Political MoJo

This Massive New Project Is Great News for Homeless Vets in Los Angeles

| Thu Jan. 29, 2015 5:19 PM EST

After a three-year legal battle, the US Department of Veterans Affairs announced on Wednesday that it will rededicate its giant West Los Angeles Medical Center campus to provide much-needed housing and services for the city's homeless veterans.

The announcement stems from a settlement in a 2011 lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of disabled veterans. The Los Angeles property, nearly 400 acres, was deeded to the federal government in 1888 to house veterans with disabilities. Instead, the campus, which is located in an affluent area, has been used for commercial rental agreements with, among others, entertainment companies, UCLA, and hotel laundry services. According to NPR, Veterans Affairs had accepted between $28 million and $40 million in leasing agreements that a federal judge ruled illegal.

The settlement includes a plan, set for completion by October, to build long-term housing combined with support services designed to help ensure that the formerly homeless, especially veterans who are physically and mentally disabled, remain housed.

The effort is part of a larger Obama administration initiative to house all homeless vets by the end of 2015. Los Angeles has the nation's highest number of homeless vets—more than 3,700—and the newly announced plan could go a long way toward solving the problem.

"This agreement offers VA a historic opportunity to build new community relationships in Los Angeles and continue the work needed to end veteran homelessness here," Veteran's Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said in a statement. "VA is proud of the progress we've made in ending veteran homelessness—down 33 percent since 2010—but we won't be satisfied until every veteran has a home."

According to a report released last January by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, close to 50,000 vets were homeless on any given night. States are now gearing up for their annual "Point-In-Time" count, a HUD-led event that deploys volunteers to conduct a census of the homeless in their communities. The results will indicate how much work remains to meet Obama's 2015 deadline. McDonald said he plans to participate in the Los Angeles count: 

"There is no question that the goal to end veteran homelessness is within reach, and we remain laser-focused on it," he said. "It's about helping communities put a system in place that can house every veteran."

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Lawmaker: Cheerleaders Should Get Paid a Real Wage

| Thu Jan. 29, 2015 5:18 PM EST
The Raiderettes perform in a December game against the Buffalo Bills.

While football fans are getting ready for the Super Bowl this weekend, California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) has turned her attention to the women on the sidelines. Gonzalez, a former cheerleader and labor leader, introduced a bill today that would require California's professional sports teams to classify cheerleaders as employees, thus forcing teams to provide minimum wage, paid overtime, and workers compensation.

The bill was inspired by a spate of lawsuits last year in which NFL cheerleaders sued their teams for workplace violations. The first lawsuit, Lacy T. et al vs. The Oakland Raiders, exposed a "stunning system of abuses against cheerleaders," says Gonzalez, including sub-minimum wage pay, unpaid practices and appearances, and fines for things like bringing the wrong pom-poms to practice. According to an ESPN the Magazine article, a Raiderettes handbook simply says that it's possible to "find yourself with no salary at all at the end of the season." (Read more of our coverage of the indignities of NFL cheerleaders here, and of NHL's ice girls here).

"NFL teams and their billionaire owners have used professional cheerleaders as part of the game day experience for decades.  They have capitalized on their talents without providing even the most basic workplace protections like a minimum wage," Gonzalez said in a statement. Reached by phone, she added, "Nobody would never, ever question that the guy who brings you beer is going to get minimum wage, but we're not gonna pay the woman on the field who's entertaining you?" Asked whether she was concerned about pushback from NFL teams, she replied, "I don't think it's a good PR move for the NFL to be opposing minimum wage for women's workers. Let's be honest."

Here's How Boehner and Netanyahu Really Screwed Up

Thu Jan. 29, 2015 10:22 AM EST

Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn appeared on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the ongoing fallout from John Boehner's decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress:

 

FAA to Football Fans: Super Bowl Is a No-Drone Zone

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 2:39 PM EST

On Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a 15-second warning to football fans eager to sneak a bird's-eye look at this Sunday's Super Bowl: Leave your drones at home.  

The No Drone Zone campaign is part of the FAA's ongoing efforts to regulate small drones flying over crowded stadiums. The Washington Post reported last November that the aviation agency was investigating a rash of incidents involving drones hovering over major sporting events. A month earlier, the agency extended its ban on airplane flights over large open-air stadiums to include unmanned and remote controlled aircraft. 

