Sunday, December 1, 2013

Common Ground With Eliot Cutler

I’m happy -- flattered even -- to share my little plot of Internet real estate with my neighbor, Eliot Cutler. With the right algorithm, you might find his ad for governor at the bottom of this post, too. Since the holy grail of today’s politics is “finding common ground,” kudos to all seven people who read this blog and see his message. 

“Politics makes strange bedfellows,” the saying goes, but the more interesting phenomena are not the tribes that politics create, but the tribalism. Politics can be silly, like grade school, which reminds me that the best thing I have in common with Eliot Cutler is his nephew, Jack.  

Jack befriended my son on the first day of kindergarten at Small School in South Portland. This funny, big-hearted, cute kid came with equal parts irreverence and wit, making him one of very few 5 year-olds fun to be around for more than 15 minutes.

Compared to my son, Harrison, the firstborn to nervous and mildly intolerant parents, Jack is the youngest of three to calm, incredibly warm, confident people who helped us loosen our grip, and as a result enriched our lives.  We reluctantly caved to gentle pressure, for example, to let the boys ski alone at Sugarloaf, in the glades, and they were out for hours having terrific fun. 

And we nervously agreed to let Harrison take up Jack’s generous invitation see a Warren Miller film at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland, at night, when they were "only" 10 years-old. The Polaroid photo capturing their joy remains on display in Harrison’s room, and the memory of my anxiety waiting up for his safe return is now humorous. 

When the store opened in town selling Cosmic Wimpout and Lord of the Rings cards to tattooed people with black nail polish and guage earrings, Jack led the way. Soon packs of kids were running around our house waving sticks and beating back imaginary orks in breathless frenzy, as existential parenting questions raced through my mind.

“Is pretend violence okay if your child is fighting imaginary evil?”

Now after our family ritual of watching all three Lord of the Rings films, my non-violent kids inevitably pick up where they left off years ago, using rolls of Christmas wrapping paper as swords.

In October of 2003 we moved just up the road from South Portland to Cape Elizabeth. Jack came over to play, and his mother brought us a delicious cake on a beautiful square plate as a house warming gift. The two boys took off down the hill to our new neighbors’ yard to join a skirmish of kids playing, as if nothing had changed.

My new neighbors were very impressed with Jack, who they were told was the son of Governor John Baldacci. And they believed him. 

I laugh every time I think of this story, and I suspect Eliot might chuckle if he hears it, too.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Getting Good and Old

Serenity might be too strong a word, but forgive me. My mind is foggy from heavy injections of sugar, butter, and tryptophan. Just two helpings of potatoes short of Thanksgiving nirvana, I count my blessings and reflect.
As a kid growing up in Rhode Island, Thanksgiving was somewhat ambiguous. My nick-name was "Chub" which might explain why endless food as a holiday theme struck a cord. But some of it was really gross. Stuffing, for example. Soggy chunks of onions and celery? No thanks. Canned green bean casserole with chow mein noodles on top? Are you kidding me? 

There was a lot of love in the air in those days, with a touch of family tension. Leading up to sitting down for dinner, the momentum in the kitchen was palpable and intense. Humming of mixers, the buzzing of an electric carving knife and endless whisking was accompanied by the oven door opening and closing, again and again, in crescendo. Foil-covered bowls and pots outnumbered guests. "Stir the gravy!" It was hot. The dishes and pans to wash were overwhelming.
Then I got married and marched to the beat of Martha Stewart. I toiled over an artichoke stuffing with free-range walnuts that nobody liked. The turkey was blessed and fed a last supper of organic grain before it was killed, wrapped and priced accordingly. Roasted root vegetables with sprigs of herbs we grew in pots on our deck were not quite the hit I anticipated. That fourth trip downtown in heavy traffic for the Gewurtztraminer we absolutely needed for dinner made me cranky. The dishes that I transferred the food to from the pots in order to look good on the table were even more overwhelming, and not dishwasher safe. 

