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Did Al Gore Get Played By Donald Trump?

IMAGE: Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore exits after a meeting with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

UN Human Rights Chief: Trump Would Be ‘Dangerous’ If Elected

IMAGE: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses members of the National Rifle Association during their NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during at their annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, May 20, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II

As Democratic Polls Tighten, Clinton Adopts A More Aggressive Approach

By Evan Halper and Chris Megerian, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

The firewall that Hillary Clinton spent months painstakingly constructing to ensure quick, early and decisive victory in the Democratic nominating contest isn’t holding, leaving the candidate once considered the prohibitive favorite scrambling to regain her momentum.

Just weeks before ballots are cast in the key early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton faces risk of defeat in both places, where anything but convincing victories for her could herald the kind of drawn-out, bloodying primary that establishment Democrats had banked on averting.

Clinton’s change of fortune comes even as she has run a disciplined campaign that dominates in fundraising and reaching voters with expertly produced advertising. But voters are unenthusiastic. She has not touched off the kind of excitement generated by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is successfully engaging new supporters the way Barack Obama did when he bested then-front-runner Clinton in Iowa in 2008.

“It’s like a quarter flipping around in the air,” George Ensley, chairman of the Democratic Party in Boone County, Iowa, said of the race in that state, where a comfortable lead Clinton enjoyed since spring has evaporated. “Which way is it going to come down? I don’t know right now.”

Sanders, the reconstructed New Dealer, has the Clinton juggernaut in a heightened state of concern. He is leading in New Hampshire in most every independent poll, and polling in Iowa suggests the race there is a toss-up, with the momentum on his side. Nationwide, Clinton’s lead over Sanders has slipped considerably.

The slipping poll numbers have pushed Clinton to take a feistier — and riskier — approach to confronting rival Sanders, a democratic socialist once looked upon by Clinton operatives as a model adversary: too far outside the mainstream to pose a significant threat, but popular enough to give the appearance of a real race.

“As we have gained momentum, I think it’s fair to say the Clinton campaign has become very nervous,” Sanders told NBC on Tuesday night. Clinton denies the developments are causing any unexpected heartburn, saying polls go up and they go down, and repeating her assertion that the campaign always anticipated a tight race.

Yet her approach has undeniably changed.

She is now relentlessly attacking the rival she mostly ignored for months. By this week, even Chelsea Clinton had touched off a spirited back-and-forth with the Sanders campaign. Speaking to voters in New Hampshire, she accused her mother’s rival, who favors a European-style single-payer health care system, of seeking to “dismantle Obamacare … dismantle Medicare and dismantle private insurance.”

The comments riled Sanders, as well as his network of activists who accuse the Clinton machine of misleading voters.

Clinton herself is seizing on Sanders’ mixed record on gun safety, mocking his explanation that he has not always voted for tighter restrictions because he represents a rural state where hunting is part of the culture.

“Sen. Sanders has been a pretty reliable vote for the gun lobby,” Clinton told NBC on Wednesday.

The Clinton campaign also told reporters that Sanders risked not being backed by President Obama, who threatened to withhold support from any candidate who doesn’t agree with his views on gun control — an interpretation the White House did not exactly stand behind.

Clinton also accuses Sanders of reckless economics. “There’s no way, if you do the arithmetic, how to pay for what he has proposed without raising taxes on the middle class,” she said at a campaign event Monday in Waterloo, Iowa.

The Sanders campaign is responding aggressively. Amid all the demands from Clinton for an apology for past gun votes by Sanders, the Vermonter proudly waves his D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association at campaign events and has embraced a robust gun-control agenda.

He also demanded Clinton make an apology of her own. He pasted on his Twitter account a mailer from 2008 in which Clinton positioned herself as a champion of gun rights and suggested she explain herself.

The evolution of the race into a political street fight carries risks for both candidates.

The initiation of the barbs by Clinton has the taint of desperation, coming from a candidate who did everything by the book yet is watching her lead slip away nonetheless. It is unclear whether they will be effective in helping stir up the voter passion her campaign has lacked.

“This is a real challenge for Hillary Clinton,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. “I don’t think you can turn Bernie Sanders into a villain. He isn’t one. When you are 74, as he is, and you are a socialist from Vermont, it is hard to make you out to be Richard Daley or some other political boss,” he added, referring to the former Chicago mayor famed for his decadeslong stranglehold on the city’s political machine.

As for Sanders, he appears to be going back on his repeated vow not to engage in negative campaign tactics, and he is clearly less comfortable in such brawls than Clinton is.

But it is also difficult to gauge whether the Sanders surge will translate into votes, particularly in the caucus state of Iowa, where the mere act of voting is daunting and time-consuming — and Clinton’s get-out-the-vote operation is more seasoned and better-funded.

“Are (his) people going to show up to a caucus?” said Tom Henderson, Democratic Party chairman in Polk County, which includes Des Moines. “Or are they people who like to show up at rallies and cheer them on, and then leave?”

©2016 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addresses supporters at the Electric Park Ballroom in Waterloo, Iowa January 11, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

 

Once A Clinton Insider, Mega-Donor Now Cool To Hillary

By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As Hillary Clinton and her surrogates scour the country for mega-donors, the one left-leaning billionaire they are not approaching is the one who knows the first couple more intimately than any of the others.

Ron Burkle figures that over the years, he’s raised some $10 million for the Clintons at his sprawling Beverly Hills estate. After Bill Clinton left the White House, he and Burkle jetted around the world together in an unconventional partnership that netted the former president about $15 million and Burkle entree into the palaces and offices of world dignitaries. For years, when Clinton dropped into Los Angeles, he would only stay at “Ronnie’s” place, Greenacres, once owned by silent film star Harold Lloyd. Clinton was fond of the home and its history.

So what’s Burkle done for the Clintons lately? Nothing.

“They never asked me for a penny,” he said of Hillary Clinton’s campaign during a rare interview in his West Hollywood office that touched on his dim outlook of Hillary as a candidate, Bill’s post-presidency role with Burkle’s investment firm and what, exactly, happened on those plane rides.

The festering weirdness between the California billionaire and the Clintons might have drifted below the radar but for Burkle’s decision to start raising campaign funds for a candidate other than Hillary Clinton. He’s co-hosting a fundraiser this month for Republican John Kasich at Soho House in West Hollywood.

Burkle says he might decide in the end to back Clinton — or he might not. The billionaire who counts supermodel Gisele Bundchen among his best friends, who helped the FBI nab a New York Post gossip columnist trying to extort him, who jets around the globe in a private 757 says Hillary Clinton just isn’t re-creating the magic of her husband.

“People would expect Bill Clinton-style love and attention,” he said. “That is not going to happen with her.”

Burkle lumps Hillary Clinton in with a group of well-meaning Democratic presidential nominees who faltered. Like Al Gore and John Kerry — candidates Burkle robustly supported — he says Hillary Clinton is brilliant but troublingly disconnected with the electorate.

“As much as I like Gore, Kerry and (Hillary) Clinton, nobody can ever remember what they stand for,” he said. “They overcomplicate it. … They don’t win on vision — they make it too complicated. They don’t win on likability.” He says President Obama has been a bitter disappointment, failing to deliver on his promise to work with Republicans.

Bill Clinton, though, he says he still adores despite what looked like a very public breakup.

He reminisced about Clinton parachuting into town and wanting Burkle to line up interesting people for him to meet with from early morning through late night. Hillary Clinton, not so much. Burkle said she and her longtime aide Huma Abedin would hole up in the posh Hotel Bel Air during campaign swings in 2007. “They wouldn’t see anyone,” he said. “They didn’t want any of it.”

