Saturday, May 28, 2016

I wish I hadn’t read Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal

I wish I hadn’t read Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal (an indictment of the Democratic party for abandoning its working class base) when I was trying to reconcile myself to Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee.

When this race began, I assumed that Clinton would be the nominee and although there is much in her background (her vote for the Iraq war, her generally hawkish policy positions, her cozy relationship with Wall Street) that concerns me, I more or less convinced myself that she was the best we could do. And after all, she would be our first woman president—and that counted for a lot with me. I would have preferred Elizabeth Warren, but that is clearly not going to happen in 2016.

When Bernie Sanders first declared his candidacy, I thought he would be gone after New Hampshire. I sure hadn’t expected that he would run such a strong campaign and that so many young people would be ready for his message. For a brief period, I thought perhaps another world is possible. That didn’t last long. Hillary has all but clinched the nomination and now I once again am trying to make my peace with Hillary as the presumptive nominee. But my briefly held hope that Bernie could win has made it harder to reconcile myself to Hillary.

Frank’s book didn’t help. First, it reminded me of all I disliked about Bill Clinton: his crime bill that contributed to the tragedy of mass incarceration; his welfare reform bill, which has resulted in extreme poverty: his financial deregulation that contribute to the economic meltdown of 2008: and NAFTA which contributed to de-industrialization and loss of jobs. Granted, these were Bill Clinton’s policies, but Hillary is on record as supporting them. And yes she has moved away from her enthusiastic support for “free trade” and both Clintons have acknowledged that much in the 1994 crime bill was a “mistake.”

Of course, it wasn’t just the Clintons who supported the crime bill. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ must-read article in the Atlantic “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” demonstrates the extent to which the crime bill was supported by liberal Democrats, including some of my heroes such as Ann Richardson and Mario Cuomo. From Coates’ article:

In Texas, the Democratic governor, Ann Richards, had come to power in 1991 advocating rehabilitation, but she ended up following the national trend, curtailing the latitude of judges and the parole board in favor of fixed sentencing, which gave power to prosecutors. In 1993, Texas rejected a bid to infuse its schools with $750 million—but approved $1 billion to build more prisons. By the end of her term, Richards had presided over “one of the biggest public works projects in Texas history,” according to Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire. In New York, another liberal governor, Mario Cuomo, found himself facing an exploding prison population. After voters rejected funding for more prisons, Cuomo pulled the money from the Urban Development Corporation, an agency that was supposed to build public housing for the poor. It did—in prison. Under the avowedly liberal Cuomo, New York added more prison beds than under all his predecessors combined.

Given the Democratic Party’s complicity with mass incarceration, it’s probably not all that surprising that so many young people are ready for a Democratic Socialist—and that includes young people of color. According to the New York Times, a poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Clinton and Sanders splitting the nonwhite vote in California. If Bernie Sanders manages to turn all this into a genuinely progressive movement within the Democratic party (my preference) or a progressive movement independent of the Democratic Party, a candidate with Sanders’ platform just might win 2020 or 2024.

To return to Listen Liberal: Frank’s analysis of the current state of the Democratic Party is compelling, but his conclusions are disappointing:

The Democrats have no interest in reforming themselves in a more egalitarian way. There is little the rest of us can do, given the current legal arrangements of this country, to build a vital third party movement or to revive organized labor, the one social movement that is committed by its nature to pushing back against the inequality trend.

Frank thinks all that can be done at this point is to expose the hypocrisy of the Democratic Party--the extent to which the policies supported by Democratic leaders have worked against the interests of the working people they supposedly represent. Frank probably wrote Listen Liberal before the Sanders’ insurgency and that might explain his tepid conclusion. But something is happening out there…

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Happy Retirement, Kathy!!

At this stage in life, one goes to a lot of retirement parties. The happiest are when the retiree has had a satisfying career, when her job was her passion and, most important, when she is really ready to let go and enter a new stage of life.

It helps to be relatively young and the retiree can look forward to time to pursue new interests or longstanding interests she never really had the time to explore.

