'Souls to the Polls' Drives Black Voting in Former KKK Stomping Ground

by Pema Levy

Stone Mountain, Georgia, was for decades famous as the stomping grounds of the Klan in the 20th century. But over the last 30 years, the Atlanta suburb has transitioned into a working class African American community. This election season, local churches organized their first "souls to the polls" effort here. I had the privilege to attend church and then head to the polls 9 days before the elections. From my story:

STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga — For his sermon on Sunday, Reverend Dr. Kenneth L. Samuel chose the story of Barabbas for what he saw as an historic day.

According to the Gospel of St. Mark, each year the people of Jerusalem were allowed to set free one prisoner condemned to death. “On this particular year, [Pontius Pilate] put one question on the ballot before the public. Shall I release to you Jesus or Barabbas?” the reverend told his congregation. “The people voted unanimously to free Barabbas and then to crucify Christ.”

“Everybody had a vote,” Samuel said, his voice so loud it vibrated through the pews. “And Jesus did not receive one vote"...


During my trip to Georgia, I also wrote about the growing divide and mutual suspicion between the state's urban minority communities and conservative, rural white population. Lastly, I sat down with state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams to talk about her plan to turn Georgia blue by 2020.

Trouble in Conservative Paradise

by Pema Levy

The midterms put to the test ultraconservative policies -- particularly tax cuts that translated into massive education cuts -- in Kansas and North Carolina. In the end, Republicans won in both states. But in North Carolina, the GOP Senate nominee almost lost in a GOP wave thanks to his far-right policies and took steps to moderate in order to win.

From my pre-election dispatch:

What sets North Carolina apart is what Tillis himself dubs the state’s “conservative revolution.” With inadequate budgets and shrinking tax revenue, Republicans over the past three years have turned North Carolina into a laboratory of libertarian economics and social conservatism. As the National Journal reported last year, North Carolina is “where the GOP’s wonderland is real.”

A little too real perhaps. While the state’s economy is improving—as it is nationwide—North Carolinians are beginning to see what happens when you slash state revenues and state spending: While the rich get a tax cut, the state runs out of money for important things like education.

“You cannot shrink the size and scope of government to a point where you starve your public school system,” Democratic consultant Brad Crone told Newsweek. “We don’t want to become Kansas.”


What Do Local Police Need 12,000 Bayonets For?

by Pema Levy

Why do local police need 12,000 bayonets?

Why does a sheriff's department with one officer need 13 military assault rifles?

Those were just some of the questions government officials faced this week before a grueling Senate panel on the militarization of the police. The shocking way in which police in Ferguson, Missouri turned the town into a war zone in response to largely peaceful protests brought home for many Americans just how much sending military equipment to local police forces has changed police departments and even American culture.

Here's an example of the grilling officials took:

“How did we ever get to the point where we think states need MRAPs?” Coburn asked Estevez, who was visibly uncomfortable at being grilled so closely. “This is obviously one of the areas that we’re going to look at, Senator,” Estevez replied.

McCaskill had done her research. She named a tiny sheriff’s department in Oklahoma that has one full-time sworn officer and two MRAPs, she told Estevez. In a small town in Michigan, she said, “you gave them 13 military assault weapons since 2011. They have one full-time sworn officer. So one officer now has 13 military-grade assault weapons.

“How in the world can anyone say that this program has one lick of oversight if those two things are in existence?” McCaskill asked.


Ferguson Politics: Divided by Race

by Pema Levy

The tragedy in Ferguson last month pitted the black community against Democratic white politicians -- laying bare the distrust African Americans have for the white members in their own party. It's a longstanding problem that resulted in the county's most racially divisive election just days before Michael Brown's death. 

If Ferguson leads to political change in the area, this is the context for it:

On August 5, Democrats in St. Louis County headed to the polls to choose their nominee in November’s county executive race. On the primary ballot was 10-year incumbent Charlie Dooley, who is black, and his challenger, white county Councilman Steve Stenger.

