Monthly Archives: July 2009

Walter Cronkite (1916-2009): Selections from Memory

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As a child, the first human being whose identity I was able to actively discern, outside of my family and their circles, was Walter Cronkite, who then held the anchor spot that he effectively invented at CBS News. I was born in 1978, at the tail-end of his run; my first years were thus his last in the day-to-day operations of television news. My life would be much different now if my grandmother had been partial to another network.

The industry would soon experience dramatic changes. All the old frontline anchors of the era were being replaced by newer bodies with fresher blood—men like Tom Brokaw and the late Peter Jennings. Nowhere was the shift more dramatic than at industry-leading CBS, where Cronkite was succeeded by Dan Rather. The most trusted man in America was replaced by one of the most dynamic personalities in journalism history. Rather got into an on-air shouting match with George Bush in 1988 that pioneered the style of cable news (and has since been removed from YouTube, probably by Viacom), just a few years after taking a public beating that would inspire REM’s hit “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” And that was the way that was.

28 years after his formal retirement, the man who told America that John F. Kennedy was dead has gone off to meet him. If there are yachts in Heaven, they are on one now, and if Cronkite didn’t already know “what really happened” that day, now he does, and that is more than can be said for the rest of us. Cronkite outlived pretty much everyone he came up with in the business—including his mentor, Murrow, and the entire crew with whom he covered World War II—and dozens of colleagues half his age, and less.

There has been so much written and said about Cronkite in the last few days that there isn’t much that I could add to the copious praise, and encomiums crafted while he was still alive. I would like to note, however, that one of Walter Cronkite’s last public acts was to put himself on the record as being firmly supportive of the decriminalization of marijuana. In a letter written in 2006, on behalf of the New York-based nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, he laid down four pages on the subject, pages that stand out among the final words from one of history’s master communicators, and in so doing has left behind yet another valuable gift for future generations.

A reader long familiar with my positions on drug policy e-mailed me a few months ago to let me know she had received the letter, and it was the first I’d heard of it. She forwarded it to me, and it went into a file for reference the next time I wrote on the subject. Cronkite died before I could give his promo the hype it deserved, but at that point he was surely writing for the eyes of history, as much as for contemporary audiences. In that spirit, I reprint the letter here, in full, with best wishes for Cronkite’s spirit and his family:

As anchorman of the CBS Evening News, I signed off my nightly broadcasts for nearly two decades with a simple statement: “And that’s the way it is.”

To me, that encapsulates the newsman’s highest ideal: to report the facts as he sees them, without regard for the consequences or controversy that may ensue.

Sadly, that is not an ethic to which all politicians aspire – least of all in a time of war.

I remember. I covered the Vietnam War. I remember the lies that were told, the lives that were lost – and the shock when, twenty years after the war ended, former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara admitted he knew it was a mistake all along.

Today, our nation is fighting two wars: one abroad and one at home. While the war in Iraq is in the headlines, the other war is still being fought on our own streets. Its casualties are the wasted lives of our own citizens.

I am speaking of the war on drugs.

And I cannot help but wonder how many more lives, and how much more money, will be wasted before another Robert McNamara [who preceded Cronkite in death by nine days] admits what is plain for all to see: the war on drugs is a failure.

While the politicians stutter and stall – while they chase their losses by claiming we could win this war if only we committed more resources, jailed more people and knocked down more doors – the Drug Policy Alliance continues to tell the American people the truth – “the way it is.”

I’m sure that’s why you support DPA’s mission to end the drug war. And why I strongly urge you  to support their work by giving a generous donation today.

You see, I’ve learned first hand that the stakes just couldn’t be higher.

When I wanted to understand the truth about the war on drugs, I took the same approach I did to the war in Vietnam: I hit the streets and reported the story myself. I sought out the people whose lives this war has affected.

Allow me to introduce you to some of them.

Nicole Richardson was 18-years-old when her boyfriend, Jeff, sold nine grams of LSD to undercover federal agents. She had nothing to do with the sale. There was no reason to believe she was involved in drug dealing in any way.

But then an agent posing as another dealer called and asked to speak with Jeff. Nicole replied that he wasn’t home, but gave the man a number where she thought Jeff could be reached.

An innocent gesture? It sounds that way to me. But to federal prosecutors, simply giving out a phone number made Nicole Richardson part of a drug dealing conspiracy. Under draconian mandatory minimum sentences, she was sent to federal prison for ten years without possibility of parole.

To pile irony on top of injustice, her boyfriend – who actually knew something about dealing drugs – was able to trade information for a reduced sentence of five years. Precisely because she knew nothing, Nicole had nothing with which to barter.

Then there was Jan Warren, a single mother who lived in New Jersey with her teenage daughter. Pregnant, poor and desperate, Jan agreed to transport eight ounces of cocaine to a cousin in upstate New York. Police officers were waiting at the drop-off point, and Jan – five months pregnant and feeling ill – was cuffed and taken in.

Did she commit a crime? Sure. But what awaited Jan Warren defies common sense and compassion alike. Under New York’s infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws, Jan – who miscarried soon after the arrest – was sentenced to 15 years to life. Her teenage daughter was sent away, and Jan was sent to an eight-by-eight cell.

In Tulia, Texas, an investigator fabricated evidence that sent more than one out of every ten of the town’s African American residents to jail on trumped-up drug charges in one of the most despicable travesties of justice this reporter has ever seen.

The federal government has fought terminally ill patients whose doctors say medical marijuana could provide a modicum of relief from their suffering – as though a cancer patient who uses marijuana to relieve the wrenching nausea caused by chemotherapy is somehow a criminal who threatens the public.