It also helps to have a loving partner and a rich family and friendship network. My dear friend Kathy Black had all these ingredients in place and I was very happy I could share this moment with her and hear tributes from people in her life— some of whom I had never met and whose perspective on Kathy’s contributions was new to me.

As I survey the retirement landscape I’m familiar with, my advice is don’t wait too long. At this stage in life time is the most precious commodity!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Katha Pollitt on "Why Bernie Didn’t Get My Vote"

I almost always agree with Katha Pollitt; she’s the main reason I still subscribe to The Nation, but I part company with her in her recent Nation article, Why Bernie Didn’t Get My Vote. She argues:

The problem is less that Bernie focuses on class and economic inequality than that he doesn’t seem to understand that the economy, like society generally, is structured by gender and race.
Yes, Sanders could have done a better job explaining the impact of his proposals on women and people of color and demonstrating that he does indeed understand how the economy is “structured by gender and race.” But Sanders has made the critically important issue of economic inequality a front-burner issue.

When I taught Women’s Studies at Community College of Philadelphia, I always stressed the interconnections of race, class and gender, and always tried to bring an intersectional analysis to whatever issue my students and I were grappling with.

However, there is something to be said for the argument made by some veterans of the civil rights movement and the second wave feminist movement, that sometimes it’s critically important to focus on gender or on race. From Lillian Ciarrochi one of the veteran NOW members I interviewed for my book, Feminism in Philadelphia: The Glory Years, 1968-1982

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as former Philadelphia NOW President Lillian Ciarrochi stated, “the focus was laser-like on gender.” Ciarrochi was making the argument made by many in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s: it was necessary to focus on civil rights for African-Americans and not get distracted by other issues. Ciarrochi now sees the feminist movement as at different stage: “Now I think the other issues are all intertwined. We’ve always known that but we had to focus [on sexism] in that way, in the early 1970s. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have gotten as much done. It’s the same with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.”
Fortunately, NOW has moved on to prioritize the struggle for racial justice as well as for gender justice.

Would Sanders have been as successful getting Americans (whose leaders have generally shied away from issues of class) to take income inequality seriously if his stump speech had given equal time to issues of race/gender? Sander has been far more successful than most of us would ever have imagined in rehabilitating the term "socialism" and forcing Clinton to move left on economic justice.

I wish Sanders would pay more attention to the way (as Pollitt puts it) the economy is structured by race and class. However, I see Sanders as far more capable of incorporating a focus on race/gender into his economic analysis than I see Clinton as likely to advance policies that would seriously address income inequality.

But she is the presumptive nominee and now our task is to make sure she doesn’t pivot to the right in a foolhardy search for the votes of disenchanted Republicans.

Friday, May 6, 2016

My garden is an overgrown, disease-ridden mess!

I am looking forward to next week when this spell of gloomy, rainy weather should be over and I can finally get some control over my garden.

Thanks to the rain, weeds have reached gigantic proportions and the garden thugs—wisteria, bittersweet, and wild multiflora rose--are strangling my shrubs. I can take care of these problems when I can get out there and do some major cutting back.

However, I am at loss as to how to control the pachysandra mosaic virus. I went to Primex Garden Center and was advised to cut it back and, as pachysandra needs acid soil, to fertilize with hollytone.

The situatin just got worse. I went back to Primex and someone said that I needed a stronger acidifier than hollytone and recommended a bag of soil acidifier—-mainly sulfur. So far not much has changed. I continue cutting back, focusing on the most diseased plants.

There is some good news. It’s been a great year for tree peonies:

Each year there are always some plants which perform far better than expectations and those like my crabapple trees which for some unknown reason decide not to bloom. Gardening is full of surprises!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Chris Rabb's Victory: What this means for progressive politics

As the election season went on, I found myself worrying more about the outcome of the Democratic Primary for a PA House race than I did for the contests at the top of the ticket. This was largely due to the quality of the candidate, Chris Rabb-—one of the most talented candidates to run for local office in my recent experience, a genuine progressive committed both to progressive issues and to a fair, transparent democratic process.

