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2017
November
08
Wednesday

Among the many lessons of Virginia’s Election Day races is this: Your vote matters.

Is that stating the obvious? Not to a lot of people – just look at dismal participation rates generally. People tune out for many reasons. Maybe they live in a reliably red or blue state. Maybe gerrymandering discourages them. As Prof. Jesse Richman of Old Dominion University told the Daily Press of Newport News, Va.: “That gives us a safe seat for both parties, and you often end up without any real contest.”

Virginia’s House of Delegates had all 100 seats in play yesterday. Sixty were contested by candidates from the two major parties – the highest rate in some 20 years. Turnout was the highest in 20 years. On Wednesday, five seats were too close to call, with one result separated by just 12 votes. The recount will determine which party has control.

Imagine if you hadn't found time to weigh in.

Skepticism about the US voting process is deepening, as a Monitor series underscored this week. That’s all the more reason to stay involved. There are lofty motives: Many people don’t have the right to vote, and we honor that right when we mark a ballot. There are practical ones: “Small bore” local races can influence our daily lives. And then there’s the one we were reminded of yesterday: Your “small” voice can make a big difference.

Here are our five stories today, which underscore in different ways the power of rethinking common assumptions.

1. After Texas shooting, where both sides on gun debate agree

Gun rights and gun control are typically portrayed as adversarial issues. But in this case, the two camps share common interests – if they're willing to recognize and act on them. 

Amelia
Elaine Thompson/AP
Gun shop owner Tiffany Teasdale-Causer displays a Ruger AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, the same model (though in gray rather than black) used by the shooter in a Texas church massacre just days earlier, in Lynnwood, Wash., Nov. 7. Gun-rights supporters have seized on the shooting as more proof of the well-worn saying that the best answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, say the tragedy shows once more that it is too easy to get a weapon in the US.

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In a hyperpolarized atmosphere, people on all sides of the spectrum are in agreement on one thing: Devin Kelley should not have been able to buy a gun. The United States Air Force has launched an inquiry into why it did not flag Kelley, who was court-martialed for assaulting a baby and also escaped from a mental institution, in the federal database designed to prevent people with felonies, domestic assault convictions, and certain mental health diagnoses from owning guns. In one sense, experts say, the failures to enforce existing laws raise questions about the national will to address a series of mass slayings that have shaken the domestic tranquility. At the same time, a growing demand for answers underscores, at least to some gun-policy experts, how both sides actually share common goals. Mike Gonzales, a pastor and Sutherland Springs, Texas, resident, says that there is, for him at least, a new sense of common purpose to protect innocent Americans. On one hand, he says, “I have guns myself – I strongly believe it’s not the gun, it’s the person.” The retired Army soldier found new salience in a recent speech at Brooke Army Medical Center, where he talked about “what veterans need to do to help our nation have stability.” Now, he added, “It’s going to take an effort all the way through. Civilians, military, government, teachers – we have to unite.”

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1. After Texas shooting, where both sides on gun debate agree

Just down the street from the First Baptist Church, where a gunman killed 26 parishioners on Sunday, convenience store clerk Chris Speer is still trying to sort through his feelings about how a man who the federal government and state of Texas said could not legally own a gun, could walk into a store and buy a Ruger assault-style rifle.

Devin Kelley was court-martialed and spent time in a military brig for assaulting his baby stepson and once smuggled weapons onto an Air Force Base in New Mexico after making death threats against commanders. His last rank in the Air Force was “prisoner.” He also escaped from a mental health facility.

“My honest opinion is you can regulate guns all you want, but if you're not going to red flag somebody who did something like that then that's just stupid. It’s just completely dumb,” says Mr. Speer, who was on a break. He is not interested in expanding gun control – pointing out that a neighbor with a rifle shot the gunman and, in his view, saved lives. But as for Kelley, “the moment he put his hands on a baby he should have been a priority No. 1 red flag. But then you let him go further and he breaks out of a mental institution? That’s a red flag!”

In a hyperpolarized atmosphere, people on both sides of the spectrum are in agreement on one thing: Kelley should not have been able to buy a gun.

In one sense, experts say, the failures to enforce existing laws raise questions about national will to address a series of mass slayings that have shaken the domestic tranquility. At the same time, a growing demand for answers underscores, at least to some gun policy experts, how both sides actually share common goals.

“It would terrify a lot of people to realize how faulty the system really is – there’s a lack of standards on reporting, there are missing records, erroneous records,” and the list goes on, says University of Arizona gun culture expert Jennifer Carlson, author of “Citizen-Protectors.” “The reason why this issue is so important is that both sides of the [gun] debate should want to get this right. The gun rights people don’t want faulty records and they want a mechanism to clear someone’s record; and the gun control people want the system to be complete and not have holes in it.”

Indeed, even many of those who argue on the legal front for expanded gun rights see the Kelley probe as an opportunity for reform.

Eric Gay/AP
A law enforcement officer watches as a man changes a flag to half-staff near the scene of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs to honor victims, Nov. 6, 2017, in Texas. A man opened fire inside the church in the small South Texas community on Sunday, killing 26 people in the deadliest church shooting in US history.

America has now seen three of its five worst mass shootings in less than two years, the worst one coming in October when 58 people died and more than 500 were injured in Las Vegas. The sheer volume of death and injury has in some ways intensified familiar battle lines between those who want to see America armed even more and those who want to regulate gun ownership.

Yet the attack on a country music festival, the massacre at an Orlando night club, the sniper assault on Dallas police officers last year, and now the massacre inside a small-town sanctuary are involving an ever-broader swath of Americans.

That has jarred the thinking of even staunch gun rights advocates, many of whom, including Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, are focusing on raising compliance standards for existing laws.