With a headache from our too-expensive wine, everything was more challenging. The icing on the homemade carrot cake was that my kids didn't eat much at Thanksgiving dinner and were hungry for macaroni and cheese shortly afterwards. And I made it for them.
Thank God middle age has set in!  I look in the mirror and the blurry, older version of myself accepts that I was never much of a fancy cook. That's why we have older sisters. All I want is for family, friends and my dog to be around and relatively happy. A "natural" Butterball Turkey seems quite content in my refrigerator. The pretty box of Bell Stuffing is sleek enough in its simplicity, and the ingredients thankfully too small to read. Pie-making is happily surrendered to my cheerful and enthusiastic daughter. I am able to turn a blind eye to my son drinking soda, eating cookies and playing video games minutes before dinner. It's their smiles and laughter I crave.

I drink the wine that is closest to me, and open. Even dog hair blowing around in tumbleweeds in the right light can be artistic. With this age comes freedom to give in to and thoroughly enjoy the unique energy and momentum of us.  The recipe for fond memories, it turns out, is pretty simple.
Presented on Thanksgiving is an opportunity to live in the moment of the incredible abundance that surrounds me. I'm deeply grateful to have, at last, the good sense to seize it.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The First Step to Recovery

Thursday, November 21, 2012
Portland, Maine

Riveted to my computer screen today, I jumped back and forth from C-SPAN to Twitter, completely ignoring the piles of work on my desk and the phone that was ringing. My heart was racing, my mood euphoric, my palms sweaty.

I got high on filibuster reform today, and I might be addicted to change.

There were motions and emotions, speech and debate - all leading to happy hallucinations. Sen. Harry Reid was a strong, courageous cowboy. He was a Majority Master of the Universe who did not bloviate -- did not lecture. He was not pedantic, but instead passionate and virile. Reid fought for us, using words and the rules of the Senate as a mighty sword.

Such a powerful drug was this action in the senate, even Sen. McConnell didn’t annoy me. He was eloquent and brisk. In the fencing match of procedural tricks and machinations the repartee and votes were close and fast. McConnell’s arguments were hollow, of course, but everything looks good in the right light. Waiving Obamacare like shiny rhinestoned shield, McConnell threw up the white flag, shouting to his base,  “Retreat! Fire up the fundraising machine! Prepare for the public relations war!”

After seeing and hearing what happened in the Senate today, while reading and tweeting reaction and surprise, I finally know what its like to play Halo or be an NHL fan. Maybe this is what watching Downtown Abby does to people. 

The drama, the pageantry and the visceral emotion if captured and transmitted to the grid could power a bright future.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Gasbags in Maine Explain Gender Wage Gap

The “liberal media” in conspiracy with the Census Bureau reported this week that women earn 80% of what men earn, on average.

Research explains roughly 60% of the problem: Women pull out of the fast lane to care for children or enter professions that pay less, for example. Forty percent of the gender wage gap “puzzle” however is a gaping black hole not explained by scientific study.

The issue of persistent inequality of income between men and women in the United States is open to sheer speculation, and one thing we know for sure is that gasbags abhor a vacuum.

Look no further than the Sage of Farmington to offer his keen insight as to why women don’t earn equal pay for equal work in the land of equal opportunity. His self-absorbed, back-slapping column doesn’t tackle the issue directly, but its mere presence in Maine newspapers offers some not-so-nuanced clues.

The Sage writes of his love to read and reread what a fellow curmudgeon columnist writes adoringly about him, but makes it clear he won’t stoop to read anything written by conservative-turned-liberal women, like Arianna Huffington.  While he delights in rattling off a laundry list of obscure male writers he and like-minded true “genetic conservatives” inhale, Huffington isn’t “intellectual” enough for his club. She is merely “good looking.”

With all his time spent reading hard-to-find works of underground pure conservatives, it’s no wonder the Sage has never encountered a single person who has drifted from the right to the left of the political spectrum. His worldview springs forth from an echo chamber like a breath of stale air. How privileged we are in Maine to read his opinions and ideas in the newspapers and on the Internet.

So what do the women columnists have to say about the subject of disparate pay in Maine, and the nation?  

Well, that’s left to speculation as well! You see there are plenty of conservative men who are paid to lament publicly about being treated unfairly by the “liberal media,” but no women paid less to weigh in on the gender gap, or anything else political for that matter.

A cruel irony, perhaps, is that women’s voices are welcome, for free, on the Huffington Post.

Why don’t things change and get better for working women, with regularly published lectures from men like the Sage who writes with pride that he “never experienced a transition?” What a surprise the gender wage gap continues, with daily doses of what old farts like him have to say.

