Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Men's Journal, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndyKroll.

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The Right's Geriatric GOTV Gameplan

| Fri Sep. 10, 2010 12:10 PM EDT

The last two words in the title of today's star-studded Faith and Freedom Conference and Strategy Briefing, hosted by Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC) and headlined by the likes of Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich, leave no doubt. This isn't merely a two-day parade of speakers, a who's-who of the Christian right decrying the media's liberal bias or radical Islam; it's also a workshop of sorts for the energized conservative base heading into the midterm elections.

To that end, Reed opens the morning by declaring today's event "the grassroots political equivalent of NFL training camp." Reed, you'll remember, is the former head of the Christian Coalition who helped the GOP retake Congress in 1994, but whose reputation suffered a blow due to his links to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Dressed to the nines in a dapper suit, he tells attendees, who filled about two-thirds of the ballroom at the posh Renaissance Mayflower Hotel, that the conference's speakers are "here to give you to the tools and tactics you need" to help get out the "most conservative vote in American midterm history." Attendees, Reed adds, would learn the "hitting and blocking" of conservative political organizing.

The crowd, however, hardly looks ready for some political two-a-days and conservative heavy hitting. That is, the Faith and Freedom Conference's attendees are old. Most of them. From my seat near the back, the view is dominated by silver wisps of hair and shiny bald crowns and hair-die jobs gone horribly wrong. The median age in the room has to be pushing 50—and it'd be higher if not for the young kid in a suit a few rows ahead of me. Sure, a few women are wearing what looks like shoulder padding, but not of the athletic variety.

Is this the fired-up crop of activists Reed and Co. have in mind?

At one point in the morning, we're told FFC's GOTV specialists have something up their sleeve. After yuk-filled speeches from Tucker Carlson and others, the coalition's Greg Keller and Billy Kirkland unveil the coalition's apparently hotly anticipated organizing tool for the midterms: Voter Trak. Keller calls it "the single most powerful technological tool in American politics today." While he won't name specific figures, he tells the audience it cost north of six figures to develop. The program allows users, i.e., selected conservative activists, to easily and quickly identify like-minded "values voters" in their neighborhoods in order to convince them to vote this fall. The two men stress how Voter Trak has already succeeded in harnessing conservative voters both in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections last year, helping Republicans Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie, respectively, attain victory.

Better yet, we're told, Voter Trak is compatible with the iPhone, Blackberry, and the Droid cell phones, as well as the iPad. Which is all well and good—except that the majority of attendees look like they'd be more comfortable with a rotary dial than anything sold at an Apple Store. Needless to say, the unveiling of Voter Trak didn't garner quite the same amount of applause as did, say, Reed or Carlson or Gary Bauer, who nearly brought the house down when he called Barack Obama "the most anti-Israel president in the history of the United States."

Were I to revise the conference's name, I'd call it the Faith and Freedom Conference and Book Fair. Today's graying attendees seem most energized not by Voter Trak but by book signings. (Though Newt did get the crowd plenty fired up with one of his typical graduate seminar-esque speeches.) Attendees pack the hallways, to the point of claustrophobia and gridlock, as they jostle to get in line to hobnob with Rove or Gingrich or Reed and get their pre-signed book personalized by the author himself.

It is a crush the organizers more than expected: There are no shortage of tables piled high with books ready for customers.  

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No Love for Obama Econ Plans

| Thu Sep. 9, 2010 11:58 AM EDT

President Obama's new mix of economic palliatives—tax credits for business research and development, expansion of tax write-offs for business' investments, pledging $50 billion for infrastructure—has officially landed with a thud. Few doubted that the Republican Party and conservative economists would pan the plan, brand it too-little-too-late, and criticize it as politically motivated. But more than just the usual suspects have slammed the plan, including members of Obama's own party, casting yet more doubt on whether Congress will even approve the proposals at all.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), an Obama ally, disavowed the president's $50 billion plan to try to revitalize the roads, rail, and airports in the US. Looking to beef up his anti-deficit cred amidst a tough reelection campaign, Bennet said any new infrastructure spending should come from existing programs like the stimulus, which still contains unused money. "Public-private partnerships that improve our infrastructure are a good idea," Bennet said in a statement yesterday, "but must be paid for, should not add a dime to the deficit, and should be covered by unused Recovery Act dollars."

Also coming out in opposition yesterday was Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who cited similar reasons as Bennet. "There is already funding for infrastructure projects that has not yet been spent," Peters told the Detroit Free Press, "which is why I voted against this year's transportation funding bill." Peters is also on the wrong side of the president on the Bush tax cuts: While Obama wants to maintain them for everyone but the wealthiest Americans, Peters believes "extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for all earners is the right thing to do." Like Bennet, Peters' road to reelection isn't an easy one, either, as he's trying to hold onto his seat in a wealthy, traditionally Republican district with a tough opponent breathing down his back.

