The Good, Bad and Ugly in Louisiana Politics, 2017

By Robert Mann

“I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.”  — Jonathan Swift

It was a year that shame forgot. Sure, that might describe most years in Louisiana politics, but events of 2017 seem particularly shameless and worthy of disdain. Maybe it’s the Trump Affect, a malady which afflicts some politicians and causes the sudden disappearance of self-respect and integrity. That meant the possibilities for distinction in unprincipled political behavior were bottomless — and opportunities for valor plentiful.

Here are the 2017 winners of my annual competition: “The Good, Bad and Ugly in Louisiana Politics.”

Most Courage: State Reps. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, and Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, two members of the House who tried to stave off the state’s looming “fiscal cliff” — when $1 billion in temporary taxes expire next summer — by proposing a series of modest, practical tax reform measures.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and other leaders ignored many sensible recommendations by the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy. Meanwhile, Stokes and Ivy waged a valiant-but-unsuccessful fight to instill a modicum of fiscal sanity, something out of vogue in Baton Rouge for a decade.

Most Cowardice: The House GOP Caucus, which resisted all efforts to address fiscal reform, stubbornly and dishonestly insisting that, after many years of deep budget reductions, the state’s budget woes can be solved by cuts alone.

“It’s hard to watch Louisiana fall on its face, which is what I do believe we are seeing at the moment,” Stokes observed last June. “Instead of solving our crisis and finding that opportunity, this Legislature has persisted — through three years and six sessions — to simply prolong the crisis.”

Shameless Ambition: U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who sought to burnish his conservative bona fides with a cynical attack on poor working families surviving on meager allotments of food stamps. Graves’ legislation would impose work requirements on those receiving food assistance, although most of them are, in fact, working.

Most Embarrassing Statement: Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, for imploring President Donald Trump to intervene to prevent the removal of Confederate memorials in New Orleans. “I wrote him a letter and I asked him to look out your window, look at the statute of Jackson there at the White House because Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square is next in New Orleans if we don’t do something,” Nungesser said. This was a suggestion too ridiculous and reckless for even Trump.

Continue reading on at this link.

Christianity’s poverty of Christ

By Robert Mann

Let the historians explain how evangelical Christians lost their way, but it’s a sad fact that a large, influential segment of a major faith is unmoored from its foundational, scriptural teachings. I’m talking about those evangelicals who have religiously ignored what the scriptures say — shout — about God’s favor for the poor and his compassion for the powerless.

Too many evangelical Christians evince only passing interest in such matters, having abandoned economic and social justice in favor of political power and luxuriating in the smug satisfaction of a personal relationship with Jesus, who guarantees an afterlife without Jews, Muslims and others who don’t look or pray like them.

It’s not only evangelicals. If you want a sense of how divorced some Christian leaders are from their faith, I recommend a fascinating conversation between two prominent Christian thinkers — David French and John Zmirak — in the New York Times. The reason for the discussion, moderated by conservative columnist Ross Douthat, was to explore why Evangelicals overwhelmingly support one of history’s most unChristian presidents.

What fascinated me most was not their disagreement over whether Donald Trump deserves praise from evangelicals; it was, rather, the cursory mention of the biblical mandate to champion and care for the poor and powerless.

The discussion revolved, instead, around Trump’s personal morality and his support for the political rights of conservative Christians and their preeminent issues, including abortion and appointing conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even when more sensible evangelical leaders bemoan what’s become of their corrupted movement, they characterize the damage as abandonment, not of the poor, but of piety.Do you know how hard a Christian must work to devote that much effort talking about his faith and only mention, in passing, the poor?

It’s not that so many forget to talk about how their faith demands they treat the poor; it’s that they never seem to consider it.

Cases in point: Why are there not loud, massive protests of Christians over the obscene fact that Congress passed legislation that gives — at the expense of the poor and middle class — large tax cuts to corporations and wealthy individuals? Why are most Christians not enraged that, while it celebrates its unholy gift to the rich, Congress allowed the Children’s Health Insurance Program to expire?

