Monday, September 24, 2012

That familiar smelling purpose

History will cast a shameful light on the GOP’s coast-to-coast effort to suppress the vote in 2012. After the books are published that will document who exactly launched the campaign, who financed it and under whose auspices it was coordinated, the low-road strategy’s chief sponsors will be appreciated in the historical context they deserve.

Among other things they are the racist Dixiecrats of today, trying to suppress the voting of ethnic groups they know their white constituents fear and despise. The ghost of flinty Strom Thurmond walks in our midst.

Beyond that level of skullduggery, today’s rank and file Republicans, who are parroting rightwing talking points about preventing widespread voter fraud -- a phenomenon that plainly doesn’t exist -- will find themselves being compared to their counterparts in the Jim Crow Era, too.
  • The white folks who took picnic lunches to a public lynching.
  • The white citizens who watched approvingly from Southern sidewalks, as white cops bludgeoned and fire-hosed black civil rights demonstrators in the streets. 
  • The white parents all over the commonwealth who yanked their children out of public schools, when Gov. J. Lindsay Almond couldn’t deliver on his campaign promise to prevent desegregation from being imposed on public education on Virginia. 
Make no mistake about it, since there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud today, the only reason for this sudden push from the right to clean up elections in so many states is to suppress voting in targeted groups. It’s the old poll tax scam in a new suit of clothes.

Same as it ever was: It’s still about race and class.

Its familiar smelling purpose is to hold onto power in a country that is changing too fast to please today‘s throwbacks, who happily turn their deaf ears to the better angels of our times. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Gaffes, Lies and Expectations

The year started with high expectations for Republicans. After their gains in 2010, they expected 2012 would be another good a year for GOP candidates. Emboldened by the continuing gloomy forecasts about the economy, they expected to capture both the U.S. Senate and the White House.

Then came the cold weather primaries with too many debates. Every other week Mitt Romney, the frontrunner, was assailed by his opponents. Although Romney survived the primary process, owing greatly to his war chest, as spring bloomed it became clear that he was not the first choice for at least two-thirds of his own party.

After crushing each of his fellow clown-car occupants, one by one, then came Romney’s summertime campaign, with him driving said car. That became a slow motion disaster, based largely on torturing the truth, and marked repeatedly by gaffes.

To finish off the season, the GOP staged its convention in Tampa. That confab will be remembered mostly for having a theme based on yet another out-of-context prevarication -- We Built It -- and the Eastwood empty chair skit, which was so strange it created a whole new category of campaign blundering.

What happened to the Republicans' sure thing in 2012?

Could it be that the public has noticed that when it comes to politics, the shape-shifting Romney seems to have no scruples or core beliefs? Could it be that voters in several states have noticed that their Republican-controlled legislatures have been pursuing a coordinated war on women, unions, seniors, students, gays, immigrants and the environment?

With a little over five weeks until Election Day, Romney’s campaign appears to be in the early wide turns of a death spiral. This trend seems to be affecting the races in the states, too.

Although it is still possible for something to come along and change that momentum, because in politics almost anything is possible, at this writing it’s an understatement to say that Republicans have stepped on their own dangling hubris and inflicted injuries upon themselves.

Speaking of expectations, could it be that in 2012 dark money can’t necessarily buy a presidency?    

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Diradour vs. Samuels: About Arts and Entertainment

One of the liveliest contests in local politics this fall is playing out in Richmond’s Second District councilmanic race. The district includes most of the Fan District, all of Scott’s Addition, some near-in aspects of Northside and most of the artsy blocks of the official Arts and Cultural District.

The incumbent is Charles Samuels, 36, an attorney. The challenger is Charlie Diradour, 48, a real estate developer/landlord.

Both men are members of the Democratic Party. Both have been active in the Fan District Association. Both have had a lot to say about Richmond’s arts and entertainment scene. Both have raised enough money to conduct serious campaigns, no one should be surprised if the race stays close all the way.

In August, via telephone and email, the two busy candidates agreed to answer questions about local government’s interaction with arts and entertainment.

Question: Are you happy or unhappy with the City of Richmond’s current laws that seek to control noise emanating from entertainment venues, restaurants, happenings at art galleries, etc.? Please explain what you plan to do about this issue, if anything, should you be elected.

Diradour: The noise ordinance is a great concept. The ordinance, however was poorly written. In fact the first ordinance as passed by Council was deemed unconstitutional. For a city as alive as RVA, we need to consider that noise is part of life in an active social community.

If I am elected, I will bring business owners, residents, The Richmond Police Department, and attorneys together to craft a new ordinance that better reflects the needs of our community. Noise pollution is one thing, but stifling arts and entertainment is quite another.

