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.

Laboratories of the States: The good… and then, the very bad and ugly

This essay first appeared on Huffington Post

Will a few states rule the United States? Or fundamentally change it? And if so, who are the winners and losers? Depending on your point of view, this “laboratory-of-the-states” business is good news today… or not.

The metaphor dates to the dissenting opinion of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in a 1932 case, New State Ice Company v. Liebmann and is often used today to assert the success of one social program or another. The best most recent — and decidedly successful — laboratory-of-the-state demonstration is Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. This writer’s extraordinary attorney friend Kathryn Tucker published a paper in the 2008 Michigan Law Review, when she was Director of Legal Affairs for Compassion & Choices, titled “In the Laboratory of the States.” Tucker wrote, “Because Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act has proven both useful and harmless, this Article concludes that it is time for other states to follow Oregon’s lead and enact their own legislation to allow their citizens an alternative to what otherwise could be a prolonged and painful death from terminal illness.”

Tucker deserves much of the credit for expanding the Oregon law into the movement that now seems a clear national trend, along with Compassion & Choices (full disclosure: this writer has long been a C&C supporter, volunteer and local board member). Washington and Vermont have passed similar bills and Montana wisely concluded that it’s none of the state’s business what a doctor and patient decide to do, making physician aid in dying now legal in those states. A handful of other states have pending bills and still others are mounting strong movements. So Oregon’s laboratory of success is likely to be the nation’s overall policy in the foreseeable future, and we’re all better off for that. (Opposition has come from religious and political forces that hold onto a belief that God requires some sort of existential suffering be visited upon Her dying creatures.)

The laboratory-of-the-states pathway is both effective and well trodden, said San Jose State Professor/author Larry Gerston at a recent Commonwealth Club political panel event. The panel was looking at other current trends, but Gerston specifically cited the Oregon Death with Dignity model as an example of how it all works.

Now — what if Texas becomes a laboratory for the denial of reproductive rights?

In Texas, just for a rough overview, recent laws have passed requiring parental notification and now parental consent; requiring abortions to be performed in ambulatory surgical centers with hospital-grade operating rooms; requiring women who seek abortions to submit to ultrasounds and then wait 24 hours for the procedure. The list of harsh, medically unnecessary restrictions and requirements is long, and a clear violation of both ‘best medical practice’ and women’s rights.

It is worth noting who are the winners and losers in these state laboratories. In Oregon, the winners are we the people everywhere. Few of us would turn down the right to a humane and compassionate death, which is made a possible choice by death-with-dignity laws. Losers? No one. No one is compelled to choose a hastened death, anywhere, any time.

In Texas, however, the scorecard is seriously skewed. The winners are archconservatives that have learned that this is a good way to get votes. Winners also include those, men and women alike, whose religion teaches that life begins at conception and thus all abortion is wrong. This writer can appreciate those who hold such views, but it is not possible to uphold the rights of a fetus without denying the right of the woman in whose body it resides. Many of us come down on the side of already-alive women and on the doctrine of church/state separation.

And the losers in Texas: women. All women. Primarily they are women without money or resources, who are frequently disadvantaged and disproportionately women of color. These women are already turning to desperate measures to end unwanted pregnancies; increasingly they are turning up in emergency rooms with failed attempts to self-abort. To a lesser degree, but still worth considering, the losers include those — men, women, boys, girls — who need the other services provided by rapidly closing clinics: birth control, sex education, STD testing, breast cancer screening and many other critically important needs that will now go unmet.

It’s hard to contemplate the win-lose picture of this Texas laboratory. But if it indeed becomes a laboratory-of-the-states argument in upcoming Supreme Court cases, and elsewhere, the losers will be all of us. You and me. We the people.

Skipping towards Armageddon

Those people wandering around with giant signs proclaiming “THE END OF THE WORLD IS AT HAND!”? Sometimes you have to wonder if they’re onto something.