Continue reading on at this link.

The Mother of All ‘Conspiracy Theories’

By Cyril Vetter

Since around the late 1990s, a Russian “academic,” Igor Panarin has been forecasting the breakup of the United States. His thesis is that mass immigration, economic decline and “moral degradation” will trigger a second Civil War.

The American West Coast, according to Panarin, will become what he calls “the Californian Republic” under Chinese hegemony. Texas will be the nucleus of a cluster of states under Mexican hegemony. The Boston-to-D.C. megalopolis will become “Atlantic America” and join the European Union. Canada will control a group of Rust Belt states, Russia will lay claim to Alaska and well, you get the idea.

Panarin’s career with the KGB began in 1976 and he first presented his “breakup” idea at a conference in Austria in 1998 on the topic of information warfare.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has repeatedly been quoted as saying, “The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century” and I’m convinced there’s nothing he’d like more than a similar breakup of the United States.

Putin’s career with the KGB saw him stationed in East Germany with the infamous East German intelligence service, the Stasi. He learned gas lighting, mind control and information warfare under the tutelage of the Stasi — the best.

Panarin and Putin share their KGB roots proudly. And the successor agency, the FSB, pushes the diminution of American presence and power in Europe and the rest of the world wherever and by whatever means possible, including weaponizing American technologies like social media. Read more

Louisiana never had a governor who cared for children more than Kathleen Blanco

By Robert Mann

You can tell a lot about people — especially public officials — by how they behave around children. I’m thinking about the baby-kissing politicians who pretend to care but lose all concern for the kids when the TV lights go dark. There are those, however, who know tenderly cradling a baby or kneeling down to look a 5-year-old in the eyes for a quiet conversation is how you establish a true connection with a young person.SLU_Blanco

If you’re a parent, it’s easy to perceive who cares about young people. If you’re a close watcher of politicians, it’s also easy. And that is one reason I will always love former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. She didn’t snatch babies from their mothers, toss them in the air and make a show of kissing them. Her concern for children was deeper, lasting and sincere.

As most readers know, Blanco is struggling with cancer and has asked for our prayers. I’ve prayed for her, as I know many of you have, too.

History will judge her more kindly than did some journalists and her political opponents in the months and years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. She kept fighting for Louisiana to her last day in office, and the recovery money the state received from Washington was partly a result of her fierce determination to fight for the state she loves.

When I think about my time on her staff, what stands out most is how much she cared for children and all that she did for them.

First, a personal story: One day in November 2004, my 5-year-old son was mildly sick. My wife was out of town. We had a press conference that morning, and I had several meetings with the governor. In too many workplaces, children are unwelcome, especially if they are not well. But I worked for Kathleen Blanco, so I brought my son to work.

I will never forget lugging this sniffly kid into the governor’s office for an hour-long meeting with her and other members of our senior staff. When the governor saw my son, she welcomed him warmly and hurried off to find a coloring book and crayons. She set him up at her conference table and made certain he was comfortable. And then we began our meeting.

Not for a second did she make me feel uneasy about having brought my son to work. It seemed like the most natural thing for a staff member of hers to do because, of course, it was.

That loving care for a sick child was and is typical of Kathleen Blanco. This mother, grandmother and former school teacher did not mouth concern for Louisiana’s children; she made it her policy priority.

Continue reading on at this link.

Judge James Brady: A Man Apart

By Robert Mann

“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” ―Shannon L. Alder

U.S. District Judge James Brady, who died on Saturday after a brief illness, was the rarest of persons in politics and the law. I knew him for more than 30 years and I cannot recall him speaking a harsh or uncharitable word about another person.


Imagine going through life without indulging in such talk. I can’t do it for a week or, sometimes, more than a day.Brady

Now, imagine spending decades working in the law and politics — leading a state political party, no less — and conducting yourself like that.

Imagine devoting yourself to public affairs and being devoid of personal animus toward other people.  