Samuels: As the member of Council who drafted and introduced the measure to limit noise, I feel it is about the best that we could do in terms of balancing the quality of life rights of all parties, specifically the right to have fun and the right to the peaceful enjoyment of your home.

Noise emanating from commercial and business establishments are not governed by the current noise ordinance (unless they are heard inside multi-unit dwellings or on residential single unit dwellings). However, there have been zoning laws on the books for decades that regulate noise from businesses in some zones. As we learned during the drafting process of the current sound control ordinance, there are always ways to improve ordinances like this, but I’m proud that community leaders, stakeholders and residents came together to make it work in the end. I am certainly open to tweaking it if it can be improved.

Analysis: Diradour seems to get it when he says “noise is part of life” in the city. How he might get “business owners, residents,” etc., to all agree on where to draw the line on what’s acceptable in the way of noise is another matter. No doubt, Samuels was trying to do something along those lines, but then it got complicated…

There are many quiet neighborhoods in Richmond. Others less so. Most Fan District residents, who’ve lived with its shops, offices, schools, busy sidewalks and streets, and its bars, have grown accustomed to what noise routinely exists in their neighborhood. Trying to make the Fan or the Arts and Cultural District as quiet as Windsor Farms won’t improve Richmond.

Noise has to be judged in context. A city cop ought to be able to determine whether an offensive noise constitutes disorderly conduct within the moment’s context. A noise patrol searching for bad decibels isn’t going to make Richmond a better city, either.

Question: Are you in favor of abolishing Richmond’s seven percent admissions tax? If “yes,” what is wrong with the tax? If, “no,” why should it remain on the books? If elected, what, if anything, do you plan to do about this issue next year?

Diradour: The 7% admissions tax is punitive in it's nature, in that it keeps small businesses from opening and, in fact, may indeed be a reason for some to have closed. Often, one hears the argument that the tax is borne by those who come from outside RVA's boundaries and is therefore a tax that doesn't effect city dwellers. I would make the argument, that lost revenue due to what amounts to a doubling down of the gross receipts tax is weighing down our arts and entertainment communities. I would vote to abolish it.

Samuels: Yes, but local government revenues are down substantially due to significant cutbacks in state funding and declining real estate revenues. I am not convinced we can afford to cut one source of revenues without replacing those dollars from another source. The admissions tax is much like the City’s meals tax. Only customers of entertainment venues pay it. Yes, it adds to the total cost of the experience, but it is not paid by the host or promoter, it is part of the ticket cost paid by guests. Interestingly, the City may provide a lower rate for non-government owned civic centers, stadiums or amphitheaters, but there is no authority regarding movie theaters, theaters or other venues. I am also considering returning to the General Assembly to lobby to address this issue.

How much does it actually account for? The admissions tax city wide accounts for .4% of tax revenue for 16 cities. Richmond is below the median and collects approximately 1.2 – 2 million from this tax. The median admissions tax rate for cities in Virginia is 7.5% with a maximum of 10% in 7 of those cities.

Analysis: Diradour says he will vote to abolish the admissions tax. Yet, while he seems to know it should go, it’s less clear by his answer why he thinks so.

When Samuels says the admissions tax is “much like the meals tax,” he reveals a lack of understanding of how those two very different taxes work. As it actually plays out, in effect, the hosts and promoters do pay the tax.

The public is mostly unaware that an admissions tax has been included in the price of a ticket. With the meals tax the customers can see the tax on their checks, it isn’t built into the price listed on the menu.

Taxes on meals are collected in all jurisdictions, the percentage varies. Samuels doesn’t mention that the surrounding counties, Chesterfield and Henrico, don’t have an admissions tax, which puts their theaters at a marked advantage over theaters in the city.

If a theater in Henrico and one in Richmond take in the same amount on a day’s gross receipts at the box office -- where the ticket price was the same -- the venue in the city yields seven percent less to its owner and the movie’s distributor.

Charlottesville doesn’t have such an admissions tax, either. Which is a significant reason why that particular city’s live music scene is thriving.

Note: In conversations prior to receiving this set of questions, Diradour seemed much more interested in finding a way to get rid of the admissions tax than did Samuels. The incumbent was less impressed with the notion that doing away with that one tax would spawn new streams of revenue for the City, to more than make up for what is now being collected on ticket sales.

Question: Beyond what’s already been covered, what do you think City Hall ought to do to help those who work in Richmond’s entertainment industry to make a better living? And, what measures can the next council take to encourage more privately-financed show biz venues to open in this city, initiatives that you will support?

