medill reporting

OFA volunteers lobby Sen. Mark Warner on immigration bill

On Tuesday morning, a group of five volunteers with Organizing for Action met with a representative from the office of Sen. John Warner (D-VA) in support of the immigration reform bill currently working its way through the Senate.

The group’s coordinator, Marilyn Karp, a resident of Virginia’s Prince William County, is a Neighborhood Team Leader with OFA, which means she’s tasked with coordinating local volunteer activities in support of President Obama’s agenda. Ms. Karp said that because of her position with the organization, OFA asked her to put together a lobby day on behalf of the bill. Ms. Karp used the OFA website and her personal network to recruit volunteers.

Karp, who is now retired, said she formerly served as a Vice-President at Merrill Lynch, as well as running her own business. She said the current version of the immigration bill was “far from perfect,” but that its passage would provide a framework that could be improved upon later.

“I think my immigrant grandparents would be proud of me,” Karp said in explaining her support for the legislation.

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Illinois’ Pension Problem

(Note: This article was originally published here in the Winter 2013 edition of the National Strategy Forum Review.)

At his State of the State address in February, it was Illinois’ broken pension system that Governor Pat Quinn labeled as “the toughest of issues” state residents face.

Quinn doubled down during his 2014 budget announcement, imploring lawmakers to take swift action to address it. 

“The most important thing we can do to repair Illinois’ finances right now,” Quinn said, “is to reform our public pension systems.”

Illinois’ business and civic leaders might add that nothing less than the long-term economic sustainability of the state is at stake. 

“Economic instability is the key,” said Richard Winkel, who spent 12 years in the state legislature and now directs the Office of Public Leadership at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “Business craves stability and predictability, and we don’t have this as long as we have this debt looming over us.”

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OFA’s approach to activism shows challenges of large-scale organizing

Neeta Datt, a volunteer leader with Organizing for Action, is addressing more than 20 guests in an overstuffed living room just outside of Silver Spring, Md. Snacks have been served, name tags applied, introductions completed. The assembled include a union organizer, an environmental lawyer, a leader of the Montgomery County Young Democrats, an aerospace engineer, and a member of the Maryland Sierra Club. They are all are here to discuss how OFA is going to help President Barack Obama combat climate change. Datt stands in front of a large notepad where suggestions will be recorded. Over the next two hours, tactics will be debated, voices raised, grievances and hopes aired, and upcoming actions announced.

Welcome to Organizing for Action, Team Obama’s second post-election attempt to transfer the volunteer structures, energy, and experience built up during two successful presidential campaigns into a force that can support the president’s legislative agenda. OFA volunteers believe the organization can help dictate the national terms of debate on key issues, in the process providing the president  with the Congressional support he needs to enact his plans. “Let’s start a fight,” Datt says, speaking of the proactive battle she wants to wage.

But beyond any particular slate of policy aims, the group also exists as an experiment in long-term issue advocacy and organizing. OFA is attempting to keep volunteers active even in the absence of looming legislation or an upcoming election.

Perhaps most importantly, the organization, which consistently bills itself as a grassroots entity promoting local autonomy and empowerment, is already attempting to focus activities around a clearly defined agenda that doesn’t appear likely to be significantly impacted by local dissent.

Matthew Baggetta, an assistant professor at Indiana University who studies civic engagement and community organizing, said that balancing act is one faced by many large groups. And while OFA volunteer leaders interviewed were supportive of the group’s structural approach, Baggetta said the efficiency of top-down decision making can come at a cost.

“Each time that you decide, we’re just going to make a decision, and we’re going to gun it out there and see what happens, that might get you a short-term policy gain, but it’s not necessarily building capacity for you in the long run,” Baggetta said.

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Government surveillance capabilities are immense, but experts say limits still apply

How much information does government surveillance collect?

Even before this month’s revelations that the Department of Justice obtained the phone records of dozens of Associated Press reporters, former FBI counter-terrorism analyst Tim Clemente made news of his own when he twice suggested on CNN that intelligence agencies were systematically recording the phone calls of all American citizens.

Clemente, who is now retired from the FBI and currently consults for the entertainment industry, did not subsequently clarify his statements, and did not respond to requests for comment for this article. However, some national security experts, even those critical of America’s surveillance apparatus, expressed doubts that his assertions were accurate.

Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute, a consistent skeptic regarding the Obama administration’s national security activities, noted the implications of developments like the National Security Agency’s massive new data facility in Bluffdale, Utah due to be completed in September. As James Binney reported last year for Wired, the one million square-foot project has a price tag of $2 billion. It’s part of the Pentagon’s attempt to build a data-gathering capacity great enough to handle “yottabytes” worth of information - a quantity so immense that, as Binney wrote, “no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude.”

But are such modern capabilities used to record all of the conversations made in the United States?

“The government is certainly willing to stretch the boundaries of the law in the name of national security and the war on terror, but they’re not actually like cartoon supervillains,” Sanchez said of government officials. “To do something that obviously illegal, they would have to be supervillains.”

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A civil gun control discussion takes place outside of the White House

A small group of gun control supporters gathered Monday outside the White House advocating for stronger gun control legislation.

“We’ve made a culture of guns,” said protester Helen Ramsey. “It’s too easy to get a gun here.”

Also assembled were two National Rifle Association members from Colorado, Steve and Dan Bell, who said they owned guns for personal protection. Steve Bell said that his gun had once protected him from an assault, while Dan said he had yet to use his in self-defense.

The Bells engaged in a cordial discussion with another gun control protester, Barbara Elsas, an elementary school teacher, and seemed to agree that Elsas’ calls for enhanced background checks were reasonable.

However, their discussion also revealed how complicated the gun debate can be. Ramsey and Elsas promoted the commonly heard statistic that 40 percent of guns purchased in the United States are not subject to a background check, a number based on a single 1997 study that is now seen as being merely an estimate.

At the same time, Dan Bell claimed that lawful gun owners use their weapons to stop 2.5 million crimes each year. But that statistic, also repeated widely, is based on extrapolations from a 1993 survey conducted by Florida State criminology professor Gary Keck. A December, 2012 analysis performed by the Congressional Research Service noted that “Law enforcement agencies do not collect information on the number of times civilians use firearms to defend themselves or their property against attack.” CRS researchers added that it is “difficult to state with certainty the accuracy of statistics such as the number of times firearms are used in self-defense.” (See page 13 of the linked-to CRS report for more information.)

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Airport tower closures could impact travel, safety

Pilots are trained to respond calmly to stress, and David C. Miller, a pilot and the manager for Illinois’ St. Louis Regional Airport, sounded very calm as he likened airport control towers to traffic lights at an intersection.

“Now, if the traffic signals are not working, people can figure out the right of way rules and probably get through the intersection just fine,” he said.

“But over a period of time, there probably will be some minor accidents and incidents, and heaven forbid, maybe even a major one.”

Running an airport without a tower, Miller said, “is definitely an exercise in risk management.”

Click here for a map and list of Illinois airports facing potential tower closures

Faced with the Congressional sequester, the Federal Aviation Administration is planning on cutting its 2013 budget by approximately $600 million. As part of those cuts, over 200 regional airports could lose their flight tower operations as soon as April 7.

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