Here and There

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Red dirt, political speeches, and cabin dwelling means it's Fair time again

First appeared in the July 25, 2013, of the Laurel Chronicle.

It's that time of year again - The Fair!

No, not the one with the corn dog stands where folks like my brother serve you fried meat on a stick, nor the kind of carnival where the laffy taffy is served up to people like my mother who love its taste but hate its can't-get-it-out-of-your-mouth chewiness.

I'm talking about THE Fair - the one where you're more likely to see a politician's face on a stick (being used to fan his or her political supporters) than fried meat. But hey, this fair has that too.

I'm talking about the Neshoba County Fair, of course, an event revered among the state's political class. The yearly trek to this Mississippi political mecca is made by nearly everyone who considers themselves to be even remotely politically inclined.

When I first dabbled my toe into the state's political waters (see: Barbour For Governor 2003), I had no idea what this supposed "fair" was. To use an old Haley Barbour phrase, I was just a pup back then.

My, how times have changed. These days, it's a rare year when you don't see me clearing my calendar to attend at least one day of the Fair.

The Fair is the hottest (both figuratively and literally) place to be in politics, especially during an election year. In attendance are the Who's Who of political operatives and their elected official bosses; in fact, I'd bet one of the requirements for making the "who's who" list is mandatory attendance. You simply can't be involved in Mississippi politics without a love of the Neshoba County Fair and its hot, steamy, and dusty fairgrounds.

While off-year fairs like this one are sure to be enjoyable, the election year fairs are not to be missed. Incumbent politicians and candidates flood the fairgrounds with campaign push cards, yard signs, and throngs of youngsters wearing "vote for my guy" t-shirts. Sometimes debates between candidates are held. Press conferences are scheduled on the front porches of fair cabins. If you're really lucky, you'll get to see a fight or two between rival campaign staffers who might have sipped a little too much from their red Dixie cups.

The Fair is where political legends are made - or, at the very least, where controversies take hold. At this gathering, politicians are expected to get their hands as dirty as your feet after a day's worth of trekking through the red clay. (Side note: If my years of experience is any indication, Neshoba County has more red clay per capita than any other county in this state, let alone nation.)

One of my favorite off-the-cuff comments is now a bit of Fair legend. It came from - who else? - former Governor Haley Barbour.

In his 2007 re-election campaign, Gov. Barbour was challenged by lawyer John Arthur Eaves, Jr., who was wealthy enough to finance his own campaign but not politically savvy enough to run an effective one. To make it for its lack of effectiveness, the Eaves campaign often made outrageous claims about Gov. Barbour's record in office, going so far as to liken the governor to Biblical "moneychangers in the temple." (I never fully understood that one.)

According to some news reports, the Eaves campaign allegedly told supporters that Eaves' new wife (from his second marriage) would "restore dignity to the governor's mansion."

By the time the Fair rolled around, well, let's just say the Barbour campaign had had enough of this slander, and the Governor's opening comments reflected this frustration. Here's the way it went down:

Governor Barbour, in typical fashion, opened his speech with something along the lines of "Hi, I'm Haley Barbour." He then brought former First Lady Marsha Barbour on stage, thanked her for their 35 years of marriage, and said the following: "That's right. I got my trophy wife the first time."


The crowd went wild, as I recall, and I watched with both amusement and fascination. Admittedly, there were mixed reactions to this statement later. But it really brought back the flair - the thunder, if you will - of Fair speeches made by politicians from days gone by. Politics isn't for the faint of heart, and speeches at Neshoba aren't for those who are easily offended.

Now, I highly doubt we'll witness any real verbal jabs this year. I chuckled when I read a reporter's comment on Twitter a few days ago, in which she laments that "unless we can get a cage match" between politicians, the Fair "looks a little pale this year."

In case you go - and I highly recommend it - here are a few things to know. First, know your schedule (which can be found on The political speaking lasts a couple of days, and you can catch folks like Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and State Auditor Stacey Pickering on Wednesday, July 31. Gov. Bryant along with Speaker Philip Gunn will be speaking the following day, along with a litany of other elected officials.

Second, make friends. Fair regulars all know each other (I'm not kidding), especially those who have cabins on the fairgrounds. Cabin dwellers have established Fair communities closer knit than their neighborhoods back home. Endeavor to make friends at the Fair because it's easy...and beneficial. You'll find kindred spirits in fellow fair-goers and, if you're lucky, free food and drink. After all, that is the Fair way.

