'Bought and paid for by you!': John Fetterman celebrates 200K individual donors in PA primary

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has surpassed 200,000 individual donors since he launched his bid for the key battleground state's open U.S. Senate seat, his campaign announced Friday.

"Our campaign will always be funded the right way. No dirty money. No corporate PACs."

"From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank each and every one of the 200,000 people who have donated to our campaign," Fetterman said in a statement. "Every day, our grassroots support across the commonwealth continues to grow. We are proud of the campaign we have built, and we'll keep fighting for every supporter and vote heading into Tuesday's primary."

Fetterman has dominated recent polls ahead of next week's May 17 primary. The progressive Democratic candidate currently holds double-digit leads over his two closest rivals—the corporate-friendly Congressman Conor Lamb and State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, also more aligned with the party's establishment wing.

While Fetterman's "dominance may seem surprising," wrote Christian Paz at Vox this week, "behind it is his success in addressing two pressing problems Democrats have struggled with nationally."

Those problems, according to Paz, are that the party's "primary voters tend to favor progressive policies more than general election voters, and their party seems unable to clearly define what it believes and who it's for: It wants to advance progressive ideas without being branded as leftist, and to strike a balance between elite priorities and blue-collar concerns."

Paz suggests Fetterman threads the needle in a unique way and the campaign makes a similar argument that the Lt. Governor has broad, crossover appeal.

"He's going everywhere," Joe Calvello, the campaign's communications director, told Vox. "John is a different type of Democrat, who can appeal to people in these forgotten towns—places that used to vote Democrat, but that Democrats don't even visit anymore. He can appeal to these people, because he shows up, and he listens."

According to his campaign, Fetterman has received more than 582,000 contributions from 200,000-plus individuals—the most in-state donors of any Pennslyvania primary candidate.

Long an outspoken advocate for economic, environmental, and social justice, the former 14-year mayor of Braddock—a Pittsburgh-area steel town hard-hit by deindustrialization—has received donations from every one of Pennsylvania's 67 counties and over 88% of its zip codes.

Like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during his 2016 and 2020 runs for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Fetterman is harnessing the power of thousands of ordinary working-class donors to take on the neoliberal establishment.

The average donation to Fetterman is $29. As a result, said his campaign, more than 99% of donors "have not given the maximum contribution and can give again and again."

Fetterman is the only candidate in the race who has won statewide in Pennsylvania. After defeating sitting Lt. Gov. Mike Stack in the 2018 Democratic primary, Fetterman joined Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's ticket for the general election and helped beat their Republican opponents by 17 percentage points.

Moreover, with Fetterman as his running mate, Wolf garnered almost one million more votes than he did in 2014. In addition, the pair was victorious in Beaver County, Berks County, Cumberland County, Erie County, and Luzerne County, all jurisdictions that Democrats have struggled to win in recent years.

Russia threatens 'retaliatory steps' as Finland inches closer to joining NATO

Russia warned Thursday that it would not hesitate to retaliate should Finland join NATO, heightening fears that the war in Ukraine could escalate into a direct confrontation between nuclear powers.

Moscow's threat came just hours after Finnish leaders said that the historically neutral Nordic country, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, should apply immediately for membership in the U.S.-led military alliance.

"Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay," President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a joint statement. "We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days."

In response, Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement that "Finland's accession to NATO will cause serious damage to bilateral Russian-Finnish relations and the maintaining of stability and security in the Northern European region."

"Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature, in order to neutralize the threats to its national security that arise from this," the statement added.

Moscow did not specify what "retaliatory steps" it would take, but Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters that "everything will depend on how this expansion process plays out, the extent to which military infrastructure moves closer to our borders."

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, lawmakers in Finland and neighboring Sweden have been mulling whether to jettison their long-standing neutrality and join the 30-member NATO. Both countries are expected to announce formal decisions on Sunday.

According to CNBC: "If Finland does join the military alliance, the land border that Russia shares with NATO territories would roughly double. Russia has land borders with 14 countries and five of them are NATO members: Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and Norway."

Nato expansion since 1997 - BBC News

Russia's foreign ministry argued Thursday that "the goal of NATO, whose member countries vigorously convinced the Finnish side that there was no alternative to membership in the alliance, is clear—to continue expanding towards the borders of Russia, to create another flank for a military threat to our country."

Anti-war advocates have long argued that NATO enlargement—and especially its expansion into former Soviet and Warsaw Pact nations—is highly provocative toward Russia.

Moscow warned last month that if Finland and Sweden join NATO, Russia would respond by strengthening its military capabilities along its borders with alliance members—including the deployment of additional nuclear weapons to the Baltic region.

Russia's war on Ukraine has boosted public support for NATO membership among Finns and Swedes.

According to the Associated Press, "The latest opinion poll conducted by Finnish public broadcaster YLE showed earlier this week that 76% of Finns are in favor of joining NATO, a big change from earlier years when only 20-30% of respondents favored such military alignment."

"NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the military alliance would welcome Finland and Sweden—both of which have strong, modern militaries—with open arms and expects the accession process to be speedy and smooth," AP reported. "NATO officials say the Nordic duo's accession process could be done 'in a couple of weeks.'"

Agnes Hellström of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, however, told Democracy Now! last month that peace activists "don't think it would make us safer or the world more secure."

"It would make us part of a nuclear doctrine," she said, "and our possibility to be a voice for democracy, prevention, and disarmament would decrease."

Librarians and teachers form coalition to fight GOP's book-banning frenzy

The American Library Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and more than two dozen other organizations on Tuesday formed a coalition to fight the far-right's record-breaking censorship barrage—wherein nearly 1,600 books were targeted for removal from public shelves and schools across the United States in 2021.

The goal of Unite Against Book Bans—which also includes the Authors Guild and prominent publishers such as Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster—is "to empower individuals and communities to fight censorship and protect the freedom to read," according to the ALA.

"This is a dangerous time for readers and the public servants who provide access to reading materials," Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, said in a statement. "Readers, particularly students, are losing access to critical information, and librarians and teachers are under attack for doing their jobs."

"It's time that policymakers understand the severity of this issue," said Caldwell-Stone. "ALA is taking the steps necessary to protect individuals' access to information, but we can't do this alone."

Last month, the group launched the Unite Against Book Bans initiative to coincide with the publication of its annual report, which documented 729 attempted bans of 1,597 unique titles last year—the highest number of challenges to library, school, and university materials in a 12-month period since the ALA began tracking more than two decades ago.

In a separate report released last month, PEN America found that U.S. school districts with a combined enrollment of more than two million students successfully banned 1,145 books between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022. Thanks to resistance from students, teachers, librarians, and local residents, however, some book bans have been reversed in recent months.

The ALA hopes to leverage "the strength and reach" of the 26 national organizations that have so far joined its growing coalition. "These groups," the ALA noted, "are uniting around the principles of reading as fundamental to learning, the right of readers to access a variety of books, and the need to work together to protect that right."

AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement that "reading is foundational."

"It helps us dream, helps us create, and helps us access opportunity. Whether you're a kid in rural West Virginia, in the suburbs of Texas, or in a shelter in New York City, opening a book means you're opening the world," she continued. "But reading is hard without books."

"Book bans are about limiting kids' freedom to read and teachers' freedom to teach," said Weingarten. "Parents agree—they want their children to learn the lessons of the past in an age-appropriate way, even as certain politicians try to turn classrooms into cultural battlefields and censor what gets taught."

Recent polling shows that over two-thirds of voters oppose efforts to remove books from public libraries and school libraries.

