Insanity and Salvation in Arizona

Democracy comes down to this one state

Welcome to the big Sunday edition of Progressives Everywhere!

A bipartisan group of senators announced a woefully inadequate infrastructure plan on Thursday and the skedaddled out of Washington, DC, leaving American democracy to crumble and the west coast to burns to the ground. We’ve got two weeks to put maximum pressure on Senate Democrats to get their act together and actually deliver on the promises they made to voters last fall as well as save the voting rights of the 80+ million people who put them in charge. Republican legislators are a horrifying bunch of cold-blooded vipers, but I’ve got to say, at least they listen to their supporters’ (demented) wishes.

In today’s newsletter, we’ll explore what’s happening in a key swing state and get some new insight into what it might take to move Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to respect her obligations to humanity. We’ll also take a new look at a big progressive win and go over some of the big news stories that we’re following.

But first, thank you to our latest crowdfunding donors: Judith and Christiana!

In November, Arizona voters approved a surtax on the rich to fund an underfunded education system. Now, Republicans there are on the verge of overturn the will of the people with a tax cut that will instead cost the state $250 million. The new law will give $4 to the poor, $96 to the middle class, and $350k to people making over $5 million.

That is not a typo. Nor is it a fluke.

Having seen the state turn blue in the presidential and senate elections and their state legislative majority dwindle down to a single seat in November, Arizona Republicans have spent the first half of 2021 launching conspiracy theories and passing laws meant to nullify past election results and rig future contests.

The bonkers Maricopa County election “audit” stands as the most prominent example of the Arizona GOP’s full-on right-wing blitzkrieg on the state’s voters, but it’s hardly the only one. Among other moves, the party dismantled its uber-popular permanent vote-by-mail list in order to enable vast registration purges, stripped Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs of key powers such as the ability to represent the state in election lawsuits, planned a special session to act on the “audit” findings, and moved to hijack the state’s independent redistricting commission, with a potential gerrymander as the endgame.

They’ve also enacted that grossly inequitable flat tax and joined in the culture wars by authorizing fines for schools that merely teach about racism.

To get a sense of just how unhinged it’s gotten in the capital and how Democrats plan to respond, I spoke with State Sen. Juan Mendez, a Tempe-based lawmaker who has been one of the most outspoken Democrats amid the GOP bombardment. During our conversation, he also provided some key and heretofore unheeded insight into what it might take to get one of Arizona’s Democratic US senators, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, to come around on the filibuster and save her home state from local autocracy.

Progressives Everywhere: It certainly looks from afar like Republicans have reached new extremes in Arizona. You just finished up the spring legislative session — was it as wild as it seems? How was it to work with them?

Sen. Mendez: I feel like they sometimes recognize they're in over their heads, but they still keep doubling down. I feel like they wouldn't be doing a lot of this stuff as quickly if they felt that they were going to stay in power longer. The whole fight over why they needed this flat tax now came because they don't think they're going to be in power long enough to get this in the future. The governor was elected saying he was going to cut taxes every year. And technically he has, but he's gone out of his way to find the lowest-hanging fruit, so it hasn’t been in a meaningful flat tax kind of way. And there's a lot of them that have been caught on a hot mic saying it needs to be done now. 

I just finished my ninth year and I've only ever seen like two or three Democratic bills move through the process every year, and they're never anything worthwhile. So we've never really practiced democracy in any kind of deliberative manner. But recently, they've just thrown out all adherence to rules, like they just don't care anymore. They've given us amendments seconds before asking us to vote on them. Some of them in the House were literally cutting off the Democrats’ microphones and wouldn't allow them to raise comments or debate during certain parts of the process. They won't even let me say the words “white privilege” in the Senate. They're really triggered right now.

I used to think it was the primaries that were the problem. And they definitely do have their crazies. There are people who've definitely jumped off the deep-end and haven't come back up for air in a long time. Senator Sonny Borrelli is one of the more intense ones, he honestly believes that deep state people are trying to kill him for trying to do the audit. He thinks he's a soldier fighting in some kind of big conspiracy theory. 

Some of them are just the regular kind of evil in that they support corporations. But even some of the quieter ones that I wouldn't ever have worried about, the ones that I could have a conversation with, are definitely toeing the line. There aren’t any moderates anymore. We have some Republicans that think they try to hold out for their values, but it's never in a meaningful way. And they end up just getting beat up publicly for it. 

One Republican senator was getting death threats over him not thinking that we needed to do all this audit stuff. He didn't want to arrest the county board of supervisors. He was talking on the floor about the death threats and another senator said “well, maybe you should vote the right way.” I was sitting maybe 15-20 feet away from him and he said it loud enough for me to hear.

Sen. Kelly Townsend is always calling on people to do “what's needed,” in that very coded way where she knows she’s asking for violence but doesn't want to take responsibility for it. I think it's just gonna keep getting worse and worse and worse until they lose power. 

The flat tax basically overturns the ballot initiative from November, while the audit and move to strip Sec. Hobbs of her powers also shows a basic disregard for democracy. Is there outrage over the dismissal of elections?

The public put an initiative on the ballot to raise taxes on the wealthy. And so in response to that, they've literally brought the taxes down to where we can appease that initiative, but the wealthy don't have to pay any more than that.

The public is organized and ready to respond to this. The Republicans keep trying to shove down this expansion of school vouchers, to just take more money out of public education, and they keep trying it every year. One year, the public put a bunch of signatures together to repeal that specific law and put it on the ballot and everybody voted to repeal. But they tried to do it again, knowing that the people were going to do the same thing. It just died yesterday in the House.

There are a bunch of groups now threatening to repeal the flat tax and, from what I've heard, something around some of the voter suppression stuff. We’re trying to make it where it's not going to be a bunch of different groups firing off and trying to respond. We want to try to organize everybody into one or two responses. It’s still very much in the early stages. But they know that people are gonna respond that way and they're just daring us to do this. 

They play chicken with themselves. Their own members will tell them “I'm not voting on this today” and then they'll put it on the agenda, on the board for us to vote on it. And they'll just stare their people down and watch them not vote on it. So they definitely don't mind playing chicken with us and don't care about crashing at all.

The state has really changed over the last decade. The legislature is super-close and Democrats won both Arizona’s electoral votes and its Senate seat last year. How are people responding to all these far-right policies and conspiracies?

Anybody who's involved in politics is already in their own camps. It doesn't look like it's the kind of thing that’s being used to attract independents. They're just entertaining their base. And it's only driving up my base, as well. My base is just getting more worried and more concerned and they're gonna probably work even harder than before. But they give us updates on voter registrations and everybody's losing registered party members while the independent population gets bigger.

Is Arizona moving left enough that even gerrymandering won’t ultimately really make a difference? 

So the demographics are going to be in our favor, but it takes a long time. There are parts of Arizona that are way more diverse than the average person would expect. We've got wealthy parts like Sedona, the vacation capital, it's all Latinos in the schools. In many wealthy areas, it's not the same demographics anymore. But with gerrymandering, even just with these last maps that we’ve been working with over these last 10 years, we're running out of competitive districts. We’re down to our last two or three options to take the state. 

The more calculating Republicans who aren't the Kool-Aid-drinking crazy ones — there's one guy, JD Mesnard, he’s a community college political science teacher and he's not a crazy guy but he's scared that he’s going to lose power. They already barely won his senate district and he's proposing all kinds of ideas; specifically, he wants to expand the number of members in the House because he's afraid they're gonna lose power there. He's trying to make it sound like he's trying to make it more equal for everybody when really, he's just preparing for them not to be in total control.

Passing the For The People Act would ban gerrymandering and unfair elections, but Arizona’s own Kyrsten Sinema refuses to move on the filibuster. Given how big the progressive activist community is in Arizona and how much it has changed the state, what has the response been to that?

Activists and organizers are definitely paying attention. We tell everyone every election that “this is the most important election” and “we just need to take over the Senate, take over the House, and get a president elected.” And we finally got everything and it’s still not working. So we can’t just tell our voters and our base to just wait and let this play out in some kind of political way.

I've been hearing it's hard for us as a party to raise money, national organizations don't want to get associated with giving money to the Democratic Party because it might look like they're supporting Sinema. It's awful that she's holding back voting rights and so many policies, but what she's really got to be aware of is how her decisions are making repercussions for the Democratic Party and the activist machine in general. We probably aren't going to be able to raise the outside funds that we depend on for elections.

Do you have any insight into what might move her on this?

I mean, I want everybody to keep trying to put pressure on Sinema and all those buses and caravans driving across the south, I want that to be successful and I want that to be the thing that convinces her. But I knew her before I was in office and she was just in the state legislature. She is not going to care about any of whatever activists do or whatever happens in the media. That’s not going to move her. 