Third, despite my gushing about Fair politics, this event really is for everyone, not just the politicos. The Fair's schedule includes arts and craft shows, horse races, a beauty pageant, concerts, and even an all-night gospel sing. Who can forget the traditional fair part - rides, lemonade stands, corn dog sellers, and cotton candy?

Whether your interest is political or you're simply looking to experience something uniquely Mississippi, the Neshoba County Fair is the place for you. It's political; it's relational; it's gustational; it is, quite simply, magical.

Big Brother needs Big Transparency

First appeared in the July 18, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

Last week in this column, I wrote about Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the National Security Agency (NSA) government spying story, with a particular focus on his personal story of success. Let’s continue that conversation, only this time we’ll focus on what really matters: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of…surveillance?

I must admit: Watching the news lately is like being inside a spy drama, except it’s not so easy to tell who the good guys and bad guys are. But this is no ordinary spy drama; indeed, it’s got elements of those futuristic novels we all read in high school (do they even teach those anymore?) that show a world where citizens’ actions are monitored, free thought is considered a crime, and everyone wears white jumpsuits.

I guess I wasn’t the only one who noticed these eerie similarities. Sales of the classic George Orwell novel, 1984, spiked after the NSA surveillance news broke, increasing more than 10,000% on Amazon.


Of course, that was precisely my reaction when I first heard about the NSA’s surveillance activities. To summarize what we all (think) we know by now: The NSA has been tracking phone calls, emails, photos, search histories, and other data in a sweeping program aimed at gathering data on potential threats to America’s national security. The information is being collected whether or not the citizen is suspected of any wrongdoing. The targets include folks like you, me, your grandmother, and the crazy cat lady next door.

A number of top internet companies, including Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple, and others, are also involved in the program. The extent of their involvement has mostly been kept under wraps due to a gag order, although this week Microsoft was the latest company to ask Obama’s Department of Justice to lift the gag order.

"The Constitution itself is suffering, and it will take the personal involvement of [U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder] or the President to set things right,” wrote Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president at Microsoft. Companies like Google and Yahoo are asking for similar freedom to prove to consumers they made efforts to protect the privacy of user data. Turning over emails and other records to the government isn’t so great for company PR.

My concern is the continual creep of the government into my personal activities. The Wall Street Journal said it best when they observed: “Americans would worry less about the government spying on them if, for example, the Justice Department wasn't secretly spying on the Associated Press and Fox News. Or if the IRS wasn't targeting White House critics. Or if the Administration in general showed a higher regard for the law when it conflicts with its policy preferences."

Today, we know the government is watching us, which causes me a great deal of concern. But if you find yourself unconcerned or confused about these programs, then you’re not alone.

One poll from Time/ABT-SRBI conducted on the topic showed mixed results, with many respondents thinking the government’s surveillance efforts have gone too far. Another poll by ABC/Washington Post showed that Americans are split down the middle when it comes to collecting “telephone and Internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts." Importantly, roughly 90 percent of respondents said they have less privacy than previous generations when it comes to personal information.

The public policy blog of the American Enterprise Institute concluded that “most Americans seem willing to trade some privacy for security, but are unsure about the right combination.”

That seems like a fair observation. Americans are unclear as to how they feel because, I believe, they don’t have enough information to make a well-informed decision.

Consider one congressman who said that journalist Glenn Greenwald didn’t “have a clue” how the NSA program worked. In a tweeted response, Greenwald replied: “That’s why transparency is needed.”

I agree. We need more transparency from the President and his administration on this issue. We need to better understand how these programs operate. We need answers on why the NSA director's approach to citizens' data is "collect it all" as the Washington Post intimated this week. We need answers on how that's legal and not a violation of our constitutional rights. We need to understand why there are “secret courts” that make rulings on these issues. And so on and so forth.

I can't help but think of what our President said in the wake of this controversy: "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience."