Drones over sporting events have occasionally raised alarms. In August, a man was detained after he flew a drone that flew over a preseason NFL game between the Carolina Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs. A month later, police questioned a University of Texas student who was flying a drone around Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Last October, a drone carrying an Albanian flag during a soccer match between Serbia and Albania sparked a riot in Belgrade.

Earlier this month, the FAA issued an advisory reiterating the civil and criminal penalties for pilots who drone the Super Bowl. (Also banned in the airspace above the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona: gliders, parachutes, hang gliders, balloons, crop dusters, model aircraft, and model rockets.) The Goodyear blimp will be allowed.

No One Can Agree on What to Call Drones

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Ceci n'est past un drone.

Early Monday morning, a small, temporarily unidentified flying object crashed on the White House lawn. The mishap, possibly the result of droning under the influence, prompted a salvo of alarming headlines about a stealthy violation of presidential airspace. "A Drone, Too Small for Radar to Detect, Rattles the White House," declared the New York Times. Fox News announced, "White House gets drone defense wake-up call," while New York magazine warned, "Secret Service Can't Protect White House From Drones."

The most ominous-sounding word in those headlines is "drone," a term that's come to encompass everything from the two-pound DJI Phantom quadcopter that flew over the White House fence to the nearly 5,000-pound MQ-9 Reaper, which can be flown remotely via satellite and fire laser-guided missiles at targets eight miles below. As Dutch designer Ruben Pater's Drone Survival Guide conveys, there are drones and then there are drones:

The Drone Survival Guide (in English and Pashto) Ruben Pater

Is there an easier way to differentiate a hi-tech toy from a killing machine? Why not just call that stray quadcopter a remote-controlled or model aircraft? (No one would write a headline such as "A Model Aircraft, Too Small for Radar to Detect, Rattles the White House.")

The Federal Aviation Administration treats lightweight noncommercial drones as model aircraft. (They must stay under 400 feet and can't fly beyond the operator's line of sight.) Yet a true hobby drone is different than a traditional remote-controlled plane in one significant respect: It can fly itself. As former Wired editor Chris Anderson explains on his site DIY Drones, "Usually the UAV is controlled manually by Radio Control (RC) at take-off and landing, and switched into GPS-guided autonomous mode only at a safe altitude." The DJI Phantom can fly itself back home; users can program flight paths into top-of-the-line model. DIY Drones uses the terms UAV and drone interchangeably.

Even if equating personal drones with model aircraft might irk amateur remote pilots, it would help defuse the devices' death-from-above image. That would probably please the manufacturers of military and commercial drones, who would prefer if you don't use the D-word at all. Testifying before the Senate in 2013, the head of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (the robot lobby) stated, "I do not use the term 'drone.' The industry refers to the technology as unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, because they are more than just a pilotless vehicle…The term 'drone' also carries with it a hostile connotation and does not reflect how UAS are actually being used domestically." Besides UAS, other suggested alternatives to "drone" include Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA).

The future Marilyn Monroe poses with a World War II-era Radioplane drone. US Army via Wikimedia Commons

While the president and White House freely call them drones, the military is also not keen on the designation. An Air Force spokeswoman told Defense News that "There are some people who are offended by it." And UAS has its detractors: Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a reporter last year, "You will never hear me use the word 'drone,' and you'll never hear me use the term 'unmanned aerial systems.' Because they are not. They are remotely piloted aircraft."

Yet for critics of remote-control warfare, the word economically delivers an explosive payload—much like a drone. The American Civil Liberties Union has endorsed using "drone" rather than the officially sanctioned abbreviations. "These acronyms are technical, bland, and bureaucratic. That's probably their principal advantage from the point of view of those who want to separate them from the ugly, bloody, and controversial uses to which they've been put by the CIA and U.S. military overseas," writes ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley. "[I]f the word continues to carry a reminder that this is an extremely powerful technology capable of being used for very dark purposes, then that's not necessarily a bad thing."

