House passes Eshoo’s bill on religious minorities

The House today overwhelmingly approved a bill by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, to create a special State Department envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia.

The bill, HR 440, was introduced in January in the wake of increasing violence, targeted attacks and heightened discrimination against Christians in Iraq and Egypt, and persistent concerns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other nations. The House voted 402-20 today to approve it and send it on to the Senate.

Wolf co-chairs Congress’ bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, named for the late congressman from San Mateo. Threats against religious minorities have been increasing in recent months, he said, and the United States has an obligation to speak out for the voiceless, to develop policies to protect and preserve these communities, and to prioritize these issues in broader U.S. foreign policy.

“The U.S. government needs an individual who can respond and focus on the critical situation of religious minorities in these countries whose basic human rights are increasingly under assault,” Wolf said in today’s news release. “If the international community fails to speak out, the prospects for religious pluralism and tolerance in the region are bleak.”

Eshoo, who co-founded and co-chairs the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus with Wolf, has long pressed the State Department to develop a comprehensive policy to address the unique needs of small, indigenous faith communities in Iraq that are being targeted for violence.

“In a time of partisanship and polarization, it’s gratifying when members from both parties can come together to address the humanitarian crisis that’s been unfolding in the Middle East, and has not been given the attention it deserves,” she said. “As the daughter of Assyrian and Armenian immigrants who fled the slaughter of Christians in the Middle East, it’s terrifying to see history repeating itself in today’s Iraq. I’m hopeful that the special envoy created by this legislation will elevate the crisis of the Middle East’s religious minorities, giving them the diplomatic attention they so badly need and deserve.”

Reps. Mike Honda, D-San Jose; Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose; and Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough – Lantos’ successor – are among the bill’s co-sponsors.


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.


Lee praises Bush for signing new global AIDS law

President Bush was flanked by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, and Annette Lantos — widow of the late House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo — yesterday as he signed the H.R. 5501, the Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008.

“As one of the original co-authors of not only this bill but the original legislation in 2003, it has been a tremendous bipartisan effort to get to this day,” Lee, a co-author of the bill, said in a statement issued shortly afterward. “This bill is the latest in a long string of bipartisan initiatives on global HIV/AIDS that have been born out of a willingness to work together and put the United States on the right side of history when it comes to this global pandemic. Despite his failings on so many critical issues, the President deserves recognition for working with Congress to enact this important legislation.”

The new law authorizes a $48 billion increase to the program, which Lee said will make it possible to prevent 12 million new HIV infections globally; provide treatment for at least 3 million individuals with HIV/AIDS; treat 450,000 children; and ensure care for 12 million individuals, including 5 million orphans and vulnerable children in communities affected by HIV/AIDS. Lee said she’ll use her seat on the House Appropriations Committee and its Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs to “ensure we meet the funding commitments and targets we set out in this important new law.”

The law also removes the statutory ban on travel and immigration for people living with HIV/AIDS. “It’s far past time we got rid of this shameful policy,” Lee said. “I’m glad we were able to remove the statutory ban and pass this bill less than three before the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City.”


Lousy turnout, high costs in Speier’s election

speier.jpgNot many people voted in Tuesday’s special election which Jackie Speier won (at almost 78 percent) to fill the vacancy left by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos‘ death in February.

San Mateo County Elections Officer Warren Slocum today announced the turnout was “dismal” both in San Mateo County (25.9 percent) and in the City and County of San Francisco (24.7 percent). Those who did vote overwhelmingly did so by mail — 73 percent in both counties. In real numbers, 17,595 votes were cast at San Mateo County’s polls and 5,202 at San Francisco’s.

In San Mateo County, the cost works out to a whopping $26.70 per precinct voter. By comparison, the cost will be about $11.60 per mail voter.

slocum.jpg“We will spend a million dollars to conduct an election that could have been held for less than half this money all because there is no enabling legislation to allow counties to conduct special elections by mail,” Slocum raged in his news release. “It’s outrageous. If we charged the cities a per voter cost of $26.70 per precinct voter, they would probably sue us.”

Slocum said San Mateo County’s in-person voting requires recruiting, training and placing more than 1,000 poll workers, 32 field technicians and 32 ride-along-coordinators to provide technical assistance in the field, 59 poll opening/closing technicians, and the delivery and retrieval of 2,128 pieces of equipment to 164 polling locations.

Slocum said many precincts saw fewer than 50 voters in the 13 hours they were open, including those just coming in to drop off mail-in ballots. That makes for an awfully boring day, he said, which makes recruiting workers for future elections harder.

“It’s actually one of the more difficult tasks that we’re faced with—and today’s poll workers need to be more savvy and more technically competent than ever before,” said Slocum. “Ask any chief elections officer in the state of California or in the country. It’s a common problem.”

Slocum says we simply can’t afford to conduct special elections like regular elections. “The federal and state governments do not provide any funding to cover these election costs and even if they did, the funds should not be wasted in this manner when there are viable alternatives that promote voting for less than half the cost. This is a disgrace.”

Anyhow, here’s today’s report on her first day on the job, and here’s video from yesterday of Speier’s swearing-in and first floor speech (in which she wasted no time criticizing the Iraq war, drawing boos and walkouts from Republicans):

Seeing Speier sworn in kinda gives you chills when you consider how long she has been trying to get there: She ran in the 1979 special election to succeed her former boss, Leo Ryan, who had been assassinated in November 1978 by Jim Jones’ People’s Temple gunmen in Guyana (where Speier herself was gravely wounded). A long, strange trip indeed…


Candidates to replace Lantos certified

The Secretary of State’s office today officially certified the five candidates who’ll compete in the April 8 special election to replace the late Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo. They are:

  • former state Senator Jackie Speier, Democrat
  • health policy expert Dr. Michelle McMurry, Democrat
  • San Francisco activist and retired businessman Barry Hermanson, Green
  • Atherton businessman and CPA Greg Conlon, Republican
  • Burlingame activist and retired businessman Mike Moloney, Republican
  • If one candidate receives a majority of the votes (50 percent plus one vote), no special general election will be held; that candidate will take the House seat for the rest of this term, through 2008’s end. If a special general election is necessary, it’ll be held June 3 — the same day as the regular primary election for that seat’s next term. Got it?

    Moloney — who ran against Lantos as a Libertarian in 1998 and as a Republican in 2002 and 2006, getting 5 percent, 25 percent and 24 percent of the vote, respectively — put out a news release Sunday in the form of an open letter to Conlon, Hermanson and McMurry:

    mike-moloney.jpgI feel very strongly that we should call the special election of April 8 to replace the late Tom Lantos off, and concede the seat to the princess Ms. Jackie Speier. By doing so, we will save the taxpayers of the 12th Congressional District approximately, $1,000.000 dollars. After all, the San Mateo and San Francisco county newspapers, pundits, and the political establishment have declared her a winner.

    She is been declared a winner, it is all a charade, and we are being used as puppets to give her crowning legitimacy. The local news media, will not sponsor a debate, will not demand a debate, and frankly they do not have the ability to ask the tough questions regarding foreign affairs. In other words, because of all the cutbacks in the news industry, and the consolidation of the news, the local reporters do not have the time to educate the people.

    In other words, is all a farce. Jackie Speier lays claim to the late congressman Tom Lantos’ seat. Tom Lantos, to the day of his depart was working to extricate the United States from Iraq, and to bring the troops home. Jackie Speier has absolutely no prior foreign policy experience, in fact, Tom Lantos said the same thing. Yet, what this Congressional race is all about is foreign policy. So you see why, I consider this whole process a waste of time. What do you think?

    I think: Unlikely.


    Lessig won’t run for Lantos’ seat

    Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, a crusader for online freedoms who is turning his attention to political corruption, has decided not to run for the 12th Congressional District seat left vacant by the death of Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo.

    From his blog:

    With lots of mixed feelings, I have decided a run for Congress would not help the Change Congress movement. I explain the thinking in this 5 minute video (a new record for me!). First question: What happens to the contributions to Lessig08? As explained on the ActBlue page, all will go to (the yet to be established) Change Congress organization.

    Thanks to everyone who helped me make this decision — and especially the many friends in the harshest way told me it would be a mistake.

    So, say hello to Congresswoman Jackie Speier!