Crime on the political stage: It’s funny… until it turns sad

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

You can’t make this up. Prominent longtime politician, a state senator now running for Secretary of State, gets caught in a years-long FBI operation allegedly involving enough nefarious big-money schemes to fill a library of pulp fiction. One associate indicted for gun-running, drug trafficking and purportedly arranging a murder for hire. Political pals already in trouble for things like holding legislative seats for districts in which they unfortunately do not reside. Throw in an ex-con accomplice by the name of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow

A recent “Week to Week” political roundtable at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club led off with what panelist Josh Richman termed “a journalist’s dream.” Richman, who is a State and National Politics Reporter for Bay Area News Group, remarked on the thorough and extensive media coverage of what is a local scandal playing out on a national stage.

California State Senator Leland Yee is the centerpiece of this improbable media bonanza. Yee has been charged with seven federal felonies described by San Jose Mercury News writer Howard Mintz as resulting from:

… dozens of… clandestine meetings with undercover FBI agents, many involving promises of political favors, influence peddling with fellow legislators and a Hollywood-style scheme to arrange a multimillion-dollar illegal weapons deal through the Philippines for an undercover operative claiming to be a New Jersey mobster.

“At the heart of the government’s case against Yee,” Mintz writes, “are his own words — replete with expletive-laced demands for money in exchange for political favors, even if it meant dealing with gun runners and organized crime figures.”

The roundtable, regularly hosted by Commonwealth Club vice president of media and editorial John Zipperer, also included Hoover Institution Research Fellow and Stanford University Lecturer Tammy Frisby, and Melissa Griffin Caen, an attorney and contributor to KPIX-TV and San Francisco Magazine. All four — along with audience members — tried hard to deal seriously with the issue; there were a lot of “allegedly” air quotes in use. But it is preposterous beyond all limits of credulity. “Insane,” was the term Frisby used; “like Grand Theft Auto come to life.” Caen brought along a copy of the entire 137-page criminal complaint.

Lee has posted a $500,000 bail — hardly a problem, as he has more than that already raised for his Secretary of State race and is legally entitled to use it for bail money or lawyers or whatever else lies ahead. He continues to draw a $95,291 salary for the state senate job despite having been suspended from that body.

Eventually the roundtable moved on to national and global affairs, but it was the Yee scandal that held the entire room in thrall. How could it not?

Most of those following this outsized drama — and it’s impossible not to be following it unless you’re (already) in solitary confinement — are simply shaking their heads. Some are saying “Oh, all politicians are crooks.”

And it’s that last reaction that turns the comedy into tragedy. Caen said she found, reading through the 137 pages, it was almost funny. But she came to two parts where it turned terribly sad. Those were when Yee “demeaned the office” by suggesting that financial contributions could be beneficial (to the contributor) in future actions of the Secretary of State relating to, say, supervision of elections; and when he “allegedly” accepted cash with the remark that his children “could write the check” to launder the money.

There are more than a few good books waiting to be written on it all, and probably a TV show or two. But in the interim, the goings-on of one alleged political bad apple in San Francisco are making it difficult to shake one’s head over corruption in Ukraine.

Leaving the driver at home

Ummm. About this robotic car business. Everyone says its day is near, and halleluia. Governor Jerry Brown, with a recent stroke of his pen, made it legal in California. According to the Los Angeles Times, driverless cars are already legal in Nevada anyway, and under consideration in Arizona, Hawaii, Oklahoma and Florida. (Further recent news from MVTrac suggests that if you fall behind in the payments on your robocar the repo guy might send a robotrack to snatch it back home. Clearly, people may become extinct.)

I am all in favor of driverless cars that allow passengers to catch up on business en route to that urgent presentation, or finish dressing the kids on the way to school. Computers are certainly less likely to kill me in the crosswalk than all the drivers loose in the land today who are eating hamburgers, concentrating on cellphone conversations or texting their buddies while I’m trying to cross the street and wishing they would notice.

But there are bugs to work out. Have the robocar people ever gone on vacation with two preschoolers who need to go to the bathroom right that minute? Do they have any idea how frustrating it is already to argue with the obnoxious GPS lady who insists you take Geary Blvd wherever you’re traveling east-west in San Francisco, when you know darned well the lights are timed on Bush and Pine? And can they figure out how to program a sudden rainbow, or the view of the beach just several blocks away, or even an aberrant pull-over to watch goats grazing in a field?

