Fidel and the Future

Political columnist James “Scotty” Reston once observed that Americans “will do anything for Latin America–except read about it.” So although the health of Castro and the future of Cuba have been much in the news, I’m still not sure that outside Miami, most Americans are paying any attention. Still, I thought I’d share some recollections of a trip to Cuba in 1999.

I was there as part of a U.S.-sanctioned visit of educators to Cuba. During that time, we had a chance to visit many Cuban schools and speak with (carefully vetted) teachers and administrators. We also heard more than our share of party officials. Here are a few observations:

1. Fidel is perhaps the best politician I have ever seen. Clearly, he’s needed great political skill to remain in power for so long. Case in point: There are no statues of Fidel in Cuba. Instead, the icon of the revolution is Che. It is his picture emblazoned eight stories high on a building near the central square where Fidel gives his address to the nation. So even after Fidel’s death, the hero of the revolution will “live” on.

2. In the end, the embargo hurts both Cuba and the U.S. I’m well aware of the human rights violations in Cuba, but there are certainly similar violations in countries like China, where we are only too happy to trade and do business. Shutting off all contact between the two countries allows the worst extremists in both countries to control what gets said.

3. Despite all their difficulties, Cubans retain a zest for life and a great sense of humor. This joke was a favorite among Cubans when we were there. A man dies and gets sent to hell. He is met at the entrance and offered his choice: imperialist American hell or Cuban socialist hell. What’s the difference, he asks? “In imperialist hell, you’re chopped up in little pieces, boiled in oil, then left to bake for a fiery eternity.” And in Cuban hell? “You’re chopped up in little pieces, boiled in oil, then left to bake for a fiery eternity.” In that case, says the man, the choice is easy. “I’ll choose the socialist hell. After all, in socialist hell, there may not be any oil … the cutting machine may be broken … the boiler may break down …”

City of the Big Shoulders

Last week, a one-day layover coming back from a Denver conference gave me a chance to play tourist in my hometown of Chicago. To get an idea of how the city has changed in the three decades since I went east, I went where no native ever goes: to the observatory on the top of the John Hancock Center.

John Hancock Center “Big John,” which looks like an oil derrick on steroids, is a monument to Sinclair Lewis’ Midwestern boosterism: everything is The Tallest, The Oldest, or The First. As we rode the elevators (“the fastest elevators in North America”) 1,000 feet up to the 94th floor observatory, we were informed that Big John is “the most recognized building in the world.” (Really? If you disagree, I invite nominations for the building you think is more worthy of that title.)

The skyscraper, born in Chicago, is just one of the Windy City’s achievements. A display up top proclaims that it is also the birthplace of Twinkies, Cracker Jacks, Baby Ruth, and the Dove Bar. With a diet like that, it’s a wonder that anybody from Chicago can fly coach.

The views from the top of Big John are spectacular (even more so if the day isn’t hazy and you have something better than the disposable camera I was using).

View North.jpgTo the north, you see Lake Shore Drive, the beaches along Lake Michigan, and, off in the distance, Evanston and Northwestern University.

View East.jpgTo the east, not so much.  There’s 22,400 square miles of lake.  There’s the water filtration plant and, on clear days, there’s a dot on the horizon that purports to be the state of Michigan.  At a loss for landmarks, the observatory brochure highlights the sites of numerous shipwrecks: The Lady Elgin (1860);  The Evening Star (1894); The Jenny Lind (1883); and so on.  They could be making it up for all I know.

View West.jpgTo the west is the Chicago beyond downtown — block after block of neighborhoods that resemble East European or Central American towns as much as they do a corner of The City of the Big Shoulders.  Ethnic tensions have been a fact of Chicago’s political and social life for most of the past century.

View South.jpgTo the south is the central business district which used to be bounded by the Loop (the elevated transit line that brings commuters in from the north, west, and south) but that has burst out in all directions. 

