Friday, June 29, 2007

Walberg is no friend of free press

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg doesn't like me and I don't give a damn.

Neither should you.

Journalists and politicians often enjoy a testy, if not combative relationship; that's nothing new.

They're in the business of making themselves look good, raising cash and getting re-elected.The press is in the business of reporting the truth about officials' voting records, platforms, finances and campaign ads.

Naturally, these goals often clash. As a result, Walberg and his staff refuse to answer my questions, provide information on his votes and inform me of his public events.

As an editor, I can't even assign a reporter to cover something as simple as the Tipton Republican's earmarks in the federal budget - as was the case last week - because I'm not privy to his press releases.

In short, I can't do my job to inform the public - and you lose.

What you should care about is that the congressman doesn't much care for you, either, because he is actively squelching your right to know.

Even more troubling is his hypocrisy. In a flowery, self-congratulatory column in last Friday's Detroit Free Press, Walberg metamorphosed into the media's biggest champion, sounding his support for the Free Flow of Information Act. It's a federal shield bill for journalists, protecting us from prosecution if we won't reveal a confidential source's name.

But who will protect the press from Tim Walberg?

"Government waste, fraud and abuse are breaches of public trust, and we must not punish reporters who bring such indiscretions to light through confidential sources," he writes.

Amen. And that's exactly what I did when I incensed Walberg by investigating Federal Election Commission complaints against him (same as I did for those against his rival, former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, R-Battle Creek.)

That's what I did when I broke the story that Walberg refused to fire his campaign aide, Daniel A. Coons, even after finding out he pleaded guilty to abusing his foster son. That's what I did in reporting Walberg's goal to stockpile enough funds so Schwarz wouldn't take him on in 2008.

The difference is, I never used anonymous sources. The Enquirer has a practice against that. I used court documents, affidavits, FEC records and in-depth, on-the-record interviews.

The proof was there in black and white. But Walberg decided he didn't like the truth, so he took his toys and went home.

When Walberg does deign to answer media requests, his idea of openness and accountability is to have his press secretary, Matt Lahr, e-mail Orwellian, canned responses that never answer the question.

Example: "What does Rep. Walberg think of being challenged by (Scio Township Democrat) David Nacht?"

Answer: "The congressman is focused on tax relief, Great Lakes restoration and education reform."

Walberg has an obligation to communicate with you, his constituents, and the best way to reach the most people is through the media. But apparently, he believes that communication only has to flow one way.

When I asked about the public's right to know in my final conversation with Lahr, he chillingly replied: "The congressman's concern is getting out his message."

To do so, Walberg has to hope for a complacent, overworked media that will regurgitate his press releases and won't check his facts, question his rhetoric and examine his performance. Sorry, sir, you won't find any journalists like that at our paper.

He knows that, which is why he and his aides start singing the tired song that the liberal media is out to get him. Yes, people of all political persuasions pile on the press, but it's also true that the shrillest voices in the last decades have come from the far right.

It's a surefire way for pols to play to the base - which is how Walberg squeaked into his seat in the first place. And it's something journalists often shy away from saying, lest we prompt conservatives to belt out another chorus against us.

Well, bring it on.

With all the time Walberg spends stonewalling the press, you have to wonder what he's doing to earn $165,200 of your money each year and why he's so tight-lipped about it.

But we journalists will keep asking questions, because we owe it to you, the public. As your employee, Rep. Walberg owes you answers.

Which is something he might want to consider, since he's up for a big job evaluation next fall.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Doing the right thing won't win the White House

The unions don't get it.

And if the Democratic Party finally realizes this, it might actually forgo blowing the 2008 presidential race the way it managed to dazzlingly lose the last two elections.

Democrat Barack Obama has about the same shot as Republican Mitt Romney to snatch the AFL-CIO endorsement. Mark Gaffney, the blunt and witty Michigan head of the nation's largest labor organization, more than hinted at that this month in Detroit.

So what crime did Obama commit? Did he call for a Right to Work law? Sanction sweatshops in Shanghai? Was he caught indiscriminately scratching himself on YouTube?

No, the junior senator from Illinois committed heresy by calling out automakers for stymieing a modest hike in fuel efficiency standards.

"Don't count (Obama) out," Gaffney told me at a June 9 Hillary Clinton town hall. "But he probably doesn't have as good a chance as other candidates who understand manufacturing better."

Translation: Look for the union to go for the safe picks of Sens. Clinton or John Edwards. We get them. They get us.Courage and independent thought will get you nowhere. Certainly not the $100 million the union shelled out in the 2006 election.

Armed with scientific evidence, Obama argues it's crucial to cut emissions to halt global warming. He says reducing oil consumption is a vital part of homeland security.

He knows this idea is as popular with labor as his support of merit-based pay for teachers.

"I hope I can always go to my union friends and explain why my position makes sense, how it's consistent with both my values and their long-term interests," Obama writes in his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope."

Yes, it's a bitter pill for struggling automakers. Workers worry they'll pay the price, having hemorrhaged 80,000-plus in buyouts and knowing a $25-per-hour pay cut coming down the pike. After all, Ford execs aren't in the mood for sacrifice, as they still enjoy millions in bonuses after losing a record $12.7 billion last year.

But it's reality-check time. The domestic auto industry, whose strong suit has never been long-term thinking (Remember how gas-guzzling SUVs would save the Big Three, 'cause 99-cent gas would last forever?) has to realize upping fuel efficiency is the only way to compete in a global market. American models just won't be able to sell in Europe or Asia, where their emissions standards put ours to shame.

The right answers aren't always the easy ones. To train the workforce of tomorrow in Michigan, we need to pour millions more into public universities. Yes, it's easier to slash higher ed rather than fix the structural deficit.

But it's just stupid. And we will pay dearly for that mistake.Politicians who buck party and power, like Robert F. Kennedy and John McCain version 1.0, often pay their own price.As a senator, RFK was never a labor darling and had his anti-poverty bills blocked time and time again, often by fellow Democrats.

He wasn't politically correct. In 1968, an Indiana University medical student demanded where Kennedy would get the money for his universal health care plan.Kennedy's blithe reply? "From you."

Back in 2000, McCain declared some religious right leaders "are corrupting influences on religion and politics" and "shame our faith, our party and our country." After a stinging defeat to now-President Bush, McCain 2.0 now is fervidly courting those he castigated with little success.

What choice does he have? He wants to win. And to win a GOP primary, you kow-tow to Right to Life and the Christian Coalition. Just like Democrats have to kiss the rings of labor leaders, though with only 12 percent of the country unionized, it's not as strong a litmus test.

Interestingly, McCain once compared Pat Robertson to "union bosses who have subordinated the interests of working families to their own ambitions."

It's all part of the dance of a broken primary system that caters to extremes, greased by special interests. The center where most of us wade in ye old political spectrum never holds.

This breeds a sorry cynicism in America that will never dissipate without public financing of elections.

Because unions, ideological groups and business lobbies would rather fund a candidate who spews the party line than does the right thing. Often ideology will even trump electability.

So there's a strong possibility iconoclast Obama will be sacrificed by the elders of his party, just as maverick McCain was by his seven years ago. That would be a damn shame.But that's something for which Obama himself likely is prepared.

As he prophetically wrote last year: "What's troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics."

Monday, June 11, 2007

Clinton sings right song to labor crowd

By Susan J. Demas
The Enquirer

DETROIT –- Hillary Rodham Clinton seized the opportunity Saturday in front of a riveted labor crowd to distinguish herself from her chief presidential rival, fellow U.S. senator Barack Obama.

Clinton, 59, bypassed criticizing the Big Three automakers for low fuel efficiency standards, in contrast to Obama, who last month at the Detroit Economic Club laid into automakers for blocking a transformation of U.S. energy and environmental policies.

Unlike Obama, D-Ill., Clinton would not commit to a Senate bill to raise by 2020 fuel efficiency standards to 35 m.p.g., also known as CAFE standards.

Instead, the Democratic frontrunner from New York called for a “win-win” strategy of the government and auto industry teaming up to invest in new technologies, buoyed by a national health care system she said would take a significant financial burden off employers. Clinton fingered soaring legacy costs for “dragging down the Big Three” in a global market.

“People keep telling me they’re worried about me taking this up again,” said Clinton, referring to her failed health plan during the first term of her husband, President Bill Clinton. “Worried? I can’t wait to take it on again.”