Book bans are part of the Republican Party's broader war on public education that continues to sweep the country. In addition to trying to remove specific titles from schools, colleges, and libraries, GOP lawmakers in 42 states have introduced more than 180 bills since January 2021 that seek to limit the ability of educators and students to discuss gender, racism, and other topics, according to PEN America.

Weingarten noted that the majority of recent book bans "target titles with racial and LGBTQ themes, cruelly erasing young readers' lived experience."

"While it's uncomfortable to talk about tough issues like genocide, slavery, and racism," she added, "reading honest history helps kids learn the good and the bad about our country and emerge as well-informed, engaged citizens of the world."

Caldwell-Stone stressed that "our partners and supporters are critical in moving the needle to ultimately bring an end to book bans."

Calling Tuesday's announcement "just the beginning," Caldwell-Stone said that she is "excited to see how this growing collective will influence local boards and state and national legislation to protect the rights of readers and students and the librarians and educators who provide the books they read."

"There's clearly a disconnect between what most persons want and the actions of elected officials, given the large number of book bans happening around the country," she added. "As the campaign evolves, our growing network of supporters will join forces to prevent those bans, ensuring access to information for all and advocating for the important work of libraries and librarians."

In rebuke to Biden, Mexico says no nation should be excluded from Americas Summit

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Sunday that no nation in the Western Hemisphere should be left out of the upcoming Summit of the Americas, directly refuting Washington's attempt to bar Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela from the U.S.-hosted meeting.

"Nobody should exclude anyone," López Obrador said during a public event in Cuba, according to Reuters.

The Mexican leader's remarks come as the U.S. State Department has indicated that government representatives from three Latin American countries are unlikely to be invited to the June summit in Los Angeles.

"Cuba, Nicaragua, the [Nicolás] Maduro regime [in Venezuela] do not respect the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and therefore I don't expect their presence," Western Hemisphere Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols said in an interview last week.

"It's [U.S. President Joe Biden's] decision," Nichols added, "but I think the president has been very clear about the presence of countries that by their actions do not respect democracy—they will not receive invitations."

Following Obama-era efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, the Trump administration adopted more than 200 policies designed to punish the Caribbean island. Despite Democratic lawmakers' pleas and Biden's own campaign pledge to reverse his predecessor's "failed" approach, the White House has implemented additional sanctions in recent months.

Speaking from Havana on Sunday, López Obrador vowed to continue pushing the U.S. to lift its 60-year embargo on Cuba.

Meanwhile, Biden has described the 2021 reelection of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, as fraudulent.

In addition, Washington does not officially recognize elected Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as the legitimate leader of the South American country even though he was reelected last year in a contest that U.S. legal observers called fair.

Instead, the U.S. recognizes Juan Guaidó—an unelected and unpopular right-wing opposition figure who was a key player in the unsuccessful Trump-backed effort to overthrow Maduro in 2019—as president.

Biden went so far as to invite the Venezuelan coup leader to his administration's so-called Summit for Democracy in December.

'The time is now to stand up to our oligarchy,' Sanders tells Amazon workers on eve of union vote

On a day billed as "Solidarity Sunday," Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited Amazon workers in New York City less than 24 hours before they start casting ballots on whether to form a union, after which Sanders departed to Richmond, Virginia to talk with Starbucks workers who have been organizing coffee shops around the nation.

"If Bezos can afford a $500 million yacht, he can afford to pay his workers at Amazon decent wages, decent benefits, and provide good working conditions."

Voting at Amazon's 1,500-employee LDJ5 facility—located across the street from the JFK8 warehouse that made history just three weeks ago by becoming the first of the e-commerce giant's U.S. workplaces to unionize—is set to begin on April 25.

"If [Jeff] Bezos can afford a $500 million yacht," Sanders (I-Vt.) said, referring to the company's billionaire founder in a video promoting Sunday's event, "he can afford to pay his workers at Amazon decent wages, decent benefits, and provide good working conditions."

Speaking from a stage in Staten Island, Sanders told Amazon workers that they are "sending a message to every worker in America that the time is now to stand up to our oligarchy, to stand up to this excessive corporate greed, and create an economy that works for all, not just a few."

Taking the mic from "Tío Bernie," Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) congratulated the organizing committee of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) on its groundbreaking victory earlier this month, saying that it "reminded the world that you don't need millions of dollars to stand up to multibillion-dollar corporations, you just gotta do the work. You just need solidarity, you need to show people that you give a damn about them, and they will come together and organize and demand better for their lives."

ALU's successful union drive at JFK8 "was the first domino to fall," said Ocasio-Cortez, who called on Amazon to drop the dubious objections that it filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in a bid to overturn the results.

Derrick Palmer, ALU's vice president of organizing, said: "I'm glad that everyone is finally waking up and realizing the power that we have as an organization, as people... I think that's been lost throughout these years, and I'm glad that it's finally back."

"We've woken the country up, and I want us to continue on this journey," said Palmer. "I want us to win LDJ5."

Amazon—which is notorious for mistreating its workers and spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants in 2021 alone—has intensified its union-busting tactics in the lead-up to the election that starts Monday.

But "LDJ5 has been busting their ass, organizing day-in and day-out," said Palmer. "We need to support them. And also we need to support all the Amazon facilities around the world who want to organize as well."

ALU president Christian Smalls—terminated by Amazon in March 2020 after he organized a walkout at JFK8 to protest management's refusal to adequately protect workers during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic—admitted that he has a vendetta against the company that fired him.

"From that moment forward we never looked back," said Smalls. "We said... we're gonna go anywhere it's necessary to advocate for worker's rights," and after Amazon defeated the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union last year in an Alabama election the NLRB invalidated due to corporate interference, he and his comrades decided to "bring it back home to New York."

"We beat them, right here," said Smalls, pointing to the JFK8 warehouse. "I'm so proud that our team expanded, the workers that are organizing expanded, and now we got to a point where the workers are now organizing themselves."

"The workers are gonna fight back and take over the country."

Earlier this month, Sanders argued that ALU's victory at JFK8 has the potential to spur "a national, sweeping movement." A recent poll found that 75% of U.S. adults support unionization efforts at Amazon, and organizing is also underway at other powerful companies that have enjoyed record-breaking profits while workers get hammered by the pandemic and price gouging, including Starbucks and Apple.

According to Smalls, workers from more than 100 Amazon facilities reached out to ALU about organizing their workplaces in the first week after their stunning win on April 1.

"And it's not just here at Amazon," he said Sunday, adding that ALU has received emails from employees at Walmart, Target, Dollar General, Apple, and Starbucks. "The workers are gonna fight back and take over the country."

Later on Sunday, ALU is planning to hold a rally to hear from its LDJ5 workers' committee and national labor leaders, including Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, and Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union.

When asked if the Biden administration needs to do more to support organized labor, Sanders said, "Yes."

President Joe Biden has "talked more about unions than any other president in my lifetime," said Sanders. "But talk is not enough. What he's gotta do is start inviting these guys to the White House, he's gotta invite the Starbucks workers to the White House, the other unions that are organizing all over this country, and make it clear that he is on their side and that he is going to do what he can" to support the labor movement.

Sanders, who has not ruled out a third presidential bid if Biden doesn't run in 2024, traveled directly from Staten Island to Virginia. There, he spoke with members of Starbucks Workers United, the union that has successfully organized hundreds of baristas nationwide in a matter of months, including those at five of the chain's stores in Richmond.

"Like their Amazon brothers and sisters," Sanders said in a promotional video, Starbucks workers "are also demanding decent wages, working conditions, and benefits. They are also taking on a billionaire who owns that company."

Howard Schulz, an experienced union-buster who returned as Starbucks CEO this month amid an organizing wave in dozens of states—recently declared that the hugely profitable coffee chain is "being assaulted in many ways by the threat of unionization."