Off to the right is the  Sears Tower, the Tallest Office Building in the United States, with the Most Total Floor Space of Any Commercial Building in the U.S. (the Pentagon has more square footage). 

To the left is the site of the former Meigs Field, which used to be a general aviation (private plane) airport right on the lakefront.  A few years ago, Mayor Richard M. Daley (son of the legendary Richard J.) wanted to convert the area to a public park.  The forces backing the private plane owners, who understandably were reluctant to give up such a convenient facility, dragged their feet. One Sunday night the Mayor sent City bulldozers out to Meigs Field and carved X’s in the runways.  Chicago is my kind of town.

More on the great tourist adventure later.

Hasta Luego

Tomorrow morning, at an ungodly hour, I am headed to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. There, I’ll visit the girls at Our Little Roses (and check up on all those shoes we delivered last March).

It was ten years ago that Sara and I first visited OLR. I was looking for a project we could do together, since at the age of 16, she naturally had better things to do than spend time with her mother. This opportunity, with its focus on young women who had been abused and abandoned, seemed to be a natural fit.

After that first visit, Aurora, a resident of OLR, came to the U.S. to live with us for a few months so she could study English. In a blog entry, I can’t begin to tell you what those four months were like, but here’s the short version: it was hard.

She hated the food. She hated the cold (and since she also hated wearing anything that made her size-zero self look even a tiny bit larger, she was always cold). She was desperately homesick.

Still, we had some wonderful times, watching the telanovela Maria, la del Barrio on Univision and making Friday-night trips to the makeup department at the Wal-Mart.

When she went back to Honduras, she was determined to exert her independence. She moved out of the Home and for awhile we didn’t hear from her. Sara and I went down, found her, and let her know we still loved her.

Eventually, she made her way back to OLR. With our help, she attended a private university in Honduras, where she graduated number one in her class. There she also met Jorge, a handsome young man who fell in love with her intellect, her spunk, and her beauty.

Two years ago, in the chapel at Our Little Roses, Aurora and Jorge were married. Since her mother did not attend the ceremony, I was the mother of the bride.

This year, while I am in San Pedro Sula, I am looking forward to spoiling little Jorgito, the world’s most adorable boy. I am also anxiously checking on the health of my darling ajihada (God daughter), who is expecting her second baby–a girl this time–on Sara’s  very birthday. What a miracle the last ten years have been.

Abuelitas being what they are, I will probably post a zillion pictures when I get back. (Actually, of course, I won’t post any, but with Waldo’s help …)

Hasta luego–.

In case you missed it . . .

. . . we’re still in session.  2006’s Special Session I met today for the 22nd time.  It was, from all accounts, a pretty cut-and-dried affair, lasting two minutes.  The Clerk offered the prayer. Morgan Griffith led the Pledge.  Good news:  the Speaker was in the chair, so his knee injury apparently has healed.

The House adjourned to reconvene in Session #23 on August 8. 

 August 8.jpgMark your calendars.

Another Sign the Apocalypse Is Near

Kraft Foods has announced a new food product coming soon to a supermarket shelf near you.

Fast Franks is, according to a Kraft news release, “a tasty Oscar Mayer hot dog wrapped in a soft and warm bakery-fresh bun.” All available in just 35 seconds, says the promo.

Now, I am not the world’s biggest hot dog fan. But I gotta say that it is not the time involved that keeps me from eating more hot dogs. What–a minute? Two minutes, tops?

Given the taste and nutritional benefits of hot dogs, I am not really that the world needs a faster version.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — Part 2: Who’s Next Door?

 Darden Garden Clock

The “Capitol Square Complex” is a collection of 25 or so buildings arrayed around the hill on which Thomas Jefferson’s Capitol Building sits.  The jewel in the crown is the Capitol itself. (The Capitol is undergoing a top-to-bottom renovation and structural overhaul which is scheduled for completion by the beginning of next year.  I’ll have a post about that project in a couple of weeks.)

