Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Specter Is Haunting The Democratic Party

One of the themes dominating media coverage of Senator Arlen Specter's decision to leave the Republican Party is that the GOP has become hostile to so-called "moderates." Apparently there's no room in the Republican Party for someone who is pro-choice on abortion, supports the Obama stimulus bill, and wants to see embryonic stem-cell research expanded.

More troubling than what there isn't room for in the Republican Party, from where I sit, is what there IS room for in the Democratic Party. Specter's relatively liberal voting record on social issues and Amtrak funding are all well and good, but this is a guy who recently referred to calls for an independent commission of inquiry to look into Bush-era abuses of civil liberties as "something they do in Latin America in banana republics." He was a strong supporter of Bush's Supreme Court nominees, along with the Iraq War authorization. He has not flat-out rejected the Employee Free Choice Act (legislation that will make it easier to unionize), but like other "independent" Democrats will probably only support a watered down version.

And while President Obama is supposedly all about ethics and transparency in government, he's not too concerned about the fact that Specter failed to recuse himself in the vote on the bank bailout even though his wife directs a company that benefited to the tune of over $45 million from the bill. (In addition, as reported by Politico, Specter secured $65 million in federal funding for an organization that hired his wife shortly after the funding came through.).

The late Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, who belonged to the "Democratic Wing" of the Democratic Party, once told other Dems that "If we don't fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don't really stand for them." If you're a PA Democrat, in 2010 the choice of a Conservative Republican vs. the Democrat Specter reprents a kind of lesser-evilism gone wild. Not only is Specter not a Wellstone, but he may not even be a Herb Kohl.

Specter wanted out of the Republican Party because polls showed that he couldn't win the PA Republican primary and he was concerned with the Party's shift to the Right. He should have added something else: he could feel comfortable caucusing with the Dems because they too have shifted to the Right.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"Planned Shrinkage" in Flint

No, not that kind of shrinkage, but this story in yesterday's NYT does seem to have a Seinfeldian element. Seems like a domestic variation on the old "we had to destroy the village in order to save it" theme from the Vietnam era.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Palmeri on Week in Review Tomorrow

I will be the Left Guy opposite former Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow on the Right during tomorrow's WPR Week in Review with Joy Cardin. Farrow is now Chair of the Wisconsin Eye Broadcast Network. The program airs from 8-9 a.m. You can call in at 1-800-642-1234 or email

I'm not sure if it will come up during the discussion, but President Obama this week announced some slight changes in US policy toward Cuba. I think he ought to listen to Republican Senator Dick Lugar, who make a hell of a lot of sense on the topic.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Filling Vacant Council Seats and Precedent

UW Oshkosh Professor of Economics and former two-term Oshkosh Common Councilor Kevin McGee today writes that the Common Council should appoint Steve Cummings to fill the seat vacated by Paul Esslinger. Says Dr. McGee: "It's the right thing to set this precedent – that when an opening appears, you appoint the voters' next top choice to fill it."

As I see it, the strongest reason for appointing an election runner-up is that it's easy and quick. Even though Mr. Cummings finished almost 600 votes behind third place winner Bob Poeschl (and only 24 ahead of fifth-place finisher John Hinz), appointing him to the Council would mean much less work for the Council, and even allow us to avoid what will be an avalanche of condemnation from Steve's endorsers on the Oshkosh Northwestern editorial board.

But would it be right, as McGee says, to set this precedent? I'm not sure. Would we really want to establish the principle that when a vacancy exists it should be filled by the next runner-up? Runners-up are runners-up for a reason: the voters said "we do not want this person in this office at this time." Yes, Steve Cummings is a competent person. He raised more money than any other council candidate, and received the endorsements of the realtors association and the Oshkosh Northwestern. His 4,136 votes represents 36.7 percent of the 11,267 total votes cast (compared to 36.5 percent for John Hinz--who raised less than $1,000 and did not receive the same endorsements.).

But one can easily imagine a scenario in which a runner-up seems not at all competent. Every Oshkosh voter can imagine some of those candidates. Yet by the McGee principle, a council would have to appoint him or her anyway. I'm not sure that's a wise path to follow. The city council would easily open itself up to charges of discrimination and double standards if it did not automatically appoint the runner-up. Can you imagine the editorial gymnastics the Northwestern would have to engage in to justify why a runner-up they don't like shouldn't automatically fill a vacancy? It would be embarrassing.

