Vermont’s first woman in Washington: Coming soon?

WASHINGTON — For Vermont, the Washington delegation remains an old boys’ club.

While nearly a century has passed since women first gained the right to vote, the Green Mountain State has yet to send its first female to Capitol Hill — one of just four states never to have elected a woman to the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives.

Like the other three states yet to break through this glass ceiling — Delaware, Iowa, and Mississippi — Vermont has a small congressional delegation where incumbents tend to stay for a long time, and open seats are a rarity. Vermont stands in contrast to neighboring New Hampshire, where the entire four-member congressional delegation is female in the wake of the 2012 election, and Maine, where half of the four-person delegation is made up of women.

But, overall, only 18 percent of today’s Congress is comprised of women — 20 in the 100-member Senate and 78 in the 435-member House. The reasons range from the current realities of campaign fundraising to personal-life priorities and the difficulties of accomplishing change within the legislative process, according to those who closely observe the process of women running for office.

“We’ve seen women (who have) been detoured in terms of the dirtiness of politics, currently the ineffectiveness of politics,” said Kelly Dittmar of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “If you look at Washington today, you might not see that as a place to get things done. So why would women be motivated?”

Vermont can boast of having elected Madeleine Kunin, who in 1984 became only the fourth woman in U.S. history to be elected governor in her own right (as opposed to succeeding her husband). But if Kunin, who left the governorship in 1990, eventually made it to Washington — as the No. 2 official in the Education Department during the Clinton administration — she never sought election to Congress.

“The timing was just not right,” she said. “There wasn’t any (vacancy) — it wasn’t right politically.”

No vacancy means having to challenge an incumbent. More often than not, it remains an uphill battle to dislodge an incumbent: According to a study by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, the reelection rate of incumbent members of Congress has been running at more than 75 percent since 1982.

During the past four decades, Senate seats have come open only twice in the Green Mountain State — in 1988, as Kunin was seeking a third term as governor and Republican Robert Stafford was retiring, and in 2006, when Republican-turned- Independent James Jeffords called it quits. In both instances, the state’s lone U.S. House member — Jeffords and Independent Bernard Sanders, respectively — were elected to move up and fill the vacant Senate slot.

Today, while all three men in the Vermont delegation are older than 65, none has shown any public sign of contemplating retirement. The state’s two senators,

Democrat Patrick Leahy and Sanders, have more aggregate seniority than the senators from the other 49 states. Leahy, first elected in 1974, is now the longest-serving member of the Senate. Sanders, first elected to the House in 1990 before moving to the Senate 16 years later, has now spent nearly a quarter of a century on Capitol Hill.

Kunin believes that when it comes to running against an incumbent, gender is no longer a question, given that it’s difficult for any newcomer to raise a “tremendous amount of money” to win against a long-time serving member.

But others suggest that fundraising remains an obstacle for women contemplating office, whether challenging an incumbent or seeking an open seat.

“When we survey women legislators who are potential candidates, they always say that fundraising is a barrier,” said Dittmar of the Center for American Women and Politics. “It’s something that they don’t like to do, and they see as a barrier to office.”

According to Dittmar, surveys suggest that although men and women raise about the same amount of money in comparable races, fundraising may take more effort for women. In closing the fundraising gap between male and female candidates, help from outside infrastructure is “invaluable”, she noted.

Several political-action committees — such as EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights — have been created to help funnel money to women running for office. Other groups aim to provide women with training in the nuts and bolts of running a campaign.

In Vermont, Kunin heads a group, Emerge Vermont, which provides intensive training to Democratic women about how to run a successful campaign, in the hope that this will ultimately provide them with a springboard to higher office. Emerge Vermont is part of the national organization that started in California and now operates in 14 states.

Vermont would seem to have a head start in this regard, as it already ranks ahead of many other states when it comes to electing women to state and local office. With Gov. Peter Shumlin’s recent appointment of Democrat Marjorie Ryerson of Randolph Village to an open seat in the Vermont House, women now are a majority in the Democratic Party of that chamber.

