Kitchen Table

Smart Justice in the Homestretch

What we’re doing to transform criminal justice in Spokane County. And how you can help.

When the Center for Justice signed on to becoming a major partner in the campaign for criminal justice reforms in Spokane County we held our expectations in check. This was barely a year ago when the campaign formed around the central goal of dramatically reducing the number of non-violent offenders sent to jail. The task at hand was to promote alternatives that were safe for the community, less expensive for tax-payers, and more productive and humane for offenders and those whose economic and emotional welfare would be harmed by losing a parent or guardian to prolonged incarceration. To be clear, Smart Justice isn’t about absolving offenders of responsibility or accountability. It’s about delivering accountability in ways that are more effective and inflict less harm on the community.

The so-called “Smart Justice Spokane” coalition had lots of ideas to plant with governmental decision-makers. The adage is that these sort of changes don’t happen overnight. Suffice to say, we packed a lot of patience into our work plans.

(From left) Liz Moore, Anne Martin, Breean Beggs, Mary Lou Johnson and Julie Schaffer address the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission last summer.

(From left) Liz Moore, Anne Martin, Breean Beggs, Mary Lou Johnson and Julie Schaffer address the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission last summer.

What a difference a year makes. Not that we are there yet. But we can honestly report that Smart Justice Spokane has exceeded our expectations. The two dozen organizations in the coalition have not only advanced substantive reforms, but have been supported at every step by an engaged cadre of citizen supporters.

Throughout the year, CFJ staff attorney Julie Schaffer and volunteer lawyer Mary Lou Johnson (Mary Lou is Julie’s mom) have been directly involved with crafting the proposals advanced by the coalition, and presenting them publicly. The most important audience for these proposals is the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission. The three member commission has been meeting since last winter and, after dozens of hearings, is now on the cusp of unveiling its draft recommendations for reform.

There are two ways you can help us. One is to donate to the Center to help support our important work on this issue.

The other way is to get directly involved. The Commission’s draft recommendations will be published this coming Friday, November 1, on the Commission’s website.

The Commission’s public hearing on its recommendations will be at 6 p.m. the following Wednesday, November 6th, at the Gonzaga Law School Court Room. Just by showing up you can support this cause, and if you decide you’d like to share your perspective or a personal story, you can speak to the commission. You can get additional background information to develop your comments at www.smartjusticespokane.org. You can also show up at 4:30 that afternoon where there will be a pre-hearing briefing and training on the Smart Justice Spokane recommendations and the Commission’s draft recommendations.

We hope to see you there.

—Tim Connor, CFJ Communications Director.

“Nothing Is Simple”

With explosive questions swirling about the City’s commitment to independent police oversight, the mayor and police chief meet the press.

 

By Tim Connor

Some things even in politics and governing should be pretty simple. There is, for example, this question: Under the latest revision to the Spokane City Charter, is the City’s Office of Police Ombudsman invested with the authority to conduct independent investigations into citizen complaints? Or not?

 

Mayor Condon with Chief Frank Straub at Monday's press conference.

Mayor Condon with Chief Frank Straub at Monday’s press conference.

Nine months ago, when Spokane voters were being asked to vote on Proposition 1 in a special election, the answer seemed clear enough.

“Proposition 1 in the city of Spokane would establish the Office of Police Ombudsman along with a five-person oversight commission within the city charter,” the city’s newspaper of record reported. “The rules are aimed at giving the ombudsman the power to investigate alleged police misconduct independently of the police department.”

Hindsight, it appears, is 20-40. Or worse. For the past two weeks, the answer to this straightforward question has been treated, in City Hall, as though it were a state secret, or at least a secret ingredient.

Witness the answers this morning, at a scheduled media briefing by Mayor David Condon and Police Chief Frank Straub. With a still secret “tentative agreement” with the Spokane Police Guild in hand (though out of sight), the mayor, the chief and the council say they will soon be going out to the public, seeking help in drafting an ordinance. This new process is expected to take most of two months.

 

That we would now be revisiting and parsing the nature of the ombudsman’s independence is a surprise to many of us who championed and voted for Proposition 1.

The question I posed to the mayor this morning is whether the result of this process will bear any resemblance to the city charter amendment that voters thought they were bringing into existence when they voted, by a 70 to 30 percent margin, for Proposition 1. Could he and the chief assure the public, I asked, that the City’s Office of Police Ombudsman will emerge from the process with the power to conduct independent investigations into citizen complaints?

I’m going to paraphrase, here, only because the mayor, who is voluble, prefaced his answer with a very lengthy account of his understanding of how we got here.

“And so,” he said, approaching his conclusion, “this is a natural process and actually tomorrow we were and always had a scheduled meeting on how do we start looking at the nuances, now that we’ve brought these things together? And so I’ll comment that we’re in the right process and the commitment to make sure that we have civilian oversight of our police department that’s effective, that is my goal and my major commitment to citizens and I think we’re on that path.”

I couldn’t quite locate an answer in his answer, so I pressed him a bit.

“But can you answer the question specifically sir?” I asked. “Both Prop. 1 and the Use of Force Commission predict an ombudsman that has independent investigative authority. Can you make a commitment that the ombudsman will emerge from this process with independent investigative authority outside the IA (SPD Internal Affairs) process?”

To which the mayor swiftly replied:

“And the issue right there is really in that ordinance and that’s why we have these continued meetings so that we can implement exactly that. The nuances of the particular contract and what’s in the contract and what’s not in the contract, or whether it even should be in the contract are what we’re working through right now, or can be implemented through the ordinance. With that I’ll have the chief also talk.”

The mayor then promptly stepped aside and the chief took to the podium.

I’m going to paraphrase what the chief said, as well, because he was also circuitous in his response to my questions and those of other reporters today. In fairness to the chief, and the mayor, I’ve also inserted (above) the unedited sound track, off my recorder, of this segment of the hour-long press conference. I offer this as a more complete record of what happened and welcome you to listen and draw your own conclusions.

“So everybody is committed to implementing Proposition 1,” the chief began. And here he inserted that the Center for Justice would be attending a meeting tomorrow “with various other advocacy groups” and city officials to discuss what an ordinance to implement Proposition “actually looks like.” The meeting, he explained, would be part of a longer process in which the public would get to review the “tentative agreement” with the police guild (once it becomes public, presumably after the guild votes to approve it this week) as well as the yet-to-be-drafted ordinance that would implement Proposition 1.

“So,” the chief continued, “as you know, Tim, nothing in this world is simple. Right? We have labor laws that define realities for us, we have other state laws that define other realities. So as a city or any locality attempts to implement law, develop law, it has to be conscious of state laws which control. So we are building a process in collaboration, as I said, with the Center for Justice and other groups to build the best ordinance. I think one of the things that has gotten people confused is the thought that the TA is the ordinance. It’s not, right? So we know right now that there’s a council proposal, there’s language in the TA which I can’t discuss at this point, and the idea is to bring those into alignment so that we meet the realities of Proposition 1, and that’s what is happening.”

A few moments later, the chief added this observation:

“So I understand the frustration in terms of the implementation of Proposition 1 but this city, as has many others, has seen what has happened with you implement bad law and it gets reversed and so you have no law. So we are going through a painstaking, exhaustive process, bringing in all the people that need to be brought into it, and the community itself, so that when we do roll out a law it is consistent with labor law, the RCWs and what the community wants.”

