WeBelieveWeVote.com

Dear Group,

The yard signs have begun to reappear: WeBelieveWeVote.com signs with a Christian cross draped in American flag imagery. One of their signs appeared in a yard on Spokane’s South Hill, along with a display of yard signs for Pastor Jonathan Bingle, and for Mike Fagan and Tim Benn, candidates on the flapping fringe of the right wing, fellow travelers with Matt Shea promoting the theocratic “State of Liberty.”  (For background from 2018, see WeBelieveWeVote.com, What is it?)

WBWV offers local voter guidance only for Stevens and Spokane Counties (so far). In Stevens County they offer “Recommendations” In Spokane County WBWV offers only “Voter Guides.” 

The WBWV website has a more professional look today than it did in 2018. Gone are the hand-scribbled survey forms of their interviewers. Instead there is a printed set of standardized questions with answers generated by Survey Monkey. They no longer list among their evaluation criteria devotion to the preservation of the Electoral College. Perhaps that criterion was too easy to see as anti-democratic…

They still publish a long list of area churches that supposedly recommend WBWV voter guides to their parishioners. I urge you check the list for your church. Click here and scroll to the bottom of the “Pastor to Pastor Letter” you find there. If you find your church I encourage you to critically evaluate the content of the WBWV website and discuss it with your pastor. 

The website is rife with examples of peculiar intersections of church and state issues. Example: “Climate Change and Use of U.S. Energy Resources” appears as a “critical issue” to “faith-based voters.” on a document on the WBWV website comparing Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian Party platforms. Click that link and read the platform entry. Since every candidate endorsed by WBWV is a Republican are they suggesting a person of faith must believe climate change is a global conspiracy? What happened to stewardship of the Earth? 

Tellingly, the same document argues for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, a U.S. Tax Code provision that prohibits non-profits from endorsing or opposing political candidates as a condition of retaining their tax exempt status. Repeal of the Johnson Amendment would effectively make political contributions tax deductible, guaranteeing that organizations like WBWV would be major recipients of political money free to directly promote right wing candidates.

Visit WeBelieveWeVote.com. Check out the voter guides. Click on a candidate’s name–when the Candidate Profiles appears be sure to click on the blue “VIEW SURVEY ANSWERS” you find on there. It won’t take you long to understand what this site advocates under the guise of Christianity. As I explained in WeBelieveWeVote.com, What is it?, these are not the Christian values with which I was brought up. The WBWV “Survey” is a black and white political ideological litmus test.

An illustration: Breean Beggs (Spokane City Council President candidate) gets a “0% agreement with WBWV” rating. Why? He refused to checkmark Agree/Disagree questions. Instead, he provided thoughtful, well-reasoned answers to all ten questions (worth reading). In contrast Nadine Woodward (Spokane mayoral candidate) gets a rating of only 60% by refusing to answer four questions and writing, instead: “I will only focus on local issues that pertain to city government and not national issues.” There is some irony in Ms. Woodward’s refusal to answer questions on which she almost certainly agrees with WBWV. (Read at MosaicSpokane, scroll halfway down the page or use CMD-F for “Woodword” in your browser window.) She wishes her smiling newscaster face to remain a blank slate on which the voter can project their personal beliefs. (In the same manner, she campaigns on “Spokane Solutions” while offering none.) 

On the brighter side I think a higher percentage of the candidates I voted for simply refused to take WBWV’s ideological litmus this year than in 2018. 

Visit WBWV and explore. I know of no more blatant attempt to wed far right politics with far right Christianity–and it’s a local, Spokane and Stevens County, phenomenon. Like my right wing neighbor’s yard signs, I find WBWV a useful guide to recognize candidates whom I need to shun. 

Keep to the high ground,

Jerry

P.S. For extra credit, start here at the Public Disclosure Commission’s data on WBWV. Click around. It’s interesting information. This year so far WBWV has only $7,135 in contributions with just twelve contributors. They have saved up a war chest totaling $19,113.48. They are building, working for political influence among local congregations. Keep an eye on them. In 2018 (the midterms) they were better funded: $81,612.26. There were six local right wing conservatives, e.g. Duane Alton of Alton Tires, who contributed $5000 or more (Alton contributed $16,000), far larger chunks of change than they could legally donate to any one local candidate. 

