In $3.6 million Merc giveaway, MRA is poor negotiator

The Marriott hotel envisioned on the site of the former Missoula Mercantile building

Residents of Missoula and its partisans abroad know about the years-long saga that is the Mercantile. A Macy’s as recently as 2011, the historic downtown building sat vacant for six years, thwarting various development plans until HomeBase Montana offered to knock it down and build a Marriott in its place. The city’s Historic Preservation Commission denied that permit, in what might politely be called a complex process. The city overruled the committee, and HomeBase demolished the Merc in April. Then, at the end of June, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency voted to give the project $3.6 million in tax increment financing.

It was not a bailout. Most of the TIF money reimbursed the developers for stages of the project that had already happened: $1.5 million for “deconstructing” the building by reclaiming its materials instead of demolishing it outright, $336k for preserving the old pharmacy, and $150k in reimbursements for asbestos removal. All these were conditions of the original deal, which HomeBase had already met without running into cash-flow problems. Any suspicion that the project might need our $3.6 million to survive was erased by developer Andy Holloran, who told the Missoulian the hotel would generate more property tax revenue than expected because developers had “added $5 million more to the total project costs, including 27 more rooms than the original design.”

What, then, did the city of Missoula get for its $3.6 million? The things we bought—deconstruction, asbestos abatement, the pharmacy, and a guarantee the project would move forward—were already ours. This TIF money neither extracted concessions from the developers nor saved the project. So is the MRA saying that paying $3.6 million to expand the project was a wise investment, because a bigger hotel will generate more tax revenue? If so, that’s a new vision of the agency’s function. Historically, the MRA has acted to encourage new development projects, not invested in ones that were already underway.

A lot of public money went to a private business venture in this deal. Given how little the public seems to have gotten, its worthwhile to ask in whose interest the MRA negotiated. Reimbursing developers for what they agreed to do on their own dime does not strike me as sharp dealing. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Jeet Heer on Chapo Trap House and “dominance politics”

The dirtbag right

To clarify the heading of today’s post: Jeet Heer did not appear on the Chapo Trap House podcast. Although he seems like a natural fit for the show, he has criticized it, most recently in an essay in the New Republic this morning. My experience reading Heer is that he is a scrupulous thinker even when he’s wrong, and this essay upholds that rule. He pushes back early against the dirty argument that Chapo host Will Menaker meant something sexist when he said centrist Democrats would have to “bend the knee” to form a coalition with leftists. Such a reading seems opportunistic, and Heer dismisses it. But he also cites Chapo as an instance of the left using the same bullying tactics as Donald Trump—a practice he calls “dominance politics.” Quote:

This gendered analysis seems unwarranted because Menaker’s remarks weren’t aimed at women as a class, but at the centrist wing of the Democratic Party; Clinton wasn’t mentioned, and the phrase may even be an allusion to a common refrain in Game of Thrones. Yet if the remark wasn’t sexist in intent, it still suggests a troubling vision of politics as a contest in domination.

Heer argues that dominance politics is a dead end. Demanding that centrists bend the knee won’t work, because “you can’t really build a coalition of egalitarian politics by browbeating a key segment of that coalition.” That’s true. I think his central point is correct: the Clinton wing is not going to cede control of the party to democratic socialists, and demanding they do might thwart a winning coalition. I’m not sure that’s what Menaker meant, though, when he said bend the knee. It seems like he was talking less about submission and more about some kind of acknowledgement that the moderates were wrong, and their mistakes blew a winnable election.

Regardless, I like that Heer envisions a coalition of Democrats who are not actively vituperating one another. For the same reason I don’t think liberals should hold Trump voters in contempt, I don’t think leftists should ask liberals to confess. My main concern with Heer’s argument, though, is that it focuses on one form of dominance without acknowledging others that are more significant.

When Heer says that Trump or the hosts of Chapo Trap House are exercising dominance by mocking their political opponents, he means they’re exercising rhetorical dominance. Agreed the left is good at that—especially compared to the Clinton campaign, which pretty much ate sand in the area of messaging. But moderate Democrats and the Clinton network dominate the party in every other meaningful sense of the word. They control the DNC, as we saw last spring. They control fundraising. They set strategy in the last election. They drive the policy agenda, although Sanders et al have tickled the wheel lately. Still, in most important areas, centrists dominate the Democratic Party. The only area in which they don’t is rhetoric. The rhetoric of young, left-leaning Democrats is much more lively and contagious than anything moderates have come up with since Obama 2008.

That’s not to say Heer is mistaken to argue Chapo should be nice to them. On the contrary, it probably means that going easy on neoliberal complacency will be an important part of the left’s strategy moving forward. But that’s a claim about tactics. Heer also seems to be making a claim about the philosophy, or even ethics, of the Democratic party. Are Democrats too good for insult comedy? It’s a question worth considering, but only in the context of larger power dynamics. Civility is a luxury of the winning team.