Notwithstanding the process that the mayor and chief and the council foresee, it is also true that Proposition 1 (now Article 16 of the Spokane City Charter) does speak for itself, and includes the directive that the ombudsman “shall independently investigate any matter” necessary to “provide visible, professional, independent civilian oversight of police officers.”

That we would now be revisiting and parsing the nature of the ombudsman’s independence (specifically whether the OPO would be allowed to conduct independent investigations) is a shock to many of us who championed and voted for Proposition 1.

But that is where we are.

There is more to the exchange with Chief Straub and you can hear it in the above audio strip, including his answer to my question about his role in persuading the city council, on October 7th, to abandon the ordinance that the Center had worked on, with councilman Steve Salvatori, to fully implement Proposition 1.

The other reporters on the recording are Jon Brunt from the Spokesman-Review who presses my question to the chief about whether Straub opposed Salvatori’s ordinance, and Heidi Groover from The Inlander who asks the chief to corroborate a statement that Councilman Jon Snyder made during the October 7th meeting.

From my notes of the October 7th meeting, this is statement that Snyder attributed to the chief:

“You need to consider very carefully what you’re putting forward tonight. I’m asking you to defer because I’ve had experience with these sort of things sort of things before and I believe if we don’t get the result we want I can ask the Department of Justice to step in and help get us there.”

On the recording from today’s press conference, in response to Groover’s question, you’ll hear the chief essentially corroborate Snyder’s account.

(Snyder’s statement begs an interesting question: If, as the mayor and his team insist, the tentative agreement with the guild fulfills Proposition 1, why would we need the Justice Department to “step in” as it were? Wouldn’t the signed labor agreement suffice?)

Finally, it’s not certain that the Center for Justice will have a presence at tomorrow’s (Tuesday) meeting. When I spoke with our Executive Director, Rick Eichstaedt, earlier today he said that while he is always inclined to send himself or one of our lawyers at the request of city officials, he is very troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding the as-yet unreleased tentative agreement and the months of closed meetings that produced it. According to Rick, the meeting scheduled for tomorrow afternoon is by invitation only, not open to the public, and comes with an expectation that any documents exchanged will not be shared publicly.

—CFJ/tjc

Cold Reality

Center for Justice to co-sponsor screening of award-winning documentary, American Winter, on October 14th.

 

Scene from American Winter.

Scene from American Winter.

The Center for Justice is joining six other community organizations in co-hosting a Spokane screening of American Winter by Emmy-winning filmakers Joe and Harry Gantz. The 90-minute documentary provides intimate portraits of eight Portland, Oregon, families as they experience the financial and emotional hardships that come with a slide from the seeming security of middle class life to poverty. The family stories illustrate the depth and devastation of the country’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The screening will take place at 6:30 next Monday evening at the Bing Crosby Theater. Admission is free but a donation of $10 is suggested with the proceeds going to Operation Healthy Family, a Spokane non-profit that works to help needy families.

“The promise of America is being undermined by policies that have decimated the middle class in this country,” the Gantzes write in a film-maker statement about why they made the film. “And the more we let people slip out of the middle class, and then refuse to give them a hand up, the weaker our democracy gets.  Millions of families are juggling bills for the basics of life, knowing they can’t keep up, yet our politicians aren’t working towards solutions.  And until we face these issues of rising poverty and rising income inequality, of stagnating wages and a shrinking middle class, we are not going to have an American Spring.  We are told that every child growing up in America has a decent chance at making a good living and having a comfortable life.  But that dream does not exist anymore for millions of Americans.  And if we are going to keep the promise of the American Dream for our children, we must come together, roll up our sleeves, make some hard decisions and begin to help the millions of vulnerable and struggling families all across this country.”

As a co-sponsor, the Center joins the Community Building Foundation, Health Care for All–Spokane, the Peace & Justice Action League of Spokane, Spokane Alliance, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane and the Washington Community Action Network.

 

–CFJ

Salvatori’s Salvo

The councilman’s “out of excuses” move to implement Prop. 1 is neither rash, nor radical.

On the surface, at least, Steve Salvatori’s version of “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it any more” seems fraught with danger.

The first-term councilman—who became the driving force behind bringing Proposition 1 to voters last February—appeared to initiate a political game of chicken with the Spokane Police Guild last week. He boldly announced he would bring forward an ordinance that would actually implement the ballot measure that, in short, hands true powers of independence to the City’s Office of Police Ombudsman.

Steve Salvatori making his case for Prop. 1 last December.

Steve Salvatori making his case for Prop. 1 last December.

It is only our tortured history in trying to put in place a credible system of civilian oversight that has some looking over their shoulder at Salvatori as if he’s lost his mind. The fear is that moving ahead, now, will result in the police guild filing a grievance and, once again, forcing the City to make an embarrassing retreat.

There is, to be sure, a good reason to be cautious. The guild has prevailed in two earlier challenges to the City’s moves to enact independent oversight. Moreover, the most recent setback for the City, in 2011, involved the same collective bargaining agreement that remains in effect now. We’ve written about this. It’s not a glorious chapter in the annals of Spokane city government.

So, what’s different now?

The answer is both in Proposition 1, as well as in the ordinance that Salvatori wants the council to adopt. It’s a clause that precludes the City from taking action on any provisions of the charter amendment that are in conflict with an existing collective bargaining agreement.

The clause was necessary for two reasons.

You can thank Mary Verner and a feckless 2009 city council for the first reason.

That year—against the clearly expressed wishes of Spokane citizens—Verner pushed, and the city council approved, a collective bargaining agreement with the guild that effectively waived the City’s managerial prerogatives to put in place independent police oversight. It was an outrage, pure and simple. The upshot is that while the City has clear legal rights under state law to put in place independent oversight, those rights were forfeited in the 2009–2011 collective bargaining agreement with the guild.

The second reason is that even though the 2009–2011 contract term has expired, state law holds that until the two parties reach a new agreement, the previous agreement remains in effect. So, while it’s true that voters overwhelmingly approved Prop. 1 thirteen months after the contract term had expired, the old contract lives on, like mold beneath the carpets.

The frustration surrounding is well enough expressed in Shawn Vestal’s September 18th column, in which the Spokesman-Review columnist threw his support behind Salvatori’s move.

Against this history, Prop. 1 was necessary to hold the mayor, the city attorney, and the city council accountable to the will of Spokane voters. And it does that.

The part of the charter amendment that took some extra forethought and craft is what is typically called a severability clause.

Those of us involved in drafting the Prop. 1 charter amendment and its implementing legislation did so knowing that the voters were likely to have their say while the 2009-2011 contract remained in effect. And that’s precisely what happened. So the purpose of the severability clause was to allow the charter amendment to take effect while giving the ombudsman and other city officials the prudent leeway to avoid stepping right into acts that would violate the existing collective bargaining agreement.

At the same time, it was crucial to lock the gate on the City and the guild, to stop them from once again cutting a deal that would thwart the will of the voters. So there’s an additional clause in the new charter amendment that bluntly prohibits the City from entering “into any collective bargaining agreement that limits the duties or powers” assigned to the police ombudsman by Prop. 1.

