Bloomberg spends millions on candidates supporting firearms legislation

Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Baca, of California’s 43rd Congressional District, lost in a race for the redrawn 35th Congressional District to fellow Democrat, state Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod, thanks mostly to funding by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s super PAC focussing on gun control issues.

During the November general elections, few candidates running for national office chose to stake out policy positions advocating for legislation attempting to address the proliferation of firearms and the public health risks they pose to the country. But a few did, and their sugar daddy, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, chose to invest some of his small fortune in a handful of political races that put the long-smothered issue into the national spotlight.

One six-term congressional veteran, U.S. Rep. Joe Baca from southern California, lost thanks to campaign spending by the Independence USA PAC, created by Bloomberg late in the fall campaign. According to a Nov. 23, 2012, story on the race by National Public Radio (NPR), Bloomberg’s PAC was looking for “the right race and the right set of circumstances.”

According to the NPR Story, the first thing Bloomberg’s new super PAC wanted was a clear contrast between the candidates on an issue of real concern, such as guns, and Baca, a Blue Dog Democrat, previously had gotten high ratings from the National Rifle Association (NRA). Columnist Dan Bernstein, with The Press-Enterprise newspaper in the “Inland Empire” area east of Los Angeles, said, “There’s probably one man in America, in this campaign, who cared about gun control. And it’s Mayor Bloomberg.”

For reasons still not clear to me, NPR’s report focussed on how super PACs can defeat local candidates, but ignored the bigger issue of why Bloomberg joined the fray–to address the issue of gun violence in the country. NPR continues to be a media outlet that fails to report national statistics on firearms violence, namely easily accessible public health data on murders and suicides linked to guns.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City is a billionaire who has staked out policy interventions to promote public health, targeting obesity/nutrition and firearms.

Bloomberg’s super PAC made late entry in key races

When Bloomberg made his announcement on Oct. 17, 2012, he stated, “It’s critically important that we have elected officials in Washington, Albany, and around the nation who are willing to work across party lines to achieve real results. I’ve always believed in the need for more independent leadership, and this new effort will support candidates and causes that will help protect Americans from the scourge of gun violence, improve our schools, and advance our freedoms.”

Bloomberg’s decision had an immediate and symbolic impact. The Press Enterprise newspaper noted that Baca lost his re-election bid to a come-from-behind finish by state Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Chino, thanks mostly to a last-minute cash infusion from Bloomberg’s PAC. Baca also reportedly blamed Bloomberg’s spending for his loss in the race for the redrawn 35th Congressional District.

Bloomberg’s super PAC came late in the race. The Washington Post only reported the PAC’s existence the day Bloomberg made it public, and all just three weeks before the Nov. 6, general elections. A New York Times blog had initially reported that Bloomberg’s top issues were abortion and gun control before the super PAC was made public.

Bloomberg’s actions were entirely consistent with his statement following the horrific mass murder in Aurora, Colo., on July 20, 2012, when a gunman wounded 59 civilians and killed 12 others at a theater. Bloomberg, after the shooting and the media spectacle that ensued, lambasted Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Democratic President Barack Obama for failing to mention the issue of how unrestricted firearms was a major factor in such mass murders of U.S. citizens.

“Soothing words are nice,” said Bloomberg, “But maybe it’s time the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they’re going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country.” Both candidates failed to discuss any serious policy approach to stemming gun-related violence in the United States, notably during the three presidential debates.

As this blog has reported before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the number of firearm homicides in 2010 in the United States was 11,493, while the role of firearms in suicides was nearly twice that rate, or 18,735 persons. All told firearms were linked to 30,228 deaths annually at last count–a fact that Democrats have decided to avoid as they put together their national coalition that includes many center and right of center candidates in the U.S. House of Representatives the U.S. Senate.

Bloomberg’s super PAC picked Pennsylvania race winner

Bloomberg’s PAC also supported Pennsylvania Attorney General Democratic candidate, Kathleen Kane. An ad paid by the super PAC said: “Kathleen Kane: close the [Florida] loophole and keep guns out of the wrong hands. Track stolen guns to choke of supply to criminals. Background checks for all gun sales.” (See the ad here.)

