It is Past Time to pay attention to the local Primary election that closes on August 3 

Jerry LeClaireJun 25

HOUSEKEEPING: Next week I plan not to publish. A week of summer vacation! I will return to your email box on July 5th.

POST: Primary elections are fundamentally important to our democracy. These mid-summer contests in Washington State are easy to ignore, but don’t make that mistake.  Ballots will be mailed July 14 – 16, 2021. The August 3 deadline to turn them in is only six weeks away. Do your homework now. Talk over what you learn with friends and family and influence the result by encouraging others to pay attention and vote. Voter participation in primary elections is typically meager. Consequently, each vote cast in the primary counts for more, proportionately. A committed (or riled) group can limit the choices available on the general election ballot in November. 

The August primary often doesn’t draw much attention in the news. The highest profile elections in this off-off year primary are for seats in municipal government, but there are also a slew of candidates for judicial positions and local boards. There are one hundred and ninety-eight candidates who have filed for various elective offices just in Spokane County. It is a daunting, but interesting list. Here’s the link.

You can greatly simplify the choices and see who will appear on your primary ballot by accessing your list through your voter registration at while you’re there, check and, if necessary, update your registration). Once you access your registration click on the tab “Who Filed?” in the left hand column to see the candidates on your ballot. 

Even then some orientation is useful. On my list of elective hopefuls, I see twelve candidates for judicial positions, ten of whom are running unopposed (see the last column, “ballot order”).¹ Then come two candidates for CITY OF SPOKANE C D 2 (i.e. Council District 2, see map). Betsy Wilkerson is the incumbent Council Member in C D 2. She is challenged by Tyler LeMasters. Wilkerson, in my opinion, is doing a great job. She will get my vote. (But see below for the other two races, those in Council Districts 1 and 3. Together these three races will determine the make up of the City Council. Learn and talk about all three.)

But, whoa!, next up on the list are a total of thirteen candidates in the running for two positions on the District 81 (aka “Spokane Public Schools”) school board. Surely, among these candidates there are some folks you will want to appear on your November ballot—and just as surely there are some you’d rather not. Figuring out which is which is going to require some homework.

Washington State requires that campaign contributions be reported to the Public Disclosure Commission. The data presented there is valuable, but it is only of use if one takes a few minutes to learn how to navigate on the PDC website, To check out contributions to candidates for Spokane City Council or “SCHOOL DIRECTOR, SPOKANE SD 081” (aka Spokane Public Schools School Board) be sure to first set the election year at 2021. You can either click (or add) your voting address or click “Show all Campaigns”. Successive clicks will take you to a list of candidates for those each of those two sets of electoral contests, the Council or the Board. Here are the click sequences: (MUNICIPAL/CITY OF SPOKANE/CITY COUNCIL MEMBER, CITY OF SPOKANE) or (SPECIAL/SPOKANE CO/SCHOOL DIRECTOR, SPOKANE SD 081)

Unfortunately, these PDC listings are not sorted by the individual contests for particular seats, that is, the candidates for the three contested seats on the City of Spokane City Council are all lumped together. To sort that out for yourself visit and find yourself on the map—or find your City Council District under “My Elected Officials” at . Here they are in grouped by District:

District 1 (NE): Luc Jasmin $33,752.78, Naghmana Sherazi $19,739.12, Jonathan D. Bingle $24,249.60. 

District 2 (S Hill): Betsy L Wilkerson $43,031.00, Tyler LeMasters $9,378.19

District 3 (NW): Lacrecia “Lu”Hill $22,984.77, Zack Zappone $23,850.70, Mike Lish $18,934.00, Christopher Savage $8,681.00, Karen M Kearney $6,314.28

Click on the name to see the details of contributions and expenditures. Explore. See who is backing whom. Google the candidate websites and check out their Facebook pages. Form an opinion. Donate.

Do the same with the School Director races (SPECIAL/SPOKANE CO/SCHOOL DIRECTOR, SPOKANE SD 081). Note that seven of the twelve filers so far report no campaign funds at all. In the Position 3 race, so far only Melissa Bedford reports receiving contributions. In contrast, Position 4 has attracted six contestants, three of whom have raised money. Riley Smith is in the fundraising lead by a small margin with $5,612.54. Click on names to find out who is offering financial support. Look up the candidates on Facebook or search for a website. Formulate an opinion as to why there are so many vying for Position 4 and so few for Position 3. How is each candidate aligned? Donate. Talk with your friends and neighbors about these races.

Take note that the for the August Primary elections should be available right around the time ballots are mailed in mid-July. I find the Progressive Voters Guide a very useful reference. 

Keep to the high ground,

Jerry 1

Some of these judicial candidates, I doubt will actually appear on my ballot since they are candidates for superior court positions in other counties. Computer glitch, programmer error?

