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Budget Fight: Obama Claims the Upper Hand Over Congress

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In this March 16, 2015, photo, President Barack Obama speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. Bolstered by a spate of upbeat economic news, Obama is claiming the upper hand in the budget fight unfolding in Congress. He’s aiming to exploit recent Republican stumbles to give Democrats an advantage _ despite their status as a weakened minority. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

In this March 16, 2015, photo, President Barack Obama speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. Bolstered by a spate of upbeat economic news, Obama is claiming the upper hand in the budget fight unfolding in Congress. He’’s aiming to exploit recent Republican stumbles to give Democrats an advantage despite their status as a weakened minority. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

JOSH LEDERMAN, Associated Press
JIM KUHNHENN, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Bolstered by a spate of upbeat economic news, President Barack Obama is claiming the upper hand in the budget fight unfolding in Congress, aiming to exploit recent Republican stumbles to give Democrats an advantage despite their status as a weakened minority. But while Obama retains full use of the bully pulpit, his leverage over matters of government spending may prove limited.

The White House has put a spotlight on GOP missteps and infighting in recent weeks, arguing that Republicans who promised to govern effectively are falling down on the job since taking control of Congress earlier this year. Drawing an implicit contrast, Obama has been playing up his own, unilateral economic steps as a way to show he’s the one setting Washington’s agenda.

“We’re going to have a robust debate,” Obama pledged Tuesday shortly after House Republicans released their $3.8 trillion budget.

Obama has stood firmly behind his insistence that Republicans increase spending on domestic programs — not just the Pentagon.

“The defining feature of this new Republican majority in Congress is them being on defense responding to the president’s agenda,” Brian Deese, an Obama senior adviser, said in an interview.

The current debate is over a budget resolution, a non-binding measure that doesn’t require Obama’s signature. Typically, Congress uses separate appropriations bills to fund various parts of the government, which makes it harder for the president to insist that Republicans pass funding for his priorities before he’ll approve funding for theirs.

As a result, the White House strategy is not so much designed to negotiate a bargain with Republicans as it is to keep Obama’s underlying economic message at the forefront while Republicans play out their own internal struggles. Such GOP divisions were on full display earlier in March when Republicans dropped their insistence on repealing Obama’s immigration directives and agreed to fund the Homeland Security Department — calling into question the GOP’s broader strategy to use spending bills as leverage against the president.

Still, the White House is taking a much more aggressive stance than it has in the past. In his budget proposal this year, Obama called for an equal surge in both domestic and defense spending, and his budget director, Shaun Donovan, told Congress on Monday that Obama “will not accept a budget” that does otherwise.

“It gives Democrats cover to say ‘no,'” said Stan Collender, a long-time budget analyst now with the Qorvis-MSL Group. “It gives them some backbone.”

The House Republican plan released Tuesday proposes major increases in military spending accompanied by big cuts to social programs like food stamps and Medicaid. The Senate GOP was to follow with its proposal on Wednesday.

“It’s not a budget that reflects the future. It’s not a budget that reflects growth.” Obama said following a St. Patrick’s Day meeting with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. “I’ll keep my four-leaf clover in my pocket and see if the speaker and (Senate Republican Leader) Mitch McConnell and others are interested in having that conversation.”

Even before unveiling their budget, the GOP leadership was struggling to calm tensions between defense hawks who want more money for the Pentagon and budget hard-liners who want to rein in federal spending. That may create an opening for Obama to exploit the fact that his budget calls for more money for defense than many conservative Republicans are willing to spend.

“They have Republicans in a bind — they really do,” said Steve Bell, a former Republican director of the Senate Budget Committee. “The Republican Party, which used to be the party of hawks, is now split.”

Obama’s aides said there was little concern at the White House that by holding his position in support of domestic spending, Obama would take the blame for the political logjam if Congress fails to increase spending for the military, which enjoys broad support amid growing threats from extremist groups and instability in the Middle East. White House advisers said the economy’s resurgence under Obama’s leadership had exposed the “austerity fallacy” pushed for years by Republicans who argue the government must downsize to bring deficits under control.

Helping Obama claim the upper hand is a wave of positive indicators that suggest the economy is gaining strength — despite Obama policies that Republicans for years have warned would keep the U.S. stuck in recession.

Annual budget deficits have fallen precipitously on Obama’s watch, as has the unemployment rate, although wages have remained far too stagnant for Obama’s liking. The Obama administration announced Monday that more than 16 million Americans have gained coverage since the president’s health care law took effect, and a new estimate from congressional scorekeepers shows the law will cost taxpayers far less than previously expected.

Yet on the issues that Obama has touted as his greatest prospects for working with the new Congress — tax reform, authority to negotiate trade deals, and war powers to fight the Islamic State — Obama’s fiercest opposition has come from lawmakers from his own party, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Republicans.

“Where’s the Democrats’ agenda?” said Cory Fritz, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Democrats are the biggest obstacle to the few realistic proposals that have been floated. Beyond that, they don’t have a serious legislative agenda.”

___

Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP and Jim Kuhnhenn at http://twitter.com/jkuhnhenn

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Activism

Leaders Push Pardons, Payouts for “Port Chicago 50” Black Sailors U.S. Navy ‘Unjustly’ Punished

According to a 2009 California Senate Joint Resolution (SJR-21), authored by former state Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), on the night of July 17, 1944, two transport vessels loading ammunition bound for the war in the Pacific at the Port Chicago naval base on the Sacramento River in California were suddenly engulfed in a gigantic explosion.

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African American sailors of an ordnance battalion preparing 5-inch shells for packing at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in 1943. The explosion occurred a year later. U.S. Navy photo.
African American sailors of an ordnance battalion preparing 5-inch shells for packing at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in 1943. The explosion occurred a year later. U.S. Navy photo.

By Antonio‌ ‌Ray‌ ‌Harvey‌ | California‌ ‌Black‌ ‌Media‌

A growing chorus of Black leaders and activists in California is calling on the federal government to pardon 50 Black sailors they allege the U.S. Navy wrongfully punished nearly 80 years ago.

Advocates are pushing for payments to the families of sailors who died in the 1944 explosion in Port Chicago that was the underlying cause for the Navy taking action against the servicemen.

They say the sailors’ families deserve more than an apology or posthumous pardon. They should get monetary compensation as well.

“The 50 African American sailors at Port Chicago who took a stand against discrimination should be remembered as heroes,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA-13).

In July of 1944, Port Chicago Naval Magazine, a few miles from the city of Martinez, was the scene of the largest explosion on the mainland of the United States. The blast shook the San Francisco Bay Area and the disturbance was felt as far away as Nevada.

About 320 sailors were killed instantly in the explosion. More than 200 of the midshipmen and commissioned officers were young African Americans.

Another 390 military and civilian personnel were injured, including 226 African American enlisted men. Only Black sailors were assigned the dangerous job of loading ammunition with no prior training in weapons handling.

“The Port Chicago tragedy is another painful reminder of how our nation must confront its history of systemic racism,” Lee said.

The people killed or injured in the disaster were loading highly explosive bombs, anti-submarine weapons, torpedoes, shells, and naval mines totaling 4,606 tons of ammunition onto the merchant ships SS Quinault Victory and SS E.A. Bryant.

According to a 2009 California Senate Joint Resolution (SJR-21), authored by former state Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), on the night of July 17, 1944, two transport vessels loading ammunition bound for the war in the Pacific at the Port Chicago naval base on the Sacramento River in California were suddenly engulfed in a gigantic explosion.

“What I am pushing for is that everything of public record where Black folks were wronged needs to be righted,” Rev. Amos Brown, vice-chair of California’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, told California Black Media (CBM). Brown is the pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and president of the city’s NAACP branch.

“We must do our due diligence and get all the facts on this explosion. It’s definitely a case where Black folks had been wronged and injured. There was a culture of negligence here and was prevalent when it came to Black folks,” Brown added.

The exact cause of the Port Chicago explosion is still unknown.

People familiar with the explosion say incidents leading up to the disaster unfolded in a culture rife with negligence and racism.

A string of injustices followed it, as well. After the explosion, the Black sailors working at Port Chicago were ordered to continue loading ships under the supervision of an all-white crew of officers. Many of the surviving Black sailors felt that their commanders had not addressed the safety problems that triggered the blast but still asked them to continue loading ammunition.

Soon, the Black sailors, who had been trained for U.S Navy combat, decided to stage a protest. Afraid their lives were at risk, they stopped working. In September 1944, the Navy charged 50 of the Port Chicago sailors with disobeying orders and initiating a mutiny.

A court-martial was convened to try the men who staged what was called “the largest mutiny in the history of the Navy.” It was held for several weeks on Treasure Island outside of San Francisco.

The Black sailors were found guilty and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in prison. Forty-seven of the 50 sailors were released in January 1946 while the remaining three served additional months in incarceration.

Only one member of the Port Chicago 50, Freddie Meeks, received a Presidential pardon from Bill Clinton in December 1999. Meeks, who was discharged in 1946, passed away in 2003 in Los Angeles.

“I knew we had a good president and I figured he would do the right thing, and he did the right thing with this pardon,” Meeks, 80, said in an Associated Press article published Dec. 24, 1999. “I’m not bitter because it’s something happened so long ago, you just outlive it, that’s all.”