Republicare dead in Senate; McConnell humiliated; Priebus returned to puzzle box

The Senate Republican Caucus

Good news for freelancers with trick shoulders: Senate Majority Leader Mitchell “Mitch” McConnell has declared that there will be no vote on the Senate bill to replace Obamacare. This turn of events is a blow to the Republican agenda and, frankly, satisfying comeuppance after listening to them rail againast the Affordable Care Act for the last seven years. It is easy to find fault. It is not so easy to find workable solutions, as McConnell discovered over the past few weeks. He lamented the phenomenon in this statement, which also proposes a terrifying idea:

“Make sure to emphasize that Obamacare is the real failure,” he told his staffers. Also note the appearance of the word “immediately” in the established phrase “repeal and replace,” like a guest star who comes on in the last episode of a long-running drama to take the fall. So we failed to replace Obamacare immediately. We’re still going to replace it. What do you say we just repeal it now and replace it later?

Fortunately, the New York Times reports that plan dead on arrival. The same Republican senators who did not want to take health insurance from millions and give them savings accounts also did not want to take health insurance from millions and give them a timeline. For now, at least, the effort to repeal Obamacare has failed decisively—even though Republicans control both houses of Congress and the executive branch when “Watters’ World” isn’t on.

What does it all mean? I don’t think we can call this a triumph of Democratic opposition. Various operatives, particularly Andy Slavitt, have kept up a steady drumbeat against the Republican plan, but it’s hard to argue they stopped it. McConnell scratched his vote because a handful of Republican senators wouldn’t go along. They were the usual moderate naysayers: Murkowski and Collins, plus Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia. Their persistent refusal could mean a few things:

  1. The GOP has drifted so far to the right on issues of social welfare as to lose the moderate members of its caucus.
  2. The bill under consideration was so particularly bad for women that these three women objected.
  3. Contemporary Republican politics is vigorous as a critique of liberalism but morbid as an approach to governance.

Guess which explanation I favor. The Republican lifestyle brand as we know it today was forged in opposition to Barack Obama. He was the smooth-talking biracial latte drinker atop the pyramid of liberal power, and they were the Real Americans who said no. Over the last nine years, the outlines of this coalition have become remarkably clear. You can guess whether someone votes Republican by their car, their facial hair, their music and TV habits, their religion—any number of cultural signifiers. This cultural coalition is the one that propelled Donald Trump to the White House, but it is not a coalition of political interests. Once you have to start making concrete policy choices, the Republican coalition falls apart.

How many interests do a West Virginia coal miner and a Chicagoland hedge fund manager have in common? What health care policy goals does Peter Thiel share with Ted Cruz’s dad? All four of these people are likely to agree on the issue of President Obama, but it’s harder to think of what else might bring them together. Right now, the GOP base consists of whites with high school diplomas, the investor/rentier class, evangelical Christians and libertarian idealists. A parliamentary system would put these demographics in at least three different parties. The contemporary Republican coalition has brought them all together, but it is not well suited to governance, because it is not an alignment of natural political interests.

It’s a great way to get a bunch of people all watching the same TV network or voting against the same lady. But it has yet to be fully tested as a machine for solving the country’s problems or even passing substantive legislation. After nine years of tenacious opposition, the need to cooperate may be what finally shakes the modern GOP apart.

Passive voice involved in mayor’s statement on officer-involved shooting

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges

If you asked me what happened in Minneapolis Saturday night, I would say the police shot a woman after she called 911. Around 11:30pm, Justine Damond summoned police to address what she thought might be an assault in the alley behind her home. “Sources with knowledge of the incident” told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that Damond, in her pajamas, was talking to one officer through the driver-side window of his patrol car when the other officer shot her from the passenger seat. It’s hard to understand how or why that happened—especially since both officers’ body cameras were turned off, as was the dashboard camera of their car.

Anyway, that’s what I’d say if I were a normal person describing what happened in Minneapolis this weekend. Here is what Mayor Betsy Hodges said about it, excerpted from her statement on Facebook:

Late last night, an officer-involved shooting occurred in the 13th ward, following a 911 call that two Minneapolis police officers responded to on the 5100 block of Washburn Avenue South. Tragically, a woman was fatally shot when one of the officers discharged their weapon.

I recognize that Hodges has a legal incentive not to assign responsibility to city employees, but come on. To say that “an officer-involved shooting occurred” during which “a woman was fatally shot when one of the officers discharged their weapon” is an extremely roundabout way to say police shot someone.  It’s disrespectful to the loved ones of the woman they shot. It’s disrespectful to the reader, who understands what happened but is forced to interpolate it from Hodges’s subject-free juxtaposition of events. And considering the occasion for this statement is that a citizen called the police and they came over and shot her, it seems tone deaf.

This moment is when the mayor does not want to present city government as a mindless bureaucracy. She should speak in the language of ordinary people, not of death-notification robots. Now is the time to acknowledge how terrible this situation looks. I’m sure there is a good reason the officer A) didn’t want to shoot this woman but did have his gun out, with the safety off, in the car, or B) did want to shoot this woman, and C) turned off his body camera along with every other camera at the scene. Hodges should acknowledge the urgent need to know why these officers did what they did, instead of pretending it was a tragic event that just happened.

Combat! blog swelters, isn’t useful

Swink

Remember yesterday, when I gleefully promised you Friday Links today? I even used an exclamation point. It just goes to show you should never deploy those things, because I must waste my day in remunerative labor. Sorry champ. On the plus side, it’s 100 degrees in Missoula. The trees drip sap. Cats sprawl in the high grass. My neighbor who spends all day on the front porch in his underwear has nowhere to go, literally and figuratively. I stay inside and type, periodically looking at the dessicated grass and wondering what might have been. Oh, life. It’s too hot today.