Need To Read: December 11, 2009

Today's must reads:

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Houston's mayoral race has come down to a notable runoff, with a final vote scheduled for this Saturday. Last month's first round of votes in a seven-way race favored Annise Parker, a white lesbian who, if elected, would make Houston the largest U.S. city ever to have an openly gay mayor. Anti-gay activists and squeamish religious groups are mobilizing as per usual. They endorse her opponent, former city attorney Gene Locke, who won 25 percent of first round votes to Parker's 31 percent. If he wins, he'll become Houston’s second black mayor.

The anti-gay endorsement has put Locke in a slightly sticky position: Two of his key supporters gave money to a conservative political action committee behind a mailer condemning Parker's "homosexual behavior."

Naturally, a little political distancing was in order. From an AP article yesterday:

"Gene has been very clear with his supporters to not participate in divisive campaigning," Kim Devlin, a senior Locke adviser said in a statement Tuesday. "Gene Locke has fought against bigotry his entire life and knows that there is no place for it in this campaign and this city."

Ta-Nehisi Coates over at The Atlantic succinctly disputes claims that the mayoral runoff echoes a perceived split between black and LGBT communities during the California vote on Proposition 8 last year. Meanwhile, Brian Levin’s blog at the Huffington Post has more on the homophobic campaign tactics, with a photo of the anti-gay mailer that shows Parker taking a prior oath of office with her partner of twenty years. Above that, the mailer reads:


Quite possibly, yes. We’ll find out when the election results come in this weekend. It’s expected to be a close call.


Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham are holding a press call right now to discuss their tri-partisan effort to build support for a Senate climate bill. During the call, which AP_ClimatePool is live tweeting, the senators said that the bill will include incentives for building nuclear power plants. As Mariah Blake reports for the upcoming issue of Mother Jones, what the nuclear industry really wants is for the federal government to underwrite new construction of new reactors that Wall Street has deemed too financially risky. (And when Wall Street thinks an investment is too risky, that should make you very nervous.) Now, it looks like the industry may just get its wish: According to AP's feed, one of the senators just said that a bill must include generous government loan guarantees for nuclear plants in order to secure GOP backing. In other words: the price of getting 60 votes for a climate bill could be a major taxpayer bailout of the nuclear industry. Follow the call here and stay tuned for more updates on Senate climate bill. 

There may be a dwindling number of issues with bipartisan support, but protecting students from abusive restraints and seclusion is one of them. Yesterday, a bipartisan group of House Education and Labor Committee members unveiled the Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act, which will, for the first time, bar teachers' use of dangerous restraint techniques except as a last resort.

Introduced by a seemingly "odd couple" of legislators—conservative Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and liberal Committee Chair George Miller (D-Calif.)—the legislation comes six months after the Government Accountability Office released a report detailing how frequently students are restrained and secluded by inexperienced or poorly trained teachers. The GAO reported hundreds of abuse allegations in nearly every state. The results of the abuse were far-ranging, everything from student anxiety disorders and depression, to broken bones and even death. Though children are protected against such abuses in other federally funded facilities (e.g. hospitals) they are not yet protected in the schools where they spend most of their time.

So far, state laws and their enforcement have been flawed, one Texas mother learned tragically. At a 2008 Congressional hearing, mother Toni Price spoke about her son Cedric's deadly encounter with restraints applied by educators. After being denied his lunch for refusing to do his school work, Price said Cedric was caught trying to leave his classroom, presumably because he was hungry.

"After Cedric attempted to leave the classroom, he refused to sit back down in his chair, so the teacher forced him into his chair and restrained him. She is roughly six feet tall, weighs over 230 lbs. Cedric was short. He was little - he was a little boy. Cedric struggled as he was being held in a chair, so the teacher put him face down and sat on him. He struggled and said repeatedly, 'I can't breathe.' 'If you can talk, If you can speak, you can breathe,' [the teacher] snapped at him.

Shortly after that, he stopped speaking, and he stopped struggling, and he stopped moving. The teacher continued to restrain him. Finally, the teacher ... and aides put Cedric back into his chair and wiped the drool from his mouth and sat him up, but he slumped over and slipped out of the chair. Precious moments passed before a nurse was called. I rushed to the school not completely clear of what was going on and what was happening. When I got to the school, my son was laying on the floor with a paramedic beside him. I kneeled down and said 'Cedric, get up, you're not going to be in trouble,' but Cedric didn't move. Instead, the paramedic stood me up. My son was dead. I didn't know the school was practicing restraint techniques on Cedric. I didn't even know they were withholding food as a punishment."


We know you're cash-strapped, California, but that new east span of the Bay Bridge is going to cost you, big time.

That's according to exhaustive research by SF Public Press and published in McSweeney's Panorama this week, detailing the history of San Francisco's lesser known bridge and tagging its cost to taxpayers and commuters at more than $12 billion—double what we've been told so far by public officials.

Part of what's causing the extra expense is the fact that political wrangling—over design, over funding, over everything state and local politicians wrangle over—has delayed the project by decades, to the point where interest and other financing charges have ballooned into the billions. As a result, commuters will be paying it off until at least 2049, the report says.

Officials have known this for a while. They just didn't tell us. Why not?

"I don’t think we’re hiding it," Brian Mayhew, chief financial officer of the Bay Area Toll Authority, told the reporters. "Just no one has ever asked before.”

Gee, that's odd, since there are stories about Bay Bridge cost estimates basically every day.

