Archive for June, 2015

Heritage of hate and the changing South

One of oddest mental images I have from my days as a weekly newspaper editor in Nicholasville is of a little black girl waving a Confederate battle flag from atop a parade float.

The Chamber of Commerce had prohibited displays of the rebel flag in the Jessamine Jamboree, and I had written a commentary supporting their decision.

The editorial had resulted in angry letters to the editor from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who vowed to fly their flag in defiance of the order.

The Stars and Bars, they said, was a symbol of “heritage, not hate.” I argued that it belonged in a museum, not at an event intended to bring people together.

On the south end of Main Street, most African-American residents stood in stony silence while watching the display go by, and a few hurled epithets. On the north end, someone joked as I was taking pictures that I shouldn’t get too close to the float. I laughed, but a rangy figure who overheard leaned close and told me I’d be safer with the heritage group than surrounded by his friends.

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Members of the National Socialists Movement and the White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan salute to start a rally Saturday April 21, 2012, at the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. At least 70 law enforcement officers were present to control a crowd of 150 to 200 demonstrators when a group of neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members rallied against illegal immigration on the steps of the Kentucky Capitol. (AP Photo/John Flavell)

“The past is never dead. It is not even past,” William Faulkner wrote.  That has been true of race relations in the South, but reactions last week to the racially motivated murders of nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., were astounding.

Since Gov. Nikki Haley and other leaders called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds in Charleston, a chorus of voices across the country has demanded the removal of the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy, including the statue of Jefferson Davis from the Kentucky Capitol.

Even more encouraging is that Walmart, eBay and other retailers have said they will no longer sell the flags.

Once again, we’re hearing from resisters that the flag represents “heritage, not hate.” That may be true for some, but there is also a heritage of hate associated with the flag that is seared into our national consciousness and with which we must reckon.

I have referred to the Stars and Bars as the Confederate battle flag because it is not the official flag of the Confederacy that flew over capitols during the Civil War. It is the flag of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which was revived 100 years after the Civil War as a symbol of white supremacy and defiance of civil rights. That is its legacy in the minds of many Americans.

Based on I know of Lee’s desire for reconciliation, if he were alive today, I think he would agree it’s time to retire it.

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In Montgomery, Ala., the birthplace of the Confederate States of America, demonstrators Saturday protested a decision by Gov. Robert Bentley to remove the battle flag from a war memorial.

“Right now, this past week with everything that is going on, I feel very much like the Jews must have felt in the very beginning of the Nazi Germany takeover,” one protestor told the Associated Press. He added that “there is a concerted effort to wipe people like me out, to wipe out my heritage and to erase the truths of history.”

It’s outrageous that he would compare those who want to remove a stain from our past with Nazi Germany’s racist regime because America’s apartheid movement has included many who identify with that evil episode in the world’s history.

Here’s an example. Three years ago, when I worked for the AP in Frankfort, I covered a rally on the Capitol steps by neo-Nazis who were joined by a Ku Klux Klan group. The swastika and the Stars and Bars flew side by side.

About 200 counter-demonstrators heard white supremacists say they were not a hate group, but a civil rights group, yet the rhetoric was hateful.

While Nazis and Klansmen shouted, “God hates homosexuals,” Victoria King of Lawrenceburg held aloft a message of Christian love — a sign with words of a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Where there is darkness, let me sow light.”

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The light of liberty cannot be forever hidden under a dark shroud.

Fifty years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., led another rally on the steps of Alabama’s Capitol steps, not far from where another Montgomery memorial today celebrates a better legacy — that of the civil rights movement.

“The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” King said.

It is well that we remember those words as we celebrate the birth of our republic this weekend. America has not always been the shining City on a Hill that our forebears envisioned, but it was and is the right vision, and we should expect nothing less.

Negotiation requires dialogue, mutual respect

May 9, 2015

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

The quote from the 1967 film, “Cool Hand Luke” is first spoken by a prison warden before he starts pummeling the prisoner played by Paul Newman — and later by the prisoner himself when he’s surrounded and about to be shot.

I remembered that line last week when I was working on a story about “negotiations” between the Bardstown Fire Department and the nonprofit group known officially as the Bardstown-Nelson County Volunteer Fire Department and unofficially as “the corporation.”

When I went on PLG-TV Tuesday to talk about Bardstown Mayor John Royalty’s latest contract proposal, I mentioned that he and City Fire Chief Marlin Howard (who is also the fire chief for the corporation) want to hire a consultant to study a possible merger of the two departments.

At the time, I thought that was still the plan. I learned about an hour later that there wouldn’t be a study when the mayor asked the Bardstown City Council to “strike that” from the budget.

“The 20,000 for the consolidation study — that’s out,” he said.

Under the mayor’s proposal, he wants the corporation to contract with the Bardstown Fire Department to cover fire and rescue services in its service area outside the city limits and increase its $50 “membership fee” (actually a flat tax) as well as the amount of funding the corporation provides the city for joint operations.

The way I read it, the BNCVFD would still exist on paper but would be reduced to a funding mechanism for the Bardstown Fire Department. It would still own its trucks and buildings, but they would be maintained and used by the city. The volunteers would all be under the city’s authority.

Royalty has feels that Stacy Faulkner, the chairman of the corporation board, has been dragging his feet on negotiating a new contract for the fiscal year that begins July 1. According to the mayor’s administrative assistant, Kathy Graham, the corporation didn’t want to contribute $20,000 to the consolidation study, so the mayor decided on a new approach.

Faulkner, however, said he told Royalty the corporation board would fund its half of the study and pay for it by deferring the purchase of some equipment.

“We never said we weren’t going to fund it,” he said.

Faulkner also said he asked the mayor if there was “room to negotiate” on the latest proposal, but was told it was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

The chairman said he hasn’t had a chance to talk with the other board members about the proposal. Their next meeting is May 12. And the mayor wants the signed contract on his desk May 15 — or the corporation can pack up and leave.

As a reporter, I can’t take sides. Besides, I don’t know whether it would be best for the two departments to consolidate or separate.

Maybe the mayor’s proposal is the best option, or maybe there should be a countywide special taxing district, as Chief Ted Shields of the Northeast Nelson County Fire Protection District has suggested. It isn’t for me to say.

What I can say is what Chief Howard has said time and again — that the most important thing is for the fire service or services to provide the best protection they can for its residents, both in the city and in the unincorporated area.

The two sides need to work out something from a standpoint of mutual respect or agree to amicably go their separate ways.

And time is running out to make a decision.

Will Bevin, state GOP be ‘Happy Together’?

If you think Matt Bevin is a dour revolutionary, watch the video. It’s the funniest thing in Kentucky politics since Mitch McConnell’s hound dogs treed Dee Huddleston.

As the Turtles song “Happy Together” plays in the background, Bevin wakes up in a Team Mitch T-shirt, goes to work in an SUV with a Team Mitch license plate and gets a Team Mitch tattoo.

“Yeah, it stings a little bit, but it’s so worth it,” he says.

In one scene, he phones McConnell to warn him: “The word on the street is that Rand is going down to the Senate floor right now. He’s got his pockets filled with energy bars … .They say he’s going to be out there until at least Tuesday.” Then he adds: “Hey, that’s what friends are for, sir.”

It ends with Bevin talking to McConnell like a love-struck teenager.

“No, you hang up. No, really, you hang up,” he says.

Bevin, who won the GOP nomination by 83 votes in a four-way race, probably wasn’t McConnell’s first choice for governor. A year ago, Bevin challenged the Godfather for his seat and reportedly was ungracious after McConnell rolled over him and his Democratic opponent.

Then there was the bitter gubernatorial contest. I figured Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer would win the primary and beat Democrat Jack Conway in the general. Louisville businessman Hal Heiner might have had a chance, but I wouldn’t have placed a $2 bet on Bevin or retired Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, whose shoe-leather campaign never gained traction.

That was before the rumors about Comer’s woman problem.

