Political MoJo

West Virginia Democrats' Best Hope Might Be This Billionaire Coal Magnate

| Mon May 11, 2015 5:21 PM EDT

Over the last six years, West Virginia Democrats have seen their grip on state politics slip away in no small part due to their alleged collaboration with President Barack Obama's "War on Coal." The solution: put a coal kingpin on the ballot.

On Monday, Jim Justice, owner of Southern Coal Corp., announced he would run for governor as a Democrat in 2016, to replace the retiring incumbent Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Justice, the state's richest citizen with an estimated net worth of $1.6 billion, is a political novice but a state icon. In 2009, he purchased the Greenbrier, a historic mountain resort that had fallen on hard times, and restored it into a first-class resort. During his gubernatorial campaign kickoff event, Justice drew a parallel between his state's lackluster reputation, and the derelict condition of the White Sulphur Springs retreat. "[Times] were tough at the Greenbrier, too," he said.

In Justice, Democrats have found a walking counterpoint to the war-on-coal attacks. (The attacks are also largely unfounded—under Tomblin the state has rolled back mine safety regulations.) In contrast to, say, frequent Greenbrier guest Don Blankenship, who as CEO of Massey Energy famously re-designed his property so he wouldn't have to use his town's polluted drinking water and is currently awaiting trial on conspiracy to violate mine-safety laws, Justice has always styled himself as a man of the people. A 2011 Washington Post profile began with a surprise sighting of Justice at an Applebee's near his hometown. The richest man in the state, it turned out, was grabbing a late snack after coaching his hometown's high school girls basketball team.

But Southern Coal Corp. isn't without its issues. An NPR investigation last fall found that the company owed nearly $2 million in delinquent fines for federal mine safety violations. (After the report was published, Justice agreed to work out a payment plan.) And he may not have the Democratic field to himself, either; senate minority leader Jeff Kessler (D) filed his pre-candidacy papers in March. No Republicans have thrown their hats into the ring yet.

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Creeper Rand Paul Staffer Licks Camera Lens at Town Hall Event

| Mon May 11, 2015 1:40 PM EDT

Rand Paul is frequently dubbed the most interesting man in politics, but one of his staffers is apparently attempting to best the Republican presidential candidate for the dubious distinction. In the case of David Chesley, Paul's political director in New Hampshire, however, "interesting" may be generous. Straight up bizarre is more like it.

An innocent tracker was recording video for a town hall event today, when Chesley, a bald middle-aged man, started bobbing his head directly in front of the camera, taking up the entire field of vision. After a few seconds of bobbing—perhaps pondering his next disruptive move—he opened his mouth, stuck out his tongue, and licked the lens.

Yes, lick.

The campaign has not yet explained why the man who is charged with helping Paul win the key state to New Hampshire did this. But frankly, who cares. Watch the incident below:



J.K. Rowling Reveals "Elizabeth Warren" Was a Ravenclaw

| Mon May 11, 2015 11:05 AM EDT

Is Elizabeth Warren actually just an enigmatic adolescent ghost? Maybe! On Monday, Harry Potter author (and greatest living British person) J.K. Rowling dropped a bombshell in response to a question from a Twitter fan:


According Harry Potter Wiki, Moaning Myrtle was a member of Ravenclaw House. Five points for Ravenclaw!

Video Visitation Giant Promises to Stop Eliminating In-Person Visits

| Mon May 11, 2015 10:30 AM EDT

Video visitation is the hot new trend in the corrections industry. Companies like Securus and Global Tel*Link, which have made big bucks charging high prices for inmate phone services, are increasingly pitching county jails new systems that will allow inmates to video-chat with friends and family. Using new terminals installed onsite, inmates can communicate with approved users who log in remotely on a special app similar to Skype. For inmates whose loved ones don't live anywhere near their corrections facility, that can be good news.

But as I reported for the magazine in February, those video-conferencing systems sometimes come with a catch—jails that use the systems are often contractually obligated to eliminate free face-to-face visits, leaving family members no choice but to pay a dollar-a-minute for an often unreliable service.

In a press release last week Securus has announced it will no longer require jails to ditch in-person visitation:

"Securus examined our contract language for video visitation and found that in 'a handful' of cases we were writing in language that could be perceived as restricting onsite and/or person-to-person contact at the facilities that we serve," said Richard A. ("Rick") Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Securus Technologies, Inc.  "So we are eliminating that language and 100% deferring to the rules that each facility has for video use by inmates."

