Friday, January 30, 2009

GOP Clueless on Stimulus Package

It shouldn't surprise me, but not a single Republican voted in favor of the Obama stimulus package passed by the House this week. This after President Obama made a point of meeting with the GOP House caucus and altering the stimulus to include massive tax cuts. Their solution? More tax cuts. You know, tax cuts...that thing they did back in the early 2000s that didn't have any long-term benefits at all, especially not for the middle class? The thing they always suggest as a solution for every economic ill, even though they've suddenly become aware that we have a deficit and the people who are most capable of helping pay it down somehow deserve to pay less than the rest of us?

The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson draws an interesting parallel between this week's vote and the 1981 strike by PATCO, a union of federal aviation controllers who didn't quite realize that the national tide had turned against them:

The controllers union had legitimate gripes and calculated that the new president would deal rather than risk a disruption of air travel. The union knew that strikes by government workers were illegal, strictly speaking, but it also knew that other organizations of federal employees had gotten away with similar walkouts in the past.

Reagan declared the strike a "peril to national safety" and gave the more than 13,000 air traffic controllers 48 hours to return to work. A few complied. When the deadline expired, Reagan fired the 11,345 controllers who had defied him. Two months later, the union was decertified. Years passed before any of the strikers were allowed to work as controllers again.

...Under Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford or even Richard Nixon, the controllers might well have won their strike. Under Reagan, they had no chance -- not only because of his stubborn resolve but also because American voters had given him a broad mandate for change. (my emphasis)

Robinson rightly notes that there should be a lesson here for the modern-day GOP: they were just on the business end of epic beatdowns at every level of government. This happened because their ideas have gone stale--they've run out of solutions, and their ideology no longer addresses the problems we face. 

Nobody likes taxes and nobody likes deficits. But as expensive as this bill is, at least we get something out of it; namely better schools, better health care and better infrastructure. The stimulus, even if it ends up falling short, is at least a whole-hearted attempt at fixing the problem and setting the stage not just for recovery, but for long-term economic growth. How many times do these guys have to lose before they realize that they no longer have popular support? Right now it appears the "we-strayed-from-our-principles" cadre is winning out over the "we-just-got-crushed-so-we-better-moderate" wing. 

If this is what we can look forward to for the rest of the 111th, then one thing's for sure: if bipartisanship falls apart, it won't be Obama's fault.

Blago Removed, but Still Eligible for "Biggest Douche in the Universe" Award

Rod "Lego Hair" Blagojevich is no longer the governor of Illinois, having been impeached and removed by a vote of 59-0. Also, he can never hold office in the state of Illinois again. Also also, his hair stylist was arrested on charges of endangering the public. Blago makes one in five Illinois governors who have ended up in prison. Really guys? Get it together.

Way to embarrass your state and cast a pall over your former senator's historic victory, douche. Good riddance.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Top Dems Want to Investigate Bush

I'm not sure this is such an awesome idea. The article from AlterNet highlights how some Democratic leaders in Congress want to launch investigations into nefarious activities that the Bush Administration embraced as part of the War on Terror. From the article:

On Jan. 18, two days before Obama’s inauguration, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed support for House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers’s plan to create a blue-ribbon panel of outside experts to probe the “broad range” of policies pursued by the Bush administration “under claims of unreviewable war powers.”


Conyers urged the Attorney General to “appoint a Special Counsel or expand the scope of the present investigation into CIA tape destruction to determine whether there were criminal violations committed pursuant to Bush administration policies that were undertaken under unreviewable war powers, including enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition, and warrantless domestic surveillance.”

I'm of two minds here. Part of me thinks that anyone who breaks the law, whether it's a shoplifting teenager or a dishonest president, should have to face the music. Not to mention the fact that the chief executive desperately needs to be reigned in after decades of an expanding "imperial presidency." 

But another part of me thinks this is potentially a very bad strategy. Yes, the Bush Administration allowed some pretty nasty stuff to happen, but then again that's not exactly a secret. Aside from the immediate verdict--an electoral smackdown and a decimated party--history will be their judge & jury. I personally did not vote to prolong the Bush era through prolonged investigations and trials; instead I was hoping to turn the page on the last eight years and move forward. 

These investigations may provide some valuable insight about presidential abuses, but at what cost? Republicans will portray them as partisan games, totally out of step with campaign rhetoric about bipartisanship, at a time when our country faces tremendous challenges. If nothing gets done to improve our national situation, that could become a winning argument in 2010 or beyond.