When the votes were tallied, Stenger had won overwhelmingly, ousting the black incumbent by nearly the same margin (66 percent to 30 percent) that white residents in St. Louis County outnumber African-Americans (70 percent to 24 percent). As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted Aug. 28, a map of the precinct results looks “almost identical to census maps of county demographics.”

Dooley’s vote tally aligned even more closely with the number of Democrats in the county who are black, about one-third... 


The controversial election became intertwined with the Michael Brown case when county prosecutor Bob McCulloch -- who played an important role in the race as a backer of the white candidate -- took over Brown's case:

“Whites in St. Louis County weren’t very familiar with Stenger but had been voting for McCulloch for all these decades,” Bynes explained. McCulloch’s support of Stenger “helped lend some credibility to his candidacy.”




Will Justice Be Done in Ferguson?

by Pema Levy

The prosecutor who is handling the Michael Brown case has a long history of siding with the cops. My story drills down into that history; in particular, the infamous Jack in the Box shooting looms large for the black community hoping for justice today.

On the afternoon of June 12, 2000, two unarmed black men pulled into the parking lot of a Jack in the Box in the northern suburbs of St. Louis, just a few miles from where Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier this month.

In the car were Earl Murray, a small-time drug dealer, and his friend Ronald Beasley. Waiting for them were a dozen detectives. By the time Murray realized it was a sting, he was surrounded. Panicked, he put his car into reverse but slammed into a police SUV behind him. Two officers approaching the car from the front opened fire. Twenty-one shots rained down on Murray and Beasley...

This week, McCulloch’s office began to present evidence to a grand jury in the case of Brown, the black, unarmed 18-year-old whose shooting death by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9 sparked nearly two weeks of riots.

The black community in Ferguson is bracing for McCulloch to let the officer who shot Brown go free, just as it believes he did with the two officers 14 years ago. “I don’t believe that Bob McCulloch’s office is going to issue any charges,” said Jerryl Christmas, a local criminal defense lawyer. “It’s not going to happen.”

'Our Nation’s Founders Are Portrayed as Bigots'

by Pema Levy

Conservative activists and the Republican Party are taking a stand against the new framework for Advance Placement U.S. history course taken by about 500,000 high school juniors every year. Their reason? The course doesn't adequately teach students about why America is great... and focuses too much on negative things like racism.

As a high school history teacher for more than 40 years, Larry S. Krieger felt it was his duty to teach his students what made America great.
Before retiring in 2005, Krieger, 66, liked to begin his Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) course each year with the story of John Winthrop, the early Puritan leader who famously called the new colonies a “city upon a Hill.”
“It sets the theme of American exceptionalism and the ideals of this country,” Krieger explained last week. 

That's not what he found in the new framework:

“As I read through the document, I saw a consistently negative view of American history that highlights oppressors and exploiters,” Krieger said on a conference call sponsored by two conservative groups fighting the new APUSH framework. He read quotes from the framework to illustrate his point: “Instead of striving to build a city on a hill, according to the Framework our nation’s Founders are portrayed as bigots who ‘developed a belief in white superiority’—that’s a quote—that was in turn derived from ‘a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority’ and that of course led to ‘the creation of a rigid racial hierarchy.”


Kentucky Hospitality

by Pema Levy

I traveled to Kentucky in August, where Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes are battling in the highest profile Senate race this year. While I was there, I fell in with a merry band of three friends, including a member of the Kentucky Supreme Court and one of the few-remaining but all-important undecided voters, and had a little adventure:

The windows were down and the brown GMC Savana van was picking up speed on the highway, headed for the Mississippi River. Except we were going in the wrong direction.

“We’re going north,” shouted the man in the back with the map. We needed to go south.