Few Californians are as tightly woven into the decadeslong psychodrama that swirls around the Clintons as Burkle. (One exception might be David Geffen — who happens to be Burkle’s next-door neighbor. Geffen has come back into the fold after publicly calling the Clintons shameless liars in 2007.)

Burkle even traces his interest in Kasich to Bill Clinton. Back when Kasich was a leading congressional Republican at the height of Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, he bore down and struck a budget deal with the embattled president, Burkle noted. As Burkle scans the field for a candidate with what he describes as the deal-making savvy, the political courage and the common-sense approach that he so valued in Bill Clinton, it’s not Clinton’s wife who stands out at the moment, but Kasich.

“If you are hiring a CEO, he’d be a guy you could hire,” Burkle said. “I think people who take his position should be heard.” But Burkle cautions: “It doesn’t mean I am going to write a $10 million check to him.”

Clinton loyalists do not take kindly to the musings. They say that Burkle is embittered after his business dealings with Bill Clinton fizzled. Their partnership dissolved as Hillary Clinton mounted her 2008 bid for the White House. It ended with a firestorm of bad press for both men, with reports of Clinton family confidants fretting that Bill Clinton’s bromance with Burkle invited scandal. Unsourced reports of the two men jetting around in a Burkle 757 filled with attractive young women leached from the tabloids to the mainstream media.

Burkle is still irked by it all. He says the plane — on which his then-adolescent son was often aboard with Clinton — was hardly a flying frat house. “No woman could get within 100 miles of (Clinton) while I was on watch,” he said. And the awkward, borderline dowdy businessman expresses bemusement at the idea that he’s a Don Juan. “I’m very shy with girls,” he said. “It takes me about a year to tell a girl I like her.”

Burkle suspects Geffen was a source for some of the most damning media coverage, the worst of which emerged at a time Geffen was riled with Bill Clinton for refusing to pardon Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist who Amnesty International says was unfairly convicted of murdering two FBI agents. Geffen has denied it. And because this is Hollywood and these are billionaires, Burkle expresses surprise when asked if bitterness lingers between him and Geffen. Burkle insists they are friends.

He says the same about the Clintons. The days of regular phone chats are gone, Burkle said, but when he bumped into Bill Clinton at a funeral a couple of months ago, they hugged.

The high-stakes campaign-cash bundlers and politically influential proxies in the Clinton network are conflicted about how to navigate Burkle. Some note that Burkle opened his wallet in a big way recently to elect another longtime Clinton confidant, Terry McAuliffe, as governor of Virginia, suggesting there is room for him to come back onto the reservation. Others say the Clintons can do without the baggage that Burkle brings.

©2016 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: President Clinton visits Ron Burkle at the billionaire’s Santa Monica beach house in 1997. Burkle told The Times this week in a rare interview that he’s still fond of Bill Clinton, though he’s skeptical of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

 

What Did Billionaire Donor Get Out Of His Relationship With The Clintons? An Education, He Says

By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Befriending Bill and Hillary Clinton — and giving them access to his private 757 jet — gave Ron Burkle more insight into world affairs than any graduate program might have.

At one point the billionaire businessman was on half of all the trips the former president made abroad. Burkle says he met 47 world leaders in 47 countries. There was a private meeting Clinton held with Nelson Mandela that went on for hours; Burkle was in the room.

Burkle, who never finished college, says he found the travel so enlightening that he structured his son’s schooling around it, arranging for a private tutor to join them on the jet so his child could join the international trips with Clinton.

“I’m not a political junkie,” Burkle said. “I’m not trying to become an ambassador or be in the middle of every election every cycle. … A lot of people are in it because they want to go to the parties or be on the Kennedy Center Board. It is not about that for me.”

Burkle talked about the experiences during an expansive interview with the Los Angeles Times this week, in which he also expressed ambivalence about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, reflected on his now-dissolved $15 million business partnership with Bill Clinton and explained why he is cohosting a fundraiser for Republican presidential candidate John Kasich.

The trips became a springboard for the billionaire jetsetter to put his own mark on international affairs. UCLA is home to the Burkle Center for International Relations, now prominent on the circuit of world leaders and diplomats visiting Los Angeles.

The investor talks about politics as a kind of entryway to more interesting people and pursuits.

In the case of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., his enthusiasm for her career led him into a friendship with her husband, Richard Blum, a fellow billionaire who also has a taste for adventure and international exploration.

“I just think her husband is a fascinating and complex guy,” Burkle said. “He spends time with the Dalai Lama. He has a foundation in the Himalayas. … He and I just became friends.”

Burkle, who is perhaps the world’s most successful supermarket magnate, says he began working in his dad’s store at an early age and spent his life singularly focused on working and investing until well into his 30s.

“I wasn’t curious about anything but work and making money,” he said. “Then I got curious about art. I got curious about politics and international relations.”

Like most big donors, he says there was nothing transactional at all about his plunge into high-stakes political giving. And as is typically the case, such protestations are met with skepticism. The close political relationships have been undeniably good for his business.

Burkle has boosted the careers of politicians who went on to control pension funds that invest massive amounts with his firm, Yucaipa. He’s had a former president on his payroll, ostensibly able to open doors nobody else can.

When Burkle did not want embarrassing details in his divorce records available to the public, California lawmakers and a governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to whom he had been donating generously passed a state law allowing him to seal them.

Burkle insisted the legislation was not crafted at his behest, but it became known in Sacramento as the “Burkle bill” nonetheless.

Now, his value to Democratic politics lies not just in his checkbook — but also in his house.

The property known as Greenacres, once owned by silent film star Harold Lloyd, is host to some three dozen fundraising events each year, often for Democrats or progressive causes.

Burkle estimates more than $200 million has been raised there for candidates and nonprofits since he moved in in the 1990s.

Even fellow high-rollers in Hollywood, who grumble that Burkle never stepped up to write multimillion dollar checks to super PACs the way other liberal billionaires have, lament that Hillary Clinton does not currently have access to the fundraising machine that is Greenacres.

“I bought a house that has its own life, independent of me,” Burkle said.

He became enamored with the property when he attended a fundraiser there. The event, he recalls, was very much an introduction to life on the high-stakes political fundraising circuit, particularly in Los Angeles.

“The first time I went to a fundraiser there, the tickets were $1,000 and $5,000,” he said. “I asked, ‘What’s the difference?’ They said, ‘Parking.’”

Burkle’s ambivalence about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is puzzling to other Democratic power players.

The Clintons are known to value loyalty. And Burkle may ultimately test whether he can step back in the inner circle after stepping so far out of it. He’s raising money for Kasich but leaving open the possibility that he will rejoin the Clintons soon enough.

©2016 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Former U.S. President Bill Clinton addresses a campaign rally for his wife, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in Nashua, New Hampshire January 4, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder 

 

With Medical Marijuana Laws Murky, U.S. Prosecutors Pursue California Cases

By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — When Congress in effect lifted the federal ban on medical marijuana just over a year ago, Californians drove the change, which was tucked into a spending package by a liberal congressman and a conservative colleague.

A year later, marijuana legalization advocates are conflicted over how big a victory the congressional vote, which was repeated last month, has turned out to be.

“The number of raids has dropped substantially, though not completely,” across the country, said Mike Liszewski, government affairs director for Americans for Safe Access, a medical-marijuana advocacy group. A federal court ruling this past fall, if it is upheld, would limit federal agents from targeting all but operations that are clearly flouting state law, he said.

