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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: Year in Review!

As 2013 draws to a close and we ring in the new year of 2014, we say goodbye to a jam-packed year in politics, pop culture, and media and books. Throughout this year, we've been bombarded with a lot of news on all these fronts, some positive and some negative. Since the beginning of the year, it's been great to guide you through some of this stuff and to write about it as I see it. I'm glad some of you at least seem to like what I do here. After all, this blog was named NEPA Political Blog of the Year at the NEPA BlogCon this fall. Thanks so much to all of you for your support in 2013! Now, with no further a due, our lists for the year...

POLITICS AND POLICY

Best Political Moments of 2013: Honest, Humanistic, Positive, and Profound Moments in Politics 

1. JOHN KERRY becomes a risk-taking, peacemaking Secretary of State. 

Nearly a decade ago, Democrats wanted to quickly forget about John Kerry and move on after Kerry narrowly lost the 2004 presidential election to President Bush. Much of the media declared that Kerry came across as an elitist, flip-flopping, and aloof figure who could not connect with the average Joe. He was derided as a Dukakis-like figure in some corners. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, set out to prove them wrong after President Obama, who owes the start of his national political career at the 2004 DNC to the former Massachusetts senator, picked Kerry as Secretary of State. Undaunted by the political perils and the potentials for disaster in perilous parts of the world, Kerry has assembled an impressive portfolio of tackling America's most vexing foreign policy challenges as America's chief diplomat. He took on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, bringing both sides to the table and speaking honestly regarding the sometimes intractable issues at hand. He may have stumbled his way into an international, negotiated diplomatic solution in Syria but he did forge the deal, with Russia's foreign minister, that ultimately destroyed Bashar Assad's chemical weapons. Towards the end of the year, Kerry, seeking to both prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon while also hoping to avoid war, achieved something that was unthinkable at the start of the year. Along with other foreign diplomats, he brokered the interim, negotiated deal with Iran that forces their government to accept serious limits on their nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief. There is a lot on the line with regards to these efforts, some may still falter, and the consequences of failure are tremendous but for this decorated war hero, there is seemingly no risk not worth taking. 

2. THE DEFENSE OF MARRIAGE ACT AND PROP 8 are repealed by the Supreme Court. 

The same year that the school of conventional wisdom wrote off John Kerry was the same year the CW crowd wrote off the prospects of marriage equality. In 2004, on the same day George W. Bush was reelected President, 11 states voted to ban same-sex marriage, including the swing state of Ohio. Everywhere that same-sex marriage had been on the ballot in the United States, it had failed. Nearly a decade later, the political calculus has radically and fundamentally changed for the better. Not only is the sitting President openly supportive of marriage equality but he also became the first president, earlier this year, to reference gay rights in an inaugural address. Same sex marriage is now legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia, some because of elections, some due to the courts, and some thanks to state legislatures. The high watermark of the year for LGBT rights though was the Supreme Court's June decisions repealing the core of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8 thus allowing gay married couples to reap the same federal benefits as straight couples and legalizing gay marriage in California, respectively. The pure joy, ecstasy, and sense of collective relief that overtook the emotions of activists outside the Supreme Court that morning was palpable even to those watching on TV. Though those activists know that much work remains to be done for full LGBT rights, they earned the right to celebrate. For years, they struggled hard to achieve these consequential victories and, despite occasional political setbacks, their dreams came to fruition all because they realized the fight was really inextricably linked to something deeper: preserving our core value of equality under the law. For that accomplishment, all Americans with a deep respect for our Constitution and its principles should be grateful. 

3. WENDY DAVIS mounts a filibuster against the Texas anti-abortion law.

She may never be Governor of Texas. Her filibuster was not successful in stopping a controversial law that is already chipping away at abortion rights. She is vilified by many conservative activists. To Wendy Davis though, it does not matter. For this trailblazing single mother, Harvard Law graduate, and dedicated state legislator, a woman's right to choose trumped all of those concerns when she bravely mounted a filibuster in deep-red Texas against a Rick Perry-backed bill to ban abortions in the state after a 20-week period. Wearing her now famous pink sneakers and exhibiting defiance against a cadre of male conservative state senators determined to silence her, Davis inspired Americans across the country to join with her in support of a cause that desperately needed an invigorated movement behind it to beat back against attacks. She may not have been able to stop the law from taking effect but she drew more attention to the assaults on women's rights that have been happening in Republican-led states throughout the nation. By doing so, Davis paved the way for women everywhere to rise up, like her, and fight for the right to control their own bodies. Even if she fails to win next year's gubernatorial election, that achievement alone will forever ensure Davis a place in the annals of the history of the women's rights movement. 

4. GABBY GIFFORDS takes on the gun lobby.

The National Rifle Association has always been politically potent, even if their track record in the most prominent recent elections is not perfect. It is a testament to their power that universal background checks, an idea with 90 percent national public support, fell short of the 60 votes required to thwart a Senate filibuster last April. While the defeat was stinging for advocates of gun violence prevention, the NRA had met their match in the form of Gabby Giffords, and her husband Mark Kelly, who founded, this year, Americans for Responsible Solutions. The new organization is raising money, raising awareness, lobbying, and advocating tirelessly for stricter gun laws even as many Americans' support for such proposals is fading. The heartwarming bravery of Giffords, herself a victim of gun violence, to undertake this cause, despite the ferocious potential political ramifications, is admirable; she was already accused in some conservative circles of being a prop for President Obama's push for gun control. In addition to founding this organization, Giffords also penned a powerful op-ed in The New York Times that scolded Senators afraid to stand up to the NRA and, despite continued difficulty speaking, she testified in front of congressional committees regarding gun violence. Even if universal background checks or an assault rifle ban or bans on high-capacity magazines are forgotten by legislators next year in the heat of the 2014 midterms, Gabby Giffords will keep on trying. She's battled and overcome worse before, after all, but much like the reports of her own death were literally greatly exaggerated, the death of the cause for which she is fighting is also greatly exaggerated. 