The impact of Chris’s victory will go beyond what Chris will do as a legislator—and I expect him to have a real impact in Harrisburg. Chris won without the support of the political establishment. His opponent Tonyelle Artis-Cook was appointed as the Democratic nominee in a special election by the party machine (more accurately the Northwest Party establishment, one of the more powerful neighborhood machines in an increasingly fragmented Democratic Party). She had the support of all the local elected officials—the mayor, the former mayor, state representatives, city council members as well as the governor and former governor. When Chris first decided to run, most of the politically knowledgeable folks I know thought he could not possibly win given the political support lined up for his opponent.

As the campaign wore on, I became increasingly hopeful. Chris turned out to be a great campaigner, who worked very hard and had a real knack for connecting with voters. He won the unanimous endorsement of the progressive, independent 9th ward and began to garner endorsements from a range of progressive organizations and unions.

His victory demonstrates that a talented candidate who can build a strong base of support can beat the political establishment. Chris won the 9th ward, his home ward, overwhelmingly with 78.85 % of the vote. He won my 2nd division by 87.88%. The highest total in the ward was 91.14% (!) in the 13th division due largely to the indefatigable Anne Dicker. Chris’s ability to attract committed volunteers like Anne was key to his victory.

Chris’s decisive victory should encourage others who thought they could only become an elected official by winning the support of establishment politicians and by heeding the advice generally given to young candidates—“Wait your turn.”

Another consequence of electing a candidate like Chris is that he will be in a position to support other progressive candidates and to build a strong staff. He is not beholden to any politicians who will demand that he hire one of their supporters. There are many young progressives who would like a career in politics, but not that many opportunities to earn a living in progressive politics.

Electing a talented progressive like Chris helps to build the next generation of political activists who will build the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders is unlikely to win the Democratic Party presidential nomination, but his call for a “political revolution,” inspired millions of young people to become politically active. Chris Rabb’s unlikely victory may be a sign that the political revolution is indeed coming.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lillian Ciarrochi: Feminist Hero

On April 13 we lost Lillian Ciarrochi, a passionate feminist and founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women. I met Lillian when doing research for Feminism in Philadelphia: The Glory Years, 1968-1982, a book which could not have been written without her. I spent many happy, productive hours with Lillian recording her recollections of the early days of Philadelphia NOW.

Lillian, like many NOW members, made enormous personal sacrifices in the epic struggle for the ERA in the final years before the June 30, 1982 deadline for ratification. In August 1981, she left a well-paying corporate job to work full time for the ERA in Florida, working 15-hour work days, seven days a week. Lillian recalled:
I was with Scott Paper Company and I was assistant Controller in the largest division. And the vice-president I reported to [had an] office right next to mine. When I told him, he sat there and cried like a baby and he said, ‘you were on your way to the sixth floor, how can you give up your career?’ I was on the fourth floor, and the sixth floor was when you reached the top.
In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer conducted immediately after the defeat of the ERA, the reporter asked Lillian why she would “make a decision that even now she remembers as ‘very, very painful?’ Why do something that would cause her to forfeit her pension rights and that would threaten her future financial security?”

Lillian’s response was that “the strongest motivation was my mother’s life.” her mother was an Italian immigrant who came to consummate a prearranged marriage: “She came on sort of a cattle boat with 500 other young women. All were being pulled away from their families...she became instantly pregnant.” Lillian was the eighth of 13 children in all. She remembers her mother as a brilliant woman who always regretted that she never had the opportunity to get an education. When Lillian told her mother she was joining NOW, her mother started to cry, embraced her and said, “I think that’s important, and do whatever you can to make women’s lives better.” Her mother died June 17, 1980. Lillian said her final decision to “change her life” for the ERA was made on the first anniversary of her mother’s death: “I really wanted to do it as a memorial to my mother.”

