BPA, Cars, Cities, Sustainable Economy

The Livability of Rocky Mountain Cities

Dan KemmisDan Kemmis – Sustaining the West’s Urban Economy Means A Focus on “Livability.”

I had the pleasure of introducing Dan Kemmis, the former mayor of Missoula, Montana and speaker of that state’s House of Representatives, at this week’s City Club of Boise luncheon.

The Kemmis speech and Q-A airs Saturday at 8:00 pm on KBSX (91.5) or you can catch he program on the City Club website.

Kemmis is the rare political leader who has successfully combined people and political skills with the ability to create new policy approaches – he’s a champion of civic engagement and collaboration – and then write about them with clarity and intelligence. He is now a senior fellow at the University of Montana’s Center for Natural Resources and the Environment.

As the Idaho Business Review noted, Kemmis made the case that the “real driver … of the new western economy has been the livability of our communities.”

Kemmis maintains that “livability is bigger, deeper and stronger as a driver than growth itself.”

He makes a pretty compelling case that cities like Salt Lake, Missoula, Boise and Denver have thrived, and will again, because they are essentially really decent places to live. (I could add a few more cities to the list – Portland, Bozeman, Coeur d’Alene, for instance.)

Think about Salt Lake’s good and getting better transit system, Missoula’s great parks and open space, Boise’s foothills and marvelous parks and greenbelt, and Denver’s revitalized downtown (and the Colorado Rockies).

As our region struggles to climb out of a deep recession, Dan Kemmis would remind us to focus on the basics of what makes cities great – intellectual infrastructue (libraries, for instance), open space, parks and outstanding recreational opportunities, ease of movement, and a culture of civic engagement.

I spent some time with a friend from the east coast recently. His business will allow him to live anywhere he likes and he and his bride spent a few days in Boise assessing the city as a potential new home. Searching for an alternative to the old rat race of long commutes and no sense of community, smart folks look West and have for ever. Like all young parents, they want good schools and a good environmental for the kids. I wasn’t selling paradise and I didn’t need to. Boise – and other good cities in the West – tends to sell themselves on the basis of “livability.”

Dan Kemmis is right. Livability, quality of life, whatever you call it, is an economic driver. The real challenge is not to screw it up or undervalue what we have and, perhaps too often, take for granted.

Air Travel, Books

Idaho’s Kim Barnes Scores PEN Award

BarnesA Country Called Home

Kim Barnes, the supremely gifted writer who teaches at the University of Idaho in Moscow, has joined rare company indeed – and she deserves to be there.

Barnes’ novel – A Country Called Home – has been awarded the 2009 PEN USA Literary Award for fiction.

As the University noted in a release: “The PEN USA award places Barnes in good company: 2009 recipients includes Creative Nonfiction winner Steve Lopez, who won for ‘The Soloist,’ published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, now a movie distributed by Dreamworks and Universal Pictures; and Dustin Lance Black, who won in the screenplay category for ‘Milk,’ which also earned an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.”

Barnes was a Pulitzer finalist in 1997 for her memoir In the Wilderness. She is working on novel number three, which Knopf will publish.

For more insight into the talented Ms. Barnes, check out New West’s interview with her late last year. Good writer, good books.

Baucus, Campaign Finance, Health Care, U.S. Senate

A Montanan at the Gates of Reform – Again

WheelerMBaucusax Baucus and B.K. Wheeler

Max Baucus (right), the current chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, is on the verge of making history by writing (and perhaps passing) a sweeping reform of the nation’s health care system.

The Montana Senator – he was elected to the Senate in 1978 – is walking a path that one of his progressive Montana political forefathers – Burton K. Wheeler (on the left, above) -blazed nearly 75 years ago.

Baucus has been catching some grief in Montana – the Great Falls Tribune rounded up some of the opposition – and from those farther to the left on the political spectrum for not pushing harder for the so called “public option” provision in his health care bill. Baucus says, with some political logic, that he is trying to produce a bill that will actually pass the Senate.

 

Reforming Utility Law in 1935

 

Wheeler, a New Deal-era Senator, faced some of the same criticism in 1935 when he was attempting to push a sweeping piece of regulatory reform legislation – the Public Utilities Holding Company Act – through the Senate. The legislation was designed to address a variety of abuses by the handful of major utility holding companies that dominated the industry at the time.

Wheeler’s major decision was whether to include in the bill – also know as the Wheeler-Rayburn Act (future House Speaker Sam Rayburn was the House sponsor) – a so called “death sentence” provision that would mandate the dissolution of most of the nation’s powerful utility holding companies. Wheeler chaired what was then called the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee.