 

5. BARACK OBAMA speaks from the heart about Trayvon Martin and race in America. 

Much of the bombastic and vitriolic rhetoric on display from elements of Fox News and other conservative media, in the aftermath of the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, focused on President Obama's February 2012 remark that if he "had a son, he would look like Trayvon." Therefore, much of the media widely assumed Obama, already embroiled in political misfortunes of his arguably worst year in office, would be largely silent about the trial. They were wrong. Instead, America's first black president surprised reporters and Americans watching at home by appearing at a White House press conference to eloquently and honestly speak about his own experiences with racism in America, how society can overcome racial resentment, and the broader context of the killing of Travyon Martin and how and why many African-Americans saw a clear racial element to the incident. It was not shocking to close political observers that Obama had a unique ability, as a cool-headed son of a white Kansan mother and black Kenyan father, to calmly, articulately, and beautifully speak about race. His 2004 DNC keynote address, his March 2008 National Constitution Center speech, and his own memoirs, Dreams from My Father, tackle the issues of race, as they relate to his life, in astounding ways. However, given that this president receives more death threats than any previous presidents and is the subject of often scornful racially charged rhetoric and action, it was widely surprising that he was as forthcoming, emotional, and open with the American people as he was that afternoon. Obama's off the cuff remarks though were as unusually spontaneous as they were necessary for the sake of what BuzzFeed dubbed "racial healing." 

Honorable Mention: Harry Reid stares down and defeats the GOP in battles over Barack Obama's executive appointments, the government shutdown and near-debt default, and the filibuster of presidential judicial nominees.  

Best Policy Ideas of 2013: Solid Progressive Public Policy Pitches

1. UNIVERSAL PRE-K (Barack Obama)

This idea should be a no-brainer. It is common sense that expanding early childhood education is fundamental to future economic growth, fostering a productive society, and laying the foundation for a stronger country. In Oklahoma, there is already an experimentation underway to expand early childhood ed and in New York City, voters elected Bill de Blasio, who ran on universal Pre-K, to implement this idea on a citywide level. We know that early childhood education expansion is a solid investment that means we have to pay less for prisons and welfare programs in the future. In fact, business groups, liberal education activists, teachers' groups, and various other industries and organizations support it. Early this year, President Obama voiced his support as well, at the State of the Union address. My senator, Bob Casey, has moved forward the bill in the Senate. However, it is going nowhere. The Republican-led House refuses to even consider the legislation. It is depressing, to say the least, but the idea is so widely supported that perhaps it will become a reality soon with the right amount of public pressure. 

2. SOCIAL SECURITY EXPANSION (Tom Harkin)

For too long, the Beltway school of conventional wisdom and the Establishment media, packed by vociferous deficit hawks, have pushed the idea of cutting Social Security. Reducing benefits though is not only an extremely unpopular idea but it is also disastrous for our nation's seniors, many millions of whom are either barely living above the poverty line -- and only above it because of Social Security -- or are living in poverty despite their monthly check. For these Americans, Social Security, a wildly successful and popular program, has been a literal lifeline. Billionaires like Pete Peterson though push this idea in order to prevent legislators from considering deficit slashing measures that might actually hurt wealthy people like closing tax loopholes that largely benefit the rich and the well-connected. Some members of Congress though, led by the iconic progressive Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, had a different idea this year. Harkin, along with Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown, put their weight behind a proposal to expand Social Security benefits by raising the payroll tax cap. This idea makes sense given the average benefit is so meager and that Social Security has nothing to do with the annual budget deficit as it is funded by the FICA tax (besides, the federal government actually owes the Social Security Trust Fund money!) 

3. STUDENT LOAN INTEREST RATE REFORM (Elizabeth Warren)

Congress prevented student loan interest rates from doubling this year thanks to a compromise bill that the President signed in August. Senator Warren though, a progressive star in 2013, had a better idea. It was to give students seeking loans for college the same low interest rate that the big banks get: 0.75 percent. She also has condemned on principle the notion that the Department of Education should profit off of students. Few politicians are willing to be think so long-term and to take such an aggressive, principled stand on an issue that affects millions of young people struggling to make ends meet. Elizabeth Warren though will keep on fighting even if few others are willing to listen. 

4. IMMIGRATION REFORM (John McCain and Charles Schumer)

First introduced by Ted Kennedy and John McCain during the Bush years, comprehensive immigration reform is a bipartisan, economically common sensical, and morally right policy that has all the necessary elements to solve the lingering politicized issue of immigration. It includes tightened border security to assuage conservatives, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and it improves and eases, for family members of U.S. citizens, legal immigration as well. The legislation cruised through the Senate with nearly 2/3 support in the chamber. House Speaker John Boehner though has refused to bring up the bill for a vote even though it will reduce the deficit, strengthen Social Security, grow the economy, and expand the workforce. In 2014, all eyes will be on the House to see if, in the middle of a midterm election year, it will finally take action on this issue. 

5. PAID FAMILY LEAVE (Kirsten Gillibrand) 

All other major industrialized democracies in the world have paid family leave. Though we have unpaid leave thanks to the Family Medical Leave Act signed into law by President Clinton 20 years ago, paid leave has been elusive. It was among the planks of Barack Obama's domestic policy promises in his 2008 campaign for president. The administration though, seeking instead to push health care reform and Wall Street reform, did not focus on paid family leave. This year, despite the obvious obstacle of passing this progressive legislation through the GOP House, New York's Democratic senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, proposed paid family leave in the Senate. If she and the Democrats are politically smart, they will use this issue, as well as economic bread and butter issues like raising the minimum wage, to define the conversation that should be at the center of the 2014 midterms: income inequality and defending the interests of the working class and middle class. 

Honorable Mention: Kirsten Gillibrand's proposal to overhaul the military's treatment of sexual assault cases. 


POP CULTURE 

Best Movies I Saw in 2013 

1. The Wolf of Wall Street 

Consumed with a lot of sex, drugs, and market manipulation, the three-hour Martin Scorsese film, based on a book that is based on a true story, includes stellar acting from Leonardo DiCaprio with a star-studded cast and an intense depiction of a tragic life. Though the film has come under fire from some for ostensibly condoning Jordan Belfort's despicable actions, the movie, from my perspective, was really more of a poignant lesson of what could go wrong if you take the morally, legally, and ethically wrong turns in life. 

2. Gravity 

Though the film is devoid of much dialogue between characters, has a small cast, and is quite short, it is thrilling as ever. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney marvelously capture the unique personalities behind their characters and, needless to say, the special effects and production team involved in the film did a terrific job. 





3. American Hustle

At times, the film is boring and predictable but the talents of Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and others in this film is enough to make it an excellent film about the true story of the ABSCAM scandal. The eccentric interactions between their fascinating characters define and strengthen a complicated story. 

4. This is the End

Packed with A-list Hollywood comedians, this comedic motion picture is genuinely hilarious throughout the movie. The laughs never end as the story is original, unique, and provides surprises during every virtually every scene as the actors who are stuck in James Franco's house never cease to make one's funny bones tickle.