How have other cities dealt with vacancies? I have not had enough time to do enough research on this, but here are some examples I've come across:

*In Appleton, councilor Walter Kalata's death in late 2007 created a vacacy. Jason Schmitz had run against Kalata twice (in 2005 and 2007), yet that by itself did not entitle him to fill the vacancy. Instead, 5 persons interested in filling the position (including Schmitz) submitted letters of interest. Here's the process that was used:

Mayor Hanna advised this meeting was called to appoint a successor to fill the vacancy in District 1.
Discussion was held on the candidate presentation and the voting process to be held:
1) Each candidate will be allowed a 3 minute presentation
2) Candidates picked numbers to determine the order of the presentations.
3) After the presentation, ballots will be passed out. Eight votes will be needed to confirm the appointment. If no candidate receives 8 votes, the candidate with the lowest votes will be eliminated and another ballot will be cast.

Using that process, Rebecca Baron (not runner-up Schmitz) filled the seat.

*In Wauwatosa, alderman Craig Maher recently resigned his seat. Acquanitta Harris-Patterson, the runner-up against Maher in the election, said she should be appointed to fill his seat for that reason. The Council told her she should submit an application. (Wauwatosa apparently fills vacancies by asking interested persons to apply to a selection committee, which then makes a recommendation to the Council. I believe they have talked about changing the process, but automatically appointing runners-up is not one of the options on the table.).

*In LaCrosse, a vacancy was created when Council President Joe Ledvina resigned. According to the city of LaCrosse website: "City Council will vote by majority to appoint a representative to fill the now vacant seat until the 2009 spring election. To arrive at this end, the Council President will direct the City Clerk to advertise the available position, take applications for it, and then submit to the current 16 members of the City Council."

*Green Bay has a written policy on filling council vacancies. Here's what it says:
1.06 VACANCIES. (1) ALDERMEN. (Amd. GO 40-03) Pursuant to the terms and conditions of Sec. 17.23, Wis. Stats., in the event of an aldermanic vacancy, the City Clerk shall, within 14 days of a vacancy, advertise for and solicit applications from individuals to fill the vacant position. In addition to the application, an applicant must submit the signatures of 20 qualified electors from within the vacant district supporting the candidacy of the applicant. Applicants must submit applications and signatures to the City Clerk within 30 days of the initial advertisement of vacancy. Thereafter, at the next regular meeting of the Common Council, all qualified applicants shall be allowed time to make a presentation regarding their qualifications to the Council. The Common Council shall then, by majority vote, decide who will fill the vacancy. (2) APPOINTED OFFICIALS. Vacancies in appointed offices shall be filled as provided in Sec. 17.23, Wis. Stats.

I suspect the process used in Appleton and Green Bay is probably typical around the state and nation. If the Oshkosh Common Council were to solicit letters of interest to fill Mr. Esslinger's vacant seat, it would hardly be unusual.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Thank You

A sincere thank you to Oshkosh voters for reelecting me to the city council. With a struggling economy, growing unemployment, an aging infrastructure, and a tight budget, the new council certainly has its work cut out.

Thanks again!

You can find all local election results here.

Friday, April 03, 2009

First Amendment Victory

Remember Ward Churchill? He's the former University of Colorado Ethnic Studies professor fired in 2007 for alleged faulty scholarship. Churchill's work became the subject of investigation after an essay he'd written shortly after the 9/11 attacks came into the focus of right wing media and opportunistic politicians. In 2005 even the courageous (yeah, right) Wisconsin Assembly passed a resolution condemning Churchill.

A University of Colorado committee did find some errors in the thousands of pages of Churchill's writings, but the entire process was so clearly in retaliation for his 9/11 essay that in 2007 I referred to that process as "academia at its worst." Yesterday a Denver jury ruled unanimously that Churchill's termination from UC was in retaliation for the essay. Though the jury refused to award damages, the judge in a separate hearing will determine whether Churchill should be reinstated or paid a lump sum. UC will also have to pay his legal fees.

There is no disagreement that universities should have policies in place that assess scholarship rigorously and hold accountable those professors who fabricate, distort, or engage in other unethical practices. But attorneys for UC were not able to show to the satisfaction of the jury that the investigation of Churchill was fair or would have taken place at all were it not for his controversial 9/11 essay. If the errors in Churchill's scholarly writings were as egregious as the UC's attorney claimed, then he should never have received tenure in the first place.

Churchill's 9/11 essay, especially its analogy of World Trade Center employees with Adolph Eichmann, offended many. But offensive political speech is exactly the kind of speech the First Amendment is designed to protect. If the First Amendment only protects speech that bothers no one, then we really don't need a First Amendment.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Candidates' Responses To Chamber Questions

All candidates for Common Council were asked to respond to questions posed by the Chamber of Commerce. Responses from the candidates can be found here. Mayoral candidate responses are here. School Board here, and County Executive over here.