Political MoJo

Arkansas Governor Asks For Changes to Religious Freedom Bill

| Wed Apr. 1, 2015 3:21 PM EDT

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called for changes in the state's controversial religious freedom bill on Wednesday, amid mounting criticism from businesses, local leaders, gay rights advocates, and even members of his own family. 

"This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial," Hutchinson told reporters. "But these are not ordinary times."

Hutchinson said in a press conference that he would not sign the bill as presented to his desk and asked state lawmakers to change the bill's language to "mirror" the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Twenty other states, including Indiana, have similar religious freedom legislation

"This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial," Hutchinson told reporters. "But these are not ordinary times."

In a press conference on Tuesday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, whose state has also faced a barrage of criticism from businesses, celebrities and athletes alike, called on lawmakers to clarify Indiana's religious freedom bill that "makes it clear that this law does not give businesses a right to deny services to anyone."  

Though Hutchinson had once said he would approve the bill with amendments, the governor shifted his stance after receiving backlash from local leaders and businesses, including Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who called on the governor to veto the bill. 

"Today's passage of HB1228 threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold," McMillon said in a statement. "For these reasons, we are asking Governor Hutchinson to veto this legislation."

Hutchinson told reporters that the controversial legislation, which critics say would allow individuals and businesses to discriminate against gay men and lesbians, hit home. His son, Seth, a labor organizer with the Texas State Employees Union, asked him to veto the legislation. "I love my dad, and we have a good, close relationship," Hutchinson's son told the New York Times. "But we disagree a lot on political issues. This is just another one, but a lot of families disagree politically. But we stay close."

"The issue has become divisive because our nation remains split on how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions," Hutchinson said. "It has divided families, and there is clearly a generational gap on this issue."

The Arkansas General Assembly has not yet agreed to recall and amend the bill. The governor declined to say whether he would veto the bill if it returned to his desk unchanged. 

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Indiana Pizzeria Says It Will Not Cater Gay Weddings

| Wed Apr. 1, 2015 10:23 AM EDT

Catering pizza to your wedding guests might sound unconventional, but it does happen. Oh, does it happen.

But if you're gay and in Indiana, don't call Memories Pizzeria in Walkerton: They won't help you make your wedding memories. The owners of the family-run business say it will refuse to serve slices to gay or lesbian weddings, joining a chorus of those who cite opposition to marriage equality in support of their state's controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Crystal O'Connor, who runs the business, told local news outlet ABC57, "If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no," because it was not reflective of their Christian values.

In doing so, O'Connor insisted such a move would not be an act of discrimination, as many critics of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act have argued. "I do not think it's targeting gays," she said. "I don't think it's discrimination. It's supposed to help people that have a religious belief."

O'Connor's father, Kevin, also appeared in ABC's report telling the reporter being gay is a choice. "Why should I be beat over the head to go along with something they choose?"

Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana claims that outrage over the new law, which was passed last Thursday, is the product of "mischaracterization," and that the law's intent was simply to protect religious liberties. Yesterday, he acknowledged the mounting criticism and said he would be seeking a "legislative fix" to the law.

Despite the national backlash to Indiana's law, the Arkansas state legislature followed suit yesterday by passing its own religious freedom bill.

ABC57 News - See the Difference Michiana

Walmart Gave Workers a Raise—But It's Not Enough to Keep Them off the Dole

| Wed Apr. 1, 2015 6:20 AM EDT
A Black Friday protest at a Walmart store in Chicago

A typical Walmart Supercenter costs taxpayers more than $900,000 a year in public assistance doled out to its low-wage workers. This fact, published in a congressional report in 2013, galvanized labor protests at Walmart stores across the country last year, leading the retail giant to announce in February that it would give some 500,000 workers a raise. (Today, McDonald's announced a similar increase). And that's something. But according to a report released today by Americans for Tax Fairness, Walmart's pay is still far too low to wean many "associates" from federal subsidies such as food stamps and Section 8 housing.