Spokane Transit

Dear Group,

Last Friday the front page of the Spokesman blared “COST OF CENTRAL CITY LINE GROWS” (the online article was titled “Price tag for STA’s Central City Line bus project inflates to $92.2 million“). There was large photo of a bus on the front page and a smaller map detailing the route. Damn! We’re spending more money!

What is the Spokane Transit Authority, who runs it, and how is it paid for? The STA is a “municipal corporation” founded in 1980 and serving the Spokane County Public Transportation Benefit Area (PTBA), i.e. all the cities and unincorporated areas of Spokane County. (A useful overview of the STA is found in wikipedia.) STA has a governing board of ten members, consisting of 3 of the 5 City of Spokane council members, 2 of the 7 City of Spokane Valley council members, 2 of the 3 county commissioners, and 3 members who rotate among five smaller cities in Spokane County (Cheney, Liberty Lake, Airway Heights, Medical Lake, and the Town of Millwotd).

Combing the Spokesman article, one finds familiar names, Kate Burke, Candace Mumm, and Lori Kinnear (Spokane City Council), Al French and Josh Kerns (Spokane County Commissioners), and mayors and council people from the Cities of Spokane Valley, Millwood, Cheney, and Airway Heights. (French, Kerns, and Sam Wood [Spokane Valley] are identified in the article as “Republicans,” while Kinnear and Mumm are identified as “liberals.” How odd. All five of these board members were elected in “non-partisan” elections. Why does Mr. Deshais write “liberals” instead of Democrats or progressives? Words matter.)

According to the article, all three Board members identified as Republicans plus the two identified as liberals all voted in favor of approving the increase in cost. Apparently, the Central City Line, running from Browne’s Addition west of Downtown to Spokane Community College in northeast Spokane, is seen as having community value even by Republicans French and Kerns, but buried near the end of the article the partisan difference crops up [the bold is mine]:

At the start of the meeting, 11 people lined up to speak in support of the agency’s effort to research the creation of a local transit pass for low-income people.

That effort has been ongoing for months. At the board’s previous meeting, French had attempted to derail research into the plan but was rebuffed by outspoken Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke and a tie vote on the board. [Why is Kate Burke labelled “outspoken,” a term with pejorative connotations?]

Click to read the last part of the article with the sub-headingLow-income transit pass draws crowd.” (I’ll bet most readers gave up in the preceding haze of large dollar numbers.)

The key point in that part of the article was expressed by Heather Schleigh, director of the House of Charity:

“What is the purpose of having public transportation? Is it so that fancy people can respect the environment and commute or save some money so that they don’t have to pay for parking when they go to events downtown or work? Or is it for people who have no other access to transportation?” she said. “Hopefully, it’s for both.”

It seems to me inexpensive transit is essential to establishing useable low income housing outside the Downtown core. If you work a minimum wage job downtown or need to access services available only in the core, inexpensive public transport is essential. 

Who pays for our public transport system? Not the wealthy–and not the folks paying fares. Of a total Operating Budget of 84.5 million, only 10.7 million (13%) comes from “fares and other transit revenue.” A full 63.6 million dollars of that operating budget, 75 percent of it, comes from sales tax, a tax that falls disproportionately on those with the lowest incomes. The bankers, accountants, and lawyers working downtown benefit from the labor of cleaning staff, for example, some of whom can’t afford to own a car, much less park their car downtown, but who disproportionately pay for public transport through sales tax. 

The Takeaway: The Spokane Transit Authority is a sort of regional governmental corporation, overseen by by a Board of ten, consisting of the same people we elect to our city and county government. That Board manages a budget of about a tenth of a billion dollars (Spokane Pulbic Schools budget is five times that, just for reference). 75% of STA’s budget comes from our regressive sales tax. Both “Republicans” and “liberals” on the STA Board see the value of some public transport, but the “Republicans,” at least County Commissioner Al French, want to make sure that even the least advantaged among us pay full fare, even if most of the cost of system already comes from a regressive tax.