People who do genuinely have a problem with drugs, meanwhile, are being imprisoned when what they really need is treatment.

And what is the impact of this policy?

It surely hasn’t made our streets safer. Instead, we have locked up literally millions of people…disproportionately people of color…who have caused little or no harm to others – wasting resources that could be used for counter-terrorism, reducing violent crime, or catching white-collar criminals.

With police wielding unprecedented powers to invade privacy, tap phones and conduct searches seemingly at random, our civil liberties are in a very precarious condition.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on this effort – with no one held accountable for its failure.

Amid the clichés of the drug war, our country has lost sight of the scientific facts. Amid the frantic rhetoric of our leaders, we’ve become blind to reality: The war on drugs, as it is currently fought, is too expensive, and too inhumane.

But nothing will change until someone has the courage to stand up and say what so many politicians privately know: The war on drugs has failed.

That’s where the Drug Policy Alliance comes in.

From Capitol Hill to statehouses to the media, DPA counters the hysteria of the drug war with thoughtful, accurate analysis about the true dangers of drugs, and by fighting for desperately needed on-the-ground reforms.

They are the ones who’ve played the lead role in making marijuana legally available for medical purposes in states across the country.

California’s Proposition 36, the single biggest piece of sentencing reform in the United States since the repeal of Prohibition, is the result of their good work. The initiative is now in its fifth year, having diverted more than 125,000 people from prison and into treatment since its inception.

They oppose mandatory-minimum laws that force judges to send people like Nicole Richardson and Jan Warren to prison for years, with no regard for their character or the circumstances of their lives. And their work gets results: thanks in large part to DPA, New York has taken the first steps towards reforming the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws under which Jan was sentenced.

In these and so many other ways, DPA is working to end the war on drugs and replace it with a new drug policy based on science, compassion, health and human rights.

DPA is a leading, mainstream, respected and effective organization that gets real results.

But they can’t do it alone.

That’s why I urge you to send as generous a contribution as you possibly can to the Drug Policy Alliance

Americans are paying too high a price in lives and liberty for a failing war on drugs about which our leaders have lost all sense of proportion. The Drug Policy Alliance is the one organization telling the truth. They need you with them every step of the way.

And that’s the way it is.

Sincerely, Walter Cronkite

 

RIP.

 sdh666@hotmail.com

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“Pension Tensions”

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As city employees in other divisions are preparing to purge each other, to bring budgets into balance, law enforcement faces potential changes that will directly affect the futures of hundreds of cops up and down the chain of command. At issue: a pension fund that, like the retirement savings of almost every single American, is severely imperiled by the unfolding collapse of the global economy. A leader whose run began at odds with core constituents, who openly defied the judiciary over a courthouse that may very well never be built, is ending his run at odds with a police union whose support was arguably the tipping-point for his victory in 2003.

As part of John Peyton’s plan to balance the budget for FY 2010, and to create more freedom to deal with the uncertain immediate future, Peyton has proposed significant changes to the structure of the Police and Fire Pension Fund, which maintains a place of relative privilege compared to other civil servants reflecting the dangerous nature of the year. Peyton proposes to raise the minimum eligibility requirement for a full payout from 20 years to 25. While 25 years is still five less than the 30 required for other employees to cash out, this change alone directly affects the immediate future for hundreds of police that are currently edging closer to the 20-year mark. It is doubtful that many of them are willing to work an extra five years for money already promised them.

Further, Peyton proposes to eliminate the guaranteed 8.4% annual rate-of-return for those officers remaining on the job. Such guarantees ring false in these uncertain times, but in the previous era they acted as a common enticement to draw the savings of American workers into what were essentially Ponzi schemes run through the major brokerage houses, who routinely broke the law to ensure such return. The idea of Peyton canceling a guarantee that was never realistic to begin with may strike some as the epitome of tough fiscal conservatism, but for the prospective pensioners he is all but admitting that they will be lucky to see any return on their investments at all.

The Police and Fire pensions are a single entity, yet JFRD officials have been meek on the subject by contrast. Maybe it’s because the police have driven public discussion on the subject, or maybe because the department is stuck, typically, in a litigious mess with overtly racial overtones, and can barely muster the political stroke to keep certain firehouses operational, never mind the pensioneering. Maybe they choose to left the higher-profile FOP do the heavy lifting, while JFRD makes the public safety arguments in seeking to stop the proposed closure of some fire houses.

Given that no cop can predict when or if injury could end his or her career and force them to rely on their pension to ensure their family’s security, they must wonder if anything will be there for them. This sends a bad message to younger cops, who will have to watch loyal veterans getting shortchanged through no fault of their own. It remains unclear how the fund can continue to grow, with the markets in the tank and the city underfunding it even during years of peak growth. For a police force whose vulnerability to corruption is a matter of public record, the rhetoric employed by both Peyton and Cuba may be sowing seeds of disaster to be reaped by the next generation.

Weeks before Peyton had unveiled his budget proposal, the Jacksonville Community Council, Inc. had released Our Money, Our City: Financing Jacksonville’s Future, the 68th report in its 34 years highlighting major long-term issues the city has had dealt with in the consolidated era. JCCI could be regarded as our equivalent of the Council of Foreign Relations, an all-encompassing think-tank of sorts that counts almost all of the city’s major players in politics, media and business. As such, these reports collectively are an indispensable resource, worthy of anthology treatment.