Where Local Power Lies

Observations of a Citizen on Spokane’s City and County Governments

Jerry LeClaireJun 23

First up for most of us when we try to put a face on government in Spokane is Mayor Nadine Woodward.¹ Her twenty-eight year career with regional TV stations makes her visage easily recognizable in eastern Washington. She is quoted and appears regularly in local media. In the City of Spokane’s “strong mayor” form of government Woodward is the head of the city’s executive branch. Her annual salary of $171,360 is among the highest salaries of elected officials in the region, exceeding the salary of all but County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich ($179,707.50), County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell ($199,675.00) and county level judges. For reference, Spokane County Commissioners’ salaries are less at $117,434.22.²

What is the importance of the Spokane County Commissioners (or Washington State county commissioners in general) in the structure of local governance? It is easy to imagine (as I did until the last few years) that county commissioners only govern the parts of the county that are not incorporated as municipalities (like the City of Spokane and the City of Spokane Valley). That is a gross misconception of how it works.

The Spokane County Board of Commissioners (SCBoC) are intertwined and often overarch their municipal counterparts. There are twenty-nine governmental Boards and Commissions within Spokane County. Take the Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health (SRHDBoH) during its recent turmoil around the firing of Health Officer Bob Lutz. That Board, which, in my naïveté, I had imagined was composed of medical professionals, was no such thing. The three Spokane County commissioners and their three appointees make up half of the twelve member SRHDBoH. City of Spokane officials occupy three seats, City of Spokane Valley two, and the Mayor of Millwood (representing smaller municipalities) one. After chronic non-attendance at previous BoH meetings, Commissioner French appeared at the BoH meeting at which Dr. Lutz’ firing was belatedly approved. At that meeting French disappeared for long periods from his Zoom window, was ready with several key motions, and instantly offered up Dr. Velazquez to replace Dr. Lutz once the firing vote was taken, leaving the impression of behind-the-scenes manipulation. 

Consider that the three member Spokane County Board of Commissioners functions as the combined executive and legislative body of County government, while in the City of Spokane (roughly half the population of the County) that power is split between the Mayor and the City Council. The City Council, the legislative power, consists of a Council President (Breean Beggs) and six City Council Members elected from three districts. That’s eight elected officials representing half the county population compared to three Commissioners running the whole of county government. One could argue that makes county government more nimble, but there is no denying the concentration of power. 

There are generally unrecognized power imbalances between local county and municipal governments. For example, City of Spokane officials are limited to two terms in a given elected office whereas County officials are not term-limited. Mayor Woodward did not come to her position as mayor with a background in executive management. She came from a background in broadcast television and Republican politics. She gets to use her on-the-job training for a maximum of two terms (totaling eight years). In contrast, Al French, a developer by trade with deep ties in government and the business community, has been in office as the senior County Commissioner since 2010. In his position as one third of County Government for the last ten and a half years Al French understands and controls the levers of governance to a degree that most officials limited to two four year terms and functioning at the city level will struggle to achieve.³

County Commissioners are identified on the ballot by the shorthand of partisan affiliation, whereas city officials are nominally non-partisan. One needs to pay attention to the individual candidate in city elections rather than make assumptions (possibly unwarranted) based on party.

When you think of governmental power in the Spokane local region pay at least as much attention to your vote for your Spokane County Commissioner and to the actions of these officials as you do to faces you more commonly see in the news. County government is powerful—and widely underestimated and misunderstood.

Big changes are coming. The Spokane County Re-districting Commission is currently working to divide the county into five districts from the current three. Instead of county-wide general election of Spokane County Commissioners, starting in 2022 a single Commissioner will be elected from each of the five new districts solely by the voters in that district (as mandated by state law and defended in the courts). There is a potential shift in power. We need to pay attention.

Keep to the high ground,


That is likely also true for many who live outside the city limits of the City of Spokane. Areas contiguous with and superficially indistinguishable from the City of Spokane that are not jurisdictionally part of the City include the rough rectangle of homes south of 53rd Street and east of Hatch Road, as well as a peninsula of dense housing around N. Country Homes Blvd up north. Have a look on this map.2

The Spokane City Council President’s salary (as of 2022), by comparison, is only $63,240. City Council Members’ salary (as of 2022) will be $47,624. (Elected officials in the City of Spokane Valley government make less.) For the salaries of Spokane County officials click here.3

Limiting terms in office is always tempting when looking at an entrenched politician, but term limits for one office risk weakening that office in relation to other elected offices (or even in relation to the career bureaucrats that surround these officials

Wealth and Righteousness

The Justification of Avarice

Jerry LeClaireJun 21

On June 8 reporters at published an article, The Secret IRS Files, revealing that some of the wealthiest Americans often pay little or no income tax. The article produced rippling headlines and discussion across the media (Google “wealthy people who pay no taxes”). A lot of coverage paraded the names of the morbidly wealthy, Bezos, Musk, Buffet, Soros, Bloomberg, Icahn. Much of the media coverage missed the more important point: At this level of wealth, wriggling out of paying income tax is perfectly legal. The morbidly wealthy don’t play be different rules. The rules apply to everyone, but only the wealthy are in a position to take advantage of the arcane world of tax law, a world of capital gains, income offsets, and trusts, . (Almost always this advantage is achieved with the aid of an army of tax attorneys who make it their business it is to understand and take advantage of the rules as written.) Importantly, as Abigail Disney points out in The Atlantic this month (pasted below), all of these people see themselves as good folk. After all, everyone is playing within the rules as written. It would be the mark of a fool not to work within those rules to one’s best advantage. 

