Thursday, March 31, 2011

Gubernatorial scorecard: What's behind the curtain?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Here's our third Gubernatorial Scorecard, in which we score Governor Paul LePage on political savvy, and on whether what he's trying to do is good policy. Note the running total.

VEILED LOBBYING | LePage tried to create a "business advisory council," to allow key players in the state's economic scene to have direct access to the governor. After a statewide public and media outcry because LePage exempted the group entirely from the state's open-government law, the governor scrapped the idea.
POLITICS • Promoting transparency during the campaign turns to secrecy in office | 2/10 POLICY • He can still meet secretly with whomever he likes; this just avoids a fight about it | 7/10

VEILED THREATS | The governor has threatened to veto the budget if it changes from his proposals, despite the facts that 1) a two-thirds majority must pass the budget (automatically overriding any veto), and 2) compromise is the only way to get two-thirds support and avoid a government shutdown.
POLITICS • Shutting down the government is what his base really wants | 9/10 POLICY • Shows misunderstanding of the system | 1/10

VEILED HISTORY | The governor, on the basis of an anonymous note likening Maine to North Korea, ordered a huge mural in the Department of Labor office removed, saying the depictions of Maine's labor history were anti-business. The move spawned a satirical call for art from this newspaper (see below) and a real one from the state, as well as a scathing Sunday editorial in the New York Times and local and national media coverage mocking LePage for whitewashing reality.
POLITICS • Proves he'll do absolutely anything to promote jobs in Maine | 6/10 POLICY • This is his biggest pro-business move so far | 1/10

VEILED INFLUENCES | The governor celebrated the erection of an "Open for Business" sign at the Maine-New Hampshire border on I-95. The sign was made in Texas. And a couple of his campaign staffers launched a pro-LePage website, It's hosted in Utah.
POLITICS • Offers opponents easy distraction while his real agendas move forward | 8/10 POLICY • Needlessly thoughtless | 2/10

VEILED ACCESS | The famously mercurial, bullying governor promotes his open-door policy, welcoming anyone who wishes to speak with him. And yet he has posted a uniformed state trooper in his waiting room — in addition to his plainclothes bodyguard squad.
POLITICS • Job-creation success: one state trooper | 7/10 POLICY • Unclear whether the protection is for him, or from him | 4/10

This month's total | Politics 32/50 | Policy 15/50 | Last month: 32/50 | Policy 28/50 | Overall: Politics 88/150 | Policy 62/150

City walls: A look at Portland's graffiti history

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Back in the early '90s, Eli Cayer had just finished art school in Boston and headed to Maine, where he continued creating street art. In a scene then heavy on "throw-ups," tags with an artist's nickname in stylized letters, Cayer had another approach. "Instead of going to do throw-ups, I'd just do faces."

In the mid- to late '90s, Cayer was a busy, visible street artist in Portland. But one night, he recalls, he was arrested while leaving a nightclub. He spent the night in jail, and was later sentenced to a week behind bars.

The experience set him on a course to create legal opportunities for graffiti artists and other street artists to show off their wares. Promoting work "inspired by the street, inspired by the youth, inspired by emerging cultures," Cayer organized events — including an "Urban Earth Day" celebration — that included spray-painting activities as part of the entertainment. He wanted people to "recognize it as a legitimate art form," he says.

That led to contact with city workers, in both the community-policing and parks-and-recreation departments, which in turn connected him with officials at the Portland Water District's East End Wastewater Treatment Facility. As Cayer described how murals, particularly those influenced by street art, can actually "graffiti-proof" a wall (by showcasing the work of prominent artists younger taggers will be reluctant to paint over), an idea took hold: the outside wall of the sewage plant could be a place for graffiti artists to do their work legally.

The idea was that vandalism would decrease if the city would just "allow the artistic side of it, encourage it even" by providing places for people to practice and engage with street art, Cayer says.

