Losers and suckers …

By Steve Banko

Originally published in the Buffalo News

Losers and suckers …

I can’t say this is the first time I’ve been classified thusly.  It is, though, the first time I’ve heard those terms in a while. The first time was on my first trip home from Vietnam. Two bullets had shattered my knee and I was making my way through the Greyhound station in Boston in 1969 when a young girl spit at me and said the VC should have finished me off.

The next time I heard it was at an American Legion post I considered joining. An old beer-addled WWII veteran called me a loser because we hadn’t beaten “a bunch of rice farmers” in my war. Although it was only mid-afternoon, he was too drunk to get the meaning when I told him “we were winning when I left.”

I got that same message, but not in those words, from an English professor at UB where I’d enrolled after my service. My first writing assignment in the Creative Writing class was about something that happened in Vietnam. That professor made a point of calling me to the front of the class where he told me that if I was a veteran of the fighting to drop his class for he could never give a passing grade to anyone “who prosecuted that immoral war.”

These early episodes in my post-war service inured me to anything else that came my way. It was, nonetheless, a little disconcerting to hear such reactions to my service. I was shot four times, decorated for valor and service five times, endured some of the bloodiest fighting of the war and still incurred the wrath of the country that sent me off to fight. Let me be clear. I was a reluctant warrior. I was drafted and that alone caused for younger veterans to denigrate me because I hadn’t volunteered. But I answered the call most of my generation didn’t hear and even I didn’t completely understand. I fought. I bled. I killed some and saved more. Yet, it wasn’t enough. When I came home with a Silver Star, four Bronze Stars, and four Purple Hearts my father told me they would have had a parade for me if I had earned my accolades in World War II. Instead, I got kicked out of a class I needed to graduate.

But I got over it. I didn’t need anyone’s endorsement or appreciation then and I don’t need it now. I know what I did and more importantly, I know for whom I did it. I know some fellow soldiers came home to live their lives because of me and I know I wouldn’t have been here without the courage and sacrifice of a lot of other guys. That’s what soldiers fight for – each other. It’s painful living with the results of my service. Some of the pain is physical, more of it mental because once you see war, you can’t un-see it.

That’s the essence of service: doing something for the good of others, of risking something up to and including your life for a larger cause and for greater good. Some people understand that without ever having had to serve in the military. They are nurses and teachers and civil servants and truck drivers and delivery people and grocery clerks and a whole host of others we often took for granted but now recognize as essential.

We tend to be the sum of our parts: our upbringing, our environment, our experience. We hope that they all total up to something to be proud of. We hope our humanity translates to our children and their children and to our community and our country. But experience has also left me confident in who I am. So when I’m called childish names I recall some advice from my younger days and I consider the source. I’ve been called a lot worse by much better people.

Some facts, observations and heard-on-the-streets

Six weeks to go until Election Day.  Early voting started in Minnesota, South Dakota, Michigan, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming this past weekend.  In eight days the federal government will run out of money.  The first presidential debate is next week.  Just four-plus weeks until the start of early voting in New York.  The election cannot come soon enough. 

Here are some facts, observations and heard-on-the-streets:

  • The passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will turbo-charge an already fired up Democratic base. It will significantly energize Democrats in at least a third of the Senate races where Republicans are tenuously standing for re-election and might even prick the conscience of the one or two other Republican Senators who still have any integrity. RIP, RBG.
  • It is well known that Donald Trump is his own campaign manager and his own communications director. Which is lucky for him, because if someone else was in charge he would be fired. His loyal staff remains busy like street cleaners sweeping up after the elephant parade passes by.
  • Loyalty is important – but all one-sided for Trump. That goes for his famous base of voters too. Note a recent indoor rally where he bragged, “I’m not at all concerned,” because he was a safe distanced from the mostly un-masked, packed shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. “I’m on a stage, and it’s very far away.” If the crowd gets sick – oh well. I wonder how good the air-handling was in the room.
  • As Trump bounces around from attack point to attack point, trying to get something to stick on Joe Biden, what he cannot avoid is that with 200,000 Americans dead and more to come and with he and his administration bungling supplies, testing and half-witted remedy ideas, this campaign still comes down to three words: PANDEMIC, PANDEMIC, PANDEMIC.
  • If James Carville were working for Trump (boy wouldn’t that be funny), he would tape a sign in the Oval Office saying, “It’s the pandemic, stupid!”
  • But there is no James Carville in the Trump campaign, just a bunch of hangers-on and sycophants who in many cases have helped suck the campaign’s war chest dry. And so it will be for the next six weeks.
  • Real Republican campaign management would be urging Trump to tell the public the truth and to explain the hard realities. Instead, many precious and dwindling campaign days are spent with Trump fighting with his employees in public and with cleaning up matters like the recent Michael Caputo fiasco, a story that used up large parts of multiple days.
  • Democrats in the House approved another pandemic relief package in May while Republicans in the Senate had to be dragged kicking and screaming to, just last week, approve a “skinny” bill that ignores most of the issues that are literally life and death for millions of Americans. Trump just weighed in last week to tell the congressional Republicans to spend more, whatever that meant. Republican senators are not interested.
  • Meanwhile, we are getting very close to seeing budgets in states, counties, cities, towns and school districts explode as the pandemic economy drains their finances even while there are growing demands for the services those frontline governments provide. In some cases taxes will go up, while in most cases safety, health and education services will be cut.
  • Unfortunately New York is a “blue” state, and Trump seems to think he is only the president of the “Red” States of America.
  • The most significant problems locally will be in the City of Buffalo. Mayor Byron Brown proposed and the Common Council approved a budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year which was grossly out of balance from the get-go, assuming that the federal government and the state government would come to the rescue.
  • Rather than raise taxes or cut anything significant from the budget, the City simply included $65.1 million in speculative relief money as revenue from the federal government and another $11 million that the City leaders expect the state to forward to them from casino revenues. The city has been hit by of millions of dollars in state aid cuts (the state budget folks refer to such things as money being “withheld”). Did I mention the diminished sales tax revenues and a lack of reserves?
  • On September 30 the City will have completed one-quarter of their fiscal year without any action on cutting expenses to deal with the impending calamity; raising new revenues during a fiscal year is very difficult.
  • Others are starting to notice. The Fitch rating service has downgraded the City’s bond rating. Perhaps it’s time for the State Comptroller to take a look at what is going on. It might be time for Governor Andrew Cuomo to fill the vacancies and reappoint or re-fill the term-expired incumbent membership in the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority (BFSA) to give it a structure where it can once again become actively involved in the fiscal affairs of the city.
  • BFSA leadership has correctly pointed out they cannot produce revenues for the city, but they could play an important role in getting the spending rationally reduced. The BFSA, which has suggested that the state should authorize $121 million in deficit financing, could also get involved in figuring out how the city would repay such money plus the $25 million that the city already borrowed to close out the past fiscal year.
  • The County of Erie was in much better financial shape than Buffalo as the pandemic began, but County Executive Mark Poloncarz and the County Legislature nonetheless have their hands full as they get ready to approve the 2021 budget. Town government budgets are also being hurt by reduced revenues.
  • School districts everywhere in New York State and throughout the country have their hands full not only with financial problems but perhaps even more difficult operational matters involving in-classroom and online instruction. Some are doing better than others, having taken advantage of the summer months to come up with plans A, B, C, etc. while others are struggling badly and making things extremely difficult for students, parents and staff. I’m looking particularly at you, Williamsville Central School District. The senior staff and the School Board need to be held accountable as they stumble from one mess to another.
  • Unless you are personally involved as a candidate, party leader or campaign staff, local politics this year are struggling for attention. Nate McMurray keeps plugging along, but is Chris Jacobs still running? Okay, I know he is.
  • There are lots of farms in outlying sections of the 26th congressional district, but maybe Jacobs could break away from his tours to tell us if he agrees with Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic; about his position on federal supplemental unemployment benefits and additional relief checks; or maybe Chris could detail just how much money should go to states, local governments and school districts. Does he agree with Trump that Obamacare should be totally wiped out, including protections concerning pre-existing conditions?
  • Races for state legislative seats seem to be mostly non-events. There is a campaign for a State Supreme Court seat where Democrat Amy Martoche will face off against Republican Gerald Greenan. Judicial campaigns are supposed to stay away from political issues but there does seem to be an issue here. Martoche has been rated “well qualified” by the Erie County Bar Association while Greenan is “not recommended.” The Bar Association has rated Republican incumbent County Court Judge Kenneth Case “outstanding.”
  • For the past several years I have written a start-of-season post on the Buffalo Bills but other matters have intervened this year. The season has started (an accomplishment of sorts), the Bills are 2 and 0, and prospects look mighty good for 2020. Josh Allen is performing at a much higher level than in 2019. Allen-Diggs 2020! Go Bills!
  • Finally, ICYMI the Buffalo Blue Jays, in this pandemic-shortened baseball season, are headed for the playoffs. The team’s record of 12 wins versus 8 losses thus far in games played in Buffalo has a lot to do with that playoff trajectory. The Jays are home at Sahlen Field this week for the remaining seven games of the season. Unfortunately the Jays will probably play all their playoff games somewhere else. Go Blue Jays!

