Political Gerrymandering and the Constitution

 

New York Times

POLITICS

When Does Political Gerrymandering Cross a Constitutional Line?

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By ADAM LIPTAK               MAY 15, 2017

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The Supreme Court building in Washington, seen from the Senate. Congress requires the Supreme Court to hear appeals in some areas of election law, and Wisconsin officials have filed such an appeal.  Credit:Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

The Supreme Court has never struck down an election map on the ground that it was drawn to make sure one political party would win an outsize number of seats. But it has left open the possibility that some kinds of political gamesmanship in redistricting may be too extreme.

The problem, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a 2004 concurrence, is that no one has come up with “a workable standard” to decide when the political gerrymandering has crossed a constitutional line.

Finding such a standard has long been, as one judge put it, “the holy grail of election law jurisprudence.”

In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will consider an appeal from a decision in Wisconsin that may have found that holy grail. The case, Gill v. Whitford, No. 16-1161, arrives at the court in the wake of a wave of Republican victories in state legislatures that allowed lawmakers to draw election maps favoring their party.

The case started when Republicans gained complete control of Wisconsin’s government in 2010 for the first time in more than 40 years. It was a redistricting year, and lawmakers promptly drew a map for the State Assembly that helped Republicans convert very close statewide vote totals into lopsided legislative majorities.

In 2012, Republicans won 48.6 percent of the statewide vote for Assembly candidates but captured 60 of the Assembly’s 99 seats. In 2014, 52 percent of the vote yielded 63 seats.

Last year, a divided three-judge Federal District Court panel ruled that Republicans had gone too far. The map, Judge Kenneth F. Ripple wrote for the majority, “was designed to make it more difficult for Democrats, compared to Republicans, to translate their votes into seats.”

The decision was the first from a federal court in more than 30 years to reject a voting map as partisan gerrymandering.

Most cases reach the Supreme Court by way of petitions seeking review, which the justices are free to deny. The Wisconsin case is different. Congress requires the Supreme Court to hear appeals in some areas of election law, and Wisconsin officials have filed such an appeal.

That means the Supreme Court is very likely to weigh in on the fate of political gerrymandering, probably during the court’s next term, which starts in October.

There are two basic ways to inject partisan politics into drawing legislative maps: packing and cracking. Both result in what Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos, a law professor at the University of Chicago and a lawyer for the plaintiffs, calls “wasted votes.”

Packing a lot of Democrats into a single district, for instance, wastes every Democratic vote beyond the bare majority needed to elect a Democratic candidate. Cracking Democratic voters across districts in which Republicans have small majorities wastes all of the Democratic votes when the Republican candidate wins.

In an influential article, Professor Stephanopoulos and his colleague Eric McGhee applied a little math to this observation. The difference between the two parties’ wasted votes, divided by the total number of votes cast, yields an efficiency gap, they wrote. In a world of perfect nonpartisanship, there would be no gap.

The gap in Wisconsin was 13.3 percent in 2012 and 9.6 percent in 2014.

The Wisconsin voters who sued to challenge the Assembly map argued that gaps over 7 percent violate the Constitution. That number was meant to capture the likelihood that the gap would endure over a 10-year election cycle, but critics say it is arbitrary.

Adopting it, they say, would transform American elections. A 2015 report from Simon Jackman, then a political scientist at Stanford and an expert witness for the plaintiffs, found that a third of all redistricting plans in 41 states over a 43-year period failed the 7 percent standard. Elections in 2012 and 2014 in Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming featured efficiency gaps of more than 10 percent, Professor Jackman found.

Judge Ripple did not ground his opinion on the efficiency gap, relying instead on a more conventional legal test that considered discriminatory intent, the map’s partisan effects and whether they were justified by other reasons. But Judge Ripple did say that the efficiency gap corroborated the majority’s conclusions.

The case seems to be making Republicans nervous.

In a supporting brief, the Republican National Committee urged the Supreme Court to reverse the ruling. The efficiency gap, the brief said, “is a tool that advances the partisan interests of the Democratic Party.”

The gap, the brief said, is a product of geography rather than gerrymandering. Democrats have packed themselves into cities, effectively diluting their voting power, while Republicans are more evenly distributed across most states, the brief said.

Most people acknowledge that the distribution of the population explains at least some part of the gap. “Wisconsin’s political geography, particularly the high concentration of Democratic voters in urban centers like Milwaukee and Madison, affords the Republican Party a natural, but modest, advantage in the districting process,” Judge Ripple wrote, for instance.

Partisan gerrymandering, he wrote, amplified that advantage.

Using computer simulations, Jowei Chen, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, has tried to disentangle any natural advantages enjoyed by Wisconsin Republicans from those created by gerrymandering. He found that it was not hard to draw maps favoring neither party.

Justice Kennedy may have been looking for a “workable standard” even simpler and cleaner than one that must take account of natural advantages. But if there is a holy grail in this area, the test identified in the Wisconsin case is almost certainly it.

Follow Adam Liptak on Twitter @adamliptak.

 

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Desmond and Papchristos on the impact of police violence

Our current P4P author, Matthew Desmond is the co-author with Andrew Papchristos of an important opinion piece in the New York Times on September 30th on the impact of police violence.

In the article they write,

…police violence rips apart the social contract between the criminal justice system and the citizenry, suppressing one of the most basic forms of civic engagement, calling 911 for help. The promotion of public safety requires both effective policing and an engaged community. We cannot have one without the other.”

Keith Negley

SINCE the year began, police officers have killed 804 people, roughly three a day. In recent weeks, police officers fatally shot Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Alfred Olango in a San Diego suburb. Both men were black and unarmed.

When the police beat or kill an unarmed black man, what impact does it have on a city and on its black community in particular? Until recently, we have been unable to answer this question with solid data, even as the national debate about this issue has grown more contentious.