The 90-minute town hall before about 700 union members was part of the AFL-CIO’s eight-part series with leading Democratic presidential hopefuls in cities across the country. It concludes with a multi-candidate forum Aug. 7 in Chicago.

Hillary Clinton stressed her choice to appear in a city famous for its union history.

“When I was asked where I wanted to go, I said one place,” she said, pausing for effect. “Detroit.”

Delivering a 20-minute domestic-focused speech at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall, Clinton called for laws making it easier for workers to organize, universal pre-kindergarten and fairer student loans.

The forum then was opened to audience members. UAW member Dave Berry, 43, said he is still grappling with the aftermath of Ford Motor Co.’s shuttering of its Wixom plant in May.

“We understand what it takes to be competitive,” said the Fowlerville resident. “We understand what the customer wants.”

His experience underscored the recent exodus of more than 80,000 Big Three workers from plants, many in Michigan. Berry blamed U.S. trade policy, and asked what Clinton would do to change it.

Clinton vowed to take a “hard look” at every trade agreement, saying as president, she would appoint a trade prosecutor.

Earlier at the town hall, she blasted the Bush Administration for an $800 billion trade deficit, calling China the United States’ “banker.”

“We are borrowing money for body armor for our troops,” said Clinton, who also vowed to end the Iraq war once she’s in the Oval Office.

Organized labor remains a powerful force in a changing Democratic Party, boasting a $100 million get out the vote drive in 2006. The nation’s largest labor organization likely will endorse a candidate by the end of the year, said Mark Gaffney, Michigan AFL-CIO president.

Clinton’s speech seemed to hit all the right notes with the crowd, which gave her two standing ovations. Gaffney also said workers respond to U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who plays up his labor roots.

“Don’t count (Obama) out,” Gaffney said of the AFL-CIO’s endorsement. “But he probably doesn’t have as good a chance as other candidates who understand manufacturing better.”

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Walberg: Another conservative bites the dust

Tim Walberg is a liberal.

It is with heavy heart that I write these words about our congressman because I never thought I would.

When the good reverend rode into the Capitol on his Harley-Davidson Road King, he vowed to stop the pervasive problems of gays getting hitched every five seconds, guns being ripped from the hands of law-abiding toddlers and abortions being performed at the rate that McDonald's sells Big Macs.

That's why he had to oust that big lib Joe Schwarz, who was masquerading as a Republican, but as all true patriots know, secretly carries the title of general secretary of the Communist Party USA.

But alas, it seems the Washington ethos has corrupted the man who seemed incorruptible, the Rev. Walberg.

And what's worse, he and his supporters are trumpeting his tarnished values on his Web site, press releases and blogs.

Consider Walberg's:

• Newfound quest to clean up pollution in the Great Lakes. Lest we forget Rush Limbaugh's take on environmentalists as watermelons: green on the outside, red on the inside.

• Honoring of a British abolitionist for Black History Month. Next thing you know, he'll back down from his noble comments comparing wartorn Baghdad to the crime in black-dominated cities like Detroit.

• Support of Liberian refugees coming to America. Did his backing from the virulently anti-immigrant Minutemen last year mean nothing?

• Attacks on George W. Bush's pride and joy, No Child Left Behind. You're either with our president or against him, Tim.

• Vote to dismantle the domestic spying program. There's dancing in the Arab Street, for the terrorists have won.

What happened to the important issues of his campaign? Walberg knew creating jobs in a depressed Michigan economy wasn't where it was at. In debates last fall, he said Congress shouldn't give Michigan a hand. And he paid no heed to his struggling constituents, scoffing at the idea of upping the minimum wage.

"Fifty dollars an hour? A hundred dollars? Why stop there?" Walberg sputtered in righteous indignation. Back then, he knew the idea of compassionate conservatism was bunk.

He knew that guns, gays and abortion are the fundamental issues of our time and talked of little else on the stump. So where is this kinder, gentler Tim coming from? Is this the little boy who dreamed of being a forest ranger while frolicking in the wooded acres of Chicago's south side, as he recently told a beltway reporter?

