Jim Hightower "put the party back into politics" with the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour that debuted March 23 at the Travis County fairgrounds in Austin. The event, a combination of speeches, musical performers, games and workshops by grassroots environmental, consumer and political groups on how to organize progressive coalitions, was modeled after the old Chautaqua gatherings of the 19th century and this reincarnation drew 7,000 on a sunny Saturday for a lineup that featured Michael Moore, author of the surprise bestseller Stupid White Men; Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill.; Molly Ivins; and 92-year-old rabble rouser Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who walked across the US in 1999 to promote campaign finance reform.

Jackson, who picked up speaking skills as well as politics from his father, said progressives need a political party that will work for economic and political equality, as 53 million children are trapped in substandard schools and 45 million Americans go without health insurance. "We come to this Chautauqua because Dr. King was right: America has issued a promisory note and it has come back marked insufficient funds," Jackson said. But attitudes toward federal spending can shift quickly, he noted. "On September 10, we were told there was not enough money for Social Security, health care or education for all our children ... But on September 12, there was $40 billion to find a cave man in Afghanistan -- and we haven't found him yet." The White House and Congress have found $95 million for military and corporate-welfare spending since Sept. 11, Jackson said. "Fifty-three million children in America deserve the same national response as Bin Laden got."

The tour is scheduled to stop in Atlanta May 25, Chicago June 15, Tucson July 28, Seattle Aug. 17, and Minneapolis Sept. 14. Oakland, New Orleans, Colorado Springs, Madison and other cities also are planning to join the tour. Sponsors include the National Council of Churches, the Ruckus Society, Public Citizen, Organic Valley Family of Farms, ACORN, Working Assets, United Students Against Sweatshops and Ben & Jerry's Foundation. For more information, see www.rollingthundertour.org or call 512-477-5588.

PROMOTE THE RIGHT TO VOTE. One of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.'s projects is HJR 72, a constitutional amendment he is sponsoring to give every US citizen the right to vote and have that vote counted, since the US Supreme Court in stopping the Florida vote count in December 2000 ruled no such right was expressed in the Constitution. Instead, the 10th Amendment, which was added at the insistence of slave states to protect that "peculiar institution," was used to deny the right of Floridians to vote and have their vote counted, Jackson noted. Jackson is looking for congressional co-sponsors. Contact Jackson's office, (202) 225-0773 or see www.jessejacksonjr.org.

John Nichols, the Madison, Wis., Capitol Times associate editor and author of Jews for Buchanan: The Theft of the American Presidency, noted at a workshop on the stolen presidential election that 18,000 Florida ballots in 2000 were discarded because voters not only marked Al Gore's box but also wrote in his name. Under Florida law those ballots were supposed to be counted, but they were not counted, and Democrats had no recourse after Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified the results and the US Supreme Court stopped the recount. Nichols offered this useful rejoinder when someone tells you to "get over it": "Tell them, 'I'll get over it when they count all the ballots.'"

Among other things, a voting rights amendment also could address the disenfranchisement of convicted felons, which disproportionately hits the poor and people of color. Only four states (Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont and Utah) allow prisoners to vote, according to a 1998 study by the Sentencing Project of Human Rights Watch. But 15 states, including Florida, bar ex-cons from voting, and that helps Republicans. (The United States is the only democratic nation that bars felons from voting for life, the Sentencing Project noted.) Due largely to the War on Drugs, in 1996, 4.6 million voters were disenfranchised due to their criminal status, up from less than 500,000 as recently as 1972.

Greg Palast, who investigated the Florida election results for the BBC and wrote The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, notes that between May 1999 and Election Day 2000 Florida purged 57,700 "ex-felons" from voter rolls without even verifying that they were indeed ex-cons. The US Commission on Civil Rights estimated that at least 8,000 voters were falsely disqualified from voting. Blacks were four times as likely to be disqualified as whites. Bush was certified the winner by 537 votes.