Gerald Ford took enormous amounts of flak for pardoning Richard Nixon, and it probably cost him a second term. But years later, after the passion of the moment has settled, many see that as one of Ford's greatest moments--he spared the country a long, drawn-out prosecution of a United States president and gave us a chance to move forward. This may be a time when we can learn from the other side.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ashura and Foreign Policy

Normally theology is a Dem Bones thing, but I thought this was an interesting read, since it relates to our foreign policy. Plus, I think we would all do well to learn more about what makes the Middle East tick so we can cut through the bull and form legitimate opinions. The Roanoke Times had an article Monday about the upcoming holiday of Ashura, a hugely significant event for Shia Muslims throughout the world. I remember a little about Ashura from a class I took on Middle Eastern politics, so here's a very rough nutshell approximation of what it's about:

Not long after the Prophet Muhammad founded the Muslim faith, he and his followers built a pretty large following in the Arabian peninsula. But when Muhammad died, the Islamic community came into conflict over who should lead their new faith, and there were basically two schools of thought: one said the caliph (roughly like the pope) should be drawn from among his peers, the other holy men of Islam (roughly like cardinals)--this group became the Sunni. The other group said that only members of Muhammad's family were worthy of leading the community--here come the Shia. All of this came to a head in 680 AD at the Battle of Karbalah (in modern Iraq). Muhammad's grandson Ali Hussein led a small group of Shia defenders against a much larger Sunni force; the battle became a massacre, and Hussein was executed along with all his defenders. To this day, Shia Muslims revere Hussein as a martyr and put him on a similar level as Christians view Jesus, though without the messianic connotations. This BBC article is several years old, but it has some good info as well. 

This whole episode led to a schism that has persisted ever since, dividing Muslims into Shia and Sunni--blood has been spilled more than once, and it continues to happen in Iraq. When the British and French reapportioned the former Ottoman Empire after World War I, they paid no attention to ethnic and religious territorial lines. They pretty much drew random lines on a map to come up with the new countries, which they agreed to split 50/50 between their empires. This hodgepodge effect is a big reason that Middle Eastern politics are so complicated today. I hope that President Obama's appearance on al-Arabiyah will set the stage for improved relations with the Muslim world so that we can begin to construct a lasting peace and undo some of the mistakes of the past.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Playing the Beatles Backwards

Now for a totally non-political distraction that came to my inbox recently: Playing the Beatles Backwards, a ranking of 185 Beatles songs from best to worst from JamsBio Magazine. It's a good read, though some of his rankings are blasphemous fallacies--"Julia," one of the few real gems on the White Album, is only #148? "And Your Bird Can Sing" is lower than "Within You Without You"? Lies. Filthy lies. 

Nevertheless, I commend the effort of ranking and rating all these songs, and providing a Youtube link to each one as well. Go forth and enjoy.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Webb, Perriello Ask for Better Amtrak Service in Danville

Congressman Tom Perriello and Senator Jim Webb asked Amtrak to improve rail service into Danville last week. This is especially timely for me, since I rode the Amtrak to Danville on the way back from D.C. Thursday night. They make some very good points about ways to improve ridership; Tom's money quote is in bold:

"I'm pleased to join with Sen. Webb to press for options that make it easier for people to travel to and from Danville by rail, and look forward to working with Amtrak and city officials to make our plan a reality," he said. "It's time to look for game-changers, and increased access is part of that answer."

Among the upgrades to Amtrak service, Webb and Perriello requested the placement of a Quick-Track automated ticket machine at the Danville station and the consideration of marketing strategies, in partnership with the city, designed to increase ridership.

They also asked for more convenient train schedules--something other than a 4:57 AM departure time would be a good place to start, and arriving in Danville at 11:14 PM wasn't particularly awesome either. More trains at more reasonable times would almost certainly put more people on the rails, especially as gas prices start to head north again. Their request for automated on-site ticketing would be especially helpful, as there is currently no way to purchase a ticket at the train station--this could be a nasty surprise for any unsuspecting tourist or businessperson hoping to catch a train home.

One thing they didn't mention is that the train station/science museum is located in the heart of downtown Danville, near a community market that hosted Vice President Joe Biden in October and a music pavilion that brings in some pretty large acts during the summer months. Along the same street are several blocks of what appear to be old tobacco warehouses sitting vacant (Danville readers, correct me if I'm wrong.) Those structures could be converted into office and retail space, as well as roomy apartments for families and young professionals. Having a train nearby such mixed-use urban areas could help revitalize downtown Danville and boost the overall economy of the region.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

My Inaugural Adventure

Hello all, it's good to be back. It's been nearly a week since my last post, wherein I promised inaugural stories and the like, so here goes:

I carpooled to D.C. last Monday with local musicians and campaign superheroes Doug & Telisha Williams, and we encountered an almost eerie lack of rush-hour traffic. We met up with some friends and former campaign workers and headed to the Old Dominion Brewery, which I highly recommend. After that, we parted ways and I spent the night at a friend's apartment on the campus of George Washington University--between myself and three other young Obamaphiles, it was a cozy fit.

We woke up the next morning at the harsh hour of 5:45 (though none of us really slept much) to bundle up and engage in some pre-inaugural festivities, including a champagne & orange juice toast (I believe the kids call them "mimosas"). We walked out of the apartment building around 6:30 into a street teeming with students from GWU--some of the young voters who finally showed up in 2008. From every side street, every alley and every building, the crowd grew, until finally we took over the street itself. Despite the frigid cold and the early hour, the air was alive with energy and enthusiasm. There was an incredible unity of purpose that everyone knew and felt without having to verbalize it. 

We walked the street--our street--under a quarter-moon and a few leftover stars, and there it was: the sun rising over the Washington Monument. Maybe the symbolism is just now hitting me, but it really seemed, figuratively and literally, that a new day had come. 

