Tuesday, January 31, 2012

She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker by Brigid O’Farrell

I just read /She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker by Brigid O’Farrell for my feminist/progressive book club. The book club is a small group but the women are terrific and we have a lot in common—all of us are progressive/feminist activists involved at various points in our lives in feminist, labor, civil rights and peace movements, in community organizing and in grassroots electoral politics. We range in age from 47 to 67 (I’m the old person in the group), and I think we all hope to continue social change work as long as we can.

I remember when I presented at /attended panels at Women’s Studies conferences on feminist activism and it was always so obvious which (usually a very few) panelists had actual experiences as activists. It’s so much more gratifying to discuss these issues with women who have walked the walk and bring their own activist experiences to the discussion.

She Was One of Us is no page turner, but it’s filled with fascinating information. I knew that ER (as she’s referred to throughout the book) was a supporter of the labor movement but I had no idea she was so closely allied to the labor movement and that she managed to form deep, long-lasting cross-class friendships with labor union women --friendships that lasted until the end of her life.

One goal of our group is to read books which will inspire and inform our activism. At my age I need inspiration to keep going. I’m not sure whether I was inspired (by ER's commitment) or depressed that we don’t have anyone like her around these days. At a time when we read story after story about labor’s declining membership and about right wing attacks on labor, it’s a very welcome relief to read about a time when the labor movement had such powerful allies.

There were a few surprises in the book: ER did not initially support public employees unions but eventually came around to the realization that they were necessary. Also, ER did not initially support the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). There were labor feminists who thought the ERA would wipe out the protections for women they had fought so hard to establish. But those protections came with a price—-barring women from higher paying jobs. ER along with the labor movement eventually came around to supporting the ERA.

This is an important book and I hope that it manages to get into the required reading lists of Women’s Studies courses—especially to get into the reading lists of the Introduction to Women’s Studies courses I taught for many years. These courses usually do not assign books but rather anthologies with a snippet of this and a snippet of that. Probably the only way O’Farrell’s valuable material will make it into the intro courses is if she works with a documentary filmmaker to translate her material into film. This is the easiest ( and most effective ) way to get the message out. It’s a very important message for those of us in the 99%.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Citizen groups meet with Bar Association to discuss judicial elections, but is it possible to improve our deeply flawed process of electing judges?

I have been a committeeperson for almost three decades—a job I enjoy EXCEPT for the job of recommending judicial candidates to my neighbors. It is extraordinarily difficult to get reliable information about judicial candidates and I’m uncomfortable making recommendations when I don’t feel I can personally vouch for these endorsements.

Last week a group of civic/advocacy organizations which endorse candidates met with representatives of the Bar Association to express our dismay at their endorsement of recently elected Common Please Judge Thomas Nocella, who has a well-documented history of ethics violations and other dubious practices. . The officers of the Bar assured us they were making changes to their process which should prevent another such occurrence.

The Nocella appointment was unusual due to the last-minute resignation by a sitting judge, which allowed the Democratic Party to make an election eve appointment. Because the Bar Association recommendation is good for three years, Nocella could make his last-minute entrance into the race as a recommended candidate. Well, a lot happened in those three years, including citations by the Ethics Commission. Also, the last minute appointment of Nocella was particularly egregious as he had been previously rejected by the voters three times.

The Bar Association acknowledged that there were flaws in the process which they intend to correct. They described their process to us and it was apparent that they spend considerable time and effort on judicial recommendations. Several of us expressed concerns about the secrecy surrounding the process. Voters are given a recommendation of endorsement or non-endorsement without knowing the reasons why. (A rejected candidate gets that information but not the source of the information. The public simply gets the recommendation.) The representatives of the Bar Association made a good case for the necessity of confidentiality-—principally the difficulty of getting accurate information without guaranteeing confidentiality.

However necessary confidentiality may be, there are serious tensions between guaranteeing confidentiality and the democratic process. It’s clear that if we are to elect judges we need some independent agency to certify that candidates are at least minimally qualified. But the Bar Association recommendation is often trumped by Party affiliation, and both are trumped by ballot position! The Party this year, according to some news reports, waited until candidates had received their ballot positions before making endorsements, thus making it more likely that Party-endorsed candidates would win. Judicial elections are money-makers for the Party. If its candidates don’t win, its endorsement no longer seems so necessary, and more candidates might balk at paying 35,000 for a Party endorsement.