Since the initial triumph of Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York in December, employees at more than 200 of the corporation's stores across the U.S. have filed petitions to unionize. Organizers have won more than 20 union elections so far, including at a flagship location in the company's hometown of Seattle, and have lost just a handful of times.

Starbucks workers have defied what leaked video footage reveals is a concerted union-busting campaign. Last week, a group of 24 of the coffee giant's employees urged the U.S. House of Representatives' labor committee to compel Schultz to testify about what they called an incessant and unlawful effort to thwart a nationwide unionization push.

NLRB prosecutors on Friday formally accused Starbucks of illegally firing baristas seeking to unionize their workplace in Memphis, Tennessee, and Phoenix, Arizona.

"What we are seeing now, in this very unusual moment in American history," Sanders said, "are working people from coast to coast standing up and saying... something is wrong here. The billionaire class during this pandemic have made out like bandits. Their wealth is increasing exponentially while working people are falling further and further behind."

"People are saying, enough is enough," he added. "We're gonna organize, we're gonna form unions, we're gonna collectively bargain. And I think that is enormously important for our economy and for our entire country."

Right-wing college expanding charter school network to combat 'progressive' teaching

Hillsdale College, a small conservative undergraduate institution in southern Michigan with ties to Republican elites, is expanding its nationwide network of K-12 charter schools in an attempt to take its battle against what it calls "progressive" and "leftist academics" to an even younger audience, The New York Times reported Sunday.

Thanks to donations from right-wing benefactors, Hillsdale has helped open about two dozen so-called "classical" charter schools, which "emphasize the centrality of the Western tradition," in 13 states since 2010. This endeavor is on the cusp of more than doubling in size, the Times reported, because Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee recently invited the college to start 50 schools in the state using public funds, including $32 million earmarked for charter facilities.

As the newspaper noted:

The Hillsdale charter schools are neither owned nor managed by Hillsdale. Instead, the schools enter agreements to use the Hillsdale curriculum and the college provides training for faculty and staff, as well as other assistance—all free of charge.
By offering these services, Hillsdale seems to be trying to thread a needle—creating a vast K-12 network that embraces its pedagogy and conservative philosophy, in many cases taught by its graduates, while tapping into government money to run the schools.

In the wake of the 1776 Commission led by former President Donald Trump, Hillsdale developed the "1776 Curriculum," which seeks to portray the United States as "an exceptionally good country." According to the Times, the college "has been criticized for its glossy spin on American history as well as its ideological tilt on topics like affirmative action. Educators and historians have also raised questions about other instruction at Hillsdale's charter schools, citing their negative take on the New Deal and the Great Society and cursory presentation of global warming."

Like Trump, who called for a "patriotic education," Lee wants to inculcate what he describes as "informed patriotism" in Tennessee students, and the governor sees his charter expansion plan as part of that effort.

"For decades, Hillsdale College has been the standard-bearer in quality curriculum and in the responsibility of preserving American liberty," Lee told state lawmakers recently. "I believe their efforts are a good fit for Tennessee."

Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the separation of church and state, urged people to "take alarm" as the Christian college "sink[s] its hooks" into taxpayer-funded charter schools with Lee's help.

Often promoted as alternatives to low-performing public schools in urban districts, charter schools have long been criticized for diverting taxpayer money from democratically accountable public schools to privately run institutions where low-performing students are sometimes dismissed to boost test scores, and roughly 50% of buildings shut their doors within 15 years.

In Tennessee, charter schools have been concentrated in the state's four largest cities, but Lee envisions "an expansion into suburban and rural areas where, like many Hillsdale charter schools, they would most likely enroll children who are whiter and more affluent than the average charter school pupil," the Times reported. "In that way, the Hillsdale schools could be something of a publicly funded off-ramp for conservative parents who think their local schools misinterpret history and push a socially progressive agenda on issues from race and diversity to sexuality and gender."

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, told the newspaper that "I've been following charter schools over the last 25 years, and I've never seen a governor attempting to use charters in such an overtly political way."

"You've had governors who've encouraged the growth of charters to provide more high-quality options for parents," said Fuller, "but it's highly unusual to see a governor deploy the charter mechanism for admittedly political purposes."

Meanwhile, other privatization tactics in the decadeslong and multi-faceted war on public education have had explicitly right-wing political aims.

For instance, vouchers—the mid-1950s brainchild of economist Milton Friedman, a chief architect of the neoliberal assault on public goods and unions—gained immediate popularity among segregationists eager to abandon public schools to avoid racial integration.

As historian Nancy MacLean has shown, "school 'choice' was a way station on the route to radical privatization."

Reporting on Hillsdale's plans to open 50 GOP-aligned charter schools in Tennessee comes as a far-right censorship campaign and broader attacks on public school students and teachers sweep the country.

A recent analysis by PEN America detailed an unprecedented nationwide surge in book banning, with 86 school districts in 26 states prohibiting more than 1,100 titles in classrooms and libraries since last July.

In addition, according to PEN America, GOP lawmakers in 40 states have introduced more than 175 bills since January 2021 that seek to limit the ability of educators and students to discuss gender, racism, and other topics—including a growing number of proposals to establish so-called "tip lines" that would empower parents to discipline teachers. Fifteen educational gag orders have been enacted in just over a dozen states.

Texas mail-in ballot rejection rate skyrockets under GOP voter suppression law

It used to be rare for mail-in ballots to be thrown out in Texas, but thanks to the GOP's new voter suppression law, more than 27,000 of them were flagged for rejection during the state's recent primary election, according to a new analysis published Wednesday by The Associated Press.

For Texans who cast ballots by mail, the initial rejection rate was 17% across 120 counties, based on preliminary figures reported by election officials after votes were counted in the state's March 1 primary. Although Texas has 254 counties, the vast majority of the nearly three million people who participated in the nation's first primary of 2022 reside in the 120 counties that provided early data.

AP reported:

For now, the numbers do not represent how many Texas ballots were effectively thrown out. Voters had until Monday to "fix" rejected mail ballots, which in most cases meant providing identification that is now required under a sweeping law signed last fall by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
New requirements include listing an identification number—either a driver's license or a Social Security number—on the ballot's carrier envelope. That number must match the county's records. If a ballot is rejected, voters could add an ID number via an online ballot tracking system, go to the county's election offices and fix the problem in person, or vote with a provisional ballot on election day.
County election officers say they worked feverishly to contact those voters in time, in many cases successfully, and a full and final tally of rejected ballots in Texas is expected to come into focus in the coming days.

Even if the final number of discounted votes turns out to be lower, Texas is on pace to significantly exceed previous mail-in ballot rejection rates. Roughly 8,300 mail-in ballots out of nearly one million—less than 1% of the statewide total—were rejected in Texas during the 2020 general election, according to the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission.

After Abbott signed Senate Bill 1 into law in September, rights groups took legal action, arguing that the sweeping changes—including new ID requirements for mail-in ballots, a ban on drive-thru voting, and limits on counties' ability to expand voting options—would disproportionately impact the poor, the elderly, people with disabilities, and people of color in Texas, which already had some of the nation's most restrictive voting rules.

President Joe Biden's Justice Department also filed a lawsuit alleging that the new restrictions violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act.

Although parts of S.B. 1 have been temporarily blocked in the courts, much of the Texas GOP's anti-democracy law is now in effect.

Marc Elias, the founder of Democracy Docket, called the law's results—long predicted but now coming into clear view—"shameful."

While 75-year-old Pamiel Gaskin of Houston said that she was finally able to vote successfully after "three tries and 28 days," AP reported that hundreds of mail-in ballots "have been disqualified for good."