After walking the four blocks to the National Mall, the whole crowd began packing in like sardines. As it became clear that our spot on the Mall would soon be overwhelmed and since I had received Blue Gate tickets from Congressman Perriello, I figured I should escape the Mall while I still could. I set out for the Blue Gate and left my friends to certain immobility--I lost track of Megan first, and she disappeared as if beneath a giant human wave. 

I finally waded over to Constitution Ave and looked for my ticket area, which was wrapped around a federal building on the other side of a four-lane column that was the line for the Silver Gate. The best way to get there would have been to take Constitution until reaching 1st Street and working my way there, but the road was barricaded and blocked off at 3rd. Undeterred, I charged through to the Blue line; later my friend Ryan would comment that the crowd took on a life of its own, like a giant living organism snaking its way through the city, with everyone subject to the whims of everyone else. I had the same feeling more than once last Tuesday. 

After several hours of either standing still or moving at less than snail's pace, I finally made it through security on the other side of the gate, just in time for the swearing-in of Joe Biden. I couldn't see much because I was behind some frustratingly large trees, but I could hear everything perfectly. When Obama spoke, the crowd was completely silent--I sat and listened, wondering what would make it into the great inaugural quotes of history. All around, I saw a microcosm of the Obama coalition--I saw students and twenty-somethings and thought about my college friends who supported Obama in the pages of U.Va.'s Cavalier Daily or put up rally signs outside their Lawn rooms. I remembered the laid-off women who volunteered in between classes at the New College Institute, where they hoped to earn a more competitive degree. I remembered the African American voters who made phone calls and watched polls and probably never thought they would see this day.

All in all, it took five hours to get back to the apartment. There are many legitimate criticisms to make of how D.C. handled evacuating 2 million people, but I would much rather leave it here. Despite the chaos and confusion, it really was an excellent experience. One day I'll be glad to tell my kids and grandkids that I saw President Obama's (first) inauguration and that I was there when a new kind of politics came to Washington. I hope they look back and see the start of a truly great presidency.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Out for a Bit...

I'm leaving this morning to go up to D.C. for the inauguration and will not be back until late Thursday night. There's a good chance I won't be near a computer before then, but never fear, 220 South will return on Friday with all sorts of inaugural goodies and tales of Beltway adventures.

Until then, please navigate the blogroll on the right-hand side of the screen, especially Dem Bones and What is Right for Virginia.

I Have a Dream

If you've never watched the video or read the full text of MLK's most iconic speech, here is your chance, and I encourage you to do so. 


The Dream at a White Church

A really cool thing happened at my church the other night. I decided to hold off on writing about it until today, given the holiday we celebrate today and the president we swear in tomorrow. Thursday evening, there was a gathering at First Baptist Church of Martinsville in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Our pastor, Dennis Knight, coordinated and co-hosted the event with Rev. Tyler Millner of Morning Star Holy Church in Axton. A quick bit of context for out-of-area readers: First Baptist is a historically white, upper-class church with a 125-year history in the heart of Martinsville City and Tyler Millner is an influential pastor in the local African-American community. 

I arrived at 6:30 and the building was already beginning to fill up--by the 7:15 start time, our cavernous sanctuary was more full than I have ever seen. Pastor Knight spoke a few words about Dr. King and gave an opening prayer, then Rev. Millner spoke. I was in the balcony operating the sound and lighting system, which gave me just the right perspective to look down and see what I hope Dr. King can see--white and black sitting side by side on the same pews. I saw people who were old enough to remember segregated movie theaters, colored-only water fountains and the battles over school integration, but none of them showed signs of remembering those things with bitterness. Those things are merely history and this is the beginning of the future. At the end of the evening, following two outstanding gospel performances, they all chatted, shook hands and thanked each other for coming; I sincerely hope we do this again next year. 

My next post will be a video of the "I Have a Dream" speech. King makes reference to the Founding Fathers and the high standards they set for the nation but could not themselves attain, and the continuing struggle to reach our founding ideals. The Founders left us a road map showing our destination. It's as if they're standing over our shoulder pointing and saying, "Doesn't this sound great? That's the kind of country we should be." Thursday night showed me that we're still heading toward that destination; Tuesday morning shows that we are much closer than we have ever been.

Cross-posted to Blue Commonwealth.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Obama Announces "Organizing for America"

From Youtube:

I've been wondering what would be the next step for the unprecedented national grassroots movement that Obama put together. I assumed the state and local parties would undoubtedly make use of that infrastructure and the most active grassroots leaders would take the reins. It was pretty clear that the efforts of 2008 would pay dividends in the future, with or without the White House's help.

But by making this movement a living part of his administration, Obama opens up tremendous opportunities--the most obvious being that his 2012 field team is pretty much already in place. Besides that, though, Organizing for America may have some truly remarkable power: Congress thrives on public opinion, and the administration can now directly influence public opinion at the grassroots level. This may provide an excellent counterweight to conservative talk radio, which I believe played a large role in shaping pro-Iraq War opinion and which will undoubtedly attack Obama at every turn. 