No doubt, like Max Baucus dealing with health care, Wheeler received thousands of letters, hundreds from Montana, opposed to his utility legislation. Montana Power Co. organized a letter writing campaign among its shareholders to press the case that Wheeler’s proposed legislation would “destroy” utility company investors.

At the height of the debate, Wheeler went on nationwide radio to defend the legislation and attack the lobbying effort. He began his half hour talk by saying that as the Senate sponsor of the holding company legislation he had received more mail from Philadelphia in the last month than he had received from Montana in the last two years.

“Nice chummy letters, too,” Wheeler said. “They call me everything from such high-class terms as ‘rogue’ and ‘rascal’ on down the scale. Most of them show the fine hand of the United Gas Improvement Company. The best of them must have come from Gertrude Stein. It consists of this: ‘It makes me sick to think how sick I get when I think about you.'”

Like Barack Obama’s support for health care reform, Wheeler knew that Franklin Roosevelt supported the broad sweep of utility reform, but on the core issue of the “death sentence” (or in Baucus’ case, the “public option”) no one knew for sure how far the president would go to fight for the provision.

Wheeler eventually succeeding a getting a letter from FDR voicing his support for the “death sentence” provision and the Montanan waited for exactly the right moment to make the letter public.

The president wrote that “while clarifying or minor amendments to section 11 [the death sentence] cannot be objected to nevertheless any amendment which goes to the heart of major objective of section 11 would strike at the bill itself and is wholly contrary” to what he would support.

To wavering Senate Democrats, the President’s message was blunt: Burt Wheeler is doing the White House’s bidding in pushing hard for the “death sentence.” A vote against the provision would be vote against Roosevelt. Wheeler added his own reminder that the real advocates of deleting the death sentence from the holding company legislation where the holding companies themselves, who had fought so hard from the beginning to weaken his bill.

“When they vote for this amendment [to eliminate the ‘death sentence’] they vote to kill the bill,” Wheeler said. “When they vote for this amendment they are voting as the lobbyist up in the galleries; representing the Power Trust, want them to vote, because the lobbyists want them to vote to kill the bill.”

The amendment to strike the “death sentence” from the Public Utilities Holding Company Act failed – by a single vote. For a moment it looked as though the vote would end in a 44-44 tie, but then Senator Peter Norbeck, a once-in-a-while progressive Republican from South Dakota, broke the tie and voted with Wheeler to keep the “death sentence” in the bill.

Wheeler had won, but the bitter fight highlighted the deep fractures among Senate Democrats. The holding company legislation passed the House – “death sentence” in place – and was signed into law by Roosevelt. In different times and under different circumstances, the Congress in 2005 repealed the remaining elements of the law that Wheeler (and FDR) fought to put in place nearly 75 years ago, but in the 1940’s and beyond the Public Utilities Holding Company Act remade an American industry.

 

Legislative Parallels – and Now

 

The historic parallels in these two reform efforts are numerous. Beyond the fact that Baucus and Wheeler share some obvious political history – Montanans, self styled independent Democrats, not infrequently at odds with their national party leadership – the two pieces of legislation have interesting similarities.

In 1935, Wheeler, like Baucus today, was dealing with a president who wanted legislation passed, but until pretty late in the game declined to be completely engaged or say exactly what he would settle for. Democrats in both cases were divided with conservative to moderate Democrats being slow to embrace reform. In 1935, presidential action pushed enough of the wavering Democrats to get a sweeping bill passed.

The charges and counter-charges flew then as now. Proponents were accused – you guessed it – of wanting to usher in socialism. The utilities were labeled as greedy, with no regard for the little guy. The lobbying – then as now – was fierce. (The 1935 lobbying practices actually prompted a congressional inquiry chaired by Alabama Senator – later Supreme Court Justice – Hugo Black.)

One thing that was very different in Wheeler’s day. Several progressive Senate Republicans – Norbeck, George Norris of Nebraska and William Borah of Idaho, among others – supported the utility reforms. Baucus, by contrast, appears to have a chance to get Maine Senator Olympia Snowe’s support for a Senate bill, but additional GOP votes appear mighty hard to come by.

Reforming utility practices in the 1930’s was a huge undertaking that reshaped a major piece of the American economy. A tough Montanan pulled it off. Another Senator from Big Sky County, three-quarters of a century later, is knocking at the gate of health care reform.

Stay tuned. If the utility regulation battle of 1935 is any historic guide, we will see many more twists and turns before any health care legislation is on the president’s desk. Then as now, a Montana Senator is calling many of the plays.

Air Travel, Biden, Books, Lincoln

Speaking of Lincoln

Harold HolzerAcclaimed Lincoln Scholar Will Speak in Boise October 29th

Harold Holzer has been in high demand this year.

The bicentennial of the birth of the 16th President of the United States has found Holzer lecturing, often several times a week, from coast to coast. The outstanding Lincoln scholar will be hosted by the Idaho Humanities Council on October 29th.

If you have not made plans to attend – you should. It will be a great event.

Holzer – his day job is Senior Vice President for External Affairs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City – is the co-chair of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and has received the National Humanities Medal. His latest of many Lincoln books is focused on Lincoln President-elect and deals with his struggles with succession even before reaching the White House. The four months between Lincoln’s election and his taking office were among the most important days in the nation’s history.

Holzer’s book – Lincoln at Cooper Union – is a fine piece of work that explains Lincoln’s rise as a national political figure following his famous speech early in 1860 in New York City.

Once again, the Idaho Humanities Council has hit a home run with a great speaker on a great topic. What a run the Council has had: Doris Kearns Godwin, David McCullough, John Updike, Frank McCourt, David Halberstam, Stephen Ambrose to name just a few of the incredible writers and scholars who have graced the annual Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities.

If you love history, literature and the American story – this event is a must. See you there.

Brother, Bush, Church, Religion

Forrest Church

ForrestEloquence in Politics and Religion

Forrest Church, who died last week at 61, could, with his writings and sermons, be both strikingly eloquent and stunningly insightful. In that regard, he was clearly his father’s son.

It is a rare thing in public life these days to read the words or hear the voice of a truly eloquent thinker and writer. The late Idaho Senator – Frank Church – was that rare breed and so was his Unitarian minister son.

Back in January 1984, with his father dying of cancer, Forrest spoke to his Church of All Souls congregation in New York City about death and life.

He said that day that naturally all of us are afraid of death because “death is the ultimate mystery. But there is a way to counter this fear. We can live in such a way that our lives will prove to be worth dying for. It lies in our courage to love. Our courage to risk. Our courage to lose. Many people have said it in many different ways. The opposite of love is not hate. It is fear.”

Forrest Church was a man of religion and, importantly, a thinker about theology and all its mystery and uncertainty. He sought to make people think, not just believe. Forrest was also a skilled historian whose books on the basics of the American system, including freedom of speech, civil liberties and religion should be required reading for anyone who wants to struggle to undersand where we came from and where we might be going. A good collection of his writings can be found here.

In an Easter sermon in 2008, while battling his own cancer, Church said: “We all are children of God. We all are sinners. We all can be forgiven if we will refrain from harsh judgment. Love casts out fear. God is love. And only love remains. Only the love we give away.”

Both father – the Senator was 59 – and son died much too young, but what lives they lived.

American Presidents, Baseball, Britain, Obama, Politics, Reagan

Mistrusting the Government

ReaganOne Election Does Not “Change” the Country

Barack Obama has taken some grief, particularly among liberal Democrats, for making the observation (and repeating it) that Ronald Reagan’s two terms in the White House fundamentally “changed the trajectory” of the country in ways that Bill Clinton’s two terms, for example, did not.

Candidate Obama got into one of those pointless (but totally consuming, made for the media) debates with Hillary Clinton last year when he said that Reagan, “put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” Clinton charged Obama with “admiring Reagan” and wondered how any self respecting Democrat could possibly say something even halfway flattering about the GOP’s favorite icon.

Obama’s obviously accurate analysis – Reagan did change the country – reminds me of the old line that in Washington, D.C. the definition of a gaffe is when a politician speaks the truth.

Writer and historian Matthew Dallek (a former Dick Gephardt speech writer and son of presidential historian Robert Dallek) has a great take at Politico on Obama’s own challenge in “changing the trajectory” of the country and rolling back “the culture of Reaganism” that he sees as “a remarkably resilient political force in late 2009.”

Matthew Dallek is a perceptive and not uncritical student of Reagan. He has written a fine book about Reagan’s first election victory – the California governorship in 1966.

There has long been – and remains – a healthy skepticism in America about government and about the whole notion of “change.” Even the great presidents, widely admired as agents of change – Lincoln, Jackson, FDR, to name three – didn’t find the job to be easy and all encountered tremendous resistence. So it goes with the current occupant of the White House.

