More Power to You

Hooray! He’s leaving! Woo-hoo! (Lee Shrine)

“Be like water, my friend,” was Bruce Lee’s advice, and lest he come back from the grave to slap me around for not listening, I’ve decided to heed the great man. I’m moving on from the Village Voice and Power Plays today. It seems a shame to write my 309th and final post on a topic as boring as my own departure (as opposed to something really exciting like, say, the New York City school food delivery system!), but I’d hate to leave without saying goodbye.

To those who’ve been regular, or occasional, or almost-never-and-not-if-I-can-help-it readers, many thanks for your attention. In this city of 8,213,839 neighbors, I’m sure we shall meet again.

To those who have never read the blog and hit this page in error, you probably wanted this.


Election Countdown: 40 Days to Go!

All right, it’s just a special election, but the City Council contests in Brooklyn and Staten Island on February 20 might be more significant than you think. For one thing, they might be the last time voters in New York City use old-fashioned lever machines. For another, they are the first elections under the new law that makes contributions from lobbyists ineligible for public matching funds. Somebody out there thinks these off-year races are worth winning: At least 10 people have certified their candidacies to the Campaign Finance Board for the District 40 race to replace now-Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, with at least two others believed to be in the mix. In now-State Senator Andrew Lanza’s old District 51, two hats are in the ring.

The contests are also the first for new CFB executive director Amy Loprest, and they come as her agency deals with a December 19 appellate court ruling, which ruled that a loophole in the city’s campaign finance laws deprives the CFB of a power it thought it possessed: the ability to fine individual candidates and campaign treasurers when they fail to spend public matching funds properly or to document that they have. Since campaigns usually cease to exist after an election, going after personal pocketbooks is the only way for the CFB to give some of its rules teeth. But the court found the law doesn’t allow it. Now the CFB and Law Department are considering whether to appeal. Meanwhile, the CFB is discussing with the City Council how to fix the law to close the loophole.

Other areas of campaign finance law that might need tweaking include what to do about contributions from firms that “do business” with the city, or candidates who face little real opposition but still take public matching funds. There’s always been talk about barring contributions from all organizations—LLCs, PACs, and unions. Then there’s the notion of eliminating the complicated exemptions in campaign finance law. Right now the money that candidates spend on petitioning or complying with the law doesn’t count against the spending cap, but identifying which money is exempt and which isn’t is tricky: Witness Gifford Miller’s battle with the CFB during the twilight of his mayoral campaign.

But back to the special election. I say that it might be the last election for lever voting machines because New York State was supposed to finally replace those machines, as every other state already has, by the 2007 primary (for these council seats and district attorney races, if needed). But difficulties in getting the voting machine companies to meet New York’s high standards, and recent revelations that the state’s testing firm failed to win accreditation from federal authorities, may delay the switch. “Right now the window for us to do full implementation in 2007 is impossible, or nearly impossible,” says Board of Elections director John Ravitz. So February 20 could be the last hurrah for the lever machines, or the start of a comeback tour of uncertain duration.

Either way, we know the city will be anxiously watching!


Aftershock: ‘Torture’ v. Treatment, Act II

For almost a year New York State education officials wrestled with what to do about the Judge Rotenberg Center, the Massachusetts school that uses skin shocks and other “aversive therapies” to address severe behavioral problems in its retarded, autistic, or otherwise challenged students, most of whom hail from the Empire State. On Monday, the state Regents passed rules that stop any new students from getting aversive treatment after June 30, 2009.

These were dubbed “final” regulations. But that might be a bit of a misnomer.

Both defenders and detractors of the Rotenberg Center are moving to fix what they see as fatal flaws in the new rules. State Senator Martin Golden has re-introduced a bill that bans skin shocks on any student receiving public funding (New York State and local school districts share the $200,000 cost of treating and housing a student at Rotenberg). A lawsuit against Freeport Union school district, which claims that a local student was shocked excessively by Rotenberg, is going forward. Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit—which alleges that it is illegal for New York City to fund any student at Rotenberg in the absence of a written contract—may get new life on appeal. A lower court judge threw the lawsuit out, but the plaintiffs were cheered that the decision noted, “it appears the arrangement was without authority.” (It also said, however, that, “There is no evidence of fraud … or bad faith.”)

