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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2018
November
07
Wednesday

The 2018 midterms are over. Now the battle over their meaning begins.

To Democrats they mean control of the House of Representatives and an increase in the number of Democratic governors. To Republicans they mean an expanded margin in the Senate and the defeat of some Democratic rising stars, such as Texan Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke.

Both stories are true. Both, without the other, are incomplete. In their differences, they reflect the deep divide in US politics, a cultural and partisan gulf that preceded President Trump but now seems to be widening by the day.

The problem is the parties now reflect American social identities as much or more than preferences for budget policy or social spending. Republicans are increasingly a white working class organization with many evangelical Christian members. Democrats are becoming a coalition of more educated whites and minorities.

Add racial and religious differences to political disagreement and today’s polarized, angry country is the result.

The midterm results mean this schism of the parties will be an inescapable fact of US life, as the new Democratic House and the incumbent president rocket toward inevitable collisions. But remember, both sides’ stories are incomplete without the other’s. So long as we actually want a democracy, there is no way out of this other than facing our divisions.

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Now to our five stories for today. 

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1. As Democrats regain power, will parties find a bridge on issues?

Divided government can lead to gridlock. But it can also open the door to bipartisanship because the parties must work together to accomplish anything. On issues from infrastructure to prescription drug costs, both sides say they see common ground.

Peter

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Tuesday’s midterm elections brought divided government back to Washington – a condition that Americans choose more often than not and one that offers the checks and balances the Constitution enshrines. This week’s balloting also reinforced polarized America, solidifying the political fault lines of 2016: Generally, states that President Trump handily carried two years ago are sending Republicans to the Senate, while suburbs that went for Hillary Clinton handed the House to Democrats. This doesn’t close the door on bipartisanship. Indeed, divided government has a way of opening that door a bit wider simply because the two parties have to work together if they want to get anything done. The new ingredient in the Washington equation is a Democratic House, likely led by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who is running for speaker. If her party backs her – and many ran their campaigns on the promise not to – it would be the second time she wields the gavel. “She is a coalition builder,” says former House historian Ray Smock. “She wants to get things done.” 

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As Democrats regain power, will parties find a bridge on issues?

Alice Blackmer is a transplanted Vermonter, a huge Bernie Sanders fan repotted in the northern Virginia exurb of Leesburg, an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C. On Election Day, she voted a straight Democratic ticket, and helped Democrats flip a seat to retake the House.

“I almost don’t care who’s on the ballot,” she said, emerging from her polling place in a drizzle. “I just can’t stand Donald Trump and those around him.” What she wanted was a check on the president.

She got her wish.

Tuesday’s record-turnout midterm elections brought divided government back to Washington – a condition that Americans prefer more often than not, and one that, while unwieldy, offers the checks and balances that the Constitution enshrines. This week’s balloting also reinforced polarized America, solidifying the political fault lines of 2016: Generally, states that Mr. Trump handily carried two years ago are sending Republicans to the Senate, while women in suburbs that went for Hillary Clinton have handed the House to Democrats.

“The polarization, the trench warfare of American politics looks to be intensified, not reduced, after Tuesday,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.

This doesn’t close the door on bipartisanship. Indeed, divided government has a way of opening that door a bit wider simply because the two parties have to work together if they want to get anything done. Since the election, all three key players – President Trump, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell – have mentioned the “B” word, bipartisanship.

“We will strive for bipartisanship,” Representative Pelosi told reporters on Wednesday. “We believe we have a responsibility to seek common ground where we can. Where we cannot, we will stand our ground.”

Potential exists for deals on issues such as infrastructure and reducing the cost of health care. The question is, will these leaders go there? Will their bases allow them to?

The new ingredient in the Washington equation is a Democratic House, likely led by Pelosi, who is running for speaker. If her colleagues back her – and many ran their campaigns on the promise not to – it would be the second time she wields the gavel, making her the most powerful woman in Washington.

“I’ve watched Nancy Pelosi’s career from the time she got there. She is a coalition builder. She wants to get things done. She’s not the ideologue caricature that has been put into the press by her opponents,” says Ray Smock, former House historian.

Pelosi points to her work with President George W. Bush on a major energy bill, even as she vigorously opposed him on the war in Iraq.

Pragmatists outnumber progressives

Much has been made of a looming Democratic schism – the divide between the Bernie Sanders progressive wing and the Hillary Clinton establishment wing – and the problems that this could cause for the party. There was the primary victory of Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, who is now headed to the House, and the avowed opposition to Pelosi as speaker from candidates trying to wrest control from Republicans in swing districts.

But observers both inside and outside the party say the divide is not nearly as severe as that which plagued Republicans when the tea party rode in on a wave in 2010. Subsequent clashes over spending, health care, and immigration precipitated near fiscal crises and partial government shut-downs, eventually forcing GOP leaders from office.

Indeed, the number of new members who hail from the Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party is small. Most new House Democrats are more centrist pragmatists from swing districts who ran on working with Republicans.

“I don’t think that the battles, such as they are within the Democratic family, are about strident ideological platforms,” says Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) of Virginia. “It’s about new faces. It’s about new blood. It’s about allowing some new ideas to flourish.”