The unfortunate reality is that we're never going to have 100 percent of either. We can't ensure the nation's safety against all threats, nor can we expect to maintain full privacy in an increasing digital world. But what we can have is more transparency. If Big Brother keeps on growing, so too should Big Transparency. Your freedom depends on it.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

On lawyers, government spying, and the NYC garment industry

*First appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

When I read a bio on Glenn Greenwald, the columnist and lawyer who most recently achieved international fame (or infamy, depending on your perspective) for his role in revealing the government’s spying on law-abiding Americans, I couldn’t help but wonder: Did the New York garment industry lead to all of this?

Let me explain.

Greenwald’s bio, in short: He was a Constitutional and civil rights litigator and has authored several New York Times bestselling books. He formerly wrote for Salon and currently writes for that paper across the pond, The Guardian. By all accounts, he’s an eccentric yet highly capable individual who often finds himself at odds with both sides of the political aisle.

What really caught my eye was the high-powered law firm, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen, & Katz, where Greenwald began his litigation career. WLR&K is one of the most prestigious merger and acquisition firms in the nation where getting hired is a “small miracle.” Its website boldly declares: “We handle some of the largest, most complex and demanding transactions in the United States and around the world…We are thought leaders.”

To understand the culture of this law firm, we must go back – way back – to the New York garment industry…that is, if we give any credence to sociologist and author Malcolm Gladwell’s theory on success.

In his national bestseller Outliers, Gladwell argues that an individual’s success is not only tied to personal aptitude and drive, but also to external factors such as history, community, and opportunity. In one chapter, he focuses on how top law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen, & Katz was founded through a combination of unlikely factors.

First, the partners were Jewish, meaning they weren’t considered hirable by the old-line Wall Street firms in the 50s. Often boxed out because of their “antecedents,” Jewish lawyers had to stick together and take whatever legal work the “respectable” corporate firms didn’t want. Turns out, what the old-line firms didn’t want was litigation work, particularly hostile corporate takeovers. That left only one option: firms like WLR&K.

Second, the partners enjoyed a bit of demographic luck, having been born during the “demographic trough” of the 1930s. The economic hardship of the Depression meant fewer families were having children, and the resulting generation was significantly smaller. This meant our four founding partners enjoyed smaller class sizes through grade school, which promoted their educational growth, and highly qualified teachers, since teaching was considered a high-status career in a post-Depression America.

Finally, the garment industry provided a way for New York Jewish families to make a living while honing business skills. Looking way, way back, European Jews had for centuries clustered in cities and took up urban trades and professions. The most prevalent of these lay in the clothing trade – a skill Jewish immigrants brought to the American land of opportunity.

From the late nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century, New York’s most economically vibrant industry was the garment trade, driven in large part by the Jewish communities. The industry provided a modest living and another benefit: It was, as Gladwell says, “explicitly entrepreneurial.” Jewish clothing makers were learning market research, manufacturing, and negotiation techniques.

You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that our founding partners grew up in households built on the garment industry: Wachtell’s dad was in the ladies’ undergarment business; Lipton’s father was a manger in a factory; Rosen’s father was a presser in Manhattan’s garment district; and Katz’s grandfather did sewing piecework out of his house. The entrepreneurial skills of the garment industry helped these young legal minds develop a wildly successful law practice.

Fast forward to 2013, when former WLR&K lawyer Glenn Greenwald drops a bombshell on the nation – nay, the world – by breaking the year’s most important story: The U.S. government is spying on citizens by collecting phone and internet records, emails, and other forms of communications…regardless of whether we Americans are suspected of any wrongdoing.

Greenwald broke the story because he gained the confidence of Edward Snowden, a former U.S. defense contractor who read Greenwald’s work and understood his passion for liberty. Snowden’s familiarity with Greenwald was made possible by outlets like Salon and The Guardian, which gave him a worldwide audience. These news outlets hired Greenwald after reading his blog entries on the legality of government spying – an area where Greenwald had gained expertise through litigating cases at a law firm he founded. Greenwald was able to found his own practice after learning the legal tricks of the trade at WLR&K, a firm which, as we’ve learned, owes its very existence in no small part to NYC’s garment industry.

As a real-life “outlier,” Greenwald’s life tracks nicely with Gladwell’s theory on success – the measure of which is subjective, of course. But I’m betting Greenwald’s gold standard is to have citizens call into question the proper role of the government in the areas of national security and preservation of personal liberties.

In that case, I guess I’m a Greenwald success story.

