Sunday, March 29, 2009

I Met Jody Wagner Tonight

Jody Wagner's campaign came to the Ryan's Steakhouse in Martinsville this evening, and I got a chance to spend about an hour chatting with Jody and her campaign staffers. As of right now, I am not endorsing any of the LG candidates--I will probably roll out some endorsements at some point, but I want to hold off until I have more information about all of them.

Having said that, I found Jody to be an impressive candidate. She's knowledgeable, personable, well-spoken and engaged. Jim White over at What is Right for Virginia has a good post about the event, along with a dashing photograph of myself...well, "dashing" may be a strong word. 

In any case, I echo what Jim said: thanks for taking the time to sit down with us, Jody, and a special thanks for navigating Martinsville traffic on NASCAR race weekend.

Blue Commonwealth Melts Down

Apparently circular firing squads are a bipartisan phenomenon:

Huh. So there's that. Backbiting and lack of civility can doom blogs.

Uranium Roundup: Study Proposal, Deeds on Mining, etc

After an insanely busy week that kept me from posting much of anything, here's The Uranium Roundup, second edition. Lots to talk about this week:
  • The top story comes from Wednesday, when the Subcommittee on Uranium Mining released its tentative draft of the proposed uranium mining study objectives. The list of items to be looked at in the study is too long to list here, but most of the concerns center around health and safety, environmental/ecosystem effects, and long-term economic sustainability.  The study will take around two years and cost around $1 million. My big question: who pays for it? 
  • State Sen. Creigh Deeds has come out publicly saying that he doubts the science behind the proposed uranium mining study. This comes after Terry McAuliffe bunted on the issue early last week.
  • The Danville Register-Bee published an editorial that raises a very good point about one of the study questions--how reliable is the market demand for uranium? A sudden drop in demand for played a big part in killing the first proposed uranium mine at Coles Hill back in the 1980s. If demand for uranium is unstable, it may not be smart to tie Pittsylvania's economy to such a volatile industry. (h/t Dem Bones)
  • Virginia Uranium has hired a lobbying firm called Kemper Consulting. This development got a passing mention in an editorial in today's Virginian-Pilot out of Hampton Roads. Apparently Kemper also represents the city of Norfolk as well as an Illinois company looking to run port operations in Virginia if the state privatizes the ports, prompting conflict-of-interest concerns. Other than that, I honestly don't know anything else about Kemper.
That about does it for this week. With two of the four gubernatorial candidates having to answer uranium questions in the past week, it definitely looks like this thing is quickly becoming an election issue. Given that the study is slated to take quite a while, I wouldn't be surprised to see it turn up in 2010 as well. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How Do They Not Get This?

Apparently the great minds over at JPMorgan haven't quite figured out the American mood as it pertains to everything outside of one street in New York City. This golden nugget from ABC News yesterday makes it into my new "How Do They Not Get This?" segment. 

JPMorgan thinks it'd just be a swell idea to go ahead and drop $138 million in mad fliff on some new corporate jets and a special hangar. Don't worry though, they're doing this thing the green way: it comes with a roof garden! Yes, that's right--JPMorgan is being awarded this lease from the state of New York because they've pledged to make the hangar a state-of-the-art "green building." Huh. So in order to save the environment, they're going to purchase a fleet of private jets that will eventually belch much more carbon than a passenger jet--I guess they can't be seen among the unwashed. Can anyone say greenwashing?

The article says that they're not using any of the $25 billion in TARP money to pay for their new toys. That's like saying, "It's OK honey, I didn't use any of your money to pay for my trip to Vegas with your sorority sister!" And now, at the end of the article, behold the money-est of all quotes I've seen this week, from none other than JPMorgan chair Jamie Dimon. Jamie, drop it like it's hot:
"When I hear the constant vilification of corporate America I personally don't understand it," Dimon said.
Well, he's right about that--clearly he hasn't poked his head out of that little financial bubble for quite some time. I would like to turn his question on his head and ask why AIG, JPMorgan and others don't understand basic fairness. How do they not get this? We were already struggling and had to spend our tax dollars to save these guys from their own incompetence, and they repay us by writing themselves massive bonuses and buying new jets. As President Obama said on 60 minutes, these guys need to spend a little time outside of New York. 