'Solving problems in unison'

Mike Gonzales, a pastor at Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and a Sutherland Springs resident, says that there is, for him at least, a new sense of common purpose to protect innocent Americans. On one hand, he says, “I have guns myself – I strongly believe it’s not the gun, it’s the person.”

The retired Army soldier found new salience in a recent speech at Brooke Army Medical Center, where he talked about “what veterans need to do to help our nation have stability.” Now, he said, speaking at a vigil Sunday night, “It’s going to take an effort all the way through. Civilians, military, government, teachers – we have to unite.”

“The problem we have is you have a large population of [gun owners] who, as a group, have lower rates of violence than people otherwise,” says Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore. “But that masks something important: Because our standards of gun ownership are low, there are a whole lot of people with violent backgrounds who can legally and easily possess firearms – and go on to become legal carriers.”

Given that, he adds, “We need to … realize this is not a cultural debate at all but about solving problems in unison.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis on Tuesday ordered the Pentagon’s inspector general to launch an investigation into why the Air Force did not report Kelley to The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

An FBI database launched in 1998, NICS has denied more than 1.3 million gun applications. The system receives – or should receive – data about criminal convictions and mental adjudications from thousands of jurisdictions, courts, agencies, police departments, and the Pentagon.

The system 'failed us terribly'

After the shooting, Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R) vowed to introduce legislation that would incentivize federal agencies to quickly upload data to NICS. That followed a bipartisan bill introduced last week, before the massacre, that would help states add domestic abuse data to NICS reporting.

“According to the Department of Justice, the number of these records that are actually uploaded is staggeringly low,” Senator Cornyn said in a statement. The system, he added, “failed us terribly.”

In some ways, given a series of reforms under President Barack Obama, Mr. Webster notes that NICS is “far better today than it has been” in the past.

Yet this is the second church shooting where the system failed.

President Obama’s order to hire hundreds more FBI background investigators came in 2015 after a white supremacist named Dylann Roof, who should have been disqualified from owning a gun because of a drug conviction, legally purchased a handgun used to kill nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston.

In that case, then FBI Director James Comey apologized for "lapses in the FBI’s background-check system.… An error on our part is connected to this guy’s purchase of a gun.”

While Kelley was recently denied a Texas gun-carry permit – the reason why has not been made public – he passed the FBI background check four times.

In Comal County’s court records, The Washington Post reported, “a little yellow flag is posted on Kelley’s electronic file, denoting that he has psychiatric issues.” It appears that information was never relayed to the FBI.

Kelley had been feuding with in-laws who attended First Baptist Church before the shootings, authorities say. He himself had attended a Halloween festival there a week earlier. His wife’s grandmother died in the attack.

“It’s really reprehensible that the military didn’t get his [conviction record] to NICS,” says Second Amendment lawyer Stephen Halbrook, author of “That Every Man Be Armed.” “There’s no excuse for these records to slip through the cracks.”

In some sense, the reaction to the tragedy both locally and nationally has fallen along familiar lines between those who want to ban assault-style weapons and those who believe that “good guys with guns” should be given a larger role as citizen protectors.

“We may well have something that says we’ve got to do better reporting between Army discharges, convictions in criminal military courts and reporting to NICS – those are all particular reforms that would actually do some good,” says Dave Kopel, research director at the libertarian Independence Institute in Denver.

'Where is the follow through?'

But reforms may have to go deeper – to more distinctly define the role of government in taking weapons away from Americans who are no longer allowed by law to possess them.

When it comes to illegal gun owners, for one, “a big question for everybody is: Who has the prerogative to seize those guns?” says Professor Carlson. “Where is the follow through?”

In a lot of states, including Texas, there are no clear mechanisms to either confiscate or surrender guns. Police are authorized to, but not required, to seize guns belonging to illegal owners.

To much fanfare, California introduced the Armed & Prohibited Persons System in 2001. It gave power to police to conduct wide sweeps to collect illegally owned weapons. So far, more than 1,600 firearms have since been seized.

But when Carlson asked California police chiefs how they used the system, they said there are few clear standards and they often don’t have the enforcement capacity to go after people who are known possessors of illegal firearms.

Those kinds of deep looks into how America actually regulates gun ownership also underscore a broader desire for hard data, notes Charles Branas, a Columbia University epidemiologist who studies the impacts of gun policy on public health.

Just as recent studies have found that gun deaths increase in states that liberalize gun laws, he notes that the 1994-2004 assault weapons ban did not appreciably stem gun violence in the US.

Next week, the Center for Gun Policy and Research will publish a poll that shows 83 percent of gun owners believe that a license to carry concealed firearms demonstrates that someone can safely handle guns in all situations. The actual standard for concealed-carry permits, however, is lower than that.

“Gun owners, if you talk to them and shoot with them, they are some of the most safety-conscious people in the US, but they also tend to think that everyone else is also safety conscious,” says Mr. Branas. “Perhaps that is a mindset where they are trying to protect their capacity to defend themselves, but it’s not recognizing that there might be others with firearms that … don’t have that safety mindset. All you need is a minority of people who make bad decisions with a firearm and you see what happens.”

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2. Why tax havens persist, and where a rethink could take hold

Most people know when they're entering ethically dubious territory, but may justify the move with 'everyone does it,' or 'I create more wealth for society than government can.' When it comes to the superrich, that mind-set is starting to be challenged.

Amelia

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Leaked documents from a law firm based in the Cayman Islands have left wealthy political figures and activists red-faced over their use of tax havens. Among them: Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Jordan’s Queen Noor, billionaire and political donor George Soros, onetime presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.), singer and political activist Bono, and US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Such business practices, though often legal, look unsavory in the white-hot glare of the political limelight. So why do rich political figures risk it? One reason is that tax havens can save them millions of dollars. Another is that these business practices are so common that, in some circles of the superrich, they’re regarded as standard procedure, much as a middle-class taxpayer might take out an individual retirement account to lower his taxes. And thanks to the secrecy laws of the tax havens, these transactions have been kept hidden. Until now. Public exposure, twinned with increasing political pressure from the European Union and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is changing attitudes. In a few years, says one public accounting firm, “using questionable tax havens will be unacceptable."  

