Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Survivor winnings could help the state

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Survivor: Gabon winner Bob Crowley hasn't really had time to settle back in to his home South Portland, and already he has told the local media he wants to use some of his $1.1 million payday to take his wife on a nice trip. But what about the rest of the money? We can be certain that the state's bean-counters are looking forward to Crowley's 2008 tax return — and its accompanying check.

State law imposes no special taxes on game-show winnings (or, for that matter, lottery jackpots) — the winner simply owes state income taxes on the full amount. Because Maine's highest tax bracket (8.5 percent) kicks in at $38,900 in earnings for a married couple, Crowley will have to pay roughly $93,500 to Maine Revenue Services (that's in addition to an estimated $385,000 he'll owe the IRS).

Maine's cut isn't nearly enough to cover the $4.25-million hole that resulted from an overly optimistic guess at how much Hollywood Slots would subsidize state spending. And it's not even close to paying for even one of the many cuts in the Department of Health and Human Services, nor the damage to the Corrections Department's budget (see Lance Tapley's story). But Crowley's winnings could help.

Crowley couldn't be reached to discuss what he would like his tax payments to go to, so here are a few ideas, which would restore programs cut in the governor's 2009 emergency budget proposal.

Grants to the New England Consortium of Arts Educator Professionals and the cultural New Century Community Program: $4840.

Child-advocacy funding for the Disability Rights Center: $7035.

State help for homeless shelters: $23,542.

State matching grants for local humanities programs: $3309.

Gambling-addiction treatment program: $35,000.

Monthly meetings of Maine's largest planning board, the Land Use Regulation Commission (instead of every other month, as Baldacci has proposed): $2310.

Improved data-keeping about habitat that is home to federally endangered species: $2000.

Funds for the Applied Technology Development Centers, touted as part of investments to expand Maine's economy: $9911.

Support for after-school programs designed to keep children healthy, safe, and learning: $1302.

Help to provide science-lab equipment to schools throughout the state: $3236. (Crowley might like this best of all, since he's a physics teacher at Gorham High School.)

We could do all that, and still have $1015 left over. What do you think the state should spend any or all of Crowley's tax money on? Weigh in at thePhoenix.com/AboutTown.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Take Back Barack: It's time to reclaim the man we put in the White House

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix; reprinted in the Pittsburgh City Paper; co-written with Deirdre Fulton
Let's be honest: we didn't vote for the Barack Obama his campaign advertised. We didn't vote for an African-American man, nor for a US senator from Illinois, nor for a father, a husband, an activist, or a young politician.
We voted for the Barack Obama we fantasized — the progressive miracle worker. We voted for Change.
Millions of us stood up and shouted, handed out fliers, talked to our neighbors, donated hard-earned money, and drove people to the polls for Change. We screamed, hugged, kissed, and cried when we learned Change had come to America. We knew Change wouldn't come overnight, that it would take time, but we were excited that we had elected a man who was open to Change, who said he wanted to consider real people's needs while in the Oval Office. We eagerly awaited the first hints of Change, as the president-elect's transition developed.
And now, we have reason to worry that Change is not coming to America after all. For nearly two years we were encouraged to "Be the Change you want to see in America." It is now obvious that we have a ways to go toward Being that Change. And so does President-elect Barack Obama. And that, above all else, needs to Change.
It was not the Democratic base, nor the centrists, nor even the center-left, who put Obama where he is today. The progressive movement rose from near death and kept Obama alive in the primary, eventually proving stubborn enough to carry him to victory over the Establishment candidate. And then, in the general election, it was the progressives whose energy infected the nation, whose enthusiasm reminded longtime vote-the-ticket Dems that elections were about the future, and whose contributions, tiny as each individual one was, funded the revolution of Change that swept Obama into the Oval Office.
Now is the time to hold him accountable — even before he takes the oath of office — because once he's in there, he will be surrounded by the trappings of Power, the machinery of State, and the inertia of Bureaucracy. If we are to reach him, we must act quickly. Though he has shown us that he is not who we thought he was (for the record, we did know he wasn't the Messiah), he has also, fortunately, shown us the way to keeping him — and our country — on the right track.
What's gone wrongObama's fall from progressive grace goes beyond the campaign-season disappointment of his support for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the warrantless-wiretapping law strongly opposed by liberal activists and civil libertarians.
Progressives have a variety of objections, largely relating to flip-flops (warrantless wiretapping), climbdowns (withdrawal from Iraq and taxing the ultra-rich), and betrayals (keeping Bushies like Robert Gates and Michael Hayden anywhere near the halls of power). Many also object to a return of Clintonites, who while certainly Democrats, were hardly progressives in many areas.
While a CNN poll shows that 80 percent of Americans approve of Obama's transition so far, some progressives are unconvinced. They objected loudly enough to warrant a Huffington Post talking-to from legendary Democratic strategist (and Obama advisor) Steve Hildebrand.
"This is not a time for the left wing of our Party to draw conclusions about the Cabinet and White House appointments that President-Elect Obama is making. Some believe the appointments generally aren't progressive enough," he wrote. But Hildebrand accused naysayers of being impotent and shortsighted. "After all, he was elected to be the president of all the people — not just those on the left."
But that plea for patience and tolerance wears ever thinner as we watch the transition unfold. Perhaps Obama's most egregious mistake in the eyes of progressives is the president-elect's decision to surround himself with decidedly unprogressive national-security and foreign-policy advisors. In part, that list reads like a Clinton-era roster — which is troubling because, as United Nations correspondent Barbara Crossette wrote in The Nation last April, "The Clinton record . . . is anything but stellar in global or even US security terms. . . . In many ways the 1990s were a wasted decade in international relations."
Most notably, there's Hillary Clinton herself, our soon-to-be secretary of state, who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, who has been called "a hawk among hawks," who pointed approvingly at humanitarian interventionist actions like the one her husband initiated in Kosovo in 1999. Obama's team of advisors includes several other returnees from the Clinton administration, such as Michele Flournoy, Susan Rice (recently named US ambassador to the UN), Richard Holbrooke, Anthony Lake, and Madeleine Albright, all of whom have been neoliberal hawks to one degree or other.
While a return to Clinton-era foreign relations is a certainly a change from destructive Bush-era policies, it is not Change writ large. Not to mention the fact that another segment of Obama's national-security squad is rounded out by center-righties with firm Bush-era roots, such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who will stay on as a holdover from the Bush administration, and national-security advisor-designate Jim Jones, a former advisor to John McCain.
What will these choices mean when it comes time to make big decisions about closing Guantanamo Bay prison, or about withdrawing from Iraq, or about increasing troops in Afghanistan?
"Obama's argument — that his center-conservative cabinet will carry out radical change if he orders them to do so — is denied by recent history," writes Ted Rall in Maui Times Weekly. "The US government, as micromanager Jimmy Carter learned, is too big for the president to manage on his own. And, as George W. Bush learned after 2000, the people you hire are more likely to change you than you are to change them."
On the economy, as well, Obama has made some critical missteps. It's not just that Lawrence Summers, Obama's pick for head of the incoming White House National Economic Council, is a Clinton-era economist who oversaw the same policies that got us into the financial mess we're in today (or that his record on gender equality is iffy-at-best). Two of Obama's largest policy backpedals have been economic.
First, he adopted a more cautious stance on rolling back tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 a year — rather than taking the bold step of repealing those, he now says he'll just let them expire as scheduled at the end of 2010. Then, citing the sharp decrease in oil prices from this summer's record levels, he shelved his plan to tax oil-company windfall profits. Liberal blogger and columnist David Sirota had this to say: "[I]f oil prices are down and oil industry profits are truly down, what's the harm in passing a windfall profits tax? Even if you buy the right-wing nonsense about a windfall profits tax 'hurting the industry' or 'hurting the economy' when it is applied, if there really are no windfall profits to tax, then it won't be applied."
What's going right-ishIt is true that Obama is doing some stuff we thought he would do, although not always in as gung-ho a way as we might like.
Consider "Your Seat At the Table," a special section of the Obama transition team's Web site, change.gov. There, average-Joe Internet browsers can read policy recommendations from high-powered lobbying organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, various environmental groups, the National Education Association, and HIV/AIDS activists. This is obviously in keeping with the team's promise of transparency.
Other bright spots are Obama's weekly YouTube addresses, and the announcement of an Office of Urban Policy, which could have big implications for the economy, the environment, and urban education. He's focused his economic efforts on preventing foreclosures. And while some of his advisor picks are ideologically questionable, there are enough women on the list that some pundits have suggested, as AJ Rossmiller did in The New Republic, that Obama is "ushering in a feminist revolution in foreign policy and national security."
Aside from the fact that, as Christopher Hayes wrote in The Nation, "not a single, solitary, actual dyed-in-the-wool progressive has, as far as I can tell, even been mentioned for a position in the new administration," some of Obama's choices have been downright heartening. The selection of Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu to head the Department of Energy, for example, signals a sharp departure from the days of head-in-the-sand climate change non-leadership from the federal government. Chu, an experienced outsider — seemingly unbeholden to any interest, other than science — is an ideal pick, the type we hoped we'd see more of from the Obama-Biden administration.
And former senate majority leader Tom Daschle, though he is on the surface a classic boys-club Dem, has impressive healthcare credentials to back up his appointments as secretary of health and human services and director of the new White House Office of Health Care Reform. His book, Critical: What We Can Do About the Health Care Crisis (Thomas Dunne Books) will come out next year, and will outline Daschle's major reform ideas, including the creation of a Federal Health Board that would make coverage decisions for federally-administered insurance programs. At the change.gov Web site, he's soliciting citizen input on how to fix our healthcare system (though there's one thing we can be sure of: it won't be single-payer). The fact that Daschle pushed to run both the federal agency and the executive-branch office suggests that there will be an aggressive attempt to address this issue early in the Obama administration — and that Daschle is eager to use his wheeling-and-dealing skills (honed in Congress) to make it happen.
But the most important achievement so far is that Obama has managed (mostly) to keep our nation's optimism afloat — despite Blagojevich, despite the auto-industry-bailout mess, despite the public's generally pessimistic outlook, Obama is still enjoying higher ratings and a longer honeymoon period than any recent predecessor. He's courting doubters while making sure that his base gives him the benefit of the doubt. That's Change.
Not there yetThe question becomes whether Obama will be a servant to his advisors, or whether he will learn from their experience, absorb their suggestions, and yet ultimately go his own, progressive, way.
As he rounds out his cabinet appointments, we'll assess his progress. (See how Obama's selections measure up, as they're made, at thePhoenix.com/TakeBackBarack.) With education, Obama was under pressure from conflicting pro-union and reform interests. One of his top transition-team education advisors was Linda Darling-Hammond, who had the support of teachers' unions, and is somewhat notorious for her stances against Teach for America and No Child Left Behind; but on Tuesday he chose Chicago public-school superintendent Arne Duncan — who is more reform-minded (generally favoring concepts such as merit-based teacher pay, charter schools, and high-stakes testing), but has questionable classroom bona-fides.
There's also the whole question of America's relationship with food, eating, and farming — and who Obama picks as his agriculture secretary will set the tone on these issues. While he's said he doesn't want the job, here's what sustainable-food guru Michael Pollan told PBS host Bill Moyers about the decision: "What Obama needs to do, if he indeed wants to make change in this area — and that isn't clear yet that he does, at least in his first term — I think we need a food policy czar in the White House because the challenge is not just what we do with agriculture, it's connecting the dots between agriculture and public health, between agriculture and energy and climate change, agriculture and education."
Just last week, in a New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof suggested Obama "name a reformer to a renamed position" — Secretary of Food and Agriculture, or just of Food, perhaps?
On so many other questions — How will Obama deal with terror-suspect detainees? Who will he appoint to federal courts? How will his administration address the possibly illegal maneuverings of its predecessors? — we will simply have to wait and see. Perhaps, in this case, patience is practical.
"Sure, there's a chance that Mr. Obama, derided this past year by the right as an empty slate who tried to mean all things to all people, has simply been leading the left on and is now morphing into a rudderless pragmatist who will break their hearts," Steve Kornacki writes in the New York Observer. "But pragmatism doesn't have to be rudderless. It's just as easy to portray Mr. Obama's early moves as a sign that he will be pragmatic about pursuing progressive goals."
But there's a fine line between pragmatism and losing sight of one's principles. If Obama turns out to be "more of the same," or more like "more of the same" than he is like Change, the progressives will go back in the closet they came out of to support Obama. A generation of young people might get their hopes dashed and become cynical opters-out of the political system, like the preceding generation.
The way forward
How can we take back Barack?
Fortunately, Obama's campaign of Change has shown us the way to take back Barack. We need to mobilize, to communicate, to connect, even to fundraise — and we need to be sure we get his attention, the way we got the world's attention when we voted for Change.
Determine what difference you will begin making, what effort you will start making — beyond any community involvement you're already involved in — and get started. Make the phone calls, send the e-mails, start the conversations, around whatever it is you're going to take on: healthcare, education, hunger, poverty, or any number of other problems facing us.