It will also be interesting to see what role this organization will play in the 2010 midterms--Organizing for America could be a powerful bulwark against losses in that election, particularly if the political environment in two years is less than favorable for Democrats.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bitten by a Gerrymander

Today Waldo Jaquith posted a link to this handy dandy Slate catalog of the twenty most gerrymandered congressional districts in the country. I think my favorites are Illinois 4 and North Carolina 3, though Maryland 3 gets honorable mention. Take a look and ask yourself: how are these even constitutional?

This is why we need nonpartisan redistricting--"bipartisan" just ends up meaning both parties get an equal number of ridiculously safe districts. 

Charlie Rangel's War

Congressman Charlie Rangel (D-NY 15) is planning to reintroduce his annual reinstate-the-draft legislation as soon as the stimulus bill goes through:

A decorated Korean War veteran and a member of the Out of Iraq Caucus, Rangel argues that the burden of fighting wars falls disproportionately on low-income people and that cost should be borne more broadly.

Now, the above statement is almost certainly true--skills training and the promise of college money are big incentives for young adults to join the military, but they are incentives that resonate most with lower-income kids and we often hear news reports that bear that out. And yes, it is unfair. I personally do not support military conscription except in the most dire national emergencies, though I have heard valid arguments for some form of mandatory national service, be it military or non-military. But here's where Charlie goes a little too far into the realm of odd statements:
If a draft had been in place in 2002 when members were making the decision on whether to support the war in Iraq, Rangel has said, Congress never would have approved the war resolution, because the pressure from constituents would have been too great.
Really? Is he serious? Even if you think a return to conscription is a good idea, this is the worst argument possible. I wasn't around for Korea or Vietnam, but if my understanding of history is correct, the draft increased Canada's population and provided an endless supply of cannon fodder for the war hawks, but it did nothing t0 keep us out of those conflicts. Sure the draft played a role in increasing public pressure to end Vietnam, but not before 60,000 Americans had died. Moreover, those with privilege managed to get around the draft when they wanted to (it ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one), and there's no reason to believe that wouldn't happen again. 

Why would he be introducing a bill that has been soundly defeated multiple times in the past and will almost certainly be defeated again? Get it together, Charlie.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

One Wal-Mart Away...

The Shenandoah Valley Progress Report had a brief article on Wal-Mart that I think is worth noting. The article cites an Iowa State University report about Wal-Mart's affect on small businesses:

Further, Stone found that the stores that bore the brunt of Wal-Mart’s competition were in towns with populations of less than 5,000 within 20 miles of a Wal-Mart. [Jackson Citizen-Patriot, 7/11/08]

  • Iowa State University and Mississippi State University professors found grocery stores in Mississippi saw sales decline anywhere from 10 to 20% when a Wal-Mart moved in: stores in multiple other categories saw sales declines as well.
  • University of California, 1999, studied grocery stores in California and found “The full economic impact of those lost wages and benefits throughout southern California could approach $2.8 billion per year.”
  • 2005 report from the AFL-CIO finds that as Wal-Mart’s increasing reliance on imported goods has meant fewer jobs in communities around the country.
There's a bit of a "duh" factor in these results, but it does open a conversation we should have as a state, as localities and as a nation: is the much-touted tax revenue from building a Wal-Mart Supercenter worth bankrupting local merchants and vacating historic downtowns?

My personal preference is to avoid Wal-Mart like the plague, given their low labor and environmental standards, not to mention the overwhelming dearth of American-made goods.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Anyone Can Comment

Drew brought to my attention earlier today that members of Blogger can comment on my posts. I'm not sure how that happened because I intended it to be an open forum, but I've changed the settings and now anyone can comment. Comment away :)

Monday, January 12, 2009

As Education Takes Hits, Localities Must Adapt

This past week, a flood of stories described impending layoffs at school systems in the region--this one is an overview of what's coming throughout the Roanoke/Southside area.

Locally, City Schools Superintendent Scott Kizner announced job cuts, then the County schools announced early-retirement incentives to eliminate jobs by attrition. The same thing is occurring all over the commonwealth due to state budget cuts, but the impact will likely be especially harsh here. For instance, both local systems plan to cut the number of teachers by double digits, which will increase class sizes and reduce the number of programs that can be offered, thus putting our education system further behind the rest of the state.

Given the constant stream of news like this, I'm going to take a stand that not everyone will like and for which I will probably be very heavily criticized. At the risk of embroiling myself in a local debate, I think that it is becoming more and more imperative for the Martinsville and Henry County school systems to merge and operate as one system. We have been losing population for over a decade and that trend shows no sign of abating. As population leaves, enrollment in both systems drops along with the tax base--simple economics dictate that sooner or later we won't have a choice, so we might as well start the process now while we still have some control over the situation. I think city-county infighting is a luxury we can no longer afford, and it is holding back our teachers as well as our students, who simply do not have the same resources at their disposal as wealthier parts of the state. 

Not even a merger will completely solve these problems, but at least a unified school system will allow every student in Martinsville and Henry County to have the best shot we can afford to give them with our combined resources, instead of dividing ourselves and competing over state and federal funding. As the Kizner article notes, some vocational courses will have to be cut--one of the worst possible outcomes in an area that aspires to have a resurgent manufacturing base with a competitive, well-trained work force. Such cuts will become more common in both school systems, and the whole area will be even worse off--the recession does not distinguish between Bengals, Bulldogs, and Warriors, and it is high time we left our rivalries on the field or in the gym where they belong. Who knows, maybe merging the school systems will open doors to further cooperation. I'm not advocating that the city revert to a town or even that all students attend one high school, but I am saying a united front could only help our area back on its feet, and certainly couldn't hurt. 

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Follow-Up: Blagojevich Accounting on Uranium Subcommittee?

For some reason this doesn't surprise me: according to today's Danville Register & Bee, two members of the uranium mining subcommittee have received contributions from Virginia Uranium Inc. 

I blogged last week about the subcommittee's constraints on dialog at their Chatham meeting. The subcommittee was not interested in hearing about whether VUI should pursue mining, but only what questions they should ask in the mining study. Chatham residents (who, by the way, have no elected representatives on the subcommittee) had to play nice and only ask what they were allowed to ask. That was maddening enough. But here are the money quotes from Sen. John Watkins (R - Midlothian) when asked about whether he should return the money:

“I’m not going to give it back,” he said. “Why should I?”


Watkins doesn’t deny allegations from mining opponents that the subcommittee is pro-mining.

“We’re part of the Coal and Energy Commission, I mean come on,” Watkins said. He added that he wasn’t speaking for all the subcommittee members, noting some may be less pro-mining than others.

I'll just let that quote sink in for a moment. Did Watkins go to the Rod Blagojevich school of media messaging? I guess it's easy for an elected official to make a statement as arrogant as that one if he's not accountable to the people it affects.  It doesn't matter whether someone in power is a Democrat or a Republican (both parties have taken money from VUI anyway); hubris is hubris. But it's okay, because he assured us that being pro-mining doesn't mean being anti-environment, and uranium mining is merely a natural consequence of industry. I don't know about you, but I always believe politicians who embrace conflicts of interest.

This is not just about a uranium mine anymore--this is about democracy. Chatham is in the process of being steamrolled by politicians they did not elect. In most countries we call that tyranny. 

Friday, January 9, 2009

McAuliffe Advocates Repealing Dillon Rule

Terry McAuliffe held a town hall meeting this morning at the Dutch Inn in Collinsville. The event started at 8:15 and his campaign was kind enough to provide a breakfast buffet. This is the second time in the last four months or so that McAuliffe has come to the Martinsville area--last time he was stumping for Obama. The room was filled with Democratic activists, including the city and county chairs. Ward Armstrong was also there (see post below).

Terry is a very energetic speaker. I tried to get several pictures of him, but they all came out blurry because the guy just moves around so much. He had some interesting ideas, one of which was to harness the copious amounts of chicken scratch and other biomass that goes to waste on Virginia farms and use it to make biodiesel for our state vehicles. McAuliffe also mentioned retrofitting schools to be more energy efficient and requiring new school buildings to meet environmental guidelines. The biggest policy change he advocated was to repeal the Dillon rule, saying that it ties the hands of localities and forces them to beg Richmond's permission to do pretty much anything. Instead, he would like to see local governments regain some autonomy from the state. Finally, he pledged not to go negative against either of his Democratic opponents.

For the most part it was a standard town hall, but what struck me was that it almost felt like a miniature presidential rally--there were huge signs on the walls (not just hastily-taped rally signs) and there was a campaign sound guy with a PA system. During the Q&A, staffers were bringing around microphones, even though it was a fairly small room where that sort of thing wasn't really needed. That approach was a bit awkward for the size of the event, but it sent the message that his campaign has its act together. They're very much serious about this thing--to the tune of sending out 40 field organizers starting this week.

All of this begs a question I've been wondering about for some time: Where's Creigh? So far, McAuliffe and Moran have both held big events in Martinsville and Henry County, and both have visibly campaigned here on at least one other occasion. Creigh Deeds has been around, attending breakfasts or holding house parties, but he's about to spend six weeks in the General Assembly session and he has yet to really have a public presence locally. There seemed to be a feeling among some in the room that the primary was quickly reverting to a two-way race. 

Thursday, January 8, 2009

McAuliffe & Armstrong Have a Sleepover, Build Lego Fort

I came across this article in the Washington Post and I couldn't resist. Terry McAuliffe is coming to Martinsville and House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong has offered him a place to stay for the evening. They plan to discuss ways in which Terry's mythical fundraising abilities might help Democrats pick up House and Senate seats in the upcoming elections and, apparently, not talk about gubernatorial politics. Plus, Terry's bringing his Xbox and Ward has a sweet G.I. Joe collection! 

I actually think this is a very classy and statesmanlike move on the part of both men, given Armstrong's endorsement of Moran for Governor, but the thought of two state politicians having a sleepover just conjures up images that are too funny to ignore. And no, I don't think this means Ward is reconsidering who his support for Moran--if he were having second thoughts, I think he would have them in a less public way.

UPDATE: Bob McDonnell reports 3 a.m. prank call from someone looking for a "Mike Hunt."

UPDATE UPDATE: Danny Marshall's house got totally tee-peed!

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE: Just got back from the McAuliffe town hall. Clearly they're BFF.

