Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer


Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent the last year hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

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Behind Georgia's War on Trees

| Tue Sep. 17, 2013 1:32 PM EDT
Georgia trees will die to ensure motorists see billboard like these.

Georgia is a strange place. As Mother Jones' Tim Murphy has explained, the next senator from the state is likely to be nuts. The state GOP leadership not long ago met to discuss a secret, Obama-mind-control plot. And the state regularly makes headlines for taking extreme measures to oppose any sane government efforts to do anything, well, sane. Various cities, for instance, have attempted to mandate gun ownership by residents, just to spite the gun-control activists looking to tamp down mass shootings. Now, the state is making news for its opposition to trees.

Essentially thumbing its nose at residents who might like to make the air cleaner, combat global warming, or just have a prettier state, the Georgia legislature enacted a law in 2011 that banned trees within 500 feet of a billboard. In Georgia, home to 16,000 billboards, that could could be just about anywhere. The law, upheld this May by the Georgia Supreme Court, actually allows billboard companies to clear-cut offending trees, including those on public property, that might blot out a "Have you been injured in an accident?" or "Vote Republican" message. Billboard companies can also prevent new trees from being planted that might obstruct motorists' views of their ads. 

Although tree activists in the state had opposed the law, it has remained under the radar until recently, when sustainable development groups in Atlanta discovered that the law could eviscerate local plans, long underway, to make the city more pedestrian friendly. Atlanta has some of the worst traffic in the country and isn't especially well known for its walkability ratings or scenic boulevards. But a few years ago, Livable Buckhead, an Atlanta neighborhood sustainable development group, spearheaded new zoning regulations that would change all of that. The group spent the last couple of years developing landscaping plans and streetscaping measures to go along with some new development that includes biking and walking trails, conservation, and greenspace with lots of pretty, leafy trees.

Now, though, those plans and the zoning regulations that went with them are in jeopardy thanks to the billboard lobby, which, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitutionspent about $200,000 persuading Georgia lawmakers to give it power over city streetscapes. The billboard companies will have veto power of those local projects, and trees that have already been planted may have to be cut down to placate the billboard owners and all of those crazy Georgians who want to make sure no driver misses their signs comparing Obama to Hitler, fall foliage be damned.

On Monday, the Atlanta city council passed a resolution protesting the elevation of billboards over trees on public space, but it's unclear if it will have any binding impact. Denise Starling, the executive director of Livable Buckhead who helped shepherd through the legislative changes to increase the city's tree canopy told BuckheadView, “The community has worked hard and spent a lot of money over the years to develop the zoning standards and projects that create a walkable, pedestrian friendly environment—of which trees are a vital component. I personally find it shocking to have to seek permission from billboard owners to adhere to adopted zoning codes...I am confident the billboard owners will see that the value of those boards is highly dependent upon the value of the land in the community--which we are enhancing—and work with us to get a workable solution."

North Carolina Appoints Obama-hating, Anti-Gay "Ender's Game" Author to PBS Board

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 11:33 AM EDT
Obama-hating sci-fi author Orson Scott Card appointed to North Carolina PBS board

There's been lots of news lately about the state of North Carolina, which in a few short years has gone from being a somewhat moderate southern state to one on the extreme conservative end of the spectrum. The GOP has supermajorities in both houses of the legislature and the state governor is also a Republican, giving the party license to, well, party. The GOP has passed anti-abortion laws tacked on to a motorcycle safety bill; slashed unemployment benefits; instituted a horrific voter suppression mechanism; and tried to ban nipple exposure (with one legislator suggesting women cover them with duct-tape to be in compliance), among other things.

Continuing in that vein this week, the Republican leader of the state senate appointed Orson Scott Card to the board of trustees for the University of North Carolina's public television affiliate. Card is a science fiction writer best known for the bestselling Ender's Game. But Card has also become rather famous for being something of an anti-gay Obama-hater.

Card, a Mormon, once served on the board of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage. His views on homosexuality have prompted calls for a boycott of the movie version of Ender's Game, opening in October. He's also been in the spotlight recently for comparing President Obama to Hitler and Stalin. In May, he published a 3,000-word "thought experiment" in Greensboro's Rhinoceros Times, in which he envisions a future where Obama enlists mobs of unemployed urban youth to serve as "brown shirts" in his own personal domestic army, and Obama and his wife change the law to allow themselves to run the country forever. He writes:

By the time Michelle has served her two terms, the Constitution will have been amended to allow Presidents to run for reelection forever. Obama will win by 98 percent every time. That's how it works in Nigeria and Zimbabwe; that's how it worked in Hitler's Germany.

Card might seem an odd choice for a seat on a board overseeing 12 public TV stations that broadcast into four states, given how much he hates the media in general. He's been a vocal critic of pretty much every news outlet aside from Fox News. After the 2012 election, he wrote, "So yes, CBS, CNN, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, New York Times, Washington Post, and all the rest of you in the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda: You won. But we know you now. We know just how low you'll go, how compliant you will be with the Beloved Leader." In the Rhinoceros Times he wrote, "It's hard to imagine how American press coverage would be different if Obama were a Hitler- or Stalin-style dictator, except of course that everyone at Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and the Rhinoceros Times would be in jail. Or dead."

All of this, of course, makes Card a perfect choice for a Republican party that's long had it in for public broadcasting. North Carolina viewers probably won't be seeing shows like Frontline's "Assault on Gay America" or the 2011 American Experience episode on the Stonewall uprising, but Card's appointment could be good news for fans of Dr. Who, reruns of which might be necessary to fill the holes left by all the other PBS offerings Card finds too objectionable to air.


