Mojo - April 2011

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 25, 2011

Mon Apr. 25, 2011 2:30 AM PDT

U.S. Army Spc. Ahren Blake, a combat medic from Clinton, Iowa, with Company D, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, Task Force Ironman, a part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Task Force Red Bulls, holds two puppies he found at an observation post in the Aziz Khan Kats Mountain Valley range near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, April 15. The puppies have been living with the Afghan National Army Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 201st Infantry Corps, which man the Ops that 3rd Platoon visited. Photo via US Army

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Map: Transgender Employment Rights Make Headway

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 3:38 PM PDT

This week, Hawaii lawmakers voted to protect transgender people from public and private workplace discrimination, making the state the 13th (in addition to Washington, DC) to do so. Nevada's state Senate is considering similar legislation, and state committees in Connecticut and New York recently have as well. Another bill made some headway in Maryland before its Senate axed it.

The activity highlights an often neglected part of the LGBT rights struggle. On Monday, I blogged about a study with the obvious conclusion that "LGB" (lesbian, gay, and bisexual) teens were more likely to attempt suicide when they lacked support networks. That prompted a reader to ask, "…why leave out the T? Were trans kids not part of the survey? Generally, it's LGBT, not LGB."

Trans people weren’t part of the survey, and there aren’t a whole lot of statistics about discrimination against them. But a landmark survey of 6,450 trans and gender non-conforming people released in February by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force revealed some disturbing numbers:

  • Ninety percent of responders reported facing discrimination at work.
  • Unemployment rates were double the national average.
  • More than a quarter said they had been fired due to their gender identity.
  • Those who had lost their jobs were four times as likely to be homeless and 70 percent more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.

And, perhaps most remarkably (and most related to Monday's post), 41 percent of responders admitted to having attempted suicide.

In addition to DC and the 13 states that provide full employment non-discrimination protection for trans people, nine states have executive orders that mandate protection for state jobs. (It would be 10, but Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, let an executive order covering trans people expire in January.) On the federal level, the efforts of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to establish workplace protection rights have stalled since 2007, although President Obama has voiced his support.

Here's a look at where things stand now:

BREAKING: Anti-Shariah Bill Sponsors Are Kind of Clueless

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 9:44 AM PDT

On Wednesday, members of the North Carolina House debated HB 640, a bill to ban the use of Islamic Shariah law in state courts. This is nothing new: Since the beginning of 2009, two dozen states have considered such proposals, stemming from concerns that unless serious action is taken, American citizens will be forced to adhere to a draconian interpretation of Shariah. That's the argument, at least, but through each of these bills, there's been one nagging flaw—no one can explain, when pressed, why such legislation is necessary.

At this point, the drill is getting kind of familiar. How familiar? Well, here's Laura Leslie, of Raleigh's WRAL:

Rep. Verla Insko asked [State Rep. George] Cleveland twice for an example of a case that would show a need for the bill. "I do not have any specific examples off the top of my head," Cleveland finally replied.

Hey, that sounds similar to the scene on Tuesday when the Missouri House voted on a bill to ban Islamic law from state courts:

All the President's Taxes

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 5:30 AM PDT

Presidents pay taxes, too. They're not obligated to reveal what they owe, but ever since Richard Nixon was caught stiffing the IRS, every resident of the Oval Office has released his tax returns (sometimes starting on the campaign trail). For the curious and/or wonky, Tax History Project has collected the returns of eight presidents, including FDR. Examining a sample of these filings, from Roosevelt's 1929 paperwork to Obama's latest 1040, provides a unique glimpse into presidents' financial affairs.

A few highlights: 

Franklin D. Roosevelt's returns harken back to an era when federal tax rates where considerably lower. In 1929, FDR paid about 11% in taxes and gave away 12.5% of his income. Interestingly, following a rate hike in 1932, his charitable giving dropped to about 3%. (A couple of the recipients of his largesse: the Will Rogers Memorial Fund, $100; the American Ornithological Union, $3.) As Reason notes, FDR wasn't above trying to avoid paying his fair share of taxes, either: In 1937 he tried to talk the IRS into taxing him at 1933 rates.

In the 13 returns sampled here, Ronald Reagan paid the highest effective tax rate, 40% in 1981. Yet by 1987, his signature tax cuts had gone into effect and he forked over 25% of his income, which had included $1,312 in residuals from his movie career and $281 in royalties from his autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me?

George Bush the elder wins the prize for charitable giving—he gave away nearly 62% of his $1.3 million income in 1991. Some of his donations: $40 to the Yale Class of 1948 fund, $1,000 to the Desert Storm Foundation, and $789,176 to a lucky organization called the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

Buried in Bill Clinton's 1992 return are hints of the incoming president's dietary habits and forthcoming legal hassles: A $60 dividend from TCBY and a $1,000 gain from the Whitewater Development Corporation.

In 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama paid a 33.7% tax rate on more than $4 million in income. His 2010 return (made public last week), shows that the president's post-election income has dropped while his charitable giving has increased. An addendum (PDF) discloses that he donated $100,000 of his Nobel Prize winnings to the charity run by recently discredited Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson. However, he did not claim his Nobel money on his tax forms since he gave it all away. Generous, but also a savvy tax-reduction move. 