Who writes the rules that offer advantage to the wealthy? Well, in a fundamental sense, we do. The representatives we elect to the U.S. Congress and the fifty state legislatures have accreted the rules over decades. Since the Ronald Reagan’s presidency (1980-1988) there have been two guiding principles: 1) Government cannot be trusted and 2) the more money the wealthy (called “the job creators” in this myth) get to keep the more of it will “trickle down” to the work-a-day folk. The result is a concentration of income and wealth at the top that hasn’t been seen in this country since the late 19th and early 20th century. In spite of reality, Republican U.S. Representatives like Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA CD5, eastern Washington), no doubt with the best of intentions and purity of ideology, push through law like The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that increase the concentration at the top, even as they preach of the “money in your pocket,” the pittance the law afforded the less-than-wealthy.

Abigail Disney is one of the heirs to the Disney fortune. Her Atlantic article, reproduced below, shines light on the mindset of the dynastically wealthy—from the inside.

Keep to the high ground,


The Atlantic, June 17, 2021

I Was Taught From a Young Age to Protect My Dynastic Wealth
By Abigail Disney

When ProPublica published its report last week on the tax profiles of 25 of the richest Americans, jaws dropped across the United States. How was it possible that plutocrats such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett could pay nothing in income taxes to the federal government? What sneaky sleights of pen, what subterfuge, what acts of turpitude could have led to this result?

The shock stems, in part, from a disturbing reality: Nowhere does ProPublica assert that these men cheated, lied, or did anything felonious to lower their tax burdens. The naked fact of the matter is that not a single one of the documented methods and practices that allowed these billionaires to so radically minimize their tax obligations was illegal.

What’s worse, these methods and practices—things such as offsetting income with losses in unrelated businesses; structuring assets to grow rather than generate income, then borrowing against those growing assets for cash needs; and deducting interest payments and state taxes from taxable income—are so downright mundane and commonly applied that most rich people don’t see them as unethical. The more interesting question is not how the men in ProPublica’s report were able to avoid paying much or anything in federal income taxes, but why. What motivates people with so much money to try to withhold every last bit of it from the public’s reach?

One factor is the common ideology that underlies all of these practices: The government is bad and cannot be trusted with money. Far better for the wealthy to keep as much of it as possible for themselves and use (a fraction of) it to do benevolent things through philanthropy.

Michael Mechanic: Research proves it: There’s no such thing as noblesse oblige

My grandfather Roy O. Disney, who co-founded the Walt Disney Company with his brother Walt, was a fervent believer in this idea. He was so determined to prevent the government from taking any of the money he wanted to leave to his family that he created generation-skipping trusts to end-run the IRS. What he did back then was so effective that most of it is illegal today.

I will protest to my dying breath that he was a good man—one of the best, in fact.

But I will also add, at the very end of that dying breath, that he should not have been able to do that.

Practically speaking, the way the trusts were devised meant that I came into a significant amount of money at the tender age of 21. I became an asset manager before a lot of people get their first apartment. I’m 61 now, meaning I’ve been the recipient of four decades’ worth of tax advice from the decent, good, kind men (yes, they were all men) who were put in place by my grandparents, and then my parents, to ensure that I wouldn’t do anything stupid with what I had been given.

Every single method and practice outlined in the ProPublica report has been suggested to me at one time or another by these decent men as a credible, perfectly legal, and not-at-all-questionable way to manage my assets. And, over the years, I have said yes to many of those suggestions. So it’s true: If you were to get a hold of my tax returns, you would find a record of a person who has adhered scrupulously to the law and, in doing so, has also taken advantage of the many holes our legal system has left wide open.

When you come into money as I did—young, scared, and not very savvy about the world—you are taught certain precepts as though they are gospel: Never spend the “corpus” (also known as the capital) you were left. Steward your assets to leave even more to your children, and then teach them to do the same. And finally, use every tool at your disposal within the law, especially through estate planning, to keep as much of that money as possible out of the hands of government bureaucrats who will only misuse it.

If you are raised in a deeply conservative family like my own, you are taught some extra bits of doctrine: Philanthropy is good, but too much of it is unseemly and performative. Marry people “of your own class” to save yourself from the complexity and conflict that come with a broad gulf in income, assets, and, therefore, power. And, as one of my uncles said to me during the Reagan administration, it’s best to leave the important decision making to people who are “successful,” rather than in the pitiable hands of those who aren’t.