Think about how few people in your life you could describe as such. I know a few, but not many. I know even fewer in politics, in which the coin of the realm is, too often, personal insults, denigrating statements and the airing of petty grievances.

Jim Brady was a man apart. I almost asserted “he was among the best of a bygone era during which politics was not governed by such dark impulses.” Then, I remembered, there never was such an era in American or Louisiana politics.

It was not some golden era that has passed.

Rather, it is Jim Brady — a rare individual, exceedingly modest and compassionate and generous to a fault — who has passed.

Everyone who knew Jim has a story — or many stories — about his kind and thoughtful ways. Jim treated everyone with dignity and respect.

He was one of the most thoughtful and considerate people I knew. Hardly six weeks went by Jim didn’t call to compliment me about something — a column, a radio appearance, some minor distinction that few in my life, but Jim, took note of.

He not only noticed; he also called. And after each phone call from Jim, I thought: I wish I were more like that — thoughtful, caring and taking the time to make a call.

And here’s the thing: I know I was only one among dozens of friends who received phone calls like that.

Jim Brady gave his friendship — and did not request anything in return.

I know many generous people. I know many thoughtful people. I know many compassionate people. I know many people who are ethical to a fault and faithful to their families and friends. Jim Brady was that person in my life who represented the best balance of those fine qualities and more.

He was simply, as one of his good friends told me this morning, “the best.”

Rest in peace, friend.

What if Donald Trump loses (or is impeached) and won’t leave? | Robert Mann

By Robert Mann

In the annals of sore losers, few presidents stand out like John Adams after his loss to Thomas Jefferson in 1800. On Inauguration Day, the testy Adams passed up his successor’s swearing-in. He left the White House, boarded his horse-drawn coach and fled toward Quincy, Mass., before sunrise.

Adams’ offense was leaving too soon. The question worrying me, however, is: What if Congress ousts Donald Trump by impeachment — or he’s defeated for reelection — and he won’t go?

Before you sneer at this notion as preposterous, consider the exhausting list of our president’s normalized behaviors and outrageous offenses that, two years ago, would have been unfathomable: A torrent of lies and insulting tweets, public affection for tyrants, turning the presidency into a profit center, alleged obstruction of justice, unabashed racism, praise of Nazis and stunning denigration of the State Department, FBI and CIA.

Today, Trump’s ill-mannered, infantile and illegal behavior prompts nary a raised eyebrow with 30 percent of the public. The rest, meanwhile, cannot remain scandalized about yesterday’s outrage because of today’s new outrage and the expectation of what fresh hell comes tomorrow.

The other day, Trump endorsed Roy Moore, the bigoted, lawless Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Alabama accused of child molestation. This shameful, shocking endorsement is now known as “something that happened on Monday.”

The idea Trump might barricade himself in the White House, declare his impeachment unconstitutional — or his reelection stolen — is within the realm of possibility. It comports with what we know about Trump’s anti-democratic, authoritarian tendencies. From there, it’s easy to picture Trump going a dangerous step further and urging his supporters to descend on Washington and prevent his removal. Honestly, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision Trump, if he loses, encouraging civil unrest to save his hide.

Hogwash, you say. The president must leave if the Senate convicts or voters reject him. OK, show me the clause in the Constitution that spells out who arrests a defeated president and escorts him from the White House. Here’s what the Constitution says about presidents who refuse to leave: Nothing, absolutely nothing.

Continue reading on at this link.

What Louisiana’s Nicholls State University and Harvard have in common

By Robert Mann

In Thibodaux, some residents call Nicholls State University “Harvard on the Bayou.” Nicholls is a fine school, but it’s not in Harvard’s (Ivy) league, except in one respect: both are private institutions.

Harvard has been private for centuries. Nicholls, however, became “private” in recent years as the Legislature — after more than a dozen deep budget cuts — set it adrift.

