Political MoJo

Corn on "Hardball": Why Is the Right Still Talking About Benghazi?

Tue Feb. 25, 2014 3:30 PM PST

Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn spoke with MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Alex Wagner about the Right's persistence on the issue of Benghazi, even after the Senate Intelligence Committee released a review of the attack that occurred more than a year ago. Could it be their silver bullet to keep Hillary Clinton from the White House?

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

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Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Kal Penn Set to Appear at the White House's First Student Film Festival

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 3:05 PM PST

On Friday, the White House East Room is set to host its inaugural Student Film Festival. The winning entries, which include stop-motion animation and special-effects-peppered fare, were selected from over 2,000 submissions. The White House announced the contest for American students, grades K-12, last November, and put out a call for short films (three-minute max.) that demonstrate how technology is used in schools today and how it might change education in the future.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to make an appearance at the White House Student Film Festival—as are the following celebrities:

  • Bill Nye (the Science Guy), who has been on a pro-science, anti-creationism/denialism warpath lately. "I fight this fight out of patriotism," Nye told me last year. "[Nye has] been instrumental in helping advance some of the president's key initiatives to make sure we can out-educate, out-innovate, and out-compete the world," an Obama administration official said.
  • Kal Penn, the 36-year-old actor who served stints as associate director for the Office of Public Engagement in the Obama administration and delivered this speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. He was at the White House Science Fair last year. He also wants to help sell you on Obamacare.
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson, another friend of the Obama White House and science luminary.
  • Conan O'Brien, though unlike the previous three, he is not set to appear in person. He'll be sending a video address.

The film fest will also include a sneak peek at the Fox series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (the successor to the show that made Carl Sagan famous), which will be hosted by deGrasse Tyson and executive-produced by Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, Sagan's widow.

Click here to check out some of the White House honorable mentions in the festival. Here's one, titled "A Day In The Life of a Tech Nerd":

UPDATE, February 28, 2014, 7:04 p.m. EST: On Friday, Bill Nye posted the following photo of him, President Obama, and Neil deGrasse Tyson—a "Presidential Selfie" in Nye's words:

"So, an astrophysicist, an engineer, and the President of the United States walk into The Blue Room...." reads the caption on Nye's Facebook page.

Could the NFL Yank Arizona's Super Bowl Because of an Anti-Gay Law?

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 2:24 PM PST

A "religious freedom" bill that would allow discrimination against LGBT residents passed the Arizona Legislature and is currently sitting on Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's desk. Both of Arizona senators, the state's chamber of commerce, Apple, and American Airlines have all asked Brewer to veto the bill. Another critic, though, might have the biggest bargaining chip—and has shown the state before that it's not afraid to use it.

Arizona is set to host next year's Super Bowl, and the big game's host committee is not happy:

We share the NFL's core values which embrace tolerance, diversity, inclusiveness and prohibit discrimination. In addition, a key part of the mission for the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee is to promote the economic vitality of Arizona. On that matter we have heard loud and clear from our various stakeholders that adoption of this legislation would not only run contrary to that goal but deal a significant blow to the state's economic growth potential. We do not support this legislation.

An NFL spokesman noted the league's anti-discrimination policy and said the league was "following the issue in Arizona and will continue to do so should the bill be signed into law." Would the NFL go so far as to move the country's biggest sporting event due to a social issue? History suggests that yes, it would.

The 1993 Super Bowl was supposed to be held in Tempe, but the league backpedaled in the midst of a controversy over celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Then-Gov. Evan Mecham had abolished the state's MLK holiday, arguing it had been illegally created through executive order. A public vote on the holiday was scheduled for 1990, and players and NFL officials began to express their displeasure over playing the Super Bowl in a state that wouldn't honor King. "If there is a smear on the Martin Luther King holiday of any kind, I would personally lead the effort to rescind the Super Bowl," said then-Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman, who was head of the Super Bowl site selection committee. "We wouldn't go there. How could anybody in his right mind go to play there?"

NFL officials made it clear that the state would not keep the Super Bowl if voters turned down the holiday, a move that infuriated Mecham, who called it "a shameful and disgusting attempt to blackmail this entire state." (Mecham, it should be noted, had earlier been impeached and removed from office on charges of obstruction of justice and misuse of government funds.) Arizona voters turned down MLK Day, and then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue took the Super Bowl away less than 12 hours later.

"I don't believe playing Super Bowl XXVII in Arizona is in the best interest of the NFL," Tagliabue said at the time. "I will recommend to NFL clubs that this Super Bowl be played elsewhere. I am confident they will follow the recommendation. Arizona can continue its political debate without the Super Bowl as a factor."

League officials said Arizona could host the big game in 1996 if the state approved the holiday by then. Voters complied, approving it in 1992.

