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John Kerry: Climate Change Should Not Be ‘Partisan Issue’

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Reuters) – Work to avert the problems caused by climate change should not be a partisan issue, outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry told students at an elite U.S. engineering school on Monday, in one of his final speeches as the nation’s top diplomat.

Kerry noted U.S. officials from military and intelligence leaders to the mayors of coastal cities agree the problem of rising sea levels and erratic rainfall is one that they want to take action on, and he urged the incoming administration of Republican President-elect Donald Trump to tackle head on.

Trump, a New York real estate developer who has never held elected office, has described climate change as a hoax and vowed to pull the United States out of the deal negotiated in Paris in 2015 to cut global greenhouse gas emissions. But in an interview with the New York Times in November, Trump said he was keeping an open mind on whether to pull out of the accord.

“I’m not going to speculate about the policies that our President-elect and his Secretary of State will choose to pursue, but I will tell you this … some issues look a lot different when you’re actually in office compared to when you’re on the campaign trail,” Kerry said at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

“The truth is that climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It’s an issue that all of us should care about, regardless of political affiliation.”

The U.S. Senate this week is due to begin the process of confirming Trump’s political appointments, including proposed Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, the attorney general of Oklahoma, who has repeatedly challenged the agency’s authority in the courts.

Many Republicans in Congress argue environmental regulations slow business growth and job creation, both expected to be top priorities for the Trump administration.

Kerry referenced a U.S. intelligence report published on Monday that listed climate change among the factors that could raise the risk of conflict between nations.

Obama on Monday echoed the message in an article published in Science magazine.

Kerry called on researchers and students at MIT to keep up their work on improving energy efficiency and inventing new energy sources, regardless of government policies.

“It’s going to be innovators, researchers, entrepreneurs, and business leaders … who will continue to create the technological advances that forever revolutionize the way we power our world,” Kerry said. “Every person in this room – indeed, every person on the planet – has an interest in making sure that transition happens as quickly as possible.”

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Alistair Bell)

IMAGE: United States Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about climate change at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S. January 9, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Massachusetts Sheriff Offers Prison Inmates To Build Trump’s Wall

BOSTON (Reuters) – A Massachusetts county sheriff has proposed sending prison inmates from around the United States to build the proposed wall along the Mexican border that is one of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s most prominent campaign promises.

“I can think of no other project that would have such a positive impact on our inmates and our country than building this wall,” Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said at his swearing-in ceremony for a fourth term in office late Wednesday.

“Aside from learning and perfecting construction skills, the symbolism of these inmates building a wall to prevent crime in communities around the country, and to preserve jobs and work opportunities for them and other Americans upon release, can be very powerful,” he said.

Hodgson, who like Trump is a Republican, said inmates from around the country could build the proposed wall, described by Trump as a powerful deterrent to illegal immigration.

Trump, who will be sworn in on Jan. 20, insisted during his campaign that he would convince the Mexican government to pay for the wall, though Mexican officials have repeatedly said they would not do so.

Officials in the Trump transition office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The United States has a long history of prison labor, with advocates of the idea saying that putting inmates to work can help them learn skills that prepare them for their return to society after completing their sentences. Opponents contend that inmates are not fairly compensated.

The federal prisons system operates some 53 factories around the United States that produced about $500 million worth of clothing, electronics, furniture and other goods in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, according to its financial statements.

Still, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts said Hodgson’s proposal could violate prisoners’ rights.

“The proposal is perverse, it’s inhumane and very likely unconstitutional,” ACLU staff counsel Laura Rotolo said in a phone interview. “It certainly has nothing to do with helping prisoners in Massachusetts or their families. It’s about politics.”

In response to a request by the Trump transition office, the Department of Homeland Security last month identified more than 400 miles (644 km) along the U.S.-Mexico border where new fencing could be erected, according to a document seen by Reuters.

The document contained an estimate that building that section of fence would cost more than $11 billion.

