On more than just local government

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Conflicting constitutions

I’m not a lawyer, so this entry is from a lay person’s view of the law. However, it seems that the passage of a constitutional amendment establishing a male/female relationship as the only recognized marriage would set up an unsolvable conflict between two equally relevant parts of the Constitution.

The allegation by the people issuing marriage licenses in San Francisco is that the California Constitution (as does the US one) offers “equal protection” to all citizens. Marriage, they claim, comes under that protection. Therefore, it should be available to everyone.

But, if an amendment is passed, could that negate the concept of equal protection in general, so that other issues, such as housing, public accommodations, ADA, etc. can be challenged purely by passing the marriage amendment and weakening this bulwark of our modern society? It could be that, as long as an amendment specifies certain behavior, it would supercede the more general concept of equality.

Where will it stop? That’s why this whole issue of amending the constitution to deal with a specific social issue is misguided. It was tried with Prohibition, and all it did was create speakeasies and fund organized crime. Social engineering by Constitutional amendment doesn’t work.

Perhaps the best solution is for counties to stop issuing “marriage” licenses all together. In this scenario, the governmental part of the process would be a “civil union” no matter who is involved. Then, if someone wants to get “married,” such as in a religious ceremony or in Las Vegas by an Elvis impersonator, it would be the choice of those getting “married” and not sanctioned by the government.

Everyone would be entitled to the same benefits accorded to other “unioned” couples. Marriage would be merely a state of mind, which is, in fact, what it is anyway.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Harold Stassen lives

Few things in life are sadder than watching someone you have cared about not be able to see that something has passed them by. To many of us growing up in public affairs in the 1960’s, Ralph Nader was on the cutting edge of consumerism. His fight against General Motors to make them focus on the safety of their products stands alongside Rachel Carson’s wake up call to the world about the environment. Thousands of people are alive today, or have been born to people who otherwise would not have been here, because of Nader.

But Nader’s quixotic independent run for the Presidency this year smacks of that of Harold Stassen, the boy wonder governor of Minnesota, who missed out on the Presidential nomination in 1948 and then was known, primarily, as the perennial candidate. He ran nine times for the office, including a final attempt when he was in his mid ‘80’s and barely able to speak.

While the 70 year old Nader is not quite Stassen yet, he is on the edge of being considered more of a joke than a person with serious issues. And his issues are serious, including the “corporatization” of the major political parties and the problems with international trade agreements.

Many Democrats blame Nader for costing them the election in 2000. While his votes probably would have thrown Florida Gore’s way, Nader has a reasonable retort when he states that if Gore had won his home state or normally Democratic West Virginia, the point would have been moot.

Those who fear a Nader candidacy this time should have less of a concern. He is running as an independent and not as the standard bearer of the Green Party. This means that he will have to get himself on all 51 ballots by signature, not the easiest thing to do. In addition, with the Green support going to their own candidate, the number of votes he will get will be dramatically reduced.

But, the greatest damage will be to the legacy of the man. For Harold Stassen, the 31 year old governor and Ivy League university president, was replaced by the nine time presidential loser. Nader is weaving the same fate for himself. It is a shame.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Suing grandma

You’ve got to hand it to Gavin Newsom, the newly elected mayor of San Francisco. If you are going to pick a couple to be first to challenge the law making gay marriage illegal, choosing an 81-year old and a 78-year old who have been together for 51 years makes a lot of sense.

Most people don’t make it past either of those two numbers, no less reach 51. My marriage is only two thirds of the way there. Usually, when I tell people how long I’ve been married they look like there are viewing an icon at Lourdes. Imagine 51 years!

So, why didn’t this happen before? And why just in San Francisco and not, let’s say, West Hollywood?

The second question is easier than the first. Marriage licenses in California are only issued by counties. San Francisco happens to be both a city AND a county. West Hollywood is a city within Los Angeles County, which is not issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. QED.

The issue of why this didn’t happen before deals with an amalgam of issues including the demographic makeup of the man who was recently elected to be San Francisco’s mayor. First, he is 38 years old. He has grown up in a generation in which most people, even those who live far from communities with high percentages of gay populations, know someone who is gay. The stigma of “gayness” is rapidly diminishing. (See, also, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” or “Will and Grace.”)

Second, his generation is one with a new view about relationships. The attraction of “Sex and the City,” with its non-traditional view of life and love, is highly indicative of a current in people under 40. But, then again, for much of that age group, the non-traditional is traditional. The pejorative seems not to be who is committing to each other, but whether you can commit to anything.

Mayor Newsom also grew up in a generation where “separate, but equal” exists only in textbooks. So when that issue is presented to them in the context of marriage, they will not accept it. That’s the way the issue of civil unions is seen. There may very well be a lot similar between that and marriage, but they are not the same. Some benefits are only available through official marriage. To gays and their supporters, saying civil unions are the same doesn’t make it so.

A generation ago, the parents of the Baby Boomers shook their heads in dismay over the revolutionary changes brought about by the birth control pill, increased attendance in higher education, changes in technology, and larger numbers of women in the work force. Today, the next generation is making similar kinds of changes, to the chagrin of those older revolutionaries. Movements like this are difficult to stop. And they shouldn’t be.

Twenty five years from now, these same revolutionaries will be looking at their children, shaking their heads in wonder over the things they are doing. The more things change…

Monday, February 16, 2004

All in

Poker seems to be everywhere. New television series ranging from The World Series of Poker to Celebrity Poker has brought the term "all in" back into the lexicon. That's when you take all your remaining chips and bet it on your hand. You lose and the game is over.

