Nov 17 2014

The Steve Ross Show – Episode 1

It took a week of work, from the first concept, to the interview, to the writing, the hours of editing and trying to remember how to do all the things I haven’t been doing for the better part of 2 years now, but the very first episode of a video blog I produced is now up and online.

You can watch it below or by clicking here.

I’m really proud of the Freshman effort on this. Its not perfect, and I know for sure there are things I want to change for future episodes, but considering this wasn’t even something I was considering ever doing just 10 days ago, I feel pretty good about it.

This episode includes an interview with former Shelby County Commissioner and U of M Law Professor, Steve Mulroy. I talked to him about the marriage equality decision handed down by the 6th Circuit Court of appeals just over a week ago, as well as issues related to the Federal bench.

I also touched on some of the top stories in national and statewide politics, as well as the just passed mid-term elections.

So, I hope you like it.

Special thanks to Steve Mulroy for being the first guest.

Also, thanks to comedian and progressive talker Matthew Filipowicz for inspiring me to throw myself headlong into the project. I got to meet Matthew when he was in town two weeks ago.

I also want to thank my beautiful bride Ellyn for putting up with my OCD and self-doubt while I was putting this thing together…and giving me some very good advice while I was putting the finishing touches on it.

So, there ya go. Hope you enjoy it!

Nov 05 2014

The Day After – 2014 Edition

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, State Politics

You could see this as utter devastation. Or you can see it as a clean slate to start re-building something better.

You could see this as utter devastation. Or you can see it as a clean slate to start re-building something better.

Its been six years since the first bomb dropped on Democrats in Tennessee.

The 2008 election saw the State House and Senate fall to GOP control for the first time since Reconstruction. And while full GOP control may have been delayed for two years, thanks to some crafty behind the scenes maneuvering, it was only a brief delay in the total control that would come two years later.

That doesn’t make what happened last night any easier, but it does give us the opportunity to make some decisions about the future of the Democratic Party. And while the wounds may seem too fresh, and many may feel its too soon…this has been coming for six years now. No one should be surprised.

Where do we go from here?

I’ve waxed eloquent several times in this space about things the party, and progressives either in or outside the party, can do to try and turn things around. Privately, these thoughts have received some attention, but I’ve never seen any real action on them…and that inaction has led me to take a step back from some of the statewide issues, in favor of more local issues…that included a run for County Commission in 2012, among other things.

From my observations over the past six years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Democrats in Tennessee…and the south generally, are confronted with a two front battle: One is against a robust, well funded and well organized ideological opponent, the other a battle over the internal culture of the party, and the methods by which we might find a way to rebuild after these consecutive apocalypses.

It is the second front, not the first, that is the most challenging…but the lesson can’t be any more clear than it is now…three cycles after the initial fall: Our bi-annual pattern of last second ‘hail-mary’ passes can only be successful if the score is close in the first place.

For the past three cycles, it not only hasn’t been, but we’ve been sacked behind the line of scrimmage as the clock ran out.

Recognition

A lot of good people lost yesterday. One loss that I take personally is Gloria Johnson from Knoxville.

Gloria came just 200 votes shy of a second term according to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office.

She’s a true fighter, who deserved a second term, in my humble opinion. And while we all knew she was against long odds, that didn’t stop her. She fought all the way to the finish. Unfortunately, she came up short.

My fear, in her loss, is that some will take it as proof that a fighter who stands tall for her beliefs can’t win in Tennessee. The fact is, by any measure she knew what she was up against and did it anyway.

GOP hack, Tom Leatherwood id’d her back in January of this year as one of the GOP’s top targets…and boy did they target her. The entire TNGOP mobilized against her.

I won’t speak for her but Gloria knew she might not have the kind of support a candidate in her position needs to win from some state Democratic groups…though I should note, The House Democratic Caucus, and several Democratic organizations in her area stood with her….even if it was at the very last second.

What’s most annoying is, there is no indication from available disclosures that the State Party was involved in her campaign in any measurable way. In fact, it appears she had to use a third party vendor, rather than the Democratic Party’s own tools to help manage her campaign…which, if true, is a travesty.

