Voting guide for DC’s Democratic Primary on 4/1/2014

Though I’ve lived in DC for getting on 4 years, I still feel lost in local DC issues. So in preparation for tomorrow’s primary, and with the help of some Code for DC members, I collected some of the endorsements from around the web.

Tuesdays election is a closed primary, which means voters get different ballots depending on which party they are registered as. The list of candidates running is in DCBOEE’s Election Guide. There are no contested offices in either the Republican or Libertarian primaries. The D.C. Statehood Green Party has one contested office. But DC is basically a one-party Democratic state, so all of the action is in the Democratic primary.

For five of the six contested offices, the endorsements from Greater Greater Washington, The Washington Post, DC for Democracy, and Jews United for Justice  were all in agreement:

  • For Council Chair, Phil Mendelson, the incumbent.
  • For Council At-Large Member, Nate Bennett-Fleming, a challenger.
  • For Ward 1 Council Member, Brianne Nadeau, a challenger.
  • For Ward 5 Council Member, Kenyan McDuffie, the incumbent.
  • For Ward 6 Council Member, Charles Allen. (The incumbent, Tommy Wells, is running for mayor, so this is an open seat.)

(Eleanor Holmes Norton is running unopposed for Delegate to the U.S. House and Mary Cheh is running unopposed for Ward 3 Council Member.)

There was disagreement on the mayoral candidates. In fact, many of the organizations couldn’t decide on an endorsement. The two organizations that weighed in opted for a different challenger:

  • The Washington Post: Muriel Bowser
  • Greater Greater Washington: Tommy Wells

Code for DC member Greg Bloom forwarded the endorsements of Janelle Treibitz, who he called “one of the sharpest local activists around.” Treibitz endorsed either Andy Shallal or Tommy Wells. Perhaps that’s a tie-breaker.

Keith Ivey, another Code for DC member, is the chair of DC for Democracy, a local all-volunteer grassroots progressive group focusing lately on campaign finance and ethics reform, on improving wages and conditions for workers, and on progressive taxation.

The Washington Post’s endorsements (and rationale) are here. Thanks to Brian Brotsos who sent this to me.

Jews United for Justice were mentioned by several Code for DC members. From their endorsements, their goals are “economic and social justice, high ethical standards, and a real chance of winning.”

Greater Greater Washington’s endorsements are here.

Have we forgotten how to have an opinion and still be fair?

Maybe it was never true, but I have this sense that we’ve lost something in American public discourse over the last century. We’ve lost the conception of having an opinion and still being fair. It’s like we just can’t imagine both being true in the same brain. After watching the President’s speech tonight I realized that I feel seriously inhibited in what I say publicly because I want to maintain an impartial image so that people see GovTrack as an impartial source. Am I over concerned? I doubt it. This mistaken concept also underlies “professional journalism”, which is the style of most news operations now, and I think is perhaps the second greatest contributing factor to the downfall of news (after “The Internet”). More on that below.

People often mistake me as a liberal. And others mistake me as a conservative. Here’s a story about someone that did both. I’ve gotten some amusing feedback from people who mistook my GovTrack experiment in collaborative letter writing, for which I delievered an anti-gun-control letter to congressmen, as representing my own views. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If it were up to me, guns would be illegal. I explained this contradiction to someone who wrote me a letter. He said:

Julles: But don’t you see the similarities between what this administration is doing and what was done in Germany in the 30’s?

Then I replied:

Me: I really get personally offended sometimes. To compare a president who is trying to improve health care to a regime that killed however many millions is to belittle the damage and suffering done to anyone that experienced it. Disagree on policy all you want, but don’t belittle one of the world’s greatest tragedies.

And he replied:

Julles: HR3200 is a BAD bill . . . Open your eyes, kid.

(H.R. 3200 is the health care bill.) Expressions about eyes always strike a chord with me. But more to the point, I never told this guy I thought H.R. 3200 was a good bill. And, quite honestly, after the President’s speech tonight, I am not so enamored by where health care reform is going. In particular I wonder about the constitutional authority to require everyone to possess health insurance. I suspect it will be turned into a tax penalty to avoid a straightforward law and side-step constitutional questions.

I don’t have an agenda. But if I have an opinion, I may jeopardize the perception of fairness and accuracy in anything I do in the world of civics. Can I have an opinion and still be trusted to be fair when I put my nonpartisan hat on? I’m not even partisan. I vote Democratic, but so does most everyone else in the places I’ve ever lived. Am I allowed to say that? Have I lost credibility merely for being more open about my views?

And this is what I imagine journalists go through. They vote too, I hope. If they write for the New York Times, they probably live in New York and vote like most New Yorkers. But then they turn off their passion when they put their fingers down to the newsroom keyboard. And we suspend disbelief for a moment as we read their articles that journalists can’t have opinions and be fair at the same time. They make it easy for us to suspend disbelief because they write like they’re dead. No interest in the outcome. They’ve got to write a few words because they need to pay for the electricity that keeps their computers going, but if newspapers paid them to write a summary of the tax law they’d do that too. It doesn’t matter to them, at least as far as we can tell from reading.

This is ridiculous and, worse, counterproductive. I’d be more interested in news if articles pleaded with me that the issue was important, that it isn’t a conceptual exercise but that it even matters to the reporter. This is, apparently, how news used to be 100 to 250 years ago. It’s how the most compelling documentaries and long-form video news segments are today. Of course, it was also not very reliable 100-250 years ago. But I don’t think that dichotomy has to be so today. If we opened ourselves up to the idea that a reporter could have an opinion and still be fair, we wouldn’t need to suspend disbelief. Reporters wouldn’t have to die each time they start writing the next piece.

I don’t want reporters to die. Save the reporters. (Ironic hyperbole.)

The Open House Project

(Just here for archival purposes…)

On my GovTrack blog: It’s rare when Congress asks the people for help being transparent, and so I’m particularly pleased to announce the formation of The Open House Project, a Sunlight Foundation-sponsored project with the encouragement of Speaker Pelosi that will be making specific proposals about how The House can better use the Internet in the interests of transparency. Various people, including myself, will be blogging on that site over the next few weeks about some ideas on this point. Feel free to contribute your ideas by commenting on the TOHP website, joining the project’s mail list, or talking on GovTrack’s own mail list.

And on the TOHP blog:

Mash-ups for government transparency

January 25th, 2007 by Joshua Tauberer

A few years ago I launched GovTrack.us. I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but these days you might call it a mash-up of data about the U.S. Congress. At the time what I was thinking was just collecting information about Congress from various sources (THOMAS, the Senate website, and the House website) and cross-referencing and hyperlinking the data in a way that no one had done yet. In fact, it was the huge amount of public data on the status of legislation that was made available through THOMAS (as I understand it thanks to the Republican take-over in 1994) that inspired me to try to put the data to new uses. It started with updates by email of what your congressmen were up to each day, generated automatically by grabbing data from THOMAS and, effectively, transforming it into a customized email update for anyone who wanted it.

The trouble with building GovTrack is that one has to do a bit of friendly reverse-engineering. The information is all “out there”, meant for public consumption, but it’s not out there in a way that makes it easy to transform into other formats for other uses, like the email updates, RSS feeds, and cross-referenced pages. The trouble is this: While people have no trouble browsing and searching THOMAS (for instance) for the information they need, we can’t make computers do the same thing automatically without much difficulty. To take an example, if I want to have my computer automatically fetch for me a list of all bills that were acted on the previous day (and in fact this is something GovTrack does), I would write a program that fetches the Daily Digest in the Congressional Record from THOMAS, which has bullets like this:

“Eleven bills and one resolution were introduced, as follows: S. 360-370 and S. Res. 37.”

I have no trouble understanding that. But, well, let me say as someone studying linguistics and natural language processing, computers are a long way from being able to understand English prose as well as people, nay as well as three-year-olds. Was the bill S. 365 introduced yesterday? Yes, of course — even though it was not mentioned explicitly (it’s merely in the range 360-370), and that’s just the first problem for a computer trying to make heads or tails of this information. So what’s a programmer to do?

Let’s go back to the goal of this. Certainly I don’t think it’s the government’s job to necessarily provide email updates, RSS feeds, Google Calendar integration of events, and whatever the latest technology hits are. There are a million and one things that one can do with information about the status of legislation, and someone will want each of them. So the question is this: How can the government, and Congress in particular, publish information about what it is doing in a way that makes it easy for others to put the information to new uses?

To be concrete again, because it’s always good to be concrete: How can THOMAS publish a list of bills that were acted on in a purpose-neutral way, a way that makes it easy for programmers to go and write applications to take the information and do anything with it that someone might want?

This is a question that I’ll probably blog more than once about on this site in the next few months. The answer is what’s called structured (or “machine-readable”) data, and it comes down to publishing information twice, once for humans clicking away at links, and once in boring, explicit tables meant for computer applications to transform into different formats. But more on that later.

“State of the Union” Is The Title Of This Post

There’s something funny about the title of this post, and it’s what happened at the start of the State of the Union tonight.  (By the way, kudos to MSNBC for posting the transcript, as spoken, immediately after the speech ended.)

Thank you very much. And tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: “Madame Speaker.”

Another lie?  Self-referential lies aren’t as bad as lies about weapons of mass destruction, but they’re more interesting to linguistics at least.  Why?  The first words of the State of the Union are “Thank you very much.”  They are not  “Madame Speaker” as he claimed.  It’s funny, of course, because the very utterance in which he makes a claim about what he said falsifies the claim.  The President ought to have said the following:

Thank you very much. And tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to end the first paragraph the State of the Union message with these words: “Madame Speaker.”

But that’s not as elegant.  To preserve a different aspect of the meaning, he might have said:

“Madame Speaker” are words that tonight I have had the high privilege and distinct honor of my own of being the first president to begin the State of the Union message with.  Thank you very much.

(Not that I think he really should have said either of those, but it is, indeed, what he might have said if his speech writer were a stickler for precise, silly details.)
Maybe I haven’t given him enough benefit of the doubt.  Let’s call that paragraph meta-speech and not technically a part of the State of the Union.  Like, he gets to say it but we don’t count it as a part of the actual State of the Union. Because, if we consider the next two paragraphs as meta-speech also:

In his day, the late Congressman Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. . . . Congratulations, Madame Speaker! Congratulations.

Two members of the House . . . Tim Johnson and Congressman Charlie Norwood.

Then finally we get to a point where he does seem to start up the “real” speech, starting in the traditional way, and with the words “Madam Speaker”.

Madam Speaker, Vice President Cheney, Members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens . . .

But, ah-ha!  You may have noticed that the spelling of Madam changed from the first paragraph.  That was MSNBC’s doing, which seems like a subversive way of ensuring the President did not start with “Madame Speaker” after all.  It’s the left-wing media at work.

This of course all reminds me of Godel, Escher, Bach, which I finished reading recently.  In it, Achilles says someone keeps crank calling him on the phone and shouting:

“Is false when preceded by its negation!  Is false when preceded by its negation!”

The President may have inadvertently proved the incompleteness of number theory without realizing it.

Meaningful Reform

About a year ago following a few scandals, the House and Senate saw a flurry of Congressional reform legislation get introduced… and then promptly ignored. Finally, however, we may see meaningful reform. Senate majority leader Harry Reid has introduced S. 1: Commission to Strengthen Confidence in Congress Act of 2007. The bill would make two incredibly important advances:

(Sec 103) It shall not be in order to consider any Senate bill or Senate amendment or conference [without] a list of– (1) all earmarks in such measure; (2) an identification of the Member or Members who proposed the earmark; and (3) an explanation of the essential governmental purpose for the earmark is available … to all Members and made available on the Internet to the general public for at least 48 hours before its consideration.’.

(Sec 104) It shall not be in order to consider a conference report unless such report is available to all Members and made available to the general public by means of the Internet for at least 48 hours before its consideration.

Strangely, the bill does not require that bills (!) be available on the Internet for 48 hours before being voted on. Just conference reports. After a bill has been passed by both the House and the Senate, it’s often the case that the second chamber to get the bill has made amendments to the bill that the first chamber hasn’t yet gotten a chance to see. In that case, a conference committee is made to get the two chambers back in sync, and the final version of a bill comes out in a conference report.

Since it’s been introduced by Reid, I think it’s almost certainly going to get through the Senate. The House seems to be off in its own world, so I’m not sure whether we’ll see this bill ever become law, but it’s got a good shot.

What’s a quote after all?

As usual, CNN seems to have forgotten some journalism basics. Quote marks indicate quotations, right?

A clip begins of now-resigned Donald Rumsfeld giving his take on Iraq. He says the war in Iraq was not going:

well enough, or fast enough

At the same time, the little textual block at the bottom of the screen gives a summary of what is happening. It attributes to Rumsfeld the following position:

Iraq war is not going “well or fast enough”

It would seem to me that the quote was abbreviated to fit on the screen, in quite an obvious way. If they’re changing quotes here to fit their publishing needs, where else are they messing with?

Mistakes happen, of course, but when was the last time you saw a correction in broadcast news? They don’t admit their mistakes either.

Impersonal Attribution

Continuing my unending diatribe on the mass media, take a look at this headline from Boomberg news:

Representative Ney to Plead Guilty in Abramoff Case, People Say

Who say, exactly? I mean, thanks for ruling out that it was a monkey that said it, because I wasn’t sure. The first paragraph tells us that “People” referred to “people with knowledge of the probe,” but of course that’s hardly any better.