Advocates of electing judges often say that the electoral process provides an opportunity for a candidate who might never get through an appointive process. No doubt this is true, and this includes some seriously tarnished candidates like Nocella and perhaps some worthy candidates as well. However, many seriously good candidates who might make excellent judges will not get down into that gutter. If they are not independently wealthy, they have little choice but to raise money from trial lawyers. The only people (other than the candidates’ friends and relatives) who give to judicial candidates are trial lawyers who might later appear before a judge to whom they had contributed. Judicial candidates are frequently indebted both to donors and to the Party machine; this hardly inspires confidence in the independence of the judiciary. Opponents of appointing judges say that politics and money would be still involved in an appointive process. True, but at least we would not have money directly changing hands between trial lawyers and potential judges.

Advocates of electing judges argue that in a democracy the people should choose their judges. But that does not happen; voters have opted out of the process. In an off-year election when many local judicial candidates are selected, turn-out is often quite low—-between 15% and 20%. However, that figure is the number of people who came out to vote; cut that in half for those who vote in judicial elections. Even in my middle class Mt. Airy neighborhood, with a high percentage of educated voters, about half choose not to participate in judicial races. Committee people get the number of undervotes in each election—that is, the number of people who did not vote in a particular race. I’ve been checking this for years now and the pattern is consistent. Participation drops off dramatically in the judicial races. One interpretation is that the people are sending a message that they do not want to elect judges.

Another argument made by advocates of electing judges is that women and minorities would not fare as well under an appointive system. The research I’ve done is inconclusive, with some studies contending that women and minorities do better in appointive systems, others indicating they fare better under an elected system. Since I lack a subscription to Law Library Journal, there are many studies I can’t access. Presumably this is an empirical question, as we have a sample of states in each category. A much more difficult question: how many well-qualified women and minorities who might make excellent judges have not run for election because they lack the financial resources and/or don’t want to participate in a process riddled with potential conflicts of interest?

Several representatives of the groups involved in the meeting with the Bar Association spoke informally after the meeting about these questions, and there does seem to be sentiment towards working together to change the way we choose judges. I realize that some progressives think that election of justices is in the best interest of progressive politics. Getting a consensus and action plan around this issue will not be easy.

There was great deal of outrage about Nocella but, as one officer of the Bar said, one good thing about the Nocella debacle is that a better process may emerge. The Bar Association will no doubt improve its process and we will be able to rely on their recommendations with a greater degree of confidence. But is it possible to significantly improve our deeply flawed process of electing judges????

Friday, January 20, 2012

I never, never expected in 1973 that we would still be fighting to protect abortion rights 39 years later!

Yesterday I forced myself to go downtown on a on a bitterly cold (although thankfully sunny) day to a demonstration in support of abortion rights. When you are 67 you find out which causes matter most to you—these are the demonstrations you go to no matter what the weather. Tomorrow will be the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. I never, never expected in 1973 when I was a young woman that we would still be fighting to protect abortion rights 39 years later!

Although we have a pro-choice majority, a well-organized, vocal minority has managed to chip away at a women’s right to control her won body. But as I wrote in last year’s anniversary of Roe v. Wade post:
There is some good news. Fortunately, there is a generation of young feminists out there ready to fight for reproductive rights. I don’t think young women are going to meekly stand by and accept the loss of hard fought rights. But women in my generation thought at one time that we had spared them the necessity of that fight.

We must elect a pro-choice President and Congress next November and finally put this issue to rest.

This post is part of the We've Had Enough Campaign's Roe v. Wade Blog Carnival. See other posts on the importance of Roe and the attacks against women's health here: http://www.wevehadenoughpa.org/blog.html

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Report on January 2012 PA Democratic State Committee meeting

I spent the weekend at State College at the PA Democratic State Committee meeting. My husband and most of my friends can’t believe I enjoy this, but yes this is my idea of a good time and one of the reasons I retired—more time for politics.

First, some good news: the PA Democratic Progressive Caucus is up and running; bylaws have been passed and officers elected. Bruce Slater, the chair of the caucus, wants to address the issue of Tracey Gordon, a duly elected committeeperson the party refuses to seat, as a state-wide issue. Apparently Philly is not the only place where the Democratic Party violates basic democratic principles. So the remedy for Tracey Gordon is being pursued on two tracks—in court and in Democratic State Committee.

Also, thanks to the efforts of Brad Kirsch, the Senior Caucus is up and running. Brad made a powerful case for the importance of the Senior Caucus. Seniors used to be a reliably Democratic voting bloc, but as Brad put it, the Republicans “have stolen them.” He plans an aggressive campaign around the state to get the Democratic message out to seniors.

In the bad news category, at the Progressive Caucus meeting, Daniel McCaffrey, a candidate for Attorney General, referred to one of his opponents, Kathleen Kane, as “a sweetheart.” Philadelphia Party Chair Bob Brady, when discussing the candidates with the Philadelphia Caucus, referred to her as "somebody named Kane—can’t remember her name.” Considering that signs for Kathleen Kane were plastered all over the convention hotel, it’s hard to believe he couldn’t remember her first name. When she arrived to address the group, Brady did manage to remember her first name but introduced her as “the young lady.” Maybe I’m being overly sensitive but those "sweetheart" and “young lady” references rankled.