One of the Democrats who worked to elect new leaders to the House was Rep. Seth Moulton (D) of Massachusetts, an Iraq war veteran who has called for Pelosi to step aside. In a statement to the Monitor Wednesday, he said, “the press likes to play up our debates, but we all want to move this country forward.” Democrats are united, he said, on good jobs, affordable health care, and equal rights.

He and other Democrats also point to the constitutional role of Congress as a check and balance on the presidency. The election of a Democratic House blocks any GOP legislative attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act or to weaken popular entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. And it likely means investigative hearings on things like immigration, Russian meddling in elections, changes to health-care policy via executive order, and the president’s business holdings and tax returns. Various federal agencies and cabinet members could become targets, and the administration could face subpoenas.

“We as Democrats are here to strengthen the institution we serve and not to have it be a rubber stamp on President Trump,” Pelosi told reporters Wednesday.

The danger of ‘overplaying’ their hand

But Democrats need to be careful not to “overplay” their hand, particularly with impeachment, says James Thurber, a congressional expert at American University in Washington. Exit polls showed that three-quarters of Democrats favor impeaching Trump – but only 41 percent of voters overall want him impeached.

Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are resisting impeachment. “They know that can backfire and help Trump, as it did with President Clinton,” says Mr. Thurber. But will Pelosi and her peers be able to resist the enormous pressure that will come from their base? As she has said, much will depend on the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller.

That investigation saw the ground shift from underneath it when Trump on Wednesday forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions, appointing his chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, as acting attorney general – and as Mr. Mueller’s new boss.

Congressional Democrats were alarmed by the move. Pelosi warned in a tweet that “It is impossible to read Attorney General Sessions’ firing as anything other than another blatant attempt by @realDonaldTrump to undermine & end Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation.” And she said Mr. Whitaker “should recuse himself from any involvement in Mueller’s investigations,” given his “threats” to weaken the probe.

In a tumultuous news conference with the media on Wednesday, Trump also warned that there are “a lot of great things” that he could do with Democrats, but not if they crank up the investigation machine. 

In the Senate, Republicans held control while ousting moderate Democrats in North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri – even as they lost their Republican incumbent in Nevada. The hollowing out of the center continues, with Trump loyalists – including incoming Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee – expected to widen the ideological divide in the chamber.

With divided government, said Senator McConnell on Wednesday, “the message is: ‘figure out what you can do together, and do it.’” He pointed specifically to health care as something that still needed to be fixed.

That said, he emphasized that his top priority would continue to be filling the judiciary with judges like those that Trump has nominated. He added that he would have more time for executive confirmations – such as at the Justice Department – because areas for legislative agreement “will be limited.”

That’s the way Mr. Farnsworth sees it. “Divided government isn’t going to do all that much with respect to policy. The main thing that Democrats can do, and they can do it without Republican votes, is investigate.”

And get ready for 2020. Which both sides are already doing.

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report.

SOURCE: Real Clear Politics
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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2. Facing new political reality, Trump hints he is ready for a fight

Can a leader offer compromise with one hand while keeping the other clenched in a fist? As a combative President Trump faced the press Wednesday, his message to congressional Democrats was mixed.

Peter

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The divided outcome in Tuesday’s midterms – Democrats capturing the House and Republicans expanding their Senate majority – perfectly captured the nation’s divisions. Urban areas are Democratic, rural states and regions Republican, and suburbs evenly split. “This was a realignment election, not a wave,” says former Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia. Indeed, President Trump and members of Congress face a choice. They can address the new reality with an eye toward solving problems and show voters they know how to govern. Crumbling infrastructure is Exhibit A. Or they can go straight into posturing for the 2020 election. Mr. Trump’s explosive press conference Wednesday, in which all decorum vanished between the president and certain reporters, showed his combative side even as he insisted he could deploy a softer tone. And in a move that was long expected, Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned at Trump’s request. Democrats, no longer nearly powerless in Washington, are revving their engines and ready to check the president. But Ari Fleischer, press secretary in the second Bush White House, sees another path to common ground: immigration. “Trump can decide what he wants to do,” says Mr. Fleischer. “Is he the dealmaker or not?”

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Facing new political reality, Trump hints he is ready for a fight

The divided outcome in Tuesday’s midterms – Democrats capturing the House and Republicans expanding their Senate majority – perfectly captured the nation’s divisions. Urban areas are Democratic, rural states and regions are Republican, suburbs are evenly split.

“This was a realignment election, not a wave,” says former Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia. “I got a little nervous on Election Day sitting outside my polling place in [suburban] Fairfax.” The voters, he says, came in “really angry,” but he realized that wasn’t the case everywhere.

Indeed, President Trump, Capitol Hill legislators of both parties, and the American people face a choice. They can address the new political reality with an eye toward solving problems, and the politicians can show voters they know how to govern. Crumbling infrastructure is Exhibit A.

Or they can go straight into posturing for the 2020 election. Mr. Trump’s explosive press conference Wednesday, in which all decorum vanished between the president and certain reporters, showed how prepared he was for combat (as were the reporters) even as he insisted he could deploy a softer tone.

“I would love to see unity and peace and love, if they would cover me fairly, which they don’t,” Trump said at the press conference in the East Room of the White House. “I’m not saying that in a hostile way. I get extremely inaccurate coverage.”