"Along the Texas border, El Paso County reported that 725 mail ballots were officially rejected and not counted after a final canvass Monday—about 16% of all such ballots cast," noted the newspaper. "In the booming suburbs of Austin, Williamson County had a final number of 521 rejected ballots, nearly evenly split evenly between Republican and Democratic primary voters."

"Some rejected mail voters could have casted a ballot in person later," AP added. "Antonio Riveria, El Paso County's assistant elections administrator, said Wednesday that number is unknown in his office. But they typically reject significantly fewer mail ballots."

"The high rates of mail-in ballot rejections are hurting all voters across the state, especially the elderly and Texans with disabilities."

"It's a lot less. Maybe 10," said Riveria.

While thousands of mail-in ballots in Houston-area Harris County and other jurisdictions with significant percentages of Democratic voters have been flagged, mail-in ballot rejection rates are also substantial in heavily Republican counties carried by former President Donald Trump.

Texas House Democrats said Thursday on social media that "the high rates of mail-in ballot rejections are hurting all voters across the state, especially the elderly and Texans with disabilities."

"Many lost out on their opportunity to vote altogether under the new GOP-led restrictions," said the lawmakers. "Democrats warned Republicans that S.B. 1 would disenfranchise voters, but they didn't care. We will continue to push back against these anti-voter policies, and make sure every election is free and fair."

Democratic lawmakers in Texas fought valiantly to prevent their Republican counterparts and Abbott from enacting draconian voter restrictions in the first place, postponing votes on S.B. 1 multiple times by leaving the state.

While in Washington, D.C., they begged congressional Democrats to repeal the filibuster and pass federal voting rights protections, but corporate-backed Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) refused—choosing instead to preserve the 60-vote rule that gives the Senate's GOP minority veto power over most legislation.

Texas' first-in-the-nation primary gave the first glimpse and fullest picture to date of how state-level Republican lawmakers' far-reaching assault on the franchise—which includes map-rigging, new voter identification laws, and reductions in early voting and polling places and hours—is making it harder for Americans to vote.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, GOP-controlled Legislatures in at least 19 states passed 34 laws curbing voting access in 2021—a "tidal wave" of voter suppression that shows no sign of slowing down as the nation heads into the 2022 midterms and, before too long, campaigns for the 2024 general election.

As of January 14, "legis­lat­ors in at least 27 states have intro­duced, pre-filed, or carried over 250 bills with restrict­ive provi­sions," according to the Brennan Center's latest tally.

The Republican Party's attack on democracy has been fueled by an avalanche of lies about voter fraud and a stolen election repeated ad nauseam by Trump and other right-wing figures.

Voting rights advocates have argued that the best way to counter GOP voter suppression efforts is by passing two pieces of federal legislation—the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Those bills have stalled in the Senate, however, due to the opposition of every Republican, Manchin, and Sinema.

In response to the AP's new report, journalist Jordan Zakarin asked, "How can anyone say we're defending democracy abroad if we're letting it be dismantled at home?"

House panel calls for DOJ probe of Amazon over alleged obstruction of Congress

A U.S. House committee on Wednesday asked the Department of Justice to investigate Amazon and some of its executives for possible criminal obstruction of Congress, accusing the e-commerce giant of lying under oath and refusing to provide certain information requested by lawmakers during an antitrust probe.

That's according to The Wall Street Journal, which first obtained a letter sent to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland by Democratic and Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee. Signatories said they are alerting the DOJ to "potentially criminal conduct" by Amazon and some of its executives, though the letter doesn't name specific individuals.

As the Journal reported:

The letter accuses the Seattle-based tech giant of refusing to provide information that lawmakers sought as part of an investigation by the body's Antitrust Subcommittee into Amazon's competitive practices. The letter alleges that the refusal was an attempt to cover up what it calls a lie that the company told lawmakers about its treatment of outside sellers on its platform.

The alleged lie came, according to the Washington Post, during "sworn testimony to the committee in 2019 about whether it uses data that it collects from third-party sellers to compete with them."

The newspaper, which is owned by Amazon founder and ex-CEO Jeff Bezos, continued:

"[C]redible investigative reporting" and the committee's investigation showed the company was engaging in the practice despite its denial, the letter said.
Subsequently, as the investigation continued, Amazon tried to "cover up its lie by offering ever-shifting explanations" of its policies, the letter said.
Furthermore, "after Amazon was caught in a lie and repeated misrepresentations, it stonewalled the committee's efforts to uncover the truth," according to the letter.

Throughout the investigation, "Amazon repeatedly endeavored to thwart the committee's efforts to uncover the truth about Amazon's business practices," states the panel's letter. "For this, it must be held accountable."

The Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), conducted a 16-month antitrust investigation into Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook. The probe resulted in an October 2020 report that criticized all four tech giants and stimulated legislative proposals designed to limit their power.

However, the Journal noted that "lawmakers' interaction with Amazon has been particularly contentious, according to people involved, and the new letter makes it the only one of the four companies that Judiciary Committee members have accused of illegal obstruction."

Reuters reported that Wednesday's "referral to the DOJ follows a previous warning from members of the U.S. committee in October in which they accused Amazon's top executives, including founder Jeff Bezos, of either misleading Congress or possibly lying to it about Amazon's business practices."

According to the Journal, committee members at the time "sent a letter to Amazon Chief Executive Andy Jassy urging the company to provide 'exculpatory evidence' surrounding its private-label business practices. Lawyers representing Amazon met with legal counsel for the committee following the letter but didn't produce the requested evidence, saying the investigation Amazon had conducted was privileged information between attorney and client, according to people familiar with the matter."

Wednesday's letter, the newspaper reported, says that Amazon "has refused to turn over business documents or communications that would either corroborate its claims or correct the record."

"It appears to have done so to conceal the truth about its use of third-party sellers' data to advantage its private-label business and its preferencing of private-label products in search results—subjects of the committee's investigation," the letter continues.

"As a result, we have no choice but to refer this matter to the Department of Justice to investigate whether Amazon and its executives obstructed Congress in violation of applicable federal law," adds the letter.

It was signed by Nadler; Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chair of the panel's subcommittee on antitrust, commercial, and administrative law; and subcommittee members Reps. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), Pramilia Jayapal (D-Wash.), and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

Zelenskyy says 'We have the possible resolution' for Russian demands

Ukrainian President Voldomyr Zelenskyy said Monday that bringing an end to Moscow's deadly assault on his country is within reach—but only if Russian President Vladimir Putin stops offering ultimatums and agrees to negotiate the terms of a peaceful settlement.

During an exclusive interview set to air in full on Monday night, ABC World News Tonight host David Muir asked Zelenskyy if he has rejected the Kremlin's "three conditions to end the war—that you must give up on joining NATO, recognize Crimea as part of Russia, and recognize the independence of those two separatist regions in the east."

"The question is more difficult than simply acknowledging [these terms]," Zelenskyy said in response. "This is another ultimatum, and we are not prepared for ultimatums. But we have the possible resolution for these three items—key items."

"What needs to be done," said Zelenskyy, "is for President Putin to start talking and start the dialogue instead of living in the informational bubble without oxygen. I think that's where he is; he is in this bubble. He's getting this information and you don't know how realistic that information is that he's getting."

Russia promised to immediately cease its invasion of Ukraine once the country's leaders agree to the three aforementioned demands earlier on Monday, prior to the third round of negotiations between diplomats from Moscow and Kyiv in Belarus.

Those talks have since come to a close with "small positive movements forward in improving the logistics of humanitarian corridors," according to lead Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak.