He says that containing or institutionalizing graffiti doesn't necessarily change the nature of the art — and if it does, it does so organically, rather than forcing the change on the artist. "The hard-core writer, even given the opportunity to do a (legal) jam, it's not going to change what he's doing on the street," Cayer says. But others might take an opportunity to expand their expression while also reducing legal risks. "It's almost the . . . equivalent of skateboarding," Cayer explains: "It's not organized, it's totally self-driven, it's what you make of it."

On June 4, 2002 — Cayer recalls the date easily — that section of the wall was unveiled at the same time as a newly opened section of the Eastern Promenade trail. Ever since, that space has been known as the "legal wall," where anyone can go and practice their art. For a time, he also helped coordinate the painting of the Asylum wall every year.

Cayer, who is no longer active in the city's street art scene (though he stays in touch through MENSK, the arts-related non-profit he helps run), says he does see Portland's culture shifting somewhat from "exclusively spray-painting," to more varied types of street art. (That said, he notes that Portland's train-painters are very widely known: "I've seen Portland, Maine, trains in North Dakota" and Alabama.)

Aubin Thomas isn't a tagger or street artist either, but in the past year or so has turned into a chronicler of the ad-hoc art scene here, as what she calls "curator of images" at her Freezetagging blog (

"I don't ever pretend to know what it's like to be a tagger" — she only tags on blackboards — but wants to preserve the art so it's not lost. "There are wonderful pieces of art around here . . . but then they disappear," she says, so in an effort to counter that, she takes long walks around different parts of town every week to photograph what she sees.

She has noticed a number of fascinating elements of the street-art community in Portland. "They talk to each other around the city," she says, leaving notes asking "who's this?" near a new tag, or incorporating elements in new creations that echo nearby pieces by other artists.

Letter shapes, and color, and medium (marker, paint, etc.) are part of their language, giving knowledgeable viewers and scene insiders messages about who drew what.

Like in other cities, marking a particularly visible or hard-to-get-to area (such as high up on a building) is a declaration of prowess, but Thomas noted that Maine street artists have other challenges. Back in December, she was out taking photos in a blizzard, and saw a tag that called attention to when it was made: "Blizzard bombing," it read.

In the past six months, she has noticed more labels and stickers going up around the city, works people draw at home and just slap up somewhere as they're walking by. She theorizes that is part a reaction to a pending city crackdown (see "Outlawing Art?") and part desire to do more intricate pieces in a less-risky way.

Thomas is definitely appreciative of the efforts of local street artists: "It adds to the layers of things we have in the city to look at," she says. And she observes that the Portland Museum of Art held an event earlier this year focused on local graffiti and street artists.

Outlawing art?

After years of a moderate tolerance to graffiti artists, Portland officials are reconsidering that approach. The city council's Public Safety Committee has proposed increasing the punishments for graffiti artists. That has brought thinly veiled threats from the street-art community of retribution by increased activity.

A second controversial element of the proposal would fine property owners who do not clean up if their buildings are tagged. That has led to objections from people who worry that they might be "victimized twice" — once by graffiti, and a second time by the city enforcing the clean-it-up law.

The proposal would also ban the sale of "graffiti tools," such as markers and spray-paint cans, to minors. Aubin Thomas notes that might be missing the point: "All of the graffiti artists and taggers I know are not minors."

While proponents say tagging would be discouraged if it were removed quickly, that's less certain in an art form whose very nature assumes, and even embraces, temporary display.

Eli Cayer suggests that fighting graffiti is best done Montreal-style, where the city hosts international events celebrating street art and "the whole downtown is tattooed, almost, with graffiti."

"I want to live in a city where I see more of the productions" — larger, artistic pieces — he says. "Not everybody does, I can appreciate that, (but) just because you don't like it doesn't mean it doesn't deserve respect."

Cayer cites as an example the new mural at Joe's Smoke Shop on Congress Street as a successful contribution of art to the community that also deters graffiti: "Joe's gets bombed all the time, and it's not going to now."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Broadband update: Internet service falling into place

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The details needed to understand where and how to best improve Maine's high-speed Internet connectivity are finally within reach. Even better, the funding and planning are under way. Three major developments have happened recently, and two more are on the horizon, that could hasten the dawn of a day in which Maine is no longer in the slow lane for Internet service.

The first development is THE BEGINNING OF WORK ON AN 1100-MILE FIBER-OPTIC NETWORK covering most of Maine. Called the "Three-Ring Binder" because it is designed with three interconnecting circles of fiber, the project, funded with private and state and federal government money. The network has six miles complete — including a section in downtown Portland — and when finished in two years' time will be open to any Internet provider as a super-high-speed link to the wider Internet. Key to this is that fiber-optic networking is largely considered "future-proof," meaning that as better transmission technologies develop over time, the fiber network itself will not need to be replaced or re-wired. Even though transmission equipment at connection points may need replacement, the money and time required is far less than re-creating an all-new network to parallel the old one.

The second development is the RELEASE OF A NATIONAL MAP OF BROADBAND ACCESS, complete with data on actual speed delivered by providers, number of companies offering Internet access in a particular area, and the means by which that access is provided (wireless mobile, cable-modem, DSL, etc.). In the words of Phil Lindley, executive director of the ConnectME Authority, the state agency tasked with expanding high-speed Internet access across Maine, "It's great to know where it is, but what's more important is for us to know where it isn't." Yes, the map shows empty spaces too — which will inform the selection process for the next round of ConnectME grants, to optimize investment in areas that most need help.

The third development is that NOBODY IS LOOKING TO FAIRPOINT COMMUNICATIONS FOR LEADERSHIP IN BROADBAND SERVICE anymore. The North Carolina-based company that operates the landline telephone network in Maine was expected to be a key element of providing 21st-century technology to rural parts of the state — and discussions of that prospect were key to state regulators' approval of the deal that allowed FairPoint to buy Verizon's landline system — even state officials now recognize that FairPoint is not a serious player.

While the company emerged from bankruptcy late last year, and did announce in January that it can provide faster-than-dialup service to 83 percent of Maine homes, the speed of FairPoint's service is the lowest that qualifies as "broadband" under state and federal guidelines. The company is still on its way to wiring up 87 percent of Maine homes by the end of 2014 — down from 90 percent, which was its original goal. As a sign of the times, though, if a proposal now before state officials moves forward, Maine's legal definition of the term may soon be accelerated, such that whatever FairPoint provides, it will be too slow to be labeled "broadband."

Coming up are two additional moves at the federal level with big promise for Maine. First is that the $8 billion annually raised by the Universal Service Fee (a surcharge on landline and cellphone bills alike) could be released to fund Internet expansion. At present, the fee is limited to supporting telephone service in rural areas, but bureaucrats are beginning to figure out that it's Internet access that is truly necessary everywhere in the country. A Federal Communications Commission decision on that could come later this year.

Also, the FCC is expected to release some additional radio spectrum for auction soon, with the goal that funds raised from the auction and most of the new bandwidth itself will go to reach 98 percent of Americans with Internet access at speeds five times faster than Maine's present minimum broadband speed.

For more info, check out

Fuzzy math: Buy Local 'survey' is questionable

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Heaven knows I like the idea of the Portland Buy Local campaign, so it pains me to say that I found the recently released results of an area business survey just a bit too self-congratulatory.

An announcement headlined "Survey Finds 'Buy Local' Drawing New Customers to Local Businesses" describes the responses to a questionnaire sent to organization members as evidence that the campaign is helping locally owned businesses survive, even in the recession.

But because of the survey's methodology, those findings are anecdotal and specific to the few businesses that responded, rather than being truly representative of the organization as a whole, admits Portland resident Stacy Mitchell, the Buy Local group's vice-president and a senior researcher for the Minnesota-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Warning: entering survey-statistics nerd territory. The problem is not so much that the sample size is small (49 members of a 386-member group), but rather that respondents were self-selecting instead of being picked randomly. A random sampling of 50 Buy Local members would have resulted in a survey with a 10 percent margin of error, Mitchell says, defending the number of respondents. She may be right, but surveys with self-selecting responses have an even larger error margin. (And 10 percent is considered huge on its own — major political and business surveys aim for margins of error under 5 percent.) Leaving nerd turf now.