Independence USA, Michael Bloomberg’s new super PAC, ran this issue ad supporting candidate Kathleen Kane prior to the Nov. 6, 2012 election.

Kane, in a rare move for a Democrat running for a state or higher office, publicly came out in favor of legislation favoring firearms control. She said she wanted to close the so-called “Florida loophole,” which lets someone denied a concealed-carry gun permit in Pennsylvania to get one in another state and then transfer that permit to Pennsylvania. Kane went on to win her race handily.

While Kane is a rarity, few if no politicians have the pockets of Bloomberg, an independent who can spend $10 million to $15 million of his own fortune on an issue that has seen no legitimate political discourse at the state or federal level for years, thanks mainly to the work of the NRA, the gun industry lobby.

All told, Bloomberg’s spending was directed at seven races nationally, of which his picks won four races, costing the billionaire roughly $8 million. Public health advocates who champion addressing firearms violence in the country likely will be following how Bloomberg’s super PAC will continue to wade into strategic races and confront the silence over firearms violence, which has become the acceptable new normal in political discourse by both major parties.

Leadership likely will remain with big city mayors, who as managers overseeing jurisdictions that carry out day to day criminal justice activities, see all facets of firearms violence most closely. The Brady Center also will continue to lobby for legislative changes to address the proliferation of firearms in the United States, as well.

The Brady Center featured this image on its web site to advocate for firearms policy reform here: http://bradycenter.com/advocates/women.

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Latino voters’ strong support of healthcare reform overlooked in electoral analysis

A week has passed since President Barack Obama handily defeated Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the Electoral College count  (332-206) for the office of the presidency. While Obama grabbed approximately 61 million votes compared to Romney’s roughly 58 million, he trounced him among Latino voters. And their decisive backing of the incumbent Democrat by a margin of 71% to 27% can be credited greatly to Latinos’ strong support of the administration’s signature health care/health insurance reform known as the Affordability Care Act (ACA).

Latinos’ support for healthcare reform dates back to the 2008 election, captured so joyously in this pro-Obama video that calls out Obama’s “plan de salud.” (I love this video, and want to hire this band for my first run for office if I ever do that.)

The Pew Center calculated the wide margin by which President Barack Obama defeated challenger Mitt Romney among Latino voters.

In November 2011, exactly a year before the 2012 general election, Univision/Latino Decisions polled 1,000 Latinos (ME +/- 3.1%) and asked them how they viewed the role of government in ensuring that everyone had access to healthcare, or whether people should be responsible for their own health insurance. The question served, in short, as a proxy on how this block of potential voters viewed the national debate on healthcare. At the time, the ACA was vehemently opposed by the GOP, healthcare and business interest groups, nearly half of the country’s GOP governors, the GOP majority of the U.S. House of Representatives, and most importantly future Republican Party standard bearer Mitt Romney.

In that poll, those favoring government-led healthcare numbered 59% compared to those favoring individual insurance at 29%. Half of those polled answered that they believed Democrats were closer to their position on healthcare compared to Republicans, at a paltry 18%.

At that time, 12 months prior to the general election, the top issue among potential Latino voters was the economy, overwhelmingly, at 40%, but the No. 4 issue was healthcare, at 16%.

On election night on Nov. 6, and in the days following the election, the blogosphere and pundits of all stripes prognosticated on how poorly the Republican Party courted the crucial and incredibly diverse Latino electorate. The group includes those self-identifying as whites and non-whites, Mexican and Central Americans, Cubans, South Americans, Dominicans, and others. The group harbors great economic diversity as well.

ABC News’ Nov. 7 coverage was typical: “Mitt Romney and the Republican Party’s tremendous difficulty appealing to Latino voters dealt a significant blow to their chances of winning in 2012.” Many of the experts suggested that Romney’s campaign miscalculated during the primary when he swung hard right and said he would support “self-deportation.” Such statements, go the conventional wisdom, explain why most of the Latino’s 10% share of the national voting electorate favored Obama. (Numerous media outlets reported that it was the first time since 1996 that a Democratic challenger had won such a high percentage of the Hispanic vote; President Bill Clinton in 1996 grabbed 72% of the Hispanic vote.)

Healthcare issue ignored in the Latino election narrative

Was Mitt Romney “done in” by Latinos or “done in” by vehemently opposing healthcare reform overwhelmingly supported by Latino voters?

Of course this simplistic analysis doesn’t fully explain why Latinos would trust Obama, when his administration was on record as deporting 1.5 times (yes 1.5 times) more immigrants per month than the previous administration of George W. Bush. As of July 2012, according to the Washington Post, the Obama administration had deported 1.4 million immigrants, allegedly targeting dangerous criminals. While Obama’s team mounted a legal challenge to Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law and provided a limited amnesty program to offer limited but not permanent amnesty to nearly 800,000 young immigrant residents in July 2012, his administration’s anti-immigrant actions also clearly alarmed many Latino residents and voters.

So why did they fall so completely and totally for  Obama and Vice President Joe Biden over Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan? Clearly, healthcare mattered, and it mattered more than the media has acknowledged. The election was also a very clear referendum on national healthcare reform that Romney and Ryan pledged to dismantle if they won.

In a September 2012 speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Romney stated his agenda clearly: “Obamacare is the wrong way to go … . I will repeal and replace Obamacare with reforms that increase choice, slow down the runaway growth of insurance costs, and open the door to more new jobs.”

Such messages completely flew in the face of what Latino voters wanted – a government-led, national healthcare plan. On Nov. 6, Latino Decisions’ election eve poll of 5,600 voters reported virtually unchanged numbers among Latino voters from the poll a year earlier.

The respected polling organization again found healthcare to be the No. 4 issue among the diverse Latino electorate, behind the economy, education, and immigration. The poll virtually repeated numbers found a year earlier, showing 61% of respondents favored leaving healthcare reform in place.

Latino Decisions’ Matt Barreto reportedly told USA Today that from the beginning of the Romney campaign “the most obvious miscue” between Romney and Latino voters was his continued attack on the ACA.

What remains puzzling is why so many media organizations completely ignore that Latino voters, like the majority of the voting public, supported the administration in a clear national referendum on healthcare reform that the GOP, GOP surrogates, many parts of the all-powerful healthcare industry, special and business interest groups opposed with nearly obsessive and feral passion.

The matter is settled, both by the highest court in the land and now by the ballot box. The opponents of the ACA — the market-oriented, limited healthcare reform that was passed by Congress — lost, and they lost decisively. Latinos voters, who so clearly supported the legislation, made that clear as a bell on election night in completely rejecting the GOP, its anti-healthcare reform message, and the former Massachusetts governor.

Two milestones put the Oglala Sioux back on the global stage

This 2002 file photo by the Denver Post shows alcohol being sold in Whiteclay, Neb., adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation.

October was a huge month for the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. The Lakotan band made the national spotlight, perhaps in ways not seen since the historic and bloody siege at Wounded Knee in 1973.

On Oct. 1, 2012, the tribe lost a $500 million lawsuit it filed against a group of multinational beer manufacturers and four stores in neighboring Nebraska that the tribe claimed were liable for bootlegging and the widespread destruction of alcoholism that has plagued the Pine Ridge Reservation for decades. The 3.5 million-acre reservation, about the size of Connecticut, is officially dry. However, 5 million 12-ounce beers were sold in 2010 at the Nebraskan stores immediately adjacent to Pine Ridge. That means about 13,000 cans a day were purchased for consumption at a reservation with just 45,000 residents—a simply staggering figure.

The litigation represents a legal and public health strategy that seeks to hold the companies and retailers/distributors culpable for downstream effects of the health hazard for a legal drug, in this case, alcohol. It also demonstrates the tribe’s proven ability to use symbolic and media tactics that capture global interest, in order to highlight glaring, historic, and shocking injustices that are not tolerated elsewhere in the United States. I actually first heard about this story not from U.S. news sources, but while listening to the BBC World Service in February this year.

Oglala Sioux tribal attorney Tom White holds a press conference after filing the tribe’s lawsuit in Lincoln, Neb.

The second major but not disconnected story last month was the death on Oct. 22, 2012, of famous Oglala Sioux activist Russell Means, a major figure in the American Indian Movement (AIM). The so-called “radical” group galvanized Native Americans and many tribes in the early 1970s by first occupying Alcatraz Island in 1969. The New York Times, in a fit of what can best be called sanctimonious arrogance and historic ignorance, was dismissive of Means’ lasting significance to Native activism of the 20th and 21st century.

The obituary/editorial referenced Mean’s alleged proclivity to guns and brawls. However, the editorial noted Means galvanized global attention of the plight of Native Americans during the  siege at Wounded Knee, at the height of the Vietnam War and amidst President Nixon’s growing Watergate scandal. The Gray Lady begrudgingly states in its judgmental obituary: “Pine Ridge and other reservations have not escaped plagues of poverty and alcohol. Governmental neglect remains a scandal.” Today, Shannon County, S.D., where the reservation is located, is the nation’s third poorest, where more than half of all residents live in poverty.

Oglala Sioux tribal member Russell Means died on Oct. 22, 2012.

By comparison, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, which itself was divided violently before and after the 71-day siege at Wounded Knee, immediately proclaimed Means’ birthday (June 26) as Russell Means Day on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The tribe acknowledges his contributions to helping improve his impoverished tribe’s status. A web site paying tribute to Means’ lasting role to Native Americans called him the most important Native American since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

Means seemed to capture the Oglala’s Sioux defiance and resilience. National Geographic’s August 2012 profile of that resilience  highlighted 60-year-old activist Alex White Plume.  He summed up the injustices brought upon his people by the federal government and others. The tribe is one of seven Sioux bands whose once far-ranging ancestral lands of the Northern Plains and Inner Mountain West were literally taken by the expanding U.S. nation in the mid- and late 1800s. “They tried extermination, they tried assimilation, they broke every single treaty they ever made with us. They took away our horses. They outlawed our language. Our ceremonies were forbidden.”

The most egregious crime was the U.S. Calvary’s massacre in 1890 at Wounded Knee of 146 Sioux members, of whom 44 were women and 18 children. The mass murder was a fearful reaction to the Ghost Dance that was sweeping the Sioux people, a deeply spiritual religious revival that promised a rebirth and paradise on earth. Another 200 Native Americans were killed in related incidents shortly after.

Nearly a century later, starting in February 1973, the AIM movement again focused the attention of the globe on the impoverished Pine Ridge Reservation in what became known as the siege at Wounded Knee.

About 200 AIM members occupied the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. They protested broken treaties and the corrupt tribal governance of then tribal head Dick Wilson. At the time, the tribal government ran its own private militia called Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or GOONS, who were made infamous in the 1992 film Thunder Heart, which was based loosely on the Pine Ridge incidents. The GOONS, National Guard troops, and FBI agents surrounded the activists.

During the siege, 130,000 rounds were fired, two FBA agents were killed, and 1,200 arrests had been made. Ian Frazier, who writes about the incident in his 2000 travelogue and profile of the Oglala Sioux called On the Rez, interviewed Le War Lance, a participant in the siege. Le claims to have snuck in out of the siege 18 times and to have observed the presence of U.S. military forces (82nd Airborne), armored personnel carriers, and helicopter and reconnaissance flights. (A summary of the FBI’s files is here.)

The problems at Pine Ridge did not end with the siege. AIM activists and their sympathizers note that between March 1, 1973, and March 1, 1976, the murder rate on the Pine Ridge Reservation was more than 17 times the national average. Activists attempting to free Leonard Peltier, who was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of two FBI agents during the siege, have counted 61 unsolved homicides during that time. Some of those killings are now being re-investigated.

While AIM may not have created lasting change on the Pine Ridge Reservation, it did demonstrate what Frazier called a real flair “for the defiant gesture in the face of authority.” Frazier says that, along with AIM’s strong historic self-identity, made it both conservative and radical all at once. That same flair and sense of historic injustice is clearly visible in the unsuccessful lawsuit that was brought in February 2012 by the Oglala Sioux in Nebraska’s U.S. district court.