Throughout the 1970’s Lillian worked tirelessly to advance the feminist movement in Philadelphia and became treasurer of Philadelphia NOW in 1973. She played a key role in many of the struggles for women's rights in the 1970's, including the NOW campaign against sexist images in the media and the battle to integrate the Union League and the Police Department. Lillian became President of Philadelphia NOW in 1979 and rebuilt the organization after a difficult period in which it almost dissolved—largely a result of volunteer burnout.

In the early years, Philadelphia NOW had been reluctant to get directly involved in electoral politics. Lillian led the organization into the political arena. She recalled her experience at the 1976 Democratic Convention as the beginning of her political education: “After I came back I started pulling the chapter more into politics... It became so apparent that we had to get women elected, get women into power.” She was a passionate supporter of Hillary Clinton’s, and it is tragic that she did not live long enough to see her dream of a woman president realized.

The feminist movement in general and NOW in particular scored an astonishing number of victories both nationally and locally in the early and middle 1970’s. Sometimes the victories were swift and decisive, like the desegregation of Help Wanted ads, while at other times they were long and protracted, like the struggle to integrate the police department and the nine-year battle to integrate Central High, but the trajectory of NOW in the 1970’s was victory after victory. Lillian’s life story underscores the extent to which a handful of dedicated activists can transform the world. The feminist movement of the late 1960’s and 70’s is largely remembered in terms of national leaders but it would never have changed so many hearts and minds, would never have transformed our society without the efforts of so many women in local communities like Lillian Ciarrochi, working tirelessly for gender justice.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

London Theater: fantastic, but no longer a bargain

When Rick and I first started going to London together in the 1980’s, I was astonished at how inexpensive London theater was in comparison to New York. We saw many memorable productions for a fraction of what it would cost in New York. No more. Most West End productions are every bit as expensive as NYC.

We saw an amazing production of Guys and Dolls—a favorite of Rick’s. The current London production is so good that Guys and Dolls is now one of my all time favorite musicals--right up there with West Side Story. And “Luck be a lady tonight” has got to be one of the greatest show tunes of all times.It will be playing in London until October 2016.

We also had the good fortune to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time . We hadn’t managed to get up to New York to see it and were thrilled that it was playing in London during our stay. It too will be in London until October 2016.

There are still theater bargains in London at small theater companies outside the West End, like King's Head Theatre in Islington where we saw Cosi for 18 pounds (about 27 dollars)

And the National Theater is still the best deal in town. We saw Les Blancs, a Lorraine Hansberry play left unfinished at her death and finished by her ex-husband and literary executor.

We saw it while it was in previews and unfortunately there was a break down in the staging—-an elaborate revolving stage that would not revolve. The director walked onto the stage to tell the audience there was a major problem and asked for our patience. We tried, but after a half hour we started to worry about being able to get up the next morning to make our flight. We decided we could not afford to wait any longer. I sure hope Les Blancs comes to NYC some day!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Back to London, Part II: Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse

Columbia Road Flower Market, East End London

One of the things I love most about England is that it is truly a nation of gardeners. And I often think that the little back yard/front yard gardens in people’s homes are every bit as wonderful as showcase gardens like Kew.

Thanks to my friend Gloria Gilman I learned about the amazing East End Flower Market held every Sunday. It was so frustrating that I could not buy any plants for my home garden, but this is not the kind of thing you stick in your suitcase and bring across the Atlantic.

All of the plants were in perfect condition and the primroses were the largest and most beautiful I have ever seen.

I should have realized, given the English mania for gardening, that it wouldn’t be so easy to get tickets to “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse” at the Royal Academy of Arts. We walked to the museum expecting to get into the exhibit and were told that it was entirely sold out during the time of our stay except for a Sunday 7:00pm time slot. We grabbed this time slot and I spent a blissful hour and half at the exhibit. At that point, Rick’s cold was considerably worse than mine but he managed ( with frequent rests) nonetheless to enjoy the show.

If it by any chance the exhibit comes to a museum on the east coast, I would travel to see it again!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Back to London, Part I: First stop, Kew Gardens

We just got back from a week in London. We decided it had been far too long since we visited London. After the dollar tanked in relation to the Euro in the early 2,000’s, we started going to Latin America and had some great trips to Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Puerto Rico for a fraction of the cost of a European vacation.

But when we retired, we came face to face with the reality that there was no longer a seemingly infinite expanse of trips ahead of us. Some hard choices had to be made. We decided we were too old to put off going where we really wanted to go and so we started going back to Europe –-several trips to Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia. But for some inexplicable reason we hadn’t been back to the British Isles. It was time.

London is crazily expensive which is why we were there for only a week. We had the misfortune to have horrible colds, but we were determined not to let our colds get in the way of enjoying London. We had already bought tickets to 4 plays and that was a powerful incentive to keep going. And we did.

Our first day was a brilliant sunny day—a rare and wonderful occurrence in London and we headed straight for Kew Gardens. We had never been in England in early spring and this was a very different Kew Gardens from the profusion of high summer, but heart-breakingly beautiful as only an early spring garden can be.

Kew was awash in daffodils hellebores, crocus, chionodoxa and some of the most beautiful camellias I have ever seen.

Fortunately, there was a garden railway as we weren’t in shape to walk very much.

The spectacular weather lasted only one day and then the usual gray London weather descended—but at least no rain and we had one mostly sunny day at the end of our trip. We are determined that this will not be our last trip to London.

Monday, March 14, 2016


On March 15 two “special elections” will be held: in the 200th PA House district to choose a candidate to serve the remainder of Cherelle Parker’s term; in the 192nd PA House district to serve the remainder of Louise Bishop‘s term.

Special elections have been widely criticized as undemocratic--as reporter Patrick Kerkstra put it in his report on the August 7 2015 special election, “grotesquely undemocratic.” In special elections to fill a vacancy, Democratic and Republican Party ward leaders in the district, not the voters as in a primary election, choose the candidate to run under the Democratic or Republican Party banner.

If another Democrat or Republican wants to run, that person must run as an Independent along with any minor party candidates who choose to run. Given Philly’s 7 to 1 Democratic voter registration edge and poor track record in electing independents for local offices, the endorsed Democrat is almost certain to win and has the advantage of running in the next primary as the incumbent.

The turnout for the last special election on August 7, 2015 was pathetic. The special election to be held on March 15, 2016 rates to be worse, as it will be held just six weeks before the April 26 primary election, rather than concurrently with it, as had been expected. Taxpayers are now burdened with the expense of two elections.

Although the 3 ward leaders of the 9th, 22nd and 50th wards were the decision makers in 2016 special election for the 200th district house seat, somewhere back in the mists of time committeepeople had a say in selecting the endorsed candidate. At some point, the joint ward meeting of committeepeople then required by the party rules was no longer held, and the decision was made solely by the ward leaders—-with the exception of those very few wards in which committeepeople vote and the ward leader is bound by their vote.

If committeepeople were the decision makers in choosing the party’s nominee in a special election, as they are in most Pennsylvania counties, there would be hundreds of people involved in the decision-making instead of a handful of ward leaders. This would be a significant improvement, but would still leave voters out of the process of choosing their party’s standard bearer.


We do need some mechanism for filling an unanticipated vacancy. Instead of having the political parties choose the candidate, why not allow all those who want to run under the Democratic banner [or Republican banner] do so. The political parties could still endorse their preferred candidate who would presumably have an edge as the endorsed candidate. But the voters would ultimately decide which candidate they want to fill the seat for the remainder of the term.

In most of Philly’s largely Democratic districts, one of the Democrats would no doubt win--but at least Democratic voters would have a choice of which Democrat. The winner would serve for a relatively short time and soon would face the voters again as a candidate in the primary and, if successful, in the general election.

