Friday, January 29, 2016

(Coming up this weekend:  Interviews with the candidates!)

"Arriving there, mingled with the human leaf storm, dragged along by its impetuous force, came the dregs of warehouses, hospitals, amusement parlors, electric plants; the dregs made up of single women and men who tied their mules to hitching posts by the hotel, carrying their single piece of baggage, a wooden trunk or a bundle of clothing, and in a few months each had his own house, two mistresses, and the military title that was due him for having arrived late for the war."  Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Leaf Storm (La Hojarasca)

Sunland Park lies in the wake of a leaf storm that swept through long ago.  Like all winds its force was invisible to the naked eye but everyone could feel it and you could see the tumbleweeds of hope and the dust and sands of flowering ambition blowing across the landscape, saturating every nook and cranny of the village, ineluctably altering the dreams and lives and calculations of people for miles around.  The storm itself was never given a name that stuck, but the name of the man responsible for it, Charlie Crowder, is known to all.  And it is the dregs and remnants of the storm unleashed by his vision that are still in play in the politics of the region today.  At one moment while the storm was raging the vision appeared to materialize in the form of an oasis, with a green golf course and palm trees but that turned out to be a mirage, and today the golf course where Lee Trevino once played is a dried up patch, brown, a not-quite-living symbol of what might have been.

The life force that kept the grass green and sustained the leaf storm was water.  But politicians bashed and ripped apart with bludgeons and crowbars the delicate architecture for water that Crowder, under the watchful eyes of the state engineer, had masterfully crafted over the years.  And Sunland Park too often was in the path of the bludgeons.  Sunland Park mayor Ruben Segura was arrested by county authorities for the audacity of  laying pipes for transporting water the city owned.  A developer who promised far more than he delivered to players throughout the region acquired some of Crowder's water in a shadowy legal maneuver backed by the state, governed by Bill Richardson at the time.  Later Richardson threatened to take over the city's finances until the mayor and council capitulated to his demands, signing away the city's water rights for a joint powers agreement that cripples the autonomy cities normally have to control their development.

Pieces of the dreams Charlie Crowder dreamed did materialize in spite of all of this.  There is an international crossing at Santa Teresa.  The port of entry on the US side was assembled by two private citizens, Myles Culbertson and Jack Pickel a quarter century ago, on their own, when state and federal governments dragged their heels.  Crowder himself, when the Mexican side delayed, built the twelve-mile road connecting the crossing to the nearest Mexican highway.  He rented equipment, crossed the border and built it as Mexican authorities looked the other way.  Union Pacific recently finished an intermodal facility for regional traffic.  Maquila plants on the Mexican side are recovering from the Great Recession and buses transport workers to them in 24-hour shifts.  The largest computer plant in the world lies just a few dozen feet from the international boundary line at Santa Teresa crossing.  And the killing sprees that made Juarez the most violent city in the world have subsided.  But when the leaf storm ended Crowder had lost land and water and Sunland Park was as impoverished as ever.

In 2011 the mayor of Sunland Park, Martin Resendiz, admitted he had signed 9 contracts to an architectural design company, committing the city to over $1 million, while intoxicated after five hours of drinking with the contractors at Ardovino's, an expensive restaurant in Sunland Park.  A city council member, Daniel Salinas, admitted he was present at the time, intoxicated.  Resendiz resigned several months later, and mayoral functions passed to Salinas, who was mayor pro tem at the time.  But in February 2012 Salinas--now a candidate for mayor--was arrested, along with city manager Jaime Aguilera, on charges of extortion.  They were accused of videotaping mayoral candidate Gerardo Hernandez with a lap-dancer and then threatening to release the tape unless Hernandez dropped out of the mayor's race.  On March 6 2012 Salinas was elected Mayor, but he was not allowed to serve while under indictment.  Aguilera and Salinas pleaded guilty to reduced charges later on.  In April 2012 Javier Perea, a 24-year old business administration graduate was named mayor of Sunland Park.  But Attorney General Gary King would not let him serve until technical details concerning his appointment were resolved to his exacting standards.  Perea was reappointed in August of that year.  By that time the state auditor had uncovered sloppy accounting practices and violations of state law and municipal spending regulations.  The state took over Sunland Park's finances after suspending two city officials on May 14, and sent an official from Santa Fe to review the books.

