Community Palette

The Arrogance of the D.C. Council and Mendelson

June 11, 2014

The arrogance of the D.C. Council may have hit a high point with the recent slight-of-hand by Chair Phil Mendelson with his last-minute, only 18 hours before the vote, tax plan. But this isn’t the first time they have blatantly disregarded voters and residents on issues. The D.C. Council overturned term limits voted on by the people; they put off the election of an independent attorney general, which the courts are now remedying, and they consistently slip in last-minute budget items for one group or another often to advance their own political interests.  While some of those last-minute items may be worthwhile, slipping them in without discussion constitutes a total lack of transparency and is wrong.

The arrogance of the Council chair was apparent when he said, “The burden is on the public to pay attention to what we’re doing,” when questioned about some of the last-minute provisions of the tax proposal he slipped into the budget. We pay Mendelson nearly $200,000 a year and Council members $125,000 for a part-time job as well as generous staff budgets so it is outrageous that he tells us to pay attention as an excuse for his wheeling and dealing behind closed doors.

The public has a right to expect better. The final report to the mayor by the Anthony Williams-led Tax Commission is 86 pages of detailed discussion and recommendations. The mayor made determinations on the appropriateness of the report to current tax policy and recommended a budget based on the set of recommendations he felt were appropriate at this time. He submitted his budget to the Council and held budget briefings for citizens in each of the city’s eight Wards. The Council held hearings on the budget and changes were made to the mayor’s budget.

What happened next is what is causing grave concern among many people in the District. Mendelson, maneuvering behind closed doors, made major changes to the budget he submitted to the Council for a vote. He apparently got clandestine agreement from a majority to approve this dramatically changed budget and agreement that no hearings were necessary. This clearly is not the way to run an open and transparent government. The question isn’t whether some of the changes were good, but rather that the Council chair and his minions should be required to make their case to the people and not proceed with this slight-of-hand.

It is my guess that Mendelson decided his seat was safe in the November election, and could coerce the Council members who are running in contested elections suggesting they couldn’t oppose tax cuts. Under his plan, millionaires will now get to pass on up to $5 million to their heirs with no inheritance tax.

In choosing which taxes to raise, Mendelson expanded the sales tax to a slew of new services but was careful to choose the ones he thought opponents would be less able to organize against. He decided not to tax law firms, non-profits and other businesses, which the Williams commission also suggested be taxed with a local services fee on non-government D.C. employers of $100 per employee per year. This fee would make up a little for the more than 1 million people a day who come into the District to work from Virginia and Maryland yet pay no taxes. It was designed to cover services they use such as police, fire/EMS and street cleaning.

One service Mendelson chose to tax was gyms, including trainers and yoga classes. He blatantly disregarded the fact that many people use these services for health reasons and often at the direction of their physicians. These services help seniors control their blood pressure and get off medication. They stem the growing diabetes epidemic, helping people get regular exercise and assistance in controlling their diet. I go to a trainer at the suggestion of my orthopedist after two knee replacements for regular and supervised exercise to help keep my knees limber and functioning. Regular exercise in a controlled environment can also stem the ravages of arthritis as people age.

Mendelson also disregarded the fact that the District already has a relatively broad sales tax base for services, covering 74 of a possible 183 services listed by the Federation of Tax Administrators. The District taxes far more services than Maryland (49) or Virginia (29).

I urge the Council and chair to rethink what they have done before taking the second vote on this budget on June 17. It is time to become truly transparent, which they all claim they want to be, and stop the slight-of-hand method of approving budget changes. If Mendelson feels confident these changes are what the people would approve if given the chance to weigh in on them, and he could be right, then have the guts to hold hearings giving the people their say.

This article was first published in the Washington Blade

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Is It Cool To Be An Independent?

June 2, 2014

Some voters believe that registering as an “independent” is a cutting-edge, even cool thing to do. That made me think about party labels, what they mean, and about those who reject party labels yet may want to vote in the primary of a party they made a conscious decision not to join.

