Archives for category: Democracy

ProPublica is one of the most valuable sources of investigative journalism. I send them a regular contribution. They are truly on the side of the public, not the special interests.

This is the latest entry in their series called “A User’s Guide to Democracy.” To save our democracy, we have to understand who is using big money to buy influence. Our votes can counter their money, but only if we are well-informed. ProPublica is indispensable as a source for the information we need to do our jobs as voters. The same phenomena of big money buying legislative votes operates in education, as I show in my new book SLAYING GOLIATH.


A User’s Guide to Democracy

When you hear the word “lobbying,” you might conjure up the image of tobacco lobbyists buying fancy steak dinners to curry favor with legislators.

You know, like this. 

So, why do we allow it?

The right to lobby our representatives — trying to convince the government to do something that you want done, or not to do something that you don’t want done — is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. There, it’s described as the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” which can take on a whole range of activities: from calling or emailing your representative to staging a sit-in outside their offices. In that sense, anyone can engage in lobbying.

Also, lobbying goes way back to the very first session of Congress, according to the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd (also an oral historian of the Senate’s history and operations). During the First Congress in 1789, Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania wrote in his diary that New York City merchants delayed the passage of a tariff bill by lavishing congressmen with “treats, dinners [and] attentions.”

Lobbying, however, has evolved over the years into a big business. Moneyed interest groups hire professional lobbyists to get elected officials to take up their causes based on their depth of experience, relationships to lawmakers and access to insider information. With considerable influence over Congress, today we’re going to focus on the pros.

Who are lobbyists?

Contrary to popular belief, lobbyists aren’t employed exclusively by big business. Any issue that you can imagine having a constituency has paid lobbyists working on their behalf, from the Humane Society (whose lobby works to pass animal protection laws) to the Balloon Council (whose 2012 lobbying efforts aided the passage of the Helium Stewardship Act that addressed a shortage in helium by mining a helium reserve for the future).

But it’s not these smaller advocacy groups and nonprofits that are doing the majority of spending. Without question, the heftiest lobbying budgets are managed by corporate and industrial behemoths — with an outsized influence compared with that of average Americans. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’, these organizations have spent the most from 1998 to 2018:

Top spenders listYeah … a staggering amount of money is being spent on lobbyists. But for these industries, it can be a solid investment.

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 is a good example.

When President Barack Obama first started pitching his landmark health care legislation, he raised the idea of a public health insurance option run by the government, an idea that would have pushed out private insurers — and which was vehemently opposed by the American Medical Association. The final version of the legislation, which was approved by the AMA (one of the top spenders among groups that spend the most on lobbying lawmakers), established the creation of online marketplaces requiring individuals and small businesses to purchase private insurance plans instead.

What are they spending all that money on?

There is no uniform approach to how lobbyists get the job done for their clients. Organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Realtors and Planned Parenthood may pay lobbyists to perform a variety of tasks, including conducting intensive policy research, keeping a close watch on any bills that could affect their interests, helping to draft sample legislation, cultivating relationships with influential lawmakers at cocktail parties and other Washington events, and meeting face-to-face with members and their staffs, repeatedly, to advocate on their behalf.

There are rules, though!

But it’s not like lobbyists can do anything to sway lawmakers (just ask Jack Abramoff); there have been strict limitations on their activities. According to Byrd, the first effort to regulate lobbyists dates back to 1876, when the House of Representatives required all lobbyists to register, a rule that still holds today. Since then, registered lobbyists have had to adhere to certain guidelines under the law:

  • Gifts to lawmakers or their staff are strictly prohibited.
  • Registered lobbyists are required to file quarterly reports on their contacts with elected officials and how much they were paid to make said contact.
  • Lobbyists must file semiannual reports disclosing contributions made to elected officials or political campaigns.

What lobbying issues are your representatives known for?

Thanks to these lobbying disclosure rules, we’re able to learn more about the organizations that try to influence lawmakers. ProPublica’s Represent Lobbying Registrations database (searchable by an organization name, a lobbying firm’s name, an individual lobbyist’s name and policy issues) makes it easy to sift through thousands of lobbying registration disclosures and find data that’s relevant to your representative.

While the database won’t specifically show whom your members have met with, you can plug in your legislators’ names to find out whom their former staffers are now lobbying for.  

What turns up will tell you if he or she has a particular expertise in certain policy areas — and that they may attract certain lobbyists based on their relationship with their former boss. Give it a try here.

You can also use search the lobbying database by policy issue to find advocacy organizations working on issues you’re interested in.

We’ve come to the end of the User’s Guide to Democracy — but, hopefully, this marks the start of your increased participation in our system of government. From Represent to the FEC Itemizer, you have tools to track what your representatives are actually doing and who is influencing them, as well as tactics to hold them accountable. Don’t hesitate to use them. And, remember: Congress works for you.

Cynthia Gordy Giwa
Proud ProPublican

P.S. Did you know ProPublica has a whole bunch of other newsletters? You can sign up for any you’re interested in on the preferences page. You can also click reply to this email to tell me what you thought of the series!


More From This Investigation

How Congress Stopped Working

Today’s legislative branch, far from the model envisioned by the founders, is dominated by party leaders and functions as a junior partner to the executive, according to an analysis by The Washington Post and ProPublica.

by Derek Willis, ProPublica, and Paul Kane, The Washington Post

Represent: Browse Lawmakers, Votes and Bills

You can browse the latest votes and bills, see how often lawmakers vote against their parties and compare voting records.

by Derek Willis

We’ve Updated FEC Itemizer. See What’s New.

ProPublica’s database of campaign filings now includes spending by political committees at Trump Organization properties.

by Derek Willis and Sisi Wei, ProPublica, and Aaron Bycoffespecial to ProPublica

Maurice Cunningham is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts who specializes in shining a bright light on Dark Money, the money insidiously inserted into political campaigns under false pretenses, where the donors try to hide their identity. In the instance described below, the identities of the donors are mostly known, so technically it is not Dark Money, but the purposes of the donors are hidden. The Waltons are part of the hard rightwing. They  oppose higher taxes, unions, or anything that might diminish their fortune of $150 billion. They advocate for vouchers and charters, never public schools. They employ one million low-wage workers. They have launched lawsuits to lower the property taxes of their Walmarts, which reduce state and local funding for public services. Their entry into Democratic politics is intended to boost conservative candidates who support their preference for low taxes on the richest. It’s actually a brilliant strategy, like DFER: the billionaires already own the Republican Party and benefit from its tax cuts and deregulation, time to use their money to gain influence in the Democratic Party too.

Cunningham writes:

Waltons Dive into Democratic Primaries Behind National Parents United

The Walton family, heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, are trying to deal themselves in to Democratic primary politics. It isn’t any mystery why. Conservative billionaires feel gravely threatened by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Their vehicle is yet another new privatization front posing as a parents group, National Parents Union.

National Parents Union appears to be an umbrella for groups working in their states on privatization of public goods, primarily schools. It’s hard to tell since they haven’t published their membership list, just a claim that groups from all 50 states will meet in New Orleans. Since the headquarters is listed as Malden, MA and the co-founder is Massachusetts Parents United’s Keri Rodrigues Lorenzo, we can take that operation as representative. Here’s how I introduced Massachusetts Parents United: Old Win in an Empty Bottle last year: “Massachusetts Parents United claims to be ‘the independent voice of parents.’ But it’s entirely dependent on funding from the Walton Family’s (tax deductible) political operations.” Since then I’ve learned there are some other givers—two $100,000 checks in 2018, etc.— but the Waltons are still the chief underwriters, giving $366,000 in 2017 and $500,000 in 2018.

So we’ll await the list of member organizations but it is most likely they will be fronts for privatization interests funded by the Waltons, Eli Broad, and other billionaire privatizers. When I first wrote about NPU in Keri Rodrigues Goes Coastal with Plans for National Parents Union I wrote “Funding! There is nothing in it about who would be bankrolling this operation. There is a list of advisors (in formation) and wouldn’t some of them want to know who is funding such an ambitious proposal? Enough suspense: it will be the WalMart legatees.” In other words, this is the kind of faux Fortune 500 grassroots operation I wrote about in Massachusetts Parents United: Grassroots or AstroTurf?

The pitch Rodrigues made to the Waltons to fund NPU was calculated to activate the Walton check writing glands. It leaned heavily on positioning NPU as a voice in the Democratic Party primary season that would attack unions. Labor is anathema to the Waltons because it advocates for a livable wage and decent benefits (against the Wal-Mart business plan) and for public goods that require taxation of the rich and rich companies (see The Waltons: From Dark Money to Dark Store Theory, It’s All About Taxes).

To linger on the union question for a moment, how many corporations are big, powerful, and awful enough to get trashed by Human Rights Watch, as Wal-Mart was in Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart’s Violation of US Workers’ Rights to Freedom of Association.

One fascinating aspect of NPU’s corporate public debut has been its Right Wing Rollout. A PR firm sent out a press availability and in the past week NPU has been featured on SiriusXM Patriot (featuring Breitbart News Daily and Sean Hannity), the conservative Washington Examiner, and FoxNews. Not your typical progressive outlets but a good clue as to where the Waltons’ new operation has appeal.

In recent years the Waltons have also heavily backed Democrats for Education Reform, which has promoted itself as seeking school privatization as an “inside job” within the Democratic Party. There is evidence that younger Waltons are donating more to Democrats, as Leslie K. Finger and Sarah Reckhow wrote in Walmart Heirs Shift From Red to Purple: The Evolving Political Contributions of the Nation’s Richest Family. Partisan labels don’t matter as much as does the shared interest among the extremely wealthy to protect their incomes and wealth and to keep their public obligations (taxes) minimal, as Jeffrey A. Winters explains in Oligarchy.

So NPU is another extension of the Waltons effort to use various vehicles to protect the Waltons and increase what goes into their own bank accounts. This has already been evident during the Democratic primary season, as I wrote in Walton Family Political Front Disrupts Elizabeth Warren Speech. In that one I included a tweet by CNN’s Ryan Grim, who was covering the event: “So the nut of what happened tonight in ATL is that a pro-charter group funded by the Waltons protested a Warren speech about a pioneering union led by black women. And, bc it’s all so on the nose, Warren had been talking about corrupt systems are designed to exploit ppl in pain.”

At the end of the NPU media advisory there is this: “At the conclusion of the summit, delegates will vote in a straw poll assessing the education proposals and policies of the 2020 Presidential Candidates.” (bold in original). Bernie and Elizabeth, do not wait up late at night for a big puff of white smoke coming from the local Wal-Mart. This could be a big night for privatization champion Michael Bloomberg (any chance he’s among the NPU financial backers?).  I can’t wait for the endorsement advertisement.

Wal-Mart’s workplace practices include “a vociferous anti-unionism, embedded gender discrimination, compulsive cost cutting, and near-comprehensive control over workers and the workplace.”—Prof. Thomas Jensen Adams

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money, not education.]

A state judge in Texas blocked the state takeover of the Houston Independent School District until she issues a final order in June. 

A state judge Wednesday evening immediately blocked Texas from taking over the Houston Independent School District until she issues a final ruling on the case, complicating the state’s plan to oust the district’s school board by March.

In doing so, Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy preliminarily sided with Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, in a legal battle that will ultimately determine whether Texas can indefinitely seize power from its elected school board.

Calling the injunction a temporary setback, the TEA vowed in a statement to appeal the ruling.

The Texas Education Agency had planned to seize control of the district, oust the elected school board, and replace it with a governing board appointed by State Commissioner Mike Morath in March. Now the state must wait for the judge’s ruling in June.

The takeover was prompted by the persistent low test scores of Wheatley High School, which has a higher proportion of students in need than other schools in the district of 280 schools.

The state has failed to improve other, smaller districts that it has taken over.

Morath is a software developer, not an educator. He thinks that fixing a school district, one of the largest in the nation, is akin to ironing out bugs in a software program.

Critics in Houston think that Morath’s goal is to replace public schools with charter schools. During his single term on the Dallas school board, Morath led a failed effort to turn Dallas into a charter district, a goal he shared with billionaire John Arnold (Ex-Enron).

Mauzy hinted at her decision just before she stood to leave the courtroom Tuesday afternoon.

“Democracy is not always pretty,” she said. “But I am convinced it’s the best system we have. If we applied some of [the state’s arguments] to the Texas Legislature, I don’t know where we’d be.”

Now there is an interesting thought. Judge the members of the Texas legislature by their thoughtfulness, their diligence, and their intelligence, and how many would be ousted?

The public schools of Houston are going to be taken over by the incompetent State Education Department, which has never run a school district of any size and which has failed in its previous takeover efforts.

The Houston Chronicle hailed the pending takeover, while noting that the Houston Independent School District has been acknowledged in the recent past as the best urban school district in the nation (by the disreputable Broad Institute or Academy). Its editorial saluting the takeover by the state notes that 21 of HISD’s 280 campuses received “failing grades” from the state, and one (1) school–Wheatley High School–has a persistent record of low test scores. The failure of Wheatley–which has an even higher proportion of the neediest students than the rest of the district–triggered the state takeover.  This is a district where 80% of the students are “economically disadvantaged” and many are English learners. So, of course, the state commissioner and the editorial board of the newspaper blame low test scores on the elected school board. Apparently, they believe that democracy is the culprit, not poverty.

The citizens of Houston should rise up in protest. I am a graduate of the Houston public schools. The teachers are not the same. The schools are now majority-minority. The state would not dare to pull a stunt like this in one of its majority white districts.

The state commissioner, Mike Morath, is a software developer who was never a teacher or an administrator in a public school or any school. He served on the Dallas school board, which presumably makes him an expert. Despite the high rate of poverty in HISD, the graduation rate is 81%, but in Dallas it is 88%. This is considered a disgrace for Houston, but who knows how those graduation rates were manipulated? How many were the result of a one-week online credit recovery program?

It is understandable that the rightwing governor Greg Abbott would enjoy stripping democracy from the people of Houston, who don’t vote the way he likes. It is incomprehensible that the Houston Chronicle salutes this blatant removal of democracy from the people of Houston.

Don’t they know that the most important mission of public education is to teach democracy and the skills of citizenship, not to manufacture test scores?

What lesson do they think they are teaching the students of Houston?

I hereby name Governor Greg Abbott and Commissioner Morath to this blog’s Wall of Shame. People whose names are on the Wall of Shame have trouble looking at themselves in the mirror.

HISD at a crossroads: A four-part series by the Editorial Board

Thursday Dec. 26: Time for radical improvement
Friday Dec. 27: Learning from others, and our own past
Sunday Dec. 29: Road map to transformation
Monday Dec. 30: A call to action
Tell us what you think about HISD: What works? What doesn’t? What needs to change? Please use this online form to send letters to the editor. To access the form, point your browser to

HISD at a crossroads: Looming state takeover presents rare opportunity [Editorial]

The Editorial Board


A dark cloud has loomed over Houston ISD almost as long as Naomi Doyle-Madrid’s children have been enrolled in the district.
The nonprofit director despaired over the elimination of the arts program at the elementary school her oldest son attended — part of a round of “devastating” cuts to HISD’s magnet programs about seven years ago.
She had to slash through layers of bureaucracy to get special education services for her third-grader. She has seen school safety funds held up by red tape and shaken her head in frustration at school board squabbling and mismanagement that have brought the district to the brink of a total takeover by state education officials.
Now, as the Texas Education Agency prepares to appoint a board of managers to replace HISD’s elected trustees, Doyle-Madrid hopes crisis will turn into opportunity — and that the state intervention will serve as a wake-up call for district leaders and for everyone who cares about educating Houston’s children.
“We have to really shake up the structure in order to have any kind of relevant, effective long-term change,” she told the editorial board.
This is a defining moment for HISD which, at about 209,000 students, is the largest public school system in Texas and the seventh-largest in the country. Once regarded nationally as a leader in education reform, HISD has failed to end a cycle of low performance that has paved the way for state takeover. Among its challenges are a cluster of perpetually struggling schools, a dysfunctional board of trustees that has often placed petty politics above the needs of students, and the abrupt resignation of a superintendent.
Add to that the destructive legacy of segregation and racism, a student population where about 80 percent are economically disadvantaged and many are immigrants with limited English skills, and high teacher and principal turnover at low-performing schools.
It is a recipe for a school district sorely in need of repair. Or, as TEA Commissioner Mike Morath told the editorial board recently, “It is a story, essentially, of chronic neglect.”
HISD’s boosters, and we certain count ourselves among them, may flinch at that description of their district — still home to some of the nation’s best schools. For those in the right school zone or with the know-how to navigate magnets, HISD can deliver an excellent education. The district has an overall B rating and by some measures has improved year over year. But 21 of HISD’s 280 campuses received failing grades from the state this year, including Wheatley High School, whose seventh consecutive failure triggered a state law requiring TEA to either close the school or install a board of managers.
A pattern of inequity that harms low-income, black and Hispanic students persists across the district — as evidenced by wide achievement gaps and schools that underperform on standardized tests year after year. About one-third of elementary and middle school campuses have received at least one failing grade in the past five years under the state’s academic accountability system.
More than half of HISD students — about 117,000 — are not meeting grade-level expectations, Morath told the editorial board. Of those, the vast majority — about 104,000 — are low-income students.
In 2018, the district had an 81 percent four-year graduation rate, which is up from 64.3 percent in 2007 but still not where it should be. In Dallas, which also contends with many of the same challenges facing HISD, 88 percent of students graduated; in Fort Worth, 87 percent did. Houston cannot be OK with a system that sees 1 out of every 5 students fail to even complete high school.
Of those who do graduate, far too many HISD students are unprepared for college and the workforce. Only one-fourth of graduates enroll in college and earn an associates or bachelor’s degree within six years. Many needed remedial courses once they got to college.
The status quo simply cannot be allowed to continue. Not if we care about children. Not if we care about the future of Houston, a city hoping to produce a workforce and citizenry capable of powering one of the nation’s largest cities through the 21st century.
Not everyone agrees that a state-appointed board is the solution. At a series of community meetings in November, hundreds of parents, residents and educators spoke out in opposition to the move, saying it disenfranchises voters in mostly black and Latino district and puts a Republican-led state bureaucracy in control of local schools.
Those concerns are valid and must be taken into account by Morath. He has pledged to appoint a board that is representative of the city and to select members who “believe every child can learn.” That’s a good start, but he must also accept that even good ideas imposed by Austin without significant buy-in from the voters who pay for, and depend on, HISD will be doomed to fail. In our meeting with him earlier this month, he did not seem to have fully embraced the need to leaven with humility the extraordinary authority state lawmakers have vested in him, a sweeping power triggered by Wheatley’s failure.
But for all that, Doyle-Madrid’s optimism is well-founded. Finally, with so much at stake, the takeover will provide a means for great changes for the good. State takeovers of local districts have had a poor track record in the U.S., but we believe in Houston’s case a board of managers can serve as a springboard to revamp ineffective practices and initiate bold, innovative reforms.
If done correctly, and through close dialogue with stakeholders, nothing should be off the table. Regardless of who runs the district — a state-appointed board or an elected one — the main focus should be on meeting the needs of students by drawing from established best practices and turnaround models from other districts around the country.
District leaders should also make use of a scathing but detailed performance review of HISD conducted by the state Legislative Budget Board, which found dozens of flaws in operations, governance, education delivery and oversight, and issued 94 recommendations for change. The audit could serve as a road map for improvement.
The need for improvement is clear. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t also a lot that works well in HISD. Those programs — from wrap-around services to full-day pre-K to the district’s magnet program — should be targets for investment and expansion. Their success and the district’s overall B rating are why parents like Doyle-Madrid stick by the district. Her youngest child is in kindergarten, which she says gives her a vested interest in the long-term success of the district.
For far too long, district leaders have failed the children and parents of our community. It’s time for even HISD’s strongest defenders to recognize how urgently it must change. The state takeover presents challenges all its own, but it is also the best chance in years for the district to reinvent itself.

HISD at a crossroads: Learning from others, and our own past [Editorial]

While Houston has some of the highest performing public schools in the state and the country, the system overall is failing too many children. About 56 percent of students are not meeting grade-level expectations. That’s about 117,000 students who with each passing grade they are left further and further behind.
Even with a state takeover and the best intentions to improve the district, there is no magic formula that can work overnight. In some ways it’s the toughest job in Houston.
“It’s about getting the right teachers in front of kids,” former HISD trustee Cathy Mincberg, president of the Center for Reform of School Systems, told the editorial board. “Sounds simple, but it islike brain surgery, it is like rocket science, to learn what works with what kid.”
But as big a challenge as turning HISD around is, it’s certainly possible. In fact, school districts and states around the country have recovered from far worse positions than HISD finds itself in, and proof of that, with lessons for HISD, is as close as Texas’ second-largest district four hours to the north, and in HISD’s own storied past.
The Dallas model
The Dallas Independent School District’s improvement strategy, known as Accelerating Campus Excellence, or ACE, is based on strong leadership, incentives for highly effective teachers and a data-driven approach to education.
Under the ACE model, targeted schools were given an experienced principal with a track record of improving struggling schools. Those principals could then replace their entire staffs, if need be, with teachers who scored high on the district’s educator evaluation. Top-rated teachers could receive bonuses ranging from $6,000 to $12,000 if they worked at an ACE school.
While HISD has tried something similar to attract talent to poorly performing schools through its Apollo 20 and Achieve 180 program, it hasn’t had the success yet that Dallas has found with its ACE approach. Instead of very large investments in a small number of schools each year, Achieve 180 makes smaller investments in dozens of campuses. And while it has steered $5,000 bonus to teachers in the program, HISD does not require strong performance ratings from teachers, has seen high turnover, and failed to attract enough highly-rated educators to make an impact.
Dallas also renovated ACE campuses, invested in additional social services and extended the school day. The results: In just two years after it launched for the 2015-2016 school year, ACE students had made double-digit gains in reading and math scores and the achievement gap between minority and other students virtually disappeared.
Titche Elementary, for instance, had consistently failed state standards for more than a decade. It went from an ‘F’ rating to a ‘B’ by 2018, jumping from one of the worst campuses in the district for student progress to one of the best under Dallas’ internal School Effectiveness Indices.
All of this takes money — each ACE school costs an extra $1 million a year, and early data shows that some of the improvements fall out when the extra money was redirected. To sustain these and other reforms, Dallas-area voters approved an 13-cent tax rate increase in 2018.
But even more than additional funds, turning the district around required leadership. Though many of the reforms began under a predecessor, many credit Dallas ISD’s success to veteran superintendent Michael Hinojosa, a savvy leader and zealous advocate for the district in the community and in Austin.
“Offering reforms is one thing, implementing them is another — and you’ve got to have both,” DISD trustee Ben Mackey told The Dallas Morning News in September, when the board extended Hinojosa’s contract to 2024. “If leadership doesn’t say this is what we’re going to move forward on, it doesn’t happen.”
The kind of momentum Dallas is experiencing is something HISD has found before.
Best urban district in America
In 2002, HISD won the first-ever Broad Prize for Urban Education. The national award, which came with a $1 million prize to give scholarships to district students, recognized Houston for its student achievement and reduction in the achievement gap.
The award capped a decade of work by the trustees and superintendents to turn around a struggling district, even in the throes of political infighting, scandal and initial public disappointment. In his book, “Fighting to Save Our Urban Schools… and Winning! — Lessons from Houston,” former trustee Donald McAdams details this decade of growth and renewal.
As McAdams recounts, the district improved through reforms such as decentralization, school-improvement plans, school-based budgeting, changes in school attendance boundaries, management audits, employee performance evaluations, performance contracts for administrators, district charter schools and incentive pay for teachers.
“We once made a list of all the things we were working on, and it was, like, 99 things — and all 99 things had to happen in order for us to turn around,” said Mincberg, who was on the board from 1982 to 1995.
The leadership the district needed flowed from a joint belief by the board and the superintendent that student success had to be at the center of every decision they made
“There were mistakes all along the way, nothing was perfect,” Mincberg said. “But the board supported the superintendent and the superintendent supported student achievement.”
The changes made and continued efforts by stakeholders eventually netted HISD another Broad Prize in 2013, the only district to repeat the honor.
Even TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, who will hold ultimate authority over the district for several years, says HISD has plenty of strengths on which to build.
“This was an award-wining urban school system that had seen massive improvement and much of those bones are still in existence,” Morath said.
Whether HISD learns from other urban districts or finds the lost spirit that once propelled its highly praised successes, the district has turned itself around before. It can do it again.

William Webster served as director of both the FBI and the CIA.

From the New York Times:


The privilege of being the only American in our history to serve as the director of both the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. gives me a unique perspective and a responsibility to speak out about a dire threat to the rule of law in the country I love. Order protects liberty, and liberty protects order. Today, the integrity of the institutions that protect our civil order is, tragically, under assault from too many people whose job it should be to protect them.

The rule of law is the bedrock of American democracy, the principle that protects every American from the abuse of monarchs, despots and tyrants. Every American should demand that our leaders put the rule of law above politics.

I am deeply disturbed by the assertion of President Trump that our “current director” — as he refers to the man he selected for the job of running the F.B.I. — cannot fix what the president calls a broken agency. The 10-year term given to all directors following J. Edgar Hoover’s 48-year tenure was created to provide independence for the director and for the bureau. The president’s thinly veiled suggestion that the director, Christopher Wray, like his banished predecessor, James Comey, could be on the chopping block, disturbs me greatly. The independence of both the F.B.I. and its director is critical and should be fiercely protected by each branch of government.

Over my nine-plus years as F.B.I. director, I reported to four honorable attorneys general. Each clearly understood the importance of the rule of law in our democracy and the critical role the F.B.I. plays in the enforcement of our laws. They fought to protect both, knowing how important it was that our F.B.I. remain independent of political influence of any kind.

As F.B.I. director, I served two presidents, one a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, who selected me in part because I was a Republican, and one a Republican, Ronald Reagan, whom I revered. Both of these presidents so respected the bureau’s independence that they went out of their way not to interfere with or sway our activities. I never once felt political pressure.

I know firsthand the professionalism of the men and women of the F.B.I. The aspersions cast upon them by the president and my longtime friend, Attorney General William P. Barr, are troubling in the extreme. Calling F.B.I. professionals “scum,” as the president did, is a slur against people who risk their lives to keep us safe. Mr. Barr’s charges of bias within the F.B.I., made without providing any evidence and in direct dispute of the findings of the nonpartisan inspector general, risk inflicting enduring damage on this critically important institution.

The country can ill afford to have a chief law enforcement officer dispute the Justice Department’s own independent inspector general’s report and claim that an F.B.I. investigation was based on “a completely bogus narrative.” In fact, the report conclusively found that the evidence to initiate the Russia investigation was unassailable. There were more than 100 contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russian agents during the 2016 campaign, and Russian efforts to undermine our democracy continue to this day. I’m glad the F.B.I. took the threat seriously. It is important, Mr. Wray said last week, that the inspector general found that “the investigation was opened with appropriate predication and authorization.”

As a lawyer and a former federal judge, I made it clear when I headed both the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. that the rule of law would be paramount in all we did. While both agencies are staffed by imperfect human beings, the American people should understand that both agencies are composed of some of the most law-abiding, patriotic and dedicated people I have ever met. While their faces and actions are not seen by most Americans, rest assured that they are serving our country well.

I have complete confidence in Mr. Wray, and I know that the F.B.I. is not a broken institution. It is a professional agency worthy of respect and support. The derision and aspersions are dangerous and unwarranted.

I’m profoundly disappointed in another longtime, respected friend, Rudy Giuliani, who had spent his life defending our people from those who would do us harm. His activities of late concerning Ukraine have, at a minimum, failed the smell test of propriety. I hope he, like all of us, will redirect to our North Star, the rule of law, something so precious it is greater than any man or administration.

This difficult moment demands the restoration of the proper place of the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. as bulwarks of law and order in America. This is not about politics. This is about the rule of law. Republicans and Democrats alike should defend it above all else.

In my nearly 96 years, I have seen our country rise above extraordinary challenges — the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, segregation, assassinations, the resignation of a president and 9/11, to name just a few.

I continue to believe in and pray for the ability of all Americans to overcome our differences and pursue the common good. Order protects liberty, and liberty protects order.

This set of directions was tailored for me because ProPublica has my zip code. If you sign up with your zip code, ProPublica will tell you what your member of Congress is doing.


A User’s Guide to Democracy

Hi there,

Today, we’re going to talk about the biggest job Congress has: lawmaking.

Made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate (which together are theoretically co-equal to the presidency), Congress is tasked with making laws on our behalf. I learned what Congress does back in elementary school social studies (supplemented with Saturday morning “Schoolhouse Rock”). In an ideal world, here is how the system should work:

  1. A senator or representative introduces a bill.
  2. The bill goes to a committee for hearings and approval.
  3. It is debated and voted on from the House and Senate floors.
  4. A compromise version is worked out.
  5. The resulting bill is voted on to become a law.


These days, that’s not how it works most of the time.

Congress does pass a lot of bills through the legislative process. But these are mostly noncontroversial: bills to congratulate someone, rename a post office or designate a national week. There’s no debate and no deliberative, committee-driven process required.

When it comes to the legislation you do hear about — big, politically contentious things like immigration, health care and taxes — the process hasn’t been working as planned.

Why does Congress seem so stuck?

One reason for the gridlock is that, these days, bills on big, national issues are written under the supervision of party leadership: the Senate majority leader and the House speaker. They receive guidance from only a small group of other congressional power brokers, rather than the rank-and-file lawmakers who used to contribute to the process.

Most bills, in fact, move under a process that bars amendments and debate — meaning that the average member of Congress is sitting around waiting for his or her party leadership to emerge from behind closed doors and instruct them how to vote.

That legislation is then presented as a “take it or leave it” deal when it’s voted on by the full Congress, and, faced with bills on which they’ve had no real input, many members opt for “leave it.” Without enough support to pass a nearly evenly divided Congress, these bills get stuck in legislative limbo. For example, immigration is one of the biggest flashpoints in domestic politics, but over the past several years Congress has held only a couple days of debate on destined-to-fail proposals. None of the bills offered in the Senate could gain the 60 votes needed to advance because the proposals mainly appealed to one party, and there was little room to amend them to make them more palatable.

Where does your lawmaker fit into all of this?

One of the ways you can find out what Rep. Velázquez is up to is by checking out the bills she has sponsored. This is all public information, and ProPublica’s Represent app can help you navigate to the information that matters to you.

Fun fact: Representatives who sit on the Appropriations Committee, which determines government spending, tend to have fewer bills than other lawmakers. That’s because this committee tends to produce bills as a group project, with only the committee chair (currently Rep. Nina Lowey) named as a main sponsor.

To understand your representative through their bills, you want to look for three things:

1. What the bill is about: Think about the things that matter to you and your community, and ask yourself:

  • Is your representative sponsoring bills on those topics?
  • If your lawmaker seems to be ignoring your issues, why is that?

2. How far it got: Every bill that gets introduced is automatically referred to a committee. Many measures never get past this stage and were never intended to — because they are mostly meant to let lawmakers go to town halls and say, “I introduced an important bill.” But virtue signaling is not enough for those of us who want to see things get done. That’s why we’re looking only at recent bills that made it beyond the introduction stage. Of the 49 bills she has sponsored, 11 of them have made progress beyond the first step.

3. Who else is supporting the bill: When it comes to bill co-sponsors, pay attention to whether or not it has bipartisan support. Whether you want a lawmaker who’s willing to compromise with the other side, or whether you object to compromise as a sign of giving in to the other side, bipartisan support can mean that your representative has done some work to shop her bill around and help get it passed.

Here’s what Rep. Velázquez has been up to.

Dig in and take a look at the bills she has sponsored during this term. (I’ll wait.)

Bill Cosponsors [R/D/I] Latest Action
HELLPP Act (H.R.2235) 98 [28/70/0] (2019-04-10) Referred to the Subcommittee on Health.
Gun Violence Prevention Research Act of 2019 (H.R.674) 98 [1/97/0] (2019-01-25) Referred to the Subcommittee on Health.
Horse Transportation Safety Act of 2019 (H.R.1400) 97 [4/93/0] (2019-02-28) Referred to the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.
Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. (H.RES.109) 97 [0/97/0] (2019-02-12) Referred to the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
Fairness for Federal Contractors Act of 2019 (H.R.824) 96 [6/90/0] (2019-01-28) Referred to the Committee on Appropriations, and in addition to the Committee on Oversight and Reform, for a period to be subsequently determined by the Speaker, in each case for consideration of such provisions as fall within the jurisdiction of the committee concerned.


Now that you’re familiar with the basics of using ProPublica’s Represent database, this week’s assignment is to look up the legislative work of your lawmakers in the Senate, too. What does it tell you about what they’re doing in your name?

And to learn more about the radically altered mechanics of Capitol Hill, read the ProPublica and Washington Post piece, “How Congress Stopped Working.

That’s all for this time. Thanks for rocking with me, and I’ll see you soon!

Cynthia Gordy Giwa
Proud ProPublican

P.S. Remember to tell me what you find by replying to this email or on Twitter at @CynthiaGiwa, and encourage your friends to sign up, too!

Attached are four statements that were delivered (in person or by email in my case) to the New York State Assembly Education Committee Hearing on Mayoral Control. The hearings won’t result in immediate action since mayoral control was recently renewed for three years.

It is hard to believe but there was a time, about a decade ago, when corporate reformers believed that mayoral control would lead to a dramatic transformation of schools. The problem, they believed, was democracy. When people have a chance to elect a board, the “reformers” said, they make bad choices, the unions have too much power, and the result is stasis. Chicago has had mayoral control since 1995, and the newly elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot has agreed that the city should have an elected board. Here is a list of mayoral-controlled school systems.

In New York City, Michael Bloomberg asked the Legislature to give him complete and unfettered control of the New York City public schools in 2002, soon after his election in 2001. He received it, and he promised sweeping changes. He closed scores of large schools and broke them up into four or five or six schools in the same building (escalating the cost of administration). Parents, students, and teachers objected passionately, but the mayor’s “Panel on Education Policy” ignored them. Bloomberg favored charter schools over the public schools he controlled, and their number multiplied. He tightly centralized the operations of the system and appointed a lawyer with no education experience (Joel Klein) to be his chancellor. Bloomberg was all about test scores and data and privatization.

When Bill de Blasio was elected in 2013, he embraced mayoral control.

What follows are three views, all concluding that mayoral control as presently designed should end.

And here is a fourth view, a dissent from the other three, by veteran education watcher Peter Goodman, who wonders whether an elected school board would be controlled by parents or captured by a billionaire, or by charter advocates (the latter two have far more money to spend than parents).


To see Kemala Karmen’s footnotes and the other two views (including mine), open the PDF files attached.

TESTIMONY submitted by KEMALA KARMEN on 12/16/2019 


My older child, who just returned home from her first semester of college, was five years old when I attended my first city council hearing. Michael Bloomberg was mayor and Joel Klein was his chancellor, and a fellow kindergarten parent had encouraged me to attend the hearing. I no longer remember the precise topic of the hearing. What I do remember is that council member after council member spoke passionately and convincingly against some DOE policy, and yet, when all was said and done, and the mayor’s “accountability czar” had spoken, it was clear that the chancellor would do exactly what he had wanted to do all along, undeterred by the opposition of a room full of people who had been directly elected by their constituents. 

I was floored.

I am a relatively privileged person in terms of my class and education, and while my color, gender, cultural, and religious background have marked me as “other” for most of my life, I had never felt as disenfranchised as I did at that moment, when I realized that when it came to my children’s public school education, I had NO voice, and neither did anyone I could vote for, apart from the mayor, whom one must vote for based on an array of issues in addition to education.

In fact, even if you were a single-issue voter, investing all of your hopes in a candidate based on that candidate’s professed positions on education, you could still find yourself unrepresented. Take our current mayor.  At an education forum held in 2013, at the time of his initial run, Candidate de Blasio said, among other things, that he opposed high-stakes standardized testing and its stranglehold on our schools. As mayor, he would stand with parents like me who called for more teaching and less testing. 

In reality, our now second-term mayor, presides over a Department of Education that has recently instituted even more tests for our city’s public school children. Facing mounting evidence that a generation of test-based “reform” has not improved the academic standing of America’s students, other municipalities, including Boston, are starting to cut back on the number and frequency of tests they impose on students. Here, however, mayoral control lets the mayor and his representatives do whatever they want, even if it flies in the face of evidence or reason. The city council can ask questions about NYCDOE policies, but they are powerless to actually do anything other than ask questions, collect data, and maybe bring to light what otherwise might be happening without public awareness, never mind input. 

As a parent stakeholder in the schools, I find mayoral control, as currently practiced, and as outlined above, profoundly undemocratic. At this particular moment in our country’s history, that is especially demoralizing. Moreover, it makes a mockery of the supposed progressivism of our city. Here again, I can use high-stakes testing to illustrate that point, this time referring to the annual state testing of 3rd-8th graders. Rates of state test refusal or “opt out” are in the double digits or even high double digits in most of the rest of the state, but in NYC, although opt out rates have doubled over the last few years, they still remain in the low single digits. Why is that? Do parents in NYC just love standardized testing more than their counterparts elsewhere? Or could it be that everywhere else in the state elected school boards are responsive to the parents who elect them, so when parents make it clear to their boards that they reject a test-centric focus their boards actually listen, and do things like send home form letters where a parent can check a box that says, “Yes, my child will take the state test” or “No, my child will not take the test?” In NYC, by contrast, many parents don’t even know they have a right to refuse and those of us grassroots-organizing against the tests must contend with directives from the DOE that tell would-be test refusers that they need to meet with their principals if they want to opt out. This is little more than intimidation and it works; parents are reluctant to go against the authority figure who controls their child’s day-to-day environment. The City Council tried to counter this in 2015 by unanimously passing a resolution that called on the NYCDOE to inform parents of their opt out rights. Again, because of mayoral control, the NYCDOE can, and did, ignore the wishes of every single council member elected by the people of NYC, from the Bronx to Staten Island. To this day, almost 5 years later, the NYCDOE has failed to implement the resolution.

I’ve focused on the suppression of parent voice under mayoral control, but there are so many more problems I could list. For example, as a tax-paying citizen, I believe the system of mayoral control leads to a lack of transparency in financial matters, which could mean that my tax dollars are being spent unwisely or even fraudulently. I serve on the steering committee of New York State Allies for Public Education, and when I mentioned the new NYCDOE tests in an email to my fellow committee members, some of whom are elected school board members or trustees in their districts elsewhere in the state, the very first reply I received was, “How will they pay for that?” Indeed, how will they? Or even how much will it cost to administer computer-based tests multiple times a year to tens of thousands of students–or perhaps hundreds of thousands? What other things is NYCDOE forfeiting for our children that could have been paid for with that money? And why does no one know the answers to any of these questions?

We have no avenue for objecting if the mayor decides to appoint a chancellor who has never worked a day of their lives in a school, or that chancellor appoints a superintendent who has never been a principal. We have no protection from a mayor who might go so far as to hand over our schools to the opaque private management of the charter sector. 

I am a parent, not an expert in governance, and I realize that school boards aren’t perfect. All over the country, we are seeing money from outside a district swoop in, essentially buying seats, often to advance a school privatization agenda. That’s twisted, and if we did go back to an elected  school board, we’d have to be attentive to things like that, perhaps strictly regulating campaign contributions. 

I can’t wrap this up with a neat solution as to what the best course of action forward is. Nonetheless, I do know that the mayoral control that we have now is fundamentally flawed, and should not continue in its present form if we value democracy.


For Leonie’s statement click here.

For Kemala’s statement click here.

For my statement click here.


The Washington Post reported this evening that moderate Democrats who voted to impeach Trump are the targets of a GOP ad campaign to oust them. Every one of them knew they were putting their future at risk.


GOP-tied group to spend $2.5 million against moderate Democrats

An advocacy group with GOP ties said Wednesday it will spend $2.5 million in the immediate aftermath of the House impeachment vote to attack supportive Democratic lawmakers in running next year in districts President cTrump previously won.

The new American Action Network spending is in addition to the $8.5 million the group has already spent in the lead-up to Wednesday’s vote — a campaign that has spooked many vulnerable Democrats but failed to convince them to oppose impeachment.

A total of 29 members will be targeted by digital ads. Nine of those will see cable and broadcast television ads run in their districts: Democratic Reps. Jared Golden (Maine), Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), Xochitl Torres Small (N.M.), Susie Lee (Nev.), Max Rose (N.Y.), Anthony Brindisi (N.Y), Kendra Horn (Okla.), Joe Cunningham (S.C.) and Elaine Luria (Va.).

Summit Public Schools, a Bay Area chain of charter schools that receives tens of millions of dollars from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Gates Foundation, found a way to skirt the intention of California’s recently passed charter transparency bill, SB 126. They held a board meeting 12/12/19 and only allowed six members of the public in the boardroom. Summit’s CEO said it was because allowing more of the public to join in person would “create an inappropriate working environment.” The rest of the 40 or so students, parents, and teachers who drove 30 miles to attend the meeting were shuttled into in a nearby Summit charter school to watch over video.
One provision of SB 126 requires charter management organizations with multiple campuses to establish two-way video-conferencing from each campus for their board meetings — with the intent of making these board meetings accessible — so that families, students, and teachers don’t have to travel hundreds of miles if they are not able to attend in person. It appears that Summit is using this provision to decrease transparency and democracy by preventing members of the public from being able to attend charter board meetings in person.
This was an important meeting because, last month, out of nowhere, Summit announced it was closing one of its schools, Summit Rainier, at the end of the school year, with seemingly little plan for what would happen to Rainier students. Summit educators, who recently unionized, have demanded to bargain for weeks about the impacts of this closure on Summit students, families, and teachers.
Students from Summit Rainier wanted to attend the meeting but were told to watch it in an adjoining room by video.
Student journalists wrote this article about being excluded from what should have been an open public meeting of the Summit board.
They got a lesson about what democracy is not.

Numerous community members prepared to attend today’s Summit Public Schools board meeting to discuss the closure of Summit Rainier but faced a surprise. Upon entering Home Office, where the board was meeting, they found out they had limited access to speaking to the board in-person. 

CEO Diane Tavenner informed the crowd a total of six people could enter the board meeting and the rest would have to watch from an overflow room at Summit Prep, a school building adjacent to the SPS Home Office. 

The Washington Post writes here about MIchael Bloomberg’s unusual campaign: Skip the early primaries, inundate the key states with unprecedented spending.

Unlike Trump, Bloomberg has experience in running for office and winning, and he has executive experience as a three-term mayor of New York City. Unlike Trump, Bloomberg is a real billionaire, with assets of more than $50 billion. He is good on climate change and gun control.

He has liabilities, to be sure, including his racist “stop and frisk” policy, which prompted police harassment of hundreds of thousands of innocent black men. His education policies were a disaster, based squarely on NCLB strategies of high-stakes testing and choice. His corporation was sued for gender discrimination repeatedly by women employees. He is unlikely to be concerned about income inequality or wealth inequality, both of which have directly benefited him.

But Trump has lowered the bar on racism and sexism and preferential treatment of the 1%.

Bloomberg is prepared to saturate the nation with TV and internet ads. He has already hired a campaign staff of hundreds of people. And he has just begun.

The campaign has been offering field organizers salaries of $6,000 a month, a 70 percent premium from the going rate of $3,500 paid by the campaigns of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

It has picked up key hires such as Dan Kanninen, a former aide to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2016 and to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) during his successful 2008 campaign; former Obama organizer Mitch Stewart; Obama’s former Ohio strategist Aaron Pickrell; and Gary Briggs, a former top marketing executive for Facebook and Google.
The money they have been sending out the door for advertising is record-setting. Since his campaign launch on Nov. 24, Bloomberg has spent or reserved about $60 million in television and radio ads, with no sign of slowing down.

Taken together, the top four polling Democrats in the race — former vice president Joe Biden; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sanders and Warren — have spent about $28 million on similar ads all year.

He has also purchased $4.6 million of Google ads, from YouTube spots that run alongside video game streamers to classic search promotions. That is more than any other Democratic campaign has spent over the full year, according to the company. On Facebook, his spending over the past week ran at more than $170,000 a day, 2½ times the level of President Trump’s reelection campaign and about three times more than Tom Steyer, the other billionaire Democrat seeking the nomination. All of his digital ads are focused on increasing his support and recruiting staff, rather than the fundraising that occupies other campaigns.

He could spend $1 billion, $2 billion, without putting a dent in his vast fortune. His candidacy will test the question of whether one of the richest men in history can step into a presidential election and buy it.