Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

‘Tax Credit Scholarship’ Program May Soon Be Coming to Illinois

On Monday night, the Democratic-controlled Illinois House of Representatives voted in favor of an education funding plan that includes the establishment of a “tax credit scholarship” program: subsidies that support donors who help families pay for private school tuition. The Democratic-controlled Senate approved a similar bill Tuesday.

The money allocated to this voucher-like program is relatively small, just $75 million in credits, but opponents rightly note that most states that have established similar programs have increased the subsidies substantially over time. Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program launched in 2001 with a cap of $50 million but today their program tops out at $699 million. 

The circumstances that led to Democrats approving subsidies for private school tuition are complicated, but the short version of the story is that state legislators felt intense pressure to pass a school funding bill, one that would finally revamp Illinois’s notoriously inequitable school funding formula. Facing a likely veto from Bruce Rauner, the Republican governor, that Democrats wouldn’t be able to immediately override, they decided to use the tax credit scholarship measure as a bargaining chip to get the measure passed.  

Illinois lawmakers approved a separate bill to fix the state’s school funding formula in July, but Rauner vetoed parts of it earlier this month, saying too much money would be distributed to Chicago’s public school district. In mid-August, the Illinois Senate voted to override the governor’s veto, with one Republican joining the Senate’s 37 Democrats.

But on Monday, the House failed to override the governor’s veto, falling eight votes short of the necessary three-fifths majority.

Illinois school districts cannot receive state aid until the legislature approves a funding package. So with the new school year starting, House Democrats decided to accept the tax credit scholarship program, rather than prolong the negotiations.

Teacher unions were furious.

“Tonight's vote for a voucher scheme for the state of Illinois is disappointing, and the worst assault on public education since mayoral control of schools was granted in 1995,” said the Chicago Teachers Union in a statement. “We are now firmly in line with the President Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos privatization agenda. Illinois legislators have voted to ‘reform’ the worst school funding system in the country with a ticking time bomb of a voucher scheme, and the Illinois Democratic Party has crossed a line which no spin or talk of ‘compromise’ can ever erase.”

The Illinois Federation of Teachers directed its criticism at the governor: 

Tonight, state legislators moved Illinois closer to doing what we have needed to do for decades—treat our poorest students and communities fairly. Unfortunately, it came at a very disappointing cost. Governor Rauner capitalized on the crisis he created when he vetoed the original bill and used it as leverage for private school tax credits that benefit the wealthy while working families continue to struggle.

We’re on a better path toward equity and adequacy, and we must move forward in our classrooms and communities. But it’s clearer than ever that this Governor does not prioritize public schools, and we must fight for one who does in 2018.

According to the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association (CPAA), Chicago Public School officials—appointed by mayor Rahm Emanuel—helped push forward the bill, pressuring CPS principals to call and lobby in support. On Monday, CPAA referenced a piece Alexander Hertel-Fernandez published in The Prospect in 2015 about the rising threat of employer political coercion. "CPAA echoes the American Prospect and calls on CPS to immediately end their efforts to coerce their employees to support voucher legislation that many fundamentally disagree with," the organization stated.

J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire venture capitalist and the early frontrunner in the Democratic race for governor, released a statement saying that “it is disappointing that Bruce Rauner used our students as pawns in his political games to get a back-door voucher program put in place.” He promised to repeal the program if elected in 2018.

Louise Linton, Conservative Id

This week, Louise Linton, the wife of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, was forced to apologize for an "insensitive" comment she made on Instagram. While this may seem like nothing more than a silly social media spat, Linton's comment is indicative of a much larger issue present in American conservative thought and public policy.

After posting a photo of herself exiting a government plane after a #daytrip to Kentucky, Linton shot back at jennimiller29, a commenter who’d said, “Glad we could pay for your little getaway. #deplorable.” Linton’s defense invoked the theory of trickle-down economics: “Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country? I’m pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day ‘trip’ than you did. Pretty sure the amount we sacrifice per year is a lot more than you’d be willing to sacrifice if the choice was yours.”

According to Linton, the good folks at the top are actually burdened by their wealth, because their massive wealth provides a service to the rest of society. Not only do they “sacrifice” by the taxes they pay, but they're basically public servants of the economy. Never mind that the current tax system bolsters the wealthy through benefits that include the low capital gains tax rate, the mortgage interest deductions, and even a deduction for some expenses related to their yachts. The rich, with lifestyles so luxurious that the incautious among them will hashtag expensive brands on posts about government travel as Linton did (“#rolandmouret pants, #tomford sunnies, #hermesscarf, #valentinorockstudheels,” she wrote), need even more tax breaks because they stimulate the economy for less worthy consumers. How can jennimiller29, and all the other lowly workers, be so ungrateful?!

The American idolization of the rich is threaded throughout society's discourse and policy, birthed from the bootstrap myth that has helped define America, falsely, as a land of economic opportunity. In this storyline, hard work always equals success, and success always comes from hard work. It ignores the systemic problems that make social mobility difficult (racism, classism, inadequate policies to address these phenomena), and provides justification for a tax and welfare system that favors the wealthy. This makes it easy to villainize the poor and venerate the rich. 

Linton, in her response to jennimiller29, uses words like “adorable” and “cute”: “Your life looks cute” and “You’re adorably out of touch.” Such patronizing behavior toward someone less wealthy than her extends well past personal insults and into conservative policy proposals. Just last week, a bill was introduced in the Florida legislature to ban Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) recipients from buying soda with their benefits.

But like many uncomfortable social realities, it's essential that this love of class hierarchy remain unspoken. Let us not forget Mitt Romney's 47 percent remark, caught on a hidden camera, in which, as he put it, there are 47 percent of Americans "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it."

Presidential candidates aren’t supposed to talk that way—something that even the otherwise uncensorable Donald Trump understood.

Linton's outburst, complete with emojis, may well have come straight from the egos and ids of the very rich, and comported with actual conservative doctrine, but it violated their rule of omerta: You’re just not supposed to, you know, talk about this stuff if there's a chance of a leaked video—or with your Instagram set to “public.”

Paul Ryan Is Lying About High Corporate Tax Rates

Republicans are taking their corporate tax-cut campaign on the road. House Speaker Paul Ryan visited airplane manufacturer Boeing on Thursday in Washington state, where he lamented how the company is quivering underneath the weight of a 35 percent tax rate. Meanwhile, Ways & Means Chair Kevin Brady sang the same song at telecom giant AT&T’s headquarters in Dallas.

There’s just one problem. Neither of these corporations pays the statutory 35 percent tax rate for corporations. Over the past eight years, Boeing has paid an effective tax rate of just 5.4 percent on its profits while AT&T has paid 8.1 percent, according to a report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. In fact, it’d be quite hard for Ryan to find a company to visit that actually does pay the full rate. Most corporations pay nowhere near the full rate thanks to a bevy of tax breaks and loopholes—the average is closer to 20 percent, though even that varies tremendously by industry.

Ryan and other GOP leaders want to shave the statutory rate down to 20 percent while President Donald Trump wants it reduced to 15 percent. Neither has given any indication as to whether their idea of corporate tax reform includes closing loopholes. They simply contend that cutting the rates will make American manufacturers more competitive with foreign companies, and will use the money they save to invest domestically in research and development, which will in turn drive economic growth and create jobs.

But through federal and state subsidies and tax breaks, corporations like Boeing and AT&T have for years benefited from a low effective tax rate. As ITEP’s Matthew Gardner explains, Boeing has received a tax refund in five of the past ten years. It saves itself $542 million a year using a special domestic manufacturing tax break, and $1.8 billion in further cuts thanks to a research and development tax credit. Boeing also benefits from the immensely favorable depreciation schedules on capital that has saved it billions of dollars over the past decade.

Boeing also entered into a $9 billion tax incentive deal with Washington state back in 2013—the largest corporate subsidy ever—to “maintain and grow its workforce within the state.” But, as Michael Hiltzik points out in the Los Angeles Times, the company has since cut nearly 13,000 jobs (about 15 percent of its Washington workforce) as it sets up shop in cheaper states that offer incentives of their own.

It still manages to enrich its shareholders though. On the same day that it announced a production slowdown in December, Hiltzik notes, Boeing also announced a 30 percent increase in its quarterly dividend and a new $14 billion share-buyback program.  

The current corporate tax system doesn’t incentivize job creation. Rather, it incentivizes the enrichment of CEOs and shareholders. Simply cutting the rate without closing loopholes or including clear economic-development requirements will only further advance shareholder capitalism, to the detriment of just about everyone else.

Ryan's and Brady’s visits to Boeing and AT&T expose the core lie behind their corporate tax-cut agenda. Corporations are already benefiting from lower rates—and they sure aren’t using the extra money to create jobs. 

Defending Their Own: Coast Guard Speaks Up After Trump Lashes Out at Transgender Soldiers

The Coast Guard has taken a leading role in efforts to push back against President Trump’s plan to ban transgender soldiers from military service. “The first thing we did was reach out to all 13 members of the Coast Guard who are transgender,” said Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington after Trump announced the ban on Twitter. Zukunft added that the Coast Guard would not “break faith” with transgender soldiers. “We have made an investment in you and you have made an investment in the Coast Guard," he said.

The other four branches of the military have yet to comment on Trump’s plan. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, has announced that that there would be “no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidelines.”

Trump’s proposed ban would reverse the Obama administration’s 2016 decision to allow transgender people to openly serve in the armed forces. Last year, Obama’s defense secretary Ashton Carter prohibited discharging or otherwise separating transgender people from the military solely on the basis of their gender identity.

In early June, the Army, along with the Air Force, requested a two-year delay on accepting transgender recruits; the Navy requested a one-year wait. These requests were rejected by the Pentagon in favor of a six-month delay for all branches. Although most active duty officers had little to say about the proposed ban, many transgender soldiers have been alarmed by Trump’s move.

Wendy May, a genderfluid trans woman and Army veteran who works regularly with soldiers, told The American Prospect that she and others were “appalled” by the president’s plan. She says it is little more than a discriminatory “smokescreen that the White House has used to keep us focused on other things than what we need to focus on.” More than 50 retired senior officers criticized Trump’s plan in a signed joint statement published by the Palm Center, a LGBT military advocacy center, saying that “the proposed ban would degrade readiness even more than the failed ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy” instituted in the mid-1990s.

Trump’s announcement, which he made without consulting top military leaders, came during near-constant coverage of his political and personal gaffes, including all-time low approval ratings, the Scaramucci scandal, and the failure of the Republican efforts to repeal or replace the Affordable Care Act. The ban allows Trump to engage two of his favorite ploys: targeting a controversial minority group and chipping away at Obama’s legacy.

If the announcement was designed to distract Americans from the chaos at the White House, it backfired. The ban only further antagonized Democratic and Republican members of Congress who have pushed back on the president’s plan, while a Quinnipiac University national poll released Tuesday shows that with the exception of Republicans, Americans support transgender military service 68 percent to 22 percent.

Estimates of active duty transgender soldiers range from roughly from 1,300 to 7,000 to about 15,500. Although transgender people comprise a tiny percentage of soldiers, they constitute one of the largest segments of openly transgender Americans.

Trump and others who oppose transgender people serving in the military often point to the high costs of transition-related health care. A RAND Corporation report found that the cost of gender transition-related health care in the military runs between $2.4 million and $8.4 million annually. The report also found that past integration efforts involving women and lesbians, gays, and bisexuals indicated that there would be “a minimal likely impact on force readiness.”

“A year ago, Donald said he was going to support the LGBT community more than Hillary, [but] he has done absolutely nothing but to destroy the ‘T’ part of the community,” May says. “We’ve been treated as completely disposable people by the politicians in Washington.”

New Registry Will Track Flint Residents Exposed to Lead

Nearly two years after the first reports of Flint’s contaminated water, Michigan has finally received funding to create a registry for affected residents.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will award $14.4 million over four years to Michigan State University to create a registry for Flint residents exposed to lead-contaminated water. The water crisis, which began in 2014, put nearly 100,000 Flint residents at risk, and it took more than a year of resident complaints for the city government to come up with an action plan. Flint residents are still recommended to steer clear from drinking unfiltered water.

The Flint Lead Exposure Registry, directly funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the budget of which Trump proposes to cut by more than $1 billion), will enable officials to identify and monitor residents exposed to lead-contaminated water and connect them to health services, according to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who is leading the registry effort.

“The registry will be a powerful tool to understand, measure, and improve the lives of those exposed to the contaminated water,” said Hanna-Attisha in a written statement. “The more people who participate in the registry, the more powerful this tool will be for Flint and for communities everywhere that continue to suffer from preventable lead exposure.”

President Barack Obama signed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act in December of 2016, almost a year after Michigan’s senators proposed an aid package for Flint. The act granted Flint $170 million in recovery funds, including $100 million in March from the Environmental Protection Agency for updating drinking-water infrastructure, and the August 1 announcement of funding for the registry.

“Though the State of Michigan has the primary responsibility to support long-term recovery efforts in Flint, the federal government should have stepped in long ago to provide emergency assistance for an American city in crisis,” said Michigan Senator Gary Peters after the act’s passage.

The crisis in Flint began in April 2014, when the city, under state emergency management, switched its water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River, which had not been treated for corrosion. In September 2015, Hanna-Attisha reported that, after Flint switched to the Flint River source, the number of children with elevated blood-lead levels had almost doubled—from 2.1 percent to 4 percent.

Research conducted by Virginia Tech found water in one Flint resident’s home to have lead levels between 200 and 13,200 parts per billion, far exceeding the EPA’s action threshold of 15 parts per billion. According to the EPA, “In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.”

In January 2016, President Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover up to $5 million in costs for water, filters, and other supplies needed by residents. Flint switched back to its original Detroit source in October, and while lead levels improved, officials still advise residents to drink filtered or bottled water.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and the head of Flint’s pipe-replacement program have said that Flint is still years away from having safe unfiltered water.

Heresy! Jeff Flake Attacks the President

Arizona’s senators are having a moment. Shortly after John McCain made headlines by joining with Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski to cast a Republican health-care bill into the legislative charnel house, Jeff Flake, a first-term Republican from the suburbs east of Phoenix, has put out a new book lambasting President Donald Trump.

Flake’s book, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, was largely written in secret, its release something of a surprise in political circles. The title, an homage to Barry Goldwater’s 1960 manifesto, does not mention Trump directly, but Flake pulls no punches in the book’s text, citing the president as a progenitor of the country’s current political situation. Politico published an excerpt yesterday under the headline “My Party Is In Denial About Donald Trump.”

Flake acknowledges his own former complacency. Although he called for Trump to quit the presidential race after the Access Hollywood tape surfaced in October, Flake would later make a habit of saying he lacked the time to read the president’s tweets. Now, he admits his position was a cop-out. For the Republicans, Flake writes, Trump’s candidacy amounted to a “Faustian bargain”—one, he now believes, was “not worth it.”

“In this era of dysfunction and collapsed principle, our only accomplishment is painstakingly constructing the argument that we’re not to blame and hoping that we’ve gerrymandered ourselves well enough to be safe in the next election,” Flake wrote of his Republican colleagues. His main pitch is one of bipartisan cooperation and allegiance to congressional norms, coupled with his desire to return to old-school small government conservatism. That—and his folksy charm—has prompted a slew of admiring profiles and interviews in recent weeks.

The GOP has not reacted happily to Flake’s criticisms. Kelli Ward, a far-right former state senator challenging him in the Republican primary next year, called Flake a “globalist,” tweeting that America is “strong [and] unapologetic” under Trump. (“Globalist” is a term frequently used by alt-right commentators to imply that their targets are Jewish or influenced by Jews. Flake is Mormon.) Trump has pledged $10 million of his own money to beat Flake in the Republican primary, an unprecedented move by a president against an incumbent of his own party. The conservative Washington Times published an op-ed calling Flake an “elitist” and a “defector […] to the Democratic side” before blasting him for his pro-amnesty position on illegal immigration.

Although considered the second-most vulnerable Republican up for re-election in 2018 after Nevada’s Dean Heller, Flake has not yet drawn a serious Democratic challenger. Thus far, the only Democrats who have announced campaigns are two little-known attorneys and a retired judge who once served in Iowa’s state legislature. Several prominent Democrats—including astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords; Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton; and Representative Krysten Sinema—have not fully ruled out campaigns. Flake’s approval rating in his home state lags his disapproval rating by 8 percentage points, and in 2012 he defeated Democrat Richard Carmona by just 3 points.

For the Democrats to regain the Senate in 2018—a tall order, given that they are defending 23 seats while Republicans defend just eight—the most likely path goes through Arizona. Flake may well be vulnerable to Democratic attacks by virtue of his support for repealing Obamacare. But it seems unlikely that a Democratic candidate could simply run an anti-Trump campaign against Flake—after all, his 160-page tirade against the president is as strongly worded as most Democratic senators’ anti-Trump jeremiads. 

Trump’s Budget Would Eliminate Agency Tasked with Ending Homelessness

Included in President Donald Trump’s proposed $6 billion cut to the Department of Housing and Urban Development is the elimination of a small but vital program that has been a crucial force in driving down the U.S. homeless population.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) has a scheduled sunset date of October 2017 and, for the first time since the Clinton administration, it may not be reauthorized.

First created in 1987, USICH’s 19 government member agencies coordinate 23 federal programs to combat homelessness. With an operating budget of $3.5 million a year, the program collaborates with both federal and local government and the private sector to help provide the nation’s homeless with food, shelter, health care, and jobs.

In 2010, the program launched “Opening Doors,” a comprehensive plan that focuses on leadership, collaboration, and civic engagement; access to stable and affordable housing; economic security; health and stability; and the homelessness crisis response system.

Five years after the plan was launched, nationwide homelessness had decreased by 14 percent, or 87,000 individuals (some 550,000 people in the United States do not have a home as of 2016). Homelessness among veterans decreased by 47 percent, chronic homelessness by 27 percent, and family homelessness by 23 percent.

The Urban Institute interviewed more than 50 national and local homelessness advocates, most of whom attributed the progress to USICH. Urban Institute research associate Sarah Gillespie told the Prospect that advocates referred to USICH’s Opening Doors plan as a “leader” in the fight to end homelessness.

“It can be hard coordinating with 19 federal agencies,” Gillespie says. “USICH helps the federal government speak as one voice, navigate as a bureaucracy, ... marshall resources together, and make sure that everyone is on the same page.”

Before Opening Doors, there was little understanding of how many veterans were homeless because the Department of Veteran Affairs only counted veterans who used VA services. Opening Doors worked with the VA and HUD to create a more accurate count, and worked with federal partners to develop a set of benchmark criteria for ending veteran homelessness. Today, 47 cities and counties and three states have announced they have met those criteria. 

Advocates also credit USICH with changing federal homelessness policy to a focus on housing first, Gillespie says. Previously, the federal government provided sobering services, and required similar preconditions before providing housing.

“Even though people will try to keep working to end homelessness,” Gillespie says,” no one could fill the role that USICH plays.”

Making Student Homelessness a Visible Issue

Saturday, July 22 marks the 30-year anniversary of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the federal government’s first major legislative response to homelessness. One important—and controversial—section of the law requires states to remove educational barriers experienced by homeless children and youth, out of recognition that many homeless children cannot enroll in school for a host of bureaucratic and logistical reasons.

Three decades later, there are 1.3 million homeless students in U.S. schools, an increase of 160 percent since 1987. And there are hundreds of thousands more homeless children who have already dropped out, or are still too young to be enrolled in school.

A new policy brief published by Liz Cohen of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness and Barbara Duffield, of the SchoolHouse Connection, looks at where progress has been made at addressing the intersections of homelessness and education, and where work—lots of it—remains to be done.

The authors give the McKinney-Vento Act real credit, not only for providing financial resources to school districts to help homeless students, but also for the “statistical insights mandated by the Act.” They acknowledge that many homeless students would have never enrolled in any school without the law’s protections.

They also note, however, that many students are never properly identified as homeless, so there may be large numbers of children who never have access to services they are entitled to.

In an interview with the Prospect, Cohen expressed frustration that homeless students have not been treated as a distinct subgroup of underserved, vulnerable students.

“The majority of the education reform movement has focused on low-income kids, minority kids, children with disabilities or English-language learners, but homeless children have never really been recognized as anything but low-income students,” she says. “Obviously homeless students are low-income, but there are some important differences in educational outcomes and experiences for children who are currently or formerly experiencing housing instability than for poor students who haven’t.”

Though there’s a great deal of work to do, Cohen says she’s optimistic about the future—pointing to the Every Students Succeeds Act which passed in 2015. This new federal education law requires—for the first time—that schools specifically report the graduation rates of homeless students. Prior to the law’s passage only five states reported the graduation rates for homeless students.

As Cohen and Duffield write at the conclusion of their report:

We can’t say whether we will have ended family and youth homelessness in the next thirty years. Sadly, the rights and services provided by the McKinney-Vento Act may well still be needed at that time. But the wisdom we’ve gleaned from the past thirty years could propel us to make much more progress in the decades to come. What we can and must achieve, however, is to put homeless students on the map. … Our nation and communities must provide adequate resources to boost academic achievement, as well as for mental and physical health needs. Homeless students must know that they are safe in school, and have adults who can and will advocate for them. Their hopes and dreams must guide us, with urgency, as we learn from the past and step into the future.

Voting-Rights Activists Rally Against Kobach Commission

(Photo: Berkley/Esuoso/Richards)

 

As President Donald Trump’s so-called Election Integrity commission met near the White House for the first time on Wednesday morning, roughly 150 protesters gathered outside to voice their opposition to what many criticize as a thinly veiled attempt at voter suppression.

The rally, organized by the nonprofit Hip Hop Caucus’s Respect My Vote! campaign, included American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, the Democracy Initiative, and the NAACP Legal Education Defense Fund, which along with other organizations in attendance has filed a lawsuit against what policy director Todd Cox describes as the “Commission on Election Suppression.”

The commission, led by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, was created to address Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election. The commission has already requested information including voters’ Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, dates of birth, and email addresses from individual states, leading to fears of widespread deregistration because of privacy concerns. Forty-four states have expressed opposition to the commission’s work, though 17 plan to hand over publicly available records. On Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers requested Kobach’s removal from the commission, citing Kobach’s past unsubstantiated fraud claims and conflicts of interest.

The “election integrity” commission’s purpose, says Cox, is to “lay the groundwork for a nationwide voter-intimidation campaign that will disenfranchise African American and Latino voters.”

“We are watching, we are organizing, and we’re here to make sure every eligible American can vote, and has their ballot count as it was cast,” Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn, who was at the protest, told the Prospect.

Protesters first assembled on Pennsylvania Avenue before officers in Secret Service vests ordered the group to move into Lafayette Square. Officers then instructed protesters to clear the park and move to the sidewalk, leading the president of the Hip Hop Caucus, Reverend Lennox Yearwood, to express his disappointment to protesters: “We have a permitted rally and were actually kicked out of the park with guns. That’s disheartening, because this is the people’s house, the place where people can come to this country and protest in a peaceful way.” (The Secret Service said they had not removed protesters and directed comment to the Park Police. A Park Police spokesman said the department’s officers were not involved, referring questions back to the Secret Service, which did not provide details by press time.)

Wendy Fields, protest speaker and executive director of the Democracy Initiative, told the Prospect that the commission should be looking for ways to achieve 100 percent eligible-voter participation, and not hiding behind the “guise of voter fraud.”

“It’s not just about elections,” Fields says. “Voting is about our ability to influence the policies that are being debated all across the country. It’s about making sure that people are participating in basic civil engagement.”

Q&A: Virginia’s Danica Roem Aims to Fix Infrastructure -- and Make History

If elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, Danica Roem would be the first openly transgender state representative in the United States. The 32-year-old Manassas native won a four-way Democratic primary on a platform of transportation, economic development, education, and inclusion, and is now running for Virginia’s 13th District against 11-term Republican incumbent Delegate Bob Marshall, who is known for having proposed earlier this year a bill to restrict transgender people’s public bathroom use.

The Prospect spoke to Roem over the phone about her campaign. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Ira Berkley: What are you most focused on in your campaign?

Danica Roem: We have to focus on fixing our existing infrastructure first. [Delegate Marshall] is more concerned with how I as a transgender person go to the bathroom versus how his constituents get to work. Transgender people actually have public policy ideas that are applicable, that make sense, that would make good public policy, just like anyone else. If you have good public policy ideas, you have a right as an American to bring those ideas to the table. I’m out to prove that yes, transgender people are just as capable of fully funding transportation, taking care of land use issues, taking care of education, taking care of economic development as anyone else. I’m going to be focused on transportation, economic development, education, health care, quality-of-life stuff, while not being afraid to champion nondiscrimination policies.

What was it like growing up in Manassas, Virginia, and what shaped your politics?

I knew I was transgender from the time I was in fifth grade. So, growing up as a closet case in the 1990s was not easy. I came out to one person before college, and only said I was bi. I used sexuality as a stepping stone to get to gender identity, because the homophobic slurs that would be thrown around from my childhood on were severe, and I know what it's like to be singled out for the perception of being gay, let alone the reality of being transgender. Any chance I had for feminine expression I had to do in the privacy of my own room because I was too afraid to step out of my house.

In the 2004 presidential campaign, George W. Bush was floating the idea of supporting a constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality. That was a pivotal moment for me, because by that point I was in my sophomore year of college, I had come out to a lot of my female friends in regards to sexuality, and to some in regards to [being] transgender. But to see the president use the Constitution as a wedge to divide LGBTQ people from their neighbors spurred my interest in politics.

[Barack Obama’s] presidency was absolutely transformative in every sense of the word. He is the first president in my life who looked at LGBTQ people and said, “You are equal and contributing members of society and no one should discriminate against you.” He was the first president who was completely affirming of transgender people. Compare his demeanor to the demeanor of President Trump—it’s night and day. We have someone who has demonstrated that he’s not fit to lead. To me, all Trump’s election showed me is that there is literally nothing in my background to disqualify me for office.

How did Marshall’s history of anti-LGBT remarks and policies factor into your decision to run? How do you feel about the distinction of being, if elected, the first openly transgender state legislator in the United States?

All it means [is] that a transgender person would have the opportunity to finally fix [state] Route 28! But I also understand it from a much broader sense. I’ve talked to a lot of LGBTQ constituents within the district who very actively support my campaign and who see someone willing to champion things that they believe in.

I was deeply unsatisfied with [Marshall’s] constituent service and the fact that he has singled out and stigmatized his own constituents over and over again. After 25 years of being his constituent, I was fed up, and it was time to do something about it. The Trump campaign cemented it. Either we just complain on our computers, or we stand up and do something.

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