I grew up in New York City and like D.C. most voters were Democrats. Many had experiences with discrimination and the Democratic Party was a comfortable political home. New York was a melting pot and home to many minority groups. There were Jews who escaped the Holocaust; Irish Americans whose ancestors escaped the famine; and Cubans who fled Castro. My parents weren’t political but mom was an activist fighting for everything from planting more trees, integrating schools and stopping Columbia University from taking over more of the Morningside Heights neighborhood.

At 12, I joined a local Democratic club. Being a Democrat meant joining the party of JFK, Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy. I was proud to be a member of the party that supported civil rights, women’s rights and, as I got older and came out, the party whose platform evolved to support the rights of the LGBT community. Disliking a candidate of my party didn’t lead me to become a Republican or an independent but rather inspired me to join with others in the party to push for change. We fought to elect progressive Bill Ryan (D-N.Y.) to Congress. We supported Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. Though we lost the presidency, we continued to fight for the principles we believed in within the party. We had an intra-party fight that resulted in Bella S. Abzug (D-N.Y.) being the Democratic candidate for Congress after Bill Ryan died.

Through the years, the party I choose has been more in tune with my beliefs than any other. So it’s perplexing that mayoral candidate David Catania, who is smart and an independent, found that the Republican Party matched his principles for all the years it did. He moved to D.C. in 1986 for college and for the next 16 years until 2002, when he was already an elected official, proudly called himself a Republican even supporting and contributing to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. He left his party and registered as an ‘independent’ only when it became clear the GOP didn’t support gay rights and actually worked to make things worse for the LGBT community. I figured that was for personal expediency to keep his seat on the Council not realizing until recently that it was more than that when he was quoted in the Washington Post saying, “The Republican Party that I grew up with disappeared a long time ago. As far as being an Independent, it’s a suit that really fits. I joke that I’ve been in one bad marriage and I’m not about to jump into another.” He needs to explain what principles the Democratic Party stands for that were so abhorrent to him as to consider it would be a bad marriage.

The ‘I’ label on the ballot means the person doesn’t identify with a particular party and voters don’t necessarily have an indication what they believe. What set of political principles do they espouse? What is it about my Democratic Party they find objectionable? Is it support for unions? LGBT civil and human rights? Public education, women’s rights, choice, equal pay for women, raising the minimum wage, removing impediments to voting or working to deal with climate change? If they agree with all those positions are they simply afraid to run in a primary or are they ‘independent’ simply for political expediency?

 Recently it’s been suggested that D.C. voters may be coerced or bullied into voting Democratic. That is absurd and offensive. People vote for candidates whose positions they like and who they feel comfortable with. When they do consider party in their decision, it’s often because it gives them a window into the candidates’ beliefs on issues that may not be part of the discussion in a particular election but are still very important to them.

Some ascribe the ethics problems in D.C. to a particular party. But ethics problems relate to individual candidates. Some might consider that George W. Bush being elected in 2000 caused more harm to District residents, especially those with family members in the military or National Guard, than lying on a mortgage application for which one D.C. Council member was appropriately indicted and convicted.

Positions, history and vision are important when considering who to vote for but don’t be coerced or bullied into not considering party affiliation when voting. It is one factor of so many in choosing a candidate. We have a Democratic president and likely will still have a Democratic Senate in 2015. During the term of the next mayor we will very possibly elect the first woman president, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. So one additional factor voters might want to consider in choosing a mayor is who will have more access to power to benefit the people of the District. Would it be a former Republican who walked away from his party to become an independent, or a woman who is a proud fifth generation, D.C. Democrat? Just more food for thought.

This column first appeared in the Washington Blade.


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Republicans Know Hillary Rodham Clinton Is a Force to Be Reckoned With

May 27, 2014

Interesting how the woman the apparatchiks of the Republican Party are suggesting is old and brain damaged still constitutes their worst nightmare. Republicans are throwing everything they have up against the wall to see if it sticks trying to keep Hillary Rodham Clinton from running for president.