I took far too long to look with clarity upon these precepts and see them for what they are: blueprints for dynastic wealth. Why it took me so long is a fair question. All I know is that if you are a fish, it is hard to describe water, much less to ask if water is necessary, ethical, and structured the way it ought to be. As long as no one so much as raised an eyebrow about the ethics of the CRATthe CRUT, and the credit swap, who did I think I was to query the fundamentals? I did not have the emotional courage to go down that path.

There was another reason for my inaction, and I am deeply ashamed to say what it was. But here goes: Having money—a lot of money—is very, very nice. It’s damn hard to resist the seductions of what money buys you. I’ve never been much of a materialist, but I have wallowed in the less concrete privileges that come with a trust fund, such as time, control, security, attention, power, and choice. The fact is, this is pretty standard software that comes with the hardware of a human body.

As time has passed, I have realized that the dynamics of wealth are similar to the dynamics of addiction. The more you have, the more you need. Whereas once a single beer was enough to achieve a feeling of calm, now you find that you can’t stop at six. Likewise, if you move up from coach to business to first class, you won’t want to go back to coach. And once you’ve flown private, wild horses will never drag you through a public airport terminal again.

Annie Lowrey: Cancel billionaires

Comforts, once gained, become necessities. And if enough of those comforts become necessities, you eventually peel yourself away from any kind of common feeling with the rest of humanity.

I tell you all this not to defend myself; that’s between me and my conscience. I am telling you this because human nature is a mighty force, and fighting it requires understanding it.

What has caused me to question my indoctrination has been ethics. Goddamn ethics. For many people, especially those most deeply embedded in the culture of having and getting money, ethics are a wispy and ineffectual nuisance—an abstract set of principles that can’t possibly stand up to the rigors of life lived fast, business conducted efficiently, and competitors devoured and cast aside.

The older I’ve gotten and the more clearly I’ve understood these things, the more the impulse to betray my own class has taken charge of my judgment.

What’s shocking about the ProPublica report is not just that the tax bills are so low, but that these billionaires can live with themselves.

If your comfort requires that society be structured so that a decent percentage of your fellow citizens live in a constant state of terror about whether they’ll get health care in an emergency, or whether they can keep a roof over their family’s heads, or whether they will simply have enough to eat, perhaps the problem does not rest with those people, but with you and what you think of as necessary, proper, and acceptable.

Abigail Disney is a documentary filmmaker, a co-founder of Fork Films, and the host of the podcast All Ears.

Government Transparency

Let’s talk about more than just union negotiations

Jerry LeClaireJun 18

The Washington Policy Center’s full page ad in the Spokesman last Sunday is still gnawing at my brain. For reference, today’s post is a sort of postscript to Wednesday’s (June 16’s) post concerning WPC’s ad. The ad demanded that collective bargaining talks be open to the public. The undersigned, all of them wealthy local business people, Republican politicians, or officials of Republican “think” tanks, all of them bearing anti-union credentials, offered the following line of reasoning: 

Taxpayers deserve the right to follow the process and hold government officials accountable. Local media should be allowed to cover the process and inform the public so that citizens can be be aware if either side is acting in bad faith. 

It’s a compelling argument, an argument they bolstered by citing a recent City of Spokane initiative that resulted in an addition to the City Charter that requires that collective bargaining negotiations be performed in public. Without quite explaining it, WPC now wants to apply the City Charter’s open meeting negotiating requirement to Spokane County’s talks with the unions.

The trouble with WPC’s argument, a trouble made conspicuous by the partisan nature of the signers, is its focus on shining a light on just one thing, on collective bargaining, i.e. union negotiations. If we are going to demand public local government negotiations with unions, we should apply the same requirement to local government negotiations with other outside entities. One of my readers wrote that he had once inquired of Stacey Cowles, one of the signers of the WPC ad (and owner of the Spokesman), “if his support for transparent negotiation of contracts that drive taxpayer spending would include real estate contract negotiations like, I don’t know, Riverpark Square parking garage, and the enormous taxpayer subsidy that contract delivered to Centennial Properties, the Cowles family’s real estate arm. Crickets in response.”

On a broader scale, where are the Republicans advocating for other forms of openness and sunlight, like public disclosure of donations to blatantly partisan entities like the Washington Policy Center itself, entities that hide their donors behind “non-profit” think tank status? Crickets there also. The same business-oriented Republicans that advocate to shine the spotlight on union negotiations claim that public disclosure of donations to non-profits would dampen donations. Well, yes, it might. 

Sunlight, transparency, and openness in government serve a purpose only for those who 1) have easy access to the meeting materials and meetings and 2) have acquired enough understanding of government structure and process to make sense out of it. Otherwise, one only sees what is happening by viewing it through someone else’s filter—generally the filter of “the media.”

We should take the WPC’s and Commissioners French and Kerns’ call for public union negotiations and apply that call for transparency to a whole lot more in local government than union negotiations. Sunshine does no good if citizens can’t see what’s been illuminated, so the first task will be to explore how much effort it takes to learn what local government is doing on a week by week basis. One measure might be as simple as examining what level of effort it requires to access and understand the minutes local commissions, boards, and other government entities are legally required to keep and make available. 