Keep to the high ground,

Jerry

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Nadine and the Big Money

Dear Group,

The Washington Association of Realtors just put a fat thumb on one side of the Primary Election scales. Take notice. Ben Stuckart’s and Nadine Woodward’s campaign contributions had been nearly equal at about $130,000, money accrued in chunks of no more than $2000 each. Then the Washington Association of Realtors added their fat thumb with $93,000 on Woodward’s side of the scales. That’s a 73% boost in one fell swoop, swamping all the contributions of $2000 or less. (The $2000 is the WA State legal limits for contributions direct to a campaign, contributions the campaign directly controls, shall we say, “dependent” campaign money.)

How can the Realtors do that? Ah, it’s an “independent expenditure” part of “free speech” sanctified by the Citizens United ruling, a ruling the stage for which was set by big money interests, certainly not by any average “Citizens.” How do we know this $93,000 is “independent” of the campaign? Take the flier I just received in the mail with Woodward’s signature toothy smile encouraging me to vote for her in the Primary and touting her “leadership.” You certainly wouldn’t know the money was “independent” from the substance. Ah, but there it is! It’s in the fine print disclaimer in the lower right hand corner: “No Candidate Authorized this ad…” Did you miss it? What a joke. Ask yourself who or what will investigate whether an ad or a movie or a billboard is truly “independent.”

At least the Washington Association of Realtors must be supporting local businesses with this money, right? Wrong. If you click around on the Nadine’s PDC report pages you find the money was spent on print and online ads provided by Access Marketing of Denver, Colorado. I guess the printers and ad producers in Spokane can just move to Denver for their employment. That’s the level of regard for local Spokane business and labor that the Realtors possess. 

Just what does the Washington Association of Realtors think they’re buying? They’re buying a malleable mayor, one with whom the Realtors will have influence, one whose “solutions” are yet to be formed. The “current City Council is too restrictive” they say. The Realtors want it all their way.

Ben Stuckart understands our city. He actually lives a life here. He understands the issues and is actually working toward solutions Nadine has not even considered.

While you’re at it, take note the Realtors put their fat thumb on the scales for Cindy Wendell for Spokane City Council President, doubling her “dependent” campaign contributions of $60,000. Wendell is one of their own: she “is the commercial real estate manager of Northtown Square, a shopping center she co-owns.” Do we really want a City Council President who co-owns a shopping center? 

Take a look at the Spokesman article by reporter Adam Shanks Realtors buying voice in Spokane elections from last Sunday, July 21. The numbers and the whole sordid story are there, but outrage of those numbers represent is obscured in Mr. Shanks’ effort to appear evenhanded, Get out your pens. Read the Spokesman article on the Realtors’ “independent” campaign expenditures. Pick one point to make. Write your outrage in a letter to the editor today. 

Keep to the high ground,

Jerry

The Board of Spokane Public Schools

Dear Group,

We voters decide this fall on replacements for three out of five of the members of the School Board of the Spokane Public Schools (aka “District 81”). That is a huge change in leadership.

What is the importance of the Spokane Public School’s School Board? The Washington State Constitution, Article IX, Section 1, reads, “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.” The School Board of the Spokane Public Schools carries the responsibility to make sure that happens here. 

What is Spokane Public Schools’ significance in the State of Washington? Spokane Public Schools (District 81) is second in the State of Washington in the number of students enrolled with roughly 30,000 students. Seattle Public Schools enrolls around 53,000. SPS is comparable to Tacoma, also about 30,000. (Only three other districts in the State serve over 24,000 students.)

The five members of the School Board of Spokane Public Schools are responsible for a budget of nearly a half a billion dollars (yes, that’s with a “b”). Just 33 million of that, around 7%, (in 2019-20) comes from local property tax levies. (The other 93% comes from Washington State [McCleary mandate and levy caps] coffers and a little from federal sources.) Consider that. Mostly, the School Board is responsible for wisely spending money it receives from elsewhere. The School Board’s power to raise money for the schools is only marginal. Changes in State funding for schools have an outsize effect. You wouldn’t know that from newspaper coverage. That coverage typically focuses on whether or not the School Board is going to ask local voters for more money as another property tax levy.

