Thursday, August 30, 2007

Larry Craig is not gay!

The saga of Senator Larry Craig, protector of the sacred covenant of marriage and avowed heterosexual, is an interesting one. Interesting and not really that uncommon. Like Craig, there are countless conflicted American males, married and furthering the fa├žade of family values, the kind that proponents vehemently insist are dependent only on one narrow view of sex. These tenets must align with a narrow Judeo-Christian construct and involve acts exclusively between men and women, within the confines of marriage.

Men like Craig, battling sexual impulses, hardwired into their makeup, must compartmentalize those urges. Unfortunately for Craig, but more so for his wife and family, you can’t keep these impulses under cover forever. Eventually you get caught and in Craig’s case, your national coming out party takes place in an airport restroom. Now that really sucks (no pun intended).

Back in the day, when I was reclaiming the streets for God, or better, Jack Hyles, I met countless Larry Craigs, while spending some time in Al Capone’s old haunt of Calumet City, a place affectionately dubbed, "sin city." It was obvious to see why, upon my very first visit.

A group of bible college compatriots would spend Friday nights walking the streets, passing out tracts, witnessing for Jesus and preaching on street corners in this veritable den of iniquity. At that time (the early 80s, the area was notorious for narcotics, prostitution and whatever vice was your calling card), the main street consisted of a string of seedy bars and a shady cast of characters walking the streets. While a certifiable hayseed when I found myself in the Midwest, at 21, it didn’t take me long to know I wasn’t in Kansas (or better, Maine) anymore.

In looking back, I’m now aware that I had cursory contact with gay men growing up; it wasn’t until my first forays into street preaching, however, that I ever met supposed heterosexual men, on the prowl, clearly in the pursuit of one thing—gay sex, with anyone and as many men as they could find, each and every weekend, before going back home to wives and children who probably were unaware of their husband’s, or father’s double life.

Just like Craig’s public insistence that "I am not gay,” these men, once they found out what our mission was, would gather around and while some would give us a hard time and revile God and our brand of religion, many more of these men would pull us aside and insist on explaining to us what they were doing there, particularly that while there were other blatantly gay men men afoot, they were not homosexual in any way.

I’m sure that these men, many whom we came to know by name, realized that we weren’t fooled by their stories. Still, each and every week, they’d ask us to have a cup of coffee, to talk and tell us about their families, their work, their homes—all in an attempt to shore up their defenses, in their own minds. One gentleman began to insist on buying us dinner whenever we ran into him. When we’d tell him that we couldn’t accept, he insisted on doing this and if we didn’t acquiesce, he’d became angry and would stalk off.

One Friday night, we witnessed a man get thrown through a plate glass window and bleed to death right in front of us, despite attempts by one of the students, who was a former paramedic, to stop his bleeding until the police and rescue unit showed up. The Calumet City of that era was not a pretty place and I marvel that I never was harmed while there. I could certainly make a case for divine intervention on those experiences alone.

Even to this day, thinking back on some of the men that I met, it brings back memories of sorrow and sympathy that they couldn’t acknowledge their sexual orientation and had to live this obviously difficult double life. Whether looking for love on the mean streets of Calumet City, or in Craig's case, airport restrooms and who knows where else. I'm sure we will find out in time that Craig had his own personal Calumet City that he frequented. Also, I can only imagine the potential risks of STD and other transmittable diseases that Craig and these men in Calumet City exposed their wives to.

While part of me wants to condemn Craig, as he is obviously not telling the truth, based upon these firsthand experiences nearly 25 years ago, another part of me sympathizes for him. Even more so for his wife and his children. It’s sad that ideology, religion and other societal constraints force people into boxes that they can’t live in. Even worse, they allow themselves to become imprisoned and must resort to this awful life of lies and sexual russian roulette.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Maine's political ways get noticed

[Here's a provocative op ed from the Roanoke (VA) Times, about getting the money out of politics. The writer, Cabell Brand, references Maine's Clean Election Act.]

Let's get the money out of politics
by, Cabell Brand

The tragic collapse of the bridge on Interstate 35 in Minneapolis points out what I consider the basic problem in our American political system. The mayor of Minneapolis said, "Funds had not been available to keep the infrastructure of the United States in shape. We seem to have money for everything else."

Why is this? In Virginia, we recently saw the bitter arguments in our legislature about Virginia roads. A very simple solution was increasing the gasoline tax, but it was a tax increase. We worry about tax increases and lobbyists. The basic problem in each issue is money and politics. Let me explain.

The ineptitude of the federal government with disasters like Hurricane Katrina resulted partially from political cronies appointed to pay off campaign contributions. The problems with our health care system, and specifically the Medicare prescription drug legislation, are the influence of lobbyists from the insurance and pharmaceutical industry.

But the problem goes much deeper than this. Our politicians and our elected officials spend a major portion of their time raising money. The headlines about Republican and Democratic candidates for president emphasize how much money they have raised rather than what their policies are.

The weaknesses in our infrastructure go to every segment of our economy and society; 46 million people are without health insurance, including about 40 percent of all children.
America's society is now divided into two classes: the very rich and everyone else. What we always called the middle class is struggling today to make ends meet. The gap between rich and very poor is wider than ever.

The increasing problems of the middle class, with the loss of much of our manufacturing industry, may be inevitable with globalization. It has certainly been accelerated through NAFTA and fast-track foreign trade agreements, because of corporate pressure on our politicians -- Democrats and Republicans. Low-income people generally cannot make significant campaign contributions. It's the rich people, corporations and organizations that lobbyists represent that put undue pressure on politicians on every issue.

Select your favorite issue, any issue that requires government funding. Consider how the politicians would represent you, how they would vote differently, how they would think differently and how our policies could be more objective and realistic if they did not have to worry about raising campaign contributions.

If I could change one thing in our democratic political system it would be public financing of federal political campaigns for Congress and the president.

It's not just our road infrastructure that is deteriorating, but the funds for environmental issues, education, job training, student loans, national parks, investment in scientific research and so on. It's not immediately obvious how these problems directly relate to campaign contributions. But they do.

Getting the money out of politics would not get rid of the lobbyists, but it would reduce their effect on our legislation. Not making the politicians dependent on campaign contributions would let our elected representatives think more about the problems of the middle class, health care, low-income people and our country's infrastructure.

It's too bad that tragedies like Minneapolis have to happen before we give serious thought to infrastructure weaknesses and other problems in our society. Our society is crisis-oriented and not prevention-oriented. For example, very few health care programs, including Medicaid and Medicare, make provisions for physical examinations and basic health prevention issues.

This is the time to try to prevent bridge collapses and almost every other issue that depends on government revenue. Let's take the money out of politics and start a new movement toward public financing of federal political campaigns. Let's give our legislators an opportunity to develop realistic public policies.

The single biggest reason for public financing of federal political campaigns is that it would attract more qualified people into our political system. They would not be concerned with raising money. They could concentrate on getting support from our voting constituents.

Fortunately, some states have shown us the answer to this problem. Arizona and Maine have both passed public funding bills that are working very well. Both laws are voluntary, but more than 80 percent of Maine legislators now serve without having accepted any political contributions.

There is a bill in the U.S. Senate fashioned after the Maine law introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and a similar bill in the House. Current presidential candidates should be questioned as to whether or not they will make this basic change in the operation of our federal government a priority if elected president.

Cabell Brand is a Salem businessman and founder of Total Action Against Poverty.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The social responsibilities of business

While capitalism encourages greed and pushes business owners and others to seek profit above everything else, including people, not everyone puts mammon above responsibility to their fellow man and care of the earth’s resources.

There are a variety of business organizations that promote the common good and civic responsibility. One such organization in Maine, Maine Businesses for Social Responsibility, has been at that mission for over a decade, for almost 15 years, in fact. [sorry about no link to MEBSR--they're site is currently on the fritz.]

Edward Murphy, the Portland Newspaper's longtime business writer contributed this article to the Business Sunday section of Maine Sunday Telegram. Murphy’s informative feature shows an organization changing, trying to stay in tune to their original mission, while also adapting to the needs of businesses in today’s 21st century climate. To quote Borealis Bread’s Jim Amaral from the article, MEBSR is looking to introduce practical ways for businesses to make a difference.