Two of the complex’s more architecturally interesting structures are the buildings adjacent to the General Assembly Building along Broad Street: the Patrick Henry Building and Old City Hall.

Patrick Henry Building

The Patrick Henry Building, formerly the Old State Library, is the House and Senate’s temporary home during the Capitol’s renovation. It was built in 1939 as a Public Works Administration project. Its style is one popular with PWA buildings and familiar to anybody who has seen a local post office (like this one in my home town of Oak Park, Illinois) US Post Office Oak Park IL.JPG or other Federal building that was constructed in the decade after the Great Depression. It’s called “Stripped Classicism.”  My legislative aide/architectural researcher, Jean Barton, describes the building’s style as ”characterized by the proportions of Classical architecture but devoid of the ornamentation.” Faced with square blocks of limestone, the exterior reads as a two-story structure with recessed colonnades surrounding the second level, but the facades mask multiple levels. In 1970, an additional story was constructed, giving the building a distinctive stepped-pyramid outline. The building was abandoned in 1996 when the new State Library, across from the GAB, opened; but its prime location on Capitol Square, next to the Governor’s Manson, led to major renovations and the building’s reopening last year to house the Governor’s working offices, Cabinet Secretaries and executive agency offices.

House Chamber.JPGDuring the 2006 Session That Wouldn’t End, the Delegates met in the Reading Room at the east end of the first floor; the Senate met in the slightly smaller Archives at the west end. Both have been restored to their original glory with art deco chandeliers and other details. The Legislative Branch is paying rent to the Executive Branch for their use – a turnabout from the traditional arrangement, where the legislators controlled the Capitol Building and the Governor occupied the Third Floor as a kind of Very Special Guest.

We’re not done with our temporary quarters yet.  This past week it was disclosed that there was a $130 million bookkeeping error in the apportionment of sales tax proceeds for public schools between the state and local governments.  While we may be able to hold off on cleaning up this mess until next year, a memo from Appropriations Committee Chairman Vince Callahan to committee members this week contained the ominous comment that “it appears that we may need to address this situation in August.”   And then there’s that pesky issue of transportation that we keep meaning to do something about.  That has “September Special Session” written all over it.

The longer we stay in our temporary chambers in the Patrick Henry Building, the greater the risk that we’ll complicate our transition back to our new digs in the renovated Capitol.  One major reason: When we moved over for the 2006 Session, we brought with us the electronic voting systems whereby 100 Delegates and 40 Senators vote at their desks – Yea, Nay, or Abstain – and the results are displayed instantly, by individual member, on two huge displays in each chamber.  (These systems are vital both for accountability and efficiency: they provide the only real-time means of knowing how a member voted, and the only alternative is an oral “viva voce” roll call of each member.  In the 2006 session we had nearly 2000 roll call votes on the House floor.  Do the math.)

At some point, the staff has to clip the wires in Patrick Henry, tote the tote boards over to the new chambers, and begin the arduous task of rewiring so that we’re ready to roll when the 2007 Session opens next January 10.  I don’t know how long that will take, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s not a Saturday afternoon DIY project.

Old City Hall

Well, back to our neighborhood tour.  Between the General Assembly Building and the Patrick Henry Building sits Old City Hall, built in a style that’s totally out of character with the classical Capitol across the way, the PWA/Classical Patrick Henry Building to the east, or (blessedly) the hodgepodge of structures that were fused together to form the General Assembly Building on its west side.  Architecture Critic/Legislative Aide Jean Barton elaborates:

“Built between 1886 and 1894 in the Grand Victorian Gothic style that Richmond City Fathers thought would signal the city’s rise from the devastation of the Civil War, the exterior of the building suggests medieval European castles with a heavily textured granite façade, complete with a clock tower, turrets, pinnacles and finials.