Their problem is this woman who they are trying to paint as diminished in some way is clearly miles ahead in energy and brainpower from any of the people that want the 2016 Republican nomination. Reince Priebus, his cohorts on the Republican National Committee, and guys like Karl Rove are quaking in their boots at the possibility the Democrats will have Hillary at the top of the ticket and someone like Julian Castro (Mayor of San Antonio and nominated to beSecretary of Housing and Urban Development) as the vice presidential candidate. Democrats could actually win Texas in the 2016.

Of course those high approval numbers Hillary has now will come down during the rough and tumble of a campaign. But she only needs 270 electoral votes to win and Hillary will win every state that Obama won and may very well add West Virginia, Arkansas and even Texas among others, if Castro is on the ticket. The real Republican nightmare is that she will have skirt-tails and bring in a Democratic House and Senate with her.

Hillary would be the most qualified person to ever run for president. Her accomplishments have led her to consistently be the most admired woman in America. In the annual Gallup poll, "Hillary Clinton has been named Most Admired Woman a total of 18 times, more than any other woman in Gallup's history, including each of the last 12 years."

Americans no longer question her accomplishments because the record on that is clear. She has been a force in turning around how America is viewed by the world putting a welcoming face on America's foreign policy. She traveled the globe as secretary of state, meeting not only with kings, presidents and prime ministers, but with university students, women and children and was able to relate equally well to all of them. She modernized the State Department and earned the respect and support of all the brave men and women who serve in our foreign service. They know she fought for them and transformed their jobs by challenging them to adapt to emerging issues such as cyber security. She created the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications and the Bureau of Energy Resources in the State Department.

Hillary Clinton understands the role of economic statecraft and worked hard to make America an economic partner to the world. In her own words, "Economic statecraft has two parts: First, how we harness the forces and use the tools of global economics to strengthen our diplomacy and presence abroad; and second, how we put that diplomacy to work to strengthen our economy at home." Her success in that area is clear. Using economic diplomacy she helped grow exports of American goods to China by 50 percent in two years and did it because she understood that 800,000 U.S. jobs depend on the export of goods and services to China. She was able to facilitate closing the $21.7 billion deal for Boeing aircraft, the largest in Boeing's history, which was announced at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in 2011. Hillary understands that in most of the 294 embassies and consulates that the United States has around the world the discussions aren't about war but about the work needed to strengthen our ties to those nations to benefit their people and our own. Our representatives in those countries under Secretary of State Clinton worked to improve trade and bring needed jobs to people in the countries where they served and back home. That included an estimated $100 million contract for electric vehicles built by workers in Ohio and sold to Iceland.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has a vision for America that includes all of us. It is a vision that has been forged by hard work and an understanding of people both here and abroad. Hillary's instincts as a woman are to nurture but she combines that with a lethal intellect and a willingness to use force if necessary to secure the safety of the American people. Hillary understands that military power, economic power and political power are all part of America's arsenal but more than anyone else she understands that the use of this combined arsenal must have as its goal improving the human condition around the world. Hillary's efforts in Iraq to help end the war also resulted in 2 million girls going to school who weren't in school before. Hillary understands that this arsenal of power in the hands of the president must be used to strengthen families because when families are stronger we are all better off and safer.

Her innate abilities and her history of working for the American people is what so scares the Republican Party. From her early work for the Children's Defense Fund to being first lady of Arkansas and then first lady of the United States Hillary has shown she cares and is effective. Add to that her election and reelection as United States senator representing the people of New York to being secretary of state representing America to the people of world and Republicans understand that Hillary Rodham Clinton is such a formidable candidate that they will continue to use everything they can, including lies and innuendo, to keep her out of the race.

But many are asking her to run because they believe if she runs she will win. When Hillary Rodham Clinton is sworn in on January 20, 2017, as the most qualified, and first woman President, people around the world including more than half its population still striving for equality will gain a whole new respect for the United States of America and its people.

This article was first published in The Huffington Post.


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