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To Protect Democracy, We Have to Fix the Supreme Court

Fortunately, there are solutions on the table. President Biden has formed a Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States to study ideas for reforming the Court.

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A woman holding a sign saying "We demand democracy"; Photo courtesy Fred Moon via Unsplash

It’s been six months since the Biden-Harris administration began, ushering in an era of hope after four bitter and disheartening years. We have much to celebrate.

At the same time, there are ways in which our future is wavering on a knife’s edge: will we fulfill the promise of a more inclusive democracy, or be dragged backwards by the same forces that tried to reverse the presidential election on January 6?

Will our federal government step up to protect voting rights, or will more and more states suppress them? Can we protect and expand health care?

I am proud of the commitment of advocates who are pushing the Biden-Harris administration and the new leadership in Congress to be their best. But there is another critically important step we must take if we want voting rights, or health care, or workers’ rights, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, or any of the rights we are fighting for to survive. We must fix our Supreme Court.

For decades now, the same far-right forces that are fighting justice and equal rights for all our citizens have been working to pack our federal courts. Their crowning achievement has been the capture of the Supreme Court, now dominated by ultraconservatives.

The Supreme Court has dealt devastating blows to the Voting Rights Act. It has made it easier for companies to violate the rights of working people. It opened our elections to unlimited spending by corporate interests. And it is undermining health and safety regulations.

This matters greatly because even as we welcome the opportunities for change that we voted for in electing the Biden-Harris administration and Democratic leadership in Congress, there is a real risk that laws passed now — for progress that real people want — could be eviscerated by a far-right Supreme Court.

We can’t let that happen.

Fortunately, there are solutions on the table. President Biden has formed a Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States to study ideas for reforming the Court.

They include a first-ever code of ethics for Supreme Court justices – a good idea in any era. They also include proposals that would address the unique moment we are in now when the Court has been so politicized and distorted by partisan interests.

One idea is to set term limits for justices. Another is to add more seats to the Court, which would have a direct impact in easing the current crisis of a “captured Court.”

There will be lively debate over these proposals, including pushback from traditionalists who think we should not mess with the makeup of the Court. But the number of seats on the Court has been changed before – not once, but half a dozen times.

It’s also important to remember that we didn’t get here though a traditional or normal course of events. The current Court makeup was achieved by cynical political machinations of Mitch McConnell, the former Senate Majority Leader.

McConnell refused to hold hearings for former President Barack Obama’s SCOTUS nominee Merrick Garland, thereby stealing the seat for Neil Gorsuch. He did this on the flimsy pretext that it was too close to a presidential election. Then, proving conclusively that he has no shame, McConnell forced through Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation for the late Justice Ginsburg’s seat even though voting had already begun in the next presidential election.

So, there are clear wrongs to be remedied. The Roberts Supreme Court is losing the confidence of the American people, if it hasn’t lost it already. In its current form it is becoming a political body incapable of protecting the rights of all, interested only in those of the privileged and powerful.

And that means Supreme Court reform needs to be an integral part of our campaigns for justice and equity on all fronts. We are fighting too hard for justice to see progress wrecked on the shoals of a rock-solid conservative Court.

Let’s raise our voices for term limits and more Supreme Court seats at the same time we’re calling for the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the Equality Act,

immigration reform, reproductive rights, health care and fair pay.

Let’s not trust our future to a captured Court.

Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way. Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive

City Government

A New Mayor in 2022 Must Take Major Steps in Their First 100 Days

In 2022, the voters of Oakland will have an opportunity to elect the next mayor for our city.  The Mayor of Oakland is the head of the executive branch, in charge of implementing actions and laws that have been passed by Council and community.

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Hands place ballot envelope into a ballot box/ Arnaud Jaegars via Unsplash

In 2022, the voters of Oakland will have an opportunity to elect the next mayor for our city.  The Mayor of Oakland is the head of the executive branch, in charge of implementing actions and laws that have been passed by Council and community.

The mayor also selects and hires the city administrator, appoints members of key boards and commissions and sets the direction for the administrative branch of government, thus having a major impact on what action gets taken.

In recent years, the City Council has adopted numerous laws and funded positions and projects – many of which have not been implemented, such as providing gun tracing and cracking down on illegal guns, civilianizing special events, providing pro-active illegal dumping remediation, a public lands policy to prioritize affordable housing, direction to provide healthier alternative locations to respond to homelessness, and many more.

In order to ensure that we build a safer and healthier future for Oakland, it is vitally important to ensure that we elect leadership for the executive branch with the dedication and commitment to take the actions needed to fulfill the needs of our communities.  