Trump’s ongoing conflicts with the media aside, it’s a new day in Washington. By Wednesday afternoon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions had resigned, at the president’s request, amid Trump’s longstanding frustration over Mr. Sessions’ recusal from the Justice Department investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Sessions’ chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, was named acting attorney general, and will assume decision-making authority over the Russia investigation.

Meanwhile, votes were still being counted. At press time, the Democrats had achieved a net gain of 27 seats in the House, above the 23 needed to secure a majority. And in a rare but not-unheard-of outcome, the partisan balance in the other chamber moved in the opposite direction, with Republicans gaining Senate seats (a net gain of two so far, with some races still undecided).

While newly empowered Democratic House leaders promised to work collaboratively with Trump and his administration, deeper questions remain about just how feasible that is. Many in the Democrats’ rank and file are revving their engines and ready to check the president once they take control of the House in January. Investigations, subpoenas, and impeachment are on the table.

Trump, at the press conference, struck an initially conciliatory tone toward Democrats, saying both parties should put their differences aside and work together. But then, he warned, that would all end if the Democrats start to investigate him and his administration – and nothing would get done.

For Trump, still new to governing, the next two-year phase of his presidency brings a test of his ability to adapt. Last Friday, at a campaign rally in West Virginia, he contemplated the possible GOP loss of the House, and said he wasn’t worried, he’d “figure it out.”

Republican analysts agree that Trump has gotten to the pinnacle of political power based on native ability, and are confident he will find his way.

“He’s all gut and instinct, which has served him well,” says Ari Fleischer, former press secretary in the second Bush White House.

Trump has also rebranded the Republican Party, in some ways dramatically, says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“The traditional Republican Party is gone, and Trumpism is ‘America first’ nativism and border control amid concern about the ‘other,’ ” says Professor Jillson.

Mr. Fleischer sees the new dynamic as not right vs. left, but of “outsider vs. left.”

“The Republican Party has dramatically shifted to an outsider point of view, and I think that’s likely going to continue,” he says, noting the retirement and defeat of GOP members oriented toward bipartisanship. “[Outsiders] don’t like Washington, they don’t trust Washington, and they reward politicians who are the most anti-Washington.”

Looking ahead to partisan relations on Capitol Hill come January, Mr. Davis, the former Virginia congressman, sees a “threshold issue” for Democrats: the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion between Russia and Trump associates in the 2016 campaign.

“How do Democrats deal with the Mueller report?” Davis asks. “That goes right to their base.”

Exit polling showed that three-quarters of Democratic voters Tuesday want Trump impeached, versus 41 percent of voters overall.

Democrats who support impeachment have handed their party control of the House, and so “there is some expectation among the party’s base that something will happen other than just putting a check on Trump,” says Davis.

He also notes that wealthy party activists like Tom Steyer, talk radio, and cable TV will be “whipping this thing up,” and saying, “We elected you guys, what are you doing?”

“They think there’s enough to impeach him now,” Davis says. “This is going to add gasoline on the fire. If they do that, what does it do to relationships?”

For her part, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who is likely to reclaim the speakership, has spoken of a reintroduction of checks and balances and not of pursuing impeachment.

But even short of an impeachment effort, Trump can use the inevitable clashes and pushback from House Democrats to his advantage, says Susan MacManus, professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

So it’s possible that Trump “wins for losing” the House, she says, as the majority Democrats give him a foil to run against in 2020.

Fleischer sees another potential path for Trump and the bipartisan leaders in the House and Senate: to find common ground on immigration. Democrats want to protect those who have been in the country illegally for a long time, especially “dreamers.” Republicans want border security, including a wall along the United States-Mexico border.

“Trump can decide what he wants to do,” says Mr. Fleischer. “Is he the dealmaker or not?”

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3. Dangling a college offer, one rural town tries to hang on to its workers

A tight job market always forces employers to get creative in hiring. But a worker shortage is especially challenging in places that are often overlooked: small rural towns.

Peter

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The US unemployment rate has hit a nearly 50-year low. And five of the 10 states with the lowest unemployment are also among the most rural of states, including North Dakota. Yet that poses the challenge of finding people to fill new jobs. Large swatches of the rural countryside are losing population or barely holding their own. As a result, rural communities are trying creative ways to cope. In Devils Lake, N.D., local businesses have just agreed on a tuition reimbursement program for high school graduates who promise to return and work after getting a technical degree. The idea: If they come back for a job, they’ll stay and raise families. Fully 80 percent of tuition will be covered, mostly by each student’s sponsoring business. It’s costly for these small employers. But Brad Barth, head of the local economic development corporation that will act as a cosponsor, says, “We talked to 15 businesses in two weeks and they were all in.” Doug Darling, president of the local Lake Region State College, says that “if we work together on these things, I think it’s going to help.”

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Dangling a college offer, one rural town tries to hang on to its workers

Dick Prozinski taps his cluttered desk with affectionate nostalgia.

“I’d have 100 [job] applications on my desk at all times,” says the Devils Lake, N.D., restaurant owner. Now, “you almost have to beg people to fill out an application.” Between his two eateries, he’s short seven or eight trained cooks.