And it’s not only Nicholls. Four other Louisiana universities — Grambling State, Louisiana Tech, McNeese State and Southeastern Louisiana University (SLU) — are “private,” too. In other words, each institution pays the state more in mandated costs — the institution’s contributions to retirement, insurance, unemployment benefits, etc. — than it receives in state appropriations.

Nicholls and the other institutions can eliminate programs and lay off employees. They cannot refuse to pay mandated costs.

On average, 74 cents of each dollar the state sends to Louisiana’s universities is sent back to Baton Rouge. Put another way, the state’s pitiful contribution to most universities barely covers their insurance and retirement payments.

Combine those increasing costs with the collapse of state appropriations and you have a situation in which every state college and university now relies on tuition and fees for the overwhelming majority of its funding.

Louisiana has given up supporting its universities in any meaningful way. We no longer regard educating youth as vital to our state’s future. What little we spend on higher education is seen as an expense, not an investment. We view schools as a burden, not pillars of prosperity.

Note how some state officials describe TOPS, Louisiana’s tuition assistance program. Listen to them talk about it, and you would think the program is devouring the state’s budget. You might never guess this voracious beast — one the Legislature couldn’t “fully” support a year ago — represents only about 3 percent of the state’s general fund.

It’s no wonder, then, Louisiana ranks 48th among the states in educational attainment. In other words, only Mississippi and West Virginia have a smaller percentage of residents with college degrees. This pathetic ranking is no accident. We’ve defunded our universities more and raised tuition and fees more than any other state.

Louisiana has not only abandoned its universities; it’s abandoned many young people. It’s now impossible for many high school graduates from low-income families to attend college. And while lawmakers struggle to fund TOPS — which aids only about a fourth of the state’s college students — they’ve done little for Go Grants, an underfunded program for students from low-income families. Those grants could make a profound difference in the lives of young people who struggle to afford college.

Continue reading on at this link.

Why did being poor become a serious sin? (or, How poverty is the new pedophilia)

By Robert Mann

How did poverty, once an unfortunate economic circumstance, become a moral failing? Among conservative leaders — many who claim to be Christians — it’s often portrayed as a transgression against God and society.

The Bible may be full of admonitions to regard the poor as people who enjoy God’s favor and should spur our compassion, but the Christian cabal that runs today’s Republican Party regards wealth as the true test of godliness and virtue.

Being poor is a serious sin. Poverty is the new pedophilia!

Do these leaders really embrace this perverted theology — or is something else at work?

If you wonder why Republicans treat poverty as the root of all evil, just examine their policies: Pass massive tax cuts for the rich. Let corporations write our laws. Cut programs that help the poor.

That’s all they offer. And since most Republicans in Congress have many more middle-income constituents than millionaires, they need a distraction so rank-and-file voters won’t grow wise to how they’re being conned.

That’s why attacking the poor is so useful. If the GOP can pit the middle class against those in poverty, many middle-class voters won’t notice wealthy taxpayers and big corporations picking their pockets.

Among the latest practitioner of this cynical strategy is U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who champions a massive tax cut for the rich as he promotes legislation to vilify poor families by imposing needless work requirements on those receiving help from the federal-state Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Two other Louisiana Republicans, Reps. Mike Johnson and Clay Higgins, are co-sponsors of his bill.

Graves bases his work requirements on the false assumption that most people who receive food stamps cheat the system by refusing to work. If treating those down on their luck like criminals is what you want, then Graves’ bill is for you.

Graves also slanders poor people as lazy. “There are talented people across our country who aren’t pursuing the full potential of their capabilities largely because government incentives make it more profitable in some cases to stay home and collect welfare than to pursue personal growth and responsibility through work,” Graves said in a press release about the bill.

That is false and an ugly slur. Most poor people work more hours at their jobs than does Graves. Moreover, there are precious few examples of low-income assistance programs that discourage work. A wealth of research proves that a job is almost always more profitable than government help.

Continue reading on at this link.