It doesn't help Obama's cause that economists of all stripes have dismissed the troika of economic initiatives as mediocre. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, described the proposals as "helpful on the margin to the recovery. But they're not a game-changer." Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, writes today, "Any way you cut it, the numbers involved are not big enough to affect unemployment significantly by November, but these ideas—and the Republican rival suggestions on the table—are more about symbols, messages and midterm votes than about accelerating the economic recovery."

And those are some of the more positive reactions. Others, like the folks at E21, a conservative think tank of sorts focusing on economic issues, have outright blasted the plan as "small business nonsense."

Economics aside, will the president's angrier populist tone, his finally stressing the economy above all else (which he was late to do), sway any voters? Or is it too late?

Will Obama's Economic Medley Work?

| Wed Sep. 8, 2010 10:42 AM EDT

Obama's new economic recovery brew—a mix of business tax breaks, tax credits for research and development, and infrastructure spending—is dominating the headlines this week. The plan is both a political and an economic gamble—a bet that spending on roads and airports combined with tax breaks will lift both the economy and the Democrats before the fall elections.

But will Obama's economic medley work? A little bit, says Mark Zandi, a former John McCain adviser and chief economist at Moody's Analytics. Zandi told the Washington Post that Obama's proposals are "helpful on the margin to the recovery. But they're not a game-changer." Zandi estimates they might create "tens of thousands" of jobs—nothing to scoff at, but hardly a silver-bullet solution when faced with a jobs deficit upwards of 10 million. In the more pessimistic camp is Lakshman Achuthan, managing director of Economic Cycle Research Institute, who told CNNMoney the plan wouldn't reverse the recovery's deceleration. "We already are in a slowdown, so no matter what they do, there is a risk of another recession," Achuthan said.

Marshall Auerback, a over the Daily Beast, is a little more optimistic about the economic package's chances. He predicts the package will create "some jobs," and praised Obama's decision to embrace yet more government spending to get the recovery moving along again. "At least he's now practicing stimulus!" Auerback writes. "Within 48 hours, he has re-focused the recovery around fiscal policy, rather than publicly fretting about deficits."

And David Sinai with Decision Economics told CNNMoney the proposed tax breaks target all the wrong things. "We already have business spending running at its fastest rate in three decades without the need for more deficit-financed tax incentives," he said. "In other words, how ridiculous is it for the government to be targeting tax relief to the one part of the economy that needs it the least?"

Of course, there's the small matter of getting Congress, now fully absorbed in the fall midterm elections, to pass his proposals. The Wall Street Journal reports today that that's unlikely to happen:

White House officials, business advocates and Republicans were skeptical the measures would pass in the three or four weeks Congress has left before members leave Washington for the fall campaigns. House Democratic leadership aides said they did not want to move forward without assurance that the Senate could pass the measures. And Senate aides gave no such promises.

"The only way we can get anything done is with cooperation of Republicans, and that's been in short supply in recent months," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.).

This is hypocrisy at its finest. After all, the tax relief that Obama's now proposing are some of the very ideas the GOP and the business community have called for and supported in the past. The Chamber of Commerce, a GOP-leaning foe of the president's, has previously backed an infrastructure bank and extension of bonus depreciation, both of which are included in Obama's latest plan. Moreover, a White House-backed small business has been blocked in the Senate by Republicans after passing the House—even though they claim to have the best interests of entrepreneurs and small business owners in mind. It's one thing to oppose initiatives you don't think are particularly effective or well designed; it's quite another to oppose them after backing the same ideas in the not-so-distant past.

Today, Obama takes his economic plan on the road to Cleveland. You have to think the reception there will be warmer than what's coming out of Washington.

Hedge Funder Trades Greed for Weed

| Tue Sep. 7, 2010 2:15 PM EDT

You'd think a wealthy hedge-fund type wouldn't need side gigs to keep the cash coming in. Not Tara Bryson, an executive with Connecticut-based New Stream Capital, a $1 billion lending fund whose list of clients includes celebs like Elizabeth Taylor and Kathy Ireland. According to Forbes, Bryson was recently arrested by Connecticut State Police on felony charges for allegedly operating a year-round pot farm inside her house. Specifically, the charges were possession of marijuana, cultivation of marijuana, and conspiracy to cultivate marijuana. (Bryson pleaded not guilty, and was released on $25,000 bail.)

Here's more from Forbes:

State police narcotics task force reports say the residence was "a complex marijuana cultivation operation capable of producing a marijuana crop year round." The Newtown Bee, which first reported the arrest, on August 13th, said police seized a portable air conditioner, a carbon dioxide generator and motorized track lighting system, as well as a growing ledger, financial records, and a personal computer. Police said electric bills for the property were far larger than would be expected for the near-6,000 square foot home. Bryson bought it in May 2009. Public records list its worth at $1.15 million.

