2011 - %3, February

Wisconsin: Tea Partiers, Breitbart Coming To Fight Unions

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 1:50 PM EST

After several days of union protests in Madison, Wisconsin, opposing Republican Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to end collective bargaining rights for many state employees, tea party activists are mobilizing their own foot soldiers to converge on Madison on Saturday, February 19. Tea partiers are arranging for buses to the state Capitol, with the help of a local talk radio host. They're promising a massive counter-demonstration to all those angry teachers. And this effort is being spearheaded by the conservative group American Majority, which has been training activists to become candidates at the state level.

American Majority has set up an "I Stand With Scott Walker Rally" Facebook page to spread the word, and by 1 o'clock Friday, 1100 people had replied and said they were planning to descend on Madison. And if they and others do flock to the state capital, Madison could well become a media circus. Conservative provocateur Andrew Breitbart will be headlining the tea party rally, along with Gateway Pundit blogger Jim Hoft, who recently scoffed at the Egyptian pro-democracy uprising. (Hoft also blamed CBS News reporter Lara Logan's "liberal belief system" for her sexual assault in Egypt.) Recently added: potential GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain. And there may also be a cameo appearance by Joe "The Plumber" Wurtzelbacher, who tweeted Friday morning that he was headed to Madison to "do some interviews."

Many tea partiers across the country have complained on their websites that Walker and other conservative leaders haven't responded forcefully enough to the unions. They were ticked off that Walker was not organizing a street-level counter-protest. And this void, they said, needed filling. Breitbart, for one, has been circulating a video purportedly showing a single tea party activist harassing fugitive Wisconsin legislators, who fled the state to prevent the GOP-dominated state legislature from voting on Walker's bill to gut the public-sector unions. Given that the tea party has previously held sizable demonstrations in Madison, the prospects are good that it can produce a crowd this weekend—which could lead to an ugly confrontation between the union supporters and the conservative activists.

As with so many tea party events, the pro-Walker rally in Wisconsin is not just a product of grassroots citizen spontaneity. American Majority was founded and is run by Ned Ryun. He is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and the son of former Kansas Rep. Jim Ryun (R), who was tainted by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Ned's twin brother Drew was the deputy director of grassroots for the Republican National Committee in 2004. Drew Ryun also works for American Majority, an outfit run by established GOP operatives. The group gets most of its money from the Sam Adams Alliance, and the alliance's funding is not publicly known. But the director of the alliance once worked with the Citizens for a Sound Economy, a group funded by the infamous right-wing Koch brothers. (The Koch brothers were major donors to Walker's gubernatorial campaign.) Vicki McKenna, a Wisconsin talk show host who has headlined state events for the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, has also been helping to put on the counter-demonstration. Once again, this is an instance of tea party activism fueled by funding and logistical support from the conservative establishment.

The organizers of this anti-union protest do have the resources and know-how to stage a big rally; American Majority had a budget of nearly $2 million in 2009, according to its tax filings, and that was before the tea party movement really got going. But more important, the scheduled protest appears to be resonating with tea party activists across the country, who have been praising Walker for taking on unions. There are plenty of tea partiers who seem happy to get on the bus to Madison—and to shout down the union protesters.

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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: Funded by the Koch Bros.

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 1:12 PM EST
Protesters surrounded Wisconsin's capitol building in Madison this week to register their opposition to GOP Gov. Scott Walker's plans to strip collective bargaining rights from public employees.

[UPDATE: Since I reported on Koch Industries PAC's donations to Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, the New York Times and Washington Post both published their own stories the Kochs' involvement. Both are worth reading. UPDATE 2: On February 22, an alt-news editor posing as David Koch called Walker's office to talk about the union protests in Wisconsin. Walker answered, and the alt-weekly editor recorded the entire 20-minute conversation. My colleague Adam Weinstein has the story and the audio here: Did Scott Walker Get Crank-Call Pwned? (AUDIO) UPDATE: YES.]

Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, whose bill to kill collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions has caused an uproar among state employees, might not be where he is today without the Koch brothers. Charles and David Koch are conservative titans of industry who have infamously used their vast wealth to undermine President Obama and fight legislation they detest, such as the cap-and-trade climate bill, the health care reform act, and the economic stimulus package. For years, the billionaires have made extensive political donations to Republican candidates across the country and have provided millions of dollars to astroturf right-wing organizations. Koch Industries' political action committee has doled out more than $2.6 million to candidates. And one prominent beneficiary of the Koch brothers' largess is Scott Walker.

According to Wisconsin campaign finance filings, Walker's gubernatorial campaign received $43,000 from the Koch Industries PAC during the 2010 election. That donation was his campaign's second-highest, behind $43,125 in contributions from housing and realtor groups in Wisconsin. The Koch's PAC also helped Walker via a familiar and much-used politicial maneuver designed to allow donors to skirt campaign finance limits. The PAC gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn spent $65,000 on independent expenditures to support Walker. The RGA also spent a whopping $3.4 million on TV ads and mailers attacking Walker's opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Walker ended up beating Barrett by 5 points. The Koch money, no doubt, helped greatly.

The Kochs also assisted Walker's current GOP allies in the fight against the public-sector unions. Last year, Republicans took control of the both houses of the Wisconsin state legislature, which has made Walker's assault on these unions possible. And according to data from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the Koch Industries PAC spent $6,500 in support of 16 Wisconsin Republican state legislative candidates, who each won his or her election.

Walker's plan to eviscerate collective bargaining rights for public employees is right out of the Koch brothers' playbook. Koch-backed groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Reason Foundation have long taken a very antagonistic view toward public-sector unions. Several of these groups have urged the eradication of these unions. The Kochs also invited (PDF) Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, an anti-union outfit, to a June 2010 confab in Aspen, Colorado; Mix said in a recent interview that he supports Governor Walker's collective-bargaining bill. In Wisconsin, this conservative, anti-union view is being placed into action by lawmakers in sync with the deep-pocketed donors who helped them obtain power. (Walker also opposes the state's Clean Energy Job Act, which would compel the state to increase its use of alternative energy.) At this moment—even with the Wisconsin uprising unresolved—the Koch brothers' investment in Walker appears to be paying off.

Chart of the Day: Sham Budget Cutting

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 1:10 PM EST

Via one of Ryan Avent's colleagues, here's a chart showing the trajectory of non-defense discretionary spending over the past 50 years. This is basically the spending that's left over after you take out Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Pentagon, and interest on the national debt.

This is the part of the budget that Republicans are trying to slash. It's small, it's decidedly not a long-term problem, and it's focused largely on the neediest people in the country. Going after it is a sham, but it's a sham that the Republican base of old people, rich people, and corporations all support. It's a disgrace.

What's Happening in Bahrain Explained

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 12:45 PM EST
Black smoke billows from burning tents in Pearl Square. Manama, Bahrain, March 15, 2011.

The following is a basic primer on what's happening in Bahrain. You can also jump straight to today's updates.

The hospitals of the tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain were packed with wounded after the military opened fire on large crowds of protesters and mourners on February 18

Nabeel Rajab, a persecuted activist who directs the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, has been dodging tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition as a leader of Bahrain's pro-democracy uprisings. "People are very shocked that the king has ordered his troops to kill the people," he told Mother Jones in a phone interview while leaving the funeral of a murdered protester. "It's a sad time. I fear things are going to deteriorate."

What follows is an overview of what's brought Rajab and up to 10,000 other demonstrators onto the streets of this Gulf island—and led to the brutal crackdown on the 18th.

Bahrain at a Glance

Bahrain is home to 1.3 million people and located off the coast of Saudi Arabia. It has been ruled by the Sunni Muslim Al-Khalifa family for more than 200 years. Bahrain receives military aid from the US, provides logistical support for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. Its oil-driven economy has created concentrated wealth, particularly in Bahrain's liberal, cosmopolitan capital city of Manama.

