St. Louis Oracle

St. Louis-based political forecasting plus commentary on politics and events from a grassroots veteran with a mature, progressive anti-establishment perspective.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Carnahan betrays progressives, backs Patriot Act extension

Regrettably but as expected, the U.S. House of Representatives voted last week to extend permanently nearly all of the major provisions of the USA Patriot Act. What wasn’t expected was its support by Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan of St. Louis.

The bill would give the government ten more years to conduct roving wiretaps and demand medical, business, bookstore and library records, and would make the Act’s remaining 14 provisions permanent. Without this legislation, all Patriot Act provisions would expire at the end of this year.

A coalition of Democrats and some conservative Republicans sought unsuccessfully to scale back many of the Act’s intrusive provisions, but those restrictions were not part of the bill that passed the House.

Progressives (including the Oracle) are outraged not only at the bill, but also at Carnahan’s vote. A discussion on the Arch City Chronicle blog was highly critical of the city’s freshman rep. Many feel betrayed.

It is noteworthy that this vote took place shortly after the threat of a major progressive primary challenge evaporated. Late last month, progressive favorite Jeff Smith announced that he would file for an open seat in the Missouri senate instead of seeking a rematch with Carnahan. Smith came within two percentage points of beating the heavily favored Carnahan in the 2004 Democratic primary.

Democrats, both nationally and locally, have been “moderating” their positions to the right in response to the 2004 election returns. Even those with progressive or liberal reputations, like party chair Howard Dean and 2008 presidential frontrunner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, have been following this course. They define the political playing field as the territory between them and their Republican foes, figuring their progressive supporters have nowhere else to go.

In this context it is apparent that Carnahan and his handlers are focusing on the area halfway between Russ and his ultra-conservative 2004 opponent, Republican Bill Federer. But a challenge from the left, either or both in the Democratic Primary and from an independent or third-party candidate in the general, would refocus the ideological playing field leftward where it belongs. The 3d District is no longer conservative, because of demographic changes and 2001 redistricting, so there is no apparent political benefit to pandering to the right.

The power of incumbency and the vast financial resources that go with it make Carnahan a prohibitive favorite to win reelection. What is needed is a principled progressive challenger who is not obsessed with winning or losing, and willing to make a sacrifice to make a point.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Looming 4th District primary highlights need for IRV

The hottest 2006 St. Louis area state senate contest is shaping up in the 4th District, where incumbent Democrat Patrick Dougherty is term-limited. The district comprises roughly the western half of the City of St. Louis, from Walnut Park on the north through St. Louis Hills on the south. Overwhelmingly Democratic, the winner is decided in the Democratic primary.

For the generation preceding 1991, the district was situated wholly in north St. Louis and its residents were mostly African American. When redistricting after the 1990 census forced the city to give up a couple districts, the two African American districts (the 4th and 5th) were reconfigured into elongated north-south boundaries with integrated populations and African American incumbents. Lacy Clay, son of the city’s African American congressman, won the 4th District without Democratic primary opposition.

The 2001 redistricting caused the 4th and 5th Districts to expand south into new predominantly white territory. The redistricting coincided with Clay’s midterm resignation to move up to succeed his father in Congress. In behind-the-scenes bickering, the Democratic committee nominated Dougherty to succeed Clay. Dougherty is white. In the succeeding election for the full term in 2002, African-American State Rep. O. L. Shelton challenged Dougherty one-on-one, but voters re-elected Dougherty by a surprising 2-1 margin. With Dougherty’s term at an end, African American politicians are hungry to take back a seat that many regard as rightfully theirs.

Looking ahead to 2006, the district seems to break down roughly this way: The northern third or so is solidly African American, roughly the middle third is racially integrated but predominantly progressive whites, and the rest (The Hill, Lindenwood, Southhampton and St. Louis Hills) is predominantly conservative whites. The district has a slight black majority in overall population, but the 2002 contest demonstrated that whites enjoy a majority among actual voters. A two-candidate black-white contest like 2002 would favor the white, but the contest would be competitive because a non-incumbent would fall well short of Dougherty’s margin. A 3-way contest with one major contender from each “third” of the district would be nearly even, with a slight edge to the African American. Except for conservatives in the south end, the district is overwhelmingly progressive.

But in a Democratic primary in the City of St. Louis with lots of ambitious and term-limited state reps eager to move up, things aren’t that simple. Two African-American state reps, Yaphett El-Amin and Amber Boykins, seem poised to run, and they would likely split the African-American vote. Two rising stars in the progressive white community, State Rep. Rachel Storch and near-miss congressional candidate Jeff Smith, have announced their candidacies and set up official campaign committees. If both continue their campaigns, they would likely split the progressive white vote. Fred Kratky, a conservative pro-business, pro-life state rep from St. Louis Hills (and former city Democratic committee chair), is also poised to run. So far no competition from the “conservative third” of the district has emerged, but that could change. The filing deadline is in late March of next year.

Moreover, a long-standing city Democratic tradition in geographically, racially or ideologically polarized contests such as this is the filing of additional “stalking horse” candidates who appeal to the same set of voters of one candidate but are actually friendly to a different candidate, to draw votes away from the favored candidate’s opponent.

In the absence of stalking horses (who typically emerge on the final day of filing), if all five of those candidates run, and are the only major candidates to do so, the favorite to capture the “plurality wins” contest would be Kratky, the most conservative candidate in a progressive district. It would take a substantial win in either the African-American or progressive white “subprimaries” to overtake him. Smith’s proven success at grassroots campaigning may give him the best shot at doing so, but it won’t be easy. The chances that the district’s progressive majority could be stuck with a conservative senator are high.