The Driverless Car Gets Stuck on a Curb

The Driverless Car Gets Stuck on a Curb (Photo credit: Melody Kramer)

 

The car manufacturing people say not to hold our breath for driverless vehicles. They’ll figure it all out, I’m sure, before this latest wonder comes to American roadways. But in case they need a consultant on really important details, I could make myself available. For a fee. And perhaps a drive down the coast.

 

 

Medicinal pot, Yes. Legal pot, bad idea

Wafting around California these days is a lot of rhetoric about legalizing marijuana, a proposition (#19) that will be on the ballot in November. Californians being Californians — I’m one; I know — and pot being pot, there is no shortage of heated opinion. Here is one more.

Countless Americans suffer from chronic or short-term conditions which could be relieved by marijuana. To deny them such relief simply makes no sense at all. The sooner everyone wakes up to the logic of marijuana as comfort care, and it becomes universally legal and available, the better.

Legalizing the weed for recreational delight, though — essentially making it available to all comers — makes very little sense at all. It’s an addictive substance, folks. It messes with your mind. All we need is a whole new population of messed-up folks to add to the messes we already have.

This is just one addict’s opinion. But if one addict’s opinion is only anecdotal, some others, below, are worthy of serious consideration. They were offered by the California Society of Addiction Medicine in an op ed piece by the Society’s president, Dr. Timmen Cermak, in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 22. The Society is taking no position on Prop. 19, Cermak explains, “but we wish Californians would look at the research before they make up their minds on how to vote.” This space applauds that suggestion.

The Society of Addiction Medicine is made up of “the doctors who specialize in the treatment of drug abuse; we work every day with people addicted to drugs, including alcohol,” Cermak writes. “We are a diverse group of doctors committed to combining science and compassion to treat our patients, support their families and educate public policy makers.”

Since very few of the Society of Addiction Medicine’s 400 physician members believe prison deters substance abuse, legalizing marijuana would have that small, back-handed benefit. “Most (of us) believe addiction can be remedied more effectively by the universal availability of treatment,” Cermak writes. “When, according to the FBI, nearly half – 750,000 – of all drug arrests in 2008 in the United States were for marijuana possession, not sales or trafficking, we risk inflicting more harm on society than benefit. Prop. 19 does offer a way out of these ineffective drug policies.”

But other research should raise alarm bells. Cermak’s essay is excerpted below, with a few points worth pondering bold-faced:

“Two-thirds of our members believe legalizing marijuana would increase addiction and increase marijuana’s availability to adolescents and children. A recent Rand Corp. study estimates that Prop. 19 would produce a 58 percent increase in annual marijuana consumption in California, raising the number of individuals meeting clinical criteria for marijuana abuse or dependence by 305,000, to a total of 830,000.

“The question of legalizing marijuana creates a conflict between protecting civil liberties and promoting public health… between current de facto legalization in cannabis clubs and revenue-generating retail marijuana sales… The society wants to make sure voters understand three basic facts about how marijuana affects the brain:

“– The brain has a natural cannabinoid system that regulates human physiology. The flood of cannabinoids in marijuana smoke alters the brain’s delicate balance by mimicking its chemistry, producing a characteristic “high” along with a host of potential side effects.

“– Marijuana is addicting to 9 percent of people who begin smoking at 18 years or older. Withdrawal symptoms – irritability, anxiety, sleep disturbances – often contribute to relapse.

“– Because adolescent brains are still developing, marijuana use before 18 results in higher rates of addiction – up to 17 percent within two years – and disruption to an individual’s life. The younger the use, the greater the risk.

“Marijuana is a mood-altering drug that causes dependency when used frequently in high doses, especially in children and adolescents. It’s important that prevention measures focus on discouraging young people from using marijuana.

“Prop. 19 erroneously states that marijuana “is not physically addictive.” This myth has been scientifically proven to be untrue. Prop. 19 asks Californians to officially accept this myth. Public health policy already permits some addictive substances to be legal – for instance, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. But good policy can never be made on a foundation of ignorance. Multiple lines of scientific evidence all prove that chronic marijuana use causes addiction in a significant minority of people. No one should deny this scientific evidence.”

So we could use the tax revenues from legalized pot. But it may surely be worth thinking twice about what the concurrent costs will be, in illness and crime and human lives.

