Recent editorials of regional and national interest from New England’s newspapers:
Republican fear of loathing in the City of Groton
If fear of “public ridicule” is enough to keep folks from ever running for office, maybe it’s time to ditch this whole experiment in democracy and representative form of government. Heck, might as well also give up on careers in journalism — or opinion writing for that matter — because plenty of public ridicule comes in this direction as well. (Unless you consider hearing that your publication is only good for lining the bird cage is a compliment.)
It comes with the territory. Some people are going to be jerks. It would be nice if everyone would be cordial and debate only policies, but invariably some folks will make it personal. And there is no doubt the public discourse has become coarser and nastier. But if the response is to sit out democracy, then those unpleasant folks win.
The City of Groton Republican Committee last week announced it would not put a forward a slate of candidates for the May 3 election. These elections are Connecticut oddities, held in political subdivisions located within municipalities — the Borough of Stonington in Stonington and the Borough of Jewett City in Griswold are other examples. In addition to the privilege of having two municipal elections to vote in annually — regular town and city elections will take place Nov. 2 — property owners in the City of Groton and the boroughs also get to pay two municipal property taxes.
The committee issued a statement that it had “identified a well-qualified slate of individuals who have shown a keen interest in running,” but recently decided “congruently” to drop out.
The reason, according to the statement, is “an increase in negativity toward Republicans…which has created a hostile and threatening environment for those wishing to run for election.”
It goes on about “nationally publicized threats, intimidation and bullying of Republicans by many liberal Democrats,” a situation that led these won’t-be candidates “to reconsider (running) out of concern for the safety and welfare of themselves and their family.”
And then there is the part about their “major apprehension that they would be subjected to unjustified public ridicule and embarrassment by Democrats supporting the liberal left.”
Oh, the horror!
Well, first off, it should be noted the City of Groton Republicans did not run any candidates in 2019, either. That year the party’s explanation was simpler — it couldn’t come up with candidates.
As for concerns for their safety and welfare, wouldn’t that justification be just as applicable — maybe more so — for Democrats? After all, it was supporters of President Trump, the leader of the Republican Party, who showed they were willing to resort to violence to disrupt the Democratic process, with two of those arrested down in Washington having Groton addresses.
Interestingly, the news release was not accompanied by any evidence of any actual threats. Based on the typical level of disinterest in these borough elections, candidates are far more likely to confront voter apathy than anger.
Granted, the harsh political divisions in the country, along with the personal attacks, lies and conspiracies that are vomited forth on social media, make it harder for local town committees to find candidates. Inquiries about someone being a potential candidate for local office often get the reaction, “Are you crazy?”
Which is unfortunate, because these local councils, boards and commissions provide a vital community service. Most of the people who run and serve do so for the noble purpose of helping their town and because they have ideas about making things better. We’re not naïve; some will look to exploit their office for personal gain, but it is much the exception.
And the reality is, the lower the level of government the less party affiliation tends to mean. Democrat or Republican, you have to make sure the roads get plowed, the schools are staffed, and potholes are filled.
These low-level elections should present voters with legitimate choices among candidates of various qualifications and differing ideas. Having an uncontested general election is not healthy and a troubling sign.
It may be that if you are going to stick your neck out you want to have a chance to win. City of Groton Republicans, outnumbered by Democrats in registration 1,816 to 893, with 2,047 unaffiliated voters, perhaps don’t see much chance.
But claiming fear for their safety sounds like an overwrought excuse.
Maine Capitol Police chief’s review a matter of policy, not ideology
Bangor Daily News
To put it mildly, we are big fans of the First Amendment. It’s at the foundation of what the Bangor Daily News does as a newspaper. It’s an invaluable check on the government, preventing Congress from making laws that abridge the freedoms of religion, speech and the press along with the rights to assemble and petition for a redress of grievances.
What the First Amendment isn’t, however, is a blank check for people to say and do whatever they choose without any consequences.
Have You Heard About The American Raising A Christian Army To Stop ISIS?
There are still legal ramifications for the press, such as libel laws. There also can be professional ramifications for speech, even as people enjoy First Amendment protections. For instance, state workers, including Maine Capitol Police Chief Russell Gauvin, have to follow the state policy on the personal use of social media.
Gauvin is currently under state review for his social media use, including posts and reactions related to the efficacy of masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, the legitimacy of the presidential election and most troublingly, violence against protestors. A large group of legislative Democrats and one independent recently called for an investigation and for Gauvin to be placed on leave. It has been unclear if he is actually on leave, but his deputy has now been placed in charge.
A similarly large group of legislative Republicans have since accused the Democrats of an attempt to “force ideological conformity.” The Maine Republican Party has predictably framed the situation as an example of “cancel culture.”
“The state policy is clear. Personal use of social media is protected by the First Amendment so long as use related to, ‘subject matter(s) pertinent to State Employment,’ is, ‘conducted in such a manner that no impression is created that the employee is speaking on behalf of the Agency.’ There is nothing in these private posts that suggest they were on behalf of a state agency,” the group of approximately 70 Republican lawmakers said in their letter. “The Chief’s private opinions expressed through Facebook reactions and the sharing of articles and memes are his own and so long as he adheres to state use policies he should be free to express himself.”
The state policy is also clear about something else: “Personal use of social media technologies by state employees that undermines or interferes with the ability of State agencies and state employees to carry out their responsibilities may be the proper subject of State review and corrective action.”
We reached out twice to the lead author of the Republican letter, Rep. Matt Harrington of Sanford, trying to understand why he didn’t seem to think Chief Gauvin’s actions raised concerns related to this part of the policy. We did not hear back.
When the leader of a law enforcement agency that is partially responsible for enforcing the mask policy at the State House publicly mocks mask wearing, that raises inevitable questions about how his agency will carry out that enforcement responsibility. When his social media usage leaves the door open to whether he’s sympathetic to a despicable comment suggesting that people should have been met with bullets and napalm this past summer amid protests against racial injustice, that raises questions about how his agency might treat some protestors at the State House.
Now, based on reporting from Mainer, an alternative news publication in Portland, Gauvin didn’t actually write that comment about violence against protestors. He reacted to it with a crying emoji. We think there’s an open question as to whether that amounts to sympathy or disapproving sadness. But still, that and the other questions raised by his social media use require review and answers.
He has since said that he takes seriously his “duty to uphold our laws, to do so in a fair and impartial way, and to protect the Capitol and our people.” That’s important, but it doesn’t answer all the questions.
It’s pretty clear to us that Gauvin’s social media activity meets the bar for state review and possible disciplinary action in terms of the policy language about undermining or interfering “with the ability of State agencies and state employees to carry out their responsibilities.” Even he has all but acknowledged as much, saying in his recent apology he recognizes “that several posts that l have shared, commented on, or reacted to in a personal capacity can be seen as inconsistent with my professional responsibilities.”
As such, a call for the state to investigate Gauvin’s actions isn’t “canceling” him or forcing ideological conformity on him. The issue isn’t that Gauvin espoused differing or controversial views, it’s that he used social media in a way that raises serious questions about how his work and his agency’s work is carried out. As we read the social media policy for state employees, and as we look at how the courts have approached private speech protections for government employees, that looks like clear grounds for review and potential corrective action.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: we’re uncomfortable with what seems to be a rise in intolerance of opposing ideas and ideology. But it’s the chief’s actions on social media, and how they impact his professional responsibilities, that are under review here — not his ideology.
Baker must make adjustments to the state’s vaccination plan
Governor Baker had a good vaccine distribution plan. Under his leadership, Massachusetts reasonably tiered its population by level of risk and prioritized groups accordingly. The first phase, for example, included health care workers and other COVID response teams, emergency staff, and, notably, prisoners — a decision that this editorial board commended.
But drafting a plan and implementing it are two different steps, and Massachusetts has, unfortunately, failed in the latter so far. As of this week, the Commonwealth is lagging behind the rest of New England when it comes to vaccinating its residents, and it ranks among the slowest states in the country relative to its population. Even more alarming was Massachusetts’ effort to get the vaccine to long-term care facilities, home to some of the state’s most vulnerable people, which started a week later than in neighboring states.
Any good plan has to adapt to unanticipated roadblocks or demands, and to his credit, Baker has made some adjustments. He announced this week that residents ages 65 and older will move forward in line (following a new recommendation from the Biden administration), and that more vaccination sites will crop up across the state. But there’s more that the governor can and should do in order to improve what has turned out to be a lackluster vaccine rollout. Specifically, there are three major areas that need to be addressed by the governor, and the sooner he acts, the better off Massachusetts — and the region as a whole — will be.
First, the state must create a centralized registration website. At a press conference on Monday, Baker pushed back against criticism of the state’s website, saying that it’s already easy to navigate and that it can’t get much more streamlined than it already is.
But that’s simply not true. In order for someone to register for a vaccine, they have to go onto the state’s website to determine if they’re eligible, use a map to find the vaccination location closest to them, and then start the process of registering for an appointment through that location’s website, be it a CVS, a Wegmans, or some other private business or health care facility.
That’s a lot of steps to take for such an important task, and it has the potential to cause widespread confusion, particularly among those who are less proficient on the Web. Baker announced Wednesday that the state will provide “additional resources” to help people, especially senior citizens, register, but he stopped short of committing to streamlining the website or centralizing the registration process.
Given that so many people are not yet eager to sign up to get the vaccine, a registration process with so many friction points is only likely to further discourage them from doing so. A centralized registration website would not only address that by streamlining the process — giving people fewer opportunities to change their minds and back out — but it would also allow the state to more effectively administer extra doses to lower-tiered groups.
One of the problems that Massachusetts is facing right now is that it isn’t administering enough vaccines, which are perishable, because a good number of eligible people are hesitant to sign up. (While nearly 876,125 doses had been shipped to health care providers as of Sunday, only 448,892 had been administered.) If the state had a centralized registration system, it could notify those next in line to be eligible that they could get inoculated early so that as few doses as possible are actually left to expire. This has worked well elsewhere; states that have a centralized registration system, like New Mexico and Oklahoma, have vaccinated more residents per capita than most of their counterparts.
Second, Baker must create clear goals that the state intends to meet. While defending the rollout at the Monday press conference, the governor argued that by carefully going after the most vulnerable groups first, Massachusetts had a “slower ramp up than you would see if you took big groups by age and said go.” That may very well be true, but if a slow ramp up was anticipated, then when does the state intend to have, say, 10 percent of the population vaccinated? (Only 5.5 percent of Massachusetts residents have received their first shot so far, and only about 1 percent have received both.) It makes sense that speed isn’t the state’s sole goal (if it were, there’d be no need for tiers or priorities at all), but by articulating clear targets, the state could more easily be held accountable by the public if distribution begins to again go sideways. Clearly outlining how and when the state intends to meet its goals also means failures and potential weak spots can be more easily identified by experts.
And third, Massachusetts must improve community outreach by starting its public awareness campaign as soon as possible. As polls have shown for months, Black and brown people are still far more skeptical of the vaccine than white people. In Massachusetts, only 11 percent of Black residents and 32 percent of Hispanic residents are willing to get vaccinated as soon as possible, compared with 59 percent of white residents, according to a poll conducted by Suffolk University and the Globe.
The state has a $2 million plan to release targeted multilingual ads in the coming weeks, but it’s clear that it should have already started airing them before vaccine distribution began. While some vaccine hesitancy was always expected, the state seems to have been caught off guard by the refusal of even many health care workers to get the shot, which hospital officials have cited as a factor in the delayed vaccine rollout. The Governor’s office says the state plans to have offline community outreach as well; the governor should also ensure that any public awareness campaign includes working with trusted community leaders and community-based organizations in order to have broader reach and influence among marginalized populations. It’s critically important to address this problem quickly before the vaccine becomes more widely available.
