Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Politics, Reality and Florida

"Time is flat circle" ~Rust Cohle

Politics is three legged stool of the political, the governing and the reality. Those who try to balance on only the first, inevitably crash. This morning, Florida (it's always Florida) presents two sets of evidence to test this particular theory.

The Florida 13th

Last night Republican David Jolly beat Democrat Alex Sink in a special election in the 13th Congressional District. Republicans are crowing it is a bell weather for 2014 and yet another death knell for Obamacare. Democrats are downplaying the loss as another typical result of a low turnout election in a Republican-leaning district.

We are so desperate to see signs and portents. Since Stonehenge was thrown up, finding meaning in the vastness is a closed circuit buried down in our limbic battery.

In all this chicken bone reading, few except Dave Weigel note the reality that Jolly didn't exactly run against Obamacare but more against Medicare cuts (less popular in Florida than an early freeze) and Alex Sink is and has always been a terrible campaigner.

Not that the Democrats can blithely wave off another Sink sinking. Like 2010, the math is against them in 2014 and they cannot ignore any soft underbelly.

The Politics - Republicans will use the 13th as grease for the momentum rail. Democrats will try to downplay it while privately fretting about a possible wave election. Expect to see more attention to Georgia's Michelle Nunn as she becomes a firewall for Democratic Senate Control. And that's trouble, because expecting a relative newcomer to turn a deep red state into a blue victory reeks of desperation.

The Governing - The 13th doesn't change any equations. The Republicans were going to keep the house anyway.

The Reality - It's 8 months until the election. Anything can happen. And in the end, places like Alaska will matter more than Pinellas County.

As another Alex Sink chapter closes, one of her previous rivals is attempting to start a new one.

Charlie Crist is back

The former Florida governor was a frequent writing topic of mine from 2008 to 2010. His story was a speedball for a political junkie.

Charlie went from rock star politician with a 70% approval rating and national aspirations to the political wilderness in under three years. Part of my fascination with him was his independent streak but as he unwisely stepped out of the safe cocoon of the Governor's mansion and straight into the buzz saw of the Tea Party machine, I also saw him as a sign of things to come. He became one of the first of a long line of establishment Republican casualties who ignored the fervor of the purity caucus and were tossed onto the pile of kindling

But unlike Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Charlie is no longer fighting the raging Republican inquisition from the inside. Charlie switched sides.

Crist is running for his old job - as a Democrat. Some see this as opportunism. After he was trounced by Marco Rubio in the 2010 Republican Primary, Charlie switched to independent and then lost again. A couple of years later, he celebrated President Obama's re-election and completed the journey to the Donkey side of the aisle.

His response to criticism of this change echoes another former southern governor. Charlie says he didn't leave the Republican Party, it left him.

The Atlantic's Molly Ball has a detailed piece on Crist's nascent campaign and much like Charlie himself, it is not the expected. Of course, he has big money backers but he's eschewing a traditional campaign structure and seems to go where ever the flow of politics takes him.

I learned a few years ago that even the nicest guys don't win if their entire plan is to bounce around from place to place shaking hands, kissing babies and expecting people to act like they have good sense. Charlie Crist's recent electoral experience showed him the price of counting on voters acting rationally, which makes his weird new venture seem more like a soothing of the spotlight jones than a serious effort to retake the helm of the fourth largest state.

The Politics - Current Governor Rick Scott is deeply unpopular. Especially with teachers. And one political maxim every governor lives by is don't piss off the teachers. However, much like Georgia to the north, the Republican machine (ironically partially built by Crist) has a stranglehold on politics. Scott has the money and the infrastructure. His only real weakness is his own stupidity.

The Governing - Florida is in better shape than it was four years ago and how much credit goes to Governor Scott largely depends on your affiliation. However, despite being one of the Tea Party torch bearers, he accepted Medicaid expansion. That shores up what could have been a dangerous political flank.

The Reality - Unless your name is Lawton Chiles and you walk from Pensacola to Key West, maverick campaigns don't work in Florida. It's just too big with too many major television markets. Scott's war chest is overwhelming and unless Charlie stops kissing babies and starts setting up a real campaign, he's doomed.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

What We Got Right And What We Got Wrong

Don't like the weather in Atlanta? Wait five minutes. In a week where there were few laughs, as we hit 65 this weekend and roll around in shorts, we would do well to remember that old joke.

But humor aside, we all learned some harsh lessons this past week. And by everyone, I mean everyone. Everyone made mistakes - from employers who gambled they could get a full days work out of their employees to the Governor, who for reasons he has yet to explain, did not fully mobilize following that early morning warning from the National Weather Service to the national media who do not understand "Atlanta" is more than a dot on the map.

Hopefully, once the sensationalism dies down, we will have an honest conversation about everything that went wrong.

Let me be clear about a few things first.
  • The National Weather Service absolutely got the forecast right. I have nothing but admiration for this sometimes beleaguered agency. I would trust them with my life.
  • Once the warning was made at 3:55am Tuesday morning, state and local leaders made a series of calamitous decisions. One more important than all of the others
  • The national media continues to conflate how much warning we received and what "Atlanta" is and this is the reason we continue to wallow in the blame swamp.
Let's start with the forecast issue.

Nathan Deal made an unfortunate word choice in his first storm press conference, calling the storm "unexpected". Of course he was wrong. The National Weather Service and other weather outlets had warned Georgia of an impending event since the previous Saturday. But he wasn't completely wrong. Prior to 3:00pm on Monday, no weather service indicated north of I-20 would be hit with any more than a dusting and any icing problems would happen Tuesday night (and this did happen just as predicted but by then it was too late).

That the nexus of the disaster hit north of I-20 is a critical fact which plays into any analysis and has been mostly ignored.

Reviewing the weather discussion from the NWS, all indications prior to Monday evening show the focus of the storm being south of I-20. It was Monday evening before Fulton County was upgraded from a Winter Watch to an Advisory*. The last thing most people saw before they went to bed was 1-2 inches of accumulation in Fulton County but the worst of the storm still far to the south.

It should be noted, the one service that made explicit warnings on Monday afternoon was Accuweather. Vice President Mike Smith is rightly furious that no one listened. But the government doesn't listen to a private company, they rely on the National Weather Service.

In addition to the standard warnings, government leaders received two briefings from the NWS and they are telling. The Monday 3:00pm briefing included the statement "significant travel problems across much of central and some of north Georgia including parts of the Atlanta Metro area". The next briefing was at 9:00am the following morning and it was far more explicit, but as we now know, the die was already cast.

At 3:55am, everything changed. The NWS issued a Winter Warning and its details were rather explicit. Instead of snow starting midday to midafternoon, it would start at 9:00 am and the conditions would deteriorate as we went into the afternoon.

This is a crucial point for two reasons: National media (and some local partisans) keep saying we had days of warnings this would happen (not true for the northern suburbs) but starting at 3:55am, local officials had definitive warning and how they acted after this was critical.

Once a warning was in hand, several critical decisions were not made, and few of them involve the man taking the brunt of the blame - Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Circumstantial evidence indicates the critical decision was made by Fulton County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa. Despite the explicit warning earlier that morning and the more dire warning by Accuweather 12 hours earlier, he chose to send kids to school.

This may have been the domino that started the chain. Instead of a significant portion of the population staying home to care for young people, they went to work. And when the crisis was rapidly approaching its peak, those children were desperately trying to get home. And parents were desperately trying to get to them. Instead of no trips because everyone was safe in their warm houses, parents had to attempt what amounted to an extended drive with two destinations instead of just one - or none.

At the state level, no one seems sure what happened at GEMA (Georgia's Emergency Management Agency). Based on local reports, its website was not updated with warnings until later in the day. And WSB-TVs Lori Geary reported the command center was quiet on Tuesday morning. Lack of warning may have given false confidence to the business community. Would you risk an entire day's revenue if the state agency in charge of emergencies did not appear concerned?

Later that evening GEMA head Charley English admitted the center was not fully activated until 4:00pm. When asked why, he gave the mind-boggling response that conditions were not serious at that point. It is apparent that, if not ignored, the NWS warning earlier that morning was not given the attention it needed.

As the crisis built, where were the most visible leaders of the region and the state? Governor Deal and Kasim Reed were at an award luncheon at noon - around the same time, over a million people decided to escape the city.

This shows an appalling lack of awareness and both may pay a price politically. Mayor Reed was quick to defend that he had trucks working at 9:00am that morning and he is no doubt right. But he's also a smart enough politician to understand you don't graciously accept meaningless awards at a rubber chicken lunch when the city is teetering on chaos.

But of all the things that went wrong, here's where Mayor Reed is right. The city streets were relatively clean. Unlike 2011 when the inner city was paralyzed for four days, Atlanta itself had streets working throughout the crisis and in under 24 hours was still a functioning city.

Ironically, that may be the reason things went so horribly wrong. People were able to get out of the city grid and onto the freeways and here is where hope was lost.

As the news became national, video proliferated of "Atlanta". I-75 into Cobb and the northern arc of the perimeter were shown on a continuous loop. The problem is neither is actually in the city of Atlanta.

To those of the outside world, "Atlanta" is a dot on a map. To those of us who live here it can mean as far south as Stockbridge and as far north as Jasper. As Atlanta Magazine's Rebecca Burn's noted, neither is actually the City of Atlanta.

And because the national media never provided this important context, the weather forecasters can rightly say they predicted the situation while never noting they didn't predict it for the northern suburbs until very late in the game. And the national media can continue to beat up on Kasim Reed when he had exactly zero to do with state highways traversing north Fulton and Cobb.

It continues today. We are all Atlanta. Until the crisis passes and for the remainder of the year, we back into our respective corners and get very little accomplished in solving our traffic problems.

And here is the ultimate lesson from that horrid 24 hours - we didn't have a weather problem. We had a traffic problem. As I indicated in the Peach Pundit Daily ( you can subscribe here ), we have no effective means of rapidly evacuating Atlanta. Emotional terror of not being able to reach your stranded child is inconceivable - actual terror with the possibility of substantial loss of life is exponentially worse.