Less than an hour before Joe Gerth of The Courier-Journal broke the story based on an interview with Comer’s college girlfriend, a Heiner supporter called to tell me it was coming. When I read the story, I knew it was over for Comer — and probably for Heiner too, because his people were likely behind it.

That left Bevin, who had taken the high road, as the obvious beneficiary.

But Bevin?

Like Rand Paul, who ran against the party establishment and had to accommodate it once elected, Bevin must do the same. The video was a clever way of admitting it.

On June 10, I interviewed Bevin and his running mate, Jenean Hampton, on PLG-TV, and he told me he didn’t like labels.

“A tea party favorite? I’m not sure what that means,” he said.

He said he had never belonged to a tea party group, but was of “like mind” with them on constitutional government, lower taxes and individual responsibility.

He also said the bad blood between McConnell and himself was fiction, and he had “voted for the guy every time” except when he ran against him.

Make no mistake, Matt Bevin is the most far-right conservative who has ever run a race for governor in Kentucky. He has said he would like to reduce or eliminate taxes except for “consumption” (sales) taxes and reduce spending. He wants to make Kentucky a state where those who work in places that have won the right of collective bargaining wouldn’t have to pay for union representation. He is against raising the minimum wage and would end the prevailing wage. He would take away teachers’ defined-benefits pensions and enroll them in something like a 401(k).

His first executive order would be to abolish Kynect, the state’s popular health insurance exchange, and he would reverse Gov. Steve Beshear’s expansion of Medicaid. He opposes Common Core and supports charter schools.

How this agenda will play out in a purple state where Republicans historically have been more like John Sherman Cooper than Ted Cruz remains to be seen. But if Bevin can take a page from McConnell’s playbook on how to pivot, he could succeed.

Sanders, last socialist, runs for the roses

If you ask the odds makers, they’ll tell you the Democratic presidential nomination contest is still a one-horse race, with Hillary Clinton sure to get the garland of roses.

But Bernie Sanders, who announced Thursday he’s in the running, reminds me of Mine That Bird, the 50-1 upstart that crashed the blue bloods’ party and made Bob Baffert choke on his mint julep by winning the Kentucky Derby in 2009.

Sanders certainly isn’t the candidate of the elite. Right out of the starting gate, he told the billionaires he didn’t want their filthy lucre. One of his main issues will be to change the rules so the Koch brothers and their ilk can’t buy elections and legislators anymore.

He wants to level the field to benefit the people who make two-dollar bets on long shots.

This recent post on his Facebook page is classic Sanders: “During the last two years, the wealthiest 14 Americans saw their wealth increase by $157 billion. This … is more wealth than is owned, collectively, by 130 million Americans. This country does not survive morally, economically or politically when so few have so much and so many have so little.”

Leave it to Bernie to bring up the topics one isn’t supposed to talk about in polite conversation.

Two things about the senator from Vermont make him an intriguing choice for the Democrats’ standard bearer. One is that he isn’t a Democrat. In fact, he’s the longest-serving independent (meaning a person who belongs to no political party) in the history of Congress. The other is that he’s a democratic socialist — the last of a dying breed. The only other socialist I know of who has served on Capitol Hill in my lifetime (I’m 54) was Ronald Dellums, the radical congressman from Berkeley who served 13 terms until 1998.

Democratic socialists believe in the ownership and control of the economy by the working class — not necessarily through the federal government, but by democratic means such as employee ownership of businesses, worker representation in corporate boardrooms, utility and farm cooperatives, although in some cases, such as single-payer health insurance, it is through government.

I’ve been fascinated by Sanders since the early 1980s, when he was the mayor of Burlington and Rolling Stone did an article on him called “Red Mayor in the Green Mountains.” In Professor Allen Singleton’s urban government and politics class at Eastern Kentucky University, I wrote a paper on how Sanders was able to become mayor of the biggest city in what was once a rock-ribbed Republican state by representing the poor and elderly and public servants such as police, firefighters and sanitation workers.

While working on the class project, I wrote to Sanders and he wrote back, answering my question about why he chose not to be a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Michael Harrington’s organization formed to work within the Democratic Party to move it to the left on labor and economic issues.

