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The main thing 

Remembering the bottom line in political issues

A slab of concrete near my house in San Luis Obispo contains the following nugget of Stengelese wisdom: The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing. This message echoes in politics, a realm where something starts about one thing and often ends about something else. The emphasis usually shifts in ways harmful to public understanding, so I’d like to look over some of the recent state and national political headlines in recognition of the main thing.

The main thing is we gave the NSA power to spy on us. Members of Congress feigned surprise when National Security Agency (NSA) head James Clapper more or less verified documents revealing a huge domestic spying program. The revelation hardly surprised anyone paying attention for the past decade, and the news outlets that broke the story completely distorted the facts.

Don’t get me wrong: Clapper lied about the existence of the project under oath in March and should be held in contempt of Congress. The director’s own response revealed more concern about the leak than the public’s reaction to overboard powers extended to federal investigators under the Patriot Act. The whole thing feels like another episode in season five of the Fox sitcom Obama Makes Tea Party Idiots Look like Prognosticative Geniuses. I hate that show.

       The one person who actually did accurately predict this whole kerfuffle was Russ Feingold. Few American politicians managed to stir up as much controversy as the Jewish attorney who served as one of the more progressive members of the U.S. Senate from 1992 to 2010. Feingold earned fame in 2001 for casting the sole Senate vote against the Patriot Act.

Feingold feared intelligence officials would eventually use the power to demand customer records from private businesses to investigate more than just terrorist activities. Apparently no other senator proved so cynical as to expect the NSA to use a investigatory tool provided by Congress in an unintended manner. Even Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) thought Clapper and the NSA went too far in seizing customer records from Verizon Wireless.

Cops want to solve crimes. Only a fool gives law enforcement everything it demands and relies on promises to use the power responsibly. Feingold was no fool, and that’s why he eventually lost his Senate seat to Ron Johnson—a night school dropout with a Tea Party support base.

The main thing is posterity will uphold gay rights. The Supreme Court should decide this early summer the status of Proposition 8, and, just possibly, every other law forbidding gay marriage in the United States. Gay rights advocates would take a limited ruling vacating the increasingly unpopular 2008 California initiative. However, the decision to challenge Proposition 8 invited the possibility of regressive outcome reminiscent of Plessy v. Ferguson. The civil rights struggle lasted a century precisely because old, white, and half-Southern justices trolled safely behind the wake of social progress.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate public institutions, conservative pundits criticized the invalidation of southern Jim Crow laws by “activist judges.” Branch Rickey—the legendary co-desegregater of professional sports—provided the most apt response. “I think that posterity will look back upon what we are doing today in our domestic issues here,” Rickey said. “They will look back upon it, I think, with incredulity and they’ll wonder what the issue was all about.”

As the self-proclaimed vanguards of the last few years of the civil rights struggle, the Baby Boomers tend to hate the comparison, as if they’re defending an exclusive trademark. For one thing, if every Baby Boomer who claimed to march with Dr. King actually did, that famous bridge in Selma must have been built with Superman’s bones to support the weight. I think they really tend to take exception because the only thing standing in the way of gay equality remains the incongruent position to which that 62 percent of Boomers continue to stubbornly adhere.

It’s time to get the net, Baby Boomers, because your children and grandchildren will judge your resistance to the inscrutable wisdom of social progress. In truth, we already do.

The main thing is tax exemption is a privilege. Republicans in the House of Representatives took full advantage of a June 3 admission by interim IRS director Danny Werfel that some conservative groups faced unfair scrutiny in applying for tax-exempt status. Basically, some IRS agents required a few small ideology-based nonprofits to support their applications with unusually burdensome documentation. That’s bad because the government constitutionally shouldn’t make decisions based on the content of political speech.

That said, let’s remember the subject of this controversy. Nobody prevented the Bubscuttle County Tea Party from organizing or putting out pamphlets. Nobody even forced it to pay income taxes on fundraising contributions. The tax exemption provided for in Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code grants public benefit corporations the ability to offer tax deductions to donors. That power wipes existing tax revenue off the books and forces the public to subsidize the efforts of privately formed groups. Furthermore, the law expressly states the recipients of that power must not engage in electioneering.

As someone who helped several hands-in-the-dirt public service charities pursue 501(c)3 status, I can tell you the IRS hardly hands out the big exemptions like penny candy. I would imagine the right-of-center talking points groups that cried poormouth to Congress and conservative pundits last week probably stood little chance to begin with. An organization with no discernable religious, charitable, educational, scientific, or literary purpose should receive a lesser status so the Tea Party libertarians don’t have to fork over more in taxes to make up for the deductions the groups’ donors took, right?


The main thing is race matters in the Calderon probe. When news of the FBI raid on the Sacramento office of Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) spilled out over the wire, I cringed. Ten years ago, I spent a lot of time covering urban renewal projects on the ethnic south side of Milwaukee and often spoke to a black alderman named Michael McGee, Jr. An FBI phone tap revealed years later that McGee took bribes in exchange for liquor licenses and conspired to assault enemies of neighborhood friends.

I liked McGee, and so did most of the south side. His black supporters swore up and down the city establishment framed him to silence his criticism of the Milwaukee Police Department’s history of heavy-handed engagement. Right or wrong, the conspiracy theories became a race relations problem that outweighed the harm caused by McGee’s misdeeds.

Now I don’t suggest for a moment that the FBI let crooked minority politicians spin toxic webs for fear of causing ill feelings, nor do I have any knowledge of Calderon’s guilt or innocence. I doubt even the FBI knows for sure yet whether the body of evidence will support a conviction—otherwise why launch such an expensive investigation?

All I know is the Calderon probe took place on the front page of every California newspaper during the week when bills needed to move past their house of origin in order to become law this legislative session. I can’t imagine why the FBI would tread so heavily in investigating a Latino legislative leader during such an important week, especially when doing so threw the California Senate into disarray. But, now that it’s done, investigators shouldn’t pretend that all that matters is what Sen. Calderon did.

Race matters because it matters. It probably shouldn’t matter so much, but it does. And until it doesn’t, it will.

And that’s the main thing.

Staff Writer Patrick M. Klemz can be reached at [email protected].

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