To further complicate things, some people insist that "drone" only refers to unpiloted aircraft used for target practice—the term's original meaning. As analyst Steve Zaloga explained to Defense News, it was coined by an American admiral who in 1935 witnessed a demonstration of a remote-controlled British aircraft dubbed the Queen Bee: He "adopted the name drone to refer to these aircraft in homage to the Queen Bee. Drone became the official US Navy designation for target drones for many decades." (Fun fact: Future bombshell Marilyn Monroe assembled small target drones in a California factory during World War II.) According to Zaloga, the military kept calling all remote-controlled aircraft drones until the 1990s. (He's partial to calling them RPAs.)

Drones will likely remain the most convenient way to describe the rapidly expanding variety of…drones. But whatever you do, don't call them "pilotless drones." That phrase especially infuriates pedants, like Drone Man, the San Francisco Chronicle reader who left an angry voicemail expressing his disgust at the paper's use of the seemingly redundant (yet grammatically acceptable) term. Here's the dance mix: 

 

Mormon Church Comes Out in Support of LGBT Rights

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 2:38 PM EST

In a groundbreaking news conference on Tuesday, the Mormon Church officially announced its support for some LGBT rights, on the condition that the same legal protections are extended to all religious groups. But in doing so, the church also made clear their endorsement did not reverse the church's opposition to same-sex marriage. 

"We call on local, state, and the federal government to serve all of their people by passing legislation that protects vital religious freedoms for individuals, families, churches, and other faith groups while protecting the rights of our LGBT citizens in such areas as housing, employment, and public accommodation in hotels, restaurants, and transportation," Elder Dallin Oaks, a top official of the church, said. "[These] protections are not available in many parts of the country."

"We must all learn to live with others who do not share the same beliefs or values," church officials stated

"We must all learn to live with others who do not share the same beliefs or values."

The announcement comes as an anti-discrimination bill makes its way through Utah's state legislature that seeks to ban gender-based discrimination in the workplace and housing. In the past, the church has made overtures towards friendlier LGBT stances, but Tuesday's press conference is by far its most clear endorsement of gay rights. Mother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer has covered the church's evolution on same-sex marriage:

In the five years since the LDS church sent busloads of the faithful to California to canvass neighborhoods, and contributed more than $20 million via its members to support the initiative, it has all but dropped the rope in the public policy tug of war over marriage equality. The change stems from an even more remarkable if somewhat invisible transformation happening within the church, prompted by the ugly fight over Prop. 8 and the ensuing backlash from the flock.

Although the LDS's prophet hasn't described a holy revelation directing a revision in church doctrine on same-sex marriage or gay rights in general, the church has shown a rare capacity for introspection and humane cultural change unusual for a large conservative religious organization.

"I am proud that the LDS Church has seen fit to lead the way in non-discrimination," state senator and founder of the Utah Pride Center Jim Dabakis said in a news release following the announcement. "As a religious institution, Mormons have had a long history of being the victims of discrimination and persecution. They understand more than most the value and strength of creating a civil society that judges people by the content of their character and their ability to do a job."

Watch Tuesday's announcement below:

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The Pentagon Is Holding an Essay Contest to Honor Saudi Arabia's Brutal King. Here's Our Entry.

| Mon Jan. 26, 2015 12:29 PM EST

Shortly after Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz, the 90-year-old king of Saudi Arabia, died last Friday, the Pentagon and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, paid their respects by inviting college students to participate in a "research and essay competition" in the late monarch's honor. No prize has been announced, but the Pentagon issued a press release about the contest listing the deceased monarch's considerable accomplishments: "the modernization of his country's military," his "lifetime" support of Saudi Arabia's alliance with the United States, his support of "scholarly research," and what Dempsey called the king's "remarkable character and courage." Although, as a woman, I wouldn't be recognized as a full human being by the king, here is my essay contest submission:

On women's rights:

Amnesty International, December 11, 2014: Saudi Arabia: Two women arrested for driving.

Human Rights Watch, April 20, 2008: Male guardianship laws forbid women from obtaining passports, marrying, studying, or traveling without the permission of a male guardian.

Human Rights Watch, December 2, 2014:

The informal prohibition on female driving in Saudi Arabia became official state policy in 1990. During the 1990-91 Gulf War, female American soldiers were permitted to drive on military bases in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi women organized a protest demanding the right to drive in Saudi Arabia as well. Dozens of Saudi women drove the streets of Riyadh in a convoy to protest the ban, which then was just based on custom. In response, officials arrested them, suspended them from their jobs, and the Grand Mufti, the country’s most senior religious authority, immediately declared a fatwa, or religious edict, against women driving, stating that driving would expose women to “temptation” and lead to “social chaos.” Then-Minister of Interior Prince Nayef legally banned women’s driving by decree on the basis of the fatwa.