“The interior is equally lush, with a ‘courtyard’ enclosed by a copper-clad skylight. Three tiers of Gothic arcades and great flights of double stairs are also made of cast iron, a testament to Richmond’s iron industry at that time. Through the years, however, the building fell into disrepair and the Commonwealth purchased the building from the city in 1981.  The General Assembly then voted to tear down the building and put up a parking lot.  Cooler heads prevailed:  The Historic Richmond Foundation gained the leasing rights and arranged to oversee the restoration and rental of the building, allowing a private developer to carefully restore the building for commercial offices.  Many organizations rent office space there, including local governments for their legislative liaisons and media such as the Washington Post.

City Hall Lobby.JPG“The restoration included installing a glass brick floor, lit from underneath, in the courtyard and painting the arches and columns in the courtyard in richly polychromed colors.  The Commonwealth has subsequently repurchased the property; the building’s exact future usage isn’t known, but it won’t include a parking lot.  Most likely, given its convenient location, it will house some small state agencies.”

So that’s it for this week’s walking tour.  Here’s how it fits into the grand design for 7-West, as I see it:  In the coming weeks (with occasional side trips to places like the Tour de France), Kris and I hope to shed some light on the workings of the General Assembly: what we do, why we do it, and so on.  Today’s post is a little of the “where.”

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — Part 1: Around the Floor

7-West Floorplan.jpgFor a few weeks out of the year (“a few” in 2006 being 24 weeks, off and on), 7-West of the General Assembly Building is the base of operations for 14 members of the House of Delegates. Our offices, along with our aides’ space and the secretaries’ stations, wrap around a small conference room where House subcommittees do their dirty work, members meet with groups of constituents, and press conferences on issues large and small (mostly small) are staged.

While our corner of 7-West has become a NOVA Democratic enclave, taken as a whole the occupants of the wing reflect some of the geographic and ideological diversity of the House (also the gender diversity, such as it is: 2 of the 14 7-Westers (14.3%) are women, compared to 16.2% of the 99 current members of the House. On ethnic diversity, not so much: One of the Fantastic 14 — 7.1% — is African-American, compared to 12.1% of the 99 current members.)

Below is a thumbnail sketch of our 7-West neighbors, along with vital information such as their date of birth and horoscope signs (with links to the cheesiest astrology website I could find), Governor Kaine’s 2005 percentage in their district, and rankings from several interest groups:

* Business — Virginia Free

* Environment — League of Conservation Voters
* Right-wing social issues — Family Foundation

* Gay and lesbian rights — Equality Virginia
So here goes the neighborhood, by office number:

Room 714 — Terry Kilgore (R-Scott County) Kilgore.jpg
Member since 1994
DOB: August 23, 1961 (Virgo)
Kaine 2005: 30.6% (100/100)
Virginia Free: 76
League of Conservation Voters: 0
Family Foundation: 94
Equality Virginia: 13

NOTABLE: Twin brother of last year’s Republican candidate for Governor (which explains Tim Kaine’s 100/100 performance in the district). Their mother sends incredible baked goods every Monday morning during session.

Room 713 — Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County) Carrico.jpg

Member since 2002
DOB: November 6, 1961 (Scorpio)
Kaine 2005: 39% (94/100)
Virginia Free: 71
League of Conservation Voters: 0
Family Foundation: 88
Equality Virginia: 0

NOTABLE: Bill is running against Rick Boucher for the 9th District Congressional seat in November. We expect to see him back with us in January.

Room 712 — Bob Brink (D-Arlington) Brink.jpg

Member since 1998
DOB: November 27, 1946 (Sagittarius)
Kaine 2005: 73.6% (10/100)
Virginia Free: 51
League of Conservation Voters: 88
Family Foundation: 0
Equality Virginia: 89

NOTABLE: The only drafted Vietnam veteran in the General Assembly.