But in California, in particular, federal prosecutors continue to pursue cases, in large part because of flaws in the existing state medical marijuana law, which all sides agree is long overdue for changes. Gov. Jerry Brown has signed three measures to clarify the state law, but they won’t take effect until 2018.

So for now, the state that was the birthplace for legal medical marijuana in the U.S. remains at the center of legal disputes as federal prosecutors navigate a murky landscape in which the line between healers and drug dealers is not always clear.

The two House members who championed the new approach say prosecutors are not following the intent of Congress.

“The will of the people is clear: The majority of the states have enacted medical marijuana laws, Congress has voted twice now to protect those patients, and a federal judge has upheld” the measure, Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) wrote in an email. “How many times does the Justice Department need to be told to back off before it finally sinks in?”

Farr and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) teamed up in 2014 to write the measure that said anyone legally selling medical marijuana under a state law cannot be prosecuted.

Officials from the Justice Department declined to comment, citing litigation.

Congress has put the department in a pickle, however. Federal law still classifies marijuana in the most dangerous category of narcotics, alongside heroin and LSD, substances that the law declares lacking any accepted medical use. Congress has declined to change that even as it has approved the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, as the provision is known.

The city of Oakland is invoking that amendment in demanding federal prosecutors drop their bid to seize marijuana and other assets from Harborside Health Center, the nation’s largest dispensary, which has generated a tax windfall for the cash-strapped city.

Across San Francisco Bay, in Marin County, local officials praised a decision by a a federal judge, who ruled in October that the continued prosecution of a dispensary was an affront to the new law — only to learn last month that prosecutors plan to continue the fight through an appeal.

Complicating matters are the several states that permit the sale of marijuana for recreational use. The Obama administration has chosen to allow that experiment to continue unabated. So operations in California , like Harborside, that target patients seeking the drug to treat illnesses can still be prosecuted while shops in Denver that cater to college students operate freely.

Over the summer, Farr and Rohrabacher accused the Justice Department of illegally misappropriating federal money to continue those prosecutions, calling on for its inspector general to investigate. The department has yet to respond.

Federal officials have argued in court that their prosecutions don’t violate the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment because the occasional bust doesn’t impede the state from allowing the use of medical marijuana. After the judge in the Marin County case rejected that argument as “tortured,” prosecutors are left with the argument that the sales in question are not clearly in compliance with California law, which was written very broadly.

“The early medical marijuana laws were Trojan horses designed to allow effective legalization for anyone who could fake an ache,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “California is in that category.”

Even in the case of Harborside, which state and local officials often hold up as a gold standard for the medical-marijuana business, California’s loose rules about who is permitted to buy medical marijuana have left the operations a natural target for prosecutors, Caulkins said.

“Harborside is gigantic, and the Justice Department thinks it is not providing marijuana just for kids with epilepsy or people with cancer or people with HIV,” Caulkins said.

In states that have more recently adopted medical marijuana provisions, legitimate medical-marijuana businesses are not targeted because they serve a much narrower group of clients, he said.

But the Justice Department’s continued pursuit of Harborside angers officials in Oakland. The business pays the city about $1.4 million annually in taxes.

Advocates hope it is only be a matter of time before the prosecutions subside. California is among several states poised to decide this year whether to legalize marijuana for any adult who chooses to purchase it, whether to treat an illness or to just get high. If the state adopts rules to regulate a legalized market that satisfy the Justice Department — as Colorado and Washington state have done — prosecutors will probably move on to other business.

©2016 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Coaster420 via Wikimedia Commons

 

Iowa Voters Have Given Up On Ethanol; Presidential Candidates Are Following Suit

By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

The fortunes of the wonder fuel that promised to help clean the environment, secure America and save small family farms have steadily dwindled as environmentalists, food advocates and auto enthusiasts sour on its promise. Now that fuel, corn-based ethanol, finds itself threatened with a defection that was once unthinkable: Iowa voters.

The electorate here in the early voting state often defined by its vast expanses of corn has long demanded that candidates pledge allegiance to government production mandates for millions of gallons of ethanol, the homegrown product. But as the 2016 White House hopefuls traverse the state, they are seeing that Iowans have grown strikingly ambivalent.

The Republican presidential contender now polling strongest in Iowa, Ted Cruz, is campaigning on an energy platform that would have been a death wish in elections past. Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas, is an unabashed opponent of giving ethanol any special government help. He derides it as the worst kind of central planning. He champions legislation to wipe out the decade-old Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates large amounts of ethanol get blended into the nation’s gas supply.

“Voters here are just not that interested in ethanol anymore,” said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. “You don’t even hear the word come out the mouths of candidates much.”

There are myriad reasons, not the least of which is a modern-day Republican electorate that takes pride in bucking the established order and is increasingly absolute in its disdain for subsidies. But it is also about the shifting politics of renewable fuels in a state where small family farms have given way to much bigger agribusinesses. Only a fraction of the state’s voters work in the corn industry these days. There is as much buzz on the campaign trail in Iowa about wind power as there is about ethanol.

It is all compounded by troubles befalling the decade-old ethanol mandate, signed into law by George W. Bush, that transcend Iowa but now appear to be giving voters pause even there. Cars are more efficient and people are driving fewer miles than the drafters of the law had anticipated, leaving auto manufacturers to warn that engines are at risk of malfunction if the federal government doesn’t ease quotas of ethanol blended into retail gasoline.

Environmentalists once hopeful the product would help curb global warming now caution that it may be just as harmful to the planet as fossil fuels.

And even as Iowa’s longtime GOP governor, Terry Branstad, warns that candidates who tangle with ethanol could find their presidential aspirations buried by Iowans, a much more influential force in Midwestern politics is sending the opposite signal.

Koch Industries, the behemoth energy firm run by billionaire political donors Charles and David Koch that itself has a major interest in ethanol, despises the mandate. In an April letter to Congress, the company called it “an unqualified failure that should be repealed in full,” reflecting growing disdain among Republican activists for any programs that prop up renewable fuel industries.

Cruz drew from that zeitgeist at an Iowa agriculture summit earlier in the year at which several of the GOP candidates appeared. “I recognize that this is a gathering of a lot of folks who the answer you’d like me to give is ‘I’m for the RFS, darn it.’ That’d be the easy thing to do,” he said at the event. “But I’ll tell you, people are pretty fed up, I think, with politicians that run around and tell one group one thing, tell another group another thing, and then they go to Washington and they don’t do anything that they said they would do.”

But ethanol industry leaders in the state say Cruz will pay a heavy price. They have been running radio advertisements for the last couple of weeks that accuse the Texan of hypocrisy, pointing to tax breaks and other government support enjoyed by the oil industry that Cruz favors. Among those targeting Cruz is Branstad’s son, Eric, who formed a pro-ethanol group called America’s Renewable Future.

“Senator Cruz and anyone else who wants to say this is not an issue in Iowa is mistaken,” Eric Branstad said. “Iowa voters are only now starting to pay attention to the campaign. And they are beginning to learn where Senator Cruz is on this.” Branstad says his group has persuaded some 50,000 Iowans to pledge to caucus only for candidates who support the fuel standard.

Branstad predicts Cruz’s star will fall as a result of his anti-ethanol crusading. Donald Trump sought this month to regain ground he lost to Cruz by highlighting the Texan’s obstinance on energy policy.

But while nobody argues that Cruz can’t get knocked out of the pole position, many doubt ethanol would be the reason.

“It’s helped him polish his credentials as a tough guy,” said Dennis Goldsford, a professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines. “Republican voters here are more concerned about ISIS and Obamacare than this.”