A recent Commonwealth Club program brought together two men proclaiming a similar message: the potential end of the world is at hand in the stockpiles of nuclear weapons — most of them in Russia or the U.S. — around the globe. They aren’t roaming the streets with hand-lettered signs, but they have written two informative, slightly scary new books. Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione opened his talk by saying, “If you buy one book about nuclear weapons, buy this book.” He held up co-presenter Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety.  Command and Control (full disclosure, I haven’t finished all 632 pages yet) is investigative journalist (Fast Food Nation) Schlosser‘s “ground-breaking account of accidents, near-misses, extraordinary heroism, and technological breakthroughs.” It covers the history of nuclear weapons accumulated by the U.S. since the days of the cold war, and it will make most other problems shrink to insignificance.

Cirincione’s own new book, Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late, covers the good news — only nine states now have nuclear weapons, down from 23, and “only” 17,000 such weapons still exist — and the bad: that’s enough to destroy the planet without much trouble. (Cirincione did later hold up his own fine, smaller work with the comment, “If you buy TWO books…”)

This not-so-comforting realization of what an edge of obliteration we live on was only one effect of the discussion. The other was sheer gratitude for the planet’s survival. Standing between you and me and the edge of oblivion are fallible human beings who have, so far, been able to avoid all the happenstances, large and small, that could trigger nuclear disaster. We can all hope they continue to guard the edge, but triggers for disaster are still everywhere: aging weaponry, international angst and mistrust, and the always possible lone crazy person.

Moderator David Holloway, Professor of International History at Stanford University, asked the elephant-in-the-room question: Would the author/experts agree with General Lee Butler, former head of the Strategic Air Command, who said the avoidance of nuclear disaster was thanks to a combination of skill, luck and divine intervention?

“I would not cite divine intervention,” Schlosser replied. “But we’ve been very lucky.” Like climate change, the threat of nuclear disaster is brought about by human actions, he said, and can be corrected by the same.  Both of the experts talked of the dangers existing around the globe from having 17,000 weapons stockpiled, from the tensions between many countries, and the possibility that terrorists could get their hands on a few weapons.

But the point was driven home to this audience member when Cirincione put it this way. It all started, he explained, because we wanted to deter the Soviet Union — now, presumably Russia — from annihilating us. So how many Russian cities would we need to obliterate, he asked, for an adequate deterrance? One? Two? Say, Moscow and St. Petersburg? Maybe three? He explained further that nuclear weapons make no attempt to pinpoint military targets and avoid collateral damage. They simply demolish everything and kill everybody. To accomplish this “deterrance”, wipe Russia’s three most significant cities off the map, would require eight nuclear weapons.

We have five thousand.

I’m still not counting out divine intervention.

Encountering a legend

She was there when I walked in to do a reading at A Great Good Place for Books (which is indeed a great good place): a tall, reed-thin woman with a still-beautiful face that radiated strength.

“I’m Pat,” she said.

I shook her hand and thanked her for coming, then kept walking to the back of the bookstore to finish up some miscellaneous details. While walking, my brain clicked in.  I turned around and walked back.

“You’re PAT MAGINNIS?”

She smiled. She was indeed.

Pat Maginnis’ story is part of my new book, Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade. It’s a story too long to tell again here, but in brief: In the 1960s, if you were pregnant and desperate in Chicago you looked for Jane. If you were in California, you looked for Pat Maginnis. She was a one-woman Planned Parenthood/ NARAL Pro-Choice/ TrustWomen force, when there were few forces to protect the lives of women with unintended pregnancies.

I had last talked with Pat three years ago, when working on Perilous Times; she was aging (something we both continue to do) and in poor health. I had lost track of her, and recent efforts to find her led nowhere. But here she was.

