Mr. President, You Can Have My Space Today

Did you watch last night’s memorial service at the University of Arizona in Tucson? Did you see Daniel Hernandez, Jr. – the 20-year-old intern who may have saved Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ life – humbly reject the title of ‘hero’? Did you catch President Barack Obama’s speech?

Here’s video of Obama’s speech, which clocked in at about 35 minutes. If you don’t have the time, read the transcript below. It’s worth your time:

To the families of those we’ve lost; to all who called them friends; to the students of this university, the public servants who are gathered here, the people of Tucson and the people of Arizona:  I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today and will stand by you tomorrow. 

There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts.  But know this:  The hopes of a nation are here tonight.  We mourn with you for the fallen.  We join you in your grief.  And we add our faith to yours that Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the other living victims of this tragedy will pull through. 

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Our Democracy Hinges on Civil Disagreement

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

I’m trying like hell to refrain from reading the tragic storylines surrounding the Rep. Gabrielle Giffords shooting.

From the heroic 20-year-old intern who saved Giffords’ life to the nine-year-old girl, born on 9/11 and infatuated by politics, killed in the crossfire, there’s plenty of pathos to go around. All of the stories lead to the same conclusion: Something went terribly wrong and it can never happen again.

It’s hard to know how to experience these violent tragedies anymore, and I’ve seen plenty in my lifetime — Oklahoma City, Columbine, 9/11, Virginia Tech. Some have had longer lasting repercussions while others have become just another haunting chapter in our country’s history. Shortly after such an event, there’s a call for change, but rarely is there significant followthrough.

Yesterday, I hopped aboard the change-the-tone bandwagon, because I believe the political discourse in this country has lowered itself to “I’m right, you’re evil.” We’re caught up in a contemptuous time for American politics, and it’s not because we can’t agree or we can’t compromise, but we can’t even properly disagree. “I’m right, you’re evil.” Is that really the best we can do?

Unliked others, I doubt this is a watershed moment for American politics. Sure, politicians and pundits will tread softly the next few months, but the issues and disagreements in our country remain the same. It’s only a matter of time before we’re back to bickering, though with a more sensitive hold on vocabulary. And you know what? Argument is fine, so long as it’s respectful. At its best, a democracy is a constant struggle to make one another better through the challenging and representation of our ideas and our ideals.

At it’s worst, it’s bloodshed. It’s “I’m right, you’re evil.” It’s a total lack of civility, prudence and open-mindedness.

It’s Jared Loughner.

I Didn’t Almost Die in the Portland Terror Plot. Neither Did You

Captain Jonathan Sassman, of the Corvallis Police Department, examines fire damage at the mosque where Mohamed Osman Mohamud worshipped while a student at Oregon State.

Over the weekend, I had this urge to write about the foiled terrorist plot in Portland, Ore. In case you’ve been stuck in a five-day tryptophan-induced coma, the FBI arrested Mohamed Osman Mohamud on Friday after he attempted to detonate a car bomb nearby Pioneer Courthouse Square, where a mass had gathered for the annual Christmas tree lighting.

The catch: Mohamud’s explosives were fake. They were supplied by the FBI as part of an undercover operation dating back to August 2009. Feds swooped in to make the arrest after Mohamud dialed a cell number to detonate the explosives.

My first impulse was similar to anyone who lived and worked near Ground Zero on 9/11 or anyone who regularly used the 35-W bridge in Minneapolis prior to its collapse. I wanted to write about the what-ifs.

What if I had never moved and Beth and I had stayed in Portland over Thanksgiving and decided to se the Christmas tree lit? What if I had been on the MAX, passing by Pioneer Courthouse Square just as Mohamud’s car bomb exploded? What if I had friends and co-workers who were there? What if?

None of that matters. We can’t let it. The moment we start to ponder the hypothetical and let it affect our lifestyle, the terrorists have won.

All that matters is what did happen. Mohamud had been on the FBI’s radar for over a year, under careful surveillance, and no one in Portland was ever truly in danger, especially on Friday. Mohamud provided the smoking gun when he attempted to detonate the explosives, and and unless Mohamud’s public defender can successfully argue entrapment, I’m sure we’ll see a speedy trial resulting in a lifetime prison sentence.