STEP 2: TELL OBAMA HIMSELF. At the Obama transition team's Web site, there's a page to share "your vision," saying "where President-Elect Obama should lead this country." (It's at http://change.gov/page/s/yourvision.) Make sure Obama knows that your vision is for Change, and what you are doing. But don't stop there. Write letters asking for support, demanding Change, and send them to the Presidential Transition Team, Washington DC 20270 (no street address is needed; and the transition team helpfully informs that only letters in No. 10 envelopes — that's business-size — can be accepted; nothing smaller, no greeting-card envelopes, and no packages).
STEP 3: TELL EVERYONE YOU KNOW. Post Change-seeking comments on blogs, forums, social networks, and even meatspace bulletin boards. Talk about what you are doing for Change — and how others can help — at bars, business functions, book-group meetings, and every other social event you attend. (Remember how much you did this before November 4? Just do the same thing again!)
STEP 4: JOIN THE COLLECTIVE EFFORT. Print out "Take Back Barack" logos, make them into bumper stickers, put icons on your Web site and social-networking pages, make signs and put them in your windows or on your front lawn. Host parties and neighborhood get-togethers to talk about your projects. If there are enough of you — and we're sure there are — get a group together to organize a March for Change in your community. Go to Obama supporters' "Change Is Coming" meetings in your community, or start one by visiting barackobama.com.
STEP 5: GET THE MEDIA'S ATTENTION. Call up your local alternative-weekly paper (and the local daily, if it still exists), and the local TV stations, and tell them what you're doing. Invite them to your events, and encourage them to cover the issues that are important to you.
STEP 6: USE TECHNOLOGY TO DO ALL OF THE ABOVE BETTER, FASTER, AND MORE EFFECTIVELY. Create a system by which people can text and e-mail in their hopes, dreams, plans, and actions from their phones and computers, and have that information forward automagically to Obama and his team. At the same time, post that information publicly elsewhere on the Internet, so we can all track the nationwide effort for Change and the increasing pressure on Obama — and gauge the response.
STEP 7: KEEP AT IT. As much as positive energy can come from all this, there's an important negative lesson: we can never let up. Change does not happen and just stay that way. We need to work for Change each and every day of our lives, and enlist more people in the cause at every turn.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Freegans raid Whole Foods

Published in the Portland Phoenix

A group of freegans took what they say are hundreds of eggs, hundreds of pounds of butter and cheese, soy milk and other soy products, and packaged frozen foods from Dumpsters outside the Marginal Way Whole Foods store in the aftermath of last week's ice storm.

The store lost power for 12 hours, according to manager Marissa Perry, putting cooled, refrigerated, and frozen food at risk of spoiling. The store's employees sent "four or five vanloads" of food to the Wayside Soup Kitchen, and tried to move items that needed refrigeration into larger cold-storage rooms. They used dry ice to keep things cool, and were hoping that refrigerated trucks would arrive to help, but ran out of space and time.

What remained had to be thrown out because "it had been out of temperature for more than four hours," and was no longer safe to eat according to government regulations and company policy, Perry says. "If you leave food out for three or four hours, and you don't heat it or re-refrigerate it, you're growing bacteria," she says.

In an interview with the Portland Phoenix, an organizer of the scavenging crew — some of whom regularly recover and eat food thrown away by others — said several carloads of food were carted away on Friday night, but when they returned on Saturday morning, they were ordered to leave the property by store officials and a Portland police officer, and were barred from taking any more food from the Dumpster.

"We wanted them to not take away the Dumpster," says the organizer. "The food is perfectly good," and "some of it was stuff that doesn't even need to be refrigerated" before use, such as pickles and kimchee in glass jars. "I think it's a travesty to throw away tens of tons of food," he says.

"All the frozen stuff we've used so far looked like it never thawed," the organizer says. Perry says the raiders may believe that because of the weekend's below-freezing temperatures, which likely caused the food to refreeze in the Dumpsters.

And while the organizer says no one who has eaten the food has yet gotten sick, Perry is worried that it may happen down the road. She says some of the people she encountered raiding the Dumpsters told her they "are accustomed to eating rotten food," and so perhaps have a different view of what is safe for consumption.

Catie Curtis + Meg Hutchinson: Music Seen at One Longfellow Square, December 14, 2008

Published in the Portland Phoenix

A full-ish crowd sought refuge from the lingering effects of the ice storm at One Longfellow Square, finding enough warmth and electricity to urge them into doing the wave — the wave, at One Longfellow! — not once but twice for Catie Curtis and Meg Hutchinson.

