Political MoJo

Eric Cantor Loses GOP Primary. Wait, What!?

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 9:26 PM EDT

Buckle your seatbelts, K Street: Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is looking for work.

On Tuesday, in the biggest political upset of recent memory, Cantor, the House majority leader who was considered next-in-line to be House speaker, lost his Republican primary by double digits to David Brat, a college professor he'd outspent down the stretch by a factor of 12.

It was never supposed to be close. After Cantor flooded the district with nearly $1 million in advertising and direct mail, a leaked internal poll showed the incumbent with a 34-point lead over Brat. Cantor became the first majority leader to lose a primary in 115 years.

So who is Brat?

  • A libertarian economist—but not a Randian. Per Betsy Woodruff's January profile in National Review:

He chairs the department of economics and business at Randolph-Macon College and heads its BB&T Moral Foundations of Capitalism program. The funding for the program came from John Allison, the former CEO of BB&T (a financial-services company) who now heads the Cato Institute. The two share an affinity for Ayn Rand: Allison is a major supporter of the Ayn Rand Institute, and Brat co-authored a paper titled "An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand." Brat says that while he isn't a Randian, he has been influenced by Atlas Shrugged and appreciates Rand’s case for human freedom and free markets.

According to his Rate My Professors page, he is "SOLID," "humorous," and "hot":

  • An immigration hardliner. For months, the only interesting thing about the race was its impact on Cantor's public comments on immigration reform. Brat considered Cantor a sellout for tepidly supporting some sort of comprehensive immigration reform, and Cantor responded by taking credit for killing the entire thing and alleging that Brat secretly had the support of "liberal" reform advocates. Voters received mailers bragging that "CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICAN ERIC CANTOR IS STOPPING THE OBAMA-REID PLAN TO GIVE ILLEGAL ALIENS AMNESTY." With Cantor's defeat, you can bet Republicans who so much as hinted at supporting an immigration overhaul are hearing footsteps.
  • A debt-ceiling denialist. A top Brat critique of Cantor is that he supported raising the federal government's debt ceiling—however reluctantly. As Brat told Slate's Dave Weigel last month, "My commitment is not to increase spending; to have a spending bill where you don’t increase it. Cantor’s voted for 10 of the last 15 debt ceiling increases. I just don’t buy the idea that you are truly put in the position of backing the debt ceiling increase the last minute, that you had no choice."
  • A dragon slayer. With the primary victory, Brat will almost certainly head to Congress next fall representing a deep-red central Virginia district. Cantor is prohibited by Virginia's "sore loser" law from appearing on the ballot as an independent candidate in November. Brat just needs to get past Democrat Jack Trammell, a colleague at Randolph-Macon College who runs the school's disability services and, according to his Amazon author page, is currently writing a vampire novel.

Cantor, who has been dubbed a "rising star" going back to 2001, will almost certainly land on his feet. There's already a helpful Craigslist posting for "Experienced House Republican Seeking New Opportunity." Serious offers only.

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Big Surprise: Vicious Anti-Hillary Attack Ad Coincides With Her Book Release

Tue Jun. 10, 2014 5:19 PM EDT

Washington bureau chief David Corn and Kiki McLean joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's "Hardball" to discuss a new attack ad accusing Hillary Clinton of joining in the "slander" of Israel. Once you're done watching, check out our definitive guide to every Hillary Clinton conspiracy theory so far.

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

New White House Program Will Provide Legal Aid to Unaccompanied Migrant Kids

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 3:51 PM EDT

Last Friday, the Obama administration announced the launch of "justice AmeriCorps," a new program that will provide legal support to unaccompanied migrant children facing deportation. As Mother Jones has reported extensively, the number of undocumented children caught illegally entering the US without a parent or guardian has more than doubled in recent years, to nearly 39,000 in 2013.

The new initiative is sponsored by the the Department of Justice's Executive Office of Immigration Review and the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS), which runs AmeriCorps. According to a CNCS statement, around 100 lawyers and paralegals will be recruited to provide legal services and representation for unaccompanied kids under 16 facing removal hearings. Nonprofits in 29 cities with high immigrant populations will enlist and supervise the legal volunteers, who will commit to one year of service as AmeriCorps members. Attorney General Eric Holder called the program "a historic step to strengthen our justice system and protect the rights of the most vulnerable members of society."