The suit alleged that one in four children born on the reservation has fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The tribe’s average life expectancy ranges from 45 and 52 years, shorter than anywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere outside for Haiti. By comparison, the average life expectancy in the United States is 77.5 years. The suit sought rewards to cover cost of health care, social services, law enforcement, and child rehabilitation that it claims are caused by chronic alcoholism on the reservation. “The devastating and horrible effects of alcohol on the (Oglala Sioux Tribe) and the Lakota people cannot be overstated,” the lawsuit stated.

In terms of negative health outcomes, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives (AI/AN) fare much poorer than their fellow countrymen by all standard public health measures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that “rural and urban AI/AN alike experience greater poverty, lower levels of education, and poorer housing conditions than does the general U.S. population.” And, of course, such conditions lead to a range of health issues, including the alcoholism and the despair prevalent on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The CDC, while trying to present unfiltered data, bizarrely and disparagingly states, “Geographic isolation, economic factors, and suspicion toward traditional spiritual beliefs are some of the reasons why health among AI/ANs is poorer than other groups.” Remarkably, the CDC summary of health data, at least in this source, does not account for the systemic and historic racism, political persecution, coordinated and clearly documented efforts to destroy Native American cultures and languages, and economic exploitation as potential contributors to current health disparities. While the top two killers of AI/NA are heart disease and cancer (both greatly influenced by the social determinants of health), the No. 3 killer is “unintentional injuries,” which can include car accidents, and the No. 8 killer is suicides. For those not familiar with the social determinants of health, these two types of deaths are easier to link to the deep socioeconomic disparities experienced throughout Indian country.

Today, Pine Ridge is the only reservation in South Dakota that bans alcohol. The booze is supplied by nearby Whiteclay, Neb., population 12. For its part, the state of Nebraska split hairs and postured it could do nothing to ban alcohol sales that tribal leaders alleged were tantamount to genocide. The Denver Post reported that Nebraska’s  Attorney General, Jon Bruning, said he “despised” Whiteclay’s beer sellers, “but feared shutting down Whiteclay would cause patrons to travel to other Nebraska towns.” Such statements almost defy logic and demonstrate that state’s leaders still willfully ignore staggering data  that show the state has a legal and moral obligation to solve a public health crisis originating inside its state borders.

The major beer makers singled out by the lawsuit were Anheuser-Busch, Molson Coors Brewing Company, MIllerCoors LLC, and Pabst Brewing Company. Given the historic settlement by 46 states attorney generals against tobacco manufacturers in 1998, it is all but certain that these titans of American suds have mapped out a legal strategy to stem all future efforts to hold them liable for downstream impacts of alcohol consumption. Fetal alcohol syndrome and DUI-related fatalities are two of the more well-known and symbolically rich health impacts of alcohol that capture the media’s interest and harness the public’s collective disgust with the harmful impacts of the drug.

Tribal leaders are now discussing whether to legalize the sale of alcohol on the reservation. A previous effort failed in 2004. Though the tribe lost, the lawsuit may spark future public-health framed legal challenges to the sellers and manufacturers of alcoholic beverages. It should be noted that trial attorneys repeatedly failed over 50 years to hold tobacco companies liable for the deaths and illnesses of former cigarette smokers. That does not mean other tribes and trial attorneys will not continue to explore legal challenges to the commercial reality of alcohol “on the rez.”

As for the continuing omnipresence of alcohol on the Pine Ridge Reservation, or any of the other more than 560 reservations in the United States, that is nearly certain. The socioeconomic conditions that have made reservations fertile ground for America’s No. 1 drug of choice remain unchanged. As the most famous contemporary Native American writer, Sherman Alexie, writes, “Well, I mean, I’m an alcoholic, that’s what, you know, my family is filled with alcoholics. My tribe is filled with alcoholics. The whole race is filled with alcoholics. For those Indians who try to pretend it’s a stereotype, they’re in deep, deep denial.“