Political MoJo

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.

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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.
 

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.

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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.

Wondering What Happens in the Cockpit of a Crashing Plane? Read This Story.

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 1:52 PM EDT
The black box recovered from flight Germanwings 9525.

An international airliner falls out of the sky, seemingly for no reason. A cryptic recording from the cockpit voice recorder. The crash of Germanwings flight 9525 on Tuesday has, at least in the early going, left investigators with a lot of puzzling questions. It's also drawn obvious parallels to an earlier incident—the 1999 crash of EgyptAir 990 off the coast of Massachusetts.

That crash, which killed 217 people, was ultimately chalked up to "manipulation of the airplane controls," according to the National Transporation Safety Board. But that euphemism left a lot unsaid. In a masterful piece in the Atlantic in 2001, reporter William Langewiesche sought to piece together the mystery of what actually happened:

I remember first hearing about the accident early in the morning after the airplane went down. It was October 31, 1999, Halloween morning. I was in my office when a fellow pilot, a former flying companion, phoned with the news: It was EgyptAir Flight 990, a giant twin-engine Boeing 767 on the way from New York to Cairo, with 217 people aboard. It had taken off from Kennedy Airport in the middle of the night, climbed to 33,000 feet, and flown normally for half an hour before mysteriously plummeting into the Atlantic Ocean sixty miles south of Nantucket. Rumor had it that the crew had said nothing to air-traffic control, that the flight had simply dropped off the New York radar screens. Soon afterward an outbound Air France flight had swung over the area, and had reported no fires in sight—only a dim and empty ocean far below. It was remotely possible that Flight 990 was still in the air somewhere, diverting toward a safe landing. But sometime around daybreak a Merchant Marine training ship spotted debris floating on the waves—aluminum scraps, cushions and clothing, some human remains. The midshipmen on board gagged from the stench of jet fuel—a planeload of unburned kerosene rising from shattered tanks on the ocean floor, about 250 feet below. By the time rescue ships and helicopters arrived, it was obvious that there would be no survivors. I remember reacting to the news with regret for the dead, followed by a thought for the complexity of the investigation that now lay ahead. This accident had the markings of a tough case. The problem was not so much the scale of the carnage—a terrible consequence of the 767's size—but, rather, the still-sketchy profile of the upset that preceded it, this bewildering fall out of the sky on a calm night, without explanation, during an utterly uncritical phase of the flight.

Read the entire piece here.

"Everything Could Be Taken Away From Me": Watch This Woman Bravely Fight an Anti-Transgender Bill

| Wed Mar. 25, 2015 7:37 PM EDT

As Florida lawmakers continue to consider a bill aiming to make it a criminal act for transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice, we'd like to direct your attention to Cindy Sullivan, who spoke out against the bill in incredibly brave and emotional testimony earlier this month.

"I see this bill as effecting not just my business but my partner's business," Sullivan said. "If I go to use the restroom, everybody in that restroom has the ability to sue me and my family, affect my child, affect my reputation. Everything could be taken away from me."

"You could put me in jail for being me!"

As her tears well, Sullivan repeatedly looks behind her shoulder, as the bill's sponsor, state representative Frank Artiles watches on.

House Bill 583 has already been approved by two subcommittees and is expected to be reviewed by the house judiciary committee later this week. In Kentucky and Texas, lawmakers are attempting to pass similar anti-transgender legislation. All three states have the support and financial backing of the Alliance Defending Freedom, an influential conservative group.

Sullivan, who began her testimony noting she too was a Republican, slammed the bill as "government intrusion at its worst."

"I'm a throw-away piece of trash, in this country of freedom, and liberty, and respect."