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  • Kris Kobach Wants Immigrants to Self-Deport. Now Voters May Send Him Packing.

    Republican Kris Kobach has managed to established an outsized persona for only being a one-term secretary of state in Kansas. Kobach became a national liberal scourge after he won office in 2010. He loaned out his services to help governors in Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia craft anti-immigration legislation, pioneering the idea of self-deportation that Mitt Romney touted in his presidential campaign. In Kansas, he imposed harsh voter ID laws to keep Democrat-inclined voters away from the ballot; just last week, he went to court against Chad Taylor—a Dem who wanted to drop his Senate campaign—in order to keep Taylor's name on the ballot and improve the Republican candidate's odds (the state Supreme Court ruled against Kobach last week).

    Yet after becoming a hero to the right, Kobach is now struggling to hold onto office, trailing or tied in recent polls. And he can thank Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for his troubles, since Brownback's decisions to alienate moderate Republicans ended up driving Kobach's opponent out of the party and made her determined to take Kobach down.

    "We have a secretary of state who has been AWOL from Kansas," Jean Schodorf, the Democrat challenging Kobach, told me last month. "He would rather be representing Arizona. Because he has been gone and had a personal agenda, the secretary of state's office is falling apart."

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  • Is This Deep-Fried Yam Chef the Future of Texas Politics?

    Milton Whitley’s gift to Texas was called twisted yam on a stick. You take a yam, cut it into a spiral, deep fry it, cover it in butter, smother it in sugar, coat it in cinnamon, eat. Is it healthy? Of course it's healthy—yam is a superfood. The final product was a finalist at the 2009 Texas State Fair, before losing out to the eventual winner, deep-fried butter.

    A native of Dallas County, Whitley started off as a catfish cook and worked his way up the comfort food chain to an appearance on national television presenting Oprah and Gayle with a homemade sweet potato pie. He now teaches science at a public school. But last year he set his sights on something more daunting than the fried food contest at the state fair—getting elected to the Texas legislature as a Democrat. Whitley, who's running  in the Dallas-area 113th state house district, is one of a dozen candidates selected as part of a trial program for Battleground Texas, the Democratic organizing project launched last spring by a cast of Obama campaign veterans who are hoping to turn the nation's largest red state blue.

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  • Charles Blow on Masculinity, Trayvon Martin, and Reliving Childhood Trauma

    Charles Blow is known to readers of the New York Times as a guy who distills complex news events into tidy concepts and charts. But his unabashedly honest memoir out this week, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, reveals a painful, messy childhood in rural Gibsland, Louisiana, "a place with whites and blacks mostly separated by a shallow ditch and a deep understanding."

    Blow's early childhood was a succession of traumas, none more scarring than his own sexual abuse by an older cousin, which he alludes to in his most recent column. But Blow later reinvented himself as an athlete, star student, and, later, president of a college fraternity with violent hazing rituals. He became the Times' graphics director at age 25, did a stint as art director at National Geographic, and earned the title of Gray Lady columnist in April of 2008. "I was in a panic the day that I got this job," he admits. "An absolute panic!"

    Mother Jones: What was the catalyst for your memoir?

    Charles Blow: I had an insanely long commute—New York to DC—when I worked at National Geographic. I hate to waste time, so I spent my time by writing about my life on the premise that I might be able to pitch those as short essays to magazines. It wasn't until later that I realized that I was writing a book.

    MJ: You have an amazing memory.

    Blow in a school photo Courtesy Charles Blow

    CB: Trauma stays alive and stays with you. You relive it every day, so those scenes are incredibly fresh.  In addition, the house where I grew up was still there. Nothing had been changed inside. So I'd just sit in the room, forcing myself to remember in the actual space where [events] happened. It helps with the dimension and gritty granularity that you can provide. I did the same thing with the church and with the cemetery.

    MJ: Now, the cemetery in your hometown was once segregated—grandiose on the white side, rundown on the black side. Is it still like that?

    CB: It is more even. But there is still the chain-link fence between them. In my mind, it would be such a wonderful thing just to take down the fence.

    MJ: As a questioning teen, you found the word "homosexual" in the Bible and discovered that it was viewed as an abomination. What would you say to that kid today?

    CB: Something along the lines of this: Different is not deviant, no matter what the world may say. You have the moral obligation to love yourself.

    MJ: As a father of three, did you feel any trepidation about putting certain details about your sex life out in the public realm?

    CB: That, to me, was a rather simple decision. The facts are nonnegotiable. I always say to my friends, "I sleep well at night."

