have been 11 presidential elections. Call 2000 a split, and Republicans have won six and Democrats have won 4. So if Moore’s wondering why it doesn’t seem like voting has gotten him and the left very much, it’s because they’ve lost more than they’ve won. So one possibility is that the public doesn’t agree with Moore and the leftward tilt of movements like Occupy – in which case it’s pretty silly for Occupy to say “We are the 99%” when they’re not even 50% plus one. Another possibility is that Occupy does represent a majority of Americans – but that majority can’t enact its preferences because, despite Moore’s claim, they’re not participating.

Bunch then goes on to cite a common justification for not-voting:

“If elections changed anything, they would be important,” said C.T. Lawrence Butler, a founder of the Food Not Bombs movement, who was visiting Occupy Philly from a commune north of Baltimore. “But most of the time it’s between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.” Surveys have shown that a majority of Occupy protesters voted for Obama in 2008, but are fed up over his coddling of Wall Street or the unending war in Afghanistan.

I’m going to put aside the reference to “his coddling of Wall Street” because that’s an entire topic on its own, but are we really still going with “There’s no difference between the candidates” in 2011? Are there people who think that Al Gore would have pursued the same policies that George W. Bush did? Are there people who think that John McCain would have signed any kind of law expanding access to health insurance or any kind of law regulating Wall Street or setting up a consumer finance protection bureau?

Go ahead and say these measures aren’t enough. Go ahead and demand more. But recognize that the conservative movement has been pushing its agenda since 1980. They didn’t get it all when Ronald Reagan was elected. They didn’t get it all when George H.W. Bush was elected. They didn’t get it all when George W. Bush was elected or re-elected. But they’ve kept pushing and they’ve kept turning out to vote. The only way to push back is to vote against them.

Bunch quotes an independent party candidate for a local office who is frustrated that she can’t get more support from the Occupiers, who don’t seem interested in voting at all. Then he turns his fire at the “pundits” again, including his own bosses who, apparently, envisioned a different article from Bunch and share my good taste in titles:

To the “grown-up” punditry class – including even the Daily News editors who assigned me to this article to match a front page picturing a voting booth with the words “Occupy This!” – a move into elections will be a much-needed sign of maturity for the Occupiers.
Here’s why the political pundits (including Daily News editors) are wrong, in my opinion.
Remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the guy with the national holiday and that big statue on the National Mall. Do you know how many political candidates or parties King endorsed in his career? Zero.

OK. The entire piece was bad, but now we have just gone horribly, horribly wrong.

First of all, so far, the entire article has been about voting. Not endorsements, not running candidates, but voting. Does anyone want to claim that King and the civil rights movement didn’t care about participating in the voting process? Does anyone want to claim that King didn’t want people to vote because it didn’t really matter? Do I have to write a few hundred words about the Voting Rights Act, or the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s attempt to seat African-American delegates to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, or the voter registration drives, or the confrontations with Southern sheriffs provoked merely by an African-American attempting to register to vote? No? Good.

But let’s go to the larger point about King and endorsements. OK, King never said “I endorse so and so.” But in 1960, when he was in jail due to a traffic ticket, John F. Kennedy called his wife Coretta and Robert F. Kennedy worked behind the scenes to get King released. King’s father endorsed Kennedy over Nixon. King himself came out with effusive public praise of Kennedy even though he said he needed to remain officially neutral. King knew that he was helping Kennedy, and he thought that was a good idea. In 1964, King was not as fond of Lyndon Johnson, but he denounced Barry Goldwater and urged people not to vote for him. That doesn’t sound like someone remaining neutral in the electoral process.

OK, we’re in the home stretch now. What else does Bunch have to say?

In six remarkable weeks, the movement that began with Occupy Wall Street has changed the national conversation so that foreclosure, student debt and the lack of jobs are no longer taboo words on cable-news shows. Everyone should vote, and there will surely be some 2012 campaigns – consumer-advocate Elizabeth Warren’s Massachusetts Senate bid is a template – that stir this movement.

Side note – hey, you know who else started talking about the lack of jobs and student debt back in August and September? Some guy named Barack Obama. Just a coincidence, I’m sure.

But look at that last sentence. “Everyone should vote.”

Everyone should vote? Really? You’ve just spent how much time questioning whether elections really matter and arguing that it’s between Tweedldee and Teedledum but in the end you’re going to say that everyone should vote? Which, by the way, is the point of the newspaper cover you mocked your editors for using?

Who’s the more foolish, the fool or the fool who spends two hours critiquing his foolishness?