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Why tax havens persist, and where a rethink could take hold

Money may be the mother’s milk of politics, but the two don’t mix well when the money is channeled through a tax haven.

The leak of documents last year from a law firm in Panama, a tax haven, led to the departure of two prime ministers (Iceland’s and Pakistan’s). Another leak of papers this past weekend from a law firm operating in the Cayman Islands has now embarrassed Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Jordan’s Queen Noor, billionaire and political donor George Soros, onetime presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.), singer and political activist Bono, and US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

For Mr. Ross, the revelations represent a kind of double whammy. The new leak of documents reveals his investment in an offshore shipping company that did big business with a Russian energy firm part-owned by the son-in-law of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a billionaire close to Mr. Putin. Also, as the GOP tries to push tax reform through Congress, a reform the commerce secretary has called “simple and fair,” he himself has used complicated and opaque methods to lower his own taxes on offshore profits to near-zero.

Such business practices, though often legal, look unsavory in the white-hot glare of the political limelight. So why do rich political figures risk it?

One reason is that tax havens can save them millions of dollars. Another is that these business practices are so common that, in some circles of the super-rich, they’re regarded as standard procedure, much as middle-class taxpayers might take out individual retirement accounts to lower their taxes. And thanks to the secrecy laws of the tax havens, these transactions have been kept hidden.

Until now.

Leaked documents last year from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca (the so-called Panama Papers) and last weekend’s leaked records from Cayman Islands-based law firm Appleby and corporate services provider Estera (the Paradise Papers) are shining new light on these enclaves and the people who use them. And they raise troubling ethical and moral questions that, according to some observers, are beginning to change attitudes among some of the wealthy people who use them.

“I didn’t speak to anyone who didn’t know at some level this was a violation of moral law,” says Brooke Harrington, a sociologist at the Copenhagen Business School and author of the 2016 book, “Capital without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent.” “You have benefited from this [government support]. Now you want to skip out on the bill?”

No one can say for sure how many tax havens exist, because definitions vary. Eight jurisdictions figure on just about everyone’s list: the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Guernsey, Jersey, Malta, and Panama. In 2009, the authors of “Tax Havens: How Globalization Really Works” counted 56 nations that could be seriously considered tax havens, home to an estimated 2 million international companies, even though many of those are shell companies.

Estimates of how much money flows through these entities also varies greatly. At least 8 percent of global wealth resides in these offshore centers, costing the owners’ home nations at least $200 billion in annual tax revenue, according to Gabriel Zucman, a finance expert at the University of California at Berkeley. Much of that lost revenue would otherwise have gone to developed nations in Europe, North America, and Asia.

And it’s not just wealthy individuals. The Paradise Papers also reveal that Apple and Nike used tax havens to reduce their liabilities. Apple, for example, moved to Jersey after authorities pressured Ireland to close a loophole that had allowed Apple to pay far less than the 12.5 percent corporate tax rate. In 2014, the computer and electronics giant had paid only 0.005 percent.

The company says it informed authorities of the move, which did not trim its taxes, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a global network of more than 200 investigative reporters, which received and reported on the leaked Panama and Paradise papers.

But the maneuver draws into question the assumption of GOP tax reformers, who claim that by slashing the US corporate tax rate from a nominal 35 percent to 20 percent, corporate money will come flooding back to the United States, creating new capital and jobs.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” says H. David Rosenbloom, a former senior Treasury official and now international tax lawyer at Caplin & Drysdale in Washington. “I have seen countless companies go through hoops to reduce their Irish taxes below 12 percent.”

And that is the problem of tax havens, according to “Tax Havens.” Far from being a dark little corner of finance, “they play an important role in the world economy,” the authors write. “First, they undermine the regulatory and taxation processes of the mainstream states…. Second, in doing so, they skew the distribution of costs and benefits of globalization in favor of a global elite and to the detriment of the vast majority of the population.”

Mindaugas Kulbis/AP
Leaked papers revealing investments in tax havens by the world's wealthy suggest U2 frontman Bono used a company based in low-tax Malta to buy part of a shopping mall in Lithuania. Pictured: Ausra shopping mall in Utena, north of Vilnius, Lithuania.

Defenders of the system point out that many tax haven maneuvers are legal and that what they’re doing is tax avoidance, not tax evasion.

“There is nothing wrong with it,” Ross told the BBC, going on to say he disclosed his investments, including the shipping company partnering with the Putin-linked company, before his confirmation hearings for the Commerce post. “The fact that it happens to be called a Russian company doesn’t mean there is any evil in it.”

(Separately, Ross was dropped by Forbes in its ranking of the richest billionaires because, it says, he grossly inflated his net worth.)

Still, by using shell companies, secret tax records, and other tax-haven tools that criminals, dictators, and money launderers use to hide their money, the super-rich are courting embarrassment if their dealings are made public. And the ethical and moral questions aren’t going away.

“Many people at the top and all over the place realize this isn’t just a technical issue, it’s an ethical question,” says Gawain Kripke, director of policy and research at Oxfam, a global nonprofit that tracks tax havens. And there are signs of change, he adds.

The revelations of the Paradise and Panama papers are just part of the increasing data that’s coming out about tax havens. The European Union is proposing ownership registries that would show the real owners of companies and eliminate anonymous shell corporations. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which represents the developed nations, has brought together 100 nations to look at gaps and mismatches in tax rules that allow multinationals and wealthy individuals to avoid taxes.

“The fight against unfair financial practices is making great progress,” Tom Cardamone, managing director of Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based nonprofit research and advisory group, writes in an email. “There [is] much more work to do of course, but I think we're at the end of the beginning on this.”