With serious struggles facing our communities, it is vital that the next mayor take immediate action in their first hundred days – and so, I am undertaking to provide proposals regarding what the next mayor can, and should, do in their first 100 days in office.  

These efforts will need to include recruitment and retention for the workforce, effective relationships with county government and neighboring cities to solve common problems, working with stakeholders including to expand equitable economic development and housing for all income levels, presenting and passing proposals at Council and bringing in and properly stewarding the finances needed.  

Even within the first 100 days, a mayor can accomplish a great deal, including taking action to implement vitally needed services that already have Council authorization and thus can be brought about more quickly.

This is the first installment, listing of some of the first items that the next mayor can and should do to build a healthier Oakland, and which should be factors in our decision-making in the year ahead.

 

1.     Ensure implementation of the directive to prioritize stopping the flow of illegal guns and stopping gun violence, including implementing gun tracing, tracking and shutting down sources of illegal guns, and providing immediate response to shooting notifications.

2.     Remove blight and illegal dumping, implement pro-active removal of blight rather than waiting for complaints, incorporate blight removal throughout city efforts (rewards program, summer jobs program, etc).  Clear up backlog and establish a new normal that it is not okay to dump on Oakland.

3.     Provide healthier alternatives for homeless solutions, including safe parking/managed RV sites and sanitation/dump sites, to reduce public health risks. Partner with the County and others.

4.     Implement previously approved Council direction to switch to the use of civilians (rather than sworn police) to manage parades and special events.  Help ensure community and cultural events can go forward without excess costs undermining them. Strengthen the arts and economy and equity of event permitting system and ensure that expensive police resources are directed where they are needed, rather than wasted on watching parades.

5.     Implement previously approved public lands policy to ensure using public lands for public needs, with a priority for affordable housing.

6.     Make it easier for local residents and small businesses to grow, build and expand by providing coherent and simplified permitting and by implementing the Council-funded direction to provide evening and weekend hours and easy online access, to allow people to do projects like adding Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and make other renovations and construction projects more timely.

7.     Work with stakeholders and community to advance effective and equitable revitalization of the large public properties at and around the Oakland Coliseum, including with housing for all income levels, jobs and business development, sports and entertainment, conventions and hotels.

8.     Work to speed the filling of vacancies in needed city staff positions and improve recruitment, retention and local hiring, to help provide vitally needed services, including for cleanup, parks upkeep, gun tracing, and other needs.

9.     Fire prevention and climate resiliency.  Our region is facing growing dangers from climate change and fire risk, and we must take action to reduce and remedy risk and protect our communities with a more resilient future, including by planning for and starting fire prevention and brush remediation activities earlier in the year, improving brush removal on public land as well as private, fully staffing the fire department and improving public infrastructure to protect cleaner air and reduce risks.

10.  Job training and pathways.  Some industries face challenges finding enough prepared workers while many in our community also need access to quality jobs.  Support and connect job training programs and quality job policies with growing sectors and ensure Oaklanders are prepared for vital openings in needed jobs while allowing our community to thrive.

 

 

 

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Barbara Lee

On Barbara Lee, Afghanistan and Covid Scapegoating

All ye news consumers are probably thinking more about Afghanistan in these last two weeks than at any point in the last 20 years.

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Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and members of his delegation take off from Kabul International Airport aboard a Black Hawk helicopter en route to Khowst province during a trip to Afghanistan, Dec. 4, 2007. Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison

All ye news consumers are probably thinking more about Afghanistan in these last two weeks than at any point in the last 20 years.

But if you live in Alameda County, thank goodness you have a representative who showed some backbone against the jingoistic rhetoric from the very beginning.

That would be Rep. Barbara Lee, who after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, stood up to other members of Congress and just said no to retaliating against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

On Sept. 14, 2001, 420 members in Congress said yes to military force.  98 Senators went along with them. 

Your congress member was alone in speaking the truth for peace.  

Lee warned of “perpetual war,” and she said, “However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, ‘Let’s step back for a moment, let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.’”

It was a call for a mindful moment. Politicians typically show no skill at that. 

Want to see the cost of being less than mindful in politics? The U.S. has spent by some estimates close to $2 trillion in Afghanistan since 2001. We’ve lost more than 2,400 military lives, tens of thousands of injured sons and daughters. 

And now we are in a “smoldering” situation. It’s like extracting yourself from a bungled divorce. The Trump administration began negotiating with the Taliban and presented artificial deadlines. That was the chaotic plan President Biden inherited. It was really negotiating a surrender rather than a withdrawal. But it means the Taliban is dictating everything. The U.S. wants to extend beyond Aug. 31? Taliban says, no and has “red-lined” the date.

The group that had offered to surrender to the U.S. 20 years ago,  is now making a mockery of the U.S.