"I felt they've always had a strong element of practical ways to be socially responsible and do it in a cost-effective way," Amaral said. "They're trying to do a better job of showing people how some of these programs could help."

While I was pleased to read that MEBSR is still going strong and trying to promote sustainable models of doing business, I had one minor bone to pick with a quote from Sanna McKim, MEBSR’s executive director.

In the article, McKim states that she believes most companies recognize that environmental consciousness—treading lightly on the environment, as well as providing solid employee benefits a good thing. She indicates that this is what consumers expect and often, reward.

I would disagree. If that were the case, the Wal-Marts and other big-box stores wouldn’t be springing up everywhere, steamrolling more community-minded businesses and kicking them to the curb.

I commend Ms. McKim and her organization, but I don’t think we’ve turned the corner yet, IMHO. Just take a drive up Turner Street in Auburn, Civic Center Drive in Augusta, or the Maine Mall area of South Portland, to name a few locales where big-box development, not sustainable practices dominate the landscape.

Here is related take on MEBSR, from Flyte's Rich Brooks.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

When print and writing mattered

I have a great deal of passion for Maine, which I hope is obvious in some of the things that I write about. Sometimes, passion can gain the upper hand and get the best of you, occasionally leaving you with egg on the face, or stepping in something worse.

The advent of blogging and the relative ease of putting up a blog site, in many ways, represent the digital equivalent of the bygone broadsheet, or political tract of the past, at least for some bloggers. These publications from the past covered a wide variety of subjects, including satire, politics, popular history and even poetry and the popular music of the day. These were precursors to what we know today as newspapers.

Newspapers no longer represent the sole source of news that they once did. Even 35 years ago, for a ten-year-old like me, reading the daily paper, particularly the morning sports, was part my morning ritual before school, with buttered toast, cereal and orange juice.

The art of journalism and the daily newspaper are in danger of becoming irrelevant or worse—ignored. Maine’s remaining dailies make me question why I bother with my morning 200 yard round trip to collect my newspaper. I stubbornly hang on, having just dropped the Lewiston Sun Journal, in favor of the Portland Press Herald (involving the old lesser of two evils coin flip), as well as subscribing to The Christian Science Monitor, which is mailed. Still, an occasional feature article, or commentary, or even the rare investigative piece reminds me why I fell in love with newspapers and have maintained an affinity for the printed page, for nearly four decades. I treasure The Monitor’s solid reporting, with its measured, take-a-step-back style of journalism. Even so, I need my morning fix of coffee and newsprint, served up local style. I don’t know what I’ll do if the Press Herald decides to lay off any more staff and waters down its product any more.

A nostalgic blast from Maine’s journalism past got delivered the other day, courtesy of the state’s Books by Mail program. I received John Cole’s classic, In Maine and have been thoroughly enjoying his essays, most written 30 years ago.

Cole, the renowned newspaperman and editor of first, The Brunswick Record, which later merged with Peter Cox’s Bath weekly, to become the Brunwick Times-Record, where Cole and Cox served as co-editors. Later, the two would start the Maine Times, which became the state’s last consistently solid alternative newspaper, given solely to hard news reporting.

For nearly a decade, Maine Times was the paper to read if you really wanted the scoop on the cutting edge news in the Pine Tree State. I remember seeking it out as a high school student and like a moth drawn to a flame, I devoured the latest investigative story on an aspect of my home state that I wasn’t going to read anywhere else. Pre-internet, publications like Maine Times is where you got your fix if you wanted unfiltered journalism with some bite.

Cole’s passion and zeal for Maine’s unique qualities comes throughout In Maine, whether he’s writing about fishing, which he loved, or skating across a sheet of ice on his beloved Merrymeeting Bay. For someone from away, Cole understood what made Maine (and still makes it) a unique place to visit, or call home.

Like John Gould before him, Cole grasped the culture and community peculiarities, which made him a perfect newspaperman. It’s interesting how these two men, both transplants, became spokesmen for their adopted home state.

If you’ve never taken the time to read Cole, I’d recommend the book of essays, or even a trek to the Maine State Library, at some point, to read through back issues of the Maine Times and reminisce about the days when print was king and newspapers and their writers, still mattered.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Don't get run over by the herd

Having perspective on a matter is vitally important. Seeing the bigger picture and not allowing emotions to control your decision making is a wise strategy for any endeavor. Nowhere is this more apparent than the recent example of “the sky is falling” drumbeat coming across the transom due to Wall Street’s recent wave of volatility.