Public attitudes may be changing, too. In 2015, a committee of Britain’s Parliament accused international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers of promoting widespread tax avoidance. Last week, the company released an asset and wealth management report, which called into question the use of tax havens by companies and individuals.

“In an era of mistrust of financial services, especially among the millennial generation, tax will become important for the brand," it said. “Being viewed as not paying a fair share of tax or using questionable tax havens will be unacceptable.”

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3. A Wisconsin reelection bid as conservatism’s next test

A revolution can sometimes unfold with remarkable speed. But its true strength is revealed in its staying power.

Amelia

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Democrats outnumber Republicans in Wisconsin – but that’s not the case among elected officials. The state is almost entirely controlled by Republicans, who have been steadily remaking it in their image. Scott Walker won the governorship here as part of a nationwide GOP wave in 2010, and set about eliminating a projected $3.6 billion deficit without raising taxes, by cutting funding for everything from schools to environmental research. In the process, Wisconsin, one of the first states to introduce income taxes and elect socialist politicians, has undergone a wholesale reinvention – from a model of government largess to one of individual responsibility. As Governor Walker launches his campaign for a third term this week, many see it as a critical test of whether his brand of conservatism is truly here to stay – or if Democrats can mount a comeback in the Rust Belt. Both sides are already gearing up for a huge and costly fight. To many, it’s a proxy war between those who hold Walker up as an icon of American conservatism and those determined to reassert liberal values in the Trump era. Democrats will almost certainly need to win Wisconsin if they have any hope of defeating President Trump in 2020, and taking back the governorship would be a significant first step. Says Martha Laning, chair of the state Democratic Party: “We hope the whole nation will pay attention to Wisconsin because we are a test case of what happens under conservative policies.” 

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A Wisconsin reelection bid as conservatism’s next test

Of all the states Hillary Clinton lost, perhaps none was as shocking as Wisconsin, with its long history of progressive politics.

But in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been.

While Democrats still outnumber Republicans here overall, that’s not the case among elected officials. From the legislature to the governorship, from the attorney general to the secretary of natural resources, the state is almost entirely controlled by Republicans – who, for the better part of a decade, have been steadily remaking it in their image.

Scott Walker won the governorship here as part of a nationwide Republican wave in 2010, and immediately set about turning the state’s finances around, eliminating a projected $3.6 billion deficit without raising taxes, by cutting funding for everything from schools to environmental research.

In the process, Wisconsin, one of the first states to introduce income taxes and elect Socialist politicians, has undergone a wholesale reinvention – shifting from a model of government largesse to one of individual responsibility and accountability.

What’s been most striking about the Walker overhaul is not just its pace and breadth – after all, fully half of America’s states are run by Republican governors with majorities in both chambers of the legislature, enabling them to fast-track conservative policies – but the fact that he’s done it in such a closely divided, battleground state.

For conservatives around the country, “Wisconsin has been a petri dish for their right-wing experiment,” says Matthew Rothschild of the liberal Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign contributions. “If they can take over Wisconsin and destroy the progressive tradition in Wisconsin and the laws that have been upholding this tradition, they can do this almost anywhere. Wisconsin proved that it was doable, and that it was doable astonishingly quickly.”

So far, Democrats have largely failed to thwart Mr. Walker, the son of a small-town preacher who opposes tax hikes as vehemently as he does abortion, who cut millions of dollars in funding from the state’s renowned university system, and dared to emasculate unions in the state that invented worker compensation.

Walker’s policies prompted the largest protests in Wisconsin since the Vietnam War, in the middle of winter, and a high-profile recall vote in 2012. Yet he not only won the recall election, but in doing so built a powerful state GOP machine that went on to play a key role in helping Donald Trump clinch the White House. 

Now, on the heels of his own failed presidential bid, Walker is seeking a third term, which would make his tenure the second-longest of any Wisconsin governor in history. As he launches his reelection campaign this week, many see it as a critical test of whether his brand of conservatism is truly here to stay, marking a lasting shift in Wisconsin’s values – or if Democrats can mount a comeback in the Rust Belt.

Angela Major/The Janesville Gazette/AP
A group of protesters chant outside a campaign event featuring Gov. Scott Walker at Mid-State Equipment in Janesville, Wis.

Both sides are already gearing up for a huge fight that some say could cost up to $100 million. To many, it’s a proxy war of sorts between those who hold up Walker as an icon of American conservatism and those determined to reassert liberal values in a key state in the Trump Era. Democrats will almost certainly need to win Wisconsin if they have any hope of defeating President Trump in 2020, and taking back the governorship would be a significant first step.

“We hope the whole nation will pay attention to Wisconsin because we are a test case of what happens under conservative policies,” says Martha Laning, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

The ground war

At his campaign kick-off Sunday, Walker thanked the couple hundred supporters gathered at Weldall Manufacturing outside Milwaukee and asked for their prayers, saying he was the target of a national effort to unseat him.

“I’m going to need your help between now and next November,” he told the crowd, dotted with truck drivers and ladies with coiffed gray hair. “Because the best way to counter the tens of millions of dollars of the big-government special interests in Washington is through an army of grass-roots volunteers.”

Volunteers like Dick Fleissner, who became active in politics after he and his wife saved every single receipt for a year, back in 1997, and tallied how much they paid in taxes. A donut. Coffee. A refrigerator – everything went on the spreadsheet. The grand total: 48 percent of their household revenue.

“That was the catalyst,” says Mr. Fleissner, who has logged so many hours canvassing that he jokes residents now open the door and say, “Oh, it’s you again.”

Such volunteers have made Wisconsin’s GOP the “Seal Team Six of the Republican Party,” as conservative columnist David French put it. From 2010-16, party officials say they doubled their outreach to voters, and more than tripled the number of field offices to 40.  