Once the blame storm has passed, we have some hard questions to ask and they should center around the short term, why do we not have an effective evacuation plan, and long term, will we ever seriously examine why our transportation system is our greatest flaw.

*I'm a bit of a weather geek and even I made the mistake of saying the NWS "downgraded" us to an Advisory Monday night. Advisory is an upgrade. But ask yourself this, if a weather geek can get this confused, how many other people went to bed that night thinking it would be a non-event? Another problem is the way the NWS communicates and this should be reviewed. More emphasis should be placed on impact instead of vague nomenclature and the state should have an Emergency Response Meterologist for times like this.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Legacy of 1980

From my column in this week's Creative Loafing,
Jason Carter knows the odds he faces as a Democrat candidate in a Republican stronghold. While the gubernatorial challenger has a fighting chance due to his family's legacy, it'll also be his greatest challenge in 2014. To win, Jason Carter will need to resurrect the hope of his grandfather's 1976 campaign and fight the demons from his crushing defeat four years later.
I was 12 years old in 1980. Too young to truly understand what occurred, but old enough to have the "moment" imprint on my memory. Many others around my age have similar experiences and in many of my Republican friends it has become a shibboleth - a shining light on the road to Damascus.

Honoring the past is worthwhile pursuit. In politics, becoming chained to it is dangerous. Jason Carter's recent appearance in Athens may indicate Republicans will have to rely on more than historical bromides to beat back the upstart.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

After The Scene Dies

Everyone wants to tell the story of Virginia. But there are two opinions which I believe sum up what happened last night in the Old Dominion. And both are stark warnings for Republicans.

First, well-respected University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato.
McAuliffe team beat the jinx with strong campaign + big financial edge + Cuccinelli's social issues. Oh, VA is bluish purple, too. 
I would add the lament of right wing pundits that if the shutdown didn't happen, we would have had five weeks of campaigning on Obamacare and its junk website. It might have made a difference, but elections are like ifs and ands and buts but with less chance of candy or nuts.

The key takeaway from Sabato's statement; big financial edge. Despite everyone, and I mean everyone, knowing McAuliffe is a slimier than the bottom of a pond experiencing an algae bloom, the money swung his way. Principles are fine but winning is better and money wins election.

Big picture analyses point to the Donkey in the room; Obamacare. Its relative absence as an issue in the early stages is credited for McAuliffe's victory. Its late appearance following the shutdown fallout is credited for Cucinelli's resurgence.

Both are right but Josh Barro points to a subtle nuance that should trouble every Republican currently littering social media with schadenfreude over website failures and cancellation notices.
Even in an election that the Republican candidate was deeming to be a "referendum on Obamacare," in a state where Obamacare is not popular, against a Democratic nominee whose key career accomplishment is unusual success at influence peddling, the Republican nominee lost.
Yes Barro ignores other factors but his point is salient; if scorched earth campaigning against Obamacare won't work in a state where the majority are somewhat against the program, where will it?

It is time for hard realities and hard decisions for Republicans everywhere (even in deep red states like Georgia).

Reality: you aren't going to repeal Obamacare. And it won't be because you never, ever win when it is put to an electoral test. It is because even you know the price of kicking 25 year olds and people with pre-existing conditions off their insurance is too high.

So it is decision time. Do you persist in another three years of self soothing primal screams and sniping at something you will never defeat? Or do you finally wake to a world where people elect pond scum because they can govern and decide that winning then the governing that follows winning are again appealing options.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Governor Deal Will Win Re-Election

From my column in Creative Loafing,
It is difficult to ignore the dichotomy of a man constantly dogged by claims of old-fashioned, back-room maneuvering completely reorganizing the political structure of the state's second largest county — one which is predominantly Democrat and African-American. And he was praised for his doing what was necessary.
You can read the entire piece here.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Try Walking To McDonalds Naked

Of all the silliness associated with the shutdown of the Federal government, the one that is driving me to drink is people confusing non-essential with unnecessary.

Some folks follow this line of reasoning: if all these federal workers are non-essential, it shows we can do without them and that is good enough reason to conclude the government is too big.

Let me use a simple analogy to explain the difference between essential and non-essential.

Food is essential. Without it you will die.

Clothing is non-essential. If you are naked as the day you were born, everything in your innards will function just fine.

But try walking to McDonald's without your non-essential clothes to get your essential Big Mac and see what happens.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Quote Of The Day - Southern Fried Edition

From Jim Stacy, host of WPBA's "Get Delicious" and Destination America's "Deep Fried Masters".
Nothing says America like a corn dog. Back in the ’50s you’d take your kid to the carnival, fill him up with sugar, put him on all these rides and make him sick. Then for dinner you hand him this piece of meat on a stick. “Here’s your dinner and a weapon.” That’s the America I know.
Just a sample of his interview in Esquire. Esquire!

I've been aware of Jim since the days of Grand Moff Tarkin and was fortunate enough to once meet him outside the Star Bar. I was drunk and he was not, but he was as pleasant and gentlemanly to me as he probably is to his close relations. He's about as fine an example of a real southerner that I know.