Friday, May 28, 2010

Suffering Sufrage


Steve Cooley, the Republican candidate for Attorney General of California, fudges in the application of the Three Strikes Law because he thinks it’s too harsh and says he interprets the spirit rather than adhering to the letter. While opposed to arbitrary 20-plus year sentences, Cooley does however favor the death penalty. With the exception of Mike Schmier, a cool dude from Berkeley who isn’t able to garner enough support to be eligible to debate, none of the Democratic candidates for Attorney General give any indication on their campaign websites as to a position on Three Strikes. Nor do any of the candidates take a stance against the death penalty even though the California Democratic Party added the abolition of capital punishment to this year’s platform. Schmier, apparently isn’t beholden to labor unions or law and order zealots and he states plainly that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, ditto the Three Strikes Law. He supports the legalization of marijuana too. He hasn’t got a chance. Due to wishy washy websites, I email other Democratic candidates Ted W. Lieu, Rocky Delgadillo, Chris Kelly, Kamala Harris, and Pedro Nava requesting a clarification with regard to the candidate’s position on Three Strikes and the death penalty.

As I write this the only response I’ve received is from Democratic candidate Chris Kelly:
Death Penalty: I support the death penalty because there are certain crimes so heinous that perpetrators should be put to death. I think the death penalty should be used rarely. But I think it must be part of our criminal justice system
“Three Strikes: I support the three strikes law, because it reflects the common sense that people who have committed two serious or violent felonies should go off to prison for the rest of their lives if they commit another crime. There should be discretion for prosecutors in terms of how they charge that third strike—and I want to protect that.
I want to keep the three strikes system the way that it is.

The way it is, is that there are over four thousand inmates serving 20 year plus sentences in crowded beyond double capacity California prisons for crimes with the magnitude of shop lifting video tapes or pocketing a few dollars from a charity box on a liquor store counter. To put this in better perspective, Claudia Cabrera and her husband Josue Luna were sentenced this week. Ms. Cabrera’s driver’s license had been suspended due to a DUI. Apparently inebriated after attending a party, with her seven month old baby in the backseat, Cabrera ran a red light near USC and killed Adrianna Bachman, age 18. Marcus Garfinkle, Adrianna’s companion, was struck and propelled through the windshield. He was dragged 400 feet until Josue Luna was able to dislodge him and dump his body on the ground. Cabrera and Luna fled the scene. 19 year old Garfinkle survived his multiple injuries including two crushed legs, although he continues to suffer severe pain.

Cabrera and Luna visited a carwash, had the windshield replaced and were attempting to have the vehicle towed to Mexico when they were arrested. Claudia Cabrera was sentenced to 8 years in prison and her husband Josue Luna will serve 7 years. Leonardo Andrade, already convicted of three counts of burglary, petty theft and transporting marijuana, was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison under the Three Strikes Law for stealing five videotapes. Gary Ewing, a repeat felon whose prior convictions include burglary and robbery, is serving 25-to-life for shoplifting three golf clubs. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld both sentences in 2003, in a 5-4 vote.


For years I have voted based on a combination of endorsements made by the L.A. Times and the L.A. Weekly. If the Times and the Weekly differed, I’d check with the League of Women Voters or toss a coin. I realize that a number of the social justice issues I care about could be affected by the result of this election and so I check out what the candidates have to say about themselves, study the propositions and consider a variety of endorsements. The Democratic primary ballot is of average size for a California Primary, and there are a number of candidates running unopposed. Because of my profession I think my skills at accessing information on the Internet might be slightly better honed than those of the average voter. After spending the better part of a day searching for information and reading about various candidates for Attorney General, Superintendent of Public Instruction and Insurance Commissioner and then five different state measures and the controversial L.A. Unified School parcel tax measure, I remain undecided for the most part. I wonder how much time other voters put into informing their decisions.

Spending skyrockets with every election and now the Republican primary campaigns have become an obscene battle of bucks. A couple of super rich Internet tycoons are throwing a lot of their own cash around and intimating that they will enter office unencumbered by political debt. The state Democratic Party sponsored a great video, which seems to have disappeared from the net, that enumerated the equivalent in teacher salaries, medical services, and food-banks that the $80 million Meg Whitman has shoveled into her campaign would cover. According to my own crude calculations and my subjective feeling that a good newly credentialed teacher is worth about 70k a year, Whitman’s gift towards immortalizing herself would cover a year of payroll for approximately 1142 teachers. Our current governor promised independence from special interests too but the system is so impossibly mired that he was hobbled anyway. I doubt that Whitman’s administration will be as free wheelin’ as she envisions no matter how much money she spends. Opponent Steve Poizner is rapidly gaining on Meg, having thus far thrown in 24.4 million of his own funds to sell himself to the electorate, an awful lot of beans and rice for the food bank.

I make my choices as carefully as I can but until we have completely publicly funded elections and pull the reigns tight on lobbyists and PACs there bodes to be inadequate progress on issues that are important to me. The corrections officers union, CCPOA, publishes a list of endorsements, as do most labor groups. This is a very powerful lobby, the members of which benefit financially from teeming prisons. There are some individual corrections officers who advocate for prisoners and value rehabilitation over punishment but the truth is unions exist in this day and age to financially enrich themselves and their membership. Teacher’s unions give lip service to professional improvement and there is no doubt that there are a lot of extremely gifted teachers who work themselves half to death and truly change lives. The union nevertheless is also obligated to advocate for incompetent and even dangerous teachers too.

In 1945 36% of employed Americans were union members. Now the percentage is about 12.3, the manufacturing trades having taken the biggest hit. For most occupations, union membership is well below 20%, the exceptions being education, protective service and government although the proliferation of non-union charter schools will inevitably erode the percentage of unionized teachers. We boycotted grapes for years and I’ve never crossed a picket line. The unions protected workers from a multitude of evils and still the very first image that I free associate with “union” is the photo of the shrouded bodies of victims of the Triangle Factory fire lined up on the sidewalk. I do wonder though if now stricter and more comprehensive government labor statutes don’t render much of the function of the labor union irrelevant. Unless I’m missing something, the expense of running a union, like campaign spending, might be used to serve the community at large, rather than just a selective group of union members or special interests. Nevertheless, labor unions won’t fade away in my lifetime but perhaps at some point their political clout will be diminished.

Proposition 15 on the California Primary Ballot proposes a sort of pilot program for publicly funded elections, starting with a publicly funded election for Secretary of State. This measure proposes that candidates can opt out of public financing with parity but if the measure passes perhaps failure to participate will be perceived as lousy sportsmanship. This is a tiny step towards ending political beholdeness but perhaps it marks the very beginning of the end of legally sanctioned dirty politics.

I hope some day to live in a country where all elections are publicly financed and big business and other special interest groups diminish their stronghold on government. Watching the circus that’s our pending primary it’s easy to lose faith particularly when issues that particularly chap my hide like Three Strikes and the Death Penalty don’t seem destined for significant traction.

I suspect there’s a connection to the U.S. having a higher percentage of its population incarcerated than any country in the world (even China) with the radical cuts to mental heath services in the 1970s. Like many, I haven’t gotten around to finishing the final version of 2010 healthcare law tome but I was happy to find that it addresses mental health services, hopefully comprehensively enough so that early intervention will prevent some mentally ill citizens from becoming involved with the criminal justice system:
Many individuals with mental illnesses will now have access to health insurance that covers mental health and substance abuse services on a par with the coverage of medical and surgical care. Several other provisions in this law will also help people with mental illnesses, such as prevention programs, improvements to Medicare’s drug benefit, a new insurance plan for long-term community care, reauthorization of the children’s state health insurance program (SCHIP) along with other changes.

My first born will be eligible to vote in the November election. My political proclivities are irrelevant to him but I like to think that the ideas of some of the smart kids in his social networks will help expand his field of vision and raise his consciousness. Social networking is a blessing for grassroots political and social movements. Kids reaching adulthood over the next few years are screwed in many ways, but at least the mass communication facilitated by sites like Facebook makes it possible for them not to endure their disenchantment in hopeless isolation.

It is Memorial Day weekend. When I was a kid uniformed veterans stood outside the Quigley’s dime store selling poppies as inspired by WWI veteran John McCrae’s 1915 poem:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Himself takes a moment each year to remember his uncle and namesake who perished in the Pacific during WWII but I usually just sleep late and watch TV. I learned early on about WWII and examined my father’s pay-card from Lockheed and my mother’s ration books when I was snooping around. WWII was and still is uncomplicated as the heroes and the enemies are clearly delineated. Watching the Vietnam war play out during the dinner hour was different as with this war and every war the U.S. has engaged in ever since, the distinction between ally and enemy is blurred. Our soldiers are no less patriotic but because our objectives are so much more amorphous, they are also dupes.

I intercept a piece of mail addressed to the 17 year old. “SCHOLARSHIP OPPORTUNITIES” is stamped in a huge font on the front of the envelope. I turn it over to discover it had been sent on behalf of the National Guard. Himself teaches a lot of veterans who after their service take advantage of these scholarship opportunities. Sadly, many are so physically and/or emotionally devastated by having fought, and having fought for such ambiguous purposes, that college tuition comes at a usurious rate.

News of the Gulf oil spill will give news of military battles in the Mideast a short shrift over the long holiday weekend. I doubt if I’ll see any veterans selling poppies but I hope to take a few moments to remember those who have shed blood in defense of my country. I pray to honor those who have sacrificed by teaching my sons to cherish peace and justice and to vote and maintain a lot of old-fashioned American optimism.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

Memorial Day always sparks a mixture of emotions for me, too. I wonder how many people recall even for a moment the reason we "celebrate," or better, commemorate, it? From my boyhood gung-ho desire to follow my cousins, who served during Vietnam I always figured sensibly given the alternative in the "Silent Service" on submarines, to my collegiate disenchantment under the Selective Service and Reagan-era saber-rattling, to my present detachment even as I teach many veterans who are often my finest students, I confess again a complicated reaction to all these public rituals of life & death. xxx me