There are legends in our time. Pat will be at the Commonwealth Club for a panel discussion on Thursday the 17th — not on the panel, but she’s planning to be there. She’s going to make my day twice in the same week.ResizedImage_1381901735267

Life begins… when? Come talk about it

Life begins… when? Come talk about it

 

Life begins… at conception? at birth? somewhere in between?

It’s not a question anyone can answer with absolute certainty, or a question likely ever to be agreed upon by everyone currently alive. But it’s a question many philosophers, theologians and — not always happily — politicians have been debating recently. And it’s a question sure to come up at the Commonwealth Club program Women at Risk: What’s Ahead For Reproductive Rights October 17th in San Francisco.

English: *Description: Scotty McLennan Author ...
31 December 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Scotty McLennan, the Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University (and model for Doonesbury‘s Dude of God) will be one of four panelists tackling this and other thorny — but pertinent — issues during the hour-long event. Here’s a bit of what McLennan has to say, excerpted from Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade:

“I’ll never forget the sight of each of my children emerging into the world blue and lifeless, being struck on the back by the doctor, taking their first breath, and becoming ruddy-colored as they began crying their way into life.” Those images, and a biblical reference to the “breath of life,” reinforce McLennan’s belief that “the Supreme Court got it right” in ruling that decisions about abortion should be left to the woman and her physician until the fetus might indeed be able to survive outside the womb.

McLennan also believes, as do I, that abortion should be safe, legal and rare.

It’s a critical issue a long way from being solved, either by Roe v Wade, or by those of us who are pro-choice, or by those who would ban abortion entirely in the belief that banning it would somehow make unwanted pregnancies never happen.

How about you? If you’re going to be in the San Francisco Bay Area on October 17th, join us at the Commonwealth Club. It’s going to be informative, engaging, useful — and a lively time.

Social justice & the American Bar Association

In the land of the free, says American Bar Association President Laurel Bellows, there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who are today unfree. They include men, women and children forced into labor or sex for the benefit of others, in a multi-million dollar industry that extends into virtually every corner of the U.S. But if Bellows and the ABA task force formed to combat human trafficking have their way, this will change.

Bellows spoke recently to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, outlining two of the top concerns of her current focus. The other, the cyber-war against individuals, business and governments, is hardly brighter: hackers are at work around the clock seeking to play tricks, steal identities, control the electric grid, spread terror or commit an endless variety of criminal acts…”and our own government says we’re not prepared.”

Laurel Bellows, though, believes “in the power of community, the power to change our world or preserve it – and the rule of law.”

Among the potential solutions for which the ABA is advocating are uniform state laws (“There are two people responsible for prostitution: the woman, and the john”), “Safe Harbor” laws and the use of employment manuals in fighting human trafficking. She also cites the Polaris Project, a national non-profit working to combat human trafficking through, among other things, a national hotline, 1-888-373-7888.

In an allotted 65 minutes including the Q&A, covering the territories of her passion was not an easy task. But Bellows, a diminutive (4’11”) blond whose high energy and crackling intellect quickly erase any just-a-pretty-face image notion her audience might have, tossed in one more for good measure: gender equity. On every level, from manual labor to corporate boardrooms, she says, women are still paid less than their male counterparts.

Bellows’coverage of a depressing array of thorny problems carried at least a few reassuring hints of possible solutions. Maybe, among its nearly 400,000 members, the American Bar Association will find a few problem-solvers; and if so, they will have the support of everyone who’s pulling for social justice in our struggling land of the free.

Trafficking In Persons Report Map 2010
Trafficking In Persons Report Map 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This writer votes for Caitlin Borgmann and her Reproductive Rights blog for the ABA Journal – even if Laurel Bellows didn’t get time to dig into that one.

Justice O’Connor still has opinions

Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O’Connor (Photo credit: kyle tsui)

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, speaking at a sold-out event in San Francisco October 22, aimed the bulk of her remarks at the school children and law students in the balconies:  study hard, keep your eyes and ears open, and spend a lot of time at iCivics.

