Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ledbetter's journey should inspire jaded Americans

(Originally published 1/31/09)

A friend of mine once joked about beating the idealism out of me.

I'll admit that there are days when it could be done more easily than others. Idealism sometimes struggles in the harsh reality of politics.

But this week, it would have been tough.

Thursday morning, I watched on television as President Obama signed his first bill -– the Lilly Ledbetter Act -– into law.

We talked last fall about the bill, an equal pay measure designed to put the courts squarely in the corner of those whose employers have discriminated against them in pay. All three of my federal representatives opposed it; it might increase lawsuits against businesses, they said.

(This just in: Employers can avoid pay discrimination lawsuits by –- GASP! –- not discriminating against their workers.)

Lilly Ledbetter was a factory worker in Gadsden. She had put in nearly 20 years and was preparing to retire when someone tipped her off that she was making less than men in her position. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she should have sued when she was first discriminated against; it was just her bad luck that she didn't know about it until it was too late.

The new law fixes that. It extends the statute of limitations on discrimination claims by clarifying that each inequitable paycheck is a new incident.

The discrimination she suffered affected her salary, which then cost her in Social Security and pension benefits. She couldn't get what she had rightfully earned.

But she "decided that there was a principle at stake, something worth fighting for. So she set out on a journey that would ... lead to this bill which will help others get the justice she was denied," Obama said.

That principle? Equal pay for equal work.

Yes, this country might have just inaugurated its first African-American president. But women are still making only 79 cents on the dollar to men.

On Thursday, as Obama signed the bill that bears her name, Lilly Ledbetter stood over the president’s right shoulder. I thought about how she must have felt when she read that anonymous note stuffed into her locker at work, how her face must have flushed with embarrassment, then anger, as she came to the dark realization of what had happened to her over two decades of her life. I thought about how she must have spent agonizing nights pondering her work and doubting herself. I thought about the disappointment and disgust she must have felt when judges told her that justice has a deadline. And I thought about how easy it would have been for her to give up.

I thought about how, because of this grandmother from North Alabama, my three daughters won't have to face what she did.

I watched the president turn to embrace Lilly Ledbetter. I thought about how, for all its warts and failings and frustrations and scandals, the legislative system had worked for this ordinary American who had been wronged and turned to her government for help.

Yes, I am an idealist. And Thursday was a good day to be one.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

100-day benchmark looms for Obama

(Originally published 1/24/09)

I heard an historian on television the other day lamenting the Hundred Days benchmark made famous by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the midst of the Great Depression. It is looked upon as an initial indicator, the first real measure of a president's success, he said, even though success by the standard FDR set is nearly impossible to achieve.

Roosevelt's early New Deal wins basically doomed future presidents to relative failure, the historian said; it's unlikely that any other chief executive could produce such major accomplishments in such little time, because quick legislative action was predicated on the extraordinarily dire circumstances facing the nation.

There is no question that President Obama is attempting to fashion his administration's first steps in 2009 after Roosevelt's efforts more than 75 years ago. And these times certainly bear similarities to those: Politicians aren't at all shy about invoking the Great Depression to fans the flames of Washington's legislative engine; in addition, there is unrest throughout the world, and millions of anxious Americans are looking to a popular new president for hope and help.

In his book, "Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America," author Adam Cohen writes that "after assuring a despairing nation that 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,' Roosevelt promised 'action, and action now.'"

For President Obama, action there has been. In the first 48 hours of his presidency, Obama hit the ground running: He held meetings with key administration figures on his economic recovery plan, established a "daily economic briefing" as part of his standing schedule, signed an executive order to close the controversial terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay within a year and announced the appointments of special envoys to deal with ongoing issues in the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But there are notable differences between Roosevelt and Obama. Cohen writes that "a remarkable inaugural address" underpinned and paved the way for FDR's early moves in Congress, and desperate lawmakers gave FDR everything he wanted in those first 100 days. There was little remarkable about Obama's speech Tuesday, and by the time he delivered it, he had already fought his first tough –- though successful -– economic battle with the Senate.