Under Walmart's new plan, full-time associates who've completed a six-month training program will earn at least $10 an hour next year. Many Walmart workers, however, are involuntary part-timers, and nearly half of the associates turn over each year. But workers who qualify for the $10 base wage by working at least 34 hours a week, which Walmart considers "full time," would still earn only $17,680 a year—well below the cutoff for many federal assistance programs, especially if a worker has children.

Americans for Tax Fairness

The four Walton heirs, who are collectively worth $144.7 billion, are Walmart's largest stockholders and constitute the nation's wealthiest family. If they wanted to stop enriching themselves at the expense of taxpayers, they could pay their workers at least $15 an hour for a 40-hour workweek. According to Americans for Tax Fairness, this would have cost Walmart about $10.8 billion in 2014, or about half of the increase in the Waltons' net worth that year.

America Ranks in the Top 5 Globally—for Putting Its Citizens to Death

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 7:00 PM EDT

We're No. 5! We're No. 5!

America once again ranks among the top five nations in the world—in executions. Sigh. That's according to a new report from Amnesty International, which also notes that more and more nations have been opting not to kill their convicts.

Amnesty tallies at least 607 known executions in 22 countries in 2014. The good news? That's a 22 percent decline from 2013. Here at home, states dispatched 35 American citizens last year, a 20-year low—and four less than in 2013. But there's no accounting for China, which executes more people than all other countries combined but treats the data as a state secret. (Amnesty made its count by looking at a range of sources, including official figures, reports from civil society groups, media accounts, and information from death row convicts and their families.)

Amnesty also reports a drop in the number of countries that carried out executions, from 42 in 1995 to 22 last year, although many more still have the death penalty on the books. The United States is the last country in the Americas that still puts people to death, but US citizens appear to be increasingly opposed to the practice. Only seven states executed convicts in 2014, compared with nine states a year earlier. The overwhelming majority of those executions—nearly 90 percent—took place in four states: Texas, Missouri, Florida and Oklahoma. (Georgia had two, and Arizona and Ohio had one execution each.)

Eighteen states have abolished the death penalty, but among those that have not, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming haven't put anyone to death in at least a decade, Amnesty noted. Oregon and Washington have moratoriums on executions, and federal authorities have not put anyone to death since 2003.

The bad news is, from 2013 to 2014, the number of death sentences jumped nearly 30 percent globally, to at least 2,466. Amnesty points in part to Nigeria, which imposed 659 death sentences last year as military courts punished numerous soldiers for mutiny and other offenses amid armed conflict with Boko Haram militants. Egypt was also to blame for the increase, Amnesty said, as Egyptian courts handed down death sentences against 210 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in April and June.

In all, 55 countries sentenced people to death last year. Here, according to Amnesty, are the most notable:

Arkansas Just Passed Its Own Indiana-Style 'Religious Freedom Restoration Act'

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 5:46 PM EDT

Despite national outcry over a similar bill in Indiana, the Arkansas state Legislature on Tuesday passed its own 'Religious Freedom Restoration Act' which critics warn would allow business owners to discriminate against gay, lesbian, and transgendered people on religious grounds. 

The bill now goes to Republican state Gov. Asa Hutchinson who vowed last week to sign it. Attempts by state lawmakers to add a provision that would prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians were blocked, according to the New York Times.

"The Arkansas and Indiana bills are virtually identical in terms of language and intent," Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow told the Huffington Post. "They place LGBT people, people of color, religious minorities, women and many more people at risk of discrimination."

Like Indiana, Arkansas is already facing mounting criticism over the bill. Walmart, which is based in Bentonville, and data-services company Acxiom have openly criticized the bill. 

