2011 - %3, March

Gay GOP Presidential Contender Shut Out of First Iowa Debate

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 11:56 AM EST

Former Christian Coalition whiz-kid Ralph Reed's new Faith and Freedom Coalition will be hosting the first major event of the GOP 2012 presidential race next week in Iowa. Pretty much anyone who's expressed even a remote interest in running has been invited to attend: John Thune, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, even pot-promoter and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson have all received invites, even though there's almost no chance any of them will win the GOP nomination, much less make it to the White House. (Thune, in fact, has announced that he isn't running.) Which is why Fred Karger is so miffed.

The first openly gay Republican to make a run for the White House, Karger has already started a presidential exploratory committee, hired staff in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he's been running TV ads, and has been profiled in major media outlets for launching his serious campaign. But none of those things, apparently, was enough to convince conservative Christian activist Steve Scheffler, the organizer of the Iowa event, to invite Karger to the presidential forum. Karger's pretty sure that it's because he's gay. Last week, Karger asked the Federal Election Commission to investigate Scheffler and the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition for violating federal election laws.

In his complaint to the FEC, Karger argues that the Iowa forum, if considered a debate, has used arbitrary criteria for deciding on whom could participate, in violation of explicit rules. If the FEC decides that the event—designed in more of a meet and greet format—isn't a debate, then Karger says it still violates the ban on corporate contributions because the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition would be breaching its nonprofit tax status by endorsing some candidates over others (namely Karger). Because the Iowa forum will be held on March 7, Karger has asked the FEC for an expedited ruling.

Karger and Scheffler have some history. Back in May, Scheffler, one of Iowa's two members of the Republican National Committee, sent Karger an email saying:

You don't care about transparency—you and the radical homosexual community want to harass supporters of REAL marriage. I am the Republican National Committeeman for Iowa. As a private citizen and knowing literally thousands of caucus goers, I will work overtime to help ensure that your political aspirations are aborted right here in Iowa. Have you studied our past caucuses—you have NO chance here in Iowa!”

When the Des Moines Register asked Scheffler about his email, he was unapologetic, responding, "I'm going to call a spade a spade." So perhaps it's no surprise that Scheffler declined to invite Karger to participate. Karger has been relentlessly lobbying for weeks for an invite, even petitioning Ralph Reed himself when the two were in Washington attending the Conservative Political Action Conference in January. But Karger's appeals were for naught, which might be all the better for his campaign: Getting shut out of the forum has given him a good reason to hold press conferences and publicize his campaign while highlighting the pettiness of the GOP foot soldiers. He's created a website called www.LetFredIn.com to generate an onslaught of petitions to Scheffler to persuade him to change his mind.

It is possible. Scheffler has also in the past dissed potential presidential candidate and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour for his comments suggesting that the GOP ought to declare a truce in the culture wars and that he would support pro-choice Republicans for office. Last year, Scheffler informed Barbour he was "toast" in Iowa should he decide to run in 2012. But Scheffler apparently decided to plug his nose and invite Barbour to the March forum anyway. If he can survive an hour in the same space as Barbour, Scheffler could probably bring himself to shake hands with a gay Republican.

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Subsidizing Millionaires

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 11:53 AM EST

In the LA Times today, Michael Kinsley rails against the modern version of "chasing smokestacks," namely states competing with each other to offer subsidies to film and TV companies who bring productions to their states:

New Mexico under [Bill] Richardson was a pioneer in this field. In 2002, it began offering a credit of 15% — later raised to 25% — toward the cost of making a movie in New Mexico (not counting star salaries and the mite paid to writers). Now, 42 states have followed its lead. New York has gone as high as 30%. These credits are generally transferable, savable and usable for other things, so it's no problem if the particular movie doesn't make money.

In less than a decade, the absurd notion of welfare for movie producers has evolved from the kind of weird thing they do in France to an unshakable American tradition. "I'm proud that New Mexico has been a leader in this effort," Richardson says.

Kinsley is right that this race to the bottom does nothing except reduce tax revenue for everybody. He's also right that the figures used to justify these subsidies (Movies bring a billion dollars a year into our economy! Movies create 5,000 jobs for our great state!) are almost certainly bogus. Ditto for the same kind of voodoo accounting used to pretend that massive subsidies to millionaire owners of sports teams pay for themselves in increased business.

This isn't the biggest deal in the world. But it's certainly ridiculous and we'd all be better off if it stopped.

A Climate Activist Goes On Trial

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 10:55 AM EST
Image courtesy Cliff Lyon.