I came to cover the annual picnic in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, a political shouting match between Democrats and Republicans at the rural, western edge of the state. What began as a picnic for the local St. Jerome Catholic Church in 1880 has for decades now become the premier political event in Kentucky. Politicians from both parties rally their supporters—and get booed by the other side’s supporters—and exchange barbs over the thundering audience.

But on my way to the picnic, I was taking a little detour...


How the South Could Turn Blue

by Pema Levy

Fifty years ago this summer, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, aligning Democrats with minority voters and pushing southern whites into the Republican Party. Today, the GOP's iron grip on Southern politics has reached its peak. But there's a twist. Thanks to changing demographics, the GOP could lose the South just as its dominance there has become nearly complete. Here's the beginning of my Newsweek feature on how this is all working out:

Henry L. Marsh III wanted to see President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in person because, at 79, he figured he might not live to see another black president elected. So the Virginia civil rights lawyer spent January 21, 2013, in Washington, D.C., witnessing a part of history he had dedicated his life to making possible.

His presence at Obama’s inauguration, however, set off one of the dirtiest political maneuvers in recent history.

Marsh is a Democrat in the Virginia Senate, a chamber that until last month was divided evenly along party lines, with 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. But with Marsh 100 miles away in Washington, Republicans briefly enjoyed a 20-19 majority, if only for a few hours. In a power grab so brazen it caught even the GOP governor by surprise, Senate Republicans passed a bill redrawing the state Senate map to give them a permanent majority.

By the time Marsh returned, his colleagues had passed a redistricting bill that would have vastly undercut the political power of black Virginians. The new map crowded black voters into minority-heavy districts so that up to eight more districts would turn red, a strategy political scientists call “pack and crack,” leaving Republicans with a 27-13 majority in Virginia for years to come. As if to pour salt on the wound, this all happened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The plan never made it out of the Republican-controlled legislature. Two and a half weeks after the Senate passed the new map, the Republican speaker in Virginia’s lower chamber, after much reflection and prayer, angered his own party by killing the map with a procedural move.

“Count that as a new low for hyper-partisanship, dirty tricks and the unaccountable arrogance of power,” declared The Washington Post, echoing the widespread shock at the sly incident that made a mockery of democracy.

That attempt may seem extraordinary up close, but take a step back to look at the changing demographics of Virginia and the South more broadly and this power play starts to make sense. Two months before, Obama had won the state for a second time. For the first time since 1964, Virginia was on its way from red to blue.

Virginia’s Republicans were seeing decades of political control melting away before their eyes. “They tried to seize power that they didn’t deserve,” Marsh said. “They got caught with their hand in the cookie jar.”

The Conservative Movement to End the Death Penalty

by Pema Levy

The politics of the death penalty on the right are truly fascinating. While Republicans remain a solidly pro-capital punishment group, there are a few emerging trends in conservative circles that are opening the door for Republicans to question the wisdom of having a death penalty. In addition to arguments used commonly against the death penalty (a sanctity of life argument, a fiscal argument), Republicans are emerging as increasingly wary of any government action and increasingly open to criminal justice reform. 

The result is a GOP electorate that is starting to rethink our justice system and embrace any chance to take power away from the government. Though it may be a long road, that means Republicans may start moving against the death penalty. My story focuses on one man who is making this case to conservatives.

Marc Hyden was a little nervous as he took the stage in February at a local Republican political conference in Buford, Georgia, where some 300 conservatives looked up at him skeptically. He was about to pitch them on why they should oppose the death penalty.

“Many of them looked at me a little weirdly,” Hyden recalls. “Who is this guy? Is he a liberal acting as a conservative?”

He is not a liberal. A conservative Christian who most recently worked at the National Rifle Association, Hyden is one of two people leading a group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. His mission is to convince Republicans that the death penalty fails a “conservative litmus test.” Ultimately, the goal is to see it repealed in every state...

Armed with a PowerPoint slideshow, he began with the pictures of men on death row who were executed before potentially exculpatory evidence was uncovered. Next, he hammered on the high costs of the death penalty, largely due to the costlier trials and prolonged appeal process in most cases, which sometimes force counties to commit the cardinal conservative sin of raising taxes. The state of California, for example, has, since 1978, spent $4 billion on death penalty cases and carried out 13 executions.

“This should be offensive to conservatives,” Hyden told the crowd. “We’re supposed to act as stewards of the taxpayers’ hard-earned money.”

He bolstered his speech with quotes from prominent conservatives such as former U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas and columnist George Will, whose concerns about the death penalty might come as a surprise to some conservatives.

“Halfway through I could see there was a change in people,” Hyden says. “Once I was finished, I kept having people walk up to me telling me that in the morning they walked into the convention center supporting the death penalty, and now they’re leaving either opposed to the death penalty or not quite sure where they stand on it anymore.” ...

Political First Responders

by Pema Levy

Outpacing Republicans, progressives have honed their political skills over the last decade and now they're putting them to use. I wrote about this through the lens of American Bridge, one of Democrats' most effective super PACs:

Six years into George W. Bush’s presidency, when Democrats swept the 2006 midterm elections, a small group of Democratic operatives and progressive activists huddled at a Starbucks on Capitol Hill to plot their next offensive.

Among them were David Brock, founder of the watchdog group Media Matters, and Brad Woodhouse, who was then running communications for the progressive advocacy group Americans United for Change. They discussed creating a research and rapid response shop to attack Republicans.

That meeting was the first time Woodhouse recalls meeting Brock, a former conservative journalist famous for writing blistering hits on Anita Hill and Bill Clinton before becoming a Democrat. Since the early 2000s, he has worked to build liberal institutions that can attack conservatives. With boyish looks, Brock appears younger than his 51 years, despite a thick mop of now-silver hair.

In January, Brock hired Woodhouse as the new president of American Bridge 21st Century, an opposition research outfit that ultimately fulfilled the vision of that Starbucks gathering eight years earlier. A super PAC and affiliated nonprofit, American Bridge has become one of the left’s most innovative and successful ventures. ...

Will This Man Save the GOP?

by Pema Levy

Today's Republican Party is on a presidential losing streak, it has serious image problems with voters, demographic shifts are not in their favor and it has a hard time explaining why their ideas are better than Democrats' ideas.

Enter Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think thank. Republican lawmakers are flocking to Brooks for his recipe for a GOP comeback. And it doesn't hurt AEI that their chief competitor, the conservative Heritage Foundation, has alienated many GOP lawmakers. So I wrote about it.

On the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 18th Street in Northwest Washington, D.C., sits the Beaux Art apartment building where Andrew W. Mellon, the uber-rich banker and treasury secretary under three presidents, lived almost a century ago.

"It's the most significant architectural space in the central business district. Beautiful!" Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), told me. "We bought it. It's the new AEI."

The building, undergoing two years' worth of renovations to prepare it for its new inhabitants, is an apt metaphor for the transformations going on at AEI. A makeover, both inside and out, with Brooks at the helm.

AEI is on the rise. Its influence is growing on Capitol Hill, where Brooks, a former musician and college professor, is now a sought-after counsel to Republicans like House Budget Committee chairman and presidential hopeful Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. Earlier this year, Brooks delivered the keynote address at both House and Senate GOP retreats.

"He's expanding the influence of AEI," said Representative Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. "His network on Capitol Hill has expanded greatly."

An aide to the Republican House leadership concurred. "It is amazing the number of individual members who will say, 'I was talking to Arthur the other day,' " the aide said... 

He's the message man. He may not be a pollster, but Republicans say he possesses a gift for making conservative policies sound appealing. That is a rare talent and one GOP-ers feel they need to end their presidential losing streak.

"I think he's the right man for that institution at this moment in time," said Peter Wehner, a friend of Brooks and an alum of the past three Republican administrations. "He has become a star."...