The new study goes right to the problem: revenue from property taxes has dropped, and the declining market means less income into the privatized pension funds, which have been underfunded even during periods of peak economic growth. The pension plans of city employees are administered in two independent categories: General Employees and Corrections Officers, and Police and Fire. All are currently underfunded; the latter was never fully funded, while the former has not been since 2000.

Neither the COJ nor its employees pay into Social Security, so the pension funds are their only source of retirement income, although the city pays Medicare taxes on employees hired after 1986. Employees contribute 7%-8% of their salaries (Police and Fire receive another 4% from “Chapter Fund Contributions” derived from fees on property casualty insurance); the accumulated cash is invested, and any returns revert to the funds. The retired employee can receive up to 80% of their salary; the low end is determined through calculating years of service, average monthly salary, and an annual accrual rate. Police and Fire is a little simpler: 60% of the average salary earned in the two years prior to retirement. The City is required to contribute any extra money needed to ensure retirees receive their promised benefits, which vary by person.

Herein lies the rub. During the years of significant market growth, the profits on pension investments exceeded calculations, and the city didn’t pay into the fund at the levels they needed to. The city’s contribution to the General Employees plan has been roughly halved in 15 years, from 22% to 10.4%, although from 1997-2006 the percentage hovered between 10.6% and 3.1%; it paid in nothing from 2001-2003. However, its contribution to the Police and Fire plan has grown by a factor of ten, from 3.5% to 32.1%. Unfunded liabilities only continued to grow, especially in the Police and Fire plan.

When the market tanked, obliterating hopes for future profits, the city still had less than was needed to meet the predetermined level of support. The result is a fund that has always been underfunded. Although the General Employees fund did run at or near parity from 1997-2002, the Police and Fire fund was underfunded by 10% in 1995 and at 13% in 2000. The gap has only expanded since. As of 2008, the General Employees Pension Fund was only funded at 82% of its current obligations, while the Police and Fire Pension Fund was funded at a shocking 49.1%.

In other words, the fund contains about half as much money as it should, and no one offers any guarantee that such a massive gap can be closed. What this means, exactly, for the next wave of retirees (and remember, the Baby Boomers have reached retirement age) is a matter under discussion right now, at the highest levels. Jacksonville currently lags behind other major Florida cities, which are generally funded at the acceptable levels that our was a decade ago; notwithstanding the likelihood of similar problems headed their way, this will make it harder to compete for the cream of recruitment talent—in Miami, for example, their Police and Fire fund enjoys a 7% surplus!

This is the third time JCCI has weighed in on the subject of the Police and Fire Pension Fund alone; previous recommendations from reports issued in 1977 and 1992 were only sparingly adopted, despite the establishment consensus implied by them. At least one ranking JCCI member expressed frustration: “All of those things have been highlighted before … We should not be facing such severe challenges as we are now.” He hopes that JCCI will not be revisiting the subject again in 2024, but it’s more likely that JCCI won’t exist at all by then. Officials have been busy meeting to discuss how to deal with possibly losing all city funding. 30% of the staff has already been cut, and those remaining face pay cuts and a freeze on any raises. That is their thanks for warning us.

Like many other agencies, JCCI has relied on the City of Jacksonville for much of its financial support. While it is run as an independent non-profit, JCCI received as much as 70% of its funding through its two primary contributors—COJ and the United Way of Northeast Florida—with 30% coming from other sources. That ratio has been inverted in just two years. The United Way is cutting funding another 25%, while much of COJ’s contribution has already been cut. The city continues to provide funding for the studies dealing with Race Relations and overall Quality of Life indicators, but the latter is set to be cut by 40%; without the tax increases, all city funding could end. JCCI thus spends its 35th anniversary fighting for its own survival. 

This is what happens when you betray your leaders. The union backed Peyton against a sitting sheriff, Nat Glover, a longtime JSO veteran who understood the needs of his cops better than anyone running that year. When he lost the endorsement of his own peers, to someone who had no public profile just a few months earlier, it sent a message to voters that Glover had serious deficiencies as a leader, so severe that the cops didn’t back him even though a Glover victory would have essentially handed control of the city to JSO. Any issues with the pension fund would have probably been better addressed by Glover, whose financial interest is obvious (to the tune of $89,000 a year).

In bowing to petty politics, the union behaved in a way more typical of the Mob, where people are killed by their best friends and today’s boss is tomorrow’s bullet-bait. For whatever flaws he may have, John Peyton is not Michael Corleone. The offer he made to the union could have been refused, but it wasn’t, and like most politicians who induced acts of abject treachery from a rival’s supporters, he double-crossed them. It should have been clear in 2003 was that the entire nation was on the verge of fiscal calamity, and that anyone promising rates-of-return higher than the already-crippled market was probably lying, or just irrationally exuberant. Remember, we’re talking about professional bullshit detectors, here, not the kind of rubes who sign papers without reading them. How could they be moved to act so starkly against their own interests?

JSO bears the burden for a generation of poor social policy and a decade of economic recklessness practiced in the name of perpetual growth. While the incidents of corruption and excessive force have been exhaustively documented by local media, their appears to be an imprecise understanding of their role. JSO is not responsible for creating vast unknown hordes of well-armed, wilding teens and ‘tweens. It’s not their fault the school system sucks. nor their fault that this city was designed precisely to preclude public transportation as a practical choice for the majority of citizens, thus yoking us all to America’s blood-feud with al-Qaeda—which, of course, is funded by our “allies” at OPEC. And above all else, JSO was not responsible for letting hundreds of violent felons out early, so they could go on to commit the majority of our city’s murders.