    MJ: You also write about a time in high school during which you were trying to change the way others perceived you. Will you talk about that?

    CB: I had set about trying to make myself more polished than a country boy would be. When I won my way to the international science fair, I didn't want to embarrass myself. It was the first time I was going to be away from home, the first time taking an airplane. I went to the local library, checked out every single etiquette book, and I read those books like I was uncovering some sort of treasure. I committed every one of the rules to memory. When somebody puts down four forks on one side and four spoons on the other side, what does that mean? All of a sudden I knew what to do when the food dropped from the table and how to signal that you were finished and how to signal that you wanted coffee—all these little intricacies that just did not come into our lives because we were poor.

    MJ: And you continued with this polishing effort after high school.

    CB: When I was a freshman in college, I went to a broadcast class by mistake. The first day, the instructor said, "Television anchors sound like they could be from everywhere and nowhere." From that point on, every time I was near an anchor, when no one was around, they would say something and I would say it right after them. It was this effort to get rid of my accent.

    MJ: You became the Times' graphics editor at 25. What was that like?

    CB: I loved that job! You have to become an "afternoon expert." You start by not knowing anything about it in the morning. You go read and quickly come up to speed so you can be somewhat literate. An illustration is a visual editorial—it's just as nuanced. Everything that goes into it is a call you make: every color, every line weight, every angle.

    MJ: What was the transition like from graphics guru to Times columnist?

    CB: It's great to circle back to a first love, of language and writing. But it has been the most excruciating and public on-the-job training exercise I could imagine. I had no professional writing experience before this job! I started to lean much more on what made me different from the other columnists than what made me like them. I wasn't the only African American when I started, but I'm a Southerner, and I grew up in a poor part of the rural South. I learned how to appreciate the cadence of that language and to bring that to my writing.

    MJ: What was the feedback like when you were just starting out?

    CB: The internet is ruthless. [Laughs.] And people are very, very happy to let you know when they don't like something. In addition, I put my email address after every column so that I can hear even more of it, because I felt like I really needed as much feedback as possible—even negative feedback.

    MJ: You write in the book that hazing fraternity pledges put you at the top of the male hierarchy—the apex of the sort of social subjugation that had caused your seven-year-old self to contemplate suicide.

    CB: I'm trying to illuminate how perilously narrow we draw the concepts of masculinity and sexuality in our male culture—particularly in black male culture—and to help people to see that there's room enough for everyone. Part of the book is to highlight all of these very tricky social settings that young men navigate, including that hazing session, which is about brutality but also about bending yourself until you break in order to fit in—blending instead of standing up and standing out. I guess what I'm trying to do is say, "I know that life, I've done all those things, and I can still tell you that just being you is perfectly fine."

    MJ: In one of your columns about the killing of Trayvon Martin, you asked, "What do I tell my boys?" What did you tell them?

    CB: Part of the great sadness of that episode is that I was never able to find the language to both empower and protect my boys. I still don't know what to tell them.

    Correction: The print version of this interview incorrectly indicated that Charles Blow is married. In fact, he is divorced.

  • This Supreme Court Case Will Decide Whether Companies Can Treat Pregnant Women Like Crap

    It's a rare day when pro-choice activists, anti-abortion diehards, and evangelical Christians all file briefs on the same side of a Supreme Court case. But that's what happened recently when the National Association of Evangelicals, Americans United for Life, Democrats for Life of America, and the National Women's Law Center joined forces to support Peggy Young, a Maryland woman alleging that she was the victim of pregnancy discrimination.

    Young was a driver for the shipping giant UPS, where she'd worked for about seven years. In 2006, she took some time off to undergo in vitro fertilization in the hopes of getting pregnant. She succeeded and eventually went back to work, where an occupational health manager told her she had to submit a doctor's note about work restrictions. She provided a midwife recommendation that she not lift more than 20 pounds while pregnant.

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  • Congress Just Delayed New Funding to Help Rape Victims

    Last week, Congress once again delayed federal funding to help catch rapists.

    Here's the backstory. In March, President Barack Obama asked Congress to fund a new Justice Department program designed to help states and localities test backlogs of rape kits, which include DNA evidence taken after a sexual assault and are used to identify attackers. The funding would likely also go toward investigating and prosecuting rape cases.

    There are over 100,000 untested kits sitting on shelves at police storage facilities around the country—some held for decades—partly because state and local governments lack the money to process them.