The period between election and inauguration allows the president-elect time to get his sea-legs, as it were. And Obama took full advantage of the transition, alternately flexing his political muscle and staying on the sidelines when he saw fit. He took a strong and visible role on the economy, making public statements about daily indicators and actively and personally participating in negotiations about the release of second half of the congressional bailout. But as Israel undertook military action in Gaza, Obama demurred, repeatedly repeating the mantra that there is "only one president at a time."

All that changed at noon on Tuesday, when the affairs and safety and future of this country were entrusted in their entirety to President Barack Obama.

Three days down ... 97 to go.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obama bears heavy burden of advancing King's dream

(Originally published 1/17/09)

Every presidential inauguration is an historic event.

But Tuesday offers us history-plus, if that's possible, in a chance to bear eyewitness to an event that millions in this country never dared to imagine: A black American sworn into the presidency.

History has an interesting way of weaving things together. Barack Obama's inauguration will take place the day after the United States celebrates the 80th anniversary of the birth of its foremost civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Race will figure prominently in events throughout inauguration weekend. There will be no end to the comparisons between Obama and President Abraham Lincoln and even to King himself.

Obama won't shy from these comparisons: He'll swear in on the Bible that Lincoln used to take the oath of office and will likely borrow from King, as he did during the campaign, by invoking "the fierce urgency of now."

Just about every journalist with a microphone or a laptop will gush about how President Obama is living proof of how far we’ve come on race relations in this country.

Yes, Obama's election is progress. But a black president is not in itself the embodiment of King’s dream.

On a sweltering August day in 1963, King told 250,000 Americans gathered on the Washington Mall about his dream for this country. In equal parts eloquence and passion, he described a nation where citizens of every color could live and work side by side; where character, not color, mattered; where social justice thrived and where no one is left "languishing in the corners of American society."

Yes, the new president is surely incontrovertible evidence that the down payments of blood that were paid on a bridge in Selma and in the streets of Birmingham and in jail cells and busses and schools all across the South are paying their dividends of equality.

But in looking at the country itself, we find new barriers –- social and cultural lines that have been drawn since King's speech –- that are incontrovertible evidence that his dream remains unrealized.

King dreamed of a homogenous culture even in the face of racial diversity. He dreamed that one day, race would dissipate, then disappear altogether, as a driving factor in American culture –- even he supported race-conscious social policies like affirmative action as a means to achieve that end.

I often wonder what MLK would have thought of our culture today. I like to think he would have concerned himself a lot more with the social realities of black Americans than how many black Americans coach college football teams.

Obama's candidacy exposed the uncomfortable racial divide that continues to persist in America. He gave a powerful and poignant speech about it back in April, when white Americans struggled with what to make of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

On Tuesday, Obama will take his place in the landscape of King's dream, but that dream will remain unfulfilled. As the scaffolding and bunting come down, and as cherry blossoms bloom and winter returns and midterms advance and Obama begins to run for re-election, it will fall to him to set an example and pursue public policies that will move that dream toward reality.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fed up with Legislature's jail food law

(Originally published 1/10/09)

Did you hear the one about the Alabama sheriff who was locked in his own jail because the food was so bad?

Unfortunately, it isn’t a joke.

Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett spent about 18 hours in county lockup Wednesday and Thursday after U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon found that Bartlett had failed to abide by a 2001 directive to provide more adequate meals for inmates.

Morgan County’s nutrition consultant testified that the food on the menu was adequate for the prisoners. But The Huntsville Times reports that Bartlett admitted to modifying and making substitutions in the jail's typical weekly menu, which is designed to provide between 2,500 and 3,100 calories a day.

In one instance, the sheriff got a good deal on corn dogs, buying an 18-wheeler load of them for $500. Inmates ate the fair food every day for months.

Actually, I don't mind that arrangement. This is jail, after all, and food variety isn't part of the deal.

My problem is with the incentive that drove the corn dog purchase.

The state provides counties with jail food funds of $1.75 per inmate, per day. That isn't a lot for one meal, let alone three. But since 2006, Bartlett has fed prisoners for even less.

The balance (or "leftovers," for those of you with dark humor) amounted to $212,000 -– and Bartlett took it home.