Surely, the Afghanistan situation wouldn’t be quite this way if we had more leaders like Barbara Lee who dared to be mindful when it mattered. The situation remains smoldering.

African Americans Scapegoated

Donald Trump called the Coronavirus the ”China Virus,” and “The  Kung-Flu” for laughs. That kind of talk scapegoated Asian Americans and made them targets of the Trump hoard. More than 9,000 instances of anti-Asian hate have been recorded since the pandemic began by the group #StopAsianHate, based at San Francisco State University. 

Scapegoating on the virus is dangerous and racist. 

Now African Americans are getting a taste after Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick went on Fox News saying that unvaccinated African Americans in Texas are the cause of the virus spread in Texas.

It’s just wrong. Compared with Texas’ Black residents, nearly four million more white Texans are unvaccinated, said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP.  He even points out that four million fewer Hispanics are vaccinated compared to Blacks. The stats don’t justify blaming  African Americans in Texas for the spread of Covid.

But what did we expect to hear from Patrick, a former broadcaster and talk host. He knows how to incite an audience and “make the phones ring.” As Trump did, the TV showman. As does Larry Elder, the African American Republican talk host atop the polls of people who want to be governor if Gov. Gavin Newsom is recalled. 

Lesson. Don’t listen to nor elect talk hosts. At least the irresponsible ones.

Need a model for public servant in elective office? We have one in Alameda County in Congress.

It’s Rep. Barbara Lee.  

Try putting Elder next to Lee. He wouldn’t stand a chance.

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Commentary

Commentary: Here’s Why You Need to Vote in the California Recall Election

We cannot afford to be complacent and watch like spectators as our rights are rolled back, our interests are ignored, and our power is discounted. This recall election will be a crucial test of our will as voters.

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Young woman voting from home. She is filling papers to send by mail for the upcoming presidential election.

On September 14, a special election will be held to determine whether Governor Gavin Newsom should be recalled. This is only the fourth time in American history – that a state has held a gubernatorial recall election.

The last gubernatorial recall election in California took place nearly 20 years ago.

This recall election was triggered after the Secretary of State certified that 1.7 million Californians signed a petition demanding a vote to remove Newsom from the office he assumed in January 2019.

Under state law, to initiate a recall, proponents need to collect the signatures of enough registered voters to equal 12% of the turnout in the prior governor’s race.

The recall ballots will ask two questions. The first is a simple yes-or-no question: should Newsom be recalled.  If 50% or more of voters mark ‘NO’ then the effort to recall Newsom is defeated.

However, if more than 50% mark ‘YES’ then the second question comes into play: who should replace him? There are 46 names on the ballot, and the candidate with the most votes, as dictated by state law, will become governor for the remainder of Newsom’s term – which is through January 2023.

Whether or not you support Newsom, your vote in this election matters.

When we cast a vote, we win. We are represented. That’s the power that lies at the heart of the democratic process. It is the beauty of having free and fair elections.

Black Americans have a long history of struggling to exercise their right as citizens to vote. Those who came of age before 1965, less than 60 years ago, felt it all too keenly, particularly in the South, where they were systematically turned away from polling places.

Once they secured the vote, the idea of not even attempting to participate in an election would have been an abdication of their rights as Americans.

The people we entrust with our vote to lead us — whether it is at the federal, state, or local level – are responsible for developing policies and legislation that affect how safe we are in our homes and communities, our access to quality health care and education, the financial opportunities available to us, and more.

An outcome of the 2020 Presidential election cycle has been an extension of the unprecedented assault on voting rights beginning with the Supreme Court decision, Shelby v. Holder (2013), weakening the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and has led to more laws restricting our ability to vote.

California has taken extraordinary steps to remove barriers and increase access to the polls, setting the national standard for what free and fair elections should look like.

We cannot afford to be complacent and watch like spectators as our rights are rolled back, our interests are ignored, and our power is discounted. This recall election will be a crucial test of our will as voters.

Sometimes it might feel like democracy happens election by election, step by step, once every two or even four years.

But democracy doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t take a day off. It’s a constant process, happening all the time, whether we choose to engage or not. It’s messy, ugly, hard work.

Not voting is just as much an act of democracy as is voting – refusing to participate is a choice.

Every registered voter will automatically receive a ballot. Vote by mail started Aug 16. The last day to register to vote is August 30.

However, you can “conditionally” register and vote at your county elections office or polling location after the voter registration deadline, up to and including Election Day.

It’s a chance we must seize, regardless of party affiliation – our democracy, our community, our lives depend on it.

Rick L. Callender, Esq. is the President of the California/Hawaii State Conference of the NAACP and serves as a member of the National NAACP board of directors.

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