I was somewhat reluctant to tackle this post, as me writing about success on Wall Street is the equivalent to Doug Mirabelli being asked to instruct the rest of the Red Sox on fine art of base stealing. In case my reference is lost on you non-baseball sorts, Mirabelli is a lumbering back up catcher who has 3 lifetime stolen bases in 12 MLB seasons. My point being, I obviously missed Wealth Building 101 whenever everyone else sat in, because I’ve never been very good at making large stores of cashish. While it seems like most other members of the middle class are all driving new cars, or at least vehicles that are 2-years-old, or less, I’m still tooling around in my 10-year-old Taurus wagon and intend to keep at it until the wheels fall off. Not having a car payment is a wonderful thing and I’ve grown attached to my trusty Ford, cassette deck and all. It does make you feel like you've missed a turn, somewhere, when people at business networking events, with less drive and determination are rolling up in luxury vehicles of various types. We do live in a consumptive society, where outward shows of wealth are in and intellectual curiousity and a willingness to help people aren't necessarily attributes for success in the 21st century, however. But I digress and got off topic.

There are a number of choices I made in life that have affected my net financial worth, so I’m not bemoaning those who fall into piles of dung and come out smelling like a rose. We are what we are. Like many areas of my life, however, I’m trying to live more intentionally and this even applies to my finances. While I haven’t hit the mother lode in the equity markets, my retirement portfolio isn’t doing badly. Hey, me having a portfolio to talk about is a bit of an inside joke, itself. This may be partly by accident, as I’m not one to check on my performance minute-by-minute, like some people I know. I’m in it for the long haul, diversified, with a healthy mix, weighted towards the blue chips, with some foreign exposure and some token socially responsible investing, like any good liberal would do.

It’s been my contention, for some time that much of our economic growth has been artificially enhanced, by speculative investing. Granted some people have made a boatload of money this way and have all the accoutrements to show for it. However, many of these same people might be thinking about diving out of a Wall Street window, given some of the recent rollercoaster-like activity of the Dow.

Much of this volativity, at least to my financially-backward way of thinking, is driven by overly extended lines of credit and by extension, over-leveraged holders of debt, artificially low interest rates (thanks to the Fed) and flat out greed. On that front, I’m not too worried. I’m not interested in flipping houses, or other assets, so my position bodes well for weathering the storm. Worse case scenario, if we see a total meltdown of the economy, circa 1929, I’ve got plenty of grassy area I can plow under and grow crops, rocky Maine soil and all. My better half and I both have bikes and I’m a decent shot with my trusty sidepiece.

Don’t get caught running with the herd. I’m shutting off the talking heads and lunatics like CNBC's Jim Cramer and taking a historical perspective on the market, looking at graphs like this one, this one and this one and not this one. I’d urge you to do the same. That might be better advice than many overpaid financial “gurus” gracing the plasma screens are offering, right about now.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Riding off into the political sunset

Their friendship goes back to when the father was president and he was asked to drop off a set of car keys for his son, home on break from college. For more than 10 years, these two have been joined at the hip politically and ideologically. They also forged a close friendship.

Karl Rove is riding off into the political sunset, after being, arguably, the brains of the Republican Party for the past decade and possibly longer. Certainly, Rove was the man behind the curtain, the veritable Wizard of Oz, orchestrating the political strategies and machinations of a party that rolled over Democrats with ease.

Not in modern memory has a political operative yielded the power and successfully waged ideological warfare like Rove. During the reign of George W. Bush, there have been few, if any, more controversial and polarizing Republicans than Rove.

The Rove/Bush team first teamed up during George W’s unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate, in 1978. Bush, the younger, then just graduated from Harvard Business School, was finding his way, politically. He lost to Kent Hance by 6,000 votes and off he went to Harken Energy, to try his hand (unsuccessfully) in the oil business.