But I think the best way to describe this move comes from Nell Minow, a corporate watchdog quoted in the article:
"There are going to be business school case studies for generations about exactly these decisions, and people will be learning forever about what incredible stupidity these executives showed," said Minow.
Look, don't get me wrong. I think capitalism is the best system ever devised for the exchange of goods and services. With enough hard work, smart moves and some luck, a high school dropout can become a self-made millionaire. But like democracy, the whole thing can collapse in the blink of an eye when there's too much power in too few hands. Our founders understood that pure democracy is nothing more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner, and so we got a republic. In the same way, we have allowed the balance of power in our economy to shift into the hands of people like Dimon, who have become so insulated from reality that they've lost their grip on it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

McAuliffe on Uranium

Interesting tidbit over at Dem Bones today. Terry McAuliffe's (non-) stance on uranium mining in the Southside:
From the Danville Register and Bee:
Democrat Terry McAuliffe wouldn’t say whether he’d back uranium mining in Virginia as he expanded what he calls his business plan for the state.

... McAuliffe said he’d await the results of a study on health and environmental effects of the proposed mine near Chatham.

When asked whether Virginia Uranium Inc., which stands to make billions from mining, should pay for the study, McAuliffe had no objection to it.

He effectively punted here, but I haven't heard Moran or Deeds on the issue.
So there ya go. Yes, he completely dodged it, but so far McAuliffe's the only candidate I've heard talking about uranium mining at all. Bold prediction: he won't be the last.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Teen Pregnancy Skyrockets

Disturbing article from the Martinsville Bulletin today. Growing up here, I've always known our teen pregnancies were completely out of control--in high school, I think at any given time there were five pregnant teenagers walking the halls, and it was not at all uncommon to see 16-year-olds bringing their new babies to school for a tour, meeting faculty and friends. I even remember at least one girl becoming a mother in seventh grade.

But these numbers are pretty striking--they come out to about 70 per 1,000 in the city of Martinsville and about 41 per 1,000 in the county. It may not sound like much, but it's more than twice the state average; Martinsville's teen pregnancy rate is the second-highest in the state (curiously the same rank as our unemployment, which reached 18% last month). 

What's so daunting about this issue is how insidious it is. It's not like pregnant teens have a rough 9 months and then everything's back to normal--they're parents for the rest of their lives. The way I see it, there's a two-pronged approach to this problem: the first is damage control. We should call on our local churches to offer day care programs either for free or at a very low rate while their mothers are at school receiving the kind of specialized attention discussed in the article--the worst thing we can do is allow the countless teen mothers in our town to drop out of high school and be stuck in a life of poverty. 

Second, we have to prevent as many future unplanned pregnancies as possible. This is where the biggest controversies will arise--I can easily see an epic fight over access to contraceptives or education vs. abstinence-only. I will stop writing about it here, because I fear I'm opening a can of worms. But I think we all agree we have to do something about this problem.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Perriello Report, or, Double Shift Part Deux

Tom Perriello has done two very noteworthy things this week, one involving AIG and the other having to do with the benefits of national service and volunteerism. 

First, Tom issued a richly-deserved verbal smackdown to the AIG tools who decided they still deserved multi-million dollar bonuses even after completely failing at that whole capitalism thing and shamelessly taking a bailout from the federal money-for-incompetence program. He also co-sponsored a bill to re-take all bonuses over $100,000 that AIG execs have awarded themselves. Given the emerging conservative talking point that actually defends the AIG bonuses based on the "they're just honoring a prior contract" argument, I think this is a pretty excellent quote:

“AIG hides behind claims of contractual obligations, but the car companies who received bailout funds found a way to cut wages to line workers. Why is it okay for companies to force cuts on workers but not scale back million dollar bonuses for the executives who knowingly caused us this mess?”

Someone give that man a chairmanship.