The Sage is given a public voice by the biggest news outlet in Maine to write about his resentment of being constantly exposed to liberal points of view, while according to him “liberals” live their entire lives “without any direct exposure at all” to conservative brilliance.  

I dare you to speculate what will happen when the people of Maine are finally given “direct exposure” to women’s voices in the media about political issues like the chronic wage gap between men and women. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest us girls will be paid more fairly. Good looking, or not.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Double Standard for Women: Democrats and Republicans on Common Ground

As one Christian woman to another, I fully support Maine Republican House member Amy’s Volk’s legislation to erase prostitution convictions from the records of human trafficking victims. My God, what if Mary Magdalane had a rap sheet? We might not know He is risen.

But let’s put aside the merits of the legislation, and assume we are on common ground when it comes to having compassion and doing what’s right for those forced in to sex slavery.

What Maine’s political party chairmen did and said following the dismissal of Volk’s legislation by Democratic leaders is of interest to me.

"This is a Republican party and a conservative legislator who is desperate to try to realign a gender gap that their party faces at the polls, and a representative who needs to kind of soften her hard edges,” said the Democratic Chair Ben Grant, justifying the partisan smackdown of Volk’s bill.

Anyone who knows Representative Volk will attest she is hardly a woman with hard edges. “Curvaceous” is more like it. But it’s not her body Grant is talking about. For lack of a Christian term, it’s her chutzpah.

Grant’s remarks were offensive, like GOP Chairman Bennett said to his base, before dramatically demanding an apology while invoking Volk’s religion.

“For the Democrat Chairman to say that Rep. Volk is just trying to ‘soften her edges’ sounds patronizing and sexist...Rep. Volk is a Christian woman who feels strongly about helping people recover from difficult situations; she was involved in an effort at her church to raise money to fight human trafficking well before this bill came out….”

Did Bennett say something about Christianity and fundraising? That’s a familiar tune straight from the conservative hymnal. It’s not that Volk is feisty, she’s doing God’s work.

Either the weight of Catholic guilt or polling prompted an “apology” of sorts by Grant. His remorse was couched in intellectual terms, as if “patronizing and sexist” can be disproved with research or ignored like a whiny two-year old in the back seat of a Prius.

"I made several ill-conceived remarks last week about Representative Volk's proposed legislation. Since that interview, I have looked into the matter further and now understand that the issue of human trafficking does occur in all 50 states…”

Grant’s remarks questioning the need for legislation to protect human trafficking victims were ill-conceived, no doubt, and his apology noted.

But what about the remark that Volk needs to soften her hard edges? Grant blurted out what many believe but dare not say. Snarky is for guys.

The challenge for women regardless of party in the blood sport of politics is to succeed without appearing to want success. To win a fight without being scrappy. What’s admired as “bold” in men is scorned as brash in women. What’s sharp is shrill.

The Democratic Party and many “liberals” are theoretically feminist but fall short of always valuing women equal to men. There is a double standard about what’s politically correct. Likewise, theoretically the Republican Party is for “small government,” except when it comes to dictating what women do with their bodies. Prostitutes might not have a criminal record in their world, but they also have no choice.

Monday, October 28, 2013

More Than a Few Good Men

Its harder than ever to get unbiased reporting. Every ideology has its own channel, every bully their own pulpit. Social media gives anyone with a device a voice, and reduces complexity to sound-bite. The Center for Public Interest Reporting disrupts this frenetic pace just in time for the 2014 elections, and offers up the opposite of all-inclusive, short and new.

So move over Woodward and Bernstein. John Christie’s epic investigative report, The Book on Paul LePage: The ‘biggest, baddest person around’ crashes Augusta’s ‘nicey-nicey’ club, is a gripping mind-numbing narrative that reads like a very, very long Hollywood screenplay. Culled from an exhaustive number of interviews with men of Maine, Christie’s piece is jam-packed with breathtaking revelations of the inner workings of Maine’s governor and those whose jobs depend on him.  

The breadth of Christie’s Rolodex is impressive. Several important people connected to the 2010 gubernatorial race, including former GOP challenger Peter Mills, were interviewed. After losing the primary for his second time, Mills, dubbed “student of the budget” by Christie, confessed that LePage’s controversial pension reform legislation is his “single biggest achievement.” Numerous similarly profound remarks are quoted in Christie’s masterpiece. Not mentioned by Christie but worth noting is that citizens can read even more of what this Maine Sage has to say on Twitter @MaineTurnpike, where Mills works thanks to a LePage appointment.