5. Iron Man 3 

The third Iron Man was more political than its predecessors, touching on the theme of terrorism and the ramifications of terrorism in domestic politics and, in the process, it conveyed a compelling message. Robert Downey, Jr. again masterfully depicted his unconventional character. 

Honorable Mention: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty 

Best TV I Watched in 2013

1. House of Cards

A complex and smart political thriller, this Netflix original keeps you coming back for more. Once I started the series, I was hooked and if that is not a sign of a good TV program, then I don't know what is. The brilliant Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright deployed their considerable talents in such a solid fashion as the powerful Underwood couple that the series became appealing to a wide range of fans that includes political junkies, Netflix users of all kinds, and millions more who may have little to no interest in politics. The way the director wove various factors of characters' lives all into one incredible story regarding political corruption and hunger for power is remarkable.  

2. Homeland 

Though I have only finished the first season this year, I already love this simply amazing Showtime original. The show is quite good on a number of levels: its skilled cast and strong characters like Claire and Saul are personas whose movements, thoughts, and conversations are fascinating to watch, its unique message regarding the unfortunate and terrible consequences of counterterrorism efforts gone wrong separates it from other terrorism-related TV shows in a way that makes it smarter than the others, and its plot line is truly thrilling.

3. John Oliver on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

When Jon Stewart was out during the summer directing a movie, for the first time, in the Middle East, his chief correspondent John Oliver, a British comedian, took over the hosting helm and beat TV critics' expectations. His now famous mockery of Anthony Weiner, his funnily improvised chat with Aaron Sorkin after the electricity went out in his studio, and his constant poking at Stewart while he was away endeared him to audiences. He should be excellent in his new HBO show which he has rightfully earned. 

4. The Office series finale

After Steve Carrell left the show, it was never the same; the series became increasingly less funny in the final two seasons. It was reflected not only in TV critics' reviews but it was also seen in the ratings: the show's audience size was halved. Nevertheless, it went out with a bang as Dwight and Angela got married, Jim and Pam reconciled their differences, Andy got his life back on track, and Michael Scott even made a somewhat predictable, but still satisfying, cameo. It was simply heartwarming, humorous, and happy -- everything Office fans could have asked for really. 

5. How I Met Your Mother eighth season finale 

Barney and Robin are finally getting married, Ted is considering moving to Chicago ("a Clevelandy New York," he calls it), and we finally meet the mother. Though the ninth and final season so far has been somewhat of a dud, the eighth season finale included all the right elements for a funny, jam-packed story that followed various plots that were carefully brought together in talented, deliberate fashion to set the stage for how and why we meet the mother. 

Honorable Mention: Saturday Night Live  

MEDIA AND BOOKS 

Best Essays and Articles I Read in 2013


2. Profile of Joe Biden in GQ Magazine
Honorable Mention: Jahar's World in Rolling Stone: http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/jahars-world-20130717

Best Books I Read in 2013

1. Act of Congress (Robert Kaiser)

Kaiser's story of how the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law came about is a necessarily detailed and comprehensively behind-the-scenes, riveting tale about how Congress functions. It shows you very well the best of Washington -- lawmakers coming together to pass a consequential bill that reshapes the financial regulatory framework -- and the worst of Washington as the big banks influence how some members of Congress voted on this law. 






2. This Town (Mark Leibovich) 

This book generated a lot of laughs, raving reviews, and controversy this year as it told the back room tales of the incestuous nature of selfish DC bigwigs and powerful Beltway figures whose conversations, dialogues, and life stories are told in a funny, but also somewhat tragic, way that makes you realize why it is that so many in Washington seem so detached from the struggles of millions of Americans.





3. Tip and the Gipper (Chris Matthews)

Matthews' story of how his former boss, the ex-House Speaker Tip O'Neill, and President Reagan forged an unlikely relationship that laid the groundwork for Social Security reform, tax reform, and other legislative deals came under fire from The New York Times for being too Polyannish. Nevertheless, from my reading of the book thus far, it is a wonderful tale for which Matthews brings you along for a joyous ride in which his storytelling is so good that it makes you feel like you are really right there with Tip and the Gipper.




Honorable Mention: Blowback (Valerie Plame Wilson)



Monday, December 23, 2013

It's a Wonderful Life, the Meaning of Life, and Christmas

It's my favorite movie and it's a timeless Christmas classic. It's a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey, a resident of the picturesque Bedford Falls, who continually runs into bad luck. However, while consistently having to forgo opportunities that would have enriched his life, Bailey ends up being a huge boost to his community. Despite his perpetual generosity, both intentional and unintentional, Bailey ultimately falls victim to a particularly bad set of circumstances. "Uncle Billy" is on his way to the evil greedy banker Mr. Potter's bank to deposit $8,000 for the Building and Loan Association that Bailey inherited from his father. When he accidentally and unknowingly gives the $8,000 to Mr. Potter instead of to the bank as it is wrapped inside a newspaper, the banker uses the opportunity to land Bailey in prison. On Christmas Eve, after trying hard to find the ostensibly missing money, Bailey becomes suicidal. That is, until the angel Clarence shows him what his town would be like without him -- and it is not a pretty sight. When George realizes the profoundly good effect he has had on his Bedford Falls, the angel brings him back to the real world where citizens he's helped over the years bail him out, the police ultimately drop charges, and George is thrilled to be reunited with his family.

The movie is my favorite film because it teaches you all you need to know about living a meaningful, rewarding life and it encapsulates the best of the meaning of Christmas. One of my favorites quotes is an Einstein quip: "the only life worth living is a life lived for others." This same selfless sentiment is expressed in the Bible by Jesus, whose birthday of course we celebrate on Christmas, who emphasizes again and again the importance of living for others. That is precisely what George Bailey did his whole life. Sure, he fervently wanted to advance his own fortunes, whether it was wanting to go to college or desiring to travel abroad or a host of other plans he had for himself. Eventually though, he puts aside his own interests for the sake of his family, his friends, and the broader community. Perhaps the best reflection of his selflessness is from his youth when he saves the life of his brother. His brother went on to become a World War II hero who saved the lives of eight men. When George is showed his brother's tomb, buried after a life of merely eight years, the angel Clarence informs him that since George did not ever live in this alternate universe, he was not there to save his brother's life -- so his brother was not there to save those eight men. "See, George," Clarence extolls, "you really lived a wonderful life." That is an incredible moment in the film because in that exchange alone, director Frank Capra is defining a wonderful life the way it ought to be defined: not as one of personal success and enrichment but of one defined by our generosity towards others. In January 2011, President Barack Obama expressed a similar sentiment that basically also defines my own view of life, that it is not about our own personal success but instead it is about "how well we have loved and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better." This very Christian concept is what life ought to be all about and it is what Christmas is and ought to be all about; if George Bailey could set aside grand desires for the good of others, we have to display that same tendency when called upon as well.