Tom also led the charge to create a national volunteer reserve corps that would enlist former volunteers for future efforts in times of national disasters. The GIVE Act, which is expected to raise the number of available volunteers to 250,000, passed the House overwhelmingly today. The bill is supposed to make it easier for Americans to volunteer their time on projects to improve our communities; U.Va. politics professor Larry Sabato has proposed something like this before, noting what a great advantage a reserve corps could have provided in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters. Here's a YouTube clip of Tom speaking about the bill:

There will also be financial incentives--higher ed funding and the like--to encourage additional volunteerism. This would work great for someone like myself; It would have been much easier to afford a trip to the Gulf to rebuild houses had I known I could help pay my college bills in the process.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Coach Leitao "Resigns"

Any of you who follow college basketball in the state have no doubt heard by now that Virginia coach Dave Leitao has resigned/been bought out for $2.1 million. I'm actually not sure how I feel about this--yes, I've been very frustrated with my Wahoos this season and I want to have a winning team, but they really haven't done any worse than expected. I do think he needed to go at some point, but I don't necessarily believe it's fair to place all the blame on Leitao, since having an incredibly young team and one of the toughest schedules in the ACC is grounds for benefit-of-the-doubt. I'm also inclined to have much more patience with Leitao than with certain members of the coaching staff over at Scott Stadium. Nevertheless, I do see this as the business decision it is--the fan base was gathering torches and pitchforks over the mediocre football seasons, and if you can't sell out your new multimillion-dollar arena for ACC matchups, you have to do something to calm the masses and regain the trust of the audience.

For better or worse, so long, Dave. Any thoughts on who might replace him?

New Section: Uranium Roundup

Given the constant stream of news surrounding Virginia Uranium Institute's proposed uranium mine in Pittsylvania County, I'm planning to start a weekly (or thereabouts) installment of uranium-related headlines to keep up with the relevant occurrences. 

For those of you who are new to this blog, I've written before about my opposition to uranium mining and the conflicts of interest on the subcommittee tasked with "studying" such mining. It's become apparent that if I tried to write a post every time something happened, I'd never write about anything else and you would all get bored. Instead, here's some of what happened on the uranium front over the past week or so:
  • Last week, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors brought up the possibility of enacting a uranium mining ban within the county. This comes after a previous resolution, which required any uranium mining not result in damage to the county, passed unanimously. I don't have to tell you what a potentially huge deal this could be; legal battles anyone?
  • The Danville Register & Bee has--sort of--come out on the side of Chatham Mayor George Haley, who wants his town to adopt a less ambiguous ordinance--pro or con--regarding VUI's proposed mine at the Coles Hill site. Gretna and Hurt have already passed ordinances requiring the mine not bring harm to Pittsylvania County, which seems to reflect the general public opinion.
  • The Pittsylvania County NAACP has expressed concerns about how mining would affect water quality in the county. Apparently the exploratory drilling that occurred in recent months has led to a drastic increase in lead levels at at least one household's water well.
  • The Southside Virginia Against Uranium Mining blog (which is worth a look in its own right) posted a map today of land leased to would-be miners Marline Properties in the 1980s before the statewide moratorium on uranium was enacted. It may take a while to load the picture, but I think it's worth a look; major swaths of land were slated for uranium mining, and it would be interesting to see what role the old leases would play in any new mining.
It would seem there's a growing public consciousness of what dangers are inherent in blasting radioactive nuclear fuel out of the ground and into the environment. I would expect that to grow into a backlash over the coming months, and it encourages me--one of the most cruel things you can do to a Southside resident is promise jobs in exchange for health and safety.

Double Shift

Congressman Perriello is back at work, where he has joined with over forty congressmen from both sides of the aisle to request that President Obama form an Office of Rural Policy. This follows the president's plan to form an Office of Urban Policy last week. Check out this article; it goes into more detail about the breadth of this coalition, which draws on rural districts from across the country.

This is what Tom was talking about on the campaign trail when he spoke in bipartisan, solutions-oriented tones. Contrary to popular belief, there actually are things we can discuss and address other than the big hot-buttons--call me naive if you want, but I'm encouraged when I see news like this. I think it shows that bipartisanship can work. 

This is also good news because of the obvious fact that rural areas face many of the same issues as more developed areas of the country, but often get overlooked--poverty, lack of educational opportunity, crumbling infrastructure, rampant social problems like drug addiction and teen pregnancy are some of the problems that face the 5th District alone. 

Go Tom!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Madoff Pleads Guilty

Well, Bernie Madoff pleaded guilty today to all eleven counts against him and was promptly carted away to the New York Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he rots like the worthless bloated sack of humanity he is. 

I don't want Madoff to go to prison. In prison, he'll have food and shelter for the rest of his life; this guy should lose absolutely everything. A much better punishment for Bernie Madoff would be to have every penny he owns taken away and given to his victims. Then he should be forced to take a minimum wage job at Wal-Mart and pay for a crappy apartment with bugs and a leaky roof. He should also be assigned a predatory loan that he can never possibly pay off. He should have to live on that for the rest of his life with no outside assistance whatsoever. The same thing should happen to everyone who colluded with him--I'm guessing that means his wife and sons as well.

