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Lunchtime Photo

This is a picture of a pretty little wildflower taken shortly after a rainshower in Sumapaz National Park in Colombia. I’ve been unable to identify it, and there’s not a lot to go on here. Still, perhaps the hivemind can help. Does anyone know what this is?

August 8, 2019 — Sumapaz National Park, Colombia

“Our President Is Unstable”: Sen. Jeff Merkley Makes the Case That “It’s Getting Worse”

Senator Jeff Merkley has witnessed some atrocious scenes at migrant detention centers along the Texas-Mexico border. He described one where “hundreds” of children were ripped out of their parents’ arms and sorted into chain-link cages, standing in single-file lines from shortest to tallest. 

“The shortest one was in front and he was just knee-high to a grasshopper, maybe four years old,” Merkley told Mother Jones’ editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery in August at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. “I was stunned.”

Despite Donald Trump’s claims that he’s “the least racist person,” Merkley said the president’s anti-immigration rhetoric is rooted in racism. When Jeffery asked him if he thought President Trump was a racist, Merkley responded without hesitation, “Yes, I do.” 

Listen to Clara Jeffery interview Jeff Merkley on the latest episode of the Mother Jones Podcast below: 

“We have a president who campaigned on division,” said Merkley. “When he came into office he continued to pour fuel on the divisions, but he came to find the easiest target is immigrants. Immigrants not from Europe: immigrants from south of the border.”

Merkley made headlines last year when he live-streamed his attempt to look inside a former Wal-Mart that’s now home to 1,500 migrant children in Brownsville, Texas. The video went viral and ignited a national outrage about the treatment of people who were forced to live there. Soon after, he received permission to tour the facility and became the first member of Congress to tour that particular location.

Since then, Merkley has spearheaded legislative efforts to shut down detention centers for migrant children. His new book, America Is Better Than This: Trump’s War Against Migrant Families, tells the story of how he, a junior senator from Oregon with no experience on immigration issues in Congress, became a leading advocate for immigration reform against President Trump’s anti-immigration campaign. 

It’s clear that immigration will be a key issue in the 2020 presidential election. To beat President Trump, Merkley said, voters have a moral duty to speak up and fight back. 

“Lady Liberty’s torch has been snuffed out by this administration and we need to recognize that this is a pretty dark, heavy time for our country but we have an opportunity to change that; an opportunity in our daily conversations, an opportunity with our resources,” said Merkley, who will not be running for president, but, instead, will pursue re-election in the Senate. “But let’s also use our weight and time and energy to put America back on track in November 2020.”

The Trade Deficit Sure Has Exploded Under Donald Trump

I don’t have any special reason to post this chart today. It’s just a reminder that since President Deals took office, the US trade deficit has increased by about a quarter compared to the last couple of years of the Obama administration. As I recall, this is a metric that Trump loudly said we should judge him on.

Ocasio-Cortez Slams Republican Lawmaker for Wanting to Lend Guns to Friends

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) took a stand against universal background checks for gun possession on Wednesday, worried that he might be prevented from lending firearms to his friends. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was ready with a sharp response.

“You are a member of Congress,” the Democratic representative from New York tweeted. “Why are you ‘lending’ guns to people unsupervised who can’t pass a basic background check?…Why on earth would you do that?”

You are a member of Congress. Why are you “lending” guns to people unsupervised who can’t pass a basic background check?

The people you’re giving a gun to have likely abused their spouse or have a violent criminal record, & you may not know it.

Why on earth would you do that? https://t.co/TQFjcLQebO

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) September 4, 2019

Crenshaw tweeted his opposition to background checks in response to a news story about a woman in Houston who used a gun to defend herself against several men who attempted to rob her. Local news reported that two men reached through the driver’s side window of the woman’s car and grabbed her purse, but that she was able to grab her gun and fire two rounds, hitting one of the men, before they ran away.

Crenshaw responded to Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet with the comment, “Just so I’m clear: you think my friends are domestic abusers/criminals? Seriously that’s your argument? That they can’t pass a background check?”

Ocasio-Cortez shot back with another reply: “If a background check would be a problem, then you shouldn’t ‘lend’ a gun.”

You said w/ universal background checks, you wouldn’t be able to “lend” guns to friends.

If a background check would be a problem, then you shouldn’t “lend” a gun.

And btw, NY is one of the safest states in the country when it comes to guns, incl rural areas.

Try to keep up. https://t.co/4RV4DNg7FM

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) September 4, 2019

While federal law allows people to lend guns to recipients who aren’t prohibited from possessing them, it does bar lending guns to people who have been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence or who use unlawful controlled substances, among other restrictions, the Hill reports. 

A bill approved by the House in February would prohibit lending guns to those who haven’t undergone background checks in most cases. The measure hasn’t made any progress in the Republican-controlled Senate.

After Mass Shootings, Republicans Pass Laws to Loosen Gun Restrictions

Via Tyler Cowen, a new paper analyzes the response of state legislatures to mass shootings:

Democrats and Republicans respond differently to mass shootings…. Republican legislatures enact 32% more laws the year after a mass shooting than in other years…. When there is a Republican-controlled legislature, mass shootings lead to more firearm laws that loosen gun control. Our point estimates indicate that a mass shooting in the previous year increases the number of enacted laws that loosen gun restrictions by 115% in states with Republican-controlled legislatures.

The mind reels.

Climate Change Is Our Only Existential Problem

Michael Grunwald is no climate squish. He’s all in favor of radical action to fight global warming. But he’s not so sure about using it as a pretext to socialize the entire economy:

Then there’s the other climate radicalism, the GND idea that focusing on climate isn’t enough, that the entire system needs to change….The left is saying yes, we have a climate emergency, but also a health and jobs and justice emergency, all equally urgent. Conveniently, the left says the solution to all these emergencies is the same bold agenda the left pushed before the climate emergency. But politically, adding universal health care and the rest of the never-enacted liberal agenda to the climate ask seems risky, too.

I am willing to be less polite than Grunwald: this is madness. Either climate change is an existential problem or it’s not. If it is, then everything takes a back seat to finding a solution. If that requires progressives to compromise, then we compromise. What we certainly don’t do is pile on an endless list of additional demands that makes it ever less likely to gain a political consensus that we need to take serious action.

Climate change has already exposed the worst of conservatism, but it poses a test for progressives too. We have our own comfort zone and we naturally prefer climate plans that fit nicely into that zone. But what if the plan most likely to work is outside the zone? What if it includes some regressive tax elements? What if it requires that we expand our use of nuclear power? What if it takes priority over other things like universal health care and free college? What if it requires us to essentially bribe the fossil-fuel industry into cooperating?

I’m not saying it requires any of those things. But it might. Are we still willing to fight for whatever is truly most likely to work? How willing are we to move outside our comfort zone in order to avoid planetary suicide?

Parliament of Cowards

If Boris Johnson weren’t such a blithering jackass I’d almost feel sorry for him. I mean, what does Parliament want? They refused to accept Theresa May’s Brexit deal. They refuse to exit without a deal. They refuse to call a snap election. They refuse to hold a second referendum. They’ve basically refused to do anything.

Personally, I think a majority of MPs understand by now that Brexit is just a bad deal, but too many of them are afraid to say so publicly. They’re cowed by the Murdoch-indoctrinated old guy in Manchester who’s by God tired of Poles coming over and not speaking the Queen’s English very well. You’d think a few more of them could bravely stand up against the massive 52 percent Brexit vote and just call for a new referendum, but I guess not.

Many 2nd Graders Might Have Ignored a Troubled Classmate. This One Didn’t.

Welcome to Recharge, a weekly newsletter full of stories that will energize your inner hellraiser. See more editions and sign up here.

Christian Moore looked at an 8-year-old classmate crying in a corner. It was the start of the school year in Wichita, Kansas.

Christian wanted to help the second grader, Conner Crites, who has autism and occasionally gets overstimulated.

“Instead of overlooking him like most kids would have, [Christian] just reached over, grabbed his hand and made my son’s day better,” Conner’s mom, April Crites, 29, told the Washington Post last week.

A photo of the moment on August 14, taken by Christian’s mom and shared on Facebook, went viral. “It is an honor to raise such a loving, compassionate child!” Courtney Moore wrote in her post. “He’s a kid with a Big heart, the first day of school started off right.”

