Wednesday, December 30, 2009

50 ways to leave 2009: Get your New Year's Eve down to an Auld Lang science

Published in the Portland Phoenix
Your usual lackadaisical approach to New Year's Eve — just see what happens and go with the flow — is not going to cut it this year. Sure, the end of this decade may not have the same kind of new-millennium pressure as the last one, a year that sent you scurrying to your basement Y2K bunker or out on a Strange Days-like celebration of impending global collapse. But the plunge into 2010 is a milestone nonetheless. So to help you make this one count, we sent a team of future-thinking Predator drones all across the state of Maine, and a little ways down into Seacoast New Hampshire to sniff out any NYE happenings. We threw the results in our data centrifuge to spin out the good from the lame. And from that, we've distilled the 50 best goings-on, broken down by distance from Portland, from barely-off-the-couch to the Maine mountains, all the way to interstellar travel (we're not kidding!).
If you really can't be bothered to move for New Year's, stick tight to your computer and visit newyears.earthcam.com to see LIVE WEBCAM FEEDS of what everyone else is doing. Use that, and the party footage on www.newyearsnation.com, as motivation to get your butt in motion.
Don't get distracted by all the MUSICAL ACTS on TV: JLo and the Black Eyed Peas on ABC, Rihanna, Jay-Z, and Green Day on NBC, and American Idol-ists on FOX. Seriously, head out of your living room and see the world as a new decade begins.

Close by
For an early start without leaving the peninsula, stop by the PHYZGIG show at the Portland Performing Arts Center. Starting at 2 pm (there's another show at 7), clowns, jugglers, slapstick, music, and a general variety show will take over the stage. $18, $16 students & seniors, $14 under 13 | 25A Forest Ave, Portland | phyzgig.org | 207.854.0065
If you're anticipating more silliness later in the night and want to start with sweet, swing in to Aucocisco for one of the two FOFER SHOWS (at 3 and 7 pm), featuring artist, musician, and storyteller Shana Barry and her creations, the Maine-island-dwelling furball Fofers. 89 Exchange St, Portland | fofers.com

Fuel stop
It's going to be a long night, so take a break for sustenance (and be sure to call for reservations anywhere you go!). At PEPPERCLUB, there are two seatings (5:30 and 8:30 pm) with five courses of their scrumptious vegan/vegetarian/omnivore cooking for $35 (plus drinks). 78 Middle St, Portland | 207.772.0531
Just up the block at HUGO'S is a five-course meal of Chef Rob Evans's locavore-based cuisine for $75. 88 Middle St, Portland | 207.774.8538
VIGNOLA has a $48 prix-fixe upscale Italian menu with free prosecco at midnight. 10 Dana St, Portland | 207.772.1330
Portland's newest classy restaurant, GRACE, has a 6 pm seating for $70 per person for a five-course meal from their excellent menu. There's also an 8:30 pm seating but to that one you can add (for $20 per person) an after-dinner-party, complete with housemade chocolates, a champagne toast at midnight, and even a balloon drop! (Or get into the 10:30 "just the party" for $25.) 15 Chestnut St, Portland | 207.828.4422
Warm-up huts
Get the blood flowing with an Old Orchard BEACH BONFIRE and FIREWORKS DISPLAY, starting at 4:30 pm (fireworks at 5:30), and visit other local shops and restaurants, which will be open to try to convince you that OOB doesn't totally die in the winter. 207.653.8479
If you're less into gunpowder, maybe stop by the NEW YEAR'S EVE PEACE VIGIL with Seacoast Peace Response down in Portsmouth from 6 to 7 pm. Market Square, Portsmouth, NH | 603.664.2796
Portland's MUSEUM OF AFRICAN CULTURE will wake you up another way at 6:30 pm with a traditional ETHIOPIAN COFFEE CEREMONY, with stories and history to boot from the cradle of caffeination. 13 Brown St, Portland | $10 | 207.871.7188
If you want to try to double-up on the champagne toasts, start at the Stone Mountain Arts Center, where STEVE RILEY AND THE MAMOU PLAYBOYS will blast out some Cajun spice to keep things warm starting at 8:30. Get there for the 6:30 dinner (extra cost); everybody gets champagne at intermission, and you're still out in time to come back to town for more. 695 Dug Way, Brownfield | $39-99 | 866.227.6523

Musical interlude
Okay, so here's the run-down on live music, real quick-like:
At Blue is the Mark Tipton-Chris Sprague-Gary Gemmiti JAZZ TRIO from 7 to 8:30 pm. 650A Congress St, Portland | 207.774.4111
They wrap up there and move over to the Apohadion to take part in an 8-to-11-pm variety show including saw-fiddler Tim Findlan and OVER A CARDBOARD SEA, the Portland Saw Orchestra, ID M THEFT ABLE, and the Dolly Wagglers (an amazingly named puppet-show group from Vermont). Also, juggling, we're told? 107 Hanover St, Portland | $5 donation suggested | 207.450.8187
Andy's Old Port Pub will have letter-quality notes from THE A BAND. 94 Commercial St, Portland | 207.874.2639
Go to Bray's Brewpub to hear guitar-rocker PETE FINKLE. 678 Roosevelt Trail, Naples | 207.693.6806
Buck's Naked BBQ will play host to original-and-cover rock band GIRAFFE ATTACK. 568 Route 1, Freeport | 207.865.0600
Bull Feeney's has a double-bill: reggae from EAST WAVE RADIO upstairs and folk from DAVE ROWE downstairs. 375 Fore St, Portland | 207.773.7210
The Big Easy is home to a 9:30 pm SIDECAR RADIO show (with a live-concert DVD being filmed!), accompanied by Sandbag and Stationeightyfive. 55 Market St, Portland | $10 | 207.775.2266
Guess who shows up at Geno's? You got it: COVERED IN BEES arrive at 10 pm, well equipped with Designer Drugs, Murder Weapon, and Ghosthunter. 625 Congress St, Portland | $8 | 207.221.2382
And the mellow-pop stylings of RACHEL EFRON will be at Slainte at 9 pm. 24 Preble St, Portland | 207.828.0900
If it's some corny Maine laughs you're after, there's always BOB MARLEY, who does a pair of early shows (6:30 and 9 pm) at the Merrill Auditorium. 20 Myrtle St, Portland | $44 | 207.842.0800
He moves to the Comedy Connection for an 11 pm show ($35). Or you can check out his protégé, GEORGE HAMM, there at 8:30 pm for $20. 16 Custom House Wharf, Portland | 207.774.5554
  On the town
And now we're ready for the big-time parties. The top ten are these. Options include downscale, upscale, and outright ridiculous — but we'll let you figure out which is which by taking them in order of proximity to downtown Portland.
51 WHARF starts with a $15 two-dance-floor, two-DJ extravaganza offering champagne-bottle specials (no complimentary toast at midnight, though). Be warned: there will be a house photographer getting evidence (or alibis) to be posted online afterward. But they really they set the bar high with a $600 (well, $500 plus an 18-percent mandatory gratuity) VIP package, with "expedited VIP entrance," 10 tickets and passes to a Red Bull "VIP party," a private table in the middle of the dance floor on a raised platform(!), private security(!), "velvet rope service" (whatever that is), and a "private hostess," which we'll hope means just a dedicated waitress and not anything more... 51 Wharf St, Portland | 207.774.1151
Over at the OLD PORT TAVERN, there's a DJ dance party with drink specials and a champagne toast. Or go next door to the Mariner's Church for a $10 live rock show with Modus, with party favors and complimentary snacks and champagne. 11 Moulton St, Portland | 207.774.0444
ASYLUM has super-popular '80s cover band The Awesome upstairs at 9 pm, with a light show and a midnight champagne toast. 121 Center St, Portland | $20 | 207.772.8274
PORT CITY MUSIC HALL hosts a pop-rock night for the ages with perennial local faves Rustic Overtones as headliners, backed by Headstart, Gypsy Tailwind, and Gavin Castleton, with projections by VJ Foo. It's $25 at the door and $50 for a VIP ticket (which gets you reserved seating and access to another bar). 504 Congress St, Portland | 207.899.4990
Moving up the road a short piece, we arrive at SPACE GALLERY, whose $50 Icing party features another pop-rock, multi-media, DJ-folk-funk fest with Spencer and the School Spirit Mafia, Matt Rock and Kate Cox, Olas, Frank Turek, Bam Bam, and Pine Haven Collective — plus photos by Jonathan Donnell and videos by David Meiklejohn and David Camlin. 538 Congress St, Portland | 207.828.5600
Down at the EMPIRE DINE AND DANCE, Zach Jones and Kyle Gervais lead the ultimate Clash of the Titans — music of the '80s versus music of the '90s — at 9 pm. 575 Congress St, Portland | $12.50 | 207.879.8988
At BUBBA'S SULKY LOUNGE, DJ Jon hosts an ultra-'80s dance party, starting at 9 pm, complete with 99 Luftballons dropping at midnight, plus a champagne toast and party favors. 92 Portland St, Portland | $10 | 207.828.0549
Now, leaving town and heading a bit north, VENUE will host an 8 pm-to-midnight classic-rock show with Misspent Youth, with champagne and hors d'oeuvres included in the $25 cover ($40 for a couple). 5 Depot St, Freeport | 207.865.1780
South of town, the LANDING AT PINE POINT will have a world-cuisine party (Thai, French, and Caribbean tastes are on offer) with music from owner Jim Ciampi's band and — the main reason to stop by — a heated cigar tent! Starting at 8, apps, dinner, dessert, and champagne at midnight are all included in the $75 charge (or pay an extra $25 for a VIP private-dining experience). 353 Pine Point Rd, Scarborough | 207.774.4527
MAINESTREET cuts loose with a White-Out Party, at which all guests (preferably wearing black-and-white outfits) will get white LED lights upon entry, and every so often the house lights will go out! DJ Ken will spin, with free copies of his "Hits of the Decade" disc to early arrivals. And everyone gets a champagne toast. Doors are at 8 pm. 195 Main St, Ogunquit | $10 | 207.646.5101
Down the coast
If you're closer to Portsmouth, head down to First Night Portsmouth, where for $20 you can get into all kinds of venues and misadventures. There's a STREET DANCE running from 5 pm to midnight, with a Market Square countdown. Among the highlights are FIREWORKS at 7:30 pm at the South Mill Pond; WEST AFRICAN DRUMMING at the Connie Bean Center; DANCERS performing parts of The Nutcracker at the Great Bay Academy of Dance; the GENERIC THEATER'S READING of Thornton Wilder's one-act The Long Christmas Dinner at the Players' Ring; a BEATLES TRIBUTE BAND at Temple Israel; CHRISTMAS 1910, a Pontine Theatre performance based on South Berwick woman's memoir of a childhood Christmas in Portsmouth; and a THEATRICAL CELEBRATION OF THE NEW YEAR at the West End Studio Theatre. $20 includes all events | proportsmouth.org

Into the distance
For the multiculturalists, visit our neighbors to the north (and east!). Celebrate with Canadians by taking a ROAD TRIP TO EASTPORT for their cross-border party. Just make sure you don't get there late — local restaurants, shops, and galleries are open during the day and early evening. And even if you miss dinner in town, make sure you get there before 11. The locals drop both a large maple leaf and a sardine (in locally flavored tributes to the ball in Times Square), but the maple leaf goes at 11 pm for us here in Eastern Time, in deference to the Canucks, who are one hour ahead, on Atlantic Time. With a soundtrack provided by a brass quartet, the event is sure to freeze and please. tidesinstitute.org | 207.853.4047
Perhaps that's bit far. If you'd rather walk to your party than drive, head up to Carrabassett Valley and meander into the hills, to VISIT THE POPLAR STREAM FALLS HUT, run by Maine Huts and Trails. Beer and wine will be available on New Year's Eve, and with groomed trails for skiing and snowshoeing, home-cooked meals, and staff to wash your dishes, it's hard to imagine a Mainer New Year. $93 per person, dinner + breakfast included | mainehuts.org | 877.634.8824

Had enough of this year, and need to get away? See stuff that you can't see anywhere else at the Southworth Planetarium. INTERSTELLAR TRAVEL begins at 7 pm with "Black Holes," followed at 8 by "Extreme Planets" (looking for planets orbiting other stars), at 9 by "Eight Planets and Counting" (exploring our solar system), at 10:30 by "Ring World" (with close-up views of Saturn and its moons from the Cassini-Huygens robot mission), and end the night with the 11:15 showing of "Cosmic Collisions" (showing what happens when asteroids, comets, and even galaxies collide). A single admission gets you in to any and all of those shows. $6 | 96 Falmouth St, Portland | 207.780.4249

The aftermath
Still haven't had enough? Start the recovery at YOUR FAVORITE BRUNCH place. Lots of them are open their Sunday-brunch hours on New Year's Day, even though it's a Friday — your best bet is to call your top spot and see what they have to say.
And lest any of us forget, January 1 is also the first Friday of the month, which means the FIRST FRIDAY ART WALK will kick off at 5 pm. Make sure you've had a nap so you don't stagger into the exhibits. all over downtown Portland | firstfridayartwalk.com
And finally, head to Slainte for the HANGOVER BALL with indie-folker Sarah Wallis and Dover, New Hampshire-based soul family Moon Minion, starting at 9 pm. 24 Preble St, Portland | 207.828.0900
Now go home and sleep it off. You've got Saturday and Sunday still on the way!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Music Seen: Out on the town

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It was an impressive year in live music in Portland and Southern Maine in general. The party began with the Kino Proby homecoming show at the Big Easy, where Russian-speaking fans rocked out with folks who just loved a great time. There was February's 48-Hour Music Festival at SPACE Gallery, with impromptu bands showing off the amount of creativity Portland's musicians keep in reserve. Anthony's Idol at Anthony's Italian Kitchen highlighted Broadway talent, and Clashes of the Titans kept mixing up live and tribute performances,

Our writers covered karaoke with big talent (Christopher Gray wrote of DJ Annie's at Bentley's Saloon in Arundel, "many of the singers were fantastic. If you were outside . . . you'd swear you were listening to the radio"), with a live band (Kill The Karaoke at the Empire), and for the holidays (Christmas caroling at a Franciscan monastery in Kennebunkport).

We saw hip-hop legends (El-P, Brother Ali), hard-rockers (Ogre, Man-Witch), indie-folk (Christopher Teret, Neko Case), and many more.

Among the high points were Wilco on the Maine State Pier (which Chad Chamberlain said showed a model for Portland's up-and-coming bands to make it without losing their edge), Sufjan Stevens at Port City Music Hall, and a way to enjoy Portland's live-music scene on those evenings when you just can't make it out of your apartment (Sonya Tomlinson said the videos made by Nick Poulin and Krister Rollins at [dog] and [pony] — viewable at dogandponymusic.net — look deeper into the music than many get a chance to).

But let it be said that if watching videos online is how you experience Portland's music scene, you're missing out.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Press Releases: Crossing the line

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When an increasingly conservative newspaper company fires an already publicly conservative employee for apparently offending a liberal interest group, it leaves some people scratching their heads.

Larry Grard, a self-described Christian who told Fox News last week that he was "the lone conservative wolf" in the Morning Sentinel newsroom, was fired November 10 after 18 years at the paper.

Grard, amplified by coverage from Fox News and various Christian-right bloggers, is claiming he was fired for his conservative views opposing same-sex marriage, which in turn are based on his religious beliefs.

His paper and its sisters, the Portland Press Herald and the Kennebec Journal, editorialized in favor of same-sex marriage in November's election, with owner Richard Connor's support. But Connor's viewpoints are generally conservative: He endorsed John McCain in the November 2008 presidential election, and has opposed the public option as an obstacle to progress in the healthcare reform debate.

But Grard's offense was not that he upset the political apple cart. He himself says he was openly conservative in the newsroom for years. And his name is also listed on the Maine Marriage Alliance Web site as part of a group "coming together to amend the Maine Constitution to define marriage as the union of one woman and one man."

Rather, Grard knowingly crossed an ethical line, and is now upset at the consequences.

The morning of November 4, the day after Maine's same-sex marriage law was repealed, Grard arrived at work and found an e-mail message from the DC-based pro-gay Human Rights Campaign, quoting HRC president Joe Solmonese as saying "Although we lost our battle in Maine, we will not allow the lies and hate — the foundation on which our opponents built their campaign — to break our spirits."

Upset, he wrote a reply from his personal e-mail account (though on a company computer): "Who are the hateful, venom-spewing ones? Hint: not the yes on 1 crowd. You hateful people have been spreading nothing but vitriol since this campaign began. Good riddance!" Grard signaled that he knew he was crossing a line, by trying to make his e-mail message anonymous, by not signing his name or identifying his employer. But he either didn't realize or simply forgot that the message would include his name as the sender.

Trevor Thomas, the Human Rights Campaign employee who received the note, Googled Grard's name and then sent the message to Morning Sentinel editor Bill Thompson with a complaint — though not a demand for his firing or any other discipline, according to both Thomas and Kathy Munroe, administrative officer for the Portland Newspaper Guild, which represents Grard and most of the other employees at the company's papers.

Thompson fired Grard for "a serious breach of the legitimate employee and journalistic expectations of Company management," according to a two-page company statement on the matter. (Read the full statement at thePhoenix.com/AboutTown.) Munroe, who says Grard had no history of disciplinary problems, says the Guild offered, on Grard's behalf, to accept without objection a lesser disciplinary action for a first offense, such as a reprimand or a suspension without pay, but got nowhere.

The Guild has filed a grievance objecting to the firing on procedural grounds, but distances itself from claims of viewpoint discrimination. "We're not seeing this as pro-gay-marriage or anti-gay-marriage," Munroe says. "This is an internal contractual dispute."

But Connor is caught in a deeply ironic trap. Either Grard stays fired and conservative Connor is labeled anti-conservative, or Grard is reinstated and Connor thereby suggests that Grard was fired for his views — not his poor judgment about when, how, and to whom he expressed them. Whatever the outcome, it won't be a banner day for freedom of speech.

Hat tip to Al Diamon.

GNU and the free-software movement: You may not know it, but the free-software movement has changed your life

Published at thePhoenix.com

You use Firefox for Web browsing. You know it's a free Web browser that's safe, quick, and has all kinds of add-on modules (there are thousands of these — for chatting, bookmark management, social networking, image-processing, and even federal court-file browsing — at addons.mozilla.org). It has frequent updates to fix bugs, and every new version seems to find a new cool way to make the Web easier.

Thank Richard Stallman and the GNU project for all of those things. Apart from their programming skills, the genius of all their work is really the GNU General Public License (GPL), the legalese rubber where the free-software movement hits the intellectual-property-law road.

The GPL is one of several "copyleft" efforts, in which creators assert their copyright to something, but only for the purpose of ensuring that it — and any future works based on it — can always be distributed for free. (People can, and do occasionally, charge for their adaptations, but there's a disincentive: anyone who pays for it can, under the license, turn around and give it away for free themselves.)

It is legally different from placing a work in the "public domain," from which any person can take, repackage, and sell freely (that's how book publishers can reprint Shakespeare's plays, for example, and charge for copies). The GPL is a license to a user from a copyright holder, granting permission to use the material, but only under certain conditions (namely, free distribution of anything made with the material).

For example, while Firefox development is not coordinated by the GNU group, it uses some basic code that was first created by them. Programmers don't often want to bother creating the nuts and bolts — they want to make the machine. So they reach for the nuts and bolts, locate GNU-created free code, and find themselves in GPL-land, where all code is free, but all modification or adaptation of that code is also free. They are effectively enlisted in the free-software movement, even if their users don't know it.

Not all programmers want to start with GNU-created code (or something built on its foundations). Some actually do start from scratch and write all their own stuff. But the GPL is available to them, too — they just have to declare that.

It is the GPL that allows all of this — it is the key to the success, expansion, and future growth of the free-software movement. Courts in the US, Germany, and France have upheld the license's terms, requiring people who were charging for the software to stop doing so, and enabling out-of-court negotiations with companies that have also succeeded in affirming the GPL.

Many programs — even those on Windows or Mac platforms (against which Stallman rails) — are GPL-covered. The GPL is not only more widespread than GNU/Linux machines, but has the power to invade and co-opt those private platforms, making them more open over time, and showing developers and users alike the possibilities of open and free software.

Go to gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html for more information.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On the Ropes Dept.: Catching up with FairPoint’s decline

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We've been telling you for ages how bad the FairPoint deal was for residents of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. To avoid beating a nearly-dead horse, we've held off on reporting some things for a while, but it's time for a quick catch-up on several fronts.

Most importantly, after months of narrow escapes, FAIRPOINT FILED FOR BANKRUPTCY PROTECTION in late October, seeking a federal judge's permission to turn over most of its debt to its lenders and try to restructure itself out of the deep debt and operations troubles the North Carolina-based company is mired in.

That was after seeking $30 MILLION IN CONCESSIONS FROM UNION WORKERS in northern New England. (You may remember that way back when FairPoint was trying to close this deal, it promised to stick to Verizon's old contract, and state regulators believed them, despite union representatives' fears to the contrary.)

Shortly after the bankruptcy filing, several of FairPoint's biggest lenders asked the judge to appoint an investigator to determine, as the lenders argued in court filings, IF THE COMPANY'S DIRECTORS AND TOP EXECUTIVES WERE TRYING TO PROFIT PERSONALLY FROM THE BANKRUPTCY. The lenders also alleged that company officials were not completely honest about the company's financial prospects, and paid out millions in dividends to shareholders, and to a key vendor, depriving the company of cash that might have helped avoid bankruptcy.

Great Works Internet, the Biddeford-based Internet company that featured prominently in the opposition to the FairPoint-Verizon deal, has revealed that a dispute with FairPoint that began in the Verizon days threatens its business. Apparently, the companies never agreed on what price GWI should pay to Verizon for using certain types of Verizon-owned circuits for Internet traffic; now, unless GWI caves and forks over millions in alleged back payments, FAIRPOINT IS THREATENING TO CUT OFF GWI from portions of FairPoint's network. This is already in court, where, naturally, GWI is asking that FairPoint be barred from cutting off service until the matter is resolved.

FairPoint's requests for $38 MILLION IN FEDERAL STIMULUS MONEY to expand broadband connectivity in northern New England have RECEIVED STATE OFFICIALS' BLESSING in all three states (see "Here Comes the FairPoint Bailout," by Jeff Inglis, September 4).

Despite that prospect of additional cash (and because the bankruptcy filing has called the wisdom of such grants into question), FAIRPOINT HAS ADMITTED IT WILL NOT BE ABLE TO FULFILL THE BROADBAND-EXPANSION PROMISES it made, which were crucial to convincing state regulators to approve the deal, and has ASKED THE FEDERAL BANKRUPTCY JUDGE TO RULE THAT THOSE COMMITMENTS WERE NOT REALLY PROMISES AT ALL (though they carry the power of state law), but soft agreements that can be renegotiated. That almost certainly means delays in rolling out broadband — if FairPoint were going to meet its deadlines, it wouldn't be seeking the additional negative attention associated with breaking its word.

In mid-October, FairPoint announced it was HIRING 45 NEW CUSTOMER-SERVICE EMPLOYEES to be based in a Portland call center, in hopes of improving the company's disastrous service record, which has been criticized by customers, regulators, and lawmakers in all three northern New England states. The company claims it has created 400 new jobs in Maine, but has not drawn much attention to the fact that its business plan anticipated four percent of all workers, including new hires, leaving each year and not being replaced (see "No Raises — It Gets Better," by Jeff Inglis, November 20, 2007).

We can be sure things will get worse before they get better, largely because of the jurisdictional disputes that are almost certain to arise between a federal judge in New York City and regulators, lawmakers, and courts in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. If we had to make a prediction, it would be that this will end up before the United States Supreme Court before rural northern New England gets FairPoint's brand of broadband connectivity — which the rest of the country is already phasing out.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Press Releases: Campaign crash

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The single biggest factor contributing to the repeal of same-sex marriage in Maine was how pro-marriage forces used — or failed to use — the media to their advantage. The No On 1 campaign was experienced — the same groups, led mostly by the same people, won the Maine Won't Discriminate campaign in 2005. It was well funded, as it was four years ago. And again it was defending an existing law enacted by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

But as the campaign to save same-sex marriage from a California-style repeal wore on, it became more diffuse, less focused, and, ultimately, too negative to win.

At the beginning, the No On 1 message was clear and defined: this was about love, family, fairness, and equality.

But while that message stayed constant among the volunteers doing the calling and street work, the campaign's official statements and advertising strayed very far, giving the campaign a public persona that was not loving, warm, or open — but rather, at times, defensive, dismissive, and annoyed.

The Yes On 1 campaign claimed that "homosexual marriage will be taught in Maine schools" (which was loose code for "your kids will be taught gay sex"). But No On 1 did not produce any of the countless Maine teachers who would have said publicly that no matter the outcome of the election, they would always teach what they had always taught: that all students, and all families, have value, and that all people deserve love and understanding, no matter how different they are from us.

Rather, No On 1 got defensive and expressed "outrage" at the ridiculous claims, which — as polls showed — the public wasn't buying. No On 1 even aired TV ads — by far its most expensive and widest-reaching resource — attacking the Yes On 1 message and leadership. (Beyond confusing the point, it violated Rule 1 of campaigning: "If you're talking about them, you're losing.")

And after those ads started airing, the poll results shifted. After No On 1 validated those utterly false claims by repeating them, the fear-of-education message began to take hold. (That confirms Rule 2 of campaigning: "Message repetition is vital. It doesn't matter by whom.")

Some positive, hopeful, family-oriented ads from No On 1 also aired sporadically, embodying the best spirit of the No campaign — declaring that Maine is and should remain a tolerant, loving place where people do not discriminate. But the lack of focus on this core message meant it took time to sink into the public mind.

When it did, it was too late. With less than a week to go, the Yes On 1 campaign showed its first sign of weakness, even backpedaling. New ads promoted the state's domestic-partner registry (creation of which the Catholic Church, a Yes On 1 backer, had strenuously opposed), saying people could support "traditional marriage" and still protect people's civil rights. Those were admissions that the equality message was finally taking effect.

Imagine if the No campaign had spent all its money and time standing on principle, moving on offense: "Some people want to overturn a law that our Legislature passed and our governor signed. That law is an important one granting vital civil rights to a minority population who have been discriminated against for too long."

Even ads asking "What minority are you?" would have been amazing: "How would you feel if someone tried to deny you the right to marry, just because you're left-handed (or blue-eyed, or blond-haired)? You'd vote No too."