Diradour: If anything, The City needs to support artists by creating tax incentivized live/work spaces in The Arts District. The creative class will help bring RVA back. According to Richard Florida, Author of The Rise Of The Creative Class, 40 million Americans create for a living. Creativity is found in the sciences, arts, trades, and a broad spectrum of other financial endeavors. The creative class has an immense impact on cities, as they choose to live and work in an environment that fosters their best opportunity for success.

Samuels: I was active in lobbying the General Assembly to win approval for localities to create more than one Arts & Culture Districts and I wrote the City’s initial Arts & Culture District ordinance. I am pleased that the expanded district that was ultimately approved includes my original boundaries as its core, with increased incentives to encourage private sector initiatives and development.

Aside from reducing City government waste, I want to focus on ways the City can encourage job creation. We have the ability to create additional Arts & Culture District and to use that a template to create Tourism District(s). I also want to pursue exempting new qualifying businesses from the BPOL taxes in revenue neutral way. That would certainly benefit newcomers to our entertainment industry and all industries. Job creation is key.

But in addition to the Art and Culture ordinance I drafted, I also wrote and introduced the nightclub licensing paper that was approved by my colleagues last year.

Admittedly, Council got some push-back on this issue, but after a string of violent crimes and deaths near clubs in our City, something had to be done. The deaths of young people that just went out to have a good time is not an appealing part of a nightclub area – it actually discourages many from going there. I’m not opposed to nightlife. I’m trying to stop night death.

And this ordinance has worked. Violent crime is down around these previously dangerous areas in the Bottom, and I am further convinced that this measure has forced nightclubs to take better responsibility for their patrons as they leave their premises. Having safer streets and better accountability can only further enhance the entertainment industry in Richmond.

Analysis: Both guys see the need for crafting a better noise ordinance, while they may disagree on where to draw the line for too loud.

Samuels seems more interested in having the local government closely monitoring the nightlife scene than does Diradour. One has to wonder whether “nightclub licensing” will really have the long-term positive effect on Richmond’s crime rate that Samuels suggests it has, to date. What such oversight could do to address any of the violence embedded in today’s culture isn’t clear.

Samuels wants to wait for the economy to improve before trying to do away with the admissions tax. But in good times, over the last 40 years, nobody in City Hall has talked much about getting rid of that tax.

Samuels shrugs off what show business insiders say about how more shows of all kinds would come to Richmond without that tax in place. They say Richmond needs to wise up to what cities like Nashville and Austin already know -- admission taxes are bad business, because they stifle the growth of an entertainment scene. Those insiders aren’t saying all taxes are bad, or too high; their complaint is just about one bad tax.

Diradour’s mention of Dr. Richard Florida will please some of the people who have had a direct hand in establishing Richmond’s Arts and Cultural District -- the pioneers/the creative class.

Samuels’ mention of lobbying the General Assembly to help the Arts and Cultural District will be seen in a favorable light by the developers who are investing in the area’s future -- the second wave/the money.

To be located at Belvidere and Broad Sts., VCU’s new Institute for Contemporary Art will surely have a positive ripple effect on the surrounding neighborhood, especially the Arts and Cultural District to the east. Adding to what’s already going on in that area, the new galleries, shops, theaters and restaurants currently in various planning stages will eventually open to bring more tourists into the middle of the city.

Now City Hall is on the arts and entertainment bandwagon and next year either Diradour or Samuels will be trying to speak on behalf of the best hopes for the Arts and Cultural District’s future.

The winner of their contest will have a lot to say about whether the new bandwagon stays on the road to brighter days for Downtown Richmond, or it breaks an axle on a familiar pothole.

-- 30 --

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Yesterday’s Certitudes

Using yesterday’s certitudes, too many Democrats and Republicans are still talking about who has been right all along about boilerplate issues. Neither side of such tedious arguments appears to be able to acknowledge the mistakes their own side made over the last quarter century. Mistakes that wasted opportunities and cost money and lives.

Consequently, today, too few voters seem to care about which candidates have learned something worthwhile from those mistakes.

Sorry folks, no matter how far you turn up the volume, merely restating outdated liberal or conservative hokum is not about solving problems. It's not about making a brighter future.

 Image by Doug Dobey.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Conventions aren't irrelevant, they’re theater

Other than providing honest work for those who build the sets and semi-honest work for those who produce the lavish infomercials, what good are political conventions? Do they still matter?

Political conventions are different things to different people. Primarily, I see them as theater. On a Broadway stage or a Hollywood movie set none of the props are there by accident. Everything was put there for a purpose. The same goes for what the public sees of a national political convention.

You see, dear reader, I’ve been watching the political conventions since 1964, when I was a 16-year-old juvenile delinquent/would-be boy-wonder. I can vividly remember staring at a black-and-white TV and taking notes in a Spiral notebook, as I watched the Republican convention in San Francisco.