The students’ nascent friendship has continued through shared lunches and recess play. The two had a long playdate one weekend day, and Conner has asked if Christian can come by for a sleepover. The lesson of Christian’s kindness, Crites said: Everybody has a choice to help or ignore someone in need. “You could,” she said, “say something nice, hand someone a tissue who’s crying and make their day better.”

Here are more Recharge stories to get you through the week:

The wheels on the bus…go round and round more efficiently, thanks to an algorithm. This algorithm allowed the fleet of Boston school buses to eliminate 20,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions each day—and invest $5 million in savings back into the classroom. Two doctoral students designed the formula, which has enabled the system to remove 50 buses from the road. In 2017, the buses drove 1 million fewer miles. (Popular Mechanics)

One kick leads to another. One minute, soccer champ Carli Lloyd was just goofing around at an NFL training camp. Then she nailed a 55-yard kick. Now, people are asking: Could Lloyd, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and FIFA Women’s World Cup champion, become the first woman to play in the NFL? Within hours, a Baltimore Ravens assistant coach was on the phone, Lloyd said: “The coaches and his GM, they all saw the video. They were like, ‘What is she doing next week?’ I’m laughing about it, but the more I think about it, this has the chance to be sort of a pioneering moment for women.” (Washington Post)

A flight that made a difference. Speech pathologist Rachel Romeo found herself on an eight-hour international flight sitting next to a 10-year-old boy with severe nonverbal autism. His dad told Romeo it would be a rough flight, and the boy started shouting and hitting her before takeoff. Romeo put aside her academic work and started making drawings for him. “I made symbols for the things he was grabbing, for his favorite stuffed penguin, and for his dad.” The 10-year-old “took to it very quickly,” she wrote. “By the end of the flight, he had made several requests, initiated several times, & his behaviors had reduced quite a bit. The father was astounded—clearly no one had ever tried [such an] approach with him. I gave him the paper & showed him how to use it, and he nearly cried.” Communication, the MIT postdoctoral fellow wrote, is a human right, “and I was overjoyed to help someone find it.” Thanks to colleague Steve Katz for the story tip. (Twitter)

I’ll leave you with this flowing image from Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, via the Interior Department’s Twitter feed. Thanks so much for reading, and have a great week ahead!

The forest parts like a curtain by a gentle stream, revealing another beautiful scene at @RockyNPS. Photo by By Dan Mitler (https://t.co/7u0uZGuWtK) #Colorado #FindYourPark pic.twitter.com/OMcWOolEC6

— US Department of the Interior (@Interior) August 24, 2019

We Need to Radically Rethink Our Approach to Disaster Recovery. Here’s One Solution.

Scenacia Jones’ house on the east side of Houston is one big home improvement project. When I visited a few weeks ago, the sky-blue bungalow was scattered with a few telltale signs—half-full paint cans, plastic furniture wrap, and a couple of unhung light fixtures. It’s a far cry from what it looked like nearly a year ago, when Jones first moved in. Back then, it was just a little green pod, about the size of a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer. 

“It’s definitely been an experiment,” Jones, a 48-year-old single mother of two, tells me as she leads me on a tour of the house. “But I’d do it all again.”

Jones lost her home and most of her belongings in 2017, when Hurricane Harvey damaged or destroyed nearly half of Houston’s 500,000 homes. Almost exactly two years later, her life is finally starting to return to normal thanks to the pod, which was built as part of a local pilot project, called Rapido, that aims to revolutionize reconstruction after storms. Even under the best circumstances—when money from FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development is flowing, or with the advantages of personal wealth—it can take homeowners years to rebuild after disasters. A year after Harvey, nearly 10 percent of displaced Texans still hadn’t returned home; two years after, hundreds of families are still living in FEMA trailers. In low-income neighborhoods, which typically get fewer resources following disasters, recovery can be nearly impossible. As extreme weather events become more frequent because of climate change, the need to think creatively about rebuilding after disasters is more necessary than ever.

“Given the increase in frequency and severity in storms in just the past few years, coupled with the underinvestment in low-income communities, there is a great urgency to not simply configure climate change and environmental issues into housing issues, but consider them a fundamental component of them,” says John Henneberger, co-director of Texas Housers, which spearheaded the Rapido project.

The Rapido model is relatively simple: Following a storm, contractors or even volunteers can build “the core”—basically a 400 square foot pod—out of prefabricated, interlocking panels in about a week. The core, with a small living room, bedroom, kitchenette, and bathroom, serves as housing in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane. It resembles the temporary trailers FEMA drops in disaster-ravaged communities, but unlike those trailers, Rapido cores form the permanent base of the home. As funds and labor become available, construction crews add on to the core with conventional construction methods to build a full house. The homeowner can continue to live in the home as it’s built around her. Rapido houses are designed to be more wind resistant than the average house and are elevated on a pier and beam foundation to prevent future flooding. According to Henneberger, the entire building process should take three to four months and cost about $150,000. FEMA trailers alone also cost up to $150,000 each, but are only approved for temporary use.

The Rapido construction process

Courtesy Texas Housers

Texas Housers hopes their model could be the answer. They first got the idea for prefabricated, modular disaster-relief housing in 2005, as they watched the glacially slow recovery process after Hurricane Rita drenched Texas’ Gulf Coast. “We watched the state try to start up a program that would rebuild owner-occupied homes,” says Henneberger. “And we began to really see the underfunding of people of color and whole low-income neighborhoods being left out of the process.

In 2008, the group hosted a design competition to find a new model of post-disaster housing with the mandate to prioritize quick rebuilding for low-income families. The winning design was a temporary-to-permanent structure that allowed families to add on rooms, one by one, as they could afford it. The first 20 Rapido houses were built in the Rio Grande Valley in 2013, but the Joneses are the only family to actually live in the house while it was constructed around them, as it was designed. 

“We decided that one of the things that we could do is step back and work with low-income people of color who had been through a disaster and try to look at the problem of recovery from their point of view,” says Henneberger, who won a MacArthur genius grant in 2014 for his work in post-disaster housing. “And that’s what Rapido is really trying to do. It’s a design approach to housing that’s based on this concept of a temporary house becomes a permanent house. But it’s also much more.”

Take Jones. She moved her family from Chicago to Houston in late 2008, not too long after another hurricane, Ike, had torn the city apart. They moved so her son, who has a rare chromosomal disorder, could receive care at Texas Children’s Hospital. Between relocating and near-constant hospital stays, money was tight. Still, whenever she had some spare cash, Jones started tucking it away in her “hurricane stash,” to use in case of emergency. She’d heard horror stories of people trying to evacuate but running out of gas because, with power outages, ATMs were down and none of the gas station credit card readers worked. By the time Harvey hit, she’d collected about $300.

“I didn’t know how far that $300 was going to take me, but I was going to use it,” she said.

It got her all the way to Dallas, where she and her kids waited out the storm. When they came home, almost all of their worldly possessions had been destroyed. The shelter they were staying at flooded, so the family moved into a hotel. The storage unit the family rented to keep their personal belongings in also took on water, so Jones and her daughter reluctantly put all of their rotting furniture and family photos in the trash. Jones had been saving for years to buy a house, but that dream seemed to be washed away in the storm too. Until she found out she was selected for the Rapido program. 

“I’m screaming, I’m excited, I’m crying,” Jones says of her reaction to the news. “I got a house! I got a house! I got a house!”

Other policymakers have also looked at how prefab materials could aid in speedy and economically efficient disaster recovery. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA allocated $400 million for a modular home pilot project along the Gulf Coast. New York City utilized modular homes to hasten the rebuilding process after Hurricane Sandy. Prefab homes have been suggested as an option to help rebuild wildfire-ravaged California, since they can be built to meet the state’s stringent fire and earthquake requirements. Modular housing could have other uses, too: Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders gave a shoutout to zero-energy modular houses in his climate plan as a way to help low-income families reduce energy consumption. Earlier this month, the Center for American Progress recommended modular construction as a way to address the affordable housing crisis, which has been worsened by extreme weather events like flooding and wildfires.

“When it comes to disaster recovery, there are two things that are never on your side: time and politics.”