Occupy a Voting Booth

Posted November 1, 2011 By Dave Thomer

Yesterday I suggested that without an electoral strategy, the Occupy movement would probably need to focus on economic and social disruption in order to achieve their goals. I’d like to return to that idea of an electoral strategy for a moment. I understand that the Occupy movement taps into sentiments across the political spectrum, and I don’t want to lump them all together as some kind of left wing Tea Party. So I am not surprised that there are no candidates jumping up to run on the Occupy party line the way many conservatives jumped to run on or under the Tea Party banner. But I still think that the shortest line between the present and the desired future of the Occupy movement runs straight through the voting booth.

If “We are the 99%” were the literal truth and not a slogan, there should be no way that anyone could stand in the Occupiers’ path. Yes, there are all sorts of problems with voting access and counting in this country. But if 99% of the eligible voters showed up all over the country with a common agenda, one of three things would happen: 1) they’d win; 2) they’d stage a revolution to overcome whatever obvious rigging prevented them from winning; 3) they’d roll over and prove that no one should care about what happens to them because they don’t. Since one-third to one-half of eligible voters don’t bother to vote for the president, let alone Congress or governors, we’re a long way from that point. Either people are happy with the way things are, or they’re not bothering to change them in the easiest way that we have.

I mean, let’s face it. Occupy can talk about being inspired by Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring, but those movements had one straightforward demand: “Guy who we don’t like, give up power.” We don’t have to stand around in crowds for weeks to make someone do that. We just have to stand in a voting booth (and whatever line is waiting to use it) on one or two days a year. That’s why Occupy doesn’t have a simple message like “Guy we don’t like, go away.” We have a system that would allow the people to send that simple message, and quite often the people don’t bother to use it.

Indeed, the Adbusters post that suggested Occupy Wall Street during the summer said that Occupy’s simple “simple, uncomplicated demand” should be:

we demand that Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.

Because presidential commissions that have no power to change any laws are the clear paths to enduring social change.

Maybe you’re saying, “Dave, we tried the electoral strategy in 2008. Remember Change You Can Believe In? Remember Hope? Remember Change We Need? We tried it. We elected Obama, we elected a Democratic House, we even had a 60-vote Democratic majority in the Senate. Where’s the change?”

It’s a valid complaint, even though I’m one of those people who think President Obama and Congress accomplished a lot of things from 2009-2010 within the constraints of the system. If I were to try to make a reply, I would say that the big problem is that even while voters were electing a president who campaigned on change, they were electing a lot of Representatives and Senators who didn’t. Whether you support Obama or not, it’s quite clear that he was not able to enact whatever part of his platform that he wanted. This is one reason why I rarely pay attention to presidential platforms and proposals. You have to ask what the Congress will pass.

And let’s look at Congress. One of the Democratic leaders in the Senate is Chuck Schumer from New York. That makes sense, since New York is one of the most reliable Democratic states in national elections. And Schumer is able to get a lot of campaign donations not just for himself but for other Democratic candidates, which gives him a fair amount of influence in the caucus. What else is in New York?

Oh yeah. Wall Street. Guess we know where a lot of that campaign money is coming from. So raise your hand if you’re surprised that Schumer might be a little hesitant to really sock it to Wall Street and other financial companies. Yeah, I didn’t think so.

So what’s the alternative? Vote for the Republican? He or she would have lots of corporate support too. Vote for the Greens or some other third party? I tend to think that third party strategies don’t help move policy in the third party’s direction, because of Duverger’s law. But before Schumer can run against a Republican or a Green, he has to run against any other Democrat who thinks he or she can do a better job. He has to run in a primary.

Now, in the world we live in, this is no big problem. Schumer will raise a bajillion dollars, some protest candidate will raise $20.67, Schumer will win handily even if there’s a protest vote and everybody looks ahead to November.

But what if the 99% decided “Not this time”?

What if the public decided that they would reject any candidate who opposed major structural reform of the financial system? Or that they would target the problem of money in politics by rejecting any candidate who raised more than, say, $100,000? (This is a ridiculous number, deliberately so. Major political campaigns cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.) Schumer would be gone, and whoever replaced him would owe nothing to Wall Street. Repeat the process across the nation and suddenly Congress would care a lot less about fundraisers and a lot more about constituent service.

Notice, there’s no new law required here. No major push for campaign finance reform. No need to try to get past a Supreme Court that equates money with speech and corporations with citizens. No feeble bureaucracy powerless to enforce its own edicts. We’d just have to decide that we wanted something different and vote accordingly.

