Monday, September 27, 2004

Welcome to Keating-Enron Memorial Hospital!

Local Arizona news this week. I have two anecdotes about this particular column. First, the guys at the Tribune wanted a citation or reference for the Keating CC&Rs story; it's been long enough, and Keating is enough of a distant historical figure to them, that they didn't remember his government-subsidized moralizing. (Keating used to run anti-abortion ads using American Continental and Lincoln Savings money -- on the theory that it was a proper business expense because he wanted to have those unborn embryos as future customers. Unfortunately, ACC and Lincoln had a lifespan left at that time roughly the same as the human gestation period.) The guys at the Tribune didn't believe me without backup. Now if only they'd do the same to Marianne Jennings.

Second, it was the Arizona Republic that broke the deed restriction story in 1988; the Cincinnati Post was running some sort of "famous people of the 20th Century in Cincinnati" series in 1999 and repeated the CC&R story, giving credit to "the local newspaper in Phoenix." But that would require the Tribune to acknowledge the Republic's original reporting, and they weren't willing to do it without a copy of the original story (which isn't available online). I also asked that the credit to the Post be "as the paper recounted" or "remembered" in 1999, because the reporting was in 1988, but that didn't make it. Credit where credit isn't due. Competition in the marketplace of ideas--ain't it wonderful?

Newspaper version available here. For a while, anyway.

East Valley Tribune, Sept. 26, 2004

Maricopa County Supervisor Andy Kunasek is worse than Charles Keating, Jr. -- while the other supervisors are acting like Enron’s management.

For those of you who can’t remember the 1980’s, Keating was a rugged-individualistic-but-government-guaranteed economic colossus. He figured out how to create temporary real estate profits: buy a savings and loan, then lend its federally-insured deposits to your own development schemes.

The S&L crash may be ancient history, but the Keating “legacy” lives on -- in Kunasek’s attempt to dictate terms of the transfer of the county hospital to the new Maricopa County health care district.

As the Cincinnati Post reported in 1999, one of Keating’s master-planned developments had deed restrictions that allowed the homeowners association to seize “adult materials” from private homes. The CC&Rs also mandated that “no owner or tenant shall intentionally terminate a human pregnancy.”

(See, disputes over flying the flag or unpaid assessments are actually an improvement. The most out-of-control homeowners association today isn’t monitoring Internet use. Maybe that’s why conservatives rail against government “control” -- they prefer to control your life themselves.)

Unfazed by Keating’s example, Kunasek insists that the deed transferring the hospital property to the health care district contain an anti-abortion restriction. Never mind that the statute authorizing the district requires that the hospital provide at least the same services as on January 1, 2003. Never mind that the restriction violates the terms under which the county originally got the land from the state. Never mind that the hospital may lose its ability to provide graduate medical education, which requires a full obstetrical program. Never mind that the restriction jeopardizes the hospital’s accreditation and financial health. Never mind that the consultant hired by the supervisors to assist in the transfer told them not to impose the deed restriction.

Kunasek still wants to emulate Charlie Keating by imposing morality through deed restrictions. And Kunasek is worse than Keating, because once a newspaper got the story, Keating backed down, claiming he had nothing to do with the “mistake.” Instead, Kunasek is charging ahead -- with the other supervisors’ consent.

The problem is that each county supervisor is wearing two hats, but ignoring one. County voters will elect new directors in November, but meanwhile the supervisors are the district’s interim directors. In that capacity, they must act in the best interests of the health care district, which may not be the same as a supervisor’s own political interests -- but this conflict of interest is obvious to everybody but them.

If the county and the health care district were publicly-traded corporations, this behavior would be a stock-fraud violation. Kunasek has made it clear that he wants this deed restriction -- against the advice of the county’s own consultants -- not because it’s good for the hospital, but because being anti-abortion is his personal political priority. And it looks like the other supervisors/directors may go along which, in a corporation, would make them liable, too.

The feds nailed Enron’s Andy Fastow on exactly this particular crime. While an officer of Enron, he acted to benefit himself as an investor and officer of Enron’s off-balance-sheet entities. Just like Fastow, Kunasek as director of the health care district is acting to benefit Kunasek as a county supervisor and future candidate for other political office. Fastow went to jail for placing his own interests ahead of his responsibilities to shareholders. Kunasek wants to be rewarded for doing the exact same thing.