It has become socially acceptable within the New Mexico political class to ridicule Sunland Park.  Eyeballs roll upward; an air of disbelief is feigned; a knowing smile forms on one's lips.  Never mind that in El Paso, less than a mile away from Sunland Park City Hall, as the above events in Sunland were unfolding FBI agents unraveled massive corruption among county and school administration officials going back for years.  County Judge Anthony Cobos, a former El Paso City Councilman, was arrested in 2011 and pled guilty in 2013 of receiving bribes in return for contracts in both elected positions.  In 2011 El Paso County Judge Dolores Briones pled guilty to embezzlement of federal program funds and was sentenced in 2013.  In 2011 Travis Ketner, El Paso County chief of staff was sentenced for receiving bribes as a public official.  All in all, FBI investigations of public bribery around that time resulted in 39 federal convictions involving not only El Paso County government officials, but also several El Paso school districts, and well over $2 billion in contracts.  Juxtaposed against the cosmic scale of corruption which shook El Paso's political class to its very foundations, election mischief with a lap dancer and contracts signed by a mayor liquored up by contractors, pales by comparison.  But Sunland Park, not El Paso, remains the butt of jokes in New Mexico.

In Sunland Park today pot-holes punctuate some of the streets and tumbleweeds flicker nervously in the wind, pinned against the fencing of a dirt schoolyard.  Foolish planning decisions and code enforcement lapses are evident to the discerning eye in some of the neighborhoods.  It is for street sweepers, bomberos, basureros, police officers, and the like to clean up the messes made by the natural forces of wind and rain and snow, the gnawing passage of time, and the messes dusted up by political mischief.   The council, working with the mayor, must determine which of these messes needs to be cleaned up first.

But the council more desperately needs to determine what Sunland Park wants to become ten, twenty years from now.  The leaf storm left Sunland Park surrounded by a powerful, growing city to its East; a thriving, fascinating, often labyrinthine city of two million a few dozen yards to its South; a dynamic port of entry to the West; a chronically negligent and sometimes hostile county government to the North, and a state government that never seems to get it, except at picture-taking time.  What kind of relationship should Sunland have with El Paso ten years from now?  Who can help us get there?  How do we think smartly about our relationship with Juarez and the state of Chihuahua?  How do we relate to the Santa Teresa project?  What about the unincorporated village of Santa Teresa?  How do we exert the political clout we need to gain the attention of Dona Ana county for our needs?

These are urgent, but not easy questions, and there is no single correct answer to any of them.  What matters is for the council to struggle with them, learn from them, argue them out, come to a consensus, and move forward.  People of Sunland Park:  The leaf storm, as it vanished over Mount Cristo Rey and looked down at Sunland Park one last time, anointed you with a sacred trust.  Choose your leaders wisely, y vayan con Dios.  Jose Z. Garcia, January 29, 2016. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Proposal from the Taos County Democratic Party Chair

This morning at Collected Works, a fine bookstore in Santa Fe, the Chair of the Democratic Party of Taos County spoke to a small Sunday morning crowd. Her proposal was astonishingly simple:  a portion of the budget, state and federal, should be reserved for citizens to decide among themselves how to spend, in their own communities.

Erin Sanborn was elected to run the Party in Taos three years ago.  She has a background in conflict resolution and international cooperation, and practiced her trade in government and non-government venues before and after she moved to Taos with her family 15 years ago.  She seems familiar with the world of funding foundations in the non-profit universe and mentioned three specific foundations:  The national Sunlight Foundation, which focuses on making government spending more transparent, The Story of Place Foundation, in Santa Fe, which has worked on a bottom-up citizens approach to improving a section of St. Michaels Drive, and the Regenesis Group, which organized the Story of Place Foundation in 2009.  Google up the Sunlight Foundation:  It has cool tools to tell you what your tax payment last year went for, at the federal and state levels.