But the attempts to integrate modular housing into disaster recovery has so far been largely unsuccessful. In New York City, the modular homes weren’t built until five years after Sandy. Despite its acclaim in the 2000s, the post-Katrina FEMA-funded pilot project never really caught on. With money from the feds, Mississippi was supposed to build 3,500 manufactured “Katrina Cottages” to accommodate those displaced by the storm. Ten years later, less than 100 had been constructed. Louisiana’s version of the program was more successful, but not by much. As one of the housing advocates involved in the Mississippi project wrote, “Almost all of us associated with [the project] failed to appreciate the difficulty of changing the way business is usually done, whether we’re talking infrastructure planning, zoning, housing finance or construction. As disaster recovery researchers note, the push in the wake of the trauma is to get things back to the way they were as quickly as possible, even if the way things were may have contributed to the community’s ability to recover more quickly.” 

So how scaleable is Rapido? Its success largely depends on government’s investment in it, says Earl Randall, who worked at HUD from 2000 to 2018. Though it has so far been funded by charitable organizations, any version of the project that’s implemented on a large scale would need federal support. And here’s the snag: the program’s hallmark is its requirement that communities pre-plan for disasters, a strategy experts call “precovery.” In order for Rapido to be, well, rapid, the core’s panels need to be manufactured before disaster strikes so they can be deployed immediately. But right now, most disaster recovery planning happens after the fact. Local governments often don’t have pre-arranged recovery plans, and Congress only approves federal housing recovery funds on an as-needed basis, after the damage has been assessed. 

“When it comes to disaster recovery, there are two things that are never on your side: time and politics,” says Randall. “On the housing recovery side, there’s always a push to find a method that’s quick, that’s effective and that bridges that gap between immediate response and long term recovery.”

FEMA funds are usually the first to reach communities, but the agency’s mandate requires that they only fund temporary shelter, which puts the Rapido program in a bit of a gray area. After Louisiana suffered a catastrophic flood in 2016, FEMA asked Henneberger to help officials in Baton Rouge develop a similar program. It seemed promising, but FEMA officials clarified, “the discussions [were] not to supplant any federal direct housing options,” like trailers or hotel vouchers, and the project ultimately went nowhere. HUD funds could, in theory, be used for Rapido projects, but the money trickles down slowly, often over years. To manufacture the Rapido panels ahead of time, local governments would have to foot the bill. Of course, they are reluctant to do this for fear they won’t be reimbursed. 

To add to the post-disaster bureaucracy, many cities have zoning or permitting ordinances that prohibit manufactured structures on residential property. Local laws have to be formally amended to allow for alternative rebuilding practices.

“Activities like [permitting] tend to take a lot of time after disasters, and those are the things that are bottlenecks of disaster recovery,” said Sara Hamideh, an Assistant Professor of Coastal Resilience at Stony Brook University. Without the ability to temporarily amend or nullify certain building codes in Houston, it took Jones a full year after Hurricane Harvey to even be allowed to move into her Rapido core.

But things might be changing. This year, Texas passed its first-ever precovery law, which allows certain disaster-prone counties to submit a housing recovery plan to the governor for pre-approval. One of the provisions allows local government to suspend certain local permitting laws in the case of disaster. Henneberger is hopeful reforms like these mean they can start expanding the Rapido program. They’ve even created an online instruction manual to help other communities adopt the model. 

“If Texas has been able to do it, then pretty much any other state should be able to do it too,” said Hamideh.

There’s also the Reforming Disaster Recovery Act of 2019, which is currently working its way through Congress. The bill would essentially pre-appropriate disaster recovery grant funds from HUD to disaster-prone states, so they can pre-plan for the worst. Seventy percent of those funds would be required to benefit low- to moderate-income people. The bill unanimously passed the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations earlier this summer. 

Henneberger says Jones’ move into a Rapido home shows that the model can be successful. The Texas Housers and their community partners are already planning for the next storm. With the help of state officials, they hope to quickly roll out a moderate-scale Rapido test next time disaster strikes.

Meanwhile, Jones’ Rapido experiment is almost over. She’s gone back to tucking away money in her hurricane stash whenever she can, but that’s not enough to make her want to leave the city. 

“Now that we’ve got a house, Houston is finally home.”

Is Tax-and-Dividend a Good Idea?

Yesterday I wrote that carbon taxes, by their nature, are regressive: they hurt poor families much more than richer families. To take care of this, most carbon tax proposals these days are versions of “tax and dividend,” in which part of the money is rebated to low-income families. I didn’t think much of that:

But now you have a different problem. The whole point of a carbon tax is to make energy more expensive so that people will use less of it. But if you just give the money back, it means people can use their dividend to partially offset that higher cost. They can go on using the same amount of energy as always with minimal pain.

This immediately brought me into the crosshairs of a surprisingly eminent group of economists, who unanimously say this just isn’t true. And according to conventional economics, they’re right. Here’s the argument:

Let’s say you double the price of gasoline from $3 to $6. That would raise about $2,000 from the average person. The goal, obviously is to get people to use less gasoline by making it more expensive compared to other options. Some people might start taking the bus to work. Some people might trade in their gas-guzzler for a Prius, or maybe even an electric car. Others would just cut down on driving around town.

But the effect on the poor would be dramatic. An extra $2,000 expense is bad enough if you earn $60,000 per year, but it’s devastating if you earn $20,000 per year. So let’s say we rebate $1,500 to all low-income families. It still causes them some net pain, but it’s now proportionate to what middle-class families feel.

So far so good. But here’s where the disagreement comes in. Conventional economics says the rebate has no significant effect on buying behavior. It’s just a slug of money that increases your income a bit. The price of gasoline is still way higher than it was before, and a slight income increase doesn’t change that. You still have roughly the same motivation to cut back that you did before.

But I don’t believe this, even though it’s textbook micro. Here’s the thing: this is a carbon tax rebate, and humans are not rational actors. That matters. There are three things that are likely to interfere with the textbook version of how a rebate would work:

  • Mental accounting. This is a cognitive bias attributed to Richard Thaler and supported by a considerable amount of empirical evidence. What it says is that although people should treat all money the same, in reality they don’t. They mentally put money in compartments where it’s “saved” or “reserved” for specific things. In the case of a gasoline tax rebate, people would almost certainly view it as “gasoline money” designed to offset the higher cost of gasoline. This lessens the incentive to cut back produced by the higher price.
  • Loss aversion. This is a well-known cognitive bias and it means that people really, really hate to lose things they already have. It’s normally applied to goods and money, but it applies to lifestyle changes too. Most people hate to cut back on things they’re used to far more than is rational given the strict dollar value of the cutback.
  • Elasticity. This is specific to carbon taxes. Long experience has shown that high prices for gasoline and other forms of energy have only modest effects on consumption. One of the reasons is that for most people in most places, there are very few good substitutes for a car. So if gasoline prices go up, you suck it up somewhere else instead of cutting down on your driving. This means that carbon taxes tend to have modest effects to begin with, and this is the backdrop against which the two cognitive biases above play out.

Now, just to be crystal clear here: I’m not saying that a rebate eliminates the effect of higher gasoline prices. But I am saying that it weakens it, and I think it would be worth some study to figure out just how effective a tax-and-dividend plan would be in real life. My own guess is that at modest levels it would end up being too weak to be worthwhile, and at high levels it would be politically impractical. But that’s just my guess.

POSTSCRIPT: There’s an oddity here that might have already occurred to you. If a carbon rebate activates a mental accounting bias, why not just rebate the money some other way that’s not associated with the carbon tax? And we could do that. For example, we could impose a gasoline tax and pair it up with a reduction in the Social Security tax, which would favor poor families. Would that work? Probably! That really would be a slug of money out of nowhere and families would (a) barely notice it, and (b) not associate it with anything in particular. They’d just compare their income to the price of stuff they want to buy, and since the price of gasoline is way higher than it used to be, they’d buy less of it.

That seems pretty peculiar, but severing the rebate from the tax really would be a smart move. You’d still have elasticity problems to deal with, but even those get more tractable over the long term.

North Carolina GOP Cries Uncle. Or Has It?

Today a three-judge panel unanimously ruled that North Carolina’s state legislature was illegally gerrymandered. Those of you who have followed this story won’t be surprised: North Carolina’s history at both the local and congressional level is so egregious that it’s all but impossible to justify. The only unusual part of the whole thing is that the North Carolina GOP, which for years has been shamelessly defending itself against all odds, has given up. After the ruling was announced, they released a statement saying they wouldn’t appeal. Why? Rick Hasen provides a few possibilities:

  1. They know they will lose in the Democratic-dominated state supreme court, and there is no viable path to federal court review.
  2. They would rather NOT get a holding from the state Supreme Court (this was a three-judge trial court ruling), which would have greater precedential value.
  3. They hope they would have a better chance to have their “nonpartisan” map accepted by the Supreme Court if they throw in the towel (that is, they are trying to avoid a worse court-drawn map).
  4. They will use this ruling to run against the Supreme Court and try for a state constitutional amendment to give them the right to engage in partisan gerrymandering after the 2020 census.