Sarah Palin stirs up California

Sarah Palin speaking at a rally in Elon, NC du...

Image via Wikipedia

Sarah Palin flew in for a much-ballyhooed speech Friday night, at a price still undisclosed — and which may never be known. Therein lies the rub. It also, as Palin is inclined to do, decidedly pumps up the politics.

Palin was invited some time ago to speak at  a fundraising event for the Cal State University Stanislaus Foundation‘s 50th anniversary celebration. How much she was paid — the event raised $200,000 for the school’s endowment — became a subject of much controversy and high political drama. Eventually it invoked an investigation by State Attorney General Jerry Brown, now facing off for Governor against gazillionaire former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, into whether public disclosure laws are being broken by the university’s refusal to say what she got paid. Along the way, sides are being drawn by incumbent U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, whose opponent former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina rather famously criticized Boxer’s hairdo a little while ago and said more recently she is honored by Palin’s endorsement; and by Democrats in general who see the Palin Effect as fine ammunition to aim at state Republicans.

In other words, as San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carla Marinucci commented in today’s update, “They don’t call Sarah Palin the Thrilla from Wasilla for nothing.

After months of buildup, including investigations, outrage and celebration, the former Alaska governor’s trip to California’s farm belt over the weekend proved beyond a doubt that she delivers – for Republicans and Democrats.

State Attorney General Jerry Brown probably will be grateful that he was the focus of the 2008 vice presidential candidate’s barbed criticism as he investigates her compensation from the Cal State University Stanislaus Foundation for her speech Friday night at the nonprofit’s 50th anniversary event at the Turlock (Stanislaus County) campus.

Brown’s office is looking at whether the campus foundation violated state public disclosure laws by refusing to make public the terms of Palin’s contract for her appearance.

In her speech, Palin quipped of Brown: “This is California. Do you really not have anything better to do?”

The Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s response: “I don’t think she understands the process. It’s about the operation of the foundation to see if they handled things professionally.”

The Palin Effect played well in Republican primaries, but may not be quite so welcome as candidates now seek to broaden their appeal.  All of which makes watching the political high-wire balancing act, though sometimes tiresome, never dull.

Boxer’s campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski, called Palin and Fiorina “two peas in a pod” and released a Web video aiming to remind voters that the Republicans’ “shared positions are out of step with Californians.”

On the GOP side, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Fiorina said that while she couldn’t meet with Palin on this trip, she was “honored” to be endorsed by Palin, who characterized Fiorina as a “commonsense conservative.”

“It’s the question of how she will play to the political middle. Will she take away votes?” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

He said that a close connection with Palin may be a concern for candidates like Fiorina, in part because Palin manages to stir it up, no matter what her forum.

“If you think people are tired and worn down by politics, Sarah comes into town and the circus follows, and the arguments break out,” he said. “Wherever she goes, there’s a dustup. … It gets everyone angry and yelling, and it stirs up divisiveness.”

It’s going to be a long, hot summer in California.

Palin’s Stanislaus visit shows political power.

One more (anti)-gun law progresses

Glock 19 Pistol,

Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday the California state Assembly approved a bill 45-25 that would ban “Open Carry” — the carrying of unloaded handgun in public. The bill now goes to the Senate.

The measure by Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, D-San Diego, came in response to advocates who have been toting unloaded pistols in public in an attempt to expand Second Amendment gun rights.

She and other Democrats behind the measure, AB1934, called it a public safety issue and said law enforcement groups support the bill. Republicans said the measure targets law-abiding citizens.

Visitors to this space reading earlier posts about the Open Carry debate were essentially unanimous in saying I have no constitutional right to feel safe in public; 45 state Assembly members apparently see banning Open Carry as a way for people to be safe in public. Or more so, to some extent. The debate continues.

Assembly bans openly carrying guns in public.

Handguns, the second amendment and the public safety

One young man with a suitcase, one with a hand...

Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr

Two sides of the gun control debate squared off in San Francisco this week, focus of a mini-battle over the fully loaded question: Does your right to walk around with a loaded gun in public override my right to feel safe when I don’t know if you might go off your rocker? This writer discovered, thanks to a show of hands at the Commonwealth Club sponsored panel, that I was the only unarmed person within a back-of-the-house three-row section. This revelation guarantees discomfort but keeps you alert.