There is a solution to this dilemma if legislators would only consider it. Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is an alternative to the archaic “plurality wins” system. Instead of selecting a single candidate, voters would be allowed to rank the candidates as first choice, second choice, etc. If counting the first-choice votes fails to produce a majority for any candidate, the second-choice votes of the lowest finishing candidate would be reallocated among the higher finishing candidates, and the process would be repeated among third and subsequent choices until a candidate emerges with a majority. The cost, delay and lower voter turnout for a separate runoff election is avoided. IRV is already in place for municipal elections in progressive venues such as San Francisco and Cambridge, as well as in the most conservative venue imaginable, the Utah Republican State Convention. Other nations ahead of the U.S. in adopting this reform include Ireland and Australia.

An election decided by IRV would produce a winner that a majority of voters preferred over the next strongest contender, without requiring voters to sacrifice their real preference to a mere “lesser evil” to avoid “throwing the election” to someone worse. The system works in a crowded party primary, a multi-candidate non-partisan election (such as for school board) and multi-party general elections. Political dirty tricks like same-name and other stalking horse candidacies would no longer work under IRV. Principled third-party candidates like Ralph Nader and Patrick Buchanan and independent visionaries like Ross Perot would no longer bear the unfair blame for “spoiling” an election.

Legislators have been cool to the idea, though, because major parties like being able to manipulate the current system. Perhaps a “spoiled” primary like the 4th District, where there is no third-party scapegoat to bear the blame, will be the catalyst for reform.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Progressives shouldn’t filibuster Bush’s court pick

Ideological groups on both the left and the right are whipping their troops into a frenzy over the selection and confirmation of the next member of the U.S. Supreme Court, filling the vacancy created by the retirement of Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Abortion groups on both sides are particularly strident on the issue. The choice belongs to President George W. Bush, subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Conservatives are urging the president to appoint a strong conservative, and Senate Democrats are threatening a filibuster if he does. The showdown could produce far-reaching consequences that far exceed the relevancy of the selection.

Although a strong proponent of a woman’s unfettered right to choose whether to terminate her pregnancy, the Oracle believes that utilizing a filibuster to try to block confirmation of a perceived anti-abortion (or otherwise too conservative) nominee is unwise and may cost progressives even more in the long run.

To begin with, filibusters and the super-majority requirement to end them are fundamentally bad for democracy. The ability of a numerical minority to thwart the will of a numerical majority has long been a tool of the privileged classes to thwart populist initiatives and maintain the status quo. Super-majority requirements to pass needed increases in school taxes are just one example. Historically the filibuster was most utilized by southern Democrats (remember them?) resisting civil rights legislation (as well as President Lyndon Johnson’s eleventh-hour attempt to beat President-elect Richard Nixon to the punch in replacing Chief Justice Earl Warren). The filibuster is ideologically neutral, and can be used just as effectively to thwart progressive reforms when progressives regain control. Whoever relies on these tactics forfeits the moral high ground in the eyes of the public, because most Americans recognize the fundamental unfairness of minority rule and denying an up-or-down vote. Progressives would suffer significant harm to their credibility by utilizing and defending such undemocratic tactics. We would be better served by setting a precedent that undermines conservatives’ ability to use these tactics later.

Just as important is how little the tug of war over this particular appointment really matters. Presidents have always tried to select judges whom they believed would change (or reaffirm) the ideological tilt of the court in the direction they desired, and they have been strikingly unsuccessful in doing so. Mrs. Justice O’Connor herself is an excellent case in point. President Ronald Reagan wanted a conservative, not a centrist, when he appointed Mrs. O’Connor. Justice Potter Stewart’s retirement took place in Reagan’s first year in office, shortly after he rode an unapologetically conservative campaign to victory over incumbent President Jimmy Carter. Reagan was then still an ideologue. This vacancy was only the second since Roe v. Wade. Reagan was quite aware that conservative outrage over that decision had been partially responsible for his win, and that those voters would not stand for a repeat of the first post-Roe vacancy, when Republican Gerald Ford appointed John Paul Stevens. Reagan didn’t need to compromise to placate the U.S. Senate, because he had just swept the first Republican senate majority in 28 years into office with him. Reagan did consciously seek to select the court’s first woman member, but he turned to O’Connor because he wanted to appoint a conservative woman. Yet today, O’Connor is regarded as an important guardian of abortion rights.

History abounds with Supreme Court justices whose records on the court disappointed the presidents who appointed them. Recent examples include Stevens, O’Connor and David Souter (appointed by Bush’s father). Stevens and Souter are the current court’s two most liberal members. One of President Richard Nixon’s “conservative” choices was Harry Blackmun, the author of Roe v. Wade. On the Democratic side, President Bill Clinton’s two choices, Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, recently provided the deciding votes in controversial decisions favoring abusive corporate eminent domain and restrictions on medical marijuana. In both of those decisions, progressives found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with Justice Clarence Thomas, a Bush favorite.

Many of us have very low regard for this President’s intellect. The Democratic Party has done its part to nurture that perception. Are we now supposed to believe that this Dan Quayle-like dimwit will be smarter than Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton and virtually every other American president in foreseeing the judicial records of his choices to the Supreme Court?

This appointment isn’t worth the likely trainwreck over a filibuster. Senators should vote on confirmation with their consciences and put all senators’ votes on the record, but they shouldn’t preempt the vote.