Political MoJo

Walmart Is Finally Raising Its Minimum Wage

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 3:19 PM EST

On Thursday, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon announced the company would be raising its baseline pay to at least $9 an hour beginning this spring and then up to $10 an hour by February 2016, a move that will affect an estimated 500,000 employees.

The decision, announced in both a press release and during a quarterly earnings call Thursday morning, follows years of mounting public pressure from both outside and within Walmart to boost its notoriously low wages and improve labor practices. The company has repeatedly responded to such criticism by pointing out that it pays more than the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour; of course, 29 states require a higher minimum wage. (An estimated 6,000 Walmart employees currently make the federal minimum.)

While McMillon described the move as a moral decision to do "the right thing," Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder said the move is more an indication of an improving economy than anything else. 

"While the economy isn't exactly booming right now, it is doing very well, with labor markets tightening and the unemployment rate continuing to fall," Vedder said. "That means it's becoming increasingly difficult for Walmart to attract good, dependable workers than it was two to three years ago. Right now, they are thinking the economy will continue to boom, and they need to stay competitive."

"Could they afford to go further and still remain hugely profitable? Probably, but would that be good policy is another question," Vedder added, referring to the reaction by Walmart stockholders today:

The nation's largest private retailer, Walmart recently admitted that 825,000 of its 1.4 million employees earn only $25,000 annually, with 600,000 part-time workers on Medicaid and other food assistance programs. Walmart employees have staged strikes protesting their low wages, with advocacy groups demanding the retailer raise its minimum wage to $15. The company says that with the new increase, the average hourly wage will rise to $13 from $12.85.

While welcoming the move on Thursday, some say it is still not enough. "When compared to the $16 billion in profit that the company rakes in annually, Walmart's promise of $10 an hour, which even for a full-time worker is not enough to keep a family of four out of poverty, is meager," Christine Owens, director of the National Employment Law Project, told the New York Times.

A more substantial change could come from McMillon's announcement, also on Thursday, pledging to bring scheduling enhancements for part-time workers currently struggling under unpredictable work hours. Last August, Starbucks announced the company would be improving scheduling policies to address such concerns.

"Walmart has been attacked over the years as being uncaring and tactless," Vedder said. "This is a chance to win some points with the American public. By waging their raises they can appear more compassionate than previously viewed, especially when they aren't put under the gun by federal law to do so."

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Eric Holder Wants All Executions Put on Hold

| Wed Feb. 18, 2015 4:00 PM EST

Attorney General Eric Holder has called for a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty until the Supreme Court makes a decision on the constitutionality of certain lethal injection methods later this year, saying on Tuesday that he opposes capital punishment because he believes the odds of eventually making a mistake and executing an innocent individual are "inevitable."

Here's some of what Holder had to say at a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington:

It is one thing to put somebody in jail for an extended period of time, have some new test that you can do and determine that person was, in fact, innocent. There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed. And that is, from my perspective, the ultimate nightmare…I think fundamental questions about the death penalty need to be asked. And among them, the Supreme Court's determination as to whether or not lethal injection is consistent with our Constitution is one that ought to occur.

Holder, who stressed that he was speaking personally and not for the Obama administration, has voiced his opposition to the death penalty before. In November, the attorney general told the Marshall Project that there is always the possibility that a jury will sentence the wrong person to death. "We have the greatest judicial system in the world," he said, "but at the end of the day it's made up of men and women making decisions, tough decisions. Men and women who are dedicated, but dedicated men and women can make mistakes."

The Supreme Court agreed last month to hear an appeal by death row inmates in Oklahoma who say the state's lethal injection methods violate the Constitution. In April, the state botched the execution of 38-year-old Clayton Lockett, who reportedly writhed in pain after receiving a three-drug combination and died 43 minutes later. The court is expected to rule by the end of June.

As my colleague Stephanie Mencimer has reported, states are searching for new capital punishment methods after losing access to sodium thiopental, an anesthetic traditionally used in lethal injections. The only US manufacturer of the drug stopped producing it in 2011, while suppliers in Europe who object to the death penalty will no longer export it to the United States. In a bid to find other options, some states have used untested combinations or bought from unregulated compounding pharmacies, while lawmakers in Utah have even voted to bring back the firing squad for executions. In Ohio, lawmakers passed a "secret execution" law that exempts from public records searches the names of suppliers of lethal injection drugs.

Meanwhile, also on Tuesday, the Florida Supreme Court stayed the execution—scheduled for next week—of a death row inmate convicted of killing four people in Orlando in 1985, pending a decision from the high court.

Clinton Courts Warren

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 6:00 PM EST

Back in December, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) reportedly met in private for what is being described as a "cordial and productive" conversation inside Clinton's Washington D.C. residence. The New York Times' Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin have the scoop, published Tuesday, which makes clear Clinton did not ask for Warren's endorsement, but instead sought the senator's thoughts on a number of policy issues.

News of the one-on-one conversation comes not only as Clinton continues to build a formidable 2016 campaign team—most recently with the hire of Mandy Grunwald, a longtime Clinton confidant who had lately been advising Warren—but also as liberal activist groups urge the Massachusetts senator to challenge her for the Democratic nomination. While Clinton, who has yet to formally announce her candidacy, is widely viewed as the party's frontrunner, a possible run by Warren and her trademark populist message would certainly complicate her campaign.

Despite calls for her to run, however, Warren has repeatedly said she will not be seeking the nomination. But a sit-down at Clinton's home, sans political aides and initiated by Clinton, is the most clear signal Clinton is well aware she will be needing Warren's deeply popular economic liberalism in order to be successful come 2016, especially at a time when even Republicans appear to be freely borrowing from the senator's populist platform.

Why Is This US Attorney So Gung-Ho on Prosecuting a Respected Medical-Pot Dispensary?

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 4:29 PM EST
Melinda Haag, US Attorney for Northern California.

Several California congressional representatives issued a statement Friday accusing the Department of Justice of "not acting within the spirit or letter of the law" in its pursuit of a three-year-old legal case aimed at shutting down Harborside Health Center, one of the country's largest and most respected pot dispensaries.

"As Members of Congress we have watched the public acceptance of medical marijuana develop and grow while the Federal policy on it stagnates," wrote Reps. Sam Farr, Dana Rohrabacher, and Barbara Lee.

In 2012, US Attorney Melinda Haag initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against Harborside, which does $25 million a year in sales, on the grounds that it had grown too big. The move came as shock to many in California's medical marijuana industry; Harborside was widely viewed as one of the state's most ethical and legally compliant dispensaries. A few months later, the City of Oakland sued to block Haag's case, arguing that shutting down Harborside would create a public health crisis.

"It's clear now that Melinda Haag is the real criminal," says Harborside founder Steven DeAngelo.

The following year, the Justice Department issued a memo laying out a more permissive federal policy on pot, and federal prosecutors dropped similar civil forfeiture proceedings against several dispensaries in Los Angeles. But in Northern California, Haag pressed on with her case against Harborside and the Berkeley Patients Group, another large, well-respected dispensary.

Motivated in part by Haag's prosecutions, Reps. Farr and Rohrabacher won a provision in December's federal appropriations bill that blocks the DOJ from spending money to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries or patients that abide by state laws. The move was expected to be the nail in the coffin for Haag's pot cases. But on February 3, she appeared before 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to push the case forward, arguing that the City of Oakland shouldn't be allowed to challenge the proceedings.

"It's clear now that Melinda Haag is the real criminal in the Harborside case," says Harborside founder Steven DeAngelo. Haag's office could not immediately be reached for comment.

The DOJ's ongoing pursuit of the case has led to much debate about Haag's motivations. Some observers wonder if she's simply a dyed-in-the-wool drug warrior. Others speculate that the DOJ sees the case as a way to continue to discourage the expansion of marijuana businesses in California, where pot laws are notoriously loose and decentralized.

"It can be dismaying to me as a businessperson to have these persistent attacks keep coming at Harborside and see most of the rest of the industry not similarly targeted," DeAngelo says. "But I did not get into this industry to make lots of money, I got into this to make cannabis legal. And I think we are gong to win."

5 States Where Republicans Are Getting Serious About Criminal Justice Reform

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 2:04 PM EST

A growing group of conservatives are stepping back from their traditional "tough on crime" stance and taking a lead on reforming the criminal justice system. There's even talk that congressional Republicans and Democrats could come together on the issue: Earlier this week, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced a bipartisan prison reform bill. (Though it seems to have considerable flaws.)

At the state level, Republicans have already been taking on the issue. Here are five states where Republican governors and their fellow GOP lawmakers are taking on broken prison systems and the harsh laws that have fueled the incarceration boom:

Nebraska: Members of Nebraska's legislature have introduced several bills that address the state's overcrowded prisons. These include two bills introduced Wednesday, which would do away with mandatory minimum sentences for a slew of crimes (including distributing cocaine and heroin) and limit Nebraska's "three-strikes" law to violent crimes. While the Cornhusker State's legislature is nonpartisan, a majority of bills' cosponsors are affiliated with the Republican Party, including Sen. Jim Smith, the head of the state branch of the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Republican Governor Pete Ricketts reportedly supports the push for prison reform, as does the Omaha-based Platte Institute, a conservative think tank that recently released recommendations for decreasing incarceration that have drawn support from the Nebraska ACLU.

Utah: Republican state Representative Eric Hutchings is sponsoring legislation that aims to reduce Utah's prison population and decrease recidivism. The bill, which has yet to be publicly released, would decrease the charge for drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. Governor Gary Herbert, also a Republican, has put aside $10.5 million for recidivism reform.

Illinois: Governor Bruce Rauner's agenda includes a plan to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison by instead sending them to community programs. Earlier this week, he created a commission of lawmakers, cops, and activists to recommend reforms to the state's criminal justice system. More details about his plan will come out when he releases his 2016 budget recommendations next week.

Alabama: The legislature-appointed Alabama Prison Reform Task Force is gearing up to propose a new bill for the next legislative session, which begins in March. Led by Republican state Senator Cam Ward, an outspoken Second Amendment defender, the task force is seeking ways to cut down the state's prison population, which is more twice its intended size. One of Ward's ideas? Making re-entry easier by throwing out draconian laws for ex-felons, like those preventing them from getting driver's licenses.

Georgia: A similar task force, the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, has been recommending reforms to lawmakers. Formed in 2011 by Republican Governor Nathan Deal, the group has pushed the state to stop imprisoning juveniles and reform sentencing for nonviolent offenders, which slashed $20 million off the cost to house inmates in Georgia. The council's current agenda includes initiatives to improve reentry for ex-felons.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: "I Wasn't 100 Percent Sober" During SOTU Address

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 12:21 PM EST

Contrary to earlier speculation that she had power-napped through last month's State of the Union Address because it was just so damn dull, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg revealed on Thursday it was actually due to the fact she wasn't exactly "100 percent sober."

The 81-year-old justice told a crowd of George Washington University students:

The audience for the most part is awake, because they're bobbing up and down, and we sit there, stone-faced, sober judges. But we're not, at least I wasn't, 100 percent sober. Because before we went to the State of the Union, we had dinner together... Justice Kennedy brought in... it was an Opus something or other, very fine California wine, and I vowed this year, just sparkling water, stay away from the wine, but in the end, the dinner was so delicious, it needed wine.

According to Ginsburg, she was thankfully flanked by colleagues, who, like any good friends, casually nudged her awake when they noticed her dozing off. Watch below:

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Real Talk on Cops and Race From the Head of the FBI

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 4:15 PM EST

In a rare and candid speech on Thursday, FBI director James Comey urged police officers to begin engaging in honest conversations about broken race relations in America, saying it was time for officers to stop resorting to "lazy mental shortcuts" that have too often lead to the mistreatment of minorities.

"Those of us in law enforcement must re-double our efforts to resist bias and prejudice," Comey said in an address to Georgetown University. "We must better understand the people we serve and protect—by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement. We must understand how that young man may see us."

The speech follows the high-profile police killings of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the widespread anger expressed over the lack of grand jury indictments against the officers in both deaths. The fatal shootings sparked massive protests across the country, with demonstrators demanding for police reform.

On Thursday, Comey referred to both Brown and Garner, along with the two NYPD officers who were shot execution-style in their patrol car in December. Calling their deaths a "crossroads," Comey said it was time for law enforcement agencies to acknowledge that a large portion of police history "is not pretty" and rife with instances of persisting, unconscious prejudices.

Comey's rationale aligns with psychological studies indicating that even in the absence of overt racist views, individuals–particularly police officers–often act with bias, especially in instance where a split-second decision is required. 