This marked the administration's second major recent announcement regarding the influx of unaccompanied children. Last Monday, the White House announced the creation of a task force to ensure that federal agencies are "unified in providing relief to affected children," as well as plans to relocate 600 kids from border holding cells to an emergency shelter at Naval Base Ventura County in Southern California.

In his statement, Holder noted that many of the children and teens who will be assisted by the new AmeriCorps program "are fleeing violence, persecution, abuse, or trafficking." This description of the circumstances under which children migrate alone matches the findings of a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Of 400 unaccompanied migrant children interviewed, 58 percent "had suffered, been threatened, or feared serious harm" that might merit international protection.

As Wendy Young, executive director of KIND, a nonprofit that helps unaccompanied immigrant kids find pro bono legal support, told Mother Jones' Ian Gordon, "This is becoming less like an immigration issue and much more like a refugee issue. Because this really is a forced migration. This is not kids choosing voluntarily to leave." Deported children often return to the same dangerous or desperate situations they attempted to escape, further burdened with smuggling debt. The new initiative will attempt to curb this problem by training its members to identify signs of human trafficking and abuse in the children they serve.

Kimi Jackson, director of ProBAR, which provides legal services to detained children in South Texas, said in an email that "this initiative is a good step. Currently, the majority of kids appear in court and represent themselves without a lawyer. Attorneys for released kids are urgently needed."

Although the program aims to serve the "most vulnerable" unaccompanied children, the 100 funded lawyers and paralegals will only be capable of providing assistance to a fraction of the 74,000 children anticipated to be apprehended by Border Patrol this year. CNCS estimates that 10,000 unaccompanied kids will appear in immigration court in the 29 participating cities in the 2015 fiscal year.

Hillary Clinton Picks Miami Heat Over San Antonio Spurs, Is Clearly Running in 2016

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 1:31 PM EDT
Tim Duncan has a sad.

Former Secretary of State and potential 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton has finally weighed in on the most pressing political issue of the day: which team she's rooting for in this year's NBA Finals. During an interview touting her new book with Good Morning America's Robin Roberts Tuesday, Clinton pledged her allegiance to the LeBron James-led Miami Heat over the San Antonio Spurs. Why? Does she love Chris Bosh's newfound ability to hit the corner three? Is she a fan of Chris "Birdman" Andersen's impressive array of body art? Is she hoping for LeBron to get his three-peat so that he's on equal footing with Jordan during GOAT conversations?

Roberts posed the question to Clinton as simple electoral math. "Heat or Spurs," she asked. "So you have to go with Texas or Florida. That's tough." No trouble for Clinton, though. Without hesitation, she responded "Florida, when you pose it like that," with a sly laugh. That answer has to hurt for the Obama alums who founded Battleground Texas in effort to turn the Lone Star State blue for future presidential elections.

The series is currently tied 1-1, with Game 3 scheduled for tonight in Miami. Perhaps the support of the next Democratic president will mend Dwyane Wade's knees and crush Tim Duncan's spirit (he'll never robocall for a Democrat again). But by siding with the Heat, Clinton might have betrayed her party's interests: Spurs head coach Greg Popovich donated $5,000 to Barack Obama for the 2012 election, while Heat front-office guru Pat Riley supported Republican Mitt Romney to the tune of $2,500.

Watch Clinton's GMA interview (most of which focuses on sexism in politics) below, with her NBA fandom coming at the tail end of the chat:

A Missouri Juror Tries To Save Man She Helped Send to Death Row

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 12:24 PM EDT

Americans are generally supportive of the death penalty, although slightly less now than 20 years ago. But capital juries are especially partial to the death penalty, largely by design: only people who support capital punishment are allowed to serve on them. So Kimberly Turner is an unusual defector. In 1998, the 30-year-old single mom served on a Missouri jury that sentenced John Winfield to death for murdering two women who were friends of his former girlfriend. Winfield is scheduled to be executed on June 18, the seventh execution in the state since November.

Turner, though, doesn't think Winfield should die. She has told his lawyers that while serving on the jury, court officials pressured the jury to continue deliberating, even though at least two jurors wanted to vote for life without parole. According to Turner, the jury was already a bit of a pressure cooker. They had been sequestered for several days, and by Friday night, the jurors wanted to go home. Turner also had been struggling to find care for her daughter while she performed her civic duty. So in the end, she and another juror who'd wanted to spare Winfield's life caved and voted for death. But 16 years later, she still regrets that vote and has been helping Winfield challenge his conviction.