Vermont now ranks first nationwide in terms of the percentage of women in the Legislature. At present, 41.1 percent of the Vermont Senate and House are comprised of women, according to statistics compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics. (Colorado’s legislature is a close second with 41.0 percent; neighboring New Hampshire ranks fifth nationally, with 33.5 percent.)

But in congressional elections, personal factors often come into play for women: It’s often harder for women to make the decision to run, as they are more “relationally embedded” than men, Dittmar said.

Women often do not see politics as “either an option or the best route for them” in the way men do, she said. Women, most being primary caregivers, consider running for office in Washington a factor that could bring unwanted changes to their families and children.

But what some see as a benefit of having the increasing numbers of women elected to higher office came into focus during the partial shutdown of the federal government in early October.

Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, put forth a plan to end the shutdown, and called upon members from the two major parties to come together and “legislate responsibly and in good faith.” The next day, Sens. Kelly Ayotte, RN. H., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, joined Collins’ effort. Soon, Collins was leading a bipartisan group of 14 senators, nearly half of them women, in drafting a spending plan.

A few hours before the final vote on Oct. 16, three of the women senators involved physically moved across the Senate aisle, sat next to each, and chatted and laughed. It was a scene one almost never sees in C-SPAN broadcasts of the Senate proceedings, particularly in an era of unrelenting partisanship.

“The fact (is) that having less testosterone really makes you less combative and more willing to work across the aisle and want to get the job done,” Kunin said. “Women don’t enjoy confrontation as some men do.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was also in the group of 14 senators. He later told Time magazine that he was “proud” of the women’s effort in ending the shutdown. “Imagine what they could do if there were 50 of them,” McCain said.

As McCain pictured a more effective Congress formed by more women, Dittmar said women’s decisions to run for office are often guided by whether they feel they can be effective.

While men’s motivations for running are largely associated with a desire for being in power, women make this decision differently, Dittmar said: They run to make policy changes.

“If we continue to see that among the women who run and win, as more women get in, it could be helpful to the environment in Washington,” she explained.

As “the time has come” and little bias remains about having women in federal legislative positions, Kunin, now 80, is confident there will “absolutely” be a woman representing Vermont on Capitol Hill in the near future.

“We will, I expect in five years, see a woman in Congress,” Kunin said. “There are many talented women serving in the (state) Legislature and some serving in the (state) administration. Many are potential candidates for higher office.”

This article was published on Times Argus on December 15, 2013.

Take This Town And Shove It?


Very interesting piece on POLITICO magazine by Sam Youngman.

Former White House Correspondent for The Hill. Former regular at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Former traveller on Air Force One. One of the “made it” people in This Town.

Now? Political reporter for Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky.

For any young political reporter like myself, the man used to live in the dream. He was mentioned in an off-hand comment by Obama’s first press secretary Robert Gibbs. He had drinks with senators and agency heads at Off the Record. He flew alongside of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign trail. There’s also a good chance that he was among those who have John Boehner’s cellphone number on their speed dial.

As a result, for any young political reporter like myself, why he left Washington for Rand Paul’s home state is beyond logic. But the White House’s regular made an argument based on one simple truth that haunts most Washingtonians as well as most New Yorkers: real estate.

“My apartment is three times the size of my last one and half the cost, and it’s a little more than a block from Rupp Arena, home to the winningest college basketball team of all time and where I’d have my ashes spread if I weren’t worried a player would slip on them,” he wrote.

The reporter’s Washington version of Goodbye To All That is just like the original piece, the New York version by Joan Didion. All complaints on the affordability of the two cities and dissatisfaction with square footage all came down to one delicate rosy illusion shattered by reality.

New York has Wall Street and Fifth Avenue, L.A. has Hollywood and Malibu, but Washington has the ugliest (literally, compared to movie stars and fashionistas) and fiercest of all: the White House and the Capitol, the two-square-mile surrounded by votes, polls and approval ratings.

That Mr. Smith has dead, or most likely never lived. People do not live in a 1950s’ movie. They go to Washington for power and prominence. One’s occupation overweighs all, even when one had too much to drink during happy hour. Just as the never-moving traffic on Connecticut Avenue constantly finds itself caught between two motorcades, young people in side the Beltway see neither a way in nor a way out, no matter how many BlackBerrys they buy or how badly they hate their group houses in Colombia Heights.

Unlike all the eulogies written to New York, Washington is never worth singing for. Every living thing in this town, whether they’re under a Brooks Brothers suit, a J. Crew dress or just simply living under the gutter, came here knowing that nothing’s pretty on the left bank of Potomac. Sure it has pandas, but they are just dumb balls of fur. While cherry blossoms only come out in Aprils, no one ever brings their lunch to the steps of Lincoln Memorial like people in movies do.

But as it’s said before, an ugly, divided Washington creates jobs for journalists. We all know Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. After all, the bricks on Capitol Hill form a wall every aspiring political reporter needs to hit when they are young. Nothing compares to the feeling of holding a brand new congressional press pass, or stepping into the White House press briefing room for the first time.

Just leave, they say to the young, get out of Washington. It’s messing you up more than you know.

But I have no plan B.

Oh well.

Welch Leans on JPMorgan To Pay Full Settlement

WASHINGTON — Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., says he’s upset over suggestions that a majority of JPMorgan’s reported $13 billion settlement with the U.S. government could be tax-deductible. 

Welch is circulating a letter to send to JPMorgan CEO James Dimon, asking the company “to accept full responsibility for the full payment of any fine related to its conduct in this matter.”

JPMorgan reached a tentative deal last week with the U.S. Justice Department. If the deal is finalized, JPMorgan would pay a record $13 billion to settle a number of allegations concerning mortgage loans that the financial institution sold to federal agencies before the 2008 crash, according to published reports. 

However, Welch says he has received news reports indicating that, apart from a $2 billion penalty paid to the government, the remaining $11 billion to be directed to homeowners and private investors could be considered a business expense. Under current law, the Internal Tax Code of 1986, that portion of the payment could be deducted from JPMorgan’s taxes. 

At a 38 percent tax rate, it could save JPMorgan as much as $4.18 billion, Reuters reported.

“Should a wrongdoer whose conduct caused harm to the taxpayer ask the taxpayer to help pay the fine for the wrong done? We think not,” Welch says in the draft letter to Dimon. 

Meanwhile, Welch is introducing an amendment to the Internal Tax Code of 1986 that would prevent future tax deductions in conjunction with financial settlements similar to the JPMorgan one.

“The taxpayer should not, therefore, be required to contribute a nickel towards the fines imposed for conduct that got America into this mess in the first place,” Welch says in the letter. 

Welch is also among 75 co-sponsors of a bill introduced by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, that aims to resurrect the wall that existed between investment and commercial banking activities before the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999.


This article was published on Times Argus on Oct. 25. 

Officials Fear Tightening of Heating Aid

WASHINGTON — Some Vermont officials are worried that the temporary funding that reopened the federal government will leave low-income families in the state without enough help paying their heating bills this winter.

The stopgap funding measure passed Oct. 16, known as a continuing resolution, funds many federal departments and agencies through Jan. 15. Included is money for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, commonly referred to as LIHEAP. 

The program distributed $3.47 billion across the country during the 2013 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, with roughly $18.4 million directed to Vermont. But while the continuing resolution contains a level of nationwide funding similar to 2013’s, this year Vermont expects to receive about $17 million, according to a spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. 

The federal Office of Management and Budget has required the U.S. Health and Human Services Department to hold back a portion of this year’s total allocation for LIHEAP due to sequestration — automatic, across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take place in January, said Leahy’s press secretary, David Carle. 

The uncertainty arising from the 3½-month length of the continuing resolution is another reason Vermont’s projected LIHEAP funding is down from last year, he added. According to Carle, HHS could deliver further small allocations later in the year if sequestration is averted or other money is freed up.