When asked what he would like to say to Putin, Zelenskyy said: "I think he's capable of stopping the war that he started. And even if he doesn't think that he was the one who started [it], he should know one important thing that he cannot deny, that stopping the war is what he's capable of."

Warning that a failure to end Russia's war on Ukraine could "trigger a world war," Zelenskyy stressed that "it should be stopped now."

At the same time, Zelenskyy reiterated that he wants the United States and NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine to prevent Russian missiles from destroying civilian infrastructure.

When Muir reminded Zelenskyy that U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO have refused to implement a no-fly zone due to "concerns this could trigger... a much bigger war than what we're seeing already because there would have to be a willingness to shoot Russian planes out of the sky," the Ukrainian president insisted that firing at Russian planes is necessary.

"You have to preserve lives. There... were simply kids there with tumors," Zelenskyy said of a recent Russian missile strike on a pediatric clinic. "And in the university, there were ordinary students. I'm sure that the brave American soldiers who would be shooting it down knowing that it is flying towards the students, I'm sure that they had no doubt in doing so."

However, as Anatol Lieven and William Hartung warned Monday in a Common Dreams opinion piece: "Shooting down Russian planes and bombing Russian anti-aircraft sites would greatly increase the risks of escalation, up to and including a nuclear confrontation. That's reason enough not to go forward, regardless of how loud the demands to do so may be."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, are set to meet in Turkey on Thursday.

"We hope this meeting will be a turning point," said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who is planning to attend the meeting. "We want this meeting to be an important step on the path of peace and stability. We will work for a lasting peace and stability."

NOW WATCH: 'That's where all hell breaks loose': Senator says Putin is now 'the most dangerous man in world history'

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'We will not lay down any weapons': Ukraine resists as Kyiv under attack

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy implored people in the capital of Kyiv to brace for an all-out Russian assault overnight, and as a result of intense resistance from the Ukrainian military and civilians alike, they were able to fend off the invading army, though fighting continues throughout the country on Saturday morning.

"The invaders wanted to block the center of our state and put their puppets here... We broke their plan."

Just after midnight, Zelenskyy warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces would storm Kyiv in "vile, cruel, and inhuman" fashion, according to a translation by Max Seddon, the Moscow bureau chief at Financial Times.

"We have to persevere tonight," said Zelenskyy. "The fate of Ukraine is being decided right now. The night will be hard, very hard, but there will be a morning."

After another excruciating night spent in bomb shelters, basements, and subway stations, the residents of Kyiv awoke with the city still in the hands of mayor Vitali Klitschko and the Ukrainian government still under Zelenskyy's control.

Several apartment units were destroyed by Russian missiles, and at least 35 people, including two children, had been wounded as of 6:00 a.m. local time, according to Klitschko.

Rescue workers evacuate a wounded person after a missile struck a residential building during Russia's military assault on Kyiv, Ukraine on February 26, 2022.

Rescue workers evacuate a wounded person after a missile struck a residential building during Russia's military assault on Kyiv, Ukraine on February 26, 2022. (Photo: Ukraine Emergency Service/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The mayor added that while "there are no Russian troops in the city," people should remain underground as additional air attacks are expected.

As the BBC reported:

According to a report by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency, Kyiv officials put out a statement asking people to stay in shelters and to stay away from windows if they were at home.
But Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksiy Danilov told Ukrainian news site Lb.ua that the army was "in control" of the situation.
"We are stopping the horde using all means available. The army servicemen and citizens are in control of Kyiv," said Mr. Danilov.

According to BBC correspondent Paul Adams, "The Ukrainian army said it had repelled an attack along one of the main roads in the west, early [Saturday] morning. And it says it's managed to prevent a Russian attempt to land airborne troops at an airport south of Kyiv—even saying a large plane carrying troops had been shot down."

In a video recorded Saturday morning from the empty streets of Kyiv's government district and shared on Twitter, Zelenskyy countered rumors that he had directed the army to surrender to Russian troops.

"I'm here. We will not lay down any weapons. We will defend our state," he said.

According to the New York Times, "Reports on Friday from the Ukrainian military and the United States and its allies indicated that Ukrainian troops were fighting fiercely, slowing the Russian advance."

"Civilians were also volunteering to defend the country," added the newspaper, which interviewed several residents who have taken up arms.

In an address to Ukrainians on Saturday morning, Zelenskyy said that "we are defending the country, the land of our future children."

"Kyiv and key cities around the capital are controlled precisely by our army," the president added. "The invaders wanted to block the center of our state and put their puppets here like in Donetsk. We broke their plan."

Meanwhile, fighting continues throughout Ukraine, where Russia is being condemned for alleged war crimes.

Western governments have vowed to increase weapons shipments to Ukraine and impose harsher sanctions on Russia—including directly targeting the assets of Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov—but Zelenskyy continues to urge all European Union members, including current holdouts Germany and Hungary, to disconnect Russia from the SWIFT international banking system.

For the first time in history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on Friday activated parts of its Response Force.

Viktor Liashko, Ukraine's health minister, said Saturday that 198 Ukrainians, including three children, have been killed so far, and more than 1,100 people, including 33 children, have been wounded.

United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, Kelly Clements, told CNN on Saturday morning that more than 120,000 people had fled Ukraine "to all of the neighboring countries."

"The reception that they are receiving from local communities, from local authorities, is tremendous," said Clements. "But it's a dynamic situation, we're really quite devastated obviously with what's to come, and we would say that up to four million people could actually cross borders, if things continue to deteriorate, which they have until now."

Leaked audio exposes Amazon's anti-union scare tactics

During a mandatory anti-union meeting on Wednesday, an Amazon official warned workers at the corporation's biggest New York City warehouse that if they unionize, pay and conditions could become worse, with salary negotiations possibly starting at "minimum wage."

"It's against the law and an unfair labor practice to make a threat of reprisal."

According to leaked audio obtained by Motherboard, the Amazon union-buster tells a captive audience that "the negotiation phase of the process is called collective bargaining, and in the negotiation, there are no guarantees... you can end up with better, the same, or worse than you already have."

After an employee asks the speaker to confirm what is meant by "we could end up with worse," the so-called union avoidance consultant says:

There are no guarantees as to what would happen, right?... We can't make any promises things will get better or stay the same. They could get worse. We can't promise what's going to happen. Amazon can't promise you that they're going to walk into negotiations and that the negotiations will start from the same [pay and benefits workers have already]. They could start from minimum wage for instance. I don't think that will happen, but it's a possibility.

"So you're saying that Amazon's gonna say..." the worker responds.

"I just said I'm not saying that," the Amazon union-buster fires back.

"So why put that out there?" asks the worker.

JFK8, a sprawling Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island where roughly 9,000 workers toil away under brutal conditions, is currently in the midst of a union drive. Following months of organizing, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) in January collected enough signatures to file for a union vote with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Wednesday's anti-union meeting occurred on the same day Amazon and ALU "reached a tentative stipulated agreement for the terms of a union election that will be held at JFK8," Motherboard reported. Citing a text message sent to all workers at the warehouse, the news outlet reported that the in-person election is scheduled for March 25 through March 30.

ALU is led by Chris Smalls, a former employee at JFK8 who was fired after organizing a walkout to protest Amazon's refusal to adequately protect workers during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. More than 100 workers at the Staten Island facility are organizers for the independent union, which was formed last year in the wake of Amazon's defeat of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in an election at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

RWDSU filed nearly two dozen complaints with the NLRB alleging that Amazon illegally threatened employees with loss of pay and benefits, installed and surveilled an unlawful ballot collection box, and expelled pro-union workers from captive audience meetings during which management argued against collective bargaining.