One well-known contribution to this debate has been Heather Mac Donald’s notion of the “Ferguson effect,” the idea that, after an episode of police violence, crime spikes in cities because ensuing protests cause the police to stop proactive tactics, emboldening the bad guys. “The most plausible explanation for the surge in lawlessness,” Ms. Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, writes in her book “The War on Cops,” “is the intense agitation against American police departments that began in the summer of 2014,” following the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. To support her claim, Ms. Mac Donald cites crime trends and interviews with several police chiefs and politicians, including Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, who remarked last year, “We have allowed our police departments to get fetal.”

If you look at crime numbers since the Clinton presidency, you see a plummeting trend — what the criminologist Franklin E. Zimring calls “the great American crime decline.” But if you focus on any single year, you see squiggles. Those squiggles are what commentators tend to focus on when they say that crime is up. It is true that violent crime has jumped in some cities that have also experienced police violence followed by public unrest. Murder and manslaughter increased by 10 percent last year, a trend that seems to be driven by some cities more than others.

Critics of the idea of the Ferguson effect have pointed out that there is little evidence to support it. But up to this point there’s been none to debunk it, either.

In a recently published study that we conducted with our fellow sociologist David Kirk, we bring fresh data to bear on this issue. The study focuses on what happened to crime-related 911 calls in the wake of one of Milwaukee’s most publicized cases of police violence against an unarmed black man: the beating of Frank Jude in October 2004. Mr. Jude was attacked by several white off-duty police officers — and one who was on-duty — after being accused of stealing a police badge at a party. Officers boot-stomped his face, snapped his fingers and pressed pens into his ear canals. The lost badge was never recovered.

The months after were quiet. The officers returned to work, and Mr. Jude began a slow recovery. But on Feb. 6, 2005, a Sunday, readers of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel were met with the following front-page headline: “Police Suspected in Man’s Beating,” accompanied by a photographtaken at the hospital of Mr. Jude’s swollen face

Our study shows that residents of Milwaukee’s neighborhoods, especially residents of black neighborhoods, were far less likely to report crime to the police after Mr. Jude’s beating was reported in the press and the subsequent fallout shook the city. In our work, we controlled for crime rates, previous calling patterns and several other neighborhood characteristics. The effect lasted for over a year and resulted in a loss of approximately 22,200 911 calls, a 17 percent reduction in citizen crime reporting, compared with the expected number of calls. It is one thing to disparage law enforcement in your thoughts and speech after an instance of police violence makes the news. It is quite another to witness a crime, or even to be victimized, and decide not to report it.

In the six months after Mr. Jude’s story was published, homicides in Milwaukee jumped 32 percent. Our research suggests that this happened not because the police “got fetal” but because many members of the black community stopped calling 911, their trust in the justice system in tatters. Research showsthat urban neighborhoods with higher levels of legal cynicism also have higher rates of violent crime: When citizens lose faith in the police, they are more apt to take the law into their own hands.

Our findings confirm what the people of Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and other cities have been saying all along: that police violence rips apart the social contract between the criminal justice system and the citizenry, suppressing one of the most basic forms of civic engagement, calling 911 for help. The promotion of public safety requires both effective policing and an engaged community. We cannot have one without the other.

No act of police violence is an isolated incident and it should not be treated as such. Each new tragedy contributes to and reawakens the collective trauma of black communities, which have been subjected to state-sanctioned assaults — from slave whippings and lynching campaigns to Jim Crow enforcement and mass incarceration — for generations. If acts of excessive police force result in community-level consequences, then cities should implement community-level interventions in the aftermath of such acts.

To restore their legitimacy in the eyes of all citizens, police departments could begin by acknowledging their role in past injustices. In his response to our study, Edward Flynn, the police chief of Milwaukee, had the opportunity to do just that. Instead of addressing the implications of our study’s results, though, he dismissed them by claiming that our data were affected by technological quirks in the 911 system. But our study accounted for these considerations by showing that not all 911 calls went down after Mr. Jude’s beating made headlines, just calls reporting crime to the police.

What explains our finding is not some administrative glitch but the fact that police violence against an unarmed black man was registered in the collective memories of black Milwaukeeans as part of a larger pattern. Before Frank Jude, there was Justin Fields, an unarmed black man shot in the back by a Milwaukee police officer in 2003. Before Justin Fields there was Mario Mallett, a black man who, handcuffed and shackled, died in the back of a police wagon after a struggle with officers. Before Mario Mallett there was Thomas Jackson, a mentally ill man who suffocated after police officers placed their knees in his back while he was handcuffed. Before Thomas Jackson, there was James Philips III and Nicholas Elm Sr., who died in police custody; before them, there was Tandy O’Neal, shot in the back during a police raid; before him, there was Ernest Lacy, a black man falsely accused of rape, who died after officers used excessive force while arresting him. Some of us have forgotten these names; some of us cannot.

Can the States Save American Democracy?

In yesterday’s New York Times, Hedrick Smith writes about the growing state based reform movement.  Hedrick, the author of Who Stole The American Dream, was a guest on Politics for the People in June.

In his opinion piece, which you can read below, Hedrick comments…

Groups like Independentvoting.org, which has grass-roots organizations in 40 states, are mobilizing against the de facto disenfranchisement of independent voters (who now outnumber both Democrats and Republicans) through the gerrymandering of nearly 90 percent of the nation’s congressional districts into one-party monopolies. In states with closed primaries, this denies independents any vote in the primaries, which makes them favorable turf for extremist candidates in the only seriously contested voting.”

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Jackie Salit, President of IndependentVoting.org and Hedrick Smith, NH, February 2016

The Opinion Pages | OPINION

Can the States Save American Democracy?

WASHINGTON — In this tumultuous election year, little attention has focused on the groundswell of support for political reform across grass-roots America. Beyond Bernie Sanders’s call for a political revolution, a broad array of state-level citizen movements are pressing for reforms against Citizens United, gerrymandering and campaign megadonors to give average voters more voice, make elections more competitive, and ease gridlock in Congress.

This populist backlash is in reaction to two monumental developments in 2010: the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling authorizing unlimited corporate campaign donations, and a Republican strategy to rig congressional districts. Together, they have changed the dynamics of American politics.

That January, Justice John Paul Stevens warned in his dissent that Citizens United would “unleash the floodgates” of corporate money into political campaigns, and so it has. The overall funding flood this year is expected to surpass the record of $7 billion spent in 2012.

Later in 2010, the Republican Party’s “Redmap” strategy won the party control of enough state governments to gerrymander congressional districts across the nation the following year. One result: In the 2014 elections, Republicans won 50.7 percent of the popular vote and reaped a 59-seat majority.

Now, with Congress often gridlocked by Republicans from those safe districts, the initiative on reform has shifted to the states. Insurgency has spread beyond California and New York to unlikely Republican bastions like Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nebraska and South Dakota.

At this point, 17 states have become reform battlegrounds. In six, lawsuits are challenging racial or partisan gerrymandering, and in five more, that goal is being pursued by popular movements, state governors or legislative bodies. This summer, federal courts have ruled in favor of suits seeking to strike down strict photo-identification requirements in Texas, North Carolina and North Dakota. The courts found that the requirements discriminated against minorities, and often seniors and students. Other citizen lawsuits have won restoration of early voting days in Ohio and straight-ticket voting for Michigan.

South Dakota and Washington State are holding referendums on proposals for more transparent elections; similar petition drives fell just short of success in Arizona and Idaho. This year, reformers in California, New York and Washington State have been mustering votes to press Congress to control campaign funding and ban corporate campaign contributions.

In the pushback against Citizens United, 17 states and more than 680 local governments have appealed to Congress for a constitutional amendment, either through a letter to Congress, referendums, legislative resolutions, city council votes or collective letters from state lawmakers. In the most prominent case, California’s 18 million registered voters get to vote in November on whether to instruct their 55-member congressional delegation to “use all of their constitutional authority” to overturn Citizens United. Washington State is holding a similar referendum.

In 2014, a Democratic amendment proposal to allow regulation and limits on electoral spending won a 54-42 majority in the Senate, strictly along party lines, but fell short of the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster. Now bills calling for a 6-to-1 match of public funds for small campaign donations up to $150, or requiring disclosure of funders for campaign ads, have wide Democratic support, but are blocked by Republican opposition.

Yet out in the country, even in some reliably red states, reform movements have sprouted. South Dakota is one, thanks to three petition drives. One seeks to make primaries nonpartisan and another calls for an independent redistricting commission. A third is for a ballot measure, similar to one in Washington State, that would create a $50 tax credit for each voter to donate to a political candidate; ban campaign contributions exceeding $100 from lobbyists and state contractors; and mandate that independent groups speedily disclose the top five contributors to political ads and electioneering communications made within 60 days of an election.

In April, Nebraska’s Republican-dominated Legislature voted 29-15 to set up an independent redistricting commission. Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, vetoed the bill, but reformist legislators promise a revised proposal in the next session.

Groups like Independentvoting.org, which has grass-roots organizations in 40 states, are mobilizing against the de facto disenfranchisement of independent voters (who now outnumber both Democrats and Republicans) through the gerrymandering of nearly 90 percent of the nation’s congressional districts into one-party monopolies. In states with closed primaries, this denies independents any vote in the primaries, which makes them favorable turf for extremist candidates in the only seriously contested voting.

In addition, nonpartisan local-election primaries, in which all voters can choose any candidate without regard for party, are being pushed by a citizens movement in South Dakota. Louisiana, California and Washington State already use them.

Two dozen states have attacked gerrymandering head-on. Eleven have set up independent redistricting commissions or other politically neutral mechanisms. Legal challenges have been mounted in half a dozen others. In seven more, including Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, popular movements, state legislatures and even the Republican governors Larry Hogan of Maryland, John Kasich of Ohio and Mike Pence of Indiana, who is now Donald J. Trump’s running mate, have said it’s time to outlaw gerrymandering.

In April, Governor Kasich won resounding applause from the Ohio Legislature when he called for an end to gerrymandering: “When pure politics is what drives these kinds of decisions, the result is polarization and division. I think we’ve had enough of that.”

Hedrick Smith on Yellowstone Public Radio

 

Yellowstone Public Radio logo

Journalist Hedrick Smith

On The Historic 2016 Campaign Season

  May 6, 2016

(If you do not see audio file, you can listen here.)

Journalist and author Hedrick Smith recently delivered a President’s lecture at the University of Montana about the widespread political disaffection in America. Smith won the Pulitzer prize for international reporting while covering Russia and Eastern Europe for the New York Times. After his newspaper career, he went on to win Emmys for his work on the award-winning PBS Frontline series.

Smith talked with Sally Mauk at MTPR studios to give his take on this historic campaign season.

Copyright 2016 KUFM-FM. To see more, visit KUFM-FM.

 

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Why Independent Voters Matter

Below is an excellent article by Frank Fear published a couple of days ago in the LA Progressive.  A refreshing take on who independents are and how critical opening up the primaries is.  As Frank puts it,

Why Independent Voters Matter

 

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On Lincoln’s Birthday

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday.  What better time to be reading Jerome Charyn’s I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War?  Here is a delightful piece printed in THE DAILY BEAST today–an animated conversation between two novelists writing about Lincoln and William Herndon.  In this article, Jerome interviews novelist Tom LeClair on his novel about William Herndon, Lincoln’s Billy set to be released on April 15th.  Enjoy!

THE DAILY BEAST

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

MAN OF MYSTERY     02.12.15

Lincoln Authors Can’t Agree on Lincoln

WRITTEN BY JEROME CHARYN & TOM LECLAIR 

Novelists Tom LeClair and Jerome Charyn talk about their respective experiences of dealing with the ever mysterious Honest Abe in their fiction.

I didn’t know what to expect when I opened Tom LeClair’s new novel, Lincoln’s Billy, and I was sucked in by the marvelous syncopation of the narrator’s voice.

I was Lincoln’s Billy. Billy club when Lincoln refused to knock heads in Springfield. Billy goat when he needed a battering ram to reach Washington. Billy boy when he required a charming Billy to scare up money for his campaigns. 

The man who tells his own sad tale as “Lincoln’s Billy” is William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, political advisor, and friend. Yet not that much has ever been revealed about Billy, who remains in Lincoln’s shadow, though he was Lincoln’s first and very best biographer. Herndon is one of the great riddles of Lincoln scholarship, almost impossible to unravel because of his many incarnations—lawyer, abolitionist, mayor of Springfield, impoverished farmer, collector of Lincoln legends, and town drunk. Billy failed at almost everything he did. He failed to publish an unexpurgated biography of Lincoln, so Tom LeClair has stepped in to write this bawdy expose of young Lincoln, a tough sinewy novel about the very nature of narrative voice. The book reads like poetry disguised as sandpaper.

LeClair has published five other novels and is one of our most perceptive critics of postmodern literature, a kind of whale hunter in search of “monstrosities,” novels that are wayward and subversive and defy any definition of form. He admires Stanley Elkin, William Gass, William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon, among others. He is also an avid ping-pong player. That’s where Tom and I first met, over a ping-pong table. And we’ve been battling it out over the past five years. When my own novel about Lincoln, I Am Abraham, was published last year, Tom interviewed me in The Daily Beast, and now it’s my chance to spin the ball and continue our conversation.

—Jerome Charyn

CHARYN: Tom, you’ve written your own subversive novel with a supple and unique voice. Where did you find Herndon’s “imprint,” his amazing musicality? It’s certainly not in his own writing.

LeCLAIR: Like some postmodern hoax, Billy’s “own writing” is not his own because his collaborator, Jesse Weik, wrote much of the 1889 biography,Herndon’s Lincoln, from the memoranda and letters Herndon sent him. Unlike Lincoln, whose secretaries wrote most of his letters as president, Billy wrote his own letters, but they are effusive and bombastic in the 19th-century legal style, so I had to rein in Herndon’s voice to one that contemporary readers would tolerate for more than 20 pages. Because Lincoln’s Billy purports to be Billy’s unedited “autobiography” and “secret life” of Lincoln, I needed an informal yet sometimes literary and learned style because Billy was a very well-read man, more of an intellectual than Lincoln, whose story-telling in the novel is much more colloquial than Billy’s narration. Lincoln’s Billy is most essentially about trust, and the two styles compete for authority or belief.

CHARYN: And compete for truth. Isn’t “Lincoln’s Billy” also Billy Liar?

LeCLAIR: My Billy a liar? [a soft chuckle] Lincoln trusted his Billy more than any other person, certainly more than the proven liar Mary Todd Lincoln. Even Herndon’s condescending biographer, David Donald, trusted Billy on the facts that he gathered and presented. But Billy is writing this “document” at the end of his life when he’s impoverished, and he might have ulterior reasons for not accurately retelling all of Lincoln’s stories. I like your question because it introduces a significant difference in the ways we depict Lincoln. Your I Am Abraham offers an original and thoughtful version of the private and public Lincoln as protagonist and as narrator whose reliability—he is Honest Abe, after all—is taken for granted. Because Lincoln’s Billy is not just narrated by Billy butwritten by him under difficult circumstances, the novel can cast suspicion on Honest Abe and Trustworthy Billy—and on the truth of history, whatever that is. To me, I Am Abraham seems written under the sign of the 19th-century realistic novel, maybe Howells (who wrote a campaign biography of Lincoln) or James. My 19th-century mentors in Lincoln’s Billy are the hoaxer Poe and the “no trust” Melville of The Confidence Man and Benito Cereno, so our Lincolns are rather different from each other, as well as different from the Lincoln of his biographers.

CHARYN: My own mentors weren’t Howells or James, but Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, another teller of tall tales, but one with moral passion. In a way, Lincoln and his Billy remind me of Huck and Jim, though Billy wasn’t black and Billy wasn’t a slave. Yet your novel suggests a strange camaraderie between Lincoln and Billy, with Billy always as the junior partner and secret accomplice, younger, more volatile, but as he looks back at his law partner who was deified once he died, Billy wants to break through all the masks and all the myths. I myself was touched by Billy, and devoted several chapters to him in my novel. And I was deeply touched by your Billy in Lincoln’s Billy, how you managed to make him come alive on the page and allow us to feel his own wound: Lincoln abandoned Billy, didn’t take him to Washington, left him to rattle in the wind. This abandonment is one of the keys to your novel. You’re clear about his opinion of Mary, but what do you think Billy finally felt about the man-god who had once been his law partner?

LeCLAIR: Billy visited Washington twice, didn’t like it, and didn’t like cities in general. When he began lecturing about Lincoln not long after the assassination and revealing uncomplimentary facts about the “man-god,” the worshippers said Billy resented Lincoln and betrayed him for, as you say, abandoning him. But Billy always denied he wanted to serve in Washington. Your novel ends with Lincoln’s assassination. Billy lived until 1891, so he has a somewhat longer view of Lincoln than your Lincoln could have had of himself. By the end of his life, Billy recognized that some of Lincoln’s policies—such as his support for the railroad—and some of Lincoln’s Republican cronies were partly responsible for Billy’s failure as a small farmer. But I think Billy always loved Lincoln the man, who was his best friend for two decades, and it’s that love that got Billy in trouble from those first lectures all the way through his published biography. He believed that the early biographers who made Lincoln a saint did him a disservice. By revealing his flaws, Billy felt he magnified, rather than diminished, Lincoln’s heroism because it required Lincoln to overcome his all-too-human limitations and circumstances—his superstitions and bouts of depression, his ugliness and awkwardness, his life with the harridan Mary, the deaths of two children. At the end of Lincoln’s Billy, Billy has reason to suspect that some of the stories Lincoln has told him about his two formative trips to New Orleans may have been made up to calm, as you say, the “volatile” abolitionist Billy, but despite his suspicion Billy seems to remain loyal. “Seems” because readers will have to judge whom to trust at the end when Billy recalls—or possibly invents—one final dialogue about New Orleans. I had Billy describe his relationship with Old Abe as “avuncular,” but Billy also wonders if Lincoln envied Billy’s early “featherbed” happiness. Given your interest in Lincoln’s sexuality, do you think the relationship was Oedipal in some way?

CHARYN: Tom, that’s a question with two loaded barrels—perhaps three. I’m not sure that Lincoln’s sexuality plays out here. One might ask if Lincoln had any sexual feelings towards Billy, and if Billy wanted to usurp Lincoln’s role as father-protector, or if Lincoln had any desire to run like the devil from Mary and sleep with Billy’s first wife. And I would have to say that all three loaded barrels have very little reverberation. I believe that Lincoln used Billy, as you suggest in the opening lines of your novel. Lincoln always had the instincts of a politician, even as a very young man. And so much of the power of your novel comes from Billy’s own realization that he is being played, but that he still enjoyed the rumble of it all, the need to be Lincoln’s Billy, whether a subterranean part of him resented it or not. Yet I have the suspicion that you yourself don’t really admire Lincoln, that you identify far more with Billy’s bumbling around than with the craftiness that allowed Lincoln to capture the presidency. Am I wrong?

LeCLAIR: You say three barrels. How about three hats? As a citizen, how can one not admire Lincoln the stovepipe statesman? But as a novelist, I was most drawn to Lincoln the obsessive storyteller, a man who would interrupt the most serious business of state to tell jokes and stories. Your Lincoln reports and meditates on important events. My Lincoln tells tales, sometimes tall, often vulgar. As a critic, though, I identify with Billy, the person who listens to and has to evaluate the worth of those stories. But, as Ahab says to Starbuck, you want the “little lower layer.” You’re right: I was attracted to Herndon because he was so often a failure, as you have pointed out. Initially, I found his mind more interesting than Lincoln’s. Billy was more widely read in law, literature, and science, more dedicated to social justice, a free thinker, an opponent of Christian fundamentalism and monopolistic corporations, a quixotic altruist, a man often ahead of his time. But Billy’s mind failed for twenty years to produce his biography. When he finally managed with his collaborator, the publisher folded and Billy earned nothing for his family. Failed as a lawyer and as a farmer, in failing health, Billy never got to write the frank Lincoln biography he wanted or his own autobiography, so I decided to do both for him in one book. You told me you got interested in writing about Lincoln when you discovered he suffered from the depressions that debilitated you during one period in your life. Why do you think we’re drawn to failure? It can’t be that we’re so often defeated at the ping-pong table.

CHARYN: Failure emboldens us, makes us crafty, even on the ping-pong table. And many of the writers I admire—Melville, Dickinson, Kafka—were virtually invisible during their lifetimes. Art, I think, often has to dance around in the void. And what I find curious is that I ever became a writer at all. I grew up in the South Bronx, the land of poverty and petty hoodlums. There wasn’t even one fucking book in my house, and yet here I am, a kind of rabbinical scholar of words. I don’t think your background was much different from mine, if you shift the landscape from the South Bronx to rural Vermont. So how did we both end up with a lifelong fascination for problematic language and labyrinthian tales?

LeCLAIR: For the first eight grades, I went to a one-room schoolhouse with Faulkner’s Bundrens and Snopeses. Calvin Coolidge’s old high school wasn’t much better, but I escaped Vermont to be educated in logic- and language-chopping by the Jesuits at Boston College. You somehow crossed boroughs to Columbia. Maybe we both have a respect for literacy and the literary not always found in those with better early education. But much as we might want to celebrate our Lincoln-like rise above circumstances, don’t we have to admit that our teaching literature in universities probably accounts for our interest in the problematic and difficult? And, come to think of it, wouldn’t our training in literary ambiguity quite naturally, if somewhat belatedly, lead us to the enigmatic character of American history—Lincoln? You’ve perused the library shelves of books about him and read many of them. They are like some multi-volume modernist novel with a hundred points of view. Multiplicity and uncertainty gives us an opening. Why shouldn’t we novelists enter in and imagine the unrecorded intimate experience of the long-dead icon, the experience largely ignored by the factotums of fact and purveyors of interpretation? Herndon’s informants refused to repeat the off-color stories Lincoln told, so I had to invent them, just as you had to invent the erotic attraction of Mary Todd. Of course we will differ in our imagined Lincolns. And I suppose our differences create more ambiguity, but I accept that because I believe fiction can humanize the men in larger-than-life marble and heroic bronze. And for men like William Herndon, maybe a novel can erect a small statue of words, a reminder that even giants need their Billys and may be judged by them.

Tom LeClair’s latest novel, Lincoln’s Billy, will be published by Permanent Press on April 15.

Jerome Charyn’s latest novel, I Am Abraham, was just reissued in paperback, and in June Liveright will publish Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories.

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The New York Times, Independence and Me

Today, the New York Times published a letter to the editor I wrote.  My letter was triggered by an editorial the Times wrote on May 6th about the Independence Party.

My letter and their article is below–Hope you will give both a read and I would love to hear your thoughts.

The New York Times

The Opinion Pages | LETTER

The New York State Independence Party

MAY 14, 2014

To the Editor:

Re “Independent of the Independence Party” (editorial, May 7), calling on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York to reject the party’s endorsement:

I disagree about how the state Independence Party survives. It’s not because of “confusion” among voters. It’s because of complicity by the two major parties.

The Democratic and Republican Parties — each in its own way — supported, enticed and rewarded the corruption of state Independence Party leaders. The only resistance to that corruption came from the pro-reform New York City branch of the party, which had helped to elect Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and pursued nonpartisan reform at every turn.

Oh, well. If the point is that parties breed corruption, maybe it’s time to get rid of parties, period.

CATHY L. STEWART
New York, May 7, 2014

The writer is chairwoman of the New York County Independence Party.

 

The New York Times

New York’s Independence Party survives on confusion. Many who sign up with the party think they are registering as independent voters, unaffiliated with any party. Instead they are unwittingly contributing their names to a bizarre and fractious political group that endorses candidates from the two major parties. The Independence Party should lose its prime place on the state ballot, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo could make that happen by rejecting its endorsement this year.

Rob Astorino, a Westchester County Republican running in the governor’s race this year, has said he will not seek or accept the Independence Party nod. Mr. Cuomo should now do the same. Any party needs 50,000 votes or more in a governor’s race to stay on state ballots for the next four years. The Independence Party would certainly reach that critical number if the Cuomo or Astorino name is on its line.