Plus, a two decade delay is pretty ridiculous, given that the whole idea for renovating the bridge came up after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake collapsed part of the east span. So naturally, it was a good decision to try and make sure that next time Mother Nature strikes, the same public infrastructure doesn't collapse. Not such a good idea, however: Dithering about for two decades before actually making it happen.

Panorama on why it's costing so much and taking so long:

This project has outlived many a political career, including those of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and Governor Gray Davis, and countless other legislators from the Bay Area and in Sacramento. Most of the officials who green-lit the project are long gone, and the lack of continuity in state and local leadership represents a challenge all its own. There aren’t many lawmakers in Sacramento with a long history in their current positions, and fewer who know much about the Bay Bridge.

This lack of governmental memory on such a marathon construction project—combined with knowledge that many costs can be pushed far into the future—and coupled with overly optimistic cost estimates, helps to explain why the stated price of construction has grown nearly fivefold, from the $1.3 billion estimated in 1996 to more than $6.3 billion today.

That $6.3 billion, mind you, is the projected cost of salaries and construction materials only. The difference between that and the $12 billion figure? The actual cost of those things, plus crazy finance charges.


A US Army Soldier uses his down time to practice playing his guitar on Combat Outpost Cherkatah, Khowst province, Afghanistan, Nov. 27, 2009. The Soldier is deployed with Company D, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment. (US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith.)

Need To Read: December 10, 2009

Today's must reads:

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Apparently Congress has funding rules by which our representatives must abide. In a complaint to the Senate Ethics Committee, watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington questioned Sen. John McCain's mastery of those rules today. The complaint alleges that the former presidential hopeful misused cash from the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) to fund statewide robocalls boosting health care reform opposition in states with moderate democratic senators to target Blanche Lincoln (AR), Michael Bennet (CO), Ben Nelson (NE), Byron Dorgan (ND), and Kent Conrad (ND) this month. CREW explained the ethics breach in a press release:

CREW’s complaint alleges Sen. McCain violated Senate Rule 38, which prohibits senators from maintaining "unofficial office accounts," meaning they cannot use private donations to support official senate activities and expenses. By urging voters to call their senators to urge them to support his motion, Sen. McCain was engaged in grassroots lobbying. This activity clearly was related to Sen. McCain's official duties. By using an outside entity’s funds—those of the NRSC—to pay for expenses related to his official duties, Sen. McCain violated Senate rules. 
Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director, said "The rules are clear: if Sen. McCain wanted to lobby voters in an effort to see his motion passed he should have paid for the calls himself. Ethics rules are not optional; all the rules apply all the time, not just the ones senators like and not just when it is convenient to follow them." Sloan continued, "The Senate Ethics Committee should investigate the funding for the calls and if the NRSC in fact paid for them, sanction Sen. McCain appropriately."

Admonishing McCain won't save the public option, but it's an unwelcome distraction for the senator, who trails a set of potential challengers for his long-held Arizona seat in 2010.

One week after President Obama announced new targets for Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, the military commander in Afghanistan, and US ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry expressed their support for the newly revealed plans.

The previously feuding but presently affectionate General and Ambassador defended the President's strategy before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on Tuesday. Amidst answers to questions on Osama bin Laden and the July 2011 target for withdrawing troops, both McChrystal and Eikenberry came back to a central theme, agriculture, as a key part of eventual success in the region. Referring to the Department of Defense’s agricultural program that was employed decades earlier in South and Central America, the two men emphasized the critical rural infrastructure support that Agri-business Development Teams (ADT) will provide for the region. 

ADTs are comprised of national guardsmen and women who are working with Afghanis following the guidance from US Department of Agriculture officials stationed in Kabul. By teaching “critical skills in marketing, storage, and even ice production” the DoD hopes to bolster exports, and thus revive Afghanistan’s agricultural economy and diffuse the economic power held by the Taliban’s drug trade.

This focus on agriculture is part of a larger effort initiated by President Obama to better coordinate US, NATO, and Afghan efforts in defeating the Taliban. At Tuesday's hearing, Eikenberry said there will be 65 ADTs operating in Afghanistan by January which are “going to get great effects.”

Gen. McChrystal even went so far as to say that the agricultural component “is what makes security durable.”

Connecticut's embattled Senator Chris Dodd has had a bad year. The democratic chairman of the Senate Banking Committee has been attacked for his ties to economic villains like Countrywide Financial and AIG, and is often cited as one of the most vulnerable Dems seeking reelection in 2010. Hoping to thwart some of this criticism, Dodd reportedly said this spring that he would donate gifts he received from a dozen AIG executives and their spouses to charity. But this week the Center for Responsive Politics reports that thus far, Dodd has neglected to donate the $56,000 in question and that he's even backing down from his original promise. Dodd supporters claim that that he only intended to return funds he received from AIG executives following the bailout. "Sen. Dodd has taken no AIG contributions after the bailout, and in fact, none since September 2008," Connecticut Democratic Party Communications Director Colleen Flanagan told CRP's politics blog Capital Eye.

True, Dodd shouldn't have to make up for money he received before AIG went asunder, but if he didn't get any post-bailout funds then why promise the donations in the first place? This, more than anything, gives amunition to Dodd's critics, including a cohort of Republicans, eyeing his seat in 2010.

So what did Dodd actually promise? CRP rounds up press reports from earlier this year: