Niello stands by his tax vote

Former Assemblyman Roger Niello, R-Sacramento, says the 30 Republicans who signed on to the recently formed “Taxpayer Caucus” are taking themselves out of the picture by announcing their refusal to negotiate over taxes.

All it means is that Gov. Jerry Brown knows where not to look for a deal as he tries to gather support for his proposal to place the question of extending the current level of sales, income and auto taxes on the ballot, he said.

“They’ve done two things,” Niello told me this morning. “They’ve completely eliminated themselves as a factor. And they’ve split the caucus. The worst thing a minority caucus can do is split their caucus. The only power they can wield is to stay united. If you split, you’re dead.”

Indeed, there are 12 Republicans who did not join the caucus, including the two GOP leaders, Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, and Assemblywoman Connie Conway, R-Visalia.

They’ve kept their options open, and apparently understand that the threat of GOP voter backlash is overstated, Niello suggested.

In this story story, I challenged the notion that Republicans are automatically punished by GOP voters for approving taxes.

Now, some would say Niello shouldn’t be one handing out advice to Republicans. In the story, I note that of the six GOP legislators to vote for tax increases in 2009, Niello was the only to lose in a primary.

But he suggests that even his case doesn’t conform with the narrative that’s out there: that Republican voters punish Republicans who vote for taxes.

Yes, he did lose to Ted Gaines, R-Roseville (who, by the way, is a member of the Taxpayer Caucus) in an open special election primary on Nov. 2. He finished third behind Gaines (32 percent) and a Democrat, Ken Cooley (30 percent) with 25 percent of the vote.

But Niello says that the 60-day campaign — ordered after the sudden death of Sen. Dave Cox — made it impossible to defend his tax vote to voters who mostly didn’t know him.

Hundreds of miles separate these voters in scattered small media markets.

The 1st Senate district is expansive, ranging across 11 counties, from Mono in the Central Valley to Modoc, all the way up to the the Oregon border.

Niello did well in Sacramento County, the largest in the Senate district. But there are more voters in the outlying areas by a 3-to-2 margin (330,000 to 227,000).

“Sixty days is not enough time to explain that, so we frankly didn’t even try,” Niello said.

“I was not discouraged at all,” he said. “It showed in Sacramento County that Republicans and Decline to State voters understood why I cast the vote the way I did.”

Niello argues that Republicans are in a position of great strength to win sought-after reforms if they’d just allow Brown to place tax extensions on the ballot.

He said he’s convinced voters will reject the extensions on the current level of sales, income and auto taxes. So, if Republicans can get pension or regulatory reforms in the process and defeat the tax extensions, it would go down as a two-fer.

“It’s somewhat dismaying to me that some people are telling Republicans they should just sit on their hands and not use the power they have to negotiate reforms with Gov. Brown,” Niello told me. “They could use that power to negotiate significant reforms that are needed.”

Niello says that he hopes to prove wrong those who think his career was ended by his tax vote. Depending on how the Sacramento-region Senate district is redrawn later this year, he may run there in 2012. Or he may run for what will be an open state controller seat, given his background as an accountant.

Either way, he thinks there’s plenty of room to convince Republicans that he took a reasoned approach in voting for taxes — and that negotiation is the lifeblood of good politics.


Tom Lantos played key role in U.S.-Libya relations

As the world watches dictator Moammar Gadhafi fighting to retain control of Libya, it’s time to recall that a late Bay Area House member played a key role in recent U.S.-Libyan relations.

Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, who died in Feburary 2008, was the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee in January 2004 when – with the Bush Administration’s blessing – he became the first U.S. elected official to visit Libya in almost four decades, and the first ever to meet face-to-face with Gadhafi. He and I spoke about that trip soon afterward:

Upon his return, Lantos met with State Department officials and committee chairman Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, to recommend that the United States lift its ban on travel to Libya and — if Gadhafi’s disarmament cooperation continues — eventually lift sanctions and restore diplomatic relations. It is a stunning recommendation, coming from a lawmaker who helped author the U.S. sanctions against Libya and often has railed on the House floor against the country’s human rights abuses.