Given that the NFL is expecting its first openly gay player next season, and considering anonymous team officials' comments on the matter, league administrators are likely hyperaware of the kind of publicity an Arizona-based championship would get if the state's anti-gay bill is signed into law. Perhaps most importantly, the state would lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars if the big game is moved elsewhere—just as it did in 1993. Multiple outlets reported Tuesday that Brewer was likely to veto the bill. As one source told NBC News, "She doesn't want to take any actions that could jeopardize the economic momentum we've seen here in Arizona."

A GOP Lobbyist's Plan to Save America's Sons From Scary Gay Football Players

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 8:40 AM PST

A day after basketball player Jason Collins became the first openly gay athlete to play in one of the country's big four pro sports, a DC lobbyist said he's working on legislation to keep gay players from ever following suit in the NFL.

Jack Burkman—whose lobbying firm, JM Burkman and Associates, pulled in $3.5 million last year—said he has garnered support for a bill that would ban gay football players from the professional ranks.

As the Hill first reported:

"We are losing our decency as a nation," Burkman said in a statement. "Imagine your son being forced to shower with a gay man. That's a horrifying prospect for every mom in the country. What in the world has this nation come to?"

Burkman said he came up with the idea after college football star Michael Sam came out as gay a few weeks ago. If drafted, Sam would be the first openly gay player in the NFL…

"If the NFL has no morals and no values, then Congress must find values for it," Burkman said.

(No word on what Burkman thinks about the four gay NFL players who came out after their playing days were over: Dave Kopay, Esera Tuaolo, Wade Davis, and Rod Simmons, who died Thursday.)

Publicity stunt aside, this isn't the first time Burkman has weighed in on gay rights. In February 2013, he took to his Radio America show, Behind the Curtain With Jack Burkman, to discuss the softening of the Boy Scouts' ban on gay members, lamenting how the "establishment media push[es] everybody around, forcing us all to accept homosexuality as just something natural." He continued: "Ladies and gentleman, if you have a son in the Boy Scouts, get him out. Get him out now."

Burkman, onetime counsel to former Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.), is no stranger to controversy. In 2006, he went on MSNBC's Scarborough Country and said that "within hours of those towers going down," the wives of the 9/11 victims "were ready to make money and exploit this tragedy." Then, in 2007, he was linked to the DC Madam.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 25, 2014

Tue Feb. 25, 2014 8:08 AM PST

Marines with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, disembark a CH-46 Chinook helicopter during a squad competition at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., Feb. 12, 2014. The helicopter provided initial transport to the nearly 10-mile course, where squads then navigated the different obstacles on their own. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Charles Santamaria/Released)

Hagel's Pentagon Cuts Target Top Brass

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 4:00 AM PST

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced major cuts to the Pentagon budget. If implemented, the proposal would shrink the Army to its smallest size since World War II. Tighter budgets, Hagel said, require a smaller force, though he maintained that a downsized military still "would be capable of decisively defeating aggression in one major combat theater—as it must be—while also defending the homeland and supporting air and naval forces engaged in another theater against an adversary."

The budget also targets personnel costs, with cuts to soldiers' housing allowances and commissary subsidies, as well as potential increases in health-care fees for the family of active service members. Hagel also proposed a one-percent pay raise in 2015, though pay for flag officers and generals would be frozen at current levels.

Those cuts take a small swipe at what's known as "brass creep"—the swelling ranks of generals and admirals who earn high salaries and retire with cushy pensions. Congress approved multiple raises during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but a look at base pay rates (what soldiers earn before add-ons like housing allowances and combat pay) shows that the wartime wages didn't trickle down the chain of command.

Any cuts that directly affect the rank-and-file (not to mention retired service members) will be unpopular. Yet they address the reality that even though three-quarters of the Pentagon's budget goes to hardware, contractors, and operations, an increasing amount is spent on the troops. While the number of Americans in uniform increased 3 percent during the past decade, the annual cost per person doubled, to around $115,000.

Though these Pentagon cuts are being described as major, Hagel and the president's proposed future budgets still exceed the limits put on the military by the suspended sequester cuts—which already kept defense spending at the level it was at during the height of the war in Iraq. The United States is in no danger of being knocked off its perch as the world's biggest military spender in the near future. There's much more on the battle to rein in the size of the post-9/11 military here.

 

 

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Georgia Lawmakers Want to Allow Businesses to Kick Gay People Out of Diners

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 3:44 PM PST

Update, February 28, 2014: State representative Sam Teasley, the first sponsor listed on the bill, told Mother Jones that he has taken the controversial language out of the bill, so that it is now identical to the longstanding federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. He wrote, "After introducing the bill, a number of citizens expressed concerns that the language could be construed in a way that might encourage discrimination. I do not believe that the bill as introduced does that. It was most certainly not my intent and frankly, as a man of faith, that would be inconsistent with what my faith teaches me. My faith teaches that all people, regardless of belief system, are to be treated with dignity and respect."​ The Senate version of the Georgia bill has reportedly been taken off of the calendar. 

A bill moving swiftly through the Georgia House of Representatives would allow business owners who believe homosexuality is a sin to openly discriminate against gay Americans by denying them employment or banning them from restaurants and hotels.

The proposal, dubbed the Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, would allow any individual or for-profit company to ignore Georgia laws—including anti-discrimination and civil rights laws—that "indirectly constrain" exercise of religion. Atlanta, for example, prohibits discrimination against LGBT residents seeking housing, employment, and public accommodations. But the state bill could trump Atlanta's protections.

The Georgia bill, which was introduced last week and was scheduled to be heard in subcommittee Monday afternoon, was sponsored by six state representatives (some of them Democrats). A similar bill has been introduced in the state Senate.

The Georgia House bill's text is largely identical to controversial legislation that passed in Arizona last week. The Arizona measure—which is currently awaiting Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's signature—has drawn widespread protests from LGBT groups and local businesses. One lawmaker who voted for the Arizona bill, Sen. Steve Pierce (R-Prescott), went so far as to publicly change his mind. 

Georgia and Arizona are only the latest states to push religious freedom bills that could nullify discrimination laws. The new legislation is part of a wave of state laws drafted in response to a New Mexico lawsuit in which a photographer was sued for refusing to work for a same-sex couple.

Unlike similar bills introduced in Kansas, Tennessee, and South Dakota, the Georgia and Arizona bills do not explicitly target same-sex couples. But that difference could make the impact of the Georgia and Arizona bills even broader. Legal experts, including Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU, warn that Georgia and Arizona's religious-freedom bills are so sweeping that they open the door for discrimination against not only gay people, but other groups as well. The New Republic noted that under the Arizona bill, "a restaurateur could deny service to an out-of-wedlock mother, a cop could refuse to intervene in a domestic dispute if his religion allows for husbands beating their wives, and a hotel chain could refuse to rent rooms to Jews, Hindus, or Muslims."

"The government should not allow individuals or corporations to use religion as an excuse to discriminate [or] to deny other access to basic healthcare and safety precautions," Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wrote in a letter to a Georgia House Judiciary subcommittee on Sunday.

State representative Sam Teasley, the first sponsor listed on the bill, did not respond to request for comment Monday.

"The bill was filed and is being pushed solely because that's what all the cool conservative kids are doing, and because it sends a message of defiance to those who believe that gay Americans ought to be treated the same as everybody else," writes Jay Bookman, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Passing it would seriously stain the reputation of Georgia and the Georgia Legislature."

Uganda's President Signs Extreme Law That Has Led to Calls to Kill, Burn, and Beat Gays

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 11:42 AM PST

Brushing aside protests from Western leaders and human rights organizations, on Monday Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the country's draconian anti-gay bill into law. The measure increases the penalty for homosexuality, which was already illegal, to life in prison in some cases. It also includes a raft of other harsh provisions, as Human Rights Watch explains:

The "attempt to commit homosexuality" incurs a penalty of seven years as does "aiding and abetting" homosexuality. A person who "keeps a house, room, set of rooms, or place of any kind for purposes of homosexuality" also faces seven years' imprisonment. Because the law also criminalizes the "promotion" of homosexuality, there are far-reaching implications beyond the increase in punishments for same-sex sexual conduct…Public health promotion and prevention efforts targeting "at risk" groups might have to be curtailed, and health educators and healthcare providers could also face criminal sanction under the same provision.

During the signing ceremony at his official residence outside the capital, Kampala, Museveni blamed the rise of gay culture in Uganda on "arrogant and careless Western groups that are fond of coming into our schools and recruiting young children into homosexuality and lesbianism" and claimed that some were doing so for "mercenary reasons—to get money—in effect homosexual prostitutes."

Gay rights activists say the climate for gays in Uganda has already deteriorated drastically since the bill passed the Ugandan parliament in December. According to Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, the nation's primary gay rights group, police are rounding up 30 to 40 suspected homosexuals each week. In some cases, simply being unmarried and spending time in the company of people of the same gender is enough to arouse police suspicion. Mugisha also says that the bill's passage has brought a surge in anti-gay vigilantism and that religious leaders in the suburbs surrounding Kampala have been calling for gays to be killed or burned over the public address systems. "The situation is extremely worrying," Mugisha says. "We are living in fear."