It's the difference between asking questions of a certain number people randomly selected from your entire town, versus the same number of people in just one neighborhood. One is representative of the larger whole; the other isn't.

Because those who chose to answer do like the Buy Local campaign and say it is helping them, there is some indication that things are going well, but we have no accurate information about how well, or what non-respondents might think. (As Mitchell points out, this is not the only measure the group uses to evaluate its effectiveness. It is, however, the only such information the group provides to the public.)

But even the question about the helpfulness of the Buy Local campaign is problematic. The survey asked "Do you think that this campaign has had an impact on your business?" and suggested several answers: "significant positive impact," "moderate positive impact," "a little positive impact," "no impact," "don't know," and "negative impact."

Of the 49 businesses that responded, all but seven said it had some degree of "positive impact." (Those seven said the Buy Local effort had "no impact" on their business.)

But only listing "negative impact" — without options for a scale (such as "significant," "moderate," and "a little") — biases the results against showing that result. And indeed, no respondents chose that answer, Mitchell says. (It may seem strange to consider that a program to promote local businesses might somehow hurt them, but a proper survey will leave that as an open question to be answered by the respondents, rather than assuming a specific outcome.)

The results Portland's campaign is trumpeting are culled from the Portland-specific answers to a nationwide questionnaire with similar methodology and credibility problems, conducted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the chief backer of buy-local campaigns around the country.

Mitchell says her group lacks the financial ability to hire a survey company to conduct a formal study that could give results that would be representative of the group as a whole.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Press releases: War on the average Joe

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Right now, Maine can afford to pay its state employees' pensions for the next 10 years with no additional investment — without any sort of supplement, not even workers' biweekly paycheck deductions. The nationwide McClatchy newspaper group published that fact on Sunday in a massive, comprehensive report on public pension funds nationwide.

But that information was nowhere to be found in the pages of MaineToday Media's papers — the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal, and the Morning Sentinel. While Maine's largest newspaper chain routinely publishes national news from the McClatchy wire, they shut the door on the most revealing package yet published on the major issue under debate in Augusta right now.

Of course the papers, owned by Richard Connor, did not ignore the issue entirely — in a Sunday economic dispatch from Washington, sole DC reporter and (therefore) Washington bureau chief Jonathan Riskind wrote: "Americans understand that the country is headed off a fiscal cliff."

And the papers' lead editorial that day — the day McClatchy was telling Americans that the sky is not even close to falling with regard to pension funding — described "rampaging pension costs that can no longer be ignored." The editorial declared necessary the proposals by Governor Paul LePage to cap retirees' pensions and medical coverage, partly allowing LePage to lower Maine's effectively flat income tax by more than half a percentage point — a massive boon to the rich that will have next to no effect on moderate- and low-income families.

In doing so, the MaineToday papers have declared themselves clearly on the side of the wealthy robber barons who have stolen so much of America's bounty. (Recent stats, most prominently cited in a March 5 Michael Moore speech in Wisconsin, suggest that a few hundred ultra-wealthy American citizens are richer than half the country's people, put together.) Ironically, the editorial decried the description of this phenomenon as "class warfare," calling that term "trite and tedious."

It is only so for those people — and those media outlets — who exist to serve the rich, and not the people as a whole. For the rest of us, we are indeed engaged in a war between the classes, and nothing less than a fight to the death — whether by homelessness, cold, starvation, or broken hearts.

For Connor and his staff to go on to proclaim, as they do, that "the wrath of angry taxpayers should be aimed at politicians and bureaucrats who agreed to costly benefits over the years without giving sufficient attention to the financial consequences those benefits would eventually impose" is downright disingenuous. It is doubly so when the media organization in question has only rarely and shallowly treated these important issues of accountability when it comes to election time.

