How can we meet basic community needs during difficult (if not desperate) economic and political times?

This was the question addressed at a meeting of Inspire Seattle on Saturday night, at the home of David and Shamah Gamrath in West Seattle.

During the first hour or so, people networked and ate the pot-lucked food. (It was an odd feeling to be networking in person, instead of online.) The next hour was spent on comments by the panelists in response to questions from the host, David. During the last half hour there was time for questions and answers from the audience.

The three panelists were:

  1. Julia Sterkovsky, Executive Director of the Seattle Human Services Coalition, a multi-racial, multi-cultural group of human service providers and concerned community members committed to helping Seattle-King County residents meet their basic human needs
  2. Richard Conlin, President of the Seattle City Council and founder of Sustainable Seattle.
  3. Eric Oemig, former Washington State Senator for the 45th district, who served from January 2007-2011. Eric has been called one of the most liberal senators. His defeat last November was due, in part, to funding by the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity. Eric was also a founding member of Inspire Seattle.

Of the 40 or so attendees, there were maybe two or three people who appeared to be conservatives. Everyone else was progressive or apolitical.

BTW, the next meeting of Inspire Seattle will be on May 21, when the topic will be the Washington Investment Trust (state bank).

David began by asking: are we entering a stage in American history in which there is a new “normal” for what government is expected to provide? In other words, will we just have to make do with fewer  government services and a smaller safety net?

The context of the question, of course, is the success of the Right Wing in both bankrupting government and in blaming liberals for the mess that conservatives caused. We are witnessing the realization of Grover Norquist’s goal to “starve the beast” and “drown government in a bathtub.”

Eric Oemig said we’re in the midst of three wars: against labor, against women, and against the middle class. Those wars are in addition to the overseas wars.

Employees of Washington State public schools, including teachers, administrators and support staff, are being asked to take across-the-board 3% cuts in salaries, while wealthy corporations such as Microsoft and Boeing enjoy ample taxbreaks.

Richard Conlin said that Seattle is, relatively, an oasis of sanity, because the voters in Seattle understand the need for government and taxes. So, the budget situation in Seattle is not as bad as the situation in Olympia or Washington, D.C. But if the State defunds community health centers, say, then Seattle may have to pick up the tab.

Julia said that 57,000 people will be cut from Community Health Clinics. Will they just die in the streets? Will emergency rooms be burdened with their care? Penny wise, pound foolish. For every dollar spent on early childhood care, you save $7 (?) on later costs.

Richard urged everyone to support, saying that national policies that aid corporate agriculture have damaging repercussions at the local level. This is rather new to me. “To help solve our nation’s many health, social, economic and environmental challenges, the nation needs a comprehensive, health-focused food system that addresses the goals of hunger and disease reduction, local and family farm viability, food affordability and accessibility, environmental protection, land use planning, regional resilience, and social justice. ”

Julia said that her Human Services Coalition comprises some 272 (?) member groups. Yikes. The coalition was created to avoid the situation where different human services groups compete for money. What do you need more? Food or shelter? What do you say to parents who come to a clinic because they can’t afford infant formula for their babies? Not everyone will succeed, but everyone should have the opportunity to succeed. Julia is a proud community organizer. I bow to her. Why are movie stars, (drug-addled) athletes and hedge fund managers considered heroes?

David spent a few hours interviewing conservatives, including a leader of the Chamber of Commerce, to get their point of view. They seem most concerned with government waste. A common complaint is that government is always inefficient. (Of course, private corporations are often inefficient and corrupt too. And conservatives love to exaggerate government waste, zeroing on examples that support their case.)  That mindset is powerful.

Eric says he agrees that government is often inefficient: military, oil subsidies, corporate agriculture, bureaucracies, etc. But so are markets. Eric says that Teabaggers and he can hold hands and sing Kumbaya together, but nonetheless conservatives stole his talking points in their campaign literature to defeat him; they painted him as a big-government, tax-and-spend liberal.

The voters believe conservative messaging, despite its many myths. For example, Horatio Alger was not a self-made man. He got help from wealthy benefactors. (And without government services and protections, business cannot thrive, and products will be unsafe and fraudulent.)

Julie is working on a “New Story” project to develop better progressive messaging.  [Needed: URL link.]

Define and spread a “new story” of how “great generations” are made, in order to encourage cooperative understanding and behavior.

The idea is to introduce left wing ideas of cooperation and mutual help that will compete with right wing images of individualism and responsibility.  There will be a meeting in July. The group will get help from professional messagers.

Richard made a plea for more civility. Stop stereotyping. Get beyond anger. Get into a dialog with your political enemies. Stop labeling people.  You’ll be surprised at how much  people have in common.