I’ll have to wait and see on the final disclosures that will come out later if they were involved…but considering the target on her back, it should have been ‘all hands on deck’ from the get-go.

The last second money doesn’t make it look like her fellow Democrats had her back. And if they did, they didn’t have it soon enough.

More Recognition

The married couple agrees...Vote No on 1

The married couple agrees…Vote No on 1

Another group…or collection of groups I think is worth mentioning is the No on 1 campaign.

While they too may not have been successful at beating back the intrusion of state legislators into the medical decisions of women (and possibly men at some point), they outperformed all the other Constitutional Amendments on the ballot, keeping the margins close enough to keep hope alive well into the evening.

I’ve seen some comments on social media that have been less than flattering, I think the organizers of No on 1 should leave those comments where they are, and take solace in the fact that they ran a much better race than any other statewide progressive issue, or candidate.

The messaging was smart and efficient. The delivery was done well. The ground game, at least here in Shelby County, seemed to be well organized and vibrant.

But what no one could have planned for is the low turnout on our side of the ledger. 40,000 fewer voters in Shelby County, and 20,000 fewer in Davidson (as compared to 2010), most likely due to weakness at the top of the Democratic ticket hampered the No on 1 cause.

Congratulations and Thank You’s

Big congrats to my friend Lee Harris as he embarks on his first term as my State Senator. There are only five of you in the Caucus, so I expect you to be a big part in helping guide us out of the wilderness.

Congrats also to Sara Kyle, as she won her bid to complete the term of her husband…and former Minority leader.

Congrats to the members of the Shelby County House Democratic Caucus, but especially those who had contested elections: Larry Miller, Barbara Cooper, Raumesh Akbari, and G.A. Hardaway.

A special thanks to Dwayne Thompson for fighting the good fight in House Dist. 96.

A final thought

RestrEntrepreneur, and one time Democratic candidate for Shelby County Commission, Taylor Berger has been taking to his blog as of late to talk about the state of the Democratic Party in Shelby Co.

Even if you disagree with everything he has to say, we should welcome him into the fold. I’ve only met him once but he seems to be a smart guy with a lot of energy, and we need that.

His most recent post asks the question: “Will Democrats leave Tennessee after the wave of red that just washed across the state?”

Here’s my answer. You don’t lose until you quit. If you don’t quit, you might not win, but you don’t lose.

That’s something all Democrats across the South (hell, the whole damn country for that matter) ought to keep in mind as we lick our wounds for a bit before we jump back in the fray.

Buck up campers…we’ve got nowhere to go but up from here.

Oct 28 2014

Media Fail – 1, Transparency – 0

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, media, Shelby County

How I long for the good ole days.

How I long for the good ole days.

Once upon a time I thought the media was a defender of democracy. It was a check on the power government exercised. It was a force for good that sought to keep the people connected and the politicians and bureaucracy honest.

Perhaps it was naiveté, or my fond memories of great journalists from the late 70’s through much of the 80’s and early 90’s.

I gave up any illusions of this fairy tale long ago.

That’s not to say there aren’t great journalists out there…they’re just fewer and farther between…and they’re trapped in a business environment where quantity, punch, and social media ‘engagement’ trumps a balanced account of the news.

Such is the case with this truly ignorant report from WREG that aired in July.

The web story is pretty benign, but the report that actually aired takes a Gary Vosot approach to reporting that demands you turn every fallen acorn into a “sky is falling” event.

The news item I’m referencing involves a little known report called the “Participating Voter List”, aka PVL.

What is the PVL?

The PVL is exactly what it sounds like. Its a list of people who have participated in an election. It includes your name and address, precinct information, and in primary elections, which primary ballot you chose to vote on.

Independent observers, political consultants, and campaigns use the PVL to see who’s voted, which areas are turning out more than others, and to tailor their communications to people who haven’t voted by purging the names of people who have voted from their direct communication list (mail, phone, and canvassing).

If you don’t want annoying calls, knocks, or mail, vote early and all that will stop…if the campaign is managed effectively.