The 2020 Census is coming to an end; Buffalo is lagging in self-responses

The United States Constitution, Article I, Section 2 says “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons…  The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States [1789], and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”

The Constitution also allows for counting “other Persons,” meaning slaves, as three fifths of a person – a sin enshrined into law.  Constitutional amendments and federal legislation over the years have resulted in a requirement to count the whole number of people living in the respective states.  The main reason for the regular census of the country’s population was and is to determine how many members of the House of Representatives will allotted to each state.  That determination, along with having two senators per state, also determines the number of electoral votes each state has in the election of the president and vice president.

But there is a lot more involved than the apportionment of House members.  Over the past two hundred and thirty years, as the role of the federal government grew and the amount of money spent by that government greatly expanded, the distribution of federal funds over a myriad of programs has been established to follow the census numbers.  The more people a state or locality has, the more federal funds it will receive.

We are now in the final stages of completing the 2020 Census.  Like many other things, the operation of the census has become entwined with the political activities of the Trump administration.

Trump and company have worked in ways that may selectively reduce population counts in certain areas of the country by attempting to revise procedures for the conduct of the census.  This has included:

  • Attempting to require that there be a citizenship question in the Census survey, something that has been included in some but not all past versions of the census.  The Supreme Court shut down the proposal on a technicality but left no time to further adjudicate the issue before the Census process needed to start this year.
  • Excluding or separating information on illegal aliens who are counted in the survey.   Such individuals would not be part of the “whole Number of free persons.”  A recent court decision determined that the move was illegal but the issue could still be reviewed by another court.
  • Shortening the timeframe to complete the survey, ending it on September 30 rather than October 31 as originally planned, will inevitably result in lower counts.  A federal court earlier this month halted the September deadline but the Bureau website still reports the September 30 target date.  The abbreviated schedule would permit delivery of the results to Donald Trump by the end of December, before he leaves office if he loses the election.  Interestingly, nine of the ten currently lowest reporting states are “red” states, so a change back to an October 31 deadline wound not be totally surprising.

Needless to say, the pandemic has negatively affected the collection of census data.  Many people are preoccupied by important matters like keeping a roof over their heads and feeding their families. 

The Census Bureau regularly reports household counts by states and localities, breaking down the statistics by those who self-responded and others who were counted by census takers.  Nationally, as of September 13, 65.8 percent of households have self-responded and an additional 26 percent were counted by census takers, for a total of 91.8 percent.

As of the same date, in New York State, 62.5 percent have been counted by self-reporting while 29.5 percent of households were reached by census takers for a total of 92 percent.  No matter how effective the process is operated, however, New York will likely have one less member of the House of Representatives in 2022 since other states have grown faster in population than New York.  The population count will affect how federal money is returned to the state for the next ten years.

The Census Bureau is also regularly reporting on localities and congressional districts throughout the country for self-responding households.   In the City of Buffalo the self-response rate has been 53.2 percent so far, much lower than other localities in Western New York.  In the County of Erie the self-response rate is currently at 69.9 percent.  Amherst is at 78 percent; the City of Tonawanda at 77 percent.

The potential impact of a low census count in New York State and Western New York could be felt for the next ten years.  There will be less money for education, health care, infrastructure, community development and other federally financed programs.

There is still some time left for those who have not completed census forms to get counted.  The process can be taken care of online (www.my2020census.gov).  The City of Buffalo and the County of Erie have offices set up to assist in getting people counted.

Completing the census seems like one of those dry bureaucratic activities that doesn’t rise to the level of urgency, but that is not true.  For at least the next two weeks, consider it a Code Red situation.

A short limerick about a famous person who lives there in Washington

By Paul Fisk

There once was a young unloved son

Whose father had made a real ton

But he drained all the joy

From that poor little boy

Who grew to be Individual One

‘Twas a sad little family affair

That made him obsess on his hair

Neither famine nor art

Could affect his dark heart

There just was no empathy there

He could find no marital bliss

Had to pay at a booth for a kiss

Unwanted, unloved

He just pushed and he shoved

No chance to be cruel did he miss

By electoral fluke he was hired

But in lies and misdeeds he got mired

Got himself impeached

More lows still he reached

Time for all of us to tell him “You’re fired!”

Remember reality of climate crisis when casting vote

By Paul Fisk, Editor, Politics and Other Stuff

My friends in politically progressive groups look at me somewhat askance when I admit I’m now focused on climate change more than the election.

They correctly point out that little will get accomplished on the climate crisis without a national regime change, and that our immediate focus should be on getting out the vote. Quite true, but it’s equally important to remind voters that after Donald Trump and COVID-19 we will still be faced with a climate crisis that continued to approach with increasing rapidity and severity as we diverted our attention to “more immediate” problems.

Meanwhile, we’re heading for another year of record high temperatures. Polar regions are warming over twice as fast as the rest of the world. It passed 100 degrees Fahrenheit north of the Arctic Circle this summer in Siberia. Major polar ice sheets are collapsing, Greenland glaciers have passed the point of no return and growing areas of permafrost are no longer “perma.”  The climate crisis should be a major motivator in disinfecting the White House and securing the Senate at the polls this fall, as the Earth’s poles steadily melt.

There are lessons to be learned from the Trump and COVID-19 disasters that we should well remember in our next battle over climate. The Reagan era attitude that “government is the problem” captivated many in both parties over the past few decades. Trump and COVID-19 have reminded us that government was created to serve the people in ways that cannot be done by the private sector, but to do so it needs competent and caring leadership, particularly in times of emergency.

We rose to great challenges in earlier times. We won world wars, conquered killer diseases and put men on the moon. Government led the way. Yet lately we have sunk to having “leaders” afraid to ask people to make the small sacrifice of wearing a mask in public to help spare the lives of their friends and neighbors. Republicans fear jeopardizing their reelection by intruding on the a) constitutional, or b) God-given right of their base to cough coronavirus in a crowd.

Trump has provided us with a teachable moment. He has given us the kind of government under which our democracy clearly cannot survive. Absorbing Fox fantasies, he has created his own alternate reality. And by rejecting all norms of honorable and ethical behavior he has corrupted and exposed the fragility of our democratic institutions. Our legal system has proved unable to keep pace with his depredations. Then he denied the pandemic peril for months, completely abdicated his responsibility to lead a federal fight against it, and abandoned the individual states to fend for themselves.

Continuing this foolhardy lack of leadership and rejection of reality into the climate battle would lead to global disaster. Inaction would result in major portions of the Earth becoming increasingly less habitable for as much as a third of the world’s population, creating untold suffering and global chaos.

As it did with COVID-19, the rest of the world recognized the seriousness of the climate crisis and began taking action long ago, while we have been unable to overcome our fossil fuel industry-induced doubt and inertia. We have lost world respect, and precious time in waging the battle against global warming.

We’re in a deep hole and lately have been digging it deeper. Continuing the Trump tragedy, with its constant denial, “drillin’ and spillin’” would prove deadly. If you want to make America great again, think of what’s happening at the poles when you go to the polls.

Correction of a previous post

An astute reader has called my attention to an error in this blog’s post titled “SAM, we hardly knew ‘ya.”

The facts in the post are all correct except for one important point.  I indicated that to qualify as an official party following a presidential or gubernatorial election, a party’s candidate for president or governor must now have received 130,000 votes or two percent of the total vote for that office, whichever is lesser.  That is incorrect; it is whichever is greater

The change in procedures was implemented by the work of the state’s 2019 Campaign Finance Reform Commission, not through action by the State Legislature.  The operative section of the Commission’s report is as follows:  

Party thresholds: The Commission proposes recommendations, which have the force of law, setting out new thresholds to become a political party in New York State. To become a political party in New York State, the political body must now receive at least 2% of the total votes cast for governor, or 130,000 votes, whichever is greater, in a gubernatorial election year and at least 2% of the total votes cast for president, or 130,000 votes, whichever is greater, in a presidential election year. Note that these two thresholds work independently of one another. Also note that this provision takes effect on January 1, 2020, so that all existing parties must requalify at the November 2020 elections.

Since turnout in 2020 is likely to be very high, it is probable that the “2% of total votes cast” threshold will be applicable for setting party ballot positions 2021 and 2022.

I apologize for the error.

SAM, we hardly knew ‘ya

Changes are coming in the New York Election Law that will adjust the landscape politicos have known for many years.  The changes will make some people happy, and others angry – very, very angry.

The state law sets out the terms under which official political parties are created and continue to exist.  New York being New York, the process is byzantine, used by many, understood by few.

Under the Election Law that existed prior to this year, a political organization could become a standing political party by filing petitions for a gubernatorial candidate and then securing at least 50,000 votes for the party’s gubernatorial candidate; that threshold number of votes was set in the late 1930s, when the state population and the number of voters was much smaller.  The party designation was good for four years, allowing the party to nominate candidates for federal, state and local offices with a guaranteed spot on the election ballot.

Under that system we have had, in 2019 and 2020, eight parties in the state, which are rank-ordered based on their votes for governor:

  • Democratic Party (3,424,416 votes for governor in 2018)
  • Republican Party (1,926,485 votes)
  • Conservative Party (253,624 votes)
  • Working Families Party (114,478 votes)
  • Green Party (103,946 votes)
  • Libertarian Party (95,033 votes)
  • Independence Party (68,713)
  • SAM (Serve America Movement) Party (55,441 votes)

The top four parties on that list have been the major players in state politics for many years.  The Green Party has been around for several election cycles.  Other parties on the list come and go. You might remember the Liberal Party, a long standing party that died in 2002; or the Right-to-Life Party; or the Women’s Equality Party; or the Reform Party, which started out as the Stop Common Core Party.  (The Rent Is Too Damn High Party never made the threshold.)  Some minor “parties” have simply been concoctions of gubernatorial campaigns, aimed at creating an extra ballot line to add to a candidate’s total vote.

Candidates with multiple party lines have a long tradition in New York.  “Fusion voting” (a candidate running under his/her own party line as well as the lines of other parties) has been widely criticized over the years but nothing was done about it.  Then in 2019 the issue came to a head.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and others had issues with the way the Working Families Party operated even though Cuomo has run on the party’s line.  Last year Cuomo set up a commission to study a variety of things, including public campaign financing and fusion voting matters.  The work of that commission morphed in 2020 into legislation which will now effect how parties in New York are created and operate.

The new rules require that in order to be a recognized party with guaranteed ballot access for the next two years a party’s candidate for president or governor must secure at least two percent of the total vote cast in the state for president or governor, or at least 130,000 votes in that election, whichever is greater.  The party-recertification, in effect, will be repeated every two years.  Some of the state’s current minor parties have objected.

Under the new rules the Democratic, Republican and Conservative parties will still be around after this year’s election.  The Working Families Party could make the cut, but it might be close.  The other four parties (Green, Libertarian, Independence and SAM) will probably be gone, at least for the next two years, although those parties could petition their way on to future election ballots.  The petitioning process, however, also has higher thresholds now.

These issues have been litigated but nothing has changed.  A federal judge recently ruled that the process is legal and may proceed.

In the 2016 presidential election in New York there were a total of 7,660,184 votes cast for president.  Two percent of that number is 153,204. Turnout this year is likely to be higher, so the two percent threshold will be the benchmark for which parties get party status in 2021 and 2022.

In 2020 there will be several presidential candidates on the November ballot in New York who are not named Biden or Trump.  For at least the next two years you can probably say goodbye to the Green, Libertarian, Independence and SAM parties.  The latter just came into being in 2018.  So SAM, we hardly knew ya.

And oh, BTW, coming soon to state elections – public financing.

Vote early, vote often

A recent post on this blog teased but stopped short of repeating an old political expression, “vote early, vote often.”  I simply wrote “vote early, vote…”  It was silly, I guess, but I didn’t want anyone suggesting that I would encourage someone to vote more than once.

Donald Trump does not read this blog (or much else, I hear) so I cannot claim credit for his most recent effort to distract attention from his pandemic mismanagement as he promotes the idea of voting twice.  He wants people to vote absentee (which many Republican candidates around the country desperately need to have happen) and then go to vote in person to see if their absentee ballot will be counted.  North Carolina elections administrators have noted that it is a felony in that state to vote twice or to encourage people to do so, but why should a law stand in the way of Donald Trump?

An election official in Albany, New York, by the way, has said that in New York it is actually legal to vote absentee and then go to an election booth to vote in person, which will require the Board of Elections to cancel out the absentee vote.  Really?

The better choice is to do what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has said he will do: “Personally, I will walk, I will jog, I will skip, I will crawl, I will slither, I will bike, I will hike, I will hitchhike, I will drive, I will ride, I will run, I will fly, I will roll, I will be rolled, I will be carried, I will trek, I will train, I will trot, I will truck, I will strut, I will float, I will boat, I will ramble, I will amble, I will march, I will bus, I will taxi, I will Uber, Lyft, scooter, skateboard or motorcycle — and I will wear a face mask, a face shield, gloves, goggles, a hazmat suit, a spacesuit or a wet suit — but I damn well will get to my neighborhood polling station to see that my vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is cast and counted.”

The 2020 Republican platform revealed

“But so I think, I think it would be, I think it would be very, very, I think we’d have a very, very solid, we would continue what we’re doing, we’d solidify what we’ve done, and we have other things on our plate that we want to get done.” Donald Trump, articulating his vision for a second term, in an interview with the New York Times, August 27, 2020

So the convention shows are over and it is time to get down to business. There are now just over 60 days until Election. Early voting in some states begins the week of September 20. Continue reading