I personally think we have to move past her and put pressure on the rest of the Democratic Party, President Biden and leadership in the Senate. We can’t just keep being like, it’s one person [to convince]. People are responsible for her. She's her own senator, but she's also in a party that is supposed to have leadership. If this were happening in the legislature, everybody would be getting mad at the senate president or the governor. It’s wrong that she's having these indefensible views, but it doesn't just stop with her. Way too many people are benefitting from her taking all the heat.

OK, now for some news that should lift the spirits of progressives everywhere.

On Tuesday, democratic socialist India Walton pulled a massive upset victory in the Buffalo, NY mayoral primary, deposing of a powerful four-term incumbent who was largely considered unbeatable. Walton, a nurse and union leader with an incredible life story and an indomitable spirit, is already shaking up the political landscape in the struggling upstate city, causing business leaders to panic and machine Democrats to scratch their heads.

To get some better insight into how Walton’s upset happened, what it means, and where things go from here, I spoke with Robert McCarthy, a long-time reporter and columnist for the Buffalo News and the dean of the city’s journalist community.

Progressives Everywhere: Just how big of a shock was this upset? Was there at least some sense that discontent was fomenting and people wanted change?

McCarthy: I've been in the newspaper business for 45 years and this is the biggest political upset that I've ever experienced, no question. It also probably ranks as the biggest, most unexpected upset in the history of this city and that goes back a lot longer than 45 years. No one can remember a shocker as surprising as this one. And as I wrote in my column for this coming Sunday, that if anybody tells you they saw it coming, they're lying. That might even pertain to India Walton.

I’ve read that Brown ran something of a low-key campaign.

Some people compare it to Joe Crowley’s loss [to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] a couple of years ago. It was the same kind of thing: He’d been there forever, there was low turnout, and a real progressive candidate opponent. But Crowley campaigned. Brown just campaigned by being mayor. He was going out and cutting ribbons and making announcements and doing things, but were there any rallies? Was he out there ringing doorbells? No. 

Brown didn't go on the air [with advertising] until real close to the election, and those were warm and fuzzy positive commercials that said he was confident and didn’t need to be attacking this opponent. He also refused to debate, which was the only time he ever refused to debate in any of his campaigns, as far as I can remember. And these weren’t fly-by-night groups. It was the League of Women Voters who wanted to sponsor the affair.

Here in New York City and even in the closer suburbs, a growing progressive movement has been knocking off long-term, more conservative Democratic incumbents. It’s happened in the NYC city council, the state legislature, and some Congressional seats. Was there any big hint that something like that was coming to Buffalo?

Not that we saw. And I'm not sure there is. I mean, it was such a low turnout that you only had about 12,000 elect [Walton]. So I'm not sure if it reflects a growing progressive movement or whether it reflects a shelf-life factor and some other things. I know some people who decided to send a message with their vote for India and then were shocked when she won. 

There was also a weird thing that was going on here where Brown instituted this program of speeds on cameras. He installed cameras with the council's approval around every school in the city — and we're talking about dozens of schools — and you had to slow your car down to 15 miles an hour. Just where I live in North Buffalo, to get downtown would take you about a half an hour because you can only go 15 miles an hour past all these schools on Main Street. Public schools and Catholic schools as well.

So people were just outraged by it, especially when the system didn't work that well and people were getting these bills for $50 fines in the mail because the cameras would catch your license plate. People were up in arms about it, so finally the city council voted to end the program. Mayor Brown did not exercise his veto power, he just quietly let the council effort to end the program become law. 

That could have been a sign that maybe he knew that people were mad about this, but by the same token, there was kind of a feeling that he was detached from people by standing by this program that was unbelievably unpopular.

The rest of this interview will be featured in Tuesday’s premium edition of the Progressives Everywhere newsletter… click below to subscribe and get it directly in your inbox on Tuesday evening!

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Voting Rights, Ballot Initiatives & Gerrymandering

Florida: A trial that kicked off on Thursday may well determine the future of democracy in the Sunshine State.

Early this month, we featured an interview with former State Rep. Sean Shaw about a triumvurate of ballot initiatives he’s steering to expand democracy in Florida. The three policies — same-day voter registration, automatic voter registration, and ending the Jim Crow poll tax enacted by the GOP in 2019 — all poll very well with voters. The problem is that Floridians may not get to vote on the policies due to a new Republican-passed law that makes qualifying a ballot amendment just about impossible.

Whereas there is basically no limit to donations to political candidates in Florida, the new law places a $3000 cap on contributions to organizations during the petition-signing phase. Absent an unprecedented influx of max grassroots donations, the cap kills the budget for paid signature-gatherers and advertising.

Shaw’s organizations and the Florida ACLU asked a US District judge to placce an injunction blocking the new law, and on Thursday, they began making the case that the limit takes a hatchet to direct democracy. The window to gather signature petitions opens on July 1st, so time is of the essence.

Arizona: After defenestrating a successful ballot initiative this spring, Arizona Republicans are now seeking to give themselves more formal legal power over the amendment process. Given the state’s constitutional bylaws, they have to put the issue up to voters on another ballot initiative, a delicious irony that I hope voters make them eat when they go to the polls in 2022.

Pennsylvania: While most of the discussion about voting rights has been focused on voter suppression, experts I’ve spoken to on the subject (working on a big story, more to come) have told me that the GOP’s plan to gerrymander swing states to new Supreme Court-enabled extremes is actually more of a threat.

In Pennsylvania, the maps passed in 2011 by the GOP trifecta were so extreme that the Democrat-controlled state Supreme Court forced a somewhat significant redrawing later in the decade. This time around, Democrats control the governor’s mansion, which means that the party will get a say in the formulation right off the bat. As such, legislators were trying to play nice and establish some even-handed ground rules for redistricting, which went about as well as every other bipartisan voting rights negotiation:

A key state Senate committee agreed Tuesday to put guardrails on how Pennsylvania lawmakers draw congressional maps, while stripping out proposed limits on how the General Assembly’s own districts are drawn.

The bill, which passed on a near party-line vote in the chamber’s State Government Committee, diminished anti-gerrymandering advocates’ hopes of preventing Pennsylvania’s most powerful lawmakers from drawing maps that unfairly benefit one political party.

An amendment offered by the panel’s chair, Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill), removed all proposed reforms to the legislative redistricting process, including requirements to hold public meetings and allow public comments, as well as to add additional criteria that advocates say could lead to fairer state House and Senate maps.

Remarkably, the stripped-down bill, which for now protects all GOP state legislative incumbents, is still considered an improvement over the last iteration of the redistricting process. At least Democrats are ready for GOP gerrymandering this time around, as they’ve already filed a suit that asks the state’s high court to establish district lines should the legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf prove unable to find a mutually satisfactory map.

Health Care

Missouri: A county circuit judge in Missouri ruled in favor of Republicans in a lawsuit over their refusal to expand Medicaid, which functionally means that legislators can simply ignore the demands of voters and the results of elections if they don’t like them. The case will now head to the court of appeals.

Workers’ Rights

Minimum Wage: It seems like an afterthought by now, but the federal government still hasn’t touched the minimum wage. That probably has something to do with the relentless assault that Republicans and their big business allies have waged on the modest increase in pay coming out of the pandemic, but still, with a major reconciliation bill on the horizon, you’d think we’d at least hear some rumblings some kind of increase.

I’m not sure what will get a wage increase back on the radar, but I’d bet that the amplification of new studies like this one, about which cities would benefit most from an increase in the federal minimum wage, can’t hurt the cause:

Residents of El Paso, Texas, would benefit the most from a $15 minimum wage. The increase would provide residents in this metro with wages exceeding basic living costs — $12.40 — by 21%. Raising the minimum wage to $15 in El Paso would be a 107% increase from the current amount, $7.25.

Residents of Toledo, Ohio, and McAllen, Texas, would similarly benefit from a $15 minimum wage. Wages would exceed standard living costs by 19.8% in Toledo (living wage of $12.52) and 18.8% in McAllen (living wage of $12.63) if the minimum wage were raised to $15. The current minimum wage is $8.80 in Toledo and $7.25 in McAllen.

Remind me how the senators from Ohio and Texas voted on the minimum wage increase back in March?

NLRB: Despite the stalling of pretty much all legislation, this month brought a very good development for working people and union organizers. In a significant new ruling, the NLRB established that employers may not offer their workers help with mailing their union election ballots.

Making that offer is a seemingly harmless move that actually works to intimidate employees; notably, it was one of the key strategies that Amazon used to scare warehouse workers in Bessemer out of voting for union representation. If employers are found to violate the new rule, it could lead to the entire election being invalidated in favor of a re-do.

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