On migrant worker's rights:

Human Rights Watch, December 1, 2013: Hundreds of thousands of workers were arrested and deported, some reporting prison abuses during their detentions. No standard contract for domestic workers was ever drafted. Human Rights Watch interviewed migrant workers about the arrests:

One of the Ethiopians, a 30-year-old supervisor at a private company, said he heard shouts and screams from the street, and left his home near Manfouha to see what was happening. When he arrived near Bank Rajahi on the road to the Yamama neighborhood, west of Manfouha, he saw a large group of Ethiopians crying and shouting around the dead bodies of three Ethiopians, one of whom he said had been shot, and two others who had been beaten to death. He said six others appeared to be badly injured.

He said he saw Saudis whom he called shabab (“young men” in Arabic), and uniformed security forces attack the Ethiopians who had gathered. The shabab were using swords and machetes, while some of the uniformed officers were beating the migrants with metal police truncheons, and other officers were firing bullets into the air to disperse the crowd. He said that he narrowly escaped serious injury when a Saudi man swung a sword at his head. It missed, but hit his arm, requiring stitches to close the wound. 

On peaceful protest:

Human Rights Watch, December 18, 2013: Authorities arrested and charged many peaceful protestors for "sowing discord" and challenging the government.

Amnesty International, December 4, 2014:

On 6 November, the authorities sentenced Mikhlif al-Shammari , a prominent human rights activist and an advocate of the rights of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a Muslim community, to two years in prison and 200 lashes on charges related to his peaceful activism. In a separate case, on 17 June 2013 Mikhlif al-Shammari had already been sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) to five years in prison, followed by a 10-year travel ban, on charges related to his peaceful activism. The court also banned him from writing in the press and on social media networks, and from appearing on television or radio.

Human Rights Watch, January 10, 2015:

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia should overturn the lashing and prison term for a blogger imprisoned for his views and immediately grant him a pardon. Saudi authorities lashed Raif Badawi 50 times on January 9, 2015, in front of a crowded mosque in Jeddah, part of a judicial sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for setting up a liberal website and allegedly insulting religious authorities.

On torture:

The Washington Post, November 19, 2004:

A federal prosecutor in Alexandria made a comment last year suggesting that a Falls Church man held in a Saudi Arabian prison had been tortured, according to a sworn affidavit from a defense lawyer that was recently filed in federal court in Washington.

The alleged remark by Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon D. Kromberg occurred during a conversation with the lawyer, Salim Ali, in the federal courthouse in Alexandria, according to Ali's affidavit.

The document was filed Oct. 12 in connection with a petition by the parents of the detained man, Ahmed Abu Ali, who are seeking his release from Saudi custody.The lawyer stated in the affidavit that he asked Kromberg about bringing Abu Ali back to the United States to face charges so as "to avoid the torture that goes on in Saudi Arabia."

Kromberg "smirked and stated that 'He's no good for us here, he has no fingernails left,' " Salim Ali wrote in his affidavit, adding: "I did not know how to respond [to] the appalling statement he made, and we subsequently ceased our discussion about Ahmed Abu Ali."

In conclusion, from Human Rights Watch:

For [Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz's half-brother and successor, Salman bin Abdulaziz] to improve on Abdullah’s legacy, he needs to reverse course and permit Saudi citizens to peacefully express themselves, reform the justice system, and speed up reforms on women’s rights and treatment of migrant workers.

That Time Badass Feminist Queen Elizabeth II Gave Saudi Arabia's King a Lesson in Power

| Fri Jan. 23, 2015 2:22 PM EST

Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is known to have a wicked sense of humor, and some mean driving skills. One day back in 1998, she deployed both spectacularly to punk Saudi Arabia's late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Back then, Abdullah was a Saudi crown prince visiting Balmoral, the vast royal estate in Scotland. The Queen had offered him a tour of the grounds—here's what happened next, according to former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles:

The royal Land Rovers were drawn up in front of the castle. As instructed, the Crown Prince climbed into the front seat of the Land Rover, with his interpreter in the seat behind. To his surprise, the Queen climbed into the driving seat, turned the ignition and drove off. Women are not—yet—allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah was not used to being driven by a woman, let alone a queen. His nervousness only increased as the queen, an Army driver in wartime, accelerated the Land Rover along the narrow Scottish estate roads, talking all the time. Through his interpreter, the Crown Prince implored the Queen to slow down and concentrate on the road ahead.