Fun fact: for his next scheme, contraband! His cellmate has already turned a button and some string into moonshine and a whole pack of Marlboros! 

Breaking News: Goode to Run Again

Virgil Goode has filed with the State Board of Elections to run for the 5th District seat in 2010. This doesn't really come as a surprise--I think a lot of people have seen this coming, and there have been plenty of rumors emanating from those close to the Goode camp. My money's on Tom, especially if Virgil runs the same kind of campaign he did in '08. Which brings me to my next point...

If Virgil's running, will he even get the nomination? I personally think there are much more capable Republicans that could run, and the GOP seems to have a few of those guys in mind. They may not be too keen on a defeated incumbent upsetting whatever apple cart they've put together.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Yet Another Reason Why the School Systems Should Merge

There was an article in yesterday's Martinsville Bulletin that should trouble you deeply if you live in this area. The Martinsville City school board passed a budget Monday that eliminates the JROTC and landscaping programs and abandons the MHS vocational building. The school board holds out hope that Patrick Henry Community College will pick up the vocational building's costs and that city students will be able to participate in JROTC programs at county schools.

Please don't misunderstand; this is not meant to be a criticism of the school board's budget. I don't know enough about how these cuts were devised to point fingers at Scott Kizner or anyone on the board. All I know is that the economy is in chaos--I don't doubt for a minute that something had to be cut, it was never going to be pretty, and the board did the best they could with an outrageously crappy situation.

But this highlights an issue that I've been known to preach about from time to time--and by "from time to time," I mean "constantly." This is even more evidence that we as a city/county community can no longer afford to operate two separate school systems. It made very little sense even before the national meltdown, but now it's directly undercutting our attempts to renew this community--how are we supposed to make the case that our workforce is trained and educated when we're forced to cut vocational programs? Moreover, what are the former JROTC students going to do? I was never a member of JROTC, but I was involved in the marching and jazz bands and I learned more about life from those experiences than I did in most of my other classes--if I had lost that, it would have deadened my high school experience. For JROTC students, there's the added benefit of experience that could help them advance through the ranks if they were to pursue a military career. Our inability to work together has now cost some of our students one of their opportunities to succeed.

Hey, I know it won't be easy or fun. I was a Bulldog and I don't want to see that go. But the longer we put off at least a school system merger, the more we shoot ourselves in the foot and the more we simply prolong the agony. If we want to survive as a community, we have to make some tough decisions--and we have to do it now.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

World Baseball Classic

And now for a leisurely Sunday night blog that has nothing to do with politics. Imagine my surprise when I woke up for work Thursday morning and got to watch baseball while I ate my breakfast--it was Japan and China, playing at 7 PM local time in Tokyo for the World Baseball Classic. I watched the Classic in 2006 for its inaugural year, and I can honestly say it was some of the best, most exciting baseball I've ever seen. I followed the whole tournament and found myself watching the championship game at 2 AM in a study lounge at U.Va.'s Gooch-Dillard Residence Hall--Japan beat Cuba in what I recall as a thriller. These guys are playing for national pride, and you can tell, as it makes for some exceedingly sweet games. 

The USA team features Kevin Youkilis, Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Adam Dunn and a host of other MLB stars. Yesterday they beat Canada 6-5 in a nail-biter after losing to Canada in 2006. As I write this, they're beating Venezuela 8-3; if that holds, the USA is going to round 2, where Japan has already clinched a spot. If you consider yourself a baseball fan or an American, you have no excuse not to watch this series. Sure there's March Madness, but with the 'Hoos out of it, what's the point? Oh yeah, and I think there might be one other Virginia team that likely won't be making an appearance...maybe from the Blacksburg area...anyway, watch the World Baseball Classic. You won't be disappointed.

The games are on ESPN, ESPN2 and the MLB network.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Predatory Trade: The Other Side of the Equation

This article in the Washington Post fleshes out the other end of an equation that has decimated industry in Southside--"free" trade and what it really does for the people it's supposed to benefit. 