Full disclosure: In college I was briefly a member of the DSA and a disciple of Harrington, whose book “The Other America” was credited with inspiring the War on Poverty and the Great Society in the 1960s. But I’ve evolved over the past 30-some years so that I am today a Burkean conservative and a distributist (one who likes the free market and property ownership so much he thinks the healthiest society is one in which they are as widely distributed as possible). I’m also a registered Republican, although for most of the last decade I’ve been an independent.

But enough about me; this is about Bernie.

Sanders served as mayor of Burlington for a decade, successfully revitalizing its downtown and making the city the first in the country to have publicly funded community trust housing. In 1990, he was elected as Vermont’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and was re-elected seven times until going to the Senate in 2006.

With his unruly white hair, rumpled suit, wide glasses and acerbic manner, the senator, whom Vermonters affectionately call by his first name, has been enormously popular, though he lacks the charisma of a Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama.

He rages against colleagues who would privatize Social Security and cut funds for public education yet advocate more tax breaks for billionaires. Have they no shame?

His is a real-life “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” story. But can he make it all the way to the top?

The reason he’s running for the first time as a Democrat is that he doesn’t want to be a spoiler like Ralph Nader in 2000, when he ran as a third-party candidate and cost Al Gore the election.

Clinton and Jeb Bush are the favorites, but it enlivens the debate to have candidates like the militant socialist Sanders and hard-right libertarian Rand Paul in it.

And as Mine That Bird, Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul have proven, in horse races, anything can happen.

Comment

Has Paul become a raging moderate?

April 11, 2015

His first day on the campaign trail, Rand Paul got off on the wrong foot with reporters. He had a meltdown when NBC’s Savannah Guthrie asked him about his changing positions on whether he thinks Iran is a threat to the U.S. and whether he still wants to end foreign aid to Israel.

“No, no, no, you’ve editorialized it,” Paul said. “No, no, no, listen.”

We are listening, but we aren’t getting answers.

The same day, the junior senator from Kentucky, who announced Tuesday in Louisville that he is a candidate for president, got testy with an AP reporter who asked him to clarify his position on abortion.

The candidate never said.

While Rand Paul the presidential candidate may be more attractive to traditional conservatives than the libertarian firebrand who was elected to the Senate during the tea party revolt of 2010, I kind of miss the candor of the old Rand Paul.

During that race, I interviewed Paul after he had suggested the Civil Rights Act of 1964 shouldn’t apply to private businesses and called coal a dirty energy source.

I asked him about those issues, and we talked about Medicare, which accounted for a large share of his income as an ophthalmologist. He said he thought people would be better off with the old fee-for-service system of paying for health care.

Later, Paul grabbed headlines for advocating draconian cuts to the federal budget, pulling back from military commitments around the globe and ending foreign aid, including assistance to Israel and Egypt, our closest Middle East allies.

In one speech, Paul dissed Henry Clay and identified with the Great Compromiser’s cousin, the cantankerous Cassius Marcellus Clay.

When asked whether the tea party would be co-opted by Washington, Paul said it would co-opt the establishment.

“We’re coming. We’re proud. We’re strong. We’re loud,” he said. “I think we’re already shaping the debate.”

I believe he has been proven right. George Washington’s description of the Senate as the saucer that cools the tea is no longer apt in a time when radical demagogues like Ted Cruz threaten to shut down the federal government and neophytes like Tom Cotton undermine the president by parlaying with the theocratic tyrant of the terrorist nation Iran.

Paul, however, seems to have moderated somewhat. He now favors increasing the Pentagon’s budget and taking a hard line against the Islamic State. He has appealed to evangelicals by making it clear he’s against gay marriage, abortion and legalization of marijuana. He’s reached out to African Americans and young voters to try and broaden the base of the Republican Party, and has campaigned for establishment candidates and against libertarian insurgents in elections around the country.

Guthrie asked Paul in her interview if he had “mellowed.”

Or is he only taking these positions to make his candidacy more palatable to old-line Republicans?

Who is Rand Paul, really?

It’s a legitimate question, and rather than rant when reporters ask it, he should answer it frankly.

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