Mojo - November 2010

Why California's Redistricting Amendment Could Help (Some) Dems

| Fri Nov. 5, 2010 2:13 PM EDT

As I write in my article today, Democrats are panicked that the Republicans' enormous gubernatorial and state legislative successes will give the GOP the power to draw congressional districts in a way that locks in a GOP House majority for a decade or more. In 2011, Republicans are poised to set the boundaries of 164 congressional districts; Dems will probably draw fewer than 60.

One reason that difference is so large is that California, where Democrats will control the governorship and the state legislature, just passed a ballot measure (Proposition 20) taking congressional redistricting power out of the hands of state legislators and giving it to an independent commission. Most progressives support the ideas behind the measure, but many worry that not being able to draw California's 53 congressional districts will make it even harder for their party to offset any gains the GOP makes in the states where Republicans are drawing the districts.

However, there's some evidence that taking California's redistricting out of the hands of state legislators may actually end up helping Dems overall. The current map in the Golden State is what's called an "incumbent protection" plan. The votes from Tuesday's midterm elections are still being counted in California's 11th district, where Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney holds on to a narrow lead over Republican David Harmer. If McNerney holds on, there will be 33 Democrats and 20 Republicans in California's congressional delegation come January—nearly the same 34-19 balance as January 2008. It's also the same balance that there was in 2002, when California's Dems and GOPers first agreed to the incumbent-protection plan. In fact, over the past four elections—including three that could be fairly described as "wave" elections—no more than one California seat has switched parties in a given year.

But if Dems already control the vast majority of California's congressional seats, what do they have to gain from fair redistricting and more competitive elections? Potentially a lot. Currently, Democratic voters in California are very inefficiently distributed between congressional districts. Most Democratic representatives win by a lot, not a little. California's Republican members of Congress, by contrast, regularly win by smaller margins than their Democratic colleagues. Bottom line: If Dem voters were better distributed, Democrats could easily win more seats.

By my count, only 4 of California's 33 Dems won by less than 20 percent in this, a Republican year (one of those four Dems won by 19 points). But 7 of California's 20 Republicans won by less than 20 percentage points. And while 17 Dems won more than two-thirds (66.6 percent) of the vote in their district, only one of the Republican winners got more than two-thirds of the vote this year. There's a lot of potential for Democratic voters to be better-distributed. Senior California Democrats who are accustomed to winning elections with 65, 70, or even 80 percent of the vote might not like it—and in the past, they've pushed for Sacramento's redistricting plans to protect their power. But spreading the Democratic wealth around would be better for the party—and more competitive elections would be better for everyone.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Voters: Forget Politics. Jobs, Please!

| Fri Nov. 5, 2010 12:06 PM EDT

The most widely accepted narrative to emerge from the 2010 midterm elections, in which Democrats took a "shellacking" and lost the most congressional seats since World War II, was this: Sick of liberal overreach, voters—especially independents—shifted their favor to the right, choosing Republican candidates in huge numbers.

Not so, according to a new exit poll by the firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. The firm's findings, released Friday, show that voters weren't necessarily allying themselves with the GOP, but rather were voicing their disapproval with Washington as a whole, and especially with the federal government's inability to restart America's economic engine. To wit, voters polled gave equally poor favorability ratings to both parties as well as the tea party, the poll found. Twenty-six percent of voters said their vote was a message to "both parties," while 20 percent said it was a rebuke of Obama and 15 percent said it was a rebuke of congressional Democrats. Voters' chief complaint was "too much bickering in Washington"—a charge directed at both parties.

What matters most to voters isn't political nit-picking or Washington drama but the economy, plain and simple. As pollster Stan Greenberg, a former Clinton White House staffer, put it, "While this clearly was a blow...to the president and Democrats for failing to fix the economy, there's very little indication it was an affirmation of conservative ideology and agenda. In fact, we were rather surprised in many ways at the fact that the voters, in large numbers, are still looking for larger answers to an economy that's not working for them in a situation that they find for the country very worrisome."