And it’s not just Kunasek. The other four supervisors know what Kunasek is doing, but they’re going along despite his and their conflicts of interest. Maybe Enron’s Ken Lay can pretend that while he was CEO he really had no idea of what was happening (and that's why they paid him the big bucks). But the other supervisors can’t. They know, and they know better.

It would be nice if the supervisors would manage the new health care district for the next few months better than Lay and Fastow ran Enron. But it apparently isn’t going to happen. So in addition to the deed restriction, they should require changing the hospital’s name to something more appropriate -- like “Keating-Enron Memorial.”

Monday, September 20, 2004

Which Choice Is Worse?

No, it's not the presidential race, it's the general election for Maricopa County Attorney, the county's chief legal officer and prosecutor.

I'm not quite sure I understood the headline my editor gave me when the column ran yesterday. Don Harris may have been a Republican until the day before he filed to run for County Attorney as a Democrat, but he still needed more of us Democratic voters to support him than his opponent. So I'd have written "Voters picked pair," but when I guess you get Viagra jokes into the Tribune, you can't be too picky. I couldn't get the accent in Jesús Cristos in the paper, however. Must be that conservative East Valley thing.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 19, 2004

The election is still six weeks away, and I’m already dreading having to vote for a new Maricopa County Attorney. Only the collective majestic wisdom of the less than one-fifth of eligible voters who bothered to cast ballots in the primary election could choose a general election matchup this dreary.

You have to feel sorry for Andrew Pacheco, who did about everything he could, and still came in third in the GOP primary. He ran a serious campaign and got the endorsement of both incumbent Republican U.S. Senators and the other daily newspaper. But, seriously, what chance does a guy named Pacheco have in a Maricopa County GOP primary? Jesús Cristos himself would need to change his name to something much more Anglo to have, yes, a prayer with that crowd.

(That’s assuming they also wouldn’t find “Jesus Christ” too foreign-sounding a name, and could look past his unfortunate public statements in favor of helping the poor and infirm. Any competent political consultant would know that Jesus could do so much better politically if only he would change his name to something like “Buck” or “Joe” and start preaching about turning our backs on illegal immigrants. You’ll never win any elections around here fretting about the least among us. Forget faith, hope, and charity; it’s tax cuts 24/7 if you actually want to win.)

So we get a choice in November of Andrew Thomas, the Republican who thinks the county attorney’s job is to fight abortion and illegal aliens, and Don Harris, the recently-reregistered Democrat who thinks what the county attorney’s office needs is a more creative sexual harassment policy -- because you’d have to come up with something really creative for Don Harris to consider it sexual harassment.

You also have to feel sorry for the career prosecutors, who really make the office work. After a decade of leaks, publicity-hounding, and political vendettas against the Democratic governor and the Republican sheriff, they probably were looking forward to new leadership that would focus on getting the job done right. Now we’re facing a choice between an ideological right-wing kook and a non-ideological kook, each of whom seems to have other priorities than representing the county and prosecuting crime fairly and properly.

Prosecutors will have to confirm charging decisions and plea agreements according to new standards. If Thomas is elected, defense attorneys will tell prosecutors that they can’t ask for jail time, because will keep the defendant from his regular occupation of picketing abortion clinics. “Community service” will include distributing anti-abortion fliers at churches, or guarding against those pesky Pinal County immigrants who keep crossing into Maricopa County. If Harris is elected, plea agreements will have to be reviewed at the very top, if the defendant is a babe. Defense attorneys looking for better results for their clients will file briefs accompanied by Viagra prescriptions.

Career prosecutors will have to decide if any possible shot at a judgeship is worth all that.

Media reaction to the primary results has shown an interesting bias, plus a new joke: In Arizona, what do you call a moderate Republican? A former legislator.

When the minority of Democrats active in primaries flirted with Howard Dean, pundits fretted that Democrats shouldn’t give in to their most loyal liberals, because nominating a full-throated liberal might scare moderates and swing voters. But when the minority of Republicans active in primaries chose the most conservative and right-wing candidates, that’s just the way things are.