On the other side, parents of students at Rotenberg who sued the state this summer to block the application of the Regents’ temporary restrictions are planning to go to court again and ask that an earlier restraining order be expanded to include the new rules. The restraining order limits the application of the New York restrictions on their children while the case is pending.


The Growing GWOT Target List

All the excitement over Wednesday night’s presidential address on Iraq means little attention is being devoted to the U.S. airstrike on Somalia. Normally, it’s a big deal when the U.S. bombs a country … OK, maybe not always (How many times did the U.S. bomb Iraq in 2002, the year before the war: A. Zero times, B. 10 times, C. 100 times [answer here]). But it’s usually a big deal when the U.S. bombs a country where Americans last recall their sons’ corpses being dragged through the streets.

And with all the talk about escalation in Iraq (er, “surging”), it’s worth noting that Somalia joins a list of at least five countries where the U.S. has engaged in military operations of some type since 9-11 and the launch of the GWOT: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and the Philippines. In addition, Americans involved in Operation Enduring Freedom have been killed or wounded in Cuba, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Seychelles, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan—though those casualties could have been the result of operations to stage attacks on Iraq or the other known combat zones.

Meanwhile, the U.S. alliance with Ethiopia goes un-analyzed. The Somali Islamists were apparently real bastards in imposing Islamic justice. But check out the State Department’s own report on human rights in Ethiopia:

The following human rights problems were reported: limitation on citizens’ right to change their government; unlawful killings, including alleged political killings, and beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention of thousands of persons, particularly those suspected of sympathizing with or being members of the opposition; detention of thousands without charge, and lengthy pretrial detention; government infringement on citizens’ privacy rights, and frequent refusal to follow the law regarding search warrants; government restrictions on freedom of the press; arrest, detention, and harassment of journalists for publishing articles critical of the government; self-censorship by journalists; government restrictions on freedom of assembly including denial of permits, burdensome preconditions or refusal to provide assembly halls to opposition political groups, and at times use of excessive force to disperse demonstrations; government limitations on freedom of association; violence and societal discrimination against women, and abuse of children; female genital mutilation; exploitation of children for economic and sexual purposes; trafficking in persons; societal discrimination against persons with disabilities, and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities; government interference in union activities.

Perhaps after 3,008 dead (that’s the latest count) in Iraq, Americans are just happy to have a nice, clean surgical strike where someone else—maybe even an al Qaeda bigwig—dies.

After all, no one likes casualties, or the administrations that allow them. Back in 1993, in the aftermath of the U.S. deaths in Mogadishu, former President Bush told a classroom: “If you’re going to put somebody else’s son or daughter into harm’s way, into battle, you’ve got to know the answer to three questions: [the mission], … how are they going to do it” and “how they’re going to get out of there.” Dick Cheney also took a shot at the Clinton White House. According to a Times piece at the time, “Mr. Cheney said the Clinton team seemed to be ‘lacking’ in ‘intellectual rigor and tight command and control.'” Thank goodness we all learned from Clinton’s mistakes, eh?


Surge Overkill: Peace Groups Buck Bush

When voters gave Democrats control of both Houses of Congress in November, peace groups thought the country had turned a corner. United for Peace and Justice said the election results were “a clear popular mandate for peace,” and the post-election shitcanning of Donald Rumsfeld cheered those desperate for a change. Alas, change is coming: President Bush is going to announce tomorrow night that he plans to send up to 20,000 more troops to Iraq.

So peace groups are trying to seize momentum once more, with a day of protests after the president’s call for escalating the war. The idea is to meet the president’s call for a “surge” with a surge of protest.

After the election, the peace people knew that ending the Iraq disaster wouldn’t be easy: Democrats were divided on how forcefully to press for a drawdown of troops, and how fast and extensive a withdrawal to advocate. But that was a disagreement over how to accomplish a particular goal: getting out of Iraq. And while the Iraq Study Group shared that goal, conservative groups like the American Enterprise Institute did not. They have a different aim: victory, or at least something that can be dressed up to look like a win. And their interpretation of not only the war, but also the voters’ message, seems to have prevailed in the White House. Now the question is whether Democrats on the Hill will buy it —or rather, pay for it.


The Beast of 2008 Stirs


The 2003 South Carolina debate, with George Stephanopoulus in the foreground. Wait, was he running? (GWU)

With 53 weeks until the 2008 Iowa caucuses, voters could be forgiven for thinking they had plenty of time to enjoy life before the start of another bruising and expensive presidential campaign. But MSNBC is rushing to raise the curtain: Yesterday the cable network announced it would broadcast the first debate of the 2008 presidential season on April 26, 2007—a full 278 days before South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary.

Presidential campaigns have always been drawn-out affairs—for the candidates. A serious candidacy usually takes at least a couple years of assembling staff, raising money, and trying out the stump speech on the rubber chicken circuit. What’s different in the current era of blogs and 24-cable news is that the news-absorbing public is privy to an increasingly long portion of the pre-campaign. MSNBC isn’t even breaking new ground: In the last election cycle, 59 ABC News affiliates carried the May 3, 2003 South Carolina Democratic debate.

And yes, Bob Graham was there! Who? You probably don’t remember Graham’s candidacy, he of the daily diaries who dropped out in October 2003. You might have a slightly better recollection of Carol Mosely Braun and Dick Gephardt having run, even though they didn’t make it out of Iowa. They were also at the first debate. But Wesley Clark wasn’t. He jumped in late (and stayed in long enough to allow this reporter the ironic thrill of bellying up to the same bar as Ted “Sam Malone” Danson).

So who’ll show up this April, and will it have any bearing on the choices primary voters face the following year? (“And who cares?” comes the heckling from many readers, I’m sure.) Beats this blogger. One thing you can bet on is that the dais in South Carolina will feature a few of the same folks who sat there four years earlier: Kerry, Edwards, Kucinich. They’ll all just look a little older—well, everyone except Edwards.


New York Bans Controversial Treatment

The state Board of Regents on Monday adopted regulations that ban New York students from receiving skin shocks and other “aversive therapies” after June 30, 2009. The vote ends almost a year of deliberation over whether the treatments are appropriate for students with severe emotional problems.

The new rules, like a temporary set imposed last summer, seem to make neither side of the debate happy. Advocates for skin shocks (including some parents of autistic and depressed children), who contend it is the only way to prevent self-destructive behavior and preserve life in extreme cases, believe the ban is the result of political correctness, not sound medicine. Opponents of aversive methods wonder why the state is waiting until 2009 to ban procedures it thinks are wrong.

The rules apply to all students whose schooling is funded by New York State, but it’s aimed specifically at the 150 or so New Yorkers being treated at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Mass.


Oooh! That Smell?

It’s not every day that the home page for the New York City Department of Emergency Management leads with an orange-alert-shaded box labeled, “Update on Gas Odor.” But today’s no ordinary day in Manhattantown, smell-wise: There’s apparently a gas-like scent wafting across the island from the Battery to Midtown, closing buildings and subway stations and making a few people sick. They can even smell it in Jersey, which knows from smells. But OEM says we can all breathe (if you really want to) a sigh of relief. “There is no indication the gas odor in Manhattan poses any danger. Air sensors indicate no heightened levels of natural gas,” the agency says. “The City continues to investigate the source of the odor.”

Still, “The smell is there,” as Mayor Bloomberg declared at a morning news conference. There’s no arguing with that sentiment—ever. As the Times reported, “Mysterious odors come and go in the New York City area, sometimes never identified.” And other times, the whiffs are all-too identifiable, like the muscular odor of trash in the summertime, the pungent scent of roach droppings under a refrigerator, or the acrid belt-in-the-face upon opening the door to a public restroom. There are 8 million smells in the naked city (maybe 30 million if you count pets, trucks, and locker rooms.) But today New York is united against a common stink.

Cities are often derided by exurb types as “big and smelly.” Anyone who’s ever taken a drive through farm country at the height of manure season has to wonder if the grass is really any greener, or better scented, there. The fact is, people everywhere smell, and in “civilized” parts we’re all desperate to do something about it. Think of how many aisles of the drug store are devoted to treating stink, from the dental hygiene panorama to the row of roll-ons, toilet deodorizers to disinfectant sprays, Gas-X to fabric softener. People smell even worse (well, some of us) when they’re dead—one group of forensic scientists has established a whole database of the variety of odors that a corpse can produce.


Corp v. Comptroller: Dodging the Question

Investor-in-chief Thompson says New York City’s money talks—when corporations let it. (Comptroller)

What’s the easiest way to make sure you don’t lose a contest? Prevent it from happening, of course! According to a new report from the City Comptroller, that’s exactly what several corporations did in 2006 when New York City’s pension funds asked for changes in financial or social policies: The firms simply blocked the question from being submitted to shareholders for votes, and the federal Securities and Exchange Commission rubber stamped the corporate moves.

Comptroller Bill Thompson is the day-to-day custodian of the $87 billion invested by New York City’s five employee pension funds (covering fire, police, teachers, board of ed, and other employees). As a major shareholder in hundreds of companies, the city often tries to change company policies, like trying to get them to shun Iran or comply with the MacBride principles that prohibit religious discrimination in Northern Ireland. It works like this: Thompson’s office submits a proposal, and the company either agrees to it or puts it to its shareholders for a vote.

Or not.

When the city pension funds went to Rite Aid with a proposal to require that shareholders approve the selection of independent auditors, Rite Aid contended that the issue was part of its “ordinary business operations,” which under SEC rules are off-limits to shareholder votes. SEC staff agreed with Rite Aid. When New York City appealed the ruling, the staff refused to submit the issue to the Commission itself, and the proposal died.

Rite Aid wasn’t alone. When the city pension funds put forth proposals requiring that firms “disclose social, environmental and economic performance by issuing an annual sustainability report,” Honeywell International and Raytheon prevented vote. Sempra Energy stifled the yeas and nays on a proposal to mandate a “report on efforts to reduce carbon dioxide and other emissions from existing and proposed power plants. Newmont Mining’s shareholders never got a chance to decide if they wanted to “review environmental and social impacts of operations in Indonesia Companies.” Clear Channel tried to block a vote on whether to “establish an Independent Compensation Committee,” but the SEC wouldn’t let it. The proposal ended up receiving 42 percent of shareholder votes.

These refusals were the exception to the rule: The vast majority of Thompson’s proposals went to a vote, and others were accepted by the companies outright. Amid the successes: Unumprovident Corp. and Newell Rubbermaid agreed to reform how shareholder proposals are enacted, shareholders at several companies voted to adopt proposals reforming how directors are elected, H.J Heinz and National Semiconductor said they would issue an annual sustainability report, and a host of firms said they’d bar discrimination based on sexual orientation.

But in a few cases, even when corporations allowed votes, other shareholders were not feeling quite as socially conscious as the city’s pension funds. Less than 6 percent of Coca-Cola shares backed a call for a committee to oversee an inquiry into “charges of collusion in anti-union violence that have been made against officials of the company’s bottling plants in Colombia.” Only 13 percent of the shares at Chevron Texaco voted to disclose political contributions.

And when the Fire pension fund asked Dow Chemical to “report to the shareholders any new initiatives instituted by management to address specific health, environmental and social concerns of survivors in Bophal, India,” only 6.7 percent of shares backed the measure.


A Secret History of Gerald Ford

There are a lot of reasons to feel sorry for Gerald Ford (besides the fact that he’s now dead). He had to deal not only with the ghost of Richard Nixon, but also the slings, arrows, and bullets of Chevy Chase, Squeaky Fromme, and Sara Jane Moore, to name just a few. He had to pull the last Americans out of Vietnam (his diary says he met with guys named Cheney and Rumsfeld the day Saigon fell) and devote grand speeches to inflation, once advising Americans to “Clean up your plate before you get up from the table.”

But despite his accidental rise to the presidency and brief stay there (thanks, in part, to one of the all-time presidential debate gaffes), Ford wasn’t just a pawn of history. He also helped to make it — in places like East Timor, where the Ford administration appears to have green-lighted the 1975 Indonesian invasion; the U.S. intelligence apparatus, which Ford restrained (for the time) from domestic spying and assassination; and Cambodia. The 1975 Mayaguez incident, in which the United States attacked Khmer Rouge outposts after they seized an American merchant ship, was the last U.S. military engagement in Southeast Asia.

Reading the minutes of Ford’s National Security Council meetings during the Mayaguez crisis, one gets a sense of his presidential style and the people around him: Donald Rumsfeld was, ironically, skeptical of the intelligence the president was getting, while Vice President Nelson Rockefeller ping-ponged between “I think a violent response is in order” and “We do not want a land war in Cambodia.”

One also gets the sense of time standing still when reading the minutes from the October 7, 1974 meeting, in which leaks to the media were on the president’s mind. “When I hear that the New York Times has more classified material than they can use,” the president said, “something has gone wrong.”