That jobs-centric conclusion probably isn't so revelatory for most Americans. After all, outside the Beltway, where such politica narratives thrive, is where most unemployed people live. But it's a welcome corrective here in Washington, where the conventional wisdom suggests a GOP revival supposedly spurred by voters' newfound embrace of the Republican Party's ideas, however scarce they may be.

Here's more from the poll:

  • "Fifty-eight percent of voters said they were much or somewhat more likely to vote for a candidate that promised "to change Washington for the middle class. That means eliminating the special deals and tax breaks won by corporate lobbyists for Wall Street, paid for by American taxpayers and workers' outsourced jobs. Republicans have pledged to protect those breaks. We should cut taxes for the middle class and small business to create jobs."
  • Compared to a candidate who attacked Democrats for the economic stimulus and health care reform, 57 percent of voters said they were much or somewhat more likely to support a candidate with a "made-in-America" campaign message that points out that Republicans have "pledged to support free trade deals and protect tax breaks for companies that send American jobs to India and China."
  • Eighty-nine percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement that "America is falling behind" in the global economy and that "we need a clear strategy to make things in America, make our economy competitive, and revive America's middle class."
  • Sixty-nine percent said that "politicians should keep their hands off Social Security and Medicare" as they attempt to address the national deficit.
  • A majority opposed the Republican plan to cut $100 billion from domestic spending programs while extending the Bush tax cuts to those earning more than $250,000, while 51 percent said they agreed that those top-end tax cuts should expire and with proposals offered by Democrats to reduce the deficit over time.
  • Significant majorities in the poll supported new investments in infrastructure through a national infrastructure bank, a five-year strategy for reviving manufacturing in America."

House Progressives: The Caucus of No?

| Fri Nov. 5, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) may have barely survived the 2010 elections, appearing to have squeaked by his Republican opponent, Ruth McClung, in a race so tight that votes were still being counted on Wednesday. Just two years ago, Grijalva crushed his opponent by 30 points. This election season, though, he became a lightning rod due to his outspoken opposition to Arizona's harsh immigration law, receiving death threats, an envelope of suspicious white powder, and a bullet through the window of his district office.

Victorious Republicans insist the results of Tuesday's election give them a mandate to shove Washington to the right. But rather than make such concessions, Grijalva, co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, believes the House Democrats left standing after this year's epic wipeout must defend liberal ideals more fiercely than ever. In an interview on Wednesday, Grijalva vowed that House progressives would block any proposal that compromised their values—and he criticized President Obama for taking an accomodating approach to Republican lawmakers bent on obstructing his agenda.

"I think the President is going to try to accommodate [House minority leader John] Boehner…but we can't have this caution, this slow-walking," Grijalva said. Instead, he continued, Obama "has to be an activist president"—one who "has to say no" to the Republican agenda. By contrast, the president struck a conciliatory tone with Republicans during his first press conference after the elections, describing the Democratic defeats as a "shellacking" that meant Americans weren't satisified with the progress they made. He viewed to work with the GOP on energy and health care, and promising "to hear good ideas wherever they come from."

Grijalva warned that members of his caucus would try to block any compromises with the Republicans that weren't sufficiently progressive, even if it meant defying the White House. "Progressives in Congress need to behave like Democrats if the White House doesn't want to behave…we can't suddenly go from being survivors to concede to an agenda that's not going to satisfy us. They shouldn't pass [compromises] with our votes," Grijalva said.

The Fastest Terror Trial in the West

| Fri Nov. 5, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Read Karen Greenberg's previous coverage of the trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court.

Wednesday marked the end of the witness and testimony phase of the trial of Ahmed Ghailani, who stands accused of participating in the bombing of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. As Judge Lewis Kaplan remarked early in the week, the trial was advancing at "lightning speed," largely due to his insistence that both prosecution and defense stay concise, on point, and efficient. Still, Wednesday's milestone was not as remarkable as a small hearing held on Tuesday, a session that was rife with both intense debate and good humor—the tone Kaplan has set throughout. In the absence of the jury, the defendant, and the gallery of victim observers, the judge and counsel were discussing witnesses—FBI agents and Tanzanian police officials—whom the defense wanted to bring back for purposes of impeaching testimony they had previously given. The defense has tried to assert over and over in cross-examination that the testimony in this trial contradicted what these and other witnesses originally told the FBI. Over the course of nearly four hours, going over the defense's requests "statement by statement," Judge Kaplan reasoned his way through each one, regularly interjecting his thoughts about memory and translation and their impact on this landmark trial.