She's not giving media interviews, but Turner gave Winfield's lawyers a written declaration describing her recollections of the jury proceedings. It's a poignant document describing her regrets, but it also provides an unusual window into a process that forces ordinary citizens to decide whether or not a person should be killed.

Turner outlines her concern about the way the case played out, such as the bad defense lawyers who failed to call many witnesses who might have humanized their clients. She faults the prosecutor for playing up racial biases, for instance, writing:

The jury was predominantly white, including me, and Mr. Winfield is black. The prosecutor made me think that Mr. Winfield was a thug. She played up that he drove around St. Louis in a Cadillac with tinted windows. I could not identify with the picture that the prosecutor painted. When we were deliberating as a jury, a lot of people described Mr. Winfield as a thug and that influenced the way that people voted. Ultimately, we deadlocked in deliberations. Another juror and I had voted for life without the possibility of parole. That was my vote. In my heart, that has always been my vote. Despite the fact that Mr. Winfield's defense had not given me a picture of who he was as a person, I still had compassion for the man in front me at the trial. I knew he was someone's son, and I did not want him to be killed.

Turner describes how difficult it can be for jurors to vote their conscience in a capital trial, calling out the role she saw of court officials in trying to pressure the jury towards a unanimous verdict for death. She writes:

We alerted the Court to the fact that we were deadlocked and could not come to a decision. We were then directed to keep deliberating. Even though I had voted for life without parole, when an officer of the Court told me to keep deliberating, I thought that I had to. It was Friday afternoon and the other jurors were tired of being sequestered and wanted to go home. They were pressuring me and the other life vote to change our votes to death. One juror even exclaimed that we should fry him and go home. That comment upset me, it did not seem to take seriously our decision and the life in front of us. I saw that juror years later, and I would not even speak to him because I was still so upset over his comment.

As the afternoon went on, the other jurors wore me down. I had not wanted to keep deliberating, but after the order to continue, I did not know how long I was supposed to keep defending my vote for life. I was worried about my daughter and did not know when I would be able to get home to her. So I changed my vote to death. It is a decision that has haunted me.

Turner has followed the case ever since, and in 2007, came forward with another juror to help Winfield's lawyers by arguing that a bailiff had given the jury an illegal instruction to keep deliberating even though their votes were split—an outcome that would have resulted in a sentence of life without parole, not a mistrial.  She explains her decision in the declaration:

When I discovered that Mr. Winfield had been given an execution date, I was sick to my stomach. This has been very emotional for me. I have always tried to do the right thing. It was hard on me to be a juror as a single mom, but I did my civic duty. I was called to fulfill this duty. I did not ask to be a part of deciding whether a man should live or die. It bothers me that I was not presented with all of the information available about who Mr. Winfield is as a person to aid me in my decision. Nevertheless, I voted for life. I defended my vote for life and was then instructed by the Court to keep deliberating after I had made my decision. Now, I feel that this is my fault. I feel responsible for Mr. Winfield's fate. I struggle with that. If Mr. Winfield is executed, I will have to deal with that forever. I ask that Mr. Winfield's sentence be commuted to life without the possibility of parole.

Unfortunately for Winfield, Turner's testimony and declaration didn't persuade the Missouri Supreme Court, which rejected Winfield's challenge to the jury treatment a few years ago. But Turner is apparently still trying to help him win clemency, or at least clear her conscience the best she can. Her written declaration was signed May 28 of this year, not long after Winfield's most recent execution date was set. In a state that's recently won notoriety for executing several people even though they still had appeals pending in the courts, Turner is likely tilting at windmills. But her activism ought to remind court officials that jurors could be victims in a death penalty case, too.

 

Karl Rove-Backed American Crossroads Attacks GOP Candidate as "Perennial Loser"

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 12:17 PM EDT

Last year, American Crossroads, the super-PAC conceived of by Republican operative and fundraiser Karl Rove, hatched a plan: Inject itself into 2014 GOP primary races to protect incumbents from hard-line challengers in the mold of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock who could cost the party winnable seats in Congress. Immediately, conservatives howled with outrage over an establishment group targeting tea partiers—Mike Huckabee called it "fratricide." The plan never got off the ground, and American Crossroads itself has largely shied away from picking primary fights.