Jobless Rate Nears 15%

Martinsville's unemployment rate is up to 14.9%, according to yesterday's Martinsville Bulletin--that number is the highest in the state, followed by Danville at 14.4%. Henry County's has reached 9.6% unemployment, bringing the overall joblessness in Martinsville-Henry County to 10.6%.

On top of that, we'll lose even more jobs by way of Liberty Fair Mall, due to the news that Goody's is closing all its stores nationwide. Waldenbooks--the only major bookstore in our area--is also leaving the mall by January 24. And there is an e-mail circulating through the area that, if true, brings even more bad news. According to the e-mail, three other stores may be leaving, including JCPenney Outlet and Belk. If any 220 South readers are unfamiliar with the area, this is a much bigger deal than it sounds--our mall was never on par with others in the region, and it has been on a downward spiral for years. If these rumors prove true, it will all but kill the only mall we have and do even further damage to the local economy, not to mention the quality of life and overall morale of our community. 

The only upside to this is that it provides an opportunity for local entrepreneurs: if empty storefronts in Uptown Martinsville are made available at a competitive rent, there's now an opening for new bookstores and clothing shops, potentially all locally-owned. That would accomplish several worthy goals all at once: first, it would help revitalize what was once a thriving uptown at the same time as creating jobs that don't depend on the whims of faraway corporate board rooms. A vibrant business district in Uptown would also prevent Wal-Mart from eating even more of the Martinsville-Henry County retail market.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Rome Burns, CBS Plugs a Movie

So I was watching the CBS evening news tonight and I noticed that one of their closing stories was a focus on that supremely important, relevant issue of life-and-death importance to the American public. I'm talking, of course, about the special effects advances that allow Brad Pitt to play an old man in the Paramount Pictures film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Yes, this was a "news" story. When I went to the CBS News website, I noticed that it was the top story and just had to comment.

Let me get this straight: In a time when the economy is going down in flames, the global balance of power appears to be shifting away from the U.S., the new congress is debating things that actually have relevance to our lives, there's genocide in Darfur, and there's war in the Middle East in which civilians are dying en masse, it's more important to plug a movie? This couldn't possibly have anything to do with CBS/Paramount's cozy relationship, and certainly the fact that they shared a corporate parent in Viacom is totally beside the point. 

Is it any wonder the corporate media is losing ground to blogs? 

The Battle of Coles Hill

Last night was the first skirmish in what will undoubtedly become known as the Battle of Coles Hill. Chatham residents turned out in the hundreds for a community forum on uranium mining at a site just outside town, which is apparently the largest untapped uranium deposit in America. There's a lot to cover here, so I'll get right to it.

The Virginia Coal & Energy Commission's subcommittee on uranium mining held the event in Chatham High School's auditorium, which was apparently filled to capacity. This quote from the Roanoke Times article is an incredibly disturbing one:
From the start, subcommittee chairman Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan County, emphasized that the Southside Virginia gathering was intended to solicit recommendations from the public about what a study of uranium mining should examine. It was not, he said, a forum about whether the study or the mining should proceed at all.
So here we have an elected official, who ostensibly derives his power from the consent of the governed, telling Virginia citizens what they're allowed to discuss at a meeting that they have funded with their tax dollars. Don't tell us not to pursue this mining plan, because you can only talk about what we should ask in the study. Brilliant. Unsurprisingly, some reacted harshly to these constraints:
Jack Dunavant, chairman of Southside Concerned Citizens, began by questioning whether the Coal and Energy Commission or its subcommittee could be objective, given that a few commission members had received political contributions from Virginia Uranium. Dunavant similarly questioned the involvement of a center at Virginia Tech that he said would have a vested interested in the mining going forward.

Ware's attempt to redirect Dunavant's comments to the meeting's stated purpose failed. A member of the crowd shouted, "You tell them, Jack!"
Yes, Jack, you tell 'em. Southside Concerned Citizens have been very critical of this whole enterprise from the start, and any time politicians try to set guidelines for citizens' speech, a tongue-lashing should be the least of their worries. 

A few attendants said that if the mining could be done safely (about as likely as Elvis brokering a peace deal between Israel and Hamas), the uranium mine could be a huge economic boost to the area--to the tune of $10 billion worth of ore, according to Virginia Uranium. This is what makes VU and the subcommittee's actions so vile. People in Southside are so desperate for economic relief that some will accept any abuse just to have work, and they'll fall for any sweet talk they hear from a company like Virginia Uranium. 

This is not rocket science--we don't need a study to show that uranium is radioactive and incredibly dangerous. As the article points out, processing it on-site would be even more damaging than the mining itself. Not only would there be contamination of the immediate area, but waste would almost certainly make its way into the surrounding countryside and even downstream into North Carolina. From the Southside Concerned Citizens blog, let's take a look at some of Coles Hill's flooding history. Here's some footage from 1996's Hurricane Fran:

Imagine if those waters had contained tons of uranium ore--chances are good that we would still be cleaning up the mess. 

Toward the end of the article, Del. Ware notes that the mining could continue for 30 to 40 years. Okay, what next? Even if the mine brings prosperity and contamination is kept to a minimum, what happens to the mine workers after 40 years of uranium exposure? Who's going to pay their medical bills when they develop exotic forms of cancer? Moreover, what happens when the mine closes and their long-time miners are suddenly without work? How will that affect the local economy? My guess is that Chatham will be right back where it started, except with a generation of sick miners and a contaminated local ecosystem. 

The Battle of Coles Hill has just started, and I'm betting that we'll be seeing it unfold for a long time. I think Jack Dunavant's promise to fight mining "till the last man falls" will prove prophetic.

Congressman Perriello

I just got back from Tom Perriello's swearing-in reception today in Washington. I carpooled up with Drew (of Dem Bones) and Doug & Telisha Williams, two excellent folk musicians from right here in Martinsville. We arrived about half an hour early and were some of the first to enter the room. The small space filled rapidly, and those of us who wore many layers became very uncomfortable very quickly. Soon we also saw our good friend Jim White from What is Right for Virginia, and the blogging trifecta was complete.

Despite the crowd and the heat, it was a truly great time--Doug & Telisha played "America the Beautiful" to an absolutely packed room in the Rayburn office building, and the crowd sang along. Some were moved to tears. 

In his short speech, Tom discussed the need to shift focus from the excitement of the
campaign to the necessity of governing, noting the very pressing issues facing the country today. He didn't mention this in his speech, but he and the other freshmen had just devoted their first day in Congress to the enormous stimulus package currently being proposed by the incoming Obama Administration. I wish I had recorded everything Tom said, since it was very inspiring as always; this event made me all the more certain that he will be an excellent congressman. He spoke a lot in the campaign about the need to work across party lines to solve our problems, and I know beyond doubt that he will do his part to make that happen.

Tom received a great introduction from none other than Virginia's senior senator Jim Webb, who shook hands and made the rounds. Senator Mark Warner arrived soon after, followed by Jim and Brian Moran (Potentially a very brilliant political move on Brian's part, since he was the only gubernatorial candidate in the room full of party activists). Also in attendance were 3rd district Rep. Bobby Scott, as well as former 5th district candidate Al Weed and former 5th Rep. L.F. Payne. Numerous county chairs from throughout the district also made an appearance--all in all it was a who's who of influential Democrats from around the state, but with a heavy 5th district emphasis. I may have missed a few faces since it was such a packed house, and for the same reason I was not able to get very good pictures. I was, however, able to snap one last one as we left the Rayburn office building:

UPDATE: Tom has been assigned to the Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure. This committee assignment was by all accounts in high demand among freshmen congressmen, given President-Elect Obama's huge infrastructure plans. This committee could not be more relevant to the 5th district and will help Perriello make an immediate impact on our area.

Monday, January 5, 2009

McAuliffe is In

It was never really in doubt and I'm probably the 7,389th person to blog about his announcement, but Terry McAuliffe is officially running for governor: 

It seems to me that speculation around McAuliffe's candidacy had impacted the race long before this formal announcement, with Deeds and Moran picking up big endorsements much earlier than I would have expected. Now take Brian Moran's challenge this weekend for the candidates to refuse out-of-state money; a move some Democrats are already blasting, and I can't say I disagree. Out-of-state financing is not a winning message, as Virgil Goode learned in the congressional race and as Dem Bones notes here. Meanwhile, Creigh Deeds seems to be doing a good job of staying above the fray, as no news is apparently good news.

I will not endorse any of the candidates right now, but I will say that if McAuliffe really can raise $80 million as he claims, I think this video is proof he should invest in southern accent lessons if he wants to win past the primary. :)

The Sweatshirt Capital (Finally) has Public Transit

Martinsville and Henry County launched their new bus service today, with stops at retail areas, government offices, the community college and employment centers. The full list is available here, courtesy of the Henry County website.

First let me say that the public transit system is a step in the right direction and I support it completely. A reliable transportation infrastructure will be indispensable for economic development, since no car = no job in a place as spread out as the county; not only that, but more mass transit = less pollution from individual cars. 

But looking at the route, I have to wonder...where are the residential stops? The only one I've seen is Spruce Villages in Martinsville--surely the route's planners don't expect that one apartment complex to support the whole route? Yes there will be students from PHCC and workers in industrial parks who will use this new service, but it seems to me that the current route does not make a lot of sense for those of us who live, well, everywhere else. Currently, you would have to drive to a bus stop, park your car, ride the bus, then drive back home just to use the service.

An expanded route should include densely populated neighborhoods, preferably with a high youth population, in order to capture the non-driving-age market--Rives Rd, Colonial Heights, and Fayette St seem like good places to start. There should be an additional stop in Uptown Martinsville to help revitalization efforts there and give young people another reason to ride the bus. Who knows? These changes might increase demand so much that more buses and more drivers would need to be added to the fleet. Besides, public transit has to be ready to take advantage of the next time gas hits $4/gallon. 

Perriello Backs 58, I-73 as Part of Stimulus

This is potentially very good news. Tom said yesterday that he would support using stimulus funds to expand U.S. 58, which has recently been hit by a cash crunch. Stimulus money would also go toward building I-73, though that project will certainly take more time given the diplomatic wrangling that still has to occur between the state, landowners and localities.