When I’ve asked friends and neighbors what they think of this approach to handling special elections, the response has been positive. Unfortunately the current system gives a powerful tool to leaders of political parties-- a way to maintain loyalty and control. Those who aspire to elected office and who don’t want to run in a contested election try to curry favor with party leaders, hoping their loyalty might be rewarded by endorsement in a special election. Thus many would-be elected officials see special elections as a very easy route to political office and many of our elected officials have begun their careers this way. From a list of winners of Special Elections for State and Congressional seats compiled by Democratic party activist Joe Driscoll:

1992 2nd Congressional District Lucien Blackwell
1993 200th Legislative District Leanna Washington
1993 2nd Senatorial District William Stinson
1994 198th Legislative District Rosita Youngblood
1995 201st Legislative District John Myers
1996 3rd Senatorial District Shirley Kitchen
1998 1st Congressional District Bob Brady
1999 191st Legislative District Ronald Waters
2005 4th Senatorial District Leanna Washington
2006 174th Legislative District John Sabatina Jr.
2011 185th Legislative District Maria Donatucci
2012 186th Legislative District Harold James
2012 197th Legislative District Gary Williams
2015 170th Legislative District Martina White
2015 5th Senatorial District John Sabatina Jr.

The rules governing special elections are a matter of state law; thus the rules would have to be changed by the PA legislature. Since the current system gives considerable power to party insiders, legislators would be under considerable pressure to oppose any changes—and many would not need any persuasion to back the party insiders rather than the voters. It sure won’t be easy, but it’s time to change the rules governing special elections.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The global feminist movement is the story of the 21st century!

The global feminist movement is the story of the 21st century. It’s time for the feminist organization dearest to my heart, the National Organization for Women, to strengthen its ties to the international feminist movement.

Historically, NOW has been a national organization with a domestic agenda. When NOW was founded in 1966 there was no visible global feminist movement. Much has changed in 50 years, including the capacity to connect with feminist organizations around the world. NOW’s programming at national conferences reflects this; however, NOW has no on-going organizational connections with the global feminist movement.

It’s not at all clear how such connections could be forged. It’s not as though there is one over-arching global feminist organization with which NOW could affiliate. But if we were to figure out how to do this I think NOW would be a lot more attractive to a diverse group of women. Many recent immigrants—-from Africa and the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia—have a global perspective and a reconfigured NOW with an international dimension might be more attractive to such women.

Also younger women whose education is increasingly international in orientation—-e.g., all those study abroad programs—-might be more receptive to a feminist organization directly involved in the global feminist movement.

I’m looking forward to discussing this at NOW’s 50th anniversary conference, June 24-26, 2016!

Monday, February 29, 2016

My garden is waking up and this time it’s for real.

My garden is waking up and this time it’s for real. We had weirdly warm weather in December, confusing my plants and triggering premature bloom. Yes, it was great to have quince flowers in December, but the buds were blasted by frost and we probably won’t have many quince flowers in March.

But now my garden is filled with snowdrops and the early crocus are starting.

I have hellebores blooming and will soon have witch hazel.

The last few days have been warm enough to work in the garden and I’ve been out there waging war on the pachysandra mosaic virus. The advice I got from Primex Garden Center has been to cut back diseased plants and the new growth should be okay. I tried that last year but the virus seems more entrenched than ever.

Anybody out there have any ideas about getting rid of the mosaic virus?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Is Donald Trump America’s Silvio Berlusconi?

I just finished reading Joseph Luzzi’s The Two Italies and was struck by how much of his description of the former Italian Prime Minster, billionaire businessman Silvio Berlusconi sounds just like Donald Trump.

I don’t know enough about Italy to evaluate Luzzi’s claim that "the absence of civic culture helps account for Berlusconi’s meteoric rise. Because their political system lacks strong traditions of sacrifice and patriotism, many Italians stood by idly as Berlusconi wreaked political havoc.” However, I couldn’t help but wonder if the erosion of our civic culture (described by Robert Putnam among others) is in part responsible for Americans’ willingness to consider a buffoon like Trump as a serious presidential contender.

Luzzi thinks many Italians admired Berlusconi and wanted to be as rich and powerful envying “his facelfits, seaside villas, marinella ties, sprawling estates and near naked showgirls.’’ Berlusconi is reputed to be notoriously vain and like Trump intent on maintaining a simulacrum of a youthful appearance. He has his facelifts and Trump has his weirdly colored tuft of hair.