Eliot Cutler, the unenrolled candidate who lost in 2010 to LePage, was also interviewed by Christie and quoted several times in the “book” allegedly about LePage. Cutler has never held public office and is running again for governor, but graciously found time to offer Christie this juicy tidbit, “I’ve put good practices in place in’s hard work and it’s collaborative.” 

For this incisive self-analysis, it’s no wonder Cutler is described by Christie as the “classic good government independent.”

Contrast these two 2010 election casualties, Scholar Mills and Classic Good Government Cutler, with the third, “stalwart Democrat” Libby Mitchell. 

Mitchell won the 2010 democratic primary in a crowded field, and lost the general election. Of the 34 people interviewed for Christie’s investigation, Mitchell, the first woman in any state to be elected both Speaker of the House and President of the Senate with decades of experience as public servant, was not among those interviewed. The public owes Christie a debt of gratitude, however, for boiling down her expansive career to just one sentence. That takes real journalistic skill.  

Christie speaks for Mitchell briefly and with confidence, and that’s what matters.  He tells us Mitchell “did not make the pension debt an issue and believed future investment returns would solve the problem - a view the Democratic-appointed head of the pension board did not endorse.” 

What does Mitchell herself have to say? Who is the so-called “Democratic-appointed” pension expert who disagrees with her, and why? Perhaps these questions, answers, and primary sources are slated for Christie’s much awaited sequel.

What’s most telling is Christie’s airtight confirmation of what many have long suspected: Men lose elections because they are too smart; women lose elections because they aren’t smart enough.

Investigative journalism takes more than wit, and is not suited for the faint at heart. In this respect, Christie is a tiger in that jungle some call Augusta. It took guts for him to ask Severin Beliveau, a “partner in one of the state’s leading law firms” whose “bona fides are as long and as impressive as his success as a lobbyist” how he feels about Maine’s governor. Christie’s relentless, hard-hitting journalism paid off when he uncovered that Beliveau, who has gobs of business and money tied up in state politics, has nothing but good things to say about the chief executive and all state agencies he appears before. 

“There’s been an almost dramatic change in the attitude in the state agencies,” Beliveau conceded, no doubt sweating over the possibility he revealed too much to this intrepid reporter. “They’ve become more respectful, more helpful, willing to find a way to solve a problem.”

Shocking words from the Godfather of Maine politics!

And it's hard to fathom that in one of the most politicized environments in the state's history, Christie was able to track down as many consultants he did who are "neutral” with no opinion whatsoever. Citing him 8 times, Christie describes Alan Caron, for instance, “one of the most cited centrists in the state.” Caron’s objectivity and Harvard education are obvious in this bold revelation that, “the cup is half full and half empty when it comes to Paul LePage.” 

Christie’s Leviathan has more than 70 quotes from 26 men, not including the dozens of quotes from LePage. We can accept what these learned men say is true because Christie went to great length investigating and reporting their credentials. Mr. Woodbury is a no ordinary economist. He is a “Harvard-educated economist.” Mr. Clair is the Chairman of the state’s Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission, the CEO of Good Health Care Systems, a former non-partisan staffer to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, and holds a master's degree in public administration from Syracuse University. Mr. Caron has his master’s degree in public policy from Harvard. Mr. Peterson is a Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Mr. Linsky teaches public leadership at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. 

In the public’s interest, Christie doesn’t limit his “sources” to the upper crust, though. A man with zero credentials, Al Diamon, speaks the universal language all men understand when he is quoted saying LePage is “a boob.”

Refreshing is Christie’s chivalry. He works hard to spare the tiny handful of women identified in his opus from being “labeled” or boxed-in by degrees or professional experience. As the majority of the “public” whose interest Christie gallantly seeks to protect, his concern that these females might be stereotyped as elitist, pompous or even affected by credentials is noble. Christie’s sparing use of 11 very short quotes from just 7 women demonstrate his very excellent point: When it comes to women, less is enough. 

In fact, only two women quoted by Christie are burdened with reference to education at all, and in the case of Pola Buckley, the article is as “understated” as possible. Buckley is, a "CPA" lucky to be “appointed by the Democratic Legislature.” 