I've blogged before about how these infrastructure improvements can help rebuild an economy that, at least on the local level, seems closer to depression than recession. As the huge stimulus package heads into the 111th Congress tomorrow, there will undoubtedly be Republican opposition on the grounds that Obama is trying to spend the recession away. But that argument ignores the fact that the stimulus is a long-term investment that is decades overdue.  New roads, bridges and telecommunications networks will lower the barriers to entry for companies looking to relocate in Southside, and new money for education will create human capital that will make for a more versatile workforce.

On the micro level (i.e., Martinsville and Henry County), here is my take on what the stimulus can and can't do. In the short term, these infrastructure projects will undoubtedly create construction jobs and make our area more attractive to new businesses. The real key will be for our local government and business leaders to capitalize on that opportunity--expanding 58 will not bring about any lasting economic change for Martinsville if Danville and Pittsylvania make a better case for businesses to locate there. Likewise, I-73 will not save us if Greensboro and Roanoke are more attractive prospects. 

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Continuing the Obamamentum: What now?

A belated Happy New Year! 

And speaking of new, the big political story of 2008 (other than the obvious one) was the "new politics" that Obama, Perriello and others brought to bear in their respective campaigns. For the first time in decades, towns and cities all over the Commonwealth could point to a presidential campaign's field office on Main Street. Those offices were staffed 10 to 12 hours a day by ordinary citizens--young and old, black and white--who believed in what their candidates stood for. Speaking for my own experience as a Perriello organizer in Martinsville, I can say that I became friends with our volunteers, and they developed a special bond with each other as well--and we built a powerful grassroots movement. People power went viral, and we voted for Barack, Mark, and Tom instead of voting against their opponents. 

But all of this poses a crucial question: how can we best capitalize on the momentum we've generated? The true test of 2008's success will be the degree to which our movement remains activated--I think it would be a massive disappointment for everything we built to shut down just as it reaches efficiency. I personally would love to see the Obama-Warner-Perriello volunteers working for the 2009 state races as well as the 2010 midterm. But I also would like to start a discussion regarding other ways to keep the grassroots activated. Any thoughts?

Friday, January 2, 2009

The New Food Economy and the New Southside

The Franklin News-Post reported a story last week about the "new food economy," an agricultural system that emphasizes locally-grown produce. The article points to a proliferation of CSAs, or Community Supported Agriculture systems, across the area. There are very good reasons to be excited about this trend, particularly because of its applications for rural communities throughout Virginia.

First, the obvious benefits for local growers: in this globalizing world, the folks down the street need all the help they can get. Farmers' markets provide a central location where the community can not only buy local food, but also interact with the growers, which adds a huge social advantage. As consumers notice that local produce just tastes better, they self-select into supporting their new friends and create demand for more local crops. This model plays into the idyllic small-town-America vibe that pervades the Southside, which can only make our region a more attractive place to live and work. 

There are also huge environmental benefits to buying local, since your food hasn't burned enormous amounts of gas or diesel to reach you--not to mention that it likely won't be doused with preservatives and pesticides. 

Of course, Southside residents and rural Virginians have been shopping at farmers' markets for years, but I think the next step is to create regional economies built on that practice. For example, I would like to see counties shipping their produce into cities like Roanoke, Danville, and Martinsville, where restaurants would agree to use as much local produce as possible. That model could then be expanded northward to urban centers throughout the state.

The News-Post article cites Floyd County's Seven Springs Farm as an example of a CSA in action. Here are some other helpful links: a Biodynamics CSA list with Virginia locations, and Local Harvest, a database of CSAs and farmers' markets.

Payday Piracy

New state regulations governing payday lending institutions took effect today. Anyone who has spent significant time in the Southside will recognize the importance of this legislation for our area. Martinsville and Henry County are riddled with them--driving through Collinsville, one can count at least 12 pay day lenders just in a 2-mile stretch of this blog's namesake.

These are truly vile institutions--with easy loans and impossibly high interest rates, they prey on the poor and those who desperately need money. Once someone has accepted such loans, they are forever trapped under a mountain of debt that they can never pay off. Naturally predatory lenders have sprung up like weeds in areas like Martinsville that have been hard-hit by unemployment.

I applaud the effort to do something about these institutions; however, as this article in the Danville Register-Bee has pointed out, the regulations remain far from perfect and the crooks--er,--lenders are already finding the loopholes. This little tidbit is especially infuriating: 

In the meantime, the State Corporation Commission approved 11 payday lending companies’ requests to offer open-end credit products. Another seven applications are pending.

In Virginia, lenders offering open-end credit are unregulated. They can charge whatever they want as long as they don’t charge anything for the first 25 days. (My emphasis)

Awesome. So if you want to systematically rob poor people and hold them in perpetual debt, all you have to do is not charge interest for the first 25 days. I'm not sure I have words scathing enough for the flagrant incompetence exhibited by the bolded sentence above. I will be interested to see how the gubernatorial candidates respond to this news, given that the State Corporation Commission is (correct me if I'm wrong) an executive branch agency. Please call your legislators before the General Assembly session and let them know how you feel about this subject. Thanks for reading.

Cross-posted to Blue Commonwealth.