Two premises of these organizations are, first, that people, when called upon to participate in setting funding priorities for their communities, know better than elected politicians what the needs really are; and second, they can sit down and negotiate successfully among themselves on these priorities.  Sixty years ago, these premises were fundamental to the Conservative movement in the US, which hoped to move the country toward greater local control.  This was before the Conservative movement was swallowed up by fancy economists (mainly, Milton Friedman) at the University of Chicago, and by Libertarians, and the culture warriors of the Republican Southern Strategy that has come to personify contemporary Conservatism.  Today, these ideas, to our indoctrinated ears, sound more like socialism or something out of a Bernie Sanders ad than the kind of ideas Barry Goldwater, who ran for President against Liberal Lyndon Johnson in 1964 used to espouse, along with his buddy, the actor Ronald Reagan before he was Governor of California.  In truth these ideas are non-partisan, and part of well-established democratic (small d) theory.  They seem radical only because both political parties abandoned them, unfortunately, for different doctrines long ago.  These foundations appear to be trying to prove if given a chance, they work better than the current top-down use of taxpayer money.

Sanborn has proposed handing over the capital outlay money allocated each year to each senator and representative, to citizens in each community to dole out, presumably through highly transparent grassroots consultations.  Virtually all legislators admit the current capital outlay system is in desperate need of serious revision.  She confessed she had not gotten very far with this proposal when presented to Bill Richardson or to party leaders on both sides in the legislature.

It is amazing that a Democratic Party Chair, especially one from the Hispanic North, would acknowledge in public that party structures at the local level no longer act to produce a local, citizen-driven public agenda.  Community organizations have understood this for a long time, but they, too, have a long way to go.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Links for January 15, 2016:

The Election Scene NM 2016

How does the national election affect New Mexico?  Part I

Before answering this question, New Mexicans first need to understand what is going on at the national scene.  And since the presidential election dynamics so far have been grossly misunderstood by the media, especially television, it is important to look carefully.

The amazing success of Sanders and Trump, in defying all the smugly confident predictions of their early demise as candidates, suggests that something new is going on.  What is new is this:  Sanders and Trump, each in very different ways, offer new, previously censored options, for millions of voters turned off by American politics but until now with nowhere to turn.  There is a complicated double twist here.  As voters come to understand these candidates, support for them increases.  But there is an astonishing secondary effect as well.  As support for them grows, establishment voices (tv news producers, governors and senators, the Republican and Democratic Party apparatus, etc.) panic, scratching their heads, barely concealing their disbelief and alarm.  And as voters see establishment figures cringe at Trump and Sanders, this simply reinforces and expands the support for each! 
The dirty little secret to all of this is that Sanders and Trump have exposed the deep hatred and contempt in the public with the establishment.  Television is now owned in America by a nasty self-interested, small oligopoly of mega-rich interests.  Talking heads and TV news purveyors, although they don't see themselves this way as they smugly cash their million dollar checks, are now correctly viewed as part of the cozy Establishment.  Worse, voters have come to see "news" productions on TV as part of the national malaise of deception that keeps government dysfunctional.  Increasingly we view them as they should be viewed:  as propaganda machines for a narrowing ruling class which increasingly is the upper class, selling monopoly priced erectile dysfunction pills and other pharmaceuticals and insurance policies while entertaining us with gossip about personalities instead of doing its job as a watchdog for the public interest.  This hatred is not partisan, as it disgusts Democrats and Republicans and Independents alike.  Sanders and Trump have taken on "politically incorrect" topics--income distribution and migration policy--that media has not permitted onto the public agenda.  Some of their support comes from voters who care deeply about these issues, but just as much comes from voters who see political correctness itself, and its enforcers in the media, as the enemy of the public good.  All of this has taken on a life of its own, and television talking heads have been extremely slow to understand that part of what's in play this year is a public expression of our hatred of them and what they represent.  In an odd twist, "political correctness" itself has come to be a surrogate for much of what is wrong with politics.