Hutchinson started off with a too-short set of bright yet mellow folk, mostly off her latest album, Come Up Full (2008, Red House Records). Her guitar meshed beautifully with her gently gritty voice — both were playful and lively, and served to showcase her senses of humor (particularly in "Osa's Song," in which she confesses to being "one of those people you know who" has all sorts of silly dog-obsessed habits), dramatic tension (lamenting the meaninglessness of too much of anything in "America (Enough)"), and her abiding hope in the face of adversity.

Hutchinson began what became a night of duets by inviting Curtis to back her on her mournful-but-cheery final song, "Home," and joined Curtis for most of the main set, adding depth and richness to choruses, facilitating audience participation, and serving as a foil for a few of Curtis's song-intro stories. Curtis opened with a solo of the timely "Long Night Moon" (the title track of a 2006 album on Compass Records), and moved smoothly through a set of old and new songs, all with her blues-and-country style of folk music.

Curtis mixed the dignified soulfulness of the traditional Christmas carol "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" with the exuberance of "Be Sixteen With Me," a song by Boston folkie Don White about parents who escape for a joyride, leaving their kids at home to worry.

Several of the songs — including the love-packed "Elizabeth" and the night-ending "Deliver Me" — were audience requests. Curtis's parents, who still live in Saco (where Curtis grew up), were in attendance, and also managed to put in a request that drove home the mostly reverent tone of the night: the hymn-like "Passing Through," a reminder that whatever the planet does to us, we must still care for it.

Press Releases: Looking up

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Thanks to the ice storm, we've all heard them by now: the thrumming, throbbing, foreboding musical themes of the local TV news stations' storm coverage — when the news anchors wear sweaters in the studio, the meteorologists wear parkas in the sleet, and reporters and videographers wear slickers next to snowplows.

All three Portland-based stations are taking their weather forecasting into the 21st century, posting live (or near-live) weather maps and radar images on their Web sites. Some of it is packaging, and some is hype, but there are pretty interesting things going on as well.

The most interesting packaging is WMTW (Channel 8, the Hearst-Argyle-owned ABC affiliate), with a grid on its weather Web page that can be customized to put the seven-day forecast up top and the alerts at the bottom, or in whatever arrangement you like; 18 different ways to slice-and-dice weather information are offered up. (The other stations have the standard choices of radar and other maps, as well as graphical, text, and video forecasts.)

Now, the hype. Everybody advertises "Doppler radar," even though you don't want any other kind of radar for weather-forecasting purposes; Doppler (technically, pulse-Doppler) is the only type of radar that shows not only a storm's velocity and direction, but also its intensity and precipitation rate.

In the Midwest, weather-radar competitions are truly ridiculous, with some stations even having 3-D imagery showing not only precipitation, wind speed, and direction, but also the altitudes at which the clouds are located and how they are moving — it can be an amazing lesson in how tornados form.

We have begun this sort of hype, though; WGME (Channel 13, the Sinclair-owned CBS affiliate) has "Doppler HD," which, it must be said, is not high-definition in the standard TV sense. Rather, it's an assembly of radar data set up so meteorologists can zoom in and out visually during their presentations.

And then there's the useful stuff. WMTW has "Interactive Radar," which lays the radar picture over a satellite photo of the ground, so you can zoom in on any location you like around the country and see what's happening there in near-real time (it's roughly a 10-minute delay).

They all list storm-related closings on their Web sites, but WMTW enhances the service with e-mail alerts; WCSH (Channel 6, the Gannett-owned NBC affiliate) does even better, offering both e-mail and text alerts to mobile phones. (My wife works in a school, and last Friday, her school-staff phone tree was faster than the WCSH text alert, but only by a few minutes.)

WGME and WMTW have a "desktop weather application" that you can run on your computer. It shows real-time weather conditions for your zip code (saving you the trouble of looking out the window), allows you to watch streaming news and weather updates, and provides severe-weather alerts on demand. Both stations' services are identical, which is not surprising, given that they're provided by the same company (myweather.net). In the process of downloading the program, you can sign up for e-mail alerts for various weather advisories (issued by the National Weather Service).

For the real die-hards, though, WCSH has gone fully overboard, digitally broadcasting "News Center Weather Plus," though its current incarnation will end with the year (because NBC bought the Weather Channel). For the next couple weeks, the 24-hour weather forecasts will continue, with local current-conditions displays and five-day forecasts for individual Maine towns, as well as statewide forecasts, local radar, and national displays. WCSH general manager Steve Thaxton says he has not yet decided whether to continue the service in some form into 2009.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Letter to the editor of American Journalism Review

Published in American Journalism Review, December 2008-January 2009

Philip Meyer's "The Elite Newspaper of the Future" (October/November) was very enlightening to me, but perhaps not in the way he intended. I absolutely agree with his assessment that "the newspapers that survive will probably [have] some kind of hybrid content: analysis, interpretation and investigative reporting in a print product that appears less than daily, combined with constant updating and reader interaction on the Web." And I agree that "the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it." Newspapers' core audiences will indeed be "the educated, opinion-leading, news-junkie" people who "demand ... quality" that goes beyond "stenographic coverage of public meetings, channeling press releases or listing unanalyzed collections of facts."

But rather than being earthshaking in itself, I would argue that his apparently recent realization of these truths of the modern media market tells us a great deal about what has gone wrong in the mainstream media. Meyer's ideas could have been taken verbatim from the editorial and business plans of any of the hundreds of alternative newspapers around the country – many of which have been flourishing for years.

Now comes Meyer, saying the work we in the alternative press have been doing for years is the "future," even the "elite"! The daily papers that have turned up their noses at our work may now not only acknowledge our existence, but deign to follow our lead in search of what we already have: a sustainable model with extremely high print readership and rapidly growing audiences online!

Which is all by way of saying Meyer is absolutely correct – just incomplete. And in the name of completeness, I want to note that his piece does one disservice to leaders of daily newspapers, by suggesting the solution is a matter of developing "hybrid content." Not quite. The solution, for many of you, is figuring out what is actually happening in the communities you wish to serve, and how to reach people who have long since given up on you. But you'll have to compete with those of us who are already doing it.

Jeff Inglis
Managing editor
Portland Phoenix
Portland, Maine

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Press Releases: PPH almost sold. Now what?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The long-floundering Portland Press Herald is about to have a new owner. At least, all signs suggest that the money necessary to seal the deal will come through by the end of the year. There are financial details to be finalized, and there's a slim chance the money won't materialize, but involved parties tell the Portland Phoenix that pens are very close to the financial paper, and that the financing may include an employee-ownership component.

As many had speculated, the likely new owner will be Maine Media Investments — owned by the governor's brother, Bob Baldacci; former US senator and defense secretary Bill Cohen; his son Kevin, a former Turner Broadcasting executive; housing and real-estate developer Mike Liberty; and Pennsylvania newspaper publisher Richard Connor (who was born in Bangor). Soon, this group will no doubt be making public what they plan to do to recover the paper's dying circulation, plummeting advertising revenue, and rock-bottom newsroom morale.

Connor himself was recently heard to say — while out and about in Portland — that he could see why the paper was struggling, since it was "so thin it blows off the front porch in the morning." That might signal an inclination to expand the news coverage, which has shrunk considerably in recent months, but it's unclear who would do that work: the employees union is "bracing" for significant layoffs after the deal is finalized, according to Portland Newspaper Guild acting administrative officer Kathy Munroe.

The new owners will have to navigate the complicated quagmire of determining what their readers actually want. The biggest dispute among the audience appears to be where a revamped Press Herald would strike a balance between local coverage and national and international news.

Some hints can be found in independent blogs. A poster named MediaDog at AsMaineGoes wants less wire-service copy, saying in an August post, "In this Internet era most wire news is stale by the time the papers reached readers' doorsteps."

At MediaMutt, Phoenix columnist Al Diamon's blog on the Down East magazine Web site, one commenter suggested last week that a more major overhaul is needed: "The newspaper has limited value in terms of keeping readers informed. I don't think I've ever seen a shallower newspaper than the version that is being published today."

Perhaps the best way to gauge the reaction from the Press Herald's audience, though, is to look at the comments on the paper's own Web site — specifically, those talking about the sale itself.

"I'm getting the Friday, Saturday, Sunday [subscription package] deal and the news is the same in all three papers," wrote one person, who said she is canceling her subscription.

Another commenter promised to "buy this rag IF it had some substantial US/world news," while simultaneously lamenting the lack of "real investigative journalism" and follow-up on "real issues." But that person did, apparently, agree with Connor's perception of the paper as too thin: "Once you dump the flyers and classifieds you don't have enough to line a bird cage!"

Other posters suggested: "Report from the middle of the road and tell me what is going on locally," and "focus in-depth on local news, and leave national and international news to the larger papers, television, and the Internet."

But one commenter just might have hit on a key element of any new owner's strategy: "I want to ask Maine Media Investments, if they can use a NO COST Reprter. I am much more then willing to volunteer my time and expertise. I can do indepth stories on Social needs, for free."