    In May, the Republican-controlled House passed a massive spending bill for 2015 that included $41 million for the rape kit program, and a key committee in the Democratic-run Senate approved the same spending in June. But after a spat on the Senate floor over unrelated amendments Republicans wanted added to the bill, Democratic leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) yanked the legislation. Consequently, Congress had to resort to a short-term spending bill to keep the government operating until mid-December. The House and Senate approved it last week, and Obama signed it Friday. Because it's a stop-gap spending bill, the legislation continues government spending at current levels, leaving out most new funding—including the money for the rape kit processing program.

    More partisan bickering this winter could cause lawmakers to fail to pass a full appropriations bill until February or March, according to experts on congressional procedure, forcing rape victims to wait another six months or so to see the program enacted. That is, if this spending bill does include the rape kit money. (Last Thursday, the Senate approved a separate House-passed bill reauthorizing an existing program designed to process backlogged DNA evidence from all sorts of crimes, including rape kits. But the existing funding, which was first authorized in 2004, has not been sufficient to clear the backlog—which is why advocates were pushing for the new money.)

    "The slowdown in appropriating funds for the rape kit program is a classic example of how Congress' legislative dysfunction blocks even the smallest of bipartisan initiatives," says Sarah Binder, an expert on legislative politics at the Brookings Institution.

    Spokesmen for both the House and Senate appropriations committees say they are confident that local jurisdictions won't have to wait until next spring to get the federal money they need to process rape kits. They note the consensus on Capitol Hill is that Congress will pass an appropriations bill with the rape kit funding in mid-December. But Binder is less optimistic. If Republicans win the Senate in the midterm elections, she says, GOPers might block passage of a spending bill until they assume control of the Senate in January. At that point, Binder explains, Republicans may be tempted to "use those spending bills as leverage" to force Dems to accept Republican priorities. That could bring things to a halt in Congress and localities may have to wait longer until money is allocated for the rape kit program. 

    Meanwhile, local prosecutors are struggling to wade through their backlogs. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, has a backlog of 1,650 rape cases requiring investigation and the county won't complete the probes until 2019, according to local county officials. "Our great hope from the federal money is that it would help [counties] like us…hire more investigators and advocates so we can speed that time line," says Joe Frolick, the spokesman for Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty.

    Kym Worthy, the county prosecutor in Wayne County, Michigan, plans to apply for a portion of the $41 million grant as soon as Congress approves the funding. "I'd like it to happen tomorrow," she told Mother Jones in August. "Every day that goes by is another day that the victims have to wait for justice. This is the first grant of its kind where they really got what it takes."

    "[S]o many of us—mayors, police chiefs, district attorneys, victim advocates, state legislators, and governors—are doing all we can to end the backlog," Sarah Tofte, a prominent victim advocate, says. "Isn't it time that Congress did?"

    The Senate appropriations bill with the $41 million in new rape kit processing money died this summer partly because Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), wanted Democrats to allow them to add several unrelated amendments to the huge bill. One of those amendments, sponsored by McConnell, would have made it more difficult for the EPA to impose new rules on coal-fired power plants.

    The federal government does not track the number of untested rape kits. That work has been left largely to advocates and journalists. The states with the largest known backlogs are Texas and Tennessee, which each have about 20,000 unprocessed kits in storage. Detroit has more than 11,000 unprocessed kits, and Memphis has over 12,000. Detroit recently tested 1,600 of its backlogged kits, helping the city identify 87 suspected serial rapists and leading to at least 14 convictions.

    Here's a look at the rape kit backlog around the country, via End the Backlog:


    Map by AJ Vicens

  • David Brock's Army of "Nerd Virgins" Has Hillary's Back

    A week after Hillary Clinton released her new memoir, Hard Choices, I met Burns Strider for lunch at the Hotel Monaco in Washington, DC. Just as the book hit the shelves, Strider's organization, Correct the Record, had released 11 pages of bullet points swatting down anticipated criticisms from Clinton's detractors ("Hard Choices is just another way for Hillary to make money hand over fist"; "Hard Choices is a glossed-over snooze-fest"). It was the kind of preemptive spin that Correct the Record was created to churn out. As Clinton prepares for a possible presidential run, Correct the Record keeps constant watch for any conceivable attacks against her, and then aggressively beats them back before they take hold.

    As he picked at his beet and greens salad, Strider told me how he'd ditched eating animal products in 2010 at the behest of the then-secretary of state. "You've got to think about your two boys," she told Strider, who had worked as her senior adviser on faith outreach during the 2008 campaign. That night he got a call from Bill Clinton, who extolled the virtues of his new animal-free diet: "If I can do it, you can." A few days later Strider received a box of herbivore-themed books and handwritten recipes jotted down by the former president.