Whatever the talking points about how great it is to lower trade barriers and provide jobs for poor countries trying to develop their economies, "free" trade as practiced by U.S. government and Western business interests over the last twenty years is nothing more than greed disguised as altruism. What's more, I think this article shows that it's completely unsustainable, and here's why: 

The constant search for greener pastures always ends up the same way--U.S. Textile Company wants to save some coin on labor costs, so they move their factories to Emerging Country where they can pay a fraction of the cost in wages and benefits. Emerging Country's government wants to, well, emerge, and they're thrilled to get some jobs.  Emerging Country benefits for a while (even though the people who work in those factories are living on scratch) and skylines start to pop up. But then something happens--either the economy tanks or Textile Company finds another place where people will work for even less, and the factories go there. Emerging Country's poor factory workers are right back where they started, and in the end no one really benefits. 

Meanwhile, U.S. Textile Company's former employees back home are out of work, but many of them only have a high school diploma and several years of manufacturing experience. They start looking for other factory jobs, but it turns out U.S. Furniture Company has also shipped its jobs overseas, so they're stuck with all their living expenses and no income. They have to get by somehow, so they turn to credit, take predatory loans and dig themselves in even deeper because they don't feel they have a choice. Since they're scraping by on nothing, they stop buying the material goods they normally would have bought. No plasma screens, no new cars, no vacations, and the companies that sell them start to hurt--that's trickle-up economics, boys and girls.

Take that story and re-tell it in every small town across America and you start to see what a bad idea it is for the largest economy in the world to completely sell out its middle and lower-middle class in the interest of short-term gain. I'm not an economist, but I think that in a nutshell is why the whole world economy is going down in flames.

In times like these, we always hear economists extolling the virtues of world trade and warning us about the dangers of protectionism. To be fair, we live in a global economy whether we like it or not, and as long as globalization stays at a manageable pace and is handled responsibly, we actually can benefit. Here's an example of what I mean: In their economic collapse following World War II, the Japanese government made a conscious decision to support certain industries, namely automotives and electronics. The thinking was that if Japan offered high-quality exports, Americans would buy them. The Japanese built their manufacturing sector on indigenous labor, and yes, there was a high degree of government involvement in this endeavor. Where top graduates from American colleges often seek high-paying Wall Street jobs, top Japanese graduates went into the bureaucracy to plan export strategy, and it seems to have worked--you're probably reading this on Japanese-made hardware, and I'm thinking my next car might be a Toyota Yaris. 

Japan went from total devastation to economic boom in a little more than a decade because of this strategy; Korea and Taiwan took a similar approach. If Japanese labor makes a better car or computer for a better price, sign me up. As long as they're not siphoning off American jobs, I don't see anything wrong with buying their product. They're creating a middle class that can then go and buy American exports as well. It's fair competition, and that's what capitalism is supposed to be about. 

But the WaPo story shows what happens when capitalism is left in the hands of the short-term-profit, deregulate-everything now crowd--they do more to hurt it than any protectionist trade policy ever could.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Lessons for Martinsville

In an editorial last week, the Danville Register & Bee praised Danville and Pittsylvania County for cooperating on a mega-industrial park to be built near the North Carolina border. When it's finished, the site will contain 3000 acres of pre-graded land, ready to host industrial tenants. Obviously, this is a big step forward in terms of inter-locality participation, and it's very good news if it actually attracts big employers--the only caveat being that the tobacco/textile/furniture experience taught us never to depend too much on any one factory, industry or type of economic growth. But overall, this project gets the 220 South seal of approval.

And it also brings up a good point. Pay attention Martinsville-Henry County: this is what can happen when localities cooperate instead of having to call in U.N. peacekeepers. The two local entities have cooperated on things like the Patriot Center industrial park, and it brought good things. But now Martinsville is on a mission to try and compete with the Patriot Center at their Clearview Business Park. They also would like to revive the old Martinsville Novelty factory to shop around to potential businesses--even though it's a 70-year-old dilapidated mudhole that was an eyesore twenty years ago.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to create jobs within the city limits--after all, the city has the highest unemployment in the state. But the idea that somehow the city, which is basically landlocked, can find enough space to compete with the Patriot Center and other county-based industrial parks is redundant, backward-looking lunacy. Industry should be the realm of the county, because they have the space to accommodate it. So what is Martinsville's economic niche? As far as I'm concerned it basically depends on two things: Uptown Martinsville and the New College. If Uptown becomes a thriving community with offices, residences, shops and restaurants and the New College develops into a four-year residential college or university, these two factors will have positive impacts on each other. 

As for the battling egos and turf wars between the city and the county? They're toxic. This is Virginia--not Serbia.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Liberty to Remain Gun-Free; Slingshots, Jawbones of Asses Still OK

Okay, I saw this one and couldn't pass it up. LIberty University, aka Wingnut Hogwarts, has abandoned a proposal to allow students and faculty to carry weapons on campus. The idea was sponsored by Liberty's chapter of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, who say that packin' heat will prevent school shootings--bad guy walks in, all the SCCC kids with concealed weapons jump up and pop him, or so the theory goes. But alas, Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. doesn't support it, and the Trustees have said "Thanks But No Thanks" as well. 

However, students were encouraged when the board left open the possibility of opening the seventh seal to pour out fury on would-be shooters. In addition, Students for Plagues and Wonders celebrated the decision, noting that the board did not rule out the use of boils, locust swarms, or gadflies.

Take it away, Drew!

Limbaugh Dethrones Bush as Democrats' Best Recruiter

There's a great dialogue going on at Dem Bones surrounding the exchange between Rush Limbaugh and new RNC Chair Michael Steele over the past few days. It started when Steele made what I thought was a pretty innocuous comment on D.L. Hughley's show about Rush being an entertainer who sometimes makes "incendiary" statements. Here's a video clip:

Then Don Rushbo called in the heavy artillery, accusing Steele of betraying conservatism, being complicit with Obama, and essentially being a mere figurehead with a title as opposed to the rightful heir, Rush Limbaugh with his mafiosi-like grip on the Right. So what does Steele do? He apologizes to the guy who just undermined his authority in the public square.

I blogged recently about Steele's ring-kissing in the talk radio circuit and why it will end up hurting his party. Here's the basic civics lesson that parties seem to forget once they're out of power: most of this country is moderate. The moderates are the ones who decide elections--those of us who operate partisan political blogs and work on campaigns are the freakish exceptions, and if we're the only ones who stay on board with our party, that party has some serious issues. So when your spokesman is an abrasive jackass from the fringe of your party, you will lose elections. I think the Republicans won in 2002 & 2004 in spite of Rush--he kept the base riled up, but there were other compelling symbols of the party brand. Let's not forget that back then, Dubya still had decent approval ratings and a strong enough campaign to focus his party's message in a way that appealed to centrists. By contrast, John Kerry was a fairly weak candidate with a weak campaign who seemed to be overshadowed by Michael Moore. Sorry Moore fans, but it's hard to see how Fahrenheit 9/11 did the party any favors with the broad middle of the spectrum.

If Michael Steele doesn't grow a backbone--and soon--Limbaugh (the wine and cheese of crazy) and Glenn Beck (the bootleg absinthe of crazy) will continue to dominate the conservative message in a way that turns off moderate voters. The right would do well to learn from Virginia's own Too Conservative--I don't often agree with their views, but they're reasoned, principled and well-spoken. Then again, I guess that's not what gets listeners on the EIB Network

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Props to Blacksburg

As much as it pains my Wahoo heart to say good things about anything involving Hokieland, I have to give the Blacksburg Town Council some props. Last week the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the town's right to keep out big box retailers. A few years ago, Blacksburg entered into an agreement with Fairmont Properties to build a shopping center--the development has been built and is profitable, and everyone was thrilled. But then Fairmont wanted to build a big box store that pretty much everyone seems to believe would have been a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Blacksburg nixed it on a zoning ordinance, Fairmont sued, a lower court sided with Fairmont, and Blacksburg appealed to the Virginia Supremes. Blacksburg's victory last week is the biggest one in the anti-supercenter movement that I'm aware of, though I wouldn't be surprised to see this case or one like it end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

If you're unclear why I'm so staunchly opposed to Wal-Mart, a simple experiment is in order: go to your nearest Wal-Mart Supercenter and try to find five products that were made in the United States. My guess is that you'll be looking for quite a while. Wal-Mart is nothing more than a conduit for Chinese goods that could have been made by Americans. On top of that, Wal-Mart is one of the leading causes of the bland, forceful homogenization of small-town America--when Wal-Mart shows up pushing "low prices" (read: it's cheaper because we're complicit in child labor and look the other way at abhorrent working conditions), it crushes local entrepreneurs and obliterates the historic downtown areas that give our towns character and personality. Instead, you get large strips of land eaten up by chain stores and pretty soon every place in America looks like every other place in America.