Whatever the reason, it’s a sure bet that North Carolina Republicans haven’t really given up. They are simply hellbent on making sure that both blacks and Democrats never get representation equal to their numbers. Keep a close eye on this. It’s not over.

North Carolina Judges Toss Out Gerrymandered Maps as Unconstitutional

On Tuesday, a panel of three judges ruled that legislative districts drawn by Republican lawmakers for state legislative races “do not permit voters to freely choose their representative” and therefore qualify as partisan gerrymandering. 

The striking decision in Common Cause, et al v. Lewis found partisan gerrymandering “contrary to the fundamental right of North Carolina citizens to have elections conducted freely and honestly to ascertain, fairly and truthfully, the will of the people.”

According to the ruling, the maps were purposefully created in 2017 to maintain a Republican supermajority in the state legislature. North Carolina has a long history of voter suppression, but the judges deemed these maps “tainted by an unconstitutional deprivation of all citizens’ rights to equal protection of law, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly.”

Although the US Supreme Court ruled in June that partisan gerrymandering cannot be challenged in federal court, North Carolina’s constitution prohibits the practice via the state constitution’s Free Elections Clause, which states that “all elections shall be free.” Partisan gerrymandering flies in the face of the spirit of this demand. “It is not the will of the people that is fairly ascertained through extreme partisan gerrymandering,” the judges said. “Rather, it is the will of the map drawers that prevails.”

BREAKING: We just won our North Carolina partisan gerrymandering case, Common Cause v. Lewis!https://t.co/UwTnnQeDRm

— Common Cause (@CommonCause) September 3, 2019

The map drawer, in this case, was Thomas Hofeller.

Hofeller, a GOP redistricting mastermind who worked with the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, was hired by North Carolina to help redraw the state legislative maps after the federal court tossed out the racially gerrymandered districts from 2011. After he died, documents were turned over to the court and became linchpin evidence of the purposeful nature of partisan gerrymandering.

In Hofeller’s documents, the court found “hundreds of files focused overwhelmingly on each party’s expected vote share in the draft districts and on the identities and party affiliations of the incumbent members in each district.” The decision notes this was “persuasive evidence that partisan intent predominated in the drawing of the 2017 Plans.”

The maps in question were created in 2017 after a federal court threw out the old legislative districts for racial gerrymandering, but the new maps were also challenged for attempting to cement a Republican majority. Republican David Lewis, who chairs the state’s Senate Committee on Redistricting, openly discussed plans to create partisan districts. In November 2018, a group of North Carolina voters, the Democratic Party, and Common Cause, a voting rights group, filed a lawsuit on the grounds that the maps violated the state constitution.

Jowei Chen, a University of Michigan political scientist who works on voting maps, documented starting discrepancies in the maps. He determined, and the court agreed, that the redrawn districts “cannot be explained by North Carolina’s political geography.” In simulating potential plans, North Carolina’s 2017 maps appeared as a vast outlier in certain measures of map fairness, such as splitting of municipalities and compactness of districts.

Lawmakers in the state have until September 18 to prepare new maps, which may crack a window for Democrats as the 2020 election season approaches. If they retake a majority in the state legislature under fair maps, it would put them in charge of redrawing maps after the 2021 census in North Carolina, which would be crucial in the wider push by Democrats, led by Eric Holder, to fix lingering gerrymanders by Republicans.

The Rehab Racket Is Still a Racket

A few years ago we ran a piece called “The Rehab Racket,” a close examination of the seamier side of drug and alcohol rehab facilities in the United States. A few months ago, Julia Lurie followed this up with a look at the “Florida shuffle,” an insurance scam in which addicts are paid to occupy beds at faux rehab facilities while counselors continue to feed their addictions.

This is all still going on, of course, and my friend German Lopez at Vox is crowdsourcing stories from addiction patients and their families about their experiences with rehab. The first one is here. If you or someone you know has a story to share, just click here.

Lunchtime Photo

This is a cat finch in my sister-in-law’s backyard. It’s not an especially noteworthy bird, but it is a cat finch. This one spent most of its time hopping from one feeder to another.

May 6, 2019 — Fairfax, Virginia

Walmart Will No Longer Sell Handgun Ammunition

Walmart will stop selling ammunition for handguns and certain types of short-barrel rifle, the company announced Tuesday.

The retail giant made its decision in response to a shooting that killed 22 people in its El Paso store last month. In a memo sent to employees, CEO Doug McMillon cited additional shootings in Dayton, Ohio and Midland and Odessa, Texas as factors in his decision.

“We want what’s best for our customers, our associates and our communities. In a complex situation lacking a simple solution, we are trying to take constructive steps to reduce the risk that events like these will happen again. The status quo is unacceptable.”

In 2015, facing mounting public pressure, Walmart stopped selling military-style assault rifles. With today’s announcement, the nation’s largest retailer has gone a step further. “After selling through our current inventory commitments, we will discontinue sales of short-barrel rifle ammunition such as the .223 caliber and 5.56 caliber that, while commonly used in some hunting rifles, can also be used in large capacity clips on military-style weapons; We will sell through and discontinue handgun ammunition.” The company will also stop selling handguns entirely in Alaska. (Walmart stopped selling handguns in the rest of the US in 1993.)

McMillion also said that in a string of recent instances, gun rights activists attempting “to make a statement and test our response have entered our stores carrying weapons in a way that frightened or concerned our associates and customers,” calling these actions “concerning” and something they’d “like to avoid.”

“We are respectfully requesting that customers no longer openly carry firearms into our stores or Sam’s Clubs in states where ‘open carry’ is permitted.”

The move, a momentous development in the nation’s gun debate, came with a direct call for action from Congress. “Finally, we encourage our nation’s leaders to move forward and strengthen background checks and to remove weapons from those who have been determined to pose an imminent danger.”

“As we’ve seen before, these horrific events occur and then the spotlight fades. We should not allow that to happen. Congress and the administration should act.”

Walmart will discontinue its handgun and short-barrel ammunition sales once its inventory runs out.

Tech Is No Panacea for the Classroom

The Wall Street Journal reports that parents are starting to have a few wee concerns about digital classrooms:

When Baltimore County, Md., public schools began going digital five years ago, textbooks disappeared from classrooms and paper and pencils were no longer encouraged. All students from kindergarten to 12th grade would eventually get a laptop, helping the district reach the “one-to-one” ratio of one for each child that has become coveted around the country. Teaching apps and digital courses took the place of flashcards and notebooks.

Despite the investment, academic results have mostly slipped in the district of about 115,000 students. Over the last decade, American schools embraced technology, spending millions of dollars on devices and apps, believing its disruptive power would help many children learn faster, stay in school and be more prepared for a competitive economy. Now many parents and teachers are starting to wonder if all the disruption was a good idea.

Did educators and parents really believe that laptops and tablets and proprietary software would help kids learn faster? If so, did they have even the slightest evidence that this was true? It sure seems unlikely to me. My offhand guess is that it makes no difference, and my backup guess is that might harm learning. Do we really want kids associating learning with the same device that they use to play games, watch videos, chat on Facebook, and compare Juul flavors? I fully understand that I’m a dinosaur, but I think learning should be associated with a separate, serious environment that is explicitly dedicated to doing things that might be hard.

But I suppose I’m wrong.

How to Stop Russia From Attacking and Influencing the 2020 Election

The Russians are coming. 

That’s the message about the 2020 election from FBI Director Chris Wray (who this summer said Moscow is determined to interfere in the next presidential contest) and from former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats (who warned that Vladimir Putin’s regime and other foreign actors will concoct new methods for messing with American politics in 2020). Yet Donald Trump and his administration have done little to signal that thwarting another Russian attack—or an assault on the election from any other source—is a priority. In the months before Kirstjen Nielsen was booted from her post as Department of Homeland Security secretary, she was instructed not to raise with Trump the issue of preventing Russian interference in 2020. (Any talk of Russia’s attempted subversion of US elections apparently irks Trump—as it should, for his election victory is indeed tainted by Moscow’s intervention.) And Trump, who has never fully acknowledged Putin’s attack in 2016, recently noted that he would accept secret help, in the form of dirt on a political rival, from a foreign government for his reelection campaign. That remark, his call to allow Russia to reenter the G8, and his general Russia-didn’t-do-anything stance certainly send a signal to Putin: Feel free to do it again. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked votes on a variety of election security bills. 

All of this is particularly maddening because there are steps the US government could take to prevent a repeat of 2016 or something worse. A new report released by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, chronicles what other Western governments have done to counter Moscow’s efforts and outlines steps that could be adopted in the United States to beat back an attack on the next election. (CAP was founded by John Podesta, who certainly cares a lot about Russian attacks: When he was chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, his emails were hacked by Russian operatives and leaked by WikiLeaks through the final four weeks of the 2016 campaign.)

The study, written by James Lamond and Talia Dessel, notes that “Russia is consistently shifting and updating its interference tactics, making it even harder to protect future elections,” and the paper examines several case studies of Russian intervention since the 2016 election. In 2017, Moscow sought to influence the French presidential election to boost the odds for Marine Le Pen, the National Front candidate running against Emmanuel Macron on an anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-NATO, and pro-Russia platform. During that race, Russia mounted a disinformation campaign using rumor and forged documents, cyberattacks on campaign officials, and a leak of stolen data. That same year, Russia-linked trolls and bots amplified the messages of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, known as the AfD, in Germany during the federal election there. (The Kremlin also boosted the themes of the left-wing anti-fascists—a sign Moscow was aiming to sow overall political discord.) In 2018, Russian state propaganda outfits consistently smeared Sweden, while a populist, anti-immigrant party was vying for power in that country’s election. In 2019, Russia-linked operatives used disinformation efforts during elections for the European Parliament to suppress voter turnout. 

Moscow’s information warfare in these cases had mixed results. Despite what the report calls “perhaps the most expansive foreign interference campaign Russia launched since the 2016 American election,” Macron decisively vanquished Le Pen. (Her party, though, had been rescued from financial trouble with a $12.2 million loan from an obscure Russian bank. And Le Pen reaching the run-off that she lost to Macron might have been a Russian success.) In Germany, Angela Merkel secured her fourth win as German chancellor, but the far-right AfD achieved its own victory, becoming the third-largest party in the Bundestag. The Swedish election led to a loss in seats for the center-left and center-right parties and a boost for the anti-immigrant party. The European Parliament election resulted in small gains for the anti-EU parties likely favored by Moscow but it yielded less of an anti-EU wave than widely expected. 

In each of these instances, the CAP report details, governing forces took actions to foil Russia’s attempts at undermining democracy. The French government provided cybersecurity seminars for political parties. (La Pen’s National Front, for some reason, did not accept this assistance.) And France’s national election commission and its national cybersecurity agency frequently warned the public, the media, and the parties of the risks of cyberattacks and disinformation. The outgoing president, François Hollande, privately warned Putin not to mess. Various media outlets and Google implemented fact-checking projects to counter disinformation. And a traditional media blackout—imposed in the final days of French campaigns—prevented the widespread dissemination of hacked material that was leaked with the intention of harming Macron. Throughout the campaign, the government and Macron’s campaign constantly informed the public of the threat of foreign intervention. 

The German government adopted measures to fortify its cybersecurity to protect its election system. It developed a “hack-back” strategy that included the use of possible offensive cyberattacks against hackers. Merkel’s government conveyed a clear message to the Kremlin: Russian interference would not be tolerated. It offered assistance to political parties to strengthen their cyber-defenses. Merkel’s government frequently reminded the public of the threat of Russian interference. And, the report notes, “With the encouragement of the German government, all the political parties, with the notable exception of the Russia-aligned AfD, pledged not to use social media bots, and parties also pledged not to use leaked information.” (Germany also uses paper ballots—a system, the CAP report points out, that’s tougher to manipulate from the outside.)

The Swedish government regularly issued updates about its plans to secure the election and ran a program to educate voters about the threat of interference. Swedish media developed a joint fact-checking operation to call out foreign disinformation. (“The incredibly forceful and proactive approach from the government is perhaps the most important lesson from the Swedish experience,” the report states. “Unlike many other Western governments that were caught off guard by Russian interference, the Swedish government was prepared and vigilant, working through multiple channels to prevent Russia’s interference campaign from being more effective.”) In the run-up to the European Parliament elections of 2019, the EU established a Rapid Alert System that allowed member states to share information about disinformation schemes. (The RAS, however, had a spotty record.) The EU also created a task force to identify Russian disinformation campaigns and produce public reports about Moscow’s efforts. The CAP study also notes that the 2017 Dutch election apparently occurred without any serious Russian involvement—and that might be because the Dutch government engaged in robust preparations that may have undercut Russian efforts to mount disinformation efforts there and to hack the email accounts of Dutch officials. 

So what can the United States gather from all of this? Well, not surprisingly, CAP has drawn some lessons and proposes a set of recommendations. The first lesson: “A forceful government response is the most important deterrent and mitigating factor.” And that would entail sending Moscow a “clear, bipartisan message” to keep away or risk severe punishment, including tough sanctions. Lesson two: Develop situational awareness among voters. As the authors put it, “Public awareness about foreign influence campaigns is perhaps the single most important defense against such interference and an essential tool toward building a resilient democracy.” The paper recommends that Congress hold hearings to highlight how Russia supports fringe political outfits around the world and that legislators should require the government to notify the public when foreign interference in American politics is detected. CAP also calls for media outlets to “refuse to quote stolen material that clearly has been released as part of an influence operation by a foreign power, as this creates a reward or incentive for Russia to hack and release stolen information.” It urges the adoption of a paper-ballot system and stricter regulation of foreign money in US political campaigns. 

This is a fine wish list. There are obviously some immediate roadblocks, such as Trump, Trump, and Trump. And, oh yes, the Republicans. Trump and his cronies will not be formulating a robust, comprehensive, and bipartisan strategy to impede Putin anytime soon. McConnell has even managed to bring the Federal Election Commission, which could more vigorously investigate the flow of foreign money into American politics, to a standstill. (In 2016, McConnell single-handedly prevented the Obama administration from presenting a bipartisan warning to the public by refusing to participate in any effort to call out Moscow, perhaps fearing that would place him at odds with then-candidate Trump, who was falsely claiming Russia was not interfering in the election.) And it will be damn hard to persuade American reporters to eschew hacked material that is publicly released. Moreover, the US voting system is a crazy quilt of local systems, many under-financed; it is difficult to implement defensive reforms that cover all of it. 

But this report shows that American democracy need not be vulnerable to Moscow manipulation or assaults from other quarters. Even with Trump and his GOP comrades refusing to honor their obligation to defend the country, other players can take defensive actions. Political parties, individual members of Congress, government officials not under Trump’s thumb, media outlets, and local election officials can proceed on their own with a variety of measures that will render it tougher for foreign adversaries to subvert American democracy. What matters most is will. Government officials, political professionals, the media, and the voters have to give a damn. If they do, there are ideas to implement—even if Trump has no interest in impeding Putin. 

Credit: Kremlin Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Manufacturing Index Suggests Economy Is Starting to Contract

We’re at a point now where there seem to be about equal numbers of good and bad signs related to the economy. Today we got one of the bad ones:

Anything under 50 indicates a weak economy. Bloomberg explains:

U.S. factory activity unexpectedly contracted in August for the first time in three years as shrinking orders, production and hiring pushed a widely followed measure of manufacturing to its lowest level since January 2016.

The Institute for Supply Management’s purchasing managers index fell to 49.1 in August, weaker than all forecasts in a Bloomberg survey of economists, data released Tuesday showed. Figures below 50 signal the manufacturing economy is generally contracting. The group’s gauge of new orders dropped to a more than seven-year low, while the production index shrank to the weakest level since the end of 2015.

This has happened before a couple of times since the end of the recession, and both times the PMI Index turned back upward after a few months below 50. On the not-so-bright side, the slide over the past 12 months has been especially steep, and steeper still over the past six months. When you lose more than six points in six consecutive months without even a hint of a turnaround, it’s not a good sign.

The Crazy Story of How Alabama Accidentally Passed a Bill Upending Parental Rights

After Alabama lawmakers banned almost all abortions in May, with no exception for rape or incest, Jessica Stallings, a rape survivor from Fort Payne, was frustrated. But not for the reasons you might expect.