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. In general I find the civics of local government more challenging to understand and follow than that of federal government. National government is covered by reporters of major newspapers located all over the country. Their work is widely accessible. A cogent introduction to many of the details and history of national government and elected officials is available online through Wikipedia and Ballotpedia. As often as not neither of those two excellent resources is granular enough to offer an introduction to the local scene. State, county, and municipal governments vary widely in these United States. Each level has its own set of rules in the form of state law, county resolutions, municipal ordinances, state constitutions, and county and municipal charters—and there is no guarantee of concurrence across the levels. Local politicians make it their business to learn the rules. We citizens are at a distinct disadvantage if we don’t cultivate some of the same understanding.

Spokane Business v. Labor

Spokane County Republicans have chosen the framing. See this argument for what it is.

Jerry LeClaireJun 16

Union ads against Kerns, French latest in debate on open bargaining” was the headline of an article in the Northwest Section of the Spokesman last Sunday, June 13. On the last page of the same Northwest Section there was a full page ad apparently written and sponsored by the Washington Policy Center concerning the same topic. (I’ve copied the ad below for reference.) . Spokane County Commissioners Al French and Josh Kerns in the article and the WPC in the ad want to frame the issue as a dispute between taxpayers clamoring for transparency and employee unions that want to negotiate in the dark. The WPC starts its ad with the declaration that Spokane votersoverwhelmingly approved an initiative requiring that collective bargaining talks with city unions over taxpayer resources be open and transparent. The implication is clear: We, the undersigned, are speaking for the voter-taxpayers. What’s more, the WPC ad comes labelled as a “Letter from the Community.” The “Community” ought to be representative of Spokane voters, right?

Well, no. Scan the signatures. The first signatory is Daniel Mead Smith, the president of the Washington Policy Center, the right wing, Koch-funded, very Republican “think tank” that is presumably responsible for the ad. Every signer is from a right wing think tank (Freedom Foundation), a current or former Republican elected official or from among the wealthiest of the local business community. There is conspicuous absence of the folks whose supposed will is cited in referring to Proposition 2019-1. 

I have to hand it to the operatives who framed this argument. The Republican Party has been persistent in demonizing and undermining workers’ unions. In recent years the undermining efforts were manifest in the clever framing of the “right-to-work” laws pushed nationwide. In the current “transparency in negotiations” argument Republican strategists picked another useful wedge. Who can argue against sunlight, transparency, and openness? 

The current local debate in Spokane County began not so transparently when “Kerns and French passed a resolution that required union contract talks – which have historically been private – to be public.” On the Spokane County Board of Commissioners (SCBoC), two votes is all that is required to enact a resolution. No notable public discussion, no open argument, just a couple of Republicans following the lead of the Party’s apparatus. The vote made no news that I could dredge up in a lengthy internet search (and good luck if you want to find, much less efficiently search, the minutes of SCBoC meetings). 

The “transparent negotiations” resolution by Kerns and French was current among Republican cognoscenti of the time. In May of that year (2018) Stacey Cowles wrote an editorial in support of a statewide ballot initiative, I-1608, requiring that collective bargaining sessions be open to the public. I-1608 didn’t make it to the November ballot for lack of sufficient signatures, but, sensing a great wedge argument, Republicans pressed forward locally. 

“On behalf” of Greater Spokane, Michael Cathcart filed Proposition 2019-1with the City of Spokane in time to secure its place on the November, 2019, General Election ballot. (Mr. Cathcart was elected to the Spokane City Council in the same election in which his Props 1 and 2 passed.) Proposition 2019-1 proposed to amend the Spokane City Charter to require collective bargaining negotiations be open to the public—the local version of the state’s I-1608. 

Proposition 1 was passed by the voters of the City of Spokane (not Spokane County) with 77% in favor in the November, 2019, General Election. Here’s the whole text of the Proposition as it appeared in the voters’ guide:

Shall the Spokane City Charter be amended to require all collective bargaining negotiations be transparent and open to public observation, requiring public notification of such meetings as required by the Washington State Open Public Meetings Act and require all contracts be available for public review and observation on the City’s website?

Who would vote against sunshine and transparency, especially without any published For or Against arguments in the voters’ pamphlet? (See P.S.) 

The passage of a local City of Spokane transparency initiative in an off-off year, low turn out election is now used to justify French’s and Kerns’ Spokane County resolution and their stonewalling of union negotiations as described in the Spokesman article. 

Scan the signatures on the WPC ad (copied below). If this were truly a broad-based plea for transparency rather than another cleverly framed step in the long-running Republican campaign to weaken unions and the workers they represent, we would find the names of folks other than Republican businessmen, the Republican officials whose campaigns they finance, and representatives of right wing think tanks. 

It is highly likely that French and Kerns will win in this round of union undermining. Score one for Michael Cathcart and the Republicans of Greater Spokane. Teeing up Proposition 2019-1 was a small, but clever move in a grand strategy. 

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. Prop 1’s companion on the 2019 ballot, Prop 2, was another Cathcart/Greater Spokane/Republican sponsored effort. Proposition 2019-2gratuitously added (amended) Section 21.6 to the City Charter to prevent the City from levying a local income tax. This needless Proposition (proposing a City income tax would be political suicide) passed with 72% of the vote. No surprise there. Props 1 and 2 were both cleverly framed Republican political operatives’ stunts, gratuitous political positioning. [Proposition 2019-1 now appears as Section 40 of the Spokane City Charter.]

Sacred Civics

Our Governance is What We Make of It 

Jerry LeClaireJun 14

In 2016 I started composing this “high ground” email in part to force myself to learn more of national and local civics, to learn enough about how government works to write about it without embarrassing myself. Learning the rules, the laws, the ideals by which we humans try to govern ourselves as members of a town, a county, a state, and a nation is an important antidote to cynicism and despair, but acquiring an understanding of how those rules, laws, and ideals contribute to the common human good is equally important. That common understanding, is akin to religion. The following essay by Eric Liu published on the Humanities Washington website speaks to those nuts and bolts of civics and to the part of me that still believes in the stated ideals of the America in which I was brought up.

Sacred Civics

It helps us find meaning, community, and shared purpose—should we approach our civic life more like religion?

  • MAY 26, 2021

Humans are wired to seek belief and belonging. For billions of people, religion takes the form of church or mosque or temple. In 2016, our team at Citizen University launched Civic Saturdays, a regular gathering where people connect to explore how to live as powerful, responsible citizens: that is, how to practice American civic religion.  

I’ve been asked from time to time why we talk about Civic Saturdays as a civic analogue to a faith gathering. Why do we speak of civic religion, when some people are uncomfortable with any kind of religion? And what do we mean by that term, exactly? 

Civic religion is the set of beliefs, texts, practices, rituals, and responsibilities that shape our ideal of civic life—that is, our best lives as citizens, as political actors and authors of our community and country. It is not religion as God-centered worship. It is about our secular creed, deeds, and rituals of citizenship. It is the creed of values and norms stated at the founding of this nation and restated whenever our fragile republican experiment has teetered toward failure (as it does now). It is the record of deeds that have fitfully and unevenly brought those values to life. It is the rituals that memorialize those deeds and that make the deeds repeatable across the generations. 

That creed starts with the Declaration and the Constitution but it extends in every direction and dimension that evolution and inclusion have taken it. The proverbs of Poor Richard’s Almanac. The psalms of Walt Whitman. The parables of Zora Neale Hurston and the lamentations of Nina Simone. The homilies of George Bailey. 

American civic religion is every time we march for justice. Every time we sing for justice. Every time we lie down in a die-in at city hall to protest the death of our homeless neighbors. Every time we stand up at a town meeting with our member of Congress to show them who’s boss. Every time we pick ourselves up after we lose an election or a policy fight. Every time we reclaim our agency and rediscover our power through acts of widening the circle. And every time we recall those acts in a catechism of historical reckoning. 

I call this civic religion rather than just simple citizenship because our entire American experiment is an audacious statement of civic spirit and a continuous act of civic faith. We are nothing but promises on parchment and a willingness to keep things going. After their fateful actions, activists like John Lewis and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Gordon Hirabayashi and Edith Windsor had no idea what would happen next, just as the signers of the original Declaration had no idea when they pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor. They each took leaps of faith. 

Many who leapt were felled. Many who leapt were lynched. Many who leapt were deported. All who leapt leapt not alone but with others. 

Not just with thoughts and prayers but with lawyers and organizers. And in none of their cases was that faith redeemed in a clean, immediate way. And still we leap. It takes years, sometimes decades, and we fight and lose and win and fight again. 

We also believe that it’s necessary in the face of such unending uncertainty to provide a ritual structure for belief in the possibility of democracy. 

Why do we deliberately echo the elements of a faith gathering? Because that language, those forms, these rituals and habits all resonate on a deep level. We believe at Citizen University that all people yearn for the fellowship of neighbors and strangers. Isolation breeds despotism, as Tocqueville knew. When the soul of our country is threatened by hate, we invoke love. We kindle a connection to common purpose and a bigger story of us.  

In these darkest of days, in a time when politics is so fiercely polarized, when traditional religion fuels so much fundamentalist fanaticism, we want to appreciate anew the simple miracle of democratic citizenship. Look at the world. Self-government is a miracle. 

We have too much righteous certainty now, too little understanding. There are no infallible original meanings and no inerrant interpretations. There are only broken, irrational, half-blind humans.

This stuff matters not simply because it answers a universal and timeless yearning for shared purpose. It matters here because it locates us atomized, amnesiac Americans in the broad scheme of history and in a larger weave of morality. It matters because the norms and institutions of democracy are being corroded from within and without. 