More details from the eight presidents' tax returns:

presidential tax chart


Dems Warn Constituents About the Evils of RyanCare

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 3:01 AM PDT

Back in their home districts for the Easter recess, some House Democrats have put the GOP overhaul of Medicare front and center with their constituents. On Wednesday night, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) asked all the callers participating in a telephone town hall to vote on whether they supported the GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to replace Medicare "with a voucher system to help seniors defray the cost of health insurance." Of some 1,300 callers who responded, the choice seemed overwhelming: 73 percent wanted to keep Medicare as is, while only 27 supported the GOP overhaul. 

The informal telephone poll falls in line with a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that found that 65 percent of Americans oppose the Ryan plan for Medicare. That number that jumped to 84 percent when respondents were told that the cost of private insurance is supposed to outpace the cost of Medicare insurance, weakening the value of the "premium support" that recipients would receive under Ryan’s plan. 

Throughout the call, Connolly hit upon the main talking points that Democrats have been using to assault RyanCare, calling the plan a "radical proposal" that would force seniors out of Medicare and into the private market. "I’m going to fight tooth and nail...to make sure we preserve Medicare, and we don't adopt the Ryan proposal which would dismantle it as we know it." To be sure, Connolly's district is also one that’s more likely to be sympathetic to such arguments: the 11th district is just north of Washington, DC, heavily populated by federal employees and contractors, and swung for Connolly by more than over 10 points in 2010. But it's a message that's beginning to hit the airwaves in Democratic attack ads—and that other Democratic members, like Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), are pushing in their home districts this week.

Connolly also swatted down an emerging counterargument to the Democratic attack on the Ryan plan. During the town hall, one participant a year away from retirement criticized the Connolly for misrepresenting the Republican plan. The public might get "the impression that you’re talking about me losing my Medicare coverage this year," the caller said. "The proposal doesn’t kick in for that sort of thing for 10 years." It's the same reason that PolitiFact attempted to discredit a new Democratic attack ad that portrays seniors being forced to work (and, in some cases, work it) to pay for Medicare. "Ryan’s plan leaves Medicare as is for people 55 and older…all seniors would continue to be offered coverage under the proposal," Politifact writes.

Republicans are hoping that their graduated timeframe will help build political support for the Ryan plan: most older Baby Boomers and all current Medicare beneficiaries won't be affected by their plan. It's a demographic that’s more likely to vote for Republicans in the first place. But Democrats are hoping it won’t be enough to convince voters that RyanCare will ultimately benefit the public good. "You and I would be grandfathered in. What about the next generation? I don’t think that’s right," Connolly concluded.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 22, 2011

Fri Apr. 22, 2011 1:00 AM PDT

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Hector Hoyas (right), an aerial delivery field service department instructor, and Air Force Senior Airman Matthew Phillips, turn away from the rotor wash as a Nevada National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopter takes off with a Humvee at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., during sling-load training on April 15, 2011. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth, US Air Force.

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Rick Perry Asks Texans to Pray for Rain

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 1:41 PM PDT

Texas is in the grip of historic wildfires that have destroyed nearly 1.8 million acres of forest and grassland in the state as well as 400 homes. The almost 8,000 fires so far this year are unprecedented, which last weekend prompted Gov. Rick Perry to call upon the national government for assistance. Now Perry is calling upon the Man Upstairs for help.

Perry issued a proclamation on Thursday declaring the next 72 hours the "Days of Prayer for Rain in Texas," asking residents to appeal to whatever higher power they prefer for help. It states:

WHEREAS, throughout our history, both as a state and as individuals, Texans have been strengthened, assured and lifted up through prayer; it seems right and fitting that the people of Texas should join together in prayer to humbly seek an end to this devastating drought and these dangerous wildfires;
NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal and robust way of life.

Now, for a little bit of context: Perry is well-known for his skepticism about the existence of global warming—a phenomenon that has contributed to the conditions that cause wildfires. It's also more than a little ironic given that the state last year filed a lawsuit to block the Environmental Protection Agency's regulations of planet-warming emissions, claiming that the finding that climate change poses a threat to humans is based on flawed science. 

I reached out to a Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, for some thoughts on the governor's proclamation. "I certainly don't think that praying will hurt. My concern is that the Governor has no Plan B," wrote Dessler in an email. "If praying doesn't work, what then? If we don't start taking reasonable steps to protect ourselves soon, then I will indeed be praying—for better leadership in Austin."

DOD: Predator Drone Attacks, Regime Change in Libya

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 12:41 PM PDT

Pentagon tweets: Killer drones are headed to Libya to effect regime change.

Reaction No. 1: Well, that didn't take long.

Reaction No. 2: What could go wrong?

(Here are the stats, by the way, on what a bang-up job US drones have done in Pakistan.)