Despite a recent industry poll concluding that large majorities of likely caucus goers, “once informed about the Renewable Fuel Standard and biofuels,” would be more likely to vote for candidates who support them, the issue barely registers on independent voter surveys. When Iowans are asked what their biggest concerns are this election season, ethanol — and agriculture issues in general — don’t even rank.

©2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz speaks during the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada December 15, 2015.    REUTERS/Mike Blake

 

Nuclear Pitched As The New Green

By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — The state that spawned a generation of activists committed to shutting down nuclear reactors and crippling the industry has lately become a hotbed of advocacy and financial support for fighting global warming with, of all things, nuclear power.

Encouraged by the Obama administration, notable California innovators and financiers are looking to reinvent the industry in the mold of wind and solar power. They are betting on prototype technologies that seek to replace the hulking plants of today with smaller, nimbler units. Environmentally minded nuclear engineers argue that they can be designed so safely that they might be “huggable.” They talk of power plants that consume nuclear waste instead of creating it.

State leaders aren’t necessarily rushing to embrace the vision in a place where all but one nuclear plant have been mothballed and where old-guard nuclear safety advocates warn that so-called advanced nuclear technologies are an attempt to put shiny earrings on the same old pig.

But the investors and nuclear scientists opening startup labs in the office parks of California’s technology hubs and within the research centers of universities see a more influential ally in the White House.

Nuclear power is at the nub of the Obama administration’s “all of the above” strategy for reinventing the energy industry in an era of climate change, and its faith in the fraught power source has captured the imagination of some notable and deep-pocketed West Coast thinkers.

Investors, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, have poured about $2 billion into a few dozen small outfits, many of which are concentrated in the West. The entrepreneurs behind them are racing to design nuclear power facilities engineered to seem no more imposing than a neighborhood arts center.

“This is the place to be,” said Jacob DeWitte, chief executive of UPower, a startup that recently migrated here from Cambridge, Mass., in its quest to create modular nuclear plants with reactors small enough to fit inside a shipping container and sturdier than “a brick outhouse.”

“In other places you would tell people you’ve got a nuclear startup and they look at you like you are kind of nuts,” he said. “But here in Silicon Valley it is like, ‘That’s super cool. Can I help?’ There’s that ethos here.”

DeWitte, 30, talks in terms that make some veterans of the decades long struggle over nuclear power chafe, promising his firm will build units that could safely run on existing stockpiles of nuclear waste, all while being “meltdown-proof” and not using any material that terrorists could steal to turn into a weapon.

That may all be possible someday, say the nuclear experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists, but that day is probably several decades and many tens of billions of dollars away. The sudden excitement around nuclear makes them nervous. They say they have seen this before.

“The people who deny or downplay the risks involved are doing a disservice to the future of nuclear power that leads to complacency, and complacency leads to Fukushima,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the organization. “This is very complex. It is hard. It costs a lot. It is slow, especially to develop advanced systems. … It seems nuclear will at most be a minor contribution over the next few decades to dealing with the climate crisis.”

That’s not the view inside the stylish, airy San Francisco offices of Thiel’s Founders Fund, where he and other venture capitalists, perhaps inspired by the views from the giant windows overlooking Presidio Park, make big bets on big ideas. Thiel made about $1 billion with an early $500,000 investment in Facebook. He got in on the ground floor with Yelp. He and his partners at PayPal, including Elon Musk, grew the online payment service from nothing to a firm that eBay paid $1.5 billion to acquire.

And lately Founders Fund is excited about zero-emission nuclear power as a solution to climate change. It has infused $3 million into Transatomic, a startup in Cambridge launched by two graduates from MIT’s nuclear engineering program who have been pitching their vision in small networking meetings and, of course, TED Talks.

“I became a nuclear engineer because I am an environmentalist,” said Leslie Dewan, the 31-year-old co-founder of Transatomic. “This is what the world needs. The world needs a cheap source of carbon-free power that is even lower cost than coal if we want to avoid the devastation caused by fossil fuels.”

Her faith in nuclear energy is underscored by the fact that she launched her company only a week after the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan in 2011. The particular day also happened to be the 25th anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in Ukraine.

The faith is shared by Founders Fund partner Scott Nolan, who is among the few equipped to judge the mind-bending Transatomic blueprints on their merits. Nolan is a rocket scientist. Earlier in his career, he built propulsion systems at a firm that is perhaps even more audacious than Transatomic: Musk’s space exploration company, SpaceX.

“We believe they have the right technology, that it is going to eliminate a lot of the concerns that have existed around nuclear,” Nolan said. “We think it can work.”

He talks about the anxieties around nuclear power: the potential for radioactive release at a plant, the possibility terrorists will steal material to build a dirty bomb, the dangerous waste that won’t decompose for thousands of years, the immense costs.

Then he dissects each concern, explaining why Transatomic’s technology makes the issue obsolete. He talks about a plant that would run on existing nuclear waste and be “classified as walk-away safe. There is no way for it to go unstable.”

The Sierra Club says it has all the makings of a snake-oil sale.

“There is always such a rosy picture coming from the industry of what it can deliver with these technologies, yet it has such a terrible history with over-promising and under-delivering,” said John Coequyt, the Sierra Club’s director of international climate programs. The organization would prefer the Obama administration abandon the extremely costly pursuit of advanced nuclear power in favor of greater investment in renewable energy such as solar and wind power.

©2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Pelicans fly in formation over the San Onofre Generating Station on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 in San Clemente, Calif. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

 

Analysis: Sanders Pledge Shows How Plans To Curtail Mass Incarceration Fall Short

By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

INDIANOLA, Iowa — After years of plunging crime rates, hugely expensive incarceration budgets and troubling racial disparities in criminal punishment, it has become fashionable on the presidential campaign trail to declare the nation’s uncommonly high rate of imprisonment unacceptable.

Just don’t press candidates to explain how to significantly change it.

Hillary Clinton began demanding an end to the “era of mass incarceration” almost from the day she launched her campaign. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont recently made a pledge that would include cutting the prison population by more than one-quarter within four years.

On the Republican side, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky calls mass incarceration the Jim Crow of our time. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey says the country’s distinction of having more people locked up than any other nation is not what he has in mind when trumpeting American exceptionalism.

But ask what it would take to accomplish their goals, and all their campaigns struggle. The politically palatable prescriptions packed into bullet points in the candidates’ criminal justice plans wouldn’t get the country even close.

The U.S. imprisons roughly 2.2 million people, according to the most recent figures from the government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. The runner-up, China — a much larger country that puts a far lower premium on freedom — is believed to imprison about 1.7 million, according to an international study.

The proposals the candidates have embraced so far would make but a tiny dent in that population.

If the candidates are aware of this, they aren’t letting on.

Sanders has made the most specific promise, generating considerable excitement among liberal activists for a pledge he made at Simpson College in Indianola.

“I don’t make a whole lot of promises,” Sanders said, “but here is one I will make to you: If elected president, by the time I end my first term, this country will not have more people in jail than any other country.”

Sanders has railed against what he characterized as a racially unjust prison-industrial complex that feeds on mass incarceration.

Scholars questioned whether Sanders was aware of just how big a promise he was making. Cutting the U.S. prison population by the more than half a million needed to get down even to China’s number could be accomplished only by substantially softening penalties for violent criminals, they say.

Nothing in Sanders’ detailed prisons plan suggests that he grasps the immensity of the task.

Sanders told his audience that his goal was embedded in his broader policy vision. Raising the minimum wage, eradicating youth unemployment and legalizing marijuana would substantially reduce the flow of Americans into the prison system, he said.