"If we can’t help our latent biases, we can help our behavior in response to those instinctive reactions, which is why we work to design systems and processes that overcome that very human part of us all," he said. "Although the research may be unsettling, what we do next is what matters most."

Read the full speech below (emphasis ours):

The Internet Is Freaking Out About This Video of Obama Using a Selfie Stick

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 1:06 PM EST

BuzzFeed got Obama to use a selfie stick. Here is the video.

 
 

Why is a selfie stick news? Because when the president does it, it's news.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: America Is Ready to Accept a Pro-Gay-Marriage SCOTUS Ruling

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 9:46 AM EST

In a new interview with Bloomberg on Wednesday, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she believes Americans are set to accept a constitutional decision legalizing gay marriage in the country, saying it would "not take a large adjustment" for people to eventually come around on the issue. 

"I think it's doubtful that it wouldn't be accepted," Ginsburg said. "The change in people's attitudes on that issue has been enormous."

The justice's comments are yet another indication the Supreme Court will rule in favor of gay marriage this June, when justices will hear a monumental case deciding if the Constitution provides the right for same-sex marriages.

"In recent years, people have said, 'This is the way I am,'" Ginsburg added. "And others looked around, and we discovered it's our next-door neighbor–we're very fond of them or it's our child's best friend, or even our child. I think that as more and more people came out and said that 'this is who I am,' the rest of us recognized that they are one of us."

Earlier this week, President Obama said he thinks the court will make a historic "shift" in this summer's ruling and that it's time to recognize "same-sex couples should have the same rights as anybody else." 

In the court's decision not to block gay marriage in Alabama on Monday, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his dissent that the ruling offered another "signal" that gay rights advocates will be similarly successful this summer. Despite the decision, however, several Alabama counties still refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Even with such defiant opposition, Ginsburg maintained a positive outlook. 

"One way or another it will be decided before we leave town in June."

In the Nation's Capital, Fewer Than Half of Black Males Graduate From High School

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 6:00 AM EST

The term "black lives matter" has become the battle cry for Americans outraged by the recent deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and other unarmed black men at the hands of police. Indeed, the folks at the Schott Foundation for Public Education aim to help make those lives matter before they come to a premature end. Black Lives Matter, its fifth annual report on the state of black youth in the public schools, looks at suspension and graduation rates and points to some alarming trends.

For example, according to the report, 15 percent of black males nationwide have been suspended from school, versus only 5 percent of white boys. Missouri, Michigan, and Florida have some of the highest suspension rates for black boys: greater than 20 percent. These findings parallel a March 2013 study by the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative, which found that black students and students with disabilities are suspended at "hugely disproportionate rates."

Of the Florida ninth graders who were suspended once during freshman year, only 52 percent ever graduated.

All of this information is presented in the context of the school-to-prison pipeline; data has shown suspensions increase the likelihood of students dropping out, and many end up in the criminal justice system. In 2013, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that about 75 percent of Florida ninth graders who were never suspended as freshman graduated from high school. Those suspended once had a 52 percent graduation rate. For those suspended multiple times, the rate was just 38 percent.

Nationally, the Schott report notes, only 59 percent of black males graduate from high school, versus 80 percent of white males. The worst rates were found in Washington, DC, and in Nevada—both had graduation rates of less than 50 percent for black males.

That's a bleak picture. But the report also aims to highlight the achievements of young black men who graduate from high school, such as the more than two million with four-year college degrees and those who have left significant marks in the world of business, finance, science, and the arts.

A new report finds that black girls are suspended six times more often than white girls."

The high suspension and low graduation rates received national attention last January: President Barack Obama rolled out his first "school discipline guidelines," which hold schools legally responsible for the disparate impact of their disciplinary actions on different races. In February 2014 the president announced his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative. With more than $200 million in foundation support, it aims to help black youths finish school and stay out of the criminal justice system. 

The Schott report comes one week after the publication of Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected, a new report from Columbia Law School that highlights an even greater disparity in the rates of punishment for black girls: Crunching data from the Department of Education, the authors found that black girls are suspended six times more often than white girls, whereas black boys were suspended three times as often as white boys.

"We must challenge the assumption," says Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, the report's lead author, "that the lives of girls and women—who are often left out of the national conversation—are not also at risk."