A healthy American civic religion challenges us to live up to our creed, to reckon with the tensions and the hypocrisies, to do so with a knowledge of universal truths and the universality of human dignity, to be inclusive of every kind of person who is willing to abide by those truths and precepts, yet to maintain a sense of uncertainty about how best to do that. As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural, “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” 

So how do we practice it so that its effects are truly beneficial? First, believe in tension. American civic life is a set of built-in tensions, of perpetual arguments that cannot and must not be resolved. Liberty and equality are in tension. Effective national government and strong local control are in tension. Pluribus and Unum, diversity and unity, are in tension. So are rights and responsibilities. Inhabit the tension. Know how to argue both sides. Know that elements of both are always necessary. Know that better arguments can bring us together. 

Second, believe in doubt. Lincoln’s phrase, “as God gives us to see the right,” is a statement of humility, echoed half a century later by Judge Learned Hand, who spoke of the spirit of liberty as “a spirit that is not too sure that it is right,” that seeks to understand the minds of others. We have too much righteous certainty now, too little understanding. There are no infallible original meanings and no inerrant interpretations. There are only broken, irrational, half-blind humans. The Founders are proof. And they asked not for the idolatry of future generations but for our skeptical commitment. 

Third, believe in gradations. Fundamentalism, whether of the left or right, is the greatest threat to American civic life today. Dismissing people as insufficiently woke or as fake conservatives—purging for purity—is both a cause and an effect of our contemporary tribalism. The writer Anand Giridharadas puts it powerfully: “Is there space among the woke for the still-waking?” We’ve got to make room. Otherwise, we silence and alienate too many bystanders. We stop too many journeys of mind-changing before they can start. And the only beneficiaries of that are Trumpian authoritarians, who depend on moral flattening, on this obliteration of a citizen’s capacity to discern shades of gray. 

Fourth, believe in coalition. The last national election and the special Senate elections in Georgia showed that a “coalition of the decent” is emerging. It cuts across race and region and party. When democracy is threatened by illiberal bigots at home and abroad, ideological litmus tests become secondary. Coalition is a necessity. 

Fifth and finally, believe in justice for all using methods from all. That means nurturing a spirit of mutuality and interdependence. It means combining your civic power with that of others to change the systems and structures of law and policy so that more people can flourish and thrive. 

I am not a practicing Christian. I am not a practicing Jew. I am not a practicing Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu. I am not a practicing atheist either. I am a practicing citizen of the United States. I know my own mind. I know what part I have inherited from being Chinese, what part 

I have inherited from being American, and what part I have inherited from being Chinese American. I know what I believe and why. I know how to put those beliefs into action. And I know how to amend those beliefs and actions, as the evidence of my eyes and yours gives me to see the right. 

All of us can do this, if we take seriously the opening words of the Constitution. And all of us must. 

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. 

We do it together. Our Union is imperfect. Justice comes first. We do it for posterity. Imagine a society that operated on these principles. Imagine a country that lived by these ideals. We have the power to make such a miracle happen. It just takes practice.

Eric Liu is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University

Keep to the high ground,


C. Koch’s “Under the Dome” Strategy

The American Way to retain minority power

Jerry LeClaireJun 11

The polling is clear. The majority of American voters, Democrats, Independents, and Republicans favor passage of the “For the People Act” (aka H.R. 1/S. 1), a law that would override many aspects of the voter suppression laws Republicans are pushing through state legislatures on the excuse of the Big Lie of electoral fraud. A majority of Americans are in favor of expanding voting rights, reducing the influence of money in politics, and limiting partisan gerrymandering. Charles Koch, his Heritage Foundation and his Americans for Prosperity know this. They know they cannot hope to argue the American people into believing otherwise in the time they have engineer the return of Republicans to the levers of power. 

Lacking evidence of a popular voter majority, advisors to Republicans point to “under-the-dome-type strategies” to hold off the will of the people. Their target under the dome is least democratic institution in the U.S. government, the U.S. Senate, where the fifty Republican senators represent 41 million fewer people than the fifty Democratic senators, where the filibuster—yet another remnant of slavery—is the ultimate tool of obstructionism. All they need is to turn one defector “under the dome” to hold back the tide while state Republicans re-write the rules for access to the voting box in their favor.

The battle is waged “under the dome” for the soul of one U.S. Senator. Judd Legum, whose June 10 post is copied below (and whose writing I highly recommend), fills in the details where Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money left off. 

Keep to the high ground,



[click to sign up to receive Mr. Legum’s email]

Judd Legum Jun 10

About seven months ago, billionaire businessman Charles Koch’s smiling face was in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. The 85-year-old Koch had spent decades funding a vast network of far-right causes, including the Tea Party, the movement which laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency.  

Koch said his prior work was a mistake. He vowed that, from now on, he would eschew partisanship and focus on “building bridges across ideological divides.” 

Koch’s feature in the Wall Street Journal was part of a broader rebranding effort that coincided with the release of a new book:

Mr. Koch said he has since come to regret his partisanship, which he says badly deepened divisions. “Boy, did we screw up!” he writes in his new book. “What a mess!”

In a separate interview with the Washington Post that was released the same day, Koch congratulated Biden and said he wanted to “work together” with the new Democratic president on “as many issues as possible.” 

