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

A BETTER WAY OF RUNNING SPECIAL ELECTIONS



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.

A BETTER WAY OF RUNNING SPECIAL ELECTIONS

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.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Reproductive rights are human rights!



Every year I look forward to the Roe v. Wade visibility event. It is gratifying for this aging abortion rights supporter to see so many young women picking up the torch!

Unfortunately, I didn’t make it this year as my husband was sick and I didn’t want to leave him—although he insisted that I should go.

I’ve heard from friends that the event was a huge success. I am a gratified to see the movement for reproductive justice becoming more diverse in race, ethnicity and gender. There are increasing numbers of young men, such as candidate for the PA house Chris Rabb( pictured above) who see the struggle for reproductive justice as their fight too.

The bad news of course is that we are still fighting this battle. In the 1970’s I never, never thought we would still be fighting to defend abortion rights in 2016. We have to win this battle once and for all.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Special Elections Craziness


Special Elections Craziness

Special elections have been widely criticized as undemocratic--as reporter Patrick Kekstra 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 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 ward leaders are the decision makers in the 2016 special election, somewhere back in the mists of time committeepeople had a say in selecting the endorsed candidate. Democratic Party activist Joe Driscoll discovered that, unknown to most committeepeople, the party rules had been revised in 2014 to eliminate the participation of committeepeople. From Driscoll’s summary of changes in party rules: Rule X, Article 1 was amended to change the method by which [candidates for] State Representative are chosen for nomination in Special Elections, transferring the power of choosing nominees from committeepeople to ward leaders. Previously, State Representatives were chosen by a special meeting of the ward (if the district is comprised of one ward) or a joint ward meeting (where the district is comprised of more than one ward). The newly amended version provides that the nominee shall be chosen by ward leader(s) in which the district is comprised.

At some point, the joint ward meeting 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. In order to change the rules to make them consistent with current practice, the party bylaws stipulate certain procedures must be followed: a committee charged with revising the rules must be appointed and must make a written report to the County Committee. A notice must be sent to all members of the County Committee advising them of the date of the meeting to act upon recommendations for revision of the rules. (Party Rule XIII: Revision of These Rules)

The rules seem to have been revised without any of the above procedures being followed—-thus no discussion of the rationale for revising the rules, no opportunity for ward leaders and committeepeople to raise objections. Over the years the Philadelphia Democratic Party has gotten used to doing whatever it wants to do with very little scrutiny, but recently progressive Democratic Party activists and journalists are taking a closer look at the Party's modus operandi. If committeepeople were among the decision makers it would be an improvement. There would be hundreds of people involved in the decision making instead of a handful of ward leaders. But this still leaves voters out of the process of choosing their party’s standard bearer.

A BETTER WAY OF RUNNING SPECIAL ELECTIONS
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 curry favor with party bosses, hoping their loyalty might be rewarded by endorsement in a special election. Thus many would-be elected official see special elections as a very easy route to political office and quite a few of our elected officials have begun their careers this way. See a list of winners of Special Elections for State and Congressional seats compiled by Joe Driscoll and posted on the Democratic Committeeperson Facebook page.

Since the rules governing special elections are a matter of state law, 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, January 5, 2016

Kenney Inauguration Euphoria: Now comes the hard part




It was a happy crowd and a lot of youthful energy in the room at Jim Kenney’s Inaugural Block Party. This was an event consistent with what Kenney represents to so many his supporters —a down-to-earth guy, with deep roots in Philly and a real appreciation for what’s special about this town. My guess is that Philadelphians are going to feel a lot better about their city with Jim Kenney as Mayor.

A remarkable coalition coalesced around him as soon as he announced his candidacy last January. I appreciated that Kenney had been a leader on issues that I care about : LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, decriminalization of marijuana--not so we can all get high in peace, but because so many lives of young people, primarily African-Americans and Latinos, were being destroyed by criminal records.

The campaign Jim Kenney ran reinforced my belief that he was the right person for the city. I liked the issues he emphasized—especially his commitment to public education and to universal pre-K. I was also impressed by the coalition he put together including people from every ethnic and racial group. And the appointments he has made underscore his commitment to racial/ethnic dieirsity and gender parity. Jim Kenney has sure earned his NOW endorsement, as the majority of his appointments so far have been women. And the appointments include some of the most talented people in our city.

But will all his enthusiastic supporters stick with him when he tackles some of the really hard problems? Yes, business and philanthropic groups can contribute to a fund for public education and for pre-k, but the real solutions must involve public money and that means more revenue.

Jim Kenney received a lot of support from the progressive community who can be a fickle lot. Yes, we should let our candidates know when we think they’ve voted the wrong way or made a bad policy decision. But let’s not be so quick to turn on candidates who disappoint us on one issue. Jim Kenney will need the long-term, rock solid support of all those happy folks at the Inaugural Block Party. He can’t do it alone.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Elena Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child--the best book of 2015

With the Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante brings the final volume of the Neapolitan novels to a powerful, deeply moving conclusion. Reading the book was an exhilarating experience—finishing the book was a depressing one. There are no more Ferrante books to read.

I’ve read everything Ferrante has written and it’s not clear whether anything else will be published. So there’s nothing left but to re-read, and Ferrante’s books are meant to be re-read.

I’m now re-reading the first book and picking up nuances I missed the first time around. The first time I was so absorbed in the story and reading quickly to find out how it would all turn out that I missed a lot of the subtleties.

In an interview in the Sydney Herald, Ferrante has said that the four books are to be read as one long story, which in fact existed in the initial draft:

I don't feel a great difference between my first three books or this last one. Certainly the set up counts: in the past I've written about women in an intolerable moment of crisis, here [in the Neapolitan Novels] the joys and wounds of an entire life are told and it's important how characters react to the alternating currents of good luck or misfortune over a long arc of time.

Most of the major themes of the Neapolitan novels are present in the three earlier books, although without the rich social context. The theme of women’s friendship is not in the earlier books but emerges as the narrative framework of the Neapolitan novels. The life-long friendship between Elena Greco and Lina (Lila) Cerullo is usually considered the main theme of the Neapolitan novels.

To my knowledge, only one reviewer questioned its centrality. But is it more about envy/competition rather than about friendship? Or how the two can become inextricably linked? I no longer see friendship as the central theme of the Neapolitan novels but rather the framework for exploring the choices available to women whose options are constrained by gender/class.

As in the earlier books, there is no one theme—but rather an elaborate tapestry of interrelated themes. Claire Messud has called Ferrante “Italy’s answer to Doris Lessing, Elena Greco is her Anna Wulf, and her tetralogy The Golden Notebook of our era.” Ferrante is a far more powerful writer than Lessing and (I think) a more powerful feminist.

The complex interplay of feminist themes is present in all four books; in the final book the theme of motherhood—-the tension between wanting a life of one’s own and love for one’s children; the fear of failing to protect one’s children, the fear of losing them—-explored in The Lost Daughter, one of Ferrante’s earlier works——emerges as the dominant theme of the Story of the Lost Child. Ferrante explores the horrible consequences that can result from a moment’s inattention.

For me, Ferrante’s books often trigger vivid memories of experiences only dimly recalled.Story of the Lost Child triggered memories of two such incidents. When my child was young, I was always afraid of losing him, of something horrible happening to him. In 1972, we were in Santiago de Chile in the Moneda Palace . I don’t recall exactly how it happened but I was holding my son and put him down on the ground and then looked away for a second and he was gone. He was just starting to walk on his own. I was in a state of total panic and then I looked across the room and there he was looking at me with amusement. I’ll never forget the fear and the overwhelming sensation of relief.

The second time was during the same 1972 trip to South America, this time in a remote village on the Ecuadorian/ Columbian border. We had stopped in a little tavern and a woman grabbed my son and ran off with him. I was in a state of panic. His father who had the advantage of speaking Spanish said I shouldn’t worry as she was just showing him to the other people in the village who had never seen a baby who looked like him. They thought he looked like the Christ child. He was a very beautiful baby with blond curls, enormous brown eyes and a serene, almost Buddha-like smile. But I was not as sanguine as his father was that he would be returned and I spent a very uncomfortable half hour or so. He was returned in a very good mood; he looked like he had enjoyed the tour of the village, but in both cases what I remember was the sheer terror.

SPOILER ALERT: Reading the Story of the Lost Child brought it all back. On a crowded Neapolitan street, Lila looks away for a few minutes and her daughter disappears without a trace, never to be found—-an unforgettable conclusion to an unforgettable series of novels.