Ditto for Kyle Blanchfield, owner of Woodland Resort on the shores of Devils Lake, the state’s largest natural lake and renowned for its fishing. If he could hire four or five more trained customer-service managers, he says he could boost business 20 percent.

The worker shortage that is affecting companies across the country is hitting rural America with a double-whammy. Last month, the economy added 250,000 new jobs, the Labor Department reported Friday. And there’s evidence that, confounding expectations, rural and small-town America are now seeing slightly faster job growth than metro areas.

There’s just one problem: While the strong economy is boosting the number of jobs, large swatches of the rural countryside are losing population or barely holding their own. As a result, rural communities are trying creative ways to cope with the worst labor shortage in decades.

Some offer to help pay for housing for workers who move in. Others are revamping their downtowns to attract millennials. Here in Devils Lake, a group of businesses have just agreed to a tuition reimbursement program for high school graduates who promise to return and work. The idea: If they come back for a job, they’ll stay and raise families.

“We have tried in the past to bring in new business; maybe that wasn’t the right approach,” says Ryan Hanson, principal of the local high school. “Maybe we should be strengthening what we already have.”

College costs in exchange for work 

Under the new program, a business would partner with a high school senior who is interested in a one- or two-year technical degree. The business would pay 60 percent of his or her college costs and Forward Devils Lake, the area’s economic development corporation, would kick in another 20 percent. In exchange, the student would agree to work for the sponsoring company for three years.

That’s a sizable investment for small businesses. With tuition, room, and board at North Dakota two-year schools costing anywhere from $11,800 to $14,100 a year for residents, the tuition reimbursement could cost them nearly $17,000. But that hasn’t dampened initial enthusiasm for the plan.

“There’s not enough students in North Dakota, with the declining enrollment,” says Brad Barth, the economic development executive who dreamed up the idea. “So when a program comes along like ours, [local companies] are in…. We talked to 15 businesses in two weeks and they were all in.”

Business owners say it’s worth the investment.

“Most of our shortages come from our network technicians,” says Dave Dircks, CEO of North Dakota Telephone Company, which offers cable and internet as well as phone service in the area. He’s interested in sending students to a South Dakota technical school, whose program fits his operation to a T, down to using the same equipment. “If you get an individual out of there, he can basically step in” and start working, he says. (The students aren’t limited to in-state schools.)

There are signs that the rural economy overall is improving. Five of the 10 states with the lowest unemployment are also among the most rural of states, including North Dakota. And for the first quarter of this year (the latest figures available), a Brookings Institution study found that rural and small-town America were growing jobs at a slightly faster pace than large metros.

The challenge is that these averages mask big differences among rural communities. In North Dakota, for example, the oil and gas industry in the western part of the state has boomed, creating new jobs and attracting out-of-state workers. Here in agriculture- and tourism-based Ramsey County, the 2.2 unemployment rate looks strong, but it’s the result of a labor force that has shrunk faster than employment has. The county now has fewer jobs than during the worst of the Great Recession.

Devils Lake saw its employment boosted temporarily by construction, which has brought a new viaduct and a string of retail businesses on US 2, which runs through town. But workers were in such short supply that local firms poached employees from one another.

“All they did was rob Peter to pay Paul; it was almost like musical chairs,” recalls Doug Darling, president of Lake Region State College, the two-year college in town. When the Burger King first opened, he twice had to go through the drive-through because there weren’t enough workers to staff the dining area.

The lack of available employees also makes it hard for new businesses to come to the area, Mr. Darling points out. “They look at the unemployment rate, they look at the workforce available, and they're going: ‘We can’t see locating here because you guys don’t have a workforce for us.’ … [But] if we work together on these things, I think it’s going to help.”

Starting small 

For the first year, Mr. Barth of Forward Devils Lake is hoping to get five seniors to sign up. By 2020, he hopes to have 20 from the high schools in the region.

“I think he could probably get his five,” says Jean Baird, a school counselor at the high school in Devils Lake. Of its 480 or so students, some 50 to 60 percent go on to a technical school. “The tough part is going to be matching up the student with the appropriate business…. Committing to three years [of work] after college sometimes scares some of the kids.”

Local business owners, like Mr. Prozinski, are ready to make their pitch. “If I had more help,” he says, “I would love to open a bistro downtown.” 

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4. Forced into exile, this young ex-mayor still serves Venezuelans

From exile's heartbreak and loss can emerge kernels of new hope that dreams will be realized in one's next home. Or the next. For David Smolansky, following that path is a family tradition.

Peter
Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
David Smolansky is heading up efforts to assist Venezuelan refugees across Latin America through his work at the Organization of American States in Washington. Mr. Smolansky was elected Venezuela's youngest mayor in 2013 but, like many opposition mayors, he ran afoul of the Maduro regime and fled.