Maria Burnett, a senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, believes Uganda may see more anti-gay violence now that the bill is officially law. "When political leaders stir up hate, it can look like a tacit approval of this kind of mob violence," she says. Burnett also stresses that the measure's passage is part of a "broader pattern of clawing back basic human rights, such as freedom of association and freedom of expression, in Uganda."

The White House sounded a similar note in a statement late Monday morning: "As President Obama has said, this law is more than an affront and a danger to the gay community in Uganda, it reflects poorly on the country's commitment to protecting the human rights of its people and will undermine public health, including efforts to fight HIV/AIDS. We will continue to urge the Ugandan government to repeal this abhorrent law and to advocate for the protection of the universal human rights of LGBT persons in Uganda and around the world."

For more on the roots of Uganda's anti-gay law, see Mac McClelland's "The Love that Dares."

Jury Finds Tea Party Senate Candidate Who Rand Paul Endorsed Misled Investors to the Tune of $250,000

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 9:50 AM PST

On the stump, Greg Brannon, the tea party candidate in North Carolina's competitive Senate race, preaches personal responsibility and rails against out-of-control government spending.

So a recent jury verdict that held Brannon responsible for misleading two investors who gave him a quarter million dollars is quite a blow to the image Brannon has tried to craft of a crusader for better financial decisions in government.

Brannon, a full-time OB-GYN, is best distinguished from the rest of the GOP primary candidates vying to replace Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan by his extreme beliefs: He has said public education "does nothing…other than dehumanize" students and that food stamps are "slavery." Recent GOP primary polls have Brannon trailing the front-runner, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, by single digits. Endorsements from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and conservative leaders such as RedState editor Erick Erickson have given Brannon a significant fundraising boost.

His legal troubles are linked to Neogence Enterprises, a defunct technology company Brannon cofounded several years ago. The company tried to develop a smartphone application which Brannon pitched as a "social augmented reality network connecting people, places and things" and a once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity. Last week, a civil jury concluded that Brannon had led two investors to believe that Verizon was considering preinstalling the application on certain smartphones. (The Raleigh News & Observer first reported the verdict.) Although Neogence pitched Verizon, the cellphone carrier never, in fact, made that offer.

The jury cleared Robert Rice, Neogence's former CEO, of similar wrongdoing. Brannon's case defense probably foundered due to emails he sent bragging of Neogence's potential partnership with Verizon. "I know all of you are BUSY!!!" Brannon wrote in one email. "I need you to give a few minutes to look at this potential. THANK YOU for your TRUST!! Greg."

The two investors who brought the suit are a former classmate of Brannon's from medical school, Larry Piazza, and the husband of one of Brannon's patients, Sam Lampuri. In court, Lampuri, a Raleigh plumber who gave Brannon $100,000, testified that Brannon "pretty much spoke about Neogence every time my wife was in stirrups." Brannon must now repay Piazza and Lampuri a total of $250,000 plus interest.

Brannon has boasted about his personal connection with his patients before. In a fall 2013 fundraiser for Hand of Hope, his nonprofit crisis pregnancy center, Brannon said, "When I see little girls that come here, boyfriends that do show up are my favorites. Then I can whoop on them with love. How many people have we got married over the last 20 years just by riding that boy's rear end?"

Brannon's campaign did not respond to requests for comment last week. In the run-up to the trial, Brannon told the News & Observer, "I can't wait for my day in court." After the verdict, he said, "I cannot wait to go to the appeal process."

Kansas Senate Candidate Milton Wolf Posted X-Rays of Gunshot Victims on Facebook Page

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 9:44 AM PST

Things were looking up for Kansas Republican Senate candidate Milton Wolf two weeks ago, when the New York Times reported that his opponent, incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts, didn't have a residence in Kansas and had been couchsurfing on his friend's recliner on his rare visits to Dodge City. Not good! But since then, it's been all bad news for the tea party radiologist—and second cousin (once removed) of President Barack Obama. I reported on Wolf's history of over-the-top comments on his Twitter account and in his regular column at the Washington Times, where he compared his cousin to Hitler and Mussolini. Now the Topeka Capital-Journal has the contents of his since-discontinued Facebook page—where Wolf regularly posted gruesome x-rays of gunshot victims, often with dark attempts at humor appended:

Wolf and others viewing these Facebook postings relentlessly poked fun at the dead or wounded. The gunshot victim, Wolf joked online, wasn't going to complain about the awkward positioning of his head for an X-ray. In a separate Facebook comment, Wolf wrote that an X-ray of a man decapitated by gunfire resembled a wounded alien in a "Terminator" film and that the image offered evidence people "find beauty in different things."

Wolf declined in an interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal to clearly answer questions about whether he continued to place images of deceased people on the Internet. He asked to keep copies of the Facebook posts shown to him, but when denied, he walked away.

The story is tough, but the video is just brutal: