More than a spiritual teacher

“Throughout his short public career Jesus spoke and acted as if he was in charge

Jesus did things people didn’t think you were allowed to do, and he explained them by saying he had the right to do them.  He wasn’t, after all, merely a teacher, though of course he was that too- in fact, one of the greatest teachers the world has ever known.  He spoke and acted as more than a teacher. 

He behaved as if he had the right, and even the duty, to take over, to sort things out, to make his country and perhaps even the wider world a different place.  He behaved suspiciously  like someone trying to start a political party or a revolutionary movement.  He called together a tight and symbolically charged group of associates (in his world, the number twelve meant only one thing: the new Israel, the new people of God).  And it wasn’t very long before his closest followers told him that they thought he really was in charge, or ought to be.  He was the king they’d all been waiting for.

If we look for a parallel in today’s world, we won’t find it so much in the rise of a new “religious” teacher or leader as in the emergence of a charismatic, dynamic politician whose friends are encouraging him to run for president– and who gives every appearance of having what it takes to sort everything out when he gets there.”

From N.T. Wright in Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters

Choosing to vote

Over the last few years, I’ve been traveling an interesting road regarding my personal perspective on government, power, social change, and how I participate in our society.

To give you a little tour of my story, in high school, I was intrigued by my government and history classes, but mostly as a carbon copy of the political beliefs of my parents. I still remember several epic conversations I had with other students where we spouted our parents’ beliefs in funny ways.

Matt Whitten, me: “Ronald Reagan should be rotting in jail now for the Iran/Contra scandal.”
Jon Roller, Abe Halterman, et al, “Ronald Reagan was Moses escorting the hostages out of bondage to freedom!”

Very few of us had the ability at the time to gain thoughtful distance from our parents’ perspectives. I recall senior year observing my classmate Matt Wade shifting from uncritically conservative to something different as he asked himself bigger questions and was willing to deal with the discomfort of his thoughts.  However, Matt was more the exception than the rule. So those of us with parents who were involved in political thought and action found ourselves participating, if only regurgitating what we heard around the dinner table.

I shifted, then, to college where, in spite of my basic selfishness and hedonism the first several years, I was drawn to the political process. I for a time considered pursuing a track that could prepare me to work for the State Department. I chose to major in International Affairs, which blended political science with economics, geography, foreign language, and history. I voted in that time period, even going out on a disgustingly dreary, rainy day in 2000 to canvass registered Democrats to get out and vote, with the colors from my raincoat leaching onto my pants and making a general mess. College also represented my rejection of the specifics of Christianity in favor of what I believed to be practical need. I remember telling my grandfather that Jesus wasn’t practical and that I believed Saddam Hussein needed to be taken out. The spring of 2002 I publicly debated Susan Lowe on the subject of pre-emptive war in Iraq, and argued the affirmative.

The death of my close friend Alex Naden April 29, 2003 proved to be a transformational moment for me. It provided the motivation for me to recognize the destruction of my self-focus and the devastating answer to the question “Who am I?” (my answer: “I have no idea because I’ve tried so hard to be something others would like and accept). This rekindled a commitment to Jesus in me and launched a journey of great pain and great joy since. I’ve learned to cherish God first, to observe and follow Jesus centrally, and to orient my desire toward those goals. Many of those goals; the needs of the poor, the rights of unborn children, the responsibility of peacemaking, a society of greater equality across the board, etc have deeply impacted my outlook on the American political process. I’ve become a bit of a black sheep since that time period, not fitting into the liberal or conservative camps, and struggling deeply with that. I have observed the political activism of the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority and maintained a visceral disgust at their methods and their goals. I have observed the political activism of the Human Rights Campaign, the National Organization of Women, and Planned Parenthood and gained a visceral sense of disgust with their methods and goals.

I became cynical, but never gave up.  In 2004, I appreciated the humility and struggle of John Kerry (who quoted Lincoln, “We trust, sir, that God is on our side. It is more important to know that we are on God’s side.”) over the religious certainty of George Bush (“I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did). So, even as I faced uncertainty over how my convictions made me uneasy with both candidates, I continued to believe it to be my responsibility to pay attention and to make my voice heard in the ballot box.

Over the last couple of years, I have realized my responsibility far beyond casting my vote. I have begun to write elected representatives, joined with others through groups like Cincinnati Faith and Justice to advocate together for a more just society, and began to practice more consistently with my church family toward our local answers to injustice. Along the way, I have had my eyes opened to see how government plays a vital role in encouraging or destroying life in our communities. I do believe that the “government is best that governs closest,” but I don’t believe in the extremely limited government some of my more conservative friends do. I think many of my friends don’t account for the deep selfishness of our society when they call for charity instead of taxation. I do not believe the church can provide for our society’s needs at the scale that government initiative can provide. And yet I believe the church is to be the focus and answer on the human relationship scale for poverty in the world.

I just had a conversation with a friend from our community over voting. He and many others I know take the same tack in choosing not to vote that I just do not understand. I want to take several of his main points and address them, not to pick on him, but because I hear them all so often. I’ll quote him in full, then address each thought individually. He said,

“I have a couple reasons for not voting. First, there isn’t a candidate that fully stands for what i believe. So its basically choosing the lesser of two evils. Second, lobbyists. Money talks and unfortunately i don’t have enough to influence anyone in power. Third, why are we asking the world to do what the church isn’t willing?”

First, there isn’t a candidate that fully stands for what I believe,
so it’s basically choosing the lesser of two evils.

On first glance, this seems to be a common sense statement. If I don’t feel fully comfortable with any political candidate, why vote? But I have some follow-up questions after that. Do we choose friendships on this basis? Do we choose (and stay) in workplaces on this basis? Do we date and marry persons on this basis? I would suggest not. And if we do, I would wonder if we will ever stop withholding ourselves from relationship based on that question, so that when we find we don’t have persons who “fully stand for what we believe,” we hop to the next, and the next, and the next.  This is a lifetime of shallow relationships and false security.  I just don’t find that to be a healthy approach to any issue in society. Part of the responsibility of adulthood and wise citizenship is caring enough to walk into the complexity of problems and invest energy, time, and resources into making sound decisions along the way. To abstain from making decisions based on the marker of “fully” agreeing is a recipe for relational disaster, as I see it.

Second, lobbyists. Money talks and unfortunately I don’t have enough to influence anyone in power.

Yes, it is true that money talks, and yes, it is true that I don’t have enough to influence anyone in power. Again, these statements ring true on face value. But that statement is based on individual wealth and influence. Even the most powerful corporations (while defined under the law as an individual) aren’t based on the power of one, but of collective action to achieve a purpose. One of the great saving influences in America has been when individuals have gotten sick of the corruption that results from the powerful stomping on them and have left the cynical distance of individualism to band together to create change. One great practical reminder of what these citizens can accomplish is the passing of the Fair Hiring policy here in Cincinnati on August 4th of this year. Another long-term example of this choice is the career of Ralph Nader, who by force of will and evangelizing the call to citizen action, has had a huge impact on American society. In neither example have the involved parties had a ton of money, but chose a path of sustained commitment with one another to work for change.

So, yes, by ourselves as a collection of isolated individuals, we are virtually powerless. But together we become a force for change in our society that ripples out through society in ways we don’t understand. And it starts with caring enough to think about the problems of our society and participate in the political process. Our vote is an integral part of that commitment.

Third, why are we asking the world to do what the church isn’t willing?

As I’ve already hinted at above in my personal story, the church should have a complex relationship with society. In one sense, we are called to withdraw from our societies so we can gain perspective and pay attention to our unique call in the world. The Apostle Peter said it most directly, teaching, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” The church is a nation unto itself called to obey a different ruler, with different priorities, and a different distinctive lifestyle. We are citizens of God’s kingdom first.

But simply because we must prioritize in this way does not make our societies unimportant. The decisions of governmental leaders deeply impact our society, and we are also called into the midst of our societies with the desire to bring hope, healing, and social transformation. So the complex decisions we make in participating in the political process, while no longer the most important thing, are still vital and necessary. Or, as Lauren Winner put it,

(Some) see not voting as a compelling act of faithfulness, witness, and politics. But, especially in a world where love of neighbor is tied to citizenship, not voting may be equally seen as a kind of quietism—quietism that a Christian who must be active in the world cannot afford.

My generation is a generation of cynical beliefs about politics and our society. We carry a “live and let live” attitude with others. We believe we are powerless. And in this system where our personal comfort and security is most important, we are right. But we are called out of cynicism into thoughtful, collaborative action for the common good. We are called to love our neighbor enough to wade into the complexity and pain of the American political process to bring about reforms that benefit everyone.

Please join me in voting tomorrow as a simple statement that  we aren’t willing to quit on one another.

My letter to Senators Voinovich and Brown

Our country is in desperate need of citizens who rise from the malaise of work and mindless television to play an active role in shaping the future of our society.  We are cynical, jaded people about the problems of the world primarily because we haven’t had a way modeled for us to find joy and meaning in working together for common goals that contribute to the common good. And when we have been riled up by perceived problems in the system, it’s primarily been led by buffoons like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and the like who don’t shape us to be wise citizens, but knee-jerk sheep obeying their command.  I’m struggling to leave that prior life of the cycle of work and distraction to contribute to my society in a meaningful way, and this is one way I’m working to shape our society..

The following is a simple letter I wrote to my Senators from Ohio.  The second half of the letter is a form letter set up by the ilovemountains staff, but the first half is my own construction. I’ve heard from groups that form letters, while better than nothing, have less effect because the congressmembers know you haven’t spent time to sit down and thoughtfully engage the issue at hand.  I am engaged, learning, and wanting to act.

Senators Voinovich and Brown,

My name is Nathan Myers, a relatively recent resident of Ohio, but already a proud one! I am writing you for two reasons.

First, and most important, there is a region in West Virginia known as Coal River Mountain which has become an area where big business, sustainable industry and energy, the needs of the common person, and environmental concern are smashing together to create a terrible situation. Big business, specifically Massey Energy, is concerned exclusively with the coal seams under the area that can feed their bottom line. This is their overriding concern. In terms of sustainable energy, this is a prime spot for a different form of energy generation for America’s future; a wind farm. In terms of the common citizen, the actions of Massey and other coal giants are shredding their way of life and utterly destroying the area for sustainable, healthy human habitations for centuries to come. And in terms of environmental concern, the destruction of these mountains, resulting coal dust, slurry impoundments, valley fill, and toxic chemicals and metals that will be released into the ecosystem, will have an effect not only on living things in the immediate area, but areas further down the watershed from Coal River Mountain.

Please stand up and be counted as a leader willing to combine a concern for industry with a concern for people and environmental issues.

Second, I am writing to ask you to become a co-sponsor of the Cardin-Alexander “Appalachian Restoration Act” (S 696). This bill is critical for protecting Appalachia’s waters from being polluted and buried by waste created during mountaintop removal coal mining.

Mountaintop removal mining involves clear-cutting native hardwood forests, blowing up entire mountaintops, and dumping millions of tons of debris into nearby streams in order to get at coal seams that lie deep beneath the surface. Already, more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been destroyed by mountaintop removal mining operations. For 25 years, the Clean Water Act (CWA) allowed for the granting of permits to place “fill material” into waters of the United States, provided that the primary purpose of the “filling” was not for waste disposal. As such, the CWA prohibited mountaintop removal operations from using the nation’s waterways as waste disposal sites. That changed in 2002, when the Army Corps of Engineers, under the direction of the Bush administration and without congressional approval, altered its longstanding definition of “fill material” to include mining waste. This change accelerated the devastating practice of mountaintop removal coal mining and the destruction of more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams.

To stop this devastation of the nation’s waterways, Senators Cardin (D-MD) and Alexander (R-TN) have introduced the Appalachia Restoration Act (S 696)—a simple piece of legislation that restores the original intent of the Clean Water Act to clarify that mountaintop removal mining waste can not be dumped into streams. Passing this legislation would help end the destruction of the Appalachian Mountains, home to our nation’s most diverse forests and streams, the headwaters of the drinking water supply of many eastern cities, and a unique and valuable American culture that has endured for generations. Please sponsor the Appalachia Restoration Act (S 696). Thank you for your attention to this important issue.

Yours,

Cincinnati resident Nathan Myers

Campaign Finance Ridiculosity…

I hopped on the internet today to write an email to my local representative Rep. Bob Goodlatte in response to a news alert I received from the group I Love Mountains about the upcoming Clean Water Protection Act’s debate and hopeful vote.  After a bit, I had written a targeted, informed (hopefully) note to Goodlatte reminding him of greater moral responsibility that’s attached to this bill, especially given that District 9 of VA just south of us is a place that will be deeply affected by an up or down vote on this bill, assuming it isn’t amended into oblivion.

In the process of looking up the District and people within, I happened upon the website OpenSecrets.org, the web portal of the Center for Responsive Politics (another Ralph Nader-inspired organization).  The website has summary pages for present representatives that show percentages of votes missed, bills sponsored or co-sponsored, expenditures, and campaign finance.  I happened to look on the profile on newly elected Rep. Tom Perriello and found myself disgusted.  

Now, granted, I’m not disgusted at Perriello’s profile and the things Perriello seems to care about.  In fact, Perriello’s got some impressive international social justice credentials (check out his Wikipedia page). Personal piety that expresses itself in concrete actions in the world for justice should be applauded.  What disgusted me was what drove Perriello’s election over Virgil Goode, which is more of a disgust with the sytem that Goode and Perriello exist in than a disgust with Perriello himself.  I snapped a picture of it for you to look at and see what draws your eye.

Tom Perriello Open Secrets profile

If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d encourage you to see the disparity between the top contributor to Perriello’s campaign and the second-largest contributor.  Seem a little strange?  

“Now, what is ActBlue?” you might then ask.  Turns out it’s a national clearinghouse for Democratic political action and a place to raise money for specific candidates.  Now, supposedly they’re a Political Action Committee (PAC) under the law, which means that they are limited to giving “$5, 000 to any candidate committee per election, primary, general or special.”  But ActBlue gave $268,117 to Perriello.  Now how in the world is that legal/did that slip through the cracks?  I’m glad Perriello had grassroots support from multiple donors, as I am Goode, whose #1 donor was a similar conservative website counterpoint to ActBlue. 

But how in American politics is it that we continue to allow financial loopholes to drive the election of our representatives in government all the way down to the local district in our area?  This ActBlue donation is so outrageously disproportionate to me and doesn’t make sense whether legal or not.  I can only guess that they exploited some legal loophole to accomplish this massive donation.

I’m interested if someone has some way to enlighten me further.

Commencing Lent with Ash Wednesday 2009

“We live in the city of death.  All the cities and societies of the world are places of death.  We look to and serve first one and then some other power of ideology and institution- on and on, over and over again- in order to find the City of Salvation, but each one turns out to be itself consigned to death, a witness to death’s power and reign.  It is through these idols which are themselves acolytes of death that death tempts us with the hope of our own salvation.  Death tempts us by promising to save us from death; that is how cruel and vain and filled with guile death is.

All images of the good society– all panaceas and utopias; all idealism and ideologies; all provisional hopes, compromises, appeasements, corruptions, and failures in the life of humans in society in this world- are in the repertoire of death’s temptations.  Plato’s republic, Constantine’s empire, Rousseau’s social contract, Jeffersonian democracy, Marx’s classless society, free enterprise, and world government are specific forms by which humans are solicited, enticed, or coerced into the service of death..all such principalities in turn pay homage to death and are subject to it even as they promise  us salvation.

God builds the City of Salvation.  It is not some never-never land, some alabaster city beyond the realm of time, but a City, whatever be the final shape and reality of its fulfillment at the end of time, which has form and actuality here and now in the midst of this history.”

–  William Stringfellow

May disciples of Jesus remember as Lent begins that we are expected to be a people apart in the world, a people of repentance and humility and suffering love, an example to the world of what the world is made for.  We do not exist to point to some ethereal heaven, but to exist as a testament that heaven is coming to earth, and we will live this way even if we are hated and considered ridiculous.

Lent, then, is a season of repentance and of stripping away; a season where we intentionally take time out to examine ourselves, to remove some of the pleasures of our life in order to know what really matters.  It is a season where we choose the darkness of forsaking pleasures so we might be able to see what idols we depend on for our security, what powers of death we lean on and believe are our savlation.  We must not settle for less.

Battle with the Banks

Guest blogger:  Dennis Kucinich   (ok, he doesn’t know he’s the guest blogger here at oh-so-famous anothernathanmyers, but this article of his is really really important and instructive).  I’m on Kucinich’s mailing list, and this came two days ago.

Among other things, this article illustrates several important issues.

1) That unlike other politicians suddenly with an opinion with this bailout mess, Kucinich has street cred when it comes to standing up for common citizens when profit-obsessed corporations try to impose their will.
2) That standing up to corporations can be dangerous to your health (the insanity and, frankly, demonic justifications that follow from singular pursuit of profit leads companies to try to knock off persons they consider to be a threat).  What does Proverbs 21:15 say?  “When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.”  That’s always been true, and is part of the reason why most Christians are momma’s boys and girls today; we find out the cost of truth, and choose cowardice over God’s kingdom.  Kucinich isn’t a Christian, so his example should convict Christians even more, which leads to my next thought, that…
3) Christians shouldn’t stand apart from others’ good deeds and justify our inaction by quoting Scripture  like “our righteousness is like filthy rags” to relativize others’ incredible work and justify our passivity. Kucinich is one example of millions of folks who have a strong understanding of justice in some sense and who make the important next step to pursue it no matter the cost.  I’m not quite there yet, but I aspire to be soon.
4) This article is an example that what seems to be impossible to passive people becomes very possible to motivated, persistent, courageous people.  So often we settle for “the way things are in our world,” often hiding behind statements like “things will never change” or “things will only get worse.”  Kucinich stands as a clarion call to another way for me; he is a hero of mine in this regard.

Without further ado, I bring you;

Battle with the Banks


Once they were as gods, but the deities of the American banking system are now in ruins, plunged from their pedestals into the maw of taxpayer largesse. Congress voted to give the banks $700 billion, lifting them temporarily out of their sepulcher of debt, while revealing a deep truth about the condition of America’s financial powers:

They never had the money they said they had as they constructed their debt-based monetary system which now lies in ruins. Their decisions on behalf of depositors, shareholders and investors were lacking in basic integrity and common sense. Green gods bailing out with their golden parachutes. 

There was a time when their power was real. Come with me to Cleveland 30 years ago today.

Dec. 15, 1978, Cleveland, Ohio

I awoke to find a curt payment demand that was dropped on my front step by a grandfatherly man who supplemented his Social Security delivering the morning newspaper. The headline plastered across the front page:

“Cleveland Trust: Pay Up. Bank would relent if Muny Light were sold, Forbes believes.”

One of America’s largest banks, Cleveland Trust, led local banks in demanding immediate payment from the city by midnight, Dec. 15, of $14.5 million in short-term loans.

I regarded the headline skeptically. Having lived in 21 different places by the time I was 17, including a couple of cars, I had come to an encyclopedic knowledge of dun letters, sent to my parents by battalions of bill collectors seeking immediate payment for televisions, cars and a variety of household appliances that never seemed to work. I first came to regard these credit alarms with trepidation, later with impassiveness, with the expectation that as our family grew to two adults and seven children it would soon be on the move again, incurring new delinquencies with each new address. Lack of access to money, housing and credit seemed to be a permanent condition.

Now, having fought through a thicket of consequence to become America’s youngest mayor, elected on a promise to stop the privatization of the city’s electric system, I was faced with paying off loans taken out by the previous mayor, for the financing of municipal projects of dubious value.

The banks refused to extend terms of payment and connived with City Council members to block alternative payment plans, such as the sale of city land or tax revenues. The banks knew the city couldn’t otherwise pay. They demanded instead the sale of the city’s electric system, Muny Light, to an investor-owned electric company, the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. (CEI).  The president of the Cleveland Council, George Forbes, had met with the head of Cleveland Trust bank, who insisted on the sale of Muny Light as a precondition for extending the city credit. This was a case of the bank blackmailing the city, pure and simple.

The alternative to accepting the bank’s blackmail was default. Cleveland could become the first city since the Depression to default on its financial obligations. Cities rely on credit for everyday operations and for meeting long-term financial obligations, such as infrastructure improvements. If banks called in their loans, the city would head toward dire straits. No one knew that better than the law firm of Squire Sanders and Dempsey, which had served as bond counsel for the city of Cleveland while the city entered fiscal peril and was simultaneously, though not coincidentally, the principal law firm for the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. Through Squire Sanders and Dempsey, CEI had access to the intricacies of the city of Cleveland’s financial records.

Under the previous administration, the city began using bond funds for general operating purposes. As mayor, I inherited $40 million worth of debt that had to be refinanced before the end of my first year in office. Under my predecessor, the city had illegally spent money it did not have, and yet it had the key to every bank in town and the confidence of the bond rating houses, at precisely the same time it was preparing for the sale of the municipal electric system to CEI.

 


Cleveland Trust and another bank demanding the sale of Muny Light, National City, were principal stock owners in CEI. Several members of CEI’s board sat on the boards of local banks as interlocking directorates. There was a myriad of bank-utility business relations. Cleveland Trust bank, which handled CEI’s demand deposits, pension funds and other assets, would directly profit from the sale of Muny Light. In a way, the banks were the private utility. With the sale, CEI would have an electricity monopoly in Cleveland and would be able to name its price for electricity and get it. Everyone in the Muny Light territory would receive at least a 20 percent rate increase as the rates would be raised to CEI’s levels.

 

The city was self-sufficient with Muny Light for many years. Muny provided power to 46,000 homes with low electric rates, which contributed to the economic growth of the city. That was until the late 1960s and early ’70s, when a series of suspicious mechanical failures and power outages diminished the system’s reliability. At that time, under heavy lobbying from CEI, the Cleveland City Council delayed the passage of legislation for $9.8 million in repairs to Muny Light’s generators, thereby forcing the city to purchase power at a premium from its competitor, CEI. The city became increasingly dependent on an interconnection between CEI and Muny Light, a high-voltage line over which power could be transferred from CEI to the city, to ensure reliability. The city’s power system began to experience more unexplained power failures. CEI began to make public overtures to purchase Muny Light. The sale of Muny Light to CEI was soon supported by most of Cleveland’s media, business, political and labor interests. 

In November 1976, the City Council passed legislation authorizing the sale of Muny Light for a fraction of its value. I was clerk of Cleveland’s Municipal Court at the time and I objected to the sale. I was advised that there was no way to stop the sale, but I saw it differently. Cleveland had a long history of municipal power. I could sense a terrible injustice was being visited upon the people of the city by its leading institutions, which were conspiring to deprive the city of its public power system.

I organized a petition drive that attracted support from city neighborhoods served by Muny Light. A full civic campaign was born with an intense effort made under brutal weather conditions to gather the signatures necessary to put the issue on the ballot. There was much at stake besides the monetary value of the system: The people’s right to own an electric system. And the historic position of Muny Light, one of America’s first municipal electric utilities, founded 70 years earlier by Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson. Muny Light provided electricity to about one-third of the homes and businesses in the city at a peak savings of 20-30 percent over the rates charged by CEI. Additionally, Muny Light provided millions of dollars annually in savings to taxpayers by serving 76 city facilities. It also provided Cleveland’s street lighting. High electric rates and higher taxes would follow if Muny were sold. The private sector was forcing the sale for its own profit at the expense of the community.

On Jan. 4, 1977, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), in an antitrust review required of any company applying to operate a nuclear power plant, ruled that CEI had conspired to put Muny Light out of business. CEI tried to force Muny Light into price-fixing and blocked Muny expansion, stopped the installation of Muny Light pollution-abatement equipment and forced the city to buy power it didn’t need. In addition, the ASLB uncovered a CEI budget planning report for 1971 that spoke of a five-year plan “to reduce and ultimately eliminate” Muny Light.

The ASLB determined that CEI deliberately caused a Christmas-season blackout on the Muny Light system and sent salesmen into Muny Light territory offering “reliable CEI service.” The private utility illegally tripled the cost of purchased power, thereby driving up Muny Light’s operating costs. CEI illegally blocked Muny Light’s access to power from other companies, all in violation of federal antitrust law. As a condition of receiving its license to operate a nuclear power plant, CEI had to provide Muny Light with access to cheap power. Documents showed that CEI executives believed the purchase of Muny Light would increase CEI’s earnings by $2.732 a share, eliminate a competitive threat, and push the company’s growth rate to 10 percent, further enhancing investment.

Documents in the case also demonstrated CEI’s successful attempts to subvert media editorial policy through cunning use of the company’s large advertising budget. Over the years, several local reporters lost their jobs after writing reports unfavorable to CEI, and CEI bragged internally about placing verbatim company-written propaganda as general media editorial content.

Confronted with the federal finding that bolstered a previously filed $330 million antitrust damage suit, the Cleveland city administration’s response was incredible: “Now CEI has to buy Muny Light!”

At the same time the campaign to sell Muny Light accelerated, a high-powered rifle shot ripped through my house, just missing my head.

A cavalcade of media editorials commenced favoring the transfer of Muny Light to CEI. 

During an ensuing legal battle over the validity of the referendum petitions, I became a candidate for mayor. I promised that if elected I would save the system. I won the election. My first act in office was to cancel the sale of Muny Light. I next had to pay off a $14 million CEI electricity bill that the previous administration owed and wanted to satisfy through the sale of the light system.

I had been in the mayor’s office barely a year, facing a municipal horror story of huge snow storms, massive water main breaks and a police strike. I had cut city spending by 10 percent through eliminating corrupt contracts, payroll padding and attritional cutbacks. Through the year, I struggled with a recall attempt for firing a police chief. The recall was backed by banks, utility and real estate interests with a last-minute appeal printed by the Plain Dealer to sell Muny Light. Credit rating agencies, which had looked the other way while CEI was attempting to gain Muny Light in the previous administration, downgraded the city’s finances.

Another Muny Light-related attempted assassination was averted when I was rushed to a hospital vomiting blood from a profusely bleeding ulcer. Some years later, a congressional investigation produced information from an undercover agent of the Maryland State Police that the assassination attempt was to occur while I was the grand marshal in a local parade. A local television investigative report claimed the assassin’s services were purchased because I refused to sell the electric system.

One month later, I was back at work trying to find a way to save Muny Light. The utility’s financial difficulties, though contrived largely through interference with the system by CEI, were depicted as so overwhelming that only the sale of the electric system itself would save the city from financial catastrophe. I held several meetings with bank officials. and it became clear we were heading for trouble on the question of refinancing. The banks were going to try to force me to sell the electric system. I went public with a plea for an income tax increase to protect the city’s solvency.

On Dec. 15, I made a last-minute appeal to Cleveland Trust. It was 8 o’clock in the morning. I met with Brock Weir, the chairman of Cleveland Trust, Council President Forbes and our host, a local businessman. I had the intention of protecting Muny Light and avoiding a default.

“There’s just one thing you’ve got to do,” said the Council president, who strongly favored the sale.

Weir, the bank CEO with the stern visage: “If you sell Muny Light, we’ll roll over the notes. I can get you $50 million in new financing. We’d get other banks to participate.” It was a bribe.

My thoughts went to the street just outside the boardroom. Some 20 years earlier, a few blocks from where this meeting was taking place, I slept with my brothers and sister and parents in a car, homeless. I remembered an apartment where my parents sat underneath the pale yellow light of a kitchen wall lamp, counting their pennies on an old porcelain-topped table. The pennies dropped, click, click, click. Pennies to pay the utility bills.

It matters how much people pay for electricity. It matters if the public owns its own system and has political and financial control over rates. I could hear the pennies dropping, click, click, click, as Mr. Weir insisted on the sale of Muny Light. I remembered my family and the struggles of people like them. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sell. Not for $50 million, not for anything.

“I’m not going to sell, even if it means my career,” I said, as Council President Forbes looked on in surprise.

“Why do you want to end your career? Sell the system. Get rid of it!” he said.

“Is there some other way we can work this out?” I asked Brock Weir.

He shook his head “No.”

Throughout that day, every media outlet in Cleveland echoed the sentiment of Cleveland Trust’s chairman, including the morning newspaper headline, with such depth of coverage and intensity that it seemed the city itself would crumble unless I agreed to the sale, which also included a provision dropping the $330 million antitrust damage suit. 

The objective condition of the city’s finances received no honest review. The sale of Muny Light was depicted as the only way the city could avoid fiscal disaster. The majority leader of the City Council held a news conference live on the 6 o’clock news. He declared that if I sold Muny Light, “the chairman of the Cleveland Trust bank has informed the council that his bank will purchase $50 million worth of city bonds. So, in effect, we have a plan sitting on the mayor’s desk that will absolutely end the city’s financial problems, if he will put his signature on it.”

The $50 million bribe had been brought out into the open in a manner that now suggested it was a legitimate offer, a fake solution to a fake crisis. I refused to sell.

As Cleveland television stations covered the event live, with a countdown clock that looked like a twisted version of New Year’s Eve, midnight struck. Television networks of several countries recorded the grim event: The city of Cleveland became the first American city to go into default since the Great Depression. The default was over just $14.5 million dollars in credit.

When I called for a congressional investigation a few days later, Cleveland Trust denied it wanted Muny Light, CEI denied it wanted Muny Light, the council president denied the chairman of Cleveland Trust wanted Muny Light, and the majority leader said he was mistaken when he said live on the 6 o’clock news that the bank chairman offered $50 million in credit for Muny Light. Muny Light was no longer the issue. It was the mayor and his obstinacy that caused the crisis. So went the waltz into a netherworld devoid of truth, justice, reality or morality.

Though the people of Cleveland supported keeping Muny Light by a margin of 2 to 1 in a referendum a few months later, and passed an income tax increase by the same margin in order for the city to pay off the defaulted bond anticipation notes, the state of Ohio intervened and put the city into fiscal receivership. I lost the mayor’s race in 1979. The banks renegotiated the defaulted notes, at a profit. The city lost its antitrust suit against CEI in 1981, in a hung jury. An appeal failed.

I was out of major public office for almost 15 years until, in 1993, Cleveland announced an expansion of Muny Light (now called Cleveland Public Power). At that time, the City Council and others decided that I had made the right decision in refusing to sell Muny Light. The city and its residents had saved hundreds of millions of dollars through Muny Light’s reduced electric rates and the savings the taxpayers enjoyed from Muny’s lower-cost power for street lighting and city buildings.

I attempted another political comeback and this time succeeded, getting elected to the state Senate with the motto: “Because he was right.” My campaign literature showed a radiant light bulb behind my name. Two years later, I was elected to Congress, with the slogan “Light up Congress.” Today I am the chairman of the House Government Oversight Domestic Policy Subcommittee, which has broad jurisdiction over most government departments and agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and electric utility matters generally.

The Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. is now a subsidiary of First Energy Co., which was fined by the NRC for various safety violations and, a few years ago, was found to have primary responsibility for the 2003 blackout that left 50 million people throughout the northeastern United States without electricity.

Cleveland Trust no longer exists. No other bank involved in the default survives, except for National City, which next week faces extinction through shareholder approval of a takeover by PNC bank. I have spent much time trying to save National City. 

One newspaper, the Cleveland Press, which advocated that CEI be Cleveland’s sole electricity provider, ceased publication. The other strong proponent of the sale of Muny Light, the Plain Dealer, struggles to survive.

The city’s electric system endures and this past year celebrated its 100th anniversary.

We have a new president…

bidenobama

I just have a couple thoughts in reflection on this change in American politics. Since Bethany says I have a habit of taking the wind out of people’s sails sometimes, I’ll say the positive things first.

1) This is no doubt a major historical moment in America. I haven’t seen the video of Barack’s acceptance speech in Chicago, but from Bethany’s description of Jesse Jackson and Oprah and others weeping, it gave me chills. To think that just over 40 years ago, black students were beaten and jailed for daring to eat at a Memphis lunch counter with whites, and this happened just two days ago? Amazing.

2) Barack is an inspiring figure, and the global celebrations that sprung up from hearing of his election is telling for the integrity of America worldwide. The world is tired of eight years of George Bush’s absurd foreign policy drama of crusading, unilateralism, and machismo. His us v. them and good v. evil policies have caused Islam to become more radicalized and made our world a more dangerous place. Barack will have a different foreign policy presence, to be sure, and the effect of that foreign policy all the way down to daily life in villages in the Middle East would surprise us, I think.

3)The neo-conservative agenda for governance and economics is falling apart at the seams. Alan Greenspan admits it, and not many others. The country heard the McCain fearmongering “Obama’s a socialist” claims and let it slide off our backs like water on a duck. Most reasonable people I’ve talked to believe that the best approach for a just economy is a mix of capitalist and socialist ideas. The days of McCarthy’s “red scare” don’t fly today like they did fifty years ago.

4)Obama has a VP who won’t be afraid to light a fire under him. Whoever else becomes a part of Obama’s cabinet (and I do believe he will surround himself with wise advisors rather than power-seekers or suck-ups), Biden won’t passively knuckle under to Barack. And that’s good.

The negative:
1) Obama talks out of both sides of his mouth on abortion. He claims to want to reduce abortions, spoke clearly of abortion as a moral issue, yet defends Roe v. Wade at every opportunity. I would like to see him navigate a centrist path for Americans on this where we can provide room for abortions in desperate medical situations but remove abortion from being a free, unencumbered choice like whether I get the chocolate or vanilla shake at BK. He claimed in the debates that no female makes that decision lightly. That’s laughable. A number of females treat it very lightly; as a way to remove the unseemly consequence from self-centered sexuality.

2) While I do believe Obama carries some strong doses of wisdom and discernment, he can run the risk of becoming a chameleon and pandering to whatever group he’s speaking to. An example of this is the Israel/Palestine issue. He studied up on the Palestinian people’s plight as an Illinois senator, dining with and listening to an important Palestinian advocate (Rashid Khalidi, whom McCain childishly attacked in his last desperate days), yet when he spoke before AIPAC (the powerful pro-Israel political action committee), he spoke like Israel was the only virtuous and suffering group. Which one is experiencing much deeper human rights abuses on a daily basis, Barack?! It’s clearly the Palestinians! Speak up for them on the world scale, and in supporting them, reject their extremist elements (Hamas) and help Israel and Palestine work towards peace as a gutsy leader. If you’re looking for mentors, call Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu. They’ve got enough guts to call the situation what it is. I’d like to see Barack make some gutsy, polarizing stands from time to time that make people pick sides. I don’t want this all of the time, just some of the time.

I have a video from Ralph Nader that I embedded below here where he gives some stern warnings about Barack. He offers some really important perspectives on Obama that will take some of the luster off the “golden boy” image.

3) Barack is a corporate president-elect now. A whole lot of his money came from corporations, and if you don’t think that came with strings attached, you’re about as naive as George Bush on that carrier in 2003. And if Barack wants to be re-elected, he’s got to get some things done for those corporations over the next four years if he wants to have a shot to win again. This will lead to him compromising significantly, hedging stronger statements by emphasizing both sides, and generally caring for corporations over the common person…that is, unless the people of America unite to force him and the Congress to vote a certain way like blacks did in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act.

So, as you can see, I’m conflicted about this guy. I think he’s the best leader for America amongst the two candidates, I think his VP is the best leader for America amongst the two candidates. If I had my druthers, either one of my two favorite leaders Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich would be in this place. They couldn’t get there because their integrity matters too much, so. *sigh* All is not hopeless, yet all is not peaches and cream either.

I’ll state this and hopefully a million times more in my life; the biggest hope for America is a citizenry that unites around issues of justice and equity and works consistently and passionately toward that end. Our present political system corrupts the very people who have the best ideas; they need you and me lighting a fire under them to make solid change happen. I’m still learning how to do that, but at least I’m trying, right?