By omitting reference to Buckley’s MBA and previous experience as the CFO at a major manufacturing company and analyst at a Fortune 500 Company, the public won’t be lulled into thinking she is over-confident.

Maybe there just wasn’t room in his 19 pages of “journalism” for Christie to report the credentials of women in this “who’s who” of Maine politics. He strikes the right “balance” by not mentioning Emily Cain’s Harvard education, for example, or Mayor Karen Heck’s award-winning and impressive resume. Libby Mitchell has a law degree, but that’s nothing the “public” wants to know.

Christie’s work reminds us there are countless courageous and thoughtful heroes earning a living as political elites in Maine. What political consultant Dan Demeritt said of his former boss, Lepage, captures the spirit and grit of these men, and will undoubtedly serve him well in 2014. 

“I would walk in front of a train for him,”  he told Christie, who had no choice but to publish this very moving and selfless statement - something every Maine citizen should know. 

Every word in Christie’s 10,000+ word article is pure gold. A must-read for all Mainers, indeed all who call themselves Americans.

Friday, September 13, 2013

It's a Soap Opera Running an Airbnb with my Thrifty New England Husband

No one likes to lose and nobody wants their losses hung out to dry. Last November I did both when I ran for the United States Senate.

It wasn’t just losing the election. That was no surprise. It was losing by so much. The magnitude was sobering.

Worse was the post-election mourning period. It was like death—nobody knew what to say.  Neighbors avoided eye contact at the IGA. Party invitations dried up. My tweets were retweeted no more.  

Public rejection is not a confidence-builder.  It is hard work and hard on relationships.  The agony of defeat doesn’t stop the world from turning though, it just adjusts the focus. I knew I was writing my own script. I needed to take on a new challenge and succeed.

The big purge was step one. We had a massive yard sale to clear the deck and help clear my head. Good-bye futon mattresses, lava lamps and bumper stickers! Sayonara old toys, palm cards, T-shirts and yard signs.

Truck loads of stuff was carted out of my life, creating space for opportunity and hope to creep back in.

The Dill for U.S. Senate campaign office became the Pillar Suite—a place for people to come and enjoy a beautiful coastal town in Maine. We have a listing on the chic Airbnb website and host guests from New York City, Montreal, Los Angeles and beyond.

And it turns out I’m not such a loser after all.

“Cynthia was a terrific host, ” said Jordan from Waitsfield, Vermont.

“Cynthia took great care in giving us fresh dishes and rinsed out the coffee pot for us each morning,” commented Christine from Brooklyn.

“As a host, she was VERY accommodating and responded quickly before and during the trip to all my inquiries (thank you!). I would definitely stay with Cynthia again…”

Our guests love the robust coffee, fresh orange juice and Greek yogurt I leave in the shiny new refrigerator. They appreciate the maps and brochures I carefully organize on the desk. They snack on the variety of granola bars I arrange in a pretty clay bowl. They sleep well in the sheets and blankets I bought on line at JC Penny.

Don’t get me wrong. Life as an Airbnb hostess is not without its challenges.

Ten months ago, I worried about crafting pithy position papers on national issues, now I fret about finding soap small enough to satisfy my husband’s thrifty nature. You see, the small bars of Dove we purchase for the Pillar Suite cost as much as the large bars and both get thrown out long before their utility is expired. The waste is killing my one and only.

So, we scour our house for unused hotel soaps and bottles of body wash. We compare soap prices at CVS to Hannaford’s and Whole Foods.  We consider alternatives, and watch YouTube videos about recycling by boiling soap lumps with pieces of balsam or lemon peel.

It’s a struggle, but we’re up for it. Every day and every guest present an opportunity. Life is exciting and rewarding.

As long as we can re-invent ourselves to serve and bring comfort to others the American Dream lives on, I’m happy to report.  

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Maine Dems and the Bluegrass State

When GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell worked like a maniac to kill a bipartisan transportation bill championed by Susan Collins that would put people to work fixing bumpy roads and crumbling old bridges, the senior senator from Maine publicly offered no explanation.

“I can’t speculate on why. All I can tell you is he has never worked harder against a member of his own party than he did against me today.”

McConnell's efforts to squash months of hard work included standing guard at the voting desk in the austere senate chamber while sheepish GOP senators flipped their "aye" committee vote to "nay."

Was Collins the only Republican joining Democrats on a terrible bill? Or was it Republicans abandoning one of their own and good legislation for purely political reasons? 