Mr. Astorino, who once courted Independence Party leaders to help him win as county executive in Westchester, has finally decided the party is “part of a very corrupt system. They don’t stand for a thing other than jobs and for themselves.” The party has been very good at getting candidates like former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to donate money and run under the Independence Party banner. But its ideals are confused, at best.

The Daily News in 2012 interviewed 200 New Yorkers who signed up as Independence Party voters and found that 169 of them thought they were not joining any party at all. Mr. Cuomo could end this charade. If he refuses to allow his name on the Independence Party line, the party could disappear.

New York’s voting system, which allows a candidate’s name to appear on several party lines on the ballot, is archaic and confusing. Last year, Mr. Cuomo proposed repealing the 1947 law that allows minor parties to give their ballot lines to nonparty members — usually candidates running in the two major parties.

At the time, he said the system encourages “corruption and the appearance of corruption.” He was right, but he did not champion reform aggressively. He could help end this bad practice by saying no to the Independence Party line this year.

A Look at Book Clubs Across America

I got a call this morning from John Opdycke, a Politics for the People book club member asking me if I had read James Atlas’ op-ed on Book Clubs in the New York Times Sunday Review.  I eagerly opened up my Kindle to Really? You’re Not in a Book Club?, which I have included below for your reading pleasure.

Atlas estimates as many as five million Americans are members of a book club.  Two points he make stand out for me—-

“Reading is a solitary act, an experience of interiority. To read a book is to burst the confines of one’s consciousness and enter another world. What happens when you read a book in the company of others? You enter its world together but see it in your own way; and it’s through sharing those differences of perception that the book group acquires its emotional power.

He goes on to say toward the end of the piece that “In the end, book groups are about community. ”

I agree! For me, here at Politics for the People, our book club is definitely about creating and nurturing a community of independents.  We’ve been able to tackle some “tough reads” in the political realm together that would be very difficult to digest/read on our own. Our discussions and posts create new insights and give meaning to our selections for me.

Thrilled to be among the legions of book clubs in all our diversity!

A reminder about our current selection—Revolutionary by Alex Myers.  Our book club call with Alex will be on Sunday, April 13th at 7 pm.  Let me know your thoughts as you are reading….

SundayReview|OPINION

Really? You’re Not in a Book Club?

By JAMES ATLAS

MARCH 22, 2014

 
A book club meets in Fall River, Wis., at the home of Sara Uttech.CreditDarren Hauck for The New York Times
 “WHAT’S your book group reading?” I say to a friend encountered on the street. Not: “Are you in a book group?” I have no idea whether Clara is in a book group. We’ve never talked about it. All the same, I just know. Why? Because it’s a safe assumption to make these days.

By some estimates, five million Americans gather every few weeks in someone’s living room or in a bar or bookstore or local library to discuss the finer points of “Middlemarch” or “The Brothers Karamazov.” (A perfect number is hard to pin down because some people belong to two or three clubs, and of course, there’s no central registry of members.) Among them is Clara, whose book group even has a name: the Oracles. They’re reading “The Flamethrowers,” by Rachel Kushner.

I used to think that the popularity of this institution was a quirk of life in New York, like restaurants where you can get a reservation only by calling a month in advance or parties where every single person you meet is smarter than you are. But the book-club boom is nationwide. Should you live in the Miami area, you can hang with “Book Babes”; in San Francisco, drop in at “The Mind-Benders Book Club.”

And it’s not just a big-city thing: In the event that you find yourself in Waco, Tex., check out “A Good Book and a Glass of Wine,” which has 21 members (women only) and is always looking for new ones. All you have to do is go online.

You can find book clubs that appeal to gender- and sexual-preference constituencies (“The Queer Lady and Lesbian Book Club”); African-Americans (“Sassy Sistahs Book Club”); the young (“The Stamford 20s/30s Book Club”) and the old (every town seems to have a senior citizens club); proponents of porn (“The Smutty Book Club”); and fans of a single author (“The Roberto Bolaño Book Club”). All that’s missing, as far as I can tell, are book clubs officially organized by class: There seem to be no 1 percenter book clubs.

Since we live in a world where you don’t have to actually “be” anywhere, it’s not surprising that virtual clubs have lately appeared on the Internet. ZolaBooks bills itself as a “social eBook retailer” that connects readers; Goodreads gives members the opportunity to read a book together, install books they’ve read on their “shelves” or find “friends” with whom to share discoveries. (I just joined and have “no friends,” according to the site.)

Or you can navigate to lists like — useful this winter — “Best Books to Read When the Snow Is Falling.” These sites aren’t just for oddball bibliophiles: Goodreads claims to have 25 million members and was sold to Amazon last year for a number rumored at $150 million or above.

Some book groups merge the virtual and the “offline community,” as Nora Grenfell, the social marketing manager at the digital media news site Mashable, calls its estimated 34 million monthly unique visitors. The site’s Mashable book club started out as an informal, internal group that met at its offices in the Flatiron district, but after members began to write about it online, followers asked if they could participate. Thus was born MashableReads, a monthly gathering for a small number of invited members joined by a guest writer. So far writers like Ishmael Beah, Malcolm Gladwell and Chang-rae Lee have appeared. Mashable followers can participate in the discussion on Twitter.

But the most prevalent way of conducting a book club is still in someone’s living room. The basic ritual is the same all over: A small group gets together every few weeks to discuss a pre-assigned title; to eat, whether that means noshing on cheese and crackers accompanied by a glass of wine or a four-course dinner; and to gossip in a dedicated way. It may be social, but it’s also serious; members devote long hours over many weeks to getting to the last page. For most of them, it’s all about the book.

Reading is a solitary act, an experience of interiority. To read a book is to burst the confines of one’s consciousness and enter another world. What happens when you read a book in the company of others? You enter its world together but see it in your own way; and it’s through sharing those differences of perception that the book group acquires its emotional power.

“There’s a way of interacting through books that you don’t get through any ordinary transaction in life,” suggests Robin Marantz Henig, a journalist who is in three book groups: a women’s group, a couples’ group and a coed and intergenerational group with her daughter, an editor at The New York Times. “It’s like sitting around gossiping about people, only you’re gossiping about characters in fiction, which is more meaningful.”