Due to the delay caused by the partial federal government shutdown, HHS will not determine the precise LIHEAP allocations for Vermont and other states for another couple of weeks, according to Laura Goulding, a department spokeswoman. 

“People from many states are waiting for the funding, and the process of figuring out the allocation for each state is now a high priority for us,” Goulding said.

Vermont’s effort to assist low-income households with heating costs relies on federal money as well as direct state funding, which will provide an additional $6 million to $8.1 million. 

That could make the total estimated level of home heating aid as low as $23 million, compared with about $28.1 million the previous year, according to Richard Moffi, chief of the Vermont Fuel Assistance Program. 

According to the Vermont program’s website, families with gross household incomes equal to or less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible to apply for fuel assistance. Each eligible household in Vermont should expect an average heating assistance of $717 this winter, compared with last year’s $898, Moffi said.

In Vermont, about 27,750 families received assistance paying their home heating bills last winter, a number representing about 90 percent of all that applied, according to Moffi. He said he expects the number of families receiving aid to go up this winter to between 28,300 and 28,400. 

Moffi said funding for LIHEAP is “never, quote-unquote, ‘enough,’” since the program is set up to help recipients pay only a portion of their heating bills. 

“The number of families is going up, the (funding) is going down, and that adds to the pressure,” Moffi said. 

In Vermont, 84 percent of all households heat with oil, propane or kerosene. 

The U.S. Energy Information Administration — a division of the U.S. Energy Department — expects the cost of oil to drop 5 percent from 2013 prices, when the figure had soared 28 percent since 2010. The agency also predicts that the winter will be 3 percent colder in the Northeast than the last one.

“We’re hoping it’s not going to be as cold as they say it’s going to be,” Moffi said. “But all I can do on those two fronts is to hope right now.” 


This article was published on Times Argus on Oct. 24. 

Delegation Feels Effects Of Shutdown


WASHINGTON — While citizens around the country are blaming Congress for the partial shutdown of the federal government, staffers for Vermont’s congressional delegation are feeling consequences from the stalemate much like workers in federal agencies.

As the shutdown entered its ninth day, some congressional offices in Vermont were closed. However, the Washington offices of the Vermont delegation remained open, with furloughed workers being called in on a rotating basis.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has closed his office in Montpelier for the duration of the shutdown. Calls are being forwarded to the Burlington office, where only one of the 11 usual staffers is at work.

In Washington, about 70 percent of the staff in Leahy’s personal office has been furloughed. The reductions are even sharper at the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Leahy serves as chairman.

According to Leahy’s press secretary, David Carle, 29 out of 34 staffers at the Judiciary Committee have been forced to leave work due to the shutdown but are called in on a rotating basis to “provide legislative support.” The shutdown so far has led to postponement of one hearing and one business meeting.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., has closed his offices in Brattleboro and St. Johnsbury, while his Burlington office remains open with about half the normal number of staffers, according to Michael Briggs, Sanders’ communications director. 

About half of Sanders’ normal staff in his Washington office remains on the job, Briggs added.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has furloughed four employees from his office, leaving 13 still performing their everyday duties, said his press secretary, Ryan Nickel. 

According to Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, members of Congress have flexibility in determining how many of their staffers are furloughed, depending in part on how they interpret the terms “essential” and “nonessential.”

Congressional members received guidance from the House and Senate to retain staff who assist in their legislative or constitutional responsibilities. While some decided to furlough most of their staffers, others chose to keep many workers in offices to learn about their constituents’ views during a government shutdown, Fitch said.

“I think the concern is that, if we’re going to be looking at the debt-limit crisis looming and if we’re talking about not paying seniors Social Security checks at the end of the month, you’re going to have a lot of worried seniors contacting their members of Congress,” Fitch said. 

“Some of them are not going to be able to get through to the legislator because there’s no staff there,” he added.

Briggs said Sanders’ office has interpreted the term “essential” in part on the basis of seniority. As for feedback from constituents, he said, “I don’t know if it’s more or less (calls from constituents) because the regular people who (answer) the phones are not answering the phones.” 

The Congressional Management Foundation suggests that members of Congress develop ways to keep furloughed workers updated daily. Carle said that if federal workers were denied back pay for the time they are furloughed, Leahy would donate his salary from the shutdown period to a Vermont charity.

On the other hand, Briggs said Sanders has decided to follow the example of several other members of Congress and put his salary into an escrow account until the shutdown is over and it is determined whether workers will receive back pay.

The House last weekend approved a bill that guarantees back pay for furloughed federal workers once the shutdown ends. President Obama has said he would sign the measure, but the Senate has yet to act. In the 1995-1996 government shutdown, furloughed workers received full back pay.

Nickel said Welch has decided to donate his salary during the shutdown to a Vermont charity but has yet to choose which one.

This story was published on Rutland Herald on Oct. 11. 

Washington V.S. Boston – personal


I know Boston.

I know the street artists in Harvard Square and coffee shops on Beacon Hill like the back of my hand, and nothing compares to a Saturday afternoon near Waterfront with a great book, if you don’t count beers at Harpoon and margaritas at Sunset.

If Boston is the place where young people find their dreams, Washington D.C. is the place that marks the end of their age of innocence.

Washington D.C.. The Capital. Inside the Beltway. The Town.

D.C. is like Boston – trending coffee shops, dive bars, ethnic restaurants, countless libraries and museums.

But Washington is another story. It’s a two-square-mile neighborhood surrounded by reality.

My first day in town was not so different from Mr. Smith’s first day. In the movie, the young Senator arrived at Union Station and wandered his way to the National Mall.

Look, it’s Mr. Lincoln. Every day he sits in his giant marble chair, telling all  young people in the country that “a government by the people, of the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Like Mr. Smith, I thought of all the greatest souls in the country’s history. Thomas Jefferson. John Adams. Martin Luther King Jr. The priest from Georgia said he had a dream.

Like Mr. Smith, I saw lawmakers of this country buying votes, legislating behind closed doors and calling each other “cowards”.

They were arguing about Obama’s healthcare law. A lot of their constituents believed that “Obamacare” and “Affordable Care Act” were two different things.

I don’t know what Dr. King would feel if he was still around today to see a Congress so divided that couldn’t even come together on whether to lock down the Capitol during Navy Yard Shootings.

Washington entered its darkest times in the 20th Century after the 2010 Election. Politics took hostage of everything that matters for the country: spending budget, credit ratings, environment, health care.

But as Charles Dickens said, it’s the worst of times, but it’s also the best of times.

Ted Cruz stood on the Senate floor talked for almost 22 hours. Just like Ted, Washington has a lot to share with you and this time, more than ever.

Dairy Program Another Casualty Of Capitol Hill Gridlock

WASHINGTON – Largely overlooked in the Capitol Hill standoff that led to a partial shutdown of the federal government early Tuesday, separate legislation that extended portions of the nation’s farm programs – including a financial safety net for dairy farmers – also expired with the Oct. 1 start of the 2014 fiscal year.

While it appears the expiration of the farm legislation will have little immediate impact on Vermont’s 1,000 dairy farms, the situation could change dramatically if a new farm bill is not approved by the end of the 2013 calendar year – and so-called permanent law governing farm programs is allowed to kick in on Jan. 1.

“We’re in a dysfunctional mode arguing about a government shutdown and fall[ing] down on our debt, so many things could be a casualty in a destructive fight — and action on the farm bill could be one of them,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., alluding to the forthcoming fight when the federal government reaches its debt ceiling in about two weeks.

Among the farm provisions that expired Tuesday was the Milk Income Loss Contract Program, or MILC. As a result, MILC will no longer compensate dairy farmers across the country when milk prices fall below a certain level — currently $16.84 per hundredweight in Boston market.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said current milk prices are currently high enough so that, in the short-term, the absence of MILC or a similar program should not have major impact on the dairy industry. But, looking down the road, Vermont farmers need more consistent policy making from Washington in order to make a living, said Leahy, a former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Meanwhile, agriculture officials in Vermont are nervous: Alison Kosakowski – communications director of the Vermont Agriculture Agency — said it is important to have a safety net in place in case the price of milk drops.

