Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent several years 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.

Can Love Win An Election?

Jason Howell, independent candidate for Virginia's 8th Congressional District

"Love matters" is not the likeliest of campaign slogans in an acrimony-filled election season, but there it is in bold print on Jason Howell's website along with some areas—diplomacy, national security—that the 37-year-old congressional candidate feels could benefit from a bit more tenderness. At a time of hyper-partisanship and congressional deadlock, Howell, a political neophyte running as an independent against 11-term incumbent Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), is talking about linking arms—metaphorically, literally, maybe both—with politicians across the political divide and setting aside ideological differences for the good of the country. His chances of knocking off Moran? Not so good. Then again, love can do powerful things.

The son of Caribbean immigrants, Howell was literally born just as Richard Nixon was resigning. He says he learned that "discretionary income matters" at age 14, when he got his first job at Toys R Us, whose paychecks he split with his parents. After getting an accounting degree, he went to work doing the taxes and bookkeeping of local musicians, among other clients. But he says he was shocked by the debt crisis last summer, during which Standard & Poors downgraded the US debt rating based mostly on the broken political system, and eventually decided that he should do something about it, but not in the same way as the tea partiers who've jumped into politics in response to national debt issues. Howell, for instance, thinks the Bush tax cuts ought to expire, a position that would not endear him to many conservatives. But he's trying to defy traditional political labels. "I would be just as embarrassed to run as a Republican as I would as a Democrat," he told me when we met last week, at his request, at a DC coffee shop.

Americans for Prosperity vs. Metrorail

A Metrorail train arriving at the Naylor Road Station platform.

What is it with conservatives and trains? They hate Amtrak; they hate light rail; and now, apparently, they are even opposed to subways that are one of the few solutions to permanent traffic gridlock in the nation's most populated cities. The latest: Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group that is partly funded by Koch brothers, is currently funding a campaign in Virginia to try to kill off an expansion of the Washington Metrorail system from Reston, Virginia, to the Dulles Airport and into Loudoun County, areas around DC that are choked with traffic.

AFP is sponsoring robo-calls to area residents urging them to contact their local officials and lobby them to fight off the subway project, which they oppose because of potential tax increases associated with the project. According to the Washington Post, the recorded calls tell voters:

Loudoun cannot afford this bail-out to rail-station developers. If the Loudoun County board opts out, the rail will still be built to Dulles Airport, and commuters will still be within five miles of Metro. Come tell the board of supervisors to opt out and save taxpayers billions of dollars.

If the Metrorail expansion doesn't take place, the wealthy Virginia county will be doomed to a long future of horrible traffic conditions, which are already bad—so bad that it helps keep the Washington metro area at the top of the charts in studies of the nation's worst commutes and creates miserable air quality. Studies show that Loudoun County would also miss out on a tremendous amount of economic development expected to accompany the new rail stations (lots of people have already paid a premium to buy houses within walking distance of the new stations). The county could reap nearly $400 million in new tax revenue from the project, too. It's basically a no-brainer. But conservative activists seem dead-set on ensuring that the county's traffic remains as gridlocked as Washington politics.

SPLC Highlights New Extremist Leaders To Watch

Michael Boldin, founder of the Tenth Amendment Center Gage SkidmoreMichael Boldin, founder of the Tenth Amendment Center Gage SkidmoreThe Southern Poverty Law Center published a new report this week on 30 up-and-coming leaders of the radical right. There are some old familiars on the list, like David Duke, and many others who probably won't come as much of a surprise to regular Mother Jones readers. SPLC singles out some of the chorus of anti-Muslim activists like Pam Geller, Frank Gaffney and David Yerushalmi as people to keep an eye on. There are some gay-bashers in there, too. Birther-conspiracy theorist Joseph Farah, the founder of WorldNet Daily, also makes the list. But not everyone on the group seems to rise to the level of menace that SPLC suggests.

Among those might be Mike Vanderboegh, a former militia activist from Alabama. Vanderboegh is probably most famous these days for having encouraged readers of his blog to break the windows of Democratic Party headquarters after the passage of health care reform, which prompted some of his readers to toss bricks through the windows of a few Democratic congressional offices. 

Vanderboegh, though, is a bit more of a complicated character than the SPLC has made him out to be. His rhetoric is certainly inflammatory, but it's also mostly confined to his blog, which has a very small following. Vanderboegh has also helped bring to light some evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the government in the "Fast and Furious" gun scandal, in which the federal government allowed guns to be illegally exported to Mexico in the hopes of tracking them to major drug cartel leaders. (The ATF agents ended up losing track of thousands of the guns, which later turned up at crime scenes in Mexico and the US.) He's also got a sense of humor, a rare quality in an extremist. He responded to his inclusion on the list by writing a blog post about it that included a photoshopped picture of Mark Potok, the SPLC senior fellow who tracks right-wing extremism, wearing a tin-foil hat.