In book clubs, things can get intense. “We had the most incredible discussion of art, and beauty, and loving something bigger than ourselves,” says Tracy Trivas, whose Los Angeles group often finds itself grappling with “giant issues about the inner life.” When they read aloud a passage from Colum McCann’s novel “Transatlantic” — the scene where Lily, an Irish immigrant, reflects on a painting she’s received from her husband — “half the women had tears in their eyes.”

Ms. Trivas represents a new phenomenon: the professional book group facilitator. A writer with a master’s degree in English literature from Middlebury, she presides over three adult groups, for which she charges up to $300 per session. She also runs a group for children, who nestle under a tree with their parents and read books like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“They felt empowered sharing their opinion of the book,” she told me. “I asked them who they would rather have a play date with: Veruca Salt or Augustus Gloop. And if they could make up a different ending.”

We’re also beginning to see authors themselves taking on the role of facilitator. Established writers like Alexandra Styron command $400 to show up and talk about their own books — and that’s after the commission given to Book the Writer, an agency founded recently by the novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz. Authorial proximity has its drawbacks. “No one tells the truth when the author is present,” says a book grouper who has witnessed this phenomenon. “No one is going to insult the author when he’s two feet away from them.”

But there are good things about these home visits, too: They’re a new source of income for writers, and they offer insights into the book that come straight from the source. Book groups are like friendships: Some coalesce and die out in a few years, others last a lifetime. Susan Shapiro, an artist whose group has just celebrated its 40th anniversary, recalls that it started with “young moms in the park who wanted to have more to talk about than kids in the sandbox.”

Members have come and gone — “no one has died” — but the format remains the same: “We take turns leading the discussion, and two members have to read a book before it can be adopted. Some do scholarly research, others are more informal. We have an easy flow of ideas.”

I heard about a group that had been around even longer. Founded in 1971 by a group of Ivy League graduates, it has been meeting once a month ever since. The passage of 43 years has had inevitable consequences. On the positive side, members of the group can claim to have read all the books and not be exaggerating; on the negative, encroaching senility; a death or two; an acrimonious divorce that had the couple fighting over who would get to stay in the group. One experiment that failed was calling in “professional help,” a group leader to set the course. “That didn’t work out at all,” said one male member. “The men didn’t like being told what to think.”

The reading experience — let’s admit it — is less pure in the mature atmosphere of Book Club World than it was in the intellectually heady days of college. Diversions from the matter at hand are inevitable. When you have 10 lively people in a room and a good meal on the table, it’s sometimes hard to remember why you’re there. “It’s all about the dinner,” says the novelist Sally Koslow, a member of a Manhattan group.

My own group is highly disciplined, and we talk about the work under discussion with admirable fervor, but we do like to eat. Our meetings remind me of a restaurant I pass on the Connecticut Turnpike that has a sign out front saying FOOD and BOOKS. The gossip-prone among us are kept in line by the presence of our kindly but firm moderator, Ilja Wachs, a professor of comparative literature at Sarah Lawrence whose enthusiasm for the classics is infectious. By the end of one meeting, I had gone from resisting “The Mill on the Floss,” which I associated with seventh grade, to admiring it as a grim study in thwarted passion. (Maybe if I hadn’t skimmed the last chapter on my iPhone while riding the crosstown bus to the meeting I would have figured this out for myself.)

Surely I’m not alone in my dereliction. I was chastened by a stern directive I came across from the head of “The Sweetness: Astoria Book Club”: “Please make sure to read the book! Even if you hate it and have to choke it down, we’d love to hear about why you hated it.”

This is a perfectly reasonable request, but not always easy to fulfill. One thing that’s rarely talked about is how time-consuming book groups are. (One group I heard about, discouraged by the time commitment of big novels, has taken to reading poetry.) Mine has a penchant for plump Victorian novels like “Nicholas Nickleby” that were serialized. Everyone in 19th-century London read these novels. “Great Expectations” was their “House of Cards.”

It’s harder now, given the pace of modern life, but we hunger for it more. In the end, book groups are about community. The success of the One City, One Book initiatives in Chicago, Seattle and smaller towns across the country, where everyone is encouraged to read the same book, reflects the longing to share. So does Oprah; her book club binds together a nation disparate in its customs, classes, religions and ethnicities by putting it in front of the TV and telling it what to read.

We  spend our days at airports or commuting to work; our children come and go; our friends climb up and down the social ladder; we change jobs and move house. No one knows their neighbor.

But a lot of us are reading “The Goldfinch.”

James Atlas is a contributing opinion writer and author of “Bellow: A Biography.”

Partisanship As Usual

This last week, Michael Hardy the General Counsel and Executive Vice President of the National Action Network authored an editorial on the Huffington Post entitled “Partisanship as Usual.”   In the piece, Michael outlines efforts underway to update and fix the Voting Rights Act of 1965; reports on the work of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration; and explores ways that the election process could be opened to allow greater participation.  He quotes Jackie Salit, the President of IndependentVoting.org  and explores the question she raises—Is out democracy for everyone?  In our current selection, Indispensable Enemies, Walter Karp exposes ways our democracy is structured to be fundamentally for the parties and not the people.

Give Michael’s piece  a read, I think you will enjoy it—

Attorney Michael A. Hardy at the 2013 Anti-Corruption Awards

Michael A. Hardy
2013 Anti-Corruption Awards

Michael A. Hardy

General Counsel,

Executive Vice President, National Action Network

Partisanship as Usual

Posted: 01/27-2014  The word coming out of the nation’s capital is that President Obama will focus part of his upcoming State of Union address on income inequality and economic opportunity for those not included in the top 1 percent. This is, of course, good news for the struggling middle class and the working poor. However, because it is an election year, most people understand that by and large all that will really come out of Washington is the usual partisan bickering and failure to move forward on major pieces of legislation.