“Right now, farmers are not going to feel any impact because MILC is not making payments,” Kosakowski said. “But should things change and MILC is not available, that would cause a problem.”

The last permanent farm bill, enacted in 2008 expired a year ago at the tail end of the 2012 fiscal year. In January, Congress approved an extension of many of the programs included in the 2008 bill; that extension ran out Tuesday.

Legislators and lobbyists see several possible scenarios between now and the end of the year. One involves passage of a new long-term farm bill prior to Jan. 1; another could be further extension of the 2008 farm legislation.

If Congress fails to take such actions, permanent farm law – which involves provisions of a farm bill passed more than 60 years ago, in 1949 – would kick in. The activation of permanent law would require the government to buy milk at price that is about twice today’s rate.

According to statistics compiled by the National Milk Producers Federation, a gallon of milk cost about $3.45 in grocery stores in August. National Milk Producers Federation spokesman Chris Galen said this could double if permanent law took effect.

“If you take away these [MILC] programs, it goes to a boom-or-bust [cycle],” Leahy said. “It hurts consumers, it hurts the farmers.”

But there is currently no indication that Congress will focus on passing a long-term farm bill anytime soon. Welch said he has had conversations about such legislation with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., but that both leaders exhibited reluctance to move ahead on this.

The Democratic-controlled Senate in June approved a long-term farm bill reauthorization on a bipartisan vote, but the Republican-controlled House has struggled to pass similar legislation. House conservatives have demanded sharper cuts in farm program spending, and many Democrats have objected to reductions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps

The Senate bill contains a provision designed to replace the MILC program, while creating a more comprehensive safety net that focuses on feed costs as well as milk prices. Critics of the MILC program contend that it has not been tied to the cost of feeding cows, and only covered a limited amount of annual milk production.

Galen said that the National Milk Producers Federation prefers the Senate version of the farm bill, which includes the proposed Dairy Market Stabilization Program, or DMSP. The DMSP is intended to provide incentives to farmers to reduce milk production when margins are low, thereby raising milk prices and reducing the overall cost of the program.

The House version of the farm bill does not contain the DMSP provision.

“The bottom line is we don’t want an extension of the current program, we want a new farm bill,” Galen said.

 This piece is published on Times Argus on October 4th, 2013. 


Strange Political Couple: Leahy, Rand Paul Team Up Sentencing Bill


WASHINGTON – As he pursues changes in the setting of mandatory minimum sentences for crimes, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has once again teamed up with an unlikely political partner: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., an outspoken conservative who is a Tea Party hero.

As Leahy’s committee held its first hearing last week on a mandatory minimum sentencing reform bill Paul is sponsoring, Leahy expressed confidence that this unusual political alliance would bring about results.

“Sen. Paul and I believe that judges, not legislators, are in the best position to evaluate individual cases and determine appropriate sentences,” Leahy declared at the hearing. “Our bipartisan legislation has received support from across the political spectrum.”

In a phone interview after the hearing, Leahy – who, at 73, is nearly a quarter of a century older than the 50-year old Paul – said the two often share views while working out together in the Senate gym. “I’ve joked over the years that there’s more legislation passed in the Senate gym than on the Senate floor,” Leahy observed.

Of his relationship with Paul – whose father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, was once the Libertarian Party nominee for president – Leahy said: “People call it unusual political bedfellows, but I call it effective legislating. If more people would do what I’ve done, we wouldn’t have the [legislative] gridlock we now have.”

The mandatory minimum sentence bill is not the first time Leahy and Rand Paul have found common legislative ground.

In 2011, Paul co-sponsored a Leahy bill designed to make changes in the USA PATRIOT Act, which was passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and features provisions that have been criticized from both ends of the political spectrum as overly intrusive. Paul was the only Republican among 13 cosponsors of that legislation.