Translation: Nothing to see here, move along! But while inmates might be getting their face-to-face visitation back, Securus' concession on in-person visits comes even as it's fighting the Federal Communication Commission's efforts to regulate the cost of intrastate prison phone calls (it capped the price of interstate prison phone calls in 2014 at 25 cents per minute). And the corrections technology industry isn't the only group defending the status quo—the executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association told IB Times earlier this month that if the FCC interferes with phone prices (corrections facilities often get a cut of the profits), some jails may just decide to cut off access to phone calls.

That Time Mike Huckabee Preached Against Booze, Sex, and Monty Python

| Fri May 8, 2015 12:34 PM EDT

Good luck tracking down sermons from Mike Huckabee's two decades as a Baptist preacher. The GOP presidential candidate, who once started a television station out of his church to broadcast his sermons, kept those tapes under wraps during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Among the handful of sermons open to the public is a partial recording of a 1979 sermon in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, at the congregation Huckabee had tended as a pastor a decade earlier when he was a student at Ouachita Baptist University. The sermon, included in the school's special collections, catches a young Huckabee confident in his beliefs and fluid in his rhetoric, riffing from one New Testament passage to the next in critiquing the most "pleasure-mad society that probably has ever been since Rome and Greece, in the days when there was just absolute chaos and debauchery on the streets":

It's a sad thing but it's true in this country: 10,000 people a year are directly killed by alcohol in this country. Ten thousand. But we license liquor. There's one person a year on average killed by a mad dog, just one. But you know what we do? We license liquor, and we shoot the mad dog. That's an insane logic! But it's what's happening, it's because we love pleasure more than anything else. A lot of times we look around our society we see this problem we see pornography and prostitution and child abuse and all the different things that we're all so upset about. You know why they're there? You know why they're in the communities? You say "because the Devil"—they're there because of us.

It was dark days indeed, he argued, when "an x-rated theater can open up down the street from a church." Above all, Huckabee was upset with Monty Python's 1979 movie, Life of Brian. Huckabee was hardly alone in condemning Life of Brian, which follows the story of a Jewish man, Brian, who is mistaken for the Messiah because he was born on the same day as Jesus. The film was banned in Ireland; picketed in New Jersey; denounced by a coalition of Christian and Jewish leaders; and canceled in Columbia, South Carolina after a last-minute intervention from Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond. (On the other hand, the movie does have a score of 96 at Rotten Tomatoes.) Per Huckabee:

There was a time in this country when a movie like The Life of Brian which, I just read—thank God the theaters in Little Rock decided not to show, but it's showing all over the Fort Worth–Dallas area, which is a mockery, which is a blasphemy against the very name of Jesus Christ, and I can remember a day even as young as I am when that would not have happened in this country or in the city in the South.

But friend, it's happening all over and no one's blinking an eye, and we can talk about how the devil's moved in and the devil's moved in but what's really happened is God's people have moved out and made room for it. We've put up the for sale sign and we've announced a very cheap price for what our lives really are. We've sold our character, we've sold our convictions, we've compromised we've sold out and as a result we've moved out the devil's moved in and he's set up shop. And friend [he's] praying on our own craving for pleasure.

No word on whether Huckabee will defund the Ministry of Silly Walks if elected.

This Study Will Add Fuel to the Abortion Wars

| Thu May 7, 2015 3:16 PM EDT

On Thursday, the New York Times carried a front-page story reporting new research that could have a profound impact on the nation's abortion debate: a study concluding that a small number of premature infants born at 22 weeks can survive with intensive treatment.

The study, which appears in the New England Journal of Medicine, followed 5,000 infants born between 22 and 27 weeks of gestation. Seventy-eight of those infants were born at 22 weeks and given treatment to increase their chances of survival; 18 of them survived. Of the 18, which the researchers followed up on as toddlers, 6 experienced severe impairments, from blindness to debilitating cerebral palsy, and 7 were relatively healthy.

The news has huge implications for the the medical community, where there has been debate about how much treatment to provide to babies born at this stage of gestation. But it could also have sweeping consequences for the fight against abortion rights—giving abortion opponents new support for a popular abortion ban, while possibly undermining their quest to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a right to abortion.

In the immediate future, the news is most likely to impact the coming congressional debate over House Republicans' proposed 20-week abortion ban, which many see as a direct challenge to Roe. In that ruling, the justices forbid the states from banning abortion before a fetus was viable outside the womb. A 20-week ban, mainstream medical groups have argued, bars abortion before viability.

But abortion foes may use this new study to argue that 20 weeks is indeed within the range of viability, and a ban on procedures after 20 weeks is legal. (When abortion opponents talk about 20-week bans, technically, they mean 22-week bans. Click here to read a full explanation.)