LOTT TANTRUM STOPS SENATE. After the Senate Judiciary Committee blocked the nomination of his friend, former segregationist US District Judge Charles Pickering, for a federal appeals court seat March 14, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., vowed to make life miserable for the Democratic majority by stopping action in the Senate, including a block on further Judiciary hearings. Gosh, Democrats noted, that means they can't consider other Bush appointees for the federal judiciary or other legislative initiatives. If no more federal judges get seated in this Congress, some Democrats are having trouble figuring out how that is a bad thing, particularly after Karl Rove, George W. Bush's top political aide, told the right-wing Family Research Council the Democrats should not expect more mainstream nominees. "This is about the US Supreme Court," Rove said, according to a tape of the speech which the Washington Post received. "And this is about sending George W. Bush a message that 'You send us somebody that is a strong conservative, you're not going to get him.' Guess what?" Rove added. "They sent the wrong message to the wrong guy."

Lott did manage to sidetrack the nomination of an aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to the Federal Communications Commission. A week later, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told the Post, "I don't believe his demonstration of pique is going to change the views of members of the Judiciary Committee about future nominees." Gridlock has its uses.

At the same time Lott was slowing down the Senate's pace, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was warning of a "Circuit Court vacancy crisis" resulting from the Senate's failure to schedule hearings on eight of Bush's first 11 choices for appellate court seats. But Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Judiciary chairman, said those vacancies actually resulted from Republicans' preventing President Bill Clinton's appellate judicial choices from being approved. At that time, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., was among those who opined that there already were plenty of appellate judges. The New York Times noted, "Dozens of Mr. Clinton's nominees were not even given the courtesy of a hearing or a vote, and the delays on judges, especially at the appellate level, were much worse in that period than they are now."

CORPORATE TAX SHARE PLUMMETS. As you tackle your tax return -- and some of you learn that the IRS wants you to give back the $600 that George W. Bush lent you last summer -- Citizens for Tax Justice noted that the big corporate tax cut bill signed recently by Bush will slash corporate income tax payments this year to their lowest level since the early Reagan administration, and the second lowest level in the past 60 years. The Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation report that corporate taxes will plummet to only 1.3% of gross domestic product this year. That will be the lowest since fiscal 1983, when corporate taxes bottomed out at 1.1% of the GDP level on the heels of the huge corporate tax reductions enacted in 1981. In comparison, over the past 60 years corporate income taxes averaged 5.6% of GDP during World War II; 4.5% in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations; 3.7% under Kennedy and Johnson; 2.7% under Nixon and Ford; 2.4% under Carter; 1.6% in the Reagan and Bush I administrations; and 2.1% under Clinton.

STATES REVIVE ESTATE TAX. States who already were struggling to balance budgets wracked by recession must replace the $6.5 billion that will be lost as the federal government rolls back the estate tax on wealthy families over the next decade, the Washington Post reported March 25. The estate tax, which hits only the heirs of the wealthiest 2% of Americans, is among the most progressive, the Post's Craig Timberg noted, and the first $675,000 of personal wealth is exempted. Yet the tax is a major source of revenue, providing $130 million a year to Virginia, $80 million a year to Maryland and $50 million a year to the District of Columbia. In most cases the rate is tied to the federal estate rate, so lawmakers in some states are simply rewriting the tax code to make the rate equal to what it was on Jan. 1, 2001, before the federal rollback began. States also complain that the recently passed economic stimulus bill, which gives tax breaks to businesses that make new investments in the three years following the Sept. 11 attacks, would cost states $14 billion over three years.

POLLUTERS HIJACK ENERGY BILL. Environmentalists hoped Senate Democrats would make a stand for conservation, only to see setbacks on automobile fuel economy and other provisions that would help the nuclear industry, allow small trees in national forests to be processed as biomass for electricity generation. Some of the most powerful business interest groups -- automakers, the oil industry, electric utilities and agribusiness groups -- showed their muscle as they turned back initiatives pushed by environmentalists. The Associated Press noted that farmers won a mandate for tripling ethanol production. Utilities headed off attempts at new federal regulation of power grids and won a scaled-back renewable-fuels requirement. The nuclear industry is getting government help to develop its next generation of power plants and continued limits on accident liability. The oil industry no longer has to contend with a federal requirement for oxygen in gasoline, or whether an oil-exploration method known as "hydraulic fracturing" might run afoul of clean-water laws. And the auto industry got the Senate to reject a proposal to boost fuel efficiency requirements to 35 miles per gallon, an increase of 50%, and barred any increase in fuel economy requirements for pickup trucks. They "handed our nation's energy security over to the auto industry," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. Anna Aurilio, legislative director of the US Public Interest Research Group, told AP the Senate legislation "started as a promising bill. But it's getting hijacked ... by the polluters." And the House version is even more polluter-friendly.