Aww, gee. What fun is that? Seriously, I’m skeptical of this sort of lovey-dove, can’t-we-all-just-get-along bipartisanship. Because of such meekness, Pres. Obama allowed the GOP to steamroll over him. Such meekness is a big reason why Dems got a shellacking last November. Obama’s forgiving and respectful attitude towards conservatives allowed the GOP to quickly recover from its damaged state following eight years of Bush. Sigh. We need fighters, like FDR.

Richard said, yes, we need more progressive media, but he criticized some progressives for their attacks on other progressives. Was he talking about progressives’ attacks on Obama? I don’t consider Obama to be a progressive.

Someone mentioned that he interviewed voters and was perplexed that voters demanded both better health care and lower taxes. The voters want government services and protections, but they don’t want taxes. Many people believe the conservative talking point which says that raising taxes on the rich will kill jobs.

But during the 50s and 60s, marginal tax rates on the rich were as high as 94% or so, and the nation enjoyed a historic era of prosperity and middle-class growth. Since then, taxes have been slashed, the concentration of wealth has increased, and the middle class has suffered. This is all well-documented.

We need campaign finance reform (Eric recommended WashClean, Washington Public Campaigns) and better progressive messaging and marketing to beat back the conservative mindset. Overturning Citizens United would help too. But Eric proposed a great idea. Require corporations that pay for political ads to lose their tax preferences and subsidies. This is like what happens with non-profits: non-profits may not lobby or spend money on candidate ads. Such a law for corporations wouldn’t require a constitutional amendment. Clever!

Eric mentioned that he had worked with a lobbyist guy whom he respected. The guy contracted his services out. He was hired by the beverage industry to oppose the tax on soda. The guy came into Eric’s office in Olympia and basically told him: “If you support this bill, we’ll put ‘Unelect Eric Oemig’ on every bottle cap.” The beverage industry spent $12 million (?) to defeat the beverage tax, because they knew that if it succeeded here in Washington State, other states would follow. The voters overturned the tax in November.

I asked Eric whether it’s true that Democratic leaders pressured him to withdraw his Joint Memorial in support of impeachment of Bush & Cheney. Yes, he said. I asked,  “Why did they pressure you?”  Because they believed it was a political mistake: when Republicans impeached Clinton, they lost in the next election. On the other hand, I say: impeachment made Clinton look bad and probably contributed to Gore’s loss in 2000. Furthermore, Clinton’s crime was lying about sex, while Bush’s crimes were much more serious.

I asked Eric why senators don’t override Lt. Gov. Brad Owen’s rulings (e.g., his rulings that revenue bills violate Tim Eyman’s 2/3 super-majority requirements, even though I-1053 is manifestly unconstitutional). Eric said that, as Senate President, Mr. Owen has a lot of power. Owen can make like difficult for senators who disobey him. For example, he can fail to recognize them on the senate floor.

Richard had some optimistic news. Recently he has seen a trend towards “reshoring”, wherein companies come back to the U.S., where wages and rents have lowered.

One person said, “Sorry, I’m pretty new to politics. What do you all mean by the word ‘progressive’?” I responded: it’s basically the same as “liberal”. Conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh were able to belittle liberals to the point that even liberals stopped calling themselves liberal.

One conservative guy asked, “Isn’t progressivism just another word for welfare-statism?” Since nobody else responded, I responded by saying that without a strong state, with its services and regulations, businesses can’t thrive. We’d be hunter-gatherers without government. I said, “Yes, there’s way too much welfare in America. It’s welfare for the super-rich, since money is being transferred from the middle class to the super-rich.” I also said that government is like the operating system of a computer: without it, nothing else runs.

Someone suggested boycotting products of corporations like Koch Industries, e.g., a certain brand of toilet paper. I’m skeptical that this will work.

The question arose. How can we deal with a sixty year old woman from Kirkland who says she’ll become homeless this summer since she cannot find a job, despite her degree in electrical engineering?

Julie agreed that food banks and homeless shelters aren’t the best way to deal with poverty. But this was unclear to me: what’s the alternative?

Julie encouraged me to attend an organizing meeting for JOBS WITH JUSTICE, at 5:30PM on Wed, May 4 at the Labor Temple in Seattle. Subsequent 1st Wednesdays, 5:30 – 7 p.m., at Labor Temple, Hall 8, 2800 1st Ave, Seattle; Seattle Organizing Committee meeting, info 206-441- 4969.

A massage therapist in the audience said that for eight years she did body work on a very wealthy conservative. During the first 45 minutes of each session they listened to classical music. During the last 45 minutes the man made her listen to Rush Limbaugh, in order to educate her.  This is over eight years!  She said it was a “spiritual practice” to learn to be able to deal with her anger and to love, or accept, the unlovable. Rush is masterly in what he does.

The left needs a “message therapist”!