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Hometown: America's Finest City
Current location: District 50
Member since: 2001
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Grassroots democracy feels the strain in Venezuela

Every Tuesday night in the little mountain village of Monte Carmelo, in Lara state in western Venezuela, people crowd into the community hall.

Toddlers sit on their mothers' laps. A gaggle of older children play on the pavement outside while latecomers stand at the doorways listening.

This is a community council, where topics of discussion can range from national coffee prices to complaints about a farmer who lets his cows wander into the road.

There are more than 30,000 community councils in Venezuela, according to government figures.


Trump rhetoric spurring Latinos to naturalize, vote

Maria Garcia sat inside a meeting hall at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Barrio Logan on a recent evening, holding an application for U.S. citizenship. About 100 others joined her in the brightly lit room.

Though she’s been a green card holder since 1990, the 62-year-old Mexican immigrant says fear has stopped her from undergoing the naturalization process. Now, Garcia said, the harsh rhetoric driving Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has spurred her to action.

“I’m doing this because of that man who wants to hurt us. He says so many things about us (Latinos),” she said in Spanish. “That’s what motivates me, because I think to myself, ‘one additional vote will help.’”

Garcia is part of a growing number of Latinos applying to become naturalized citizens in time for the Nov. 8 election. Giving them encouragement and support are voter organizations, churches and other small community groups.


North Korean ships with corpses on board have been washing ashore in Japan

Shizuo Kakutani sees no great mystery in the things that wash ashore in Monzen, his quiet fishing village on the Sea of Japan — the fishing boats ravaged by fierce winter storms, the Chinese garbage carried to land by the strong winds, the occasional body that drifts in from Yaseno, the nearby cliffs notorious for suicides.

The ghost ships, however, are harder to explain.

On an early morning in November, the 71-year-old retired fisherman received a call from his colleagues at the town's civilian coast guard. A black mass bobbling in the water — most likely a boat — had been spotted hooked to a distant buoy.

"When I saw the boat, I immediately knew that it was from North Korea," Kakutani said. He had seen similar vessels before — no more than 30 feet long, made of wood, its flat-bottomed hull covered in black tar.


UnitedHealth starts pulling out of Obamacare, but will anybody notice — or care?

The giant health insurance company UnitedHealth inspired lots of hand-wringing and hyperventilation last year when it announced that it had lost hundreds of millions of dollars on Affordable Care Act exchanges and was considering withdrawing from the market in 2017.

Although that news prompted numerous Obamacare critics to declare the impending death of the program, we were skeptical. United, which makes most of its money in the large-group (employer) market, always was a reluctant participant in the individual exchanges, and was largely inept at pricing and managing those products.

Now the company has started to make good on its threat, pulling out of the exchange markets in Arkansas and Georgia. Its announcements prove our point. United was a very small player in both states, and plainly had been out-competed by Blue Cross Blue Shield plans and by large rivals such as Aetna.

Its withdrawals aren't likely to materially reduce competition in those states. As Charles Gaba observes, four other carriers are staying on in Arkansas, and eight in Georgia. Whether United will withdraw from other states where it sold plans in 2016 is still unknown, as the last deadline nationwide for submitting proposals for 2017 plans isn't until May 11.


Hunter’s campaign fund a cautionary tale

In a sign of how serious a problem it is and how embarrassed he should be, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, cut short a trip to Israel Thursday to fly home and fix the problem of his campaign credit card being used for video games, his children’s school, travel and even an oral and facial surgeon.

Questionable campaign spending is nothing new in politics, but this seems beyond the pale for a member of Congress trusted with spending trillions of taxpayer dollars wisely — and especially troubling for Hunter, whose congressman father was caught in a controversy over property tax payments. He should know better.

The Union-Tribune was first this week to report that the Federal Election Commission was questioning 68 video game transactions. Hunter, whose vaping at a committee hearing in February became a viral video, was quickly in the national news again. An Esquire headline was typical: “The vaping congressman allegedly spent over $1,000 of his campaign funds to buy video games.” The story added, “but he has a really good excuse!”

That excuse? His son used his father’s credit card for one game and unauthorized charges followed, according to a spokesman.


This is the same nitwit that created a stir for vaping during a Congressional hearing a month or so ago; it would not surprise me if the Steam purchases were for his game playing. Of course he's endorsed by the San Diego Union-Fishwrap, because he's, ya know, a Republican.

The Irony and the Awfulness

As you can see in this story here, we are now getting the details of what we've suspected or known in outline since the news first broke last year: that Denny Hastert, the longest serving Republican Speaker of the House in history, second in the line to the presidency for eight years, was a serial pedophile who preyed on adolescent boys in his charge when he was a high school wrestling coach before entering electoral politics. What is worth remembering is that Hastert's improbable rise to the pinnacle of political power in Washington was a direct consequence of Republican party efforts to exploit and eventually criminalize Bill Clinton's extramarital sex life in order to overturn the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections. The chain of events is clear and straightforward.

First, before reviewing the history, lets stipulate that sexual abuse of minors is a category greater offense than marital infidelity, which is inherently private and really no business of the state's one way or another. Still, Hastert's rise is so inextricably tied to sexual hypocrisy and political moralizing they inevitably become part of a single story.

From before Bill Clinton became President in January 1993, Republican opponents realized that his sexual impulsivity and history of extramarital affairs was one of his greatest political vulnerabilities. The key was how to take the story out of the super market tabloids and into the courts. The first big opportunity was the Republican-backed sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones in 1994. It was the legal maneuvering over the Jones lawsuit combined with the double-dip, wildly partisan and almost infinitely wide-ranging Independent Counsel investigation of Ken Starr that led to the revelation of Clinton's sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, which finally led to his impeachment, the first in 130 years, in 1998.

Now, as Hillary Clinton's campaign gathered steam in 2015, there was a reevaluation of this whole sordid history. Absent much of the political context of the 1990s and with different attitudes toward accusations of sexual harassment and rape, many now think that Jones', Juanita Broaddrick's and Kathleen Willey's accusations against Clinton are presumptively true. I have no desire or ability to litigate these claims here. I will simply say that I think the quality of the evidence, the extremely politicized context of each accusation and the wildly abundant evidence of consensual liaisons leaves little reason to believe that Clinton was or is more than a serial cheater on his wife.


Venezuela leader threatens to cut opposition legislature's term

Venezuela's socialist leader Nicolas Maduro threatened on Thursday to seek a constitutional amendment to slash the opposition-led legislature's term and vowed to lead a "revolution" should his foes wrest him from the presidency.

The socialist leader's strong words deepened the already bitter political standoff in the OPEC member nation since the opposition coalition won control of the National Assembly in a December vote and vowed to seek Maduro's exit this year.

During a rally, pro-government constitutional lawyer Hermann Escarra proposed that Maduro seek a constitutional amendment to reduce the assembly's term from five years to 60 days.

"I'll look at it very seriously," Maduro said, to cheers from several thousand red-clad supporters demonstrating against an assembly law intended to free jailed opposition activists.


TGIF? Fridays off, but Venezuelans not exactly happy

A long weekend could mean three precious days to catch up on sleep, spend time with family, enjoy a getaway... or, in Venezuela, standing in snaking lines at supermarkets whose shelves are bare and whose lights could go out at any minute.

That was how Isleida, a government employee at the Venezuelan transport ministry, planned to spend the first of two months of mandatory Fridays off.

The measure, which applies across the public sector, was decreed this week by President Nicolas Maduro as part of an emergency plan to save electricity while Venezuela struggles through an economic crisis and a severe power shortage.

Isleida spent the morning doing housework, then planned to go shop for food -- a scarce commodity in the recession-racked country.


Bolivarian socialism in action. How wonderful for the people.

Ex-Argentine President Fernandez charged with money laundering: media

Cristina Fernandez, who stepped down as president of Argentina in December after eight years in office, has been charged by a prosecutor with money laundering, local media reported on Saturday.

The decision follows testimony on Friday by businessman Leonardo Farina, who in a plea bargain implicated Fernandez and her late husband and former President Nestor Kirchner in a case related to money laundering and embezzling funds earmarked for public works.

Julio De Vido, a longtime Fernandez and Kirchner ally and former minister, was also charged, local newspapers Clarin and La Nacion reported, citing judicial sources.

Reuters could not immediately confirm the charges with the prosecutor's office.


Uh oh.

Shimmering Immaculate Republican Candidate Appears Before GOP Officials

Explaining how they froze in place and stared up at the miraculous vision in rapt wonder, members of the Republican Party leadership reported that the shimmering image of an immaculate, ideal GOP presidential candidate appeared before them for a brief moment Friday and hovered in front of the party’s headquarters in Washington.

Those who witnessed the awe-inspiring vision said they felt a warm, comforting presence wash over them as the clouds parted and the luminous form of a man in his late 40s with chiseled features and perfectly parted hair descended from the sky above the Republican National Committee building. The mysterious levitating figure, who is said to have worn a brilliantly gleaming American flag lapel pin and an exquisitely tailored shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, reportedly flashed a confident yet disarming smile that, according to accounts, left several onlookers so moved that they began openly weeping.

“We were heading in for another meeting about how to deal with the upcoming convention when, suddenly, this perfect figure appeared in the air above us: a conservative presidential candidate with youthful energy and an undeniable everyman charm who shone with a golden light,” said RNC chairman Reince Priebus, choking up as he described how he and other party leaders gazed in wide-eyed disbelief at the tall, handsome apparition. “After all this time, to lay eyes on a pristine, easily electable Republican—it was staggering. It felt like every burden on our party melted away the instant he appeared. Everything became calm; peaceful; still.”

“He spoke only a few words, saying that we should lower corporate tax rates to boost economic growth,” Priebus added. “It felt like he was speaking directly to my soul.”

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