In December 2008, climate activist Tim DeChristopher successfully disrupted a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction of thousands of acres of public land in Utah by posing as a bidder. Auctioning off the land, which bordered national parks and monuments, was one of the last actions of the Bush administration and a farewell handout to the oil and gas industry. DeChristopher, a 27-year-old student at the University of Utah at the time, bid $1.79 million on more than 22,000 acres of land.

DeChristopher—or Bidder No. 70, as he was known that day—didn't have the money to actually buy the plots, of course, but he did succeed in disrupting their sale before BLM figured out what he was up to and had him arrested. And when Ken Salazar took over as Secretary of the Interior in 2009, he invalidated the lease sale, based on the conclusion that the previous administration had not adequately evaluated the environmental impact of the sales. Even though DeChristopher's position on the sale was essentially validated, federal prosecutors are seeking criminal charges against him. His trial in federal court in Salt Lake City began this week, and he faces two felony charges for disrupting the auction. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.

The trial began on Monday with the jury selection and continues on Tuesday. The judge has already thrown out the defense that his actions were necessary to prevent environmental damage on this land and, more broadly, the exacerbataion of climate change. (See our 2009 interview with DeChristopher, as well as a more recent interview in Yes! on the question of whether his actions should constitute a crime.) But the case that DeChristopher and his supporters will attempt to make in court is that this was an act of civil disobedience to prevent environmental harm rather than a criminal act.

The Salt Lake City Weekly is covering the trial and the actions around the city in support of DeChristopher. How the case plays out will certainly be worth watching in the coming days.

Massey Energy Official Busted for Lying and Destroying Evidence

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 7:01 AM EST

The chief of security at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, where 29 miners were killed last year, was arrested on Monday and accused of lying to the FBI and trying to dispose of key documents—the first criminal charges stemming from the worst mining accident in 40 years. 

The security chief, Hughie Elbert Stover, instructed security guards to notify mine personnel whenever inspectors arrived at the mine, according to the federal indictment. Last month, Stover told federal agents that he would have fired any guard who tipped off workers about inspections. Stover is also charged with instructing an unnamed individual to dispose of mine security documents by placing them in a trash compactor.

It remains unclear whether Stover was acting on his own or at the behest of other managers at Massey, which has racked up more health and safety violations in the past decade than any coal outfit in America. A statement released by Massey yesterday claims that the company notified the US Attorney's office "within hours of learning that documents had been disposed of and took immediate steps to recover documents and turn them over." Still, Stover provided personal security for Don Blankenship and was in frequent contact with the recently-retired CEO, according to the Washington Post:

"He was very, very close to Blankenship," said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe is continuing. "He would drive Blankenship places. He called him 'Mr. B.'"

It's likely that federal agents will offer Stover a plea deal if he testifies against Blankenship, who, along with 14 other Massey workers, including the head of safety and the foreman at the Upper Big Branch mine, have refused to cooperate with the investigation.

That so many Massey employees have kept their mouths shut in the wake of the disaster shouldn't come as a surprise. As Josh reported yesterday in his feature on the coal town of Twilight, Massey exerts a near-feudal grasp in large parts of Appalachia. Many locals are convinced that they must support Massey even as they privately worry that it's ripping their communities apart. As the wife of a deceased coal miner put it, "There ain't no way to go up against them big companies."

WeGrow's "Joint Venture" Goes Up In Smoke

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 6:00 AM EST

Dhar Mann and Derek Peterson, the "ganjapreneurs" I recently profiled, are breaking up, and boy, it's an ugly divorce. A few months ago, the duo behind weGrow, a high-profile Oakland hydroponics store, was dreaming of venture capital, IPOs, and their own reality TV show. Now they've split amid accusations of unpaid debts and financial shenangians.

"This was a fucking hydroponzi scheme, for a lack of a better term," Peterson told me yesterday, "and it shouldn't be. It's got so many legs. We can make legitimate money here." He accuses Mann of misleading him about weGrow's financials, refusing to reimburse him $50,000, and failing to pay vendors and employees. Last week, Peterson and his wife filed lawsuits against Mann. A spokesman for Mann said that Peterson is trumping up the allegations in retaliation for Mann's recent decision to wind down their partnership. Mann told me that he plans to sue Peterson to recoup weGrow shares and more than $75,000 in unpaid bills.