Yet the glitz and glamour of Manama’s skyscrapers and shopping malls mask the country's grinding poverty and deep sectarian divides. The nation's residential communities are starkly segregated— Sunni Muslims, westerners, Shiite Muslims, and South Asian migrant workers (who are not citizens but constitute almost half of Bahrain’s population) generally live in separate neighborhoods. The impoverished villages and slums surrounding Manama almost exclusively house Shiites. Shiites are culturally and ethnically distinct from Sunnis, and hold different interpretations of their Islamic faith. The majority—around 70 percent—of Bahrain's citizens are Shiites.

Although some sympathetic, progressive Sunni Muslims are participating in the current uprisings, the vast majority of protesters are Shiites. (A small fraction, including Rajab, are of mixed Sunni and Shiite background.)

What sparked Bahrain’s uprisings?

The Feb. 14 "day of rage" launched via Facebook by Bahraini youth was, of course, inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. However, anger among Shiites in Bahrain had been bubbling for decades. For the past several years, Shiite youth in outlying villages have organized small scale protest riots that garnered little media attention.

In the early 2000s, some Shiite exiles returned to Bahrain after a new king instituted democratic reforms, including elections for a parliamentary advisory council. A few years later, however, the government resumed its aggressive censorship, intimidation, and torture of regime critics, most of whom are Shiite. One Sunni critic, women’s rights activist Ghada Jamsheer, was put under media blackout by the Bahraini government after blasting the regime’s Sharia'a courts in the Arab media. Time Magazine honored her as one of four "heroes of freedom" in the Arab world.

In the later half of 2010, the Bahraini government escalated is suppression of civil society. Authorities reportedly detained about 250 people, used torture to extract "terrorism" confessions, and closed numerous websites, publications, and non-profits that had criticized the government—including Rajab’s Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "All the time there are articles describing me as a traitor or a terrorist," says Rajab. "For a human rights activist here, this is the environment."

Faraz Sanei, a Bahrain specialist for Human Rights Watch, says that Rajab's experience is part of a troubling trend. "There are very few independent human rights organizations in Bahrain today," he said. "Most are essentially pro-government and are very close to the government." 

What do demonstrators want?

Earlier this week, Bahrain's protesters were clamoring for equal political and legal rights, as well as protections against job discrimination. However, following the government’s lethal suppression, the protesters have hardened their demands. "Now they want to change the whole regime, instead of having reforms," says Rajab. "I don’t know how we can accept a leader who killed his own people."

How is this similar / different from Tunisia and Egypt?

In Egypt and Tunisia, Sunnis make up the vast majority of the population, and no major sectarian conflict drove the protests. Secularists, Islamists, Christians, the poor, the middle class, the wealthy, and ultimately even the army united against dictatorship. So far, the protesters in Bahrain have been overwhelmingly Shiite. Bahrain’s military is overwhelmingly Sunni and many of its soldiers harbor racist prejudices against Shiites. Bahrain arguably has much more in common with Iraq, a country with similarly stark divides between Sunni and Shiite communities.

What are the strategic implications for the US?

Bahrain's western and Saudi allies fear that, if the Shiite majority gain full control of the government, this could strengthen their adversaries in Shiite-ruled Iran. (Shiites constitute a majority of citizens in only four countries: Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan.) Wikileaks cables revealed that Saudi and Bahraini leaders urged US officials to take military action against Iran's nuclear program. The US considers its Fifth Fleet, which is hosted by Bahrain, to be an important counterbalance to Iran. Some Bahrainis have alleged that Saudi troops are helping to put down the uprisings.

On the eve of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Bahrain three months ago, Bahraini human rights organizations co-authored an open letter urging her to denounce the government’s escalating human rights abuses. (Rajab was one of the signers on the letter.) Clinton, however, chose not to publicly condemn a staunch US ally. 

No More Hospitals, Please

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 12:42 PM EST

NPR reports on New Hampshire governor John Lynch's call for hospitals to rein in their building boom in his state. The problem, he says, is that all the new construction isn't leading to better care:

Governor Lynch: “Instead of using that excess cash to reduce health care costs, hospitals spend it on advertising, trying to attract market share from each other; on buying physician and laboratory practices across the state and increasing overhead charges to patients.”