Earlier this year, Paul co-sponsored the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act introduced by Leahy, and also co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, the latter of whom – like Paul – is a Tea Party favorite. That measure, reported out of Leahy’s committee, would update the original law to cover digital era communications such as email.

However, the mandatory minimum sentencing legislation – introduced by Paul and co-sponsored by Leahy – has yet to attract other Republican backers. Among the remaining three current cosponsors of the bill are Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., along with Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

Both Leahy and Paul contend that mandatory minimum sentences do not make the country safer.

“It is a problem that Congress created and that Congress must fix,” Leahy said

Under current law, a federal court can only impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum in cases of low-level drug offenses. The Paul-Leahy bill, entitled the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, would give judges more flexibility in departing from mandatory minimums.

Meanwhile, Leahy also has co-sponsored a bill introduced by another unusual political couple: Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lee. Unlike the Paul-Leahy bill, the Durbin-Lee bill, dubbed the Smarter Sentencing Act, would only lower certain mandatory minimums involving non-violent drug-related offenses.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last month that the Justice Department would no longer list quantities in bringing drug charges, so that defendants without ties to gangs and large drug-traffic organizations could avoid mandatory minimums.

Holder’s announcement was praised by both Leahy and Paul.  Leahy said in a statement that he was “encouraged” by the Justice Department’s involvement in this issue. And Paul, a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, called the Obama administration’s involvement in mandatory minimums sentences a “welcome development.”

“Since mandatory sentencing began, American’s prison has quadrupled, to 2.4 million,” Paul told the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “America now jails a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country, at the staggering cost of $80 billion a year.”

Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said that now is an appropriate time to discuss mandatory sentencing reforms, in light of Congress’ on-going consideration of how to cut government spending.

Stewart believes that Paul’s participation in reforming mandatory minimum sentencing has strengthened the conversation between the two parties.

“He adds a new level of conservative concern about sentencing and how it has wasted enormous amount of tax dollars,” Stewart said. “He makes it safer for other Republicans to come together and share their concerns. “

But there is hardly unanimity within the Republican ranks.

In a recent Senate floor speech, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, contended that increased incarceration has reduced crime. He also charged that the U.S. Supreme Court “overrode congressional intent and made the guidelines advisory.”

Gibed Grassley: “I do see that for the first time in five years, the Obama administration has finally found one area of federal spending that it wants to cut: prisons.”

 This piece was published on Times Argus on Sep. 28, 2013.

Candlelight Vigil for Boston Marathon Bombing

Hundreds of people from all around Boston and the country gathered at the Boston Common for a candlelight vigil the day after two explosions shattered Marathon Monday.

Mourners lit candles, sang songs and wrote encouraging words on banners to support the city through this tragic event.

“Not a born and bred Bostonian but it is my HOME now. I love you, BOSTON. Praying for those healing. Love, Maria.”

“Just as we cheered for a speedy race, we’ll cheer for a speedy recovery. – Danielle”

“We will preserver. Thank you to all the brave men and women of this fantastic city. All my love, Juliet Tripaldi.”

“Tragedy happening all

Around. Tears fall to the

Ground. Run, run for a cause,

But in the end there was more

Than awe’s. Seeing this in my

Hometown makes me cringe. Why the intent how is to

Blame. Don’t know the answer

Only cries and flames. God bless

+ protect everyone of us. Stand

Strong Boston there is faith

in all of us.” -Iris Cruzado-Rivera





*I was trying to remain calm when taking these pictures. Like the former Mayor of New York Rudy Guiliani said after 9/11: “make yourself calmer than you feel, force yourself to pretend you’re calm. You’ll be able to figure a way to get out, if you’re calm.” But it was not easy to push myself away from feelings this time, especially when one of the victims is a Chinese student at Boston University. So before I left, I wrote down these words:

Boston’s darkest days are always followed by its finest hours. United as we stand. From Beijing with love, Joy.