Last month, the NLRB threw out the results of the Bessemer election—the first union vote at an Amazon warehouse in U.S. history—and said that it would supervise a new election, which is ongoing. That announcement came three weeks after Amazon reached a settlement with the board regarding the cases of six workers who accused the corporation of union-busting.

Under the settlement, Amazon agreed to communicate with workers about their right to organize and to lift its ban on workers being on Amazon property longer than 15 minutes before or after their shifts. But according to veteran labor journalist Steven Greenhouse, the newly leaked audio suggests that the e-commerce giant is still failing to comply with federal labor law.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, it is illegal for employers to prevent, interfere with, or retaliate against employees' unionization efforts.

The Amazon union-buster "makes the threat and tries to walk it back but once you've poisoned the well you can't take it back," Frank Kearl, an attorney representing worker activists at JFK8, told Motherboard, referring to the consultant's comment that wages might decline if workers unionize.

"Even though she realized she made a mistake in making the threat, it doesn't mean the threat wasn't made and heard by all the workers who were forced to sit in on that session," said Kearl. "It's against the law and an unfair labor practice to make a threat of reprisal."

The Amazon official also apparently tried to dissuade workers from voting to unionize by focusing on the fact that "you will be liable to pay union dues or another representation fee. Everyone is liable to pay those union fees. You can't opt out, and everyone will have to follow what's negotiated even if you don't like what's in it."

"Electing a union is not like trying out a Netflix subscription for 30 days. It's very difficult to unelect a union once you've elected them," said the anti-union representative, who added that the election has "significant and binding consequences not just for yourselves but for future associates, your coworkers, and potentially for your family."

According to the Economic Policy Institute, workers covered by a union contract earn 10.2% more than non-unionized workers in the same sectors.

Motherboard reported that "in addition to holding weekly mandatory anti-union meetings, Amazon representatives at JFK8 have pulled workers aside to interrogate them about their union activities, surveilled them, barred them from distributing union literature, confiscated literature, and referred to union organizers as 'thugs,' according to a federal complaint filed in late January."

Since it opened in September 2018, Amazon's Staten Island warehouse has earned a reputation for violating workers' rights. Workers at JFK8 have reported unsafe conditions amid intense pressure to meet quotas, and according to data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, injury rates at the facility are much higher than the national average.

ALU, for its part, has said that "we intend to fight for higher wages, job security, safer working conditions, more paid time off, better medical leave options, and longer breaks."

Florida GOP's 'Don't Say Gay' bill ignites national condemnation

Opponents of bigotry and censorship are raising their voices in protest after Florida's GOP-controlled Senate Education Committee on Tuesday advanced legislation that would effectively prohibit teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in primary grades or at any level "in a manner that is not age-appropriate."

"It is always appropriate for kids to talk about themselves, their experiences, and their family. These are not taboo subjects, but banning them makes them seem so."

Dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by critics, S.B. 1834 and its companion, H.B.1557, would also require all school districts' trainings on "student support services" to adhere to the guidelines, standards, and frameworks established by the Florida Department of Education (DOE). But as the ACLU of Florida pointed out, the state DOE "currently excludes anti-bullying resources intended to help prevent LGBTQ+ youth suicides."

Kara Gross, legislative director of the ACLU of Florida, said Tuesday in a statement that "this government censorship bill seeks to ban classroom discussions related to sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. If passed, it would effectively silence students from speaking about their LGBTQ+ family members, friends, neighbors, and icons."

READ: The new GOP 'snitch culture' is designed to 'spread fear' and 'scare' teachers into silence: analysis

In addition, said Gross, "it would bar LGBTQ+ students from talking about their own lives and would deny their very existence. It is always appropriate for kids to talk about themselves, their experiences, and their family. These are not taboo subjects, but banning them makes them seem so."

After Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis voiced support for the legislation earlier this week, President Joe Biden tweeted: "I want every member of the LGBTQI+ community—especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill—to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are. I have your back, and my administration will continue to fight for the protections and safety you deserve."

Equality Florida, the state's largest organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, has launched a petition people can use to tell lawmakers to oppose legislation that the group says "is meant to stigmatize LGBTQ people, isolate LGBTQ kids, and make teachers fearful of providing a safe, inclusive classroom."

"If we don't speak up now, and act, Republicans will keep fighting to make laws like DeSantis' hateful 'Don't Say Gay' bill the norm," warned Patrick Gaspard, president of the Center for American Progress.

READ: Ron DeSantis seeks to hire cops who refuse to get vaccinated because it's 'scientific'

According to Gross, the "dangerously vague provisions" in S.B. 1834 and H.B. 1557 "would have a chilling effect on support for LGBTQ+ youth because it creates new costly liabilities for school districts. Under the bill, any parent who thinks that a classroom discussion was inappropriate or who is unsupportive of a district's policies would be given broad powers to sue for damages and attorneys' fees."

Jeffrey Sachs, a researcher at PEN America, recently noted that GOP lawmakers across the U.S. have introduced at least 137 bills that aim to limit the ability of teachers and students to discuss gender, racism, and other topics—including a growing number of proposals to establish so-called "tip lines" that would empower parents to discipline teachers.

In an opinion piece published Wednesday, Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent argued that this tidal wave of restrictive education bills has "an obvious purpose: to make teachers feel perpetually on thin ice, so they shy away from difficult discussions about our national past rather than risk breaking laws in ways they cannot themselves anticipate."

"But there's another, more pernicious goal driving these bills that might well succeed politically precisely because it remains largely unstated," Sargent continued. "The darker underlying premise here is that these bills are needed in the first place, because subversive elements lurk around every corner in schools, looking to pervert, indoctrinate, or psychologically torture your kids."

The "combination of... vagueness and punitive mechanisms such as rights of action and tip lines" is intentionally designed to promote self-censorship, wrote Sargent. "Precisely because teachers might fear that they can't anticipate how they might run afoul of the law—while also fearing punishment for such transgressions—they might skirt difficult subjects altogether."

He added:

Florida-based strategist Rick Wilson, who has broken with the GOP and knows from within how Republicans prosecute such culture wars, calls this a new "snitch culture" that's taking hold of his former party.
"They want teachers to be scared in the classroom," Wilson says. "We're going to see test cases... all over this country." As Wilson notes, the entire point is to put the base on high alert for "apostasy."
The roots of this run deep. As a great episode of the "Know Your Enemy" podcast details, calls for maximal parental choice and control in schools have been used by the right for decades as a smoke screen to sow fears and doubts about public education at its ideological foundations. The move from restricting race discourse to more "snitch" lines is perfectly in sync with that history.

Gross, meanwhile, said that the Florida bill "does nothing to help and support our youth." To the contrary, it "will have a real and devastating impact on LGBTQ+ youth, who already experience higher rates of bullying, homelessness, and suicide."

"Legislators," she added, "should oppose this bill and instead pass proposals that protect all students and truly address the challenges so many LGBTQ+ youth face in Florida schools."

Critics say GOP Bill in Alabama would 'decapitate public education'

Progressive critics are warning that Alabama Republican Sen. Del Marsh's so-called "Parents' Choice Act," which advanced out of committee on Wednesday, would "end state support of public education."

"It's about ending the collective commitment to and responsibility for educating the next generations."

Even if Alabama households are given money for schooling, retired teacher Peter Greene argued Wednesday in a post on his Curmudgucation blog, the egalitarian ideals that have animated public education would be thrown to the wayside in favor of a libertarian fantasy destined to exacerbate inequality.