Sir, I know you grew up in the '60s. But it's time to put that hippie persona to rest. We elected you to round up immigrants in a rickety pickup and ship 'em back. We sent you to Washington to pass a whopping 23 percent sales tax on consumers in your "fair tax" plan. We voted for you to kill the Department of Education because, as you said, a nation of 300 million people does not need a federal system.

Perhaps it's time for a true Republican to stand up against this turncoat in next year's primary, finally reclaiming the 7th District for family values. I know it breaks Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment — "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican" — but Walberg already hurled that imperative out the window in 2006 with his ad assassination of Schwarz.

No, I won't be launching timwalbergisaliberal.com. I'll leave that to the multi-millionaire cabal known as Club for Growth, which poured almost $1 million into Walberg's last campaign, even as it was being investigated by the feds for doing so. A principled conservative lobby, I know its officials will rat out a Red when they see one — just like they did with Schwarz.

I had hoped Walberg's aide who still hosts a local, right-wing radio show would have been horrified by the betrayal and outed him by now, but perhaps Chris Simmons' sweet federal paycheck is prompting him to keep his silence.

Why has thou forsaken us, Rep. Walberg?

A cynic would say you're terrified of the next election since the Democrats have taken back Congress, topped the polls and vocally targeted your seat.

A cynic would note you still preach traditional social issues to evangelical churches and conservative groups, but you turn on the limp-wristed, lefty charm when appealing to the more than 50 percent who didn't vote for you last year.

But I have faith in you, reverend. I know that though you've lost your way in the cesspool that is our Capitol, you'll return to the warm embrace of the conservative clan before the 2008 election.
You're going to need buckets of cash to survive this skirmish, after all. And they're the only ones who are going to fill your collection plate.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Time for Granholm to get it done

It's been a rough week of mortgaging Michigan's future.

To console themselves, patrician politicians are partying with the powerful up on Mackinac Island for the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce's annual shindig.

One thing is clear. In the grand, face-saving fa├žade known as the 2007 budget deal, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm whiffed.

She knew it was crammed full of one-time fixes and accounting tricks — the very shenanigans she fingered her predecessor, John Engler, for using in the '90s that got us into this mess.

She knew borrowing against future investments would cost the Mitten State millions.She knew they were just shunting the problem to next year.

What's worse, she could have spared higher education and economic development by inking a deal with the GOP months ago — before the deficit blew up to $800 million.

She knew better. Period.

Yes, legislative Republicans knew all this, too. But they've already shown more loyalty to rabid, out-of-state anti-tax groups than to their constituents or sensible fiscal policy.

And unlike neophyte Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, Granholm has been to the bargaining table before. After her landslide re-election last fall, she vowed she would lead.

We're waiting.

The governor was off to a good start in January, appointing the blue-ribbon, bipartisan Emergency Financial Panel to make hard-nosed recommendations for the state's long-term problems. Well, she gave the report a cursory look, kind of like President Bush did to that of the Iraq Study Group.It's tough to say whose approach has failed more spectacularly.

Displaying a vexing blend of bluster and timidity, Granholm talks loudly while carrying a small stick. After her 2-cent tax on services proposal went down in flames, she seemed content to let House Speaker Andy Dillon come up with a better idea.

And rather than battle for health care, public safety and schools, the governor figured she could live to fight another day. Maybe she can save them by squeezing a modest tax increase out of Bishop for 2008.Maybe not.

A brilliant orator, Granholm will continue to paint the other side as evil-doers bent on shuttering schools and tossing the sick on the street, because of Republicans' medically untreatable compulsion to cut taxes.

That's an easy fight to win. Michiganders are increasingly horrified by budget cuts, with 70 percent willing to swallow tax hikes even in a dismal economy.

But the most important question is: What do you stand for, governor?

You say you support middle-class Michiganders. Will you restructure the state tax code so the clerk at Meijer doesn't pay the same income tax rate as Dick DeVos?

You say a college education is essential. Will you actually increase funding to state universities?

You say you support business innovation. Will you promise not to lay a hand on any more of the 21st Century Jobs Fund money?

You say health-care coverage is critical for citizens and saves us all money. Will you finally get a universal access plan passed?

Take some time on paradise island to answer these questions and craft a new plan.

Then do us a favor. Stop blaming the GOP and get it done.