And then the editorial goes from factless to misleading to downright irresponsible, raising the specter of "the looming crisis presented by the ever-rising costs of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare." Even with no additional support, those programs won't run out of money for decades, according to independent analyses, including by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

Our social safety net is strong, and so are our pension funds for public employees. For politicians to spout otherwise — particularly as justification for transferring more wealth to the super-rich — is deceitful. For newspapers to parrot that fear-mongering is shamefully abdicating their vital role as arbiter of truth in a complex society. If regular people, who are too busy trying to make their own ends meet, must rely on intentional misinformation — or, as egregious, withholding of truth — then we do indeed have a serious societal crisis on our hands. It's just not the one the politicians and the mainstream media are telling you about.

Review: A Marine's Guide to Fishing - A snapshot of a returned veteran's life

Published in the Portland Phoenix

On the one-year anniversary of a life-changing incident on a foreign battleground, a Marine (Matthew Pennington) begins to take up his old life again. In this 15-minute short, writer-director Nicholas Brennan (2009's Portland Phoenix Maine Short Film of the Year Hard Rock Havana) adroitly plumbs the depths of the manifold complications facing servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Showing samplings of eager hangers-on playing patriot games, flashbacks (including sounds of battle that even the ocean cannot drown out), and quiet support from previous generations of veterans, Fishing asks — but only obliquely attempts to answer — whether a life can ever recover from such an ordeal.

On screen an understated, moving film, its power is only amplified by knowing that lead actor Pennington is a veteran (Army, but we'll never tell the Corps . . .) and a battle-wounded amputee — and that 13 other young veterans worked on various aspects of the movie. Backed by a local score (Dan Capaldi) and Maine coast scenery that feels strong without kitsch, Fishing casts a net upon the waters of possibility. What that net catches is yet to be seen.

A MARINE’S GUIDE TO FISHING | Screening at the Nickelodeon, in Portland | March 16 @ 7 PM

Diagnosing democracy: Why parenthood is a bad model for government

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Political theory has, for centuries, come down to an analogy of anatomy, or of family: the head of the government is the head of the body politic, or the head of the household. Other government agencies are the limbs and organs of the body, or the working adults in the home. Citizens are the cells that make up the body, or the children.

In The Parent As Citizen: A Democratic Dilemma (University of Minnesota Press), Brian Duff, a Portland Phoenix food writer whose day job is as an assistant professor of political science at the University of New England, argues that view is fundamentally destructive to a democratic society. It puts citizens in a subservient role — that of children — and government officials in a paternalistic role, Duff writes. That inversion of proper accountability in a democracy — where the citizens should be in charge of the government workers — has caused unseen and untold damage to our society.

He starts with the political discussion of parenthood, showing how the experience of parenting is considered to be formative and vital in the development of a political player. Then, examining the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Nietzsche (as classical philosophers and political theorists) and two towering modern political-philosophical figures, Richard Rorty and Cornel West, Duff shows why focusing on parenthood is so dangerous to democracy. He specifically chronicles the hazards — including intolerance, fundamentalism, fear, and disempowerment — that appear when equating a democracy with leaders and citizens to a family with parents and children.

This is not a prescriptive work, but rather illustrates a heretofore unseen problem, asking others to study it, examine it, learn from it, and perhaps ultimately forge a solution to this failing intellectual model of our failing political system.

Prison torture coverage, expanded

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Longtime Portland Phoenix contributing writer Lance Tapley's investigation of the Maine State Prison and the state's corrections system as a whole have reached a yet wider audience with the publication of an essay by Tapley in The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse (New York University Press, edited by Marjorie Cohn). The book is a collection of essays that describe the conditions in American prisons, and explore what political and social pressures combined to create the abusive, destructive prison system we have today. Tapley's essay, "Mass Torture in America: Notes from the Supermax Prisons," is based on his years of reporting for the Portland Phoenix, and marshals the evidence to show not only that torture (including solitary confinement) is a near-constant part of supermax prisons nationwide, but to describe the vicious and damaging nature of that abuse on tens of thousands of inmates.