Founded by O’Connor in 2009, iCivics is designed “to reverse Americans’ declining civic knowledge and participation” and keep democracy secure by educating and enlightening the next generation, and the groundbreaking justice means to get this done.

In addition to plugging what is clearly her primary passion, O’Connor got around to a few other issues dear to her heart, such as states that elect their judges to federal courts. “Which means they have to campaign,” she noted. “Campaigns cost money. Guess who contributes campaign money? The lawyers who will appear before those judges.” Bad idea. Admitting that California is one of those states, moderator Mary Bitterman said, “I guess we should look into that.” “Yes, you should,” O’Connor shot back.

Dozens of audience questions concerned the Supreme Court, past (Citizens United,) present and future. Could she envision an all-female court some day? “Certainly.” But for the most part she declined to comment on decisions, or speculate on the future as it relates to details like the Republican commitment to overturning Roe v Wade.

So this report can only direct readers to iCivics, a fine spot indeed. Games will teach you about juries, voting, balance of power — citizenship. It’s designed for students of all ages, with special pages for teachers, and it’s perfectly OK for adults, O’Connor remarked, “if you’re a dum dum.” Whereupon I visited the site, played a couple of games, learned a little more about democracy.

Retired, perhaps, but Justice O’Connor is in no way retiring. May she live long and prosper.

Water Wars: A big dam problem

English: The O'Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite Nat...
English: The O’Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite National Park, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been one hundred years – minus just a couple of months – since the people of San Francisco got permission from Congress to build a dam on the Tuolomne River in Yosemite National Park, thereby creating a giant reservoir which has been delivering pristine water to millions of Californians ever since. The dam, an engineering marvel even in those days of impressive dams that were popping up all over the country, was named for its chief engineer, Michael O’Shaughnessy, and still belongs to the City of San Francisco.  The reservoir stores river water plus equally pristine snow melt from the surrounding mountains. It then delivers this bounty to millions of Californians, summer or winter, through a gravity system, descending through smaller dams and reservoirs to pipes and tunnels that swish it merrily along.

The downside is that under all these tons of stored water lies the once majestic Hetch Hetchy Valley. Naturalist John Muir, who fought the dam to his death, said the Hetch Hetchy Valley equalled Yosemite Valley in grandeur and wonder.

For the past ten years a group of folks who would have been – and still are – on John Muir’s side have been working to restore the valley. Which means: tear down the dam, find ways to deliver equal supplies of equally pure water to the millions who now turn on their taps for water from Hetch Hetchy.

If there are more ferocious wars than water wars, they would be hard to find.

At a recent Climate One panel discussion at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, battle lines were drawn. Jim Wunderman, President and CEO of the Bay Area Council and Susan Leal, former General Manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and author of the book Running Out of Water squared off against Mike Marshall, Executive Director and Spreck Rosecranz, Director of Policy for Restore Hetch Hetchy.

The battle is currently focused on Proposition F, a San Francisco ballot measure which would require the city to prepare a plan leading toward the eventual demolition (another vote would come a few years later) of the O’Shaughnessy Dam and restoration of the valley John Muir so desperately sought to preserve.

Wunderman and Leal, among others, say the $8 million for planning could be better spent somewhere else, the issue has been already studied to extremes and in general Proposition F is a bad idea. Marshall and Rosecranz, among others, say the same good water could be delivered without the O’Shaughnessy Dam, the valley should be restored and anyway, all they’re asking for is a plan. Nobody knows how many years full restoration might take, or exactly how many billions it would cost. One successful financier, a strong Restore Hetch Hetchy supporter, told the crowd the economic benefit of a restored valley would far outweigh the costs; audience members seemed unconvinced. Afterwards, audience members spoke with apprehension about the costs, fondness about their water and wistfulness about the environmental future. “If we just could wave a magic wand and have the valley back for my grandchildren…” one still-undecided voter remarked to me.

Everybody says building the dam was a big mistake.