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Stateside With Rosalea: Special Interests

Stateside With Rosalea: Looking After Special Interests

My favourite cartoon this week showed POTUS standing bestride a small planet - one foot planted in Germany, the other in Japan - his combat skirt made of tyre retreads, and a hubcap serving for a breastplate. Speared on his sword is the Kyoto Protocol. The caption says simply: Radiator.

The President of the United States, it seems, doesn't listen to Academy Award acceptance speeches, or he would know that when you're on the down side of advantage, you should act with courage - not run into the old boys room and fire out into the playground, wiping out all your playmates. Citing the downturn in the American economy, dependence on Middle East oil, and the California power crisis Bush has waded into the environment with both exhaust pipes blazing.

It was adding insult to injury to implicate the California power crisis in the decision not to adhere to the Kyoto Protocol, but within another couple of weeks Pacific Gas and Electric will be bankrupt - dragging the budget of the State of California down with it - so Bush can afford to be cocky. Whichever power generating plants the Texans don't already own since PG&E sold them off during the deregulation process will be up for grabs, and companies like Enron will be the only companies able to build new ones.

It's a pity the first POTUS wasn't a Digger. No, not someone in a lemon-squeezer, but one who subscribed to the ideals of the group that took over uncultivated common land during the English Commonwealth (1649-60) and for two years conducted an agricultural and social experiment that had far-reaching consequences. Here is what one of their number, Gerrard Winstanley, said in "The New Law of Righteousness" in 1649:

Was the Earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?

Today is a state holiday in California in honor of Cesar Chavez, who founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 to protect migrant farm workers. It became the first successful farmworkers' union in United States history - the United Farm Workers of America - and Chavez led a five-year strike boycott that, according to the Governor's proclamation, "rallied millions of supporters to the UFW and forged a national support coalition of unions, church groups, students, minorities and consumers".

The boycott was of California grapes, so you might expect the state to be sour about that, but it's California that enacted a bill to have a paid state holiday plus a day of service and learning in public schools with students studying Chavez's legacy and participating in public service projects. Texas has an optional state holiday and Arizona has a "recognition day" rather than a holiday. One might view the day as political expediency given that people of Hispanic descent now make up 32 percent of California's population, with non-Hispanic whites now only 47 percent according to the census figures just released.

Indeed, while the Governor's proclamation says "Cesar Chavez's influence has made a lasting impact on farm labor issues and enabled millions of Latinos to achieve educational and political success", the relative number of Latino students entering college has dropped since affirmative action was dropped when Proposition 209 was passed in 1996. Jose Cuellar of the Cesar Chavez Institute for Public Policy was quoted in the SF Examiner on Friday as saying there's a 60 percent drop-off rate for Latino high school students. That is despite the Governor's appointment in 1999 of a volunteer panel of community and business leaders to a task force on outreach and diversity to seek ways of reaching out to diverse populations in education and state contract work without violating Prop. 209.

Meanwhile, back in Washington in the Senate - which is constitutionalised affirmative action, given that each state has two senators no matter how many people live in it - the McCain-Feingold bill on campaign finance looks like it will be passed without any "poison pill" amendments. The bill aims to ban "soft money", which is contributions to political parties rather than to candidates and which usually flows from unions to the Democrats and from big business to the Republicans. However, even if it is passed in the Senate the bill is unlikely to pass in the House of Representatives.

To many members of the House, their party is just another special interest group. When you have the situation where you were elected - as a Democrat - by your district and that district also voted heavily for George Bush for President you're likely to find that rigorously toeing the party line is not in your best interest for re-election. The "sound-bite effect" of being against the death tax (estate duties) is valuable to your future prospects, and many of the now largest Democratic caucus in the House - the New Democrats - are only too happy to side with such Republican initiatives. Most of the seats the Dems have won since 1994 are in districts that voted both ways.

One day the light will go on in someone's head and they'll realise that one of the great advantages of proportional representation isn't what it does for third parties but what it does for the two major parties. Once PR can be smelt on the wind, politicians like McCain can shave themselves and their followers off the major party and form a viable and valuable coalition party, leaving the hardliners to preserve whatever they perceived the original values to be - values which, on both sides, are an increasingly uncomfortable fit for people in modern America.

That is, if they haven't gotten rid of contributions to parties from anyone other than multimillionaires.

Lea Barker
California Saturday,
31 March 2001

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