McConnell says he was only protecting the Sequester. That awful, foolish legislation opposite the transportation bill. He says Congress should not be spending tax payer money on things tax payers need and want. He intends to prove by example that government is the problem in the hope he can get re-elected to further disassemble it. 

Apparently most Senate Republicans agree with him, while Washington Democrats describe our Maine Republican senator as a Profile in Courage.

Independents meanwhile wring their hands about abuse of the filibuster they could help change with just a bit of courage and gumption. 

So what about the 2014 election, and Maine's profile in the U.S. Senate?  

Running against Senator Collins will be a memorable, rewarding, expensive and very lonely experience for most Democratic contenders. Trust me.

Our own party apparatus in the capital city will leave our Democratic candidate left to fend for herself, not because she is a terrible candidate but for political reasons. 

A compromise is surely in order! Maine Democrats can help elect Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky Democrat running against Mitch McConnell.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Braun, Spitzer, Garcia, Weiner, Deen and Me

I wish to apologize to anyone I may have disappointed.
I apologize first, and most importantly, to my family. I apologize to the public, whom I promised better. I do not believe that politics in the long run is about individuals. It is about ideas, the public good and doing what is best for the Party (sic). But I have disappointed and failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself. I must now dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family.
I feel sick about it. I'm truly, truly sorry. And I hope we can kind of settle things down and hopefully move on. 
In fact, I beg for your forgiveness ... please forgive me for the mistakes that I've made.
You see me in the grocery store and feel so awkward. You bump in to me on the beach or at the court house and don’t know what to say. You are embarrassed and humiliated, and I take full responsibility.
I have hurt the people I care about the most and I am deeply sorry. I have not been honest with myself, my family, my constituents, my friend and supporters and the media.

So...we good?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

America's Changing Voice

The world listened intently when Barack Obama spoke about the killing of Trayvon Martin. 

The President recounting the story of being followed in a department store and feared on an elevator was disarmingly personal, and very generous. He gave powerful voice to otherwise ignored black teenage boys. 

No other American president, Democrat or Republican, could match the depth of Obama’s remarks about the corrosive bias that pervades the lives of black men because they never walked in the shoes of a black man. Obama not only can relate to Trayvon Martin, he was Trayvon Martin.

National and international events are interpreted and reported by white men in the U.S. but because “liberal” and “conservative” angles are offered, we are made to believe there is balance in perspective. But of course there’s not. 

We are a better nation because we got an authentic reaction to the death of a 17 year-old black boy from our president, speaking from the heart as a black man. 

Imagine an America when events unfolding around the country and the world are interpreted and reported by our president speaking as a woman. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Justice Is Not Blind

If you serve an incapacitated person alcohol and let them borrow your car, it’s no surprise that if they hit and kill someone, you will be held accountable. You will be punished and have to pay for the harm caused. The chances are you won’t repeat the mistake.

The laws that apply to you and me are meant to deter bad behavior on the one hand, and provide justice to those harmed on the other.

It may come as a surprise that the same rules don’t apply to the manufacturers and sellers of guns. These companies have a unique law on the books that shields them from legal liability. In light of the recent shooting tragedy in Falmouth, Maine, now is a good time to talk about whether Cabela’s should be held to the same community standards of care as everyone else.

The last thing on Thomas Leighton’s mind, of course, is whether he should sue Cabela’s, the company that sold the weapon his mentally ill son used to murder his wife of 48 years. He’s understandably busy coping with a death and criminal trial.

My heart breaks for the Leighton family.  I didn’t know her, but when I read about Shirley Leighton and that she would talk about her son and cry, I cried. It’s tragically unfair that this hard-working devoted wife, mother and grandmother was shot in the head by her own child as she tried desperately to get him the medical help he needed.

No words can describe the agony that the Leighton family must be experiencing on so many levels. Their story, however, begs for a solemn and respectful community conversation about our values and the justice system.

It’s not fair that after 48 years of marriage, Thomas Leighton has to spend the rest of his life alone questioning what he should have done to protect his wife.

It’s not fair that only after he killed his mother, will Andrew Leighton get the institutional support and medical attention he obviously needs to treat his mental illness.

The shocking reality is that Cabela’s will likely not be held accountable for selling the obviously incapacitated and deranged Andrew Leighton the gun he used to shoot his mother, or giving him the bullets that killed her on May 3rd.  And this isn’t fair either.