Brown, 80, says the Port Chicago disaster was the result of carelessness, disregard for humans’ safety, and racism.

“All of the evidence is there,” Brown told CBM, speaking via phone from his San Francisco home.

People’s World, a publication that provides news and analysis of labor and democratic movements, reported that discrimination even played out in the compensation awarded to the families of those killed.

The Navy paid out $5,000 to white families but only $3,000 to Black families, the 2009 article reported.

Brown made the statement about the Port Chicago incident after learning that a group of Democratic lawmakers is attempting to revive an effort to pay the families of Black service members who fought on behalf of the nation during World War II for benefits they were denied or barred from receiving.

The federal legislative effort would compensate surviving spouses and all living descendants of Black WWII veterans whose families were denied the opportunity to build wealth with housing and educational benefits through the Government Issue (GI) Bill.

The site of the disaster is now called the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, dedicated in 1994 to recognize the sailors who perished in the deadly blast. The memorial, managed by the National Park Service, is located at the Concord Naval Weapons Station near Concord.

Last summer, in honor of the 77th anniversary of the Port Chicago Disaster, U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA-13) and Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11-Walnut Creek) introduced a House Resolution, recognizing the victims of the explosion.

The resolution called for the exoneration of the 50 African American sailors they say were unjustly court-martialed by the Navy.

“By calling for the exoneration of the Port Chicago 50, our resolution would bring justice to these sailors and recognize their courage as well as honor the service and sacrifice of the victims of this disaster,” DeSaulnier said.

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Activism

After Wood Street Clearance, Homeless People Stay

Advocates claim about a dozen of them showed up on November 8 to support residents. One of them, Annmarie Bustamente, said their presence “definitely helped the residents block the eviction” and that the residents were “tired of displacement and said no” to a member of Oakland’s Public Works Department encouraging them to move. 

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Homeless Oakland Jessie Parker stands on Wood Street in West Oakland on November 10. The city of Oakland had planned to move Parker and dozens of others from this location between November 8 and 10, but residents refused to move and remained on site after the attempted closure operation. Photo by Zack Haber.
Homeless Oakland Jessie Parker stands on Wood Street in West Oakland on November 10. The city of Oakland had planned to move Parker and dozens of others from this location between November 8 and 10, but residents refused to move and remained on site after the attempted closure operation. Photo by Zack Haber.

By Zack Haber

On the morning of November 8, members of both Oakland’s Encampment Management Team, Public Works, and Police Department came to an area encompassing about 1/5 of a mile from Wood Street and Grand Avenue to Wood Street and 26th Street with the stated goal of clearing the location of homeless people. But after the attempted clearance, homeless people remained in the area.

“The objective was to move as many people as possible,” wrote Oakland Communications Director Karen Boyd in an e-mail. “But that could not be accomplished without the full cooperation of the community.”

“You can’t push us back any further than this,” said homeless resident Jessie Parker, a 63-year-old lifelong Oaklander who came to live on Wood Street after being shot in the leg. The injury prevented him from being able to do the physical movement required for the construction and electrical work he had done in the past. On November 4, the city put up pink notices informing him that starting in four days they would force him to vacate the area he’s lived in for about nine years, but he, like dozens of others living in vehicles, tents or makeshift homes along Wood Street, didn’t leave.

Parker’s statement references the fact that Wood Street is one of the westernmost streets in West Oakland. A little further west from where Parker lives is land owned by Caltrans under the 880 overpass where still more homeless people live, as well as a 1.5 acre plot of land belonging to a company called Gamechanger LLC. To the east are businesses and residential areas.

After about two years in delays, Gamechanger agreed to lease its land to the city for $1 a year and the city opened a Safe RV Parking site on July 7 on the company’s land through the non-profit Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency.

In the Safe RV Parking site, residents who own RVs and trailers can legally live in them and receive services. It’s unclear how long this service will last, as the lease between GameChanger and the city can expire by November of next year. That same lease laid out plans to allow 75 RVs or trailers space to park, but while walking through the site on November 10, this writer counted 29 RVs while half of the site sat vacant. The site is not available for many residents, like Parker, who don’t have an RV or a trailer.

“I never received an offer to move in,” said Parker, who lives in a truck. “It’s for RVs only.”

The site opening has put other residents at risk of displacement who can’t or don’t want to access it. Since Oakland’s City Council unanimously passed its Encampment Management Policy in October of last year, despite protests and critical public comments during five hours of a meeting, city policy now states those living within 25 feet of such sites can face clearance.