The state’s Democratic Party, having paid dearly for not matching the GOP’s organizing, is now correcting course, and began putting its 2018 field staff in place more than a year and a half ahead of the election.

It’s a steep uphill climb for Democrats to win back the state legislature – a fact they blame on gerrymandering, which is under Supreme Court review. But they are intent on shoring up incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D), in what is expected to be one of the most hotly contested Senate races in the nation.

As for the governorship, plenty of Democrats are already running against Walker, from state superintendent of schools Tony Evers to businessman Andy Gronik, but even Democratic observers say they’re not A-list candidates.

One perennial question has plagued Democrats here: Given the levels of disapproval roughly half of the state’s voters feel towards Walker – whose poll numbers have rarely risen above 50 percent – why haven’t they been able to mount a more impressive retaliation against him?

If the answer to that question was known, it would be known to the Democrats and they would fix it,” says Kenneth Mayer, political science professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Political beginnings

Walker came of age in Delavan, a small town in southern Wisconsin where a siren still sounds at noon to remind farmers it’s lunchtime. His father preached at the First Baptist Church; his mom baked cookies for teachers and ill neighbors; and a teenage Walker strode the halls of Delavan-Darien High School in a suit and tie.

Retired chemistry teacher and student council adviser Ann Serpe remembers him as self-motivated and focused. She seated him between two troublemakers to keep the peace, and when the school was preparing to host more than 3,000 kids for the state student council, he earned a reputation for getting things done. “He was a follow-through guy,” she says.

An Eagle Scout, Walker was chosen to represent Wisconsin at the Boys Nation forum in Washington, which whetted his political ambitions.

He went on to Marquette University, a Jesuit school in Milwaukee where acquaintances recall him saying he felt a divine calling to go into politics. He ran for student government president, but after the school newspaper endorsed his opponent, Walker’s campaign was accused of confiscating stacks of that day’s edition. He lost the election and later left school before graduating to take a full-time job, leaving a mysterious hole on his resume – but one supporters are quick to dismiss.  

“If he’s that stupid, how did he become governor?” asks Delavan Mayor Mel Nieuwenhuis, who takes the local Boys and Girls Club to the governor’s mansion every year for a tour with Walker and his wife, Tonette.

A defining act

After winning the 2010 gubernatorial election, Walker’s opening salvo was a plan to put Wisconsin back in the black. He introduced the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, which required most public employees to pay into their pensions and health-care plans, and effectively stripped away their collective bargaining power.

Known as Act 10, it famously prompted Democratic legislators to flee across the border to Illinois – depriving the legislature of the quorum needed for a vote. As many as 100,000 protesters flooded Madison’s snowy streets.

It was a defining moment for both sides, and Walker did not back down.

For the Republicans, whose ranks had swelled with an unusually large class of freshman legislators in the tea-party surge of 2010, the stand-off was a crucible that forged unity.

“I think [Walker] underestimated the resistance,” says state Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R), a freshman at the time. But he adds, the resistance underestimated how much Walker’s party would be strengthened as a direct result of the protests.

Walker also cut $834 million to schools, and limited school districts’ ability to raise revenue through taxes, in what experts said was the largest cut to school funding in Wisconsin’s history. But it also brought Wisconsin’s education spending into line with the national average.

The move to require public employees to shoulder some of their pension and health-care payments was supported by more than two-thirds of voters, says Charles Franklin, head of the Marquette Law School Poll. The stripping away of collective bargaining rights was far more controversial.

Many educators are still bitter about Act 10, and say it has put a tremendous strain on the system. Communities have compensated by holding referenda to raise revenue through higher property taxes.

“The governor came into office saying, ‘We’re going to divide and conquer,’ and he’s done exactly what he said he would do,” says Superintendent Evers, one of Walker’s Democratic challengers for governor. “The people who were conquered were public servants.” 

Vaulting onto the national stage

After Act 10 passed, Democrats forced a recall election. Tactically, that was probably “the single biggest mistake” the Democrats and unions have made in the past generation, says Todd Berry, who has run the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance for the past 25 years.

The flare-up caught the attention of major national donors, and Walker was able to take advantage of a Wisconsin provision that allows unlimited fundraising for recall candidates. He raised more than $26 million in individual contributions during the 2012 recall year, about two-thirds of which came from out of state. He outspent his opponent by three to one, and won by a larger margin than in 2010, becoming the first US governor to survive a recall.

Still, the infusion of national money opened him up to criticism that he was becoming more beholden to outside interests than Wisconsinites. That deepened with his presidential run in 2015, which started with high expectations and flamed out in 70 days. Walker seemed oddly flat in debates and in over his head, especially on foreign policy, famously claiming that his experience taking on unions would position him well to defeat ISIS. The fact that he was away while the state legislature was negotiating over his deeply unpopular 2015 budget proposal was viewed negatively at home.

“People started to question, ‘Whose side is he on – is he really looking out for Wisconsin and my family, or is he looking out for his well-funded supporters, the Koch brothers and others?” says state Sen. Jennifer Shilling (D), the Senate minority leader.

2018 and beyond

After that failed bid, Walker went on a listening tour around the state, holding nearly 75 sessions with voters. One of the top concerns raised was his cuts to school funding. So the governor proposed raising school spending in his next budget, which was passed by the legislature in September. Wisconsin is now spending more per pupil than it ever has in real dollars (though not when adjusted for inflation).

Walker’s supporters note that he has cut $8 billion in taxes over his tenure, and that average home owners are paying less in property taxes than when he took office. He also struck a highly publicized deal with Foxconn, a Taiwanese screen maker, paying them up to $3 billion over time to set up shop in Wisconsin and bring a promised 13,000 jobs to the state.