We’ve got people so hyped on politics now that it seems like they think that’s all there is. You know, ‘If the other side wins, it’ll ruin the country and destroy us forever.’ Both sides are saying that, and feel that, and think this is the most important thing. Well, it is important, but it isn’t going to make any difference unless we all learn to work together and help each other and move toward a society of equal rights and mutual benefit.

Koch said he regretted hiring “ex-Republican operatives” and then “doing nothing” as they engaged in bare-knuckled political combat. Koch insisted that things would be different moving forward. “Let’s get together and make that happen so we can start helping each other, rather than hurting each other,” Koch said. 

In the seven months since those interviews, however, Koch has deployed the full resources of his political network to try to stymie virtually every aspect of Biden’s agenda. 

Most recently, one of Koch’s primary political organizations, Americans for Prosperity, has pressured Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) to block various priorities of the Biden administration. CNBC reports that Americans for Prosperity has created ads, a video, and a website targeting Manchin. The website calls for Manchin to block a public option for Obamacare, a minimum wage increase, an infrastructure bill, and the For The People Act. 

The effort appears to be working, as Manchin announced his opposition to the For The People Act in an op-ed on Sunday. But the campaign targeting Manchin is just one aspect of Koch’s multi-faceted attack on the Biden presidency. 

Americans for Prosperity also launched a campaign against Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-relief bill. The effort included “a robust direct mail, digital, and radio advertising campaign” and “grassroots teams,” all dedicated to defeating the legislation. The campaign described the legislation as “a massive spending bill that will drive us deeper into debt and do nothing to defeat the virus.”

Meet the new Charles Koch. Same as the old Charles Koch. 

Koch backing partisan attacks on the democratic process itself

Motivated by Trump’s lies about election fraud, Republicans in states across the country are passing laws to restrict voting and politicize the electoral process. Koch has tried to distance himself from Trump’s legacy, but his political network is playing a key role in supporting Trump-inspired voter suppression. 

The New Yorker obtained recordings from a secret meeting between a top policy advisor to Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and conservative groups, including those controlled by Koch. During the meeting, a top Koch operative admitted that the For The People Act, which would thwart state voter suppression efforts, was extremely popular across the political spectrum. Nevertheless, Koch’s group said it was determined to defeat the legislation.

Kyle McKenzie, the research director for the Koch-run advocacy group Stand Together, told fellow-conservatives and Republican congressional staffers on the call that he had a “spoiler.” “When presented with a very neutral description” of the bill, “people were generally supportive,” McKenzie said, adding that “the most worrisome part . . . is that conservatives were actually as supportive as the general public was when they read the neutral description.” In fact, he warned, “there’s a large, very large, chunk of conservatives who are supportive of these types of efforts.”

…As a result, McKenzie conceded, the legislation’s opponents would likely have to rely on Republicans in the Senate, where the bill is now under debate, to use “under-the-dome-type strategies”—meaning legislative maneuvers beneath Congress’s roof, such as the filibuster—to stop the bill, because turning public opinion against it would be “incredibly difficult.”

Koch promised to prioritize policy that transcends ideological division over the pursuit of raw political power by Republicans. The meeting shows he is doing the exact opposite.  

Donations to Republicans who voted to overturn the election

Charles Koch’s political network issued a statement following January 6, saying the attack on the Capitol would “weigh heavy” on how it spends its money moving forward. Koch, the statement said, would support “policy makers who reject the politics of division.”:

Lawmakers’ actions leading up to and during last week’s insurrection will weigh heavy in our evaluation of future support. And we will continue to look for ways to support those policymakers who reject the politics of division and work together to move our country forward

But in the first three months of 2021, Koch Industries, which is also controlled by Charles Koch, donated $17,500 to six members of congress that voted to overturn the election results — Mike Johnson (R-LA), Adrian Smith (R-NE), Ron Estes (R-KS), Glenn Thompson (R-PA), Jim Banks (R-IN), and Richard Hudson (R-NC). 

Koch Industries has also donated $105,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) in 2021.The NRSC is chaired by Senator Rick Scott (R-FL), who also voted to overturn the election. In April, Koch Industries donated $15,000 to Senator John Kennedy (R-LA), another Senator who voted against certifying the Electoral College on January 6.

Koch ices out Biden

After the election, Koch claimed to want to work with Biden on as many issues as possible. But, since Biden was sworn in, neither Koch’s political network or industrial conglomerate has cooperated with Biden on any issue

Asked for examples of any cooperation with Biden, Americans for Prosperity spokesperson Bill Riggs told CNBC it “supported [Biden’s] decision to end the war in Afghanistan.” The decision to end the war in Afghanistan was within Biden’s power as Commander-in-Chief. It did not require support from any Republican or the Koch political network to move forward. 

Riggs said the group is also “advocating for better immigration policy and police reform,” without specifying how it is engaging with the Biden administration on those issues, if at all. “We are open to working with anyone to do right by the American people,” Riggs concluded.