All of that is the fault of the civilian leadership, and of the citizens that resolutely failed to hold them to account. Now that it’s too late, and everyone’s dreams for a better life in a better city have been put on the chopping-block, the bonds between heels have dissolved, and the dirty tricks have begun—well, continued. Nelson Cuba, whose reign as president of the local Fraternal Order of Police has been dotted with controversy, called for all officers to boycott gas stations owned by Gate Petroleum, a company whose long association with the Peyton family is widely considered a crucial point for understanding Peyton’s rapid ascent and his subsequent performance as Mayor. Sheriff John Rutherford, whose own run has coincided with Peyton, immediately came out against that proposal, offering the briefest glimpse of longstanding internal dissent among officers.

The response from City Hall to the subtle pressures being exerted by FOP was immediate and decisive. By way of reinforcing the need for revising the plan, a list of the leading pension-takers in city government was released. The list included former Sheriffs and Fire Chiefs, as well as career functionaries in other agencies, some of whom are taking home six figures in annual income from their pension plan. It was like bringing a rocket launcher to a knife-fight, with similar levels of collateral damage, but effective nonetheless. As city departments are already being pressed to accommodate new rounds of budget cuts, which will necessarily entail eventual cuts in both base salaries and benefits, as well as layoffs, the result will be government that will be smaller, and vastly less effective.

The JSO rank-and-file disagreed about the boycott of Gate, long associated with the Peyton family, whose persistent police presence was an invaluable selling-point for late-night business. Over in Riverside, the Gate on Stockton St. is generally regarded as an unofficial police substation, and locals in distress have learned that Gate stations make effective safe-havens. In some parts of the city, Gate stations positioned near major intersections or highway ramps actually serve as informal staging-grounds for the DUI shakedowns that will be increasingly important to a city starving for revenue. As such, the boycott could potentially alter police procedure, with unknown results. Others argued that boycotts are beneath the dignity of a department that is supposedly “above politics”—the sort of self-definition common to cops nationwide, who need to maintain a semblance of objectivity as the political climate changes.

However, still other officers assert that, on a matter as important as their retirement, which are already dangerously underfunded and will soon be underfunded even more, the option of silence is not available. If the pension fund collapses, which is quite possible if this recession continues too far into the next decade, the consequences would be beyond catastrophic, not only for the police but for the citizens, whose only organized protection against crime would be dramatically undermined. The only winners in such a scenario would be this city’s ever-growing criminal class. 

It’s worth noting, at this point, that the problems facing city government now are not all their fault. The cuts to state property taxes constituting the core of Charlie Crist’s current legacy as Governor came into effect with FY 2008, as city and municipal governments moved to mitigate their effect in preparing their own budgets for that year. FY 2010 began for most states on July 1—although Jacksonville, like the federal government and private industry, begins FY 2010 on October 1, by which time states have begun to parse the data from their first fiscal quarter—and a report from the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities suggested that as many as a dozen American states were already in the red, before the year had even begun. Other reports from around the political spectrum imply the scope is closer to comprehensive.

For what it’s worth, Jacksonville is not alone. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), whose report “State Budget Troubles Worsen” was released on June 29, paints a disturbing picture of the immediate future. For starters, Montana and North Dakota are the only states not projecting budget shortfalls for FY2010; the other 48 states’ shortfalls exceed $165 billion—nearly one-fourth of their budgets. “Even before the new fiscal year starts on July 1, new shortfalls of $23 billion have opened up in the adopted budgets of at least 12 states and the District of Columbia,” according to authors Elizabeth McNichol and Iris J. Lav. Worse, estimates from 29 states suggest shortfalls totaling between $38 billion and $180 billion, for fiscal year 2011.

Florida projects a shortfall of just under $6 billion—not even a tenth of California’s crazy $54 billion shortfall, but still 22.8% of our state’s budget. This is only slightly more than the $5.7 billion shortfall for FY2009; readers may recall the contortions needed to get last year’s budgets balanced. But last year’s budgets were mostly approved prior to the major economic meltdown, which started with bad housing numbers from last summer and then accelerated as the stock market collapsed in earnest on “Black Tuesday”, September 29. By the time FY2009 began, two days later, all Hell had broken loose, and any budgets not already facing shortfalls would face them shortly after.

The choices being faced by local leaders is so stark that Peyton has started his own website to walk citizens through the labyrinth of proposed changes. FixItNow.cc is his hedge against the uncertain reception his proposals have received—not only from long-standing sources of dissent, but from key political allies, as well. Peyton, whose personal discipline and work ethic has drawn praise from even hard-core apostates, has taken the offensive, placing the budget crisis in the context of larger developments and stating, implicitly, that nothing could have been done.

While the budget negotiations are technically a matter for the mayor and city council to reckon with alone, in reality the process plays out against a backdrop spanning over 700 square miles. Never are the citizens of Jacksonville so pervasive engaged as during the annual budget process; a cynic might argue that a more consistent, active engagement would have spared the people much of their pending pain. Peyton is prevented from term limits from running again, and has given every indication that his electoral career is over; his lame-duck status leaves him reasonably immune to the usual political pressures, while empowering him to make the kind of hard choices most chief executives would refrain from even suggesting in their first term.

Peyton, however, is not alone in this process. His budget proposals must be approved by a majority of the City Council—19 men and women with their own political agendas and their own constituents to serve. Among them are several who have either already decided to run for mayor in 2011 (though none have said so publicly, yet) or are considering it. As such, Peyton’s successor will almost certainly be voting on his budget proposals, and the nature of those votes will bear directly on a campaign that is now less than two years away. It’s impossible to say if, or how, that will influence the budget negotiations or the ultimate vote, but clearly Peyton intends to set the pace for these critical debates.