Here’s something that absolutely did happen. On Sunday, there was an actual terrorist attack. An arsonist set fire to the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, which is 80 miles south of Portland. Mohamud occasionally attended the mosque while a student at Oregon State University. The fire was discovered in time to save the mosque, but an administrative office was severely damaged.

That’s what the War on Terror has brought us to, apparently — burning places of worship. Again, we’re letting the terrorists win.

I’m so sick of arguing with anyone who unequivocally paints all Muslims as terrorists. There are nearly 1.57 billion people on this planet who are Muslims. Not only is it stupid and unjustifiable to claim nearly 23 percent of the world’s population partakes in terrorist activity — it’s irresponsible.

And we need to quit thinking about all the times we almost died, when, as with any car accident or house fire or natural disaster, time and place dictated otherwise. It simply didn’t happen.

Maybe we had been in Lower Manhattan an hour before 9/11 or we had taken the 35-W bridge to work that day. Maybe we sold a car that was involved in a wreck the next day or we’d been in a hotel that caught fire right after we checked out or we just returned from a vacation in the Cayman Islands before a Category 4 hurricane came barreling through. It’s so plainly human to latch onto our mortality whenever it comes into question. (Read: My post from yesterday.)

Ultimately, two things matter: What happened and what didn’t. The almosts aren’t even worth entertaining.

Protest of X-ray Scans Could Bring Holiday Travel to a Halt


One thing many travelers aren't thankful for this Thanksgiving? Full-body X-ray scanners.

I won’t be flying home for Thanksgiving and I feel sorry for anyone who is. The furor over full-body X-ray scanners could come to a boiling point if enough protesters observe National Opt-Out Day on Wednesday, a day when fliers are encouraged to decline the X-ray scan in favor of a pat-down.

The idea is to create a major headache for the Transportation Security Administration on one of America’s busiest travel days. In other words, “Screw everyone who’s indifferent about the X-ray scans — I’m going to bring the security checkpoint to a grinding halt to make a difference, even if it means you’re eating cold turkey Thursday night.”

Where I come from, that’s terrorism.

Not surprisingly, the Opt-Out’s official website is littered with heavy handed prose to illustrate the X-ray scanners as a sure threat to our liberty, freedom, privacy and any other manner of buzzword. From the site:

“[Wednesday is] the day ordinary citizens stand up for their rights, stand up for liberty, and protest the federal government’s desire to virtually strip us naked or submit to an “enhanced pat down” that touches people’s breasts and genitals in an aggressive manner.  You should never have to explain to your children, “Remember that no stranger can touch or see your private area, unless it’s a government employee, then it’s OK.”

The “aggressive manner” seems a bit vague. I might’ve went with “rummaged.” People pay to be handled in an aggressive manner. No one appreciates being rummaged.

I haven’t experienced the wonderment of the full-body scan, but I have been a 13-year-old boy. Nearly every boy in America has considered the development, purchase or use of X-ray glasses as a means to secretly scan the female form. About the time I started writing clumsy poems for girls, I wanted to save up to buy a pair X-ray glasses I’d seen in the back of Mad Magazine. Eventually, reason led me to believe that X-ray glasses would allow me to see not only through cotton, but likely through flesh. I wasn’t about to spend $19.99 and the better part of my puberty staring at skeletal systems.

We do know that the scanners used in airports are a little more detailed than the X-ray you’d get at a hospital. To that end, I get the fear. No one should have to worry about nude photos of him/herself being spread across the Internet. The images could be a little less, oh, crisp?

This all comes back to safety. I’m a staunch supporter of the ACLU and I despise the USA PATRIOT Act and I think airport security checkpoints are often a bungled series of gaffes not because of the technology they use, but the people they employee. Come on, paranoid passengers, and say it: I don’t trust TSA employees. That’s much different than distrusting a technology, isn’t it?

Let’s not blame this technology. The technology is not the problem. The problem, if one was to arise, would stem from an employee of the TSA distributing an image to anywhere beyond the checkpoint. That would be a major privacy punishable — I would imagine — as a federal offense. It should be easy enough to ensure every scan is encrypted with data to identify every TSA employee who administered and/or laid eyes on the image.

The discussion over these full-body X-ray scans will continue on, and I can’t think of anything less productive to the debate or less considerate to other passengers than trying to slow security checkpoints on the eve of Thanksgiving. That’s not “our way of life.” Opt-out of the opt-out and take the time saved to write your congressional leaders a letter.

National Opt-Out Day isn’t a protest — it’s a massive inconvenience.

South Dakota Bars and Restaurants Go Smoke-Free — Finally

Bar owners across South Dakota went fetal Tuesday night after a statewide smoking ban passed with 64 percent of the vote. Many seem sure that a smoking ban surely spells doomsday.

Fear not, South Dakota. In fact, I’m one of many customers more likely to go and spend my money at your establishment now that I won’t require a Hazmat suit to enter.

Most of the fear is anecdotal. South Dakota bars and restaurants offer video lottery, which has generated about $100-100 million in annual revenue for the state since 2002. South Dakota receives 50 percent of the money video lottery machines take in, so as soon as anything threatens their popularity, the immediate concern shifts to how South Dakota make up that money?

Let’s not jump off the ledge here. South Dakota is still South Dakota, and speaking as someone at prime bar-going age, business will be fine. What else is there to do?

When Minnesota passed the Freedom to Breathe Act in 2007, small-business owners and smokers alike thought it would put bars across the state in a chokehold. I tended bar at a high-volume college bar before and after the smoking ban went in effect. Anecdotally, I can say customers — even smokers — overwhelmingly preferred the smoke-free environment. In fact, I more frequently saw the same costomers on consecutive nights.

The Minnesota measure was passed to ensure employees are given a healthy workplace. A few weeks before the ban went into effect, I was forced to see an ear, nose and throat specialist after working four nights in a row. I had a wicked throat pain, which I thought was strep, but it was mid-summer, so it seemed unlikely.

“You must work at a bar,” the doctor said. “I see this all the time. You’re lucky that ban passed. I would tell you to find another job.”

I made more money as a bartender in college than in any full-time big-boy job I’ve held since graduating. I feel I was a good, hardworking bartender. The fact I’m not a smoker shouldn’t disqualify me or anyone else from working in hospitality. Every employee, no matter the job, should have the right to work in a healthy, safe, controllable environment. Accidents can happen — miners get trapped, firemen get burned, cashiers get robbed. Employers must take responsibility  to ensure these instances are few and far between. In that vein, is eliminating smoking really that difficult? If it’s protecting your employees — especially those who are on a company health care plan — isn’t it worth it?

According to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, 17 percent of adults in South Dakota smoke. Last year, WebMD ranked South Dakota as No. 26 among states with the most adult smokers. At best, one in every five customers is asked to smoke outside.

Don Rose, a family friend and owner of Shenanigan’s Pub in Sioux Falls, was the leading voice of opposition to the smoking ban. His argument was that of a small-business owner who wanted the freedom to choose whether or not smoking be allowed in his establishment.

In a Monday interview with KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, Rose said:

“You take all, the bars in Minnesota are hurting, North Dakota are hurting, Montana are hurting. I get letters every day … I know that the state is preparing a budget they’re gonna be revealing in December that’s gonna show a 20 percent deficit in video lottery income. They’re planning on this.”

The elephant in the room is, of course, the recession. Name any sector of business that isn’t struggling right now. The other point of contention: Fargo and West Fargo are the only cities in North Dakota where smoking is banned from bars and restaurants. The rest of the state allows smoking bars. Finally, should South Dakota be relying so heavily on video lottery? If what Rose said is true, the budget will be short about $20 million from decreased video lottery income. That’s not a number to balk at, but hardly crippling to the South Dakota state economy. Yet, I wonder how the smoking ban — or smoking, in general — affects the cost of health care in South Dakota. Anyone?

(I completely respect Rose. As far as I know, he’s not nor has he ever been a smoker. He’s a very savvy business owner who only wants his rights left alone by the state. I get that. I also know he cares for his employees. I sincerely hope this doesn’t harm his business at all. I suspect it won’t.)

I swear, bar owners of South Dakota, your businesses will be just fine. Just wait for Thanksgiving weekend, when folks like myself return home. I used to despise meeting up with friends at the bar, but now, I’ll be the one leading the charge. I doubt I’m alone.

And please, don’t act like the smoking ban is difficult to enforce. In today’s Argus Leader, one bar owner said, “People are just going to stay home. The same thing is going to happen in the bars. I can’t see spending five bucks for a drink and then standing outside to smoke.” The same owner said she would tell a customer its illegal, but she wouldn’t call the cops.

If that’s the case, if a smoker is happier to stay home, maybe the problem isn’t the smoking ban — the problem is your establishment. And if you’re not willing to respect the law, maybe you should turn over your liquor license.

Pardon The Inconvenience, But Recount Isn’t Horner’s Fault

For those who witnessed the 2000 presidential election, recounts are a painful walk down memory lane.

Here we go again.

Democrat Mark Dayton leads Republican Tom Emmer by just about 9,000 votes in the Minnesota gubernatorial election, soit appears the race will be decided by automatic recount. State election rules require an automatic recount for any election decided by less than 0.5 percent of the overall vote. Dayton’s lead is just about 0.43 percent.

In 2008, Minnesota endured a recount between two senatorial candidates — Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman — who sparred for eight months while the votes were tallied and the results were taken to court. Franken eventually won but the lengthy process was an embarrassment and left Minnesota underrepresented in the U.S. Senate.

This time around, the candidate I voted for, Independent Tom Horner, is catching a fair amount of heat for siphoning votes from Dayton, à la Ralph Nader-from-Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. There may be a sliver of validity to the argument. If I hadn’t voted Horner, I certainly would’ve voted Dayton. But voting isn’t about convenience or expediency and I didn’t have to choose between Horner or Dayton. I wasn’t about to spurn the candidate I truly wanted to appease Dayton supporters or quicken the vote counting.

Here’s some of the Horner vitriol I’m seeing on Twitter:

  • “Oh goody. Another MN recount. Thanks, Tom Horner! asshole”
  • “Holyfreakincrap the Minnesota Gov. race has entered recount territory. NOOOOO! Damn u Tom Horner. Independence party sucks. Pick a side!”
  • “Frickin 3rd parties!!! From Ross Perot to Tom Horner to Tim Olson & everyone in between, self-serving 3rd parties steal votes from Repubs”
  • “Right now I HATE Tom Horner, well meaning peep as he may be.”

So much for favoring the emergence of a third party, because, as one of the above tweets put it, moderate voters should just “pick a side.”

I say kudos to Tom Horner. Though he pulled just 12 percent of the vote (compared to about 44 percent for both Dayton and Emmer), he commanded respect through nearly 30 debates and represented the Independence Party of Minnesota with class and integrity. I believe Horner’s campaign paired with the feckless back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats will boost membership and interest in his party over the next few years.

Who knows how long Recount 2010(-2011?) will last. No matter what, though, don’t let impatience turn to blame. Horner had every right to run, as did the four other third-party candidates whose combined 24,000 votes kept Dayton and Emmer within the automatic recount margin.

That’s democracy, folks, and it aint’ always a drive-thru. Even if you voted Dayton or Emmer, you should celebrate the fact there were other options on the ballot. One of the two will still win. If you believe in your candidate and your candidate is worth a damn, it shouldn’t matter if there’s two, three, 15 or 100 names on the ballot. If your candidate loses, that’s really no one’s fault but their own.

Election Day 2010: Don’t Overlook the Grey Areas

I have little to offer on Election Day 2010. I won’t implore you to vote, because that’s your decision and I’m sure there’s many real-life reasons you may not. However, if you’re invested in a race or a candidate or you simply feels its your civic duty, go vote. Celebrate democracy.