As an aside, I think this is an important case study in why we should never, under any circumstances, elect the judicial branch. Virginia is one of the only states that still does not elect judges by popular vote, and it's a practice we should absolutely continue. Once they pass the initial hurdle of appointment and confirmation, Supreme Court justices and judges in general are uniquely insulated from the political process. They don't--and they shouldn't--have to worry about how popular their decisions will be or how they will pay for their next campaign, but only whether their decisions will be the right ones. It would be interesting to see how this issue would have played out if it had been left up to legislators who do have to stay popular and pay for their campaign--I don't need to remind anyone of how often we hear of elected officials who cast votes that conveniently pay off for their financiers.

Way to be, Blacksburg--let's hope this sets a precedent for other towns to stand up for themselves.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Very Sad News

Vito Perriello died yesterday morning. 

To say that it's a very sad day would be an understatement. Having worked on Tom's campaign for six months, I feel like I got to know Vito, his wife Linda, and the rest of the Perriello family pretty well during that time. There are a lot of things floating around the blogs about Dr. Perriello--see Dem Bones, Blue Commonwealth, Blue Virginia, and What Is Right--and I just wanted to add a few of my thoughts.

At the end of my fourth year at U.Va., I signed up for a fellowship with this up-and-coming young guy's congressional campaign. He was a Mark Warner/Tim Kaine style moderate who wasn't afraid to talk about his faith and didn't sound awkward in the process. He had been to Sierra Leone, where he worked for international justice and worked to end the widespread use of child soldiers. He believed very strongly in the power of young people to take ownership of their future through the political process, and he was looking for a few good organizers. This Perriello guy sounded like the real deal, and although I didn't know what I was going to do with my life, I knew I wanted to do more than cast a ballot in 2008. This fellowship would give me two months' experience working in my home district for a candidate I could actively support.

On that morning the first week in June, I walked into a classroom in downtown Charlottesville for the week-long training session. Of the twenty people in the room, I only knew two. Then I noticed that everyone seemed to be gathering around a table in the corner, where there was coffee, orange juice, fresh fruit, and a tray of bagels--we slowly began to realize that all of it had been delivered to us by our candidate's parents, Linda and Vito. After a few hours of learning names, talking politics, meeting Tom and doing some training, we got to meet Tom's parents as they brought in our lunch, which they would do every day for the rest of the training week. As the afternoon drew to a close, we began discussing what we would each do for dinner--we were mere steps from Charlottesville's downtown mall, where surely we could find somewhere to eat. But the Perriellos had another idea, and they invited all of us--the sixteen new fellows, as well as the regular campaign staff--to their house for barbecue dinner. 

But it wasn't just that Linda and Vito had voluntarily subjected themselves to feeding sixteen college kids for a day, it was that they had welcomed us. They welcomed us into their home and into their family. When we got to their house, it was as if we were just more brothers and sisters who had been there before and had always belonged--we met Tom's nieces, nephew, brothers, sisters and in-laws, and we played volleyball with them in the backyard. I looked around at people I had known for less than twelve hours, and it was as if we'd known each other for years. It was only the first time I would get that feeling--the Perriellos made sure that we always knew their house was open to anyone on staff who needed a place to stay, and there were many nights like that first one. I think their house was full pretty much every night of the campaign, and they never showed any signs of minding. 

We saw Tom's family often, right up until Election Day and in the weeks after. No matter how stressful the campaign trail became, no matter how good or bad things looked, Vito was always the same guy--he always greeted me by name, with a handshake and a smile. He and Linda even got to know who my relatives were. I'm not sure what else I can really say, but if you've ever been impressed with how friendly and welcoming the Perriello family is, then you've seen Vito's handiwork. Tom and his siblings are carrying on the charitable, caring example that Dr. Perriello set throughout his life. It's what made Tom who he is--it's what made a bunch of college kids give up their summer to work long hours knocking on doors, and it's what made me believe in this campaign strongly enough to stay on after the fellowship ended.

You couldn't ask to meet a man with a bigger heart than Vito. My thoughts and prayers are with Tom, Linda, everyone in their family, and anyone else who was ever fortunate enough to have known Dr. Perriello.

Vito Perriello: 1941-2009