Afghanistan, Branding, Journalism, Random Round Up

News You May Have Missed

newspapersA (Random) Round-Up…

W. Horace Carter was hardly a household name. He should have been, at least for journalists and civil libertarians.

Carter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for his crusading, small-town newspaper editorials against the Ku Klux Klan. He wrote more than 100 stories and editorials about the Klan and his reporting lead to countless arrests and convictions for violations of civil rights. Gutsy stuff in Tabor City, North Carolina when Jim Crow still ruled the south. Carter’s recent obit in the New York Times is a fitting testament to the power of the press in the hands of a person determined to shine a bright light on injustice.

Packwood the Candid

Back in the day, Oregon Senator Bob Packwood held enormous regional and national power. The Northwest delegation at one time – Jackson and Magnuson of Washington, Church and McClure from Idaho, Hatfield and Packwood or Oregon – were as influential a half dozen as existed in the U.S. Senate. Packwood’s fall – he resigned amid scandal in 1995 – was dramatic, but he re-invented himself as a very successful lobbyist (all those years on the Finance Committee) and recently gave a fascinating interview to Willamette Week. Must reading for any political junkie.

Tweeting to Sacramento

Still not convinced that the “new media” is changing politics? Check out this posting from the L.A. Times “Top of the Ticket” blog. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, one of many candidates for governor, has a million followers. Ironically, another Sacramento hopefull, eBay founder Meg Whitman, is hardly in the game.

Light Rail – the Phoenix Story

I confess to not understanding the reluctance of some folks, in the west particularly, to embrace the need for rail (and light rail) transportation alternatives. The rail debate has raged in Phoenix for years, but now with a 20 mile line connecting Tempe and downtown Phoenix the ridership is exceeding expectations and seems to be helping the desert capitol of the southwest with economic development.

Elsewhere in the west, Salt Lake City and Portland are clearly ahead of the game when it comes to rail transit. The rest of the west is waiting – for what? Lower gas prices?

And Finally…

In one of the great dissents in Supreme Court history, Justice Louis Brandeis objected to warrantless wiretapping by the government. The case was decided in 1928, proving – if nothing else – that nothing ever seems to change.

In his dissent, the great justice penned one of the memorable lines in American jurisprudence. “The greatest dangers to liberty,” Brandeis wrote, “lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

Melvin Urofsky, the editor of Brandeis’ papers, has produced a new and timely biography of the fascinating judge and he makes the case that, “no justice of the 20th century had a greater impact on American constitutional jurisprudence.” Good reading. Good history.

Andrus, Boise, BPA, Sustainable Economy

Honoring Sustainability

Lava Lake LandLava Lake Land and Livestock Claims Andrus Award

Former Idaho Governor and Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus has devoted his life of public service to finding the delicate sweet spot between a robust economy that produces good jobs and the conservation of the land, air and water that make so much of the western United States such a special place.

Fifteen years ago, Andrus, fresh from his last of four terms as Idaho governor, had a major hand in helping launch Sustainable Northwest, a regional non-profit dedicated to helping nurture local collaboration aimed at sustainable economic development that fits with a conservation ethic. It is a terrific organization that has done much good work.

This Thursday night in Portland, Sustainable Northwest presents its annual awards – named after Andrus – to, among others, Hailey, Idaho’s Lava Lake Land and Livestock. Lava Lake produces – I’m biased, but I know my my lamb chops – the best grass-fed, organic lamb you can find anywhere. The ranch is the foothills of Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains just southeast of Sun Valley.

The ranch will be honored for its national leadership in sustainable agriculture and landscape scale conservation. Worthy recipients, great product, good for the economy and the environment.

Basques, Boxing, Media, Poverty

Poverty in Idaho

That Could Be MeFood Stamp Usage, Crisis Assistance Stretch Providers; Families Try to Cope

Boise State Radio, the NPR station covering much of southern Idaho, has produced a remarkable series of stories this week focused on how the nation’s economic trials have impacted Idahoans.

It is the kind of journalism we sadly see too little of these days – no shrill political debate, none of the simple slogans that often tend to simplify an issue to the point of distortion. The station’s news staff has touched a raw nerve with this material – a young woman talking about not wanting to use food stamps, but having no choice and homeless families out of work and nearly out of hope.

The series – That Could Be Me – is available on line, at a website that lists a number of resources for those folks who often get attention only when unemployment numbers or food stamps usage is reported.