Backer of Indiana Law Says "It's Impossible to Satisfy the Homosexual Lobby"

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 4:16 PM EDT

Considering it seems like everyone from Tim Cook to the whole state of Connecticut is incensed by a new law that allows Indiana businesses to refuse service to LGBT customers based on "religious grounds," it seems crazy to think anyone is still out there actually defending it—at least openly. Alas, here's Bryan Fischer of "gay sex is terrorism" notoriety and head of the American Family Association, to prove otherwise:

 

Gov. Mike Pence may now be trying to play down criticism the law discriminates against gay people, support from people like Fischer make it difficult to make such an argument.
 

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James O'Keefe Loses Libel Suit Over Landrieu Incident

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 3:58 PM EDT

Conservative filmmaker and provocateur James O'Keefe has lost another legal battle: on Monday, a federal court in New Jersey dismissed a libel suit O'Keefe filed against legal news website MainJustice. In August 2013, MainJustice published an article referring to a 2010 incident in which O'Keefe and his associates posed as telephone technicians to gain access to the offices of then–Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). O'Keefe and three others ultimately pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge of entering federal property under false pretenses.

In its original article, MainJustice said that O'Keefe was "apparently trying to bug" Landrieu's offices. After O'Keefe complained, the website changed the sentence to read that O'Keefe and his associates "were trying to tamper with Landrieu's phones." Still, O'Keefe sued, alleging that both characterizations were defamatory because they implied he had committed a felony. MainJustice countered that the language wasn't defamatory because the substance of the article was true, and the site accurately described the legal proceedings triggered by the episode.

The court didn't find O'Keefe's case convincing. Judge Claire Cecchi wrote in her opinion:

Regardless of whether the article used the words "apparently trying to bug" or "trying to tamper," the few words challenged by the Plaintiff, taken in context, do not alter the fundamental gist of the paragraph… Therefore, the words "trying to tamper with," understood in the colloquial sense, convey the substantial truth of the Landrieu incident and do not alter the ultimate conclusion of the paragraph—that Plaintiff was guilty of a misdemeanor.

Mary Jacoby, editor-in-chief of MainJustice, writes in a statement:

This is an important First Amendment victory. It's a total, resounding defeat of O'Keefe's attempts to intimidate journalists into accepting his spin on the circumstances of his 2010 entry into Sen. Landrieu's offices under false pretenses.

In 2013, O'Keefe paid $100,000 to settle a lawsuit filed against him by a former employee of ACORN, a nonprofit the filmmaker had targeted. In a statement to Mother Jones, an O'Keefe spokesman said, "While we are disappointed in the Court's decision, it is one that we respect due to the complex and difficult nature of proving defamation. That being said, we think it is important to note that this decision in no way validates any of the false statements made against Project Veritas or James O'Keefe."

Forget Elizabeth Warren. Another Female Senator Has a Shot to Fill the Senate's New Power Vacuum.

| Fri Mar. 27, 2015 3:58 PM EDT

Update (3/30/15)—So much for that. On Monday, Murray endorsed Schumer, who now appears to have a clear path to Reid's job.

In the nanoseconds after Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid announced Friday morning that he will give up his leadership post and retire in 2016, liberal groups raced to promote their go-to solution for almost any political problem: Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Much like the movement to draft Warren for president, the idea of putting her in charge of the Democratic caucus was more dream than reality. Warren's office has already said she won't run, and as Vox's Dylan Matthews explains, putting Warren in charge of the Democratic caucus would prevent her from holding her colleagues accountable when they stray too far from progressive ideals.

Instead, Reid's likely replacement is New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who already has endorsements from Reid and Dick Durbin, the outgoing minority leader's No. 2. But lefties have long been wary of Schumer, who, thanks to his home base in New York City, is far more sympathetic to Wall Street than the rest of his caucus. And lost in the Warren hype is another female senator: Washington's Patty Murray.

As caucus secretary, Murray is the fourth-ranking member of Senate Democratic leadership, behind Reid, Durbin, and Schumer. If she decides to take on Schumer for Reid's job, Murray could be the first woman to serve as a party leader in the US Senate. Murray's office didn't respond to a request for comment on whether she'd run for the job and, besides a general statement praising Reid, was notably quiet on Friday.