(Recall that, within a year of taking office, Peyton had already run afoul of supporters like JB Coxwell, and pension shortfalls were among the financial management issues raised in a PowerPoint presentation distributed among interested parties in 2004. For a while during his first term, Peyton was rumored to have been targeted for a challenge from within his own party in 2007. Ultimately, however, Mike Weinstein’s insurgent campaign failed to thrive, and whatever issues existed between the two were squashed—in public, at least—as Weinstein went on to a useful career in Tallahassee.)

While the FixItNow site exists ostensibly as a repository of Peytonesque talking points, it does his opposition some favors, as well. For example, while touting cost-cutting efforts by the Peyton administration (such as eliminating 400 COJ positions since 2006), it notes that “the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission – the job creation arm of the city – is half the size it was when Mayor Peyton took office in 2003.” Given the current state of job growth in Jacksonville, it was maybe not the best example. Peyton plans to cut another 100 city jobs, while departments will be asked to “trim” five percent off their operating budgets, while freezing all pay increases and experimenting with furloughs for some employees, which amounts to a pay cut. (These cuts apply only to “non-public safety” aspects of local government.) This, in addition to his promised “reform” of the pension plans.

Even if the entire proposal is approved verbatim, the city will still be $50 million short by current estimates, raising the specter of still-deeper cuts that go right to the fundamental functionality of the city. These could include: closing two fire stations, five libraries and ten community service centers; canceling the World of Nations and the Jacksonville Jazz Festival; closing the Ritz Theatre and LaVilla Museum, as well as the Equestrian Center and the Sexual Assault Response Center (truly beyond the pale); eliminating citywide recycling and many of the social and cultural programs we all take for granted, including “virtually all” children’s programs. For a mayor whose legacy is staked on a commitment to early childhood literacy, this must be a very bitter pill. En toto, this is the nightmare scenario; Jacksonville may never recover after such cuts take effect.

Peyton’s solution—tax hikes—is, at best, a stopgap measure that might provide enough revenue to keep the budget balanced. Evidence accumulating from around the country suggests, instead, that the collapsing global economy, and the states’ botched response to it, is driving down tax revenues faster than new tax increases can mitigate. With nearly half (46.7%) of the General Fund generated by property taxes, and the assessed value of all that property continuing to fall as jobs erode every day, there is very little chance that revenue from property taxes or sales taxes will rise to projected levels. Looming further in the horizon is the possibility that Jacksonville could lose the rights to host the Florida-Georgia Game, which would eliminate millions in revenue, as well as a major component of the city’s national image.

Raising taxes will enhance the COJ’s outlook, but at the potential expense of the private sector. For decades, a major selling-point for Jacksonville was that boasted much lower levels of taxation than the rest of Florida’s major cities. The danger here is of raising taxes to the level of Orlando, Tampa or Miami, without any corresponding uptick in the quality of life. Now is a time when we may really pay dearly for the inconsistent efforts of local leaders to build a solid cultural foundation, to say nothing of a quality education system, that could actually compete with these other cities for what is looking to be a significantly decreased number of tourists and relocating taxpayers.

If one cares to trace all of this back to the moment that the US housing market stalled out, in 2007, we are now in the third year of an economic recession that has only accelerated with time, and which defies prediction, even in the short-term. This is the context of these unfolding pension dramas. There is probably nothing that could have been done, in regard to fiscal policy, that would have prevented this situation; The issue is to what extent it could have been minimized. Depends on who you ask.

sdh666@hotmail.com

July 14, 2009

Notes on Local Elections

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The Florida Times-Union reports that Jerry Holland, a former City Council President who succeeded the late John Stafford as Supervisor of Elections, has drafted a bill that would “consolidate” state and local elections, beginning with the round currently slated for spring 2011, which would be rolled forward about six months to coincide with the national “mid-term” elections set for November 2010. This writer has opposed such a proposition on those occasions when it has come under discussion in previous years, but is now considerably more sympathetic, with caveats.

There are two strong points to be made in favor of this idea, which did not originate with Holland but is basically now his issue. The first point, made cogently in Tia Mitchell’s July 19 T-U article, deals with the potential savings of having one ballot process, instead of two; this could save up to $3 million dollars in the FY 2011 budget. The other is that, in the short-term, merging the two will increase voter turnout for the pivotal local elections ahead. Any gimmick that gets more people out for one of the most important decisions local voters have ever been asked to make.

Local policymakers are in dispute on the issue, as they have been on almost everything, including the FY 2010 budget, which is currently being negotiated. Councilman Dan Davis was mentioned in the article as considering putting Holland’s bill into play, and the savings argument alone gives it plenty traction. Lost amidst all this, however, is the fact that each of the 19 City Council  members are potential mayoral candidates in 2011 (or, 2010). Those who plan to make that jump will have to make that decision by next summer, if they want enough time to distinguish themselves within what should be a very crowded field. If the elections are moved up to November 2010, then the window for any declaration moves up, as well.

In other years, this might not be such a big deal, but the city is fighting an existential struggle of sorts right now, and every vote taken by the council on the budget and related matters directly impacts the backdrop of the next election, as well as the situation the next mayor will face. With that being said, it may be in the city’s best interests—as well as the best interests of whomever becomes our next mayor—if any councilpersons planning to run for mayor were to say so now, so as to avoid any potential conflicts-of-interest. (As a journalist, I’ll go on record now as saying that I am considering it myself, and that I am more likely to do so under emergency conditions. Full disclosure.)