“If anyone thinks there is not a direct correlation between outrageously high youth unemployment and the fact that we have more people in jail than any other country on Earth, you would be mistaken,” he said. “We spend $80 billion a year locking people up. In my view, it makes a lot more sense for us to be investing in jobs and education rather than jails and incarceration.”

The experience of the past several decades makes it clear that the relationship between crime rates and unemployment is, at minimum, more complicated than Sanders’ statement suggests. When unemployment soared during the 2007-09 recession, crime went down. Violent crime rose steadily from the late 1950s through the early 1990s, during good economic times and bad.

Moreover, Sanders’ emphasis on marijuana legalization fits a pattern he shares with several other candidates: an ambitious goal backed by a squishy plan.

“If we are going to make the really significant reductions that are necessary to move us out of the top spot in the world, we are going to need to move beyond proposals that just deal with low-level drug offenses,” said Ryan King, a fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington research group that favors shrinking the prison population.

Drug offenders make up only about one in six people in state prisons, which hold the lion’s share of people incarcerated in the U.S., according to data compiled by the institute. Few of those are low-level offenders locked up for simple possession.

To reduce the combined federal, state and local prison population by the amount Sanders’ pledge contemplates, King said, would require softening penalties for violent convicts, too.

“No candidates are talking about that,” he said.

Violent offenders convicted of such crimes as murder, rape and robbery accounted for 54 percent of the men in state prisons in 2013, according to statistics compiled by the Department of Justice. When the prison population surged between 1980 and 2009, for each new inmate who had committed a drug crime there were three new inmates who had committed a violent crime.

“There just is not an easy and politically palatable solution that reduces the prison population that much,” Patrick Egan, a professor of politics and public policy at New York University, said of the goal Sanders set. “While Americans have become more supportive of criminal justice reform lately, they are still quite afraid of and quite aware of crime.”

Some advocates for reducing mass incarceration have proposed cutting sentences for violent criminals, which are longer on average in the U.S. than in many other developed countries. Few political figures have been willing to touch ideas like that.

“It’s hard for candidates to talk about what to do with violent offenders,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. “It scares voters.”

©2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders greets supporters at a campaign rally outside the New Hampshire State House in Concord, New Hampshire November 5, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Heated Exchanges Over Claim Of A Link Between Global Warming And Terrorism

By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

As world leaders convene in Paris this week to confront the long-term threat of global warming, the fact that their talks are taking place in a city still recovering from a deadly terrorist attack has amped up a long-running debate about how much climate change contributes to extremist violence.

The question is playing prominently in the U.S. presidential race. The bitter disagreement it has spawned underscores the challenge climate activists face in selling their broader message to the public.

Activists consider climate change an existential crisis that demands immediate attention. But its link to any specific occurrence, whether an individual storm or an act of terrorism, is tough to pin down. That makes the activists’ case harder to sell to the public.

On the other side, conservative critics of climate activism have ridiculed suggestions that global warming is a prime security issue.

In Britain last week, Sky News aired an interview with Prince Charles in which he declared that a clear link existed between climate change and the emergence of the Islamic State.

“There is very good evidence indeed that one of the major reasons for this horror in Syria was a drought that lasted for five or six years,” he said.

“Heir brained,” the tabloid Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, harrumphed in a front-page editorial.

Similarly heated exchanges have marked the U.S. political scene. As a result, Tom Steyer, the California billionaire who has spent tens of millions of dollars on campaigns aimed at making climate change an election issue, chose his words carefully when the question of linkage came up during a recent meeting with reporters in Washington.

But he insisted the link exists.

“It isn’t us who are saying that climate matters for national security,” Steyer said. “It is the CIA … the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The national security apparatus believes that climate is a destabilizer and a creator of national security concern. Talk to any service. The services are all over this.”

Indeed, a week earlier, the CIA had made its most recent foray on the issue. The agency’s director, John Brennan, told a forum in Washington that extreme weather related to global warming is exacerbating food and water shortages that make populations vulnerable to extremism.

“Mankind’s relationship with the natural world is aggravating these problems and is a potential source of crisis itself,” he said. “Last year was the warmest on record, and this year is on track to be even warmer.”

That linkage, however, was considerably more cautious than the language used by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who said in a Democratic presidential debate the day after the Paris attacks that “climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism.”

Nonpartisan fact-checking groups dinged Sanders for overstating his case. They did not take issue when another candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, declared that the “cascading effects” of global warming had created a humanitarian crisis in Syria that helped give rise to Islamic State.

America’s intelligence agencies and armed forces have been tracking the potential effects of climate change on national security for years. Such efforts have been stepped up lately, as President Barack Obama has increased his focus on the issue.

The risks that intelligence and military officials have identified range from instability caused by drought to the threat of naval bases being submerged by rising sea levels. The latest “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community” maps out how climate change can exacerbate the spread of health-security risks such as the Ebola virus.

The report most often cited when climate activists seek to directly tie global warming to the rise of the Islamic State is one published this year by the National Academy of Sciences. It examined the conditions that existed in Syria in the run-up to the civil war there.

In the years leading up to the outbreak of fighting in the spring of 2011, a severe drought in the Mideast had forced the migration of 1.5 million people out of farming areas. That helped trigger civil unrest. The international team of scientists who produced the study, led by Colin Kelley, a climatologist from UC Santa Barbara, concluded global warming had exacerbated that drought.

“We conclude that human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict,” the authors wrote. That’s the conclusion Prince Charles appears to have been referring to.

But in the backdrop of the debate are environmental groups growing increasingly frustrated with the low priority voters place on confronting climate change. The groups are searching for messages that might more readily stir voters to action.

“We have a mission,” Steyer said, “which is to prevent climate disaster.”

©2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A French police officer patrols in front of the entrance of the venue for the COP21 World Climate Summit at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, November 26, 2015. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Hillary Clinton’s Secret Weapon In Campaign Finance Reform: Shame

By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton knows her plan to stop big businesses from secretly funneling tranches of cash into politics may not fly with the Supreme Court and Congress, so she has a backup plan: publicly shame the companies.

Clinton is embracing one of the few effective tactics for loosening the grip on big money in politics. The plan she announced Tuesday to force publicly traded companies to disclose all political giving comes as a growing chorus of academics and activists are finding new ways to expose companies that hide their political maneuvering.

Many major companies are responding by coming clean. They are getting out of the game of giving so-called dark money, or funding from nonprofit groups that aren’t required to disclose the sources of their money. In many cases, the donations became a public relations nuisance and even a corporate liability.

Leaks and inadvertent disclosure of how the secret money was spent already had firms rethinking the giving schemes.

Companies like Google Inc. — and even Shell Oil — touting environmental awareness have been exposed supporting shadowy organizations skeptical of climate change. Insurance giant Aetna Inc., which embraced Obamacare, was discovered in an alliance with political committees seeking to sink it. And a group of major pharmaceutical companies was found to be giving big money to nonprofits trying to stop government health care programs from covering the contraceptives they make.

These developments were arguably not good for business, and more are sure to come, regardless of whether Clinton succeeds with her plan, as advocates grow increasingly sophisticated at rooting out the political alliances that corporations are forging.
“The public has a right to know about where money comes from for campaigns, and investors have a right to know how company resources are being spent,” said David Donnelly, president of the advocacy group Every Voice.

Clinton’s announcement comes as the Securities and Exchange Commission is under pressure to do exactly what she is demanding.

About 1.2 million individuals and groups have commented on a proposal much like Clinton’s. The commission has balked on acting for years amid intense opposition to the proposal from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups, which argue it is a ploy to intimidate companies from making their voices heard in government.