The Tennessee Mosque Lawsuit That Just Won't Die

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 8:25 AM PDT

Remember that whole brouhaha last year about the folks who were suing to block the construction of an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee? To refresh your memory: The plaintiffs argued, in part, that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro was not protected by the First Amendment, because Islam is a totalitarian ideology and not a religion (the Justice Department disagreed). The stakes were high. As the plaintiff's attorney Joe Brandon Jr. explained, construction of a new house of worship in central Tennessee was part of the Muslim Brotherhood's plan to, eventually, raise the "flag of Sharia" over the White House and subjugate the citizenry. A county judge found this argument unpersuasive, and ruled that construction could continue on the Islamic center.

Brandon, however, promised that very day that Murfreesboro had not seen the last of Joe Brandon Jr. And now, the mosque opponents are back in court, with a fresh set of complaints, 14 new plaintiffs, and a legal argument we'll diplomatically call "novel." Per the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal:

They contend that [plaintiff Kevin] Fisher has standing because he's an African American Christian who'd be discriminated against and subjugated as a second-class citizen under Shariah law and be denied his civil rights; [plaintiff Lisa] Moore has standing because she's a Jewish female who's targeted in a Muslim call to kill Jews in "jihad" in support of Palestine and as a woman whose rights would be subordinate to those of men in Shariah law; and [plaintiff Henry] Golczynski, who lost a son killed while serving in the U.S. Marines in a combat in Fallujah, Iraq, by insurgents pursuing jihad as dictated by Shariah law.

In other words, they're suing Muslims in central Tennessee for future crimes they might commit, because of past actions taken by Muslim insurgents in...Iraq. I see no way this can fail.

But wait, this story gets more interesting. The plaintiffs have also raised concerns about the presence of security cameras at the site of the Islamic center's construction site. Brandon alleged that the cameras violated his right to privacy, because they were able to film his car every time he drove by (one can only imagine the intrusion he endures every time he uses an ATM). The cameras were placed there by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which launched a hate-crime investigation last summer into a case of suspected arson at the mosque site.

GOPer Behind Ohio's Botched 2004 Election Eyes Senate Run

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 8:09 AM PDT

Remember Ken Blackwell? He was Ohio's secretary of state in 2004 who was accused of throwing the presidential vote in that crucial swing state in favor of George W. Bush and overseeing "massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies" that disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters. Now Blackwell's back—and he's eyeing a place in the US Senate.

Roll Call reports today that Blackwell, who unsuccessfully ran for Ohio governor in 2006, has talked with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), a heavy-hitter among Senate GOPers, about challenging Democrat Sherrod Brown in the 2012 election. Blackwell said he won't make a final decision about his political future until after his forthcoming book, "Resurgent: How Constitutional Conservatism Can Save America," comes out in late May.

There are plenty of reasons why Blackwell's idea is a bad one. First, he'd be joining two other GOP contenders, among them Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel. And Brown is fairly popular in Ohio. He handily defeated incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine in 2006 by 12 points, and in a recent survey by Public Policy Polling, Brown led all potential opponents by double digits. "Sherrod Brown appears to be in a much stronger position now than he was just three months ago," said Dean Debnam, who heads Public Policy Polling.

Then, of course, there's Blackwell's 2004 debacle. An investigation by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Democratic committee staff concluded that Ohio's voting disaster in 2004 was "caused by intentional misconduct and illegal behavior, much of it involving Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell." Long lines, faulty voting machines, onerous barriers for voter registration, a rigged recount—anything that could go wrong in Ohio did on Election Day 2004.

Here's how Rolling Stone put it in a 2006 story:

Blackwell—now the Republican candidate for governor of Ohio—is well-known in the state as a fierce partisan eager to rise in the GOP. An outspoken leader of Ohio's right-wing fundamentalists, he opposes abortion even in cases of rape and was the chief cheerleader for the anti-gay-marriage amendment that Republicans employed to spark turnout in rural counties. He has openly denounced Kerry as "an unapologetic liberal Democrat," and during the 2004 election he used his official powers to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Ohio citizens in Democratic strongholds. In a ruling issued two weeks before the election, a federal judge rebuked Blackwell for seeking to ''accomplish the same result in Ohio in 2004 that occurred in Florida in 2000."

"The secretary of state is supposed to administer elections—not throw them,'' says Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Cleveland who has dealt with Blackwell for years. "The election in Ohio in 2004 stands out as an example of how, under color of law, a state election official can frustrate the exercise of the right to vote."

The most extensive investigation of what happened in Ohio was conducted by Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. Frustrated by his party's failure to follow up on the widespread evidence of voter intimidation and fraud, Conyers and the committee's minority staff held public hearings in Ohio, where they looked into more than 50,000 complaints from voters. In January 2005, Conyers issued a detailed report that outlined "massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies in Ohio." The problems, the report concludes, were "caused by intentional misconduct and illegal behavior, much of it involving Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell."

"Blackwell made Katherine Harris look like a cupcake," Conyers told me. "He saw his role as limiting the participation of Democratic voters. We had hearings in Columbus for two days. We could have stayed two weeks, the level of fury was so high. Thousands of people wanted to testify. Nothing like this had ever happened to them before."

With a record like that, why even bother running? For the voters who were shut out by Blackwell and his cronies, I'll bet the memory of 2004 still stings.