With Republicans in full-fledged “irrational Kerry-hatred” (remember when it was supposed to be bad for Democrats to be so angry at Bush?), and with the GOP throwing moderates over the side like so much bilge water, when do the same pundits begin to fret that Republicans have moved too far to the right?

Or is it just not possible to be too far to the right these days? If so, that makes it pretty hard to find middle ground -- so don’t be surprised if the election really is a duel to drive turnout among each party’s base.

Monday, September 13, 2004

The Race to the Bottom Accelerates!

It had been a while since I stirred up the wingnuts, and apparently the hot button is the Swift Boat Veterans for Lying About Stuff. Nice to get the angry emails again.

I'm not exactly sure how I feel about this political race to the bottom, but here we are. So the Republicans want this election to be about character, but Bush's character is off-limits for discussion? I don't think so. We Democrats shouldn't play the Dukakis role anymore; we learned that lesson in 1988. If we go down, we should go down fighting just as hard and just as tough as the other side. And even the best argument for Bush is pretty much limited to "Kerry is worse." I guess that means we're allowed to make our argument that Bush is far worse than Kerry. (After all, we certainly don't want to oversell our guy.)

People say they don't like negative campaigning. But there's really no more results-oriented business than politics. If voters actually didn't pay attention and either rejected or ignored negative ads, you'd be amazed at how quickly the campaigns would drop them and move to something else. But the GOP is getting traction with going after Kerry personally; there's no reason for Democrats not to try the same and cut into Bush's post-convention bounce. Hang on to your hats, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Basically, the Bush campaign depends on keeping Iraq off the news. Even the people who write those "here's the good news" columns are having a tough time explaining away all the casualties and the loss of more strategic areas of the country. We've pretty much run out of options, and it's only getting worse. Kerry does need to figure out how to keep Bush accountable for getting us into a war (for what reason, exactly?), then wrecking the peace. If he can do that, I think he wins. If Bush is able to avoid responsibility for his own policies (like of like how he avoided his Guard obligations--and that's what U.S. News says, not me, so maybe there's a connection to the larger issue, and maybe can help make things closer while Kerry tries to remind people that there's a war going on even if you don't see it on TV), then Kerry loses. I think it's pretty simple.

Does anyone really think that if there had been fewer mentions of Kerry's service that the Republicans would have said, oh, never mind? How many months before the convention did the Swifties start working on their book?

Here are the links: My column, and the Bob Schuster column that triggered the parting shot.

East Valley Tribune, Sept. 12, 2004

This past week, some guy sent me dozens of emails supporting the Swift Boat Veterans for Making Stuff Up. All I can say is “the facts are John Kerry served. He served honorably. And that’s why he was honorably discharged.”

Oh, wait. My emailer won’t consider that nearly enough to rebut slurs against Kerry’s service record and medals. That kind of non-response is available only for George W. Bush. (With only the name changed to protect the innocent, it’s exactly how White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett responded to new evidence casting more yet doubt on Bush’s National Guard record.)

Apparently, Bush needn’t explain why what he’s saying now about his past differs from what he said in 1999, or in his 2000 campaign autobiography, or this year. We’re at war. If facts and documents don’t support Bush, the facts are biased!

Consider the “Christmas in Cambodia” attack. Kerry said that while serving in Vietnam, he entered in Cambodia in December, 1968, but now there’s a good reason to think that it actually happened in January, 1969. (The claim that Kerry couldn’t have been in Cambodia has vaporized, once researchers unearthed the 1969 White House tape in which John O’Neill, head of Swift Boat Liars, tells President Nixon about crossing into Cambodia. Now we’re arguing just about timing.) This one-month discrepancy in events nearly 40 years ago, about which Kerry last spoke 18 years ago, is trumpeted as evidence that Kerry’s unfit for office.

Of course, if you’re George W. Bush, and you said last month that you fulfilled all of your National Guard commitments, and earlier this year the White House said that it had released all of the documents from Bush’s National Guard service -- and both statements turn out to be false -- that isn’t a character flaw, it’s yet more proof of your sterling leadership despite the truth.

To Republicans parsing every mote of Kerry’s public service, it simply doesn’t matter when Bush gets it wildly wrong. Bush’s National Guard service apparently gets the same scrutiny as his Middle East democracy-promotion “policy,” or proposed spaceflight to Mars -- Bush gets credit for talking. Actually doing anything is irrelevant.