Luzzi quotes a New Yorker piece which describes Berlusconi in terms that could easily be applied to Trump:

Berlusconi has convinced Italians that he is someone they can both relate to and aspire to be like. Many men feel that he is being attacked for being irresistible to women (which they would like to be) and plainly human, susceptible to sin (just like them)…The electorate prized him for nearly two decades because he made a show of scorning politics and projected his “realness” all over the nation’s televisions, newspapers, computer screens… Disgusted by years of secret government shaped by an inscrutable party structure , Italians couldn’t get enough of his reality show…
Manipulating his vast communications network, Berlusconi offered Italians “the dream of easy success.”

The similarities between Trump and Berlusconi have been noted by political analyst Rula Jebreal: "The lessons of Italian history ought to make Americans a lot more nervous about Donald Trump than they seem to be. Calculated buffoonery is a longstanding tactic for right-wing demagogues looking to alter national political calculations to their own advantage — masking as farce the tragedy they portend." Jebreal’s article ends with a warning:

So it’s now urgent that America learns the lessons taught (and havoc wrought) when Italy’s political and media establishment underestimated Berlusconi. They viewed him as a joke, an ignorant buffoon, and he was widely dismissed as a comical figure, unfit to lead a serious country. None of that stopped him.

Berlusconi with his delusions of grandeur did a great deal of damage to Italian society but at least he did not have a nuclear arsenal at his disposal. Entrusting America’s enormous military power to a megalomaniac like Donald Trump is beyond frightening.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Will the Court of Judicial Discipline Restore Public Confidence in the Judiciary on March 29th?

On February 7, Inquirer reporter Mark Fazollah reported another attempt to protect the old boy network from the consequences of their actions. The Court of Judicial Discipline, currently investigating whether Judge Eakin should be disciplined for sending misogynistic, racist emails, tried to enlist attorney Richard A. Sprague to broker a deal that could forestall a public trial.

When former Supreme Court Justice McCaffery retired two years ago, he did so as part of a secret deal which ended the investigation of his role in the email scandal and allowed him to keep his pension.

Fortunately, this time there was pushback from at least some members of the legal community. According to the Inquirer report:

Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University and expert on the state Supreme Court, said he saw a role for mediators in labor disputes or divorces - but not in cases where judges stand accused of wrongdoing.

He compared the tribunal's action to a judge in a criminal case asking someone to help broker a deal.

"Imagine if a guy is on trial for murder and you bring in a mediator," Ledewitz said...

Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts told the Inquirer, "The public is entitled to hear the facts and the arguments discussed openly.. .Public confidence in the integrity of the courts will not be strengthened by a private deal."

Fortunately, the court has backed away from its plan to broker a deal and Eakin will go on trial before the state's Judicial Ethics court on March 29 in a Philadelphia City Hall courtroom late next month. According to the Inquirer, the Judicial Court said “the trial will take place in a " ‘high tech-equipped courtroom’" in which the emails in question can be shown on a video screen."

Citizen confidence in our judiciary hangs in the balance.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Never-ending Judicial Scandals

Philadelphia NOW, Pennsylvania NOW, and Americans for Democratic Action have voted to oppose the measure on the April 2016 primary ballot to raise the retirement age for Pennsylvania judges from 70 to 75.

There are many good reasons to oppose the retirement age, some of which I noted in Why I’m voting against raising the retirement age for PA judges.

Judges routinely win retention elections despite well-publicized examples of incompetent, corrupt behavior. Mandatory retirement at 70 is one of our few opportunities to get rid of these judges and make room for candidates who bring new perspectives and experiences to the bench.(Judges have the opportunity to work part-time in retirement, so those who have much to offer can continue to do so on a part-time basis.)

If the retirement age is raised, there is real danger that we will delay the transformation of the judiciary into something more closely resembling what America now looks like. The cohort of judges now reaching 70 are much more likely to be white, male and heterosexual than the pool of potential judges, now in their 30’s and 40’s. (It’s only relatively recently that open LGBTQ candidates have run for and won judicial seats.)