Responsibility for a half billion dollars, 30,000 students, roughly 2000 teachers, 1000 other staff, and 47 schools…is quite an assignment. Of course, the School Board doesn’t administer a half billion dollar budget without help. The Board hires the Superintendent of Schools, who, with staff assistance, is responsible for keeping track of it all and reporting to the Board. The five members of the School Board meet twice a month. Reviewing materials for these meetings takes around twenty hours a week for a diligent Board member. 

A School Board Member overseeing Spokane Public Schools is elected for a six year term. (That is longer than any other elected office of which I’m aware, except U.S. Senator.) Let’s see, that’s 144 meetings and around six thousand hours of prep work. Serving as a School Board member is an unpaid, elected position. This is a volunteer commitment a Board Member makes to the benefit of our children and our society, a volunteer commitment beyond one’s own life needs. (For a thoughtful article about running for and serving on a generic School Board, click here.)

All SPS School Board members are elected at large by voters living in the boundary of the district (see the P.S. below) with elections occurring in all odd-numbered years. Ordinarily two, then one, then the other two positions are up for election in successive odd-numbered years. This year three positions are open: Position 4 fills out the 2 year term of a School Board member who is stepping down. Positions 1 and 2 are for full six year terms. 

My favorites for the three open positions are Nikki Lockwood, Jenny Slagle, and Erin Georgen. I have met the first two. I find myself in agreement with the ProgressiveVotersGuide.org, which I recommend for more detail.

Keep to the high ground,

Jerry

P.S. District Geography: Like many other district types (legislative, congressional, city, county, fire–see maps in the reference section below) the areas served by Spokane Public Schools and the City of Spokane are not quite the same. Probably due to annexation of land by the City of Spokane, some residents of Spokane are served by School Districts other than Spokane Public Schools. It’s confusing. It is hard to find a map that clearly compares the Spokane the City and Spokane the School District. Washington State School Districts are not drawn to conform with the communities they serve, nor do they conform to Washington State legislative districts: parts of the Spokane Public School’s District (81) lie in Legislative Districts 3 (central Spokane), 4 (east), 6 (south, west, and north), and 7 (northeast). 

Starting in the north and going clockwise, District 81, i.e. the Public School District that is Spokane Public Schools, is bordered (click for a not very user friendly map) by Mead, Orchard Prairie, West Valley, Central Valley, Freeman, Liberty, Cheney, Great Northern, and Nine Mile Falls School Districts. 

A Ballot–In Mid-summer???

Dear Group,

Ballots for the August 6 municipal Primary Election should be in your mailbox. Didn’t get one? Check your registration at MyVote.wa.gov. In 2017, the last off-off year Primary election, only one in five (22%) of the ballots sent out by the Spokane County Elections Office were turned in. This means that every single one of your family, friends, and neighbors you encourage to vote can have an outsize influence on our choices in November. The time to vote is now…before ballots disappear in the junk mail pile on the corner of the table or in the recycling.

The ProgressiveVotersGuide.com is a great reference. Click and read. This site provides clear-eyed orientation to candidates and issues. I have met most of the candidates the Guide recommends for the City of Spokane, and I have studied many of those it does not recommend. I agree with the recommendations–and with the cautionary notes about some of their opponents. 

After you’ve cast your ballot and talked to everyone you know, I encourage you to sign up with your favorite candidate, join their campaign, go out, knock on doors, talk with people, and encourage them to vote. This is where democracy happens–locally. The national scene always competes for attention, but right now it is a distraction, a distraction over which we can have little influence. Except for contacting our representatives we in Washington State get no say in national government again until the Washington State Presidential Primary Election on March 10, 2020. (Yes, it’s much earlier and it’s not a caucus, but that’s a story for another day.)

Participate in our representative democracy now, in this municipal Primary Election. This is where we live. What happens here ripples outward, and, conversely, what is happening in D.C. has echoes here, too. These municipal elections are “nonpartisan” in name only. Just a few minutes on most candidate websites will dispel the notion these election are actually non-partisan.