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  • 36 Bits of Good News to Cure Your Ocean Blues

    We know: Beginning a series on current ocean news seems like a bleak proposition. Between the expanding garbage patches and relentless rise of warming seas, positive stories aren't exactly growing on trees. So we've gone to the trouble to net you 36 whole reasons to be excited about the future of the high seas—including magic-seeming plastic removal tech, more facts confirming the radness of sharks, and (of course) a cute baby seal video.

    1. After learning about the harmful effects of ocean-borne plastic, a group of fifth and sixth grade students persuaded Dunkin' Donuts to phase out the use of foam cups. These kids are superheroes.

    2. The Vermont Sail Freight Project is ditching oil to deliver fresh produce and other goods from Vermont to New York by sailboat. Not bad for a landlocked state.

    3. California stepped it up yet again for the climate to ban micro-beads cosmetics and keep them out of the ocean.

    4. We all wanted to be marine biologists when we grew up, right? If you (like us) didn't, California's Reef Check Foundation recruits citizen divers to collect data on fish and coral for the state.

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  • Will It Take a Keg Stand for Mary Landrieu to Get Reelected?

    It's game day in Baton Rouge, and the bro in the purple shirt wants Mary Landrieu's help doing a keg stand.

    Landrieu, elected three times by the narrowest of margins, is once again locked in a tight reelection campaign, this time against GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy. With six weeks until Election Day, every moment counts. She spent her Saturday morning at a beach near Lake Charles, in the state's southwest corner, taking part in a cleanup effort cosponsored by Citgo, the Venezuelan oil company, pegged to the anniversary of Hurricane Rita. As a member of the president's party in a state where the president is deeply unpopular, this event neatly encapsulates Landrieu's strategy: Keep it local. She'll fight for coastal restoration, but she'll also fight for the oil and gas industry, and with her seniority and connections, she'll cut deals to help out both.

    The other part of her pitch is that she is an independent-minded daughter of Louisiana who is in touch with the needs and traditions of her constituents. Over the last month or so, that part of her messaging has taken a hit. First, the Washington Post reported that Landrieu listed her primary residence as her parents' New Orleans home but spent most of her time in Washington, DC. Seeing an opportunity, a one-time Republican challenger filed a lawsuit to have her taken off the ballot (that suit was thrown out). Thus, here we are on the edge of the LSU's quad, four hours before the Tigers kick off against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, contemplating keg stands.

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  • Inside the Biggest Climate March in History

  • 2014 Is on Pace to Be the Warmest Year Ever

    The story originally appeared in Slate and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    The Earth's oceans have never been this far beyond the bounds of normal.

    New data released Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that Earth's oceans reached a level last month not seen since humans have been keeping comprehensive records. Global ocean temperatures in August 2014 warmed to "the largest departure from average for any month on record" according to a NOAA statement. The previous record was set just two months ago, in June 2014.

    Records date back to 1880, though there's ample evidence that the new record hasn't been matched in much longer than that.

    Climate scientists took the news with a sense of foreboding:

    The NOAA data also showed the temperature of the Earth as a whole hit a new all-time August record last month, confirming similar results earlier this week from NASA and the Japanese Meteorological Agency, which use slightly different ways of crunching the numbers.

    Additionally, the combined temperature of June, July, and August was also unprecedented in historical records. According to the JMA, four of the last five months have now been record-breaking for that particular month. (July was No. 2, just a hair behind the super-charged El Niño year of 1998.) The eastern United States is among the only land areas on Earth still running below normal for 2014, a legacy of the polar vortex outbreaks of earlier this year.

    Later Thursday morning, NOAA expanded on the implications of the new records in a conference call, saying that on its current pace—and with the help of a newly resurgent El Niño—2014 is poised to become the warmest year ever measured.

    "If the next four months rank among the five warmest on record, 2014 will be the warmest on record for the globe," said Jake Crouch of the National Climatic Data Center.

    The warming effect of El Niño, which boosts temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, appears to have begun finally kicking into gear over the last week or so. In a separate announcement Thursday, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society declared that "borderline El Niño conditions have now returned in both ocean and atmosphere." The El Niño is expected to persist until at least March 2015, affecting a range of weather patterns around the globe over the coming months.

    Should 2014 become the new warmest year, a lingering El Niño means the record may not last long.

    "Having an El Niño would increase the chances of 2015 at least starting out much warmer than average, and approaching record or near record warmth," said Crouch.

    The news came just days before a planned march in New York City, which organizers expect to be the largest ever mass demonstration on global warming in the world. More than 100,000 people are expected to attend, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.