California is among the majority of U.S. states which allow anyone to carry unloaded guns in plain sight, or licensed individuals to carry loaded guns concealed. Variations of gun laws — can you have a few in the car? how about in a restaurant? suppose your taste is for machine guns? — are complex and mind-boggling. Gun proponents fall back on the second amendment; gun-control advocates tend to cite public safety and privacy rights. Reasoned debate is pretty much out of the question.

The tempest in the California teapot arose over gun folks’ dislike of the “may issue” state business. California is a “may issue” state, meaning a permit may be issued to a law-abiding applicant; as opposed to a “shall issue” state, meaning you (law-abiding citizen) will darned well get that permit once you apply. In protest over the “may issue” situation, California gun buffs recently took to the streets — or to the local Starbucks, as the case happened — with prominently displayed weaponry. Some latte drinkers were not amused. Gun buffs were defiant. Starbucks reportedly wishes they had picked Peets. Meanwhile, CA Assemblymember Lori Saldana introduced a bill, AB 1934, to ban “Open Carry,” and the battle was joined.

At the recent panel, Emeryville CA Police Chief Ken James, University of CA Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring and Executive Director Sam Paredes of Gun Owners of California restated most of the familiar arguments. Throughout, James was expressionless, Zimring frowned, and Paredes wore an expression that can generously be described as a not-too-friendly smile. There were assertions (thousands of lives are saved every year by people armed and defending themselves or their neighbors; police don’t need to be stopping people all over the place asking if that gun is loaded; police can’t do their crime-stoppers job without the help of law-abiding, armed citizens; it’s not easy to know when an armed citizen will misuse his arms…) that all have elements of truth and elements of fantasy.

Two details are worth noting, though. Zimring pointed out that in the 2007  Supreme Court decision (District of Columbia v Heller), Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the 5-4 majority, took things a little farther than they had been by specifically mentioning handguns, which had not been invented when the second amendment was written. It’s handguns in public places that tend to rile up both sides. Therefore the hoopla over open carry, Zimring said, is not where the discussion should be. Eventually, the right to bear handgun v right to public safety will need to be settled. In other words, when does your right to pack a gun interfere with my right not to be around you when you do?

At the end of the discussion, moderator John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, asked a question about whether panelists were packing heat during this event. Off-duty Police Chief James was not, because he feels guns invite problems. Professor Zimring was not, because he said if he tried to hit a target everyone around would be in trouble. Citizen Paredes was. A concealed weapon, because you never know if another citizen might need you to leap into action. Was it loaded? Yes.

Somehow, this did not make me feel safer.

One campaign, $68 million and counting

SUNNYVALE, CA - APRIL 27:  Former eBay CEO and...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

California gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman made a bundle as head of eBay. Where she spends it, her supporters say, is a matter of personal choice. She is currently choosing to spend it on buying her way into the governor’s office. Recent reports list her total costs closing in on $70 million — no big deal, since she has been quoted as saying $100 million on this phase wouldn’t pose any problem. This phase is still just the June primary.

Whitman has spent $68 million of her own money on the race so far, the Los Angeles Times reports. Whitman blasted the California airwaves with ads in March, according to the LA Times, but (opponent Steve) Poizner eventually made his own investments and gained traction with damaging attacks against Whitman’s stance on illegal immigration (he called her too soft on the issue). As a billionaire former business executive, Whitman was also hurt by the focus put on her ties to Goldman Sachs.

This space isn’t going to get into political endorsements or heavy-duty oppositions. And in any event, as a registered Democrat married to a confirmed Decline-to-state, votes from here are unlikely to affect the California Republican nomination.

But at what point does the investment of personal wealth throw up red flags about one’s motivations? Is wanting political office any different from wanting a Rolex watch or a ranch in Montana? When someone has no legislative experience, no known stands, no voting record (Whitman never bothered with voting much), how are we supposed to know what’s really driving the reach for power? Ross Perot spent about the same amount of his own money on his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Presidency in 1992 as Whitman has thus far on a gubernatorial primary race. Perot dropped a little less on a similar adventure in 1996. He did have somewhat of a record of his convictions, and he was defended both times with arguments that it is a personal right to do whatever one wants with one’s personal wealth.

That is undoubtedly so. It’s a personal right. Why does it somehow feel wrong?