One thing, though: Be an informed voter. You know you don’t have to fill in every bubble on the ballot. School board, city council, state legislature — those offices often affect our day-to-day life more than congressional elections. Don’t vote based on party alone, and that goes for the whole ballot. Know exactly who and what you’re voting for.

If I vote today, I’m voting for an Independent gubernatorial candidate, Tom Horner. My conservative grandmother always warned I’d turn Republican once I got past college and entered the real world. I’m still a registered Democrat, very much a liberal, but with maturity, I’ve started looking at issues more pragmatically. Maturity makes you respect grey areas. As Democrats and Republicans continue to stretch an already gaping divide, the grey area from issue to issue has become more apparent. Not everything is as simple as conservative or liberal. That’s why we need a third party in our political system. That’s why I’d be happy to vote Independent.

Fat chance politicians will lead the way in ending partisan nonsense, so maybe as voters, we should shy from straight-ticket voting and give each and every race for which we vote a good, honest look. I’m hard-pressed to believe my views align 100 percent with any politician I’ve ever vote for, but in good conscience, I’m willing to overlook some differences in opinion as long as we agree on the right issues.

What are the “right” issues? The issues that truly inform your political beliefs. I believe each of us has a handful of top tier concerns, while the rest of our beliefs often just fall in stride with our party’s. For instance, I support the Second Amendment, but feel their should be a ban on handguns and assault weapons. However, that takes a backseat to my beliefs surrounding education, health care and gay marriage. A candidate’s stance on the Second Amendment wouldn’t necessarily sway my vote one way or the other.

What am I saying, albeit poorly? Be open-minded. Be pragmatic. Acknowledge the grey area. Don’t let voting be as simple as finding the “D” or “R” next to a candidate’s name and don’t be afraid to leave bubbles unchecked. The only thing worse than not voting is casting an uninformed vote.

Now is not the time for voting blindly.

Newspaper Endorsements No Longer Matter. Or Do They?

History has given us a plenty of reason to question the newspaper industry's clairvoyance.

I served as editor-in-chief of my college newspaper during the 2005-06 school year. The following year, my successor decided he’d had enough after the fall term, so I was brought back for the Spring 2007 semester. I spent some 18 months as the editor of a newspaper and not once was my paper forced to make a political endorsement.

Not that any newspaper really is. Still, it’s a strange tradition that carries on; the editorial board, hardly representative of any newsroom’s entire staff, gathers to decide which candidate their newspaper supports. It’s a process happening now and in the coming weeks in Minnesota. In fact, many of the state’s biggest publications have already endorsed Independent gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner.

I love everything about newspapers, even though I’m a Twitter-checking, iPad-toting, RSS Feed-reading information consumer. I started reading the Argus Leader (of Sioux Falls, SD) when I was around six years old. The Argus is notoriously conservative, as is most of South Dakota. If newspapers are influential, how is it someone who became a daily reader at such a young age would go on to become a big, stupid liberal like myself?

Because I didn’t care about the political leanings of the Argus Leader’s editorial board. I suspect very few people did or do. For all the good a newspaper provides a community, I think readers maintain an intellectual detachment, a blanket of skepticism and a take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt resolve. Endorsements aren’t influential. Endorsements are fodder for political ads and debates. The Duluth News Tribune will not persuade my vote this year. Will it persuade yours?

A few years ago, Froma Harrop penned a rather snide commentary for Rasmussen Reports, roundly supporting newspaper endorsements. Harrop argued — with a fair amount of evidence — that newspaper endorsements are most effective when they support candidates outside their perceived political affiliation. For example, when the staunchly conservative Chicago Tribune endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008, it was a big deal. Readers took notice. Readers were (probably) influenced.

“For newspapers, there’s something gratifying about these studies and surveys and even the arrows shot their way by bloggers and cable partisans,” Harrop wrote. “Go ahead and ‘diss’ the print journalists as pterodactyls of the ‘Mainstream Media’ … People still get hopped up over what they think.”

Apparently, he’s partially right, because here’s another blogger shooting arrows at the construct.