Aside from primary ballot information, there is no information in the PVL that’s any more dangerous to your privacy than the information from an old school phone book, or white pages dot com.

But reporter Michael Quander’s piece makes it sound as if the very act of voting could endanger your privacy in some way.

That’s simply not the case. There are far easier and more informative ways and places to get that information than the Election Commission…though you’d never know it from his actual report.

Because of Quander’s report, the Election Commission now only sends the PVL out by request, instead of publishing it in the deep dark recesses of the Election Commission website where only people who know where it is can find it.

Why is the PVL important?

The PVL is important because it is a way to, in nearly real time, see what’s going on with an election.

The PVL was how Joe Weinberg and I found the redistricting errors that resulted in over 3000 voters receiving the wrong ballot in the August 2012 election.

At that time, the PVL was posted directly on the Election Commission’s website daily. Because of this, we were able to run our tests promptly and without waiting for a gatekeeper to open the gate for us (other than waiting for the report to be posted). This allowed both of us the ability to work, as volunteers…using our own time and getting paid nothing for our efforts, to expose one of the greatest election screw-ups in recent memory.

Had the PVL’s only been available by request, it may have taken several more days to complete our tests, causing a greater delay in resolving the problem, and potentially disenfranchising thousands of more voters in the process.

There is a small, tightly knit group of mostly volunteers, on both sides of the aisle, who pay very close attention to this report. Any delay is a huge setback because we are working on our own time, and of our own initiative.

Thanks to another barrier being placed due to unnecessary fear drummed up by this report, the next election disaster, should it occur, will take days longer to identify.

Way to go Channel 3.

Playing both sides of the privacy fence

But what is perhaps most perversely ironic is that the PVL is more safe than many of the methods WREG, and other commercial websites use to make money off of you.

Have you ever noticed that things you’ve browsed on Amazon or other online retailers regularly show up on ads at completely unrelated websites?

That monetization of “Big Data” is something every single news website in the country uses to generate revenue. It uses cookies, scripts, and your browser history to tailor ads to you, to increase their revenue.

In doing so, they’re taking advantage of your ignorance of potential privacy concerns far more than the Election Commission or any other government agency that is required by law to publish or make available information about you and yours.

A blow to good reporting

Aside from the report being…just dumb…the Election Commission’s decision to no longer post the PVL is also a blow to reporters who know what to do with the report…other than stir up unnecessary FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) in the minds of viewers.

In years past, experienced reporters and election observers have used the report to do good journalism in the public interest. I remember the first time I started seeing reports like this, but in particular, the work of Commercial Appeal reporter Zack McMillian back in 2010 when he was on the political beat.

He used the information in a way that challenged me to dig even deeper into the report…which ultimately led to the discoveries Dr. Weinberg and I made going public.

Journalism is supposed to both inform people, and make those who engage in it, either by profession or by hobby, better. Quander’s report doesn’t do that. It preys on the uninformed fears of people, who are already scared of the very big data his company makes money off of.

So way to go Michael Quander, and the Producers, News Directors, and other influential decision-makers at WREG Channel 3. You’ve just made it harder for people just like you to do their job. I know you’re proud.

Oct 22 2014

The November Election Post I’ve Been Meaning To Write

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, State Politics

Wedding Night After Party

Wedding Night After Party

Election day is right around the corner, and I’ve been meaning to do a post on all of the Constitutional amendments that are on the ballot this November…but I’ve been a little busy.

After 5 years together, my beloved Ellyn and I got hitched back on October 11th. Needless to say, the wedding plans took a lot of time to put together.

But now that the wedding is over, and so is the planning, I’ve got a little more time to think about the upcoming election…and especially the amendments.

They’re not that complicated, but they’re also not as easy to sift through as you might think.

With that in mind, I’m going to touch on the amendments in this post. I may write about the state and federal races later, and I’m working on a post about the City’s “Civil Service” referendum as we speak.

A note on Constitutional Amendments in Tennessee

For a constitutional amendment to pass in Tennessee, two things must happen:

1. The “yes” votes for the amendment must make up the majority.
2. Those “yes” votes must be greater than 50% of all the votes cast for Governor.

