Category Archives: House of Representatives

Thanksgiving 2021

Thanksgiving 2021 has come and gone.  But let’s reflect on it for a moment.

As we celebrated the holiday this year, our country was facing a number of serious problems:  climate change, political divisions, the continuing coronavirus pandemic.  But we’ve had reason to be thankful for some positive changes as well.

Among the positive changes we can point to is the long-overdue recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, like those who were at the “first Thanksgiving.”  Unlike the traditional and untrue telling of the story of that event—a story that’s still perpetuated in at least some of the schools our children attend—the people who were already here (commonly called American Indians or Native Americans) did not view the Pilgrims’ celebratory feast as a happy one.

Even then, at the very beginning of our country’s history, the Indian people who were confronted with Europeans arriving on their shores viewed them not as welcome guests but as a threat. 

If that was indeed the judgment of their leaders, they were right.  The new settlers were oppressors who drove the native peoples off their land—in the words of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, these “ancestors…who stewarded our lands since time immemorial.”

Secretary Haaland, the first Native American appointed to a major cabinet post by a U.S. President and a former member of the U.S. Congress, spoke at a ceremony on November 19th, marking the 52nd anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz Island by indigenous people in 1969.  During her remarks, she announced that she had established a process to review and replace derogatory names currently attached to our nation’s geography.

Specifically, Secretary Haaland ordered the federal board tasked with naming geographic places, the Board on Geographic Names, to remove the term “squaw” from federal usage.  The Board, established in 1890, has in the past identified derogatory terms on a case-by-case basis, but more extensive replacements have also occurred.  In 1962, Secretary Steward Udall identified the N-word as derogatory and directed the Board to eliminate its use.  In 1974, the Board similarly identified a pejorative term for “Japanese” as derogatory and eliminated its use.

Most Americans may be unaware that the term “squaw” is a derogatory term used for many years to demean women, especially Native women.  But Haaland was outspoken in condemning it.  She said, “Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands.  Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage—not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression.”

Several states have already passed legislation prohibiting the use of this term in place names, including Montana, Oregon, Maine, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Minnesota.  Legislation is currently pending in both chambers of Congress to address derogatory names on public land.

The new order to eliminate this woman-demeaning term presents a significant problem in California.  The San Francisco Chronicle reported on November 24th that an estimated 100-plus places in California carry the derogatory name.  These include peaks, streams, trails, and other geographic features.  According to the ACLU, there may be as many as 113 sites in California using this term.  Looming large are two small towns in Northern California called Squaw Valley, one in North Lake Tahoe, the other in Fresno County.

The Chronicle reported a statement by Roman Rain Tree, a member of a band of Native tribes indigenous to the Fresno County area, who has been organizing a grassroots effort to rename the rural town of Squaw Valley.  Secretary Haaland, he said, has made “a giant leap forward.  It restores my belief that the government has elected officials who will look after our community.”

The Chronicle also reported that the California State Parks have identified a number of geographic features carrying the name and intend to rename them, moving us “closer to the goal of reckoning with our past, making space for healing and promoting equity.”  Removing the term is seen as a priority.

More troublesome is renaming the towns called Squaw Valley.  According to the Chronicle, thousands of people have already signed an online petition to change the name of the town in Fresno County.  But some residents of the community have “balked at the idea, contending that ‘squaw’ isn’t universally offensive.”  A county supervisor said that “Squaw Valley is offensive to some, but not all.  … [T]he local community needs to be involved in that conversation.”

Meanwhile, the Tahoe ski resort, long named Squaw Valley, has already changed its name to Palisades Tahoe.  Now it apparently needs to do a better job of publicizing its new name.  A short time ago, I heard an ABC weather reporter still refer to it on national television as “Squaw Valley.”

The San Francisco Examiner also reviewed some of these issues on November 25th, writing about a ceremony to be held at Alcatraz Island on what most of us viewed as Thanksgiving Day but others viewed as “a day of mourning for Indigenous people, also known as “Unthanksgiving Day.’” This ceremony first took place in 1975, six years after indigenous activists occupied the island to claim it as a place promised to them in a treaty that was later broken by the federal government.  April McGill, executive director of the American Indian Cultural Center, told the Examiner that she hoped “people think about what the holiday really means and rethink it…[not] to do away with the holiday altogether but to remove the celebration of Thanksgiving, instead [to think of it as showing] gratitude for the fall harvest.”

At the same time, California is just beginning to reckon with its long and ugly history regarding the treatment of American Indians.  An essay by John Briscoe, published in the Chronicle on November 28th, outlines this history, noting that while California was admitted to the union in 1850 as a “free state,” it was, in truth, “conceived in genocide” of its Native Americans.  A long-established principle of law required the U.S. to honor the private property rights of indigenous peoples.  Instead, the state of California openly sponsored the “theft” of land belonging to the local tribes that lived here.  Indians were also subject to the state’s Indian Slavery Act (enacted despite being in violation of the state’s constitution) until it was repealed in 1937.

Serranus Hastings, California’s first chief justice, profited off the enslavement of Indians, and the law school in San Francisco that bears his name is now in the process of renaming itself.   Briscoe writes that Hastings, Leland Stanford, and many others acquired vast tracts of land through violence against Indians and made fortunes in real estate as a result.  “California Indians had rights guaranteed by law—American domestic law and international law—[including] the right not to be murdered, not to be enslaved, not to be stripped at gun and knife point of their ancestral lands.”  But, he says, each of these rights “was systematically and repeated violated by the state of California.” 

In 2019, there was belated acknowledgment of these wrongs.  Governor Gavin Newsom officially apologized “on behalf of the citizens of the state of California to all California Native Americans for the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect California inflicted on tribes.”  Newsom also created a Truth and Healings Council to clarify the historical record.

Although we should never forget past inequities, which have occurred throughout our country and its long history, we should also acknowledge the positive changes that have taken place in recent years.  With Native American Deb Haaland as our new Secretary of the Interior, the U.S. may finally be moving towards equity for our indigenous peoples.

I, for one, am happy to know that some of these changes have happened in time for Thanksgiving 2021.

Looking Back…The Election of 1984

If you’ve followed politics for as long as I have, you probably remember the election of 1984.  In the race for U.S. president, Ronald Reagan was the Republican incumbent, first elected in 1980, and seeking to be re-elected in 1984.  Most observers predicted that he would succeed.

Opposing him was the Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale.

I found the campaign for president so absorbing that shortly after Mondale lost, I wrote a piece of commentary on the election.  Somewhat astoundingly, I recently came across that long-lost piece of writing.

Regrettably, I never submitted it for publication.  Why?  In 1984 I was active in local politics (the New Trier Democratic Organization, to be specific), and I was apprehensive about the reaction my comments might inspire in my fellow Democrats.

Reviewing it now, I wish I’d submitted it for publication.

On June 11th of this year, after Hillary Clinton appeared to be the Democratic nominee for president, The New York Times published a front-page story by Alison Mitchell, “To Understand Clinton’s Moment, Consider That It Came 32 Years After Ferraro’s.”  Mitchell’s article is a brilliant review of what happened in 1984 and during the 32 years since.  My commentary is different because it was actually written in 1984, and it presents the thinking of a longstanding political observer and a lifelong Democrat at that point in time.

Here’s the commentary I wrote just after the election in November 1984.  It was typed on an Apple IIe computer (thanks, Steve Wozniak) and printed on a flimsy dot-matrix printer.  It’s almost exactly what I wrote back then, minimally edited, mostly to use contractions and omit completely unnecessary words.  I’ve divided it into two parts because of its length.

 

PART I

Although Walter Mondale conducted a vigorous and courageous campaign, perhaps nothing he did or did not do would have altered the ultimate result.  But his fate was probably sealed last July when he made two costly political mistakes.  He chose to tell the American people that he’d increase taxes, and he chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.

Savvy political observers have always known that talk of increased taxes is the kiss of death for any candidate.  One wonders what made Walter Mondale forget this truism and instead decide to impress the electorate with his honesty by telling them what they had to know (or, rather, what he thought they had to know) about the deficit.  By making the deficit—a highly intangible concept to the average American voter—a cornerstone of his campaign, Mondale committed the political gaffe of the decade.  One can imagine the glee in the White House the night Mondale gave his acceptance speech and tipped his hand.  The most popular theme of the Reagan campaign became identifying Mondale with the idea of “tax, tax, tax; spend, spend, spend,” a theme that had spelled doom for Jimmy Carter and came to do the same for his Vice President.