The Breeders: a review, of sorts

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The Breeders—Fate to Fatal EP

Bags That Rock: Knitting On the Road with Kelley Deal (Lark Books)

fate 2 fatalThe new Breeders EP, Fate to Fatal, was released on April 21, 2009. iTunes offers .99 electronic downloads, but no CDs are being printed. The band issued 1,000 12-inch vinyl pressings of the record, available through their website and selected retail outlets, with sleeves screen-printed by hand, for about $15.00. The covers were designed by artist Chris Glass, who recently crafted the logo for President Obama’s infamous “American Recovery and Investment Act”. With only four tracks, running under 20 minutes in total, the EP is most likely only a teaser for a more expansive release timed for later this year, but you never know until you know when it comes to the Breeders.

 “Fate to Fatal” was recorded at The Fortress in London last year, while the Breeders were touring London in support of Mountain Battles. Tracks two and four, “The Last Time” and “Pinnacle Hollow” were both recorded in Kim Deal’s basement, in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. “The Last Time” also features vocals by Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age); this occasion marks the only time a man’s voice can be heard on an official Breeders recording! Both these tracks function as mirrors of each other; the dissonant guitar of the former is reasserted in the latter, as Lanegan’s laconic vocals are referenced, sparingly, by the Deals on “Pinnacle Hollow”, which itself calls to mind aspects of “Sinister Foxx” from Title TK.

Track three, a cover of Bob Marley’s “Chances Are”, features the dual Deal harmonics that have become a calling-card for the band’s sound in this decade. “Chances Are” is also notable for reuniting them with an old running buddy, the great Steve Albini, who has figured prominently in their careers since helming the decks for Pod nearly 20 years ago. He has also produced their last two albums, helping them apply the “All Wave” concept, where no digital equipment is used in the process of recording and mastering the albums; the approach served to highlight the texture of the arrangements and the beauty of the Deals’ voices, singly, in melodic counterpoint or their exceptional dual harmonics. Fate to Fatal demonstrates that Kim Deal has internalized much of what she surely learned after countless sessions with Albini, as the overall quality of the recording achieves the same standard as the last two albums. Albini’s genius really comes through at higher volumes; whereas some music, especially guitar-based rock, washes out at a certain level, the Breeders stuff retains its clarity.

allwaveInevitably, some of the Deal’s collaborative material is very hard to find, at best; this include a sublime session with Kris Kristofferson, which yielded a cover of “Angel Flying Over the Sea” for the Twisted Willie tribute to Willie Nelson, and an entire album that Kelley Deal recorded—as “The Last Hard Men”—with Jimmy Flemion, former Smashing Pumkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and former Skid Row front-man Sebastian Bach. There were also songs recorded for a “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” tribute and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, not to mention at least two entire albums’ worth of Breeders’ tribute material. Unfortunately, all that stuff is out-of-print, for now. One hopes that eventually they are able to make it available for newer fans, the ones working their way backward from Mountain Battles.

Kelley Deal’s own solo recordings get short shrift in the larger Deal discography, mainly because they were released on labels much smaller than 4AD/Elektra, which has released essentially everything that Kim Deal has been involved with—the Pixies, the Breeders and her one-off project, the Amps. She formed a group called Solid State 6000 while in rehab in Minneapolis, releasing an album (Go To the Sugar Altar) and EP in 1996. She changed the name, and the Kelley Deal 6000 released Boom! Boom! Boom! in 1997. This album was an instant classic for the few thousand people who ever got to hear it, and a true gem in the sisters’ larger output. It compares favorably to the Amps’ eponymous 1995 release, which is close to perfect. But this material is also out-of-print.

(It is interesting how, during the extended hiatus between Last Splash and Title TK, Kelley actually did recording than Kim. Indeed, the twins have evolved notably distinct musical personalities as the years progressed. Kelley has a slightly higher-pitched voice, the fine and mellow scotch to the high-end cigar sound of her sister. Again, the “All-Wave” process really helped illuminate these qualities.)

One might not have guessed that, after producing two albums and five EPs in their first five years of existence, the Breeders’ brand would lay almost entirely dormant for five more, nor that their triumphant return in 2001 (with Title TK) would go without follow-up for six. While the individuals within the band have performed and recorded steadily for the better part of three decades, official documentation has been fleeting at times. Kim and Kelley Deal, the twin sisters who first performed as the Breeders in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio in the 1980s, have contributed to hundreds of tracks by some of the most acclaimed musicians of our time, yet they have not quite gotten full credit.

Fate to Fatal is a further indication that those fabled gaps in activity are a thing of the past. The Breeders have toured extensively over the last couple years and maintained the same basic core of musicians with whom the Deals rebuilt their brand a decade ago. As Josephine Wiggs and Jim McPherson moved on during the wilderness years, the classic Breeders lineup was halved; Title TK was thus essentially the debut of an entirely new band with a new sound that only lapped earlier incarnations. Joining the Deals and Steve Albini were guitarist Richard Presley, bassist Mando Lopez and drummer Jose Medeles. Presley was not present at the Fate to Fatal sessions.

You can find dozens of recent Breeders clips online, either at their website or YouTube, including the first video from Fate to Fatal, wherein the phrase “title track” is given a whole new meaning by St. Louis’ Arch Rivals roller-derby team. appearance at Shake-It Records in Cincinnati on April 18 (International Record Store Day) previewing the new material, three days ahead of the official release, and much of the music (though quality varies) from “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, May 15-17. Landing the coveted spot hosting that festival—which included X, J-Zone, Bon Iver, Gang of Four and Heartless Bastards—signified the band’s relevance to the current indie scene.