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

IMAGE: A general view shows a newly built section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall at Sunland Park, U.S. opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, November 9, 2016. Picture taken from the Mexico side of the U.S.-Mexico border. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

Anti-Trump Protesters Preparing For Long Fight

BOSTON (Reuters) – The protests in major U.S. cities against Republican Donald Trump’s surprise presidential election victory have been impromptu affairs, quickly organized by young Americans with a diverse array of backgrounds and agendas.

But as they look out at the next four years with Trump in the White House while his party controls both houses of Congress, activists are starting to prepare for what they hope will be the nation’s strongest protests since the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Rallies scheduled for Saturday in New York and Los Angeles, and a protest planned for Washington on Jan. 20, when the New York businessman succeeds President Barack Obama, will be just the beginning, activists said in a series of interviews.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader from New York, said anti-Trump protesters should borrow a page from the playbook that Republicans used to oppose Obama’s policies.

That movement started organically, later developed as the Tea Party movement and eventually resulted in the election of Trump, said Sharpton, whose National Action Network plans to launch a new organizing effort at its New York headquarters on Saturday.

“We are not going to be as ugly as them, but we are going to be just as persistent,” Sharpton said. “This is not going away.”

Sizable protests sprung up this week in about a dozen major U.S. cities, including Boston, Baltimore and San Francisco. Demonstrations in Portland, Oregon, and Berkeley, California, turned violent, with protesters setting fires and clashing with police.

Trump initially dismissed the crowds on Twitter, calling them “professional protesters, incited by the media,” but later reversed course, saying he admired their “passion.”

PLANS TO BE ‘FORCEFUL’

T.J. Wells, who had volunteered to work for Democrat Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign, said his decision to organize a Thursday night protest at Washington’s Trump International Hotel near the White House was spontaneous.

“I literally shared it with a few friends, and within a few hours I had a couple hundred people show up,” said Wells, who is 27 and lives in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, where he works in human resources.

He said he hoped it would be the first of many such demonstrations.

“From Inauguration Day to the time he’s out of office, we have to make sure that if there’s something he’s going to pass that the majority of Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton are not OK with, that we are forceful about that,” Wells said.

Some 59.5 million people voted for Trump, fewer than the 59.7 million who cast ballots for Clinton, but Trump’s strong showing in swing states, including Michigan, earned him a decisive victory in the Electoral College that ultimately picks the president.

Opponents have cited Trump’s history as a leader of the “birther” movement that claimed wrongly that Obama had not been born in the United States, his promises to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country and his calls to register Muslims.

Members of the ANSWER Coalition, a broad-based U.S. protest group, have marched in this week’s protests and aim to draw tens of thousands to an anti-Trump Inauguration Day rally, said Walter Smolarek, an organizer.

“The people are going to fight back against the Trump agenda from day one,” Smolarek said. He said the group planned to continue to protest throughout Trump’s four-year term.

Since his victory on Tuesday, Trump has taken a more measured public tone than he had during the campaign. That has some civil-rights advocates ready to wait and see what Trump does before joining in protests.

“I don’t think that Donald Trump responds very well to protests, to be honest with you,” said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

He said he was willing to see whether Trump would be more moderate in his actions than he had been in the campaign, adding: “If he doesn’t, we’ll be out there in the streets.”

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

IMAGE: NYPD officers keep an eye on people taking part in a protest against Republican president-elect Donald Trump at the Washington Square park in the neighborhood of Manhattan in New York, U.S., November 11, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

U.S. Judge Orders Virginia To Extend Voter Registration

(Reuters) – A federal judge on Thursday ordered Virginia to reopen its voter registration window and allow residents to continue to sign up through midnight Friday, after its online registration portal was unavailable to many users earlier this week.

U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton’s order came in response to a lawsuit filed on Tuesday by the activist New Virginia Education Fund, which complained that the state’s online voter registration portal had worked erratically in the days leading up to the state’s initial Monday deadline to register.

The lawsuit argued that the problems risked illegally denying thousands of people the right to vote in the Nov. 8 election.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe this year restored the right to vote to thousands of ex-felons, a move seen as potentially tipping what had been a traditional Republican stronghold in Democrats’ favor.

“I am pleased that the court has agreed with the request to extend Virginia’s voter registration period after unprecedented web traffic prevented many people from completing their registrations online before the original deadline,” McAuliffe, a Democrat, said in a statement on Thursday.