The fight headlined a major all-day conference the chamber held in Washington in December. The organization, which spent about $35 million on political advertising in the 2014 election cycle and has taken a lead in resisting government efforts to fight climate change, does not disclose the names of its 3 million members.

“This orchestrated ‘disclosure’ campaign by opponents of the business community is meant to intimidate corporations from participating in important policy debates, either directly or through trade associations and organizations such as the U.S. Chamber,” chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes said in an email.

Those joining the chamber in pushing back against the proposal say at the very least, it is not a matter that should be decided by financial regulators.

“Supporters of this say they want what is best for shareholders, but there is lots of information at firms that shareholders do not have access to,” said David Primo, a professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester in New York. “Shareholders cannot micromanage every decision a CEO or their team makes.”

Some prominent figures in the worlds of investment and corporate governance disagree.

“The commission’s inaction is inexplicable,” said a recent comment filed by three former SEC commissioners, including Arthur Levitt, who was chairman of the agency while Bill Clinton was president. “Its failure to act offends not only us, who are alumni of this agency struggling to retain our deep pride of association, but investors and the professionals who serve them.”

Vanguard Group founder John Bogle urged the commission to go even further than requiring disclosure of corporate giving to political nonprofits. He suggested a rule that would bar companies from giving without the approval of the owners of at least 75 percent of its stock.

Clinton’s embrace of the disclosure effort highlights an approach to campaign finance reform more aggressive than that of President Barack Obama, who has spoken out about the ills of money in politics but has not made it a focal point of his agenda.

“Clinton’s endorsement of this rule at the SEC is a game-changer,” said Bruce Freed, president of the nonprofit Center for Political Accountability. “It is now part of the conversation for 2016.”

While advocates wait for the SEC to take action, they are making headway without it. The Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the University of Pennsylvania works with Freed’s group to publish an extensive survey of corporate disclosure of political giving. It scores hundreds of companies on 24 categories, ranking them in an annual report.

The survey reflects a trend in corporate America away from secret giving. The next one will be published in October.

The mandatory disclosure provision may be among the most politically feasible on Clinton’s campaign finance reform agenda. But it is not the most ambitious. The centerpiece of her plan is rolling back the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and unions to pour unlimited amounts into independent political committees.

In a video released Tuesday, the Clinton campaign notes that the push is personal for the candidate. The conservative lobbying group at the center of the case had gone to court to gain permission to pay for the broadcast of a movie attacking Clinton.

If elected president, Clinton’s best hope of reversing that decision would probably come through the retirement or death of one of the conservative justices on the court, whom Clinton vows she would replace with a nominee committed to overturning Citizens United.

Clinton’s agenda also includes a new system in which the federal government would match small campaign donations. Under it, contributions made by small donors would be matched up to an unspecified, modest amount. Candidates would be eligible for such funds only if they agree to new limits on the amount they receive from any individual donor.

Photo: Hillary Clinton is having none of it. (Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Clinton Will Unveil Aggressive Economic Agenda That Targets Wall Street, High Earners

By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — After months of running on broad themes backed by little in the way of actual policy proposals, Hillary Rodham Clinton will announce Monday what aides call a far-reaching plan to restructure the economy to move more of the nation’s wealth to middle- and low-wage earners.

In what the campaign bills as a landmark speech at the New School in New York City, Clinton will offer a vision for growth that is notably different from the one her husband, Bill Clinton, pursued when he was in the White House and pivots off some of the policies of President Barack Obama.

The agenda, written with input from some of the country’s most liberal economists, reflects not just Hillary Clinton’s effort to appeal to a Democratic Party that has drifted leftward, but also disenchantment with the centrist economic policies she once favored.

It seeks to address what has become one of the key concerns of voters this election season: the failure of the economy to raise middle-class income. The problem has consumed policy advisers for Republicans and Democrats, and strategies for solving it are emerging at the center of every campaign.

“The moment we are in today is unique,” said Neera Tanden, an adviser on the Clinton plan who runs the Center for American Progress, a think tank influential in the campaign. “The old rule of economic growth that when workers are more productive, companies reward them with wage increases no longer applies.”

After decades in which virtually all working Americans saw their paychecks increase, growth became uneven in the 1980s, and over the past 15 years, it stopped altogether for most families. Clinton is seeking to draw a distinction from Republicans — and Jeb Bush in particular — who are focusing their message on more general economic growth. Bush set his central economic goal as boosting the rate at which the gross domestic product increases.

Clinton will frame the election as taking place in the dawn of a new and troubling economic era, which bears little resemblance to the one Bill Clinton ushered in before the internet revolution and globalization took hold. She will note how her challenge differs from that of Obama, whose actions were shaped largely around fixing the immediate financial crisis he inherited.

At the center of Hillary Clinton’s agenda will be tax proposals that push the financial burden of government away from the middle class and small businesses toward higher earners, as well as new rules for the financial sector. Campaign aides say Clinton will begin previewing some of those proposals Monday, followed by a rollout of the details in weeks to come.

“Income inequality has become a bigger part of the national discussion,” said Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton who is advising the campaign. “People have the correct feeling that the system is not fair. … Hillary will dispute the notion that the only thing we need to care about is getting the economy growing faster. It’s not just that the pie gets bigger, but how that pie is shared.”

Amid concerns by progressives that Clinton, who represented New York in the Senate and has deep political ties to the financial industry, would be reluctant to interfere with the business of investment companies, the candidate will promise to do exactly that. She will target what the campaign calls a mindset of “quarterly capitalism” on Wall Street — a focus on making a quick return with little regard for how it is being generated — that she says has pushed the economy too far away from creating things of real value.

The speech is a prelude to specific taxes and shareholder engagement rules Clinton will later propose that her advisers say would have the effect of redeploying Wall Street capital toward more durable sources of economic growth, such as research and development and infrastructure. Clinton will argue Wall Street is failing the middle class by not keeping its focus on those investments that help generate jobs and upward mobility within companies. Economists who worked on the plan say she will target “excessive risk taking” and churn of investments, as well as what Democrats argue are loopholes in the tax code that reward such behavior.

“These will be areas where she inevitably will be more robust than President Obama was able to be, with the crisis he inherited,” said Gene Sperling, an economic adviser to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama who worked on the Hillary Clinton plan.

Clinton will try to frame the policies favored by all the GOP candidates as ultimately rooted in outdated trickle-down economics, which she says have helped fuel growth but also inequality. Clinton is embracing an argument that so-called New Democrats like she and her husband had long resisted: that income inequality is actually slowing growth, and even policies that boost the earnings of lower earners can be harmful to the economy if they result in the gap between the wealthy and everyone else growing.

What that means for her agenda is that it will include provisions aimed squarely at reducing the share of earnings kept by the richest Americans. They are the kind of policies being demanded by the increasingly influential wing of the Democratic Party led by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist running against Clinton — though Warren and Sanders would push the economy much further in the direction Clinton is now pointing toward.

Embedded within the Clinton agenda will be many of the specific programs restive progressives have been demanding she embrace. Although Clinton will not reveal any specifics Monday, aides say the plan includes an increase in the minimum wage, a lowering of the debt burden on college students and new rules for corporate accountability.

There also will be provisions to strengthen unions, such as expanded collective bargaining rights. Clinton has had an uneasy relationship with labor of late. Her reluctance to take a position on the massive free trade agreement Obama is negotiating with Pacific nations has been a sore point. Union leaders warn the trade deal will cost American jobs and hurt workers.

