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Ideas for Obama

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President-elect Barack Obama faces tremendous challenges, and local advocates and organizers — many of whom have worked with Obama over the years — offer a range of ideas on how to make the bailout work, address the foreclosure crisis, target economic stimulus to jobs and better transportation, and move forward on immigration, education, media reform and campaign financing.

In addition, some express concern over the prospect of administration positions for local establishment figures Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett and Arne Duncan.

Bailout and foreclosure crisis

Obama’s first challenge is making sure the recent financial bailout works. The National Training and Information Center [2] is preparing a platform to present to the new administration, including a detailed focus on the bailout and the foreclosure crisis, said Gail Parson. A national network of community organizations with several affiliates in Chicago, the group gathers thousands of members in Washington D.C. every spring to press for action from federal agencies and lawmakers.

According to Parson, the group will call on Congress to establish an oversight board to review how the Treasury Department administers the $700 billion financial bailout. Banks receiving bailouts should be barred from lobbying or donating to congressional candidates, she said. And the Treasury Department must use the authority given it under the bailout bill to mandate broad-based, permanent loan modifications — including reductions of principal and interest.

“In our experience case-by-case loan modifications don’t work, and voluntary loan modifications aren’t working,” Parson said. She points to the large-scale outreach to trouble Indymac borrowers by the FDIC, which took over the bank earlier this year, as a model.

Parson applauds Obama’s endorsement of a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures, but goes further, calling for a suspension of all foreclosures until the loans involved can be investigated for fraud, deceptive and unfair practices, and disclosure violations. NTIC also supports amending the bankruptcy code to allow court-ordered loan modifications for primary residences. And given that a third of all foreclosures involve multi-unit buildings, provisions must be made to allow renters to stay in their apartments and continue paying market rent after foreclosure, Parson said.

NTIC calls for requiring banks getting bail-out funds to make credit available to the public, and also calls for restoring interest rate caps, pointing out that the elimination of those caps in 1980 made the subprime industry possible. They call for credit card reform and stronger anti-predatory lending legislation. And they call for modernizing the Community Reinvestment Act to cover investment banks, mortgage companies, and insurance companies — as well as affiliates of bank holding companies now exempted from CRA review. “CRA has been the most effective regulation in ensuring that low and moderate income communities get affordable and quality loans,” Parson said.

With four million families facing the possibility of foreclosure, this is not the time to be tearing down affordable housing, said DeAngelo Bester of NTIC’s Housing Justice Campaign [3]. They call for an immediate moratorium on the demolition of public housing until full funding for federal housing programs is restored, and until a one-for-one replacement requirement is restored, he said

He adds that Obama should appoint a HUD secretary who “puts the interests of tenants and communities before the interests of developers.” How about Valerie Jarrett? “Absolutely not,” Bester says. He came up against Jarrett’s Habitat Company as a community organizer working with residents of subsidized housing on the West Side. “She is not the right person,” he said. “She has backed slumlords in Chicago.”

Jobs

The next major challenge facing Obama is the threat of a major recession. In some communities, things have been tough for a long time. On the West Side, the South Austin Coalition, working with NTIC and Chicago Jobs With Justice, has been arguing for a national jobs program for some time. “The violence plaguing our communities has a direct link to poverty and unemployment,” said organizer Elce Redmond. SAC has called for a massive, publicly funded program to rebuild infrastructure and build a green economy, with jobs targeted to the unemployed and underemployed.

The Chicagoland Green Collar Jobs Initiative [4], which includes nonprofit workforce development groups, is putting organizing muscle behind Obama’s program to create millions of green jobs for low-income people — wind, solar and biofuels, retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, expanding mass transit and rail, constructing a “smart” electric grid. CGJI spokesperson Paige Knutsen, director of sustainable development for the LEED Council [5], points to national Green For All [6] leader Van Jones, who has heralded the rise of what he terms “Green Keynsianism” in the face of economic contraction, calling for a Green New Deal with a Clean Energy Job Corps.

Any federal jobs program — either a stimulus initiative focused on infrastructure projects or a green jobs program — should have a component for low-income people with employment barriers, said John Bouman of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law [7]. He describes a transitional jobs program with subsidized jobs combined with case management which transition into private employment.

Bouman also emphasizes more support for programs that help low-income workers make ends meet — child care subsidies, food stamps, transportation and utility assistance. “None of these is currently meeting the need,” he said. And he expects Obama and Congress to move quickly to enact an expansion of the State Child Health Insurance Program; earlier this year, President Bush twice vetoed SCHIP expansions passed by Congress. “That would establish momentum for a larger health care program,” he said, “and it would cover people during the couple of years it will take to get that.”

For the labor movement, the priority is passing the Employee Free Choice Act, a measure that could raise the living standards of millions of American workers by removing obstacles to union organization, said James Thindwa of Chicago Jobs With Justice [8]. Under the measure workers could form a union by simply signing up a majority of bargaining unit members.

“It’s needed because over the past 30 or 40 years, corporate America has waged a successful campaign to weaken labor law enforcement,” Thindwa said. “Today an employer can violate labor law, fire workers trying to organize, and the penalties are so minimal, there’s no deterrent. It’s a slap on the wrist.”

Thindwa said many labor activists are “very, very disturbed” by the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Obama’s chief of staff, especially after a massive union effort to support Obama’s campaign. Emanuel “was a champion of NAFTA, and those of us who fought NAFTA remember the role he played,” he said. “Perhaps Barack can have a salutory effect on him.”

Transportation

Others are focused on getting priorities right with transportation projects included in two stimulus bills expected in coming months — and especially in the reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, which comes up next year.

“We should be spending in ways that don’t make our problems worse,” said Brian Imus of Illinois PIRG [9], listing the economic drag of oil dependency and higher gas prices; growing, and costly, traffic congestion; and global warming. “If Congress is going to spend billions of dollars on transportation infrastructure, it should go toward projects that address those problems.”

That means giving priority to fixing existing roads and bridges over building new highways — which add huge long-term upkeep costs — and investing in transit, rail, and other alternatives. Transportation For America [10], a national coalition backed by Illinois PIRG and other local groups, has identified about $30 billion in ready-to-go infrastructure repair projects, grants to support struggling transit systems and help them acquire green vehicles, and projets to expand transit, address rail bottlenecks, and connect pedestrians and bicyclists with transportation networks, said David Goldberg. Infrastructure repair gets more employment bang for the buck than new construction, he said, because it doesn’t require costly engineering and property acquisition.

Such priorities should carry over to next year’s transportation bill, which could begin to look at revamping the funding structure, based on gasoline taxes and heavily weighted toward highway construction, Goldman and Imus said. “We need a new approach that looks at our goals,” said Mandy Burrell of the Metropolitan Planning Council [11]. “We need to be expanding transportation options, not just moving people around faster.”

That could mean reconsidering the Prairie Parkway [12], the proposed new 37-mile billion-dollar highway connecting I-80 and I-88, cutting through agricultural and natural areas, said Stacy Meyers-Glen of Openlands [13]. The newly reelected congressman there, Bill Foster, has said he opposes further federal funding for the project and is looking for ways to shift a $207 million earmark won by former House Speaker Denny Hastert for an initial five-mile stretch into improving Illinois Route 47, which already connects the two interstates.

That’s a less costly approach that wouldn’t crowd out funding for badly-needed improvements to the existing road network in the area — especially east-west connections between existing residents and employment — and it wouldn’t push development to areas where it isn’t desirable, said Meyers-Glen. “We need transportation to track good planning,” she said.

Smarter priorities would also mean backing off from construction of a new airport in Peotone [14], said George Ochsenfeld of Shut This Airport Nightmare Down [15]. The airport itself could cost a half billion to a billion dollars, with another billion needed for new infrastructure to support it, he said.

“The existing roads can’t even handle the construction equipment, they need a new exit on I-57, and on and on,” he said. “We should put money into high-speed rail and fixing infrastructure that already exists, not unneeded airports,” he said.

(As a state senator Obama backed Peotone — along with the competing O’Hare expansion, which is moving forward while Peotone idles, lacking airline support and caught up in political wrangling.)

Rick Harnish of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association [16] points to growing demand for Amtrak — and to Obama’s support for Amtrak in the Senate. “It’s particularly important to start expanding the railway network as fast as possible, and the first step is a large order for rolling stock, so they can quickly add seats and beds to existing trains and get service added to places where it’s needed,” he said. In Illinois one focus is making the Chicago-St. Louis train faster, with new signals downstate and fixes for chokepoints in and outside Chicago, he said.

The Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency [11] is bringing local civic groups together over the next few months to develop recommendations to reform federal policy toward metropolitan regions, said MPC’s Burrell. She said federal agencies tend to focus on congressional districts to the detriment of regional planning, and multiple agencies often fail to coordinate transportation, housing, employment, and environmental policies. Along with a New York State group, MPC is also co-hosting a “mega-regional” conference on planning for the Great Lakes on November 17 in Chicago, she said.