“At a time when people are seeing gridlock and dysfunction in DC, Wisconsin is an example of what real results look like,” says Brian Reisinger, senior adviser to Walker’s campaign, who calls the state a model of conservative reform.

But for some Wisconsin workers, life has gotten harder during the Walker years. More people are employed than ever before, Walker likes to say – but many question the value of that, if their jobs don’t provide enough to support a family and pay for health care. 

“I have to work a dead-end job and pay out the nose for everything,” says Nicole, a mom in Oshkosh, standing hoodless in the cold after getting off her shift at a car-rental agency. She hasn’t had medical insurance in months, and says she would need a second and third job to pay for ObamaCare – but doesn’t have time as a single parent. Her boss offered her a car for $500 – after it had been in a deer accident (she opted for car payments instead). Recently, her landlord raised the rent by almost 15 percent.

Meanwhile, she says, her dad – a public employee who was once able to afford dinners out and vacations with four kids – is struggling more now with just one child left at home.

Opponents paint Walker as cold-hearted and opportunistic, caring more about business interests than Wisconsinites. Those close to him say that’s a misstatement of his character, and of his governing principle of removing barriers to prosperity – teaching a man to fish, rather than giving him one, as the Chinese proverb goes.

“If you despise Scott Walker, you do not understand him,” says state Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R), responding to texts from the governor during an interview. “I believe the governor’s vision and what the legislature has been able to accomplish is truly to give every man, woman, and child of this state the best opportunity to succeed.”

Senator Shilling, the minority leader, says the Republican legislature has too often ceded its power to the executive. That’s fine for Republicans, so long they hold the governor’s seat, too, but it undermines the institution.

“We always remind them – the pendulum will swing back,” she says. “Someday, you may regret that, giving away your authority.”

So long as Walker is in power, though, he is likely to stick to his conservative guns. Speaker of the Assembly Robin J. Vos, one of the first to endorse Walker’s gubernatorial ambitions, knows that as well as anyone. In the latest budget negotiations, he and other Assembly Republicans were at odds with the governor over how to address the $1 billion deficit in the state’s Transportation Fund, with the governor adamantly refusing to raise taxes even slightly, despite Wisconsin’s roads being ranked 49th out of 50.  

“He is like the Rock of Gibraltar in a typhoon,” says Speaker Vos.

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4. In heart of China’s coal country, a city confronts a shift to gas

Saying goodbye to coal: A recognition of how that will benefit the rising generation is helping to ease the uncertainties for some Chinese coal workers.  

Amelia

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Each autumn in this Chinese village, as temperatures start to drop, chimney smoke starts to rise – or at least, that’s what always happened in the past. Here in the heart of coal country, coal has done more than warm homes; it’s provided jobs for hundreds of thousands of people. But this year, the larger municipal government has replaced furnaces with gas heaters in more than 110,000 houses, as part of a regional battle against pollution. For decades, China seemed willing to tolerate smoggy skies as a consequence of economic development. But acceptance is fading amid growing calls for better living conditions and more sustainable growth. This year, inspectors have issued more than $125 million in fines, ordering tens of thousands of violators to clean up their operations or risk being shut down – a source of anxiety for generations of miners and factory workers. “We are making a sacrifice, but I feel it’s worth it for the next generation,” says one worker at a coal-fired power plant, who received a pay cut when most operations shut down in May. “A good environment is good for everyone.” 

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In heart of China’s coal country, a city confronts a shift to gas

Yin Xiaoling stands in her kitchen on a recent morning admiring her new gas-powered boiler. With winter approaching, she’s happy to have it in place of her old coal furnace, which covered her courtyard in soot and required frequent upkeep. The air outside is dense with smog, but Ms. Yin is optimistic that such days will soon be few.

“The gas heater is clean and convenient,” she says. She then makes a declaration that not long ago would have been considered unthinkable in Nanxianwen, a quiet village in the heart of China’s coal country. And although she speaks of her own family, she might as well be speaking for the entire village. 

“We’ve said goodbye to coal.”

Gas heating, a small miracle for Yin and her family, is part of a much larger transformation for Taiyuan, a sprawling city of 4.3 million people that includes Nanxianwen. The municipal government has replaced coal furnaces with natural gas heaters in more than 110,000 homes over the past six months. As the heaters begin to turn on, the hope is that they will help reduce the dense smog that engulfs the region during the cold winter months.

Air pollution is chronic across industrialized China. For decades, the country seemed willing to tolerate it as an inevitable consequence of economic development. But such acceptance has started to fade amid growing calls for better living conditions and more sustainable growth. President Xi Jinping acknowledged as much in his opening speech at the 19th Communist Party congress last month. To help alleviate the social tensions posed by pollution, China is intensifying its fight to clean up the skies.

“Now that air pollution has become a political issue, not only an economic issue, it’s more likely to be addressed,” says Lin Boqiang, an energy policy researcher at Xiamen University. “If the Chinese government wants to do something, there’s no question that it will get done.”

So perhaps it’s no surprise that Beijing has strengthened its crackdown on steel mills, coal-fired power plants, and other polluting companies in recent months. Teams of inspectors have issued more than 825 million yuan in fines ($125 million) so far this year, all while ordering tens of thousands of violators to clean up their operations or risk being shut down – a source of anxiety for generations of miners and factory workers here.

In a related campaign announced on Aug. 21, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has ordered 28 cities in northern China, including Taiyuan, to reduce air pollution by at least 15 percent this winter. The effort involves switching 4 million homes to gas heating, a massive undertaking that is projected to cost the government billions of dollars in installation fees and subsidies meant to help cover household heating bills (natural gas can cost up to three times more than coal).

The change is plainly visible in Nanxianwen, where Wang Jian, a local Communist Party official, is reminded of an old saying as he talks about the transition to gas heating. “A village isn’t a village unless there’s smoke coming from its chimneys,” he says. Now that all of the chimneys in Naxianwen have been torn down, its residents will have to come up with a new way to let others know that they’re here.