In 1993, Rove became Bush 43’s advisor, on his first run for governor of Texas. Utilizing push polls and other controversial tactics, such as implying that her administration was riddled with homosexuality, Rove helped engineer the Bush upset of Democratic incumbent, Ann Richards. The Rove/Bush juggernaut was just getting warmed up.

In 1998, Rove was in the advisors seat, as Dubya won reelection as Texas governor.

Come 2000, it was Rove at the controls, running the Bush campaign for president. During the bitterly contested Republican primary, in South Carolina, it was alleged that Rove was behind the racist innuendo and push polling conducted against major Bush rival, John McCain. Utilizing the question, “Would you be more likely, or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he fathered an illegitimate black child?” There were also insinuations against McCain that he ratted out his fellow prisoners of war, while in captivity in Hanoi. Rove, if nothing else, was the master of these kind of slash and burn tactics and they served the strengthening Bush machine very well. Later, it was Rove who was the ringleader of the Republican mobilization on the ground in Florida, overseeing the recount in this hotly contested race between Bush and Al Gore. For his efforts and loyalty, Rove became Bush 43’s senior advisor.

Rove’s quest for power, however, may have been his ultimate undoing. While the damage from his political wake will be hard to undo and there are some who argue that it may be nearly impossible, Rove overreached his role in 2003, when it is alleged that he leaked the identity of CIA employee, Valarie Plame. While never substantiated, the modus operandi of “leak and run” fit Rove like a glove.

By 2006, the Rove political magic seemed to have left his fingers, when Democrats won control of both houses, despite his insistence that his insider polling claimed otherwise. With this defeat, Republicans began carping about Rove and whether his role was still needed. Being political animals first, many, particularly those with presidential aspirations were ready to throw Rove under the bus, eager to distance themselves from the Bush presidency and the growing whiff of scandal and incompetency that had attached itself to the Bush/Rove backside, like a pesky boil.

President Bush, loyal to a fault, resisted calls to fire Rove. Yesterday, Rove himself decided it was time to go and in an interview published in the Wall Street Journal, announced he was resigning, effective August 31.

Rove plans to return to Texas, spend time with his family and he intimates that he’ll possibly write a book. He’ll certainly have no shortage of material for such a book.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Urban crusader under close scrutiny, after shootings in Newark

Can one person make a difference? In our current era of cynicism, the pervading sentiment inveighs against a belief that public service with a vision can change things. Political corruption, leaderless organizations and corporate kleptocracy have wrung idealism out of the national psyche.

In Newark, New Jersey, a former Rhodes scholar, who grew up far from the gutted streets and harsh realities of this urban wasteland is waging a valiant battle against entrenched crime, corruption and gangsters run amok. Cory Booker, who was elected mayor of Newark, in 2006, believes he can have a say in shaping the future of this city, riddled with drugs and crime, restoring hope for its residents. The $100,000 question now, seems to be, will his policies and efforts be given the chance to run their course and take root?

Newark, like Gary, Indiana, has been beset by a tide of issues that have contributed to its current state of chaos and disorder. While there is debate among various theories, certainly federal policies, like those instituted by the FHA, such as redlining, helped promote flight to the suburbs, eliminating the city’s economic underpinning, as both middle class blacks and whites departed en masse. Manufacturing, enticed by tax policies, fled to areas outside the city, eliminating jobs. The emphasis during the 1950s and 1960s on building interstates, helped fray the social fabric of neighborhoods in the city. It also made it easier for former residents to live outside the city, while continuing to commute into the urban center for work. Additionally, the city hitched its future to offers from the federal government to construct large public housing projects, financed at 100 percent with taxpayer dollars. Eventually, Newark had more public housing, per capita than any other U.S. city. All of these factors and others helped contribute to the downward spiral of the past 50 years in Newark.

Into this chaotic mix, stepped the idealistic Booker, fresh from Yale Law School. In 1997, he arrived in the city as a legal presence. Confronted by locals and challenged to move into the crime-ridden miasma of the inner city, Booker set up shop in a run-down public housing complex in the city’s Central Ward. What he witnessed was the hardships of his neighbors, rampant political corruption and a city that didn’t function at even the most basic levels, providing baseline services such as electricity and garbage pickup. This prompted Booker to take on a 16-year incumbent for a seat on the city council and Booker pulled off the upset. As a Democrat, it would seem obvious that Booker would be able to build alliances with other councilors on the Democratically-controlled council, but Booker found himself outvoted most times, 8-1, by a machine that cared little about its people and more about maintaining the status quo and its lucrative system of graft and kick-backs.