But here's an exception: A brand-new Crossroads ad slams Matt Doheny, who's vying with Elise Stefanik to be the GOP nominee in New York's 21st congressional district, as a "perennial loser." Crossroads accuses Doheny, a investment fund manager, of mistreating his employees and not paying his rent on time, while at the same time depicting him as a one-percenter who owns two islands. "With his selfish fiscal irresponsibility, Matt Doheny is no conservative," the narrator says. "And he's a big mistake for Congress."

Stefanik, Doheny's opponent, appears to be the establishment's pick in the NY-21 race. As Mother Jones reported, she received more than $110,000 in the first quarter of 2014 from a fundraising committee backed by Paul Singer, a hedge fund manager and major GOP donor, and other prominent party funders. Singer also gave $250,000 to American Crossroads in early 2014, the group now attacking Doheny.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 10, 2014

Tue Jun. 10, 2014 11:50 AM EDT

The Golden Falcons of the Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron touch down onto guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain where sailors await their arrival to help ensure stability and security in the Phillipine Sea. (US Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seamen Alonzo M. Archer)

What Did My Government Do When I Was Taken Hostage in Iran?

| Sat Jun. 7, 2014 11:26 AM EDT

Yesterday I filed a lawsuit against the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department. I intend to persuade the government to release records that will reveal how it dealt with the imprisonment of Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal, and myself in Iran from 2009 to 2011. The three of us were arrested near the Iranian border while on a hike in Iraq's Kurdish region, which we were visiting on a short trip from Sarah's and my home in Damascus. Sarah remained in prison for 13 months, and Josh and I for twice as long. For the two years that I was in prison, I wondered constantly what my government was doing to help us. I still want to know.

But my interest in these records is more than personal. Innocent Americans get kidnapped, imprisoned, or held hostage in other countries from time to time. When that happens, our government must take it very seriously. These situations cannot be divorced from politics; they are often extremist reactions to our foreign policy. Currently, Americans are being detained in Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Cuba, and other countries.

What does our government do when civilians are held hostage? Sarah's, Josh's, and my family, like others in similar situations, were regularly assured by our leaders—all the way up to the Secretary of State and the President—that they were doing everything they could, but our families were rarely told what that meant. Why is this information so secret, even after the fact? It is important to know how the government deals with such crises. Is there a process by which the government decides whether or not to negotiate with another country or political group? How does it decide which citizens to negotiate for and which not to? Are the reassurances the government gives to grieving families genuine, or intended to appease them? Do branches of government cooperate with each other, or work in isolation?

Some will say disclosing such things only helps our enemies. This is a common defense of government secrecy. The CIA seems to be taking this approach with my request by invoking "national security" in its denial. This logic can be applied to almost anything related to foreign policy. If Congress had not publicly discussed the ins and outs of going to war with Syria, for example, it might by some stretch of the imagination have given our military an edge. But without having to defend their positions to the public, members of Congress might have come to a different conclusion and decided to go to war. Obstructing public discussion on how the government reacts to crises impedes democracy.

It has become commonplace for government agencies to do everything they can to muddle the transparency mandated by the law.

We are fortunate in this country to have the Freedom of Information Act, which allows citizens to access unclassified government records. The Act originated in 1955 during the Cold War, when there was a steep rise in government secrecy. It was strengthened after the Watergate scandal. But transparency has since eroded, to the point that federal agencies often don't abide by the terms of the FOIA without legal coercion. It's been almost a year since I first filed FOIA requests with the FBI and State Department for records about our case. I filed with the CIA six months ago. The law gives government agencies up to 30 business days to determine whether they will release records. So far, however, no records have turned up. I am not surprised by this. Without a lawsuit, I would not expect to receive anything for years, if at all.

Years can pass before the government gets around to releasing records in response to FOIA requests. Last year, for example, the State Department notified me that it was ready to release around 700 documents in response to a FOIA request I had filed four years prior. The request regarded an Iraqi sheikh who was receiving what amounted to bribes in the form of inflated construction contracts from the US military, a scheme I wrote about for Mother Jones in 2009. Despite the fact that the war is now over, and the records will be much less significant than they might have been at the time, I told State I would indeed like to see them. I am still waiting.