Maybe you don’t want to deploy this strategy against Senators and Representatives right away. Maybe you think it’s too hard to attract good candidates for these jobs without promising them lots of party and financial support. Fine, let’s start small and build a farm team. Want to serve on City Council? Keep your campaign costs under $5,000 or go home. Mayor? We’ll let you spend ten grand. In five or ten years we’ll have some people ready to run for Congress or governorships on a budget.

But how will we find out about the candidates if they can’t inundate us with ads? News media, to the extent that you trust them. Facebook, social media, campaign volunteers and word of mouth, to the extent that you don’t. Is that a lot more work than just pulling campaign flyers out of your mailbox? Sure. But it’s a democracy, We get out what we put in. If we’re not putting in an effort and the 1% are, why be surprised when the government puts outs more effort for them than for us?

Do I think that this is going to happen? Not any time soon. But if you really think that we the people have lost control of the government and our society, then this is what I think we need to do to get it back.


What Are You Prepared to Give Up?

Posted October 31, 2011 By Dave Thomer

November 5 is Bank Transfer Day, an unofficial effort to collectively stick it to the large banks by closing accounts and taking business to smaller institutions that, presumably, will not precipitate major credit crises while maintaining a very high salary and bonus structure for top employees. It’s a good example of consumer activism in a capitalistic system – let your wallet do the talking and try to hit the people whose behavior you want to change in the pocket book. It’s a tactic that has a long and proud history that includes the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the Indian independence movement.

I do have one slightly cynical question. Seeing as we’re three years from a financial meltdown that left no one happy with bankers with the possible exception of their mothers, why is anyone with the option just getting around the leaving the big banks now? What motivated people to keep doing business with people whose practices they seemed to abhor? (You can include me in this category if you want – my “bank” accounts have almost always been with credit unions, but the large banks have been making considerable profit from my credit cards and student loans for years.)

My guess is that for many people, the status quo offered some convenience or enhancement that they were not prepared to sacrifice. Maybe they don’t want to have to rely on Wawa and the cash-back checkout option for surcharge-free ATM use. (Maybe they don’t even HAVE Wawas. How terrible.) Maybe there’s a loan connected to that savings account that can’t easily be separated. Maybe people just hate the paperwork. Whatever the reason, there are a bunch of people who didn’t want to hurt the banks because they’d hurt themselves in the process.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while as the Occupy movement has gained steam. And one reason that I am not an enthusiastic supporter is that I don’t get a sense of what the Occupiers are willing to give up in order to create the changes they want, so I can’t tell if I am willing to do the same. I recognize that the Occupiers are making individual sacrifices of time, energy, money, and supplies in order to keep the movement going and visible, and some have been arrested or injured in the process. I’m not questioning the level of commitment. What I’m thinking of here is a sustained program of consumer boycotts or civil disobedience that makes cooperating with Occupy – at least in part – a more profitable option than continuing to resist. Without an electoral strategy, I don’t see any other path to change beyond armed revolution. A mass of people showing they’re unhappy doesn’t motivate the corporate world to change. I’m reminded of the insurance manager from The Incredibles, Mr. Huph. When Bob asks his boss if he’s gotten any complaints about Bob’s work, Huph just smiles and replies, “Complaints, I can handle.” A mass of people costing the corporate world money; now, that will motivate change.

The problem is, the corporate world gives us a lot of things we like and we, as a society, don’t want to give them up. Maybe I’m not happy about the way that the companies who supply parts for Apple treat their workers. Many websites, for example, have reported on problems and suicides at Foxconn’s factory in China. Sure, it bothers me that people would treat each other that way. But it doesn’t bother me enough to stop listening to my iPod while I type this blog entry on a MacBook. People complain about the price of cable television, but they keep paying because they don’t want to give up ESPN or HBO. The path from where we are to the world we’d like to see is very long, and I’m not sure how much I want to walk it.

I’ve seen a lot of people (mis)quote Gandhi about protest and social movements. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The part that I don’t see as often is that for that progression to work, a large group of people has to be willing to keep fighting, and losing, until the tipping point is reached. Otherwise they can just keep on ignoring you. A minority can not oppress a majority unless the majority cooperates. But the minority has a lot of tools at its disposal to try to motivate the majority to do just that. The majority has to be willing to ensure losses and sacrifices that it could avoid by giving in, in order to have a hope of a better future that might make up for the losses. As rough as the last few years have been, I wonder if enough people are close enough to the bottom that they’re willing to give up what it takes to turn things around.

I wonder if I am.

And I think that means that however much blame I want to give people above my pay grade who ought to know better, I need to save a little for myself.