Stallings, a mother of two, actually supported the strict ban. She had been raped as a teen by her uncle, multiple times, and decided not to abort the resulting pregnancies. She loved her children, now teens themselves. But she was upset that it was still exceptionally easy for rapists in the state to get parental rights over the babies born from these assaults. A court had given her uncle permission to regularly visit her kids.

Alabama was one of just two states that didn’t have a law requiring courts to terminate the parental rights of convicted rapists in similar circumstances. So Stallings shared her story with the public and lawmakers, hoping to inspire change. And it seemed a fix was in the works: Rep. Will Dismukes, a young Republican who had just been elected to his first term, had prefiled a bill in February called Jessi’s law, or HB 48, that would allow courts to end a convicted rapist’s parental rights over a child born from the assault. Or so it seemed.

The law passed at the end of May, about two weeks after the abortion ban was enacted. But it didn’t do what Stallings’ supporters expected, and it went much further than the parental rights laws in most other states.

Between the time Dismukes introduced the bill and the time it passed, the language in the bill had been amended drastically. The bill now forced courts to take away parental rights from anyone who had ever been convicted of any first-degree rape, incest, or sodomy—even if no child was born from the assault, even if no child was victimized, and even if the assault had nothing to do with the person’s children.

It’s a “contradiction to the very purpose and goals of the juvenile court,” attorney Juliana Taylor says of the law.

“Let’s say a man is arrested, charged, and convicted of rape at 19 years of age, and 20 years on is now a 39-year-old man who has done his time, who has changed his life, who has had a child,” says Juliana Taylor, an attorney in Montgomery who specializes in family law and has studied the new legislation. “In the law, there’s no choice: The judge must remove the person’s parental rights,” even if it’s not in the best interest of his child, even if there’s every reason to believe the person is a good parent. It’s a “contradiction to the very purpose and goals of the juvenile court,” she says.

Under the law, a 16-year-old who has sex with a willing 13-year-old—a crime in Alabama, since the 13-year-old isn’t old enough to consent—could also lose parental rights decades later if he ever has a child, says Gar Blume, a longtime attorney in Tuscaloosa who has received national honors for his work on juvenile law. “It is so broad,” he says of the legislation, “that anybody ever convicted of a sex offense essentially is having their right to parenthood severely constrained, or there’s the potential for that to occur.” He described the law as “blatantly unconstitutional.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voted for the bill. It passed overwhelmingly in the House and unanimously in the Senate. But it’s unclear if lawmakers realized how sweeping the effects might be. “I’ve heard that maybe it was unintentionally made too broad,” Sen. Cam Ward, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told me in July. The Democratic caucus is also a little concerned with how broad the bill is, added Amanda Brown, a legislative analyst for the caucus. 

How did this happen? I was curious, because I had written about Stallings’ story and spoken previously with an advocate specializing in parental rights laws who was convinced, before the law passed, that the goal was more narrow, that lawmakers only wanted to stop convicted rapists from getting custody over children who were conceived from rape. So I began calling up Rep. Dismukes and any other lawmaker who would talk with me about how and why the bill had changed.

Tracking them down was an exercise in patience—for weeks I left messages, and most went unanswered. In the end, based on interviews with a couple of lawmakers, more attorneys, and the legislative analyst, it seems that the law was not originally proposed to help people like Stallings. And sloppy sentences inserted into the bill created confusion about what it would do. Even now, lawmakers, including the one who introduced the legislation, aren’t exactly sure how broad it is. And family law attorneys are worried about the consequences.

To understand what went down, it helps to go back to the beginning, where the first seeds of confusion were planted, on Valentine’s Day. That day, months before the legislature passed the abortion ban, Rep. Dismukes put forward one of his first-ever bills, Jessi’s law, in the state House. A 29-year-old from Prattville, Dismukes was a former college baseball player who became an ordained minister and worked for his family’s flooring company after a stroke squashed his dream of playing in the Major Leagues. He had been elected the previous November and sworn in a few months before introducing the bill, and he was the youngest lawmaker in the state.

The bill, as he introduced it, seemed clear enough. A synopsis (copied below) stated that when a court was deciding whether to take away someone’s parental rights over a child, it could consider whether the person had been convicted “of rape in the first degree or of incest…if that instance of rape or incest resulted in the conception of the child.” Similar language was repeated in the bill text.

In other words, the bill seemed to suggest that if a man was found guilty of raping a woman and impregnating her, he could lose rights over the resulting baby. Forty-eight other states had similar laws, some requiring a conviction and some not, according to Analyn Megison, who helped pass legislation in Florida years ago after her rapist attempted to get custody of her child. Alabama had tried and failed to pass a bill like this in the past, added Rebecca Kiessling, a family law attorney in Michigan who has studied the issue nationally.

But Dismukes, it turns out, had something else in mind entirely. After I finally got him on the phone in July, he told me that when he introduced the bill, he wasn’t thinking about people like Stallings: He intended instead for courts to terminate parental rights in cases where a parent had raped their own child and the child had gotten pregnant. “The original was focused on raping your own children,” he said, something he reiterated multiple times. “It said you lost parental rights in a case of rape or incest when it involved the conception of a child.” (The bill, he added, was named after a woman called Jessi who was sexually assaulted by her father.)

His proposal worried some lawmakers, who thought it was too specific in that it wouldn’t protect boys who were raped by a parent or girls who were raped but not impregnated. “Sen. Vivian Figures, who is a Democrat lady, said why don’t we make it stronger, and let’s remove ‘in the case of conception of a child,'” Dismukes recalled. He thought she had a point. So on May 28, the Senate amended the bill with that in mind. The House approved the changes the same day, and Gov. Kay Ivey allowed it to become law. The synopsis of the new legislation (below) also seemed clear, focusing on parents who raped their own children, as Dismukes intended:

But the synopsis—which is what many busy legislators focus on reading—is just a summary. It has absolutely no legislative effect, according to Blume, the juvenile law attorney. And the actual text of the bill didn’t match. It went much broader.

The first relevant passage of the bill that passed came on page five, in a section dealing with instances when a juvenile court can remove a child from a parent’s home quickly, without making any effort to keep the family together. It states, in the paragraph below, that this must happen if the parent has been convicted of first-degree rape, sodomy, or incest, regardless of who the victim was. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the child itself that was the victim or the other parent that was the victim,” says Laurel Crawford, a former child custody attorney who leads the Montgomery Volunteer Lawyers Program. “It can be they raped, sodomized, or had an incestral relationship with anyone.” According to Blume, the second sentence of the passage strangely states that even if the parent in question actually assaulted an adult, the law requires the juvenile court to operate as though he or she really hurt a child. “It’s a very inartfully worded paragraph,” he says.

 

One key detail in the above text, according to Blume, Taylor, and Crawford, is the word “shall,” which, unlike terms such as “should” or “may” or “could,” removes all discretion from the judge to act differently. Another key phrase is “other sexual abuse,” something that could include lesser crimes like inappropriate touching.

The next crucial passage (below) comes toward the end of the law, on page nine. It says a court “shall” terminate the parental rights of a parent who has been convicted of first-degree rape, incest, or sodomy, and again, it does not specify who the victim was. Nor does it include any time constraints. The crime could have occurred decades ago, before the individual was even a parent. The judge has no discretion to act differently. At least, that’s how Blume, Taylor, Crawford, and other attorneys they have spoken with interpret the wording.

This is also how Kiessling, the expert in Michigan, and Brown, the legislative analyst for the state’s Democratic caucus, interpret the law. Brown speculated that Democratic senators supported the measure because they were concerned about ramifications of the abortion restrictions that had just passed.

“Requiring [a court] to terminate the parental rights of someone without giving them an opportunity to be heard and without giving the discretion to the judge is not right, because there can be extenuating circumstances,” says Crawford. These extenuating circumstances happen more often than you might expect, adds Blume. He recalls representing a 17-year-old boy with intellectual disabilities who was accused of sexual abuse while riding the school bus after another kid, a 13-year-old girl with behavioral problems, asked if she could perform oral sex on him. Over the course of six months, Blume handled that case and another similar one, and he has heard of others. Any children who settle or admit to similar offenses could later lose parental rights.

“Did the legislature mean for this to happen this way?” Taylor says. “I have no idea. But that’s what it did. I don’t see a way around it.”

“We have very few lawyers in the legislature,” adds Blume.