The silence of corporations following a tragedy compared to the massive amounts of corporate “speech” used to lobby members of Congress is stunning. In 2005 the NRA’s top legislative priority for its members was passage of “The Protection of Lawful Commerce Act,” a law that grants manufacturers and sellers of guns and ammunition immunity from lawsuits. Millions and millions of dollars were spent lobbying to get this legislation passed.

Since corporations are people in the eyes of the law, spending huge sums of money to get laws passed like the Protection of Lawful Commerce Act is apparently a legitimate exercise of the First Amendment right of free speech. With rights comes responsibility for the rest of us. Why should corporations get one without the other?

In the aftermath of the Leighton tragedy, the law will likely be used as a shield against any potential claims brought by the family seeking justice for Shirley’s murder, even though Cabela’s apparently sold  AndrewLeighton the gun used to kill when he was at the height of a mental health crisis and obviously impaired beyond reason.

Treating powerful special interests differently is not what laws are supposed to do.

The law that was passed to shield the gun industry from responsibility for selling incapacitated people like Andrew the guns they use to kill people like Shirley is a bad law. There is nothing to deter profit seeking corporations from doing harm, and there is no method for people harmed to seek justice.

Some will argue the law protects the gun industry from “politically motivated” lawsuits that could bankrupt weapons makers, but the U.S. gun industry racked up over $10 billion in sales in 2012, and $900 million in profit. It can afford to be held accountable for bad acts.

In America, real people are hauled in to court when they breach the community’s standard of care. A jury of their peers determines an award of money damages that will deter irresponsible and reckless behavior going forward, and fairly compensate for the harm caused. If gun corporations have a First Amendment right to lobby the United States Congress with millions of dollars in order for them to sell billions of dollars worth of weapons, they should be subject to the same standards as the rest of us, and take responsibility for reckless behavior.

If we want to deter corporations from recklessly selling guns to incapacitated people, we must subject them to the American system of justice and hold them accountable in a court of law.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Justice for Veterans

With so many victims coming forward, and so much heartbreaking evidence of sexual assault and rape in the military, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the U.S. Congress must take urgent action to address this epidemic of violence to women, and to many men, in uniform.

These are not isolated cases; these are not cases of “he said, she said.” These are horrifying statistics that harm the credibility and mission of our military. There is a pattern of violence here that cannot be denied, one that subjects its victims to injustice, inaction, denial and retribution.

But now the silence has been broken. These brave victims have stepped forward to say, “No. Not again.” Given their courage, can our national leaders find the same strength to finally face the truth and demand a solution?

We believe the answer is yes. Now that this terrifying reality can no longer be ignored, urgent action must be taken.

We salute U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, new Chair of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, for her promise to hold an important hearing on what she has labeled this “reprehensible problem.”

Sen. Gillibrand has vowed to find solutions, telling the media: “We have 19,000 sexual assaults a year happening — and only a small handful of perpetrators being prosecuted and discharged.

“The committee not only can shine a light on military sexual trauma, more importantly we want to develop a response to reduce and eliminate whatever level of tolerance there is for this type of behavior.”

We agree. And like Sen. Gillibrand, we insist that real action be made to resolve this violence, to give the victims some sense of closure and to prevent future harm.

One issue often overlooked is how to fairly compensate the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have suffered the consequences of sexual assault and rape. Many have had their lives ruined. Many are haunted by their experiences and can no longer make a living due to related injuries of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other debilitating illnesses.

With nowhere else to turn for help, these victims often come to us as a last resort. They come for some kind of resolution, for closure, for help.

We are here, then, to bear witness to their plight.

Some of these veterans call us from homeless shelters; others phone from cars that have become their homes. Some send us handwritten notes because they don’t have access to a computer. Others are driven to endless research, day and night, searching the global Internet for support and validation. Each individual story is gut-wrenching.

This is wrong. This is immoral. This is unjust.

This is not the way America should treat its warriors.

What these veterans seek, and what we intend to bring them, is acknowledgement, justice and reforms.

Our fights are just beginning in the courts around this country, and we believe a tsunami of claims is imminent as judges awaken to their duty and power to provide a remedy to the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our freedoms and democratic form of government and then been ignored.

We must develop a strategy to redress the wrongs that have been done to these soldiers, sailors and marines.