Keep to the high ground,

Jerry

P.S. Using the Spokesman’s website’s Search function I looked back at the pattern of Editorial Endorsements (the opinion of Stacey Cowles) in 2017, the last municipal elections. If that year is a guide, most of Mr. Cowles’ endorsements will not appear before the August 6 Primary, but, instead, before the General Election in November. (In 2017, Editorial: “Our picks for local elections” appeared two days before the ballot turn-in deadline.

Nadine, Fear, and Numbers

Dear Group,

Of the mayoral candidates, Ben Stuckart is the only one not telling us to be fearful. Part of his message is that as Spokane Downtown becomes busier everyone feels safer–at all hours. Just because everyone downtown isn’t dressed in business attire shouldn’t be frightening. The other four candidates portray downtown as crime-ridden, an area to avoid. To listen to Nadine Woodward’s interview on Spokane Public Radio (at minute 2:26) is to see Downtown Spokane, and the Downtown Library in particular, as really scary places we must reclaim before we would dare visit. 

Either Ms. Woodward does not visit the Downtown Spokane Library or she sees the world through a different lens than I. Last Wednesday I visited the library to see for myself. I recommend the experience. In the lobby there was a used book sale. Upstairs it was quiet, clean, and pleasant, with perhaps a hundred people in a spacious setting reading books and computer screens. Several of the librarians and patrons were women of small stature, much smaller than Nadine. None of them was cowering in fear. Some patrons weren’t wearing business attire and some had several bags in their possession, but all were quiet and orderly. The air was fresh. There was an unobtrusive security guard occupied with such things as opening a meeting room door downstairs for a lecturer. 

I went back to Ms. Woodward’s Spokane Public Radio interview. She quickly glosses over the fact that Spokane crime statistics are down year-to-date in 2019 (by 13%). Instead she rushed to point out selected numbers comparing 2017 to 2018,  “Commercial robberies were up 300 percent!…Rapes were up 120 percent!…Those are “astronomical numbers!” 

Uh huh. Three hundred percent is a big number, not astronomical, but big, impressive. It is also a cherry-picked statistic. It is the biggest number she could find on the Downtown Precinct [P8] December 29, 2018 “Preliminary IBR Count.” In that raw count commercial burglaries went from 2 in 2017 to 8 in 2018. I’m surprised she didn’t use the arson statistic. After all, it went from 0 in 2017 to 1 in 2018, a 200 percent increase! She posted the raw data on her campaign website, where she also had the gall to once again blame the homeless for crime. Ms. Woodward’s breathless misuse of statistics and tarring of homeless population is appropriately taken to task by Shawn Vestal in two articles:

It may not seem like it, but crime in Spokane is down” and “Nadine Woodward views Spokane’s homelessness issues from an ‘aloof, fearful distance’”

Please share those articles widely, visit the downtown and the Downtown Library yourself…and write a letter to the editor about your experience. 

I want a mayor who understands statistics, a mayor who actually visits downtown, a mayor with reality based understanding of the problems and comprehensive plan to chip away at them. That mayor is Ben Stuckart.

Keep to the high ground,

Jerry

P.S. You can see the July 6, 2019 Preliminary Crime report here. With some inspection you will note Ms. Woodward cherry-picks her numbers again, carefully avoiding the majority of numbers showing that crime is actually down in 2019 YTD. She or her staff must consider us ignorant fools.

P.P.S. Ms. Woodward’s “Spokane Solution” for her trumped up crime wave is to move the downtown Spokane Police Precinct from the Intermodal Center at 1st and Bernard “back into the core” of downtown Spokane. In the Spokane Public Radio interview she had to be prompted to consider hiring more police, balking, it seemed, because that might cost taxpayers some money (and moving the precinct is cost free?).

P.P.P.S. When I was still a practicing surgeon, we had an office on the north side of Spokane because a lot of folks living north considered coming downtown to be a day trip. People who rarely visit downtown may accept Ms. Woodward’s message of fear. Get the word out.

Facebook & How We Form Opinions

Dear Group,

Facebook needs to police its content, right? Since the 2016 elections, Russian election interference, and Pizzagate conspiracy theory we all pretty much agree that needs to happen. None of us wants our kids or other vulnerable people (or ourselves, for that matter) sucked into crazy idea streams, wanton violence, or pornography while we’re cruising our grandkids’ photos or smiling at cat videos on Facebook. So, on a practical level, how does one weed out misleading, fake, or grossly objectionable content?