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In 2013, David Smolansky, then 28, became Venezuela’s youngest-ever mayor, elected to serve a middle-class Caracas suburb. Today he proudly ticks off his accomplishments: a steep reduction in kidnappings and other crimes, a school-lunch program, a transit system. But he ran afoul of the increasingly dictatorial President Nicolás Maduro when he allowed antigovernment demonstrations on his turf. In 2017 a warrant was issued for his arrest, and he fled. It turns out he was following in the footsteps of his grandparents and parents, who fled Russia after the revolution and Cuba after the rise of Fidel Castro. Now living in Washington, Mr. Smolansky says he was inspired by his family history as he sneaked into Brazil en route to the United States. “It gave me strength to follow this path,” he says. Now working on the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis for the Organization of American States, Smolansky says he is still dedicated to public service and hopes someday to return to rebuild Venezuala. “I know the millions of Venezuelans who are refugees now will also want to go back,” he says, “and together ... we will work to build back our country.”

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Forced into exile, this young ex-mayor still serves Venezuelans

When David Smolansky decided it was time to escape the arrest warrant issued for him in his native Venezuela, the idea of living somewhere in exile was hardly a new one in his family.

As it turned out, David would become the third generation of Smolanskys to leave their homeland to live in freedom somewhere else, fleeing a revolution that morphed into a repressive and authoritarian regime.

Elected in 2013 at age 28 as Venezuela’s youngest-ever mayor, Mr. Smolansky got down to addressing crime and feeding hungry kids in schools – but he also eventually ran afoul of the increasingly dictatorial regime of President Nicolás Maduro. With a warrant issued in August 2017 for his arrest – and political-prisoner status looming – the popular mayor of the middle-class El Hatillo suburb of Caracas made a plan to sneak out of the country.

Here we go again, thought the broad-smiling politician with a football-player’s build.

Indeed Smolansky’s paternal grandparents, Russian Jews, had fled what became the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution. Their chosen destination to rebuild their lives? A promising place called Cuba.

But after losing the textile business the Smolanskys had built in their new home to the revolution of Fidel Castro, David’s parents decided to leave. They looked around the region for a new place where they might build a family and prosper in freedom.

That place was Venezuela – a democracy and advancing middle-class country that, when David’s parents arrived in 1970, was the envy of much of South America.

Now living in Washington, Smolansky says his family history was a lifeline as he went underground in Venezuela, crossed the border into Brazil dressed as a priest – Bible in hand and rosary around his neck for good measure – and made his way to the United States.

“I prayed so much while I was in clandestinity, but I was also inspired by what my grandparents and parents had overcome in similar situations before me,” says Smolansky, whose mother is Catholic and who himself was baptized at age 10. “It gave me strength to follow this path.”

Goal is to return

Yet in one critical way Smolansky is determined to see his story play out differently from those of his forbears. The exiled mayor who chose a future of public service as a college student is set, not on building his life in his new home, but on returning to Venezuela to help rebuild the country from the ashes of its downward political and economic spiral.

“I’ve been and would like to be again a public servant for my country,” he says. “So my goal is to go back when conditions allow that. I know the millions of Venezuelans who are refugees now will also want to go back,” he adds, “and together with those like many in my family who are still there, we will work to build back our country.”

Smolansky is proud of his record as mayor. He ticks off accomplishments in El Hatillo that won him a spotlight when so much of Venezuela was going downhill: a steep reduction in kidnappings and other crimes fomented by a sinking economy; a school-lunch program to help address rising malnutrition among children; a transit system linking his municipality to surrounding rural areas.

But as a known member of the political opposition – as a college student he had helped organize large demonstrations against Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez – Smolansky also drew the attention of the Maduro government. When the country’s supreme court, known to be stacked with pro-Maduro jurists, issued a list of opposition mayors it wanted arrested and tried on various charges, Smolansky’s name was on it.

His crime? Failing to keep public thoroughfares unencumbered. In other words, he allowed anti-government demonstrations on the streets of El Hatillo when the Maduro government had ordered them stopped.

It was the kind of trumped-up charge that had already landed dozens of mayors and other public servants in prison – Venezuela had at least 237 political prisoners behind bars in mid-October, according to Foro Penal, a Venezuelan legal assistance organization – and it’s what set the young mayor on his path to exile.

Smolansky says he feels every day like his place is back in Venezuela, pursuing his calling in public service. But he says he also has a strong sense that he is able to continue serving his country from his new home in the US.

At OAS, serving Venezuelans

In large part that is because of the new task he has taken on. In September the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, called on Smolansky to chair the OAS’s new working group on the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis.

“I can’t be in my country right now, but this position does give me a sense of purpose and a chance to continue serving Venezuelans,” he says. With an estimated 2.6 million Venezuelans having left their country – a number that could reach 3 million by the end of the year – Smolansky says there is a long list of services to be provided, from food, shelter, and jobs, to education for displaced children.

Most Venezuelans leaving their country are crossing land borders into Colombia and Brazil, with growing numbers also moving on to Peru, Mexico, and if they can, the US.

“Many people don’t realize it, but this is the biggest [refugee] crisis ever” in Latin America, he says. “Syria is the only current crisis that has displaced more people,” he says, “but that’s a terrible war situation. This crisis is happening without a war.”

Unlike Smolansky, who left for political reasons, most Venezuelans are fleeing the country’s dire economic straits. The GDP has fallen by half over the last five years, inflation has reached an unfathomable 1 million percent, oil production – the country’s bread and butter – continues to shrink, and imports of food and medicines – critical to a country that has lived off its oil wealth and never developed much domestic production – have plummeted.

Smolansky says he also feels inspired by the long line of prominent Latin American leaders – from Brazil’s former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, to former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos – who also found themselves forced to live in exile before they could return to lead their countries.

“I know they used their time in exile to learn and to remain in service, and when they went back they were able to accomplish some great things,” he says.

Dream of democracy

The bearded former mayor, who has taken a liking to a particular arepa shop in Washington (an arepa is a ground maize muffin-like staple in Venezuela and Colombia), says he’s too busy to focus on when political conditions will change to allow a return to his country. But he acknowledges it won’t be tomorrow.

“Maduro has the generals and the arms on his side right now,” he says. He notes that the president has put generals in charge of the industries Venezuela still has operating, including the state-owned oil company. That helps isolate the higher echelons of the armed forces from the country’s impoverishment and encourages their loyalty – a strategy used by the Castro regime in Cuba.

Experts on Venezuela also underscore that the country’s political opposition is deeply divided, hapless, and now decimated after years of an increasingly authoritarian central government.

But Smolansky says he remains confident that some day before too long he and many Venezuelans like him will return to build a new country.

“I’m 33 years old, I’m part of a generation that grew up under Chávez and Maduro and doesn’t know what it is to live in a country that has democracy, the rule of law, security, and opportunity and prosperity,” he says. “But realizing those things for Venezuela is my dream, and I know there are many, many more Venezuelans who dream like me.”

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5. Why a global village thrives in this small Georgia town

Decades of refugee arrivals have reshaped Clarkston, a town on Atlanta’s outskirts. Amid a heated national debate over immigration and asylum, Clarkston’s churches are playing a key role in the integration of newcomers.  

Peter
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Community members and refugees attend a gathering at Cafe Clarkston in Clarkston, Ga., in 2015. The cafe, part of the nonprofit Friends of Refugees, provides educational opportunities, job-placement services, and emotional support for immigrants.

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Since the 1980s, the population of Clarkston, Ga., has been swollen by refugees arriving from around the world. Its transformation was in part due to its proximity to jobs in Atlanta and its cheap housing stock, but there was never a grand plan. Regardless, its rapid makeover has yielded a remarkably tolerant attitude toward diversity, including among its churches that had declining congregations of mostly white worshippers. For refugees, Clarkston offers a glimpse of America’s promise of equal treatment under the law. Some newcomers to Clarkston say they are moving to the town of 13,000 so that they and their children are exposed to greater diversity. For Eric Holland, a Baptist pastor, moving to Clarkston has shown him the renewed promise of America as a global melting pot. “I hear all this hateful rhetoric about immigrants destroying America, and it hurts,” says Holland. “These are my neighbors, my friends.”

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Why a global village thrives in this small Georgia town

Eric Holland spent most of his nearly 50 years living in “one of the whitest counties” in Georgia. He never really thought much about its lack of diversity until he visited Clarkston, Ga.

Known as one of the most international square miles in the US where more than 60 languages are spoken, Clarkston is a suburb of Atlanta.

Nearly half of its 13,000 residents are refugees from violence-torn corners of the world: Bhutan, Myanmar, Bosnia. Dark Ethiopian coffee spiced with fresh ginger and cane sugar can today be had in a leafy town founded by goat herders in 1882.  

Not long after his 2013 visit, Mr. Holland picked up his family, his wife and their four kids, and moved to Clarkston. He confesses he still struggles a bit with the transition, particularly communicating without a common “heart language” with some refugees.

But his children are thriving in an international-themed charter school. And his Baptist church’s 300-strong congregation is a multicultural outpost of conservative Christian faith in the Deep South.

A week after a gunman killed 11 people at a synagogue after posting on social media about Jews helping refugees “invade” the US, Holland felt a slight heightening of tension around the safety of his multiracial congregation.

But his greater concern is for a country that he sees as so bent on identifying enemies that it forgets what a friend looks like. That’s why, for him, Clarkston’s fitful embrace of foreigners speaks to America’s promise, not its feared demise.

“I hear all this hateful rhetoric about immigrants destroying America, and it hurts,” says Holland, who is the discipleship pastor at Clarkston International Bible Church (CIBC). “These are my neighbors, my friends.”

A favorite landing spot

In a polarized country, Clarkston, the South’s own Ellis Island, is a snapshot, says Mayor Ted Terry, of “a future America” where a polyglot community can thrive. It is also where Oval Office executive orders filter down: Some of the most recent Syrian families to be admitted to the US settled here. (Overall admissions from Syria fell from 12,500 in 2016 to 62 in 2017.)

If the US is riven by nativist anti-immigrant sentiment today, that conflict is old hat in Clarkston.

By virtue not of a grand plan but its proximity to jobs and available housing, Clarkston starting in the 1980s became a favorite landing spot for refugees. They arrived from various war zones into a quiet if ramshackle corner of Atlanta, a town bisected by rumbling freight trains.

Since 1992, some 40,000 refugees have trod a path to US citizenship through Clarkston, serviced on their journey by an array of NGOs, many of them church-led.

Few other communities in the US have had to ask such deep questions, nor come up with such difficult answers, on matters of belonging, compassion, prejudice, and sacrifice.

“We have had to prune prejudice down to where there was almost nobody left, and we had to build ourselves back up,” says octogenarian Vietnam War veteran William Perrin, a CIBC church elder. “But as a result, the base is stronger than ever.”

‘We live together’

For refugees, Clarkston offers a glimpse of America’s promise of equal treatment under the law.

And it is so small that nationalist ghettos can’t really form: Everyone has to live together, usually in late-model townhouses set amid longleaf pines.

“People here [are] good,” says Bosnian refugee Esef Kiebic, who arrived in 1998 and retired recently as a greenskeeper at an Atlanta golf course. “We live together.”

In the recent past, Eritreans and Ethiopians have warred back home. In Clarkston, they cook next door to each other, says Tesfamkeil Katema, an Eritrean refugee and naturalized American waiting for a church service on a sunny Georgia morning.

“War is politics, not people – we all want a good life,” Mr. Katema says. “Here we live together even though we have differences on politics and religion. That is what makes it Clarkston.”

He adds, more philosophically: “If refugees are treated as second-class citizens, why would they be dedicated to this country? The fact that they are not native but are given every right due a citizen is exactly the reason why it became a great America, a very powerful country.”

As the town’s population has shifted, some churches have folded, some have adjusted. New churches have emerged. A large mosque is also going up in town.

But while some townspeople moved away as the refugees flowed in, today many white Americans – from “woke” Southern progressives to Christian conservatives – are the newcomers, drawn by the opportunity, even the privilege, to live in a diverse community.

“I’ve made my home here for a reason. I tell people I am the son of refugees, eight generations removed,” says CIBC Pastor Trent Deloach, who traces his lineage to French Huguenots who made their final home in America. “I am not for open borders. But shouldn’t we react with compassion and charity instead of fear and animus? We were once them.”

Moving too fast for some

In that way, Clarkston epitomizes an immigration debate that has become as much about the hosts as the guests.

For some, like Steve Davis, it has been a jarring pace of change.

Mr. Davis grew up here, an African-American in a state that morphed in fifty years from Jim Crow to a black woman, Stacey Abrams, running for governor. Now in his late 50s, Davis says he will likely vote for Trump in 2020, in part because of his hardline stance on immigration.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Steve Davis is a Trump supporter who urges caution in allowing immigrants to enter the US. But he holds no animus toward the refugees that now make up half of the town where he was born in the Jim Crow era. ‘It is just people learning to live together – utopia, maybe,’ he says.

Davis cheered when Trump banned Syrians. He had worried whether his town could become a gateway for terrorists. And he notes that some of the young refugee boys joined gangs.

“Trump recognizes dangers and he addresses them. I appreciate that,” he says. “But I also walked by a stoop the other day and saw five little kids, all different nationalities, just being together. I thought that was real cool.”

In few places has that kind of internal conflict been felt more deeply than at what used to be known as Clarkston Baptist Church, at the top of Church Street.

In 2004, in a great upheaval, the church merged with an Asian and an African church to become CIBC. Fourteen years later, the church is going strong. Part of that is through the North American Mission Board, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that bought the church last year. The SBC’s Send Relief effort is expanding its mission to “impact North America with the Gospel of Jesus Christ through evangelicalism and church planting.” It is building a new complex and hopes to convert other land to soccer fields.

But a “Save Our Neighborhood” campaign has risen up, in part over concerns about increased traffic but also due to unease with the SBC, which progressives accuse of mixing anti-gay views into its refugee relief programs. The SBC was long known as a segregated church for whites that opposed civil rights, a position that it publicly renounced in 1995.

Mayor Terry says the Send Relief effort shows that the SBC is embracing refugees. The controversy “is a reminder that tolerance of those who are different from us cuts both ways,” he says.

The steady national barrage of immigration rhetoric has kept Clarkston in the spotlight.

Earlier this year, a Republican gubernatorial candidate brought a “Deportation Bus” and parked it in the center of Clarkston to kick off his unsuccessful candidacy. (The eventual Republican nominee, Brian Kemp, who appears to have a lead in the governor’s race which has yet to be called, ran an ad that suggested he would use his truck for the same purpose.)

In response to the stunt, “we brought him tea and cookies and offered to dialogue,” says Pastor Deloach. “The irony I wanted to point out to him is that if all the fearful rhetoric about immigrants and refugees was true, well, Clarkston wouldn't exist.”

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The new Congress can shed old habits

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A divided Capitol Hill after America’s midterm elections could mean a stalemate for the next two years. Or could it force lawmakers to focus on ideals and purposes that unite? Good politics is not merely aggregating the preferences of the majority or reaching compromises. The Constitution’s crucible of divided government calls for more than splitting differences. The easiest common ground for the incoming Congress is obvious: more money for infrastructure, approval of better trade pacts, perhaps a bipartisan approach to health care. Elections can be a poor filter for defining the common good. Yet the good is there if discerned. The United States was founded on the idea that individual rights and liberties were as inherent as reciprocal social obligations. Such higher law requires elected representatives to discern its meaning and apply it to new situations, such as climate change or mass migration. In the new Congress, Democrats and Republicans should not villainize each other in order to win in 2020. Peace in Washington lies in finding the good that’s within. 