Mondale’s choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate was surely not a gaffe of the magnitude of his promise to increase taxes, but as a political judgment it was almost equally unwise.  Mondale faced a popular incumbent president.  All the signposts, even back in July, indicated that the American people were largely satisfied with Reagan and willing to give him another term.  To unseat a popular sitting president, Mondale—who’d been through a bloody primary campaign and emerged considerably damaged—had to strengthen his ticket by choosing a running mate with virtually no liabilities.  He simply couldn’t afford them.

Some of the best advice Mondale got all year was George McGovern’s suggestion that he choose Gary Hart for his vice president.  In one stroke, Mondale could have won the support of those backing his most formidable opponent, many of whom had threatened to go over to Reagan if their candidate wasn’t nominated.  Like Reagan in 1980, Mondale could have solidified much of the divided loyalty of his party behind him by choosing the opponent who’d come closest in arousing voters’ enthusiasm.  Instead he chose to pass over Hart and several other likely candidates and to select a largely unknown three-term congresswoman from New York City.

It pains me, as a feminist and an ardent supporter of women’s rights, to say this, but it must be said:  Mondale’s choice of Ferraro, however admirable, was a political mistake.  When the pressure from NOW and others to choose a woman candidate arose and gradually began to build, I felt uneasy.  When Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (for whom I have otherwise unlimited respect) announced that if Mondale didn’t choose Hart, he had to choose a woman, my uneasiness increased.  And when Mondale at last announced his choice of Ferraro, my heart sank.  I was personally thrilled that a woman was at last on a national ticket, but I knew immediately that the election was lost, and that everything a Mondale administration might have accomplished in terms of real gains for women had been wiped out by his choice of a woman running-mate.

There was no flaw in Ferraro herself that ensured the defeat of the Mondale-Ferraro ticket.  She’s an extremely bright, attractive, competent congresswoman and proved herself to be a gifted and inspiring V.P. candidate.  She has, by accepting the nomination, carved out a secure place for herself in the history books and maybe a significant role in national politics for decades to come.  She deserves all this and perhaps more.  But one must wonder whether even Ferraro in her own secret thoughts pondered the political wisdom of her choice as Mondale’s running mate.  If she is as good a politician as I think she is, I can’t help thinking that she herself must have wondered, “Why me, when he could have anyone else?  Will I really help the ticket? Well, what the hell, I’ll give it a shot!  It just might work.”

And it just might—someday.  But in 1984, up against a “Teflon President,” Mondale needed much more.  Reagan was playing it safe, and Mondale wasn’t.  Some observers applauded his choice of Ferraro as the kind of bold, courageous act he needed to bring excitement to a dull, plodding campaign.  But American voters weren’t looking for bold and courageous acts.  They wanted a President who didn’t rock the boat–a boat with which they were largely satisfied.  They might have been willing to throw out the current occupant of the White House if Mondale had been able to seize upon some popular themes and use them to his advantage.  Instead, the Reagan administration seized upon the tax-and-spend issue and the relatively good status of the economy to ride to victory while Mondale was still groping for a theme that might do the same for him.  And all the while he had a running mate with a liability:  a woman who had no national political stature and who turned out to have considerable problems of her own (notably, a messy financial situation).

Mondale’s choice of Ferraro was compared by Reagan to his appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court.  In the sense that both men selected highly capable but little-known women and in one stroke catapulted them to the top of their professions, Reagan was right.  But Reagan’s choice was very different and politically much smarter.  A V.P. candidate must be judged by the entire American electorate; a Supreme Court nominee is judged only by the U.S. Senate.  A vice president must stand alone, the metaphorical heartbeat away from the presidency; a Supreme Court justice is only one of nine judges on a court where most issues are not decided 5 to 4.  [We all recognize that this description of the Court in 1984 no longer fits in 2016.  But a single justice on the Court is still only one of nine.]

Let’s face it:  the notion of a woman V.P. (and the concomitant possibility of a woman president) is one that some Americans are clearly not yet comfortable with.  Although 16 percent of the voters polled by one organization said that they were more inclined to vote for Mondale because of Ferraro, 26 percent said they were less likely to.  It doesn’t take a mathematical whiz to grasp that 26 is more than 16.  These statistics also assume that the 55 percent who said that Ferraro’s sex was not a factor either way were being absolutely candid, which is doubtful.  Many men and women who are subconsciously uncomfortable with the idea of a woman president are understandably reluctant to admit it, to themselves perhaps as much as to others.

 

 

 

Let’s Lobby Congress to Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act

When U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski recently announced her decision not to run for a sixth term, she noted that one of the issues she cares about “most deeply” is the issue of fair pay.