Immigration

Obama has supported easing obstacles to citizenship, including sharp fee hikes and onerous citizenship tests. He could reduce such obstacles through administrative measures with little cost, and he could push for funding for a national citizenship promotion effort along the lines of Illinois’ New Americans Initiation, said Fred Tsao of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights [17].

Obama has also criticized massive dragnet-type workplace raids and detentions as disrupting families and communities, Tsao said, and as president he could shift to more targeted enforcement actions. “A lot will depend on who [Obama] picks to head Homeland Security,” he said.

On immigration reform and legalization, “it’s the job of our organization and our allies to push the new administration to act sooner rather than later,” Tsao said. The increasing significance of Latino voters, who provided the margin of victory in several states and congressional districts, “could have an influence on the landscape for immigrant legislation.”

Education

Obama will be the first real education president, according to Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education [18]. “He gets it,” she writes on PURE’s blog [19].

“He organized to help establish local school councils in Chicago, and supported them in Springfield. He held the top board position at a foundation whose mission was to improve educational opportunities for low-income, urban children. He stands up for parents and teachers. He understands that the No Child Left Behind Act is a disaster that needs immediate fixing.”

NCLB has “fundamental flaws” including overreliance on standardized testing, labeling struggling schools as “failing” and punishing them by withdrawing funding, Woestehoff said. Obama “has been out front on needing to change the way we assess students,” she said.

In September PURE and the New York-based group Class Size Matters released a letter to presidential candidates (pdf [20]) calling for attention to school overcrowding and safety, smaller class sizes, a rich curriculum including arts, and parent involvement, “with progress evaluated by high-quality, appropriate assessment tools that are primarily classroom-based.”

While Obama has called for doubling federal funding for charter schools, the two groups argue that the proliferation of selective enrollment schools “risks creating wider disparities between the haves and have-nots…[W]hat is often advertised as increased parental choice actually means the ability of such schools to exclude our neediest students. The last thing our nation needs is a ‘trickle down’ educational system.”

Not surprisingly, PURE has opposed the suggestion that CPS chief Arne Duncan be considered as Obama’s education secretary, saying that position should be filled by someone with in-school experience who supports parent involvement.

Media Reform

The next president will face what could be “the mother of all consumer backlashes” early next year when TV signals go digital on February 19 and millions of households — perhaps 20 percent nationwide — lose their television signal, said Mitchell Szczepanczyk of Chicago Media Action [21]. He cites shortcomings in the government’s voucher program for digital converters. Obama has vowed to smooth the transition.

He’ll also have a chance to reshape the Federal Communications Commission, where minority Democrats — who have fought losing battles for localism and against media concentration — will get a majority. Obama has spoken out for greater diversity in media ownership and has said he would step up anti-trust scrutiny of media mergers.

A larger challenge — effecting our economy and our democracy — is the need for a national broadband policy, Szczepanczyk said. The U.S. is far behind other countries in affordable and high-speed internet access, with one-third of households having no internet and another third limited to dial-up. Obama should follow through on his promise to enshrine “net neutrality” in law, preventing internet providers from favoring some kinds of content over others, Szczepanczyk said. Policies encouraging municipal and community internet — which have been opposed by telecom and cable companies — are needed too.

“The U.S. is turning into a digital backwater,” Szczepanczyk said. “We need to join other countries that treat the internet as a utility, not a commodity.”

Campaign Reform

“When Obama opted out of public campaign financing, he said the system is broken and promised to work to fix it, and that needs to be a very serious priority for him,” said Cindi Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform [22]. This has been “a remarkable election, with far more public involvement than we’ve ever seen before” — unpredecedented voter turnout and “lots and lots of small donors” — and it presents an opportunity to “find creative ways to institutionalize small donor participation,” perhaps with public matching funds for small donors, Canary said.

She also proposes requiring free air time for candidates from TV broadcasters as a condition of their free broadcast licenses in order to cut campaign costs, level the playing field and provide better information on issues than TV news now does.

Government transparency and ethics is another area for action, Canary said. The new president should “take some of the work he’s done in the Illinois Senate and the U.S. Senate and take it several steps further,” including more stringent reporting requirements and donation limitations on lobbyists, she said.

Canary brings it back to the bailout: “As we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on these bank bailouts, we need to make sure it’s done in a transparent and accountable way.”