The real action at the State Committee meeting was the Attorney General’s race. There are three strong candidates for Attorney General. I was torn between two candidates, Patrick Murphy and Kathleen Kane. I thought Murphy gave the most powerful presentation on the issues, and made a good argument about his electability and willingness to take tough stands for which he might pay a political price. Murphy was the first Congressperson outside of Illinois to endorse Barack Obama. He spoke very movingly about the impact of having lost 19 persons in his division in Iraq, and added that his very early endorsement of Obama was based largely on Obama’s stand against the Iraq war. My husband, who is a Murphy supporter, made a very good point: an Attorney General needs guts and Murphy has demonstrated that he has the courage to stand up for what he believes is right. Murphy is an impressive candidate.

But having written articles and made presentations about the importance of electing women, and having invested time and money in organizations which encourage women to run for office, when a very well-qualified woman runs, how can I not support her?

So I went back and forth, unable to decide what to do. However, from a source least expected, a solution arose. At the Philadelphia Caucus meeting, Chair Brady was giving out proxy votes—perhaps because he was concerned there would not be a quorum. He asked the group if any delegates had driven to State College with anyone who was not a delegate and would like a proxy vote. I raised my hand and said, "My husband was good enough to drive me here and he would like a proxy vote." So my dilemma was more or less resolved. In a sense I had 2 votes; Rick would vote for Patrick Murphy and I would vote for Kathleen Kane.

Daniel McCaffrey was number 3 on my list. At the Philadelphia Caucus meeting, Chair Brady introduced him as someone who wanted to run before “but we told him to wait—now it’s his turn.” This is the way the Philadelphia Democratic Party machine works: a potential candidate does pro bono work for the party, demonstrates the requisite loyalty and then waits for his/her turn. I’m very happy there are stellar candidates like Murphy and Kane who are willing to step forward and not wait until the Party machine decides it’s their turn.

McCaffrey stressed his extensive experience and told the Philadelphia Caucus “Don’t vote for Kathleen Kane because she’s a woman; don’t vote for Patrick Murphy because of his stand on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Base your decision on which candidate has the best chance of beating the Republican in November.” McCaffrey reckons that because of his experience as a prosecutor he is that candidate. Yes, experience matters, but so do energy, enthusiasm, and a fresh perspective.

Brady’s impassioned plea for McCaffrey ended with the argument that McCaffrey was from Philadelphia and Philadelphians had to stick together. Not a convincing argument, from my point of view. Rick thought that Brady did a good job of making the case for McCaffrey. I didn’t, but I was the minority in that room. The Philadelphia delegation was clearly receptive to McCaffrey.

Brady ended the Philadelphia Caucus meeting by stating he would not retaliate against anyone who did not vote for McCaffrey: “I do look at the names on the ballots but I won’t hold it against anyone if you don’t vote for McCaffrey.” (Delegates must sign their names to the ballots.) Reassurance or veiled threat? You decide.

The actual balloting took a while, as there is a roll call vote, with each delegation stating how its members would vote. This was quite interesting because you could tell where each candidate’s base of support was if you were familiar with the location of the counties. Next time I’ll bring a map of PA counties with me. Fortunately, Rick somehow knew where most of these counties were located and so we could piece together a pattern. Kane’s support appeared to be primarily in her home base of Northeastern PA, McCaffrey’s primarily in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas, and Murphy’s spread throughout the state. Of course this doesn’t necessarily reflect the voters in the Philadelphia area. With support from Mayor Nutter, Congressman Chaka Fattah and other Philadelphia elected officials, Murphy could very well win in Philadelphia in April.

The results of the first ballot were:

Philadelphia CountyKane: 1(my vote!); McCaffrey: 40; Murphy: 8
All counties: Kane: 58; McCaffrey: 99; Murphy: 161

Endorsement requires a 2/3 majority for endorsement. If no candidate gets a majority, the two highest vote getters go on to the second ballot. The results were:

Philadelphia County: McCaffrey: 40; Murphy: 9
All counties: McCaffrey: 125; Murphy: 191

No candidate received the 2/3 majority necessary for endorsement (211 votes were required), and so there was no endorsement. As a result, there will probably be a 3-way primary in April. The good news is that all three candidates are well qualified and all three have positions consistent with Democratic values on social issues. Unifying the party around the eventual winner should not be difficult.

