Thursday, December 20, 2012

Racine school district dishonors MLKing's legacy

By Barbara J. Miner

Sometimes, you wonder: Is this a “real” newspaper or The Onion you’re reading?
Take, for instance, the lead paragraph of an article this week in The Journal Times in Racine:
“Racine Unified has scaled back support for an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in part because of the organizing student group’s political activism, district Superintendent Ann Laing said.” 
Oh my. An MLKing event is being criticized because student activists are involved. The civil rights leader must be turning over in his grave with embarrassment at the school district’s stance. 
It turns out that Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES) is spearheading the MLKing event, which is on the MLKing holiday. YES is the student arm of the non-profit immigrant and workers’ rights group Voces de la Frontera, and has organized an MLKing Day celebration in Racine for the past three years.
The article in The Journal Times goes on to cite the complaints against YES and Voces.
• YES supports immigrant rights and collective bargaining. (Does the Racine school district realize that King was assassinated while in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers and their demand for union recognition?)
• YES supports in-state tuition for undocumented students who graduated from a Wisconsin high school. (Such a measure passed under the Doyle administration, only to be rescinded after Gov. Scott Walker took office.)
Voces organized efforts for students to go door-to-door on election days and encourage people to vote. (Were Racine administrators asleep during history lessons on the Voting Rights Act, one of the seminal struggles of the Civil Rights Movement?)
The controversy started in the fall after right-wing talk radio host Mark Belling in Milwaukee launched a campaign against YES’s involvement in Racine’s MLKing celebration. The Racine school district, among others, immediately started withdrawing support, even though they had backed previous years' celebrations.
MLKing dedicated his life to organizing for political change. It’s a shame that Racine school officials lack both civic courage and an understanding of U.S. history — and feel compelled to listen more to Mark Belling than their own students.

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This blog is cross-posted at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

Monday, December 17, 2012

First we mourn, then we organize

Following is a guest commentary by my husband, Bob Peterson. Bob has taught elementary students for 30 years, and is currently the president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association. The commentary is from his blog, "Public Education: This is What Democracy Looks Like."

By Bob Peterson

Educators across the nation will enter school with heavy hearts on Monday. Beneath flags at half-mast and between hugs of staff and students, teachers will navigate through difficult questions and raw fears as we remember and honor the victims of the Sandy Hook School tragedy.

First, we mourn.

We mourn for the victims, for their families, for the heroic Sandy Hook staff, and for the entire community of Newtown, Connecticut.

We also mourn for this nation and for the tens of thousands of people whose lives have been affected by this country’s epidemic of mass killings and incessant gun violence.

We also grieve.

As professional educators, we will help our students process their grief and fears. Using social media, teacher unions, school districts and individual teachers have provided resources on how to guide conversations.
Six educators (all women), twelve girls and eight boys (all 1stgraders) were killed in the massacre. Our grieving will never completely end.

We also honor. And the best way to do so is to organize against senseless gun violence.

There are some commentators who say, “No, you can’t take on the gun lobby, you will never win. Talk about keeping children safe, yes. But don’t talk about gun control.”

But, as Nicholas Kristof wrote in Sunday’s New York Times, “What do we make of the contrast between heroic teachers who stand up to a gunman and craven, feckless politicians who won't stand up to the N.R.A.?”

We can hope that our political leaders will, in future weeks, take “meaningful action” against gun violence. We can also hope that this country begins to address the crisis in mental health services.

But the only way to make sure our hopes come true is to organize.

It will take nothing less than a mass movement to ensure that our political leaders fulfill their responsibilities and actually do something rather than lament the power of the pro-gun lobby.

Given the events of Sandy Hook, parents and educators have a particular role to play, including the NEA and AFT leadership. Likewise, community leaders must demand a community-wide response, and religious and business leaders must call upon their colleagues. Together, we all must demand that our elected leaders address the epidemic of gun violence and the crisis in mental health care.

In the coming days, we will mourn the victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy.

But we must also organize to prevent future such tragedies. We have no choice.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Does City Hall have a clue what's going on at the city's charter schools?

By Barbara J. Miner

It seemed like a simple idea: follow up on a recent media report about the rise in “independent” charter schools in Milwaukee and get specific lists of such charters overseen by the City of Milwaukee, by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and by the Milwaukee Public Schools.
Little did I know that this simple idea would become an ordeal.
Getting lists of this year’s charters from MPS and UWM was relatively easy via their websites. Getting a list from the City of Milwaukee was an exercise in frustration. It took me two days, eight hours on the phone and computer, and dozens of emails before a list was sent to me.
Which made me wonder. Does anybody at City Hall have a clue what’s really going on at the city’s charter schools?
There are 11,938 students in the “independent” charters in Milwaukee, with the schools funded by more than $92 million in taxpayer dollars. Most of the students are at City of Milwaukee and UWM charters, where lines of responsibility and public oversight are, to say the least, murky.
Given the difficulties in getting the most basic of information from the city— a list of its schools — it became impossible to shake the fear that public oversight of these charter school dollars is shrinking almost as fast as the independent charters are growing.
From what I can tell, “independent” has become a euphemism for easing the public out and turning schools over to private entities that operate with minimal public input and transparency. “Privately run” seems a far better description of such charter schools.
But shouldn’t we be worried when we use public tax dollars to shift the education of our children to private interests skilled at circumventing public transparency and oversight?
If, for example, a problem erupts at an MPS school, you know who to call: your local school board member or the MPS central office. But what if there’s a problem at a City of Milwaukee or UWM charter. Who do you call? I’m not sure anyone really knows.

Charter schools are the latest rage in education, particularly charters that operate independent of a school district’s democratically elected school board. A little background is helpful.
Charter schools have their roots among progressive educators in the 1990s who wanted charter contracts with school districts so they could operate outside the bureaucracy and experiment. The goal was to improve academic achievement, strengthen the connections between school and community, and use the lessons learned to improve public schools overall.
Thankfully, some charter schools still uphold those values. But in recent years, the charter movement has become the darling of hedge-fund managers and entrepreneurs who see a big pot of money in public schools. And it is these forces that are driving the charter school movement’s dominant agenda of promoting privately run charters that are independent of school board supervision.
Like their private-sector counterparts, these charter entrepreneurs tend to chafe at public oversight and control. They also know that market share is the name of the game. Thus there has been a proliferation of national franchises of charters, which use cost-efficient, cookie-cutter programs that they market to financially strapped urban districts.
Not surprisingly, the growth of charters has coincided with the market-place approach to education that has gained supremacy in recent decades. In this education marketplace, students and families are consumers, not deciders, and “choice” is the king of all values. (Whether there is much qualitative difference in Milwaukee’s “choices” is another matter, given that the schools in the city are circumscribed by harsh realities of overwhelming poverty, joblessness and segregation.)
In Milwaukee, three different entities grant charters: the City of Milwaukee, UWM, and MPS. All City of Milwaukee and UWM charters are “independent” charters run by the private organizations that are granted the charter. MPS has two types of charters, both of which answer to the elected school board: “instrumentality” charters that are staffed by district employees and follow many of the guidelines that apply to all MPS schools, and “non-instrumentalities” that are “independent” charters run as private entities. (Is your head spinning with all these details yet?)
Back to my search for a list of the independent charter schools in Milwaukee.

I knew that a list from the City of Milwaukee was especially important. The city’s charters are on the biggest growth spurt, and the city has been in the forefront of signing contracts with charter management franchises based in other cities.
I started my search at the City of Milwaukee webpage — my go-to spot for all sorts of information, from winter parking regulations to the fall leaf collection schedule. At first, it seemed I was in luck. The drop-down box on the right-hand side of the homepage, right under “Contact Elected Officials,” had a link for “Explore Education Options.” I clicked.
Imagine my dismay, however, when the new web page had absolutely nothing on the city’s charter schools. There were links to MPS, to a private school directory, to the voucher program, to colleges and universities, and to information on student aid and other educational resources.
But not a word about City of Milwaukee charter schools. Which inevitably led to the question: Does City Hall know, or even much care, what happens at its schools?
I then tried my next-best Internet trick. I wrote “charter schools” in the web page’s search button. Most of the matches were useless ¬— one took me back to the Explore Education Options site. But the top match (Charter School Application) provided a name and phone number. I wasn’t interested in applying to start a charter school, but I figured that person could help. I called the number.
Once again my hopes were dashed. The person answering the phone was extremely nice — but she was at the Institute for Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. She wasn’t even a City of Milwaukee employee.
I asked her who would be the best person to contact at City Hall, and she gave me the name and number of a person in the department of administration she worked with. I called the number and left a message explaining I was looking for information on the City of Milwaukee charters.
I have learned not to wait for return phone calls from City Hall, so I did what every frustrated taxpayer does. I contacted the members of the Common Council. After all, the city charter contracts are subject to the Common Council’s approval. As the saying goes, the buck stops there.
I emailed each alderman and asked for a list of the city’s charters, including contact information and basic data on student demographics and enrollment, and for any type of annual report on the charters. I also asked each alderman which charter schools are in their district.
Six of the aldermen replied. None had a list of City of Milwaukee charters, although they suggested whom I could contact. Only one alderman, Jim Bohl, responded to my question about charters in his district. He said he did not have any.
Several forwarded my request to the city’s Legislative Reference Bureau, which provided links to further information, including how to find reports on schools that the city contracted with last year. It turns out the bureau’s data was incomplete, but it was better than nothing.
But my simple goal that started it all was still elusive. I still could not find a list of this year’s City of Milwaukee charter schools
I went to bed Monday night wondering what it would take to get the information.
On Tuesday morning, just as I was ready to start at it again, the woman at the Department of Administration returned my call. (Thank god for hard-working support staff.)
A few emails and about 40 minutes later — and more than a day after I started my quest — she emailed me a list of the City of Milwaukee’s nine charter schools for 2012-13. She didn’t have the number of students enrolled, but at least she had a list.
If anything, however, I was more concerned than when I started.
If the City of Milwaukee wants to be a major player in educating our city’s children, shouldn’t the aldermen have a better sense of the city’s charter schools? If nothing else, a list of the schools?
Who’s really in charge of the City of Milwaukee charter schools? Why did the only phone number for charters on the city’s website lead to the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette?
Stay tuned. I have a feeling that, when it comes to public transparency and input, problems in getting a list of City of Milwaukee charters may be just the tip of the iceberg.
This blog is cross-posted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

By Barbara J. Miner

Dark days are ahead in Wisconsin politics. The Republican legislative majority has made clear it plans to ram through backward legislation in any number of areas, from the environment to education to democratic fundamentals such as the right to vote.
One of the many recent embarrassments (there are so many, it’s difficult to choose): On Tuesday, arch-Republican and Wisconsin Assembly Speaker-elect Robin Vos named Rep. Don Pridemore as head of the urban education committee.
Yes, this is the same Pridemore who, in announcing his candidacy last month for the job of state superintendent of education, mis-spelled the word “superintendent.” The same Pridemore who has said that single parents are a leading cause of child abuse by the mere fact they are single parents. The same Pridemore who has praised Arizona’s anti-immigration, anti-Latino legislation as a model for Wisconsin. The same Pridemore who hails from anything-but-urban Hartford, which has a population of about 15,000 people, about 90% of whom are white.
It’s easy to get discouraged. But it’s also easy to look at the past through rose-colored glasses. Remember: Wisconsin survived Joe McCarthy.
It’s also easy to forget that Wisconsin has a number of young, energetic and committed progressive leaders who are getting well-deserved attention nationally.
Thus it was refreshing news when Huffington Post recently named Christine Neumann-Ortiz of Milwaukee as one of “50 young progressive activists who are changing America.” As the article notes:
Born in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, these 50 people inherited an America that seems to be holding its breath, trying to decide what kind of country it wants to be. ...
The 50 individuals listed here represent a new generation of activists, artists, thinkers, and politicians who have already become leaders of exciting movements for social justice. They offer hope that the 21st century will witness dramatic changes toward greater equality and democracy.
The Dec. 2 article was written by Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College and the author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.
For more than a decade, Neumann-Ortiz has been the leading force in Milwaukee’s Voces de la Frontera, nationally recognized as a grass-roots voice for immigrant and workers’ rights. Most recently, the organization was in the news for its support of workers trying to unionize Palermo’s Pizza.
Both Neumann-Ortiz and Voces have long been vilified by the right wing. Mark Belling recently went after the United Way of Racine County because —horror of horrors!—it gave Voces money to help organize a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration at the Racine public schools. Former Republican state Sen. Cathy Stepp, meanwhile, once called Neumann-Ortiz a terrorist after she tried to talk to Stepp at her home about immigrant rights. 
Georgia Pabst, who does an admirable job covering the Latino community despite the Journal Company’s tendency to ignore low-income communities except when there are issues of crime or dysfunctionality, did a good feature on Neumann-Ortiz on in 2010. Quoting both critics and supporters of Neumann-Ortiz, Pabst’s article was a welcome counterpoint to right-wing radio’s one-sided punditry.
Some people have likened Neumann-Ortiz to Father Groppi, the white priest who led the open housing marches of the 1960s and who is now recognized as one of Milwaukee’s seminal leaders of the 20th Century. Both believed in the power of grass-roots organizing and took up an issue based on its merits, not whether it would be controversial.
Watching the right’s denigration of Neumann-Ortiz and the call to boycott Palermo’s pizza reminds me of a comment by Frank A. Aukofer, a Milwaukee Journal reporter in the 1960s who later wrote a book on Milwaukee’s civil rights movement.
In his book, Aukofer describes how the city’s media and power elite repeatedly decried a 1964 school boycott designed to highlight segregation in the city’s schools. They labeled the boycott illegal, or mere truancy, or a “goofy stunt.” The criticisms, Aukofer writes, were typical of the white majority’s response “to every civil rights protest before and since. Instead of focusing on the issue the boycott was intended to dramatize, the boycott itself became the issue.”
Think of establishment reactions to the boycott of Palermo’s Pizza. Sound familiar?
At a time when arch-conservative Republicans are poised to attack on any number of fronts, we need one, two, many Voces. The Huffington Post article is a welcome acknowledgement that progressive activism matters.
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This article is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Beware charter school initiatives that are a Trojan Horse for dismantling public education

By Barbara J. Miner
Many urban educators have long warned that charter schools, along with vouchers, are being used to dismantle public education.
But here's a warning from the superintendent of one of the wealthiest school districts in the country (and Mitt Romney's home town).
"I’ve never considered myself a conspiracy theorist—until now," writes the superintendent of Bloomfield Hills Schools in Michigan. "This package of bills is the latest in a yearlong barrage of ideologically-driven bills designed to weaken and defund locally-controlled public education."

Check out the letter, posted on the district's website with the title: "An urgent call to action from Superintendent Rob Glass."
Unfortunately, too many Wisconsin politicians (Democrats included) are also promoting semi-private charters — schools that are public in name but run as private institutions.
The charter school movement is rife with contradictions, and there are many types of charter schools. Some remain faithful to the goals and ideals of the movement's founder — using charters to improve public education and to foster innovation and strengthen community control. 

But there is no doubt that privatizers have seized control of the charter school movement.
As Superintendent Glass's letter makes clear, not all reforms are true reforms: a disturbing number are a Trojan Horse for privatization and limiting public control of public education.
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This blog is cross-posted at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

School vouchers: Time to demand common-sense reforms

By Barbara J. Miner
Accountability and achievement are two of the biggest buzzwords in education today.
So why are Milwaukee’s voucher schools allowed to sidestep mandates that other publicly funded schools must follow?
Gov. Scott Walker wants to further expand the voucher program, under which public tax dollars are funneled to private schools. Even the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board has problems with this agenda.
Criticizing Walker’s plans, the newspaper calls for an emphasis on achievement and accountability, two legitimate concerns. But vague admonitions are not enough. Without specific demands, such pleas will have little impact.
Fortunately, there are two specific and reasonable demands that can — and should — be made of voucher schools.
First, that the voucher schools adhere to Wisconsin’s open meetings and records laws.
Second, that the voucher schools agree to educate all children, in particular those with special educational needs.
When the voucher program began in 1990, it was billed as a small, experimental initiative to help a few hundred poor children in seven community schools. But even then, the voucher movement had its eye on its prize: replacing our system of public schools with a voucherized, privatized system of every-consumer-for-themselves. Bit by bit, the program was expanded and the focus on poor children was abandoned.
Today there are almost 25,000 students from Milwaukee receiving vouchers to attend a private school. Based on size, the voucher program is now the state’s third largest school district, just behind Madison. 
It’s long past time to demand serious reforms.
Calls for increased accountability from the voucher schools are meaningless unless they acknowledge the essential importance of Wisconsin’s open meetings and records laws. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote nearly a century ago, underlining the importance of making information available to the public, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
All public schools must follow the state’s open meetings and records requirements. Why should the private voucher schools be exempt? This is especially worrisome because a number of voucher schools are phoney private schools; all their students receive a publicly funded voucher and there is not a single student privately paying tuition.
If the voucher schools want to truly be accountable, they should release their data to the public — whether racial demographics, suspension rates, admission policies, staff pay, or the names and contact information of their boards of directors. Likewise, their meetings should be open to the public.
As for achievement, if the voucher schools want to be seriously address this problem, they should agree to educate all children.
Public school districts, by law, must meet the special educational needs of all their students. Voucher schools, because by are defined as private, are not required to meet a student’s special needs beyond what can be provided with minor adjustments, for example helping with reading or speech impairments.
In Milwaukee, the voucher movement has openly and unabashedly created a system of separate and unequal schools. The education of special ed students is the prime example. The percentage of special ed students in Milwaukee’s public schools is about 20 percent. At the private voucher schools, the comparable figure is less than 2 percent.
“All together, the 102 voucher schools are serving a special education population that is equal to what the Milwaukee Public Schools serves in just one of its district schools: Hamilton High School,” Milwaukee superintendent Gregory Thornton noted last year.
Yes, by all means demand increased accountability and achievement. But make the demands mean something. Otherwise, it’s just feel-good rhetoric.
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This blog is cross-posted at my blog, “View from the Heartland: Honoring the Wisconsin tradition of common decency and progressive politics.” At the blog, you can also sign up for email notifications.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Coney Island: a month after Sandy, still in need

 By Barbara J. Miner

Having lived almost 10 years in New York City, much of it in Brooklyn, I’ve always had a soft spot for Coney Island. So when my daughter suggested that the day after our Thanksgiving dinner in New York City we volunteer at a Coney Island relief site, I was willing. Somewhat ambivalent, but wholeheartedly willing.

The New York Times, as part of its Hurricane Sandy coverage, has had several articles and letters-to-the-editors on the social complexities of relief efforts. At what point, for instance, might volunteer efforts do more to assuage the guilt of the volunteer than to help those in need? What is the best way for people of privilege to become involved without exacerbating long-standing race and class divisions?

There are no easy answers. At the same time, such questions are not a rationale to do nothing. So on Friday morning, my husband Bob and my daughter Caitlin and I got on the B train and rode to its final stop at Coney Island and Stillwell Avenue at the southern tip of Brooklyn.

I knew that the Rockaways beach community in Queens had been devastated by Sandy’s trifecta of water, wind and fire. But I was unprepared for the still-momentous devastation on Coney Island almost a month after Sandy’s fury had abated.

We were volunteering at a food and donation distribution center at Coney Island Gospel Assembly — one of about 10 relief sites within the ConeyRecovers network.

Pastor Connie, head of Coney Island Gospel Assembly

Coney Island is known most famously for its amusement park and boardwalk, but its prime was almost a half-century ago. (A former barrier island, Coney Island became connected to the mainland via land fill.) Today, the Coney Island neighborhood is home to about 60,000 people, about 45 percent of whom live at or below the poverty level. Some 20 percent of its residents are African American, 28 percent are Latino, 24 percent are white, and 15 percent are Asian.

Some 23 days after Sandy hit shore, a number of buildings in the area remain only marginally habitable. Most first floors are filled with mold and rotting wood; some second floors are not much better. Forget about basement-level living areas. Those with the necessary resources and inclination are gutting their homes and rebuilding. Many are not sure what their future holds, and the necessities of life are in short supply.

A home along Neptune Avenue, as owners try to salvage what they can.

A basement level home, now abandoned.

Mold — an ever present problem in hurricane-ravaged homes.

Our volunteer location, Coney Island Gospel Assembly, is on a corner lot. After the hurricane, its location was ideal as a center for free hot food, medical assistance, and disbursement of donations of clothing, food, toiletries, cleaning supplies and bottled water. The parking lot became an outdoor warehouse; areas near the street became centers for social services and hot meals.

The backbone of the volunteer efforts consisted of church-based volunteers, Americorps members from throughout the country who were staying at a union hall in Queens, and local organizations such as the Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able initiative that is a transitional work program for those with a history of homelessness or substance abuse. They are there for the long haul.

The long-term volunteers and residents of Coney Island deserve a few words and photos in a far-away newspaper in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They should know that they are not forgotten.
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For more information on relief efforts in the Coney Island area, go to ConeyRecovers, an initiative of the non-profit Alliance for Coney Island.

Workers from Ready, Willing & Able organize donations.

Many of which arrive at random times and in random quantities.

Neighborhood residents wait in line — for hours —  for the church to begin distributing necessities.

After three hours of organizing boxes, the pastor's son, Jack, is able to explain to volunteers how the distribution line 
will be organized.

The distribution begins and residents explain what they need most — whether diapers, bottled water, food or toiletries.

Knowing it may be a long walk home, residents come prepared with the carts that are now ubiquitous throughout the neighborhood.

A young man whose tattoo stands for "clarity of focus" and which, he says, helps him understand what's important in life.

As we walk back to the subway, we traverse mounds of sand that, during the hurricane, traveled a mile-and-a-half from the beach and settled in homes and on sidewalks.

We travel back to Manhattan. Coney Island residents continue with their lives.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lincoln and Walker: Why they do—and don't—belong in the same headline

By Barbara J. Miner

Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln deserve its many accolades. It powerfully reminds us that race is central to both our history and our future, and that our democracy is a work in formation.
Watching the movie it’s hard to imagine — and yet impossible to forget — that 150 years after a bitter civil war that left 618,000-750,000 men dead, and after more than a century of Jim Crow laws eviscerating the Black vote, a Black man was elected and then re-elected President of the United States. All Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, can be proud of that.
Lincoln is also a reminder of what has not changed. Then, as now, one political party catered to the views of white males. Then, as now, the other party was identified with ending white supremacist views, but had an equivocal record on doing so. Then, as now, politics was blood sport.
Change the names — the movie’s Democrats are this era’s Republicans, and vice versa — and it’s clear that our political divides have not significantly changed.
Political personalities aside, Lincoln underscores how the civil war and the end of slavery were seminal events in our nation’s history. Likewise, Black labor before, during and after slavery has been essential to our country’s economic development.
Add that all up and it’s clear: there is no way to understand the United States without acknowledging both the role of African Americans and of racialized politics in shaping our country. Yes, our views of race have evolved and are undeniably complicated, but race is still an ever-present subtext.
Which brings us to today’s Republican Party and our very own Scott Walker.
One of the strongest post-election messages from Republicans who realize they are living in the 21st Century is that the GOP must move beyond its obsessive focus on a dwindling base of white males.
In post-election pronouncements, forward-minded Republicans have been tripping over themselves trying to figure out how to appeal to new constituencies, in particular Latinos and women. Their top solutions thus far: help reform immigration and cool-it on the anti-contraception, pro-rape messages.
But there’s been a stunning lack of GOP comments about reaching out to African Americans. Which is telling.
First, it shows that, above all else, the GOP is still fixated on partisan politics of figuring out how to defeat Democrats. Forget leadership. Forget doing what’s right. Forget the fate of this country’s 41 million African Americans.
The post-election silence about African Americans joining the GOP is deafening, notes writer, blogger and radio/TV host Elon James White. “Why are us Negroes not even in the thought processes of many of the Republican leaders? Women? Hispanics? Asians? Sure. Blacks? Eh ...”
A recent article in the Chicago Tribune on a “Facing Race” conference offered several interesting perspectives on the challenges not just for Republicans but also for Democrats.
Michael Omi, a scholar on U.S. racial politics at the University of California, Berkeley, “said it was still unclear if Asian-Americans and Latinos would be increasingly accepted as ‘honorary whites,’ which could align them more closely with the Republican party while perpetuating a black-white divide, or if the country would move toward a new, more multi-faceted view of race,” the Tribune noted.
The “honorary white” possibility is a provocative but not entirely implausible perspective on the future. In the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, the apartheid regime in South Africa granted “honorary whites” status to immigrants from Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.
Or, as the children’s rhyme goes, “If you’re white you’re all right. If you’re brown, stick around. But if you’re black, get back!”

At the “Facing Race” conference, writer Junot Diaz noted the historic yet fragile nature of the multiracial coalition that helped propel Obama to re-election.
"People of color have for the first time in the history of the United States attained a strategic plurality that, when coordinated, allowed us to decisively alter the outcome of the presidential campaign in Obama's favor," noted Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. But, the Tribune writes in paraphrasing Diaz, maintaining the new alliances “could be tough given long-standing tensions among various groups, deeply internalized images of white supremacy among minorities and vast economic disparities still in place 50 years after the civil rights movement.”
“Who knows,” Diaz is quoted as saying, “if the coalition will hold, splinter, collapse or mutate.”
Amid such uncertainties, Republican politicians are already positioning themselves for the 2016 election. Including our very own Scott Walker.
Gov. Walker has distanced himself — and least publicly — from the Romney/Ryan ticket’s nostalgia for the past.
The Associated Press is one of many news outlets which has Walker on the short list of possible GOP contenders for 2016. “I think it’s not that our beliefs are wrong,” Walker is quoted as saying. “I don’t think we do an effective enough job of articulating those beliefs and what it means in people’s lives.”

But there are glaring problems with Walker’s view. First, it puts him out on a shaky limb of saying that the GOP’s problems are not based on its politics but on its messaging. 

Second, Walker has shown little ability to win over voters now coveted by the GOP: young people and women, in particular. And he’s got a horrific record with African Americans.

In the recall race Walker is so proud of winning, he relied on the Romney/Ryan base that didn’t cut it on a national level. Last June, Walker won only 5% of the African American vote, only 47% of women, only 47% of those aged 18-29, and only 43% of those earning less than $50,000 a year, according to exit polls. (Figures for Latinos and Asians were not available because of their small voting numbers statewide.) His strongest base, 62%, was with white men.

As far as Latinos, Walker has had the luxury of sidestepping immigration issues. But his 2011 budget mean-spiritedly eliminated in-state tuition for undocumented students at public universities. 

Not to be forgotten, Walker signed into law one of the most restrictive Voter ID bills in the country, a measure that is now before the courts. Nationally, voter suppression attempts have been recognized as an anti-democratic embarrassment and a low point of the presidential election. Walker’s Voter ID stance will not be forgotten.

Most significantly, Walker apparently has no intention of straying from the GOP agenda. He waited less than two weeks after the election to move forward with the Republican dream of suppressing the vote by those deemed Democratic Party sympathizers. Knowing he has right-wing Republican leadership at the state legislature that will back such efforts, Walker said last Friday that he would like to end Wisconsin’s same-day voter registration law. 

Not coincidentally, such a change would significantly impact Milwaukee, where the Obama/Biden ticket won 79.27% of the vote. Overall, about 17% of those who voted in Milwaukee registered on the day of the vote, propelling the city’s 87% voter turnout. 

As for women, the Walker agenda is a disaster. As governor, Walker has signed legislation that prohibits local legislation on paid sick days, repealed an employment discrimination law, mandated “abstinence-only” sex education that does not call for teaching about the proper use of contraceptives, and banned almost all abortion coverage in any policies set up as part of Obamacare. 

And does Walker really think that his education record — he cut education funding more than any governor in state history and is decimating the budget of one of the best public university systems in the country — will earn him national accolades?

And what about climate chaos and Walker’s love-affair with cars and his hatred of mass transit? How many votes will that win him four years from now? 

One of the lessons of the 2012 election is that demographics and one’s political vision matter. Yes, Wisconsin’s Republicans control state-level politics, in large part due to the Republican’s redistricting maps. But nationally, Walker’s demographic base and political vision are not a winning combination.
Will Walker change his stripes in order to woo a national audience? He certainly may try. But can he deny his record?
In the long run, Walker’s attack on public sector unions may be the least of his problems.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Life in the trenches of democracy — reflections from a Milwaukee polling site

It was 6:10 a.m., cold and dark on a dimly lit street. “Who are you?” an obviously harried woman asked as I stepped out of my car. I told her I was there to work at the polls.
“Good,” she said. “Two of my people have had their phone numbers changed and another two aren’t answering.”
I had signed up to be a bilingual election worker for the City of Milwaukee. My assignment was at a small, one-room pavilion at a South Side park that seemed little more than a glorified playground.
The pavilion’s outside light wasn’t working, bolstering my sense that this particular electoral machine was not well oiled. My husband, who had an hour before he had to be at work, came in with me.
The one-room polling station was jammed — seemingly haphazardly — with tables, folding chairs and assorted park-related equipment, including a huge Weber grill. The polls were to open in less than an hour.
The polling station’s two chief inspectors were frantically calling missing workers and figuring out how to bring order to the chaos. My husband was pressed into service to help move the tables. I was handed thumbtacks and tape to put up necessary notices in English and Spanish.
“Welcome to the bowels of democracy,” I joked to my husband.
Within the hour, the pavilion was transformed. There were still a few rough edges but it had become a functioning polling station with all the necessary stations, forms and signs. All the poll workers had arrived.
“Hear Ye, Here Ye, The Polls Are Now Open,” the election chief proclaimed on the dot at 7 a.m. Lines had already formed. People were anxious to vote. Our day’s work began.
More than 15 hours later, at 9:45 p.m., I finally left the polling station.
I can’t remember the last time I worked so hard for so long.
I can’t remember the last time I worked with such a fascinating, humble, inspiring, and diverse group of people.
Starting at about 9 p.m., my daughter had started sending rapid-fire text messages from a New York City sports bar that had five big-screens, each one tuned to a different network.
“MSNBC is calling it for Obama!” she texted at one point.
“Elizabeth Warren won! Tammy Baldwin won!” another text read. “And all the ‘rape’ apologists lost!”
Cell phones were not allowed in the polling stations, so I had had no clue what was going on with the elections. Nor had I received those heartening text messages as they came in. As my husband and I drove home from the polling station, I called my daughter.
“Mahalia, life in the trenches of democracy is fascinating,” I explained. “But I feel like a soldier in a World War 2 foxhole, slogging away with no clue if the good guys are winning or losing. Tell me more.”
I don’t like war analogies, but I felt this one was appropriate.
What’s more, I was proud to have been a foot soldier. Reading analyses in the New York Times and following Nate Silver’s blogs had been a part of my life for weeks. But in the end, I learned much more about the workings of democracy at this little known, off-the-radar polling site on Milwaukee’s near South Side.
Above all, I learned how deeply people believe in the right to vote. They may not always exercise that right. But they want to protect it.
My fellow poll workers were a diverse group. There were several older women (including me, with my grey hair) some black, some white, some Latino. There was the bilingual election chief who wore a sports jacket and the coolest silver-toed cowboy boots I have seen in a long time.
A middle-aged mother and her twenty-something daughter worked side by side, both of them fulfilling the South Side stereotype of white working-class women who won’t take gruff from anyone and who speak in one volume: loud. An older black man dealt with the pavilion’s minimal heat by wearing his Green Bay Packers jacket and hat the entire day. A bilingual young woman who had graduated from Pulaski High School worked with me at a crazy-busy table for voters who had a change of address or who had never voted before.
Not to be forgotten: the white guy who had lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years and knew it so well that he could immediately tell people, based on their address, which of the three ward tables they should vote at.
We were slammed with non-stop work the minute the polls opened. We barely had time to go to the bathroom, let alone eat decently or take a break and relax. Never once did I hear anyone complain.
In many ways, our little polling site was a microcosm of Milwaukee. Whites were in the minority of voters, but still a significant percentage. About a third were African American — a fascinating development in a neighborhood that 40 years ago was a center of white resistance to open housing. A number of voters spoke Spanish, such as the gentleman who came in and explained that, at 60 years of age, he had decided to vote for the first time in his life. No one looked like they had much extra money to spend at the end of the week. 
There were as many fascinating stories that day as there were voters. One woman impressed me the most.
Sometime in the early afternoon, at a point when I was feeling like a factory line worker and people were becoming a blur, a thirty-something African-American woman sat quietly in front of me. Without a word, she handed me information explaining her situation. I quickly looked it over.
It suddenly dawned me: the woman was a victim of domestic abuse. By law, she had the right to a confidential voter address, and she had taken the necessary steps. To be on the safe side, she had brought in a letter from a transitional housing center documenting necessary information. I looked at the letter’s date: Nov. 5, 2012.
“You went and got this letter yesterday?” I asked the woman, buying time as my mind processed the various hoops she must have gone through.
“Yes,” she said, pride and dignity in her voice. “I wanted to make sure I would be able to vote today.”
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project