The short of it is there is no crisis that awaits the City. It can go ahead to implement Prop. 1 by voting to enact the ordinance Salvatori is bringing forward. The ordinance is a carbon copy of the measure the council voted unanimously (by resolution) to provide the mayor and his negotiators in May, so as to guide their closed negotiations with the police guild.

If the council approves the ordinance, it is obvious that someone working with the mayor, council, and ombudsman should issue concurrent guidance as to what, if any, parts of Prop. 1 can be implemented while the 2009–2011 contract remains in effect. (When a new collective bargaining agreement is approved, then the other pieces of Prop. 1 and the implementing ordinance can be put into effect the next day.) Presumably the legal guidance on what the City can and cannot do to enact Prop. 1 and its implementing ordinance will come from the city attorney, or a special counsel the City consults. But this isn’t something extraordinary. It’s actually what was anticipated—given the history of the City/guild negotiations—and it is part of what the voters approved last February.

And as Salvatori has so bluntly and colorfully expressed, it’s past time to get on with it.

—Tim Connor

Editor’s note: Tim Connor’s essays and opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Justice.

There’s a Train a’Comin’

 

In this piece originally published last March in the on-line magazine Guernica, Spokane writer Anna Vodicka reflects on her experience as a phonebanker for Referendum 74,  hip-hop lyrics, missionary work, and what a conversation has to do to change a mind. Her essay has been slightly edited from the original which was published prior to the Supreme Court’s historic June 26th ruling, striking down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

By Anna Vodicka

Ana V. 50kb

Anna Vodicka

If I learned anything from Washington state’s fight for marriage equality last year, it was this: In life and in discourse, beware the trap of the immutable opinion; it’s one thing to hear an argument, it’s another thing to listen.

On a Monday night last October, ten fellow volunteers and I gathered in Spokane to phone bank for Referendum 74. A local café stayed open late on our behalf, a courageous act, considering support for same-sex marriage could damage their bottom line. Because unlike Seattle—a veritable Tomorrowland for progressives, a magical world where everything is recyclable, the mayor bikes to work, and liberal dreams come true—east of the Cascade Mountain range, it’s a lot of gun rights and God and custom bumper stickers reading “Romney-Ryan: Don’t Re-Nig in 2012.” This was our phone banking territory. And we would be interrupting dinner.

The call was a simple poll: “Do you support or oppose the right for committed gay and lesbian couples to marry in Washington?” If folks opposed, we would bid them thanks and goodnight. If they supported, we would remind them to vote to approve in November.

If they were undecided, we would talk.

Pretty straightforward, I figured. I come from a conservative family in a God-fearing, Midwestern town—I know the arguments. I had been door-to-door canvassing, and had even been a missionary once, in a past life; I’d have no problem calling on strangers.

The 2012 election was a month away. No state had yet approved marriage equality by public vote. To me, Referendum 74 represented a tipping point in the defining civil rights movement of my time, and I was too nervous to sit by and watch the scales hover.

Planting ourselves in café booths, we opened our laptops, watched a software program generate numbers, and clicked CALL.

“Hello. My name is Anna. I’m a volunteer with Washington United for Marriage. We’re calling to ask if you support or oppose…”
“Strongly oppose.”
“Oppose.”
“Being gay is wrong. It’s a choice and I won’t support it.”
“Homosexuality is disgusting!”
“I believe marriage is between a man and a woman, as ordained by God, and everything else is a perversion.”

I listened to hundreds of voices over the line that night, an explosion of feeling, words thrown like stones. After an hour—had it really only been an hour?—I contemplated inventing a reason to leave. My head hurt. My heart felt lodged in my throat. I scanned the room for signs from the others that we should call it quits. Their faces mirrored mine, but they kept going.

“I believe what the Bible says. I believe in the teachings of Jesus. I will never support that.”
“Homosexuality is an abomination.”
“You people don’t deserve to be alive.”

Maybe I’d caught them on a bad night. Maybe people who engage with strangers over the telephone have a tendency toward radicalism, vitriol, or loneliness. Maybe the anonymity of the phone call emboldens folks to speak thoughts they might otherwise filter. Or maybe fear of the Other is pervasive, more than I realized—a wall built by polarized politics and personalized news feeds wrapping us in cocoons of comfortable information. Maybe these conversations were wretched because they were rare; having tuned out people on the other side, we’ve forgotten how to talk to each other across the divide.

I listened to hundreds of voices over the line that night, an explosion of feeling, words thrown like stones.

At 9:30 p.m., I walked to my car and sat in the driver’s seat, frozen by the reminder that even if this historic vote passed, the harder fight—against fear and discrimination—was still, as ever, ahead.

I was surprised to find my greatest sources of hope in a high school freshman, a hip-hop artist, and a retired woman I will never meet named Denise.

On October 9, Seattle-based indie rapper Macklemore released his debut studio album, The Heist, with producer Ryan Lewis. The album immediately topped iTunes and Billboard charts. The track “Same Love,” a pro-marriage-equality anthem, racked YouTube hits in the millions.

I don’t typically get music recommendations from ninth graders, but my boyfriend’s young cousins were crazy about this album. For fourteen-year-old Kellen and his classmates, Macklemore is the subject of endless Facebook, Twitter and hallway chatter. When The Heist tour hit Spokane, they packed the house, singing along to “Same Love” with next-generation ingenuousness.

When I was in high school—just ten years ago—“fag” was everyday hallway vocabulary.

Now, a generation of teen boys is crooning a hook sung from a lesbian perspective (Mary Lambert sings the refrain, “I can’t change/even if I tried/even if I wanted to…”). I’m imagining my male high school peers belting, “I’m coming out!” and “It’s raining men!”—and no one threatening to beat the shit out of them for it. Hallelujah.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the original Freedom Singers—the gospel group who put the Civil Rights movement to music—once said the group’s songs were “more powerful than conversation. They became a major way of making people who were not on the scene feel the intensity of what was happening in the South.” To hear “Same Love” is to experience that power.

It’s reminiscent of another Civil Rights anthem: Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” released to instant pop acclaim one year after the March on Washington.

“There’s a train a’comin,” Mayfield sang. “Don’t need no baggage/just get on board.” That train signaled a meaningful move in the direction of equality, liberty and justice. You know—for all.

Macklemore may not redefine hip-hop the way Mayfield redefined gospel, but he is challenging his genre to transcend sexual stereotypes and radically rethink language in lyrics (“If I was gay, I’d think hip-hop hates me/Have you read the YouTube comments lately?/‘Man that’s gay’/Gets dropped on the daily”). And while, as of this writing, Macklemore’s “Same Love” has roughly 28 million YouTube hits to his “Thrift Shop” song’s 193 million, the track recently hit the Billboard chart’s top 100. If global success is any indicator, it’s only moving up.

Music can be a driver for fast-tracking social change, making way for other types of dialogue and, eventually, for social progress. It takes a united front of pop culture, public and political agendas to achieve a collective consciousness-raising. And it takes the sometimes harder work of regular people gathering around tables, talking. Holidays. School nights. Supreme Court conferences.

But human beings are built for movement. Sometimes, votes swing.

The U.S. Supreme Court Justice’s conference is a significant event. Chief Justice Roberts will run the meeting, and by the end of the day the Court alone will know its inaugural vote. The most senior Justice in the majority will assign the opinion—though the authorial role can shift over the following weeks and months, as the Justices negotiate, debate, and vie for majority rule.

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a poll showing a radical tectonic shift in favor of public support for marriage equality over the last decade. The explanation? Young people pushing progress right past their own fixed-opinion parents, and the catalytic combination of open minds and dialogue. “When those who say they have shifted to supporting same-sex marriage are asked why their views changed,” the study reports, “…[r]oughly a third (32 percent) say it is because they know someone—a friend, family member or other acquaintance—who is homosexual.” Twenty-five percent said their view changed because they had “grown more open” or “thought about it more.”

The study also reminds us that some people live permanently with hands clapped over their ears. By comparison to the 28 percent of marriage equality proponents who say their views have evolved, “virtually everyone who opposes same-sex marriage—41 percent out of 44 percent—say they have always been against it.”

Surely, some of the people I spoke with while phone banking fell into this category. The wall was up. The vote already cast. They wouldn’t listen; they could barely even hear me.

But human beings are built for movement. Sometimes, a song works its way into the streets and the melody is too beautiful not to sway and hum along. Sometimes, votes swing.

In my dimly lit booth at the coffee shop, I checked my phone for the time: 8:40 p.m. The café owner collected plates and tea mugs. I took a deep breath and clicked CALL beneath a name on the screen: Denise in Colville, a logging town in one of the state’s most conservative counties.

“Hello?” A woman answered. It was Denise. I said I hoped I wasn’t interrupting her evening and explained the reason for my call.

She hesitated. Finally, she said, “I’m a Christian. In the end I have to side with the Bible, so I’m going to vote no.”

She spoke kindly, with no edges in her voice or in her simple conviction of faith, and waited for my response. Guessing by her voice, she was about my mother’s age, late fifties or sixties. I pictured her standing alone in a kitchen—imagined her talking into an improbably rotary phone—preparing a quiet meal, a cat curling its body around her ankles. All at once, I was reminded of the fact that the telephone, which blinds us, leaves everything but sound to the imagination. Her assumptions would be based on my words and my voice, not my hair or my handshake. We were two people connected by an invisible line. Already, we had things in common.
I’ve been agnostic since high school, when on a mission trip I discovered the people I was taught to convert already exhibited the selfless attitudes of Christ, which was more than I could say for myself and my Youth Group peers. Unlike some of my fellow unbelievers who find it easy to shrug off religion as anti-intellectualism or cult mentality, and who sometimes fall prey to their own fixed ideas (“evangelical atheists,” I tease friends sometimes), I could understand where Denise was coming from. I took a deep breath and attempted common ground.

“I was raised Christian, too,” I said. “To me, the Bible’s most important messages are the Golden Rule and God’s commandment to love one another.”

The phone went silent. I was pretty sure Denise had hung up her old-timey phone and gone back to her supper.

“I never thought of this issue in that way,” she said.

We talked for thirty minutes, kept talking as my fellow volunteers closed laptops and collected belongings.

“You know,” she said, “when I was in my twenties, I lived in Seattle and I knew a guy who was…like that…he didn’t say he was, but everyone knew and I liked him. He was funny. He was just like anyone else, just a regular person.”

It is a scary, unbalancing thing to experience the extraordinary sensation of shifting.

I thought of the statistics, that people change their mind about the Other once they have a personal experience and the Other becomes another person. I encouraged her to tell me more. I asked about her family and friends. She told me her husband wasn’t well. She was going through a tough time.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, and I felt it. I told her about a friend of mine with cancer who was being denied partner benefits because she was gay and couldn’t marry in her state of residence.

“That would be very hard,” she said, her voice low. “I’m sorry for your friend.”

When it was time to hang up, I thanked Denise for the most rational conversation of the evening. I told her that everyone else I’d spoken with had either hung up on me or might as well have.

“To be honest,” she said, “I wasn’t going to talk to you at first. I don’t normally do this sort of thing. But you sounded…nice. I’m not used to people on the other side actually listening to me.”

“Me neither,” I laughed.

Denise’s pastor had instructed her congregation to vote “No” on the Referendum. Now, she said, she wasn’t sure. She had some things to think about.
“You’ve given me things to think about, too,” I said.

Months later, I’m still thinking about Denise. I wonder how her husband is doing. I think about the challenge she faced in parsing her own convictions from her church’s. And I think about her reasons for staying on the line, the emphasis in her voice when she said listening.

I used to teach rhetoric—the dance of argument, a civic art often reduced to a squabble—to university students, whose natural tendency was to see partners in the dance as opponents. It was easy for them to exercise free speech, much harder for them to listen to anyone else’s.

Listening is a choice, a difficult craft we can all practice, even amid the constant distraction and noise, even if only to one person: a child, a street musician, a stranger on the phone, or a colleague and friend across the table. It’s about Scalia taking Ginsburg’s argument seriously when she compares federally unrecognized state marriages to “skim milk.” But it’s also about Kagan and Sotomayor processing Alito’s assertion that same-sex marriage is younger than our cell phones. It has to go both ways. Otherwise, we miss it—the sound of a great, turning world, with magical storms and roaring oceans and a bedrock foundation beneath our feet that is always, always shifting.

Predictably, only one county east of Washington’s Cascade Range voted in favor of Referendum 74 (this county happens to include Washington State University, i.e. 20,000 young voters). But it was enough, and by now we know the scales tipped: Maine, Maryland and Washington voted for equality.

In other words, we’re picking up passengers from coast to coast, and even Minnesota, which refused to ban same-sex marriage, won’t pass up a seat on the train. Oh, and another thing: “There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner/Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own/Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner/For there’s no hiding place against the Kingdom’s throne.”

Let’s do have pity for those who fear, and whose fear breeds hate. Send them love, as much as you can spare. It is a hard but essential thing to critically think about our beliefs, to hear other perspectives, and patiently challenge ourselves to listen—a scary, unbalancing thing to experience the extraordinary sensation of shifting.
When I was a kid, my family gathered nightly around the table to give thanks. On March 29th, as nine Justices gather around America’s table, I will offer up this bit of grace: Thank you, Macklemore, for capturing the spirit of the march. Thank you, Kellen and the youth vote, for giving me hope for a better Tomorrowland. And thank you, Denise in Colville, or wherever you are, for having a conversation.

Anna Vodicka’s essays have recently appeared in Brevity, The Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Ninth Letter and Shenandoah. She holds an MFA from the University of Idaho and currently writes from Spokane, where she is practicing (and failing, and failing better) at the art of listening, yoga, the guitar, and a memoir-in-fragments about rural America, faith and family. You can find more of her work at www.annavodicka.com.

Canned Arrogance

Cathy McMorris Rodgers and the climate-change pledge.

By Tim Connor

It’s a simple question really. Did Fifth District Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers sign a pledge to never cast a vote for a bill to address the problem of global climate change if it involved any cost to taxpayers?

Rep. McMorris Rodgers advocating gutting the federal Clean Air Act in March 2011.

Rep. McMorris Rodgers advocating gutting the Clean Air Act in early 2011.

That was the question that Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich posed to Rep. McMorris Rodgers earlier this month. Before we get to whether and how she answered this very simple question, it’s worth asking whether it really matters.

Based on Charles Lewis’s research, it matters a lot. Lewis, for those of you who are unfamiliar with his life’s work, is the founder of the Center for Public Integrity. CPI is an organization that focuses its investigations primarily on the corrupting influence of money on the American political system.

His latest investigative reporting project—conducted with co-authors Eric Holmburg, Alexia Campbell and Lydia Beyoud—is entitled “The Koch Club.”

The report documents how the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch have been systematically using the profits from their businesses (which are heavily invested in oil and gas) to buy political influence.

Rep. McMorris Rodgers’ full-throated criticism of efforts to regulate carbon dioxide no doubt buoyed her standing in the Republican Party and endeared her to carbon-polluting industrialists like the Koch Brothers. So what could be hard about getting a simple answer from her, confirming or denying whether she’d signed the AFP “No Climate Tax” pledge?  In short, everything.

For a July 1st on-line story in the New Yorker, Lewis told the magazine’s Jane Mayer: “There is no other corporation in the U.S. today, in my view, that is as unabashedly, bare-knuckle aggressive across-the-board about its own self-interest, in the political process, in the nonprofit-policy-advocacy realm, even increasingly in academia and the broader public marketplace of ideas.”

Mayer’s story—“Koch Pledged Tied to Congressional Climate Inaction”— looked at a specific part of the Koch influence—the gridlock in Congress over passing any laws that would do anything to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. From a pure self-interest point of view, the Kochs—as Mayer noted—have a lot at stake. Their industries, according to EPA data from 2011, account for twenty four million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, roughly the same as the emissions from five million cars.

In their reports, Lewis and his co-authors focus on a little-known but highly effective pledge—the “No Climate Tax” pledge. The “No Climate Tax” pledge  is the calling card of Americans for Prosperity (AFP) one of the premier Koch-funded non-profit organizations. As Lewis and his co-authors point out in their report, the endorsement of the pledge by Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, was a key turning point in the national political debate over greenhouse gas regulation.

In Mayer’s July 1 piece she reported that the entire Republican leadership in the House had signed on to the “No Climate Tax.” Presumably, this includes McMorris-Rodgers who, in 2008 was elected to be the vice-chair of the House Republican conference.

But we wanted to be sure. It’s an important fact. So we decided to call her. So Bart—whose work includes action on climate change and stopping coal exports—placed the call  to the Congresswoman’s district office.

Bart says the staffer initially tried to be helpful, informing him about a website that tracks Congressional legislation and what bills McMorris Rodgers and others sign on to. But this wasn’t a bill, Bart explained, it was a pledge to an outside group.

Bart then followed up with an email request, referencing the “No Climate Tax” pledge and directly asking whether the Congresswoman would confirm or deny signing it.

There’s quite a bit of evidence that she did sign it. As we learned with a subsequent bit of digging, both Salon  and The Hill’s Energy and Environment blog reported last November that Rep. McMorris Rodgers had signed the pledge.

Moreover, the Congresswoman had gone to some lengths to publicly express her view that taxes shouldn’t be raised in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that she strongly opposed the regulating carbon emissions from coal plants.

This is a remarkable position. The U.S. Supreme Court in a 2007 ruling had upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority (and really its responsibility) to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. What Rep. McMorris Rodgers and her allies were proposing was to then gut the Clean Air Act to prevent EPA from regulating carbon dioxide as a harmful air pollutant.

Here’s a video from February of 2011 of the Congresswoman explaining her position.

Rep. McMorris Rodgers’ full-throated criticism of efforts to regulate carbon dioxide no doubt buoyed her standing in the Republican Party and endeared her to carbon-polluting industrialists like the Koch Brothers.

So what could be hard about getting a simple answer from her, confirming or denying whether she’d signed the AFP “No Climate Tax” pledge?

In short, everything.

Bart never got a call back from the Congresswoman’s office but he did, on July 11th, receive a reply to his email query.

Here it is:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Mihailovich

Thank you for contacting me regarding climate change. It is an honor to represent the people of Eastern Washington, and I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts with me.
 
Over the last several years, there have been a number of scientific studies published that lead to very different conclusions to the causes, significance, and steps necessary to address climate change. Moreover, there has yet to be a global solution that gets to the heart of heavy emitters such as China and India.
 
One thing is for certain though – we need to develop a comprehensive energy solution, one that includes opening up and utilizing sources here at home. This strategy includes the use of more hydropower. Seventy-five percent of Eastern Washington’s electricity is generated by this clean, renewable energy source. In fact, according to a recent study by the National Hydropower Association, the U.S. could double its hydropower energy without building a single new dam. Be assured that I will keep your views in mind on this issue.

As you can see, despite the appreciation expressed to Bart for having written her about her position on the “No Climate Tax” pledge, her appreciation wasn’t so heartfelt as to actually answer his question, let alone even acknowledge the question.

Suffice to say, Bart was deeply unimpressed.

“She (McMorris Rodgers) is in a region that is poised to become one of the biggest fossil fuel exporters in the world, in her back yard,” he says. “That should be issue number one, wherever she comes down on that and that is the issue we should be talking about. The ‘No Climate Tax’ pledge is written in a way that says we will not vote for measures that involve a cost to the public. Well, we are never going to come up with solutions to climate change that don’t involve some kind of cost to the public. So without putting a line in the sand, the pledge is a line in the sand.”

But the sheer evasiveness of her response is what bothered him the most.

“Her non-response to my question is one of the more shocking developments in this whole roller coaster involving the politics of climate change,” Bart said. “I’ve been tracking climate change issues for a long time, and this is crazy. The fact that there are still people like her being elected and re-elected and not being held to account for the effects of climate change on our region and on our world, this really points to a larger problem—which is that we can’t even have a conversation. We’re now battling through barriers of politics just to even get to the issue, and when we do get to the issue, it’s an uphill battle from there.”

He then shook his head and laughed again, albeit ruefully.

“It’s an uphill battle to get to the uphill battle,” he said.

Editor’s note: Tim Connor’s commentaries do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Justice.

A Soldier’s Story

Larry Shook is finally coming home from Vietnam.

On a day that seems like a lifetime ago I stepped off the elevator onto the third floor of the Peyton Building and, within minutes, met Larry Shook.

Larry Shook delivering his Memorial Day sermon.

Larry Shook delivering his Memorial Day sermon.

It was late June 1980. I was a very young reporter, and Larry was then the publisher of Spokane Magazine, a fine publication that hosted terrific writers including Patrick McManus, William Stimson, Karen Dorn Steele, and C.R. Roberts. Larry was movie-star handsome with a well-coiffed shock of black hair, starched white shirt with a dark tie flowing from a buttoned down collar. He was smart, and witty, and passionate about journalism.

I’d left a newspaper job in central Washington the month before because the publisher lacked the nerve to run hard-hitting stories I’d developed as a police reporter. What I soon learned working as a staff writer at Spokane Magazine is that Larry had as much courage as anyone I’d ever met.

Spokane Magazine was a victim of the recession of the early 1980s. But, through our work, Larry and I had become good friends. Over the ensuing twenty five years, we collaborated on several major reporting projects, beginning with a grant-funded newspaper series looking at secrecy and the history of radiation releases from Hanford’s plutonium plants. We became clients of the Center for Justice in 2000 shortly after we teamed up to report on the veins of fraud that ran through the City of Spokane’s public/private partnership with the Cowles family real estate subsidiaries.

It’s only been in recent years that Larry began to share with me his experience in Vietnam. That sharing came in bits and pieces, and mostly in the form of anecdotes about the comrades he’d served with. Yet, he also told me he regarded the Vietnam war as a crime and that he was struggling, deeply, with what he’d been a part of, and what he’d witnessed.  Mostly, though, we talked about other things, quite a bit of which wound up in our journalism.

Last fall, though, Larry’s life took a dramatic turn. The two of us had gone to visit an old friend—retired Unitarian minister Bill Houff—following the passing of Bill’s wife. It turned out to be a warm and uplifting visit under the circumstances, but as we got to the parking lot to leave, Larry suddenly began trembling. He was convulsed in emotional anguish.

What I didn’t know then is that a month earlier, driving at dusk on a back road returning from Idaho, he’d struck a deer that was crossing the highway. He and his passenger were uninjured, but the bloodshed from the strike was gruesome and, within 24 hours, it triggered a vicious spasm of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I can’t well describe the daily struggles that ensued for him in the weeks and months that followed. In order to begin to heal, he had both to confront and talk about his darkest memories from Vietnam. Not only has he done that but, as you can see from the video embedded in this post, Larry recognized that his story was part of a much larger saga.

On one level it is about the grievous injuries to the soul that are inflicted upon soldiers who survive combat. Those injuries are reflected in the grim facts that more than twenty U.S. veterans take their lives every day, and that among active duty soldiers, more die from suicide than are killed by enemy fire.

On a deeper level, Larry sees his experience, and those of his comrades in Vietnam, as a tragic lesson about the cost of American militarism.

It is the whole of it—the intimate toll on the soldiers, and the collective loss and costs for the rest of us—that Larry composed for the sermon he was invited to give on Memorial Day weekend at the Unitarian church in Spokane. Larry entitled his sermon, “Grace and Me: A Forbidden Tale of War.” He gave the sermon twice on May 26th and then, again, on May 30th. The sermons were filmed by Spokane videographer Don Hamilton, whose team at Hamilton Studios has been working to document Larry’s story.

Judging by the reception he’s received, Larry’s message is resonating far beyond Spokane. This coming week he’s been invited and will be attending the Warrior’s Song retreat in Philadelphia. The Warrior’s Song project was founded by Iraq war veteran and musician Jason Moon for the purpose of using music and other creative arts to aid in the healing of combat veterans. Larry is also at work on a memoir encompassing his Vietnam experience and his struggle with PTSD.

Given how our life journeys have been intertwined for three decades (I think of Larry as my older brother) I can’t possibly explain how I felt on May 26th, watching this brave, dear friend and colleague bare his soul before his community. As you’ll see, it wasn’t easy for him. Nor was it easy for his audience. People were in tears all around me. I  remember thinking that it was so important that this story get told. I can’t imagine anybody better to tell it.

—Tim Connor

How to Look at a Coal Train

Opinion by Tim Connor

Having struggled with asthma much of my life, I don’t understand why people smoke. But I do understand why they sometimes set themselves on fire. There’s nothing quite like self-immolation to get peoples’ attention.

In June 1963 a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, torched himself in Saigon. His flaming image, captured in a wire photo, was a searing act of defiance that symbolized the deep moral objections to the corrupt, U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government that was doomed to fall. Likewise, when the Tunisian street vendor Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, his fatal act ignited the “Arab Spring” uprisings that led to the fall of governments not only in Tunisia but in Yemen, Egypt and Libya.

I’ve been thinking, lately, of Quang Duc and Bouazizi. It’s not because my mind welcomes images of people engulfed in flame. It’s only because I’m part of a growing cohort of people who are increasingly restless, if not outwardly desperate, to imagine what it will ultimately take for us to act to avert the looming tragedies of global climate change.

As tragedies go, this one is as surreal as it is soporific. I’m folding my towels at a laundromat, a stone’s throw from the tracks at Latah Junction in west Spokane. I look up to see a steady stream of weather-beaten, uncovered rail cars, brimming with Wyoming coal, heading west. The long train could as easily be moving small mountains of grain to feed people.

But this cargo is planet lethal. The burning of coal accounts for over 40% of greenhouse gas emissions world-wide. The short of it is that when we burn coal, we burn the future. Whatever warmth or hum of electricity comes from igniting the coal loaded onto this lumbering train, it also takes us inexorably closer to more calamities like Katrina and “Superstorm” Sandy which ravaged the mid-Atlantic coast last fall. And even these tragedies pale in comparison to the foreseeable destruction caused by sea-level rise, desertification, and increasing ocean acidity that is already chewing away at coral reefs throughout the tropics.

The mechanisms for this havoc are as well understood as the process by which you warm your coffee in a microwave oven. But we are still told to look away, or at least to not see what we know to be true. Trains are romantic. Yes. If you have to ship coal, it’s more energy efficient to ship by rail than by truck. True. Spokane should be proud of its railroading heritage, and grateful for the railroads’ “economic impact.” Of course.

“The issue is not whether the trains will come, but where they will go, and who will get the economic benefits,” says the opinion page of the Spokesman-Review. So, please, think locally and leave the planet to others. If you’re anxious, look down with a “tight focus” to the fistful of dollars in our hands today, and let someone else fuss over our children’s stormy tomorrows.

“We need to deal with the facts of the matter,” says Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, “not the emotions from coal.”

I gather the sheriff means we’re not supposed to consider all of what we know to be true when we see a coal train heading west into the sunset from Sunset Junction. Who needs Zoloft to buffer our emotions when a good mind-washing of denial will do the trick?

I have a better idea. Let’s look squarely, instead of looking away. Let’s listen to what the earth and the vast majority of scientists are telling us. Let’s give our energy and our coinage to support the work of spirited young activists, including our Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich,  and Maura Cowley of Energy Action Coaltion.

When we burn coal, we burn the future. Whatever warmth or hum of electricity comes from igniting the coal loaded onto this lumbering train, it also takes us inexorably closer to more calamities like Katrina and “Superstorm” Sandy which ravaged the mid-Atlantic coast last fall. And even these tragedies pale in comparison to the foreseeable destruction caused by sea-level rise, desertification, and increasing ocean acidity that is already chewing away at coral reefs throughout the tropics.

Coal train leaving Latah Junction.

Coal train leaving Latah Junction.

Time is not on our side.

Earlier this month, a New York Times headline read: “Heat-trapping Gas Passes Milestone, Raising Fears.”  What the article reported is that, for the first time in millions of years, the measured concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s lower atmosphere (as averaged over 24 hours) surpassed 400 parts per million.

This was not a milestone that a person could detect with any of the human senses. CO2 at 400 ppm is not going to burn the eyes like tear gas, pound the ear drums with a sonic boom, or darken the sky like a solar eclipse at noon. But if you know just enough to connect that number to the litany of earth science about the consequences of such high CO2 levels, and what this means for our children and grandchildren, then you may just know enough to be sick to your stomach.

The scale of the changes  beginning to unfold is almost as compelling as our indifference to them. If you want to observe what a disappearing polar ice cap looks like in its swirling death throes, you can see that here at one minute into this video presentation by a fast-talking Al Gore. It will take you only a few seconds to visualize, on a grand scale, what’s happening in the environment.