It was a bit of a bright spot that just before the Martin L. King, Jr. holiday the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bipartisan bill titled the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014. The bill is aimed at fixing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which suffered as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. In Shelby, the Court struck down section 4 of the VRA thereby leaving the VRA’s section 5 preclearance mechanisms empty.

While the bill has bipartisan support, it will nevertheless be a struggle to get it through the Congress. As the mid-term elections approach, the House of Representatives, controlled by the Republicans, will be completely focused on trying to maintain that control. Therefore, the nations’ voters will have to engage in some well-designed and coordinated activism to move the bill forward. Protecting the rights of voters and ensuring the right of every eligible voter to vote should be a continued priority for our democracy.

It was in this light, that we saw a second bright spot during the past week when the Presidential Commission on Election Administration released its report. Who can forget the long lines and hassles that many voters had to endure while trying to exercise it constitutional franchise as citizens. Casting your vote and accessing your voting poll in any election should be easy. It should not take all day and voters should not have to climb hurdles and other obstacles to register to vote and locate their proper voting locations.

In this regard the Presidential Commission made several findings and recommendations to improve “the American voter’s experience and promote confidence in the administration of U.S. elections.” Among those recommendations were calls for expansion of online voter registration; expansion of the period for voting before the traditional Election Day; better management of polling sites and continued improvement in voting technology. This is why many cheered last term’s Supreme Court ruling in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. The Court ruled that Arizona’s evidence of citizenship requirement could not be used to prevent or declare invalid registrations through the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993 registration forms. The Court ruled that the form required the voter to certify under penalty of perjury that he or she is, in fact, a citizen. It did not require further documented proof to validate the registration. The state is free, of course, to prosecute any voter who falsely asserts citizenship.

Voting and protecting voter enfranchisement are essential to a democracy. In America, we need to continue in every way to provide unfettered the right of our citizens to participate and vote in every election and particularly in our national elections. Most voting surveys demonstrate that during the off presidential election years, mid-term elections, the actual percentage of voting age turnout hovers just under 40 percent. This is significant and the argument can be made that this level of turnout is what contributes to the partisan divide that has plagued our democracy for decades. It also makes it easier to construct barriers to the voting franchise. These are among the motivations for some, like Ohio State Representative and chair of Ohio’s Legislative Black Caucus Alicia Reece (D) to call for a state constitutional amendment — a Voters’ Bill of Rights — which would preserve a 35 day early voting period, prescribe extended hours for early voting, develop online voter registration and allow a voter to cast a provisional ballot anywhere in the correct county.

It also suggests that as a nation, we not only have to better administer our elections, but open the electoral process to greater participation. This includes the call by some for non-partisan primaries. We can have well run elections, but if the process excludes a great percentage of eligible voters who cannot vote in closed primaries and therefore cannot have a voice in the candidates that appear on the general election ballot, it dampens the voters’ desire to vote in mid-term elections. Jackie Salit, author of Independents Rising and president of Independentvoting.org has argued that in order for a democracy to thrive, the opportunity for the American people to speak must be present. The people speak through their right to vote. Salit asks: Do you believe our democracy is for everyone? She believes the answer to that question should be an unequivocal yes. Clearly, if democracy means anything it must mean that every voter has the right to meaningful participation in the voting process. If we hope to have a government that is not bogged down in partisan bickering, and looks to the well-being of the nation, then perhaps the choice of general election candidates should not be solely a partisan activity.

Michael A. Hardy, Esq. is General Counsel and Executive Vice-President to National Action Network (NAN). He has been involved in many of this nation’s highest profiled cases involving violations of civil or human rights. He continues to supervise National Action Network’s crisis unit and hosts a monthly free legal clinic at NAN New York City’s House of Justice.

An Independent View of NJ’s Christie scandal

Imagine my delight on Saturday morning, when reading the editorial page of the New York Times, I came across a letter by a dear friend and independent activist, Dr. Phyllis Goldberg.  She was the lead letter to the editor under the heading “Christie’s Efforts at Damage Control.”

Here is what Phyllis had to say:

To the Editor:

Re “ ‘Very Sad’ Christie Extends Apology in Bridge Scandal” (front page, Jan. 10):

As an independent, I look at the politically engineered traffic jam in Fort Lee, N.J., as a product of the partisan political culture. The email exchanges between a member of Gov. Chris Christie’s staff and his Port Authority appointee speak volumes about the norms and values of this culture, in which political operatives’ overriding obligation is to their own side’s interests.

Ordinary people are not fellow human beings but the property of one or the other party and — when they belong to the other side — merely collateral damage in a continuing war. In this case, even kids on their way to school were dismissed as “the children of Buono voters” (referring to Mr. Christie’s Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Barbara Buono), and therefore acceptable casualties of a vendetta.

Regardless of what Governor Christie knew and when he knew it, whether his tone is one of outrage or embarrassment, or how many scapegoats he finds to take the fall, he and everyone else who participates in and helps to perpetuate this antidemocratic culture — the professional politicians in both parties, along with their armies of surrogates and enablers (including those in academia and the media) — are guilty.

More than 40 percent of Americans now identify themselves as independents. Is it any wonder?

PHYLLIS GOLDBERG
New York, Jan. 10, 2014

When I wrote Phyllis an email thanking her for her letter, she shared with me that the Times has edited her submission, cutting out the last paragraph.  I know you’ll want to read it–indeed it is the punch line of  her letter.

“Gallup recently released the results of a series of polls conducted over the course of 2013 in which 42% of all Americans identify themselves as independents – 46% in the final quarter of the year. Is it any wonder? The good news is that growing numbers of independents around the country are joining forces not to create a new party, but to change the way politics is done. How? By wresting the political process away from the parties and restoring it to the American people. Open primaries, nonpartisan redistricting, voter-initiated referendums – none of these reforms is a panacea, but the parties’ fanatic opposition to them indicates that they matter. Hand-wringing over “traffic-gate” doesn’t. ”

Well said, Phyllis.  Now is not the time for handwringing, but for organizing to move power away from these partisan parties and to the American people.  In our current book club selection, Walter Karp gave us a scathing look at their collusion…more posts on Indispensable Enemies to come this week.

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