The bad news (for me) is that I will have to make a tough choice between two strong candidates. I won’t get to vote for both Murphy and Kane in April. At this point, my bet is on Murphy as the eventual winner—-both because of his broad-based support and because he is such a hard worker. One revealing incident: while the second round ballots were being handed out, Murphy was going around asking people for their vote on the second ballot, not letting a minute go to waste. McCaffrey was standing around chatting with Brady. Kane was not in my line of vision, so I have no idea how she was spending this time. She was no longer a candidate but the rumor (and I have no direct knowledge of this) was she was encouraging her supporters to vote for McCaffrey so that neither candidate could get 2/3 of the vote, thus ensuring an open primary.

Although all the attention was on the Attorney General’s race, there were other votes for candidates unopposed in the primary: Bob Casey, U.S. Senate; Eugene DiPasquale, Auditor General; Rob Mc Cord, Treasurer. To me, the most impressive was Rob McCord who is smart, funny, a natural politician. We Democrats have some seriously good candidates—-a real contrast to the ideologically confused, ethically challenged candidates the Republican Party puts up.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Landreth Seed Catalogue: the most beautiful seed catalogue I’ve ever seen

January is the time when gardeners curl up with seed catalogues and fantasize about the prefect garden. A friend gave me the most beautiful catalogue I’ve ever seen, Landreth Seed Catalogue. Landreth’s was founded in 1784 and specializes in heirloom seeds.Unlike most catalogues which arrive unsolicited in our mailboxes, this is one you have to buy, but it is a work of art and definitely worth the $5.00. From the catalogue:

Tomatillos, Chinese lanterns

I don’t grow as much from seed as I once did. For one thing, my garden is so over-planted, there’s no room for new plantings. But as long as I’m capable of gardening I will grow some things from seed. There is something so magical about putting this tiny little speck in the ground (or in a pot) and seeing it turn into a gorgeous head of lettuce or a spectacular larkspur.

A tip for new gardeners: grow annuals (cosmos, zinnia, larkspur, and cleome are among the easiest) and grow salad greens from seed. Never buy over-priced super market arugula; it grows like a weed, by far the easiest salad green to grow. But buy perennials from the garden centers; perennials are so much harder to grow from seed.

The gardening season will be here before we know it!

Monday, January 2, 2012

I enjoyed the holidays,but I’m so glad they’re over

I enjoy the holidays BUT there’s still that element of stress and I’m really glad they’re over. Two years ago, I wrote a post, No longer haunted by holiday depression. I stand by that post and now would put it more positively. Not only am I no longer “haunted” but I actually (for the most part) enjoy the holidays.

When I had a young child, the holidays were high stress. I wanted my son to have the “perfect Christmas” (whatever that is) and knocked myself out buying presents and putting up a Christmas tree, decorating the house etc. It was seriously high stress—especially with major marital problems that always worsened during the holidays. When the marriage ended, there was the tension of the joint custody years with all those negotiations about how my son would spend the holidays.

My life is so much less stressful now and the holidays reflect that. My son and my nieces don’t want presents—just checks-- which makes life easier, and I no longer feel any need to decorate the house. My sister still does that Christmas thing and I’m always taken aback when I see all the Christmas decorations in her house. My sister's house during the holidays:

Even the dog is in Christmas finery:

For me it’s just a poinsettia, but in a way I enjoy my sister's celebration of Christmas.

We had a great New Year’s Eve—an amazing party right in the neighborhood. It was a multi-generational event (which as an old person I really appreciate) with live music and dancing. I hadn’t been to a party like that for a while and I’d forgotten how much fun it is to dance. I was a little reluctant at first, but “Black Magic Woman" got me to my feet.

The only holiday entertaining Rick and I do is an open house on New Year’s Day. We used to have a New Year’s Eve dinner, but a few years ago after Rick had spent the whole day cooking a fantastic dinner, only 2 of our dinner guests showed. They were ill, were worried about the weather, uncomfortable about driving at night. We spent the next day driving around to deliver food to those friends who hadn’t come.

We decided that a lot of our friends were getting too old to be reliable New Year’s Eve guests so we switched to an open house on New Year’s day which has worked out very well. We don’t cook; we just buy hors d'oeuvres and our friends bring wonderful dishes. Some of the best pastry chefs in the city were there, bringing wonderful baked goods. (Thanks, Kathy.)

But there’s no way around it—-entertaining is stressful for the hosts. I fell down on the job and got so involved in conversations, I didn’t notice we had run out of clean wine glasses and utensils. Rick can deal with paper plates for hors d’oeuvres, but he insists on real glasses and utensils—which means monitoring the glasses and throwing some in the dishwasher if necessary. Fortunately some of my friends took up the slack and I found them washing glasses and utensils in the kitchen. I’ll never be the perfect hostess—too scattered for that.

So we got through the holidays and although I enjoyed them, I’m so glad they’re over and so happy to settle back into routine.