NOTE: Major h/t to Malcolm Gladwell, whose writing made this column possible. Read more about him. Or, read more about his book, Outliers.

Friday, July 5, 2013

From MDES to Medicaid, legislators no strangers to reauthorization fights

*First appeared in the Laurel Chronicle on July 4, 2013

The recent debate in Jackson on whether the state should expand its taxpayer-funded Medicaid program in accordance with the Affordable Care Act (ACA; also known as “Obamacare”) brought back certain legislative memories.

Call me crazy, but there seems to be a trend – both in the way D.C. promotes adoption of its policies under the current president and the way in which Mississippi legislators use repealers to their political advantage.

Consider the way in which Medicaid expansion is pitched to the states by President Obama. States can expand Medicaid eligibility and add thousands of beneficiaries to the rolls, but it won’t cost one cent…at least not yet. It’s the “expand now, pay later” scenario so popular with this administration. More on that later.

In the special session which ended this weekend, the Legislature reauthorized Medicaid so that it legally exists to provide health insurance to the state’s poor. (Sidebar: Generally speaking, state agencies and other programs have repeal dates, much like expiration dates, which must be acted on by the Legislature lest the programs shutdown.)

The reauthorization process didn’t come without controversy, however, as Democrats and Republicans fought over whether Mississippi should expand its Medicaid program. Ultimately, Republicans got their way, and the Legislature reauthorized the program without expanding it. Expansion may happen in the future, of course, but Republicans took the prudent approach in delaying major changes until more information about the ACA is known.

A look at yesteryear may shed light on why the most recent Medicaid reauthorization debate – and the threats about the program being shutdown - shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows the Obama Administration and Mississippi politics in general.

I’m reminded of another initiative the Administration and its allies tried to implement in Mississippi. A lesser known part of Obama’s famous stimulus package, the Unemployment Insurance Modernization Act gave states “free” money to expand unemployment programs. If states adopted certain policies, such as paying unemployment compensation to individuals who worked part-time, the federal government would pay for any additional costs– at least, temporarily. Sound familiar?

Since unemployment insurance was part of my policy portfolio, I spent a great deal of time working on this issue for former Gov. Barbour. His opposition to expanding the state’s unemployment program was shared by Republicans in the Legislature who recognized this regulation change would have created additional taxes on businesses once the stimulus money ran out.

Democrats disagreed and refused to reauthorize the Mississippi Department of Employment Security. While Democrats toted the water for the President’s liberal unemployment programs, the future of MDES, its employees, and others – such as unemployment insurance recipients and workforce trainees – was in jeopardy.

Ultimately, Gov. Barbour was able to negotiate a compromise to reauthorize the agency without expanding eligibility to part-time workers.

But, that wasn’t the first time Democrats used MDES as a pawn in legislative games. In fact, when MDES’s repealer came up in the 2008 session, Democrats refused to approve its reauthorization until Republicans agreed to increase the state’s unemployment benefits. The agency was eventually reauthorized in a special session Gov. Barbour called to deal with the issue.

In recent history, we’ve seen Democrats threaten the very existence of state agencies as a negotiation tactic to push the agenda they share with President Obama – even if it results in tax increases or additional costs to the state.
But to solely blame Democrats is a bit misleading, as both parties are guilty of using Machiavellian legislative tactics to achieve their goals, whether that’s actually making a policy change or simply raising the public’s awareness of an issue.

So, I guess my real point is this: The recent fight over Medicaid expansion is just one more example of current political trends in D.C. and Jackson.

The trend coming out of D.C. is Obama’s fondness for the “no money up front” pitch in which states can opt into expanded programs without additional costs…until a few years down the road, when the expanded programs (Medicaid, unemployment insurance, etc.) are simply too established to repeal. It’s actually a clever strategy, when it works.

The trend coming out of Jackson is one that’s been going on since before I joined the motley crue of Magnolia State politicos, and it is simple: The Mississippi Legislature loves a repealer. Seriously, check nearly any law that establishes an agency or a new program, and there will be a section that calls for the abolishment of the program on a date certain…unless the Legislature acts.

In theory, this provides a strategic advantage for legislators who threaten to shut down the agency unless certain conditions are met. But in practice, as I’ve witnessed, shutting down a government program is the exception, not the rule…even if the headlines scream differently.