Marsh (R-12)—whom Greene described as "a longtime champion of disinvestment in Alabama public ed, having pushed charters and charter expansion in previous years"—has called S.B. 140 the "ultimate" school choice bill. Just one day after it was filed, the legislation advanced from the Senate Education Policy Committee on Wednesday by a margin of five to three, with two abstentions.

As Greene explained, the bill would create an Education Savings Account (ESA) "in its fully realized form—every Alabama family gets every cent the state would have spent on educating their child (about $6,300 last year) and they can use it to pay for educational whatever—public school, home school, private school, tutoring, online classes, whatever."

S.B. 140 would siphon off at least $420 million from the state's Education Trust Fund and allow parents to apply to use that cash to pay "education service providers" or "vendors."

AL.com reported earlier this week that "under Marsh's bill, the first ESAs would be available at the start of the 2022-23 school year. It would allow any students who are currently enrolled in public school or in a home school to sign up for an ESA. Applications would be made available May 1 according to the bill."

"The eligible student pool grows in 2023-24 to include students in private schools whose family income does not exceed 200% of the federal poverty level," the news outlet added. "All students become eligible during the 2024-25 school year."

Alabama Education Association (AEA) executive director Amy Marlowe said Tuesday that Marsh's legislation "should be called exactly what it is—'No Vendor Left Behind'—a shell game of a voucher program to divert money from Alabama's community schools."

The teachers union leader sounded the alarm about Republicans' "mind-blowing" effort to ram through a bill that would transfer public resources to private hands before "every line... is properly reviewed and scrutinized."

Her statement, shared with Alabama Political Reporter, went on to say, in part:

There is a complete lack of transparency regarding this egregious bill by rushing it through committee this week... A bill of this magnitude that would result in more than $420 million cut from the Education Trust Fund rushed through committee without the opportunity for at least a week of scrutiny by the public and the media makes you wonder why Sen. Marsh is in such a hurry to move this bill. By moving this legislation so soon, it does not give time for education leaders and the community to provide their input.

While endorsing Marlowe's concerns about profiteering, Greene went further, characterizing S.B. 140 as an attack on the notion of public education, and by extension, the public itself.

"Yes, this bill would eat a ton of taxpayer dollars, and yes it would gut the public education system in Alabama," wrote Greene. "There is one other huge effect that comes with voucher-style bills that seems to be rarely discussed—it ends the state's involvement with and support of its children."

He continued:

"We've given you a check, and we hereby wash our hands of the whole education thing." The ultimate form of voucher is not about empowering parents. It's not even about making vendors a bunch of money. It's about getting the state out of the education business, about cutting parents and children loose. It's about ending the collective commitment to and responsibility for educating the next generations.

"Don't [dismantle education] with this notion of helping people when in fact, it will absolutely decapitate public education."

Greene is not alone.

Sen. Kirk Hatcher (D-26), a former teacher, said during Wednesday's public hearing: "The way I see this bill is if you're seeking to dismantle education, public education, then just do it. Don't do it with this notion of helping people when in fact, it will absolutely decapitate public education."

In his blog post, Greene stressed that "there are always critical questions to ask about oversight in these bills. Who will make sure that the money is actually spent on legitimate educational expenses? Who will watch out for the interests of the taxpayers?"

The 39-year educator added:

But equally critical are the safeguards for families, and ESA laws typically have none. What supports will be in place for families that don't have the time or resources to search for the right vendors (and who will make sure those supports are reliable)? What if a parent's money runs out? What if parents find their choices severely limited because the various edu-vendors won't accept their child? What if one of their vendors closes shop mid-year, leaving the child stranded? What if the vendor turns out to be a big scam because the state hasn't properly vetted the eligible vendors? What happens if parents find that the Marketplace is not for them, but in the meantime the local public school has collapsed from the money gutted from it?
The bill is being rammed through the legislature this week, and if it becomes law, it will face the hurdle that many such laws have faced—getting parents to actually use it. Watch to see if, in Alabama, Americans for Prosperity repeats its successful tactic from New Hampshire, where they went door to door to hype the new voucher program, boosting participation big time.

Roughly 725,000 students are enrolled in public schools in Alabama, AL.com noted. By contrast, in the eight states with laws authorizing ESAs—which are similar to vouchers but allow parents to use funds to pay for more than tuition—around 31,000 students are using them.

Vouchers—the mid-1950s brainchild of economist Milton Friedman, a chief architect of the neoliberal assault on public goods and unions—gained immediate popularity among segregationists eager to abandon public schools to avoid racial integration, and as historian Nancy MacLean has shown, "school 'choice' was a way station on the route to radical privatization."

AEA's Marlowe argued that "instead of this foray to divert funding from public education, Sen. Marsh's focus should be on the growing number of educator shortages within Alabama schools and the need for substantial pay raises for current educators who are already going beyond their normal call of duty."

"Private schools and educational service providers, who do not have as much accountability as public schools, should not be able to receive $420 million siphoned from the [Education Trust Fund]," said Marlowe.

"The Alabama Education Association," she added, "will work vehemently to fight this bill and protect the needs of our students and educators who are in public education."

Brown University faculty reject push for Koch-funded scholarship

More than 60% of Brown University faculty members voted Tuesday to postpone a vote on the creation of a new academic center until next month, giving professors more time to assess whether administrators have adequately strengthened the institution's gift policy to ensure that wealthy right-wing donors are not bankrolling science-denying, corporate-friendly research.

The proposed Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) would absorb and expand programs from the Political Theory Project (PTP), which has received funding from the Koch Foundation led by fossil fuel billionaire and GOP mega-donor Charles Koch, The Brown Daily Herald reported this week.

Students Against Koch Influence (SAKI)—a campus group that has been organizing opposition to the proposed PPE Center—acknowledged that "more work is to come in writing and codifying the new policy" but celebrated the delay as "a huge first step."

According to UnKoch My Campus—a national nonprofit working to prevent Koch and his network of affiliated benefactors from purchasing undue academic influence in an attempt to bolster their political-economic agendas—Brown University received nearly $4 million from the Koch network between 2005 and 2019, including more than $2.2 million since 2017.

"We know that the Koch network has been infiltrating university programs for decades, using their donations to buy influence over research in order to amplify approaches to public policy that support their regressive legislative goals at the state and federal levels," UnKoch My Campus said in a statement this week.

"Oftentimes these policy goals seek to halt action on climate change, privatize public goods and services, and strip healthcare and other rights from our nation's workers," added the group, which is supporting SAKI's campaign against Koch influence at Brown. "Not only is academic freedom undermined, but it allows the Koch network to leverage a school's prestigious reputation and legacy in order to launder their impact on our democracy, climate, and economy."

Some proponents of the PPE Center contend that even though Koch money financed the PTP, it is not undergirding the proposal to establish a related academic center on campus.

That includes Provost Richard Locke, who reportedly told faculty during Tuesday's meeting that none of the "efforts to try to link the PPE Center to these outside groups... (through) guilt by association... provide evidence that there is a linkage between these outside groups and funding for the PPE Center."

However, SAKI countered that "we expect to see significant sums of Koch network money influencing the PPE. This is because the PTP has taken millions of dollars from the Koch donor network, including hundreds of thousands in the past few years."

According to SAKI:

It is clear that the PTP and the proposed PPE Center are inextricably linked to the network of pro-corporate donors organized by Charles Koch (the "Koch donor network"), which seeks to legitimize and promote climate change denialism and anti-democratic policy. Clear evidence shows that for the Koch donor network, academic institutions such as Brown are a key part of their "structure of social change." Brown has also been explicitly mentioned in a 2015 University of Arizona grant proposal describing a plan to create a broader PPE Network in the U.S.
We are fully supportive of a program that encourages debate between opposing viewpoints and brings together economists, philosophers, and political theorists. We agree that Brown should have more diverse views on campus.
However, we do not support a program that accepts money from a network whose intent is to undermine democracy, spread disinformation, and obstruct climate policy. Allowing the PTP and the PPE on our campus legitimizes the Koch network's project, which goes against our university's values. Extensive research shows that Koch money has dangerous strings attached to it. We, as students, do not want to be part of this pipeline.