As a recent Daily News editorial. acknowledges: "The state's courts (and elected offices) are crying for more diversity - not only in gender but in race. Diversity doesn't eliminate bad behavior, but it makes it more difficult to sustain the kind of insular culture that can encourage the sense that "everyone does it," no matter how bad "it" is."

The ever-widening scandal has made the case for reform more urgent than ever. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices Max Baer and Kevin Dougherty were among the many judges and court officials who received misogynistic, racist emails circulating through the judiciary. The emails received by Baer and Dougherty were sent by former Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery who also sent offensive emails to about 15 Common Pleas Court judges and court administrators across Pennsylvania.

From what we can glean from news reports so far the only recipient of these emails who formally protested was former Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille who told the Inquirer that in 2010 he had asked McCaffery to stop sending him inappropriate emails. Castille sent an email to McCaffery, with copies to all other justices, “warning him that his emails could end up embarrassing the court.” But why didn’t he take the further step of calling for an investigation by the Court of Judicial Discipline?

The recipients of the emails have been defended as “victims” who might not even have opened the emails. However, these emails have subject headings which give some indication of their contents:

posted at PA Penn live

Also thanks to Castille’s letter condemning McCaffery emails, it was generally known that he sent racist, misogynistic material on government computer systems. When Baer and Dougherty and others received these emails--even if they did not open them—they surely were aware the emails had nothing to do with court business. By averting their eyes, they were complicit in the widespread failure to challenge the old boy network. This is not what we expect from a Supreme Court Justice.

Voters have the right to know the identity of the other 15 judges who in the best interpretation of their behavior took the “hear no evil, see no evil” approach and like Baer and Dougherty were at least passively complicit.

McCaffery, apparently the primary offender, continues to defend both senders and recipients of the hate-filled emails: According to the Inquirer, he claimed he and others involved in the email exchanges had been wrongly criticized: "It was all harmless banter between friends." McCaffery’s characterization of the emails as harmless banter raises questions about the relationships among the judges involved. Davie Davies reported on concerns raised by former U.S. Attorney Pete Vaira:

"Wait a minute," Vaira said. "All these people are exchanging ex-parte communications of something very nasty and sensitive. What do they do otherwise?"
In other words, you wouldn't send raunchy stuff like this to just anybody. It would go to somebody you know well enough to trust with material that could embarrass you, maybe even get you fired.
If judges and prosecutors and lawyers were doing this over a period of years, Vaira said, were they also having improper conversations about cases?

Both Vaira and Ron Castille have called for an investigation to determine if this has occurred. Davies points out the difficulty of finding a truly independent investigator, given how many members of the judiciary have been embroiled in the scandal--e.g., the chief counsel for the State Judicial Conduct Board was cited for conflicts of interest in the Eakin case.

Confidence in the judiciary has been badly shaken as the Inquirer report of Mallissa Weaver’s case clearly illustrates:

Mallissa Weaver knew she faced long odds when in 2008 she sought to convince the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that unrelenting sexual harassment by her former boss was so egregious that the justices should overturn a state law that barred her from suing for discrimination.
Much as she expected, she lost. She left her job at a small financial planning office in rural Snyder County and resolved to put the experience behind her.
But as the statewide Porngate scandal continues to widen, Weaver is finding it more difficult to remain at peace with the outcome of her case.
"It's so frustrating to think about," Weaver, 48, said in a recent interview from her home in Kreamer, some 50 miles north of Harrisburg. "There I was complaining about degrading sexual treatment from my boss. Now, I found out that the judges were making the same types of jokes about women while they were deciding my case. How am I supposed to believe I got a fair shake?"
She's not the only one asking that question.

Judges have enormous power over people’s lives. Those who wield that power must be above reproach. We must have an independent, unbiased investigation of the email scandal and, in the long term, thoroughgoing reforms of the judicial system. In the meantime, let’s not freeze the current judiciary in pace by raising the judicial retirement age to 75.