It’s unclear if lawmakers understand what they’ve done. In July, when I asked Rep. Dismukes whether the law allows courts to terminate the parental rights of anyone convicted of first-degree rape, he said he wasn’t sure. “I don’t want to quote you wrong on it,” he said. “The way I understand it and interpret it is you lose the parental rights of the child you raped, and if there is a child that comes from that rape, those parental rights as well. Whether it extends past that point, that would be Bryan Taylor or David,” he added, referring me to speak with the governor’s legal adviser or a communications official, respectively. (The governor’s office said it couldn’t answer my questions and referred me back to Dismukes. The communications official never picked up his phone or responded to my messages.)

“I’m not trying to pawn you off to an attorney, but I’m not an attorney.”

Dismukes added that if someone is convicted of raping a woman who then gets pregnant, the new law does allow courts to terminate the parental rights of the rapist over that child. But when I asked specifically what part of the legislation allowed for that, he again recommended I speak with other experts. “I drafted that bill two or three weeks before we even started session,” he said. “It’s kind of like a baby, you know: You look at it so much and you work on it so much that you know it frontward and backward, when all of a sudden it passes and then it changes and you get it for one day, you’re just sort of limited. I’m not trying to pawn you off to an attorney, but I’m not an attorney.”

“I think we should protect all mothers of circumstances of rape and make sure no one has some type of parental right after they rape somebody,” he added.

Hoping for more clarification, I called every member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The only one who agreed to speak with me was Sen. Cam Ward, the committee chair. When I asked him if the law allowed courts to terminate parental rights of anyone convicted of first-degree rape, he also wasn’t sure off the top of his head. “I’d have to look back,” he said. “But I’ve heard the same thing, that maybe it was unintentionally too broad. There may have been some confusion there in the end.” When asked how I might determine whether the law was indeed that broad, Ward initially urged me to talk with a nonpartisan legislative aide who helped draft the law, but later said an aide would probably never agree to an interview. He added that he didn’t offer the amendment himself—that it was either offered by Dismukes or Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R). Ward also recalled Sen. Figures (D) urging amendments. “I just wasn’t involved in negotiations for that bill so I just can’t speak to it as well as they can,” he said.

When I called Chambliss’ office, a spokesperson declined to comment and told me to call John Rogers, a different communications official, who did not return any of my messages. When I tried to call back Chambliss’ office to explain Rogers wasn’t answering, the office did not pick up the phone or return any of my messages. When I called Sen. Figures’ office, a spokesperson said the senator was unavailable and would follow up with me. She never did, and her office did not pick up or respond to any of my subsequent messages. None of the other lawmakers I contacted ever responded to my messages. When I tried to call Dismukes back repeatedly, he never answered his cellphone and nobody picked up at his office. Both voicemails were full so I couldn’t leave a message. He never responded to my emails.

The real irony is that, while the law is incredibly broad, it won’t actually help Jessica Stallings, whose uncle had visitation rights over her children. Jessi’s law only allows courts to terminate parental rights if there has been a conviction of sexual abuse. Stallings’ uncle was never convicted of rape or incest, even though she says she was 15 and he was 22 when she got pregnant with his child. “It went to grand jury twice, and both times they said there was not enough evidence to convict him, even though we had DNA and court documents and birth certificates and medical records,” she told me earlier this year. “I had every piece of the puzzle I could possibly have, and they kept kicking it out.” Her uncle’s attorney declined to speak with Mother Jones about the case, citing attorney-client privilege.

Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, on average only nine are referred to prosecutors, and only five lead to a felony conviction.

Some lawmakers argue that this conviction requirement serves as a safeguard, to ensure men are not falsely accused and stripped of their parental rights without a guilty verdict in court. But family custody attorneys counter that the requirement limits who can be protected, since so many rapes are unreported or underprosecuted. Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, on average only nine are referred to prosecutors, and only five lead to a felony conviction, according to a study by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. In June, according to the Washington Post, Sen. Figures said she planned to introduce new legislation that would allow people in Stallings’ situation to petition the courts to terminate the parental rights of their rapists, even without a conviction, as long as they have clear and convincing evidence a rape occurred—the standard required in roughly half of all states.

The Alabama law went into effect September 1. Lawmakers could revise it, to focus in more narrowly on situations like Stallings’, when they begin their next session, but that seems unlikely. “You’ve got to have a sponsor who’s willing to stand up in front of their fellow legislators and then have it reported back home that they were trying to make it harder to terminate the parental rights of sex abusers, and that doesn’t win anybody a whole lot of votes,” says Blume. If a parental rights case goes before a court, a lawyer can also argue the law is unconstitutional, “because parental rights are a fundamental right, and a due-process-protected right,” says Taylor, and under the new law, judges will have no discretion or ability to weigh the evidence. “Because it says ‘shall,'” says Blume, “all notions of due process fly out the window.”

In August, Dismukes announced that he plans to run for Congress, to fill the seat of Rep. Martha Roby, who will not seek reelection. “Our country is fighting a radicalized movement on the left that is threatening our freedoms, liberties and way of life,” Dismukes said in a press statement. “Republicans need a bold new conservative in Congress who isn’t afraid to stand up to the socialists on the left and the big-government politicians in our own party. I am someone who has proven, in my very short time in Montgomery, that I will do what is right for the taxpayers, regardless of party.”

“I think I have proven that I will look at an issue and study it and make the decision that’s best for my constituents,” he added.

Playing Class Clown Could Cost Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin His Job

Gov. Matt Bevin was praising Kentuckians as “the most hospitable people on the earth,” but you could barely make out his remarks over the chorus of boos. He was speaking in May at the Kentucky Derby’s trophy presentation, and observers would later debate whether the jeers were intended for Bevin, who polls show is the nation’s most unpopular governor, or for race officials, who had disqualified the favorite and Triple Crown contender, Maximum Security. The answer, it seemed, was a little of each.

Bevin had revved up his reelection campaign earlier that day, airing his first ad during the Derby coverage, a prime way to reach a wide swath of his state. As Churchill Downs, the site of the famous horse race, faded to commercial, viewers received one clear message: If you’re for President Donald Trump, you should back Matt Bevin. “President Trump is taking America to new heights, but it hasn’t been easy. People are afraid of change, but I’m not. Neither is the president, and together our changes are working,” Bevin said in the ad, as images of the two flashed across the screen, culminating with Bevin flashing a thumbs-up next to a smiling Trump.

“Many Kentuckians see their governor as the personification of the state, and this is a state that often comes in for ridicule.”

For Bevin, winning a second term should be a breeze. He’s running in a state Trump won by 30 percent. Trump still gets high marks in polls there, and Republicans fully control the state government. But as Election Day nears, Bevin is flailing. In May’s Republican primary, he won just 52 percent of the vote in a race against three nominal challengers, a paltry showing for a sitting governor.

Bevin’s unpopularity appears to be less about Kentuckians rejecting his conservative agenda than voters growing tired of their governor’s unfiltered, Trumpian persona and penchant for generating headlines with ill-advised remarks. “Many Kentuckians see their governor as the personification of the state,” says Al Cross, the longtime dean of the state’s political press at the Louisville Courier-Journal and now a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky. “And this is a state that often comes in for ridicule. Socioeconomically and demographically, culturally, we get looked down on by people on the coasts. And often get made fun of. And Kentuckians are sensitive to that. They don’t want their governor to be a jerk.”

Bevin often takes to social media to spout off and pick fights with his many critics. “Boy, it takes so little to trigger a whiny liberal,” he stated in a video posted to Facebook last October. “Let the whiners whine. I love the fact that you’re this easily upset.”

President Donald Trump steps off Air Force One with Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin.

Mandel Ngan/Getty

There has been plenty to whine about—and it’s not just liberals who have been up in arms. When Bevin visited a chess club at a majority-black and -Latino school in West Louisville, he said this activity was “not something you necessarily would have thought of when you think of this section of town.” After the Parkland mass shooting in Florida, Bevin posted a video calling for an “honest conversation”—about violent video games, films, and music. Bevin angered public health officials when, in the course of decrying government-mandated vaccines—“this is America, and the federal government should not be forcing this upon people”—he described exposing his children at a chickenpox party. Last winter, Bevin even managed to piss off Today show co-anchor Al Roker by complaining that “we’re getting soft” when a record cold snap forced school closures in Kentucky. “This nitwit governor in Kentucky, saying, ‘Oh, we’re weak,’” Roker said. “These are kids, who are going to be in subzero windchill. No, cancel school. Stop it!”