Surely as Americans, we can figure out a way to provide some modicum of relief to these injured veterans – our children, sisters, brothers, neighbors and friends.

We urge Secretary Hagel, Sen. Gillibrand and the Congress to do a few simple things, urgently.

First, issue a public apology to those who have been harmed. Second, make an appropriation to allow some redress of the financial hardships that have been shouldered. Third, establish a claims process without delay for eligible veterans who have been raped, sexually assaulted and subjected to other forms of violence.

This three-pronged remedy is not unique, nor is it unrealistic. The same model is being used to redress discrimination inflicted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on black, Hispanic and women farmers.  

This remedy will avoid endless courtroom battles for these veterans, who honestly have endured enough battlefields for a lifetime. Let’s not make them fight again at home.

We cannot give back what was brutally taken from the veterans raped and assaulted while serving this nation. But we can apologize for what they have lived through, and we can make a deserved gesture of compensation.

Money will help these veterans get the care, education, housing and stability they need and deserve. A public apology and acknowledgment will validate their plight. And more: it will salute their bravery in coming forward with their stories and it will serve to speed much-needed reforms in our military justice system.

Our veterans deserve no less.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

It's Time to Smash the Brass Ceiling

The staggering number of sexual assaults committed against American women serving in the military is 19,000 per year. Only when the law recognizes women who fight as warriors will this number be reduced.

That’s why both a lawsuit recently filed in U.S. District Court in California and last Thursday’s announcement by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the “combat exclusion” policy of the Department of Defense will be revised are welcome news on many fronts. The end to legalized discrimination will give 214,000 active-duty American servicewomen the opportunity to compete for 238,000 positions across the Armed Forces currently denied them because of their gender. It also means women will be less likely subject to sexual harassment and assault.

Don’t just take my word for it. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, agrees.

“I have to believe, the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally,” Dempsey is quoted as saying in a story reported in the Christian Science Monitor.

The combat exclusion policy was adopted during the Clinton Administration in 1994 and says women can “be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, except that women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.”

This rhetoric doesn’t reflect the real life experience of soldiers fighting in today’s military theatres, however, and causes real and lasting harm. It both stifles opportunity, and nurtures the abuse of power. So while politicians wrestle with the issues of equality of opportunity and freedom from assault in committee rooms, some women are taking their fight to the court room.

Major Mary Jennings Hegar is a combat helicopter pilot who served three tours in Afghanistan for the Air National Guard. She successfully completed a grueling training program that qualified her to fly medevac missions in extremely dangerous combat conditions on a daily basis in remote mountains. Her helicopter took direct fire regularly, and on one occasion her aircraft was shot down as she was evacuating injured soldiers. Hegar herself was shot and she returned fire. Ultimately she was able to successfully complete the rescue mission. For this she was awarded the Purple Heart, recognizing her “outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty.”

Because of the combat exclusion policy, Major Hegar is barred from competing for thousands of advanced positions, leadership training and entire career fields solely because she is a woman. Hegar and others brought suit in federal court alleging the policy violates their rights to equal protection of the law, as secured by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

All women are denied career opportunities like Hegar. Meanwhile half of the women deployed to Afghanistan with her report being sexually harassed, and one quarter report they were sexually assaulted. This is no coincidence. When women are by law declared unfit to carry out essential functions of the armed services because of their gender, they are not treated equally. The official policy that legalizes discrimination creates an automatic power imbalance, with only men at the top. Sexual harassment and assault in the military is about the abuse of this power. Lust and uncontrollable testosterone have nothing to do with it.

The lifting of the combat exclusion policy is good news for women directly and their families, and for the United States as a whole. Equality of opportunity will increase combat-readiness, strengthen the Armed Services, and reduce oppression, harassment and abuse within the ranks. The political attempt to address the issue is welcome, but will be the subject of compromise. Also attacking the issue in the court room is important. A declaration that women soldiers have a constitutional right to equal protection of the law will both serve as a deterrent of harassment and assault, and a much needed remedy.

I applaud Secretary Panetta and the Joints Chiefs of Staff for taking the first step towards aligning America’s military policy with the reality on the ground for our troops. I also am grateful to Major Hegar and others for demanding justice in the United States District Court. We honor the sacrifice of those who serve by forever striving for more freedom, more liberty and more equality.

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