[Full disclosure: the station asked me to moderate a roundtable discussion with various providers and others who are trying to offer services and make sense of the enormous increase in poverty over the last year. The roundtable discussion airs several times over the next few days. It was a sobering experience to begin to understand the impact of what is happening.]

The 149,000 Idahoans using food stamps right now – that’s a 40% increase – aren’t welfare queens or shirkers, they are parents who have lost a job and in many cases have had to seek assistance for the first time in their lives. At the same time, public sector assistance has been stretched to the point of breaking and great organizations like the Salvation Army and Genesis World Mission lack the resources to fill the growing gap, much as they try.

For those of us who have it pretty good in this awful economy – a job with benefits, a comfortable safe place to live, never a wonder about where the next meal will come from – BSU Radio’s series is an uncomfortable wake up call. Thousands and thousands of our neighbors are really hurting. They need to be brought into the sunlight of public attention, not left in the often forgotten shadows of grinding poverty. This reporting does just that.

BSU Radio News Director Elizabeth Duncan and her team have given us all the evidence we need to realize that we all have a responsibility in this time of national trial.

All of the panelists who participated in the roundtable agreed, all of us need to know more about what living with poverty means, how it can impact an entire generation of children, how government budgets are woefully inadequate, how the very fabric of a community is frayed. This series is a good start. It will sober you up to the reality of a life of poverty in Idaho.

Basques, Media

Remembering a Press Secretary

powellJody Powell…Advisor and Spokesman

The death this week of Carter Administration press secretary Jody Powell got me thinking about how he (and Jimmy Carter) fashioned the all important White House job.

Say what you will about the Carter Administration (I believe history will treat the one-term Georgian better than many contemporaries) Powell played the high profile role of press secretary just about right, I think. He was the rare press secretary who successfully mixed the duties of trusted advisor to the president with the ringmaster role of daily care and feeding of the White House press corps.

Franklin Roosevelt and his “secretary” Steve Early, invented the modern White House press operation and Powell played very much the same role in working with his president as Early did with FDR. (By the way, there is a fine recent book about Early and the key role he played – virtually deputy president to FDR – called The Making of FDR : The Story of Stephen T. Early, America’s First Modern Press Secretary.)

Current White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs seems to have the same portfolio – advisor and spokesman. It is a much different approach, and a better approach I think, than either of the Presidents Bush used or than Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton employed.

In the Steve Early, Jody Powell, Robert Gibbs model, the press secretary serves as advisor first, presidential flack second. The Clinton and Bush models seemed at times to be designed to make certain the press secretary knew as little as possible in the interest of never being able to really speak with authority for the president.

My long-time friend and business partner, Chris Carlson, knew and worked with Jody Powell during the Carter presidency. Chris ran the public affairs shop at the Department of the Interior for then-Secretary Cecil Andrus.

I asked him for a couple of anecdotes about Powell, the irreverent Georgia boy who with Hamilton Jordan, helped engineer Carter’s improbable presidential campaign in 1976.

“Yes, they had an irreverent attitude towards the ways of D.C., as did my then boss the incoming administration’s new Interior Secretary. Like Secretary Andrus, both Jordan and Jody actually placed their own phone calls rather than play the D.C. game of having a secretary place the call and see whose boss acknowledged the pecking order by getting on the phone first.

“Powell had little time for such games, and though he had a temper he also had a great sense of humor, could laugh at himself, the pretensions of the press and the absurdities of power politics. In the four years of the Carter Presidency he somehow managed to keep that sense of humor and he also recognized and respected what an asset Governor Andrus was to the President.

“When one of the most critical decisions involving Interior’s future had to be made, and Secretary Andrus had to go meet with the president and the inner circle of advisors – the Georgia mafia – to tell them the president’s long cherished goal of creating a new Department of Natural Resources had to be abandoned for lack of key political support, it was Jody Powell who weighed in first behind the secretary’s political judgment and helped to persuade a dubious president to see the wisdom of cutting his losses.

“Bottom line, Jody Powell was that rarity of rarities in D.C., a self-effacing, decent person who radiated intelligence and integrity, did a difficult job well and succeeded in part because of his basic decency and humanity. There aren’t many like him.”

As the New York Times noted in his obituary: “Mr. Powell had honed his style years before, when Mr. Carter was governor. Responding to a critic who accused his boss of “communistic” tactics against opponents of the busing used to desegregate schools, Mr. Powell wrote that one of a governor’s burdens was having to read ‘barely legible letters from morons.’

“’I respectfully suggest that you take two running jumps and go straight to hell,’ he continued.”

I can assure you that is something every press secretary has wanted to say.