Now, before you get all outraged at the sheriff, consider this: It's legal, thanks to your Alabama Legislature.

Bartlett was jailed for the quality of the food, not for making money off the arrangement. That's because a 1939 state law allows sheriffs in 55 of Alabama's 67 counties to keep the money that's left after the inmates are fed.

Given the cost of food these days, I suspect that Bartlett's cash cow is unique. I would guess that more sheriffs are struggling to meet their obligations with $1.75 per inmate per day than are walking home with what amounts to six-figure bonuses.

But even if inmates aren't being systematically underfed to pad the pockets of their jailers, the principle behind the law that allows it remains a problem.

Legislators who wrote this law probably considered it an incentive for law enforcement officials to be frugal with taxpayers' dollars. (Either that, or a bunch of them later became sheriffs.)

But those are still taxpayers' dollars, regardless of whether they're spent for their intended purpose. If sheriffs can meet their obligations with less than what the state provides, the remainder should be redirected to some other public need. And considering the sorry state of public funding these days, there are plenty of worthy public needs.

In his get-out-of-jail agreement with Clemon, Bartlett agreed to use all the money he receives to feed prisoners for that exclusive purpose. But this overreaching heavy-handedness holds Morgan County to a different standard than the rest of the state.

Lawmakers can easily fix this in the coming legislative session by simply requiring either the return of remainder funds to the state or their reinvestment into local law enforcement budgets.

If they fail to do so, the joke will be on us.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Government bailout of newspapers tempting, but dangerous

(Originally published 1/3/09)

Bristol, Conn.: Home to ESPN, The Bristol Press and Ground Zero in the fight to save American newspapers.

Like every other media company, The Press's owner, Journal Register, is drowning in rising newsprint costs and declining circulation and ad revenue, factors magnified and multiplied by the tanking economy. As a result, JR owners say they can't afford to keep The Press and its nearby counterpart, The New Britain Herald, open.

Enter Connecticut state assemblyman Frank Nicastro.

Reuters reported this week that the lawmaker and some colleagues don't want to see the newspapers founder, so they're asking the state government for help. In response, the state's economic development arm is offering tax breaks, training funds, financing opportunities and other incentives for publishers, but not cash.

Supporters of the move say there is precedent for government action to protect newspapers: The Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 paved the way for joint operating agreements to help competing dailies in metro areas, and the U.S. Postal Service offers discounted postage rates.

Likewise, Nicastro says, Connecticut's assistance is being offered to protect newspapers' ability to serve as taxpayers' advocates, not to usurp it.

As newspapers continue to hemorrhage people and cash, a few folks in the industry are considering the government lifeline. Yes, newspapers jealously guard their independence from government for the sake of their sacrosanct mission. But how noble is that commitment, they ask, if no newspapers are left to fulfill that mission?

I've struggled with this issue all week. I'm the fifth generation of my family to work in newspapers; I don't want to see them die. They serve an oversight purpose that no other organization can -– or will. If newspapers die, who will dig out the connections between legislators and the state two-year college system? Who will keep an eye on City Council for you? Who will examine that new garbage contract for possible conflicts of interest, tell you about new business openings and what caused that fire down the street?

But I can't make myself believe that a government lifeline is the solution. If newspapers take a government bailout, how can they report on those bailouts -– or anything else the government is doing?

As Quinnipiac University journalism professor Paul Janensch told Reuters, "You can't expect a watchdog to bite the hand that feeds it."

As much as I hate to see newspapers go under –- and many probably will in 2009 -– I have to believe, as I did with the Big Three bailout, that bankruptcy won't kill the product. It will simply regenerate in a different –- and better –- form.

I hope industry bankruptcy will bring an eventual return of the locally owned and operated daily newspaper. No one knows your community like the people who live there, and your need for news won't die with the corporate media conglomerate. So when the corporate media conglomerate goes under, your neighbors will be there to pick up the pieces.

Yes, the newspaper industry is worth saving. But as I said on the blog last month, as other industries clamor for government bailouts to ensure their survival, it is actually the procurement, not the denial, of government funds that would seal the American newspaper's demise.