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The new Congress can shed old habits

America’s midterm election has left Democrats in control of the House and the GOP stronger in the Senate. According to past experience, a divided Capitol Hill could mean stalemate for the next two years, besides Senate Republicans loading up the federal bench. Will the new Congress be equally far from heaven as from hell?

Or will lawmakers, as founder James Madison sought in his purposeful design of gridlock, be forced to focus on ideals and purposes that unite Americans? Can they divine what is divine in the body politic?

Good politics is not merely aggregating the preferences of the majority or balancing competing interests or reaching compromises on difficult issues. The Constitution’s crucible of divided government calls for more than splitting differences or a Lincolnesque “team of rivals” approach. American voters may be as divided as ever today. Yet polls in 2018 show they are more and more satisfied with where the country is going. Instead of winner-take-all politicking, they may seek all-can-win practical results.

The easiest common ground for the incoming Congress is obvious. More money for infrastructure. Approval of better trade pacts. And perhaps, just perhaps, a fully bipartisan approach to health care after the whipsaw over the Affordable Care Act.

Elections can be a poor filter for defining the common good. Yet the good is there if discerned. The United States was founded on the idea of pre-political “natural law,” or that individual rights and liberties were as inherent as reciprocal social obligations, or what Thomas Jefferson called “the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society.”

Such higher law requires elected representatives to discern its meaning and apply it to new situations, such as climate change or mass migration. Power may be vested in the people but the people can express, through Congress, the power of fundamental rules and principles that promote the “general welfare.”

Politics that relies on the need for a villain is no better than the plot of a romance novel or a sci-fi movie. In the new Congress, Democrats and Republicans should not villainize each other in order to win in 2020. In an age of warring political creeds, peace in Washington lies in finding the good that’s within. As President Barack Obama said after the “shellacking” he took in 2010 with the GOP win of the House, “The American people always make me optimistic.”

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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.

Feeling the love that melts away fear

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“I had felt how God’s love isn’t just theoretical; it is tangibly real,” recalls today’s contributor, who found that opening up to God’s love gave him the presence of mind to extricate himself from a frightening and dangerous situation.

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Feeling the love that melts away fear

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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I’ll never forget one time in my high school years when I was walking carefully along a narrow trail on a cliff about 60 feet above the Pacific Ocean. A part of the footing gave way, and I found myself holding tightly to only the base of a small woody plant. My girlfriend, who was standing on the rocky shore below me, screamed.

It was terrifying. But in that moment I also thought of something I had learned in attending Christian Science Sunday School: that God is infinite Love itself and cherishes each of us. I paused mentally to acknowledge God’s limitless love, and as I did so I really began to feel that love, and my fear largely melted. Very slowly and deliberately, I moved my feet until I found footholds that I used to climb to safety.

I was quiet for the rest of the day, processing what had happened. I had felt how God’s love isn’t just theoretical; it is tangibly real.

This was a significant and encouraging experience. It helped show me that it isn’t really possible for both fear and God’s love to exist simultaneously. Over the years since, no matter what I am facing, I’ve often found it helpful to just stop and be mentally still. Then, in that quietness, I become more open to and aware of God’s presence, of God’s love for me and everyone. Fears of all sorts melt away, and it always leads me to love God even more.

The Bible assures us, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear” (I John 4:18). This idea is a central one in Christian Science and is one that everyone can experience. Take, for instance, Cordelia Willey, a woman who’d been an invalid for about 10 years. In 1888 she attended a class about prayer and healing taught by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science. Ms. Willey later recalled: “One day at the close of the class, I told Mrs. Eddy that I was so afraid, just full of fear. Instantly came the question, ‘My dear, what are you afraid of?’ And I told her I did not know just what the fear was; for an instant she stood still and then said, ‘You know, God is Love.’ I was healed and that sense of fear has never returned” (Yvonne Caché von Fettweis and Robert Townsend Warneck, “Mary Baker Eddy: Christian Healer,” Amplified Edition, p. 352).

That idea, “God is Love,” is so much more than just some comforting words spoken from one person to another. Behind it is the spiritual reality that God – perfect, divine Love – is always present and in full authority. The Love that is God is reflected in all creation, including all of us, and it’s our true nature to express it. The pure goodness of this Love envelops everyone, without exception. When our thoughts are open to God’s presence and supremacy, this transforms our thinking, frees us from fear’s grasp, and cures illness and injury.

I’ve found that it’s good to look for occasions throughout the week to just stop and feel the peaceful embrace of God’s love. So beautifully and perfectly, the tender yet very powerful love of God always includes and surrounds us. And we find ourselves less intimidated by our own or others’ fears as we become more aware of the presence of divine Love.

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Viewfinder

Voting the way forward

Kabir Dhanji/AP
A man casts his vote at a polling station in Antananarivo, Madagascar, Nov. 7. Voting started Wednesday in the island nation off the southeast coast of Africa. Nearly 10 million registered voters are casting their ballots with hopes that a new leader will take the country out of chronic poverty and corruption.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( November 8th, 2018 )

Come back tomorrow. As part of our education series, Learning Together, we’ll be taking a look at how two-way, dual-language immersion is thriving as diversity rises in US schools. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

November 07, 2018
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