City in transition

Taiyuan has long experienced some of the worst air pollution in China, and is aiming to curb it by 45 percent between October and March. Last year, it had the highest levels of sulfur dioxide of any large city in the country. The pollution is worst in winter, when coal-burning heaters fire up and add to the toxic emissions that spew from factories and power plants.  

Meanwhile, the side effects of burning coal in China have become increasingly clear. Air pollution caused by coal-fired heating has cut life expectancy in northern provinces by just over three years compared with provinces in the south, according to a study published in September. A separate study released last month found that pollution killed 1.8 million people in China in 2015.

Taiyuan’s relationship to coal has started to change as public awareness about the health risks of pollution grows. On Oct. 1, the municipal government enacted a ban on the sale, transport, and burning of coal by individuals and companies. (It made an exemption for some state-owned steel and power plants.) The ban could cut the use of coal by 2.2 million tons, or about 90 percent of the city’s total consumption.

The transition away from coal presents a kind of existential moment for Taiyuan. As the capital of Shanxi province, whose coal helped fuel China’s economic boom, the city is dotted with coal-fired power plants. But many of them have been shut down in recent years, leaving only a handful of the largest ones in operation.

In a city built on coal, the uncertainty of what comes next has left some residents with a sense of unease. The coal industry has provided steady employment to hundreds of thousands of them for decades. 

Even roadside food vendors in Taiyuan, many of whom cook with coal briquettes, are worried by the new citywide ban. “I’m not sure what will happen,” says Duan Shushi, who sells roasted sweet potatoes from the back of his flatbed cart every winter. “If the ban is strictly enforced, I won’t be able to earn money.”

'Making a sacrifice'

Yet despite all of Taiyuan’s efforts as a city, China has, overall, seen a recent uptick in coal production – the result of rising prices and increased activity in energy-intensive industries. While analysts predict that the country will be far less reliant on coal in the future, they are divided on how soon demand will peak.

Shanxi, for its part, hopes to bolster economic efficiency by closing excess factories and mines that had fed a glut in production. The province, which produces nearly a quarter of China’s coal, plans to eliminate 17 million tons of capacity and close at least 27 mines by the end of this year.

Shanxi has also vowed to cut airborne levels of sulfur dioxide and PM2.5, particles that are small enough to penetrate the bloodstream, by 40 percent this winter. But Lauri Myllyvirta, an energy analyst for Greenpeace in Beijing, says the recent rise in coal production could complicate those efforts, as could a government decision to reverse the suspension of an additional 6 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity in the province.

The consequences of the increase are palpable in Taiyuan, which is located in the middle of Shanxi. Greenpeace estimates that PM2.5 levels in the city were on average 33 percent higher during the first half of this year than they were during the same period last year. Mr. Myllvirta says that until manufacturing and other heavy industries in the surrounding region are brought under control, targeting residential coal use will only do so much to reduce pollution.

“I believe that the current surge in industrial activity is temporary,” he says, adding that “we really have to wait a couple weeks until after the heating season starts to have a sense of how strong the implementation is of all these new measures.”

Regardless of what happens this winter, Taiyuan, like much of northern China, has a long way to go toward reducing air pollution. China may produce more solar and wind energy than any other country, but it still relies on coal to generate three-quarters of its electricity – making it the world’s top coal consumer and biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

For Du Aizhi, who’s worked at one of oldest coal-fired power plants in Taiyuan for 26 years, China’s move away from coal can’t happen quickly enough. She says she doesn’t even mind the pay cut she received when the plant shut down most of its operations in May. Standing outside its front gate, in the shadow of two towering smokestacks and beneath an aluminum-gray sky, Ms. Du says she is hopeful for Taiyuan’s future.

“We are making a sacrifice, but I feel it’s worth it for the next generation,” she says, as dozens of new electric taxis drive past. “A good environment is good for everyone.”

Xie Yujuan contributed to this report.

Karen Norris/Staff
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5. Probing space for the ingredients of life – or even an ‘Earth twin’

In the search for life elsewhere in the universe, we tend to look for our own image. That may be limiting us in terms of seeing what's really there.

Amelia

Mention aliens and most people picture beings that somewhat resemble humans or other Earthly inhabitants. But scientists will quickly tell you that this science fiction depiction of an alien is far too limited a view of the possibilities that might exist out there in the cosmos. Even right here on Earth, life takes myriad forms from microscopic single-celled organisms to massive animals and plants. And that's just the life we know. The possibility that life may take an entirely unknown form makes it tricky for scientists to know what to look for or what might be a conclusive sign of life. So when it comes to searching distant planets, "we're kind of going for quality over quantity," MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager said during a Monitor panel discussion Tuesday. "Although for each individual planet it will be hard to be fully 100 percent confident there's life there, if we see signs of life on so many planets, that will actually be a great step forward for the search for life." – Eva Botkin-Kowacki

For a deeper dive into this cosmic topic, check out our panel discussion on The Search for Life on Facebook.

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The Monitor's View

A sweet note of religious harmony in Indonesia

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Amid religious tensions in Southeast Asia, it’s worth noting that the Constitutional Court of Indonesia issued a ruling Nov. 7 that upholds religious freedom. It ordered that the government must ensure equality before the law regardless of a person’s faith and honor the Constitution’s guarantee of “freedom of religion and worship.” The ruling serves as a legal beacon for much of the Islamic world. While Indonesia has a mixed record of tolerance toward non-Muslims, it is widely admired among many in the Middle East as a model for harmony between different religions. The country’s reputation, however, has lately been challenged by a rise in groups seeking a nondemocratic caliphate and by a number of terrorist attacks committed by Islamic militants since 2000. The high court’s ruling is one step toward containing such religious intolerance. Indonesia bears watching as it puts its faith in equality into equality between faiths.

