Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas Cards

January is here.

Now behind us is the annual barrage of obligatory Christmas gifts, visits to relatives, eggnog and other indulgences, and holiday decorations. Except for those who celebrate Epiphany and the twelve days of Christmas, the ho-ho-ho-ing is history for another year.

Part of the holiday season is the annual ritual of Christmas cards. It seems like we send them for a variety of reasons to a variety of people, but almost everybody has sent Christmas cards at one time or another.
The first commercial holiday greeting cards were produced in 1843 in England; the tradition came to America in 1875. They have varied from simple to fancy, religious to sacrilegious, sometimes with expensive foil or cut-outs or fold-outs - but what should be most important is the sentiment attached.

I don't know how many Christmas cards I sent out this year, but it seemed like a lot. Most, of course, go to family members scattered across the country, many of whom I haven't seen in far too long. I don't expect to be in their wills, nor will they be in mine, but it seems they should know we do still think of them from time to time.

Other cards go to friends and acquaintances, some close and others I'd like to know better. There's a feeling of guilt if you don't include your friends on your Christmas card list. "Hey, I didn't hear from you this Christmas," they may say next year. "Is everything all right? Have I offended you in some way last year?" For some folks it's an offense to be dropped from someone's Christmas card list.

A few went to groups of people with whom I have worked in past years. I'm sure they sat in an office somewhere, prettying the place up along with cards from board members and paper vendors. I know they seem impersonal, but it's an efficient way to say "hello" to a cadre of acquaintences all in one envelope.

I suppose I sent a card to some individuals, hoping to guilt them into renewing our friendship a little more. "Hello! Remember me?" Maybe it seems like it's their turn to call or write for a change. You'd think the least they could do is send an email every once in a while. That is undoubtedly the wrong reason to send a Christmas card to someone. On the other hand, I'm sure I've forgotten to send cards to some very good people over the years, just through carelessness. In the grand scheme of things, there's probably a perfect balance of friends who deserve a card and those who don't.

From what I understand, Christmas card sales are down this year. The Chicago Tribune reported the percentage of consumers purchasing Christmas greeting cards fell from 77 percent in 2005 to 62 percent in 2009. An estimated 1.8 billion Christmas cards were mailed last year, but the number was expected to drop to 1.5 billion this season, the report said.

One reason is the increased use of Facebook, texting and other electronic means of communication in our society. It's easy to email blanket holiday greetings to all your friends on Facebook, knowing that covers a good percentage of people you'd otherwise bless with a Hallmark card. Another reason is the ever-rising cost of postage, a moot point on the Internet.

Still, there's something nice about getting a tangible Christmas card from your friends. It's a warm fuzzy. You know, at least for a few seconds, they thought about you before moving on to someone else on their list. I guess Santa Claus has the same problem with his list every year.

My best friend and his wife in Washington always send a Christmas letter and a family photo, outlining what they and their four boys had done during the year. It's a way of vicariously staying close, even though we're 2,000 miles apart. Somewhere around the house I think I have kept all the letters they've sent in the 23 years they've been married. Maybe one of these days I'll aggregate them in one place. Yeah. One of these days....

My family never got into the idea of professionally printed Christmas cards. It just didn't seem right. My mother would spend weeks in November and December, addressing envelopes and writing personal notes to loved ones. We checked the incoming mail daily to see from whom we had received a card or letter. We'd chuckle at our "rich" relatives whose names were printed on their cards, as if they couldn't take the time to put pen to paper for a few seconds.

An aunt and uncle in Minneapolis always included a hand-written letter about how much snow they'd already received and what they'd been doing at church. She wrote the first 80% of the letter and he added a few lines at the end, usually summarizing what his wife had already written. Getting those cards and letters was all a part of Advent in our family.

While I was going through my late parents' belongings, I found neat bundles of Christmas cards my mother had saved, going back decades. Some of the names I didn't recognize - their friends from church or distant relatives from before our time, most now long gone. In the simple act of saving and treasuring them, it was clear those cards had sentimental value for my parents. It was a way of saying hello, we're thinking of you, we wish you well. And that, after all, is what wishing someone "Merry Christmas" is all about.

I don't think I'll throw them away.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Full Lunar Eclipse - 2010 Winter Solstice

As lovers bound eternal dance across the sky,
Elusive orb fades crimson, seemingly to die,
Then slips away once more as dawn draws ever nigh,
Mere mortals watch and wonder, while o'er the heavens they fly.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Some Fundamentals About Passenger Rail In Oklahoma

There's been a lot of talk lately about passenger rail in Oklahoma City - ironic, because Oklahoma City was birthed on the rail on April 22, 1889. Despite an extensive trolley system that developed in the first few decades and fueled the development of suburbs owned - no surprise - by trolley developers, passenger traffic on the rails almost entirely disappeared by 1960. When Amtrak shuttered its doors in Oklahoma in 1979, central Oklahoma became entirely dependent on passenger cars and trucks to move around.

Now, after most major urban areas have re-established trolleys and rail systems, Oklahoma City has finally amassed the political momentum to jump on board. One of the selling points of the city's MAPS III initiative was overwhelming support for light rail in the urban core. That quickly translated to "only six miles" according to city planners, plus an ambiguous reference to a transfer station that would connect Amtrak passengers and future commuters to the fledgling light rail system. Couple that with the Obama administration's grand talk of a long-term investment in high-speed rail, and suddenly passenger rail is again a hot topic. Even the recalcitrant Oklahoma Department of Transportation - which owns, thanks to Jim Townsend, more rail than any other state in the union - put together a modest bid to scarf up President Obama's high-speed rail bucks.

Let's jump ahead a bit and see just what will be necessary to make passenger rail a reality in central Oklahoma.

Unlike most eastern cities, rail existed before the city itself. Look at an early-day rail map of Oklahoma, and it's evident the state was crisscrossed with some 1,500 miles of rail lines at an early age, even predating statehood. They made the oil boom of the 1910s and 1920s possible, bringing heavy equipment into muddy fields where dirt roads were wholly inadequate.

By 1870 a total of 52,900 miles of railroads existed in the United States, with 1,350 miles in Missouri and 660 in Kansas, but none in Indian Territory. Kansas wanted an outlet to the Gulf of Mexico; plans for a transcontinental railroad from St. Louis to the Pacific were being made at the same time. In the Reconstruction-era treaties between the United States and the several Indian nations after the Civil War, a stipulation was added that one north-south and one east-west railroad were to be allowed through Indian land. Only then did the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway Company (MK&T, or Katy, originally known as Union Pacific, Southern Branch) start building its line from Kansas toward Denison, Texas.

Two nominally independent companies, the Southern Kansas (of Kansas, 1885) and the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe (1873), both controlled by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad, completed a north-south main line from Kansas to Purcell by 1887. The same Southern Kansas in 1886-87 also constructed a line from Kiowa, Kansas, through Woodward to Goodwin and on to Amarillo, Texas, gaving the Santa Fe a shortcut to its western lines.

The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific crept slowly south from Kansas toward El Reno, especially after the opening of the Unassigned Lands in 1889, and reached the Red River in 1892. Most of these lines followed old, established trade routes or cattle trails such as the Texas Road and the Chisholm Trail. After a pause in construction due to the panic of 1893, expansion resumed, with many competing lines even running parallel to each other. Oklahoma City was built literally at a crossroads of rail beds, with eight major lines spreading out like a spider's web from the core of the city.

Thousands of settlers were brought into Oklahoma by rail for the seven land runs between 1889 and 1895. Oklahoma City's Santa Fe station figures prominently in early photographs; indeed, the city spread out from the Santa Fe station as lumber and other construction goods were imported through it.

By the 1950s, rail passenger traffic was being replaced by high-speed highways and even faster airlines. Unused rail beds were removed and recycled, and rights-of-way abandoned. By 1965 the Oklahoma mileage had shrunk to 5,570. In 1995 Oklahoma railroad mileage was down to 3,434, or about half of what it had been in 1920. Most of central Oklahoma's rail beds have not been upgraded in years. Only the BNSF carries regular heavy traffic, and shares part of that roadway with Amtrak's limited service on the Heartland Flyer.

This map from the Oklahoma Department of Commerce gives you an idea of how Oklahoma City is inherently connected to North American destinations by rail. Regrettably, freight is the only real beneficiary of that network today.

It would be virtually impossible to establish new rights-of-way for commuter rail. Some cities, like Seattle and San Francisco, have found it less expensive to build commuter rail underground than disturb the matrix of streets and buildings in their cities. Oklahoma City is fortunate in that rights-of-way predate most of the city's development, and it only makes sense to utilize those assets in re-establishing passenger rail.

The trick to efficient use of rail lines is double tracking. The old Santa Fe line wasn't designed for modern needs. And, while there's enough right-of-way to double-track, most of it remains a single line. When a north-bound train is coming through, all south-bound traffic must wait on a siding, and vice versa. Any single tracking becomes a bottleneck, which decreases efficiency, increases costs and frustration, and drives down ridership.

So the first major step that needs to be taken will be to double-track the BNSF right-of-way all the way from at least Norman to Edmond, and eventually further as the metro expands. That's the only way to ensure smooth and quick rail movement through the metropolitan area. And that's going to cost millions of dollars and take years to construct. Without it, commuter rail won't be a practical alternative to Broadway Extension or I-35. And without commuter rail, the downtown circulator will be nothing more than a cute plaything for those who are already downtown - Devon Tower employees, the few daring souls who live and work downtown, or the occasional Thunder fan or Bricktown aficionado.

Commuter rail and the downtown circulator are critical to each other, like Siamese twins. To plan one without considering the requirements of the other is futile to the ultimate success of either system.

Current discussions call for a new transfer station somewhere in downtown Oklahoma City, at which commuters can get off their trains from Edmond and Norman (and Amtrak, for that matter) and board the light rail circulator system. That station would probably be built near today's Santa Fe station, or possibly the adjacent former Rock Island terminal. It would require literally thousands of future commuters to make that perfectly orchestrated transition in a matter of seconds.

In fact, three types of activity would occur in that station:
- Passengers accessing the downtown circulator system from suburbs and Amtrak;
- through traffic (such as Edmond to Norman or the airport); and
- passengers accessing Amtrak from suburbs and downtown.

All of that would be squeezed into a narrow corridor, with origins in the 1880s. What's more, during the 1930s the Santa Fe track was elevated, in a successful effort to separate rail from surface vehicular and pedestrian activity. On top of all that, BNSF still operates heavy freight traffic through the Mexico-to-Canada corridor.

Anyone who has used Denver's successful commuter rail system knows it operates without the use of a single transfer station. The trains transition from segregated rail lines to a street-level loop through downtown, where commuters can disembark at a multitude of stops. In addition, Denver's popular (and natural gas powered) free buses flow up and down the 15th Street pedestrian mall, giving travelers access to millions of square feet of office and retail space.

Here's an idea: Imagine a commuter train coming in from the north on the BNSF right-of-way. Have it exit west along N. W. 15th and 16th Street and then run straight down Broadway to around Third Street, making stops every block to drop off and pick up passengers. At the curve, have it rejoin the BNSF right-of-way and enter the new transfer station. With that approach, a significant number of passengers exit the train along Automobile Alley, thereby reducing the number of people being forced through the new transfer station. In addition, the train would serve the local needs of moving up and down Automobile Alley for over a mile, alleviating the need for a separate light-rail track along Broadway.

It's not a new idea. As you can see from the photo, Broadway used to have a trolley running north and south. Re-establishing it would allow for more intense development, more excitement and more activity along what once was the city's main business street.

The transfer station itself should be linear. The BNSF line obviously should remain elevated; but the structure on which it sits should be considered an asset instead of a barrier. A linear transfer station, stretching from the Santa Fe parking garage past the Santa Fe station, over the old I-40 site (the future boulevard) and down to the new convention center and urban park would allow commuters to disembark at any of several exits, and reduce congestion at a single exit far removed from most downtown venues. In other words, a passenger could choose to exit at the Santa Fe parking garage, at the Amtrak station/Cox Center/Thunder arena, at Bricktown, the new convention center or the urban park, minimizing his or her walk from the train. That's a lot better than being dropped off at, say, the Rock Island yard and having to figure out how to get several blocks to his or her desired destination. At the same time, the number of people exiting at any single site is reduced.

Because the transfer station operates on two levels, passengers would be able to take an escalator from the train level to the street level. The elevated structure would be gutted (I assume it's filled with fill dirt) and turned into a functional building, sheltered from high-volume vehicular traffic of E.K. Gaylord, but providing access to all the cross streets along the way. Only the west wall with the iconic mural would remain the same.

Amtrak and commuter rail would also include express lines that would only stop at the downtown Amtrak station. Thus, traffic from Edmond to Norman would not take the Broadway route, but would remain on the BNSF right-of-way. As a result, their journeys would not be delayed by a detour through Automobile Alley.

Under this approach, the cost of a transfer station would be significantly reduced, perhaps by a third or one-half. That would allow for more MAPS3 tax dollars to be committed to the downtown circulator system, extending it.

There is another problem, however, that Anton Classen didn't face. The Federal Railroad Administration, which now regulates BNSF et al., prohibits light rail vehicles from operating on the same tracks at the same time as FRA-compliant heavy rail cars, such as locomotives and freight equipment. Besides the obvious safety factor, there's a rumor that Detriot persuaded federal authorities to include that regulation to heighten its advantage over rail during the transition from passenger rail to cars. One notable exception is the New Jersey Transit line from Camden to Trenton, which received an exemption on the condition that light rail operates only during daytime hours and Conrail freight service only at night, with several hours separating the two. That arrangement wouldn't be practical in central Oklahoma. But it highlights the fact that streetcars won't be rumbling up to Edmond or down to Norman using the rail right-of-way, unless it has its own dedicated track; they'll be confined to streets. The commuter rail can come down Broadway, but would probably overwhelm the smaller downtown streets. A hybrid approach is therefore the best solution.

A passenger rail system would be short-sighted if it did not include a connection to Will Rogers World Airport.

That's why it was so critical to preserve the Union Station rail yard, to allow a connection between it and the Santa Fe line in the designs of the I-40 realignment.

I live in Edmond. It's almost as easy for me to use the Tulsa airport as the Will Rogers airport when I'm flying out of state. We won't even talk about the annoying security screening - just getting to and from the airport, hauling my luggage, getting on and off a GiddyUp, and paying for the parking privilege is irritating.

It would be much simpler for me to board a train in Edmond, transfer to the airport line at the downtown Oklahoma City linear transfer station, and travel west past the Union Station and along Highway 152 (the Newcastle Road), then south at Meridian along a new line that drops me off inside the Will Rogers terminal itself. St. Louis, San Francisco and other cities do this with considerable success.

Most people don't take into consideration the cost of building parking spaces. Think of the parking garage at the airport. Each parking space might literally cost $30,000 to build. The surface lots take up endless acres of valuable real estate. It simply makes more sense to connect the entire metro area to the airport by adding about two miles of rail line (from Meridian and Airport Road) and installing the trains and stations.

Finally, thought should be given to making the downtown urban park and surrounding redevelopment almost vehicle free.

As the circulator system is developed, it should be planned with a southern extension in mind that would serve the area south of Reno. A federal office building employee, for example, should be able to board the light rail vehicle and easily travel to the urban park, the new convention center, or Wheeler Park housing. By the same token, a Wheeler Park condo resident should be able to take the circulator to his downtown job, a Redhawks game, or a festive evening in Bricktown without using his or her car. That resident might also be a student at OU or UCO, and should be able to access either campus without adding a vehicle to the roads.

I have a few more ideas about Core to Shore, but we'll save that for another blog posting.

Thinking ahead to where people will want to travel 20 or 30 or even 50 years from now is the key to designing passenger rail systems today.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

More thoughts on Core to Shore

One of the problems with Oklahoma City's Core to Shore redevelopment is that the area - from Reno to the Oklahoma River - is bisected by both I-40 and the railroad tracks. Whether you lower the interstate below grade or narrow the tracks to one, the problem still exists - it's going to be difficult to move from the north half to the south half and back.

Planners' solution was to build a "pedestrian bridge" evoking a scissortail flycatcher, the state bird, between the two. Theoretically, people would be able to spend their blissful Sunday afternoons crossing the Skydance Bridge while gazing upon the flow of 80,000 vehicles a day beneath them. Kinda gives you the warm fuzzies, doesn't it?

Today we learn that the bridge's cost has skyrocketed from $5 million to $12.5 million, due in large part to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation's requirement that the pedestrian bridge be big enough and strong enough to carry maintenance vehicles. Under the new design, the suspension cables would be simply for show - the bridge decking would be strong enough to carry its own weight. Oh, and it will be narrowed from 30 feet to 20 feet.

Folks, this is ridiculous. First of all, people won't be inclined to walk from the north end of Core to Shore to the south end. They'll drive to a parking space as close as possible to their destination. If they're going to a waterfront venue, they won't park north of I-40 and take a leisurely stroll eight blocks to get to where they wanted to be in the first place.

Second, this is intended to be a pedestrian bridge. ODOT can find some other place to drive their maintenance vehicles. ODOT is trying to preempt the project, and in doing so will drive up the cost (something they're very good at) and make it less enjoyable by everyday people. Narrowing the bridge by a third will also make it less practical for its intended purpose.

Third, the City has completely overlooked inclusion of light rail into the equation. All discussions about light rail - the most popular component of MAPS 3 - have been at or north of the boulevard that will replace the old I-40 route. To succeed, downtown needs to include the concept that people will be able to use transportation other than foot or car to enter and leave C2S. If I'm working in the federal office building and want to spend my lunch break on the Great Lawn, wherever it will wind up, I'm not gonna hoof it down there. Let me catch the trolley to the park and back. Restricting access to pedestrian only will restrict the number of people who are likely to utilize the massive complex.

Another advantage of planning light rail integrally into C2S is that less acreage will be necessary for parking. Why spend $30,000 to build a parking space when the person's vehicle is already parked in a COTPA parking garage a mile away? Instead of driving to their destination, they can just catch the trolley and leave their car behind.

The scissortail bridge should include provisions for light rail extension in its plans. I don't care if the trolley crosses in the middle of the bridge, or alongside it or underneath it, but one bridge is less expensive than two. If the point of the bridge is to transfer people from one half of C2S to the other, why not do both at the same time? Otherwise, there will be resistance to adding a light rail bridge adjacent to the beautiful iconic scissortail bridge because of aesthetics. Do it right the first time.

This concept is nothing new. Lots of cities have multi-purpose bridges, even double-deck bridges. Portland recently announced plans for a new bridge across the Willamette River that would carry their popular MAX light-rail line and pedestrians/bicycles, but no cars or trucks. The designer of the Caruthers Bridge, architect Miguel Rosales, said, "To have a cultural impact, you need to innovate," he said. "A bridge, it's for everybody. It has an enormous influence." That's true for Oklahoma City as well.

One final suggestion. If you've been to New York City, you may have visited Columbus Circle, at a corner of Central Park. Here's a photo of it, through the glass wall of the adjacent Time Warner Building.

Everyone's familiar with Leonard McMurry's statute of the 89er driving his stake into the ground. That statute is currently tucked away on Couch Drive downtown. It's easy to miss while you drive south on Robinson. Why not place a traffic circle at the intersection of the I-40 boulevard and Walker, comparable to Columbus Circle, that will ease the traffic flow from north-south and east-west into downtown and Core to Shore? In the center of that traffic circle, place a large fountain topped by the 89er statute. It wouldn't need to be as tall as the Columbus monument's 70 feet; maybe just 20 feet or so. But I guarantee you, tourists will be taking pictures of themselves in front of that statute and fountain from the Grand Lawn, with Devon Tower and the rest of the downtown skyline in the background. "This is where we started, this is where we are today." That will be the image of Oklahoma City by which the world will know us.

Just a few thoughts.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Obama's Roots In Oklahoma

Two years ago, when I was Secretary of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, one of the articles I ran in our quarterly newspaper, the "Yellow Dog Dispatch," featured then-Senator Barack Obama's roots in Oklahoma. Here is that story.

When Oklahoma City’s founders dined at Jacob Dunham’s restaurant at Main and Santa Fe in 1890, or ate at his son’s lunch counter near the post office, they had no reason to suspect the White House was in the family’s future.

Everyone today knows Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, that his father was from Africa and his mother from Kansas. But the next president has some pretty solid Oklahoma roots as well.

Four of his ancestors are buried in our state, and he has numerous cousins still living here. And Barack Obama’s mother came very close to being from Oklahoma instead of Kansas.

Sen. Obama’s mother was Ann Dunham. Her great-great grandparents were Jacob Mackey Dunham and his wife Louisa Eliza Stroup. Dunham was born in present-day West Virginia in 1824 and lived in Ohio, Indiana and Kansas before being among the first white settlers of Oklahoma City. They appeared in Smith’s First Directory of Oklahoma Territory of August 1, 1890. He eventually had restaurants in Oklahoma City, Okmulgee and Dustin.

Jacob and Louisa had seven children. In 1890 Jacob (age 65), Louisa (53) and their three youngest children, Joseph, Samuel and Mary Mae, lived at the corner of Main and Hudson in Oklahoma City, just south of today’s downtown Metropolitan Library. Joseph and Samuel worked as clerks in their father’s restaurant and confectionery businesses on the south side of Main between Santa Fe and Broadway.

Dunham and his sons David, then 34, and Joseph, then 23, were in Oklahoma by May of 1889. The other family members arrived from Kansas three months later.

By 1895 Dunham moved his family on to Wellston, probably about the time Lincoln County was opened in the September 1895 land run. Louisa died in 1901 and is buried in the Wellston Cemetery. Mackey then moved with his children to Okmulgee, where he died on June 12, 1907. He is buried at Okmulgee.

The Dunham Grocery and Billiard Parlor in Okmulgee was located at 300 North Oklahoma Street. When it opened in 1916, it was the first brick building in the west section of town. They shipped pecans and animal pelts to St. Louis, and supplied goods to Okmulgee residents for several decades.

When Barack Obama’s direct family line moved on to Kansas, the rest of the Dunhams remained in Oklahoma.

- In 1890 their oldest son David Henry lived next door to his parents in Oklahoma City with his wife Phoebe (Kearney) and their four children. They eventually relocated to Okmulgee, where they are buried. At least 15 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren were born in Oklahoma.
- Jeptha Dunham lived in Wellston by 1902, where he owned a jewelry store and clock repair business on Main Street and a grocery store near Luther. He is buried near his mother in the Wellston Cemetery, and several of his ten children and their families remained in Oklahoma.
- Jacob William Dunham, the great-great grandfather of Obama, was the fourth of the seven Dunham children. In 1890 he ran a lunch counter near the post office in Oklahoma City, and lived on Main between Harvey and Hudson near his parents. He married Mary Ann Kearney on March 1 of that year in Oklahoma Territory. By the end of 1890, however, Jacob and Mary Ann had already moved on to Wichita, Kansas, where he became a pharmacist. Their seven children, including Obama’s great-grandfather, were born and raised there.
- Joseph and his wife Jennie Lula (Hill) Dunham lived in Oklahoma with their eight children and many of their descendants. They are buried in Okmulgee.
- Samuel Lemuel Dunham, a gifted natural musician, married Carrie Harmon in 1899 at Wellston. In 1907 they moved to Dustin, and in 1919 relocated to Tulsa. Their thirteen children were born between 1900 and 1923, and most live in Oklahoma. They are buried in Tulsa’s Clinton Oaks Cemetery.
- Jacob and Louisa’s youngest daughter, Mary Mae, married Arthur Lay. They and their five children lived and died in Tulsa.

David Lee Dunham, a grandson of Samuel Dunham, is a retired postal worker in Owasso who has been doing genealogy for 40 years.

“I can see Barack’s resemblance, kind of like the thin face, not too wide, fairly nice looking – a lot of Dunham’s have that,” he said.

Harbin Wilburn McCurry had had enough with the terrorists of his day.
After the Civil War, bushwhackers burned his Missouri home, killed his first-born son and nearly blinded an infant daughter with burning coals. They packed up and, after a brief stay in Kansas, moved to present-day Pontotoc County after 1880.

Quantrill’s Raiders probably targeted the McCurrys because, as Missouri Baptists, they sided with Northern congregations in opposing slavery. 15-year-old Worth McCurry was killed because he recognized some of the family’s assailants.

The baby’s eye was burned so severely that as an adult she could never close it. Sophronia McCurry married and had two children, but died shortly after the second child was born.

Harbin McCurry was a blacksmith. He died in 1899 and is buried at the Center Cemetery between Ada and Stratford.

Elizabeth Edna Creekmore, an Illinois native, was raised near Springfield and married Harbin in Missouri in 1848. She lived in Ada with her son Edward, died in 1918, and is buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Ada. Also buried there are three of their eleven children and their families.

One son, Daniel Fletcher, married Annie Jones of Wynnewood in 1895. Their ten children were all born at Ada, where he was a farmer. His brother Nathaniel Albert was a contractor and builder; his three children were all born at Ada.

The second of their children was Thomas Creekmore McCurry, who, with his wife Margaret Belle Wright, became Barack Obama’s great-great grandparents. Born in 1850, he moved to Kansas before 1880, about the time his parents moved to Indian Territory. They had seven children, including Obama’s great-grandmother Leona McCurry.

Coincidentally, at least three of Thomas and Margaret’s sons later moved to Okmulgee County. John McCurry worked for 35 years with Oklahoma Natural Gas; he and his wife Blanche lived on Bald Hill, and are buried at the Odd Fellows Cemetery at Morris.

Thomas Wilburn McCurry, his wife Alpha and their seven children also lived at Morris. Jacob Monroe McCurry was 95 when she died at Morris. Another brother, Joseph Elmer, filled out his WWI draft registration card in Okmulgee. Had Leona moved back to Oklahoma as well, Senator Obama probably would be talking about his mother from Oklahoma instead of his mother from Kansas.

If all of Obama’s relatives in Oklahoma turn out to vote for him on November 4, there should be no problem carrying the state!

Only Four Proposals Worth Their Salt

With the November 2 election fast approaching, Oklahoma voters must digest the longest list of questions of any state in the nation.

Eleven measures are on the ballot, ten of which are proposed amendments to the Oklahoma Constitution. All but one were sent to the voters by the Oklahoma Legislature; the only one coming from a citizens’ petition is the proposal to raise Oklahoma’s education spending to the regional average, something Republican legislators are loathe to do on their own.

A lot can be learned by understanding who is behind the proposals. Representatives Sue Tibbs and Mike Reynolds cosponsored six of the ten legislative measures, with Leslie Osborn, George Faught and former Tea Party gubernatorial candidate Randy Brogdon signing on to five. Senators Coffee, Ford, Jolley and Sykes and Representatives Duncan, Kern, Randy McDaniel and Terrill endorsed at least three.

In all, 65 of the 149 legislators cosponsored at least one of the measures; 56 of those 65 are Republicans. Only the proposal to increase the Rainy Day fund cap received good bipartisan support. Two other Democrats supported the proposal to lower the number of signatures required for initiative petitions. Other than those two measures, no Democrats cosponsored any of the legislative proposals.

That means that eight of the ten measures submitted by the Legislature are purely part of the Republican agenda to change Oklahoma government.

This legislature doesn’t have a good track record for well-written laws. In March the Supreme Court found one of their bills to be unconstitutional. In 2009, the Court had ruled the same way twice in three months, to no avail. Having ignored earlier admonitions, the Court added, “We are growing weary of admonishing the Legislature for so flagrantly violating the terms of the Oklahoma Constitution. It is a waste of time for the Legislature and the Court, and a waste of the taxpayer's money.”

In August, the Supreme Court agreed with Insurance Commissioner Kim Holland that a bill taxing health insurance claims was unconstitutional, stripping $78 million from an already-tight state budget. Fortunately, federal economic stimulus funds filled the gap, avoiding an expensive special session to fix the problem. But those federal dollars won’t be available forever to cure the incompetence of the Oklahoma legislature.

Several of the state questions will face legal challenges. SQ 746, requiring a voter to produce identification, may conflict with the state constitution, which provides that “No power, civil or military, shall ever interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage by those entitled to such right.” That was one reason Gov. Brad Henry vetoed the proposal when it crossed his desk; the Republicans overrode his veto and placed it on the ballot anyway.

SQ754 includes a provision that claims it cannot be repealed or amended, even if Oklahoma voters unanimously wanted it changed. That’s inconsistent with the Constitution’s original language, which guarantees that the people “have the right to alter or reform the same whenever the public good may require it.” In effect, Republican lawmakers seek to strip Oklahoma voters of their fundamental right of self-governance. That one will be tied up in litigation for years, when we should be addressing real problems facing Oklahomans.

The same is true for SQ756, by which Republicans seek to deny Oklahomans the benefits of reforms in health care passed by Congress earlier this year. As the ballot language makes clear, under the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, federal law preempts conflicting state law. You can bet there will be lawsuits over this one if it is passed.

The only ones worth their salt, besides SQ744 on funding for common education, are SQ748, SQ750 and SQ757.

SQ748 restructures the eternally-imperfect system of redistricting. If the legislature reaches an impasse over redistricting, the process is entrusted to six bipartisan appointees rather than the current three elected officials who may all be from the same party.

SQ750 would lower the number of signatories required to put a question to the voters by initiative petition. I don’t think it should ever be difficult for Oklahomans to propose changes to their system of government.

SQ757 would increase the amount of the Rainy Day fund from 10% to 15% of available funds, creating a deeper savings account for future tough times. We don’t have money to set aside today, but someday we will, and we need to be prepared.

As for term limits, we have them already. If the voters step up to the plate and do their job, SQ747 is unnecessary. Let the voters decide who they want to serve in public office.

So there you have it. In this humble writer’s opinion, only four questions merit a “yes” vote on November 2 – State Questions 744, 748, 750 and 757. The rest deserve a “no” vote. Hopefully we’ll survive this mind-numbing process until we get a smarter legislature.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Yes on 744, No on 754. Touchdown!

It’s the fourth quarter, and you’re behind by five points. It’s fourth down and long yardage for a first down, much less a touchdown. The clock is ticking. Your only chance is to throw a “Hail Mary” pass. Throw it deep, throw it long. The chance your opponent will intercept the ball is literally a toss-up. But it’s possible that, just maybe, one of your teammates will catch it, hang on to it, and stumble across the end zone for victory.

That kind of last-ditch effort to pull off a miracle is exciting football. But it’s also an apt description for State Question 744, the best-known proposition on Oklahoma’s Nov. 2 ballot.

SQ744 is the only question on the ballot that came from an initiative petition; all the rest are creatures of the Republican Legislature. 234,446 voters signed the petition, nearly 100,000 more than the required 138,970 signatures. State questions on the ballot four years ago needed about 440,000 votes to be approved, so there appears to be strong support for SQ744 among voters.

This is, after all, the people’s government. “All political power is inherent in the people; and government is instituted for their protection, security, and benefit, and to promote their general welfare; and they have the right to alter or reform the same whenever the public good may require it,” says the Oklahoma Constitution. The people have every right to set priorities for public officials. If they want public schools to be funded at the regional average, they should fix that bar and force public officials to construct state government around it.

According to SQ744 supporters, Oklahoma is currently dead last and $1,627 per student behind the regional average. We’re also 49th in the nation. The status quo is obviously not working.

SQ744 would mandate that the Legislature must fund public schools at a rate at least equal to the average spent per pupil by the six states surrounding Oklahoma. If the average from the bordering states drops, Oklahoma must spend the amount it spent the year before.

But we also would deal with the Lake Wobegon effect. In Garrison Keillor’s mythical Minnesota community, all the children are above average, a statistical absurdity. As Oklahoma raises its spending, the regional average would also rise. It’s not just a matter of spending $1,627 more per pupil; it will cost more than that, and even more as other states increase their expenditures to avoid losing ground. It would be an interesting dilemma if each of our neighbors committed themselves to spend more than the regional average.

Aren’t we spending enough on education? After all, Brad Henry’s principal campaign promise was to bring Oklahoma up to the regional average in teacher pay. Surprisingly, over the past two years we’ve cut funding for common education by over $200 million.

Will this mean raising taxes? Probably, along with a good stiff kick in the pants toward reform in state government. But that’s not part of the Republican agenda. So, after SQ744 was circulated, Edmond Sen. Todd Lamb and his buddies put State Question 754 on the ballot. That proposal would cause a constitutional crisis by banning what SQ744 seeks to accomplish. Check. Checkmate.

Interestingly, despite the quote above, SQ754 includes a provision that claims it cannot be repealed or amended, even if Oklahoma voters unanimously wanted it changed. By doing so, Republican lawmakers seek to strip Oklahoma voters of their fundamental right of self-governance. That’s how little they trust the voters.
The mix of State Questions 744 and 754 on the same ballot guarantees protracted and expensive litigation if they both pass. With one mandate pitted against another, eventually the Supreme Court will have to untangle the mess. Voters would be wise to stand up for their right to govern themselves and save a lot of taxpayer dollars by voting no on State Question 754.

As for 744, it’s a good idea. Republican lawmakers have already strangled Oklahoma education too far. We need to educate our children, to give them a solid foundation on which they can begin their lives, so this state can be a better place in which to live. A decent education is one of the fundamental expectations we should have for state government.

But lab equipment and textbooks and computers cost money. SQ744 should end Oklahoma’s cottage industry of bake sales and car washes to pay for pencils and paper.

This is indeed a “Hail Mary” attempt to score a touchdown in the education game. Lawmakers have had 103 years to get it right, and they’ve failed miserably. It’s time for the voters to make their priorities clear by voting yes on State Question 744, and forcing lawmakers to play the game of government by the people’s rules instead of their own.

SQ755 Is Nuts!

State Question 755 is ridiculous. It’s also dangerous.

Why is it up for consideration? When the Republican-controlled legislature approved it for the ballot, the author, State Rep. Rex Duncan of Sand Springs, said in a press release, “Judges in other states and on the federal bench have increasingly turned to citing international law in their court decisions, something I and others feel is grossly inappropriate in a sovereign state such as our own.”

They may feel it’s “grossly inappropriate,” but any first-year law student knows the job of the courts is to interpret the laws under which parties operate. This radical proposition is astonishing and unprecedented in American jurisprudence.

If approved, Oklahoma’s Constitution would require the courts to “uphold and adhere to” the federal and state constitutions, statutes, rules, regulations and common law in making judicial decisions. Sounds good. And, of course, they do that already. But they also rely on the precedent of published opinions, which may end because case law is omitted as an approved source of legal authority.

“The courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures,” according to the proposed language, even though our entire legal code is built upon our British legal heritage. “Specifically, the courts shall not consider international law or Sharia Law.”

There is no single code that contains “international law.” It’s a legal term that refers to the laws and treaties that govern relations between independent nations. It’s not clear from the ambiguous language whether the courts are to ignore the laws of other countries, as opposed to treaties between countries, or what he means by “legal precepts.” But there are differences in legal parlance.

The proposal is also on doubtful constitutional grounds. The Supremacy Clause makes the federal Constitution, laws and treaties the “supreme law of the land, and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” As Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in an 1824 opinion, “In every such case, the act of Congress, or the treaty, is supreme; and the law of the State, though enacted in the exercise of powers not controverted, must yield to it."

This gambit sounds a lot like the Bricker amendments from the 1950s. Ohio Senator John Bricker proposed language that would have expressly prohibited the ratification of any treaty that conflicted with the Constitution. As one conservative Senator argued, “I do not want the President of the U.S. to make a treaty with India which would preclude me from butchering a cow in my own pasture." President Eisenhower fought his own party over the issue and, with the support of Senate Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson, won the defeat of the proposal by one vote in 1954. A subsequent 1957 Supreme Court opinion held that constitutional rights prevail over treaties, and the moot idea disappeared into the history books.

The proposal could also hurt Oklahoma business interests. Oklahoma’s Department of Commerce reports that about 14,000 foreign companies do business in Oklahoma, employing more than 35,000 people. We have two foreign trade zones and ocean-going ports on the Arkansas River. Oklahoma exports exceed $4 billion a year.

In a lawsuit between an Oklahoman and a foreign company, this constitutional amendment might prohibit an Oklahoma judge from “look(ing) to the legal precepts of” a foreign country in order to dispense justice, even if doing so would favor the Oklahoman. It could prevent an Oklahoma judge from considering treaties under which international trade is conducted, or the culture of a signatory to a contract. In effect, Oklahoma could become the only state in the nation incapable of enforcing international business law.

To stir emotions, this proposal throws in a ban on Sharia law, which in many respects parallels Old Testament law. Among the right-wing conspiracy theories circulating on the Internet is that President Obama is Muslim, and that he intends to impose Islamic law in the United States. First of all, of course, neither President Obama nor anyone else has proposed any such thing. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, and the doctrine of separation of church and state prevents a religious code from being made law. And, after all, our laws are written by elected officials like Sen. Duncan and his peers who would stand as vanguards against such a travesty.

At best, State Question 755 is a silly attempt to pander to right-wing xenophobes that would cause chaos in the courts. It demonstrates the poor grasp of basic legal concepts by the legislature, while placing at risk Oklahoma’s international business activity. State Question 755 deserves a prompt “No” vote on November 2.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Corporate Tax Cut Needed to Spur Growth

There’s a lot of frustration out there about the slow pace of economic recovery. Unemployment remains high, people are unemployed longer than ever before – and if there’s one thing we can’t afford, it’s for people to be out of work. The few available jobs pay lower wages than workers earned in the past. Too many families face foreclosures and empty cupboards. Even if government spends money training people, it won’t do much good if business are not hiring anyway.

Economists have remarked that recent recessions have been increasingly tough to shake off. Corporations that grew too large to fail – once honored as blue chip companies – have been bailed out with billions in tax dollars in order to survive.

Maybe it’s time we concede that capitalism in the United States is chronically ill. Conventional remedies, like lowering interest rates, aren’t solving the problem. I realize this may sound like progressive blasphemy, but maybe we need to drastically cut corporate income taxes for small businesses.

So far, little else has worked. The President’s economic stimulus program has kept the recession from being worse, but there’s been no economic rebound. Strangely, corporations are sitting on about $2 trillion in cash, and banks are flush with money to lend at historically low interest rates. But businesses are skittish about spending money. They’re concerned there won’t be a demand for goods they would manufacture, because unemployment is so high and people are so strapped for cash. Businesses need a shot of confidence to open the taps and circulate more money.

Corporations spend a lot of money finding ways to avoid paying taxes. With lower tax rates, businesses would be less obsessed with tax write-offs and more motivated to manufacture and sell tangible products to make profits the old-fashioned way. They’d also be less likely to subsidize politicians to finagle new loopholes. Isn’t it better for 100 small businesses to have low taxes than to give one corporation with 100 employees a tax break? Isn’t the likelihood of job growth significantly better?

The IRS reported in 2007 that 4.9 million of the 5.9 million corporate income tax filers had assets under $500,000 – truly the “small businesses” that hire the most people and spark the economy most effectively. The 9,317 corporate filers with assets over $500 million each, however, generated over 84% of the corporate tax revenue that year.

So, if we eliminate the corporate income tax on over 5.8 million businesses with assets under $500 million, we’d lose about $7.5 billion in tax revenue. The result would be a remarkable signal to small businesses that good times are ahead. The remaining tax on huge corporations would also meet the Obama administration’s goal of discouraging businesses from becoming “too big to fail.” Gone, too, would be convoluted corporate tax breaks that favor debt over equity and corporations over individuals.

Some would argue this places an undue burden on individual taxpayers. But if the federal government is of, by and for the people, maybe the people ought to be the ones paying for the bulk of it. Maybe tax dollars would become all the more precious for lawmakers to spend. After all, an argument can be made that, if the sheep industry pays $100 million in taxes, they ought to get $100 million in subsidies for the sheep industry. Take that tax away, and so also goes their argument. Tax dollars paid by human taxpayers should benefit human taxpayers.

But the greatest benefit would be that companies would start hiring again. Our tax policies should encourage businesses to create jobs, with living wages. The average salary at Chesapeake is $71,000, and their workers seem pretty content. I suspect most people would rather have a good job and pay modest taxes than be unemployed with a low tax rate; their disposable income at the end of the day is what matters most.

Corporate profits paid as wages to workers and distributed as dividends to stockholders become personal income. As incomes go up, more taxes are paid, which will more than offset the $7.5 billion in lost corporate tax revenue and reduce the deficit. The expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy individuals would provide even more tax revenues. As the deficit goes down, optimism improves, more people are hired, more money circulates, and we approach Nirvana.

Brighter minds can work out the details. But the old ways don’t seem to work anymore. If the economy doesn’t turn around, Osama bin Laden will have won his war against capitalism. If someone has a better idea, let’s hear it.

Oklahoma knows oil gushers

BP’s out-of-control oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico isn’t the first to grab the world’s attention. In fact, one of the most infamous blowouts was right here in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma City oil field became the largest oil producer in the United States after it was discovered in 1928. In fact, until oil was found in the Middle East, the Oklahoma City field was the largest known oil reserve in the world.

The Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company had been poking around looking for black gold in Oklahoma County for 27 years. Finally, after 25 dry holes and having spent $400,000, ITIO hit a gusher on December 28, 1928 which blew five thousand barrels of oil in the first 24 hours. That well eventually produced more than a million barrels of oil.

But that discovery well was nothing compared to what happened on March 26, 1930.

A few miles further south, near present-day I-240 and Bryant Avenue, ITIO was drilling another well on the farm of Vincent and Mary Sudik. Tired roughnecks forgot to fill the hole with mud before starting to pull 25 tons of pipe that, unknown to them, had pierced the top of the Wilcox sand 6,741 feet below them. The pipe began vibrating. Then came a roar, heard in Purcell 30 miles away, that permanently deafened some of the workers. The joints of pipe were shot like toothpicks into the air by gas that had built up over millions of years, waiting for this day to be released.

Thus was born the Wild Mary Sudik well. For the next eleven days, she vented 200 million cubic feet of gas and up to 75,000 barrels of oil a day. When the wind came from the south, oil coated downtown Oklahoma City and the state capitol building 10 miles away; when it shifted from the north, an oily mist rained down on Moore and Norman. Housewives couldn’t hang their laundry outside; fires and pilot lights were prohibited, and land and air traffic was rerouted.

The scene attracted worldwide attention. Newsreel photographers arrived by train, and their films were shown in theaters around the globe. Twice-daily national radio reports kept the world updated. The coverage, for eleven days, was every bit as extensive in its day as the BP Gulf oil gusher is today.

After two failed attempts, the third try to cap Wild Mary was successful. An estimated 800,000 barrels of oil were lost, and 211,589 barrels of oil were recovered from ponds and ditches. Thousands of acres of oil-soaked land had to be plowed under, and hundreds of buildings had to be repainted. Once tamed, the Mary Sudik well would eventually produce 5 million barrels of oil.
Wild Mary was only the most famous of hundreds of wells that tapped into the Oklahoma City oilfield. She was not the last gusher, either. Seven months later the No. 1 Stout ran wild for three days, gushing between 60,000 and 75,000 barrels a day. It was finally capped using lessons learned on Wild Mary.

By this time pools of oil were stored behind earthen dams all over Oklahoma City. One of those dams collapsed, spilling a layer of oil three inches thick onto the North Canadian River. Besides killing fish and birds, the river actually caught fire, with flames blazing forty feet into the air. Black smoke was visible from Enid. Two bridges were destroyed, and damage reached as far downstream as McLoud.

The Oklahoma story is best understood in the context of a nascent industry. Problems arose because drillers didn’t know better. Blowout preventers and drilling mud were recent innovations, and nobody expected the gas pressure to be that intense. A moratorium on production was imposed, not because of the environmental impact, but because the production glut caused the price of oil to drop below 15 cents a barrel. Once the price rose above $1 a barrel, drilling was allowed to resume.

Now, 80 years later, the oil and gas industry is dealing with another gusher, this time a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico. While we don’t yet know exactly what caused it, we do know that safety and cleanup considerations have lagged behind our zeal to find new domestic sources of energy. There’s still a little too much of the wildcatter’s vinegar in a dangerous and dirty business that can cause widespread and long-lasting harm. And, while redundant precautions will add to the cost of drilling, they’re necessary until we can transition to cleaner and safer fuels. Ignorance is no longer an excuse, especially when the stakes are so high and the rewards so lucrative.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Why I'm Not Supporting Drew Edmondson for Governor

A number of my friends and relatives have wondered why I’m not supporting Drew Edmondson for Governor this year. After serving as an Assistant Attorney General for eleven years, most of those in the Edmondson era, and campaigning for him in two elections, it seemed natural that I would support his run for Governor. Well, I’m not, and here’s why.

In June of 2006, Drew called me into his office at the State Capitol and threatened me with my job if I didn’t vote the way he wanted on the Oklahoma Democratic Party State Central Committee, where I served as State Secretary. He launched into a paranoid tirade about his political enemies, dating as far back as his campaign for Congress against Mike Synar. He even shared his opinion that people dealing with mental health issues should just “get over it.” In a monologue littered with “F” bombs, he made it clear that he wasn’t interested in the facts, but was operating on raw emotion.

Could he have handled the situation differently? Sure. It was obvious he didn’t have all the facts, and that somebody had gotten him riled up. The meeting should never have taken place in the State Capitol; in fact, he said “this conversation never took place,” so it was obvious he knew better. Moreover, it should never have resulted in a job-related ultimatum. I was always careful to separate my duties as an Assistant AG from my political activities, and I expected the same from my boss.

I left that meeting with a markedly different opinion of Drew Edmondson. This wasn’t the conscientious friend of the people, in the mold of my hero Ed Edmondson, that I thought he was. This was a cold, calculating, and ruthless political operative who saw conspiracies and enemies where none existed. (The issue he ranted about never came before the Central Committee, as I assured him it would not.) This was a chameleon who could be your best friend when it suited him or your worst nightmare when it did not. Whatever the circumstance, Drew looks out for Number One, and Number One must always be vindicated.

It’s been a challenge to separate my emotions from a rational analysis of this situation. But it’s clear to me that someone with that kind of personality has no business in the Governor’s office. Sure, it’s a political position, and it’s a tough world out there. But the best leadership is to encourage others to excel in the tasks assigned to them, and creates a healthy work environment. There should be no need for a superior to stoop to threats of termination to leverage an employee, especially over empty rumors and gossip.

We also need a Governor who listens to both sides in gathering facts and making decisions, someone who doesn’t fly off the handle and jump to paranoid conclusions. He (or she) has to be able to sort out when they are being played by others for their own political gain, and look at what ought to be done in a given situation. Being the State’s Chief Executive requires better than what Drew demonstrated to me.

Furthermore, we don’t need a Governor who thinks people who are dealing with life’s many challenges should just “get over it.” Does that apply to veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome as well, or consumers who have been wronged by predators, or crime victims? All these folks for whom Drew has claimed to be a champion for all these years – was that just a sham as well? Should they just “get over it” too?

We can do better than that. And that’s why I’m supporting a better candidate for Governor.

- Walter Jenny Jr.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Government Faces New Threat From Corporations

The recent blowout in the Gulf of Mexico is on everyone’s minds these days. President Obama, under public pressure to take action against the oil and gas industry, recently announced he wants to trim tax incentives for the oil and gas industry. He may face new hurdles in doing so because of the new-found political powers of corporations.

The industry is doing well today because public policy supports the exploration for new domestic energy sources. BP’s drilling in the Gulf was part of that effort. Now that they enjoy robust incentives, the industry probably won’t give them up willingly. Try taking a bone away from a bulldog. He’s not inclined to let you have it.

In January the Supreme Court overturned provisions of federal campaign finance law which limited corporations and unions from spending money directly in campaign advertising. Under the aegis of free speech, the decision “unleashes the floodgates of corporate and union general treasury spending” in political campaigns, as Associate Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent.

Corporations are creatures of statute; the Constitution doesn’t mention them at all. So how did corporations start getting treated on par with human beings?

In a quirk of American judicial history, in 1886 a court reporter slipped language into a Supreme Court decision headnote that implied corporations were entitled to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Nobody caught it, and subsequent courts started citing the case as law.

Granted, the First Amendment broadly says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” But as Justice Stevens saw it, the Founding Fathers “had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind.”

Federal election restrictions on corporations date back to 1907, when Congress banned all corporate contributions to candidates. The Senate Report on the legislation at that time observed that the “evils of the use of (corporate) money in connection with political elections are so generally recognized that the committee deems it unnecessary to make any argument in favor of the general purpose of this measure. It is in the interest of good government and calculated to promote purity in the selection of public officials.”

How could a corporate heavyweight influence a political campaign?

Take the case of Hugh Caperton and behemoth Massey Coal Company. Caperton, owner of another small coal company, sued Massey in West Virginia for fraud and breach of contract, and in 2002 won a $50 million judgment. (Yes, Massey is the same coal company where 29 miners died in an explosion two months ago.) In 2004, Massey’s CEO, Brent Benjamin, spent $3 million of his own money to help unseat a West Virginia Supreme Court justice. Massey then appealed the jury verdict and won 3-2, with the new justice voting in its favor. On review, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the new justice should have recused himself from the Massey appeal.

Benjamin did nothing illegal; it was his personal cash. But now corporations like Massey will be able to spend their own money in similar efforts, effectively buying legislative seats to protect their interests.

To fix the Gulf oil leak, BP alone claims to have $5 billion in available cash, $5 billion in bank credit lines and an additional $5 billion in standby credit facilities. That’s a lot of firepower held by one of many oil companies, some of which could possibly be directed toward fall elections in the best interests of stockholders. The general public has neither the cohesiveness nor the cash to respond.

Justice Stevens conceded in his dissent that lengthy and expensive lawsuits like Caperton’s might catch some of the worst abuses. “This will be small comfort to those States that, after today, may no longer have the ability to place modest limits on corporate electioneering,” he added. And the effects may be irreparable, as we may learn on the Gulf coast.

What’s next? Justice Stevens wrote, “Under the majority’s view, I suppose it may be a First Amendment problem that corporations are not permitted to vote, given that voting is, among other things, a form of speech.”

But corporations won’t need to go there. They now have more subtle and more effective ways to protect their interests. Unless Congress acts first, corporations may target members of Congress who side with the President in efforts to trim back corporate welfare to the oil and gas industry.

The very people who cry for smaller government forget that a weak government cannot provide the safeguards we expect – from national security to the regulation of offshore oil drilling, subordinated debentures and Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi schemes to name but a few. Everyone wants small government until they need a big strong government. By then, it’s too late.

In 1816 Thomas Jefferson wrote, "I hope we shall... crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

Apparently, we have failed.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

US Courts Best For Terrorists

Shortly after noon, a vehicle with a hundred pounds of dynamite and five hundred pounds of cast iron shrapnel explodes at the corner of Wall and Broad Street in downtown Manhattan. 39 people are killed, hundreds more injured, and the stock market closes in a panic.

A prediction of things to come? No, for this act of terrorism took place almost 90 years ago, on September 16, 1920.

Nobody was ever arrested or convicted for the 1920 Wall Street bombing. A note in a mailbox a block away implicated anarchists. Comprised mostly of Italian immigrants, they were protesting poor labor conditions, capitalism, inflation and oppression by the federal government.

Their eloquent firebrand was one Luigi Galleani, who was deported to Italy in June of 1919 out of fear that he was part of a conspiracy to assassinate President Wilson. An anarchist, after all, had assassinated President William McKinley in 1901.

Galleani’s disciples included Nicola Sacco and Bartolemeo Vanzetti, who were indicted five days before the Wall Street bombing, on September 11, on shaky charges of armed robbery and murder. Their subsequent convictions and executions in 1928 sparked anti-American protests around the world.

In 1917 Congress adopted the Espionage Act, which made it a crime to speak or write against our involvement in World War I. After anarchist bombings escalated, Congress adopted amendments prohibiting “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.” That was followed by the Anarchist Act in 1918, which made it legal to evict any non-citizen for mere membership in an anarchist organization or possession of anarchist literature for the purpose of dissemination. Immigration policies also shifted preferences away from southern Europe in favor of northern Europeans.

Anarchists reacted in 1919 by sending at least 38 package bombs to prominent judges and public officials who had supported or enforced the deportation laws. One target of two bombings was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who responded by rounding up over 10,000 immigrants in what became known as the Palmer Raids. Nearly 500 immigrants were eventually deported, and terrorism in the name of anarchy has gradually abated.

Today we would recoil at the manifest violations of free speech and due process. But all this took place in an era before Miranda warnings, court-appointed legal counsel, international human rights treaties and civil rights reforms. The American Civil Liberties Union, in fact, was founded during this time in an effort to protect the rights of those threatened with deportation. There were undoubtedly abuses when viewed through the tinted glasses of history; as at today’s Guantanamo prison, some might have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong ancestry.

But it’s notable that the American judicial system was able to deal with the crisis without resorting to military tribunals. Although judges and prosecutors and juries faced intimidation and reprisal from foreign nationals, there was a consensus that civilian courts were the proper forum for criminal acts. While the United States had effectively “declared war” on anarchists, no state of war had been declared between the United States and Italy. There was also no indication the weak Italian government was encouraging the terrorist acts – in fact, Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in the 1920s was in part an effort to stifle anarchists in Italy.

Military tribunals are intended to try members of enemy forces during wartime. Even during the Civil War, in most cases military tribunals were not used where civilian courts were still functioning. Simply declaring war on terrorism, as we have declared war on drugs and war on poverty, isn’t enough to invoke their use in lieu of civilian courts on simple criminals, regardless of the gravity of their crimes.

Finally, military tribunals aren’t a guarantee of maximum punishment. Of the 177 Nazi officials tried by American military judges, only 12 death sentences were issued.

Sacco and Vanzetti, fairly tried or not, were tried and convicted in a Massachusetts state court. The foreign nationals who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 were tried and convicted in federal court. The underwear bomber, who tried to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day, has been arraigned in federal court. Faisal Shahzad tried to set off a truck bomb in Times Square this month, and the courts there are fully competent to try him for doing so.

To imply that these constitutional courts are somehow incompetent or insufficient to try these individuals is an insult to one of the three pillars of our federal government – the very role model we urge other nations to embrace. To do anything less means the bad guys win – that our system of government isn’t worthy of respect. Let’s not lower our standards to their level.