On the other hand, if want to witness just how assiduously we are now moving, as a society, to address this gravest of all problems, it may take more than a few seconds to hear the sound of almost nothing. You could start by going to video replays of the 2012 Presidential debates and hearing not a word about climate change. Sorry “all you climate people”  said debate moderator Candy Crowley, after she chose not to call on a citizen questioner who wanted to ask Barack Obama and Mitt Romney about global warming.

So much else to talk about. So little time.

Candy Crowley is a good political reporter. But her casual brush-off of the topic was wrong even when measured in pure political terms. Voters care more than she acknowledged, and especially voters in Republican primaries. This is where the American political landscape gets shaped and where denial and obstructionism are so deeply rooted. Between the ideologues and the buckets of money from oil and coal interests, climate change has become so politicized that honest leaders like Rep. Bob Inglis—a once popular Republican Congressman from South Carolina—are removed from office if they admit to what the science has so clearly revealed. Inglis lost his seat in the Republican primary of 2010.

“The most enduring heresy that I committed was saying the climate change is real,” he told PBS’s Frontlines.

Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich with a coal train in the distance.

Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich with a coal train in the distance.

Crowley’s brush off and Inglis’s political demise bring to my mind a tragedy my father witnessed as a young boy. It was the explosion and fiery crash of the passenger zeppelin, the Hindenburg, in 1937, as it arrived on the East coast after crossing the Atlantic with 97 people aboard.

“Oh the humanity,” sobbed Herb Morrison, the WLS radio announcer who was broadcasting live at the time of the tragic explosion at Lakehurst, New Jersey. In the haunting recording of his broadcast, you can still hear Morrison’s voice, drenched in grief, as he finally apologizes to his audience for having to look away in order to compose himself after witnessing “the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

What we, with collective indifference and denial, are inflicting upon our children is so much worse than the tragedy that brought Herb Morrison to tears.

When I look up from my laundry and see a coal train rolling through Latah Junction, I hear Herb Morrison’s voice.

“Oh, the humanity.”

Tim Connor’s essays do not necessarily reflect the view of the Center for Justice.

“The Center Did the Work”

S-R Columnist Shawn Vestal talks about the Center for Justice and the Otto Zehm case.

Jazzed for Justice, Hamilton Studio, May 9, 2013

A lot of the time, when our institutions fail us, their failures are accompanied by a more widespread public failure: the failure to care enough, the failure to insist on being better.
In a democracy, this can have devastating consequences. Because it’s hard to actually make things better – it’s easy to get outraged, and then to spend that outrage very quickly – to post something, tweet something, to write a letter. To write a column. But that initial expenditure of outrage is often followed by … nothing. Or, even worse, by a sense of accomplishment and a desire to move on.

Shawn Vestal at Jazzed for Justice

Shawn Vestal at Jazzed for Justice

We’re very, very good at outrage. And very, very bad at follow-through.

That’s why we need the people and organizations who are dedicated to the long view. Who are willing to do the work that remains, once everyone’s done shouting. I can think of no better recent example of this than the Center for Justice’s work on the Otto Zehm case – work that has been steady and steadfast as the public’s interest waxed and waned, and as our institutions fumbled and flailed. It’s work that is bearing fruit for the community, even now.

Shouldn’t we all be more outraged by this? I wanted to pose this question as a columnist, and I was, in part, posing it to myself. Shouldn’t I have been more outraged by this?

When I refer to the failure to care – or the failure to care enough – I don’t mean only to point the finger at others. I was working the night Zehm was beaten in that Zip Trip. I was the Saturday reporter, and I remember heading over to the scene, at an editor’s behest, with the same kind of attitude I might have had toward any weekend news that breaking relatively late in the shift: Which is to say, less enthusiasm, less energy and less give-a-damn than I should have. That night, I stood outside the police tape and took down what Jim Nicks had to say, and asked a few questions, and returned to the office and filed a short item.

I have often thought about that night since then – about how detached I was able to feel from the events that happened just inside that store. About how concerned I was over getting to whatever Saturday night fun I had planned, and how little I understood or tried to discover what had happened in there.

Several years passed before I had any further professional attachment to the story. I followed it in the news coverage, and found myself periodically outraged anew. And yet, I had fallen into the same attitude that I suspect many of us shared, from time to time, in the Zehm case. A sense of weariness from the barrage of headlines. A desire to wrap it up, to find closure, to heal, which was probably more of a desire that the whole thing simply go away.

in representing Zehm’s estate, the Center represented all of us – all of our interest in a better police department, in accountable public institutions, and a more just community.

When I became a columnist at the newspaper, the federal case against Karl Thompson was proceeding to trial. I decided to become more deeply informed about the case, and as I read through mountains of court records, I became ashamed of the way I had come to feel about this case. About my sense of fatigue over it. Everywhere I turned – on seemingly every page filed in the criminal and civil cases – was another cause for deep, grave concern over the functioning of our local government.

Shouldn’t we all be more outraged by this? I wanted to pose this question as a columnist, and I was, in part, posing it to myself. Shouldn’t I have been more outraged by this?
I think I should have. And I think all of us should have. And to the degree that we were, it has helped to drive some change, I believe. And yet, all that being said, outrage is fleeting and fickle. It does not do, finally, what needs to be done. The largest part of changing things for the better comes from those who work within the system – the slow, compromised, limited system – with patience and tenacity.

The Center for Justice was involved with this case almost immediately, and its efforts spanned six years. The Center sued the city on behalf of Otto Zehm’s estate in 2009 and settled it last year. Among the settlement’s achievements is the Zehm memorial – a physical insistence that his memory not be subsumed in a rush to move forward.
Also, though, in representing Zehm’s estate, the Center represented all of us – all of our interest in a better police department, in accountable public institutions, and a more just community. A lot of us talked about it. The Center did the work.

Mercy

Steve Brill and Time’s master work on the ingrained greed and injustice in the American health care system.

(Editor’s Note: This entry was updated on November 19th to include an audio excerpt containing an exchange between the author and Jeff Collins, the Chief Medical Executive for Providence Health Care in Eastern Washington. The recording of the exchange is at the bottom of the page.)

By Tim Connor

Here’s some irony for you.

In this age of Twitter and Facebook photo and perpetual phone text messaging, my fourteen year-old son sits on his grandparents’ sofa in east Spokane and starts reading a magazine. It is March 2nd, a Saturday, and the magazine he’s holding in his hands is Time’s March 4th issue. I am across the room, visiting with my mother.

Before long, my son starts hissing, and then whistling, and then hissing some more.

“Dad,” he finally says, “you’ve got to read this.”

TimecoverAnd I did. In fact, as of today, I’ve read it twice, which is no small feat given that Steven Brill’s article, Bitter Pill, is over 24,000 words long. News magazines are not supposed to run stories that are 24,000 words long, let alone 3,000 words long.

Regardless of your politics, Brill’s article is crazy-making material. It is built upon one carefully examined case after another of ordinary people entering the nation’s health care system under physical duress and leaving under mountains of debt, pursued by collection agencies. All of them have health insurance, but not nearly enough to pay their astronomical hospital and doctors’ bills. The documented price-gouging inflicted by hospitals (most of them run by ostensibly “non-profit” organizations) is shocking.

•$84 for a bag saline that can be purchased on-line for five bucks and change.
•$1.50 for a single acetaminophen pill that retails for less then 1.5 cents.
•$18 for a diabetic test strip that Amazon sells for 56 cents each.

Obamacare will address at least some of the problems revealed in Brill’s reporting, such as the annual caps on what insurance companies will pay out for most kinds of health care. But Brill’s caution is that it doesn’t really touch the rampant inflation and price-gouging that drug companies and hospitals engage in.

One of the cases that Brill uses to bring this blood-sucking toll into focus is in that of patient “Steve H.” who’d gone to Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City complaining of a back ache. The cure, he was told, would be a surgically-implanted stimulator that could be installed in a day. With $45,181 remaining beneath the cap on his union-sponsored health insurance plan, “Steve H.” could be forgiven for not asking whether he had ample insurance. As Brill posits: How much could a day at Mercy cost?

Actually quite a bit when you consider some of these examples from Steve H’s hospital bill.

•$3 for the re-usable pen used to mark his back for the incision.

•$31 for the re-useable strap to hold him to the operating table.

•$32 for the blanket used to keep him warm during surgery.

•$39 for the $6 surgeon’s gown.

•$108 for bacitracin.

•and finally, $49,237 for the stimulator whose list price is less than $20,000.

His total Mercy bill for the one day procedure/implant was $87,000, not including doctor’s charges. Steve H. exhausted his insurance and wound up owing over $40,000.

Mercy Hospital is part of a chain of 31 hospitals and 300 clinics in the Midwest, Brill reports, and it is owned by an organization under the umbrella of the Catholic Church called Sisters of Mercy. “It’s mission, as described in its latest filing with the IRS as a tax-exempt charity, is ‘to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus by promoting health and wellness.’”

Mercy? Or money? Brill is merciless in diving into the hair-raising salaries that non-profit hospitals pay their CEOs and management staffs. In Mercy’s case its $784,000 for a regional president, and $438,000 to the hospital president. And these are typical. Also typical from Brill’s reporting is the stiff-arm he got when he asked hospitals to explain bills like Steve H.’s. They all refused to make top executives available to defend hospital charges claiming that the patient privacy provisions of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) bars them from saying anything about items on patients bills.

There’s no doubt that the effects of the profiteering and price-gouging that Brill reports on is a sprawling and deeply painful problem in America. Nearly two-thirds of personal bankruptcies in the U.S. are related to medical bills or illness. Nearly 70% of those experiencing medical-related bankruptcy were insured at the time they filed. If you’re not trapped in the brutal world that Brill writes about, chances are you know several people who are.

Regardless of your politics, Brill’s article is crazy-making material. It is built upon one carefully examined case after another of ordinary people entering the nation’s health care system under physical duress and leaving under mountains of debt, pursued by collection agencies.

My son’s hissing reaction to this epic work of journalism was to the cruelty and injustice inflicted on people who, by definition, were hurting at the time they sought medical care. But I was just as disturbed by Brill’s reporting on how far removed our politics are from this life-crushing phenomenon.

You may be asking, how can this be? Didn’t our political system groan at every seam and weld with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare?

True, and Obamacare will address at least some of the problems revealed in Brill’s reporting, such as the annual caps on what insurance companies will pay out for most kinds of health care. But Brill’s caution is that it doesn’t really touch the rampant inflation and price-gouging that drug companies and hospitals engage in. The main problem he sees, and documents, is a profound lack of competition and accountability in the American health care system.

That’s a compelling finding and what it confirms is that the epic food fight over Obamacare was about politics, not about the best way to control health care costs.   Early on, in the futile effort to win bipartisan support, Obama took both the single-payer and public option (in which the government would offer a competing health insurance plan) off the table. Thus, the insurance reforms left the current system pretty much intact, albeit with new controls on how insurance companies can behave.

But as Brill emphasizes, the Obamacare insurance reforms don’t do much, at all, to deal with the dire problem of runaway health care costs. In 2013, these costs will approach $3 trillion. Brill points out that this is $750 billion more (27%) than if the U.S. spent the same, per person, on health care as other developed nations.

If there’s a crippling myth to our politics on health care reform it is that Americans get wondrous care because of free enterprise and competition within our private system. Actually, to the extent we get wondrous care, it is care that millions of Americans, including those with insurance, can’t afford because of a lack of competition.

Remember all the rhetoric from the right about how the Clintons and then Obama would ruin the free enterprise market in American health care?

The golden irony in Brill’s reporting is that really the only thing bringing competition to health care pricing is the government’s single-payer system for older Americans, otherwise known as Medicare.

Throughout his reporting, Brill constantly compares what hospitals charge those covered (or not covered) by private insurance, to what they charge those covered by Medicare.

For example:

•A heartburn patient charged $199.50 for a test that Medicare pays the same hospital $13.94.

•A stress test charged at nearly $8,000, where Medicare would pay the same hospital $554.

•Oxygen “supervision” charged at $134 a day where Medicare pays less than $18 per day.

And so on, and so on.

And this is despite the fact that—in order to keep drug companies happy—Congress limits Medicare’s capacity to lower costs even further by preventing it from negotiating prices on prescription drugs and looking at comparable effectiveness when it comes to purchasing decisions on medical equipment.

There’s also this poignant news clip for phlegmatic conservatives who would have you believe “government” is a synonym for “waste.” Comparing Medicare’s administrative and management costs with Aetna, a large private insurer, Brill found that Medicare’s cost were under $4, whereas Aetna’s were about $30 per claim.

Moreover, Brill reported, “the only players in the private sector who seem to operate efficiently are the private contractors working—dare I say it?—under the government’s supervision.”

Brill points that than in areas of the U.S. where Medicare has been allowed to conduct pilot programs on competitive billing, it has been able to produce savings of 40%. But those pilot projects are a mere 3% of the Medicare market.

“Unless you are protected by Medicare,” Brill concludes, “the health care market is not a market at all. It’s a crapshoot.”

Postscript–

I received several responses to this column after it was published in March, and one was from a local physician who noticed the absence of a local angle, and particularly reporting on Providence Health System, the Catholic hospital system, based in Renton, that operates Spokane’s Sacred Heart Hospital. Of course, the question is relevant given that Brill’s reporting focused in large part on abuses at non-profit hospitals organized by Catholic entities, such as the Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City, whose name I borrowed for the header on this piece. It was a good point, in that Sacred Heart, like the hospitals in Brill’s piece, uses a version of the “Chargemaster” billing system that Brill takes aim at for the price gouging experienced by the unfortunate patients in his story. According to the Spokesman-Review, Sacred Heart took in $50 million in profits in 2012. The Providence CEO, in Renton, is paid a reported $6.4 million a year and, again according to the S-R, twenty executives at Providence, in Renton, earn at least a million dollars a year. The paper also reported that none of the Providence executives in eastern Washington make a million dollars a year.

Fortunately, I did have a chance to pose these questions to Dr. Jeff Collins earlier this fall when he appeared at “Think and Drink” forum hosted by Humanities Washington at Lindaman’s Gourmet Bistro. You can listen to the six minute exchange in the audio strip below and hear from Dr. Collins how he and Providence executives received and responded to Bitter Pill.

(Tim Connor’s commentaries do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Justice.)