In 2013, I cowrote a profile of Murray for The American Prospect looking at her role in leading Democrats' negotiations with Republicans on the budget, and explained how she's a pragmatic progressive who will push for the most liberal policies she can pass while still being willing to forge compromise with the centrists in her party:

There's something peculiarly undefined about Murray's ideology. She's a liberal, a West Coast liberal to be precise: strong on social issues, the environment, workers' rights, and the government's role in society. She hews closely to the Democratic talking points of the day. But it's hard to discern a coherent vision or theory behind her views. She is as far left as you can go without alienating the centrists in the party. More than anything, she's a pragmatist. Success trumps belief in the "right" things. At the same time, Murray doesn't venerate moderation for its own sake—she's no Rahm Emanuel. "She's a strong progressive," says a former Budget Committee staff member, "but she won't tilt at windmills, she won't force a vote on something she knows she's not going to win."

Murray certainly has the résumé to compete for the job. She led the Democrats' campaign arm in 2012, when the party picked up two Senate seats, defying pundits' predictions. She forged a budget agreement with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in 2013 that averted across-the-board budget cuts. Murray is generally press-shy—she flies home across the country each weekend instead of doing the Sunday show circuit—which would leave room for other Senate stars, including Warren, to be the party's public face while Murray controls the behind-the-scenes negotiations. But as that budget committee staffer told me in 2013, Murray isn't known for picking fights she can't win. If she runs against Schumer, it'll be because she thinks she has a real shot at Reid's post.

Harry Reid Announces His Retirement

| Fri Mar. 27, 2015 8:21 AM EDT

Update, 12:26 p.m.: Shortly after announcing his retirement, Reid endorsed Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to replace him. "I think Schumer should be able to succeed me,” he told the Washington Post in an interview at his DC residence. 

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced on Friday he will not be seeking reelection when his term comes to an end next year. He announced his retirement in a YouTube video:

The decision to retire, the 75-year-old senator from Nevada said, "has absolutely nothing to do" with the injury he sustained back in January from an exercising accident or his new role as minority leader following the Democrats' loss during the midterm elections. In an interview with the New York Times he explained, "I want to be able to go out at the top of my game. I don’t want to be a 42-year-old trying to become a designated hitter."

In the video, Reid continues with a message to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, "Don't be too elated. I'm going to be here for 22 more months, and you know what I'm going to be doing? The same thing I've done since I first came to the Senate. We have to make sure the Democrats take control of the Senate again."

 

This Lawmaker Publicly Discussed Her Rape and Abortion. And Some Dude Laughed.

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 4:42 PM EDT

While speaking out against a proposed bill in Ohio that aims to ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, Rep. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) revealed on Wednesday she had been raped during her time in the military and chose to have an abortion.

"You don't respect my reason, my rape, my abortion, and I guarantee you there are other women who should stand up with me and be courageous enough to speak that voice," Fedor said before the state senate. "What you're doing is so fundamentally inhuman, unconstitutional, and I've sat here too long."

Her testimony comes just weeks after an Arizona lawmaker shared details about her own abortion, which she had after being sexually assaulted by a male relative when she was a young girl. In a later editorial for Cosmopolitan, Rep. Victoria Steele said that while she was glad to have spoken out and share her story during the legislative debate, she resented the fact that "women have to tell their deepest, darkest traumas in public" in order for lawmakers to grasp how dangerous such anti-abortion bills were to women and their health.

In Fedor's case, not only did she feel she had to share her trauma with her colleagues, at one point she was forced to pause and address the fact a man appeared to be laughing at her while she spoke.

"I see people laughing and I don't appreciate that," she said. "And it happens to be a man who is laughing. But this is serious business right now and I'm speaking for all the women in the state of Ohio who didn't get the opportunity to be in front of that committee and make this statement."

Ohio's House Bill 69 eventually passed with a 55-40 vote. The legislation now goes to the senate, and if passed, will make it a fifth-degree felony and result in up to $2,500 and possible jail time for doctors who perform the abortions.