Another recent development of note is the release of a book by Kelley Deal in 2008. Bags That Rock: Knitting on the Road with Kelley Deal was published out of Asheville by Lark Books (a division of Sterling Publishing, based in Canada). Its 127 oversized pages document Deal’s prevailing non-musical passion—crocheting. It seems kind of random, but Deal’s interest is sincere, and her talent for this most gentle art is obvious. The book functions as a treatise on the salubrious effects of knitting on the mind and spirit, as well as a how-to guide for making 20 of her own designs for yourself. You could purchase them through KelleyDeal.net, but that site is defunct and there is nothing about selling handbags on the Breeders Digest site.

2010 will mark 20 years since the first Breeders album, Pod, was released by 4AD. At the time, they were known primarily as the side project of Pixies bassist Kim Deal and Tonya Donnelly, who was a member of Throwing Muses alongside Kristen Hersh before setting out on her own with Belly. With Slint drummer Britt Walford on hand under a number of aliases (including Shannon Doughton on Pod and Mike Hunt on the Safari EP), the Breeders amounted to an alternative rock super-group at a time when such music was becoming the dominant cultural influence in the US and Europe.

Aside from the attention generated by “Cannonball”, however, the Breeders existed well outside the industry radar, a favorite of critics, fans and fellow musicians (most famously Kurt Cobain, who tapped them as the opening act on what ended up being Nirvana’s final American tour) that did solid but unspectacular business with Soundscan and was never subject to the mythmaking machinery of commercial media. MTV devoted a significant amount of air time to the group during their two-year run behind Last Splash, but never picked up the scent after they returned to the music scene with the exceptional Title TK in 2001. Maybe the Deal sisters, then 40, were too old for MTV’s youth-oriented marketing scheme; maybe their fans, who carried the network during its crucial transition from hair metal to gangsta rap, were no longer of that choice demographic.

In any event, neither of the albums released by the Breeders in this decade have garnered the kind of attention they did at their mid-‘90s “peak”, and that’s unfortunate, because the music has been very good. While a Breeders album is sure to have its bland instrumental digressions and occasional throwaway tracks, the Deals’ songcraft has always been extraordinary, easily comparable if not superior to all the stuff that’s come along since they did. If this were still the singles-based industry of a bygone era, the Deals might be among the biggest acts on Earth. At the very least, they would have certainly earned a lucrative living writing songs for others. But as it stands, they will have to settle for being one of the most quietly effective musical organizations of our time, a crucial living link between the century that just ended, and the one that has just begun.

The Deals, during the recording of "Mountain Battles".

The Deals, during the recording of "Mountain Battles".

BreedersDigest.net

sdh666@hotmail.com

Money Jungle: “Palin’s Pudenda”

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Sarah PalinThe political trajectory of Sarah Palin will prove highly instructive to future generations of political leaders. President Obama has almost certainly internalized some lessons of his own regarding his former opponent in the epochal 2008 elections, even though he is unlikely to say so. He will have noted the nastiness underlying many of the elements that coalesced around him, and he will be wary of the moment when those forces turn on him. And that day is coming—sooner, rather than later.

Palin’s abrupt and unceremonious (albeit probably temporary) exit from politics came after a year that was, by all accounts, equal parts nightmarish and dreamy. The light of national media was focused on her with paralytic intensity and a distinctly offensive tone unseen since the days of Osama bin Laden, who of course will return some day, and we’ll all have to pretend to be shocked. Unlike bin Laden, Palin has actually been handed a defeat, dealt not in debates, nor even de ballots, but courtesy of a deliberate campaign of character assassination. It was one of the most shameful episodes in American history: an entire family being run down for sport, for the amusement of a chickenshit mainstream media that is itself directly complicit in many of the lethal challenges facing America. As the global economy collapsed before all of our eyes last year, as US allies were hit with chaos and instability resulting from our failed policies, some salary-sucking suits in DC and New York were rhapsodizing about the Palin girls’ reproductive organs.

palin-hentaiThe useless McCain campaign gave her a couple days’ notice—barely time to load all her weapons and wipe both guns and bullets clean of fingerprints. They spent a quarter-billion dollars being beaten so badly even Tim Tebow couldn’t help them, but a quarter-million for their Vice-Presidential nominee’s wardrobe. Obama’s got bespoke bulletproof overcoats, the McCains and Bidens are dressed like the millionaires they are, and Palin’s in thrift-store gear. McCain’s only chance to be President ended when he let Bush’s people run down his daughter in 2000; eight years later, he stood silently by while his storyline daughter caught hell on his behalf, and it continues.

Palin-McCainMcCain’s pathological desire to be loved by elites half his age blocked him from making the right decisions for his agenda, yet he can’t be bothered even trying to assert control over the perception of his legacy. McCain’s hapless, pathetic staffers served as primary sources for countless media attacks, starting before the campaign was even over, and he knows it. Either he directed them, or he didn’t, but he’s a loser either way. Reagan lied under oath to protect his team, but it appears the famous McCain temper can now be manifested only toward his wife—allegedly.Palin-hot sauceThe Palin phenomenon further illustrates a) how pervasive misogyny really is in this culture, especially among supposedly “educated” people like political pundits, and b) how readily complicit American women can be in their own collective oppression, abuse and exploitation. It might have seemed unthinkable, had it not just happened to Hillary in the primary. Both have lived the lives promised them by feminism. They fought their way into the most exclusive boys’ club there is, while raising a family, only to catch heat from cadres of cuckolds and cold fish whose kids stupefy in day-care while their parents rot in “assisted-living facilities”, as chains of oral history stretching back to the dawn of time are severed forever, sacrificed on the altar of wage-slavery.