You can read a transcript or listen to the startling answer to that question in a podcast entitled “For Facebook Content Moderators, Traumatizing Material Is A Job Hazard” on on NPR’s Fresh Air. Filtering content sounds pretty high-minded, but, like so many other things, the details are a lot more gritty. Facebook subcontracts thousands of content “moderators” in the U.S. and abroad (at around one tenth the pay of the average direct Facebook employee). These people sit for hours in front of computer screens and are fed questionable content while they’re asked to make decisions about what to block and what to leave up on the site. 

The revelation that actual people are employed to endure this visual and mental beating on our behalf was striking enough (the interview is well worth the time spent to listen or read), but one aspect of it really caught my ear [the interviewee, Casey Newton, a reporter and writer for a tech site called The Verge, is speaking.]:

I remember one sort of chilling story where in the immediate aftermath of the Parkland shooting – which is right when Facebook was starting to kind of ramp up its use of moderators in America. In the immediate aftermath, moderators were very upset by all of the videos that people were uploading of the violence. But then conspiracy sites started to create videos saying, well, that shooting never happened. These kids are crisis actors. And the discussion on the floor became, oh, well, gosh. I guess it didn’t happen. I guess it was all a big hoax. And I actually am empathetic to those moderators because that was the only information they were getting about this shooting. They were spending eight hours a day at work, and every time they clicked, you know, to a new post, they were seeing something saying that the Parkland shooting was all made up.

So, you know, I think in ways that we’re only beginning to understand, we really are shaped by our media environment and repeated exposure to the same idea. And so if all you’re seeing is fringe views, I think, eventually, some of that is going to seep into your belief.

We all like to imagine ourselves and principled and mentally resilient, able to critically evaluate and discard falsehood and bulls–t, but here are otherwise reasonable people subjected to a stream of falsehood as part of their employment, people who, purely as a result of the constant drip, drip, drip of bizarre content, experience conversion to a belief that most of us rightly consider absurd, even malignant.

Less obvious conversions occur again and again with less concentrated exposure. I have long advertised in the Reference box below this writing a documentary “The Brainwashing of My Dad,” (2015) It’s streamable on Netflix and Hulu. It provides a graphic example of the phenomenon.

A less concentrated but even more insidious example is the drip, drip, drip from the network of “think” tanks built and funded over the last half century by the mega-wealthy Koch donor group (read Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money”). The Washington Policy Center is the local example. The employed “experts” are selected and paid to push just one idea: there is a free market solution to every problem. The unspoken corollary to that idea is that government is part of the problem, and its only legitimate function is to meekly get out of the way (unless it is directly serving private, for-profit enterprise). To a man given a hammer and nails as his only tools, every problem must be twisted so as to appear fixable therewith. Health care? Free market, for-profit (even when the existing market was manifestly not free)! Climate change? Oooo. That’s inconvenient, we must minimize its importance, claim that any governmental intervention will endanger the progress of the free market. Crime? Incarcerate more people. Build more private, for-profit prisons. Education? Private, for-profit schools. Competition! Taxes? Perish the thought! Taxes will stifle the magic of the free market!

Decades of this well-funded drip, drip, drip fed us by print and visual media hungry for content, fed us with Guest Opinions and talking heads, has undermined our confidence that there is good in compromise and public action, the sort of public action that built the interstate highway system upon which commerce depends, the sort of public action that captivated our attention, spurred countless students toward careers in science and technology, and landed a man on the moon, the sort of public action that laid the basic science foundation for the transformation drugs now turning huge profits for unfree market pharma. 

It is past time to think hard about how far the pendulum has been pushed by well-funded free market ideologues. Pay attention to who wrote the stuff you’re reading. Who is paying them? What’s their gig? What ideology are they paid to push?

If we are going to have a functioning democracy we need to start paying better attention. We would do well to emulate Finland where teaching students to recognize and dismiss such propaganda is part of the basic public school curriculum, a curriculum designed to foster an informed electorate. We need a similar program here.

Keep to the high ground,

Jerry