2011 - %3, March

Jon Huntsman Revs Up 2012 Campaign Machine

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 9:23 AM PDT
Jon Huntsman. Flickr/World Economic Forum

Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and outgoing US ambassador to China, is inching toward an official run for the White House in 2012. In the latest news out of Huntman's camp, Politico's Mike Allen reports today that the ambassador's political action committee, Horizon PAC, has beefed up its staff to 12, and plans to announce organizers in key primary and caucus states.

To win over fellow Republicans, Horizon PAC will begin doling out donations to local and state-level Republican candidates—a common practice among presidential hopefuls and other top lawmakers. And earlier this month, 18 of Huntman's lieutenants huddled in New Orleans to plot Huntsman's strategies on fundraising, research, communications, and more. Of course, Huntsman himself can't have a role in any of this planning until he officially concludes his ambassadorship at the end of April. But when he does return to the States, he'll have a campaign in a box awaiting him.

Here's more from Allen:

A Horizon strategist told Playbook that the PAC has already been very successful in fundraising, even before holding major events. The strategist said Huntsman, known for his moderate stands on the environment and gay rights, is as “as conservative as anybody in the field"—fiscally conservative and anti-abortion.

The campaign-in-waiting is being masterminded from Texas by John Weaver, who helped make Sen. John McCain a household name, and is a strategist known for winning outside the conventional playbook.

One sticking point for a Huntsman candidacy will be his tenure in the Obama administration. In recent months, the president and his aides have heaped praised on Huntsman, as well as likely 2012 candidate Mitt Romney, in what some have dubbed a death-by-kindness strategy. As Obama once quipped, "I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary."

But Huntsman's strategists are already testing out messages to counteract the poisonous praise of a Democratic administration. As the Associated Press reports, "On Huntsman's link to Obama, they say Huntsman was serving his country, not a partisan administration, and he would be the best positioned to go head-to-head against his former boss." Selling that message, and more generally winning over conservative primary voters with a more moderate candidate, will prove the toughest task for Team Huntsman.

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Chart of the Day: Finance is Back!

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 8:57 AM PDT

Via Matt Yglesias, Kathleen Madigan reports that finance industry profits have recovered from their late unpleasantness and now account for over 30% of all corporate profits once again. Life is grand if you're a plutocrat, isn't it?

A Goodbye to Bluesman Pinetop Perkins

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 4:00 AM PDT

New Orleans is connected to the small city of Wyoming, Minnesota, by 1,400 miles of road known as Highway 61. The highway, which passes through Clarksdale, Mississippi, the heart of Delta blues country in the early 20th century, is central to the stories we tell today about many of the region's musicians. It is where Robert Johnson is said to have made his deal with the devil, and where Sonny Boy Williamson II played at the King Biscuit Time radio show, the longest running American broadcast in history. Later, musicians like Muddy Waters no doubt took Highway 61 north on their way to Chicago, where they would electrify the delta sound. And this Saturday, Highway 61 will have one more claim to its title as the "Blues Highway" when 97-year-old bluesman Pinetop Perkins, who died on March 21, will be buried alongside it.

Solar Power's Growing Pains

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 3:30 AM PDT

Solar power in the United States faces an uncertain road ahead, despite the sizeable gains it made last year. Spurred by federal stimulus funds, the US market jumped from $3.6 billion in 2009 to $6 billion in 2010 according to a new report by the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research. But the country fell further behind European solar leaders like Germany and Spain, whose governments have their own aggressively funded programs. And, as MoJo's Kiera Butler explains, the speedy expansion of US solar into California's Mojave Desert is raising important concerns about ecosystem damage.

Those concerns have put environmental groups in a tricky spot between their support for renewable energy and habitat protection. Most of the Mojave projects are still moving forward, but lawsuits from green and tribal groups could trip up some of them. The near-term future of solar power in the US will also depend on whether President Obama's stimulus money keeps flowing. For now, energy companies have until the end of the year to qualify for funding. Meanwhile, some solar advocates are suggesting alternatives like installing panels on urban rooftops. New Jersey, which ranks second behind California in solar power generation, has made progress with that strategy.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 28, 2011

Mon Mar. 28, 2011 2:30 AM PDT

Soldiers from A Company, 101st Airborne Division, Special Troop Battalion air assault into a village inside Jowlzak valley, Parwan province, Afghanistan. Afghan National Police searched the village while Soldiers provided security and conducted key-leader engagements. Photo via US Army.

Have DC Schools Really Improved?

| Sun Mar. 27, 2011 9:01 PM PDT

The DC school system under Michelle Rhee famously produced substantial gains on standardized test scores. But USA Today reports that one of the district's star performers, the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, may have cheated its way to success:

A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes' classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.

....On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.

....At Noyes, USA TODAY found several grades with wide swings in their proficiency rates from one year to the next. In 2008, 84% of fourth-grade math students were listed as proficient or advanced, up from 22% for the previous fourth-grade class.

Wow. Going from 22% to 84% in one year is suspiciously impressive. And it's not just Noyes:

In 2008, the office of the State Superintendent of Education recommended that the scores of many schools be investigated because of unusually high gains, but top D.C. public school officials balked and the recommendation was dropped.

After the 2009 tests, the school district hired an outside investigator to look at eight D.C. public schools — one of them was Noyes, USA TODAY learned — and to interview some teachers.

....School district officials would not release the reports Caveon compiled. Caveon has been hired again to investigate the results of 2010 tests in which 41 DCPS schools, including Noyes, had at least one classroom flagged for high erasure rates. USA TODAY could not determine which schools are being scrutinized

It's impossible to prove malfeasance based just on erasure rates. As the story notes, there are sometimes legitimate reasons for lots of erasures.1 But the pattern here sure seems to follow a pattern we've seen in other school districts that have reported startling test gains and later had to recant them for one reason or another. For more, read the whole piece, which is long but worth plowing through.