So, if you want something to pass, vote for someone on the ballot (write-ins don’t count) in the gubernatorial election.

And, if you want something to fail, you sure as hell better raise that bar a little higher by voting in the Governor’s race (again, write-ins don’t count).

I fully expect a TV station or two somewhere in the state will declare something having passed when it hasn’t crossed these two thresholds, but I’ll wait until election night to mock them for that.

Without further ado, here’s the breakdown.

Amendment 1 – Removing your right to privacy

Some people call Amendment 1 “The Abortion Amendment”, and if you just read the caption on the ballot, you might think you’re right.

But since the US Supreme Court ruled on Roe vs. Wade in 1973, the issue of government intervention in difficult health decisions been about privacy.

I’ve written about this extensively in the past.

The caption for Amendment 1 says:

Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.

But the idea of the right to privacy in health decisions, and abortion, which is a medical procedure, are inextricably linked.

That’s what the TNSCOTUS ruled in 2000.

So, to make a medical procedure potentially “illegal”, which is what the majority of the TN legislature wants, is to take away the privacy in medical decisions away from patients.

The married couple agrees...Vote No on 1

The married couple agrees
Vote No on 1

The Legislature can’t do this on their own…they need you, the voter, to eschew the additional privacy protections inherent in the Tennessee Constitution, so they can then further limit your choices on your medical decisions.

If you think this will stop at abortion, you’re sadly mistaken. The legislature could use this amendment to regulate any number of widely accepted medical procedures under the guise that they have effectively restricted privacy with this amendment.

Its ironic really. The political right consistently rails against government intervention in personal decisions…until it comes to medical decisions, then they don’t think you’re qualified to do it on your own.

If one were to be consistent, they would strike down this amendment with an overwhelming majority…because none of us want Ron Ramsey, or Brian Kelsey making medical decisions for us.

They’ve already proven time and time again they don’t have our best interests at heart.

I urge you to vote NO on Amendment 1.

Amendment 2 – Judicial Disco

Judicial retention (for Appellate and Supreme Court justices) has been a big topic in State politics for a while now. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s effort to remove TN SCOTUS judges in the August election was just the start of a fight that’s been boiling over since Ramsey took the top spot in the State Senate.

Amendment 2 seeks to clarify it all…and enshrine a system similar to the current system in the State Constitution. However, the differences have many folks up at arms.

Currently, a nominating commission makes recommendations to the Governor, who then selects from a paired down field of candidates. That Commission expired in 2013, and wasn’t renewed.

Under the amendment, there would be no mandated commission (though Haslam has said he approves of the commission), and the General Assembly would have veto power over the selection by the Governor. In a state where a simple majority can overturn the Governor already, that’s a lot of political power over the judiciary from the legislative branch.

Opponents of the amendment say to vote no, because the current system, without the added step of the legislature approving of the nominations works, and we shouldn’t bend to the legislature just because they scare the be-jesus out of us.

Supporters I’ve heard from don’t really seem to support the amendment, per se, but say its better than direct election of Appellate judges (which would be a disaster by any measure). They fear that could happen if the Constitutional Amendment isn’t passed.

Opponents counter that even the most radical on both sides of the aisle don’t want that, and bills seeking to make that the law of the land consistently fail in committee.

To be honest with you, I’m still torn. But as a person who: a. doesn’t take kindly to bullies, and b. is ready to take out my policy brass knuckles at the drop of a hat to beat down really dumb ideas from Nashville (there is an ample supply), I’m inclined to vote No.

When someone’s being a bully you don’t bend to them, you turn around and kick their ass so they’ll leave you alone. That’s what needs to happen here.

Amendment 3 – Tennessee Tax Dystopia

Unlike Amendment 2, Amendment 3 is simple. If you want your sales tax to start bumping up to 14%…vote for it.

If you don’t, vote against it.

Tennessee already has one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation.

The Legislature, with the help of the Haslam administration, has been cutting taxes on the wealthiest of the wealthy. As things get more expensive, and we keep underfunding every damn thing we have to fund…that revenue will have to be replaced somewhere…and the sales tax is the only place to go.