US OIL HABIT GETS WORSE. The US, with 8.1 million barrels per day, is still the world's leading oil producer, but it also consumes one-fourth of the world's oil supply and is more dependent than ever on imported oil, with imports climbing to 60% of US needs last year, John E. Silvia of Wachovia Securities noted at InvestAvenue.com. Since bottoming earlier this year, the price of oil is up nearly $7 per barrel, a rise of roughly 35%, as OPEC cut production by about 500,000 barrels per day (b.p.d.) and non-OPEC countries reduced their output by about 100,000 b.p.d., Silvia noted. Prices of raw industrial commodities (excluding oil), which tend to be correlated with swings in global industrial production, also are up, but by only 5% so far. The US Strategic Petroleum Reserve currently holds about 500 million barrels.

ARMY SEC'S ENRON TIES PROBED. While the White House continued to try to cover up the involvement of Enron and other industry lobbyists in writing the Bush administration's energy policies, Army Secretary Thomas White, a former Enron executive, disclosed that he contacted former Enron colleagues as many as 13 times in October, while Enron's financial condition worsened, before he decided to sell his stock in the company, the Washington Post reported March 25. Enron stock sank from $29.15 on Oct. 1 to $16.10 and $16.15 on Oct. 24 when he sold 121,663 shares and $12.86 on Oct. 30, when he sold 86,709 shares. By the end of November, an Enron share was worth 26 cents. In a letter to Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., the ranking member of the House Government Reform Committee, White also listed 44 calls he made from his home to Enron executives since last May that he had not previously disclosed to Congress. In January he had disclosed 29 calls and meetings with Enron colleagues. Waxman and others said the issue is whether Whitem who received $12.1 million from the sale of his Enron stock, received information from colleagues that played a role in his decision to sell when he did, the Post reported.

Meanwhile, Hotlinescoop.com noted that a poll conducted for Bloomberg News showed that more than half of Americans believe that the Bush administration is hiding something on Enron, while just 17% believe they are telling the whole truth. And 67% said they believe contributions to members of Congress by Enron and its execs make it difficult for Congress to conduct a fair investigation into the collapse of the energy firm.

WHAT PRICE FREEDOM? When a 73-year-old woman got stuck in a newspaper vending machine in front of a Wal-Mart in Geneseo, Ill., on March 20, store employees apparently felt that 50 cents was too high a price to pay to free her, the Moline, Ill., Dispatch reported March 22. The woman, who was not identified, said she stopped at the store to pick up some prescriptions from the store pharmacy, but a headline on the Dispatch caught her eye. But as she reached into the vending machine, the spring-loaded door slammed shut, trapping the strings from the hood of her jacket. She was unable to remove her coat because of surgery on her shoulder. When a passerby notified the store's service desk, she was informed that store has a strict policy against tampering with the machines. "The store woman poked her head out the door and said that she was calling someone from the Dispatch to come and let me out,'' the trapped woman said. "I told her I just wanted someone to come and put some quarters in the thing and that's when she told me that they weren't responsible for making refunds for the machine.'' After nearly 20 minutes of being trapped by the machine, an employee risked her job by placing two quarters in the machine freeing the victim's hood strings from the door. Wal-Mart's corporate spokesperson in Bentonville, Ark., said it was an "unfortunate incident," but employees were merely following company policy by not tampering with the machine.

DENVER COPS SPY ON 'EXTREMISTS'. The American Civil Liberties Union charged March 21 that Denver police illegally searched a local activist group's office and confiscated membership lists to include them in the department's secret files, the Los Angeles Times reported. The suit in federal court in LA, is connected to recent disclosures that an intelligence unit of the Denver police has maintained files since 1999 on protest groups and include information gleaned from public rallies and meetings. The Police Department admitted it has files on about 3,200 individuals and 208 organizations. It defends the practice, calling it a necessary aspect of criminal intelligence. Among the groups labelled as "criminal extremists" was the American Friends Service Committee, a nonviolent Quaker organization that has won the Nobel Peace Prize. Denver Mayor Wellington Webb joined with the City Council in issuing a nonbinding resolution that called for a curb on police power to gather information on residents based on ethnicity, religion or politics.