Royal custom discourages repeating what the Queen says in private, Cowper-Coles explained, but the anecdote was corroborated by Abdullah, and became, in the diplomat's words, "too funny not to repeat."

Abdullah went on to cultivate the image of a reformer as king. One thing he didn't change, despite the Queen's badass stunt: women still can't drive in Saudi Arabia.

 

No Money Left Behind: Education Entrepreneur Cashes in on Bush Family Ties

| Fri Jan. 23, 2015 1:12 PM EST
Jeb Bush with Randy Best.

In this week's New Yorker, Alec MacGillis discusses Jeb Bush's approach to education reform, the realm in which Bush, as Florida's governor, had sought to make his biggest mark. In 1995, his efforts to improve the state's public schools catalyzed his political career and, later, fueled competition with his brother George, who as president rolled out the No Child Left Behind Act:

Jeb Bush made it known that he thought his own approach superior, because it sought to grade schools on improvements in individual students' scores, rather than just on schools' performance in a given year. "There were lots of conversations about the work in Texas and how Florida had improved on that," [school superintendent Jim] Warford said. According to education officials, Jeb's team had little respect for Rod Paige, the former Houston schools superintendent whom George W. Bush had named Secretary of Education. "It was a little prickly in Florida," Sandy Kress, who worked on the implementation of No Child Left Behind, said. "It was 'We're going to do it our way and can do it better.'"

Their sibling rivalry notwithstanding, the Bush bros have common ties to one particularly controversial educational entrepreneur. Starting in the late 1990s, Randy Best, whom I profiled at the end of George W. Bush's second term, used his connections to the president to transform a virtually unknown for-profit education company, Voyager, into a "selling juggernaut" (in his words) that he unloaded in 2005 for $360 million.

Randy Best Steve Brodner

The key to Voyager's success was the way it it used revolving doors in Bush's Education Department to game the procurement process. Its dealings prompted a scathing DOE inspector general's report in 2006 and a harshly worded Senate report the following year. "Many programs, including Voyager, were probably adopted on the basis of relationships, rather than effectiveness data," G. Reid Lyon, who co-wrote the No Child Left Behind Act and later consulted for Best, told me in 2008. "I thought all this money would be great; it would get into schools. But money makes barracudas out of people. It's an amazing thing."

The controversy surrounding Voyager didn't dissuade Best from starting another education company. Founded in 2005, Academic Partnerships persuades colleges to outsource to the firm their degree programs in subjects such as business and education, which it puts online in exchange for a hefty chunk of the profits. Nor did Voyager dissuade Jeb Bush from partnering with Best. Here's MacGillis:

Best needed someone to lend credibility to the company. Florida had spent heavily on Voyager during Jeb Bush's governorship, and, in 2005, when Bush was still in office, Best spoke with him about going into the education business. By 2011, Bush had joined Academic Partnerships as an investor and an adviser, and he became the company's highest-profile champion. Best told the Washington Post that Bush's annual salary was sixty thousand dollars, but he did not disclose the terms of Bush's investment stake. For the first time, Bush was making money in an educational enterprise.

Last month, after announcing his intent to run for president, Bush resigned from Academic Partnerships and several other business affiliations. Yet if Bush's family history is any guide, Randy Best 2.0 is just getting started.

Mississippi Wouldn't Allow This Teacher to Show Kids How to Use a Condom. His Simple Solution Is Brilliant.

| Thu Jan. 22, 2015 8:54 PM EST

In Mississippi, where education laws require "stressing" abstinence, teachers are prohibited from "any demonstration of how condoms or other contraceptives are applied." Nonetheless, 76 percent of Mississippi teenagers report having sex before the end of high school, and a third of babies in the state are born to teenage mothers. One teacher came up with a creative solution for imparting some wisdom to students about condoms—watch it below. (And read our full report on draconian sex-ed laws here.)