“I am rational enough to recognize that we must accept ‘yes’ for an answer,” Lantos said. “Gadhafi’s record speaks for itself — it’s an abominable record — but the current actions also speak for themselves. He has now made a 180-degree turn.”

Lantos would return to Libya several times in subsequent years. This week, Reuters reported that diplomatic cables made public through Wikileaks now reveal Gadhafi had urged Lantos to sow division in Saudi Arabia.

One cable recounts how, in 2006, Gaddafi had urged the United States to call for “self determination” for tribal groups of Saudi Arabia, “who would presumably choose a government other than the present monarchy.”

Gaddafi’s comments came on a visit by the late Democrat Congressman Tom Lantos, then a member of the U.S. House Foreign Relations Committee, and were made in Gaddafi’s desert encampment on the outskirts of Sirte, according to the cable from August 2006 headlined “Congressman Lantos stresses bilateral achievements and regional challenges with Libyan officials.”

In an hour-long meeting, Gaddafi mainly expounded on the rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, “which has become one of his standard topics,” said the cable; he also lobbied for support for a plan to create “Isratine” — a secular Jewish-Palestinian state — as the best solution for lasting peace in the Middle East.

The cable separately recounts how a speech on political and economic reform by another of Gaddafi’s sons, Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi, had earned a rebuke from Egypt’s leader Hosni Mubarak. Lantos had congratulated Seif on his speech, it says. “Seif immediately noted that President Mubarak of Egypt called his father, the leader, to express his displeasure with the speech, saying it called for ‘too much change and too much freedom’ and warning that the country should be more conservative in its approach to change.”

Seif claimed not to know what his father’s reply to Mubarak was, the cable says, commenting that since the speech was broadcast widely on state-run media, it must have had the tacit blessing of the leader.

Lantos himself talked about his meetings with Gadhafi during a June 2007 committee hearing – by which time he was the committee’s chairman – about “U.S. Policy Challenges in North Africa.”

lantos.jpgMuammar Qadhafi of Libya, a leader I have visited half a dozen times in the last three years, wisely turned his country on a more reasonable path in its external relations a few years ago. The Qadhafi of this century is a more sensible reincarnation of the terrorist revolutionary of the past.

I was the first high-ranking U.S. public official to visit Libya after Qadhafi announced his intention to abandon Libya’s nuclear weapons program. I have also helped foster a student exchange program between our two nations. I am very proud of America’s success in convincing Qadhafi to become a decent citizen of the global community.

Our relations with Libya today are in a much better place than they were just five years ago. Our engagement with Qadhafi and the prosperity it has brought Libya serves as a model to countries currently sponsoring terror or compiling weapons of mass destruction. They should know that they, too, can come in from the cold.

Despite the progress, our relationship appears to have come to a standstill. I will be interested to hear from our distinguished witness today what plans the State Department has to address the absence of both a fully-accredited Libyan ambassador here and a fully-accredited American one in Tripoli – one year after the establishment of full diplomatic ties. We need to allow Libyans to get visas to the U.S. without having to travel to Tunisia, and we need to broaden the Libyan study abroad program here beyond the small number of students currently participating.

There are a few other discordant notes. Libya has moved slowly to resolve the bombing cases of Pan Am Flight 103 and the LaBelle discotheque, even though it has agreed to pay compensation to victims’ families in both cases. The country sentenced to death five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian medical intern accused of infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV even after it became clear that such a plot was absurd and the charges were drummed up.

While our progress with Qadhafi over the past three years has been outstanding, his rhetoric sometimes strikes a shrill note that is reminiscent of the past. So I would only submit that if Qadhafi is going to embrace the West fully – and if we are to accept him fully – both his actions and his words must consistently reflect this new attitude.


Ammiano bill would make growing pot a ‘wobbler’

California Assembly Public Safety Committee Chairman Tom Ammiano today said he introduced a bill last Friday that would change marijuana cultivation from a mandatory felony penalty to an alternate felony or misdemeanor known as a “wobbler”

David EysterOne size doesn’t fit all when it comes to growing pot, according to Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster, who sponsored Ammiano’s AB 1017.

“The proposed change affords local District Attorneys the charging discretion to determine, for example, that a home gardener with a few non-medical marijuana plants will not be prosecuted at the same level as a profiteer operating a major marijuana plantation,” Eyster said in Ammiano’s news release. “It makes no sense that unlawful possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is an infraction, that possession of more than an ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor, that possession of methamphetamines may be charged as a misdemeanor, but that growing any amount of marijuana must be charged as a straight felony punishable by prison.”

Tom AmmianoAmmiano, D-San Francisco, said the change “is long overdue and is simply common sense. Allowing marijuana cultivation to be a misdemeanor will save the state money, allow for more cost-effective prosecution and reflects the views of most Californians. I applaud DA Eyster for his leadership on trying to create a rational public policy for marijuana in California.”

Stephen Gutwillig, the Drug Policy Alliance’s California director, said the state’s budget crisis requires reconsidering its penal policies. “Sending nonviolent marijuana offenders to state prison is a particular waste of resources in a state that lowered marijuana possession penalties and seriously considered ending marijuana prohibition outright last year. That law enforcement figures like District Attorney Eyster are supporting Assemblymember Ammiano’s sensible new legislation shows how quickly the tide is turning against our costly, ineffective, and punitive marijuana policies.”

California District Attorneys Association CEO W. Scott Thorpe said the CDAA “is reviewing the bill and has not taken a position.” I’ve not yet heard back from the California Narcotic Officers’ Association or the California Police Chiefs Association, but I’d bet that once they’ve reviewed the bill, they’ll not favor it.

UPDATE @ 11:15 P.M.: California Police Chiefs Association lobbyist John Lovell says the group hasn’t yet taken a position on AB 1017, but “my guess is that, given the critical level of problems created by cartel cultivation in California, we would oppose this bill.”

UPDATE @ 4:42 P.M. THURSDAY: California Narcotic Officers’ Association Executive Director Joe Stewart said today his group “is obviously concerned about the bill. As always, CNOA is always vigilant in looking into this and other bills that effect the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana.”


Satirist sends Palin ‘Where the Rogue Things Go’

I just got off the phone with San Francisco-based political humorist Will Durst, who’s set to satirize the unique American political phenomenon that is Sarah Palin with the release of his new book “Where the Rogue Things Go,” a parody of Maurice Sendak’s classic for children.

From publisher Ulysses Press:

Where the Rogue Things GoCreative and entertaining, the book begins with Sarah’s early episodes of bad behavior—from her failings at higher education to her practicing of witch doctor religion. It retells the time when she seemed doomed to suffer the political version of being sent to bed without dinner for her abuse of power as governor of Alaska, but instead finds herself transported (almost as if on a magic boat) onto the national political stage as the 2008 Republican Vice Presidential candidate.

Where the Rogue Things Go follows each of Sarah’s pathetic missteps on the campaign, while simultaneously illustrating the legions of fans who inexplicably grow and grow until they surround her at every campaign stop like trees in a thick forest. But Sarah must also win over the snarling, filibustering, tea-bagging monsters that lead America’s right wing. She does so with her greatest ploy of all—she bewitches them with a single wink and they crown her Queen of the Rogue Things.

This cautionary tale continues Sarah’s story into a tragic future where now President Palin and the Rogue Things go on an unconstrained rampage of extreme conservatism that sends America’s economy, environment, and culture back to the dark days of the Bush/Cheney years. With childlike clarity and colorful artwork, Where the Rogue Things Go offers a smart rebuke to Palin’s lipstick-on-a-pit-bull rebranding of failed right wing policies.

“The illustrator is just putting on the final touches and then it gets to the publisher and then they send it to the lawyers… so we’re thinking maybe the beginning of May before it comes out,” Durst told me. “It’s a gentile pastiche, is what it is – we’re mocking and scoffing and taunting but were doing it with taste.”

Will DurstHe said that to liberal-leaning political humorists, Palin is the gift that keeps on giving. Or something like that.

“She’s like the Republican herpes, she erupts every two weeks or so,” Durst said. “If there weren’t a Sarah Palin, we would’ve invented her. For those of us going cold turkey on Bush, she’s like a double dose of methadone.”

He’s hoping she’ll find the book “funny and amusing. She’s got a great sense of humor, so I’m hoping next time we can collaborate on something.”

Durst was calling from Chicago, where he’s “telling some jokes to drunks in bars, my usual job,” he said – fortuitous timing, given that former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel swept to victory over five rivals in Tuesday’s mayoral election, the first wide-open, non-incumbent mayoral vote the Windy City has had in 64 years. “I made fun of the audience last night – I said, ‘What are you doing here, you’re supposed to be voting!’ ”


2003 recall candidate convicted of bank fraud

A federal jury has convicted a North Bay businessman of bank fraud and other crimes he committed even at the same time that he was running as a candidate in 2003’s gubernatorial recall election.

Ned RoscoeNed Roscoe, 51, of Fairfield, a former owner and officer of Cigarettes Cheaper!, was convicted yesterday of one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and to make false statements to Comerica Bank, 13 counts of bank fraud, and 14 counts of false statements to a bank, federal prosecutors said.

Roscoe is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Ronald White on June 6 in San Jose; the crimes of which he was convicted carry penalties that could add up to decades in federal prison and millions in fines, plus restitution.

Cigarettes Cheaper!, based in Benicia, at its peak had almost 800 retail stores nationwide and $1 billion in annual revenue. After a month-long trial, jurors concluded that Roscoe from August through November 2003 directed company accountants to inflate the company’s weekly borrowing base reports of inventory submitted to Comerica Bank, eventually inflating the value of the company’s inventory by more than $16 million. He did so to get more money from Comerica through Cigarettes Cheaper!’s $21 million line of credit and to avoid a pay-down on another, $10.7 million credit line.

The jury also agreed that evidence showed that Ned Roscoe and his father, John Roscoe, 81, of Green Valley, conspired to defraud Comerica Bank and make false statements to the bank. And Ned Roscoe directed a company accountant to falsely inform Comerica Bank in late November 2003 that the cause of the $16 million in inflated inventory was due to clerical or accounting errors.

Ned and John Roscoe first were indicted by a federal grand jury in June 2007, and a second, superseding indictment containing the counts that actually went to trial was handed up last September. John Roscoe pleaded guilty to a conspiracy count in January; his sentencing has not yet been scheduled.

Ned Roscoe ran as a Libertarian in the October 2003 race to oust and replace Gov. Gray Davis. In a blog he maintained at the time, he said he was counting on the support of “this political base, formed first of smokers with many different political persuasions, united in the belief that we must respect the freedoms of others in order to have freedoms of our own, combined with others seeking sensible, realistic actions by a new Governor.”

“I am optimistic, with the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces,” he wrote. “Government isn’t like business. Good government needs consensus. I can work with Legislators and officials to decide rapidly and to do what makes sense quickly. My sense of urgency comes from having customers to serve and bills to pay. My top priority is to improve the prosperity of workers without expanding the burden of government. That is, to do the decent thing.”

He finished 34th in a field of 135, earning 2,250 votes (about .02 percent of all those cast).


Catching up with Barbara Lee and Pete Stark

Having argued the budget all last week, Bay Area House members were pounding the local pavement today, and I got to spend some time chatting with Rep. Barbara Lee and Rep. Pete Stark.

Barbara Lee (Dec-2010)Lee, D-Oakland, started her day by visiting with parents and teachers at the Early Head Start program at Oakland’s First Presbyterian Church, 2619 Broadway. That site serves 20 low-income toddlers and infants; it’s part of the city’s Head Start program, run in collaboration with the Unity Council and serving 1,374 three- to five-year-olds and 200 infants and toddlers.

The continuing resolution for the remainder this fiscal year passed by the Republican-run House late Friday would trim more than $1 billion from Head Start nationwide, reducing benefits to more than 200,000 children including about 27,000 in California.

From there, Lee came to the Oakland Tribune’s offices to meet with our editorial board; I sat in.

“For Head Start to be on the chopping block, to me, is mind-boggling,” she said, noting that with 100 families on the waiting list in Oakland, the program should be getting more funding, not less.

She also talked about how Democrats’ efforts to extend unemployment insurance benefits for “99ers” – long-term unemployed workers who’ve already exceeded the 99 weeks of benefits to which they’re now entitled – was excluded from this continuing resolution, just as it was excluded from the tax deal signed into law in December. Her own bill to extend the benefits, however, is far from dead, she vowed; she said she has 67 co-sponsors and will do whatever she can to bring it to a vote. “This has got to happen.”

Why fight so hard for these things when Democrats are in the House’s minority? “Why am I there? What’s the alternative?” she responded. “I can’t say I’m even cautiously optimistic, but it’s moving.”

She also renewed her defense of earmark spending, noting that in her 9th Congressional District, targeted budget lines have helped fund the Chabot Space & Science Center, the Cypress Mandela Training Center, Youth Radio, the Alameda County Office of AIDS Administration, the Oakland Unified School District, the Alameda County Library’s Castro Valley branch, La Clinica de la Raza, Asian Health Services, and sidewalks in the Ashland and Cherryland unincorporated areas.

“Earmarks are a good thing, and I am so sick of hearing bad things about earmarks,” she said, noting that President Obama’s State of the Union pledge to veto any bill containing earmarks led her to sign onto a “cordial” letter to the White House urging his reconsideration. “I’m going to fight this one to the end. I don’t know how and when we’re going to be able to restore this.”

Lee said she intends to keep pushing for defense budget cuts, at least to match those being made to domestic programs. She said she’s adamant about protecting Social Security against Republicans’ plan to partially privatize it. And she said she wants to do more to help homeowners facing foreclosure. All of this as she tries to balance Democrats’ efforts to get the President re-elected next year with the continuing pressure that she and other progressives want to exert upon him on issues from Afghanistan to earmarks.

Pete StarkStark, D-Fremont, started his day by visiting a government class at Fremont’s Mission San Jose High School, then meeting at his district office with a construction-workers union that’s concerned about who’ll be moving the assembly line equipment in the former New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) plant as electric carmaker Tesla Motors moves in.

Then he met with me for about an hour at San Leandro’s Paradiso restaurant. Accompanied only by his 15-year-old son, Fortney Hillman “Fish” Stark III, he sipped a diet soda while discussing his desire to cut defense spending while protecting some of the domestic programs on which some of his most vulnerable constituents rely.

We talked about how his 13th Congressional District is somewhat socially bifurcated, with a somewhat older, somewhat whiter constituency in its northern areas and a somewhat younger, somewhat more multiethnic constituency to the south. We revisited that theme again toward the end of our chat, as he said he’s waiting with great interest to see how the Citizens Redistricting Commission will redraw House district lines later this year. But he said there’s no truth to the rumor that at 79 – and as the House’s fifth-most-senior member and the dean of California’s delegation – he’s not planning on running next year.

Given Lee’s comments, I asked Stark about rebuilding support for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. “There’s been an amazing amount of progressive legislation that’s come out,” he said, from health care reform to the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gay and lesbian servicemembers. The President will have to remain labor-friendly in order to put a lot of campaign boots on the ground in Alameda County next year, he said, but that shouldn’t be a problem.

On the situation in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker is trying to break the public employee union, Stark noted his native state is politically odd in that it’s split between a conservative farm belt in the west and labor-centric cities like Milwaukee and Racine in the east. National labor unions seem to see it as “a make or break contest,” he said. “I wish we weren’t trying to decide the outcome of public employee bargaining for the whole country based on what they do there, but that may be the case.”

We touched on other topics from the falling dominoes of regime change in North Africa and the Middle East to the ongoing threat of terrorism and how it’s balanced against preservation of our civil liberties. And, looking past the current budget battle, he predicted the rest of 2011 will be about Republicans trying to roll back last year’s health-care reforms and Democrats trying to preserve them.

Stark will meet with constituents in a town-hall meeting from 6 to 7:30 p.m. this Thursday, Feb. 24 at the Fremont Senior Center, 40086 Paseo Padre Parkway.