Founded by Mann early last year, weGrow was the country's first "out of the closet" hydroponics store, unashamed to openly advertise that it sold products for pot growers. Mann, the Lamborghini-driving scion of a well-connected Oakland taxi dynasty, and Peterson, a Morgan Stanley investment banker, brought financial know-how and political clout (and a lot of swagger) to a business plan that would have created the country's first publicly traded, vertically integrated marijuana company.

Now it's all falling apart. The original Oakland weGrow store closed last week, though Mann says it's becoming a distribution center for the store's franchises, the first of which recently opened in Sacramento. Peterson says that he still plans to take his own company, GrowOp, public later this year and may create his own chain of hydroponics stores to compete with weGrow.

Mann and Peterson's flameout seems to have more in common with infighting at a tech startup than the schism between La Familia and Los Zetas. In an effort to capitalize on California's $14 billion-a-year marijuana boom, they may have bitten off more than they could chew. "They are cocky and pushing too hard too fast," as a financial consultant for marijuana companies presciently told me. Ultimately, their meltdown is another interesting case of growing pains for the medical marijuana industry as it moves from the underworld into the slippery embrace of Wall Street. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 1, 2011

Tue Mar. 1, 2011 5:30 AM EST

U.S. Army Sgt. Jeffrey Letizia leads his team to the last building to be cleared during an operation intended to uncover improvised explosive device materials and increase the security of the local populace in Paktya province, Feb. 20. Photo by U.S. Army 1st Lt. Nicholas Rasmussen, Task Force Lethal

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Minecraft, Muse

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 4:00 AM EST
Jonathan Gourlay recreated a real house in the game Minecraft. And then wrote about it, beautifully.

Minecraft, for the unintiated, is a benign Swedish game that combines Atari-era visuals with the breakneck pace of ice fishing and the adrenaline rush of Minor League baseball. You pick up Lego-style blocks and use them to build any kind of shelter you want in order to avoid cute, hopping zombies. That's it. It's like watching chamomile tea steep.

But for some players, Minecraft inspires collaboration, creativity—and occasionally fascinating writing. Here's Jonathan Gourlay, a University of Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate-turned-linguist, on Sartre, parenting, and recreating "a memory in block form" in the game:

Most of what is around you right now is empty air. Yet, someone will insist on filling that emptiness with Taylor Swift music, especially if you happen to share your swath of emptiness with a nine-year-old girl. And if that little girl is suddenly absent, at a sleepover for instance, your walls will resound with the lack of "You Belong with Me." The denuded trees in the front yard offer only bare ruined choirs where late the sweet tweens sang.

I sometimes carry with me the lack of a house I once lived in. Picture a house on a mountainside in the jungle overlooking the ocean. Picture a little girl peeing off of the second floor balcony every morning; claiming the world for her own. Now take the house away. Change the girl so that she faces the world from inside a room with the door closed and the YouTube Taylor Swift channel blaring. She could be in that room for hours while I retire to my computer, re-creating our old house in Minecraft, placing a waterfall on the balcony, trying to fill the emptiness with an approximation.

There's more to Gourlay's short, compelling tale. It's worth reading in full; click here for the rest over at The Bygone Bureau.

Oh, and there are a ton of Minecraft-related videos out there, low-budget CGI and all. You can find most of them blogged about here on the Minecraft creator's personal site.

Wisconsin and 2012

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 12:40 AM EST

PPP has conducted a new poll in Wisconsin, and voters now say that if they had a second chance they'd elect Tom Barrett instead of Scott Walker. So what caused the change of heart?

The difference between how folks would vote now and how they voted in November can almost all be attributed to shifts within union households. Voters who are not part of union households have barely shifted at all- they report having voted for Walker by 7 points last fall and they still say they would vote for Walker by a 4 point margin. But in households where there is a union member voters now say they'd go for Barrett by a 31 point margin, up quite a bit from the 14 point advantage they report having given him in November.

For a long time, union households have voted in only moderately large numbers for Democrats. Nationally, they voted Democratic by a 61-43 margin in 2010. Some of this is because of social issues trumping pocketbook issues, but some of it is undoubtedly because lots of union members didn't really think Republicans were all that big a threat to their jobs. Sure, they talked a big game, but in office they never really carried through.

But however things turn out in Wisconsin, those days are probably over. Scott Walker's brand of hardball might easily bump up the Democratic share of the union vote to 70% or more in 2012, and that represents a gain of nearly two percentage points in the overall popular vote. Unless Republicans can somehow contrive an anti-union message that wins that back among non-union independents, their chances next year have suddenly gotten a whole lot longer.