These are crucial steps that the state must take in order to improve the pace of vaccination. And while Baker is confined by the federal government’s ability to deliver enough vaccines to meet demand — something that both he and Dr. Anthony Fauci said is unlikely at this time — the rate at which the state actually uses its doses is squarely under his control. The governor must ensure that the state is best prepared for when the federal government ramps up supply, and he can only do so by being willing to deviate from the state’s vaccination plan when new hurdles present themselves. He has already made some promising adjustments, like opening more vaccination sites across the state, but he can do more. The vaccine rollout is arguably the most important phase of the pandemic to get right. The state — and the governor’s legacy — can’t afford another botched response.
The Rutland Herald/Times Argus
On Monday morning, members of the states press corps got a reality check via email.
A notice, sent by more than 50 current and former state leaders, cautioned journalists about gender bias.
It was humbling, especially for us. Currently, our six full-time reporters are men. The publishers of both newspapers are men. And while we have women in leadership roles, they are far outnumbered by men. Equally shameful, neither newsroom has any minorities currently employed.
We could blame the current make-up of our news team to other factors. But the reality of the situation is: We have no excuse. The shortcoming falls on the shoulders of the newsroom’s leadership.
It is a situation we need to review, address and remedy.
And the reasons why are laid out in the letter to all Vermont news organizations:
“Vermont is the only state in the nation which has never elected a woman to Congress. Only one woman has served as governor. We have never elected a woman of color to any legislative leadership position or statewide office. This is our story and it casts a long shadow on our nationally perceived status as a leader on issues of equality. This month, three legislative leaders were sworn into office: our lieutenant governor, speaker of the house, and president pro tempore of the senate. The lieutenant governor and speaker are the fourth women to hold their respective offices and the president pro tempore is the very first woman. This is cause for celebration,” the letter states.
“Yet, the success of these women is not because the Vermont political system has eliminated sexism and misogyny. They succeeded in spite of the persistence of prejudice, harmful stereotypes and biased thinking that permeates most aspects of women’s lives,” it states.
“There are many factors that contribute to the race and gender disparity at the highest levels of power. The past few years have brought a reckoning on issues of racism and sexism. In many of our lives we are having conversations with our families, co-workers and friends about the impact of these systemic issues. We know this — to achieve a more equitable political system, we must examine all factors that contribute to inequitable power dynamics. The press is but one factor and we write this letter in the hope of starting a dialogue about this important issue,” it states.
And we are embarrassed and grateful for this “indictment” — not just because we see ourselves in the failings noted, but in the overall discussion that needs to happen (and should’ve happened before now).
It is not that different than a request for our news organization to start using gender neutral pronouns when attributing sources. It is something all media (and The Associated Press, which dictates the style and consistency for papers across the globe) need to consider.
We have the right influence.
As the letter writers noted, including former governors Madeleine Kunin, Howard Dean and Peter Shumlin, “News organizations play an essential role in shaping the way the public perceives issues, state agencies, elected officials and candidates. As traditional news sources continue to diminish in Vermont, the remaining organizations are all the more influential in shaping Vermonters’ ideas and understanding of government and politics.”
It goes on: “The public relies on reporters and editors to distill massive amounts of information the average citizen can never hope to collect or digest. With its ability to mold public perception, the press serves just as important a function in our democracy as representative government.”
The notice to the media calls for a more diversifying of the press corps; quoting more women in articles dealing with important issues of the day; avoiding and misogynistic descriptions of women’s appearances.
In addition they stated, “Women candidates for higher office have been described as ‘too aggressive,’ ‘too shrill’ while their male counterparts are described as ‘bold,’ and there is no mention of tone of voice.”
And they pointed out: “Disagreements between women have been described as ‘catfights.’ This is a demeaning description of a disagreement between professional adult policy makers or political candidates.”
“This year, for the first time in the history of our state, women hold all three top legislative leadership positions. There is one woman of color in the senate, and the very first trans woman state representative. Continuing to allow outdated evaluations of their success and worth in terms of stereotypes and casual bias no longer serves as credible coverage,” the letter-writers noted.
Vermont is a small state. For that reason, we are truly blessed with an ability to pivot and make appreciable changes.
The media needed that reality check. We need to do better. These papers, in particular, are very sorry that we had to be reminded.