GOP partisans now describe Vietnam draft deferments as “honorable” while criticizing Kerry for not serving long enough, or in the right branch, or getting wounded severely enough for their taste. Republicans won’t say exactly how long Kerry should have fought in Vietnam, or how much shrapnel he needs in his leg, to satisfy them. But these critics have no problem with Bush performing his Guard duty only when convenient.

Yes, the 2004 election probably shouldn’t hinge what happened four decades ago. But, Republicans, it’s a little late to complain now. You started it, and you should reap what you’ve sown.

Republicans could have condemned the Swift Boat Prevaricators for Distortion. John McCain, who knows something about how a Bush campaign uses wacko fringe veterans to attack a military record unfairly, called on Bush to denounce the ads. Bush steadfastly refused until the attacks had run their course.

So now that we’re about to see Bush’s “young and irresponsible” years dredged up in books of dubious veracity, it’s a tad late to complain when nobody on the GOP side had any problem when books of dubious veracity attacked Kerry. If it’s so vital to Republicans what Kerry did in the 1960’s, don’t Democrats get to inquire about what Bush did -- or didn’t -- do then?

If Republicans consider these latest attacks unfair, then Kerry simply can do what Bush did with the Swifties. Kerry should say that books have attacked him, too; that he thought the campaign finance reform law eliminated these kinds of unfair books; and that we need to ban all books about political candidates.

That, of course, would be an absurd and unconstitutional position -- but hey, it worked for Bush.

Parting shot: Last week we Democrats got “friendly” advice from an unlikely source. If Bob Schuster can give us advice, then I say to my Republican friends that here in Arizona, we need a GOP that’s more Barry Goldwater -- and less Goldwater Institute.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

More Mercado News

The jury in the pension funds lawsuit against Wells Fargo Bank (successor to First Interstate Bank) returned a $4.1 million verdict in favor of the funds.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Comedy and Columns: The Secret Is TIMING!

This week's column explains what happened to last week's column. We were in St. Louis, helping America's Favorite College Freshman™ move into her dorm at Washington University and I filed my column by email while out of town. I therefore didn't know that just that morning, the editor had finally broken his silence on Bush's latest flip-flop on campaign finance reform. So the column, ripping him [a new one] for giving Bush a pass, got killed. But he got enough [like, everything] wrong in the editorial that I could revise and extend my remarks for publication yesterday. I was short for time this week anyway, because I spent much of two days after my return as a witness in the pension funds-Wells Fargo litigation; yes, more on the Mercado, on which project I first started working when our daughter was 1 year old, and last weekend we took her to college. It's not Dickensian, but it's close.

For those of you really, really into campaign finance and the 527 soft vs. hard money distinction, as Mark Schmitt noted, the idea that Democrats were going to be entirely dependent on soft-money 527 organizations dates from back in February, when political insiders thought that the Democratic nominee would have participated in the public financing system for the primaries, and would have no money between March and the Democratic convention. That, of course, didn't happen; Kerry (and Dean) opted out of the system for the primaries, and Kerry set records for Democratic fundraising and had plenty of money right through the convention. (Instead, the problem became that he was getting the public funding too soon compared to when Bush switched from opt-out to opt-in funding after the Republican Convention, which nobody really expected to be the issue back in February.) But the press is fixated that the Democrats need soft-money 527s even though that really didn't turn out to be true (and the R's have more than their share of 527s and 501(c)(4) and (6) organizations.) Note: If you don't know what those numbers mean, you're better off not knowing.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 5, 2004

The Tribune finally criticized President Bush’s call to expand campaign finance reform, which the Tribune considers restricting political speech. You may recall that when both Sens. John McCain and John Kerry called on Bush to denounce the Swift Boat ads -- in which the Kerry opponents’ every factual assertion is contradicted by all available documentation, including their own prior statements and medal citations -- Bush painstakingly avoided any direct criticism. Instead, he called for more regulation of political speech, usually anathema hereabouts.

The Tribune’s silence astounded me, so I submitted a furious column ripping the editorial page (and its editor) on the very day, unfortunately for me, that The Tribune finally criticized restricting so-called 527 groups. I’d be totally humiliated, except that the editorial got approximately every fact wrong.