Boosting paid family leave and availability of child care, two signature Clinton issues, also will be part of her plan, as will the establishment of an “infrastructure bank” to fund the construction of public works projects. Boosting government investment in clean energy is also included.

The proposal comes as Clinton’s standing in the polls in early voting states, while still strong, has slipped notably. Sanders has gained considerable support in Iowa and New Hampshire as he rails against Wall Street, calls for expanding Social Security, and unapologetically pushes to boost a variety of taxes on the wealthy.

Clinton’s plan comes with a major shift in thinking among some of the country’s elite economists. Centrists like Lawrence Summers, who helped guide the economic policies of Bill Clinton’s administration, have recast their advice in the face of statistics showing Americans are not sharing equally in growth.

The economists are increasingly concerned by the way technology, automation, and globalization may be creating new opportunities but are also stripping away the job protections and wage growth that long existed.

“There are a number of new forces leading to the stagnation,” said David Kamin, a law professor at New York University who helped craft Hillary Clinton’s plan. “But they don’t make it inevitable. She plans to lay out real policy choices we can make to raise incomes.”

The unveiling of Clinton’s economic strategy is not just welcome by Democratic primary voters. Clinton’s GOP rivals are eager to dig into the details, which they will frame as a costly burden on the country. The kinds of changes Clinton envisions ultimately could involve billions of dollars in new taxes on certain segments of the economy, even as tax relief is directed toward small businesses and low-wage earners.

Photo: Hillary Clinton via Facebook

Clinton On Track To Raise $45 Million In First Quarter

By Evan Halper Tribune Washington Bureau, (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton is on track to raise a record $45 million in contributions during her first quarter as a 2016 presidential candidate, building a formidable campaign fund that further solidifies her position as the prohibitive Democratic front-runner, according to numbers released by her campaign Wednesday morning.

In a sign of the growing dominance of money in politics, the staggering amount of cash far exceeds what Clinton raised during her first quarter as a candidate eight years ago, when officials from her campaign reported they were ecstatic with her $26 million haul. It also dwarfs the amount her next-closest rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is likely to raise.

The fundraising quarter that ended Tuesday is traditionally used as a barometer to gauge the strength of campaigns. Clinton officials boasted that they bested the previous record for a first-quarter candidate, which was set by President Barack Obama in 2011 as he embarked on his re-election campaign. Obama raised $41.9 million during that period.

But the large bank account by no means clears the field for Clinton. Sanders, who has not yet released his fundraising figures, has enough in the bank to mount a competitive challenge in at least the early states. Earlier in the quarter, he had already raised $8 million from more than 200,000 donors. At this stage in the campaign, the number of donors can be as important as the total amount raised, as it reflects grass-roots support and enthusiasm.

The Clinton campaign did not reveal how many people contributed in a background memo sent to reporters. But it noted that 91 percent of the contributions were $100 or less. In the final days of the quarter, the campaign had blitzed supporters with emails, imploring them to give as little as $1 — a clear sign of Clinton’s eagerness to show broad-based interest. The pitches set a goal of 50,000 contributions.

Campaign officials have said they need $100 million to win the primary. They are clearly well on their way. Should Clinton win, however, she will need to ramp up her fundraising substantially. A successful general election campaign fund would likely exceed $1 billion.

Much of that money won’t be directed to the official campaign account, which cannot accept contributions exceeding $2,700 per donor. The funds will be sent to Clinton’s super PAC, which evades federal fundraising rules by operating independent of the campaign. Donors are free to give unlimited amounts to that fund.

Sanders has made a point of not permitting his supporters to form a super PAC, saying such solicitation of unlimited cash is corrupting democracy.

Photo: Campaign officials have said that they need $100 million to win the primary. JUST THE PRIMARY. Marc Nozell via Flickr

Fight Over Healthy School Meals Act Renewal Creates Unlikely Alliances

By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In the farm-to-fork-crazed city of Portland, Ore., campus gardens supply public school cafeterias and food service workers seek out chicken free of antibiotics.

But the school system’s nutritional director finds there’s one advocate for healthy food whose demands she just can’t meet — Michelle Obama.

“We have tried every noodle that is out there,” said Gitta Grether-Sweeney, the Portland nutritional director who says she is exasperated by the federal school lunch rules the first lady champions. “Whole-wheat noodles just don’t work in lasagna. We are having to go lawless to use regular pasta.”

The locally sourced macaroni and cheese the schools had been serving turned to mush when it was made with whole-grain macaroni to meet the new rules, Grether-Sweeney said.

That once-popular meal is now off the menu. So too are wraps, which she says won’t hold together with the brittle wheat tortillas she now must use. Many fewer meals are getting sold at school, she said.

Food service directors like Grether-Sweeney have been warmly embraced by Republicans who are trying to undermine federal school-lunch rules that they see as the cornerstone of a nanny-state agenda from the first couple.

In response, the Obama administration has put together its own coalition of celebrity chefs, health organizations and military leaders to mitigate the damage caused by its falling-out with the “lunch lady” lobby — 55,000 school cafeteria workers who were once a major ally.

Back in 2010, when it passed, the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act was seen as a landmark nutritional achievement for the most health-conscious White House in recent memory.

Now, as the Republican-dominated Congress decides whether to renew the law, school lunch trays have become a partisan battle zone. The law expires on Sept. 30, although the status quo will remain in place if Congress deadlocks.

“We should not have what is served for lunch at schools decided by bureaucrats in Washington,” said Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., who wrote one of multiple bills that would ease the rules. “This has become a burden.”

The law and the regulations it spawned require school lunches to include significantly more fruits and vegetables and an infusion of whole grains; they also mandate a big drop in calories. Schools were told to cut the salt and sugar in foods they sell, even in campus vending machines.

Supporters of the law say that unwholesome frozen pizzas, chicken nuggets and other junk food that once were lunchtime staples helped drive the nation’s epidemics of childhood obesity and diabetes.

They question whether the intense pushback against the new standards truly reflects the concerns of lunch ladies or the views of big processed-food companies that bankroll the School Nutrition Association, which represents cafeteria workers in Washington.

“We believe they are being highly nudged by the interests that represent the frozen-pizza industry and some of the other processed-food folks that provide significant funding,” said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at the Department of Agriculture. “Regressive parts of the industry want to act like we are not in the middle of a crisis in this country.”

And many schools are all for the new rules — particularly in California.

The former food service director at the Los Angeles Unified School District, where pizza is no longer on the menu, stood alongside the first lady last year as she kicked off her public campaign to defend the standards. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has urged Congress not to weaken them.

Few things government does have as much impact as the school lunch program on the diets of Americans. More than 43 million subsidized lunches and breakfasts are served daily. They account for half of the calories many kids consume in a day.

The program was created in 1946 by a Congress alarmed that vast numbers of young men were ineligible to serve in World War II because they were undernourished.

Underfeeding is no longer the problem. Now, nearly a quarter of recruiting-age Americans are too obese to serve, according to Mission: Readiness, a group of 500 retired military officials who argue that school lunch trays laden with junk food are a major culprit. Its leaders are confounded by the backlash against the new standards.

“It is amazing to us that this has become a political issue,” said retired Maj. Gen. D. Allen Youngman, former head of the Kentucky National Guard.

“There are a lot of ways you can characterize 500 admirals and generals,” he added. “But a hotbed of liberal thought is not the first thing that comes to mind.”

The new lunch rules are strict. Schools are being told to restock pantries with ingredients alien to many students’ palates.

If children pass up the fruit, cafeteria workers in many cases can’t sell them a meal until they take some, leading schools to complain they are paying for produce that ends up in the garbage.