“The Commonwealth will fully comply with the court’s order and extend our registration process online, in person and through the mail.”

State law gives the power to extend voting registration to the legislature, so McAuliffe had been unable to act until the judge’s ruling, noted Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. The Republican-controlled legislature had declined to take any action following the flurry of complaints on Monday.

“The real question is if this leaves enough time to get the word out to people who had been blocked from registering and may not know that the issue has been resolved,” Tobias added.

Shortly after the judge’s decision was handed down in an Alexandria courtroom, the state’s Department of Elections updated its Web site to show the new deadline.

Representatives of the New Virginia fund did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Recent polls show Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton leading Republican New York real estate developer Donald Trump in the state.

The decision comes the week after a judge in North Carolina gave residents in counties hard hit by Hurricane Matthew additional time to register to vote. Similar steps were also taken in parts of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida following the storm.

Photo: An elections official demonstrates a touch-screen voting machine at the Fairfax County Governmental Center in Fairfax, Virginia, U.S. on October 3, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

Maine Governor Mulls Political Future Amid Racism Flap

Combative Maine Governor Paul LePage told a radio host on Tuesday that he was considering not finishing his term in office, amid a wave of criticism after he left a lawmaker a profanity-filled voicemail.

But the two-term, Tea Party-backed Republican governor subsequently appeared to backtrack on the idea, paraphrasing Mark Twain in a tweet that read in part: “The reports of my political demise are greatly exaggerated.”

That message came hours after he told an interviewer on Maine’s WVOM-FM radio that he was “looking at all options,” when asked if he would finish his term, which extends through 2018.

LePage’s latest outburst came in response to a report that state Representative Drew Gattine had described him as racist for focusing on black people as bearing primary responsibility for the drug trade in the state. LePage responded to Gattine with a blistering, profanity-laced voicemail that has been widely circulated.

“I’m not going to say that I’m not going to finish it; I’m not saying that I am going to finish it,” LePage said on Tuesday in the radio interview, in reference to his term in office. “What I’m going to do right now is I’m taking one step at a time. I want to meet with Mr. Gattine and then I want to meet with my team at my office and we’re going to look at what the proper steps are to move the state forward.”

In last week’s voicemail, LePage called Gattine a “little son-of-a-bitch, socialist cocksucker” and encouraged him to share the message publicly “because I am after you.”

A LePage spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request to clarify the governor’s Twain tweet. A spokeswoman for Gattine said he would not comment until after he met LePage on Wednesday.

LePage has repeatedly described himself as a less-than-polished, plain-speaking politician.

“It’s possible it was a screw-up,” said Michael Franz, chairman of the government department at Maine’s Bowdoin College, referring to the radio interview.

“My first inclination is that this is not serious and that he’s just attempting to establish his regret.”

APOLOGY TO MAINE, FAMILIES

LePage, 67, said he had lost his temper when he was told that Gattine had described his views as racist. He told reporters he would like to engage in a duel with Gattine, a remark he later described as metaphoric.

“I just want to apologize to the Maine people, to Gattine’s family and most of all to my family,” LePage said in the 15-minute interview. “And we will take action.”

Some Democratic lawmakers have called for a special session of the legislature to censure LePage, who earlier this year fought off an impeachment effort.

“A half-hearted, partial apology on a radio show does not get remotely close to addressing the core issue: Maine faces serious issues and its government is not functioning,” the state’s Democratic House leadership said in a statement on Tuesday.

State Senate President Michael Thibodeau and other Republican legislative leaders convened a closed-door meeting with LePage late on Monday to discuss his future.

The governor told the group he was going to talk to friends and family about what he would do next and respond to them on Tuesday, said Jim Cyr, a spokesman for Thibodeau.

Controversial outbursts have marked LePage’s six years in office. Earlier this year, he said he did not mean to sound racist when he said drug dealers “with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty” were coming to the state to impregnate “white girls.”

Last week at a news conference LePage compared Maine’s efforts to thwart heroin dealers to war.