No one really foresaw Bevin’s rise. He grew up in rural New Hampshire and joined the Army before moving to Louisville in 1999 and founding an investment firm that notched him a net worth of at least $15 million, according to a disclosure he filed in 2014, when he first ran for political office. That first campaign ended in stinging defeat, as Bevin tried to ride the tea party wave and unseat then–Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell ran ads dubbing Bevin an “East Coast con man.” Bevin’s challenge died after he was caught on video at a pro-cockfighting rally.

The primary ended with hard feelings all around between Bevin and the state Republican Party. “You can’t punch people in the face, punch people in the face, punch people in the face, and ask them to have tea and crumpets with you and think it’s all good,” Bevin told Politico after he lost, explaining why he wasn’t endorsing McConnell. “Life doesn’t work that way.”

A year later he ran for governor, positioning himself as a no-nonsense businessman running against the establishment. This time, Bevin won a four-way primary by 83 votes and later cruised to a nine-point victory over his Democratic opponent. “Kentucky’s gubernatorial races so often become a predictor of the presidential election the next year,” says Jonathan Miller, a former Democratic state treasurer. Kentucky has trended Republican at the national level for decades, even as Democrats dominated state politics. (They still boast a voter registration advantage.) Bevin became the state’s second Republican governor since 1971, and with Trump atop the 2016 ticket, Republicans took control of the state House for the first time since 1921.

He’s “Scott Walker’s politics with Paul LePage’s mouth.”

In January 2017, Bevin and the new Republican majority quickly set to work passing a conservative wish list: tort reform, a host of abortion restrictions, and a so-called right-to-work law that brought Kentucky into line with every other Southern state. Kentucky had seen its uninsured rate drop from 20 percent to 8 percent thanks to Obamacare, but Bevin shuttered the state health insurance exchange and now wants to add work requirements to the state Medicaid program that could result in tens of thousands of Kentuckians losing their health coverage. (Those requirements are on hold while they’re being disputed in the courts.) He’s “Scott Walker’s politics with Paul LePage’s mouth,” says Jason Bailey, executive director of the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

But Bevin’s pugilistic style and cringe-inducing statements are bogging down the state GOP at the very moment it has its first opportunity in a century to enact its agenda. “He has made life more difficult for himself than it probably had to be,” says Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University and the 2nd District vice chair of the state Republican Party. A dispute between Bevin and his lieutenant governor, Jenean Hampton, dominated headlines earlier this summer after his administration fired two of Hampton’s aides without consulting her. “Pray for me as I battle dark forces,” Hampton, who was dropped from Bevin’s reelection ticket, tweeted after the firings. A few weeks ago, Hampton sued Bevin, arguing that the firings were illegal. Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear (son of former Gov. Steve Beshear) has also become a persistent thorn in Bevin’s side, dragging him into court to challenge his policies. Beshear will face Bevin on the ballot in November, and Beshear’s campaign has already racked up the endorsement of one Republican state senator.

But Bevin’s biggest mistake may be spending the past two years picking fights with public school teachers. He successfully pushed a law to allow charter schools, saying he wanted to “end the monopoly that exists in Kentucky’s school system,” and he’s attempted to weaken pension benefits for public employees. Once again, Bevin piled personal invective on top of right-wing policy.

Teaches and their supporters protest attacks on public education, in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Bryan Woolston/AP

Last year, when teachers held a sick-out to protest Bevin’s proposed pension cuts, the governor unleashed an unhinged rant. “Here’s what’s crazy to me,” he told a reporter. “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them.” (Republicans in the state House passed a resolution condemning Bevin’s comments, which he later apologized for.)

In April, Bevin said that teachers taking a sick-out day to protest his pension proposals had led to a child being shot: “One thing you almost didn’t hear anything about while we had people pretending to be sick when they weren’t sick and leaving kids unattended to or in situations that they should not have been in—a little girl was shot, 7 years old, by another kid.” (Beshear tweeted in response: “Despicable. Matt Bevin is unfit to govern. Kentucky families, teachers, and kids deserve so much better than this governor.”)

And Bevin has compared teachers and other public employees concerned about his pension plan to drowning victims. “They’re fighting you, biting you, pulling you under,” he said. “You just need to knock them out and drag them to shore.”

“This governor just keeps opening his mouth and putting his foot in it,” says Stephanie Winkler, a fourth grade teacher from Madison County who recently concluded her term as president of the Kentucky Education Association (KEA), a powerful advocacy group for educators that has tangled with Bevin. “And it’s on the minds of people. Anybody that works in a public school.”

Like many other states, Kentucky has seen a precipitous drop in education funding following the Great Recession. Teacher salaries and spending per pupil are down about 6 percent, adjusted for inflation. Alongside colleagues in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers joined the “Red for Ed” strikes of 2018, with educators frequently descending on the state Capitol to protest. Last December, when Bevin called a postelection special legislative session to once again try to pass changes to the pension system, teachers flooded Frankfort to sing modified Christmas carols urging lawmakers to leave things alone. After less than 24 hours, legislators shut down the special session without debating any proposals.

“They know if I say, ‘Matt Bevin,’ they’re like, ‘He is mean.’”

“The professional attacks are bad enough. But then when you add on top of that the utter disdain that he has for teachers and public education in general, it’s not just a professional insult, it’s a personal insult,” Jacqueline Coleman, the Democrats’ candidate for lieutenant governor, tells me in the hallway of John Hardin High School, after addressing a crowded lunchroom of teachers at a KEA conference in Elizabethtown, a city of 30,000 people an hour south of Louisville. Coleman, wearing a bright red blazer in a nod to Red for Ed, has never held elected office before. But it’s clear why she ended up on the ticket alongside Beshear. Coleman is a former high school civics teacher and basketball coach who was working as an assistant principal until she took leave to campaign. “We are taking this personally, and rightfully so,” she says. (Davis Paine, Bevin’s campaign manager, says in a statement: “The Governor will not be deterred by KEAs misinformation campaign and will continue to champion policies that strengthen our education system and support teachers.”)

In late July, Bevin called another special session. This time, Republicans—with no Democratic votes—passed a smaller pension cut that will limit benefits for a subsection of public employees, affecting about 7,000 people who work for local health departments, some regional universities, and a few other semi-government offices. So far, Bevin has not made any noise about restarting the debate over public school teacher pensions, but given his focus on the issue during his first term, it’s likely he would resurrect it during a second term.

“I’m concerned that if you start taking things like that away, you’re just going to lose some of that draw for the future teachers,” Josh Underwood, a high school physics and aviation teacher who is a trustee on the teachers’ pension board, told me in between checking people in at the front desk of the KEA conference back in June. “I mean, you don’t necessarily go into teaching for the retirement, but it is a consideration.”

Just before speaking with Underwood, I had met one such future teacher. Cameo Kendrick, a 27-year-old single mom and rising senior at the University of Kentucky, spends part of her time working as the president of KEA’s Aspiring Educators Program, a group of college students preparing for careers in education. Over the past several years, she’s joined the protests at the state capitol, bringing her kids along bearing signs supporting teachers. “They loved it. They came home and they were like playing with their barbies and saying little chants.”

“They know if I say, ‘Matt Bevin,’ they’re like, ‘He is mean.’”

Kendrick is full of verve and seems like just the sort of teacher Underwood was talking about schools needing. “I really believe that my generation of educators, and my generation of people in general, are really raising the generation that’s going to save the world,” Kendrick says. But our conversation ended on a bit of a dour note for the future of her home state. While saying that Kentucky needs more teachers like her from diverse backgrounds, Kendrick said she didn’t think she could handle working in a state where the governor demonizes educators, and would likely look for teaching jobs in other states after graduation: “I don’t see myself putting in a single application in the state when I graduate, to be completely honest.”

The teacher backlash poses a real risk for Bevin. According to Winkler, the former KEA president, schools are the biggest employer in most of Kentucky’s 120 counties, and more than half of KEA’s members are Republican. Last year, Jonathan Shell, the state House majority leader, lost his Republican primary to R. Travis Brenda, a math teacher fed up with Shell’s role in co-writing a pension-cut bill.

 “A lot of teachers in this state are Republicans, and a lot of Republicans are teachers,” says Al Cross, the veteran Kentucky journalist. “In November 2019, teachers are going to remember what Matt Bevin said about them.”

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