There have been other growing pains. The number of meals sold took a steep drop with the introduction of the new rules, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Nutrition advocates say they sympathize, but they point to studies suggesting that after the expected bumpy rollout, schools are figuring out how to make the new menus work.

Consumption of healthy food is on the rise, supporters of the program say. They point to temporary waivers that allow struggling schools to continue serving chewy, white noodles.

Some eager districts are engaging students in taste tests, surveys and promotional campaigns, using the nutrition mandates as a catalyst to elevate their dining experience.

A letter from 19 past presidents of the School Nutrition Association urged the administration not to bend to the demands of their own group. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the American Heart Association have joined the USDA in campaigning against any weakening of the rules.

Suppliers like Domino’s and Pizza Hut have reformulated the pizzas they sell to schools with whole grains and low-fat cheeses, and pasta companies are scrambling to figure out how to make whole-grain products palatable to children.

The federal government is providing grant money to bring in expert chefs to assist districts that need help overhauling their menus.

Other grants can be used to convert kitchens into facilities better equipped to prepare healthy meals. That might include replacing deep-fat fryers and microwaves with high-tech combination ovens that use a steaming function to make baked foods taste fried.

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican, visited a school in his home state in March that enthusiastically embraces the new guidelines, and he told student reporters there he was impressed by the meals being served.

But don’t look to him to vote to renew the program.

“I just have a problem with the federal government,” Roberts said in a lunchroom video interview. “I don’t think our Founding Fathers sat around the table and said, ‘I have a great idea. Let’s mandate what people eat.'”

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Macaroni and cheese is off the menu at some schools because the pasta can’t meet federal school lunch rules. Credit: The Marmot via Flicker

Newly Published ‘Clinton Cash’ Casts Shadow Over Hillary’s Campaign

By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As Hillary Rodham Clinton seeks to focus public attention on immigration during a swing through Nevada on Tuesday, her presidential campaign staff back at Brooklyn headquarters is scrambling to mitigate damage from release of a long-anticipated book that accuses her of compromised ethics.

Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich became a headache for the Clintons well before sales began Tuesday. It alleges that the Clintons accepted tens of millions of dollars in charitable contributions from foreign donors seeking favors from the Obama administration while Hillary Clinton was secretary of State.

The book’s author, Peter Schweizer, is a conservative journalist with previous work bankrolled by the Koch brothers. His resume also includes advising former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. But in a reflection of the increasing sophistication of opponents of the Clintons — what Hillary Clinton famously called the “vast right-wing conspiracy” two decades ago — Schweizer had negotiated exclusive arrangements with major media outlets to report on his findings leading up to the book’s release.

The result was a steady drip of news stories questioning major donations to the Clinton family foundation. Schweizer acknowledges he has proved no criminal wrongdoing by the Clintons. But that hasn’t slowed the coverage, nor the appetite by Republicans in Congress to investigate. The author, who is calling for a criminal probe into the foundation dealings, says lawmakers on Capitol Hill have asked to be briefed about his findings.

In the weeks leading up to the book’s release, the Clinton foundation acknowledged that it made errors on its tax returns and would likely refile. It also had to explain why it did not disclose the gifts from individual donors at the center of Schweizer’s allegations, saying the money went to a Canadian arm of the charity, established so donors from that country could receive tax benefits. Canadian law, according to the nonprofit Clinton Global Initiative, prohibits disclosing the names of individual donors.

As in the past, the charges of impropriety are being met with righteous indignation by the Clintons, particularly former President Bill Clinton, who had been working to stay out of the spotlight in the early stages of his wife’s campaign. On Monday, though, he stepped right back into it during an interview aired by NBC News, when he defended the six-figure speaking fees he has collected from foreign businesses, saying he’d continue to give paid speeches even as his wife runs for president.

“I have to pay our bills,” he said, stirring up a fresh round of chatter about how in touch the couple is with the way everyday Americans live.

On Tuesday, the Clinton campaign unveiled a new website designed to counter Schweizer’s reporting.

“The book has zero evidence to back up its outlandish claims,” says a note posted on the website from campaign chairman John Podesta. “Even worse than the book’s lack of evidence is its rash of errors.”

The new website, which the campaign calls “The Briefing,” is designed to mobilize supporters “to actively participate in challenging false attacks against Hillary’s record,” Podesta wrote. The note is accompanied by a video in which a campaign official briefs supporters on the book and provides talking points to discredit it. There is also a “Fact Checking Clinton Cash” page.

The news stories that have stemmed from the book are forcing the campaign to engage with Schweizer, when it would likely prefer to just ignore him. Undermining his credibility has been made tougher by pieces in the New York Times and Washington Post written by seasoned investigative reporters who re-reported key findings and found them to be factual.

That includes the deal in which Canadian businessmen who donated heavily to the foundation helped Russia gain control of a large portion of the world’s uranium supply, including deposits in the American West. The deal was approved by several agencies in the U.S. government, including the Department of State while Clinton was secretary. But there is no evidence that Clinton pushed for its approval.

The book appears to be taking a toll on the candidate. Among voters, 42 percent now view her unfavorably, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, up six percentage points from March. Only a quarter of voters give her good ratings for being honest and straightforward.

Photo: Clinton Global Initiative via Facebook

Clinton Calls For End To ‘Mass Incarceration’ As Riots Become Campaign Issue

By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton focused her presidential campaign Wednesday on the unrest in Baltimore, vowing to work to upend the criminal justice system by ending the “era of mass incarceration” and equipping every police officer on the street with a body camera.

Her speech at Columbia University in New York City marked the unveiling of Clinton’s first major policy proposal as a presidential hopeful, coming as candidates are under pressure to confront racial disparities in the criminal justice system highlighted by the violence in Baltimore.

“What we have seen in Baltimore should, and I think does, tear at our soul,” Clinton said. “The patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable….We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America.”

Baltimore erupted in rioting Monday night, following the funeral of Freddie Gray, an African American man who was mortally injured while in police custody.

Clinton’s plan also stems from the “listening tour” she has been on since launching her campaign this month. In round-table meetings with residents in the early ­voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, the issue of drug abusers whose troubles were compounded by mental health problems played prominently.

“Our prisons and our jails are now our mental health institutions,” Clinton said. “I was somewhat surprised in both Iowa and New Hampshire to be asked so many questions about mental health.”

Clinton is joining a chorus of politicians demanding that police officers everywhere be equipped with body cameras.

“For every tragedy caught on tape, there surely have been many more that remained invisible,” she said. “This is a common-sense step.”

The sentencing reforms Clinton will champion focus on nonviolent offenders. She said they will include shifting people found guilty of such drug crimes from lockups to treatment and rehabilitation programs. Other alternative punishments would also be explored for low-level offenders, particularly minors, a Clinton campaign aide said.

Sentencing reform has broader political appeal than it once did. Tea party Republicans concerned about government overreach have joined Democrats in raising concern about inequities in the criminal justice system. Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican running for president, is among those pushing for sentencing reform. Paul, whose ideology leans libertarian, argues the United States locks up too many people for minor offenses for too long a time.

Clinton alluded to the idea’s inter-party appeal in her speech Wednesday.

“There seems to be a growing bipartisan movement for common-sense reform,” she said. “Without the mass incarceration that we currently practice, millions of fewer people would be living in poverty.”

Clinton repeatedly returned to what she says is racial injustice at the core of the existing policies, citing statistics that highlight how much harder the criminal justice system is on blacks than whites.

“We have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance,” she said. “These recent tragedies should galvanize us to come together as a nation to find our balance again.”

Photo: Utility, Inc. via Flickr