The problem of memory has plagued this trial from the beginning. As an FBI witness testified on Monday about his 1998 search of Ghailani's residence, the jury repeatedly heard, "I have a vague recollection…I don't recall…I don't remember…I do not know…. I am searching my memory." It has been a refrain echoed by witness after witness, both American and Tanzanian. But try as defense attorney Peter Quijano might to suggest that witnesses were merely "feigning a lack of memory," the judge pointed out that it is just plain difficult to remember the details of events 12 years ago.

Why NorCal is Stoked That Pot's Still Illegal

| Fri Nov. 5, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Northern California's Humboldt County has long been considered the Napa Valley of marijuana. Stoners around the country speak admiringly of "Humboldt dank," Cypress Hill name-drops "Humble pound weed," and local grocery stores stock massive displays of odor-sealing "turkey bags" far beyond Thanksgiving. Populated by hippies who fled San Francisco a generation ago to get back to the land,  Humboldt and adjoining Mendocino and Trinity Counties are known as the "Emerald Triangle" for the permissiveness of their pot laws and abundance of their "indo." So it might come as a surprise that all three counties on Tuesday rejected Proposition 19, a ballot measure that would have legalized marijuana statewide.

"There’s a large movement up here of people who realize that their self interest lies in keeping marijuana illegal," says Hank Sims, the editor of the North Coast Journal, based in the Humboldt town of Eureka. Growers in the Emerald Triangle's rugged hills and foggy redwood groves are shielded from the snooping eyes of the DEA, but that advantage would become a handicap if pot could be openly cultivated in California's warm, flat, agribusiness-dominated Central Valley. North Coast ganja growers "have got government-sponsored price control in the form of busts," Sims explains. "So I think a lot of people kind of cynically voted their pocketbook and voted to keep it illegal."

The real surprise is that cannabis cultivators convinced a majority of voters in the three counties (two of which strongly lean to the left) to side with them. "Our export product is weed, by and large," Sims notes. And in an isolated corner of the state where the timber and salmon fishing industries that once paid the bills long ago collapsed, people who aren't weed growers are mostly earning their keep by selling things like food, fertilizer and firearms to them. Sims explains: "This is the cornerstone of our economy."

Of course, the defeat of Prop 19 probably isn't enough to keep the Emerald Triangle forever awash in green. Cannabis aficionados already bypass the North Coast's outdoor weed in favor of designer strains with unique flavors and psychoactive effects that are most easily achieved indoors beneath expensive grow lamps. And while hydroponic pot now sells for about 50 percent more than the free-range variety, the price spread is dropping as indoor growers move out of closets and garages and into partnerships with major cities. This year, Oakland plans to authorize four industrial scale pot cultivation warehouses that may corner the market on low-cost, high-quality sensimilla.

Sims believes that the Emerald Triangle could still flourish in the weed world by becoming a destination for marijuana tourism—a place to take in a scenic pot farm and then relax with a joint at a pot-friendly spa. "But for that to happen," he says, the old growers “have to get out and hustle.” That means “they have to actually be in the system, where the whole appeal in the past was being out of the system. They have to suit up and go around with a sample case from club to club. And that’s going to be hard for people to put their head around."

Front page image: Bob Doran/Flickr

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 5, 2010

Fri Nov. 5, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

A U.S. Army CH-47 chinook helicopter from 16th Combat Aviation Brigade is delivering food and supplies for flood relief in the Khoistan Region, Pakistan on October 28, 2010. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jason Bushong.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Corn on "Countdown": The Tea Party vs. Scott Brown