Viability, however, is not a bright red line. And this new research is less of a breakthrough and more of a rigorous confirmation of what smaller, less systematic studies have already observed. One such study found that 85 percent of infants born at 22 weeks (or 20 weeks, in political parlance) die within 12 hours. Another study found that 98 percent of 22-week-old infants are born with major health issues such as brain hemorrhaging, and 93 percent die within a year. (The University of California-San Francisco Medical Center, by contrast, states that no infants born earlier than 23 weeks have survived.) Some major medical groups have been debating whether to move average viability to 23 weeks from 24 weeks. But there are no signs that the study will cause medical organizations to set 22 weeks as the new average viability.

Abortion foes have always had dual motives for pushing 20-week abortion bans. (About 2 percent of all abortions would be affected by a 20-week abortion ban. About 13,000 women sought these abortions in 2011, the most recent year for which there is reliable data.) In public, they insist that these bans are only preventing abortions of viable infants. The majority of the medical community wouldn't agree, but there is broad public support for the idea of banning abortion on viable pregnancies.

At the same time, as I reported earlier this year, 20-week bans are designed to bring a challenge to Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court. In Roe, the justices ruled that states could not set a specific date for viability. (That determination was left up to doctors.) The legal wing of the abortion rights movement is fighting some 20-week bans, which have been passed in 10 states, on the grounds that they violate Roe. If one of those cases were to make it to the Supreme Court, it could be an opportunity for the justices to overturn Roe's viability standard altogether.

Here's Samuel Lee, a former lobbyist for Missouri Citizens for Life, explaining how a measure he wrote, requiring doctors to perform viability tests before providing abortions to women who appeared to be at least 20 weeks pregnant, was designed to overturn Roe:

The 20 weeks gestational age was chosen to push the envelope on when the state's interest in protecting the life of the unborn child could take place. It was designed as an opportunity to attack the Roe trimester framework, while still giving the Court some wriggle room (the statute required a determination of viability, not a prohibition of abortion after viability). It was an opportunity for the Court to discuss an interest by the state in protecting unborn human life earlier than the viability line of demarcation permitted…It was chosen because it was earlier than the earliest limits of viability at the time, but not so early that the unborn child could never be viable.

The Supreme Court upheld Lee's provision in 1989. Later, Justice Thurgood Marshall's papers revealed that the conservative majority in Webster had come within one vote of using the 20-week provision to strike down Roe entirely.

If the average age of viability were to inch backward toward 22 weeks—with this study being the first step—then 20-week abortion bans would cease to pose a broad constitutional challenge to Roe. At the time of its ruling, after all, the Supreme Court majority noted that average viability began at 28 weeks (the start of the third trimester), but it was possible that fetuses would someday be viable as early at 24 weeks.

In other words, the medical advances behind this new research don't automatically undermine Roe—especially when it comes to something as nebulous as viability. But they may fuel the drive for a national 20-week abortion ban.

*Abortion opponents typically count the weeks of pregnancy from the date of fertilization, while the medical community uses the more rigorous method of counting the weeks of pregnancy from the start of a woman's last menstrual period. In medical terms, then, the House Republicans' 20-week abortion ban is actually a 22-week abortion ban. Unless we're talking about the bans, this article uses the medical method of dating a pregnancy.

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Breaking: Freddie Gray's Death Is Ruled a Homicide. All 6 Officers Will Face Criminal Charges.

| Fri May 1, 2015 10:46 AM EDT

All six Baltimore police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who died in police custody last month, sparking tense protests, will face criminal charges. The announcement was made by Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby during a press conference Friday morning. The various charges include manslaughter, murder, and assault:

Mosby told reporters that Gray's death has been ruled a homicide and that the knife found on Gray during a search was "not a switchblade," as Baltimore police previously alleged, and its possession was therefore "lawful under Maryland law."

Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., who was driving the police van that Gray was transported in after his arrest, was charged with second-degree murder, along with manslaughter, assault, and misconduct charges. If found guilty, he could face up to 63 years in prison, according to the Baltimore Sun.

"To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I heard your call for 'no justice, no peace,'" Mosby said on Friday. "To the youth of this city, I will seek justice on your behalf." Watch the announcement below:

This post has been updated.

Sen. Bernie Sanders Is Running for President. Here's a Sampling of His Greatest Hits

| Thu Apr. 30, 2015 4:50 PM EDT
Sanders hopes to put some progressive ideas on the agenda for 2016.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) officially announced today that's he's running for president. The self-described socialist faces long odds in the Democratic primary, but chances are good that he'll at least force a discussion on issues dear to liberals. Here are some highlights of the best of Mother Jones coverage of Sanders:

The Progressive Coalition obviously never went national in the way Sanders had envisioned. But in 1991, a year after he was elected to Congress, he founded something more enduring: the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Since then, Sanders' view of third parties has evolved: "No matter what I do," he told Mother Jones last month, "I will not play the role of a spoiler who ends up helping to elect a right-wing Republican."

Why You Should Be Skeptical About the New Police Narrative on Freddie Gray's Death

| Thu Apr. 30, 2015 11:49 AM EDT

On a relatively quiet night in Baltimore, the Washington Post dropped a bombshell. According to a sealed court document, a witness alleged that Freddie Gray—whose April death has triggered days of protests in the city—may have been deliberately attempting to injure himself while in police custody:

A prisoner sharing a police transport van with Freddie Gray told investigators that he could hear Gray "banging against the walls" of the vehicle and believed that he "was intentionally trying to injure himself," according to a police document obtained by The Washington Post.

The prisoner, who is currently in jail, was separated from Gray by a metal partition and could not see him. His statement is contained in an application for a search warrant, which is sealed by the court. The Post was given the document under the condition that the prisoner not be named because the person who provided it feared for the inmate's safety.

It's easy to see how a sealed document like that, drafted by a police investigator, might have leaked to the press in spite of the court order, and in spite of the police department's general aura of secrecy. If Gray's injuries were self-inflicted, the police department is off the hook.

But as WBAL's Jayne Miller noted, the new exculpatory allegation appears to be at odds with the police department's earlier narrative, as well as the timeline of events:

And there's another reason to be skeptical. Information that comes out of jails is notoriously unreliable, for the simple reason that anyone in jail has a real incentive to get out; cooperating with the people who determine when they get out is an obvious way to score points. This report from the Pew Charitable Trust walks through the conflicts in detail. According to the Innocence Project, 15 percent of wrongful convictions that are eventually overturned by DNA testing originally rested on information from a jailhouse informant. Two years ago in California, for instance, a federal court overturned the conviction of an alleged serial killer known as the "Skid Row Stabber" because the conviction rested on information from an inmate dismissed as a "habitual liar."

Or maybe the witness in Baltimore is right—that happens too!—and what we thought we knew about the Freddie Gray case was wrong. But the department isn't doing much to quiet the skeptics. It announced Wednesday that it will not make public the full results of its investigation into Gray's death, "because if there is a decision to charge in any event by the state's attorney's office, the integrity of that investigation has to be protected."

Obamacare Requires Birth Control Coverage. But Some Insurers Are Ignoring the Law.

| Wed Apr. 29, 2015 4:30 PM EDT

Ladies, if you've gone to the doctor in recent years expecting your contraception or ultrasounds to be free, only to be slammed with a co-pay or other charge from your insurer, it's likely your insurer is violating the Affordable Care Act.

Thanks to Obamacare, insurance companies are now required to provide women with a host of coverage options, from free access to all FDA-approved birth control methods to preventative care to maternity care. But just because it's a legal requirement doesn't mean it's happening. According a new report released Tuesday by the National Women's Law Center, insurance plans are not providing all the benefits women won under Obamacare.

NWLC found many plans that were not actually providing cost-free access to the full range of birth control options required under the ACA. Of the more than 100 insurance providers surveyed, NWLC discovered thirty-three insurers in 13 states are not complying with birth control coverage requirement.

The compliance issues went well beyond birth control. The report, which surveyed plans for sale on state and federally-run insurance marketplaces in 15 states over two years, found violations "related to maternity care, birth control, breast-feeding support and supplies, genetic testing, well-woman visits, prescription drug coverage, care related to gender transition for transgender individuals, chronic pain treatment, and certain pre-existing conditions," according to NWLC. Due to the sheer number of violations the group found, it predicts the problem is "systemic nationwide."

The report calls on state and federal regulators to more closely monitor the plans being sold in the individual marketplaces. The report also proposes that insurance plans be made open to public comment so that advocates can review the plans and point out any violations before regulators certify the plans.

In another report released earlier this month, the Kaiser Family Foundation reviewed 20 carriers' compliance with the ACA's birth-control mandate and also found violations. Of the 20 carriers Kaiser reviewed, only 11 provided cost-free coverage of the emergency birth control pill ella, which has a longer window of effectiveness than the standard progestin-based Plan B, particularly for women with a higher body mass index. Two of the carriers didn't cover ella at all.