The slippery slope from Clinton’s cankles to Palin’s pudenda leads directly to the kind of issues young girls are plagued with today, from simple eating disorders to the persistent yet strangely still unaddressed specter of rape, kidnapping or murder. A cynic might suggest that the Palin’s famous fertility invokes envy among her peers (she was a sportscaster once), whose childbearing years were either squandered having meaningless sex, facilitated through a succession of experimental contraceptive devices, or snuffed out with alcohol, drugs and nicotine—and the ones who can have kids are unlikely to find quality sperm outside a laboratory, unless John Edwards is around. But such talk is only acceptable in regard to Sarah Palin, so it goes unremarked.

Her political shortcomings are obvious, as was the need to ensure the Obama victory. She is clearly not ready to be President—otherwise, she would have grasped the need to make a few examples of people. A bunch of men who can’t open a can without electricity cutting promos on a woman who kills and cleans her own wild game—well, I’m no fan of hunting, but it’s a skill worth having. Especially now, right? Sure. At 45, her matriculation continues; good luck!

 

SARAH-CUDAsdh666@hotmail.com   

Review: “Breakshot”

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Breakshot: A Life in the 21st Century American Mafia, by Kenny “Kenji” Gallo and Matthew Randazzo V. Beverly Hills: Phoenix Books. 382 pp.

My review copy of “Breakshot” arrived in the mail courtesy of co-author Matthew Randazzo V, a New Orleans-based journalist and true-crime author best known for his searing rendering of events surrounding the life and death of professional wrestler Chris Benoit, who allegedly murdered his wife and young son before hanging himself over the course of a weekend in 2007—a weekend, in fact, when Benoit had been booked to win the ECW belt in a pay-per-view held in Jacksonville, FL.

Based on the quality of “Ring of Hell”, which despite its tragic undertones is one of the best books ever written about that business, this writer was enthusiastic about sampling Randazzo’s newest project. Knowing nothing about it, my only expectations were that it would be interesting, but not nearly as compelling as the Benoit book. This is among the rare occasions when being wrong is a good thing. “Breakshot” moves at a ruthless pace through the quintessentially Ameican life of Kenny Gallo, aka “Kenji”, aka “Ken Calo”, aka “Kenji Kodama”, aka “Ramon Gomez”, aka “Ramon Gonzalez” and, of course, aka “Kenny G”. (“Kenny Gallo” isn’t his real name, either.)

Like his namesake, this Kenny G. is blowing massive quantities of hot wind, but it seems that very little embellishment was needed for his tales of thuggin’ and buggin’. Randazzo must have had a great time transcribing these tales and fact-checking the insanity playing out in these pages. Gallo’s gallery of hoods and heavy-hitters ranges from small-time crooks and hustlers to some of the major players in American organized crime. Anyone who thinks he’s bullshitting, which may be inevitable in the course of reading the book, should be wary of the fact that the United States government has spent millions of dollars on him, firstly in trying to incarcerate him, then by using him to incarcerate others. The book’s title, “Breakshot”, was their code-name for him, “derived from my ability to singlehandedly knock the Colombo Family leadership pyramid into disarray like the first shot in a game of pool”, and as usual, it made perfect sense.

He is marked for death in certain circles, yet the version of him that exists in the book exhibits very little outward concern. In fact, he readily admits to reveling in the danger he faced almost constantly during a criminal career spanning three decades. Some people do that work because they have to, because they come from circumstances where it’s all they know and alternative options are precious and few. Gallo is not one of those people. He came from a upwardly mobile family of Japanese immigrants who carved out a very good living through hard work and adherence to traditional values. Gallo was given access to the perks of privilege, attending the best schools (where his classmates included Will Ferrell and Zach de la Rocha) and making the kind of grades that would earn scholarships to the school of his choice. Instead, he willingly channeled his physical and mental gifts into a career trafficking cocaine for the infamous Medellin Cartel.

Eventually, the feds got their man, which is how it almost always works out for major-league criminals, and Gallo went the route of numerous gangsters before him: he became a rat, a snitch, a stool pigeon, a penitito who wore wires in service of the government for several years in the late 1990s and early months of this decade. In the process, he helped bring charges against members of some of America’s most feared mob families: the Gambinos, the Colombos and the Luccheses. That is as heavy as it gets in the United States, besides the brutal insurgent cliques of foreign gangsters from Europe and Asia, not to mention the Mexican cartels, whose strength increases every day, to the point that longstanding enemies like the Bloods and Crips have taken to cooperating against them. And Kenny Gallo fucked them like porn sluts in a gangbang. Dangerous shit.

Today, Kenny Gallo lives under yet another alias, this one concocted by the Witness Protection Program, but to say he lives anonymously would be incorrect. Gallo’s blog contains yet more promos on his hapless former colleagues, who have been getting the business from federal prosecutors in this decade, in large part due to the information he acquired for them. He stays active in martial arts, keeping his body and mind sharp for the lethal challenge he knows could come at any moment, from any direction, without warning. Sounds intense, but he’s as ready for anything as a human being can be.

www.phoenixbooksandaudio.com

http://www.breakshotblog.com/

http://www.matthewrandazzo.com/