Dispatch From The Supreme Court

by Pema Levy

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments over Obamacare's contraception rule. Kennedy looked like the swing vote, but the liberal justices tried to reach out to the Chief Justice Roberts with the argument that the so-called "mandate" is actually a "tax" -- the same argument that Roberts used to uphold the health care law two years ago.  My story on the arguments here.

Even with snow coming down, protesters on both sides were out in force to represent their side. 

The Contraception Mandate and the Supreme Court

by Pema Levy

On March 25, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two challenges to the Affordable Care Act's contraception coverage requirement. Here's what you need to know about the legal issues at stake, plus a few other intriguing elements of the case.

The legal issues: In November, I laid out the main legal issues in the case. I noted one potential hint as to where the chief justice's head might be on this case which I haven't seen covered elsewhere.

In 2011, Roberts wrote a humorous opinion for a unanimous court in which he mocked AT&T for seeking an exemption from a federal law as an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”... 

“‘Personal’ ordinarily refers to individuals," he wrote. “We do not usually speak of personal characteristics, personal effects, personal correspondence, personal influence or personal tragedy as referring to corporations.” Roberts couldn’t resist a final jab at AT&T, ending his opinion with the observation, “We trust that AT&T won’t take it personally.”

If it’s so hilarious to Roberts that corporations have feelings, is it obvious that they should have religious beliefs? “That AT&T case may be a sign of Roberts’ thinking,” Winkler said. “The emphasis on the AT&T case was on the right to privacy being thought of in very personal terms. Religious liberty is the same kind of right in some ways, a very personal right.”


There Is No Employer Mandate: A little-discussed aspect of the case -- but one that could potentially guide how the justices, particularly Chief Justice Roberts, come down -- has to do with a common misperception about the Obamacare itself. Despite popular rhetoric about an employer mandate, the law actually gives employers a choice: provide insurance or pay a tax.

“The whole case has this Alice in Wonderland quality to it,” says Rosenbaum. “They face no mandate whatsoever.”


It's the culture wars, stupid. For the left, the right, and even the justices themselves, it all comes down to how you feel about birth control. Case in point, check out some of the amicus briefs:

In another brief, a coalition of conservative nonprofits and religious ministries takes aim at the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which recommended that the ACA cover the full range of contraceptive services, a recommendation that the Department of Health and Human Services adopted. "[T]he IOM Committee Report encourages amoral recreational sex without reproductive consequences to be the optimal 'quality of life' and 'life course orient[ation]' for all American women," it reads.

The Mysterious Case of Charles Krauthammer's Sky High Book Sales

by Pema Levy

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer shocked the publishing world when his anthology sold a gazillion copies. I tried to figure out what happened.

The dean of conservative commentators Charles Krauthammer’s new book is flying off the shelves -- and nobody knows exactly why.

Sitting atop the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for two months now, the conversative Washington Post columnist’s Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics, a collection of his writings, is not the kind of fiery, rash conservative commentary that generally climbs to the top of the bestsellers’ lists.

And yet, the collection has sold enough to make publicists and pundits alike scratch their heads. It is, as conservative publisher Adam Bellow toldNewsweek, “a phenomenon.” ...

The Case That Could Topple Obamacare

by Pema Levy

A few months ago, I wrote about an anti-Obamacare case being led by top Republican lawyer Michael Carvin. Those involved say their case could destroy the Affordable Care Act. Supporters of the law call the legal challenge “preposterous,” “screwy” and a “Republican fantasy.”

But even the skeptics agree, you never know what the courts will do.

A little-heard of challenge currently making its way through the court system may represent opponents’ last best hope of, as they are fond of saying, driving a stake through the heart of the law.

It all started in 2011, when Jonathan H. Adler, a conservative law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, shot an email to his friend Michael Cannon, a health policy expert at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. Adler thought he had spotted an error in Obamacare that could unravel a significant portion of the law. ...