....Paul Spiess chairs a legislative study committee on hospital cost containment. He says hospitals have spent close to a billion dollars in the last decade on new facilities and amenities — from fancy lobbies to color MRIs.

Paul Spiess, former chair, Citizens Health Initiative and chair, SB 505 Hospital Cost Containment Commission: “It’s sort of developed into an arms race.”

....Former State Senator Kathy Sgambati: “You will get extra referrals to an MRI machine because it’s there. There are studies at Dartmouth that show when you have more surgeons, the more surgeries will be performed...so more supply means higher health care costs.”

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. The issue of supply creating its own demand is a real one, but politically it just has to be dangerous to be against having the latest and greatest toys in every hospital. After all, as we're told over and over and over, America has the best healthcare in the world, and we often convince ourselves of that by pointing to the number of MRI machines we have. This should be an interesting showdown.

2010 Elections Set the Stage for Wisconsin, Ohio Protests

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 12:22 PM EST

As the political showdown between Republicans and labor unions in Wisconsin continues unabated, an anti-union bill in Ohio has also begun inflaming similar tensions. Thousands of protesters descended upon Columbus on Thursday to register their opposition to a Republican bill that would abolish or weaken collective bargaining rights for public-sector union members, ban public worker strikes, and weaken bargaining rights for police and firefighters prohibited from striking, according to the Lancaster Eagle Gazette. In addition, the Ohio paper adds, "Local unions' right to bargain for health insurance would be limited, automatic pay increases for public employees would be eliminated and teachers would lose their right to pick their classes or schools if the bill passes."

In one of the most prominent union strongholds in the country, the crowd—"estimated between 3,800 and 5,000"—was the biggest turnout that Columbus had seen for any legislation in a decade. As in Wisconsin, partisan tensions are exceedingly high in wake of the 2010 election results. In both states, the governorship and the statehouse flipped from Democratic to Republican control last year in highly contested races with heavy union involvement. In Ohio, the ousted former governor, Democrat Ted Strickland, even showed up at the Capitol to display solidarity with the thousands of protesting union members. "This has little to do with balancing this year's budget," he told the AP. "I think it's a power grab. It's an attempt to diminish the rights of working people. I think it's an assault of the middle class of this state and it's so unfair and out of balance."

Battles are also heating up in union-heavy states like Michigan, where newly empowered Republicans are pushing similar bills to strip power from unions. It's not surprising that Republicans have set their sights on public-sector unions, which they accuse of using outsized political clout to win cushy benefits. In recent years, teachers' unions have attracted particular animus from both sides of the aisle for receiving undue protections. But some protest-watchers have criticized Republicans like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for using their newly won political power to overreach. Writes one professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison: as a "newly-elected GOP governor of Wisconsin with GOP control of both houses, it is understandable that he didn't think he had to ask for permission. But this was way, way over the top, both in terms of procedure and substance."

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Targeting Social Security

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 11:59 AM EST

Republicans want to slash a billion dollars out of Social Security's administrative budget? Seriously? Whatever you happen to think of Social Security as a program, even conservatives have always acknowledged that it's a very efficient bit of bureaucracy with extremely low administrative costs. But not anymore, I guess:

Democrats warn this will lead to furloughs and other service interruptions that could delay checks and prevent new retirees from enrolling....In a statement, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), who chairs the Social Security subcommittee under Levin, says, "[T]his Republican plan would close down Social Security offices for an entire month this year. That means half a million American seniors, disabled workers and surviving family members--working people who have earned their Social Security benefits--will find themselves placed into a backlog of unprocessed claims. It means phones going unanswered, claims going unprocessed and a ripple effect of backlogged cases that will continue well beyond this year."

Republicans are really skating on thin ice here. If they don't rein in their famous freshman class soon, they're going to end up pretty quickly as the most hated party in American political history.

Our Warmer, Wetter, Wilder World

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 7:00 AM EST

My friend the geophysicist emailed the other day to tell me his house in Connecticut was still snowed in. "The main hypotheses for why we have so much snow," he explained, "involve heat coming out of the now-open Arctic ocean in early winter. Once the ice cap freezes over temporarily, the wild weather calms down."