Room 711 — Brian Moran (D-Alexandria) Moran.jpg

Member since 1996
DOB: September 9, 1959 (Virgo)
Kaine 2005: 73.4% (11/100)
Virginia Free: 74
League of Conservation Voters: 75
Family Foundation: 11
Equality Virginia: 89

NOTABLE: For a boy from Natick, Massachusetts, Brian sure is spending a lot of time in South Boston.

Room 710 — Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax) Sickles.jpg

Member since 2004
DOB: February 18, 1957 (Aquarius)
Kaine 2005: 63.6% (22/100)
Virginia Free: 72
League of Conservation Voters: 75
Family Foundation: 6
Equality Virginia: 88
NOTABLE: Uncontrollable policy wonk. Takes copies of VDOT regulations home with him to read at night.

Room 709 — Kris Amundson (D-Fairfax) Amundson.jpg

Member since 2000
DOB: December 3, 1949 (Sagittarius)
Kaine 2005: 61.8% (24/100)
Virginia Free: 65
League of Conservation Voters: 70
Family Foundation: 12
Equality Virginia: 78
NOTABLE: “You can take the girl out of Minnesota . . .” Didn’t bother going to see “Prairie Home Companion” because she had lived it.

Room 708 — Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) Ebbin.jpg

Member since 2004
DOB: November 10, 1963 (Scorpio)
Kaine 2005: 78.5% (4/100)
Virginia Free: 54
League of Conservation Voters: 100
Family Foundation: 0
Equality Virginia: 100
NOTABLE: Tenacious fighter for his district, but unlikely to win the 7-West Clean Desk Award.

Room 707 — David Englin (D-Alexandria) Englin.jpg

Member since 2006
DOB: August 15, 1974 (Leo)
Kaine 2005: 71.8% (14/100)
Virginia Free: NA
League of Conservation Voters: NA
Family Foundation: NA
Equality Virginia: NA
NOTABLE: Youngest member of Democratic Caucus: that only looks like his high school yearbook picture. I have shoes older than David.

Room 706 — Paula Miller (D-Norfolk) Miller.jpg

Member since 2005
DOB: August 1, 1959 (Leo)
Kaine 2005: 55.2% (36/100)
Virginia Free: 69
League of Conservation Voters: 25
Family Foundation: 56
Equality Virginia: NA
NOTABLE: Only member of the House in over 300 years to be named “Paula”.

Room 705 — Tom Gear (R-Hampton) Gear.jpg

Member since 2002
DOB: May 2, 1949 (Taurus)
Kaine 2005: 45.5% (73/100)
Virginia Free: 66
League of Conservation Voters: 50
Family Foundation: 100
Equality Virginia: 0
NOTABLE: The Speaker’s latest appointment to Finance Committee, which will decide the fate of long-term funding for transportation.

Room 704 — Bob Marshall (R-Prince William) Marshall.jpg

Member since 1992
DOB: May 3,1944 (Taurus)
Kaine 2005: 46.1% (71/100)
Virginia Free: 64
League of Conservation Voters: 50
Family Foundation: 100
Equality Virginia: 22
NOTABLE: To the regret of many of us, he is the best parliamentarian on the floor.

Room 703 — Jack Reid (R-Henrico) Reid.jpg

Member since 1990
DOB: August 1, 1942 (Leo)

Kaine 2005: 45.8% (72/100)
Virginia Free: 71
League of Conservation Voters: 33
Family Foundation: 94
Equality Virginia: 29
NOTABLE: Ever since Jack accidentally fired off a handgun in his office earlier this year, mortally wounding a bulletproof vest that inexplicably was hanging on the back of his door, we on 7-West try to stay on his good side.

Room 702 — Dwight Jones (D-Richmond) Jones.jpg

Member since 1994
DOB: February 3, 1948 (Aquarius)

Kaine 2005: 78.9% (3/100)
Virginia Free: 61
League of Conservation Voters: 57
Family Foundation: 11
Equality Virginia: 83
NOTABLE: The House’s only ordained minister. How’s that for a thankless task?