Nevertheless, the movie has its detractors. Some critics of It's a Wonderful Life claim the film is "terrifying" and that the 'Pottersville' alternative reality that Bailey finds himself in is "the world as it is." To some extent, these critics are right. Surely, in my view, there is at least one frightening aspect of the film. It is disheartening and tragic that Mr. Potter could systematically destroy the lives of working poor people legally while George Bailey is about to be charged with a crime for a comparatively trivial offense -- one that he didn't even commit since the money was stolen from Uncle Billy. This discrepancy is the ultimate example of injustice. It is true that injustices like this one exist in our world and even here in the United States. "If you're caught with an ounce of cocaine," Senator Elizabeth Warren said at a Senate hearing earlier this year, "the chances are good you're gonna go to jail...but evidently if you launder nearly a billion dollars for drug cartels and violate our international sanctions, your company [HSBC] pays a fine and you go home and sleep in your bed at night." An example more similar to the case in this film would perhaps be an instance of where Mitt Romney, as CEO of Bain Capital, could legally make life miserable for so many workers yet if those financially struggling workers committed a relatively minor, nonviolent crime, the law will not be kind to them.

However, It's a Wonderful Life teaches greater lessons with regards to such injustice. First, it is clear that while the authorities and Mr. Potter and his cohorts may view Bailey as a criminal and as unworthy of even the modest life he lives, the vast majority of his fellow citizens, and his family, do not view him as such. They know he is a man who operates in good faith, who is well-intentioned, and who is good-hearted. Sure, he may have committed a "crime" in the eyes of the law but that doesn't change the reality that George is a fundamentally good man. In the eyes of God and from a utilitarian perspective, George's basic decency and goodness is all that really should matter. Second, as the residents of Bedford Falls demonstrate at the end of the film, injustices like the one George was about to face can be overcome with the collective pressure and assistance of family, friends, and the community. The people of Bedford Falls rose together to help their friend George and, in doing so, freed him the prospect of prison time.

While the conclusion may seem unrealistically Pollyannaish to some observers, this communitarian action to combat injustice has proven successful in the past. Just last week, thanks to the pressure of liberal organizations, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight people in prison for cocaine abuse and pardoned 13 others. Many of these individuals were in prison for lengthy sentences during which time they were separated form their families and friends, all for nonviolent offenses, while individuals who committed more egregious crimes got away with less punishment. Liberal activists lamented that the pardon-shy president would not give these people a break. They were proven wrong and proven wrong in large part because they stood up together and demanded an end to this injustice. This popular democratic pressure has consistently proven successful throughout our own history in quashing injustices and broadening equality, justice, and freedom for all people. Whether it is specific cases like the successful campaigns on behalf of these individuals whose sentences were commuted or pardoned or broad-based uprisings like the civil rights, women's rights, and LGBT rights movements, we, as a people, have a history of uniting in opposition to injustices and ultimately successfully changing laws, circumstances, and statutes that correct those injustices. In the end, taking that kind of action, executed on behalf of George Bailey in this film, is part of this larger importance of living a life that reflects one of Jesus' core values: living life for the sake of others. Bailey himself shows this spirit of taking on injustice when he battles against Mr. Potter on behalf of working poor people early in the movie. Taking on Mr. Potter in this regard was again part of Bailey's life work for those less fortunate than him in his community.

Ultimately, a life lived for others is what this film is all about, what George Bailey's life is all about and what his fellow citizens demonstrate in their action at the end of the movie, and what Christmas is all about too. It is for this reason that I love this movie so much. All you need to know about the core reason for the season and the meaning of the Christmas spirit is reflected in It's a Wonderful Life. If you live a life that has greatly enriched the lives of those who surround you even at your expense for the betterment of the common good, then you have really lived a Christian life -- a wonderful life. "No man," the angel Clarence reminded George Bailey, "is a failure who has friends."

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Hollywood Injustice

As you may know, I am a huge fan of Match Game, the hilarious and charming TV game show that was massively popular in the 1970s. I even run a site devoted entirely to the show here: www.matchgameomeedy.itgo.com. I'm also a big fan of its boisterous, talented, and superb host: the venerable Gene Rayburn. December 22, 2013 marks 96 years since the day Rayburn was born. He died of congestive heart failure on November 29, 1999. TV Guide, Time Magazine, the Game Show Network, and various other publications have rightly identified Rayburn as one of the greatest game show hosts of all time. Indeed, Rayburn was a humorous, witty, playful, and enthusiastic host whose amusing interactions with contestants and - literally drunk - celebrities drove the show's outstanding success. Rayburn devoted over two decades of his life to using these talents for the sake of Match Game. From 1962 to 1969, he hosted the NBC original black and white version of the show. From 1973 to 1982, he hosted the CBS and syndicated daytime versions that were the most popular incarnations of the show. In the mid-1970s, in no small part thanks to Rayburn's silly antics, the show became the most popular program in the history of daytime television - a record that has since been eclipsed. From 1983 to 1984, Rayburn hosted the Match Game segment of the ill-fated Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour. For his role as host of Match Game, Rayburn was nominated for the Emmys several times and shortly before his death, he won a lifetime achievement award in the television industry in 1998.

However, unlike game show hosts like Regis Philbin, Bob Barker, and Allen Ludden, among others, Rayburn does not have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This is a great Hollywood injustice because one person who does have a star on the Walk of Fame is Ryan Seacrest. Though Seacrest has his share of talents, he only received this star after just two years hosting American Idol in 2004. Rayburn hosted versions of the one-time most popular show in daytime TV history for which he earned a lifetime achievement award and still has no star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Gene Rayburn deserves a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame because he is an inspiration to aspiring TV game show hosts and celebrities to this day. His hosting skills are unquestionable and the popularity of Match Game in GSN reruns in the last several years indicates even young people today are cognizant of his sterling legacy in Hollywood. If you believe Gene Rayburn deserves a star, as I do, let's get the word out there and see if we can gather enough support online to make this happen. If you have any suggestions for how to spread the word, let me know!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

God, guns, and grief

(PHOTO: President Obama signs into law 23 executive actions aimed at preventing gun violence on January 16, 2013.)

"God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline," 2 Timothy 1:6-7 says. The senseless murder of 20 children and six other innocent individuals at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut compelled us to display that spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline. After all, for far too long, we succumbed to that spirit of timidity.

As mass shootings accumulated and more and more American men, women, and children fell victim to the scourge of gun violence, we cowered. Nearly ten years, the assault weapons ban of the Clinton era expired in 2004. Despite President Bush's surprise recommendation that the ban be renewed, Congress ducked. In the following year, violent crime, including gun crimes involving assault rifles, rose. Congress did not batter an eye. In April 2007, a gunman shot dead 33 people on the campus of Virginia Tech in the deadliest mass school shooting of all time. For a few days, elements of the national media discussed whether stricter gun laws were necessary. Senator Barack Obama, a presidential candidate with an aggressive record on gun control in the Illinois legislature, chimed in to say yes. Congressman Tom Delay, a House Republican leader, told PBS' Charlie Rose the shooting meant we should have looser gun laws. Regardless, the media quickly forgot instead obsessively focusing on Don Imus' firing and the impending, sure-to-be Rudy Giuliani vs. Hillary Clinton 2008 election contest.

The next year, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, the former being a supporter of tough gun laws in the Illinois Senate and the latter being one of the central authors of the 1994 assault weapons ban bill, were elected President and Vice President. There was hope amongst gun violence prevention advocates like the Brady Campaign that they would push for tougher gun laws. Congress instead expanded gun rights through a provision tucked into Obama's 2009 credit card reform law. Obama was largely silent on the issue both in rhetoric and in actions. When Attorney General Eric Holder in 2009 suggested the administration would pursue an assault weapons ban, he was reportedly told to "shut up" by chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who also urged Obama to abandon his push for the Affordable Care Act. The mass shootings continued, including at Fort Hood, Texas and in Tucson in January 2011 when Rep. Gabby Giffords was nearly taken from us. There was some hope Obama would embrace the opportunity to push for gun control. His administration punted even at tougher enforcement of existing gun laws. In 2012, a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora again inspired that same hope. Nothing happened.

It seemed like the horrific shooting in Newtown was different though. The President, famous for his ostensible lack of emotional display, broke down in tears at the White House press podium. Public opinion polls showed a stunning uptick in support for an assault weapons ban and limiting magazine clips -- and even 90 percent support for universal background checks. The country was ready. President Obama signaled he was ready too. He aggressively made the case for a wide array of stricter gun laws, including proposals for an assault rifle ban and closing the background check loophole at gun shows and on the Internet, and he signed into law 23 executive actions aimed at gun violence prevention. In the next several months, the President barnstormed the country, making passionate speeches in which he made a deeply emotional and strong, compelling case for gun control. The energy of gun violence prevention advocates, including those who work at the Brady Campaign and others, was equally strong and they knew this was their best chance at meaningful change. Sandy Hook families met with legislators who were moved by their stories. NRA-backed, gun-owning senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey even teamed together to go after the gun lobby and drafted a universal background check bill.

Then, it all came crashing down on April 17. Thanks to a GOP-led filibuster, a minority of the Senate was successfully able to block several legislative gun safety reform efforts, including the Manchin/Toomey bill. An angry President Obama, flanked by Gabby Giffords and the families of Newtown victims, scolded Washington for its "shameful" behavior and he accused the "gun lobby" of "willfully lying" about his proposals.

We collectively sympathized for and sought justice for the families whose loved ones were killed in Newtown. We had the power to do something about it, to make our country safer. We said, in poll after poll, that we embraced the self-discipline necessary for the sake of keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals and the mentally ill. It has seemed to vanish too quickly even as 90 percent of the public still supports universal background checks. The impetus, the passion, and the yearning to do something - anything - on a broad and serious scale to prevent gun violence are seemingly gone. Unfortunately, it seems the spirit of timidity has overtaken that spirit of love, power, and of self-discipline. Certainly, a spirit of timidity took over the senators who blocked the passage of Manchin/Toomey on April 17.

Fortunately, some serious change has happened and there is cause for hope. The White House recently released a progress report indicating significant progress on the President's 23 executive actions, including research into the causes of gun violence, improving state reporting to the national background checks system, and banning the reimportation by private companies of military-grade rifles originally sold to our allies abroad. At the state level, states like Maryland, New York, Colorado, and Connecticut have enacted stricter gun laws. For the long term, there is now a stronger, larger, and more dedicated gun control movement, embodied in organizations like Americans for Responsible Solutions, led by Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, and the Sandy Hook Promise. President Obama continues to extoll the necessity of gun violence prevention and he recently secured the confirmation of a permanent ATF director, B. Todd Jones. Senate majority leader Harry Reid says he'll bring up the Manchin/Toomey amendment again in 2014. There are 186 cosponsors for similar legislation in the House. In November, I attended the national summit of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and they are as enthused, determined, and organized as ever and they even ended their conference by organizing in a day of lobbying. All of these developments point to hope for real progress in the coming years on this important issue.

More Americans have died of gun violence than in all of our wars combined. We know this is a problem that has gone unaddressed in recent years even as mass shootings have continued. We know that in states where there are stricter gun laws, there is less gun violence. We know that in countries like England and Australia where gun control was enacted after mass shootings, gun crimes dramatically went down in number. We know that a universal background check system would close loopholes that allow dangerous criminals to get their hands on guns at gun shows and on the Internet. We know that the existing background check system has prevented 1.5 million people from buying a firearm thus potentially stopping horrific shootings. Indeed, we know the facts, we know what we can do to prevent gun violence, and yet we cower. We resort to a spirit of timidity. We cannot accept this. For a society to be free, it must be free of fear. For a society to be free of fear, it must be well-ordered. Part of being a well-ordered society includes having the collective courage to mitigate the powerful industries and special interests that fight against the people's interests -- something James Madison understood well in The Federalist Papers. We have proven ourselves to be that kind of society willing to do hard things. We must have the stomach to do it again. In preventing gun violence, we must show a spirit of love, a spirit of power, and a spirit of self-discipline.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Benefits of High-Speed Rail in the United States



FROM THE WHITE HOUSE: President Barack Obama's vision for high-speed rail in the United States, as outlined on a map of the country.


Executive Summary

        Currently in the United States, traffic congestion and gas-guzzling vehicles, crowding our nation’s roads and bridges, have dramatically increased greenhouse gas emissions that, in turn, have worsened the effects of climate change. According to 2009 estimates in The New York Times, our current and most popular forms of transportation are wreaking havoc on the environment. “All told,” Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser writes, “a 240-mile car trip produces 157 pounds of carbon dioxide.” (Glaeser, The New York Times, http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/12/how-big-are-the-environmental-benefits-of-high-speed-rail/?_r=0) These estimates concluded that a similar domestic air flight trip in the United States amounts to 133.7 pounds of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Therefore, it is necessary for the sake of our warming planet to explore investment in more efficient public transportation. Such transportation ought to be both more economically and environmentally efficient and effective in order to lure American travelers into supporting and strengthening this kind of investment. Further, this investment must create a substantial number of jobs since the unemployment rate continues to hover above 7 percent, an unacceptably high number. As Professor Glaeser noted in August 2009, “trains reduce carbon emissions and the world should reduce its carbon footprint” while the “environmental and mortality benefits of rail are real.” (Glaeser, www.nytimes.com) Indeed, investing more resources into trains, as part of a broader national rail strategy for economic and environmental prosperity, ought to be considered by our nation’s policymakers. 


Statement of the Issue 

What role can more efficient public transportation in the form of trains play in curbing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the effects of climate change in the United States? Inarguably, public transportation through trains could be a more efficient, cost-effective, and more environmentally friendly means of travel than driving a vehicle. An increasingly popular version of such transportation around the world is seen in the example of high-speed rail. In the several countries around the globe in which high-speed rail networks exist, they are incredibly speedy and provide tremendous economic and environmental benefits. 

American rail systems pale in comparison to that of many other countries, particularly in European nations like Germany and Spain. In many foreign nations, high-speed rail is becoming a central aspect of their economies and everyday life for citizens. For these countries, these rail systems are proving extremely effective at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the pace of travel for millions of people, and creating hundreds of thousands of secure jobs. In the United States, our rail system is currently largely based on Amtrak – a 42-year old government-backed service –that includes a high-speed component in the form of Acela trains. 

Despite the jobs and convenience that Amtrak has spurred for millions, it is insufficient – and, often for many, it is inefficient. Further, many more millions of Americans continue to use gas-guzzling vehicles, on congested highways, that pollute our air, emit greenhouse gases, and rack up bills at the gas station. Ultimately, it is crucial that a comprehensive nationwide high-speed rail network be established to service the needs of travelers across the country. Building such a system would surely be complex but the manpower, resources, and human will exist. At this point, the United States though needs the political will to make it a reality. 

For the American people, high-speed rail would be a crucial and huge investment. On the one hand, a high-speed rail network would create scores of new jobs, enhance the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and inject new consumer demand into the economy. Consequently, the gross domestic product of the United States would certainly increase, while the economic benefits would persist in such a way that the country will see more robust long-term growth. On the other hand, high-speed rail provides vital environmental benefits that impressively tackle climate change. Indeed, if consumers opt for rail over airplanes or over vehicles, a sizable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would ensue. Given the speed of the trains in such a network, the results, in terms of helping ensure clean air for all of us, would be vastly superior to the current output of Amtrak. For the American people, creating a high-speed rail network would result in a significant return on our collective investment. 

Background 

Already, the United States has a national infrastructure of rail in place, most notably in the form of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation – popularly known as Amtrak – and, in the last several years, the U.S. has taken modest but vital steps in the direction of a national high-speed rail network. Even before the inception of Amtrak though, the United States boated a sophisticated rail system. During his four-year presidency from 1861 to 1865, President Abraham Lincoln laid the groundwork for the establishment of the first-ever transcontinental railroad in the country. Over a century later, in 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law the Rail Passenger Service Act to secure federal government investment in passenger trains as advocates for passenger rail were seriously concerned that the end of such travel was near. This legislation ultimately set the stage for several decades of federal spending fueled into Amtrak, a passenger rail service that began operations in May 1971. 

Since then, Amtrak, which “operates a nationwide rail network” across 46 states, has grown in popularity far beyond what the Nixon administration initially anticipated. (Amtrak.com) Indeed, the administration’s predictions in the early 1970s also vastly underestimated the amount of federal support Amtrak would receive over the next several decades. For Fiscal-Year 2012, Amtrak received $466 million for operations in addition to another $950 million for capital projects. The overall revenue of the train service for that same time was estimated at nearly $3 billion. From the fall of 2011 to late 2012, Amtrak boasted that over 31 million passengers rode aboard its trains – a new record for the service. (Amtrak.com) 

 In fact, one of Amtrak’s most well-known and most loyal passengers for decades is a man for whom the Amtrak Wilmington station is currently named: Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. As a United States Senator from Delaware for 36 years, Biden rode the train home every single day from Washington, D.C. to Wilmington, Delaware to spend time with his family after long days at work in the Capitol. Consequently, as a senator, Biden became one of the strongest defenders in Congress of ensuring significant annual federal support for Amtrak. As Vice President in the Obama administration, Biden has maintained his pro-Amtrak posture, using his influence to ensure that the administration remains committed to seeing Amtrak continue to succeed and grow. 

Vice President Biden is the leader of the administration’s effort to implement President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the $826 billion federal stimulus package that the President signed into law on February 17, 2009. (Grunwald, The New New Deal, 256-66) The ARRA contains substantial amounts of vital funding, in the form of various projects and other investments, not only for Amtrak improvements but also for the initial stages of development of what is truly sorely needed in this country: a national network of high-speed rail. Given the stinginess of a Congress that demanded the federal stimulus package be below the $1 trillion level and that recently has restored to austerity rather than Keynesian spending to inject consumer demand and because of Republican governors refusing federal money for rail projects, the administration’s high-speed rail plan and Amtrak investments that are part of ARRA are not nearly as ambitious as they could be or ought to be. 