Although their policy now allows it, the city had not attempted to move nor even encouraged people who are living near the Safe RV Parking site to leave the area until the November 8 operation. But recent communications from Justin Tombolesi, who is the constituent liaison for District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife, have led advocates and homeless people to believe the company is now pressuring the city to force people to leave the area. In a text message to a homeless resident who lives near Wood Street, Tombolesi wrote “Gamechanger is suing the city because people are too close to the RV site.”

Gamechanger denies suing or pressuring the city. When asked if the company was suing or threatening to sue the city, the company’s lawyer, Pat Smith of Smith LLP, responded in an email, writing “Not at all — no thought of suing the city. The city is solely in charge of the site and ownership has no involvement or concern over how the city is handling things.”

In an e-mail, Boyd wrote that “No filings or actions to terminate the lease have been served upon the city,” but that the city has “spoken with legal counsel representing GameChanger’s lot regarding the city’s plans to create compliance.”

In another text message to the same resident, Tombolesi also claimed the city would allow residents living on Wood Street to move to a vacant portion of land off the street and just north of the Safe RV Parking site during the November 8 closure operation. No residents have moved into that location and residents, as well advocates who were on site that day, claim no one was invited to do so. Boyd said the city offered nine spaces in the city’s Community Cabins, and five spaces in a rapid rehousing program called The Holland. One resident accepted a space in the Community Cabins, which is a program that offers small, unheated shelter in shed-like spaces made by the Tuff Shed company.

Advocates claim about a dozen of them showed up on November 8 to support residents. One of them, Annmarie Bustamente, said their presence “definitely helped the residents block the eviction” and that the residents were “tired of displacement and said no” to a member of Oakland’s Public Works Department encouraging them to move.

Although the closure operation was originally slated to occur over three days between Monday November 8 and Wednesday November 10, no one from the city came back after the first day.

“The ability to proceed Monday impacted the entire operation,” wrote Boyd in an e-mail, “and activities for the following days were cancelled.”

Although homeless residents did not leave Wood Street, Oakland’s Police Department’s Public Information Officer Kim Armstead said the department did tow six vehicles for long expired registration on November 6 and 7 in the area in preparation for the closure.

According to Armstead, the department avoided towing vehicles that served as people’s homes, as the department, following the cities’ direction, has “agreed not to tow vehicles where there is clear evidence they are being used as shelter.” Armstead also said on November 8, OPD supported the city operation with two officers, one sergeant, and six police service techs who provided traffic control and security for city workers.

One homeless resident named Evangeline said the towing of her and her husband’s vehicle has made it difficult to go grocery shopping and to visit her mother, who just had a heart attack. The couple can’t afford to pay the fees to get the car back, so it will remain in the tow yard.

“We’re really stuck,” she said.

Although residents like Parker avoided being moved from Wood Street, it’s unclear when or if the city will come back to move them. According to Parker, a member of the non-profit Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency has been working to secure some form of permanent housing for him, and he’s hopeful that the person will be successful.

“I’m a little older now so my peak interest is getting back into housing,” said Parker. “If I get into housing, I’m sure I won’t go back to this. I can’t take these harsh elements no more.”

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Activism

African American Sports & Entertainment Group (AASEG) helps support 25th annual turkey drive in East Oakland

Assembymember Mia Bonta said,”I am excited and fully in support of the City Council’s decision to prioritize an African American-led, Oakland rooted, development group to negotiate how we can reimagine the Coliseum site. This represents a promise of development without displacement, and amenities and entertainment that East Oakland once had and deserves again. This is also the kind of community-led, wealth building opportunity l will fight for at the state level, and I will continue to support initiatives like these here in the 18th Assembly District.”

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The African American Sports & Entertainment Group came out to support the 25th annual Community Giving Foundation Turkey drive at Verdese Carter Park in East Oakland.

Hosted by founder and organizer Marlon McWilson, the turkey drive that started in 1997 has now donated over 35,000 Turkey’s through McWilson’s foundation. In attendance were Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong, Oakland PAL, California Assembly Member Mia Bonta (AD-18) along with husband and Attorney General for the State of California Rob Bonta. Assembly Member Bonta also congratulated the AASEG on their recent unanimous 8-0 approval to enter negotiations with the City of Oakland on an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement (ENA) to purchase the city’s half interest of the coliseum land, and looks forward to working with the team.

Assembymember Mia Bonta said,”I am excited and fully in support of the City Council’s decision to prioritize an African American-led, Oakland rooted, development group to negotiate how we can reimagine the Coliseum site. This represents a promise of development without displacement, and amenities and entertainment that East Oakland once had and deserves again. This is also the kind of community-led, wealth building opportunity l will fight for at the state level, and I will continue to support initiatives like these here in the 18th Assembly District.”

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