This year, selecting from the three Minnesota gubernatorial candidates is like choosing from an in-flight menu — go with whatever seems most palatable. I’m voting Horner and it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the newspaper endorsements. I’m happy he’s garnered the support of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Duluth News Tribune, the Fargo-Moorhead Forum, the Bemidji Pioneer and, seemingly, the Mankato Free Press, but that has nothing to do with my vote.

Do newspaper endorsements still matter? That all depends on how impressionable a voter is, I guess. Personally, I refuse to be influenced politically by something that prints comic strips, crossword puzzles and horoscopes.

More Than School Closure, North Side Needs Action

Students from Minneapolis North High School pose for a picture at this year's homecoming football game.

To invest in the city’s oldest public high school or build new headquarters for the Minneapolis School District?

Seems like a no-brainer, right? If only…

The Minneapolis school board has been faced with these questions this year amidst a shrinking state budget and mounting needs from the city’s North Side. This spring, the school board approved a plan to relocate the district headquarters from Northeast Minneapolis to the North Side. At the time, the facility was estimated at $27.5 million and considered an investment into one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city.

On Tuesday, the project was contracted out at $37 million — almost $10 million more than the plan the school board members had initially approved. On the same night, residents from the North Side protested against shutting down North High School, a school made for 1,700 students with only about 250 enrolled.

This is one of the rare issues where it doesn’t take a personal investment or great amount of interest to see something has gone terribly amiss.

In Wednesday’s Star Tribune, public schools reporter Corey Mitchell wrote,

“Residents accused [Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia] Johnson and the school board of systematically setting up North to fail by not recruiting students, not providing a steady curriculum for them and not pouring resources into North that neighboring high schools have.”

North Side is across the river from where I live and it’s an area I generally avoid. It’s the city’s crime center — have a look at this map of shots fired — and a less than ideal place to move your family or send your kids to school. That has to change. Great cities don’t let entire neighborhoods die.

Should North shut down, what will replace it?

In Waiting for “Superman” — yeah, I know, another tired reference — director Davis Guggenheim illustrates how a struggling school harms the overall health of a neighborhood. Students at North continue to show the lowest math and science proficiency in the city. In 2010, just eight percent of juniors were proficient in math while four percent of the student body was proficient in science.

How do things improve for these students when their school shuts down? Where do they go?

Eventually, the city must destroy and rebuild the North Side. Maybe that starts with closing the doors at North and exploring innovative solutions to educate and mobilize North Side youth. Maybe we need to take some of the tax dollars spent on crime enforcement and invest in neighborhood programs to keep today’s youth from being tomorrow’s felons. Maybe the school district needs to realize you can’t go $10 million over plan on a project many deemed frivolous in the first place.

The North Side has been at a crossroads for years and it’s beyond me how cozier digs for the Minneapolis School District leads to better education for area youth. Call it an investment in the neighborhood, but in truth, it’s just a fancy new office building full of people who will take their paychecks back to the ‘burbs.

Headquarters is slated for a Summer 2012 opening. The sooner, the better. Maybe an everyday drive to the North Side will be a wake-up call for the hundreds of district employees to finally see North is about more than a few hundred students and their failing test scores.

North High School is the story of a community in peril and a community in need of action.

For Better or Worse, Campaign Go Viral

Jerry Labriola, Republican candidate for Connecticut's 3rd Congressional District, went with a parody of the "Old Spice Guy" in a recent ad. Was it smart?

In the spirit of election overkill, I had planned on listing some of the most impressively bad campaign ads I’ve seen this cycle. I’m still going to do that, but in the process of searching YouTube for this year’s greatest hits, I stumbled upon Campaign Tools.

Apparently, YouTube started offering two versions of Campaign Tools (free and paid) back in June. The standard kit includes a channel, moderation and Insight analytics — standard fare for YouTube accounts. The paid kit includes promoted videos, call-to-action overlays and TV ads online, allowing candidates to deepen their engagement and strategic messaging with voters.

One of the key twists in candidates using social media — YouTube especially — is smaller campaigns (ex. county commissioner, state senate) have gained national attention. In fact, some campaign ads have hit viral status. YouTube has become the ultimate platform for political exposure.

That’s not always a good thing.

Read more.