FIGHT WASTE PLACED BY RACE. Many environmental toxic waste sites are located in poor communities populated by people of color, and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition noted that as the right wing has taken over the Supreme Court it has made it tougher for residents in polluted neighborhoods to prove that contamination discriminates against people of color, since they must also prove that the polluter intended to discriminate, which is nearly impossible and very expensive. But Rainbow/PUSH noted recent victories in environmental justice. In California, an Oakland medical waste incinerator was shut down due to community opposition. In Virginia, a federal district court approved a consent decree that ordered federal and local officials to relocate 160 families of a public housing development. In Missouri, the EPA intervened on behalf of a community group, alleging that the state gives less scrutiny to landfills proposed in poor areas. Rainbow/PUSH proposes that people organize community groups to petition city councils, state legislatures and Congress. They also should form coalitions with other groups to bring pressure on corporations. Preachers should deliver sermons on respecting God's earth and all who dwell therein. And pray for victims of environmental racism.

SOVIET-STYLE SECURITY in place around the Pentagon got a Fox News Channel cameraman arrested March 19 and his videotape confiscated after he documented the traffic stop of an Iranian truck driver along a state highway that runs outside the military headquarters. Cameraman Gregg Gursky was detained and handcuffed but later released and the videotape was returned the following day. Gursky, who had Pentagon press credentials and a security clearance, reportedly was accosted by Pentagon Police as he was videotaping an arrest being carried out by Virginia State Police on a highway that runs alongside the Pentagon but outside Pentagon property. Gursky was told he was on government property without a permit. When he refused to give up the tape, officials frisked him, handcuffed him and said he was being arrested for disobeying a police officer, the cameraman said, according to Fox News, but he was released without charges. According to Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clarke, photography is not permitted on the Pentagon reservation unless cameramen are accompanied by an escort. The other driver of Iranian descent was allowed to proceed after his identity was checked and his truck swept for explosives, police said.

US AIDED AL-QAEDA IN BALKANS. Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network has been active in the Balkans for years, most recently helping Kosovo rebels battle for independence from Serbia with financial and military backing of the US and NATO, Canada's National Post reported March 15. US forces which had originally trained the Afghan Arabs during the war in Afghanistan, supported them in Bosnia and then in Kosovo, Balkan experts told the Post. When NATO forces launched their military campaign against Yugoslavia three years ago to unseat Slobodan Milosevic, they entered the Kosovo conflict on the side of the Moslem Kosovo Liberation Army, which had already received "substantial" military and financial support from bin Laden's network, analysts say. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes on the United States, NATO began to worry about the presence in the Balkans of the Islamist terrorist cells it had supported throughout the 1990s.

BERNIE FIGHTS MEDIA MERGERS. US Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called on the Federal Communications Commission to protect public airwaves against a massive new round of media mergers that could threaten democracy. The US Court of Appeals in D.C. recently struck down a rule preventing companies from owning TV stations and cable operations in the same markets. The court also ordered the FCC to justify a rule prohibiting a network from owning stations that reach a potential audience of more than 35% of households with television stations in the US.

"With 85% of Americans getting their news from television, it is unacceptable that a few corporations will be able to dominate television production as well as broadcasting and delivery," Sanders stated. "If the FCC refuses to protect the public airwaves against a new round of merger mania, Congress must. A healthy democracy requires a diversity of viewpoints. If just a few corporations can control both production and distribution of the news across America, democracy itself is in danger."

The appeals court did reject a claim by Big Media that regulation of media monopolies is itself unconstitutional. Sanders urged the FCC to defend the National Television Station Ownership Rule, which protects Americans from total corporate domination of American broadcasting, to support legislation he has introduced to maintain current ownership guidelines and to hold hearings to generate democratic media ownership rules for the digital era. Some ranking Democrats, such as Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., also are interested in having Congress reassert its authority over communications law.

Sanders concluded, "One of the great unspoken truths in American society is the enormous damage being done to our political, social, cultural and economic well-being by the rapidly increasing corporate control over the media. With fewer and fewer giant multi-national corporations controlling television, radio, newspapers, magazines and the Internet, issues of major importance to our society get little or no attention. If we do not exert democratic control over the media, the corporate media will destroy democracy. The time has come to decentralize media ownership, re-establish competition, and take back the airwaves for the people's benefit." See bernie.house.gov or call (202) 225-4115.

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