Conservative Property Rights Movement Threatens "Rails to Trails" Program

| Wed Sep. 4, 2013 10:59 AM EDT
The White River state rail trail near Burlington, Vermont.

The Rails-to-Trails program has long been a government program everyone can love. In 1983, Congress created the feel-good program to convert abandoned rail tracks into hiking and biking trails for public use. Not only did the program re-purpose ugly abandoned trackwork, but it did it on the cheap. When Congress passed the measure into law, the Congressional Budget Office found that it wouldn't cost federal taxpayers a dime. The railroad usually pulls up the tracks and leases or donates the corridor to a trail agency that puts it into public use for recreation, while reserving the right to turn the trail back into a railroad track at some point in the future.

Since the program was created, 20,000 miles of unused train tracks have been converted into recreational trails. But these days, anything involving a bike, it seems, is a ripe target for conservative ire. Thanks to some creative work by conservative property rights groups, the cost of the formerly cheap program has grown exponentially, largely because of lawsuits by property owners who own land next to the railways and claim that putting bikes instead of trains on the corridors constitutes a "taking" by the government for which they should be compensated. Jenna Greene at the National Law Journal tells the story here.

Historically, the sorts of takings that conservatives have been peeved about involve such cases as a municipality using its eminent domain power to seize someone's house or run-down apartment building and giving it to shopping mall developers or a big drug company, or when the EPA takes land to create habitat for an endangered species. But the rail-to-trail cases are somewhat different. According to Greene, just in the past year, the federal government has paid out nearly $50 million in settlements to property owners to compensate them for the conversion of private railroad property to trails, even when the landowners get to keep the land.

The problem stems from a fairly egregious example of judicial activism in a case filed by Vermont's Presault family. They were angry that a rail conversion had brought a steady stream of cyclists and backpackers across their land where trains used to travel, even though they knew the rail bed was at risk of becoming a trail when they bought the land. Backed by the conservative New England Legal Foundation, they spent eight years fighting the trail all the way to the US Supreme Court, challenging the rail-to-trail statute as unconstitutional and demanding compensation for the cyclists' intrusion. The high court disagreed with them and found the law valid, but it did allow the Presaults to pursue their damages claim. They lost, however, before the Court of Federal Claims, which said they weren't entitled to any money. A a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit came to the same conclusion. 

But weirdly, the Federal Circuit later decided all on its own to have the full circuit hear the case again, and this time, it found in the Presaults' favor. Perhaps it was no coincidence that four of the six judges who voted to give the family $350,000 in damages (plus almost $900,000 to their lawyers) had recently attended an all-expense paid junket to a legal seminar at a Montana resort sponsored by the same conservative foundations bankrolling the Presaults' litigation. Donors to the seminars included the Olin Foundation, which also supported the New England Legal Foundation, and, of course, the Koch brothers, the oil and gas magnates who fund a host of conservative causes.

That decision set off a wave of litigation by property owners demanding to be compensated for the horror of having bikes running on the abandoned train bed on their land. Judges who've never seen a consumer protection class action they could certify have been regularly allowing class actions by property owners over rail-to-trail conversions. Greene reports that the government has been losing all of these cases, and paying out some huge settlements, including one this year in South Carolina for $33.5 million, which amounted to more $1 million per mile of trail. There are 8,000 such claims in the pipeline, potentially turning the affordable trail program into a very expensive giveaway to private landowners courtesy of federal taxpayers. 

Deep Throat's Parking Garage to Be Demolished

| Tue Aug. 27, 2013 11:12 AM EDT
Parking space 32D, where Woodward met Deep Throat

As historic landmarks go, the parking garage at 1401 Wilson Blvd, in Arlington, Va., just outside DC isn't much to look at. But parking space 32D helped in its own way to bring down a president. The parking space is the famous meeting spot of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward and W. Mark Felt, better known as "Deep Throat" and Woodward's source for the scoops on the Watergate burglary that eventually forced President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974. But as with so many historic landmarks, nothing in this country is sacred. The parking space is on the verge of obliteration. 

A developer is planning to raze the 50-year-old office building above the garage and replace it with—what else?—swanky new condos. Tim Helmig, vice president of Monday Properties, recognizes the historic import of the parking garage and plans to commemorate it with a plaque or something miniscule after 32D falls to the wrecking ball. But he told the Washington Business Journal that the garage has got to go, saying, "The garage is at the end of its useful life, and with the redevelopment the configuration of the garage itself is going to change."

That's the trouble with many of the Watergate landmarks. The critical moments in the greatest political scandal in modern American history took place in some of the most mundane locations. When members of Nixon's reelection campaign watched as the burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate, for instance, they conducted their stakeout from Room 723 in the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge across the street. (The famous "plumbers' unit" also had a room at the hotel a few floors down, where they listened to wiretaps from the bug placed in the DNC offices.) The hotel preserved the famous room and opened it to guests making Watergate pilgrimages. But in 1999, George Washington University bought the HoJos and turned it into student housing. Today, Room 723 is just another college dorm room. But at least it's still there.

The parking garage demolition will wipe a famous site off the map, and given that this is part of Washington political history, the demo may not go off without a fight. Washington has an earnest core of history preservation activists, who've attempted to preserve all sorts of abominations for the sake of posterity. (See this "new brutalist" church, for instance.) By comparison, parking space 32D seems worth saving.

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