Elbridge Gerry, Elections and Unintended Consequences

Elbridge Gerry* is best known for only one of his lengthy list of accomplishments, that of ‘Gerrymandering’.* In truth, gerrymandering wasn’t even an Elbridge Gerry creation, but something he accepted reluctantly. It’s a shame, because while gerrymandering besmirches its namesake, Gerry himself was largely about rectitude in his lifetime, with accomplishments sufficient to seal a legacy for almost anyone: signer of the Declaration of Independence, signatory as well to the Articles of Confederation, and in 1787, one of only three attendees at the Constitutional Convention to refuse to sign the new Constitution—on the grounds it did not contain a Bill of Rights. He then was a leader in the efforts to secure the Bill of Rights. Subsequently he served as Governor of Massachusetts (1810-11), and finally as Vice President of the United States under President James Madison (elected with Madison in 1812) serving until his death on November 23, 1814. He is the only signer of the Declaration buried in Washington, DC.

Yet all that is obscured by the efforts used by the Democratic-Republican Party, and signed by Governor Gerry, in redistricting efforts intended to advantage the Democratic-Republicans against  the Federalists in a key Massachusetts Senate district. The Democrat-Republicans won the battle for the seat, but lost larger battles for the Massachusetts House, and Gerry’s own hold on the Governor’s office.

The irony is that for most of his political life, Gerry was anti-party. This was an attribute shared with many of the Founders, including George Washington. It was only after his failed efforts to help negotiate an end to the Quasi-war between the United States and the French Republic from 1798 to 1800. Though the failure was due primarily to the improper and inappropriate demands of the French, particularly French Foreign Minister Talleyrand, who demanded a large bribe before negotiations could commence, Gerry was scapegoated by the Federalists in order to drum up support for Federalist positions on issues related to building up of the US military forces to suppressing some freedom of speech. Gerry, known for his penchant for fairness, found this to be too much, and abandoned his antiparty stance to join forces with the Democratic-Republicans in opposition to the Federalists.

This enmity—deserved to a fair degree—towards the Federalists carried forward into Gerry’s forays in Massachusetts state politics, culminating in Gerry’s ascension to the Governor’s office in 1810. Despite this ill-will, when the Democratic-Republicans adopted new district boundaries favoring their party over the Federalists, Gerry complained about its unfairness—but signed the legislation, nonetheless. A Federalist paper, the Salem Gazette, coined the term ‘Gerry-mander’ to describe a resulting key Senate district as looking like a salamander, and creating the resulting portmanteau that is commonly used today.

The long-term consequences of gerrymandering have carried forward to a critical point nationally today. Whether through deliberate distortion of electoral distribution to favor a given party (somewhat bipartisan over the years, though more often GOP-directed in recent years), or suppression of classes of voters known to favor one party over the other (mostly GOP-directed, as the voter classes which can be most effectively discouraged seem to be ones favoring Democrats), the United States at both federal and state levels has a majority power party—the GOP—working harder to maintain power through suppressing votes and distorting districts to their broader advantage, rather than working to explain in the marketplace of ideas how their policies are in the best interest of the nation.

Gerry was once described by peers as committed to fairness. It’s tragic to see just how far removed from that commitment we have moved, and how his name has become associated with the opposite of what the man largely lived for.

* Elbridge Gerry’s surname is pronounced with a hard G (‘Gary’), while the term ‘gerrymandering’ has a preferred pronunciation with a soft ‘G’ (‘jerrymandering’)

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How to Help Trump

George Lakoff

Without knowing it, many Democrats, progressives and members of the news media help Donald Trump every day. The way they help him is simple: they spread his message.

Think about it: every time Trump issues a mean tweet or utters a shocking statement, millions of people begin to obsess over his words. Reporters make it the top headline. Cable TV panels talk about it for hours. Horrified Democrats and progressives share the stories online, making sure to repeat the nastiest statements in order to refute them. While this response is understandable, it works in favor of Trump.

When you repeat Trump, you help Trump. You do this by spreading his message wide and far.

Nobody knows this better than Trump. Trump, as a media master, knows how to frame a debate. When he picks a fight, he does so deliberately. He tweets or says outrageous things, knowing they will be…

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Ten points for Democracy Activists

1 – To understand the basic issues, read “A Minority President”: 2 – Know the difference between framing and propaganda: Frames are mental structures used in thought; every thought uses…

Source: Ten points for Democracy Activists

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Remembering Selma

Fifty years ago my 8th birthday was approaching. My family had moved a couple years earlier from public housing in Harlem to suburban New Jersey. Our home in New Jersey was purchased at a cheap price in large part because the white, high school educated shoe salesman who built it a couple years earlier was upset that a research chemist with a PhD in engineering was moving in next door–and was black.

Race was very much on everyone’s minds back then; certainly it was a frequent topic of conversation in my home. My parents were appalled at what was happening, not only in the South, where it was more overt, but everywhere–including redlining and other actions to limit fair opportunity for all. My father was born in a migrant labor camp outside of Yakima, and identified strongly with the importance of opportunity. His personal story was the stuff of an apocryphal American Dream, born into a family where graduating high school was rare he ended up getting a fellowship to get his doctorate in Psychology from Columbia University, then a career mostly at Educational Testing Service. He felt his story should be available to anyone.

Watching the television reports on the Selma bridge anniversary brought back memories of that time, including watching Walter Cronkite voicing over the horrible pictures of marchers being beaten, and of Bill Plante’s on-the-ground reporting. Fifty years later, many things have changed for the better. My current home of Bellingham, Washington–like many cities–is much more diverse, and a more welcoming community than it was back then. The Voting Rights Act provided access to the polls for people systematically discouraged from voting, or even banned via beatings and intimidation from voting at all. Banking laws have outlawed redlining; employment laws similarly outlaw workplace discrimination. It is no longer remarkable to see interracial couples, and interracial friendships are far more common than they were fifty years ago.

But societies are slower to change. Even now, the Voting Rights Act has been gutted by court action; a bill to correct this languishes in the House of Representatives despite dozens of co-sponsors and lip-service support from both parties. Minorities, especially young black men, are viewed too often through a lens of fear. The combination of that fear coupled with the proliferation of guns (more guns in this country than people–have we got enough yet?) has led to a wave of shootings by police of young, black men. Almost daily it seems another black man has died as a result of being shot by the police. We have a lot of work left to do, as the President noted.

One of the things that makes this country exceptional is the ability of everyday people to get involved in effecting change. A group of folks with incredible courage put their lives on the line fifty years ago putting that principle into practice, and today many are standing up to declare that the status quo is not acceptable, that Black lives matter. I hope all of us can look back and learn, and looking forward, work to bring about positive change where change is needed.

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Jailing is Not Green

The County Council recently had pause at the financial cost of the proposed new jail facility for Whatcom County, and are waiting for more figures to come in to determine whether we as a county can afford for it can be constructed to ‘green’ LEED standards.  That question got me thinking more about the underlying issues, and the irony involved in the very question of a ‘green’ jail.  A posting this morning at the Fish-and-Bicycles blog got me a bit more stirred up, and I decided–after posting a comment there–to post a blog of my own on the subject; it is an important topic that could use more thought and discussion.

Jailing is failing, and as a society we are experiencing what my kids would call an epic fail. Warehousing people–most of whom have a number of addressable issues, ranging from mental illness and chemical dependencies to lack of education–and access to education–to poverty is the antithesis of sustainable.  The United States is currently #1 in the developed world, and #2 overall, in terms of incarceration rates; higher than North Korea, higher than Cuba, about 70% higher than Russia, about five times the incarceration rate of China. This is not the kind of exceptionalism we should strive for as a nation. It’s not sustainable, however you measure ‘sustainability.’

Building the greenest facility in the world on a greenfield, and requiring utilities extension that will further accelerate greenfield development is also anti-green, no mater the LEED score. If being ‘green’ is about outcomes, rather than PR, the ‘green’ approach here would involve rehabilitating the existing jail (along with the whole damn courthouse; we got taken for a ride when it was built, not that anyone is owning responsibility, despite the fact that key political players are still around who proclaimed it a great deal at the time) and also rehabilitating the residents thereof.

We have some programs in place–drug court, teen court–that are effective; we need more educational inreach into the jail, more treatment services; more meaningful contact with family and friends–all empirically demonstrated to reduce recidivism. We need training for meaningful employment, and less ostracism of ex-cons. These are all more efficiently accomplished with a jail close to those services; i.e., at its current location.

These approaches are not only ‘greener’ than what is proposed, they are also more ethical–and less costly in the long run. As Mark Twain noted over a century ago, “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail.” The reverse also holds; if you want to close or reduce the demand for jails, we need to put resources towards root causes, instead of building edifices which bankrupt us financially and morally.

As a community we are blessed with great resources to address this issue.  We have an incredibly bright, diverse and engaged nonprofit community that can take on this work, given a fraction of the resources that building and staffing a new jail will require.  I call on County Executive Jack Louws, the County Council and Sheriff Bill Elfo to step up to this challenge and show the true leadership I know you are capable of; leadership which will enrich rather impoverish this place by working to meet the needs of our community ethically and financially.

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An Early New Year’s Resolution

An Early New Year's Resolution.

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An Early New Year’s Resolution

Like many folks, I find the change of years a time to contemplate what’s happened and what I hope will come.  Inevitably reviewing the past makes me think about how I want the future to be different, which in turn leads to resolutions, explicit and implicit.

In his excellent blog, ‘Neuronarrative,’ David DiSalvo looks at whether or not making a public commitment leads to better follow through.  Turns out it does, for those with both high and low susceptibility to normative influence (SNI); that is, the degree with which you care about others’ opinions of your actions.  In DiSalvo’s article he is looking specifically at weight loss, but the principle holds for many tasks (by the way,  I am planning to run or walk 1,000 miles this coming year for exercise.  Public enough?  I think so…).

As I thought over the past couple of weeks about what I want to be different going forward, I thought about my last blog post, where I discussed the City of Bellingham’s just-passed budget.  I also reflected on the time when I began this blog, nearly three years ago.  At the time, I wanted to test myself; see if I could produce reasonable output for a blog.  I produced 25 blogs during that initial run, generally running about 700 words in length, or about the length of an op-ed column in our local newspaper. To me that showed I could.

At that time, I was looking for work, and as I was writing my pieces, I realized that examining potential employees’ social media presence is a growing trend in hiring decisions.  While none of my posts were patently offensive–at least to my own eyes–I realized that at times I would remark on issues, like same sex marriage, that were divisive; the kind of issues that might lead an employer to pass on a hire.  So I mostly stopped blogging.  Then I found work, and found I was otherwise occupied–though in hindsight, that was a choice; I could have also made the choice to blog on.

As we enter 2015, I find myself once again unemployed (or self-employed, if you prefer.  I am working on a project which promises a future income stream, but the bills are piling up i the interim, so it feels a lot like being unemployed) and looking for meaningful and paid employment.  At the same time, I find myself wanting to blog regularly, believing that some–besides myself–find my thoughts interesting and at times informative.  What to do?

This time, I’ve decided I will blog, and damn the consequences.  Well, not damn the consequences, but rather have a little faith in those hiring.  I’ve been mayor of a city of 80,000 people; of course I have opinions.  Everyone has opinions, and most should be fodder for discussion, not exclusion.  That’s how progress can be made.

I can explain reasons for any of my opinions to those wanting to know, a positive quality in the areas where I’m looking for work–generally in government relations, communications, or project management.  If an HR Director reads my blog pieces hopefully she or he will recognize that I have some communication skills.  If there are areas of controversy, hopefully those are taken as having a willingness to take a position; if there are areas of profound disagreement between myself and a potential employer to the extent that it affects the hiring decision, I need to have faith that that’s probably for the best, too.

So I’m back, on a regular basis.  My goal is to blog daily on most weekdays; a minimum of three times per week.  All blog postings will show up on bona fide leadership; many will be posted to BigPictureLongTerm.com, too, if there is an element of sustainability in the piece.  Put in an annual numerical commitment, I will author 150 blog posts in 2015, on whatever moves me.  Generally I pay attention broadly to current affairs in the region, state and world, finding ideas to share from what’s happening.  For many years now, that focus has often been through a filter of what is sustainable, or how actions affect sustainability, as well as just ruminating on what ‘sustainability’ means.  And in response to some local inquiries, yes,  some articles will involve a further examination of the City of Bellingham’s budget.

I look forward to 2015, and hope you join me in these conversations.

Posted in Bellingham, budget, motivation, New Year's Resolutions, SNI, sustainability | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments