By Brian Kahn Follow @blkahn In terms of sheer numbers, the past two years have been one of the quietest periods for tornadoes in the U.S. since the late 1980s, that despite some terribly destructive storms. March represents a major weather transition…
Apparently, the Republican argument suggests, we should just forget about the coronavirus and ignore a disease that has killed 700,000 Americans, variously overrun our hospitals, interrupted jobs, businesses, and lives, and has spurred a strong political resistance movement.
Even as some courts have already endorsed the idea of government mandates for masks and protections against contagion, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is challenging the right of President Joe Biden to act for public health as "yet another instance of federal overreach."
It's apparently okay for Abbott to mandate against mandates not only for the state's employees but for its private businesses as well. But, by contrast, it's not okay for the federal government to tell Texas, Florida, or any state what to do about a pandemic that knows no bounds, or for companies with more than 100 employees.
That Texas is only now beginning to emerge from two months or more of spiraling covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths is not the focus of this dust-up over the rules. Rather, it's a bald political showdown.
Frankly, it's disgusting, no matter what one's politics are. No, this drawdown borders on insanity. Why do we have time, energy, and money available for endless court battles over who's really in charge?
Has Abbott not heard of the telephone, to simply call Biden and engage in some debate if they disagree?
In any event, airlines based in Texas are moving ahead with mandates anyway, guaranteeing more tumult, not less.
Why It's Strange
It is such a strange battlefield that we need to look at it for what underscores this continuing Texas rebellion, especially since it spreads so quickly to other Republican-led states. Several things that question our general understanding are coming to the surface simultaneously.
- Discussion about countering a pandemic seems futile. Whenever one side of our cultural divide talks about medicine, the other is talking about rights, including the right to be as sick as one chooses and the right to infect others. We've passed the time of legitimate discussion about immediate health effects of vaccines; that is not even on the table in these moves by Abbott, who has been vaccinated and who has undergone a mild form of covid. The anti-vax position has become nearly fully a political one. By all medical standards, having had covid is no guarantee about carrying the contagion further or even to protection beyond some undetermined but finite time.
- Blame for covid under anti-vax is limited now only to the also endless debate over its origin from nature or from a man-made process in a China laboratory, either as the result or by-product of some National Health Institute grant over a study of interspecies transmission. There is no acknowledgment that keeping more than 30% of adult Americans unvaccinated is a problem that manifests as a continuing public petri dish of mutation. Meanwhile, the Right is actively blaming Biden for high gas taxes, for a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, clogged supply lines and sagging international dominance—because they all are happening on Biden's watch.
- Spending zillions of dollars on treatments for those who already have covid may blunt hospitalizations but does nothing to halt the spread of an airborne contagion. Yet, we're seeing tons of support across the political spectrum to spend $2,000 a dose for antibody treatments now emerging, even in pill form, rather than a $20 vaccine. For those who also argue against Biden's big-spending proposals as wasteful, this position seems, well, incongruous.
- The legal arguments here are arcane, as well as, frankly, ludicrous to you and me and our jobs. Is this more about state power versus federal power in a constitutional republic than about a chance to jack up Biden and ignore a public health menace? The force of law seems to favor the federal government acting in an emergency. The practical concerns for businesses like American Airlines based in Dallas pulled among conflicting mandates from the feds, the state and demands of consumers are simply not as important to this governor as a political principle.
By all accounts from all political viewpoints, telling businesses what they cannot do is seen as antithetical to a "conservative" view that wants government restraint.
If It Quacks. . .
It is much more understandable to see the Texas challenge over covid mandates right alongside the Texas challenge over abortion, over voting rights, over the environment and even over issues of immigration.
That is, Texas politics demand that Abbott, running at least for reelection if not for president, must protect himself from absolutists even more right-wing than he himself believes. This week, we saw hardliner Republican candidate Allen West continuing to tweet from his covid hospital bed against vaccine mandates and for expensive alternative treatments. Don Huffines, a former Texas state senator who is challenging Abbott, tweeted that "Greg Abbott is a political windsock and today proves it, He knows conservative Republican voters are tired of the vaccine mandates and tired of him being a failed leader." Apparently, in response to a Huffines criticism that a state website to help teen suicide might be fostering trans discussions, Abbott had the site pulled.
About 15 million Texans have been fully vaccinated, or just over half, lagging the national average.
Why kowtowing to a minority of voters in hopes of reelection is a bit of a mystery to me. But the reason for anyone to run for governor or president should be to solve problems.
It's hard to see what problem this governor is solving other than his own political dreams.
'Bought and paid for': New filing reveals Kyrsten Sinema pads campaign coffers with more Pharma and finance funds
U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the right-wing Arizona Democrat obstructing her party's $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill, is the recent beneficiary of six-figure largesse from pharma- and finance-linked donors apparently rewarding her opposition to the flagship social and climate investment legislation, according to campaign finance disclosures filed Friday.
Politico and The Daily Poster report that Sinema raised over $1.1 million between July and September, with 90% of the campaign donations coming from outside Arizona. At least $100,000 of those contributions came from individuals or entities linked to the pharmaceutical and financial services industries.
According to Politico, Sinema has "raised more campaign money in the last three months than in any quarter since she became a senator."
Pharmaceutical interests have been flooding in donations to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who has emerged as the ch… https://t.co/lYC3sPYigK— RootsAction (@RootsAction) 1634334077.0
Her individual donors... included a who's-who of powerful people in the pharmaceutical industry. Top donors included the pharma giant Gilead's CEO, Daniel O'Day, who gave $5,000 this past quarter. Another $2,900 came in from Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks. The executive chair of Merck's board, Kenneth C. Frazier, also gave $2,900, as did the chair and CEO of Bristol Myers Squibb, Giovanni Caforio.
The CEO of Genentech, Alexander Hardy, gave $2,500. Meanwhile, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's executive vice president for policy and research, Jennifer Bryant, senior vice president for federal advocacy Anne Esposito, and executive vice president for public affairs Debra DeShong, each gave $1,000.
The Daily Poster adds that Sinema also received approximately $47,000 from executives at Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe, a private equity firm that owns a large stake in Abzena, a company providing "outsourced research, development, and manufacturing services... to biopharmaceutical companies."
Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich noted earlier this week that Sinema has received over $750,000 from Big Pharma throughout her career.
While Sinema campaigned on a promise to "lower prescription drug prices," she has been one of the staunchest congressional opponents of allowing Medicare to leverage its tremendous purchasing power to negotiate lower medication prices.
Among Sinema's biggest financial services industry donors disclosed in the new filing are Goldman Sachs president John Waldron, who gave the maximum allowable amount of $5,800; Blackstone senior managing directors Giovanni Cutaia and Eli Nagler, who donated a combined $5,700; and Facebook co-founders Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, who both gave the maximum amount. The Winklevoss twins have amassed a multi-billion-dollar cryptocurrency empire; Sinema is a member of the Senate subcommittee charged with regulating digital currencies.
The new disclosures came as Sinema traveled to Europe to raise more campaign cash, and as the head of an advocacy group linked to the billionaire-backed Koch network urged her to "stay strong" in her efforts to torpedo her party's budget reconciliation package.
Responding to the new reports, musician and environmental activist Bill Madden tweeted, "This is what someone who's bought and paid for looks like."
Former President Donald Trump repeatedly derided mail-in voting — which saw widespread adoption as governments looked to stem the spread of COVID-19 — and a cohort of GOP state lawmakers raised alarms over the practice, alternatively arguing residents did not trust it or urging in-person machine voting be allowed.
Once their efforts to head off Gov. Phil Murphy's order met with little success, the party eventually began urging its members to cast the mail-in ballots sent to every registered voter in the state.
This year's races haven't seen similar GOP pushes against mail-in voting. State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris), who railed against last year's mostly mail elections, explained that conditions are different this year.
“The polls are open. Not only are they open, but there's early voting, so I think that took a big egg out of it," said Pennacchio.
Republican gubernatorial hopeful Jack Ciattarelli isn't exactly driving constituents toward mail-in voting, but he's not urging them to abandon the practice either.
Ciattarelli campaign manager Eric Arpert said it's “really the voters' choice" this year, with three options: mail-in voting, early in-person voting, and traditional Election Day voting. Urging voters who are on a list to get a mail-in ballot to vote in person instead means they would have to vote by provisional ballot, he noted.
“And certainly that's not as effective as just voting by mail or delivering their ballot to one of their local drop boxes," he said.
The data bears that out. Republicans have, so far, cast vote-by-mail ballots at slightly higher rates than Democrats.
According to vote-by-mail data maintained by Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University's Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, 31.8% of GOP voters who received a mail-in ballot this year have already voted as of Thursday afternoon, compared to 30.9% of Democrats.
“More significant to me than whether or not they've got an edge is that they're in the game at all," Rasmussen said. “These are Republican voters who do trust vote-by-mail, or they wouldn't have asked for those ballots. We couldn't have said that last year, because everybody got them."
Though Murphy has allowed in-person voting for this year's races, other voting changes enacted over recent years are still in effect, including a six-day grace period to count mail-in ballots election officials receive after Election Day and a law that requires voters who request such ballots receive them for future elections.
Studies have shown mail-in voting does not benefit either party disproportionately and instead boosts turnout across the board, but the reality is more complicated. Like all get-out-the-vote operations, mail strategies take time to build. Democratic county organizations, particularly in South Jersey, have for years emphasized mail-in voting. Republicans have not undertaken similar efforts.
While GOP voters have mailed in their ballots at a slightly higher rate so far this year, Democrats account for the vast majority of requested and returned ballots. As of Thursday, 512,234 New Jersey Democrats, just under 20% of the party's membership, had requested vote-by-mail ballots, and 158,741 had returned them. By contrast, the 164,404 Republicans that requested mail-in ballots accounted for a little less than 11% of the New Jersey GOP, and 52,218 of them had cast their ballots as of Thursday.
“It doesn't surprise me, but again, I think if you're a Republican, you have to say, 'This is great that we're at least in the game,'" Rasmussen said.
Even among Democrats, vote-by-mail uptake has been far from universal. At 62%, turnout rates in the 2020 general election were lower in Essex and Hudson counties, both Democratic strongholds, than anywhere else in the state.
Hudson has seen some increases in mail-in voting, Hudson County Democratic Chairwoman Amy DeGise said, but much of that has been limited to young voters, especially young white women.
Skepticism over mail-in voting among elderly voters and voters of color — just 28.5% of Hudson County residents are white, according to census data — has largely persisted.
“Our older voters, to them voting is an experience. They go to their polling location, they see friends from the neighborhood that they don't see as regularly as they want, they sit and talk, and they linger," DeGise said. “Voting by mail for them, that keeps them in the house, and they don't want to be in the house. They want to get out."
The story's similar in Essex County, where 42% of residents are black and 24% are Latino.
“People in Essex County are more confident and more trusting of the machines," said Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones, who also chairs the Democratic State Committee. “People look forward to marching to the polling sites, much like their own personal crusade for change."
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New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.
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