Unable to utilize the machinations of politics, Booker was forced to staging events and inviting the media. Booker also waged battles at the grassroots level, where he wasn't averse to crossing party lines and aligning with Republican businessmen, like Peter Denton. They co-founded an education reform group, E3, which advocated for schooling alternatives, such as charter schools and vouchers for inner-city schoolchildren. At the time, this was a controversial solution, particularly for a Democrat, like Booker, even more so because he was African-American. Despite Booker's efforts, he failed to rally the support from the city’s political establishment. In 2002, he ran for mayor, against Mayor Sharpe James, who had been lording over his own political fiefdom in Newark since 1986. Despite running an energetic campaign, focused on real change for Newark, Booker lost a close election to James, who waged a racially divisive campaign, even going as far as questioning Booker’s African-American pedigree and stooping to anti-Semetic rhetoric, claiming Booker was Jewish and insinuating that he is a homosexual. Such is politics in our current era.

In 2006, James’ reign of corruption finally was run off the tracks. Facing federal indictment and multiple charges of corruption and using city funds for personal gain, James chose not to square off against Booker. Booker’s opponent, Ronald Rice, who was a stand-in for James, was trounced soundly, with Booker garnering 73 percent of the votes cast for mayor.

It’s one thing to win an election; it’s another thing to govern. In a city where the out-of-wedlock birthrate is 70 percent, an unemployment rate double the U.S. average and social dysfunction the norm, Booker’s faced a daunting task since assuming the reigns of power. His win hasn't been without implications of danger. Just prior to taking office, a gang-orchestrated plot to assassinate Booker was uncovered and foiled. He has been under 24-hour surveillance since.

With its proximity to Manhattan (only 15 minutes away by train), a world class airport and a shipping port where most of the area’s goods pass through, Newark’s cheaper business lease rates comparable to New York and an abundance of housing, much of it in historically significant buildings would appear to be a magnet. However, the city’s reputation as a dangerous place keeps young professionals—the kind of tenants that could revitalize the city—away.

Unlike any current high profile politician that I’m aware of, Booker doesn’t just talk the talk. He’s ventured into known gang areas of the city, basketball in hand, and challenged local kids to pickup games on the city’s blacktop courts. Granted, it will take more than a jump shot and a quick first step off the dribble to stem the tide of violent crime—but the symbolic nature of this shouldn’t be discounted. Additionally, Booker has ordered higher than normal levels of police in some of the city’s most notorious areas of drug and gang activity.

Booker embarked on an overhaul of the entire police department, hiring Gerry McCarthy, from the NYPD, to be his top cop. McCarthy brought with him a reputation of being a valiant crusader against the drug trade, after waging a successful campaign to stem trafficking in Washington Heights, prior to coming to Newark. This appointment wasn’t without its critics, as McCarthy, who is viewed as an outsider and white, was thought to be incapable of running a police department in a city with a black majority. So is the state of race in America.

All of Booker’s efforts, however, may have been for naught, when on Saturday night, August 4th, four teenagers, weeks away from heading off to college, were shot, execution style, in a schoolyard in Newark.

The reaction of the community has been that of anger, demanding that Booker do something, as if one man can turn around decades of neglect and corruption, in a span of months.

Donna Jackson, who heads up and organization called, Take Back Our Streets, was quoted as saying that “Booker doesn’t deserve another second, another day, while our children are at stake.” So much for gratitude for Booker’s Herculean efforts. Maybe he would be better off taking his Yale law degree, find himself a lucrative corporate gig and forget about saving Newark’s ass. Or, he could go the route of higher profile politicians, the kind that end up running for president, who know little about the realities of places like Newark, Gary, Youngstown, or any other urban war zone.

[I'm grateful for Steven Malanga's excellent article in the Spring 2007 issue of City Journal, about Cory Booker and the city of Newark; Malanga's piece, along with interviews from NPR helped me to have a better sense of who Booker is and provided important background on this urban crusader.]