Of course, the citizen-journalism approach being experimented with by many struggling daily newspapers has several hazards, some of which are apparent in the posted offer just quoted — to cut down the costs of covering the news, grammar and spelling may no longer be worth paying for.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A few other races to note: Down the ballot

Published in the Portland Phoenix

You can get your fill of reading about the presidential, congressional, state-legislative, city-council, and school-committee races a few pages farther on, but there are a few other questions Portlanders will have to vote on this Tuesday.

First up is the question of whether the city should elect a charter commission to consider OVERHAULING THE CITY’S CHARTER. The major issue under discussion is whether the position of mayor should be elected directly by the people — rather than chosen by councilors from among themselves as it is now. But the charter commission could change other provisions of the city’s basic government structure as well, if the commission’s members decided to. Among the possible ideas is one floated by Tina Smith, who is running for the at-large city-council seat, that could allow legal immigrants and refugees who live in Portland but are not US citizens to vote or otherwise participate in local government. If the charter commission is approved, candidates for the commission would stand for election next year.

In the meantime, there are some CLERICAL CHANGES TO THE CITY CHARTER also up for approval. In sum, they bring the charter into compliance with state laws governing how election wardens and ward clerks should be selected, and also change deadlines for nominating petitions to give the city clerk’s office more time to certify that signatures on the petitions belong to registered voters.

In regional business, voters will choose one Portland representative on the PORTLAND WATER DISTRICT Board of Trustees between former trustee James Willey and former Portland school-committee member Ben Meiklejohn. It is a five-year term.

In the first of three county races, incumbent REGISTER OF PROBATE Republican Teri McRae is seeking re-election to a four-year term, and is being challenged by former county register of deeds Democrat John O’Brien. The job involves recording and preserving life records — such as wills, name changes, and adoption records.

In a race for a four-year seat on the CUMBERLAND COUNTY COMMISSION, the three-member board that oversees county government, attorney and former Portland city councilor James Cloutier, a Democrat, faces independent Jonathan Berry, a Falmouth resident who runs a solo law practice from an office in Portland.

And for a COUNTY CHARTER COMMISSION, to study and recommend changes to the way county government is run, there are no declared candidates to represent Portland, so the election will be by write-in only.

The plebiscites: There are three referendum questions all Maine voters must consider on Election Day.

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Question 1: A people’s veto seeking to overturn a law imposing tax on beer, wine, and soft drinks to help pay for the Dirigo Health Insurance Plan.
A “yes” vote supports overturning the law; a “no” vote supports keeping it. The law, enacted this past spring but not yet in effect because of the petition to overturn it, is touted by proponents as preserving Dirigo Health — a state-created insurance program that offers a taxpayer-funded subsidy to help the uninsured get health coverage. The plan serves roughly 12,500 Mainers, but those numbers are dwindling. New enrollments have been barred for more than a year because the plan does not have enough money to cover more people. And the number of uninsured people in Maine has not changed substantially as a result of the program (see “Illusion of Progress,” by Al Diamon, October 10, and “Baldacci Raids the Cookie Jar,” by Lance Tapley, October 17).

Unless it is rejected on Tuesday’s ballot, the law would change how the plan is paid for, reducing the amount that health-insurance companies pay and filling the gap with a new tax that would cost consumers three cents per 12-ounce beer, one cent per glass of wine (five cents per bottle), and four cents per 12-ounce can of soda. If it is rejected, lawmakers will likely have to find another way to pay for state-subsidized health-insurance.

Question 2: A citizen initiative to allow a casino in Oxford County.
A “yes” vote allows establishing a casino; a “no” vote would block it. The law that’s being voted on would, among other provisions, give Olympia Gaming, a Las Vegas company, a 10-year monopoly on casino gambling in Maine; reduce the legal gambling age from 21 to 19; and absolve the casino from all criminal and civil liability.

Of the casino’s gross income (after paying out to winners), 39 percent would go to various state programs, some of which already exist (such as biofuel research at the University of Maine, the state university system, and gambling-addiction treatment programs), and some of which do not (such as a project to investigate an east-west highway in Maine). Under the bill, the casino’s president would hold a voting seat on the board of every state or local agency supervising the spending of that money, including the UMaine board of trustees, the Land for Maine’s Future board, and even the Oxford County Commission (see “Beatin’ the Odds,” by Al Diamon, October 17).

Olympia has promised to spend at least $112 million developing a large casino-resort-hotel, likely somewhere in the town of Oxford, roughly an hour’s drive north of Portland. They say they would employ roughly 900 people, with an average annual salary around $35,000, and would send $69 million to the state each year. State estimates suggest the state would get closer to $41 million, but there is no guarantee of any of those details contained in the law itself.

Question 3: A bond issue of $3.4 million for improvements to drinking-water and wastewater-treatment systems.
A “yes” vote authorizes the bonds; a “no” vote would prevent them from being issued. One of several such bonds floated in the past few years, this would add more money to existing state “revolving-loan” funds, from which municipalities and water districts can borrow to upgrade their facilities, including treatment plants and pipes, with the intent of providing both cleaner drinking water and discharging cleaner effluent from sewage plants. Authorizing these bonds would bring in $17 million in federal matching funds.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

RickeyPAC on NPR's Talk of the Nation

Aired on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Press Releases: Palin around

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Sarah Palin's trip to Bangor drew a lot of positive attention from Maine's TV stations, who mostly left the criticism to bloggers. Whether that was in deference to her telegenic presence or an attempt at objectivity, Maine's broadcasters treated a partisan political show as if it were a “feelgood” event — the protestors barely rated a mention — and missed a chance to bring truth and insight to viewers. Good thing the bloggers filled the void.

WGME-13 (Portland’s CBS affiliate) aired footage of a grinning Palin and a cheering crowd, with anchor Kiley Bennett delivering a credulous voice-over: “Palin came armed with her conversational style, but also came touting her ticket’s record of experience, promising a future of education reform, help for special-needs children, and the development of new energy sources.”

WABI-5 (the Bangor CBS affiliate) even went so far as to say Palin “resonated with Mainers,” though the station’s news crew talked only to people who attended her political rally. Nor did WABI examine what Palin said, airing a segment of her speech in which Palin said John McCain “knows how to win a war,” but then failing to ask for details in an exclusive post-rally one-on-one interview. (Instead, reporter Amy Erickson asked a softball question about LIHEAP, though she backed it up with a pointed observation that the program, which helps low-income and elderly residents pay their heating bills in winter, is “one form of government assistance [Palin] strongly supports.”)

WGME also noted that Palin was “welcomed by Maine Senator Olympia Snowe,” without observing — as did blogger Eric Olson at MaineOwl — the conspicuous absence of Maine’s other leading Republican, Susan Collins, who is in the midst of a re-election bid but is studiously avoiding almost every other GOPer, and even avoiding using the word “Republican” in her campaign ads.

Over at MainePolitics, blogger Mike Tipping took aim at Palin for repeating at the rally a line about America being a “shining city on a hill,” which she attributes to Ronald Reagan. Tipping notes, correctly, that it was uttered first by Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop in 1630, and expresses doubt that “she knows the historical and philosophical background of that quote,” which was delivered in a sermon declaring the colony’s founders were chosen by God to create a holy community in the wilderness of North America.

And TurnMaineBlue blogger Gerald Weinand conducted a real-time fact-check, noting both the failure to properly attribute the John Winthrop quote, and Palin’s misleadingly incomplete statement about eliminating property taxes when she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska (she did, but with the help of federal funding earmarked for projects in town, and by creating a local sales tax). But while Weinand disputed Palin’s ability to say Bangor was “beautiful” because she’d only seen the inside of an airplane hangar, he failed to note that she had flown in on a plane with windows.

Another bright spot: WLBZ-2, the Bangor NBC station, stood up to Palin’s handlers demand that the candidate pick the reporter who would interview her, thereby turning down the chance for a face-to-face; no doubt the demand was blowback from anchor Rob Caldwell’s interview of McCain back in September, in which the first question was why Palin hadn’t taken any serious questions from reporters.

And a low spot: the pre-rally interview aired by Portland ABC station WMTW-8 was filmed in New Hampshire, with an unidentified reporter (from WMUR in Manchester), but voiced-over by local anchor Tory Ryden. Making matters worse, the two clips selected were among the least interesting of the full interview. WMTW allowed Palin to make accusations of political gamesmanship against unnamed Alaskan opponents, but did not air her allegation that her family persecuted an Alaska state trooper “at the behest of [other Alaska] state troopers,” a startling — and new — development in the case.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Who’s your Rickey? Nagging your friends to vote

Published in the Portland Phoenix
A college friend, named Jim, recently got in touch, floating an idea that resonated with me, and likely will with other political-minded folks who believe this election is vitally important to our country’s future.
Jim had run into another classmate — one I’d long lost touch with — named Rickey. Rickey lives in Nevada (predicted to be a swing state in the presidential race) and told Jim he probably wasn’t going to vote this year.
Jim lives in Vermont (rather less of a swing state), so he decided to mobilize a few of us to put pressure on Rickey to vote. “My vote won’t count for much in the grand scheme of things,” Jim wrote. “But Rickey’s will.”
He proposed the founding of RickeyPAC, a “grassroots political-action committee with the sole purpose of getting Rickey to vote.” Our voter-registration drive was a massive success — Rickey has (begrudgingly) registered to vote. But we’re looking for a bigger win.
As another friend, Jay, explained in an e-mail to the group, “Just about everyone knows someone smart who knows they should vote but has to be convinced” to actually do it.
Now, it’s up to you. What started as an inside joke among a few college friends needs your help. Take a moment to think about the Rickeys in your life, wherever they may live, and however long it’s been since you were last in touch. Tell them they need to vote. Because this year is different from all other years.
On the web: www.rickeypac.org
RickeyPAC on National Public Radio

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The gulf of Maine Senator Collins votes the Bush line 77 percent of the time; her challenger, Representative Allen, weighs in at 18 percent. Will thes

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Maine is a Democrat-leaning state that has — at least for now — two Republican senators. With a massively unpopular Republican president leaving office, this year’s Senate election is as much a contest based on a candidate’s real and perceived alignment with George W. Bush as anything else.

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is making hay out of John McCain’s record of voting with Bush 90 percent of the time, and Maine Democratic US Representative Tom Allen is trying to do the same as he works to unseat incumbent Republican US Senator Susan Collins. One of his most recent TV ads blames the present economic meltdown on Bush’s efforts to deregulate the economy, and then says “Susan Collins supported the Bush economic policies that hurt Maine and created a national crisis.” For her part, Collins is trying to distance herself from Bush: A recent ad avoids the word “Republican” entirely, calling her “an independent voice for Maine.”

Collins is more independent than most Republican senators, opposing the president more often than all but one of her upper-house GOP colleagues — Maine’s other Republican senator, Olympia Snowe, who was elected to her third term in 2006.

But there is a gulf between Collins and Allen, and it becomes very apparent when looking at how their positions align with Bush’s (or don’t). Congressional Quarterly, a nonpartisan news organization covering Congress, has calculated a “presidential support score” for every member of Congress, looking at how often they voted with or against President George W. Bush’s wishes throughout his term to date — Collins voted with Bush 77 percent of the time; Allen just 18 percent.

On a broad range of Phoenix-selected key topics — including the USA PATRIOT Act, foreign trade, economic and tax policy, environmental issues, energy, stem-cell research, the Iraq War, the minimum wage, immigration, warrantless wiretapping, abortion and reproductive rights, education, open government and free speech, the Farm Bill, Congressional ethics and campaign-finance reform, homeland security, same-sex marriage, Supreme Court justices and key Cabinet officials (in the Senate only), AIDS/HIV, prescription-drug prices, military Base Realignment and Closure Commission issues, and treatment of terrorism detainees — Allen has sided with Bush 17 percent of the time, while Collins backed the president 64 percent of the time.

That’s a lot of difference right there. And by looking at just a few specific issues of great national importance, the contrast between Allen and Collins becomes clearer.

COLLINS voted with Bush on Iraq-related issues 72 percent of the time, including supporting both “use of force” resolutions (the one on September 14, 2001, authorizing the use of force against whomever had attacked the United States on 9/11, and the specific 2002 authorization of use of force in Iraq), and repeatedly opposed troop-withdrawal timetables. Only in 2007 did she begin offering any real opposition to Bush’s efforts in Iraq, voting to begin debate on opposing the surge, but without retracting her opposition to a withdrawal timetable.

ALLEN voted with Bush 27 percent of the time on Iraq-related questions, supporting the vague 2001 “use of force” authorization (which led to the Afghanistan war), but not the Iraq-specific one in 2002. He has supported several war-spending bills, though not all of them. He went against the president in his votes opposing the Iraq troop surge and supporting timelines for withdrawal. He also supported Bush-opposed efforts to prevent money appropriated for Iraq and Afghanistan from being spent on actions against Iran.

SNOWE supported Bush on Iraq even more than Collins, agreeing with the president’s Iraq policy 77 percent of the time, as compared with her overall support score of 73 percent. But she opposed the surge, and has sponsored a bill for prompt withdrawal from Iraq.

Democratic US Representative MIKE MICHAUD took Bush’s side 21 percent of the time, mostly on war-spending bills. (Michaud supported the president 19 percent overall.)

Civil Liberties
COLLINS agreed with Bush’s positions on civil liberties 82 percent of the time. Not only did she vote to confirm the appointments of John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, and to confirm John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the US Supreme Court, but she voted for the USA PATRIOT Act and its reauthorizations, and for a constitutional amendment that sought to ban flag-burning. She supported Bush’s positions on treatment of terrorism detainees, the creation of military tribunals to “try” terrorism suspects (while barring the creation of a commission to oversee those tribunals, which largely have been ruled unconstitutional), and suspension of habeas corpus. She also voted to support warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, and to grant immunity to telecommunications companies that had participated in warrantless wiretaps before the practice was formally legalized. In the process, she voted to dismiss a federal lawsuit filed by Maine residents seeking information on the government’s warrantless-wiretapping program. Collins opposed a Bush-supported constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage, and voted against Bush to declare that Attorney General Gonzales “no longer holds the confidence” of the Senate.

ALLEN agreed with Bush just 12 percent of the time on civil-liberties matters. He supported the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, but has opposed its renewal ever since. He has opposed Bush’s efforts to block same-sex marriage, to weaken Net neutrality, to legalize warrantless wiretapping of US citizens, and to defend abuse and torture of detainees suspected of being terrorists.

SNOWE agreed with Bush 74 percent of the time on civil-liberties matters, aligning with Collins in every way, except that she was at a family funeral and missed the votes on military tribunals and suspension of habeas corpus.

MICHAUD aligned with Bush 16 percent of the time, including support for efforts to weaken Net neutrality and for the creation of military tribunals for terrorism suspects. He was not in the House to vote on the original USA PATRIOT Act, but has opposed it since taking office.

Economic Policy
COLLINS has supported Bush’s economic policies 88 percent of the time, backing his tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations, agreeing with his efforts to abolish the estate tax, and supporting both “economic stimulus” bills (in 2001 and 2008). Her only significant opposition to the president was on the 2001 “bankruptcy reform” bill, a credit-card-company-supported measure that made it harder for individuals to reduce their debts through bankruptcy protection. She voted for the Bush-backed financial bailout proposal that passed the US Senate and was signed into law last week.

ALLEN supported 13 percent of Bush’s economic efforts, including the 2008 “economic stimulus” package (though not the one in 2001) and extensions of previously existing tax credits for children in taxpaying families. He voted against Bush’s tax breaks for the rich, and against the abolition of the estate tax, and in favor of a Bush-opposed increase to the minimum wage. He too backed the Bush-supported financial bailout, during both votes in the US House.

SNOWE supported Bush’s economic policies 54 percent of the time, including backing both “economic stimulus” bills, and most of his tax cuts (though not reductions in taxing dividends). Like Collins, she opposed the president on “bankruptcy reform,” but supported the financial bailout.

MICHAUD aligned with Bush 38 percent of the time economically, diverging from Allen’s position primarily on class-action lawsuits. (Michaud voted in favor of a bill called the “cheeseburger bill” because it blocks customers at fast-food restaurants from suing the chains’ owners for contributing to the customers’ obesity.) He opposed the financial bailout both times it was voted on in the US House.

Environment and Energy
voted with Bush’s energy initiatives 24 percent of the time. She supported his efforts to increase logging as a way to try to prevent forest fires, as well as the controversial 2005 energy policy revision that increased federal funding for alternative energy sources but preserved massive oil-industry subsidies. (She also supported the 2007 expansion to offer even more incentives for the electric-generating industry to reduce environmental impact.) She has opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has supported clean-environment legislation Bush has opposed, such as limits on mercury emissions.

ALLEN has supported six percent of Bush’s environmental initiatives, voting in favor only of preserving snowmobilers’ access to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. He opposed almost all the Bush energy-policy proposals (including the major revision in 2005, though he supported its expansion in 2007), as well as oil drilling in ANWR, and supported Bush-opposed efforts in the areas of renewable-energy generation and public transportation.

SNOWE’s 24-percent agreement with Bush has been exactly the same as Collins’s.

MICHAUD supported Bush 13 percent of the time, when it comes to the environment, differing from Allen only in his aggressive support for logging — he supported a bill that allowed federal agencies to suspend the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts, and even the National Historic Preservation Act, when granting permits to log forests recently affected by fires or hurricanes. The bill passed, under the guise of allowing the harvest of dead timber that would decay and become unusable if the usual, slower regulatory process were followed.

Health Care
COLLINS supported Bush’s healthcare efforts 40 percent of the time, backing the creation of the Medicare prescription-drug plan, and supporting efforts to find “alternate” ways to do stem-cell research, without using embryos. She opposed Bush’s efforts to curtail embryonic stem-cell research. And Collins worked against the president to try to allow price negotiation on Medicare-purchased prescription drugs, and also supported importing prescriptions from certain other countries that were deemed “safe.”

ALLEN voted with Bush on healthcare 10 percent of the time, supporting Bush’s efforts to ban “fetal harvesting” (in which embryos would be created for the sole purpose of harvesting organs or other tissue for transplantation), as well as supporting permission for research on stem cells derived from donated blood from umbilical cords. He opposed Bush’s limitations on embryonic stem-cell research, drug importation, Medicare prescription price negotiation, and human cloning for research and medical purposes. He also voted for a Bush-opposed bill that provides more coverage for mental-health conditions in private insurance plans than were previously required.

SNOWE ’s 40-percent alignment with Bush has been exactly the same as Collins’s.

MICHAUD voted with Bush 31 percent of the time, differing from Allen in his support for banning human cloning for all purposes (including medical research), and in voting to oppose researching ways to develop stem cells other than destroying embryos.

John Cranford at Congressional Quarterly generously shared CQ’s tabulation data.

Calculating scores
Congressional Quarterly tracks all of the roll-call votes in the US House and US Senate, and how members of Congress vote. It also researches the president’s position on the votes, noting “any vote where the president expressed an opinion about the vote beforehand,” as CQ national editor John Cranford explains.

In the US House, those are normally votes on important bills — or, at the very least, votes on significant changes to bills, such as those in which representatives from both houses have conferred and agreed on compromises.

In the US Senate, votes included in the scoring also include those on confirmations of presidential appointments (which often result in even hard-core lefties voting “with the president” to confirm a judge, undersecretary, or even a major cabinet officer). And Senate scores include some procedural votes, such as “cloture,” by which the Senate votes to end debate on an issue. But cloture and other procedural votes are only included in scoring when they are the final positions lawmakers take on a bill, Cranford says.

Not included on CQ’s scorecard are any votes whose results are determined by “voice vote” or by “division,” when individuals’ positions are not recorded in the outcome.

CQ uses those results to determine a legislator’s “presidential support score,” the percentage of times a member casts his or her vote in alignment with the wishes of the president. The publication’s staff also track the positions of party leaders in Congress, to calculate a “party unity score.” That information is available online at www.cq-politics.com.


On the Web:

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Out for a spin: One week, one limited-edition Porsche — what to do?

Published in the Portland Phoenix
Driving a 2008 Porsche Boxster RS 60 Spyder Limited Edition is an exercise in ridiculous, indulgent impracticality. But it’s fun — and it might get your name written on the inside of teenage girls’ pants.
Through no effort of my own, a man I had never met drove that car — number 296 out of 1960 ever made — into the office parking lot last week, and handed me the key. When he had called out of the blue offering the car as part of a Porsche marketing and promotion effort, all I’d done was tell him I’d drive it and return it in one piece. I made no promise to write about it, and only a vague verbal assurance that I could drive a stick-shift car. (For the record, my regular car, a 1995 Subaru Impreza wagon, is a stick-shift. So I wasn’t lying.)
On the very first night, it failed utterly as a utilitarian object. My wife and I were slated to pick up a friend (who was in town on business) at her hotel and take her to a restaurant for dinner. But the Boxster has just two seats, so within hours of receiving the key to a $65,000 car, one of just 800 in North America, I had to leave it parked in the garage while we picked up our friend in my wife’s 2000 Subaru Impreza Outback wagon.
That was the first of a few downers. Other low points were general paranoia about police officers — my uncle, a genuine “car guy” — had reminded me, when I called to gloat, that “a ticket is wasted money.” And then there was the horrific downturn the nation’s economy took, almost from the moment I received the Porsche’s key. At various points I drove past the panhandlers near the Deering Oaks Park I-295 on-ramp, and along the social-services end of Congress Street, in a car I did not own, could not afford, and could never imagine myself ever actually owning, even if one day I do have that kind of money just sitting in the bank. Don’t ask me what they thought of me — I was studiously avoiding their eyes.
Let’s move on to the high points.
Some of the people I took for rides surprised me, and even themselves. A freelancer who normally bums around in a 1980s-era Volvo with more than 300,000 miles on it turned out to also own an ancient sports car he keeps in good repair. And an utterly grounded, down-to-earth college friend became totally flighty upon sitting in the passenger seat, and spent much of the ride extolling the just-discovered virtues of expensive cars (except when she was feeling guilty for being so materialistic).
Better than enacting my high-school fantasy of driving the coolest, fastest car on the block was giving someone else that feeling — a guy in a Pontiac Firebird spotted me in Cape Elizabeth and tailgated me for a while, hoping to race. Eventually he gave up and roared past me, earning the right to truthfully tell his friends how he totally dusted a Porsche.
My sister’s boys — ages 5 and 3 — had a total blast, even without going for a ride. They clambered all over the car, hid in the trunk and under the dashboard, got me to put the top down and up and down again, and pretended they were driving to Vermont to see their grandparents. The older one even managed to yank on the gearshift enough to make the car move just a little — before I intervened with the emergency brake.
The biggest high point of all had to be the spin a friend and I took out to Kettle Cove in Cape Elizabeth at sunset on a Friday night. As we drove through the parking lot, checking out the scenery, I heard someone woman shout, “Hey! Wait! Can I take a picture of your car?”
Sure, I thought, no problem. I pulled around and parked, and we found ourselves surrounded by a screeching group of teenage girls. I’ll let one of them tell you how it went, in an account posted on her Facebook page. But first, I have to explain (before any accusations of impropriety arise) that four of them share a pair of pants — a sort of “sisterhood of the traveling pants” — and wear them to special occasions, after which they write about what happened at the events on the inside of the pants, in laundry marker. With that, here’s the story, with spelling and grammar intact from the original:
So today was the best day of my life!!!! I was at my BFF’s sweet 16 and it was towards the end of the party and out of the cornor of my eye i saw the most beautuful site ever.....modle number 296 Porche!!!! Good lord it was the most beautiful thing I have scene!!! it was silver with a red interior!!! so of course being the very subtle person i was i yelled out to the driver....” CAN I TAKE A PICTURE OF YOUR CAR!!!!!!!” And to my suprise he came and rove over!!!! I was like salavating over the beauty of the car....and then he said something that made my whole year....” well do you want to take a picture in the driver’s seat...?” I almost dropped to the floor in praise, exclaiming...YES!!!!!! It was the most amazing experience of my entire life!!!!! My firends and I took sooooo many pictures that I think we could have gone through 2 memory cards!!! I think that the driver of the amazing car was more entertained with the fact that ther where like 10 screaming girls around his car than we where!!! He was just as giddy as us...not to mention that he was very gratious to let us take turns taking pictures in his beloved porche!
Well that was my day and i can’t believe that it happened to me!!! thank you soooooo much for making my day amazing!!!! “you will forever be in our pants!!!” hahahahahahahahah!!!!!!
I did indeed let the girls sit in the car, and they took tons of photos, many of which are now also on Facebook. And when I found out that it was a Sweet Sixteen party, I offered the birthday girl a spin. Her eyes lit up and she jumped in the car. Just before she closed the door, she said quietly, “It just occurred to me how sketchy this could be.” But she got in anyway, and off we went for a quick trip around the parking lot.
I showed her the same stunts I showed all the folks I drove around — its snap-your-head-back acceleration, growling exhaust (complete with a button on the console that makes it louder), stick-to-the-road cornering, tight turning radius, and snap-your-head-forward braking power. She was quiet but had a huge grin on her face. Her friends were more vocal, squealing away on the sidewalk. One of them called it “the Porsche that changed my life.”
The bottom line, though, is that it’s a silly car. Yes, it is a convertible, which is one of the key attributes I dream of in a car. It shows you on the dashboard your real-time miles-per-gallon performance (which I think every car should have), what the tire pressure is, and how many miles before you’ll need to stop for fuel. It has heated seats, which extends the top-down time period by a few weeks in the spring and fall. There’s a button to extend the rear spoiler if you think the silver car with red-leather interior doesn’t look cool enough as it is.
For all of those things — and for a week — I could overlook the biggest frustration, which was that I couldn’t get the racing timer to work. Mounted very prominently atop the dashboard, in a car that is in its entirety a tribute to racing, and there was no way to get it to start. I also could ignore its 19-26 miles-per-gallon fuel “economy,” those ultra-bright halogen headlights (I hate being blinded by them in oncoming vehicles, and I hate even more being that oncoming vehicle to other drivers), and slick tires that I wouldn’t trust at high speeds in the rain.
It’s entertaining to drive, though. If you’re on vacation somewhere sunny and have some extra cash to blow, rent the Porsche instead of the economy mini-compact you might otherwise choose. And if someone offers to loan it to you for a week, say yes.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Skatepark design picked

Published in the Portland Phoenix

An online poll coordinated by the Portland Phoenix has given Portland’s Skatepark Committee the people’s wishes for Portland’s new skatepark. It will be option three, a layout with a clover bowl and more greenspace that was designed to fit fairly naturally its setting in Dougherty Field, off St. James Street.

City Councilor Dave Marshall says he expects the committee, which met Tuesday night, after the Phoenix’s deadline, to accept the results of the poll and recommend that design to the full City Council. He says the committee may make some changes to the design based on online comments, but expects the general overall design to remain largely true to the original. Some requests included a half-pipe and some additional ramps and rails.

The park, which is expected to cost $325,000, will replace the one on Marginal Way that was torn down in 2007.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Press Releases: Post-daily

Published in the Portland Phoenix

After leaving daily newspapers, where do journalists go?

Kevin Wack, who had spent four and a half years at the Portland Press Herald, left the paper this summer, but is doing what he might have done had he stayed — covering the Senate race between incumbent Republican Susan Collins and Democratic US Representative Tom Allen. The difference is that he’s covering it online, for his own blog, TheMaineRace.com.

Even in its first couple weeks, Wack’s blog is earning its stripes, uncovering the fact that a pro-Collins TV ad was paid for entirely by the pharmaceutical industry’s lobbying group. That and his other findings are attracting attention — including responses from commenters on TurnMaineBlue.com and AsMaineGoes.com. Unfortunately, Wack took a long weekend off to travel out of town, and missed the first Collins-Allen debate (so there’s a bit of a delay for his insights on that, but we’ll look forward to more timely comments on the remaining nine).

Of his departure from the PPH, Wack says he could see the writing on the wall: fewer reporters was going to mean less time to do projects and investigations. Since those were his primary interests, “It was a good time to leave,” he says.

Armed with a few weeks’ pay and some solid time on his hands, he entered the blogosphere as a way to build his “online resume.”

Turning his political reporting into blogging was a natural choice. But many of the political blogs he read were “identifiably partisan,” and some offer not much more than a “link and snarky comment” treatment of important topics.

“I wanted to do something that was non-partisan and had original reporting,” Wack says. He hopes his blog will combine “the best of traditional journalism” — which he describes as the on-the-ground reporting effort, or “actual-fact-gathering” — with more “voice” than is customary in daily newspapers.

He might be regretting his choice of coverage, though — while Allen is closing what was a 20-percentage-point gap in the polls, the Senate race “looked like it might be a little closer than it is right now.”

After Election Day, he’ll head to DC to start a nine-month paid fellowship with the American Political Science Association. He will study how Congress “works,” and ultimately will spend several months working as a staffer on Capitol Hill, assisting either a member of Congress or a congressional committee. He expects that will give him additional insight into the machinations of the federal government, which will in turn — he hopes — allow him to better explain those processes to his audience at a future media job.

Wack swears he’s not following the journalism-into-government track that has been well paved in Maine by former journalists who became spokesmen and -women for some of Maine’s leading politicians (David Farmer and Crystal Canney for Governor John Baldacci, Kevin Kelley for Susan Collins, and Dennis Bailey for Angus King, among others).

But after he’s done with the fellowship, he’ll be back on the job hunt. “I’m fairly pessimistic about going back to work for a daily newspaper,” he says, noting that both the economy at large and the daily-newspaper industry in specific are struggling mightily. But with new connections in Washington, he’s optimistic about finding a job with an online media outlet, or possibly a journalism-like job with a think tank or research foundation.

“I hope that I am able to stay in journalism,” he says. He sounds as if he means it, and if the choices of AJ Higgins and Josie Huang (who left their papers and joined the Maine Public Broadcasting Network) are any indication, he may just get that chance.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Will FairPoint run out of money?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Wall Street’s melt down could burn consumers throughout Northern New England — especially those in Maine.

The flashpoint is FairPoint Communications, the state and the region’s principal phone company.

On Monday, FairPoint borrowed $200 million in cash for fear its major lenders might collapse and make that money unavailable.

FairPoint’s financial positions have been under scrutiny since the January 2007 announcement that the North Carolina-based company would buy Verizon’s northern New England landline operations (see “We Told You So,” by Jeff Inglis, July 4).

But the company’s financial struggles worsened Monday, when Lehman Brothers, a major lender to FairPoint, filed for bankruptcy protection.

Lehman was one of a group of lenders who collectively had offered to loan FairPoint $400 million. Of that total, Lehman was responsible for 30 percent, or $120 million, according to financial statements from the publicly traded FairPoint. (Spokesmen for the company did not return phone calls before the Phoenix’s deadline.)

Before this week, FairPoint had already borrowed $170 million of that group’s $400 million. Monday’s loan, also from those lenders, maxed out one of its largest available lines of credit and gave FairPoint $200 million more cash on hand. A company spokesman told CNN that he expected the $30 million in remaining credit to become unavailable due to the financial market problems. (It may sound like a lot of money, but it’s really small potatoes in the context of corporate financing. FairPoint, for example, borrowed most of the $2.3 billion it paid Verizon for the land-lines.)

Maine utilities regulators say having a cash reserve that the company spends down over time is better than not being able to pay for investments because money isn’t available from loans. But it’s a sign of how much FairPoint is relying on credit — rather than revenue from customers — to keep its finances afloat.

Making that sign more ominous is FairPoint’s admission to CNN that this move is more expensive than borrowing cash as the company needs to spend it, because the interest FairPoint earns on the funds it hoards will be less than the interest it owes on the loans. So FairPoint will be losing money just sitting still.

Also Monday, the company announced it would sit still longer, delaying its full takeover of telecommunications land-lines in northern New England until at least January 2009. In the meantime, FairPoint is paying Verizon $16 million a month to run the phone systems in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

Outside consultants hired by the three states’ regulators reported on Monday that while FairPoint had made “substantial progress” toward being ready for the takeover, some software systems aren’t finished yet. As a result, training programs haven’t been finalized, and workers haven’t been taught how to use the not-yet-ready software.

Fred Bever at the Maine Public Utilities Commission and Bill Black, the deputy public advocate (a state agency tasked with representing the public interest in utilities-regulation cases), both say the delay is a good move. In Bever’s words, it’s “better than the risk of widespread service problems.”

Black says it’s too early to tell whether the postponement will cause any more problems for Maine consumers, but promised to keep an eye on things. But then again, Black admitted that, a day after it came out, he hadn’t yet read the report that forced yet another delay in finalizing the largest utilities deal in Maine history.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

World without end: After we're gone

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Will the Earth miss us when we’re gone? It’s unlikely, suggests Alan Weisman, author of the best-selling 2007 book The World Without Us. Weisman, who stops by Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Friday for a reading and book-signing, takes us to places people have abandoned and shows us how nature is reclaiming even urban landscapes.

He visits, among other places, the area around Chernobyl (still recovering from the 1986 nuclear disaster), and the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea (whose wildness is watched over by heavily armed soldiers), speculating on what will happen if, and when, people vanish (whether, Weisman cannily teases, by mass extinction, evacuation, or indeed Rapture) and leave the planet to its own devices.

His most striking example is on Cyprus, where, thanks to political tensions for the past 30 years, Varosha, a city that was once home to 20,000 people has been left abandoned and subject only to the forces of nature. Two years after war forced its evacuation, trees were growing up through what had once been paved roads, and at towering hotels, “10 stories of shattered sliding glass doors opening to seaview balconies now exposed to the elements, had become giant pigeon roosts,” Weisman writes. Four years later, “roofs had collapsed and trees were growing straight out of houses. . . . Tiny seeds of wild Cyprus cyclamen had wedged into cracks, germinated, and heaved aside entire slabs of cement.”

Now, “Fallen limestone facing lies in pieces. Hunks of wall have dropped from buildings to reveal empty rooms . . . brick-shaped gaps show where mortar has already dissolved. . . . Feral geraniums and philodendrons emerge from missing roofs and pour down exterior walls.”

Backed by extensive research and exhaustive travel, Weisman shows the real long-term effects of what we're doing to the planet — what wouldn’t make it through next week (New York's subway tunnels, daily in danger of being flooded), what would endure for 250,000 years (nuclear weapons' radioactivity), and what would last for millions of years (open-pit mines).

In the process, he offers a kind of hope — much of what we do to our environment can be undone without our help — as well as a warning: the undoing of damage only starts when we stop causing it. And then he ends on what we'll choose to call a happy note. "Around 5 billion years from now, give or take, the sun will expand into a red giant, absorbing all the inner planets [including Earth] back into its fiery womb." Then, the only things that will be left of us — if anything — will be our space probes, wherever in the galaxy they have ended up, and the TV, cellphone, and radio transmissions we have sent out into the universe for the past century. They will travel ever onward, without us.

Alan Weisman | reads from and signs The World Without Us | September 5 @ 7:30 pm | South Church, 292 State St, Portsmouth NH | Free | 603-431-2100

It’s not about the art: Looking behind the effort to paint South Portland oil tanks

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The real goal behind the Art All Around project, which proposes to paint original artists’ designs on several Sprague Energy Corporation oil tanks in South Portland, will be fulfilled even if none of the tanks is ever decorated.

According to Jean Maginnis, who dreamed up the idea and is coordinating the effort to bring it to life, the project is not actually about art for art’s sake. Instead, she says, it’s about forcing “a large public discussion of art.”

Maginnis, the founder, executive director, and sole employee of the Maine Center for Creativity, the “group” that spearheaded the effort, is getting her wish. Five semifinalists’ proposals — all abstract designs — were selected by jury from 560 submissions and made public in the middle of last month (see “Words Over Pictures,” by Ken Greenleaf). And since then, the outcry has been deafening. Though her organization has raised just $200,000 of the $1.2 million needed to actually put paint on steel, hundreds — even thousands — of Portland-area residents are thinking and talking about art, though not exactly the way Maginnis might have hoped. (See sidebar, “Talk of the Town.”)

Good intentions
Maginnis is a passionate defender of her brainchild, initially responding to a Portland Phoenix request for an interview and up-close viewing of the proposals by saying “I’m not going to share my information with you if this is something you’re going to attack.”

She did eventually grant us an interview, in which she explained that she wants her three-year-old organization’s signature project to appeal to several distinct audiences, mostly far from Maine.

-international media outlets, which might cover Maine as an artsy destination;

-art-interested people around the country and the globe, who might travel to Maine if they thought about it as a creative place;

-Google Earth users across the Internet, who might see the painted tops of the tanks on their computer screens, if and when the Web-based satellite-photo database adds new images;

-business owners and leaders everywhere, who might be inspired to use artists’ work or artistic approaches in business applications;

-investors, who might bring their businesses to Maine if they were more aware of how creative our state’s residents are;

-artists, who might benefit from being able “to feel that they are able to make their dreams come true;”

-and, ultimately, the millions of people — mostly Portland-area residents but also visitors — using cars, boats, airplanes, trains, bicycles, and even just their feet on routes from which they can view the tanks.

These are, indeed, positive intentions — efforts to “put Maine on the map in the national and international markets,” and even trying to get people who bad-mouth the Pine Tree State to start “saying something different about Maine than ‘it’s not worth investing in.’”

Fixing what’s not broken
If all this strikes you as a massive undertaking intended to right a large number of wrongs, you’re getting the picture. And if you question whether some of those wrongs are as bad as Maginnis makes them out to be, you’re not alone.

Maginnis says that she already has strong evidence of her project’s success. For example, she notes that many of the 560 entrants wrote in their entries that they had learned something new about Maine when researching their submissions — which is, it’s true, a start down the road of teaching the world about Maine’s creativity, but not really numbers worth boasting about. And she professes great satisfaction at having brought discussions about art into the halls of government and corporate boardrooms, in her search for financial and logistical support — even though many of her sponsors and collaborators are long-time activists in the local arts community.

There are even farther-reaching goals, though. Maginnis admits that, based on the wealth of national-scale artists who live here, Maine has a strong reputation among artists and art sellers and a robust visual-art life and economy. Considering their small populations, Portland and Maine — which have been art destinations for decades — have a high number of quality galleries and museums. But still, Maginnis insists that more people think of Maine as a state where businesses and artists struggle, rather than one where ingenuity is key to survival — and that this project can help shift that view.

That seems like a strange perspective, but it’s easier to understand how she got there when she offers the most startling example of the pessimism driving her forward. There are, she says, currently “no industries” in Maine where creative people can work.

That’s a particularly ironic statement for many reasons, not the least of which is the letter of support from Governor John Baldacci that is prominently posted on the Art All Around project’s Web site. In it, the governor makes clear that “more than 63,000 Maine residents are currently employed in the creative sector, which provides about 10 percent of all Maine’s wages.”

Her claim is further contradicted by the fact that she delivers it — with great earnestness — in one of several conference rooms in the offices of a large Portland marketing firm that provides her with free desk space and other support. At the desks outside the room where she is speaking work some of the most successful creative minds in the state.

Talk of the town
The public’s objections to the Art All Around project are legion, and range from philosophical to savage. The most pragmatic complaints decry the use of $1.2 million in private donations to pretty up massive oil tanks when the petroleum industry is making record profits and Mainers can’t afford to heat their homes or gas up their cars.

Some local residents have expressed concerns about the designs themselves, with one South Portland artist telling the Current (a weekly community newspaper serving South Portland) the designs give her “little to be excited about.” A resident and business owner quoted in the same article used the word “horrendous” to describe some of the designs — her strongest praise was, “Others, I could live with.” And a South Portland city councilor voiced among the most common criticisms of the designs: “I was expecting (design proposals) more along the lines of Maine-related history, mountains, seascapes, and native animals.”

Even the tough-as-milquetoast Portland Press Herald arts section recently ran a column calling the project “controversial.” (Note to those reading daily newspapers: the word “controversial” is code for “We hate this, but aren’t comfortable saying it ourselves, and we can’t be bothered actually talking to anyone to get a quote.”)

Project creator Jean Maginnis has an answer to all of those critics. “A lot of people” tell her they like the project and its semifinalists and are willing to support it with their time, energy, and money. Fighting back tears, she explains that this work is “valuable . . . because art matters.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Press Releases: Dumped by text

Published in the Portland Phoenix

He might not like this comparison, but Barack Obama has pulled a Britney. He told his supporters — or at least those who signed up on his Web site — his vice-presidential nominee choice before granting an interview to a major daily paper or even holding a made-for-TV press conference.

Yes, Obama dumped the newspapers and the TV folks the same way the Mouseketeer-run-amok ditched K-Fed in 2006: by text message.

Some mainstream media outlets have tried to claim they had the news first, saying they had beaten the campaign to the punch by telling readers and viewers (mostly on their Web sites) that US Senator Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, was the “likely” choice throughout the day last Friday. But none of them could get rid of that troublesome word “likely,” and the only official-type comment was an outright denial from Biden, who said, “I’m not the guy.” So their efforts were pretty transparently speculation, however right they have turned out to be.

(As one possible exception, CNN has been claiming its reporting apparently influenced the timing of the text message — at 3 am Saturday rather than 8 am, as the campaign had originally planned.)

But the guessing game that makes up much of mainstream political journalism these days didn’t gain much traction among the general public. Americans were waiting for the word from Obama himself — not on TV, and not in the newspaper, but in their text-message inboxes.

The old-media train was already headed off a cliff, but Obama’s move has accelerated the derailment, highlighting the shortcomings of the traditional news sources and, simultaneously, the practicality of a new form of mass communication.

Of course, the newspapers made it easy to see where they missed the boat — witness the massive headlines on Sunday morning, more than 24 hours after the text went out, saying Biden was the pick. By then, the only people not in the know were — you guessed it — people who only get their news from the daily paper (if any such people still exist).

“Yesterday’s news tomorrow” never seemed so apt a slogan for the daily-newspaper industry. Even the TV newscasts were reduced to telling a huge portion of viewers something they already knew.

Obama’s text also showcased a new way that news consumers can get information. While many news organizations have started to “go mobile,” with “mobile-accessible” Web sites readable on Internet-enabled cell phones, and text-message alerts about breaking news, this is the first time a non-news organization has been invited by so many people (hundreds of thousands, and maybe millions — the campaign’s cagey about the numbers) right into their purses and pockets.

If digerati philosopher Esther Dyson is correct — and all signs are that she is — then the most precious commodity of this century will be people’s attention. That makes the second-most-precious commodity the ability to get their attention — that is, the cell phone.

The Obama campaign’s success at getting immediate and direct access to large numbers of Americans could have a major effect on the outcome of the election. Most important, the campaign can send its supporters reminders to vote on Election Day — and receiving a reminder has been shown to significantly increase a person’s likelihood of actually casting a ballot.

But it’s also a hedge against the mainstream media, a warning shot across the bow of those talking heads and political horsetraders who ignored the real problems facing our country and instead spent massive amounts of air-time and ink speculating about whether Obama was secretly a Muslim, whether the pastor of the Christian church he attended was anti-American, whether the editors of The New Yorker had crossed some sort of ethical line, and a hundred other things that are pretty insignificant to average Americans struggling to buy groceries and heat the house.

With that one text message, the Obama campaign has signaled that not only can it make the daily-grind newshounds irrelevant, but also that whenever the need arises, it will.