Reached at home, [Bryson's boyfriend Michael] Hearl called the charges "bogus," and said "we didn’t have that many plants"...Bryson declined to comment.

If they're weren't growing pot, then what were they doing? According to Hearl, the pair were actually goat farmers. Yep, that's right. They even have website for their goat operation, with which they'd planned to produce goat cheese and milk, now under construction. Not only that but they received a $49,999 grant from the state to launch their goat farm. Ah, the sweet aroma of, um, entrepreneurship. 

NYT Rides The "Foreclosure Express"

| Sun Sep. 5, 2010 1:08 PM EDT

The New York Times' Sunday Business section leads today with a smart story on the foreclosure crisis down in Florida—the woefully backlogged courts, the contentious tactics the courts are using to plow through the backlog, and the powerful law firms used by banks to handle those hundreds of thousands of foreclosure cases. Mother Jones readers should recognize the multimillionaire foreclosure attorney the Times spotlights, 50-year-old David J. Stern: A month ago, I broke the full story on Stern, his rise to become Florida's Ferrari-owning foreclosure king, and his controversial and lawsuit-riddled past. Moreover, my story on Stern, and on a breed of law firms (including his) dubbed "foreclosure mills," showed how America's biggest (and most bailed out) banks, not to mention the taxpayer-subsidized housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, retain Stern's sprawling operation and others like it to push through foreclosures using a high-pressure, assembly line-like process that's often accused of steamrolling homeowners who get in the way. As it happened, not long after my story came out, in early August, the Florida Attorney General announced an investigation into Stern's firm and two others like it.

The Times' story devotes an entire section to Stern but doesn't include much not reported by myself and others. The story spends more time exploring the mess that is Florida's judicial system, and how that system created new foreclosure-only legal divisions staffed by retired judges to process the foreclosure backlog, estimated at 471,000 cases. Late last month, I sat in on a morning's worth of foreclosure hearings in one of these divisions in Broward County, the epicenter of the housing market's boom and bust. As I described in my foreclosure-mill story, the hearings in Broward are an eye-opening experience: They take place in what's essentially a wide spot in a drab hallway; literally you step off the courthouse elevator on the fifth floor and...there you are, in a foreclosure hearing, judge, attorneys, staffers, and all.

These particular hallway hearings concerned uncontested foreclosure cases, meaning it's usually just the bank's attorney on hand with no homeowner present. Standing near the front of the room was a woman who rattled off names of banks—US Bank, HSBC Bank, JPMorgan Chase, etc.—and then the names of anonymous homeowners, names like Judy Upton, Indira Llanos, Guy Marc Saint-Fleur. Under banks of fluorescent lights it was a grim scene, foreclosure cases announced, decided, signed, and sealed all in a matter of seconds. The woman doing the announcing sounded like an auctioneer, spewing one long monotone stream of names and banks and legal jargon. Occasionally convicts in blue and green jumpsuits straggled by, their arms and ankles chained together. In one hour this uncontested court dispatched nearly 165 foreclosure cases. Sitting there watching, I felt like I'd arrived at the place where the American Dream goes to die.

The fear among legal experts and foreclosure defense attorneys—like Margery Golant, quoted in both my story and the Times'—is that this fast-paced foreclosure system, pushed ever faster by the banks' lawyers, could steamroll homeowners who have a good shot at saving their homes. As Golant told me for my initial story, "The judges are so swamped with this stuff that they just don't pay attention. They just rubber-stamp them." Worse yet, some defense attorneys fear that having older, retired judges deciding complex legal matters in a rapid-fire setting poses even more problems. "They're too fucking old to understand what's going on," one defense attorney, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid damaging work relationships, says of the senior judges. "It's the truth."

The Times mentions that the Florida legislature earmarked $9.6 million for this "foreclosure express." The paper fails to mention that some of that money comes from Obama's stimulus program. In other words, it's all our taxpayer money funding the foreclosure express, which can hardly be said to create jobs.

Think of what's going in Florida right now as the third act of the housing meltdown. There was the mania of the housing boom, then the market's breathtaking collapse. We're now witnessing the aftermath of that rise and fall. And Florida is unique in this because this kind of judicial crisis isn't the case in other hard-hit states because Florida requires judicial handling of foreclosures. In Nevada and California, for instance, foreclosures are an administrative affair, far less costly and painful, but with fewer chances for homeowners to push back.

The goal of Florida lawmakers and judges is to clear 62 percent of the backlog by next July. Time will tell whether they reach that goal—and what sort of new mess they might leave behind.

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