It has unfortunately become commonplace for government agencies to do everything they can to muddle the transparency mandated by the FOIA, to the point where only people trained to get around stonewalling have any chance of succeeding. Take my request to the FBI for records about our case. The Bureau responded to my initial request with its standard denial letter: "Based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the Central Records System. We were unable to identify main file records." It's a standard response—I've received it before—but I was surprised to see it this time. The FBI visited my mom's home, spoke to my family repeatedly and they have no records?

In fact, the FBI letter is intentionally misleading. What they are saying is that they have failed to find a very particular type of records. As my attorney, Jeff Light, put it, the FBI "has main files on persons, event, publications, etc. that are of investigative interest to the Bureau. Imagine a file cabinet containing a series of folders. Each folder is titled with the name of a person, event, etc. When they are searching main files, they are searching the label on each folder. They are not searching any of the documents inside the folder.” In response, Light and I specifically named a long list of databases and records systems for the FBI to search. Nothing has turned up yet.

It is unfortunate that litigation has become a standard part of the FOIA process. It's also unfortunate that the government is not transparent with people entangled in political crises about what it is doing to help them. While I was in prison, my mother walked out of meetings with politicians, frustrated with their inaction. After Sarah came home, she also asked the government to tell her what it was doing, and got nothing. We asked again after I was released. I wish I didn't need to go to court to get an answer.

The CIA Finally Joins Twitter, After Years of Mining it for Intel

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 5:49 PM EDT

The Central Intelligence Agency—which only recently kicked its nasty habit of torturing detainees for little or no actionable intelligence and overthrowing democratically elected foreign governments—is now officially on Twitter. The agency's account is verified. On Friday, @CIA sent its first tweet, which reads as follows (warningdorky spy humor ahead):

"Just remember: This is a messaging arm of a spy agency, not a silly channel for CIA Internet jokes," PolicyMic's Jared Keller wrote on Friday.

The CIA finally joined the Twitterverse after years of mining it for intel. Analysts at the agency's Open Source Center (who other agents jokingly refer to as "vengeful librarians") sift through millions of tweets, Facebook posts, and other public data to get a sense of the collective attitudes of groups and regions overseas. The "librarians" track up to five million tweets a day. "Yes, they saw the uprising in Egypt coming; they just didn't know exactly when revolution might hit, said the center's director, Doug Naquin," according to an Associated Press exclusive report in November 2011.

Nowadays, the State Department is actively trolling terrorists on Twitter. Let's see if the CIA can top that.

UPDATE, July 7, 2014, 5:14 p.m. ET:

smdh.

Ted Cruz Addresses Rally Organized By Doctor Who Says Gays Recruit Children

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 11:36 AM EDT
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz Cruz spoke at an anti-gay marriage rally on Thursday hosted by Steven Hotze, a controversial doctor who has told women that birth control would make them unappealing to men and has warned that equality for gays would be a stepping stone to child molestation. Hotze, who runs an alternative medicine practice in suburban Houston and is suing the Obama administration over the Affordable Care Act, organized the event through his political action committee, Conservative Republicans of Texas. Cruz was joined on stage fellow Sen. John Cornyn, and state Sen. Dan Patrick, the party's nominee for lieutenant governor.

As I reported in April, Hotze's opposition to gay rights stretches back to at least the early 1980s, when he told Third Coast magazine that gay people "proliferate by one means, and one means only, and that's recruiting. And they recruit the weak. They recruit children or young people in their formative years." With that, he was off:

Three years later, after overturning an anti-discrimination ordinance in Houston, Hotze organized a group of eight candidates he considered allies in the fight against homosexuality. He called them "the Straight Slate." His preferred mayoral candidate said that the best way to fight AIDS was to "shoot the queers." Hotze told a local newspaper reporter that he cased out restaurants before making reservations to make sure they didn't have any gay employees and became such a divisive figure in local politics that for a brief period the Harris County Republican Party cleaved in two.

More recently, his PAC spent big bucks to oppose Annise Parker, a Democratic candidate who would become Houston's first openly gay mayor in 2009. On Thursday, Cruz also signed onto an amicus brief in support of Hotze's lawsuit against Obamacare, which he contends is unconstitutional because it did not originate in the House. But Hotze is an unusual mascot for politicians who fear Obamacare has ruined the health care system, because he operates largely outside of it. An investigation by the Houston Press raised questions about his medical practice, noting that he had inflated his credentials and touted the healing powers of treatments such as colloidal silver—which can turn patients' skin permanently blue—which are not covered by health insurance and not backed up by studies.