Statement of Interest in the Issue 

The Recovery Act funding though is a crucial first step though because high-speed rail means thousands of new jobs for American workers, an overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions which means cleaner air for all Americans, and more efficient, swifter, and less burdensome travel experiences for American travelers. “[High-speed rail] could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car,” President Obama extolled in his 2011 State of the Union address, “[and] for some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down.” (Remarks by the President in State of the Union Address, 1/25/2011, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/01/25/remarks-president-state-union-address). With regards to the economic impact of high-speed rail, the Congressional Research Service endorsed its high potential, finding that “there is no doubt that high-speed rail projects create employment in planning, design, and construction.” As the CRS noted, in California alone, 100,000 “construction-related jobs each year during the building phase” could be attributed to high-speed rail projects in the state. (Congressional Research Service, The Development of High-Speed Rail in the United States, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42584.pdf). The long-term effect is more tremendous as the Federal Railroad Administration attests in its estimate that high-speed rail will ultimately “provide a steady market for revitalized domestic industries producing…rail, control systems, locomotives, and passenger cars.” (Vision for High-Speed Rail in America: Federal Railroad Administration, High-Speed Rail Strategic Plan in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, http://www.fra.dot.gov/eLib/details/L02833). 

The environmental benefits for the American people are real as well, as noted by experts like Urban Studies and Political Science Professor and Transport Revolutions author Anthony Perl. “If we are serious about reducing oil’s considerable risks to global prosperity and sustainability,” Perl told CNN in November 2011, “we [should] not miss the opportunity offered by high-speed rail to decrease transportation’s oil consumption.” (How green is high-speed rail? Mark Tutton, November 19, 2011, http://www.cnn.com/2011/11/18/world/how-green-is-hsr/). A comprehensive January 2006 study by the Center for Clean Air Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology found that a national high-speed rail network in the U.S. would mean “29 million fewer automobile trips and nearly 500,000 fewer flights [thus resulting in] a total emissions savings of 6 billion pounds of CO2 per year.” (High Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S., January 2006, http://www.cnt.org/repository/HighSpeedRailEmissions.pdf) The importance of attaining these benefits for the United States is that it would mean a transition away from the most costly and environmentally dangerous carbon emitters – primarily, large vehicles jamming highways and enormous airplanes circling the skies –that are currently polluting the planet and taking a toll on our country. In its April 2009 report on the President’s vision for high-speed rail in America, the Obama Transportation Department asserted that the U.S. highway and aviation systems “face mounting congestion and rising environmental costs…[such as the fact that] the Nation’s current transportation system consumed 70 percent of our demand…and contributes 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.” (fra.dot.gov) 

Pre-existing Policies 

Nations around the world are already moving full steam ahead with high-speed rail and discovering such benefits for their economies and for the environment. In fact, in several European and Asian nations, significant investments in high-speed rail have already been made.  “In Europe, high-speed rail,” CNN reported earlier this year, “has come to stand for ease and efficiency.” (Can Europe get its high-speed rail network together?, April 16, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/16/travel/europe-high-speed-rail-business-traveller/) The United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy, among other countries, all enjoy exceptionally large and expansive high-speed rail networks.

 All told, high-speed trains in Europe account for nearly 7,000 kilometers of rail – a number that is expected to grow to 17,769 km in the coming years. This infrastructural investment – estimated by the International Union of Railways – has meant robust job growth in European countries that have counted on this industry to prop up their weak economies. The cooperation of the public sector with the private sector in establishing high-speed rail in Europe has produced an experience for the continent that EuRail dubs one of “fast and comfortable travel” for millions of Europeans. (EuRail, http://www.eurail.com/trains-europe/high-speed-trains) Meanwhile, in China, Time magazine noted that there has been $300 billion invested for a decade-long projected of building 16,000 miles of high-speed tracks – significantly more than the U.S. has injected for similar projects. (Time, High-Speed Rail’s Job and Energy Benefits to the U.S., Bryan Walsh, January 29, 2010, http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1957575,00.html) In Spain, the Congressional Research Service notes, the “high-speed rail network is seen as a way of improving mobility with less environmental impact than automobile or travel.” (www.fas.org)  


While Europe’s extensive high-speed rail system ought to be the ideal model for what a national high-speed rail network should look like in the United States, President Obama’s proposals and the investments his administration has already made in the Recovery Act are a solid step in the right direction. In the spring of 2011, Obama’s Department of Transportation, then run by high-speed rail advocate and former moderate GOP Congressman Ray LaHood, directed “more than $2 billion in Recovery [Act] funds…for development of high-speed intercity rail service…to 15 states.” (Recovery Funds Nation’s First High Speed Rail Service, http://www.recovery.gov/News/featured/Pages/High-Speed-Rail.aspx.) In total, the Recovery Act includes $8 billion worth of federal investment – with an additional $2.5 billion provided by Congress in 2010 – for the first ever high-speed rail services in the U.S. Overall, the administration has invested $20 billion in passenger rail projects. (Recovery.gov) 

Policy Option 

This funding is part of what the Obama White House calls a vision for “up-front job and economic impact…[and] lay[ing] the groundwork for a nationwide infrastructure expansion that will spur economic growth in communities across the country, provide faster, and more energy-efficient means of travel, and establish a new industry n the U.S. that provides stable, well-paid jobs.” (High-Speed Rail, Jobs, and The Recovery Act, http://www.whitehouse.gov/high-speed-rail) Indeed, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) described the Recovery Act grants as a “down payment” – language Vice President Biden has used as well – that is part of President Obama’s larger vision of investing in high-speed rail projects that will “yield tangible benefits to intercity…infrastructure.” (fra.dot.gov) 

This policy track is the most visible and high profile proposal for high-speed rail in the United States and it is one we should continue pursuing. Already, in California, a high-speed rail project funded by the Recovery Act is being built to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles – an initiative that Michael Grunwald described as the “bigge[st] thing being done in this country.” (Grunwald, The New New Deal, p. 410) According to the administration’s projections of Recovery Act spending, high-speed rail lines are being built to connect Chicago and Detroit, to the tune of $404 million, while $600 million was “awarded to connect Eugene and Portland, Oregon to Seattle, and eventually Vancouver.” These cities are among several places such as the Northeast Corridor, Maine, Massachusetts, and the upper Midwest that are benefiting from the stimulus high-speed rail funding. (recovery.gov) Further, The Huffington Post noted this month that “thanks to [Recovery Act] improvements in North Carolina, service on the Charlotte to Raleigh line will ultimately double” while Obama’s hometown of Chicago is now connected to St. Louis and Detroit with lines that “allow trains to reach speeds of 100 miles per hour.” (Obama’s Vision For High-Speed Rail Is In Danger of Stalling Out, Sam Stein, December 5, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/05/obama-high-speed-rail_n_4386422.html?ncid=txtlnkushpmg00000037