Room 701 — Phil Hamilton (R-Newport News) Hamilton.jpg

Member since 1988
DOB: April 9, 1952 (Aries)
Kaine 2005: 57.7% (32/100)
Virginia Free: 82
League of Conservation Voters: 25
Family Foundation: 76
Equality Virginia: 14
NOTABLE: Chairman, House Committee on Health, Welfare, and Institutions; Chairman, House Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Resources; Chairman, Joint Commission on Health Care. Salud!


The Best Day

I fell in love with the Tour de France the first time I saw climbers race up Alpe d’Huez. Sara and I were vacationing in a little town near Gap. Some friends told us that this bike race was coming to Gap and we ought to see it in person.

What an amazing spectacle. Unlike many other sporting events — from the World Series to the World Cup to the Super Bowl–this one is absolutely free. Thousands (and sometimes millions) of spectators line the route. For hours before the racers arrive, a caravan of vehicles tosses swag–hats, candy, other tchotchkes–to the waiting crowds. Then come the team cars, honking self-importantly while carrying extra bikes and equipment. Finally the racers arrive in a blur of color.

The race takes a variety of routes through France, and only comes to Alpe d-Huez every two or three years. The stage is something special. It’s a mountain that goes, basically, straight up. I drove a car up partway and was terrified even to drive.

Along the route are thousands of spectators who have been camping for days. Many of them passed the time by getting pretty liquored up. So when the riders come by, they can (and sometimes do) reach out to touch their heroes.

I’ve been a bike racing fan ever since that first Alpe d’Huez stage. I suspect I am the only woman my age who made her selection of cable channels partly based on which package offered the OLN channel. (During the 11 months a year that OLN does NOT show the Tour (when it was formerly known as the Only Lance Network), its programming seems to consist largely of bass fishing.)

I know from peeking at the tour site that Floyd Landis has regained the yellow jersey, but I haven’t had time to watch the whole stage yet. But I’ll be cheering for every single one of the riders –those who finish in front of the peloton and those who are in danger of being dropped as they struggle up the mountain.

The Worst Thing the General Assembly Did This Year

I know, I know, there’s quite a bit of competition for this prize. But hands down, the single worst thing we did had to be the decision not to provide funding for Child Care and Development Funding.

Late this year, the state learned that federal funds for this program were being reduced. In Fairfax County, the funding allows for subsidized child care for more than 6500 kids each month. Most of them are in working families, many in families headed by single parents.

The County sent an urgent request to the Governor asking for help in matching the county funds that support the program. I received a copy of the letter, which was sent to every single one of us who represents Fairfax County.

But when voting on the budget amendments, four Fairfax County Republican delegates voted to cut the funding. Why? Ostensibly “for transportation.” Problem is, the funds will provide only a quarter of a cloverleaf intersection.

Meanwhile, 1,900 Fairfax County children of the working poor will not have access to subsidized child care.

Why would delegates vote against their own constituents? Although they didn’t say so on the floor, the majority caucus had taken a binding vote. That means that just 35 members made the policy decision for the House. And under the new rules of the House, there are now real consequences for breaking with the Caucus after a vote to bind.

Still, it was both bad policy and bad politics.

Here we go again

We’re at it again. Although most of the Session That Would Not End was not much fun, Bob and I had a great time with the blogging part.

So we’re at it again. This blog will allow us to talk about issues a little more wide-ranging than just the budget impasse (although with the Transportation Session coming up in the fall, I imagine we’ll have something to say about that).

The picture above? It’s our offices on the 7th floor, west end, of the General Assembly Building. (The “GAB” as it’s known in Richmond-speak). Neither of us is senior enough to be on the Capitol Square side of the building, but we enjoy our view of the Library of Virginia and Richmond City Hall.

For those of you who read us on Extra Innings, welcome back. To those of you who never made it to that blog, welcome … period.

The Virginia General Assembly from the perspective of 7 West.