Thursday, December 20, 2012

Everyone agrees that kids should not be killed at school

How is it that we are even talking about first grade kids being brutally murdered at school?  When did this unraveling begin? When did little boys and girls become sitting ducks for some assault-weapon-wielding maniac?

And when did Americans become afraid to speak up, fearful of pushing for changes that truly are a matter of life and death?

When I was growing up, my parents did not worry that their children would be shot and killed, like trapped prey, in the safe confines of our local elementary school. We walked to school. We played outdoors. We were safe.

Still, even as children, we knew the larger world was a dangerous place. We worried about things like the Soviet Union, the Cold War, nuclear bombs, and the foreign military threat to America.

We knew those threats were thousands of miles away - not over on the next block. And not in the classroom. And we trusted that the adults were grappling with and trying to solve these problems.

All children are afraid of boogeymen.  I cringe remembering movies such as “Night of the Living Dead”  and hiding under our desks in a cold war drill.  I had nightmares over scary movies and a nuclear holocaust for years.

Today, America is living through a national nightmare. But that nightmare isn’t a movie. And it’s not on foreign soil. It is here, at home, in our schools, in our malls, in our movie theaters, on our streets.

The nightmare began with the all-too-easy access that Americans have to assault weapons, which originally were made for use solely by the military and the police. It began with the unchecked power of the national gun lobby. It began when our legislators and members of Congress became more concerned about receiving the NRA seal of approval and campaign contribution checks than their own communities.

We need to take back our country and rein in the gun lobby and other special interests that threaten the safety of our kids. Because, as President Obama told the residents of Newtown, Connecticut, at a heartwrenching vigil, “What choice do we have? Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

American society has been numb to the growing problem of gun violence for too long. We pretended its not been that bad, and won’t get worse, but our denial of symptoms and quest to be pain free has taken a toll. Pills for aches and despair are sold to us ad nauseum, but there is no prescription drug to mask the societal disease of mass shootings.

The gunman responsible for the Newtown murders was reported to be literally numb. He could not feel pain. The teacher who ran the technology club of which he was a member in high school had to make sure soldering tools and other potentially dangerous electrical equipment didn’t burn him. The heinous crimes he committed can not be explained, but numbness to pain is telling. 

If we are going to change, it’s going to hurt a little, and we can tough it out if we allow ourselves to see the humanity in the eyes of our neighbors and political adversaries, and feel their pain. 

The national dialogue has to throw off the wet blanket of “Democrats versus the NRA.” There is more to this country than faceless machines.

Corporations are not people, and neither is the NRA. Blaming a big powerful association for the mass murder of Newtown children and their principle is convenient because true answers are nowhere in sight, but it’s people who are guaranteed constitutional rights, and people who commit atrocious crimes. 

And it will only be courageous people who take meaningful steps to curb gun violence in America -- people who disagree about politics, people who belong to the NRA, and people who don’t. We need everyone at the table talking about a way forward that does not include mass shootings, because there is one thing we can all agree on - it wasn’t the kids’ fault that they were shot and killed in Sandy Hook. 

From this common ground, this fundamental belief in the need to protect innocent children, let’s begin a national conversation about how to prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from ever happening again. In Maine, lets have the courage to speak up with empathy of our neighbors from north and south. Let’s reject the oversimplification of the right versus left, rural versus urban, liberal versus conservative script. It’s obvious the rhetoric of the past is not working -- we are not more free, or more safe.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

What I Lost This November

There is losing. And there is loss. In November, in the space of a few days, I learned that harsh life lesson.  

I lost my bid as U.S. Senate Democratic nominee from Maine on Nov. 6. One of my biggest supporters, a woman named Carol, died on Nov. 17.

Carol was the most unlikely of role models. I met her as a child when my parents were divorcing. Carol wasn’t my mother; I have a mother whom I love dearly. But Carol became my second mom, marrying my father when I was nine years old.

In her heart, Carol knew the journey she was about to take with my father and my siblings could cast her in the hurtful role of outsider, aggressor, divider in our family.

So she became the polar opposite. Instead of my family being ripped apart by divorce, a trauma that so many children and parents experience, Carol became a valued addition.

When I was younger I thought our family wasn’t ordinary because of the divorce. Later, I understood that family isn’t always neatly defined. Its possibilities are limitless. And because of Carol’s presence, my life became richer.

Carol was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and faithful conservative; so was my father. And I was always the left-leaning Democrat of the family.

I entered politics shortly after George W. Bush was re-elected, running for town council as a way to cope with my disappointment. One day, Carol wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper, extolling my “peacemaker” role in the family. It was a part I didn’t realize I even played until she pointed it out.

I lost my first election by six votes. The next several races I won. My career in politics progressed: town councilor, state representative, state senator, Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. All along, Carol was there. All along, we held opposite worldviews.

Again, Carol, this most unlikely role model, inspired my love of politics. Through her values and actions, Carol taught me that politics is personal, but not hurtful. People carry beliefs with passion because they care deeply for their communities and their nation. We are all members of a larger, diverse family that doesn’t always agree.

Carol never held back her political viewpoints. Nor did I. The disagreements made us closer as we sought lovingly to understand each other. Carol ardently followed all my campaigns, giving me suggestions and advice. This year, when I ran for U.S. Senate, Carol studied all my debates and sent follow-up emails with comments.

“We liked the answer you gave about old white rich men,” one email read.

Another: “I have a suggestion for you. There is an old saying, ‘It is not what you say, but how you say it.’ Sometimes you sounded sarcastic. Other than that you were good.”  

Yet another: “I know you must be beside yourself with these outside donations, but Cynthia, this is politics, just like lobbying is. If you want to be in politics you will witness this going on everyday. We are sorry you are in this as a profession, it is a dirty one. Hope you don't get caught up in it.”

On Nov. 5, the day before my biggest election and one that I would surely lose, Carol emailed:  “GOOD LUCK TOMORROW! Dad and Carol.”

Carol, 75, learned to use Twitter just to track the campaign Tweets; I was her only “follow.” After I wished my chief opponent, Angus King, good luck on Election Day, she tweeted me: “What a nice thing to do!”

On election night, Carol cried. She wanted Mitt Romney, the Republicans - and me - to win.

She wrote: “Sorry you couldn't do it. I guess it just was not your time. You ran a hard race.... Love, Dad and Carol”

Several days later, Carol died from a stroke.

Then I understood what loss really was. Some things that we fail at can be tried again; some choices can be made anew. Some damaged relationships can be repaired; some families torn apart can be restitched and enriched. Losing the election was tough, but Carol’s loss put that defeat into perspective.

I gave the eulogy at the service, noting her steadfast commitment to our family and her honesty, loyalty, kindness, generosity and patriotism. The people in life who give you unconditional love can never be replaced. But you can always hold fast to their love and wisdom, their teachings and legacy.

Through Carol’s life, I learned that it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. For there are too many improbable destinations for us to even imagine. I am still on my journey and, thanks to Carol’s inspiration and impact, she will always be there with me.

Not to the side, left or right, but to the center of one’s self, where love resides.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

There has to be a BETR way forward for Maine.

When more than one fifth of Maine’s kids are living in poverty, why are its taxpayers handing out nearly one fifth of their money to companies such as Verso Paper, Bath Iron Works, Katahdin Paper, S.D. Warren and Nestle?

Maine’s projected $100 million shortfall in the state's Medicaid program, $35 million revenue shortfall in the budget that ends June 30, and a projected $880 million gap in the next two-year budget is going to require every stone be unturned to balance the books. 

What appears to be a "crisis" might be an opportunity to start anew. It's time to take a fresh approach to budgeting instead of the usual demand that every school board pony up its music program, and every town lay off its fire fighters.

One obvious place to begin are business subsidies and “incentives” not tied to job creation or elevating the quality of life for Maine families. Maine taxpayers donate $.17 of every dollar in the state budget to corporations. That’s $379 per person, according to a recent investigation by Louise Story of the New York Times.

The BETR program “refunds” property taxes paid by businesses on equipment purchases, and costs Maine taxpayers $55 to $60 million per year. Interestingly, companies don’t have to create or retain even one job to qualify.

Take for example the case of Katahdin Paper Company, LLC. Between 2008 and 2011, Maine paid $9.8 million back in property tax abatements, corporate income tax credits, rebates and reductions according to the Times story. Piling on, Brookfield Asset Management, the parent company of Katahdin Paper, left state officials with a predicament in 2011: either assume ownership of the nearby polluted Dolby landfill, thereby enabling the mills to be sold, or the corporation would permanently dismantle the mills in order to pay for the costs of closing and cleaning up the landfill.

The State of Maine assumed ownership of a polluted landfill on top of writing checks to a private multinational corporation for millions of dollars to “save” about 220 jobs in East Millinocket. Are these jobs important? Absolutely. Is this the best we can do for future economic prosperity in the region? I don't believe so. 

There may be good reason to provide economic incentives to companies that want to invest in Maine people, add value to communities and create jobs. But cutting deals with corporations 
without built-in protections, while cutting budgets to early childhood education programs, public safety, and schools that will train the future workforce is something we no longer can afford.