 With regards to the existing Amtrak stations in the U.S., ARRA has been vital as well. As Michael Grunwald noted in The New, New Deal, “the Recovery Act is already renovating train stations in cities like Portland, San Jose, St. Paul, and Wilmington.”  (Grunwald, The New New Deal, p. 413) These renovations include security and network improvements and upgrades that have strengthened Amtrak, including at our very own Union Station in Washington, D.C. However, these initiatives are modest as Time magazine rightly noted that the $8 billion in the Recovery Act is “just a tiny percentage of what it would cost to significantly overhaul the country’s rail system.” (Time.com) 

Advantages and Disadvantages 

As the Federal Railroad Administration noted in 2009, Obama’s proposals for high-speed rail would produce significant environmental benefits such as an annual reduction of 6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide, an estimate independent aforementioned clean air organizations used in a 2006 report as well. (fra.dot.gov) Further, Environment America estimated that a national network the President is pursuing would mean 125 million less barrels of oil a year. (http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1957575,00.html

Ultimately, there will be skeptics of high-speed rail no matter what. In The Guardian, Alfred Twu though does a superb job of addressing some of these critics’ most frequent qualms. He tackles what he calls the “myth” that trains “will cost too much and won’t make money” by noting that even in the United States, the high-speed component of Amtrak, Acela trains, make more than enough in ticket sales to outstrip the costs of the operation. (A US high-speed rail network shouldn’t just be a dream, Alfred Twu, The Guardian, February 6, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/feb/06/us-high-speed-rail-network-possible.) 

Of course, any kind of network like this one needs to get the physics components right in order to protect against hazards like injurious or deadly accidents. The unfortunate accident in Spain last summer highlighted this issue. “The rails themselves,” The New Yorker asserted in July, “must be carefully designed to handle the physical forces imposed upon them by multi-ton trains moving at high velocity.” Indeed, as the news magazine noted, banked curves must be at “just the right angle” to “spread the forces more evenly between a train’s inner and outer wheels.” Further, the “minimum curve radius” ought to be at an appropriate size to ensure that people stay in their seats as a train takes wide curves. An appropriate balance is necessary to ensure the safety and security of passengers or else their lives will be at risk. “The smaller and tighter the curve, or the faster the train,” The New Yorker noted, “the greater the centrifugal force.” However, overcoming these issues ought to be “relatively easy,” as the news magazine correctly claimed. (The Physics of High-Speed Trains. The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/07/spanish-train-crash-the-physics-of-high-speed-rail.html.)

Recommendation 




Including but beyond President Obama’s vision, what we need is the kind of comprehensive national network that Alfred Twu designed in his US High Speed Rail Map in February 2013 for The Guardian, as seen in the above photograph. (theguardian.com) This map is even more expansive than Obama's vision and rightfully so. Twu has experience in the field of rail as he boasted that he “worked on getting California’s high speed rail approved” in the 2008 referendum in his state. His map envisions an expansive network that connects cities across the country as part of one, large high-speed rail system that accounts for 20,000 miles of track. As Twu insists, there are great “environmental and economic benefits” to such a network and as such, he notes the vast number of jobs this system would create and the fact that high-speed rail costs $40 billion to build for the entire nation whereas annual oil imports are ten times that amount. (theguardian.com). The country that built the first transcontinental railroad and established Amtrak – and even sent a man to the moon – ought to reach for the stars and dream big. The United States has the potential, the capacity, and the public support for a national high-speed rail network. The benefits are real and tangible, for our economy in terms of badly needed job creation and for our environment in tackling threatening climate change. Let’s get to work.

The Mundy Legacy

On December 2, Phyllis Mundy announced her retirement from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives after 24 years in the General Assembly. In the last four summers, I had the privilege of getting to know Phyllis quite well. In 2010, I served as her campaign manger. In 2011, I worked part-time in her district office. In 2012, I worked full-time in her district office and, outside of the office after work, assisted her on her reelection campaign. In 2013, I again worked in her district office. It was an honor because I got to see, up close, how much this state legislator valued the interests of the people over petty politics. Though it may sound cliche, the truth is that the legacy of Phyllis Mundy is one of placing the interests of her constituents above any political considerations. As such, she demonstrated strong leadership in advocating for and securing progressive policy outcomes that materially improved people's lives. Phyllis did not care much about the pesky politics of these issues because, in her view, "good public policy is good politics."

This attitude was reflected in her signature legislative achievements, her work in battling large corporations on behalf of consumers, her efforts to tighten regulations on natural gas drilling, and in the excellent constituent service in her district office. She will forever be remembered for the Ounce of Prevention program to assist low-income, at-risk expectant mothers with greater home visitation services, the establishment of a foster children's bill of rights, closing a DUI loophole, facilitating the expansion of Pre-K under Governor Rendell, and helping expand PACE and PACENET programs that help senior citizens afford prescription drugs. For many families, these accomplishments resulted in safer, securer, and more stable lives.

Fighting for the interests of the poor and the middle class defined Phyllis' entire political philosophy and motivation to serve. She frequently spoke of the difficulties that plagued many of her constituents in their ability to pay their bills, put food on the table for their families, or to find a job after the Great Recession hit. It's why she fought tirelessly against Blue Cross Blue Shield, utility, and electric companies when they tried to raise rates. She stood up above and beyond other legislators in continually speaking out against rate increases and occasionally these efforts were successful, making life easier for real people in her district. It's that same spirit of caring for the plight of regular people that inspired Phyllis to fight for a moratorium on new Marcellus Shale drilling permits and to push for other common sense rules and regulations with regards to drilling. Her passion for using the levers of activist government to create effective change in the economic well-being of people was embodied in the work of her legislative assistants, Sara Karlowicz and Lana Mulvey, and most recently, Eileen Cipriani. Their exceptional work in the district office ensured that the constituent service in Phyllis' office became almost legendary.

Ultimately, Phyllis leaves behind a legacy of numerous legislative achievements for which she ought to be proud. When she leaves office on November 30, 2014, she'll know that she is exiting the Pennsylvania House with a record of real results and with a sterling, progressive reputation. There are people who worked very hard to make sure it wouldn't be like that. Republican candidates consistently put up formidable challenges to Phyllis as they were fundamentally disturbed by her pragmatic progressive politics. When she first ran in 1990 and when she was easily reelected for the first time in 1992, Republicans scoffed at the notion she could win and then win reelection, respectively, but she proved them wrong because she did what every state legislator ideally should do: work hard for the interests of your constituents, lead the people in a new direction, and convince them of the merit of your work on their behalf. It's that legacy of accomplished progressive leadership on behalf of real people for real results that will define Phyllis Mundy's tenure.