Sponsors of this Amendment, like Brian Kelsey of Germantown will say this saves the state from the tax hell of having an income tax…and by virtue, stops taxes from increasing.

But as anyone with half a brain in their head knows, the absence of a kind of tax doesn’t stop taxes in general from increasing. Come on dude…really?

Vote NO on Amendment 3.

Amendment 4 – Veteran’s Bingo “Gaming”

Amendment 4 is an effort to include Veteran’s organizations in the “games of chance” carveout that was enshrined in the lottery.

Currently, many not-for-profit organizations can hold fundraisers that involve games of chance (gambling, cakewalks, etc. but not bingo)…but Veteran’s groups can’t.

The reason goes back to a scandal in the 1980’s.

The amendment lays out some high hurdles for Veteran’s groups to be able to do this…and that’s actually my problem with the Constitutional amendment.

If the amendment just said the Constitution allows this type of organization to do this and the “how” may be regulated by the state, I’d probably be for it. But this amendment sets forth a specific policy prescription and safeguards, which, if they don’t work, will take years to change because they’ll require another constitutional amendment!

So while I certainly think Veteran’s groups do good work…and far too often they do work the state itself should be doing, I can’t support this amendment because it reads too much like a bill and not enough like a constitutional amendment…if that makes any sense.

So, I say vote No on Amendment 4.

So there ya go. Take it for what its worth. But most importantly, go vote.

Oct 21 2014

Roland’s Folly – Part Infinity

Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County, State Politics

Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland

Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland

Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland says the County has a legal problem.

See, back in 2007 and 2009 the County Commission passed two ordinances that established a prevailing wage and a living wage for workers who work for County contractors.

The idea behind the ordinances is simple: If the County is going to pay a company to do a job, that company should pay their workers either a living wage, or the “prevailing wage” i.e. the wage paid to the majority of workers working in a specific field…rather than lowballing workers in a tough economy at a time when unemployment was high.

It should come as no surprise that the Tennessee Legislature…led by Ron Ramsey, Brian Kelsey, Glen Casada and Beth Harwell just plain hated the idea that people should get paid enough to live on…or at least in line with market prices for labor of a specific type. So, they passed a law outlawing these kinds of ordinances.

That was in March of 2013.

Fast forward to today…18 months after the fact…Commissioner Roland has sponsored two ordinances that would overturn the County’s living and prevailing wage ordinances…because they’re against the law.

Now, that may not seem like a big deal, but both ordinances stand as a statement against the kind of interference from Nashville that has been the hallmark of the Ramsey/Harwell era.

Roland wants to overturn this because he says it puts the County at risk of a lawsuit. But the County has been abiding by state law since it was enacted…because state law has supremacy over local ordinances and all that stuff you learn in a basic Civics class.

By the way, County Attorney Marcy Ingram says changing the ordinances is necessary. But if you look at her track record of “opinion” you should find yourself questioning her legal judgement. If someone tried to sue the county for not complying with state law simply for having an ordinance on the books, that suit would be thrown out immediately, because, in fact, the County is complying. That the County has a law on the books that has been superseded by state law is unremarkable.

Now, you might ask yourself, why keep this on the books since its no longer relevant.

The answer is simple, because the people of Shelby County, through their elected leaders, passed these ordinances long before the State decided to intervene. In fact, there was an election between the passage of these ordinances and the passage of the new state law, and everyone who voted for the ordinances, including the author, was overwhelmingly re-elected…enshrining public opinion in favor of the ordinances. And in doing so, we made a statement about our collective values. For all we know, the state may decide one day to change their law, which would mean our ordinances…still being on the books, would be back…in full effect.

Terry Roland wants to make sure this never happens.

I hope the County Commission will take this opportunity to take a stand against the state’s interference, and reject Roland’s proposed ordinances and stand for fair wages for workers, even if the state’s GOP legislative leaders don’t give a damn about them (because that much is abundantly clear).

If you want to read the ordinances proposed by Commissioner Roland, you can find them here.

Living Wage Repeal
Prevailing Wage Repeal