Thu Nov. 4, 2010 10:02 PM EDT

David Corn appeared on Countdown with Keith Olbermann to discuss the tea party's plans to mount challenges to incumbent Republicans like Scott Brown and Orrin Hatch.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Inside Foreclosure King David Stern's Downfall

| Thu Nov. 4, 2010 5:40 PM EDT

After years of high-flying success and millions of dollars in profits, the future suddenly looks grim for the Law Offices of David J. Stern. The firm, which was the subject of a long MoJo investigation published in August, used to be one of the nation's most powerful "foreclosure mills," those assembly line-like operations that handle hundreds of thousands of foreclosure cases for the nation's largest mortgage companies. (In 2009 alone, the Stern firm handled 70,382 foreclosure cases.) But in the past few months, the corner-cutting and alleged fraud in the foreclosure business, as described in my August story, erupted into a national scandal. As a result, the Stern firm has seen its fortunes plummet, with major clients, like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Citigroup, cutting ties to Stern. Stern's operation has also laid off hundreds of employees in recent weeks.

Until now, though, the full extent of the decline of Stern's operation—which includes his law firm and publicly-traded real estate processing company, DJSP Enterprises—has been somewhat unclear. But according to a pair of letters obtained by Mother Jones, Stern says he plans to shed about 70 percent of his workforce. Last winter, his operation employed nearly 1,000 employees, which means 650 to 700 staffers in all could face termination. (An official with DJSP Enterprises didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.) Even more staggering is this statistic: In the last six months, Stern writes in one of the internal letters, his outfit has lost more than 90 percent of new business referrals. "While we are doing everything possible to guide the company successfully through these difficult times, these developments mandate that we take immediate action to align the business with current realities," reads one of the letters, with Stern's name listed as author. The letters, a source close to DJSP Enterprises says, were sent on Thursday to employees throughout the company; one is a termination letter, the other a letter informing recipients that they remained employed by DJSP.

Here are the two letters in their entirety:

DJS Termination Letter

 

DJS Still Employed Letter

 

Technical Difficulties [VIDEO]

| Thu Nov. 4, 2010 1:54 PM EDT

For the past few years, our own David Corn has regularly appeared on Bloggingheads.tv diavlogs with quirky conservative James Pinkerton. This week, Bloggingheads is celebrating its fifth anniversary, and as part of that, the site has released some funny blooper reels. This one, involving some technical difficulties, features Corn and Pinkerton ten seconds in. The whole thing is a laugh riot. (At least if you get your kicks watching policy wonks fumbling with technology.) Here it is:

McConnell: Obama Agenda Must Die

| Thu Nov. 4, 2010 12:53 PM EDT

In the latest post-victory peroration by Republican honchos, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, outlined on Thursday morning his vision of the way forward for the GOP before a friendly audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation. To save you some time, here's the five-word synopsis: President Obama's agenda must die.

McConnell devoted an ample chunk of his remarks at Heritage to reaffirming Republicans' opposition to all corners of the Democratic Party's plan, like health insurance reform, financial regulatory reform, and a slew of other initiatives. First, on health care, McConnell forcefully said, "We can and should propose and vote on straight repeal, repeatedly." Knowing that any such repeal won't make it out of the Senate, and even if it did, would be vetoed by Obama, McConnell added that Republicans will "also have to work in the House on denying funds for implementation and, in the Senate, on votes against its most egregious provisions."

And when blocking potential legislation isn't an option, McConnell went on, his party will make sure to stymie any other efforts to advance the Democrats' agenda through other means. He mentioned blocking card-check proposals, which would allow workers to more easily unionize, from passing via the National Labor Relations Board; preventing the administration's immigration reform ambitions from being realized through "administrative amnesty" and picking and choosing which immigration laws to enforce (or not); and blocking federal agencies from enacting energy taxes. And, of course, McConnell expressed his intent on blunting the effects of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, which he called "horrible" and named, along with the health care bill, as one of the worst bills in his 26-year Senate career.

Most of all, McConnell doubled down on his promise to make Obama a one-term president. As he told the Heritage crowd in his prepared remarks,

Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office. But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill; to end the bailouts; cut spending; and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things it is to put someone in the White House who won't veto any of these things. We can hope the President will start listening to the electorate after Tuesday's election. But we can't plan on it.

Oddly, during the question-and-answer period, McConnell had a candid moment, seemingly contradicting himself by offering, "I don't want the president to fail; I want him to change." Mark it down as a rare slip for a man whose true intentions are abundantly clear.