“Look, the bad guy is the bad guy,” he said. “I don’t care what color he is … You try to identify the enemy and the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority of people coming in, are people of color or people of Hispanic origin.”

In 2013, he told a television interviewer that a political rival “claims to be for the people but he’s the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.”

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Bill Trott and Dan Grebler)

 Photo: Maine Governor Paul LePage speaks at the 23rd Annual Energy Trade and Technology Conference in Boston, Massachusetts November 13, 2015. REUTERS/Gretchen Ertl/File Photo

Vermont Legislature On Track To Be First In U.S. To Legalize Marijuana

MONTPELIER, Vt. (Reuters) – Liberal-leaning Vermont could become the first U.S. state to legalize recreational marijuana use through legislation, rather than by voter initiative, in a move that advocates for the drug say could speed its acceptance across the nation.

State representatives this month are set to take up a bill passed by the state Senate in February that would allow adults over 21 to purchase and smoke the drug beginning in 2018.

The move follows a year of hearings in the Senate that lawmakers say allowed them to closely consider appropriate limits to place on the drug’s use. The current proposal would prohibit users from growing plants at home and ban the sale of edible products containing marijuana extracts.

But lawmakers must act before the end of May, when the current session ends, a deadline that may prove difficult to meet. It is uncertain whether it has enough support in the Democratic-controlled House to pass.

The law would impose a 25 percent tax on sales of the drug, which would fund drug law enforcement and drug education programs.

“It makes for a much more thoughtful and measured approach,” said State Senator Jeanette White, a sponsor of the senate bill. “We got to work out the details, we got to ask the questions first and put the whole infrastructure in place before it happens.”

Four states, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, as well as the District of Columbia, have legalized marijuana through ballot initiatives, and voters in four more states, including neighboring Massachusetts, are to vote on legalization in November. The drug remains illegal under federal law.

Advocates contend the push for marijuana legalization across the nation will be boosted if the legislation is passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature of Vermont, the home of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Bills have been submitted in 16 other states, according to advocates, but none have advanced as far.

“It sends an important message that legislatures don’t have to be afraid of this, it’s not a third rail anymore,” said Jeff Laughlin, a 37-year-old software programmer from Barre, who supports the measure.

Laughlin is far from alone. A February poll of 895 state residents by Vermont Public Radio found that 55 percent of Vermonters supported legalization, with 32 percent opposed.

More telling, a 2015 Rand Corp study commissioned by the state found that one in eight residents already use the drug illegally, with one in three people aged 18 to 25 doing so. The report estimated that users spent between $125 million and $225 million on the drug in 2014.

Reality Check

The high prevalence of marijuana use in the state has some lawmakers and even law-enforcement officials contending it’s time for the rules to catch up with reality.

“If it’s one in eight, to me that tells me that we need to change, that society for the most part is accepting it,” said Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark. “If 12 or 13 percent of the population is not being open with law enforcement when we’re out trying to investigate serious crimes, then that is holding us back from working with our communities.”

Supporters acknowledge that the bill will have a harder path to approval in the state’s House of Representatives, where many Republicans are wary of legalizing the drug.

“Many of our members are opposed to this proposal and I don’t know that it can be changed enough for them to change their minds,” said Representative Donald Turner, the House Republican leader. “I don’t feel there is a good argument for legalizing it at this point.”

Governor Peter Shumlin, a Democrat in his final year in office, asked lawmakers to pass the measure during this year’s legislative session, which ends in May.

Debby Haskins, executive director of opposition group Smart Alternatives for Marijuana-Vermont, noted that Vermont, like many U.S. states, is coping with a surge in addiction to opioid drugs, ranging from prescription painkillers to heroin.

She said she believed health officials needed to solve that problem before legalizing a new drug.

“The questions that keep coming up for me is, how will this make Vermont healthier and how will this improve the quality of life? I don’t think this bill does it,” Haskins said. “It’s the wrong direction for us to be heading.”

 

(Editing by Frank McGurty and Phil Berlowitz)

Photo: Marijuana enthusiasts walk by a 5 foot plant at the “Weed the People” event to celebrate the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana in Portland, Oregon July 3, 2015. REUTERS/Steve Dipaola