Students have implored faculty members to oppose the PPE Center, and Brown professors have expressed their own concerns about the proposal, the Herald reported earlier this week.

Naoko Shibusawa, associate professor of history and American Studies, circulated a letter outlining faculty critiques in December. Shibusawa recently told the campus newspaper that she thinks the struggle over the PTP and PPE Center reflects a "larger existential struggle within our own university community about anti-democratic and harmful campaigns such as voter suppression and climate denial."

The Herald reported earlier this week that Brown's Advisory Committee on University Resources Management is "currently reviewing a faculty proposal that would alter the university's policy on gifts and grants to make it so faculty members cannot accept funding from 'sources involved in science denial.'"

According to history professor Brian Lander, Brown Scholars for Climate Action suggested to the committee that the university "should set minimum standards for which organizations it does business with, and that Brown should not accept any funds from organizations that promote climate misinformation."

During Tuesday's faculty meeting, J. Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental studies and sociology, referred to the proposal under review and emphasized the need for "a screening system that will allow us to reject donations from groups denying basic science."

As the Herald reported Wednesday:

Roberts then motioned to postpone the pending vote on establishing a PPE Center until the next faculty meeting in March. He claimed this would "allow faculty to assess whether the university has developed a sufficiently robust policy to prevent financial or gift arrangements from entities engaged in science disinformation from damaging the reputation or scholarly integrity of the university."

Soon after, professors voted to postpone the item until March 1, with 62% of faculty members in support of delaying the vote for a month.

Meanwhile, SAKI has demanded that oversight of the PTP be "given to professors who do not have any ties to the Koch donor network" and that the project "refuse all funds from the Charles Koch Foundation, the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, DonorsTrust, and Tom McWilliams."

In an op-ed published last week by the Herald, sophomore student Ethan Drake—a member of the PTP-sponsored Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Society during his first year at Brown—wrote that "I did not come to Brown to study at an institution that promotes the presence of the Koch anti-science, anti-democratic ideology."

New 5-minute video summarizes Joe Manchin's 'brazen' corruption

Although right-wing Sen. Joe Manchin's financial conflicts of interest have been well-documented, a new video released Monday details how the West Virginia Democrat's "brazen" corruption has derailed his party's immensely popular economic policies.

Not only did Manchin take more than $1 million from corporate-tied PACs last year as he watered down and obstructed the Build Back Better Act (BBB), but he "repeatedly timed his key attacks on [President Joe] Biden's agenda to occur at events with his largest corporate donors," according to pro-worker media group More Perfect Union, which summarizes its research in the following five-minute video.

"It's more than just receiving corporate checks, though he gets a lot of those," says the video. "Manchin executes policy decisions that corporations peddle to him and nothing exemplifies that more than the way he's fought the Build Back Better bill for working families."

"Time and time again at critical junctures during the debate over Build Back Better," More Perfect Union continues, "Manchin attended corporate events in West Virginia and stood with executives to declare his opposition to working-class legislation, all while setting personal records for corporate fundraising."

For instance, just as Congress was set to reconvene last summer to advance BBB, "Manchin threw up a giant roadblock," states the video. Sitting with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) at an early September event at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Manchin claimed that it was time to "hit the pause button" on federal spending—hundreds of billions of dollars in Pentagon funding not included.

Companies in attendance that day included coal firms Dominion and First Energy, which helped Manchin—chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee—claim the title of Congress' top recipient of fossil fuel cash this election cycle.

In addition to receiving campaign contributions from fossil fuel executives, Manchin makes nearly $500,000 per year—roughly three times his congressional salary—from investments in his family's coal empire, raking in more than $5.2 million since joining the Senate in 2010 while refusing to answer questions about his ties to the industry.

Pharmaceutical giant Mylan—which was led by Manchin's daughter, Heather Bresch, from 2012 to 2020—was also at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce event in September. Bresch played a direct role in Mylan's EpiPen price-gouging scandal during her tenure as CEO.

The event was moderated by Suzanne Clark, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Not only did the Chamber play a pivotal role in the corporate lobbying blitz that sabotaged BBB, but it also paid for "a monthslong radio, billboard, and TV ad campaign to support Manchin," the video points out.

"Another conservative group, run by [former Vice President] Mike Pence's chief of staff, Marc Short, spent $400,000 per week on ads bolstering Manchin's position," according to More Perfect Union.

As Common Dreams reported last week, Manchin has also been rewarded by GOP megadonor Ken Langone for undermining BBB.

In an example of support he's received from the corporate media, More Perfect Union points out that immediately after the conclusion of the event at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, "Manchin had a column ready to be published in the corporate-friendly editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. The Journal, meanwhile, has churned out a stream of near-daily editorials to laud Manchin and get his back."

That early September panel in his home state was not the last time Manchin weaponized his widely debunked fears regarding what he has called the nation's "brutal fiscal reality" to justify his effort to torpedo BBB.

While BBB originally proposed investing $3.5 trillion over 10 years to strengthen the nation's social safety net and expand clean energy, Manchin and fellow right-wing Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) continued to chip away at the bill until they had cut it roughly in half.

Although it wasn't until December that Manchin announced on Fox News that he "cannot" vote for BBB—abandoning his own counteroffer to the Biden White House about two weeks later—he had admitted months earlier that his goal was to get the widely criticized bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) passed first, which would give him and other conservative Democrats the leverage necessary to spoil more ambitious plans to hike taxes on the rich to fund an improved welfare state and climate action.

Manchin was the chief architect of the energy portions of the IIJA, which contains $25 billion in potential fossil fuel subsidies as well as $11.3 billion in funding that is expected to benefit his family's coal brokerage.

When Biden signed the IIJA into law in November—after the House passed it before the Senate passed BBB, over the objections of progressives who warned that decoupling the two pieces of legislation would give corporate Democrats veto power over the stalled bill—Manchin "won the ultimate prize," states More Perfect Union.

The new video depicts additional meetings Manchin had with top corporate donors or leaders, which were usually followed by an attack on BBB. It was while standing with anti-union Toyota executives, for instance, that Manchin in November announced his opposition to incentives that had been proposed to promote union-made electric vehicles, calling BBB's labor provisions "un-American."

Not long after, the West Virginia Democrat made clear his opposition to the proposed ban on offshore drilling in BBB. As More Perfect Union notes, that came just days after Enterprise Products—an oil and gas pipeline company that happened to be Manchin's largest donor in 2021 as well as his son's employer—"had announced that it was seeking approval to build the nation's first offshore oil terminal big enough to serve the largest class of supertankers."

Passing BBB through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process requires the support of all 50 Senate Democrats and all but three House Democrats.

When asked about the current status of the legislation on Tuesday, Manchin told Business Insider: "What Build Back Better bill? There is no Build Back Better bill, I don't know what you're all talking about."

"It's dead," he added.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) suggested that Manchin was siding with "corporate America" by insisting that BBB is "dead."

"When you have a proposal that has the overwhelming support of the American people, and it's addressing the long neglected crises facing working people, we cannot allow that to die," Sanders told CNN's Manu Raju.

"And if Mr. Manchin chooses to side with corporate America in this issue, that's his business," Sanders added. "But for me, and I think millions of Americans, we have got to fight for the needs of working families."

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