Sanders offers voters a dramatically new way of looking at our dysfunctional political system.  "This is not dysfunctional at all," Sanders seems to scream at us.  It is dysfunctional only to the poorest 99%!  To the billionaire class this is working great!  Both political parties have collaborated for nearly forty years, with the help of a corrupt campaign finance system, a pointy-headed Supreme Court, technological change that is indeed disruptive, and a tacit bipartisan agreement (no new taxes, but keep the wars going) to blame systemic failure on technological change and on the other party.  The consequences of this bipartisan collaboration on our social structure is that for a third of a century the bottom 95% have been nearly frozen at the same level of income (adjusting for inflation) while the economy has grown dramatically, and this growth has gone almost entirely to the richest 5%.

Thomas Piketty and Emmanual Saez, the top scholars on this issue found that from 1993-2013:  Total national income grow 15.1%.  Top 1% incomes grew 62.4%.  Bottom 99% grew only 7.3%.  That grossly favoring the very rich was a bipartisan effort is given by another statistic:  During the Clinton years the top 1% nearly doubled their incomes.  The bottom 99% grew only 20.3%, an astonishing shift in wealth toward the rich under a Democrat.  FDR shudders in his grave!  Teddy Roosevelt shakes his skeleton fist at two Republican Bushes for permitting this under their watch.  Part of the bipartisan (establishment) collaboration has been to put a taboo on discussing any of this.  Talking heads who brought it up were accused of "class warfare," and not invited back.  The official explanation was that globalization was making all of this inevitable.  Nonsense!  Thunders Sanders:  not only is this a completely legitimate topic of discussion, but it also speaks to the corruption of our political system, and our growing conviction that congressional candidates no longer listen to constituents, only to the special interests that shower them with cash, and it makes it a lot clearer why Congress has failed to get government to govern:  they have been too busy writing clauses in bills to give bigger breaks to the rich!  When was the last time you heard a presidential candidate, or any major figure, for that matter, talk about this recently?  This is new stuff.

Trump offers a very different novelty, namely a liberation from political correctness;  an attack that unmasks the ritualistic deceptions of the Republican Party in re-running the Southern Strategy since the time of Nixon.  For years Republican candidates have attracted White voters in the South, who used to vote Democrat, by appealing to their unhappiness with Washington policies on race.  But "political correctness" required this appeal to be conducted deceptively, through surrogate code words, such as "law and order," states rights, "family values," and the like.  Essentially, the Republican Party could win national elections by encouraging the development of an anti-Washington culture sustained by code words instead of straight talk.  The media enforced the use of code words through political correctness.  Trump appears to have discovered that White males are tired of the game.  What is new in his campaign is his unapologetic insistence on freeing himself (and by implication his supporters as well) from the chains of political correctness. 

And it turns out, no matter how much you may not like the concept of a real wall at the border with Mexico, no matter how much you would like policy makers to bow down rhetorically to the politically correct attitude toward Muslims (most are good, a few are bad), no matter how much you might cringe at Trump's politically incorrect mockery of other candidates ("Carly is a failure," Jeb Bush is a "low energy" guy), deep down inside it feels refreshingly good to hear an honest opinion, expressed in the same language we use in talking to our best friends.  And, there is unambiguous pleasure in seeing the establishment's clerks and puppets on television discombobulated by the opinions of nameless voters answering questions on a poll.  "Donald Trump," he seems to say, "doesn't listen to the polls and pundits and lackey political consultants before he talks, he moves the polls in his direction when he talks, as every great leader always has."  When was the last time a politician had the guts to be himself, especially one who has self-consciously made his own narcissism part of his schtick?  This, too, is new stuff.
Next:  How does this affect the voter in New Mexico this election year?