In a way, the Wesley Clark presidential campaign took on the aura of a poker game where all the chips were placed on one candidate, Howard Dean. The cards didn't turn up and General Clark had nothing left to fight with. It was over before it began.

The Clark campaign, it seems, was so convinced of a Dean victory in Iowa that it did not even bother to contest there. While all the other Democrats, except Joe Lieberman, were in the Midwest, Clark and Lieberman had New Hampshire to themselves. The expectation was that the Kerry people, soon to be without a place to go, would find Clark as the best anti-Dean alternative.

As we now know, the Dean campaign was basically mirrors and blue smoke. Actually, it was expensive blue smoke, since it spent more than 70% of the over $40 million it had raised for non-media activities. Generally, the percentages are reversed, with three quarters going for media. But, I guess, if you believed the polls, Dean was sure he could replenish his coffers in days.

Two things occurred, however, to change the process irrevocably. First, Kerry, who also bet "all in," won. And second, John Edwards used the Iowa caucus system to his advantage by being everyone's second choice. Under Iowa rules, the supporters of any candidate not having 15% representation in a caucus site were free to vote for someone else. Had Clark been there, he might have been the beneficiary. With his absence, the way was open for Edwards to finish a strong second.

The dice were cast. Clark's plans went up in smoke and he had no response. It was just a matter of time, despite his victory in Oklahoma, until it was all over.

The people who surrounded Clark were smart and politically savvy. But, like many, they misread the polls and made the wrong choices. They will have four years, at least, to think about how it all went wrong and whether betting "all in" on circumstantial evidence is the way to go.


Friday, February 13, 2004

Number 332

A few years ago, at a National League of Cities Conference in Little Rock, AR, I sat at a table for eight at lunch. The conversation, as at many city confabs, turned to the precarious funding we all operate under. One person mentioned lottery revenues as a possibility. Jokingly, I said that only one lottery had been of any great import to me and the result, number 332, changed my life.

Of the seven others at my table, five men and one woman were of about my age. The other was in his thirties. The only one with a quizzical look was the youngest. Everyone else knew exactly what I meant, for anyone of our age lived through the night when the draft numbers were chosen. During that first year, anything over 150 was considered safe. In fact, two of my college acquaintances at the time, who drew numbers in the low teens, have their names on the Wall in Washington.

For those who were not as fortunate as I was, there were five possibilities: fail the physical, find a deferrable job or graduate school, go to Canada, go to Vietnam or join the National Guard or Reserves. Men went to great lengths to abuse their bodies to try to fail the physical. Only a few succeeded. Others went to graduate schools or found jobs as teachers in low income areas. For some of them, this became a rewarding experience. For others, it was marking time.

Those who went to Canada often lived unhinged lives, away from family, some of whom “disowned” them because of their political differences. An amnesty ultimately allowed most to return, but great, often irreparable, damage had already been done. 57,000 of those who went to Vietnam didn’t come back alive. Millions others did, some damaged by the experience, especially the rejection by many of their countrymen leading to the ignoring of their post-war needs.

But some, often the privileged and connected, got coveted places in the National Guard and Reserves. Today’s Guard and Reserves are nothing like they were then. Everyone knew that if you got that posting you could avoid “going to ‘Nam.” All you needed to do was “play soldier” for a few hours a month, follow all the rules and not make waves. These lucky few knew they had hit paydirt. They bonded to each other because they were often well educated, “worldly wise” guys who saw the irony in the things they were doing. While the bond may have been built out of cynicism, it was still a bond.

This all makes the situation presented by President Bush so interesting. The fact that he leapfrogged over many others to get in the Guard wasn’t all that unusual. That he wanted to skim the edge of his responsibility during his time on the Guard also wasn’t particularly odd. My friends who took that route say that both were the standard then.

However, the fact that many of his mates don’t remember him has my friends shaking their heads. These units were not so large that a high profile member, like Bush, wouldn’t have been known. In fact, one friend told me that had he been in his unit, Bush would have been hit on for job references regularly.

Something smells. But like most politicians, Bush doesn’t seem to believe in the advice nearly every crisis manager will tell you, “Get the bad news out early.” The longer this hangs on, the more confidence in him as a truthful leader will erode.

But, there is another thing, the “What did you do in the Vietnam War, daddy?” question, which has clearly come to the fore in national politics. Many people like me did not have to face it. I was number 332, and got a free pass. With nothing pejorative associated with that, everybody accepts that result. Others, however, were forced to face it in a different way. And, some of those wounds will not heal until the generation dies away.

George Bush has to face what he did. Strangely, at least for seven of us around that table, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise.

Why this blog?

As a weekly columnist ("On Local Government") for the Easy Reader in Hermosa Beach, CA (http://easyreader.hermosawave.net), I focus my attention on issues of local government. With this blog, I am expanding that view to issues beyond that level. Notice I didn't say above, as many people do when they discuss state or federal government in reference to the locals.

That's because it is my belief that local government is the most important level in people's day to day lives. I also believe that it is the least understood. Nevertheless, the other levels of government have tremendous impact on the workings of the locals, so they need to be watched, and commented on, as well. Thus, this blog.

Also, it allows me to comment on a more irregular basis than a weekly column does. So here goes...