1For example, kids might be trained to carefully review their answers after they've finished the test. The problem here is that conventional wisdom in the ed community recommends that you never change an answer on a multiple choice test unless you're absolutely sure you got it wrong. More often than not, your first answer is the right one. So even with a careful review, it would be very unusual to see a high number of wrong-to-right erasures.

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Music Man Surfaces in General Vicinity of Music City

| Sun Mar. 27, 2011 12:26 PM PDT

Campbell Robertson reports that Harold Hill has, at last, been spotted in central Tennessee:

The park, he said, would be called Festival Tennessee, and it would cost around $750 million. On these bucolic 1,500 acres, there would be two resort hotels with 4,000 rooms apiece. There would be 80 restaurants and clubs, as well as one of the largest water parks in the United States. And a stadium. And, with any luck, an NBA franchise. And a television production studio. Also, a charter school.

Mr. Peterson estimated that Festival Tennessee would create 15,000 jobs, maybe even 20,000. And, he said, it would be open in less than two years.

One small hiccup: The company that's supposed to put all of this together just had its license revoked in Nevada, and its president has filed for bankruptcy. Also its treasurer says she's never heard of the company. Also one of Lanley's Peterson's advisers is currently on parole for "child sexually abusive material." Also, a previous plan to get Michael Jackson to narrate an animated film about an orphan "who saves the world with the help of some endangered species" failed (note: we kind of want to see this movie).

Ok, so, maybe not the best investment for Spring Hill, Tennessee. But Festival Tennessee reminded me of another, slightly less scammy but magnificently audacious would-be destination: Excel Communications founder Steve Smith's plan to build a billionaires' resort in Lajitas, Texas. Per John Spong:

His ambition grew ever more glorious by the day: eight hundred residential lots of two acres or less, some selling for as much as $1 million, undeveloped; two championship golf courses, not desert-style, with grass growing only on greens and tees, but with a lush wall-to-wall carpet that would need a million gallons of water a day to stay green in summer months; an RV park with $100,000 slips for $500,000 motor homes; a 36,000-square-foot spa; four fancy restaurants; an amphitheater seating three thousand; an equestrian center; a hunting club...

Hundreds of trees, including pears and plums that had no business being in the desert, were ordered before there was a plan to plant them and then planted before there was a way to water them. They died. Grass that was seeded on the golf course couldn’t survive on the brackish well water. It had to be replaced...A skeet range was put in that had shooters firing over the bike trail.

When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked! I'm not sure there's a larger point here, except to say that America clearly does not always do big things.

The Week in Sharia: Terry Jones' Revenge

| Sat Mar. 26, 2011 4:30 PM PDT

Flickr: Jason AdamsFlickr: Jason AdamsEveryone stay calm:

  • Sharia came to Florida, and it was not so bad.
  • Tennessee lawmakers rewrote their anti-Sharia bill to turn it into a material support for terrorism law.
  • Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann demonstrated their presidential bona fides by cozying up to Bryan Fischer, a far-right radio host who thinks the First Amendment doesn't apply to Islam. He's also written that "deaths of people and livestock at the hands of savage beasts is a sign that the land is under a curse." That last sentence was about grizzly bears.
  • As Governor of Minnesota, GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty oversaw a program that helped Muslims get Sharia-compliant mortgages. No big scandal there—just a state housing agency helping people get houses. But Pawlenty wants you to know that he had nothing to do with it: "As soon as Gov. Pawlenty became aware of the issue, he personally ordered it shut down. Fortunately, only about three people actually used the program before it was terminated at the Governor's direction."
  • Chupcabras are, apparently, not real. But in their absence, the Rev. Franklin Graham has a new terrifying bogeyman for you: It's called the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [8]

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 5:29 PM PDT

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

Arkansas Moves to Limit Abortion Access

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 2:17 PM PDT

Anti-choice state senators in Arkansas passed a bill on Thursday that could limit access to abortions for women in the state by subjecting clinics to the same standards as outpatient surgical centers.

That bill would have the anticipated impact of making non-surgical abortions much harder to obtain in a state where it's already fairly difficult. The law would force clinics or doctors that provide women with abortion pills like RU-486 or Mifeprex to follow more stringent rules applied to outpatient surgical centers. The bill's Republican sponsor dubbed it the "Abortion Patients' Enhanced Safety Act"—creating the impression that the bill is only designed to protect women.

The state's Planned Parenthood branch says the measure is specifically designed to target them, since their two clinics in Fayetteville and Little Rock are the only ones that offer medical abortions in the state. They already only offer them up to 8 weeks after conception, and they don't provide surgical abortions, which make the new rules arbitrary, says the group. They would now be required to make major changes to their facilities, including providing recovery rooms and additional bathrooms, with no practical reason to do so.

Abortion rights groups often refer to this type of law as "Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers"—or a TRAP law. The idea is that you make the regulations so burdensome that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to actually provide legal abortion services. A similar effort was passed last month in Virginia that would make outpatient facilities subject to the same regulations as hospitals.

"It's a burden and it targets us specifically," Murry Newbern, director of community affairs at Planned Parenthood of Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma, told Mother Jones. "This is just a tactic that people that want to reduce access to safe, legal abortion use make it more expensive."

Anti-abortion groups are praising the bill, with Americans United for Life Action claiming in a statement Friday that the measure will "protect women" and address "the problem of dangerous conditions for women in abortion clinics."