Mikulski, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986 as the only Democratic woman and one of only two women in the Senate (the other was Kansas’s Nancy Kassebaum), has a long record of promoting issues that loom large in the lives of American women and families.

Mikulski noted that every year, on average, women who work full-time lose more than $10,800 in income because of the wage gap between what women and men earn. She plans to spend every day of the two years remaining in her term fighting for critical legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act.

I’m joining Senator Mikulski in her campaign to enact the Paycheck Fairness Act (the PFA). I first wrote about this issue in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 23, 2010, “Unequal pay harms U.S. women.” (It appeared on this blog in October 2012.)

In the five years since my SF Chronicle op-ed appeared, nothing has happened. When the House of Representatives still had a Democratic majority, the House passed the PFA. But because it never passed in the Senate, it never became law.

Now, post-2014, when the Republicans hold a majority in both the Senate and the House, passage of the PFA seems impossible. But let’s not throw in the towel just yet. Because it’s such a vital issue, affecting millions of American workers and their families, I, like Senator Mikulski, am once again climbing on my soapbox and doing what I can to promote its passage.

I’ll begin by asking this question: How many working women think they’re paid fairly for the work they do? Right now, with the economy improving but still struggling to provide good-paying jobs for all of those who want them, some women may be happy just to be employed.

But women are still paid only 78 cents for every dollar men receive, making unequal pay a continuing problem for American women and the families who depend on their wages.

Did you know that women are now the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households? This fact makes closing the wage gap a crucial issue for all of these families, not merely for working women alone.

Why is the PFA so important? Because it would level the playing field for working women.

It would amend the Equal Pay Act (the EPA), which was enacted over 50 years ago in 1963 but hasn’t gone far enough to do what it was supposed to.

The EPA made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to those who perform substantially equal work. That sounds great, doesn’t it? So why hasn’t it made a real difference? Because of a startling failure in enforcement.

Enforcement by the EEOC during the past five decades has narrowed the wage gap to some degree. But the gap still exists because the EPA’s enforcement tools are outdated, making the gender-disparity in pay almost impossible to eradicate.

While other federal civil rights statutes have been amended numerous times, the EPA has never been amended. That’s why passing the PFA can make a real difference.

Let’s understand something right off the bat: The PFA doesn’t give employers a lot to complain about. It wouldn’t create an onerous burden because it wouldn’t give their employees any new rights. Employers are already required to comply with the EPA. The only difference is that under the PFA, women would be better able to ENFORCE those rights.

Many of the bill’s provisions make no demands on employers whatsoever. One provision would merely create a grant program that would help women and girls develop better skills at salary negotiation. Another would improve the way the government collects information from federal contractors.

Other provisions focus on the role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For example, it would give EEOC staff additional training to do a better job identifying and handling wage disputes.

Of course, some provisions do directly affect employers. Most significantly, the PFA would give women the same remedies as those available to employees discriminated against on the basis of race or national origin. Currently women can get only limited awards like back pay. The PFA would allow women to get compensatory and punitive damages for pay discrimination. These are the kinds of damages those suffering from racial and national-origin bias already get.

The PFA would also prohibit employers from retaliating against women who share salary information with their coworkers. This kind of information-sharing helps employees get vital information about wage disparities and discrimination at their workplace. But right now employers can retaliate against women who share such information. Women can be fired or suffer other repercussions for sharing the kind of salary info they need if they’re going to discover how much less they’re earning. This has to change.

Under the PFA, an EPA lawsuit could also proceed as a class action under the rules that apply to other federal lawsuits, instead of the restrictive 1963 rules that have never been amended.

Finally, a significant loophole now keeps women from winning cases brought under the EPA. Employers who are paying women less than men for equal work can claim that the difference in pay is based on a “factor other than sex.” This language is far too broad. It allows employers to make claims that have little or no merit. For example, this language has been used to argue that male workers have stronger negotiation skills and for that reason can negotiate higher salaries. Does that sound right to you? Should arguments like that allow men to earn more than a woman doing the same work? I don’t think so.

That result is NOT what Congress intended when it passed the EPA. The PFA would alter this language and allow different pay for men and women only when an employer can show that the difference relates to job performance and business necessity.

It’s time to shake things up and put women on a level playing field with their male co-workers. Women and men need to speak out and demand passage of the PFA. If we don’t speak out, we have to ask ourselves: When will Congress make pay equity a reality for America’s working women? And what did I do to try to make it happen?