Don’t call me ‘Christian’ any longer

By Robert Mann

When an angry reader emailed recently to ask how I justified calling myself a Christian, given my beliefs on social issues like marriage equality, I told him my relationship with God was none of his business. My response surely didn’t satisfy him. And I know it didn’t satisfy me.

I’m not spoiling for theological fights with readers about why I believe God does not condemn the innate sexual orientation of those he creates, but the inquiry was fair. I sometimes discuss my faith in this space and when readers question me about it, they deserve better than, “Butt out.”

I offer apologies to my correspondent. I doubt he will like my extended answer, but here it is: I’m considering dropping the moniker, Christian. The racists, homophobes and Islamophobes in these parts have so tarnished it that many of us now need better words to characterize our faith.

A few years ago, I wrote a column for an online faith publication, in which I mused about adopting new terminology:

“Pat Robertson, Phil Robertson, Tony Perkins, the Westboro Baptist Church, the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. Think about the image of Christianity that these people and organizations — and dozens more like them — portray to the world. The un-churched who watch these people see Christianity as grim, unwelcoming, judgmental, joyless and self-righteous. Just what part of their hell-fire-and-brimstone sermons would be remotely attractive to a person tormented, for example, by alcoholism?”

I decided then to keep “Christian,” writing, “The public’s view of Christians will change when our Christ-inspired love for others overpowers and drowns out the hurtful words and actions of Robertson (Phil and Pat) and those like them. Changing our name won’t rehabilitate the term. Changing our actions will.”

I wrote that, however, long before white Evangelical Christians voted overwhelmingly to elect Donald Trump — a serial liar, sexual abuser, racist and Islamophobe — as president. That was also before Evangelicals in Alabama and elsewhere rallied to defend Republican U.S. Senate nominee Roy Moore, a racist and homophobic former state judge accused of molesting at least two teenagers when he was in his early 30s.

It’s not only that many so-called Christians accept Moore’s dubious denials over the testimony of these women. Just as troubling is that they worship Moore, unconcerned about whether he’s a pedophile because, you know, any Democrat is worse than a child molester.

If you need any evidence about the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the pretenders who have hijacked the Christian faith, consider that almost 40 percent of self-professed Evangelicals in Alabama say charges of pedophilia make them more, not less, likely to support Moore.

Continue reading on at this link.

Republicans worry about debt and deficits only when a Democrat is in the White House | Robert Mann

By Robert Mann

Have you noticed Republicans say they hate deficits? Have you heard their passionate rhetoric about the evils of the national debt? Maybe, like me, you thought when Republicans finally controlled Congress and the White House, they’d do something about the debt they’ve long denounced.

Well, they are doing something about it. They plan to blow it up with a tax-cut bill that would pile on an additional $1.67 trillion in debt over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And this additional debt would be even greater were it not for Republican plans to repeal certain middle-class tax breaks, including the deduction for health expenses and the adoption tax credit.
This bill barreling through Congress is the latest evidence that Republicans worry about debt only when Democrats are in power. There is, apparently, Democratic debt (bad) and Republican debt (good).

Is this because Republican debt funds needless wars and massive tax cuts for billionaires? Or is it that Republicans care about government spending only when they can use it to vilify Democrats?

Let’s be clear how this bill would support tax cuts for corporations and billionaires. As The New York Times concluded, “Nearly half of all middle-class families would pay more in taxes in 2026 than they would under current rules if the proposed House tax bill became law, and about one-third would pay more in 2018.”

Just as troubling is what the Associated Press has reported: “Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, says the cost of the Republicans’ proposed tax cuts would add considerably to the federal debt burden, which now equals 75 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic output. By 2027, Zandi says, that burden would equal 97 percent of GDP.”

One can imagine what Louisiana’s Republican congressional delegation might have said if Barack Obama’s policies increased the debt. Actually, there’s no need to imagine. Here’s what they said in recent months and years:

Sen. Bill Cassidy: “[O]ur national debt is not sustainable and, unless addressed, will sharply limit future prosperity for our children and grandchildren.”

Continue reading on at this link.