But ultimately, the No campaign was too slow, Yes didn't have to respond until too late, and the No campaign never unleashed the most devastating counterattack they had available: the "separate is not equal" message that very well could have carried the day in the state that Won't Discriminate.

Litigation Watch: Ex-USM staffers claim age discrimination

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In complaints filed with the University of Southern Maine's Office of Campus Diversity and Equity, a state legislator and five former colleagues allege they were discriminated against in a recent department restructuring because of their ages. The complainants' ages range between 56 and 63.

Chad Hansen, the attorney representing all six — including state senator Larry Bliss, the former director of the career services office — says while he is at "just the very beginning of the process," additional complaints have been filed through the USM employees' union, and filings are in the works with the Maine Human Rights Commission, a possible prelude to a settlement or lawsuits.

In the restructuring, which combined three departments tasked with helping students handle academics, plan for careers, and handle non-academic issues, eliminated 21 jobs and created 19 new ones — but left six of the new slots vacant — "all the older folks were let go; the younger folks were retained," Hansen says, which "totally stripped the system" of experienced people.

A big part of the problem for the complainants is the six positions left unfilled — "it's not as if they're saying, 'we had to make tough choices between good people,'" Hansen says. The university just simply didn't hire anyone for those positions, though they "hired back all of the younger folks," he says.

Messages left for Daryl McIlwain, associate director of Campus Diversity and Equity, were returned by USM's public affairs department. Spokesman Bob Caswell says three departments — one each handling academic advising, career counseling, and non-academic student needs — were merged into the Office of Student Success, in "one of the most significant reorganizations of an administrative structure ever undertaken here."

Caswell says the search was "open and fair" and found to be equitable by human-resources staff at USM and the wider University of Maine System, as well as by representatives of the employees' union.

While Caswell says the purpose was to improve student retention and graduation and "was never to save money," he did admit that the six unfilled positions were left "open for budgetary reasons." The university has faced budget crunches and student-retention problems for years.

"Advising has kind of been like a nightmare for me," says student Matt Dodge, describing requirements that students meet with advisors before registering for classes each semester, and frequent changes in who his advisor is.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Artist Statements: Recalling genocide

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Painter Stephen Koharian has international relations on his mind when he’s in his studio. Four of the works at his upcoming show at Portland’s Two Point Gallery are responses to the Armenian slaughter of 1915-23, in which 1.5 million Armenians (and a million more Assyrians and Greeks) were killed by the Ottoman Empire, and which Turkey has never acknowledged as a genocide. (Candidate Obama promised he would during the campaign, but President Obama upset Koharian and many other Armenian-Americans when, during an April visit to Turkey, he refused to use that word in front of his hosts.)

Koharian, a 27-year-old Portland native and Maine College of Art graduate whose great-grandparents escaped the genocide and came to the US, wants “Turkey to admit this,” and hopes to provoke more discussion with his art — including two pieces entitled “Turkishness.” One of them shows two skeletons, a mother and a child, in a dark environment alone. The other shows three figures in fezzes, one holding a chain leading to the neck of a skeleton lying at their feet.

“To insult Turkishness is illegal in Turkey,” Koharian says, by way of explaining the pieces’ names.

Some of the works are his own illustrations of survivors’ tales he has read in online archives or at the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, Massachusetts. Others are his own responses to what he has seen and heard and read on the subject. And many of the works that will be on display are not related to the Armenian genocide at all, but nevertheless depict what he calls “atrocities” — such as environmental destruction.

But beyond the depth of feeling in his conversation about the topic, and in his art, is his chilling choice of an artist statement. Quoting Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, it reads: “Our strength lies in our intensive attacks and our barbarity . . . After all, who today remembers the genocide of the Armenians?”

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Legislate by Deed, Not by Breed: Breed-specific legislation and policies pose challenges to dog owners

Published in Downeast Dog News

As the city of Denver reassesses its 20-year-old ban on Pit Bull-type breeds, and begins to question its longstanding official assumption that all dogs of that type are hazardous to people, it’s worth remembering that some dogs are strong and may require particular skills to handle them better. But any dog, even a toy chihuahua, has the potential to be dangerous.

The opposite also holds true—any dog has the potential to be harmless and friendly.

In fact, the heart of the American Kennel Club’s guideline is “Legislate by deed, not by breed.” Rather than restricting certain types of dogs, this approach suggests examining each dog’s behavior individually and responding appropriately. While this may sound like common sense to a responsible dog owner, when motivated by fear and misconception, policy making organizations such as city councils, insurance companies or landlords often turn to breed bans.

Maine law does not specify breeds and even goes so far as to prevent cities and towns from enacting breed bans. It “took months” to devise that legislation, according to Heather Jackson, a dog owner and insurance agent from Augusta, who helped work on the bill more than a decade ago.

Authorities are allowed to deem a dog “dangerous,” and even seek a court order to euthanize it, if it seriously injures or kills a person, but exempts dogs defending their owners’ property, including vehicles, and farm dogs defending livestock. (See sidebar on page 10.)

Apparently, the law has worked pretty well. “No one has really wanted to mess with it since,” said Jackson. And the complaints that have come in have largely been handled without new legislation. One small change to the law was proposed in the most recent legislative session. It would have allowed authorities to classify a dog as “dangerous,” and even euthanize it, if it attacked not just people but domestic animals. The bill died in committee.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape here,” said Ken Marden of Whitefield, a former AKC president, who acts as an advisor to the Federation of Maine Dog Clubs, an umbrella organization for many dog-related interest groups in the state. However, the public perception of dangerous breeds and dangerous dogs, and how it plays out beyond government regulation, is not in such good shape.

“It can be a real problem” for dog owners to get insurance, said David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University School of Law and editor-in-chief of animallaw.info, a Web site that catalogues animal-related laws from around the country. Often, insurers are concerned with breeds, and not whether a dog is trained to defend territory or to cuddle with a newborn.

Some towns around the country require additional coverage for people who have dogs that have been classified as dangerous or that are specific breeds. But that doesn’t mean insurance companies will offer coverage, or that people will be able to afford it if it is available.

And some insurance companies will cancel their policies rather than insure particular types of dogs. “You have people losing insurance just because they have a Pit [Bull],” Favre said.

The AKC Web site does offer links to insurance companies that are not breed-specific, and Jackson said that her insurance company, State Farm, will even offer umbrella liability coverage for dogs with certain bite histories, although owners should be prepared to pay extra for it. Some states have laws preventing insurance companies from canceling insurance for homeowners on the basis of the breed of their dog. Maine considered that in 2005, but it failed.

Sometimes, however, if a tenant can get insurance, that may not be enough. Carlton Winslow, vice president of the Maine Apartment Owners and Managers Association, said that landlords run into insurance problems, too.

“The insurance companies have gotten tougher” over the last 10 years, according to Winslow. They may restrict landlords from renting to tenants with dogs (or specific breeds of dogs) or tenants who smoke. Even apartments with working fireplaces are now harder and more expensive to insure for landlords.

And then there are the landlord’s own policies. Winslow, for example, rents to dog owners only at his single-family properties and not in multi-unit housing. “In a house, the tenant is pretty much responsible for everything,” he said. Multi-family buildings have common areas, and neighbors are placed closer to each other, so there’s more opportunity for problems.

Plus, “some people take great care of their pets and other people do not,” said Winslow, a former dog owner. And housing-fairness laws make it hard to make decisions on a case-by-case basis without risking legal threats.

Other businesses, of course, can’t get by if they restrict dogs too tightly. Robin Bennett, a Virginia-based consultant for off-leash dog daycares and dog daycare section chair of the Pet Care Services Association, which rates daycares and kennels nationwide, said that daycares and kennels have to be more discerning, but they are prepared to make the necessary distinctions, because they are animal professionals, unlike insurance employees and landlords.

“Sociability,” a term Bennett uses to describe how much a dog expresses interest in humans or other dogs, is something that dog professionals look for. Bennett suggests that owners and trainers be aware of dogs’ warning signals, such as growling, that may signal stress, which can escalate to something more serious. Mostly, look for a dog that will engage with others, and has manners when greeting other dogs. Like many dog pros, Bennett is not a “big proponent of breed bans.”

Screenings for kennels can be less rigorous than those for playgroups, simply because kennels where dogs don’t mix just have to be sure its staff can handle a dog. A playgroup, because dogs mix more freely, requires a more careful screening, according to Bennett. But even then, it’s rarely “good dog, bad dog,” she said; rather it’s “good moment, bad moment.”

Unfortunately, that’s not how many in the public perceive things, which is where lawmakers get caught up in the idea of breed bans. Favre said that there is no evidence to show that any of these kinds of laws, whether breed-specific or not, have actually reduced dog bites.

In fact, Denver’s dog-bite numbers “are not down,” despite the draconian law there, according to Marcy Setter, owner and founder of Understanda-Bull in Massachusetts, who added that most bites in Denver are from German Shepherds, which are not covered in the city’s breed ban.

All the research shows “it’s an owner issue, it’s not a breed issue,” Setter said. “No specific breed is any more dangerous than any other.” Citing an average of 21 dog-bite fatalities annually in the United States, Setter said that there are many other more serious causes of widespread injury, such as walking down the street, and driving. She also said that while parents of newborns often are sent home from the hospital with piles and piles of material detailing how to keep the baby safe, there is almost never any information on dog safety, whether there is a dog in the home or not.

And that may, in the end, be a key issue. “Without understanding basic canine behavior, people immediately think ‘these dogs are aggressive,’” Setter said.


Definition of a “Dangerous Dog” under Maine Law
“Dangerous dog,” under Maine Law, means a dog that bites an individual or a domesticated animal that is not trespassing on the dog owner’s or keeper’s premises at the time of the bite, or a dog that causes a reasonable and prudent person who is not on the dog owner’s or keeper’s premises and is acting in a reasonable and nonaggressive manner to fear imminent bodily injury by assaulting or threatening to assault that individual or individual’s domestic animal.

“Dangerous dog” does not include a dog certified by the state and used for law enforcement use. “Dangerous dog” does not include a dog that bites or threatens to assault an individual who is on the dog owner’s or keeper’s premises if the dog has no prior history of assault and was provoked by the individual immediately prior to the bite or threatened assault.

For the purposes of this definition, “dog owner’s or keeper’s premises” means the residence or residences, including buildings and land and motor vehicles, belonging to the owner or keeper of the dog.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The waiting game Congress is making progress. We think.

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We know, we know: Last week, Olympia Snowe made history by being the only Republican in 2009 to vote for any sort of healthcare reform, even in committee-level draft language far from its final form. And after she made her “when history calls, history calls” remark, fellow non-nutjob Republican senator Susan Collins decided she might be hearing things as well.

Snowe, of course, voted for the healthcare-reform bill being discussed in the Senate Finance Committee, parting ranks with her fellow Republicans in that group, and defying those GOPers who threatened to deny her a senior post on the Senate Commerce Committee if she approved of the plan. The Finance Committee’s bill, the last of five proposals to make it through a congressional committee, has been roundly criticized by conservatives as being too expensive, by liberals as not making care affordable (and giving hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to insurance companies), and even by Snowe herself for being “far from” what she wants to see in a reform package.

Nevertheless, she has been lauded around the country for the move, which definitely put her in the “independent Republican” category — if it didn’t strike “Republican” from her affiliation entirely.
And she has left herself more than enough wiggle room for voting for or against future revised proposals, saying in the committee meeting, “My vote today is my vote today. It doesn’t forecast what my vote will be tomorrow.”

Snowe has repeatedly objected to plans that include at their outset a “public option,” most frequently envisioned as a Medicare-like program for people of all ages, to compete with insurance companies’ plans. Public-option proponents say it is the best way to bring down insurance rates and improve coverage and service.

But she is not ruling such a plan out entirely; she has advocated for a “trigger,” in which a public option would be created if certain affordability and coverage targets were not met through the private market alone. (She told Charlie Rose last week that she wants to see what the market does with the restrictions and reforms the bill would put in place first.)

But she also made a clear declaration of principle: “The status-quo approach has produced one glaring common denominator, that is that we have a problem that is growing worse, not better,” she said in the meeting.

Collins may have heard the call, too, signaling in interviews after the Finance Committee’s vote that she too might be open to some form of healthcare reform. However, a statement by her office was almost completely critical of the Finance Committee’s bill, saying it stifles job creation and does little to control costs; it also completely dismissed the Senate Health Committee’s bill and the three House bills that need to be combined. And Collins has repeatedly opposed any form of public option.

If Collins is willing to go along with some version of reform, that might give the Democrats enough votes in the Senate to get something passed, but certain terms will likely be dictated by Snowe, who is the only Republican still at the negotiating table. While congressional Democrats spent the weekend saying they weren’t going to “cater” to her needs in drafting the final bill, Snowe is in a powerful position, and the actual picture that develops as the five committees try to combine their divergent bills (the other four do include a public option) will definitely have a great deal to do with her.

But until there is a bill passed — and anything that passes will take years to have full effect — we are still waiting.
 

Press Releases: Numbers game

Published in the Portland Phoenix

If you take a close look at the latest polls, you will find that supporters and opponents of November's same-sex marriage referendum question are locked in a neck-and-neck battle. The state's major media outlets, however, did not report the news this way. In fact, they got it backward. Here are some samples:

PORTLAND PRESS HERALD "A new poll shows an edge for supporters of same-sex marriage in Maine's Nov. 3 referendum, with 51.8 percent of those surveyed saying they plan to vote to uphold the law legalizing it and 42.9 percent planning to vote for repeal."

BANGOR DAILY NEWS "The results of a new poll released Wednesday show growing support among voters for Maine's gay marriage law."

LEWISTON SUN JOURNAL "Mainers planning to vote on Election Day favor keeping Maine's law allowing same-sex marriage."

WGME "A slight majority of Mainers support same sex marriage."

MPBN "A majority of Mainers in a new poll say they're ready to uphold the state's new gay-marriage law by voting 'no' on the people's-veto referendum question."

At first glance, they'd all appear to be right. The poll itself, by Pan Atlantic SMS Group in Portland, says 40.9 percent of people surveyed said they would vote to repeal the new same-sex marriage law; 2 percent said they were leaning toward repeal the law; 50.6 percent said they would uphold the law; 1.2 percent said they were leaning toward upholding it; 5.2 percent said they were undecided.

The total of all those wanting to repeal the law is 42.9 percent, and those who would uphold it is 51.8 percent.

The key fact, though, is the survey's margin of error, plus-or-minus 4.9 percent. All of the news outlets reported it, but failed to accurately describe what it means: it's a statistical dead heat.

If you take the numbers for people saying they plan to vote a particular way, those in favor of the law are between 45.7 and 55.5 percent of the likely voters; those desiring repeal are between 36 and 45.8 percent.

That 0.1 percent overlap is bad enough, but when adding the "leaning" voters in to each category, the media outlets failed to recognize that the dead heat actually gets closer: voters plus leaners favoring the law are between 38 and 47.8 percent of the population; voters plus leaners for repeal are between 46.9 and 56.7 percent of likely Maine voters -- an overlap of 0.9 percent.

Now you see: It is quite possible that the poll has found more people wanting to repeal the law than supporting it.

And it actually gets worse. Patrick Murphy, Pan Atlantic's president, says it is a nationally accepted fact among pollsters that surveys unavoidably under-report the number of people who oppose same-sex marriage. The reason is that people who oppose it fear being thought of poorly by the person interviewing them, and so they answer that they will support it. But when it comes to actually voting, they vote the way they feel, not the way they said they would. (Pollsters call this the "Bradley effect," after an African-American man who led in the polls but lost to a white man in the 1982 California gubernatorial election.)

And while many pro-marriage young people may be landline-less and therefore left out of the survey, Murphy says the 18-to-34 age group was properly represented in the survey, and studies have shown that young people with landlines are not statistically different from young people who have only cell phones.

All of this gets us to a position that is radically different from what the mainstream media told you. The real story should have been: A new poll shows voters who oppose same-sex marriage outnumber supporters in Maine. While the results themselves show a statistical dead heat, survey experts know that opponents are often under-counted because of unavoidable imperfections in the polling process.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Gatherings: Join the Scooter Rally!

Published in the Portland Phoenix

If your current ride is a bit too motorized for Critical Mass, but still not loud enough for Laconia's Bike Week, don't miss Monday's scooter rally, starting at noon at the East End Beach parking lot in Portland.

Phuc Tran, local tattoo artist and scooter-souper, has been flyering scooters around town for a couple weeks now, trying to get a group of "like-minded scooter riders" together. Tran and about 10 or so others went on regular rides together over the summer, and now they want more company.

It'll work better if people bring vehicles with engines at or below 150 cc, because bigger ones make it hard for the smaller types to keep up, Tran says. (Apparently, alternative transportation does have its limits.)

"I think scooter/moped riders are a self-selecting group," he says, and hopes to meet more people who are actively "choosing to ride a scooter" rather than a bike or a motorcycle. If the group is large enough, it might spawn a future ride to benefit a local charity.

"Hopefully the weather will hold out," Tran says, adding that he's not sure what route the group will take, but is coming up with something he hopes people will enjoy.

Scooter Rally | October 12 @ noon | East End Beach parking lot, Portland | Free 

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Protestors vs. Police: Anarchists claim victory in G-20 marches

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Safely home after protesting for two full days, and being among the first American civilians ever attacked with a sonic cannon, two Portlanders are calling their efforts a success.

Wearing black T-shirts reading "The G-20 is full of jagoffs" (a common Pittsburgh insult, apparently), Paul McCarrier and fellow Portlander Jordan (whose last name we are withholding) recounted their experiences in the Phoenix office on Monday, just hours after returning home (see "Protestors Head to the G-20 Summit," by Jeff Inglis, September 25).

During an unpermitted march on September 24, police used a sonic cannon (technically known as a Long-Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD) in an attempt to disperse 1500 or so marchers protesting against capitalism and G-20 policies they say harm the world's people. A high-volume combination of high and low pitches, the sound made McCarrier "sick to my stomach and weak" when it was directed at where he was standing. Jordan, who was not targeted directly, says the low frequencies bounced off buildings and echoed throughout the area. "You can feel it in your skull, rattling your eardrums around," he says. (Hear a sample of the sound, recorded by McCarrier, at thePhoenix.com/AboutTown.)

But both pronounced the device a failure, because it did not break up the march. Police also used rubber bullets and pepper gas (a vaporized form of pepper spray).

While police were eventually able to split up the march, protestors regrouped a short while later and continued on their way, according to news reports from Pittsburgh. "It was empowering," McCarrier says of his realization that a group of unarmed protestors was able to stay on the streets in the face of overwhelming police strength. (And in the face of emergency ordinances that allowed people to openly carry assault rifles but not gas masks or PVC pipe.)

They were able to do so, McCarrier says, by being collaboratively organized and by using technology, such as Twitter and text messages, similarly to how Iranian protestors communicated back in June.

The following day, protestors also succeeded at keeping the streets, even as violence flared. It began peacefully enough, with Buddhist monks and others marching to protest the harsh military junta ruling Burma. Even that group was surrounded by armed riot police, to intimidate "anyone who wants to even be associated with any sort of dissent or protest," McCarrier says.

Later in the day someone broke a window at a BMW dealership, and that likely provoked a startling move, caught on a bystander's video camera: Military personnel clad in camouflage snatched a protestor off the street in broad daylight, stuffed him (without bothering to search or handcuff him) into the back of an unmarked car, and sped away.

"They probably did that to scare the shit out of people," McCarrier says. "It was after that that people started throwing rocks at the cops."

"We stretched them thin," says Jordan, noting that on Friday night, police radios carried messages indicating vehicles had run out of fuel and officers' radios' batteries were running low. At one point, dispatchers announced that cops were no longer responding to calls throughout most of the city, to be able to focus on activities in the university area. There, police surrounded dormitories and fired pepper gas through the hallways and into the courtyards.

McCarrier says police also fired pepper balls, which the Boston police stopped using in 2004 after one killed a 21-year-old college student celebrating the Red Sox clinching the American League pennant.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter covering the protest and police response was arrested, according to the paper's report, which described police surrounding a group, ordering the people to disperse but giving no route for them to do so, and following them even when they tried to leave.

But despite the difficulties, "the anarchists won," McCarrier says, basing his claim on the fact that marchers were in the streets for more than 12 hours on both September 24 and 25. Police spent an estimated $32 million on security and equipment for the weekend, which amounts to roughly $16,000 per protestor. McCarrier and Jordan say that money could have been much better spent helping the people who live in Pittsburgh and building up community organizations.

They are both looking forward to future opportunities to exercise their "rights to freedom of speech and assembly," and wondering what the police will do differently next time.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Press Releases: Freedom isn’t free

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Campaign-finance reformers often object to the idea that money equals speech. But even for progressives, it does indeed. "All our donations dried up" after Obama was elected, says Matt Power, producer and editor of LibertyNewsTV, a five-year-old monthly half-hour progressive news-and-commentary program based in Portland and aired on public-access channels in Maine and around the country. The program being distributed for October will be the series's last.

The election of the president who promised change suggested "the adults were in charge again," Power says, and so support dwindled for a program that often attacked George W. Bush and his policies.

For example, FreeSpeechTV, a clearinghouse for progressive videos, used to give Power $1600 a year to support LibertyNewsTV's $8000 annual budget. For the coming year, though, it offered $75, Power says. "That's a sign of the times right there."

But he's not done making videos, and has plans to create a progressive-themed series for the Web or broadcast. "We need to create different versions of reality" to show "a positive vision of what the world could be," he says. Specifically, as Marxist as it may sound, "What would make the most people the most happy?"

Power draws inspiration from Michael Moore, who he says has "managed to break out of the documentary mold" by "introducing whole new ideas that people have never even heard before."

If a donor appeared and wanted to bankroll LibertyNewsTV again, he would go right back to it. But since that seems unlikely, he's submitting all the past episodes to the Internet Archive (archive.org) so the public will be able to access them in perpetuity.

(Disclosure: I appeared on an episode of LibertyNewsTV earlier this year explaining my "Take Back Barack" initiative, which suggested that Obama was drifting to the center and even the right, and that we needed to pressure him to stay progressive.)

• WGME Channel 13, Portland's Sinclair-owned CBS affiliate, sent a news photographer to the September 13 ANTI-SAME-SEX-MARRIAGE RALLY in Augusta, armed with a handheld video camera. He didn't conceal the camera, but neither did he disclose his employer, nor his intent to broadcast the footage he shot. Turns out, it was a pretty smart move ? absolutely newsworthy moments the station aired included Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Malone declaring that it was a "duty" of all good Catholics to oppose same-sex marriage, and saying that any Catholic who did otherwise was "dissenting from the teaching of the church." The station also got Marc Mutty, the diocese's spokesman who is on leave to run the anti-same-sex-marriage campaign, to admit that people who oppose marriage equality fear being publicly identified because they might be viewed negatively for their beliefs. "In today's society, being a bigot is a really nasty thing," Mutty said on camera, unintentionally hitting the nail precisely on the head.

• And for those arriving late, I reported (with help from Al Diamon and Lance Tapley) on the AboutTown blog September 9 that Richard Connor made no money as the middle-man in a real-estate deal by which New York developer John Cacoulidis bought the PRESS HERALD BUILDINGS near City Hall in Portland and a Portland developer bought a floor of the Chestnut Street parking garage. Rather, Connor paid $6.3 million and sold them right away for that exact sum. In all, he paid $17.9 million for the real-estate portion of the deal with the Blethens, and got back more than one-third of it right away. He'll get more when he sells the Kennebec Journal building in Augusta; he is planning on keeping the South Portland printing plant and probably the Waterville offices of the Morning Sentinel.

Global Outrage: Protestors head to the G-20 summit

Published in the Portland Phoenix

As President Obama prepares to ask representatives of the world's largest economic powers for more money to help reverse the global recession, thousands of activists will take to the streets to protest the policies of the G-20 and its members, who are meeting in Pittsburgh on Thursday and Friday.

Paul McCarrier, a Portland activist and anarchist who also protested at the 2008 Republican National Convention (see "Judge Dismisses RNC Protest Case," by Jeff Inglis, February 6), helped organize a contingent from New England who have traveled to Pennsylvania and are already setting up for several days of community festivals, marches, and protests.

On the agenda for this week's official talks will be whether the G-20 nations, which include the US, China, Europe, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, will give as much as $1 trillion to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, international groups that invest in developing nations. Protestors, including McCarrier, will be arguing that those groups' projects "destroy local economies" by increasing dependence on foreign aid rather than teaching self-reliance.

"We need to stand in solidarity with people who live in the global South, whose lives are being destroyed," McCarrier says, explaining his motives for protesting. (Activists gathering are from many groups who represent a wide range of populist, anarchist, progressive, and other perspectives.) The 24 finance ministers and central-bank executives who sit on the G-20 board "shouldn't have the power to decide things for all six billion people," he says.

While activists and officials alike say they hope the demonstrations remain peaceful, McCarrier and others are anticipating aggression by police, and are bringing gas masks and other equipment for "defensive" purposes.

There will be thousands of police and National Guard troops stationed in Pittsburgh, according to plans reported in that city's alternative newspaper, City Paper, and its daily, the Post-Gazette.

Those officers have been getting trained by London police, which protestors object to because at the G-20 meeting in that city in April, police assaulted a man who was walking home from work; the man, who had not been involved in the protests but rather worked within a police-erected security cordon, died minutes later. Three autopsies have been done, and a London officer has been interviewed in the ongoing manslaughter investigation.

Pittsburgh city leaders have also taken some odd steps aimed at curbing demonstrations. The city council refused to ban the wearing of masks, but according to the Post-Gazette the council did approve special powers meaning police can cite anyone carrying PVC pipe, carabiners, and even gas masks in the city, if officers believe they will be used to disrupt public order.

Noah Williams, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh G-20 Resistance Project, says the city has ordered 1000 canisters of tear gas, "which is a strange move if you're not planning on using tear gas."

McCarrier is concerned that police will try to suppress the public outcry, noting that the city, as many cities do, requires a permit for a march. "You have the right to express yourself any way the government sees fit," he says wryly.

Williams says the groups he is coordinating with want to create "a space where the people the decisions are going to affect will have a voice," but admits he is not sure the G-20 delegates will get the message.

"They certainly have not shown a history of listening to the people whose interests they're supposed to have at heart," he says.

To follow G-20 protests and related news, visit resistg20.org and g20media.org.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A decade gone by: Where Portland has come since 1999, and why we can't really even imagine what's coming in 2019

Published in the Portland Phoenix

This week, we at the Portland Phoenix celebrate 10 years of serving Portland and Maine as your news, arts, and entertainment authority. And we celebrate a decade of you, our readers, giving us your attention in an increasingly jam-packed media world.

Portland is a small place that has a lot packed into it. (We actually kinda like that description of ourselves as well.) And we have managed to cram a lot into this issue — it's our annual Fall Preview issue as well as a celebratory anniversary edition — and we hope you'll check everything out.

But before you get there, let's start with the predictions then-staff writer Alex Irvine made five years ago, in our fifth-anniversary issue. He listed five themes that had been covered throughout the Phoenix's first five years that would still be current in five years' time (that is, now). And he went four-for-five.

GAMBLING Yep. Another proposal is in development now.

WATERFRONT The Maine State Pier mess is no more solved now than then, and statewide, working waterfront is still under serious land-use pressure.

DIRIGO HEALTH Whether as an example of how to reform healthcare, how not to, or something in between, he was right on.

MERCURY The environmental toxin is still an issue, but not much under discussion these days. We'll call Alex wrong on this one.

GAY CIVIL RIGHTS Oh yes, for sure. If you don't know that, plug into a Webtube.

In this issue, we look back at the past 10 years. Shay Stewart-Bouley mulls over how diversity has changed in Maine since 1999, and cartoonist David Kish offers us some ideas for new niche products we at the Portland Phoenix might create.

Then there's Deirdre Fulton's review of selected of stories we've been telling you about for a while, updating them with where they are today.

If you're wondering what life is like if you work at the newspaper, the only person who worked full-time at the Portland Phoenix from 1999 all the way through 2009, Marc Shepard, has graced us with funny tales he claims to remember from our history.

And our arts writers have reviewed what has happened in Portland since the turn of the millennium. Sam Pfeifle tells us about the 10 most influential bands of the past 10 years; Megan Grumbling recounts the losses and the incredible gains Portland's theater community has seen; Ken Greenleaf looks at the state's artistic scene and notes a few changes; Lindsay Sterling explains how Portland became such a foodie center.

And while Al Diamon gives us a peek at what Maine might be like in 2019, we'll take a slightly less dystopic view. Here are five key issues that will occupy us for some significant period of the next 10 years, and our predictions for what might have happened by 2019.

UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE Maybe we'll have solved it by then.

GAY CIVIL RIGHTS Full legal equality will have been in place for some time, nobody will be worse off, and many people will be better off.

GLOBAL WARMING This will be the crisis of the age, requiring political, economic, and social will like no worldwide challenge before. Its effects will reach into every aspect of our lives — transportation, communication, even food — and will require a concerted international effort to address.

GAMBLING Pro-gambling efforts will continue to propose increasingly better deals for Maine, in hopes of getting their mitts on at least some of our cash. Perhaps by 2019 they'll have offered to just give us our money back at the door.

STATE BUDGET CUTS If Maine's budget forecasters don't improve their skills, there might be precious little left to cut from services to the needy, and politicians will have to consider cutting tax breaks for the wealthy.

We recognize that looking forward is largely for entertainment value, but our looks back showed us exactly how much really does change over time. It doesn't always seem like it, we agree, but Portland is a very different city — very much for the better — today than it was in 1999. We'd like to think we've had some small part in that improvement, and we're definitely proud of how we've helped explore and explain it to you.

Thanks to our readers, writers, staff, advertisers, and friends. Thanks for sticking with us for 10 years, Portland. And thanks, in advance, for the next 10, and beyond.

Party Politics: Snowe: A party of one

Published in the Portland Phoenix

US Senator Olympia Snowe has maneuvered herself into a position where she is the only hope Democrats have of getting a "bipartisan" agreement on healthcare reform. But it's really less that she's being bipartisan than that her bloody-minded Republican colleagues have left her as the last remnant of a system in which the two parties disagreed but found middle ground on which to govern together.

As we have told you before, Snowe is seen as politically crucial to President Barack Obama's efforts to fix our nation's broken healthcare system, but has stuck fast to her idea of compromise — in which a public-option plan would only be available if competition did not improve some yet-to-be-specified amount over some yet-to-be-specified period of time after a bill was passed (see "Snowe Misses the Point of Healthcare Reform," by Jeff Inglis, July 10).

Of course, with Snowe's major campaign donors coming from the insurance and medical sectors, it's unclear what specifics would be suitable to her. (And it's worth noting that many of the hardcore public-option Dems are heavily indebted to labor unions.)

Snowe was able to reshape the financial bailout and economic-stimulus package because the Republicans refused to be bipartisan. She is again a party of one on healthcare reform, less by her own doing than because she has been abandoned — not only by the rightmost ideologues in her party but even by fellow "moderate" Republican Senator Susan Collins. Long a fence-sitter, Collins took to CNN Sunday to tell State of the Union viewers that she opposes a public option, even if it were delayed and watered down along the lines of Snowe's proposal.

Now Snowe herself has gone even farther, outright asking Obama to drop the public option, saying on CBS's Face the Nation Sunday that there is "no way" a plan with a public option can pass Congress. And she may be right about the vagaries and perversities of how Congress works. But with that declaration, she made clear that while the Democrats retreated on the public option in hopes of getting a bipartisan agreement, they are likely now to end up with neither.

But in the wake of recent polls showing strong public support for a public option, and even one showing that nearly three-quarters of doctors favor a public option or just outright single-payer healthcare, Democrats are starting to climb back, with many saying it's important to have a public option in some form, specifically because of the need to provide competition to health-insurance companies.

It remains to be seen if Snowe will support a bill with a public-option trigger like the one she originally proposed, or if she will instead stick with her new request that any sort of public option should be "off the table." It also remains to be seen whether anyone else joins what we might as well start calling the Snowepublican Party.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Portland Phoenix 10th Anniversary on WCSH's 207

Aired on WCSH's 207

video

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Your Money: Here comes the FairPoint bailout

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We thought the bailouts were over. They're not. FairPoint Communications, the nightmare that has become northern New England's landline provider, is seeking tax dollars that could help it fulfill the promises made to regulators in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont when the company spent $2.3 billion to buy Verizon's systems here.

FairPoint is in serious trouble. Next week, officials from all three states will hold a rare joint hearing with the company, which has been scheduled for several weeks but is likely to include discussion of an anonymous e-mail sent August 14 to regulators in all three states alleging that FairPoint faked test results regulators relied on to determine that the company was ready to take over from Verizon. (Monday, FairPoint issued a strong denial based on its own internal investigation.)

Vermont is considering revoking the company's license to conduct business. In July the company threatened bankruptcy. Its business model still depends on customers leaving more slowly than they left Verizon — when in fact the company's terrible service has caused a customer-departure rate higher than Verizon's, and incurred $3 million in poor-performance fines from state officials.

But you don't enter the picture until we look at FairPoint's promises, which are enforceable because they are also orders from the three states' utilities regulators. As part of its proof that the Verizon takeover was in the public interest, the company must pay a minimum of $131 million by March 31, 2010, to expand broadband Internet coverage in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont (even if other companies offer better, faster, or cheaper broadband in the same area). And it must pay a further $114 million before March 31, 2013 to do even more.

FairPoint is asking for nearly $38 million in federal economic-stimulus money (out of $7.2 billion approved to broadband expansion) to provide coverage to areas of all three states that the company "otherwise would have been unable to serve within an identifiable timeframe," according to a company press release. Under federal rules, the company will have to contribute $7.5 million of its own in matching funds to those projects.

But because of a loophole between the states' requirements and the federal rules for doling out its money, tax money could be used to meet the company's existing obligations. The states only require that FairPoint spend certain amounts within the timeframe — regardless of how the company gets the money. The feds require that the company prove "that the project would not have been implemented during the grant period without federal grant assistance."

But what the feds call "the grant period" ends three years after the government approves the application, expected to be late this year. FairPoint's commitments to the states don't end for another year beyond that.
FairPoint probably can't get federal money to cover what the states already require be spent before March 31, 2010. But the states' rules allow it to claim it was going to spend all the rest of the money just before the 2013 deadline. And then the company could say it was bringing forward, into the federal "grant period," work originally slated for 2013 — in which case the rules appear to allow federal money to fulfill state demands.

Indeed, Maine and New Hampshire regulators more or less admit that their requirements don't cover this possibility. "It's all in terms of expenditures," says Andrew Hagler of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, adding that the federal rules are the only way to will prevent FairPoint from subverting taxpayer money to meet its prior corporate obligations.

Leave it to Vermont to set the bar. The state that acted first on the e-mailed tip that FairPoint might have faked its test results is taking the hardest line about double-dipping. The money FairPoint promised to Vermont is "a separate, standalone obligation to the state," says Stephen Wark of the Vermont Department of Public Service. He said he would be "surprised" if the feds allowed it, adding that "generally, the rule is you cannot supplant" money already committed, and replace it with federal dollars. "That is what we're going to hold them to," Wark says.

Good thing, too, because if it's up to the feds, they're not talking. Mark Tolbert, spokesman for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is overseeing the broadband stimulus money, referred the Phoenix to "eligibility and matching" documentation that didn't lay out whether double-dipping in this way would be allowed.

Labor of Love: No rest for these union activists

Published in the Portland Phoenix


Most of us will sleep in on Labor Day. Not the Southern Maine Labor Council, who will be working hard to remind us what the holiday's actually all about.

They'll start at the ungodly holiday hour of 8 am with a breakfast at the Maine Irish Heritage Center hosted by the Southern Maine Labor Council, the Western Maine Labor Council, and the Metal Trades Council. After 45 minutes of chow, they'll head upstairs for a labor-music performance by Nine to Nine, a singing group with an odd name for union types. There will also be an exhibit of photos by Brunswick-based documentary photographer Guy Saldanha, who has visited and photographed labor sites around the world, and across Maine.

The big attraction, though, will be Wilma Liebman, a woman whose name most of us haven't heard. She's the chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, who will be receiving the "Working Class Heroine Award" for her efforts on behalf of workers' rights.

Liebman, one of only two serving NLRB members (three seats are vacant), has spent 12 years on the board, and was chosen by President Obama to lead it shortly after he was inaugurated.

We caught up with her on the phone from Washington DC last week, just as she was heading to Australia to deliver a keynote address at the 19th World Congress of the International Society for Labor and Social Security Law.

She holds out hope for unions not just in the workplace (and notes that the percentage of organized workers in the private sector is in "obvious decline") but in the nation's public sphere, calling union activism "a political counterweight to the political influence of corporations."

While not taking a stand on the Employee Free Choice Act and other labor-related legislation (the board, as a quasi-judicial body, stays out of legislative debates), Liebman says she hopes "things will not be made worse between labor and management."

As far as general principles, she says seeking a balance between corporate and individual power is "both a matter of democracy and a sound economy." Specifically, "if you address the inequality" that exists in society, then increased purchasing power for workers will help boost the economy out of the recession.

At the moment, she says, she sees a sort of "holding pattern," in which everyone is mostly waiting for the outcome of the legislative process. Key to the success of whatever law is passed, Liebman says, is shared understanding. "If the business community could acknowledge that workers have rights — not just to a voice in the workplace but to a standard of living," and labor can recognize "the terrible competitive pressures" of doing business today, both will be better able to work together.

But as the agency tasked with making sure they do, the NLRB is facing its own "crisis of confidence," she says. Three board members' terms expired in December 2007; George W. Bush made three appointments; the Senate never acted. Obama made three nominations in July, but the Senate has been busy with other business.

In the meantime, Liebman says, "our authority to act as a two-member board has been challenged in several circuit courts." Though she and fellow board member Peter Schaumber have nearly 500 decisions with no other members available, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in May that the two-person body did not have the power to make rulings. Three other federal appeals courts, including the Boston-based 1st Circuit, have ruled that it does. The matter is likely to go to the Supreme Court to be resolved.

Portland Labor Day Breakfast | September 7 @ 8 am | Maine Irish Heritage Center, 34 Gray St, Portland | $25 | 207.892.4067

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Press Releases: Talking points

Published in the Portland Phoenix


Rich Connor's reforms have brought a much-needed sharpened focus to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and its sister papers. Certain changes, though, are raising eyebrows not just for what they are, but because of how Connor is doing them.

Many newspapers report on themselves as businesses on inside pages, and occasionally below the fold on the front; Connor has chosen top billing for his paper's self-references.

Lead "stories" have described how he came to buy the papers, announced how much his investors like him, lauded his investors' real-estate developments (without mentioning either their similarities to others' projects or the paper's relationship to the developer), and explained why he's about to shut down a printing plant and sell a landmark building in Augusta.

Lately he is taking the editorial pages in a new direction, as we can see in the now-clarifying picture of his ouster of Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel editorial-page editor Naomi Schalit. Unlike her counterpart at the Portland papers, John Porter, Schalit (a well-known and award-winning journalist who has also worked for Maine Public Broadcasting) survived the ownership change and was, by all accounts, settling in and attempting to get to know the new boss.

But she announced her resignation in early August, just after returning from a week's vacation. Readers might have been startled by the abruptness, but they must have been even more surprised at the editorials that ran in her absence. At a time when the editorial-page editor was not around to discuss the ramifications of such a shift, and without so much as a nod to the long-held former position, the papers overturned years-old editorial positions, most notably chastising Republican senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins for being bipartisan moderates on health-care reform.

It's that kind of move that suggests Connor, while certainly more hands-on than the absentee Blethens, doesn't have a feel for Maine. And the situation may not improve for a while: Schalit's replacement, Bill Thompson, is, like Connor's new executive editor and new head of advertising, an out-of-towner who has never worked in Maine (though a longstanding Connor employee).

But while these efforts may ruffle a few professionals' feathers, the real question is whether the readers notice — or care.

Sadly, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism suggests they do neither. Its latest State of the News Media report declares bluntly that in the latest research, "There was no indication that Americans altered their fundamental judgment that the news media are politically biased, that stories are often inaccurate and that journalists do not care about the people they report on."

Connor instead appears to be trading on the results of Northwestern University's Readership Institute's 2003 "Newspaper Experience" study, which concluded that people read newspapers to have "something to talk about" more than for any other reason. There, he is definitely succeeding.

• Also of note for those TV watchers who still don't use cable, satellite, or the Internet, if you're missing your fave ABC shows, you might just be in luck. WMTW, the Hearst-owned ABC affiliate on Channel 8 in Portland, wants to resume analog broadcasting to recover viewers lost in the digital-TV transition. While its filing with the Federal Communications Commission says there are "unresolved" problems with digital reception in both greater Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, this proposal would potentially restore a signal only as far out as Freeport and Biddeford. If it's approved, it'll be on channel 26 on your analog dial.

Hat tips to Al Diamon and NorthEast Radio Watch.

Visible man: Tracy Kidder gets into the picture

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

As Tracy Kidder’s immersive journalism matures — his latest book recounts his travels through genocidal East Africa — he becomes more visible. He featured significantly in his debut book, The Road to Yuba City (1974), which chronicled the murders of migrant farm workers in California. But he so regretted putting himself in the story that in 1981 he bought the rights back to prevent future republication, and he declines to list Yuba City on his books’ “Also by this author” pages. He began to disappear from the narrative in The Soul of a New Machine (1981), which won the 1982 Pulitzer for general non-fiction. By House (1985), he had perfected the art of invisibility. A passage describes the view from the ground, then quotes a builder on the need for everyone who goes up a ladder to carry a box of shingles, and then — with no acknowledgment that Kidder himself climbed and carried — moves to a scene on the roof.

He stayed hidden through the rest of what became a four-book-deep study of his community in Western Massachusetts: Among Schoolchildren (1989), Old Friends (1993), and Home Town (1999). But he allowed himself back in Mountains Beyond Mountains, the 2003 volume that garnered lots of publicity for the book’s subject, Dr. Paul Farmer, and Farmer’s effort to bring health care to rural Haiti. After a reflective Vietnam War memoir, My Detachment, in 2005, Kidder releases Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness, the second in what might become a series of intensely personal global social-issues investigations.


Strength’s prologue shows Kidder and Deo, the book’s main subject, driving through Burundi, returning to Deo’s home village more than a decade after his escape to America from the Hutu-Tutsi massacres of 1993 and 1994. The first section covers Deo’s youth, the civil war’s interruption of his studies to become a doctor, his flight through the wilderness, and how he rebuilt his life starting as a poor refugee in New York City.

Kidder’s gift is in the way he merges eagle-eye on-the-spot reporting with probing after-the-fact interviews, making us not just observers but privy to people’s innermost thoughts. In his previous books, we were left to imagine the exhausting work of assembling all these details. But in Strength’s second section, he gives a master class in interviewing, offering his own thoughts, as well. His devotion to his work and his compassion for those he writes about is most poignant when he confesses that he feared he was asking Deo questions that would “traumatize him all over again. On several occasions, I offered to stop my search for his story and let his memories die, if they would. Once or twice, I hoped he would accept my offer. But he always declined.”

We accompany Kidder and Deo as they travel to Burundi, retrace Deo’s route to safety, and also launch a Burundi branch of the medical initiative Kidder described in Mountains. We research with Kidder the baseless “distinctions” between “Hutus” and “Tutsis” that were so central to the mass slaughter. We, too, feel terror when he and Deo explore the now-vacant hospital where the massacre began for Deo, and from which Deo fled into the wild. “Up until now I hadn’t fully understood . . . that even his most lurid dreams weren’t weirder or more frightening than what inspired them. He didn’t wake up from his nightmares thankful they weren’t real.”

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness | By Tracy Kidder | Random House | 277 pages | $26