In other words, it's caused by global warming. Not global warming next year. Not global warming 50 years from now. Global warming today. And according to a new study published in Nature, the entire continent of North America is affected:

"Human influence on the climate system has the effect of intensifying precipitation extremes," said Francis Zwiers, a climate researcher at Environment Canada in Toronto and lead researcher on the first study....The study found that observed increase in deluges "cannot be explained by natural internal fluctuations of the climate system alone," said Zwiers. In other words, only the addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere explains why the United States and Canada have experienced a dramatic increase in heavy downpours.

....The explanation is simple physics: Warmer air holds more water vapor. That means when rainfall gets triggered, the air contributing to the storm is holding more water than it did in the cooler pre-industrial world.

And it's not just North America. Another new study looked at the epic floods in England and Wales in 2000 and concluded that they likely resulted from a warmer world:

In nine out of ten cases our model results indicate that twentieth-century anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions increased the risk of floods occurring in England and Wales in autumn 2000 by more than 20%, and in two out of three cases by more than 90%.

And the even scarier part? These studies only go through the year 2000, so they miss the entire last decade, which was the warmest on record. And needless to say, England and North America are far from being the areas worst affected by climate change. What we're seeing here is just a small taste of what's to come in the future and in other parts of the globe. Buckle up.

Front page illustration by Celine Nadeau.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 18, 2011

Fri Feb. 18, 2011 6:30 AM EST

U.S. Army soldiers pass by children while on patrol near Sha Wali Kot in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, Feb. 16, 2011. The soldiers are assigned to the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment. U.S. Army photo

Who's Sending Dems Racist Death Threats?

| Thu Feb. 17, 2011 9:09 PM EST
Flickr Commons/Kalleboo

[WARNING: Verbal descriptions of the faxed death threats and linked images of them include offensive language and images.]

Earlier today, TPM broke the news of a death threat sent to Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), apparently responding to her effort to end the Pentagon's $7 million endorsement deal with NASCAR. Laced with racial and gender profanities and festooned with a logo of an American pickup truck dragging the head of President Obama by a noose, the fax declared: "Yo! Slut Betty SHUT YOUR PHUCKING PIE HOLE! Without exceptions, Marxists are enemies of the United States Constitution! Death to all Marxists! Foreign and Domestic!"

As horrible as it was, it may not be the first time this phantom faxer has struck. When we at Mother Jones posted a copy of the McCollum death threat to our Tumblr, a fellow blogger, Pantsless Progressive, pointed out that it bore striking resemblances to an earlier threat sent here in the Golden State. (Another Tumblr user, idroolinmysleep, tipped us off just moments later, too.) "California State Senator Leland Yee received a nearly identical fax on January 26," PP wrote.

The images don't lie: PP and idrool were clearly correct.

Late last month, Yee (a San Francisco mayoral hopeful) launched a public campaign against Rush Limbaugh's radio show after the right-wing host mocked Chinese speakers. One week later, he received a fax with the same racist logo as McCollum's (as well as a tagline that's not worth repeating here). The fax read: "Achtung! Fish Head Leeland Lee Rush Limbaugh will kick your Chink ass and expose you for the fool you are," then the familiar lines: "Without exceptions, Marxists are enemies of the United States Constitution! Death to all Marxists! Foreign and Domestic!"

Only further investigation will reveal the full facts, but it certainly appears that there's someone out there who's serially threatening Democratic politicians with death. Alternately, the McCollum perp could be a copycat, but that would still suggest someone who's familiar with San Francisco/California politics. We trust the Capitol Police, who are investigating the McCollum incident, and other authorities will do their utmost in getting at the bottom of this. And in the meantime, we thank Pantsless Progressive and idroolinmysleep for making the connection. It's a credit to social media and our many readers out there that they can contribute reporting like this, of a significant public-safety interest. Perhaps crowdsourcing can help find the perpetrators, too.