Another entry on SPLC's list that seems slightly off-base is Michael Boldin, the founder of the Tenth Amendment Center, which urges states to nullify federal laws they see as unconstitutional. SPLC links Boldin with the "Patriot movement" and far-right extremists. But it overlooks a lot of the issues that Boldin himself has championed. I met him two years ago at a Tenther conference in Atlanta, which definitely featured some fringey right-wingers, including the John Birch Society. But Boldin stuck out for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he is a California hipster who travels with tins of sardines in his suitcase to ensure that he eats enough omega-3 fatty acids.

Boldin got into politics through his opposition to the Iraq war, not through the tea party or any other right-wing cause. He is a libertarian, and believes the Tenth Amendment applies to all sorts of things that right-wingers generally wouldn't agree with. For instance, he and his organization support pot legalization and the right of states to legalize gay marriage. Lately, though, he has been focused on state opposition to the new National Defense Authorization Act because he believes it could allow for the indefinite detention of American citizens—a position that puts him squarely on the side of the American Civil Liberties Union. That's why he was a little surprised to find himself on the SPLC list. He told me in an email:

I think these people are just lazy and aren't paying attention to the work we do, the columns I write, or the speeches I give. Or, maybe they're just exploiting fear of real radicals who use propaganda to advocate their wars, racism to justify their torture, and fear to promote their indefinite detention scheme - both in Guantanamo and here in the U.S. Then again, I just happen to think that most of those dangerous people are wearing suits in Washington D.C.

SPLC deserves credit for keeping tabs on the nation's potentially violent fringe elements, but it does seem like they are occasionally casting too wide a net in their efforts to identify the next Timothy McVeigh. But then again, it only takes one guy like him to create mass carnage. Maybe when it comes to monitoring extremism, you can't really have too much information.

The Catholic Legal Assault on the Contraception Mandate

On Monday, 40 Catholic agencies and institutions across the country launched a veritable legal holy war against the Obama administration, filing coordinated lawsuits against the Department of Health and Human Services over the proposed contraception mandate in the new health care reform law. The effort is being spearheaded by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which has been clashing with the Obama administration for months over the mandate and other White House decisions that the bishops view as anti-Catholic.

The church certainly brings a lot of money and high-powered legal fire to the fight—the lawsuits were filed by the Jones Day law firm, where Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once worked. But the Catholics' legal arguments may not be terribly persuasive, in large part because it's hard for them to get around the fact that they are asking for the right to impose their religious beliefs on a lot of people who don't follow them.

Civil libertarians think the administration is on very solid footing in defending the mandate. "This lawsuit is outrageous," said Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement to Mother Jones. Under the current proposal, church-related institutions don't have to pay for birth control services. Apparently that isn't enough. The bishops want US government health care policy to reflect Catholic teachings, and they're looking to the courts to get what they want. The Obama administration should stand firm. Americans should not be denied birth control services just because one aggressive religious group is opposed to it."

This is the second time in recent months that Catholic institutions have been in court defending their right to deny people of all stripes access to contraception. The ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project recently won its lawsuit against HHS over a federal grant through which USCCB provided services to human trafficking victims. The bishops had refused to allow subcontractors to use the federal money to refer women for reproductive health services. In 2009, the ACLU filed suit arguing that under the contract the USCCB (and by extension, the federal government) was unconstitutionally foisting Catholic religious beliefs on the larger public. (The Obama administration last year refused to renew the contract, prompting even more outrage from USCCB, which accused the administration of operating an "ABC policy," or "Anyone But Catholics.")

The arguments over the anti-trafficking contract echo the ones the Catholic agencies are currently making in their legal campaign against the contraception mandate. Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, says that the Catholic groups are likely to lose their lawsuits over the contraception mandate as well. She explains:

The original rule was perfectly constitutional. In fact, more than half the states already require insurance plans to include contraception, several with very narrow exceptions and some with no exception at all. Many of these laws were passed with broad, bi-partisan support. And now, with the modifications proposed by the Administration, any lingering concerns about the rule's constitutionality should be put to rest. Institutions with religious objections won't be required to contribute to birth control coverage for their employees. And in fact, the high courts in California and New York have rejected claims that requiring birth control coverage violates the First Amendment.

Real religious freedom gives everyone the right to make personal decisions, including whether and when to use birth control, based on our beliefs. It doesn't give one group the right to impose its beliefs on others, or to use religion as an excuse to discriminate by denying employees access to vital services. The fight they are waging isn't about religious liberty at all, but about whether a woman should have insurance coverage for birth control. When you stop and think about it, it's incredible that this is an issue in 2012. 

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