In the Tribune's view, both George Bush and John Kerry propose further restrictions on political speech. That’s incorrect -- for both men.

According to the Tribune, President Bush says “[k]eeping those [Swift Boat] ads off the air is fine with him as long as all 527 groups quit trying to influence the thinking of voters.” But that’s not what Bush wants.

Bush isn’t proposing banning 527s, despite saying so more times than you can count. What he really (and sneakily) proposes is restricting 527s from using “soft money” large contributions; his planned lawsuit with Sen. McCain will allow 527s to run ads, as long as they do it with “hard money” smaller contributions.

Thus, despite asking for a radical reform, Bush really wants to change only the financing rules, hoping to benefit Republicans and hurt Democrats. He’s saying one thing, but doing another -- yet again.

Next, the Tribune wrote that Kerry wants to “[k]ill the ads from the veterans critical of his Vietnam record,” while allowing other anti-Bush ads to remain. This statement is true, in the sense that any candidate would love a world where the only ads anyone sees support him and oppose his opponent. But while Kerry may dream of “killing” anti-Kerry ads, Kerry (unlike Bush) has never said that 527 ads, even those against him, should be made illegal.

Kerry demanded Bush say that the Swift Boat ads were out-of-bounds, not that they were or should be banned. Kerry was complaining about the truth and propriety of the ads, which is itself political speech. Claiming that Kerry wants to restrict speech is putting words in his mouth, something Republicans do perfectly well without the Tribune’s assistance.

Finally, after getting both Bush’s and Kerry’s positions wrong, the Tribune then offered a similarly unique theory of Supreme Court jurisprudence. According to The Tribune, the McCain-Feingold law, “like previous campaign finance laws, violates the Constitution’s stricture about Congress writing any law -- any whatsoever -- that infringes on free speech.” This, like so many absolutist statements, is also wrong. First, many perfectly constitutional laws “infringe” on “free speech.” There’s libel, obscenity, and disclosing military secrets, for starters.

Second, the U.S. Supreme Court, to the surprise of all concerned, upheld the constitutionality of virtually all of McCain-Feingold. Maybe they were having a bad day, but many Americans also believe that the Court was having a bad day when deciding Bush v. Gore, and you’ve told us to accept it and move on. Respect for law, finality, blah blah blah. Don’t complain too much about the Supreme Court getting it wrong. Some of us might start thinking that the guy who gets the most votes should be president.

In the Tribune’s “plague on both houses” worldview, both Kerry and Bush get equal blame for McCain-Feingold; Bush signed it, while Kerry co-sponsored and voted for it. But Kerry, unlike Bush, hasn’t flip-flopped on this issue multiple times (Bush opposes! Bush signs the bill, but says it goes too far! He now says he thought it went farther! He now wants more regulation!) Bush isn’t just a flip-flopper; he’s now worse than Kerry on one of the Tribune’s key issues.

But if they’re both equally blameworthy, then criticism of Kerry’s legislative achievements now rings pretty hollow. If Kerry’s just as responsible as Bush for landmark campaign finance reform legislation, then that alone is a pretty impressive legislative record.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Michael Bérubé Explains It All To You

Penn State professor, amateur hockey player, and blogger Michael Bérubé, transformed for the week into a post-ironic Republican, explains the GOP's positive agenda:

And what's all this crying and moaning about how the Republicans don't have an agenda? What, you people weren't listening? Exactly how loud do we have to shout it out tonight? You want an agenda, we'll give you an agenda. Take out your little girlie-man pencil cases and start writing it down in your little newspapers:

On health care: we will knock Democrats' teeth down their throats!
On jobs: we will kick Democrats until they die of internal bleeding!
On education: we will show America that John Kerry is even more liberal than Ted Kennedy!
On the deficit: John Kerry looks French!
On the environment: John Kerry's wife is a rich foreigner! who is insane!
On corporate crime: John Kerry shot himself to get out of Vietnam! and he was never there! and he didn't even know how to fire a gun!
On intelligence and security: John Edwards is a pretty boy!
On nuclear proliferation: John Edwards is a trial lawyer!
On Iraq: Democrats are traitors!

So. You people want to debate the issues, we'll give you "issues."