That convention took place in the days when such affairs were more fluid, much less scripted than what they‘ve become. Which meant that plenty of the best action in the hall took place in the wee hours. Eventually, Arizona’s Barry Goldwater won the nomination. His slogan was: “In your heart, you know he's right.”

My answer to the question above is, yes, conventions still matter. Beyond the predictable, meticulous polishing of the luster of the ticket, conventions still offer us a look at what both parties would like to believe are their best ideas, their most trustworthy leaders and their up-and-coming stars.

Those who watched the conventions saw what may have been Bill Clinton’s last great speech, perhaps his best ever. And, we surely saw what will be Clint Eastwood’s last appearance at a political convention. And, like all props, the now famous chair was put there for a purpose. We should expect to see the chair's encore on Saturday Night Live.

In one word descriptions, one might say the Republicans elected to present kitsch; the Democrats chose to present boilerplate.

In Tampa there was a list of Republicans who were quite conspicuous by their absence. Neither George W. Bush or Dick Cheney were there. Nor were significant players from the party’s recent past, such as Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell or even Sarah Palin (depicted above), which had to disappoint SNL's writers.

What you did have was a series of state governors who all had a personal story to tell about how they, themselves, built their own success; they had all risen up from difficult circumstances. What I took away from that collection of similar stories was that the convention’s theme -- We Built It -- was being reinforced by hungry politicians who, when given the chance, were all happy to brag about themselves.

Curiously, not much was said about Mitt Romney during this aspect of the programming, and the governors' success stories hardly rubbed off on Romney.

What did seem to be in the air was a collective sense of yearning for recapturing what was good about a previous time, certainly before Barack Obama became president. What was less clear is what period of time the Tampa Republicans actually had in mind. Clearly, it was not a call to return to the Bush presidency.

Skipping to the chase, I have to say the Republicans in Tampa were yearning to take the country back to something that never existed. What they seem to want is Ronald Reagan acting as president, but perhaps serving in the time before the start of World War I, when everyone knew their place -- including women -- and people didn't bellyache all the time about their lot in life. 

Take-the-country-back Republicans seem to have left Tampa, still dwelling on a gaudy nostalgia that represents mostly imaginary stuff. They’re still pining away for a lost world of dungeons and wizards and flying monkeys, or maybe "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

To me, this all suggests one word -- “kitsch.”

Moving on to Charlotte, viewers looking for a bold new vision for the future needed to change channels. What they got from the second convention was a thousand little ways in which Democrats are trying to solve real problems ... even if trying is about all they can do. For what it's worth, their slogan this year is "Forward."

What saved the convention for Team Donkey, and probably provided the lift in the polls Obama has received since then, was one huge factor -- the Clinton speech.

Take Clinton’s wonky but lyrical speech out of the middle of the Democratic convention and the main story coming out of Charlotte would have been about a missed opportunity. Without Clinton's words, defining what it is to be a modern Democrat, nothing said from the podium the following night would have saved the convention from being branded as a fizzler.

Still, on live television, anything can happen. So, the symbol of all the Republicans staged for primetime consumption will always be Eastwood’s empty chair. Whereas, the Democrats confab will be remembered for a flight of soaring rhetoric from a party elder.

Between now and November 6th, no amount of dark dollar TV ads can rewrite those snippets of political convention history. Too many viewers saw them unfold, so there isn't time for that much of a rewrite. Moreover, neither of those happenings would have mattered so much had they not taken place live, on stage, at the conventions.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

The dignity of labor and the lack thereof

In spite of what the Mitt Romey’s of the world might like us to believe, simply providing work doesn’t necessarily make the providing entity a glorious benefactor to society. Context matters. Dignity matters.

After all, in our nation’s past, Southern plantation owners provided jobs ... with some rather harsh conditions. In the early 1900’s the sweat shops that worked children all day were not only paying those kids, something -- not much! -- they were making sure those little workers couldn’t get an education, to one day maybe get a better job.

Whenever a job is so time-consuming and low-paying that it literally traps the poverty stricken worker into a brutal treadmill life -- without hope of improvement -- then that job is also a powerful instrument of social control. For some of today’s industries to have a steady supply of the kind of cheap labor they want, it calls for them to make sure there is a permanent starving underclass.

That’s part of what some gigantic corporations are still up to. The largest mining industry and agribusiness corporations come to mind, right away. Dignity for their workers hurts the bottom line.

What could be more at odds with the American Dream than deliberately stifling social mobility, by starving families into accepting that treadmill life? Among other considerations, this recession we're experiencing is about keeping the cost of labor down.