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A sweet note of religious harmony in Indonesia

In Myanmar (Burma), the Muslim minority is on the run from extremists in the Buddhist majority. In nearby Malaysia, some in the Muslim majority refuse to do business with the Hindu minority. In the Philippines, Islamic terrorists target the Christian majority with bombs and bullets.

Amid such religious tensions in Southeast Asia, it is worth noting that the Constitutional Court of Indonesia issued a ruling Nov. 7 that upholds religious freedom. It ordered the government to no longer discriminate against people whose faith is not one of the six religions that have been officially recognized since 1965 (Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism). Instead, officials must ensure equality before the law regardless of a person’s faith and honor the Constitution’s guarantee of “freedom of religion and worship.”

The ruling serves not only as a legal beacon for one corner of Asia but also for much of the Islamic world. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation with close to 90 percent of its 260 million people identifying as Muslim. While it has a mixed record of tolerance toward non-Muslims, it is widely admired among many in the Middle East as a model for harmony between different religions.

The country’s reputation, however, has lately been challenged by a rise in groups seeking a nondemocratic caliphate and by a number of terrorist attacks committed by Islamic militants since 2000. In May, a recent former governor of the capital region was jailed on charges of blasphemy against Islam. And in many local areas, the rights of religious minorities are restricted.

The high court’s ruling is one step toward containing such religious intolerance. In September, President Joko Widodo called on universities to promote the official ideology of secular rule. He appointed a special envoy for interfaith dialogue and cooperation. And, in a controversial move, the government passed a law that outlaws any civil organization that violates or threatens Indonesia’s pluralist tradition. One group, Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia, has already been banned.

“Moderate Muslims are too quiet. We have to become radical moderates,” said Abdul Mu’ti, secretary-general of the Muslim reformist group Muhammadiyah, at a recent conference.

A few other Muslim-majority countries, such as Tunisia, have notched some success in religious tolerance. Indonesia bears watching as it puts its faith in equality into equality between faiths.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Not a victim

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Recently we’ve heard many accounts from individuals who have experienced sexual harassment or assault. When today’s contributor found herself being assaulted and unable to fight back, the realization that everyone has God-given purity and strength helped her stop seeing herself as a vulnerable victim. She “felt God’s presence and strength there” with her, and suddenly the man let her go. The lasting effect of this experience has not been trauma, but a feeling of empowerment. We can find comfort, protection, and healing in our identity as the innocent children of God – not destined to be victims or victimizers.

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Not a victim

Recently we have heard many accounts from women and men who have experienced sexual harassment or assault, and the impacts it has had on their lives and careers. A lesson I learned from my own experience continues to inspire me in my desire to support others facing these issues.

When I was a freshman in college, I experienced sexual harassment and assault (not rape). I was incapacitated, and couldn’t fight back. The man involved was holding a pillow over my face, so I couldn’t call out for help or breathe, either. In my moment of extreme need, I reached out to God in prayer.

It was the week before Christmas, and I had been reading the nativity story in the Bible that tells of Christ Jesus’ birth. I had gained a deeper appreciation of the innocence and moral courage of Jesus’ mother, Mary, and the purity and strength of Christ Jesus. So as I reached out to God in that extreme moment, I thought of how Mary’s innocent trust in God’s loving care had both protected and empowered her, and that I, too, expressed this spiritual innocence and strength.

During that Christmas week I had thought much about the Christ – the spiritual, good, and pure nature of God that Jesus so beautifully embodied. As Mary expressed so much of true womanhood, Jesus was a shining example of true manhood.

A spiritual idea that has meant a lot to me is: “Into the real and ideal man the fleshly element cannot enter” (Mary Baker Eddy, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 332). It means to me that God-given innocence, purity, goodness, and love form the substance of my identity as God’s child, and that this isn’t unique to me, but is the spiritual truth about everyone. So no “fleshly element” – hate, violence, terror, evil, anger, or harm – could be a part of anyone’s identity or victimize anyone.

The first chapter of Genesis in the Bible refers to man – all of us – as created in the spiritual image and likeness of God (see verses 26, 27). All these ideas seemed to come together powerfully during this attack. I immediately felt a spiritual sense of God’s presence and strength with me, and I became calm.

The man had certainly not been behaving in a way that reflected this true, spiritual nature I’ve described, but I like to think that he must have felt something of it in that moment. He very suddenly stopped attacking me and let me go without a word.

Right away I reported the incident to the administration. Though no action was taken at that point, I nonetheless felt empowered by my new understanding of my innocence. I was able to successfully and calmly take my finals (including an exam in the same room with the man who had assaulted me) and leave for Christmas break. Since that time, I am grateful to say that I’ve had no trauma from that experience – not even when I was interviewed the following semester by a student/faculty/administration panel about the man’s behavior, in an investigation that finally led to him being disciplined.

While it was right he was held accountable for his actions, it has also been important to me to be able to pray about how I think about him. God has created us all as His spiritual children, reflecting the goodness and integrity of divine Love, not as aggressive, selfish mortals. This means that even those who have done wrong have the inherent ability to recognize what’s right and to act that way – to be reformed.

This experience helped me realize I have a choice to make about which identity I will accept as truly mine: a vulnerable mortal, or the cared-for child of divine Love. I chose to accept I was of God’s creating, and the result has helped me see that women and men alike, including those who have done wrong, can find comfort, protection, and healing in understanding our identity as the innocent children of God – not destined to be victims or victimizers.

Adapted from a testimony in the Oct. 22, 2007, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Welcome, presidents

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Opera dancers perform during a visit by President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Forbidden City in Beijing Nov. 8.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( November 9th, 2017 )

Thanks for joining us today. Tomorrow, we'll further plumb Tuesday's election by looking at whether Trump's first year is generating a wave of newly energized Democrats.

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